By Chess Desalls
ZENNE CLOSED HER EYES and began to play. Her delicate fingertips fluttered across the holes of a wooden flute. Arpeggios skipped through syncopated rhythms in deep, mellow tones. The notes stretched and grew. They wailed when she rested her fingers for too long and tapered to completion before she took her next breath.
While playing, Zenne tapped one foot on the floor. The taps softened and faded until her foot no longer came in contact with the floor. The space between foot and floor lengthened as Zenne continued keeping time by heartbeat. Ba-dum, rest. Ba-dum, rest. Three four time. The time signature of the human heart.
With her eyes still closed and her body drifting upwards, Zenne continued to play. Tresses of straight black hair flowed from her forehead, down across her back and past her waist. Musical energy generated electric static that ran from root to tip. Rapt in the glory of sound, breath and heartbeat, Zenne could have stayed that way forever. Perhaps she would have, had she not been distracted by a shrill cry.
“Mama! She’s doing it again. I caught her!”
The music stopped. Instead of floating back down to the ground, Zenne landed with a thud. She opened her blue-gray eyes. Mesha, a miniature version of Zenne, stood there with her chubby little hands on her hips. Zenne winced. Holding her flute protectively to her side, she reached out to rub a sore ankle.
Mama walked in with a dishtowel in one hand and a padlock in the other. “Zenne,” she said, “I wasn’t joking yesterday. That was your final warning, and this is the last time.” Mama reached for the flute.
“No – you can’t! It doesn’t belong to you!”
Mesha’s eyes grew wide. She’d never talked back to Mama. That’s why Mesha was the favorite, which is why she could get away with the occasional tattle whereas Zenne and their older brother, Kist, could not.
Zenne stood up and slid the flute behind her back. “I’m thirteen years old now, Mama. This was the last gift Papa gave me before he…” Her lower lip trembled.
Mama’s eyes softened and then grew sharp again. “Do you want to ruin Papa’s last gift to you? When you play you frighten our little Mesha. How long before you fall and break the flute, or worse yet, your younger sister?”
Zenne shrugged, letting her shoulders droop and round forward. “Then I won’t play it anymore. Please don’t take it away, Mama. I promise.”
“That’s not fair,” whined Mesha. “She already had her last chance, Mama.”
Zenne glared at her little sister. “You’re jealous. The flute won’t play for you. It’s the only time you don’t get your own way.”
Mesha bowed her lip into a pout and batted her lashes up at Mama. “But the flute scares me. I want it to go away.”
Mama sighed. “Let’s put it away for a little while. I did say you had your last chance, Zenne. You abused that chance, so now you’re grounded.”
Tears fell from Zenne’s eyes as she, with trembling hands, handed over the flute. Mama wrapped the wooden instrument in the dishtowel and placed it inside the safe box where Zenne’s family kept other precious gifts and memories of Papa. After clamping the padlock shut, Mama removed the chain from her neck where she kept the key. Zenne’s eyes filled with tears all over again as Mama turned the key inside the lock, separating the flute from the music inside of her that she had not yet played. Mama returned the key and chain to the safety of her neck, gave Zenne a sad smile and left the room.
Mesha trotted after Mama, turning back at the doorway to look at Zenne and stick out her tongue. “Creep!”
Zenne mouthed the words “suck up,” but found her lips incapable of producing any sound.
THREE LONG HOURS PASSED before Kist returned home from the marketplace where he spent his days selling what was left of the woodwork Papa had made. Kist spent his evenings whittling away at fallen branches, but none of his work was good enough yet to sell to the public. That evening he found Zenne in her room, hunched over a table of wooden toys, all gifts from Papa that hadn’t been taken away or destroyed by Mesha.
Kist ran his hand through his short, dark hair. “Ah, Zenne,” he said. “I heard what happened. Mesha couldn’t wait to tell me all about it.”
Zenne’s lips pulled into a tight frown. “I can’t stand her. She gets everything she wants, and then she makes sure I lose the only thing I want in the whole world.”
The edges around Kist’s honey-brown eyes – Papa’s eyes – crinkled as he smiled at his little sister. “Mesha is only six years old. She’ll grow out of it.”
“But what do I do until then?”
“How do you mean?”
Before replying, Kist looked over his shoulder at Zenne’s bedroom door to make sure he and Zenne weren’t being overheard. He lowered his voice. “Remember the adjustable cane Papa made – the one with the holes in it?”
“Yes. One hollow tube fits inside the other. You can slide the inside tube to make the cane longer or shorter, and then press pegs through the holes to keep it at the length you want.”
Kist nodded, his eyes glowing. “I’ll be right back.”
ZENNE’S FINGERS TREMBLED as she removed the pegs from the cane. “Do you think it will work?”
“But this was Papa’s gift to you – “
“It’s yours now.”
Zenne closed her eyes and played, tapping her foot until it no longer came in contact with the floor. Music poured out of the cane – scales and triads, melodies and rhythms, trills and slurs. Zenne soared upwards, her fingers dancing along the holes in the wood, all while keeping in time with the beating of her heart. Ba-dum, rest. Ba-dum, rest. Ba-dum.