Tuesday, October 27, 2020

“The Sweater” by Nancy Coombs

Arielle Worthington had rules – No weddings. No funerals. And she played the flute. She hated the word “flautist”. So pretentious.

“I’m a flutist,” she’d correct people.

Arielle had been called a “prodigy”, too. “I’m just a hard worker!” she’d say. But for all her modesty, she really wanted to be famous. She thought she should have played the guitar, joined a rock band, written pop songs.

Being tiny – 4’11” – had helped her career. Wunderkind, people thought, even now as a thirty-seven-year old. Endless practicing and homeschooling – by pushy parents who’d bought her a flute of gold – had paid off in a Carnegie Hall debut at 12. Almost famous, Arielle was the Girl with The Golden Flute.

She’d looked a bit like Shirley Temple, with her blond ringlets and Mary Jane shoes, and couldn’t shed that image. Though Arielle wore all black and had a couple tattoos, “precocious” still came to mind.

The soloist career she’d insisted upon – no flute section in an orchestra for her – meant being wheeled out at classical music festivals in Tanglewood and Spoleto and for The Proms at Royal Albert Hall. Her parents were happy with their only child’s success but Arielle felt like a one-trick pony. She’d been a novelty once but was losing her audience and barely enjoyed playing. Some days, she felt like smashing her gold flute.

Even her parents weren’t there for her anymore. Having left New York City four years ago, they’d relocated to West Africa where her father, an ophthalmologist, performed eye surgery on the needy in Ghana.

What about my needs? Arielle wondered. Her mother used to be her manager but was now so busy learning the Frafra language and Ghanaian drumming that she rarely got in touch.

As the years passed, Arielle’s playing felt robotic and pointless. She was getting fewer offers but didn’t want to play for bridezillas or grieving families. She still had her pride. And her dreams.

Arielle was stuck. She had no Plan B – prodigies don’t – as her life had been determined by others. What else did she like? Sleeping – she loved to sleep.

Arielle dozed more, even in the daytime. She was napping one afternoon in her Tribeca loft, after practicing, when the phone rang. It jarred her awake from a dream where she’d been on stage but couldn’t play or even speak. She ran for the phone and was happy to hear a friendly voice on the other end of the line.

It was the minister of Trinity Church Wall Street, one of Manhattan’s oldest churches, asking her to play at a benefit concert for Syrian refugees.

“There’ll be Philharmonic musicians and some Met singers,” he said, “and Sam Gould’s organizing it. You know him, I believe?”

Sam, like Arielle, had been a prodigy – piano – but became an impresario. She felt a stab of resentment in her chest. Why couldn’t she find her next step?

Arielle said, “Yes, I do. And I’d be happy to – what shall I play?”

“Anything to inspire support for the refugees.”

Maybe this would get her out of her rut?

On a whim, Arielle wrote an original piece, “Where Falcons Fly.” She hoped no one would think it was New Age. She added tongue rams, key slaps and even silence. Where it was coming from, she had no idea but it’d been a long time since Arielle’s spirit felt this light.

She began counting down the days to the benefit and even started looking forward to it. The night before the concert, she wished her parents were with her for moral support. Instead, she went to her father’s bookshelf – he’d studied philosophy as a Yale undergrad – and randomly pulled out The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. The illuminated illustration on its cover caught her eye and, instead of turning on the television for company, Arielle stayed up most of the night reading it.

The next morning, the day of the concert, she woke up feeling refreshed. Arielle shook her head with closed eyes, reminding herself that she’d only slept a couple hours. Boethius’s words were still on her mind: “Though fame may spread abroad…death enfolds alike the humble and the proud, making the lowest equal to the highest.” Maybe there was more to life than being famous?

As the day progressed, she almost switched to “Lacrimosa” from Mozart’s “Requiem” but Arielle was sick of playing it safe and left for Trinity Church. Once she’d arrived, she stopped by Alexander Hamilton’s tombstone outside the church, touching it for good luck, and entered the sanctuary.

As she sat up front waiting, nervous about her unconventional composition, Arielle watched a frail elderly woman with a silk scarf around her head clutch an usher as he seated her in the second row. Her red sweater was unlike any Arielle had seen, featuring two large whales swimming in water.

What a work of art, Arielle thought, happy for the distraction.

The woman smiled, her eyes meeting Arielle’s. A sense of calm washed over Arielle just in time -- she was next.

Standing in front of the pews, Arielle closed her eyes. She pictured the refugees, fleeing their homes, crossing borders. Arielle felt herself soaring. She’d become the falcon, strong and free.

Arielle played “Where Falcons Fly” with no accompaniment. The church was quiet as she went from low register to high, immersing herself in percussive sounds and audible breathing. Her phrasing was all new.

It felt real. Was Arielle playing, at last, from the heart?

At the end, Arielle stood in silence then heard applause and saw a standing ovation. This was better than Carnegie Hall.

After bowing, Arielle looked at the woman in the red sweater who was blotting her eyes with a tissue. Their eyes met again as Arielle fought back a tear. Who was she?

The concert had given Arielle a good feeling but it didn’t last. Back in her loft, she fell into her regular practice routine the next couple weeks with her stack of classical music books. With no upcoming performances though, Arielle felt depressed and, after a morning of playing, was lying down in her chaise longue by the window. Its pink velvet felt soft and contrasted with the loft’s cement floors and brick walls.

The phone rang, startling her.

It was Trinity’s minister again. Another concert so soon? she wondered.

No, he was calling about one of his parishioners, Irene McCartney.

“Irene heard you play at the Syrian concert. Your piece moved her so much -- when she went into the cancer hospice a few days ago, she asked me to find ‘that flautist’ and get her to play ‘that song’ at her funeral. Will you, Arielle?”

“Excuse me, I prefer ‘flutist,’” Arielle said then asked, “When?”

“It shouldn’t be long.”

Arielle stood up and said, “She hasn’t died yet?”

“No, but may I count on you? It’s Irene’s final wish.”

Arielle felt something she hadn’t felt in awhile, maybe ever – deeply touched that her playing had meant something.

So, she said, “Sure,” then practiced her piece for a stranger.

What am I doing with my life? Arielle wondered.

When Irene passed away the following week, the minister called her. “Are you available Thursday afternoon?”

“I’ll rearrange my schedule,” Arielle said although she’d had no plans.

The day of the funeral, Arielle arrived early and walked up the church’s centre aisle.

Passing the second row, she remembered the lady who’d sat there at the Syrian benefit. Arielle hoped she’d get as warm a reception today.

Arielle spotted the coffin up front. Something was draped on it.

She went closer…could it be?

It was a red sweater with whales on it.

She sat down in the second row and took out her flute. As the church filled up, she could feel the woman’s presence -- Irene?

Arielle listened to eulogies given by a lady from Irene’s knitting group – who talked about Irene’s whale-watching childhood in Nova Scotia – then the minister.

Arielle played “Where Falcons Fly” to close the funeral. There was no applause this time. Just stillness.

As people exited, Arielle saw a group of women in colourful hand knit sweaters parade past the coffin, each touching the red sweater.

Arielle was putting her flute away when one of them said, “Irene loved your song, sweetie. I’m Gladys from her knitting group. Meet Dottie and Sue and Lois,” Gladys said. “Join us sometime -- we meet Tuesday nights at the church. You don’t have to be a member or know how to knit! We’ll teach you. And tell you more about Irene.”

Arielle saw Irene’s husband, Bob, pick up the red sweater. She was surprised when he handed it to her.

“She’d want you to have this. Irene was wearing it when she heard you play. You made this day special for her.”

Arielle pulled the red sweater on over her black dress. Though it was huge on her, it felt snug like Irene was hugging her.

Just then a dark-haired man with a smile walked up to her. Did she know him?

The others got quiet.

“Hi ya,” he said in an English accent.

“I’m a third cousin of Irene’s. Luckily, I was in town. Love that sweater – I remember Irene wearing it one Christmas. Can I take a picture of us together? I want to remember Irene’s sweater.”

Arielle hated selfies but said, “Sure.” She could hear the others whispering.

“I’m Paul, by the way,” he said.

This couldn’t be who she thought it was, could it?

“I’m Arielle.”

“Your song’s special. Never heard anything like it. I’d like you to play it at my concert this weekend at The Garden. How’s that sound?”

“Wonderful!” Arielle said.

“I’ll write some lyrics for it later, if you want,” he said. “We could do a big concert for the refugees, record it maybe. I could talk to Ringo, and I know a few other people… Any other charity you like? We could support more than one.”

“My parents started one in West Africa for eye surgeries.”

“Perfect – here’s my card. Text me and we’ll schedule a warm-up for Saturday’s concert. And talk about the rest. Gotta run!”

Her mind raced. There’d be no time for sleeping.

Irene had gotten what she’d wanted. So had Arielle.


Nancy Coombs is a former trade attaché and currently flutist, a writer and an arts advocate. She enjoys spending time with her family and running along the banks of Lake Ontario in Oakville, where she lives.


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1 comment:

  1. How wonderful is that story! So touching, real and all encompassing.


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