The third movement of Mozart’s Symphony Number 39 in E-flat Major, with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, spun on the Victrola. The clarinetist was playing the solo in the minuet with simple if somewhat maudlin elegance. In midphrase, Jacobus wrenched the LP off the turntable, the stylus ripping nastily into the disc with a horrible screech, like car brakes before a fatal collision. He flung the record against the wall, shattering it. Jacobus collapsed back exhausted into his secondhand swivel chair, his frayed green plaid flannel shirt sticking to the torn brown Naugahyde seat back.
"Damn Krauts," he muttered, panting. "Think they own the sole rights to Mozart."
Jacobus had awoken that morning of July 8, 1983, drenched in sweat. Night had brought no relief to the relentless heat wave that had wilted New England, browning the leaves two months before their time, and though it was only dawn it was already searingly hot, hazy, and humid. But more than the heat, it was Jacobus’s recurring ivy-and-eyes dream that had wrenched him from his uneasy sleep.
It wasn’t that Jacobus enjoyed gardening. Actually, he hated it. He had planted the ivy—years ago, when he could still see—because Don at the garden center had told him how easy it was to grow, how little care it needed, how, trellised to the walls, it would make his house look so quaint, and, the clincher, how it would choke out all the weeds so he wouldn’t have to do any yard work.
At first, everything Don had told him was true, and Jacobus was very pleased with his slyness. What he hadn’t been told, though, was that once the ivy’s roots started spreading, it would choke out not just the weeds but every other living thing, that its tenacious grip on the side of the house would loosen the mortar and rot the siding, that unless you cut it back, year after year after year, it would overwhelm the entire house in a deadly embrace. After Jacobus became blind, sitting in his personal darkness, he could feel—he swore he could even hear—the ivy making its slow, inexorable ascent around him, mocking him, consuming him. It was when the ivy had wrapped itself around him in the dream, pinning him down, suffocating him, that the eye appeared above him. A blazing ruby-red eye, it seared its gaze into Jacobus, immobilized by the ivy, burning his flesh. It was the same bejeweled eye that Stradivari had embedded in the dragon head of the violin he had made for Matteo Cherubino hundreds of years ago, the violin that had eluded Jacobus decades before and now taunted him without surcease. An eye that mocked him for his blindness and for his weakness.
Jacobus lay in his sweat. It was an understatement to say he didn’t feel like teaching the violin on that July eighth. Nor had he felt like teaching on July sixth or seventh. The truth was he hadn’t felt like teaching the violin for a long time. He was hot. He was tired. The prospect of having to communicate with another human—he hesitated to use that term in reference to a mere student—depressed him. In fact, it revolted him. Rummaging with fumbling fingers through the ashtray for a half-smoked Camel cigarette butt, he finally found one long enough and relit it. Why can’t they leave me in peace? he thought. Peace. What’s that? If being blind, friendless, and put out to pasture is peace, then I guess I’ve found it.
He dragged his way to his studio and collapsed into his chair. Would he go to Carnegie Hall that night for the coronation of the young girl he often referred to as the "Infanta," the child prodigy Kamryn Vander (formerly Vanderblick), student of Victoria Jablonski? The Victoria Jablonski. Jacobus felt the bile rise in his throat. His belief that great music was great enough to be played without conceit, without hype, without the dog and pony show was now considered old-fashioned, out of touch with modern lifestyle tastes. Why indeed should he go to this concert and witness the triumph of everything he had striven against his entire life? To torture himself? Was there another reason?
The silence surrounding Jacobus oppressed him. The sporadic gurgling of his antiquated refrigerator and an occasional car passing up the hill on Route 41, engines muffled by ever-encroaching woods, were the only white noises intruding upon his black, bleak solitude. Yet when somewhere out there a crow’s shrill caw interjected itself, Jacobus cursed that too. He removed his violin from the case that he never bothered to close. The violin, like everything else, had been neglected. The fingerboard was caked with accumulated rosin, and the strings, unchanged for years, were blackened and frayed. He couldn’t remember the last time he had his bow rehaired.
The next familiar sound was the knocking at the door—the student. Jacobus sat motionless in the silence, holding his violin on his knee. He sat long after the cigarette butt was cold, long after the knocking on the door had ceased, long after the student’s footsteps had receded into the silence. Only gradually did he allow the sound of his own panting wheeze to resume.
That was how his day had begun. Now, nine hours later, the cab he was in lurched to a halt, propelling his forehead into the Plexiglas shield, knocking his dark glasses to the floor. "Coggy-ool," said the driver in an almost incomprehensible foreign accent.
"It’s pronounced ‘Carnegie Hall,’ asshole," Jacobus croaked, groping to retrieve his glasses.
Jacobus got out of the car grudgingly, licking his dry lips, a condemned prisoner staggering to the guillotine. Stumbling from the cab into the sweltering July heat, he cursed the driver and slammed the door. He again asked himself why he had made this trip, but unaccustomed to introspection he received no clear answer. Was it only to hear this dexterous preadolescent pretend to be an artist? Was it to flagellate himself with cynical self-righteousness while everyone else rose to a standing ovation? After all, hadn’t she just won the prestigious Grimsley Competition? What would he do when the smug New York intelligentsia fawned over this baby as if it knew the difference between show and artistry?
Dressed in his tattered gray tweed jacket, sleeves too short, which he had thrown over his flannel shirt, and stained wool pants with frayed cuffs, Jacobus was ignored by the tuxedos swirling around him. Just another street person—and a blind one at that—in a city of street people, as unseen to the gathering concert crowd as they were to him, he trudged toward the imposing brown brick walls of Carnegie Hall, his personal Bastille, awash in the evening’s growing shadows. The vision of the ivy-and-eye dream returned. The vision of his own demise. He spat on the sidewalk.
Excerpted from Devil’s Trill by Gerald Elias.
Copyright 2009 by Gerald Elias.
Published in August 2009 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.