ON THE ICY RIVER
The Pommier Chenin (originally the name of a kind of apple tree) was a structure, for all intents and purposes in ruins, that Hermin had managed to render habitable despite the inhospitality of the lower foothills of the Bourbonnais. The squat building’s stone façade had been standing up to heavy rains and icy blasts for at least two centuries, proving by that very fact how staunchly it could resist the interminable winters. Nevertheless, its isolation, more than anything else, left it exposed to the cold of the dark months, and the young composer often found himself cut off from the nearest village by a virtually impassable accumulation of snow. At such times he had to stay shut up for days in what he ironically called “the Great Room” until he felt he could safely venture outside. Needless to say, during those periods he had very few visitors. Who would have dared defy the elements to reach him?
And yet, on a January evening when darkness was falling, there was one who dared. The only one imaginable, the master of the dazzling gesture, the friend who had one day vanished: Lenny.
“Ich bin wiedergekommen,” was all the apparition from the past said, but with a smile.
Hermin froze. Ten years of absence, ten years without music, without words—and now, to reconnect, one simple sentence: I’m back. That was the boy, all right…
To come to where Hermin was, Lenny must have traveled so many snowy miles, so many muddy paths! Lenny’s passion for long hikes and the nickname he’d been given were of course well known to Hermin; but Lenny’s rambles, in his memory, had remained more literary than real, and he was surprised to see that the young man had chosen—in the middle of January—to swap his copy of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage for hiking boots. And besides, to disappear in the heart of the Monts de la Madeleine, to abandon rehearsals and concerts to pay him a visit, him, after ten years of oblivion! Hermin was stunned. What common ground could there be at this point between the composer holed up in the depths of the forest and the young pianist with the entire musical world at his feet? Love for Schubert, no doubt; but what else?
“You decided it was time for your Winter Journey, is that it?” Hermin asked jokingly.
Lenny smiled another small smile and said, “In a way…” His silhouette stood out against the background of the snow-covered slope. Although his features were drawn by fatigue, his eyes shone. Almost laughing, he added, “Admit it, you were not expecting this.”
Which was putting it mildly. A teenager had left him; a man had returned.
“Well, you have taken me by surprise,” said Hermin, who was nevertheless quite aware that the boy had always been surprise incarnate, that the role he played was the unexpected guest, the stranger passing through: on this evening, he came as a vagabond seeking shelter for a night, and that was all.
As his only reply, Lenny shrugged his shoulders. Then, casting a quick glance around, he said, “I never thought you would leave your garret for burying yourself here…”
“Solitude is composition’s surest ally.”
This was as good a reply as any; Hermin wasn’t certain he believed it. “You must be tired,” he went on, pulling his friend into the Great Room, which would have seemed quite shabby had the fire not enriched it with sooty and golden-brown reflections that danced in the darkness on the furniture huddled around the hearth. Instead of switching on the lamp, Hermin grabbed two bronze candlesticks to prolong the spell. A light gleamed in the boy’s eyes.
“I remember I got those from a junk dealer!” “As you see, I still have them.”
Dust from the pianos danced in the sunbeam filtering in through the shop’s half-open door…
Hermin disappeared. He returned a moment later with a savory pie and two plates, which he put down without saying a word. Equally mute, Lenny watched him; it seemed that each of their movements complied with a liturgy whose proceedings must at all costs remain uninterrupted. Outside, the darkening sky added to the fragility of the instant. It was raining melted snow.
It took a long time for the conversation to get under way. Where to begin after such a long silence? Hermin, agitated, was looking for some suitable words to say, words neither too laden with meaning nor too trivial—words, in short, that might revive the best of their friendship while steering clear of quarrels, misunderstandings, and remorse.
“Tell me about these past years,” he said at last. “At first, I thought you’d get lost in Paris for a few weeks and then cry for help. Apparently I didn’t know you very well…” “That is what I did the first few days, I was lost in the streets. Then I got a piano job in a bar…I almost ruined my technique, pounding an old clunker every night! I missed
the Zimmermann, you know—”
“Well, take a look, there it is!”
Lenny turned toward the instrument Hermin was pointing at. His face lit up, and he made a move in the direction of what had been his first piano. His young composer friend could never make up his mind to abandon it, even though these days he hardly made use of it anymore. But the piano’s history seemed so closely connected to theirs…
Dust from the pianos danced in the sunbeam filtering in through the shop’s half-open door. I was settled in a corner, studying my harmony course. To fund my studies, I’d taken a job as a salesman for a piano maker. Customers were rare… “Anyway, some people noticed me, they got me a scholarship, a professor took me under his wing, then he arranged some recitals, like you the first—”
One fall morning he entered the shop and slowly moved through it, fascinated by the instruments: a Pleyel concert grand, a Gaveau beginners’ upright, completely inlaid, some lacquered Steinways…
“You already knew enough to make a career when you left me!”
I went up to him. He was young—fifteen or so—and he hadn’t come to buy anything, but he asked permission to try the instruments. His awkward syntax and German accent added to his shyness. A bit puzzled, I gave my consent. He sat on one of the benches, positioned his hands on the piano, and
touched the keys in a way both respectful and resolute. Then he started to play.
At that time of evening, the collapsing flames gave the room the look of a ship in disarray; Hermin, standing at the rail, could never get over the sight. Arabesques of mingled ash and gold passed before his eyes while the wind mounted a fierce attack on the Pommier Chenin.
It wasn’t what I’d expected, one of those “repertory pieces” that beginning students bang out gracelessly, unable to distinguish the prelude from the fugue, the theme from its variations. Nor was it jazz, in spite of certain rhythms. It was an improvisation. At first hesitant, his playing grew more and more confident, almost audacious; he played tense chords, essayed various improbable progressions, and suspended some cadences, evidently indifferent to the laws of harmony. Most of all, he listened to himself, strangely marveling; his fingers seemed to be discovering the piano, wandering back and forth over the keyboard, delicate, nimble, and nevertheless powerful—but it was as if they were doing so for the first time. A vague uneasiness came over me.
“Time sure has passed quickly,” Hermin murmured, detaching—not without an effort—his eyes from the fireplace.
“How old are you?” “Thirty-three.”
“The age of Christ…”
“Can I be entering the time of the Passion?”
They exchanged an almost knowing look. Hermin turned away to pour two glasses of new wine. Silence fell again, broken only by gusts of wind. An unspoken question was floating between them, separating them like a curtain. “Den Tag des ersten Grusses, / Den Tag, an dem ich ging; / Um Nam’ und Zahlen windet / Sich ein zerbroch’ner
Ring,” Lenny murmured by way of response. “Translation?” the young composer joked, certain that
he’d recognized some verses from Schubert’s song “Auf dem Flusse,” one of the lieder in his Winterreise, the “Winter Journey” they’d listened to more fervently than to any other song cycle…
“‘The day of our first meeting, the day I went away; and around the name and dates, a broken ring.’”
“A broken ring,” Hermin echoed him.
How long did he play that day? Most likely not so long as he does in my memory, but wonderment had more or less suspended time for me. He stopped playing without concluding, stood up, and prepared to leave the shop…
“But tell me,” Lenny went on, preferring to change the subject, “what did you do after I left?”
“Nothing…not much…” Hermin answered sincerely. The fabric of his life had slowly worn itself out during those years of virtual solitude. After the allegro vivace that had marked the rhythm of their two years together—so rasch wie möglich, in his friend’s language, “as fast as possible”—he’d settled into an irresolute moderato before leaving the city and taking refuge in the solitude of the Pommier Chenin. Could that exile have made any sense other than as an attempt to embalm the memory of the young man, to freeze time until the improbable moment of his return?
I put a hand on his shoulder to hold him back. “Are you taking piano lessons?”
He shook his head. Now he seemed hurried, restless, as if he regretted his boldness. “Ich kann nicht…I do not really know how to play…I must to go now…”
“You…listen, on this subject, I think I know what I’m talking about: if you’re not a pianist yet, you’ll soon become one!”
“I must to go,” the boy repeated in a muffled voice.
Once again, silence fell on them, imposing itself like an unwanted guest. Each of their words seemed to remain implicit; it wasn’t a matter of incomprehension—not yet— but the rift hollowed out by absence was proving hard to fill. The young composer observed Lenny surreptitiously.
He hardly ate anything, he who had always been famished as a teenager; it was as if a sort of reticence kept him aloof from his plate and his cutlery, but he drank a lot. A strange flame had begun to glow in his very black eyes, as if he were drunk—but perhaps his distraction wasn’t due to alcohol alone. The candlelight threw tawny reflections on his face, which he seemed to be practically offering to his older friend’s furtive contemplation. On the whole, Hermin thought as he looked at him, Lenny had barely changed; he was as handsome as ever, in spite of his pallor, his sharp cheekbones, in spite of the years that had passed. Some of his black locks had strayed onto his forehead, but it didn’t occur to him to push them back. He wasn’t smiling; his smiles had always been rare. The young composer had often pondered what might lie behind his friend’s habitual silence; this evening, more than ever, Hermin was utterly in the dark as to Lenny’s thoughts or the adversities he might have suffered. As far as Hermin was concerned, Lenny had just well and properly completed his Winter Journey. He imagined him hiking through forests and villages, like the rambler in the beloved lieder cycle, sometimes accompanied by a crow that showed him the way, sometimes spotting a weather vane as fickle as his mood, or maybe coming upon a lime tree, the lovely tree of memory; walking beside a river full of ice floes, barked at by village dogs, refused a room at the inn; then waking at dawn on a stormy morning; and finally meeting the organ grinder from the previous day: “Strange old man, shall I come with you?…”
The youth sat up straight, stretched a little, and emptied his wineglass, as though hastening the end of the meal; then Hermin, who had just come out of his daydream, asked him a question, his voice hurried, doubtless for fear of the response he was going to get: in memory of their evenings long ago, would Lenny play something?
Ordinarily, you don’t invite a concert pianist, out of the blue, to exhibit his talent; that sort of proposition is reserved for children whose parents, bursting with pride, want their offspring’s ability—or what they consider as such—to be admired. Hermin was not unaware of this, and he was troubled by the idea that Lenny could take offense at being still regarded as the student, the protégé—in short, the kid. Yet his reaction bore a curious resemblance to that image: he bit his lip, like a child whose disobedience has just been brought to light, and he replied in a voice that suddenly sounded hesitant: “There is something I have not told you yet.”
It took him a moment to find the words, and then he went on, feeling his older friend’s eyes fixed on him: “I have…canceled all my concerts.”
Feigning composure, Hermin picked up his glass.
One thing was certain: the boy was already a pianist— from all eternity and forever.
“You mean…you’re calling off the whole season?”
The young man shook his head. “No. I mean I am giving up the profession.”
And just as Hermin had thought he’d understood, when he heard his friend play for the first time, that he was a pianist from all eternity and forever, in that later moment he understood that Lenny’s decision was irrevocable; never again, he could be certain of it, would he hear the song of the boy whom those who knew him had nicknamed—because he too had soles of wind, and because he played Schubert’s music better than anyone else—“the Wanderer.”