Robert Pope | Valeria and Oskar

Our family has lived in the valley for several generations, known as musicians for many miles beyond our region and miles beyond that. Strings in particular, and woodwinds, particularly the flute. We brought music with us from the old country, a talent and reputation we honor and protect, the best of us sent out in groups of four or five. The rest of us practice, teach the young, and keep the homestead. We share what wealth we have, with special consideration for the most gifted. We have become accustomed to our way of life, yet it may be true our line has become complex, intricate, a bit closed to the outside, which is to say we have become a high strung and unsatisfied family and believe we must, to keep our standards high.

I have found my role entirely satisfying, caring for the children, feeding the family, tending to the house and gardens. I listen to the children practice and perform for each other, but I have not played the flute for many years. This I say without regret. I have found peace in exclusion and relative anonymity in the households of the valley. Valeria has always had a special place in my heart because she reminds me of myself many years earlier. She has a light and fluid mastery of the flute that speaks of something deep in her soul beyond or under the music, the same movement I see in her slight body as she helps me in the kitchen or plays with younger children. Most children who frequented my own household at this time played the violin, viola, or cello.

I grieved when she went to the conservatory for two years and wept with joy when she visited after the first year. Privately, she confessed to me she had found someone she might love one day, because she could not keep this feeling inside. She wrote to me every two weeks and kept this aspect of her life coded in mystery. Oskar became a sunflower growing out her window in the little house in which she lived with a family known to me. He glowed with sunshine, sparkled in rain, inspired and nourished small birds with gentle music. I feared to mention this because relationships outside of our community were often met with resistance. I held this inside until the day she returned with Oskar at her side. Like Valeria, he filled me with a joy I could barely contain.

He was not well-received by my husband or the children’s grandparents, or our cousins and relatives of the five households who awaited her return with expectation of an achievement to contribute to our reputation and fortune. Now I must tell you a bit more of our lives so you will understand their hesitation to embrace the newcomer. We are a diminutive people, though we hardly note this among ourselves. We have our tall and short. In our community, one and a half meters or a little more would be considered average. As I say, we have both the shorter and taller. I am myself just under and my husband over the average.

We are dark-haired people with brown eyes or hazel, by and large. These characteristics make little difference in our daily lives but serve to explain the surprise with which we greeted Oskar, easily two meters, with bright green eyes of the palest hue I could imagine, full of light. My husband became so reserved, greeting a man who seemed a blonde giant. Valeria danced, showering us with her happiness, unaware of the darkness growing about our houses. We had an older, unused piano in the upstairs study no one had played for years. Oskar spent hours in that room several days, during which time I heard him plunking and playing until suspense built up in me. I heard him singing now and then as he tuned and repaired the instrument to his satisfaction.

When he came down to tell us the old piano performed beautifully when revived, I accompanied Valeria to hear him play, barely containing my emotion as I stood in the doorway listening and watching, Valeria behind him with her little hands on his big shoulders. It was as if the little wooden hammers banged the forgotten strings of my body. When he turned for approval, beautiful smile on his face, tears ran down my cheeks and soaked my blouse. Valeria came to me, throwing her arms about my neck, whispering none too quietly, “Oh, isn’t he wonderful, Aunty?”

When I descended the stairs, the piano and singing above, I saw the dark faces of my husband, his brothers, and two visiting wives. The children danced and sang to his playing, and the study became a chamber of joy for them, but I knew what neither Valeria nor Oskar knew that night, when Hubert whispered hoarsely in our bed, “He must leave, or both must.” Of course, I understood his style was not our own, but couldn’t we grow with the addition of this fine young man?

Though Hubert said nothing to Valeria or Oskar, and she was too much enamored of her fiancé to notice anyone else, I felt it from every side, in shades of darkness falling as autumn came. The storm brewed in silence. Occasionally I overheard discussion, but everyone knew she was a favorite of mine, if only for the reason that she played my own instrument, which I had put down so many years ago. Of course, we had our pianists, accompanists who specialized in the other instruments as well. But none like Oskar, whose voice suddenly boomed in the silence of a gray afternoon.

And there was also the problem of his height. Hubert had explained one evening when we retired, not that he felt intimidated, but that it drew attention to his person rather than the music. Who could not take note of this fair giant at the bench? The humility of art, did it not demand the artist disappear? If he were a tall skeleton, and not bristling with good health and apparent physical strength, he might have been a bit more appropriate. He seized on that word with satisfaction, as if the very body of the man Valeria had brought home to us was simply inappropriate.

Hubert had grown somewhat portly, and, like myself, had not performed for several years. A violinist once, he had become our scholar, or authority on the history and structure of any musical composition or composer, a thing in which I had little interest though I respected his knowledge. Because of this, as he sat puffing his pipe, those gathered at our house or others took note of what he said, received it as their own opinion on the matter. The quiet partner in our marriage, I tried not to contradict him in public and made an effort not to show impatience with his discourse in general, as if it were a mere theory of his.

It was not a theory, as it had taken hold. Valeria could not be protected forever. She began to feel a pall she could not at first comprehend. She feared someone had fallen ill, or financial difficulties had saddened our community. I assured her it was the approach of winter, growing preparations for the season to come. Still, she ran to Oskar’s bedroom and banged on the door like Ludwig van Beethoven, took his hand, dragged him down the stairs for morning coffee and breakfast, discussing plans for future performances of their own, including early marriage and children. At this suggestion Hubert left the room patting his pockets as if he had misplaced his tobacco. The thought of the combination of Valeria’s delicacy and Oskar’s grotesque size and coloring seemed monstrous to him.

The younger children did not notice, and the clamor at his knees for him to play his guitar and sing for them, or to play accompaniment to their singing and dancing on the old piano never abated. The older children loved him, but only quietly, sensing the ‘inappropriateness’ of their affection if they did not yet understand the cause. He was simply all wrong for them, though I insisted he was simply all right for Valeria. My sadness grew from acceptance of knowledge that Oskar and Valeria would have to separate from the families of the valley in order to remain together, and the prospect that the source of my delight would be ever farther from my arms, if not my heart.

Before we knew it, leaves had turned the burnished yellow and red of our autumn and began to drift across our paths as we walked between houses and prepared for journeys out and back, sending and receiving, sharing hearth and hospitality we provided each other, always with the blonde giant at our table, in the sitting room. Once Valeria and Oskar married in the spring, questions and speculations increased that they would leave on the pretext of finding their own home. Cool winds blew through our valley, swirling fallen leaves and predicting coming snows, when we lost young Peter. How we scoured the valley for a boy no more than eight years old! When we found him, our hearts fell yet again.

It was a leather shoe that showed us where he lay, covered with a layer of soil by a narrow stream, his face and hands an awful blue. The men pounded a box together and we laid him in the ground with those who came before, having lost a promising student of the viola and a beloved child. Who could have done such a thing, we asked, and soon I felt tremors of suspicion falling on the dear young man on whom Valeria placed all her hopes. No one could recall any such occurrence in years previous, and in the silences I heard a phrase that gripped at my own heart, “Before the coming of Oskar.”

The sense of impending urgency, before silences became spoken threats and warnings, I woke Valeria in her bedroom one early morning, and took her small hand in mine. “My dear child,” I said, and then my words died in me. My silence alarmed her. She sat up, demanding to know what happened since the night before. “Nothing, nothing has happened,” I told her, “except in the hearts of those around us.”

“What is it, Aunty?” The poor girl looked terrified.

Finally, I said, “Suspicion has fallen on him.”

“Suspicion? On whom?”

Her perplexity showed in her face, but the growing coldness of her hand as she withdrew it told me understanding crept over her in a sickening wave. “Surely, they don’t think Oskar,” but she could say no more.

I said nothing but remained silent, watching the terror twist at her lovely features. “But why?” she said.

“For no reason, my dear, but that this happened after his arrival. For no other reason than that, and his difference.”

“Difference?” she repeated.

I remained quiet, allowing her to arrive at a greater understanding yet of all that had transpired in the hearts and minds of those she always thought of as the family that had nourished her. I provided the handkerchief I brought for her tears, though it tore at my heart to watch and hold her in my arms. Once she drew back and asked me, “Surely, you don’t think the same?”

I shook my head and held her close, as if I knew she would soon be gone, as she was, on the tearful explanation that they must spend time with Oskar’s family as well. Though he had been fairer than the rest of us before, he took on a pale aspect now, hesitant, alert to nuances that previously escaped either of them in the rush of their happiness. Between themselves they knew he was not accepted among those whom he had immediately embraced as future relatives. It was incomprehensible to them, but, to my great loss and shame, not to me, for I had been raised among them and grown to womanhood there, part of this community which I had grown to love.

My heart broke as I watched them walking down the path before our house, Oskar carrying with ease the great suitcase with which I furnished him. Bundled as they were in their coats and hats, a light snow blowing in upon us all. I saw others at the doors and windows, and the children in the lane calling out to them as I trailed behind, waving when they last turned back to me. And they were gone, out of my life, like warmth of the hearth fire, when the errant spark bursts out upon you. It burned and seared inside me, something I had not considered yet, so caught up in the sorrow of their departure.

It was this: someone in our community had killed a child. Some one of us had done an unthinkable deed, a deed of such deep self-hatred that I had not even considered the possibility until I saw sweet Valeria leaving our home and valley beside the man she loved, and would soon promise to love for the rest of her life. Now the true question fell on me.

Which of us conceived and accomplished this horrid deed? Many of those I had known all my life resolved to accept they would never know, that the very question had departed with the inappropriate and loving couple. Not I. Those two brief words sounded in my mind and vibrated through me at night as I lay in bed beside the snoring Hubert, like my very heartbeat: Not I. Not I. Not I.

I grew bitter with each passing day, and that phrase beat through my heart and mind, separating me from everyone I ever loved, or thought I loved. And when a letter arrived from Valeria, I would not share it with anyone but the youngest children, not even my husband Hubert, implicated now in driving them from us. “What did she say?” he asked at breakfast. I would tell him they are happy where they are, that they had performed together at a place we both knew, they had a child, a blonde girl we hadn’t met. I longed for the day they would return and I could hold her little one to my breast, but that day never came. Letters became infrequent as their lives grew distant from my own.

The life of our community continued, and I slept in a separate room from Hubert, unable to ignore his snoring which grew louder every night. Some part of my heart died, I felt. I had to accept the death, as I had to accept death and murder of little Peter. He had not been of our household, but I knew him well. He had come to our house many times for supper. Years went by as his little face and figure faded from my mind and I cared for other children.

One autumn I realized six years had gone by, and then it was seven, and I had received only the barest communication from Valeria and Oskar when the recording came: Valeria and Oskar. I played it until Hubert objected, saying it made me even more morose than I had already become. We had words, and he grumbled something about that murderer he would not repeat. I would not talk to him after, except as required for daily life. The recording went into a closet.

And one bright summer day, an ordinary looking man arrived, and asked if he could come in and speak to me. I served tea and listened as he explained a man, a stranger, had been arrested in the murder of a child in a nearby town, and they suspected him in several other child cases, including our own. It was as a courtesy he came. He understood there had been some suspicion directed at a young man engaged to a girl of our household and understood I had been close enough to keep in contact. Though he had not shared the suspicion, he had spoken with both of them in the village where they now lived, had in fact seen their lovely child.

Tears rolled down my cheeks as I listened, but I did not cry aloud for fear of missing the least news. That day I packed my bag and left my husband and the children I tended, the last I ever saw of them. I did not look back when he stepped on the porch and called my name. I did not look back when I boarded the train, but I could not sleep as it grew dark. I searched for lights in passing houses in the landscape. The movement of the train kept time with a beating in my heart and mind: Not I. Not I. Not I. I saw the three of them, as they would be, awaiting at the station my arrival. The past was a curtain drawn on the drama of an evening, bows taken, the audience departed but for me, alone in the wide theater my happiness had filled.

Robert Pope has published a novel, Jack’s Universe, as well as a collection of stories, Private Acts. He has also published many stories and personal essays in journals such as The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Fiction International. He teaches at The University of Akron.

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