Excerpted from The Silver Swan by Elena Delbanco, published by Other Press on May 19, 2015. Copyright © Elena Delbanco. Reprinted by permission of Other Press.
Because the wood floor creaks in the long corridor, Mariana can hear her father approaching. She turns toward the door. As it opens, she looks down at the small cello she has been playing and tightly grips the bow. Alexander Feldmann leans against the doorframe. He wears a silk paisley dressing gown and embroidered slippers. With a cigarette in a tortoiseshell holder in his hand, he stares at her, exhaling smoke. “Mariana, you’re flat. That A is too flat.”
60 years old, Alexander is well over six feet, handsome, with dark hair now silvered at the temples; his brown eyes are deep set, his chin strong. Mixed in with the tobacco, Mariana smells his lavender eau de cologne. He chides her gently, less irritably. “You’re not stretching far enough, sweet-heart. When your hands have grown a little, this won’t be so difficult.”
Looking down at her cello, she nods.
“You’re noodling around, Mariana, you’re not really practicing. I can tell. And why are you sitting on your desk chair? Your feet can’t reach the floor. How can you play when you’re not stable or grounded?”
“I don’t like to sit on the little chair, Papa. I put it in the closet. It’s too small.”
He laughs and comes to stand behind her. Mariana feels shy with her father, who is rarely home. World famous as a performer, he has a schedule of concerts that keeps him away; he is already booked for the next three years. And during his days in Manhattan, Alexander is preoccupied with his own daily hours of practice and giving cello lessons in his studio in the apartment. His students, from Juilliard, come and go all day, each for an appointed hour.
Now he touches her shoulder, amused. “Mama told me that you erased Eric Katz’s name and put yours on my list for a lesson today. That was naughty.”
“I know you’re leaving again,” she whispers. “First thing tomorrow morning.”
She pauses, looking away. “I wanted to be with you.”
Alexander takes another puff of his cigarette.“Well, when you finish practicing, you may join us for breakfast. Your mother and I do need to talk before I go to Switzerland.”
He leans down and takes her left hand, showing her the position she needs to reach the A properly. His face is smooth, the scent of his aftershave strong. Sweeping her hair aside, he gently kisses her neck. She closes her eyes. He whispers, “You must work harder, sweetheart. It takes more than talent to be a great cellist. It takes hard work, dedication.” As he leaves her room, he says, “For a special treat, if you work hard on the Sarabande this morning, I’ll let you play it for me on the Silver Swan, after breakfast. We’ll eat when you’re done.”
Then he is gone. Mariana waits for a moment. She reaches her hand to her hair and smells it dreamily for traces of him.
When he is away, she sneaks into his room and puts drops of his scent on her fingers. Then she rushes back to her own room and rubs her fingers on her pillowcase. The fragrance soothes her, helps her sleep.
Again she starts to play. In her nightgown, Mariana is working on Bach. She is tall for an eight-year-old, all arms and legs and angles; the seeds of future beauty have been planted in her face. As she leans forward, her long, dark hair falls over the instrument. She brushes it away with her right arm, lifting the bow impatiently. Forcing herself to concentrate, she repeats the opening measures of the Sarabande from the G-Major Suite. Filtered through venetian blinds, sun rises over the rooftops of Fifth Avenue across the wintry park. Though her bedroom door is closed, in the pauses while she rests she can hear her parents’ voices raised in disagreement.
When 20 minutes have passed—a clock hangs on the bedroom wall, exacting and reproachful—she places the bow on the music stand and hops off her chair. Then, having set her instrument carefully down on the rug, she walks the long, dark corridor past the dining room and kitchen to what her parents call “the dinette,” where they await her. It is eight in the morning, a Sunday in mid-February. The walls of the apartment have just been painted—this is a choice of her mother’s—charcoal gray.
The dinette is small, with a round table and molded pedestal chairs. Her own chair tips when Mariana climbs onto it, sitting between her father and mother and keeping her eyes on the table, not looking at the wall, which has been recently papered. The pattern makes her dizzy: thin stripes of pale green and brown that, if she watches closely, waver. She shuts her eyes, then opens them, and the stripes merge and converge.
Her parents have stopped arguing. They are smoking and drinking espresso. A newspaper is folded at her mother’s place, her eyeglasses, with their silver cord, resting on it. Her white hair is thick and unbrushed. Though Alexander urges her to color it, she will not. A great beauty once (so Mariana has been told and can see in the framed photographs of the young Pilar), her mother resolutely refuses to “keep herself up.” That is her father’s phrase when reproachful or angry, and he seems angry now. Pilar too is clad in a bathrobe. It is neither silk nor paisley, but nylon and black. When Alexander is away, she often wears it all day.
As Mariana reaches for the pitcher of orange juice, her mother says, not looking at her,
“Mariana, you know I don’t like you to go barefoot. Where are your slippers?”
“Let her be,” says Alexander.“It’s the day of rest.”
Her mother has tears in her eyes. Mariana knows her parents often fight before her father leaves on tour. This makes her both anxious and sad. Pilar places a plate of toast in front of her and pours a glass of juice, silent. “Thank you,” Mariana says, and tries to touch her mother’s hand, but she has pulled it away. The girl swallows what she barely chews. Dutifully, she slips down off her pedestal chair to retrieve her slippers. As she leaves the dinette, her father folds his napkin, takes one last sip of coffee, and tells her to join him in the studio.
“You’ve done a nice job this morning,” he says.“Now come and play the Sarabande for me on the Silver Swan.”
In her slippers, she runs the length of the apartment to Alexander’s studio. As is the case with her bedroom, it looks out over Central Park. Here, however, the windows are unobstructed and sunlight floods the room. A concert grand Steinway, covered in a woven shawl of orange and gold, stands against one wall. The opposite wall has shelves from floor to ceiling, filled with music manuscripts and recordings and file boxes of Alexander’s reviews. Also on the shelves are many photographs of him in evening clothes, onstage or backstage or with other musicians, shaking hands and smiling. There are citations and framed album covers and a Grammy Award and two Grand Prix du Disque.
A pair of cello cases stand in a corner, both closed. In the room’s center, on a worn Persian rug, two chairs face each other. A small table holds a metronome and an ashtray filled with cigarette butts. The great Catalan cellist Pablo Casals, her father tells her, smoked a pipe while playing. When they opened up the maestro’s cello, Alexander says, there were match heads and tobacco and even an old coin that had fallen through one of the f-holes and rattled around inside.
She giggles. “But we’ll be much more careful,” says her father, “won’t we, with the Silver Swan?” He tells Mariana to sit in the chair facing his, then goes to one of the cases and carefully removes what he calls his treasure, the great love of his life. “I am speaking only of music, of course,” he says.“You are the love of my life when I’m speaking of people.”
“And Mama?” she asks. He doesn’t answer.
As he brings the Stradivarius toward her, Alexander turns the instrument this way and that in the morning sun. The varnish glows a warm golden-orange. It absorbs yet engenders the light, sending flashes of sunlight across the walls.
“Beautiful, isn’t it, sweetheart?” He holds the Swan up beside her. “Let’s find our secret sign.”
At the crest of the cello’s dark scroll, Mariana studies two one-inch silver engravings: matched medallions of a swan poised for flight above the wooden pegs. The carvings, though small, are intricate. There is a story about them, one he has told her often. An artist called Benvenuto Cellini, a very famous Italian, used the pattern of a swan for a silver sculpture he made to decorate a container for salt. Somehow someone cut it up, and Stradivari was given the little swans to keep. When he built this instrument, he fitted the birds’ metal profiles onto the carved wooden scroll. “That’s why it’s called the Silver Swan. This happened in 1712—can you believe it?— more than 60 years before America became America. And now this great cello, this work of art, belongs to me, to us.”
On one side of the mirroring paired images, Alexander’s own initials form part of the design, added to the filigree, an etched AF on the feathers of a wing. Her father has told Mariana that only three people in the world—he, she, and her mother—are aware of the existence of these additional marks. And the man who did the markings (here Alexander drops his voice) took his knowledge to the grave. So it is our family secret, our hidden sign, and the way you, Mariana Alexandra Feldmann, will always be able to recognize the authentic cello. There are lots of ugly ducklings, Alexander says, but only one true Swan. He tunes the instrument.
She watches her father’s long strong fingers, as he turns the wooden pegs. When he has finished tuning, he puts the gleaming Swan between her knees and kneels beside her on the carpet. He strokes her cheek. She is transfixed.
“All right, my angel, play beautifully for your papa.” He stands again. “One day, we’ll rent Carnegie Hall and we’ll choose the same date as my debut there in 1945. That happens to have been your birthday,” he reminds her. “27 years later, you arrived on that exact date. It’s our magic number.” Mariana wonders if she would like to work so hard on her birthday but does not interrupt. She knows this story well, too. “A day I could never forget,” he says. “My debut. This is how I remember your birthday.”
“You’ll be away again this year,” she murmurs, but Alexander is lost in his fantasy.
“We’ll go to Bergdorf Goodman to buy you a glamorous dress and you’ll choose the color. I’ll be very proud of you, won’t I?” He holds her chin gently, his face close to hers. She doesn’t answer.
“Remember, best of all,” he repeats. “On that day, you’ll play the Swan.”
Elena Delbanco has recently retired after teaching for 27 years at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. Before moving to Ann Arbor, she worked at Bennington College in Vermont, where she and her husband, the writer Nicholas Delbanco, together with the late John Gardner, founded the Bennington Writing Workshops. Delbanco has long been engaged in the world of classical music. Her father was the renowned cellist Bernard Greenhouse (of the Beaux Arts Trio), who owned the Countess of Stainlein ex-Paganini Stradivarius violoncello of 1707. The imagined fate of that instrument, upon her father’s death, inspired The Silver Swan, her first novel.