You are nine years old when you begin your piano lessons. You are twelve when you hear of the first successful grafting of a cybernetic arm on a human body, the innovative crossing of nerve endings and wires that can let a man feel the terrain of the earth on the sole of his foot even when the flesh of his leg is no longer with him. You don’t put the two of these together until you are in your thirties. Your tires have spun out from under you and the metal of your car has fused with another. You notice the taste of blood in your mouth, the shadow of sirens racing toward you, the contents of your grocery bags all over the asphalt, oranges that are rolling away, all before you notice there is some part of you that is not right. There is some part of you that is missing.
You wake up to the even tempo of your heart monitor. The overhead light hums in the key of D. You’re on so many pain killers that you can’t feel the negative space of your missing fingers or the splintering of your bones, but you look over to investigate anyway. You see the bloated gauze that tries to mask the swelling and the loss, the remainder of your hand formed into a mitten that wouldn’t fool anyone.
“The amputation and grafting are scheduled for next week,” the nurse says when he sees you looking at it. “We wanted to give your body a little time to rest.” You think, dumbly, about the knee replacement your mother had three years ago, or the robotic eye that Bill walked onto the stage with last month, the left one that was indistinguishable from the right, except for the fact that he no longer needed contacts for that side. “Half off my prescription,” he joked, and you all laughed even as you watched his gaze follow every note on his sheet music, even as you were certain he was somehow watching all of you as all of you all watched him.
“Amputation?” you try to say, but your eyelids have lowered. Your body directs you to rest.
The metal of your fingers on the plastic white keys make a clicking sound that you can’t get out of your head. You try putting a glove on, and that helps, but it doesn’t solve everything. You watch the delicate stretching of your left hand marry together chords and try to do the same thing with your right, but it’s no good. The palm of your metal hand is stiff and stuck, and the gears are clicking too much at the elbow. You’re off tempo now, sacrificing timing for precision, but when your middle finger tries to hit the E and trips over the F instead, your hands freeze on the keyboard. That’s enough for today.
Prosthetic limbs are so much better than they used to be. This is what you tell yourself as you use your left hand to trace over this new seam in your body, the place just around your shoulder where the thing that is you and the thing that is not you meet. Titanium alloy plates shaped to mimic symmetry with your other arm hang from the ledge of your shoulder, lightweight enough to keep you balanced, durable enough to protect the electrics inside. It’s not perfect. The piece of it that recreates your elbow is a little too large, and it sticks in some angles. The same thing happens, you’ve heard, in the knee of the prosthetic leg, some issues with the cybernetics that link flesh to machine. But it’s better than anything that came before it, better, they say, than the human arm it took the place of, an upgrade that overrides the need for things like physical therapy. It’s stronger, reactive, able to give the feedback of its actions to the brain. You can knock against a door and feel the resistance of the wood, delicately pet a kitten without worry of hurting it. Force was never an issue. It’s the reason why you have no trouble rising to a crescendo, distinguishing between forte and pianissimo in the pressure you exert on the keys. Your dynamics have never been better.
Fine motor control is a different story. Holding a pencil, unbuttoning a blouse, zipping up a coat. They aren’t impossible. A little practice has helped you get better. None of these require constant coordination. Not like your music, hands on the piano, pressing down keys in a mixture of muscle memory and improvisation, one hand dancing, one hand talking to the other, one hand asking a question, the other answering, stumbling, stopped.
You’re in the hospital, blinking once, twice, without even realizing that your eyes have opened. Your body feels heavy with a pain that’s been dulled to oblivion and taken you with it. You’re in the hospital. You’re still in the hospital. You don’t know why you’re still in the hospital.
On your right, a voice says, “Hey, Sam, there you are.”
He’s the cliché of the doting lover, sitting beside your bed in a cheap plastic chair, thumbing his phone, waiting for you to wake up. You search for his identity—your emergency contact, your ride home, your partner. Oliver.
“Don’t worry, I’m right here,” he says, and then he moves as if to take your hand, but it isn’t there anymore. “I, uh…the surgeon says he’s really pleased with the outcome. He said you’ll be able to have your first fitting in a week or two.”
Fittings mean concert clothes, elegant suits and dresses, tailored precisely to the shape of your body. Fittings mean dress rehearsals, opening nights and waves of rumbling applause and standing ovations.
“Did you pick up the tickets from the box office?” you mumble. You’re confused. You’ve forgotten about the accident that will keep you from your performance with the orchestra.
Oliver shushes you. “It’s okay, Sam, we can worry about that once you get your arm back.” You’re too groggy to realize the error that he’s made. It isn’t your arm. You don’t get to get it back. “It’s going to be better than your old one,” he says, as if you were upgrading to a new phone. “You won’t even miss it.”
You want to believe him. You don’t.
Four years earlier. Denmark. The Cathedral of Our Lady in Copenhagen. An old and secret room in the old and beautiful building. Before now, you have touched a piano made with ivory keys only a few times in your life, finding one once in an antique store, or at the house of an acquaintance who invited you to a dinner party. This one, however, is the one you remember most fondly. The musical director lets you in on the secret, valued just over a couple hundred thousand, even with its yellowing keys. You are allowed to rehearse here, able to touch the keys made of ivory with your own delicate hands. Ivory is different than the plastic of most keyboards. It’s not as smooth. It provides a better grip on the fingertips, keeps them from sliding off with the sweat of nerves. Sometimes ivory keys are polished to remove the texture, but these still retained the original pattern—parallel lines cross hatched with V’s, the identifying fingerprint of an elephant. You think they are beautiful. You never stop to wonder what the elephant thinks.
At your first checkup after the prosthetic is fitted and attached, you ask your surgeon if you’ll ever be able to play the piano again. He tells you he doesn’t know, he’s never replaced the arm of a classical pianist before, but you should let him know the answer so he can tell the next poor musician that gets their arm mangled up in a car wreck.
You ask, “Are you sure the amputation was necessary?” as if your arm hasn’t already been taken from you, as if what was lost might yet be returned.
He tells you, “The alternative was months of painful physical therapy that might not allow you to play the piano again anyway. You’d still be missing two fingers. I’d say it wouldn’t have been worth the time to fix it. Replacing it is far easier.” He’s almost dismissive, refusing to look up from the clipboard in his hand. He won’t look you in the eye.
“But the physical therapy might have worked?” You have a dangerous and desperate urge to know.
“I stand by the choice I made,” he tells you, because he is the one that made it. He is the one that deemed your arm unsalvageable. “Even if you had been involved in the decision, I’m confident that once you weighed the options the outcome would have been the same.” Then he has you straighten out your arm and rotate your wrist, because the arm is what he is paid to pay attention to, not the body that is attached to it.
“Why did you stop playing?”
It takes you a few seconds to realize that the vibrations of the piano strings have gone silent. Your frustration had been drowning out the lack of noise.
“It was sounding really nice,” he prompts again, and when you don’t answer, he walks over to you from the couch where he was reading. “Sam? Hey, what’s wrong?”
Oliver has caught you looking at your hands again, playing a cruel game of compare and contrast, the lines on your forehead indicative of the indecision in your fingers. You had tried to play a major chord, but the fine motors of your fingers jammed. It came out as a minor chord instead. Minor, something lesser, something incomplete.
“Nothing, I just…the joint jammed. I suppose I’ll have to take it apart and clean it again. There’s a pin that keeps sticking. I keep meaning to order one online. I think it just needs to be replaced.”
The symphony is, of course, devastated by the news of your car accident, and the event coordinator is very understanding. You receive dozens of cards and a few bouquets from your fellow symphony members, and strings are plucked and pulled to push the concert date back in order to accommodate your recovery. The performance is a piano concerto, after all, and you are the pianist at the center of it. The show can’t go on without you.
This is before your conductor visits you in the hospital. Loraine. She can’t hide her wince when she first catches sight of the empty place at your side.
“What . . . what happened?” she says, then tries to recover. “I mean, I heard about the car accident. Sam, dear, I’m so sorry . . . or rather, so glad you’re okay.”
“I’m feeling much better, actually,” you say, because it is the only thing to say. “I’m scheduled for a fitting in a few days.” The words burn your throat as you say them, but Loraine is too busy steadying herself to notice.
“Yes, well, of course. I’m so glad. All of us at the symphony are looking forward to . . . to seeing you on your feet.” Her voice has grown louder in a way that tells you she’s uncomfortable. She leaves a bouquet of yellow tulips on the table and makes a hasty exit. “We’ll keep in touch,” she says, and you try to, but she doesn’t respond for months.
The concert coordinator reaches out instead. Time to heal is one thing, but there is no time for you to regain what was lost. You receive a generous bonus when your contract is severed. Enough to pay for the arm and related maintenance. Not enough to ignore the fact that another pianist has taken your place.
Two decades ago. Your high school music theory class. There’s a three-movement composition called 4’33”—as in four minutes, thirty-three seconds—that your teacher shows you. It’s written for any instrument, or any combination of instruments, even the voice. You listen to it during class, or rather, you don’t listen to it. 4’33” is a piece composed entirely of silence, something about the composer’s desire to invite his audience to listen to the sounds around them and name that as music instead. Sixty-four measures of silence. Sixty-four measures of rest. You think it’s quite whimsical, a bit of rebellion in a musical world of precision. This is before you are forced to play it yourself. This is before you realize how much pain is hidden in the things not spoken.
There’s still pain. It pulses from your shoulder to the tips of fingers that are no longer there. A phantom, a ghost that reminds you of what you once were. It’s the excuse you use when Oliver asks you why you haven’t played the piano in so long, because it’s so much easier to explain that than to tell him that you can’t get it out of your head, the sound of steel knuckles calibrating to the chords, the constant click of your metal fingers on plastic keys, the way that the treble clef never used to tremble so much.
He convinces you to play for him once more. It’s a Saturday night, one that you would have normally spent playing in front of thousands or heading to some pretentious gala with Oliver as your date, just so you could see him in a suit. Instead, he is an audience of one, collecting the empty wine glasses from the table and throwing an endearing request over his shoulder that is far more hopeful than you could ever dare. You pair his optimism with a piece that’s at once sweet and sorrowful, fraught with stuttering staccatos and notes in all the wrong places. Oliver pretends not to notice, busying himself by wiping down the counters, cleaning up after dinner. He knows he makes you nervous now when he watches you, so he offers you support in this way instead, no longer sitting next to you on the piano bench, no longer with an arm around your shoulders. You think this is what you want from him, a passive support that won’t weigh too heavy on your mind when you inevitably let him down, but the clinking of the dishes in the sink is getting on the few nerves you have left. You make one more mistake, and then another, and although you had been determined to make it through this piece, you stop midway through, disgusted and dismayed and all but done with this foreign object you know as your arm. The silence of the piano strings calls Oliver’s attention. He walks over, notes your frustration, tries to calm you down and tells you that he can’t tell the difference.
“Come on, Sam, don’t stop. You were doing so well. Almost like before.”
You don’t want to talk about it. It’s not the first time you’ve tried to. You know how this scene goes. Oliver will keep telling you that your music is beautiful. You will keep trying to believe him. But you’ve rehearsed this before, and it isn’t any more convincing now than it was the first or fourth or tenth time you acted it out. “You can’t really believe that. If you think I’m anywhere near where I used to be before, you must not have been paying attention.”
He shakes his head, then slides next to you on the piano bench, his usual spot. “You know I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just, you’ve come so far, and you’re so hard on yourself that—”
“How do you think I became who I was in the first place?” You stand up and move away from him, partly because you can’t will yourself to be so close to him when he’s lying to you, partly because you want to pace. “All my life it’s been drills of finger exercises and chords and arpeggios and rehearsals, over and over, so that I could be a classical pianist. So that I would never have to do anything else. I wanted to fill Carnegie Hall, to play for thousands, tour Europe. I’ve been to Dublin, Vienna, and twice to Berlin. And now? Nothing. All of that’s been taken from me, and you want me to be happy about it?”
There are a few measures of silence that pass as he waits to make sure you’re finished. “You know that’s not what I mean. I only meant that you can’t expect to be at the place you were before the accident. One of your arms is still learning.”
His calm is something like a blessing, an open valley that catches the winds of your storm and is kind enough not to return them to you. The rage leaks out of your body. You plop down on the couch with your head in your hands, one soft and warm, the other rigidly cold. You look up at him in a last effort to stay angry and gesture to your metal arm. “I don’t want this. I never did. It’s so foreign. It feels so wrong.”
“Don’t think of it like that. You’re exactly the same person you were before you got the new arm,” he says. You know he thinks this is the right thing to say. You know that he is wrong.
You know this because you’ve seen the way he looks at you when you take a screwdriver to the place that was once your ulnar tunnel, adjusting and recalibrating in the way that sometimes requires the whole hand to rotate counterclockwise, the slight grimace that he tries to hide, tinged with alarm and aversion, as if he still isn’t used to this new part of you. So, no, you don’t believe him when he tells you that nothing has changed.
Of course you have changed. You’ve changed in ways you never consented to. Something’s been lost. Taken. Stolen.
You’ve read that some elephant poachers drug their prey before looting their spoils, using tranquilizers to bring the beasts down. It means they aren’t always dead when their tusks are sawed off. Three or four tons of weight, brought to her knees, unable to get up again. She can only watch as she is robbed.
You don’t think of the elephants when you are being wheeled into the operating theater. You think only about your arm, swollen and fractured, pain radiating through every viable nerve. You yell to them, let me keep it, I want to keep it, please don’t take it away. You fight through the drugs, the pain in the rest of your body, to swat at the nurse closest to you. She tells you to hush, and then to shush, and then to quiet, and then she yells at you to shut up. “This is for your own good. You’ll be happy about it when it’s over with. Stop struggling, it’ll all be over soon.”
No, you say, no, please, this isn’t what I want.
“Can we get the anesthesia now? The patient needs to be calmed down.”
There’s a shot in your arm and a ringing in your ears. The room goes dark, but you can still listen. You can still participate. There are sixty-four measures of rest, sixty-four measures of silence, and you play every one of them, over and over and over again.