Igor paces the floor of his study in time to the music in his mind. His head is bowed and he hums to himself in a low, barely audible tone. His steps register the rise and fall of a rhythm that haunts his skull. Then he sits down to transcribe this inner music, to seize and hold it fast.
Setting himself limits, restrictions, constraints, he finds, is the best way of achieving imaginative solutions. Total freedom, the absolute permission granted by the blank page, most often proves a freedom merely to jump in the ocean. He needs something to jib against, the equivalent of a net in tennis: something to hit the ball over. With the Symphonies of Wind Instruments he has set himself this obstacle of writing simultaneously in different time signatures, of juggling synchronous yet dissonant rhythms. He tries, in writing it, not to control the direction of the piece too much, but rather to pursue lines that suggest themselves and see how they turn out.
He has become interested lately in the tension between chancy, pell-mell elements and more conventionally orchestrated compositions. There seems to him a kind of accidental beauty in the simultaneous sounding of adjacent chords that he wants to explore further. He sees in the pattern of black and white keys potential chords, melodies unplayed, previously unreachable harmonies suddenly heaving into view. He tries to capture and transpose them, trusting his impulse to follow them through.
He likes to start with the bass and build upward. He plays phrases at different speeds regulated by the metronome. He superimposes arpeggios in C major and F sharp. White and black notes. Tonic and dominant chords. Major and minor both in the same register. A hum is set up in his head. A polytonal sympathy. It resonates like a vivid patch of paint upon a wall. He can almost see the shape of it, vibrating like a stain on the retina once his eyes are closed. He strives to align the noise inside his mind with the sounds available on the keyboard. Determined to make it fit, he scribbles notes on the stave. For a few minutes, there seems an absolute correspondence between these inner and outer sounds.
Then a strange thing happens. He feels his existence beginning to take shape according to an unseen pattern of keys. He remembers the celestial insect hum he heard in the garden, and he stops to ponder to what extent his life here is given and preordained—like the scrolls of music for mechanical piano. Abruptly he feels weightless, as if manipulated by the tricky fingering of something outside himself.
He writes furiously. He can’t fill in the bars fast enough. The act of composition takes him over. For a man so used to controlling every detail of his life, this is a strange sensation. The impulse overwhelms him, and a buoyancy enters his body at the unstoppable flow of notes. He feels his head grow hot. The thin skin of his ears burns.
Finished, he sits back with exhaustion. But he wants to look over what he has done. Examining it, he’s excited. Is he deceived? Is this not brilliant? His instinct is to sound out Catherine. She’s usually the first to see his work. She’s his best and fiercest critic, his finest copyist. He can always rely on her for an honest opinion. He itches to know what she might think. Would she like it? Would she approve? But he realizes he can’t ask her. It would be an insult to give her something so clearly illustrative of his vigor. To offer this up now as an example of how he’s thriving would serve only to sharpen her suffering. It would be like presenting the nude portrait of another woman and asking, What do you think?
Igor rolls a cigarette, registering the taste of tobacco on his tongue. Lighting it, his eyes are blinky for an instant from the smoke. He glances at the portraits of his children on the desk and at an oval frame containing an early picture of Catherine. The photographs and their fervid details seem remote studies in happiness, images from a previous life.
Since the revelation of his infidelity, she seems to have withdrawn almost completely into herself. She no longer comes down to lunch or dinner. If she takes turns about the garden, she does so alone. Ceasing to heap insults upon him, she now suffers noiselessly, choosing to turn away when he enters the room. She has stopped crying, too, he has noticed. Emotionally bankrupt, she no longer has the resources even to make a scene. A new mute hardness has entered her features. A look of numbness beyond sorrow. For the moment she has become a ghost.
Down the corridor, the clattering preparations for lunch are under way. It’s odd not hearing the children, he thinks, now they are at school. The house is so quiet without them.
Igor thinks back to his own childhood. He recalls long walks in the woods outside St. Petersburg with his brother, the clinging haze of summer mornings, the clouds of midges by the river. Though similarly dimmed, his recollections prompt within him a moment of deep melancholy, a recognition of profound loss. Like a wrong color, there is something about his memories that chafes with the tone of his present locale. The tension generates a noise within his head. And there it is—that burning sensation again. Recognizing the moment, he grabs a pen and begins to scribble, launching himself into a last half hour of work before lunch. His hand can’t keep up with his head, and he feels a welt develop on his finger from gripping the pen so tight.
In the afternoon, Coco strolls with Igor about the garden. The children won’t return for another couple of hours.
She says, “Doesn’t it bother you that we don’t hold hands?”
“What makes you ask that?”
“It just occurred to me—we never do.”
“Does it bother you?”
“I don’t know. I’ve only just realized.” A scent of cut grass lingers in the air, a polleny burden that scrapes against her sinuses and almost makes her sneeze. “It might.”
He says, “I’m not sure I’d like it much if we did.”
“We’re beyond that stage, now.”
“No one should be beyond that stage.”
“No, I mean, ours isn’t a boy-girl kind of love. It’s mature. We have an affinity deeper than man and wife. I feel it.”
“Deeper than cousins?”
They come to a curve in the lawn. “All right,” he says.
“I suppose it would be unseemly for your wife to see us holding hands . . .”
“That has nothing to do with it.”
“Don’t be absurd.”
“Why is it absurd? Aren’t you worried she’ll find out?”
“Find out? What if I tell you she already knows?”
Coco halts. Stunned, she turns to face him. “She knows? How? Did you tell her?”
He does not meet her eye. “In a roundabout way, yes.”
He feels her looking at him. “Why not?”
“I can’t believe you told her.”
“Who else would I tell?”
“Well, you didn’t tell me you’d told her.”
“You didn’t consult me before you told Misia.”
“It’s not a game, Igor.”
Realizing he has some ground to recover, he blurts, “Look, how can you question the fact that I love you?”
They begin walking again. “I just wish you were more honest with me, that’s all.”
“I adore you,” he says. “You know that.”
As though to prove his point, Igor, in the open, kisses the nape of Coco’s neck. Her perfume rises into his nose. He feels the heady familiar ache of longing that has haunted his body all summer.
He has been more attentive of late, she concedes. He’s taught her a few things on the piano, written her ardent notes, and given her drawings of the two of them together. But she knows it is also his way of trying to take control. And she must guard against that. She wants to keep the upper hand.
“Anyway,” she says, “there’s something I need to tell you.”
“Something that concerns us both.”
“My period is a week late.”
His heart freezes. “Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure.”
“Is that unusual?”
“I’m regular as clockwork.”
His next step seems not to land, but to go on falling. His color drains through a hole in the center of himself.
“Does it alarm you?”
“I don’t know.”
He offers, “Catherine is often late.”
A note of protest rises in her throat. “Well, I’m not, as a rule.”
“Do you feel any different?” He stays her with his hand. “Catherine always said she felt strange. Something chemical. Her breasts used to be tender and sore. She felt tired. That’s how she knew.”
“I don’t feel that way.” Come to think of it, though, maybe she does.
“What are we going to do?”
“There’s nothing to do. Yet.”
A fear is touched off in him. “Have you tried taking hot baths?”
“I always do.”
“I mean scalding.”
“And what if I want a baby? Have you considered that?” She thinks of the times she spent trying with Boy, all to no avail. She hasn’t so far contemplated it with Igor. Now that it might happen, though, and she hears herself discussing it, she quite likes the idea. She feels a sense of pride in her possible fertility. Her view of the garden, giving on to the plum and cherry trees, seems projected from within. She says, “You’re not happy about this, are you?”
The sunlight dyes the insides of his eyelids red—a willed counterpoint to her refusal to bleed.
She withdraws sharply at his question. She’s not sure what she thinks. And what’s that burny feeling in her abdomen, or is she just imagining it? “No,” she offers solemnly. “But I’d like to be there when you tell Catherine about this!”
He can’t find the breath to answer. In front of him on the lawn, he sees a green ball covered in dog’s slobber and a shuttlecock stripped of all but one feather. The unsayable fills the next few seconds. There’s a cacophony from the parrots in the outhouse. Blameless clouds float high above his head.
Walking back into the house, a coolness washes over them. The heat leaks from their skin and clothes.