“The Inheritance” by Terez Rose
Opal chanced upon the violin the day she went searching in the attic for her husband Stan’s gun. The attic was awash in clutter. She waded through it all, stubbing her toe on the Christmas tree stand and knocking over a stack of boxes. And in the end, no gun in sight. She sighed and picked up the violin case instead.
She’d inherited the violin—a Stradivarius, a real Stradivarius, according to the stained, yellowing label inside—six months earlier, after Aunt Julia had died. Stan had gleefully speculated about its worth, so she’d taken it to a local violin shop, a dusty little basement store that doubled as a shoe repair. The room was dim and quiet, the smell of leather, polish and varnish unfamiliar but not unpleasant. The violin-maker, or luthier, as his business card read, was a tiny, bent man with the hint of a foreign accent. He appraised the violin, scratching notes on a pad of paper before picking up the violin again and turning it this way and that. Fifteen minutes later, he gave her the news. Made in Europe, yes, but the “Antonius Stradivarius, Cremonensis Faciebat Anno 1719” label affixed inside did not mean, as she and Stan been hoping, that Aunt Julia had left her a Stradivarius.
“Just a copy,” he told her. “This label, it means nothing. Not a forgery, so to speak. Makers did this often, back then, imitating a famous luthier’s style. This looks German, made around 1890. Some flaws in the design, excessive wear here, but a worthy little fiddle, nonetheless.” He made a few more adjustments, tuned it, and returned it to her.
By the time Opal returned home, Stan was already back from work. He was stretched out on the couch, reading the paper, but sat up expectantly when he saw her. His oxford button-down shirt looked as fresh and unwrinkled as when he’d left the house ten hours earlier. She marveled, as always, that time never seemed to touch him. His hair was still dark and thick, the classic angles of his jaw still well-defined with no hint of a jowl. He looked the same as he had on their wedding day, twenty-five years earlier. “What a catch,” her friends had all whispered. Little did they know the catching had been the easiest part.
“So, how much?” he asked her when he saw her carrying the violin case. He stood and rubbed his hands together just like they did in cartoons. All that was missing were the dollar signs in his eyes, now lit up and fixed on her. She savored the moment of being important, of having information he was dying to learn. “Six figures?” he asked when she didn’t reply.
She shook her head.
“Damn. Eighty thousand? No?”
“It’s a copy. But not a bad one.” A note of defensiveness crept up.
“So, what, then? Fifty thousand? Twenty?” His voice grew more terse with each shake of her head. “Well then what, for chrissakes?”
“Two thousand dollars?!” He stared at her, his expression now angry, accusing, as if she’d been part of a plot with Aunt Julia to trick him, to deny him of something due to him. “A lousy two thousand dollars—that was your big inheritance?”
A hard knot of anxiety worked its way up her back and into her shoulders. “I didn’t plan it this way, you know.”
He glared at her, his mouth working as if trying to form the best words. Then he drove his fist into the top cushion of the chintz sofa. He took a deep breath, straightened the pillow and walked over to the violin case, which she’d set on the adjacent Queen Anne chair. He gave the chair a swift kick that sent the violin in its case sliding down. It thumped on the gleaming oak floor, causing the violin inside to ring in protest.
“Stop it!” She swooped down to pick it up. “It’s not the violin’s fault.”
“Sorry,” he said over his shoulder as he walked away. “Not as if I’m damaging some fine antique though.” He shook his head as he leafed through the day’s mail on the side table. “Two thousand bucks. Your Aunt Julia was always a flake. Figures she’d tell you she was leaving you an inheritance and instead give you a tired piece of junk.”
She ignored him and went into the kitchen to make dinner. Later that evening, she tried to play the violin, but the screeches produced were horrific. She could hear Stan snickering in the adjacent room. Deciding she didn’t need one more thing beating her down, she stuck the violin back in its case and left it in the den for days, weeks, until Stan tired of tripping over it and shoved it in the attic.
Now, months later, here was the violin. No gun, just the violin. Clearly this was not her day. Sighing, she abandoned her gun search and left the attic with the violin.
She sat on her bed and opened the case. The violin’s neck was tied down to the base to keep the violin from moving. She frowned and ripped the ties loose. Her hand closed around the violin’s neck as she pulled it out. It felt vulnerable, delicate. She tucked the violin more carefully against her ample body and studied the honeyed wood and smooth varnished surface. Her fingers traced its shape, so like a female torso with its curves and swells, hips sloping out from a narrow waist. Which, in her case, hadn’t been narrow for years and years. Not since before the girls were born and here the two girls were now, off living their own lives, rarely bothering to call because, they argued, nothing new was ever going on in Opal’s life, so why call?
Her babies—her girls. Once they’d been coltish, sweet things, begging for stories and pony toys, looking up at her worshipfully. Now they’d grown into strangers—sleek, exotic ones who communicated by cocking their heads, first at her and then at each other, as if she’d just asked them to explain West African fetishism to her. They’d crossed over during their teens, and now stood on the other side with Stan, treating her not with contempt, but not with love. Instead, with sympathy, impatience. It hurt every time she opened her mouth to speak and she saw their eyes glaze over. Or the way they’d recoil before accepting her hug. “You’ve gotten all squishy, Mom,” they’d say gaily afterwards before sashaying into the living room to look for Stan. She’d stand in the kitchen, stirring gravy that didn’t need to be stirred, listening to their tinkling laughter mixing with Stan’s rich baritone. They weren’t hers anymore. How did she lose that which was supposed to be eternal?
The day after she retrieved the violin from the attic, she brought it down to the living room to keep her company as she cleaned. She liked the way it sat there, quiet and elegant without judging her. She plumped the cushions and dusted the bookshelves, then brought the violin with her into the laundry room, setting it atop a basket of clean clothes. Afterwards, as she carried the basket upstairs, she found herself humming a tune. When she bent to pull the violin out, she heard a light echoing hum that surprised her. She realized it was coming from the violin. She hummed a different note—nothing. She hummed the earlier note and once again came the answering ring in the form of a sympathetic vibration. The violin was speaking to her.
She picked it up, tucking it under her chin the way the luthier had shown her, and hummed a lower note. To her delight, it hummed right back. She tested with other notes from the scales she remembered from her choir years. The violin replied on four of the notes, one note for each of its strings. The middle strings were the most resonant. She reached out tentatively and gave one an experimental pluck. Then she plucked the lowest string. The vibration resonated through the body of the violin and entered her own body. She could feel it against her shoulder and beyond. She lowered the violin and stared at it in wonder.
Opal had sung once upon a time. Beautifully, everyone told her. She’d performed solo at the local Christmas concert three years in a row as a young adult. She’d even considered a career in music performance, but her mother had talked her out of it. “That will never get you a good husband and a family,” she’d warned. She followed her mother’s advice and pursued a degree in child development. But after three academically lackluster years in college, she met Stan and all her professional aspirations flew out the window. Instead, she let the glamour of Stan sweep her along, which it did, for years. His successes, he always told her, were her successes as well. She, in turn, focused on her side of the pact—raise the two girls; provide Stan with a clean, pretty home, a place of refuge after the challenges of work. And everyone seemed happy.
But what was happy, really? Anesthetized better described how Opal felt. All these new baubles and acquisitions Stan brought home that seemed to fulfill him didn’t begin to pierce the wall of grey that had been accruing inside her. It had all been so gradual, she hadn’t even noticed how her spirit had been leached of color. The girls had sucked it out. Paying bills, running errands and managing a household had sucked it out. Placating Stan and trying to live up to his expectations had sucked it out. She’d told herself for years how fortunate she was, how her occasional despondency was a small price to pay for the security and luxury she lived in. She had nothing to complain about, as Stan often told her. Absolutely nothing.
Why, then, did it feel as if she couldn’t draw a full breath—that she hadn’t for years now? She thought back to the days before Stan, when she’d been slim, flirtatious and talented, debating which career would bring her the greatest satisfaction. Life had glittered with promise. Was that simply an illusion that defined youth? Deep down, she’d always assumed the opportunities would return. For the first time, it dawned on her that this might not be the case.
And she couldn’t even blame Stan or the girls. She’d let that bright light inside her languish, like a candle set in a room without oxygen. She looked back on her life and it was like one long two-lane Nevada highway, the kind where you could see for miles and miles, all littered with the detritus of her life. Choices made and opportunities ignored. All for her family, she’d told herself. Being selfless was a noble endeavor. But this was what being selfless had given her—a husband who looked through her; two beautiful girls who eyed her in unease as if the heaviness and washed-away looks that had afflicted their mother might be contagious. And no singing. No music at all in her heart.
She looked deeper inside herself, where she’d made a practice of never going. She looked and saw that the light had gone out. Only a black abyss remained. That was when she’d gone looking for the gun. And instead found the violin.
The next day, following her success at plucking the violin strings, she decided to try with the bow again. The luthier had shown her how to first tighten it so the horsehair was taut, and then run the bow over the strings at a perpendicular angle. It made the expected horrible scratching sounds, but this time she didn’t give up. She adjusted the angle of her elbow, the bend of her wrist, lowering her shoulders a bit, coaxing the sound out. Finally she hit the bow against the strings just right and the instrument sang out. The lowest string was rich and deep, the musical equivalent of a cup of hot chocolate. The highest string was like a child’s laughter—light, silvery and laced with something otherworldly that made her throat contract.
Three days she did this. Every day her spirit lifted.
Then one morning when she was changing out of her nightgown, she caught a glance of herself in the mirror. Instead of looking away like she usually did, she paused to examine her naked body. Heavy, yes. Sagging breasts, a pillowy stomach, hips bursting out. But a waist—still a bit of a waist. Like the violin. On impulse, she took the violin from its case and brought it over to the bed.
She lay down, set the violin on her belly and put her hands on either side of its little violin hips. It felt so perfect, so smooth and beautiful. Then she put her hands on her own much bigger hips and realized with shock that they too were beautiful. Perfect, for their size. Something inside her seemed to unlock and realign to this startling new reality. Her body was beautiful. Not in spite of how it looked, but because of it. The flicker of warmth inside her grew stronger. She began to cry, little whimpers at first that made the violin list and tremble on her belly, then loud, wracking sobs that prompted her to lift the violin from her belly and lay it beside her on the bed, where it would be safe. But even there, it seemed to give off its own luminosity and warmth, a silent support that made the tears flow harder.
She lay there for some time, until the tears finally ran their course. She hiccupped a few times, and then, unfathomably, she began to laugh. Chuckles at first, that developed into big belly-shaking howls of glee. She sat up and looked over at the violin. Clever Aunt Julia. Wickedly clever old woman. She’d seen a lot more than Opal had ever given her credit for. She’d given Opal something Stan wouldn’t be able to claim, or even understand.
Opal knew then that she’d call the violin shop and ask about teachers for struggling adult beginners. Stan and the girls would be baffled by her interest. They’d shake their heads, snort and whisper among themselves that Mom had really gone off the deep end this time. They’d make her feel bumbling and undignified. But it no longer mattered. This time she had the inheritance on her side.
©2006 Terez Rose
This short story first appeared at Espresso Fiction in 2006. Reprinted with permission by the author.