Her painted melody
Written by Candace Davis
Clara Poulain really was, quite possibly, the most enchanting pianist on earth. A flowery, petite and curious young woman, she was as humble as she was pleasant. If anything could drive Clara from her 88 ivory-keyed, black-polished grand piano, it lie undiscovered. I am convinced she really believed music coursed through her veins, propelled her heart, nourished her brain.
For an hour or more that afternoon she sat––her content, delicate profile outlined against the sunlit wall––and illustrated the pitter-patter of rain falling. Her body moved with the tempo and, finishing on Middle C, she inhaled the stale, woody scent of the instrument.
“Suppose,” she questioned her mother with hunger, “that I received an acceptance letter this afternoon. Under what conditions would it be?”
Esme Poulain placed the teacup on its matching saucer, the floral motif an enduring reminder of her motherland. Her lip quivered, her pulse hastened, she could not choose the words with which to convey her sorrow. The acceptance of a girl like Clara to study music was unlikely.
“Clara, honey, go and get dressed, grand-mére will be here soon.”
Esmelightly kissed her daughter’s forehead.
“Tea mére, grand-mére?”
“Yes please darling,” her grandmother replied, her accent emphasising the ‘ling’.
Her mother held up a hand as if to say “me too!”
Clara flicked the switch on the jug, checked the light was on, and fetched the créme biscuits. Every Friday, for as long as she could remember, her grandmother would visit for afternoon tea. Both Clara and Esme relished these moments;the three girls, or “les troisfilles” as her grandmother would affectionately say, together again.Clara lived with the belief that the war had stolen her grandfather’s soul and left Elise Poulain,a young emigrant widow, with a fatherless infant Esme. The truth was a more difficult tale to tell, thus it remained unspoken.
Elise was elegant and handsome, the way French women tended to be. She walked with her head held high, her arms moving gracefully and her strides elongated. She turned heads, especially when wearing heels, but Elise didn’t wear them much any more, she was at an age where heels were best shelved in her memories not her closet. There were many memories best left in Elise’s closet, and most of them were men.
Men. Elise was born into a wealthy Parisian family, to an unkind mother and an absent father. At 17, she ran away with Claude, a lowly stable hand who worked for her family. They fell deeply in love but he was soon killed in the war––soft, innocent men like Claude didn’t return from such brutality.
A pitiable widow, unwilling to return to home, Elise found work as a nurse and soon married Jean, a returned soldier. She herself had healed Jean’s bodily wounds, but there was a darkness deep inside and he soon became cruel. To escape his malice, Elise returned to her music, the piano, and quickly began an affair with her deaf music teacher, a migrant from Germany, aptly nicknamed Ludwig.
Ludwig would play her Für Elise after they made love, which may have only transpired twice a week but, alas, it was enough for her to fall pregnant. She prepared to raise a child with another monster for a father, cursing her blunder, when Jean was called to war, for a second time. France desperately needed troops, damaged or not. And this time Jean didn’t make it. Elise was relieved.
She had distanced herself from Ludwig; he wasn’t interested in raising a child. Esme was only an infant but Elise was determined to emigrate. More than ever before, she knew it was time to leave men behind, for good.
The war within had taken Clara’s father. His disappearance, when she was also only an infant,fated these two exceptionally brave women to her upbringing. They guided her musicianship and encouraged her practice. She often said it was her grandmother’s genes and her mother’s means that gave her the opportunity to touch humanity through music. These two remarkable women––alike in posture, values and their obstinate faith in Clara––were her world, her sanity, her home.
“Have you any news Clara?” her grandmother enquired.
“No,” she looked away to abate the tears of disappointment.
“I check every afternoon, but I regret there has been no letter.”
“Well, you must continue to wait ma chérepetite-fille…donner le temps.” Give it time my dear granddaughter, she said in her own, very French, way.
Give it time.
Clara had applied to study at the Conservatoire de Paris––upon her grandmother’s suggestion––but acceptance was unlikely and forlorn hope grew inside of her each passing day.
“Go and play a tune ma chére, you will cheer us all up,” her grandmother encouraged.
Clara chose Für Elise, one of Beethoven’s most popular compositions. Although no one knew exactly who Elise really was, Clara imagined the source of each sound as she played… the curl of her hair, her crescent lips, the tilt of her neck. The true beauty of life was seen when a pianist played from the heart.She turned to see her grandmother, eyes closed, softly consumed by the melody and, unknown to Clara or Esme, the memory.
Clara often wondered what it would be like to truly receive her music. Was it really as beautiful as these two, impossibly charitable, women allowed her to believe? She continued to play––imagining the things upon which she painted with the brush of every key––unable to hear neither a note nor the sound of the postman delivering her fate.