Named a must-read by the Chicago Tribune, O Magazine, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and The L Magazine
Named one of the best short story collections of 2015 by Bookpage and Kansas City Star
Rebecca Makkai’s first two novels, The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House, have established her as one of the freshest and most imaginative voices in fiction. Now, the award-winning writer, whose stories have appeared in four consecutive editions of The Best American Short Stories, returns with a highly anticipated collection bearing her signature mix of intelligence, wit, and heart.
A reality show producer manipulates two contestants into falling in love, even as her own relationship falls apart. Just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a young boy has a revelation about his father’s past when a renowned Romanian violinist plays a concert in their home. When the prized elephant of a traveling circus keels over dead, the small-town minister tasked with burying its remains comes to question his own faith. In an unnamed country, a composer records the folk songs of two women from a village on the brink of destruction.
These transporting, deeply moving stories—some inspired by her own family history—amply demonstrate Makkai’s extraordinary range as a storyteller, and confirm her as a master of the short story form.
—O, The Oprah Magazine
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Rebecca Makkai’s work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Harper’s, Tin House, McSweeney’s, and Ploughshares, and has been read on NPR’s Selected Shorts and This American Life. She is the author of two novels: The Borrower, a Booklist Top Ten Debut, an Indie Next pick, an an O, The Oprah Magazine selection; and The Hundred-Year House, wihch won the Chicago Writers Association's Book of the Year Award and was named a Best Book of 2014 by Bookpage, PopSugar, Chicago Reader, and more. The recipient of a 2014 NEA Fellowship, Makkai lives in Chicago and Vermont.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
THE SINGING WOMEN
The composer, with his tape recorder, crossed the barricades at night and crawled through the hills into the land his father had fled. Between the clotheslines, three cottages were still inhabited. Three old women still tended gardens and made soup and dusted—once a month—the trinkets of those killed. Once a month, they made their way through empty houses, empty streets, empty stores, empty churches. Once a month, they spoke the names of the dead.
The composer surprised the three women by speaking their dialect, knowing their words for spoon and daffodil and hat. At first they feared he’d been sent by the dictator as a spy—yet who but the son of a native son would know the story of the leaf child, the rhyme about the wolf maiden?
He lived with them a week and recorded (this had been his purpose) their songs, of which they were the world’s last three singers. A song of lamentation, a song of mourning, a song of protest and despair. They had forgotten the song for weddings.
Back safe across the border, the composer set scores around the songs, made records of string instruments wailing behind the women’s voices. He was fulfilled: He had preserved, before its last breath, their culture.
When the dictator learned of the record, he became enraged. Not over the songs (what was a lamentation, to a dictator?) but over the evidence of life in a village he had been assured was wiped out in its entirety.
One October morning, he sent his men to finish the job.
(But I’ve made it sound like a fable, haven’t I? I’ve lied and turned two women into three, because three is a fairy tale number.)
THE WORST YOU EVER FEEL
When the nine-fingered violinist finally began playing, Aaron hid high up on the wooden staircase, as far above the party as the ghosts. He was a spider reigning over the web of oriental rug, that burst of red and black and gold, and from his spider limbs stretched invisible fibers, winding light and sticky around the forty guests, around his parents, around Radelescu the violinist. There were thinner strands, too, between people who had a history together of love or hate, and all three ghosts were tied to Radelescu, to his arcing bow. But Aaron held the thickest strings, and when he thought, breathe, all the people breathed.
After dinner, his mother had not nodded him up to his toothpaste and away from the drunken conversations as she had when he was nine, ten, eleven, and Aaron wondered whether she’d forgotten in the wine and noise, or whether this was something new, something he could expect from now on. To be safe he’d changed to pajama pants and a white T-shirt, so he could claim he’d come down for water. He remembered to muss his hair, staticky enough on its own but now a halo of rough brown in the bedroom mirror. Through the balusters, he watched the man and his violin duck in and out of the yellow cone of light that fell from the lamp above the piano. Yesterday morning, Aaron’s mother had brought Radelescu a plate of scrambled eggs with parsley and toast as he sat at the bench, slowly picking out the chords of the accompaniment and marking the score. Tonight, she played the accompaniment for him.
Aaron guessed that by moving in and out of the light, Radelescu was blinding himself to the room, to the eager faces and cradled wineglasses of the greedy listeners. Now, as the old man began to play faster, Aaron felt tired, and he needed the bathroom, but he didn’t want to move himself from the wooden step and away from the music. His throat had been sore all day, glue and needles, but now he was able to forget that. He squinted to see the stump of Radelescu’s chopped-off finger, to see if he held the bow differently than other people, but the arm moved too fast.
Behind Radelescu, leaning against the fireplace, Aaron’s father rolled the cup of his empty wineglass back and forth between his hands, eyes closed. Aaron’s father was the luckiest man in the world. Exhibit A: He’d been rescued from drowning three different times. Exhibit B: The third time was by an American pianist much younger than he was, a woman so beautiful he married her and she became Aaron’s mother. Exhibit C: He left the university, and Iaşi, and Moldavia, and all of Romania on June 20, 1941, nine days before the start of the Iaşi pogrom. Exhibit D: He left because he had won a scholarship to Juilliard and it took a long time to cross the ocean in an ocean liner, especially in the uncertain time of war, and once you’ve gone to Juilliard you have connections, and connections are what matter in life, even more than talent.
Aaron could not hear much difference between this music and that on Radelescu’s last record, the one from 1966 with no cover. The man had aged twenty-four years since then, and this perhaps accounted for the small moments of shakiness, the vibratos that warbled on the far side of control. He was old. The hair stuck out from his head in white, wavy lines. The wrinkles on his face were carved deep, and the ones across his forehead were as wavy as his hair. Radelescu spoke only a little English, and Aaron spoke no Romanian at all, so at dinner the night before, Aaron and his mother had sat quietly while the two men spoke. Occasionally, Aaron’s father would translate something for them, but it was only about the concert preparations or the delicious food. Later, when Radelescu overheard Aaron talking to his mother about the book report due Monday, the old man began to laugh. Aaron’s father translated that he was amused to hear a child speak English so quickly and so fluently. And so all day today, Aaron had tried to speak faster and louder and use longer words. “Pathetic,” he had said at lunch, and “electrocution” and “cylinder.” When Radelescu asked to borrow Aaron’s rosin for his own bow, Aaron had said, “Indubitably.”
In the afternoon, Aaron had gone with the two men to the Jewel-Osco. He assumed they were there to pick up some last things for the party, but then they simply went and stood in the middle of the produce section. They stood a long time by the bins of different apples, pointing at mushrooms and grapefruits and bananas and speaking Romanian. Radelescu was happy, but there was something else on his face, too, and Aaron tried to read it. Devastation, maybe. When a lady passed with her plastic basket, Aaron pretended to investigate the tomato display. Finally they got a cart and began to walk through the aisles, grabbing olive oil, seltzer, five kinds of cheese. They returned to the produce section, where Aaron’s father put five bunches of green onions in the cart and handed Radelescu a bright tangerine. Radelescu said something, laughed—and then, pressing his mouth to the orange skin, kissed the fruit.
Aaron could feel now that the people in the room below were breathing less, as if afraid to propel the old man back to Romania on the wind of their exhalations.
And no, he could not actually see the three ghosts with their violins—the three students who died in 1941—but he knew where they would be and he traced their flight with his eyes, over the crowd, around the light, against the ceiling. Until he was ten, whenever Aaron was sick or bleeding, his father would say the same thing: “May this be the worst pain you ever feel.” By which he meant: “This is nothing. American boys will never receive thin-papered letters by airmail that their mother, father, two sisters, one brother, grandparents, uncles and aunts, thirteen cousins, have all been killed. You do not know suffering.”
But that changed two years ago, when they all went to West Germany before his father’s concert in Bonn. It was the closest Aaron had ever been to Romania, though now that things were suddenly different his father promised a trip before the year was out. As they pulled their luggage through the streets of Bonn, jet-lagged, Aaron had felt a spook, a chill, something that made him want to run, and, half-asleep, almost dreaming, he dropped his backpack to break off around the corner and down an alley until he came to a kind of park. He couldn’t feel his legs. He had run toward the chill, he realized, not away from it. He did not picture dead bodies, he did not see ghosts or hear voices, but he felt something terrible and haunted, the skin-crawl of being alone in a house and pressing your back to the wall so nothing can get behind you. When his father caught him hard by the arm and asked what he was doing, Aaron said, “This is where all the people died.” He didn’t mean it, didn’t believe it, but these words were the only way he could express his strange nausea, the feeling that he was surrounded by graves. His eyes must have looked scared and honest enough, because when they finally found the hotel, his mother asked the old, long-nosed concierge the history of the square. “Yes, yes, there was a synagogue,” he said. “A terrible massacre. This is 1096, almost a thousand years.” And his parents looked at each other, and his father said something in German to the concierge, and his mother’s face became lighter than her hair. Aaron was as shocked as his parents, and he spent the rest of the trip wondering whether this was luck, maybe inherited from his father, or a real vision he just hadn’t known enough to trust fully.
He tried every day now to focus on the things he felt but couldn’t see. It made him even odder to his classmates, he knew, the way he’d sometimes close his eyes in history class, concentrating. He tried to sit in the back row whenever he could. It was people’s sadness, mostly, that he attempted to feel, the ghosts that surrounded them, the place where a finger used to be but no longer was. He imagined pain traveling through the air on radio waves. If he positioned himself in a room and concentrated and listened, he could catch it all.
Since then, his father had not belittled his fevers or broken bones. Aaron knew his father suspected that he was haunted, that he saw ghosts and fires and the evils of the world, past, present, future. He would ask Aaron sometimes what he was thinking, wait for the answer with squeezed eyebrows. He would sit by his bed on nights Aaron couldn’t sleep.
But Aaron was half a liar. When he felt something—for instance, that a woman on the train was sick—he wouldn’t say it aloud until later, when there was no way his parents could ask if she needed help. It was something his mother would probably do, go up to a stranger like that. Most times, he never found out himself whether he was right or wrong. And he didn’t want to know, because if he were wrong even once or twice he’d stop trusting himself. For the same reason, when his father asked him for lottery numbers, he just shook his head. “But think!” his father would say. “With my luck and your psychic powers!” It was the only time he joked about it. When he told the story of Bonn at parties, as he had tonight, it was with reverence. He called Aaron “our little rabbi,” but he wasn’t poking fun.
The six best things about parties were: (1) having so many people to spy on; (2) the job of opening the door for guests and waiting for the curbs to fill with parked cars until yours was the house everyone passed and said, “Oh, they must be having a party tonight!” (3) pastries; (4) the old Romanian men who always brought chocolates, including ones filled with coconut; (5) watching people get drunk and seeing if any ladies tripped in their high heels; and (6) the music.
Radelescu stopped, and people clapped. Aaron decided to pay more attention to the next piece, to follow the music itself rather than what it made him think of. This might be impossible, he knew, to hear only the notes and not daydream or invent pictures. Aaron owed the habit to his first violin teacher, Mrs. Takebe, who insisted that every piece tells a story. As he practiced, he invented quite elaborate ones: One sonata was about a Chinese spy. Another told of a man who had lost his wife in an art gallery and spent the rest of his life looking for her hidden in the paintings.
Aaron knew that no one in the room, least of all himself, could listen without dwelling on Radelescu’s missing finger, on how he’d almost starved to death, on how he’d kept his arms strong in prison. And so a minute in, he gave up focusing on the music alone. Instead he willed himself to feel, more than anyone else in the room, the old man’s memory. This piece will tell the story of his life, he decided, and he tried to understand each note as a separate moment, to hear the thoughts Radelescu himself pulled into them.
Aaron’s father had told him about the university in Iaşi, the oldest in Romania, where the young Radelescu had taught only two semesters before quitting in a rage, setting up his own studio in a decrepit two-story building behind campus. He’d brought many students with him, including Aaron’s father, who secretly left the university grounds for lessons three times a week. Soon a piano teacher joined him, and the place was full of music. Wherever in the thin-walled building you took your violin, you could still hear the piano. And so the two teachers began to specialize in duets, because what else could you do? Aaron imagined that the building smelled old, that mildewed rugs covered the floors, but that the piano was impeccably tuned. His father had always spoken of the two teachers in one breath: Radelescu and Morgenstern and their famous music factory. Morgenstern, he said, had fingers like tree branches and legs like a stick insect’s. When he reached for notes, the piano looked as small as a child’s tin keyboard. Next to Radelescu’s old records on the shelves were several of Morgenstern’s: 1965, 1972, 1980, 1986. Aaron liked flipping through the jackets in chronological order to watch the man’s hair go from brown to gray to white and to see his jowls slowly drop.
The music factory’s star violin student had been Aaron’s father, and on the last day before he set off for America, they’d had a party with a small cake. They must have known there was danger around them. There had been pogroms in other Romanian towns. Aaron imagined a stack of newspapers sitting on the lid of the piano, largely ignored. They might have put the little cake right on top of the papers. They might have said, “Be careful on your journey.” No one would need to say why.
The piece ended—softly—before Aaron could continue the story. No one clapped this time. They sighed and nodded and closed their eyes. Aaron hoped the next piece would be full of noise and minor keys so he could feel how Iaşi had turned on itself, how the Iron Guard had rampaged for nine days through the town, finding every Jew. It was worse than Nazis, because these were people they had trusted. Some of Radelescu’s old students would have been among them. Aaron could not picture the Guard without imagining men in suits of armor, even though his father had corrected this notion long ago.
But the next piece was quiet and tense, and so instead Aaron imagined the inside of the music school, where, when the pogrom began, Radelescu, Morgenstern, and six students barricaded themselves. Four of the students were Jewish. Both teachers were. Around him in the room, Aaron felt the swaying of the forty-two people who were not Radelescu, and he fel...
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