Skip to content
For literary responses to COVID-19 from writers around the world, check out our Voices from the Pandemic series.
from the June 2020 issue

Six Musical Moments by Schubert

A queer love triangle revolves around the music of Schubert in this short story by Natalia Rubanova.


Intermezzo

Annette sneaks: got to be quiet, quiet as a mouse, a mouse! Careless, better to keep to the left, the left, no pillows there—c u r i o u s: is he really sleeping or just pretending, and if he is, God have mercy, again? Annette tries not to think—not to think about that. Annette knows—there, in the silver Honda, decorating the darkness with all eight—count ’em! eight!—colors of the rainbow, the most ordinary miracle awaits. Oh, damn it, she’s always touching something: but try now, try not to brush against those suitcases from his vacation in the dark—they’re always lying wherever they fall, how many times has she asked . . . and the socks, his socks on the dresser, ugh! . . . Annette pinches her nose and slips into the bedroom, moves toward the bed: “Go to sleep, Mama’s here.” “Mhm.” Mama puts on her fur coat and, trying not to jingle the keys, carefully shuts the door behind her. At the click he awakens and, rubbing his palms together, the foot of the bed is still warm—ah, Annette’s heat, Annette’s warmth—he jumps up and dashes to the window: it seems to him that the tail of the Honda is laughing at him.


. . . so long

I’m sorry, I couldn’t come earlier, he didn’t fall asleep for a long time, and . . .

hell with it

hell with it

you know, I thought, if it weren’t for you, I’d never have learned to tell apart all these shades of black

shades of black?

shades of black: they’re iridescent—they’re glowing, shimmering, playing, do you see?

maybe . . . maybe, yes, I see . . .

I missed you so much

but what can we do about it now?

oh, don’t think about that right now

I can’t, it feels like this obligation is tearing me apart and . . . this feeling . . . this feeling . . .

what feeling? 

you can guess

I want to hear you say it

don’t make me

but I really want . . .

it’s like I’ve grown a second skin . . .


He clutches his head, looks for a lighter, sleeping pills: does Annette really think he’s sleeping, as if he doesn’t hear a c l i c k? Doesn’t she realize he’s silent only because, more than anything, he fears being left without her, warm Annette? What a terrible film, a shitty director . . . Trickery, thy name is woman! He’s forever listing something off to himself: the costs of a good education, long walks on the beach, wining and dining, a sense of humor, providing a stable living situation—that last, of course, is as relative as anything else.

These days he often thinks of their first meeting—and even now, drilling his eyes into the impenetrable darkness out the window, he alights again on that same evening. There’s Annette in her short white skirt, her enviably tanned slender legs, just back from the sea; there’s Annette in her translucent top, her reluctantly concealed chest . . . Annette, of course, at the piano—a f t e r  t h a t she’ll always, always be at the piano: a miraculous instrument, puissant and willful, it does not suffer betrayal, it avenges betrayal. Oh, he knows! He’s run through all of this so many times.


be careful

like I care

you’ll knock the lamp off

like I care

but what if someone looks through the window—

no one’s looking, you silly girl, it’s three in the morning, we’re the only ones, the only ones in all of Moscow

how glorious: the only ones in all of Moscow! come here . . .

look, the snow is falling

it’s for you, it’s all for you

and for you? what’s for you?

you are

you mean, for me

the snowflakes, they’re all for you

me? why can’t we be fair?

because you’re married

you’re not single either

I don’t have a child

come here . . .


That was when he leaned on the piano: “It’s very subtle, the way you feel Schubert.” He suddenly coughed, blushed. “It’s very easy with Schubert to, well, vulgarize him: you can just cross that line where really beautiful pathos ends and sentimentality begins—but who am I talking to, you already know all this yourself.”

 “But it’s always interesting,” Annette smiled. “About sentimentality and pathos—that’s just what it is. But I don’t always get it right. I don’t always get the balance, you know. Anyway, the ‘Six Moments’ is dangerous because only lazy people haven’t tried to play it. But I—I really love it. It’s so enigmatic.”

“Enigmatic?” He coughed.

“Of course. It just seems like it’s simple: but no, it’s terrifically deep, an abyss—and you see something terrifying in it.”

“But you’re looking!” He pulled out a cigarette. “And I’ve never even thought about it. Would you ever play for me? I’d love—I’d love to find myself in that abyss.” He was cut short for a moment. “In the abyss of Schubert—”

“You smoke too much, that’s why you’re coughing.” Annette shook her head: there were little devils in her eyes.

“Where would you go in the abyss . . .”


. . . I have a keyboard at my dacha

you have a dacha? where? you didn’t say

on the Riga highway, it doesn’t matter. well, the main thing is that there’s a keyboard. and you. and I want you to play. and play. and play. naked. by candlelight. a fairy princess

Brahms? Mozart? Hayden? Bach? Scarlatti?

and Schubert, darling, Schubert. you know, these musical moments of his—it seems as though they’re so simple, and at the same time so haunting

Moderato, Andantino, Allegro moderato “air russe,” Moderato, Allegro vivace, Allegretto . . .

precisely

why did you stop playing?

I was twenty, she was

thirty-six: since then I’ve been head over heels

you seem to have a girlfriend . . .

you seem to know everything. I have—you . . .


He accompanied Annette home, kissed her hand, old-fashioned, started to woo her: straight from the nineteenth century, who would have thought that he, well, that Annette—talented, whirling—would fall in love with him like lightning, without a drop of effort. But it would have been hard not to fall in love with her—with her dusky skin, her gypsy hair, the birthmark on her upper lip, her chiseled fingers (her hands, well, they were a whole other topic—he dedicated whole odes to her hands: Annette laughed, scented leaves in a well-kept hatbox). In concerts she was, of course, especially striking: aristocratic, a duchess, a treasure, what else is there? No austere black dress hugged her body, they were daring rainbow gowns, and that scent, that scent filling the hall—the scent of Annette. She smelled of Schubert, yes, with every composer she carried a different scent—what power, what forthright (though hardly conscious) shamelessness in this marked morphing, what eroticism!


He knows. He remembers everything. He still can’t listen to it. The scent of her Schubert.


imagine if that evening had never happened!

do you think we wouldn’t have happened then?

no, we would have happened no matter what, sooner or later—

there is such a thing as “too late,” Annette.

we’ll leave. I’ll take the child, and—

will your hubby survive it?

my hubby? . . . well, he has music. it’ll keep him. it holds us all back from the abyss

why do you talk that way?

because if you disappeared, I’d still have music

I won’t disappear

and that’s so, so much: more than life, more than love

don’t talk like that, you’re scaring me

I’ve already been behind the keys for four years, I can’t breathe without them, they’re drenched in poison, poison . . .

forgive me

no, forgive me . . .


He fumbles with the hem of her concert dress. Surely, just like everyone else, Annette came into the world naturally? From the same gate all humanity springs from? Who is she? And how does she bear her own airs? Annette never showed interest in women—she has friends, men, and some musicians, who all pretend not to be in love with her; it isn’t easy, oh, it’s not easy being friends with the queen! You must keep a respectful distance: don’t, breaking into a sweat, extend invitations to Italy or wherever, don’t offer (what’s next on the list) . . . But: Annette’s music and Annette’s men—But: Annette’s men and Annette’s music—But! Music! Annette! And! Men! Annette!—Oh, there’s enough of her for ten beautiful lives, and she happened to marry him. They were lucky with their nanny—Annette would have been exhausted if she’d had to wipe the snot away from their newborn, no matter how beloved, day in and day out. Despite it all, she performed her new program—the romantics, including their beloved Schubert—four months after giving birth (the word makes Annette wince) brilliantly.


. . . what would you do if you knew that I’d changed you?

you’ve changed as far as the hubby goes

don’t say hubby. anyway, we haven’t slept together in more than a year

why?

cherchez la femme

ah, that’s how we turn from dick to dyke

I don’t like clichés. I don’t like that word

okay

tell me, do tell: what’s it matter what a man has in his pants?

she laughed. ask someone else

no, I’m serious. what’s the difference?

anyway, you—

you don’t love your hubby?

don’t say hubby! no, he annoys me

how?

his views. you have to run, but not to a hotel . . .

run to me

you’ve already run away, can’t you see?

if you hadn’t appeared, I’d have killed my own body

what, what?

there’s no reason to lie

don’t lie

I, well, you see—speaking without emotion, well, I just generally lost the point of it all. that’s why, if you disappeared, I couldn’t go on, that’s all

I’ll be here

just don’t turn your nose up, my queen

what are you talking about, duchess . . .


He weeps. All these years, can it be that Annette has only allowed herself to love herself? Or is it just a phase—her nights out with the fair lady? A stifling lack of thrills? But what does he—he!—give her, besides sounds? When was the last time they were together, or had ever been together? What had they spoken about? What is she missing? What do they need, these princesses? He howls. Impotent rage. Shame is nothing more than convention.


. . . do you know what you smell like?

?

sea foam

and you—you smell like the salt of the earth

like seventh chords

major or minor?

either, but just like seventh chords

and what am I?

you’re second chords

second and seventh are pretty much the same, you just have to change the floors of the notes in some places, and . . .

like that?

killing me softly

yes, yes, there

no, not now

you’ll burst

it’s enough that you—

that I’m strange

no, wait, I’ll think of it. I just need to know one thing—will you love my child?

I already love your child . . .


He sits. Plays. Quietly—and the house of cards comes tumbling down. Five in the morning. All sorts of jackasses bang on the wall: It’s five a.m., man, have a heart! Do you expect us to tolerate your p i a n o? . . . The empty bottle rolls to the radiator. The child, understanding nothing, jumps up from the bed and asks papa, what happened? Papa laughs. Papa has music. It’ll keep him, yes, it’ll keep him. It’s the one thing that will keep him from stringing himself up: Franz Schubert, Six Moments Musicaux, D. 780.


“Шесть музыкальных моментов Шуберта” © Natalia Rubanova. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Rachael Daum. All rights reserved.

Read more from the June 2020 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.