The Lost Bride
A short story by John B. Kachuba
Looking in the mirror as she brushed her hair, Louise thought she saw David behind her. She turned with a start only to find herself alone. Again. Eighteen months after his heart attack it was still difficult for her to believe he was gone, still difficult to hear only her voice in the rooms of their condo at the Belvedere. But David was gone, cremated, his ashes scattered to the winds from atop Mt. Desert in Acadia where they had honeymooned almost thirty years ago. Was it that long?
Her buzzing cell phone interrupted her thoughts. “Hello? Yes, Nola, just a few minutes. I’ll be right down.”
Louise sighed. She and Nola Matthews had been friends for quite some time and she knew that Nola meant well. At fifty-four, Nola did not let her divorce eight years ago keep her down. If anything, she was more energetic and fun-loving, more of a social butterfly than she had been when married to that alcoholic husband of hers. But Louise had never been like Nola and now, with David gone, she was even less inclined to go out, to socialize. But Nola insisted, so now and then Louise relented and let herself be dragged out for the evening. This was one of those evenings. As the elevator opened in the lobby she plastered on her best smile.
Nola and another friend, Renee, stood by the doorman’s desk and greeted her with enthusiastic smiles of their own.
“You look great, Louise,” Renee said. “Doesn’t she look great, Nola?”
Twelve years younger than Louise, if anyone looked great it was Renee LaCosta with her LA Fitness body and stylishly-cut hair.
But Nola answered, “Yes, she does.”
“Please girls,” Louise said, “no platitudes tonight, okay?”
“You’re the boss,” said Renee, as they walked to her car.
“I’m not the boss of anything. So, tell me again where we’re going.”
“To the symphony,” said Nola. “Remember?”
Louise shrugged and looked out the window as they headed downtown. She didn’t care where they were going. Even the soaring edifice of Cincinnati Music Hall failed to rouse her. After all, she and David had attended performances there many times before. In fact, they had been season ticket holders, but that was then and this was now.
“You know, they say that the place is haunted,” Renee said, as they entered the lobby.
“Oh, come on,” said Nola.
“No, really. There used to be a potter’s field here in the old days. A place where they buried the John Does and homeless people in the old days. Workers dug up a bunch of human bones when they built the place and, apparently, threw them all around and trashed them. That’s supposed to be why there are ghosts here.” She looked around the lobby as if expecting to see one of its spectral residents.
“I hope you don’t tell such stories to your daughter,” Louise said.
“Are you kidding? Maggie’s the one that told me the story.”
Nola said, “The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
A piece by Mozart began the performance, a piece Louise must have heard a thousand times before. She found herself wondering halfway through the performance if she had remembered to feed her cat Celine before she left for the evening.
The second half of the performance surprised Louise. The orchestra played Franz Schubert’s “Symphonie Inachevée.” It occurred to her that despite the many concerts she and David had attended there, she had rarely heard a Schubert composition. Why was that? She settled back in her seat and decided to give the music a chance.
She was not prepared for what Schubert’s music did to her. Washing over her like an enchanted sea, she felt a stirring in her heart that she thought had vanished forever with David’s death. But here it was again. She could not explain how or why she reacted so strongly, so viscerally to Schubert’s music. All she knew as she sat in that darkened concert hall was that the music touched her in a way she didn’t think possible.
Afterwards, as the three women sat in a nearby coffeehouse, she spoke effusively about the Schubert symphony. She could hear the lightness in her voice, something she had not heard in quite some time and it surprised her. She was sure that her friends noticed it as well.
Back at the Belvedere she thanked her friends once again for taking her to the concert and she realized that she truly meant it. She opened the door of her condo even as the notes of Schubert’s symphony echoed in her head. Celine greeted her by rubbing up against her legs. Louise was relieved to find that, yes, she had fed the cat.
“So, Celine, Mommy can function just fine, thank you very much.”
Over the next week, as she taught her composition and rhetoric class at the university, she found herself now and then humming snatches of that Schubert symphony. She had been able to sleepwalk through her classes over the last eighteen months, teaching by rote. They kept her occupied but there had been little joy in them. Now, the Schubert melody running through her mind made those hours in the classroom less onerous. When she saw a newspaper ad for a Schubert performance in Dayton she called Nola and asked her if she would like to go.
“Now, this is a change,” Nola said. “You calling me. I think I might be getting symphonied out, but okay. For you, I’ll go.”
Renee’s daughter was sick at home with one of the myriad nasty infections kids pass around at school so it was only the two of them that attended the concert. The orchestra performed Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” and once again, the music hit Louise like an adrenalin shot to the heart.
A week later Nola let herself into Louise’s condo at the Belvedere. Louise was attending a weekend conference and Nola had volunteered to take care of Celine, a task she had done often in the past.
Celine watched her from the back of the couch while Nola set out water and food.
“What have we here?” she said to the cat. She stood by the coffee table and picked up three CDs, all Schubert. A weighty biography of the composer also rested on the table, a bookmark stuck halfway through it. “It looks like Mommy has a new hobby.”
Shortly after her return Louise called Nola.
“Yes, Celine was a perfect lady. No problems,” Nola said.
“I’m glad to hear that. Thanks again.”
“By the way, I noticed the book about Schubert. Are you enjoying it?”
“Oh, yes! Such an interesting man. Did you know he was only thirty-one when he died?”
“No, I didn’t.” She waited for Louise to drop the other verbal shoe with some morbid comment about dying too young, about David dying too young, but she did not.
“Yet in that brief lifetime he composed over one thousand pieces. Isn’t that amazing?”
“Yes, that is impressive.”
“Unfortunately, his work didn’t become widely popular until after his death. Poor Franz.”
Nola laughed. “Poor Franz?”
“Yes. He had only a relatively small circle of admirers in Vienna. His genius went unnoticed by the rest of the world.”
“Okay, then. Poor Franz.”
Only a few months after the Schubert concert at Music Hall Louise seemed a new woman; livelier and more energetic. It didn’t take long for Nola and Renee to notice the change in their friend.
“You look fabulous,” Renee said, as the three friends met for dinner at a new and trendy restaurant Louise had suggested.
“Thank you,” she said, no longer balking at platitudes and fluffing the first stylish cut she had gotten in several months. “I’m feeling great, too.”
Nola handed a menu to her friend. “Whatever it is you’re taking, you should bottle the stuff and sell it.” A bloom of color flashed on Louise’s cheek. “Really? Are you blushing? It’s like you’re eighteen years old.”
Louise chatted amiably throughout dinner. “Wait! Is that Franz?”
Nola looked up from her plate. “Where?”
“The music. Listen. Is that Schubert?” She cocked her head to one side, listening. She sighed. “No, my mistake. It’s not him.”
“You really are stuck on Schubert,” said Renee.
“Franz,” corrected Nola.
Renee stifled a laugh with her napkin.
“I guess I have become more familiar with him,” said Louise.
“Familiar? That’s an understatement.” Nola set down her coffee cup. “More like an obsession. But if it works for you, then I’m all for it.”
Later that evening, as Louise sat in her living room reading one more chapter in another Schubert biography before going to bed, Nola’s words echoed in her head. Obsession? Was she obsessed with Schubert? She lifted her eyes to the framed drawing of the composer that sat prominently on her bookshelf. By now she was intimately familiar with the pudgy face and wild, tousled hair, the little glasses perched upon his nose. In the picture, Schubert sat at a piano but positioned himself off-center on the bench as though waiting for an accompanist to join him. What would that be like, she wondered.
Celine suddenly pouncing upon the arm of the couch startled her out of her reverie.
“You’re right, Celine. It’s time for bed.” She closed the book, turned off the light and went to bed.
She slept fitfully, stirring restlessly beneath the covers as strange images flitted through her brain. Not quite a dream, these disjointed images but more flashes of music, gaiety, and color, as though catching glimpses of an elaborate ball through billowing curtains. At one point someone called her name, a man’s voice that at first sounded like David but then not and yet the voice whispered her name once more. A sweet smile curved upon her lips and she slept soundly through the rest of the night.
She could not explain why but over the next few days she could not get her mind off Schubert. On a semester break, she had time to finish yet another Schubert biography. She found herself imagining scenes from his life as though she had traveled back in time and was an actor in his life. What would it have been like to have been seated in a little Viennese drawing room with only a few close friends as Franz himself took his place at the piano to regale them with one of his newest pieces, the notes like divine little birds trilling from the instrument?
Between her purchases at a store and her borrowing from the library, she piled high the coffee table with Schubert CDs, making sure that she had at least one recording of each of his compositions. Her stereo became “All Schubert, All the Time.” She would lose herself entirely in the music, letting go of time and space it seemed, moving into a spiritual realm that soothed her soul like prayer. Oblivious to anything but the music, she never heard the ringing of her phone and was surprised to see that Nola had called her three times over the week. She made a mental note to return her friend’s call when she could find some time.
But with so much music it would be difficult to find free time.
Nola had left a message for her in the last call, inviting her out for coffee. Her friend sounded anxious, but Louise didn’t know why.
“I’d rather stay here,” she said to the picture of Schubert. If she didn’t know better, she would have sworn that the composer smiled back at her.
Thank you, my dear.
Did she hear him say that? It seemed as though a whisper quietly faded in the room in which she sat alone except for Celine curled asleep on the window sill. Impossible, of course. She smiled. But how wonderful would it be to actually speak with him!
The light faded from the windows as she sat listening to the music, melodies she was beginning to know by heart. How long she sat there she didn’t know but when she finally roused herself darkness had fallen and Celine was mewing for dinner from the kitchen.
She set a bowl of food on the kitchen floor for the cat. She thought about dinner for herself but she wasn’t hungry enough to bother making anything. It occurred to her that, other than coffee and a croissant for breakfast, she hadn’t eaten all day. Well, she could stand to lose a few pounds anyway.
The dark night flooded in through the windows of the living room. As she went to turn on a lamp she caught a sliver of light in the darkness across the room. Moonlight, she thought at first, but there was no moon that night. She stood with one hand poised on the lamp, peering into the darkness, trying to figure out the source of that luminescence when suddenly, it flared brightly, revealing the figure of a man sitting in a chair. Before she could utter a sound, the light winked out and the figure vanished. In that brief interval she had time to notice the curly, disheveled hair and the little glasses perched upon the nose of Franz Schubert.
Her hand froze on the light. Seconds passed, minutes perhaps. Finally, her fingers found the switch and light filled the room. The chair across the room sat empty. Of course.
“Franz?” she whispered.
The room did not answer.
Her heart still beat wildly. She knew what she had seen. She was not prone to hallucinations; she was not that kind of woman. A ghost? Had she not sensed David’s presence lingering nearby from time to time? Had he really been there or was she simply so accustomed to his presence in life, his aura if you will, that its memory remained imprinted upon her consciousness? Did it make any difference if he had really been there or not? The sensation felt real enough.
But Franz Schubert?
She sat down on the couch, her eyes never leaving the wing chair across the room, as though she might be able to will the composer back through her gaze. And she knew that she did want him back.
At some point sleep overcame her, despite her resistance. When she awoke in the clear light of morning, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Her coffee-maker was set to turn on automatically and now the irresistible fragrance of fresh-brewed coffee drew her to the kitchen.
She held a cup beneath it, yawning as the steaming brew filled the cup.
The cup jerked in her hand, sloshing half the contents across the counter, as she whirled around to see… nothing.
She set the cup down. “Franz?”
The voice came from somewhere before her, she was certain, but she could see all the way into the living room. Empty.
“Franz, is that you?”
No answer, but she sensed a vibration of sorts in the atmosphere that shivered her spine, something that felt almost meteorological, like a sudden change in the weather, but it lasted for only a moment before dissipating. At her feet, Celine stared at something Louise could not see, the cat’s body tense, ready to pounce or run.
Louise slowly walked through the living room, the cat following her, expecting to find she knew not what, then through the dining room, the study, the guest bedroom and finally her own bedroom. Nothing. She returned to the living room, wrapping her arms around her, as though cold and it wasn’t until she had sat on the couch for a few minutes that she noticed the framed picture of Schubert was missing from its customary place on the bookshelf. Over the next hour she combed through her apartment looking for the picture, turning the place upside down, but coming up empty-handed.
He was here; somehow she knew that, and the thought thrilled her.
She felt as though something was required of her, that Franz needed her to do something, but what? She would do anything for him. Uncharacteristically, she felt fatigued and lay down on her bed to take a nap.
Louise slept. Once again she found herself in that candle-lit drawing room with Franz at the piano. She felt the silk taffeta of her dress against her fingers, smelled the fragrance of the roses in the vase upon the mantle. There were some empty chairs in the room and she had the sense that they had only recently been vacated but now it was just her and Franz. Concentrating on the music before him he looked up briefly and glanced at her, his smile entering her heart like a javelin. She closed her eyes and let the music wrap itself around her like a soft blanket. She opened her eyes as the last notes slowly died and there he was, standing before her, offering her his hand. Come with me.
Louise opened her eyes and there he was, standing before her, offering her his hand. Come with me. She smiled and lifted her hand to his.
It was getting late. Nola was tempted to drive right by the Belvedere since Louise had not been answering her phone calls, but at the last minute she turned into the driveway. She had been thinking about her friend, worrying was more like it, and since she was in the neighborhood anyway, it could not hurt to drop in on her.
The doorman recognized her and allowed her to go on upstairs. She stepped out of the elevator on Louise’s floor and walked down the carpeted hallway. There were only four units on that side of the building and it was deathly quiet in the hallway.
She paused outside Louise’s door, reconsidering whether she should barge in on her friend unannounced. Hell, she was there now; why not? She was just about to knock when she thought she heard a voice beyond the door. A man’s voice.
A man? Was she sure about that? She listened again, tipping her head toward the door, but she heard nothing more. Maybe the voice hadn’t come from Louise’s apartment after all. Perhaps it had been radio, or television. She wasn’t even sure if it was a man’s voice at all. Could she have imagined it entirely?
She knocked on the door. No answer. She knocked one more time. Nothing. Then from behind the door, she heard Celine’s plaintive mewing. The cat sounded distressed and her scratching at the door worried Nola.
“Louise!” No answer.
Something was wrong. Nola dug in her purse for the key to the apartment and inserted it in the lock. “Louise! It’s me, Nola. I’m coming in.”
She pushed the door open and Celine scooted out and ran down the hallway. Nola entered the condo. Nothing seemed amiss in the kitchen or the living room. She walked into the study.
She felt her heart pounding as she entered the guest bedroom. No Louise. The only room left was Louise’s bedroom. The door stood ajar.
She knocked on it gently. “Louise? Are you in there?”
It felt as though her heart thumped in her ears as she slowly pushed the door open. Louise lay supine upon the bed. She wore an elegant ball gown but it was obvious to Nola that her friend was dead; the empty vials of pills on the nightstand confirmed her fears.
Nola stood beside the bed. “Oh, Louise…” was all she could say.
It took her a few moments to notice the framed drawing that lay on the bed beside her friend. It was the drawing of Schubert that Louise had so treasured.
But the drawing had changed. Franz Schubert sat upon the piano bench just as he always had but now beside him sat a smiling Louise.