The Flute Maker
By Maria Lazebnik
Before his illness, Abram fashioned flutes of precious metals: silver, gold and platinum. Now, he was listening to the live recording of Brahms’ First Symphony on the classics station performed by the Viennese Philharmonic, while awaiting another round of chemo.
Hoping to hear the flute solo in the symphony, but feeling anxious that he might miss that point in the piece, Abram sighed heavily. As if to echo him, violins and violas played downward leaps of broken chords which sounded like sighing.
Only once had Abram made a platinum flute. Coincidentally, that flute was acquired by the Viennese Philarmonic for eighty thousand dollars, and he had hoped to hear it. Platinum flutes were commissioned on rare occasions and mainly for virtuoso soloists, not so much for their monetary value, but for their much darker palette of sound.
Still harboring some hope that he might hear the platinum flute, his flute, Abram stared at the nurse as she plugged an IV tube into his PICC line, another thin tube protruding out of the vein in his arm.
Bodies of flutes, he thought, also begin as two tubes. Abram remembered how he first started working at the flute company. Before he came to America, he had been a civil engineer in Russia, so except for his love of classical music and building things with his hands, he had had no formal training in making musical instruments. Most people working for the company were immigrants from the former Soviet block countries like him and so it was a great relief to Abram that his supervisor Misha spoke to him in Russian.
One of the steps in making a flute—forming the embouchure hole—seemed especially difficult for Abram. “This hole is akin to a flute’s mouth; its shape greatly affects the range or as musicians say ‘the color’ of the sound as the flutist blows across it,” Misha had explained.
“I see,” Abram said, savoring the idea of sound having a color. “But what about the platinum flutes?”
“What about them?” Misha asked earnestly.
“I thought the material played a big role in the quality of the sound.”
“Well, it really is a topic of an eternal debate between the physicists and lyricists.” Misha smiled, playing with a button on his blue workman’s coat. “Physicists say it’s only the hole that matters for the timbre of the sound, but flute players swear that the material mysteriously affects the color of the emitted tone.”
Now that Abram was not sure how long he had left in this world, he wanted to side with the lyricists, the flute players. He desperately hoped that it was not just the mouth of the flute that made it sing, that there was this indefinable something hidden in the material of the flute that made it different from other flutes. A soul, if you will. In Abram’s mind, by analogy, its existence could prove the existence of his own soul.
Yet he knew better than to hope. After all, he knew his mouth was not much different from other people’s mouths. He had said things he wished he had not, had sung lullabies to his children, and recently sung to his grandchildren while pushing them in a stroller because that’s the only way they would fall asleep for their nap, with him pushing them in a stroller in the rain, hot sun, or snow.
It took Abram eighty hours to make a silver flute, but one hundred and twenty hours to make a platinum one. The number struck him now as the ultimate biblical age for a human being. “May you live to a hundred and twenty!” his son had said, toasting Abram on his birthday a few days ago, both of them gulping ginger ale from hospital styrofoam cups, and both of them wanting to believe there was a fifty percent chance, as his oncologist had put it, that Abram might make it to that number.
Abram's life had been like a symphony in four movements. In the opening, vivid childhood memories of visiting his grandparents in their village on the outskirts of Kiev before the war; of cradling a warm speckled chicken egg in the palm of his hand, and feeling the softness of his grandmother's palm gently supporting his. His grandparents would not eat a chicken egg that was laid on Shabbos. Such gentle and kind souls. They were shot, killed, and piled up in a ravine with the other broken bodies. And just like in a sonata, commonly found within the first movement, the theme of his childhood was transposed from the innocent C major to the painful C-sharp minor. Abram and his mother managed to evacuate to Siberia. Those adolescent years during and shortly after the war had been a blur, a second movement, an Adagio, spent processing all kinds of injustices: from receiving that note about his father missing in action, to the bullying in school, to his mother remarrying. One incident in particular was cemented in his memory. The boys from his class procured nitrocellulose paper and set it on fire during their literature class. It burnt quickly, leaving no trace of ashes. He laughed with them, but then they all blamed it on him. The teacher, in the most pleasant tone of voice, told him that that she knew he was not involved but, because he was the only Jew, she felt no shame in making him the scapegoat in this case or any other.
With the move to Leningrad – the university years, working at the Institute and having a family of his own – his life returned to a happy Allegro with minor overtones. Even the immigration to America, while a hardship, was a part of that. At sixty something, Abram had not expected to wind up in the fourth and final movement so soon. He was counting on having another menuet or a scherzo up his sleeve.
Already loud, the music had built to a feverish cadence, the timpani playing emphatic repetitions sounding like the fate theme from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony “ta ta ta tum.” Abram recalled how the radio show host had said something about Brahms continuing Beethoven’s inheritance, his first symphony with its “fate” rhythm echoing Beethoven’s Fifth.
Fate had knocked forcefully on Abram’s doors, and only three months ago, Misha had been about to show him how to make a piccolo.
“The piccolo is a tiny flute, its pitch an octave higher than that of a concert flute,“ Misha explained while they drank tea with sugar cubes in the lunch room. “It is made out of Brazilian rosewood, a wood so high in quality that it is also called kingwood, Dalbergia cearensis.” Abram remembered how, at the time, even saying that Latin word had sounded musical. Just three months ago Abram had been diagnosed, and already he had grown into a tired old man with no eyebrows.
“I want you to go and see the Chinese guy,” Abram’s wife said, as she struggled out of the green pleather chair next to his bed, and fumbled through napkins, a hospital menu, and a folded cancer center newsletter entitled “Stories of Progress,” searching for a remote to lower the volume on the built-in sound system. Her red-copper dyed hair, illuminated by the sun beating down from the narrow window, gave her the appearance of a Spartan warrior.
For weeks his wife had been after him to go and see this man. To see The Doll. Patients went to see the man about their ailments, most of them people with no hope left, and then they beat The Doll with little magnetic hammers on the places where their affected organs were located. The whole idea of The Doll elicited an inexplicable feeling of dread and disgust in Abram. “It’s just for stress relief,” his wife whispered, as if fearing someone or something might overhear them. She looked at him, and he knew and she knew, and they both knew, that if those people felt better, it was not because The Doll did anything.
His son would not give up on this, either. He would go into lengthy explanations of Tong Ren therapy, mentioning how the whole idea of this therapy was to remove blocks in the natural flow of life force energy, and how The Doll is just another level of acupuncture.
“It's just another illusion of control,” Abram would say with his eyes closed.
“Yes,” his son agreed. “Our society is designed to make it appear like we are in control, but then things happen, and we realize that we don't have any control, just chemo, and maybe Tong Ren. Dad, why not give it a try?”
The electronic fluid pump started beeping, blending in with the pulsating pizzicato of the strings. As his wife started waddling for the door, a smiling nurse peeked in.
“We are done with your one-hour hydration,” she chirped, “and now you’ll be going to the tenth floor to get the chemo, is that correct?”
“Yes,” his wife nodded, slowly searching for the English words. “His doctor said they observe him in hospital few days because he not feeling so good last time, you know.”
“Aw, hope you feel better this time,” the nurse smiled revealing a figure clad in pink scrubs standing behind a wheelchair. “Phyllis here will transport you.”
“I gave you some Zofran for the nausea,” the nurse winked at Abram as she turned off the music.
While Abram was being rolled down the glass bridge, he imagined what the flute solo would sound like. It should be playing right about now in the fourth movement. It was supposed to be akin to the alpine horn, also called an alphorn. “An alphorn theme in two complete phrases, played only by the flute” he had heard the radio host explaining before the symphony started. A tune that Brahms had heard from an Alpine shepherd with the words, "High on the hill, deep in the dale, I send you a thousand greetings!"
As the wheelchair went over a bump, Abram gave a slight whimper, disappointment that he had missed his flute sweeping over him.
That night he had a dream where he lay on the grass and there were lilies of the valley blooming all around him. He heard beautiful music playing, yet he saw no instruments. The lilies were singing. It was a dark sound, like that of a platinum flute, and the music made him cry. “Please don’t make me beat The Doll, please don’t make me beat The Doll,” he pleaded. “Please don’t take me away.” Ancient words of a forgotten psalm crystallized in his mind: “The dead, the dust cannot sing; only those who are alive can sing praises to you.” Abram awoke with a smile. He felt his wet cheeks with his fingertips. It dawned on him that the music he’d heard was the solo from Brahms’ First Symphony, the one he had missed while getting his last round of treatment.
As he awakened, in the first few hazy minutes, that gap between subconsciousness and consciousness, things seemed clearer to Abram, making complete sense. The Doll had a mouth but it could not sing. Brahms’ first symphony was written in the mournful C minor, but the last movement, the one with the flute solo, switched to the joyful C major, like the Ode to Joy. No, it was not that Abram had hope; it was more a feeling of contentment. His healing was to come from the source of all living, the almighty source that made the platinum flute sound different from all the rest.