By Scott Warrender
Iris Ambrosia was one hundred and eighty-one years old, and every year she looked forward to autumn’s promise of cool, cerulean skies and a modest harvest of pears from the trees in her yard.
Saturday morning had been the same for as long as Miss Ambrosia could remember: four lemons to cut for lemonade, the juice added to a pitcher of sugar and water, sugar cookies to arrange on a small tray, peppermint tea to prepare in her grandmother’s china cup.
However, this Saturday was different. Her knees and back ached, and the air carried an odd, fetid odor. The floorboards creaked more than usual. Even the ceiling beams seemed slack under the weight of the upper floors. It was only eight in the morning, and her neighbor’s leaf blower was already buzzing, blasting clouds of garden debris into the air.
Miss Ambrosia rolled her eyes and rubbed the head of her orange cat. “He’s at it again.”
Faint sounds were more disturbing today than usual: barking dogs, the whoosh of cars on the road, a crow that squawked unremittingly from a branch outside the kitchen window.
She pushed aside the lace curtain and looked onto a featureless parking lot that had once been a sprawling meadow. The pines that had dotted the foothill were gone, replaced by a blocky supermall.
The curtain fell back as Miss Ambrosia turned with a sigh and went through the swinging door to the parlor. She cranked the handle eleven times on her Brunswick phonograph, lowered the arm tenderly to the spinning record, and paused while Hilda Dor struck the first notes of The Bee’s Wedding.
Miss Ambrosia began her dusting on the mahogany sideboard her father had purchased when they’d lived in Philadelphia in 1843, before they’d moved to this house in Maine. She took great care with her collection of crystal stemware—gifts from a string of holidays—one warm memory, shimmering from that corner of her life.
October light slanted onto the surface of the round table in the center of the parlor and illuminated the week’s layer of dust. She moved her suede
dusting cloth in delicate circles and wiped the rails and spindles of all eight chairs, recalling parties and dinners from a time when the incongruity of her agelessness had prompted no questions.
The fireplace mantel was crowded with keepsakes. She cleaned and polished each Arcadian treasure, each an anchor of her long life.
She dusted the Chickering & Sons grand piano last, as The Bee’s Wedding modulated, her fingers padding along the discolored keys and precisely mirroring the notes. She frowned at the thin, branching cracks in some of the keys. Those were recent.
Her 1870 New Haven mantel clock chimed nine. Her new student was due to arrive in an hour. She hurried to the phonograph, returned the arm to its perch, and went upstairs to change.
Miss Ambrosia was a superior piano teacher, master of the elements: the baroque detachment of Bach and Purcell, the early pianoforte techniques of Mozart and Haydn, the bombastic flourishes of Liszt and Beethoven. She understood and valued them all. However, as much as she loved teaching, she adored her students more. During her career of a hundred and fifty years, she’d taught over two thousand boys and girls.
Yet she still felt nervous whenever a new student walked into the parlor and sat down at her piano. And eight-year-old Andrew Li came so highly recommended from his teacher in California.
Before the 1870 New Haven mantel clock chimed ten, Miss Ambrosia placed a freshly cut white Aster in the small vase on the sideboard and stood in the entryway pinching her cheeks and smoothing her hair. When the doorbell rang, she yanked the doorknob dramatically.
“Right on time!” She offered a polite wave to Mr. Li in his minivan, who waved and pulled out of the driveway. “Welcome, Andrew.”
The small blacked-haired boy crossed the parlor, sat on the piano stool, and placed both hands in his lap. He swiveled and smiled, revealing the gap between his teeth. Miss Ambrosia slapped her palms and sat in her straight-backed chair at his side.
“Tell me, Andrew,” she said. “What do you plan to do with the life you’ve been given?”
There was always a pause at this question. Especially in the last century, very few children knew how to respond.
“I don’t know,” they said, or, “Be happy,” or, sadly, in too many cases, “Make lots of money.”
Yes, it took some rank of intelligence to make a fortune. However, Miss Ambrosia couldn’t consider that greatness. No, she expected more than just
ambition, more than even great talent. She expected spark.
She recalled her initial interview with Andrew Li the week before, and
she knew he would not disappoint.
“Did you know there’s a waterfall in Antarctica they call the Blood
Falls?” Andrew spoke animatedly, his hands light above the piano keys.
“Scientists think it’s caused by red algae, but—” He shifted and leaned closer, adopting an air of gravity. “I think the earth is dying. Someday, I’d like to go there. Maybe I could fix it.”
Miss Ambrosia scrunched her face. “Surprising. Very surprising.”
“I’d also like to get Roy Halladay’s autograph,” he added and bumped his toe on the piano leg. “My dad says I’m a baseball fanatic.”
“What little boy isn’t?” Miss Ambrosia said and reached over, stopped his leg from wagging. “Please, Andrew, not my Chickering.”
She stood gracefully. “Before you play, I have something to show you.” She crossed the room and lifted an object from the mantel with care. She turned to display it. “What do you think?”
“It looks old.”
She smiled. “This, my young friend, is a stereoscope.”
Andrew sat straight on the piano stool and squinted hard. “It’s not
complicated,” he said after a moment.
Two mahogany sticks formed a cross, with a hammered-tin viewer
containing lenses on one end of the longer stick. A wire holder had been pounded into the wood on both ends of the shorter crosspiece, and on the wire were two copies of the same photograph placed two inches apart—just the distance between two eyes.
“This was a gift,” Miss Ambrosia said, “from my piano teacher, the late Monsieur Bertrand of the Conservatoire de Paris.” She straightened the black and white photos tidily. Each contained the same image of a group of children seated on a lawn in front of a brick schoolhouse.
She glanced at Andrew. “But this stereoscope is unique. When someone special such as you looks through the viewer, their image—your image—appears in the photograph.”
“It takes a picture?”
“Yes. But of only a part of you.”
“Like my eye?”
“Not your eye, silly,” Miss Ambrosia said. “A part of you that, most likely, you have never even noticed. Something,” she scowled, “that will cause great heartache if not extracted in time.”
“You don’t believe me?” Miss Ambrosia pulled herself up powerfully. “I always tell the truth, Andrew.” The corners of her mouth were beginning to twitch slightly.
“If you say so.” He smiled around the gap in his teeth.
“Good boy! Believing is important.” She began to hand the stereoscope to Andrew, and his fingers were touching it, just about to wrap around the wooden cross-brace, when the doorbell rang.
She pulled it away and returned it to the mantel. “My apologies.” She hurried across the parlor to the entryway.
Mrs. Li was easily a foot shorter than Miss Ambrosia, and when the door opened she took a step back from Miss Ambrosia’s impressive bosom. “Sorry to interrupt,” said Mrs. Li. “Heart medication. Andrew should have it at all times.” Her accent was thick, and she more barked than spoke. She held out a small bottle of pills. “One under the tongue.”
“How would I—”
“Andrew knows. My number is on his phone. Call if there’s a problem.” She gave Miss Ambrosia a quick, polite smile, turned, and stomped through the uncut lawn to the driveway. She heaved open the minivan’s door, and it rebounded and almost knocked her off-balance.
“My husband forgot,” she shouted, then leaped into the driver’s seat.
A boy in baseball uniform stared, expressionless, through the backseat window. The engine rumbled, and Miss Ambrosia watched the ‘I Heart My Honor Student’ bumper-sticker fade out of focus down the busy street.
“Your mother brought you these.” She handed the pill bottle to Andrew.
He tucked it into his pants pocket without comment. “Can I look at that thing again?”
Miss Ambrosia noticed for the first time the ashy pallor of his skin, the dark circles under his eyes.
“First, show me what you’ve got.”
Andrew swiveled obediently on the piano stool and launched into Bach’s Invention #12 in A major. Miss Ambrosia strolled around the parlor as he played. She studied his body position, his tempo and phrasing. He clearly understood the journey of the composition: the stacking of one tone on another, the mass of notes disconnecting and tumbling, the exacting order and perfect consonance.
She pursed her lips. “And next?”
Andrew nodded and began again.
Her eyes widened. It was exactly like the first time she’d heard
Schumann’s Traumerei. It had been 1848, her eighteenth birthday, at a recital in Philadelphia by Eugene List. Mr. List had performed a ferocious interpretation of a Shostakovich concerto, followed by the peaceful, unhurried Traumerei. His flawless technique had left her speechless. A talented pianist herself, she’d only been able to dream of a concert career such as his.
Now as Andrew played, she felt again that sweeter, slower world of decorum and restraint, of millenary shops and parasols, of evenings of gaslight and carriages and horses’ patient breath. She recalled everything just as it had once been, except that this time Andrew was there, interpreting the landscape of her memory with heartbreaking insight.
“If you are lucky, my dear,” her grandmother had told her, “you will experience a life of merciful pairings: of burn and salve, of plummet and soft landing.”
Miss Ambrosia’s father had presented her that day with an ultimatum that had left her feeling lost and worthless: accept a marriage proposal from the dull son of an associate, or her father would sell the family piano. She knew the arranged marriage would have been a death sentence. She declined the proposal and watched as her piano was loaded onto a carriage and hauled away.
Later on that rainy November evening, she’d found herself on the bridge over the Schuylkill River staring at the muddy water with dark interest.
A stranger in a frock coat and spotted cravat asked for directions.
“Could muddy water truly be that interesting?” His voice was heavily accented.
She looked up, startled. “No,” she said before she could stop herself.
He paused. “I think,” he said, “you must look upstream, not down.” He shook out a handkerchief and offered it to her with stately courtesy. “May I present to you myself: Monsieur Bertrand, somewhat recently of Avignon, recently of Paris, most recently of here.”
She was impressed by his wit, what appeared to be genuine goodwill, and was soon sharing more than etiquette advised. His voice was kind and calm, almost hypnotic, and when he admitted he had taught piano, she gasped with a lightness of breath she’d never have expected.
“I believe talent must exist separately from expectations of career,” he said.
“That, my dear, is where your troubles began. If only I had found you sooner.”
Miss Ambrosia nodded. God or fate or some force she might not ever name had brought this man into her life, and she became his student. He became her inspiration.
Two years later, when Monsieur Bertrand fell deathly ill, he gave her a final gift.
She hurried to his small house near the river where they had spent so many happy hours.
“That is for you,” he said and nodded at the contraption of wood and
hammered-tin sitting incongruously upon his piano. “It has been my life.”
She’d never seen a stereoscope before. She thought it an unlikely pres-
ent for a grown woman.
“However, you must make me a promise.”
Miss Ambrosia frowned, puzzled.
“You must use it to save young souls from the need to reach higher
than others,” Monsieur Bertrand said, “from impractical desires, from the need for specialness. Will you promise me?”
Miss Ambrosia paused. The stereoscope was heavy in her hands, awkward and inexplicable, but as she held it, as she looked into it, she felt her life beginning. No explanations were necessary. She understood. “I will.”
“If only I had found you sooner,” he said one more time.
After his death, she turned to children and did the work he asked, using the stereoscope to rescue one child after another from their impractical desires. She plucked out their need for specialness, and began to realize as the decades passed that she never aged. She’d been rewarded for her promise with impossible longevity, allowed to live in an enclave of time where she existed, unquestioned and ageless.
One hundred and eighty-one years. A lifetime of the salvation of innocence.
Andrew played the last notes quietly, surely, then lifted his hands from the keys and placed them in his lap.
Miss Ambrosia stared at him, lost in 1848—a ferocious piano recital, a bridge over a muddy river, a thick accent asking the way.
Andrew pointed at the mantel. “May I see the stereoscope again?”
She looked at Andrew and raised her hand to her lip, allowing her index finger to slowly follow the contour of her mouth, from one side to the other.
One year. Never had this much time passed since a child had looked into the stereoscope. Never had it taken this long to find the right spirit with the proper amount of life the object required to work. But Andrew’s health was clearly failing. How could she deprive the boy of even a trace of the life that is found in hope, however misguided?
“Perhaps next week,” she said impassively. “We’ve run out of time.”
She turned to the table behind her and handed him a thin booklet of scales and
exercises, along with a sugar cookie from the tray. She watched him drink a glass of lemonade and then escorted him to the front door. She passed the vase holding the Aster. The flower was brown and curled. It was clear to her that both her body and her world were failing. And, for the first time, she was beginning to wonder if that were such a horrible thing.
The October chill blew in as she opened the door, and she shuddered.
“Andrew,” she said. “Good luck in Antarctica. I’m counting on you.” “Thank you.” He trotted to the waiting minivan and hopped inside. The
door slid shut, and the car pulled away from the curb.
Miss Ambrosia closed the door and went to her pressed-oak drop-
front secretarial in the parlor. She lifted a sheet of light blue stationary from a drawer, and using a ballpoint pen with an image of piano keys along its length, she wrote in exquisite cursive:
I am sorry for any inconvenience.
She taped the note to outside of the front door, shivering in the autumn cold, and returned to the parlor with her hands clasped. She placed another record on the Brunswick, turned the crank eleven times, and low- ered the needle. The crackling of an orchestra filled the room. The voice of Mario Chamlee sang the first notes of Mal reggendo all’aspro assalto from Il Trovatore.
Miss Ambrosia lifted the stereoscope from the mantel and carried it through the swinging door into the kitchen, where she sat at the table and took a sip of lemonade. After a moment, she looked into the stereoscope.
One hundred and forty years ago, the image in the photo had been of a small brick schoolhouse on a grassy hill. Now hundreds of children sat on the lawn in front of the school in ordered rows. She smiled and began to say each name aloud. They were beautiful names, meaningful names, the names of true talent.
But this time, the stereoscope had nothing to offer. Her pulse did not quicken. Her mind did not race. Not one bit of euphoria and no tingle that indicated a spirit had been re-gifted. Her eyes followed down the rows of faces and stopped at the end, at the empty spot she had been saving for Andrew Li.
Meeting Monsieur Bertrand had not been an accident. But had he used her to rob the children of the one thing she herself could not release? That was the question she had never allowed herself to consider.
There, on the leading edge of a regret so crushing it took her breath away, she set the stereoscope gently on the table. The old farmhouse shifted
and settled around her, gave in to gravity a few more inches.
“You’d better leave,” she said to the cat crossing the room to its food bowl. She pushed herself with effort out of her chair to open the kitchen door a crack.
“Go on! Get out!” The tabby darted between her feet, ran through the overgrown yard, and disappeared between two slats in the
fence at the edge of the parking lot.
Miss Ambrosia lowered herself carefully to her chair and finished the
last of her lemonade. Her hands throbbed, and her shoulders ached. She breathed deeply, exhaled, and focused on the sunlight that glimmered off the edge of the lace curtains. The crow cawed over and over, and the neighbor’s dogs began to bark. The rumble of delivery trucks reached a crescendo, then faded away. A jet roared faintly high overhead, and she imagined a white contrail marking its path in the troposphere, expanding and dissipating like steam, fading as though it had never existed.
The neighbor’s leafblower buzzed near the side of her house, and she shifted in her wooden chair. There was a series of delicate snaps—the stems of her crystal goblets cracking, one by one, in the other room.
“Like twigs breaking.” Her smile was vacant.
She reached to pour another glass of lemonade but stopped herself. “No.” She returned her hands to her lap and sat watching her fingers twist of their own accord. “I’ve had enough.”
A loud, low thwack echoed from the parlor as the first piano string broke.