I’ve had that number memorized for 38 years. The serial number of a flute manufactured by The Haynes Flute Company.  When I put the headjoint into the body, sliding the perfectly tuned and turned tube of silver into the perfectly tuned and turned tube of silver—may it be every one of our good fortunes to be so exactly received at least once in this life—I like to sight along the length, from the ankles up to the top of the head, and nod that head gently back and forth until an imaginary line between the 300 and the 88 hovers exactly over a line between the a and the y in Haynes. Then comes what is actually called the foot. Then, when I lift the whole instrument, its weight—it is a “heavy walled” flute—resting in the dependable sling of space between my knuckle and a thumb pad, cradled against falling by the curve of my hands like two coffin lids ajar over the keys, the mouthpiece is exactly where it should be. I do not blow across it. Instead, I get ready to sing—imagine I have swallowed a sequence of O rings made of mist that hold the inside of my mouth, my throat and my windpipe all completely open, so that the tune comes up freely from deep below the lungs. I slowly breathe in the whole song, notes laid over notes that swirl like a cascade of jewels in my body. And then I am ready to play. But I don’t, not for 28 years.

The girl would not have believed that, not for a minute, standing in her bare feet and owlish wireframes on the carpet in her bookish parents’ den, teaching younger girls for three dollars a lesson. On Fridays, she took her spoils, between six and eighteen dollars cash, and walked the two blocks to the bank. She did not buy a cookie or a barrette along the way; she did not buy a movie ticket or bellbottom jeans or an album or a car. She put every dollar into the bank because she was already playing this flute. It still technically belonged to her teacher, a magical, wirey, five-foot-tall woman with a lioness’s mane who had decided that she herself needed, instead, a thin-walled flute for playing the limber upper registers orchestral music demanded. So she had granted this flute to the girl, and a price had been agreed upon that only she and the girl knew about. It was something like the price of a life-saving operation or a dowry or college or a trip to the moon. And the girl went to the bank every week, and every single day she practiced.

Sometimes time draws up like a shawl around what happens, warming the vague shape of what is underneath: how uncomplicatedly sweet-smelling you think you ought to be when someone else imagines you, how a child quakes with fury for which music is not a cure.  How silence creeps. How a note folded in half was all that was left when he left. How, entombed in blue velvet, silver shivers. The shawl is a midnight blue that comes to be the secret, true color of your  hair. The blue is a very long blue.

And then time wakes up and signs its name:  6/8, 4/4, 3/4.  A reel, a gig, a waltz.  “I’ll bet we could get up a tune or two,” you said when I hardly knew you. And arrived at my door holding the sturdy neck of your steel string guitar, the cello in its massive black swaddling on your back. Does what we desire count more, count differently, sound truer or deeper on the Great Abacus, Great Harp, when it is granted to us by another, rather than being arrived at, doggedly, alone?  Somewhere a fire and the aroma of slowly-commingling soup, somewhere the names of the tunes, Paddy This, Johnny That, and Mari and Irene, ancestors who’ve found me.  Female and male, melody and rhythm, potatoes and leeks, north and south. And arpeggios and chords, those faithful prisms of the mist. How have you taught me to play by ear, which is to say by abandonment to what we don’t know we know? We could talk about it, sure, but we would rather be playing, fitting the head back into the body, the body into the foot, the bow against the strings, you into me, music back into life.

Robin Behn‘s most recent books are Horizon Note and Naked Writing. She teaches in the MFA Programs at University of Alabama and Vermont College of Fine Arts,  and plays tin whistle and flute in Waxwing.

photo by Sarah Truckey