Today's Reading

She stopped at the Mexican grocery store where she and Ryan had met and subsequently shopped, and immediately regretted it. The piñatas hanging from the ceiling and banda playing over the loudspeaker seemed too festive for her errand. She asked someone stacking produce if they had any empty boxes, and while he went to find some she browsed the liquor department for beer. Ryan had been fussy about alcohol, especially beer, talking importantly about bitterness, notes, and finishes. He never drank straight from a bottle, insisting that it diminished things like creaminess and mouthfeel. Clara strode past the displays of craft brews and imports, picked up a six-pack of Pabst, then went to the checkout to pay and collect the stack of collapsed boxes the worker had left for her there.

"KATYA, COME. I have something to show you."

Ekaterina Dmitrievna looked from her father to her mother, who was kneading dough for their dinner—again there would be no meat or butter. Her mother smiled and nodded. Katya put down her doll, took her father's extended hand, and they walked down the hall of the four-story prewar apartment building, through the scent of cabbage and the sound of babies crying, past the tattered propaganda posters. EXPLOITS ARE WAITING FOR THE BRAVE! BREAD—TO THE MOTHERLAND! POWER TO SOVIETS—KHRUSHCHEV! She was tired—they all were tired—but for her it was because she'd lain awake all night in her small bed listening for the music that had stopped three nights ago.

"Where are we going, Papa?"

"Chi-chi-chi. You will see. A surprise."

Katya grew anxious, though, as they approached the apartment belonging to the old blind German. He'd been her father's acquaintance, a client. Her father visited him more often than he did his other customers, because his piano went out of tune so frequently. "He plays too hard," Dmitri told his daughter. "He puts all his sadness into his songs. Bad for the piano but good for me, eh?"

The German had been banging on his piano for as long as Katya could remember. Mostly he played at night, when the children in the building were trying to sleep. The music made them restless and their mothers angry, but they feared speaking up. They imagined they knew what he would say in his gruff, bellowing voice: It is always night to me! He rarely left his rooms, and whenever he did he groused loudly in German as he shuffled his too-large body down the halls, knocking into the walls with his cane, his empty blue eyes roving over everything. He grew monstrous in their imaginations, and the neighbors whispered rumors about him that might or might not have been true: Wilm Kretschmann was not his real name. He had volunteered with the Waffen-SS. He was half Jewish, not one of Hitler's Aryan Herrenvolk, but still had killed hundreds of Jews and partisans. He'd defected from his SS division, Das Reich, in 1941, before his ethnicity could be discovered, slipping away from his unit in Naro-Fominsk during the Battle of Moscow; Hitler would've had him executed otherwise, because no "subhumans" were allowed membership in the Waffen-SS, even if they were willing murderers. He'd hidden in a textile factory, listed as missing, until the Wehrmacht had been pushed back by Soviet forces. He'd been blinded by either shrapnel or guilt. Who knew how he'd made it to Zagorsk? He had made his money as a building contractor or a thief. He still carried his Mauser HSc in his jacket pocket. The music was proof of his torment. He was a monster, a demon, an ogre.

Katya loved him.

The first time she followed her father to the German's apartment, she was six. The door had been left ajar. She slipped inside and crouched down against the wall, her back pressed against the peeling wallpaper, ready to run if she had to. Her father didn't see her; he was bent inside the case. The German sat straight in an old chair like a soldier, looking at nothing, his ear cocked toward the piano. Katya worried that he could hear her heart beating, it was going so fast, like one of his musical pieces, so she hugged her knees to quiet the sound. After sitting unnoticed for several minutes, she grew bold. She stuck her tongue out at him. Nothing. She did it again, then pulled a silly face. The German was impassive. Only when Katya stifled a giggle did he turn toward her. She was silent after that, and directed her attention to the shiny black piano that had swallowed her father's head.

In the months to come, she went repeatedly, stealing inside to watch the German as he listened to her father tune his piano. What she wanted most was to watch him make the music she heard at night. Unlike others in the building, she liked the strange and complicated lullabies that came from his apartment. She wanted to know how it was done.

"Please will you play," she finally said one afternoon, emboldened by this desire, the words lisping from the gap where her two front teeth had fallen out. She had just celebrated her seventh birthday. Her father turned and spoke her name sharply. "What are you doing here?" But the German only lifted his hand, as if in blessing, and beckoned her from where she stood in the doorway. "I wondered if that was what you were here for," he said in a voice not at all like an ogre's.

He paid her father, asked him to sit down, and guided Katya to the near end of the piano, his giant hand warm and slightly trembling on her shoulder, and told her to stand there. He maneuvered himself onto the bench, sitting heavily, and rested his hands in his lap. Katya held her breath. After a moment, his hands floated up elegantly to the keyboard for a beat, a moment of silence, then drifted down to touch it: careful, slow, gentle. Katya thought of how her mother stroked her hair when she was upset or had difficulty sleeping.

But what was this music? It wasn't the wild, pounding music he played at night; it was more like soft rain, or clouds passing overhead, or the dance of snow fairies. It unfolded like a story she'd never heard before. Secretly, she pressed her hand against the shining wood. She watched the old German's fingers moving over the keys, barely touching them, and felt the music enter her entire body through her ears, her eyes, her feet, her hand. When he finished, her smock was wet with tears, and when he stood up—his movements gruff again, shaking from age and blindness—there were tears on his face, too.

This excerpt ends on page 18 of the hardcover edition.

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