TWO OF SWORDS COUNTERPOINT
I dreamed of a house full of doors.
This happened in ’95, when things were bad but I hadn’t found the courage to leave.
Behind each door, a distinct life. A motorcycle rev. The sound of rain on a lake.
The university music archives smelled like secrets warmed over. Disintegrating leather covers, spoiled perfume, damp paper. I’d been sent there to find a concerto for viola, a student thesis some forty years old. The woman on the bus had been adamant. Why had I listened to her? I flipped hopelessly through catalogs with broken bindings. Why does anyone do anything? Who writes a concerto for viola?
I dreamed of a house full of doors, each one locked against me.
“What’s the title?” I’d asked politely. The bus bumped and squeaked. This was Iowa and we did our best to occupy the surplus emptiness. The woman’s eyes were dark but her short lashes were pale, like wheat. She reached inside her red wool jacket and pulled out a tarot card. I asked, “Is this a joke?”
How I feel about you has nothing to do with love.
The card showed a blindfolded woman sitting in front of an angry sea. The woman’s arms were crossed and in each hand she held a long blade. The moon waxed in one corner.
The usual things: Earth. Water. Fire. Breath. Elemental, capable of creation and destruction.
I took the card. I take anything that’s handed to me. The card burned my fingertips. The woman got off at the next stop, which was nowhere near anything, just a dark crossroads surrounded by cornfield.
How I feel about you is a finger trap. A frog in my pocket, a never-ending ice cream cone, a broken watch.
I met Trey when he took a shortcut through my backyard on his way home from the bar. In the yard he encountered Apollo, my Rottweiler. Apollo, luckily for Trey, didn’t clamp fully. I’d been drinking too, alone at home, and one thing led to another and I invited Trey in and he didn’t leave until—.
Aren’t we all made of blood and bones?
I found the score in the bottom drawer of a monstrous metal cabinet. Composer: Anon. The paper was thick but brittle, and charred on the top-right corners.
The only escape is a smaller space.
Trey and Apollo got along great once I gave the OK. Dogs are supposed to have better senses of these things.
The tinier the room, the safer we felt. You kissed me in a broom closet.
Though I’d never been more than passable as a clarinetist, I did have one skill: I can take in an entire score at once, visually, and hear the piece in my head. During undergrad, my friends would come to me the night before projects were due because I could tell with one glance whether a note was off in their counterpoint or whether there was too much going on in the brass.
I dreamed of a house full of doors. Above the locks were signs: You’ll Regret It and That’s Not The Way Things Are Done and Don’t You Know Your Place?
At first, I didn’t pay much attention to the scribbles in the margins. I assumed they were performance notes.
Here, I want the soloist to tremble, the notes must drip from the strings.
Trey had hit me in the face three times, twice with an open palm and once with his fist. He’d tried to choke me the day before the woman on the bus appeared. He’s been sorry ever since.
You say our only option is to run. And here the viola runs, runs. It does not tire.
The viola is a mediator. It cements the space between the starry violins and earthen basses. A viola played well is just as effective at soothing a crying infant as a lullaby. It is the instrument that most closely resembles the human voice.
A good soloist, like a good lover, will coax out this high E-flat!
A week later, I was at the office waiting out Trey, praying he’d drink himself to sleep before I got home. The concerto played in my head. I didn’t know what to do about any of it. I thought about what it means to deserve.
The Two of Swords, lying on my glass desk, began to twitch. I watched as the card arced upward, making it look like a Japanese bridge. The surface of the card pulsed and then, impossibly, the blindfolded woman’s nose, mouth, and blindfolded eyes pushed outward from its surface. Her lips parted. “Go,” she whispered. “Go.” Louder: “Go. Go. Go!” And louder until her voice became an otherworldly scream. I reached out and pulled up her blindfold and looked into my own eyes.
In the composition of this concerto, I have found more than an outlet. I have found strength.
The card ignited. Its edges blackened and curled like a smile, and then it was gone.
How I feel about you is an exclamation point on fire, a shape clouds often take.
A sword demands action.
That concerto has never left me. I play it in my head when it’s quiet. It is mournful, requiem-like, yet there’s something sneaky, twisted even, something defiantly playful in the viola’s lines.
The viola’s voice is your voice. I hear it in my sleep.
I know now about swords, about the ways in which power can be sharpened, wielded. I know the difference between running away and escape.
I dreamed of a house full of doors. I woke with a key in my mouth.
Musical accompaniment coming soon.
Kelly Luce's "Two of Swords Counterpoint" can be read in the print edition of The Arkansas International 3.
Kelly Luce is the author of the story collection Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail and a novel, Pull Me Under. Her work has appeared in New York Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, The Oprah Magazine, and other publications. She is a Contributing Editor for Electric Literature and a 2016-17 fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.