Oyster Boy Review 20  
  Summer 2012
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» Levee 67


The Extreme Difficulty of Doing Anything for the First Time

A Story in Three Parts

Christina Svendsen

Piano Lessons

The beginner approaches from behind, catching up to the piano. He acknowledges the instrument, sending a pun or small prayer in its direction as he gets close. He opens the top and (with caution) skims one hand over its bare strings. The learner brings his face very close to the vibrating strings, and observes with a professional's detachment the feeling of terror and pity that washes over him in consequence. He bends down to press his ear against the warmed wood. He taps it gently with the tip of his fingernails. He considers the unknown object. He is ready.

Our beginner sits down in the center of the bench and clears his throat. He sniffs the ivory. He restrains a brief howl rising from the wind in his throat. He begins to play on the keys, using first two fingers, then his left hand, his tailbone, and finally the soft hairless underside of his forearm. The learner cocks an ear and listens for the chirps, the croaking, the large rumbling rhetoric that will issue from the ribs of the piano as he plays. A particularly loud and discordant F+ spoken by his right knee causes the learner to jump back for a moment. We the audience intake our collective breath and sit tight. We witness his incipient discomfort. We wait.

He starts over. The beginner focuses his mind on the piano. He taps the underside of the instrument with a small mallet taken from the sleeve of his pants-leg. The piano cracks a vibrato. Next he hammers the keyboard and the soundbox at once. He draws a comb across the strings inside the piano. He throws away excess equipment. The beginner props an inspirational photograph of Rachmaninoff on the music stand in front of him, and waits for it to take effect. He pulls out showers of music scores on looseleaf. Meanwhile the photograph sits there, an imprint of dead light. We grow uneasy. He whispers a reassurance.

The beginner observes the inner state of the piano, analyzes the domino effect of wooden hammers and taut string. He sits on top of the piano and makes cooing sounds from above. He crouches beneath the piano and lifts each pedal upwards. He coerces three women and a small boy to tap out impromptu notes on the keyboard with him. When he sinks down on the piano bench, still beating the cadence, they take the opportunity to run away. He stands stock still and the room is so quiet that we hear the blood pumping through the veins in our ears. Then he loses interest, and steps on the piano stool, onto the keys, walks across the length of the piano, and climbs down. The beginner moistens the strings before playing. Once again he clears his throat.

This time he produces chords, major sevenths that are blurred by the pressure of his tibia or occasionally an extra toe joint on an unintended flat. He lays his head down on a C sharp. He constructs audible movement. There is rhythm. There is development. He begins to form DNA helixes of sound, clones notes and dis-harmonies and anti-melodies, sets in motion bass lines which decouple from the treble and careen wildly off-track into blue space. He makes us presents of noise. He manufactures radiation from the piano bench. He calls down the wild god Din and immediately afterwards speeds his fingers through the acrobatics of a calibrated fugue. He clowns. He invokes mathematical formulae. It has become almost easy.

The beginner's melodies disagree. They start a long turf war in which the high A Crips and a baritone chorus of Bloods will advance and retreat, skirmish in a long series of angry triads, water their feud with the sweat of the enemy and the pop of pained eardrums. Embattled sixteenth notes take flight like the glint of light on bomber planes, and a broken arpeggio in D minor disintegrates hastily on the sidelines. Dying, destruction, and indigestion come into sight at the end of a long vista, then recede in syncopation, startling us like the awakening from a group dream. We see technicolor. "Chopsticks" resurrects us, but the learner's key-pumping elbows knock us down once more and we must be patient. We are patient. We are angelic and wait with perfect grace.

Our performing greenhorn explores the sonic effects of rolling the piano across the room as he plays. He scores: an indistinct groan of tones when it collides against the back wall. He repents: a low moan. He sounds the depths of our collective ennui. Our sense of wonder functions without impairment. Our motor skills come to our aid. We watch the piano buck and lunge as the beginner learns what it is capable of. We watch him lose the reins. A few nails fly out as he beats time on its grained mahogany. A handful of screws spray into the air, a board buckles. As his hands work octaves on the keyboard, individual ivory keys jar loose and flip above his head in a fountain of assembly-line rectangles. The piano's body shivers open wide cracks and the interior harp breaks asunder with a sound like the rising surf. The piano bench collapses under its own weight. The audience blinks. Wood flies. One splintered white piano key lands rattling, unpainted side up, in front of a person in the third row. For a moment we see a brief burst of light and dust, as the life of the thing blows out, phoenixes, before our eyes.


The S.S. Merriweather collided into a shoal of perfect blue barnacles and a small colony of sea urchins. With some effort but high morale in the tropical and sparkling high seas, the first mate and his crew repaired the crack with tar and a soldering iron and soldiered on. They sailed for three more days before the captain in a fit of vermouth drunkenness rammed the prow into a rocky spur. They jumped on shore for several days and roasted some wild gulls' eggs, but when the boat was back in shape they set course again for the Antilles. Not two days had gone by when a submerged rock scraped up and down the ship's hull, and three crew members had to be assigned to bailing duty, using all the buckets that hadn't been washed overboard plus two soup bowls and the ship's only coffeepot. After the danger was over, the captain poured all his spirits into the sea in front of the assembled crew, and every man was ordered to visit the boat's bottom at regular intervals to see if she was taking on water. That week the Merriweather ran into two more submerged rocks, a dud landmine, a berserking narwhale, and experienced technical difficulties in the mechanical steering device. The captain showed flickering film projections of the Titanic at sea in the ice floes to keep everyone on their toes, and ran surprise lifeboat drills at unpleasant hours of the day and night. One third of the crew developed sun burn during these maneuvers and refused to participate unless it was a real emergency. One half of the remaining two thirds had obsessive day dreams about the vermouth and rum that the captain had poured over the side of the ship earlier in the week, and the rest were busy calculating either the number of days since they last saw their favorite loved one (Ensign Daniels had already begun wailing about his sweet Annabel) or their percentage of loss if the ship's cargo got waterlogged. Over the span of the ensuing month the engineer's soldering iron broke down, a live shark washed on board the ship during stormy weather, a floating piece of iron debris knocked a pane of glass out of one of the five portholes near sea level, and the first mate began to shout "har!" and swear oaths on the head of his dead grandmother whenever the ship's deck listed to port. By the second month at sea the S.S. Merriweather grounded on an unmarked Pacific island and the crew spent three days attempting to contact passing cruise liners by radio. They were finally rescued by an entrepreneurial pair of Malaysian fisherman turned pirates who liked to hijack passing First World ships by stretching a stout rope between their two dinghy motorboats and either slowing the ship down or being towed along steadily enough that they could climb the ropes and board. These pirates, who gave their names as Malik and Geronimo, towed them within range of the nearest Coast Guard in exchange for what was left of the ship's cargo, the captain's gold watch, and all Nike footwear belonging to the more sporting members of the Merriweather crew. This encounter came just in time to save the health of the second mate, Anton, who had been suffering under an increasingly severe series of epileptic seizures and who was not doing well on the marooner's diet of gulls' eggs, breadfruit, and toasted water rat that the company had been living off of on the island. Before the Coast Guard had a chance to tow the Merriweather's crew to the nearest shore, however, one Coast Guard officer was afflicted with whiplash, another lost his only pair of gas-permeable contacts in the fierce sea spray, and a third accidentally drilled a hole in the gasoline tank while making some necessary repairs to the ship. At long last the rescued and rescuers were shipwrecked on the coast of Tasmania about twelve miles from the nearest fishing village, and were forced to hike the full distance in their sailor's duck- boots before receiving help and a free meal. Ensign Daniels sang ballads to his sweetie Clarissa for the duration of the march, until the other sailors threw their sea-caps at him, upon which he stopped, offended. When the first mate finally got to sleep that night he had terrible nightmares and fell out of bed onto a pile of old fishing sweaters, his old allergies acted up, and he dreamed of pickled oars and the blustery petticoats of eight women who were freethinkers and lived on the Isle of Wight. The next morning in the police station, after a brisk interrogation, the entire crew refused to identify their ruffian rescuers and claimed their rights as foreign citizens to be deported to their lands of origins. Ensign Daniels did not fail to remind the officials present of the tears of his patient Mary Lou. They were flown off the next day to London, to await their connecting flights. At London the first mate was trapped in Heathrow airport for the subsequent three months as he tried to explain a visa to North Korea in his passport, and the other crew members safely made it onto six different planes speeding them back to their points of origin. Only the captain's plane did not safely reach his destination: one wing caught fire as it swept over the Baltic Sea on its trajectory back to Micronesia (a shock in itself: the crew had always assumed he was Dutch). The captain had a window seat over the wing in question. He died of asphyxiation in mid-air, hurtling out of a hole where the wing used to be and performing several flawless somersaults before straightening out into a feet-first position. Several miles in the distance, the metal and gasoline-stink plane simultaneously began its own swan dive. His last sight as he ripped downwards through the air was the crest of a wave, white-tipped and flecked with salt, as it pushed for just a moment's release into the sky.

Black Magic

After pricking his index finger to sanctify the ground with a few drops of spilled blood, pulling three cast-off snakeskins and the eye of a newt out of his knapsack, and doing various things with an illustrated copy of the Bible that will not be described to you here, the initiate stood in the center of a five-pointed star he had drawn himself with honey and beeswax and shouted the devil's name. Since there was no master to instruct him, he had come up with a list of the devil's possible names which he had constructed himself and which he revered fiercely. Some were of historical origin and others he simply intuited himself. An incomplete list: Satan, the Intimate Enemy, Lord of Flies, infernal Beelzebub, Old Nick, Prince of Thieves and Buyer of the Lost, Machiavelli, Angel of Obstacles, Fallen Morning Star, Blue-eyed Lucifer. "Answer me!" he shouted.

Once more he tried to call down the evil spirit, using the invocation he had found on a pop-Satanist's website: "Shemhamfarash!" At his first sigh of despair, a newborn viper with skin like parachute silk slipped out from under a rock and wriggled between his feet. When he looked down, it slid out of sight, but when he stared into the distance again it reappeared and slithered over his left foot. He muttered a protective chant in bad Aramaic and it began to rain; after reciting the Kabbalistic value of a sequence of words chosen from the Bible his toenails turned green; when he offered up himself as the Dark One's servant a piece of bird excrement dropped from above and landed at his feet. He tried to abjure his parents and his past, but could only stutter; dared God to strike him dead with lightning but the drizzle began to ease off. The would-be initiate rubbed his fingers through his hair. He thought to himself that the devil only breathes through his left nostril, the sinister sneezer, and taped up his own right nostril to imitate the master. "If I imitate him, can I produce him?" he wondered.

He knew full well the chaotic possibilities of attempting something without a teacher, but had reasoned at home that there was always at least one time that you manage to do something without knowing how to do it, for the simple fact that you've never done it before. In fact he had hoped there would be a certain purity to his desire to do, without knowing or being told how. He realized the attempt was tarnished by the fact that he had seen movies, heard contradictory horror stories, been told legends that prefigured his presence here and now, sitting on a log and expecting his dark will to hurry up and express itself in the world. He heard his mother's voice nagging as she so often used to do in his childhood over music lessons and boating practice and beating off class bullies: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then he shut off her voice and tried provoking the Lord's wrath by corrupting the Credo until his attention span broke.

The beauty of black magic, he thought, was that it would explain the unexplainable, connect the impossible to the actual, that it was a forcing of the miraculous into grimy human hands. In his research at night he had begun to believe that he could explain anything away, except what Aristotle would have called the first causes. "You trace a chain of cause-and-effect as far back as you can and either you lose interest or eventually you decide that the chain must be infinite and unknowable or else maybe you follow Aristotle's lead and you just posit something that started it all, some transcendent cause that kicked off the Big Bang and all the observable phenomenon that we can know or document, and you give it a name because you assume it must exist. You use your mind to create God the Creator, worship him as the Unmoved Mover. That's imagination. Because a point of origin without its own origin cannot possibly exist, even though it actually did, and so," he thought, losing his train of thought. Absentmindedly he poked a stick at the snake, lifted it up on his twig and managed to flip it into one of the nearby bushes. Then he shook himself together and glanced at his equipment. The thought of dying a failure assailed him. He fought it off by reconstructing the blank inner peace of the nothingness that existed before he had ever been born, and fantasizing a total silence where he would not even be able to hear his own body, even the sound of the blood in his veins, pounding in his ears.

The initiate got out his tape recorder and his cassette of Judas Priest and disconsolately began playing it full volume, on a special mix-tape where it was recorded playing backwards. Noise blurted out of the machine. He put his head in his hands, thinking, not moving even after the machine skipped several times and then broke down. Then a simple idea occurred to him, so simple that he felt as though it must have come from outside himself. From memory he began to recite, Earth the and heaven the created God beginning the In. With shaking hands he pulled out a Gideon Bible and began to read, holding the book as far away from him as possible and only stealing the briefest of glances at the page: Light was there and; light be there Let, said God And. Waters the of face the upon moved God of spirit the And. Deep the of face the upon was darkness and; void and, form without was earth the And. Quickly he ripped the page out of the Bible and began to chew it, mesmerized, listening to the force of his teeth against paper fiber, the vibrations in his jaw as he bit down, until slowly a small stream of smoke began to issue from the top of his head equidistant from the two temples, and he sat straight up with his spine stiffening in his back, concentrating there, centering himself, waiting, as a pacifying sense of deja vu began to overwhelm him from all sides.