Rigorous
Volume Five, Issue 1



The Soloist

Jonel Abellanosa


I heard about spontaneous healing in his presence, the long-suffering cured all of a sudden by listening to him play the violin. I remain unsure if his healing powers were inherent in him as a person, or if it came from his music, his Stradivarius. As I took my place in the water taxi I remembered stories about him, stories expansive as legends about the channel that join two larger bodies of water. I was told to bring the barest minimum, backpack I bought big enough to include my notebook and its charger.

The cumbersome travel over calm waters reminded me of the steamboat. As smells of brine shimmered, I recognized sadness from faces. I counted twenty-four of us for this trip, half of the passengers senior citizens, couples in their golden years. It became clear as the sunlit sky that the chosen few sought solace more than healing. Some of them were there just to know peace, generous with their smiles, as though they weren’t surprised a newcomer was with them. They knew I was there to help make their story known. Minutes later a lady emerged through a sliding door from the captain’s cabin separated from the passenger area with dark-tinted glass. She distributed blindfolds.

“Put it on,” she said, smiling in a manner as though she knew me. “When you hear the captain’s voice later take it off and toss it to the sea.”

Minutes after I put on the blindfold I smelled jasmine. It transformed into a bouquet of smells, fruity wafts twirling colors in my closed eyes, impossible to describe precisely - not jackfruit, not musk, not sap of the rubber tree. I felt the numbing effect spread across my body, but without alarm. Something I instinctively knew to be a portal to another world, liquid and ultramarine, materialized like a giant egg before me.

Desire to step into the unknown turned unbearable. I stepped into the other side, a powerful force sucked me into a spiral fall. Love touched my heart like a powerful force in the freefall. I surrendered to, and trusted, the new emotion, speed of light in my veins. I thought of a wormhole like a piece of paper folded for two dots to meet. It felt like I was a probe into deep time.

As I hovered I thought of a parachuter in loquacious air. I saw mountains fleshed like a bison’s face, trees colorful as sea anemones, birds flashing prehistory in my mind, having yearn’s wingspan, wide as possibility. Weightlessness carried me, wonder in changing light. When I saw the river I heard its echo through my ribcage, my heart the tree’s fruit. I heard the captain’s voice. I took off the blindfold and hurled it to the sea. But the sea was gone, in its place an unpaved road flanked by wild trees and woods, and a bumpy ride.

*

We waited for the gloaming, walking in groups. A short walk from our living quarters led to the log cabin, late afternoon pathway drenched with dews and birdsong. I thought I heard the pink-necked orange-breasted green pigeon, its droning song strange as a sestina, making me turn my head several times.

“I need one last poem for my book,” said Nat Yu. “I couldn’t write the last poem more than four years now. Something feels missing, incomplete. I’d start again and again, thousands of times, often as twenty times a day. I couldn’t get the first line right. I’m not getting any younger. It feels like a disease.”

“I want to hear the melody I’ll recognize upon hearing,” said the fictionist who said we call her Janis J. “I’ll then know how to edit my twelve stories, how to transform the lyric, how to make sentences echo. I want readers to perceive the metaphorical from my images, the way a bird lands on your palm and is not caught. What about you, Luis? What writing project concerns you?”

I brought my eyes down, my own footsteps lulling. I was quiet for some moments. “I’m not sure. Some pieces have poetry’s visual registers because of cut lines. Even the prosaic ones tell the truth, Janis J., through what you fictionists call lies.”

“You don’t consider yourself a fictionist?”

Another stretch of silence.

“I essay life and living, Nat. There is no such thing as the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

Nat Yu and Janis J. nodded with enthusiasm.

“No one loves us unless we’re consummate liars,” Janis J. said.

“That is the river!” the lady who distributed the blindfold said in a loud voice, pointing at the source of water sounds that sprouted into existence the moment we heard the word river.

Water’s murmur slowly turned deeper, inward, flow’s audible layers as we moved across a field of wheat and wild grasses. Sunlight had tilted, as if it preferred my left cheek. Meters ahead of us, three senior couples, and two nuns, held hands.

*

We were told to leave our slippers outside, barefoot in the log cabin said to be conducive to connection.

“This cabin is a source of regret and guilt,” our lady guide said. “It’s built from the rarest trees that had survived thousands of years. The death of those trees brought pestilence to the land, because trees were homes to ancestral spirits who never heard prayers asking for permission. It took decades of sacrifices and blessings before the land regained peace. When you step inside feel the reverence of connecting with ancient spirits through your bare feet.”

Our names were printed on cardboard and taped on the backrest of plastic chairs. I found my seat on the last row, grateful for the vantage point that covered a larger overview. Janis J. and Nat Yu occupied the next two seats to my right side.

Three actors, the producer and the director went straight to the bar. The bartender mixed their drinks with a smile that strangely reminded me of Jonah of the Biblical whale story. He looked middle-age, his hair trimmed to one side salt and pepper, accentuating his chubby, jowly face.

Upon seeing dark brown vanished floorboards, I felt energy rise through my soles.

*

Four men dressed in cassocks entered the solemn silence, a quiet lit with neon blue artificial lights and candle glows like a congregation of golden tickseed in the dark. The men carried what reminded me of the Ark of the Covenant strapped by ropes to two bamboo poles. When I realized it was large enough to transport a human being, I thought of a litter, the lectica or sella popular in ancient Rome.

It became apparent that it carried the violinist after the sliding door was pulled and insufficient lighting allowed the interior to show bare feet and a violin. A murmur of subdued voices moved like shadows as the men assisted him in getting out.

He staggered and almost fell when he emerged. I was shocked to see him unkempt and emaciated. They helped him settle on the stool, in the beam of the place’s harshest light, which made his face look grotesque, bones as if struggling to burst out his face, his beard and sideburns brownish, reminding me of steel wire balls used to scrub pans, his waist-length hair like the ocean holding squirms of light on ebbs in a dark night. He was in his early fifties. He heaved, his breathing labored. Guests in the audience whispered to each other, as he struggled to raise his hands to receive the bow and the violin. It’s impossible not to notice his unnaturally long fingers that looked like pliant wax, reminding me of candles in heat’s proximity, limping.

The accompanist walked to the piano, smiling and nodding at us, garbed in a white robe that reminded me of ancient Palestine. I wondered if he was also in his early fifties. Insight descended like a dove; I heard a voice whispering that the two of them were born in the exact same moment of the same year. I was shocked not so much by the accompanist that looked exactly like Jesus in Leonardo’s The Last Supper, as recalling what Janis J. whispered earlier - that the violinist’s name was Lazarus.

*

Sick people in the presence of Lazarus were said to heal on the spot. People with cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, liver failure, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, vitamin B12 deficiency. A team of scientists and medical practitioners had been visiting him, watching him play the violin in the log cabin. The experts wanted to speak with the violinist, but he was never known to speak, let alone answer questions. But healed people volunteered to share their experiences for research.

Researchers had brought with them psychologists and musicologists to better understand the phenomenon. Neurologists mapped possible routes in the brain from ways musicologists tried to describe music’s healing mechanisms by what they observed. It became contentious whether the healing mechanism touched through the music or transferred from the violinist himself. They discussed if his presence could create energy fields whose scope and reach needed precise and clear understanding.

The accompanist said the violinist gave his permission for experts and scientists to study his body after his death. The violinist appeared to draw into himself the diseases that were cured. After each performance that registered healing, the violinist would become weaker, frailer, losing heft and weight, spend days bedridden, nursing fever, pneumonia. When he started his public performances two decades ago he was plump, in pink health, his wavy hair salt and pepper, his smile chubby and jowly as the bartender’s.

*

On our way to the pier, after three days of my life’s most mystical experience, we talked about our group’s loss. In the middle of the violin solo the second night, Nat Yu the poet stood and cursed God at the top of his voice for not making his body a violin. The following morning he was found dead in his room, the last poem he was at last able to write hanging by a thread, hanging like his dead body.

We were unanimous that the bartender appeared in a copy of the Diego Velasquez painting Las Meninas on the wall behind the violinist. It wasn’t Diego Velasquez in the painting but the bartender. We were sure the bartender wasn’t in the painting prior to that moment. We were sure he wasn’t painted originally in the replica to replace the Spanish painter; because instead of holding a paintbrush, the bartender in the painting was holding the director’s checkered bandana wrapped round his neck, which was missing and never found.

Climbing the water taxi, I noticed the seniors comparing wristwatches. They couldn’t set their timepieces to the same hour. This time I sat next to one of the nuns, who was pregnant. We talked as the wind grew faster, brushing our faces with the sadness of homecoming. She said that when the violin let out an awful scream like a human voice, she heard her unborn child cry.

Instead of writing a nonfiction piece like I planned, I wrote a poem:

The Soloist

The wailing voice he freed from his Stradivarius
Slicing their composure like stem, the bow
Seesawing on strings fiddling roots of longing.
The way he snapped and scattered sonata’s twigs,
The rosined sound, like sword of a samurai
Swaying to the mind’s winds. Grace of hip
Swivels as eyes in the dark coveted the lover
Behind the trills. They swore the bartender
Appeared in the painting behind him when
He squeezed unripe notes. The nun heard her
Unborn child cry. Asked which part fluttered
The candles’ pulped scents, old folks recalled.
Doubting the warbler’s marble stare,
The widow’s face soured, as if she tasted
Midnight’s rind. The actors sat till cockcrow,
Stunned like the goldfish that stopped breathing
For a minute after the slowing arpeggios.
The poet was found hanging upstairs,
By a thread the unfinished poem cursing
God for not making his body a violin.
Remembering the way to the shoal, they
Spent all week resetting their timepieces.
And the orchard keeps cracking, yesterday’s
Piths pushing up, zests of an end’s parting
Lingering in the air – orphaned by his
Heart beating for someone elsewhere.

When the violinist gained strength to lift his violin and let it rest between his cheek and shoulder blade, lightning flashed. All of us turned to the window. I heard the far rumble of thunder. It was then that the bow pulled the first note to a stretch, the violin softly saying without words that we should listen.

The violin seemed to draw external energy to enliven him. I was shocked when he stood, almost stumbling, the stool rolling on the floor. He launched into a frenzy that was divine and virtuosic. I heard variations and improvisations of Paganini’s caprices. I thought of The Devil’s Trill sonata. As he raged in the beauty of his passages, I remembered Jason Becker’s arpeggios in Altitudes. I heard bones jingling from Saint-Saëns and the Danse Macabre, improvised lines that echoed Vivaldi’s Winter.

Ways he let longing sing were sublime. How he let love essay self-description was original. His wasn’t the precise approximation but the human voice itself from his violin. Three of the seniors described nostalgia as painful glimmer inside the chest, light that pricked a rib, glow too warm for comfort.

A septuagenarian man, one of the husbands, stood all of a sudden, while the violinist reached yearn’s pinnacle the third night. The old man strangely looked young in a lamp’s ethereal light, as though decades had been removed from his body, his countenance, his aural glow. He pressed his stomach with both hands, in tears when he announced that the tumor huge as a tennis ball and hard as a rock had vanished.

As we applauded, violin music abruptly stopped, followed by a thud on the floor. The accompanist stood and hurried towards the body. The soloist had collapsed. He was dead.



Jonel Abellanosa: "I live in Cebu City, the Philippines. My poetry and fiction are forthcoming in Chiron Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, Eunoia Review, and have appeared in hundreds of literary journals, including Thin Air, Rigorous, Poetry Kanto, Loch Raven Review, That Literary Review and The Anglican Theological Review. His poetry collections include, Songs from My Mind’s Tree and Multiverse (Clare Songbirds Publishing House, New York), 50 Acrostic Poems, (Cyberwit, India), In the Donald’s Time (Poetic Justice Books and Art, Florida), and Pan’s Saxophone (Weasel Press, Texas)."




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