Wistful Instrument, Solitary Creatures
by Brigitte N. McCray
Imogene’s cello quarreled like two harsh lovers. A fast two-step with staccato notes and double stops and repeated riffs. She swayed back and forth, the bow pushing out the jam as if she were Sean Grissom. She could almost believe it, even when rotten fish and creosote wafted from the waterfront and the bits of trash from the French Market tumbled along.
The tourists on Decatur Street snapped her photograph, and Imogene tossed her long hair and winked, pretending the other musicians on Royal Street hadn’t laughed at her unpolished playing and banished her. She preferred Decatur anyway, with the homeless kids who had train-hopped and now munched on half-eaten beignets from the garbage between their own sets. They sometimes shook her hand after she played and her hands would remain sticky for hours after. These touches sustained her.
Imogene would often visit the public library, where she could be surrounded by people as lonely as she; in the stacks one weekend, she spent hours in the science section, reading about ocean animals while a homeless man in the next aisle watched pornography on his phone. She remembered reading that octopuses were solitary. Although, when they touched a human– or anything, really– their arms stuck there, not wanting to let go.
Her backpack stuffed with her belongings leaned against the kids’, and with her converse sneakers and pink-dyed hair, Imogene fit right in, no matter that she could have been their mother.
She hated Bourbon Street, where all that noise from the clubs and the tourists beat her into the loneliest person in New Orleans. Her cello’s thick and silky notes kept her comfortable and warm until she met Philip, an olive oil maker from Crete.
She’d learned to tolerate the visitors from the cruise ships that docked at the New Orleans port. To tolerate their looks of bewildered amusement. The tourists always wore flip-flops and ugly clothes, like button-up shirts with parrots stitched on them. The bits of change that their manicured fingers plopped inside her instrument case jingled, but the five-dollar bill that Philip dropped floated around her legs until it gently fell inside the case. Like a great blue heron’s crown, his thin wisps of black hair blew in the breeze. She tried to focus on her fingers, the bow, and then the marinated mushrooms she’d buy later at Central Grocery. Philip’s loafer tapped in time with her music and he was the only person who returned her wink.
He turned to a sunburned tourist wearing a fanny pack and said, “Her arms and hands are as tricky and swift as an octopus’s.”
Imogene pressed too hard on the fingerboard and her cello quivered. Philip’s voice had been sweet and syrupy, a jazz solo. It was the first-time she favored a human’s voice to that of her cello.
Later that night, Imogene led him to Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, where they licked lavender and ginger-cayenne snowballs. When skinny-dipping in the Mississippi, Philip interlocked his fingers into her own, and she wondered if she’d ever be able to release her grip. She glanced back, worried her instrument case on the river bank would float away; her stomach twitched and tightened. What if she never needed to play the cello again? She was like an octopus, not wanting to release the flesh that seemed unusual and inviting. A way to cure the loneliness. He missed his cruise ship, and for weeks they rode the green NOLA streetcar each night, his voice carrying over the wooka-wooka-wooka.
The kids from Decatur charmed at the wedding with their songs. They all ate chunks of bread dipped in Philip’s olive oil with roasted aubergines and peppers and pickled vegetables. When Imogene and Philip danced, he whispered to her in Greek. She’d checked out “Learn Greek in a Week” from the library and listened to the CD on her battered portable player while Philip had snored beside her. “I smell the Mississippi, but it’s not powerful, not the way I smell the ocean in Crete,” he said now. The island was calling him home.
“We should go,” she said.
On the boat from New Orleans to the Mediterranean, Imogene and Philip’s hands glided over each other’s skin; their limbs tangled. He fell asleep, and after having her arms wrapped around Philip for so long, it was strange to hold her bow; so, she plucked the cello’s strings. The melody could always ease her solitude. The sea, however, drowned its voice; she could no longer understand the notes. The Mississippi waves and the trumpets and trombones that echoed in her heart drifted from her, the sea ushering the sounds to New Orleans.
Philip woke and said, “Come to bed. Listen to my voice instead.” His voice was like olive oil. He told her stories of his grandparents planting their first olive trees.
Once on the island, Philip busied himself with oil pressing, grinding, and percolating in the building a half of a mile from the grove while Imogene wandered around the black nets spread under the trees and waved to the workers who ignored her as they separated the olives with their rakes. She practiced Greek phrases and sentences, the words gentle and soft under the buzzing bees and the bleating goats. She longed for New Orleans’ sticky dampness; the live oaks; the streets that smelled of bourbon, crawfish, and grilled corn on the cob; the other musicians playing jazz, blues, and ragtime; the dirty kids with their powdered sugar-stained fingers, but she could not return to that place of loneliness.
Even a quarter of a mile from the sea, she could hear the loud fishermen and their wives grumbling about octopuses stealing salted fish. Curious if she’d understood them correctly, Imogene plodded to the docks.
“I’ll knock even the largest octopus on its head!” The stout wife brandished a frying pan out at the ocean, threatening the now-absent creature.
“A curse on every octopus!” A fisherman removed his cap and spat in the sea.
After the difficulty of playing her cello on the boat during her honeymoon, Imogene also feared she’d have to miss the voice of her cello. Perhaps, she thought, an audience would make a difference. She fetched her cello.
She set up next to a couple cleaning a huge net from that morning’s catch. Should she play a Cajun dance song? Something slower? She played for a few minutes before they began shouting.
“Know any sea shanties?”
“Or mournful ballads about doomed lovers?”
“How about a nice bit of folk music?”
Imogene’s head ached from all the hard consonants and slurred vowels; she longed for the rolling “Rs” and nasal vowels of Cajun French.
The shouting and laughing and crinkling of bags at the fish market called to her. She worked the middle of the stalls on the promenade, but no one paid her cello’s voice any mind. Customers filled baskets with sardines, anchovies, mackerel, and squid. A pushy seller kept offering lobster to buyers who refused because of expense. “Which seasonings flavored the lavraki best?” a customer wondered.
The quiet of the olive grove would’ve been better. Yet, in the grove, only her cello’s voice and her own kept her company. Once, that had been enough.
An octopus’s arm crawled over the fish in one of the stalls, the suckers busily grabbing and holding the fish. Imogene dropped her bow. The octopus’s ache for touching delighted Imogene’s heart in the same way the Mississippi River and Cajun and jazz music did. Why, with all the fish in the sea, were the octopuses coming to steal the fish?
Back in New Orleans, Imogene had stolen packets of cigarettes, gum, any small thing just to have a store owner shout at her, just to sit down with a police officer and have someone speak to speak to as she drank bitter coffee at the station.
“Ack!” A black-kerchiefed fishmonger screamed and lifted a cleaver. “You’ll wish you’d kept that arm away from my fish!” She brought the cleaver down, but the octopus was too quick. The cleaver stuck in the stall. The fishmonger left the cleaver stuck in the wooden partition and chased after the fleeing octopus with its stolen crab. The octopus creeped and struggled across land and only escaped the woman by squeezing through a storm drain. She kneeled and peeked down, cursing the octopus.
Imogene wished she could be as boneless and as malleable so she could follow the octopus into the dark.
What music would an octopus love? What could coax them from the sea, despite their timidity? Imogene thought of nothing else all through dinner, as Philip stuffed squid into his mouth and chewed loudly. When he asked her to take a bite, she sighed and listed song after song in her notepad, but crossed each one out. Then, she began listing classical water-themed pieces: the rolling waves of Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave, the wind and waves of Debussy’s La Mer, the flowing water of Wagner’s prelude to Das Rheingold? Those would be just right.
She snuck out in the middle of the night and played in the grove until her fingers bled. When the cello’s voice grew louder than the crickets and the flapping of the night-heron’s wings overhead, the octopuses rolled to the grove. They climbed into the olive trees. Their bulbous heads, bulging eyes, and rounded bodies stuck out, and as they lounged on the branches and listened, their bright colors changed to olive. Despite the camouflage, Imogene could feel them there.
In the dark, the music lifted to the octopuses and their arms dangled and wriggled, coming ever so close to Imogene’s hair. There are ways to speak without voice, without touch. She played on, anticipating their touch.
About Brigitte McCray
Brigitte McCray’s stories and poems have appeared in such publications as Smokelong Quarterly, Mythic Delirium, and Cease, Cows, and she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Prick of the Spindle. She’s a graduate of the Odyssey Workshop for Writers of Fantastic Fiction, the MFA in creative writing program at Virginia Commonwealth University, and the PhD program in English at Louisiana State University. She currently teaches writing and literature at Pellissippi State Community College and lives in Knoxville, TN, where she’s at work on a middle grade novel.