The River at Sunset
Che knew better than to expect an automatic wave of euphoria to wash over him after downing three cups of coffee, but he couldn’t help but feel a bit impatient. After all, the throbbing headache he had earlier was becoming unbearable, and the last thing he wanted was another trip to see Nurse Taffy. He’d like to avoid her for the rest of his time at the academy, in fact.
Luckily, as he stepped into the auditorium after nearly leaping off of the maglev train to get to class on time, he felt the pain in his temples subsiding. He took out his class pamphlet, checking to see where Choir class would be.
Though his schedule said it was in the auditorium, Che instinctively knew he had to find the rehearsal space where the class would actually take place. It didn’t take him long to find it thanks to other students making their way almost in single-file lines.
The room itself was pretty standard fare, though he still wasn’t sure what to expect. He’d been in countless rehearsal halls, ranging from old and moldy to brand spanking new, but this one had its own unique charm.
Small and intimate, it was clear to Che that the room was designed for a smaller group of students. The walls were painted in a muted shade of blue, and the floor was a light wood, which he found interesting given the acoustics it would provide. Gray risers were terraced on top of each other with rows of chairs on top of them. On either side of the risers were a set of black rail guards.
The other students were moving into their designated sections, and it didn’t take long for Che to figure out how the director had positioned the sopranos, altos, baritones, and tenors. He figured if he stood in the middle of the male students, he’d at least be able to manage while they waited for the professor.
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding!”
Che looked over to see Bella throwing her hands up in disbelief. She was staring directly at him, and he could feel his cheeks flooding with embarrassment.
“You can’t seriously think you’re in the right class!” Bella narrowed her eyes.
Che tried to ignore her as he scaled the risers. To be honest, he wasn’t sure why he was here either. Then, he remembered the music book he’d found in Rowan’s belongings. It seemed like every student already had their textbooks picked out for them, but it couldn’t have been a coincidence.
The bell sounded, and a woman dashed into the room, her gray robe sweeping behind her as her fiery red hair bounced and thrashed about like tendrils. She smiled brightly at the students, her green eyes glowing with enthusiasm. She then opened her mouth and soared into a magnificent soprano melisma. All of the students froze, transfixed by the sound, and Che couldn’t help but wonder if her Mark had something to do with her voice.
“Welcome everyone! It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it? I-Oh my! We have a new student!” she exclaimed with a wide grin on her face, pointing at Che. “I haven’t met you yet. I’m Professor Nine, and you are?”
“Uh, Rowan,” Che still had to focus on not giving away his real name.
Professor Nine beamed. “Oh, yes, and I can tell by your voice you must be a baritone, correct?”
Che nodded. “You got me.”
Professor Nine guffawed at Che’s seemingly insignificant attempt at humor. “Well then! I can tell you have a magnificent voice, and I was looking for volunteers today to demonstrate any piece they feel comfortable attempting. What say you?”
Che gulped, instinctively reaching for his music book. He definitely hadn’t expected to be put on the spot like this. He thought they’d go over an ensemble piece, not solo work, especially within the first few days. Still, he knew this wasn’t like his regular choir rehearsals.
“Why, Professor Nine, I don’t think Rowan’s quite prepared yet,” Bella chimed in trying to sound as innocent and sweet as possible. “You see…he spent most of yesterday in the infirmary. I doubt he even had time to study.”
Che felt a wave of relief wash over him, but Professor Nine didn’t seem fooled. She cocked her head to the side and raised her eyebrows.
“Well, I do believe in giving everyone a chance to show off their talents,” she said before turning to face Bella. “Why, Bella, why don’t you go first, dear?”
Professor Nine flapped out her robe as she took a seat at the piano, strumming a few notes as if to warm herself up. Bella confidently strode down the risers with her sheet music in hand as the other students murmured to themselves. Professor Nine took the sheet music and regarded it for a moment before nodding with approval. Bella then moved to stand in front of the piano facing Che and the other students.
Professor Nine began to play, and Che recognized the piece immediately as Mozart. It was an aria almost every beginner soprano started with, “L’ho perduta,” from The Marriage of Figaro. Mozart always sounded deceptively easy, but he knew firsthand from learning parts of The Magic Flute that looks could be deceiving.
Bella’s voice was light and beautiful at first. The aria was about a character who’d lost a pin that played a significant role in that particular part of the opera, though Bella’s facial expression conveyed anything but anxiety.
That was…until midway through the piece when her voice began to warble and careen off pitch. Che saw one of the other students mouth something that sounded like “flat,” and within seconds it was as if someone had drained all of the air out of the room. Professor Nine’s expression remained neutral but it was clear that she wasn’t impressed.
Bella stopped singing abruptly, murmured something to herself, and ran out of the hall. The other students began to whisper to each other, and Professor Nine cleared her throat.
“Well, that was a bit of an unexpected development,” she sighed, shaking her head, “but I’m sure it won’t happen again. Mr. Rowan, why don’t you give us a try?”
Che shook his head. “I should go check on her if you don’t mind.”
Professor Nine smiled warmly. “Of course, my dear. I think that would be best.”
Che walked out into the hallway and spotted Bella by a nearby water fountain, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. As he approached, she sprang up, glaring at him.
“Go away!” she quickly turned around.
Che held up his hands, trying to convey that he meant no harm. “I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
Bella laughed and shook her head. “You don’t have to pretend you care. I know I messed up.”
Che shrugged. “It happens to everyone, even me at times.”
“Of course it happens to you,” Bella managed between sniffles. “You don’t know how to do anything. You don’t even know how to fight.”
Che opened his mouth before clamping it back shut again. If only she knew who’d saved her the other day from Reagan and Vista. From Yokan.
Bella finally turned to face him, her eyes puffy from the tears she’d quickly wiped away. “I don’t need someone like you to make me feel better.”
Che sighed. Enough was enough with this girl. “Look. You could have the most beautiful voice in the world, but you’ll never get anywhere in life with that awful attitude of yours.”
Bella opened her mouth, but no words came out. She stared at Che for a moment, as if he were a strange, spectral being, and Che was certain this was the first time anyone had ever said anything like this to her.
She started to walk away, but Che called out to her. “Wait! I shouldn’t have put it like that, but geez. Can you ease up sometimes? You’ve got a good voice. You just need the confidence.”
“And what do you know about confidence?” Bella’s tone was no less pointed than it had been before. “Don’t forget you’re the one who ran away the other day!”
Che sighed as he recalled the memory of fleeing Rose Coliseum with Nikki in tow. It certainly wasn’t one of his proudest moments. The memory faded and was soon replaced by the day he’d walked out of the recital hall mid-performance. He could say both of those instances were different, but were they? Wasn’t he just running away each time?
“I guess you have a point,” Che sighed, “but let’s make a deal. Professor Nine wants me to sing next. If by some miracle I manage to not completely screw it up, you have to try again.”
Bella slowly nodded her head. “Fine.”
Che’s eyes widened with surprise. “I didn’t think you’d accept that so easily.”
Bella rolled her eyes as she threw her tissue into a nearby bin. “Because I have nothing to lose. We both know you’re going to screw up.”
Che closed his eyes and shook his head. She hadn’t really soaked in a word he’d said. He gestured towards the recital hall. “Fine. Shall we?”
Bella nodded and hesitantly followed him back to class, where everyone else was still waiting for the two to return. Professor Nine gave him a relieved smile as he approached the piano, while Bella made her way back to her spot on the risers, ducking her eyes away from the curious stares of her classmates.
“I’m very proud of you for that,” Professor Nine whispered to Che, before turning back to the class. She then nodded her head toward him. “Mr. Rowan will now sing.”
Che clenched his fists and noticed he’d been holding his music book the entire time he’d been talking to Bella. He opened it, already skimming its contents to find the page he was looking for. There was really only one piece he’d ever truly been interested in performing during his university days. He finally found it, “Beau Soir,” by Claude Debussy, one of his favorite composers.
Dr. Stevenson had refused to let him pick out for himself. She’d played a few notes and slammed her piano shut, giving him a curt “No” and never entertaining the idea again.
“I’d like to try this one,” he handed the book to Professor Nine, who examined the piece before giving him a nod.
“I think this suits you,” she held the sheet music at arm’s length, regarding it as if she’d found some hidden treasure.
Che took a deep breath and stepped in front of the piano and faced the rest of the class, his heart pounding in anticipation. He closed his eyes for a few moments, listening as Professor Nine adjusted her seat and music stand. Then the room became so silent he could hear his own breathing.
Gentle, serene notes swelled out of the piano, slowly filling the room with its romantic melody. Yes. He’d loved everything about this art song from start to finish. He’d even studied the English translation carefully in preparation for presenting it to Dr. Stevenson. Its message was simple. Everyone had to savor the gift of life, for just like with any river there was an inevitable end, the river to the sea and mankind to the tomb.
When Dr. Stevenson slammed shut his desire to choose a piece for himself, deeming him not competent enough to do so, he’d wondered then if life was even worth living. What was the point if this was all it amounted to? A river at sunset seemed to have more purpose, seemed to leave more of an impression, than anything he’d ever tried to achieve.
Yet, there was still that small part of him that wasn’t ready to quit yet. It was always there.
Che opened his eyes, glanced around the room briefly, and started to sing. He hadn’t done it in so long he was certain he’d immediately start straining his voice, but as he found his way back into the lyrics, he realized that it still felt so natural.
His voice started to fill the hall with the melody he’d memorized so long ago, that he should have forgotten by now. It was a beautiful, powerful sound that commanded the attention of everyone in the room. Bella’s eyes were wide, and her jaw dropped slightly as if she was witnessing something magical.
As the piece came to an end, all that was left was a mesmerizing silence. Che’s heart raced in his chest as if he was just waking up from a dream. He cleared his throat softly, and the hall erupted in applause. Professor Nine, in particular, was almost crying.
“My dear boy,” she said, her voice shaking. “That was beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.”
Che saw Bella staring at him in awe from the corner of his eye before she finally joined in the applause. He gave a quick bow before returning to his spot on the risers. Several of the other students gave him congratulatory pats on the back and whispered their amazement as he returned, but Che could feel everything being drowned out as he remembered Dr. Stevenson refusing to allow him to select “Beau soir.”
He understood Bella’s lack of confidence completely. It was so easy to lose it in a place like this, an environment where beauty could only be created and sustained by being delicate. Was it possible to be too fragile, not made of what was necessary to survive long enough to become something noteworthy?
Che shook his head as Professor Nine’s voice came back into focus. They were all about to start warming up. His eyes met Bella’s, who quickly looked away. Maybe she’d never be fond of him, but at least she knew now what was possible. Perhaps she’d be stronger than he was back then.
He only hoped she’d come to understand the gift of life the way he had, and how important it was to find the beauty in it now, while she still could.