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1st Prize Winner (Group III: 13-15 years) - A Lesson in Music Theory

April, 2018
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A Lesson in Music Theory


i. adagio: a slow tempo

There is a small piano shop at the end of the street, ordinary in every possible way except for the young piano man who sits by the window, playing some unheard melody. It is always there, yet quite easy to forget that it had ever existed.

They meet one day when it seems like it will rain, when the sky is suffocating and the air is thick like stew, water straining against the clouds. Esther walks seventeen steps, pauses, and declares to nobody in particular that she is lost. She looks to the right, to the left, and then to the right again before she spots a faint glimmer of light at the end of the street.

Like always, the piano man is by the window.

Esther waits patiently by the door while the piano man finishes his song. She is all Virginia Woolf, late nights of nihilism and early mornings of every possible religion at once, half-hearted attempts at beat poetry, and watered-down coffee at 3am.

The young piano man does not stop playing the piano until the song ends. He reminds her of oak trees, cinnamon, and rain. Maybe a touch of almonds somewhere.

“Hello,” he says.


ii. crescendo: an increase in volume

The young piano man is perhaps her age, perhaps older. He is tall, smiles with his gums and laughs with his head thrown back like a child.

It is a miracle, really, because Esther does not forget the small piano shop. She returns for the second time on a day that plays with the wind chimes in a pretty sun dress. The third time, the wind runs ragged fingers through her hair. The fourth time, the sky spills over with grey and she wears yellow.

“Who is your favourite composer?” she asks once, leaning against the windowsill. There are crumbs on her hands from one too many pastries and her fingers are stained with chocolate.

“I like all of them,” he says. There is a pause, and then a grin that reminds her a little bit of spring. “For you, I’d guess German romanticism?”

She laughs.

He endeavours to teach her piano, though she is obviously no good and prefers to listen to him play. He pays no heed to her complaints. He likes to guide her hands along the polished black and white keys, likes the way she smiles, likes the way they fit together in harmony.

He buys her roses the winter a year later when the snow dresses the city in white, dusting red over their cheeks and noses, and she says, “Yes.”


iii. fortissimo: very loud

Dissonance, dissonance, dissonance — he has left again.

It was another argument. Like always, it had started with something trivial that had expanded in size until every corner of the room was stuffed with their boiling, blistering anger.

These days, it seemed as though all he could see were her flaws. She was too much Virginia Woolf, too many late nights of nihilism and too many early mornings of every possible religion at once. It seemed as though the things he used to adore about her lost their beauty up close.

She yells something back, the words tumbling out of her throat and shattering into a million pieces on the ground, jagged and broken.

Then, the slam of the door.

The silence in the aftermath has become distressingly familiar, the hollow ringing in the room, the ticking of the clock, and the gurgling of the pipes hidden behind white walls. The words hang in the air and slice at every piece of her until the carpet has bloomed crimson.

These days, he reminds her of the rain. Grey on grey. Thunderstorms. A touch of (stale) almonds, somewhere. She wonders where they had gone wrong.

Esther tried to visit the piano shop at the end of the street one day after an argument, and she realized that she could not find it. She does not remember, and perhaps she should have seen it coming. There is a part in her gut where the butterflies used to take flight that aches every time she thinks about what they used to be, but maybe it is better this way.

They no longer fit together in perfect harmony as they once used to.

(That night, somewhere away from a girl who sits alone in a silent apartment as though the world held the una corda pedal, the resentment in the young piano man’s bones subsides. Everything had settled into a drowsy lull, and the piano man thinks, I’ll apologize tomorrow.)


iv. diminuendo: gradually quieter, softer

He comes home the night after their argument, apologies colored cranberry hidden in the pocket of his shirt. But, the house is strange — the rooms are distorted, the walls are too white, the edges too sharp, the lighting too harsh. He recognizes everything but at the same time he doesn’t.

“Esther?” he calls.

There is no answer.

Her side of the closet is empty. The books which used to be strewn across the table are tucked neatly in the bookshelf, alphabetical order. There is a note on the bed, black ink bleeding through ripped paper, splotchy and lopsided.

Panic — like a tide, building.

i am sorry. perhaps in another time, another place, maybe even in another life, we will meet again. maybe in another life it will be better, or perhaps this is the last time. i do not know. i am sorry. goodbye.

Panic — water fills his lungs and he can’t breathe. He drops the note and calls her name again, has half a mind to grab his keys and run out of the building, repeating her name over and over like he was playing tremolo.

He drives to all the different places that they used to visit together and calls for her until his throat is hoarse and her name is wedged into every corner of the city. He dials her number again and again, and falls asleep in his car parked on the side of the road.

She is gone.

(The cranberries have tumbled out and the whole city is coated in that sticky red. Apologies. Broken promises. Tomorrow didn’t come.)


v. fine: the end

There is a piano man in a small shop at the end of the street, shoulders sagging under the weight of the sky and wrinkles like pencil sketches on his skin. Once in a while, when he sees somebody walk past in a white dress, he rushes to the door, her name and a thousand apologies ten years too late on the tip of his tongue.

But, it is never her.

The regret swirls in his gut and the water in his lungs return, sloshing up his throat and he’s drowning again. He returns to his songs but the beats are off. Missed notes. Wrong chords. So much frustration. Ten thousand regrets and one lesson learnt a day too late.

On days like that, he hates the piano. He hates the white and the black, the neat cut of each key and the way they fit together. He hates the sound because it reminds him of her and all that could-have-been, if only.

Maybe she had melted on his palm, dissolved into nothing, like the snowflakes that night when the cold had dusted red over their cheeks and noses because he had gotten too close.

If only.


vi. da capo: from the beginning, again

In another life, everything is different.

Amid the blacks and whites and all the colors in between, there is a small piano shop at the end of the street. It is ordinary in every possible way except for the young piano man that sits by the window, playing some unheard melody. The sky is suffocating and the air is thick like stew.


Esther walks seventeen steps, looks to the right and then to the left, sees nothing, and continues forwards.


By Grace Liu,
15 years, International School of Beijing 


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