7:58 PM, FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 3
Julia Austrian was blind. Her blindness wasn't caused by birth defect, nor by tragic accident. Instead it was almost as if the hand of God -- or perhaps Satan -- had reached into her bedroom while she'd slept and squeezed the life from her eyes. Her blindness had no known physical cause, the doctors had told her. It was a psychological problem: She was terrified of her audiences.
She'd never gotten used to being blind. Sight was a memory that lingered like a dream, and she ached to be able to see again. So she lied. She told interviewers that being blind was an advantage to a pianist. She told her family she was glad because it enabled her to concentrate on her career. She told the three men she'd loved that sex was better being blind -- pure emotion and physicality.
There was some truth in her lies.
She was on the road a lot throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. Her mother was her manager and her eyes, and together they toured the world of music, from great concert halls to intimate auditoriums, from grand rococo palaces to woodsy county bowls. Critics raved about her power, her beauty of tone, her complete technical command, and her temperament -- that elusive quality that infused every note with excitement. At home, her wealthy, extended family thought the piano a strange choice for an occupation, but everywhere audiences loved her. It was one of those odd twists of life: She fed an audience's soul, and they hers. But because of them, she was blind.
Her mother -- Marguerite Austrian -- was her bulwark through it all. Julia was her only child, and they'd developed one of those unusually close relationships between adults who have the same blood. They shared love and understanding and an intense insecurity that was rooted in family tragedy. Julia could get sappy about Marguerite. She could weep tears of gratitude for all Marguerite had done for her. She could feel ashamed for the easy life Marguerite had given up to manage her.
After all, Julia could have hired people to do that. Wealth was the fix of choice in her family, and Julia wasn't shy about applying it whenever necessary. But her mother brushed off her concerns, and with the years Julia began to understand this life of work and travel and being her sighted companion was what her mother wanted.
In the end, it always came back to the music. To her father, who'd recognized the talent in her and had sent her to Juilliard. And to her mother, who not only had made her career possible through the ups and downs but had made much of it a delight -- practice, concerts, men, touring, her ongoing struggle to do as much as possible for herself, the weight training and jogging that built her muscles so she'd play as strong as any man. Through the years her self-confidence had grown. Now she felt she could face anything.
This Friday night they were at the Royal Albert Hall in London for an evening to be broadcast live on the BBC. The air crackled with excitement, and the scents of expensive perfumes were everywhere.
She was eager to play. On the periphery of her consciousness were the whispers of the stagehands as the backstage quieted, while ahead the audience murmured and moved, as restless as a just-tamed beast. But as Julia waited to go on, it was the music that had her attention -- throbbing through her brain, her fingers aching for the keyboard.
She smiled. It was time.
"Now, dear." Her mother's voice was satin with hints of New York.
Julia released her mother's arm and moved forward. Before a concert, she memorized the path to her piano, and then she walked it alone, without her white cane or tinted glasses or someone's helpful arm. Over the years, she'd developed an inner sense of direction that was highly accurate. Anyone could do that. Blindness was very mental -- your ability to think about what you were perceiving was the key.
What she didn't notice was that her other inner senses were asleep now, drowned by the soaring notes and complex themes of the études she was about to play. Engrossed, driven by her need for her Steinway, she strode through the backstage area.
With staggering suddenness, she walked straight into something, stumbled, and crashed down hard in the wings, completely disoriented. Pain radiated from her right hip and hands. She gasped.
Feet rushed toward her.
"Julia!" Her mother was at her side, propping her up. "Who left this stool here? Everyone was told to keep the area clear. Get it out of here! Julia! Are you all right?"
Her mother helped her to her feet. Fear shot through her. She was shocked not only by the fall, but by the disappearance of her "facial sense." Most of the time, it was almost as if her face could "see" a low-hanging branch ahead, or an overstuffed chair, or a stool. Sweat broke out on her forehead. When your life was lightless, you quickly lost your sense of left and right, front and back. You dwelled in a sea of black. Once you were off-balance, directions turned inside out in the darkness, and your head rattled with chaos.
Heightened senses vanished. Deciding where to move next became impossible.
She had to pull herself together.
Heart hammering, she froze and took stock. Her wrists ached. She must've landed on her hands a lot harder than she'd realized. More fear shook her.
She couldn't injure her fingers, hands, or wrists. That'd be the end of her playing. Instantly she felt them.
"You're hurt!" Her mother's whisper was a shout in her ear.
There was no sharp pain. "Nothing's broken." She relaxed with relief. Loudly she said to the stagehands and concert staff, whom she knew from their low, concerned voices had crowded around, "I'm fine. Thank you. Really. I'm fine."
Her palms were sore. They felt bruised. But she was determined to play now, no matter what. Frantically she tried to recall her schedule for the next few days. "What's on for tomorrow?" she whispered.
"We're flying to Vienna. No concert for two days. Why? It's your hands, isn't it? How badly are you hurt, Julia?" Her mother's voice was tight with worry.
"The palms are a little tender." She was lucky this time. "After I play tonight, I'll rest a few days."
"Shouldn't you see a doctor right away? Get X-rays?"
"This is like the other times, Mom. Do you have some aspirin in your shoulder bag?" That was for the inflammation and swelling.
As her mother left, Julia analyzed the shocked hush around her. No one's facial sense was perfect, she told herself, although hers nearly always was. She'd been distracted by the music that filled her. In the beginning of her blindness she'd constantly walked into walls, doorjambs, and street signs. What the sighted took for granted could still be catastrophic for her. She could stumble into an open manhole and break her neck. She could step off a balcony and plunge eighty stories.
The peril went with being blind, that and the bruises to body and ego. But with her there was a greater terror. She tried to push the fear away, but it was like a huge shadow dug into her shoulders, looming, ready to overwhelm her with the horror of never being able to make music again.
Sweat trickled down her face. Her breath came in frightened pants. Around her silence waited, worried, embarrassed. She mustn't let the fear stop her, or be intimidated by the scent of vicarious humiliation that floated thick around her from those she couldn't see.
Someone had inadvertently left a stool in her path. Nothing more.
"Can you play?" Her booking agent, Marsha Barr, arrived at her side. Anxious.
"I don't think she should." Her mother had returned. She pressed two aspirin tablets into Julia's hand, and then a glass of water into the other.
"Of course I can play," she insisted. She took the aspirin and drank the water.
"Really, I'm fine." She couldn't disappoint her audience.
"How are your hands now?" her mother demanded.
"A little sore." Julia gave a wry smile. "But I think we won't have to amputate."
The low murmurs around her suddenly stopped, shocked. And then the crowd chuckled with relief.
Marsha Barr laughed and patted Julia's arm. "Well, it seems things are getting back to normal." She stepped away. "I'm going to tell the audience there's been a fifteen-minute delay."
As she left, Julia's mother said, "Yes, amputation's a bit extreme. Imagine how it would disrupt the tour." She gave a small laugh, but beneath the light tone Julia heard her mother's agony of apprehension.
Besides having facial sense, Julia could usually hear and feel movement. It was all due to proprioceptors -- tiny sensory organs found in everyone's muscles, tendons, and other subcutaneous tissues, but largely ignored by the sighted. Over the years she'd taught herself to feel air adjust when an object moved. To hear minute sounds of impact on a carpet or a body joint creak or a stomach roll. To feel warmth as something living approached.
Tonight her facial sense had been obscured long enough for her to crash into the stool. It gave her pause. And it frightened her that she could lose all her heightened senses just as she'd lost her sight --
She calmed herself and concentrated. With a sudden familiarity, she felt the air shift in front of her. Her heartbeat escalated with excitement as a mysterious force she'd never understood seemed to emerge from an enlargement of all her pores. With that, she sensed her mother reach for her hands.
With an internal explosion of joy, she held them out.
Marguerite's voice was indignant, but also relieved. "Julia! Every time you anticipate me like that, you spook me!"
Julia smiled. "Just my proprioceptors."
Then she waited nervously as her mother took her hands and probed the fingers, palms, and wrists.
Marguerite said, "I think there's nothing serious, but I'd still like you to see a doctor."
In other words, her mother had confirmed her own conclusion. Now Julia wanted to retreat into herself, prepare again to play. Grow calm, distant, self-absorbed.
She said lightly, "Nothing's broken, Doctor Mom. You've diagnosed that yourself. In the morning, if they're no better, you can call in one of your colleagues."
"You're all heart."
"I try to cooperate." With another surge of happiness, Julia presented her cheek.
"Dammit, Julia! Will you quit doing that!" Her mother had been about to kiss her.
Julia's facial sense had told her that. "I love you, Mom." She chuckled.
"I know, dear." Her mother sighed and kissed her tenderly on the presented cheek. "I love you, too."
"I'm ready to play. Take me back to where we started so I can count my steps and do it again."
"Is the stool gone?" Julia asked.
"Then I'm sure. Absolutely. Full speed ahead."
Julia walked confidently through the solid darkness. Her long Versace gown rustled against her legs. Once more Liszt's études filled her with their great beauty. She seemed to reverberate with the music, her heartbeat almost pacing itself to the rhythms. Automatically her other senses again went dormant.
As she stepped onto the stage, as if at a great distance she felt the sudden heat of lights and an ocean of people. The applause was so enthusiastic it thundered. Ahead on the stage her Steinway grand piano waited only ten steps away. She had it shipped to every concert. On arrival it was placed in the center of the stage, voiced, and regulated to her specifications. She'd rehearsed on it that afternoon and found it tuned, agile, and graced with its usual sonorous sound. A joy to play.
Eight steps. Tonight she'd give her listeners something very European -- the Liszt Transcendental Études. Each &$233;tude was different technically and stylistically, and together the twelve were a monument to Romanticism. The opening &$233;tude, "Preludio," resonated through her, challenging her to begin the extraordinary cycle.
Six steps. She'd been blind ten years now, her entire professional life since her debut as an eighteen-year-old at Carnegie. It startled her to realize how quickly the years had passed. Her world wasn't forbidding and hopeless; it glittered as it had before, but now with odors, shapes, tastes, textures, and -- most especially -- sound...music.
Four steps. Her skin prickled with tension, and her heart pounded.
Two steps. She was almost there. She knew the piano was beside her.
One step. She breathed deeply. She was the music, and only it mattered.
Then in her stark blackness she saw a sliver of light.
The shock of it was like a lightning bolt. She almost stumbled. Light? Again? Two nights ago in Warsaw brief light had appeared just as she was about to play. But that light had been like a thought, coming and going almost too quickly to notice, and afterwards she'd doubted she'd really seen it.
This light lingered. Her eyes felt warm. Could she believe it? An ache caught in the back of her throat as she fervently hoped.
Yes, it was true. She blinked rapidly. The cold, black cave in which she'd lived so long was dissolving around her. Her heart pounded with excitement.
The light was beautiful. It glowed and was as pale as a baby's skin. Stunned, she held very still.
As the light grew, her eyes seemed to pulse with life. The world took on a luminous sheen. Objects found their forms. Her eyes felt buoyant, and --
She could see!
With a clarity that made her heart soar, she instantly looked down at her Steinway. Its beauty was mesmerizing -- the exotic pattern of the black-and-white keys, the harp-shaped top open like a treasure trunk. As the audience waited, hushed with expectations, she slid down onto the seat and ran her fingers over the seductive keyboard. She'd waited a long time for this. Forever.
Happy beyond comprehension, she drank in the sight of the complex, handsome instrument that had become her life.
A long beat passed. She knew she must start to play, but --
She was starving to see more. She looked across to the wings. The technicians were watching curiously, unsure about her delay. She was awed by their sizes, shapes, and expressions. As if it were a great feast, she savored the drab color of their coveralls, which memory told her was simply institutional green. But in that moment on that dark, neutral stage, the dull green seemed the brightest, most appealing color she'd ever seen.
She could see. But was it real? Could she trust herself?
She turned to the audience, to this creature she both loved and feared. She caught glints of diamonds and gold, the rich textures of silk and satin, the smooth-shaved men in their evening clothes, and the expensively made-up women with their manicured hair. Shyly she relished their rapt expressions. They were here to listen to her performance.
The audience was stirring, restless and impatient. She was taking too long. She felt a delicious laugh rise in her throat. Of course, they thought she was still blind. They couldn't know --
She hungered to go on looking, looking...proving to herself her sight was back...reveling over and over again in the most minute details of this glorious world that had seemed forever lost --
But she summoned her self-discipline. There'd be time for everything she'd missed, she told herself. Her sight was back.
There was an amphitheater full of people out there, waiting. Elated, she lifted her hands and paused just long enough to feel all her euphoria for this supreme moment. Then she began to play, and life poured out.
Both triumph and joy fueled Julia Austrian that night. Her jubilation at regaining her sight gave her power, and the power flowed like a wide, deep river into Liszt's études. For her, making music was many things, but tonight it was also a way to reaffirm her dreams.
Her fingers were jackhammers on the keys, and they were butterfly wings. She made the notes dance and soar and shout and weep and laugh. They pirouetted and glided. And then in the fourth étude -- "Mazeppa" -- where the music portrayed a Cossack tied to a wild stallion, where the finger work was exhausting because Liszt's demanding notes gave a monumental workout to arms and wrists, she forgot about the past and future, sight and blindness, pain and loneliness.
Sweating, intense, she escaped into that sublime netherworld where she and the music were indistinguishable. She was all of its compelling emotions, all of its grand poetry, all of its myths. Whether the concert was good or bad no longer mattered.
Her playing took on a life of its own. The muscles she'd worked so religiously to build, the stamina that was her hard-won trophy for years of exercise and weight lifting, gave her the elastic strength to perform on the level of the greatest maestros. As she approached the final study, no. 12 -- "Snowscape" -- she was aware in some distant recess she was giving a breathtaking performance.
But what consumed her was the delicacy, the sensitivity with which she must play now so she could balance the melody and tremolando accompaniment. She poured her heart into Liszt's greatest &$233;tude, into its wrenching desolation. She could see the snowflakes drifting down everywhere, shrouding the world in white, entombing humans and wild creatures and nature's monuments to God, while the wind sighed and moaned.
As she struck the final notes, the music lingered almost palpable in the air. Haunting.
There was a hushed pause. Then utter silence.
The audience leaped to its feet in ovation.
They clapped. They called. They shouted. The noise went on and on.
She bowed, left, played an encore, returned, bowed, played another encore. Again and again. And finally stood there on the stage, humbled, head lowered before such thunderous approval, almost forgetting she was no longer blind.
Copyright © 1998 by Gayle Hallenbeck Lynds