she were constructing an airtight box. Stealthily, once Cecilia went on to Bach’s other works,
the Mother Superior removed from the music
cabinet and destroyed the Goldberg Variations—
clearly capable of lifting into the mind subterranean complexities. Life in the convent
returned to normal. The cook, to everyone’s
gratitude, stopped preparing the heavy, rancid
goose-fat-laced beet soup of her youth and
stuck to overcooked string beans, boiled cabbage, potatoes. The floors stopped groaning
and absorbed fresh wax. The doors ceased to fly
open for no reason and closed discreetly. The
water stopped rushing continually through the
pipes as the sisters no longer took advantage of
the new plumbing to drown out the sounds of
And then, one day, Sister Cecilia woke
with a tightness in her chest. Pains shot across
her heart and the red lump in her chest beat
like a wild thing caught in a snare of bones.
Her throat shut. Her hands, drawn to the keyboard, floated into a long appoggiatura. Then,
crash, she was inside a thrusting mazurka.
The music came back to her. There was the
scent of faint gardenias—his hothouse boutonniere. The silk of his heavy, brown hair. A
man’s sharp, sensuous drawing-room sweat.
His voice, she heard it, avid and light. It was as
though the composer himself had entered the
room. Who knows? Surely there was no more
desperate, earthly, exacting heart than Cecilia’s.
Surely something, however paltry, lies beyond
At any rate, she played Chopin. Played in
utter naturalness until the Mother Superior
was forced to shut the cover to the keyboard
gently and pull the stool away. Cecilia lifted
the lid and played upon her knees. The poor
scandalized dame dragged her from the keys.
Cecilia crawled back. The Mother, at her wit’s
end, sank down and urged the girl to pray. She
herself spoke first in apprehension and then in
certainty, saying that it was the very devil who
had managed to find a way to Cecilia’s soul
through the flashing doors of sixteenth notes.
Her fears were confirmed when not moments
later the gentle sister raised her arms and fists,
struck the keys as though the instrument were
stone and from the rock her thirst would be
quenched. But only discord emerged.
“My child, my dear child,” comforted the
Mother, “come away and rest yourself.”
“There is no rest,” she declared, and she then
unpinned her veil and studiously dismantled
her habit. She folded each piece with rever-
ence and set it on the piano bench. With each
movement the Superior remonstrated with
Cecilia in the most tender and compassion-
ate tones. However, just as in the depth of her
playing the virgin had become the woman, so
the woman in the habit became a woman to
the bone. She stripped down to her shift, but
“He wouldn’t want me to go out unprotected,” she told her Mother Superior.
“God?” the older woman asked, bewildered.
“Chopin,” Cecilia answered.
Kissing her dear Mother’s trembling fingers, Cecilia knelt. She made a true genuflection, murmured an act of contrition, and then
walked from the convent made of bricks with
the secret word pressed between yellow mortar,
and the music, her music, which the Mother
Superior would keep from then on under lock
and key as capable of mayhem.
Louise Erdrich, from The Last Report on the
Miracles at Little No Horse. The oldest of seven
children from a family of German, French, and Turtle
Mountain Chippewa descent, Erdrich was born in
Minnesota in 1954 and raised in North Dakota. She
has published more than fifteen novels. Her parents
encouraged her writing; in her youth, her father paid
her a nickel for every story she completed. In 2010 The
Paris Review asked her what these stories were about.
“Lonely girls with hidden talents,” she said.
When chaos is the god of an era, clamorous
music is the deity’s chief instrument.
—Ben Okri, 1989