Mitigating Circumstances while Waiting for the Train to Avignon by Paul Garson

Cerebe Delatrois was ready to make his mark. Perhaps the whole world would know his name. Some would extol it, perhaps even name their children after him. Others would curse his name and seek to erase it from the history books. As they say, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. 

At the moment, within the cavernous Gare du Nord, he sat on a luggage cart, his earthly possessions contained in one haversack and most importantly within the case leaning against his legs. Inside was what Cerebe called his “Weapon.” It was primed and ready for what he would soon demand of it in Avignon. 

The station’s vintage lamps cast a warm, subdued glow on the polished sides of the trains waiting to transport some 700,000 passengers daily. And today one such traveler would be holding a third class ticket and an instrument of revolution. 

Avignon, 700 kilometers from Paris, would be the farthest he had ever traveled. But in less than four hours he would step foot on the east bank of the Rhone River, walk across the Saint-Benezet Bridge and place himself at the foot of the Palais des Papes, in the shadow of the eight-towered fortress. It was here that Cerebe would begin his assault. 

He had spent a year of nights preparing in his one-room loft above the Seine, after finishing his rounds at the munitions factory where he serviced the machinery, keeping them well-oiled and grinding out shell casings non-stop. He knew his shell casings found their way to Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria and wherever French forces found themselves. Now he would find his way to Avignon to fight his own battle. 

But then arrived the mitigating circumstances. The loudspeakers announcing the train to Avignon were delayed due to a derailment at Chalon-sur-Saone and will take 24 hours to clear the tracks. 

That would be too late. Cerebe grew desperate, his date with destiny hanging in the balance. Then he heard it. The sonorous strains of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto reverberating from deep within the Gare du Nord. Gathering up his haversack and case he followed the trail of notes to the eastern corner of the station. A young woman, near his own age, had set herself up at the entrance to Track Cinq. Passengers trooping by tossed a few francs into a small silver bucket. Cerebe listened. She played well, a popular piece, perhaps the most popular for the cello. Eyes closed as she played, long red hair streaming over her instrument. Then the snap! A broken string. She pushed back her hair, blue eyes opening on Cerebe. She noticed the case he carried. 

“Cello?” she said, her accent Russian. 

He nodded. 

“Extra strings?” 

He nodded again. 

“I need a D.” 

Cerebe stared at her. And lost his breath. 

“Well?” she said, eyes unblinking. 

Cerebe put down his haversack and opened it. He brought out a packet, handing it to her. She read the label. “A good one,” she said, unwrapped it and began restringing her instrument. 

A moment later she was tuning it in 5ths as required, drawing her bow across the cello’s four strings. “Good,” she said again, then looked up at Cerebe standing there. “Do you speak?” 

“Yes. I speak,” he said. 

“Do you play or just carry a cello case around?” 

“I play,” said Cerebe. 

“Well, I'll give you an audition now?” she said, smiling slightly. 

“What?” 

“If you play well enough, we can play together…a cello duet.” She shook the silver bucket. “We’ll share.” 

“I must go to Avignon to play today but the tracks are disabled.” 

“Why today?” she said. “What’s in Avignon?” 

“Today is April twenty-third. Prokofiev’s birthday.” 

“Sorry, but that’s the new calendar. In Russia, he was officially born on April the eleventh. You missed his birthday.” 

Cerebe rocked on his feet. 

“Don’t take it so badly. We can still celebrate. I have enough for a good bottle of wine and if you play well enough maybe for a bottle of champagne.” 

“This is not Avignon,” he said. 

“No, it’s Paris. Are you also confused as to geography? What’s so important about Avignon?” “I think my mother was born there.” 

“You think? What about your father? Avignon, too?” 

Cerebe did not answer. 

“Okay, understood.” 

Cerebe stood there, eyes downcast.” 

“So…what’s in the case? A decent cello?” 

Cerebe looked up. “I made it.” 

“You made a cello?” said the girl, putting hers aside. “Can I see it?” 

Cerebe took a new breath, replacing the one the girl’s face had taken from him. “Okay,” he said. He placed the case on the floor and unsnapped the closures. 

The girl bent down and looked at what lay inside, “You made this cello? It has six strings, not four!” 

“Yes. And it will play Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante, Opus 125, the second movement in double variations because of the six strings.” 

She looked up at him. “The cello’s most difficult piece. It requires supreme technical proficiency and unbelievable endurance. There are no resting points at all. People have had strokes trying to play it. And you can play simultaneous counterpoints? It’s…revolutionary. You will have the critics howling, cursing you.” 

“Yes, I know. I wanted to play it on Prokofiev’s birthday at Avignon for him and for my mother.” 

The girl stood up. “Play it now. Play it here in Paris. And please, play it for me. My name is Celeste.” 

Cerebe looked into her face, into her eyes. He drew the cello and bow from its case.

 ***

Cerebe did not return to the munitions factory or to his loft. He and Celeste played every day at the station. She would play Dvorak. He would play his Prokofiev. The crowds grew, most no longer waiting for trains. They all wanted to hear the Celeste and Cerebe Pas De Deux as they called themselves. TV crews were soon on hand. Then came the invitations from several conservatories including the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris. 

And yes, eventually several music fans did name their children after them.

Published in Issue #18

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