|Naked Woman Playing Chopin: A Fargo Romance
The street that runs along the red river follows the curves of a
stream that is muddy and shallow, full of brush, silt, and oxbows that throw the whole
town off the strict clean grid laid out by railroad plat. The river floods most springs
and drags local backyards into its flow, even though its banks are strengthened with
riprap and piled high with concrete torn from reconstructed streets and basements. It is a
hopelessly complicated river, one that freezes deceptively, breaks rough, drowns one or
two every year in its icy flow. It is a dead river in some places, one that harbors only
carp and bullheads. Wild in others, it lures moose down from Canada into the city limits.
At one time, when the land along its banks was newly broken, paddleboats and barges of
grain moved grandly from its source to Winnipeg, for the river flows inscrutably north.
And, over on the Minnesota side, across from what is now church land and the town park, a
farm spread generously up and down the river and back into wide hot fields.
The bonanza farm belonged to Easterners who had sold a
foundry in Vermont and with their money bought the flat vastness that lay along the river.
They raised astounding crops when the land was youngrutabagas that weighed sixty
pounds, wheat unbearably lush, corn on cobs like truncheons. Then there were six
grasshopper years during which even the handles on the hoes and rakes were eaten and a
cavalry soldier, too, was partially devoured while he lay drunk in the insects' path. The
enterprise suffered losses on a grand scale. The farm was split among four brothers,
eventually, who then sold off half of each so that, by the time Berndt Vogel escaped the
trench war of Europe where he'd been chopped mightily but inconclusively in six places by
a British cavalry sabre and then kicked by a horse so that his jaw never shut right again,
there was just one beautiful and peaceful swatch of land about to go for grabs. In the
time it took him to gatherby forswearing women, drinking low beers only, and working
twenty-hour daysthe money to retrieve the farm from the local bank, its price had
dropped further and further, as the earth rose up in a great ship of destruction. Sails of
dust carried half of Berndt's lush dirt over the horizon, but enough remained for him to
plant and reap six fields.
So Berndt survived. On his land there stood an old
hangar-like barn, with only one small part still in usehousing a cow, chickens, one
depressed pig. Berndt kept the rest in decent repair, not only because as a good German he
must waste nothing that came his way, but also because he saw in those grand, dust-filled
shafts of light something that he could worship. It had once housed teams of great blue
Percherons and Belgian draft horses. Only one horse was left, old and made of brutal
velvet, but the others still moved in the powerful synchronicity of his dreams. He fussed
over the remaining mammoth and imagined his farm one day entire, vast and teeming, crews
of men under his command, a cookhouse, a bunkhouse, equipment, a woman and children
sturdily determined to their toil, and a garden in which seeds bearing the scented pinks
and sharp red geraniums of his childhood were planted and thrived.
How surprised he was to find, one afternoon, as though
sown by the wind and summoned by his dreams, a woman standing barefoot, starved and frowsy
in the doorway of his barn. She was a pale flower, nearly bald and dressed in a rough
shift. He blinked stupidly at the vision. Light poured around her like smoke and swirled
at her gesture of need. She spoke.
"Ich habe Hunger."
By the way she said it, he knew she was a Swabian
and thereforehe tried to thrust the thought from his mindliable to have
certain unruly habits in bed. He passed his hand across his eyes. Through the gown of
nearly transparent muslin he could see that her breasts were, excitingly, bound tightly to
her chest with strips of cloth. He blinked hard. Looking directly into her eyes, he
experienced the vertigo of confronting a female who did not blush or look away but held
him with an honest human calm. He thought at first that she must be a loose woman, fleeing
a brothelhad Fargo got so big? Or escaping an evil marriage, perhaps. He didn't know
she was from God.
In the center of the town on the other side of the river there stood a convent made of
yellow bricks. Hauled halfway across Minnesota from Little Falls by pious drivers, they
still held the peculiar sulfurous moth gold of the clay outside that town. The word
"Fleisch" was etched in shallow letters on each one: Fleisch Company Brickworks.
Donated to the nuns at cost. The word, of course, was covered by mortar each time a brick
was laid. However, because she had organized a few discarded bricks behind the convent
into the base for a small birdbath, one of the younger nuns knew, as she gazed at the mute
order of the convent's wall, that she lived within the secret repetition of that one word.
She had once been Agnes DeWitt and now was Sister
Cecellia, shorn, houseled clothed in black wool and bound in starched linen of heatless
white. She not only taught but lived music, existed for those hours when she could be
concentrated in her beingwhich was half music, half divine light, flesh only to the
degree that she could not admit otherwise. At the piano keyboard, absorbed into the notes
that rose beneath her hands, she existed in her essence, a manifestation of compelling
sound. Her hands were long and thick-veined, very white, startling against her habit. She
rubbed them with lard and beeswax nightly to keep them supple. During the day, when she
graded papers or used the blackboard her hands twitched and drummed, patterned and
repatterned difficult fingerings. She was no trouble to live with and her obedience was
absolute. Only, and with increasing concentration, she played Brahms, Beethoven, Debussy,
Schubert, and Chopin.
It wasn't that she neglected her other duties; rather,
it was the playing itselfdistilled of longingthat disturbed her sisters. In
her music Sister Cecellia explored profound emotions. She spoke of her faith and doubt, of
her passion as the bride of Christ, of her loneliness, shame, ultimate redemption. The
Brahms she played was thoughtful, the Schubert confounding. Debussy was all contrived
nature and yet as gorgeous as a meadowlark. Beethoven contained all messages, but her
crescendos lacked conviction. When it came to Chopin, however, she did not use the flowery
ornamentation or the endless trills and insipid floribunda of so many of her day. Her
playing was of the utmost sincerity. And Chopin, played simply, devastates the heart.
Sometimes a pause between the piercing sorrows of minor notes made a sister scrubbing the
floor weep into the bucket where she dipped her rag so that the convent's boards, washed
in tears, seemed to creak in a human tongue. The air of the house thickened with sighs.
Sister Cecellia, however, was emptied. Thinned. It was
as though her soul were neatly removed by a drinking straw and siphoned into the green
pool of quiet that lay beneath the rippling cascades of notes. One day, exquisite agony
built and released, built higher, released more forcefully until slow heat spread between
her fingers, up her arms, stung at the points of her bound breasts, and then shot straight
Her hands flew off the keyboard she crouched as
though she had been shot, saw yellow spots, and experienced a peaceful wave of oneness in
which she entered pure communion. She was locked into the music, held there safely,
entirely understood. Such was her innocence that she didn't know she was experiencing a
sexual climax, but believed, rather, that what she felt was the natural outcome of this
particular nocturne played to the utmost of her skillsand so it came to be. Chopin's
spirit became her lover. His flats caressed her. His whole notes sank through her body
like clear pebbles. His atmospheric trills were the flicker of a tongue. His pauses before
the downward sweep of notes nearly drove her insane.
The Mother Superior knew something had to be done when
she herself woke, her face bathed in sweat and tears, to the insinuating soft largo of the
Prelude in E Minor. In those notes she remembered the death of her mother and sank into an
endless afternoon of her loss. The Mother Superior then grew, in her heart, a weed of rage
against the God who had taken a mother from a seven-year-old child whose world she was,
entirely, without questionheart, arms, guidance, souluntil by evening she felt
fury steaming from the hot marrow of her bones and stopped herself.
"Oh, God, forgive me," the Superior prayed.
She considered humunculation, but then rushed down to the piano room instead, and with all
of the strength in her wide old arms gathered and hid from Cecellia every piece of music
but the Bach.
After that, for some weeks, there was relief. Sister
Cecellia turned to the Two-Part Inventions. Her fingers moved on the keys with the
precision of an insect building its nest. She played each as though she were constructing
an airtight box. Stealthily, once Cecellia had moved on to Bach's other works, the Mother
Superior removed from the music cabinet and destroyed the Goldberg Variationsclearly
capable of lifting subterranean complexities into the mind. Life in the convent returned
to normal. The cook, to everyone's gratitude, stopped preparing the rancid,
goose-fat-laced beet soup of her youth and stuck to overcooked string beans, 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 through the pipes as the
sisters no longer took continual advantage of the new plumbing to drown out the sounds of
And then one day Sister Cecellia woke with a tightness
in her chest. Pain shot through her and the red lump in her rib cage beat like a wild
thing caught in a snare of bones. Her throat shut. She wept. 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 gardeniashis
hothouse boutonnière. The silk of his heavy brown hair. His
sensuous drawing-room sweat. His voiceshe heard itavid and light. It was as if
the composer himself had entered the room. Who knows? Surely there was no more desperate,
earthly, exacting heart than Cecellia's. Surely something, however paltry, lies beyond the
At any rate, she played Chopin. Played him in utter
naturalness until the Mother Superior was forced to shut the cover to the keyboard and
gently pull the stool away. Cecellia lifted the lid and played upon her knees. The poor
scandalized dame dragged her from the keys. Cecellia crawled back. The Mother, at her
wit's end, sank down and urged the young woman to pray. She herself spoke first in fear
and then in certainty, saying that it was the very Devil who had managed to find a way to
Cecellia'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 and 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," the Mother
comforted, "come away and rest yourself."
The younger nun, breathing deeply, refused. Her severe
gray eyes were rimmed in a smoky red. Her lips bled purple. She was in torment.
"There is no rest," she declared. She unpinned her veil and studiously
dismantled her habit, folding each piece with reverence and setting it upon the piano
bench. The Mother remonstrated with Cecellia in the most tender and compassionate tones.
However, just as in the depth of her playing the virgin had become the woman, so now the
woman in the habit became a woman to the bone. She stripped down to her shift, but no
"He wouldn't want me to go out unprotected,"
she told her Mother Superior.
"God?" the older woman asked, bewildered.
"Chopin," Cecellia answered.
Kissing her dear Mother's trembling fingers, Cecellia
knelt. She made a true genuflection, murmured an act of contrition, and then walked away
from the convent made of bricks with the secret word pressed between yellow mortar, and
from the music, her music, which the Mother Superior would from then on keep under lock
So it was Sister Cecellia, or Agnes DeWitt of rural Wisconsin, who appeared before
Berndt Vogel in the cavern of the barn and said in her mother's dialect, for she knew a
German when she met one, that she was hungry. She wanted to ask whether he had a piano,
but it was clear to her that he wouldn't and at any rate she was exhausted.
"Jetzt muss ich schlafen," she said
after eating half a plate of scalded oatmeal with new milk.
So he took her to his bed, the only bed there was, in
the corner of the otherwise empty room. He went out to the barn he loved, covered himself
with hay, and lay awake all night listening to the rustling of mice and sensing the
soundless predatory glide of the barn owls and the stiff erratic flutter of bats. By
morning, he had determined to marry her if she would have him, just so that he could unpin
and then unwind the long strip of cloth that bound her torso. She refused his offer, but
she did speak to him of who she was and where from, and in that first summary she gave of
her life she concluded that she must never marry again, for not only had she wed herself
soul to soul to Christ, but she had already been unfaithfulwith her phantom lover,
the Polish composer. She had already lived out too grievous a destiny to become a bride
again. By explaining this to Berndt, however, she had merely moved her first pawn in a
long game of words and gestures that the two would play over the course of many months.
What she didn't know was that she had opened to a dogged and ruthless opponent.
Berndt Vogel's passion engaged him, mind and heart. He
prepared himself. Having dragged Army caissons through hip-deep mud after the horses died
in torment, having seen his best friend suddenly uncreated into a mass of shrieking pulp,
having lived intimately with pouring tumults of eager lice and rats plump with horrifying
food, he was rudimentarily prepared for the suffering he would experience in love. She,
however, had also learned her share of discipline. Moreoverfor the heart of her
gender is stretched, pounded, molded, and tempered for its hot task from birthshe
was a woman.
The two struck a temporary bargain, and set up
housekeeping. She still slept in the indoor bed. He stayed in the barn. A month passed.
Three. Six. Each morning she lit the stove and cooked, then heated water in a big tank for
laundry and swept the cool linoleum floors. Monday she sewed. She baked all day Tuesday.
On Wednesdays she churned and scrubbed. She sold the butter and the eggs Thursdays. Killed
a chicken every Friday. Saturdays she walked into town and practiced piano in the school
basement. Sunday she played the organ for Mass and then at the close of the day started
the next week's work. Berndt paid her. At first she spent her salary on clothing. When
with her earnings she had acquired shoes, stockings, a full set of cotton underclothing
and then a woolen one, too, and material for two housedressesone patterned with
twisted leaves and tiny blue berries, and the other of an ivy lattice printand a
sweater and, at last, a winter coat, after she had earned a blanket, quilted overalls, a
pair of boots, she decided on a piano.
This is where Berndt thought he could maneuver her
into marriage, but she proved too cunning for him. It was early in the evening and the
yard was pleasant with the sound of grasshoppers. The two sat on the porch drinking
glasses of sugared lemon water. Every so often, in the ancient six-foot grasses that
survived at the margin of the yard, a firefly signaled or a dove cried out its five hollow
They drank slowly, she in her sprigged-berry dress
that skimmed her waist. He noted with disappointment that she wore normal underclothing
now, had stopped binding her breasts. Perhaps, he thought, he could persuade her to resume
her old ways, at least occasionally. Just for him. It was a wan hope. She looked so
comfortable, so free. She'd taken on a little weight and lost her anemic pallor. Her arms
were brown, muscular. In the sun, her straight fine hair glinted with green-gold sparks of
light and her eyes were deceptively clear.
"I can teach music," she told him. She had
decided that her suggestion must sound merely practical, a money-making ploy. She did not
express any pleasure or zeal, though at the very thought each separate tiny muscle in her
hands ached. "It would be a way of bringing in some money."
He was left to absorb this. He might have believed her
casual proposition, except that her restless fingers gave her away, and he noted their
insistent motions. She was playing the Adagio of the "Pathétique" on the
tablecloth, a childhood piece that nervously possessed her from time to time.
"You would need a piano," he told her. She
nodded and held his gaze in that aloof and unbearably sexual way that had first skewered
"It's the sort of thing a husband gives his
wife," he dared.
Her fingers stopped moving. She cast down her eyes in
"I can use the school instrument. I've spoken to
the school principal already."
Berndt looked at the moon-shaped bone of her ankle, at
her foot in the brown, thick-heeled shoe she'd bought. He ached to hold her foot in his
lap, untie her oxford shoe with his teeth, cover her calf with kisses, and breathe against
the delicate folds of berry cloth.
He offered marriage once again. His heart. His troth.
His farm. She spurned the lot. She would simply walk into town. He let her know that he
would like to buy the piano, it wasn't that, but there was not a store for many miles
where it could be purchased. She knew better and with exasperated heat described the way
that she would, if he would help financially, go about locating and then acquiring the
best piano for the best price. She vowed that she would purchase the instrument not in
Fargo but in Minneapolis. From there, she could have it hauled for less than the freight
markup. She would make her arrangements in one day and return by night in order not to
spend one extra dime either on food she couldn't carry or on a hotel room. When he
resisted to the last, she told him that she was leaving. She would find a small room in
town and there she would acquire students, give lessons.
She betrayed her desperation. Some clench of her
fingers gave her away, and it was as much Berndt's unconfused love of her and wish that
she might be happy as any worry she might leave him that finally caused him to agree. In
the six months that he'd known Agnes DeWitt she had become someone to reckon with, and
even he, who understood desperation and self-denial, was finding her proximity most
difficult. He worked himself into exhaustion, and his farm prospered. Sleeping in the barn
was difficult, but he had set into one wall a bunk room for himself and his hired man and
installed a stove that burned red hot on cold nights; only, sometimes, as he looked
sleepily into the glowering flanks of iron, he could not keep his own fingers from moving
along the rough mattress in faint imitation of the way he would, if he ever could, touch
her hips. He, too, was practicing.
The piano moved across the August desert of
drought-sucked wheat like a shield, a dark upended black thing, an ebony locust. Agnes
made friends with a hauler out of Morris and he gave her a slow-wagon price. Both were to
accompany into Fargo the last grand piano made by Caramacchione. It had been shipped to
Minneapolis, unsold until Agnes entered with her bean sock of money. She accompanied the
instrument back to the farm during the dog days. Hot weather was beloved by this
particular piano. It tuned itself on muggy days. And so, as it moved across the flat
expanse, Miss Agnes DeWitt mounted the back of the wagon and played to the clouds.
They had to remove one side of the house to get the
piano into the front room, and it took six strong men a full day to do the job. By the
time the instrument was settled into place by the window, Berndt was persuaded of its
necessary presence, and proud. He sent the men away, although the side of the house was
still open to the swirling light of stars. Dark breezes moved the curtains; he asked her
to play for him. She did, the music gripped her, and she did not, could not, stop.
Late that night she turned from the last chord of the
simple Nocturne in C Minor into the silence of Berndt's listening presence. Three slow
claps from his large hands died in the waiting quiet. His eyes rested upon her and she
returned his gaze with a long and mysterious stare of gentle regard. The side of the house
admitted a great swatch of moonlight. Spiders built their webs of phosphorescence across
black space. Berndt ticked through what he knewshe would not marry him because she
had been married and unfaithful, in her mind at least. He was desperate not to throw her
off, repel her, damage the mood set by the boom of nighthawks flying in, swooping out, by
the rustle of black oak and willow, by the scent of the blasted petals of summer's last
wild roses. His courage was at its lowest ebb. Fraught with sheer need and emotion he
stood before Agnes, finally, and asked in a low voice, "Schlaf mit mir. Bitte.
Schlaf mit mir."
Agnes looked into his face, openly at last,
showing him the great weight of feeling she carried. As she had for her Mother Superior,
she removed her clothing carefully and folded it, only she did not stop undressing at her
shift but continued until she had slipped off her large tissuey bloomers and seated
herself naked at the piano. Her body was a pale blush of silver, and her hands, when they
began to move, rose and fell with the simplicity of water.
It became clear to Berndt Vogel, as the music slowly
wrapped around him, that he was engaged in something that he would have had to pay a whore
in Fargoif there really were any whores in Fargoa great sum to perform. A
snake of hair wound down her spine. Her pale buttocks seemed to float off the invisible
bench. Her legs moved like a swimmers, and he thought he heard her moan. He watched
her fingers spin like white shadows across the keys, and found that his body was
responding as though he lay fully twined with her underneath a quilt of music and stars.
His breath came short, shorter, rasping and ragged. Beyond control, he gasped painfully
and gave himself into some furtive cleft of halftones and anger that opened beneath the
ice of high keys.
Shocked, weak and wet, Berndt rose and slipped through
the open side wall. He trod aimless crop lines until he could allow himself to collapse in
the low fervor of night wheat. It was true, wasn't it, that the heart was a lying cheat?
And as the songs Chopin invented were as much him as his body, so it followed that Berndt
had just watched the woman he loved make love to a dead man. Now, as he listened to the
music, he thought of returning. Imagined the meal of her white shoulders. Shut his eyes
and entered the confounding depth between her legs.
Then followed their best years. Together, they constructed a good life in which the
erotic merged into the daily so that every task and even small kindness was charged with a
sexual humor. Some mornings the two staggered from the bedroom disoriented, still half
drunk on the unlikely eagerness of the other's body. These frenzied periods occurred every
so often, like spells in the weather. They would be drawn, sink, disappear into their
greed, until the cow groaned for milking or the hired man swore and banged on the outside
gate. If nothing else intervened, they'd stop from sheer exhaustion. Then they would look
at one another oddly, questingly, as if the other person were a complete stranger, and
gradually resume their normal interaction, which was offhand and distracted, but upheld by
the assurance of people who thought alike.
Agnes gave music lessons, and although the two weren't
married, even the Catholics and the children came to her. This was because it was
well-known that Miss DeWitt's first commitment had been to Christ. It was understandable
that she would have no other marriage. Although she did not take the holy Eucharist on her
tongue, she was there at church each Sunday morning, faithful and devout, to play the
organ. There, she, of course, played Bach, with a purity of intent purged of any
subterranean feeling, strictly, and for God.
So when the river began to rise one spring, Berndt had already gone where life was
deepest many times, and he did not particularly fear the rain. But what began as a sheer
mist became an even sprinkle and then developed into a slow, pounding shower that lasted
three days, then four, then on the fifth day, increased.
The river boiled along swiftly, a gray soup still
contained, just barely, within its high banks. On day six the rain stopped, or seemed to.
The storm had moved upstream. All day while the sun shone pleasantly the river heaved
itself up, tore into its flow new trees and boulders, created tip-ups, washouts, areas of
singing turbulence, and crawled, like an infant, toward the farm. Berndt rushed around
uneasily, pitching hay into the high loft, throwing chickens up after the hay, wishing he
could throw the horse up as well, and the house, andbecause Agnes wrung her
handsthe piano. But the piano was earth-anchored and well-tuned by the rainy air,
so, instead of worrying, Agnes practiced.
Once the river started to move, it gained confidence.
It had no problem with fences or gates, wispy windbreaks, ditches. It simply leveled or
attained the level of whatever stood in its path. Water jumped up the lawn and collected
behind the sacks of sand that Berndt had desperately filled and laid. The river tugged
itself up the porch and into the house from one side. From the other side it undermined an
already weak foundation that had temporarily shored up the same wall once removed to make
way for the piano. The river tore against the house and then, like a child tipping out a
piece of candy from a box, it surged underneath and rocked the floor, and the piano
crashed through the weakened wall.
It landed in the swift current of the yard, Agnes with
it. Berndt saw only the white treble clef of her dress as she spun away, clutching the
curved lid. It bobbed along the flower beds first, and then, as muscular new eddies caught
it, touched down on the shifting lanes of Berndt's wheat fields, and farther, until the
revolving instrument and the woman on it reached the original river and plunged in. They
were carried not more than a hundred feet before the piano lost momentum and sank. As it
went down, Agnes thought at first of crawling into its box, nestling for safety among the
cold, dead strings. But, as she struggled with the hinged cover, she lost her grip and was
swept north. She should have drowned, but there was a snag of rope, a tree, two men in a
fishing skiff risking themselves to save a valuable birding dog. They pulled Agnes out and
dumped her in the bottom of the boat, impatient to get the dog. She gagged, coughed, and
passed out in a roil of feet and fishing tackle.
When she came to, she was back in the convent, which
was on high ground and open to care for victims of the flood. Berndt was not among the
rescued. When the river went down and the heat rose, he was found snagged in a tip-up of
roots, tethered to his great blue steaming horse. As Agnes recovered her strength, did she
dream of him? Think of him entering her and her receiving him? Long for the curve of his
hand on her breast? Yes and no. She thought again of music. Chopin. Berndt. Chopin.
He had written a will in which he declared her his
common-law wife and left to her the farm and all upon it. There, she raised Rosecomb
Bantams, Dominikers, Reds. She bought another piano and played with an isolated intensity
that absorbed her spirit.
A year or so after Berndt 's death, her students
noticed that she would stop in the middle of a lesson and smile out the window as though
welcoming a long-expected visitor. One day the neighbor children went to pick up the usual
order of eggs and were most struck to see the white-and-black-flecked Dominikers flapping
up in alarm around Miss DeWitt as she stood magnificent upon the green grass.
Tall, slender, legs slightly bowed, breasts jutting a
bit to either side, and the flare of hair flicking up the center of hernaked. She
looked at the children with remote kindness. Asked, "How many dozen?" Walked off
to gather the eggs.
That episode made the gossip-table rounds. People put
it off to Berndt 's death and a relapse of nerves. She lost only a Lutheran student or
two. She continued playing the organ for the Mass, and at home, in the black, black
nights, Chopin. And if she was asked, by an innocent pupil too young to understand the
meaning of discretion, why she sometimes didn't wear clothes, Miss DeWitt would answer
that she removed her clothing when she played the music of a particular bare-souled
composer. She would nod meditatively and say in her firmest manner that when one enters
into such music, one should be naked. And then she would touch the keys.