The Lesson
by Alison Carpenter

Sarah sat at her desk by the window and listened to the sounds of children playing British Bulldog in the neighbours' yard. Her French homework lay in front of her—Raconte un Rêve. She looked up at the large pieces of dirty white paint drooping from the corner of her ceiling. Beside her desk, on a chair in the corner, lay her half-size violin. Newly purchased, though quite old, the dark wooden instrument shimmered in its burgundy velvet case. Sarah reached to pick it up and brought it to her nose. The moist scent of forests blended with the sharp edge of varnish. She inhaled deeply. And again. Sarah had always loved the smell of gasoline as she watched her father fill the tank. This smell was even better. The curvy shape of the violin made her think of a Picasso painting of a woman in the big art book kept on the coffee table downstairs. Tomorrow after school, she relished. Her first lesson.

Unsavoury odours of supper, like boiled-too-long vegetables, and the sound of the 6 o'clock news wound their way up the stairs and into her room. Sarah looked at her assignment and recalled her dream. A raven-haired woman leads her by the hand, running, pulling her through a wide field and into a dark wood, weaving expertly through the trees, to a small lighted clearing. Here, she lets go of Sarah's hand and joins a group of dancing men, women, and children. Feet stomp out rhythms, throats drone, and tongues trill. There are bows on strings, hands beating drums, wide red mouths framing large white teeth, filthy feet moving, flying locks of hair revealing the glint of jewels… Sarah hides behind a tree several yards away, watching and rapt. Then, the original woman dancing in the centre of the gathering spots her and comes to a halt. She fixes her gaze on Sarah who is penetrated by the look of absolute recognition. Then, the woman, laughing, lunges towards Sarah. At this point in the dream, Sarah dissolves and transforms into a large, red, pulsing, heart. Moist and breathless, she wakes to a fierce pounding in her chest. She is always a little disappointed to find herself in her own tidy but drab room with her freshly ironed school blouse hanging on her desk chair.

It was daunting to imagine her teacher asking her to read her composition à haute voix, as she often did with the best students, to her less conscientious classmates. Her gypsy dream was precious and felt like a delicious secret-she did not want to expose it to the potential teasing and taunts of her classmates. Still, she was unwilling to make up a false dream, and besides, she preferred to stew and linger in the sensations of her recurring nocturnal adventure for longer. Last summer, her grandmother, Father's bejewelled, turban-wearing, eccentric mother now living in northern Africa, had told her that she had some gypsy blood. Even though her father regularly said that his mother was insane, Sarah adored her, and cherished their infrequent visits. Fortified by the thought of her adventurous and passionate Nana, Sarah tossed away her doubts and began to write.

"Sarah! Martin! Paul! Suppertime!" Ruth Ferguson's tinny voice pierced through Sarah's reverie. She sighed and put down her pencil as she heard her teenage brothers lumber into the hallway. One of them said under his breath "Smells like cabbage again. Gross!"

On her way out of her room, Sarah caught a quick glance at herself in the hall mirror-she was tall enough this year to do it without her tippytoes. Still the same mousy dark blond hair, the nose too small and round, and the lips too thin. Resigned, she followed her brothers downstairs.

The next day, Sarah walked a few steps ahead of her mother along the residential sidewalk. She was wearing a white blouse, a plaid skirt and blue knee socks. The school uniform. The violin in its hard brown case swayed slightly forwards and back in her moist hand. Her attempts to play it on previous days had been disappointing, sounding like a dry branch being dragged across metal. In a few moments Sarah would meet Madame Sokolova for the first time. She was nervous.

"I think it's the next house, dear," said her mother. Creaking through the rusty iron gate, Sarah and her mother found themselves in a tiny wild garden. Sarah's face brushed against the moist and fragrant white petals on a small tree. Wiping the cool drops from her cheek, she stepped over some roots that had crept over and straddled the moss-covered cement pathway. Sarah climbed the four wooden steps and was surprised by the movement her weight induced in the porch. The fragrant air was wonderful—a mixture of compost and the perfume cocktail of unfamiliar flowers. She was dizzy as she reached the landing and approached the door. Glancing back at the garden, she noticed five tall sunflowers towering majestically over the lesser plants.

"What time is it Mum?" she whispered, relieved to have her mother there, her trembling finger on the doorbell. "It's one minute to four—just perfect." Sarah rang. Through the door, they heard quick and heavy footsteps and a husky female voice, "Come een, come een Sarah and mazer." Madame Sokolova. She was calling to them through the doors, beckoning them to enter on their own.

Slowly opening the first door, Sarah glimpsed through the inner door a short, dark-haired and voluptuous woman shuffling through a pile of old yellow music on top of a large floor speaker. Madame was wearing many bracelets and rings, a long flowing black blouse and skirt with a blue and purple shawl around her shoulders. Her cheeks were decorated with obvious circles of pink makeup and she smelled like strong perfume. "Da!" she exclaimed to herself as she extracted the desired piece from the stack. She placed it on top of the pile, and then turned to enthusiastically greet her new student and mother. Madame Sokolova glowed, opening her whole being to the shy girl and stiff woman just inside the door. Awed and embarrassed, Sarah gawked at the deep cleft between the two large breasts at Madame Sokolova's neckline. With a throaty laugh, the teacher took Sarah's reddening face into her hands, nodded at the mother, then looked back at Sarah and said "velcome, velcome. Come. And show me VI-olin. Mazer can come back in half hour." Heart pounding, Sarah glanced back at her mother, already fading back out towards the front door who said, "Alright, well, see you soon Sarah. Thank you Madame Sokolova." She sounded far away, like she had dry cracker caught in her throat. "Goodbye Mum." Her own high, thin voice surprised her.

The front room was full of hanging plants, large tree-like plants with huge green and yellow leaves and red wrinkly flowers, stacks of music, hard-back chairs, and three music stands. Several records were splayed out on a large table. The wooden floor creaked with every move. Flat rectangle carpets with deep red and gold swirling patterns lay everywhere Sarah looked, and paintings of flowers covered the available space on the walls. Many of the frames were fancy, like the ones Sarah had seen at the art museum. One of the more ornate frames held a painting of a woman holding a violin that looked like Madame Sokolova herself. Tendrils from a nearby plant had found their way around the wide bronze-coloured frame. The air in the house smelled like a mixture of unfamiliar food, perfume, dust, old paper and oil paints. She sniffed again all the new intoxicating odours and they overwhelmed her. She felt dizzy. Once again, she heard the deep, throaty laugh again, and turned her attention towards her teacher.

Madame Sokolova took Sarah's hand and led her down the hall. The teacher's hand was smaller than her mother's hand, and it was warm and dry. She liked the feeling. Sarah hoped that the tickle in her nose from the spicy perfume would settle before she had to sneeze. She followed as Madame turned sharply into a small room-more books and stacks of music, shelves of it, two more music stands and two chairs. "Come. We vill have lesson here. First, I play somezing for you. Sit." Madame motioned to one of the chairs, picked up her instrument, and stood with her feet as wide as Sarah's eyes. The teacher flung her head back, thrust her enormous breasts forward and played a piece so rich and romantic that Sarah felt as though she might faint. At the end of the piece, again the laugh. Awakened from the music's spell, Sarah closed her jaw. Madame put down her instrument and again squeezed Sarah's face in her warm hands. "Now, you. Let us look at VI-olin." For a few precious moments, Sarah learned about her instrument. Madame took her right hand and stroked it many times saying "hand on bow ees like cat. Yes. Yes. Like cat hand. Yes. Like zees." She learned to pull her bow across one string at a time while keeping it parallel to the bridge. "It ees like baattour—so smooze—like baattour" Madame said, eyes closed, and deeply massaging the top of her own soft breasts back and forth. By the end of the lesson Sarah's sound was no longer like a branch on metal. She was pleased with her progress but could not fathom how she would ever play real music, much less something like her teacher's exquisite piece, which still resonated in her head, ribs and belly. She was elated, fearful, expectant.

The doorbell. Her mother. Sarah felt herself blush. Her body stiffened and retracted as she packed up to leave. In the car, when her mother asked about the lesson, she said it was fine. Inside, she knew she must be lying. In fact, it was much more than fine. The whole world had changed. She felt a strange sadness as she looked at her mother's hands on the steering wheel and listened to her hollow voice listing the mundane tasks she had accomplished during the lesson. For the first time, Sarah pitied her mother.

On her way up to her room for homework, violin in hand, she caught a glimpse of herself in the hall mirror. Something was different. Perhaps a little more light in her eyes, some red in the cheeks, she couldn't tell, but did not resist looking again before entering her room and closing the door. She sat on her bed, opened the case and admired her violin. The smell of Madame's perfume rose to her nostrils. Like she was guarding a secret treasure from thieving eyes, she closed the case for fear that the smell would fade. That night and for many more, the violin lay in its case on her bed between her feet and the wall. Sometimes, in the morning, or if she woke from a dream, she would open the case and breathe deeply. She rushed home every day to practice and made quick progress.

Sarah came to feel as if a piece of her heart lived back in Madame Sokolova's lesson room. She would find it again when she opened the rusty gate and traversed the little yard. Her dreams about the gypsy people recurred now and then and, each week, her journey through that tiny garden felt like going home.

Alison Carpenter is a Montreal psychotherapist and mother of two great kids, who finds as much time as possible for her other loves—writing, reading, dancing and making music. This is her first publication.