How to Write a Short Story : The Last Piano

The other day a friend of mine read some passages from a book to me and the prose, being all prosy and stuff, reminded me of a story I wrote a long time ago that had a lot of very visual elements to it.  I believe that was my goal – the story was an exercise in visualization and verbalization of emotion and drive. Mostly, what was read to me reminded me of this:

A young, very attractive and elegant woman sits, watches me.  I know I was killed, but here I sit, playing the Last and I’m fine.   A woman, virtually untenable in her beauty, listens to me play.  Mind this: she is not beautiful in that symmetrical, coldly compelling way that drives many men to great insanity.  No, she is her strength and she is her innocence and nothing is layered over this.  I can see it in the way her chin tilts just so, the way her eyes gaze knowingly and in the softness of the set of her lips.  I watch her lips when she speaks, I watch them in her quietude, I watch I watch I watch. Her movement is music; there: in the graceful poise of her hips; there: in the hands moving to rest placidly in her lap.  Mark the time!  I’m enslaved by her motion and I begin to play again, enjoying the silky smooth roughness of these ancient, ivory keys.

I’ve probably written dozens, maybe even hundreds, of short stories, primarily for my own amusement, but also because when the churn in my head starts, well, words are what comes out. I wrote this story in 1997; I believe that it is one of my better works. It has romance, suspense, intrigue, drama, and murder. It’s actually a rather heinous little tale. I hope that you enjoy it, and since the title of this is “How to Write a Short Story,” well, I suppose I should actually tell you how to do it.  Here is the secret of how to do it: Write.

Wait, what? Yep. That’s it: Write. Don’t sit around thinking up ideas for stories, you won’t have them or, if you do, they will have a certain emptiness to them. Stories don’t come from your head, they come from…somewhere else (I will explain this, someday). So, to get the story to come out, you just need to sit down and go to that place you went to when you were a kid, when you played pretend, and you just need to check in. See what is going on. Say hello to some old friends and ask if they mind if you start-up a new game of Battle Commanders. Or Cowboys and Indians. Or legos. It doesn’t matter. You see, the stories never stopped. While you were off being a grown-up, all this stuff kept on happening in your head, completely without you. Now, you just have to tap it.

And, here is the best tip I ever heard – begin at the end. Don’t start a story with “On Tuesday, John was walking down the street, coming home from work…” and then proceed to bore me to death with every mundane detail in John’s life leading up to and chronologically detailing him making a ruin of his life, and ending the tail with, “then John spent the rest of his miserable days in prison.”  Rather, begin with something like….

©1997 Scott R. Ellis 

The Last Piano Player

by Scott R. Ellis

I remember the blood soaked, black sands of the beach-head encapsulated within the prison star-world; the way the water teemed with stinging mantas and how the seascape seemed to curve upward to where the brackish blue of the sky traced out the ­disjointed curve of the horizon.

As I stood sifting through the sand, the crashing ocean waves exploded behind me into frenzied sprays against the silver steel pinnacles and ramparts of the fortress-prison.  Its ugly spikes slid motionlessly out of the ocean to curl fortified arms around the island.  Many men were imprisoned here, but only some of us knew that this was no island bastille—those of us who had not forgotten—to us it was a self-contained nightmare, floating in outer space.  It was no Devil’s Island, I was no Papillon.  No, I would escape this space-flung prison only through death.

I am Benedict, and this is how it felt when death’s talon grip snared me:  a penetrating thrust cleaving through my body to rest cold in my soul, twisting it—torturing me.  And then my consciousness slowly abated;  a need for reminiscence emerged from the coldness which encroached on the periphery of my vision, a need for some thread to coalesce, to gather . . . my thoughts drift like particles, drifting about in a sunbeam, searching for a place to settle.  But my acuity fails to pierce through to the past. There is a veil….

I remember I died, but here I am again.  Only, it is no longer a prison, and she, this amazing “she,” with me, explains the prison is this: a  place that people danced and listened to music, where troops gathered and formed to go to battle.  A place where I fell in love again. Oh, and where they kept the Last piano.  She asks me, “How could you have forgotten this?”  She explains, “It has been a century or more since your imprisonment, and since the once star-bound prison vessel crash landed, and cracked open its chrysalis to the free skies of Sanctucity.”  It feels rehearsed and so does my response.  “I don’t remember much about what happened before my return here.  It seems so long ago—it’s a sanctuary now?  Really?”

“Yes, my Bened, yes.”

But, before I died, it was just a prison, a shell of a world—small, but somehow, through the use of science, warped to seem large. They, some of the interred,  say the engineers added a fifth  dimension.  Time was the fourth.   And some said that when they built the Stellar prisons they didn’t add a dimension; rather, love was removed.

 **

I am, returned from the grave, a very old man now.  Gaunt, my skin stretches over my cheeks like paper and my eyes—eyes so stark that even a hawk’s stare would divert from them.  The old piano is still in the rectory of the prison— I don’t know what else they call it now.   Prison is as good a word as any.  My God, that piano is old.  It’s small, and upright.  The keyboard is perched high on the harp, like a spinet but this piano you have to climb up a small ladder to play.   I’d really never heard anything play that way,  play so beautifully that time loses you. Hit any rhythmic combination of notes and they play through the air with the bitter-sweet resonance and delicate timber only an age-old instrument can deliver. Beauty for its own sake. No one really even knows how it got there; perhaps its placement was a clerical error.

Strangely, I remember the first time I ever played that piano and, as I remember that first time,  I also remember the first death: bullets piercing my flesh,  piercing my head, killing me, and the hot searing feel of it punching its coldness into, and through the base of my skull.  They brought me before a small man, and first his assistant shot me in the leg.  I fell—more because I knew I should than from any true feelings of pain.  Then he handed the weapon—a projectile type—to the small man and he shot me in the head.  They may have shot more than twice. I don’t know; I never felt a thing, except terrified.

Some time passed, I think, and I drifted, trying to cling to life.  I grasped for the scattering, filament-thin attenuations of consciousness and felt them slip through my clutch.  Then: awareness returned to me, drifting lazily on outstretched wings, languorously soaring before taking purchase;  and I was here, at the piano, playing.   A glimpse of memory of the darkly burnt cerulean blue sky, cracking open, etches a vivid image in my mind’s eye, a splash of multi-colored paints across a fresh canvas.  Suddenly I awake and gasp for breath with unrestricted lungs.  I look about; I am sitting at the piano.  I look down;  the keys are all where they are supposed to be so I know this is not just some post traumatic hallucination.  I know, with an alacrity born of a hundred years of experience, that this is life, that this is real, and that, only a moment  ago, I died.

A young, very attractive and elegant woman sits, watches me.  I know I was killed, but here I sit and I’m fine and a woman, virtually untenable in her beauty, listens to me play.  Mind this: she is not beautiful in that symmetrical, coldly compelling way that drives many men to great insanity.  No, she is her strength and she is her innocence and nothing is layered over this.  I can see it in the way her chin tilts just so, the way her eyes gaze knowingly and in the softness of the set of her lips.  I watch her lips when she speaks, I watch them in her quietude, I watch I watch I watch. Her movement is music; there: in the graceful poise of her hips; there: in the hands moving to rest placidly in her lap.  Mark the time!  I’m enslaved to her motion and I begin to play again, enjoying the silky smooth roughness of these ancient, ivory keys.

I stop, and I turn to her.  She is radiant, smiling at me.  I think I must have somehow become her hero.  “How long have you been here?”  I ask.  To ask her how long I had been playing may have seemed senile.  My voice is dry and I cough.  I touch my face.  It feels slightly different, but familiar.   She is youthful, attentive, and dressed in a black costume gown with white trim and an ankle length skirt.  I look down at myself to discover that I, too, wear strange, costume  apparel, complete with ruffles at the sleeves and a close fitting tunic which drapes beneath my knees.

“Bened! You Silly.  I came here with you on the shuttle.”  She pulls out a small fan and fans herself.  My hand moves.  A chord strikes in the piano and in my mind.  A harsh, dissonant chord, dark and foreboding.  I wonder how I have so strangely escaped the prison, escaped death.  How I have seemingly left my body and then returned again.  Perhaps I am crazy, completely insane, and it is all a hallucination.  No.  I think, were that the case, I would have thought to hallucinate something a little less extemporaneous.

“I want to leave here.  I don’t know why I wanted to come here to begin with.”  I want to tell her that I have been a prisoner here, that being here torments me, that I had, in fact, been bludgeoned then shot to death—to death! not fifteen minutes ago in a steel room deep in the bowels of this monstrosity. I feel my face again.  The corners of my eyes, are there more wrinkles now?  I can’t feel to tell.

“People are coming, you know, to hear your Improvisations.  The troops will be forming up soon.  We can go to the refresher area if you like, and you can have a drink maybe.

“You are playing very well, though I don’t know why you started and stopped like that.”   She shakes her head slightly, her hair shakes at me but I only see my recollection of it, like a distant memory. She holds out her arm to assist me down from the piano pedestal.  I gracefully accept her help.  I no longer need to feel my face to determine my age.  Simply moving tells me, and the sudden, needful way in which she moved to help me.   I am old.  Very old.  Much older than when they killed me.  Senility will certainly be excused in a man my age.

“Are you my lover?”   I ask her.  She giggles.  I sigh

“Love, of course I am.”  She blushes and kisses me on the cheek.

“Where is everyone—all the prisoners?”

“Oh, Benedict.  That was so long ago.  Don’t you remember? ”

“No . . . my love, I don’t.  You are so pretty.”

“Darling, I’m almost as old as you and twice as wrinkled.”

“No,” I protest adamantly, “—you are young, sensuous, opulent.”  She begins to blush.  I see only this young, beautiful woman before me, and I am confused.  I turn away from her and look up at the piano. It is almost all solid wood.  They don’t make them from wood anymore.  Actually, they don’t make them at all anymore, and haven’t since . . . since forever.  They were never made in these colonies.  It’s a mystery how this one found its respite looming over prison congregations thousands of light-years away from a woodworker’s rasp. I turn back to the woman and I speak to her, looking so deep into her eyes that I lose my sense of balance, of place. I am spiraling into her.  ” I- I’m just an old man who doesn’t know what has happened since he has died.” She seems so familiar to me, as if I’ve known her all my life and have been with her for years.  But I can’t shake the feeling I arrived only moments ago.

I turned to her as we walked up the aisle toward the entrance at the back of the chapel, the prison sanctuary.  The beginnings of noise were shaping outside in the mezzanine area.  I could hear talking, and glasses chinking.  “You are so kind,” I tell her. She strokes my chin and turns.  We start to walk again and it is a slow process.

“You were telling me–where are the prisoners?”

“Oh, Benedict.  That was so long ago.  Don’t you remember?  You escaped the prison a dead man.  You were shot sixteen times, but somehow, you survived.  The prison had docked here for repairs. . .”

It came to me as she spoke, I remembered.  Well, I still only remembered the two shots.  Sixteen was perhaps an exaggeration in the retelling.  I was a young man then.  Time was nothing to me, I had plenty of it.

When I was told one day that I had killed a man in cold blood, I thought it a joke.  When they told me they were putting me under the highest security available, I laughed in their faces and bet the judge my freedom that I would escape.  You see, he knew of my past exploits—he knew I was a war hero who had been captured during the Wars and had led an escape from their dungeons.  I had squirmed through half a mile of air shaft and battled insanity to gain my freedom.

“You are a fool, Benedict.  I’m putting you in Stellar H where, even if you escape, you won’t have escaped.”  And then he laughed, a sinister sound to hear in the docket. Those were the final words of the judge.   He disregarded my bet and stood, dark and foreboding, laughing as he left the court.  Black hooded guards led me from the chaos, bound and levitated.

I imagine, now, that it was an ordinary chuckle, a good belly-laugh over an insolent convicted felon, but at the time I imagined it to be the most ominous bone-marrow freezing laugh that he ever chortled.   It echoed in the halls with the hooded guards, followed me, and continued to linger just on the edge of audibility for the rest of my imprisonment.

I began pondered and planned escapes. One minute I believed that I would have to lead a full scale riot and take over the piloting of the vessel/prison and dock her in some neutral territory in order to escape one day and believed I could rematerialize in another world with the power of my mind the next.  I planned.  And I planned.

No matter how ludicrous or impossible, I considered it.  I met other prisoners who were sympathetic, but most just wanted to go on with their lives.  Most led lives of accep­tance, of quiet, suffering desolation.  I was, as you know, innocent.  I had killed men in the wars, yes, but as a civilian I had entered into a career as a systems navigator.  I was well paid, had a nice home and family, and was actually off planet on business, a hundred light years away from the murder scene.  But computers and DNA and photon residual emission tests did not lie.  I actually watched myself committing the murder in a computer generated, courtroom reconstruction of photon residual emissions and DNA extrapolation.  I was getting convicted by a jury of my peers of premeditated murder.  “Besides,” explained the judge, “everyone knows travel records can be forged by anyone with a moderate amount of travel computer codes.  This court finds the defendant, Benedict Arnold, guilty of murder in the highest degree.  We sentence you to Stellar H for life, up to and including Second Death.”  He pounded his gavel on the bench. He almost seemed to be shaking his head as he did this.  His white powdered wig shook its curls at me.  They too condemned me.

Think about it—I did. I even believed, for a short time, that I had done it, that I had killed.

Then, I had an epiphany.  In a universe of billions of humans, the possibility that my exact DNA structure could exist twice. . . in our society, a man with altered DNA could behave with impunity. . . my defense, I realize, had been tragically inadequate.

There is no appealing from Stellar H.  Even the Warden is a prisoner.

The Warden of Stellar H was a small man.  He had us digging through the sand sifting for gold twelve to fourteen hours a day.  We never found any.  We just got stung by the sting rays which infested the waters and every now and then they managed to kill and devour a man.  They never bothered me though.   I discovered by accident one time that I could wade in the water and they would avoid me. It was the time the sky cracked open.   Funny, the expression on the faces of the men around me when it happened.  As if they had forgotten what the real sky was like.  As if they had forgotten how truly bright a real sky was.  They cowered and covered their eyes with their arms as the dome above us split. Sting rays writhed and roiled,  frothing the water up to my knees.  I raised my arms in supplication as I stood naked and bathed in the natural warmth of the light. My legs had grown thick and powerful with the labor.  For a moment, I beleived that I could fly and I leapt toward the sky. The ground fell away beneath me. The noise of the machinery operating the dome whined and screeched in protest, but I didn’t even hear it.

And then they grabbed me and dragged me fighting and kicking down into the depths of Stellar.  Their fists hammered me down again and again as I fought them.  Blood poured from us and then I broke free from them and began to run toward what I believed was my escape.  More uniformed guards came, captured me and they beat me till finally I submitted.  I would fight another day, I vowed.  I would return.  They brought me through a doorway and into a room where a man sat on the floor.  He was a small man and he sat there on a carpet and ate some spherical object that he seemed to be peeling.  It looked like fruit.  He looks at me.

“Kill him.”  He resumes eating.  At this point I assume they think I had opened the dome somehow.  I begin to protest, to tell them I had nothing to do with it and that the true escapists are using me as a dupe. No words come out of my mouth.  The bullet is already on course and I am already falling.  I gasp, but I don’t feel any pain.  “Wait!”  says the small man.  He stands then, and holds out his hand to the guard who just shot me in the leg.  The guard hands him the gun. I turn away, I can’t watch it come.

The second bullet pierced the back of my head and I felt the world, consciousness, whisked away, drawn away from me, attenuating to an  imperceptible thinness.  I drifted com­pletely detached in a warm, soft haze as the skeins of death’s pirouettes danced around me in tattering shapes of white, black, and grey.  I could hear nothing, feel nothing, taste nothing, smell nothing, and see only the grayish-white haze, like a thin veil all around me.  And then it slowly dissolved as I began to hear music, and feel the pleasure beat of the keys under my fingers, the slow pulse pulse of the music’s rhythm cascades my senses.  I ride the gestalt to awareness and then see that I’m in the prison ecclesia, playing the old piano with its archaic script across the front panel, spelling out in Gothic lettering “Last.”

Now I’m led down the aisle by this sublime young woman who claims she’s my lover but, God (are You listening?!) it—it only seems like twenty minutes ago that I died and now a whole lifetime has passed and I’m back where it all started.

I don’t even remember if I’ve done anything worth anything—I escaped the most secure prison in the universe and she tells me I did it by dying.

I look to her.  Seeing the love in her eyes discomfits me;  I want to tell her, show her, somehow prove through some thing I do that I am worth it.  Instead, I feel a binding in my chest, incredible pain shoots down my arms and my breath comes in short gasps.  I realize I’m on the floor; she cradles me in her arms.  I smile at her, and she smiles back.  She is fragile when she smiles.   I tell her, “There was never enough time to . . . the things I want to show you . . .do for you . . .”  and I watch as tears flow from her eyes.  I see the piano, this “propylaeum”, rising over me.  Too near to me are the arched sanctuary doors.   From a distance— I am far away now—I hear her whisper to me as she cradles my stilled body, she weeps, and says,  “I don’t love you for the things you’ve done; I love you because you’re the one who did them.”  I finally understand:

There is nobody left now to play the Last piano;  the push pull of the hammers tapping on the strings are stilled,  and the sting rays glide through oceans without bound.  This is the Second Death.

 ****

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