Inspired with permission by Janis Ian’s song, “Play like a Girl” weaves Ian’s lyrics into a story of empowerment. Haunted by her mother’s ghost, a musician needs to vanquish not only the ghost but her own history, as well. Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Play like a Girl,” originally written for the bestselling anthology Stars, lingers in the mind forever.
“Play like a Girl” by USA Today bestselling writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as a standalone ebook from Amazon, Kobo, Omnilit, Smashwords, and in other ebookstores, or as part of the anthology Stars edited by Janis Ian & Mike Resnick. Stars is available in trade paper, ebook, and has just been released in audio.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
SHE HAUNTS ME—a little slip of a woman, barely five two, not even one hundred pounds. The features that mark my face are from her family: the high cheekbones, the narrow chin and delicate mouth. The body beneath them comes from my father’s family: solid, Germanic, thickening with age. Someday people will call me a sturdy woman, square and matronly. But my face will always have a touch of the exotic—the silver hair that first appears in the photographs of her father, the dark brows over grayish blue long-lashed eyes.
It is her voice that comes to me most often, simple sentences usually starting with I can’ts, I wishes, and I don’ts. It is her heartaches I carry, her wounds I bear.
As I get older, I understand her more, and I wonder, with each incident explained, if I’ll ever be able to forgive her.
I am the youngest, although not by design. My sister holds that honor. Sixteen years older than I am and planned, her conception a happily remembered occasion that apparently started with my father’s impish grin and the statement, “C’mon, let’s go make a baby.”
I come from a drunken night in New Hampshire, after my parents dropped my brother off at Dartmouth. I was my father’s New York dividend, my mother’s accident.
I was the child she never wanted, the reason for her imprisonment, the death of her hope. At forty-two, she was saddled with diapers and bottles, forced to spend endless days with a baby whose sunny disposition hid one of the most relentless stubborn streaks people have ever encountered.
It wasn’t pleasant for either of us, but when I turned forty-two, I realized it was probably least pleasant for her.
My mother has been dead for five years, but she visits me every day. Usually she passes through, making a snide remark about the cleanliness of my kitchen or handing me a utensil, reminding me silently of the way she had actually taught me how to do a particular chore.
But sometimes she stands in front of me, giving me a look she rarely gave me in life—an aware, startled look as if she can’t believe I have accomplished something she thought impossible, something she believed no one could ever do.
Once a therapist confided in me that her most difficult patients were the women who came of age just before World War II.
“They discard their pasts,” she said. “They move forward and never look back. They demean themselves, their accomplishments, and the accomplishments of others. And, as I try to work with them, they resist me, until eventually they leave, as unhappy and frustrated as they were when they arrived.”
I was so young when the therapist and I had this conversation—in my twenties—so certain that everything had an answer, if we only knew where to look.
“Maybe it’s disappointment,” I said. “Rosy the Riveter forced to leave her job and become Mommy.”
The therapist shook her head. “It’s more than that. It’s as if there’s a gaping hole in their lives, and returning to it will destroy them, this time maybe forever.”
Fear, I remember thinking. It was only fear. And fear can always, always be conquered.
Fifteen years later, I stand on a makeshift stage in the Elks Club basement, wearing makeup someone else has applied and a long gown that would make a frilly bridesmaid’s dress seem beautiful. My chorus is doing a benefit for a local charity, performing in front of an enthusiastic crowd of fifty people, all friends and family. The “friendly” crowd, our director calls it, because next week, we compete; next week, we stand on the stage in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland and sing before judges who will evaluate our every sound.
I stand second row back with the altos, although I am technically a first soprano, with a voice so high that, with the proper refresher training, it can break glass.
But my range runs more than three octaves and, since I am one of the few women in this small town who can read music and sing harmony, I spend my nights at the bottom of my register, harmonizing as softly as I can so that my powerful voice doesn’t overwhelm the melody.
I am the best singer in the group. I have been the best singer in every group I have ever joined, from grade school through high school, from music camp to regional festivals, from college to adulthood. Choir directors seek me out, make me lead, have me sing each part except contralto so that the others can hear how the music should sound.
And yet, when I step on stage, my throat seizes up, I swallow too much air, I miss easy cues. I listen with an acuity that’s preternatural, hearing the mispronunciation, the slightly missed note, the harmony one-sixteenth of a tone off. My hands sweat, my shoulders tense. I stand alone in a chorus of thirty, as if a spotlight shines on me, only me.
My mother, five years dead, sits on a folding chair in the front row, her hands folded in her lap, her legs crossed at the ankle and tucked to the side. She is forty pounds heavier than she was when she died, and her spectacular silver hair still has threads of black.
She listens with a concentration that’s fierce, staring straight ahead as if each note were written before her.
And when the chorus finishes with our signature song—a World War I ballad so barbershop that it makes all the poles in town spin—the friendly crowd rises enthusiastically to its feet, screaming and shouting and clapping as if we are the best performers they have ever heard.
The crowd rises—all except my mother, who remains in her chair, hands clasped, legs tucked to the side. She smiles, just a little up-turn of the lips, barely noticeable to anyone but me, as if to say, What fools these people are. They actually believed this was good.
By the time we troop off-stage, she is gone. But her critique lingers as if she gave it to me personally. One missed cue, five flat notes, and one gulp of air. Not to mention, honey, that the dress does nothing to flatter you, and your hair covered your tiny face.
I sit down in the chair she has vacated, still warm from the heat of her body, and shake. Now that the performance is done, I am so exhausted, I can hardly move. It’s hard to listen to every nuance, to be alert to the smallest mistake.
But I am, and I do, and the performances drain me, as if they suck essence of my being out with each note.
My sisters and I have the same voice. We use it differently. My oldest sister pitches hers low and adds a twang, acquired after nearly a decade in Texas. My other sister, the former baby of the family, uses hers stridently, banishing the music from it as if music never existed.
My voice varies depending on what I need it for. It is, perhaps, the most trained part of me—trained, at one point, to be a singer, an actor, and a broadcaster. My face gives away my emotions, but my voice hides my secrets. Put me behind a microphone, obscure my face, and I can lie better than anyone else in the world.
I also do impressions, and the ones I do best are the ones I learned to do first: my sisters. It is amazing what a person can learn by phone, calling her parents and pretending to be her siblings. It soon becomes clear who is loved the most.
The one impression I have never done is my mother—which is odd, when you consider that our voices, my sisters and mine, come from her, just like our features do, like my hair does. Our voices are her voice, so much alike that when she was alive and we all gathered in one room, people in the next room could not tell us apart.
In 1930-something, my mother, then a girl in her teens, met a famous opera singer, a woman whose name I now forget. The choir director at my mother’s church introduced the woman to my mother because my mother, like me, was the person directors sought out, making her lead, having her sing each part except contralto so that the others can hear how the music should sound.
The opera star offered my mother private lessons, said she should be auditioning for the major opera companies. You have the talent to become one of the most famous singers in the land, the opera star told her.
The story always ended there, with the validation of my mother’s skill, not with the explanation of why she chose to remain home. We were left to guess: did a lack of money hold her back? Or fear that she wasn’t good enough? Did my aunt—younger then, her flapper’s marcel appropriate and stylish—convince my mother that the sinful city was not a good place for an orphan girl still stuck in her teens?
It is a fleeting glimpse of a well-worn dream, a story told more and more rarely as time went on. I would think I imagined it, except my sisters know it too.
We discuss it in our matching voices, forming a trio of doubt. For we have learned over the years that we cannot trust our mother’s stories. She altered them almost by whim.
But there is always a kernel of truth. And we know this: there was an opera singer—although she may not have been a star. And we also know our mother was talented because, at one point or another, we have heard her sing.
She sings to me every Christmas, her voice growing strong as her death recedes into the past. Somehow, on Christmas Eve, I find myself standing beside her in the church of my youth.
The pews are made of polished wood, the air smells of pine boughs, and the sanctuary is dark except for hundreds of candles, held by each member of the congregation. The midnight service always ends with “Silent Night,” which the congregation sings in unison.
All except my mother. She sings a descant, her beautiful voice soaring above the others. She is not singing the song as a lullaby—for there is no gentleness in this woman; there never has been—but she is performing, and the performance is breathtaking.
Her eyes are closed, her head tilted upward, her striking features accented by the candlelight. She is, for this moment and this moment only, somewhere else—a place where she is loved, where music is more than notes on a page.
Try as I might, I cannot replicate that moment, even with the voice she has given me. The descant does not exist in any hymnal or book of carols, and the words—the words aren’t even English. For when she tilts her head back and sings like one of the heavenly host, my mother reverts to the language of her childhood.
Every year, alive or dead, my mother sings “Silent Night” in German.
She also spoke German as she gave birth to me—and this story I know to be true because my father told it to me first.
My mother went into labor, forty-two years old and unhappy, terrified that my birth would kill her. The doctor could not calm her and finally put her under—a full anesthetic so that her body could expel me without interference from her all-powerful mind.
But her mind protected her all the same. Tears ran down her cheeks, and she repeated something, singsong in that beautiful voice, so many times that a nurse finally wrote a phonetic version of my mother’s utterances.
The nurses brought the paper to my father in the waiting room at the same time they brought me, and recited, as best they could, my mother’s words. My father laughed, as he was wont to do where my mother was concerned, and shrugged off the significance.
But the nurses did not. They remembered, and later told my mother.
She had done something she could not do while conscious.
Throughout my birth, she had recited the Lord’s Prayer.
My mother learned to sing in German. Every Christmas, her father would line up his children in the front parlor, near the piano. Each child, from the oldest to the youngest, would sing to my grandmother—and, if possible, that child accompanied herself on the piano.
Everyone in my mother’s family learned to play the piano. It was required, like singing was required, like German was required, like God was required.
My mother’s father was a minister, who came from a family of ministers. He immigrated to the United States from Germany in the first decade of the twentieth century, brought over by his elder brother, also a minister.
My grandfather married into a family of women, all of whom worked as maids at a seminary, and all of whom married ministers.
At home, my mother’s family spoke German. My mother, also the baby, did not have as many years of indoctrination in that language as her siblings had: her father died when she was eight—or was it ten? These stories are never clear—and her mother, destitute, opened a boarding house where English became the primary tongue.
But German was locked inside my mother, locked as so many other things were, locked and kept close, never to be released.
Not even now, when she haunts me all these years after her death.
I no longer sing with the chorus. I adored rehearsal, but performances destroyed me. For the two days before we sang, my stomach churned, and for the two days after, my head ached so badly I could hardly think.
I am an adult now. I realized I did not have to do something I did not enjoy. And much as I loved to sing, I could not exorcise the ghost of my mother from her seat in the front row.
When I first became a writer, I wrote stories about music. My first professional fiction sale featured aliens whose souls were songs, played with variations each and every day.
Music is my life, my heart, and my dreams. I cannot live without it. A soundtrack runs through my mind, always cueing me to the feelings I bury within me.
Over time, music left my fiction. I no longer sang at home, and I rarely listened to the radio. I locked music deep inside me, sealing it up along with its five-foot-two-inch ghost.
Yet I dreamed of it, like a drowning man dreams of air.
And when my husband, good kind gentle man that he is, asked me what I wanted for my fortieth birthday, a voice from deep inside me escaped the lock and answered him:
I would like, the voice said with a child’s breathiness, a child’s hope, I would like…a piano.
A piano. Sacred totem of my childhood, as forbidden as the name of God.
One of my earliest memories: sitting on the piano bench in the church basement—that same church where my mother still sings every Christmas Eve—my fingers finding scales on ivory keys. I play with the door closed, one ear trained on the slightest sound outside, so that I cannot be overheard.
I am happy there, in that little room, where a woman named Miss Misna teaches me how to sing, and asks me to direct the other children whenever she must leave the room.
My mother never touched that piano. In fact, I never saw her touch a musical instrument in her life. When I was seven, and the school I attended mandated that we all learn a musical instrument, my mother made me learn the flute.
Beginning woodwind players squeak and squeal, but they do not torture the ear the way beginning string players do. Nor do they offend the neighbors the way beginning percussionists do.
But the only instrument which sounds passable even under a beginner’s hands is the piano.
My mother would not allow a piano in her house.
There is a piano in mine. It is a Baldwin baby grand, black and shiny, with tone so pure and wondrous it should grace a stage instead of my living room.
I adore that piano.
It is the only place in the world where I do not see my mother’s ghost.
Oh, she tried to haunt it with her disapproving looks and her sideways comments—music is about perfection, she would say, and my flute teacher, a strict Greek Orthodox woman who never smiled, would chime in, reminding me that I am the laziest musician she has ever met.
I am lazy. I slide by on talent and on the ear I inherited from my father’s mother. That grandmother—the best dancer in Fond du Lac County in the decade before World War I—also played the piano, but she never learned to read music, preferring instead to play the popular songs of the day after listening to someone else perform them.
In the last two years, the years the piano has decorated my living room, I have learned that my laziness no longer matters. I do not practice for performance. I practice because I want to. I am amusing myself. Perfection is irrelevant, since the only people who will grade me on my abilities are my mother—and myself.
But my mother refuses to come into the living room. She will not sit near the piano—has not even looked at it since it arrived two years before.
She doesn’t even hover near the archway, peering into the room like she used to do when I sang or listened to music on the radio. Instead, she hides in my kitchen, paging through my cookbooks as if they hold the secrets to the universe.
Her absence is liberating. I pound the keys, playing loud, playing soft, playing discordant notes, playing random chords. Sometimes I sing as I play, and I remain alone in the room, no silver haired, five-foot-two-inch, sharp-faced woman sitting with her hands clasped, peering at me, waiting for me to make a mistake.
Oddly, the songs that I play, the ones that I learn all the way through, come from my mother’s youth. Big bands, sentimental journeys, smoke getting in your eyes.
Once my mother said to me, her voice breathy, childlike, and full of hope, that while she thought the music of my generation had beauty, no one knew how to write love songs like the people from hers.
The generation my therapist friend called lost, the generation with the gaping hole in their collective psyche, the generation forever embittered, forever lost.
When my mother made her statement—the only one, I recollect, she ever made about the music she grew up with—I pooh-poohed it. I was sixteen, full of myself, and convinced no one else could be right.
Yet as I climb inside these songs, learn their chords, their lyrics, their intricacies, I realize she was right. For these love songs have depth, a depth that comes from history. And only if you know the history do you understand them, do you realize that beneath the words of love are discordant hymns to unspeakable loss.
My generation sings of empowerment. I went through puberty listening to “I am Woman,” and followed the singer-songwriters who rejected the woman-needs-man-to-thrive thread that coexisted with the Take Back the Night marches of my college years.
First we sang of our right to a place in the world, and now we sing of our victories. Like this from Janis Ian:I don’t need permission to change this tradition when they tell me you can’t play well i just turn my back and say… now all over this big wide world I play like a girl
The insult of our youth turned back on all of those who slung it.
I play like a girl.
But that isn’t the victory.
The victory is that I play at all.
By the time she died, my mother had stopped singing. She listened to news on the radio, soap operas on TV. Her house, once filled with the classical sounds of public radio, more often than not held silence, like someone was holding a breath they would never, ever let go.
The day after her funeral, my sisters and I began to clean that barren place. We did not turn on a radio to cover the silence. We barely spoke, and when we did, it was of sadness and disappointments, in simple sentences usually starting with I can’ts, I wishes, and I don’ts.
We found no hidden treasures, no caches of memories, no marvelous and unknown things. But we did find a stack of CDs hidden behind my father’s albums in the hallway—all big bands: Tommy Dorsey, Bennie Goodman, Collected Songs from World War II.
Sentimental journeys. Songs ostensibly about love, but really about loss so deep it leaves a gaping, unimaginable wound.
I have the CDs now. I listen to them, late at night, in the piano room, alone—always alone—and feel echoes of that wound. It is not mine; it is hers. And I do not understand it.
But for years it stopped me, forced me to trap my music and lock it up inside my soul.
The piano has set my music free. Sometimes I leave my practice sessions, my playing sessions, and wander into the kitchen, to find my mother standing there, a cookbook held like a shield in her left hand.
She watches me with that look she never had in life, that aware, startled look as if she can’t believe I have accomplished something she thought impossible, something she believed no one could ever do.
Then she turns away, and I can see through her—a five-foot-two-inch ghost with more substance than she ever held in life.
I want to ask her what happened; why she locked the music away along with her hopes, her dreams; what caused the hole in her life—the hole that haunts her, even in her death.
But as I frame the question, she vanishes like she’s never been—not exorcised, for she shall never be fully exorcised. She lives in my face, in my voice, in everything I touch and everything I do—but vanquished by a piano and the threat of sound.
We are each a product of our own history, our own generation.
I play like a girl.
And sadly, she did too.
Play like a Girl
Copyright © 2014 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Stars, edited by Janis Ian and Mike Resnick, Daw Books, August 2003
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover copyright © 2014 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Andriy Petrenko/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.