I try not to sound crazy when friends ask me how I am. I’m doing okay, I say. Really. I’m learning to play the harp, I offer as proof. I want to show them the calluses, the tiny scars the strings have imprinted on my fingers, but I’m the only one who can see them. I don’t tell them why I bought the harp.
I didn’t want to buy it. Who plays the harp? But that first winter I craved distractions and decided to learn a new instrument. I chose the cello, an instrument with enough weight to sing the stories inside me. I wanted to draw the bow across the strings and fill the room with dark, solemn sounds that matched my heartache. I picked out a cello and imagined it nestled within the curve of my piano. I was ready to play. But my dreams said different.
I was promised dreams from the moment I lost my son. He’ll come to you in dreams, my friends told me, and I waited, but they were empty and cold until that winter when harps came to me in sleep. I never saw my son, never heard Brendan, not even once. But in the morning, my fingers tingled as if I’d spent the night plucking the harp.
A few weeks later, my husband and I stood in a narrow storeroom surrounded by dozens of harps. “Here,” the clerk said, setting a small bench behind a harp in the corner. “You’re a pianist. You’re going to want a pedal harp.” I traced the gilded scrolls on the soundboard and sat down, pulling the harp towards me. Its sound was bright and full, strong enough to sing alongside a symphony. I nodded at my husband.
But then I noticed a black Celtic harp the next row over. It looked so small, the top of its arch barely reaching my chin. I touched it gently; my fingers trembled too much to place them on the strings.
“Can you play me something?” I asked the clerk. I held my breath and listened to the sound of Ireland and green rolling hills, shivering as if wind and rain poured down on me. The pedal harp had power and presence, but this one tore me apart, leaving me broken. We took it home that day.
In ancient times, harps were considered a mystical blessing. Harpers led battles, their safety ensured because no one would harm them. They were hired by kings once they’d proven they could evoke three things from their audience: tears, laughter, and dreams.
Tears are the easiest, of course.
I tilt the harp back, the curve of wood resting on the top of my right shoulder. The nylon strings are slippery, but the calluses only I can see hold me in place. I’m wearing socks so my feet can feel the whisper of notes through the wooden floor.
I start with an Irish ballad, a simple melody meant as a prayer. The notes drift around me, like wind chimes twirling in the breeze. I close my eyes and smile. But, then, I reach up and flip down a few of my levers, loosening some of the strings. I’m in a minor key now and a darkness washes over the notes, a low rumble of thunder that brings the rain. The song moves from prayer to lament.
When I was young, we had a bronze lamp with a statue of a woman in the middle, surrounded by strings. When you turned the light on, drops of oil dripped down each string, until the woman looked like she was crying, trapped within a cage of rain. I wonder if that’s how I look now, trapped within these strings, tears flowing down.
I move on, searching for laughter. I roll a chord, my fingers curling into my palm. I roll another chord because, here, in these four notes, I hear my son. Oh, how he loved to laugh. I flip my levers up to brighten the notes. My left hand slaps the bass notes, laying down a beat. The vibrations make the bass strings disappear for a few seconds. I can’t hesitate, though. I need to reach out with confidence and pluck the invisible string, a small bit of courage that fills me with pride.
I build the rhythm. One, two, three. One, two, three. The beat becomes a bounce that spreads throughout the house. My husband enters the room, his toes tapping. My fingers flutter a trill of high notes, like birds chirping in the trees, and he moves faster, twirling as he makes up his own Irish jig. “More,” he says and leaps across the room. Together, we braid our laughter into song and dance.
And dreams? Here’s where I stumble. I play for hours each night, hoping to be lulled into that promised land. I fall asleep with aching hands and wake each morning, wanting, waiting. And yet, there’s magic in this harp, something more than melody, harmony, and rhythm. There are sound holes in the back of the harp, holes I press to my chest when I play. I wrap my arms around strings and wood pulsing with vibrations. I don’t just hear each note, I feel them flow through me. My heart answers back with the echo of tears and laughter. He is here.
This is my dream.
I play for hours each day, my fingers dancing over the strings. I don’t say any of this when friends ask about the harp. I don’t talk about vibrations and the hum inside my heart. I don’t even mention Brendan and magic and dreams.
I play them a song.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Liz West