The Kingdom of Back Page 2

From my hands could sing the voice of God, worth its weight in gold.

“Nannerl, is it?” Herr Schachtner’s voice addressed me.

I nodded in his direction. My chest fluttered as if it were brimming with moths. My fingers twitched, eager to dance. “Yes, Herr,” I said. The last time he visited our home, he had not noticed me. But, then, he had no reason to.

“How long has your papa instructed you on the clavier, Fräulein?”

“Six months, Herr.”

“And do you think you play well?”

I hesitated. It was a tricky question. I did not want to speak too proudly, so that he may think me arrogant, or too meekly, so thus a poor player. “I don’t know, Herr,” I finally said. “But I believe you will know best when you hear me.”

He laughed, pleased, and I allowed myself a small smile in relief. Men, my mother had always advised, were incapable of resisting praise. If you needed something from them, you first told them about all the ways they impressed.

When I chanced a look up at him, his smile widened and he tugged at both sides of his justaucorps’ collar. “Well, what a charming girl, Leopold,” he said to my father. “Delightfully reserved for her age. She’ll marry well, I’ll say.”

I turned my eyes down again, forcing a smile at his compliment, even as my hands tensed against the fabric of my dress. I’d once heard a coachman call his mare delightfully reserved as he tightened her bridle.

Papa turned to me. “We learned a new menuett yesterday,” he said. “Let’s start with that, Nannerl.”

It was not a new menuett, truthfully, but one that Papa had written for me weeks ago and that I’d practiced for ten days. But Herr Schachtner did not need to know that. So I said, “Yes, Papa,” then sat back down at the clavier and reached for my notebook.

In my nervousness, I started to play before I had counted to three in my head. Careful, I scolded myself. Herr Schachtner would notice every mistake I made. I took a deep breath and let the world still around me. The slant of light in the air, the sound of my father’s voice, the weight of a stranger’s presence in the room. They faded now, leaving me with only my hands and the keys.

Here, I was alone. This was my world. I began to play and my fingers steadied against the music. A major scale, a shift, a drawn-out A, another scale, a trill. I closed my eyes. In the darkness, with only myself, I searched for the pulse of the music and let my hands find it.

It was like coming upon a web in the woods so fragile that a single puff of air would blow it away. I thought of the clouds right before they shifted, a butterfly on the underside of a leaf, velvet-white edelweiss on a lonely rock, rain at midnight against the windowpanes. When I played, it was as if I were discovering the harmony of everything I already knew, but in a way that revealed itself only to me.

My entire heart pulled with yearning at the music. I leaned into the web and let it encase me.


A bubble of laughter came from somewhere in my parents’ bedchamber. The web around me wavered, threads of it starting to burn away to reveal the room again, the light and the stranger and my father.

I furrowed my brows and tried to concentrate again. But from the corner of my eye, a blur of motion emerged from behind the bedroom door and ran over to where Papa sat. I caught sight of a head of warm brown curls. Small, stout limbs. A bright smile that beckoned to everything around him.

My brother, Wolfgang.

“Ah, Woferl!” I heard the familiar affection in Papa’s voice as he used my brother’s pet name. Of course, he did not scold him for the interruption. “What are you so eager about? It will have to wait. Do you see? Your sister is playing for us.”

My brother simply smiled and lifted himself up onto the tips of his toes to whisper something into Herr Schachtner’s ear. In spite of myself, I strained to hear what he said. My focus elsewhere, I felt my fingers speed up, disturbing the web in the woods and the flower on the rock. I bit my lip and forced myself back into rhythm.

Herr Schachtner laughed loudly. He shared the joke with my father, who chuckled, and then said something in return to my brother.

The music that filled my head began to fragment, and in the slots between the notes grew guesses at what they could be discussing. Look at the funny faces she makes. See how stiffly she sits. Her tempo is uneven.

Or, perhaps worse, they weren’t talking about me at all.

My hands stumbled over each other—I managed to catch this mistake before it ruined the piece, but one of my fingers still slipped off its key.

The note came out silent, an ugly gap between rising arpeggios.

Heat rushed to my cheeks. I cast a glance toward my audience to see my father’s eyes dart at me, surprise and disapproval sharp on his face. Herr Schachtner tucked one hand under each of Woferl’s underarms and picked him up to sit upon his lap. My brother’s legs swung idly.

“Thank you, Nannerl,” Papa said.

His voice startled me. I hadn’t even realized that the menuett was done, that my hands had already retreated to my lap. The web in the woods was gone. The clouds and butterflies and rain vanished from my mind. No one was listening to me anymore.

I straightened and rose, trembling, from the bench to curtsy. The floor beneath me swayed in the sudden silence of the room. My father’s smile swayed on artificial hinges.

From where he sat on the Herr’s lap, Woferl met my eyes with all the innocence of a little boy. His cheeks were round, still flushed from the remnants of a lingering fever that had struck just days ago. His eyes shone as brightly as pebbles winking in a stream. I softened at the angelic face of the brother I loved, even though I did not want to linger on his gaze.

Do not blame Woferl, Papa would say later. He could not have distracted Herr Schachtner if you had played well.

Herr Schachtner put his hands together and clapped. “Ah! Splendid, child!” he exclaimed. “You are a true talent.” He turned to my father. “You are absolutely right, Leopold. She plays such smooth measures, and with such control. I’ve no doubt she will perform for royalty when she is older.”

My father thanked him politely at those words, but I could see the strain in his pride, the disappointment in his expression.

Herr Schachtner was supposed to say more. He was supposed to be astounded. He should have extended an invitation to us, arranged for me to perform before Herr Haydn and Austria’s other masters of music, offered to introduce me to his friends at court. Suggested a grand tour, to showcase me across all Europe. Just think of the Italians! he should have said. A prodigy hailing from the Rome of the North, worthy of Rome herself!

But instead, what he said was: When she is older.

I was not the miracle, destined to be noticed. Already, the Herr had moved on to telling my father a story about an argument between the orchestra’s horns, my brother still bouncing on his knee. My performance was thoroughly forgotten.

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