Teaser 12 - Songs Without Words

Steve Townshend wrote the amazing short fiction that graces our pages, entitled "Songs Without Words." It is quite a substantial story, and (we think) worth getting all by itself. Here is a brief look to give you a taste.

 

The wooden lips would never sing, yet the automaton made music all the same. It was a player model, and in the weeks that followed it broke the long silence of the black Steinway and filled the McGhee mansion with Brahms and Beethoven, the Mendelssohns, Schubert, Strauss, Liszt and Chopin. When it did not play it sat still and voiceless as the furniture in the dim quiet of the mansion. Most evenings, the automaton played while the colonel sat beside it on the bench, swaying in time with the music. Sometimes the automaton played the colonel's old compositions—the songs he wrote for Theresa's mother when he was shy and young and his heart ached with dreams—and as it played these songs the colonel closed his eyes and the fingers of his left hand twitched in silent accompaniment with the music. But whenever the hook peeked from his sleeve to brush his leg, or the piano, or when the automaton varied the tempo unexpectedly, the colonel awoke from his reverie with glistening eyes and he sat up, sober and tired, while the automaton played on.

Theresa felt for her father. To have had everything, only to lose it in a year: his wife, his hand, his music, even 'Honest Abe' whose cause he had fought for; the colonel returned from the war to a house of ghosts. Even Theresa was a stranger to him now, the precious child he adored grown into a young woman eager to experience life beyond the mansion's walls. Yet despite their strangeness Theresa was all that remained to him, and so the colonel kept his daughter close, turning away Theresa's callers until the young gentlemen of Boston gave her up for a spinster. Together they lived in the big empty house with the mechanical man that played the colonel's music, and Theresa soon relinquished all hope of a life outside the mansion, for her father would not hear a word of it. 

The colonel hired private tutors to instruct his daughter, and servants to tend to the estate on various days throughout the week, but Theresa had no true friends. Sometimes the colonel invited his war comrades and their daughters to the mansion so Theresa might enjoy the company of her peers, but other girls found her awkward and shy and peculiar, and after dinner when their fathers drank sherry in the parlor with the colonel, the girls gossiped to one another of Theresa's unrefined manners, and giggled at her behind their fans. Theresa loved her father, but they remained an enigma to one another, their words strewn across long silences like sparsely scattered seeds. So Theresa passed her time reading and rereading the books in the private library and writing in her diary. All of her time alone gave ground to a fertile imagination, which endowed everything in the mansion with a personality—the uneven books on the shelves were a tribe of storytelling gypsies; the cast iron poker and shovel by the fireplace were a pair of escaped slaves; the gauzy curtains in her room were gossips that whispered every secret they heard upon the wind. And then there was the automaton.

One night as Theresa wrote in her diary, her inkwell ran dry and her pen began to scratch empty grooves into the page. Careful not to wake the colonel, she crept through the dark house to fetch a bottle of ink and a fresh bundle of candles from the kitchen. On her way through the hall she spied the automaton sitting at the piano in the midnight stillness of the mansion. No matter which angle she glanced upon the stationary figure, the perpetual gaze of the machine's glassy eyes and grinning mask seemed to follow her. As she moved, its head clicked in her direction, and the amber candlelight shone upon the hemisphere of its ash wood face. In the unblinking glass orbs, Theresa could see herself reflected. 

 "You aren't supposed to stare at a lady like that," she said. "It's discourteous." 

The automaton obeyed, averting its stare to the darkness beyond the piano. Theresa placed her finger upon the automaton's wooden mask and turned it back to face her. "I'm only teasing," she said, a playful smirk meandering at the corner of her lips. "You're just a tom. You don't count."