MUSIC BOX HEART
A haunting refrain filled the air, breaking the silence of the night. By the glow of a single candle Fernando sat at his small dinner table with tear streaks, long since dried, marring the curve of his cheeks. The candle light sent shadows dancing against the wall as though they too were listening to the soulful tune playing from the little music box.
It was the only thing Fernando had that still belonged to her; to the woman he had loved and lost. She had treasured it more than anything else and she had left it behind – for him. He listened as the tune playing pulled at his heartstrings reminding him of the time they had spent together.
Fernando had fallen in love with Marisa the minute he set his eyes on her. Walking from the market one afternoon, he’d chanced upon her with her friends. His heart had skipped a beat, dropped into his stomach before finding its place in his chest and racing faster than a rabbit with a pack of dogs behind it.
She was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen and his boyhood mind could not conceive of another creature ever holding such appeal for him. Every sight of her made his heart sing. But he had been too afraid to approach her then and as they grew from childhood to maturity, his fear grew in direct proportion to her blossoming beauty.
Every time he saw her a new stunning attribute would present itself to him. She had a laugh that could lift his soul out of the deepest doldrums. The riotous mass of curls that tumbled from her head always made him think of waterfalls and dark, hidden secrets. Her heart-shaped face inspired poetry and the curves of her womanly body awakened such hunger in him that he feared he would starve if he didn’t have a taste.
The only problem was she had the same power over almost every man who laid eyes on her. More than once he had lamented his shyness when he saw her bestow her attention on someone else. They were lucky. They had something to offer her when he was too poor and insignificant to match their attentions.
Born to a merchant, her family had good standing in the community. But they had fallen on hard times as had so many others. Fernando’s family were not much better off and he’d been kicked out of home at 16 to go fend for himself. His greatest wish had been to help Marisa and her family but he had been too busy trying to survive. When troubling rumours reached his ears about how she was making a living (and with whom), he had refused to believe it. His gentle, perfect Marisa was not one to trade in such base desires. Yet a perverse hope grew inside him; that he would still have a chance to save her and win himself a prize of great worth.
He saw it as a sign from the gods when he happened to bump into Marisa in the market place one morning. Farmers were selling their wares in make shift stalls while housewives and maids haggling loudly for the best prices. Craftsmen and merchants shouted their offers from shops, stalls and blankets laid on the ground. Each one trying to outdo the other and attract the passers-by. The cacophony as annoying as it was welcome and familiar.
Further down the cobblestone street where Fernando stood watching was a discrete shop and in the dark window was a sign that read, ‘Pawn Broker’. He was there to sell his music box but found himself reluctant to take that last step inside.
His job as a tour guide in the city was poorer this season. Pushed to the brink he couldn’t afford the sentimentality that stilled his hand. The music box was the only thing of value he could sell and it made sense to part with it rather than starve to death. But before he could take the irrevocable step a delicate hand landed on his arm. Startled by the attention, Fernando turned and beheld an angel for it was none other than his Marisa.
“May I see it?” She asked.
Fernando handed the music box to her without a word and was gratified when she offered him a broad smile. She took the music box, twisted the key and listened. Fernando couldn’t take his eyes off her. With her head cocked to one side, he caught a glimpse of the elegant column of her neck and wondered if the skin was as soft and smooth as it looked. Desperate to find out Fernando knew she was his if he played his cards right. Gathering his courage he straightened his back and his coat then waited patiently for the song to end.
“I would sell you this music box for a chance to kiss your lips.” Fernando said with feigned boldness.
“Would something so valuable be sold for so little?” She asked.
Was she speaking of the music box or the kiss? In his mind they were of equal value but who knew what a woman of Marisa’s standing would hold dear.
“I would wager my music box on your heart then.” Fernando replied.
It must have been the right thing to say for Marisa put her hand in his. “Take me home with you.”
Fernando felt like he was walking on air as they made their way to his home. The one-bedroom apartment was humble but neat and clean. With nothing to offer his guest he hoped they would sit and talk but Marisa had other things on her mind and he was more than happy to follow her lead. She stayed until the sun begun to kiss the horizon. The colours against the walls changed from bright white to shades of orange and red; glowing like the embers of a lazy fire. Finally, the warm stone streets of Madrid sat subdued in shades of grey as the sun disappeared altogether. In the privacy of his rooms, one would have seen Fernando with his arms wound tight around Marisa and a moan of pleasure heard through the thin walls of his humble abode.
By the bed where the lovers lay was the music box, its tunes muted for now as another song was sung. An age old rhythm was born were two became one and neither day nor night could separate them. It was only as Fernando lay satiated in bed, watching Marisa dress once again in her pretty summer frock that he thought to turn the key and fill the space with the haunting melody that did more to remind him of his pleasure than the woman standing before him.
“I hope you did not find your visit disappointing.” Fernando’s uncertainty returning now that ardour had cooled and he was faced with a reality he had no mental references for.
“It was a pleasure.” Marisa whispered to him before her love-bruised lips fused with his once more.
She was gone in a matter of seconds and she took the music box with her, leaving Fernando in silent contemplation of the curious turn his life had taken. He could only stare at the ceiling and smile at the good fortune that had brought such a wondrous gift to him. There was still the imperative to eat. With nothing to sell he wondered if he could go another day without a morsel of food in his stomach. What would he give for the chance to see Marisa again? He had little choice. Although his stomach grumbled in protest, he turned over on the narrow bed and forced himself body to go to sleep.
So it was for weeks on end. Every morning Fernando did what he could to earn a living. Often to the anger and chagrin of his co-workers whom he undercut for a quick sale only to rush his visitors through their tours in hope of getting more and more to cover the short fall. The streets were full of strangers who needed assistance and he willingly guided them wherever they wanted to go as long as they paid first.
Every afternoon he returned to his house. With care he cleaned up and prepared for his lady to arrive. She was always on time. In a self-imposed ritual she often took the time to place the music box down, wind it up all the way before she bestowed her first kisses on Fernando’s left cheek, his right cheek and finally on his waiting lips.
She would leave at dusk, carrying the music box in her bag so no-one could see it and Fernando was left to think over his experience through the night. He had all he ever wanted but hunger was a common feature of his life for even with all the work he did, it was still harder for him to make ends meet. With the influence Marisa had on his life he had grown accustomed to the presence of a lady in his home.
She demanded fine things. A comfortable couch made by the finest carpenters in Madrid filled his living room while the creditor’s penchant for darkening his doorway grew. Marisa took great pleasure in lying on it when she was eager for his touch. She would pretend to swoon and fall against it, ensuring the skirt of her peasant dress rode up to reveal her stocking clad legs and tiny feet.
Fernando was no match for such wiles and whenever she was thus in a state of exposure, he would caress her calves and kiss her thighs before he was overtaken by lust. At such times he would take her deep and slow with her legs dangling over the edge of the couch and her body closest to his. She liked it like that and he grew to love it too. All thought of what he owed forgotten in the wave of what he had in the moment.
There was a new bed too, made of the finest timber in the latest style. It had a thick mattress and Marisa liked to bounce on it, her childlike playfulness endearing her to Fernando even more. But there was nothing childlike about her when on more than one occasion she used her scarves to tie his arms to the posts and use him to her fill while he lay helpless and intoxicated by her skill. It was heady and exciting for Fernando to find himself at the mercy of such a passionate woman.
If anyone dared to ask what was going through his mind he merely responded, “Love…intoxicating, addictive love.”
Whatever she wanted he was happy to give. It was a price he was willing to pay but it cost him far more than money. His friends disappeared one by one. His reputation tarnished by his unthinking behaviour. Everything of value sacrificed at the altar of that music box and those nights he spent with Marisa. When she was around he felt like a king, able to do anything and everything to make her happy. But when she was gone from him, his heart grew dark and fearful, unable to understand what or why or where he was.
Every thought was of his love. He stocked his kitchen with the finest foods. Marisa had a picky palate and nothing ordinary could satisfy her cravings. She wanted fresh bread from the bakery down the street, mature cheese Fernando could only find in the best shops. Tea imported from Ceylon, dates imported from Arabia, olives from the finest gardens in Sicily and sweet meats made in the choices confectionaries. Fernando could not deny her anything and for that he had her in his life and his bed every night she could spare. She only asked that he let her keep the music box and play their song whenever they were together.
For a simple man, Fernando lived a very complex life yet he would have it no other way. Each passing day, each passing joy built in him the hope that he had desired from the beginning – that Marisa would consent to be his wife. He was eager to find out but when he finally asked her she merely laughed – that intoxicating sound that melted his heart – and said: “I am neither a wife nor a mother for I was built for other things. Together, just like this, we are perfect but if I married you I would die.”
Such exaggerations were impossible for Fernando to grasp so he tried again. This time Marisa said: “Do not wish for what you cannot have. Enjoy my body for I give it to you freely. Enjoy my heart for I can love you no more than I do. But do not put chains on my hands and tell me I am yours forever. Forever is a very long time.”
Still unbelieving, Fernando let her go home that day and every day for another month before he tried once again.
“Be my wife and share my home not only in these late hours of evening but throughout the day and night. Be with me always and for that I increase my wager – my music box and my soul for the chance to be with you.”
Such a wager as none had offered her was at Marisa’s feet and it was one Fernando knew she would not reject lightly. But he could not stop her from saying, with anger he could not understand, “Greedy fool you are. You think you are good enough for me. I am happy with you each evening for it is the only time I have. In the morn I am with my mother and in the evening with my father. What hours can I save then for you when I have given you all I can? Keep your heart and I will keep mine.”
This time when she left she did not carry the music box with her. The next day she did not return. Fernando lay on his bed and listened to the music box playing, but the time of her arrival came and went without the familiar knock on the door. The next day was the same. For a week he waited in despair. Finally unable to sit still and wait Fernando went in search of her. He searched the valley, the fields, the farmhouses and the markets. For months he searched the city. Each path checked and rechecked and checked again. The whole of Madrid he turned upside down, but Fernando could not find her.
With heavy heart, he returned to his rooms where everything reminded him of Marisa. The couch and the dishevelled bed. The fine food in the pantry. The dressing gown she’d begged him to buy her hanging, empty and forlorn, on the bathroom door. He could find no peace within those four walls, except by the sound of the music box playing. Only then could he think of Marisa without tears in his eyes and a pain in his heart.
Every night as the shadows crept in after the sun had gone down Fernando could be found sitting on the floor with that box in his lap. He listened by candle light and in dreams and when morning came, he listened again as he went out in search of the one who had stolen his heart. He could not find her anywhere. Fear filled him body and soul. Was she dead – taken from this earth too soon? Or was he? He was alive, breathe and need and desire told him so, but he did not live. There was nothing to live for and none to whom it mattered.
Starving once again he found himself at the seller with his little music box. Enough time had passed and the memory of its significance had faded. Not gone. Merely washed out like a photograph left too long in the sun. He was ready to give it up for one last meal. It had brought him nothing but pain. Perhaps now it would bring him something to nurture his body if not his battered heart. But at the door he lingered. Unable to walk in. Then a familiar hand took his and guided him away.
“Would you get rid of my heart so easily?” Her coy smile catching the glint of the sun.
Caught in his misery it took a moment to recognise his lover. Changed by time Marisa was round and voluptuous but her eyes still twinkled and her face still shone. She was more beautiful now than ever. Fernando pulled her into his arms and drunk of her scent like she was the very air he needed to breathe. So enraptured by the change, Fernando never thought to ask what had caused it.
“So long without you, I have learned to love you anew. I will take what I can get if you should be so kind as to give it to me.”
“What I can give, I shall, my love.” Marisa answered with a gentle smile and they walked to his rooms as they had done countless times before.
It was just as it had been and Fernando was soon caught in his own web. He had sought to change Marisa’s mind with time but instead he had found himself deeper in love with her. Once again willing to let her have her way. She was bolder than before. The things she showed him were nothing compared to what she had done before.
She no longer swooned on the couch. Instead she demanded he take her against his kitchen counter with the vigour of a rutting stallion. She tied him up and blindfolded him. Caught in a sensual battle between pain and pleasure each time and he could not have said where one ended and the other begun. She was stronger and more insistent and yet she was gentler and more accommodating. Every day she came just before noon and every evening, just as the sun kissed the horizon, she left. Taking the music box with her.
When he thought enough time had passed, he asked her to be his wife. Her refusal was mild and sedate as she said: “Have you not learnt your lesson? I can never be your wife, or you my husband.”
For a time Fernando felt them grow closer and for weeks more he planned his next move. Days spent working, evenings spent making love and nights spent staring at the ceiling alone, he plotted his capture of the one who had already imprisoned his heart. When the time was right he made sure his house was in perfect order and his form was in perfect stead. And to the one he saw as his bride he said:
“Long have I waited for the one who will make my life complete. You are that one. Long have I hoped for the one who will change my life. You are that one. Long have I stayed just out of your sight. Here I am. Long have we been dancing this dance. Here we are. Come to me and be mine and I will do the same.”
But once again he heard the words he never thought he could stand to hear again. “I am here but I am not with you. I complete you by remaining separate and too much of me would break your heart. We are dancing together for this time but soon I will dance another dance. Leave this dream behind and I shall never break the heart you give me so freely.”
Fernando could not stop his heart from crying when he saw Marisa leave him that night. The music box forgotten on the bedside table. With a shawl over her shoulder and her bag in hand she walked out his door and he let her go – then followed. Through the streets he went with her until she came to the gates of a beautiful mansion. At the gate she was let in without question. Fernando could not follow. He could only speak to the man at the gate.
“Who is that beautiful woman I just saw walk through these gates.” He asked trying unsuccessfully to seem only mildly interested.
“She is countess of the castle, queen of all who are here. She is my mistress and my friend and there is none other like Mistress Marisa.”
There had to be a mistake. Fernando had known Marisa for too long for this to be true. But why couldn’t it be? Did he knew her that well? Hadn’t he searched for her everywhere in Madrid and found nothing? His legs gave way and he staggered. Reaching for support he clutch at the guard like a life line. “Tell me it is a mistake. Tell me you jest.”
His Marisa...how was she a mistress or a queen of anything but his heart. No threat of violence, no hateful screaming could change the news he had received. Yet he didn’t want to leave. Not until he was threatened with jail did he slink away like a kicked dog; his tail firmly tucked between his legs. Through the darkened city streets he wandered, lost in confusion. Find his he way home with no knowledge of how he did it. At his door, he wondered how many times Marisa had stood on that same threshold knocking for him.
“Come in my dear.” He could be heard saying. His dreams coming true every time Marisa walked in bringing light and love and life with her.
Betrayed. Devastated. Alone.
The memory of their tune haunted his every moment. Fernando sat at his dinner table with his head in his hands. He longed for one other to join him but his plea to the gods fell on deaf ears. His cries of anguish giving no relief and serving only to disturb his neighbours. The music box, left behind as though to tell him his heart was truly not wanted, mocking him even as he approached it so it could do what it did best – tease him and taunt him.
The candle light sent shadows dancing against the wall as though they were listening to the soulful tune playing from the little music box. They were dancing the dance he had wanted to dance with her. They were playing the games he had wanted to play with her. But she was somewhere else and he was here – surrounded by shadows and emptiness.
The music box was hers more than his. It was the only thing Fernando had that truly belonged to her. He rid himself of everything else that reminded him of her. The creditors took the couch. His neighbour paid him for the bed. The neighbourhood dogs feasted on fine food…then just as quickly dashed back into dark alley ways and the rancid cuisine only the garbage cans could provide.
Only the music box remained. It was the one thing she had valued. She had left it behind – for him. Perhaps she had treasured it more than she had ever treasured him. The man at the pawn shop rubbed his hands with poorly concealed glee at the thought of getting all of Fernando’s finery for steal. Little did he know there he would not pay for his peace of mind. He let the man have it all. All except for that music box. The one he loved and hated in the same breath.
The emptiness was his new companion and it was crueller than the memories.
He listened as the tune playing pulled at his heart strings. Vivid memories tripped over each other as he remembered all the time they had spent together. Fought them and himself until he felt his heart turn to stone. He had loved where he was unwanted, lived were he should have died. This gorgon had seduced him with false beauty, then turned him to stone. But he needed to know why. Why has she done it? Why had she taken him on such a merry chase only to leave him with nothing?
He waited. Darkness was dispelled by the bright light of the morn. The minutes crawled by so slow but eventually…inevitable, the noonday sun beat down violently, heating the earth and sending every man, woman and child scurrying to the cool interior of their homes. Only as it began its decent to the west did Fernando hear a knock on his door.
“Come in my dear.” He said with barely concealed disgust.
“What have you done, my love?” Marisa asked when she saw the bare floors and walls and the lack of furniture.
“I have cut you out of my life.” Fernando replied.
“And why would you do that?” Marisa asked.
Her smile faltered and her face fell and for a moment he fancied he could see the snakes in her hair – twisting and hissing at him.
“Because I finally know what you are.” He said as he picked up the music box and handed it to her. “Take what you came for and I shall be done with you.”
Fernando watched as she shied away from the music box as though it might bite her hand off. “I cannot take this gift from you for I cannot give you what you want in return.”
“How would you know what I want?”
“Because you have asked me enough times.”
“Then I shall ask one more time. Marisa, will you marry me? Will you spend your days with me from now until eternity?”
“I cannot be your wife...” she started then turned away to stare at the empty kitchen, “...for I haven’t the heart. I am happy with you each evening for it is the only time I have. In the morn I am with my children and in the evening with my husband. What I can give, I have already given.”
With that she handed Fernando his music box and left in a flutter of silk and lace leaving only his shattered heart and the scent of her perfume. He stood there in the middle of his empty apartment – alone. No song could lift his spirit; no fire could thaw him out. He was stone and Marisa had made him so. For nothing he had lost his heart. With no future he could look forward to, Fernando flung the music box across the room. Like an explosion of fireworks it crashed into a million pieces and spread out, filling the emptiness with springs and wood and tiny little cogs.
When the pieces finally settled Fernando felt his anger subside and burning rage turned to bruising pain. He looked down at his chest and saw the first drop of blood seep through his clothes. He could not have known that his heart was tied to the music box. He had given it away when he did not know what he was doing. Marisa had turned it down perhaps wiser than he. He was the music box and the music box was him. Marisa had carried him with her each night and returned him each afternoon.
His heart – his life – was shattered into a million pieces and he could not live without it any more than he could live without Marisa. He fell to the floor with a tune on his lips reminiscent of that music box and one word on his lips: “Marisa.” In death he could not bleed, he could not cry, he could not love. In death he was finally made of stone.
His body was found in the centre of his room with no evidence that anyone else had ever been there. The mortuary made a cursory examination and found the main cog of a music box in his chest. It had pierced his heart.
© Elizabeth Njogu 2015