The music teacher arrived after morning prayers. Sister Constanza would announce her, stuff her used hankie into the bib of her habit, and march out. Before Mrs. London, music class had always been just singing songs from the songbook, like “Faith of Our Fathers” and “The Battle Hymn of The Republic.” I never minded. It felt like recess.Mrs. London had honey-colored hair, all poofed up and falling over her shoulders. She wore short dresses and make-up. Our 5th grade classroom was in a garret, with its own staircase and rest rooms in the old, old building where my father went to school when he was young.
I loved her frosted lipstick smile. She put records on for us to listen to. She played Peter and The Wolf and taught us that the bird was a flute, the duck was an oboe, the wolf was a French horn. Peter was all the stringed instruments. She taught us that music could tell a story. We learned to pronounce Prokofiev. He is Russian, she said, and he made this music for you.
Nobody ever talked or misbehaved. She held us spellbound.
Mrs. London taught us to identify the instruments by sound. She taught us that a piano was in fact a percussion instrument. I wanted to learn to play piano, but knew the answer before I asked: We can’t afford it. So I got a book from the library and pretended for awhile, but what good is knowing the notes if you can’t hear the music?
One day Mrs. London came back to our classroom to retrieve a forgotten record and she found me in the cloak room reading Valley of the Dolls. She said, does Sister know you’re in here? I told her no, tried to hide the book behind my back. Sister Constanza allowed me to have quiet reading time after I finished all my work so I wouldn’t get into trouble or bother the other children.
That’s a good one, Mrs. London said. But maybe you should read something meant for young girls. She saw I was about to cry and held out her hand and walked me back to my desk. Sister Constanza was leaning back in her chair, her mouth open, snoring.
We listened to Peer Gynt. She played “Morning Mood” and asked us if the music had sounded familiar to us. It had! But we didn’t know where we’d heard it before. We loved how “In The Hall of the Mountain King” made us feel, that slow, steady beat that got faster and faster. We girls used it in our jump roping, at recess, going da da da da da da da da da, da da da, da da da, speeding up until we collapsed on the playground.
I wanted to smell like Mrs. London, like flowers and air and snow. I wanted to not have my hair in tangles, pulled into a rough ponytail that made me look like a horse. I’d get lost in school, in my own thoughts, feeling strange and ugly and anxious and sad. I used to study the long crack on the ceiling that stretched like an arm and splintered into fingers. I’d imagine the ceiling was the floor and I was standing on it, a wide expanse of pure white, with a hand coming out, like someone buried alive. And I could take hold of that hand and pull and pull and a girl would emerge and she’d thank me and we’d be friends.
I followed Mrs. London home once. She lived near me, in a beautiful old home of pink brick and lacy white ironwork. I thought I would ask her to teach me piano after school and I would do chores or help her correct papers in return. She seemed to glide more than walk. But there was a man there, Mr. London I guess, and he kissed her for a long time, so I walked on home.
In January, at the end of class, she announced that she was going to have a baby and that the school no longer wanted her to teach music. She said she needed to start preparing to be a mother, but that we should keep listening to music and learn to play whatever instruments we wanted. She walked up and down the aisles, stopping to touch my hair.
Kathy Fish’s stories have been published or are forthcoming in The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), Guernica, Indiana Review, Denver Quarterly, Quick Fiction, and elsewhere. She is the author of three collections of short fiction: a chapbook of flash fiction in the chapbook collective, A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness (Rose Metal Press, 2008), Wild Life (Matter Press, 2011) and Together We Can Bury It, a second printing of which is available now from The Lit Pub. She has recently joined the faculty of the forthcoming Mile-High MFA at Regis University in Denver where she will be teaching flash fiction.