Music is sound that is kind to silence 

Music is sound that is kind to silence 





Young Greta Stahlbaum did not have boots warm enough for the Berlin winter. The rotting boarding house she’d been staying in kept her stomach just full enough and her body just warm enough, but a sour feeling of hunger and a bitter chill in her bones always remained. The roof of the house was succumbing to gravity and it lacked good company. Greta grimaced every time she passed coins from her small hands into the grubby palm of Herr Berger for her stay. He’d look down his nose at her and she’d gulp as the pockets of her battered coat became lighter and lighter. 

Greta had left an orphanage for the boarding house a few weeks before. She woke up before the sunrise, crept into the orphan keeper’s room, and took the key for the safe box as Frau Vogel snored unbearably. Greta didn’t love stealing, but she had seen the pretty things Frau Vogel owned and she was certain it wasn’t from the glorious pay of being an orphan keeper, but possibly from her special guests she would usher into a locked room that they would leave from flushed. So, Greta took a fancy looking pair of wool fingerless gloves for good measure and clicked the wooden box open with a turn of the rusty key, taking enough marks to last her. Until when, though, she wasn’t sure. 

Left to the orphanage as an infant, with a little piece of folded paper with her full name on it, Greta was not a very compliant girl despite being quiet. Only twelve but with a wit beyond her age, she could be found in rooms she was not supposed to be in with trinkets she was not supposed to have, like stolen pastries or a poor tutor’s stationary.

She’d sneak into the kitchens during lessons and leave extra bread in the other children’s rooms. 

Greta had taken a liking to a guest a few weeks before she’d left the orphanage. A young man, maybe mid or early twenties, had walked  through the orphanage’s double doors one rainy afternoon, a large instrument at his side. He was shrouded in a big old coat and a brown cap, and stood perhaps six feet tall, his thin shoulders sloped forward just slightly as if he grew too fast too suddenly and feared the ceiling was going to cave in on him. Frau Vogel eyed him in a way he did not reciprocate. He greeted her with all the manners of a gentleman, then turned his attention to the children peeking their heads through the old banisters. He cocked his head towards their snickering and took his damp hat off to reveal a head of scruffy hair with pieces that stuck out every which way. “Hello,” he said. 

“I do apologize for them, the poor things have appalling manners,” the orphan keeper said. Greta peered out from the crack in the library door. Frau Vogel clapped twice and the children stood up and plodded single file down the creaky stairs. 

“Children, this is Herr Becker. He is to sit in for your music lessons today as a guest performer.” 

“Please, Henri is fine,” the man said. 

The children shifted on their feet and glanced at each other. They’d never had a guest performer, just Frau Vogel plunking on the old piano in the library while the children sang scales and picked at their pilled sweaters. Sometimes they heard music on

the phonograph, but only on special occasions. The orphan keeper ushered Henri into one of the sitting rooms after banishing the children to prayer. Henri’s leather shoes had scuffs and water stains and didn’t clack on the floor like new, fancy shoes did. The big case he had was also worn down, the handle so weathered and faded that you could see where his fingers had rested each time he picked it up. From behind the library door, Greta waited until Frau Vogel had gone to the kitchens to follow the tall man. She’d loved what little music she’d heard, always sitting closest to the phonograph when it played the same music, and she would sometimes press her cheek into the floor to feel its vibrations. She strayed during scales, harmonizing or moving up or down an octave. 

The door was cracked open just slightly enough for her to be able to peek in. The man sat in a chair with his papers spread about, with little black dots all over them and a pen in his hand. The case he had brought stood open to his right, a wooden instrument resting inside. Greta studied it. There were intricate patterns in the wood and different little pieces attached to it. She concluded it was a cello, because she’d seen a picture of one in the book from the library that she kept under her mattress since they weren’t supposed to take them out. She leaned forward to see closer but a floorboard under her groaned horribly and the man looked up. Greta stumbled back, but he stood from his chair and walked to the door. 

“It’s not polite to spy,” he said with a crooked smile. 

“I’m sorry, I was just . . . em . . . admiring your instrument. ”

“A cello. Have you ever seen one?”

She shook her head.

“Only a picture.”

The man opened the door just enough, silently beckoning her inside. Greta did so timidly and followed him to sit down. Her eyes widened at the papers as she saw the labyrinthine marks on them. The man laughed at her expression. 

“That’s music,” he told her. She reached out to touch it. 

“I thought music was sound,” she said. He laughed again and she flushed. “Sound is the translation of all this,” he waved his hand across the patterns. “Or rather, this is the skeleton of music.” 


“And your name?”


“Pleased to meet you, Greta. Henri.”

“Do you enjoy music?” he inquired. She nodded. He smiled crookedly again. “More than going to prayer?” She nodded again, a little more fervently this time. For a while they sat in silence while Greta thumbed through the pieces of paper, and felt Henri’s eyes on her hands, where small lashes had begun to heal from the punishments of Frau Vogel. Then he turned to bend over a paper that was only marked up halfway with music notes, making scribbles and lifting his right arm and moving it side to side in front of him as it was bent sort of at a ninety degree angle. Time went by, and Frau Vogel burst into the sitting room with children trailing behind her. The woman’s eyes widened at the sight of Greta sitting next to Henri. 

“I’m–I’m terribly sorry the child has disturbed you, Herr Becker. I was under the impression she was with the others,” she said, the last part through clenched teeth. “Oh it’s no trouble,” he replied. The orphanage keeper sucked in a breath and ushered the other children inside. Henri stood up from the chair and moved to his instrument. Children sat

on the couches and leaned against shelves and walls to get a view of the mysterious musician. He sat down in a chair and placed the cello between his legs and lifted the bow with his right arm, just like he did when writing music. 

And then he started playing. Before the bow hit the string, his eyebrows were already furrowed and his posture had straightened. Then he dragged the bow’s hair across a string and the sound enveloped the children, making the hairs on little Greta’s arms stand up. Henri’s own messy hair fell forward into his eyes as he played and made gestures with his head. His fingers  pressed on the strings but not the way Frau Vogel’s plunked on the piano keys, instead with emphasis and precision on every note, and Greta was sure the sound left no space for air in the room. The music was at once loud and quiet, fast and slow, warm and cold, and bright and dark. 

When Henri brought the bow back to his side, a silence Greta had never heard before penetrated the air. Then the children put their small hands together and clapped until they stung. The musician nodded with modesty and pushed back his sweaty hair, despite the cold in the room. He had played for them for an hour. Greta had the thought that during the hour he had decorated moment after moment in time. She knew then that that’s how she liked her moments decorated. 

That was weeks ago, and now she paced around the little boarding house room. She’d been delayed by the weather, the frigid winds that drafted through the

house and the snow that made the streets perilous for a young girl. She pulled out a scrap of crinkled paper, torn from an account book, stolen from Frau Vogel as well. An address.   The snow had muffled the world but the sky had finally begun to open up. Greta pulled the stolen gloves over her hands and winced at the thought of how awfully they would be struck if she was ever caught and returned to the orphanage. She’d decided to leave a few weeks after Henri performed for them, unable to stand the sounds that were not as kind to silence as music was. 

She clomped down the stairs and out of the boarding house and made her way onto the cobblestone streets, a few miles away from the orphanage. The cold seeped into her clothes and the snow radiated a chill around her. The wind had settled just slightly but the sun hadn’t come out, making everything look black-and-white. Greta made her way through Berlin’s city streets and pulled her coat tighter around her. Finally, her cheeks  windburned and her feet numb,  she looked up at the slender townhouse and checked the door address with the one from  her pocket. She knocked on the door and stepped back. 

Greta lingered for a moment. There was no response. She nudged the door open and had to use her shoulder to push, it was almost frozen shut but not locked. She stood in the foyer. The room was lined with little artifacts and books, comfortably filled with existence. She walked towards a shelf and ran her finger through the dust that made its home there. Then she heard a familiar vibration through the thin walls, and turned towards the stairs on the other side of the warmly lit room.

Creeping up to the second floor, she followed the music to a door, once again cracked open just so, and peered in. Greta had a weakness for doors that were never fully closed, it seemed. Henri sat with his cello, a woman perhaps the same age as him was at the piano, and an older man held a violin. Greta stood and listened. They played for moments more, and when they played one final note trading smiles  with each other, Greta succumbed and nudged the door open. The three musicians looked up in surprise. 

“Hello,” Henry said. The other man and woman softened their expressions when seeing Henri’s calm state. “Nice to see you again. Greta, was it?” 

“Yes,” Greta said. The musicians exchanged looks. 

“What brings you to this part of the city, Greta?” he asked after setting his cello down with such ease as if to not scare the girl away. She couldn’t find an answer that would suffice. 

“Music, Herr Becker,” she said. He smiled his crooked smile. 

“This girl,” the older man started. He was staring so intensely at her, as if she’d disappear if he blinked. Then he shook his head. The young woman stood up. “Henri, she’s freezing. Please fetch blankets,” she said. 

“Yes, Lena.” 

The woman had pale skin and warm colored hair and a crooked smile just like Henri’s. She ushered Greta to a chair that she plopped into thankfully. “Now where have you come from, liebling?” the woman asked. Greta told her about her little orphanage and about Henri’s performance, and that odd pull that landed her in this room.

“What a journey,” the woman  said. Henri had come back with blankets and tea and the older man had been quiet, studying Greta. The woman turned to him. “I’m Lena, this is Ben. Mine and Henri’s father.” 

“Say, what is your last name?” the old man  asked, his eyes seemed filled with years of seeing and knowing. Greta gulped down some hot tea and answered. “Stahlbaum, Herr.” 

 The three looked to each other once more.. Henri spoke up from the silence that threatened to outweigh the gravity in the room. 

“And . . . how old are you, Greta?” 

She looked at them peculiarly. “Twelve.” 

The old man  brought a hand to his overgrown brows and rubbed them. “But how—” 

Henri stood up and brought a hand down his face. “The letter Anne wrote to me to find my way to that orphanage one day and to perform . . . I thought it was just because she’d wanted me to pay tribute, charitable as she was. But . . .” 

“She was not well, we couldn’t have known what she meant. The doctor told her it was a stillborn,” Lena said tentatively. 

“They told her,” Henri had said. “She was unfit for raising a child. But nosey enough to know . . . to know where they’d put her if not with us, if she really did make it.” 

Greta’s mind was turning with the odd conversation.

“My children. Look at her. The spitting image of Anne and Jakob,” the old man said. 

They did look. Greta felt their eyes run through her hair and into her own curious eyes and over her own mouth that quirked up on one side. 

 “I suppose she truly is” said Henri 

Lena bent down to Greta and took her small hands. 

“Greta, it is likely… well practically certain that you are my niece.” She looked up at Henri. “Our niece.” 

“My granddaughter,”  said the old man. 

“You see, our sister was very ill. If the timing we proposed is correct, your father passed away before you were born. Your mother, Anne, well, we think she died of heartbreak in a sense. Stopped speaking, eating. Not permitted to see anyone. And we . . . we had nothing. You should have come to us, but we didn’t know.” She swallowed. “We didn’t know. We only had letters.” 

“But not about me,” Greta said. 

“No,” Lena smiled sadly. “We didn’t know.” 

Greta thought. “Did she like music?” 

They smiled. 

“Oh, she was a magnificent pianist,” said the old man. “It came so naturally to her.” Greta smiled at this. She pulled the blanket off of her and moved to the piano that Lena had played on earlier. She played some keys, putting notes together into a small, simple melody she played over and over with her right hand. She lifted her left hand and added lower notes she supposed sounded right. It was difficult to do both at the same time, but a rhythm developed and Greta scooted forward on the piano bench.

“At the orphanage, we weren’t allowed to touch the piano, but when I could I pretended.” She closed her eyes and her posture straightened.  “Until … Herr…Henri visited, I did not know.”

 From memory she tried her best to capture what she had heard, loud and quiet, fast and slow, cold and bright and dark. It wasn’t exactly precise, and it wasn’t exactly what she wanted, but when it ended and the small room stilled, there wasn’t enough air for anyone to breathe.

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