The Scrimshaw Violin
Madeleine Gordon was not much of a Jew. She was a Starbuck, the daughter of whalers, pirates and other not-so-genteel Semitophobes of Nantucket. But she had married David Gordon (who was the genuine article) and, in the innocence that calls itself love, had created her own cultural revolution, shocking not only her mother and several generations of Starbucks, but all the Jews of Nantucket by becoming more knowledgeable, more spiritual, more legalistic (and a better cook of gefilte fish–not to mention she caught her own pike) than any of the genetic Jewesses on the island. She hung a Chagall print above the headboard of her great-grandfather’s four-poster, taught herself biblical Hebrew from CD-ROM, and read every word ever written by Elie Wiesel. She subscribed to the Jerusalem Post and the Forward, and had the New York Times delivered to the mansion on Orange Street, where she lived with David and her mother, scanning them religiously for the latest news on what it meant to be a Jew. And so it came to pass that Madeleine saw an op-ed by the Rabbi Doctor Alexander Abba Lincoln on the discovery of the Jew Gene–she was not entirely sure whether he was serious–and sent the invitation.
Sandy Lincoln was not much of a rabbi, at least not down in that secret place of superstition and fear that people call the soul. He had spent too much time in civil service, and worse yet, in the Talmudic details of forensics, to believe that humanity was much more than a hank of hair and a piece of bone.
But Sandy had discovered over the years–especially over the years after the communes and the jug bands and the solar-powered yurts, when the beads and batik gave way to a tight layer of fat around the belly and a halo of white hair around the jowls that made him seem perpetually open for business–that people, like Madeleine Gordon, flocked to him as if he were, God forbid, a practising rabbi. They wrote him letters, stopped him on the street, woke him at two o’clock in the morning. Every Friday night they invited him–a synagogue here, a Jewish community centre there–to speak to them, as a rabbi and a coroner, to instruct them on the Dahmer, the Anastasia, the O. J. of the day. And after the talks, in the hallway after the kiddush, by the swing set after the dinner, people sought him out, pressed his hand, looked into his eyes, not for his expert opinion on DNA or carbon dating (or even on their private concerns about stray hairs or semen stains), but for the kind of deep advice that only someone who knew both the Midrash and the Dead could provide. Within a $300 round-trip radius of New York, the word spread–Rabbi Sandy Lincoln, he’s a mensch, he’s got a soul.
Normally, Sandy would have scribbled a brief note to his assistant, Indira, to include a polite, but firm, apology to Madeleine, as he did with the many invitations he received that read more like the personal memoirs of the Chairwoman of the Speakers Committee of this synagogue or that JCC, lonely women in search of a little safe, spiritual recognition in the form of a travelling rabbi.
But Madeleine’s invitation included a unique postscript. ‘Rabbi,’ it read, ‘I hope you will find in my Nantucket what I have found in your religion.’ Sandy was less moved by the chutzpah of the comparison, than by the mystery of what it was he might discover. Besides, the invitation arrived in the depression of February, when he was having trouble with Indira, and the Medical Examiner’s Office was the warmest spot in Manhattan. Madeleine Gordon wanted him in the middle of July. There was the promise of a barbecue, the hint of a yacht. Sandy accepted.
Nevertheless, now that he was on the island, he found himself feeling less enthusiastic at half past seven than he’d expected. David Gordon, not Madeleine, had met the three-forty flight from LaGuardia in an open-sided Willys Jeep that made all conversation impossible on the way from the airport into town. He had deposited Sandy, without much more than a nod, at the entrance of the Unitarian sailors’ chapel on Orange Street that served as a temple for the dozen sabbaths between Memorial Day and Labor, before disappearing with Sandy’s overnighter.
The talk had gone well, that wasn’t the problem. He had rambled around intermarriage (Madeleine had specifically requested the topic in her invitation) in mock forensic terms. He had dissected the current phobia–that the Jews were intermarrying themselves into extinction. The Jews of Nantucket sat at the edge of their Unitarian pews. Of course they were worried, all of them, no matter how many lobsters they allowed themselves between Shavuoth and Tisha b’Av. They worried that every time a David Gordon married a Madeleine Starbuck, he was finishing off what Hitler had begun. That ten years from now, you’d be more likely to run into a blue whale on Orange Street than a nice Jewish doctor for your daughter.
His advice had been greeted with the usual rush of applause by the seventy-five assorted Jews who had bought into the lighthouse baskets and lobster pants of the Gentiles but still wanted to maintain some semblance of Otherness. There had been the usual wilding afterwards by the local bridge ladies and their unmarried daughters. But Madeleine Gordon, if she was there, had failed to introduce herself. And while some might interpret her invisibility and the silence of her husband as a mystery, Sandy felt only annoyance and a need, despite the rush of the momentary celebrity, for air and a moment of tranquillity. He pleaded a weak bladder and stepped out the back door.
Orange was a one-way street of cobblestones. The Unitarian church was no larger, just more exposed than many of the white, clapboard mansions hidden behind generations of hedge and rose. To the right was the airport–Sandy guessed the town was in the other direction. There was to be a dinner at eight–that much David had communicated. With half an hour to regain some kind of enthusiasm, Sandy walked left.
The problem–if Sandy wanted to get to the root of it–had begun in the morning. The number three train had shut down between Twenty-third and Fourteenth Street for thirty minutes, and Indira was still out with a summer flu. Which meant that Sandy lacked the ten minutes’ tranquillity at the beginning of the day, that moment with a cardboard cup of Colombian roast and two Danish, that can seal you against the daily pain. Selwyn, his other assistant, Selwyn of the hunched shoulders and nicotine hair, was in the office already, of course, as Sandy entered.
‘What’s in today?’ The room was kept at forty-two degrees exactly. He missed his coffee.
‘NYPD, Rabbi,’ Selwyn said. He was standing at the examination table, waiting for Sandy, hunched over a police body bag. It smelled like smoke, even through the chill of the room and the polyurethane of the bag. ‘Third Avenue, restaurant up in the eighties, kitchen fire. Owner says bad wires, Fire Department says arson. Some poor Jew found his Auschwitz.’
And so it began. All morning, as Sandy and Selwyn diluted powdered chemical, ran local tests and bagged parts for further analysis, Selwyn worked to keep the conversation within the perimeter of the death camps and the crematoria even as Sandy struggled to push it out. Selwyn was a survivor–his mother had died in Sobibor–and the Holocaust was never far from Selwyn’s petri dishes and beakers. For Selwyn, this is what it meant to be a Jew. He wore his mother on his sleeve and the Holocaust around his neck like a Phi Beta Kappa key. All fire victims led to Auschwitz, all gold teeth to Switzerland.
Sandy felt great sympathy for Selwyn and had learned to accept this tic along with the shoulders and yellowed hair. For Sandy, the Holocaust, the fires, the teeth, the bones–these were human tragedies, human triumphs. There was nothing particularly Jewish about them. He was a Jew, he wouldn’t deny it. But he was no more proud of being a Jew than he was proud of having two arms, a spleen, ten metatarsals and eighteen ribs. Sandy knew Selwyn, and Selwyn knew his boss. There was nothing new about this back and forth–Selwyn had worked for him for twelve years. Sandy wasn’t going to jeopardize a good assistant by saying anything new.
It was after one when Sandy announced that he had finished whatever it was he could do with the polybag. ‘Write out the report, Selwyn, will you?’ He grabbed his overnighter. ‘I’ve gotta run.’
‘Rabbi,’ Selwyn said, ‘I’ve figured it out.’
‘Yes, Selwyn?’ Maybe his tone was patronizing, but Sandy was in a hurry to make his plane and would have to make do with whatever lunch he could find at LaGuardia. He had no time for more Jews.
‘Rabbi,’ Selwyn said, ‘you have no soul.’
‘Rabbi,’ a voice called. Sandy looked up. For a moment, he felt the chill of the examination room. ‘Rabbi,’ the voice called again.
A woman was standing across the street. More exactly, she was standing on the raised portico of what looked, from Sandy’s vantage, to be the grandest mansion on the block. Doric columns, iron lanterns, a curved driveway of crushed scallop shells. And this woman. Even at the distance of a couple of dozen cobblestones, Sandy guessed she was six feet tall. She wasn’t beautiful in the breath-catching sense of the word. She was too tall, her blonde hair too frizzy and pulled back too tightly by a too colourful hair band. But Sandy recognized the confidence of her letter’s postscript and allowed himself to be lured across the street.
‘I’m sorry,’ Madeleine began, but Sandy waved her off, ‘there was a last-minute hitch.’ She stepped down from the portico. ‘My mother–I wrote you.’
‘Of course.’ Sandy remembered the reference to old Mrs Starbuck who, if her late husband, in his wisdom and knowledge of inheritance law, hadn’t bequeathed this mansion to his only daughter, would have shut the door on poor, silent David, Sandy, and the rest of their tribe.
‘Everyone was very kind.’ Sandy looked down. Now that she was standing next to him, he began to feel an attraction, partially an awe–not just her height, but the straw of her hair, the pebbled beauty of her cheeks, the Nantucket she’d promised of sand and heath.
‘Good,’ she said, but Sandy felt she was looking down into his face in search of something else.
‘I’m sorry, Sandy.’ Madeleine must have seen something in his face below the beard. ‘You wanted to take a walk.’ He stood there, realizing that some kind of response was expected of him. But something had caught Sandy as Madeleine spoke. It was a fragrance, something like wisteria, a breeze that came as much from the house as from Madeleine herself.
‘No, no,’ Sandy answered quickly, with a shy speed that convinced Madeleine of his sincerity.
‘I’m glad,’ she said, holding out her hand. ‘Before the others come, I want to show you something.’ The postscript, the promise of a discovery. Sandy forgot about his escape, forgot about Selwyn and the fire on Third Avenue. With the faint scent of wisteria in his nose, Sandy followed Madeleine across the threshold.
Inside, the Starbuck mansion was magnificent, a mid-nineteenth-century collage of exotic woods and veneers carefully chosen by homesick Starbucks on the distant shores of the whaling grounds. Although she seemed to have a specific destination in mind, there was a method to Madeleine’s tour. She was determined to show Sandy every mahogany panel, every teak louvre, the priceless screens of bamboo and Javanese balsa. She led Sandy through the bedrooms, the dressing rooms, up into the attic, out on to the widow’s walk where he could see the masts of the rich and famous 200 yards down the bluff in the marina. She led him back down again into the body of the house, linking each room to a tale of this captain or that shipowner who had left this piece of furniture or that bit of history. It was a treasury, a genealogy, each room a branch of a family tradition that fanned across the seas in search of another leviathan to bring home to this tiny island.
But Sandy found that, despite the melody of her voice, the obvious life she put into her description of these ancient histories, his mind had latched on to something else. It was that breeze again, that wisteria-laden breath, stronger in some rooms than in others, as if the house itself was teasing him with a secret. It came to him as the ebb and flow of a presence–he wasn’t ready yet to call it anything more metaphysical.
He thought about asking Madeleine, but what would he ask her? Excuse me, but what is that perfume you’re wearing? Sandy’s greatest fear, almost a certainty, was that the presence he felt had little to do with smells, with something that Madeleine could recognize and share. It had to do with him. Maybe, despite Selwyn’s barb, with his soul.
Was it love? It was a nonsense of a question, but one that he always felt compelled to ask himself–in a clinical way, of course–on these weekend road trips and these easy talks. Not that he was seeking a wife in the rabbinical sense of a woman to bear children and keep the accounts, nor was he looking for a fleshy bed-warmer, although both types were plentiful along the Friday-night circuit, and Indira, despite her summer flu and polytheism, was always a possibility.
One day, long ago–it was his last year in the seminary, but he’d long since forgotten who was teaching the seminar–he heard a story out of the Pirke of Rabbi Eliezer, or the Alphabet of Ben Sira, or some other lost fairy-tale, about the creation of the first woman. Early on the sixth day, the apocrypha ran, before the birth of Eve, God let Adam watch while he fashioned Woman. He began with a toe bone and then added a metatarsal, an ankle bone, one leg, then the other. Once he had the skeleton, God threaded it with muscle and sinew, vein and artery, organ and flesh. He covered the whole with a layer of the smoothest skin, topped it off with the richest head of the darkest hair. When God was finished, this first woman stood before Adam, this proto-Eve, more beautiful than her successor, more beautiful than any woman since. God smiled in delight at his own creation. He’d wanted Adam to understand completely, in the same way he did, just what it meant to be a woman.
But beautiful as this woman was, all Adam could see were the toe bones and the ligaments, the capillaries and the intestines. He clenched his eyes shut and then opened them. God saw he’d been wrong. Mystery was needed. To create the woman of Adam’s dreams, God had to put Adam to sleep.
So what happened to the first woman?–Sandy remembered some bright fellow student’s question. Did God send her away, did God destroy her? Did He dismantle her like a used car, recycle her liver and kidneys and corneas? Sandy knew, at least he knew now, after years in the morgues and the cutting rooms. She was there, before him, the first woman, on every table. She might be missing half her head from a gunshot wound, or bloated and peeling beyond mere formal recognition from a month or two in the East River, but there she was, nevertheless, the first woman, bones and stuff and nothing else.
What happened to Eve? That was the question, or maybe just the corner of the Talmud that Sandy was given to dissect. It was Eve who was missing, Eve, the woman God gave more than just a body, the woman God gave breath, gave a soul. Eve was the woman he’d never found no matter how many times he’d dragged the river. But this presence, this ebb and flow that he felt, following Madeleine from room to room. Maybe here, Nantucket, this Eden, this Eve, leading him on, down some garden path, maybe here was the discovery Madeleine had promised in her invitation, far more confusing than love.
‘Wait!’ Madeleine stopped Sandy with a touch on his elbow. ‘This is what I wanted you to see.’ They were in a windowless ante-room, more of a passageway or a closet, with only a border of mirrored lozenges below the lowered ceiling to reflect the dim electric light. Had she felt something, too, Sandy wondered, a presence? She reached forward with two long arms to open a set of double doors concealed in the wall. ‘Do you know about scrimshaw, Rabbi?’
At first, Sandy couldn’t tell what he was looking at. He had expected that the double doors opened up into a glass case or a china cabinet of heirlooms, a shallow closet at the most, something flat, a recess in what he’d thought was the exterior wall of the house. Instead, he saw before him a hollow, ten, twenty feet deep, a cave lit at the roof and floor with tiny Christmas bulbs. The double doors must have opened into some hidden tower, a round space in the four-square symmetry of the Starbuck mansion, a secret grotto within the Quaker simplicity of Nantucket. The presence was so strong here, the feeling that this room was the besomim box, the censer, of the wisteria fragrance, that Sandy was unable, for a moment, to answer.
‘Whalebone,’ Madeleine said. ‘One hundred and fifty years of whalebone.’ She took his hand again, and he felt the pressure of her fingers as she led him into the room.
‘A hundred and fifty years of Starbuck men going to sea, carving their lives on whalebone with knives and ink.’ She pointed to the lights–not lights at all, but shining whale teeth, lit from below so that the India ink of their engravings, their whaling ships and sea monsters, glowed with an underwater incandescence. It wasn’t just a blue grotto she had led him into, but the very jaw of a whale, fully open, the palate raised high enough for the tallest Jonah. The full skull, top and bottom, had been fitted into the cave, the room carved around it. Row upon row of teeth– Madeleine showed him each unique design and date, the signature and whereabouts of its Starbuck artist.
‘A harpoon boat off Iceland,’ she said. ‘C. G. Starbuck, my grandfather’s grandfather, 1843. Palm trees and hula girls,’–she pointed to another–’Pitcairn Island, T. Coffin Starbuck, his nephew, 1874.’ Behind the teeth, along the curved wall of the room, a hanging garden of other artefacts–scrimshaw bowls, scrimshaw clocks, scrimshaw pipes–led down to the back of the throat.
Sandy followed the curve with Madeleine, her head bent as much in reverence as from the lowering ceiling. He was impressed–it would be a good story to file away for after-dinner conversation, maybe even insert into some other Friday night sermon, in an Iowa or an Illinois that knew not the whale. But this wasn’t it, not yet. There was something else Madeleine wanted him to see. She led him deeper into the room, to the very gullet of the whale, where a thicket of walking sticks was wedged as a screen against future Jonahs.
Madeleine lifted her free hand. ‘Here.’ Very simply. Here. The fragrance was overwhelming, and Sandy understood. This is what she had meant in her postscript, this is what she wanted him to see. Here, in the centre of the thicket, its scrimshaw fingerboard shining like a ripe fruit, floated a violin.
Long before forensics and seminary, the violin–not this violin, but the violin as a way of life–had once been the cornerstone of Sandy’s faith. In his thinner youth, with his bar mitzvah passed, when he spent every vacant minute with his hands wrapped around a violin, Sandy believed in a soul–not the human soul, perhaps, but the soul of the violin, a conjunction of fingers and wood and string that was greater than the sum of its parts. It was a transcendence that didn’t add up, an experience he couldn’t explain. It gave him a power over people very different from the one that later made the telephone ring in the small hours of the night. It frightened others and it frightened him, the soul of the violin. Even after it became clear that this soul would only take him as far as the first violin section of a third-rate orchestra and he began playing with long-haired guitarists and barefoot girls, Sandy continued to believe in that ineffable something called Music.
Then, in the doldrums of the Seventies, when it looked like disco was on its way to annihilating everything he found beautiful and potentially profitable about his way of playing music, Sandy found himself slouching towards the seminary. While he had always gravitated towards displaced persons, he had never had much to do with Jews and Jewishness, at least not in the self-congratulatory, secret handshake kind of a way. But he found the seminary compatible, a distant, intellectual place that left him alone, by and large, and provided him with a free dorm room when he made the decision to seek his explanations of the world in the study of medicine over at the Mt. Sinai hospital.
He had planned on finishing his rabbinical courses and entering a graduate programme in medical research. But his Talmud classes gave him basic tools of investigation that seemed more suited to criminology than the study of origins, and the little bit of preaching he had to do to fulfil his rabbinical requirements gave him a view of the human heart that set him apart from the corpse-cutters in forensics. He found he had a gift of recognition, solving mysteries with a single bone the way dowsers find water with a single willow branch. So he switched to forensics, and he continued, albeit with the irregularity forced by circumstance, to play the violin.
He couldn’t say when it happened, but with every autopsy, with every dissection into parts, his desire, his will to play the violin grew weaker and weaker. His fingers, once so adept at jumping positions, at finding the pitch, the exact timbre and vibrato for the music, grew more accustomed to weighing livers and reading femurs. First the violin, then music disappeared, leaving only the scattered ashes of notes.
‘How?’ Sandy began.
‘It’s my mother’s,’ Madeleine whispered. ‘She brought it with her from France after the War.’
Sandy stepped closer, squatted down so that the bridge of the scrimshaw violin was level with his chin. It was a strange-looking beast, the violin, one of those freaks of nature, a calcium-white scrimshaw fingerboard–in place of the usual ebony–standing out like an albino against the varnished maple of the body. The carving on the fingerboard was exquisite. It was the figure of a mermaid, her hair spreading down from the scroll, her tail flowing down to the spumy sea, down where the rosin of the bow leaves white caps on the strings. In the distance, behind the mermaid’s left shoulder, Leviathan spouted a carnivorous threat, a whale boat already protruding like an after-dinner toothpick– unrealistically if Sandy remembered his Melville–from his enormous jaws. It was a carving of a certain beauty, Sandy had enough intermediate aesthetics to recognize that. But there was a menace in the whale and, now that he looked more closely, in the mermaid too–not the next victim, but a co-conspirator, the lure, the bait that drew the men to the sea, into their boats and ultimately to their biblical deaths. Strange as it looked, the violin meant she knew. Madeleine knew about him and music and the violin, as if she, twenty years younger though she was, had been there at his own creation.
‘It is the only scrimshaw violin in the world.’ Sandy turned. The voice came full, with the husky depth of a Jeanne Moreau, from a tiny shadow in the far light of the hallway.
‘Sandy,’ Madeleine said, leading him over to the shadow, ‘my mother, Françoise. Mama, Rabbi Lincoln.’ Sandy followed Madeleine out of the mouth of the whale. The old lady was standing just far enough away from the light for a halo of shadow to blind him to her details.
‘Mrs Starbuck,’ he took the old lady’s hand, ‘I am overwhelmed.’ He pointed into the grotto, and most specifically towards the deep distance where the violin floated like an extra rib in its own light.
‘Yes,’ she said, letting her hand go limp. ‘My violin. A gift from a soldier.’ Sandy tried to imagine old Mrs Starbuck dancing in the street of some French seaport–where would French whalers have sailed from? Brest?–with a laughing GI.
‘Do you play?’ Sandy asked. Looking down into her eyes for the first time, Sandy saw a deep yellow within the sockets that, despite the hatred that fired out from the pupils, spoke of a death imminent enough–the pulse, the general torpor of the palm he could feel in his practised hand, Sandy guessed a year, a little more, a little less–to excuse all behaviour.
‘Once,’ she said. ‘My late husband, alas, he had no ear for music. But once I played.’ She withdrew her hand and turned down the hallway. ‘Like you.’ Had she been able to read his eyes, his palm? ‘But now it is time for dinner.’
There must have been fifty people in the ballroom. They stood and applauded Sandy as he entered between the two Starbuck women and took his seat at the head table. Candles, the dim light of the harbour filtering in through a full wall of French windows opening out into a garden, flowers–Sandy had been feted by a number of congregations, but this was something well out of the ordinary. Even David smiled over to him from the second table, happy to be banished, Sandy guessed, to talk real estate.
Sandy felt–well, he had never been married, but he felt in the daze of a bridegroom being led to the altar. And why not? If intermarriage wasn’t a sin, as he had explained in his talk, then why not this? Why not be celebrated by all these Jews, all these Jews whom he had taught, through the miracle of forensics, that morality, the commandment to treat all people as equal under the skin, was more important than survival? All these Jews whom he had forgiven for renting condos during the school vacations, for giving their children sailing lessons, for generally letting them sow their wild oats among alien corn and chowder?
What was it to be a Jew, after all? Wasn’t the connection, the connection he’d felt once upon a time with the violin, the connection a violin now made between him and Madeleine, and, yes, even her tiny, French mother, wasn’t all this beyond sects? Sandy felt–even as he blessed the wine and made the motzi over the sourdough challan–no more a Jew than old Mrs Starbuck. The joys of the Jewish people, their accomplishments, their Einsteins and Heifetzes and Hillels and Maimonideses, their Israels and their Sinais and their Holocausts with their bones and their teeth–Sandy didn’t, he couldn’t share these canine attachments. Teeth were teeth. And some teeth–he looked over to Madeleine, smiling at him about their secret scrimshaw upstairs–were works of art.
Wouldn’t this be something, he thought–Madeleine’s mezzo-soprano leading the grace after the meal, holier and faster and more lovely than the rest–to leave the laboratory and civil service and death and make a life up here on the island with this woman? Madeleine could stay with her silent David, have children with him, the whole nuptial package. He would counsel these people, why not, the bridge ladies, the debutantes, loosen his belt and listen to their issues over iced tea and Planter’s Punch. Maybe he’d even find a violin. All Sandy wanted was the daily walk–he knew nothing of the island but he saw clearly the scrub forests, the heather-covered badlands, the bird sanctuary–the walk along the beach with Madeleine, the occasional pressure of fingers on palm. Anything, as long as he could get a daily fix of this breeze, this wisteria breath that made him believe, with the pure exultation of his barefoot youth, in the soul.
Sandy was deep in the fog of these ruminations, when a new sound came to him, the sound of bells, a lighthouse warning him away from the rocks. At the second table, David Gordon was leading a tinkling of forks against glasses.
‘Rabbi.’ Old Mrs Starbuck raised herself up with a difficulty more profound than disease. ‘It has been an honour, indeed, to entertain you tonight.’ Enthusiastic applause came from the four corners of the ballroom, as much for the old lady’s capitulation as for the magnificence of the dinner. ‘I know it is not polite to ask a guest to sing for his supper,’–there was a gaggle of titters over by the French windows–’but I was pleased to see that you admired my violin.’
Sandy became aware, first of the fragrance, and then of the movement off his port shoulder. One of the waiters was standing, a bow in one hand, a violin in the other.
‘It’s been fifteen, more, twenty years,’ Sandy pleaded, knowing it would do no good.
‘It has been twice as long, Rabbi,’ Mrs Starbuck smiled, ‘since my violin has been played. We are understanding people, we Starbucks, n ‘est-ce pas?‘
‘Hear, hear!’ one of the voices by the French windows shouted out, and people who had wandered off to the bathroom or out into the garden for a smoke rushed back in to the murmur that the Rabbi was going to play old Mrs Starbuck’s scrimshaw violin.
‘Please, Sandy.’ He hadn’t seen her come about. Madeleine, herself, was urging him to his feet, her hand gripping his arm as if it were the neck of the violin. There was the mermaid, the whale, even more enticing out of the water of its glass case. He hadn’t even held an instrument in the second half of his life. But the weight, the curves, the smell–he knew he couldn’t resist, and he knew equally well that he had been hoping for this from the moment he had seen the instrument. He took the fiddle.
The room had gone silent, the candles alone flickered among the last crumbs of dessert. They were all watching him. What should he play? ‘Summertime’ was his first thought, a little bit of dusky Gershwin, a cross-generational tune by a nice Jewish composer that he felt he could negotiate with dignity. But ‘Summertime’ was too light for the occasion and there was always the danger that the audience might insist that he follow it with another piece.
Bach–that’s what the violin was saying to him–play some Bach on my vacant strings, play some Bach into my lonely belly. So Bach it was–the Vivace from Bach’s ‘G minor Sonata’, a perpetual motion of a piece, cascading sixteenth-notes from beginning to end, a real Jewish God of Vengeance, Moby-Dick of a piece, quick and short enough for a Nantucket summer crowd. The Vivace in G minor, Sandy decided, with its triplet whitecaps, its perpetual unease–but easy enough that he’d had it memorized before he was old enough to daven. Sandy tucked the chin rest between his beard and shoulder, tuned the strings, and, with a bow to the Starbuck women, began.
The violin was brilliant–that was his first reaction. Who’d have suspected that an instrument exposed to the salt and fog of Nantucket could retain such vibrancy, such a confident voice as he passed easily through the personalities of the four strings. Still, there was something odd about the violin. It must be a top-heaviness due to the scrimshaw, Sandy thought, or the cloying smell of a violin that is polished more than it is played.
But gradually he heard, or rather, not heard, but felt a queasiness about the brilliance, felt it, not in his mind, but in the tips of his fingers as they pressed on the strings and met the scrimshaw of the fingerboard. He shook it off as a kind of craziness, thinking, now I have my first finger on the whale, now my third on the breast of the mermaid, no wonder I feel odd.
That wasn’t it. There was another feeling, another sensitivity he had developed, even through the plastic gloves of forensics. It wasn’t the design, but the fingerboard itself that was speaking to him every time his fingers pressed down on her surface. Had this violin belonged to some sad, young widow, who had memorialized the death of her whaling husband on this instrument of melancholy? Was the ghost–and being on Nantucket, Sandy permitted himself ghosts–of the widow, or maybe the ghosts of widow and husband together, watching over this violin, keeping it tuned, in tone, imbuing it with a despair that lived on long after their bodies had returned to the sea?
This fantasy–starring Madeleine as the bereaved young thing and Sandy himself as the waterlogged tar–inspired him through the first half of the Vivace. It added beauty to his playing, he thought. Surely, this was it, the connection with Madeleine, the presence that had gripped his hand the moment he stepped on to the portico of the Starbuck mansion.
With this confidence, he moved into the second half and allowed his eyes to lift from the violin to his audience. That’s when it struck him. There were the men, sitting with their blazers and their Scotches, their hair long and loosened by the Starbuck feast and summer. But next to them, where once there had been women, sat lattice upon lattice of bones and sinew. Over by the French windows, the giggly young things had been reduced to cheekbones and marrow. Across the table–no longer an aged French lady with a yellow eye, but a rotting liver and badly stitched flesh.
Sandy blinked once, twice. There were the men, there was David, looking more than faintly bored and dreaming about who knew what. But blink as he might, he could no longer see the women, no longer see old Mrs Starbuck and the bridge ladies, the matrons and the debutantes, Jewish and otherwise. Worst of all, Madeleine had disappeared. The chair which moments before had supported the lanky bottom of his soulful Eve now held yards of intestines, kilometres of blood vessels, miles of hair, which wound through the room, around the legs of the tables, through the arms of the chandelier, delicate as lace, up to the inky strands that fell from the head of the mermaid on the scrimshaw fingerboard.
Sandy’s music, the music of the violin, had scraped all sympathy, all humanity to the bone. He was back in the time before Eve, on the dissecting table of the sixth day, and blinking did no good. So he closed his eyes and kept playing, hoping that the dreams of Adam, the dreams that had grown a soul on to the anatomy of Eve, that had blinded him to the clinical details, would clear the salt mist from his vision.
But he couldn’t close his fingers. As he played on, the truth grabbed the calluses at the tips and rode the nerves up arm and neck to his slightly balding brain. It was the fingerboard. The fingerboard was not scrimshaw at all.
Madeleine had been mistaken. It wasn’t whalebone that old Mrs Starbuck had brought with her from Europe after the War, this was no Nantucket ghost story–that was the message his fingers tapped out, had been tapping out from the first note. The fingerboard of this violin had once been a woman. This fingerboard had been meticulously carved from the humerus, the upper arm-bone, of a human woman, who, if not an Eve, had been, at least, a mature woman, a young mother, five feet three, his practised fingers told him, a mother who had known terrible agony at the end. And as the message filtered through to his ears and turned the Bach into a nigun, into a Polish melody, a kaddish, a song for the dead, he realized who this woman was. It wasn’t Madeleine–it hadn’t been her breath, as he had thought all evening–and it certainly wasn’t old Mrs Starbuck. He didn’t know the name of this woman, but he knew where she had died, what the music was that he had refused to hear for years. He heard the cry of this woman, of the nameless soul that had drained all the humanity from the women in the Starbuck ballroom, not in the voice of Selwyn’s mother, but in a pitch and a timbre that sang directly and only to Sandy’s ears, a song of history that all the forensics of the world could never explain.
And of course, because the fence he had built around his soul could only fall post by post, Sandy finished the Vivace. But the people who listened, and even those who were inclined to continue their conversations in whispers, remember a foggy chill as Rabbi Lincoln finished playing and, without a smile, or even a nod to his hostess, walked across the ballroom and through the French doors down to the harbour to give the scrimshaw violin a proper burial. Many of them said afterwards that it was months, even years, before they could listen to Bach again. As for Rabbi Doctor Alexander Abba Lincoln, there were no more trips to Nantucket, no more Friday nights.