Xenopsych Case Studies: Piano

In the multicultural Alliance, aliens mingle with humans and the Pelted, gengineered offspring of human experiments, in a vast and mostly peaceful communion. The mindlinked xeno-therapists Jahir, one of the rare Eldritch, and Vasiht’h, a furred centauroid, work on a starbase teeming with members of multiple races and species, where they ply their special brand of dream-therapy on the over-stressed members of their community. These case studies are a series of vignettes about living and working among these diverse species. The free stories are available online at the case studies tag, or you can buy the Jahir & Vasiht’h ebooks; check this page for links and reading order.

Case Study: Piano

      They had season tickets for very nearly every cultural offering in the area—partly because of the mutual fascination that had driven them into xenopsychology, and partly because Jahir thought exposure to their patients’ arts helped make sense of their dreams and the symbols that they used to shape their personal narratives. It was a rare week that didn’t see them making at least one outing to a concert, a play, an exhibit or festival; they were very well-educated on the many cultures they lived alongside.
      But the famous concert pianist who was making an Alliance-wide tour was special even by their standards. Vasiht’h shook out his best sari, a shimmering red silk edged in gold, and pleated it over his lower body, carefully spreading its tails over his second back between the wings. Even Jahir, who normally did everything possible to efface himself in a crowd, dressed with such stark elegance that Vasiht’h was taken aback.
      Drawing on white gloves, his partner said, “Shall we?”
      They went to the concert hall, two among hundreds who’d been fortunate enough to procure tickets for the third and final performance the pianist was giving on Starbase Veta. At the proper time, the audience was seated, silent and attentive. There was a piano on stage, the high gloss finish of its upswept lid gleaming: a piano and nothing else. Vast screens hung above it, broadcasting close views of the stool, the beige and black keys, and the closed folder with the paper score on the stand.
      The woman who entered was human, brown hair swept up and pinned in place with two black sticks. Her understated black gown made her seem kin to the instrument as she sat at it, tucking the stool closer and opening the folder.
      And then she played, and for two hours held them all fast in their seats.

      There was a reception afterward in one of the adjoining festival halls, as was typical for concerts. Sometimes they attended to mingle, for they were fairly well known; sometimes they went home early. And sometimes they stayed if they’d been deeply affected by the performance, enough to need time to step back out of the world the art had created for them. So Vasiht’h was not surprised that they attended the pianist’s reception.
      He was surprised to find the artist approaching them. On her final night of a sold-out run, he hadn’t expected to meet her in person amid the many fans waiting for her attention. But he thought that they were perhaps more noticeable than usual, particularly Jahir. His black coat might have been designed by an Alliance tailor, but he was the only Eldritch filling one, and his hair glimmered beneath the high lights like a polished pearl.
      “Madam,” Jahir said to her. “You have a deft touch. Your treatment of the dynamics in the final piece was particularly sublime.”
      Surprised, she said, “You flatter me, sir. Are you a musician then?”
      “A hobbyist, merely,” he said. “But educated enough to appreciate your talents. You play like an angel.”
      She flushed prettily. “I only wish,” she said. “But as far as I’ve come I have far to go yet.”
      Jahir introduced himself and Vasiht’h, who smiled at the pianist and complimented her skill, if with less erudition than his partner. And Vasiht’h watched and listened to the ensuing conversation. It was typical of them both and of Jahir in particular, his habit of asking questions that gave her an opportunity to talk about herself—while skillfully deflecting attention from himself.
      But the woman only took that opportunity half the time. The other half, she made attempts at learning something about Jahir. At one point, talking about the second piece with its difficult key combinations, she laughed and said, “I’m sure you wouldn’t have had any trouble at all… you have wonderful hands. No wonder you play.”
      Jahir demurred. The woman bade them stay and slipped off through the crowd. Watching her go, Vasiht’h said, “She’s flirting with you.”
      “I know,” Jahir answered, the mindline gray and low, like fog.
      When she returned, she had the folder with the score. “If you’d like?” she asked. “A memento? I can sign it.”
      “We’d be honored,” Jahir said.
      So she set the folder on a side table and put her name to it before handing it to him. He thanked her for the evening, she lowered glittering lashes and smiled, and then she returned to her public.
      “She gave you her private call-code,” Vasiht’h observed.
      “I know,” Jahir said, “I was watching.” He turned toward the door and began heading that way.
      /You could call her,/ Vasiht’h said, reverting to the mindline for privacy.
      /And why would I do that?/
      Vasiht’h said nothing, though his suggestion took form between them, something warm and intimate that smelled of wine and lit by dim candles. Jahir stopped and looked over his shoulder at him, then shook his head, a minute twitch of his chin.
      “It would accomplish nothing,” he said, quiet, and resumed walking.
      They left the reception hall and found themselves in the echoing silence of the antechamber. Vasiht’h said, “Is it because she’s human?” Tinted in the mindline: living too fast, dying too young.
      “No,” Jahir said. “It’s because what we both love would come between us.”
      That perplexed Vasiht’h enough that he stopped, frowning. Jahir did too, turning toward him.
      “You play?” Vasiht’h said finally.
      “I was taught,” Jahir said at last. At Vasiht’h’s frown, he said, “Arii? You know I love music.”
      “Of course I know,” Vasiht’h said, for he’d observed his partner’s enjoyment of it since they’d met in college. “But loving music doesn’t necessarily mean you can play. You play? Piano?”
      Jahir inclined his head.
      “Then why don’t you? Ever play?” Vasiht’h asked, startled.
      “I just don’t,” Jahir said, and resumed walking.
      Vasiht’h hurried in front of him, blocking the way with the side of his body.
      “What?” Jahir asked.
      /The concert hall is empty,/ Vasiht’h said, where the mindline could put forth the strength of his suggestion.
      Jahir hesitated, but Vasiht’h didn’t move. And eventually, inevitably, Jahir turned toward the empty hall.
      Together they advanced down the aisle, footfalls small in the vast space… climbed the stairs to the stage where the piano waited. Jahir stood alongside it, staring at it for so long Vasiht’h feared he would rethink the entire thing… and then he sat on the stool and set the folder on the stand. He opened it to the second piece and then calmly unbuttoned his gloves and stripped them off his fingers.
      “If you’ll turn the pages when I nod?” he said formally.
      “Of course,” Vasiht’h said, mystified by this transformation of a man he’d known for years. He stepped up beside the piano and straightened.
      “Thank you,” Jahir said, eyes rising to the first line, growing intent.
      And then he played a piece that Vasiht’h knew very well he’d never seen before. His mind was dense with it, with the novelty of it, with the excitement and concentration, and there was a quality to his thoughts like running water… as if the Eldritch had opened a channel between eyes and fingers, and nothing interrupted it. The first nod came so swiftly Vasiht’h almost missed it, but after that he turned each page with alacrity and growing astonishment. The Eldritch played the piece very differently from the pianist, but he played it flawlessly, and a song that had been wistful in human hands was elegiac in his.
      When he finished, he stretched his fingers and rested them in his lap, then looked at his partner… waiting.
      “How long?” Vasiht’h asked, low.
      “I’ve had lessons since I was old enough to put my hands on an instrument,” Jahir answered.
      “So… several of that woman’s lifetimes,” Vasiht’h said.
      “Very probably,” Jahir said, and rose. He pulled the gloves back on and closed the folder, tucking it beneath an arm.
      “How can you enjoy it so much?” Vasiht’h asked as Jahir pushed the stool back under the piano. “Everyone must sound like an amateur.”
      Jahir chuckled. “She was no amateur, arii.”
      “You know what I mean.”
      Jahir smiled, one of the most Eldritch smiles Vasiht’h had seen on him, melancholic and distant. “I do, yet.” He gestured for Vasiht’h to precede him to the stairs. “How can I not enjoy it? What she’s done is frankly miraculous.” At Vasiht’h’s quizzical glance, he said, “I have had lifetimes of practice. She’s had a third of one. And yet she sounds like that?”
      “Oh,” Vasiht’h said softly. Then he nodded. “Yes. I can see that.”
      Together they left the hall. Halfway home, Vasiht’h said, “You should still play more often.”
      Jahir glanced down at him, then back at the path. “Maybe. Maybe I will.”


One of my goals with the Eldritch is to try to get a real sense for what it’s like to live ten times as long as everyone else. This one was a meditation on that theme.

(To be fair, of the Eldritch we see off-world, Jahir has the most raw musical talent. The others have been taught because it’s something that all well-mannered, well-educated children learn, but he’s the hidden musician.)

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