BASSO CONTINUO

 

By Catrin Achrya

 

 

The snow leopard crossed the open space in three bounds. She leaped higher, twisting sideways in the air. She bounced off the wall of the outhouse and set off at right angles to her original path. Then she cleared the back-rest of a bench with several feet to spare and raced along an even stretch of snowy ground, the tail, as long as her body, streaming along behind her. She sped up, leaped and pounced. The rabbit made no sound – there was only the crunch of the predator’s teeth as they crushed the small animal’s spine.

 

A speck was moving high up in the sky, coming closer. It grew larger, dissolved into the shape of a big bird, and the cat stood still, following it with her eyes. She turned away from her prey and focused all her attention on the bird.

The bird was off-white in colour, just like her own fur, with darker grey spots, more distinctive than the pattern of the snow leopard’s coat. It was shaped like a hawk but its face had the large golden eyes and distinctive frown-like pattern of an owl. A naturalist would have been puzzled: hawk owls did not live in this country.

But then, neither did snow leopards.

 

The snow leopard crouched down, the hawk owl landed just in front of it and waddled over to settle between the feline’s furry front paws. The top of the owl’s head butted the cat’s chin and she rubbed her jaw and the corners of her mouth against the bird.

She sensed an image: high mountains, a rocky slope inaccessible to human feet, a snowy ledge overlooking an almost perfectly round frozen lake. On the ledge, partly buried in the snow, lay the large shards of what had been a pale green china urn about the size of a human head. The ashes that it had once contained were long gone, on the ceaseless wind and with the melting snow of ten winters. A cloud of small, thin paper squares rose on the wind and dispersed, some fluttering down towards the lake, some falling down to rest on the snow. The pieces of paper were covered in the lines, loops and curves of an ancient script and stamped with the image of a horse.

She felt contented, satisfied, and the bird shared the feeling. She moved out of the way to allow the owl access to the freshly killed rabbit.

Two round heads, one big and furred, the other one small and feathered, bent over the prey.

 

--- ---

 

“What’s the celebration?” Catrin said.

She noticed the shimmer of the refrigerating spell over the top of the sideboard. The two-tiered cake dish was filled with seafood on crushed ice and next to it stood a bottle of champagne, with its tell-tale knobbly cork, swept in a white cloth napkin.

Alice was busy at the stove, preparing something or other Provençal, judging from the scent of garlic and herbs.

 

It had been Catrin’s turn to cook dinner, but her wife Alice volunteered. Catrin accepted with profuse and heartfelt thanks. This was not a good day for her to be creative in the kitchen.

She had been on edge all day, snapping at her apprentice twice, once almost within earshot of a patient. She had apologised quickly, but felt bad about it. The sorrow was her own: she had no right to take out her moods on innocent bystanders doing a perfectly satisfactory job.

The tea break was spent staring at the lid of her Chinese tea cup or into the big leaves filling half of it. Mao Xie Oolong, fit almost exclusively for Chinese connoisseurs. She had known one Brit who appreciated it. A potions master, trained to discern subtle nuances of taste and scent. Today he would have been...

 

She shook her head and returned to the present. It was good of Alice to take care of dinner; apparently she was in the mood to prepare a feast.

“Come on, Alice, what is it?” Catrin insisted. “Have you had a job offer from the Berlin Philharmonics?”

“Yeah, sure,” her wife snickered. “Their music librarian when I get too old and wheezy for the bassoon.”

“So, what’s the occasion? I know I haven’t forgotten our anniversary, that’s in April.”

“No. On our anniversary I don’t plan on inviting Renata and Richard,” said Alice. “They’ll be here in twenty minutes, so hit the shower, you smell of hospital.”

The young couple stepped out of the Floo fireplace exactly on time.

They were enthusiastic and exuberant about the expansion of their business, a children’s fantasy workshop. Alice questioned Renata about her continuing studies in wizardry – the young woman had been raised a Muggle, discovered her gift as an adult and passed her examinations at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in record time.

It turned out that Renata was adept at charms and she threw herself into advanced charms studies in her free time. Currently she corresponded with the Professor of Charms at the Greylock Institute of Magic in Massachusetts about a research proposal. He was, in fact, supervising the opening stages of her graduate work.
Catrin had herself been in graduate school at Greylock; that was where she met...

Catrin was suddenly very grateful for the two younger people's ebullience: her own subdued mood went largely unnoticed.

They sat down at the festive table, complete with ivory damask napkins and polished silver candlesticks. Alice poured the champagne.

“Now, someone please tell me what this is all about,” Catrin said flatly. “It had better be good. I’m not in a party mood.”

“I wouldn’t call it a party,” Alice answered. “Go on, pick up your glass.”

“Why?!”

“You’ll find out. Trust me, this is one toast you’ll want to drink.”

Tight-lipped, Catrin complied.

She looked around the table.

Renata had gone quiet and contemplated earnestly the bubbles rising in her glass.

Richard looked at his wife with something akin to compassion; he transferred the same look to Catrin and gave a minute nod.

Alice, the evening’s hostess, raised her glass.

“To absent friends,” she said.

 

Catrin shivered and swallowed hard. She forced her face to remain impassive – only the almost-smile in her eyes, directed at her wife, betrayed an emotion.

“To absent friends,” Renata and Richard repeated.

Catrin’s lips moved, but no sound came out. She emptied her glass quickly: she could blame the tears in her eyes on the bubbles in the wine. Then she stared at the empty glass for a brief moment, turned around in her chair and hurled the glass into the fireplace.

She reached for the bottle, filled two thirds of her crystal water goblet with wine and drained it in three gulps.

“Bollinger Grande Annee,” she commented quietly. “So was 1960, a great year.”

 

Renata had emptied her own glass and studied it closely, turning it about in her hands. She looked at the fireplace, at the glass again, and nodded to Alice for a refill. Her eyes met Richard’s and she gave him a shaky smile.

 

Catrin reached over and helped herself to three oysters and a lobster claw.

“Richard, pass the lemon, please,” she said.

All of them turned their attention to the shellfish.

 

--- ---

 

The living-room windows overlooked a monochrome landscape: bare black branches outlined in Chinese ink against the papery white snow; the shadows of the bushes long and fuzzy in the light of the stars and the thin sliver of the moon.

 

They chose their drinks from the huge, incongruous credenza that took up half of the far wall. Their white elephant, Catrin thought. The massive piece of furniture had come with the rambling old house when Alice inherited it and, useless as it was, they had grown accustomed to it over the years.

 

No-one appeared in the mood to make conversation.
Richard’s constant attention to Renata made Catrin smile. She herself would probably start shouting and throwing small object after twenty minutes of having someone hover over her like that, but Renata seemed to relish it year after year.

 

“Music?” Alice said. “I think I know what we need tonight.”
Catrin nodded and settled down on one of the big sofas. Alice always knew. She would not pick Mahler or Tchaikovsky on a day like this – not Billie Holiday either, for that matter.
“Catrin and I were weaned on this stuff,” Alice went on to the younger couple, “but you may find it tedious. The piece is almost two hours long. It’s all right to go to sleep, no-one’s going to get offended.”


Catrin flashed her a quick private grin. Alice replied with a tilt of an eyebrow and a pointed look at Catrin’s glass, a huge thin-walled crystal goblet with a layer of a golden-brown liquid in its bottom. Metaxa, the Greek equivalent of cognac. Catrin rarely drank hard alcohol, disliking its rapid impact on the body. Yes, today was special.

 

The everyday magic that they used about the house was so much a part of its atmosphere that Alice needed no wand for a routine charm. She flopped down on the sofa next to Catrin and waved her fingers towards the centre of the room.

 

Kyrie, kyrie, kyrie eleison!”
The mighty initial choral bars broke over them like the surf over a rocky shore.
Kyrie eleison
,” the tenors. “Kyrie eleison,” the altos. The voices divided, connected, interlaced, joined with the voice-like sound of the woodwinds to build an intricate structure on the solid continuo base rolling and chug-chugging below.


Catrin stretched out on the sofa and snuggled down under the fleece blanket.
She swirled the liquid in her glass and inhaled the aroma. Then she tipped the glass, took a minute sip, let the drop spread over her tongue. Liquid sunshine, she thought, distilled and put into bottles, an Olympian greeting for us to enjoy. Like Bach’s music, distilled emotion, concentrated essence of humanity with a god as a temporary pretext. It’s all there, absolute joy, absolute mourning, absolute affection…

 

“What is it?” Catrin heard Renata ask in a strangely husky voice.
“Bach, John Sebastian,” Alice answered quietly. “A Catholic Mass.”
“A Mass? It sounds more like he was in love...”
“He probably was. He had plenty of feelings. Not to mention a family to feed.”

Trust Alice not to get bogged down in sentiment, Catrin thought.
Renata fell silent. She took another sip of her Madeira and stared musingly into her glass.

 

Catrin and Alice settled down in their favourite position on the sofa, head to feet like two sardines in a tin, sharing the same blanket.
“All right?” Alice murmured to Catrin.
“Perfect. You know me.”

 

From the corner of her eye Catrin saw that Renata was restless. This much sustained intense emotion was very different from the four-minute songs that she was used to. The music was getting to her and she did not quite know how to deal with it.

The two soprano melodic lines complementing each other in Christe eleison made her disengage herself from Richard’s arm and stand up. She walked over to the bay window and stared out at the silvery sickle of the moon, trying not to show her tears, Catrin guessed. A terrible idea, the older woman thought with a mental poke at herself. Looking at the moon and thinking that Severus was out there somewhere looking at the same moon might be the cheesiest trick in the book, but if she had done it, she knew that Renata had done it too. And reflecting that he was not out there any more was as painful as it was trivial.

 

Richard followed Renata to the window and wrapped his arms around her from behind. She leaned back into him and, without being properly aware of it, swayed from side to side to the innocently cheerful rhythm of Gloria in excelsis.
“That could be a dance,” she said.
“It is.” Richard, a trained actor and acrobat, knew his way about dance history. “It’s a minuet.”
He released Renata, who turned around to face him. He took a step, then another, rising and sinking quickly on his feet in time to the music, the six beats of the minuet step backward, left, forward, right, to form a square. He repeated the minuet square once more and added:
“Which, basically, is a waltz.”
He caught her hand, swept her into his arms and swirled her around the living-room in an elegant Viennese waltz. Renata giggled, checked herself, caught sight of Alice’s nod and grin, giggled again. Smoothly Richard steered her back to the sofa and they settled on it just as the music changed into the gentle expanse of In terra pax
. Richard pulled Renata down and invited her to lay her head in his lap.

 

Catrin let herself float on the familiar music and think about their absent friend as shreds of the text penetrated her mind. Hominus bonae voluntatis of an uncommon kind, but not on earth any more. Severus was at peace now, people were fond of saying. It annoyed Catrin. How can anyone be “at peace” when all sensation is gone? They, his friends, were at some sort of peace, yes. No more worries about his health and safety, no more pain when recalling the pain ever present in his mind, but it was no relief, just a huge feeling of emptiness, the acute sorrow tempered by time, the emptiness just as empty. Time heals, bullshit, she thought. You get used to it, is all, used to the hole in your middle, its edges turned into numb scar tissue. You are very lucky and there are other good things to live for – because he died to stop the ultimate destruction.

 

In the Qui sedet movement the eloquence of the oboe d’amore reminded Catrin of something Renata had said: Bach in love. It was an idea that Alice and she sometimes toyed with: what was it about Bach and altos? Was it simply an artistic choice? The brilliant, scintillating soprano is angelic, but the alto is solidly grounded on earth, the perfect interpreter of human emotion, be it love and desire, sorrow and lack or hope and trust in spite of all. And the outmoded middle sibling of the oboe family, the closest one to the human speaking voice...
They could never decide whether Bach loved or hated altos and oboes in his mastery of the middle register. Such beauty, earth-bound but testing the boundaries with its gruelling technical demands. There had to be absolute discipline to yield absolute freedom and Bach trusted his alto and his oboe to have it, not at his service but for a common goal... perhaps. Or maybe Alice was right, Bach slept with an alto and she cheated on him with the oboist, or, as Catrin suggested, the oboist was Bach’s lover and cut corners with the alto, and the master composer’s diabolical challenges in one work after the other were simply a payback.

 

A minute blooper caught Catrin’s attention: a fumbled drill in the bassoons. The recording was a live one and had a few beauty spots, uncorrected digitally or magically, to reinforce the live feeling. She raised her head, caught Alice’s eye and pulled a face. Alice replied with a quick grin, reached over and “played” the fingering of the passage on Catrin’s shin. They both snickered a little and settled back into the cushions.

 

Through the music Catrin heard a muffled sob: Renata. Richard murmured something to her, gentle and soothing. Amazing, Catrin thought, he actually consoles her when she is crying over a former lover. Still – they owed each other to him, to Severus. Without his discovery of her powers, Renata would never have come to Hogwarts and met Richard. The money that Severus left her in his will made it possible for them to build a future together. An afterlife as good as any, Catrin thought.

 

Crucifixus, sobbed the voices. Crucifixus, the boy sopranos, crucifixus, the boy altos, clear, direct, with no excessive vibrato to bog you down in romantic slush. Crucifxus, crucifixus, sinking by one-tone and half-tone steps, lower and lower, straight to the point, death is sad, it is right and proper to mourn your dead.
As close to dissonance as Bach would get, just so, that was how it was, Catrin thought. There had been nothing grand, poetic or uplifting about Severus' death – it had been laborious, messy and painful. She had been there in her mind, in his mind, supporting him in what he had to do, feeling him let go when all was done.

 

The music rose and swept away the dark memories. Et resurrexit, the choir sang joyfully, et ressurexit! The tears came at last, to the bright, brilliant, jubilant tones.

No resurrection, she thought, that was for gods and their sons. But no wallowing in maudlin memories either, no snivelling that Severus was not there to share the good things. Instead he was a part of her – his standards, his attitudes and his ideas a strand in the braid of her own train of thoughts, like a strong, clear melodic line in the continuo of her life.

Like Bach's music, familiar but never ever boring, he would be there for her until her mind itself disintegrated: his quiet, firm dignity and his biting sarcasm, his unrelenting bravery and the hidden empathy that so very few people had been aware of.

Get on with it, she thought. Be happy. Know that things are good here and now.

 

The music dissolved into one plaintive, supplicant alto, supported by a lonely, longing violin. Qui tollis peccata mundi? The sins of the world? Bad enough having to carry one’s own sins, the awareness of your own faulty choices, bad enough and the most you can do. Forget divine saviours and take the consequences of your own actions. If everyone did just that, the world would be a better place.

 

The music grew, embraced them, expanded its plea for peace like an immense invisible dome over the two couples in the warm, comfortable room and the silent, star-lit snowy landscape outside.

 

--- ---

 

Later that night Catrin and Alice lay in bed, sated, contented.

“Love you,” Catrin said.

“You're drunk.”

“Yep. Love you when I'm drunk, too.”

“I love you too, drunk or sober.”

“You or me?”

“Both.”

Catrin giggled.

“What is it?” Alice asked.

“Good thing I'm not a man.”

“Yeah, but why now, in particular?”

“'M so drunk I couldn't get it up.”

“Me neither.” It was Alice's turn to giggle.

“Pervert.”

“Yes, dear.”

They snuggled together in silence.

Then Catrin said: “I'm sorry about the glass.”

“So? They come from your grandmother, not mine. Your problem.”

“I shouldn't have lost it like that.”

“Come on, you needed to break something.”

“That, I did.”

 

Another moment of silence.

“Alice?”

“Mhm?”

“Thank you. That was beautiful, the party.”

“You daft old cow, did you think I'd leave you alone? On your brother's fiftieth birthday?”

“Yeah, well, he wasn't...”

“Who gives a rat's arse. You chose each other for family.”

“Damn it, Alice, you're too good to be real.”

“I'll show you real,” Alice said. She leaned over her wife and gave her a long, eloquent kiss.

“Good night,” she added. “Do you want me to go to my room, or should I stay?”

“Please, stay with me.”

“You won't sleep properly.”

“To quote you, dear wife, who gives a rat's arse. Tomorrow's Sunday.”

“You know what?”

“Huh?”

“It's more comfortable in animal form.”

“It gets hot.”

“I'll get the window.”

Alice flashed an opening charm at the window, letting in the cold winter air.

 

Two blurred forms solidified. A cat bear and a snow leopard curled up in one pile of thick fur on the bed, the big white shape spotted with pale grey curving its tail around a smaller one of auburn and black. Some snuffling, a couple of sharp-toothed yawns, and the pile of fur began to rise and fall rhythmically as the two animals fell asleep.

 

Outside the moon sickle shone in the wintry sky, its sliver curved like a smile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE END