Mom taught Shae to play the piano when she was seven and her short fingers were the only thing that got in her way. Sitting still, she watched the white and black keys and everything she saw on them was painted in the same distinct colors. She heard the way notes fit together, and if her pulse wasn’t her own perfect metronome, she faked it well enough to fool even herself.
She mimicked Mom until she didn’t have to anymore. Then she played as if she had never learned, but always known. One hand pulled out melody, the other harmony, like white rabbits from a hat. When her timing stumbled, she just muttered about wanting to stretch her fingers and kept going.
When I was five, I pulled Mom to the piano, grinning, jumping up and down on the end of her arm because of what I figured I had stolen, spying over Shae’s shoulder. I played for her with one hand, half the right notes with all the wrong timing in between.
“Ta-da!” I shouted at the end, with my hands over my head, and she grinned back at me.
“Did I do it right?” I asked.
“Almost,” she said with a wink as large as the ones in the cartoons. Slowly, she put her hand on the keys and waited for me to put my hand out also. Then she played one note at a time and let me copy her in between. My notes were higher, and they sounded smaller to me. I liked them because they seemed sized for me, as if the high tone of them had been molded to fit my tiny hands.
Mom played her notes over and over. Sometimes mine matched and most of the time they didn’t. I grew stiller and stiller beside her on the piano bench and my head leaned closer and closer to the keys. Intently, I watched her fingers, then turned my head to look at my own and lost all her order and rhythm in the motion.
I liked my notes – high and light and clumsy like rolling down a hill with my arms locked over my chest – but they weren’t hers.
And always, in that thin moment before my patience ran out, when I might have started to hate them, Mom put her arm behind my shoulders and slid close to my side so she could lay her hand over mine. She was warm beside me – smelled like the roses in the front yard – and her hair tickled the tops of my ears. Ducking my head, I smiled and tucked myself closer while she positioned her fingers in straight lines over mine.
Then – as many times as I asked – she helped me play the piano. Perfectly.
“It was the best part,” I say, standing in her kitchen twenty years later.
I’ve got my hip cocked against the counter, steadying myself against it while I twist to look at her, because my hands are covered in beet juice and I always feel like I lose the stable edge of my balance, trying not to touch anything. Shae cuts chicken on the other side of the room, still twice as calm as I am, and Mom pops the ends off the green beans with her fingernails, both of them laughing with me.
I don’t know why we always end up telling these old stories when we’re all back in the same room. We talk as if we weren’t all there, as if the three of us didn’t already know everything that happened. But then, Shae laughed really hard when I said I thought I had gotten away with something, stealing piano tricks from her, and Mom is shaking her head a little now.
“What?” I ask her, waiting with a smile to hear what she knows that I don’t.
Mom doesn’t answer for a moment, eyes on her work, and I realize that there is some reason she doesn’t want to. It must be a small reason, because she shrugs after a moment, and leans her head toward me without looking up. “I always got so frustrated,” she murmurs.
I blink. “Frustrated?”
She shrugs again and meets my eye lightly. “I couldn’t figure out how it was so hard for you,” she tells me. “I kept trying, but I couldn’t get you to get it right. I didn’t know what else to do, so… I did it for you.”
“Because you were frustrated,” I repeat, almost not believing it.
Shae shoots me a look, and I can tell she’s weighing the shift in our tones. She’s watching my face especially, because I’m turned toward her, and because I had been so close to grinning a moment ago.
But I’m already leaning toward Mom, wrapping my arms around her. I’m careful to keep my wrists bent back to keep from staining her shirt with my hands, but I hug her tight.
“What’s this for?” Mom asks, surprised back into a smile.
I whisper into her ear, because my throat is still deciding whether to laugh or cry over the new picture in my head. “Because I never had a clue.”
We all hear the smile in my voice. Shae relaxes. Mom hugs me back tighter than I’m holding her.