Mirabile Visu

Whistler, “Nocturne in Gray and Gold, Westminster Bridge” (c. 1871-1874)

He hears music, shortly before he dies. It sounds to him like the chiming of tiny, delicately wrought bells. Each note its own truth. Each truth the story of his life, told by a different person. What is this tune, he wonders. What was his life? Knife blade tapped on the rim of a crystal goblet. Shards of glass falling from a window frame. As he listens, the fluting melody shifts and shifts again. In fact he’s never had much interest in music. He never learned to play an instrument. Once, in a different city many years before, a woman asked him to join a church choir. We need basses, she told him. No, he replied, I can’t sing. I have no voice. But everyone can sing, he was told. We all have voices. He wonders what happened to her. He has a memory of her standing at the edge of the choir loft, the taut circle of her lips, a look approaching ecstasy on her face. He wonders what happened to them all: the solemn minister, the restless children, the men in ill-fitting suits who passed the silver collection plates from pew to pew. In the hush that followed the offertory hymn, coin clinked on metal, wedding rings struck the edge of the plate. Maybe, he thinks, if I’d given it my full attention, it would have unfurled itself, revealed itself to me as music: the clinks, stifled coughs, shushes of mothers and fathers. Maybe I’ve been surrounded by music all my life, without realizing it? Strange to think that might be true. Music in the implacable sobbing of a child. In the hiss of tires on wet pavement. These bells now — he can’t tell from what direction the sound is reaching him. It seems to settle upon him from above and to his left, but in the next moment, from his right. Has he heard it before? The image of a belfry comes to him. Gravel paths. Breath puffed white in the chill morning air. Radiator under the window knocking. Is that what this is? A college carillon playing for him across the decades? “Ten minutes, ten minutes to get to your next class.” Possibly. Or better, across no distance at all. His life not sequence but collage of moments, coterminous, coexistent. Music not sequence but intricate pattern of notes, intertwined, inextricable. And they fit, he realizes. They match perfectly, this melodious plinking and the colors, the muted colors of his fractured and lovely life. A word comes to him: consonance, ‘sounding together.’ Then another: kaleidoscope, ‘beautiful form.’ And lo, a golden pillar of sunlight comes slanting into his hospital room, as from the hallway outside his door he registers the lilt of human voices, soprano tenor baritone bass, singing him home.

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