Freed from the constraints of actually participating in the Speakeasy contest this week, I did as I had proposed last week and used the prompt simply as a prompt. I went well over the 750 word limit that would usually be required of Speakeasy entries (over by 1000 or so words, in fact) but I didn’t want to limit my story or my imagination. I wanted to let the story unfold as it needed to. And since I was just writing it for me, I enjoyed it and let the story flow.
“Don’t blame the sinner,” Dominik said to his friends with a rueful smile as yet another evening spent in Prague’s small, underground clubs passed into a faintly brightening northern morning.
Dominik played the trumpet in one of the many jazz quartets that perform in Prague’s dark, moody and smoky subterranean jazz clubs, with their thick, ancient stone walls, their small stages and little tables that push up close to the musicians so spectators are almost part of the music, breathing it in as they yell over it, and over their cheap pints of beer.
Dominik was single and estranged from his family. The solitary life of a small-time musician suited him just fine. He and his quartet would play late into the night, and sometimes he would loose track of which club he was in until he climbed back up to the surface of the city and found himself on one side of the Vltava River or the other, crossing this square or that one.
Each morning as he crawled into the single bed in his darkened, messy apartment, smoky and with stale beer on his breath, he would nod to himself in almost-satisfaction. He was living the dream; playing decent jazz night after night with decent guys, living an uncomplicated life. And then he would fall asleep, waking up hours into the afternoon to repeat it all again.
If he was honest with himself, he would say that if he could change anything about his life, if he could have one wish, it would be to become a truly great musician. He didn’t mind playing the small, smoky clubs, but what musician wants a life of mediocrity? No, he was satisfied with his life, but he would wish for musical greatness, if he had one wish.
Dominik preferred to play the tunes from the jazz greats, Miles Davis especially. While he was up on the stage, the audience would seem to disappear, their noise fading until it was a distant din. Dominik would put the trumpet to his lips, then, and sink into the music. He’d ride the notes, breathing in the mood of the room, and breathing out the fire of inspiration.
It was on a cold, damp evening in November, only a few minutes into their first set of the night, that he opened his eyes, mid-tune – something he didn’t usually do – and noticed a face watching him from the crowd. He floundered, almost missing the next few bars. This was exactly the reason he kept his eyes closed, and he closed them again. But her face was burned into his mind. It floated before him though he kept his eyes squeezed shut and tried to focus on his playing.
In an attempt to fix his mind on the music, he began to improvise, to stretch out the spaces between the notes and fill them with complex trills and with his own flourishes. It sounded good!
At the end of the night, when, slightly breathless, he finally allowed himself to open his eyes and scan the room, she was no longer there. He wondered if he had imagined her.
The audience was applauding, loudly it seemed. They were facing him, all of them, rather than turning back to the barman as they usually did. His fellow musicians clapped him on the back and congratulated him on his inspired playing. Gradually, it occurred to him that he had done something differently this time, that he had stepped outside the usual music, the usual show, and had performed.
With all this attention, he forgot about the girl he had seen. He allowed his friends to buy him drinks, to talk about his playing, to congratulate him.
The following evening, as they were just about to start playing, he saw her again on the edges of the crowd. This time, he didn’t look away. Her face was soft, milky, her auburn hair was delicately curled and piled on top of her head. She reminded him of an old fashioned portrait, the kind of classic beauty captured in the oil paintings that hang in the historic lesser palaces up by the Castle, or in the Castle itself.
That evening, his playing was again inspired. He ventured beyond the classics and found himself leading his bandmates into what was, for them, new musical territory. He played like he had never played before. When the evening was done, his instrumentation was again the focus of the crowd’s and his friends’ attentions. He noticed, however, that the girl had once again disappeared.
This went on for a few months. Gradually, word of his talent spread throughout the city. The managers for some of the bigger venues began to approach the quartet, inviting them to play in some of the more important halls.
Each evening, Dominik would scan the crowd and each evening, he would see her face, modest, almost in the shadows, looking back at him.
He began to think of her as his muse, to play to her, for her. At home in his small apartment, instead of stumbling through the darkened rooms, he began to practice, and, for the first time, to compose his own music.
The first night he played it in public, he asked his fellow musicians to think of a beautiful woman, a muse, someone who would inspire them. And to try to keep up. Then he looked out at the crowd and announced that the first piece they would be playing was something he had composed himself.
“It’s called,” he paused, searching the crowd for her face. When he saw her, he finished, “The Queen of Hearts.”
At the end of the performance, when the echoes of applause had died away, his bandmates gathered around him and asked him about the piece.
“Are you in love?” they asked, only half teasing, “have you met someone? Is this the reason for your inspired playing? Do you have a Queen of Hearts you’re hiding from us?”
He shook his head, smiling, wondering for the umpteenth time who the girl in the audience could be.
Tiring of the questions and the teasing, Dominik left his friends earlier than usual that evening and headed home.
There was a thick, frost-laden fog lying across the Vltava, obliterating much of the Charles Bridge. He shivered as he walked along, running the tune again through his mind.
Up ahead in the fog, a figure moved, catching his attention. A woman’s silhouette drifted in and out between the layers of fog. She had her back turned to him, and was facing out over the side of the bridge, looking at the water. He could see that she wore a long, dark coat, which flowed majestically to the snowy ground. She wore a dark beret upon her hair, which hung long down her back and seemed to sparkle in the faint light.
As he approached, he saw that her clothes were sumptuous, old fashioned, and seemed to be sparkling with the falling snow that adorned them like diamonds. When he was only about twenty feet from her, she sensed his presence and turned to face him. Beneath her black cloak, he could see now, she wore a silver gown that shimmered not with the snow but with pearls and jewels. Her hair sparkled because it, too, was bejeweled. As his gaze came to rest upon her face, he recognized her and stopped short, his breath catching in his throat.
He found he couldn’t speak but stood there, gazing at his muse, wondering what to say. She had not been dressed like this all the times he had seen her before, he was sure.
She smiled, nodded faintly, then turned and began to walk, almost floating, away from him. After a moment, he followed her, but the mist came between them, hiding her every now and then.
When he reached the towers at the end of the bridge, he looked around but could not see her anywhere. As he took a step forward, his foot knocked something in the snow. He bent down to pick it up.
It was a chess piece, it seemed, although it was unlike any chess piece he had ever seen before. It seemed to be old, ornate. It was a queen and she was dressed in a flowing silver gown, her long, braided auburn hair interwoven with strands of jewels. On her head, she wore a gilded silver crown. Absent-mindedly, he turned the piece over in his hand as he continued to peer in vain through the darkness.
He looked back down at the piece in his hand. Something was scrawled across the base. He went to stand under a streetlamp so he could read it.
Elizabeth, Winter Queen of Bohemia.
“The Winter Queen?” He wondered aloud, squinting again into the night. Elizabeth, he knew, was the Queen of Bohemia for one winter in the early seventeenth century. She was part of the British royal line and had been married with great pomp and circumstance and popularity on Valentine’s Day, endearing her to the people. And inspiring the fond title, the Queen of Hearts.
Deep in thought, Dominik continued home, the ornate chess queen held carefully in his hand. He set it on the table near his bed and lay down, looking at it until he could no longer keep his eyes open.
Though he would continue to compose music and would go on to become one of Europe’s great jazz virtuosos, he never once stopped searching for his muse.