The Private Life of Robert Schumann

A Short Story

BY JULIE SCHUMACHER

BEFORE MR. ZINN GAME TO TEACH US MUSIC, WE were bored every Wednesday and Friday afternoon. We’d had to study with a woman named Miss Fox, who scratched herself with a pointer, and who died of a heart attack one day in the coatroom, clutching the sleeves of a dozen jackets in her arms. With Miss Fox we’d had to learn “This Land Is Your Land” and the national anthem on two different instruments: we had a choice of the autoharp, the recorder, the triangle, and a pair of blocks. The blocks had sandpaper stapled to their sides. If you couldn’t play you had to sing, so most of us banged and strummed away, while Miss Fox counted time at the front of the room, her worn heart pounding like a tired drum.

We had one week free of music after she died, and then the district hired Mr. Zinn. He was only the third male teacher in the middle school, and he didn’t look like Mr. Hickman, who taught phys. ed., or like Mr. Vandeveer, who wore a suit and had a white goatee. Mr. Zinn was young: he had short, wavy black hair and sideburns, and watery eyes that protruded farther than they should. They were round like the eyes of a lizard or a frog.

The first day back we noticed instantly that the autoharps were gone. The recorders and triangles and blocks were missing too; the music table held only a record player and an enormous pile of books.

“Sit,” Mr. Zinn said. You’d think he was talking to a dog, but we heard nothing cruel in his voice, so we sat down. On the board we saw his name, Francis J. Zinn, and the date, March 3. “How many of you know anything about music?” No one raised a hand. “That’s what I expected,” he said. “That’s why you aren’t going to play. There’s no use trying to play an instrument if you don’t know anything about music’s source, its fountainhead. Who’s been to Europe?”

Few of us had left Delaware, except for occasional trips to the Jersey shore.

“To understand music,” Mr. Zinn said, raising himself on tiptoe and slowly lowering himself back down, “you need to understand Vienna, Leipzig, Schiller. Who knows what I mean by strophic and durchkomponiert?”

No one spoke, and Mr. Zinn began to fill the board with words. We learned that Vienna crossed the Danube like a bridge, that Beethoven went deaf, and that almost everyone related to Johann Sebastian Bach had the same first name. By the end of class we still hadn’t said a thing. Mr. Zinn turned to Valerie Kenny. “Tell me something about music that you’d like to know.”

Of the twenty-one kids in the class, probably twenty of us would have been stumped for what to say. I would have tried for something correct, because that’s what I do. But Valerie was strange.

“I’d like to know if you knew Miss Fox.”

“We were acquaintances,” Mr. Zinn said.

“Were you sad when she died?” Valerie was pale and thin and feverish, and we made fun of her for the veins that shone through her skin. We didn’t yet understand that she was pretty: she had long tangled hair the color of almonds, a reddish mouth, and fingertips that glowed.

a mouth, fingertips glowed. “That’s an unusual question.” Mr. Zinn folded his arms across his chest in a gesture that seemed borrowed from a book. “I suppose I’d have to say that I was. Yes, I was sad. Any other questions?”

Lois and Chuckie and I were laughing at the back of the room. “I’d like to know if Valerie’s retarded,” Lois said.

Mr. Zinn blushed. We’d never seen a grown man blush, the color rising up his neck like juice in a glass, and blooming when it reached the level of his ears. “Thank you,” he said. Clearly, he’d never taught school before.

I KNEW MR. ZINN ALREADY, BECAUSE HE DIRECTED OUR choir at church. Not because he was Methodist, my mother explained, but because he earned money from the service every week. Whenever I dropped a dime in the collection tray, I imagined it going straight to Mr. Zinn.

Our church, as vast as a cavern, was left from the time when the city wasn’t a slum, when it held white doctors and their families instead of the poor. Now the church was seldom filled, but it was still white, the stubborn doctors and their wives driving in from the suburbs to spend an hour beneath the massive gold-leaf dome and think of God. They could believe more easily in the presence of matching marble fonts and leaded glass, a hundred pipes for the organ, an immaculate burgundy carpet, and wooden doors that two men together had to push to admit the sun. The back of the church held a balcony, the front a gigantic stained-glass window showing Jesus, hands tipped out as if he’d heard of crucifixion, surrounded by children twice my size, and enormous lambs.

I was in the confirmation class that spring. We had to study the parable of the good Samaritan and sing in front of the congregation in a special program at the end of the year. Methodists—the ones I knew—loved to sing. They tapped their feet impatiently through the sermon, browsed the hymnal during prayers, and sang Amen in twelve-part harmony as if God himself directed from the floor. My lack of enthusiasm for hymns was a family trial. My mother would push the hymnal toward me, point to the verse (we sang them all), and sing in a voice as high and perfect as a dream. I had a scratchy alto voice that sometimes buzzed. It was always lost between octaves and I used it sparingly, whispering along with the choir on refrains.

Every Sunday for half an hour the confirmation class practiced two short hymns: “O for a Thousand Tongues” and something about sheep that we sang as “mutton” just for fun. Mr. Zinn directed us with an atheist’s determination. We hummed with our mouths half open, snoring the words, while he blinked and pressed his lips together, as if struggling to overcome with his own effort our lack of it. On especially bad days he’d set down his baton, run a hand through his wavy hair, and approach the line. “Keep singing,” he’d say, and we’d try another verse while he drew near, his red tie flapping over his shoulder. He’d start in the second row and walk past each of us, head bent low as if in prayer, to find out who was singing out of tune. Sometimes he’d pause at a single mouth for quite a while, coming so close to our lips with his well-scrubbed ear that we couldn’t sing above a whisper, afraid of damaging the parts that lay within. We didn’t know where to look when he hovered close: breathe, and his inner ear was moist; sniff, and the hair at his sideburns brushed your nose. I dreamed of shrinking to the size of a crumb and climbing in, exploring the hammer, anvil, stirrup, and shell: it was pink and barren there, and my voice, when I let it go, spun cascading through the arcs and tunnels, sweet and clear.

THE AUTOHARPS AND THE RECORDERS NEVER REAPpeared. By the second week we were building instruments of our own. He called it “Musicshop”: we made banjos from oatmeal boxes and rubber bands, whistles from pens, drums from aluminum cans and Playtex gloves. While we worked, Mr. Zinn played records and told us stories about the music we listened to.

“Schumann was a true romantic,” he explained. “He liked to read Byron. He was Schubert’s successor as the master of the German Lied.

“That’s World War Two,” Chuckie said. He was building a flute. He took it home every few nights and got his father to fix it up with a welding torch.

I was working with Lois, who had asked me to be her partner because she wasn’t capable of doing anything alone. “Forget it,” I said, when I looked up from my plans and saw her bushy yellow hair, the constellation of freckles on her skin.

“What do you mean, forget it? You and me are building a trumpet. Just like this.” She showed me a wrinkled magazine picture of a black man playing an instrument with at least a hundred metal parts.

I looked at the picture of the trumpet and then at Lois. “What do we make it from?” I asked. I’d finally decided to build a xylophone with sticks.

“I’ve got these.” She showed me a plastic bag full of cardboard toilet rolls and mismatched copper wire. “Once we’re done we can paint it gold.”

I didn’t ask her how she expected it to sound. Lois got mad fairly easily, and I didn’t want her yelling at me in class. That’s how our friendship worked: when she wanted something from me, I always said yes; when I wanted something back, Lois said she wasn’t sure. I admired her for her confidence and style.

MR. ZINN LIKED TO SING DURING CLASS, HE PACED the room with his hands carving gestures in the air: “Nunhastdu mirden erstenSchmerzgetan. . . .” He had a beautiful tenor voice; when he took a breath and spread his hands, tilting back his head so the veins in his neck stood out like string, we knew he imagined himself in another place and time, dressed in leotards and a blouse on a moonlit stage.

He rarely looked at our projects. He spent most of his time filling the board with scales and notes we couldn’t read, or brooding by the window at the back of the room. He smelled of chalk dust and shampoo, and we learned to pinpoint his location by his odor as he paced between the coatroom and the window. We craved his recognition and his words. When he did stop to check the progress of our work, throwing his tie over his shoulder as he squatted down, we had the impression he was studying our lives, that he held our souls, and not a cigar box or a hammer, in his hands. He didn’t treat us the way the other teachers did; I wondered if he realized we were young, or if he even understood what children were.

“The world is full of mediocrity,” he said, sometimes to himself and sometimes to us. “Nothing is worse. Failing is better than being simply good at what you do. ” He picked up Chuckie’s flute. “Failure’s a virtue, next to undistinguished skill.”

“Practice makes perfect,” Chuckie said.

“No, unfortunately, it doesn’t. Practice breeds competence, not perfection.” Mr. Zinn examined the flute, by far the best-looking instrument in class. “Look at Schubert. He wrote symphonies, some of his best, at the age of eighteen. He suffered depressions all his life, but in a single year he wrote almost a hundred and fifty songs. He died of typhoid at thirty-one, a physical wreck. He was utterly ruined.”

“It’s just a saying,” Chuckie said.

“Perfection comes from genius, or from God.” Mr. Zinn turned to me. “Doesn’t it, Jane?” It was the first time he’d singled me out. I had glue on the tips of my fingers, shreds of cardboard in my teeth. I wanted desperately to say something clever and uplifting, something that would cause him to bring up my name in the teachers’ lounge.

“Yeah, I guess,” I said, smiling so that he would know I understood my limitations, that if I was dumb it was through no fault of my own.

Mr. Zinn put the flute on the desk. “What are you smiling at?” he asked.

“Great move,” Lois said, when he walked away.

WE NOTICED THE RING ON VALERIE’S HAND AT THE end of March. Lois and I sat together in science class, with our desks pushed close so that she could cheat, and when she kicked me, I looked up and saw Valerie rubbing the stone on her dress to make it shine. It was a dark-green gem in a wad of gold, with a square insignia on either side. It was much too big for her finger; it slid up and down over her knuckle, as bright as chrome.

“Where’d you get it?” Lois asked, poking Valerie in the neck with a felt-tip pen.

“Don’t, you’ll stain me.” Valerie lifted her hair and revealed the ink. Her neck was petite, a perfect stem. The ring was visible through the woods of her tangled hair.

“That’s just a school ring,” Chuckie said. “Everyone buys one when they graduate, that’s all.”

“Where’d you get it?” Lois asked again. She wasn’t whispering anymore, and Mrs. Hardimer, the teacher, gave us a look.

“It’s probably her dad’s,” Chuckie said.

We tried to pretend we didn’t care, but Lois couldn’t let a problem go unsolved. During gym we trapped Valerie in the bathroom and asked again. She was using the middle stall, so we stood on the toilet seats on either side and leaned over the top. “Tell us whose,” Lois said.

Valerie let the top of her gym suit fall, and we saw her chest, as smooth and flat and white as ours. She didn’t cover herself with her arms as we would have done.

“We’re going to start spitting when I count to two.” Lois draped an arm across the door to block escape.

Valerie flashed the ring. The stone was as green as a parrot’s eye. “Okay,” she said, “it’s Mr. Zinn’s. He gave it to me Friday afternoon.”

“He didn’t give it to you,” Lois said.

Valerie shrugged and pulled up her gym suit, showing the name tag with her name embroidered upside down.

“He probably just let you see it. Friday you’ll have to give it back.”

“I don’t think so.” Valerie sat down on the toilet, fully dressed. When we looked down at her from above, she seemed tiny and pure.

“Look how small,” I said to Lois. But Lois was running through the double doors, racing with the other kids outside.

HE DIDN’T ASK FOR IT BACK ON FRIDAY, EVEN though Valerie wore it around her neck on a silver chain.

“We aren’t positive it’s his,” I said to Lois after school. We were riding bikes in the parking lot between the teachers’ cars.

“Are you saying Valerie’s a liar?”

I came around the side of a VW bus; we were face to face. “Maybe noton purpose. I mean, not like you or me.” I looked at the gap between Lois’s teeth, big enough for a coin. “Maybe she wishes it was his. Maybe she has a crush on Mr. Zinn.”

“That’s disgusting.” Lois made a narrow passage by a Plymouth, scraping the yellow paint with her handlebar.

“Careful,” I said, and she kicked a dent in one of the hubcaps with her shoe.

“We have two more years of this place, and I think it stinks. I’m going to be a rifle girl in high school.” She put her kickstand down and twirled an imaginary rifle, taking aim.

“You don’t get to shoot,” I said. “Those rifles probably aren’t real.”

“Nothing’s real.” She pulled the trigger. “Not even you.” We rode the long way home through the empty lots, bruising our tires on tree roots and jagged stones. A block from our neighborhood Lois stopped. “Here’s where Valerie lives,” she said. “I came here on Halloween last year. She pointed to a house that wasn’t like any of the rest. It didn’t have shutters or a sidewalk or a porch or a basketball court. It looked like a pile of wooden boxes stacked on top of each other so that some of them jutted out. The yard was overgrown with raspberry bushes and weeds.

Lois wanted to spy on Valerie through the first-floor windows, so we parked our bikes and crept through the neighbors’ yard to station ourselves in the brush at the side of the house. As soon as we took our positions, Valerie’s mother, Mrs. Kenny, appeared with a folding chair and a sunhat and a camera, turning the lens on us where we stood.

“I thought I’d get a look at who was breaking into the house,” she said, focusing on our hands on the windowsill. Seeing Mrs. Kenny was always scary: she dressed like us, in pants and T-shirts, w ith her hair in a ponytail or a braid, while all the other mothers dressed in skirts. At one of the parents’ days at school she showed up with a paintbrush in her jeans and her hair full of dirt. She was disconcerting— she made us feel as if we might just get larger instead of older when we grew up.

“We were looking for Valerie,” Lois said.

“Oh, I see.” Mrs. Kenny nodded. “Did you try the door?”

“We thought it was stuck.”

“Try it again,” Mrs. Kenny said. “I’ll watch from here. You can turn the handle and go right in.”

We traipsed to the door like zombies.

“Second left,” Mrs. Kenny called, and we went inside.

Valerie sat on the bed in her room, holding a wooden box between her knees. “I’ve told my mom not to do that,” she said. “She hijacks kids my age and sends them in.”

“Your mom is cracked,” Lois said. She looked at the box.

“No, but she thinks I ought to have visitors,” Valerie said. She lifted the lid and we saw the folded squares of paper, as tempting as cream. “Do you want to know what I have in here?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Lois said. “We don’t really care.”

“I’m not supposed to show you.” Valerie chose a note from the top, easing it open fold by fold. “Do you want to see?” We craned our necks as she smoothed the paper against her thigh. “This one’s the first.”

It was a drawing in black. It showed a flute with a person’s face where the mouthpiece was. The eyes were closed, and around the head was a mass of hair.

“Where’d you get it?” Lois asked.

“Here’s the next.” Valerie unfolded another square. The second was a drawing of a harp, like the prow of a ship, but again with a face and hair. It was drawn very lightly, the eyes of the harp half closed and the mouth half open in a smile. She showed us a violin, a guitar, a drum, and several instruments we’d never seen. All had the same dreamy eyes and tangled hair, and not a word appeared on any page.

“Mr. Zinn gave you these,” I said. I recognized the paper from his desk.

Valerie looked pleased, and some of the pallor disappeared from her face and arms. “That’s what I thought.” She folded the notes and stashed the box in her underwear drawer. I saw the ring still dangling from its chain around her neck. “I’m taking lessons. I’m learning to play the piano after school.”

“This is stupid,” Lois said. “You don’t know they’re from him.”

Valerie smiled, showing her gums. “At first I found them in my desk. But the last one I found in my jacket pocket, so he must have put it there during lunch.”

“Still, you don’t know” Lois said. “You aren’t sure.”

“He’s going to teach me about the composers. Private things. He says I remind him of Clara Schumann.”

“You don’t even brush your hair,” Lois said.

“He called me Clara once,” Valerie said, not even listening anymore. When we left, she thanked us for coming. “It makes my mother happy,” she explained.

THAT NIGHT AT DINNER I WANTED TO TALK. I HAD something to say.

“What” my mother said. She finally put down her knife and fork. “What’s so important that you have to interrupt?”

I felt the weight of what I knew on the back of my tongue. I had all of it there: Valerie was getting notes from the teacher, we never played music in music class, and on Sundays Mr. Zinn was a different man. I had all of the knowledge ready, and felt certain that if I phrased it right it would be of interest to anyone. But when my mother and father turned to me, I forgot which part came first; I couldn’t remember how it all made sense, the way I’d figured it out before.

“I’m not going to eat these carrots,” I said. “They stink.” My parents ignored me and went on talking, as if I were someone else’s child or had never been born.

LOIS IGNORED ME TOO. SOMETHING WAS LOST: SHE refused to answer the phone at her parents’ house, and at school she sat by herself at a broken desk. When I tore our trumpet into shreds, letting the cardboard glide and settle in the trash, she didn’t care.

Though she wouldn’t talk to me anymore, she sent two notes. The first was from the library encyclopedia. I knew it was from Lois because of the smudgy fingerprints and the fact that the page was torn out of the book. Under the heading “Robert Schumann” was a blurb about Clara Wieck: the name was underlined in blue. It said that Clara was Schumann’s wife, that she was the daughter of Schumann’s teacher, and that Schumann had met her when he was eighteen and she was nine. The difference in ages, it said, didn’t matter to the two, who finally married, despite objections, when Clara turned twenty-one.

The second note Lois wrote herself. “Everything makes me sick. That includes you.” I found it in my jacket pocket after school.

I blamed Mr. Zinn for everything that went wrong. Now when I sang in his ear in church, I thought of Catholics, the way they whispered through a wall to a waiting priest. I thought about humming softly in his hair, so softly that he’d put his ear against my mouth. I thought of whispering in that pink and marbled maze, I’ve seen the notes. You told her not to show us but she did. But I sang “O for a Thousand Tongues” and waited for the opportunity to speak.

Chuckie said it wasn’t possible—no one Valerie’s age had a boyfriend half that old. “He must be thirty or forty,” Chuckie said. “You guys are nuts. Is that what you’ve been fighting about all this time?”

We were riding bikes at the top of the block; Lois was trying to jab a stick through the spokes of our wheels. “You wait,” she said. “Just wait one minute or two.”

“I’ve got to go in and take a bath,” Chuckie said, but he didn’t go. Lois had called both of us on the phone and told us to meet at the top of the hill, at the dead end over the highway that we weren’t allowed to cross. It was seven o’clock, and the shadows of our bikes had thinned and gone. We circled a few more times, listening to a pair of beagles down the block, and then Lois braked. We saw Valerie and Mr. Zinn in a light-blue Ford on the highway. The car slowed down on the opposite shoulder, and from the embankment we saw only their arms and legs beneath the roof: Mr. Zinn was wearing a sweatshirt, not a tie, but Chuckie recognized his watch. We saw him reach across Valerie’s lap and open the door. When she got out, he pulled away, without waiting to see where she’d go.

“Hey,” Chuckie yelled, and Valerie looked up. The air was thick with mosquitoes and lightning bugs, and we seemed to be looking at Valerie through a screen. She made a dash across two lanes to the yellow line and stood between streams of traffic, shifting from one foot to the other, small and pale. When she finally crossed the other lanes and reached the bank, pulling on reeds as she clambered up, each of us extended a hand to help her climb.

Valerie continued on her own. Her knee socks were balled around her ankles and her sweater was buttoned wrong. She reached the top and brushed herself off and immediately started down the street.

“Were you at school all that time?” Chuckie asked. We began circling on our bikes.

“I had my music lesson.” She walked with tiny shuffling steps to avoid our tires.

“Your lesson’s on Tuesday,” Lois said. “From four to five.” We expected Valerie to cry. We needed her to: her tears would tell us who was right and who was not, they would reconfirm our places in the world.

“He isn’t a boyfriend,” I said, “or a friend. If it was me, I’d make him drive me to the door.”

“It wouldn’t be you,” Valerie said, not angrily but as if stating a simple fact. We stood in the darkness of the trees for a little while.

“Mr. Zinn’s married, you know,” Lois said. “Jane sees him every Sunday in the choir.”

In fact I hadn’t said he was married; I only said he was old enough.

“She’s seen them kiss,” Chuckie said, making a smooching noise with his lips against his arm.

“That isn’t true,” Valerie said.

All three of them turned to me. I was the tallest and heaviest; I felt the stature of my flesh, the heft and decisiveness of my organs, busy at their work beneath the bones.

“She can prove it,” Lois said. And I said I would.

MY PARENTS WERE SURPRISED I’D INVITED FRIENDS to confirmation, but I told them we were supposed to bring guests, so they didn’t care. We picked Valerie up—she was wearing a sun-colored dress and a bright straw hat—and drove to Lois’s, down the street. Lois sat on the stoop wearing a pair of jeans and roller skates instead of shoes. “I can’t go,” she said. “I have to help my mother clean the house.”

“How are you going to help if you’re wearing roller skates?” I said. I leaned out the window and threatened to pull out her teeth with pliers if she wouldn’t come.

Lois turned and skated down the walk, making an rrrrrr-clack-clack sound as she rolled away.

My parents dropped us off in front of the huge oak doors of the church. Walking in was a vision: you took a program from the usher and entered the floodlit stained-glass air of the center aisle. Valerie started for the doors, but I pulled her back.

“You can’t go in that way if you’re not a member.”

She looked surprised. “I thought anyone could come.”

“You can visit, but you have to use the entrance over here.” I led her into the basement, down a narrow, dusty hall away from the church, to the choir’s practice rooms and the vestry, w here the sound of handbells and the scent of heavy robes dulled the click of our footsteps on the tiles. We walked up a flight of stairs to the treasurer’s office, past the custodians and the gift shop on the left. Valerie pulled my arm. “The altar’s down there.”

I shook her off. She could barely follow me up the narrower steps to the tower; I let myself run, I let my clumsy legs unfold and carry me through the DO NOT ENTER door and down the dead-end passage above the sanctuary. Valerie had dirt on her dress; she was breathing hard. She nearly tripped around the final corner, slamming into me where I’d stopped at the secret place. Above our heads the massive stained-glass window bulged like the side of a balloon. It was five or six times our height, pressing outward toward the wall. The first time I saw it, I was shocked: the colored panes were lit not by sunlight but by a hundred ordinary bulbs. But most disturbing, the people in the window faced you. I had expected to see the backs of their heads, but their eyes, in brilliant topaz and aqua blue, met your gaze on either side.

I peered through a broken pane at the window’s edge. The pews were filling up; the ushers collected their silver plates, and the organist cracked her knuckles on the rail. Mr. Zinn stood off in the corner, wearing a robe, not white like the minister’s but black, with enormous flowing sleeves. His wingtips gleamed in the yellow light from the chandeliers.

Valerie still gazed above her head. The organ hummed a processional, sending vibrations through our shoes.

“ Tell me,” I said. “At your lesson. What do you do with Mr. Zinn?” It was time for me to line up with the rest of the class.

“He pulls the shades,” Valerie said.

“But what do you do?”

The glare of the lights made the hallway warm. “Different things.”

“Show me what they are.”

Valerie squinted when she looked my way. I must have been haloed by the bulbs on every side. She reached up around my neck with her blue-veined arms and unbuttoned my dress. “Sometimes like this.” She laid her palm, warm and sweaty, on my chest. The convocation began below.

What else?” I said, and Valerie showed me where he touched. She was hiccuping, sending nervous bubbly echoes down the hall.

“You can’t tell anyone,” she whispered, her pointed chin against my chest.

Through the crack in the window I saw my class lining up in a pew.

“It’s partly your fault, now that you’ve done it.” She was warm against me, glowing like a coal. “You’ll never tell.”

I buttoned up as best I could.

Valerie helped me straighten my collar. “He isn’t married, you know,” she said, and I felt the tears welling up in my eyes. “I knew he wasn’t all along.” Her yellow dress held pieces of color from the window, and in its light she seemed to be broken into shards.

I turned the corner at a run, plugging my fingers in my ears so that I wouldn’t hear.

I WALKED UP TO THE ALTAR DISHEVELED, OUT OF breath, from a direction opposite that of everyone else in the class. Mr. Zinn blinked his limpid, startled eyes when I took my place; the other kids nudged one another and whispered until he lifted his baton.

Through the whole first song I didn’t sing. I knew that the world was constructed solely for humiliation, that nothing was fair, and that being right would never matter in the end. I still felt the press of Valerie’s hands on my neck and chest.

Between the hymns we were supposed to count to ten. On eight Mr. Zinn looked up. He was listening, hand suspended in the air, baton tip pointing straight to God. We had our mouths half open, ready to sing, but the baton stayed fixed. Mr. Zinn tilted his head to the side. In the quiet that followed, we heard a noise barely audible, coming from just above our heads, or from the vents, or the organ pipes, or from the dome. It was a small, desperate sound, barely a whisper, but clear and distinct: Don’t tell.

Mr. Zinn could have kept right on, but he was a man attuned to sound, and the voice that repeated Don’t tell had a certain music, like a chant or a primal song. The organist took off her glasses; the minister scratched his head, revealing a bold striped shirt beneath his robe. People in the farthest aisles began to stir.

I thought I knew how the moment would end. I would be denied, they’d pass the cup above my head, the wafer would burn a hole through the flesh of my tongue. Valerie would be rescued, starved and tear-stained in her dress, and I would be left in the church alone, with the treasurer loading coins into blue felt bags and the janitor pushing his oblong broom between the rows. Mr. Zinn was pale. He was combing the window with his eyes, searching for Valerie, looking through the holy faces for her own.

I knew I had seconds before he found her, before the three of us were called on to explain the things we’d done.

I took a breath and began to sing.