Ellen Sollinger Walker

The Ache Within

The ache within your body, that’s who you were. You struck the piano keys thousands of times a day, employed arm weight, leaned in with your back, practiced for hours until your fingers and hands were thirty years older than the rest of you.

You craved Bach’s organized chaos, thirsted for Mozart’s childish maturity, were exhilarated by Debussy’s pentatonic twang. When you blasted through a Chopin Etude, your muscles and tendons fired and sparked. All at once, you were inside the composer’s mind, holding his thumping heart, tasting the tea he drank that morning, absorbing the lost love he had endured.

As a little girl, music had already followed you around like a shadow, controlling and dominating thoughts and dreams. Accepted into an esteemed conservatory of music, you practiced seven hours a day. You caressed Beethoven’s Sonatas when downy snow fell, rendered Mendelssohn’s Concerto when drizzle misted outside your window.

One day, laboring over Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess, a passer-by stopped and tapped on your window. “How can you play such a sad piece on this ravishingly beautiful spring morning?”

That was when your brain started to change, your body began its silent scream. You played your graduate recitals, married a musician, performed and taught. You became a little bit famous as a pianist. You won awards and performed for adoring audiences. Your life was devoted to the craft.

But all along this road, down this path, something was waiting for you. It lurked under the keys. It hid between the strings and vibrated along with the soundboard. Ignoring a momentary twinge, a tiny ache, a devilish warmth in your elbow, you brushed it all off like it was as ordinary as a common cold.

The ogre remained patient. He lingered beneath your skin. He watched every move made on the keyboard. He was tolerant and quiet.

One day, locking the door of your piano room, you practiced long hours to prepare for a big concert. There was a deadline, a performance date, a lot of music to learn. Working extra hard, playing extra long, your brain burst with all the notes.

You practiced to exhaustion, wrapping your fingers around the music until your tendons snapped, joints split in two. The pang pulsated in the blood because your heart demanded it.

Was it just another flicker in the circuit, another fuzzy phone line, another storm that exploded and then disappeared?

This pain was different. It was excruciating, a weight of colossal boulders smashing down, your soul impaled on a sharp spike. The agony persisted for days then weeks then months.

You met with a host of specialists; doctors, physical therapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, hand specialists, massage therapists, yoga instructors, mental health counselors, homeopathic specialists, Feldenkraisers, Rolfers, hypnotists, pain specialists, nutritionists. A doctor at the Mayo Clinic, the Emerald City of medical miracles, administered a cortisone shot.

But the pain wouldn’t die, wouldn’t release its claw from your pierced your heart. It remained strong, inside bones and blood, snickering at your every attempt to kill it.

Years passed. Not giving in to the monster all at once, drop by tiny drop, your hope faded. Each time a doctor or specialist said, “There’s nothing more I can do,” your dream receded further away.

Finally, turning your back on the piano, you said good-bye to best friends, Bach, Mozart, Chopin.

Life was dark. No beauty. Flowers withered, fruit rotted, meat was gangrene and spoiled, clouds blocked the sun, beaches were strewn with litter, fish died. A nuclear bomb had detonated over your head. Time didn’t matter, it stood still or flew past without a care.

You quit the job. Divorced. Left town. Drove thousands of miles, landing where no one knew that you were ever a pianist. No one expected you to sit down and “play a little Beethoven for us.”

Distraught, emotions were bankrupt and used up. But defeat wasn’t the end of your story. “Nothing is permanent except change,” a Greek philosopher once said. In time, a miniature light, like a lantern, found its way to you. Its faint glow guided you slowly and gently to the next career, the next love, the next chapter of life.

You had to find a different color of happiness.

You had to argue for joy.

You had to dig yourself out from the death of your music.

You had to locate the path towards rebirth.  

Life was unbearable.

Until it wasn’t.

Ellen Sollinger Walker is a retired classical pianist and university music professor. She holds an MFA from Carnegie-Mellon University and MS from Eastern Michigan University.Her stories often explore the power, passion, and heartache of music and musicians. Ellen’s published work may be found in The Dillydoun Review Daily, Change Seven Literary Magazine, The Pigeon Review Literary and Art Magazine, Vine Leaves Press, Storytellers Refrain, and Tolsun Books. In 2021, she won honorable mention in the Dillydoun International Fiction Prize. She lives in Clearwater, Florida with her husband and a very spoiled poodle named Stella.