Listen to Rebecca Berg read from 'Sarah's Memoir'
Sarah's Memoir explores the dilemma of a husband and wife who disagree about whether to have children. It is also a modern retelling of a biblical story, the story of Sarah and Abraham--that mythical power couple known not only as the progenitors of the Jewish people, but also, in the case of Abraham, as the father of three monotheistic religions.
I chose Sarah and Abraham as models because I wanted, as a thought experiment, to set the stakes as high as possible--to write a novel about a man so naturally gifted as to seem "chosen" and a woman of more hard-won abilities but greater ferocity of purpose. It seemed to me, though, that the calling of a modern Abraham and Sarah would be something other than the establishment of more tribes and more religions--something more along the lines of bridging ethnic and religious divides. And so Sarah's Memoir imagines Abraham and Sarah as a man with a perfect voice and woman with a perfect ear; their task is to soothe an angry world.
"Perfect ear" means, in the case of Sarah Peele, not just perfect pitch, but also the ability to hear music everywhere, in everything. A classically trained violinist from a mixed background (her father is African-American, her mother Jewish), she lives a life of devotion to music. Until she meets Ibrahim Isa Tamimi (Immy for short), it is also a celibate life.
Immy is a charismatic singer of Lebanese birth whose improvised melodies have a spellbinding effect--and here is the meaning of "perfect voice": When he sings, he drains the anger from everyone who hears him.
With the help of their business manager, Anne Garfield, Sarah and Immy found a musical group called the Troupe that travels the world working for peace.
The main action of the novel is loosely based on Genesis 16-21--the love triangle that arises when the biblical Sarah, who is barren, sends Abraham to her maidservant to father a child. But Sarah's Memoir recasts barrenness as a conflict over whether to have children. Immy wants a family, while Sarah does not believe she can juggle motherhood and the high-performance demands of a musical calling. When she feels in danger of losing him, she sends him to Anne. The novel explores the consequences of this desperate move, which tears apart her marriage, threatens the survival of the Troupe, consigns her to loneliness, and, among much of her acquaintance, calls her very humanity into question.
And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, "Now that I am withered,
am I to have enjoyment?"
Immy came into my life like an idea, mouth open, hands at his sides, black hair shining under a gray sky. I was twenty-five. I had never seen war. Before that day, if someone had suggested I spend the next three decades traveling the world and working for peace, I would have tossed my hair, flung up my violin, and played Brahms until the stupid do-gooder was a puddle on the floor. I had no interest in the helping professions.
Most readers who pick up this memoir will know what my life has been. I have served. But I write above all for my daughter. She sits in my lap as I write. She pulls at the table. When she looks at me, her eyebrows rise, full of questions. Soon she will learn to read. My story is her birthright, and she will make her own decisions. Isabel, many voices around you—and perhaps some inside you—will urge you to distinguish yourself from your father and especially from your mother. Not to go down the same path as that cold bitch—and I was no Florence Nightingale when I started on my path. I was no Mother Theresa. But I did want to change the world. I thought about it all the time. I was thinking about it on a December afternoon in 1996, the first time I heard Immy sing.
My violin had been fitted with a new bridge. From the repair shop, I'd strolled down Broadway. Baltimore can be mild in December. The air felt soft. I was enjoying the feel of the violin case bobbing in my hand, and I thought I would go stare at the bay, listen to barges and gulls, and start dreaming up a new movement, andante espressivo, for string quartet.
But I slowed when I heard a buzz in the distance, a growing rumble, voices punctuated by crashes and car horns. And I stopped when I came over a rise. The intersection below was full of a roaring crowd, a twisting, bulging throng that kept throwing off bits of itself and swallowing them again as it spread uphill. A guy in a jersey pounded past me, thumping cars, calling for celebration. Our football team had won, it seemed. It was the first time in a long time. Do I dare to mention that football scores have never moved me? It must have showed. The guy turned to shout at me: "Hey, be happy!"
And I saw, in the pedestrian area just beyond the uproar, a man—a man with shiny black hair, standing on a grate under a young tree, facing the crowd. His chest lifted and fell. His mouth shaped sounds I couldn't make out, but I could see that he was singing, cajoling. Wordless but discursive was how a musicologist later described Immy's melodies, but that kind of attention came long after, years into the future.
Fans carried bottles out of bars, they carried crab buckets, some of them carried stools. Half a dozen boys were jumping onto parked cars, making the roofs buckle and rumble—unreachable fleshy boys, many of whom were younger than I, many of whom had once been smaller than I, little packets of destruction, made carelessly perhaps, and set down in the world to wreak consequences. The crowd swelled again and swallowed up the pedestrian area. Noise bounced off buildings. Glass broke. Siren sounds rose in the west and the north.
So my first impression of Immy was a silent one, his mouth opening and closing while a crowd-becoming-a-riot surged my way. I saw before I heard, and that was a good thing. His voice could do many things to many people, soften them mostly. Me it was about to harden into lifelong resolution. I needed a silent moment, a moment before.
Some police cars arrived—beat cops closest by, I suppose. They jumped out shouting in ragged rising quartertones. They said things like "Move!" and "Now!" and "Get in front of me. I want you in front of me!"
And some guy screamed, "My arm!"
"I said in front of me."
More breaking glass, like percussion. A scream like a band saw rising through the cacophony, rising, breaking into words. "Oh God, my arm."
Whistles. More shouting.
"My arm is broken! Oh God, it hurts! Bitch broke my arm. The fucking police just broke my arm!"
A sense of injury shot through the triumphant mood, a sense of being trampled, a sense of having a football team that lost all the time, a sense of being justified in anything. The rioting turned systematic. Shop windows collapsed into piles of glass. A sporting-goods store got looted, and people emerged wearing caps. They turned over a Mercedes.
I looked up. The sky had gone bland and blue. Just a faint wisp of cloud, like wet toilet paper, hung over the bay. I looked down. The sidewalk was blotchy with chewing gum. Every flattened, blackened piece had once been in someone's mouth. So many mouths. So many pairs of ears, not hearing. The wrenching of a single arm, the shout of a single policeman, would move more people than any quartet I could write, no matter how espressivo.
In truth, the temptation was to shut my own ears, to shut my eyes. It was to run home and, in the relative quiet of my rowhouse apartment, immerse myself in a score. But the sight of Immy under that tree, so clearly not of the profane world—and facing it anyway—put me to shame. And so, violin dangling from my fist, I grew stern with myself. Face them, Sarah.
I was a woman with a mission, but also afraid. One more semester at Peabody, and I would be twenty-six with master's degrees in conducting and music composition. The world beyond, as I called it, loomed. I pictured the world beyond as a giant back turned to me. It wore a coal-colored suit jacket. It held its hands over its ears. In the world beyond, orchestras kept folding, composers wrote foaming scores for beer commercials, and musicians of all sorts failed to earn a living.
My classmates were adapting. They'd taken up cooking, programming, accounting.
Personally, I thought adaptation was boring. My conducting professor called me naive. My violin teacher called me arrogant. The members of my string quartet called me a religious fanatic. But I had been brought up, child of a Jewish mother and a black agnostic father, with no official religion. My parents had worshipped music together. Every day, they sat down at the keyboard and improvised a duet. They made me. They made me out of music, and when they saw what they'd done, they gave me a violin and devoted themselves to cultivating my ear. Maybe they spoiled me a little. Maybe, ultimately, they did me no favors. For whatever reason, I couldn't accept indifference from the world beyond. I couldn't adapt.
"Women conductors are in," my composition professor said. "For you, there might be room. You could make it." I didn't want room. I didn't want to make it. My mission? I wanted to force the world beyond to turn around and hear me.
Sometimes, I've wondered if my need summoned Immy.
That is arrogance. A kind of blasphemy. I don't really believe that.
But when I saw him singing under that tree, it hit me like an answer: I was going to fall in love. It was a heavy feeling, not an eager one. While the crowd blared, I bent my head and pictured a yoke snapping closed over my neck. A hand reaching into my chest and wrenching my heart clockwise. For the first time, I understood the future in words like must, will.
I'd been backing away from the fighting, but I stopped to watch from the median on Broadway, straining to catch a note. When Immy vanished behind a screen of bodies, I climbed onto a bench. The tree he'd been standing under shook like a stick in a flood. The police had a few ringleaders in cuffs, but more people kept pouring out of the bars. People were throwing bottles and cans of soda from a second-floor window. The police were outnumbered, their voices edged with a hysteria that was only partly policy.
Behind me, the Streetside Deli yanked down its shutter. The fighting was slopping onto Broadway, coming towards me. I held my violin to my chest, stepped off the bench, and backed up some more. The violin was priceless, a Galliano, a gift from a teacher. It was my duty to run away, and of course every inch of me was prickling with alarm. I have never been a fearless person. Still, I had to pause; I had to glance back to see the beautiful man once more, the man under a tree, singing.
But where was he? Something flew over my head—a flowerpot. It came from behind and above, spun over the heads of a couple dozen rioters, and hit a policeman in the side of the face. Just then I spotted the singer, standing under another tree, a few yards from where I'd last seen him. He grabbed a low-hanging branch, walked his feet up the trunk, and hoisted himself into the tree.
The policeman who'd been hit was holding his head. I could see blood on his temple, a gathering darkness between the fingers of his hand. His colleagues swung clubs. Someone, I never knew if it was a cop, shouted at me to get off the fucking bench. Then people were crushing all around, and I couldn't have got down if I wanted to. Something slammed into the back of my knees.
The singer stood up in the fork of his tree, seemed to sigh once, made a gesture of disgust, shrugged once, and took a breath.
Through shrieks and the sounds of wood on bone, his voice finally reached me, a dark, clear tenor. The second note shook as the fight slammed into the trunk of his tree. He kept singing, a wordless limber pattern of minor thirds, minor sevenths, major sixths.
How do I describe this music?
My father, in addition to tuning pianos, played jazz in nightclubs all over St. Louis. My mother played with the symphony whenever a score called for keyboards—everything from the Brandenburg Concertos to John Adams. My coursework at the conservatory had covered not only European art music, not only the esoteric religious music of India and Japan, not only Arabic and Persian secular traditions stretching back to the middle ages, but also folk music from probably every country this man could have named.
Still, I had never heard anything like the melody he was singing.
This was not esoteric music—it was searingly accessible. It was not art music—it lacked the self-consciousness that came with formal training. Most of all, it was not folk music. Folk melodies are old. They're anonymous. They come out of places, not people.
The song emanating from the tree in Baltimore that day was not old. With a thrill, I realized that it originated with the man who was singing it. From the offhand way he held himself, I could tell he was making the melody up on the spot—and that inventing melodies was the easiest thing in the world for him.
His voice was a balm, a drug. Before I knew it, I was climbing down from my bench. Before me, between this spot on Broadway and the rowhouse apartment I shared with my roommate, downtown towered. Behind me, the melody wound around trees and streetlamps and parking meters, hiccuping ecstasy, urging me forward. It promised to transform cement and metal into night shadows as familiar as the dresser in my own bedroom. It promised me the well-being you feel when you've been sleeping with a comforter up to your ears, and you know you have another hour until the alarm goes off, and you're returning with relish to a complex dream entirely of your own making.
Others had paused to listen too. Cops and punks—as Immy later put it—stood side by side. The melody rounded to its final note and started over again, and everyone seemed to breathe out. People tipped their heads back and closed their eyes. Then we all began to drift away.
It's true. I stepped down from the bench. I nearly went home—and that would have been the end of this story. I would have unlocked the front door, tossed my keys onto the bookcase, and called to my roommate: "Oh my God, Elissa. There was a riot, and have I got a story for my ethnomusicology paper about this guy who made everybody forget to fight by singing from a tree."
Apparently, though, the police had radioed for backup. Squad cars and pickups began to roar onto the scene. They braked at angles all over Thames Street. Troops piled out in helmets, carrying shields. A television van arrived, then another. Cameras emerged, bobbing on shoulders.
The new arrivals drowned out the man in the tree. People stopped walking away. We all stopped walking and turned around to look. It was something like the way you become aware of a refrigerator just when it shuts off. And what that meant was that people who had been radiating in hundreds of directions away from the singer now faced his tree. They looked organized. The policemen began to draw together. The reinforcements formed battle lines. Commands buzzed over a megaphone. Mutters ran through the crowd, some of whom began to push, began to shout, some of whom were recovering a kind of simian glee, throwing themselves at windows and leaping onto the hoods of cars, some of whom were hollering for the cops to come and get me, assholes. A tear gas canister burped. Screams erupted out of my line of sight. Suddenly the fighting was worse than before. Like a fool, hugging my violin case, I climbed back onto the bench.
A cloud of tear gas was drifting across the pedestrian area. It just missed the man in the tree.
I was relieved to spot him still wedged among the branches, like a kite, like a stray sheet of newspaper. His chest was heaving. He was trying to sing over the turmoil. He wasn't trying to protect his body. He was something golden, something the big fat world beyond was going to sit down on without even noticing. At the base of the tree, people screamed and vomited.
What was he still doing there? I watched some cops gesture and crouch behind a jeep and raise their rifles, as if they thought he was a sniper. Oh yes, the police were as histrionic as everyone else that day. I think they wanted him to be a sniper.
Immy has always been right about one thing—the deliberateness, the willfulness of human disaster. Maybe that's why neither of us ran away. The stupidity of the moment made him plant his feet, I suppose. And the fact of his existence made me plant mine. From his breathing, I could see that he was still singing the same melody. I watched until the melody cycled back to the beginning. Then I joined him, in unison, at the top of my lungs.
Someone shouting nearby faltered mid-sentence. The scrambling and pushing slowed, the blare of voices thinned. The police stopped their forward march; their shields hung.
I've never been much of a singer. My voice cracked a couple times. I made out a note or two from the tree. Still singing, I unbuckled my violin, tightened the bow, wedging the case between my legs and the back of the bench. I could hear the other voice clearly now, soaring out of the tree, a cello voice, a voice like mahogany. The world grew still around us. Men looked on from car hoods and roofs, then slid to the ground and stood listening while the intervals rose inside me, leaping from belly to chest to mouth and off the tongue. My not-so-great voice carried easily, aloft on the magic carpet of that other voice, and floated over the pedestrian area—where a few people still clutched themselves, tear gas rolled across the pavement, someone lay on the ground, and a woman was screaming about her collarbone.
Singing, still singing, I began to harmonize on the violin. My father had taught me this: Harmony didn't only sweeten. It multiplied and amplified. You breathed together and became more than your number. My proof: The man in the tree finally noticed he had accompaniment and glanced my way. And smiled so sweetly that my heart missed a beat.
So then, just to further amplify and transfix, I modulated. The notes of the melody stayed the same, but the key was no longer D minor. We were in the Lydian mode. The harmony was full of augmented fourths, and he faltered briefly, as if puzzled. He kept up, though, turning the dissonance into glitter. At the cadence, he smiled again, began a new melody, and tilted his head as if to say, "How about this?"
The sharpshooters were packing up. Stragglers helped each other off the ground. The rest of the police shed their helmets and folded themselves into their vans. No one was thinking, "What happened?" They weren't thinking, "Such nice music." They just felt satisfied. Following their instincts, they headed home.
The new melody was a lullaby full of bent notes and breathy pauses, as if its whole meaning were a sigh. I syncopated a harmony line, and on the second cycle, I joined in with my voice, singing the melody backward and in counterpoint.
The streets were almost empty now. A few police cars lingered along the curb. Their lights flashed silently. Someone stepped out of a bead shop. Someone wandered in from the pier. They paused to hear the melody round to its close, then walked on.
About the author:
Rebecca Berg is staff reporter for the Journal of Environmental Health. She also teaches for the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver and does freelance editing. Another excerpt from Sarah's Memoir appeared in the 2001 issue of The Five Fingers Review, under the title "A History of Song." In 2000, a draft of the novel was a finalist in the James Jones First Novel Fellowship Contest. An excerpt from her second novel, Filigree, took third prize in the F Magazine 2005 Novel-in-Progress Contest, and her most recent novel, Julio's Ghost, placed on the "Short List for Finalists" in the 2007 William FaulknerWilliam Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. She has a Ph.D. in English from Cornell University.
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