Elsie and Mary’s lives are changed when they meet Miss Fitch, a fascinating Frenchwoman who makes her living teaching children the violin. She seems to be everything an instructor should be: stern when her students are slacking; inspiring when they lose heart. She knows how to make her young players believe in themselves. Mary is captivated, though she has no talent for the violin. Her sister Elsie is the natural musician in the family, but suddenly Elsie quits without explanation. Not long after Elsie stops going to lessons, Miss Fitch is attacked in her home. As the girls look more closely at their teacher, they learn that the past can rise up to wreak havoc on even those whose lives seem most exemplary. This ebook features a personal history by Janet Taylor Lisle including rare images and never-before-seen documents from the author’s own collection.
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Sirens and Spies
By Janet Taylor Lisle
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1985 Janet Taylor Lisle
All rights reserved.
Jimmy Dee came back to the house every night for a week after they took Miss Fitch to the hospital. He couldn't remember to stay away. Every night he came, forgetful and full of anticipation to hear her music, and every night he was surprised to find the windows black, the house shut up and empty.
Jimmy Dee had seen the ambulance come for Miss Fitch. He had heard the sirens and watched the police cars slide, pale and fishlike, up to the curb. From a hiding place across the road, he had watched the flashing lights, and he had seen them bring Miss Fitch out of the house on a little wheeled bed. She was tucked in as neatly as a baby. A bottle hung down over her head.
Right after that, Jimmy Dee had run away, going through back yards to the downtown streets. He knew as well as anybody where they had taken Miss Fitch. But, during the days, he simply forgot. As he wandered the town's frigid alleys or huddled in the nooks between buildings, the knowledge would pass out of his head. Then back he would come the next night all ready to watch and listen. It was winter, but he was used to being out in the cold.
Jimmy Dee first discovered the music on a rambling journey through town one night. He wasn't looking for anything in particular, unless it was a more comfortable corner to spend the night in. He heard the music, stopped and listened for a while and went away. But he was back again a few nights later, and again the night after that.
Eventually, his route took a pattern. His approach to the house never varied. Unsteadily he made his way along an overgrown hedge on the south side of Miss Fitch's yard. When he came to the open space of the frozen garden out back, he scuttled across, as best a big, bony man with too much drink in him could scuttle. He always went to the same clump of bushes. They were laurels, long and thin as he was. There was a fork in one branch that he had gotten used to leaning on. He could stay there without moving for a long time. It was one of the world's safe places. Even by day, it was unlikely that anyone, any neighbor for instance, would pick him out from that clump.
In the weeks before Miss Fitch had gone away, he had come sometimes in the late afternoons, too impatient to wait for cover of dark. No one had ever seen him. He came to listen to the music and to watch the wonderful woman who made it. He could see her clearly through the windows, bright and quick as a butterfly when she moved. She wore strange swooping dresses that fanned out like wings from her arms as she turned. She wasn't young, but she walked, he noticed, the way a movie star might, passing and repassing the windows with her arms floated out and her head thrown back. Her hair was tied up in a miraculous puff on top. It fell down at the back and blew out over her forehead. One of the movements she made most often was an elaborate sweep with her hand that pushed the loose strands up and away from her eyes. She was, by far, the most exotic thing Jimmy Dee had ever seen.
But it was her music that had made him stay, leaning on the branch for hours in the cold. Now that she was gone, it was the music he missed most of all. She was a violin teacher. During the day, students came and went from the front of her house. Inside her living room they stood with instruments clamped against their chins while Miss Fitch drifted about them waving her hands. (He didn't call her Miss Fitch, didn't know that name. She was just lady, or woman, or beautiful.) Sometimes she played her own violin with her students. That was nice. The faint harmonies made Jimmy Dee's spine tingle, and if he had a bottle in his pocket then, he would take it out for a little drink to celebrate.
Most beautiful of all, though, was when Miss Fitch played by herself, later, after the students had gone home and she had made a quick supper in the kitchen. He had gotten to know her ways during those winter weeks of watching. She played to herself nearly every night after dinner. Jimmy Dee depended on it. He came if he could walk, if he wasn't so drunk that he forgot all about it.
Occasionally, she didn't play. She had visitors instead. A man came to dinner and stayed late. Weeks later, there was another, and later, another. Jimmy Dee learned that there was no music to be had on such nights. When a visitor came, he went quietly away knowing not to hope.
But sometimes, sometimes Miss Fitch sat alone in her living room and didn't play. For no reason that he could see, she read a book instead, or lay, motionless, on her dark couch. Then Jimmy Dee, standing out in the bushes, slowly froze with misery and frustration. He wanted to run to her back door and pound on it. "Come on, lady. I'm here! Play!" he would have yelled. He wanted to go inside and shake her into action.
He came mostly at night. The traffic noises from the town died down in the evening, so he could hear better. Then, the sound of Miss Fitch's violin came out through the windows and flew into Jimmy Dee like a warm beam of light. It fixed him to the fork in the branch. When Miss Fitch played alone, at night, Jimmy Dee stopped snuffling and he forgot to drink out of his bottle. Happiness swelled in him. It pushed back the cold, the dark, the rushing town all around and made a place for him, a little room that was his own. No one could say to Jimmy Dee while Miss Fitch played: "Get along there now!" No one could tell him to move on or get out. The music was his, all his. It was like something he'd found on the street, something special that had been dropped, left behind for him to snatch up and pocket before anyone else could recognize its value. Jimmy Dee hid himself while he listened in the same way that he would have hidden a pack of cigarettes he had found in the gutter, or a glove abandoned on a park bench. Where there was value there was danger that someone would snatch back.
But in the week since Miss Fitch had gone to the hospital, Jimmy Dee felt a new kind of danger. He felt it as soon as he saw, surprised all over again, the dark house. Suddenly he became more secretive about approaching it. Where before he had scuttled, he now slid, bent almost double, with sly, furtive movements. He paused often to look around, kept closer to the bushes, and though he arrived, out of habit, at the same forked branch, there was no safety there anymore.
Jimmy Dee knew, when he saw the house shut up that way, that they were looking for him. He did not want to remember why they were looking for him. He thought only: the music is gone; it is not safe here anymore. If some hand had reached out of the dark and grabbed him at that moment, if some voice had asked, "And where were you, Jimmy Dee, on the night of February 28, the night Miss Fitch sat all by herself in the room and wouldn't play and wouldn't play and still wouldn't play? Now answer! Where were you?" Jimmy Dee would have shrieked:
"No, I didn't! I ain't done nothing. She fell is all. I didn't mean to. I didn't want to. No! Leave me alone! I didn't!"
Night after night, Jimmy Dee slunk away from the dark house and, avoiding the street lights, crept back to the downtown streets to hide, and drink and forget all over again.CHAPTER 2
Elsie Potter said that she would not go to visit Miss Fitch in the hospital. Not only that but: "I wouldn't go if she got down on her hands and knees and begged," Elsie told her mother and her sister, Mary.
"She's in no condition to do that, the poor thing," Mrs. Potter pointed out to her daughter. On her face was a look she was famous for. Concern for helpless souls, Mary called it. Elsie said, "Weak chin."
"Well, if she could, I wouldn't go. The old fraud. She's probably faking this, too. She's always putting on a big production."
Elsie stood in the doorway to her room with her hands on her hips and her head held up stiff on her neck. It was her regal stance, the one that set her slight figure apart, more often than not these days, from others in a crowd; the one that so infuriated Mary. Elsie's hair was short and curled around her head like a dark crown. Her nose turned daintily up at the end. Elsie wasn't tall, not nearly so tall as Mary, but she had a way of looking down on people, a way of occupying higher ground which made height irrelevant.
"That's a horrible thing to say about a person who's lying half dead in the hospital!" cried Mary. "How can you say that? How?"
She was older than Elsie by a year, but softer. Mary would have gone in a flash. She would have gone on foot through freezing rain and blinding snow. She would have brought flowers and pretty notes telling Miss Fitch to get well soon. Mary had already imagined herself sitting on the hospital bed holding Miss Fitch's hand, comforting her, while Miss Fitch said:
"Mary. You are too good to me. I have been thinking of you, and look! Here you are!" Miss Fitch could make Mary feel happy about doing anything. She could make anyone feel happy. She was French and spoke the English language with emotional lisps and inversions.
"Ah! How you make me feel gay!" Miss Fitch would say, and instantly, magically, the room was filled with gaiety. Not that she couldn't be stern as well. Oh, yes, very stern, especially during lessons. But even that had its charm.
"For hard work there is no substitute!" she would cry, striding up and down her living room, skirts flying, hair toppled over her forehead. And then turning, suddenly, to face an ill-prepared student: "But for today, enough! You cannot play today. Tomorrow, yes perhaps. We humans are not perfect creatures. Come. Listen. I will tell you a story about ..."
She told the most wonderful stories. Mary and Elsie had both been her students. Once a week for over two years they had gone to her small home four blocks from theirs. They had practiced fingering, and tone, and management of the bow. And they had listened, rapt, while Miss Fitch told about the miraculous violinist Paganini, whose incomparable playing caused women to faint in their seats, caused grown men to weep. She would tell about Stradivarius, the great violin maker, such a genius, it was said, that he could hear in his head how a new violin would sound before its parts were assembled.
She told tragic stories of musicians who died, penniless, in grim garrets, who went mad on city streets while their children starved. She described the loneliness, the scorn, the illness endured by fiddlers long dead, and her own eyes brimmed as she spoke, as if she had witnessed these events and mourned personally. Then—up and out! She sent a student away shiny-eyed and determined, and welcomed the next with a sudden burst of arpeggio on her own luminous instrument.
"Soon! Soon!" Miss Fitch would cry. "Soon you will play this too!" Her students were dazzled.
"She makes me believe in myself!" Mary had exclaimed. "It doesn't matter whether I'm good or not. She makes me want to try for the moon!"
Only Elsie was unmoved.
"The moon is for astronauts," she said. "No one else could live there." She had not always felt this way about Miss Fitch. Elsie had been a believer too, and not so long ago. But now:
"She's a fraud," Elsie told Mary in the hall outside her room. "Always dressed up for the big performance and her makeup running in the cracks."
"But why?" asked Mary, staring, scandalized at Elsie's arrogant profile. "Why do you say things like that?"
Mary's face was the gentle kind that showed hurt easily. She was going to be a big woman, gently plump like her mother. Now she was just "fifteen and big for her age." In the hall, she stood beside her mother and their broad shoulders touched, and matched. Mary had her mother's straight, light brown hair. She had the same wide, flat hands. They were good hands, warm hands, and wholly unsuited for the slender neck of a violin.
Twenty-five years ago, Mrs. Potter had found out about those hands for herself, on a borrowed violin in the front parlor of her own mother's house. The heart was there but, after three years of lessons, the fingering was not. Mrs. Potter had forgotten her own frustration, or she had not looked at Mary's hands. Or, seeing the notice in the newspaper: "Renee Fitch, Concert Violinist. Lessons," she had simply jumped to replay history, to give it another chance.
Mrs. Potter enrolled Mary for lessons. Then, as an afterthought, she signed up Elsie, too. "So she won't feel left out," Mrs. Potter told Mr. Potter.
Elsie's hands were thin and quick, perfect extensions of her thin, quick body. ("Beautiful hands!" cried Miss Fitch.) The violin was her instrument. ("Made for you!" Miss Fitch gloated.) Mary's instrument might have been a trumpet, or a drum.
By the end of the first year of lessons, Elsie was mastering pieces by Mendelssohn and Mozart, while Miss Fitch stood beside her, swelled with pride. Mary, meanwhile, labored through a children's song book.
"She loves you," Mary had told Elsie at the end of the second year. "She can't help it. She's nice to me. She pretends she cares. But you're the one she really loves."
"I know," Elsie had said.
"She thinks you have special talent," said Mary, who was never stingy with compliments. "She thinks you're going somewhere."
"Maybe I am," Elsie had said then.
But suddenly, and for no good reason that Mary could see, Elsie had quit. She had placed those perfect hands on her hips, shaken her head and refused to go to her lessons.
"Don't ask me why," she had snapped, leaving Mary high and dry, and mortified.
Mary had been ashamed, at first, to appear at her own lessons. She felt presumptuous to be going on alone. But Miss Fitch was wonderful. If she was hurt, she never showed it, never once asked a "Why?" of her own. She had shrugged and laughed instead.
"She'll be back," Miss Fitch said gaily. "She has a gift."
But Elsie had not gone back. And now, four months later:
"You go see Miss Fitch," Elsie was telling Mary, with a mean shrug in the hall. "Go ahead. I don't care. She's your violin teacher."
Mary, however, was not the one who had been asked. Miss Fitch wanted Elsie, that was clear. She had sent a note to Mrs. Potter, who was holding it out to Elsie even now, as Mary stood aside in a fury.
"I called the hospital," Mrs. Potter said. She knew how to call a hospital and get results. She did it all the time for her own charity cases.
"They think she will recover completely if there are no complications."
"Was she ... Well, you know," ventured Mary, blushing.
"Nothing of that sort," answered her mother. "Nothing carnal." It was her own inappropriate word. Elsie snorted.
"She has a bad cut on her head, from when she hit the table falling down. And one arm is broken. It was the cut that almost killed her. At her age, she went into shock," Mrs. Potter explained.
"Have they got who did it yet?" asked Mary with a shiver. "Who would do a thing like that to Miss Fitch, of all people?"
Mrs. Potter shook her head.
"Of all people, Miss Fitch is just the sort they would do it to," sniffed Elsie. "And that," she added, coming forward to peer at the note in her mother's hand, "is not her writing."
"Of course not. Someone wrote it for her. She couldn't hold a pen in the condition she's in," said Mrs. Potter.
"Why you mean thing!" cried Mary, close to tears. Elsie looked at her, unrelenting.
At fourteen, Elsie had acquired somehow, from somewhere, all the icy composure of the high-school seniors who frightened Mary in the halls between classes. She was as cool and indifferent as they were. Elsie never cried about anything. Elsie never complained. Elsie said she would do a thing, and then did it, whether or not people agreed.
"I'm going out tonight," she'd tell her mother. And that was that. Out she went with barely a word of explanation.
"I think she has play practice," Mary would say, to cover for her. Or: "She went to the library to study." But did Elsie ever thank her? Certainly not.
"Say what you want, I don't care," she told Mary, as if loyalty, like charity, were a weakness, something a strong person could do without.
"But where were you?" Mary would ask. "There wasn't any play practice last night. I looked at the schedule."
"So, now you're a snoop, too," Elsie would answer, and Mary would turn away hurt.
This was not how other people's sisters acted, she'd noticed.
"Want to see what dress I'm wearing tonight?" Mary asked Elsie once. After all, Mary was older. She had dates now, and went to parties. She could tell Elsie about things she might need to know, things that other younger sisters were dying to know.
"No, thank you," Elsie replied. "What a waste of time," she said, and Mary, appearing from an afternoon of hair washing and primping and staring insecurely into the mirror, felt suddenly ridiculous.
Excerpted from Sirens and Spies by Janet Taylor Lisle. Copyright © 1985 Janet Taylor Lisle. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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