A Leaf Falls

Short Story by J. K. Marconi

A Leaf Falls

Kevin sat alone in the dappled sunlight beneath a towering oak tree surrounded by gravestones. He gazed fondly at the sculpture of a young woman stricken with grief. Death, like love, obsessed him. The noonday sun etched deep shadows in the mourning bronze figure that knelt on one knee with her head bowed. Despite being covered with the patina of age, it was lovely in its depiction of sadness. The folds of clothing clinging to her limbs were reminiscent of Greek sculpture and the long hair falling over her shoulders reminded Kevin of Nicole. Everything reminded him of Nicole lately.

Green Mount Cemetery had once been the favorite burial site of wealthy citizens when it was on the outskirts of Baltimore but it was now surrounded by slums. He was there to write a magazine article about Hans Schuler, the sculptor of the bronze figure. At a recent class reunion a fellow graduate of Johns Hopkins said they had deluded themselves about finding jobs after college. “There are a lot of writing majors out there, churning out copy for ad agencies or trade publications,” he said. Before they parted, he promised that he would recommend Kevin to the editor of a local magazine. To his surprise, the editor called the following week to offer him the free-lance assignment on Schuler. If the article was published, he hoped it would lead to other work. He reached into his backpack for a notebook with the introduction he had written.

Hans Schuler came to America from Germany in the last decade of the nineteenth century to study at the Rinehart School of Sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He returned to Europe briefly at the beginning of the twentieth century and won the Salon Gold Medal in Paris, the first American sculptor to do so. After returning to Baltimore, Schuler taught at the Rinehart School where he had studied and then served as director of the Maryland Institute for twenty-five years. He also opened his own studio not far away. By 1951 his traditional methods and styles were out of favor and he was asked to resign but continued to work on numerous commissions for public and private works, especially funeral monuments.

Kevin learned in his research that Hans Schuler had created the bronze grouping which graced the entrance to the Johns Hopkins campus on North Charles Street. Like countless others before him, Kevin had once rubbed the nude female figure seated at the base for good luck. Her breasts were polished to a high sheen from being touched by so many students. Schuler also created the larger-than-life-size statue of Martin Luther on Thirty-Third Street and the bronze relief of General Pulaski in Patterson Park. His work could be found on the facades of public buildings as well as in parks, churches, and cemeteries all over Baltimore. Few people know about the sculptor today in the city where he was once famous. His style is considered a throw-back to nineteenth century Romanticism, especially his depiction of sorrow and grief. The inner sadness and longing Schuler captured in his works mirrored Kevin’s feelings for Nicole. They had reached the point where they would either move in together or else break up and he couldn’t imagine not being with her.

They met while taking an elective course in art history during her junior year. He sat next to her and noticed how her long thin fingers traced the edge of the desk whenever she got bored in class and was smitten by her quick smile and expressive eyes. When he finally got up the nerve to speak to her, he discovered that she was a music major at the Peabody Conservatory and used those lovely long fingers to play the violin. The next day he ran into her leaving the library and they walked across campus together. “What’s your favorite class this semester?” he asked.

She smiled. “History of Western Music. And you?”

“Romantic Lit,” he said and told her how unrequited love was a recurring theme of nineteenth-century writers. How Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was popular with the Romantics because their love was doomed to failure. But he didn’t tell her that whenever he read about such things lately he thought of her.

For their first date Nicole invited him to a concert at Shriver Hall. Kevin enjoyed it even though classical music was a mystery to him. He had never learned to read music and couldn’t tell the difference between a major key and a minor key, except that one sounded happy and the other sad. One of Nicole’s friends invited them to a party afterwards. Kevin wasn’t fond of parties but agreed to go. The tiny apartment was filled with mostly music majors. He felt uncomfortable listening to their conversation about intervals and octaves and decided that musicians must hear things in their heads that only they can hear. He wondered what Nicole heard when she played the violin. Were the chords and melodic structure a physical, sensual experience, or totally abstract? Did she hear them in her sleep and when she made love?

On their second date she took him to a performance at a grungy place on North Avenue that combined a bar, art gallery, and small stage in a long narrow room. A group of young musicians played the spaced-out melodies of Philip Glass while video images of disconnected people and places were projected on the walls. When it was over Nicole said, “That was totally awesome.” Kevin nodded even though he didn’t really understand it. They dated for the next six months and he decided to stay in Baltimore after graduation to try freelance writing for a year while she finished school.

After his trip to Green Mount Cemetery, he texted Nicole and asked her to meet him at the Starbucks in Charles Village. They ordered lattes and sat across from each other at a table by the window. He told her what he had learned about Schuler’s bronze figures in his research for the article. “They’re cast in a foundry,” he said, “just like a steel mill. Then they’re fired in clay or sand and hammered into shape. That’s why they can last forever.” He looked into Nicole’s eyes and said, “I think the female mourning figures are very moving.”

She smiled. “I’m glad you’re writing again. I was afraid you’d given up.”

Kevin was surprised by the comment but didn’t say anything. Instead he took a deep breath and decided to ask about their living arrangements. “So, when can we move in together?”

Her smile disappeared and she shook her head. “Not yet, Kevin.”

“But we’ve been dating for almost a year now. Aren’t you happy?”

“Yes, but I’m not ready for that.”

“There’re only a few months left before you graduate. What happens then?”

“I have to get past my senior recital before I can think about that. I’m practicing day and night.” She paused before adding, “Besides, you’re very self-sufficient. You like being alone but I need to be around people.”

Kevin’s heart sank. It always came down to this. He was quiet and introspective, unsure of his abilities, while she was outgoing, popular, and self-confident. “You have lots of friends,” he said. “They’re just not mine.” When she didn’t respond, he reached out and touched her hand. “Nicole, I love you and I want to be with you.”

She lowered her eyes and stared at her coffee cup. “You’re grasping and you know how I feel about that.” She had recently found Zen, or at least her version of it, and believed the most meaningful life was not filled with grasping or self-gratification but a peaceful openness to whatever might happen. Unfortunately for Kevin, that also meant indifference to emotional and physical attachments. The last time they spent the night together, she seemed distracted. When he asked if she’d enjoyed making love, she was silent at first. “Yes,” she finally said before rising from the bed. “But I need to practice now.” He realized she was obsessed with music even before she started to practice for the recital. Maybe that’s why she was so good at it.

Kevin went back to work on the article but wondered if he would ever be as good at writing as Nicole was at playing the violin. He had reached the midpoint of his work when he made an interesting discovery about the relationship between music and writing.

Schuler designed the Sidney Lanier Memorial at the entrance to the Johns Hopkins campus. The nineteenth-century poet is seated on a boulder with a pad and pencil in hand as if writing or composing, and a flute lies on the rock beside him. Lanier was a flute player for the Peabody Conservatory Orchestra as well as a poet who lectured at Hopkins. His unique style of poetry was based on a theory connecting poetic meter with musical notation.

During his next visit to Green Mount Cemetery, Kevin made detailed notes on the gravestone figures by Schuler. Women bent over with grief, their heads shrouded. Men praying over the tombs of their loved ones. Angels gazing toward heaven with their hands on their hearts. The artist had depicted their responses to death as sad rather than hopeful, human rather than divine, as if heartbreak and loneliness were too much to bear despite the promise of salvation. Kevin spent hours studying them and was reluctant to leave.

When he met Nicole for lunch the day before her recital, he was still working on the final draft of his article. She insisted on going to the One World Café on University Boulevard. “I love it here,” she said after they ordered. “It’s Vegan, Zen, and Organic. Food for your body, your soul, and your conscience.” She smiled and looked at him with her dark brown eyes. He was enchanted by her smile and those expressive eyes. The hair falling over her shoulders reminded him of Schuler’s bronze reliefs. When the waitress brought their drinks, Nicole took a sip of her tea and said, “Did you go to the cemetery this morning?”

He nodded. “I went at sunrise. It’s beautiful there in the early morning light and I thought of you.” He thought of her all the time now, especially since she told him she was thinking of moving back to New York after graduation and applying to Julliard.

“You’re such a Romantic,” she said and looked away. “Did I ever tell you that I joined the choir of a Catholic church in high school? Not because I believed or anything like that, but because I wanted to learn Gregorian chant. It’s different because every note is sung with equal duration and emphasis. It’s a perfect fusion of words and music, restrained but expressive.”

Kevin was puzzled. “How can it be restrained and expressive at the same time? And why are you telling me this?”

She turned to look at him. “Isn’t that what writing is all about?” Then she surprised him by saying, “Isn’t that what you said Schuler did with his sculpture?” She was right but Kevin frowned and said nothing. They sat in silence until the waitress brought their food. Nicole looked at the portabella mushroom burger with dismay and began to dissect it, carefully removing bits of onion with her fingers. “I should have told her no onions,” she said. Then, ignoring the food, she sighed and looked at Kevin. “I’ve been thinking that maybe you should see someone.”

He nearly choked on his grilled chicken sandwich before he could answer. “I am seeing someone. You.”

“I mean a doctor. Someone who could help with your sadness and obsession with death.”

He was stunned. “You think I have an obsession with death because I spend so much time at the cemetery?”

She poked at the stringy tentacles of onion on her plate. “Yes.”

“But it’s part of my research.”

She sighed. “We are so different, Kevin. You’re an introvert and I’m the exact opposite. That makes it hard on both of us.” He watched her bite into the mushroom burger while he tried to digest the meaning of what she said. No one had ever called him an introvert before. Shy, maybe, or quiet, but not an introvert. She swallowed and said, “Besides, you want to settle here and I hate this city. My teachers won’t even send their kids to the schools here.” Kevin knew that one of her classmates had been stabbed while waiting for the commuter bus from Peabody to the main campus. The girl survived but Nicole was so shaken that she never forgot, even though it happened almost a year ago. When she spoke again, her tone was more serious. “I’ve said before that nothing is cast in stone between us.”

He smirked. “Or in bronze, either.” He stared at her and then said, “Maybe we should have used the lost wax method instead of sand.” He said this to hurt her but also to see if she remembered what he had told her about bronze casting.

She ignored his sarcasm and talked instead about her senior recital, a Mozart sonata for violin and piano that required total coordination between both performers. “It’s a very demanding piece,” she said. “I’m meeting Justin this afternoon to practice, so I’ll be busy for the rest of the day.”

Kevin took the bus downtown after lunch. He enjoyed exploring the architecture of the city and browsing the second-hand shops in the old neighborhoods. He usually went alone now that Nicole was practicing so much, but that didn’t bother him. When the bus passed Peabody Conservatory, he thought about how being in love had its own kind of sadness, especially if you loved someone more than they loved you. He got off the bus at Fells Point, walked to the end of the pier, and stared at the water. It reminded him of the ending he had written for the article.

Schuler’s masterpiece, which he proposed at the end of his career, was a colossal version of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. He intended it for a sight overlooking the harbor but the city fathers rejected the work because of the immense size and cost. It survives only in a small plaster model which his family is fond of showing visitors to their studio.

The next morning Kevin read over the final draft. He was late meeting the deadline and thought it probably wouldn’t get published, but he submitted it anyhow. After he hit the send button on his computer, he realized that writing about another person’s life was like being in love with someone who was totally different than you. He knew Nicole’s taste in food and music. He knew about her intense dedication to practice and performing. He even knew about the tattoo on her lower back and the birthmark on her inner thigh, but he didn’t really know her. Despite extensive research and interviews with Schuler’s surviving family, despite studying his work and poring over old photographs, he hadn’t really learned what Hans Schuler was like as a person. Did he enjoy working in solitude? Was he sculpting his own feelings about death when he created those beautiful mourning figures? Was he discouraged when his proposal for the Four Horsemen was rejected by the city?

That evening, as he walked through the lobby of the Peabody Library on his way to Nicole’s recital, Kevin noticed two pedestals flanking the entrance and recognized the bust on one even before he saw the name on the base. He was thrilled to see the bronze head of Sidney Lanier by Hans Schuler at the Peabody because Lanier had found a connection between music and literature in his theory of poetic meter. He couldn’t find the artist’s name inscribed on the back, but his heart soared because it seemed an unexpected and hopeful link between Nicole’s music and his own writing.

The small auditorium was filled with faculty and students when he entered for the recital. The lights dimmed as Nicole and Justin entered from the wings, he in a tuxedo and she in a black evening dress. Justin sat waiting at the keyboard as Nicole raised her bow. When they launched into the lively melody of the first movement, Kevin was surprised by the expressiveness of her playing. Her eyebrows arched and her head nodded with the rhythm. She seemed to be leading Justin not only in tempo but in energy and passion. As he gazed at her bare shoulders and sensuous neck, Kevin was entranced by her beauty and the sound of Mozart’s music. Despite their differences, he realized that he loved her more than ever. He wanted desperately to share her thoughts and feelings, to spend the rest of his life with her. Most of all he wanted her to love him as much as he loved her.

The second movement was much slower, but Nicole’s concentration was just as intense and Justin responded to her every move. Kevin had heard her practice the piece many times without the piano accompaniment. Now he saw what he had only sensed before: how both performers heard the same thing in their heads and spoke to each other with their instruments, something he could never do. The sense of hope and connection he felt earlier vanished and his heart sank. During the final movement he couldn’t bear to look at the stage. Instead he stared at his knees, the tips of his shoes, at the seat back in front of him. As the sweet sadness of the melody seeped into his consciousness, he felt the keen disappointment of unrequited love. How could music be so beautiful and sad at the same time? At the end of the performance, he slowly got to his feet and joined the rest of the audience in a standing ovation.

Nicole had promised there would be time after her recital to discuss their future, but he knew that wasn’t necessary. She and Justin would be invited to a party by their friends to celebrate and they might even go home together. There was no point in waiting around. As he left the building, Kevin stopped at the bust of Sidney Lanier and searched again behind the bronze head until he found the artist’s name. It wasn’t Hans Schuler after all but a sculptor he had never heard of.

When he got back to his apartment, there was an e-mail from the magazine editor asking him to meet a photographer at the cemetery for a photo shoot of Schuler’s works. The editor wanted him to explain in greater detail how the sculptures were examples of Romanticism but no other changes were necessary. Kevin was elated. He wanted to text Nicole and share the good news but thought better of it when he imagined her spending the night with Justin. He worked on the changes until two in the morning. When he finished, his heartbreak was tempered by a new sense of purpose. He would stay in Baltimore after Nicole went back to New York and continue to write.

His article was finally published around the time she started at Julliard. He celebrated by visiting Green Mount Cemetery one last time. The leaves were just beginning to fall as he sat under the same towering oak and gazed at the familiar bronze sculpture. When a leaf fell to the ground in front of him, he thought of his favorite poem by E.E. Cummings. It consisted of a single word, loneliness, spelled vertically as l(one)liness. Beneath it the poet added the tag a leaf falls. Kevin loved how the image of a falling leaf mirrored the meaning and spiral of the word. No matter how much you love someone, there’s always a part of you that still feels lonely. He knew that he would eventually get over Nicole despite the intensity of his feelings, but he still thought of her whenever he heard a violin sonata or saw one of Schuler’s mourning figures.

About the Author

J. K. Marconi

J. K. Marconi is the author of short stories and one-act plays that deal with gender identity, artificial intelligence, and the creative process in art. They have appeared in The Chattahoochee Review, The Summerset Review, and Mayday magazine, among others. His one-act play "Rapture" was given a public reading by the Baltimore Playwrights Festival.