It took a minute for Violet to understand. Obviously, Joanna hadn’t lost her voice because they were having a conversation. Then, she realized she didn’t mean her speaking voice. It was her singing voice that was gone. Violet blinked a few times and said, rather quietly, “Oh no!”
The coincidental nature of the revelation needed to be addressed. However, Violet didn’t think she could say, “How odd! I woke up and could sing like Maria Callas!” She muttered, again, “Oh no! I’m sorry to hear that.” The “hear” was awkward, she realized, so she excused herself to the dessert table.
The meeting went well enough, with some charming pieces and attentive applause. Joanna had been last on the program, and when she stood and said she would not be able to perform because her voice was gone, shocked gasps preceded the questions: “What happened? Did you call your doctor? Have you tried gargling? Lemon honey tea?” Joanna kept her composure but said she could not really explain. It wasn’t a lost voice related to a medical condition. Her singing ability had disappeared, evaporated, gone, whatever verb might be strongest.
Now that Violet couldn’t make her own announcement, she struggled to decide what to do. Nothing was obvious. She would go home and sing to herself for a few days while she thought it through. When she looked at Joanna’s face, however, she knew she couldn’t. She’d offer to stay and clean up.
As they were rinsing the punch cups, Violet began timidly, “Joanna, I have something to tell you. It’ll sound crazy so just hear me out.”
“This morning, when I woke up and went in to wash my hands, I could sing ‘Happy Birthday’.”
Joanna frowned. “You always sing that when you wash your hands.”
“No, I don’t really. I sort of sing at it. Not really sing it. This morning, I could SING! As in beautifully, professionally. It’s not my voice at all.”
The expression on Joanna’s face didn’t change. “Are you making fun of me? Because if…”
“Never! Look, if everyone’s gone, I’ll show you.”
They went into the music room and sat down on the matching stools. Joanna took charge of the moment. She played a middle C and asked, “Do you know solfège?”
“Great. Let’s start here and find your range.” So for the next fifteen minutes Violet went up the scale with her do-re-mis and back down with her do-ti-las. Next were mi-may-ma-mo-moos and a host of other exercises Violet obediently repeated. Then, things got serious. Joanna opened up her book of arias and flipped through well-worn pages, whispering “no” at every one. “I know,” she said. “Just sing ‘Happy Birthday.’”
“Why not?” Violet began without hesitation, not looking at Joanna at first but just imagining that first, glorious realization from twelve hours before. Beauty, grace, and style—all still there.
Joanna was silent for a moment. She breathed deeply. “It’s mine. You have my voice. The range, the timbre, the inflections. My voice and my training. I don’t know what to say.”
“I’d say I’m lucky. That’s a compliment.”
“I’d agree. Now. What to do?”
“What do you mean? We didn’t do it so how can we undo anything?”
Joanna thought a minute. “You know all those movies? The ones where people accidentally traded bodies?”
“Freaky. Freaky Friday.”
“Oh yeah. I remember that one. There are others?
“Tons, actually. Stories, movies, novels, animé.”
“That’s random. How in the world do you know about them?”
“In grad school I did a thesis project on Gilbert and Sullivan. Gilbert’s first opera libretto was set by someone else, but the theme was body swapping. That’s sort of an odd term. The scientific one is metempsychosis, the fancy word for transmigration of souls. It struck my fancy, so I researched the literature.”
“Wow. So, how did things get resolved in these tons of things? Magic?”
“Sure. And alien technology or car accidents or AI transfers or lightning strikes. You name it.”
Violet was now the troubled one. “But we didn’t do any of that. We only see each other here. Is this…could we be in a dream?”
Joanna reached over to pinch her, but she stopped short. “Hey, I don’t know. It’s not a dream. My tears are real. Your…my…the…voice is real.”
“Think, then. I mean, magic is one thing. Lots of science looks like magic to me. Cell phones? The combustion engine? That green lipstick that turns pink?”
“Hey, I get it. But you’re the one who got the voice. I didn’t do anything but wake up. Done any wishing lately?”
Violet thought about the night before. Another beautiful night. “You know, when the evening star came up…”
“Yes, I know. ‘Evening star’ seemed more poetic. So remember when kids used to wish on the first star they saw? Then we had the Jiminy Cricket song? Maybe I did wish I could sing. It was silly. Not a real intent. It doesn’t work like that.”
“You never know. Stranger things have happened. Can’t argue with the outcome.”
“So what do we do now? You’re the expert.”
Joanna laughed, a little. “I don’t know about that. My thinking is just to do the reverse. Go home. Find Venus. Make a wish…upon a star.”
College requires certain challenges. Knowing she couldn’t sing, Violet dreaded the required two hours required for voice instruction. She went faithfully to the temporary building that had been up for thirty years, far back from the stately main building. Crunchy pathways, nicely tended, took Violet carefully along week after week until, finally, she had been scheduled. Her song? “People.” Because of its central place in the movie? No. Because Violet identified with its simple but stirring lyrics? No. Because she knew it was a favorite of the teacher’s? Oddly, also no. She had chosen “People” for the most obvious and best reason of all: She thought it was the easiest possible choice of any. While that may have not worked out exactly as she’d hoped, there she was on the morning of her performance, heart in her throat, pulse racing, accompanist ready. Truth be told, she did about as well as she could have. She’d listened to the teacher and even practiced a bit, but she couldn’t overcome her deeply held belief that nothing she could do would make any difference in the outcome. It was B- work all the way.
They were quiet a minute. Neither was a particularly enthusiastic hugger, so they finished the dishes, smiled at the door, and went their ways. Violet saw Venus…or maybe it was Mars. “Star light, star bright,/ First star I see tonight I wish I may, I wish I might, Have this wish I wish tonight.” She felt not at all silly. It was for a friend, a sister really. With a deep breath, she tried the do-re-mi again. No. Still beautiful.
The next morning, Violet did feel odd, but it had been a remarkable 24 hours. She was worried about starting to sing. What if it was really gone? Or still there? Was one wish enough? She washed her hands without singing, fixed some cereal, ate, dressed, and went to the piano. Tears came. Normally not a crying person, and even thought the events from the day before had a bizarre quality, Violet had loved the thrill of the beautiful notes. The songs she’d never sung. Deep breath. “Hap-py birth-day to you” was enough: It was gone. She called Joanna.
“Hey, I was waiting for you to call when you found out. Are you…okay?”
“Sure. Just one of those things. I still have nothing that resembles a logical explanation. There’s no way wishing works any more than magic does.”
Joanna laughed, in earnest now. “I know, right? But fact is, it did happen. We weren’t dreaming. I couldn’t sing, you could, now it’s done—or undone.”
Violet tried a little laugh, but it wasn’t much. “Luck of the draw.”
Joanna added, “You can still play the flute though. That’s great. Still…I did think of something.”
“I know you’ve had some voice lessons in the past.”
“College and a neighbor afterward. She was convinced she could improve me.”
“Ummm…maybe a little. A very little.”
“Let’s see if we can make the most of this little adventure. You’ve got some music obviously, and I’ve got some exercises. What about getting together for some coaching? No charge for first five lessons.”
Violet breathed again. “Wow. That’d be great. But I’m really no good. I don’t think it’ll work.”
“But this time there are differences. You have sung. You have sung beautifully. No, it wasn’t your voice, but you will always remember how it felt. ‘Attitude more than aptitude determines altitude.’”
This time it was Violet who laughed. “You’re right. If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right. Sure. I can try.”
Joanna immediately had the next quotation ready: “There is no try.”
Violet agreed, and they picked a time. Monday morning, ten. A beautiful morning it would be. “One more thing, Joanna.”
“Would you…if you don’t mind…will you sing ‘Happy Birthday’? Surely it’s someone’s today. Just once, the 10-second version?”
Joanna smiled and began: “Hap-py birth-day to you, hap-py birth-day to you, Hap-py birth-day dear…Maria. Hap-py birth-day to you!” Beauty, grace, style.
Silence for a few seconds. “Thank you, Joanna. Thank you very much.”
“You’re welcome. It’s going to be work. Go warm up. We’ll get this done. Go brighten an hour.”
©Mary Ann Taylor 2020