Dussek vs. Caligari

Kyrah Honner

I pressed the last key, the final note resounding for only a moment before it was caught in the carpeted wall.  

Removing my focus from the piano before me, I could feel the aches in my body that served as payment for three hours of complete concentration. My flexed foot, my spine, my shoulders. My fingers, frozen in a constant readiness to hurtle across the black and ivory.  

As usual, there was no clap for me. The only acknowledgement of the composition’s completion was a frustrated sigh behind me, a creak as a body pushed themselves up from their chair, and a heavy hand on my tender shoulder.  

‘You made mistakes in the last two attempts.’  

My fingers twitched, almost reacting in muscle memory to the disappointed tone. Do it again, I was waiting to hear. Properly, this time 

‘The recital is in two months. How can you expect for any agent to sit through your performance, let alone sponsor you, if you keep making these mistakes?’  

I murmured an apology. The sheet in front of me had blurred into whirling black smudges about an hour ago and I had been playing by memory, although I would never admit that aloud. I turned slowly in my seat, not wanting to look too eager to leave lest that trigger another hour of practice.  

‘I don’t know what you’re doing with your time, if not rehearsing. Piano should be your priority, always.’  

‘It is,’ I promised.  

My mother stared down at me, displeasure plain on her face. I could remember the last time that she had smiled at me: when it was confirmed that I would be performing a recital at the concert hall at which she had once performed herself.  

Since then, I had been practicing Dussek like a broken record, vinyl scratches and all. My mother had personally selected the composer that I would recite. She insisted that Dussek’s works would perfectly showcase my talents, whether popular or not. I didn’t dare mention Chopin.  

‘It’s as though you want to embarrass me. When it was my recital, I rehearsed every day until I was perfect.’  

I knew that practice was over once she mentioned her glory days. Like clockwork, she closed her eyes and flicked her wrist at me, signalling for me to leave her to wallow in what ifs alone.  

Grabbing my bag from the floor, I exited the music studio and was alarmed to see that it was evening. I frantically flailed my arms in the air to hail a taxi.  


The theatre smelled of dust as I entered in a panicked hurry. Its waiting area was empty, save for staff, and my stomach dropped. I checked my wristwatch in the absence of digital clocks in the theatre. Doors had opened ten minutes ago. 

‘I’m so sorry I’m late!’ I said to the balding concierge as I rushed past the ticket booth, who flashed me a familiar and forgiving smile from behind the glass.  

‘Not very late. Everyone’s just gone inside to get settled.’  

Nodding, I entered the staffroom and dropped my bag onto a nearby table. I shucked my sweater and pulled my uniform from my locker. I shrugged on the red waistcoat and thread my arms through the black blazer’s sleeves. I fumbled to button both coats closed and pushed past the door to the stage.  

The film began rolling with my appearance on cue. The light cast upon the projection paper silhouetted the audience in their seats, multiple heads following my figure as I made my way to the piano on the side of the stage.  

It was an upright piano, simple compared to the beast that I had been seated at during the day. I sank onto the seat, hands reaching behind me to flick my coattails with a flourish meant to entertain any watching audience members. My body resumed its posture from earlier, but now I held my head up, eyes on the projection paper.  

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the inter-title read. With a click, the scene flashed to two men sitting on a park bench. Gracefully, I lowered my hands to the piano keys and began to play.  

My gaze did not stray from the silent film, even when my neck began to ache. There was no memorisation or reading required: only my fingers pressing whichever key felt right. There were no mistakes.  

I had watched this film so many times from my spot at the piano. I could easily anticipate the next scene, fingers dashing along the keyboard to match the mood. The music always changed a little with each performance. I heard the viewers gasp as I smashed a few keys cacophonously at the climax of the film. I smiled triumphantly to myself.   

As the film approached its conclusion, I blinked in shock at the feeling of warmth falling down my face. A few tears had escaped as I played.  

The final scene rolled, and I pressed the last key.  

Author: Kyrah Honner is a Wiri Luritja writer based in Meanjin. She likes to write disturbing fiction.

Artist: Irene Liao is a visual art student from Taiwan who aims to present figurative human art through her watercolour pieces.

Editors: Brock Scholte and Breeh Botsford