Visions of Azerbaijan is delighted to print below Chapter 7 of “The Orphan Sky,” with the kind permission of publishers Sourcebooks Landmark. In this chapter, narrator Leyla Badalbeyli competes in the final of an important piano competition. Other characters in the extract include Comrade Farhad, secretary of the local Komsomol (Communist youth league) committee, whom Leyla is desperate to impress, Comrade Popov, a Komsomol official visiting from Moscow, and “Aladdin,” Leyla’s nickname for Tahir, owner of the mysterious music shop that she has been asked to investigate.
The audience at the Azerbaijan State Philharmonic Concert Hall seemed to hold its breath as a dimmed chandelier sprinkled the silence with golden dust. At center stage, a black Fazioli piano awaited me in the spotlight. Overhead, two muses soared protectively, their bodies draped in stucco tulle, lyres in their hands, surrounded by a panoply of rococo decorations—-leaves, shells, waterfalls. All in white.
My family occupied the second--tier box reserved for the parents of the contestants: Mama, dressed in my favorite fawn suit, and Papa, his hair sticking out wildly. He whispered something in Mama’s ear, and she smiled radiantly.
The auditorium was full except for the first three rows, always kept empty so as not to disturb the performers. In the middle of the fourth row sat the two--person jury: Comrade Sharipov, the First Minister of Culture, an imposing man with short gray hair and a thick black mustache resembling two Turkish swords crossed above his upper lip, and Professor Mira Levina from the Moscow Conservatory of Music, a petite, elderly woman wearing a wide--brimmed yellow hat that made her look like a chanterelle mushroom.
Professor Sultan--zade waited with me at the side of the stage, gently rubbing my fingers and blowing at them to keep them warm and agile. Tough during schooling, she showered her students with maternal affection at recitals and competitions. “Stay confident throughout the performance,” she whispered to me, “and don’t forget that delicate right hand in the ‘Adagio cantabile.’”
“Leila Badalbeili. Beethoven. Sonata Pathétique.” The announcer introduced me.
Professor Sultan--zade slightly pushed me forward. “Let the world fall at your feet”—-the words of her blessing followed me as I almost sprinted across the stage to the Fazioli, gulping the exhilarating air of anticipation. The notes of the sonata bounced around me, spinning like paper planes, calling me on a ride. I raised my eyes to the muses, asking for permission to join them in their sacred space, and swept my hands up high.
Before I could bring them down—-what was that noise? Loud and blatant. Who’s playing timpani?
Comrade Popov trudged across the hall to the front, the plush carpet powerless against the heavy, percussive stamping of his feet. Comrade Farhad followed him. They settled in the center of the first row barely a breath away from me. So close that I could see Comrade Popov’s bright red socks as he took off his shoes, crossed his legs, and squeezed his toes.
I took a deep breath, trying to shake off the distraction and mentally return to the serenity of my beginning. To the silence before the opening chords.
Another noise. Comrade Popov was whispering in Comrade Farhad’s ear. His seat crackled, reverberating through my body, jabbing a thousand needles into my arms and legs.
I raised my hands and brought them down with all my might onto the keyboard. What followed wasn’t an explosion, but more like a whimper. My wooden fingers struggled to feel the touch of the keys. I paused, lifted my hands away from the keyboard, and hid them in my lap.
“Can I please start over?” I said without looking into the auditorium, rubbing my hands nervously against my skirt, warming them up, trying to bring them back to life.
A long pause.
“You may.” I heard the thin and clearly annoyed voice of Professor Levina.
I closed my eyes, desperately trying to disassociate myself from everything but the music. I visualized the notes of the introductory “Grave” theme on the opening page and the syncopated chords building up to a vigorous passage in the right hand. I was almost there, when another bout of whispering pierced my ear like the sting of an angry bee. The notes I had finally positioned in the right places on the staff were now jumping off the page, swirling around me, pushing me off the bench into the dark, hostile audience. Frantic, I raised my eyes to the muses, begging for help. They soared away, high and unreachable, leaving me alone in the blinding spotlight. Exposed and humiliated.
I stopped playing and rose, ready to retreat from the spotlight into the merciful darkness. And then I saw him. No. First, I perceived the flow of his energy coming at me from the upper--left tier. Then I took him in. Aladdin, leaning forward against the railing. His smile, intended only for me, guided me away from the stage. Back to the magical world hidden behind his green door, spinning in slow reverie, drawing me into its wistful harmony.
My hands reached for the keyboard. The daunting silence of the black--and--white ocean exploded into the opening chords of the “Grave”—-haunting and somber—-slowly dissolving into the air like the summits of mountains adrift in the clouds. The sun was rising, spilling its peach hue across the drowsy skies. I passed through a tunnel of century--old poplar trees swaying in the morning breeze, whispering their century--old secrets. The tunnel opened into a vast valley of sunflowers swelling all the way to the mountains. I ran across the valley, caressed by the warm breath of the “Adagio cantabile,” until I reached the edge of a cliff. A step forward—-and I soared into the sun--streaked skies of Beethoven’s “Rondo: Allegro.”
I sprang to my feet as the last note still hovered in the air. The audience was silent. Eerily silent. Did they hate it?
Oh, I’d forgotten. The rules of the recital restricted the audience from applauding. I heard a single person clapping and strained to see where it was coming from. Through the blur and to my utter astonishment, I spotted a wide--brimmed yellow hat. Professor Levina had broken her own rule and rose to her feet, applauding me.
Thank you, Aladdin. I bowed.