“Who the hell are you?”
The man is standing in my walk—in closet. Except he’s not. He’s also standing at the foot of my bed. And he’s sitting in my window, languid like a pampered cat. Everywhere my eyes go, there he is. He’s so beautiful my teeth ache when I look at him, like I just bit into a piece of cake that is too sweet to taste good. Then he speaks, and my ears shiver in a glorious golden aural bliss.
“I’m your muse, Colleen.”
I want to scoff, deny his existence, refuse to believe him. But I do believe him. His voice rings truth like a perfectly tuned fifth.
Yes. That’s my muse standing there beside me, and sitting beside me on my bed, and flipping through the sheet music on my vanity chair.
“Damn. My muse is hot.”
He smiles and the room lights up rosegold in a way that warms me from the inside out. “Yes, Colleen, you have one of the very best muses in the business, if I do say so myself.”
This time his voice is mellifluous, like he’s the best soloist in a choir of angels. He’s a baritone, but I have no doubt he could hit the mystically low bass notes of the opening of Mahler’s second symphony or the clear highs of a Wagnerian heldentenor
“So, um, this isn’t a new assignment for you, right? I mean, you’ve always been my muse?”
He grins the self—satisfied grin of someone who’s on top of the world and striking a pose there. “Right.”
“So you’re the bastard that’s responsible for Jolly Bells?”
His perfect forehead wrinkles a bit. I let out an involuntary sob as the rosegold light flickers and I’m hit with an overwhelming emotion I can’t name.
“That… was you. It’s all you. I provide the inspiration. You decide what to do with it.”
“Great. So it’s all my fault.” I sigh. I try to look away from Mr. Golden Muse but he’s everywhere I look, even behind my eyes when I close them. “So, to what do I owe this in—the—flesh visit?”
“Well, it’s about that thing.”
“Of course it is. Everything is about the Jolly Bells.”
“Hmm. That’s what I’m talking about. Your attitude. It’s….”
“What, I’m not grateful enough about it?”
“It’s not that, exactly. It’s your dissatisfaction.”
“If I’m supposed to be satisfied about Jolly Bells, I’d rather be artistically frustrated, thanks.”
“I’m here to address that frustration.”
I perk up at this. “You can fix it? You can make it so I’m no longer the Leonard Nimoy of the composer set? I think about him a lot. He was a photographer, a writer, a drama teacher, but all anybody remembers is pointy ears, a goofy hand greeting, and Pon Farr.”
My muse cocked his head adorably. “You’re in more of a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle situation. Sure, everybody knows Sherlock Holmes, but there are fans who recognize his other work.”
I shook my head. “It’s really more like poor Bobby McFerrin. The man’s an astonishingly capable and insightful musician and composer, but he’ll never escape the shadow of ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy.’”
“Is that so bad? People love that song. It makes them happy.”
“So? Corn syrup makes people happy. Reality television makes people happy. And, sure, that’s fine, but I’m an artist. You can fix this right? It’s not just that I’ve spent the last thirty years hearing Jolly Bells from November first through January first every time I turn on the radio or go into a store. It’s the fact that whenever I write anything else, people compare it to Jolly Bells—unfavorably!—or ask when I’m going to write another Christmas song. You’re a muse. You’re magic. Can’t you, like, edit reality?”
“Mmm…. Perhaps. But first I need to show you some things.”
“Have you ever seen It’s a Wonderful Life?”
“Hello, I am alive, of course I have. I hate that flick.”
“Oh. Well. It’s a useful illustration in this case.”
“You’re going to show me what the world would be like if I’d never been born?”
“No, I’m going to show you what it would be like if you hadn’t written Jolly Bells.”
“Huh.” I’m trying to decide how I feel about this—mostly curious, because who doesn’t want to see an alternative reality version of their own life?—when the walls of my bedroom fade out and I’m standing instead beside Mr. Muse in a concert hall.
“Woah, is this—”
“Shh! It’s starting!” Mr. Muse nods towards the stage as the conductor approaches the podium. The audience immediately quiets and applauds politely as the conductor does her little bow. She turns, opens the sheet music on the stand in front of her, raises her baton…
…and the orchestra strikes up Requiem for a Choral Reef. My Requiem for a Choral Reef, which I’d written just last year. The piece I am the most proud of, the one that should be making my name in the classical music world, but instead is being compared to Jolly Bells with an air of disappointment. Requiem for a Choral Reef isn’t an easy piece—it’s dark and emotional and wrenching—but it’s good.
And I’m hearing it played by London Philharmonic Orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall.
I hold my breath when it’s over—the orchestra did an exquisite job with the difficult piece – and silence stretches as the audience holds its breath with me.
Then the place explodes in applause and cries of “Bravo”!
The conductor bows. She holds her hand out to the orchestra as they stand and nod their heads, accepting the applause. Then she gestures to a woman sitting in the front row.
I see myself stand and turn to the audience, smiling so hard both dimples are showing, and I bow. The din of applause swells to super forte levels.
“Wow!” I say as I let out my breath. It’s like being in the best dream of my life. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted in my career, happening right there before me. “Yes, please, I’ll have this reality now.”
Then they play the next piece, and it’s the one I’ve been working on, struggling with for months now. I stand up straighter, bouncing on my heels a bit in excitement. It almost feels like cheating as the orchestra plays past the clever run of triplets that I can’t quite figure out how to follow, a spot in the piece where I’ve been stuck for months.
“Ooohhh!” I can’t help myself. It’s such a relief to hear how that part resolves, after all the not—quite—satisfying attempts I’d made over the past few months. After the piece concludes, I turn to the muse again.
“You’ve been holding out on me!”
He shrugs, a movement more elegant than any prima ballerina’s. “I’ve learned it’s more satisfying for the artist if they experience some struggle. It’s all in you, anyway. I only help it along. I’m a dowser—I point the way to the wellspring, but the source is inside you.”
I snort. “Next time, help it along a little faster. I’ve lost sleep over that bit.”
He just smiles mysteriously. “Would you like to see where you live?”
It’s my turn to shrug. “I’d rather hear this next piece… I think it’s gonna be one I haven’t even started yet!”
“Yes, well, let’s preserve some mystery, shall we?” The walls of the Royal Festival Hall fade out, and they’re replaced by the four walls of a Victorian mansion.
“Ooh!” This room is a parlor with dark red walls, but I can see through the open pocket doors to the formal dining room, where the deep blue walls provide an elegant backdrop for gleaming dark furniture. “This is my house?”
Mr. Muse smiles and nods at the sound of footsteps running down the stairs.
Two kids, a boy and a girl, around seven or eight, burst into the room. The little boy stumbles on the bottom stair and his big sister catches him before he faceplants into the beautiful wooden floor.
“Careful Bartók!” she says as she sets him on his feet.
“Oh. Oh.” I’d always wanted to name my son Bartók. “The little girl is Hildegard.” I don’t even make it a question. I know. I named her after Hildegard von Bingen, just like I’d always wanted to. “These are the kids… these are the kids I never had.”
“Yes, Colleen.” Mr. Muse looks sorry for me. “These are the children you would have had, if you’d never written Jolly Bells.”
Then Brandon Hynes walks in from the kitchen.
“I… I married Brandon?” My college sweetheart. The love of my life. The guy I never quite got over. I always felt foolish for carrying a torch for so long. In those brief intervals where I bothered trying to date, no one else could ever measure up to the standard he’d set…
“But… he broke up with me when we were still in college, years before I wrote Jolly Bells.”
Mr. Muse sighs. “Yes, well, in this timeline, your first symphony was considered so groundbreaking that NPR did a Fresh Air interview with you. Brandon heard it and sent you an email… and you two struck up a long—distance correspondence that ended with you moving to Chicago, getting married, buying this house, having the children.…”
“It’s everything I ever wanted.” I turn to Mr. Muse. “This is everything I ever wanted! Can you make this happen? Take away Jolly Bells, yes, please, forever. I’ll pack my bags and move to this timeline right now!”
“Not so fast.” Mr. Muse lays an impossibly soft hand on my forearm. I look down at the elegant hand resting on my age—spotted arm. “Next I have to show you what happens in the timeline where you do write the Jolly Bells.”
“What are you talking about? I know what happens when I write the Jolly Bells. I’ve been living it all my life: I’m too old to have children in the other timeline. Brandon married that horrid Sandy Farnsworth, went through a bitter divorce, and just posts conservative memes on the internet now. Nobody will take my classical pieces seriously because I wrote that stupid song for that syrupy Christmas movie. I don’t need to relive that. I want this!”
“I know, Colleen, but I can’t give you this reality unless I show you what’s lost .”
That perfectly tuned fifth rings in my ears again, the kind where the fifth isn’t even being played, it’s just the undeniable intonation that happens in the chord…
“If that’s what it takes, fine. Show me what I already know.”
“Oh no, Colleen. I’m showing you what you don’t know.”
Brandon swoops up the children and carries them into the kitchen. The walls fade away, replaced by a dingy hospital room. The equipment is worn and outdated. It’s hot. The light coming in through the broken blinds is too bright. An old woman lies in the bed.
A younger woman walks in and greets her. “Hello Mama! How are you doing today?”
The older woman is unresponsive; she doesn’t wake up or move. The younger woman seems unconcerned by the lack of response and busies herself dipping a washcloth in a basin of water. She wipes the old woman’s forehead.
The younger woman keeps up a line of chatter, telling her mother about her life, her husband and children and job. “You should see Hunter, Mama! He’s getting so big! He’s playing baseball and he does that funny stance when he’s at bat, just like Daddy used to when we were kids and he’d play ball with us. He looks so much like his Grandpa. I wish you could see him!” The older woman doesn’t respond.
Finally the younger woman sets down the washcloth and basin and sits beside her mother, taking her hand. She starts humming, quietly at first, then louder. I recognize the tune. How could I not? Jolly Bells.
The older woman’s eyelids flutter.
The younger woman gains confidence, and starts singing the lyrics, softly, but with a clear, beautiful voice. The older woman opens her eyes and watches her daughter’s face.
By the time she gets to the chorus, the older woman is silently mouthing the lyrics too. There are tears in the younger woman’s eyes, and her voice brightens as she smiles while she sings to her mother.
At the end of the song, the older woman grips her daughter’s hand and shakes it. “Thank you,” she whispers, paper—soft. Her eyes close as she goes back to sleep. The younger woman leans over and kisses her on the head.
“Goodnight, Mama. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I turn to Mr. Muse.
“I see what you’re trying to do here. Look, it’s nice and all. I’m glad a sick old woman likes a Jolly Bells, but I’m not sure that balances the lives of Bartok and Hilde and my artistic freedom.…”
The muse shook his head. “She doesn’t just like it. It’s the only time she responds at all. Mrs. Naidoo has been mostly unresponsive for months. When she hears her daughter sing Jolly Bells, she opens her eyes and sings along. The doctors think it might be the key to her eventual recovery.”
“It’s probably just the sound of her daughter singing…”
“Nope. They’ve tried other songs. Yours is the only one that works.”
“Okay. The song means a lot to them. I’m sure it means a lot to many people—” As I speak the walls fade out. I groan. “How many people in comas are you going to show me?”
But the people aren’t in comas. There’s the little girl who’s just been in a car accident who needs to stay still so the doctors can fix her up, and is so terrified she can’t stop crying, until her big sister sings Jolly Bells to her. There’s the woman who sings it to her husband when he’s in a bad mood to cheer him up so they can laugh together instead of shouting. There are countless people who are moved to be generous and kind when they hear the song—stopping to help a homeless man on the street because a store was playing it over their outdoor speakers, giving their employees a bigger holiday bonus because the song happened to be playing when it came time to enter payroll, people talking to one another, bonding over the song, singing it while caroling, doing their own performances of it and posting the videos online, belting it at the top of their voices on winter road trips, meeting the loves of their lives while the song played….
Then there are the soldiers.
I’m not sure where we are. It’s night, and soldiers are raiding a pathetically meager village, dragging families out into the road, separating the women and children from the men into groups on either side of the town center. The soldiers are all impossibly young—they look like high school students—and many look scared of their commanders, who are young men in their twenties. They’re shouting at the terrified civilians, and one of the older soldiers grabs a young woman—not any older than the high school boys holding the guns that are pointing at her—and throws her to the ground. I expect her to scream or cry, but she’s gone quiet and still. The soldier is yelling something at her, telling her to do something I don’t quite understand, and the young woman lifts her head until she’s looking him in his face.
Then she sings.
I’ve never heard the Jolly Bells sung so slowly before, or with so much feeling. Her voice doesn’t even waver: it’s clear and pretty and unafraid. The words take on new meaning in the situation; I’d never thought of them as a vehicle of peace, but the way she sings them, they are.
The boy soldiers stop and stare at her. Everything is quiet but her voice.
When she gets to the chorus, one of the younger soldiers joins in, his voice the kind of high tenor only a boy whose voice hasn’t changed can do. A lump rises in my throat at his youth, at the impossible beauty of these two children in the midst of war joining their voices together.
One of the men of the village—a grown man, with a full baritone, joins in. Then a woman. More soldiers come in the next time the chorus comes around, and by now we’ve got harmony. They sound amazing.
They’re all crying by the time the song ends.
The soldiers put down their guns. The men rush over to the women and children and nobody stops them. They find their family members and they hug and kiss and cry. The boy soldiers stand awkwardly, until the girl who started the singing walks over to the one who pulled her out of the group. She starts singing the song again, and she hugs him. He sobs and holds her to him.
The groups move together, mingle, hug, talk. I think about the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914, when the British and the German forces stopped killing each other on Christmas Eve, and instead sang songs from their homelands together, and shared food and drink and fellowship. I’d always been moved by that story, but I’d never imagined something like that could happen now, or that my music could be part of it.
The village fades and we’re back in my house. It’s modern and sleek, designed to within an inch of its life. Jolly Bells made me a lot of money, and my house reflects that, but I can see now how empty it is, how bare and cold it is compared to the warmth of that beautiful Victorian in Chicago with Brandon and our kids. I’m crying, because how could I not cry?
Mr. Muse looks at me sympathetically.
“Well, Colleen? What will it be?”