I’m not usually a fan of the Victorian propensity to romanticize illness, but this story from Lara Elena Donnelly does things a little differently.
George courts Chopin like a terrier down a rabbit’s hole, teeth bared, tongue dripping. He flees, but every so often turns to look over his shoulder with liquid, changeable eyes. She lives for those glances, drawn into flashing moments when he is less than human and more than prey.
In early autumn, she corners him playing in the parlor, at a house party. George crosses the room, thick carpet quieting her riding boots. He does not notice her; his dark head is inclined towards the keys. The air in the room is electric. George swallows against a thickness in her throat, holds fast to a small sound trembling in her larynx. She dares not break the silence.
Kneeling by the bench like a postulant, she lays her cheek against his leg. He starts; his notes go sour, and the charged atmosphere dissipates. He holds his artist’s hands up high as if he is afraid to touch her, even to shoo her away.
“Angel,” she says. “You are an angel, sent from God. Please, don’t stop.”
But he does not begin again. He closes his hands—soft, cool, uncalloused—over hers and lifts them from his knee. “Please, madame. This is most improper. Most distracting.” He coughs with his mouth closed, wincing against the sharp convulsion. “Please.”
“Please,” she repeats, breathless. “Yes. Please. Go on.”
When she does not leave him, he sighs at her stubbornness and slides his fingertips between the black ridges of the sharps and flats and plays: a single dark note that fades, then builds into furls of triplets and sixteenths.
George, with her cheek still pressed against him, feels the change in his body, the sudden strength in the long, lean muscles of his thigh. He is fevered, and where she touches him she can feel currents moving, sliding like a great cat through a shadowed jungle. Her hands climb the contours of the piano leg, skip from the varnished wood to the give of Chopin’s flesh, grasp at him as the music swells. He is hard with need beneath the soft summer wool of his trousers, but ignores her in favor of his impromptu.
Chopin’s left hand strokes the lower octaves. His right climbs in rolling arcs towards the high reaches of the keyboard. George has made love to many men in her life, but never experienced ecstasy like this. Her orgasm crescendoes, and she sinks back into her body, dizzy and prickling with sweat.
The piece finishes with a gentle undulation and chord that is little more than a suggestion of sound. Chopin lifts his hands from the keys and looks down at George. He seems surprised to find her there, surprised to find himself at the piano. He draws breaths to speak. It catches somewhere behind his breastbone and he doubles in on himself, wracked with coughing.
George pulls his mouth to hers and kisses him, seeking mysteries in the darkness of his mouth. She does not find them. His breath is sharp with the iron tang of tubercular blood. Nevertheless, she knows what she has seen: something lives within him, uses him, and she wants it.