A Haunting

(Inspired by Beethoven’s “Ghost” Piano Trio in D Major)

by Mary Rohrer-Dann

Wind rattles the chimney as I unravel this old shawl to make socks for my daughter’s household. A ghost of anguished melody rouses. My granddaughter wails, tussles in the cradle at my feet. Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf, I hum, rocking her with my foot. She quiets. But the music in my head builds with the wind. I am there again, at Jedlesee. Witness to his rages, his gloom, his music.

The Countess von Erdődy was great friends with Herr Beethoven and had put her estate near the Donau at his disposal. He was troubled, needed solitude. Except when she visited, there was just me, a man to tend the horses, and another to keep the garden. We were not to speak about this guest to others, and I knew to stay out of his way. Often, while I scrubbed the terrazzo floors or prepared his meals, the air throbbed with his groans, his violent playing.

I was young but had already lost two children. I did not wish to know his despair.

Bringing meals to his room, I would pause outside his door, letting the smells of venison, pastry, and sugared wine alert him so he could hide his ear trumpet. Once, airing his room, I found it stuffed behind the bed. I placed it on the bedside table. When he saw it lying there in full view (but who else was there to see it?), he flung it against the wall. I thought he might strike me. But his deafness was apparent. When we sometimes exchanged words (Was the bean salad to his liking? Did he wish a lighter blanket?), he watched my lips with eagle eye.

He worked long hours, moving between desk and piano, sometimes gripping a stick between his teeth as he sat at the keys. The notes that surged from his brain! Music was everywhere in Wien. Even I, a housemaid since I was twelve, knew harmony and tempo. His music was often peculiar. Disturbing. It hurt my heart. Like those late summer evenings, when the loons called from the lake. And all the ghosts gathered.

One afternoon at summer’s end, I stood stacking linens in the hall cupboard as he played a chain of trembling passages. Over and over. Blackness pressed down. I stumbled. Suddenly, his door opened. He stared as if he could see my most secret self. The grief I pushed down deep. I shuddered, turned away. He brushed past.

The weather turned cool. One day the countess’s carriage took him back to the city. I returned home, was soon with child again.

Herr Ludwig is long dead. The countess, too. And almost all I loved. In a house that is not mine, I pick apart what I made long ago. I remember my daughter when she was still sweet to me. I remember her sisters who lived just past their christening. Her curly-haired brother who reached age ten and no more. I remember Franz before our five lost babies and the failed wheat chased him deeper into silence. Before I turned away from him. Before he turned to schnapps and a stupid death I sometimes still cannot forgive.

I have put most of that away, as I have the years of washing, cooking, emptying the stinking chamber pots of others. My duties now are simple. Tend the Kindlein while my daughter, her husband, their older children run their shop. Knit underclothes when my fingers unbend enough to work the needles. Stay out of everyone’s way.

Until a merciless wind returns Herr Ludwig’s music to me.


Mary Rohrer-Dann is the author of Accidents of Being: Poems from a Philadelphia Neighborhood; Taking the Long Way Home; and La Scaffetta: Poems from the Foundling Drawer. Her work most recently appears in Clackamas Review, Flash Boulevard, Literary Mama, Slant, Five South, Orca, Indiana Review, and Comstock Review. She writes, paints, hikes, bikes, and sometimes gardens, and volunteers with various local nonprofits.