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A Flute Carrying the Music of St. Petersburg

The author of this essay, Tanya Ravdonikas, grew up in St. Petersburg, writing poetry and playing antique musical instruments. Last year, she emigrated to Canada, stopping along the way in Israel, Germany, and Britain. She lived for some time in a shelter for refugees in Toronto, but recently found a room in a house with other Russian emigres.

A LITTLE black flute lies in my hand.

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There are sounds of footsteps in the corridor, voices, doors slamming. Some women are still sleeping, snoring. I am tired of the noisy pop music which wakes me every morning.

"Wake up! Breakfast is ready!"

Doors are opened. Doors are shut.

This is my new shelter on Earth. A shelter for newly arrived refugees in Toronto. Since I left home, I have been traveling for three years.

I am looking through the window. It's snowing, snowing. Everything is white today, even the stoplight.

I am thinking abut my father's window in his studio-workshop. It is on the seventh floor, the top floor, and because of the big window that slants up into a skylight, it always seemed as though the wall and roof were open. We used to call this the "upper room."

We were "the kids from St. Petersburg." My friends and I never called it Leningrad. We played music, drew pictures, ate baked potatoes, and walked on the roofs.

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Three years. Only three. This is the fourth country I am passing through. And snow! I have not seen snow since Petersburg.

But the time I am remembering now was in summer, five or more years ago. All the kids used to gather in the upper room, with their violins and cellos.

Three grand pianos stood in the studio, and an organ with brass pipes. Disassembled pipes on a shelf were arranged in order, from huge to tiny and from tiny to huge. There were also two or three harpsichords and unfinished violins, still white, and a horse tail for stringing bows. Cylinders used for making flutes served as candlesticks. Several pieces of ivory sat in the dust.

My father used many sorts of wood: boxwood and pomegranate wood, rosewood and sandalwood. A good smell of linseed oil, tea, and tobacco hung over the room. An old-fashioned stove and a refrigerator yellow as if from smoke stood in the kitchen. Newly made flutes dangled from the ceiling.

My father is a flute maker. He makes Traverse flutes such as those used in the 18th century. For me, this period resounds with Bach, Couperin, Hotteterre. A portrait of Hotteterre playing a flute hangs on a breadboard in my father's kitchen.

Quartets often assembled in the upper room: violin, flute, harpsichord, and cello. Or just violin and flute duets. My father played the flute, and I accompanied him, or I improvised on the harpsichord or any other instrument I picked up. Sometimes players moved their concerts from the upper room to the staircase because of its acoustical advantages. Then people walking up the stairs in the apartment house would stop in wonder.

One day an archaeologist friend of my father's brought him a Neolithic stone flute from an excavation and asked him to make a wooden copy. The next day, when students flocked like birds to the upper room, my father told them: "Today is an amazing day! We will be able to hear melodies unheard for thousands of years. They will be performed on a flute found at the bottom of a lake in the northwestern forests of Russia."

He showed them the little black tube with four holes in the lower side. The top of the flute was slightly smaller than the bottom with the holes.

That day was sunny and clear; even the gold crosses of the Church of St. Vladimir far, far away were visible. Brown roofs. Green roofs. Yellow buildings. The old city with lindens along the streets. Bright sunshine and the gray eyes of windows.

Everybody in the upper room thought about one thing only. We wanted to try a new instrument that had emerged from the darkness of history....

ONE by one, kids tried to blow in the upper hole. Nothing happened. It was too difficult to make any sound. I tried too, even from the bottom. Nothing helped. Meanwhile, my father smiled, and let us do whatever we wanted.

When the instrument was returned to him, he leaned it against his lips and blew slowly. He looked through the big window to the sky, the roofs.... The first, second, third sounds flew from his fingers. He himself became a sound. He was a master and knew everything. The melody sounded simple and clear:

ti - lu - li, ti - du - du

ti - du - li - dum...

I wished it would never end.

Suddenly we heard thunder. Rain began. Very strong, very bright rain. "Bum - bum - bum," the rain said, and knocked at our roof and skylight.

"Hello!" we said, "And you too are welcome to play the master's flute!"

The melody was like the music for an elf's ball, like flowers growing, like the last tiny moment before waking.

With the very last sound, we saw a bright rainbow over the whole city and another rainbow above it. The melody stopped, but everybody kept silent and looked at the amazing view outside.

My father never played this flute after that day. He said that he knew that it was enchanted and that playing it brought rain.

Now I am far away from my house, far from St. Petersburg. For three years, I have been a stranger everywhere. My luggage has changed as I have moved from country to country. Many things have been lost.

But new impressions have been fixed in my memory: the Gulf war which I experienced in Israel; the holy fire in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem; green grass beside a Munich museum, followed by maple leaves in the high garden above the Thames; and this morning, the first snow presented to me from a peaceful Toronto sky.

My father does not know my address to send mail to me.

But I sit next to the window, hold his little black flute fashioned from pomegranate wood, and wish my father would come here so I could tell him everything I have lived through since I left the upper room.

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