Finding Middle C

By Phebe Jewell

After dinner and the washing up, she pulls out the piano bench and plays scales. First C major then F and G. Major, minor, each scale ending with a diminished chord. From his seat by the fire, he looks up from his book, loving every sound shaped beneath her fingertips.

“Beautiful, darling.”

Shaking her head, she plays on. “They’re just scales, silly.”

He smiles down at the squiggly marks chasing each other around the page, round and long lines he once corralled into words. Her notes march up and down, each leading to the next. Their sure-footed reverberation announces he is safe at home with her. He turns the page so she’ll think he’s reading.

When he asks how she knows which hand plays which notes, she sits him on the bench, pressing his finger on Middle C. “See, honey? Keys to the left are played with your left hand, keys to the right with your right.”

He nods, though he can’t remember why she needs him to know.

“Once you know where Middle C is, everything falls in place.”

She plays while the summer light stretches toward midnight. The days cool and soon they eat dinner after twilight. She plays, even after her fingers start to curl in on each other. Each month she shrinks a little more. One day, sirens, angry red lights, strangers moving around the kitchen, taking her away. Then stillness.

He sits at the piano in the cold living room, fingers brushing the keys. What had she shown him? Waiting for her touch, he lingers in the gathering darkness.


Phebe Jewell’s work appears in various journals, including Monkeybicycle, Spelk, New Flash Fiction Review, Bending Genres, and The Cabinet of Heed. Her story “¿Cómo Está Tu Madre?” was chosen for wigleaf‘s 2021 Top 50 for (very) short fiction. A teacher at Seattle Central College, she also volunteers for the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a nonprofit providing college courses for women in prison. Read her at


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