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Over Here

For MAJ Benjamin Buchholz, US Army


I suspect my daughter Amelia and that man she married named my granddaughter after a character from Japanese animation. I never did press the point, and now we’ll never know for sure. She is my Megumi who is even now hiding in the yard. Right over there. Under the big Douglas fir tree. She is holding so very still like a cautious rabbit. She is afraid I will call her inside to play the clavichord.

Megumi is all eyes squatting on her heels and looking over her knees. She knows that I’m looking right at her so she is not moving her eyes at all. I wonder how long she’ll be able to hold off blinking. I wonder if losing her parents and coming to live with her grandfather is making her weird. Are you weird Megumi? I make a funny face at her through the big window. She doesn’t respond.

Maybe I should get a professional opinion about her weirdness?

I can see her sneakers, which are black with pink cartoons and yellow laces. High tops. She doesn’t play basketball. But she might some day. Blue jeans with the cuffs turned way up. I should get some advice on what modern six-year-old orphan girls like to wear when they are not playing the clavichord.

Can you even buy dresses these days?

I could lure her inside with the promise of a story about Layla, the desert princess. Someday I am going to have to tell Megumi the bad news about Layla.

Not today.


I wonder what Layla was wearing when the truck ran her down yesterday. It isn’t the kind of question I can ask our friend who wants us to call him “Abu Yusef.” That probably isn’t his real name. It might be dangerous for him if it got out he was using his computer to post messages on the international clavichord list. We are, generally speaking, a contentious bunch on the clavichord list, but we understand and are sympathetic when our friend and colleague in Iraq tells us he is reluctant to reveal his real name or identify his real town in the south where there are many Persian influences.

And speaking of Persian influences, Abu Yusef believes the clavichord is a direct descendant (by way of the cymbalum) of the Persian santur, a hammered dulcimer. Hey, it’s a theory and might even be true. Not everyone agrees. There has been some online heat on this subject. With any group you’re going to have some people who take things too seriously. No one will admit to hurt feelings. Often it’s a good thing we are not all in the same room or there would be fistfights over matters like tuning, for example. Never mind origin theories.

Abu Yusef does not say the dead girl is his granddaughter. He is keeping a stiff upper lip. For weeks he talked about finding his perfect student. Too bad she’s a girl, he said. We don’t know if he was joking about that. Yesterday she was killed in a pointless accident.

Layla and her friends were outside watching a US convoy go by. So many trucks all going north. It was like they would keep coming until they filled the country up with trucks and tanks and guns and foreign soldiers, and there would be room for nothing else. Where would they all stay when they got to where they were going?

One of the drivers tossed Layla a bottle of water and a smile. The bottle bounced off her hands and rolled into the road. When she ran out to get it, a truck coming in the other direction ran over her.

So, some of the trucks and soldiers must have been going south.

By the time Abu Yusef came onto the scene, someone had covered Layla with a blanket. Everyone was talking at once. The whole town and all the foreign soldiers who were not in their trucks had gathered around the small body. He didn’t say so, but I imagine the people made way for Abu Yusef since he is the mayor. I get the idea that he is proud to be the mayor, but also that he sometimes feels like a front man since it is the deputy town council president, a Shi’a religious functionary of some kind, who has all the power. I detect no resentment about this on Abu Yusef’s part. That is simply the way of things.

Like Megumi, Layla had been six years old. The two girls were destined to be animated superheroes and fight evil together. There is nothing like a couple of six-year-old girls to bring peoples and cultures together. Who could have foreseen that one of them would be a ghost? Well, that’s the kind of plot twist Megumi’s mother must have anticipated when she came up with Megumi’s name in the first place. I wonder if my daughter had imagined the name of the show the two girls would be starring in. If so, she didn’t pass that name down to us. I will have to name the show myself. Here are some of my ideas.

“The Strings of Doom!”

Where the strings are clavichord strings, of course.

“Megumi, Layla, and the Legend of the Twangs.”

The Twangs could be these guys you think are the bad guys, but then they turn out to be only misunderstood. The Twangs are proud and stern and have many baffling customs, but they are basically good guys. Megumi and Layla come to understand the Twangs after many adventures, hurt feelings, kissing and making up, giant robots, evil eyebeams, talking woodland creatures, and martial art clavichord playing.

“Princess Layla and the Twangster.”

This time Megumi turns out to be the twangster which is (but only superficially) like a gangster. She wears a fedora, and she’s adorable. Princess Layla comes to the rescue in the end, and the twangster finally comes out of her shell and is able to make a pretty sound.

“The Twangsters.”

This time both Megumi and Layla can be twangsters — a couple of six-year-old girls who save the world on a weekly basis with transcendental early music. The joke being they can’t actually make such music yet, and that’s why they’re called twangsters. It really isn’t easy to make pleasant sounds with a clavichord.

In any case, there will be some kind of rat spider sidekick who is also very cute — maybe it makes wisecracks, and the girls pretend to be angry or exasperated. Maybe it turns into a clavichord when drenched in water.


We did not name Megumi’s mother after a cartoon character. We named her after Amelia Earhart, the aviator, because we thought she would soar, but whenever the subject came up, she acted like she literally could not believe it — you named me after someone who crashed and burned or drowned or otherwise just disappeared? You’d like it if I just disappeared, too, wouldn’t you? And it was true, just then, I would have been happy if she’d just wandered off to the mall or something, but I couldn’t very well say that, and I didn’t have anyone to talk the problem over with after Karen died leaving me with Amelia who had been thirteen and who would be in and out of rehab for years. Even so, I would never have guessed she’d go on to get herself gunned down so stupidly.

I blame the authorities. Yes, they probably had to kick down the door and go in with guns drawn, but no one was armed in the house. Okay, they didn’t know that. But they should have been able to tell an assault rifle from a soup ladle even in the dim light. At least they minimized the collateral damage when it came to Megumi who is so quiet now. And trembling, she is all the time trembling just below the surface. You can’t really see it, but if you pull her into your arms where she stands stiff and silent, you can feel her trembling.

The authorities had been prepared for a fight when they kicked down the wrong door and shot Amelia and David. Imagine you were on that team rooting out terrorists. Some of those young cops must have been frightened. They must have thought they were in terrible danger. They must have thought they would find weapons. The higher-ups might not have looked too closely at the information they had, but they would never in a million years have thought that they would find nothing. I’m convinced that’s why the DEA took over afterwards.

What they finally found became the grounds for calling Amelia and David major drug dealers. They needed to cover their asses. They got lucky. They changed their story.

The fact that Amelia and David turned out to actually be major drug dealers is beside the point. I just wish Amelia had dropped her soup ladle, put up her hands, and cried, “Don’t shoot!”

I look at the pictures in my head of Amelia in her black bandana and bandolier of bullets and Amelia in her red and white high school band uniform, her clarinet, her silly hat, and I see that small strange unsettling smile that is the same in both pictures, one Amelia looking back and the other looking ahead in time. I don’t really think she had a black bandana and bullets. I do think the clarinet was real.

I still mostly refuse to think of Megumi’s father David as anything but “that man who married my Amelia” and led her into a life of dope, poverty and death, but the truth is, Amelia played her own part. It’s like when she was a teen in rehab, and it hit me one day I could stop worrying about her getting in with the wrong kind of friends. She was the bad influence herself that other parents should worry about. But then for just a moment, she seemed to pull it all together. She met David, got married, gave birth to Megumi, relapsed a couple of times, came back, and then died in a botched homeland security raid.


I run into people all the time who think “clavichord” is another word for collarbone. I once mentioned that to Megumi hoping she would smile, but she didn’t get it. This is another sad example of a fifty-four-year-old man trying to amuse a superhero. I don’t think her rat spider sidekick who might also be a cat or maybe a possum got it either.

Generally speaking, a clavichord is a rectangular wooden box. It usually has a lid. The keyboard is usually on the left. Inside there is a soundboard and a number of strings. The mechanism for making music is the most simple of all the keyboard instruments. You press a key on one end of a lever and the other end rises up and a metal blade called a tangent strikes a string or pair of strings.

Unlike a piano player, for example, the clavichord player is in direct contact with the string. The art is in what to do with that contact. Your touch controls the dynamics of the note. You can do a kind of vibrato. You do not just push a key and a consistent sound is produced. It all depends on what you do with that finger on the key.

The instrument is not loud. Everyone needs to be paying attention — the player, the listeners. Clavichord music is not something that can happen accidentally or in the background. If your neighbor is a clavichord player, chances are you’ll never hear the music through the common wall even if you put your ear right up against it hoping to figure out what’s going on in there.

Some clavichords are as big as the tops of conference tables. Some are quite small. There is a tiny model called the “King of Sweden” that you can pick up and carry around under your arm. Most are somewhere in between.

We like to claim that the clavichord was Bach’s favorite instrument.

In other words, the clavichord is the very essence of the keyboard. It is what Plato would have called an “ideal” keyboard instrument if it had been invented in time for him to call it anything at all.

It was Abu Yusef who pointed out how much a clavichord looks like a crate of rifles.

He had a lot of trouble getting his instrument into Iraq when he came home from Italy after the Invasion.

Our anime supergirls, Megumi and Layla the ghost, never have that kind of trouble. That’s a very good thing, since their clavichords sometimes really are filled with high tech weapons and alien technology!

Abu Yusef

Earlier, Abu Yusef amused us all with his story about how Layla came to be his only student, the way the women of the town were all atwitter over it. Most of the children had been very curious about the Mayor’s keyboard, which apparently made no sounds. No, that was not true. The sounds it made were very small. You had to be close and listening carefully. What was the point in that?

He had caught her listening at the door to his music room, and she had run away frightened that he would tell on her, but he had said nothing. He finally took on several other children as students and was able to include Layla in the group. By the end of the week, only she remained.

Why in the world would you want to teach the child to make those noises?

She is the one who wants to learn, he told them, and she is the one who actually can learn.

Abu Yusef’s description of this experience led to a lively discussion of teaching keyboard to very young students and the uses of the clavichord in such teaching and J.S. Bach’s The Little Clavier Book For Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. The trouble with little fingers. And all the stuff you need to know. Should we talk about bebung or leave that for later?

I love my mental picture of Layla’s lessons. She takes her place on the bench in front of the clavichord. The wind that blows through the windows is always very hot in my imagination. Is there glass in the windows? Layla’s little fingers. Will she be able to do it? He stands beside her. Her grandmother sits in a corner with her hands folded in her lap. She is as huge and still and present as an Easter Island statue, impossible to ignore. She is keeping a close eye on the proceedings. Layla and Abu Yusef are working on a snippet of Couperin he especially likes and believes is fundamental to technique. Layla looks up at him. She is so serious and determined.

Yes, Sensei, I can do this.

No, that would be Megumi.

No, not her either.

Amelia with her clarinet?

Do you hear the way she is getting it? Abu Yusef asks Layla’s grandmother. Do you hear?

Abu Yusef is also an Etruscan archaeologist. He spent many years in Italy before coming home after the Invasion. His Italian is perfect. He is widely read. When it comes to the clavichord, he is an expert on the instrument built from the intarsia of Urbino in Italy. This is a wood carving of an old clavichord. It is so detailed that builders have been able to duplicate the instrument. Abu Yusef has made four such copies. One is in France, one is in New York, one is still in Italy, and the other is in London. He wishes he had kept one of them for himself. Well, someday when things are quieter, he will make another. In the meantime he has a wonderful double fretted instrument (that looks like a crate of rifles when closed). It is the sound of that instrument that captured Layla’s imagination and transported her to a world where everything was possible.

The Twangsters

You can’t be a supergirl with huge eyes unless you’ve got a profile. I’ve figured that much out poking around online trying to figure out what Amelia might have been thinking when she named Megumi.

So, here we go.

Name: Megumi

Alias: Pumpkin, snuggle bunny.

Race: Human

Gender: Female

Age: six

Hair: light brown (blinding pink these days)

Eyes: blue (dazzling and always a little sad)

Height: 44 inches (111.760 cm)

Weight: 42 pounds (19.051 kg)

Blood: Type A

Status: Demon hunter, rocket scientist, first grade student (in the fall).

Quote: “Everything is so quiet.”

Name: Layla

Alias: Lallie, Princess of the Night.

Race: Human

Gender: Female

Age: six

Hair: brown (ghostly blue these days — you might even say purple)

Eyes: brown (sparkling, dancing, laughing)

Height: We must guess that she might be just a little taller than Megumi.

Weight: And maybe just a little lighter.

Blood: Type B (I’m making this up. I don’t want to think about the blood. Why do we always need to know the blood type of our superheroes?)

Status: Crime fighter, ghost.

Quote: “Where will we put them all?”

Storyline: Megumi is sad sitting under her tree. Her whole world has been shattered. She has come to live with her grandfather in his clavichord dojo. There are no children her age in the neighborhood. Instead there are a few good jazz clubs, a gay bar, and a couple of top-notch restaurants (one Vietnamese and the other French). She doesn’t really want to learn how to play the clavichord. But what else can her grandfather teach her?

Meanwhile in southern Iraq, Layla, who really does want to learn to play the clavichord, is run down by a truck. She becomes a ghost. She somehow picks up on the clavichord connection between Megumi’s grandfather and Abu Yusef, and she materializes and makes friends with Megumi. Megumi’s finger work is much improved by her interaction with the talented ghost.

Megumi will cut her hair short and dye it pink, scandalizing her grandfather, and Layla will do hers in a bright but ghostly blue. They will wear cool costumes. Look at them! Zooming around righting wrongs and singing songs (but not too loudly because no one can hear the clavichord if you’re belting out the words with too much enthusiasm). Layla and Megumi will be black belts in Megumi’s grandfather’s dojo of martial clavichord playing. Everyone will be forced to stop shouting and shooting and listen carefully to hear them playing.

Some of the cool stuff in future episodes will include gender confusion, evil aliens, talking animals, and giant robots. We get the idea that after all is said and done and the adventures are over, Layla will move on to wherever little girls go when they die in vehicular mishaps in Iraq, but Megumi who will be the president of Mars or something will never forget her. There is the hint that Megumi’s mother Amelia will help Layla find her way by pointing at the light with her soup ladle. We suspect Layla might pop back in from time to time for even wilder adventures or to give Megumi sisterly advice about life.

Little Stars

I move away from the window and sit down at the clavichord and get lost in some tricky parts but not so lost I don’t hear Megumi come back in. She comes quietly up to my side. She pulls at my sleeve. She gives me a small pinecone. I pat the bench. She crawls up beside me. I put the pinecone down on the music stand in front of us.

Megumi plays a little tune.

Clunk clank clunk clank clink clink clink.

“Very nice,” I tell her, thinking that what she’s played might be Bach or it might be Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

Both are good.

Author’s Note for “Over There”

I wrote this story for a project called The Dust Girl by Benjamin Buchholz. When I asked him to say a few words about it, he sent me this:

“The second day of my military service in Iraq I responded to a traffic incident no more than a few hundred meters from the border crossing point for US supplies between Kuwait City and Baghdad. There I found that one of our semis had run over an Iraqi girl of about six years of age, a girl who had been begging for food or water. She had run out into the road to get a water bottle thrown to her from one of the semis. When I arrived her blanketed body lay still in the roadway, with a southbound convoy stalled on one side of her, the soldiers anxious to return to the safety of their base in Kuwait, and a convoy stalled in the northbound lane. Between the two perhaps a hundred Iraqis had gathered, wailing women, relatives, other children, along with British troops, our young American troops, members of the town council, dogs, and even a few goats. The scene troubled me for many months, haunting me. As catharsis, I asked a number of writers to tell the story, to invent it anew from nothing more than details such as those I’ve provided in this very paragraph. They immersed themselves in the characters and told the tale of this ‘Dust Girl’ from the perspective of one of those bystanders. While no story can truly capture a death such as this in its randomness, its chaos, its futility, perhaps the fiction preserves bits and pieces of her. It is all we can do.”

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