Story | ‘Mini-Opera for Ernst Mahler’ by Blair Reeve

The third in a series of short-listed stories from the Still/Foyles short story competition is by New Zealander – and Hong Kong resident – Blair Reeve.

Blair says he knew nothing about Mahler when he wrote his story. ‘When I saw the photograph of the piano, the first word that popped into my head was Mahler. I was pleased to discover on Wikipedia that he was in fact a pianist, and had written a never-performed nor published opera for his brother, Ernst – titled Herzog Ernst von Swaben – and there came the impetus for my story, ‘Mini-Opera for Ernst Mahler’.’

For the competition, writers were invited to contribute a new story (maximum 500 words) inspired by the photograph, ‘The Stage (Piano)’ – which was not included in literary art book/anthology Still.


Mini-Opera for Ernst Mahler

The Stage (Piano) by Roelof BakkerGustav unpicked a depressed middle C with a disappointed fingernail. It came unstuck. He tapped it again. A faint thud and stick. The hushed auditorium absorbed the boy’s flat puzzlement. Brother Ernst, currently decomposing in Iglau’s Jewish cemetery, his still-itching, month-old corpse heavily ravaged from the typhus that had starred his torso red, could hear it too – this maladroit pause in the score of his eponymous opera. His wizened skull-face smiled, approving the prank. The rickettsia multiplied feverishly in the mush of his fetid dermis.

Professor Pospisil hovered in the wings. Old though it was, the piano had played well during Gustav’s morning rehearsal. What had gone wrong? Cracked key in the balance rail hole? The felt bushing binding against the front rail pin? An unglued jack flange? Broken hammer shank? Poor fastidious fool, for in fact it was the chip-thin forint Gustav had found that morning, which he had jammed deep between the ivories in posthumous perpetuation of a game that his dying brother had dreamed up on his death bed several weeks earlier.

At the first pass, a giggling Gustav had found the coin in his inkpot and extracted it after staining his fingers a dark blue that would take Mother an hour to scrub off. He responded by fitting the forint inside the cap of Ernst’s medicine flask. Ernst then hid it in the lining of Gustav’s blazer, Gustav in the spine of Ernst’s favourite book, Ernst inside Gustav’s pillow, and so on, every few days, until Ernst finally outwitted Gustav by wedging it beneath the spat of his brother’s left pump from where the future composer had only just retrieved it this morning.

As Gustav delicately danced his hands out of this faked predicament into the second theme, the mediums of light and sound re-jigged their relativities in the eyes and ears of his audience. Everyone, Professor Pospisil included, could see the boy pianist’s cheeks puffing in concentration, his shoulders heaving, his arms pumping, but all that could be heard of ‘Herzog Ernst von Schwaben’ was a sustained silence, a period stop to the boom of heavy notes still echoing among the rafters.

That prolonged mute note, the eerie stillness of Ernst’s sarcophagal home, had expanded like a bubble and encased the performance space inside an abiding emotion. Out of the piano’s gaping mouth, an apparition rose, hovering above the vibrating strings, crescendoing on a wavering stave of love – Ernst Mahler as visible music, an evanescent revelation forever dying through the farewell portal his brother had contrived to seal the ends of their fraternal bond.


BLAIR REEVE was born in 1968 and began writing and performing poetry at the Robbie Burns readings in Dunedin, New Zealand, during the 1990s. Since then, Blair has been a featured poet at events in Tokyo (where he lived from 2001-2007), New York and Hong Kong where he has been living and writing fiction since 2008. His poems have been published in various New Zealand journals as well as in ex-pat publications in Tokyo and at His first short fiction was published in the Asia Literary Review’s 2011 special edition on Japan. Blair is currently enrolled in the City University of Hong Kong’s MFA program.


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