by Amin Matalqa
illustrated by Orlando Saverino-Loeb and Meredith Leich
William, who was a cockroach, had a deep love for the music of Beethoven. Born and raised behind the walls of the Cincinnati Concert Hall, he grew up nurturing a passion for the romantics, much like his forefathers, with an affinity for the operas of Wagner and Puccini. To say that music ran in his blood, while biologically inaccurate, would be an understatement. It traced back to his great grandfather Wilhelm the first, who was an immigrant from Germany famous for boasting to the uncultured Cincinnati roaches about life behind the walls of the Berlin Opera House (legend had it that he once sat on Herbert Von Karajan’s shoe while the maestro conducted Brahms’ Requiem), and to his grandfather, who was taking a stroll to contemplate the thematic development of his first symphony when he was stepped on by none other than Leonard Bernstein. When he was still alive, William’s father longed for the day the family would return to the motherland and hear the acoustics of the famous venues there, but he died while scouting the route to the airport (he was captured and swallowed by a drunk man over a $20 bet).
William’s realization that he was destined to become a great maestro dawned upon him when he first heard the 1957 recording of Arturo Toscanini conducting Beethoven’s Eroica, the magnificent 3rd Symphony. He could feel the divine power of music under the baton of the Italian maestro and from that moment on, he knew he had what it takes. He owed the world proof that under his guidance the Cincinnati Symphony could become as great as Berlin, Vienna or the New York Philharmonic. All he had to do was inject a fraction of Toscanini’s passion to inspire them. He had to think of a way to take over as conductor, because though the local musicians were promising, their leader, in William’s humble but impassioned opinion, was an aloof hack who waved his baton with the stiffness of a rusty Soviet metronome and kept the cold expressionless face of an English countryside butler. He knew nothing of the spiritual suffering necessary to convey true musical euphoria. William, on the other hand, had torment burning in his neopterin DNA.
His mother always reminded him that he could be special if he committed his life to nurturing his gift. His antennae were unusually long for a roach his size, and his natural ability to conduct precise rhythm with the right antenna and emotional dynamics with the left was a skill that brought attention (sometimes too much of it) from the ladies. However, let there be no question, his motivation was always driven by his sheer love of music and loyalty to Cincinnati.
When William divulged his mission to his pregnant sister, Ursulla (whom he also mated with), she had to sit down and take a deep breath through the spiracles in her sides (because cockroaches don’t have lungs). William was about to embark on a quest that would forever define him either as a courageous hero or a suicidal fool. No cockroach had ever conducted an orchestra of humans and survived. Ursulla waved her antennae hysterically screaming, “Are you out of your mind?” She begged and pleaded, trying to stop him, but William refused to listen. He was willing to die for his dream.
His mission was simple: first, lock the conductor in his back room while the orchestra awaits his arrival; second, rush down to the stage and take his place at the podium before the musicians get impatient or suspicious of a mutiny; and third, tap his antenna loud enough to demand everyone’s attention, then give the downbeat with undeniable authority, leaving the orchestra with no choice but to begin playing under his direction. If he could get these three steps out of the way, then he could focus on leading them to play from their hearts instead of their intellect.
They were to perform Mahler’s 9th that night, and he had spent countless hours studying the score, memorizing it, note for note, measure by measure, while listening to the defender of mediocrity butcher it in the rehearsals. William would get frustrated by the lethargic interpretation diffusing any build up of tension or angst from the strings. He would stand at the side of the stage calling out, “Faster, faster!” or “Schnell,” in case anyone spoke German, but his attempts were futile from that far away. Ursulla would walk up and find him screaming and banging his head against the walls. She would beg him to calm down, to which he would reply that if he didn’t care so much he wouldn’t be so upset, and what’s the point of life if a roach didn’t care about something with all his heart?
William was musically prepared to take over, but he was aware that if his coup were to succeed, he would face one major challenge: an orchestra of middle-aged humans didn’t have strong enough vision to spot a little cockroach his size. He wasn’t so worried about the strings in the front, but the horns in the back, they could pose a big problem. How terrible would Mahler’s 9th be with improper dynamics from the horns? William felt a shortness of breath as his anxiety returned.
One of the fundamental lessons his mother had instilled in him when he was little (before she was poisoned by a lethal combo of Cypermethrin and Acephate) was to conquer his fear by turning it into fire to fuel him. “Roaches,” she said, “have the tendency to become brooding creatures who submit to their fears. Always running away from this and that, they spend most of their lives so afraid that they get nothing done.” William promised he would never live that way, so on that fateful day, he took a deep breath, munched down on some cardboard, and set forth on his quest as Ursulla bade him farewell with proud tears filling her compound eyes.
The clock indicated quarter till eight and the crowds were taking their seats around the concert hall as William snuck through pipes and under doors, finding his way to the green room where the conductor was sitting facing the mirror. His body was still, almost lifeless, and his eyes were closed. He was meditating. William scoffed at the crooked posture in the man’s back when he felt his curiosity, like a gravitational force, pull him closer towards the conductor. He climbed the dresser and crawled halfway up the mirror, feeling the brightness of light bulbs engulf him with warmth. He was up to the man’s eye line, so close he could smell his pungent body odor, which made him tingle with pleasure. All his hatred, jealousy and resentment evaporated in the magnitude of this moment. In their place, admiration was born. Here he was, a simple cockroach, standing on the reflection of the maestro’s face, leader of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
The conductor opened his eyes and William froze, fighting every instinct begging him to run for his life. He held his stance, naked and exposed, yet without fear. The maestro then did the unexpected: he slowly leaned forward and looked at William. Was he admiring our hero? Did he recognize the uniqueness of his antennae? Perhaps it was the roach’s courage that demanded respect. Could this be the moment? Had William finally taken that small step towards a life-long friendship, that giant leap on behalf of his entire species, a species that had been cruelly misunderstood by the human race for thousands of years? William then waved his right antenna, as if to say, “Well hello, human,” making the maestro smile. Oh, if only Ursulla were there to witness this moment of first contact between these two unlikely beings.
But the moment was all too brief. Whap! The conductor slammed his shoe onto the mirror, barely missing William by a hair. The betrayal! The mirror shattered and William fell onto the ground. Whap! Another attempt. The conductor was trying to murder him. But why? The fool! They were this close to striking a friendship and changing the interspecies dynamic for their respective peoples. William zipped his way across the floor, zigzagging to survive two more violent swats, until he found refuge under a door. He rested in a safe dark corner for a moment, made a quick prayer, then bolted out into the hallway where members of the orchestra were rushing to get on stage.
His mission had failed, but cockroaches never had a reputation for good planning. He had to come up with something new, a plan B, and he had to do it quickly.
By the time the orchestra was settled on stage and the instruments were getting tuned, the hideous conductor stepped out of the room. William hid in a corner and waited for him to pass, at which point he marched close behind where he could stay out of sight. He followed him all the way to the stage where he could hear the chatter in the crowds die down like rain after a storm. The lights had dimmed down and the concert was about to commence.
The orchestra waited in silence and William felt a sudden need to pee, which he did. The maestro then took to the stage and William followed him as the crowds burst into roaring applause. The heat of the spotlight washed over our heroic roach. It was a moment of glory. They were applauding as if they knew what he had gone through to get here. As if they understood how he had risked his life and challenged his own instincts to overcome his inherent fear. This was a reward for his courage, but he knew not to let it get to his head. It was a distraction and he couldn’t allow vanity to cloud his vision again. He had one objective in mind and nothing less. He was here to conduct and infuse his passion into the Cincinnati Symphony. He had to convey the beauty of Mahler’s 9th, a symphony portraying the inevitability of death.
He let the applause die down before walking onto the podium, then took a little bow and turned to face the orchestra. Unlike the human hack at the helm, William didn’t need to read the score because he had the entire 9th memorized. He stood behind the lazy stiff and tapped his antennae to the ground, calling for the orchestra’s attention. He could feel their eyes collectively stare at him, perhaps with bewilderment, but there was no time for vanity. The symphony was awaiting its birth under his baton. He raised his antennae and gave the downbeat.
Magic happened. The harp, the horns, the strings, like waves of a morning’s calm ocean, carried each note into the air, and William closed his eyes to feel the sensations growing inside him. The strings swirled around the escalating horns, then forces brewed with tension in a series of crescendos building towards a collision course. Wave after wave hit him like sonic flashes transcending time and space. It was as if Mahler’s ghost was standing before him, perhaps even taking possession of his body. Oh, if only his forefathers could see him in the glory of this moment as he simmered in the bliss of music. Suddenly, while continuing to conduct, never missing a beat, his wings triggered and spread open for the first time in his life. On their own, they started flapping rapidly, lifting him up into the air. William took flight and hovered up to the maestro’s head. The view from above was majestic. He no longer had to stare at the orchestra’s shoes anymore. The music had completely taken over him while his antennae conducted with the spiritual force of Toscanini, Bernstein, and Karajan combined.
He could feel their eyes staring at him. The playing continued. The timpani declared his arrival.
When the trumpets made their announcement, he looked to the side of the stage and found Ursulla staring at him in disbelief. She was proud and in tears. William smiled to her as his antennae waved up and down in perfect meter, feeding the orchestra’s swelling dynamics. That was also when he flew into the maestro’s face and accidentally got sucked into the vortex of his mouth. The music paused as William struggled to run across the surface of the man’s flapping tongue. He was drenched in saliva when the conductor spit him out and struck him with one swift blow. William crashed onto the ground and barely blinked when a massive shoe descended and crushed him.
The music returned. The French horns mourned as our hero accepted his demise. But there was one last breath left in him. Ursulla was crying as she ran to the love of her life and held his broken legs and torso. William could hear the solo violin play its gentle melody when he gave Ursulla his last dying words: “Tell the others, show them, find the videotape.” And he died as the end of the first movement came to a close.
Video cameras had recorded the concert, and the next day, upon the broadcast of the incident on the news, the entire population of Cincinnati Concert Hall roaches gathered to watch William heroically conduct Mahler’s 9th from the air then sacrifice his life for the one thing he loved. They collectively agreed, though William was gone, his interpretation of the 9th was the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s finest performance to date.
William became a legend to all roaches. A symbol of seeking one’s bliss and living without fear. And cockroaches flew in from all around the state to pay their respects.
The next week, the management of the Cincinnati Concert Hall spent $1,376.32 (after the $100 coupon) of their annual budget to have the entire building fumigated.
Born in Jordan, raised in Ohio, Amin Matalqa is a writer/director whose feature films include the Sundance-winning Jordanian Oscar entry, Captain Abu Raed; Walt Disney Studios’ soccer drama, The United; the romantic comedy, Strangely In Love based on Dostoevsky’s White Nights; and the upcoming adventure, The Rendezvous, starring Stana Katic (Castle) and Raza Jaffrey (Code Black) which premiers in the fall. Amin lives in Los Angeles and has an MFA in Film Directing from the American Film Institute. Next up: his debut book of short stories: Heroes & Idiots: Vol 1.
Orlando Saverino-Loeb is a Philadelphia-born artist. He graduates with a fine arts degree in painting and drawing and a minor in Italian from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in December 2016. He specializes in painting, using acrylic paint with an assortment of other mediums. His thesis exhibition at the Stella Elkins Tyler Gallery was entitled Individualized Pareidolia. He is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Italy and has lived there for two summers studying art and Italian. He began his college career at the University of Cincinnati to study industrial design for one year before transferring to Tyler. He has shown his work at Infusion lounge in Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Art Collective. You can follow his work on Instagram @orlandosaverinoart. Orlando is a Cleaver Emerging Artist.
Meredith Leich is a videomaker, painter, drawer, and writer, who works with video installation, 3D animation, watercolor, music, and text. Born and raised in Boston, she has made her home in Berlin, Brooklyn, Jaffa, San Francisco, and now Chicago, making and teaching art. You can see her work at meredithleich.com and vimeo.com/outmoded.