“Ruby’s Gift” by Emily Debenham was a finalist in the 2012 Four Centuries of Mormon Stories contest. It was originally published online at Everyday Mormon Writer on October 16, 2012.
Ruby filled the empty hours of Sunday afternoon playing hymns on the piano. Her family was scattered around the house employed in various Sunday activities and she carved out the empty space of the parlor and filled it with music.
There was a knock at the door: the sound of bare feet dashing across the wood floor followed. A man’s voice asked for papa, and Ruby heard Sarah leading the man to the parlor. Ruby was surprised that the little twins hadn’t come toddling out. Ben probably kept them occupied in the other room, encouraging them to crawl over piles of quilts.
Ruby knew she should stop playing, but she wanted to finish her song. She heard Sarah direct the visitor to sit on the sofa.
Nervous now that she had an attentive listener, Ruby’s fingers slipped over the last phrases of the song, causing the melody to disappear in a rush of wrong notes. She sighed and turned to greet their visitor, only to find that Stake President Levine sat on their sofa.
Her face flushed. “Hello, President,” she said.
“Good Afternoon, Ruby. I quite enjoyed your playing .Your music has fine expression. How long have you played?”
“All my life, President,” she said, knowing he was being polite, as she had played poorly.
“Do you work hard with your teacher?”
“I’ve never had a teacher.”
“I play by ear,” Ruby shrugged.
“What a marvelous gift.”
Thankfully, Papa’s arrival spared her a response. Ruby didn’t consider herself all that special since her gift was nearly worthless. When she tried to play for a group larger than three she got performance fright so bad that her heart pounded, and her head would get all muddled and her fingers would shake.
Her first attempt to play in public had resulted in a disaster so spectacular that her cheeks still burned with shame at the mere memory of it. Ever since then she hadn’t felt very proud of her talent. She could play all the prettiest music in the world as long as no one outside her own home could hear it.
Now, that she couldn’t play the piano she sought out her mother, who sat in the kitchen and knitted quietly, humming hymns. The smell of baking bread warmed the air. Moving to stand behind her mother, Ruby looped her arm around her mother’s shoulders and gave her a hug.
“How are you feeling, mama?” she asked.
Mother paused her knitting and gave Ruby’s forearm a squeeze. “I’m a bit tired today, but the headaches have stayed away.”
That was good. Mother had been sick in bed with headaches at least twice a week recently.
“Can I help you with dinner today?” Ruby asked.
“Oh, that would be lovely Ruby. I was going to start the meal after the bread finished baking.”
Ruby spent the rest of the afternoon helping her mother in the kitchen, glad to see her in hearty health that day.
Ruby never questioned why President Levine had visited their home that Sabbath, but the next Saturday evening her father gathered their family together.
“Tomorrow, you know, is conference,” her father said. “President Levine visited last week to extend a call to me, and I’ve accepted.”
The family looked around one another with discomfort. Mother’s health hadn’t been good recently and all of them depended greatly on father. Whatever sort of call this was everyone hoped that father could still spend some time at home.
“What is the call father?” asked Andrew her eldest brother.
“It will be announced that I’m to serve a mission in the British Isles for the next three years.”
Ruby’s heart fell into her stomach. “No, tell us you told him no.”
The rest of the children gasped, and father gave her a stern glare.
“I would have hoped that my own children would have known I had a stronger faith than that.” Father sounded hurt.
Ruby felt ashamed. “It’s just….we need you so much.”
“I trust the Lord to care for you,” he said, and that was the end of the discussion.
Tears filled Ruby’s eyes as the rest of the family left the room. Andrew stayed behind and put a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t worry Ruby. I was thinking the same thing.”
Ruby gulped in order to keep from crying. “What’ll we do Andrew? Mother’s getting worse and the others are so little.”
“I don’t know. I’ve had a hard time getting answers to prayers lately. I’m trying not to take this as a sign that god just doesn’t care.”
The deep bitterness in Andrew’s voice caused Ruby’s carefully checked tears to spill down her cheeks. Andrew pulled her into a hug. “All will be well,” he said gruffly. “Somehow.”
Ruby nodded and wiped the tears from her cheeks. “Somehow,” she repeated.
The house was silent as Ruby dressed for conference that morning. No one spoke above a hushed whisper as horses pulled the wagon toward the tabernacle. Mother had pulled herself out of bed despite the fact that her head ailed her. Even the twins seemed quieter than usual, wearing solemn little faces instead of giggling and babbling. Mother wiped tears off her cheeks. Ruby didn’t know if there were for the pain of sending father away or her head. Ruby suspected it was probably both.
When they entered the building President Levine looked around foyer with a panicked look on his face. He caught sight of the family and rushed toward them as they entered the building.
“Ruby!” he cried upon seeing her. “You play the piano. Our organist just rushed home ill, and the conference is ready to start.”
His hand cupped the back of her shoulder and before she could protest, she was ushered to the piano bench. Ruby turned to him. “President, I don’t play in front of people.”
“Nonsense, you played in front of me.”
“You are not hundreds of people,” she begged.
“Trust in the Lord, Ruby. You are supposed to play today,” he said and walked away.
Ruby looked for her family. They stood to the side of the room all of their faces aghast with dismay. They all knew as well as Ruby that the President had made a huge mistake.
The President announced “All is Well” as the opening hymn. Ruby had no choice but to sit at the piano bench and the moment she did her heart pounded, her throat grew two sizes too big, and all her appendages went horrifyingly limp. She could barely keep herself sitting upright at the piano let alone play it.
A rustle went through the audience as hymnbooks were opened and pages were turned. Ruby looked and found her family still standing along the wall watching her. Ruby’s eyes found her father’s face, and he mouthed the words, “We’re praying.” Ruby turned away from him and towards the piano. Almost everyone they knew would see her shame them, and worse yet in the house of God.
The keys were cool against her hands. She hit a note by mistake. The sound was thrown out into that huge full space. The audience murmured.
Then Ruby heard the notes of the song in her head, as she always did before she played and she knew how to move her hands across the piano to make those sounds. She didn’t know how she knew, but for her the hearing was knowing.
These notes came to her mind differently than usual, they sliced through the fog in her mind, and the force of their sound reverberated down the length of her arms and into her fingers. She felt them more than heard them, and as she moved her shaking fingers over the keys she somehow managed to play them.
The entire performance was the most uncomfortable experience she had ever had in her life. She felt as if she were about to plunge forward off a precipice and the only thing holding her back was a strong gust of wind. A hush filled the audience as the song closed.
Ruby could sense the peace in the room around her, but was not part of it until she played the last note and then exhaustion overwhelmed her. She pulled the lid of the piano down over the keys and rested her head on it and did not move until she felt a hand on her shoulder.
Sister Gee spoke to her. “Your mother sent me. I’ll take the rest of the meeting from here.”
Her family sat at the back of the room. All of them had tears on their cheeks, and they welcomed her with soft words and hugs.
“We prayed for you Ruby and it worked,” Andrew whispered, eyes bright. “I’ve never heard you play more beautifully. And now I know God answers prayers.”
Ruby hesitated before she sat down next to Andrew feeling overwhelmed. Her playing had been an answer to her brother’s prayer? She couldn’t deny that her being able to play in front of so many people had been nothing short of miraculous, but she had always imagined miracles to be less uncomfortable. She would not enjoy repeating that experience, but a glance down the row confirmed that her family’s downcast spirits had been brightened.
As Ruby settled into her seat the peace in the room finally sunk deep into her heart. She leaned her cheek against Andrew’s shoulder, feeling like their entire family was wrapped up tight together in an invisible quilt. If God could make her strong enough to play well in front of hundreds of people then God could give her family other miracles. Miracles that would make them strong enough to lend Papa to the Lord for a mission.
About the Author: Emily Debenham graduated from BYU with a double BA in history and Latin teaching. She taught Latin for two years before she had her daughter. In her free time she reads, writes, blogs, and manages her husband (also a writer). This year on her book blog she has been highlighting the works of LDS picture book authors. Her blog can be found at gamilareview.blogspot.com.*
*Author information as of the publication of this story.