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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 2

Greg Bear

  The composer nodded, his slate-gray eyes focused on the distance above the hedges bordering the yard. "You think there's something higher than what we see - or lower - and you want to find it."

  "That's it." Michael nodded.

  "Are you a good poet?"

  "Not very," Michael said automatically.

  "No false modesty now." Waltiri wiped condensation from his glass on the knee of his pants.

  Michael thought for a moment. "I'm going to be."

  "Going to be what?"

  "I'm going to be a good poet."

  "That's a fine thing to say. Now that you've said it, you know I'll be watching you. You must become a good poet."

  Michael shook his head ruefully. "Thanks a lot!"

  "Think nothing of it. We all need someone to watch over us. For me, it was Gustav Mahler. I met him when I was eleven years old, and he asked me much the same thing. I was a young piano player - how do they say - a prodigy. 'How good will you be?' he asked after he heard me perform. I tried to dodge the question by acting like a young boy, but he turned his very intense dark eyes on me and said again, 'How good?' Because I was cornered, I puffed up and said, 'I'll be very good.' And he smiled at me! What a benediction that was. Ah, what a moment! Do you know Mahler?"

  He meant Mahler's music, and Michael didn't.

  "He was my god. The sad German. I worshiped him. He died a few months after we met, but somehow I felt he still watched me, he would still be disappointed if I didn't make something of myself."

  By early September, Waltiri had taken Michael even further into his confidence. "When I began to write music for movies, I was a little ashamed," he said one evening when Michael came over for dinner. "Even though my first score was for a good movie, Trevor Howard in Ashenden. Now I have no regrets, but I thought then, what would my heroes say about writing for silly films? Still, it was next to impossible to work otherwise. I had married Golda in 1930, and we had to live. Times were hard then.

  "But always before me was the shining splendor of perhaps doing serious music, concert hall material. I wrote some on the side - piano pieces, cantatas, exactly the opposite of the big orchestral scores for the studios. A little has even been recorded recently, because I am so well-known as a film composer. I wanted to do an opera - how I loved the libretti of Hofmannsthal, and how I envied Richard Strauss that he lived in a time when such things were easier! 'Dream and reality are one, together, you and I alone, always together… to all eternity…' 'Geht all's sonst wie ein Traum dahin vor meinem Sinn…" He laughed and shook his head. "But I am wandering.

  "I had one last fling with serious music. And…" Waltiri paused in the dim, candlelit dining room, his eyes again focused on the distance, this time piercing a framed landscape over the china cupboard. "A very serious fling it was. A man my own age then, perhaps a little older, by the name of David Clarkham approached me at Warner Brothers one day. I remember it was raining, but he didn't wear a raincoat…just a gray wool suit, without any drips on it. Not wet, you understand?"

  Michael nodded.

  "We had some mutual acquaintances. At first, I thought maybe he was just another studio vulture. You know the kind, maybe. They hang around, bask in other peoples' fame and fortune, live off parties. 'Lounge lizards,' somebody called them. But it turned out he was knowledgeable about music. A charming fellow. We got along well… for a time.

  "He had some theories about music that were highly unusual, to say the least." Waltiri went to a glassed-in bookcase, lifted a door, and withdrew a small thick volume in a worn wrapper. He held it out for Michael's inspection. The title was Devil's Music and the author was Charles Fort.

  "We worked together, Clarkham and I. He suggested orchestrations and arrangements; I composed." Waltiri's expression became grim. His next words were clipped and ironic. "'Arno,' he tells me - we are good friends by this time - 'Arno, there shall be no other music like this. Not for millions of years have such sounds been heard on Earth.' I kidded him about dinosaurs breaking wind. He looked at me very seriously and said, 'Someday you will understand what I mean.' I accepted he was a little eccentric, but also brilliant. He appealed directly to my wish to be another Stravinsky. So… I was a sucker. I applied his theories to our composition, using what he called 'psychotropic tone structure.'

  "'This,' he tells me, 'will do exactly what Scriabin tried to do, and failed.'" Michael didn't know who Scriabin was, but Waltiri continued as if with a long-rehearsed speech.

  "The piece we wrote, it was my forty-fifth opus, a concerto for piano and orchestra called 'Infinity.'" He took the book from Michael's hand and opened it to a marked passage, then handed it back. "So we get infamous. Read, please."

  Michael read.

  "Or of strange things musical.

  "A song of enchantment.

  "Judge as you will, here is the data:

  "That on November 23rd, 1939, a musician created a work of undeniable genius, a work which changed the lives of famous men, fellow musicians. This man was Arno Waltiri, and with his new concerto, Opus 45, he created a suitable atmosphere for musical catastrophe.

  "Picture it: a cold night, Los Angeles, the Pandall Theater on Sunset Boulevard. Crowds in black silk hats, white tie and tails, long sheer gowns, pouring in to hear a premier performance. Listen to it: the orchestra tuning, cacophonic. Then Waltiri raising his baton, bringing it down…

  "We are told the music was strange, as no music heard before. Sounds grew in that auditorium like apparitions. We are told that a famous composer walked out in disgust. And . then, a week later, filed suit against Waltiri! 'I am unable to hear or compose music in a sensible fashion!' he said in the court deposition. And what did he blame? Waltiri's music!

  "Consider it.

  "What would prompt a well-known and respected composer to sue a fellow composer for an impossible - so doctors tell us - injury? The case was dropped before it ever reached court. But… what did that concerto sound like?

  "I submit to you, perhaps Waltiri knew the answer to an age-old question, namely, 'What song did the sirens sing?'"

  Michael closed the book. "It's not all nonsense," Waltiri said, returning it to the shelf. "That is roughly what happened. And then, months later, twenty people disappear. The only thing they have in common is, they were in the audience for our music." He looked at Michael and lifted his eyebrows. "Most of us live in the real world, my young friend… but David Clarkham… I am not so sure. The first time I saw him, coming out of the wet with his suit so dry, I thought to myself - 'The man must walk between raindrops.' The last time I saw him it was also raining, in July of 1944. Two years before, he had bought a house a few blocks from here. We didn't see each other often. But this wet summer day he comes to stand on our porch and gives me a key. 'I'm going on a trip,' he says. 'You should have this, in case you ever wish to follow me. The house will be taken care of.' Very mysterious. With the key there is a piece of paper."

  Waltiri took a small teak box from the top of the bookshelf and held it before Michael, pulling up the lid. Inside was a yellowed, folded paper, and wrapped partly within, a tarnished brass house key. "I never followed him. I was curious, but I never had the courage. And besides, there was Golda. How could I leave her? But you… you are a young man."

  "Where did Clarkham go?" Michael asked.

  "I don't know. The last words he said to me, he says, 'Arno, should you ever wish to come after me, do everything on the paper. Go to my house between midnight and two in the morning. I will meet you." He removed the note and key from the box and gave them to Michael. "I won't live forever. I will never follow. Perhaps you."

  Michael grinned. "It all sounds pretty weird to me."

  "It is very weird, and silly. That house - he told me he did a great deal of musical experimentation there. I heard very little of it. As I said, we weren't close after the premiere of the concerto. But once he told me, "The music gets into the walls in time, you know. It haunts the place'

  "He was a brilli
ant man, Michael, but he - how do you say it? - he 'screwed me over.' I took the blame for the concerto. He left for two years. I settled the lawsuits. Nothing was ever decided in court. I was nearly broke.

  "He had made me write music that affects the way a person thinks, as drugs affect the brain. I have written nothing like it since."

  "What will happen if I go?"

  "I don't know," Waltiri said, staring at him intently. "Perhaps you will find what lives above or below the things we know."

  "I mean, if something happened to me, what would my parents think?"

  "There comes a time when one must disregard the thoughts of one's parents, or the warnings of old men, when caution must be temporarily put aside and instincts followed. In short, when one must rely on one's own judgment." He opened another door in the bookcase. "Now, my young friend, before we become sententious, I've been thinking there is one other thing I'd like to give to you. A book. One of my favorites." He pulled out a pocket-sized book bound in plain, shiny black leather and held it out for Michael.

  "It's very pretty," Michael said. "It looks old."

  "Not so very old," Waltiri said. "My father bought it for me when I left for California. It's the finest poetry, in English, all my favorites. A poet should have it. There is a large selection of Coleridge. You've read him, I'm sure."

  Michael nodded.

  "Then, for me, read him again."

  Two weeks later, Michael was swimming in the backyard pool when his mother came out on the patio with a peculiar expression. She brushed back a strand of her red hair nervously and shielded her eyes against the sun. Michael stared at her from poolside, his arm flesh goose-bumping. He almost knew.

  "That was Golda on the phone," she said. "Arno's dead."

  There was no funeral. Waltiri's ashes were placed in a columbarium at Forest Lawn. There were features on his death in the newspaper and on television.

  That had been six weeks before. Michael had last spoken with Golda two days ago. She had sat on the piano bench in her front room, straight-backed and dignified, wearing a cream colored suit, her golden hair immaculately coifed. Her accent was more pronounced than her husband's.

  "He was sitting right here, at the piano," she said, "and he looked at me and said, 'Golda, what have I done, I've given that boy Clarkham's key. Call his parents now.' And his arm stiffened - - He said he was in great pain. Then he was on the floor." She looked at Michael earnestly. "But I did not tell your parents. He trusted you. You will make the right decision."

  She sat quietly for a time, then continued. 'Two days later, a tiny brown sparrow flew into Arno's study, where the library is now. It sat on the piano and plucked at pieces of sheet music. Arno had once made a joke about a bird being a spirit inside an animal body. I tried to shoo it out the window, but it wouldn't go. It perched on the music stand and stayed there for an hour, twisting its head to stare at me. Then it flew away." She began to cry. "I would dearly love for Arno to visit me now and then, even as a sparrow. He is such a fine man." She wiped her eyes and hugged Michael tightly, then let him go and straightened his jacket.

  "He trusted you," she had repeated, tugging gently at his lapel. "You will know what is best."

  Now he stood on the porch of Clarkham's house, feeling resigned if not calm. Night birds sang in the trees lining the street, a sound that had always intrigued him for the way it carried a bit of daylight into the still darkness.

  He couldn't say precisely why he was there. Perhaps it was a tribute to a friend he had known for so short a time. Had Waltiri actually wanted him to follow the instructions? It was all so ambiguous.

  He inserted the key in the lock.

  To discover what is above or below.

  He turned the key.

  Music haunts the place now.

  The door opened quietly.

  Michael entered and shut the door tight behind him. The brass workings clicked.

  Walking straight in the darkness was difficult. He brushed against a wall with his shoulder. The touch set off an unexpected bong, as if he were inside a giant bell. He didn't know if he had crossed a room or made his way down a hall, but he bumped against another door, fumbled for the knob, and found it. The door opened easily and silently. To Michael's left in the room beyond was another doorway leading into a smaller room. Moonlight spilled through French doors like milk on the bare wood floor. All the rooms were empty of furniture.

  The French doors opened onto a bare brick patio and a desolate yard, with a brick wall beyond. The door handles felt like ice in his hands.

  He left Clarkham's house. A flagstone path curved around the outside to the side gate. When he had gone through the front door there had been no moon, but now a sullen green orb rose over the silhouettes of the houses on the opposite side of the street. It didn't cast much light. (And yet, the moonlight through the French doors had been bright - - ) The streetlights were also strangely dim, and yellowish-green in color.

  There were fewer trees than he remembered, and those were leafless and skeletal. The air smelled antiseptic, electric and somehow mildewy all at once, as if it had been preserved and then had spoiled for lack of use. The sky was pitch black and starless. Through the windows of the houses across the street came fitful brown glimmers, not at all like electric lights or television - more like reflections off dried blood.

  He went to the front door of the house on the left. As predicted in the instructions, the door was open a crack. Warm, welcoming light poured in a narrow shaft from within. Entering, Michael saw a small table sitting on delicately curved and worked legs on the polished wood floor of the hallway. A brass bowl on the table held fruit: oranges, apples, something blue and shiny. Down the hall about eight feet and to the left was the rounded archway leading to the living room. He closed the front door.

  The air in the house was stuffy. A faint mildewy smell issued from the walls and floor and hung in transparent wisps through the hall. Michael approached the archway, nose wrinkled. The house was lighted as if somebody lived there, but the only sound he heard was that of his own footsteps.

  The living room's only furniture was a chair on a large circular throw rug before the dark fireplace. The throw rug was made of concentric circles of tan and black, resembling a target. The chair had its rear to him and rocked slowly back and forth. He couldn't see who was sitting in it. He had just realized he . was not following the instructions when the chair stopped rocking and began to swivel.

  Suddenly, Michael didn't want to see or be seen. He ran down the hall, around a short bend and into another empty room. "Do not stop to look at anything," the note had said. He had hesitated, he told himself, not stopped; still, he felt the need to be more cautious. He made sure no one was following him, then exited through the rear door of the house onto yet another brick patio. To his left was a trellis roof overgrown with wisteria. Fireflies danced in oleander bushes to each side. Beyond the patio, glowing paper lanterns hung from strings over a stretch of flower beds.

  He was startled to see someone sitting behind a glass-topped wrought-iron table under the wisteria trellis. Except for the wan flicker of the paper lanterns, there was little illumination, but he could make out that the person at the table wore a long dress, pale and flounced, and a broad hat half-obscured by inky shadow.

  Michael stared hard at the seated figure, fascinated. Was someone supposed to meet him, take him farther? The note had said nothing about a woman waiting. He tried to discern the face beneath the hat.

  The figure rose slowly from the chair. There was a quality to its movement, a loose awkwardness, that made his flesh crawl. He backed up, stumbled down the porch steps into the garden and twisted around to fall on his face. For a second or two he was stunned and breathless. Then he looked over his shoulder.

  The figure had left the table and stood at the top of the steps. Even hidden by the dress, every limb was obviously bending in the wrong place. He still couldn't make out the face beneath the hat.

  It took t
he first step down from the patio, and he jumped to his feet. The second, and he ran across the garden to the black wrought-iron gate at the rear. The latch opened easily and he stopped in the alley to get his bearings. "To the left," he said, his breath ragged. He heard footsteps behind, the sound of the latch. Was it the fifth or sixth gate to the left? The alley was too dark to allow him to re-read the note, but he could make out gates - on both sides. Trees loomed thick and black over the opposite wall, absolutely still.

  He counted the gates as he ran… two, three, four, five. He stopped again, then passed to the sixth.

  A lock blocked the iron latch. He knew instinctively he couldn't just climb over - if he did, he would find nothing but darkness on the other side. He fumbled frantically for the key in his pocket, the only key he had been given.

  The figure in the flounced dress was six or seven yards behind, lurching slowly and deliberately toward him, as if it had all the time in the world.

  The key fit the lock, but just barely. He had to jerk it several times. There was a sigh behind him, long and dry, and he felt a cold pressure on his shoulder, the rasp of something light and hard brushing his jacket sleeve -

  Michael pushed the gate open and fell through, crawling and stumbling across broken dirt and withered stubble. The gate shut with a clang and the snick of the latch falling into place again. He closed his eyes and clutched the crumbling clods and twigs, waiting.

  Several seconds passed before he even allowed himself to think he hadn't been followed. The quality of the air had changed. He rolled over and looked at the stone wall. The figure should have been visible above the wall, or through die openwork of the gate, but it wasn't.

  He let his breath out all at once. He felt safe now - safe for the moment at least. "It worked," he said, standing and brushing off his clothes. "It really worked!" Somehow, he wasn't all that elated. A strange thing had just happened, and he had been badly frightened.

  It couldn't have taken Michael more than fifteen minutes to do everything in the instructions, yet dawn was a hazy orange in the east.