I haven't thought of this in a really long time, but something happened to me last night that brought everything back like it was, well, happening again right now. That night from 20 years ago has been playing over in my mind all day. Every. Icy. Detail.
When I was young, my parents would send me to live with my grandparents over the summer so that I could get a taste of nature, a change of pace from the big city. Or maybe they were just too busy and needed a break. I would always make a fuss about the four hour drive into the countryside just to sit in a boring old house all day with boring old grandpa and grandma, but by the end of the summer I wouldn't want to leave. At least until the summer when I was 9, after which I never went back.
The days ran into each other in those young summers: sprinting through the woods with whittled sticks, playing with the dogs, breathlessly eating lunch on front porches. Luckily a few of the neighbors had children my age who would romp with me. We would explore and stage wars and fight over who was dead. It was a time of great imagination. My grandma would fret over me, pinching my ear when I came home covered in mud, while my grandpa mowed the lawn or rocked on the front porch. The house itself was old and dark, but it was made homey by the decades that my grandparents had lived there, creaky floorboards and all. It was picturesque really, and I would be more nostalgic for it if it wasn’t so tainted by the night that my grandpa died.
I remember waking up in the middle of the night because it was so cold. The thin sheet I had over me was suitable for the normally stifling August, but not for the chill that had crept so supernaturally into even the darkest corners of my bedroom. I shivered and turned over, glancing around the room for another blanket but knowing it was in vain. All hope for sleep that night had already vanished, though I didn’t quite realize it at that moment. I was a bit frightened, but tried to rationalize things for myself. I needed to get up to get another blanket, or at least to get a bit of comfort from my grandma, but the floor was opaque beneath my feet, as if it were obscured by a black fog. Fear prevailed, so I stubbornly resolved to tough it out under my inadequate sheet than put my feet on that cold wooden floor.
Until I heard the music.
That haunting melody came slithering out of the darkness and wrapped its pale fingers around my heart and squeezed, shooting through my body icy chills far colder than the air of the room. I listened for a few moments, hypnotized by that harp-sound as it grew louder. It overcame my fear of the dark, or perhaps more accurately it encompassed my fear, and with a horrible fascination I took a few steps and turned the knob on my door but without opening it. Dread filled me. I knew that I had to look, but looking was the last thing I wanted to do. I was as condemned as a prisoner marching to his execution. I opened the door.
There in the open window at the end of the hallway, illuminated by a perfect shaft of moonlight, sat a pale, vaguely-human figure, plucking with its long, delicate fingers the song that would haunt my dreams and memories for years. It looked like a woman with long flowing hair, wearing all white. It looked translucent. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen and have ever seen since.
She paid no attention to me, but appeared as sad as her song as she stared into the darkness outside the window. My body moved compulsively toward her, slow step after slow step on the creaky wooden boards. Each step made me cringe as if I had interrupted the silence of a sleeping house with a scream, but I couldn’t stop. I still had the same feeling of dread, and as her song wove its way around me I began to feel a sorrow that quickly surpassed the capacity of normal human emotion. It was as if my heart was in my feet and I was treading on it with every step. My ability to even comprehend hope was replaced by a resigned anxiety for whatever was to come. She still didn’t notice my presence despite my choked sobs and intrusive footsteps drawing ever closer. She continued to play.
As I passed my grandparent’s bedroom, just steps from the window, the door flung open and I felt something grab my arm. It snapped me out of my daze and I shouted out in surprise. But it was only my grandma, looking very afraid. I turned to look again at the pale woman in the window. She hadn’t moved, but she was staring directly at me with huge, lunar eyes burning with malice. It was only then that I realized the music had stopped. I felt her rage. I felt her hatred. I swear I felt my soul straining against the confines of my body with that stare, and then she was gone with a supernatural shriek that I still can’t be sure wasn’t my own as I buried my face against my grandma’s leg.
I could only ask my grandma “did you hear it?” as she stroked my head sadly outside that open door and empty hallway. I got up to look out the window. There was ice on the open window pane, and I saw my breath one time in the quiet night. My grandma was still kneeling on the floor.
“What’s wrong, darling?” She asked me.
“Did you see the woman? There was a woman!”
She looked at me, “there wasn’t any woman, honey. I think you were having a nightmare.”
“No! I saw her! She was playing a song, did you hear it, grandma?”
“No, sweetie. It was just a dream.” She swallowed back a sob, “I need to tell you something, ok?”
She took me by the hand and led me into the bedroom that my grandparents had shared for 39 years and showed me my grandfather lying on his back with his eyes open. I took his cold hand, but I was too young to understand the permanence of death. I felt sad, but it could not compare with the sorrow of just a few minutes ago, so I was blank, searching for expression. It already seemed like my supernatural experience was very over. It seemed like maybe it was just a dream after all. But then I heard the music again, coming from far away. And his hand grew colder and seemed to infect my own with its chill.
I dropped it and collapsed, sobbing. The sorrow had returned, and with a concrete direction this time. I saw my grandpa rocking on the porch with a smile on his face as he watched me play, and I understood each aching corner of that old heart until I felt my own would burst. The music had stopped and my grandma rocked me in her arms, but I did not feel normal again for a long time. I had reached such depths then that it was a long way for me to climb back out.
My parents just thought I was taking my grandfather’s death particularly hard, but it was more than that. Some mornings I couldn’t get out of bed, and my parents had to pull me out of school for the semester because it had no appeal to me. Neither threats nor incentives seemed to register. The music haunted me. I started to try to reproduce it on the old piano in my parent’s apartment, clunking out minor tones with no guidance. The melody played in my dreams almost every night, so vivid and sad, but it eluded me each monotonous hour.
I thought that maybe I needed to train my ear, so I practiced scales and intervals. I learned to pick out subtle variations in chord tones, and I adapted new rhythms to keep myself entertained. My parents were relieved, but they didn’t know that I was obsessed. I studied Beethoven to pass the time, and Chopin for a challenge. After a while I could play everything I saw on sheet music or heard on the radio. Only that cursed song escaped me. I would wake up humming the melody, but when I reached for a pen to transcribe it my memory was blank. Years passed this way, and my misery became less acute. I grew to love what I had gotten so good at and redoubled my efforts, and my parents were proud of me.
They sent me to a conservatory because I had missed so much school that it would hinder my piano studies to try to catch up. They said words like prodigy. Soon I was caught up in a world of studying and performing, which eventually became just performing. The critics caught wind of me, and I was elevated to a lifestyle of performing and partying that the almost-famous engage in to try to emulate the actually-famous. But the rave reviews of my potential stopped coming when the critics noticed what would turn out to be an impassable barrier for me: I emphasized the tragedy in romanticism, I tinged the most joyful songs with a ghastly nostalgia, and, the harshest, that my abundant technical skill masked a grave emptiness of emotion. I was relegated to the pool of almost-world-class musicians whose names you have never heard. Only the party was left, but that soon faded into nights of lonely drinking as all of my friends moved on. I’ve played in bars, at funerals, and for various bands for the past many years.
I had forgotten what got me started, that music, until last night when I heard it again. How haunting, how beautiful, and how damning it is, that melody.
Last night I sat down at the old piano I inherited from my parents and played the melody that I’ve come to think is just for me. The most beautiful song I’ve ever heard, the loneliest song of all time. Letting it spin out for over an hour, transforming and adapting to the rhythm, the theme ever present in its dozens of variations, the most masterful song ever composed, and I played it.
It was just as enticing as the first time. Honestly, I only stopped playing when my fingers became too stiff with cold to reach the keys. The melody has not stopped running through my mind, but I know now that I can never write it down. When I stood up from the piano, I felt vacant. I turned around and looked at the pale, unblinking face staring at me from outside of my window. Nothing happened. I went outside and looked up because the windows in my building were all sealed after someone jumped out of one, but there was nothing there. I’ve been awake since then. The song won’t let me sleep.
I just feel very sad.