By Holly Day
The thick sheaf of sheet music rested on top of a pile of old cooking books and a dog-eared collection of Bible-themed children’s books, loosely collected in a manila folder simply labeled “sheet music.” Whoever had thought to formally label the otherwise plain folder had taken the time to use an old-fashioned label maker, like the type one sometimes found as a cereal box prize in the 1970s. Robert carefully picked the folder up, wincing as the tiny black label fluttered to the ground as though there had never been any adhesive holding it on at all. Now he would have to buy it. He prayed that the folder contained something interesting, and not just time-worn hymnals or Christmas music.
A nun in a knee-length flowered muumuu, possibly in charge of the basement church sale, came over to peer over his shoulder at the handwritten sheets of music inside the folder. Some of the titles, carefully rendered by hand at the top of each page, were familiar to Robert, while others were completely unfamiliar. “We used to be internationally known for our music program, a long time ago, and Sisters would join us specifically to learn how to read and write music,” she said. “We were one of the only convents in the whole county that wrote its own music.”
“This isn’t exactly original material.” Robert held up a faithfully hand-rendered copy of “The Silver Swan.” “Unless this piece of paper is over 400 years old, and Orlando Gibbons was a guest composer here.” As he said it, his heart leaped a little at the possibility. Seemed highly unlikely, but if the paper was high-quality linen, it was possible. He quickly flipped back to the cover of the folder to make sure the price tag still read $1.00.
“Oh, no.” The nun shook her head and chuckled. “I doubt it’s even 50 years old. The Sisters here are encouraged to copy existing pieces of sheet music by hand to get a better understanding of how to put their own musical pieces together. Even now, we don’t use any computer software for transcribing. It’s all done by hand. Not being a musician myself, I don’t know if that really helps learn how to write music or not, but that’s what the teachers have had them do since our music program first started. It probably helped pass the time during the winter, anyway, especially in the days before television.”
Robert thumbed through the stack of hand-drawn sheet music. There was the expected collection of well-known hymns and popular piano pieces in the folder, but there were a few pieces he was completely unfamiliar with, perhaps even original compositions. “Any of the nuns here become famous musicians or composers? Might make something like this worth a lot of money.”
“It says ‘one dollar’ on the folder, but feel free to contribute whatever you think the papers are worth.” She hobbled back over to her chair in the corner and sat down wearily. “I don’t know of any famous Sisters from here, but I also don’t know much about music.”
Robert fished around in his pocket until he found a single crumpled dollar bill and put it in the can by the door, nodding a curt farewell to the nun as he left.
Once home, Robert spilled the sheet music out onto the floor of his tiny apartment. He had meant to be more careful about his initial inspection of the folder and its contents, but the thin spine of the ancient manilla folder tore through completely the moment he unfolded it. Many of the selections had been so meticulously rendered that they looked like professionally-printed sheet music, while others were a hasty jumble of scribbled note stems and crossed off measures. Some of the pieces had hand-written comments in the margins, translating the original Italian verses into English or German and listing names of women – probably Sisters from the convent – who were to sing specific parts of the score. A couple of the pieces were signed in the upper right-hand corner, much as a child would a school assignment, but most bore only the original composer’s name and the arrangement’s title.
“Well, now, this is wrong,” muttered Roger. Someone had added an extra measure to the middle of “The Silver Swan,” one that jarred completely with the rest of the music. He tried to hum his way through the piece incorporating the new measure, but couldn’t seem to make the transition from the original to the new music work. Arcangelo Corelli’s “Sonata Opus 3, No. 7” also contained a new measure, right after the recapitulation – a confusing jumble of notes and rests that didn’t even seem to be in the same key or even the same time signature as the preceding and following measures. Once again, trying to hum his way through the altered section of the arrangement proved futile, as if his brain couldn’t accept the changes made to the piece.
“Why would anyone try to change such a perfect score?” Robert mused as he reached under his bed and pulled out his electric Casio keyboard. Surely these clumsy, obtuse alterations weren’t what the convent’s music teacher had in mind when she’d had her students transcribe and dissect these master works of classical music. He plugged the ancient keyboard into the wall socket and switched it on, and as it noisily hummed and vibrated itself to life, he bellowed, a little off-key, “Nottee giorno faticar, per chi nulla sa grandirpiovae vento sopportar, mangier malle e, mal dormir! Oh, good, you’re ready,” he said as the tiny lights on the instrument panel stopped flickering and began to glow a soft, steady, yellow-orange glow. He carefully propped the Gibbons’ piece up on the plastic music stand and began to play, eyes half-closed as he felt out the familiar notes.
He had managed to plow halfway through the song and had just started working his way through the affected, jarring measure when he felt something in the room with him, something awful and dark and wrong. Robert whirled around, his heart pounding. The room was empty. The feeling of dread left the room the moment his fingers left the keyboard.
“Is somebody there?” He got up and walked over to the window. The street below was empty, save for a lone small cat chasing after something in the underbrush. Maybe the cat had caught something, and the horrible sound of something tiny dying out there in the street was what caused that feeling of presence. Or the damned cat itself yowling outside his window. This was why most musicians practiced in soundproofed studios, so that their concentration couldn’t be divided between what they were trying to play and the encroaching sounds of the outside world.
Robert sat down and pulled another piece of music out, this time a mangled-looking John Dowland. He slapped on a pair of noise-canceling headphones, too, in the hopes that it would block out whatever the cat was doing out there. They weren’t very good headphones—and were really more a pair of fancy earmuffs than something a professional musician with an unlimited budget would purchase—but they should be good enough to block out the sound of a catfight two floors down. The transcriber of the Dowland piece had had such a shaky or impatient hand that Robert could barely make the notes out, and it was almost impossible to tell from sight that a measure smack in the middle had been garbled as badly as the Gibbons’ had. He was about halfway through the measure when the horrible feeling filled him again, and this time, he was positive he heard something moaning and slobbering in the darkness just behind him. This time, though, Robert made his fingers keep playing, realizing that the noises were somehow coming from the keyboard itself, that these impossible, unmusical screams of agony were caused by some blighted nun’s careful assemblage of notes.
And then suddenly, he was out of that noisy pit of pain and terror; the notes seamlessly slipped back into key, and he found himself mumbling Dowland’s familiar words of unrequited love with the last few bars of the song, almost as if in defiance of the horrible wrong done to one of his favorite pieces of music. He sat still for several seconds after he had finished playing. His heart pounded, his forehead was slick with sweat. How on earth could those sounds have come from just a piano? Either the transcriber of that “wrong” measure was a genius and had learned how to coax those awful sounds just by placing the right notes together, or it was all just a horrible accident.
The next day, Robert brought a small selection of the music from the folder with him to the downtown mall, where his friend Donna managed a piano dealership. He had carefully circled all the affected measures so that he could both find them quickly if asked and to prepare himself so that when he was about to play those sections, he’d have a couple of measures to prepare himself for the resulting cacophony. He had spent much of the night before forcing himself to play piece after piece of altered sheet music, forcing himself to continue to play through the rasp of iron nails being ripped out of flesh, of flesh sizzling under the touch of a white-hot brand, of the terrified shrieks of men and women alike as heavy footsteps stomped towards them, somewhere and somehow in those scant excerpts of music. He had managed to get through six whole scores before he couldn’t stand it anymore.
“So you think these are worth any money?” Donna looked briefly over each piece of hand-written sheet music. “They look very old, beautifully rendered – oh, dear.” She paused, frowning. “Did you draw on these? And with a ball point pen? Look, see? You ripped a tiny hole in the paper here with the pen, and here, too. What on earth were you thinking?” She sighed and handed the papers back to him. “If you want me to try to find a buyer, I can tell you that these are worthless now that you’ve scribbled all over them. You got any more?”
“I’ve got lots more,” said Robert. “But I’m not here to sell them. I just wanted to play them on a real piano, see what they sound like on something other than my shitty little electric keyboard.”
“They’re not going to sound much different. Don’t tell anyone, but a piano’s a piano. The only difference is that the electric one’s need to be turned on to work.” She waved her hand at the room full of upright and baby grands surrounding them. “Take your pick. I don’t usually get many customers before noon anyway.”
Robert chose a massive black Yamaha for his performance, closing his eyes in ecstasy as his fingers rested on the smooth, Ivorene-capped keys. “A piano is not a piano, heathen. This one is a piano with a capital ‘P’.” The notes that poured out of the full-sized concert grand were rich and rounded, loud and solid-sounding compared to the tinny electric keyboard he was so used to playing. It was the difference between instant coffee and fresh-ground, margarine and butter, real grass and Astroturf. The notes sent shivers down his spine, made him more miserable knowing he would never own anything as wonderful as this capital-P piano.
He was so entranced with the sound of the piano that he almost forgot to prepare himself for the section of music he had circled in bright red ink. His fingers stumbled into the altered measure, and suddenly, he was in Hell, he was surrounded by crackling walls of fire, and within those walls, someone was being burnt alive. He could almost smell the skin blistering red and black, peeling back to reveal tortured muscle and exposed bone. There were other voices in the fire, too, someone babbling horribly, uncontrollably, another voice singing some short musical refrain to themself over and over, just softly enough that Robert couldn’t quite identify the piece. And then Donna was yanking his hands away from the keyboard.
“What the hell are you doing to my piano?” she hissed. “If my boss came in here and heard you playing that crap, he’d fire me on the spot. What the hell are you playing? ‘Pathétique?’ I don’t think so. It started out real nice, but–don’t do that again, okay? That was just awful.” She shuddered and pulled the stack of sheet music off the piano stand. “I think you scared the shit out of a couple of piano teachers shopping for graduation presents for their students.”
“I’m sorry,” stammered Robert. “I didn’t know what it would sound like that on a real piano. I thought maybe there was something wrong with my Casio.”
“Whatever it was you were doing here was not something you should ever do again.” Donna was calmer now, but firm in her admonition. “I totally feel like I should disinfect this poor piano after what you just made it do.” She paused, looking at the sheet music in her hand. “What were you playing that sounded so awful? Was it this section you circled?”
“Yeah,” said Robert. “I don’t know why, but someone put that section in the music when they transcribed it. Some nun,” he added, as if that might explain something.
“Weird.” Donna put the piece of music in the piano stand and sat down on the bench next to Robert. “In my head, it’s just a jumble of noise when I look at it, but maybe–” She took a deep breath, as if expecting the worst, and carefully began to play only the notes from the encircled section. A clanging, discordant, but otherwise unremarkable jangle of notes sounded from the piano. “Well, now, that’s not what I heard at all,” she said, confused.
“I know!” said Robert excitedly. “I tried playing only these sections myself last night, and every time, they just sounded crappy. But here, listen, if you start way back here, at the beginning of the phrase–“ he jabbed at the piece of sheet music with his index finger, four measures back–“then it sounds like this.” He played the phrase from the beginning, clenching his jaw tightly as he approached the new measure. Once again, his entire world was plunged into screams and burning flesh, rattling chains and something dying. He stopped playing before the measure was over, his insides lurching as he was thankfully yanked back into reality.
“That is just … horrible.” Donna’s face white and pinched. She was holding the edge of the piano bench so tightly that the sharp bones of her knuckles stood out against her skin. “How are you doing that?”
“I have no idea.” Robert closed the lid of the piano in an attempt to distance himself from what he had just played. He felt hollow and drained inside, as if he had just suffered some tremendous loss. He suddenly knew why the altered pieces of music had become so worrisome and important to him–deep down, he didn’t want to know that a beautiful grand piano could be made to mimic the sounds of torture, that those awful sounds could be written into a piece of music simply by arranging the notes on a staff a certain way, and that those sounds could be reproduced in all their awfulness, again and again, by anyone. Mostly, he couldn’t understand why someone would write these awful segments into otherwise glorious pieces of music. It was as if the transcriber had laid a trap for the performer, a terrible hole full of sharpened pikes hidden in the middle of a peaceful forest or a well-maintained garden.
“Well, I hope you didn’t pay too much for it.” Donna got up from the bench and smoothed down the front of her skirt. “I never heard of anyone famous, musician or otherwise, coming out of Sister Mary’s, so I doubt any real collector would be interested in seeing those.”
“I think I’ve got my dollar’s worth out of them,” said Robert. “I’ll probably just burn them or something. I wouldn’t want to inflict these on some other unsuspecting musician.” He slid the sheet music back into their folder. Except for him and Donna, the store was completely empty, and he hoped for Donna’s sake that he hadn’t chased away any customers with his performance. Aside from the occasional musical aesthete or new homeowner with an extra room on their hands, most people looking for a keyboard headed straight for the Korg dealer at the other end of the mall.
Once home, Robert put the sheet music he’d brought to the mall back in the pile with the other pieces from the church sale. He wondered how he should go about getting rid of the material–despite what he’d said to Donna, he thought he could find a buyer for the music—if not a music collector, then some sort of collector of the arcane and weird. Just the fact that the music was hand-rendered by nuns at a convent had to make them worth something, if perhaps only to some nut with a nun fetish. He carefully spread the sheet music on the floor in front of him and tried to figure out how to best present the music. He first tried to arrange the sheet music by paper size–the pieces were written on several different types of paper, mostly 8”x11” sheets, but with the occasional half-sized piece and a few nearly legal-sized–and then by the actual length of the performed pieces. He tried organizing them by the color of ink used to transcribe the pieces, by alphabetical order, and then by date of transcription when possible.
As he arranged and rearranged the well-worn papers once again, he noticed that not all of the pieces of music had been painfully altered. While all of them in the stack had had something done different to them—some had been transposed into a different key, while others just had a note added or subtracted here or there to change the piece so slightly that only someone intimately familiar with the music would know the changes had been made. In fact, some of the changes seemed like an improvement to the original piece. He carefully mumbled and hummed his way through first one piece of music, and then another, until he had a very small stack of possibly-improved classics.
“I wish someone had thought to date these things.” He squinted as he tried to read his way through “Dido and Aeneas.” Instead of having a whole measure altered in the sheet music, someone had added some extra notes to the piece, added a fifth to a chord here, replaced a closing chord at the end of a measure with an unexpected rest there. Intrigued, Richard pulled the little keyboard out from under his bed and plugged it in, humming through the first few bars as he waited for the keyboard to warm up. Same “Dido and Aeneas” he had years and years before, but just enough little changes to make it feel a new song. He switched on the little lamp by the music stand so that the pages were illuminated and switched off the main light in the bedroom so that only the sheet music was illuminated. Now he could pretend he was playing somewhere else besides his tiny apartment, in a bigger, nicer house, perhaps in a concert hall, or even just in Donna’s piano store.
“Thy hand, Belinda! Darkness shades me—okay, we’re ready.” He stopped singing abruptly and set the patch for “harpsichord.” The tinny, tinkly notes poured out of the tiny speaker as he played, invoking images of wig-wearing men and women in French parlors, elaborate English garden parties, masquerade balls, and other such decadent pursuits and times. There was a reason Robert hated baroque music—listening to it always made his apartment feel cramped and shitty, his own life pale in comparison to the imagined glamor. He banged the notes out on the keyboard harder than he should, and, true to the limitations of the natural instrument the touch-sensitive keyboard was imitating, the volume and timbre of the notes being played stayed exactly the same. Purcell was such a pretentious fop, he thought suddenly. Even with the new changes, he didn’t enjoy playing the piece at all. He stopped playing, mid-measure, and just as abruptly, the room was plunged in total darkness.
“What the hell?” Richard floundered about in the darkness for where he knew the little floor lamp should be, but encountered only empty air, and beyond that, cold, damp stone, loose gravel, a metal bar. “What the hell?” he said again, louder this time.
“Is there someone there?” a thin voice wheezed from close by, frail, hungry. “Is there someone in the cell next to me?”
“Cell?” Robert reached out until he felt the metal bar again, feeling himself along its length until he was standing upright. It was so dark that he could only imagine the features of the area around him: he knew where his bed was, the pile of books, his keyboard. He stumbled towards the spot where he knew the door was supposed to be, his fingers brushed cold stone, more metal bars, no door. He wondered about the bars, tried to remember if he had any exposed pipes in his apartment, some decorative feature that utilized long, thin metal struts. Did he have bars on his windows? Why couldn’t he remember?
“How did you get in my apartment?” he finally asked the voice. “Was there some sort of blackout?”
“Blackout? Hm.” The voice chuckled thinly, horribly. “I guess you could call it that. I like that, ‘blackout.’” It chuckled again for a moment before erupting in a volley of phlegmatic coughs.
“Is someone in charge here?” Robert decided to ignore the voice, which was now busying itself with singing some old folk song he couldn’t identify. “Has anyone called the electric department yet?”
“Shh,” said someone, suddenly very, very close, so close that Robert could feel hot breath against his cheek. “They’ll hear you if you make too much noise.”
Suddenly, in the darkness, a tiny speck of light appeared, yellow and warm, like the blaze of a lone firefly. Robert waved his hand at the light, happy that he could see his hand moving before his eyes. The light grew brighter and brighter, bigger and bigger, until he could tell it was actually the flame of a torch, held up in the air by someone walking slowly and deliberately towards him from what seemed like a long, long way away.
“Oh, no,” whimpered the voice. “Oh, no. They’re coming. I told you they would come. I told you they would come if you made any noise!” Something scratched and scrabbled in the dark nearby, as if the owner of the voice had begun trying to dig a hole in the cold, stone floor with his or her bare hands.
As the torch drew nearer, Robert began to make out some of the true features of the area around him. He was no longer in his apartment–that was certain. Instead, he seemed to be in some sort of cell, surrounded by metal bars on all sides, with a pile of dried grass or straw in one corner. His keyboard, although he could have sworn that it was right at his feet when he’d first stood up, had apparently not made the trip to wherever it was with him, nor did the lackluster Purcell piece he had been playing. Despite this, Robert was perfectly calm, in a sort of detached, anthropologist-observing-a chimp-still-functioning-perfectly-with-the-top-of-its-head-removed sort of way. He reached out through the bars and waved at the approaching torch, figuring it wouldn’t hurt to start things off as friendly as possible.
“Thank goodness you’re here,” he said. “I think there’s been some sort of mistake. I was in my room just a moment ago, and– ”
“Be quiet.” Robert could just make out a white hand holding the torch, a sharp chin jutting out from folds of a thick cowl, a long black robe that swept the floor and rustled noisily as the figure strode towards him. “You speak when spoken to.”
Robert stepped back as the figure pulled a heavy keyring out of a fold of its cloak and began to unlock the heavy door. All around them, in the darkness, a quiet whimpering had started up, the sort of mindless whimpering usually confined to bad movies about mental hospitals, the sound of caged animals awaiting euthanasia at the vet.
“Purcell, is it?” said the cloaked figure, apparently unfazed by the waves of wordless terror rising all around the two of them. He or she lifted the torch, as if to get a better look at Robert, then suddenly lunged forward. The red-hot end of the torch caught Robert full on the chest, melting a patch of polyfiber shirt against his skin. Robert screamed and swatted at his chest with his hands, trying to stop the burning.
“I’m not actually Purcell! If I had known that other people out there hated him enough to kidnap and torture someone just for playing his music, I would have never—I was—I was going to play the Schütz,” he finished lamely. The circle of pain on his chest had faded to a tingly numbness that he was afraid to investigate. “Two seconds later, I would have been playing the Schütz.”
The figure turned and carefully set the torch in a sconce on the cell wall. Before Robert could react, it whirled back around and reached out for him, grabbing him by the throat. Robert felt his windpipe being crushed in hard, cold hands, sharp fingernails digging into his flesh. He felt his feet left the ground as he sailed in a slow arc across the cell, crashing noisily against the bars at the far end.
“I know you’re not Purcell.” The figure opened the cell door and strode across the room toward him, the tread of its heavy boots against the cobblestones, the rising screams in the background, the spitting and sizzling of the torch in the background suddenly very familiar.
“Why?” he choked out before the hand reached out for him again, dragging him to his feet. “Why?”
“Because music is an escape.” Robert could see only the tiniest hint of human features under the dark cowl as the world once again faded away. “An escape, or a trap.” The figure sighed heavily as if he or she had delivered this line many, many times. Robert closed his eyes, thankful that he was about to pass out.
He was almost gone when the searing end of the torch against the inside of his leg brought him fully back to reality once more. He screamed and kicked and tried to run, only to find he was once again suspended in the air, held tight in the clutches of the thing in the cloak, the sexless thing that seemed far stronger than any human being ought to be. He kicked and struggled and finally fell limp.
“So,” leered the figure. “Are you ready to make some music?”
After nearly a week of unanswered phone calls, Donna finally decided that something must be wrong. She didn’t like to admit it to herself, but she worried about Robert in the same way she might worry about a stray alley cat she couldn’t lure back to her house, some mangy thing that she couldn’t abandon completely, caring for it just enough to stop by on a regular basis to leave food and check over for injuries. After some finagling and uncomfortable flirting with Robert’s landlord, she let herself into his apartment, half-expecting to find him hanging from a rope thrown over a ceiling fan. He had always been a little melodramatic and morose, and the idea of him being home all alone, probably playing that awful music over and over, had her more than a little worried.
“Of course, he could have found himself a girlfriend or something, too.” She pushed past the pile of mail blocking the entrance, stacked almost all the way to the mail slot set in the bottom half of the door. The little Casio synthesizer on the floor cracked and hummed noisily, filling the room with the scent of melting rubber and burnt toast.
“Holy crap!” Donna rushed over to pull the plug from the wall. The keyboard lights slowly faded to black, the angry buzz dying with them. The plug felt hot to her fingers. “Lucky he didn’t set the apartment on fire!” The synth was the only sign that Robert had even been in the apartment since she’d last seen him. That, and the piece of sheet music sitting on the little keyboard stand, written out in tightly-cribbed handwriting that immediately brought visions of an angry or obsessed nun sitting hunched over her desk, painstakingly trying to transcribe every single note as close to perfect as possible.
Except whoever wrote the music down hadn’t done a perfect job. About five measures into the piece, there was an extra note, and a couple of measures past that, there was an entire measure filled with single rests where a whole rest could have sufficed. And the very last measure completely disintegrated into a jumble of nonsense notes that didn’t really look like music at all. Another nun gone mad in the convent. Still, there was something intriguing about some of the additions the transcriber had made to the music. Donna reached down and felt the cord of the synthesizer. The plug still felt a little warm, but had cooled down significantly. Another couple of minutes probably wouldn’t completely fry its circuit boards, she decided after a moment. She plugged the keyboard in and waited until the lights flickered on, then sat, crossed-legged on the floor on front of the keyboard, and slowly began to play.
About the author: Holly Day (hollylday.blogspot.com) has been an instructor at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis since 2000. Her writing has recently appeared in Hubbub, Grain, and Third Wednesday, and hernewest books are The Tooth is the Largest Organ in the Human Body (Anaphora Literary Press), Book of Beasts (Weasel Press), Bound in Ice (Shanti Arts), and Music Composition for Dummies (Wiley).
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