By Michael Griffin
Lia eases the vintage blue Impala down the meandering gravel drive. She’s sightless in one eye, which makes it hard to gauge proximity to the looming Douglas firs, but she’s so familiar with the place she could navigate blind. All through her twenties, the cabin’s been her off-campus retreat. The last month, she’s stayed away.
She parks clear of the trees and quietly shuts the car door. No amount of psyching-up is going to make this easy. It’s partly her fault, she knows. Bringing Mészáros in this term may not have been her idea, but nobody forced her to invite him out here. If he’d stayed in the Visiting Masters campus apartment, he might’ve stayed focused.
God, how excited she’d been, meeting him that first night. The great man, János Mészáros. At first she saw similarities between them, despite the age gap. Both composers, cello specialists too rough-edged for the classical milieu. Lia, the pierced and tattooed punk, with a style more Velvet Underground or Killing Joke than Bach and Brahms. Mészáros, the mad silver-haired libertine, in constant worldwide demand despite vulgar behavior at every stop. Until the latest outrage, at least. The dark cloud left behind in Zagreb, he might never outrun.
The door to the cabin stands open. No music, for once. Part of her dares hope he’s gone, though her reason for coming is to bring him back. Lia absently kisses the crescent moon tattoo on her bow-hand index finger, a habitual good luck gesture.
Inside, the cabin’s a wreck, not just the door open but every window, too. A tornado of strewn clothing, empty champagne bottles. An exquisite cello lies before road cases containing Mészáros’s electronics gear. Microphones, PA speakers. A tangle of cables converge on a portable mixer and audio interface attached to a scuffed silver laptop. Beside that, an injection kit. Syringes, rubber tie-offs, glass vials of clear liquid.
“Great,” Lia mutters.
Mészáros arrived in Oregon seemingly clear-headed. His early lectures were brilliant, but those weren’t why the Dean had brought him in. The point of his visit, the capper, is supposed to be tomorrow’s performance of Stockhausen’s twenty-nine-hour opera cycle. The university is billing it as the first complete, continuous performance of Licht in North America.
Since Mészáros started missing commitments this week, the music department’s built into a cacophony of rumor. Then his no-show at this morning’s media sessions sent everyone into full panic. Had Mészáros fled the day before the show?
Finally, Lia told the dean she had some idea where the man might be hiding.
On the kitchen counter rests a drinking glass half-full of what can only be blood. In the sink, a spray of red, as if someone’s been sick. Liquid only, no trace of food. The place smells toxic, a mood of degeneracy looming heavily. Her quiet getaway, now repository for the grim karma of a madman.
At the table Lia reads Mészáros’s notes. Mostly music transcription, including cello parts Lia herself will play, if the show happens. Interspersed are dated, diary-like entries. One outlines Stockhausen’s ritual prescriptions for Goldstaub, not part of Licht, but a notorious bit of the composer’s real-life craziness. Isolation, fasting and sleep deprivation as preparation for a music performance. A kind of “summoning the muse,” a phrase Mészáros repeated and underlined.
The final page addresses meditation, which triggers a memory of Lia’s time here with him. He loved the forest, especially Monk Point overlook, where he meditated in the mornings. She remembered those days, a giddy rush of possibilities. What doors seemed about to open?
So eager, then. So trusting.
Paths, worn by feeding deer, climb until the slope grows too steep halfway up. A small waterfall gives forth a white stream, which descends a hillside overgrown with lush green vegetation. Lia climbs diagonally over fallen clumps of crumbled earth. The umber soil sparkles with tiny flecks like gold dust. Those childhood summers, when Lia played here alone, Aunt Janet told her wood spirits sprinkled gold to mark their way.
Lia crawls, pulls herself up by roots and vines. She knows there’s poison oak but isn’t sure she’d recognize it. To get under the fence at the top, she hangs from the sagging wire. Her feet dangle above the waterfall. When she was young, none of this seemed dangerous. Now she can’t believe Mom and Aunt Janet allowed her up here alone. If she dropped, she’d be washed over in a foamy rush. Lia grips the rusty wire fence, swings under. She finds footing on a tree fallen on the far side and tightropes up to the flat. A trail curves along the ridge toward a river overlook clear of trees. Monk Point.
There János Mészáros sits cross-legged, nearly naked, eyes closed in emulation of yogic posture. He’s shaved his head and looks much younger than his sixty years. His eyebrows are also gone, and every trace of body hair.
“János,” Lia says, then yells, “János!”
Nothing. Eyes closed, placid.
She approaches, meaning to shake him out of his trance.
Mészáros’s eyes open. He smiles blissfully and pulls out earplugs. “Silence of four days, it sensitize the ears. The brain.”
“You wouldn’t be smiling if you–”
“The opera, tomorrow. Or do you come here to make love again?” He rises to his knees and reaches for her, delicately as if she were a butterfly.
Lia flinches, disgusted, but doesn’t want to insult him. “No. We can’t do that again.” She collects herself. “That’s something I shouldn’t have done, Doctor Mészáros.”
“Doctor.” He laughs. “When we first meet you call me Doctor. By the end of the night, you call me János. We drink American wine under this moon. We fuck with your back in the mud. You remember all the mud.”
“Stop it,” Lia says. “Your scandal’s blowing up online, on TV. Dean Vermer thinks you’ve run away. Says he should never have brought you here.”
“What do you say to that?” Mészáros asks.
Lia exhales. “I told him nobody knew you were a predator at the time he booked your visit.”
Mészáros grins, intending to charm, but over-wide eyes make him look demented. He stands, skeletally thin and nude but for a dirty towel tied around his waist. One of her bath towels. He gropes her breast, grinning that infamous leer, resembling the menacing close-up all the news outlets lately use to illustrate stories about the music world’s sex criminal. His animal masculinity, once attractive, now makes her ill. Still, she wants to ensure the show goes on, not least for her own prominent role.
She backs away, as he shimmies toward her in a loose-hipped thrusting sort of dance. Angry, she pushes back. He falls, yowling and wailing, and his towel flips up. He’s vulnerable, wounded.
Lia wants to hurt him. “It’s time for you to leave here. It’s your choice whether you perform tomorrow, as you promised. I hope you will. People are counting on it. Not only that. I’ll be blamed, if it becomes known I brought you here, where you came…unwound.” Lia pauses, afraid she’s gone too far. She crouches, softens her voice. “Your staging of Licht would be remembered a long time.”
“Forever.” His manner shifts as at the flick of a switch, now humane, even polite. He covers himself and stands. “Of course the show goes on. Now, it helps me if we talk through some detail before. Especially with you who understand my vision. And vision of Stockhausen.” Mészáros bows.
“We’ll talk at the cabin while you get your things together.” Lia notices a deep gash inside his forearm.
“Is nothing.” He covers the cut with his other hand. “I took out my own blood to see if I could drink it.”
She flinches. “How’s that working for you?”
“I try.” He shrugs. “But it make me sick.”
Mészáros leads her back to the fence and swings under with the light grace of a boy, not an aging academic of decadent lifestyle. He descends the slope with vigorous confidence, and Lia recognizes how she fell for him six weeks ago, before anyone knew the wreckage he had left in his wake at Academy Zagreb. Before stories emerged of a string prodigy, resident at the university despite being too young to drive. Lia may have long since given up seeing herself as a youthful genius, yet thinks she understands the girl. What she sought to become. How Mészáros led her to hope. To trust.
Mészáros straightens the cabin’s disarray with a casual air of normalcy. Without comment, he closes the injection kit, washes his face in the sink and rinses down the blood-spew. “I don’t hide here because of this news story. The young lady of Zagreb.” He gestures as if he’s forgotten the name Celia Popp, though everyone else knows it indelibly. The story’s all over the news. At least he’s still behaving, as if the hike gave him time to remember how to talk to people. “It is…preparation ritual. You know Goldstaub? Meditate with silence.”
Lia looks around for food, sees none. “Going full Stockhausen, then?” Somehow the craziness bothers her less, knowing he’s gone days without sleeping or eating. She almost speaks the opinion that no ritual’s likely sufficient to purify him, but holds silent. For someone like him, the muse may be entangled with more savage impulses.
Mészáros picks up the cello, an Amati worth fifty times the price of the cabin, and replaces it in the stand. On the cello’s body are painted figures like tattoos on a woman’s torso. He wheels a cart of sound processing gear closer, takes up the cello and plays a few notes. “You appreciate this, I know. Cello we share, more intimate that the other sharing. Which we discontinue. Your choice, not mine.”
He flicks a switch on a silver panel mounted in the rack. Vacuum tubes brighten and glow, visible through a tiny window. Preamplifiers emit a resonant hum, which rises when Mészáros turns knobs on a massive pair of Bryston block amplifiers. The stand-mounted PA speakers on loan from the school bear the silver spray-paint imprint UO Music Dept.
Slightly hunched, he plays a figure. The melancholy is so effortless, so achingly profound, Lia shrugs off any concern for Mészáros’s morality. Faced with this, how can she focus on a man’s failings? Notes of distilled sadness, silent interstices of perfect timing and duration. Volume swells to fill the cabin and drift beyond open doors into the wild air. A bass note’s deepest harmonic strikes her low in the gut.
Mészáros stops playing, sweeps toward her as if dancing, and offers a plastic pill bottle. “Ecstasy. Is both the drug name, and the experience we give together.” He pops a white capsule into his mouth.
Lia shakes her head. “Is there any wine?”
He drifts into the kitchen and comes back with an open bottle of room temperature white. He pours two glasses. Lia takes one and sits to listen as he resumes. Time passes, and distance, all measurement is swept away. The journey varies, with periods of introspection and melancholy interspersed with utmost vividness and energy. The experience is like a tour of an infinite museum of the greatest masters, both known and imaginary, being allowed to see the paintings close up and touch them with fingertips.
At the bottom of her glass, Lia tastes bitterness. She swirls the yellowish dregs. Listening to him playing in rapt oblivion, she managed to drink most of whatever he crushed up in the wine. Mészáros pauses between notes, catches her eye and shoots a look toward the table. A plastic baggie of yellow pills sits open. A moment of panic before she realizes whatever he spiked the wine bottle with, he drank most of it before her. She goes to the sink, pours out the remaining grit. She rinses the glass, runs the water ice cold, and gulps until her stomach clenches.
Behind, Mészáros stops playing. Lia turns, expecting another lunge and grope, but his attention is focused on adjusting a microphone.
At the dining table again, listening to him playing, Lia tries to gauge if she’s feeling any different. Her head’s maybe half-clear, and getting muddier. “I thought you wanted to talk through some ideas.”
Mészáros spins to face her. “This is how I speak.”
His sound thickens, grows darker. The microphone feeds a mixer and from there, a vintage spring reverb and some kind of modular filter bank. Some of it’s familiar from the electronic music lab, some from Lia’s brief, regrettable relationship with Robert, nicknamed Synthesizer Guy by her friends. Most classical players have no use for electronics. Lia takes a more modern, experimental approach. Sometimes, for solo performances, she uses looping delays and harmonizers, but even for her, Mészáros’s stacks of gear seem too self-consciously rock and roll. One equipment rack within arm’s reach allows Mészáros to alternate playing figures on the cello and tweaking a loop playback device. He adds layers and counterpoint to his own playing, effectively accompanying himself.
Lia’s trying to pay attention, learn something from his tricks. Everything’s grown foggy, her mind too sluggish to fathom what he’s doing. The atmosphere inside the cabin feels swampy and damp. Is it night?
A choir of mixed voices, a layered wall of electric guitar. Pipe organ. The pills may be coloring her perception of the sound, but most of these effects arise from electronic treatments. Lia looks up, finds he’s not even playing. The sound field sustains, deepening in resonance and depth. Mészáros is on his hands and knees in front of the speaker, the woofer energetically wobbling inches from his nose. So much for days of silence leaving his ears sensitized.
“Stop now, János,” she says. “Doctor.”
He stands, oblivious to Lia, head bobbing to rhythmic low frequency oscillations. On his way back to the cello, he notices her and grins like a naughty boy.
“You act like other people are nothing,” she blurts.
The smile vanishes. He’s adult again, his face lined, silver-stubbled. “You are talking about yourself, or the poor little girl?”
Lia wants to cry, wants to scream the name. She won’t let him manipulate her. He knows the name.
“The needs other people have, that is not my needs.” Mészáros approaches. “I need to devour. You know it, Lia. I devour you.” He stands over her, mouth a thin black line, the merest trace of a smile. “You gave me yourself to devour.”
She shakes her head so vigorously her black-brown hair flies into her face. “Big deal. I was star struck by the hot-shit genius. Thought I’d have an experience.” Lia wants to storm out, but finds she can’t rise.
Mészáros, too, shakes his head, more slowly, grin widening. “I took you. Another victim, like her. Do you think about her name and yours? Lia? Ce-lia? That’s how I knew you were for me to take.”
“You’re a monster, a child rapist,” she spits. “Worse than Polanski.”
“Much the worse. Polanski, he sodomize the girl. Celia, I fuck her mind. I unwind her from the world. She stop to exist.” Mészáros’s eyes go vacant and he looks away, toward an empty corner of the room, as if searching for a ghost. No sympathy, nothing at all for the girl lying in a hospital bed she’ll probably never leave, victim of her own futile gesture to recapture the maestro’s attention. He drifts away, into the bedroom, and comes back holding a metallic gold robe similar to the white robes he insisted all tomorrow’s performers wear. This is the first time Lia’s seen what Mészáros plans to wear. Not just the color differs. Mészáros’s has a great monk-sized hood. Everyone else will go bare-headed.
Mészáros approaches, face glistening sweat. Minutes since the last note was played, the soundscape continues. Overlapping loops degenerate and fragment. “I fuck you before. Then you don’t care what I am. You think maybe I help you.” His eyes narrow, venomous. “Now you never unfuck yourself.”
Before Lia knows what she’s doing, she lashes out, strikes him high in the face. Mészáros blinks rapidly and tears spin down his cheek. Blood trickles from his nose, over narrow lips. Huffing, he lunges, sprays her with his blood. Lia falls back, tries to catch herself. Mészáros presses her down with his body’s weight, his breath an awful, rotting stench. He writhes on top of her, between her legs. Lia’s woozy, afraid she can’t fight him off. Part of her escapes, races back in time to the first night she brought him here. Her ambition, her greedy curiosity, wondering what spring fed his talent. Repeatedly she insisted he was welcome here. Use the place. Make it your own.
On some level she’s aware of Mészáros fumbling the buttons of her shorts.
His music lulled her into susceptibility. She thought him sensitive, even delicate, but she was wrong. He’s a monster. He devours.
Lia weakly tugs against hands loosening her shorts. They slide down over her hips, past her knees. She tries to struggle but lacks strength. She’s disoriented. How can she stop him? So stupid to come here. Cool air brushes her uncovered skin. He rises, grips her face between his hands and stares close into her eyes, both sighted and blind. He rasps noisily through teeth red with his blood. She pulls back, strains her heads sideways to avoid his stink. She feels him convulse. From deep in his gut he roars.
The cloud of his darkness drifts over.
Lia sees someone else in the cabin. Watching over Mészáros’s shoulder, ghostly white and tall. Female, ivory breasts bare. Transparent crystal eyes drip black tears, a stream of ink over pale cheeks. On her head, a mantle of horns covers narrow braids, glistening black.
The woman looms over Mészáros and lowers a hand. As if he senses the looming touch, Mészáros rolls off Lia and stands away. Though he seems not to see, he moves away from the presence, irritated. He returns to his instrument, followed by the bright goddess, or muse, or whatever she is. Something has come between them, shifted Mészáros’s intentions. Lia rests, vacant and bereft.
Eyes open. Minutes later? Hours? Lia’s vision has a strange quality, amplified, surreally sharp. Maybe a lingering effect of the drug?
The cello plays a familiar line, differently accented. The same passage once placid now churns, aggressive and hard-edged.
I let him in, Lia thinks. He wants to unwind me. Eat my soul. She finds her shorts, pulls them on.
She’s not alone. The ice-white creature stands by the door, regal in her helm of antelope horns, keeping watch. Not quite a muse, Lia’s sure, even if summoned by Mészáros’s ritual. She sees and protects, deals vengeance where needed. A spirit seeming dark to some, light to others. Lia won’t shy from Mészáros again, won’t shrink away, crushed beneath him like Celia Popp. She’ll face him down, unflinching. Might even learn something worth keeping, some useful takeaway. Lia only wishes that something could have visited Celia, who needed protecting more than herself.
The room swirls with Mészáros’s toxic cloud, a cyclical wall of cumulative noise built on a foundation of elements from Licht, thickened and elaborated by layers of improvised ornament and undercurrents of brain-melting noise. Interstitial gaps of silence specified by Stockhausen overflow with the growl of industrial tumult.
Lia stands, midnight weary. Mészáros sees her and stops playing. He offers the cello, takes up a trumpet instead. She decides to play, accepts his instrument and drags a chair near the microphone. Lia plays the string trio parts on the extravagant cello, while over her shoulder the white one hovers, alert. Just barely she nods in time, as Lia plays, with the knowing gaze of a teacher, or fellow player.
Mészáros adjusts a second microphone, plays left-handed trumpet while his right works a road-worn Kurzweil digital piano. The cabin overflows with sound. The potent vapor drifts out open doors and windows, dispersed by the wind, inhaled by trees. An infernal rendition of Licht, bent and deepened by spiritual derangement. Does Mészáros’s genius elevate him, Lia wonders, more than it sickens him? Is that something she wants?
Hot wind swirls, a cyclone formed of noise. The white creature stands amid the mayhem at the center of the room, both arms extended at her sides. Thin braids, black and sticky as tar, buffet her face. They break free from her white head, fly around her like a storm of black leaves, dry and weightless. The black shapes flutter away from her and swirl around Mészáros, active living creatures of malign intent.
He initiated this, but can’t possibly stop it. The white spirit fades, though as her light dissipates, her wrathful heat accumulates into a new sound-world. Night-blackened air thick, stifling. Sonic mayhem is all there is to breathe.
Morning. Sun above the trees. Lia wakes, naked and shivering in dewy grass at the driveway’s edge. Her body aches, a hundred bruises, a thousand cuts. She rolls over. Gravel pierces her flesh.
The cabin door stands open. Quiet.
No idea why she’s naked. No memory of these abrasions. Every inch of skin burns. One image, a midnight climb to Monk Point. Memory, or dream?
In the center of the driveway, between her car and the cabin, a mound of black ash smolders. The remains of burning trash, or leaves, a black pile knee deep.
Lia rises to her knees. Pain shrieking, she stands, hobbles to the cabin. No sign of Mészáros or most of his gear. Only the cello remains, the glorious Amato, and the gold hooded robe draped over a chair. Why leave the robe? And this rare cello, is that his gift? She could sell it, unburden herself of lingering grad school loans, fund a world tour. No sign of her clothes. She drapes the robe over naked skin and takes the cello out to her car. Her cell phone’s still charging in the console. Keys in the ignition.
Before she leaves, she locks the cabin door and stops at the smoldering pile. Is it possible Mészáros burned his equipment before making his escape? He owns no car, but could’ve called any number of local worshippers glad to retrieve the Great Man from this rural exile. The smoke stinks of burned hair and Mészáros’s rancid breath. Mingled among the ashes are broken fragments of bone, still white. This is him, Lia’s certain, consumed by fire. Celia’s retribution. Purifying rituals and summonings are tricky, especially with karma that’s blackest of the black. Hard to find the muse among all the shadows.
On the road back to Eugene, she makes a call. The Dean sounds like he was asleep.
“Good news,” Lia says. “The show goes on.”
“You found him? Where?”
“The woods. Seeking inspiration or something,” she says. “He’ll make quite an entrance, this flashy gold robe. White’s good enough for us, but too mundane for him I guess.”
“God, I hope this goes off.” The Dean pauses. “You hear the latest? Celia Popp died.”
Lia should be surprised, yet somehow she already knows. She recalls the white presence, a ghostly yet tangible participant in the sound. “Someone let me know.” She looks at her own eyes in the rear-view mirror, closes the left eye, then opens it and closes the right. Clear vision in both, for the first time since she was young. “Her spirit will be with us tonight.”
Yellow backlight subtly lifts the blackness. At the rear of the stage, white pinpoints blink like stars. A figure in a loose gold hooded robe climbs to prominence before assembled players in white.
Lia feels no fear. She carries with her something of Mészáros, his morbid darkness mingled with aspects of last night’s brighter spirit. She feels in herself a new complexity, an urgent illumination shining through places burned to transparency.
The audience stands. Lia raises the famous Amato cello to applause, careful to use her left hand to avoid revealing the distinctive tattoo on her bow hand. She feels a tear fall and reaches to wipe it. The fingers come away ink-black.
Lia follows the beacon within, feels herself buoyed up. Follow the cloud of gold dust that leads into light. Let it widen and disperse, cover everyone. She’ll judge no more, criticize no more, only listen. The stage is a universe of glittering stars newly made, where no language exists but music.
Michael Griffin’s fiction has appeared in Phantasmagorium, Lovecraft eZine and Electric Spec, and will appear soon in the Thomas Ligotti tribute anthology The Grimscribe’s Puppets and the Current 93 tribute Mighty in Sorrow. He’s also an electronic musician and founder of Hypnos Recordings, an ambient music label he and his wife operate in Portland, Oregon. He blogs at griffinwords.wordpress.com and his Twitter feed is @griffinwords.