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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Sonata for Ghost Violin

A short story to think about next time you have a song stuck in your head.

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Sonata for Ghost Violin


Luke Reilly was fifteen the first time he heard the music.
He was sitting in his high school biology class, and at first he thought that he was hearing the band playing in the music room down the hall.  It didn’t sound like band music, though.  He could hear a piano, and what sounded like a violin, playing some complex piece in a minor key.  It was far more polished than the high school band ever sounded.
He looked around.  Mr. Dennis, the biology teacher, was droning on about genes and Punnett squares as if they were the most interesting thing ever, and if he heard the music, he was ignoring it.  Luke glanced at his classmates, whose faces registered a spectrum of emotion from boredom to interest.  No one had that odd little frown that seems universal when someone hears something incongruous, and so Luke simply tuned it out and tried to return his attention to Mr. Dennis’s lecture.
The music faded out a little toward the end of the period, and if it was present at all during lunch he couldn’t hear it for the noise in the cafeteria.  It came back during seventh period English, and he asked the girl sitting next to him if she knew where the music was coming from.  The English wing was on the other side of the school from the band room, so even if it was the band playing, it wasn’t likely they could be heard from that far away.
The girl gave him a quizzical look, and said, “What music?”
Luke said, “I thought I heard some music playing,” and then smiled and shrugged it off.   My imagination is getting the better of me, he thought.
He heard it again that evening, during dinner, and was on the verge of asking his dad whether he’d left the television on when he recognized it as the same odd, dark melody he’d heard earlier.  He started paying more attention to it.  He could hear the violin, weaving in and out of the piano’s steady, shimmering undercurrent of sound.  It faded a little, as he listened; came back again for about five minutes; and then fell silent just as the family got up from the table and began bringing plates into the kitchen to be washed.
In the weeks that followed, Luke found the music coming back again and again.  It was always the same piece.  It faded at different points, picked up at different points, but it never changed to a different melody.  He never heard the beginning of it, and he never heard it end.  It just played for a while, and then fell silent, as if he was walking past a concert hall and hearing fragments of their performance, but no complete piece.
At first, he listened for it, and he found himself tensed, trying to force his ears to pick up the sounds of the musical instruments against the backdrop of whatever ambient noise was present.  But it never came when called.  It was there, or it wasn’t.  It didn’t seem to matter where he was, what he was doing, or who he was with.  He heard it playing when he was eighteen and was in the process of happily losing his virginity to Kelly Trent on the rug in front of a fireplace in her parents’ living room, and afterwards he thought, “At least they could have played the Hallelujah Chorus for me, or something.”  The fact that he could joke about it – to himself, at least – is an indication of how ordinary it had come to seem to him.
Still, he never told anyone about it.  When he married, at age 23, the music was playing during his wedding ceremony, the minor key counterpoint jarring against the organist’s strident pounding out of the Wedding March.  He heard it off and on during the following ten years, sometimes several times in one day, sometimes only little snatches of it interspersed by weeks of silence.

It was there – or it wasn’t.  And that was that.  A sonata for ghost violin and spectral piano.
When he was 36 years old, and a rising star in the real estate business, a father of three children, he began to notice that the music was getting louder.  He still was able to tune it out  most of the time.  
Except for at night.  He would lie awake for hours, there in the dark with Connie sleeping next to him, with the music that only he could hear whirling around him.  This was the point that he began to wonder if he should tell someone about it – Connie, perhaps, or maybe even a therapist.
What will I tell them? he thought, one morning at 2:30 AM, as the violin and piano played a glittering arpeggio of notes.  That I hear music that isn’t there?  What could they possibly do about that?  It’s not like I’m crazy, or anything.
But over the next few weeks, Luke found himself having to ask people to repeat what they’d said.  The music was getting loud enough to drown out softer sounds, and after having been asked to repeat something three times, one of his coworkers said, “Reilly, I think it’s time for you to get your ears checked.  You’re going deaf, buddy.”  But Luke didn’t want to explain, It’s not deafness, I hear just fine.  In fact, I can hear so well that I’m hearing things that you can’t.
One June morning in that year, after yet another sleepless night, he couldn’t bear it any more.
He left home that morning, and kissed Connie goodbye.  Once he got to his car, he called into the office and said that he was sick, that he wouldn’t be in to work that day.  He had no idea who in the office he was talking to, or what they’d said in response.  The piano and violin were jangling painfully in his skull, drowning out all the other sounds in the world.  When he was passed by an eighteen-wheeler, its compression brakes growling, he was barely aware of it.  He left the main highway, took a road up into the hills, to a nature preserve twenty miles out of town.
To where there was silence.
But, of course, there wasn’t silence there.  The quiet of the park just made the percussion of the piano hammers on the strings sound louder, the drawing of the bow across the violin seeming to play its notes by vibrating his backbone in resonance.  He left his car, stumbling up a trail into the trees, his hands clamped over his ears – not that it helped.
Crescendo.  Luke fell against a dark, damp tree trunk, not able to hear himself screaming in pain, and the bark of the tree tore skin from his back as he slithered to a sitting position.  He looked frantically around, hoping for some obvious way to kill himself – a cliff to jump from, a lake to drown himself in – but all was peaceful and safe, and quiet to everyone but him.
He unclamped his hands from the side of his head, looking with horror at the blood that had flowed from his ears, staining his palms crimson.  His eyes rolled upwards as he lost consciousness.

The music was still whirling around him when he opened his eyes.  Unfamiliar faces looked down on him – men and women in fancy dress.  Overhead was a chandelier, and a turn of his head showed tables with food, immaculately-dressed waiters dispensing wine, unperturbed by the fact that one of the guests had fainted.
“Honey,” a woman said, fanning his face, a worried crease on her forehead.  Dangling emerald earrings swung from her earlobes, catching the light in flashes.  “George.  Are you okay?  We were dancing, and you just clapped your hand over your ears and collapsed.”
“George?” he said, his voice sounding foreign, alien.  Still, the music swirled in the air, the same familiar pairing of violin and piano he had known for the past twenty years.  But at least it was at a comfortable volume now.  He struggled to sit up.
“No, George, wait, we’ve called the paramedics,” the woman said.  “Just stay lying down.  You’ll be fine.”
“My name’s not George,” he said.  “It’s Luke.  Luke Reilly.  Who are you?”
The woman gave a frightened glance at the people who were standing near her, and then looked down at him and tried to smile.  “I’m Marie.  Your wife.  Marie.”  She stroked his face.  “You’ve been unconscious for about five minutes.  But don’t worry, you’ll be okay.”

And as he looked up, from one strange, unknown face to another, the music finally ended.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Cat's Eyes

This piece of flash fiction was inspired by something that actually happened to my friend, the talented writer and musician Martha Carpenter, so this piece is dedicated to her... with the hopes that nothing like it ever happens to her again.

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 Cori turned the corner onto Waltham Street and stopped for a moment, looking up the steep hill to where there was a sprinkling of lights – the college, her dorm, and bed.  It had been a long, exhausting, but exhilarating evening – dinner with five friends at Borley’s, which had the best burgers in Colville, and then an evening spent swing dancing.   The dance didn’t end until midnight, and when the doors of the Colville Community Center opened to spill out light and laughing, talking people into the night, Cori said her goodbyes and declined offers of a ride.   She was hot and sweaty and the night air was cool and inviting, and she’d always liked walking.

She followed Waltham for three blocks, and then turned onto Marsh Street.   Marsh skirted Catanic Creek, tumbling and bubbling downhill in its rocky course, but her feet carried her the opposite way, up a punishingly steep hill lined with old shop fronts.

She stopped for a moment in front of Ballechin’s Used Books.  Its windows were dark, but she pressed her nose against the glass.  Old books were a passion, and her choice of English Literature as a major was in part driven by a yearning to be surrounded by them.   Leather bindings had magic, and crackling, yellowed pages, and that dusty, old-book smell that wasn’t quite like any other smell in the world.  This bookstore had tens of thousands of titles, and in the light from the streetlight, Cori could just barely make out the metal shelves receding backwards into the shadowy interior.

She turned away with a sigh.  A trip to Ballechin’s would have to wait until she had more money, and also, of course, until it was open.

She had walked another block when she saw, in the harsh yellow glare, a figure approaching her, coming down Marsh Street on the same side of the road.  Cori was a confident walker, but like most women, she was never free from the lurking worry of being the victim of violence.  Her heart gave a quick little gallop, but then she saw with relief that the person approaching her wasn’t male (one thing checked off the fear inventory), seemed smaller than Cori was (a second thing checked off), and was walking with the hesitant, shuffling gait of the elderly (fear inventory completed, signed, and filed away).  Cori gave a little shiver as the last of the panic left her body.

As the woman approached, she saw that she was dressed in a dark, full-length coat, and was wearing a scarf tied over her head.  This seemed odd, for a mild night in September, but older people frequently felt the cold more keenly than the young, and as the distance between them shortened, Cori smiled a little at the memory of her own grandmother, who surreptitiously turned up the thermostat whenever she came to visit and she thought no one was looking.

Thirty feet, twenty, ten.  The woman’s face was in deep shadow, but Cori saw she was smaller even than she’d thought at first, barely five feet tall, and hunched over.  Cori felt a sudden desire to see the woman’s face.

Why? she thought. She’s probably just some poor old crazy cat woman, out walking to the Seven-Eleven to get some canned food for her twenty-eight cats.   The image, which she had thought at first was funny, suddenly struck her as terrifying, and she thought, No, I don’t want to see her face.  I don’t want to see it at all. I don’t…

They passed close, almost brushing elbows.  Cori would have had to step into the street to be any further away from her.   And as they passed, the woman looked up at Cori, and Cori found that she had to turn toward her.   Her head moved as if it were being pulled by a string.   Unwillingly, Cori looked down at the woman, and for a moment, their eyes met.

The woman had cat’s eyes.

Her lined face was heavily made up, and around her eyes was eye shadow and liner, drawing the shape of her eyes into an almond, feline slant.  The irises were dark, so dark that they looked all pupil.  She looked straight into Cori’s eyes, unblinking, and with an expression of such malignity that it was almost non-human.

Cori gasped, and with an effort continued her forward motion, taking another stumbling step and nearly colliding with the lamp post.  The gaze broke, and Cori’s head snapped around forward.  She continued her walk uphill with a jittering, uneven gait, her heart hammering in her chest.

That woman just stole my soul. 

The thought came to her so suddenly that it seemed to come from outside her, in a voice not hers.  Her breath was coming in whistly gasps, and she kept herself from looking back only by main force of will.

She couldn’t help herself; she slowed her step, turned to look.   Part of her felt terrified that she’d turn, and the old woman would be right there behind her, staring up at her with those baleful cat’s eyes.

But she wasn’t.  The old woman  had evidently continued her walk downhill, and her stooped back, swathed in its dark coat, was all she could see in the distance.

She’s not following me.  She got my soul, and now she’s taking it away.   She has no use for my body.

Cori’s foot struck a steel grate in the sidewalk with a loud thunk.

And the old woman stopped, then slowly turned.  From fifty feet away, Cori could feel the intensity of those eyes, staring right at her.  That was when Cori’s nerve broke, and she began to run uphill, her breath coming in tight, desperate whimpers.  She only halted when there was a stitch in her side so painful that she couldn’t continue.

She fell, gasping, against the front wall of another old, dilapidated store, and for a few minutes she stood there, breathing hard, trying to massage her side to get the spasm to loosen up.  She turned and looked through the window of the store front, and saw, sitting in the window, the face of a porcelain doll.  She’d noticed this store before – it sold antique dolls to collectors.  The doll in the window was dressed in vintage clothes, and had dark, curly hair.   Its expressionless face stared at Cori blankly.

Cori lifted her eyes, and caught sight of her own reflection in the window, lit by the glare from the street lights.

She, too, was a doll.  A lifelike, beautiful doll, wavy blond hair in a stylish cut around her face, her skin perfect and blemish free, every feature carved so as to be indistinguishable from the real thing.  She raised a hand to her face, touched her cheek, watched her mouth pull back into a horrified grimace, and then looked into her own eyes.

Her own blank, empty eyes.

With a cry of anguish, she turned away from the window, and looked down the hill toward the corner of Marsh and Waltham - but the old woman had already vanished from sight.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Shapeshifter

A poem I wrote about one of the most amoral people I've ever met.

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Shapeshifter

Look at him from one angle; he seems bigger.
From another his cleverness glitters like cut crystal.
One face shows righteous outrage at ill-treatment;
Then with no trace of irony another face boasts, laughing, about how
He hoodwinked someone foolish enough to trust him.

Anger in him sizzles like an electric arc.
Look once, twice; it's gone. Nothing but charm remains.
He hands you a black and bitter drink, eyes dark with hatred;
A moment later, the eyes fill with innocent bewilderment when you refuse to swallow it.
His words soothe, stroke; misdirect; wound.
He speaks sharp-edged contempt
Through a polished smile.

Hold a mirror up to him;
One image. But a different one
For every person he meets
And a different one each time you meet him.

He slips, he slides, he dances, he weaves and dodges;
No trap can hold him. Pin him down, he oozes away,
Turns, and smiles at you, eyes flashing triumph;
Unassailable. You cannot win, and he knows it.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Vegetation

It's ragweed season.  Here's a piece of flash fiction to think about, the next time you sneeze.

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Captain Tarkonen stood in front of the closed hatch, facing the five members of the away team.

“Remember our briefing,” she said, her gray eyes holding the gaze of each of her five crew members in turn. “There seems to be no animal life on this planet. This is no excuse for a lack of caution. We know the air is breathable, and there is nothing out there that is an apparent threat. The emphasis is on the word apparent. You are on an alien world, and everything you touch – no matter how innocuous – should be looked upon as a potential danger.” She paused, raising an eyebrow. “Are there any questions?”

No one spoke. The exobotanist, Latimer, moved his feet in barely-restrained nervous excitement, pawing the ground like a colt.

Tarkonen allowed herself a small smile. “I know, Latimer, I know. Plants. Lots of them. But if you can refrain from having multiple orgasms until you’re alone in your lab later, we’d all be most grateful.”

There was a ripple of laughter, and some of the tension dissipated. Tarkonen turned, and pressed the button for the hatch.

“Then, ladies and gentlemen… welcome to Delta Cygni V.”

The light that came in through the open hatchway was dim, and the air humid and fragrant with a spicy sweetness that none of the six could name. It was warm, welcoming. Any thoughts of danger that were instilled by Tarkonen’s warnings evaporated immediately as they stepped out into the woodland, took in the colors, textures, aromas.

But no sounds. It was a silent world. Tarkonen, looking around her and trying not to allow her natural wariness to drown in the wonder of an alien forest, noticed it immediately. Anywhere on Earth, such a woodland would be a symphony of noises – birdsong, insects buzzing, small movements of animals in the underbrush. Here, it was as quiet as a cathedral.

It’s not the Earth, she thought. You shouldn’t expect it to beYou've been on enough alien worlds that you should have learned that by now.

Latimer, the exobotanist, went from one plant to another, murmuring, “It’s a little like a Curcuma or Alpinia – something from the Zingiberaceae – but it’s got woody stems. Parallel evolution. And this has nuts in shells, like a Carya – but they’re in threes…” He stopped suddenly, jerked his hand back, and put his lips to the back of his wrist.

Markland, the geologist, said, “What’s wrong?”

Latimer looked up sheepishly. “Thorns,” he said. “Should have expected it.”

 Markland laughed. “That’s why I stick to rocks.”


The preliminary exploration lasted for two hours. They found flowers in a dazzling array of colors. There was fruit hanging in clusters – samples would tell if it was edible, but for now, it was just collected and bagged for lab analysis. Everything was photographed, sampled, tagged.

 As they returned to the ship, Mzenga, the barrel-chested chief of security, said, “We need more expeditions like this. I could get into defending people from a bunch of vegetation.”

Tarkonen smiled as she mounted the ladder back to the hatch of the landing shuttle. “We’d have to discuss your salary, if your job was that easy.”

Behind her, Markland sneezed. Tarkonen turned. “Cold, Lieutenant?”

Markland shook her head. “Just allergies, Captain,” she said. “I’ll get Dr. Dietz to give me a booster if it doesn’t clear up once we’re indoors.”


Latimer and Markland were the last to finish dinner, and lingered briefly over a celebratory glass of wine, traditional after an initial expedition on a new world. He absently scratched the back of his wrist.

“I’ve been wondering,” Markland said. “Don’t you think it’s kind of weird, all the flowers and fruit and so on?”

“Why is it weird?” Latimer said.

“You’re the botanist,” she responded. “You don’t see anything strange about it?”

Latimer shrugged. “It’s awesome, not strange,” he said. “It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. I could spend twenty years just cataloguing all the species here.”

Markland shook her head. “Why do plants make flowers and fruits?”

“Pollination and seed dispersal,” Latimer said. “Because…” He stopped, set down his wine glass. “Oh.”

“Yeah. No animals. Why would plants waste their time with fruits and flowers when there are no animals to attract in to pollinate the flowers and disperse the seeds?”

"I was so excited by all of the diversity, that never even occurred to me."  He looked at Markland, a little uncertainly.  "There's got to be another reason, then."

"I can think of one other," Markland said.  "Why else do organisms lure in other organisms?"

Latimer frowned, and then his eyes widened in horror. “And…” He looked at the back of his wrist, where a rough, inflamed spot had begun, around the site where he’d been poked by a thorn. “Why make thorns? As a defense against what?” He pushed his chair back, and it squeaked on the tiled floor. “I’ll be in my lab,” he said, his voice thin.


“What do you mean, Latimer’s missing?” Tarkonen said.

“He’s not in his lab, Captain,” Markland said. “And I checked in with Mzenga. The computer shows that no one has activated the hatch since we came in yesterday evening.”

“He’s got to be on the ship, then,” Tarkonen said, and sneezed.

Markland looked at her, and only then did Tarkonen notice that Markland’s eyes were watery and red, and her nose seemed runny.

“Two more things, Captain,” Markland said. “First, the exobotany lab is full of plants. There are thorny vines all over the lab stool and the table where Latimer puts his samples.” She hesitated. “The cluster of vines on the lab stool are twisted together, and the shape looks a little like a human body.”

Tarkonen swallowed. “So you think that…”

Markland shook her head.  “No. I know. Dr. Dietz did a scan of my lungs this morning.” The geologist held up a translucent sheet, showing the outline of her own lungs, bronchi, trachea. They were shadowed with a network of fine filaments, that looked alarmingly like… roots.

“Dear god,” Tarkonen said. “Pollen.”

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Conversation Within Four White Walls

I wrote this poem after the death of my grandmother, at the age of 93, in a nursing home.  I still miss her.

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Here, I brought you some good soup today

       Please Marguerite I want to go home
             Take me home

Just try to eat a little of it; you need to eat well if you’re going to get better

       Oh Marguerite bring me home
             I hate it here
                   Take me home

Bertie are you all right
You don’t look well

       I’d be well if
             I could leave this place
                   Take me home

I’m calling the nurse
Your face... too pale

       I hate this place
             Hate it hate
                   The four white walls that smell of antiseptic
                         It’s so cold so cold
                             Take me home

Nurse... help... help me...
Help us... get a doctor

                   If I were home I’d be sitting
             By the lake in the sunshine
       We could watch the herons and geese and talk as we used to,
Not like here where the words slither and mumble from
My dying tongue, numbed so it might not express
The pain, and fall on your ears numbed so that you are shielded from hearing it
We could walk down by the edge where the reeds grow in the shallows
Even dive into the cool depths, in the water where all are children and equals
And things be as they were, not like this no never
And we would never have to cage our goodbye inside four white walls