The concert hall is a nocturnal predator—crouched, ready, ears pricked.
A wind gusts through, stirring the members of the crowd who cough stale air, rustling their fabric skins. The wind turns riotous, animating their padded hands like a field of insouciant crickets. The lady of the evening appears, a red beacon in the night, sickly and unsmiling, barefoot according to her idiosyncrasy. Maybe she knows she is walking into the creature’s gaping maw, sitting down before its long, hungry black tongue, pressing her velvet-gloved hands—a flash of pain—on its white teeth.
The riot is subdued; the insects return to a stupor. But instead of playing, the lady withdraws her hands and looks down at the piano, only to find the ivory splotched with her blood.
The concierge eyes Singleton’s belongings—a rolled-up rug, a sack of tools, and a fireman’s axe—but says nothing, inserting the penthouse key into the elevator panel. They ride up in silence, the numbers zipping by with mystifying speed. A long way up.
Then the doors slide open, and Singleton’s pulse stills. He enters, boots squeaking against the teak flooring, and the concierge nods at his backside as the doors shut.
It’s an open space, quiet, with half-rooms honeycombing the walls, everything flowing towards the French windows overlooking the park.
“Hello?” he calls, searching left and right, dragging the rug with one gloved hand, the other slinging the axe over his shoulder lumberjack style.
He startles when he finally notices the figure that has been watching him all the while, standing behind him, at the hallway entrance beyond the kitchen—a ghost of a woman, wearing blood-red lipstick and purple latex gloves, dressed in an impeccable white blouse and in loose tan slacks that conceal her boniness.
“Did I … were you cleaning?”
She glances down at her hands, then back at him. Shakes her head.
He clears his throat. “I’m Gene Singleton.” A pause. “The remover.”
When she doesn’t respond, he casts his gaze around the penthouse. “That it?” He nods towards a grand piano amidst a crescent moon of couches, everything gleaming in the daylight that streams in through the windows.
Ms. Tsukuda nods.
“Beauty. You a musician?”
She opens her mouth to respond—no doubt with a ready list of achievements—but then as if his sarcasm has finally settled over her, she says, “You could say that.”
He approaches the piano, glancing between it and her as she mirrors his movement along the wall. “You gonna watch?”
She considers then says, almost in a whisper, “Do most of your customers watch?”
“Depends on the customer. Never really made a study of it.” He chuckles briefly. The acoustics of laughter grate in this place.
When they reach the living room, she perches on the edge of one of the high-end sofas, her phantom weight barely indenting the cushion, crosses her legs, and sets her gloved hands on her lap. “I’ll watch.” He finds her vulpine and graceful, her ears poking out amongst her long, sleek hair—beautiful from certain angles, unsettling from others.
Singleton takes several steps more until he’s standing beside the piano, hefting up the axe blade, preparing to swing down, when out of the corner of his eye he catches her wince. He drops the tool back to his side, puffs out his chest. “I don’t think you can stomach this, lady.”
She clenches her small teeth. “I insist.”
He runs his hand over the smooth, black wood. “Must have sentimental value. Fancy lady like you living in a fancy place like this could afford a thousand of these bad boys. Tell you what: I remove things two ways. A less … fun option involves the piano living to be played another day.”
“No. It-it must be destroyed.” For the first time, her robotic voice heats with urgency.
“Suit yourself. Gotta fill out some paperwork first. Legal reasons.”
Kazue Tsukuda sets aside the score she had just purchased. She microwaves a bowl of olive oil and lemon juice, dips in one hand at a time, then dons latex gloves, sealing the wrists with thick rubber bands.
She shuts her eyes and breathes, waiting for her heartbeat to slow. After several minutes, her eyes pop open, and she looks reluctantly at the brown paper bag containing the score from the Julliard Store which twenty minutes ago had made her blanch when she had discovered it, setting the panic in motion. It defied all reason that she should find any work by Ane Fjientiov there. She had scooped up the bundle of shoddily bound papers and scoured the store for anything else by the same composer.
She paid without any of the usual banter with the handsome cashier.
Now she redirects her mind to Ravel, and for several minutes, while her hands moisturize, everything else is swept away in a percussive bliss. She pulls off the gloves, pat-dries her hands, removes the score from its bag, and examines it in the natural light.
A pool of cold vomit on the tiled bathroom, a sharp-smelling brew of alcohol and pills. Her pulse was so faint, no more than a twitch . . .
“The same one,” she whispers, her upper lip quivering.
Not a book, but a manuscript. In fact, not even a price tag mars the handwritten pages. Yet she clearly remembers the cashier ringing her up, and she had paid ….
The piece is—was entitled Sonaittj, which presumably translates into “sonata” in whatever Scandinavian language it was that Ane had spoken—Kazue can’t recall. It’s been so long, the associated memories of her old roommate so well buried.
As she paces her apartment, she flips through the score for a general impression, revealing to her a sumptuous intricacy, Oriental rug tessellations in musical semblance—each page overflowing with symbols, crammed with notation. Memory of the piece’s composition reawakens in her mind. Her roommate had often requested for her to play snippets of the manuscript to get a fresh perspective on the work in progress. Besides, Kazue is so accomplished a sight reader, she can hear the music without even playing it—can feel the flurry of tension and release in her fingertips. For many minutes, she is lost in a labyrinth of musical beauty. Another part of her reawakens, a part that seethes with jealousy.
The phone rings, ripping her out of the musical trance.
She stood up from the clammy body, rushed from the bathroom to the phone in the hall. Her hand lingered over the headset—
She sets the papers down on the piano on top of a book of Ravel and walks to the kitchen. Her agent calling about the schedule for the upcoming live album—Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit and Miroirs performed on consecutive nights. The reception of Kazue’s own compositions had been tepid, and after talks with the record company, her manager had encouraged her to return to her roots as a concert pianist.
As they work out the details—mainly Kazue confirming the list of necessities for her dressing room—she continues to pace across the open penthouse, in and out of the kitchen and living room.
Only a few minutes pass this way before she catches motion out of the corner of her eye—the score of Sonaittj smeared and oozing over the piano. Kazue trails off mid-sentence, turning to fully study the piano and music. Whatever strange trick of the eye that had vexed her has now vanished. The manuscript stands open to the first page, the piano ready to be played.
“Kazue? You there?” her agent asks.
“Yes. Sorry. What was I saying?”
It had been as if the score were melting, dripping notes and stems and symbols down into the piano.
Her agent laughs. “Are you playing the counter?”
Her hand had hovered over the headset—but instead of calling for help, she had walked over to Ane Fjientiov’s spinet and removed the bundle of sheet music.
Kazue blinks and looks down at her hands. She had, indeed, begun performing with her free hand a technical section, not from one of the Ravel pieces, but from Sonaittj. Still, it had not detracted from her attention. It is a behavior she couldn’t quell, the need to constantly be playing—the cornerstone of her brilliance.
“You need a break, friend. Let me take you out to dinner tonight.”
After hanging up, she returns to the piano, sets her fingers against the keys, then freezes.
Before her eyes, the corners of the pages darken and curl. An unfelt breeze carries off carbon flakes. She yanks the manuscript off the music stand just as it bursts into flames, dashes into the kitchen, and dumps it in the sink.
Kazue walked out into the cold night for several blocks, glancing down this and that alley, until she found a vista of snow cast in a warm glow.
Instead of running the water, she lets it burn, monitoring the embers dancing out of the flames, conducting them with a stainless steel spatula.
A vagrant’s trash fire.
That is when the piano began to play of its own accord.
The truth is he likes it when they watch.
Exalts the job into something beyond work—renders the pleasure more exquisite.
The minute he laid eyes on her in the flesh, Singleton had hoped Kazue Tsukuda would want to watch him perform for her. Every swing of the axe or wrench of the crowbar feels orgasmic. His performance is not merely violent: It is an explosive ballet of choreography and sound. Splinters of piano embed in his skin, beading up a bloody sweat. He inhales the exposed innards of the beast, the pulverized bone and marrow. It feeds him. He circles his prey throughout, considering it from every conceivable angle, noting and cataloging weak spots to be exploited at crucial moments. He grows with each crash of the axe or sledgehammer, but he does not neglect the quiet moments—times when knives, or screwdrivers, or crowbars are required. Music is the balance of sound and silence, being and nonbeing.
And the reaction of the audience is just as integral, so as Singleton deconstructs the piano, he gauges Ms. Tsukuda, licking his lips at her masked pain.
God, he feels alive.
At the end of his performance piece, the instrument has been reduced to a ruin of splinters and coils of snapped wire. Singleton’s mind is filled with a glorious, amalgamated echo of THWACKs and TWANGs, shards of wood flying, clattering and groaning, crashes of piano actions against jangly strings—over twelve thousand pieces screaming in their unique voices the protestation of the piano’s death. Twelve thousand shattered bones.
Singleton wipes his brow. He turns to his patron, waiting for a response—tears, applause, a gasp, a scream, laughter. He wants her to acknowledge his genius, wants to be validated by her.
The woman’s gaze is glued to what was once a piano. She says nothing for the longest time, long enough for Singleton to feel the first tendrils of discomfort constricting his throat.
She finally stands and walks to the kitchen where she writes out his not-so-insignificant check. “Destroying people’s lives must be lucrative,” she whispers.
He joke-bites the check. “It feeds the kids.”
It is the time of the job that he has always found most awkward: cleaning up the mess, departing in ignominy after exposing his soul to his clients. Such actions should be carried out behind curtains or after theaters have been evacuated. And this woman is special to him, for he recognizes a kind of … spiritual parity in her: something twisted inside.
When he reaches his van, stows away his equipment and the sacks of shattered piano, he starts up the engine, and pops in a CD—Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, featuring none other than the Kazue Tsukuda. The rising crashes of piano chords over the orchestra stir his soul, and he feels Kazue playing for him, playing to animate him, playing for the destruction of everything beautiful—a macabre duet strung across space-time.
The sound grows garbled as if the tape had been puckered and crinkled from heat or water damage—but no. This is a CD, not a tape. It should skip or eject, not delve into these choking, gagging depths. After a few seconds of the torment, the aural landscape clarifies suddenly, and a new kind of music emerges, the notes speeding together in blurry legato, configured according to a mind-splitting logic beyond his ken, yet gripping him with unprecedented intimacy, an even greater ecstasy than he’d felt during his performance. And at the very moment when the hemorrhaging begins and blood shoots out of his facial orifices, he swears that he’s glimpsed Paradise.
After Singleton takes away the remains of her father’s piano, and the potent reek of the remover’s sweat fades (but never leaves), Kazue is struck by an intense hunger, realizing she has hardly eaten anything over the past few days while under the spell of the possessed piano.
She prepares an arugula salad and a massive slab of smoked salmon with a lemon horseradish sauce. She pours a glass of Pinot Grigio and sits at the counter in the kitchen, eyes turning repeatedly to the now-gaping space in the living room, the space around which all the furniture had been arranged to accommodate—the space around which her life had been constructed.
The act of destruction has silenced the music—the endless crashing euphoria of Sonaittj that had hounded her mind over the past few days.
Hands still gloved, she tears the flesh of the salmon with a fork and dips it in the sauce, taking a delicate bite, sighing, the tightness in her shoulders washing out. Whatever it is that has been happening to her has ended. The manuscript was burned, the piano it had haunted destroyed, and Ane …
She returned to the apartment, cold-nipped, and recreated the casual machinations of how she would normally return home. Boots off, gloves, coat. Went to the kitchen to soak her hands in olive oil and lemon juice, then put on the tea kettle, then to the bathroom, and—what’s this? Her roommate collapsed on the tile? She even fabricated a gasp, crouched down, and felt the pulse.
The twitch of Ane’s pulse had vanished.
Kazue blinks, looks down at her hands. She had picked up the book of Ravel that had been her constant companion over the past few months. Even without a piano at home, she could continue to practice in her mind. Her body would feel every imagined vibration of sound of the un-played piece.
The phone rings. She drops the music on the counter and picks up the headset. Through the line, distant piano music plays, the acoustics blurry.
“Who is this?” she whispers.
It takes her a moment before she recognizes the melody.
She places the headset down and backs up as the piano book flips open beneath phantom hands. From a distance, she can see that the charred pages contain not a note of Ravel, but the knotted hyper-beauty of Sonaittj. Glimpsing the writing, she hears a crash of piano chords and heart-stirring glissandi.
Such beauty, she had burned. Such beauty.
The notes and bars on the page begin to stir, to scaffold off the paper interconnectedly, as in a fleshed-out composition. A long dragon of musical symbols with jaws of treble and bass clefs, pulse-freezing fermata eyes, skeleton of measures and staffs, spine bristling with sharps and flats, scaled in notes, snakes out across the counter and towards Kazue, gnashing its black and white key signatures. It hisses glorious music, rasping yet resonant, ever extending itself, codas branching out like claws, ‘til it slithers entirely free of the manuscript, stretched out before her in all the coiling glory that her roommate had intended it to be.
Kazue is late coming down to the hired car on the evening of her performance, her angular face skeletal beneath the streetlamps. One look from her tells the chatty driver to shut up and do his job. At the theater, she is ushered in through the back doors where her agent and other hangers-on greet her. They introduce her to the recording tech and producer, and to her new assistant who served as stand-in during sound level check. She nods towards them all, hands clasped at her navel.
They were warned ahead of time: Kazue Tsukuda does not shake hands.
The green room is a garden of flowers planted by her fans—roses and lilies, potted orchids, a single peach blossom encased in a glass box. The assistant helps her out of her coat and shoes. Kazue stops her when she gestures towards the long evening gloves. The young woman prepares green tea, but it goes undrunk. In fact, the assistant notices, Ms. Tsukuda does not touch anything in the room as if she exists in a bubble separate from this space. Several minutes pass before a knock from the producer warns them of the time.
In tight-fitting red dress, barefoot and gloved, Kazue makes her way onto the stage to a round of applause. She sits at the piano and winces when her fingers press against the keys, not for the opening of Gaspard de la Nuit, but for something new—something that has never been heard by the public before.
Kazue’s hands had been yearning for keys to play all through the past few days and nights, tapping incessantly on nonmusical surfaces. They had clawed at the flesh of her thighs in desperation for sound, and now nothing will stop them as Sonaittj tears its passage into the world.
TIM BOITEAU lives in Michigan with his wife and son. He is a Writers of the Future winner and author of the novel The Drummer Girl. His short fiction has appeared in places such as Deep Magic, Dream of Shadows, and LampLight.
Artwork by the Novel Noctule team.