The cadence starts in C, as if to tease the major scale, but it loses all tonal sense instantaneously. The instrument it is played on does not exist: could not exist. The music has returned: I have spent days, weeks in my squalid house, preparing immense reams of variations of sheet notation for the piece, but when played back on the piano, they have never even started to come close to those bleak scales that shift eternal in the dark distance. Although: I am sure that they had sounded right in my head. I am sure of it; yet none of this matters now, and the piano and the library’s worth of notation is destroyed withal.
I began learning piano when I was seven years old. By age eleven, I could read and write music at a grade that I had not achieved even in English and Latin. I was thirteen when I first played the piano I owned up until that night several days prior. It had belonged to my school for as long as anyone there could remember; yet, it had never been observed being played by any of the music teachers, nor the blind pianist who tuned the others, and who came in every Friday morning to play for us during our otherwise dull assemblies. It was a pitiful orphan instrument: unloved, uncared for. I was drawn to it, being myself bereft of mother and father.
I felt its presence from that first music lesson; every key that I struck on the Casio keyboard seemed to resonate instead from the piano, not from the piece of cheap plastic in front of me: and every note played sounded tortured, and ringingly out of key.
Our teacher told us that it was impossible to tune; not that they had not tried: even the blind man had attempted long ago and failed, and had since stayed far from the withered, dusty beast. I asked why they kept it around: I never once heard a clear answer to that question, and my attempts to play it during class were met with refusal.
One day, in my third year at the school, after classes had finished, we were called to the main hall for an announcement; the students were to be questioned and perhaps scolded after a number of hideous, perverted images had been found scrawled in the boys’ bathroom. As the droves of students made their way there, I slipped rank and made my way across the empty school grounds and over to the music hall, which stood alone next to the south gate.
I entered the desolate classroom, accompanied by the light creak of rusty hinges. The piano sat in the corner, dust on every inch of the housing and lid. I pulled over a chair, raised the lid and sat down. I played a note.
The note echoed its dissonance. There was no other sound like it: it tingled every fibre of within my being. I closed my eyes and let the feeling in: the shared harmony of two lost souls, reunited for the first time. I played another note, higher up. My left hand formed a chord. My right hand scaled up. That progression I now know so well, yet could not replicate. I could feel it crawling up my skin, crawling up the walls.
In the subsequent days, I tried to remember what notes I had played. Even with perfect pitch — inherited, according to my uncle, from my mother — I could not figure out how to reproduce the off-key phrases that I had played. But it was more than that: I could not hear what I had heard that day. I could feel it, but I could not hear it: it was more than mere music.
The piano was removed from the room. Nobody mentioned that it had been played, although the removal of the dust from its coat must have been noticed. A year later, myself and another student were sent to the storage room under the main hall to retrieve a bag of sports equipment. The piano was in the corner, behind stacks of newspapers and academic books. A memory of a melody twinged behind my ear, and then crawled out of earshot. In my last year and a half at the school, I tried to access the storage room a number of times, but to no avail. I found no success, and after graduating, I attended a prestigious music college, and then went on to study composition at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
It was around this time that I began learning the electric guitar. It gave me a chaotic and loose respite from sheet music, and with help from a cheap fuzz pedal and a glass slide I found myself closer to finding sounds similar to the music that permeated my penumbral thoughts; yet, they were cheap imitations, and far from satisfied my cravings. I used a reel-to-reel tape recorder that I had bought at a car-boot sale to create loops of decaying noise, spending every moment that I had outside of my studies on this pastime, eventually even skipping lessons to partake in the creation of these layers of dissonance. It did not ease my mind, and eventually I was asked to leave the university due to continuing noise complaints and a lack of attendance.
Two years later, I was working a desk job for a phone repair company. I had enjoyed the work as far as I could have, and I had thought neither of the music nor the piano for a number of months. I had been relaxing in bed with a book when I heard something outside. My neighbours often had parties, so I thought it must have been them starting another one up, despite their last one having been the night before. I was wrong. It was not their music. It must have been emanating not from outside, but from my own subconscious; for it was that cadence, the very one I had heard in my first encounter with the mysterious orphan piano.
It had finally returned to me! I sat up and took a writing pad from my desk and started to jot down notes. But as soon as I had begun notation, it was gone, lost once more to memory’s haze. I cursed my recall and took my sleep.
I woke up an hour or two later: the music was back. I had not heard it in my head: no, it was outside; somewhere in the distance: I threw myself from my bed and ran out into the black night, following the sound. But even as I ran, the familiar, eldritch sequence did not gain in volume, nor did it lessen, as if it was always hanging just out of my reach. I walked the streets for an hour, but no turn took me any closer to my destination. I went home and slept, although the music kept its flow.
The next night, it returned once again. The same phrases, tantalising, mocking. I set up my tape recorder and kept it running after I was asleep. When I played it back, I heard nothing.
This continued for the following months, and my every attempt to find it or record it resulted in abject failure. It was at this time that I made a pact with myself: my life was in a pitiful rut, and as stable as my job was, there was no true enjoyment to be found. So I decided that I would set myself upon the music that haunted and taunted me so, discover its secrets entire, and then I would take it to the Royal Conservatoire, to show those so-called experts, scholars, that nothing like it existed in the human spectrum of musical experience, that only I can play it, and that I should be bequeathed a substantial grant to further explore these new, alien modes. Once again, I had a purpose to my wormlike existence.
I wrote hundreds, thousands of sheets of music, each work an attempt to recreate those sounds, each piece one that I would have once considered an opus but now saw as less than worthless. I quit my job, took my final month’s salary and travelled down to my old school. I met with the new headmaster, and questioned him about the old piano. He did not know of its existence, so I told him where perhaps he might find it. He replied that he was a busy man. My monetary offer changed his mind. In the evening of that day, the deliverymen carried the piano up to my room. I started playing immediately.
Nothing came out. Just sour, twisted notes that fell dead on my ears. I played for hours, to constant and unremitting failure. I closed the lid and got into bed. As soon as my defeat had been sealed, that was, of course, when I heard it again: it was out there, laughing somewhere beyond the window’s glass. It was closer now, albeit incrementally. I pulled the piano over to the window, tearing the carpet in places, and sat down again. As the impossible fugue started over, I played back to it. But still the notes collapsed as soon as they had left the instrument. I eventually had to stop at three in the morning after the next-door neighbour hammered against the wall.
I ignored the music and the piano for a week. On the seventh day, I received a phone call. My uncle had died. I should have wept. I went down to attend the funeral and left before the wake. He left me his cottage in the will, so I made the correct arrangements and before long I was living just outside of Penrith, finally alone with my music.
The country air did my lungs a world of good after living in the damp of my old house for so long. I took daily walks, still continuing to ignore the music. But every night it came closer still, until finally I could no longer stand it. I left the house and ran to the woods past which the noxious music seemed to originate. I tripped over branch and root until I got to the other side of the trees. I looked out at the night sky. The stars bowed down over me. The music screamed. The shapes in the sky took the form of the notation, like no notation known by name, written in a hideous, aberrant alien script: it had finally been gifted me, finally there for me to take as my own. I checked my pockets. In my hurry, I had left all of my pens and paper back in the house. I ran back, further harming myself on the way, spraining an ankle and bruising a wrist. I took my fountain pen and a large pad of paper and made the trip again, avoiding any more extensive damage. I stared at the sky. It was gone: only the shadowy, endless void welcomed me, even that seeming to stare down at me in disgust.
The music had stopped. I was alone, truly alone. I walked back to the house and sat down at the piano and wracked my all too human memory. I played for ten hours, until I finally slumped over the keyboard and passed out.
I started to drink whiskey, attempting to channel the music in a drunken fugue state. It did not work; nothing did. Every day my body grew thinner. Food no longer had any taste, not after the experience of having seen that mystic, unearthly, Stygian music with my own eyes, only to have faltered and lost it once and for all. The music did not play outside for many weeks. I was naught without it. I knew that if it returned, if it graced my decaying mind with its echoing laugh, it would be for the final time.
In a rage, I felled my adversarial instrument: the piano connected to the ground with a discordant crash, broken but yet still living. I took to it then with a hammer. I did not stop until the damage was irreparable. I destroyed all of my notation, and my recordings. By this point, even water tasted foul to my sensibilities; I would not imbibe a drop. So I waited in darkness, day and night, for that final, wracking hymn.
Tonight, I was woken by the smallest of sounds, far beyond my window and over the horizon. Despite its distance, I could feel how loud it was. It continued to get closer, the spread of the sound multiplying and diffusing into the air. It is nearly right outside my window now. I feel that I now realise what it has been trying to tell me this entire time.
It seems to laugh at me yet, that scraping, mirthless rattle. I feel it shake the windows. There is not long left. I take my pen and pad and stumble through the corridors and throw my door open and allow myself to exit the house and be embraced by the cold air outside. But the air is not cold; in fact, there is no air. There is no view. Only blackness, a stretching everfurther abyss. Then the shapes emerge, those ghastly notes: they crawl through space, time dimension; they are all that there is left; I am the last of my kind, and I am the one who wrought this. It should have never been heard. But as I start to write it down, I know that all of this, the sacrifice that I have made on behalf of humanity, has been worth it. Nothing has ever existed that held such horrible beauty. There is nothing but the notation. And as I finish writing it, as the pen scrapes across the paper for the last time, I know my purpose has been fulfilled. I was the gatekeeper, and I opened the door. All that is left now is the unending coda: the music that will scream alone for eternity.