Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

The Red Piano

Among my University colleagues, I have a reputation for calm. Whatever the emotional upheaval around me, I can be counted on to keep my head, to make plans, to calculate the cost and consequences, and then to act. If they also say that I live too much in my head, that I lack passion and, perhaps, compassion, that is the price I must pay for being one of those still waters that runs much deeper than it appears.

It is perhaps no surprise that I remained single all through my younger years. No male who shared a classroom with me ever asked me on a date, although some were glad to debate with me over endless cups of coffee and too-sweet muffins in smoky little cafés near the University. My discipline was archaeology, my area of concentration the burial customs of long-dead societies, my obsession the notion of a corporeal afterlife, rich with exotic foods and elaborate furniture, jewels and art and books and servants to wait upon the deceased as they had in life. Wherever they began, all conversations circled back to the same ever-fascinating questions: whether such preparations reflected some post-mortem reality, or whether all the elaborated pomp of preservation and entombment were nothing but a glorified whistling in the dark of eternity.

In the course of these debates, I gained a reputation for an intensity of focus that discouraged my café companions from seeking more intimate bonds of friendship or romance. I did not mind; my own silent communion with dead worlds and languages gave me intimacy enough.

Thanks to my attention to my studies, I throve in my field, finally rising in my thirties to the position of a Full Professor of Archeology at a prominent University situated in a great city. Armed with the income this position offered me and a comfortable sum left to me by a great-aunt, I set out to look for a house to buy.

It was not an easy quest. In a city of apartment buildings and bland new construction, a detached dwelling of historical interest and aesthetic character is not easy to come by. At last, my realtor showed me an old stable, renovated as a townhouse late in the last century by an eccentric developer. It sat on the market for some time before going to an equally eccentric ballerina, recently retired from the stage. After she had suffered a crippling accident on the circular iron staircase, the stable had come back on the market, where it had remained ever since.

The realtor showed me this property with some reluctance, evincing considerable surprise when I told him that I would take it. Like a man in the grip of leprosy checking each limb in fear of discovering an unsuspected infection, he pointed out the inconvenient kitchen, the Pompeian master-bath, the unfinished roof deck with its unpromising view of a back alley and the sheer brick sides of the adjoining houses, and, worst of all, the grand piano that was attached to the sale and could not, by deed, be destroyed or removed from its position in the darkly paneled living room. Enchanted with the very eccentricities that had scuttled all previous negotiations, I made my offer, arranged for a mortgage, and hired a lawyer to draw up the papers.

I well remember the day I took possession. I’d thought my realtor the kind of small, dark, narrow man who shivers on even the hottest day. But as he handed me the key to the front door, he stopped shivering and smiled the first genuine smile I’d seen on his face.

“Here you are, Dr. Waters,” he said. “It’s all yours. I sure hope you know what you’re getting into.”

I thought this an odd thing to say, but I was too dazed with legal complexities to comment on his choice of words. Not that it would have done any good in any case. Once the papers were signed, so was my fate.

I have said my new house was flanked by larger houses—two mansions of ancient aspect and noble proportions that had shared, in their vanished youth, the stable I now called home. One of these had been refurbished, renovated, and repurposed to a glossy fare-thee-well, losing much of its character in the process. The other was infinitely more charming. There was a vagueness about its soot-streaked brownstone and clouded windows, an aura of fogs and mists that spoke of gaslight and the clop of horses’ hooves on cobblestones, as if it somehow occupied an ancient lacuna in the roar and clatter of the modern city.

Accustomed as I am to keeping to myself and mindful of the ancient city habit of never acknowledging that one has neighbors at all, I did not knock on either door. I moved into my stable, arranged my books and my great-aunt’s antique furniture, my Egyptian canopic jars and Roman armbands, my Columbian breastplates and Hellenic funerary steles in the wide wooden spaces where the horses of my neighbors’ predecessors had drowsed and fed.

I also had the piano tuned. It was of a manufacture unknown to me, an unusual instrument made of close-grained wood stained a deep, ox-blood red, its keys fashioned of a uniform polished ebony. Its tone was resonant and full, more akin to an organ than the tinkling parlor uprights I had played as a girl. It was intricately carved with a myriad of identical faces clustered around its legs and above its pedals and around the music stand. I had lost all interest in practicing the piano when I discovered archeology. But I could not feel settled in my new home until I had not only dusted and waxed all the many whorls and complexities of its ornamentation, but also restored its inner workings to their original state.

After a lengthy and expensive tuning, this was accomplished. To my surprise, the piano continued to unsettle me. Waking in the small hours of the night, grading papers or reading or laboring on my comprehensive analysis of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, I sometimes fancied that I heard it playing a melancholy and meditative concerto. More than once, I crept downstairs, my heart in my throat and a sturdy brass candlestick in my hand, intent on surprising the midnight musician. But on each occasion, I found the living room empty and dark, the piano silent. After a month or more of increasingly disturbed and sleepless nights, I formed the idea that the sounds haunting me must come from the house next door, the house whose antique air had so enchanted me. I decided to break the habit of years and introduce myself to my neighbor with the intention of asking him to remove his piano from the wall it must share with my study, or failing that, to confine his playing to daylight hours.

Accordingly, on my return next day from a seminar in reading papyri, I mounted the six steps of the ancient brownstone and tugged the rusted bell-pull hanging beside the banded oaken door. Deep within the house, a bell tolled, followed by a listening silence. Again I rang, determined to rouse the inhabitants, from sleep if need be, as they had so often roused me. The echoes of the third and last ring had not yet died away when the door opened.

My first impression of Roderick Hawthorne was that he was very beautiful. He was tall, over six feet, and slender as a reed, with long, prominent bones. His forehead was broad and domed under an unruly mass of bronze-dark curls like chrysanthemum petals that rioted over his head and down his long and hollow jaw in an equally unruly beard. His nose was Egyptian in the spring of its nostrils, pure Greek in its high-arched bridge; his eyes were large and dark and liquid behind round gold-rimmed spectacles. His gaze, mildly startled at first, sharpened when it fell upon me, rendering me sufficiently self-conscious that I hardly knew how to begin my complaint.

“Your piano,” I said at last, and was startled when he laughed. He had a laugh as beautiful as his person, deep and musical as an organ’s Vox Humana. Then he said, “At its old tricks again, is it?” and I was lost. His voice was oboe and recorder, warm milk and honey. I could have listened to that voice reading the phone book with undiminished pleasure and attention. He spoke again: “Do come in, Miss . . .?”

I realized that I was staring at him with my mouth ajar, more like a cinema fan in the presence of a celluloid celebrity than an Associate Professor of Archeology at a major American University. “It’s Doctor, actually. Dr. Arantxa Waters.”

“Dr. Waters.” He held out a long hand, the fingers pale and smooth as marble, delicately veined with blue. Cold as marble, too, when I laid my own within it. “I am Roderick Hawthorne,” he said. “Welcome to Hawthorne House.”

The interior of Hawthorne House was as untouched by the modern world as its exterior. The walls were hung with richly figured papers and the windows with draperies of velvet and brocade in crimson, ultramarine, and the mossy green of a forest floor. The furniture was massive, dark, ornamented with every kind of bird and fruit and animal known to the carver’s art. Precious carpets covered the floors, and precious objects crowded every surface not claimed by piles of books. Everything was illuminated by the soft yellow glow of gaslights hissing behind etched glass shades. It would have been perfect, if it hadn’t been for the dust and neglect that lay over it all like a pall. Still, I complimented him on the beauty of his home with complete sincerity.

“Do you like it?” he asked, a touch anxiously. “It’s gone woefully to seed, I’m afraid, since my wife’s death. I suppose I could hire a housekeeper, but the truth is, I hardly notice the mess. And I do value my privacy.”

I felt an unaccustomed color climb my cheeks, shame and irritation combined. “I shall conclude my business quickly,” I said, and explained that his piano playing at night was disturbing my studies. As I spoke, it seemed to me that the intensity of his gaze grew ever more concentrated, so that I could almost imagine my blush rather ignited by the fire of his eye than my own self-consciousness.

“I understand,” he said when I fell silent. “Although I am somewhat at a loss as to the remedy. Come, see for yourself.”

He led me from the parlor, where we had been talking, up a wide and sweeping staircase to the floor above, where he turned away from the direction in which my own house and its study lay, into a room across the landing, illuminated, like the parlor, by gas and oil lamps. The soft golden light showed me a formal music room, furnished with a gilded floor-harp and a cello as well as a brocade sofa, a gallery of shadowy pictures in filthy glass—and a piano, the precise twin of mine, down to the carved heads and the unusual deep crimson stain.

“As you can see,” he said as I stared at the piano, “the sound of my playing is unlikely to carry across the landing and through two brick walls to disturb you in your study. But I do believe that you have been so disturbed.” Observing my look of bewilderment, he gestured towards the sofa. “Sit down, please, and I shall tell you the story.

“You have noticed, of course, that our pianos are a matched pair. Your piano was, in fact, made for the wife of the Hawthorne who built Hawthorne House, not long after she entered it as a bride. In this very room they played duets until her untimely death caused him, in the extremity of his grief, to banish her piano to the stable.”

Feeling I should make some observation, I said, “A very natural response, under the circumstances.”

“Oh no,” Hawthorne said seriously, “he was quite mad. And went madder with time. A sane man might have given the piano to charity or sold it or even caused it to be destroyed. The founder of Hawthorne House had his lawyers draw up an addition to the deed preventing the piano from being moved from the stable or destroyed, in perpetuity, no matter who might come to own the stable or what might be done to it.”

“Your ancestor does seem to have been a trifle eccentric,” I said. “But it was a romantic and morbid age.”

His large, bright eyes dwelt on my face. “You are very understanding,” he murmured, his voice thrilling in my ear.

“Not at all,” I said briskly. “Is there more to the story?”

He seemed to collect himself. “Very little of substance. Yet, a piano with such a history is likely to attract rumors as a corpse attracts worms. Most pertinent of these is that, under certain circumstances, it plays in sympathy with its mate.”

“And do you believe in such rumors?”

“I believe in everything,” Roderick Hawthorne said. Shrugging away his melancholy, he turned a hospitable smile on me. “As long as you are here, will you take a glass of sherry, and hear me play?”

Although I myself place little credence in ghosts and hauntings, it was clear from his nervous hands, his febrile eye, the urgent note in his plangent voice, that Roderick Hawthorne was utterly convinced that the music I was hearing was the result of a species of supernatural possession. Nevertheless, the charms of his person and his voice were such that I accepted both sherry and invitation and sat upon the sofa while he laid his beautiful long hands upon the red piano’s ebony keys and began to play.

How shall I describe Roderick Hawthorne’s playing? I am, as I have said, a woman whose passions are primarily intellectual, whose reason is better developed than her emotions. My host’s music delved into the unplumbed depths of my psyche and brought up strange jewels. The nut-sweet sherry blended with salt tears as I wept unashamedly, drunk on music and the deep rumble of my host, humming as he played.

Afterwards, we sat in the parlor with lamplight playing on Chinese urns and Renaissances bronzes and talked of the subject precious to us both: the wide range of humanity’s response to the ineluctable fact of death. By the time I left him, long after midnight, I was well on my way to a state I had never before experienced and was hardly able to identify. I was infatuated.

In taking leave of me, Roderick proposed that I call upon him soon. “I have no telephone,” he said. “Nor do I often leave my house. I would not like to think that my eccentricity might prevent the deepening of a promising friendship.”

Even in the face of such clear encouragement, I waited almost a week before calling on him again. Out of his presence, I found myself as disquieted by his oddities as charmed by his beauty. I was reasonably sure that the use of gas for household lighting was against all current city building codes. And his superstitious belief in the haunted bonds between our twin pianos and the supernatural origin of the sounds I heard, combined with the fact that he himself was (I presumed) recently widowed and not yet recovered from his loss, made me reluctant to further the acquaintance. Still, there was his playing, and the intoxication of conversation with one whose obsessions so perfectly complemented my own. And there was my own piano, singing softly at the edge of my hearing in the deep of the night, reminding me of the emotions I had experienced hearing him play its mate, and could experience again, if only I should take the trouble to go next door.

Unable to resist longer, I put aside my reservations, rang the rusty bell, and saw again his large, mild eyes, his sweet mouth nested like a baby bird in the riot of his beard, felt his cold, smooth hand press my own, heard his voice like an oboe welcoming me, questioning me, talking, talking, talking with delight of all the things that were closest to my heart.

On this second visit, it seemed to me that the house was cleaner than it had been when I’d first seen it—the hangings brighter, the air clearer. The change was most apparent in the music room, where the piano gleamed a deep crimson and candlelight sparkled off the new-polished glass of the gallery of pictures. When Roderick began to play, I rose from the sofa to examine them.

They were sketches, in pencil or charcoal, of a female figure surrounded by shadowed and threatening shapes. Sometimes she fled across a gothic landscape; more often she sat in intricately rendered interiors that I recognized at once as my host’s parlor and music room, alone save for demonic shapes that menaced her from the shadows. The figure bore only the faintest resemblance to an actual woman, being slender to the point of emaciation, overburdened with dark curly hair inclined to dishevelment, and possessed of eyes stretched in an extremity of terror. It was not until I came upon a head and shoulders portrait, that I realized, with a feeling of considerable shock, that the face gazing out so anxiously from the gilded frame was, when seen in relative repose, very like mine. Had I allowed my hair to grow out of the neat crop I had adopted to tame its natural wildness, lost twenty pounds or so, and assumed clothing over a century out of fashion, there would have been no difference between us.

Behind me, the music modulated into a melancholy mode. “The first Mrs. Hawthorne,” Roderick said. “Drawn not long before her death, by her husband. The others were drawn later. He became obsessed by the idea that demons had sucked the life from her. There are boxes full of such sketches in the attic.”

“They seem a very gloomy subject for a music room,” I commented.

“They have always been here,” he said simply. “I do not choose to move them.”

“And your own wife,” I asked diffidently. “Have you any pictures of her?”

Under Roderick’s long, pale fingers, the ebony keys of the red piano danced and flickered in an unquiet Mazurka. “My wife,” he said precisely, “died some while ago. She, too, was pale, with dark eyes and dark hair. Isabella Lorenzo, who last owned your stable, was of similar coloring. So are you.”

For a moment, I was both frightened and repelled by the intensity of his gaze over the crimson-stained music stand, the throb and tremor of his beautiful voice. I felt that I had intruded unpardonably upon a grief too terrible and private for my eyes. Embarrassed almost beyond bearing, I was on the point of quitting his music room and his house, never to return. But then he smiled, and the tune beneath his fingers grew bright and gay and light. “But all that is past now, lovely Arantxa,” he said softly, “and has nothing to do with you and me.”

Foolishly, I believed him.

The subject of Roderick’s lost wife did not arise again between us, as fearful to me as it must have been painful to him. Nor did I learn anything more of the history of the first Mrs. Hawthorne, my long dead doppelganger. These shadows on his past did nothing to decrease my fascination with him, which only grew more intense as the year faded towards winter.

Over the next weeks, I came by insensible degrees to spend almost every evening in his company. I always went to him; he would not venture even so far from his house as my adjacent stable. No stranger to the terrors that agoraphobia can visit on a sensitive spirit, I did not press him, but returned his hospitality by providing our nightly dinners. An unenthusiastic cook, I provided take-out from one of the local restaurants, but I will never forget the first time I descended to his kitchen in search of a teapot and hot water, only to discover that the stove was wood-fed, the water pumped by hand into the sink, and the milk kept in an icebox chilled by an actual block of ice.

“It has always been that way,” he said when I came up again, defeated by the primitive technology. “I do not choose to change it.”

On subsequent visits, I found the stove had been lit and water pumped ready in the kettle for our nightly cup of tea. Indeed, Roderick showed himself unfailingly solicitous of my comfort. When I complained that I was too tired, on returning home late each night, to keep up with my work, he gave me the room across the hall from the music room as a study. There I would sit, lapped in fur and velvet against the chill, grading papers by gaslight while the glorious waves of Roderick’s music washed over my senses. Often, emotion so overcame me that I would have granted him whatever he might ask, even to those intimacies I could hardly bring myself to contemplate. But every night, when the great clock at the foot of the steps chimed midnight, he would lower the cover, wish me goodnight, and escort me to the door.

I soon became aware of an inconvenient lack of energy. At first I blamed my growing enervation on too little sleep and the extreme stimulation of Roderick’s conversation and music. I confided my state to Roderick, who insisted that I leave at eleven, so that I might retire earlier. “For now that I’ve found you, Arantxa, I cannot do without you. I might have sunk into melancholy altogether, and my house with me, if it had not been for you.”

Indeed, both Roderick and his house had improved since I’d first seen them. Someone had cleaned and dusted, washed and polished everything to the well-cared-for glow that bespeaks a truly dedicated housekeeper. When I asked where he’d unearthed such a jewel, he smiled and turned the subject. I began to sleep longer and for a time, felt a little better. But my classes were a struggle to prepare and my students a constant irritation.

Early in the spring semester, my department chair called me into his office. He was concerned about my health, he said. I seemed languid, forgetful of meetings and deadlines. There had been complaints. It was all very troubling. To silence him, I made an appointment with a doctor at the University Health Services. He subjected me to a series of annoying and expensive tests, and in the end confessed himself no wiser than when he started. He diagnosed me with non-typical chronic fatigue, and prescribed a stimulant.

Roderick laughed when he heard this diagnosis. “Chronic fatigue? Nonsense. You possess more vitality than any woman I have known.” He took my hand and raised it to his lips. “Dear Arantxa,” he murmured, his breath warm on my knuckles. “So strong, so utterly alive. You must know that I adore you. Will you marry me?”

My heart stuttered in my breast with fear or passion—I hardly knew which. His bright and fixed gaze filled my mind and my senses, leaving room for nothing else. Words of acceptance trembled on my lips, but were checked at the last moment by inborn caution.

“You overwhelm me, Roderick,” I said shakily. “I have never thought of marriage. You must give me time to consider your proposal.”

Releasing my hand, Roderick shrank back into his chair. “You do not love me as I love you,” he said, his oboe-like voice clouded with disappointment.

I leaned forward, and for the first time, touched his softly curling beard. “I might,” I said truthfully. “I don’t know. I need to think what to do.”

He nodded, his beard sliding under my fingers. “Then you shall think. But please—think quickly.”

That night, he played the red piano with unsurpassed passion. I lay on the music-room sofa overwhelmed with sound, my arm flung over my eyes to hide my slow, helpless tears. Of course I loved him. I had never found anyone who listened to me as he did, looked at me with such hunger. Why then did I hesitate? In my extreme perturbation, I could hardly find the energy to rise from the sofa, and was forced to accept his arm to support me to the door. “Are you well?” he asked anxiously. “Shall I help you home?”

Knowing what the offer must have cost him, I was deeply moved. “My goodness,” I said, forcing a light tone through my deadly fatigue. “Do I look that bad? No, I’ll be fine by myself.”

“I will see you tomorrow, then,” he said, and for the first time, laid his lips against mine. His kiss, both passionate and cold, excited my nerves, lending me the strength to traverse the short distance to my own door.

I slept fitfully that night. Whenever I fell asleep, I was haunted by a groaning, as of pain unbearable, echoing up the spiral stairs. I would wake with a start and lie quivering in the darkness, ears straining to hear past the beating of my heart. The next day passed in a kind of stupor. I could barely totter down to the kitchen to boil water for tea and recruit faltering nature with soup and toast. By evening, I was simultaneously exhausted and restless beyond bearing. Which was, perhaps, why I found myself sitting on the piano bench.

I had not come near the piano in some time. As I sat before it, I noticed that the little carved faces were familiar. I knew that domed brow, that coolly sensual mouth in its nest of hyacinthine curls. My exhaustion was such that I saw nothing odd in finding Roderick’s visage carved upon his ancestor’s piano. It only inspired in me a desire to touch him, speak to him, draw comfort from him. Impulsively, I raised the cover, lifted my hands to the ebony keys and ran my fingers from treble to bass. If I was far too weak to drag myself to him, perhaps I could touch him through our linked instruments.

Tentatively, I embarked upon a simple song I had learned as a girl. I stumbled at first, and then sense memory took over. My fingers began to move as of their own accord, progressing from the song into a nocturne, and then into improvisation. As I played, I forgot my fatigue, my undone work, even Roderick and his proposal. The music I made lifted me into a realm of beautiful abstraction, spirit without substance, clean and pure and bright. When at last I stopped playing, it was a little after midnight. Strangely, I felt better—tired certainly, but not exhausted. My mind was clearer than it had been for months.

I slept soundly that night, never stirring until early afternoon, when I rose well-rested and able to eat a proper meal and do some real work. When I looked up from my papers, it was far too late to go to Roderick’s. Wanting to recapture that feeling of perfect communion, I sat down once again at the red piano, and rose some hours later, strong, refreshed, and as sure as I could be that I loved Roderick Hawthorne and wanted to be his wife.

The next afternoon, I dressed myself with more than usual care. I brushed out my hair, which had grown during my illness, into a dark cloud that made my face more delicate and white in contrast. I put on a dress I had not worn since college—black velvet cut tight to my hips, the skirt full and sweeping below. I clasped my mother’s pearls around my neck, and thus bedecked, once again rang the bell of Hawthorne House.

No sooner had my hand fallen from the pull than the door opened on a haggard figure I hardly recognized. Roderick Hawthorne’s hair was uncombed, his collar unbuttoned, his cheeks gaunt and his eyes reddened. “Arantxa!” he exclaimed. “I have not slept or eaten in two days, waiting for your answer, fearing what it must be when you did not return.”

My heart contracted with pity. “Oh, my dear.” He smiled at the endearment, the first I’d ever used. “I could not come. I was so tired. And I did need to think.”

“My poor angel. Of course. I’m glad you’re better. And you are here now. It is yes, isn’t it? Your answer?”

Something in his voice—Satisfaction? Triumph?—stifled my agreement on my lips. I smiled, but said nothing.

Dinner was a depressing meal. The dining room was cold, the fire sullen and low, the food indifferent. Both of us avoided the subject most pressingly on our minds, every other topic of conversation an unexpected minefield of references to love or matrimony. At length, we rose from an unaccustomed silence.

“I will not plead for myself,” he said. “Perhaps you will let my music plead for me.” He took my hand; his was colder than ice. As we walked from the dining room to the music room, I noticed that the whole house was cold, neglected, dusty, as though none had swept or polished or built a fire there for weeks rather than the two days I’d been absent. Roderick hurried me up the stairs, and fear grew in me. On the threshold of the music room, I hesitated, searching for some way to excuse myself from a situation grown suddenly intolerable. Roderick’s cold hand grasped mine more tightly, drawing me inexorably towards the red piano and down onto the bench beside him.

The carved faces peered at me from the music stand. It was the first time I had seen them close up, but I was not astonished to discover that they were as like the first Mrs. Hawthorne, like me, as the faces on my piano were like Roderick. In a flash, I understood everything. It utterly defied rational belief, but I could not afford the luxury of disbelief. My very life depended on acting quickly.

I took a deep, calming breath and smiled deliberately into his face. Roderick Hawthorne smiled back, predatory as a wolf, then released me, rubbed his long hands together, and flexed his fingers. He disposed them gently on the ebony keys, and prepared to play me to utter dissolution.

Before he could sound a single note, I seized the heavy wooden cover and slammed it shut on his fingers with all my force.

He screamed like a wild animal, a scream with a snarl in it, rage and pain mingled. Springing to my feet, I ran from the music room, snatching up my cumbersome skirts. Weak and in pain, he was still stronger than I, infinitely older and wise in the terrible sorcery that had animated him so far beyond his natural life. If I fell into his hands, I knew I could not escape him a second time. I ran headlong down the stairs, resisting the impulse to look behind me, knowing he must follow me, clumsy with pain, utterly determined to catch me and drain me of my strength and my life.

Tearing open the door, I stumbled into the open air a step ahead of him, and down the stoop into the alley. I knew that his life must be intimately intertwined with the house he had inhabited for so long. He might not be able to step over the threshold; then again, he might. I could not afford to take the chance.

In the light of a single lamp, my living room seemed calm and homelike. Then I clicked on the overhead, and there was the red piano, squatting beside the stair, oversized, over-decorated, garish, out of place among the beautiful simplicities of my collections.

A scream of rage at the end of the alley sent me flying to the box I kept under the stairs. Screwdriver, hammer, pliers, wire cutter—inadequate tools for the task ahead, but all I had at my disposal. Terror made me strong. I splintered the ebony keys and the music stand with the hammer. An inhuman howling came from the alley. I attacked the carved faces on the legs and case. Something heavy began to slam against my front door, causing it to quiver in the frame. Furiously I hammered at the carved wood, squinting against the splinters stinging my cheeks and chest.

With a great crack, the door burst inwards. I looked up, and there was Roderick Hawthorne, framed in darkness, his face stark in the electric glare. If I had harbored any lingering doubts as to the uncanny nature of the night’s events, I did so no longer. His face was scored and bleeding, his beard ragged and clotted with gore, his eye a bloody ruin, his mouth swollen and misshapen. I glanced down at my hammer, half-expecting to see it smeared with blood. In that moment of inattention, he sprang towards me, gabbling wildly, his beautiful voice raw and ruined, his beautiful hands bruised, swollen, bleeding, reaching for me, for the broken piano keys.

Snatching up the wire cutters, I thrust open the piano lid and applied myself to the strings. One by one I clipped them, in spite of Roderick’s howling and wailing, in spite of his hands clawing at my shoulders as he tried in vain to prevent me from severing his heart strings. As I worked my way down to the bass register, the howling stopped, and I felt only a weak pawing at my ankles. And then there was nothing.

When I completed my task, I turned and saw what I had done. For a moment, a horror lay on my rug, the red and white and black ruin of the man I had loved. And then his flesh deliquesced in an accelerated process of decay as unnatural as his protracted life. A deep groan sounded, as of crumbling masonry and walls, and then my world was rocked with the slow collapse of Hawthorne House, falling in on itself like a house of cards, dissolving, like its master, into featureless dust and rubble.

I was rescued from the wreckage by my neighbor on the other side. He gave me strong coffee laced with rum and chocolate chip cookies for shock and called the police and the fire department. He is neither beautiful nor mysterious, and he made his fortune writing code for a computer game I had never even heard of. He prefers klezmer music to opera and South Park to the Romantics. He reads science fiction and plays video games. We were married in the spring, right after final exams, and moved uptown to an apartment in a modern tower with square white rooms and views across the river. We have no piano, no harp, not even a guitar. But sometimes, in the deep of winter, when the dark comes early and the wind shrills at the bedroom window, I think I can hear the red piano playing, deep and wild and passionate.

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Delia Sherman

Delia Sherman

Delia Sherman writes stories and novels for younger readers and adults. Her most recent short stories have appeared in Datlow and Windling’s anthology Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells and Jonathan Strahan’s Under My Hat. Her collection of short stories, Young Woman in a Garden, was published by Small Beer Press. She has written three novels for adults: Through a Brazen Mirror, The Porcelain Dove, and The Fall of the Kings (with Ellen Kushner). Novels for younger readers are Changeling and The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen, Norton Award-winning The Freedom Maze, and The Evil Wizard Smallbone. When she’s not writing, she’s teaching, editing, knitting, and cooking. Though she loves to travel, home base is a rambling apartment in New York City with spouse Ellen Kushner and far too many pieces of paper.