The Notes of Erich Zann

Bradford Jefferson had been to Paris more than once, and he had developed a habit of visiting a few particular bookshops when the business of the trip allowed.  The stores he looked into all specialized, as he did, in old music, and his delving into them on those previous trips had produced a few items which he had spun out into nice little papers.  The limitations of these previous finds had been obvious when he’d picked them up.  The latest find was something else all together.

It was not much to look at, and he couldn’t honestly think of what had prompted him to reach for it on the high shelf it was resting on.  It was just an old portfolio, cardboard sides bound with fraying ribbon, and his first articulate thought as he’d eased the boards apart was, “I hope this isn’t full of rat turds.”

It was not.  There were several sheets of manuscript music, written by two or three different hands.  None of it looked much older than mid-nineteenth century, but a couple were arrangements for solo cello that looked like they would call for something close to genius to play.  In with the music sheets were some kind of text.  The general lay out was suggestive of a narrative of some sort, but apart from a similarity in paper and ink to the remarkable music and what looked like the same hand at work as that music’s notations, he could make nothing of it.  He recognized some letters, but it looked more like an alphabet of saw-blades.  He negotiated a price he could bear, and two days later he was getting off a plane with the portfolio in his briefcase, a partial appreciation of the less complex cello piece whistling from his lips, and a mass of jet lag swinging from his eyelids.

The following day found Jefferson detouring into the Humanities building on the way to his office.  He nodded to the receptionist at the open office at the front of the History department as he passed, only slowing a little as he asked, “Is Rowena in?”

Professor Evans is in, yes,” she replied with a tartness that suggested her stance relative to feminism and her notion of his.  He smiled at the assumptions of the young, and proceeded down the hall.

Evans seemed please to see him when he entered.  She opened with “How was Paris?” which led to several minutes of chit-chat about Europe, academic conferences in general, and the plans her husband had for his impending retirement.  Eventually, Jefferson said, “I have an ulterior motive for coming here.  I’ve got something I hope you can help me with.”

“I read music about as well as you cook,” she said as he drew the battered portfolio out of his case.  He set the case down, and pulled two sets of sheets out to lay them on her desk.

“No problem.  I’m here for a paleographer.”  He arranged the sheets to face her.  “The quick thing is just a second opinion—would you say the same person wrote the text and the music?”

Evans took a magnifier from the centre drawer of her desk, squinted at the top sheets in turn, shrugged, and said, “Probably.  If it’s really important to you, I can put you onto some guys that are good at materials analysis.  What,” she continued, pointing at the text, “is this about?”

“That’s the hard one.  I don’t know.  I think it’s German, since some of the marks over the letters look sort of like umlauts, but I can’t make anything out from it and my German is pretty basic.  I was hoping you could give me a hand with it.

“You see, the music is some really crazy stuff, not just avant garde but totally out of character for anything anyone was doing in Europe until after World War Two.  I’m hoping the fellow who wrote it gives some explanation or context for it.”

Evans sat staring at the manuscript for a few seconds, lips moving.  “It starts like a letter: ‘My dear young friend, I must….’  He sure was in a hurry.”  She looked at her watch.  “Are we thinking of publishing something?”

Jefferson nodded.  “It’s certainly possible.  Some guy in nineteenth century Paris wakes up with a headful of Miles Davis and John Coltrane; there are some folks who might find that interesting.”

“Excellent.  I’ve got my penance to do in twenty minutes,” a reference to the 100-level class she’d agreed to take for the semester, “then my Franco-Prussians.  I’m going to leave this until I can get really stuck in, then once I’ve got a preliminary gloss run up we can discuss whether there’s room for two disciplines on the masthead.”

“Thanks, Rowena.”  Jefferson stood, fastening his briefcase.  “You’re a gem amongst scholars.”

The rest of his day went much as expected, barring a request from a generally gifted student for an extension on a project.  She had, it seemed, been backed into a corner by another class’s exam schedule, and simply couldn’t finish in the time available.  With a dark warning to beware Geology in the future, he granted the extension.  As she left, radiating relief at every pore, he began preparations for the final class of the day.  He realized that he was once again whistling the anonymous music from Paris, the more complex of the pieces this time.  For a tune he couldn’t properly be said to have heard, he reflected, it had really gotten under his skin.

Taking out the copies of the music, the originals now safe in their folder in his file cabinet, he set his metronome going and began humming quietly, trying to get a better sense of what he was now thinking of as The Big One.  It wasn’t quite possible to hum it in many places, and Jefferson began to wonder if he’d actually be able to play it.  It seemed, in places, to call for extra fingers.

Returning home, Jefferson found his plans for the night compromised even as he set about pursuing them.  He discovered that he had left The Big One at his office, easily picturing as he looked a third time through his briefcase the negligent dropping of a pile of exam booklets on his desk; they’d landed in such a way that he’d not seen the copy lying under them.  There was little sense in going back for it tonight, and he gave the evening over to grappling with The Little One.

It was, he found, challenge enough, and he retired to bed with a soreness of effort that went right up to the elbows.  It was just as exhilarating as he’d expected it, though, and sleep did not come easily.  He lay on his back, the ghost of the music in his ears, trying to fathom how some unknown Parisian, and a German-speaking one at that, had come around to sticking notes together like that.  Chances were, the neighbours of the whatever garret the composer had occupied thought he was absolutely nuts; there was a better than even chance they were right.

As sleep began to overtake him, the house let out a creak that opened his eyes.  Memories of childhood’s terrors offered to keep him up longer, and he banished them by childhood’s cures; the bedside light on and a blanket over the head.  He knew, in his adult self, that it was just the differential cooling of inside and out that caused the house to groan like that.  He could even dismiss it in the immature part of his head as having clearly come from the roof, where nothing bad lives, rather than the basement, home and parent of all terrors even if it was nicely finished and had a wet bar in one corner.  Smiling at the indomitability of primitive fears, he drifted to sleep.

Most people welcome Fridays, especially when they come at the end of a severely truncated work-week.  Jefferson’s Friday, however, was a bit of a trial.  His least favourite class began the day, and it finished moments before a regular and always-tedious departmental meeting.   The afternoon was wasted on confrontation with the financial conscience of the university, where he had to justify the very few expense vouchers his trip to Paris had produced.  He dragged himself into his office at the end of the day, intent only on grabbing the copy of The Big One and fleeing for home, but habit made him check his email.

Trivia, for the most part.  He deleted reminders for the meetings he’d attended, apparently sent by his own computer ten minutes after each had started, scanned a few items from students that needed no instant response, and then found one from Rowena Evans that made him smile.

“This may take a couple of days,” she wrote.  “Kurrent is hard enough to untangle when the handwriting is good, and your man was in a real panic.  It’s starting to look like some kind of confession, but to what doesn’t appear yet.  Not sure it’s all in German, either—some damn funny words in it, if I’m anywhere near right about them (not enough vowels!).

“Also, while I think of it; Brent would like you to visit on Saturday, not tomorrow but next week.  I think he wants to show off how well he’s filling our basement with a model train.”

Jefferson dashed of a quick thanks and acceptance of the invitation.  He checked his briefcase twice to make sure he wasn’t forgetting the music again, and fled the office as if accountants were on his trail.

As a prelude to coming to grips with The Big One, he bought a frozen Salisbury steak dinner.  A small guilty pleasure and after the culinary delights of France a reminder to his stomach of its humble origins, it would be a good counterpoint to the main event.  As the oven heated up, for nostalgia demanded the dinner be heated old-school, he went to the den and laid all in readiness; cello on its cradle, bow and rosin on the little side table, and the music resting on the stand.

With the dubious processed supper in him, Jefferson arranged himself behind the cello and did a few warm-ups to ensure that he and the instrument were in tune.  The soreness of the previous night was gone, and soon he was able, with the freedom of a bachelor in his own house, to begin butchering the music.

He’d expected it to be difficult, but he had seriously underestimated it.  Hardly a bar came out as the sheet directed, and so the true oddness of the music was only hinted at.  The cello boomed and hummed, and as he reached the end of the page he found that sweat had glazed his brow.  Reaching the end of the last bar and its obligatory pause was like falling off a cliff.  He almost lunged to flip over the sheet, and as he turned it he took a deep breath, surprised at how much physical effort so little playing had demanded.

Launching into the next staff, which despite his stumbles produced even stranger effects, he found something was distracting his attention.  He faltered, but pressed on to the end of the page.  He stopped, once again breathing hard, and tried to work out what had drawn him out of the music.  The last notes reverberated through the house as if it were a much larger space, and then there was only the sound of his own heart in his ears.

The back porch light was on.  From his seat, he could only make out a few illuminated leaves on the tree by the fence, but apparently that had been enough to distract his unconscious mind.  The light was on a sensor, and would only come on if someone were moving around out there.

He stood up, setting the cello against its stand, and peered out the window.  His small back yard was dimly visible, even with the reflection of the room’s light on the glass.  Nothing appeared at first glance, but after a moment he saw the other tree, the one in the far corner of the yard, waving its limbs.  A sudden breeze, then, and the light reacting to something blowing past.

Jefferson stepped from the den to the adjacent spare bedroom to look out its dark window.  The trees were still now, and as he watched, the light went out.  But for a neighbour’s dog working itself into a frenzy, a commonplace of the neighbourhood’s night noises, the evening was blameless.

He returned to the den, drew the curtains against further distraction, and ground his way along to the end of the piece.  When he’d finished, arms feeling as if he’d been chopping wood, he set aside the urge to start again at the beginning.  A little rum, a little television in a language he understood, and then to bed.  He had the whole weekend to abuse the cello, and there was no sense in doing himself an injury now.

Saturday was not, of course, given entirely to music.  After an attempt in the morning, which was slightly less clumsy but somehow less effective, he went out for groceries.  After returning, he spent some time in the back yard, checking trees for damage from the previous night’s wind and adjusting the light’s sensitivity downward slightly.  He had noticed it was on again the previous night when he had left the den, and didn’t want the distraction to recur.

By the time he’d finished playing on Saturday evening, Jefferson was starting to wonder if he wasn’t sick.  He had never felt so exhausted after a session of playing.  It was, though, not the sort of tired he associated with being ill; rather, a simple physical dissipation from working very hard.  The demands of the score were uncommon, true, but sawing on a cello wasn’t the same as spending a couple of hours at the gym, and the latter was more in line with the amount of heavy breathing he was doing.  He decided that a shower was in order before bed, or even before collapsing into the armchair for a little TV-fuelled wind-down.

Setting the cello in its stand, he stood up and swiped a hand across his damp brow.  As he did, his eye fell on the curtains.  There was a small gap where they met, and through it he could see that the light in the yard was on again.  As he had the previous night, he stepped into the next room to peer into the darkness.

No lurking figures in the yard, although he hadn’t really expected any such thing.  It seemed that the wind had picked up again, with the limbs of the trees swinging and the leaves rippling on the shrub against the fence.  Something about the scene gave him pause, but he could not sort out why, and as he pondered it, the light went out again.  He withdrew to the shower, and was rinsing before he realized what the problem had been.

For all the action of the wind upon the greenery, there was no sound of wind.  He laughed at himself, because the explanation came with the realization.  He’d been playing a loud instrument in a closed room.  It wasn’t an electric guitar, but the cello had made enough noise to temporarily deafen him.  The roar of the shower itself was a little muted.

He kept the sound on the TV low, for the sake of his ears.  As he went to bed, the gentle creaking of the roof in response to the weather reassured him that he hadn’t done any permanent harm.

Sunday morning found him still very sore in the arms and hands.  He put aside the idea of a morning approach to mastering The Big One, and decided instead on looking to the neglected yard.  When he stepped from the house, he was surprised to find that there was no evidence of the previous night’s wind, no loose twigs on the lawn or trash caught on the fence.  Apart from removing the corpse of an apparently clumsy squirrel from the foot of the tree nearer the house, there was little to be done other than watering.  As he did so, he let the music of The Big One run through his head.   For all that it was a bear to play, it was definitely memorable, and now that he was starting to get a grip on the playing, his inward ear was hearing it much more clearly.

That evening, Jefferson returned to his labours on the cello, and while he was if anything even more in a sweat than the previous night when he decided to pull the plug, he was pleased with his own progress; very few stumbles, very little in the way of missed notes.  He also liked the way the moaning of the instrument seemed to get caught in the hallway as he played, almost creating its own harmony.  He had never noticed the effect before, but he had also never played anything that sounded quite like this before.  He was looking forward to calling in on Evans the next day, to see if their unknown composer had given any sense of why he’d written such a thing.

Despite his preference for morning showers, he repeated the previous night’s ablutions, viewing it as less of a hassle than washing the bed clothes ahead of schedule.  He hummed such of the tune as he could manage as he lathered up.  The effect, even with the tile walls doing their part, was not quite the same.  He realized that it was, when considered in isolation from the way it came out of the instrument, not actually that nice a piece of music.  Interesting, and certainly a novelty, but it would never be his favourite tune.

Moving around the house shutting down for the night, he was momentarily startled by a sound coming from above.  His first thought was of workboots worn by a large and heavy person, and he cringed slightly at noise.  Then it took on a scampering aspect which was in a way more alarming until he remembered the squirrel he’d laid to rest atop the week’s garbage in the bin.

“Someone is feeding you guys lead peanuts,” he muttered as he walked into the bedroom.  He tried to imagine a Disney-esque dance of squirrels on his roof, a wake for their fallen comrade, but the image of that fallen comrade intruded and spoiled the fantasy.  He read a well-thumbed thriller until the scrabbling noises went away.

He awoke to the sound of his alarm, just as the sky was going bright.  Reaching to disable it, his hand brushed against the novel he’d put himself to sleep with, dislodging it from an unbalanced perch on the telephone charger.  Jefferson groaned and, leaning out of bed, looked behind the night-stand.  The telephone lay there, snug in the dust bunnies, its indicator light flashing.

Retrieving the handset, he peered at it with early morning bleariness.  It was not complaining about lack of charge.  The display showed 1NEW MSG, R.EVAN OFFC and the previous day’s date.  He pondered a moment.  He’d been outside in the morning, and he’d been rocking the house after his fashion with The Big One for a good part of the evening.  A missed call was not unlikely, and easily dealt with.  He dialed the code to bring up the recording.

The first thing that came through to him was the tone of panic in her voice.  What she said was almost inarticulate, as if she not only couldn’t find the phrases for what she meant to tell him, but the words themselves had gotten away from her.  Whatever he’d been about when she called, he had been in a happy enough mood while she had been in gasping terror.  The bottom dropped out of his stomach.

He listened a second time, trying to make some sense of what she’d said.  She mentioned God, something he knew she almost never did.  There was an “it,” which at various points was listening or trying to steal something.  She had, she told his machine, said its name, and at that she broke down sobbing.  After half a minute of that, the clearest part of the message and its final words: “Don’t don’t don’t play it don’t play it.”

He tried for a third listen, and the habits of this fingers betrayed him; he hit the digit which erased rather than the one which replayed.  He cursed his own foolishness, hit the end button, then scrolled down the menu to get to her office number.

After a momentary pause, a calm voice told him, “That number is not in service.”

“What?”  He tried again, with the same result.  He stared at the phone, as if it might explain itself if given a moment.  When it remained dumb, he formulated a plan; dress, grab a cereal bar on the way through the kitchen, and get to her office.

On the drive to the university, he listed to the local all-news station.  Despite his expectations, there was no mention of any trouble at the school.  He couldn’t decide if that were encouraging or not; if she were in a heap on the floor of her office, she’d hardly make the news, and the university was sometimes inclined towards cover-up.  It wasn’t until he was pulling into his parking stall that he realized he could have called campus security and had them check for him.

Jefferson was nearly running when he got to the Humanities Building, and he tried to rein himself in as he passed the receptionist.  Evans’s office was third past the corner and he was back into the hustling flustered walk that was actually less dignified than running when he reached the end of the hall.  All the doors around the corner were closed.  He watched the nameplates as he hurried past.

Takahara, with accompanying obscure cartoon.

Greyeyes, and a note directed to the Plains 305 class.

He was reaching for the knob even as he read Petrovski on the plate.  A sudden stop, then, with uncertainty becoming something very like panic.  Wasn’t Petrovski on the far side of Evans?  Had he mis-remembered?  He kept going, and had not found her office before reaching the fire stairs.

Hurrying less than he had when passing her, Jefferson approached the receptionist.  As he did, an expression of suppressed amusement came over her.  “May I help you, sir?”

“Where’s Rowena’s office?”  He was trying to breathe normally, but all the not-quite-running had caught up with him.

“I’m sorry… who?”  The look on her face was changing into something more like resignation.

“Professor Evans.”  Deep breath.  “I’m… having trouble finding her office.”

There was a considering pause.  “Um….  Are you sure you’re in the right department?  As far as I know, we’ve never had a Roberta Evans here.”

Jefferson drew a breath to correct her on the name, but found he couldn’t muster the mental energy for it.  He thanked her and walked away.  As he went, he looked into the glass cabinet that housed the departmental brags.  None of Evans’s books were there.  There was a schedule taped to the inside of it, and there was not one of the classes she gave listed on it.

He went to his own office in a state of abstraction.  He checked his computer; the email she’d sent the previous Friday and his response to it were gone, and there was no sign of her in the faculty directory.  She was absent from her publisher’s website.  He pulled out the phone book, found a listing for Evans, Brent and dialed the number.

“Hello?”

“Good morning,” Jefferson said in as calm a tone as he could summon.  “Is Rowena there?”

“Who?”

“Rowena Evans?”

“Sorry.  You’ve got the wrong number.”

He fought down the urge to argue.  He could hear the thin piping of an HO scale train whistle in the background.  “Oh.  I beg your pardon.”

He pressed the disconnect on his telephone, then dialed the Music department’s receptionist.  “Warren, could you have some notices posted on my classes?  I’m not feeling well, and I’m heading for home.”  Before he left, he took the original sheets of his Paris find from the filing cabinet, still in their old cardboard protective.

The morning passed in a daze.  He felt as if his long friendship with Evans were a dream.  He knew she’d given him a copy of her first popular market book, signed and with a humourous note about having sold out on the flyleaf, but it was not on his bookshelf.  He found when he rechecked his phone that her office number had disappeared.

Around noon he realized that whatever had happened to Evans, the text he’d left with her for translation had also gone.  He scrambled to the cardboard portfolio, and found himself filled with an odd mix of dread and relief when sheets were still inside.  He looked through them, half expecting the notation to have changed, but it was all there in what was now its familiar configuration.

He also noticed some faint pencil marks on the back of the first sheet of each group, in the same jagged script as the vanished manuscript.  He took them into the den, and slowly, with the help of magnifying glass and computer, he got beschwichtigt es from The Big One and Ich zum ersten Mal gehört off The Little One.

“I for the first time heard,” he read aloud from the internet translator.  That made as much sense as anything else had today.  He turned it around in his head.  “The first time I heard it?”

Perhaps his composer had only been copying someone else’s work.  What bearing that had on the whole affair eluded him.  The other note was no more illuminating.  “Placates it.”

He noticed that the day was fading.  He went around the house, turning on lights, unwilling to have the mundane darkness join the obscurity of events.  He completed a circuit of the house, returning to the den.  The chair faced away from the computer desk, towards the cello, and when he heard a musical tone a moment after sitting he was baffled for a moment, trying to understand how the instrument could have made the sound.

Then there was a second note, coming not from beside but from outside.  The sky, now inky blue, showed the silhouette of the tree in the window, and from that direction, there was music.  He recognized it.  It was The Little One, it was coming from no instrument he could name, and there was a terrible perfection in the weird resonances.  The yard light came on, and he looked away almost in time to avoid seeing what was out there.

With shaking hands, he picked up bow and rosin.  When the bow was prepared, he reached to arrange the sheets of The Big One on the stand when the whole house creaked, a crack suddenly shooting from the corner of the window to the floor.  Jefferson’s ears popped.  He began to play, meaning to be careful but losing the fight against rising panic.  He played fast, the thrumming of his cello blotting out the eerie sounds coming from outside the window, tears blurring his vision.

He began to weep audibly as his playing brought him towards the end of the visible sheet, for he did not know the piece well enough to play without the music, and he dared not stop to turn it over.

“The Notes of Erich Zann” © 2014 Dirck de Lint.  The character of Erich Zann is an invention of H.P. Lovecraft.

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