By the time I arrived at Eillan Eighe I was wet, miserable, and dearly missing my warm apartments back in the college. But Roger had called for me, and although we had not met for several years the bonds between us were still taut, and I could do naught but answer when his telegram arrived.
I regretted it at that point of course, standing in the Western Highlands on a wet mud track in the gathering gloom, with rain beating on my head and cold water seeping into my ten guinea brogues.
But just as I was about to turn and head back for the dry waiting room in the railway station I turned a corner, and the glen opened up ahead of me. And there, little more than a mile distant, sat the squat cubic keep that was Roger’s ancestral home, Eillan Eighe.
Roger himself welcomed me at the door.
“Come in man,” he said. He helped me out of my sodden overcoat, and showed me into a hall dominated by a huge fireplace and a roaring log fire.
He sat me down in an armchair and placed a tumbler full of whisky in my hand.
I was so relieved to finally get some heat into my bones that it was several minutes before I realised that my friend was not the man I remembered him to be.
We’d first met before the war, at Oxford. We made a strange pair, him tall and ruddy and full of rude health, and me, short, pale and permanently marked by a childhood pox that had almost claimed me. But we found common interest in the wonders of modern science, and had sat up late into the night on many occasions wondering at the implications of the work of Rutherford, Bohr and Einstein.
Then the war came, and we came to see the dark side of man’s invention. Roger was never the same after returning from the Somme. He would not talk of it, but one look into his eyes told me everything I needed to know of the horrors that plagued his dreams.
The rigours of battle notwithstanding, he had seemed on his way back to some kind of health when I’d last seen him in our club in Piccadilly in ’21.
But no longer.
When I looked over to where he sat by the piano, he seemed less the country gentleman, and more like some gothic aesthete, a romantic poet suffering for his art. He was so pale, so wan that his veins showed blue at hands and forehead, and his hair, once black and vibrant, hung in lank grey strands at the nape of his neck. His eyes looked like two black coals sunk in snow, and his hands trembled as they reached for a whisky glass.
“Dear God man,” I said. “Whatever is the matter with you?”
He managed to raise a small smile, and for a second, my old friend was there.
“Bad day at the office old boy. I’m glad you’ve come. I need you.”
I rose and went to him. I took his hand and checked his pulse. It was thin, thready, running like a train.
“You don’t need me. You need a doctor.”
“Not now,” he said. “Not when I’m so close.”
“The only thing you’re close to is death’s door.”
He smiled once more, and swallowed a large dose of whisky, which immediately brought some colour to his cheeks.
“Not when the water of life is so readily available.”
He moved quickly to the piano, surprising me with his speed.
“I will show you why I asked for you to come.”
He started to play. I immediately noticed that his style was clumsy and forced, but the piano was in good tune, and the height of the hall gave the acoustics a resonance and depth that hid a multitude of playing sins. What Roger lacked in style, he more than made up for in vigour, and the room rang as he pounded out a succession of minor chords.
Sweat poured from his brow, and his breath became short and shallow, but still he pounded.
I moved to put a stop to the insanity…just as an answering pounding arose from below.
I felt it first through the soles of my feet, but soon my whole frame shook, vibrating in time with the rhythm. My head swam, and it seemed as if the very walls of the keep melted and ran. The fireplace receded into a great distance until it was little more than a pinpoint of light in a blanket of darkness, and I was alone, in a vast cathedral of emptiness where nothing existed save the dark and the pounding beat from below.
Shapes moved in the dark, wispy shadows with no substance, shadows that capered and whirled as the dance grew ever more frenetic.
I tasted salt water in my mouth, and was buffeted, as if by a strong, surging tide, but as the beat grew ever stronger I cared little. I gave myself to it, lost in the dance, lost in the dark.
I know not how long I wandered, there in the space between. I forgot myself, forgot my friend, in a blackness where only rhythm mattered.
And I do believe I would be there yet if Roger had not come to the end of his endurance.
I snapped out of my reverie at the same moment as Roger, exhausted, slumped over the piano. The rhythm from below died and faded, and the room once more filled back in around me, leaving me weak and disoriented. I only came full back to my senses when Roger slid off the piano stool and fell, insensate, on the stone floor.
I took time to take a long slug from his whisky glass to fortify myself before I bent to lift him. He was out cold, and it took all of my strength to get him into the armchair by the fire. By the time I got him seated upright with a rug around him, he had started to snore gently.
Exhausted, I helped myself to more of the whisky and sat myself in the chair on the other side of the grate. For a while I kept close watch on my friend, but sleep was waiting for me, and I gave myself to it with no small relief.
There were no dreams.
Roger woke me early.
There was a sheepish grin on his face as he placed a plate of bacon and eggs on my lap.
“No standing on ceremony old chap,” he said. “Just tuck in.”
He still looked pale, but not in any imminent danger of keeling over.
“What about last night…What..?”
He didn’t let me finish.
“Breakfast first, to set you up for the day ahead. I’ll explain soon. I promise.
He stoked the fire while I ate. The bacon was burnt and the eggs fried until I could have bounced them on the floor, but I do believe it was the most welcome breakfast of my life.
“Don’t you have servants for that?” I mumbled through some soggy toast as he poked at the embers.
Once more he grinned as he stood away from the grate.
“They all left. The piano playing got too much for them,” he said, and laughed loudly, so much so that I could almost believe that last night’s escape had been no more than the fevered dream of a tired man.
“Now finish that off,” he said. “I have something else to show you…something that only you can help me with.
I wolfed down the last of the toast and followed him out of the room.
He was more animated this morning, more like the boy I knew at Oxford.
“This place is ancient,” he said as he led me through to a scullery that was piled high with unwashed dishes and pots. “The first of my line built it nigh on seven hundred years ago…And there have always been stories told that he built it atop a far older settlement.”
He opened a door, revealing a set of steps leading down into what I took to be a cellar.
“I got bored in the summer and decided to do some impromptu archaeology.”
He lit a firebrand and led me down a winding staircase which opened out some twenty feet below into a large chamber.
It was immediately obvious that it was man made. The walls were built of large blocks of sandstone. I had visited several Neolithic tombs, in Carnac, in Orkney and on Salisbury Plain. This gave the same sense of age, of a time long past. What I hadn’t expected, what was completely different, was the overwhelming feeling that this place was in use. The walls ran damp and there was a salt tang in the air but there was no sign of moss or lichen on the walls–only the damp glistening stone.
Roger moved over to one wall and held the firebrand closer.
“Here,” he said. “Here’s why I called for you.”
The wall was covered in small, tightly packed carvings. At first I thought it might be a language, but it was none that I recognised from my studies, indeed, it bore no resemblance to anything I had ever seen before.
“I can’t make head or tail of them,” Roger said. “But I believe they hold the secret.”
I followed him as he walked, lighting stone after stone covered in the densely packed markings.
“Whatever they are, it’ll take weeks just to transcribe them.”
Roger smiled again, the red from the torchlight casting a demonic cast to his visage.
“Three months, two weeks and four days. Come, I’ll show you.”
He bounded back up the stairway, leaving me momentarily alone there in the dark.
“Come on then,” he shouted. “You didn’t come all this way for nothing did you?
I followed the fading glow of his firebrand up the twists of the staircase, and eventually found Roger back in the hall by the fireplace.
He thrust a thick sheaf of papers at me.
“I’ve no idea what might be the start or end point,” he said as I took them from him and sat in the armchair. He hovered around me like an excited puppy until I was forced to admonish him.
“Roger, give me some time. This will not be easy. If you must do something, fetch my pipe from my overcoat.”
He grinned again, and I began to believe that my old friend wasn’t so far beneath the surface after all.
For the rest of that first day I struggled with the script. When it became apparent that an answer would not be immediately forthcoming, Roger left me alone. I heard him clattering around in the scullery, and then later, I’m sure I heard him singing in the cavern beneath the hall, but for the most part I was engrossed in the puzzle before me.
The figures had been transcribed in Roger’s neat, methodical hand and, indeed, for a while I thought they might be a vast mathematical formula, a construct born out of Roger’s malaise. But I had seen the carvings for myself. They were obviously from antiquity…And equally obviously baffling.
Night fell, and I was no further forward. Roger fed me with over cooked trout and hard potatoes before once more sitting me in front of the fire. I nursed a large whisky and stared into the flames, trying to clear my head of images of scratches on walls.
I was surprised when Roger started to speak, his voice so low it was almost a whisper.
“We have never talked of the trenches,” he said.
“And we do not have to if it pains you,” I replied, but he waved me down.
“No. It is germane to why we are here.”
He took a long draught from his whisky.
“I dream,” he said. “I see them, there in the mud, half-obscured by acrid smoke lit red by the flares; Private Jones, his face melted by a cloud of mustard gas, Corporal MacLean, his guts on the outside, fighting weakly as the rats tear at them, my batman, Donnie, staring at his legs which are lying in the mud clear across the trench.”
Tears ran down Roger’s cheeks.
“And every night it is the same question. Why?”
“Why did they die?”
“No,” Roger said, and sobbed. “Why did I live?”
I could only watch as the grief ate away at my friend. He was quiet for long minutes, but I knew him well enough to know there was more to come.
“I came home, hoping that here at least the memories of a happy childhood might blot out the mud and blood. But still they came, every night.”
He rose and poured himself another stiff drink.
“I have tried everything I can to dull my sense…opiates, ether, but mostly this,” he said waving the whisky glass at me. “But nothing worked…Until one night, in my frustration, I pounded at the piano.
“And, from below something answered. For however a short time, my dreams fell still.”
He downed a whisky that would have floored me, poured another and returned to his seat by the fire.
“The rest you know…I dug, and found the chamber and the carvings.”
“But what is it?” I asked. “I can make neither head nor tail of your transcriptions.”
Once more he stared into the fire.
“I believe it is a window, a way for us to view worlds beyond those which we inhabit. We know that atoms are composed of mostly free space and vibration. Well, possibly, the vibrations set up in the chamber allow us to alter normal space and time, to travel beyond, or maybe, as I suspect is the case, between.
“But why would you want to?” I said, astonished.
His eyes took on a far-away look.
“Because there is a dreamer there whose dreams are stronger than mine, a dreamer oblivious to the petty squabbles of men, dreaming an endless dream in which I might lose myself.”
“But that way lies madness.”
“No old friend,” he said softly. “That is something with which I am already familiar. Will you help me?”
I slept fitfully, my dreams troubled, not by the chamber and its incomprehensible carvings, but by a vast plain where guns roared like great drums in a blood red sky and clouds of death passed over the broken bodies of a million moaning men.
The morning found me back in the armchair by the fire, seeking solace in the comforting normality of my pipe. Roger eschewed breakfast, and came and sat on the piano stool. He lit up a cheroot and soon we were putting up a fug worthy of London on a damp evening in October.
“Did you come to a decision?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“Not completely. But I intend to keep working on your puzzle. It has me intrigued.”
And that’s when I had the epiphany. Frustrated, Roger drummed his fingers on the piano, a martial beat, only a few seconds long. The piano rang in sympathy…and the answer came to me, all at once.
“It’s not a language…it’s a musical notation.”
Roger merely looked at me in astonishment as I jumped out of my chair and headed for the piano. I spread his transcribed papers over the top.
“Look. These lines, separated into groups corresponding to quavers, minims and crotchets…but it’s not music as such…there is no sense of a scale.”
Roger drummed his fingers once more, and again the piano resonated in sympathy.
I moved him off the stool and sat down at the instrument.
“So if it’s not music…it must be rhythm,” I said. “Rhythm and vibration.”
I shuffled the papers and placed them on the music stand in front of me.
“How do you know where to start?” Roger said.
“I don’t. Let us just see if I am right first.”
I picked a solid minor chord, and began striking the keyboard in time with the rhythm transposed on the pages. Almost immediately I felt the sympathetic resonance rise from the chamber beneath.
“It’s working,” Roger shouted. But I was already lost in a world of pounding chords.
Something was far wrong. I knew it at an intellectual level. But the music controlled me deeper than that, in the hindbrain where the evolutionary equivalent of a gibbering monkey hit a log with a stick and enjoyed the noise. My hands pounded the keyboard, hands clenched into fists. The beat sped up a notch and the walls shook, loose mortar falling from the ceiling.
Just as I felt I could go no further, the beat slowed, mellowed.
As it had the first time, my head swam, and the walls of the keep melted and ran. The fireplace receded into a great distance until it was little more than a pinpoint of light in a blanket of darkness, and I was again alone, in a vast cathedral of emptiness.
A tide took me, a swell that lifted me and transported me, faster than thought, to the green twilight of ocean depths far distant.
I realised I was not alone. We floated mere shadows now, scores…nay, tens of scores of us, in that cold silent sea. I was aware that Roger was near, but I had no thought for aught but the rhythm, the dance. Far below us, cyclopean ruins shone dimly in a luminescent haze. Columns and rock faces tumbled in a non-Euclidean geometry that confused the eye and brooked no close inspection. And something deep in those ruins knew we were there.
We dreamed, of vast empty spaces, of giant clouds of gas that engulfed the stars, of blackness where there was nothing but endless dark, endless quiet. And while our slumbering god dreamed, we danced for him, there in the twilight, danced to the rhythm.
We were at peace.
I came to lying on the floor beside the piano. The first thing I was aware of was the pain in my hands; my knuckles bloodied and torn. But my own pain was forgotten at the sight of Roger.
He lay in the centre of the room on his back, eyes open, staring at the ceiling, a broad smile on his face.
It is only now, more than fifteen years later, that I can bring myself to write about these events. In all that time Roger has never awakened. He is alive, but no longer seeing, borne away, somewhere where the green twilight flickers and the slumbering god dreams.
He is at peace.
And now, as the war drums of Europe beat once again in a quickening rhythm, I dearly wish I had gone with him.
William Meikle is a Scottish writer, now living in Canada, with eighteen novels published in the genre press and over 300 short story credits in thirteen countries. His work has appeared in a number of professional anthologies and magazines. He lives in Newfoundland with whales, bald eagles, and icebergs for company. When he’s not writing he plays guitar, drinks beer, and dreams of fortune and glory. Check out his site at http://www.williammeikle.com
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Story illustration by Mike Dominic.