The Spaces Between, by Pete Rawlik

The Spaces Between - Jay Campbell

Art by Jay Campbell – http://zombiebites.blogspot.com/ – click to enlarge

According to the composer Claude Debussy, “Music is the space between the notes.” I never really understood that before, but I do now. I understand this and more, so much more. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It was two weeks ago when I was called into the Assistant Director’s office. “Mr. Andersson,” I hated the way he said my name, “I’m sure you know who Miss de Hond is,” he gestured at the woman who sat in the wing-backed red leather chair. Rumor had it that no other chair in Miskatonic University’s Library was as comfortable. Rumor also said that every other piece of furniture on the seventh floor had been chosen to encourage students to study someplace else. The woman in front of me wore a light orange jacket over a designer t-shirt, which highlighted some of the purple hidden in her unfashionably short brown hair. She smiled a little when I looked at her, and it was a wide, infectious smile that I thought would precede a laugh. Instead her left hand began to suddenly shake and she used her right hand to force it back down on to the armrest.

Of course I knew who she was; I knew as soon as I walked through the door, even without her six-inch heels, platinum blonde wig, or her form-fitting latex body suit. She was, or had been, Madame Dogma – ‘Mad Dog’ for short – a pop culture diva beloved by fans and critics. At least until she had abruptly quit the business two years ago, a victim of Redfield’s Syndrome, a disease that had ravaged her family for generations. She had once been a student here, earning a Master’s Degree studying voice and piano. Back then she had been a struggling musician just like every other student. One of the local bars had a video of her doing covers of old Depeche Mode songs.

I liked her music; I had a copy of her third album, Saturnine Canines. I nodded and introduced myself, “Marty Andersson, Miss de Hond, a pleasure to meet you. I saw you perform at the Kingsport Jazz Festival back in 2005.” She smiled and nodded, acknowledging the event.

Dr. Harrison harrumphed. “For the next week or so Miss de Hond will be doing research with us in the Smeltzer Collection. I’ve made sure that room 726 is reserved for her private use. You are to meet her in the mornings at the side entrance, escort her upstairs, and then assist her with her studies, including fetching whatever documents, recordings or equipment she may want to look at or use. When she is finished, you will escort her back to Hartwell House, where Mr. Hobbs will assume control. Mr. Hobbs will also be responsible for transporting her from Hartwell House to the library in the morning.” As he exhaled I caught a hint of frustration in his tone. “Do you have any questions?”

I thought for a moment, “What about lunch, coffee breaks, and the like?”

She spoke up. “My condition makes me sensitive to some rather common ingredients. Mr. Hobbs will be preparing my meals and teas. If you would like, I could make sure he has enough for two.” Her voice was melodic, soft, not at all what I expected from the woman who used to belt out techno versions of Janis Joplin songs.

“It would be an honor,” I told the fallen diva. “When do you want to begin?”

“Now, if it’s convenient.”

And with that, I was suddenly in service to one of the most talked about singers of the new millennium.

The job of a library assistant is less tedious than it sounds. First of all, I wasn’t actually a librarian. I had majored in Music History with the intention of studying the influence of turn-of-the-century French Impressionism on modern music. I was particularly intrigued by the works of the composer Claude Debussy, whom I thought of as the Father of Atonal Music. Sadly, there are few paying positions for undergraduate degrees in Music History, and as I plodded forward on my Master’s Degree I paid the rent by working as a library assistant. The holdings of the Smeltzer Collection of Music are immense, and the stacks on the seventh floor of the library are cavernous. Helping others navigate the monstrosity of books, manuscripts, and ephemera was almost a full-time job. It paid the rent, and had significant fringe benefits. I had, in my time of helping others, been privileged to work on a number of exciting projects, including a retrospective study on the works of the band Inhouse and a validation of pages thought to be the original score to Don Juan Triumphant. There was also a rather odd and expensive examination of several unusual violins using the hospital’s CT scanner. For my service in these studies and others like them, I had been acknowledged in twenty-two papers and given credit as a junior co-author thrice.

It is not the job of a librarian to guide researchers in any particular direction, but as I have said, I was no librarian. An unfocused researcher could often flounder in the library, see his work become too complex, and then abandon it completely. I had found that if I could connect with a project, with a researcher, find out what they were really working on, I could more often than not focus them on exactly what they needed to look at. In doing this, I could bring some projects to closure days, if not weeks, ahead of schedule, freeing up time for my own studies. To do so required patience and a touch of subtlety. I knew little about Miss de Hond and thus let her wander about the stacks somewhat haphazardly a little longer than I would have any other student or researcher.

After three days together, I finally broached the issue over lunch. Miss de Hond was some subspecies of vegetarian, and I had by this time eaten a variety of things I hadn’t actually known were food.  Most notable of these were seaweed salad, hummus with roasted garlic, and a dried corn and kale salad. I had some clue as to what we were doing, of course, for amongst other things, she had requested copies of all of the manuscripts of her great-great-grandfather, Ambrose de Hond, who had been a pianist at the Paris Opera House before his own bout of Redfield’s Syndrome forced him to retire. Unable to play professionally, he primarily composed for the piano and violin instead. In the last few years of his life he wrote feverishly, composing dozens of concertos, cantatas, and piano sonatas.

Of these the most famous, or infamous, was Piano Sonata No. 6, also known as The Resting Requiem  for its unusually high number of silent beats. It had over the years been adapted and recorded by a number of avant-garde artists including techno-performing artist Laurie Anderson, shock rock impresario Alice Cooper, and the acid rock songstress Erika Zann. Even the pop group The Undead had released a version as a B-side to their chart-topping cover of “Life at Last”. I had over the last few days been allowed to sample these performances as Miss de Hond listened to them over and over again, meticulously comparing them to the original handwritten manuscripts of the composer.

“I want to do an album of my Great-Great-Grandfather Ambrose’s compositions,” said Bela de Hond. “Other people have performed and recorded them, but they used the scores that my Great-Grandfather Jerad published, and those appear to be highly edited. I suspect Jerad took a great deal of liberty when he decided to publish Ambrose’s work.” She shuffled through some papers and brought up two pages: one that had been published in 1928, the other being the original – handwritten at the turn of the century. “At first glance these look identical, but if you really look at the manuscript you can see evidence of tampering. Most of this is written in a woman’s hand, probably my Great-Great-Grandmother’s, but here, here, and here,” she pointed at several notes and rests, “these are subtly different, and look like they might even be in different ink. That same ink, the ink different than used in the rest of the page, is also used to title and identify the instrument to be used. Here is the symbol for harpsichord, but that looks like Jerad’s writing.”

“So you’re saying that Jerad de Hond altered Ambrose de Hond’s compositions. Why would he do that?”

“I’m not sure,” her left hand was trembling again. “Some scholars consider Jerad a rather sloppy composer.  It would explain a great deal…” Her voice trailed off.

“You don’t think that’s the case though, do you?”

“No,” she shook her head slowly and grimaced. “I think Jerad made these changes on purpose. I just don’t know why.”

“How is it that all his manuscripts are here at the library? It seems an odd happenstance.”

She blushed, and I immediately regretted the question. “When my father committed suicide, he left us destitute. My mother couldn’t afford to send me to college, let alone graduate school. She made a deal with the former Dean of the Music Department, the school got the entire de Hond family collection: manuscripts, books, musical instruments, more than a century of music. In some ways, priceless. In return, I received a proper education.” She sighed. “The fellowship that paid for my Master’s Degree I earned on my own.”

Leaning over her shoulder, I tried to ignore the perfume she was wearing (it reminded me of grapes and figs) and focus on the manuscript page. Typical of the time, it crammed tiny writing and notes on prepared pages that had long since become yellow and brittle with age. I let the notes play out in my head.  There were an unusual number of rests, and the score itself reminded me of Debussy’s weird anti-harmonies. Still, there was something odd about the whole thing. I could hear the notes in my head, but when I tried to imagine playing them, I couldn’t do it. The fingering was all wrong, too fast in some places, too discordant in others. I couldn’t imagine moving my hands like that.

As I finished reading the page, my eye caught on a small line at the bottom. “What’s that?”

Miss de Hond squinted. “A note from Ambrose in French, something about an abbey named Escaladieu.”

Two things in my mind suddenly connected. I nearly leapt over to the other end of the table. “There were liner notes on one of these CDs…” I rummaged through the pile of jewel cases until I found the right one and then I reread what was written there. “It says here that Ambrose visited the Escaladieu Abbey in search of inspiration – that the monks there were accomplished musicians, but their music had been banned from church services and they themselves had been excommunicated for heresy.”

“Does it say why?”

I shook my head, “No, but if I were doing research on heretical sects, I can’t think of a place I would rather be than Miskatonic University.” We nearly ran down the stairs. It took longer to find the book we needed than it did to find out why the monks had been disowned.

Escaladieu Abbey:  the name meant “Ladder of God.” It had once been an order of Benedictine monks, but in the mid-Nineteenth Century one of their members had suffered a revelation that led to a rather curious divergent theology. They noted that three-dimensional objects such as cubes and spheres cast two-dimensional shadows, such as squares and circles. Similarly, if a three-dimensional object was bisected by a plane, the resulting section would also be two-dimensional. From this they extrapolated that the objects in our three-dimensional world were actually the shadows or sections of four dimensional objects. In the case of human beings, the four-dimensional object that created the three-dimensional mankind was God Himself. All of humanity, from the lowest peasant child to the Pope, was simply a manifestation of this higher dimensional demiurge.

The heresy threatened not only the Church but the secular order as well. Not only was the order excommunicated, but the French Government had forcibly disbanded the brotherhood and banned both its teachings and music, which of course made it wildly popular. Some even said that Edwin Abbott’s 1884 satire Flatland had been written in response to the disbanding and suppression of the Escaladieu brotherhood. There was no proof of this, but it was an interesting speculation by critics nearly a century later.

As Miss du Hond and I finished absorbing this material I saw her hand begin to shake, but this time she didn’t suppress the tremor. “This makes sense now,” she exclaimed. “Jerome altered the manuscripts because he was afraid that the Church or the State might suppress them, because they were based on things Ambrose had heard when he was at the Abbey.” I looked at her askance, but she waved my doubt away. “In 1896, when Alfred Jarry premiered his play Ubu Roi, the crowd rioted afterwards and Parisian authorities banned it from the stage. Some years later, a whole swath of European countries not only banned a similar play, but tried to destroy all copies of the script. Is it so hard to imagine the same thing being done with Ambrose’s music, and Jerome altering it to make it more palatable?”

Both her hands were shaking now, and she was holding them in front of her watching them break free from her control. I reached out and grabbed them – I’m not sure why, it seemed like the right thing to do. Later, after the minor seizure had passed, she talked to me about her ordeal.

“My manager found me convulsing on the floor of my hotel room just after we finished our tour of Europe. Three days later I and my doctors were in front of the press, talking to them about Redfield’s Syndrome; the lesion on my brain that would cause my hands to tremble and lead to occasional convulsions. It was the same condition that had afflicted the last four generations of my family. My career as a performing musician was over; all my future tour dates were cancelled. Everybody wanted to know what I was going to do next, but all I wanted to do was hide, to distance myself from other people. I asked my fans and the press to let me leave the spotlight.”

“Of course the paparazzi refused to listen, camping out around my townhouse in Manhattan, snapping pictures of me as I carried out the mundane chores of living a somewhat normal life. I lost thirty pounds, stopped wearing designer clothes and outrageous costumes, even cut my hair to help me blend in with the neighborhood moms. After a few months of watching one of the most boring people on the planet, even the most vicious of photographers walked away.”

“These last few days, working with you, it’s been a long time since anyone has talked to me – just talked, you know, person to person. I’ve been in seclusion so long I forgot what human contact, real human contact, was like.” She stood up and stared out the window. “One of the first things I lost after the first album, the thing I regretted the most, was being able to reach out and connect with people, to establish bonds. Once you reach a certain point in your career everything becomes so one sided, you can’t trust people, can’t really meet anyone new. If anyone does express an interest you have to wonder what they really want. The last few days we’ve been working, talking, talking like real people. I really like that.”  She paused and looked tremendously sad. “This project was a last ditch effort, I didn’t want to end up like my dad or Ambrose.”

I knew that her dad had been unable to come to terms with his loss of motor control and killed himself, but I knew nothing about what had happened to her great-great-grandfather. “What happened to Ambrose?”

“In the last year of his life, which now looks like it was after he had returned from the abbey, he was incredibly productive. He was creating new works on an almost weekly basis. So fervent was his composing that his wife, who transcribed his compositions, demanded that he take on an assistant. The process was simple: Ambrose would play to the best of his ability, while his assistant, a young man named Lowe, would transcribe the performance onto a page. Then Ambrose would dictate corrections. It was during the process of trying to revise The Resting Requiem that Ambrose’s wife apparently went mad. She doused the lower floors of their home with lamp oil and casually set herself and the house ablaze. Had not Lowe thrown himself from the upper floor, clutching the pages of the requiem, he and it might have been lost forever. As it was, Ambrose suffered severe burns and languished in agony for two days, all the while still dictating corrections to his final composition.”

I was overwhelmed with a sense of guilt, not for anything I had done, but for the entire culture. Her stardom and condition had conspired to exile her from the human race, and the only person she could reach out to was a library assistant. “Miss de Hond, I’m sorry…”

She shook her head and never let me finish that sentence. “Would you please stop calling me Miss de Hond? My name is Bela.”

“Bela,” after days of being formal her first name felt weird in my mouth, “we’ve made a lot of progress today. I think you need to sleep on things and start fresh in the morning.” She didn’t disagree.

It was Sunday night when the breakthrough occurred. We were working past closing, something my position allowed us to do. The guards had wandered through about midnight and I flashed them my identification and sent them on their way. I suppose it was fortunate in a way, nobody else was in the building to see what had happened; unfortunately, nobody else was there to confirm my version of events either.

Bela and I had been working on her project for more than a week. She had produced three variations on Ambrose de Hond’s The Resting Requiem but was unsatisfied with them all. She had been using infrared light to accentuate the differences between inks on the original manuscripts, hoping to come closer to Ambrose de Hond’s original intentions. It was meticulous work, for which I was less than suitable. I could read music, I could even play a little, but I was not in any way as proficient as she. Consequently, I spent a good deal of time wandering the stacks, reveling in the smell of old print and the lingering odor of rosin used on the bows of string instruments. The great hall was dark, which didn’t bother me; I had been in the library after hours before. The place is cavernous and can be unnerving for some, as small sounds tend to echo through the great spaces, but for me it is a wondrous place, and I tend to run my fingers over the spines of books and portfolios as I walk, feeling as well as seeing and smelling the vast amount of information stored within those walls. I did this while she played, and then wandered back in when she stopped. It was a pattern we had gotten used to.

This time when I came back she wasn’t sitting at the keys anymore. She was leaning against the wall, tremors running up her arms. I went to help her but she barked at me. “Sit down at the keyboard.”

“Bela, I can play, but not nearly as well as you,” I complained.

She crossed the room, took me by the arm, and sat me down in front of the instrument. “I need you to be my hands. I can’t…they won’t stop trembling. You’ll have to do it for me.” She pointed at the page.

I took a deep breath, flexed my hands, and then began to play. The first few lines were easy, I had, after all, been hearing variations on this piece for days, but in seconds I was in trouble. My hands were tripping over themselves and I could hear Bela become exasperated.

She came up behind me and pushed my left hand out of the way. Her arms were still shaking. “Your fingering is all wrong,” she snapped at me like a frustrated teacher. “You have to do it like this!”

Her trembling hand hit the keys in a way I had never seen or heard before, and from the speakers emerged a sound that was unlike anything we had produced in the last few days. It was a terrible, monstrous noise that spoke of cacophonous beauty. Bela stepped back and looked at me as dumbstruck as I looked at her.

“We’ve been looking at it all wrong.” She was overexcited, her voice was cracking. “It was the hand tremors. They run in the family, I have them, so did my father and grandfather, and so did Ambrose, but he didn’t see them as debilitating. To him they weren’t a handicap; he composed with them in mind! Jerad didn’t understand that. When he was preparing the works for publication he hadn’t had any symptoms yet. When Jerad played the works they didn’t sound right, didn’t make sense because he wasn’t suffering from Redfield’s Syndrome yet, they sounded wrong, so he fixed them, altered the notes and rests and instruments! He corrupted the text because he didn’t and couldn’t understand it!”

Both her hands were shaking; the tremors ran up her arms. I reached out to try and control them but she pushed my hands away. “Let them be. I need them like this, to play. Please, Martin, I have to…I have to capture this idea, before the tremors become a seizure and I can’t play at all.”

Forgive me; I did what I was told. I sat back and let her play.

This is when I learned the truth. When I learned how to hear music, how to feel it not only in the notes, but as Debussy had said, between the notes as well. She was mesmerizing, entrancing – almost hypnotic – and as I sat there watching her play, listening to her play, feeling her play The Resting Requiem, I saw the truth. There in that room where she fervently took her tremoring hands to those keys, where she had played notes and keys and arrangements which I had never even heard before, a queer green light began to seep into the room. It came from nowhere and everywhere and seemed to highlight some kind of invisible structure. It had shape, this unseen thing that was suddenly outlined, but that shape didn’t make sense. At times it reminded me of a four-dimensional hypercube, a pulsing tesseract, that seemed to come down on either side of Bela, but wasn’t part of her. But only briefly. Most of the time it reminded me of something horrid, something that reached out with a tentacle-like protrusion from its face to swallow Bela. There was something elephantine about it, something crude and lumbering.

As Bela progressed through The Resting Requiem, her playing became faster and more fervent and the thing forming in the air around her grew clearer, more tangible. She could see it too, and while I grew fearful, she grew elated, throwing her head back and letting her purple tinged locks catch a spectral wind. She was a maenad, a primal and uncontrolled muse made real and terrifying. The space above and between my eyes began to hurt. That the thing’s tentacular fingers seemed to surround Bela didn’t seem to bother her, and as she moved, the outline of that thing moved with her. It moved as if it had always been there. I stood up to do something, but what that was I can’t say. That movement changed my perspective, and then I could see it, the thing that was there, surrounding Bela, defining her by its boundaries. I understood then, understood it all. I think I screamed.

They say that I killed Bela de Hond. They say I became obsessed and that I killed her, and then disposed of the body in the river before trying to kill myself. It’s not true, of course. She was there in the room, playing the keyboard, playing Ambrose de Hond’s Resting Requiem, the one that had been inspired by the monks who believed that God was a fourth-dimensional being and that we were all just manifestations of different portions of God, extrusions of some titanic and pan-dimensional physiognomy into our three-dimensional universe. She was playing it properly for the first time in over a century.

They were wrong. It’s not true. I know now why Ambrose’s wife destroyed herself and her husband. Bela’s music and Ambrose’s composition let me see it, if only just for an instant, but that was enough to understand!

Please, you have to believe me, I‘m not mad. I didn’t kill her. It closed its hand.

That’s why she vanished into nothingness.

It closed its hand, closed whatever its equivalent of fingers are, and Bela ceased to exist!

We are the emptiness between musical notes, the nothingness that gives something else shape. We aren’t part of that thing that haunts the universe. We aren’t the appendages of a fourth-dimensional God.

Don’t you understand?

We are the void that helps define it; we are the spaces between, and nothing more.

 (for Leah Bond)

Pete Rawlik, a long time collector of Lovecraftian fiction, stole a car to go see the film Reanimator in 1985.  He successfully defended himself by explaining that his father had regularly read him “The Rats in the Wall” as a bedtime story. His first professional sale was in 1997, but he didn’t begin to write seriously until 2010. Since then he has authored more than fifty short stories and the Cthulhu mythos novels Reanimators, and The Weird Company.

He is a frequent contributor to the Lovecraft eZine and the New York Review of Science Fiction. In 2014 his short story “Revenge of the Reanimator” was nominated for a New Pulp Award. In 2015 he co-edited The Legacy of the Reanimator for Chaosium. Somewhere along the line he became known as ‘the Reanimator guy,’ but he fervently denies being obsessed with the character.

His new novel, Reanimatrix, is a weird-noir-romance set in H. P. Lovecraft’s Arkham, and will be released in October 2016. He lives in southern Florida where he works on Everglades issues and does a lot of fishing..

If you enjoyed this story, let Pete know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

Story illustration by Jesse Campbell.

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6 responses to “The Spaces Between, by Pete Rawlik

  1. I’m a sucker for the arts (especially music) being used in Lovecraftian stories. It seems to ground them in reality more as it makes us (pretend to) use more senses to get into a tale. My theory anyway. I really enjoyed this.

    Thoughts:
    Erika Zann! Here and I thought she only had one credited recording, from her time before the Electric Commode. Her discogs.com entry really needs updating.
    I am a tad surprised that the lead character worked with the Don Juan Triumphant score and didn’t note the coincidence (or was it?) that of working with other music connected to the Paris Opera House…

    Questions:
    There is an Escaladieu Abbey in real-world France It doesn’t seem to share the history of yours. Is yours set in the alt-France of Averoigne?
    Where did the Band Inhouse come from?
    Redfield Syndrome?
    Are they shout-outs to certain individuals, as I’m guessing the Smeltzer Collection to be, or have I missed something you’ve previously written?

    Again thanks.

    • The Escaladieu Library was chosen because the name meaning Ladder of God ties in nicely with the story, and the Pyrennes is subtle link to Chaugnar Faugn. Inhouse was a real band in the Palm Beaches now long defunct, but in my universe they made it big. A lot of my juvenalia (circa 1995) was written under their influence. Redfield Syndrome is a tribute to a man who mentored me in my day job. The Paris Opera House figures into several of my stories going way back to The Masquerade in Exile (part of Reanimators).

  2. Great story! 🙂 I’ll be reading THE WEIRD COMPANY next.

    That Marty Andersson sure gets around. He gets namechecked in Joe Pulver’s THE ORPHAN PALACE too. 🙂

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