Folscyvio saw the Thing in a small cramped shop off the Via Silvia. In fact, he almost passed it by. He had just come from the Laguna, climbed the forty mildewy, green-velveted steps to the Ponte Louro, and crossed over to the elevated arcades of the Nuova. Then he glanced down, and spotted Giavetti, who owed him money, creeping by below through the ancient alleys. Having called and not been heard—or been ignored—Folscyvio descended quickly. But on entering the alley he saw Giavetti was gone (or had hidden). Irritated, Folscyvio walked the alley, clicking his teeth together. And something with a rich wild colour slid by his right eye. At first his attention was not captured. But then, having walked a few more steps, Folscyvio’s mind, as he would have put it, tapped him on the shoulder: Look back, Maestro. And there behind the flawed and watery window-glass, hung about by old, plum-coloured bannerets and thick cobwebs, was the peculiar Thing. He stood and stared at it for quite five minutes before going into the shop.
He was, Folscyvio, of medium height, but seemed taller due to his extreme leanness. His was a handsome face, aquiline, and reminiscent, as was more genuinely much of the city, of The Past. His hair was very long, very dark and thick and heavily if naturally curled. His eyes, long-lashed and bright, were narrow and of an alluring, or curious—or repellent—grayish-mauve.
No one was immediately attendant in the shop. Folscyvio poised for some while inside the open window-space, staring at the Thing. In the end he stepped near and examined a paper which had been pinned directly beneath.
Not many words were on the paper, these written old-fashionedly by hand, and in black ink: Vio-Sera. A vio-sirenalino. From the Century Seventeen. A rare example. Attributable, perhaps, to the Messers Stradivari.
Folscyvio scowled. He did not for an instant credit this. Yet the Thing did indeed seem antique. Certainly, it was a sort of violin. But—but . . .
The form was that of a woman, from the crown of the head to her hips, the area just between the naval and the feminine pudenda. After which, rather than legs, she possessed the tail of a fish. She was made of glowing auburn wood—he was unsure of its type. All told the figure, including the tail, was not much more than half a metre in length.
It had a face, quite beautiful in a stark and static kind of way, and huge eyes, each of which had been set with white enamel, and then, at the iris, with a definitely fake emerald, having a black enamel pupil. Its mouth was also enameled, pomegranate red. The image had breasts too, full and proud of themselves, with small strawberry enamel nipples. In the layers of the carved tail had been placed tiny discs of greenish, semi-opaque crystal. Some were missing, inevitably. Even if not a product of the Stradivari, nor quite so mature as the 1600s, this piece had been around for some time. The two oddest features were firstly, of course, the strings that ran from the finger board of the Piscean tail, across the gilded bridge to the string-clasper, which lay behind a gilded shell at the doll’s throat; while the nut and tuning pegs made up part of the tail’s finishing fan. Secondly what was odd was the hair, this not carved nor enameled, but a fluid lank heavy mass, like dead brown silk, that flowed from the wooden scalp and meandered down, ending level, since the doll was currently upright, where, had the tail constituted legs, its knees might have been.
A grotesque and rather awful object. A fright, and a sham too, as it must be incapable of making music. For the third freakish aspect was, obviously, at the moment the doll was upright, but when the instrument—if such were even possible—was played, what then? Aside from the impediment of its slightness yet encumberedness, the welter of hair—perhaps once that of a living woman, now a hundred years at least dead?—would slide, when the doll was upside-down, into everything, tangling with the strings and their tuning, the player’s hands and fingers—his throat even, the bow itself.
Thinking this, Folscyvio abruptly noted there were also omissions from the creature, for she, this unplayable mermaid-violin, this circus-puppet, this con-trick, had herself neither arms nor hands. A mythic cripple. Just as he had thought she might render her player. Another man, he thought, would already loathe her, and be on his way out of the shop.
But it went without saying Folscyvio was of a different sort. Folscyvio was unique.
Just then, a thin stooped fellow came crouching out of some lair at the back of the premises.
“Ah, Signore. How may I help you?”
“That Thing,” said Folscyvio, in a flat and slightly sneering tone.
“Thing . . . Ah. The vio-sera, Signore?”
“That.” Folscyvio paused, frowning, yet fastidiously amused. “It’s a joke, yes?”
“No? What else can it be but a joke? Ugly. Malformed. And such a claim! My God. The Stradivari. How is it ever to be played?”
The stooped man, who had seemed very old and perhaps was not, necessarily, gazed gently at this handsome un-customer. “At dusk, Signore.”
Even Folscyvio was arrested.
“What? At dusk—what do you mean?”
“As the fanciful abbreviation has it—vio-sera—a violin for evening, to be played when shadows fall. The Silver Hour between the reality of day and the mysterious mask of night. The hour when ghosts are seen.”
Folscyvio laughed harshly, mockingly, but his brain was already working the idea over. A concert, one of so many he had given, displaying his genius before the multitude of adoring fanatics—sunset, dusk—the tension honeyed and palpable—chewable as rose-petal lakoum—“Oh then,” he said. Generously contemptuous: “Very well. We’ll let that go. But surely, whoever botched this rubbish up, it was never the Famiglia Stradivarius.”
“I don’t know, Signore. The legend has it, it was a son of that family.”
“She was, allegedly, one of three such models, our vio-sirenalino. But there is no proof of this, or the maker, you will understand, Signore. Save for one or two secret marks still visible about her, which I might show you. They are in any case, Masonic. You might not recognize them.”
“Oh, you think not?”
“Then, perhaps you might.”
“Why anyway,” said Folscyvio, “would you think me at all seriously interested?”
The stooped old-young man waited mildly. He had whitish, longish hair. His eyes were dark and unreadable.
“Well,” said Folscyvio, grinning, “just to entertain me, tell me what price you ask for the Thing? If you do ask one. A curiosity, not an instrument—perhaps it’s only some adornment of your shop.” And for the very first he glanced about. Something rather bizarre then. Dusty cobwebs or lack of light seemed to close off much of the emporium from his gaze. He could not be certain of what he now squinted at (with his gelid, gray-mauve eyes). Was it a collection of mere oddities—or of other instruments? Over there, for example, a piano . . . or was it a street-organ? Or there, a peculiar vari-coloured railing—or a line of flutes . . . Folscyvio took half a step forward to investigate. Then stopped. Did this white-haired imbecile know who the caller was? Very likely. Folscyvio was not unfamous, nor his face unknown. A redoubtable musician, a talent far beyond the usual. Fireworks and falling stars, as a prestigious publication had, not ten weeks before, described his performance both in concert halls and via Teleterra.
Suddenly Folscyvio could not recall what he had said last to the old-young mental deficient. Had he asked a price?
Or—what was it?
When confused or thrown out of his depth, Folscyvio could become unreasonable, unpleasant. Several persons had found this out, over the past eighteen years. His prowess as a virtuoso was such that, generally, excuses were made for him and police bribed, or else clever and well-paid lawyers would subtly usher things away.
He stared at the ridiculous auburn wood and green glass of the fish-tail, at the pegs of brass and ivory adhering to the glaucous tail-fan.
He said, with a slow and velvety emphasis, “I’m not saying I want to buy this piece of crap off you. But I’d better warn you, if I did want, I’d get it. And for a—shall I say—very reasonable price. Sometimes people even give me things, as a present. You see? A diamond the size of my thumb-nail—quite recently, that. Or some genuine gold Roman coins, Circa Tiberio. Just given, as I said. A gift. I have to add, my dear old gentleman, that when people upset me, I myself know certain . . . other people, who really dislike the notion that I’m unhappy. They then, I’m afraid, do these unfortunate things—a broken window—oh, steelglass doesn’t stop them—a little fire somewhere. The occasional, very occasional, broken . . . bone. Just from care of me, you’ll understand. Such kind sympathy. Do you know who I am?”
The slightest pause.
“Yes.” Oh, the old dolt was acting, affecting ignorance.
Or maybe he was blind and half-deaf as well as stooped. “So. How fucking much?”
“For the vio-sirenalino?”
“For what fucking else, in this hell-hall of junk?”
Folscyvio was shouting now. It surprised him slightly. Why did he care? Some itch to try, and to conquer, this stupid toy eyesore—Besides, he could afford millions of libra-eura. (Folscyvio did not know he was a miser of sorts; he did not know he was potentially criminally violent, an abusive and trustless, perhaps an evil man. Talent he had, great talent, but it was the flare and flame of a cunning stage magician. He could play instruments both stringed and keyed, with incredible virtuosity—but also utter emotional dryness. His greatest performances lacked all soul—they were fire and lightning, glamour and glitter, sound and fury. Signifying nothing? No, Folscyvio did not know any of that either. Or . . . he thought he did not, for from where, otherwise, the groundless meanness, the lashing out, the rage?)
Unusually, the stooping man did not seem unduly alarmed. “Since the need is so urgent,” he said, “naturally, the vio-sera is yours. At least,” a gentle hesitation, “for now.”
“Forget ‘for now,’” shouted Folscyvio. “You won’t get the Thing back. How much?”
Everything settled to a titanic silence.
In the silence Folscyvio took the single and insignificant note from his wallet, and let it flutter down, like a pink-green leaf, into the dust of the floor.
The enormous lamp-blazing stadium, fretted by goldleafery and marble pillars, with a roof seemingly hundreds of metres high, and rock-caved with acoustic-enhancing spoons and ridges, roared and rang like a golden bell.
It had been a vast success, the concert. But they always were. The cheapest ticket would have cost two thousand. Probably half a million people, crushed luxuriously onto their velvet perches like bejeweled starlings, during the performance rapt or sometimes crying out in near orgasmic joy, were now exploding in a final release that had less to do with music than . . . frankly, with release. One could not sit for three hours in such a temple and before such a god as Folscyvio, and not require, ultimately, some personal eruption. They were of all ages. The young mingled freely with those of middle years, and those who were quite old. All, of course, were rich, or incredibly rich. One did not afford a Folscyviana unless one was. Otherwise, there were the disks, sound-only as a rule, each of which would play for three hours, disgorging the genius pyrotechnics of Folscyvio’s hands, all those singing and swirling strings of notes, pearl drops of piano keys. Sometimes, even included on a disk, since a feature, often, of the show, the closing auction, and the sacrifice. The notes of that, (though they were not notes) faultlessly reproduced: the stream-like ripple, the flicker of a holy awakening, the other music, and then the other roar, the dissimilar applause, very unlike, if analysed, the bravos and excelsiors that were rendered earlier.
Oddly though, these perfect disk recordings did not ever, completely, (for anyone) capture the thrill of being present, of watching Folscyvio, as he played. Even the very rare, and authorized, visuals did not. If anything, such records seemed rather—flat. Rather—soulless. Indeed, only the bargaining and sacrifice that occasionally concluded the proceedings truly came across as fully exciting. Strange. Other artists were capturable. Why not the magnificent Folscyvio? But naturally, his powers were elusive, unique. There was none like him.
For those in the stadium, they were not considering disks, or anything at all. They knew, as the concert was over, there was every likelihood of that second show.
Look, see now, Folscyvio was raising his hand to hush them. And in his arm still he held the little vioncello, the very last instrument he had performed upon . . . tonight.
Colossal quiet fell like a curtain.
Beyond the golden stadium and its environs, hidden by its windowlessness, the edges of the metropolis lay, and the Laguna staring silver at the moonlit sea. But in here, another world. Religious, yet sadistic. Sacred, yet—as some critic had coined it—savage as the most ancient rites of prehistory.
Then the words, so well known. Folscyvio: “Shall we have the auction, my friends?”
And a roiling cheer, unmatched to any noise before, shot high into the acoustic caves.
The Bidding For began at two thousand—the cheapest Seat-price. The Bidding Against sprang immediately to four thousand. After this the bids flew swift and fierce, carried by the tiny microphones that attended each plushy perch.
For almost half an hour the factions warred. The Yes vote rose to a million scuta-euri. The No vote flagged. And then the Maestro stilled them all again. He told them, with what the journals would describe as his “wicked lilt” of a smile, that after all, he had decided perhaps it should not be tonight.
No, no, my friends, my children, (as the vociferous and more affluent Yeses trumpeted disappointment) not this time, not now.
This time—is out of joint. Perhaps, next time. This night we will have a stay of execution.
And then, in a further tempest of frustrated disagreement and adoring hosannas, Folscyvio, still carrying the vioncello, left the stage.
“But what are you doing there, Folscy-mio?”
Uccello the agent’s voice was laden with only the softest reproach. He knew well to be careful of his prime client; so many of Folscyvio’s best agents had been fired, and one or two—one heard—received coincidental injuries.
Yet Folscyvio seemed in a calm and good-humoured mood. “I came to the coast, dear Ucci, to learn to play.”
“To—to learn? You? The Maestro—but you know everything there is to—”
“Yes, yes.” One found Folscyvio could become impatient with compliments, too. One must be careful even there. “I mean the new Thing.”
“Ah,” said Uccello, racking his brains. Which new thing? Was it a piano? No—some sort of violin, was it not. “The—mermaid,” he said cautiously.
“Well done, Ucci. Just so. The ugly nasty wrongly-sized little upside-down mermaid doll. She is quite difficult, but I find ways to handle her.”
Uccello beamed through the communicating connection. Folscyvio, he knew, found ways often to cope with females. (Uccello could not help a fleeting sidelong memory of buying off two young women that Folscyvio had “slapped around,” in fact rather severely. Not to mention the brunette who claimed he had raped her, and who meant to sue him, before—quite astonishingly—she disappeared.)
“Anyway, Ucci, I must go now. Ciao alla parte.”
And the connection was no more.
Well, Uccello told himself, pouring another ultra strong coffee, whatever Folscyvio did with the weird violin, it would make them all lots of money. Sometimes he wished Folscyvio did not make so much money. Then it would be easier to let go of him, to escape from him. Forever.
He had found the way to deal with her infuriating hair. Of course he could have cut it off or pulled it out. But it was so indigenous to her flamboyant grotesquerie he had decided to retain it if at all possible. In the end the coping strategy came clear. He drew all the hair up to the top of the wooden scalp, and there secured it firmly with a narrow titanium ring. This kept every fibre away from his hands, and the bow, once he had upended her and tossed the full cascade back over his left shoulder, well out of his way. Soon others, at his terse instruction, had covered the titanium in thick fake gold, smooth and non-irritant. Only then did he have made for her a bow. It was choice. What else, being for his use.
As for the contact-point, it had been established thus: her right shoulder rested between his neck and jaw. Now he could control her, he might begin.
By then she had been carefully checked, the strings found to be new and suitable and well-tended, resilient. He himself tuned them. To his momentary interest they had a sheer and dulcet sound, a little higher than expected, while from the inner body a feral resonance might be coaxed. She was so much better than Folscyvio had anticipated.
After all this, he adapted to his normal routine when breaking in a novel piece.
He rose early and took a swim in the villa pool, breakfasted on local delicacies, then set to work alone in the quartet of rooms maintained solely for the purpose. Here he worked until lunch, and after siesta resumed working in the evening.
The house lay close to the sea, shut off from the town, an outpost of the city. In the dusk, as in the past, he would have gone down to the shore and taken a second swim in the water, blue as syrup of cobalt. But now he did not. However pleased with, or aggravated by the mermaid he might have become, at twilight he would always play her. He had not, it seemed, been entirely immune to the magical idea that she was a vio-sera, a violin of the Silver Hour.
It was true. She did have a fascination for him. He had known this, he thought, from the moment he glimpsed her in the sordid little shop off the Via Silvia. He had become fascinated by instruments before in this manner, as, very occasionally, by girls. It happened less now, but was exciting, both in rediscovery, and its power. For as with all such affairs of his, involving music, or the romantic lusts of the body, he would be the only Master. And at the finish of the flirtation, the destroyer also.
By night, after a light dinner, he slept consistently soundly.
The Maestro dreamed.
He was walking on the pale shore beside the sea, the waves black now and edged only by a thin sickle moon. At spaces along the beach, tall, gas-fired cressets burned, ostensibly to mimic Ancient Roma. Folscyvio was indifferently aware that, due to these things, he moved between the four elements: earth and water, fire and air.
Then he grew conscious of a figure loitering at the sea’s border, not far from him.
In waking life, Folscyvio would have kept clear of others on a solitary walk—which anyway, despite its wished-for aloneness, always saw, in a spot like this, one of his bodyguards trailing about twenty metres behind him. Now, however, no guard paced in tow. And an immediate interest in the loiterer made Folscyvio alter course. He idled down to the unraveling fringes of the tideless waves, and when the figure turned to him, it was as if this meeting had been planned for weeks.
No greeting, even so, was exchanged.
Aside from which, Folscyvio could not quite make out who—even, really, what—the figure was. Not very tall, either bowed or bundled down into a sort of dark hooded coat, the face hidden, perhaps even by some kind of webby veil. Most preposterously, none of this unnerved Folscyvio. Rather, it seemed all correct, exactly right, like recognizing, say, a building or tract of land never before visited, though often regarded in a book of pictures.
Then the figure spoke. “Giavetti is dead.”
“Ah, good. Yes, I was expecting that. Has the debt been recovered?”
“No,” said the figure.
It was a gentle, ashy voice. Neither male nor female, just as the form of it seemed quite asexual.
“Well, it hardly matters,” said Folscyvio who, in the waking world, would have been extremely put out.
“But the death,” said the figure, “all deaths that have been deliberately caused, they do matter.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Folscyvio agreed, unconcerned yet amenable to the logic of it.
“Even,” said the figure, “the death of things.”
Folscyvio was intrigued. “Truly? How diverting. Why?”
“All things are constructed,” the figure calmly said, and now, just for a second, there showed the most lucent and mellifluous gleam of eyes, “constructed, that is, from the same universal, partly psychic material. A tree, a man, a lion, a wall—we are all the same, in that way.”
“I see,” said Folscyvio, nodding. They were walking on together, over the shore, the waves melting in about their feet, and every so often a fiery cresset passing, as if it walked in the other direction, casting out splinters of volcanic tangerine glass on the wrinkles of the water.
“You are an animist,” said the figure. “You do not understand this in yourself, but you sense a life-force in every instrument on which you set your hands. And being sufficiently clever to recognize the superior life in them, you are jealous, envious and vengeful.” There was no disapproval, no anger in the voice, despite what it had said, or now said. “To a human who is not a murderer, the destruction of life is crucially terrible, whether the life of a man, a woman, or a beast. To an animist these events are also terrible, but, too, the slaughter of so-called objects is equally a horror, an abomination—a tree, a wall—and especially those objects which can speak or sing. And worse still, which have spoken and sung—for the one who kills them. A piano. A violin.”
“A violin,” repeated Folscyvio, and a warm and stimulating pleasure surged up in him, reminiscent, though physically unlike, the sparkle of erotic arousal. “A violin.”
Then he noticed they had reached the end of the shoreline. How strange: nothing lay beyond, only the gigantic sky, scattered with stars, and open as the sea had seemed to be moments before. Although the sea, evidently, had been contained by a horizon. As this was not.
Folscyvio worked with the doll-mermaid-violin, mostly sticking to his routine, where departing from it then compensating with a fuller labour in the day or night which followed. (During this time he discovered no secret marks, Masonic or otherwise, on its surface. But of course, the shop-keeper had lied.)
Three, then four months passed. The weather-control that operated along the coast maintained blissful weather, only permitting some rain now, at the evening hour of the Aperitivo.
He ordered Uccello to cancel a single concert he had been due to give in the city. Uccello was appalled. “Oh never fear, they’ll forgive me. Change the venue of my next one, to make room for those worshipers who missed out.” Folscyvio knew he would be forgiven. He was a genius. One must allow him room to act as he wished. Only those who hated and despised him ever muttered anything to the contrary. And they—and Folscyvio knew this also well—would be careful what they said, and where. It was well known, Folscyvio’s fanatics did not take kindly to his defamation.
Without a doubt, beyond all question, he had mastered her. It was the beginning of the fifth month. He stood in front of a wide mirror (his habitual act prior to a performance) and put himself, in slow-motion, through his various flourishes, emotives, intensities, particularly those that were intrinsic to the new and extraordinary instrument. Already he had formulated the plan for her deployment and display before he should—finally,—and after prevarication—take hold of her. She was to preside, to start with, at the off-centre front stage. She would then be upright, that way the doll appearance of her would be the most obvious. Her hair would pour from the gold tiara, carefully arranged about and over her breasts, her face smooth and glowing from preparatory days of polishing, her emerald eyes, (also polished) shining and her pomegranate lips inviting. She would be standing on her aquatic tail, in which all the missing scales by now were replaced. The fan-tail base of it would balance on a velvet cushion of the darkest green. Magnetic beams would hold her infallibly in position. (The insurance paid for this, not to mention the threats issued, both legal and otherwise, would make certain all was well.)
After posing and scrutinizing all his moves and postures, Folscyvio played to the mirror the selected pieces on the vio-sera, as he proposed to at the forthcoming concert now only two weeks away. Everything went faultlessly, of course.
Sometimes he would be assisted, during a concert, by an accompanying band, comprising percussion, certain stringed instruments, a small horn section, and so on. All these accoutrements were robotic; he never employed human musicians. The Maestro himself always checked the ensemble over, tuned and—as a favourable critic had expressed it—“exalted” them for a show. However, on this occasion, when he reached the moment that he accessed the vio-sirenalino, (the Mermaid, as she had been billed) the exquisite little robot band would fall quite silent. At which, being non-human, no flicker of envy would disturb any morsel of it.
Then, and only then, at a signal from the Maestro, ultra protective rays would spin the mermaid violin, whirling her to her true position, upside down.
Folscyvio, amid the crowd’s predicted applause and uproar, would lift her free. Like a heroine in some swooning novel of the nineteenth, twentieth, or early twenty-first Century, she would lie back upon his shoulder, her hair drifting in a single silken, burnt-sienna wing down his back (the hair had been refurbished, too). In this fainting and acquiescent subjection of hers he would hold her, and bring the slender bow to bear upon her uptilted, supine body, stroking, spangling, making love to her, breasts to tail.
In the wide mirror he could see now, even if he had already known, the eroticism of this act. How gorgeously perverse. How sublime. How they would love it. And oh, the music she could make—
For her tones were beautiful. They were—unique. And only he, master of his art, had brought her to this. Even that dolt Uccello, hearing a brief example, a shred of Couperin, a skein of Vivaldi, and of Strarobini, played, recorded and audioed through the speaker, had exclaimed, “But—Folscy-mio—never did I hear you play anything—with quite this vividity. What enchantment. Folscyvio, you have found your true voice at last!” And at this, unseen since the viewer was not switched on, the Maestro had scornfully smiled.
The concert was quite sold out. Beyond even the capacity of the concert stadium. Herds had paid, therefore, also to stand and listen in the gardens outside, where huge screens and vocaliani were to be rigged. It was to be a night of nights, the Night of the Mermaid. And after that night? Well.
She was a doll. A toy. An aberration and a game—which he had played and won.
One night for her, then, the best night of her little wooden life. That would be enough. Live her dream. Who should aim at more?
The venue for the concert was two miles inland of the city and the Laguna, up in the hills. This stadium was modern, a curious sounding-board of glazing, its supporting masonry embedded with acoustic speakers. The half-rings of seats hung gazing down to the hollow stage. They would be packed. Every place taken, the billionaire front rows to the craning upper roosts equipped with magnifying glasses. Amid the pines and cypresses outside, the huge screens clustered. Throughout the city too others would be peering at the Teleterra, watching, listening. And beyond the Laguna, the city, in many other regions all across the teeming and disassembled self-absorption of the planet, they too, whoever was able and had a mind to, they too glued to the relay of this performance.
Unusually the concert was to begin rather early, the nineteenth hour of that light-enduring mechanically-extended summer night. Sunset would commence just before twenty-one. And the dusk, prolonged by aerial gadgets, would last nearly until the twenty-second hour.
Almost everyone had learned about the new and special instrument—though not its nature. A mermaid? They could barely wait. Speculation had been rife in the media for weeks.
So they entered the stadium. And when first they saw—it—during that vast in-gathering, startled curses and bouts of laughter ran round the hall. What was it? Was it hideous or divine, barbaric or obscene? Unplayable, how not. Some joke.
Eventually the illumination sank and the general noise changed to that wild ovation always given the Maestro Folscyvio. And out he came, impeccably clad, his lush dark hair and handsome face, his slender, strong hands, looking at least a third of a metre taller than he was due to his lean elegance, and the lifts in his shoes.
Hushing them benignly, he said only this, “Yes. As you see. But you must wait to hear. And now, we begin.”
From the nineteenth almost to the twentieth hour, just as, muted and channeled through the venue’s glassy top, the sun westered, Folscyvio performed at his full pitch of stunningly brilliant (and heartless) mastery.
As ever, the audience were stirred, shaken, opened out like fans—actual fans, not fanatics gasping, weeping, tranced slaves caught in the blinding blitzkrieg of his glare; they slumped or sat rigid until the interval. And after it, fueled by drink, legal drugs, and chat, they slunk back nearly bonelessly for another heavenly beating.
And Folscyvio played on, assisted by his little robot orchestra. He took to him a piano, a mandolino. But all the while, the mermaid doll stood upright on her green cushion, with her green tail, her green eyes, her smallness—dumb. Obscure and . . . waiting.
Some twenty minutes before twenty-one, the sunset swelled, then faded. The ghostly dusk ashed down. It was the Silver Hour, when the shadows fell. And tonight, here, it would last an hour.
The penultimate acts of the show were done. The orchestra stopped like a clock. Folscyvio put aside the mandolin. Then, stepping forward quite briskly, he gave the signal, and the mermaid was whirled upside-down—whereupon he seized her. And as the crowd faintly mooed in suspense he settled her, in a few well-practiced moves, her head upon his shoulder, the hair flowing down his back like a wing. He lifted the bow out of its sword-like sheath, which until then had been hidden in a cleverly-spun chiascuro.
Silences had occurred in history. The city knew silences. This silence however was thicker than amalgamating concrete. In a solid silver block it cased the concert hall.
Folscyvio played to them, within this case, the mermaid violin.
High and burningly sweet, the tone of the strings. Pelt-deep and throbbing with contralto darkness, the tone of the strings. A vibrato like lava under the earth, a supreme up-draught like a flying nightingale. A bitter pulsing, amber.
A platinum upper register that pierced—a needle to conjure an inner note, some sound known only at the dawn of time, or at its ending. Consoling sorrow, aching agony of joy.
Never, never had they heard, nor anyone ever conceivably, such music. Even they could not miss it. Even he—even Folscyvio—could not.
He had not mastered the instrument. It had mastered him. It played him. And somehow, far within the clotted blindness and deafness of his costive ego—he knew. The Maestro, mastered.
Perhaps he had dubiously guessed when practising, when planning out this ultimate scene upon his rostrum of pride. Or perhaps even, at that watershed, he had managed to conceal the facts from himself. For truth did not always set men free. Truth could imprison, too. Truth could kill.
On and on. Passing from one perfect piece to the next, seamless as cloth-of-Paradise, Folscyvio the faultless instrument, and the violin played him. All through that Silver Hour. Until the shadows had closed together and not a mote of light was left, except where he still poised, the violin gleaming in his grip, the bow fluttering and swooping, a bird of prey, a descending angel.
But all-light melted away and all-quiet came back. The recital was over.
How empty, that place.—As though the world had sunk below the horizon as already the sun’s orb had done.
The artificial lights returned like fireflies.
There he stood, straight and motionless, frowning as if he did not, for a second or so, grasp where he was, let alone where he had been during the previous hour.
But the audience, trained and dutiful, stumbled to its feet. And then, as if recollecting what must come next, began to screech and bellow applause, stamping, hurling jewels down on to the stage. (It had happened before. Folscyvio had even, in the past, graciously kept some of them; the more valuable ones.)
After the bliss of the music, this acclaiming sound was quite disgusting. A stampede of trampling, trumpeting things—that had glimpsed the Infinite, and could neither make head nor tail of it, nor see what should be done to honour it.
Seemingly unceasing, this crescendo. Until it wore itself out upon itself. The hands scalded from clapping, the voices cracked with over-use. Back into their seats they crumbled, abruptly old, even the youngest among them. Drained. Mistaken. Baffled.
Inevitably, afterwards, there would be talk of a drug—illegal and pernicious—infiltrated into the stadium, affecting everyone there. But that rumour was for later, blown in like a dead leaf on the dying sigh of a hurricane.
Probably Folscyvio did suspect he was not quite himself. Some minor ailment, perhaps. A virus, flimsy and unimportant. Nevertheless he felt irritated, dissatisfied, although realizing he had played superbly. But then,—he always did. Nothing had changed.
Now he would swiftly draw this spectacle to a close. And in the favourite way: theirs. His.
He said, very coldly, (was he aware how cold?) “We will finish.”
No one any more made a noise. Sobered and puzzled, they hung there before him, all their ridiculous tiers of plush seats, like bits of rubbish, he thought, piled up in rows along gilded and curving shelves, in the Godforsaken fucking cupboard of this mindless arena.
He must have hesitated a fraction too long.
Then, only then, a scatter of feeble voices called out for the auction.
Folscyvio smiled, “wintry and fastidious” as it was later described by an hysterical critic. “No. We will not bother with the auction. Not tonight. Fate is already decided. We will go directly to the sacrifice.” For once some of them—a handful among the masses there—set up loud howls for mercy. But he was adamantine, not even looking towards them. When the wailing left off, he said, “She has had her night. That is enough. Who should aim for more.”
And after this, knowing the cue, the stadium operatives crushed the lights down to a repulsive redness. And on to the stage ran the automatic trolley which, when all this had begun for those years ago, had been designed for the Maestro by his subordinates.
Again, afterwards, so much would be recalled, accurately or incorrectly, of what came next. All was examined minutely. But it did no good, of course.
They had, the bulk of this audience, witnessed “The Sacrifice” before. The sacrifice, if unfailingly previously coming after an auction, when invariably the majority of the crowd bayed for death, and put in bids for it, (the cash from which Folscyvio would later accommodate) was well known. It had been detailed endlessly in journals, on electronic sites, in poems, paintings and recreated photo-imagery. Even those who had never attended a Folscyvio concert, let alone a sacrifice, knew the method, its execution and inevitable result. The Maestro burned his instruments. Sometimes after years of service. Now and then, as on this night, following a single performance.
Pianos and chitarras, such larger pieces, would tend to sing, to shriek, to call out in apparent voices, and to drum like exploding hearts in the torment of the fires. But the vio-sirenalino—what sound could she make, that miniature Thing, that doll-mermaid of glass, enamel and burnished wood and hair?
Despite everything, many of them were on the seats’ edges to find out.
She leaned now, again upright in the supporting rays of the magnetic beams. When he poured the gasoline, like a rare and treacly wine, in a broad circle all about her, saturating the green cushion, but not splashing her once, a sort of rumbling rose in the auditorium. Then died away.
Folscyvio moved back to a prudent distance. He looked steadily at the mermaid violin, and offered to her a solitary mockery of a salute. And struck the tinder-trigger on the elongate metal match.
Without a doubt there was a flaw in the apparatus. Either that, or some jealous villain had rigged the heavily security-provided podium. Or else—could it be—too fast somehow for any of them to work out what he did—did he, Folscyvio, somehow reverse the action? As if, maybe, perceiving that never in his life after that hour would he play again in that way, like a god, he wished to vacate the stage forever.
The flame burst out like a crimson ribbon from the end of the mechanical match. But the mermaid violin did not catch fire. No, no. It was Folscyvio who did that. Up in a tower of gold and scarlet, blue and black, taller even than he had been—or seemed—when alive, the Maestro flared, and was lost at once to view. He gave no sound either, as perhaps the violin would not have done. Was there just no space for him to scream? Or was it that, being himself very small, and cramped and hollow and empty, there was no proper crying possible to him?
In a litter of streaming and luminous instants he was obliterated, to dust, a shatter of black bones, a column of stinking smoke. And yet—had any been able to see it?—last of all to be incinerated were his eyes. Narrow, long-lashed, gray-mauve, and—for the final and first time in Folscyvio’s existence—full of fire.
© 2013 by Tanith Lee.
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