The haunting music plays me to sleep…
“Dad, what happened to mom?”
Lying to a five year old is easy. My dad would take me onto the roof at night and point up at the endless vaulting sky. “See up there?” he’d say. “That’s where your mom lives. Way up in the stars. It’s her job to play music and make everyone down below happy.”
And I believed him, because I could hear the music play sometimes. Rich sonorant notes from a cello drifting down from above like the sky itself was singing me to sleep. And I was happy knowing that she was looking down at me from somewhere, taking care of me even when I couldn’t see her.
Lying to a ten year old is a little harder. I started asking questions like when she left and when she was coming back. I asked what she was doing up there, and why she hadn’t taken me with her, and whether other people could hear her play. I guess I didn’t notice how hard it was for him to answer, or how he would talk less and less about her as the years went by.
By fifteen I didn’t need to ask to know mom wasn’t coming back. The music hadn’t played for years, and I was beginning to wonder if I had simply imagined it to perpetuate the vain hope. Or maybe dad had just played it from a hidden sound system, and now that I’m old enough to figure it out he’s given up pretending.
Sometimes my dad would have a temper though. Maybe I slept in too late or set the AC too low, and he’d start to bellow out of that barrel-chest of his. His face would flush and sweat would pour down his neck, and all his little teeth would flare out from under his mustache. Sometimes he would scare me, but whenever I felt like I was backed into a corner I could always ask:
“Dad, what happened to mom?”
And all the blood would filter out of his face to leave an ashen-pale wasteland. His meaty hands would start to shake, and he’d mumble something like “She’s gone, okay? Get over it.” And then maybe he’d try to pick up yelling and swearing where he left off, but all his momentum would be gone. He’d just grunt “Be a good girl. For your mother,” and the argument would be over.
Well I didn’t remember mom, so what was the point of being good for her? I don’t think of myself as a rebel, but sometimes rules can sound pretty indistinguishable from challenges. “You can’t paint your room” sounded to me an awful lot like “I bet you can’t paint your room by yourself.” The point is that I made a giant mess, dad was screaming like a siren, and I had to shut him up somehow. Maybe it was a cheap trick, but it had worked before and I just wanted the fighting to be over.
“Oh yeah?” I shot back at him. “Well what happened to mom?”
His eyes flashed an angry warning, but he was so fired up that he didn’t back down. His fingers were shaking, but it didn’t stop him from grabbing my laptop and wrenching the power cord out.
“You get this back when the room is clean,” he told me.
He was being fair. It was my fault the room was such a mess. I shouldn’t have said what I said.
“At least now I know why she left.”
I knew I’d gone too far the moment it left my mouth. He was shaking bad now. So bad it couldn’t be contained. His hand struck out like a muscle spasm and the laptop went flying at my face. The corner bit into my temple and I just fell like a sack of clothes. A few seconds later, I came to on the ground. He was kneeling over me, his brow furrowed in brooding thought. He’d never hit me before, but I flinched away the second I saw him. That seemed to snap him out of it, and he stood up and just left my room. My head didn’t even hurt so I don’t know how I blacked out. I thought that was going to be the end of it, but –
“Follow me,” he barked over his shoulder. “I’m going to show you if you want to know so god-damned bad.”
It wasn’t an angry voice. It was cold and tired. I can imagine a doctor using that kind of voice to call the time of death after 20 hours in surgery. That voice scared me even more than the yelling. I followed him in silence, listening to his labored breathing as he crawled up the ladder into the attic.
“Are you going to ask about your mother anymore?” he asked.
“No sir,” I responded automatically. I’ve never called him ‘sir’ before, but it seemed appropriate now.
“So you don’t have any more questions?”
“No sir.” Of course I did, but now didn’t seem like the time to ask.
“And you’re going to clean your room?”
And he was gone, climbing back down the attic stairs. Leaving me face-to-face with what used to be my mother. At least, I can only imagine that’s what I was looking at now. It certainly wasn’t like any cello I had ever seen before.
The neck and fingerboard were unmistakably made from a spinal cord, with notches in the vertebra like frets. Long, taunt strands of sinew made up the strings. The pegs must have been knuckles, and a single glassy eyeball was embedded in the carved bone that made up the scroll. Even the bow was strung with long red hair, the same color I had seen in the precious few photographs that remained of her. The body itself still seemed to be made of wood, although it was unevenly stained with such a deep red that my imagination didn’t have to look far to conjure an answer. The rest of my questions remained unsatisfied.
Did he kill her? Or just use her body after she was gone?
Was it even a real human at all? Or just some sick joke to get back at me for using mom against him?
And most importantly, what should I do about it? I couldn’t force myself to stay in the attic long enough to really look for proof. I could confront him, but I didn’t know if I could stand the storm of his temper after seeing this. Should I take pictures and go to the police? And then what would happen to me?
I stayed in my room, avoiding dad for the rest of the day. I didn’t even eat dinner. I tried to block out thoughts of what I’d seen for as long as I could, but I couldn’t block the music which began to play after years of intermission. A childhood of peaceful sleep had been purchased by dad playing in the attic above my room. I wanted to retaliate with my own music, but dad still had my laptop. I tried playing something from my phone, but the cello only grew louder, drowning out my meager sound. It sang with increasing pace until the frenzied hammer of the bow across sinew shook the roof above me.
Powerful, staccato blasts rained from above. The melody pulled me in and swelled like a crashing wave, expertly driving each note deep into my consciousness where it became trapped. I couldn’t stop imagining the spine bending under the pressure, or mother’s hair sawing its way through her own muscle with the wild delirium of a screaming woman. I wanted to hate it. To hate him. I wanted my surging heart to slow and my stomach to churn in disgust. I needed the perfect rhythm to miss a beat or the haunting consonance to stumble, but transfixed as I was by the mortifying thought, I was compelled to listen by the sheer brilliance of the performance.
As the music continued to reach its crescendo, the last grip of my hysteric mind screamed at me to run. My senses were so oversaturated with sound that I couldn’t even think straight. Reality was distorting under the delirious melody which beckoned me into it. All I could do to retain any presence of mind was to fixate on the thought that I would become another instrument to join my mother if I did not escape. I couldn’t do this anymore. I had to get out. Through the pounding notes I dodged through the house, seeking shelter as though from an avalanche. Open wide I flung the front door, out onto the lawn to –
stand in shock in the silent night. Outside of the house, I couldn’t hear it anymore. Not even the faintest echo. It was so quiet I could hear the rush of blood through my ears. I was so disoriented that I took a step back toward the house just to see how far into madness I had fallen. A meaty hand fell on my shoulder though, holding me in place. I didn’t have to turn around to know who it was. But if he was here, then who was playing upstairs?
“Dad, what happened to mom?”
I held my breath. Desperate for any sound but the madding music or my coursing blood.
“See way up there?” he asked. The hand lifted from my shoulder to point at the stars.
I turned savagely on him, batting his hand away. “That’s not good enough anymore! What did you do to her?”
“I fell in love with her because of how she played.” He gave a sad, defeated little shrug. “But then I realized it was the music I loved, not her. I just wanted her to be beautiful again, and she is. And I love her more than ever.”
The disorientation was getting worse. My vision was swimming. I felt like I was slurring the next words, but I still had to ask.
“And what about me, dad? Do you still love me?”
Then it all went black. I thought I was unconscious, but somehow I was still able to hear:
“Of course I do honey. And even if I stop, I know how to change you so I’ll love you again.”
When I opened my eyes, I was back on my bedroom floor. My head hurt like hell. My vision was still blurry, but I could feel my dad kneeling next to me.
“I love you so much, I’m so sorry,” he said. “It was an accident, that’s all. Are you okay?”
I didn’t know how to answer him. I felt okay physically, but my mind was still reeling from what happened. I told him that I just wanted to sleep, and that was true. He helped me to my bed and left me there. I lay for a long time with my eyes closed, trying to breathe slow, trying to remain calm. I just needed to fall asleep and none of this will have ever happened.
It was just hard to rest with the sound of the cello drifting down from the attic again.