The Fading Memory of Music
“Ev’ry time, just like the last
On the ship, tied to the mast…”
She came out of the twilight like a shadow, appearing at my shoulder before I knew it, speaking words I couldn’t hear. Tossing the stub of my cigarette into the sea, I turned. “Sorry,” I said, gesturing towards the wild surf. “Didn’t catch that.”
Her perfect lips framed the words precisely. “I asked what you were singing.”
“It’s an old Stranglers number, I think.” I allowed myself the privilege of looking her up and down slowly. It really was a privilege.
“It’s the words,” she said, with an enigmatic look. “ ‘Tied to the mast’, you sang. That’s from the Odyssey. The hero tied himself to the mast to resist the song of the sirens, who lured men to their doom.”
“Is that so?” I reached into my coat for another cigarette, but thought better of it, and put my hands back in my pockets. The bitter wind cut at my face.
“I asked because there is a local legend concerning the sirens,” she said. “People say that men still disappear around here.” She glanced over her shoulder at the monstrous surf. “Especially on nights like this, when the sea is wild. Some folk claim to hear singing.” She shivered, pulling her rain cape close.
“The wind,” I said. “I can remember hearing it howl like a lost soul, cry like a woman, whisper like a lover.”
“Oh, but you are a poet!” Her smile was the shimmer of the sun on the ocean floor.
The bitterness in my mouth was more than just the cigarettes. “The memory of beauty makes every man a poet.”
“No,” she said. “Not all men. The man who disappeared last week; there was no poetry in him.”
“Weldon? You knew him?” I knew of his disappearance.
Her upper lip curled. “He was a pig. One of those pawing, grabbing men who lick their lips and smile when their wives aren’t looking.”
“Sounds a peach,” I said. “When did you see him last.”
A sly look crossed her face. “That very night.”
“When he disappeared?”
She nodded. “He came here, just like you. Following me, as you were.”
“Was I following you?”
“You know you were.” Sublimely cool, her fingers trailed over the stubble on my jaw. “He wanted me.” She pirouetted away, to stand ankle-deep in the surf. The cape flared, showing her naked as a flame beneath. My heart skipped.
She smiled, the way a shark smiles. “I sang for him,” she said, and opened her mouth wide, and wordlessly.
More out of reflex than desire, I found myself groping inside my coat again, looking for my cigarettes while she sang, and stared, and stood, and gradually her mouth closed to a grim line. A look of puzzlement touched her lovely features, and she opened her mouth once more.
Suddenly I was tired of the game. All the excitement of the chase and the thrill of danger had gone. There was no predator, no prey any more; just two people, more or less, standing in the wind and the rain. I let go of the cigarette lighter, and grasped the gun instead.
She stared at me, uncomprehending. Then, yet again, her mouth yawned, and I could see the movement of her tongue, the heaving of her breast as she poured her strength into her deadly song.
The gun had a song as well. It was a short song, with only one note, and no curtain-calls. Her eyes widened. A slow trickle of blood ran from her belly. She touched it wonderingly, then looked at me, and slumped to the sand.
I threw the gun into the sea, and sat down next to her. She stared at me like a frightened animal, a beast in the abattoir that knows what is coming, but never why. I looked away so she wouldn’t see my tears. Mechanically, my hands found the cigarettes, and the lighter. On my lap, I felt her move slightly.
“Once upon a time, I was a musician,” I said to nobody in particular. “A composer. They wrote books about me. I’ve still got some of them. “ I glanced down. She was listening, I could see. Her lips moved, but she wasn’t strong enough to frame her words.
“I can’t tell what you’re saying,” I said. “I can’t hear you. I never could. That’s why Mrs Weldon hired me. I’m deaf as a corpse.”
Her eyes flickered, not with comprehension but resignation.
“It was an accident,” I told her, stroking the golden hair back from her high, pale forehead. “I haven’t heard a thing in almost ten years. Nothing. Not the wind, not the waves, not the sound of speech, or laughter, or song. Most especially, I haven’t heard music.” The tears in my eyes didn’t seem to matter much any more. There was no stopping them, anyhow. “And you. You make music. You are music. Such perfect, marvellous music that men die for hearing. I’ll tell you a secret,” I said, and bent down close, to whisper in her ear. “I wish I had met you ten years ago.”
Her body stiffened, and she drew a deep, shuddering breath. I kissed her once, for a long, long time, and then she was gone, and I was cold and alone. I waited there, on the beach beside her until the waves came to reclaim her. Then I lit my last cigarette and watched the ocean, listening to the fading memories of music as the night closed in.
I got some kind of minor award for this story. I cannot recall what it was, nor when. I was looking through my archives when I found it. I didn’t hate it, so I thought that perhaps this was a good place for it to go…