Caroline tucked an unruly strand of coarse brown hair up under her pink knit cap, shrugged the strap of her black violin case back into place over her shoulder, and hurried up the music building stairs. Her skin felt both uncomfortably greasy and itched dryly under her heavy winter clothes; it had been seven days since the water heater broke in her tiny efficiency and the landlord wasn’t answering his phone. Quick, chilly rag-baths were all she could stand, and she felt so self-conscious about the state of her hair that she kept it hidden under a hat whenever possible. She hoped that her violin professor Dr. Harroe wouldn’t make her take her cap off.
Her foot slipped on a spot of dried salt on the stairs and she grabbed the chilly brass banister with her left hand to keep from pitching forward. The sharp, cold jolt made the puckered scar in her palm sharply ache, and the old memory returned fast and unbidden:
“Why aren’t you practicing as I told you to?”
Her father scowled down at her. He was still in his orchestra conducting clothes: a grey blazer and black turtleneck. His fingers clenched a tumbler of Scotch over ice.
“M-my hand started to hurt.” She shrank back against the hallway wall, hoping that she hadn’t sounded whiny, hoping her explanation would suffice and he’d just send her to bed.
The smell of alcohol and sweat fogged the air around him, and that meant almost anything could happen. He wasn’t always cruel. Not even usually. But talking to him when he’d been drinking was like putting a penny in a machine that sometimes dispensed glossy gumballs but other times a dozen stinging arachnids would swarm from the chute instead. And there was no way to know which she’d get, sweets or scorpions.
“Hurt?” he thundered down at her. “Nonsense! I’ll show you what hurts!”
He grabbed her arm and dragged her to the fireplace in the music room. She tried to pull away, pleading, promising to practice all night if he wanted her to. But he was completely impassive as he drew a long dark poker from the rack and shoved it into the hottest part of the fire. He frowned down at the iron as the flames licked the shaft, seemingly deaf to her frantic mantra of Please, no, Papa, I’ll be good I swear please.
The iron heated quickly, and in a series of motions as artful as any he’d performed on the orchestral podium he pulled it from the fire with one hand, squeezed her forearm hard to force her fingers open with the other, and jabbed the glowing red tip of the poker into her exposed palm.
The pain was astonishing. A part of her knew she was shrieking and had fallen to her knees on the fine Persian carpet, but the rest of her felt as though she’d been hurled through space and time toward the roaring hearts of a thousand black stars, cosmic furnaces that would consume not just her flesh and bone but her very soul. They would destroy her so completely that no one would remember that she had ever lived. The stars swirled around her, judging her, and she knew they found her lacking. She was too small, unripe, and they cast her back toward Earth. It was the first time and last time she’d ever been glad to be a disappointment in the eyes of the universe.
Tears blurred her vision and through them her father looked strange, distorted. In that instant she was sure that she knelt at the feet of a monstrous stranger who was wearing her father’s pallid face as a mask.
“Now, that hurts I expect,” the stranger observed cheerfully as her flesh sizzled beneath the red iron. “And so I don’t expect I shall hear you whining about practice again, will I? Now, stop your little dog howling this instant or I’ll burn the other one, too!”
She willed herself to bite back her screams, and he finally let her go just as she passed out from the agony.
When she woke up on the couch, she discovered that her father had fetched some snow from the porch and pressed a grapefruit-sized ball of it into her palm to numb her burn. Icy water dripped down her wrist and soaked her sweater sleeve. The air was filled with the odor of burned meat. Hers. It made her feel even sicker, and for the rest of her life the smell of grilling steaks and chops would make her want to vomit.
Her father gazed down at her, sad and sober.
“I would never hurt you, you understand?” He gently brushed the hair out of her face. “If anyone has hurt you in this world, it was not I.”
He bundled her into the back of his Cadillac and took her to see a physician friend of his. Caroline remembered sitting in a chair in the hallway with a handkerchief full of ice in her hand, weeping quietly from the pain while the two men spoke behind a closed door.
“Will her playing be affected?” her father asked.
“Christ, Dunric!” The physician sounded horrified. “Is that your only concern for your own daughter?”
“Of course not!” her father huffed. “Nonetheless, it is a concern. So, if you would be so kind as to offer your professional opinion on the matter?”
“She’s got a third-degree burn; her palm is roasted through like a lamb fillet. I can’t see how she could have held on to a live coal so long of her own accord. Are you sure no one else could have been involved? Perhaps a resentful servant?”
“Quite sure,” he replied. “My daughter has some … mental peculiarities she regrettably inherited from her mother. You know how unstable sopranos are! Her mother often had a kind of petit mal seizure; I believe some pyromania compelled the girl to take hold of the coal and then a fit prevented her from dropping it as a sensible child would.”
“That is unfortunate.” The physician sounded unconvinced, and for a brief moment hope swelled in Caroline’s heart: perhaps he would challenge her father, investigate further, discover the truth. And then perhaps she’d be sent to live with her mother’s people in Boston. She’d only met them once—they were bankers or shoemakers or something else rather dull but they seemed decent enough.
But it was not to be. The physician continued: “Her tendons and ligaments are almost certainly affected. She may need surgery to regain full mobility in her fingers, and I fear that her hand may be permanently drawn due to scarring.”
“Well, she only needs to curl it ‘round the neck of her instrument, after all.”
It took two surgeries to repair the tendons in her hand, and all her father’s colleagues marveled at how brave and determined she was in her physical therapy and practice sessions afterward. Her father glowed at the praises they heaped on her, and while he never said as much, something in his smile told her that, should she cease to be so pleasingly dedicated to the musical arts, there were things in his world worse than hot metal.
Caroline traced the lines of her scar with her thumb. The doctor’s knife had given it a strange, symbolic look. Some people claimed it resembled a Chinese or Arabic character, although nobody could say which one.
She flexed her hand and shook her head to try to banish the memories. There was no point in dwelling on any of it. Her father was long gone. Five years after he burned her, he’d flown into a rage at a negative review in the newspaper. He drove off in his Alfa Romeo with a bottle of Glenfiddich. Caroline suspected he’d gone to see a ballerina in the next city who enjoyed being tied up and tormented. But he never arrived. He lost control of his car in the foggy hills and his car overturned in a drainage ditch that was hidden from the road. Pinned, he lived for three days while hungry rats gnawed away the exposed flesh of his face, eyes and tongue.
At his funeral, she’d briefly considered quitting music just to spite his memory … but if she refused to be the Maestro’s daughter, what was she? She knew nothing of gymnastics or any other sports, nor was she an exceptional student or a skilled painter. Her crabbed hand was nimble on a fingerboard but useful for little else. Worst of all, she knew—since she’d been repeatedly told so—that she was quite plain, good as a violinist but unremarkable as a woman. Her music was the only conceivable reason anyone would welcome her to a wedding. A thousand creditors had picked her father’s estate as clean as the rodents had stripped his skull; if she abandoned the violin, what would she have left?
“Caroline, is that you?” Professor Harroe called after she knocked on the door to his office.
“Do come in! I have a bit of a surprise for you today.”
She suddenly felt apprehensive, but made herself smile at the professor as she opened the door and took her accustomed seat in the chair in front of his desk, which was stacked high with music theory papers, scores, and books. “What is it?”
He leaned back in his battered wooden swivel chair behind his desk and smiled at her in return. Her anxiety tightened; Harroe had been her music tutor since she was a teenager, and he almost never smiled, not at his colleagues’ jokes nor at beautiful women nor at lovely music. She searched his face, trying to decipher his expression. He looked practically giddy, she finally decided, and it was a bit unsettling.
“Did you know that your father was working on a series of violin sonatas when he died?”
Her skin itched beneath her sweater. She rubbed at the scar again. “No, I did not.”
“He was writing them for you, for when your playing would be mature enough to handle them. He told me he intended them to be a surprise for your 21st birthday. I think he realized his dalliance with drink might lead to disaster—as indeed it sadly did—so he arranged for his lawyer to send me the sonatas along with a formal request that I complete them in secret.
“I regret that I am not half the composer he was, but I am proud to say I have done as he asked. Six months late for your 21st, and for that I apologize, but at last his music is ready for you.”
“I … oh my. I really don’t know what to say. That was very … kind of you.”
“I regret that kindness had nothing to do with it; as a composer I could not pass up the opportunity to co-author a work with the good Maestro. It was an extraordinary challenge, one that I am most pleased I was able to meet. I had to consult with … certain experts to complete the work, and one is here today, ready to listen to you perform the first sonata. If you do well—and I am sure that you will!—I believe that he is prepared to offer you a musical patronage that will ensure that you’re taken care of for the rest of your life.”
Caroline felt simultaneously numb with surprise and overwhelmed by dread. Was this truly an opportunity to escape her slide into poverty? Few students in her position ever saw salvation arriving before they’d even graduated. She had to rise to the occasion. But knowing her father was behind it all made her want nothing more than to go back to her cramped, drafty apartment and hide under the covers.
Her lips moved for a moment before she could get any words out. “That’s amazing, but I couldn’t possibly perform a piece I haven’t even seen—”
“Nonsense!” His tone left her no room for demurral or negotiation. “You are a fine sight-reader, and after all this music is made for you. You’ll be splendid.”
Feeling supremely self-conscious about her dowdy thrift store clothes and the unfashionable knit cap over her unwashed hair, Caroline took a deep breath, got a better grip on her violin case, lifted her chin, and strode out onto the small, brightly-lit recital stage. Her footsteps echoed hollowly off the curved walls. The theatre was small, just thirty seats, and she could sense rather than clearly see someone sitting in the back row on the left side. Normally having just one listener would bolster her confidence, but today, the emptiness of the room seemed eerie. She bowed crisply toward the dark figure, and then took her seat in a spotlighted wooden folding chair. The music stand held a hand-written musical booklet made from old-fashioned parchment. Her eyes scanned the cover sheet:
Into the Hands of the Living God
An Etude in G Minor for Violin
Composed by Dunric Cage-Satin with Dr. Alexander Harroe
Caroline frowned at the title. Was this some sort of religious music? As far as she knew, her father had been an ardent atheist his entire life. Ah well. There was nothing to do but struggle through as best she could. At worst she’d perform miserably, lose her mysterious patron, and be exactly as penniless as she’d been when she woke up that morning. She opened her violin case, pulled her instrument and bow from the padded blue velvet cutouts, carefully ran her rosin puck across the horsehair, flipped the cover page over to expose the unfamiliar music, and prepared to play.
The notes bore a cold, complex intelligence, and the tonality reminded her a little of Benjamin Britten. But there was something else here, something she’d neither heard nor played before, but nothing bound in stanzas was beyond the capacity of her instrument or her skills. She gave herself over to craft and educated reflex and the stark black notes transubstantiated into soaring music as nerves drove muscle, keratin mastered steel, and reverberation shook maple and spruce.
The stage fell away, and she found herself standing upon a high, barren cliff above a huge lake with driving waves. The air had an unhealthy taint to it, and in the sky there hung a trio of strange, misshapen moons, and opposite the setting twin suns three black stars rose, their bright coronas gleaming through the streaked clouds.
When the dark starlight touched her palm, her scar exploded, a nova made flesh. She fell to her knees on the lichen-covered rocks, unable to even take a breath to scream as the old lines glowed with a transcendent darkness, hot as any stellar cataclysm.
She heard footsteps and the rustling of robes, and through her tears she saw a regal iron boot beneath an ochre hem embroidered with the tiny white bones of birds and mice.
“You’ll do,” the figure said in a voice that made her want to drive spikes into her own brain. “Yes, you’ll do.”
She felt the terrible lord touch her head, and it was like being impaled on a sword, and suddenly she was falling—
—Caroline gasped and the bow slipped and screeched across her strings. Blinking in fear and confusion, it took her a half second to realize she was still onstage, still performing … or she had been until her mistake.
“I’m—I’m so, so sorry, I don’t know what happened,” she stammered, looking to her lone audience member in the back of the theatre. But all the seats were empty.
“It’s quite all right.” Professor Harroe hurried onstage from the wings, beaming. “You did wonderfully, just wonderfully.”
“I … I did?” She blinked at him in disbelief. “But … I messed up, didn’t I?”
“Oh, a mere sight-reading error … I’m sure you’ll play straight through to the end next time! And. Your new benefactor has requested that you perform tomorrow evening at the St. Barnabus Church on 5th Street. 6pm sharp; don’t be late!”
“Oh. Yes. Okay.” She set her violin down on her lap, and the pain in her hand made her look at her palm. Her scar had split open during the performance, and her sleeve was wet with her own blood.
When Caroline tried to sleep on her narrow bed, she fell almost immediately into a suite of nightmares. She was onstage again, and the notes of her father’s sonata turned to tiny hungry spiders that swarmed over her arms and chewed through her eyes and into her brain. Predatory black stars wheeled around her as she tumbled helplessly through airless, frigid outer space. And then she was back in the strange land with the twin suns, but now she was a tiny mouse pinned to a flat rock, and a masked man in yellow robes told her how he would flay her alive and take her spine.
She awoke sweating and weeping at 3am, and in a moment of perfect clarity, she realized that she wanted no part of whatever was happening at St. Barnabus in 15 hours. There was not enough money in the world. She quickly dressed in her dowdy secondhand pants and sweater, threw a few belongings into an overnight bag and grabbed her violin case. The Greyhound station was just a mile walk from her apartment building, and there would be a bus going somewhere far away. Maybe she could go to Boston, find her mother’s people and learn to make shoes or whatever it was that they did. Shoes were good. People needed shoes.
But when she reached the pitchy street and started striding toward the station, she realized that the city was darker than usual. Tall buildings whose penthouses normally glowed with habitation were entirely black. She scanned the sky: no stars or moon, nothing but a seeming void.
And then, she saw something like a tattered black handkerchief flutter onto a nearby tall streetlamp, blotting it out. She stood very still for a moment, then slowly turned, beholding the uncanny night. Tattered shadows flapped all around. She started running, the violin case banging against her hip. The tatters moved faster, swarming around her on all sides. Soon she was sprinting headlong down the street, across the bridge …
… And realized the other side of the bridge was lost in the ragged blackness. No trace of light; it was as if that part of the world had ceased to exist, had been devoured by one of the stars from her nightmares.
She looked behind her. More utter darkness. The city was blotted out.
“I won’t do it,” she said, edging toward the bridge railing. She could hear the river rushing below. “I won’t.”
The jagged darkness rapidly ate the bridge, surging toward her, and so she unslung her violin case and hurled her instrument over the edge into the murky water. The darkness came at her even faster, and she crouched down, covering her head with her arms—
—And found herself sitting in a metal folding chair in the nave of a strange church. In her hands was her old violin, the one she’d played as a child. Her father’s sonata rested on the music stand before her, the notes black as the predatory stars.
“I won’t,” she whispered again, but she no longer ruled her own flesh. Her hands lifted her instrument to her shoulder and expertly drew the bow across the strings. The scabbed sign in her palm split open again, ruby blood spilling down her wrist, and she could see the marks starting to shine darkly as they had in the dream. Something planted in her long ago was seeking a way out.
Caroline found her eyes were still under her control, so she looked away from the music, looked out the window, hoping that blinding herself to the notes would stop the performance. But her hands and arms played on, her body swaying to keep time.
And there through the window she saw the glow of buildings on fire, and in the sky she saw a burning version of the symbol in her palm, and the air was rending, space and time separating, and as the firmament tore apart at the seams she could see the twin suns and black stars moving in from the world of her nightmares.
And she wanted to weep, but her body played on.
And the people in the city cried out in fear and madness, and still it played on.
And the winds from Carcosa blew the fires of apocalypse across the land, and still it played on.