15 Oct Martellato
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Estimated reading time — 16 minutes
It was an expensive chair. The leather squeaked as I shuffled in it, betraying its purpose by failing to get comfortable. Disapproving eyes glanced up from the heavy mahogany desk that lay before me. After a pause the solicitor continued reading.
“And to my grandson, Alastair Kincade, I leave a sum of £30,000 and the following items…”
My grandfather Colin died of a heart attack in his sleep, after months of living in a home due to his alzheimer’s. My father tried to care for him as much as he could but towards the end he needed twenty-four hour attention. Dad was still years away from retirement and wasn’t able to give that kind of attention.
“And his violin.” My ears prickled, and I looked up at the solicitor then to my father.
“Violin?” My father, Michael, took the words out of my mouth.
The man sitting next to me, my great uncle Torrance, waved his hand to tell my father not to ask questions during the reading. My curiosity itched and I squeaked in the chair again, the solicitor shooting another look before continuing to list my twin sisters’ lot of inheritance.
In all, my sisters and I received ten percent each of his money, my father and aunt twenty five percent, and my great uncle twenty percent. The house had been sold before he died to fund his care, and numerous items distributed to each of us. I was glad for the money. While I didn’t do badly for myself, the sum was easily enough to place a deposit for my own property: something that has become rapidly more difficult to generate in England the past ten years.
Once we were dismissed, both my father and I pounced our questions upon Uncle Torrance, “I didn’t know Granddad Colin played the violin.”
“Dad never owned a violin, when did he get that?”
Uncle Torrance raised his hands to again wave down our questions, while my sisters headed out of the solicitor’s building to head home. “I’ll tell you… in exchange for ale!” A cheeky grin spread out across his face, the way it always did when he told a story.
Dad drove to our local, The Cattle and Block. Once three glasses decorated the table, my uncle began to tell us the story of the violin.
“You probably know very little of my Grandmother Hildegarde. She died before you were born, Michael. I don’t know much about Grandma Hildi before she married my Grandfather Bhaltair, only the stories she told use before bed. She was german originally, and grew up in the streets of York. She had only one possession apart from the rags on her back, and that was a violin. Grandpap Bhal heard her playing on the street, and fell in love with her instantly. He saw through the dirty blonde hair stuck to her shoulders, the scars and mud around her knees, and saw the beauty she wove over the strings. He got down on one knee, then and there, and told her she must marry him. He told her he could not live another day without that song in his heart. She said yes, and they were married.”
He paused to take another long sip of ale. It was like a fairy tale and it was surprising to hear such a story about my own family. “So it was Hildegarde’s?”
Uncle Torrance nodded and put the glass back down. “Yes. Now, my brother and I were raised by our grandparents. My brother was five when our mother died, during childbirth to me. My father – he was called Logan Kincade – turned up on Grandpap and Grandma’s door step and begged his parent to look after us for a while. He was stricken with grief and needed some time to pull himself together, and figure out how to be a father without my mother. They accepted, and he never returned. We never knew what happened to my father.
A couple of years before your Dad had you, Grandpap Bhal passed away. Soon after, Grandma Hildi passed. You know what they say about a love bird losing their mate. That was when Colin inherited her violin. He always kept it locked up in the attic, I don’t suppose he ever knew what to do with it. He probably sent it to you because you like music so much, Alastair.”
“Wow, it sounds like quite the family heirloom.” Dad said, “Look after it.”
We finished up our drinks and took Uncle Torrance home. As he was getting out of the car, he said, “All the years we lived with Grandma Hildi, I never heard her play it. She polished it, cared for it, but she never played. If I asked, her answer always “Not today, dear.” She never attempted to teach one of us either.” He shrugged and gave his goodbyes.
It wasn’t until a few weeks later when Granddad Colin’s possessions were sorted through and delivered to the appropriate relatives. My father dropped my share of boxes off at my house and quickly moved on the deliver the others to my sisters. The contents of the box were added to my collection of items I had accumulated over the years. I never really took an interest in classical music, or the techniques used in playing and composing – my main interest was in jazz and blues, some rock and roll. I liked soulful music, things that came from the heart, and it fascinated me how pain could create such beautiful things.
The gramophone stood proudly with its collection of records, and the violin case lay before me. I had no intention to learn to play it, but I couldn’t stop myself taking it out the box and give it a spin.
The case was a big heavy wooden box, shaped like a violin, but it seemed a lot bigger than necessary. I unclipped the case and inside was a vast amount of silk cloth. A stunning crimson that caught the light as I placed it on the floor. Underneath, the object of my curiosity. It was worn, some of the varnish chipped in places, but even I could tell the craftsmanship was expert. The wood was a deep colour, and on the back there was a branding. It seemed to be a sigil depicting a swan, bleeding from the neck. I didn’t recognise it, but I know very little about bowed instruments or sigils.
Holding it in my hands, it was a lot heavier than I expected; Hildegarde must have been quite a strong lady. I pulled it up into position on my shoulder and stroked the bow across the strings. I flinched from the screech. I tried again, a little gentler, only to be thanked with another banshee wail. Defeated, the violin went back in the box. Clearly, it took a master’s hand to use it. As I was putting the silk back around it, a small envelope dropped to the floor. Written on the front in black ink, Alastair, in my grandfather’s handwriting. I pulled the note out of the envelope: Burn the violin. With salt. Why would he ask me to do that? Then again, as his mental health declined, he could probably have been capable of any delusion.
I had a vivid and painful dream that night, I stood in the foyer of a house I didn’t recognise. It was grand, clearly the home of a rich family. There were portraits on the walls, soft and elaborate carpets beneath my feet, and an unlit chandelier on the ceiling. Below me, I heard agonising, tormented screaming, punctuated with a heavy wet thuds. Above me, some of the most enchanting music I have ever heard. I can only describe this song in how it made me feel: lost and forlorn, my eyes on the brink of tears. Though the tone of the notes seemed almost harsh, I longed to find them in the halls of this house, I wanted their comfort and embrace.
I moved automatically to the stairs beside me, unable to pull myself away from the siren song, the screams fading into the distance. The chords floated throughout the house, teasing me, beckoning me to their creator as I reached a door at the end of the hallway. The gold painted detail led to the handle, its cool touch swept across my hand. It turned, the latch clicking open, and then I awoke.
The headache sat behind my eyes, clinging to the groggy realms of sleep and the lost call of the dream I’d left behind. It felt as if all the space around my eyes was packed with cotton wool, and a dull throb pushed onto my eyeballs. I took a deep breath and shook my head to find some sense in the morning. It’s not like I have never dreamt before, but rarely did something stick with me in such a haunting way. I felt the song in my bones, the ache to hear the rest, like a story with the ending ripped away.
I dreamt the same thing for a week afterwards. It began the same way, however each night I would get closer and closer to the source, and each morning I would wake up in more and more pain. The migraines got so severe, I spent a lot of time before work vomiting in the bathroom, until my head eventually stopped spinning. Pain killers did very little, and I was drinking extra water to make sure it wasn’t dehydration. Nothing satisfied it.
The night before last, I stood right behind her. As I was lured up the stairs, the song changed as I approached the violinist: playful, like it was teasing me, begging me into a game. She turned her head to the side, just a little, and said, “Not today, dear.”
I suddenly awoke and my legs retracted into my chest for the pain, and I pushed the heels of my hands into my eyes. A small amount of relief from the pressure, but not enough. It took me several minutes to realise I could still hear the music, coming from my collection room down the corridor. My hand was on the door handle when I became aware of the dripping sound. At my feet, dark spots decorated the carpet, and on my bed the same darkness streaked the sheets. My hand rose to my face to realise it was wet. Angry, confused, and scared, I jerked the door open and stormed into the room where the violin lay on one of the display cabinets. The song was a cacophony of agony through my mind, yet it was beautiful.
I held it in my hands unsure what to do. My mind came back to my Granddad’s note: Burn the violin. With salt. I shook it off, it was ridiculous. I pushed it into its case but the song still burned through my eyes, tears streamed down my face. As I piled the silk wrapping on top of it, the music ebbed slightly. I wrapped the silk around again, properly, covering each inch of the instrument and with each binding, the pain faded with the tune. As I clipped the case together, the violin was all but silenced.
I woke up on the floor next to the case with the taste of copper in my mouth. I must have fallen asleep in there, after silencing the instrument. I decided then and there that I was done, I was going to sell it. Whatever madness overcame me, I’d give it someone else. I knew a place in town and, after cleaning the blood from myself, I drove straight there.
I could still hear the humming from the case as I pulled it from the boot of my car. I took a few ibuprofen in preparation. I’d also considered ear plugs but somehow I came to the conclusion they wouldn’t work either.
A bell rang as I pushed the door open.
“Hello!” A cheery wave from an older gentleman.
“Hey, would you be interested in an antique violin?” I set the case down on the counter in front of him.
“Certainly!” His finger rippled above the case before he nimbly flicked open the latches. I braced myself. As he pulled the silk away, the song became louder and all the pain returned to me.
Act normal, just act normal. “I don’t know a lot about it. I inherited it recently. It’s from at least 1880’s, it was my great great grandmother’s.” I sucked a deep breath in to push back the throbbing in my eyes.
“Yes, it certainly is old, not in the best condition, but not the worst I have seen.” He turned it over and I felt a sharp pain across my forehead. Air rushed into my lungs, and I tried to cover the sharp breath with a cough. He gave me an odd look, “This is sigil is interesting. I haven’t seen it before. The manufacture of this is reminiscent of Stradivarius but-”
I didn’t hear the rest of his sentence. Blood pouring through my brain, pulsated through my eyes and my ears. I concentrated as hard as I could on staying conscious. He said some number, I accepted. He said he would get me a cheque, and as soon as his hands left the violin, I wrapped it in the silk. I clipped the case back up and let out a sigh of relief as the pain left me. The man was stood staring at me.
“I’m sorry, I just want to protect it.” I blurted out.
“It’s alright…” He edged to the other end of the counter, take glances back to me and wrote the cheque out. “Now before I give you this, I need some contact information. Just a precaution.”
I didn’t ask why. I didn’t care. I pulled a business card out and gave it to him. He carefully inspected the card, and offered the cheque once he was satisfied.
I hastily took it, “Thank you, thank you.” I left immediately, knowing I must have seemed rude, or more likely mad. I remember the jingle of the bell, and a goodbye before I drove back home to get a night’s rest.
It didn’t last long. Two nights after I sold it, I awoke again to a migraine and the sound of a violin. I screamed in frustration. The melody was coming from outside, from the rear of the house. I headed downstairs to the back door, already the pain spread across my forehead and down my face. I pushed the door open and stared out into the woods that backed onto my house. It was out there and called me. Stuffing my feet into work boots, I went to find it, and I was going to bind it up, and deal with it in the morning.
The pressure in the back of my eyes grew as I stalked down my garden. At the gate, I scanned the woods behind the house. I couldn’t see anything out there but I could feel it in the pain magnifying through my head. Two nails jabbed into my eyes and were slowly being pulled up through my skull. All I wanted was relief as the nails broke my eye sockets and began pulling at my scalp.
After walking out into the woods, it’s hard to remember everything clearly. I remember how much it hurt, and how it kept getting worse the further I walked, to the point where I didn’t know if I was following the music or the pain. I think I almost passed out at one point. I saw bright flashes in front of my eyes, and my vision started fading in black spots. I could have sworn as those black spots started appearing over my eyes I saw the shadow of a woman in front of me.
My vision came back to me when I saw the blood on my arms and staining my pajama bottoms. There must have been brambles scratching me as I pulled myself through the woods towards the song, but I couldn’t feel any pain there, only the persistent and all consuming ache spreading across my head. I could feel through the centre of my forehead intensity as if a vice were applied to each side of my head, forcing the bone into itself.
Ahead of me, the trees broke out into a bank, and some murky, inky water. It was a neglected river – no! An abandoned canal route, full of rotting plant matter and debris. The pain had finished its work on my head, and indulged in exploring my chest. It felt as if my rib cage were being slowly pulled from the rest of my body. The pounding in my chest became a crushing hand around my heart. My legs gave out from under me and I fell, whimpering on ground. I’m not proud of it but I cried. I sobbed into the dusty mud around me, the smell of the water nauseating, and being unable to distinguish between the flies around me and the black spots I was hallucinating.
Eventually, my head slumped to the side and there lay the dark wood case. The tears stopped for just long enough for me to try and pull myself up, pain shot through my ribs as I hauled myself to it. The pain ebbed as I wrapped my fingers around the handle of the case and held it to my chest. While the song still sawed through my skull, the pain waned just enough for me to make it to my feet along the trek back. Perhaps the violin provided me mercy for finding it, or perhaps it was just the relief of finally having an option to end this.
I saw the back gate ahead of me, and as I approached it, the shadows crept back over my eyes and stole vision from me. My boot caught on something and I flew forwards, hands finding the gate in front of me before I crashed into the ground. The impact throwing all the air from my lungs and sprayed blood over my hands. I lay there over the gate, winded, stunned, and a dull throb throughout my whole body, until a light from the kitchen pierced the darkness before me. The pain was excruciating. My face was wet with tears and blood as I came through my back fence. As I was about the open the back door, I heard a voice.
“Are you alright?” My neighbour. I’d forgotten he worked early shifts and would be up in the small hours of the morning. When I first moved in, he came over to ask me to keep the noise down in the afternoons while he slept. “You don’t look so good.” He stubbed his cigarette out against the wall, slipped it back into the packet and came over to the fence.
“Did you hear that earlier?”
“Hear what?” My heart sank a little as I knew the answer to my next question.
“The noise… Coming from… Over there…” I struggled to form sentences. I gestured out to the woods with the violin case.
He shook his head slowly, his gaze following my arm before looking back to me, “Do you want me to call someone?”
“No, no, I’ll just get some sleep.” I pulled the muscles in my face into what was meant to be a reassuring smile. My head throbbed and I gave up on the effort. “Thanks.” He watched me head inside into the house before pulling his cigarette back out.
In my collection room, I lay the case before me. I could still hear the music slicing through my brain. Silk. I needed more silk. I tore every bed sheet from the airing cupboard and threw anything that felt like silk on top of the case. Every shirt, pair of boxers, handkerchief that shimmered and danced through my hand went onto that case. Finally I could hear myself think, and hear my nose dripping again before collapsing onto my bed for the night.
I awoke to a rapid knocking at the front door. I pulled myself out of bed, a small headache still prevailing but much better than it had been. I pulled on a dressing gown and answered the door: it was my neighbour.
“Hey, you’re still alive! I was just checking, you looked rough last night.” A smile of relief washed across his face. I was genuinely surprised.
“Yeah, I’m okay. Thanks for checking up on me.”
“Wife look after you?”
“Oh no, I’m not married.”
“Oh so it was your girlfriend?”
“No, I live alone.”
“Well your guest or whoever followed you in last night.” He said, rolling his eyes. He must have mistaken my confusion for being pedantic.
He hesitated, “A woman. She walked up through the back gate and into the house a few minutes after you went in.”
“There’s no one here.”
“Alright, alright, I’ll keep schtum about it. Was just checking you were okay.” He put his hands up defensively.
“No, I’m not… Thanks for checking, I mean it.”
“You’re alright, see you around.”
“What did she look like?”
“Eh? You’re serious, aren’t you? You don’t know what I’m on about?”
I shook my head.
“Well, she was a bit taller than an average lady I’d say, blonde… Very pretty. She was in a white dress, you know like a nightie but an old fashioned one. She walked up from where you came, through gate and in the back door.”
“And she opened the door?” I gestured with my hand, just in case he didn’t know what opening a door looked like. Smart.
“She unlocked it and walked in?”
“No, she didn’t unlock it.”
“Excuse me, thank you.” I ran to the back door and checked it. Locked.
My heart pounded in my chest as the sense of reality I had built up over a lifetime began to crack. My first headache without the song pushed into the back of my eyes. I realised then, while I was rubbing my temples, if the nightmares didn’t kill me, the sheer stress would. I finally decided to obey Grandpa Colin’s note then, and burn the violin after my neighbour left for work.
Alarm set for four-thirty the next morning, I went to bed and dreamt. Once again, I stood in the foyer of the strange house and, once again, those screams and wet thuds pushed through the floor below me, and the siren song led me upstairs. However, this time there was a soft sobbing above. The golden trimmed door creaked open, and before me stood the blonde violinist in her nightgown, the low light glinting off the tears on her face.
“Not now, dear. Please.”
The piercing beep of my phone awoke me, and it was time to enact my plan. I flicked the alarm off and claimed the violin from the collection room. With the music muted under piles of fabric, I brought together all the tools I’d need: the barbecue, lighter fluid, and table salt.
The fire made quick work of the silk, surrounding me with the scent of burnt hair and the consuming melody I sought to finally silence, and the agonising pressure across my skull returned. As the flames reached the violin, and black smoke rose from the metal dish, the music began to distort and shriek in protest. Pain swept across my chest. Voices screamed with the violin, pouring into my ears, begging me to save them and make the pain stop. Smoke billowed out around me and stung my eyes and throat, making me cough, and I fell to my knees as the crushing, black cloud forced me to the ground.
I found myself lying in the mansion, my eyes focussing on the chandelier above me. Like so many times before, a woman’s voice screamed below.
“Why are you doing this?”
“I won’t tell anyone if you just let me go.”
Unlike before, there was no music, there was no pain; I was free to move. I stood and looked around the foyer.
The paintings in the hall were of familiar faces; the names “Kincade” printed beneath on a brass plate.
There were several doors around me, but I knew which one to take. I took the basement stairs.
A small lantern barely lit the room. Workbenches framed the walls, covered in many tools; vices, hammers, spanners, screwdrivers, and drills.
The sounds of the hammer in his hand.
Blood splattered his shirt and braces. His dress trousers were muddy and wet. Dishevelled hair fell over his face.
The hammer caught that time. It took several tugs to free it from the mess of meat between his knees. Pieces fell onto the tarp beneath it.
The face of a woman stared up at me, motionless apart from a twitch when the hammer struck her rib cage which sent her head rolling on her neck. I stared back, at her left side with each rib individually broken, as the man worked on the right.
Thud, thud. Crack.
He sat up and wiped his forehead. Red gore replaced the sweat. There was no satisfaction on his face, no hint of personal pleasure or arousal, like this was just another job that needed doing. After a few deep breaths, he swung the hammer into the skull until the woman’s face no longer looked at me.
He stood, dropped the hammer to his side and raised his head, scanning the basement walls. As his gaze fell upon the stairs, I recognised him from one of the portraits: Bhaltair Kincade. I instinctively ducked, though I had nowhere to hide. His eyes continued past me to the spade in the corner of the room. He took it and began the next chore, digging into the dirt floor of the basement.
I sat on those stairs and watched as he dug out the trench. He sank the spade next to the hole, and wrapped the chunks of meat in the tarp it lay on. In the dim light, I saw a pale hand in the wall of the grave, partially decomposed. As he dragged the body in and began to cover it with the dirt, I noticed the rest of the floor: uneven, some parts freshly dug, others older but the outline still distinct.
My attention snapped back. Bhaltair’s foot on the bottom step of the stairs, his eyes locked onto mine, pain shooting into the back of my skull, white light pouring over my vision.
A steady beep, fresh oxygen with each breath, a voice, a woman’s voice. My sister’s voice.
“Alastair!” A hand gripped my wrist. I screwed up my eyes and rubbed them with the back of my hand. The white filled with grey, then the shadows and colours returned to show me her face. “Alastair, you’re awake!”
My head span a little, and I felt like hell all over. “What… Where?”
“You’re in the hospital. You neighbour found you after passed out in the garden.”
The violin. “The fire…”
“Yes, your stupid late night barbecue party for one.” The concern was gone, the familiar tone of lecture mode replaced it. “What were you even burning? There was black smoke everywhere. The fire brigade couldn’t even find what you set fire to, just accelerant and salt.”
“Sorry? A moron? Trying to kill yourself?” A sharp pain to the side of my head. “You nearly died from monoxide poisoning! Your whole face was covered in blood.”
“Don’t flick me!”
She opened her mouth to say something, but her throat caught. Instead her hand jumped forward and delivered another stab of pain to my temple.
Lilly drove me home later that day, after I was given the all clear. I slept well. It’s been nearly a week since the hospital, and I’ve dreamt of nothing but mundane work-related stuff.
You know the real kicker to this? I had a call from the police on Monday asking me about the violin. Apparently, when the music store owner had come in on that morning, it was gone. He’s reported it stolen, and given my name to the police so they can ask me for information that might help them find it. Damn thing is no end of trouble.
Credit To – Kerrima
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