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The Drehleier

The Drehleier

Estimated reading time — 16 minutes

I found the following letter in a music text book in our school library.
It’s pretty weird, but thought it would be best to share it here…make of it what you will.

I’ve been mulling over sharing this or not for the past two weeks. I can’t tell anyone, no one would believe me. But things are getting strange and I just really need to get this out of my system.

I’m a second-year music teacher currently teaching in Vienna. It’s always been my dream to come here to teach and soak up the sheer history of the place. To think the likes of Mozart, Beethoven and even Schubert walked these streets just blows my mind.


It’s been a long journey and the process was arduous at times. The remote interviews were tough and thorough. I’d been nervous as hell and convinced I’d messed them up. But though I initially stammered through my introduction, I quickly found my flow and was confident I’d aced the interview when I’d started telling the interviewer all about my love of Mozart and his lost song “Ich wiege dich in meinem Arm.”

Lo and behold, several weeks later I got my visa and I’m heading out to Vienna. I’d visited years before for a school trip, but I’d forgotten how beautiful it was. The architecture and the sense of art seemed to radiate from every corner. I spent hours walking street after street searching out the locations of so many of my heroes.

Anyway, I was lucky enough to secure rooms, admittedly in a not-so-great part of the city. But for the money, I didn’t have much choice. Regardless, it felt like life was falling into place. The students were easy-going and within the first month, it felt like I’d made several pretty solid new friends with the staff already.

I’d been lucky enough to get my dream job at a school in Vienna for musicians. This was it, I’d told myself.

Then winter rolled around. Now I’m from the West so dam, it came as a shock. I can’t remember the last time I saw snow that thick and unfortunately for me, my apartment’s heating was next to none existent. But the beauty of that snow-covered city just made it all worthwhile. It was like waking up in the scene of a picture postcard every day.

November had rolled around way sooner than expected and my plans to head home to celebrate my birthday had quickly evaporated with the deluge of work that had come my way. I felt pretty disappointed and I think my colleagues got that from me. So you can imagine my delight when they announced they were taking me out for drinks at some fancy restaurant around Innere Stadt in the city. It was such a thoughtful gesture of theirs and it made me feel not so bad for being stuck out here.


So as planned, we finished up for the day and headed out into the cold streets of Vienna. It was such an amazing night. We ate so much and it turned out a few of my colleagues were also huge G.O.T. nerds like me so we ended up discussing that until the early hours. It had probably been because of this that when I checked my watch I realized I’d stayed out later than I first intended. I needed to get back home.

So knowing no one else is heading my way I begin weighing up the cost of an Uber or Taxi which I know is going to be pretty high with just me on her own. Then luckily one of my team suggests the U-Bahn train which supposedly still ran pretty late. Knowing the stop is a stone’s throw from my apartment, I figure this a better (and cheaper) option and agree. So, escorted by my colleagues I’m safely dropped off at the station, where I buy a ticket, I’m wished Happy Birthday one more time, and wave good night.

It felt really weird arriving on the platform that late in contrast to the bustle of the daytime. There were the usual suspects you’d expect, the drunken partygoers, heads nodded forwards into their laps. Along with the late-night workers shuffling home from the shifts, eyes too tired to focus. That cold air had hit me hard too and I was feeling the effects of too many glasses of wine. I decided it might be best to sit down. So duly, I fired up my music, put in my headphones, and tried to somehow make myself comfortable on one of the station’s cold plastic seats.

The next thing I remembered was the clunk of a train door opening as a carriage pulls into the station. I panicked, I’d fallen asleep and now had no idea what time it was. Somehow it only took me a split second to grab my stuff and leap aboard, literally fighting back those closing doors.

Anyway, relieved to have made it onto the train, I slump breathless into a seat and start to drift into that comfortable feeling of drunken numbness you get as the train begins to whine and rumble out of the station.

Glancing around I was surprised to see the lights on the train were significantly duller than most U-Bahn trains, and the majority of the carriage was bathed in shadow. With only a handful of passengers sharing my carriage, situated way down in the darker end. Just outlines in the murk.

The lights too needed fixing and would flash sporadically. In doing so, occasionally I’d catch sight of a passenger’s face. The weird thing was, no one appeared to be on their phones or, given the time of night, asleep. Instead, they gazed at the floor or out the windows into the darkness surrounding the exterior train. The riders seemed, uncomfortable. There was an odd vibe, something I couldn’t put my finger on.

I couldn’t help noticing how each of the passenger’s expressions seemed remarkably sorrowful – and for a second I would have said that in the half-light of the carriage, their skin had appeared grey, almost translucent under the luminescent lighting.

Again I put it down to too much alcohol and so clearly not too worried, I’d once again allowed that comforting rocking motion of the train and the ‘clack a clack’ of the rail to wash over me once more as I felt myself drift into sleep.

I wasn’t sure how long I’d closed my eyes for when the sound of someone quietly crying had woken me. It had been a strange, pitiful mewling sound.

Glancing down the carriage, I’d been struck that a handful of new passengers had joined the train and that several of my fellow passengers from before had departed. The new riders had sat on either side of me. Again they seemed to be doing their best in fixing their eyes away from each other, staring out the windows into the tunnel beyond.

Looking for the source of the crying, I’d quickly realized the sound had been coming from a passenger, who couldn’t have been much older than me. The person, smartly dressed was seated diagonally across from me and appeared to be weeping quietly whilst rocking in her seat.

I’d glanced around her, but none of my fellow passengers seemed the least bit interested or concerned with the distraught woman. With no intention of involving themselves in something which didn’t matter to them.

Aware that this was a peak time for encountering abnormal behavior down on the u-bahn I’d shamefully hesitated to intervene, conscious that to do so might invite unwanted attention. I was still a foreigner here and I’d heard the stories of people running into trouble abroad.

It was whilst I’d been contemplating what to do next that another sound in the carriage had quickly broken my train of thought. The sound was sharp, discorded, a harsh contrast amidst the quiet carriage. A noise that I’d not heard for many years.

A sound that I remembered listening to in school sometimes. It went under a variety of different names. ‘Hurdy-Gurdy’ ‘Viella A Roue’ but I knew it best as the old, German medieval instrument we had in our school.

A Drehleier.

A noise that seemed so out of place now on this train.

As I peered into the darkness of the adjoining carriage, I’d first caught a glimpse of the source. A silhouette nimbly, swept through the clattering train. In the figure’s hands, it held the small black instrument. The odd thing was, there had been no audible footstep from the figure, just that incessant whine of its ancient-looking, wooden Drehleier as the figure had made its way past the passengers.

As the player stepped into the fluorescent glow I shuddered as it’s mask caught in the light. The white tone of the mask’s painted face and the player’s crooked, uncanny gait made a cold shiver run down my spine. It appeared off-kilter, unlike the other buskers I’d seen. As the Drehleier player grew nearer, I found myself staring as it crept almost theatrically through the carriage. Step by exaggerated step. But unlike other buskers I found it so strange that the busker paid no notice to the other passengers, never seeking money, instead, its eyes remained fixed on the crying passenger.

What was also strange was the seeming surge of relief seemed which seemed to pass over each passenger as the figure stepped passed them. None would dare look upon the prancing player, instead, the riders would continue their gaze into the interior of the carriage, into the gloom.

Then as the busker finally neared the woman adjacent to her I’d been able to catch a full glimpse of the musician.

The busker wore an elaborate costume. A long lacy tunic covered its wiry body whilst an elongated white wooden mask that had adorned the figure’s face. The mask had done a particularly poor job at hiding the oddly stretched face which lay in the shadow underneath. Though what was noticeable was a bulbous chin and matted long hair half concealed underneath.

The mask itself had been carved into a rictus grin, much in the same way as the classic theatrical masks I’d remembered from school. But the thing that had stuck with me most had been the eyes. Wide and bright, like saucers. Large black saucers with only a sliver of white around each one. It was an expression of seeming madness.

They were hideous.

Looking down at the instrument I could see how the figure’s long fingers were clad in a pair of old-looking, cracked, black leather gloves. I’d watched mesmerized as the fingers had flown over the Drehleier like a dancing spider – and though I wasn’t aware of the tune the musician played, I’d felt an instant uncanny familiarity to it like it had been something I’d once heard years ago as a child.

But the most unsettling aspect for me was how the entire time the person played, the Drehleier player’s eyes had seemingly remained fixated on the crying passenger. This complex and impressive musical performance didn’t seem to impress the woman in the slightest. In fact, it seemed to alarm her even more and her sobbing grew in intensity with every turn of the instrument’s handle.

I’d suddenly become aware that the music’s tempo had risen both in volume and tempo. The figure’s fingers flew faster over the strings whilst it turned the instrument’s handle over and over. Then I’d watched in confusion as the player had begun to dance, ‘hopping’ from side to side. The movement was oddly inhuman, almost like it had spent a second too long in the air leaping from toe to toe. By this time the loudness of the music had reached an ear-piercing crescendo – and I’d been tempted to say something, but then a second later, it stopped.

As I stared at the Drehleier player’s back, I’d watched as it made a particularly peculiar gesture, slowly removing his mask and in a low, extravagant bow, he extended an outstretched palm to the sobbing woman in front of him.

By this point the passenger before it was gulping back tears, looking pained by the performance before her. I watched in astonishment I saw the woman’s trembling hands feel in her pockets before placing a small coin-like object into the player’s outstretched glove.
Like a clockwork toy, this token of payment had seemingly brought the figure back to life.

Immediately springing back into action. Stiffly, the busker had pocket the coin and lifted the mask to its face. In such close proximity, I’d had caught sight of its features. Though I never saw it clearly, I just recalled a flash of grey, mottled skin. Skin that seemingly hadn’t looked right on the face of something so animated.

Then the train had lurched sideways with that familiar motion of the brakes being applied as we approached a station. Drowsily I’d turned to look out darkened windows. I froze. There was no station. A total void of blackness lay outside the glass.

As I looked on in confusion, the doors of the train slowly slid apart, revealing a dimly lit platform with a wall of black tiles. No lights, no seats, and no clear exits.

A ghost station.

The busker had stood quietly to one side of the doors as if gesturing to the woman to disembark. As the lady rose to quietly step off the train so, she turned and for the briefest of moments the passenger’s eyes locked onto mine.

I’d attempted to speak but found myself frozen to the spot. Her expression was horrific. I made me think of a term my religious mother used to use ‘harrowed.’ ‘Harrowed from hell.’
As if to signal for the woman to hurry, once again the busker had dropped and bowed to the passenger. The woman, seemingly unhappy to be disembarking had stumbled forwards into the dark beyond, looking around disorientated. Then, as she gulped back tears I’d watched her feel her way into the darkness until she was swallowed by the darkness. As I searched for the words, unsure of what I was watching, to my horror the doors had suddenly slid shut and once more the train lurched onwards.

She was gone.

The whole event probably took no more than a minute. The response from the rest of the carriage had been non-existent and shortly after, that terrible sound of the whining Drehelier continued once more.

I was shocked and angered. What had I just seen? If it had been a theatrical performance I was convinced that the staging would be too elaborate, too fantastic. No, I was certain I’d just witnessed some sort of targeted mugging, arranged by perhaps a gang? The woman’s reactions had been too real. The fear from the other passengers was absolute.

Annoyed I’d frantically looked for an emergency cord or driver intercom to summon help. However, neither was immediately apparent in the dark train. Appalled at the other passengers’ lack of intervention, I’d reached my limit and found myself standing to confront the busker. The words came out stilted, far meeker than I’d intended. ‘Hey – What do you think you’re…?’

The reaction was instant. The sound of the Drehleier ceased and the carriage fell silent. The busker, stumbled momentarily as if forgetting its step and I watched as a small silver disc had fallen from the player, rolling across the floor of the carriage before hitting my shoe.
Slowly, kneeling, I’d instinctively leaned down to collect the coin. The audible gasps from my silent fellow passengers had irked me. Somehow this is what it had taken for them to show any reaction?

But as soon as that coin was in my hand, the busker was upon me. Taken aback I fell backwards into my chair. I’d never seen someone move that fast and I’d felt my blood run cold as the player stared down upon me. That hideous mask and those two black orbs under it boring into my own.

Irritated I’d attempted to push the busker away, feeling it invade my own space. But it had been then when I’d felt the tugging on her clothing on either side of me. Two passengers pawed at my coat, clutching at it tightly whilst they aimlessly mouthed words at me. They appeared drunk, almost in a daze. But somehow they seemed desperately trying to articulate something which remained unspoken.

Even more annoyed I’d shouted at the passengers telling them to ‘let me go,’ even going too far to strike out at them. But each hit seemed to do nothing to dissuade either one of them. Instead, they’d held on staring mournfully at me, opening and closing their mouths like fishes.

It had been then when I’d first heard the music start once more. That same Drehleier tune I’d heard before. Though now it had changed. Now the tune sounded even more discorded If sounded ‘wrong’, like the tune, was being played backward. Looking away from my fellow passengers I’d watched unsettled as the Drehleier player had once more begun its leaping, but this time the actions looked out of time. His elaborate dance routine was stiffer and more crooked than before. His limb movements were somehow even more unnatural. Like an old puppet with half-broken strings.


Staring around the carriage I’d willed the other passengers to intervene. Yet the other riders had simply sat staring at me, fear had overtaken them.

Freeing myself from the grasp of the passengers I’d found myself staggering towards the next carriage. But as I did so I felt the familiar pull from the passengers, seemingly reaching out to stop me. Yelling at them my words were met with the same wide-eyed terror.

As my yells and the sound of the instrument rose, I felt the strangest thing happen. That previous mild sensation of a drunken need for sleep had suddenly risen in urgency. A sudden need to let go, like a flood through my body powered by the music, washing through every muscle. An exhaustion I’d never felt before.

Abruptly I’d crumpled onto the cold metal floor of the train. As the warm sensation of slumber took hold I’d tried to fight it, biting my lip, pinching myself but nothing made any difference – and as the sound of the Drehleier grew ever closer I’d felt myself forgetting why I was resisting. My lasting memory, the hideous Drehleier player’s mask and the maddened eyes behind, boring into my own as that horrific discorded music reached an ear-piercing crescendo.

It must have been over an hour later when I’d woken.

Darkness surrounded me. Unable to see in the dark, I was aware the space I was in was far colder than before. Tentatively I felt about myself and was quickly made aware I was no longer on the train’s metal floor.

Instead, this floor felt colder, harder. I’d suddenly panicked as I’d distinctively felt the touch of stone and brickwork.

I’d been thrown out of the train.

Quickly getting to my feet I used my phone’s torch, sweeping it desperately around me. My suspicions had been confirmed, I was in a ghost station, a disused part of the line no longer utilized for passenger services. There were no clear exits and no phone service.

I was stranded.

Countless year’s worth of thick, black dust lay on bleached, ghost signs for tobacco and sweets. Spiders scuttled over long discarded cigarette ends.

Glancing down at the rails I was shocked to see they’d appeared warped and rusty, seemingly unused for decades.

How had I got here?

None of it had made any sense.

Attempting to stay calm I’d run my hands over the walls, urgently searching the platform, eager for some sort of exit. But no evident way-outs were visible. Just my fingers touching moldy black walls which seemed to go on forever.

It had been then, when trying not to breathe in clouds of decades-old dust, my fingers had first felt the rotten piece of wooden hoarding. Hopeful, I’d scrabbled at the panel trying to free it. To my relief it moved and behind I first caught a glimpse of the ancient-looking doorway.

Taking a brick from the platform I’d chiseled away at the panel, cutting my hands multiple times in the process but gritting my teeth through the pain. Eventually, my persistence paid off and the old wooden barrier broke. Aware of my now very low phone battery, I stumbled forward desperate for any sign of civilization. It was as I did I first thought I’d heard the sound. A single note, a familiar discorded whine.

Not stopping to check, I found myself pushing further into the darkness beyond. It was dense, thick, my small phone light doing little to shine a way in the gloom. Disheartened I found one tunnel led to another and then to another and another. Sobbing I’d screamed and screamed my lungs out for hours, banging bricks against pipes and walls in the hope of being heard. All the way I was conscious of the screech of rats and the thick spiderwebs and arachnid egg sacks that seemed to dance around me.

– and occasionally the sound of something else in the distance…and all too familiar whine.
Then, after what had seemed like an eternity a miracle occurred.

I heard a shout back.

I found out later that by pure luck a passing maintenance team had taken a disused tunnel. In doing so they’d heard my calls and after extensive shouts, they’d been able to pinpoint my location. Half an hour later they’d broken through brickwork and found me. Cold, frightened, and bleeding.

The maintenance crew was dumbfounded. They’d told me the section of underground railway I’d been found in had been abandoned for decades. No trains had run that way since pre-war. There was no clear explanation for how I had gained entry to a ghost station.
However, my relief was short-lived, as once taken to safety and cleaned up I’d been quickly threatened with prosecution for trespass. But those threats had quickly been dismissed as I angrily threatened court action against them. How would it sound to hear that the U-Bahn company had somehow left a young girl alone at a disused station? I would take it to the press, hell the embassy. Terrified of the rammifications, the station manager had to admit there was no other route and I was sent home in a taxi. The matter was over. Closed.
Well, that’s what I’d thought anyway.

Anyway, I got home, washed the layers of black dust off me, and decided to try and sleep. Eight hours later, life felt more normal. I reasoned with myself that I was a rational person and there had to be a rational answer. Perhaps I had drunk something too strong or perhaps someone had put something in my drink when I wasn’t looking.

But I remember how I’d felt on that train, the fear – the terrible whining sound and…that thing.

Regardless I went back to work and didn’t tell anyone about it. Hell how could I? The U-Bahn staff would never share anything and nor would I.

I guess it had probably been several days later when I’d put my clothes in the wash. As I’d emptied my jeans’ pockets, the distinct metallic clattering sound of a coin hitting the floor made me freeze.


Pausing, I reached down to pick the object up off the floor. I recognized it instantly.
It was the woman’s old token from the train. I’d felt my breath catch in my throat. A relic from something I’d assumed was a nightmare, but suddenly in my hand in the cold light of day it seemed very real again.

In the daylight the object had looked far more heavily tarnished than I’d remembered. On one side several lines had been scored by a sharp point, illustrating a range of crude symbols. It was unclear what it represented but at a push, I might have said it could have been an elongated face. The only symbol I did recognize was the one in it’s center. An Octave, a note I knew only too well after countless hours marking papers discussing it’s a mathematical ratio of 2:1.

The thing that stayed with me was the adjacent side of the coin, on which just a single date had been indented – with a line as if suggesting another had been planned but never indented.

20TH NOVEMBER 1997 –

My birthday.

I’d done my best to reason with myself that my birthday being the same as the date in front of me was purely coincidental. I had to, there was no other option. Heck perhaps I’d scored it there myself in a drunken haze.

It’s foolish now to think I’d rationalized it so quickly.

It had been the next day when I’d heard the Drehleier music first again.

Admittedly I’d taken it to be another student in school, practicing in one of the closed rooms. But when I’d gone to investigate there’d been no one there. When I asked my colleagues, they’d been confused they’d heard no sounds, the rooms had been locked, empty all day.

That evening I went home and threw away the coin.

But the next day it was back, sat on my bedside table when I woke.

There was no question, I’d definitely thrown it away.

Over the next two weeks, I’d heard the sound over and over again. First whilst out shopping. A harsh whine in the ‘Supermarkt’ I’d cried in shock as the piercing shriek of the Drehleier seemed to echo down the aisle, dropping my shopping in the process. The shopper next to me stared as if I’d lost my mind.

But then I heard it once more – and turning, I caught the edge of a ragged tunic as something dark and nimble leapt behind a display of cereal boxes.

But of course, when I’d run down to them, there’d been nothing there.

Later I heard it at night, often somewhere outside my window. I asked my neighbors but no one knew what I was talking about. I heard them whispering about “the crazy foreigner.”
It’s been two weeks and nearly one day and the sound gets louder every night. Sometimes I can’t sleep it’s so loud.

I’m sure I’ve seen ‘it’, lurking in the hedges outside the apartment block.

– and no matter how many times I throw away the coin, it keeps coming back. So this I believe is my last option.

You might believe me when I saw this, but truly I’m so, so sorry… “

After I read the letter I’d reached out to the library but they’ve got no record of the person who left it there.

There’s no further information on the person in question. But I did remember reading a story about a missing music teacher in Vienna some time ago.

There was one final detail of note.

On the back of the letter, a single coin was affixed with tape.

On one side was an octave on the other a single date was scrawled on.

It’s my birthday.

Credit: T.W.Burgess

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