The Ivories

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Trial and Terror


The old lady was a strict teacher, but her methods helped Ewan to learn well. Perhaps too well for his own good...

Submitted: May 02, 2018

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Submitted: May 02, 2018

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The Ivories

 

The last of the day’s light would be gone soon, but for now the grime on the glass had rendered it an ochre orb sitting in the lower-right corner of the window frame. It was edging, though - all the while, edging – the sombre tones of ‘Moonlight Sonata’ drifting on the dusty air, playing it out of view. Ewan lay on the cool floor, listening; watching.  

“Students must only play the Weber,” she’d said in her sluggish, eastern European drawl. When he’d first heard her say these, the first words she’d spoken to him - before even the word ‘hello’ – he’d been confused. The following week too, glancing around the drawing room; taking in the Edwardian décor and watching as wisps of dust drifted across the sunlight from the window, he’d wondered why she made such an issue of this point. “Students must only play the Weber.” What was the point of telling him that? The Weber was, as far as he knew, the only piano she owned.

The sun had edged further into the corner, and was now nestling perfectly into the angle of the window frame. The base-notes from the drawing room vibrated through the varnished oak floor on which he lay. So majestic, and at the same time, perfectly serene. If these were really to be his final moments, so be it. Let the darkness come, let the silence surround him. He could imagine worse ways to go.

His breathing slowed, ever shallower. As the last corner of the sun disappeared in that moment of brilliance that accompanies the final seconds of the sunset. Ewan smiled, and finally let his eyes close against the world.

Death for Ewan Johnson was, this time, a momentary thing. Before he could register that the music had stopped, the serenity was shattered and a dry-lipped, nicotine-tinged mouth was clamped around his own. As the filthy air was forced into him, he felt the agony of his lungs inflating against the ruined walls of his chest. He tried to resist, begged for the onslaught to end, but no sooner did his lungs deflate and the pain draw back, so another assault came, as the brief lapses in a gale seem to bring the strongest gusts in their wake. Against his will, every reeking breath dragged him further from the void. He fought against it, as if swimming against a rip tide. In those moments, moments he would immediately forget, Ewan Johnson tried to die.

***

Ewan was careful to close the gate behind him, and then stepped up to the door and knocked. Three knocks only, not too hard. She went crazy if he knocked too hard. He took a single step back from the door to put himself in view of the bay window; she would refuse to answer otherwise. He'd grown used to these ways over the years, and she to his.

By the age of five, it had become clear that Ewan would never speak. He could still recall the sessions with speech therapists, pointing enthusiastically at plastic farm animals and sounding out the names – “C-oooooow!” they would encourage with wide, exaggerated expressions. “C! C! C-ooooooooow!” Finding a teacher that could – or would – keep the chatter to a bare minimum and just let him learn to play was difficult. Mrs Olaski had proven to be that person.

The door was eased open, but he waited as he'd learned to do, to be invited in. She stepped aside only enough to allow him as far as the hallway, where he knew to wait until she had closed the door, then stepped past to lead him through to the drawing room. She still hadn’t said a word.

It was the second door, solid, panelled mahogany set with a polished brass knob. She clasped this with her bony fingers and turned to give him a glare. "Students must only play the Weber!" She said. She sounded more forceful this morning, perhaps she had thought he could have forgotten. He waited, knowing that there was more to come, "Go to the table," she said, "Milk first, then practice." He went to move, but pulled up short as she raised her index finger and for the first time added a word of explanation, "Weak bones make weak music," she said. He smiled in reply, and followed her through the door.

The Weber was there as usual, polished to a patent shine in the centre of the room on a large, circular rug. He liked the morning lessons, when the sunlight would beam in through the window as if its only purpose was to illuminate the grand piano. A divine spotlight, he thought. He took his seat at the small table to the side, where a tall glass of milk had been set on a white crocheted doily. He nodded his thanks, then raised the glass to his lips. Lukewarm, like always. Across the room, the old woman was sitting with one leg crossed over the other, watching. As he took another swig, the milk clacked against his palate, and the sound amplified in the glass. His eyes darted to the woman; she was glaring back at him with an eyebrow raised. He shrugged his apology. She continued her glare, but the eyebrow lowered. Ewan drained the remainder without incident, and set the glass back down in its place.

Without a word, the old woman stood up and paced across to the left side of the grand piano. It was where she always stood to teach, and such was this habit that she had worn the rug bare in that particular spot. Ewan smiled to himself, and took his place on the stool, presenting his hands, fingers outstretched, for inspection. She examined them, taking a moment to perch her glasses on her nose to do so. She seemed satisfied. "Polonaise number six," she said, and closed her eyes.

Ewan drew in a breath, and began to play.

***

Though Ewan fought against it, he could feel a growing urgency rising in his upper chest, demanding his compliance. He ignored it as long as he could, but in an act of mutiny his body seized the moment and forced him to draw a breath for himself. Another came, then another, an almost unbroken wall of agony. A wall so dense and vast that he was aware of almost nothing else. Ewan knew his chest was ruined. He knew this, but not why – nor did he care. He only wanted the pain to stop.

He didn’t feel the prick of the needle being inserted into the crook of his elbow and taped into place, nor the creeping chill along his upper arm as the bolus was administered through the cannula. He did feel the agony of being log-rolled, but was only dully aware of the sheet of cloth being pulled underneath him and hooked to the hoist. As the motor whirred and the ground disappeared from beneath him, the world became distant again. By the time he was being lowered into bed, he was out completely.

Through the haze that descended, he could see a wall now in his mind. Solid and insurmountable, it blocked out all that might exist on the other side. The wall, he understood, was pain. It was a hallucination, but that didn’t matter – the agony that it represented was not. He approached, hopelessly, staring in awe at the behemoth towering above. Hopeless.

Yet...

...he could see tiny faults forming in the mortar, patches where tiny green shoots were beginning to inch their way in between the grey bricks. He peered closely at the nearest of these. It was growing, he thought. Gradually at first - barely noticeable, like the procession of clouds across a calm sky. He adjusted his gaze to level it against the edge of one brick for reference. Yes, definitely growing, branching out and infiltrating the cracks; widening them and making new cracks of their own. He stepped back as the shoots crept and snaked, some developing tiny purple flowers that sat stark against the dull grey. He could hear the strain forming - feel it almost – a perceptible tension that swelled as a series of cracking and splintering sounds from where more and more mortar was crumbling away. As he gaped at the unfolding scene, the wall disintegrated all at once. The pain, he realised, had gone.

Not quite understanding this, but caring little, Ewan curled up and settled into a dreamless sleep.

When he awoke, the pain had returned, but it was bearable this time. The dream about the wall had lasted only a few seconds, but it was now all Ewan could remember of the past three days. The rest had been lost forever. For the first time in what seemed like forever, he lifted his leaden eyelids and let in the light of the morning sun.

There were only shapes at first, blurred patches of light and dark with no distinct colour. He was in the drawing room, he thought. The window to his right side bright with sunlight, picking out a hulk directly ahead of him that could only be the familiar Weber. He allowed a few more minutes for the haze to clear.

The old woman was perched on the chair in the corner. She was staring his way, with her eyebrow raised as she often did when she was poised to say something. He waited for her to speak – milk first, then practice was what he expected to hear, perhaps another warning, in spite of the lack of any other option, that he must only play the Weber. Eventually, she opened her mouth, “No more morphine,” she said, simply. Ewan frowned. What was this? The old woman was making no sense. He looked at the table, and saw the doily in place as always, but there was no glass set upon it. He looked back to the old woman, wishing he could ask aloud what she had meant, but as always, the words refused to come. “You sleep now,” she said. “No more morphine. You sleep; then tomorrow is an important day.”

Ewan could barely process the woman’s words, much less understand what she meant by them. What had happened to him? Why was he here? These were surely important questions, but they were questions that would have to wait. He did as instructed without any effort, drifting back into sleep.

***

The closing notes of Chopin’s masterpiece had hung in the room, a single bead of sweat weaving a trail around the contours of Ewan’s temple. He’d ignored it, barely daring to breathe lest the perfect tone and pitch of the sound be disturbed by the passing of his outward breath. His heart was racing in  his chest, quickened by the thrill of each note he had played, each laced in turn with fear that the next might fall flat and all of that perfection might go to waste. To his left, the woman had stood unmoving. In the moment the note finally disappeared from the air, she had snapped her eyes open. Slowly, the creased corners of her mouth had pulled into a lopsided smile. “You are ready”, she had said. “Wait here”.

As he’d sat trying to imagine exactly what she’d meant, he had missed the sound of her returning footsteps. He’d missed too the sharp, yet musty smell that accompanied her return. He did feel the rag being clamped around his nose and mouth, and felt the room begin to spin and twist. He drew a breath to cry out.

He was out before he could make a sound.

***

Ewan awoke again feeling better, and altogether much worse. The pain from his chest had subsided significantly now, and so had the cloudiness, but with clarity came realisation – some time ago, and he had no way of knowing precisely how long, Ewan had arrived as usual for his lesson. He had drank his milk – weak bones make weak music, oh yes! – and had taken his seat at the Weber. Polonaise No. 6 had been the piece, and he’d played it like he’d never played before. Now, Ewan was in trouble. She’d done something, he thought, something that had nearly killed him. Something that had hurt him badly, caused the agony in his-

-he eased the bedsheet down and reached for the buttons of the pyjama top he was wearing - where the hell had THAT come from? – carefully unfastening them.

“The wound will heal.” Ewan jolted at the sound of the woman’s voice, a bizarre feeling of being caught in the act washing over him. “The stitches will be sore for a while, but you will live. You must live – that is very important.” Her words repeated in his head as he fought for his own – words that since birth he had been unable to quite find. He screwed up his nose in frustration,

“Wh-wh... Wh-a...h?” he managed. All that effort, and that was the best he could do. He balled his fists around the sheet and wrung it between them. The old woman continued as if she’d not heard.

“I knew you would be the one,” she said, “It is the need for expression, you see. So many express the first thing that comes to the tiny little mind with the stupid words, but you – you are not like this, are you?” She laughed a delighted, childish laugh that made her seem crazy, or maybe senile, “Your words are not there. You have to express yourself with something else. I knew you would be the one.”

Ewan frowned, as she smiled warmly at him. “Wait here,” she said, and then paused, before slapping her hand on her knee with a snort. “But of course you will!” she said, “Whatever else are you to do?” At this, she threw her head back and squealed in delight at her joke, then scurried away out of the room.

A rhythmic squeak marked her return; the squeak of an old wheelchair. It looked like something from some macabre movie, something that might be found in a nineteen-fifties asylum. He noted the speckles of rust and the discoloured, torn leather of both the seat backrest. It barely look as though it could support his weight at all. “You sit in here,” she encouraged. She’d lost the sharp, commanding tone that he’d come to know. He didn’t like it; it was like another person was wearing the old lady like a costume, commanding her voice.

As she reached behind his shoulders to pull him forward, he tried to protest. “N... Neh!” was the best he could manage.

In the end, he was left to choose between either standing up or falling down, so half-stooped, he manoeuvred to the wheelchair. It was painful, but not as bad as he’d anticipated. The chair creaked as he sat, and he felt the backrest give way a little, a jolt of pain pinching his chest. It was gone as quickly as it came. “Good!” she said, clapping her hands like a delighted child, “Good! We go now. I must show you!” She shoved the wheelchair towards the door with apparent ease; the squeak now somehow silenced by his weight.

They entered a room that Ewan had not seen before; Edwardian in décor just like the main drawing room, but smaller and less well maintained. The walls were clad with deep mahogany panelling to half way, the top half painted the dull red of semi-congealed blood. In the centre of the room was the unmistakable shape of a grand piano veiled by an enormous black silk sheet. Students must only play the Weber – it finally made sense. The shape looming in the gloom of this place made Ewan uneasy. The woman too, he thought, had become quiet; her bizarre regression to childlike frivolity suspended for now. She stood silently before the dark shape. Respectfully, Ewan thought. As though afraid of upsetting it. Finally, she spoke, “You must understand,” she said, “I did not wish to cause you harm, Ewan.” It was the first time she’d ever spoken his name, that he’d heard at least. “It is very...powerful...you see. It knows every thought, it hears every sound. I think it wants only to be whole again. This is true for us all, no? Do we not all wish this?”

Ewan nodded slowly, but she hadn’t looked up at him to notice. Slowly, she stepped towards the centre of the room, and took a corner of the silk between her gnarled fingers. She drew back the sheet, ravelling it around her elbow as she went.

The piano was black without sheen, like staring into the abyss of a black hole, where not even light could escape. It looked solid, and at the same time, it looked like the absence of all things. The sight made him shudder. There was something else too – the keys were visible, but they were all badly damaged, many missing altogether. The woman laid an outstretched index finger on one of these, whiter than the rest, and smiled. “This one. This one was yours.” Ewan frowned. “I am an old woman now. There has been no rest for me. So many, so very many students I have taught, but I knew you would be the one.” She touched the key again, “This one was your rib.”

As Ewan watched, he was that the old woman’s eyes were glistening. A tear tracked along the creased in her cheek. “I was right, Ewan, I was right. You played perfectly, and so you have set me free.” She touched the key again, “your thirteenth rib,” she said, “has formed the ‘E’. ‘E’ for ‘Ewan’” She grinned at this. Ewan felt bile rising in his throat. He’d stopped trying to speak. “You have made your sacrifice now – that is the first part. Now, you must find the next one – the next perfect student, and from them, the next key. This, I am sorry to say, may take a longer time. They must play perfectly, you see. Flawlessly. You may not leave until their sacrifice has been made. The house... well, the house will see to that.” She seemed to ponder these words as though it had not been she who had spoken them. “I hope you find your saviour soon,” she added.

Ewan fought for words as never before, his face contorting as he tried to form the shapes with his lips and tongue. “HHHHowwww. LLnnnnnnnng?” he managed. How long indeed?

The woman shrugged, “Ninety-seven years I have waited,” she said. “My first student came to me after ten years.” She turned to leave the room. “I will go to rest now,” she said. “perhaps if you are lucky – and if you are good teacher – you will leave here to live – leave to live before you leave to die. Sadly, this will not be the way for me.”

Ewan was alone then, tears welling in his eyes. He composed himself only long enough to hear he call one last time from somewhere beyond the room – perhaps from beyond the house. Perhaps even from beyond the grave itself, “Remember,” the voice said,  “students must only play the Weber!”


© Copyright 2018 Adrian Hunt. All rights reserved.

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