"Curse of the Ninth" -- Few composers have made it to the tenth symphony. Can Walter?
| "Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything." Plato
The instant Walter heard a female voice croon off-key from the back of the subway cab, he knew he could incorporate her tune into his tenth. The idea made him tremble with a surge of excitement. Yet, as soon as he thought, tenth, an acute dread enveloped him.
The tenth brought bad luck to everyone. It was known as the Curse of the Ninth in Mahler's time, but if a curse, it should have been the tenth, since very few lived to create that tenth symphony. Can't be a coincidence... Walter counted those who couldn't make it on his fingers: Beethoven, Bruckner, Dvorak, Schubert, Spohr, Vaughan Williams, and poor Mahler who expired without finishing his tenth.
They all died, didn't they? What did death mean to a musician? A dimming of awareness to create? Walter didn't think he could handle death, that going into deep freeze without aplomb; however, wasn't a tenth well worth everything? But death was death. Just the thought of it made Walter shiver.
Shaking off that negative thought, he hummed the tune an octave below, as if he were a viola. Fantastic. This would be particularly poignant in the first movement; then he could repeat it through all four movements with a syncopated and possibly irregular beat amidst a calmer theme.
"You hummed it better than me."
Walter turned his head to the young woman in a tie-dyed long skirt and a rosy-pink peasant blouse, staring at him with widened eyes. A tart berry full of juice! The thought made Walter blush with embarrassment as if for ogling some ethereal being.
"Don't worry!" The girl curled her lips and sank down next to Walter without any invitation. "I made that tune up. Call me Terrie, Walter." She smiled, tossing back her tumble of chestnut hair.
"How did you know my name?" Walter mumbled, as he took in her seductive smile, full lips, natural without any gloss, and teasing blue eyes.
Terrie stared at him with a bewildered expression. Then, she said, "Avery-Fisher Hall. The Philharmonic Festival, when they called you to stage before they played your eighth...Remember?"
"Well, thank you, Terrie. I'm flattered. Nice to meet you."
When she didn't answer, Walter shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "So you love music?"
"Music and dancing." She turned to face him with a sly turn swivel of her hips in her seat. "I play the flute." She closed her mouth with her hand as if catching inside an important secret.
"I don't remember you in the orchestra, sorry," Walter was now curious and somewhat flattered about why such a young girl would approach an older man like him.
"You wouldn't know. I play the double flute with the Old Sounds," Terrie said. "Not around here."
But without an answer, Terrie arose suddenly, a grin transforming her face. "My station's next, sorry!" Then, she added hastily. "Use the music you just hummed, Walter. You have my permission."
In a keyed-up trance, Walter stared at her young form as she exited the cab, her skirt billowing, like a dancer on butterfly wings. He imagined Terrie gesturing wildly, her arms and legs flailing, as she sang about everything as if her little life was a symphony itself. Yes, he could use her tune in his tenth.
As the train's whistle, like a ribbon of sound, floated through the dips and curves of the station behind him, Walter raised his hand to his ear peremptorily. That train whistle, too, would fit in well with Terrie's melody. After that, miraculously, he began to savor all sounds around him and even the silences in between them. The tenth was shaping up within his head, now. The desire to put his composition on those five bar lines turned into a passion so intimate, so powerful that he hurried home without stopping to buy his supper.
As Walter entered the elevator to his penthouse apartment, he heard a screeching voice he knew so well, "Hold it!"
Sal Hieri, his friend who lived two stories below him, rushed into the elevator, gasping. "Oh, my ears!" Sal complained. "This city is so full of noises. I can't even finish composing my last morceaux." Then he touched the red mark on the left side of his chin, a violinist's callus.
"But that's just it, Sal," Walter said. "All the sounds around us make the music, noises included."
Sal's eyes were on Walter's face. "Is this you talking, Walt? Weren't you the one whining about the smog in your head after your ninth? What the flip'n dip?"
"Just luck, I guess. I met a girl, Terrie. Young, pretty, chestnut hair, blue eyes. She hummed a tune. After that, every sound has become music to me."
"Chestnut hair, you said? Walks as if dancing?"
Walter nodded, recalling Terrie's young carefree form.
"Oh, why not me?" Sal writhed, constricting his face. "All I can do is transpose someone else's string quartet. Why doesn't she come for me, even once?"
Walter bent his head toward Sal. "You know her?"
"I've known her for centuries. You know how she appeared to Mozart? She appeared as a skinny beggar girl singing a cappella. That's how Amadeus could come up with all that..." Sal made a motion, twirling his arm, then he continued. "To Haydn, she was an Italian girl, a gifted student. For Shostakovich, she showed up with a grotesque hairdo and sang in extreme highs and lows. These have created more than nine symphonies. Not many others could, I tell you."
"Aww, crap! Come on, Sal," Walter said warily, as he pushed the button for Sal to exit to his floor. "You gotta be kidding me. She sang freaking off-key to start with. Dang it!"
The violinist waved his forefinger at Walter's face, pausing at the elevator door. "Be careful with her tune; I'm warning you, Walt. I know her routine well."
Such an expert tease! Like every other musician, Sal had stamina for drama. Walter granted him that.
What an ultimate experience! How did the movements work their magic? Why the repetition of the motif was so piercingly sweet with the first violins on a high quest, then paradoxically exploding through the hauntings of the horns? How the music sent its wizardry, stirring and charming the audience?
After the concert, the conductor called Walter to congratulate him on stage in front of the mesmerized, uplifted, and transformed audience. "Perfect, Grand, Noble!" he proclaimed, for Walter's tenth symphony. The applause shook the stage as the audience stood and cheered.
At the reception afterwards, Walter felt like a live peacock strutting around and casting ecstatic grins at everyone. He had broken the curse and finished the tenth. Mahler would be jealous.
"Walt, you made it, man!" Sal hissed dramatically, like a clown in a fair, startling Walter.
"Thank you, Sal," Walter replied graciously. "You, too, were superb in the second violin section."
"A toast to the gift of music that heals all pain!" The conductor ambled toward them holding his champagne glass in a congratulatory pose.
"Here's to creative fuel!" Sal offered Walter the fluted goblet in his right hand as he held up the half-finished one in his left.
"To music!" Walter said, taking the glass from Sal and lifting it up in celebration. The champagne fizzled inside his mouth, surprising him with its lost smoothness, but Walter hid his grimace to avoid any unpleasantness.
After the toast, he mingled among the crowd, feeling his starched collar tug at his neck. Then a vein in his throat started to jump. Too much excitement! Walter thought.
He went into the men's room and splashed water on his face. Something was off. Pain in my stomach! Why this heartburn? He entered a stall and locked the door. A soft fire was seizing his palate and spreading to his chin. He sat down on the commode without pulling down his pants and stretched his long legs to relax. Was he poisoned? The champagne Sal gave me, he thought. That jealous idiot! He must have poisoned me.
Then, something erupted inside him like a fiery tornado, ripping him apart. A sound like an explosion boomed inside his ears.
"Bro, are you okay in there?" Sal's twang! Without menace in his words, however.
Walter tried to answer but couldn't. He tried to lift his hands to open the door; yet, the motion pained him as if he were being pitched headfirst into rocks, and his eyes pulsed in and out of focus. As he collapsed, an owl-like sound jolted from his lips.
Suddenly he was weightless, drifting outside the stall. Two men were undoing the hinges of the door as Sal and a few others stared with vexed faces.
"Come on! What are you waiting for, Walter?" Terrie, still in her tie-dyed skirt and pink blouse, drew close and wrapped her fingers around his wrist, pulling him away. A gesture so normal that it had a strange calming effect on him, but he turned his head to take another look at Sal; instead, he saw the men drag a lifeless body out of the stall. He realized it was the last time he would view his own body.
So this was death. Yet, he wasn't afraid. Plus, he had his tenth. Worth it! But he could have eleventh, too, if it weren't for Sal poisoning him.
Terrie was still grasping his wrist and pulling him through thin air. As they entered through a gate into a garden with dahlias, irises, peonies, roses and many other flowers he didn't recognize, he said, "Sal Hieri poisoned me."
Terrie sighed as she let go of Walter's hand. "No, he didn't. You had a heart attack, but Sal may be blamed for it...again. Poor Salieri, this is the third time since Mozart."
Terrie muttered woefully. "We keep sending him back with his memory intact, but it's always the same thing. Maybe, I'll give him a tune. I doubt he can handle it, though."
"Terrie?" Just who is this girl who gave me the melody? Why don't I understand anything?
"Sorry, Walter. Of course. I have to tell you before I take you to my father. "
"Zu, short for Zeus, an ancient lower god. I'm Terrie to you, but Euterpe is my real name."
Euterpe, the muse of music... He believed her, now, and thought he should thank her for her input with his tenth.
"No thanks necessary, Walter. You did it all by yourself. I just gave you a little push. And don't worry about Zu. We'll just say hi to him; then I'll take you into the heaven of music, so you can keep composing."
I can still make music?
"Yes, Walter, and you'll always stay alive, since you are a musician, a composer. And you have expressed the inexpressible, quite like Haydn, for you recognize a good tune instantly."
More rapidly than Walter's senses could register, the view changed as they walked, and here, he felt the music in soft tones, minor keys at times, reverberating inside him. This whole thing, nobody could imagine it; this garden and the great expanse of hills and valleys and rivers, which formed a quilt of royal purple, ruby-red, jade-green, blue, crimson and many other colors, weren't frozen at all.
"Is Haydn there where you are taking me? Can I visit..."
"Of course. He and many others, past and present. You'll see. Our section has magnificent music, permanently divine."
Oh, yeah! Walter could live with that. Certainly.
Word Count: 1936 words
Written for "Rhythms & Writing: Official WDC Contest"