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“Absolutely not,” Constanze said, thumping the floor with her cane. “I forbid it!”
We were all gathered in the kitchens after supper. Mother was washing up after the guests while Käthe threw together a quick meal of spätzle and fried onions for the rest of us. Josef’s letter lay open and face up on the table, the source of my salvation and my grandmother’s strife.
Master Antonius is dead. I am in Vienna. Come quickly.
Come quickly. My brother’s words lay stark and simple on the page, but neither Constanze nor I could agree upon their meaning. I believed it was a summons. My grandmother believed otherwise.
“Forbid what?” I retorted. “Replying to Josef?”
“Indulging your brother in this nonsense!” Constanze pointed an accusing, emphatic finger at the letter on the table between us before sweeping her arm in a wild, vague gesture toward the dark outside, the unknown beyond our doorstep. “This … this musical folly!”
“Nonsense?” Mother asked sharply, pausing in scrubbing out the pots and pans. “What nonsense, Constanze? His career, you mean?”
Last year, my brother left behind the world he had known to follow his dreams—our dreams—of becoming a world-class violinist. While running the inn had been our family’s bread and butter for generations, music had ever and always been our manna. Papa was once a court musician in Salzburg, where he met Mother, who was then a singer in a troupe. But that had been before Papa’s profligate and prodigal ways chased him back to the backwoods of Bavaria. Josef was the best and brightest of us, the most educated, the most disciplined, the most talented, and he had done what the rest of us had not or could not: he had escaped.
“None of your business,” Constanze snapped at her daughter-in-law. “Keep that sharp, shrewish nose out of matters about which you know nothing.”
“It is too my business.” Mother’s nostrils flared. Cool, calm, and collected had ever been her way, but our grandmother knew how best to get under her skin. “Josef is my son.”
“He is Der Erlkönig’s own,” Constanze muttered, her dark eyes alight with feverish faith. “And none of yours.”
Mother rolled her eyes and resumed the washing up. “Enough with the goblins and gobbledygook, you old hag. Josef is too old for fairy tales and hokum.”
“Tell that to that one!” Constanze leveled her gnarled finger at me, and I felt the force of her fervor like a bolt to the chest. “She believes. She knows. She carries the imprint of the Goblin King’s touch upon her soul.”
A frisson of unease skittered up my spine, icy fingertips skimming my skin. I said nothing, but felt Käthe’s curious glance upon my face. Once she might have scoffed along with Mother at our grandmother’s superstitious babble, but my sister was changed.
I was changed.
“We must think of Josef’s future,” I said quietly. “What he needs.”
But what did my brother need? The post had only just come the day before, but already I had read his reply into thinness, the letter turned fragile with my unasked and unanswered questions. Come quickly. What did he mean? To join him? How? Why?
“What Josef needs,” Constanze said, “is to come home.”
“And just what is there for my son to come home to?” Mother asked, angrily attacking old rust stains on a dented pot.
Käthe and I exchanged glances, but kept our hands busy and our mouths shut.
“Nothing, that’s what,” she continued bitterly. “Nothing but a long, slow trek to the poorhouse.” She set down the scrubbing brush with a sudden clang, pinching the bridge of her nose with a soapy hand. The furrow between her brows had come and gone, come and gone ever since Papa’s death, digging in deeper and deeper with each passing day.
“And leave Josef to fend for himself?” I asked. “What is he going to do so far away and without friends?”
Mother bit her lip. “What would you have us do?”
I had no answer. We did not have the funds to either send ourselves or to bring him home.
She shook her head. “No,” she said decisively. “It’s better that Josef stay in Vienna. Try his luck and make his mark on the world as God intended.”
“It doesn’t matter what God intends,” Constanze said darkly, “but what the old laws demand. Cheat them of their sacrifice, and we all pay the price. The Hunt comes, and brings with them death, doom, and destruction.”
A sudden hiss of pain. I looked up in alarm to see Käthe suck at her knuckles where she had accidentally cut herself with the knife. She quickly resumed cooking dinner, but her hands trembled as she sliced wet dough for noodles. I rose to my feet and took over making spätzle from my sister as she gratefully moved to frying the onions.
Mother made a disgusted noise. “Not this again.” She and Constanze had been at each other’s throats for as long as I could remember, the sound of their bickering as familiar as the sound of Josef practicing his scales. Not even Papa had been able to make peace between them, for he always deferred to his mother even as he preferred to side with his wife. “If I weren’t already certain of your comfortable perch in Hell, thou haranguing harpy, I would pray for your eternal soul.”
Constanze banged her hand on the table, making the letter—and the rest of us—jump. “Can’t you see it is Josef’s soul I am trying to save?” she shouted, spittle flying from her lips.
We were taken aback. Despite her irritable and irascible nature, Constanze rarely lost her temper. She was, in her own way, as consistent and reliable as a metronome, ticking back and forth between contempt and disdain. Our grandmother was fearsome, not fearful.
Then my brother’s voice returned to me. I was born here. I was meant to die here.
I sloppily dumped the noodles into the pot, splashing myself with scalding hot water. Unbidden, the image of coal black eyes in a sharp-featured face rose up from the depths of memory.
“Girl,” Constanze rasped, fixing her dark eyes on me. “You know what he is.”
I said nothing. The burble of boiling water and the sizzle of sautéing onions were the only sounds in the kitchen as Käthe and I finished cooking.
“What?” Mother asked. “What do you mean?”
Käthe glanced at me sidelong, but I merely strained the spätzle and tossed the noodles into the skillet with the onions.
“What on earth are you talking about?” Mother demanded. She turned to me. “Liesl?”
I beckoned to Käthe to bring me the plates and began serving supper.
“Well?” Constanze smirked. “What say you, girlie?”
You know what he is.
I thought of the careless wishes I had made into the dark as a child—for beauty, for validation, for praise—but none had been as fervent or as desperate as the one I had made when I heard my brother crying feebly into the night. Käthe, Josef, and I had all been stricken with scarlatina when we were young. Käthe and I were small children, but Josef had been but a baby. The worst had passed for my sister and me, but my brother emerged from the illness a different child.
“I know exactly who my brother is,” I said in a low voice, more to myself than to my grandmother. I set a dish heaped high with noodles and onions in front of her. “Eat up.”
“Then you know why it is Josef must return,” Constanze said. “Why he must come home and live.”
We all come back in the end.
A changeling could not wander far from the Underground, lest they wither and fade. My brother could not live beyond the reach of Der Erlkönig, save by the power of love. My love. It was what kept him free.
Then I remembered the feel of spindly fingers crawling over my skin like bramble branches, a face wrought of hands, and a thousand hissing voices whispering, Your love is a cage, mortal.
I looked to the letter on the table. Come quickly.
“Are you going to eat your supper?” I asked, glancing pointedly at Constanze’s full plate.
She gave her food a haughty look and sniffed. “I’m not hungry.”
“Well, you’re not getting anything else, you ungrateful nag.” Mother angrily stabbed at her supper with her fork. “We can’t afford to cater to your particular tastes. We can barely afford to feed ourselves as it is.”
Her words dropped with a thud in the middle of our dinner. Chastened, Constanze picked up her fork and began eating, chewing around that depressing pronouncement. Although we had settled all of Papa’s debts after he died, for every bill we paid, yet another sprung up in its place, leaks on a sinking ship.
Once we were finished with supper, Käthe cleared the plates while I began the washing up.
“Come,” Mother said, extending her arm to Constanze. “Let’s get you to bed.”
“No, not you,” my grandmother said with disgust. “You’re useless, you are. The girl can help me upstairs.”
“The girl has a name,” I said, not looking at her.
“Was I talking to you, Elisabeth?” Constanze snapped.
Startled, I lifted my head from the dishes to see my grandmother glaring at Käthe.
“Me?” my sister asked, surprised.
“Yes, you, Magda,” Constanze said irritably. “Who else?”
Magda? I looked at Käthe, then at Mother, who seemed as bewildered as the rest of us. Go, she mouthed to my sister. Käthe made a face, but offered her arm to our grandmother, wincing as Constanze gripped it with all her spiteful strength.
“I swear,” Mother said softly, watching the two of them disappear up the stairs together. “She grows madder by the day.”
I returned to washing the dishes. “She’s old,” I said. “It’s to be expected, perhaps.”
Mother snorted. “My grandmother remained sharp until the day she died, and she was older than Constanze by an age.”
I said nothing, dunking the plates in a clean tub of water before handing them to Mother to dry.
“Best not indulge her,” she said, more to herself than to me. “Elves. Wild Hunt. The end of the world. One might almost think she actually believes these fairy stories.”
Finding a clean corner of my apron, I picked up a plate and joined Mother in drying the dishes. “She’s old,” I said again. “Those superstitions have been around these parts forever.”
“Yes, but they’re just stories,” she said impatiently. “No one believes them to be true. Sometimes I’m not sure if Constanze knows whether we live in reality or a fairy tale of her own making.”
I said nothing. Mother and I finished drying the dishes and put them away, wiped down the counters and tabletops, and swept up what little dirt there was on the kitchen floor before making our separate ways toward our rooms.
Despite what Mother believed, we were not living in a fairy tale of Constanze’s own making, but a terrible, terrible reality. A reality of sacrifices and bargains, goblins and Lorelei, of myth and magic and the Underground. I who had grown up with my grandmother’s stories, I who had been the Goblin King’s bride and walked away knew better than anyone the consequences of crossing the old laws that governed life and death. What was real and what was false was as unreliable as memory, and I lived in the in-between spaces, between the pretty lie and the ugly truth. But I did not speak of it. Could not speak of it.
For if Constanze was going mad, then so was I.
The boy’s playing was magic, it was said, and those of discerning taste and even deeper pockets lined up outside the concert hall for a journey into the realms of the unknown. The venue was small and intimate, seating but twenty or so, but it was the largest gathering for which the boy and his companion had ever played, and he was nervous.
His master was a famous violinist, an Italian genius, but age and rheumatism had long since twisted the old man’s fingers into stillness. In the maestro’s prime, it was said Giovanni Antonius Rossi could make the angels weep and the devil dance with his playing, and the concertgoers hoped that even a glimmer of the old virtuoso’s gifts could be heard in his mysterious young pupil.
A foundling, a changeling, the concertgoers whispered. Discovered playing on the side of the road in the backwoods of Bavaria.
The boy had a name, but it was lost amidst the murmurs. Master Antonius’s student. The golden-haired angel. The fair youth. His name was Josef, but no one remembered, save for his companion, his accompanist, his beloved.
The companion had a name as well, but there were none who thought it worth noting. The dark-skinned boy. The Negro. The servant. His name was François, but no one bothered to use it, save for Josef, who held his beloved’s name on his lips and in his heart.
The concert marked Josef’s introduction to cultured Viennese society. Ever since France had beheaded or expelled the nobles from their borders, Master Antonius found his coffers growing lean in his adopted Parisian home, with wealthy patrons emptying their funds into Bonaparte’s army. So the old virtuoso left the city of revolution and returned to the city of his greatest triumphs with the hopes of hooking golden fish with younger, prettier bait. At present they were hosted by the Baroness von Schenk, in whose salon the performance was to be held.
“Do not fail me, boy,” the maestro said as they stood in the wings, waiting for their entrance. “Our livelihood depends on you.”
“Yes, maestro,” Josef said, his throat hoarse. He had slept ill the night before, his stomach knotted tight with nerves, his dreams broken by the half-remembered sound of thundering hooves.
“Keep your head together,” Master Antonius said warningly. “None of this whining and crying for home. You are a man now. Be strong.”
Josef swallowed and looked to François. The youth gave a slight reassuring nod, a gesture not lost on their teacher.
“Enough,” Master Antonius growled. “You,” he said, pointing to François, “stop indulging him, and you”—he pointed to Josef—“pull yourself together. We cannot afford to lose our heads now. We will start with a few selections I have composed, then we will move on to the Mozart as planned, ça va?”
Josef shrank beneath his master’s glower. “Yes, maestro,” he whispered.
“If you are good—and only if you are good—you may play Vivaldi for the encore.” The old virtuoso pinned his pupil with a beady glare. “None of that Der Erlkönig nonsense. This audience is used to the music of the greats. Do not insult their ears with that monstrosity.”
“Yes, maestro.” Josef’s voice was scarcely audible.
François took note of the boy’s flushed cheeks and clenched jaw, and wrapped his warm hand around his beloved’s tightened fists. Be patient, mon coeur, the touch seemed to say.
But the other boy did not reply.
Master Antonius parted the curtains and the boys walked out before the audience to polite applause. François sat himself down at the pianoforte while Josef readied his violin. They shared a look, a moment, a feeling, a question.
The concert began as planned, with the pupil playing selections composed by the master, accompanied by the youth at the keyboard. But the audience was old, and they remembered how divine the master’s playing, how transporting the sound. This boy was good: the notes were clear, the phrasing elegant. But there was something missing perhaps—a soul, a spark. It was like hearing the words of a favorite poet translated into a foreign tongue.
Perhaps they had expected too much. Talent was fickle, after all, and those who burned brightest with it often did not last.
The angels take Antonius if the devil does not get to him first, they once said of the old virtuoso. Such gifts were not meant for mortal ears.
Age had gotten to Master Antonius before either God or the Devil, but it did not seem as though his pupil were graced with the same divine spark. The audience dutifully clapped between each piece and resigned themselves to a long evening of little significance, while from the wings, the old virtuoso fretted and fumed at his pupil’s diminishing returns.
Another set of eyes watched the performing pair from the opposite wing. The eyes were the startling, vivid green of emeralds or the deep waters of a summer lake, and in the dark, they glowed.
Selections finished, Josef and François moved on to a Mozart sonata. The room fell quiet, dull, laden with the inattentive lull of genteel boredom. A soft snore rose from the back of the salon, and in the wings, Master Antonius silently seethed. Yet still those green eyes watched the boys from the shadows opposite. Waiting. Wanting.
When the concert was over, the audience rose to their feet, perfunctorily calling for an encore. Josef and François bowed, while Master Antonius gripped his wig, sending plumes of powder into the air. Vivaldi save us, he thought. The Red Priest hear my prayer. Josef and François bowed once more, sharing another private look, the answer to an unspoken question.
The youth settled himself back by the keyboard, dark fingers and white-laced wrists poised over black sharps and natural ivories. The boy tucked his violin under his chin and raised his bow, the horsehair quivering with anticipation. Josef gave the tempo and François responded in kind, the two of them weaving a tapestry of melody between them.
It was not Vivaldi.
The concertgoers sat straighter in their seats, their attention sharpened on the edges of their confusion. They had never heard such playing before. They had never heard such music before.
It was Der Erlkönig.
In the wings, Master Antonius buried his face in his hands with despair. On the other side of the salon, the green eyes gleamed.
A chill wind seemed to blow through the room, though no breeze ruffled the lace or feathers at the audience’s necks. The scent of earth, of loam, of deep, dark places seemed to grow around them, a cavern of sound and sensation. Was that the plink of a dripping cave or the distant rumble of a wild stampede? Beyond the corners of their eyes, the shadows began to writhe, the cherub-faced putti and ornately carved flowers on the columns in the corners of the salon taking on a sinister aspect. They did not look too closely, for fear that the angels and gargoyles had transformed into demons and goblins.
All save one.
The vivid green eyes observed the changes wrought by the music and disappeared into darkness.
When the encore was done, there was a moment of silence, like the world holding its breath before a storm. Then the thunder broke to raucous shouts and applause, for the audience would cheer lest they cry for the tumultuous anxiety and elation that roiled through them all. Master Antonius ripped the wig from his head in disgust and left the scene in a huff.
He passed a beautiful green-eyed woman on the way, carrying a silver saltcellar in the shape of a swan. They tipped their heads in passing as the old virtuoso retired to his rooms and the woman limped toward the salon. He did not see her begin to pour a line of salt on the threshold to the concert. He did not hear the hooves for the praise raining down upon his pupil, and missed the postman arriving with a message.
“Master Antonius?” the courier asked when the green-eyed woman answered the door. A bright scarlet poppy was pinned to her bodice.
“He has retired for the evening,” the woman said. “How may I help you?”
“These are to be delivered to his pupil, a Herr Vogler?” The postman reached into his satchel and removed a bundle of letters, each written in the same desperate hand. “They are addressed to his old residence in Paris, but it wasn’t until now that we were able to find him here in Vienna.”
“I see,” the woman said. “I shall see that they are delivered to the proper person.” She tipped the courier a gold coin, who tipped his hat in response before riding off into the night.
The green-eyed woman stepped over the salt into the salon, taking care that her skirts did not break the line of protection. Back in the shadows, she scanned the letters for a signature.
Composer of Der Erlkönig.
She smiled and tucked the letters into her bodice before hobbling off to congratulate the boy and his black friend.
And upstairs, Master Antonius tossed and turned in his bed, trying to drown out the sound of hooves, howls, and hounds, wondering if the Devil had come for him at last.
The following morning, the scullery maid was turned out for stealing salt and the old virtuoso was found dead in his room, lips blue, with a curious silver slash at the throat.
Copyright © 2018 by S. Jae-Jones