The Red Priests: An Excerpt

Jeremy turned back to the cabinet. The trembling candlelight and the effects of the wine made the room spin. Charlotte moved one foot out from under her and placed it in the floor. She closed her eyes and the room stilled.

A small sound caused her to open her eyes. She gasped when she saw what Jeremy held in his hands.

His syllables were unhurried and quiet, seeming to come from an obscure dream. “There is an elixir of music so sweet and perfect as to be deadly.”

She straightened in the chair and put both feet on the floor. “What?”

“There is an elixir of music so sweet and perfect as to be deadly.” Jeremy stood, his shadow quaking on the floor next to him. “You of all people know that poison can enter the ear in more ways than one.”

In her mind she saw it again: the glass case in her father’s grand foyer. As a girl she had sat at its feet and caressed its sculpted legs. The wood was dark and smooth, its curves forbidden. The locked case had been the guardian of silence.

Jeremy came near and sat on a low ottoman near her chair. He put the violin on his lap.

“The oldest religions say the universe began with sound. A long time ago, when we were still close to the beginning of creation, sound had powers we can’t even dream of today. It moved boulders and caused spontaneous combustion. It tamed beasts and cured sickness. Some even believe it was used to build the pyramids. These legends are not mere stories. They’re vestiges of the past, evidence of a long-forgotten understanding of the power of sound. Ancient cultures believed in music’s direct relationship with the order of the universe. Their music followed rules that could change only when the fundamental nature of the cosmos changed.”

“If they heard our music today they would think the world is falling apart,” Charlotte said, pressing herself back into the cushion of the chair.

Jeremy absently picked up his bow.

“Our world is falling apart. We are bombarded with ubiquitous noise—the bleeps, the hums, the rings of our mindless machines. Automotive engines, jackhammers and electric saws, airplanes overhead, subways below.”

As Jeremy fished around in his pocket, Charlotte wondered if he lived in the same quiet Trinity she did, a forgotten town almost preternaturally quiet.

Jeremy brought out a small object, dark amber, almost opaque in the candlelight.  “And music. . . .We hear it everywhere and in every situation. In the elevators, at the stores, through car stereos, on television. We trap and reproduce sound at our will. It’s become stripped of its ritualistic significance, and we no longer understand that music must be heard at the right place and time. Now it is a common, everyday, even an unwelcome experience. Our exhausted ears no longer make subtle discernments. They’ve lost their sensitivity. Do you know what an extraordinary organ the ear is?”

The amber wedge hissed as Jeremy ran it over the horsehairs of the bow and released the faint aroma of pine. The varnish glinted in the unstable light.

“No other sense organ can perceive as widely as the ear does,” Charlotte said, feeding him a line from his lectures, as if he were a hungry animal and her sentence a scrap of food to stave off attack. But they both knew the fact was no mere academic point to her.

“Indeed. The minimum of what’s audible to the naked ear would have to amplified a factor of ten million to reach the maximum volume the ear can sustain. If we did the same to our eyes we would be blind immediately. But despite this range of perception, we no longer truly hear.”

And just when it seemed their conversation was veering back into familiar territory, Jeremy pounced, spinning the thought into a variation Charlotte hadn’t yet heard. “Through all this noise and confusion we’ve lost awareness of the true powers of music.” He put the rosin back in his pocket and lowered the bow. “But some of us haven’t lost that gift—in fact we have enhanced powers. Isn’t that right, Charlotte?”

“What do you mean?” She and Jeremy had never spoken of her unusual hearing.

“The accident. Why deny who you are?”

Charlotte winced, as if the explosion of sound, the violence of breaking metal and glass were happening all over again, but this time in slow motion in a candle-lit drawing room. Just as after the crash she now heard her mother’s voice. The words were still garbled.

Then, there was quiet.

It could have been minutes or hours before sound re-emerged. When it did Charlotte heard everything as if covered in mute whiteness. Then the ringing started, small and low, but soon it swelled so that there was nothing else to hear. Charlotte screamed until her ears began to adjust and the echo of the impact began to subside. But she would never hear the world in the same way again. After that, everything would sound sharp and finely etched—intricate patterns on ice, filigree on glass.

How did Jeremy know about the accident? Charlotte was only a child when it happened. A cold tingling crept up her spine. The world as she knew it—her private world, never shared with anyone—veered off axis.

Jeremy was speaking again, plucking each string of the instrument as he did. “There is a centuries-old legend passed from violinist to violinist. It tells of a lost instrument of extraordinary power.” He was plucking each string, then adjusting the tuning pegs to bring the four voices into accord. “It is an echo of what is called the Word That Was Lost. Others say it is the first gesture of the prime mover. But however it may be described it is this—original sound, the mother of the universe.”

The violin’s high polish sent reflections of white flame skidding off its surface. Black pooled in the concave hollows of its body. It was larger than a typical violin and beneath the reflective varnish the wood had a whorling grain pattern. But before Charlotte could observe it in more detail, Jeremy stood. He took up the bow and raised the violin to his chin.

“That must be a myth,” Charlotte said, almost pleading. “No such instrument could exist.”

“It does exist. And when I find it,” Jeremy said, taking his attention from the instrument and turning it on her for a single blazing moment, “its sound will shatter our modern world, so intent on the material and the utilitarian.”

Jeremy closed his eyes and bent his head against the wood. The violin’s surface seemed to pucker like boiling honey. He waited for the quiet to gather around them, and even the crickets ceased their drone when he finally poised the bow above the waiting strings.

In that last moment of silence, it seemed the violinist held not a bow but a writhing venomous snake.

The first sound was electrifying, a toneless hiss. But Jeremy wrestled with it and dug in with the horsehair of the bow, shaping the elements of the instrument to his bidding. The snake, just barely tamed, was now drawing out true tones from the violin’s body. Dark frequencies, dripping with dangerous energy, gave utterance to a simple theme. The low first note gave way to the diminished third above it, and then opened to the fifth. From this slow minor triplet, the violin descended, then undulated up and down the scale in glissando. The motif was the premise of a fugue.

Next came a glimmer of embellishment, still just an idea in the mind of the musician. One tone shaded differently—now an accent—now the addition of a note. Already the motif was morphing, spinning out into new forms, gossamer branches, creeping delicate tendrils. It drew its listeners in from the night. Outside, moonless but not still, the rustlings of invisible life moved towards them. Jeremy’s bow stirred the sleeping animals, altered the course of ponderous underground roots, waylaid silent flocks of birds in their flight north.

But when the bow pressed harder into the strings, the simple theme disappeared into a new structure. Complex and darker, its variations crept toward mania. A slow wind began to swirl; a sound, both terrible and alluring, filled the room. As the fugue unfolded and heightened, its player seemed to be coming near truths forbidden to human understanding.

Appalled, enraptured, cowering, Charlotte sat mute and humbled under the sheer sensation of it. The unknown was transforming itself into the knowable, and Charlotte half-expected a vengeful angel to materialize and annihilate them for this brazen violation of human boundaries.

But then the music veered from metaphysical exploration into an angry maelstrom; its daring anger so startling and intense that Jeremy seemed to invite the very angel Charlotte had imagined to strike him down.

Even with her acute ears and her tendency towards order, Charlotte struggled to identify the original theme in these new extrapolations. In the music’s final full-dimensioned form, triple-stopped harmonies spilled forth as pure energy, the original violence that created the stars.

Charlotte lost her sense of space and time as the music began its slow return to the original theme, a starting point so simple, yet so different now at its end. With his face in shadow Jeremy held a low last note on a down stroke and leaned slightly forward, as if following the sound back to its source. He pulled Charlotte along with him. But when his bow came to stillness, he staggered forward. Entrance to the great well of silence was forbidden.

The wind began to stir again, and Charlotte felt bereft, exhausted by the return of mundane sound. She couldn’t bear to look at Jeremy in the face as slowly he lowered the violin from his shoulder, and stood there as if supporting a tremendous weight.

A buzzing sound pierced the room. Jeremy set the violin on the ottoman. A second piercing. His arms were loose, his hands limp at his sides. A third time. At the final ring of the doorbell Charlotte shook with a sudden nameless fear.

“Stay here,” Jeremy said and left the room.

His retreating steps were quiet and halting, those of an old man, not one in his prime. The lock slid smoothly out of place. The doorknob clicked as it released the latch. With the slight squeak of hinges and the creak of heavy wood, the door was drawn open.

“Yes?” A greeting cloaked as a question.

A rich bass spoke, an exotic accent wafted in like the perfume of a night-blooming flower. When Jeremy replied his voice had dropped to a whisper.

Charlotte huddled against the cushions and wrapped her arms around herself. She felt shaken and dazed. She avoided the presence of the violin, instead concentrating on the candle flames as they guttered and threw off black pungent smoke. Was the hiss from the candles or the whispering at the door? She closed her eyes, isolating the sounds. She heard their voices, but not what they said.

Quod erat demonstrandum. Jeremy had just demonstrated and proved his theory. Music, heard at the right place and time, did have extraordinary powers. Perhaps if a violin did contain the Word That Was Lost, God’s original voice, it would have the power to alter the world. But surely no such sound existed.

Jeremy returned minutes later, shrugging. “Imagine being lost on the outskirts of Trinity this late at night,” he said with false lightness.

“Where was he going?” Charlotte asked. And how did he end up here?

“Some hotel near the city center.” Jeremy took up the violin from the ottoman and sat opposite her. She scrutinized him. He was lying to her, she didn’t know why.