"Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent."
"The Musician's Soul"
By Alex Sorrow
Crystal Gates received that mysterious yearly visitor for the last time fifty years ago, and yet I can remember every detail as though it were yesterday. My hands are gnarled, my skin is wrinkling, and I can feel old age beginning to set in as I write this now. Before I die, I want to make it well known what happened to me that night when the Musician arrived for the last time before disappearing.
The history of Crystal Gates is shrouded with mystery. From the unsolved disappearance of the town's original inhabitants to the continuing disappearances of travellers who venture deep into its vast forest, Crystal Gates remains haunted by its reputation. My mother often warned me never to stay out past dark, and I heeded her warnings. Once you've lived in Crystal Gates long enough, you've seen what happens to those who don't.
One of the most peculiar things to happen was when I was a child. The day was October 31st, on All Hallow's Eve. The sun was beginning to make its descent over the horizon when he arrived, slowly strolling into town. I was playing outside with some friends, so I was one of the first ones to see him arrive. At first sight of him wandering into the middle of town, I couldn't help but stop and stare.
He looked so eccentric, with long matted black hair that seemed to swoop down from the sides of his head to rest over his faded colored skin. His eyes were dark and sunken, giving him a sort of permanent weariness. He wore a dirty black suit, complete with a collared white undershirt and a white bowtie that made him seem more as though he belonged at a symphonic hall rather than here. The odd thing was that, in addition to the dirt stains around the suit, it also seemed torn in some places on his chest and back. In one white gloved hand, still covered in some kind of grime, he held a sleek violin. In the other, a bow.
As I stared, transfixed by the sight of this oddity, he tilted the violin over his shoulder and raised the bow to the strings, pausing for a moment before gliding it to produce a single sweet note. The sound gathered the attention of everyone who hadn't already been watching the man intently, and now that he had an audience, the musician began to play.
Nobody moved as he played, dragging the bow back and forth, his body swaying slightly as his fingers tapped the strings. My friends and I had long ago given up on our game, for the sound of his music was enrapturing. The notes played were sweet, and varied from long, soulful notes to quick notes where he tapped the strings so quickly that his fingers were a blur. The music was serene, comforting, but there was also a low undertone of something hidden. Something sad.
The musician held his final note for a while, lingering on the string and letting it ring until it finally faded, and there was just silence. He lowered his violin, looked around at all of us, and then turned and left without a word. As he walked out of Crystal Gates, we began to cheer, for what other response could we have had to a performance like that? Some people tried to follow him, only to later report that they had lost him on the road.
The next year, on the 31st, the musician returned to Crystal Gates. He was still dressed in the same tattered suit, although it looked more worn and he looked far more weary. Again, he raised his violin and played his melody, but this time sounded much sadder than before. Instead of tranquil, this time felt closer to grieving. His hands seemed to shake as he played, and his last note trembled and shivered before he finally allowed it to die, but the silence still rang. He lowered his violin, but this time, he wandered toward the forest. Nobody stopped him. Nobody said anything. Nobody dared do anything, but everybody was watching. He walked to the very edge of the forest, stopped, and just stared into the trees. Some people had lost interest by then. As for me, I was watching as he stood for what felt like an eternity, motionless, until at last he moved away from the forest and walked out of town onto the roads once more, soon fading from sight down the roads.
I tried to do some investigating to find out who the musician was, or why he came to Crystal Gates every year, but I was unsuccessful when he came for the next and last time. We were all anticipating his arrival, but we could never have expected what his final performance ended up being. I was watching the road when he seemed to appear out of nowhere, but the very sight of him was jarring; he was withered and worn down. His eyes were sunken, gazing out lifelessly, as though detached from the world they were looking upon. His cheeks were thin, and his hands were bony. His clothes, even more ragged than before, hung loosely on his body. Still, his violin remained the same. The strings were still in a good condition, and he ran his fingers across them almost absently, like he was just listening to the sound. The finish was as sleek as ever, reflecting the last few rays of sunshine as the sun descended over the horizon. He raised it to his shoulder and lifted the bow with his other hand, pausing for a moment to enjoy the familiar feeling, and then he began to play.
No words can describe the sorrow in that melody. The sense of mourning drifted through each note that he played and spread out to those who were listening, as though the musician's sadness was a rain that we were all caught in. I looked around just to try to loosen the knot forming in my stomach, only for it to be squeezed tighter when I saw that some people had been tearing up, and one woman had broken down crying and was being comforted by her husband. The pain and suffering that he conveyed with each note was an intense emotion, but the experience of unbearable sadness had, for whatever reason, brought us together. Crystal Gates had never felt more unified, each of us standing together, each of us sympathetic to the hardships that we all faced independently.
The musician's face throughout this piece, as with the ones before it, was unchanged. He wore a stoic expression, only closing his eyes during the song and slowly opening them during the final note. When it finally rang out on that day, carrying with it the weight of a tragedy none of us would ever know, many of us had tears streaking down our faces. Even I couldn't stop myself from thinking about the people that I had lost, but there was a strange comfort in his music, as though he were reassuring me that those people were somewhere close by.
When the song was over and he lowered his violin, he looked around at us until he finally stared, transfixed, in one direction. His expression, normally as cold as a corpse, softened as he reached out his hand, but as we looked around, we couldn't see anybody there. The musician made an odd movement, walking with his hand out as though holding the hand of an invisible woman, and began drifting toward the forest, just like last time.
I was the one who followed him into the woods once he disappeared beyond the tree line. I do not know what drove me to do so, but I could not bear to allow him to go without learning the secret behind his mystery appearances. Once everyone had lost interest and turned instead to talking among themselves, I hurried to get to the forest without being seen.
When I arrived at the verge of the endless wealth of trees, I peered into the shadows to see that the musician was still moving, his hand still outstretched and his violin swaying limply at his side, almost forgotten. Trying to move quietly, I entered the forest behind him.
The musician walked as though he was already somewhere else. Somewhere far away from Crystal Gates or this forest. His steps were dreamlike and tranquil, very unlike how I had usually seen him as harrowed and tired. It would have been a sight almost as comforting as his sweet music had we not been in this particular forest, the same forest about which legends were spread around Crystal Gates to say that it was haunted.
Time stopped mattering once we were inside. I had followed him for an eternity and only an instant. We'd walked for hours and only minutes. By the time he entered the grove, years had passed, but not a second had gone by.
The forest was a thick blanket of trees spread out across the landscape, but the trees separated into a grove as though they were bypassing this particular spot, like how a crowd would part to avoid an obstacle in its path. From the edge of the grove, I watched as the musician emerged from the trees and stood in the middle of the path through the grove, looking to the side where his hand was outstretched as though looking at someone who was no longer there.
I leaned forward, my head passing the tree line into the grove, and then I could see it: a strange white light seemed to shine through the trees, a light that hadn't been there a moment ago. There was a thick fog obscuring my vision of what lie beyond the grove, but I could sense that it was no longer just forest. No, there was something much bigger there, something larger than I could ever have hoped to comprehend hidden just beyond the veil.
The musician was still in my sight, but now I could see that he was holding the hand of a spectral woman who glowed with a light blue aura. The woman looked to him and smiled, letting his hand fall from hers as she stepped into the light and disappeared into the fog.
The musician stood there alone for a moment, and then to my surprise, he looked back at me, a single glistening tear sliding down his cheek. His glassy eyes flashed for a moment with something lively, something hopeful, and then he dropped his violin in the grass. Leaving his instrument behind, the musician followed the woman into the light and vanished from my sight forever.
Cautiously, I stepped into the grove and immediately felt a chill. It was cold, and there was something strange that I couldn't quite identify yet. I stepped closer, and gently picked up the musician's violin. It was then, looking at the strings, that I realized that the strange thing was that it was silent. There was a frigid, dead silence in the air. Nothing except for the wind in my ears, but as I turned to leave, I realized that it wasn't wind. Another chill ran down my back when I heard them. It wasn't wind. It was voices.
He still lives…
Begone from here…
Shuddering, I darted back toward the forest and rushed through the trees. As soon as I emerged from that mysterious grove, I felt warmth and the sounds of the forest- insects buzzing and birds cawing- came back. I didn't stop moving until I had broken out of the foliage and found myself standing on the outskirts of Crystal Gates, where everyone was still walking around as though I had never left. For a moment, I wondered if I had, and then I remembered the violin in my hands.
I looked down, inspecting the beautifully made instrument. It was clear that whomever had crafted it had put a lot of time and care into it. The polish was still sleek, albeit a little grimy. The strings themselves were probably in the best condition, but of course a master violinist would have been sure to tend to those each day. I turned it over and saw an engraving etched onto the wood.
Three Years Ago
On the night of October 31st, the high-cultured of Nightshale flocked to the performance hall. As the seats gradually began to fill up with people settling in to enjoy the musicians that would be performing that night, those very musicians were backstage, getting their last arrangements ready before tonight. Every year on this night, the Honeycomb family that owned this performance hall organized a musical showcase and invited talents from across the country to participate in playing songs.
Tonight, one of the groups that would be performing was a quartet composed of two violin players, a viola player, and a cellist. As the other ensembles prepared sheet music and tuned their instruments, this quartet was waiting on one of their violin players.
"Where's Evan?" Timothy, the violist, asked once he had finished checking his strings. "We're the third act."
Clive Patterson, the unofficial leader of the quartet and the cellist, sighed, "I don't know. All that I know is that he had better be here, otherwise he's out. Nightshale is a big city, we're bound to find a replacement violinist while we're here."
"Oh, come now, Clive. Evan is a fine violin player," Timothy dismissed, resting his viola on his lap as he adjusted his black bow tie. "To drop him from our group would do us as much good as it does him."
"He is late all the time, Timothy!" Clive barked. "Too busy with Miss Miranda, I presume."
"Be careful, Clive," John, the other violinist, warned. "One might begin to think that you're jealous."
"Jealous?! How dare you-" Clive was cut off when he noticed Evan Vincent, violin in hand and bowtie partially untied, hurrying to meet with the group. "It's no matter. Just get the composition ready. And as for you," he pointed at Evan, who stopped running and slumped over in his chair, panting, "be here on time, or don't be here at all."
"Sorry, Clive," Evan said, catching his breath. "I'm here now, though, and I'm ready. Look, my strings are all tuned up-"
"Where were you?" Clive cut across him sternly, holding his cello with one hand and tightly clenching his leg with the other.
A faint smile crossing Evan's lips when the memory crossed his mind, "I was just… I was talking with Miranda. She'll be here tonight, actually; she very much wanted to see our performance. She expressed great interest."
"Will she? I'm… glad to hear it," Clive said slowly. "Very glad."
"Enough. They're calling us to the stage," John interrupted, standing up. The others followed suit, and the quartet shuffled out onto the stage to perform.
Their performance that night can only be described as magical. Strings were plucked and stroked, fingers danced and rolled across old, handcrafted wood. As they played, Clive searched the audience for a sign of the woman, but she was lost from sight within the dense audience. Evan, on the other hand, closed his eyes and seemed to lose himself in the music as he played. Their final song that evening strongly resembled a song that would one day be played in Crystal Gates. Evan seemed to lead that one without realizing it, and the others had no choice but to follow him.
When they had finished, the audience gave them a standing ovation that resonated like thunder within the vast auditorium. The four musicians bowed respectfully and then made their way offstage where they talked about the performance and then agreed to go their own separate ways for the night.
But nobody was aware of what Clive had been planning. Although he would never admit it, the cellist had once sought romance with Miranda Foster, the same woman that Evan Vincent loved, and who loved him back just as much. Jealousy had overtaken this man's soul, and after their show, he could contain this envy no longer, so he formed a plan.
As the other two took their leave, Clive requested that Evan accompany him to a private place on the outskirts of Nightshale, a wooded place on the verge of the plains. Evan agreed, under the impression that they were to discuss music or the future of the quartet.
The sun was beginning to sink below the horizon when the two found the road out of Nightshale and strayed off the path into the thin group of woods. The leaves had already fallen from the trees, and some of them seemed as though they were already dead. Beyond the trees, Evan could see the grassy plain stretch far, to a place off into the distance where they probably continued past that. In one hand, he held his violin, not noticing that Clive hadn't brought his cello.
"We're here," Evan said, still transfixed at the largeness of the plains. "What did you want to talk about, Clive? Did you want to hear the piece that I have been working on?"
"No," Clive shook his head, breathing heavily. He shivered, though it wasn't cold. "I don't want to hear it. I don't want to hear anything more from you."
"What? You… you haven't found another violinist, have you?" Evan asked, shocked as he turned to face Clive, who had his hands in the pockets of his black jacket.
"Not yet," Clive answered quietly, stepping closer and taking his hands out of his pockets. Evan's breath caught in his throat, feeling something sharp jab his chest. He looked down to see Clive was holding something that was setting his heart on fire, "but we will… just like how Miranda will find another man."
Clive pulled the knife from Evan's chest, watching sullenly as a blood stain began to dampen the jacket, "Quiet, Evan. I already said that I don't want to hear anything more."
Evan fell to his knees, clutching a hand over his wound as his eyes filled with tears. Blinking through watery vision, he looked up at his former friend and fellow musician, "Why…?"
Evan collapsed, his final word still whistling from his lips as his head hit the dirt. His violin fell from his hand in the grass. Clive knelt down, using Evan's tie to clean the knife, and then he stood up, looking around.
"I'm sorry that it had to be like this," Clive apologized, walking over to another spot and getting down to carefully dig at the dirt with his hands. "I will guarantee Miranda's happiness. I promise you that."
He dug for almost an hour, during which time the sun finally disappeared and the moonlight illuminated his work, before he could seize Evan's arms and drag him over to the hole that he'd made. Once Evan was resting inside the hole, Clive began scooping the dirt into the grave, covering Evan's body and hiding his sin from sight. He stopped one time during his desperate quest to retrieve Evan's violin and gently lay it down beside its owner before he proceeded to bury Evan's body and stamp the ground flat. Now, feeling an immense weight off his shoulders but a tight knot in his stomach, Clive left Evan behind and made his way back to Nightshale.
What he didn't know was that Miranda Foster had been waiting for Evan Vincent to meet her at the bridge over the river that night. She waited, her hopefulness slowly being replaced by a crushed sense of regret as the time passed but her lover did not appear.
The heartache was almost too much for Miranda, who had loved a precious few in the same way that she had loved and cherished Evan. She returned home at midnight, hours after Evan had promised to arrive. For a few days, she waited for him to come to her door, but he never did. Only his band member, the wretched man named Clive, appeared on her doorstep, but she had politely excused herself and closed the door when he suggested that she leave the house with him.
She never saw Evan again, and after a month, she tearfully accepted that he had not loved her after all. Deeply wounded and unable to recover from the heartbreak, Miranda decided to leave her memories behind and move away. She left her house one day without telling anyone, and never looked back. Clive Patterson came knocking one day, only to find the house empty and Miranda gone.
As for Miranda, she found a home in the small nearby town of Crystal Gates where she lived a reclusive lifestyle, rarely leaving her house. She acquired a reputation from her neighbors as a woman who was rude in her isolation, and a reputation from the children as a witch who didn't like kids on her property. It was a lonely lifestyle, but she took comfort in the fact that she was secluded from her past.
A year passed before Evan Vincent clawed his way out of his grave.
As to what nefarious supernatural entity willed him to rise, by whose hand he found the will- or, indeed, the life- to stand up, no one can say for sure. Had anyone witnessed this troubling sequence of a dead man leaving his own grave behind, they might have remarked on how peculiar it was that Evan didn't seem to have withered away at all.
Rather than seeking revenge upon the lonely man who had been his demise one year earlier (whom, for the curious, was spending Halloween sucking down the sweet nectar of alcohol alone, taking another gulp each time his thoughts threatened to form any sort of clarity from the blissful dizziness that had engulfed them), Evan's ghost began to walk away from Nightshale in pursuit of the only soul that he truly cared for, guided only by his incoherent, but innately primal thoughts of love and comfort rather than the savage imaginings of vengeance. His violin dangled limply from his hand as he set out down the vast road toward the town that his lover had fled to, and as the sky turned dark and with the moon as his sole witness, Evan arrived in Crystal Gates where he was noticed by the curious townsfolk who were ignorant of his identity, or his untimely fate.
It was there, alone and on display and yearning only for her sweet embrace, that Evan gave in to the only thing within his head that resembled a memory. He rose his violin, held the bow to the strings just as he had done so many times before, and as he played a sweet melody that he remembered from the final day of his life, he could see flashes from the life he had lived. Playing a sweet song by the moonlight, her face lighting up as he performed a private concert for her and her alone. The way he had played a sad song when she had fallen ill, and the way he had dropped the instrument to hold her in his arms when she recovered, and the countless times that she had tugged on his sleeve with hopefulness lighting up her face as her mouth moved, and he couldn't remember her voice, but he knew what she was saying because she said it all the time: "Wouldn't you please play a song for me?" or the time that he had received a hefty payment from the owners of a venue that his quartet had just performed at and he was beside himself with excitement because now he could finally afford the ring that he had been aching to buy. All of these feelings, and so many more, overwhelmed Evan Vincent as he played.
Half of his life had been blood. The other half had been, and would always be, music.
As he performed for the curious onlookers, a lone woman sat alone inside her house, listening to the soothing melody from through a window cracked open ever so slightly. She remained motionless all throughout the song, memories of her own resurfacing and she was overcome with despair once more for the man that had left her, or had she left him? Her throat burned; she was deliberately holding back a cough, unwilling to let herself interrupt the song, but once it had concluded in the same way that he had always ended it, Miranda finally let herself give in to the coughing fit. Her disease was coming back, much worse than before, but without him to greet her when she recovered, what was the point?
Once he had reached the end of the song, Evan lowered his violin, disappointed that the song had an ending at all, one where she didn't come to interrupt him, but it wouldn't have mattered because they would have been together again. As soon as they had come, the memories were gone. Only the sorrow remained, and the tiredness was suddenly weighing heavily upon him. The musician searched for her face within the crowd, but no, she wasn't there. Slowly, Evan turned and began his trek back to his bed on the outskirts of Nightshale, leaving Crystal Gates behind so that he might sleep again.
Another year passed before he rose once more, but this time his slumber was disturbed by a constant stream of nightmares that he couldn't tell if they were real or not. In the span of the year that he spent dreaming, Miranda's illness only worsened. She remained inside, more out of necessity than because she valued her privacy over all else. Each night, she went to bed early just to lie down and feel some small reprieve from the pain that had engulfed her body, but there was no fleeing the pain that had taken her heart.
Just as the year before, Evan left his grave behind and went to Crystal Gates. The nightmares had rekindled a familiar emotion: heartache. When he played the violin that year, he poured every drop of his anguish into each note, a sentiment that was shared by Miranda who climbed out of bed in spite of her aches and shakiness to open the window to hear more of the siren's sweet song.
This year, however, Evan heard something calling to him once he had concluded his song with one final note. It was a soothing voice, calling out to him. It was neither feminine or masculine, nor did it even resemble anything human, but there was a certain tranquil liveliness to it, as though it were life itself. The voice beckoned him to the forest, where he followed it as though he were wandering through a dream.
Come, the voice said softly, your time has passed.
No, Evan Vincent refused. Not without her.
The voice fell silent, and the heavenly presence that had previously engulfed the forest vanished. He stared into the trees for a while, either lost in thought or genuinely losing his grip on reality. Once he had snapped back to what little senses remained in his rapidly decaying body, Evan left the forest, Crystal Gates, and unknowingly, Miranda, behind as he returned to his dirt bed to sleep for another year.
But by the time that the next year came, he knew that it would be his final time.
His body had lasted far longer than it was meant to. It isn't even clear if that was still his mind inside of it, or just his ghost. His skin was withering away, it was harder to move, and he knew that he more resembled a ghoul than the handsome young man that he had once been. It had served him well, but after three years, the time was approaching that he had to let go.
Evan Vincent returned to Crystal Gates on October 31st of that year, but unbeknownst to him, Miranda Foster was preparing to leave. Her illness had taken her sight and most of her hearing, and she spent much of her time in bed. The powerful odor of her own bed, sweat, and filth would have been overpowering had she been able to smell it. It was a miracle that she had lived this long at all, but something kept her holding on. Now, as the fifth straight day that she had done nothing but lie in bed and vividly hallucinate came to a close, Miranda waited for the inevitable.
The Musician walked into Crystal Gates that year with his violin, his most trusted and only constant companion, at his side. The people noticed him and his weariness, but he paid them no mind. Tonight, he could sense the omnipotence of the presence was upon them once again, and this time he would go to it.
But there was still one last show to perform.
Evan raised his violin bow to the strings once more, and he began to play. This time, he poured what remained of his life into each note, producing a melody of his anguish. It was as though the violin were weeping as he played. He closed his eyes, letting the music take hold of him one final time, and for a moment he was alive again. His murder had never happened, he had never died or lived at all; he was simply one with the music.
Miranda heard the song, even with her dulled sense of hearing, and she rose up, not even realizing that she left her body behind as she walked outside in a daze. She stood behind the crowd, in disbelief at what she saw. Evan Vincent, just as she remembered him, was standing in the middle of town, playing the violin just like always, playing that song that he had always played for her.
And he ended it the same way too, with one final note that he poured all of his emotions, the very essence of his soul, into.
Evan opened his eyes to see Miranda, at last, standing there. He was tired, lost, and more alone than he had ever been, but just the mere sight of her made him feel reborn. He held out his hand to her as she wandered through the crowd, unaware that her ethereal form phased through them, and she took his hand.
You came back for me, Miranda said, tearing up.
My sweet Miranda… Evan answered, squeezing her hand tighter, I never left.
With that, Evan and Miranda began to walk toward the forest. There was no soothing voice this time; there didn't have to be. The trees seemed to move aside to welcome them in, and Evan moved forward with a newfound sense of purpose. The past three years had been so cold, but now he had never known such comforting warmth. Miranda floated, feeling all of the pressures and weights of her life lift from her shoulders.
They arrived in the grove, and a bright light filled the forest around them as they stopped to take in the marvellous sight before them. It was there, clear as day, shining like gold. The presence itself seemed to make up every part of the beauty that was The Ends.
Well… let's get going, shall we? Miranda let her hand drift away from Evan's as she moved forward into the world that they truly belonged in. We have an eternity to spend together.
Evan looked back at the world he had been chained to for so long, and for a moment he saw the wide eyes of a boy staring at them from through the trees. Evan felt a single warm tear slide down his cheek, the very last ounce of his life falling away, and he dropped his violin in the grass for the boy to have.
May it give you the life I never had. Evan bestowed his blessing onto the boy as he followed his lover into the Ends.