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A Music Lesson

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“Tell me about the monster that walks in the darkness.”

“Um,” said the girl with the awkward mouth.

Miss Orenstein rapped the sheet music on the stand with the end of her pencil. Saint-Saëns, Danse Macabre. The tapping made a hollow sound, like a drum.

“You know this, Priyanka,” she said. “Don’t hide yourself.”

Priyanka fidgeted with the cuffs of her school uniform. Sweat trickled down her back. It was always too hot in the practice-rooms, with their thick panels of soundproofing on the walls. The room Miss Orenstein used had a window, but she never opened it: she said it let in distractions and made her students too self-conscious. Priyanka was self-conscious enough already.

Miss Orenstein was waiting for her answer, with that particular patient calm which said I can wait all day if I have to. Miss Orenstein was good at that one.

I know this, she reminded herself.

“Fear,” she said. “It’s one of the Nightmares.” She checked Miss Orenstein’s reaction in a quick glance, then remembered confidence needed eye contact. Shoulders back, speak clearly. “One of the Nightmares, so an inborn or universal fear – nearly universal – something you can always find, if you’re looking for a hook. It’s a hunter, a pursuit predator. Fear of inevitability – it moves slowly, but you know it’ll always catch you, that’s what makes it a nightmare. Oh! And the unknown, too; sometimes people’s minds blend in their own ideas but the base fear is the one where you don’t know what it is that’s chasing you, you just know it’s, er, chasing you. And – yes.” She realised she had said everything, and cut herself off. Miss Orenstein was nodding.

“Unstructured information and one instance of ‘er’,” her teacher said, “but that was very comprehensive. Well done.” She paused. Priyanka felt a thrill, like the string she was supposed to imagine running from above her head down her spine was pulled to its fullest extent and then also electrified. That was definitely a waiting pause, not the end of her statement. Something big was coming.

Show me,” Miss Orenstein said.

She thinks I can invoke a Nightmare?! Priyanka’s mind reeled; her heart pounded. She had only been learning since she started secondary school, and she’d never invoked anything from scratch before, not even a little manifestation like Love in Lover’s Eyes. Create the Monster that Walks in the Darkness? On her own? Now? She opened her mouth to protest – and closed it again with a snap. Miss Orenstein was smiling warmly at her. Trustingly.

She thinks I can invoke a Nightmare.

Priyanka pulled self-confidence over herself, looked Miss Orenstein in the eyes, and said, “Okay.”

Miss Orenstein picked up her violin from where it had been lying on the chair and ran her bow over the strings to check the tuning. She adjusted the E string a little, in a wail like a horror-movie storm wind. Priyanka breathed in deep, let it out slow, sank into herself.

What did she have to work with? A small, cramped, soundproofed room. A chair, two violin cases, a music stand. A mirror and a narrow window. The heat, and the sweat still running down her back.

And the Danse Macabre.

It split the air in a scream of double-stopped chords, loud and seeming louder in the little room. Priyanka’s breath caught, but that was only adrenaline: she grinned fiercely, transmuting it into excitement. Come out, monsters, Miss Orenstein’s violin was saying, come out and dance.

She called the darkness first. Her shadow lengthened, deepened; the sun could have slipped behind a cloud, so Priyanka resolved that it would, and watched the music stand’s shadow stretch into a forest of spikes and merge together with the chair’s. The music glided from the strings, slower now and eerie. She took the discomfort the tritones left her – the too-narrow intervals, the sense that this was not how music should sound – and turned it into something wider, wove it in with the spreading darkness and her racing heart.

What else, what else? Oh, right! Such a small space, so narrow and cramped: take the feeling of being trapped, add that to the fear already brewing. Keep the oppressiveness of heat, discard the temperature itself as a distraction. The little room she had visited once a week for three years was barely recognisable now, so filled with shadows that she couldn’t see the walls. Images flickered and writhed in the mirror. I didn’t do that.

Did I do that?

The violin slithered up a glissando into a dreadful shriek – and went abruptly silent.

There was something behind her.

She was standing in a long dark corridor which stretched away into the distance ahead of her. There was no light, but she could see the shadows shifting on the walls. She was quite alone.

Behind her, the thing began to move. To pace forward, slowly. One step at a time, and impossible to outrun. Priyanka groped for a prayer of some kind, or a mantra, and came up with oh fuck.

Still. Never try to outrun a hunter. She reached for a weapon, and had slightly more success. Gripping the pencil tightly in her left hand, she turned around.

She had only a split-second view of a shape that was not the shadows – that was darker than the shadows, darker than black – before she was back in the practice-room, where she had always been. Through the tiny window, she saw the sun come out from behind its cloud.

When she turned back round to face Miss Orenstein, her teacher inclined her head to her, as one practitioner to another. Priyanka could feel her smile splitting her face. She wanted to jump up and down, to laugh, to run down the school hallways yelling, “I did it! I did it!”

Not that she would, of course.

“And that,” said Miss Orenstein, “is all we have time for today. What class am I keeping you from now, Priyanka?”

Priyanka put the pencil back on the music stand. Knelt down to pack away her violin and bow, left lying on top of their case for verisimilitude. “Chemistry.”

“Ah.” Some weeks it was History, or Religious Studies, or Art, and then Miss Orenstein had a comment or two that lightened up the whole class period and made the lessons make sense. Not this week, though. “Well, I’m afraid my next student is here. I’ll see you next week.”

“See you next week, Miss Orenstein!” She brushed past the next student – Matthew Reed from Year 8 – on her way out, and made her way to her locker to stow her violin. She didn’t run down any school corridors, but she was still smiling as she reached the classroom and found her seat at the back.

The smile didn’t last long once her lab partner once again ignored her to talk to the pair in front of them, and had faded entirely by the time the lesson started. Priyanka kept her head down and her eyes on her textbook, and daydreamed about setting the Monster that Walks in the Darkness on all three of them.