By Kenneth Yu
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The kalesa halted right in front of my humble boarding house. I folded my newspaper and looked up from behind the front desk, just as the sound of the horse’s canter on the cobbled street ceased. The early afternoon sunlight, as bright as my lobby was dim, caused me to squint to get a better look at the two people disembarking from the upper carriage. All I could see were their silhouettes framed in the doorway.
The driver hefted the baggage down, a blur of action. He lifted them through the entrance and, without stepping inside, placed them on the lobby floor. He then held his palm out – strangely, at a full arm’s length – to the other one, the passenger. It struck me then that the driver seemed to be in a rush and that he was crouched and breathing heavily from exertion, even if the bags he had just carried did not seem particularly large or heavy. The passenger picked from a purse and delicately placed some coins into the open hand. Perhaps it was a trick of the light on my eyes, but the scene froze and the two silhouettes became shadows, dark and thin, almost skeletal, the taller one holding out some benediction to the other, more shriveled one. It lasted but a moment. In the next, the horse on the street whinnied nervously and shook its mane, restoring movement. The driver took his money and bowed, then quickly clambered onto his box-seat; with a click of his tongue and a “Hee-ya!”, the kalesa clopped away.
The remaining man approached the front desk slowly, his footsteps echoing hollowly. As my eyes adjusted and my vision cleared, allowing the silhouette before me to gain features, I noticed his mouth: wide, two long lines of pinkish lips in a pale face, open in a grin that seemed to show more than the normal amount of square, white teeth.
“Good afternoon,” he said, his tone friendly but his voice rasping. “I would like to rent a room; may I?”
I grunted an affirmation, heavily opened the registry between us, and waved lightly at the pen. He took it and I noticed how pale his hands were, how long and thin his fingers. He bent over, dipped the pen in the inkwell and signed his name. “Edilberto Rosalino Alhambra Lorenzo” his name was, or so he had written, one typical in length and the usual pretension of the upper classes and those trying to be like them.
“Señor Lorenzo,” I addressed him, but even so, I was unsure of his name’s claim to any inner kastilaloy heritage. There seemed an oddness to his look, not quite mestizo, but not quite indio, either; and in the first place, my boarding house was not one for my “betters”. Nevertheless, his manner and bearing were impeccably societal and as long as his money was good….
“I would like to have a room on the highest floor, away from everyone else. From the outside, I noticed a high corner protruding on one side of your fine establishment. Could that be an attic, perhaps? An upper-level mezzanine? If that is indeed a room, I saw that the window points to the sky, to the stars. That would be perfect for my needs.”
This was the most he had said in one breath and I admit to having been taken aback. The uppercrusts never bothered with more than what needed to be said to those like myself. He must have noticed my surprise, but instead of holding back as I expected, as someone of his stature should’ve done, he pressed on, still loquacious.
“I am, ah, an amateur musician, you see, a student in between teachers, if you will.” He waved his arm toward his baggage and I wondered how I could have missed the bruised and faded guitar case between two other smaller pieces of luggage, equally battered.
“I would not like to be a disturbance to your other guests.” He doffed his hat, revealing a bald, bulbous, white pate bulging with purple veins. In doing so, he aged himself instantly by twenty years before my eyes. For a moment, he seemed less human and for the first time, my unease threatened to overwhelm me; I shuddered from a cold that came from within. No, he was not young, only seemed to be, properly concealed.
“You see,” he continued, “I am working on a piece of music, a short concierto and an even-shorter opera, just an amateur’s attempt at art, so to speak. I expect to be composing late into the night and I would not like to be a disturbance to your guests.” This time, at the sight of his teeth and his strange smile, I was nearly unnerved.
“It’s our most expensive room.” Business was just so-so and my occupancy was not high, but for some reason, I uttered the words as if to dissuade him. My voice quivered slightly as I spoke and I struggled to regain some control of my illogical nervousness. He asked for the rate and I named one higher than normal, which he accepted by re-opening his purse, counting out a wad of bills and placing them neatly before me.
I could only cast my eyes downward at the money, mumble a “Yes” and ring the small bell I keep behind the reception table. Rosalino – the teenager I employed as an all-around assistant – walked in from the back.
“Lino,” I said, acutely aware that I was making an effort not to directly address my new guest, “here are the keys. Show Señor Lorenzo to the high corner room. It is his for the next four nights. Take his bags.”
“Be careful with them,” Señor Lorenzo said, turning his smile onto the boy. Lino hesitated and his eyes widened, before he hurriedly picked up the bags and trotted up the narrow wooden staircase on his bare feet.
Señor Lorenzo nodded to me, restored his hat to his head, and followed Lino upstairs. For some reason, to my ears, his footsteps echoed more hollowly than the muted thudding of Lino’s own.
“Did you hear him last night, Señor Santos?” Lino asked me the next morning. We were both early risers, and were sharing a breakfast of eggs, garlic-rice sinangag, and barako coffee.
I had heard faint pluckings of the guitar strings from my quarters on the ground, but only when I strained to listen. They were easy to ignore and not loud enough to disturb me. My own room is hidden away behind thick walls and a thick door, and I am not in the habit of sleeping by an open window, even with a kulambo – an old but still serviceable mosquito net. When I sleep, I prefer it quiet and utterly dark.
I remembered then that Lino had chosen a recess at the back of my boarding house as his place of rest, needing only a makeshift wooden cot, a rattan banig to lie on, and one of my discarded kulambo for protection from insects. That spot was three stories down and directly below the window to our latest guest’s room. If anyone would have heard Señor Lorenzo’s music, it would have been Lino.
“No, I did not,” I told him. “Did you? Was he any good?”
“Oh, he sounded like a good guitarist, Señor….” His voice trailed off and I noticed immediately the way the young boy’s face scrunched up in perturbation.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s not that he played poorly. I could hear much of his music. He’s certainly a better guitarist than my Tito Manuel from Pampanga. Tito Manuel has been playing all his life, but Señor Lorenzo is far more skilled. It’s just that….”
“Señor, I could not recognize the type of music he was playing last night. It did not sound like any music I had ever heard of. It was different.”
“Did you enjoy his music?”
“No, I can’t say that I did, yet I couldn’t stop listening. Even if his music made me feel – what is the word? – ‘uncomfortable’, I wanted to hear more of it. But our guest did not play his song through. He would stop, then resume again, then stop, change something a bit in the tune, as if he did not yet know fully the song he was playing.”
“He did say that he was composing a concierto and an opera.”
“Perhaps that is why.” Lino sighed. “I could not sleep at all, Señor. Strangely, I did not want to sleep, and I felt irritated whenever he would pause. I’m sure I did not get more than three or four hours last night.”
“Was he up that late?” I asked. It was then that I noticed how bloodshot Lino’s eyes were. “Well, this cannot be. You cannot do all the work I need you to do if you are not rested. Maybe we can move you to one of the small closets in the meantime. You can empty one of them of whatever they contain and move in temporarily.”
“No!” Lino surprised me with the passion of his response, with the way he jerked his head up at me to express his dismay at my suggestion. He reacted as if I had meant some punishment for him, when clearly, I did not.
“No, sir!” he said. “I’ll be fine. I can still do my work and more, if necessary. I am happy where I am!”
“Well, then…,” I began, when the sound of someone clearing his throat startled the two of us out of our conversation.
Señor Lorenzo stood in the doorway to our small kitchen. We had not heard his approach, not even the creak of the stairs as his weight pressed on the wooden steps. He was, as far as I could tell, wearing the same clothes as the day before, and when he said “Good morning” and smiled at us, the same, initial fear renewed itself within me.
“I hope I am not bothering you,” he said, “but I will be going out today and I will not return till later this evening. I have locked the door to my room and I would like to request that it not be disturbed. I am quite particular about my belongings.”
It was a strange request. Did he not want us to sweep the floor, or empty his bedpan, at the least? But I could only nod my head at him.
“Will you be playing again tonight, Señor?” Lino asked with a boyish eagerness that surprised me as much as the audacity he displayed in addressing a stranger he should not have been speaking to in the first place.
“Yes, and for every night,” our guest said. “Could you hear me? I am sorry….”
“No. It’s all right,” Lino cut him off, another breach. “It’s all right, Señor.”
“Well, thank you. Goodbye.” He turned around and disappeared out the main door.
I would have reprimanded Lino then and there for speaking before being spoken to; I would have reminded him that only I am allowed to speak with guests and if he is ever questioned, he should answer quickly and directly without developing any familiarity. But just as Señor Lorenzo left, someone else thundered down the stairs.
Another of our guests, a Señor Juan Martin Fernandez, one of two travelers from Cavite, all disheveled and wild-eyed, burst in upon us.
“Carlito is dead!” he screamed.
Lino and I followed him upstairs to their shared room. He was gibbering about how he had woken up from a poor night’s sleep haunted by terrible dreams and when he stepped over to his companion’s bunk to shake him awake, discovered him with eyes open but blank, staring at the ceiling, his mouth open and frothing with green sputum, his face a ghostly pale and lined with thin, purple veins.
I sent Lino to call the Guardiya Sibil, and he returned with them and one of their superior commanders post-haste. They all reached the same and immediate verdict that I had: one of our guests had died in his sleep and a cart was needed to take his corpse away.
The worst that could happen to my business is a fire. A fire can destroy everything and leave you with nothing. It is said that it is better to be burgled than to have your home and your business go up in smoke and flames. But a death! Unlike with a fire, I still had my building, but a death at this moment felt just as devastating.
The doctors came and took the body away. One of their assistants clicked his tongue as he covered my guest’s face with a white sheet. They saved me from the indignity of being questioned, instead turning their curiosities upon Señor Fernandez. While he was whisked away, I heard the word “quarantine” uttered more than a few times. Memories were still fresh as we were only four years removed from a flu that had ravaged Manila.
My other guests had woken to the commotion. From the corners of my eyes, I caught them whispering among themselves. They saw and heard the same things I had. In a few minutes they were all dressed and lined up at the reception. I entreated with them to stay, that nothing had been conclusively proven, that it was all speculation, but to no avail.
“We don’t know anything yet,” I pleaded. The more polite guests apologized; the ruder ones claimed that their past night was restless and that their dreams were disturbed, as if that could have been my fault. By eleven, they had all packed, paid and left, all covering their mouths with damp handkerchiefs.
I could only wait for the authorities to return, either with the news that they were closing us down or that my boarding house was clear.
“Señor Santos?” Lino called me from the stairs. The tremor in his voice betrayed his fear.
“What? What is it?”
“I think you should see this,” he said and he led me upstairs.
I thought he would lead me to the room where our guest had died, to show me some frightening piece of evidence that indeed, the flu, or some other plague, had returned. But he turned away at the landing and brought me instead to the high corner room. The door stood ajar.
“Did you unlock it?” I asked. He nodded, and handed me the master key I trusted him with.
“I thought to clean his room….”
“No, you did not!” I said, with all vehemence and he knew I spoke the truth. Chastised, he bowed his head.
“I wanted to see his things. I wanted to hear Señor Lorenzo’s song again.”
And now, so did I. What could have taken a hold of this boy, who previously had shown no taste for any kind of art, to make him obsess over this music?
I faced a choice then. To shut the door and lock it, to keep myself in blissful ignorance, would have won me over, if not for Lino’s plea.
“You must see!” he said, and he pushed the door wide. He took my arm and pulled me bodily into the room. The assault on my senses was immediate.
My grandfather suffered from vertigo late in his life and he always complained about losing his sense of balance, of dizziness. This was how he died: he fell down while getting up from the sofa in the sala and the sudden movement caused him to fall and hit his head on the floor. He never woke up from his coma. The doctors couldn’t do anything and neither could the albularyos with all their herbs and potions. When I entered Señor Lorenzo’s room, I knew that this must’ve been how he felt.
Tacked on the walls were large, yellowing parchments of hand-drawn illustrations of what seemed to be buildings, but none of a kind that I had ever seen. In my youth, before my family fell on difficult times, I had been to Europe, to Paris, Bonn, Stuttgart, London, Barcelona, Madrid, Berlin. They were fascinating places and I had thought then that I had seen the apex of human architectural creativity. Upon seeing these drawings, I knew then that there was something beyond man’s capabilities. Taken together, the drawings presented a city designed following some inhuman geometry, one that seemed off with what the world I knew presented. The angles made no sense and neither did the placements of what I took to be gables, awnings and other fixtures. My eyes began to tear, which was fortunate because I knew that if I stared at the drawings for too long, I would surely pass out. And these were simply penciled sketches! I feared for what this might do to me if they had been real.
Lino’s voice called me back and I shielded my eyes from the walls so as to focus on him. I reached out and held his shoulder for support. “Look,” he said and against my will, I beheld the crumpled paper he thrust in my face. My schooling had included some formal lessons in guitar, an instrument which I had no talent for, but I recognized the writings as sheet music. The piece was untitled and I noticed in parentheses a German name, Erich Zann, but surely our guest was the true composer behind it. Beneath the notes were words, lyrics, I presumed, of his opera, but it was in a language I could not recognize – and based on the formations of the letters – much less pronounce. On the table was an open, leather-bound book, handwritten and not printed, ragged around the edges, with many loose sheets of music and other notes inserted between the pages. I recognized some of the words from this book as being the same as those on the sheet Lino held up to me. Clearly, they were being transcribed to the music.
As with breakfast earlier that morning, the sound of a throat clearing made us look up and as before, standing in the doorway watching us with unveiled vehemence, stood Edilberto Rosalino Alhambra Lorenzo.
“I warned you most politely,” he snarled, “not to enter my room!”
“Señor! It was me! I am sorry!”
“Wait!” I said, mustering my authority. I was still the proprietor of the boarding house and I called on those rights. Despite my quivering knees, I said, “We have had a death due to illness this morning, sir, and the doctors and inspectors may shut us down. I am expecting them to return any moment. We only inspected the room to make certain of its safety. You may have to leave at once. These are unusual circumstances!”
In his silence, Señor Lorenzo was more menacing than he would have been in passionate anger. He stepped inside the room and closed the door behind him. Lino and I were frozen in place and could only watch. He stepped slowly to the unused bed where, for the first time, I saw his guitar case lying open. He sat on the bed and pulled his guitar out and in the strangest of reactions to all that had happened, began to play and sing.
Lino’s mouth opened wide in surprise and recognition; the song was surely the same as the one he had played the night before. Señor Lorenzo started slow, calling forth mixes of chords and sounds both weird and dreadful. Certainly, the music was not natural to this world, and I could hardly believe the indefinable vibrations that he was calling forth from his throat and from his instrument. It filled me with a brooding sense of wonder and frightening mystery. That such a symphony could be brought forth by one man playing one instrument was unbelievable.
The music picked up and Señor Lorenzo’s hands and fingers began to move in such a frenzy they became a blur to my eyes. He began to shriek his words in time to his playing and as if in answer, the sky outside clouded over and the wind began to howl through the open window. Señor Lorenzo was certainly a genius and also clearly insane, as his eyes took on a look of madness as he turned the full energy of his work upon us. My heart beat rapidly in my breast.
There came a choking sound beside me and Lino fell, grabbing my shirt as he did so. His eyes had rolled up into his forehead and his mouth frothed with saliva and mucus in mimicry of the dead guest in the room below. I am ashamed to say that I could not help myself, but in disgust and repulsion, I stepped back and detached myself from my assistant’s clutching hands. Then, in the most unbelievable of events in a morning filled with them, I perceived the sound of another voice, one that growled in guttural anger, and another kind of music akin and in answer to Señor Lorenzo’s play, descend from the dark sky outside, growing in volume in its seeming approach. I ran out the door, fleeing for my life.
I do not remember staggering down the narrow staircase. I do not remember rushing outside as fast as I could in an attempt to distance myself from the madness that seemed to follow me wherever I went nonetheless. I do not remember finding myself in the middle of the cobbled calle, the kalesa bearing down on me from out of nowhere, the horse’s whinny, its rearing forelegs, the screams of the driver and bystanders.
I came to my senses in the hospital. My legs were broken, as was my right forearm. The doctors and nurses were kind, if wary. A young orderly, more patient than the rest, explained that I had woken screaming many times in the middle of the night, calling out my assistant’s name and the name “Lorenzo!” then laughing maniacally before falling back into unconsciousness. For three nights, I had been this way and they had needed to move me to a separate room because of the disturbance I was creating for the other patients.
I inquired as to my boarding house and Lino, explaining who he was to me. I gave my address and the name of my business to the orderly, which puzzled him, but he was accommodating enough to agree to send someone to check. He told me later that the messenger he had sent reported no such edifice at the site, claiming to have found only a vacant, grassy lot.
I think now: would that I could do the same for my memory and lose it as I have lost my boarding house, because in my dreams, in the darkest of nights, I can still hear the cacophony of Señor Lorenzo’s music; I can still hear his voice scream a babel of words whose meanings were never meant to be comprehended by man. When I am deepest in recollection, the world I know slowly transforms into that city, shaping itself into its mad architecture. In those moments, I know where I need to go to find my home; to find Lino, if he is still alive, which I doubt; and Señor Lorenzo, whom I never hope to see again.
Bio: Kenneth Yu is a writer from the Philippines. His work has seen print in his country’s various publications, including the Philippine ezines Usok and Best Of Philippine Speculative Fiction 2009; in the anthologies Philippine Speculative Fiction IV and V; and on the Philippine fiction podcast site Pakinggan Pilipinas. One of his stories also placed 3rd in the Neil Gaiman-sponsored 3rd Philippine Graphic Fiction Awards in early 2010. Elsewhere, his stories have been accepted by The Town Drunk and AlienSkin, with another forthcoming in the print anthology D.O.A. from Blood Bound Books. He also won Fantasy Magazine‘s 2009 Halloween Flash Fiction contest.