Das Lied von die Todesmadchen

My Sixth [symphony] will be asking riddles that can be solved only by a generation that has received and digested my first five.
—Gustav Mahler

1903

Sunlight played across the landscape, dappling the leaves and projecting their silhouettes against the ground, accentuating the surface of the lake, whose facets were visible through the foliage itself. The shadow of a man on a bicycle cut across this projection, its form shimmering with the undulation of the terrain. Gustav rode that trail every day; he no longer needed to watch the path to stay on it, and thus he could appreciate the scenery. Though he had built a tiny hut in which to do his work, Gustav regarded the lakes and the woods and the path as his own; for all practical purposes, he did his work out here as well, and the hut was merely for bookkeeping.
Gustav was a rather small individual, possessing little height and virtually no muscle. That coupled with his neat hair and small spectacles did not give him the appearance of someone even remotely athletic, though he in fact had very little trouble maneuvering his bike up hills and around curves for quite some distance. Further, despite the irregular speed and stride of his normal walk, he'd mastered balance on two wheels.
Or rather, he had it mastered when nothing was in his way. The fact that a woman showed up in front of Gustav's bike with no warning whatsoever threw him entirely. Swerving to avoid her, he tumbled ungracefully to the ground, barely managing to retain his spectacles in the process.
The woman—scarcely more than a girl—was short and slight. Her skin was uncommonly pale, her unruly hair raven black. She wore a simple dress also of black, adorned only by a silver pendant of a looped-cross shape to which Gustav couldn't put a name. The woman smiled down at Gustav. Something fired in the back of his mind that he shouldn't let her help him up.
Gustav sat and fussily brushed the leaves from his shirt. The girl laughed. Hey, you're Gustav Mahler, right? I gotta say, I'm not much of a concertgoer, but I really love that one movement of your first symphony, the one with the animals having a funeral procession for that hunter. Great music, really sweet image. I mean, I know it was meant to be irony, but the whole concept is sweet, y'know, cute.
Gustav blinked. He was a very superstitious man, and he knew what worried him. He also knew the warning signs for said things, so he knew when to start worrying. This situation, however, was completely unlike anything he'd ever considered, and for that it was all the more worrisome. You know me...how? he queried, deeply suspicious.
She shrugged. I'm around here often enough. I get to know everyone. And you're a big name.
Around? Gustav didn't know of anybody else around his lake, but something internal kept him from pressing the issue. Instead of providing further remark, he simply stood and regarded her, brow creased in a squint.
She laughed again, probably at his expression. You have no idea why I'm here, do you?
Well, yes. Gustav nodded. I mean, I haven't the slightest idea.
This isn't normal business for me, either, she admitted, but I was passing by. See, I know people might fear me or don't like me. I can't change that, but I can try to make it easier. I don't have to be mean.
Gustav nodded along. He didn't ask what it was that she did—perhaps it didn't occur to him to ask, or perhaps there was an innate understanding. Wait, so what are we making easier?
She smiled sadly. I'm going to be around a lot. You're going to get to know me, even before your time. I'm really sorry; I'm not responsible for that. But I figure that if you handled it with preemptive creativity...Ah, simply, would you write me a symphony?
Gustav's brows raised in surprise, and two of the veins on his temples became more prominent.
You know. A symphony. You've already written five. She gestured in the air, much like a stereotypical teenager. I don't mean dedicated to me. I just mean with my future visits in mind. I know you can handle it beautifully.
For a moment, Gustav appeared as if he would fly into a hair-raised rage at this impudence. He did not, however. His expression calmed in a split second, as if he'd picked picked up that this was no act of ego. If I were to do so, on what shall I write?
I think you will know what's best for that, she said. I don't want to cramp you or keep you longer now. Not to mention, other duties call. She waved cheerfully, produced her own bike from behind a tree, and pedaled off, ringing a little bell as she went.
Gustav watched her departure and merely blinked.

1903
He wrote feverishly, like he did every summer. He would lock himself in his hut by the lake for hours at a time, spilling the notes from his mind onto a four-line short score page. The actual orchestration would come in fall and winter, between conducting jobs. Gustav used his creativity to the fullest in summer alone.
He was quite happy, the most so in a long time, in fact. The summer was beautiful, and he was at the lake in the exclusive company of his beloved wife and darling infant daughter. And, of course, there was his symphony, his Sixth. At first he'd been apprehensive to write it, entirely due to what the strange girl in black said, but then he felt that perhaps he should write it after all in order to counter whatever might happen to him if he didn't. And when he started, the whole thing just came together—the final journey of a hero, a dark but beautiful progression into utter desolation, sealed by three blows of a hammer.
He admittedly wasn't sure where it came from, particularly not at such a happy time, at least not beyond the fact that thoughts of the strange girl definitely turned his tonalities darker.

1906
Gustav did not know how the audience took the premiere. That was no longer important to him. He just wanted to be able to control his tears and shaking well enough so that he could change the end of the score.
He'd conducted badly, and he knew it was because he was so terrified of the finale. As for that, it became all so much more evident in his mind through the weeks of rehearsal that maybe the hero was him. That is, he—Gustav Mahler—was the individual contained in the symphony, the one facing eternity and being pounded out by three successive weakening blows of the hammer.
He didn't care if it had been the natural conclusion, or if the strange girl had seemingly indicated it in his mind. Maybe he didn't trust her anymore. The music scared him regardless. He may have written it, but it scared him and he didn't want to die and thus he needed to fix it.
Three hammer blows, each weaker than the last because it requires less force to finish someone who's previously been hit. The third, at the coda, the very end, was the death stroke. He had to take it out. He didn't want to die. He'd go home from the hall and take it out, forget everything else. He was simply no good at facing death.

1911
The loose valve fluttered, useless in the stream of blood being pumped irregularly past it. With every beat, Gustav felt his entire heart grow heavier within his chest, and with every breath he noticed the further constriction of his infected lungs. He fully expected that this room would be the last thing he'd ever see, and he'd resigned himself to it.
That resignation was what allowed the girl to scare him even further. At her silent entry, his heart pounded harder, then sunk into an imperceptible depth. He'd definitely grown visibly older and more worn, while she appeared exactly as she had eight years previously. She smiled gently, and he tried to cover his fear.
It's a really nice symphony, she told him. But it was more powerful before you changed the ending.
Gustav looked straight at her, tired eyes still managing to exhibit their old spark. No, no, it's better this way, I shouldn't ever have included all three—they killed me, they did. First my daughter dying, then my job ending, then learning about my heart—one, two, three—three blows! The stress and the diagnosis! It killed me! Gustav sat and leaned forward, burying his face in his hands.
The girl sat and put an arm around Gustav's quivering shoulders. No, it didn't. All of that would have happened anyway. I hoped the symphony would have helped you tolerate it, and there's nothing else I could do but come back now. I'm sorry.
He stood now, arms crossed, looking down. And what does that do for me now?
The girl stood and gently turned him around. He looked at her tearfully, then regarded the bed on which he lay motionless.
He turned back toward the girl with new recognition and acceptance unlike anything he'd felt in life. Pardon me for my misconceptions and superstitions. Pardon me all along.
Don't worry about it, said Death. It's still a good symphony.