One, Two, Three—Adieu, Adieu, Adieu
Stroke...Stroke...Stroke...Stroke...Somewhere in the distance, dark water was dripping. It must be the runoff from the rainstorm that had flowed down through the sewers. The steady rhythm of the sound was a Viking drumbeat as Christine's oar slowly pushed the lake aside on one side of the boat and then the next.
Her shoulders had long since started to become sore, but the even tempo kept her moving forward almost mindlessly. She only needed to keep time with this pulse, and she felt she could row forever.
She felt liberated. Adventure! Darkness and fog were her surroundings, but she knew that wonders waited in store for her! Such wonders...There had to be! What else could lie at the end of this path? What magical surprises? She felt like a child, eager to open birthday gifts. What would Erik think of her courage when he came home in two days and discovered that she had set out on her own escapade? Would he be impressed by the influence of his strength? Would he be touched by the resolve of Christine's longing for him?
Christine wanted to smile, but she realized that her cheeks had become almost completely numb. It was colder down this way...Much colder. Why wasn't the rowing keeping her warm? She would have rowed more quickly, but she could not break away from the metronomic trickling...She needed it.
Stroke...Stroke...Stroke......Stroke.........Stroke............ But what was happening? The sound was fading! She stopped rowing then and listened very carefully, and as if mocking her shivers, the sound ceased completely.
She set down the oar for a moment and rubbed her gloved hands together. So much colder down this way... Perhaps it was a good moment to take a brief rest. She pulled the hood of the cloak around her face and tucked in its edges so that it kept her lips, nose and cheeks protected from the bitter air.
Surely, if never before, now her skin must seem blue! The earlier dialogue of the girls bullied its way back into Christine's mind, and the ringing recollection of their childish gossip burned her numbed ears. How could she let herself be so upset by their words? Christine did not want to admit to herself that she could possibly feel shame in the fact that she had left their world for Erik's. But why, why did she care about them or what they thought or what insensitivities they spread? She didn't. She couldn't.
She wished she couldn't...But now she only thought all the more on these women of the outside world.
Closer than sisters and the best of catty friends, those three were always together...Marie, Darci, and Natalie. But where had Marie been today? Christine had known them on loose acquaintance when she had still been singing supporting roles, but after Erik had started teaching her, she had lost touch with them as well as any other colleagues. She had only ever seen them then in passing or during rehearsal or performances and never spoke of personal matters. But Christine knew as well as any other member of the company that, without fail, the three red-haired sopranos were never apart. It seemed even in the casting of operas, their trinity was respected. Their characters constantly coincided and their costumes always coordinated. They had played the three maidens to Christine's Queen of the Night, she recalled; and had, one season, even dared to request one part be transposed in order to sing Macbeth's three witches.
So how strange...that Marie had not been leaving the Opera with the other two. Christine wondered if perhaps the girl was ill...And then found it faintly bewildering that the other two had not fallent ill along with her. Strange indeed. But Christine was certainly grateful that Marie had not been there when Darci had caught sight of her shadow. Knowing Marie's nose for business that wasn't hers, she would have stopped the others from running off so preemptively and actually urged them to approach Christine...And Christine felt far from capable of making any of her impossible explanations. What a relief it had been to duck back underneath mothering structure of the Opera into the nest warren where she felt safe from all outside interrogations. And she did not intend to leave soon again into the bare, curious world without Erik's strong arms about her.
Where were his secrets? Why had he hidden them so far off down this dark, watery path? She took up the oar again and continued her quest. She would find them out.
She kept her own pace now by singing softly to herself:
"She watched her love sail out to sea
And blew him one last kiss.
She dried her tears and buttoned her shawl
And prayed the storm would miss."
The song was an old one Christine arbitrarily remembered from her childhood of folklore.
"He tightened his sails and caught the wind
Keeping one eye on the sky.
He had the entire night to sail,
And he knew the storm was nigh."
The lilting Scandinavian melody numbed her recognition of the cold and the gentle movements of her lips warmed her cheeks.
"The rain fell fast and soaked his shirt,
But he would not turn away.
He had to sail tonight or else
There might be no other day."
She sang very quietly, and the thin sound of her voice was all the more muffled by the layers she had pulled across her face.
"She could not bear to leave the shore
Although the waves drew near.
Lightning broke the black of clouds,
And her heart was filled with fear."
Christine took notice of the failing light of her lantern, but she decided she would wait until it actually went out before she stopped rowing to relight it, as she was making such steady headway around the curves of the corridor.
" 'Come back to me, and don't go on!
'I want to be with you!'
But the thunder drowned away her cries;
There was nothing she could do."
Christine thought she heard a faint sound from up ahead, and so, eager to make her way around the bend just ahead, she rowed with heavier strokes to the rhythm of the last refrain of her song:
"When lightning struck again, she swooned,
And the waves washed her away.
And as the flames engulfed his ship..."
Christine's dark lantern flickered once and went out.
She could no longer see even the sparse clouds of her own breath.
"He would see no other day."
She stopped singing...The song was over. And her distraction was terminated. She reached out with her oar and felt the corner of the stone wall in the dark. She pushed off from it and let the skiff guide itself around the bend as she set the oar down once more.
She learned forward carefully to retrieve the lantern from the prow, but before she returned to her seat, the hood of her cloak loosened and fell away from her face. She tumbled down into the boat, instantly blown back by a smell that slammed into her like a physical force. Immediately, she cupped her hands over her face, inadvertently crushing her own nose and stinging her cheeks with the urgency of the motion. She had inhaled an odor horribly unlike any she had ever encountered! It was so revolting that Christine was assaulted by a wave of nausea so thick that her body heaved in pain. Her eyes watered as she gagged and choked in a desperate attempt to breathe in the scent of the perfume on her own garments. She rewrapped the hood about her whole face even more tightly than it had been before, but then quickly tore it away again as she felt about to vomit. But when she didn't, she fixed it securely and took several long, heavy breaths of the musty scent of the thick layers of black wool.
She trembled in shock. What could ever emit such a fetid stench? Not even the sewers she had passed by or the dead rodents or the sulfur of the springs had reeked of such putridity! There passed a long moment before she could move. Her ears were pricked by the muted echoes of dripping water and the scuttling of rats in the dark.
Eventually though, she was able to feel about the bottom of the boat and find the lantern where she had dropped it. She propped it open on her lap and turned up the wick, using her sense of touch alone. She could still smell it. The revulsion was bearable now that her nostrils were covered, but just knowing that it was there—in the very air that surrounded her and seeping through her skin—made her continue to gag sporadically...And it was difficult for her to make her shaking fingers fumble through her bag to find the matches.
The boat jolted slightly as its bow came into contact with something. She felt the reverberations along the floor of the vessel and knew that it couldn't have hit a wall...It must be the low edge of another stone bank. So she had reached the end. Somehow Christine aimlessly imagined that perhaps she had simply rowed around the cellar in one giant circle, and she was filled with the flame of hope that when she lit the lantern now, she would be greeted with the relieving sight of the threshold of her home. How wonderful it would be right now to miraculously find herself not lost down the endless depths of this labyrinth!
She had to remove a glove to take a matchstick from the box. She blindly checked the position of the lantern again and then turned the box around in her hand and struck the match against its rough side. The small light blazed momentarily in the fog. A scream caught in Christine's throat and she dropped the match. It sizzled into the water, and darkness fell.
Great black eyes!
She had seen them! Staring at her! Her heartbeat erupted in a fit of hyperventilation. She scrambled to the back of the boat, gripping the lantern and matchbox to her chest.
They had been so close—no more than a couple feet in front of her and perfectly level with her own. Wide and unblinking and alive with the reflection of the flame!
She did not dare blink her own eyes and continued to stare fixedly at where she had seen them as her panting breath threatened to blow away the material in front of her mouth. She heard a sound.
She heard it again! No. It was only the sounds rats make.
Dripping water...Wind in the tunnels...Her own frightened breathing...Nothing more. Her heartbeat...Nothing more.
She loosened her clutch on the lantern, relaxing only enough to prop it in her lap once more, but her hand that held the matches was paralyzed.
Who? Whose eyes? Who was there on that bank in silence darker than the tomb itself?
Nothing. Nothing was there. How could anyone be there? She had been seeing a mirage. It was only the tricks of her own eyes before they could adjust to the matchlight. That is all it had been. An illusion. She wanted to laugh. But her eyes only began to water again.
She breathed very, very slowly...And let her head drop. She shook it slightly, squeezing her eyes shut a few times. She would not look this time. She would keep her gaze on the lantern as she lit it and until her eyes were fully adjusted from the darkness. Then she would look and see clearly what edge of Erik's domain she had discovered.
The sound of the match striking the box seemed to fill the whole world. Christine's shoulders tensed and she remained frozen as the match burned toward her fingertips. She did not take her eyes from the lantern in her lap. And she waited. Oh, it was only for a moment, but how long that moment lasted—as she waited for nightmares of the unknown to penetrate her tiny circle of light!
Nothing. Not even the rats.
The match was burning out. Slowly, she moved it to the wick in the lantern. The flame was beginning to singe her fingers. Why could she not move it more quickly! The fire would never make contact with the wick in time. Her fingers were burning, and yet remained frozen! She was on the verge of panicking when she simply picked up the lantern and moved it to the flame instead.
The wick caught, and the match went out. She took a few breaths to slow the beating of her heart, and then closed the little door of the lantern. But she opened up the shutters entirely so the lamp would give its full capacity of illumination. She stared into its light for a long time. She was in no hurry to look up. She decided to let her eyes adjust in intervals. Slowly, she looked away from the lantern to her bag on the floor of the boat...And then to the boat's sides...She lifted the lantern in her hand, holding it out to illuminate her surroundings before she made the move to look at them. She let her gaze slip out of the boat and focus on the ripples in the water next to her.
Now all she had left to do...was look up.
She did not even need to move her head...It would only take one last shift of her eyelids...
She took a deep breath...And looked.
She dropped the lantern. It landed on its side on top of her bag, but did not go out.
Christine's body contorted to scream again, but her throat would not allow it. Petrified.
But not one pair. So many! So many eyes!
Wide-open eyes and half-closed eyes! Bright green eyes and eyes of cloudy white!
But not at Christine.
Pain shot through Christine's limbs as they fought to quake but could not defeat her paralysis.
Dead eyes stared out from dead faces. Face upon face! A great pile of dead faces! Dead faces of dead people! Person upon dead person! The stone bank that was no more than a small ledge was covered with them! They covered each other. Rotting! Decaying! Flesh and bones!
Bones! Bones and skulls! She could see them now—underneath fresher corpses. Years old! The flesh had been eaten completely away by the vermin that crawled among them and made the heap of death writhe with life!
The rats! There must have been dozens of them! Gnawing and eating! Eating the faces! Eating the eyes!
Their own beady eyes flashed in the light of Christine's lantern, but they did not stop their ghastly feast. Their black faces dug into the grey and blue human bodies and their long yellow teeth tore away morsel after morsel of flesh red and purple with dead blood. Burrowing under clothing! Nibbling at fingers!
Christine could see the gleaming white layers of fat and bone that had been exposed beneath the skins of some. And slippery black insects crawled in and out of gaping dead mouths that had long since had the tongues devoured from their faces.
Rotten eyes, decaying noses, hollowed cheeks. Faces! The faces of men who had once been living—young, old...All colors of hair, all manners of dress. Torn tuxedoes intermingled with beggars' rags underneath the faces, mostly too rotten and distorted to ever distinguish. Grey faces hovering over purple, scarred necks!
She saw it then...Neck after neck...The black and purple scars—The burns! The marks of strangulation! The distinct impression of the chord...The noose. Every neck was scarred...
Every man here had been garroted!
But no...Not that one, the one near the top with the drenched hair...Nor that one to her right. Desperately, she scanned the mass—She must find the ones that had not been strangled! She must! Yes!...They where here and there...But most were too decomposed to tell. Here and there. A Pink hat! That one was an old woman! What old woman ever deserved such a fate?
Now Christine began to shake. Tears flooded her face and soaked the hood that concealed the very countenance of horror. The stupefying shock was gone like lightning, and utter panic instantly engulfed her.
Away! She had to get away! Away from these dead people, away from this lake, away form this cellar! Away! As far away as life could take her!
She seized the oar and lifted it out of the boat. Frantically, she put its end against the top of the ledge and pushed off from the bank. But no! She had upset the pile! The rats shrieked in the frozen air and insects took off toward the ceiling with bloody wings. The boat drifted away from the edge at an agonizingly sluggish rate. Christine pulled the hood completely over her face, threw her arms over her head, and backed against the side as one of the bodies on the very top of the pile rolled off and splashed into the water at the edge of the ledge. The boat rocked, and the freezing water drenched one side of Christine's cloak, seeming to burn the skin of her bare hand.
The oar! Where was her oar? She peeked out between the folds of the hood and looked over the edge of the boat. The oar was right there...floating...but not alone.
No matter how purple or bloated, this was a face Christine would have recognized anywhere.
Marie's lifeless eyes stared up at Christine as masses of white maggots writhed and drowned amid the spreading strands of the corpse's auburn hair.
A great bubble of putrefied air rose up from under the girl's garments and she turned in the water. Her mouth fell open, and a fresh trickle of blood flowed down her chin and merged with the black water. Her head would bump into the boat at any moment.
Slowly...So slowly...Christine reached into the water for the oar. Her hand was shaking so badly...She missed.
She clenched her fist for a moment, and then tried again...Her fingers brushed its handle but only made it float further from her grasp.
Marie was watching her...
Christine squeezed her hands together tightly and moved to the opposite end of the boat where the oar had glided. She breathed deeply. Those eyes...She forced herself to ignore the eyes. The oar. She watched its motions in the water for a moment...It was floating away from her! She pushed herself all the way against the side of the boat and reached out as far as she could. Her fingers brushed it, and it moved further! No! She leaned over, stretching her legs out behind her to keep her balance...Leaned over just a little more...So close! Just a little more...She touched it! Just a little more...
Holding it tightly, she quickly steadied herself back in the boat.
The boat shuddered then, ever so slightly, as Marie's head came into contact with its side. Christine would not look at Marie! She would not look at all those people lying on the ledge behind her! Breathe...She had to breathe! She turned her head sharply to look at the wall on her other side and reached out with the oar to push off from it forcefully.
It worked! Her vessel glided away effortlessly through the waters. She did it again and again, propelling off from the walls on either side of the corridors and made her zigzag way back through the labyrinth with increasing hysteria. She pushed with her oar and clawed along the stones with her hands. Anything to move her away from here! Away! She must get away!
But breathe...She needed to breathe...She was out of breath already. It had seemed like eons of frenzy. She stopped for a moment and slowly sat back down at her seat in the boat. She would not look back. She couldn't. Even though she had rounded far too many bends and the light of her lantern was far too weak to ever reveal the horror that rested behind her, she could not look back. She looked down at the lantern resting on her bag and realized that the oil was pooling against the glass. She righted it shakily and set it on the solid floor of the boat. She lifted her eyes and looked out at the path before of her...Darkness...Fog...Silence...
And there were three separate dark tunnels in the distance ahead of her. She realized it then. Christine was lost.
She pulled the hood of her cloak completely over her face and shut out the sight of what flooded her with nothing less than absolute despair. She began to sob silently. She was lost. Her head fell into hands, and she curled down into a ball against her knees.
Inch by measured inch, the boat drifted in weak circles.
Eventually, Christine stopped shivering, and she stayed that way for a long time...And perhaps she fell asleep...For when she heard it, it was with the confusion of waking from a nightmare...
Yes, she heard it.
And oh how welcome it was! She began to quiver again, and lifted her head just slightly to peek out from the tiniest of folds in her hood. It was dark again. The lantern had run out of oil some time ago.
But it was there! The sound...The song. It filled the air around her, above her, and below her. It beckoned her...It begged for her. It was as if it called her very name through the darkness...Enticed her to accept its charm...It was the very sort of song a serpent might sing.
She sat up a little more and felt for the edge of the boat.
It was there...Down there...In the black water. Music was down there. Temptation... The waters themselves had come to life and were singing to her with the welcoming melodies of invitation. Alluring...Mesmerizing...
Let yourself go, they coaxed. And how she yearned to be closer to them...To be one with them. She leaned further over the edge and let her ungloved hand dip into the chilling surface of the lake. And she felt it then. It was as if a hand took hers.
Yes, she thought...Yes...Take me...Song...Lure me...
The grip tightened. In a flash, Christine's mind exploded with the realization that something actually had hold of her hand! But she did not even have a chance to scream as her arm was wrenched and she was pulled over the side of the boat and down into the waters.
Tentacles! She was engulfed! It felt as if twenty strong arms grabbed at her and overpowered her thrashing attempts to escape! Surrounding her! The song had stopped and all she heard now was a heartbeat. A heartbeat that was not her own. She screamed, and the sound cut through the water like the lost cries of a drowning mermaid.
The fabric of the hood was sucked into her open mouth by the force of the waters, and she choked on it. She tried to pull it away, but her arm too was weighted down by the unbearably heavy wool.
Water rushed into her nostrils and her brain caught fire. She could hear it—The burning! Searing black pain! Tangled and choking! And the heartbeat—The heartbeat that was not hers! Pounding! Pounding! No—There were two now. And this one was hers! Beating against the cage of suffocation! Pounding! Crying! Begging for light! Pounding! Screaming! Exploding! ...Gone...
The Siren's work was done.
Christine's black cloak served perfectly as a funeral shroud of anonymity. And her corpse unceremoniously was heaved to the top of the pile to join the others. The wet wool that covered every inch of her would keep the rats and insects away from her flesh for a while...But not forever. All the corpses became skeletons eventually.
Perhaps Erik should have removed the cloak to allow for faster decomposition...But he did not want to see the face of this victim. He did not want to know which one it was. He detested having to kill women...And that was the second one in two days. When would fools ever learn to respect the rules of the Phantom's domain? But he should have anticipated this. Something told him the third one would be down eventually, and he would have to take care of her as well. Perhaps he would wait until all three of the red-haired sopranos were dead before he sang their requiem mass. After all, wouldn't they want to be together for it? Those three were always together...
Erik pulled Marie out of the water and returned her to the compost pile. He shut her eyes.
When the boat had been overturned, the lantern was lost, but Erik did not need it to find his way back home. And he had plenty of lanterns. He took his time rowing...Let himself relax...Once there, he tied the boat at the false dock at his house and leapt gracefully from it onto the stone stairs. He took a brief moment to squeeze the water from his clothing, and then he went back inside.
Two days...Only two days left and then Christine would come back and their lives would truly begin! They would live a dream together. He had everything taken care of. There was nothing left to do but wait for her return.
On Thursday morning, Erik took the boat and went across the lake to wait for Christine's return. He waited all morning and all afternoon, and by Thursday night, he was worried.
He ventured above to seek her. She was nowhere in the Opera. He ventured further. She was not at her flat, and by the look of it had certainly left intentionally. Had something happened to her between the time she left it that morning before she reached the Opera? Erik's fear grew. He should have never let her go! He should have never given her the news of her Mamma's death. She would have been perfectly content not ever knowing! He would have made sure of it.
Where was she now? Erik searched every possible route between the flat and the Opera more than once, and in his increasing desperation, bribed each cab driver he found for possible information. All in vain. Nobody knew where his Angel had gone.
Erik returned to the flat. The landlord was not eager to offer information, but Erik had his ways. He was told that Christine had turned over her keys and left two days ago with a suitcase in hand.
Two days ago! Impossible! It had not been arranged that way. Erik had told her he would not be there until this morning. She would have never come back when she knew he was not there. So where had she gone? And why had she taken a suitcase...She was not going to bring anything back. There was nothing she needed. She had absolutely no need for a suitcase! Unless...
She had run away. She had left him...
Christine was gone. Erik had been a fool! He should have never let her go! Had she planned this escape all along? Or had it been an impulse? A realization...An awakening... She had left him...So simply. She had packed up and left him, suitcase in hand...
The dream was dead. She had run away...She had left him...with that bag...She was gone.
And Christine was gone. But Erik—Erik, The Phantom—Erik, The Strangler—Erik, The Siren—Erik, Christine's darling husband and lover, would really never know why...
He did not know that English carpetbag was lost at the bottom of his lake.
He did not know that Christine's skin was now slowly turning blue...Like ice...And that the rats had already started on her eyes.