The Not Yet Dead
He, Erik, didn't like to leave his new home beneath the opera. He was new to it and it was beautiful and quiet and secret—he liked the secrecy best of all—and cool and safe. He was going to live in it, where men couldn't find him unless he wanted them to, and nobody in the world could ever touch him or see him. He would have liked never to leave it, instead to stay there always.
But he wasn't really dead; he only smelled of death; and he couldn't go for-ever without food. For a long time he had thought he could live on music, or on the dark, or on the cool safety of his secrecy, but he grew hungry and saw it wasn't so. He must, indeed, eat.
So he wrapped himself up well in his most everyday clothes, put on his false nose, and prepared to go out into the bright, ugly sunlight.
A few weeks ago, he had travelled underground to test the limits of his new home, and had found that there were some tunnels which extended all the way into the old tombs beneath the city, where hanged men and women who had been tortured to death were buried to hide them. It was there he retrieved a new coffin to sleep in, because his old one was beginning to fall apart. It was a strange thing to admit, for sleeping in a coffin was a dark, evil thing to do, something a demon might do, and yet he had to be practical about it, just as an ordinary (real) man might be about his chair. It was old; it began to go to pieces, and a new one must be somehow found. It was just that an ordinary (real) man would go to the shop, and he, Erik, went to the tombs.
In the tombs, from a chamber where he removed the new coffin after emptying it and dusting out the bones and scraps of clothing still left over, he found many skeletons. They were bent and twisted into all manner of curious positions, and he tucked and poked them, rearranging a few because they didn't appeal to his critical artistic eyes, and glancing over them all with the superior air of a gamin looking at well-dressed nobles. They were dead, but he was not yet dead. They were dead, and strewn about on floors under the earth, but he was still living and he slept in a coffin. He despised bodies.
In one of the chambers, however, he had found two skeletons wrapt together, a big, misshapen one with the bones of its back all bent, and a pretty delicate one that was nearly powder, evidently a woman's. Erik touched it and it fell apart, and the big one quietly collapsed over it, almost wearily. He could not help, for some reason, feeling rather unsettled. He had Done Something. He would probably somehow be punished, he had thought to himself, muttering seditiously to hide his discomfort and hurrying off into another chamber of the underground tombs. He soon discovered that the punishment was that he could not stop thinking about the poor, hulking skeleton whose pretty sweetheart he had disturbed and destroyed.
As he bought food and a few other things that he didn't truly need, purely to try to imitate ordinary (real) people, Erik thought of it, and shook his head with displeasure. He wanted to return to his music. His music was waiting back in his secret house for him, waiting to be played, waiting to be beautiful, waiting to fill the opera; and it certainly could not do that if he was here buying onions and baguettes. He sighed impatiently. He fidgeted, as the shopkeeper went on talking about the price of onions. He glanced away.
The idea of the skeleton flashed through his mind again, and he saw the pretty one crumbling, turning into dust, under his dead gloved fingers;–and suddenly he saw the Cathedral. He had never looked at it before. He had never realised it existed. Of course all he needed to know of was his house, and some cathedral above ground was of no interest to him—but this was a Cathedral. He stared at it fiercely, with fiery eyes.
"Monsieur," he interrupted the shop-keeper. "I'm new to Paris. What is that place?"
"The Cathedrale de Notre-Dame, Monsieur. Oh, we are proud of her."
"Yes, yes," said Erik sharply, and he paid for his onions and baguettes and left as hurriedly as possible, cursing ordinary (real) men in his head and rejoicing, for the first time in many years, that he wasn't one. The moment he was out on the street, he made for the Cathedral.
It was cool, and secret inside. Among the candles and the pillars, the stone and the dulled light coming through the stained-glass windows, he felt a kind of pleasure. It was almost like his new home, and it was a good place. A good place.
Suddenly he turned, and he heard the huge sound of a bell, two bells, four of them, eight, many, many bells, all ringing at once and yet in sequence, making a kind of music that was almost as beautiful and certainly as strange as his. They were above him, but they were around him; he looked hurriedly, searching. They were above him.
Erik made for a flight of stone stairs and went up silently, appreciating them. He liked music. He could taste music, like secret, sweet food, like the kind of food a man who was not alive and not dead could eat and be satisfied with for-ever. The bells were ringing and making a strong taste which filled his mouth. As he went higher, the sound grew louder; the bells were stronger, and he tasted the music more clearly. There it was—so close—there—at last—he came up on the top of the stairs and found the bells, ringing, ringing, ringing.
He would have been entirely pleased, entirely able to take a brief moment of happiness before he returned home to his secret house, had it not been for the young man between the bells.
The young man did not look like a young man. He was bent and twisted, misshapen and limping; he leaned to one side and swung his arms in a way that should have looked hilariously stupid, but instead looked just painfully embarrassing. His face was turned away from Erik, but he was wild with feeling anyway. He burned with feeling. He was—he was happy. It was the bells—the bells made him fierce and mad and gentle and happy. He was ringing them.
Erik felt a sudden, senseless stab of guilt. The young man was the skeleton whose sweetheart he had destroyed.
The young man who looked more like a creature moved among the bells, with a stilted, awkward walk that bumped him up and down. He stared up at them and put his hands on them, rested his cheeks against them and whispered hoarse, incoherent things to them. Sunlight filtered between the bells, playing over them and making the dust show up gilded against the musty darkness, while the young man's face, still turned away, was raised up into one of the streaks of golden light.
Erik ran away. He did not know why, because it was not in his character, nor was he afraid, and he certainly was not concerned with disturbing the young man in a secret moment; but he couldn't bear to look at the thing any longer and imagine the skeleton under the ground with its arms full of dust and its hopeless collapse. Skeletons could be reproachful, but this one had been resigned.
He ran, but he did not forget his onions and baguettes. Erik dined very well that night.
After that, he began to write music. He didn't think of the skeleton or the big, bent young man in the Cathedral for many weeks. Then one day the music stopped, and he couldn't write anything, though he played for hours with careful fingers, with an empty quietness inside, with a strange, choked expression on his dead face because he could not have what he wanted. When the music stopped, he realised that he was hungry again, and it had been many days. He busied himself. He got his nose. He wrapped himself up to go out.
In the street on the way to the market, he suddenly saw the young man again. The young man was riding on a slapped-together litter carried by dozens of invisible hands, and on his head he wore a crown, and he was smiling a stupid, uncomprehending, excited smile. Erik had never seen his face before. He stopped.
The young man was as ugly as he was. The young man had bulging eyes set bizarrely in his head, a crooked nose, short, spiky orange hair, a twisted mouth, ears that looked like little dried apricots and a forehead that dipped partly in and stuck partly out. Erik had certainly never seen anyone as ugly before. He had never seem anyone uglier than himself.
It pleased him.
It was a terrible smile, but Erik smiled, and he started forward to greet the young man who wore his crown on his ugly head as though it were a tiara and he Helen of Troy. That was a wonderful sight. He did not even seem to see how absurd and hideous he was, sitting there. Erik reached for his hand.
Black, gloved fingers passed through air without catching anything. The dead smell hung lightly in the air. The young man looked down, unconcerned, unobserving, un-understanding.
Erik had forgotten. The young man was dead. He was not dead yet.
He bought nothing to eat, but he went back to his secret home and into the underground tombs. He found the bent skeleton and put it right again, and then, in a fit of anger, took away the bones of the hands and brought them home with him. He put them in his coffin. He slammed the lid down on the piano. He thought of ways to destroy the opera if ever he chose to. He tied the Punjab lasso roughly and put it around his own neck, and then he lay in his coffin, still wearing it. The hands of the young man's skeleton lay beside him.
He vowed that he would never leave his secret house again, and especially that he would never look at a bell again. He would allow no bells in his music. He would bear no bells in the operas performed above him. He would make it a rule.
But it was not the bells he had—it was not the bells that—it was not—it was the ugly young man, who was more hideous than he himself, and he could not get away from the young man.
The dead may be anywhere. The dead may stay anywhere. Those who are not dead yet can only stay where they are.