The Mountain Orchestra

When the villagers began the long toil up the mountainside they carried their houses on their backs like hermit crabs. Hampers, boxes, handbags, cupboards, tables and chairs seemed to have developed spindly legs and a taste for exercise, reeling along from bend to bend of the well-worn path as their owners struggled to outpace the bandits of Bist and Flumm, with their well-known thirst for gold and blood and delicate china. Half-way up the first steep slope the bandits caught them – as Granny Small had said they would – and at once the villagers let fall their burdens to protect their bodies. Chairs, kettles and mattresses rolled away down the spongy slope to fetch up against rocks or tumble into the burn. Soon the burn’s irregular staircase of ice-rimmed pools began to sprout long wavering strings of pale pink weed wherever the villagers’ blood spilled into it in rivulets and gobbets.

They had driven off the first attack and were about to retrieve their bundles when the old man called out: ‘Let them lie. It’s not often you get the excuse to throw out old rubbish. There’ll be better things on the other side of the mountain!’ So they left their kettles and mattresses littering the hillside, to act as an informal open-air reception room for sheep and wrens, and resumed their climb. But the little girl had already guessed that the old man had not been talking about pots and pans. In the attack he had received an ugly gash in the side from a bandit’s curtle-axe, and his feeble attempt to ward it off had resulted only in the smashing of the last of the Rebus violins. For a little while after that the old man had sat on a pile of sheep-droppings with blood and water soaking his trousers and let a tear roll down each cheek in tribute to the instrument. The little girl thought they must be carefully regulated tears, since he had always said you should allow two tears for every sad occasion: one for sorrow at your loss, the other for joy at the gift of life that allowed you to weep despite your losses.

He left the violin on the slope along with his favourite whisky glass – now smashed – and the mortal remains of Granny Small. The oldest woman in the village had died as she said she would, not of a curtle-axe wound but of a heart attack brought on by trying to brain a bandit with a lump of granite. For a long time as they climbed her thin shrill voice kept chattering on at them to hurry up; they were quite relieved when it died away, drifting off like a cricket’s chorus on a mountain breeze.

At one point the little girl and the old man took a rest on a tumbledown wall and looked back the way they had come. A feather of smoke unfurled from the village by the lake and the little girl fancied she could smell the scent of wood-ash on the wind. ‘Well, at least the houses are getting fumigated,’ the old man said; but the little girl was already shedding a good many more than the two small tears he recommended. They just kept welling out of her head like a burn from the side of a rain-drenched mountain. She finally stopped crying from sheer surprise that her head could be so full of water.

A little higher up they reached a stretch of level ground where the mountain path lost all definition in the sheep-cropped turf. At once the fog dropped down on them with what might have been a silent shout of laughter. Within seconds droplets formed in the girl’s brown hair and gleamed like eyes in the old man’s bristling eyebrows. Hills and mountain-ranges of fog rushed past at enormous speed, driven on by a wind that cut their flesh to the bone. The villagers forgot their fear that the bandits would follow them; instead they trembled because the ground beneath their feet was getting narrower, and the crags dropped into nothingness on either side. The wind tried to pluck them from the mountainside like an oystercatcher pecking at the shell of a stubborn mussel.

The little girl trembled with the rest but for a different reason. She was afraid of the Beast that lived among the mountains and left stories like bloody limbs littering the slopes for miles around. The old man patted her cheek and assured her that the Beast was far too large to bother with prey as insignificant as little girls. ‘Besides,’ he said, ‘it’s fast asleep. Can’t you hear it snoring like the waves on a far-off shore?’ The little girl nodded but kept looking behind her uneasily. She could hear the waves on the shore whenever the wind dropped, but they sounded nothing at all like a monster snoring.

All the same, she was glad of the old man’s aimless prattle as he leaned on her shoulder. Although his weight was sometimes painful, she felt as though he were pulling her up the mountain instead of the other way round. ‘All my life I’ve wanted to visit these mountains,’ he panted. ‘It took an attack of bandits to get me up, and it’ll take a band of angels to get me down.’ By the time they reached the bottom of a slope of scree that swept up before them like a frozen wave into a foggy void, the rest of the villagers had disappeared. ‘You’re my guardian angel,’ the old man said, but it was he who pointed out where the little girl should set her feet. He seemed so sure of the way that it came as no surprise when they found themselves at the mouth of a cave, peering into the darkness to make sure there were no Beasts inside. At last they crawled through the narrow entrance, and at once the shriek of the wind dropped down to a whisper, as suddenly as if a door had shut behind them. From then on they only heard it from time to time, wailing disconsolately outside as if bereft of prey.

The cave seemed to run deep into the mountainside. At every movement echoes scuttled off and vanished into the stone entrails of the earth. But the roof was so low that the old man had crawled only a few yards before his head struck rock and he collapsed. He lay on his back as he had fallen, his head propped against the wall, his hands palm upwards by his sides. Every so often a breath escaped him in a little feather of smoke. The little girl curled up in the crook of his arm and busied herself with trying to forget about the Beast. Together they waited for night to enter the cave.

After a while the old man noticed that there was another old man lying beside him, whose breath likewise came in little feathers of smoke. He wore a tail-coat with fraying cuffs and a dirty white tie, and his face was as pale as his shirt-front except for a hint of yellow in the cheeks. The old man saw at once that the stranger was as sick as himself. He gave a chuckle at their shared predicament, then winced at the pain in his injured side.

‘We make a fine pair, I must say,’ he observed.

‘Eh?’ said the stranger, contorting his body to see who had spoken. ‘What’s that? Who’s there?’

‘Can’t you see me?’ asked the old man.

‘Indeed not,’ said the stranger. ‘You’re too strong, too alive. You’ll have to be a good deal closer to death’s door than that before I can see you.’

‘Is this better?’ asked the old man, moving a little closer to death’s door.

‘Yes, much,’ said the stranger, and twisted round to look at him closely. He had very bright eyes in deep sockets, as though he hadn’t eaten for a hundred and fifty-seven years and would stop at nothing for a scrap to feed on.

‘What’s that at your elbow, all wrapped up?’ he asked, nodding at the bundle.

‘It’s the ghost of my violin,’ replied the old man. ‘A genuine Rebus. I was clumsy enough to break it in a recent scuffle.’

‘That’s not all you broke, is it?’ the stranger said with a glance at the old man’s wound and a nasty grin. To his own surprise the old man felt insulted that such a sorry specimen should criticize the state of his body. It had served him for many years and he suddenly had a nostalgic affection for its failing organs. But before he could retort the stranger gave a sudden groan and started to writhe like an angry snake. It seemed he was trying to raise himself on one elbow.

‘So you’re a musician?’ the stranger gasped when at last he succeeded. ‘What a stroke of luck! I’ve been waiting for one of those for many years. You see, I too am a musician. My name is Colossus Retch. I expect you’ve heard of me.’

‘I’m sorry, Mr Retch,’ said the old man. ‘We don’t hear much about modern music in the village by the lake. It’ll be different, I expect, when we reach the other side of the mountain.’

‘That’s DOCTOR Retch,’ the stranger snapped, ‘and my music is NOT modern.’

The old man didn’t hear him, because the little girl had sat up at the sound of voices and asked him who he was talking to. He said no-one and gave her a smile, which she put away at once and kept in a secret place for the rest of her life. She gave him a dazzling smile of her own in return, then took out an old linen handkerchief and started to wipe the blood from his forehead with gentle strokes.

The gentle movement drove everything else out of the old man’s mind. He had just managed to doze off when something buzzed in his ear and woke him up. It sounded like ‘A temporary pause’.

‘I beg your pardon?’ he murmured.

‘Nothing,’ said the little girl, still wiping.

‘I said, O tempora, O mors,’ the stranger said. He too had sat up and was looking much more sprightly. From nowhere he produced a large earthenware jug and poured himself a cup of something that emitted huge gushes of steam. A spicy fragrance filled the cave. Even the little girl felt the warmth invade her nostrils, steal down the back of her throat and invade her lungs, whence it spread throughout her body. The old man’s mouth began to water, and went on watering till he feared he would begin to drool.

‘Sorry I can’t let you have any,’ said the stranger. ‘This is Spirituous Liquor, strictly forbidden to anyone under the age of death.’ He sat back with an exaggerated sigh of contentment which brought back all the old man’s initial loathing of him. For a while all that could be heard were his appreciative slurps and the rumbling of the old man’s belly.

After some time Colossus Retch began to speak again. ‘Let me tell you about myself,’ he suggested. ‘Or at least about my posthumous self. You wouldn’t care to hear the details of my earthly life. Decidedly sordid, I’m afraid!’

He took another sip of the liquor. As he did so the old man saw his teeth flash in one of those grins that seemed to signal some private amusement, forever barred to the uninitiated such as the old man and the little girl. All at once the old man felt certain that if he let the stranger continue he would find himself trapped, forced to repeat some mechanical motion over and over again in the eerie solitude of the mountains. He opened his mouth in an attempt to protest, but his tongue remained frozen to the roof of his mouth as if rendered useless by some numbing potion or poisonous gas.

‘For a hundred and fifty-seven years,’ the stranger said, ‘I have had the honour of being the conductor of the Mountain Orchestra. I see your eyes light up in recognition –’ (they had done nothing of the kind) ‘– as well they might. The Mountain Orchestra, you exclaim, that melodious muster of master musicians, that band of lonely virtuosi collectively conjoined in their determination to subdue the chaos of this savage world with the staves of harmony! Believe it or not, before my time they were no more harmonious than a roomful of angry gibbons. Some of them couldn’t read music, some of them held their instruments upside down, not one of them could tie a bow tie without assistance or fasten a cufflink. But with time and patience and liberal lashings of raw talent I managed to shape them against all odds into a passable resemblance of a real live orchestra. The Mountain Orchestra, my friend, was shaped from my posthumous blood and sweat and tears, I say this without exaggeration. You may congratulate me if you like.’ And the stranger blew his nose on the filthy sleeve of his tail-coat.

At this point a gust of wind blundered into the cave and buffeted its way from wall to wall. A burst of music seemed to be released each time it struck a surface. The old man shivered and turned towards the entrance, laying his hand on the head of the girl which had slowly drooped until it was resting on his knee. Outside, the fog still glowed with a greenish light as it always does for an hour or so after the sun has set. With a start the old man saw that the Mountain Orchestra had taken its seats in the void beyond: rank on rank of see-through musicians fading away into the foggy distance. Each musician had indistinct features, but they held their heads at a certain angle that conveyed a sense of implacable resolution in the teeth of adversity. Each musician was smartly attired in evening dress made of mist and cobwebs.

The old man found his voice again. ‘Do you have repertoire?’ he asked weakly.

The stranger gave a modest cough. ‘We do indeed,’ he answered. ‘A repertoire curated by myself in response to the special needs and challenges of our orchestral purpose. Most of what we play is music,’ he went on, nodding his head as he warmed to his subject, ‘although alas it has not always been recognised as such. Winds, fogs, planetary movements, ghost sonatas; anything insubstantial really. Water music is a speciality; our performances of burns, brooks, becks, and the ripples on highland lochans are justly celebrated. You may know the Incoming Tide by Moonlight? An old composition of my own, I’m happy to say. But my time with the Mountain Orchestra draws to a close. I am looking beyond, so to speak, to new horizons and fresh challenges: spiritual compositions for the most part, though I may try my hand at nullity, loss and irremediable absence. And here you are, a fiddler emerging out of the fog as if by Divine Decree, perfectly qualified to fill the vacancy. How would you like to be my successor? How would you like, my friend, to lead the Mountain Orchestra in my place? Does the prospect thrill you?’

While he discussed his music the stranger’s face had taken on a wistful air. The lines of suffering scored on his brow had disappeared and his large eyes swam like mountain pools in the wake of a storm. But now he leaned forward with disconcerting suddenness and resumed his expression of wolfish hunger. His teeth and eyes were almost too bright to look at. The old man would have recoiled if he had been able to move his body as well as his head.

‘Well now,’ he said in alarm. ‘I’ll need to know a good deal more about the job before I accept it. What’s the pay like? Who do we play for? What are the perks?’

‘The pay,’ the stranger repeated scornfully. ‘The perks. Let me see. A weekly wage in pain and frustration, a lamentable lack of understanding from the general public, all the Spirituous Liquor you can drink and a captive audience. Will that do?’

‘I’ve known worse deals,’ the old man observed. ‘A captive audience, you say. Who are they?’

‘I’d have thought you’d know all about that, since you’re such an expert on the Beast,’ the stranger said. ‘The audience is here. You’re in one of its ears.’

The old man gave a start which woke the girl from a dream about animated furniture. He soothed her by stroking her hair while every nerve in his body strained to detect some other sign of life inside the cave. The stranger’s voice droned on regardless.

‘Yours will be one of the highest and loneliest destinies in the profession. Night and day, year in and year out, the Mountain Orchestra delivers performances of genius to no other audience than the Beast of the Martoc Mountains. As you know, the Beast has lain dormant under these mountains for many centuries. Your job will be to make sure it goes on sleeping undisturbed.’

‘I haven’t accepted yet,’ the old man interposed. ‘It doesn’t sound like much of a challenge to me. You mean to say that the Mountain Orchestra acts as a kind of musical rattle to keep an oversized baby quiet?’

‘That’s not what I mean at all,’ snarled the impresario. ‘You clearly haven’t grasped the seriousness of the situation. Once not so long ago the Beast almost woke up; it opened one eye and breathed out through one of its nostrils. That was what brought about the Age of Ash. It happened because my predecessor’s fingers got so numb he dropped the baton in Loch Tothel. I trust you’re not prone to numbness in the fingers? He spent seven hours trying to fish it out with a piece of string tied round a stone. Eventually it was brought to him by the Tothel Carp, but by then the damage was done. Not a living thing was left on the surface of the earth within five hundred miles of the Martoc Mountains: nothing but ash and bone and a few charred twigs. When he saw what he’d done my predecessor went mad and impaled himself on Cardothen Crag. You can still hear his shrieks when the wind blows north-north-west.’

The old man listened, but he could no longer hear the wind. He could not even hear the little girl’s breathing or feel her warmth against his ribs. Unobtrusively the stranger’s voice had carried him onto another plane of existence. The painful squeaks and wails as the Mountain Orchestra tuned their instruments made the stone floor beneath his fingertips vibrate.

‘My own posthumous career has been more successful,’ observed the stranger, and his eyes took on the wistful expression they held when he talked about his art. ‘I began my reign as conductor with a simple funeral march for all the lost souls. You know the sort of thing, a lot of cold stars and blowing dust, nothing too complex for my newly-trained musicians. Little by little we progressed to something more complex: a green bud here or there pushing out of the ashes, a solitary bird sitting on a dead branch. Cellos and bassoons hinted at stirrings in the earth as it quickened towards new life. Piccolos monitored the movements of approaching rainclouds. I’ll never forget the moment when we launched into a fully-fledged allegro maestoso to celebrate the rebirth of Spring. Since then – well, to tell the truth I’ve never recaptured that moment of glory. The triumphal march of returning life was the overture, as I see it now, for my career’s decline and fall. We’ve had our ups and downs since then, wrong notes, fluffed passages, entire compositions played out of tune or back to front. And I’ve been getting very tired in recent years. I’m sorry for what happened to your lakeside village; I fell asleep at about the seventeen millionth bar of the Peace Pavane and the Beast must have twitched in its sleep. I woke up in the cave this morning, so stiff I couldn’t move a muscle. Fortunately the Mountain Orchestra has filled the gap with some courageous improvisation, despite their lack of experience in such matters. Nevertheless, I think the time has come when I must cede my baton to my successor. And here you are, ready and waiting to step onto the podium at the moment of need. The question is: will you take up the challenge?’

The stranger’s voice had got steadily fainter as he talked. When the old man looked at him again he saw to his horror that his legs had vanished from the knees downwards and his eyes had lost their light. He seemed to be gazing at some scene beyond the cave wall. The old man watched and listened intently, hoping for some clue as to what that scene might be. All he could see, however, was darkness, all he could hear the flutter of his heart, the steady breathing of the little girl, the murmur of the blood-tide in his eardrums. Or was it the clatter of cutlery on silver plates and the murmur of voices against a background of gentle music, somewhere deep in the heart of the mountain? For a moment he could not tell.

‘Wait, wait!’ he cried in panic. ‘I’m not qualified at all! I’m only a humble violinist! Shouldn’t the conductor of the Mountain Orchestra be a celebrated musician like yourself?’

The stranger gave a ghost of his nasty grin. ‘Don’t kid yourself,’ he said. ‘I was no celebrated musician in my lifetime. I hung around at street corners turning the handle of a barrel organ and leering horribly at passers by. They would pay to make me stop leering. Sordid, I tell you! No, the Beast can’t tell an orchestra from a one man band. There’s nothing to worry about. Conducting’s easy; it’s merely a question of bobbing up and down with a little white stick to keep the musicians awake. Anything more is just a matter of pride. Start with something nice and simple like the grass growing, daylight filtering into the cave, or fish asleep in a forgotten pool at the mountain’s roots. You’ll have moved on to thunderstorms and the dawn chorus before you know it. And how about throwing in a violin fantasia from time to time seeing you’re a fiddle player? Everyone loves the screech of the highest note on a G string.’ And he leered again, even as his body was disappearing right up to his lapels.

‘Wait, wait!’ the old man cried again. ‘How can I be sure the Beast will stay asleep? And who are you anyway? How do I know you’re telling the truth?’

‘You can’t; you don’t,’ said the former conductor of the Mountain Orchestra. ‘And now goodbye. I’m due a hundred and fifty-seven years’ back payment of Eternal Reward.’ With that he vanished completely. For a moment it was as if a curtain of rock had been twitched aside. A colourful ball of jazz music bounced through the cave and out into the night, followed by a rich smell of roast meat and a mechanical canary. For the last time the old man called out, ‘Wait!’, but the cry only emphasized its own futility. He did not doubt that Dr Colossus Retch had already taken his first mouthful of everlasting soup.

‘It’s all right, I’m not going anywhere,’ said the little girl, waking up at the sound of his voice and taking his right hand. ‘But it’s so cold in here I think we’ll die.’

In the feeble light of a mountain dawn, the old man tried to examine her cheeks and pale cracked lips for signs of hypothermia, but soon he found that his aching eyes would not focus on her face. In fact he could see the front row of the Mountain Orchestra through her chest. She was fading from his sight, and other things in the cave were becoming visible. A carpet of luminous weeds decorated the floor, a curious chair stood in one corner, and Granny Small, about the size of a shrimp, was peering at him from a nook in the ceiling. He noticed a slender white stick on the carpet by his violin and flexed his right hand, ready to pick it up. Even as he rejoiced in the flow of blood to the fingertips he was aware that for the little girl they remained as cold and still as granite.

‘You won’t die, my dear,’ he told her, making a determined effort to use his tongue instead of his mind. ‘But I must go. I’ve just been offered a job with the Mountain Orchestra; an important job which begins at once; I really can’t say no. You’ll be musician for the village now. You’ll be magnificent.’

‘Me?’ cried the little girl. ‘But I’m not good enough! I don’t play anything!’

‘You’ve got your voice,’ the old man pointed out, ‘and you know all the songs. Will you sing to me now?’

The little girl couldn’t hear what he said, but she decided to sing for him anyway, partly because she thought he would like it, partly to see if her voice would do instead of a violin, and partly to stop herself thinking about the Beast, which had started to prey on her thoughts again as soon as she woke. That was how she pictured the scene years later: herself kneeling by the old man’s side with his hand in hers, music trailing out of her mouth in a silver thread as long and strong as a piece of twine spun by Granny Small. As the thread got longer it grew in size, bouncing off the walls deep down inside the tunnel at the back of the cave, lengthening and thickening until it became a clashing chain of notes, both sweet and harsh, as though the mountain itself were singing. After a while she stopped because the sound had started to scare her, but it continued to ring in the caves of her ears for a long time after.

The old man stood up with a sigh and stretched till his backbone cracked. Then he strode to the mouth of the cave with determined strides. He found he was wearing the stranger’s tail-coat with the fraying cuffs and the musty smell. It was too small for him, but now he remembered it hadn’t fit the stranger either. Underneath he still wore his own shirt, stiff with sweat and blood. ‘They could at least have provided a clean white shirt-front,’ he told himself irritably.

Before going out he took one look behind him to make sure he had left some suitable remains to keep the little girl company. He was shocked at how ill the corpse looked. The little girl had dropped off back to sleep in the crook of its arm.

With some difficulty he clambered up on his rostrum; each leg seemed to sink through each step to the height of his knee. By the time he reached the top he was submerged in fog to hip level and still sinking; at this rate, he thought, he would vanish into the abyss before he’d had a chance to lift the baton for the very first time. But then a flurry of clapping broke out among the violins, taken up with ghostly enthusiasm by the rest of the players. He rose a little, then rose some more when the cellists cheered. The old man graced them with a small, stiff bow, and when he straightened found that his feet were firmly planted on the boards of the rostrum. He struck the top with his little white stick to test its solidity. It gave out a satisfying clack, and the musicians’ eyes opened wide in anticipation. He smiled encouragingly – for his own sake as much as for theirs – and raised the baton.

‘Now then, ladies and gentlemen,’ he said. ‘Let’s see what you’ve got.’

The little girl didn’t notice that the old man had died until the villagers found her curled up beside him the following morning. They buried him under a pile of rocks near the mouth of the cave. Then they walked on over the mountain, carrying the little girl with them on a worn-out armchair and accompanied all the way by a wicked wind. They found many things on the other side: things Granny Small had led them to expect and things she hadn’t mentioned; wanderings in woods and rests by rivers; cities full of noise and pain and the bright clean city where they made their home. By that time the little girl had grown up into a tall strong woman and her voice had grown to the size and strength of the mountain voice she had heard in the cave when she sang to the old man. Old and young men vied for her hand, and a musician won it.

But years later the woman wandered out into the city gardens and up onto the ramparts. As the fog rose out of the woods her mind wandered away to the distant mountains. She had often told the story of the old man’s death, sometimes taking out the smile he had given her, polishing it on her skirt and passing it round among her listeners. With the passing time she embroidered the story as he would have done himself. She insisted that he was still making music in the mountains, conducting a ghostly assembly of musicians called the Mountain Orchestra, who played till their bones ached and their insubstantial heads rang to make sure that the Beast stayed fast asleep. She said that if you listened hard enough you could sometimes hear soaring above the strains of the mountain wind and the chattering burns the silver thread of melody spun by the last of the Rebus violins. She prayed that the old man was not prone to numbness in the fingers.

One thing she had recently added to the story. Was it not possible, she would ask, that with time and the Orchestra’s diligent playing the nature of the Beast would begin to change? That the baroque musical architecture which she knew the old man favoured would enter its skull and impose a gentler structure on its savagery? Was it foolish to hope that next time the Beast stirred in its sleep it wouldn’t reduce the forests and villages to ash, but would instead murmur one of the Mountain Orchestra’s melodies back at them, as the mountain had done on the night she sang the old man out of this life and into the next?

The night laid cold dark hands on the woman’s face, and she let a carefully regulated tear roll down each cheek. One for sorrow, one for joy.