Regret in Blue Sharp
Regret in Blue Sharp
Regret in Blue Sharp
Troupe The Hit
Regret in Blue Sharp by Arasibo Campeche
Regret in Blue Sharp
by Arasibo Campeche
Dr. Markson cranked his lantern on, then searched the argillaceous, rocky wall for a smooth patch. The light glimmered against crystalline minerals coating the cavern's stalactites. He became short of breath and bent over, then straightened up slowly, keeping the light on the wall and standing still until his respiration rate returned to normal. Spots appeared in his vision, but he managed to dispel them by blinking rapidly, like the trill of a flute. Fatigue was catching up to him, but luckily, Cassandra's orchestra couldn't be much further into the tunnels.
He found a dry spot on the wall, a few feet before the tunnel forked into two, and drew an arrow pointing to where he'd come from with his chalk.
As a young man, he'd challenge himself to memorize the endless turns of new caverns he surveyed. Unrelenting efforts, natural talent, and a sober mind had led his mentors to label him a student prodigy, a born critical thinker, an exemplary scientist, feeding his ego at a moment in time when he believed that personal happiness and self-identity necessitated professional success. But now Markson was old, and the accumulating grief of the last few decades had stripped away many of his cognitive abilities, like water patiently washing away stubborn stone. He was also old enough to know others wouldn't understand what he needed to do. So, he had come to this cavern alone, searching for the source of the music. Soon he'd be deep enough to hear the melody clearly, and Cassandra would be waiting at the source.
It had taken months to chase the source of the music to this cavern. Months of waking dreams, and puzzling together cryptic melodies, indicated only one outcome. Cassandra was here. It didn't make sense how he knew this, but it was a certainty. It wasn't necessarily logical that both of his loves, cave systems and Cassandra, had intertwined in one place. Perhaps it was fate.
At first, he'd thought the orchestra was a symptom of his deteriorating mental health, only to later realize that it was a summoning--Cassandra clamoring for his presence. He tried explaining to his friends the voice was unambiguously hers, but they had insisted he see a mental health specialist. Eventually, he gave in and visited a doctor, and took his medication for a whole month but never refilled the prescription. For a time, her voice had stopped--
"I am waiting, my love," Cassandra's voice interrupted his thoughts, re-establishing her existence. She continued speaking, but in a gradual decrescendo until he only heard the susurration of unintelligible whispers. Which words she spoke didn't matter. They were surely a declaration of love.
A squeak like a clarinet with a split reed came from his right, and he decided to follow that path, ignoring the arthritic grind in his knees and ankles as he walked. At the tunnel's threshold, the ground became uneven, and he lowered the lantern to see where his feet landed.
Scattered puddles of water emulsified with organic oils shone with iridescence, creating what looked like a warped rainbow disjointed across the ground. He did his best to avoid slipping on the puddles. No one knew he was here, so if he injured himself, help wouldn't come.
But he only needed Cassandra. She would take him back after seeing how much regret he felt and how hard he was trying to fix his mistakes, most of which were drowned in alcohol, inaccessible, or simply erased from his mind. His current journey in this cavern was evidence enough of his willingness. Who else would risk their lives in search of a past love? Isn't disregard to personal safety a sign of true commitment?
After getting back together, they could move back to a new city, start a new life. He could show off the few bits of music theory he'd studied and impress her. Maybe later she could re-join an orchestra and he could sit in the front row, heart swollen with pride as she played.
He breathed in the cool air and relaxed. Caverns comforted him like no other place, but they could be deadly without attacking. They instead waited, killing by combining a lack of resources with the victim's negligence, like a murderer with infinite time and patience, depriving their victims of food, water, and light, until their body and mind crumbled, then finally amalgamated with the mineral-rich earth. But he had enough experience to survive. During his career as a geologist, he'd spent long stretches of time studying new, unknown cave systems just like this one, then publishing his findings, moving up the academic ladder until he became head of his own department at the state university. His colleagues had nicknamed him Dr. Maze Hunter, an unoriginal attempt at mockery that didn't bother him. Eventually, he found out that some of his peers--the same that shared jokes and stories during cocktail hour--were preventing him from funding his lab by giving his grant applications poor evaluations. This betrayal angered him to no end, catalyzing drinking that led to violence that led to further drinking.
The sound of air rushing through a hollow object, like blowing into a trumpet with the mouthpiece missing, came from deep in the tunnel. He raised his lantern, but the light stopped several yards in front of him, as if blocked by a solid wall. He held his breath, strained his hearing, but there was only the sound of his colleagues laughing. He ground his teeth to stop himself from swearing back at them. The cackles made him punch the wall beside him, hurting his hand but at least banishing the voices. After a few minutes, he relaxed again, the pain in his hand the only reminder of what was no doubt a hallucinatory event--Cassandra wouldn't allow his enemies into this place.
The tunnel led to a large cavernous chamber inundated with blue light. Bioluminescent animals glowed overhead, revealing the ceiling's rugged topography. The troglomorphic creatures had four legs and moved like nimble lizards. He'd never seen this species of reptile before. How deep into the cavern was he? He remembered traveling for a couple of days, yet the burlap sack he carried over his back was only half filled with bread and canned meat, so it must've been longer. He'd also re-filled the canteen hanging from his belt with the cavern's natural water sources countless times. Luckily, he'd spent long spans of time in caverns during his career and was able to keep his bearings.
After a few moments of consideration, he nicknamed the creatures blueups, since they were blue and came from above.
He walked deeper into the chamber, and a blue hue washed over his body. The hairs on his arms stood, as if reaching to an unseen source of static electricity. After taking a deep breath under the cool light, his mind quieted for several minutes.
Music started playing--softly, pianissimo--like a soothing lullaby. He spread his arms to take it in, to let the melody solvate into his blood like water-miscible alcohol, but the brasswinds lost the beat, rushing through the music, while the clarinets and flutes slowed down. The percussionists pounded against the snare drums like a drunk marching band. He plugged his index fingers in his ears. His stomach clenched with his staccato breath.
A familiar smell of gardenias and peonies came from his left.
"Do you know why I'm leaving?" Cassandra stood a few yards away, a violin case leaning on her side.
Warm gas ballooned in his throat. He burped and smelled the reek of partially metabolized bourbon despite the fact he'd been completely sober for weeks. The Cassandra in front of him wore the dress she'd donned in one of the few fights he remembered clearly. Luckily, the black eye he'd accidently given her had healed. He hadn't meant it, after all, but she had no right to suggest how to improve his career. He was the scientist, not her--no. That didn't sound right. Perhaps the fight had started for another reason.
"I am your wife, not your possession." She sighed. "It doesn't matter anymore. I've met other ... I'm afraid of telling you." Cassandra raised her head, and tears ran down her cheeks.
"I tried. I failed. I'm sorry. Please come back." He took a few steps towards her.
"No! You'll never change." Cassandra slammed the case against the cavern's floor. "I won't waste my life giving you chances." She turned around to leave.
"Wait! I've changed. Please don't leave me again." He rushed to the image, hands outstretched, yearning to hug Cassandra and feel her soft skin. She dissipated before he reached her. The smell of her perfume lingered, and the cavern filled with laughter.
"No No No No No No !"
He rushed away from the blueups, running through tunnels and passages until the pain in his knees made him collapse, then realized the amateurish mistake of running directionless in this place. The hot anger in his heart had muted his rational mind. He needed music to avoid a panic attack, but the orchestra had gone silent. He sat upright and clapped at one hundred beats per minute. He'd practiced using a metronome and was confident he got the timing perfect. Every third clap he giggled to cheer himself up, keeping the pace of laughter near a grave tempo.
He eventually stopped clapping and prepared lunch while rationalizing how insensible it was to argue with hallucinations. Clearly, the real Cassandra intended he work a bit harder before finding her and wouldn't just appear and then disappear. Also, the real Cassandra left him without saying a word, bruises still visible.
His temples contracted and twitched, and pain dug into his skull. Despite not having had a single drink, he was experiencing the worst hangover he remembered. He laid on the cold ground. In the distance, he could almost hear her voice, whispering words of encouragement.
* * *
Some of the others already have partners. I know this because I have been nearly chosen several times, caressed by smooth flesh, even twirled on one occasion, yet no one has selected me for a permanent bond. I don't blame them. How hard would it be for me to choose a partner among such a vast selection of candidates? I cannot see or hear them, but I feel the vibrations they transmit, and in that hum, there is only happiness. Look at the eternal grins the partners wear if you don't believe me. Listen to the shrills of their ecstasy.
* * *
The pain in his right knee woke him. He stood from the floor and rubbed his leg, but the pain was deep in his joints, inaccessible to his fingers. He could have brought arthritis medication to relieve his symptoms, but coping with the stiffness and swelling on his own would show Cassandra how much he was willing to sacrifice for her, for them to be together again.
Some of his colleagues at the university regretted their old age, saddened that they wouldn't be able to continue their research. They'd spent their lives claiming they were close to the next great breakthrough. He pitied them.
Cassandra had been right: life was to be enjoyed without the need for outside validation of one's accomplishments.
He remembered when he'd shared with the other faculty that Cassandra was a musician, first violin in the city's orchestra. Most of his colleagues shrugged, unimpressed. He'd nodded and clinked whisky tumblers with them--a habit he'd developed on the job--thinking he, as a scientist, was objectively superior to an artist. After all, weren't artists simply entertainers of a sort?
"Not everything can be approached with scientific rationality," she'd said often. "Music is part of the irrational human truth."
He had laughed at her back then, but things changed. Even now he didn't know what she'd meant, but hints were starting to resonate within him.
A decade after she left, his scientific career was dead. One of his colleagues in a similar situation had found solace only in suicide. But Dr. Markson had found peace in art, partly because of the happy memories shared with Cassandra. Art was a form of beauty, a way to share one's most raw emotions. If science observed the physical world as it was, art created new things that need not exist, but that made life richer.
The orchestra played in the distance. He closed his eyes and tried to pick out the saxophone--his favorite instrument--but the sound was missing. Then, there was silence. Cassandra had told him the saxophone was not commonly played in orchestra, but she'd surely include one for him in the cavern's orchestra as a reward for trekking this long journey.
He bent his right knee several times, while leaning against the wall to avoid resting his entire weight on his left leg. Moving around helped with the arthritis. He continued, following the sound of running water, until he reached an underground river. Water dripped from the darkness above him. A naturally made stone bridge crossed over the river. The bridge's rocky surface helped his boots maintain purchase while he crossed. He heard the blare of a horn over what sounded like a person humming. His heart raced, as if telling him that he should be nervous and anxious, terrified even, yet he felt at ease, as if his body and mind were out of sync and couldn't agree on what to feel. When he reached the other side, he sat on the edge of the water with legs outstretched and refilled his canteen, then drank heavily until his heartbeat returned to a normal pace. He walked a few steps away from the water, pondered on the turns he'd taken after the panicked episode in the blueup's chamber, and drew an arrow on the floor.
* * *
Time cannot be measured here, only progress. I've learned how to move without damaging myself. My body remains untarnished. Our bodies will fuse together into one being, perfect in every way. Perhaps the end will finally come.
* * *
His food supply had run out long ago, and he decided to risk his health by eating the blueups. The gelatinous fluid inside their bellies tasted acidic and reminded him of times he'd vomited after drinking too much, yet they served to keep the hunger away. His beard had become long enough to catch some of the half-chewed morsels when they wriggled out of his mouth. The hand crank on his lantern had broken off, and he'd filled the alembic-shaped glass chimney with the blueups, which in addition to lighting his way also gave him a perfect place to store his food.
His mind was getting better. The hallucinations only began when he thought about them.
"I'm not thinking of you," he said. "I made mistakes, but I've repented. The silence here is beautiful."
He sang snippets of his favorite songs to distract himself. Vocalizing Frank Sinatra's "My Way" eventually calmed him. It had been some time since he'd heard his own voice. His intonation was better than he remembered. Why hadn't it ever occurred to him that he could be a singer?
* * *
He is close. The air vibrates with excitement. Is he calling out to me? I'll tap my neck against the hollow wooden floor until we're together. It is true this is a trap. It is also providence.
* * *
Dr. Markson's beard stretched down to his waist like wet, gray tendrils. The tunnel continued to spiral down around him. The supply of blueups was endless. They provided a hint of accomplishment if he ate enough, like quitting a night of drinking after only three beers. He'd accepted this place as his new home, his chalk crushed and abandoned on some anonymous rock. The hallucinations no longer bedeviled him.
He grabbed a handful of blueups and chewed on them several dozen times, until the noodle-like creatures became a viscous mush in his mouth. If he swallowed them whole, they gnawed at his throat and stomach, peppering his stomach lining with bloody ulcers, a fact he only knew because of the blood he'd coughed up. Indeed, swallowing them like jello shots had not been a good idea.
The ground became crystal white and sloped down. He immediately recognized the salt as potassium sodium tartrate, a piezoelectric material that when deformed by mechanical stress produced electrical charge, his favorite organic salt.
"What a coincidence," he said and clapped his hands with joy -- this time at 120 beats per minute, a consistent allegretto.
He made his way down the salt slope, resting his palm against the wall to keep his balance. The ground beneath his feet vibrated with every step, and the hairs on his nape stood. The rapping sound he'd been following for months, or perhaps even years, became a single word inside his mind.
Love. Love. Love.
Uncontrollable lust goaded him down the slope. Part of his mind screamed that he was being lured into oblivion, like an insect voluntarily treading to the heart of a spider's web, hopelessly seduced, unable to turn and flee.
He continued walking, turned left. A red curtain hung at the end of his path. Tartrate salt coated the folds like powdered sugar on a pastry. When he touched the curtain, electricity crackled up from the ground to the ceiling. Slowly, the curtain moved to the side, revealing a wooden stage covered with rows of metal chairs. In each chair sat an immobile skeleton holding a musical instrument. Farthest from him, the skeleton conductor stood, its left hand over its head, clutching the baton. Beyond the conductor were rows of red plush chairs filling a massive theater.
His hand trembled as he ran his fingers over the clavicle of the skeleton manning a timpani, streaking white powder off the bones.
Lying on the floor, behind the skeletons holding flutes up to their lipless mouths, a saxophone bumped its neck against the floor repeatedly at 60 beats per minute, like a clock. He waited until the instrument stopped moving, but it continued, swaying and tapping against the floor in perpetual motion, unaware that this mere action violated the first law of thermodynamics. Here, in this place that ignored the constraints of known physics, he'd found the orchestra. Cassandra had to be close.
He walked over, careful to not disturb the immobile musicians, and picked up the saxophone. After touching the cool metal, a voice spoke in his mind. "I loved you, but you failed me."
His voice trembled. "Cassandra?"
The saxophone continued. "I'm so tired of the rotations and the cycles of violence. Periodicity governing over delicious chaos."
He held his breath, expecting yet another hallucination to pass and Cassandra to appear from the darkness and hold him in her arms.
"I am real. Stop thinking and feel me. I am sad for you. I'm sick of talking to you after you've lost your mind. Every time, the same thing." Cassandra sighed. "You can't apologize for a life of mistakes, but don't worry. This is the last iteration. The end of the end of everything."
The only seat unoccupied by a skeleton was the one in front of the saxophone. What felt like cold fingers grabbed the back of his head, while another force, accompanied by the sound of someone blowing out a candle, shut his eyes and brought the instrument up to his face. The mouthpiece felt natural in his mouth, the reed rough against his tongue. He blew without wanting to, and the saxophone told him that sound was called G, and that he was perfectly tuned.
He straightened his spine. The arthritic pain in his lower back felt like he'd been stabbed with a red-hot chimney rod. His hands released the saxophone, but it floated in place, forcing him to blow again. This time the orchestra tuned with him.
He opened his eyes and saw that every skeleton had been replaced with a replica of himself. The flute players were the youngest, while the percussionists in the back were the oldest. The haircuts, weight, and general facial features varied, but they were all him, a Markson orchestra. Fear made his face twitch, his legs tremble, he needed to urinate, but the saxophone forced him still.
An orchestra of failure, Cassandra's voice told him.
Instead of a skeleton, Cassandra--not the one he'd loved, but a nearly identical twin--now conducted the orchestra. Her gaze locked with his, and he winced like an injured animal. He wished he had his medicine, a vanishingly small organic molecule capable of hushing the music and stopping the visions, leaving real peace behind, but taking a pill wouldn't help. His surroundings felt too real to be hallucinations.
Beside his own reflection on the saxophone's polished bell, Cassandra stared back. He looked around. On every instrument he could see, her face smiled at the other versions of him.
Was he looking at previous versions of himself? Was his society another in a line of infinite repetitions? Had human history replayed itself; forced onto a deterministic cycle of being born, growing old, and dying?
In front of him lay a phenomenon unknown to science. A collection of questions that if published would lead to a long string of high-tier publications and abundant grant money, a clear direction for his research career during his next life.
But her voice had been clear. There was no next time.
He needed to escape. He needed to find happiness. Still holding the saxophone, he'd turned to the curtains when the sound of cracking glass came from above him. A diamond shaped salt formation protruded from the ceiling. A blue, viscous liquid sloshed within, writhing unto itself like semi-solid hydrophobic tubes. The diamond cracked again, and fist-sized salt crystals fell around him.
He tried to run, but the saxophone ordered him to stop. The pain in his joints flared, and against his will, he stopped moving. The crystallized salt shattered. A giant mass of blueups cascaded down and piled on the floor. A blue wave of electricity hit his right side just below the ribcage, shocking his liver, and after a few moments of intolerable pain, he smelled burning flesh; his heart beating past prestissimo.
"It is a bad thing to die in pain and confusion," Cassandra said.
Cassandra's voice came in bellows, a projection that resonated in all of reality. He had nearly grasped the meaning of her words when a flurry of images showed him the abominable deeds he'd done while intoxicated and had later forgotten--violence in drunk stupors with hints of a sense of superiority, self-exculpation ... pleasure. He knew what he was: an unimportant, small man that didn't deserve forgiveness, whose own name disintegrated into the air like burning ash. The anonymous man took a deep breath, welcoming the electrifying pain. Then darkness extinguished his thoughts.
* * *
We are finally complete. The mistress stands straight, clicking her stick against the music stand and signaling us to start playing. Even if you're sane, the braces imprisoning your mind will fall apart, elevating your senses.
Don't fret if you hear our music calling. The pain will be short.
All cycles have been completed. If you hurry, you'll catch my solo. It will make your hearts burst with love. My husbands will play while you soak in the blood and sweat of your efforts, the last orgy of men.
When the last note is played, and the last instrument crumbles to dust, we'll fall from this plane, plummeting through unknown dimensions, regrets intact and inerasable.