August/September 2005

Saturday's Muse
James Robert French

She sat at a lead harp, her long, icy fingers plucking out a tune, which was precise, mathematical, and utterly joyless. It spoke of graves and lonely prison cells. After a few phrases, she felt it drift into one such cell, where a man sat still and silent, his hands waiting to scrawl a Sign upon the walls.

He began to cut, using a bit sharpened metal smuggled to him by a retiring guard as a last revenge against hated employers. The angles and shapes of the Sign called forth a black ooze from the stone walls, as if the prison were bleeding. As he cut, the prisoner's rage drifted up to the Muse, and she incorporated it into the rhythm she played, changing the tune from a dirge to an angry howl.

There was a scream from a cell far above, matching the pitch of the Muse's leaden melody with near perfection. The prisoner could feel the coming explosion like a moment of thick silence in a piece of experimental symphony. He continued to carve.

Now there was the sound of breaking glass, and skulls being cracked open against iron bars. Shouting that moved in a cascading spiral, undercut by a dissonant undercurrent of screams. As he completed the sign, the prisoner stood back from the wall to look at it, and saw that his feet were nearly covered in the black blood from the walls. On impulse, he picked up some of the blood with his fingertips, and rubbed the putrescent muck on his face.

The blood opened his inner eyes, and since it was the prison's blood, it showed him the havoc he had orchestrated. The main section of the prison was at war. No simple riot was this, but a response to the unleashing of something deep and atavistic. Guards and prisoners alike crawled over bodies broken and bloody, adding to the pile when they met each other. Nor was their any discrimination; each killed whomever they met, without regard to whether he was keeper or caged.

He experienced all this as high opera, the crunch of bone and the splitting of tissue all part of something Wagnerian and ultimately unreal. Some part of him realized this was a dangerous outlook. The torrent would soon reach into solitary confinement, and if he hadn't done this exactly right, he would get swept up in it. He could be neither a composer nor conductor, but the unconscious impulse that moved both.

Even that was wrong. If he were going to leave this prison alive, he would have to become the violent music himself. Even as he thought this, the blood at his feet began to crawl up his legs. He felt it eating at tissue, dissolving him into a world where there was only sound and rage. The transformation was agonizing, like being ripped apart by screaming knives that vibrated against his bones as they sang into his marrow.

When it was done he felt himself rushing into the steel door, and through it. The metal melted under the cloud of black blood he had become. As he moved through the corridors, he felt himself encounter things he dimly knew as people. They were masses of form that were warm when he first touched them, then blazing hot, and finally cold, but smoldering and smelling of puss and desiccated tissue.

There was still a melody to what was happening. Unidentifiable if one weren't already tuned in to the strange meter and harmonics born of unbearable pain. And he was the prime mover, the First Cause. All the blood and horror were ecstasy to him, because he was the blood and horror.

When he finally exited the burning prison in the form of a black steam that shot through a bulletproof window, the loss of the music was almost heartrending. But then he began to reform into a man. For this the Muse began another tune. It was triumphant, but still somber. The creation of a being that had seen terror, been terror, and come out the other side, transformed and whole.

The prisoner stood up, and looked at his hands, seeing them in sunlight for the first time in ten years, and laughed.