The Man with the Horn
Jason V. Brock
Jason V Brock is an award-winning writer, filmmaker, composer, and artist, and has been published in Butcher Knives & Body Counts, The Devil’s Coattails, Calliope, The Bleeding Edge, Black Wings II, and many others. He was art director/managing editor for Dark Discoveries magazine for more than three years, and has a new magazine out called [NameL3ss]. As a filmmaker, his work includes the documentaries Charles Beaumont: The Short Life of Twilight Zone’s Magic Man, The AckerMonster Chronicles!, and Image, Reflection, Shadow: Artists of the Fantastic. He loves his wife, Sunni, reptiles/amphibians, and vegan/vegetarianism.
She always knew when he was heading out. Shortly after he stopped practicing, there would be a great deal of commotion and shuffling on the other side of the thin old walls of the flat, as though someone were moving heavy fixtures around. A few minutes later, she would hear the muffled creak of his front door, and then the decisive slam as it closed. A moment or so after that, she could just make out the faint groan of the aging main staircase as he lumbered down to the gated front entryway.
In all the years she had lived in the modest little studio, she had never seen his face or spoken to him. All the other neighbors on her floor were affable enough; during the holidays, ancient Mrs. Kriteman would leave a tin of fresh-baked goodies in her doorway, or cranky Mr. Golding would brusquely offer to carry a heavy sack of groceries up to her place. Even Juan, the middle-aged handyman, was unfailingly polite, in spite of his limited English-speaking skills.
Not so her neighbor, Mr. Trinity.
In her twelve-year occupancy, she had yet to meet anyone who had associated with him in a social way, or even spoken with him; he was shadowy, mysterious, aloof.
Once, about five years ago, she managed to catch a glimpse inside his apartment as she was coming up the ramshackle stairs to their gloomy, worn landing. What little she could see appeared spartan, the walls painted black. There was the suggestion of weak lighting, and she just saw a strange endtable with an unusual statue on display. Without her glasses, it was hard to make out, much less comprehend, what she was viewing, and it was only a glance before the door closed, slamming loosely in its paint-chipped frame as he slipped back into his dwelling—as usual, his instrument case in hand, a battered hat pulled down to his jacket collar, his long, shapeless overcoat rustling. She noted then that he seemed a rather tall individual, but had only ever seen him in his duster and hat, and always from a distance. In the protracted silence that followed, the entire odd scenario raised questions in her mind about her neighbor…questions she had put out of her thoughts for some time, but which came rushing back, inspiring in her a vague sense of dread and disquiet concerning his circumstances, and her proximity.
In the ensuing years since, a lot had happened: Her mother had passed on from prolonged bout of cancer…her brother had been killed in a terrible workplace accident…and she had been relegated to filling her empty hours volunteering at a homeless shelter, existing off the meager disability income she received each month due to a persistent and excruciating neck injury acquired from a car accident. After that she stopped driving, which she deemed not only hazardous, but unnecessary in the neighborhood, and especially as she had no other local relatives; moreover, walking was good exercise. At times she felt isolated, even in her building—an interesting, historic old brownstone with a mix of renters and owners, mostly the elderly and young families starting out—which could be disheartening, but it was an existence of sorts, and at her age, in her physical condition, it was all she could manage. If only she still had Tom, life would be mostly agreeable, but that was not the case: He was taken suddenly three years previous, victim of an undiagnosed heart condition. He fell asleep and just never woke up. For a time, she prayed for a better life, but her experiences had blunted her faith, lowered her expectations; one should be careful what one prays for, and to whom, she had decided, because there was no guarantee that any of it would come to pass…or in any way that was worth having. No more angels and devils for her; the inspiring tales of faith and redemption of her youth had long ago decayed into bitter cynicism and hard-won, biting realism, which she had come to appreciate. For too long she had held the wrong priorities and only valued what she actually had in hindsight. She recalled a long-forgotten acquaintance once telling her that the biggest downside to getting older was that everyone around you—friends, family, pets—died; that it was the tax paid on living a long life. Considering the other option, she supposed it was better to age, if she could manage it without too much pain and with some measure of decorum. As she approached senior citizen status herself now, she saw the wisdom and sadness of that observation and mentally calculated additional, personal fees: aching joints, failing eyes, lost hope. In her estimation, hearts only served a few purposes at this life stage—heart attacks, heartbreak, heartache.
Outside her door, the landing stairs creaked again, and she looked at the clock: 11:09 p.m. Mr. Trinity had been gone for over three hours as she whiled away the time, lost in her thoughts, absorbed by the past and the pointless regrets of things that could have—even should have—happened but never did and, she suspected now, never would.
Then, the nightly ritual commenced: Mr. Trinity’s door slammed shut. This was followed shortly by a heavy scraping sound emanating from his side of the drafty apartment wall. After a moment, he started playing, and his practice would go on for the next several hours. Building in intensity, the tenor of his instrument was mournful, the melody a wailing dirge—a cacophonous mélange of cawing, rasping, weeping shrills and squawks—which seeped through to her, filling her head, filling the night, filling the world with its anguished, doom-laden cal….
After so many years, she had learned to tune out the ominous music issuing from the residence next door. Undeniably, she and Tom had obtained the unit—now paid for with Tom’s life insurance policy, another example of his taking care of her even in death—for a great price because of Mr. Trinity. No one else had wanted to purchase the abode once they heard the uncanny music wafting through the place from next door. The music, and the unnerving history of the domicile, were more than enough to spook most potential homeowners, in spite of the charming layout, the attractive arched doorways, and the decent square-footage. As a result, the apartment had remained on the market for over four years.
“The previous owners simply disappeared,” the real estate agent said. A decent-looking dirty blond, which he had apparently been told a few times too often, he smiled at her before opening the front door with a minor flourish. “Take a look!”
They had decided to meet at the brownstone after Tom got off from work, but he was running late, as always—one of her pet peeves. Even so, she was excited to see the interior after Tom had described it and the area, which was not only near a small greenbelt, but was convenient to most amenities and even had its own parking space—a rarity. It was the sixth place that they had been to in the past month, but something about it felt better than the others, which were in parts of the city that made her nervous. And it was reasonably close both of their jobs.
“Wow! I do love the hardwoods,” she said, nonchalantly caressing a newly painted wall. The smell of the paint lingered in the air, subtly merging with a trace of cleaning solutions. “How many bedrooms again?”
“Two. Two bedrooms, one-and-a-half baths, galley kitchen. Gas stoves, for the chef in you!” the agent replied, smoothing his tie and turning on the light in the hallway to the master bedroom. “Great place, great services, restaurants nearby…An outstanding value for this part of the city, near the school—”
“We don’t have any. I mean, no children.” She felt strange saying it aloud. “I decided we weren’t having any.”
“Hello! Sorry I’m late,” Tom said, rushing into the open front door.
“Oh, no worries! We were just starting,” the agent said. “I was running through some of the details.”
“Did you mention the previous owners?” Tom asked, walking over to where they stood in the hall near the bedroom. “Pretty interesting story…”
The agent gave a tight smile. “I did mention that they disappeared—”
“That’s not all, though.”
“No. No, that’s not all; I was going to get to that.” The agent looked down.
She felt the tension in the room elevate. “Get to what?” she asked, an edge in her voice. She dreaded this; she hoped it was nothing stupid. Sometimes Tom did things that just got all over her nerves: dumb ideas, poor choices, crazy notions. If he had not been such a hard worker, she would have found someone else a long time ago. He had even given her another shot when he caught her with her ex-boyfriend, which was more than she would have done. As her mother and brother told her, someone with her intelligence, her looks could get any guy they wanted, so why settle? Maybe guilt…maybe pride…She felt as though something big were going to happen for her one day, and then she could really get on with her life. She deserved better, and she knew that, but he was here, and had never screwed up so bad as to warrant the door. Yet.
“Oh, it’s nothing, really—”
“Well, actually, it’s a very cool story,” Tom interrupted, as was his habit. “It was an older couple, and they were rumored to have mob connections—”
“That,” the agent interjected, “is purely speculative; don’t let that—”
“Right, right—pure speculation. Regardless,” Tom continued, his hands flailing as he spoke. “So they were this older mob couple who had been the owners here for, like, nearly twenty years; so anyway, they were vacationing in Prague, having a good time, and then BAM!” Tom whacked his hands together dramatically. “They’re dragged kicking and screaming across the Charles Bridge, to Prague Castle, and never seen again.”
The room went quiet. The agent sighed loudly. “While it’s true that they did not return, no one knows that they were ‘dragged away.’ They were filmmakers and were doing some research on a recently discovered medieval-era dig near an abandoned city in the Czech Republic. Additionally, they had relatives in Europe, and it’s believed that the couple just decided to stay there. Besides, no one’s even certain that they left the country, or even the city! I mean, there’s no record of them staying in Prague, just some plane ticket purchases. They can’t verify who even used the tickets, or if they were used. The trail went cold after that, and they left no itinerary beyond going to the Czech Republic.”
“That’s not what I read online, though,” Tom replied. “I read that they had some real money, and were in some deep shit with the Feds, the whole ‘researching-the-ossuary’ thing was a ruse; they were really trying to buy fake identities. I also read it was related to some kinky sex stuff—young girls, live sex shows, crap like that. No one ever heard from them again. That’s why this place went on the market: no one can reach ‘em; it’s like they never existed. I read they were troublemakers in the building, too—tried to get a longtime resident evicted so they could take his unit over and expand into it. I think the whole episode adds to the charm of the place, really.”
She looked at Tom, who was smiling, then to the agent, who busied himself nervously eyeing his notes. Finally she asked: “Interesting. Anything else I should know about?”
Then, distantly at first, there was the melancholy sound of a musical instrument—perhaps a French horn or some comparable type of brass—which was soon joined by two, possibly three others of a similar character, forming a mildly dissonant chord that drifted spectrally through the air, building in harmonic complexity, swelling in resonance throughout the room. After a couple of minutes, the playing stopped, the last few phrases of the tune reverberating throughout the unit.
Tom: “Wow! What the hell was that? I’ve never heard anything like it!”
The agent attempted another smile, but his confidence seemed shaken. “That-that’s Mr. Trinity, the next-door tenant. He’s harmless, a recluse…”
A recluse, certainly, though in other ways he was the perfect neighbor: He never complained, never bothered anybody, never had anyone over. Tom drove the bargain hard, and they bought the place, in part because he was so intrigued with Mr. Trinity and the unusual history of the apartment. Tom had always been open to new experiences and enjoyed challenges. It was part of the reason she stayed with him, she realized in retrospect; he had been a musician as well, and even attempted, for a while, to engage their elusive neighbor—knocking on his door, leaving notes, and so on, to no avail. Mr. Golding in particular had warned her husband that his entreaties would be pointless, that Trinity would not be receptive at all, but it was Tom’s nature to try, to reach out to others.
So long as anyone could recall, the cryptic Mr. Trinity had been a staple in the building; even old man Jenkins, the superintendent before he died last year, said that Trinity had been a fixture well before he moved in, some thirty years prior. No one in Mr. Jenkins’s estimation had set foot in Trinity’s place, spoken with him, or even seen his face in all that time. They only knew his name was ‘Mr. Ghrâbøel Trinity,’ that he practiced playing his horn day and night, and that he left his unit without fail in the evenings for several hours, every day of the year.
After Tom’s death, she realized many things, but of course, they were all too late. She was too sad to concern herself with Mr. Trinity and his peculiar habits, but once she was living alone again and the fog of her depression began to lift, she found her curiosity and interest gradually piqued by his odd ways as she so obliquely experienced them.
Then something remarkable occurred: She got a piece of his mail in her box by accident, his name and apartment number clearly scrawled on the front; there was no return address. She stared at it for several minutes. It was the first tangible thing of his that she had ever touched.
She could not resist taking it to her flat.
Once safely in the confines of her home, with Trinity’s portentous serenade happening just a few feet beyond the wall, she debated what to do. It might seem awkward to give the letter back now that she had taken it, and she knew he would not answer the door in any case. After an hour of agonizing consideration, she found herself hastily tearing open the water-stained, yellowing envelope, though she knew it was wrong.
Inside, there was a three-page document. The paper was crumbling and smelled of smoke, and the handwritten script was shaky, penned in some alien language, with angular, densely accented letters, and very long words, which were apparently to be read from the right side of the page to the left, and from top to bottom. It resembled no other language she had ever seen, not even her mother’s native Russian, and certainly not the Hebrew she had been taught as a child.
Along the bottom third of the pages were several meticulously rendered drawings, but they were smeared, and it was difficult to discern just what exactly they were about. The images looked to be either diagrams, sketches of bizarre plants and animals, or of something else altogether—perhaps a few of each. Curiously, sections of the message were broken up by what appeared to be a form of musical notation, but not of any type she was familiar with, and nothing she could identify with the help of Tom’s old reference books. Even searching the Internet and poring through the stacks at the main library turned up nothing remotely like the notation, illustrations, or language that the missive was encoded in. She filed it away, afraid of what would happen if she threw it out or attempted to give it to him.
The letter brought a certain level excitement to her life, an excitement that had been missing for a long time from her monochrome, increasingly sedate existence; it proved his humanness in a way, and made her feel connected to the outside world again, instead of focusing only on herself, instead of perpetually looking inward. It was then that she began to catch herself noting the timings of Mr. Trinity’s comings-and-goings, strangely comforted by the wistful, glum sonorities of his unearthly music. One morning, for the first time in years, she looked into the mirror and noticed her reflection as she got ready. Brushing her hair, she seemed to have more presence, more color….Her eyes had a glint of light; her skin was still smooth, still tight for a person her age. Even her frame was more at ease, relaxed, and her weight was good—she had retained a nice figure through all that had happened by exercising, walking everywhere. She smiled for the first time she could remember, and felt a renewed sense of interest—of purpose—in the world.
Over dinner in the evenings, she began to muse that perhaps Mr. Trinity was a professional musician. Her ruminations about his secretive life became increasingly intricate, increasingly detailed, even as her dreams became less interesting, even forgettable. His being a performing musician would certainly explain his continual practicing, his daily excursions into the outside world. Maybe he’s playing gigs…or filling in on recording sessions uptown.
One day, she vowed to gather up the courage to pay Mr. Trinity a proper visit, perhaps take him a neighborly offering of homemade brownies. Perhaps her feminine wiles could forge some connection between them…
Returning home from the shelter on a moonless December night, head pounding from a cold she sensed was dragging her immune system down, she noticed something unusual as she crested the stairs to her landing: Mr. Trinity’s door was open. Just a crack, but enough to see into his dark, dark unit.
She froze in place. The lights on the landing lowered for an instant as a sudden cold gust whistled through the silent hallway, causing Mr. Trinity’s front door to move ever so slightly. She looked around; as she pulled her shawl closed about her throat, she found the yarn scratchy, stiff against her skin. Her throat clicked tightly when she swallowed.
Maybe…maybe there’s a problem.
She took a short, tentative step forward, heels clicking on the scuffed wooden causeway, unconsciously pulling her purse tighter against her tired body. Suddenly, her vision was narrowed exclusively to the gap between Mr. Trinity’s gently wavering door and the shabby doorframe. Her hands felt clammy, her legs heavy; her heart thudded mechanically, unevenly.
After a pause, she stepped closer once more.
“Hello?” Her voice was small, tinny, her mouth dry. The wind whipped outside the building. The lights dimmed, then flared before settling again. Without realizing it, she had walked over and was now at his doorway. She raised her fist to knock, noting that her hand was not only shaking, but that the sixty-year-old skin was slack, dotted with age spots, more wrinkled than she had ever noticed or recalled.
“Hello?” she called out again, louder, and rapped on the dingy wooden door.
“Hello? Mr. Trinity? Is everything OK?” The door opened slightly wider as she knocked. Inside, no lights were on; indeed, the black painted walls seemed to pull the light from the landing into the apartment, extinguishing, deadening the weak hallway illumination like a black hole snuffing the energy from a dying star.
“Mr. Trinity? Is everything all right? It’s your neighbor.”
She stepped into the unit, her shoes clacking on the hardwood of the small foyer. There was a sudden chill in the air, causing her breath to fog, and a sharp smell that she could not quite identify: a top note of copper…a hint of mold…and some other, musky, undertone.
The inside of the place was quite dark. She squinted her eyes, straining against the inky blackness. From what little she was able to see, the layout was completely different from her own residence, and larger; the windows of this corner unit were completely blacked out as well. She stepped forward again, again. With one more step, the feeble outside light fell quickly away; as she moved into the depths of the too quiet abode, all illumination was smothered by the deep, permeating blackness within.
“Hello? Mr. Trin—” Her balance shifted abruptly, and she lost her foothold after stepping on something soft. Before she could react, she was on all fours, hitting the floor hard, her hands braced against something cool, moist…
Repulsed, she gently felt around—screaming out when it unexpectedly moved…and answered her scream with one of its own.
She recoiled, a hot stream of acid jetting from her gut to her mouth. Then another person, unseen in the impenetrable gloom, screamed out right beside her. And a third joined, followed by a fourth….Soon there was a horrific chorale of moaning, tortured shrieks filling the pervasive darkness. Her mind flashed on the old couple that used to own her unit: Were they in here? Tortured for years by Mr. Trinity for trying to have him evicted? Or maybe they were all in a sick partnership…some twisted sex thing as the rumors had reported.
She leapt up, disoriented, nauseous, and ran. As she hit a wall, the wind was knocked out of her; she felt along its length, at last coming to a closed door, her head pounding in time to her pulse. Behind her, the horrific groaning and thrashing continued, growing in pitch and volume, voices subsiding and joining at different intervals, adding to the density of the cold, thin air as she tried to catch her breath. I’ve gone the wrong way, I’ve gone deeper into this madhouse!
She turned the doorknob and pushed the door open—
dazzled by a staggering, limitless panorama
of vertigo-inducing deep space quintessence:
A primeval, impossibly expanding canopy of twinkling stars,
spiraling galaxies, and flowering nebulae
receding into the void in all directions…
Teetering on the threshold of the doorway,
she loses her footing, and is rapidly falling—
end over sickening end
through the weightlessness of non-life and non-death,
of animate and inanimate,
the terrible, swarming chorus
slowly replaced by a cavernous, otherworldly thrumming
that pushes all rational thought from her mind…
stunned into insensibility
at the self-organizing chaos of oblivion.
Reflexively, she reaches out—
the saliva on her tongue beginning to sizzle
from the vacuum of space; lungs burning
from a lack of oxygen; brain dying of hypoxia—
and tries to control her wildly spinning body.
She clutches at where the wall used to be,
her eyes closing as consciousness withers
from her mental horizon…
for a second, a pinpoint of light blooms
in the center of her diminishing awareness,
and she finds a solace she has not known
since before Tom’s death—
When she opened her eyes again, she was lying in a poorly lit hallway that stretched to a vanishing point in the distance. She took a deep breath, eyes watering, and coughed hard, her body drained, aching. Her clothes were torn, damp, and adhered snugly to her stinging skin; her handbag was gone. She touched her face, surprised at how cold it was, even numb in spots; she could barely control the trembling of her hands, which were stiff, tight, frigid. Getting to her feet, she tried to walk, but the floor was uneven, deceptively pitched. As she watched, the corridor hypnotically transmogrified into a vast wasteland of twisted, verdant flora covering prehistoric edifices boasting sinuous, Gaudi-esque forms juxtaposed against jagged monuments—temples?—composed of sheer, geometrically impossible gold-leafed angles. Populated by weird, nonhuman figures—some winged, others not—in disturbing tableaux, the whole site gave the impression of a vanished empire steeped in ostensibly frenzied torment, or perhaps some inscrutable, obscene ecstasy. The bizarre relics, starkly inscribed with oddly familiar, abstract runes and imagery, reminded her of something, and she was overwhelmed with a sudden and profound sadness. She felt trapped, forgotten—lost in her own private German Expressionist film, her own hellish version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Of course—Mr. Trinity’s letter…That was where she had seen the unusual characters, the plants and creatures, the odd depictions adorning the exterior of the buildings.
At that moment, an ethereal sound—haunting, musical, and also disconcertingly familiar—coasted gradually into her perception across the desolate scene, and she found herself inextricably drawn into this blasted landscape. Was this the ossuary that the couple was researching? Maybe this is hell—or maybe it’s something else….She stepped forward—
She spun around, looking for the source of the garbled exclamation, confused.
<<P’jra!>> The voice was guttural, detached. Again, closer, more insistent: <<P’jra!>>
The eerie music that she heard earlier was mounting, growing louder. The ruins began to dim as she watched, slowly fading into an absolute darkness, just as its grotesque, frozen inhabitants began to stir into hideous life. Abruptly, the strange music ended.
As she watched, her mind pulling pieces of her experiences together, she saw something materialize—first as the hazily radiant outline of a hunched figure within the encroaching nightfall, then little by little gaining solidity as it moved toward her with a resolute determination. Transfixed as the silhouette slowly closed in, she noticed that it appeared to be in pain, as though each movement required tremendous effort, tremendous willpower.
“Mr. Trinity…” Her voice was a strangled whisper; she wanted to say more, to explain, to apologize, but realized it would be pointless: She had trespassed—pried into things that she had no business being involved with, whether she understood them or not—and there would be no turning back.
Once more, softer: <<P’jra.>> Even in the near pitch-blackness of the strange passageway, she could see from the softly glowing aura that shimmered around him in fish-belly iridescent hues that he had his precious instrument case. Inches away from her he paused, and his towering, shadowy, muscular bulk completely filled her perception. He was nude, she sensed, and his hat was missing. She could see from his outline, which was fearsome, outlandish, that it was an approximation of a human, but closer in form to the figures in the landscape she had seen start to move. His breath was cold, ragged, labored. At last, he stooped forward, revealing a cluster of what seemed to be multiple arms, or perhaps wings, and opened his case. In that singular instant, she became aware of the horrifying screams from the other room once more—the ghastly chorus was still shrilling in anguish, and she instinctively, or perhaps as part of her delusionary state, understood that these could be souls. As he pulled the instrument from its holder, she observed that it too threw off a faint luminosity, a greenish fluorescence that defined its bizarre shape. She had never see what instrument created Mr. Trinity’s disturbing music, and was both amazed and revolted by the intricate, mottled swirls of fleshy corkscrews—mapped by tendons, threaded with weakly pulsing veins—that coiled and twisted to create the body of the device: a mucid collage of soft, translucent tubing punctuated with numerous bony prominences. The buttons, inscribed by the odd musical notations from the letter, seemed to be made from rows of large, yellowed teeth, and multiple growths pulsed under its glistening skin, crowding next to many trembling, blinking eyes, which stared from beneath the quivering membranes. Instant to instant, the weird implement appeared solid, then gelid, then solid—the eyes, clouded, deadened, shifting back and forth into positions that brought to her mind distorted, yet familiar faces. Sometimes even people she recognized—her dead mother, father, and brother….Others were strangers, still others were simply half-formed horrors of sickening visage.
She tried to scream, but was muted by horror and disgust. Mr. Trinity pulled the weird apparatus to his face, which for the first time illuminated his features—
And she found the scream buried deep in her chest.
His appearance was little more than a pale, gaunt, expressionless mask, the lips peeled away from the outsized, crooked dentition in an approximation of a rictus. The five deeply sunken eyes formed a perfect inverted triangle in the stretched skin of the face, wetly reflecting the strange, dim glow of the living instrument gripped in his gnarled, arthritic fists. His skeletal proboscis twitched excitedly on his enormous earless head as Mr. Trinity inched closer and closer, the single massive, blood-colored horn at last visible curling asymmetrically from the top of his denuded cranium.
The din from the screaming choir in the other room seemed to crescendo, then fade from her dying mind; as she backed away from the creature in front of her, she was horrified to comprehend all the terrible lies, delusions, and mistakes in her life that she would never get a chance to undo or correct. Instead of working to improve herself, instead of making the best of her reality, she had coveted and envied; she had marginalized and belittled, and arrogantly claimed to know better. In the end, she had searched for something that was better left unknown, undiscovered. Unfortunately, she had found it. Am I to become a part of his instrument? Will he collect me now for his endless permutations, his ceaseless practice?
In the seconds left to her, she thought she heard Tom’s voice in the distant screams, blended with the swelling melodies of madness, the pitiful harmonies of Hell that her shattered mind could no longer fully assimilate. She understood now that this was not her heaven or hell, but her eternal limbo. Much as her life had been unlived, so too would her death be unresolved; she would persist in this place, with this being, this creature, this nephilim. She had been found, too, it seems.
Then, with a strange resolve and an unexpected grace, the man with the horn—who always was, and who always would be—raised the pulsating instrument to his mouth…
And the infinite was ignited.