The Meltdown

Photo by Brook Ward  (
Photo by Brook Ward  (

Some years ago a diabolical fire, triggered by lightning, ravaged Donmark cathedral. It was a terrible tragedy, though fortunately no lives were lost and no one was injured. Most of the cathedral, however, was burned beyond repair. The Donmark city council, in conjunction with the Diocese of Y–, decided that an altogether new building would have to be designed and erected in place of the old. So they approached the celebrated architect Grimsdale Rollo, who proposed an audacious idea: a smaller-scale imitation Norman cathedral made from concrete and limestone, with stained-glass windows, but with an external, protected, gigantic pipe organ.

Now, after five years, the project had been realized, and everyone was very happy. Rollo walked off with a considerable sum of money, the city council congratulated itself on its daring and good taste, and the local press gushed over this symbol of cutting-edge architectural modernity. Countless tourists flooded in to the quaint little city, greedily taking photos of the cathedral and its pipe organ with their digital cameras.

While staring at it, however, most of the locals felt a little uneasy. It was certainly bizarre. The whole thing was an outlandish hybrid of stone and pipes and brass and valves.

The colossal central thrust of interlocking curved tubing pointed toward the heavens and seemed to be reaching out ever further to try and join them. It was as though this ersatz Norman austerity had been finished off with an afterthought: the addition—or rather superimposition—on its spires and columns of this massive apparatusof musicality. What was normally housed inside a cathedral now provided the exterior with a second, displaced skin. The sound that the organ produced, when all the stops were out, would have been deafening, smiting the listener with all its armor-plated force. Consequently, the thing was never actually played as Donmark, with its quaint shops and tearooms, would have been laid waste by the aural equivalent of an atom bomb. The whole thing was protected from the elements by an immense, raised shield that stood atop the highest towers of pipes like a fragmented, ossified tent.

The village schoolmaster, Mr. Luces, was an amateur organist, and he was particularly fond of the organ works of Ferruccio-Valentin Clemente, an obscure nineteenth-century Italian-French composer. Clemente had been a child prodigy, and once, according to legend, had astonished Pagianini after a recital in Parma, playing Paganini’s Caprice no. 24 on the piano while blindfolded. Clemente became a kind of performing monkey for awhile, pushed zealously by his baker of a father, who cared very little about music and a great deal about money, insisting the boy do endless rounds of concert tours in Europe and Sicily. Eventually Clemente gave it all up at the age of nineteen and shifted his attention to composition. The illustrious music critic Eduard Hanslick once passed judgment on one of his quartets, and it is worth quoting his remarks in full just to get an idea of the violence of the great critic’s reaction:

Ferruccio-Valentin Clemente’s music puts one in mind,
principally, of the Black Death. When one hears it a
violent nausea takes hold. Mercifully, once away from the
presence of this music, life returns and so does sanity.
Clemente has shown us that, with the best will in the
world, certain individuals, no matter how hard they try,
can only produce works that are, at best, sickeningly
bad and, at worst, incontestably evil. With this in mind
I would urge Clemente to take his own life and spare the
world, which is already replete with ugliness and horror,
from having to stomach any more of his abominations.

Clemente, perhaps understandably, never recovered from this blow. His life was to take ever-darker turns. His first wife threw his musical scores in the Seine after she found out he was having an affair with her mother and for good measure decided to set fire to his Pleyel piano. The fire engulfed the whole house, where Clemente happened to be inside. He escaped with his life, but he was never able to play another musical instrument again. He went into isolation, now a hobbling cripple, and devoted himself exclusively to composition, one of his special innovations being the invention of a diatonic scale that prefigured Wagner’s chromaticism by two decades. Clemente moved to the picturesque town of Taormina and eventually died of syphilis there, thought to have been caught from a prostitute during his student days in Freiburg.

It was possible that Mr. Luces, in some way, identified with Clemente. He, too, was a troubled man, and while he enjoyed relative affluence and had friends and admirers, life in a second-rate grammar school did not really satisfy his deepest needs. Some months earlier he had decided that, in order to give his life more meaning, he would become a human rights activist. He had been particularly moved by the plight of Pakistani women whose faces had been hideously disfigured by acid thrown on them by insane or jealous husbands, often their only crime being their beauty, which the men resented. Mr. Luces spent half a year interviewing hundreds of women in Pakistan, all of them like scarred, scorched shells of their former selves, their faces ravaged, having the appearance and texture of hideous, immovable masks. He had started a movement on the Internet to make their plight more well known, demanding justice for the victims. But justice was rarely accorded, and many of the women ended up taking their own lives. After his name became quite well known and his efforts were applauded, Mr. Luces began to receive all manner of strange emails and letters. The emails seemed to gather together all the stupidity, vice, ignorance, prejudice, and insanity of the world and people, and the writers of them took him to task for the following: failing to understand Pakistani culture and presuming to interfere in it as a foreigner; protecting women who were essentially whores; simplifying things and misrepresenting them; being an arrogant and ill-informed westerner; sticking his nose into things that didn’t concern him; and trying to turn these wives against their loving husbands. The most demented and unbelievable emails of all were from women who felt sorry for the men who had thrown the acid on their wives’ faces, as they went on about how these men were misunderstood, were in pain, were sensitive souls crying out for understanding.

Mr. Luces had a complete mental collapse when he realized the true extent of humanity’s hypocrisy, cowardice, and misogyny. He felt betrayed and violated for having tried to do good, for having tried to help these women and stop these attacks, and for trying to bring these barbaric men to justice. Instead of being thanked, the world and all its sticky little minions and brainwashed intellectual pygmies and fools and fascists were raging at him and collecting at his doorway like maggots in rivers of blood. Instead of being thanked for trying to scrape the shit off the world, everyone was telling him to leave that shit intact and not to touch it because he had no right to. Instead of being given a medal, which he thought he deserved for finally doing something good and right and noble, he was splattered in buckets of filth and slandered and vilified by foul-mouthed, vindictive cowards. He lost all love for humanity at that point and concluded that people could never be saved, could never be cured or healed, and that the world was destined to go on marching in darkness, a mad, demented death march ruled by the iron rhythms of cruelty and barbarism, striking out its metallic beat for time immemorial. He managed to make it to the Accident and Emergency unit of the nearest hospital and collapsed in exhaustion and hysteria. They gave him Lexotan and Penbutolol and Sertraline and Xanax, and he slept for three days straight.

It was three in the morning. The sickle moon was hanging in silvery beauty, and the town was asleep. Perhaps it had always been asleep. Overhead the sky was inky black—so black that dawn seemed inconceivable. Mr. Luces was sitting, peering out of his bay window, clutching a nearly expired cigarette, considering what lay before him. His small house looked out on a scene of idyllic beauty, the green common glowing in the moonlight, its daffodils just now coming into bloom; beyond was the castle and the tidy array of shops, tearooms, pubs, all civilized signifiers of a cozy, safe, middle-class life, duly rendered antiseptic and germ free. He considered the life of the town—its gentility, its shrouded citizens who were all bound by strict social conventions—and glimpsed only gray, shrouded horizons. Would Fred Klems, the local postman, Mr. Luces wondered, ever witness the sight of a meditating yogi in Kerala? Would he ever know the beauty of the setting sun in Provence? Would Alice, the curvaceous barmaid of the Cock and Bottle, ever realize that the English tabloid press had cynically devised a seductive trap that ensnared people, made them desperately seek for a fame or glamour that would never come? Would Marjorie Bowles, the local pharmacist, one day realize that life was not merely waking and working and supper and television, that another music played somewhere, there was another view somewhere, where the flowers were sweeter, the breezes warmer, where toil and hardship were not the only features of an etiolated, faded landscape? Would she ever listen to Ferruccio-Valentin Clemente’s organ music and have her brain reconfigured by its terrifying pulsations?

Tonight she would. Tonight she would. Tonight was the night. He had decided. Mr. Luces had had it all planned for months now. Being on friendly terms with the head porter of the cathedral, Mr. Luces had asked him if he could take a look at the principal key to the cathedral, a long, corrugated affair, which the porter had been only too happy to show him. While the latter’s back was turned, Mr. Luces pressed the key into a square of soft clay housed in a little tin box, so that its shape and teeth were clearly outlined in the clay, thus giving him an excellent record of the key’s exact dimensions and shape. He snapped the tin box shut and slid it into his pocket and returned the key to the porter with some words of admiration. He then had a copy of the key made from this clay outline. And now he pulled that copy out of his jacket pocket, stubbed out his cigarette firmly, and began to walk toward the cathedral, where a little light glowed in the distance, and he felt like he was out alone on a little fishing boat in a giant ocean, perhaps shortly to be buffeted by winds and torrential rain, perhaps shortly to capsize.

He opened the door of the cathedral noiselessly and flashed his small torch until he found the organ console. It felt eerily quiet at that hour, and for a moment he had the impression that he was being watched by a shadowy figure in a cassock. But he knew that he must have been mistaken. His fingers felt for the studs and stops lovingly and carefully. This was it; this was the moment of complete and utter beauty. He began to play: Ferruccio-Valentin Clemente’s Toccata in B Minor.

At once, landing like a thunderbolt on the sleeping town, came this sound, which wasn’t even really a sound, more of a force, a power, a damnation, smashing into their sleep and dreams and rendering them awake and terrified. The Grand Guignol of the music announced itself, the swelling scales and ascents rose up like Venetian masks, rising from the depths and multiplying as the whole of existence became a kind of demented carnival of uncanny vibrations. The music blew and swayed like a great, calamitous gale, as the force of the sound caused branches to shake and doors to rattle. It was like some earthquake holding the world to ransom and terror stalked the music, naked gothic terror, and Clemente’s harmonies and chords and progressions, at that insane magnitude of volume, seemed to offer up a final biblical revelation, a canvas within which scenes of disaster unfolded; it was if the Score to the History of the World’s Madness had just been composed and was at that instant being given its premiere. Mr. Luces’s ears were bleeding, but he was delirious with joy, with mad, uncontainable joy, and he swayed from side to side as his fingers raced across the stops and the pedals below him rose and fell. He was smiling, he was laughing hysterically through his tears—frantic, self-cannibalizing laughter; he felt his whole body convulsed in one luminous orgasmic onslaught of the senses. He had fused with the music as completely as two lovers grinding their limbs against each other.

People were rising, scrambling around for their clothes, trying to block out the sound with earplugs, hastily grabbing their bathrobes, trying to understand what was going on. How had anyone managed to get inside the cathedral? Which madman was it? Would it not stop? Would it never end? The heavy vestiges of sleep bore down on them, though the music was thrusting them skyward, urging them to throw off their shackles and look upon the stars. The struggle, the dissonance was too great, and this nocturnal eruption of terror and sound, this unrelenting dark grandeur was rejected in disgust, and people cursed and raged and fumed as they tried to push the music to the sides of their lives. They hated that vile sound; they were determined to put a stop to it, grind it underfoot and spit it out like a plum stone, like the pip of a grape. They began to get dressed and poured out into the streets, all in one motion, all with one accord, aimed for the cathedral where they would finally seize upon the lone lunatic who dared to rob them of their precious sleep. They would teach him a lesson he would never forget; they would crucify him.

They would castrate the little anarchist.

In the meantime, Mr. Luces went on playing. He knew the end was fast approaching, but there was nothing he could do about that now. He could not stop, he just couldn’t, and he was in a place far far away from pain and disappointment. Soon he would be afforded a view of the meadows, soon his face would be irradiated by a special light, soon Ferruccio-Valentin would appear and they would talk, of music, of beauty, of the consolations of art, and their talk would go on long into the night that was no longer night. He went on playing, laughing, weeping salty tears, waiting for the end.


Baret Magarian is the author of Mirror and Silhouette, a novella set in Venice; the novel The Fabrications; and, most recently, the story collection Melting Point.