Midnight. I sit waiting on the balcony, my back to the metal railing, feeling the coldness of it criss-cross against my spine. The smell of ash in the air. The smell of the night itself, like damp paper.
Waiting for the moment, for the moonbeam. Waiting for the stars to arrange themselves to their own satisfaction. The sound of the traffic like a distant river - the ebb and flow of a world where the darkness is still orchestratated by streetlights - a world I am no longer part of. The unexpected coolness of the marble floor. I hold my knife up to my face and try to see my eyes in its blade. The blade shines silver, glints back at me, sharp as the eyes of a cat. It is a good sign. It means the stars are thirsty too, it means they will help. It means they will not be satisfied till the reflection of their loneliness is stilled in blood.
I think about how old the bones of the moon must be. As I watch, a solitary moonbeam advances upon the door, like a finger, like a key. As it touches the keyhole, I hear the reluctant click of ancient clockwork, and the great stone door swings soundlessly open. I can enter now. It is time.
The first thing that strikes me as I enter the house is the thickness of the air, its nine hundred year old sweetness. Even the bees would die, carrying mouthfuls of this air back to their hives. The floor is so thick with dust that every footstep becomes a ghost trying to rise up from beneath the ground, raising its spectral hands towards me, subsiding in my wake. I feel as if I were treading on silence itself. It occurs to me that this is how God must collect in the hearts of men, not a weight but a deposit, the sediment of history. I can feel the reluctance in my feet, the resistance of the dust to my approach. If I did not have the knife with me, its point raised and listening like an ear, I would have turned back.
I go further. The darkness closes in now, the doorway with its promise of moonlight has been left behind. It does not matter though. No directions count here, this place is hunger. You cannot see your way through this house, you can only imagine it, and in the corridors of the imagination where the ghosts of flame burn in twisted, forgotten shapes, there is always light.
Two corridors down, I hear the music. Billie Holiday. The sweet, sad ache of the note, like the clarity of water drawn from a dark, deep well. The sound is faint at first, but as I follow it grows louder, the music swelling, soaring, lifting the roofbeams of this house so that it finally feels as though there may be space here to breathe. My steps are quicker now - my purpose defined at last, I hurry through the echoing passageways with an anxiety that is truer than a knife, cobwebs brush against me like strands of premonition but I break my way through and pay them no heed.
The room, when I finally reach it, is lit by a chandeleir of mournful candles that sit huddled on its great metal branches like bedraggled birds leaving the carpet underneath thick with their wax droppings. As I enter I notice a piano in the corner and an old man by the fireplace, warming his hands. He is wearing a tattered red dressing gown, with a Pheonix embroidered on its back in gold. On a table just inside the entrance there is an old-fashioned radio, its neon dial glowing a sickly green. That's where the music is coming from. I look down at the radio and discover that the tuner is broken and the station is set permanently to Nostalgia.
There's a bed in the very centre of the room, where a young boy lies sleeping. As I approach, I am struck by his intense, incandescent beauty, by the way the exquisite pallor of his skin rises so effortlessly out of the grey lifelessness of the bedsheets. By the fullness of those lips, the tenderness of that cheek, the delicate calligraphy of those eyelashes. By the eyes closed like trembling buds, wanting only the soft call of Spring to burst into life again. There is something innocent about this face, something pure and almost holy, as though Time himself would hesitate to touch so frail a loveliness. He looks so young, so tender, that it is hard to believe that he has lain like this for centuries, until I realise that the carpet I thought I was walking on is actually his hair.
When I stop beside the bed the old man looks across at me for a moment, his glance as wily as a frightened sparrow. He has been warming his hands before that fire for a good ten minutes since I entered, but his fingers are still trembling. It is clear that he has seen my knife, and is afraid. Thinking about him makes the world come flooding back, the consciousness of my surroundings, that I had lost in gazing at the boy, returns. These foolish things remind me of you the voice on the radio sings. I feel as though I am being watched. I glance over at the old man again, but he has turned away, is sitting hunched and miserable over the fire. Who else then? Tensing, I whirl about quickly, take in the room. No one. Oh how the ghost of you clings. It occurs to me that the presence I am feeling is the radio. Sitting there so assured, so complacent. A leer stuck on its face. I realise I have to switch the radio off before I can go on with what has to be done. No witnesses. The man who ordered the killing was very clear about that.
As I advance upon the radio a second time, the sound of it seems to grow louder, surround me. We'd be so grand at the game, the voice sings, so happy together that it does seem a shame, the music drowning out everything else, that you can't see your future with me, as I reach for the switch I hear what sounds like a distant howl behind me, I turn and see the old man gesturing frantically at me, his lips moving, 'cause you'd be oh, so easy to love. I turn the radio off.
And suddenly I'm standing in the middle of a vast and empty landscape, a desert stretching away on every side of me, the stars distant and cold. The boy and the piano and the room have all vanished, only the old man in his garish dressing gown is still here, tottering towards me over the sand. "What happened?", I ask him as he draws closer, "where did the boy go?" (I have a job to do, after all). "They're all gone", the old man says, his voice like the squeak of an unoiled hinge, "the boy and the room and the house and the world it was all contained in; all gone because you turned off that radio and destroyed them forever". "The radio?", I ask, the suprise plain in my voice. "Yes, the radio. Don't you see that that radio was the only thing connecting that room to the ancient world that it was once part of, that the music was the only thing keeping that house alive? When you turned off the radio you broke that link, and nine hundred years of desire crumbled away into dust. I hope you're happy. Why didn't you just kill the boy? I thought that was what you had come for?". I nodded. "It was", I said, but he had already turned away from me, was already walking away, headed towards a horizon that was visible only as a thin line of contrast, a hairline fracture in the blank bone of the distance.
After he was gone, I listened very carefully to the silence, hoping to hear a songbird sing. When nothing came, though, I shrugged my shoulders and lay down right there on the sand, and pulled the desert over me like a blanket and fell asleep and dreamed of a neon-green face, glowing faintly in the darkness.