It had been the most desperate moment of Angelo Neumann’s life so far, and you were certain to live through many such moments if you lived for the opera. When he closed his eyes, he could still picture his friend of so many years and partner in so many troublesome events, wildly running away from the new opera house and crying: “Can’t get me in there again! I’m done! Hear me?! Done!” Which were the most articulate parts.
Paul Leger had been Neumann’s close associate since Leipzig and had followed Neumann on his Nibelungen-Tournée: ten months across Europe with the whole cast and scenery on a train, playing the complete The Ring of The Nibelung in all notable cities. Both men had nightmares about it before they even started. But thanks to Leger’s skills, no serious incidents occurred during the tournée, which could be considered a miracle. And yet, Leger had run away screaming from the building of Prague’s Neue Deutsche Theater two weeks before its official opening.
Angelo Neumann’s future had never looked this dark.
A knock on the door broke his unhappy train of thoughts. “Enter,” he called.
His chief dramaturg, Heinrich Teweles, entered with a worried expression. “He’s not coming back, is he?” he asked quietly.
Neumann shook his head. “I’ve never been more certain about anything in my life.”
“I shall call the editors of Prager Tagblatt and Bohemia as soon as possible and tell them – that the construction work is taking longer than we’ve expected and the building cannot be opened as originally scheduled. Do you agree?”
The director nodded in gloom. “No one can know about this. Imagine the rumors it would undoubtedly start…”
He immediately regretted saying it as the picture of such events came to his mind all too well.
No, they couldn’t possibly let anyone know that his chief exorcist had nearly lost his mind in the new opera house and they had no replacement at hand. They’d be opening to an empty auditorium. Only those with a death wish or too much love for risk would come.
“We have to find someone capable,” he said aloud.
Teweles knitted his brows. His thoughts no doubt converged to the same problem as Neumann’s: How would they find a skilled exorcist on such a quick notice and as secretly as possible?
“Well,” the dramaturg broke the all too gloomy silence, “for now, we should announce the opening as we discussed in our contingency plan before, correct?”
“Correct.” Neumann sighed. He wanted the opening ceremony to coincide with the anniversary of the premiere of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. This remarkable piece was first played in Prague one hundred years ago. Neumann wished to build up on this strong tradition and make the declining German theatre in Prague a worthy competitor of the successful Czech National Theatre.
However, without an exorcist, they had no choice but to postpone the opening. It would have to be at the beginning of January instead of this November. He would move the Don Giovanni performance back to the Estates Theatre, which had sufficed for this purpose a century ago after all, and start with something else. He had already bought exclusive rights to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The public loved their Wagner as much as they loved their Mozart. This ought to be the best choice he’d been left.
“In order to make sure this plan runs on schedule, we should find ourselves an exorcist at the latest by the end of November,” Neumann concluded. His mind was already running through all the possibilities. With a frown, he realized he had no chance of luring any of the other central Europe opera houses’ established exorcists. He had known them all and their loyalty was nearly incorruptible. Nearly – but he didn’t have the conditions that would corrupt them here.
That left him some ancillary staff, retired exorcists or unskilled beginners, mostly self-taught.
“I’ll let the fact that we’re looking for someone become known in the right circles,” Teweles promised him. “These people won’t tell anyone distrustful.”
“And I shall do the same,” Neumann sighed. “Let us see whom destiny brings us.”
By the end of the month, it had brought them two half-blind retired exorcists previously employed by small local theaters, one complete amateur who almost set himself one fire during the interview and then a young man. Neumann was horrified the second the last candidate had walked through the doors of his office. He was barely a man, more like a child! He couldn’t have been more than twenty. The situation was most certainly getting worse.
But Heinrich had recommended he see this youngster, a boy of one of their actresses. What else did he have to lose by talking to him but a few minutes?
“Gustav Meyer,” the boy introduced himself. His manner was calm, polite and concise. He didn’t seem to make any unnecessary movements or indulge in unnecessary words – an opposite of Neumann, who knew very well his manner was very theatrical and jovial, for which people in his kind of world loved him.
“All right, Herr Meyer. Do you have any references?”
“I do not.”
“So you never worked as an exorcist before, correct? And what did you do?”
“I have some experience with banking. However, I believe it to be irrelevant in this situation.”
A barely grown-up not-even-banker. What on earth did Heinrich see in the boy?!
“Do you know the requirements for the position you’re inquiring about?”
“Well,” Neumann coughed a little, “forgive me for saying that, but you look awfully young. Most exorcists study long before they practice. How old are you?”
“I’m turning twenty in January.”
Not even twenty! Neumann tried to mask his horror. It worked; after all, he used to be an actor. Yet the boy seemed to notice it very well – and remained as calm and composed as he had the moment he walked in.
“Why are you looking to refill this position?” Meyer asked suddenly in his quiet voice.
The director took a deep breath. “I’m going to be frank with you, but I have to remind you that nothing you’re going to hear leaves this office. Ever.”
The boy kept looking at him with his calm bright blue eyes.
“We’re having trouble with the new opera house. Our previous exorcist, a very skilled man who could handle… ahem, a lot, left us a month ago.”
“Dead?” the boy asked with no sign of worries.
“Dear God, no! It didn’t go that far – no casualties. But we’ve encountered a nasty poltergeist during one of the rehearsals and getting rid of it nearly cost Paul his mind – and that was just the last incident of many. He swore that this house was cursed and he wouldn’t set foot there ever again.”
Neumann paused, waiting for the improbable candidate to finally give away his fear–from a mortified expression to fleeing the office. Yet he displayed no signs of fear whatsoever. His behavior puzzled Neumann.
Maybe one of those crazies with a death wish? The thought occurred to him suddenly. Yes, that had to be the case. He certainly didn’t want one of those as his exorcist.
“How many of these incidents were there?” Meyer asked.
Reluctantly, Neumann said: “Five in the course of one month.”
For the first time, the young man showed some kind of emotion. It was curiosity. “From what I’ve heard, it’s usual for a frequented opera house in an old city to have around five in a year.”
And this bloody building hasn’t even been opened yet, Neumann added for himself.
“Interesting. And what was their nature?”
“Three poltergeists, two common ghosts. Probably very old judging from what we could glimpse of their apparels.”
“If you were willing to employ me, I would like to prevent any of those in the future.”
“Forgive me, but I’m not at all sure that a man of your age had time to acquire all the skills necessary for this work…”
“You can end the employment any time you consider appropriate. How are you going to find out whether I’m fit for the job without trying it?”
“You could easily come to harm – or even end up dead.” Neumann feared that this Meyer still didn’t understand the risks. He should be fleeing now, had he any sense. “I’m not going to take this responsibility. I’ve seen pride betray too many underskilled exorcists. You come with no references, no official learning certificate, a boy of barely twenty. What can you really do?”
“I studied Kabbala, the nature of divinity, sophianism and mysticism.” The young man’s face remained composed. “I’m familiar with most of the teachings of the Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox church, as well as with Jewish literature and to some degree also Indian and Chinese sources concerning the divine.”
Neumann was left speechless for a moment. “How did you come to that?”
“My interest was piqued at the age of sixteen, shortly after I came to Prague. For some personal reasons, I was considering ending my life. An act of destiny changed my decision at the last moment and set me on the path of the occult. It saved my life and transformed it.”
This time, the director didn’t try to conceal his horrified expression. “Suicide? When you were just sixteen?”
“As you said, I trust that nothing of this leaves the office. However, you’re right that this can be a somewhat shocking revelation. If I ever mention it to anyone else, I should probably tell them it had been a couple of years later,” Meyer was still looking at him calmly. His porcelain face, cleanly shaven, resembled a statue.
Suicide attempts don’t qualify people to become exorcists, a warning voice in Angelo Neumann’s head kept reminding. You don’t want anyone with a death wish near the opera.
However, this young man was observing Neumann with his bright, intelligent eyes and looked like someone with more sangfroid than the rest of the opera house’s employees together. Which, Neumann had to admit, wasn’t that hard.
“Alright,” he heard himself say, “you’re hired. But if you make any misstep or we find someone more qualified, I’d be obliged to let you go. Are you comfortable with these conditions?”
“I am,” Meyer said.
Neumann wasn’t sure if he imagined the faint smile of the young man’s lips.
Lately, Angelo Neumann always felt a sting of worry when approaching the Neue Deutsche Theater. With Meyer for the first time at his side, it was more an air of anticipation. The young man looked up at the spectacular Neo-Renaissance building with a curious gleam in his eyes and stepped inside without a word. Neumann felt proud as he showed him the magnificent interior full of golden ornaments. This was how a respectable opera house was supposed to look.
However, the exorcist showed no signs of awe, which somewhat disappointed Neumann.
“Can you show me where the previous incidents happened and explain their nature in more detail to me?” Meyer asked in his quiet baritone.
Neumann did so. He gave the youth a tour through the backstage. Here, Meyer seemed finally impressed by the elaborate devices hidden in the insides of the house. “These are beautiful,” he remarked. “But they also provide many opportunities for things to go wrong. We’ll have to be careful here.”
“It’s much better than in the Estates Theatre,” Neumann admitted. “Rather have a lot of complex machinery in a brand new building than crammed into an old house.”
“Yes, I see,” Meyer whispered, running his hand on the hydraulics tube of the stage machinery. He seemed captivated by the technology enabling the opera spectacles, hidden from plain sight.
He was right, though; it provided many ways potentially leading to a serious accident. One of the specters they had encountered did meddle with one of the limelights so that it nearly burned its operator.
“There’s a full rehearsal of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg here this afternoon. Be careful and pay attention to everything,” Neumann bid Meyer and hoped from the deepest part of his heart that he did not make a mistake hiring the boy.
Gustav Meyer was left alone in the so far empty, quiet backstage. He used the time before the rehearsal to explore the recesses of the opera house. He soon familiarized himself with the small niches and pathways of the place. As he climbed up the ladder to the new electrical spotlights that had promptly replaced limelights after the incident, he suddenly picked up a faint scent of apricots. It was more a whiff than a lasting sensation but it had left him wondering about its source.
He took a pack of cards from his pocket and randomly picked one. The Moon. Hmm.
“Hey, what are you doing up there?”
Meyer looked down at a short stumpy man in a worn-out tweed vest and a shirt with rolled up sleeves. “Gustav Meyer, an exorcist,” he introduced himself to the man and tipped an invisible hat.
The man’s face underwent an interesting change. “Oh,” he managed. “I, ahem, expected someone else.”
Older, translated Meyer for himself.
“I’m Kollar, the chief scene-shifter. I’m just making sure everything is prepared for the evening’s rehearsal.”
“Pray continue. I won’t be getting in your way.”
And he wasn’t. He found a quiet place in the green room and started laying out the cards into the Celtic cross. First, he chose a signifier representing this place. He thought of the Fool for a moment but then decided for Wheel of Fortune. After all, what else but a rapidly rotating wheel of fortune was the life of an opera house?
He shuffled the deck carefully and then picked the second card. It was the Moon, again, pointing at some present danger or deception.
The third one, signifying what to expect soon, was the Tower. Destruction.
Fourth, representing hidden fears and worries, came the Hanged Man: sacrifice and loss. Meyer frowned slightly at this development.
Well, at least the worst cards had come already. The rest…
Fifth, showing recent past, was Death: change, end of a cycle and a new start. That would be the opening of the new opera house and moving most of the Estates Theatre production here.
Six for nearest future: Judgment. It corresponded well to Death, stressing the need of good decisions and new beginnings.
Seven for himself: the Hermit. The corners of Meyer’s mouth twitched. Was he really the detached observer of this world, needing to distance himself even more?
Eight then should represent his current surroundings, nine the thoughts and feelings about the situation and ten, finally, the probable result. Meyer drew the eighth card and stopped in the middle of a motion, just before laying it on the table.
The faint smile froze on Meyer’s lips instantly. He collected himself and exhaled. No point in stopping now; he had to finish the divination.
He half expected the next card: The Tower. After all, it reflected his own thoughts at the moment.
For the final one, the Fool, he was almost grateful. In this context, it was a wild card. There was no most probable, written future yet; it all depended on the right decisions. His decisions, most likely.
But the reappearance of the Moon and Tower had alarmed him. The cards in his deck were theoretically capable of transforming to reflect the reality most accurately but it had never actually occurred before.
He was no longer wondering why his predecessor had left so abruptly.
There must be more to it than the usual apparition and poltergeist trouble…
Meyer’s ruminations were interrupted by voices coming from the back entrance. He checked his pocket watch. The rehearsal was due in less than an hour. The actors must be arriving.
Meyer went to the door to see them. He recognized many of them from his visits to the Estates Theatre. Laura Hilgermann, whose voice he had always admired. Otto Brucks, the famous baritone. Adolf Wallhöfer, lead actor in many of Wagner’s operas in Prague – a truly great heroic tenor was quite hard to find. Ludwig Rochelle, who was deeply frowning now – perhaps not just in getting into the role? And there was Gustav Mahler, the kapellmeister. Meyer had heard some of his own compositions and found that he liked Mahler’s musical style a lot.
Overall, an exceptional company to be in. And one that would likely attract attention not just from this world.
Meyer decided to stay in the green room. He found a chair in the corner far from the waiting actors, which also allowed him to observe his surroundings. The singers paid him little or no attention. Presumably they didn’t know about his assignment yet.
He paid each of them little attention himself; instead, he focused on observing the scene as a whole, searching for anything that didn’t quite fit. But so far, everything looked and felt perfectly ordinary, at least as far as ordinary goes for opera. No disturbing mood changes (everyone seemed a bit strained and nervous, therefore normal), no temperature drop in the room, no bad gut feelings, odd shadows or anything else that might give away a supernatural presence. The deck of cards, resting on the table, didn’t move. Divining rods were safely tucked in Meyer’s pocket for now; he wouldn’t want to disturb the singers.
Meyer sat patiently while the rehearsal started, and listened to the opera. While he liked Wagner, he considered Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg one of the composer’s weaker works. But he had to give Neumann’s ensemble credit for their truly excellent performance. He didn’t see them but if they moved on the stage as well as they sang, the premiere would be a huge success.
Despite the music, he began to feel a bit weary and impatient near the end of the rehearsal. Even after some cuts, the performance would be over four hours long and the rehearsal naturally took even longer due to Neumann’s and Teweles’s remarks and suggestions.
Just as Adolf Wallhöfer as the knight Walther started his magnificent prize song Morgenlich leuchtend im rosigen Schein, Meyer in spite of his immersion in the song noticed a slight chill in the room. He closed his eyes, extended his arm and tried to feel where it was most noticeable. It led him to one of the chairs at the other end of the green room. No one had sat there tonight, Meyer remembered – at least no one of corporeal nature.
However, he was sure it was occupied now. Not taking his eyes off the chair, he started incanting in a quiet, barely audible voice. The air above the chair began to shimmer. And then, vaguely human-like features started to be discernible in the corner of one’s eye. Meyer realized he knew these features. There was probably no one interested in opera who wouldn’t.
“Herr Wagner,” he bowed a little. “I’m very sorry to bring you this news but your presence in this opera house might endanger the course of your wonderful play. I’m sure you’ll understand and let the performance of your great piece run smoothly.”
He kept a cautious eye on the ghost. You never knew on what ground you were with them, not even after happily chatting for a few hours; they might start demolishing the room the next second.
The master composer wasn’t even looking at Meyer, as far as the young exorcist could tell. The gaze of the flickering apparition seemed to be focused on the singers at the other side of the waiting room who were listening eagerly in order not to miss their appearance, though they had stagehands to take care of that. So far none of them noticed Meyer or the strange silhouette barely visible on the chair.
Meyer felt a strange sensation of static in the air. The hairs rose on the back of his neck.
“Your musical highness,” he risked a perhaps too pompous flattery – but you were rarely too pompous with ghosts – to calm the spectre. “Can you hear how beautifully they perform your masterpiece? Isn’t it just marvelous that you can be here, listening to them?”
Another thing you could almost rely on: they rarely caught up with irony.
The crystal chandelier in the room shattered into pieces. Meyer heard the waiting singers cry out in horror.
Now the apparition became dark gray and very much visible. His face no longer resembled that of the dead composer. Or actually it could, if Wagner spent a lot of time with his face horribly contorted in anger, Meyer supposed.
He shouted a kabbalistic binding spell. It usually worked.
Unfortunately, relying on things that usually work could get you killed in this line of work.
Meyer felt a burning chill as a dark cloud in the shape of an arm reached out to him, going to touch his heart and stop it, he realized. He had no time to speak, nor to get away or otherwise avoid it.
The fingertips of the ghastly arm went through the fabric of his jacket and then suddenly drew away.
In this line of work, you could only count on things that always work. No otherworldly creatures whatsoever liked enchanted tarot packs. Too bad you couldn’t fight with them.
“Das ich erträumt, das Paradies,” a pleasant deep heroic tenor sang from the stage. And then, during the last verse, turned into a not very musical shriek. Meyer got on his feet and ran after it. As he saw the performers cringing behind a fake tree and two – no, three – dark shapes flying above it, he muttered a very foul curse in old Hebrew. Not that it had any effect on the spectres; it had only ever scared away one extremely puritan and well-educated ghost in an old cemetery, as far as Meyer could remember. He scanned the area. Wood. Paper. Fabric. Metal… not good against those. Damn it, wasn’t there any stone nearby?
There wasn’t, not anywhere close enough; only the papier-mâché decorations supposed to look like stone city walls behind the meadow where the scene had taken place.
Meyer smiled a little and closed his eyes for a moment. The image of the city walls stayed in the focus of his mind and grew into almost ridiculous proportions, in a way more real than the real thing. Meyer started whispering a strong binding spell. He felt the energy flow through him, knowing that he mustn’t stop at any moment before the spell ends lest he might incidentally cross the border himself, getting forever trapped at the other side.
Frost condensed on his hands. He kept chanting, raising his voice from whisper to speech encompassing the hole stage.
The poltergeists abandoned the rigging and turned to Meyer. They emanated a foul stench of rot.
He overcame the urge to retch, let the last verse of the chant slip off his lips and focused his gaze on the walls. On the thick, old walls of stone around the majestic city of Nurnberg.
Powerful wind swept through the stage and almost knocked Meyer off his feet. The geists flew angrily to him, their dark contours sharpening, but they couldn’t go on against the wind. Finally, they were swept to the stone wall – and consumed by it, once they had touched it.
Meyer sagged to his knees, panting heavily, frost thawing off his hands.
And he still felt the presence of the other entity. The ghost was weakened but not driven out.
Silence, for a couple of heartbeats. Then shouts and screams and calls filled the auditorium. But none of the singers ventured nearby Meyer. He was grateful for their fear.
From the backstage emerged Angelo Neumann, looking utterly devastated. He coughed a little. “Eh, I assume you sorted that out, then? Thank you. I thank you very much. But… this cannot go on,” he said quietly. Meyer detected a slight tone of anger in the director’s voice. Rising panic.
“It will not,” Meyer assured him. “There’s one ghost here that needs to be exorcised – and with him will leave also all the small poltergeists who were lured here by his presence.”
“And what kind of ghost is it?”
“A quite powerful one,” admitted Meyer. “Richard Wagner’s, to be specific.”
For a moment, Neumann’s face brightened. “Wagner? But I’ve known him, he actually liked me, I could…”
“You can’t do anything,” Meyer interrupted him. “Ghosts aren’t replicas of the people they’ve originated from. They have some traits from the original personality vastly exaggerated, some diminished. Reasoning is usually not their strong side, nor are patience, kindness – or plain ignorance. Imagine three of your most apparent personality traits, especially the negative ones, and multiply them a hundredfold. That’s what most ghosts are.”
“Well, yes, I just thought… such a brilliant man…”
A brilliant composer known for his impatience, moodiness, misanthropy and prejudices, Meyer added for himself. True ghost material.
“We got Mozart once when I became director, did you know that? And he was possible to work with, though one had to be careful and maintain good humor… He meant no harm.”
Meyer believed him. For what he knew, Mozart had had a spirit of an innocent, easily enthused and easily bored child throughout his whole not so long life. A ghost of a child with all their demands for attention and fun would mean no harm. But that didn’t say anything about not causing it.
“Please, just do not think about the apparition as Richard Wagner, can you do that? It’s not him. He’s dead and cannot come back – not the real him. Let me find a way how to get the ghost out of here for good.”
Neumann nodded hesitantly. Meyer could see that the director didn’t place much trust in his efforts. He was probably already considering what would it take to declare the building unfit for running an opera house and to return gladly to the old Estates Theatre.
Meyer didn’t try to assure him that things were going to turn out well. Matter-of-factly, he just said: “Please resume normal schedule regardless of what the others say. It’s vital for the work.”
Leaving Neumann temporarily speechless, he started climbing one of the ladders up to the fly gallery.
Frequently visited libraries, theaters and opera houses: these were the kind of places that attracted ghosts like a flame irrevocably attracts moths. All the most renowned opera houses in the world had their highly valued exorcists. A skilled one was not easy to find. And not many people ventured into a line of work that could make them mad or even get them killed, though casualties became quite rare over time. Meyer understood the despair of situation in which Angelo Neumann had recently found himself.
Alas, this kind of situation was not common for an opera house which hadn’t even been in operation yet. From what Meyer had known, he might expect a few easy-to-get-rid-of poltergeists, maybe a weak and fading ghost, but not anything like this by far. Something was amiss.
He wondered what the experienced previous exorcist had seen that made him abandon his life’s work.
From the detached heights of the upper catwalks, Meyer had observed the hum of the stage. From up here, it all seemed so distant. He sat next to one of the winches with ropes attached. Down there, Angelo Neumann was trying to calm the singers and musicians. Meyer caught a part of his words: “…a highly recommended, accomplished exorcist.”
He was accomplished now. You learn new things all the time.
Something was slightly off on the stage. The wall, of course, but that wasn’t what bothered Meyer. He could almost feel the presence of something else, unbound and angry. Too weak for the present moment but determined to strike later.
Meyer would be prepared for that.
The following morning, Meyer carefully placed sets of artifacts throughout the whole opera house. They had been small relics, vials of holy water, three horseshoes and chosen cards from an incomplete deck Meyer owned and kept for this very purpose. The pattern they formed should keep any unwanted off-worldly presence safely out. If they by any chance didn’t, Meyer would at least know what ground he’d been standing on. If nothing else, it should prevent such attempts at directly harming people as the ghost had tried yesterday.
Soon the opera house began to fill with people – mostly musicians, with the occasional scene-shifter or carpenter. There was just an orchestra rehearsal scheduled for today. Even as it was, Meyer overheard some disgruntled remarks on how hard Neumann works them: a rehearsal now, a performance later, then another, not a day to be spent outside the opera…
From the replies, Meyer also caught an interesting piece of fact: The personnel mostly loved Neumann. No matter how hard he worked them sometimes, his charming, jovial and generous personality made him a hard man to dislike.
Yet someone was most likely trying to bring him down – and the whole opera house with him. Which was the primary target?
The rehearsal commenced. Meyer sat in the auditorium, in the first row, just above the orchestra pit.
It was a delight to see Mahler and his orchestra at work. Music, thought young Meyer, was in a way a door to another realm as well. This one, unlike divination or spells, however, remained a mystery to him.
Suddenly he felt a chill going down his spine. The air felt colder and somewhat thinner.
He didn’t have to turn to know who had appeared beside him.
“Good afternoon,” Meyer said silently. “Have you come to listen to the rehearsal? They’re brilliant, aren’t they?”
He heard a snort. “Brilliant? I should be conducting! Then they would be brilliant!”
Do not argue. Not with a ghost… Meyer hesitated for a second. If he angered the ghost he’d risk more imminent incidents. However, if he didn’t draw his attention to himself, the same might occur. And in the first case, he might at least learn something.
“You conducted many of your operas truly masterfully,” Meyer nodded.
He avoided mentioning the fact that Wagner drove many musicians and singers to tears in his days. But then again, so could the otherwise cheerful and jovial Neumann when he thought they weren’t working hard. Meyer could see what Wagner used to like about the director.
“Why have you come to this rehearsal?”
The ghost didn’t answer.
“And this opera house? What has driven you to visit it before the grand opening?”
Wagner turned to him abruptly. His eyes seemed like black pits to… Meyer wasn’t sure where. He had studied various Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist and Hinduist philosophies and each branch differed in what lies beyond. He would like to put the matter under close scrutiny someday, if he could devise a workable method.
“Cannot one visit an old friend?” The ghost’s voice sounded nothing like human this time. The eyes, pitch black a moment ago, shone brightly. Meyer nearly couldn’t see the swift motion as the spectre moved and disappeared from his view.
Meyer stood up and looked into the pit. The rehearsal seemed to be continuing normally…
He dived into his pocket for just one card and produced the Tower.
“Herr Mahler! Please, stop the rehearsal!”
The conductor faltered for a second but resumed his work immediately while looking around his shoulder at Meyer, who had to admire the man’s skill. His movements never ceased, even as he was paying his attention to the young exorcist.
“I believe there’s danger coming very soon. Please, stop until I –”
Meyer couldn’t finish. In the corner of his eye, he spotted a sudden movement. Before he could really comprehend his own action, he leapt into the pit and knocked down the shocked Mahler. A bow quickly flew through the space where Mahler’s head had been just a moment ago.
The ghost appeared above them on the conductor’s platform, blazing rage in his eyes.
“You – a disgrace to my work! A filthy Jew!”
Ah, Wagner’s hardly secret antisemitism. Meyer shouldn’t be surprised. Negative traits made it into ghosts most easily.
Meyer didn’t wait for the ghost to finish his spiteful speech. Still covering Mahler with his body, he scanned his surroundings quickly.
Chants and charms alone would do nothing with such a strong spectre, cards could only show the probable future… He needed something to amplify the effects of spells. If only someone else could chant along with him, but he couldn’t expect anyone to know the obscure words –
“Can you do some improvisation conducting based on the rhythm of verses?” he whispered.
“I think so,” Mahler answered quietly.
“Let’s start then.”
Before he even finished the sentence, Meyer was standing again and began chanting. Mahler’s conductor’s baton drew several circles in the air.
The orchestra was too fazed initially but then the first members collected themselves and started playing. The rest followed in the matter of seconds.
Wagner stopped talking. He must have realized what Meyer was attempting.
A surprised cellist squeaked when his bow was snatched from his hand by an invisible force, hang in the air for a moment and turned to young Meyer.
He couldn’t break the chanting. With his eyes, he pleaded the players to emerge into the strange music, focus on it instead of the ghost. If Wagner gained power over more instruments…
Meyer ducked as the bow raced at him like an arrow.
This is beginning to be rather tiring, he thought as he continued incanting. His voice grew louder, the chant more intense, and he saw that Mahler’s arms were moving rapidly…
“To banish me from my own opera! I’ll send you all to hell!” roared Wagner’s ghost.
Meyer finished the chant, exhausted, and at the same time the apparition suddenly vanished. He collapsed on the platform, feeling fully drained. The next second, the conductor was helping him sit up and shouting orders at the orchestra.
He must have blacked out for a moment because when he came to, he was already in the backstage and Neumann was leaning over him. The director let out a sigh of relief as he saw Meyer’s eyelids flicker.
“Oh, thank god! Are you all right?”
“Yes,” Meyer nodded.
“And is he gone?”
“Wonderful, young man! You may have just saved our theatre!”
Yes, for a while, Meyer wanted to say.
Christmas time came, working its way into people’s lives. The delicate fragrance of clove and cinnamon, along with the stronger air of fresh pine twigs, filled the air. The opera personnel was free for the three holiday days, however, the time between them and the New Year’s Eve would be full of work. There was no time to lose before the grand opening.
Luckily, no ghost whatsoever had made an appearance since the last Wagner incident. Several members of the house already congratulated Meyer for his impeccable action. But he remained doubtful. His last spell was a powerful one indeed, one that exhausted him greatly, but even that had a limited power. With time, it kept growing weaker, and one day the balance would be inevitably tipped back in favor of the ghost.
He should make himself ready by then.
One day before the New Year’s Eve, the penultimate rehearsal was scheduled. Meyer watched it from his favorite place up in the fly gallery.
Opera, he thought with a hint of nostalgia as he gazed down at the performers. Every emotion is stronger, luxury shinier, danger deadlier than in reality. Every single detail, better than life. At least if you belong in this particular world. This unbelievable Wheel of Fortune that never stops turning.
It truly never stopped, not even that day. All of a sudden, Gustav Meyer felt a slight chill.
The whiff of cold air came from the opposing fly gallery, accompanied by a faint smell of apricots, which wasn’t a part of the Christmas spirits. Probably an altogether different spirit indeed. Meyer stood up carefully and walked across the narrow catwalk connecting both galleries.
He could already make out a dark silhouette leaning against the back railing. A few steps further, he even heard the silent muttering.
“…my opera …foul Jew …thought Neumann a friend… deserve to suffer…”
Oh dear. But ghosts were rarely subtle in their feelings and actions.
Meyer thought of using another spell but this spirit was evidently a powerful one, drawn here urgently. If the previous spell, amplified by the music, worked only for a few weeks, what good would be another short-term solution – especially as its effect might diminish at the time of the opening?
However, before he could decide whether to use any of the more exotic – not speaking of dangerous and ill-practiced – solutions, his train of thought had been interrupted by an angry roar of the ghost.
And there goes the plan to talk first. Meyer gripped the railing closely, painfully aware of his station on a narrow bridge some ten meters above the stage.
“Come to attack me again?” When the spirit’s face emerged from the shadows, its eyes were like pits into the depths of a vast nothingness. Meyer averted his gaze with some difficulty.
And then again, maybe some talking will be feasible. “No, maestro. I –”
“Good! Then you won’t stop my plan!”
Opera ghosts could sometimes be very theatrical.
Down onstage, Eva and Walther were just planning to run away together.
But that wasn’t where the ghost’s glare traveled.
“Stop the rehearsal!” Meyer cried out as loudly as he was capable of. No one seemed to have heard him. And before – they surely would have heard the ghost’s shriek, wouldn’t they?
The thing that looked like Wagner laughed aloud. “I too have a couple of tricks up my sleeve, boy.”
The ghost didn’t look away from the orchestra pit even for a moment, but Meyer saw his hand move. At first, he saw nothing else suspicious, then he spotted movement: a rope started swaying, lightly at first. The motion gained speed.
Meyer glanced at the end of the rope and at its direction and a muttered curse escaped his lips.
And at the end of its path, if he didn’t do something, the conductor.
He followed the rope to the pulley and found the other end tied to one of the pinrails.
The next second, the rope gave way and sent the weight on its other end flying across the stage by its unnaturally high momentum.
No time. Meyer threw himself at the rope, catching it just so and swinging with it above the heads of the singers. The illusion broke since he had heard a few cries and shouts instead of singing.
He must have been somewhat heavier than the counterweight, alas, the ghost failed to show proper respect to laws of physics. In a fraction of a second, Meyer could imagine the consequences: the counterweight hitting the conductor before he had a chance to jump aside, himself landing just after.
With a rare presence of mind, Meyer shouted one of the more concise spells, a not very powerful one – a thing that would anger the ghost rather than expel him. And that was exactly what happened.
The counterweight, put off course by the ghost’s miscalculation of strength, missed the conductor’s place only by a few inches and ended up in the first row of the auditorium.
So did Meyer: shaken, perplexed, vaguely surprised at the notion that he might just have got through it all right except for some bruises and that his desperate momentary plan had worked.
He glanced up. He couldn’t see the fly system from here but something was telling him that the ghost was gone. For the moment.
Everything was very still for a second and then excited and horrified voices filled the stage.
Neumann was hurrying to the front from his place in one of the back rows. From the orchestra pit emerged Gustav Mahler, pale as death. Meyer collected himself from his rather undignified position, amazed that he truly escaped quite unscathed, and hastened to them.
“I cannot conduct the piece if I’m in mortal danger,” the kappellmeister was just saying in a quiet voice. “I’m sorry, Angelo. We’ve been friends for many years, you’ve given me a chance when I was still a nobody, but I hope you can understand that I won’t risk my life for the premiere.”
Neumann nodded gloomily. “I understand.”
Lost was the director’s usual loud cheerfulness. Neumann had been the kind of person who could get even an elephant to act on the stage. However, he seemed to understand it would be futile to insist. Persuading a respected friend to risk his life for opera crossed a line.
It was therefore Meyer who spoke: “Herr Mahler, it is of the utmost importance that you conduct the premiere. I cannot stress how essential it is.”
The conductor’s surprise was quickly replaced by a deep frown. “Is it?”
“I’m afraid that not attending the opening may prove vital for me.”
Meyer fished for something in his pocket and produced a small silver pendant. “I usually don’t let this out of my hands but in this case… Please, take it and always have it by yourself. It’s a strong protective charm. The ghost may still be able to reach you but won’t do you any serious harm.”
Mahler took it reluctantly. “I should rely on this with my life?”
“So why give it away?”
All eyes – now the whole ensemble was gathering around them – turned to Meyer. The young exorcist remained detached. “Because we need the grand opening to go smoothly. And for that, we need you, am I right?”
“Quite,” said Mahler after a pause. He exchanged a look with Neumann. “I… I’ll stay. For now. But if there’s another incident…”
“I’ll take care of it.”
The young man’s thoroughly confident tone seemed to assure the conductor and director. It didn’t do such a splendid job assuring himself – but no one else needed to know about that.
Was the theatre safe for now? The Tower, the Moon and the Hanged Man gave a rather gloomy answer. Meyer sighed inwardly. It seemed that trouble was not entirely over for the day. Should he stay?
Ah, well, he felt tired and aching after his escapade but not at all sleepy anyway.
With his cards and divining rods, he stalked the dark corridors. He followed the trail of bad omens such as drawing the Moon or the Tower at a junction, the rods shaking rapidly in that direction or foreboding patterns in the dust settled on the floor. They were all there for those who knew what to look for. Strong ones, too. Meyer’s calm was beginning to wear out.
The signs led him to the conductor’s room. A faint glimmer emanated from under the door.
By this time, the opera house should have been deserted. He saw Mahler leave. Even the director had already gone home. Was it the cleaning boy? Meyer doubted the easy explanation. And after what had happened, this room was too much for a coincidence.
He knocked on the door slightly and entered without waiting for a reply.
A figure sat slouched by a table, face buried in his hands, resembling a marble statue. Exhaustion was the first label that came across Meyer’s mind.
Meyer bowed a little. “Master composer.”
Wagner raised his head. Was that a hint of bitterness in the spectre’s expression?
“Am I still that? Or are you going to banish me from here again by force?”
He seemed calm, composed. The ghost’s rare moment of clarity should not go wasted. Meyer approached him slowly. “I would not resort to that if you didn’t constitute a danger to this theatre. I’m sorry, but you are that. Do you remember what you’ve done earlier today?”
“The fool was using too fast tempi, ruining the piece. When I had been conducting…”
He had the aura of someone trying hard to remember something long forgotten; an old man grasping for the precious blurred memories of his childhood. Meyer felt sorry for him – but he had a responsibility to the living.
“You trust Angelo Neumann, don’t you? He chose the best kappellmeister. Everyone will love the performance. But you need to leave. I’m afraid your interference isn’t helping the rehearsals.”
“Damn you,” the former composer whispered. “You can’t imagine what it is to see all this and be unable to act on it as you could when you… were alive. When it takes a tremendous effort even to hold one’s mind together. What would be left of you had you become a ghost after you died, Meyer?”
The young man thought about it for a second. “Hunger for learning about the world and beyond, I suppose. Curiosity. Observant nature. But these are, of course, features I would like to characterize myself with. They might have nothing in common with the deep-rooted things that would be left after everything else had been carried away by the river Styx.”
Despite his air of despair, the ghost chuckled. “Oh, how lovely, you actually believe in Styx!”
“I believe it’s a powerful metaphor,” Meyer said placidly.
“Let’s see what would become of you, shall we?”
“I would hope for this finding to be delayed some decades.”
“Hah, I bet you would! I bet…” The dead ghostly eyes sparkled. “What if we made a little bet?”
Urgent words flickered through Meyer’s mind: Never make any kinds of bets with the other world. You can only lose. You always lose, one way or another.
“What kind of a bet?” he said.
“Oh, something easy and fun.” Wagner seemed to be right in his element. Meyer remembered the rumors that Richard Wagner had been driven to hazard in his life, and wondered it they were true. “Since you love cards so much,” the ghost continued, “if you can win over me in a game of cards, I leave for good. If you can’t do it, you give me your life. Let’s see what would you turn into then.”
For a moment, everything was perfectly still. Meyer could hear the sound of his own breath.
It sounded like music.
“Only if you promise not to hurt anyone and let the grand opening take place in peace,” he heard before he could even realized it was himself speaking.
Wagner’s ghost burst into loud laughter. There wasn’t anything happy or sincere about it. “All right, young man! Tomorrow here at this time of the day, we shall see who can outplay whom.”
With these words, he disappeared as if he had never been there. Meyer had to blink away the sudden gray spots in front of his eyes.
A thoroughly unpleasant feeling settled over him.
As though he had just plunged into a pit and there was nothing he could do now – nothing but accept it and try to devise a plan before he fell too deep.
The next late evening, Meyer turned up in the so far empty dressing room – luckily, no rehearsals were scheduled for today. It did not remain empty for long. As he felt a slight drop of temperature, a whiff of cold and somehow summer air at the same time, he knew he was not alone even without having to turn.
The ghost had kept his word. That had always been a good sign. Perhaps, through the sheer willpower of adhering to the original human personality, the ghost would retreat on his own will. Meyer could hope. But did he truly believe it? Not for a second.
He turned and reached for his cards but Wagner laughed. It wasn’t an entirely unpleasant laugh. “Oh no, we are not playing with this wondrous deck of yours. Who knows what enchantments might lurk there? Besides, I wouldn’t touch those if my life depended on it, even if I still had one. No – and before you say it, neither am I supplying the deck. But what kind of an opera house would this be if there was no place at all where the riggers and scene-shifters go to play cards?”
A new one, Meyer thought but he remembered seeing the men gathered by a game of tarock in one of the shops in the basement.
“I may know…”
As soon as he mentioned this fact, the ghost waved a hand slightly and a deck turned up in it.
Now it was Meyer’s turn to laugh. “Do you expect me to believe that it’s their deck and not yours, conjured out of thin air?”
“I may be dead, but I’m not any sort of conjuror. Examine it as you like. You’ll find it’s a completely ordinary deck of cards, quite worn out by frequent use.”
And so it seemed to be. No signs whatsoever pointed to its possible unearthly origin.
Meyer and the ghost sat to the small table.
What shall we play? Meyer almost asked but caught himself in time. He’d have put himself in a worse bargaining position. Instead, he reached for the cards, shuffled them and said: “Twenty-one?”
The ghost shrugged. “As you wish.”
Meyer dealt one card to himself, one to Wagner, both face down. Then each of them looked at his card. Meyer had the Seven of Swords. Good, he thought. One card of three, one third of twenty-one.
“Do you want another?” he asked his opponent.
Both received their second cards. Meyer’s was the Five of Cups. Twelve was a good value to have in two cards – it meant that the third one was fairly safe and would with most probability get him very close under twenty-one.
“Tell me,” Meyer spoke while Wagner was ruminating over his second card, “why have you decided to visit this place in particular, at this time?”
The ghost looked at him across the table. “Why, I couldn’t resist such a powerful drag. And one should always remember to pay a visit to old friends. Well, can we move in the game?”
Meyer’s hand stopped above the deck. “Do you want the last one?”
There was no emotion in the spectre’s face as he saw his card. Meyer gazed at his one just a second later and held his breath.
It was the Ten of Swords. A card of death and destruction when used for divinatory purposes.
It had never seemed as acute to Meyer as right now.
Twenty-two. He had lost his life.
With surprisingly steady hands, he held the cards face upwards. The ghost was just doing the same. In his greyish, somewhat translucent hands, were the Five of Wands, Eight of Pentacles and Nine of Swords. Twenty-two.
Meyer exhaled slowly.
The ghost produced a sour smile. “So it seems we have both lost our bets.”
“Or none of us.”
Wagner was looking at him through eyes narrowed in contemplation. “We both lost, my good friend. If we both had the same value of twenty-one or less, I would agree with you. However, on this occasion… I believe we should both collect our respective bets, what do you say? I leave, you die?”
Words had stuck in the middle of Meyer’s throat.
“Or possibly we could postpone it a bit so that we both could witness the grand premiere… Yes, that shall do it. Until then – au revoir, Herr Meyer.”
And he vanished into thin air, leaving the young exorcist staring at the cards that had brought forth his impeding doom.
Angelo Neumann could be found in the Estates Theatre. Meyer wondered if the director ever spent his waking time outside one of his two theaters. As Neumann spotted him, he clicked his tongue and ushered him to one of the empty dressing rooms. As discussions with exorcists went, he would rather have no ensemble present to hear the conversation.
“I have some good and some bad news for you,” Meyer started, confirming his suspicion.
Neumann frowned. “Well, go on.”
“The good are, your problems with ghosts have a clear explanation. Someone has been deliberately drawing them in, Herr Wagner’s ghost practically verified this for me. If there wasn’t any strong lure or drag in here, my warding pattern would have kept them out.” Meyer paused. “The bad news are, I still don’t know what the lure is and how to get rid of it. Oh, and I had made a bet with the ghost. I had no other choice at the moment.”
“What bet exactly?”
“For my life.”
All color drained from Neumann’s face. “You can’t be serious,” he gasped.
“I am. Please, trust me. I will do my best.”
“Somehow, I have no trouble believing that,” the director murmured. “And this bet, did you…”
“Yes, we’ve played already. It was inconclusive. But let us focus on the source drawing the ghosts in. Do you have any enemies?”
“I didn’t think so up until now.”
“Well, I’ve had to let some people go but surely they wouldn’t…”
“Any of them recently make an appearance here?”
“Not that I know of.” Neumann sighed. “There’s a lot of competition in the operatic world but certainly no one would resort to such means. It just doesn’t fit. I’ll think about it, though. But what should we do with the premiere? Should we cancel the event?”
It was apparent how much it pained the director to say this. Meyer hoped his answer would relieve him: “No. That would not be necessary. However, I’m not sure whether I can ensure its safety completely. I’d say it would be a calculated risk.”
Neumann gulped. Beads of sweat formed above his brows. “We… don’t usually take these. What about the safety of the viewers and the performers? If lives are at risk, we should at least postpone…”
He caught the exorcist’s glance and his voice died off.
“It is reasonable to go forth as planned. Please, trust me.”
And so he did.
After Meyer had left, a nagging thought formed in the director’s mind: He’s saying that a lot.
“Move it! We haven’t got all day! Raise the church wall in three, two…”
The day of the grand opening arrived. Everyone had been up and about since the small hours, making sure everything would go according to plan, except for Meyer, who had spent a whole night in the house and only came back in the afternoon. But this was opera. You could never make absolutely sure, only do everything in your power and then hope and pray it would suffice. Trouble could resurface practically from anywhere, and so praying was what most of the ensemble did, to any number of entities. From what Meyer had heard, Dionysus was rising in popularity among the thespian folk.
A superstitious lot, they were – especially now.
Meyer could see the horseshoes hanging above several dressing room doors, the traditional exchange of small keepsake gifts and hear the silent mutterings. At one occasion, he almost got a dash of salt into his eyes as one chorus girl threw it over her shoulder without noticing his approach. Such were the smaller, quite harmless dangers of being an opera exorcist.
So far, there were no signs of ghost trouble. But Meyer had no doubts that Wagner’s ghost would choose the most vulnerable moment to strike.
The auditorium filled with the chattering crowd. The performers gathered in the green room. Already, the scene-shifters and lighting technicians stood at their posts.
Meyer spent the last moments before the start walking inconspicuously around the house, checking his wards and occasionally drawing a card from his pocket. The Wheel of Fortune kept coming up constantly. In a way, it reassured him. Nothing was certain yet.
The curtain went up and a loud cheer greeted the director on stage. Meyer found a quiet place from where he could observe most of the auditorium and the stage well and listened to Angelo Neumann’s speech. It wasn’t overly pompous, yet it carried a positive air of grandiloquence. Meyer had to admire the director for his theatrical skills.
Neumann, having finished talking, bowed to another round of applause and then left the stage to the performers. Parcival de Vry’s scenery was just magnificent and quickly drew the audience to 16th century Nurnberg. There were Eva Pogner and the knight Walther von Stöltzing, falling in love with each other; Walther cradling the hope of winning Eva’s hand in marriage in the oncoming song contest of the master singers guild; Beckmesser, furiously marking Walther’s mistakes on the blackboard…
The first act and intermission had gone by without any incident and Meyer found himself enjoying the performance very much and admiring the work of the ensemble, though every once in a while he reached for the cards and kept checking the motionless divining rods. Well, motionless; up until now, to be precise. As he grasped them again, they started shaking fiercely, pointing slightly left. Meyer got up and hurried where they led him, while trying to look as inconspicuous as possible under the circumstances.
A card fell out of his pocket. He glanced at it and saw the Hanged Man.
The rods led him backstage. He slowed down his pace then and hid the rods under the edge of his evening jacket. Underneath it, they were still twitching wildly, indicating the direction of the disruptance. Meyer, with a faint exasperation, looked up.
The fly system was anything but deserted now. It buzzed with activity and Meyer elicited more than a few surprised and disgruntled looks by appearing up there. But no one dared to question the presence of an exorcist, not after what had been happening in the past two months. They continued doing their job with more alertness than ever, some whispering silent prayers, touching crosses or other talismans and throwing wary glances in Meyer’s direction.
He didn’t bother to hide the rods any longer. After all, a rapidly twitching and shaking edge of a jacket is suspicious by itself.
“Excuse me,” he mumbled to a suddenly very pale rigger and squeezed past him on the catwalk.
Meyer had to clutch the rods now to prevent them from flying off on their own. A moment later, they snapped and the useless remains fell down on the stage, luckily not on anyone’s head. He drew a fitful breath, staring down in disbelief.
A card shot out of his pocket and he had to apply himself to catch it before it drifted down too.
Meyer suddenly understood what was going on. Icy sweat ran along his spine.
Contrary to the public folklore, ghosts rarely possessed living people. It took a very strong and determined ghost to do that and a lot of effort to hold the possession. Why bother if the strong ones could already influence the corporeal world quite easily without going through such trouble?
However, if they plainly wanted to hide from unwanted attention…
Meyer looked around slowly.
It can be anyone.
The old rigger in a checkered vest? The frowning stout little man by the nearest pulley? The freckled lighting assistant?
He could perform a general exorcism, true, but trying to draw the spirit without knowing the target might injure or kill the possessed person. Meyer had no choice but identify him first. Without letting the ghost know when he does, preferably.
The cards were his favored method of choice but they were too conspicuous. He scanned his surroundings and found himself conveniently near a little spilt sand from one of the counterweights. Abacomancy was not among his well-practiced techniques but it would have to do. He pretended to be leaning on the railings and examining the adjacent section of the rigging system. Presumably to see it closer, he knelt for a moment.
He ran his fingers through the sand and whispered.
To his dismay, though not really surprise, the sand grains didn’t do anything as overt as forming an arrow clearly pointing at one of the men. However, the resulting shape certainly held a pattern of sort – only Meyer couldn’t immediately see what it had been supposed to represent. He had a vivid and wild imagination but one that expressed itself in feelings and situations rather than purely visual terms.
What does it look like? What does it signify?
He recalled a game they sometimes used to play with mother when he had been a little boy. What do you see in the clouds? Look, there’s a locomotive! And over there an opened book…
What do you see now?
A few heartbeats went by. Then he saw it.
Meyer knew, thanks to his actress mother, that in some countries the chief of riggers, or flymen, was called the fly captain – a tradition stemming from the fact that the fly crew often originally used to be former seamen.
Here, the fly coordinator was a rather young man, unusual for someone with that kind of responsibility, but then again, Meyer himself had been barely twenty. The rigger probably worked the fly loft since he’d been a teenage boy.
Meyer walked casually to the young man, letting a small cross slip into his hand. “Excuse me, sir?” he asked calmly, and when the man turned, he pressed the cross onto his forehead and started incanting in Latin. He was using Vade retro satana the old-fashioned Christian exorcism, the one most people in these parts of the world imagined when they heard “exorcism”, though it was actually a rather rare occasion.
The man’s features bent and distorted, a low growl escaped his throat, but he could not move.
A moment later, the fly captain’s body sagged, unconscious but breathing. But the spirit inside was not gone; only unleashed. Meyer gestured at two riggers to take the man to safety, then threw a handful of sand into the air and followed its trail.
Down onstage, Beckmesser started his serenade to Eva, accompanied by Hans Sachs’s hammering of shoe soles.
The ghost formed into a human-like shape again, descending on the catwalk. His expression seemed to be varying between rage and sad disappointment by less than seconds.
“I might have wanted to spare you, in spite of your insolence, only if you let me be just for today!” His tone swung between emotions as he spoke.
Meyer shrugged. “Then you shouldn’t have told me with certainty that you would take my life.”
“What if we make a new agreement now? I let you be, you let me be…”
Meyer didn’t let any emotion show on his face but he was smiling inwardly. So he’s afraid.
“If you tell me what you’ve been planning when instructing the other riggers, I may consider being kinder than otherwise,” he admitted. “It couldn’t have been anything obvious, else they would spot it immediately; they’re capable and experienced workers. Therefore, if we eliminate the most outré possibilities, it leaves us with something much more subtle: You were just preparing ground for yourself, for when you abandon the man’s body and are free to act with the prerequisites in place. Am I not mistaken?”
“Change of plan,” the ghost growled and went for him.
Unlike most of the riggers, Meyer did not have a safety harness. He clutched the railings and waited. And waited. It took a fraction of a second but felt like a lifetime until he sensed the right moment, at least hoped to have done so, and pulled the invisible threads he had woven last night.
The elaborate rigging of the fly system gave him the inspiration. He presumed the ghost would manifest himself in that area, as he seemed to have developed a liking for it and it would give him a chance to strike where it felt most.
So Meyer had prepared a rigging of his own.
As soon as the threads closed in upon them, the ghost realized the trap he had fallen into. He went after the young exorcist with the more fury. Meyer, having expected some dissatisfaction, braced himself. He wondered if his amulets, spells and personal resourcefulness would suffice this time.
As it was, they did. At least the observation – him being still alive as the ghost charged and then again – suggested that.
Meyer stood a little unsteadily on the catwalk, panting, not taking his eyes off the ghost.
A second of silence followed, then a loud applause. After it died away, near silence fell again.
The second intermission started.
Under normal circumstances, the backstage would come into frantic activity, shifting the scene, repairing costumes and make-up, re-checking the rigging system, loading new counterweights. However, now everything became mortally still.
“A stalemate, is it?” Wagner asked then, suddenly calm as a pond surface in a late summer day.
“It would seem so.”
Around them, the order of things was slowly returning to… not exactly normal but at least the pretense of normalcy. People returned to their work cautiously, hoping the source of trouble had been contained. In truth, it had – temporarily. Meyer hoped the interwoven threads would hold them through the whole intermission.
Time inside the barrier seemed to have passed slightly like in a dream. Lazily, like honey dripping off a spoon.
None of them spoke for a moment. Then the strange passage of time was brought forward by the beginning of the third act.
“The prelude,” Meyer remarked quietly. “They’re playing it exquisitely, aren’t they?”
The ghost frowned a little but didn’t make any retort or any move at first. Then David, Sachs’s apprentice, began singing joyfully about the St. John’s day festivities, and Wagner’s face distorted in bitterness.
“We all rejoice when we’re young fools,” he muttered, “and what is it all for? What do we get for all our trouble in life? All our sacrifices, all our efforts are ultimately in vain.”
He extended his arms and felt for Meyer’s threads. They were weakening by the moment.
He touched them, interlaced them with his fingers, and pulled.
Meyer felt the web disentangle.
The time was running out.
Just as Hans Sachs started his famous Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!, accursing madness and futility in the world, Meyer could feel the wise shoemaker’s state of mind. He too would lament the course of things and where he had led it. Madness, above all.
All in vain. And what do we get…
What do we get?
“The music,” he said.
Wagner looked at him in surprise, for a second stopping pulling at the thread.
“We get the music,” Meyer repeated. “Among other things. Listen.”
Mann, Weib, Gesell und Kind fällt sich da an wie toll und blind… Gott weiss, wie das geschah?
In the rhythm of the song, Meyer started whispering. A quiet incantation, unobtrusive, in contrast with the intensity the song had reached. But it was enough.
Wagner faltered. He listened; listened to his own music, his own words, and Meyer’s.
A strange gleam covered his eyes.
He lowered his arms.
“This I leave on the earth…” He looked in the direction of the auditorium. He couldn’t have seen the audience, though – or maybe he could, being a supernatural being. He was silent for a while. “Then I think this is enough. But I… I don’t know how to go away.”
Meyer considered this for a moment. “I may have an idea.”
The ghost picked a card; so did Meyer. Each looked at their own.
One card escaped the pack and fluttered down like a leaf in autumn. Meyer glimpsed enough to see it was Judgment. It touched the stage lightly.
“Do you want another one?” Meyer asked.
“No.” Wagner shook his head. “I don’t.”
Meyer drew another and showed both to the spirit. They added up sixteen.
The ghost of Richard Wagner showed him his one. It was a seven.
“Goodbye,” the ghost said. He closed his eyes for a moment. The opera was just reaching the finale. “If I go someplace as beautiful as my Walther is singing about, I shall rest happy.”
Meyer had no knowledge of where souls went or whether they just disappeared if not drawn back to the world of the living, so he nodded. “Goodbye.”
The exorcist observed the apparition becoming more and more transparent, until not visible at all. Then he, just to be sure, carefully drew out a card. It was the Magician.
Tired and calm, Meyer smiled.
Down below, the music stopped, followed by a great applause.
Later that evening, Meyer sat in Angelo Neumann’s office, on the verge of exhaustion but happy – and so was the director. He praised Meyer’s actions, thanking him. So did Mahler before he retired home. The conductor also wanted to return him the talisman. Meyer assured him he could keep it for luck, though its warding power was probably lowered after today’s events. He couldn’t bring himself to tell Mahler that it was just a piece of cheap jewelry – to make an efficient amulet for a person, he would have to spend days around him forging the spell. He’d needed the conductor present at the premiere for his plan.
Now Mahler was safely home and Meyer and Neumann sipped tea, while most of the city of Prague slept soundly.
Neumann repeated what a success the exorcism was, and added in a less excited tone: “I’m still concerned about what drew the spirit in. I mean, if someone meant this theatre ill will, what if he tries again?”
Suddenly, Meyer broke into an uncontrollable laughter. Neumann watched him with apparent concern for his sanity.
“Oh! Of course,” Meyer said when he caught his breath. “I’m sorry, I’ve been so slow! You see, it wasn’t deliberate at all. Naturally, something was drawing the ghost in. Or, rather, somebody.” Meyer’s lips twitched. “Herr Wagner must have formed strong memories of the man who managed to perform the Nibelungen cycle all across Europe traveling by a train literally filled with opera.”
Neumann’s jaw dropped. “You mean…”
“Yes. The ghost has been lured here simply by your presence.”
“But why hasn’t anything happened in the Estates Theatre? We performed Wagner all the time!”
“You did, but the building had seen so many operas, plays and ballets that Wagner’s influence had been limited. After all, the composer most related to that theatre had been Mozart – and he did appear there. How many years have you been doing Wagner’s works in the Estates Theatre? His power simply couldn’t compare in that place.”
“But… we planned to open with Don Giovanni here! If it hadn’t been for the ghost trouble, the Master Singers would only come second!”
Meyer smiled a little. “Exactly.”
It took another second before the conclusion dawned on Neumann too. “Oh.”
“Maybe he felt like you owed him. Or he just wanted his opera to be remembered for the grand opening of a theatre he may have believed in – he certainly believed in you.”
Neumann looked a trifle stricken but not quite persuaded.
“In the end, I relied on one thing I had realized much too late, as I must admit in shame,” Meyer continued. “Ghosts tend to retain the most characteristic features of their former personalities. If you were to describe Richard Wagner by just one characteristic, what would it be?”
Neumann gazed at him, puzzled.
“Music lover,” Meyer explained. “Wagner must have loved music above all. You knew him: he had lived by it, hadn’t he? Eventually, everything had to come down to music. That was his legacy. Tonight’s premiere allowed him to finally go in peace.”
It took a while for the director to find his voice again. “I… guess I should be honored.”
“Don’t worry. There shouldn’t be any more trouble like this.”
Angelo Neumann laughed a little. “Yes – there is undoubtedly going to be some whole different trouble soon! Luckily we have you.”
Meyer put down his tea and hesitated. “Being an opera exorcist was a most intricate experience, no doubt, however I’m not sure whether I am truly the best person for this job, Herr Neumann. I’m still studying. If you didn’t find yourself in such a desperate situation before, I would not even apply.”
“Damn it, you saved this house!”
“Someone else might have achieved it sooner, and avoided risking the lives of the people. Let us agree, director, that when you find someone more suitable for the job, I’ll leave. Until then, you can rely on my help, of course.”
Neumann didn’t seem very happy about it but finally nodded. “But I hope you change your opinion anyway…”
“I would not rule out the possibility, yes. Opera can grow on you.”
“Ha! You’ve seen nothing. Our Carmen was once sung by a deceased diva getting ahold of the living singer’s body. We couldn’t do anything until the end of the opera. Though I have to admit I’ve never heard it sung better. The audience was astonished. And wait until we do Orpheus and Eurydice here. In Leipzig, the Furies became a bit too literal during one rehearsal. Apparently, the chorus members impersonating them had been briefly possessed by the real ones.”
Meyer thought about the job his father had planned for him: a banker. It was not a career Meyer himself would prefer. However, for the family…
He could still do some things he liked in his free time. That reminded him…
“Before we part today, Herr Neumann, may I ask you one more question? Would you allow me a loose inspiration by the witnessed events should I ever have a notion to write about it?”
“So you’re a writer too,” Neumann exclaimed. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you admitted tomorrow that you can also act and sing. If that loose inspiration is sufficiently loose, I shall have no problem with that, I’m sure. I’ll be looking forward to seeing your name in the newspapers and magazines.”
“You shall not see my own name. I’ve decided to use a pseudonym,” said Meyer, who didn’t think that writing ghost stories would add to a banker’s reputation.
“What name should I look for then?”
“Meyrink. Gustav Meyrink. Good night, Herr Neumann.”
Dedicated to Angelo Neumann, whose determination, enthusiasm and grand dreams led to establishing an opera house which stands proudly to this day and became the State Opera in Prague.
By the way, Neumann really did bring a live elephant onstage.
Copyright 2017 Julie Novakova
About the Author
Julie Novakova is a Czech author and translator of science fiction, fantasy and detective stories. She has published short fiction in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Fantasy Scroll, Persistent Visions and other magazines and anthologies. Her work in Czech includes seven novels, one anthology (Terra Nullius) and over thirty short stories and novelettes. She is an evolutionary biologist and is currently working on her first novel in English. Follow her on her website and Twitter @Julianne_SF.