The body is naught but a womb for the soul. Within it the soul is conceived, and there it gestates, feeding voraciously on the nourishment of human experience. The capacity of each soul is varied; some possess potential for great power, while others are destined to remain forever weak. And as it is with power, so it is with good and evil. But the predominance of souls, the souls of the multitude, are neither uniquely strong nor weak, nor purely good or evil. They are, for lack of a livelier description, merely mundane. Yet on rare occasions there exist souls so immensely powerful and so purely good or evil that they alter the course of human history. Their presence rips through humanity like a hurricane, affecting all in a swirling path of disruption. But in the end every soul, regardless of potency or corruption, must, when the body perishes, be born into the beyond; and once within the beyond, that demesne of souls, there is no reentry into the world or womb of man. Or so I had believed.
It was during an exceptionally violent rainstorm late one afternoon in Hartford, Connecticut, in a year when one of these aforementioned rare souls had assassinated another at Ford’s Theater down in Washington, that someone rapped upon the door of my violin shop. Having closed early, I was in the back enjoying a well-deserved respite, and it therefore took me several moments to extricate myself from my chair, rub the sleep from my eyes, and finally arrive at the front door. I shot back the bolt, and in stomped a postman. The young man was drenched from his floppy hat to his burnished boots. A dripping leather satchel hung from his shoulder, and in his hands he grasped a package wrapped in brown paper. Thunder rumbled in the distance as I closed the door.
“Got somethin’ for you,” the postman said, handing me the package. He was new to his post, I observed, for two reasons. First, I had never before set eyes on the young man. He was a hair under six feet, a bit paunchy, and had the beginnings of a blonde beard sprouting in sparse patches about his jaw. Secondly, and the more obvious reason, was the fact that once he had given me the package, he began to curiously examine my shop as if he had stumbled upon a previously undiscovered wonder that deserved closer consideration. He gazed at my violins hanging, freshly polished, from pegs on the back wall. Then, after a long pause, he moved to my workbench under the room’s solitary, rain-spattered window, where he appeared to study the delicate wood-working tools that lay upon it.
While the young postman satisfied his curiosity, I turned the package over in my hands. I knew immediately what it was, having been in the business of creating the finest violins for over forty-seven years. My skill and my credentials, as my patrons would attest, were inarguable. I had learned my trade from Angelo Puccini, who had been taught in Florence by Baccio, and he by Cappalleta, and Cappalleta by the master himself–Antonio Stradivari. So I knew quite instinctually that I was holding a violin in its case, be it wrapped in brown paper or not. What I did not know, however, was who possibly could have sent it.
“Do you know where this came from?” I asked the young postman. “There is nothing written on it save for my address.”
“No sir,” the postman said. “My boss gave me that one and another one and told me to head over here. Got the other one in my sack–that one’s headin’ to the shop next door. House number 664, I believe.” A flash of light flared outside the window, followed by a fresh crackle of thunder.
“That’s old Crawley’s place.” I said. The disdain must have been obvious in my voice, for the postman ceased perusing my tools and shot me a quizzical look. I was too tired and irritable to explain. Albert Crawley had been attempting to purchase my shop for over three years, by scrupulous and unscrupulous means. He owned an occult bookstore, a store that specialized in old Latin texts on possession and demonology and other such sacrilegious topics, and said he wished to move into my building for professional reasons. The old man was as mad as he was blasphemous.
After a moment or two the postman said, “It’s a real nice shop you’ve got here. I’ve been wantin’ to pick up the violin again. My ma taught me some as a kid. Haydyn mostly, a bit of Mozart and Bach.” With that, he re-adjusted the satchel to what seemed a more comfortable position and returned to the door. “Well, I’ve gotta go deliver this other one. Hope to see you again,” he said, then exited into the deluge.
I bid him goodbye, closed the door, and returned my attention to the mysterious package. The brown paper was of a plain variety used by many merchants in town. The address on the package was written in a wiry, almost stealthy hand, which I thought looked vaguely familiar. And the address appeared correct; so it was not delivered to me by mistake. The ink was an unusually dark red, near black, and smeared so that it had an uncomfortable resemblance to blood. I tore away the paper. There, as I knew it would be, was a violin case. I was somewhat surprised, however, at the apparent age and uniqueness of it. It was of a dark African wenge-wood, intricately carved in decorative motifs, and bore silver hinges and hasp. I had never before seen its like, but I had heard that such cases existed in Europe, predominantly in Italy, over a hundred years ago. The violin that rested inside was sure to be rare and perhaps extremely valuable. Again I wondered who had sent me the package. Outside the rain continued to pour from the heavens, and as the sun began to set somewhere behind the storm, the shadows deepened within the shop.
I opened the case. Had I known the contents beforehand, I still could not have prepared myself for the shock. There, in a bed of crimson velvet, rested a violin of the most immaculate beauty. It, like its case, was at least a hundred years old and of Italian origin. It was a Stradivari. Not a single mar or scratch blemished the finish. The warm spruce top had a luxuriant caramel luster, and its gut strings seemed as pristine as if they had been recently wound. With tremulous hands I lifted the instrument from its case. It felt alive to the touch, as if it contained an energy pulsating within, ready to burst forth in a musical epiphany; but surely that was naught but the effects of my own excitement. I turned the violin over and froze in utter astonishment. As rare and valuable a gift a Stradivari was, the owner of this particular Stradivari made it a thousand times more so. For in bold cursive letters etched into a small silver placard affixed to the back was the name Nicolo Paganini.
I was stunned. Paganini had been the greatest master of the violin the world had ever known. His performances dazzled the musical lay and learned alike. People would travel for weeks just to hear his lightning arpeggios and witness his amazing virtuosity. It is said that Liszt and Chopin were so marveled at his technical prowess that they felt their own abilities infantile in comparison. He had lived the life of a musical god-on-earth and reaped the rewards of fame and fortune. Many admired him; but many believed his talent so great it could only have come from the Devil himself–a fact that prevented Paganini from being buried in consecrated soil upon his death.
My own talent was barely adequate for a violin maker. It was the primary reason I had become an artisan rather than a musician. I was conscious of this as I reached into the case and took out the violin’s bow. What would this violin, owned by history’s greatest performer and built by history’s greatest craftsman, sound like in my own humble hands? I went to my workbench where I grabbed a rosin cake and applied it liberally to the bow. I tapped off the excess and then paused to reflect on the enormity of the moment. I was about to play Paganini’s Stradivari, perhaps the first man to do so since his death. That thought filled me with a strange, overwhelming sense of desire, an almost unnatural yearning to draw the bow across the strings. I took a deep breath and gripped the violin under my chin. And then I played.
Liquid ecstasy poured into the room. The notes sprang from the violin in indescribable purity. I had never before heard such tonal wonder. My playing was timidous at first and lacked even a glimmer of my own limited skill; and yet the notes that resonated from the instrument were perfection itself. I played every piece I could remember. Each was a miracle of sound, and each was played with an increased skill and confidence. Soon I was playing the most difficult pieces of my repertoire with ease. It was rapturous. The music filled the room and swallowed every sonorous thing that did not contribute to its elegance: the drum of the rain, the rumble of thunder, the rush of my breath, the beat of my heart. There remained only purity and beauty.
And then it changed. Abruptly, the notes mutated. They became detuned and corrupted. Banished sounds returned to the room in force and consorted with the hideous bellowing of the violin. The fury of the storm raged anew outside; my heart began pounding like a hammer in my chest; my breath turned to sucking gasps. The music rose louder and louder, transforming into a dissonant, festering cacophony of noise. My fingers flew over the violin faster than I had ever played before. The bow was a blur in my hand. Notes spewed forth at inhuman speed. Unholy arpeggios screamed, as if they were ripped from the depths of Hell. The window over the workbench burst in a spray of glittering, wet glass. I tried to drop the vile instrument, but my hands refused. And then a greasy smoke slithered up from the strings. It filled the room and infected it with the reek of decay. I felt its clammy touch upon my flesh and then a piercing pain as it penetrated into my being. The shadows of the room leapt out and smothered my sight. All warmth was washed away in a wave of endless cold. I was sucked into a frigid cavity of fetid blackness–numb, freezing, blind, and sickened–and yet the demonic music played on.
I am not sure how long I suffered. It could have been days, or mere minutes; but after what seemed an eternity there came a knock upon the door. The music ceased, replaced by a blessed silence. And then a voice spoke from the other side of the door. A voice that brought with it recognition and revulsion–and the realization of complete horror.
“Buongiorno, Maestro,” it said.