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Lorelei by E.C. Traganas

Düsseldorf: The year is 1854, and Romantic composer Robert Schumann is on the precipice of madness

The river was murmuring, tinkling like suspended crystal droplets glinting in the silvery light, slowly meandering, pushing onwards through the hilly crags. There were voices underneath, he was certain, with hidden secrets roiling, twisting in its depths, dredging ancient wreckage that they would spit out in a slurry of mud and crusted barnacles then swallow whole and consign forever to a forgotten substratum. The singing was as soft as a calming drug, luring its unsuspecting victims to the water’s edge like a seductive spirit nymph, then plunging them into the inscrutably chill, dark mystery beyond.

He was hearing it again, that alluring voice from afar, an angel’s cry from the water’s depth, so comforting and hypnotic, like a swirling plume of incense leading his troubled, sleep-deprived thoughts heavenwards. As if in a trance, Robert shuffled across the carpeted bedroom towards the window ledge adorned with flowering pots of winter cyclamen, lifted the lace curtains and looked out longingly over the slate rooftops towards the Rhine River. Above, the clouds were marching slowly in a funereal procession of silver grey twists and dull pewter coils. His noonday meal of liver ragout and fresh-shelled peas with a mug of warm milk lay untouched on a tray in the corner table.

“Herr Doktor,” a matronly voice called from the doorway, cutting through his feverish reverie, “you must try and eat something, sir. The physician advises—”

“Out! Haven’t I told you never to interrupt me?” Robert barked, thumping his fist against the casement causing the cook to scurry away in panic. I’m sorry, he reflected inwardly. Why am I acting like this?

Icy sleet was beginning to fall over the cobbled streets below, causing them to shimmer like a layer of oily fish scales. “That voice! Is it you? My dearest, you’re not really gone, then, are you? You are in a good place—I know you are!” He looked up with a yearning hope at the menacing sky as the rainfall increased in volume. “Oh, God! What am I hearing now?” he shouted, pressing his hands against his ears. “Stop! This is not music—this is noise, diabolic noise!” The shrill whistling exploded in his inner ear like a blaring factory siren. He was pacing around the cramped room now like a caged animal. How can I explain this noise? he thought to himself. “How can anyone understand?” he asked aloud to no one in particular in that empty chamber in a fleeting moment of lucidity.

The din intensified, banging against his brain like ferocious mallets. He sat at his desk and pulled out a sheet of manuscript paper. Dearest, his hand wrote in scratchy, tentative strokes, I am going to throw my wedding ring into the river—do the same with yours, and then the two rings will be united for all time.

In a second, he tore himself from the room, bounded down the hallway sprinting past the staircase, pushed open the front gate and emerged onto the street clad only in his robe and striped flannel pajamas. Staring ahead with feral eyes and a fixed determination, his breath formed thin wisps in the frigid air as he darted briskly along the slick cobblestone streets in his waterlogged leather slippers, panting heavily with excitement. “I am coming!” he was crying while his arms flapped by his side as if he were conducting an imaginary orchestra. As freezing rain pelted down on his hunched shoulders and hoarfrost rimed his wild, matted hair, he slackened his pace, turned onto the shoreline with the city’s Town Hall looming in the distance, and came into view of a wooden pontoon bridge spanning the river. Peace at last! he sighed with mounting anticipation.

An attendant at the tollbooth stopped him, eyeing his ashen face and skittish gestures with alarm. Robert rubbed his stubbled chin, fumbled through the pockets of his robe searching for some coins and smiled nervously. “Here, this will have to do,” he said, pulling out a silk calico handkerchief and offering it to the guard.

“Hold on,” the official called, “you’re that composer they’re talking about, aren’t you—”

“There’s no stopping me now!” he cried exultantly brushing past him as he raced halfway across the bridge. Grasping the handrails for a brief second, he looked up at the churning sky, glanced down at the torrent of foaming, frothy water spitting at his heels from below. Peace, gentle peace! he whispered calmly sobbing with joy, and threw himself into the water.

From the depths of his submerged consciousness, he felt a pair of hands tugging at him from every direction pulling him this way and that. The overpowering stench of freshwater fish shocked him to his senses.

“Hey, there—whoa!” Something was stinging his cheeks. A fisherman’s rough calloused hand slapped his insensate body back to life causing his puffed milky eyes to open and focus on a stack of freshly caught perch and carp slithering near his head. Suddenly, instinctively, Robert leaped up again in a burst of renewed strength, pushed past the strange fisherman and tried to leap over the edge of the dory. Springing into action, the fisherman tripped him by the knees, slamming him with a thud onto the wooden deck. Undeterred, Robert pulled himself up again and pawed savagely at the fisherman’s chest to steady himself.

“Out of my way!” he screamed above the roar of the crashing waves.

The fisherman wrestled with him, pinning down his writhing body, grabbed his thrashing arms, and subdued him back into the hull of the boat.

“Another one,” the exhausted old man lamented. “I’ve seen too many of them in my long life. This river is a siren, a real temptress, a Lorelei, that’s for sure.”

Robert heaved deeply, choking through his tears, and awakened to the infinite sadness filling his soul. The music had stopped, sucking him into a strangely hollow vacuum of silence.

“Take me to an asylum,” he said looking up at the man with cool detachment.

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