As much as I love being a writer of fantasy fiction, it does come with its own peculiar challenges. One of those is trying to come up with a non-silly sounding answer when a friendly acquaintance who doesn’t read fantasy asks, “What is your book about?” If a fellow fan asked this question, my reply could last all day, yet with non-fantasy lovers I find myself tongue-tied, helpless to explain the convolutions of my daydreams. To solve this problem, I’ve been told to come up with nutshell descriptions of the “X meets Y” variety. Whereas Atterwald is “‘Beauty and the Beast’ meets The Secret Garden, with shapeshifters,” The Nightmare Lullaby is “The Iron Giant meets The Phantom of the Opera.” Whatever conclusions you’re drawing about that mash-up are probably, well, partially right.
Feuval is the Phantom in my story, the masked man hidden away from the world, who lives in and through his music. He’s the only major character of whom I have no drawing, and the only one whose point of view we never see. Yet he was the story’s starting point. Several years ago, on a visit to the Georgia Renaissance Festival, my husband and I were intrigued by a big black wagon that housed a carillon and a man in a gold mask who played the bells inside. “There’s a story in him,” I thought at once, and all the other ideas for what would become The Nightmare Lullaby branched out from this root.
This is the first scene in which he appears, an early turning point for the heroine, Meliroc.
Of all musical instruments, only the carillon conceals its player, making it easy to imagine that it plays itself. Now I sensed a magical mind within it. Hadn’t I learned to shun magic, to loathe its practitioners? Why did I relish this spell when I should have been fighting it?
The trees, bushes, and rocks I passed on my uphill march flickered in the corners of my eyes like smoke-trails from a fire. Only the music was tangible. The figure of the carillon blazed silver in the distance. Fingers of light stretched out to draw me toward it. Once I reached it I caught my wheezing breath and dropped to my knees before it. Its gleam subsided into a quiet shimmer.
The sharp whistling voice jolted me. A creature half the size of Master Pierpon hovered in the air beside my ear, jerking its head at me. Long gray hair spilled down its back and sides, nearly covering the dusty gray rags that draped it. The oval thing atop the rags could not really be called a face, for it boasted only a wide, lipless mouth and a pushed-in nose. Where were its eyes?
“What’s-this-what’s-this?” it squeaked, pinching my chin.
Distaste squirmed in my stomach. Pierpon might have gotten around my prejudice, but he hadn’t overthrown it.
“Tell us who you-are-you-are-you-are!”
I thought my name, hopeful that it might hear me.
The tiny creature gave an irritated trill. “Are you simple-simple-simple?” it jabbered, shaking its fist at my nose. “Say who you are! What you are!”
The black curtain in the window fell aside, revealing a hawk-shaped golden mask. Its glint shot ahead of the opening to strike me full in the face. Through the blare I traced the outlines of a man’s figure shrouded head to foot in white.
“What causeth this agitation, my whishk?” A resonant baritone voice folded about me like a downy quilt.
“That!” Again the gray will-o’-the-wisp shook its fist at me. “Make it go away! It’s too big-big-big!”
“Be not uncivil, good whishk.” A touch of admonishing hardness crept into the voice, yet still it rang rich and wonderful. “Draw thou nearer, stranger.” The man’s white-gloved arm slipped through the window to beckon to me.
“Send it away!” The imp bobbed up and down in mid-air, puffing in indignation. “It’s no good. It can’t even speak!”
The mask tilted rightwards. “Is this true, maiden pale?”
I placed a hand to my lips, then sadly nodded.
“And doth that justify thy rudeness, whishk? Be still, if thou canst not call on thy good manners.” The mask’s glint softened upon me. I felt a smile in it. “Wilt thou stand? I would see thy full measure.”
I climbed to my feet. My shadow stretched out to the carillon-wagon, swallowing the masked man.
“Ah!” The voice sounded more pleased than disturbed. “A tree thou art, made all of alabaster moonbeams. Didst my song reach thy ears, moon-tree?”
I nodded yes, kneeling once again. I didn’t want to loom over this man. “Moon-tree” – a beautiful name! How he spoke it! I grinned, a delighted tremble in my toes.
“Too big-big!” fumed the dusty imp. “Send it away-away!”
“Heed not the words of my whishk, fair moon-tree,” the man said. “I am Feuval. Dwell I in this box, with my musical bells.” He stretched out his hand, then rested his fingertips against my cheek. “My music have I given to many villages, yet no listener hath ever spoken back to me.” A note of sorrow rang in the marvelous voice.
I glared down at my quivering hands. Shrink from this man. Distrust him. I tried to picture myself bolting back down the hillside to the safety of my tent, but the image slid through my fingers.
“At each place I do visit, I send forth a summoning, a song that can only be heard by a friend. For so long none hath heeded it. Yet tonight it hath brought thee.” He drew his hand away and rested it on the window-ledge. “I wish that I might learn thy name!”
A cool gust bore down on my heart-fire. This man obviously had magic. A sorcerer would hear my mind-voice. “Meliroc,” I thought at him.
“Why knit’st thy brows so?” he asked. “Fear thou me?”
I summoned every shred of energy to force my mind-voice past that gleaming mask. “Meliroc! Meliroc!”
“Thou’rt distressing thyself.” The wonderful voice rang gentle. “Be at peace. I ken thy heart. I called it hither.” He tilted his head toward me. “Dost thou play a musical instrument?”
I shook my head.
“But thou hast wished thou might?”
I nodded yes.
“Then my apprentice shalt thou be,” Feuval pronounced. “I shall teach thee to give life to the stirring inside thee which led thee here.”
How? my mind screamed.
“‘Tis a pity thou art mute,” he said, fumbling for something under the window, “but I shall give – thee – aha!” He drew himself upright again, a strange object in his hands, eight wooden planks fixed to a thick black board. “This shall be thy voice.”
He raised a mallet and struck the left-most plank, and out came a chime, a star’s gleam. The mallet danced lightly down the other planks, raising a succession of notes that shone in a constellation. This was an instrument! The planks were rooted on bells, a miniature carillon.
Gripping it by its sides, he reached through the window and held it out to me. “Take it.”
I wanted to wrest the instrument from his hands and see what constellations I could shape, but memories held me still. So many broken instruments and the Bitter Chord’s mocking laughter. You were not formed to make music.
“Take it,” the masked man repeated more firmly.
My stomach swirling, I claimed the instrument, then the mallet. My fingers folded around the polished wood.
“Now, play the scale.”
Don’t break, don’t break, don’t break… I lifted the feather-weight mallet and dropped it cautiously on the top plank. A bright twinkle answered, my own star.
The instrument held solid. In its ring I heard it accept me. A tremor surging through me, I sent my mallet skipping down the planks as I’d seen him do. Each note rang sweeter than the last. The light-strings from the great carillon wound more tightly about me, and I imagined them as the threads of a chrysalis, promising to transform me into – what? Surely something better than I was.
“Take it with thee,” he instructed, “and draw from it a song of thine own making. A melody of a merry heart. On the morrow’s eve I will summon thee and hear what mettle is in thee.” He snapped his fingers, then jerked his thumb to his left. “Go thy way, moon-tree. Begin thy work.”