When the unquiet girl opens her eyes the room is still dark. She rolls over and pulls the blanket higher, but knows sleep will not return. Her mind already races: school, music, tests, practicing, deadlines, more practicing. And the rose. She shivers, in spite of the heat.
The timepiece says it’s three minutes until dawn. She undims the window and presses her face against the glass. The fog spreads from her mouth with each breath. The golden lights of the drones flitting between skyscrapers become spiky and indistinct, like suns giving up their last bit of strength as they burn out. There isn’t too much traffic now, and it’s quiet. She breathes four times, slowly, and the grayness mutates as it grows brighter. Is there any more peaceful moment than this in the city? For an instant, the breath-fogged skyline looks like bones packed dense seventy stories high, red gleaming through the eye-holes of tiger skulls. She holds her breath and scrubs the window clean with her sleeve, then dims it again.
There is another girl still asleep in the top bunk, utterly unresponsive. This would be the third night in a row she’s stayed up way too late feeding, the unquiet girl thinks. I won’t tell if she doesn’t mention the hour I left the practice rooms for the past week. Though all I’m losing out on is sleep–my neurons will be fine in the long run.
She smooths out her sheets and folds them down nicely. The hum of wirehoppers is starting to become noticeable in the distance.
“I hope all of your wishes are granted, sister,” she whispers from the doorway, then leaves without a sound.
The unquiet girl is always the first one to the Peach Garden in the morning, unless you count people who never left the night before. They’re mostly still downstairs and unseen, unless they stumble up top all greenlined and delirious, trying to reach through things. The restaurant level is mercifully quiet, now.
“Hey, you! Good morning!” says the old man behind the counter. It’s Sartre, the one she links. He has bushy eyebrows and a wispy beard and he smiles too much. “You want the usual?”
“Yes, please,” she says, sitting down and taking out her phone. It glares back with a dozen event reminders.
“That’s good, because I already made it!” he says, grinning hugely. He deposits a basket of dumplings in front of her, the scent of shrimp billowing out around them. Her stomach transforms from an unfeeling, forgotten organ to a urgent crater that demands immediate appeasement. Steam rises from the basket as she opens it and Sartre laughs.
“Do you,” the unquiet girl pauses for a long moment, “Have anything else for me?”
He leans over, brows furrowing, smile gone. “Already?”
“Yes,” she says, face getting hot.
“Okay, okay,” he says, and glances towards the window before trundling into the back. “I’ll get you some soup,” he shouts over his shoulder.
The soup comes, bubbling hot, and next to it a packet of brown paper. She opens it and extracts a single white pill, the size of a thumbnail, which she drop into the soup and stirs until it dissolves. Seventeen times. Then the unquiet girl begins to eat. For an instant, the steam rising off the soup is unmistakably the scaly coils of a dragon, molten bones heaving and churning. She closes her eyes and focuses on the soup. She can feel it kicking in already.
One. Two. Three. Wait, that’s not right. Two. Three. Four. There, all tuned. She lifts her bow off the strings, tucks the chinrest tight. Silence roars around her, there’s no one else in these practice rooms so early. The white walls are like sheets of white rain. She can feel the empty air vibrating, between her fingers, between the strings, between the hairs on the bow. Quietness. Waiting. Rumbling.
She starts to play. She always starts with the same thing. It’s her own arrangement of Saint-Saëns’s The Swan. It was the first music she remembers hearing in her life. She squeezed her mother’s hand and asked her what was this sound, who was making it, this beautiful sound? Her mother smiled and said she could learn to make this music, too, one day. The uniquet girl closed her eyes and imagined the white bird, majestic and wistful, and imagined she could see it even when her eyes were open.
Now, she wishes she ever saw that same bird. As she grew older, as she learned to play violin, The Swan started to feel different. She made changes: one or two notes here and there. Sometimes it sounded more real with more disharmony, more irreconcilable sounds. Her pulse would race when she played it this way. It wasn’t correct but it felt good, almost illicit. Until she started taking the pills, and until she started seeing things.
Dissonance sings out of the bow. The lights seem to flicker. The melody she knows so well bends, twists in her fingers like a snake. She closes her eyes. She dares not stop playing, but fears seeing it again. Her head swims and she presses harder and harder with her fingers, bow harder and harder. The sound is out of joint, but more beautiful to her ears than it ever was. She opens her eyes, and there is no swan: only ever a dragon.
It surges and wraps her, splitting vine-like, budding limbs and eyes and roses and machine-screens with faces that sing torn harmonies to her playing. She feels its heat, the wind of its lurching, the unsteady gaze of roses.
The unquiet stops. The lights flicker. Sweat coats her hands and face. Silence covers all in its warm and thunderous fog.
Swan's Studies — Pharmacopoeia
Hortencia Fragments — A Kind of Fugue
Swan & The Swan — Swan
Metamorphoses — Shanghai
Darkness — Stories