IL MYSTERA DEL TEMPO • by Brian Dolton

Teofilo Barbari sits at the piano, and closes his eyes, and his fingers touch the keys.

He will have already written the first two parts when he notices that the metronome has stopped, tilted to the right, where it is impossible for a metronome to stop. He will be working on the third sequence, trying to overlay it against the base tempo, trying to assemble the complex phases and patterns, trying to weave them in and out, building parallels and counterpoints, modulating and shifting. For a few moments or an infinity — because there will have been no way of telling them apart — he will be utterly absorbed. And then he will see that the metronome is utterly still. He will stare at it, his fingers suddenly immobile over the keys. He will realise, as universes die unmourned, that it is, in fact, not quite still; that it is moving in its course, just a thousand times slower than it should. Outside, the pigeons hang in the Venice air. Outside, the voices of the tourists have slowed to subsonic grumbles that echo in the earth, or what passes for earth in this mad city of water and stone. Inside, Teofilo will weep with joy and terror and relief. He will have conquered time, and he will be its lover and its father and its keeper and its slave.

Teofilo is forty-nine years old and he wrote his last masterpiece when he was twenty-seven. He has been trying for almost half his life to recapture moments of genius that his youth vouchsafed him, only for his middle age to snatch away the patterns that wove inside his head, the intricate structures of tone and pitch and harmony. He was feted, once, and now he is forgotten. He has come to Venice because of the rhythm of the tides, and because Venice is dying, and because if he does not find what he has lost, he will die too. He will dwindle and fade and die, known for the brilliant flare of his youth, forgotten for the tedious overhang of the rest of his life. What happened to Teofili Barbari, someone will ask, and someone else will shrug, and it will not matter because there are always other geniuses, somewhere, now and then and forever.

Outside a chrome-lined café just along from the Guggenheim, Teofilo will sit, nervously fumbling the cigarette, holding the coffee-cup between trembling fingers, trying to make sense of what will have happened. Time. All his life, the flow of time has fascinated him, absorbed him. The subtle intricacies of perception have consumed him. Rhythm and tempo; he has created new patterns, new structures, by layering musical sequences, offsetting this one just so, diminishing this one just so, harmonising this one just so. His early works — Structure For Eight Musicians, Quavering Bridges To Breve, Light Fields In Harmony — were wondrous things, unlike anything that had ever been heard before. They transported their audiences. They dazzled and deceived and delighted. They were conundra, penumbra, tundra. They were new worlds; no, new universes…

But they were never enough. They were magnificent beyond measure and they were not even pale shadows of the wonder that he could see in the landscape of his imagination. It was that, perhaps, that led to his decline. His dissatisfaction with his own genius drove away the flatterers, the hagiographers. But it doesn’t matter, not now. Not now he’s closer than he ever was before. Not now he can weave his music into time itself; weave time itself into his music.

He drains the coffee-cup and stubs out the cigarette, and will leave the café, and has gone back to his studio. Traghetti weave among the vaporetti as quavers between semi-breves. Tourists absorb the vistas of the Canale Grande, condensing centuries into minutes. Water laps against stone. It is stone that was laid down when the stars were unrecognisable. It is the same water that has lapped here for millennia. It is eating the heart of Venice, drowning it despite every effort to the contrary, eroding the city into decayed memories that will last for the blink of an eye and the age of the Universe.

He will sit at the piano, and he has been staring at the metronome, and in his mind there is no longer any past and there is no longer any future. There are moments of creation and destruction, as infinitesimal particles vanish with a sigh of new-born photons, and there are the vast fields of the universe where dark energy grazes its way through galaxies. There is light and there is darkness, and they are terrible and they are wonderful. And there are pulses of rhythm. There is sound. The universe will be having spoken to him. All of it, all at once. He just has to filter out everything it’s saying, tease out each strand, each overlaid message.

That’s all he has to do. Deconstruct the Universe. 

And if he gets it right, if he has done this, then Venice will be preserved for ever, everything will be preserved forever, and at the same time the Universe will rush headlong to its destruction, and time will begin and time will end and time will run forwards and backwards like sand in a spinning hourglass. All of this will have happened, and none of it, depending on what message he teases out of the rhythm of the atoms and the galaxies, out of heartbeats and death rattles and wingbeats and footsteps. All time will be laid bare and he will listen to the music of the spheres and he will experience wonder and magic and beauty and terrible loss and all the things everyone experiences all the time.  Everything will have changed, and nothing will change, and everything is and always will be and never was.

Teofilo Barbari sits at the piano, and closes his eyes, and his fingers touch the keys. He begins to play.

Brian Dolton‘s fiction has been published at more than a dozen on-line and print venues.

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