Charlie had been living in a perpetual state of loneliness for as long as he could remember. His main source of consolation was a tubby, stub-tailed, ornery Manx cat called Goblin. The ownership of Goblin had been transferred to Charlie when his first and only serious girlfriend – Gwendolyn – had left Canada to work as a midwife in Africa, a turn of events that Charlie had coped with by recording a moody album entitled You Can’t Take a Cat to the Congo, which was received poorly by fans and critics alike.
Charlie made a modest living scoring nature documentaries and subsisted mostly on boiled eggs, stir-fries and takeout pizza. He left his apartment so infrequently that he’d taken to calling it the cocoon. Occasionally it occurred to him that he was failing to achieve the metamorphosis inherent in the concept of a cocoon, a process often portrayed in the segments he scored. Sadly, the conspicuous beauty of butterflies, rendered immaculately in HD, invariably triggered strong feelings of indignation and envy.
The second-story apartment was on a fashionable strip of Queen West, bridging the city’s core and the rapidly developing fringe. The owner of the building – an eccentric old man oblivious of rising rental prices – ran a cavernous junk shop specializing in vintage stereo equipment on the main floor. Breaking up the parade of gentrification, residents of the men’s shelter across the street emitted a low hum of idle chatter throughout the day and night, breaking out into occasional arguments over minor thefts and betrayals.
Shortly after he moved in, Charlie had bought a pile of old stereo equipment from his landlord and rigged it up to emit a subtle but effective white-noise loop through a dozen carefully placed speakers. This initiative provided a relaxing atmosphere for his overtaxed nervous system and helped facilitate the irregular snatches of sleep he sometimes managed.
Beyond recording music and feeding himself, Charlie typically had just enough energy left over to take a long walk in the evening. His doctor (he’d changed doctors four times in eight years before finding one who could provide a marginally helpful course of treatment) recommended that he walk as much as he could every day without fatiguing. For years it had been about a hundred feet – to the pizza shop and back. These days it was a few kilometres, round trip.
Walking west he would duck into second-hand shops, searching for Brian Eno records and vintage editions of Asimov paperbacks, then do a loop through Trinity Bellwoods Park where handsome young professionals walked their fashionable dogs.
To the east, he’d end up on the more central, touristic part of Queen West, marked by the Legendary Horseshoe Tavern and the Much Music building, where teens from the suburbs loitered, hoping to meet rockers and pop stars. He liked this part of Queen Street for the strange, sci-fi architecture of City Hall and the weather beacon on the Canada Life Building, flashing red for rain and blue for snow, as if summoning precipitation down to the earth. The skyline, dominated by the pulsing neon lights of the CN Tower and the automated ivory tortoise shell of the Sky Dome, created the impression of a city designed by a futurist from the nineteen seventies whose bold ideas had been rendered anachronistic by decades of architectural evolution.
On these walks, Charlie fed off the energy of the world without interacting with it. To engage with it would have been like touching wet paint on a canvas. He moved through the world as if he were invisible, wearing the city like a cloak. Every night he brought the city home with him and endeavoured to translate it into pure sound.
The day after his meeting with Noodles and his unexpected encounter with Sophie, Charlie returned from his evening constitutional, took a hot shower and changed into pyjama bottoms and a worn-out t-shirt. He brewed a pot of Sleepy Time tea and spiked it with a healthy splash of Nyquil. He pulled open the sessions for his new album and listened intently, hunched over in a rickety desk chair. After a few minutes he tore off his headphones in frustration. Noodles was right; he was stagnating. He needed to reset his mind, shake things up. He pulled a dusty bass guitar out of his storage closet and plugged it in.
He sat down again, hugging the bass to him. Goblin sat motionless behind him, roosting in a hoodie he’d left strewn on the couch. He clicked the playback on his recording suite: a piano loop and the deep drone of a synthesizer oozed from his monitor speakers. The mix was sparse and threadbare, it needed something more. Not some crude hook, as Noodles had ignorantly suggested, just something to make it more substantial. Something beguiling.
The room was dim, save for the glow of the computer and the Christmas lights strung up against a cotton sheet that hung above the couch, dyed in psychedelic patterns. He observed the bustle of the intersection below: streetcars floating past each other; drunken students laughing and dancing; aging punks sulking next to their lethargic, unleashed dogs. The streets were alive but he couldn’t fathom it.
Charlie tried out several different patterns on the bass, but nothing stuck. He worked steadily for an hour, refilling his mug with tea at intervals until his senses dulled and reconfigured. He stared at a painting on the wall above his electric piano and tried to hypnotize himself, to lose track of what his hands were doing. He felt the Nyquil soften his perception of reality. Behind his eyelids he observed aristocrats in a scene from Tolstoy spinning gracefully across a ballroom. Opening his eyes, he saw the painting anew and his fingers began playing notes with an intelligence all their own.
Aside from a modest sum of cash and the cabin up north – which, besides having no electricity, was severely cursed – the painting was the only thing his mother had left him. It depicted a train going over a bridge somewhere in Manitoba. There were clusters of massive spruce trees on either side of the bridge, branches bowed beneath thick slabs of snow. It was dusk and the sky was an explosion of soft pinks and bluish purples.
As his fingers continued to move of their own accord, the images in the painting blurred and reconfigured in an unsettling manner. Goblin hissed loudly: hackles up, claws out. She was tracking something with a predatory gaze. Something moved in the painting, rustling the trees slightly. As Goblin’s hiss ascended into a series of shrieks, Charlie took back control of his hands and tossed some catnip on the carpet. She rubbed her face in it, rolling around wildly until she grew sedate, assuming a pose like a beached whale. Charlie shook his head and stared at the picture, reassuring himself that it had been a trick of the light. And yet, as he stared soberly into the picture, he perceived further rustling, accompanied by noises of scraping snow and ice. Something was moving behind the glass frame, in the painting.
A figure emerged from the trees and stood on the bridge, next to the motionless train. Charlie leaned forward, squinting. The figure was wearing a dark, hooded cloak, obscuring most of its features. Brown, furry hands peeked out from under the sleeves and a pair of glacial eyes glowed in the dark recess of the hood. Charlie reached out without thinking, to kill the music, but the visitor whapped a snowball against the picture frame and let out a shrill bark. He heard the bark more in his head than in his ears and started with fright. The visitor pointed at him and pantomimed playing a guitar.
Understanding nothing, but compelled to comply, he resumed the bass part he’d stumbled upon, adding tasteful fills here and there. The visitor let out an ethereal cry that blossomed into a gorgeous lead melody. Once again, Charlie felt like he was hearing it more in his mind than in his ears. This went on for about an hour. Every once in a while, Charlie would loop the bass and swivel to the synthesizer, adding another textural layer. The piano loop was the steady beating heart of the piece, the visitor’s melody was the dancing spirit. Everything else was sonic pudding.
Eventually the visitor gently brought the singing to rest. Charlie wrapped up his bass part, faded the other channels and clicked stop in the recording suite. He stared into the painting and a faint chill crept through him. There was something eerily familiar about the little creature. Charlie sensed it smiling from beneath the hood. The visitor bowed solemnly and trudged back into the forest, knocking snow noisily from the spruce trees as it went. The painting was still once more.
Charlie stood up shakily and poured the Nyquil down the drain. He emptied the box of herbal tea into the toilet and flushed it. Before he had a chance to brush his teeth he was struck by a wave of paralyzing fatigue and collapsed on his bed fully clothed. As he was pulled down into sleep he finally made the connection between his mother and the visitor. Before he had a chance to explore this connection he was sucked down into a crevice so dark that he had the strange sensation he was floating in a trench of the ocean that lay buried beneath another body of water. He clicked on the lightbulb that hung from his forehead only to remember, for the millionth time, that he was not, in fact, an anglerfish. For the first time in as long as he could remember, he remained in darkness and slept, absorbing the healing effects of a full night’s sleep.
When he checked the playback the following morning he was simultaneously delighted and disturbed to discover that the alien sound was still in the mix.