Sunday 9 May 2021

Music Hath Charms - Short Story by Clark Zlotchew

Music Hath Charms 

Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast.

To soften rocks or bend the knotted oak.

William Congreve

So, I got up from the table, told her I’d pick up my belongings later, and would see her in divorce court, and stormed out the door, slamming it behind me.  Married three months and it was nag, nag, nag.  I hate that. I had been a bachelor up until this marriage.  A free man.  I’m not accustomed to being badgered into doing some insignificant task when I’m not in the mood for doing it.  I was going to get to it in my own sweet time.  She had begun to weep as I left.  I can’t stand a crying woman.  I didn’t have a destination in mind; I just wanted to walk, and walk, and walk.  But it turns out I did more than just walk.

Now, I’ve always been susceptible to music, and you and I know that Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, are the great ones.  But I came upon a kind of music that’s just as good, maybe better, but in a very different way.  In fact, it changed the course of my life.  I’m coming to that, but I need to lead up to it.  I don’t like to leave any gaps in the story.

Moving on, to get over my rage provoked by Diana’s hassling, I was strolling along the streets right here in San Francisco, no particular destination in mind, just wandering around, not caring where I was or where I was going, trying to cool off.  I was ambling along in the mist and suddenly saw that fancy Oriental gateway looming in front of me, what they call the Dragon Gate, straddling Grant Avenue at Bush Street, and I realized I was at the entrance to Chinatown.  You know, with the green shingles on the roof of the gate, and two snaky-looking gold dragons on top of the roof, glowering at each other so that it looked like each one was about to shoot a blast of flame at the other.  Or either one was about to bite the other’s head off or maybe mate with the other one.  Or both, like the praying mantis does.

 At any rate, the mist had turned into a full-fledged fog as thick as whipped cream.  I couldn’t see the gate until I got within six or seven feet from it.  And the fog swirling around it made it look like the dragons were in flight.  And beyond the gate I couldn’t see a thing at that distance, as short a stretch as it was.  So, it made Chinatown look mysterious, producing a feeling in me that if I went in, it wouldn’t be the same as it was on a sunny day, but would be like Shangri La, cut off from the outside world.  I know it was my imagination, but that was the feeling I got from that strange Asian gateway wrapped in swirling streams of fog. 

But, of course, I had been in Chinatown many times, so I knew what was there, but still felt a little jumpy.  I guess I was in what they call, let’s see, what do they call it?  Ah, yes, an altered state of consciousness.  No matter, but then I caught the scent of food.  And the aroma of mouth-watering Chinese food permeated the fog and caressed my nostrils.  Right then I could have gone for a big bowl of Chicken Chow Mein with egg drop soup or Bok Choy or something like that.

The fog was so thick, I had to hold my watch much closer to my face to be able to read it. It was precisely 7:05.   I went through the Dragon Gate into the realm of mystery.  After all, if you can’t see more than six feet in front of you or on either side of you or behind you, you’re in now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t land. I felt a certain amount of anxiety, which, strangely, I kind of enjoyed.  I was on a quest for the secrets of the unknown. 

I could still see only about six feet ahead of me as I walked.   And, of course, when I looked behind me, I could see only six feet in that direction, too.  So, after covering a few feet I looked back but could no longer see the Dragon Gate.  I felt as though I was cut off from the outside world, from everything I knew and loved.  Like there was no escape.  Of course, I knew that factually it wasn’t true.  It was just a feeling, an irrational feeling.

As I progressed up the street, I recognized the familiar souvenir stores, butcher shops with ducks hanging from hooks in windows, bakeries and restaurants redolent with appetizing aromas, stores from which the spicy fragrance of incense, or joss sticks, issued, as I passed each one.  I knew these places, but I kept wondering if further ahead in this miserable peasouper I might come to a place I wouldn’t recognize.  Now, I knew, on one level, that this would not happen; it wasn’t logical.  On the other hand, my non-logical side, my imaginative side, kept impinging on my emotions and I wondered, I feared, yet I strangely craved, something different: an adventure. 

I was walking along the sidewalk on the left side of the street, so I could see only the stores on that side; I couldn’t see the shops across the street because of the murk which was now as thick as cream cheese on a bagel.  I passed establishments I was familiar with, but suddenly there appeared, as though given birth by the fog, a place I had never laid eyes on before. The name Shangri La had been artistically painted in black cursive script on the window under large golden Chinese characters.  It had a bright red door with a ferocious-looking green dragon emblazoned on it, jaws open, ready to clamp on to…  Whatever it wanted to clamp on to.   I stopped dead in my tracks and stared at it.  I could have sworn the dragon moved, moved in my direction, menacingly, no doubt an optical illusion caused by that low-hanging cloud swirling in front of it.  This was getting creepy.  At the same time, it greatly attracted me. I had the sense that whatever was inside would make me a happier person. Totally irrational, I know, but I was filled with anticipation and could not resist the pull that Shangri La exerted.

Adding to this inexplicable feeling was the wonderful soul-satisfying tang of Chinese cookery that drifted out of the establishment and hung in the humid air, stimulating my saliva flow.  I decided I would enter Shangri La and see what delicacies were on offer.  The restaurant was dimly lighted, with even darker areas in shadowy alcoves here and there.  Those nooks and crannies were so dark, I couldn’t tell if people were seated there or not.  A tuxedoed waiter startled me when he suddenly appeared out of the gloom on my left.  So, I involuntarily jumped when I detected his presence at my side.  Embarrassing.  Somehow the man’s shoes hadn’t made a sound as he walked.  Well, the floor was covered with a thick carpet.

He smiled and asked me to follow him.  I did, and he led me to a small table set for two, I sat and perused the menu he handed me.  When I looked up from it, about to ask a question, he apparently had disappeared into the shadowy depths of the establishment.  I took my time studying the food list.  Good thing I had a small pocket flashlight, so I was able to read the menu in the dim light.  I looked up and saw the empty chair across from me.  Of course, it was a table for two.  There are never tables for one person in restaurants.  Somehow, I felt like a pariah.

Suddenly I became aware of music being piped in.  By the sound of it, it must have been an ancient Chinese piece played on the traditional instruments.  It affected me so deeply that I had to stop reading the menu to concentrate on listening.  I closed my eyes and heard music so unbearably sweet, and yes, I said unbearably.  It was melodious, mellifluous, tasted like honey.  Now, I realize this sounds crazy, or at least melodramatic.  But I know of no other way in human speech to describe the sensation.  I felt as though honey were flowing over my tongue, sinking into my taste buds, descending to my stomach, where I digested it.  I felt as though every cell in my being were drawing it in, absorbing it, making it a part of me. 

The music was so tender, it felt like caresses, like the smooth hand of a woman who was gently stroking my cheek, my temples, the nape of my neck.  The way Diana often does. Often did.  Yes, the sound produced a physical sensation.  The music penetrated through my ears, into my brain, ran down my spinal column, seeped into my pores, my flesh, my blood.  I felt as though it poured over my heart, like the waters of a mighty river breaking through a dam, overwhelming my heart, submerging it, inundating it in a flood of sweetness.  

It seemed to take hold of my soul, gently but firmly tug on it, threatening to draw it from my body. The music was powerful, yet tender and sweet.  Powerfully tender, powerfully sweet.  It drew tears from my eyes.  Actual tears, damn it!  How strange:  sweetness and sadness simultaneously conjured up within the same piece of music. Agony and ecstasy all wrapped together in one melodious package.  All this emotion dredged up, simply by hearing human breath whispering through musical instruments that were nothing more than tubes of wood, or reeds, and silvery metal cylinders or bows stroking catgut strings. 

Maybe it was the deep, dark molasses tones streaming from wind instruments, just air forced through a hollow reed, but sounding like wind that hums through a bamboo forest, or gusts through a ringing cavern, or drives dust across a thirsty desert, a forlorn scene of stark desolation, a wilderness of dark isolation, some God-forsaken windy wasteland.  Wow!  I don’t know how I got from sweetness to that bleak wasteland.  But that’s how it seemed to me.  That was the direction the music led me to.  And I began to sob! Can you imagine this? In a public restaurant!  But why?  I didn’t understand why.  I was glad it was so dark that no one could detect my blubbering, or if they did, could not see my face, in that way granting me anonymity.  So, for that reason, and that reason alone, I felt no shame in weeping.

Perhaps it was the erhu, the instrument of two strings that I had seen pictures of, stroked with a bow whose silken sounds smoothly quivered and quaked and modulated, producing a resonance that felt to me like a human cry, or perhaps a human sigh, or the voice of a woman weeping in sorrow and despair, who had lost something, or perhaps lost someone she will never find again.  I suppose it was this thought that resulted in my ridiculous weeping.  In those moments of awesome –in the original sense of the word-- rapture, I felt as though it might be the sound of my very own soul, rising up and out of my body, about to fly away with the wind. 

Suddenly, the music stopped, immediately followed by a different tune, an ordinary modern popular Chinese song.  It broke the spell.  The mist enveloping my brain began to clear.  Naturally, I realized, the sweetness was inextricably joined to the bitterness of torment.  Of course it was.  A little, just a little, like that French song, Plaisir d’Amour, especially when sung by Edith Piaf.  But this music had no lyrics; it was purely instrumental and yet suggested all I’ve just explained.  Why is it that music with no words, no conscious message, just airwaves in different pitches, can affect the emotions? I don’t know.  Music is the most mysterious of the arts.  And yet this music conveyed to me, powerfully conveyed, not love alone, but love lost!  The memory of love and of the loss of it.  

My recent harsh farewell to Diana came to mind with the force of a blow to the stomach.  True, she nags.  But it was to get me to do something beneficial for me, not her.  For my health.  She nags me because she loves me.  I’m just not accustomed to having a beautiful, intelligent, caring young woman telling me what to do. What an idiot I’d been!  An ingrate.  I stood and strode out of the restaurant, heading home.  Home:  What a beautiful word.  A comforting word. 

As I opened the door to leave, the formally attired waiter appeared at my side, smiled and said, “I hope you enjoyed your stay, sir.”

I smiled back and said, “More than you can know.”

I had been much too irritable and didn’t even deserve someone as good as Diana.  I knew what I had to do, and I was going to do it.  Gladly.  I looked at my watch; it registered 7:05.  Still?!  I felt as though I had entered Chinatown at least a half hour ago.    I hoped it was not too late.

Only three of Clark Zlotchew’s 17 books consist of his fiction:  Two espionage/thriller novels and an award-winning collection of his short stories, Once Upon a Decade: Tales of the Fifties (Comfort Publishing). Newer work of his has appeared in Crossways Literary Magazine, Baily’s Beads, Scrutiny, The Fictional Café and many other literary journals of the U.S., Australia, U.K., Canada, Germany, South Africa, India and Ireland from 2016 through 2021. Earlier fiction of his has appeared in his Spanish versions in Latin America. Zlotchew is Professor of Spanish SUNY Fredonia, Emeritus.



  1. Clark Zlotchew's stories are entertaining and inspirational. He knows how to set a mood and make a scene come to life. I also enjoy the mystical parts in his writing.

  2. Dear Anonymous, I'm glad you enjoy my stories. Thank you for telling me.


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