Whenever somebody asks me about what happened that Midsummer Day, I always have a different story to tell. For one detail that I remember, a dozen inevitably escapes my brain. Time is never kind to your memories, even when they surround one of the most bizarre experiences of your life.
But it started with me visiting the cemetery. That much I’m sure. I can still remember how warm and clammy the air had been. It was still some time before sunrise, and part of me wished I was safe in bed, cocooned between the warm blankets, having my latest nightmare. The air seemed to get a little colder as I mused on this, and I hurried on through the side streets, fighting off the sleep from my eyes.
After what seemed like an eternity, I found myself at the cemetery gates. What I was doing there has long since escaped my mind: it was something about a friend of mine who was an early riser and whose funeral I’d missed. But as I hustled in, I noticed that I wasn’t the only person in that necropolis. Higher up the cemetery path I could see a mass of shadows flitting around. In the harsh glare of the streetlamps they looked like ghosts, but they were probably early grave-sweepers, or believers come to do their morning rituals. Hong Kong was strange like that.
I found the grave in no time at all. The excitement of visiting a grave so early in the morning faded fast. Before long, I had exhausted all my jokes, then all my thoughts, to that slab of granite, and my mind was beginning to wander, to imagine. Soon my patience was completely gone and I abandoned my friend in search of other interesting corpses. I checked my watch. Five minutes before sunrise. Time to go. But just then, a voice, cracking like a whip through the deathly still of the morning air:
“Hey! You over there!”
It was no more than a normal shout, but at that moment a cool wind swept through the graveyard and invaded my body. Seeing ghosts is one thing. Being addressed by them is another. I started to have trouble breathing normally, and I couldn’t even bring myself to run or even turn around. I just stood there, petrified.
“Don’t pretend you can’t hear us, you’re the only person down there,” came the voice again. “Come up and don’t be squeamish.”
I turned around and looked at the source of the voice. It was a boy — his voice was still unbroken, and all the more piercing it sounded in the surroundings — and he was beckoning, like someone about to tell you their secrets. As if in a trance, I walked up the hill, my legs wobbling all the way.
The crowd of people had paused awhile when the boy had summoned me. Most of them had now continued their business, but some of them looked at this strange newcomer, and were chatting away, their heads together, sneaking glances at me every now and then. I noticed, with a start, that every single one of them was teenaged. Even the eldest-looking of them looked like he’d barely hit puberty. I was five foot nine and well into my twenties — my face was already burning with embarrassment.
“Hello there,” said a voice at my shoulder. I jumped and turned around, and there was the boy. In what little light there was, I could see that he was no more than fourteen or fifteen. The glow of youthful innocence still showed through his impish chuckling. “What are you doing here so early in the morning?”
“Oh, no… I… I was just visiting a friend.” Should I run or stay? It would be so easy to just run. These kids looked waifish, and even someone in bad shape would had easily outrun them… “I was just about to leave…”
“There’s no need to apologize,” said the boy. “We’ve all got our reasons for being here, don’t we?” He smiled at me, a warm smile, and my resolve crumbled. I still remember the way he looked at me and smiled — he could have bent everyone to his will just with that one smile. I found myself physically unable to even move an inch. “Anyway, what’s your name?”
“I’m… I’m Alexander.” How had I trusted this stranger with my own name so quickly? “What’s yours?”
“Alexander? That is a LOVELY name.” He seemed to genuinely mean it. “I’m Robin,” he said after a long pause.
“Uh-huh. What brings you guys up here so early in the morning? Some sort of morning ritual?”
But Robin was no longer looking at me. He was craning his neck, focusing on something in the distance. “Oh, look, Helen’s bringing out her violin.” He turned his eyes back on me. “How’s your dancing?”
“Wait… what… what dancing?”
Even as I said this, music began to fill the air. A girl in the distance, sitting on top of a gravestone, had begun to scrape out one of those sweet haunting melodies on an old antique violin. Despite the hubbub around her, the tune was confident, strong, and the cacophony of voices died down soon enough. The teens all sat down around her.
I didn’t really like the tune at first. It was so sentimental, and the tune was so full of clichés. Yet any deficiencies in the song was overcome by the girl’s confidence in playing: she seemed to mean every single note she played. Every cascade that issued from that bow carried a different emotion: happiness, despair, fear. She never said a word, yet I could easily picture a million images, each depicting vivid scenes of carefree life. She was the master storyteller, and now we were her audience.
It was as if I was in a scene from a mediaeval fantasy, as if I’d stepped back in time. I looked out from the hill, expecting to find myself in another world — but no, the concrete jungle of Hong Kong was still there below me, the apartment blocks looming through the dissipating mists. I thought I could even see some of the sleepers through the windows, dreaming a million different dreams. But none of theirs could compare to what I had right before my eyes.
The music was now getting faster. Urgency radiated from every draw of the bow. It sounded like a call to action — and now, indeed, Robin was pulling the others up on their feet. One by one, they joined in the dancing, their faces aglow with pure ecstasy and joy. The violinist cast a glance in my direction, and she caught my mesmerized face. She gave me a cheeky wink and the music shifted into even higher gear.
At that moment, the Sun crested the horizon and broke onto the surface of the Earth. The sunbeams shone through the trees behind me, and everything was instantly bathed in gold. Helen gave me a slight jerk of her head, and I could hold it off no longer. I jumped up, and joined in the dancing.
How am I ever going to describe the feelings that ran through my brain as I surrendered myself to the music? I have no idea how long it lasted. Ten minutes? Twenty? It seemed that I’d barely joined the dancers and then flopped out in no time at all. And still these people continued to dance. They seemed to have interminable stamina, their movements remaining graceful, almost floating, even long after I’d bowed out.
The strains of the violin continued to echo through the air. Helen was now playing a serenade, her soft touches caressing my heart with every harmony. I lay back in the grass, my feet dangling over the side, and closed my eyes to enjoy the music, the sounds of laughter and joy still ringing in my ears.
It was only after a very long time that I realized that it was no longer there. The music had flooded my brain, and I’d been so dazed with its power that I’d failed to notice that it was now only in my mind. When I opened my eyes, they had all disappeared. The clearing around me was desolate, and birdsong provided the only sounds. I scrambled up and ran to the dropoff, expecting to see a sea of people parading down the way I’d come — but I was the only person on that hill. Only the echoes of their songs and laughter remained with me.
As I made my way down that path again I saw that I was once again not alone. An old man was wheezing his way up the hill. He beamed when he saw me, then looked crestfallen after he’d had a good look.
“Excuse me, did you see a group of people going down the hill just now?” Surely they couldn’t have disappeared.
“Wait… WHAT? Were they a bit younger than you? Were they all dancing?”
“Yes. Hang on… how did you know?”
He didn’t answer. A flush of adrenaline had kicked into his cheeks, and even as I spoke he was running up the hill with a spring in his step, screaming “ROBIN? HELEN? ARE YOU STILL THERE?”
I left him on that hill. Something inside told me that that neither of us would ever see those people again. You could seek explanations for your dreams for all eternity, but you are never going to find them.
And anyway, who needs explanations when you’ve got mementos? You see, as I was turning to leave, I’d stumbled over something on the ground and a strange discordant sound came from somewhere around my feet. It was a violin, hidden in the tall grass — and the handle was still warm.
“So is it…”
Yeah, it’s that one on the table. Don’t break it, it’s all I have.
Postscript: This was something I wrote for a short story assignment in UniMelb back in March. I wrote the whole thing in 36 hours and handed it in, and now that it’s come back to me I’ve made a few minor tweaks and put it on here because screw TurnItIn. The results were not disenheartening, but I wouldn’t call this my favourite piece. Still, I’m publishing this because it’s been a while since I’ve written anything.