“The Sleeping Beauty Symphony” by Django Mathijsen

Popular clichés must hold some truth. In many ways Felina was my opposite. She was mad about traveling, restless if she had to stay anywhere more than a few days. Even her job as a suborbital pilot, flying to Moscow, Johannesburg, and Bombay, couldn’t satisfy her. She hungered for weird and wild bits of earth.

Now even Africa and South America have transcontinental maglev railways, you’d think there would be no more remote places left. Trust her to find them in droves. The more difficult to reach, the better she liked them.

Still, if it hadn’t been for Felina’s craving for strange places, we’d never have met. And we do share a love for nature and seclusion, both of which are hard to find these days.

* * *

Nine years ago I suffered a neuropsychological hyperbeta episode. Sounds trendier than the “burn out” my grandfather had before I was born. But according to my doctor, it’s pretty much the same thing.

On doctor’s orders, I fled the madhouse my native soil of Hamburg had become. I found refuge in a spa hotel on Baltrum, one of the isles along the North German coast. That was two weeks before a minor earthquake ripped open the nuclear waste storage under Gorleben, causing radioactive ground water to leak into the river Elbe.

Hamburg and the villages downstream of Gorleben were evacuated. I couldn’t return to my house on Eppendorfer Road for six months. That was a godsend, for I didn’t want to go back. I let the government buy me out and purchased a wooden cottage on Baltrum. The island became my home. It’s the only inhabitable oasis of peace and quiet left in Germany.

* * *

Few mainlanders travel to our little island. That’s how we’d like to keep it. Neighboring islands, like Norderney, welcome thousands of tourists, who overrun their towns like photo-snapping, souvenir-hungry locusts. By mid-century those islands were connected to the mainland with bridges or tunnel trains.

We still have a twentieth-century ferry, dieseling to and fro every day. Okay, the diesel engine was replaced by an electric motor and the helmsman by an autonomous robot, but the old vessel is characteristic of the life we cherish: laidback and a tad conservative.

The ferry provisions our stores, carries us to the mainland for monthly shopping, and starts our youngsters’ trips to higher education, once they’ve outgrown Miss Rühmann’s school.

We’re no backward tribe of woodsmen. We just have an eclectic attitude towards modern technology. We’ve embraced multi-focus solar panels and boilers. So we have power and heat in abundance. But we keep more intrusive, noisy, and unhealthy mod cons, like cars, clocks, and criminals, from our island.

* * *

Six months ago, Felina was hiking through northern Germany, visiting the islands one by one. I remember her telling me how, when she first arrived on Baltrum, she felt that comforting warmth of being thrown back in time. The islanders, in anticipation of their relatives arriving with the ferry, dotted the dusky pier. It reminded her of the seals she’d seen lying in the sun on the banks the chugging vessel had passed.

She was flabbergasted by the little car park behind the pier. It wasn’t a car park. It was packed with two-wheeled wooden carts, parked in rows. Stefan, our bicycle repairman, makes them. She’d watched in amazement as the islanders picked up carts and hitched them behind bikes or walked off with them. The carts seemed community property, similar to the robotic grocery carts in supermarkets and malls that tag along behind you like lap dogs. But unlike everything else in the civilized world, they weren’t locked or chained up. Curious, she’d asked an older woman.

“You can take one,” the lady had answered in a friendly voice. “Providing you know where you’re going.”

“Splendid,” Felina had said. “I’m going to the camp site. Could you point me in the right direction?”

After the lady had explained which road to take, Felina had picked out a shiny red cart adorned with yellow pinstriping. She slid in her backpack and grabbed the pole on the front of the cart. That’s when she felt a tap on her shoulder.

“I’m sorry, miss,” a giant, sunburned, middle-aged man said with a smile. He had a rolled-up fishing net on his shoulder and a duffel bag on his back. He had tired but radiant eyes and the deepest, yet friendliest crow’s-feet she’d ever seen. “I believe you’re mistaking.”

“I’m sorry.” Felina startled and nervously grabbed her backpack. “I thought these carts, um… a lady told me… I didn’t know they belonged to anyone. I’m going to the camp site… I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay.” He smiled. “Normally I wouldn’t mind you using my cart, but you see…” He pointed to the load on his back.

Felina had already turned away. Ashamed, she quickly walked off, backpack in hand.

“You can take Kalle’s cart,” the man called after her. “He’ll be at sea a few more weeks. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind!”

* * *

She didn’t slow down to catch her breath, until she was around the corner of the harbor master’s office, out of sight of the fisherman. She threw her pack on her back and headed for the camp site. I can picture her with her strong but sensuous stride. You could never help wondering how she could walk so briskly with her sleek, petite frame under that heavy backpack.

The camp site was a forty-five minute hike east of the harbor, which marks the southwestern edge of our island. You reach it by following the path that winds along the coastline. At first, she could enjoy the view from the dyke: the nineteenth- and twentieth-century houses and chalets to the left and the darkening sea with the mainland lights on the horizon to the right. Then the path leaves the dyke and village behind to cut through the hills. Trees line the path, sometimes so close you’d think you’re entering a dark cathedral, with the branches forming a gothic roof. The sea, however, is never more than a few hundred yards away. So you’re accompanied by the muffled rustle of waves crashing onto the shore.

The camp site is a rough, sloping meadow, marking the boundary between the civilized half of the island and the nature reserve, which has one small path to the eastern beach. You’re not allowed to stray from that path; otherwise you might disturb the birds, rabbits, and deer.

When Felina reached the camp site, it had already got so dark, she had to set up her tent by the glow of her flashlight. She had one of those geodetic memory tarp tents, originally developed for the Mars missions. She was alone at the site. Later, she often told me how much she’d enjoyed lying in the grass that first night, smelling the brine, hearing the faint rustle and counting the specks of light in the night’s sky. She felt at one with the heavens, more intense than on the suborbital shuttle at the apogee of its seventy-mile-high parabolic flight.

* * *

The next day she was up early. It was a radiant morning. She couldn’t wait to explore the island, but followed the path back to the village, needing to get some breakfast first.

I hadn’t seen her coming. I was so absorbed in playing my meander flute. My back towards the path, I faced the memorial stone for the Unknown Dutchman at the bottom of the hill. I was enthralled by a rainbow thrush, singing a tune, brimming with expectation for the coming spring. I echoed its tune and played some variations. Slowly the bird had inched closer.

Suddenly the thrush turned and flew away.

* * *

“I didn’t mean to startle it,” I heard a mezzo-soprano behind me. I turned around and saw a face out of a daydream; a daydream, centered round an emotika, implanted into a smooth forehead between jet-black eyebrows. I’d heard about emotikas, but never seen one. Those round crystals were a body adornment, inspired by the colored spots Hindu women wear. Emotikas were wired into the nervous system and changed color according to the wearer’s mood.

“No problem.” I noticed the crystal radiating a turquoise glow, which signified concentration and emotional balance, as I later learned.

“I’ve never heard anything as beautiful as you and that bird.” In excitement she clapped her hands.

“Maybe you should tell my manager.”

“You’re a professional musician? How wonderful!”

“It pays the mortgage. Most of the time.”

“What sort of music do you make? Are you famous?”

“I create ambient and background music.” I got up from the grass. “The kind you hear in shops and waiting rooms.”

“What’s your name?”

“Gustav Motzke.”

She drew a ‘Sorry, never heard of you’-face.

I laughed. “Call me Gustav.”

“I’m Felina Giesler.” She held out her hand-–small, but with a man’s grip.

“What you were playing, Gustav… I’ve never heard anything like that in a shop.”

“That was personal. I’m working on my symphony, the Baltrum symphony. I’m trying to blend the moods of this island.”

“That sounds quite a job. This is an extraordinary place.”

I smiled. “I’ve only been at it for six years.”

I noticed the crystal was turning indigo.

“What’s that stone for?” She pointed at the weathered marble.

“We call it the ‘Dutchman’s Grave’, although nobody was buried here. There were once words chiseled in, but they’ve been eroded. According to island lore, it commemorates an eighteenth-century Dutch captain who perished after his ship had run aground on the shoals. During ebb tide, he and his crew had tried to reach the mainland on foot. The sea between the island and the mainland is so shallow that for a short time it’s almost completely dry. Then you can walk the whole stretch, providing you know the way. The islanders have used the route for centuries. But there are treacherous patches of quicksand. And the tide rushes back in and catches travelers without an experienced guide. The bodies of the captain and his crew were washed ashore on the other side of that hill.”

“How sad. The sea and the island looked so friendly when I arrived yesterday. You’d never expect this island could be so cruel and unforgiving.”

“Mainlanders have nicknamed our island the ‘Sleeping beauty of the sea’. Sleeping beauties are alluring like roses, but they have treacherous thorns as well.”

“I’d love to walk on those shallows,” she said. “I can hardly imagine walking on ground that hours before was the bottom of the sea. It must be like being Moses…”

“I could take you this afternoon, when it’s ebb.”

“But the quicksand and the tide?”

“You’ll be safe with me. I’ve lived here almost ten years and roam the shallows nearly every day. Heiko Bartels, our most experienced guide, has taught me almost everything he knows.”

“Wonderful!” She clapped her hands again. “Can we go now?”

“We’ll have to wait a few hours.”

“Then let’s have breakfast. Will you join me?”

I could never resist an invitation from a beautiful woman. Come to think of it, this was the only invitation I’ve ever received from a beautiful woman. We went to the ‘Dune House’, a restaurant in the hills just outside of town.

* * *

“Unbelievable how close the birds get!” She nibbled on her croissant. “This morning, when I zipped open my tent, I found myself staring into these cocky eyes. It was a golden pheasant, beating a hasty retreat, flapping its wings and scattering feathers. It was chattering like an old lady, complaining about my intrusion into its territory.”

“The creatures on our island aren’t as fearful of people as mainland animals.”

She asked about my work, my life, and how I wound up on Baltrum. I told her everything, except of course about my hyperbeta episode.

She told me about her Swiss father and Venezuelan mother. How she’d spent her teenage years each alternate month in Switzerland and Venezuela, after her parents had got divorced. She was different from other people I’ve known. She was a glacier on fire: untamed temperament and raven hair from the Venezuelan wilderness combined with cold common sense and piercing blue eyes from the Swiss mountain tops.

* * *

We strolled back to the harbor, passing the pond, where kids were playing with remote-controlled sailing boats. On the square the garbage collector was scooping up manure his draught-horse had dropped. It was a lovely pre-spring afternoon: bright sun making your skin tingle and crisp air refreshing your lungs. Felina floated down the path like a bossa nova. From the harbor I took her out onto the shallows. We didn’t go to the mainland, but made a half circle south, to the stranded trawler. Slowly this steel contraption was being claimed by marine life that encrusted the shell with colorful growth.

I guided her through the shallows and showed how they were teaming with life, mainly tiny worms squirming through the sand. I let her eat some salt weeds and bite the yellow goo out of the clams that were lying around. The sunlight caressed her skin, which had almost the same color as the golden sand of the shoals. Her black hair glowed deep blue like the sea on a moonlit night. I realized she belonged here, a natural part of the shallows.

“It’s wonderful.” She gave me a relaxed smile.

“In spite of your toes sinking into the mud, it feels like you’re in the desert,” I mused. “That pure feeling of being alone.”

“Yes,” she sighed.

I noticed her emotika had turned purple.

“These days a European is never alone,” I opined. “Even in his own home… You may not see, hear or smell them, but they’re always there, just yards away: neighbors, passersby… There’s no escaping them. But here you feel real privacy. Here’s where I’m closest to my music. I get my best ideas here. That’s why I love coming here.”

I wanted to add: for the first time in five years I’m sharing this with another human being, for the first time with someone I like being with. But the words stuck in my throat.

* * *

We had dinner at the Codfish Inn and strolled to the north pier. A new moon filled the sky with suspense. The wind picked up. We sat on a little bench. The surf seemed like black octopus tentacles, towering above the bulwarks, trying to climb onto the island.

Felina moved closer and looked into my eyes. “Are you gay?”

“What?” I stammered.

“You haven’t made a move all day. So: are you gay?”

“N-no.”

I could just make out in the faint street lantern light that her emo-crystal had turned pink as she whispered: “Prove it.”

Never before had a beautiful woman made such an unambiguous proposal to me. I swallowed, gathering my courage. “Your place or mine?”

I could have kicked myself for saying something so lame. Still, she replied: “Yours.”

In my cottage, she took charge of the home entertainment wallpaper. She ordered it to play a soft salsa and swayed around the living room. She slid behind the leather armchair and along the walnut cupboard with my antique woodwind collection. She put her arms around me and pulled me close. She lowered her right hand and moved it to the front. Her emotika glowed bright red as I felt her hand.

“No.” She pulled an innocent face. “You’re not gay.”

She didn’t sleep in her tent that night. Outside the storm raged. Inside a hot storm raged through our beings, joining us together.

* * *

Felina had intended to stay on Baltrum for two days. But she moved in and stayed all week. We went for long walks in the hills and on the shallows. We roamed the beach until it was so dark our only company was the lighthouses and stars. We had to feel our way through the darkness.

One night we were heading back to my house. Near the little hospital, we saw a shadow, filling the street. Two big eyes were staring at us.

We were petrified.

Seconds later, when the shadow turned around, we discerned the outlines of a deer, disappearing into the dark at a relaxed trot.

That night, Felina’s hidden scars surfaced. I was shaken from my sleep by a kick against my backside. I looked at Felina, who was kicking out and flailing her fists. I switched on the lamp on the nightstand and noticed her emotika was dark gray, a color I’d never seen it in before.

Her face was contorted; she was shaking her head, moaning: “No…”

I tried to calm her down, whispering it was just a nightmare and I would protect her. But she continued to thrash and kick. A tear ran down her cheek. Eventually, I managed to wake her up. She jumped out of bed and looked at me with fearful eyes.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

She stood there as if she didn’t recognize me.

I fetched a glass of water in the kitchen. When I returned she was sitting on the side of the bed, huddled up, staring at the floor boards with her face in her hands. I crouched down and offered her the glass. I tried to look into her eyes as she took the glass, but she kept her face hidden behind her hair. I tried to brush the hair aside, but she flinched.

The glass bumped against her teeth as her unsteady hands put it to her lips.

“I was eleven when he came to my bed,” she whispered, staring at the floor as if studying that knot in the board, the one that always creaks in the night when you’re trying to sneak into the bathroom. “He said I was beautiful.”

But you are beautiful, I wanted to blurt out. I suddenly felt dirty.

“Irresistible,” she added after another sip.

“You don’t mean…” I didn’t finish the question.

“He was my dad’s brother.” She looked at me with empty eyes, wrapped in tears. “He said it was my own fault.”

She felt so far away. It felt like I’d betrayed her. You could never see that pain and terror hidden inside. She’d built this mental wall around it and only showed her cheerful side to the world. But the scars were always there, silently festering, never healing. When the nightmare broke through, it was as if another wall had gone up between her and me.

She emptied the glass and put it onto the ground. Then she reached out. Finally I could put my arms around her.

“I’ll keep you safe,” I whispered as I buried my head in her hair. But I was powerless against the nightmare, which became a regular intruder into our bed.

* * *

In the daytime I often let her hear my music. Whatever I played, she couldn’t sit still. She treated every sound like a dance, floating through the room on slowly developing themes and tearing up the carpets on rhythmic movements. While I watched her dance, I often thought: if I could only translate that into music.

Felina became my inspiration for many a motif. But it wasn’t until I let her speak through the vocoder, which I’d built in my teenage years, that I had my eureka moment. A vocoder analyzes the character of the voice speaking into the microphone and uses it to modulate the synthesizer. I heard my synth, controlled by the sound of her voice, singing fire and ice in lovely bursts of cold Swiss consonants spiced with sizzling Latin sauce.

I remembered reading about Professor Heyernink, who’d won the Nobel Prize for his work with autistic patients. He’d used a NEX-389 chip to read the brain waves of his patients into a computer and turn them into sounds and images. The patient was then exposed to those sounds and images. This created a feedback in which the thoughts and feelings of the patient were played back into his eyes and ears. That trained their brains to communicate on a basic, more structured level. The professor had made remarkable progress with them. I realized that with Heyernink’s method I could capture Felina’s essence and incorporate it into my music.

* * *

At the end of the week Felina went back to work. While she was waving from the stern of the ferry, I already missed her. But even more I was excited about my idea. I couldn’t wait and immediately ordered a NEX-389 when I got home.

It took three months to build my ‘encephalocoder’, as I called the machine. Felina came to stay with me as often as she could, which was about one weekend every two weeks. During that time I felt like I’d discovered paradise again. She was everything that had been missing in my little idyll.

She was crazy about me and Baltrum. At least that’s what I thought. After our fourth or fifth weekend, she asked a curious question.

“I want to go to Vladivostok in two weeks. Would you like to join me?”

“Vladivostok? Why?”

“It’s a fascinating place. Lots of history…”

“But I have to finish two assignments. I have my encephalocoder to work on. And my symphony…”

“That will all still be here when you return. It’s just two days. It’ll be fun. Don’t you ever long to see other places?”

I’ve never figured out why people voluntarily seek the hassle, discomfort, and waste of time involved with purposelessly traveling from one place to the other… and back again. I don’t feel any need to leave my Baltrum home. It’s inspiring and quiet, so I can hear the music welling up inside me. My house is comfortable and warm. And I have all my tools and instruments at hand.

“No. I care about my music,” I answered.

I didn’t realize it, but this was a big disappointment for Felina. Traveling somehow gave meaning to her life. Maybe it was her way of fleeing from the past. Two weeks later she left for Vladivostok… alone.

* * *

When I’d finished my encephalocoder, I tried it on myself first. I’d installed the electrodes in a comfortable headband, a small transmitter sending the signals to my sound computer.

It was difficult to find meaningful ways to translate the signals into musical sounds. Helped by Professor Heyernink’s articles I found the right algorithms. I adjusted the parameters by ear. Before long, I could evoke the most original and emotional music I’d ever produced.

* * *

“My encephalocoder is ready,” I said to Felina when she left the boat. “I can’t wait to try it out on you.”

“I’m tired,” she sighed. “I just want to have some dinner and go to bed.”

That night she started to kick in her sleep again. I wanted to wake her up, like every time she’d been plagued by that nightmare.

But I couldn’t resist. I had to capture that deep-seated torment.

She didn’t wake up when I slid the band onto her head. She did shake it off three times. Her nightmare lasted two hours. When she calmed down, I removed the band.

* * *

I slipped out of the bedroom, into my studio to play back what the encephalocoder had recorded. Immediately, I knew I had the missing piece of my symphony. I’d never heard so much drama and fear in music before. It would perfectly symbolize the wrath of the storms beating down on our shores and the torment and fear of islanders and drowned seafarers.

The rhythms and timbres were blood-curdling. It was a cleansing, cathartic experience that could change your life the same way the island had changed mine. This would be the climax of my Baltrum symphony!

In a frenzy, I labored through the night, putting together all the ingredients. The first rays of sunshine were coming in through the window when I got back into bed. I was tired and dizzy, but satisfied with my rough mix. I knew I’d achieved greatness.

* * *

I got up late. Felina had already had her breakfast. She’d left a note that she’d gone to the north beach. I grabbed a sandwich and a glass of orange juice and ran out to join her. I enjoyed the fresh spring sunshine. It was as if the whole world had changed. It was celebrating with me.

I found her sitting by one of the breakers, staring at a ship, passing on the horizon. I plunged down into the sand next to her.

“I love you, Gustav,” she said in a sad voice. “But I don’t think it’s going to work out between us.”

I felt like I’d been struck by lightning. “Why?”

“I need to see places and people.” Her emotika had acquired an unusual grayish brown color. “But you just bury yourself in your work. This island is a prison. You’ve locked yourself up here.”

“Baltrum a prison?” My jaw dropped. “Baltrum is freedom, sanctuary from the drudgery and bustle of the world. Out there: that’s a prison.”

“Not for me.” Tears were welling up behind her eyelids. “I love Baltrum, but this little piece of earth is choking me, every time I’m here. I need other places and I want to share them with you. I don’t want to be imprisoned here, even though it’s paradise.”

She was silent. So was I. Slowly the consequences of her words trickled into my consciousness. My excitement was replaced by dismay. I don’t know how long we sat there.

“Everything will be different,” I said when I got up. “My symphony is finished. You have to hear it.”

* * *

She gave me a melancholic smile as the first sounds filled the room. Her emotika turned indigo again. As “The rainbow thrush,” the first movement, unfolded she started to dance across the room like an angel floating on a cloud. The music evoked images of Baltrum birds and rabbits, dancing with her, accompanied by dew and raindrops rolling over green meadows and golden beaches.

In the second movement, the storm ravaged the shores of the island. Felina’s dance became wilder, her emotika darker. She was entranced by the music, stirring her up as it swelled to its climax. Her dance looked like a tribal war ritual and became ever more frantic. She bumped into the couch and chairs. She hit herself on the head and pulled out fistfuls of hair, kicking and screaming with the rhythmically howling sound storms. When the music reached its peak, her emotika turned pitch black. She fell to the ground.

* * *

Felina hasn’t left me ever again. She looks so beautiful, almost as if she’s radiating a heavenly light, sitting motionless in her rocking chair in the conservatory overlooking the north beach. I think she’s happy now. I can’t know for sure, because she hasn’t spoken one word since. But I can see those staring eyes taking in the beauty of our island, when I take her in her wheelchair on one of my walks. Stefan, our bicycle repairman, made that wheelchair especially for her: a red one with yellow pinstriping.

Her emotika has turned white and never changes color anymore. All those feelings that tormented her have disappeared, washed away by the cleansing music. No more nightmares or restlessness. When I put the encephalocoder onto her head, a rippling, tranquil stream of sounds comes out. It’s very meditative.

My Baltrum symphony will open next week in Hamburg. Pity she can’t be there in person. But her spirit will be there. It will fill the concert hall and touch the souls of the listeners.


Dutchman Django Mathijsen (www.djangomathijsen.nl) is the only author who’s won the Unleash Award, the Dutch SF-story award with the highest purse, three times. He worked as a jazz-organist while graduating as an engineer at the Eindhoven University of Technology. After that he was technical consultant on the award-winning British TV-programs Robot Wars and TechnoGames. As a science journalist and editor he’s written over three hundred articles for English and Dutch magazines. Now, he concentrates on composing music and writing fiction. He’s won numerous awards for his short stories which have appeared in all Dutch science fiction, fantasy and horror magazines and e-zines. His first English fiction publication was a novelette in Big Pulp. His first novel, a science fiction techno-thriller published in Dutch in March 2010, is now also available in English as an eBook.
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    • Beautiful and unexpected. I don’t know how to describe this more than that.