The Orchestra in The Distance

By Dee Nicholls

This year’s festival theme was Campfire Stories; the stories submitted for the contest had to include the phrase ‘camp’ and/or ‘fire. Judges were Luna Lee from Parallel Aotearoa and editor Damien Levi. Nicholls’s story won the Promising Young Writer prize.

Hi, Rebecca.

I’m not quite sure if you remember me but I remember you. I found this email address online. You used to call me Gingy and I used to really hate it. I’m Thomas now.

This is going to be long and messy but it’s really important. This might be my last chance to write this. There is so much at stake. 

We knew each other long ago, back when we were kids. I used to have really long hair? All curly and red? My Mum would get mad at us when we played my Dad’s old CDs in my room. I loved that old Dissection Girls album so much I tripped off the bed and got smacked upside the head. I’m listening to it right now. Playing it really loud. Mum always said I would appreciate her music when I was “mature” enough, or at least ready to see life “her way” or whatever she was going on about at the end. 

Mum died, by the way. It was a few years ago when her heart troubles began and then suddenly, she was in the ground. It feels like it happened slower, thinking back on it. In my memory it seems more like some long and festering illness sometimes. I guess she was just slipping away for a long time before it happened. She never really wanted a son. I guess she was right about some things though. Some of these lyrics are way more explicit than I remember haha.

I hope you remember me, Rebecca, because I remember you pretty well. It was pretty long ago. I can’t remember your eyes or the clothes you would normally wear. I do remember how your hair fell though. I remember how you’d stutter on words like “cat” and “kangaroo” and “cave”. I remember how then you’d usually giggle once you messed up. 

Do you remember going to camp together? Up in the ranges? The ferns were so deep and green there. The colours were so much brighter than I’d ever thought, and the nights so black. We would sleep in the same bunk bed, but you’d always climb down to mine when you thought too much of home. 

We’d sit side by side beside the campfire and you’d cuddle up to me under the blanket when the stories scared you. I’d hold your marshmallow out to the fire for you. We’d whisper between us as the counsellors told stories of ghosts and monsters out in the dark. 

They warned us of the deep and secret caves. They told us around the campfire about the boys and girls and even adults who went wandering down those dark and winding paths. They were lured there one way or another. The beckon of distant music or the lapping of fresh water. The whisper of curiosity.

There was a camp counsellor called Mr K. He told us that story about the cave where the ghosts of lost children make you dance and dance and they don’t let you stop even when you’re sore and tired. Where they make you dance and dance so long you don’t even die. You don’t even die because you just keep dancing, you just become a ghost. Then you’ll dance to the ghosts’ music for so long you don’t realise you’re playing in their orchestra too. You’re a ghost now, playing beautiful music with your own rotten bones as an instrument. 

It was Mr K-something who told us. KAH-something. I remember how you’d stutter out his name and giggle. He got mad at you for that. He thought you were laughing at him. I remember how you didn’t giggle at your stutter that last night. Just kuh-kuh-ku-ku-ku-ku-ku-ku-ku-ka-kakakaka as he yelled and yelled at us. Thinking back, I can’t imagine how scared he must’ve been.  

I heard the music first. The music in the distant wood. Northeast past the signboard, I think. I thought it would be a quick trip. I was so adventurous back then. You didn’t want to be left at the camp without me. Or maybe you just didn’t want me to leave on my own. Anyways, we went up into the bush and far into the trees. 

There was no clear way through the trees and ferns and we got lost fast. I dropped the compass somewhere and it rolled out of the flashlights’ path. We tried to turn around but it was like the music was everywhere around us. Surrounding us. We thought we could follow it to where the music was being played. Maybe the musicians could help us back to camp. 

But there weren’t any musicians, remember? Just the hole. You said it was like a big scary mouth in the ground, remember? A tunnel leading so deep we couldn’t light the end. I cut my knee tripping and falling in, remember? You pulled me out as the music got angry, remember? We ran and ran and screamed until we saw the flashlights, remember? I cried and you were dead quiet and Mr K yelled at us and then he got quiet and put a blanket around us and got us hot chocolate. We got to have extra hot chocolate than the other kids, remember? They were so angry and thought we got soooo lucky. 

They never heard the music when we said to go look. The orchestra wouldn’t play their song if too many were searching for them. The adults wouldn’t go out searching for a cave if none of the kids were missing, anyways.  

I put it all out of my mind as we grew up. We grew apart after that trip and I’m really sorry for that. Sometimes I wish I could go back and change it but I don’t think I could. I became so different so fast. You were a part of that old, old me. I put any thought of you away, like the clothes that didn’t fit anymore. I’m sorry for that. 

Then I saw that girl went missing, up by the bush travelling with her brother and his friends. She looked just fucking like me back then, Rebecca, it was so scary. All the memories bubbled up. I nearly threw up thinking back. I couldn’t watch TV for the rest of the day. I couldn’t bear to lock eyes with my bathroom mirror. I knew I had to go up and find her. I knew it was just me who knew what to listen for. I didn’t think you would come if I had called for you. I know now I should’ve tried. I just knew I could go find her, pull her out like you did me, be that adventurous boy again. I forgot for a time just how dumb of a kid I was.

I drove up to the camp and hopped the rusty gate. I didn’t have to trespass far before I came across the corpse of the old camp signboard. It’s just the stumps of its frame now, all ravaged by moss and lichens. I had to buy a compass to find which way was north. I haven’t had to use one for so many years. I walked northeast, the way we thought we’d find that orchestra playing. At least I think it was, it looked right. It has been so very long.  

I walked some fifteen minutes before I heard her. That little girl screaming her throat raw. Terrible memories bubbled up and I rushed. I ran after her. I could hear her just on the other side of a screen of ferns. I rushed through and fell down into their trap, a hidden mouth of the earth. 

I crashed onto my knees, thank god I didn’t break an ankle, and jolted forwards onto my face. The ground crunched like dead leaves. Light flooded in from behind me, revealing the undergrowth of brown discarded shells, like those of cicadas or weta. Then in came, from the walls of the cave and the dark depths of the tunnel before me, the music. 

The enchanting and rapturous music.

 All this time it was never an orchestra, Rebecca, but a choir. 

They swarmed me in the blink of an eye. They got into my mouth as I tried to scream, Rebecca, they were trying to crawl down my throat. I scrambled up the side of the earthen wall and out onto the forest floor. One was gripping my face with barbed legs, scraped off as collided with a tree. I looked back and saw the little one standing there. 

She was crying and crying just like I did but it was coming out of her all muffled. She was crying through pursed and expressionless lips. Her clothes were ruined with mud and her shoes were falling to pieces. She was dancing on the spot, bouncing side-to-side and moving slowly towards that mouth in the forest floor. She fell down into the dark and they dragged her away, the music crawling back into the earth. 

I fled back to my car and returned home; as I drove I felt an itch shimmering through my body. It grew from my mouth and nose and the scrapes of my hands until no part of me was at peace. I got into the shower at home and scrubbed the dirt from every inch of me. Every old scar of my body had flared up red and itchy so I scrubbed and scrubbed to dull the pain. I felt a sudden jab and looked down to see a trail of blood washing down my stomach and, from the torn scar, a twitching brown leg. It chittered and wiggled and chimed a single note. I heard that note ring out as clear as day before the tiny leg squirmed back into the dark of my chest. I tried to scream but a great weight squeezed my lungs silent.

I couldn’t scream. They wouldn’t let me. 

I can feel them, Rebecca. I can feel them dancing under the skin. 

They won’t let me leave the house. 

They won’t let me speak when I pick up the phone. 

They scratch against the back of my eyes when people get close.

I wake up and I’m standing in the lounge. I wake up so exhausted I collapse again on the spot.

I think they’re making me dance, Rebecca. Just like Mr. K said I would. 

I swear I’m not fucking crazy. I think you’re the only person in the world who’d have a chance at understanding. I think you’re the only person who’d have a chance at remembering. I’m sorry I never called when I got back home from camp. I’m sorry I threw you away.

My heel is tapping and I can’t make it stop.

They’ve crawled inside my gums and pulled my teeth shut so I can’t yell. 

They’re pulling my eyelids open from the inside so I stay awake longer. 

I can’t leave the house when I want to, Rebecca. 

I have to wait for them.

They’re going to make me leave soon, tonight probably. 

Dance up the street and out towards the woods. 

They’ll let me fall in and out of sleep but they won’t let me starve. 

Bring me back bugs and grasses and mulch them down my throat.

Keep me dancing with them in that forgotten cave. 

A warm and writhing nest for them down there. 

I’ve been praying for a heart attack. 

I don’t know if they can stop that. 

If they never find that little girl they’ll never find me. 

Not without someone who knows where to go.

Where to find me and where find the little one. 

Take them during the day. Take the police, and an ambulance, and some kind of exterminator, and a reporter. Take everyone who’ll go. 

Please show them where we are. Please tell me you remember.