Welcome to Valhalla
Kathryn Lance and Jack McDevitt
"Beware!" The soprano looked directly at him, across empty rows of seats. Her war helmet gleamed in the flickering overhead lights. "Escape the curse of the Ring!" Her voice soared through the building, riding the strings and trombones and bassoons and clarinets. Up front, the director and two of his assistants studied their notes and watched.
"To dark destruction it dooms you!"
Halfway back, seated alone on the aisle, Richard Wagner let his eyes drift shut, let the music take him. It was magnificent. At last his complete masterwork was about to open. Tomorrow night the first opera in the cycle would transfix all of Bayreuth. Four magnificent operas over five nights: Das Rheingold, Die Valkyrie, Siegfried, and the finale, Gotterdammerung. Enthusiasts had arrived from across Germany, from Italy and France and Britain, even Russia, and they would crowd into their seats, and they would be held spellbound by the ancient tale of the Norse gods. At last, his Ring Cycle would be presented as he had conceived it. After the final notes of the final opera, he would move modestly through his admirers, accepting congratulations, enjoying the immortality he so clearly deserved.
He had come a long way since the Paris Opera House, sixteen years ago, when a venomous anti-German audience had hissed and hurled both insults and vegetables at the performance on the opening night of Tannhauser. They'd resented the majesty of his work. Had it been less overpowering, less superior to anything the French could offer, they would have been better behaved. But they'd seen the brilliance of his German vision, and they had not been able to bear it.
Ah, well. It was a long time ago. The French had still produced very little. But he had grown tolerant. It could not be easy to face one's cultural inadequacies.
It was an historic moment. The Ring of the Niebelungs would leave audiences breathless down the centuries. There was nothing in existence to match his achievement.
He closed his eyes, taking a moment to savor the triumph. He imagined himself seated in a vast hall at Valhalla, watching the moon through a window while the music washed over him. A dozen fireplaces fought off the winter chill. Candles were everywhere, flickering on table tops and near doorways. Their fragrance emphasized his sense of victory. Battle weapons decorated the walls, lances and axes and bows, all larger than anything that might have been wielded by human hands. At a long table nearby, Siegfried polished a sword, and Wotan studied a chess board. Songs and laughter could be heard in back, and he knew the gods were already celebrating tomorrow night's victory. "We will be there," Wotan had promised him. "In the boxes." Occasionally Siegfried glanced his way, and, as the chords rose and fell, nodded his approval. Pure genius, Richard.
Through the window, two mounted Valkyries, both wearing battle armor, descended in the moonlight. Their horses settled gracefully onto a portico and the women came inside.
Yes, it was the only way to live. It was what great art provided. It was what Wagner made available to ordinary men and women. His gift to the ages. Spend an evening with the gods.
The Valkyries were attractive creatures. Not beautiful in the way of ordinary women. There was no softness about them. No vulnerability. But their features were exquisite, and they moved with the grace of tigers. One of them, the taller, looked his way. Brunnhilde. She said something to her companion and started in his direction. There was no ambivalence. She walked with an easy assurance.
"Welcome, Herr Wagner," she said. "Welcome to Valhalla."
Indeed. If only it could be so. But he was as close to that fabled place as a mortal could hope for.
He had seen enough. He got out of his chair, took a last look around the theater, collected his coat, and headed for the exit. A staff assistant let him out, and he strode into the breezy summer night. He unbuttoned his jacket and let his collar fall open to the warm breeze. God had been good to him.
"You are right," said a woman's voice behind him.
He hadn't seen anyone approach, but when he turned around, a tall, stately blond came out of the doorway of a bake shop. "I beg your pardon?" he said.
"The gods have been very generous to you, Herr Wagner."
Her icy blue eyes glinted through the shadows cast by her hood. She wore a long red opera cloak, and black silk gloves. Had there been an actual performance, he would have assumed she'd been inside.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
"Do you really not know me?"
"No. Should I?"
She looked not unlike Amalia Materna, who sang Brunnhilde's role. But this woman was taller. And, despite her slenderness, even more majestic.
Wagner looked around, hoping to find a coach in the empty streets. But nothing moved. He could still hear the orchestra and the singers, muffled behind the walls of the opera house.
"I am a friend, Herr Wagner. Perhaps the truest friend you will ever have."
A lot of people were jealous of Wagner. Would like to humiliate him. "Step out of the shadows, please," he said. "Let me see you. "
She came forward into the pool of light spilling from the gas lamp on the corner. She was younger than he had first supposed, and though he did not know her, she was nevertheless strangely familiar. No doubt it was her resemblance to Amalia.
"Were you inside?" he asked.
"Yes." She looked down at him with those intense blue eyes.
"I didn't see you."
"I was in back."
"You left early."
"I wished to speak with you." She rearranged her cloak. "You are a musical genius, Herr Wagner. It is a pity that your work is misunderstood. And destined to remain so."
He was trying to edge away from her. But the comment stopped him. Or her manner. Or those eyes. Something. "What do you mean misunderstood? Genius is always recognized sooner or later."
"It is…perceived…as being nationalistic."
"Nationalistic." He told himself to remain calm.
"You are perhaps too much the genius. Your music has effects beyond those you intend."
"My music is intended to uplift and transform." He was trying to hide his irritation. Never provoke a Valkyrie. (And where had that come from?) "My music is meant to be heard with the soul as well as the ears."
"I fear you will succeed only too well, Herr Wagner. Unless you stop now."
"Stop? You would have me do what? Become a carpenter?"
"If need be. Whatever else you choose, you must renounce your intention to create a German musical art."
And now the anger was there. He could control it no longer. "Ridiculous," he said. Where in God's name were all the carriages tonight? Well, then, he would walk. "Madame, if you will excuse me, I really must be going."
"Not yet." It was more than a request. "Let me show you why you should put your ambitions aside. Why you must bury the Ring. Refuse, after the present engagement, to allow another performance. Ever. Do what you can to kill it. Permit no one to perform your music ever again."
"In God's name, why would you demand such a thing?"
She led him back through a door in the bake shop, and through another door into the rear of the building. He'd expected to emerge in a kitchen, but instead found himself, somehow, in a forest. Insects hummed contentedly, and a full moon slipped between branches overhead. Three old women, dressed in black robes, crouched over a fire. They held a long strand of rope among them, and, as he watched, they passed its coils back and forth. In the distance he could hear music, faint music, music that was his, that would be performed in public for the first time this week.
A fourth woman appeared, her face pale and spectral in the glimmering light from the fire. She looked very old. And as Wagner watched she lifted her arms to the moon and turned toward him. "Richard," she said, "escape the curse of the Ring."
A chill ran through him.
"Do you recognize her, Herr Wagner?"
"It's Erda. The earth goddess. The others are her daughters--."
"The Norns. They foretell the future."
"That is correct."
"We are back in the theater."
"No. We are where we seem to be."
"But they are myths."
She smiled. "Am I not a myth?"
The anger was draining away. His hands shook, and his body trembled. "Who are you?"
"I think you know."
He listened to the wind moving through the trees. Waited until his voice steadied. "And the Norns? What have they to do with me?"
"They know of the effect your Ring operas will have. And they know that this will lead nowhere but to disaster."
"Is it? Ask the Norns, Herr Wagner. I know what they have read in your future, and I think you should know of it too."
One of the Norns held up a skein. "This is the future that will be, that you will help bring about."
She stepped aside and Wagner looked past her into a clearing. Into a field, which widened as he watched. He could see movement. Hundreds of gray, shabbily dressed people staggered past in a line that seemed to have no end. They were little more than skeletons. Their skin was mottled and their bones were visible. Their eyes were black, and he could smell sickly, unwashed bodies. Children were with them. Cries and moans escaped the marchers and were blown away on the wind.
They walked beside a fence, topped by cruel-looking spikes. Soldiers wearing steel helmets escorted them, struck them with the butts of their weapons, hit them again when they stumbled and fell. And the soldiers laughed.
The commands were given in German. Curses were in German. And laughter.
"That's not possible," Wagner said.
"We would never behave this way. We are a civilized people."
"One might make the argument there are no civilized people." Ahead, at the front of the line, orange lights came on.
"Nonsense. Why are these people here?"
"They have been declared criminals."
"Criminals." While he struggled to understand, the majestic opening chords of Siegfried's Funeral Music from Gotterdammerung rose into the night air. Impossible. "That is my music."
"So it is."
"They use it in an attempt to give meaning to this." She stared at the people stumbling past.
"You said they are criminals. What crime have they committed?"
"They are Jews."
"They are Jews, Herr Wagner."
The air was heavy. The Funeral March swirled around him, graceful and magnificent and clinging to the stars. A farewell to the greatest of German heroes. "What are the lights? Up where the orchestra is?"
"Those are ovens, Herr Wagner. Welcome to the new world."
"Tell me again why this is happening." They were back on the street, in front of the bake shop. Wagner's cheeks were wet, and he was still trembling.
"It's not happening yet. It will happen."
"In a little more than half a century."
"And you're telling me that my music is the cause?"
"It's an appeal to a tribalism that has always been dangerous. But it becomes more so in a future world where everyone can hear your music. A world with ways to communicate you cannot now imagine. Blended with your creative genius."
"And these people are being killed because--."
"--They belong to the wrong tribe."
"So you are saying that if I go no farther, if I cancel what I have already produced, that march we saw out there tonight will not come to pass."
"Oh, no, Herr Wagner. It will happen. There is too much entrenched hatred and stupidity for it not to happen. What I am offering you is a chance to keep your name clean. To avoid being drawn into it as a collaborator."
"A collaborator? How can I be a collaborator? I'll be long dead when these things occur."
"Nevertheless, your hand will be part of it. Your extraordinary talent will make its contribution."
Finally, a coach appeared on the street. It was unoccupied. But Wagner made no move for it. "If it means so much to you, why don't you intervene? Step in. Stop it cold. Surely you can do that."
Her eyes slid shut and he was able to breathe again. "Unfortunately," she said quietly, "we cannot halt the flow of history. We could strike dead the madman who will perpetrate it. But there would only be another madman. It is the attitude that is the problem. The attitude that you, Herr Wagner, are at this moment helping to foster."
He was silent a moment, knowing that what she said was madness, but feeling in it the ring of truth. "No," he said finally. "I can't believe that."
"The problem is not the occasional murderous dictator," she went on. "It never is. The problem is the help he receives from the likeminded and the fearful. Civilization will collapse here not because of one man and his army of thugs, but because ordinary people will hide while others turn in their neighbors. And because geniuses will write martial masterpieces. There are too many collaborators."
He was never certain it had actually happened. So, even though he briefly toyed with the prospect of giving up his career, of abandoning everything he loved, everything that made life sweet, he could not bring himself to do it. It wasn't the money. And it wasn't even that his name would be lost to history, that Richard Wagner would simply become one of the millions who pass through this life unnoticed except for the few around them, ultimately having no impact.
At the end of the week, as he sat watching Brunnhilde in Gotterdammerung, he was swept away by the power of the performance, and he understood that he could not deprive the world of such a magnificent creation. He owed it to the future to hold his ground. Whatever the cost.
He needed only look around at the audience, which was utterly transported, to know he had done the right thing.
When it was over, he did not linger as he traditionally had after an opening night performance. Instead, he left quickly, signaled a carriage, and gave the driver his destination. As it pulled away from the theater, he saw a woman in a red cloak watching him. He almost told the driver to stop.
If you enjoyed meeting Brunnhilde, visit Kathryn Lance's website (www.klance.com)
Originally published in Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine, Dec 2008. Copyright, Cryptic, Inc. 2008.