In the second week of April, Keller visited Lake Natko.

The pure white light of evening flowed down the terrain that gently sloped into the town. 

Pilgrims once climbed the mountains to communicate with divinity. The townspeople said that the air was so thin at the summit, it was easy to hallucinate the deity speaking to you in your own voice. 

The mountainsides were in bloom. Keller arrived too late for the veiling of the world in winter. Another veil, the veil of mist, constant as the piety of a small town, floated down from far like the pure spirit of wind, or the hint of an unseen power. The inconstant representation of red-brick buildings at the foot of the mountain glimmered behind this grey veil and ideated into a hymn to beauty. 

Yet dearer for its mystery. 

Teasing his thoughts out of eternity, Keller gently mocked himself, murmuring, “Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they?”

Keller walked from flower to flower, wrenched himself from the allure of comparison, and found room and board for the night.


The next day, a rainbow arched over the sunrise, and the mist scattered. 

There was a harmony in spring. Keller caught himself staring deep into the tender features and unfurled himself in the great harmony of what he saw, bound to a love for all nature. Musing deeply, he wove in and out of the phantom organization of the human mind, glimpsing from time to time a higher power. 

Words in likeness of nature, many-colored, many-voiced, bound the everlasting universe of things in an un-apprehended song. Ordinary words, spiritualized by the secret alchemy that flows from death to life, could contend with the fiery spirit of the west wind. 

A drama of human thought in blank verse reached out in widening ripples, never residing, ceaselessly raving. 

Keller’s own mind was bringing its own tribute of water. 

He tilted his head as if catching the music of an evanescence that had fled, or a voice from the grave in that distant land whence Keller came. 

He noticed his own language was becoming violently metaphoric. The unseen power of this landscape awakened his mind to un-apprehended combinations of thoughts. It spoke in the same divine tone that had called up Keller’s first love for poetry. 


He followed the directions of the bell-boy. The countryside compelled the mind always to comparison. Directions were given in measures that glanced into eternity. Thousand-year oaks or women-shaped rocks represented distance. His journey to the house by the lake resembled a visionary adventure. 

A visionary who found nothing but an empty house. 

Compared to the great shoulders of the mountains, the house was as small as the works and ways of man, their deaths and births, their feeble dreams. 

Keller had known the one who for many summers lived in this house by the lake. Whatever he is now, it is not what he had been.

He unlocked the door with the key he had been entrusted. The rusted hinges gave a protest but gave in under his hand. The house had one floor, a minimally furnished kitchen, a modest guest room, and a study with books. Keller shut the windows and entered the study. In an unlocked drawer he found the papers. 

Keller spent the day reading the papers, which were not voluminous. Letters from friends and students, drafts of articles promised and never submitted. 

After uninterrupted hours of reading in absolute solitude, the absence of sound and human presence of the house seemed to stand in as symbol of something beyond. 


He spent the night in the guest room. In lieu of an alarm, the noise of early ducks woke him. An unseen presence, one of the gods of the seasons, disguised himself as a youthful figure and strode solemnly through the town. 

It was a town from the novels of Gotthelf. Young men were sweeping leaves from the cobblestone paths. Keller touched his hat as he passed them. 

The presence was not visible, but produced an effect of agitation, stimulated color, emotion, and motion, made Keller acknowledge it was there. 

The sky shone like under a stained-glass dome, prismatic, and made the skin radiant.  

In the cozy, Swiss establishment, he was surprised by a stranger who asked to sit with him. The black cloak blended the stranger into the darkness, like a softer voice hushed over the dead. Keller was surprised by the sudden appearance. 

Steam rose from the freshly brewed coffee. 

The stranger introduced himself as the local priest. “I heard someone is looking for the professor’s house.”

“That’s me. I’m collecting his manuscripts.”

“I hope you don’t take my curiosity badly. News travel fast in this small town, and an old man is easily curious about a long-unseen acquaintance…”

“I don’t mind,” Keller said. “Actually, the professor died a few months ago.”

The priest was stunned with shock for a few seconds. Then he apologized. “I’m sorry if I’m bringing up unpleasant memories.”

“Don’t worry about it. The professor left the manuscripts to the university, and the librarian asked me to collect the last of them. It took a long time, even for me, as a former student, to pinpoint his summer residence.” Keller gave a wry smile. “Though I wasn’t his best or favorite student.”

Yes, he had a high opinion of the professor. As a scholar. The professor was witty, passionate, fair, and fairer to students he liked. Keller was not a person who excited passionate feelings of kindness in others. He was just glad that his career did not depend on the professor’s good will. 

“I can only tell this to a stranger…but in his final seminars he was old, mad, and…I hate to say it, despised.”

Like old King Lear, the work he loved. Keller recalled the beauty of the letters that shocked him. I feel I live without a conscious will to live, but at the same time I am kept conscious enough to write of it, the professor had written. The draft was without a recipient, and Keller couldn’t guess to whom it was meant. 

Against the chatter of people and the clink of cutlery, the priest hung his head in silence. 

“I never imagined receiving news of his death this way.”

The priest’s eyes were lowered in a slightly lonely expression.

“It’s been long since I last spoke about the professor. I couldn’t help but dislike him when he was alive, but to remember him felt nostalgic. I will push for the publication of his letters,” Keller said, and took a sip of coffee that had grown cold. 

The priest said the professor had stayed in the house by the lake every summer until three years ago.

“He often volunteered to play the organ for morning worship.”

This was not what Keller expected. “The professor played music?”

“Yes, he was quite accomplished. I wondered if he studied music professionally. It was an astonishment to listen to his improvisations, if the mood struck him. He left no manuscripts for those, unfortunately.”

Keller sharply caught the implication. “The professor wrote music? He composed? Are there manuscripts?”

“Is he not known at all for his music? The whole town knew him by his public concerts. He was a very accomplished musician. He didn’t leave most of his manuscripts to me, but I can give you the ones I have.”

This was an unexpected find. 


The church towered prominently over medieval brick-and-stone houses. The priest returned with two brown envelopes in his arms. He handed the smaller one to Keller. The movement made a few creases in the meticulous black sleeve of the cassock. 

“This piece for violin and piano is the Vinteuil Sonata. I judge it as an intellectual exercise.”

As a former student of the professor, Keller immediately caught the literary reference. 

The priest indicated the other, heavier envelope. “But this is the one upon which he lavished the most care. This piece he kept revising, never-ending: The Fugue on the Theme of a Name.”

He hesitated before giving the manuscript over, as if what he held in his arms was not a manuscript but a living, breathing creature with a beating heart and its own secrets. 

“Could you entertain an old man’s hypothesis?” the priest asked. “Now that it does not matter.”


The fugue begins in C major, the key signature of innocence, and ends in E flat minor, full of pain and death. Everything terminates in the key at the greatest possible tonal distance from its beginning. The journey took more than thirty years. 

“I believe,” said the priest, “the fugue is the composer’s final words.”

The fugue is a farewell to the dead.

About the name, said the priest. The professor had invented a musical alphabet. Music notation can be written as letters from ‘a’ to ‘h’. After ‘h’, the professor repeated the cycle: ‘i’ becomes ‘a’, ‘j’ becomes ‘b’. Matching this to the subject of the fugue produces the melody fragment that translates into the name ‘Alain.’

Not any corpse would have worked for the subject of the fugue. 

“I believe the fugue is a tomb for Alain.”

Alain? Keller did not read the name from the letters. There wasn’t an Alain in his immediate family. None of the professor’s friends Keller knew were Alains.

“It must have been a friend when he was young,” Keller suggested. He left the second part of the sentence out: the friend must have died when the professor was young. 

Then another hypothesis came to Keller: “Could Alain be an invention?”

“Perhaps, the professor was proud of how he hid fragments from someone’s sonata in the fugue.” The priest went quickly through the music score, but to no use. It has been too long. He couldn’t find where. 

Keller looked at the patch of white on the collar close to the priest’s throat, and said with full conviction, “I believe you are right.”


“Would you like to hear the fugue? It is a very physically demanding piece, but I will play as much as I can. Maybe you will sense something I do not.”

Keller doubted it. He had no musical training and had no ear for classical music. To him, the professor’s beautiful fugue will be harmonious madness, without sense. But he appreciated the priest’s sincerity and sat faithfully on the bench to listen to the end.  

The fugue opens with the theme of Alain. The first voice states the theme in its simplest form, then successively in each of the four voices. The priest told him to pay attention when the Alain theme recurs. 

As Keller expected, the music bound him to no secret communication. He heard, as he expected, nothing. 


He was able to persuade the priest to entrust the manuscripts to the university. The department was organizing a collection of essays in the professor’s honor; it would be an occasion to publish the fugue, and the music librarian would be delighted at this addition. 

The priest had said with some dejection, “Is that where it’s going to end up?”

Keller assured him hastily, “Of course, I will push for publication, but the professor never lectured on music, and nobody knew he composed. Would you rather keep the manuscripts?”

The priest shook his head. “Every summer until three years ago, the professor reworked the fugue. That is why I kept it. It has no use for me. I can do nothing for it.”

Keller watched the priest relapse into silence and let the words echo within him. 

“And the Vinteuil sonata?”

“He never mentioned it.”


Keller left the church as the twilight was making itself felt. The darkness had not yet time to make the path unfamiliar.

A sea of fire enveloped the silent snow at the summits. Nothing moved, all was eternal. Despite his reconciliation to nature, he seemed to see out of the corner of his eye a veil that has been torn, and behind the veil, in shadows, the sightless chasm.

Music, when living voices die, vibrate in the memory. 

Keller asked himself again if the fugue that the professor had borne long in his heart evoked anything in him. 

The permanent snow on mountains burned in the setting sun. 


Under painted windows that tore the sunlight through the glass, made it holy, scattered it over the priest at the organ like a handful of white feathers, Keller could not deceive himself. He was not moved by the music. 

The priest playing the organ did not transform into an image of professor and the fugue in his mind. It was not because of a flawed imagination. The idea simply did not occur to him. 

Soul-searching sorrow, as if all the sorrow of the generations were bound in the keys, crying out, crying, crying — this he, categorically, did not hear. 

He didn’t catch the Alain theme at the beginning, much less when it was subjected to various developments. The music score meant little to him since he couldn’t read it. To his untrained eye, the notes were as meaningful as hieroglyphs or ideograms to a foreigner. 

The wind blew back his hair, and a voice spoke to him from the mountains. It was hard not to be melancholy in this evening breeze, harder to resist that the music was as meaningless as a randomly generated number, vanishing on a whim, pitiful as if it had never been. 


He was still shaking the numbness from his hands. 

After the performance, his hands were clenched, red, and numb. It hurt when he uncurled his fingers, and he drew a sharp inward breath, as though he’d been holding his lungs still. 

No unleashed spirit, no vision was conveyed. Not even the memory of the fugue disrupted Keller’s thoughts.

But when the light crystallized in one corner of the church, the music vibrated in his mind. It lived in the perpetual life of the mind, abiding in life despite not being a physical presence. 

Keller didn’t search for the fugue; it found him. Perhaps he consented to hear the fugue because he thought it would bless his soul.

At its end, a veil was lifted from the world, and he saw things differently. 

A name evoked through music presented a beautiful world, intimate, only theirs. Composing from it, acting upon it to color it with his own light, the professor made the unseen presence abide. 

The church lost a talented organist, the university lost a brilliant scholar, the letter lost its recipient, and the dead lost someone who remembered them.  


Keller walked to the house by the lake. In a sense, he had walked the path from birth to the grave. 

At the door, he bowed slightly and changed from holding the manuscript under his arm to holding it against his heart. 

Time stretched out his shadow farther and farther. Beneath the gathering swallows in the sky, the carillon bells of the church were singing the hour for evening vespers.

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