People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence.
Simon and Garfunkel
This is not something one should do for sixty years, the old man thought to himself, as he pushed buttons mindlessly. He was the music man. He was “the” music man for a reason; he was the only one. He had worked in a studio all of his life – even before speaking was illegal. Once speaking was prohibited, the nation experienced several years in turmoil as the deafening silence of the world around them invaded the minds of not only the citizens but of the leaders. On the streets, the rhythm of footfalls and the whisper of the wind replaced the white noise of countless conversations. Singing along to the radio and the witty dialogue on a favorite television show were things of the past. People were being suffocated by the wordless world around them, and torn apart inside with words they longed to say, to shout, to proclaim, but had to keep bottled up for their own safety. It was a deadly combination. The suicide rate was the highest it had ever been and even more people were being put down by the government for being insane.
They contacted him. They spoke to him. It was the first voice he had heard in years – the voices echoed around the room and he was filled with a sense of acute happiness. They asked him if he would take on this project for them. He went to say yes, but they stopped him. He merely nodded instead.
Make melodies to break the silence. It was simple enough. There were no more instruments. He would push buttons and then there would be music. The leaders didn’t like the first batch of songs that he produced. His music had been too expressive; it made people feel. They explained to him that they didn’t want music – they just wanted noise to fill the silence. He went back to work.
He treated each piece like his masterpiece, making the sound soothing and comforting but emotionless. He thought of a stranger at a friend’s funeral offering his condolences when they didn’t mean a thing, but it had an uplifting effect. His work was an empty condolence – it solaced the people despite the lack of sincerity behind it. The day the leaders started to play his work over the loudspeakers the suicide rate dropped and stayed down. His filler noise had given them something to live for – whether it was the noise or just curiosity to see how long it would last, he was still not entirely sure.
The music man was ecstatic. Suddenly he had found his will to live again. Each day he came into the studio with higher hopes. He believed that if the leaders saw what an effect the music had on people, they would let him create what he wanted. It would no longer be a filler noise – it would be pure music. He could allow people to feel again, to make happiness bubble up inside with a lilting waltz or bring them to tears with a devastatingly beautiful sonata. He could do it. He knew he could do it.
The next time they came to inspect his progress, he had a note prepared. Writing the note was breaking protocol, written forms of communication were to be processed and approved by the government before passed on to the intended reader to make sure its citizens weren’t going to offend each other. Doubting that they would approve his message, he chose to write and deliver it himself. He handed it to them sheepishly as they entered the studio, the way he remembered little boys would hand notes to the pretty girls, back in the days of school. His searched their faces intently as they read his note, hoping for some trace of their emotions. If only he could speak – he knew he could express what he wanted. Sound was the medium in which he flourished. He was never much of a writer, but only the leaders were allowed the privilege of speaking. The old man knew that there was something inherently corrupt and dangerous in this power gap, but he doubted that anyone else did. The government always argued that it was for logistics. Communication was still necessary for the country to run efficiently – but its citizens shouldn’t have to concern themselves with logistics.
When they finished reading the note, one of them folded it up and stuck it in his pocket. “No,” they said brusquely, and the words slashed through the music man like a knife. A single word, a single syllable, was so painful that, just for a moment, he understood why they had made speaking forbidden. After all, it was for their safety. That was sixty years ago.
“No” was the last word he heard and for sixty years it haunted him. Every day of his silent, sorrowful, solitary existence that word reverberated around his head. Each button he pushed seemed to mock him – no, no, no. It was enough to break him. He never tried to make music, just acquiesced, and made the filler noise. In his mind, all he was good for was taking up space and sound. He was as emotionless as the sound he produced with every mindless push of a button. There was no art, there was no effort. There was just silence and his duty to fill it.
Sixty years after hearing “no”, he sat at his soundboard, his old hands wrinkly and arthritic from only pushing buttons for the last sixty years of his life – and he wanted to try and make music again for the sake of the little girl sitting next to him.
The music maker’s great-niece sat next to him in the studio. He was pretty sure it was his great-niece – it might have been his great-great-niece but he had lost track of the generations. Either way the little girl visiting him was somehow, somewhere along the line related to his sister.
His sister understood why speech was illegal. People were too cruel to be allowed to speak – words had the power to destroy and a naturally heartless species should not have that power. She peacefully and silently married the man the government told her she would marry and quietly had the number of children that they told her she would bear. She raised her two babies wordlessly, silently, without lullabies, without bedtime stories, without “I love you.”
The government approved letter, stamped with an official government seal had arrived at his house the day before the girl had arrived at the studio. The note his sister had submitted probably months ago because paperwork was always slow, was strewn with government signatures and the old man’s old eyes strained to decipher the message. In formal typeset it had said tha t his sister thought working in the studio must be lonely and that the girl would provide company for him and gave the date for the visit. The girl had arrived right on time this morning with a blank look on her face. He thought it would be a long day ahead of him, spending time in silence with a child who was the product of the environment he detested and was frustrated with his sister.
Now her seven-year-old granddaughter, or her great-granddaughter, sat in the music studio staring blankly at the music maker. Her pigtail braids were long and messy but reflected her childhood innocence. She looked up at him with wide brown eyes, eyes that he shared, and he wondered what went on behind them. In the seven years this girl had been alive, she had never spoken and never been spoken to. He wondered if her ears still worked. While the girl was looking around the room, distracted, the old man clapped. A grin spread across his face as the girl jumped in surprise.
The music man found himself smiling and was glad that his sister suggested her granddaughter, or great-granddaughter, spend some time with him. With a gleam in her eyes, the girl clapped louder than the old man and it echoed around the room. The ringing silence afterwards needed to be filled.
He clapped out a simple rhythm. One two, one two, one. She followed eagerly, her face alight with joy at the music around her. One two, one two, one. He tapped his hands on the edge of his desk, sound reverberating against him like thunder. The girl shifted back and forth in her chair causing it to squeak, squeak, squeak, squeak and keeping time like a metronome as she clapped along. The music man stomped his feet as he tapped his hands and the girl clapped and squeaked.
The music was building in him, threatening to explode. He hadn’t made music like this in over half a century. It was real and palpable. He was a part of it, physically tied to the sound instead of separated by a button and a screen. The sound swirled around them, growing louder in an impressive crescendo. There was a power behind the music, and the frail old man and the fragile little girl somehow found themselves the source of this power.
The man opened his mouth to sing, to add vocals to the impromptu symphony they had created. He swelled with pride as he realized that his voice would be the first the girl ever heard. Air rushed through his mouth and filled his lungs; the sudden intake of oxygen filling him with exhilaration as he prepared to connect with music in the strongest way possible. This was it, the moment where every feeling he had longed to express for sixty years would burst out, uninhibited.
He opened his mouth, but the sound died in his throat. He couldn’t do it – after all those years thinking he was special, he was just like everyone else. He believed that he had music harbored inside him, just waiting for a moment to escape, but after being told that he couldn’t express himself for so long, he found himself essentially mute. Startled and horrified, the old man wept.
The little girl stopped her music as the old man cried. She had never seen a display of emotion like this before and did not understand why the old man was hunched over, and why water poured from his eyes. Sitting there silently, she waited for it to end.
Something stirred within the soul of the little girl, a peculiar sort of thing that she had never experienced before that compelled her to reach out and touch the old man on his arm. Her great-uncle, or great-great-uncle, looked up at her in surprise. He stared at her for a few moments, as if waiting for her to do something. The little girl smiled at him – again compelled by the mysterious force working inside her – and revealed that her two front teeth were missing.
At seeing the old man’s face light up, the girl felt another rush as her sense of compassion turned into one of gratification. Then the gratification turned into joy. Then the joy turned into wonder as she realized just how much she was able to feel that she had never felt before.
The laugh that escaped the little girl’s lips was natural; there was nothing she would have been able to do to stop it. She looked at the old man, horrified by the sound that had just come out of her but his smile told her that everything was okay. And so she laughed again.