1.11 Soundscape Narrative
4.023, FALL 2019
I greatly enjoyed writing this. I hope you enjoy reading it ~
Inhale. My ribs strained outwards as I drew awareness back into my body. My eyes were closed, the darkness behind my eyelids stained red. I could feel the cool breeze stir my hair, the grain of concrete beneath my feet. Slowly, I allowed the sensations to pull me back to the present. I exhaled, and focused on the birds.
Inhale. When I opened my eyes, the cage glimmered weakly in the beam of my flashlight. I knew the bright birds must be hidden inside it, I could hear their song, but they were obscured by a dense screen of wire and grime and old grey soot. It was the fifth day of my thirty-first month sitting by the aviary, and I had yet to see a single true bird. At least, I contemplated, I could hear them. Not everyone was so lucky.
Something cawed from far overhead, out of a sky I could not see, and I clambered to my feet, shaking out the stiffness of an hour’s sitting in the cold.
The dogs were awake now, stirring as the autonomously steered morning traffic began its steady rush beyond the walls of my little sanctuary.
This night, I had dreamed of colours, and the sky.
Darned old thing. I smacked the old cart’s lock with a wrench, rattling it to get the pins loosened up. I needed to grease it. In fact, the entire cart could have taken some greasing, but I did not want to tinker with the ancient contraption more than was absolutely necessary. Without its protective coating of rust the whimsical assemblage of gears and bolts and cogs would most likely fall apart. In any case, no one expected me to do it. So, I did not do it. I trundled the trolley down the corridor as I did every day, away from the little room with the greasy cage and the large grated hole in the ceiling through which snow fell on some days and rain fell on other days.
Today, it had rained, and my feet left dark prints on the floor.
The corridor I was walking down was little more than two vertical walls erected as partition between two work zones. It had no ceiling, and might have been considered an alley elsewhere. Here, it still qualified a corridor because it was, as most everything was, indoors. Above me I could just make out the span of metal girders holding up an enormous roof. Cool fluorescent lighting filtered down to me, complete with the faint buzz of electricity.
The dogs, hearing my cart, kept pace with me on the other side of the walls. I could see them through vertical gaps in the concrete, placed there by some artistically inclined designer. I paid the animals no notice, and anyhow, my hand was too large to fit through and pat them. Not that I would have wanted to. I didn’t have the fingers to spare. Their barks, rising and falling as I crossed the space between slashes, were soon drowned out by the wheels of the trolley.
I pushed through a curtain of plastic sheets that marked the transition from corridor to tunnel, and steered my cart into a room which had, thirty-one months ago, been glistening with chrome and fresh paint.
It was warm here. Whereas the zones outside been filled with legions of slumbering machinery, here a dozen people stood in sweat-stained t-shirts. The company logo was emblazoned front and back. Muted colours emphasised the square shoulders of its bearers, while distracting from paunches and sagging eye bags. Gloves covered the callouses and blisters which disfigured the men’s’ hands. The whir of tools filled the air, thick as sawdust.
(There were no dogs here. Those were outside, with the machines. The dogs would always be outside.)
Further in, racks of wood were stacked higher than a man. People were pulling them down, onto their own carts, which creaked gently under the load. Power tools were collected, and shiny new screws retrieved from bins that were refilled every day. Everywhere, I could see people holding small reams of paper covered in spidery black ink. The men’s hard hats dipped intermittently as they looked down at the papers, then moved on.
My clothing left a conspicuous trail of inky water droplets. I headed further into the room, where conversation gave way to the quiet noises of focused work. The wall I was approaching was spanned by a gigantic machine. I did not know how large it really was, but suspected that I could only see a small part of it. There were walls like this throughout. Sometimes I heard clanging and low, rhythmic pounding deep in the bowels of the building, and knew that somewhere in its strange, mechanical mind, neurons were firing.
The others thought that I was mad but I could feel it. This was tissue, living gears and bolts, cogs and rust and dust and sweat.
I guided my cart, a tiny, clanking piece of the device, into a nook, where the maw of the old machine swallowed it whole. I waited. When the trolley was spat out, a small piece of brownish paper – probably nearing the fiftieth generation of reuse – was attached to a clip in the corner. I squinted at it.
Most of the instructions the machine gave us was in the form of pictures. The same pictures, day after day. Literacy was not necessary for assembling things and mixing materials, so it was not expected. Even I found that I now had trouble fluently deciphering whole words, let alone sentences. I used to read books, a long time ago. (Books about colours and the sky…) Which is why I, focusing my attention back on the scrawled drawings, was surprised to recognise the semi-familiar curves of the alphabet in the margins. Handwritten, with a pen. By a human being. From inside the machine.
I glanced around, but most of the other men had filtered back to the main workspace. Pressing my lips into a flat line, I pushed the paper into my pocket, and walked the materials circuit. So, it would happen today.
When I arrived at the power tools, I stopped, and lifted a circular saw and an electric drill off the shelves. These devices always struck me as somewhat strange, their plastic smooth and oddly shiny against the iron mechanisms which surrounded us. I tried not to think too hard about it, generally. They were relics of a time long past. Today, though… the letter on my paper sheet seemed to be burning a hole through my clothing, and I found my thoughts drifting back to the tools again and again. I wondered where the saw might have been made. When. By whom? I shook my head. This was not a time for questions. There would be time enough to ask questions when it was over.
I depressed the button on the drill, watching it accelerate and then slow as I released it. Enjoying the reassuring power of it, the familiar warmth in my hand. What it symbolised did not matter, only that it worked. I placed it in my trolley, and moved on.
Heavy leather shoes on plywood; light trickling in from behind me; illuminating the cracks in the makeshift walls. A fresh concrete floor gave way to raw rock, just beyond where I had stopped the trolley. It was a place in genesis, half formed. Would not be long before we were done here. The stench of wet stone and machine oil would soon give way to the activity of another workshop like the one I had just left. Once it was complete, we would move here. The machine would burrow further into the mountain, feeding off the bedrock like an earthworm gnawing through dirt as we consolidated its trail. Most days, there were two or three others working alongside me. Today, it was just me. I could see a nest of steel pipes lurking in the gloom. Today, the machine was not moving. Its energies were focused elsewhere.
In many ways, I was glad for the dim light. That way I could imagine that no one could see my trolley. It was full of things that did not match the items in my diagrams. Stolen things. The others would figure it out eventually, but at least for now I was ignored. In other ways, it unnerved me. The only other place I knew which was not permanently subject to the glare of fluorescent strips was the aviary. The aviary, which, with its grated hole in the ceiling through which I could sometimes glimpse the slow rotation of an immense fan, was my secret. The aviary, which housed a hundred disembodied songs.
I detached the pipe from my trolley, and turned a valve. Water trickled, then surged out of the thin metal nozzle. Where it hit the bottom of my bucket, it made a sharp spray, until the rising water level transformed it into a gurgle. I waited until the bucket was full, poured in cement, and mixed it until the heft of the semi-liquid strained my arms.
The bucket was so heavy I could barely drag it to the exposed earth at the far side of the tunnel. A flood of cement poured out of it when I knocked it over, creeping into the old mechanisms that waited, half-embedded in the rock, for their next command. I watched the thick grey sludge set around delicate gears for a moment. Then, one by one, unscrewed the largest nuts that were too high for the cement to touch, and carefully arranged them on the top shelf of my trolley. From the bottom shelf, I retrieved thin red rods which trailed fuses from their ends, and slotted them into the holes I had made. When I returned to the trolley, the deconstructed nervous system of the tunnelling apparatus glinted at me, exposed in the half-light. I allowed myself a smile.
Tomorrow morning, the machine would receive its commands. It would not matter. Here, the boring would never resume. Throughout the caverns a hundred other charges were being laid in a precise pattern that had been in the making for decades. When they came to repair the damage, the fuses would be lit and they would set off a chain reaction, beginning here. With a handful of small red sticks.
Tomorrow evening, the machine would be buried under a pile of rubble.
My trolley’s wheels clattered over the floor as I left the tunnel.
I was in a room off the main workshop. Before me, a large plank of wood, that had scraped against my fingers when I clamped it down. Inhale. Dunes of sawdust had piled up against the legs of the table, and clouds of it puffed up when I moved my feet. I was grateful for my mask. Exhale. It was dim in this room, but I could have set the saw up blindfolded, my movements fluid and practiced. Release the spring-loaded blade guard; don’t cut yourself on the teeth; adjust the bevel; make sure that the plate is level; place it on the surface. The workbench below the plank had a large hole in the middle so that I could cut through the wood without damaging the equipment, and I made sure that my pencilled-in cutline was over it. Flip the trigger.
With a whine, the saw sprang to life. I set it to the plank, and it bit.
For the next minutes, all I could hear, see, and smell was the controlled mutilation of wood by metal teeth.
I had left the trolley behind and taken the planks back to the aviary. Ordinarily, I would never have dared to make my way there this openly, but I would not see the sixth day of my thirty-first month here and I had my own personal mission to complete. Three heavy planks were jammed under my arms, along with a small toolbox. Its contents slid back and forth on its corrugated metal base.
A hammer, nails. A wire-cutter. A bolt-cutter. Rope.
I heard the dogs barking behind the concrete walls, keeping pace with me as I walked.
Planks nailed to the inside of the door. They’d serve to keep the dogs out. An iron grate lay on the floor, torn out of its fittings in the ceiling. The wires of the aviary cage were sliced through. There was an exchange of dust particles between cage and room. Grime covered my hands, making my grip slippery, but I was satisfied. This was not in my instructions, but it had to be done. I just could not leave the birds locked in here, where no one would ever hear their song.
I crossed my legs and sat down in the patch of water where it had rained this morning, facing the gash I had torn in the cage’s steel mesh. It was dark in there. If I closed my eyes, I could hear the birds moving uneasily. If I looked up, I could see cool light at the top of a long, vertical well. The opening was now fully exposed, the remnants of the grate that had blocked it crumpled on the floor, like a steel ribcage. It was still chilly, and a breeze wafted down from above. My birds would leave soon; I had cleared their way. They must go soon, fly out and join the crow cawing in the overcast sky. Perhaps they could find freedom, even if I would never reach it myself. Perhaps they would carry my soul with them, to see the open horizon one last time.
The dogs were coming closer. Their barks no longer echoed in the immense cavern; they were in the corridor. I could hear their padding feet, familiar from the months that I had spent alongside them. The planks between us were two inches thick, and the trolley blocking the door had wheels. It would not be long now.
I crossed my legs, and inhaled. Deep. Took off my mask, and exhaled. Took out the recycled paper from my pocket, and looked at it again. If I ran my thumb across the handwriting, I could feel the impressions the pen had left in the sheet. U.
It stood for a substance which had been gathered from across the world, buried, and hidden away centuries ago. The location of the cavern it was in had been lost, it was never meant to be found. Not by the people who had begun the search for it long ago, not by the machine which blindly followed their orders long after they themselves had lost interest in the day-to-day details of the project. Not by the men who knew no better than to wake up every morning and, in turn, follow the orders of the machine. Who believed in the stories they were fed, that by uncovering the fires of destruction we would rid the surface world of all that was contaminated about it. That by raining fire on the surface, we would remake it in our image.
I did not blame them for believing it. After all, they had never seen the surface. I had, and I had heard birds, and seen the colours of flowers and grasses, and the expanse of the oceans.
All was quiet in the aviary. The birds were the legacy of the man who had kept watch here before me, waiting for the messenger to hack the machine and deliver his note. He had never seen the U I now felt under my fingers.
The aviary was quiet, and dark, and moist.
Close now, the dogs barked.