This is the second part of "Small Song".
I got back to my apartment, took my decongestants, and ate a little something. I would not think about her or the photograph or anything she said. I would not. Would. Not.
Because of being delayed in the park I didn't have time to make it back to work on foot--but there was just enough time to catch the #19 bus at the corner.
I arrived with a minute or so to spare, just in time to see the Operation Mainstream van drop off one of its handicapped passengers, a young man in an electric wheelchair who was balancing a small briefcase in his lap.
I watched as he moved his chair onto the hydraulic platform. The van's driver pressed a button on the control board and the platform hissed, then buzzed as it slowly lowered the young man toward the ground. It sounded exactly like the mechanism that had lowered Melissa's coffin into its grave.
Even after the man disembarked and the platform had folded back into place, I could still hear its buzzing. The van pulled away, the young man moved a small lever on the arm of his chair and began rolling in the opposite direction...and the buzzing persisted like the white static noise of a snowy television screen. Thinking it was just the infection kicking into a higher gear, I pulled my nose spray from my pocket and pumped a shot up each nostril.
The static was still in my ears. It quickly rose in pitch and volume to become a physical weight on my skull, and as the #19 arrived I stumbled around, pressing a finger into each ear, trying to create a vacuum to relieve the pressure but nothing seemed to help. I must have looked absurd or, worse, stoned, because the bus driver took one look at me, closed the doors, and drove away.
I shook my head a few times, violently, then pulled my fingers from my ears--
--the static was not gone, but the weight of it was.
There were so many sounds--scratch that--there were so many impressions of sound. That's the only way I can describe it. And though none of the impressions were those of voices, they were nonetheless talking.
Some of these communicating impressions were so quiet they seemed barely to exist at all. I almost smiled then, thinking of Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears A Who--Melissa's favorite story. I'd read it to her every night, even on her last.
One of the impressions called for my attention, even though no actual words were spoken.
I looked toward the man in the wheelchair.
It couldn't have been him because his only means of communicating with the world was through the small personal computer--what I had thought to be a briefcase--fitted to his chair. The computer employed a program that allowed him to select words from a series of menus on the screen by pressing a switch near his left thumb. This program could also be controlled by head or eye movement, enabling him to select up to fifteen words a minute, then "speak" by sending those words to a speech synthesizer that had been added to the computer only this morning.
I had never seen this man before.
I knew all of this because the cells in his dying body and the integrated circuitry of the computer were talking to the synthesizer in the same clinical, matter-of-fact tone that a physician might use when dictating notes for a patient's medical records.
I clearly heard them.
But I was hearing the impossible; a conversation between mathematical equations, electronic impulses, and myriad physiological mechanisms, all of whom had agreed to conduct their little mixer at the same specific neuron receptor site.
As the man maneuvered his chair around the corner and the conversation grew fainter, a single thought, irrational though it was, came to me: Her.
She did this.
Somehow that girl in the park was responsible.
Sound, I thought. This is all connected to sound.
Or the impressions caused by its absence.
The Vedic religious traditions believe in the "vibration metaphor": throw a pebble in a pond, and the vibrations ripple outward in concentric circles; strike a bell, and it vibrates in waves of sound; meditate on a thought, and it will echo through the realm of the collective unconscious.
But what pebble, what bell, what thought, was now sending ripples through the world I knew?
The first few spattering drops of rain started coming down. I buttoned my coat and turned up the collar, my hands shaking--
I remembered the electric shock I'd felt when she touched me earlier.
That's when she had done it.
I held my hand in front of my face and looked at it.
Something about standing like this, bundled up and shuddering with my hand in front of my face, triggered a memory of another time, two, maybe three years ago...
...I was sickeningly drunk, wandering near the Cedar Street bridge. It was snowing heavily, high winds, blowing and drifting, blizzard conditions. I was trying to remember why I had come this way when I suddenly found myself calf-deep in snow. It grew very dark; the darkness the blind know. The cold penetrated to the marrow of my bones. I pulled myself out of the snow and stumbled forward, though I couldn't see a thing. My feet were heavy lumps of ice in my cheap canvas shoes. My body turned numb with cold, making me aware not only of the embodied side of life where everything was black darkness, bitter cold, and churning snow but--so close it seemed I could step right into it--also of the unembodied side of life. Colors that transcended color. Sensations that transcended sentience. Sounds that transcended sound. I was freezing to death.
I saw beings emerge from the swirling snow and pelting ice. One of them moved toward me. She smiled. She held a cold rose. I thought she was Death and asked her to take me. She gestured me follow. I groped my way down the snowy embankment and followed her under the bridge. She was gone, but in her place was a large cardboard packing box with wrapping paper inside. Slowly, clumsily, I got into the box and pull the wrapping paper around me. Then I wept, for something about her had moved me in a way I hadn't known since the days when I'd had a family....
Now, standing in the rain near the bus stop, I thought of what the young woman had said.
...if you think hard enough, you'll remember seeing me....
I shoved my hands into my pockets and started back toward the park.
Along the way I passed several people; some were on foot, others were in cars, but I was aware of the depths of their existence as strongly as I was aware of my own breathing.
And I heard things.
I saw an old woman and heard the first time she had made love to her husband.
I heard a child's fear of its first day at pre-school.
A bird's irritation at the rain.
The quenching of a garden's thirst.
I broke into a run. The spattering of rain became a heavy sprinkling. I heard the empty spaces between the raindrops.
She was still there when I arrived. I went up to her and grabbed her by the shoulders. "What did you do to me?"
"I had to make you come back."
"Why? What do you want?"
Her lower lip quivered. "I want you to remember." She handed the photograph to me once again. It was smooth and perfect, as if I'd never crumpled it.
"You're dying inside," she said. "I don't want you to hurt anymore. You're not the monster you think you are. People make mistakes. It's time you understood that it's okay to just pay the fine and go home."
"I don't want to think about it," I said, dropping onto the bench. "I don't...."
But I couldn't stop the memory coming back, nor could I stop myself from looking down at the face of the man I used to be and thinking: You stupid fucker.
There was a time when you had the world by the balls, didn't you? Acing your finals and graduating in the top five percent of your class, snagging a great teaching position at an oh-so-private Ivy League school, then marrying a beautiful woman who loved you and gave you a perfect daughter who thought you were the bestest thing in the whole great big wide world I love Daddy thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis much! You were so safe and smug within the myopic borders of your
world, and you never once gave a thought to being undone by an absurdity, did you? Because that's what it was, an absolute, certified, in-goddamn-comprehensible absurdity that in this country, in this age, with so much wondrous medical technology there for the paying, that a happy, radiant, inquisitive little girl with a giggle that brought tears to your eyes could die from a disease you're supposed to get from kissing or burning your candle at both ends. Well, I got a Muppet News Flash for you, pal; it is possible for a three-year-old girl who loves to watch ducks and collect sea shells to feel bad, and then a bit worse, and then a whole helluva lot worse, and finally lousy in a way that requires machines and tubes and pills and catheters and before you know it you're sitting in the front pew at good ol' St. Francis de Sales Church on Granville Street along with your wife and parents and in-laws and X-amount of your balding schoolboy chums listening to some second-rate organist eviscerate Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze" and dreading the moment when two dozen children from your daughter's pre-school are going to stand up and sing "Let There Be Peace On Earth" because that's when you're going to lose it and lose it bad and wonder how but mostly why something like this could happen. Just forget it, pal, just scratch that "why" business right off the list because there's no making sense of some shit, and your nice manners and fine credit record and good insurance notwithstanding, it is possible--and you have a crisp, clean copy of Autopsy #A72-196 to remind you in case you forget--for a three-year-old girl to contract Epstein-Barr virus and have her immune system degrade so quickly that she acquires, in spite of your fine house and dazzling grin and that award-winning thesis on Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, a thing called acute interstitial pneumonia, then another thing called purulent exudate, which gets lonely in a hurry and so invites pelvic venous plexis to come join the party and presto-change-o!--you're looking at a little girl who in less than four weeks curls up into a wheezing skeleton and turns yellow and finally dies in a torturous series of sputtering little agonies, and you can't even get to her bedside to hold her hand because of the tubes and wires and bandages and all the rest of the Close Encounters of the Third-fucking-Kind hardware dwarfing this room where all the numbers are zero and all the lines are flat, so when she dies it is without the final benefit of a warm, loving human touch tingling on her skin to let her know that you will always love her and will miss her every second of every hour of every day for the rest of your life.
It is also possible for that little girl's daddy to collapse in on himself and ignore his wife's grief until she can't take the loneliness anymore and leaves him to wallow in the wreckage that was once their marriage, and when he finally lifts his head he finds himself alone, alcoholic, and unemployed. He also discovers that his insurance has been bled dry, so he has to sell his car, then his stocks, and then his house in order to pay off medical and funeral expenses.
It is likewise possible that, having nowhere to go, he will hock his wedding ring, spend the money on liquor, and try to drink himself to death.
He will come very close to succeeding.
Then one morning he awakens in the psych ward of the county hospital where he's been drying out since a couple of cops found him unconscious in a large cardboard box beneath a bridge, lying in a puddle of his own puke and just half a mile from the gates to the graveyard where his little girl is buried. A social worker helps him to find a job and a place to stay so that, if anyone cares to ask, he can say that he's a janitor--give him a mop and a bucket and a bottle
of Windex, he's hell on wheels--and that he lives in a two-room apartment just twelve minutes' walk from the office building where he sweeps floors and scrubs toilets for nine hours a day, five days a week.
Lastly, though, and here's the real kicker, it is quite possible that on his way home from his crummy job one day he will meet a young woman who looks too much like his ex-wife, and this woman will show him a picture that in no way, by no stretch of his alcohol-damaged imagination, could possibly exist.
"Do you remember it now, that moment in the picture?"
I nodded my head; a stray tear flung itself down onto the photograph like a suicide plummeting toward the pavement.
"Good," she whispered. "Because that moment is when your small song revealed itself to you."
"The voice of your soul. You do believe in voices don't you? The voice of your soul holds your history, all your memories and hopes and dreams, your baser impulses and higher aspirations; it's what truly defines you. And when it reveals itself to you, as yours did, it will tell you the purpose of your life, the reason why you exist.
"It's different with every person. A dancer's small song might reveal itself to them at the moment a strenuous, complicated piece of choreography they've been struggling with suddenly becomes as effortlessly liquid as cascading water. The man in the wheelchair, his small song is still looking for its voice--that's what you heard; a child trying to learn a new language."
I started to speak but she placed her finger against my lips and shook her head. "Shhh. 'You will say nothing...nothing will be able to shake our accord.'" She tilted back her head, caught a few raindrops on her tongue, then said, "Years ago there was a concert on PBS commemorating Aaron Copland's seventy-fifth birthday. Leonard Bernstein conducted and he was really on that night. The concert closed with A Lincoln Portrait and the second the piece was over, that phenomenal crescendo still ringing in the air, Bernstein dropped his head and wept like a baby. That was when his small song revealed itself to him. He'd hit his pinnacle and everything had fallen into place in a wondrous way that only he and no one else could have brought about--he knew it, you could see it in his face. Later, someone asked him why he'd wept and he said, 'This piece will never again be played as gloriously as it was tonight. I thank God I was the one to conduct.'
"It's that way with all small songs; only one time in a life will conditions be right for it to reveal itself and once that's happened, it never speaks again. Think of the song a swan can sing only at the moment of its death." She touched my cheek, then faced the pond. "I always liked watching the swans more than the ducks."
And I knew. I think it's possible I had known all along.
I looked at the picture in my hand.
An overhead view. A man kneels on a hospital bed amidst the debris of tubes and hoses and electronic monitoring wires. He clutches what looks like an empty white laundry sack to his chest, only the sack has strawberry-blonde hair. On the floor next to the bed is an expensive piece of medical equipment that is sparking and smoldering because he knocked it out of his way in order to climb onto the bed and get to the sack before it was too late.
You know from the look on his face that he didn't make it.
It's hard to tell if he's crying or snarling...until you see the shadow of something like love buried deep in the dark wreckage of his face. He has no thought for his wife, who even now lies sleeping on a couch in the nurse's lounge, having been forced by him to rest for a bit.
The photo captures a phenomenon you've heard about many times before from people who claim to have had an out-of-body experience.
This was the last earthly image seen by my three-year-old daughter as her soul left her body at the moment of her death.
"Where are the conch shells?" I said. "They were right here, on the table beside the bed. I remember that they were there but...they're not in the picture."
She reached into her canvas bag and pulled them out, setting them between us. They were smooth and shiny and perfect. "I was careful not to break them, just like you used to tell me."
I marveled at her beauty; she had her mother's rose-petal smile and blue sapphire eyes, but also my slightly crooked nose and somewhat weak chin--to keep her humble, I assume. Still, she was even more stunning as an adult than Karen and I had imagined she'd be.
Her eyes regarded me as if I were the bestest thing in the whole great big wide world. "Hi, Daddy," she whispered, then reached over and took hold of my hands. Her touch was a drink of cool, clean water after a lifetime under the scorching desert sun.
"H-hi," I managed to get out. "God, hon, I've missed you so...so much...." I fumbled for something else to say but there were no words. How could there be?
"I've missed you, too," she said. "Please say you'll stay here with me. We'll have almost seven hours together. You can...you can say good-bye this time."
My heart sank. "Why is there so little time? Why were you given only one day?"
"Because that's what you asked for, remember? When you talked to Father Ehwald after the funeral. You said you'd give anything to have me back for just one more day."
Something clogged in my throat. "I didn't think anyone was listening."
She put her hand through my arm and kissed my cheek, then looked out at the pond. "Not to ruin the warm fuzziness of this moment, but did you know they won't let you feed the ducks anymore? Isn't that a bitch? I wanted to give them some popcorn but that vendor doesn't come around here these days."
"He hasn't been around for a long time."
She huffed. "Well, I think that sucks. How're you supposed to have any fun if you can't feed the ducks? I'll bet if enough people complained, they'd change it back to how it used to be."
"I am? Sorry."
"No. I used to love it when you were a kid, the way you'd pout like the whole world had conspired to ruin your day."
"Well, that's what it felt like. I was trying to learn about the world. How're you supposed to discover anything when all the crabby old adults are breathing their rules down your neck all the time? And you were the worst, don't deny it. Especially that business about your computer."
"You wanted to pour Kool-Aid on the keyboard! I used to think I'd have to hire armed guards to keep you away f rom it. "
"You could have locked your office door."
"And miss catching you in the act? No way."
"You were a wicked child sometimes. Kool-Aid, for chrissakes!"
"I was three. Sue me." She looked at me and we both burst out laughing. It felt odd. I hadn't laughed in a long, long time.
She hugged me again. "God, Daddy, I really have missed you. And so does Mom. She thinks about us all the time--but mostly she thinks about you."
"Do you...do you know where she is? My God, I tried to find her right after I got out of the hospital but she'd moved away and--"
"Shhh, Dad, please. Just listen, okay? This has to do with Mom, too.
"Every living thing has its small song, but there have been countless things and people who, for whatever reason--a moment of fear or hesitation, weariness or grief, anger or confusion--didn't hear the voice of their soul when it spoke to them. But what it said didn't cease to exist simply because it wasn't heard; a tree that falls in the forest still makes a sound even if there's no one there, radio and television transmissions that'll never be picked up by a receiver still bounce through space; and, just so you know, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony doesn't cease to exist just because the orchestra stops playing." She held out the conch shells. "Take them."
"Because you need to hear some of the others."
"How, when I didn't even hear my own? You said that once it reveals itself it never speaks again."
"Yes, I did. But I never said that it doesn't leave an echo.
"And all things left behind can be found if you look hard enough. How do you think I was able to dig up that dumb Steppenwolf song of yours, Mr. Echofuzz?" She shook her head and laughed softly. "Oh boy, if you knew how much mnemonic resonance I had to sift through...."
She placed the shells in my hands. "That's why so many people feel empty and spend their lives looking for something they can't quite define. That's why the world is so miserable--all of those lonely, unheard small songs."
I looked at the shells in my hands. "Are these...?"
She shrugged. "They have to go somewhere, don't they? What do you think you hear when you hold a sea shell to your ear? 'It sounds like the ocean. "'
"You mean that ocean-sound is--?"
"Well, duh. But people never listen well enough, they never get past the first...layer of sound. Go on, Dad, listen. Hear it for yourself so you'll know that all of that mystical bullshit you talked about in college, that you thought it would be nice to believe in, is true."
Not feeling at all foolish or self-conscious, I held the shells against my ears, listening.
And was aware of every exquisite moment as the sound waves registered as a massive but muted ocean roar--
--becoming the crash of waves scattering on a beach--
--then one wave breaking apart--
--becoming a small pool into which a pebble was dropped--
--and the ripples expanded outward in concentric circles, becoming a rhythm--
Rhythms and pulsings.
Rhythms and pulsings and tones.
The rhythms and the pulsings and the tones of the universe.
The rhythm of insects and heartbeats, of whisperings and thunder and bodies locked in sex; the pulsing runs of birdsong and tolling bells and whistling breaths; tones of infant birth-cries, canticle moans of graveside mourners; cicada arpeggios; descants from whales breaking the surface and trillings of single cells in division and in death; the thunderous tympani of gorillas in Africa beating their chests; the chirpings of crickets; the growl of cancer cells devouring delicate tissues; modulated vibrations of a million locusts in migration; the primeval groans from shifting tectonic plates; the gloriae of melting polar ice-caps; madrigal dawn; andante night; and the brassy, sassy blues from the light of a long-dead star as it staggered like a drunkard toward the Earth: a polythematic assault.
I heard thoughts and sensed dreams and absorbed impressions as they were passed from psyche to psyche with compulsive speed and more sensory layers than my brain, anyone's brain, anything's brain could possibly absorb. The atmosphere was packed with millions upon millions-squared of swirling, drifting, reeling bits of consciousness.
Attuned to the majestic cacophony I heard the murmur of every cell; the synchronic rustling of blood brushing against arterial walls; the clicking of countless synapses; and I realized that somewhere, underlying all life, there was a continual music that had been playing since life began, and that its sounds, its rhythms and pulsings and tones, were the refrain of something more, the distant memory of the chorus from an earlier song, a sub-organic score for transposing the inanimate, random matter of chaos into the enigmatic, lavish, magnificent, improbable, ordered dance of living forms, rearranging matter and consciousness into miraculous symmetry, away from probability, against entropy, lifting everything toward a sublime awareness so acute, so incandescent and encompassing I thought everything within me would burst into flames from the overpowering wholeness.
I was hearing the voice of the soul, maybe of all souls.
I felt divided from my body, standing outside my flesh observing all of it, my only companion the delicate echo of a single voice-note, pure and easy and somehow incomplete, that rose above the cacophony and whistled through me like a breeze through an open window. I tried to grasp the echo, to make sure I had understood its meaning, but it was gone too quickly.
I turned toward Melissa. My daughter said nothing, only gestured toward the sculpture.
I rose to my feet as the rain grew more dense and moved toward it.
I couldn't speak. I couldn't breathe.
All fifty figures were still there, and all of them still suffered unimaginable pain--
--but now all of them, their hands grasping synthetic stone roses, had Karen's face.
God pity women who love unselfishly, true souls who offer their hearts and dreams to men who don't deserve them, whose grief must be borne privately so they might be strong for the weaker ones they love, who grow used to being lonely in the company of a husband too self-absorbed to notice their pain, who must sustain themselves on memories of tenderness rather than the promise of it, and who continue to love faithfully even if that love is never returned in equal measure. May whatever joy there is in your life be safe from harm. God pity your selflessness. I once knew such a woman and, for a time, loved her as best I could. But it wasn't enough to protect her from the night. Forgive me.
I climbed onto the base of the sculpture and pulled myself close enough to kiss her wonderful lips if they had been real, to hear her laugh that so often had given me the strength to go on, to remember how she had, for a while, opened me up to feelings and tiny kindnesses that most men never experience; and close enough for all of that, I knew her outrage, her loss, her terrible loneliness and sorrow, this splendid woman who'd needed so much from me but asked for so little and didn't get even that much--
--here, before me, was Karen's hurt made physical, and I could see now in all of the figures' expressions the terrible evolution of what she'd gone through; from the look
on her face when I'd told her that Melissa had died to the way she'd forced herself not to cry the day she walked out of my life, I had now before my eyes all the feelings I never heard with my heart.
I fell backward onto the spongy ground. Melissa knelt beside me and took my hands. "I love you, Dad."
She held me in her arms, rocking me like a baby, there under the pounding rain and the perpetually grief-stricken gazes of her mother.
Melissa touched my cheek, then kissed my forehead. "Did you hear it?"
"So you know?"
She kissed me again, then held me closer. "I wish you hadn't loved me so much."
I grasped one of her hands in mine, brought it to my lips. "Me too, hon. I'm s-so sorry, but me too."
And almost added: Because.
Because if I hadn't loved her so much, I would have seen that my wife's pain was so much greater than my own, and I would have helped her through it, and we would have gone on together.
It was as simple as that: The purpose of my life had been to share it with her. For better or for worse, as the saying goes.
"You have to find her, Daddy," whispered Melissa. "It's going to be hard, and it might take a long time, but you have to find her. She still hurts so much. She never stopped needing you. Or loving you."
"Oh Christ, honey...how?"
"Shhh," she placed her finger against my lips and pressed her rose into my palm. "You just have to...listen...."
For a while we listened together, holding each other on that bench in the rain, until the afternoon faded into twilight and the twilight into night.
I tried to say all of the things I had dreamed of saying to her for so many years but there wasn't enough time. How could there have been?
In her last moments Melissa took my hands in hers and kissed my cheek once again.
"I've wasted so much time," I whispered to her. "We could have had an entire day but I--"
"I love you. And when love is present, no time is ever wasted. I've had my lifetime with you today, and that's enough. It has to be." She wrapped her arms around me. "Good-bye, Daddy. You'll be happy again someday."
I looked down at the rose she had given to me. It was in full bloom. "Good-bye, hon. I wish--"
"Shhh, you mustn't--"
And then she was gone.
I moved back into the cacophony layer by lonely layer. I listened to the old songs, the sad songs, the bitter, misused, and jubilant songs, all so ephemeral, all so small. I listen still. Every moment of every day, wherever I go, they are with me.
The echo of Karen's small song is here, somewhere. If I can find it, it will lead me back to her. So I listen for it. Truly listen. And I prepare for the day when life shall continue by her side.
In the night I hear the poetry of this world; the patience of the darkness, the sighing of the moon, the laughter of dreams.
A pressed rose rests in my breast pocket.
My daughter's kiss still lingers on my cheek.
In my hands are two perfect shells.
I will find my wife, no matter how long it takes.
And I warn the universe: I will not lose her a second time.
Do you believe in voices?