May 28, 2018, Ghent, NY.
The silence is total.
Pencil across graph paper. Like the sound of a small bird making a nest in the rafters above the ceiling. Thatchy, gentle. Straw noise. Wheat noise. It’s too dark to see the letters. Just the scratching in the dim.
Leg against sheets under blanket, friction of cotton and flesh. Breath paused. Heart thud. Whoom whoom whoom of blood. Don’t like to hear it. Don’t want it to stop. Whoom whoom whoom, the blood-rush pulse of the body at work.
Whistle song of peeper frog—queet queet queet—from the wet, wooded places down the hill. Last night, when it got dark, it sounded like the whole small pond had turned into frogs, all of them calling out in love. The females will lay their eggs underwater and in less than two weeks: pollywogs, silent as dew. Last summer, on the North Shore with D., I asked the lobsterman how he slept. “Like a pollywog,” he said.
First bird. Five chirps. Bright and clear like a teakettle scream. What bird, don’t know.
“One bird halts the silence,” writes Borges in a poem called “Break of Day.” As though silence is a force that moves like darkness or like death, stopping now and then, steering away for a time, but always eventually returning. Daybreak, writes Borges, is the most fragile moment of the day. If the world is, as some argue, “made up by souls in a common act of magic,” if we’re dreaming it up together, then the “shuddering instant of daybreak” endangers its existence. It holds the threat of waking up.
But the silence-halting bird here doesn’t speak of the end. There is nothing fragile here, no sense of possible disintegration. The opposite. Clean, unmuddled birdsong and with it, a gathering of strength.
Another bird. A different bird. Reigh-at reigh-at curr curr curr. Its song changes the tenor of time.
At this time of day, two minutes feel like ten. Now, all the birds are alive. They are close and far. Tweeps twirps whistles whirrings coos. Staccato, long draws on violin strings, piccolo flurries. Like an orchestra tuning, a shimmery current of notes and tones, vibrations rolling in varied, crested waves through space. And beyond the growing sound, the chorus of birds brings the same sense of anticipation as an orchestra tuning up. In your bed as in an auditorium seat, the sheets are soft and warm as thick red curtains, and the instruments, or birds, give different notes all at once, inchoate and sonorous. In some ways there is more thrill in this than the concert itself. Not music but the promise of music. Not day, but the promise of day. Hold your breath and listen.
In a “A Wagner Matinée,” a crushing short story by Willa Cather, a nephew in the city takes his visiting aunt from the plains to a concert at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She’d once been a music teacher at the Boston Conservatory, but for the last thirty years, she’d heard nothing more than hymns in church. At the concert, during the opening piece, she clutches his arm. He realizes that “this singing of basses and stinging frenzy of lighter strings broke a silence of thirty years, the inconceivable silence of the plains.” Later, during Wagner’s Prize Song, he sees that she is crying. He asks during intermission, “But do you get it, Aunt Georgiana, the astonishing structure of it all?”
“Who could?” she responds. “Why should one?”
It is enough sometimes to listen. To let the sound sink into our souls, to be moved without understanding how. Sometimes we don’t need to comprehend the structure, the great composer’s guidance of the noise. At dawn, it is enough to hear one bird halt the silence. Dawn’s rosy fingers beckon and conduct. She spreads her hands and the birds know: start tuning, the concert begins again. What good does it do, knowing why, or how?
And what would it sound like if we had better ears? Once, in May, away from highways, neighbors, noise, there was an iris out my window. She was white and purple, and in the earliest moments of the morning, she looked like a woman in a ruffled gown the morning after something decadent and obscene. I could hear her sighing, a breathy and distracted exhale, sifting through images from the night before, readying herself for the day. And the grass, washed in dew and beginning to stretch, issued whispery ticks, a verdant murmuring across the lawn, like the sound of thousands of mouths biting into grapes. And the soil made a deep hum at the coming warmth, a mulched and welcoming growl. And the beech tree trunk groaned a bassoon note, and pressed itself into the elephant-skin surfaces of its bark. And the leaves expanded and shone like a licked finger around the thin rim of a wine glass. And the window panes chattered like water hitting water in a bowl. And the clouds huff huffed like laughter. And the soft white mushrooms at the base of the tree by the water whinnied like small ponies with lots of fur. And the stones tinked like gems in a velvet pouch. And the bones beneath the earth were quiet, like ash. Good morning! Only light is silent, the dawn is not.
I’m not convinced there’s any such thing as silence, even in the dim before the morning. The noise of breath, heartbeat, and blood, they are inescapable, roaring through the dark. When I run, I sometimes concentrate on the moment when neither foot is on the ground; the effect, when I am very focused, is like flying. And it lasts four seconds at the most. Perhaps there is a way to focus on the moments between heartbeats just before that first bird. To focus on the pause, the total hush, and accumulate silence that way. Maybe all silence is inconceivable. Maybe all silence is like flying. Maybe it is something we approach but never achieve. Something, like God, to believe in.
More than ever I want to see
these blossoms at dawn
the god’s face
“Morning brings back the heroic ages,” writes Henry David Thoreau in Walden. “I was as much affected by the faint hum of a mosquito making its invisible and unimaginable tour through my apartment at earliest dawn … as I could be by any trumpet that ever sang of fame.” The brassy blasts of trumpets, the thin mosquito whine. What a thing, to awaken each day able to hear it.
My favorite haiku of all time goes:
What good luck,
this year’s mosquito too
What good luck. Good luck even in the bad noises. No good news comes from a call at four-thirty. After it came, we walked to the river’s edge, and on our way, a great rustling in the brush. We halted—what’s there in the dark?—and then came an animal scream, a brief guttural yowl like no noise I’ve heard. A deer leapt through the crunching brush toward the woods, away from us. “The air is shuddering with things that flee,” writes Baudelaire in a poem called “Dawn.” It was the deer who had yelled. A strangled cry of fear. We continued toward the water, putting the ill omen behind us. Wind blew last night’s rain off the leaves which made it sound like it was raining still. No drops disturbed the surface of the water. Only the splash of fish now and then. Never the fish, just the splash, the surface breaking, breaking like the day.
What good luck, another new morning. What good luck, the shuddering instant. What good luck, the mosquito bite, the bird, the deer in flight through the woods. The earth continues its spin. What do we hear before we know we can hear? What’s the sound of the beginning? What’s the structure of the song? Why should we know. It is enough to hear the first bird, to linger without language, crying out, newly born. Silence comes for all of us. For now, for now, wake up and listen. Hear it? All of it? What good luck.
Read the other installments in this series here.
Nina MacLaughlin is a writer and carpenter in Cambridge, Massachusetts.