The Sound it Makes





She found it under the floorboards in a barn 35 years ago. She was a sprite on a summer day in the fields behind a house at the edge of the town, sneaking about the building’s perimeter, looking in through cracks in the raw plank walls, and exploring into the danger of trespass, the absolute right of any curious little girl, free as the wind on a baking August afternoon.

The giant barn was always there. It was neither built nor occupied in anyone’s memory. You could ask any of them, the old, the young, the traveler or the school teacher. None of them would pay much attention to your query. No one cares anymore; it may as well be a ghost.

Inside, window frames gape open to the day and allow great shafts of light to stand angled in cavernous space – supporting bits of matter, dust and butterflies – originating from no-where, happy to dance occasionally into a bright beam and follow it up and out into the heat of the day. And the smell – mouldy paper, dry hay, dust, the deliriously sweet scent of wildflowers; walls hung with old metal parts, and in the corners where the sun can’t find them, the rustling unseen creatures, tails and little ears flitting away as you approach, sound and the movement of air too close for comfort.

A 12 year old girl’s fingers and curiosity will find clues and paths to the most carefully camouflaged secrets. They exist already in her heart, in her dreams, the stories she tells to herself in the night beneath the covers when the lights are out and the whole house creaks with the achy muscles of sleep. She has made this up before, the building, a set of stairs leading down into blackness. Her own courage, her own determination, her heroism and her command of frozen body and terrified mind.

…I’m the one who actually finds the treasure, not some little girl who just whispers the idea to her friends.

Sure enough, beneath the dried layer of hay at the corner of the floor, the last corner checked by attentive fingers, a clasp and a hoop and a trap-door.

Heart in her throat she descends, explores with hands the cool cavern walls of a water well, slippery ladder rungs down, echoes of her own breath in the moist air and there at the edge of the wall, on a shelf carved out of the earth sits a wooden box with two leather straps and an ivory handle. Clasped shut with a wound leather tie.

…I knew it. I knew it was here!

It is the stuff of a little girl’s dreams – the case full of treasure, the document that will free a king held ransom in some foreign country, the map that leads to the princess – ready to reward the bravest soldier of fortune, the gallant one. The rescuer.

That night, while they all slept a great weight leaned on the old building. An unfathomable weariness. And later, when the moon set and some star pushed its light upon the earth with its twinkled rising, a rush of wind and a crash was heard, the building exhaled, leaned and fell. Someone came by the next week and began hauling away the planks, hinges, and what was left of the window frames. It resides now in pieces scattered to the wind. Some saved, some burned, some buried. All rotting and returned or returning to the maker. She was sad that the building was gone, but she held a secret. As if the giving of this gift, this beautiful thing, wrapped in silk and sunken in a cavernous case was a piece of the prescience of the universe, given to her for keeping. Forever.

And now, one quiet day on a Sunday afternoon a thousand years removed from the little girl, she feels a piece of that same weight, the heaviness which dropped the old barn, and she hears the call of the leather case, its draw from upstairs. To a woman, it’s a suitcase. It has hinges and a handle and brass trimmings at the corners and it feels robust, feels of quality even for its time, let alone compared to contemporary replicas, cardboard and frail. Sometimes this awareness is enough to bring satisfaction, the feeling of peace its personal history provides – antidote for all the worlds disease, for the coldness of modern things at odds with the poet and the painter. But to a little girl, it is the center of the diamond. The very jewel of happiness, and today she brings it down.

On a table, extracted from the leather and wooden case it sits. Lace, filigree, cloth, feather, thread and pillow. A wonderment of porcelain, polished brass, oak, whiskers of hair, rich, deep shades of red, forest green and azure. Turquoise, with gems, rings, gold adornment. Diamond sparkles beneath the eyes for effect. A perfect automata – pristine beauty, child-like countenance, dressed as a gypsy in garments and in aura. No sign of mechanical reliance anywhere – this piece could come alive at a breath. At a whim. At the demand of magic.

She reaches behind the torso, winds the wing-key. Over and over again. Clicking tight the springs, the life-giving stores of energy, winding, winding, winding. And then she sits in front of the spirit, places a paper beneath the pen in its hand and presses the release at the back, next to the winding post. Spindles whirl, pinions rotate, gears sing. A ratchet wheel, a balance wheel, regulator, servo, shaft, drive – movement. Porcelain face lifts, delicate feminine fingers grip more tightly the dip-pen charged with black ink and ready at the command, deep green lace cuffs buttoned. It shivers, pauses, and gauges something, a feeling – it decides a need and begins to write on the pad,

…‘speed me up’.

She reaches under to the side of the body, moves a slider – just a little, a familiar push. Too much? Nothing happens. Back down again, a little slower. There. That’s it. The shoulders straighten up, arm reaches to the inkwell and the pen drops. The hands hesitate as if with resignation, go to the table top and rest there. There is a pause for thought, the eyes close and re-open and the mouth begins to move.

Whisper? She hears it, the whisper – it whispers – the sound of the gears mixed with the sound of the levers, the clicking of an escape wheel – the whizz of a spindle against teeth –  a rush of breath as energy escapes from a spring, the tiniest moan of metal pushing against carved throat, all of it melds into a voice – language – the voice of a creator sighing, sibilant and then a plea – whispered, “Hear me.”

And poetry begins… almost inaudible. From the guts, from the ether, from across time the voice of a mechanic, a watchmaker, a dreamer and a poet…

…Once upon a time a strong and powerful Tsar ruled in a country far away. And among the servants was a young archer, and this archer had a horse – a horse of power – such a horse as belonged to the wonderful men of long ago – a great horse with a broad chest, eyes like fire, and hooves of iron.…

The voice pauses – the head turns and corners of the mouth turn up in a smile. A quizzical tilt. Astonishment – as sure as the hands in front of her face. The machine’s mouth gapes with astonishment.

I can hear. I can hear me!

A single tear appears at the corner of its left eye. Condensation? A liquid exaltation of joy.

She feels her heart wrench in her chest. It’s alive! It can hear!

“Yes”, she cries, tears welling from her eyes onto her cheeks. “I can hear you too. You’re beautiful. You’re alive!”

This miracle, this faith, this trust and birthing brings again and again relief and wonderment beyond hope. At every incarnation without fail, the return of this old friend. This secret, the confidante, and a river of joy.

They dance together in the afternoon and the evening and until the sun descends and her heart is full – the automata tells its story of the Tsar and the archer and the horse and the Princess, and the joy of that telling and the joy of receiving and sharing spills out onto the floor, into the air and the countryside surrounding her.

And for days, and maybe even weeks her smile will bring beauty to everyone she touches.

They don’t know where these beautiful things come from. No one will say – ‘Well, Thursday and Friday were pretty much the happiest time I can think of lately’, but there are very good days in this town. Everyone feels them. They are transmitted from the tiniest of glimpses at the eyes, or smiles, or from the improved demeanor of someone from whom you wouldn’t expect a joyful constitution.

Every once in a while, this distillation of beauty will emanate from the heart of that spring-fed machine, through her and out into the cold world; I’m alive! It’s wonderful! I’m beautiful! She loves it. She loves its pieces, its color, its movement, and she loves especially the beautiful sound it makes.