The History of Sound

By BEN SHATTUCK

 

I was seventeen when I met David, back in 1916. Now I don’t very much care to count my age. It’s April 1972 here in Cambridge. White puffballs that must be some sort of seedpod have been floating by the window above my writing desk for days, collecting on the sidewalk like first snow.

My doctor suggested I write this story down, due to the recent sleeplessness that started when a package from a stranger arrived at my house: a box of twenty-five wax phonograph cylinders, with David’s and my names written on the labels of each, sent from Maine. A letter taped to one of the cylinders read, “I found these in our attic years ago. I saw you on television. Figured these must be yours.” Of the three books I’ve written on American folk music—with moderate success and thus the recent television interview—I’ve never written about that summer with David. So, here we are.

 

I first saw him in the fall, after term exams of my first year at the New England Conservatory. I was out with my friends Matt and Lawrence, celebrating with a drink in the pub. David was playing the piano against the far wall. His white shirt, yellow under the gas lamps, stretched and slacked between his shoulders as his arms swept down the keys.

“What do you think?” Matt asked, tapping me on the shoulder.

I hadn’t heard his question.

“What are you looking at?” he said, turning.

“I know that song,” I said. It was “Dead Winter’s Night,” a tune my father used to play on the fiddle back in Kentucky. A slow song, to the tempo of “a sitting person’s breath,” as my father would say. It’s an old English ballad from, I’ve since researched, the Lake District, that tells the story of two lovers lost in the woods on a January night, having run from their homes to meet by an oak tree to then elope. A blizzard comes, and they can’t find each other. In the chorus they call each other’s names, but the wind shakes the trees so loudly that they can’t even hear their own voices—so they die alone, huddled under separate trees: “Over snow’d floor two tracks did mark / One going west, the other east / Two still figures at trees’ roots / On a dead winter’s night, they never meet.” Thinking of it now reminds me of the summer’s white moths flitting around the lantern on our porch in Kentucky, of my brother and me lying on our backs, hands on our stomachs, feeling the vibration as Dad’s foot stomped out the slow rhythm—the scratch of his boot on the wood. Katydids in the trees, stitching the night together.

“Excuse me,” I said to my friends in the pub.

I pushed through the crowd, towards the music. The smell of soap, beer, and smoke filled the room. I leaned against the wall, hip touching the piano’s back beam, watching David play. His eyes were closed. Cigarette wilting from his lips. Smoke crawling up his face. Black hair combed back. His head jolted when the chorus kicked in. I watched his fingers.

“Where did you learn that?” I asked when the song ended.

“Oh,” he said, ashing his cigarette on the floor, looking up. “Some swamp in Kentucky.”

A deep voice. Words spoken too fast. He played a C chord with one hand and picked up his drink from the floor with the other.

“I’m from Kentucky,” I told him. His hand paused on the keys. He looked up again.

“Yes, of course you are. Sorry.” He held out his hand. “David.”

“Lionel,” I said.

“What department?” Likely everyone in the pub that night was from the Conservatory.

“Voice,” I said.

“Well,” he said. “Fa-la-la. I’m Music History. This—” He played the melody once. “Just a hobby. In the summer. To get fresh air. Collecting.”

From across the room, Matt and Lawrence motioned that they were leaving. I waved them on.

“Ever been to Harrow?” I said. “That’s where I grew up.”

“Harrow. Two summers ago. Sky-blue gazebo in the center of town.”

He seemed unsurprised by the coincidence, so I, likewise, didn’t react. There weren’t many Southerners at the Conservatory then, and absolutely nobody from Harrow, a town of two thousand between the rivers Cold and Solemn. But here was David. Perhaps we’d even seen each other. I was once homesick, I remember.

“There was a reel I remember learning there,” he said, “‛Maids of Killary,’ I think?”

“I know it. Do you know ‘Seed of the Plough’?”

“Should I?” he said.

I told him that my mom used to sing it.

“Go on. Let’s hear it.”

“No,” I said, shaking my head.

“What key?” he said, playing one chord to the next, down the piano. He edged forward on the bench. “What key?” he repeated, touching out an A.

His eyebrows lifted. I noticed then a dash on his upper lip, a scar, a smudge of pale red that I’d later learn was from his father.

“Don’t think you could put a piano to it,” I said.

“The floor is yours.” He pushed away from the keys, slipped another cigarette from his pocket, picked a candle from the headboard, and cupped the flame to his face. Waited.

I was first told I had perfect pitch when I named the note my mom coughed every early morning. I could harmonize with a dog barking across the field. I was the tuner for Dad’s violin—standing at his elbow, singing out an A while he pinched and tightened the pegs. Early on I thought that everyone could see sound. A shape and color—a wobbly circle, blackberry purple, for D. I only adjusted the shape I saw, and then locked into the correct decibels. Tastes started to accompany the notes when I was thirteen. Dad would play a bad B minor and waxy bitterness filled my mouth. On the other hand, a perfect C and I tasted sugary cherries. D, milk.

I sang for David then.

I’ve always felt as if what came from my throat and lips was not mine, like I was stealing rather than making something. This body was mine—the constriction of my diaphragm, the pressure in my throat, the lips and the softening of my tongue that shaped the sound—but what left me, ringing through the crown of my head so my skull felt more bell than corporeal, flooding my ears’ tympani, vibrating through my nose, wasn’t my own. More like the sound of wind in the trees or over a glass bottle. Or, better, an echo of my own voice, coming out of my mouth. A repetition. I can’t sing like that anymore—and I miss it. Now I have this weak warble, this drone that nobody tells me isn’t any good.

As I ended the song, the color yellow faded to the taste of wet wood.

“Where in hell did you learn that?” he asked.

I shrugged.

“I wouldn’t be puttering around school if I had a voice like that,” he said.

When he stood to get another beer, I saw he was inches taller than anybody in the room.

We stayed together until dawn. Me singing to his piano. I might have been able to hum a D at both octaves, but I’d never met anyone with a memory like his. Tilting his head, plugging one ear with a finger, humming a note or two, he’d tease the song out, only fumbling a line when he was absolutely drunk.

“Let me buy you another beer,” I said, not moving from the piano’s side, in the gray morning light.

“Yes,” he said. “You’ve kept me up all night. You owe me.”

“Anything you want,” I said, staring.

“No. I’m tired. It’s almost morning. I’m going to bed. I live across the street. I have a couch if you want.”

His apartment was bare—only a bed, a piano, and a chair. No couch. Dirty plates and glasses were scattered on the floor, along with pages and pages of music. No desk. I asked him for a glass of water, because the room was spinning. He brought a water glass from the kitchen, took a long sip, and then spit an arc of water at me. I opened my mouth to catch the stream. He did this until the glass was empty and I was wet but had managed a few sips. He placed the glass on the floor, and then walked to me, took off my glasses, folded them and put them on the window sill. He pulled my wet shirt up over my head and led me to his bed, on which was a pile of quilts and sheets. When I leaned in to kiss him I went right for the scar on his lip, sucked it while he pressed his palm up against my thigh. He fell back on the bed, wrapped his legs around me.

I woke when the sun was high and David was gone, with a headache and the room still moving. I’d been drunk before, but not like this. I crawled from the sheets and saw a note on the floor: See you in a week. I gulped water from his sink, then filled a glass and walked into the living room. I flopped down in the chair, drank until the glass was empty, then went back to bed, put myself under the covers. But when I woke up again just before sunset he was still gone, and so I gathered my clothes, folded his note and slipped it in my pocket before leaving.

Every Tuesday night thereafter, David was at the piano with a cigarette between his lips, and I was buying us drinks with my scholarship stipend. On nights that weren’t Tuesday, I sometimes stood across the street from his building, looking up, trying to see who it was walking around his apartment. I was only curious, I told myself. I really don’t think I’ve ever been jealous, which was a problem with every relationship I’ve had since David. Like Clarissa, whom I dated in my forties, and who left me after she admitted she was sleeping with my friend. I’d known about her affair, and when I told her so, saying I only wished she’d admitted it to me earlier, and supposed we could work through it, she started yelling at me, as if I’d been the one doing the cheating, that I didn’t care about her anyway, so why should she stay? Most of the other men I’ve been with—Alex, William, Alistair, others—have lasted no more than a few months. Vincent was the longest. I met him in Rome, where I lived for over a year, in 1929 and 1930. Quick-witted, originally from Milan, charming to every stranger we met, a gap between his two front teeth, and a laugh that echoed all the way down narrow Roman streets, Vincent was a cellist and would practice in the same chapel where I sang. When eventually I said I needed to go home, back to Boston, for career reasons, he only said, “Americano,” like it was the worst word he could think of.

I won’t dwell on the particulars of David’s departure only half a year after we first met. It was 1917. America had entered the war. Classes were disbanded. He went to Europe. I didn’t, because of my bad eyes. I wrote my Harrow address in his journal, told him to send me French chocolate.

I returned to Harrow, to the farm, to help my brother, who, not very long after I arrived, also went to Europe. Maybe that was the end of my time with David, I thought. A dozen Tuesday-night meetings in Boston. I thought of him in the way you do when you’re young: in the mornings, lying in bed listening to the songbirds, sheets tangled around my legs; when I stood in the kitchen watching the kettle, waiting for a boil; when I was pruning, grafting, staking, and guying the fruit trees; when, after work, I walked to the streambed and listened to the spring peepers; sitting on our porch, listening to a thunderstorm clear its throat on the horizon in three notes, the smell of dirt released under the storm’s coming. As in, always. I sometimes woke with an impression of his face in my eyes, with my hand reaching across the bed for him. My body remembering his body even if I tried not to. Gray-blue eyes with a ring of what looked like brown around the iris. A freckle on his eyelid. The scar on his lip. An Adam’s apple stark as a broken bone. His hair smelled like tobacco, his neck like fermenting fruit. I didn’t experience the guilt that some men at my time would have. I just loved David, and I didn’t think much beyond that. My error was that I thought David was the first of many. That I’d tasted love. I was eager for my future. How could I have known that all the rest—Alex, William, Vincent, Clarissa, Sam, Sarah, and most recently George—were only rivulets after the first brief deluge.

Summer and autumn passed. Winter arrived on the farm. Snow once, but nothing like Boston. I spent months writing bad music, drinking too many cups of coffee, walking for hours. Wondering when life would resume, when the war would be over and I could go back north, back to classes, back to Boston, where, I was sure, David would return after his service.

I visited my grandfather sometimes, who lived on the outskirts of town in a house his father had built for him and his six siblings. My own father had died years earlier, in the orchard (my brother had found him with clippers in hand), and my mother had taken the change by taking walks that sometimes lasted into the night, so without my brother around, the house was empty and quiet in a way I didn’t like. My grandfather would sit in his chair beside the fire, summer or winter, wrapped in blankets. We drank coffee, talked about the war in Europe and if I’d heard from my brother, and then he’d ask me to sing a song. He never asked me about the Conservatory. He didn’t like to talk about anywhere north of Kentucky. He’d been in the cavalry in Antietam, watched his friends “de-limbed.” He was not a bad man—just angry. Just missed his friends and missed his wife. I’m struck now, only writing this, by how many wars have swept through my family’s lives.

 

David’s note arrived at the farm in June of 1919. The return address was Bowdoin College, up in Maine. He’d written on the back of a sheet of staff paper—on the front were two bars of quarter notes arcing through the treble clef. A paragraph, only:

                  My dear silver-throated Confederate: I hope this note finds its way to you. How is life on the farm? As it stands: I just returned from a walking tour, you might say, in Northern Europe. God help me. But the day is getting brighter. I have a position up at Bowdoin, here in the evergreens. Last month a man visited the Department to show off a new phonograph prototype. My advisor thought it a Fine Idea if I was elected to record folk songs for Dept.’s Ethno- leanings in this boreal wilderness. I can’t drag this talking sewing machine by myself – how about a long walk in the woods this summer? The journey points north. A bed of pine needles under the stars? Birch beer? Don’t dally, just come.

ps – Do you have funds? There’s not much to go around here.

I turned the paper over and hummed what I could read of the two bars, a student’s jolting melody, surely. Every note I’ve gotten from David was termed in directions: See you in a week,he wrote that first morning. And then: Don’t dally, just come. David gave me instructions, and I followed.

That night, I lay in bed with the note on my face. I told my mother I got a job in Boston, and left a week later. The farm would go untended. The orchards would become overgrown, the netting not laid, and if I stayed away long enough, the fruit would overripen, fall to the ground, and rot. I didn’t care. I left as if I were running away, took the train from Louisville to New York, New York to Boston, Boston to Portland.

I’ve never cared much about objects—things, that is. I don’t care when a dish breaks, and when my house was robbed some years ago, I can honestly say I didn’t feel very bad, only confused and troubled by the cost. The walls of my house are bare, and I ask friends to never buy me Christmas or birthday gifts. It might be considered frugal or meaningful, but it was a problem when I was younger. I used to lose everything, leave my coat on the church pews, forget my schoolbooks, leave a hatchet outside in the grass. I gave a lot of stuff away to other kids—toys, my dad’s violin rosin, coins. The worst was our family dog—I liked a boy at school and so one day walked our dog to his house, tied her to a tree on his lawn, and walked home not thinking too much of it. My dad whipped me for that.

Yet I still have that note David sent, asking me to come north. Still have all the notes he left me on the floor of his apartment. Still have the cigarette he rolled and forgot on the piano one night, and the box of matches from the pub where we used to meet. I didn’t keep the statuette Vincent gave me before I left Rome, or the gold watch that Clarissa gave me on our anniversary, or the landscape painting that Sara made for me, or the sea glass I collected on Cape Cod with Alex. But when it came to David, I was an insatiable magpie.

 

In the Portland train station, I saw him before he saw me. I stood some distance away, watching. He was wearing a light blue shirt, a dark jacket. Hands in his pockets. Cigarette between his lips. He’d grown a mustache, and looked thinner, sharper in the cheeks. When he stretched his arms above his head, I felt an actual jump in my chest, like an organ I didn’t know I needed shifted into place. I waved, caught his attention, and he pointed at me like his hand was a pistol. Fired. Around him were the cases of recording equipment.

From August through September 1919, we must have walked a hundred miles, collecting ballads and tunes from the rocky coast to the endless interior of colonnaded forests and back to the coast. Walked through foggy marshes, forests loud with singing frogs and moss that we sunk up to our knees in, along coastal roads where the wind nearly knocked us off our feet. We visited towns, of course, but also granite quarries and farms where we’d heard there were good singers. David was always the one to introduce us, while I hung back, smiled. We worked off recommendations—someone’s cousin might know someone’s aunt twenty miles north. Sometimes we stayed in the houses of those we recorded, but mostly we slept outside, in a canvas tent that David lugged around. My job was to carry the recorder. Or, when it was a clear night—as there were many that summer—we slept without the tent, in fields or under the pines. Our limbs tired from the day’s walk, and sleep compacting us together.

My grandfather once said that happiness isn’t a story. So there isn’t much to say about those first weeks. Though the heavy phonograph recorder straps dug into my shoulders, the blackflies left bloody welts all over my neck, and my boots made silver-dollar-sized blisters on both my heels, I don’t think I’ve ever been happier—in the plain, dull, adjectival way that resists any further articulation. It comes in images: Sun hatching out of clouds while we walked through a hayfield flattened by days of rain, droplets lighting up around us and birds shouting. Bathing under a wispy waterfall with David, and afterwards having sex on the rocks. Running out of food, finding a blueberry barren like it was a gift, and eating for an afternoon until we were sick and happy and too full to keep going, so we napped there, until a woman woke us with her boot. Later that same evening, under lavender twilight, him asking me to stick out my tongue, and then him showing me his—both bruise-blue. I thought of the untended fruit trees back in Harrow, of the birds eating the fruit and the grasses rising up through the orchard, and didn’t care.

It was my job to work the machinery: unwrap the wax cylinder from its paper covering; brush the surface clean; fit it on the rotator; position the horn right to the singer’s face and ask him or her to sing down the tube; move the stylus to the wax; turn the crank slowly. David transcribed the lyrics and notes in a booklet, along with a short interview about the origins of the person and the song, after the recording was made. I liked the songs, but didn’t love them, not like David loved them. I don’t know exactly where the passion came from—he didn’t grow up with the songs, not like me and my brother. But then again, I didn’t know much at all about David’s early life—whenever I’d ask, he’d shake his head, wave his hand like he was swatting away a blackfly, say it wasn’t interesting. I only knew that he was born in New York, that he lived for a few years in London when he was a young boy for his father’s work—the profession of which I didn’t know—and that he moved to Newport before going to the Conservatory. He did once mention an uncle in England who played the fiddle and took him to Ireland for a weeklong trip. Perhaps that’s where his collecting started—now, at seventy-two, I know that most things we love are seeded before we’re ten. When I asked what he liked about the songs, the ballads especially, he said—I remember his words exactly—that they were the most warm-blooded pieces of music he knew. I see what he means, that the songs are filled with the voices of thousands who’ve sung and changed them, and that they are always stories of people’s lives. Not like the baroque music I began to love at the Conservatory, sharp and abstract and ornate like a coldly glittering piece of perfect jewelry. The folk songs had soft underbellies, could put a lump in your throat just by the melody. Emotion in song; nothing fancy. In the years immediately after our collecting trip ended, for reasons that will become apparent, I didn’t want to sing the old songs. I turned to choir music, to arcing solos in cathedrals, which is why I took a position in a choir in Rome in 1929. It was only when my voice gave out in my fifties that I found the only thing I wanted to write about was American folk music, the traditions that trickled in from Europe and blossomed and twisted into something fresh and new. It was just by chance that my writing coincided with the folk revival in New York and Boston, and so my books sold well. It’s not beyond my understanding that I was writing them as a sort of memoriam to David, without mentioning his name. And I honestly began to love the music again, the old Scotch-Irish songs from my home state and throughout Appalachia, in a way that had eluded me for so long.

Of all the recordings that summer of 1917, I felt like we were missing the best sounds. I wanted an audio journal of the days between our work sessions. The sound of a windstorm coming up a valley. The sound of the pines’ broomed limbs brushing overhead. The kapock-kipp-koopof eight children’s wooden spoons hitting wooden plates down a table south of Augusta; the crackling lard around a side of meat burning in a skillet. I wanted to record David’s whispering, “Holy Jesus,” when we first came to a field glowing with fireflies in Dog Hill; the scrape of a snapping turtle’s claws across a table in Lincoln; the preamble in Cowper, when Nora Tettle and her three daughters, each so eager to have their songs recorded, singing at once entirely separate songs, each Tettle trying to outdo the others until David had to quiet them by knocking two cooking pans together. Love Williams in Southwick, seated in the middle of her kitchen, singing a modal tune while I tried to fix the phonograph, her six children and five stepchildren all sitting around her, quiet, until Love came to the second refrain, when the children couldn’t restrain themselves and one by one joined their mother. Twelve singers, four harmonies.

I wanted all the chiseled ridges of sound that went missing. The vibrations that had been released into the world and never concentrated down the phonograph’s tube and to the stylus, that had never been impressed to wax. I wanted a record of the sound from the years before: The first time David spoke his name to me in the pub. David asking me to his apartment. Asking me one late night if he should join the war or not, and me saying yes because I thought that’s what he wanted to hear. The history of sound, lost daily. I’ve started to think of Earth as a wax cylinder, the sun the needle, laid on Earth and drawing out the day’s music—the sound of people arguing, cooking, laughing, singing, moaning, crying, flirting. And behind that, a silent sweep of millions of sleeping people, washing across the Earth like static.

As the weeks passed, I noticed a darkness in David that I think he tried to keep hidden. His hands shook. He had trouble rolling his cigarettes. A few times I’d wake to see him standing some distance away from where we had made our bed. He was a black column under the moon, like a pillar of some ancient ruin. When we sang songs during our walks from town to town, he’d sometimes stop in the middle of a verse, repeating the last line, searching for the next one. I startled him once by coming up behind him too quietly. He jumped back, as if electrocuted. I assumed it was the war, as it was for so many men.

One day, tired of his silence, I asked if he’d ever shot somebody. He raised his hand in the air, and didn’t respond.

 

By late August, a week before David needed to return to Bowdoin to teach, we had only three cylinders left. We were on our way to a house up near Kingdom, a coastal town near a granite quarry. We were looking for the house of John Winslow, the cousin of a woman named Mary Conway, who, Mary said, had a bank of songs in his head. “And his wife, Rosemary, is one of the best cooks in a hundred miles. She’ll set you up good.”

Some kids in town directed us to the end of a long dirt road. It was one of those too-cold late summer evenings, when a wind from a few months out was already blowing a chill over the land. The fog we’d seen all day on the water had folded in. Nestled in the woods was the house—or shack, really. A corrugated metal roof, patchwork of clapboard. Dozens of deer antlers nailed to the exterior. A dog chained to a stake in the muddy yard sprang awake and barked, ran towards us, and then was jolted back when the chain snapped tight. A flock of blackbirds lifted from the rain-darkened trees around the house, then dissolved farther into the woods. I got what you’d call a bad feeling.

David knocked. Nobody came to the door, so he walked around the house, called into the woods.

“Let’s go,” I said when he came back around. Now, thinking back on that house, I seem to remember that there weren’t any windows.

The dog kept barking. Pulling at the chain. Jumping and choking itself. Huffing and snapping. A big dog. A bear dog, I think. Gray and brown with a white chest. Ears looked to be cut short.

“Shut up,” David yelled at the dog. “Let’s wait until he gets back,” he said, turning around and peering down the road. “I don’t think I can walk another mile. I’m thirsty and we’re out of water. We’re here.”

He shrugged off his pack, sat on the steps to the front door, patted his pocket for his tobacco, and then rolled a cigarette. He closed his eyes, rested the back of his head against the door.

I slipped my shoulders from the recorder’s straps, laid it carefully on the ground, sat beside him.

Then, for the first time since knowing each other, he asked me if I thought we’d see each other again, after the trip.

I said that I’d like to.

He asked if I worried about what we were doing.

I said I didn’t, because I didn’t.

He rolled his head against the door, as if to massage it. There was a slick of dirty sweat on his forehead. He then drew his legs up to his chest, leaned forward, put his chin on his knees, kept his eyes closed as if he were praying.

“I think I admire you,” he said.

The dog kept barking. The chain snapped and clanged.

I was just about to ask him why, when he yelled, “Shut up!” to the dog, then scrambled to his feet and strode towards it.

As David approached, the dog lifted onto its back legs, the taut chain holding it upright. Like an axe head about to fall.

“What are you doing?” I said. “Careful.”

David put out his hand, stepped closer. The dog was choking and wheezing as it pressed against its collar. David stood there looking at it, only a foot away, then flicked his cigarette at the dog’s feet.

A man then called from the forest’s edge, “Ho!”

I jumped up. David spun around. The dog went quiet.

The man had a long beard, mostly white but streaked dark. Over his shoulder was a long pole hung with dead rabbits. He held a gun in one hand.

“What in the hell are you doing?” he said, dropping the pole and holding up his gun with two hands.

“Hello!” David said cheerily, as if there wasn’t a gun pointed at him. “I’m David Ashton, and this is Lionel Worthing. We’re friends of your cousin, Mary Conway?”

“Mary.” John Winslow said. “And?” He put the gun at his side and picked up the staff with rabbits tied to it.

“You must be John,” David said. “We’re collecting songs, and Mary said you had a few?”

“Not interested,” John said. He walked towards us in that slow, intentional way that some woodsmen have, I’ve noticed. Like he felt the length of a day more than the rest of us, and didn’t need to rush.

“It would only take a moment,” David said. “Can I ask where you learned the songs?”

“Not interested,” he said again, leaning the staff on the side of the house. The rabbits—there were three of them—must have just been killed. Blood dripped out of the mouth of one, and tapped a bed of dry leaves.

“Mary said your family is from the west of Ireland?” David said.

John didn’t answer. Pulled a knife from his belt, cut the rabbits from the pole, and laid them out on the porch, side by side.

“Which town?” David asked. “I’ve spent some time there, way back. That’s where I first learned ‘The Shepherd’s Song.’ Maybe you know it?”

“Now look,” John said, staring at David for the first time. One of his eyes, I saw then, was filled with blood, I suppose from a broken vessel. His cheeks were sunken. His whole face twitched, clenched, and then loosened. “I’m not interested. I told you that once. I told you again. I’m not trying to be rude, here. I see you have come a long way, if you’re coming from Mary’s. Come back later, maybe later. A week or two, and I can help you then.”

David’s gift of persuasion, I think, was only in that he couldn’t stop going after something if he wanted it. If it wasn’t for Mary’s impassioned suggestion to record John, and for the fact that we wouldn’t be anywhere near his house in a week, I think David would have stopped there. John seemed unlike the others, who at first always refused because they were shy or suspicious. Instead, he refused in a way that was final, unforgiving. His back was already turned to us, and with his knife he cut into one of the rabbits, then began yanking away the pelt.

“Is your wife here?” David said. “Perhaps she’d like to sing? Rosemary?”

The man turned to David, knife in hand, blood all over. Behind him, the rabbit’s skin hung off its hind feet.

“Or water,” I said. “We’ve run out of water. Could you spare some water?”

He sighed, kicked at the ground.

“I am a Christian,” he said. He laid the knife on the porch, and then shuffled up the stairs. When he opened the door, sunlight spilled into the house and illuminated a woman’s body, lying flat on a table in the center of the room. He didn’t shut the door when he walked to the back, to the kitchen. The woman’s dress spilled off the table, as if a tablecloth. The hem billowed in the wind coming through the door. On her chest was a bouquet of flowers. David and I didn’t speak, as we both looked into the wake. When I heard John shut off the tap, I turned and stared into the trees.

He came out with two wooden cups.

“For the thirsty musicians,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said. I avoided a thumbprint of blood on the rim of my cup.

He picked up his knife and continued skinning the rabbit, finally yanking the skin off the feet. It landed with a wet flop when he threw it on the stairs.

“And is this what you do, go and ask people to sing down a tube?”

“I do,” David said, stuttering. “Yes, I do. But not him.” He pointed to me. “This one is a singer. He might have the best voice in New England.”

“Is that so?” John said. Stabbed the knife into the porch so it stood upright. With his two hands, tore off the skin of the second rabbit. “Go ahead. Sing us a tune, then.”

The water tasted metallic, bitter.

“I wouldn’t know what to sing,” I said. My head was still messy with the image of the woman on the table.

John started in on the other rabbit. “I’m sure you’ll think of one,” he said.

The first song that came to mind was “Lord Randal,” one of David’s favorites. He’d taught it to me one of the very rare mornings that we laid in bed in his apartment, when he didn’t leave before I woke.

“O where have you been, Lord Randal, my son?” I sang. I closed my eyes, tasted burnt butter, and saw the color pale green. “Where have you been, my handsome young man?”

“Christ,” I heard John say somewhere a hundred miles away. I realized then that I hadn’t sung the whole trip.

“I’ve been at the greenwood. Mother, make my bed soon.

For I’m wearied with hunting, and fain would lie down.”

 

“And what met you there, Lord Randal, my son?

And what met you there, my handsome young man?”

“O, I met with my true love. Mother, make my bed soon,

For I’m wearied with hunting, and fain would lie down.”

 

The ballad is long and repetitive, the mother drilling her son with questions, trying to figure out why he is feeling so sick and weary. He tells her that his lover made him fried eels for dinner, and that when the dogs ate his scraps, they all died. The mother tells him that he’s been poisoned. He agrees, and asks her again to make his bed so he can lie down and die, too. He tells her that he’s leaving her the family cows, leaving his sister his gold and silver, and leaving his brother his house and property. The mother then asks, “What did you leave to your true love, Lord Randal, my son? What did you leave to your true love, my handsome young man?” He replies,

“I leave her rope on yon apple tree, for to hang on. Mother, make my bed soon,

For it was her who poisoned me, and I fain would lie down.”

 

When I finished and opened my eyes, John and David were both looking at the ground. The sky appeared violet.

“I’m sorry about your loss,” David said to John then.

“Thank you for saying,” John said.

David looked at me. “Good choice in song,” he said. “Poisoned in love.” He hooked his arm through the strap of his pack. “I didn’t think you’d remember that one all the way through.” He hefted the pack, shifted it into place on his shoulders. “Strange he calls her his true love right to the end. His killer, that is.” He turned and walked away then, down the road, past the silent dog, without waiting for me. Without saying goodbye or thanking John, as he usually did with our hosts.

If John was disturbed by David’s sudden departure, he didn’t show it.

“A beautiful song there, lad,” he said. “I know it, too. You changed the end, though.”

“Did I?” I’d only sung what David had taught me.

“The end. It is usually, ‘I leave her fire and hell.’ Not an apple tree and rope. I think I like your version more. It’s a little gentler.”

“Thanks for your time,” I said, going over to the phonograph and heaving it onto my back.

His whole body shifted, as if whatever he was going to say had gotten bent and clogged in his throat. “Good luck, son.”

Another punch of cold wind rushed over the trees, as if August was already gone.

 

At the Portland train station, I told David I could stay in Maine longer, help him catalogue the recordings. I could find an apartment near campus, just for the fall semester, if he needed help. But I should have been more direct. For once, I should have been the one to give him directions. If not staying in Maine, I could have told him to come with me to Boston. Maybe things would have turned out better. Instead, he shook his head for reasons I only understood later, and said that we’d collect songs again the following summer. He told me we’d write.

September through December was the busiest time of year at the orchard back in Kentucky. In that time David hadn’t answered one of my letters, so in January I wrote to the Bowdoin music department. I explained I was a research assistant of David’s, a fellow graduate of the Conservatory, and that I’d been the one to join him on the song-collecting journey the summer previous. Could you, I asked,send me his address, as I may have the wrong one, and there are some papers I’d like to share? Or some lie like that.

The letter I got back, weeks later, was kind, I think. The department chair wrote that he was very sorry to be the one to deliver the news that David had passed away in the fall of 1919. He went on to say that he was sorry to report that he didn’t know what cylinders I was referring to—that David’s job had been teaching music composition, not ethnomusicology, and the department had not sponsored a trip for song collecting. I’m sorry I cannot be more helpful, he wrote. If I find the cylinders you’re referring to, I’ll be sure to forward them your way.

I folded the letter and walked outside, towards the orchards, and then realized that I didn’t want to go to the orchards, so walked to the blue gazebo, but that wasn’t the place, either. I ended up at my grandfather’s house, miles out of town. We had tea. He showed me a new trick his dog had learned—balancing a stick on his nose. I didn’t tell him about the letter. He said I “looked a bit sideways,” asked if I was drunk, and when I said no, he poured me a glass of whiskey and said, “Go on, then.” I slept at his house that night and for some nights following.

In a follow-up correspondence with the department chair, I discovered that David had had a fiancée, and that he’d been engaged since the spring before our trip.

 

It’s been a few days now, after writing this above section. Yesterday I called a friend at the Harvard Peabody Museum whom I knew would have access to a phonograph. He asked me to come by, as the thing was too heavy to lug to my house, plus he wasn’t sure he could get permission to bring it out of collections.

I walked the box of cylinders five blocks to the museum, met him at the door. He brought me past the new bird collection, past the skeletons and glass flowers, into the back office.

“I haven’t used one of these since I was a boy,” he said, slipping the dust cloth off the phonograph.

He helped me fit the first cylinder onto the rotator. He hooked the tube to the stylus base, and then placed the needle on the cylinder. Put his hand on the crank, turned it. What came from the horn was a man’s voice from fifty years ago, from a seaside town just north of Portland, singing a ballad as trim and haunting as when I first heard it.

The cylinders were each labeled on the ends with the song title and singer’s name and date of recording, which is why my eye was drawn to the last one in the box: October 20, 1919—a month after I said goodbye to David at the train station.

“Let’s see what’s on this one,” I said, pointing to that cylinder.

He unfolded the paper, fit the cylinder on the rotator. Started the crank.

“Hello, Lionel,” David’s scratchy voice said into the room.

My heart hurt like it had been kicked. Clenched into something that then gave me the same hot rush in my legs that happened the moment before I crashed my car years ago. Pinpricks shivered down my thighs.

The phonograph’s metal horn slushed out silence. I sank into the nearest chair.

“Are you okay?” my friend asked.

I nodded. Smiled.

“Thank you for this summer,” David said, from fifty years ago. “And for last year. I am sorry I am not the same as when we first met. There’s something in me that I can’t get rid of. Some rotten spot.”

More slush of silence—more static. The sound of him thinking. The silence was a high G.

“I can’t see around it,” David said. “The horizon of it just keeps speeding out ahead of me.”
More static. And then he started humming.

“What’s that he’s singing?” my friend said.

“‛Dead Winter’s Night,’” I said.

I closed my eyes, leaned back in the chair.

“One going west, the other east,” David sang in his stony baritone. “Two still figures at trees’ roots.”

I tasted salt and tobacco, saw the round shape of the color indigo thin into a rod of deep orange, then flash into a point of black which filled my mouth with the taste of wet stone.

I’m not sure what I expected to hear, what I wanted to hear, but what came to mind was that famous story about the phonograph—that it was Edison’s only invention that worked immediately. He drew out the concept of a stylus jittering over a soft surface, had his engineer mock one up, and it just worked, right then, the first time. It was that—the plain physicality of it, those hair-thin antique canyons chiseled by David’s voice—that I concentrated on, looking at the skin-colored cylinder on the rotator. Edison hadn’t thought to use the phonograph for music. He imagined doing what David had done here: recording messages, that it could be put beside a person’s deathbed so he or she might give final instructions. Or that you could record a baby’s voice, then the voice of the same person twenty years later, then as an old person, so that in one artifact you’d have an entire life. That it would be a comfort to people left behind. But it wasn’t a comfort. Only a reminder of the regret I thought I’d let go. I should have stayed on the train platform in Portland, or forced him to come with me to Boston. It was only a reminder that I actually still, amazingly, loved David. That my feelings for George and Clarissa were mindful, thoughtful, compared to this bone-deep kind that David’s voice had shaken loose. How to put it? This type of sadness. Not nostalgia. Not grief. Just the obvious and sudden fact that my life looked an inch shorter than it could have been. That the best year really had come when I was twenty. Walking over to the museum with the cylinders, I imagined I might be soothed by flipping through the audio scrapbook of that summer. That hearing Mary Conway’s or the Tettles’ voices would stitch a wound, in the same way that when I’d met up with Clarissa in Harvard Square years after we’d split, I was afterwards attended only by happiness at what might be an enduring friendship. The same with George—who regularly sent me updates on his life in Savannah, and who assured me he only felt thankful for our time together. But this cylinder reminded me of what I’d missed—which is, I think, a life that I didn’t know but of which David was a part. The real one. And how ridiculously short it had been. Only two months. The memories of fireflies and swimming naked in the waterfall did nothing but make very fine and long incisions in the membrane of contentedness I’d built up over the years—a good home, a successful career, kind neighbors, a few great relationships. A wasted life. Maybe that’s why people started using the phonograph for recording music—because why the hell would you want to listen to the voices of the loved and dead?

The song ended. The needle drifted off the cylinder.

“Do you want to listen to any others?” my friend said, detaching the cylinder and wrapping it in its paper. “Any specific one?” He fidgeted with the cylinders, turning them to read the labels.

Still, despite my shortness of breath, I wanted more. A dog gnawing at a bone, licking for marrow.

“Let’s start from the beginning,” I said. “The first one.”

I looked out the window, to the street, where the fluffy white seedpods were still blowing down the sidewalk, looking for a place to grow.

 

Ben Shattuck is a writer and painter from coastal Massachusetts. He is a graduate and former Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the director of the Cuttyhunk Island Writers’ Residency, and the lead curator at the Dedee Shattuck Gallery. He is a recipient of the 2017 PEN America Best Debut Short Story Award, and his writing can be found in the Harvard Review, the Paris Review Daily, Salon, Lit HubThe New RepublicKinfolk, and other publications. His paintings can be seen at benshattuck.com.

[Purchase Issue 16 here.]

 

Debbie WenThe History of Sound

Related Posts

Tina Chang

Friday Reads: November 2018

Curated by: SARAH WHELAN Thank you to everyone who bought Issue 16, subscribed to receive a copy, or attended a launch event! To celebrate, this month we have three more contributors are here to give us peak at their bookshelves. Whether you’re in the mood for a classic novel, a contemporary essay collection, or an

Building seen through a fence

Coloso

HUGO RÍOS CORDERO
In the same way that some structures carry time on their shoulders, we too want to observe its traces. Every place has anchors that halt time as it passes by. In Europe, the huge cathedrals are mute and impotent witnesses of history. The old sugar mills of Puerto Rico remind us...

mirror

Hunger’s Pace

ANA MARÍA FUSTER LAVÍN
When the girl stood, she heard the mirror murmur, Stay with me, always. “I hunger.” A blue bridge she hoped to cross one morning, to go on a walk, holding her mother’s hand. To play with the girl in the mirror in the park, to get on the swing set, legs dancing toward clouds.