Chat with us, powered by LiveChat Read the Short Story “The Year of Silence” found in the Weekly Assignments Tab. Write a responsive | Max paper
  

Read the Short Story “The Year of Silence” found in the Weekly Assignments Tab.  Write a responsive journal entry to the story.  You can write about aspects of the story you liked but perhaps think about how the town in the story responds to the silence…..this seemingly natural overbearing thing that takes over society and think about how our world has changed in the past year or so and in particular how our world has changed in regards to climate change.   

THE YEAR OF SILENCE

By Kevin Brockmeier

1.

Shortly after two in the afternoon, on Monday the sixth of April, a few seconds of silence overtook the

city. The rattle of the jackhammers, the boom of the transformers, and the whir of the ventilation fans

all came to a halt. Suddenly there were no car alarms cutting through the air, no trains scraping over

their rails, no steam pipes exhaling their fumes, no peddlers shouting into the streets. Even the wind

seemed to hesitate.

We waited for the incident to pass, and when it did, we went about our business. None of us foresaw

the repercussions.

2.

That the city’s whole immense carousel of sound should stop at one and the same moment was unusual,

of course, but not exactly inexplicable. We had witnessed the same phenomenon on a lesser scale at

various cocktail parties and interoffice minglers over the years, when the pauses in the conversations

overlapped to produce an air pocket of total silence, making us all feel as if we’d been caught

eavesdropping on one another. True, no one could remember such a thing happening to the entire city

before. But it was not so hard to believe that it would.

3.

A handful of people were changed by the episode, their lives redirected in large ways or small ones. The

editor of a gossip magazine, for instance, came out of the silence determined to substitute the next

issue’s lead article about a movie star for one about a fashion model, while her assistant realized that

the time had come for her to resign her job and apply for her teaching license. A lifelong vegetarian who

was dining in the restaurant outside the art museum decided to order a porterhouse steak, cooked

medium rare. A would-be suicide had just finished filling his water glass from the faucet in his bathroom

when everything around him seemed to stop moving and the silence passed through him like a wave,

bringing with it a sense of peace and clarity he had forgotten he was capable of feeling. He put the pill

bottle back in his medicine cabinet.

Such people were the exceptions, though. Most of us went on with our lives as though nothing of any

importance had happened until the next incident occurred, some four days later.

4.

This time the silence lasted nearly six seconds. Ten million sounds broke off and recommenced like an

old engine marking out a pause and catching spark again. Those of us who had forgotten the first

episode now remembered it. Were the two occasions connected? we wondered. And if so, how? What

was it, this force that could quell all the tumult and noise of the city—and not just the clicking of the

subway turnstiles and the snap of the grocery-store awnings, but even the sound of the street traffic,

that oceanic rumble that for more than a century had seemed as interminable to us as the motion of the

sun across the sky? Where had it come from? And why didn’t it feel more unnatural?

These questions nettled us. We could see them shining out of one another’s eyes. But a few days passed

before we began to give voice to them. The silence was unusual, and we were not entirely sure how to

talk about it—not because it was too grave and not because it was too trivial, but because it seemed

grave one moment and trivial the next, and so no one was quite able to decide whether it mattered

enormously or not at all.

5.

A stand-up comedian performing on one of the late-night talk shows was the first of us to broach the

subject, albeit indirectly. He waited for a moment in his act when the audience had fallen completely

still and then halted in midsentence, raising one of his index fingers in a listening gesture. A smile edged

its way onto his lips. He gave the pause perhaps one second too long, just enough time for a trace of

self-amusement to show on his face, then continued with the joke he had been telling.

He could not have anticipated the size of the laugh he would receive.

6.

The next morning’s newspapers had already been put to bed by the time the comedian’s routine was

broadcast. The morning after that, though, the first few editorials about the silence appeared. Then the

radio hosts and TV commentators began to talk about it, and soon enough it was the city’s chief topic of

conversation. Every family dinner bent around to it sooner or later, every business lunch, every pillow

talk. The bars and health clubs all circulated with bets about the phenomenon: ten dollars said the

government had something to do with it, twenty said it would never happen again.

When two full weeks went by without another incident, our interest in the matter threatened to shrivel

away, and might actually have done so had the next episode not occurred the following Sunday,

surprising us all in the middle of our church services.

There was another silence, more than ten seconds long, just a couple of days later, and a much shorter

silence, like a hiccup, the day after that.

Every time one of the silences came to an end we felt as though we had passed through a long

transparent passageway, a tunnel of sorts, one that made the world into which we had emerged appear

brighter and cleaner than it had before, less troubled, more humane. The silence had been siphoned out

of the city and into our ears, spilling from there into our dreams and beliefs, our memories and

expectations. In the wake of each fresh episode a new feeling flowed through us, full of warmth and a

lazy equanimity. It took us a while to recognize the feeling for what it was: contentment.

7.

The truth was that we enjoyed the silence, and more than that, we hungered for it. Sometimes we

found ourselves poised in the doorways of our homes in the morning, or on the edges of our car seats as

we drove to work, trying to hear something very faint beneath the clatter of sirens and engines. Slowly

we realized that we were waiting for another incident to take place.

There were weeks when we experienced an episode of silence almost every day. One particular

Wednesday saw three of them in the span of a single hour. But there were others when what the papers

took to calling a “silence drought” descended upon the city, and all our hopes for a cessation went in

vain. If more than a few days passed without some minor lull to interrupt the cacophony, we would

become irritable and overtender, quick to gnash at one another and then to rebuke ourselves for our

failures of sympathy. On the other hand, a single interlude of silence might generate an aura of fellow

feeling that could last for the better part of a day.

The police blotters were nearly empty in the hours following a silence. The drunks in the bars turned

amiable and mild. The jails were unusually tranquil. The men who ran the cockfights in the warehouses

down by the docks said that their birds lost much of their viciousness after the great roar of the city had

stopped, becoming as useless as pigeons, virtually impossible to provoke to violence.

And there was another effect that was just as impressive: the doctors at several hospitals reported that

their mortality rates showed a pronounced decline after each incident, and their recovery rates a

marked increase. No, the lame did not walk, and the blind did not see, but patients who were on the

verge of recuperating from an injury often seemed to turn the corner during an episode, as if the

soundlessness had triggered a decision somewhere deep in the cells of their bodies.

Surely the most dramatic example was the woman at Mercy General who came out of a prolonged

coma in the space of a five-second silence. First her hand moved, then her face opened up behind her

eyes, and soon after the noise of the hospital reemerged, she moistened her lips and said that

everything sounded exactly the same to her.

The doctors had a hard time convincing her that she was, in fact, awake.

8.

The silence proved so beneficial to us that we began to wish it would last forever. We envisioned a city

where everyone was healthy and thoughtful, radiant with satisfaction, and the sound of so much as a

leaf lighting down on the sidewalk was as rare and startling as a gunshot.

9.

Who was the first person to suggest that we try generating such a silence ourselves, one that would

endure until we chose to end it? No one could remember. But the idea took hold with an astonishing

tenacity.

Local magazines published laudatory cover stories on the Silence Movement. Leaflets with headings like

PROMOTE SILENCE and SILENCE = LIFE appeared in our mailboxes. The politicians of both major parties

began to champion the cause, and it wasn’t long before a measure was passed decreeing that the city

would take every possible effort “to muffle all sources of noise within its borders, so as to ensure a

continuing silence for its citizens and their families.”

The first step, and the most difficult, was the dampening of the street traffic. We were encouraged first

of all to ride the subway trains, which were appointed with all the latest noise alleviation devices,

including soft-fiber pressure pads and magnetic levitation rails. Most of the cars that were left on the

road were equipped with silently running electric engines, while the others had their motors fitted with

mineral wool shells that allowed them to operate below the threshold of hearing. The roads themselves

were surfaced with a reinforced open-cell foam that absorbed all but the lowest-frequency sounds, a

material that we also adapted for use on our sidewalks and in our parking garages.

Once the street traffic was taken care of, we turned our attention to the city’s other sources of noise.

We sealed the electrical generators behind thick layers of concrete. We placed the air-conditioning

equipment in nonresonant chambers. We redesigned the elevators and cargo lifts, replacing their metal

components with a clear durable plastic originally developed by zoos as a display barrier to prevent the

roars of the lions from reaching the exhibits of the prey animals. Certain noises that weren’t essential to

either the basic operations or the general aesthetic texture of the city were simply banned outright:

canned music, church bells, fireworks, ring tones.

10.

We were exultant when the roads fell silent and pleased when the elevators stopped crying out on their

cables, but by the time the cell phones and the pagers ceased to chirp, we were faced with a problem of

diminishing returns. The greater the number of sounds we extinguished, the more we noticed the ones

that remained, until even the slightest tap or ripple began to seem like an assault against the silence.

A clock ticking inside a plastic casing.

Water replenishing itself in a toilet tank.

A rope slapping languidly against a flagpole.

A garbage disposal chopping at a stream of running water.

The flat buzzing of a fluorescent light.

A modem squealing its broken tune.

A deodorizer releasing its vapor into the air.

An ice maker’s slow cascade of thumps.

One by one, perhaps, these sounds were of little account, but added together they grew into a single

vast sonority, and no matter how many of them we were able to root out, we kept discovering others.

Now and then, while we were working to eliminate the noise of a match taking light or a soda can

popping open, another episode of true silence would occur, a bubble of total peace and calm

enwrapping the city in its invisible walls, and we would be reminded of the magnitude of what we were

striving for.

How inexcusably flimsy, we realized, was the quiet we had managed to create.

We redoubled our efforts.

11.

We were more resourceful than we had imagined. It seemed that for every noise that cropped up, there

was at least one person in the city who was prepared to counteract it. An engineer bothered by the

medical helicopter that beat by his office a dozen times a day drew up plans for a special kind of rotor

blade, one that would slice through the air as smoothly as a pin sliding into a pincushion. He handed the

plans over to the hospital, and within a few weeks the helicopter drifted so quietly past his window that

he was surprised each time he saw it there.

A single mother raising an autistic son who was provoked to fits of punching by the tone of her doorbell

devised an instrument that replaced the sound with a pulsing light. She said that her son liked to sit on

the floor watching now as she pressed the button again and again, a wobbly grin spreading over his face

like a pool of molasses.

A carpenter designed a nail gun that would soak up the noise of its own thud. A schoolteacher created a

frictionless pencil sharpener. An antiques dealer who liked to dabble in acoustic engineering invented a

sonic filter that could comb the air of all its sounds before releasing it into a room.

Eventually every noise but the muffled sigh of our breathing and the ticking of our teeth in our mouths

had been removed from inside our buildings. The wind continued to blow, and the rain continued to fall,

and no one had yet proposed a method to keep the birds from singing, but as long as we did not venture

outside, we remained sealed in a cocoon of silence.

12.

There were times when the silence was close to perfect. Whole minutes went by after the early morning

light breached the sky when the surging, twisting world of sound left us completely alone and we could

lie there in our beds simply following our ruminations. We came to know ourselves better than we had

before—or, if not better, then at least in greater stillness. It was easier for us to see the shapes we

wished our lives to take. People changed their jobs, took up chess or poker, began new courses of

exercise. A great many couples made their marriage vows, and not a few others filed for divorce.

One boy, an eight-year-old who attended the Holy Souls Parochial Academy, left school as the rest of his

class was walking to the lunchroom, rode the subway to the natural history museum, and found his way

to the dinosaur exhibit. He waited until the room had emptied out and then stole beneath the

tyrannosaurus, using the giant ribs of the skeleton to climb up to the skull. He was found there late that

evening by a security guard, sitting hungry but uninjured on the smoothly curving floor of the jaw. The

boy had left a note in his teacher’s paper tray explaining himself. He had dreamed that the dinosaur was

still roaring, the note said, but so weakly that the sound could be heard only from directly inside its

head. He wanted to find out if it was true.

13.

The boy who climbed the tyrannosaurus was not the first of us to feel that his dreams were blending

together with his reality. There was something about the luxuriousness of our situation that made it

tempting to imagine that the space outside our heads was conforming to the space inside. Yet we did

not really believe that this was so. It was just that we were seeing everything with a greater clarity now,

both our minds and our surroundings, and the clarity had become more important to us than the

division.

14.

The silence was plain and rich and deep. It seemed infinitely delicate, yet strangely irresistible, as though

any one of us could have broken it with a single word if we had not been so enraptured. Every so often

another natural episode would take place, and for a few seconds the character of the silence would

change slightly, the way the brightness of a room might alter as some distant roller in the current surged

through a lightbulb. But the quiet we had generated was so encompassing by now that only the most

sensitive among us could be sure that something had truly happened.

15.

In the abundant silence we proceeded into ourselves. We fell asleep each night, woke each morning,

and went about our routines each day, doing the shopping and preparing our tax returns, making love

and cooking dinner, filing papers and cupping our palms to our mouths to check the smell of our

breaths, all in the beautiful hush of the city. Everywhere we could see the signs of lives in fluctuation.

A librarian who had worked in the periodicals room for almost three decades began displaying her oil

paintings at an art gallery—hundreds of them, all on lending slips she had scavenged from the library’s

in/out tray, each tiny piece of paper flexed with the weight of the paint that had hardened onto it. The

flyers at the gallery door proclaimed that the woman had never had the nerve to show her work before

the silence was established.

The bursar at the university was caught skimming money from the school’s pension fund. In her letter of

resignation, she said she was ashamed only that she had been found out. If there was one thing the

silence had taught her, she wrote, it was that any grief that befell a professor emeritus could never be

more than a fraction of what he deserved.

A visiting gymnast giving an exhibition on the pommel horse at the midtown sports club fractured his

wrist while he was doing a routine scissor movement. But up until the moment of the accident, he

reported, the audience in the city was the most respectful he had ever seen, barely a cough or a rustle

among them.

16.

Gradually, as we grew used to the stillness, the episodes of spontaneous and absolute silence came less

frequently. There might be a three-second burst one week, followed by a one-second flicker a few

weeks later, and then, if the episodes were running exceptionally heavy, another one-second echo a

week or two after that.

One of the physicists at the city’s Lakes and Streams Commission came up with what he called a

“skipping-rock model” to describe the pattern. The distribution of the silences, he suggested, was like

that of a rock skipping over the water and then, if one could imagine such a thing, doubling back and

returning to shore. At first such a rock would land only rarely, but as it continued along its path, it would

strike down more and more rapidly, until eventually the water would seize it and it would sink. But then,

according to the paradigm, the rock would be ejected spontaneously through the surface to repeat its

journey in reverse, hitting the water with increasing rarity until it landed back in the hand of the man

who had thrown it.

The physicist could not explain why the silence had adopted this behavior, he said—or who, if anyone,

anyone, had thrown it—he could only observe that it had.

17.

A time came some eight months after the first incident took place when it had been so long since

anyone had noticed one of the episodes that it seemed safe to presume they were finished.

The city was facing an early winter. Every afternoon a snow of soft fat flakes would drift gently down

from the sky, covering the trees and the pavilions, the mailboxes and the parking meters. Recalling the

way the snow used to soften the noise of the traffic made us experience a flutter of helpless nostalgia.

Everything was different now. The sound of our footsteps creaking over the fresh accumulation was like

a horde of crickets scraping their wings together in an empty room.

Not until we walked through the snow did we really discover how accustomed we had grown to the

silence.

18.

We might have been content to go on as we were forever, whole generations of us being born into the

noiseless world, learning to crawl and stand and tie our shoes, growing up and then apart, setting our

pasts aside, and then our futures, and finally dying and becoming as quiet in our minds as we had been

in our bodies, had it not been for another event that came to pass.

It was shortly after nine a.m., on Tuesday, January the twenty-sixth, when a few seconds of sound

overtook the city. There was a short circuit in the system of sonic filters we had installed in the buildings,

and for a moment the walls were transparent to every noise. The engine of a garbage truck suddenly

backfired. A cat began to yowl. A rotten limb dropped from a tree and shattered the veneer of ice that

lay over a pond. Ten thousand people struck their knees on the corner of a desk or remembered a loss

they had forgotten or slid into an orgasm beneath the bodies of their lovers and cried out in pain or grief

or sexual ecstasy.

The period of noise was abrupt and explosive, cleanly defined at both its borders. Instinctively we found

ourselves twisting around to look for its source. Then the situation corrected itself, and just like that we

were reabsorbed in the silence.

It seemed that the city had been opened like a tin can. So much time had gone by since we had heard

our lives in their full commotion that we barely recognized the sound for what it was. The ground might

have fallen in. The world might have ended.

19.

Four days later another such incident occurred, this one almost eight seconds long. It was followed the

next week by a considerably shorter episode, as brief as a coal popping in a fire, which was itself

followed a few days later by a fourth episode, and immediately after by a fifth and a sixth, and early the

next afternoon by a seventh.

We were at a loss to account for the phenomenon.

A cryptographer employed by the police force announced his belief that both the episodes of silence

and the episodes of clamor resembled communications taking the form of Morse code, though from

whom or what he could not say. A higher intelligence? The city itself ? Any answer he might give would

be no more than speculation. His hunch was that the sender, whoever it was, had resorted to using

noise because we had ceased to take note of the silence. He said that he was keeping a record of the

dots and dashes and hoped to be able to decipher the message very soon.

20.

The cryptographer’s theory bore all the earmarks of lunacy, and few of us pretended to accept it, but it

was, at least, a theory. Every so often another event would transpire, interrupting the stillness with a

burst of shouts and rumbles, and we would stop whatever we were doing, our arms and shoulders

braced as if against some invisible blow, and wonder what was going on. Many of us began to look

forward to these eruptions of sound. We dreamed about them at night, awaiting them with a feeling of

great thirst. The head of the city’s Notary Public Department, for instance, missed the noise of the

Newton’s Cradle he kept in his office, the hanging metal balls clicking tac-tac-tac against one another as

they swayed back and forth. The cabdriver who began his circuit outside the central subway terminal

every morning wished that he was still able to punch his horn at the couriers who skimmed so close to

his bumper on their bicycles. The woman who ran the Christian gift store in the shopping mall designed

a greeting card with an illustration of a trio of kittens playing cymbals, bagpipes, and a tuba on the front.

The interior caption read MAKE A JOYFUL NOISE UNTO THE LORD. She printed out a hundred copies to

stock by the cash register, along with twenty-three more to mail to the members of her Sunday school

class.

21.

It turned out that in spite of everything the silence had brought us, there was a hidden longing for sound

in the city. So many of us shared in this desire that a noise club began operating, tucked away in the

depths of an abandoned recording studio. The people who went to the club did so for the pure

excitement of it, for the way the din set their hearts to beating. Who needed serenity? they wanted to

know. Who had ever asked for it? They stood in groups listening to the club’s switchboard operator

laying sound upon sound in the small enclosed space of the room. The slanting note of a violin. The

pulse of an ambulance siren. A few thousand football fans cheering at a stadium. Gallons of water

geysering from an open hydrant.

Afterward, when the club’s patrons arrived home, they lay on their pillows unable to fall asleep, their

minds spinning with joy and exhilaration.

22.

The episodes continued into the spring, falling over the city at intervals none of us could predict.

Whenever we became most used to the silence, it seemed, the fundamental turmoil of the world would

break through the tranquillity and present itself to us again. More and more people began to prefer

these times of disruption. They made us feel like athletes facing a game, like soldiers who had finished

their training, capable of accomplishing great things in battle.

A consensus slowly gathered among us. We had given up something important, we believed: the fire,

the vigor, that came with a lack of ease. We had lost some of the difficulty of our lives, and we wanted it

back.

23.

The city council drafted a measure to abolish the silence initiative. After a preliminary period of debate

and consideration, it was adopted by common consent. The work of breaking the city’s silence was not

nearly as painstaking as the work of establishing it had been. With the flip of a few switches and the snip

of a few wires, the sonic filters that had sheltered our buildings were disabled, opening our walls up to

every birdcall and thunderclap. Scrapers and bulldozers tore up the roads, and spreading machines laid

down fresh black asphalt. The cloth was unwound from the clappers of the church bells. The old city

buses were rolled out of the warehouses. A fireworks stand was erected by the docks, and a gun club

opened behind the outlet mall. A man in a black suit carried an orange crate into the park one evening

to preach about the dangers of premarital sex. A man with a tattoo of a teardrop on his cheek set three

crisply folded playing cards on a table and began shuffling them in intersecting circles, calling out to the

people who walked by that he would offer two dollars, two clean new, green new, George Washington

dollar bills, to anyone who could find that lovely lady, that lady in red, the beautiful queen of hearts.

24.

In a matter of weeks, we could hear cell phones ringing in restaurants again, basketballs slapping the

pavement, car stereos pouring their music into the air. Everywhere we went we felt a pleasurable sense

of agitation. And if our interactions with one another no longer seemed like the still depths of secluded

pools, where enormous fish stared up at the light sifting down through the water—well, the noise

offered other compensations.

We became more headstrong, more passionate. Our sentiments were closer to the surface. Our lives

seemed no less purposeful than they had during the silence, but it was as if that purpose were waiting

several corners away from us now, rather than hovering in front of our eyes.

For a while the outbreaks of sound continued to make themselves heard over the noise of the city, just

as the outbreaks of silence had, but soon it became hard to distinguish them from the ongoing rumble

of the traffic. There were a few quick flashes of noise during the last week of May, but if they carried on

into the summer, we failed to notice them. In their place were dogs tipping over garbage cans, flatbed

trucks beeping as they backed out of alleys, and fountains spilling into themselves again and again.

The quiet that sometimes fell over us in movie theaters began to seem as deep as any we had ever

known. We had a vague inkling that we had once experienced our minds with a greater intimacy, but we

could not quite recover the way it had felt.

25.

Every day the silence that had engulfed the city receded further into the past. It was plain that in time

we would forget it had ever happened. The year that had gone by would leave only a few scattered signs

behind, like the imprints of vanished shells in the crust of a dried lake bed: the exemplary hush of our

elevators, the tangles of useless wire in our walls, and the advanced design of our subway lines, fading

slowly into antiquation. That and a short item published in the Thursday, July the eighth, edition of the

morning newspaper, a letter detailing the results of the log the police department’s cryptographer had

been keeping, a repeating series of dots and dashes whose meaning was explicit, he said, but whose

import he could not fathom. Dot, dot. Dot, dot, dot. Dash. Dot. Dash, dot. Dot, dash, dash. Dot. Dot,

dash, dot, dot. Dot, dash, dot, dot. Dot, dash, dot, dot.

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