The Sound Thief

by Francesca Forrest

Samuel Conway was a clever man, and after being shown one of M. Daguerre’s silver plates, a portrait of the Irish opera singer Catherine Hayes, it occurred to him that if an image could be made to stick fast to a plate, perhaps a sound could be made to as well. And the adhesive medium? Conway thought about those times when it’s so quiet that even the tiniest sound rings in the ear, those places in which heartbeats and breathing are deafening: outside the closed door of a child’s sickroom; in a courtroom as the accused waits for the judge to read the charges; in a parlor where someone sits, counting and recounting the number of days that the post has brought no letter. As dry soil soaks up rain, such silences must surely soak up sound, Conway reasoned.

The deepest silence of all is the silence of the grave, so the enterprising Conway became a grave robber, entering mausoleums and family vaults and collecting silence. At first, in imitation of Daguerre, Conway tried coating silver plates with the silence, but realizing that sound requires space in which to resonate, he switched to glass lanterns. Tests of his invention on sparrows and barking dogs proved it a success with an irredeemable flaw: once the lanterns had caught the sparrows’ songs or the dogs’ barks, the sparrows and dogs were rendered mute. Further testing on unsuspecting human subjects revealed that when the silence was spread a little more lightly upon the interior of the lantern, it was possible to trap just the person’s utterance of the moment and not the voice itself, though this was small consolation to the mother who could no longer call her children by name or to the cat that could meow but no longer purr.

Conway was undeterred by this drawback and decided to amass a collection of the finest sounds he could lay his hands on. He captured the choir of Salem’s North Church singing “See, Gentle Patience Smiles on Pain”–and thereafter the choir had to abandon its favorite hymn. He captured the sound of the bells of the Catholic church by the mills in Lowell ringing out the Angelus, and when the bells didn’t sound at noon the following day, or the next, or the next, the parishioners took it upon themselves to raise the funds necessary to replace the ailing bells. Perhaps most dramatically, Conway captured the mating song of the king of the North American clarion swans, which Audubon and others likened to a horn fanfare. Unfortunately, the silence was laid down too thickly in that lantern and pulled out the swan king’s voice in its entirety. His subjects, abashed by the fate of their monarch, forbore to sing as well, and within a generation the clarion swans had completely forgotten their traditional songs. Ornithologists were forced to rename the species the North American mute swan.

Because Conway was not much of a traveler, he offered to pay sailors on whaling and trading ships to bring him back exotic sounds from around the world. Jamie Morris brought him a song that he claimed was sung by a member of the Hawaiian royal family; George Penney brought him the gossipy sound of the West African chattering giraffe; Jean Comeau brought him several haunting songs from the tea plantations of Ceylon. There were many others like them, but Jamie, George, and Jean were the best when it came to capturing, stealing, begging, or blackmailing sounds and songs from people.

The best, that is, except for Michael Donovan. Michael Donovan lived in Lowell and mistrusted the sea. He believed he could find sounds and songs to interest Conway on dry land, and in Massachusetts, even–sounds that Conway had overlooked in his early days of collecting. Michael brought him the song of the first wood thrush to sing in the spring of 1847, a jumprope song sung by some children on Summer Street, and the sound of water dripping from a spiderweb after a rainstorm. Michael was especially proud of that last one as it required just the right amount of silence to be laid down in the lantern: too much, and all the background noises would be pulled in; too little, and the sound of the raindrops wouldn’t stick.

When Michael had just one lantern left, he realized that there was a song that he yearned to possess for himself: the cuckoo song, as he had heard it sung by Mary Bright when he was a boy. “The cuckoo is a pretty bird, she sings as she flies, she brings us good tidings and she tells us no lies” went the song, and Michael recalled that Mary Bright had sounded much sweeter than any bird when she sang that song. But it was going on ten years ago that he had heard her perform. Where would she be now? Had she gone west? Traveled to Europe?

Imagine his surprise to discover that she had settled in his own city and that she ran a confectionery shop, “The Songbird’s Sweets.” She looked older and stouter than the singer inhabiting Michael’s memories, and Michael had a moment of doubt. Would the song have aged as well? But when Mary said “May I help you?” in a rich alto voice, Michael’s doubts vanished. He stammered out something about the concert he had heard when he was twelve, and how beautiful it had been, and–would she ever consider- did she ever- did she still sing? Would she, maybe … sing a particular song? Here, even? Now?

Michael felt his cheeks flaming and berated himself for not having thought through what he’d say before he started speaking. It was so much easier to hide up a tree or behind a wall and catch sounds that way. Asking for a song directly was surprisingly hard.

“So, it’s not a blueberry tart you want, or chocolate-dipped cherries, or candied almonds? It’s a song? But this is a confectionery, not a recital hall,” said Mary. “I don’t sing anymore, I’m afraid.”

Michael was at a loss for words. He stared across the counter at Mary, glanced at the treats on display beneath the glass, then looked up at Mary again. Her brow crinkled in friendly concern.

“Let me send you home with some chocolate cherries, as a present,” she said. “It’s very sweet to think I had a young admirer, back so many years ago.” Michael mumbled his thanks, and Mary brought out a little box and some tissue paper.

“What song was it that you were hoping to hear?” she asked, lining the box with the tissue paper and taking six chocolate-covered cherries from their tray.

“Oh–the cuckoo song,” said Michael.

Mary’s hands froze in the middle of tying the bow on the box.

“The cuckoo song,” she said, more a statement more than a question.

“Yes, I-“

“There was another man, a sailor, I think, who begged me to sing that very song, some six months ago. I told him what I told you, but he begged and wheedled and came back the next day with a half pound of cocoa beans as a present. So I sang it for him.” She frowned. “I was a little flat at one point, in the second verse, so I went to sing it again, but I couldn’t. It just wouldn’t come out. That sailor–I remember he had the most spectacular orange hair–just gave me the queerest smile and bowed and thanked me and left. Very strange. I tried all the rest of that day to sing the cuckoo song, but it wouldn’t come. And now here you are, asking for the selfsame song.”

“Orange hair? It must have been Jamie Morris,” said Michael, scowling. “What was he doing here? Old Mr. Conway has plenty of songs already. He didn’t need this one.”

“Jamie Morris is the sailor’s name? You know him?”

“Just by reputation. He’s good at getting what he wants, but he’s sloppy, too. Lays on the silence really thick–it’s lucky he left you with any voice at all.”

“He wasn’t silent; I’ve hardly ever met a man who talked more,” said Mary.

“I mean he lays the silence on thick in his lanterns,” said Michael. He brought out his own (being sure the door was securely latched) and showed it to Mary, explaining to her who Conway was and how the lanterns worked. She crossed her arms and regarded Michael coldly.

“So if Jamie Morris had never stopped by my shop, and I had sung for you instead, then the song would be trapped in your lantern instead of his–is that what you’re telling me? So you’re a thief as well, just a slower and less successful one.”

The seasick feeling Michael was experiencing under Mary’s gaze was exactly why he had never been tempted to go to sea. It wasn’t fair that one could feel it standing on dry and unmoving land.

“I’m much more careful applying the silence. If you had sung it for me, you probably could have sung it again if you modified it just a little–pitched it a little higher or lower, or changed the tempo,” he said. Mary made no reply.

“I guess it is still theft,” Michael conceded, looking at his shoes. Mary remained silent, and it occurred to Michael that the silence would be very effective in a lantern. He made himself look up and meet her eyes.

“I was only thinking of how much I would like to have the song,” he said, “not about what it would be like for you to lose it. I’m sorry. But. . . maybe I can get the song back for you.” The words were out of his mouth before he had a chance to think about what he was offering.

“You said once sounds are stuck in those lanterns, there’s no getting them out again,” Mary said.

“Well, that’s what Conway says, but there has to be a way. Even the stickiest things lose their stick eventually. I’ll find a way to unstick your song,” Michael replied.

Mary took a deep breath. “I’d be very grateful for that,” she said. She managed a small smile. “If you do bring me my song back, then I’ll sing it for you, fresh.” Michael nodded and hurried out of the shop, leaving the box of cherries on the counter.

Michael brooded on the task he had set himself as he walked back to the boardinghouse. Silence was the medium that attracted sound. Noise was the opposite of silence. Could noise be used to free a sound from the silence-coated lanterns? But if a lantern already contained a sound, where would the noise find purchase?

Even when the lantern’s filled with a sound, there’s still some silence in it, too, mused Michael. Between each chirrup in a chorus of spring peepers, tiny pauses. During the rests in an army marching tune–small slivers of silence. If a lantern containing sounds like those were to be exposed to a loud, continuous uproar–the rush of water at the Swamp Locks gatehouse, or the wailing of a baby, say–then wasn’t it possible that the noise would be taken up by any remaining silence in the lantern? And if the new noise was powerful enough, mightn’t it even dislodge the sound that had originally been in the lantern?

Michael looked at his one remaining lantern, still empty. He could test his theory. He walked alongside the Merrimack canal until he came to a relatively peaceful spot, then squatted down at the edge of the bank. He cleared his throat, opened the door to the lantern, and started singing the cuckoo song–that is, those were the words he sang, but the tune he chose was “All around the mulberry bush.” That way, he reasoned, even if the experiment failed, he’d still be able to sing the song properly.

When he had finished, he snapped the door to the lantern shut. He tried twice and then a third time to repeat his performance, but the sounds wouldn’t come. He opened the door to the lantern, and there it was: his own voice, singing the old song to the nursery rhyme tune.

Now to see about freeing the tune from the lantern. He started to head for the sluices at Swamp Lock gatehouse but suddenly had qualms. If he used the rush of water to dislodge his voice from the lantern, would the falls be rendered silent? Church bells could be replaced if they ceased to ring, but no one would be able to bring back the roar of the falls.

If he bent low and put the lantern very close to the falls, could he steal away just a portion of its roar and leave the rest? He grinned, thinking of a small torrent of silence mixed in with the general tumult. He could cup his hands around the lantern door the way one cupped one’s hand to one’s ear. . . and then it came to him. He wheeled about and hurried back once again toward the boardinghouse.

There on the windowsill in his room were three shells, knobbed whelks, mementos of his older brother, who had been a fisherman. Hearing the roar of the sea from within their curved interiors was enough of the ocean for Michael, more even than he needed. He wouldn’t regret a silent seashell. He picked one up and put it to his ear: yes, the sound of the surf, continuous. So he set the lantern on his washstand and held the shell in readiness, then opened the lantern door and quickly pressed the shell against it.

Something began to happen; the lantern vibrated, and Michael imagined he heard something, like the sound of fair-weather clouds greeting each other in the sky. The lantern and shell began to feel slightly warm in his hands, then grew gradually hotter.

He pulled the shell away, and suddenly, filling his whole room, was the sound of his strange singing–a few syllables missing, that must still be stuck in the lantern, and a bit of extra roar at the edges, where some of the sea in the shell must have spilled out. The song pressed around him, making him gasp and inhale sharply, once, twice, a third time, as if he were drowning in it.

And then the room was silent again. Michael cleared his throat and essayed the cuckoo song to the tune of “All around the mulberry bush.” He found he could sing it, though his voice caught here and there, and there was a rumbling in his rendition that would have made listeners wonder if he were catching cold.

It was already midafternoon, but Michael was determined to make the trip to Mr. Conway’s house on the outskirts of Salem, so he collected the money he had saved and bought himself a place on the next stagecoach. The setting sun was painting the white door of Conway’s house a warm rose by the time Michael stood before it.

The swaths of silence and the missing sounds that seemed to follow in Mr. Conway’s wake had made him among the less popular of Salem’s residents; that fact and his own eccentricity caused him to be delighted, rather than irritated, to receive an unexpected guest late in the day, especially when the guest was Michael Donovan. He took Michael straightaway to his sound library and bade him sit down at the little table in the center of the large room.

“I’ll have tea brought in. What would you like to listen to while we wait? The singing sand dunes of Tarfaya? A wedding song from Kashgar? Or perhaps something more local?”

“Thank you sir, but I don’t intend to stay long. Really I only stopped by to see about purchasing some more silence. I need to line some more lanterns.”

“Oh really? Wonderful! Those railworkers’ songs you brought me last month were quite entertaining–though I was sorry to hear about your unfortunate run-in.

“It was my own fault. I shouldn’t have let them see me.” Michael sighed. “No one likes to be robbed.”

“People are so unreasonable,” said Conway, shaking his head. “They begrudge one song, and yet safe in a lantern, the song may well survive the singers. Perhaps in a hundred years’ time people will come here to listen to the sounds in my library, the way we visit museums today.”

Michael made no response, just kept his face polite and deferential.

“Well then,” said Conway, clapping his hands together. “Let me go see what I have in the storeroom. How much do you think you need?”

“Oh. . . six lanterns’ worth should be enough,” said Michael, glancing at the clock on the mantelpiece, which showed that it was now half past six.

Conway headed for a door at the far end of the library.

“You’re sure you don’t want to listen to anything while you wait?” he turned back to ask, hand on the doorknob.

“I’ll just browse, if that’s all right,” Michael replied. Conway nodded and pulled the door closed behind him, leaving Michael alone in the library.

Michael took six quick steps to an alcove about two-thirds of the way along the library’s walls. Yes, just as he recalled, the brass plaque here read “Vocal Singing: United States.” Michael scanned the tags that were attached to the bases of the lanterns until at last his eyes fell upon the name he was searching for. “Mary Bright: The Cuckoo Song,” said the tag. He lifted it carefully off the shelf and slipped it into his satchel, leaving his experimental lantern from earlier in the day in its place. Then he crossed the room, which put him in front of “Wildlife: Marine.” He snorted when he saw the tag “Selkie Lovesong.” Surely another Jamie Morris capture. The man was such a faker, and Mr. Conway was so gullible.

“Oh yes, that one’s quite beautiful,” said Conway, coming up behind him. “Morris certainly does capture some remarkable sounds. He lacks your subtlety, though.”

Ordinarily Michael would have bridled at the praise of his rival and reveled in Conway’s compliment, but now he was anxious to leave as quickly as possible. He didn’t let himself be drawn into a discussion of the relative merits of European and American burying grounds’ silence; he agreed with Conway’s recommendations, made his purchase, apologized for not being able to stay for tea, and hurried off into the evening. There wouldn’t be a stagecoach back to Lowell until morning, but Michael couldn’t wait. He’d walk.

He looked rather the worse for wear when Mary, opening her shop the following morning, noticed him leaning against the lamp post out front. He startled when she called to him, ran his fingers through his hair, and came to the door.

“Have you been there all night?” she asked, hands on her hips.

“No, no. I only got here … oh, a few hours ago, I guess. The first bells for the mills were ringing.” He stifled a yawn. “I brought you something,” he said, reaching into his satchel.

Mary’s eyes widened when she saw the tag attached to the lantern.

“My song. . . in there?”

“Do you want to hear it?”

Mary put her hands to her lips, almost prayer style, but didn’t say anything. Michael opened the lantern door.

_The cuckoo is a pretty bird,

She sings as she flies,

She brings us good tidings

And she tells us no lies

_sang the lantern, in the sweet tones Michael remembered from his childhood.

Mary’s lips parted, and she seemed to be struggling to say something.

_She sucks all the sweet flowers

To make her voice clear

She never sings cuckoo

Till summer is near

_continued the lantern. Mary reached forward and pushed its door closed. Her lips were pressed closed too, tightly.

“I’ve found a way to free the song from the lantern,” said Michael, following close behind her as she strode back into her shop. She turned to face him, frowning deeply.

“Truly. I tested it yesterday. It’s not quite perfect, but almost. And then the song will be yours again.”

Michael reached into his satchel again and drew out the largest of the knobbed whelks his brother had given him. He told Mary the steps he had taken yesterday, and warned her to be ready when the shell and the lantern became hot to the touch.

“You’ll feel the song pressing against you,” he said. “Just breathe in at that point–it’ll be hard not to–and you’ll have it. You’ll have to do it somewhere private, though. . . I shouldn’t be with you, and no one else should be, either, or the song might end up in them instead.”

“I’ll go into the pantry,” murmured Mary. “Abby, don’t come into the pantry until I come out. You can get started dividing the eggs; we’re making meringue today,” she added, turning to a young girl who had come in from the back and was waiting expectantly. Both Abby and Mary disappeared into the back. Michael strained to hear singing, but just then a delivery man came through the door and Abby came hurrying back in to receive sacks of sugar and a barrel of molasses. As she was hesitating over where to have the man put these items, Mary reappeared, and in some relief Abby directed the delivery man to the pantry.

“It worked!” said Mary, smiling at Michael, and then she laughed. “Well, it mainly worked, but listen.” Still smiling, she started to sing, and at the edges of her words there was a bit of the sound of the ocean, but also something else, something like birdsong. She finished the song and laughed again.

“Now I sing birds and waves as well,” she said, passing Michael the lantern.

“Do you–was there a bird in the pantry, or. . .?” Michael asked, mystified.

“No no. Once the song was in me again, and I started singing it, I remembered. The day that sailor came, the day I sang for him, we went into the herb garden. There must have been a good half dozen finches singing there, and I suppose the lantern caught their songs too, poor things.”

“Their songs were too faint to hear when they were together with your singing in the lantern, but not now,” said Michael, turning the songless lantern over in his hands. He opened the door, heard the roar of the whelk’s ocean, and patches of silence, then shut it again and stowed the lantern in his satchel. He took a deep breath.

“I had better be going,” he said. “I’ve decided to leave town. I don’t fancy factory work, or railroad work, and good as I am at stealing sounds, I don’t fancy that work either, anymore.”

Mary’s warm, plump hand closed over his own.

“Thank you,” she said, “for your heroic rescue of my song. Won’t you at least have some breakfast with me? No point starting your travels on an empty stomach–I certainly never did, when I was touring.”

Michael felt his cheeks warming, and found himself smiling.

“I’d be most grateful,” he said.

One Response to “The Sound Thief”

  1. Gene Mirabelli says:

    I like Conway’s inspiration being an actual photographic process. And the odd intricacies of getting the right sounds and being careful, not wanting to rob the falls on the Merrimack of their entire sound! Bringing in real places and actual objects of day-to-day life in this otherwise fantastic tale gives it good ballast. And, of course, I enjoyed the deft touches of humor.

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