Published on 2014/01/19

The Silence

Christina Im

The Silence breaks them as a hammer breaks a stone.

Natasa puts down her violin after hours of playing, the last time she will ever play. Applause sounds, but muted, as if from far away, dying as the Silence sticks its blade through the noise. The change comes over visibly. Colors fade to gray, the gray that comes after a long rain, and Natasa wonders: does hearing affect the vibrancy of sight? Does the lack of joyful sound in the air dampen our perception? Shadows in corners darken as if cowering under eternal thunderclouds. The gloom is slowly sweeping across the theater. In a panic, Natasa picks up her violin and bow. Something must be done; some kind of defiance must be shown. But what must she play?

Unknowingly, inadvertently, her fingers find the leaping notes of a Paganini caprice. The stunned eyes of the audience find Natasa again, distracted from the spreading dark. Natasa plays fast, the fastest she has played in her life. The fervor of her bowing creates insect-wing hums across the strings. If Paganini was the Devil’s Violinist, Natasa is the Devil.

She comes to a flourishing halt just as the last glimmer of genuine color - she already thinks of it as before-color - leaves the room. Her audience is dumbstruck by her spontaneous virtuosity. Suddenly she looks crazed, a monster scrabbling for attention on a dimly lit stage. The Silence chases away their will to fight in its insidious grasp, and the faded room casts Natasa’s pale face in a strange, sinister light.

The first man stands up with a force that should cause a bang. He walks out, head down, mouth moving in what must be a flurry of doubtful muttering. Needless to say, it makes no sound. The others follow him quickly, meekly, realizing all at once that they don’t want to be there.

Natasa deflates. The Silence has them, and soon it will have her, too.

She remembers when They came, the engineers of the Silence. A whirring silver dome, a soft, glowing light, a beautiful species from a far-off place. Myths brought to startling life. They landed unceremoniously on a patch of unloved grass near the outskirts of the City. All people knew, all Natasa knew, even, was that here were these wonderful beings and they were promising to make everything right. The City was dirty and crowded, faces filthy, no one to watch over anyone anymore. But They could. Everyone nodded and stepped aside for Them.

They called Themselves the Kaikirians, but in the weeks that followed, they became “the angels”, “the benefactors”, “the gods”. Everything seemed to be getting better. Natasa’s people were full, happy, compliant, stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. When They announced the Silence, everyone simply nodded, not really understanding.

Then there were murmurs of what the Silence meant. Musicians mourned in the shining streets of the new and radiant City, and many spiraled down into the fatal path of the final melody. Natasa just sighed and made arrangements for a final concert, the concert she has just finished with frightening genius. The one she feels she has spent her entire life preparing for. The one that has taken her completely by surprise. The one that made such beautiful sound that it is painful.

And now it is all gone.

Natasa hates Them. Every fiber in her being wants to march up to Their majestic palace full of Them, those august personages who gave the People salvation, and lash out with whatever small power she has. Whatever bed of embers smolders within her and every other musician in the City. If she must go down, she will go down wreathed in fire. She shakes her head. Such thoughts must be dismissed, because whispers in the few still-dark parts of the City tell her that They are ruthless, tell her horrific stories about the dungeons of that wondrous palace that chill her blood. At least now, when sound flees, the screams will never echo from those metal spires again, Natasa thinks grimly.

She feels old. Tired. Resigned. Her violin will go in its black case, songs gone, gathering dust. The dancers in great halls with no music to guide them. Her on the rain-streaked avenues of the City with no coin and no way to get it. No matter, no matter. She expects she will die soon, like the other musicians, all of them. Her head suddenly hurts. What use is she now, what use but one of space and precious air? She tries to sob, but the lack of sound only chokes her further.

Beep, beep, beep, beep.

Natasa shudders violently. Hope and shock curdle the saliva in her mouth. Sound?

Experimentally, she twangs one of the strings on her violin.

Nothing. The sound is all inside her head. She is going mad already.

Beep, beep, beep, beep.

You have: 72 Hours. You have: 72 Hours.

Oh. She nearly claps a hand to her forehead in frustration.

The Hours are one of the few problems in the City not caused by Them. An archaic method of giving everyone what seemed like happiness at the time.

Live life to the fullest! Minimize emotional pain!

Be ephemeral! - apparently the prevalent political doctrine at the time. Natasa was one of the last newborns with the Hourglass grafted into her genes, an object of pity and not much else. It allows her to spend her Hours, buy special, secret wares in the older back streets of the City, wishes and secret desires and the like. One would think that the government would feel responsible, grant benefits, perhaps, but Natasa has always lived her life alone. No one wants to develop an attachment to someone who doesn’t live much past the age of twenty-five.

Luckily, Natasa has spent almost none of her Hours, clawing her own way through the City streets. With the arrival of Them, everyone has conveniently ignored the Hourglass children. Certainly, They don’t seem to be very aware of my condition, Natasa thinks.

Though she knows she should throw it to the scrap heap now, Natasa packs up her violin with the same reverence she always has. She looks up when she finishes, scanning the concert hall one last time. When this hallowed place is demolished, what monstrosity will rise in its ghost?

A shadow moves by the very last row of chairs. Natasa’s head whips around. The light seems to shimmer and bend around the interloper’s form, but she thinks she sees their face: hard prismatic eyes like gems, a flawless face, the permanently aloof expression. Male and perfect.

One of Them. She curls her lip, though he is already nothing more than another memory to the hall.

***

Late into the next morning, in a back alley, she is awoken by a cold, pale hand on her shoulder. She thinks she screams, but the Silence snuffs it out with a feeling like cotton being stuffed into her mouth. Her thoughts stream out, gibbering; Natasa has found that the arrival of the Silence has made it increasingly difficult to contain them.

She sees the face with the hard diamond eyes.

One of Them, sent for her, but somehow, the same boy from the concert hall yesterday. He makes a closing gesture with his hand - wryly, she thinks, the Silence replacement for putting a finger to one’s lips? - but the thoughts flow freely and indignantly. What is he doing here? Why...? Wait. Can he hear my thoughts?

A smooth deep voice in her mind says, All in good time.

Is this the new communication? I mean, now that we can’t speak?

Yes. You caught on quickly, didn’t you? Something like a sigh. Are you one of the Hourglass children?

I might be. Natasa is wary, as well she should be. She almost thinks How does he know about that? but stops herself, because he will be able to hear her. She sees how They have maneuvered this. Clever. Not even the City people’s thoughts will be safe from Them now.

I have a proposition for you. Listen carefully. The boy is dazzling but inhuman. Natasa shuts her mind-ears.

Until the boy begins to play. His mind-violin melody is more crystalline and measured than anything Natasa has ever heard, and his fluid movements mime a series of notes graceful as the gazelles that died out near the City so many years ago.

The Paganini caprice that she played yesterday. Now, now she is “listening”, if it can be called that.

Teach me that.

How many Hours do you have left?

She makes the calculation in her head.

Fifty-six.

His face falls, and she finds herself disappointed as well at her inability to please him.

Don’t try to work your charms on me, alien, she says to him. Harsh. Bitter. He looks taken aback but rapidly softens.

I will teach you the violin over again, then. And she laughs in her head and he smiles, but it never reaches the diamond eyes.

***

Dmitri - an absurd, overused name, but he requested that she call him that - has explained to her that he has sought out Hourglass children for the purpose of defying the other, higher Kaikirians. She was his last hope. She never really believed him, seeing his hard diamond eyes never change their cold hard emotionlessness. Never until now.

Her Hours have dwindled into Minutes, and already her heart is seizing up inside her chest. It is a freezing and a burning. She is lying on the abandoned stage of the old concert hall.

Please don’t die, Dmitri says, desperate.

Bad genes, Natasa replies with a smile. The sands of my time have run out. Feebly, she lifts her arms and mimes the first few measures of the Paganini caprice, and his hard diamond eyes spill the out-of-place tears they have been holding.

Must you die? He is shaking his head, smiling to see her smile.

If I must go down, I will go down wreathed in fire. And she is grinning, more radiantly than she has in such a long, long time. And I am so tired...

They know each other and yet they do not. He has become human; she has become lightning.

He begins to sing in a frail voice. It is a lullaby that is already dead. Wreathed in fire, wreathed in fire...

She joins him. Wreathed in fire, wreathed in fire, wreathed in fire... She accompanies it with the Paganini and it weaves together and soars. Her heart beats like a saw. Her song soars above the roof of the hall.

Wreathed in fire, wreathed in fire...

It rises higher than a shout or a cry. People turn heads; they look at the sky for the first time in months and months. It is gray but now filled with sparks as the mind-song climbs in a crescendo.

Hourglass children from scattered corners of the sprawling City lift their heads and, as one, their voice lifts the song higher. The Kaikirians in their citadel are deeply spooked, for they hear mind-sound better than any human.

Wreathed in fire, wreathed in fire...

A heartbeat, faster and stronger than it has ever been in all its days, its death imminent. Natasa. Her smile keeps growing wider and Dmitri weeps and sings, weeps and sings. Her whole frame seems to sift itself, like waves of time-sands.

Wreathed in fire, wreathed in fire...

The Hourglass children, a flock of phoenixes, a heavenly flame that rivals the shine of the Kaikirian citadel itself.

Wreathed in fire, wreathed in fire...

Climax. Resolution. Redemption. Rebirth.

When Natasa finally dies, the word fire crumbles into ashes on her lips.


Christina Im is an aspirant wordsmith obsessed with birdcages, automatons, and anything whimsical. She is currently hard at work on a novel in her prodigiously rainy hometown, where she takes pleasure in disrupting puddles. In her free time, she also serves as the editor-in-chief of The Teacup Trail, a Tumblr lit/art magazine. Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in several publications, including GREYstone, Foxglove Hymnal, and The Plum Collection, and she blogs from lifeisinexpressible.blogspot.com.