This story was published first in the US in The Silver Web, and then in Britain in The Third Alternative. It won the UK Best Fantasy Short Story of the Year award in 1997.
For William Drewes 1900-1987
“I’m going to tell you a secret.”
I’m nine years old. It’s summer, 1971, and the day is sunny and hot. My grandfather and I are standing between the two apricot trees in his back yard. I’m holding the metal handles on a wooden slat bushel basket into which he has been tossing apricots. Sometimes he finds one with a black worm hole in it and throws it into the peony bushes along his fence. The air smells faintly sweet, like decomposing fruit and warm blacktop and new-mown grass.
“Is it about grandmother?” I ask.
“No, this one is a big secret,” grandfather says. “It’s about the whole world.”
He drops two apricots into the basket and I watch his face. He wears glasses, but his eyesight isn’t too bad. He wears false teeth but you’d never know it; he doesn’t take them out to scare me the way both of my uncles do with theirs. He’s been a manual laborer all his life, and next year the company that he operates a crane for will finally force him to quit because of his age. He’s seventy-one years old and looks twenty years younger.
“You can’t tell anyone else,” he says, inspecting an apricot.
The fruit fails inspection and he throws it under hand into the peonies, then takes the basket from me. I follow him to his chair under the big pine at the south east corner of the house. He sits and fixes me with a very serious look.
“Everything sings,” he says. He’s not smiling, so I don’t either. I look at him as gravely as a curious nineyear-old can. Satisfied, he says, “Not many people can hear it, but everything sings.”
“What do you mean, everything?”
“Plants. Rocks and dirt. Machines. Furniture.”
“What do they sing?”
“It’s not words, like we sing. It’s a kind of sound, and if you listen to it for a while you recognize the song in it.”
“Can I hear?”
“You can try.”
“How do I do it?”
“You put your ear up against something and close your eyes. Then stay as quiet as you can, and try not to think of anything. It takes a while.”
“What can I listen to?” I look around the yard. “Does it work with trees?”
“Those old apricots?” he says. “Their wood is tough as eighty-year-old fence posts.” He looks doubtful. Shrugs. “Give it a try.”
I walked back across the lawn and knelt beside one of the trees. Its trunk was no thicker than my waist, but the bark was gnarled and rough against my cheek when I pressed my right ear to it. I stayed there and waited, but the only sounds I heard came through my left ear. When a breeze moved some of the branches, I felt the vibration through my head and hands, but heard nothing.
I looked over at grandfather. He shrugged. “It takes longer than that, even for me. You have to concentrate.”
I tried again. I kept my head against the tree trunk until my ear felt thick and numb, but I never heard a thing.
“That’s okay,” grandfather said when I rejoined him. “Maybe you’re not old enough yet.”
“How old were you when you heard it?” I asked.
“Right around your age, I guess. My poppa taught me.”
“Did you teach it to dad?”
He said, “We tried it.” But he did something with his shoulders that meant it hadn’t worked.
“What does the singing sound like?”
“Everything has its own song. Some things sound kind of like regular music. My crane at work has a deep, thick song that reminds me of Beethoven.”
“It’s a who, not a what. He was a man who lived two hundred years ago in Germany, and wrote music. Would you like to hear some of it?”
I nodded, and we went into the house through the back door, then down the hallway to the spare bedroom that he had turned into a music room. He wasn’t interested in anything that passed for high tech in 1971. His car was almost twenty years old, his television was an ancient black-and-white, and he mowed the yard with a rotating-blade, manual push-mower. But he bought a new stereo every couple of years, and always the best he could find. It sat against the north wall of the music room, and it was the only thing in the house — other than the stove — that I was forbidden to touch.
The room was the brightest in the house, with two windows in the south wall and one in the west. A couch sat underneath the south window, a desk along the east wall, and an overstuffed chair in the southwest corner. The center of the room was empty, and warm with the reflected glow that the polished pine floor gave off in even the weakest sunlight. Onto that floor grandfather carried a folding chair with rubber tips on the legs. He opened it in front of the stereo and gestured for me to sit.
I was nine years old, and when he played the first act of the first piano concerto it meant little to me. But five minutes in, after the opening flourish dies away and the low strings introduce a new melody line, grandfather stepped forward.
“That’s it. The deep, quiet part there.” He carefully lifted the needle and replaced it, and the strings once again began their insistent ascent.
“Your crane sounds like that?” I asked.
“Something like it. My first day at the gravel pit, I got to work early and sat on the tread and watched the sky to see if it was going to rain or not. And without even thinking about it, I heard that crane singing.”
That was the beginning of my musical education. The walls of the music room were lined with built-in bookcases that grandfather had put in not long after buying the house, and the shelves were full of albums of all types. Some shelves were lined with classical records, but others held blues: all kinds of record labels that sprouted and died in the ’40’s and ’50’s Modern, Savoy, King, Regal, Deluxe. There were the rare early discs primitively recorded, full of scratches and hiss of, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson. I loved the design of the Chess label’s logo, and I would read the names off of those albums, savoring their exotic jauntiness: Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Jelly Roll Morton, Sonny Boy Williamson.
There was also an eclectic mix of jazz and folk. He had album after album of what he called the “old stuff ‘: Cole Porter and the Gershwins sung by Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn and Louis Armstrong. I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house that summer, and immersed myself in music and trying to share my grandfather’s secret.
He did what he could to help. We sat in the attic just after sundown and listened through the open dormer to the blossoming nightsounds — bird songs winding down and chattery insect calls revving up, breezes whispering through eaves and bending treetops — before going back downstairs to listen to John Coltrane. He took me straight from Blossom Dearie singing “Someone to Watch Over Me” in the music room to the clothesline where his work shirts were dancing and popping in the hot midday wind. He played the second Brandenburg Concerto before we walked to the Illinois River to listen to the watery thrum of passing barges. But nothing worked. I only heard what everyone else heard.
I finally made my breakthrough six days before school started in the fall. I was following grandfather around his garden while he picked tomatoes for that evening’s dinner, and he told me to pick a few onions. “Listen to a few, and see if you can tell which ones are ready to come out.”
“I don’t want to put my head in the dirt,” I said.
“Do it with your hand. Just put your palm flat against the ground.”
I put my hand onto the moist, rich soil, the slender onion stalk nestled into the crotch between my thumb and forefinger. The first two plants were quiet, but the third in the line vibrated faintly.
I pulled my hand back as if I’d been bitten. Grandfather saw me and straightened up, excited. “Did you hear something?”
Up until that moment, a suspicion had been growing in my mind that he had been playing a joke on me with his big secret. But no more.
I settled my hand back around the third onion’s base, and the quiet tension returned. I moved to the next plant, then the next. In a row of eight onions, two gave off the odd, faint vibration. I sat cross-legged for a long time with both palms pressed into the dirt, aware of all my senses. The rich, loamy smell of the soil was almost overpowering, and the sunlight dappling the leaves of the staked row of tomatoes looked beautiful to me.
“It doesn’t sound like any kind of music I’ve heard,” I said.
“Sometimes it doesn’t,” grandfather said. “Sometimes the same thing will sound different to different people, too.”
For the next two days I followed my grandfather around and tried to listen to everything that he heard singing. Usually it didn’t work. I couldn’t hear any other plants in the garden, or the stopped clock-radio in the kitchen, or the icebox in the basement. When I did hear an old suit in grandfather’ s closet that I’d never seen him wear, it didn’t make the high, stirring pulse that reminded him of a violin; to me it was the rhythmic crackling of the brushes that some drummers use on a snare.
But when I touched the handle of the push mower, standing on the powdery dirt floor of the garage, I heard the same deep, kettle-drum murmur that grandfather described. There were tears in his eyes when he saw on my face that I heard what he heard.
On the last night before I went home to start the school year, grandfather and I sat on metal chairs on the front porch and watched fireflies floating through the growing dark. I asked him why he never talked about the secret in front of grandmother.
“She can’t hear it, buddy. Not too many can, I think.” He stared across the yard, and in his glasses I saw a constellation of tiny, reflected sparks. Then he looked at me. “How do you think she would feel if she knew that you and I could hear things and she couldn’t?”
He nodded. “And a little sad. So it will be our secret.”
In the summer of 1979 I spent a week with grandfather again.
I was seventeen that year and my grandmother was five years dead from a heart attack. I worked summer jobs and had some close friends and played a lot of sports and read a lot of books, and I had only seen grandfather during holidays and for a couple of weekends a year. For a while after grandmother’s death I felt awkward around him. I had never seen him alone. They had been married for fifty-three years, and her loss threw him into a depression that lasted almost a year. Even after he came through it and adjusted, her absence made itself felt for several years afterward in the alien emptiness of their house.
For most of the week neither of us brought up the secret that we hadn’t talked about for eight years. It was early enough in the season that the Cubs and White Sox were both still theoretically in pennant races, and every night one or the other was on competing television stations out of Chicago. In the daytime we took walks, played pool with a couple of his cronies uptown, or fished in the Fox river a few miles upstream of where it empties into the Illinois.
On my second-to-last night there, we sat on lawn chairs in the backyard and drank lemonade. It was too early in the season for lightning bugs or mosquitoes, and the night was clear and cool. The moon was three days shy of being full, and we watched almost solidlooking, low level clouds racing beneath it, driven by winds that we couldn’t feel.
“Do you ever hear things singing anymore, Brian?”
His voice was relaxed and casual, and his eyes were on the sky.
“Once in a while,” I said. “Not too often.” We sat. He took a drink. I took a drink. “What causes it, gramps?”
“There are some things I know about, and a lot more I don’t,” he said. “This is one of those.”
“Doesn’t that bother you?”
He looked at me. “Does it bother you?”
“It didn’t when I was nine. Now I want to know.”
After a minute he nodded, took a drink, looked at the moon. “I guess I do, too.”
“It is real, isn’t it?”
“Sure it is.”
The moon hung over us, the color of bone, its mountains and valleys clearly visible. Crickets sang a waxing and waning song all around us. Maybe to each other, maybe to us. Maybe to the moon.
“You think it has something to do with God?” I asked.
“Most things do,” he said, “but I couldn’t say how.” He took another long drink, and I could hear the splash and clink in his glass. “You know what Thelonius Monk said about music?”
“Somebody was interviewing him. ‘How would you describe what you do? How much of it is planned, and how much improvised?’ That sort of thing. And he said, ‘Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”‘
I thought about that. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but it made sense. In a few minutes he said something about baseball, or the weather, or his garden, and we moved on.
The next day we went to the graveyard where grandmother is buried. Her plot is on a hillside overlooking the river, beneath the outer edges of an old oak’s shady canopy. We didn’t talk much on the drive, but as we were crossing the river I said, “Can you do it with people?”
He knew what I was talking about, but he studied my face for a moment to make sure, before looking back at the road. “Sometimes. But it isn’t easy. The sound of their breathing, their heartbeat, even their stomach growling feels like interference. But I guess you know that you don’t really do it with your ears, anyway.”
I didn’t say anything.
“I heard your grandmother once, maybe a month after I met her. I was already half in love with her, and we were sitting on her father’s porch. He didn’t like me much, so he was out there with us, on the other end of the porch.”
I laughed. “Were you trying to hold her hand or something?”
He grinned, and I could see my dad’s crooked smile in him then.
“I knew better than that. We were just talking, I don’t remember what about. It must not have been very important, with her dad so close by. But right in the middle of it, a song came out of your grandmother like you wouldn’t believe.”
“What did it sound like?”
“I can’t say exactly, but it was light and fast and sweet, and you could listen to it for your whole life if you had the chance.” He shook his head. “It wasn’t very loud and it probably didn’t last for more than a minute, but it like’d to knock me off the porch.”
“What did you do?”
“I said good night to her and her dad both, and I walked home telling myself that she was going to be my wife one of these days.” He smiled a smile that was born in the fall of 1920 and never completely died out of his face, even when we reached the cemetery.
Grandmother’ s stone had her name and dates on it, and said she was a Beloved Wife and Mother. Beside the inscription was blank granite where grandfather’s name would be carved one day. There were a few leaves plastered around the stone’s base, and I cleared them away. Grandfather stood with his hand on the stone and looked down at the river.
There was a look on his face that made me wonder what he saw and heard.
“This is a nice spot,” he said after a while. After a while longer we both walked back to his car and crossed the river again.
The next day I left his house after lunch to go back to my parents’ place and my summer job. But I took a left instead of a right after crossing the bridge, and I ended up back at the cemetery. I hunched and sat on my heels at my grandmother’s grave, my right hand flat against the smooth, cool stone.
At one point I thought I heard the echo of some fast, light strings, like a Spanish guitar reverberating in an open courtyard, heard from outside the adobe walls of a cavernous hacienda. In a moment it was gone, but not before I had an ephemeral glimpse of a young girl with a stem father in a mild October, forty-six years before I met her in a different lifetime.
Twelve years go by and I’m with my grandfather in a hospital hallway. He’s wearing a suit jacket that I remember seeing in his closet when I was nine years old. It hangs on him now. He still has the big frame he always had — wide shoulders, big hands - but he’s gone tough and stringy and shrunken the way most men do if they make it into their nineties and don’t become loose-skinned and bloated. His glasses are thicker than they had been, but his hearing is still fine.
He puts a hand on my shoulder and I give him a leaden smile. My folks moved down to Florida last year; until their flight gets in tonight, gramps will be my only company. My wife is sedated in the next room; my son was born dead two hours ago. We hadn’t picked out a name for him yet.
We go into Becky’s room and sit down in the two plastic chairs beside her bed. He’s saying kind things, and I’m responding mechanically and watching my wife’s face. Her eyes are clamped shut in a kind of wince, and I hope she’s not dreaming.
The doctors told us it was a risky thing, and the labor had been long and exhausting. We’re both in our thirties, and he would have been our first. I don’t cry, but only because I’m wrung out and empty. Grandfather’s sinewy hand is rough on the back of my neck, and I slump against his shoulder, half asleep already.
My last thought is the awareness of music: low, discordant, grating.
When grandfather died of a heart attack three months after the miscarriage, I remembered that music and realized I had been expecting his death since that night. We spent more time together in the last three months than we had in the previous three years, and I’m grateful for that.
He left his money to my parents and the house to Becky and me. We moved in a little less than a year ago, and Becky threw herself into redecorating. The only part of the house we haven’t touched is the music room. The records are all still there, but they’re outnumbered now by CDs. The stereo is a custom job: top of the line CD player, tiny little Bose speakers in all four corners of the room, topped by a turntable that looks as anachronistic as the vinyl LPs in their oversized jackets. When we first inherited the house I was afraid of what ghosts I would find in this room, but the place is haunted only by memories; the only spirits here are welcome ones — Mozart and Handel and Charlie Parker floating out of four small speakers.
Becky and I have gone out to the graveyard by the river often, but I never touch my grandparents’ headstone. I’m afraid that if I did I would hear discordant music and find myself back in a cramped, numbing hospital room. Instead, I sit on a hardwood floor in the middle of the night and listen for traces of grandfather in the songs he collected. Those traces crop up every now and again, most reliably in a stretch in the “spring” section of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons that evokes the man’s bone-deep optimism, and in the sly, drawling wit of John Prine that calls to mind his quiet wryness.
Becky has gotten a clean bill of health from the doctors, but we haven’t talked about trying for another child yet. For several months after coming home from the hospital we didn’t make love, and by the time her body and mind seemed to be nearing full recovery, gramps died and I lost my equilibrium for a while. The way it ended up, the first time we made love again after losing the child was in my grandfather’ s house. It was halting and tentative at first; like most men I know very little about the secret rhythms and interior cadences of my wife’s body or soul, and for a time it felt as if our stillborn son formed a barrier between us that could only be breached slowly and with great care.
But every marriage has its own rhythms: new verses, familiar choruses. Lately things have gotten better. We’ve regained our balance and are moving together again.
Three hours ago we made love. She ended up on top, her hips and mine moving in concert. Afterwards I lay with my head on her abdomen as we watched television in contented drowsiness. When I heard it I came fully awake, instantly aware of our positions on the king-size bed, the warmth of her thighs against my ribs and her hip beneath my hand. I sat up and she looked at me, curious.
“Nothing,” I said, but I knew I had a silly smile on my face. “Just dancing about architecture.”
It has become a code phrase with us, the kind of intimate linguistic short-hand all lovers have. I told her the source of the quote years ago, but not that grandfather taught it to me, or in what context. We use it whenever we discuss something that we know can’t be shared completely, or properly explained — a movie or book that one of us likes but the other doesn’t, or an idea that only one of us believes.
“I’m going to get something to drink,” I tell her. “You want something?”
She yawns and shakes her head, nestles deeper into the blankets. I go to the kitchen with the sound echoing in my head, and end upon the floor of the music room. It’s two in the morning. John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly, playing in a Chicago nightclub in 1959, come through the headphones as I lay on the floor with my eyes closed and savor what I heard when my wife was beneath me tonight: a rich, sonorous mix of flute, high strings, and a clear trumpet playing divergent lines that soared up through three octaves and danced across glissandos, then faded without a hint of coda.
In a couple of months, when Becky starts to show, I’II move the speakers into our bedroom, to both sides of the bed, and play Mozart.
In eight or nine years, I’ll tell my daughter I know a secret. A big one. About the whole world.