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Decay and Sustain

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The noise was constant. It was a dim rumble for most of the day, when the sounds of cars rolling on asphalt or the persistent din of conversation rose above it. But it was always there, hovering, and it always found me in moments of silence, in the rare quiet between beats of the day-to-day thrum, when everything converged on a split second of silence before the wave of noise crashed down again.

The drone was low and deep, shuddering in my skin when the air around me was still enough for a moment. It hummed steadily in my ears, waiting, every moment of every day. I can’t remember when it started, nor could I describe the exact quality of the sound other than its constancy, its deepness. I don’t know where it came from. It seemed to reverberate in different spaces, seemed to emanate from every direction sometimes, and from within myself other times. I could never tell if its echoes were bouncing off the walls around me or between the walls of my skull.

The noise vibrated behind my eyes when the headaches came and went, and it gnawed on the rawness of my nerves as they frayed from stress. It was loud enough to wash out the quieter sounds in my life – I could not fully hear a lover’s murmur in my ear, or the particular resonance of a piano’s notes after hands were lifted from the keys. Whether the constant anxiety was caused, or just made worse by the hum, I suppose I’ll never know. The two had become inextricable, an endless loop of irritation and aggravation.

I couldn’t remember a time I’d heard real silence, outside of my sleep. And sleep did come with difficulty, as the hum became more noticeable when my eyes were closed and I tried to lay still. It ate away at me worst of all when I tried to relax myself, to find a way to calm the grating sensation of the constant noise. But eventually, every night, I slept, and occasionally I dreamt.

Every time I had the dream, the awakening was the same. I awoke in pitch blackness, the chill soaked deep into my skin where not even the scalding hot water of my shower could reach it and chase it out. It was not the dream itself that draped itself across my shoulders, a creeping cold dread that clung to my skin all day. It wasn’t the dream that settled itself into my flesh and left my teeth clattering together in my mouth.

In the dream I am restful, lying on my side on a bed of furs, my legs tucked against my chest. Long curved horns extend from the ground and arch above me, creating a domed cage in the air, keeping me in – and keeping everything else out. When I look up past the criss-crossed bones, the air is dark and speckled with the gold flakes of starlight.

I sense something standing outside the bony cage, near my head – a silhouette of pure light against the night sky. I know it’s looking down at me, and I know it’s smiling, though its lack of a face indicates neither. I roll onto my back to meet its gaze, my neck craned back. Its figure is a soft, ochre-tinted glow. Its arms part and suddenly a bright, white light pierces my eyes. I want to look away, but I can’t. My eyes strain with the blinding pain, and I watch as a single eye comes into focus, bright in the middle of the figure’s forehead, a spotlight that sears into my skull.

I feel a sting, a tickling pain in my scalp, and I am warm all over. I feel something tugging at my skin, pulling the folds in my forehead apart until they tear, and my third eyelid opens, in some kind of response to the figure standing above me. I grit my teeth. I want to reach up to wipe away the blood I feel trickling toward my temples, but I find my arms immobilized.

My third eye blinks away the pool of blood and tears collecting on its surface, and it sees – I see – with sudden clarity, the figure’s face. It is familiar and kind. Its single eye is a brilliant, shimmering gold, and in the absolute blackness it radiates warm light that reaches its fingers between the curled horns and gilds my whole body with its gentle, careful touch. The silence is deafening and pure, every particle in the air frozen exactly in place in that moment, with not so much as the rustling of a breath audible in my ears. I want desperately to respond, to call out, to stretch my arms up to the figure, but I am left to stare, with all three eyes wide and a desperate yearning building in my chest and throat.

When I wake up from the dream I am alone, and it is the emptiness of my dark bedroom that brings that unsettling cold under my skin. The nighttime air casts a blueness over everything and it is in that cold, empty air that I start to shudder.

The low hum always returned when I awoke, playing on in my ear. When I woke from the dream it always seemed closest, almost as though it came from under my own skin.

* * *


One day, I woke from the same dream, the same iciness sinking into my skin, sifting through my muscles and into my bones. The sadness had become a strange routine of mine. I rubbed at my aching limbs, stiff with the cold as I accustomed myself to the familiarity of the noise once more. And as I sat up in my bed as always, shivering with the cold and the quiet, it happened. The noise changed.
It was just a single pulse, a tiny blip of an interruption to the steady drone. It startled me, shook me right out of the familiar dread that I felt settling in my chest. I looked around, bewildered, as though my eyes would somehow right the wrong my ears found. Nothing.

I held my head still, listening intently to the deep hum, but it was the same as ever. I found myself gripping the quilt, my breath caught in my mouth. I sat there, immobile, breathing as quietly as possible, listening to the drone for the better part of an hour. I was afraid. Of what, I was not sure, other than the unsettled feeling that had so disturbed the routineness of despair. For the first time, I tried to seek comfort in the noise, to ground myself with its constancy, to find reassurance in that unchanging horizon of sound.

I was gripped by tense anticipation for days – for what, I wasn’t sure, but I waited. I listened. And sure enough, a week later, the noise changed again. Another single, short break in the drone, and I heard it clear as day as I ate lunch in a park near my office. I chewed on my sandwich slowly, methodically, trying to replay the sound in my head. Just a small break – a split second of true silence. Trying to imagine that absence of sound against the constant backdrop of the hum proved futile, and the harder I tried, the more frustrated I became. I tried to cling to the hope that it would return, and I became fixated on finding that relief again, growing more and more impatient.

I became unable to hold conversation for longer than a few minutes, as my mind would drift, ever searching. People became all but faceless shapes that melted into one another around me – I was alone with the sound and it swallowed me whole, wrapping itself up with my senses. When I put my fingertips against a wall or a desk I could feel the reverberant tremor. When I closed my eyes, it shuddered against my eyelids.

The next blip came faster – three days later. I was at home, alone, distractedly trying to read. My entire mind felt itchy with the want for silence. That consuming need had become as persistent as the humming itself, and when I heard it I gasped audibly. I tried to savour the moment but as soon as it registered as a thought in my mind, it was gone again. Something in me snapped then, and I was overcome with a loneliness unlike any other. I put my head in my hands and cried, grabbing fistfuls of my hair and wishing I could simply pin down the silent reprieve that found me in those dreams, that now taunted me in my waking hours too. I screamed into my palms until my throat went hoarse, trying to drown out the noise myself, if it would refuse to leave me.

That night, the dream changed, too. The figure appeared above me as before, and through the long horns it watched me. Some subconscious part of me knew my third eye would open again, but I was surprised when the skin of my forehead split – it seemed more painful, more forceful. A scream started to form in my throat, but it was lost in the still air, extinguished before it left the tip of my tongue.
My forehead stung and my ears rang, but everything fell away into an utter calm when I let the figure’s light wash over me again. There was a new blissfulness in that night’s dream, in the totality of the silence, the warmth, the light.

When I woke up, my eyes hurt – they itched terribly, like a dried scab, like thick-bodied insects crawling over my eyelids. In a half-awake panic I clawed at my own face, feeling only smooth skin. I ran to the bathroom to look at myself in the mirror, and saw nothing out of place, other than the fresh red scratches across my forehead, under my brow, and down my cheeks. I watched myself panting in the mirror for a moment, and so I saw it in my own eyes when the drone was interrupted with two short silences, a second apart – a beat. I recoiled visibly at the second silence, and stared at myself in the mirror for a moment as I collected myself. I leaned on my hands on either edge of the bathroom sink, and stared down into the cracked ceramic basin as I prayed for it to come again.
I heard more pauses over the next few days, more small beats in the constant drone. Some better judgement in me resisted the hopefulness that grew in my chest, but I could not help the feeling that maybe – maybe soon – the silence would outweigh the sound.

The arrhythmic, irregular stops made it so that I could not predict the timing, but they soon grew to a point where I could expect to hear one every few hours. One evening I walked a familiar path around my quiet neighbourhood, down to the riverside a few blocks away. I dragged my heels on the gravel path deliberately, savouring the crunch and crumble of the stones under my feet, audible above the drone. Then I heard a second of silence, and in that second the crispness of the wind rustling the leaves around me was perfect. I smiled to myself with a small satisfaction, and picked up the pace along the trail to make my way home.

I heard another silence as I walked. Then another. And another. Seconds apart, they still didn’t form a musical beat, but they were growing closer together. I looked around as my heart picked up its pace, trying to find a source, a cause for the change. I spotted somebody in the distance. I could distinguish nothing from their figure, and as we approached one another – I was inexplicably drawn – I found my eyes unable to focus on the figure, unable to find a place to rest my sight. At last, the silences were forming a regular, steady tap-tap-tap-tap and the figure was nearly in front of me. She looked up.


She was a small, slight girl, with dark eyes that pierced into my skull. “It’s you,” she said. The silences and the drone were now playing in equal measure, forming a buzzing, low beat that mirrored the pounding of my heart as I stared at her. “You hear it too.” Her eyes did not waver, but I could not hold her gaze. I looked around her – her hair, her cheek, her ear, her shoulder. I nodded shakily in response, my mouth dry with fear. She seemed to loom over me, though she was no taller than me. I watched the corner of her mouth as it softened into a wry smile. “I think we’ve been looking for each other.”

She stepped close to me. I gasped, and tried to step back, but couldn’t. The beat grew louder and quicker, becoming a frantic drumming closing in on my ears. My eyes flitted back and forth from one side of her face to the other. “Look at me,” she said softly. I clenched my jaw. My gaze slowly moved from her mouth, up to the tip of her nose, and agonizingly, I forced myself to look into her eyes.

The noise stopped. It truly stopped. My blood was pumping frantically, I heard it rushing in my ears, a gust of wind whistled by, and somewhere far away, a dog barked. I heard with incredible clarity the sound of breath filling my lungs. I stared into her deep, brown eyes, and I saw small flecks of gold, a small and distant sky reflected there.

I heard a strange, human noise suddenly, and realized it was my own laughter, choked through dry lips. I laughed again, still staring into her. “Will it stay gone?” She nodded. “I think so.” Her smile was now unhesitant, spreading into a true grin as she laughed too, before throwing her arms around my waist. She crushed herself against me, and I held her. We stood there on the gravel, soaking in the unobscured sounds that surrounded us.

We eventually parted our embrace, staring and unable to stop ourselves from laughing as we both revelled in the entirely mundane soundscape. “I hear an owl, far away,” she whispered reverently. Suddenly, she took my hands in hers. “Let’s… listen,” she said in a hush. And we did, walking along the path for what seemed like an age. The croak of frogs, the murmur of cars driving down streets beyond the trees that concealed the city in the distance. There was a true wonderment in the way she smiled every time the noises died down for a moment, to allow the empty silence to resonate.

Finally we wound our way back to my apartment, delighting in every tiny echo of our footsteps along the weathered cement. We embraced again in front of my door. “Thank you,” I said, and she shook her head. “I should be thanking you,” she laughed. A silence passed between us, our eyes locked, and then she averted her gaze to look down the empty road. A fear flashed across my mind then – fear that when she was no longer with me, the hum would return. When she turned to leave, a hundred questions that I wanted to ask suddenly surfaced in my mind, but all were paralyzed by that fear. I stood by my door and watched her figure grow smaller in the distance, and she looked over her shoulder to give me one last smile before she seemed to melt into the darkness down the road. The noise did not return. And I stood alone, hearing the quiet buzz of the lightbulb above my head, staring down that deserted road.

I unlocked the door and headed up the stairs, entering the wondrously still air of my quiet apartment. The floorboards creaked beneath me, and I could even hear the soft percussion of my palm against the wall, as I leaned on it to remove my shoes. I made my way to the bathroom, splashing water on my face and rubbing at my eyes. I towelled off, then looked at myself in the mirror. I could not help smiling at myself.

I made my way to my bedroom, flicked on my bedside table lamp, and propped myself up against the headboard. I reached over to the window and tapped the glass experimentally, listening to the tiny ringing noise my fingernail elicited. I pushed my hands around on the bedsheets, the rustling of fabric a sound for sore ears. I stopped for a moment and laughed at the strangeness of the act, feeling for all the world like a newborn exploring an alien, unfamiliar world.

I grabbed the book I had laying on the floor beside my bed, and leafed through the pages, finding my place in a chapter I had been struggling to concentrate on for the past few days. I sighed, leaning heavily into the pile of pillows behind me, and it was then that I felt it – something shifted suddenly, beneath the skin on my forehead. Something round. Something large. And it started to itch.