Sunday, October 24
Can you hear it?
Listen closely. There, beneath the clatter of the lane, beneath the ceaseless hum of man and machine, you will hear the sound of the slaughter, the screaming of peasants in the moment before death, the plea of an emperor with a sword at his throat.
Can you hear it?
Step onto hallowed ground, where madness has made the soil luxuriant with blood, and you will hear it: Nanjing, Thessaloniki, Warsaw.
If you listen closely you will realize it is always there, never fully silenced, not by prayer, by law, by time. The history of the world, and its annals of crime, is the slow, sepulchral music of the dead.
Can you hear it?
I hear it. I am the one who walks in shadow, ears tuned to the night. I am the one who hides in rooms where murder is done, rooms that will never again be quieted, each corner now and forever sheltering a whispering ghost. I hear fingernails scratching granite walls, the drip of blood onto scarred tile, the hiss of air drawn into a mortal chest wound. Sometimes it all becomes too much, too loud, and I must let it out.
I am the Echo Man.
I hear it all.
On Sunday morning I rise early, shower, take my breakfast at home. I step onto the street. It is a glorious fall day. The sky is clear and crystalline blue, the air holds the faint smell of decaying leaves.
As I walk down Pine Street I feel the weight of the three killing instruments at the small of my back. I study the eyes of passersby, or at least those who will meet my gaze. Every so often I pause, eavesdrop, gathering the sounds of the past. In Philadelphia Death has lingered in so many places. I collect its spectral sounds the way some men collect fine art, or war souvenirs, or lovers.
Like many who have toiled in the arts over the centuries my work has gone largely unnoticed. That is about to change. This will be my magnum opus, that by which all such works are judged forever. It has already begun.
I turn up my collar and continue down the lane.
Zig, zig, zig.
I rattle through the crowded streets like a white skeleton.
At just after eight a.m. I enter Fitler Square, finding the expected gathering - bikers, joggers, the homeless who have dragged themselves here from a nearby passageway. Some of these homeless creatures will not live through the winter. Soon I will hear their last breaths.
I stand near the ram sculpture at the eastern end of the square, watching, waiting. Within minutes I see them., mother and daughter.
They are just what I need.
I walk across the square, sit on a bench, take out my newspaper, halve and quarter it. The killing instruments are uncomfortable at my back. I shift my weight as the sounds amass: the flap and squawk of pigeons congregating around a man eating a bagel, a taxi's rude horn, the hard thump of a bass speaker. Looking at my watch, I see that time is short. Soon my mind will be full of screams and I will be unable to do what is necessary.
I glance at the young mother and her baby, catch the woman's eye, smile.
'Good morning,' I say.
The woman smiles back. 'Hi.'
The baby is in an expensive jogging stroller, the kind with a rainproof hood and mesh shopping basket beneath. I rise, cross the path, glance inside the pram. It's a girl, dressed in a pink flannel one-piece and matching hat, swaddled in a snow-white blanket. Bright plastic stars dangle overhead.
'And who is this little movie star?' I ask.
The woman beams. 'This is Ashley.'
'Ashley. She is beautiful.'
I am careful not to get too close. Not yet. 'How old is she?'
'She's four months.'
'Four months is a great age,' I reply with a wink. '
I may have peaked around four months.'
The woman laughs.
I glance at the stroller. The baby smiles at me. In her angelic face I see so much. But sight does not drive me. The world is crammed full of beautiful images, breathtaking vistas, all mostly forgotten by the time the next vista presents itself I have stood before the Taj Mahal, Westminster Abbey, the Grand Canyon. I once spent an afternoon in front of Picasso's Guernica. All these glorious images faded into the dim corners of memory within a relatively short period of time. Yet I recall with exquisite clarity the first time I heard someone scream in anguish, the yelp of a dog struck by a car, the dying breath of a young police officer bleeding out on a hot sidewalk.
'Is she sleeping through the night yet?'
'Not quite,' the woman says.
'My daughter slept through the night at two months. Never had a problem with her at all.'
I reach slowly into my right coat pocket, palm what I need, draw it out. The mother stands just a few feet away, on my left. She does not see what I have in my hand.
The baby kicks her feet, bunching her blanket. I wait. I am nothing if not patient. I need the little one to be tranquil and still. Soon she calms, her bright blue eyes scanning the sky.
With my right hand I reach out, slowly, not wanting to alarm the mother. I place a finger into the center of the baby's left palm. She closes her tiny fist around my finger and gurgles. Then, as I had hoped, she begins to coo.
All other sounds cease. In that moment it is just the baby, and this sacred respite from the dissonance that fills my waking hours.
I touch the Record button, keeping the microphone near the little girl's mouth for a few seconds, gathering the sounds, collecting a moment which would otherwise be gone in an instant.
Time slows, lengthens, like a lingering coda.
I withdraw my hand. I do not want to stay too long, nor alert the mother to any danger. I have a full day ahead of me, and cannot be deterred.
'She has your eyes,' I say.
The little girl does not, and it is obvious. But no mother ever refuses such a compliment.
I glance at the sky, at the buildings that surround Fitler Square. It is time. Well, it was lovely talking to you.'
You, too,' replies the woman. ''Enjoy your day.'
'Thank you,' I say. I'm sure I will.'
I reach out, take one of the baby's tiny hands in mine, give it a little shake. 'It was nice meeting you, little Ashley.'
Mother and daughter giggle.
I am safe.
A few moments later, as I walk up Twenty-third Street, toward Delancey, I pull out the digital recorder, insert the mini-plug for the earbuds, play back the recording. Good quality, a minimum of background noise. The baby's voice is precious and clear.
As I slip into the van and head to South Philadelphia I think about this morning, how everything is falling into place.
Harmony and melody live inside me, side by side, violent storms on a sun-blessed shore.
I have captured the beginning of life.
Now I will record its end.