“Can you hear it!? Can’t you hear it!?” the old man would cry to anyone who crossed his path. He was a staple of the town, a part of the local flavor, a landmark even. Sure he scared some people, but somebody was usually there to explain.
“Oh that’s just….what’s his name…I don’t remember. He yells at people sometimes. I think he’s homeless. Mentally unsound. I think he’s a veteran or something so nobody makes too much of a fuss. Just try to ignore him.”
On the rare occasion things got out of hand, if he grabbed someone, if someone was truly afraid, the cops would come by and pick him up. They weren’t mean to him, they’d seen him around enough to know the score. They’d take him to lock up if they thought he was drunk (sometimes he was), but if not they usually let him go. Sometimes they’d take him to the center for the homeless in town and try to get him help, but no matter what they did, they knew he’d be back on the streets in a few days. Back to shouting at people. Asking if they heard it.
Sometimes somebody would stop. Usually out of pity, but sometimes out of interest. They’d ask him what he meant. What did he hear. He could never explain it.
“It!” He would shout insistently “Can’t you hear it!?”
The charitable or curious would cock their heads. They would listen. They would strain to listen. When they did, that was the only time the old man was ever truly quiet. Most people never heard anything.
But some did.
There were strings. Perhaps violins, or something bigger like a cello, that stretched and pulled notes out until they were as thin as tissue paper. Then a drum, or a bell….perhaps a gong, that pierced the paper irregularly to force its way to the front. It was hard to make out. It was so faint.
Imagine music, and you know it’s being played loud. Too loud. But it’s also not close. Like a neighbor two floors down, playing music just loud enough to hear on the edges of your mind. So quiet, to the point where you can barely make it out. Your brain starts straining to put the song together. It has to doesn’t it. That’s just how the brain works. It looks for patterns, but the pattern isn’t there. The music is too distant. So your ears are desperately trying to hear more, and your brain is desperately trying to figure it out, and you are more confused and distracted than if it was blasting right in your face.
For those who heard the music, it was like that, but worse.
Because they could hear enough. Enough to get the gist. Enough to know they didn’t want to hear the rest.
Enough to hear the conductor through the orchestra.
A shiver would run down their spines, and they would lie.
Every one of them would lie.
“No, I’m sorry, I don’t hear anything.”
The old man knew though. He always knew. They would leave the old man shouting, begging, pleading on the street. Demanding that they tell the truth. Tell the others what they heard.
“Please,” he would say, “please tell me you’ll help.”
No one did.
They all went home. They went back to their lives. Most even convinced themselves they hadn’t actually heard anything, and some eventually forgot even meeting the old man on the street.
But on clear nights, when the wind was high, and the moon lit up the world, they would toss and turn in bed, kept all night from restful sleep by the distant sounds of strings and drums. Always at the edge of hearing.
But always getting closer.