From the worn green leather of the heavy oak seat, I lean forward towards the reel-to-reel on the desk. The squat bakelite switch clunks solidly under my fingertips and the spindles jolt into motion. Slowly at first, the dark tape feeds through the toothed brass wheels and into the mechanism. In place of the tape head decoding magnetic signals, a flat red crystal describes a languid pulse inside a fine-tooled brass mount, an ancient and forgotten receiver. As the tape speeds up, the crystal brightens and begins to sing, three pure simultaneous notes which seem to describe the universe. Spooling out onto the receiving drum, the tape has been changed from translucent black to transparent grey, as if its very colour had been transmuted into that luminous soundwave, its message spent.
I capture the wave and interpret its song.
Encoded in the last transmission, in that fractal analogue of speech, was a map of an area of the 12 Boroughs he didn’t recognise, but which turned out to be centred on a heathen hof in a rundown otherside eastern suburb. Stepping off the street through a crude iron gate in a featureless expanse of brick, he was surprised to emerge into a damp garden, shadowed by tall trees and jostled by evergreens shrubs. In front of the mossed stone entrance to the coven, a statute of Persephone cried into petrified foliage on an obsidian plinth. Down steps aged with orange lichen and through the heavy unlocked door, into the cool still of thick stone walls, he followed what little light there was through the antechamber towards the blue-white outline of a second door. This portal ejected him into a brightly lit clinical room, jarring him with the dissonance between the last space and this. He turned back to the door longing for the loam as a balm to deaden the fluorescent oppression, but it had sunk seamlessly into pure white wipe-clean.
In the centre of the room on a chrome operating table sat a large square glass tank containing a patterned fish, which circulated in the crystal water over contoured mounds of flaked red rock. The short spines which covered the fish’s body looked like ineffectual appendages of tissue but delivered a toxin which could paralyse the heart. As his eyes adjusted to the bright, he noticed patterns and hieroglyphs etched into the matt white plasticrete floor. Stepping further into the room and walking on the etchings ignited trace-lines of red light which whiskered away from his shoe, towards and into the water. As he circled the tank, red whispers leapt from the impact point on the floor, followed the path of least resistance through the patterned surface and up the table legs, seemingly to be collected by the red stone chips which lined the tank.
As he watched, the spined fish used its tail fin to cajole and manoeuvre some of the finer red shards, rearranging them to its liking. And as he looked closer, he saw it – the corner of a black and clear plastic box, the unmistakable form of a cassette, mostly buried in the rock fragments and maroon sand. The puffer was nurturing the box as if it were tending fry. He approached the tank, dumping his bag and rolling up his sleeves. Tentatively he immersed a couple of fingers and then more into the warm, refraction cutting his hand in two. The puffer became agitated in response to his incursion and began to clack its beak and dart about in warning or distress. He hastily retrieved his hand and stood away from the enraged Tetraodontiforme. The fish began to huff up pieces of stone and drop them near the cassette, burying the artefact. The floor trace lines had become a cold blue.
And then he heard it for the first time – it felt like it had always been there, that he knew it like an old enemy. A faint mid-pitched tone, rich in capacity and resonance, radiated from the floor, from everywhere. As the intensity of that folded tone built, it cut his eardrums with a thousand tiny scalpels, making clean incisions which left no scar. Amid the building torrent, he clamped his hands over his ears in the vain hope of relief and staggered towards the sunken door. As he passed the tank, latticework cracks began to appear in the thick glass, and a second later it exploded into razor fragments, sending a cascade of water onto the now lifeless plascrete.
After the cataclysm, silence. The puffer, initially inflated by instinct at the rising sonic maelstrom, lolled hopelessly in the draining water, beached on crystal white and obsidian red. Unable to breathe and pierced by a shard of what once kept it alive, it listed and dribbled out the last of the water from its stomach. Cheated out of life by a catastrophic change of circumstance. As the fish died, he surveyed the room. On the metal table sat the base of the tank, sodden with piles of wet sand, obsidian and crystal, and the cassette. Taking it by the exposed corner and pulling it free from the stone and sand, he cleaned it off as best he could and thrust it deep into his parka pocket.
He had the second recording.
Threads* New Single Arvo will be released in June 2020.