Alice and her wild song. That’s why I’m here, wandering the shore from dawn until dusk, collecting bottled messages the current drags in. Sometimes, I think I hear the hoarse whistle of a steam train, heading for the main station that sings its own tune in the voice of a thousand travellers.
Then I remember there’s nothing between the shore and the city for five hundred miles, except the rust farm that stretches further than anyone can map. The owner, a withered old man who looks and smells like autumn, is kind enough, but he can afford to be. He’s not looking for a way to put the broken pieces back together again.
Wild, in her Alice-song. It was the music that found Alice, not the other way around. The voices she sung in, you could lose yourself to them. One was too many and a thousand were never enough. It was fire and fury and fierceness unbound. She sung to me the things I never knew were missing. Alice, wildly unravelling me from myself.
Wild Alice and her carnival of songs. Why don’t I hear those in the wind instead of steam-train ghosts and the too-steady shush of the waves? I long for the cat’s footstep plink of plucked violins, the arrhythmic drums, the mournful sax that were her music. She used to sing throughout the night and into the next day. When she finished, I watched her undress, sweat sheening her skin like oil. Then she would undress me and whisper quiet ballads across my ribs, down the length of my spine, winding them around my bones. I may as well have shed my skin, the way she could find me despite myself.
Lost, in the wilderness of Alice.
We met on the last night of the carnival, when the popcorn was stale and the grounds trampled to a muddy slush. It was said the Leader liked the idea of travelling carnivals, that it was good for the people. Secretly, they reminded me of better times. Tinny harmonies made of an off-beat four/four time, an old accordion and a mandolin hanging in the air with cheap cigar smoke and the grassy smell of show horses. The music was a pale green and yellow, bursting and fading before me as I walked. Not everyone sees it the way I do, although I was nine years old before I realized that music is plain for most people.
I wandered the carnival for hours, not wanting to return to my empty apartment. Slowly, the shouts from the carousel and the upside-down pirate ship thinned, and the crowd became a group of stragglers under the buzzing strings of lights (a kind of constant, burnt orange that hurt my eyes).
The ocean wind picked up as the lights shut down, one by one. I closed my eyes as the salt air blew away the mustiness of the carnival. A far-away singing made my stomach drop. That tiny wisp of melody, carried on the wind, was bright azure, lasting long after the notes stopped. While the carnies were packing up and the last few patrons were being herded toward the exits, I slipped between the tents, in the direction of her voice, a streak of teal against the shadowed night.
At the edge of the carnival, where the cliff dropped away to the sea, was a smaller tent that would only fit, perhaps, thirty people. It was empty, but a slip of a woman in a plain black dress stood on the edge of the cliff, letting the cold air gooseflesh her bare arms. She turned and smiled at me.
“You’re too late for the show, I’m afraid.”
I nodded. “I heard you singing and…this being the last night and all, I…” I suddenly felt foolish, standing there in the dark.
“It’s ok, you didn’t miss much, anyway. The front row was filled with some rather grim men who didn’t really seem to enjoy it. Brought the whole mood down.”
I just nodded as she looked out across the ocean, toward the headland where the lighthouse shone its staccato beam toward the horizon.
“But since it is the last night…” She turned and disappeared inside the tent. A moment later, the crackle of a phonograph then a three am-blues piano lick, sad and arrow-hearted. Azure tinged with violet, a soft aurora dancing along the cliff’s edge.
Then Alice began to sing, a fork of lightning-gold against firework bursts of creamy pearl, fading then crackling into life again as she crested and troughed each phrase. Until then, the world had been monochrome.
In that untamed moment, Alice gave me music and colours that I never imagined were possible. She gave me that to remember, to the grave and beyond. There’s only ever been Alice from that moment on.
The next morning was dull and blustery as I caught the tram to work. Down Main Street lined with fancy glass doors leading to the most expensive apartments in the town, through the gothic quarter where the paint was peeling and squatters peered down from graffiti-scarred windows, along the sea front where the wind whipped foam from atop the breakers onto the tram windows. Atop the cliff, the carnival tents and streamers flapped forlornly in the dull morning, looking no closer to breaking down and moving.
The agents were waiting for me when I arrived at work, three of them in dark clothes with darker smiles. I’d never seen them before, but they made me uneasy.
“We’d like to second you for a top-level project.” The woman in the middle spoke first. It clearly wasn’t an offer, but an order. “It’s in relation to the use of auditory area fields in combat.”
They’d lost me before they’d even begun. “I’m just an administrator, though.”
“Your synaesthesia is of particular interest to us in research that we’re currently undertaking.”
The three of them began speaking rapid fire about concepts and a project I hadn’t even known existed until then.
Ultrasound to damage ears, to vibrate eyeballs and produce vague, wraith-like apparitions.
Vibro-acoustic stimulation to reset the rhythm of a heart or to stop it altogether.
Sound to induce hallucinations and targeted tissue-shearing.
“Sound as a weapon?” I heard myself say. They stopped abruptly and the first woman pinned me with her hard gaze.
“To date, yes. But that’s where you come in. Not just sound as a weapon. Music.”
I walked for a while after they’d briefed then dismissed me, wandered back through the gothic quarter, almost hoping that someone might pull me into the shadows of an old, crumbling mansion, or injure me badly enough that I wouldn’t have to go through with the project. They’re not trying to be cruel, I told myself, they’re just carrying out orders.
I felt gutted, emptied, all the same. Could they not just leave one thing for me to keep for myself? Never before had I wished that my world could be just like everyone else’s. If it was, then they wouldn’t be asking me to help them understand how to use music to injure and kill people. If that was my world, then I could have listened to a woman called Alice sing for me in the small hours of the night, then let that memory evaporate as the years ticked by.
I found myself on the foreshore. The carnival’s Ferris wheel was moving slowly. Someone was repainting its weathered sign. Do they know why they have to stay? I wondered.
Had it not been for the death of the Poet, Alice may have gone unnoticed. The Poet died the day after the Leader was voted into power, years earlier. It was the last popular vote we will ever likely see, since elections have now been dispensed with.
It was said that the Poet took to his bed upon hearing the election results, his windows open to the rain and violent winds that stormed their own symphony along the shore. It was said that he sang his last refrain and the wind carried it through the streets, into the poorest corners and the homes of the despairing. It lit those who needed light and wrapped its dark fingers around the throats of those who sought to spread their own hateful darkness. Not enough to kill, only to disturb and unsettle. Enough to say Our time will come again.
It was whispered that, as the wind died, so too did the Poet, at the still point after the storm. His songs were still sung and danced, and thrilled through us in later years, but not being sung in his voice they were useless for the project. So the agents told me that morning.
So long after the death of the Poet, they’d found another whose voice could serve them. They needed Alice, they told me, and would be using me to capture her tune. To turn it into a weapon to defend their hateful rule.
I had only the rainbow fire that the music of others gave me. And they would use it against me. For unless I wanted to disappear and be wiped from memory, I would have to find Alice again and take apart her song.
A caged bird never sings as candid and joyful and true as one that is free.
I think that was why they didn’t just take her. Nothing is as powerful, as potent, as that which is freely given. I knew that through my own slide into the moral grey. It isn’t a quick descent, a lightning leap from who you are to the thing that you hate. You justify the first slips, just move the bar a little each time, until you’re trapped in an endlessly repeating dirge.
Night after night I went to listen to Alice. She left a tracery of scales and chords across my skin, made me sheen like some creature dug up from the night. Sing me up and sing me down. Each night was its own winding path through a secret city I never knew existed.
I had a reserved seat, to the left of the door to her tent. Alice sang in the round, accompanied by the old brass phonograph that crackled and sighed as though it loved her. The night always began with songs in major keys, G and F, sometimes B if she was feeling playful. Those keys were bright and glittering, dragon-fly chants hovering in the air before us. Through their wings we saw the stars.
As time ticked on toward the small hours, the songs became sadder, minor keys, velvet-rich loam hues of indigo and midnight and cinnabar. The audience would hold their breath and sometimes cry. Alice was their escape. Her performance was different every night, except for the last number. A Lydian oeuvre that was shadowed yet bright, limned in silver. It split her own shadow into crescent slivers dancing and scything their way through the audience. The slivers sashayed and paused behind audience members most visibly affected by Alice’s voice, bending over them like animals sniffing prey. It made me think of the Poet’s final song, twining its way around the throats of the unsuspecting and I knew, then, exactly what they wanted me to take from her.
I hated myself for knowing that.
Night after night, I hoped it would be different. But it was always the inevitable ending.
On the fifth night—the fifth always has a way of bringing us back to the beginning—the small audience emptied out after the show, and it was just me and Alice and the waves breaking far below the cliffs.
“So, you’re it then?” She almost sounded amused.
I nodded. What point was there in denying it? The regime’s reach was all-encompassing and we had all known enough disappeared people to know that there’s no outrunning the Leader’s agents. And I worked for them.
“How did you know?”
“They haven’t stopped us from leaving just because they like the show.” Alice smiled and touched my face, bee-soft. “Besides, you’re the only one who comes in here, night after night, and who leaves looking scared.”
Sing me something red, something crimson and violent.
B-flat minor, verse/chorus/verse/crescendo/chorus/end. Each note a different tinct, but all against that red, red palette. Like a spray of blood.
Sing me something violet, the blooms of widows’ tears.
F-sharp major, a soprano trill through the blue tones, lifting me on saltwater wings.
Sing me up, sing me down, sing me through the night and round
The colours of your naked heart, that beats
the blood of song
Alice and her wild heart. She knew what I was to do, and she let herself love me, anyway.
Sang herself across my skin and I, in my clumsy, fragile way, sharpened her edges and brightened her flesh until she shone in a fragmented riot like a church window at first light.
“Is every sound a colour for you?” she ran her finger across my damp collarbone.
“Only music and sounds that have a musical tone.” I turned to face her, imagining that she kept that wonderful voice locked away somewhere inside, letting it out like a pet cat to play in the night.
“Tell me what it’s like,” she murmured.
How do you tell someone what it’s like to be you? “There are shades that I’ve never seen in life that I see when you sing. It’s not just the notes or the keys, it’s the way it’s put together…the timbre, the drum beat, the role of each instrument. Your voice.”
I turned my back on her, swung my legs over the edge of the bed, unable to bear the touch of her hand on my traitor’s skin. “How can you stand me, knowing what it is they want me to do? To tear apart your music, to use it as a weapon? I can barely stand myself, for God’s sake!”
She wrapped her thin arm around my waist, dropped kisses the length of my spine as she sat up, then rested her chin on my shoulder. “Then don’t do it.”
“You know that’s not an option.”
“No, I know it’s the difficult option, but ultimately, isn’t it your choice?”
I laughed, bitter-green. “Not if I want to wake up tomorrow. Even if I didn’t already work for them, if they came to me with this, how could I possibly say no?”
She stood, then, wrapped in the sheet, and looked down at me. “If we had a way of saying no, without them even knowing it, would you do it?”
I shivered. That was sedition, a word I didn’t want to think of, let alone say aloud. Alice and her wild ways.
“Would you?” she asked again, no longer looking like my midnight chanteuse but like a fighter.
I shook my head and, in a coda of silence, dressed and left behind my Alice.
I walked through the streets, angry at myself and at her. How could she ask me to refuse? It terrified me. But to use her in the way they wanted was crueller than just wanting to develop an ordinary weapon. It was taking something sacred and destroying it. It was the immortality of her songs that they wanted. Immortal music to become immortal weapons, to be used over and over again. A siren call to gather people at the still point, and then tear them apart.
Did Alice really think it was so easy for me to back away from that? I had already lodged my first report, given them a sample to use in their testing, told them about the midnight music and how people reacted to it. They were excited about moving the project ahead.
“And she affects them in the same way that he did?” The grey, grim woman wouldn’t mention the Poet by name, just like the rest of them. I nodded, dutiful by habit.
“But I will need more time to learn how to harness it. It is a delicate business, after all, and I want to be sure I get the very best from her.” Dutiful by fear, as well.
It began to rain, bringing me back to my pointless marching through the deserted streets. Even though I’d twisted and turned through dark alleys and down bright, gaslit main roads, I realized I was heading back towards her.
Didn’t she know that, even if I could somehow say no, they’d send another in my place? They had lost the Poet and they wouldn’t simply let Alice go, even if I failed. And if not me, then who?
I had lived in the city all my life and had never met anyone who saw and felt music in the same way that I did. So anyone else who they used for the project would likely be someone with knowledge, but not my peculiar expertise. They would likely be brutal in using Alice’s song and breaking it apart for their weapons. Perhaps break Alice in the process.
I left the cobbled streets, slowly walking up the unpaved path to the carnival. Back to her van, to try to explain to her that there was no way other than this. Soft, yellow light shone from the windows, peeking around the edges of the curtains. The sound of urgent muttering inside stopped me. The door opened. Two women and a man each kissed Alice on both cheeks, then melted away into the shadows.
I stepped forward, but she stopped me with a railway signal glare, her eyes a red light.
In an instant, it became clear why she let herself love me, even though she knew what I had to do. Alice had secrets of her own, which three people slinking into the early hours revealed more clearly than our hours alone ever could have.
The world turned to black and white.
Alice was Resistance.
Resistance was secret messages encoded in the graffiti that covered the buildings in the gothic quarter. It was dangerous and deadly and barely visible. It was meetings of two or three or five in the old brick cellars of bars, which were rumoured to stretch out in tunnels under the city. It was code in lyrics, a way to pass on instructions and words of hope. Words of a secret war, waged in the shadows.
Alice had kept her secret well. Between the two of us, she was the dangerous one.
You gathered the words in your cheeks
Saved them for winter, as though I’m an ice-skin on water
Waiting for you, to fall through
A murder of darkness
A crow-fall of sadness
“This is what you meant, then, by refusing without them knowing.”
She held the door open for me, not running from a confrontation—not like me—and we stood in that small, yellow-lit space, trying to make sense of what might happen next.
The still point, fraught with possibility.
“You can carry out your work, report back, play the good worker, but ultimately, what you take will be used by us, instead, to create weapons for our side. We can keep you safe.”
“How do you know I won’t turn you in?”
Alice smiled, reached across to touch my hand. “Because you’re not one of them. Not really.”
Be the warm spring that breaks me,
The voice that breaks the crow-fall
The smile to my call
I imagined crowds gathering, the music entrancing them, then the screaming as their muscles tore from their bones, organs shut down, bleeding from their eyes and ears. Then, the awful silence. I wanted to tell her that I didn’t have a choice, but it wasn’t true. That was the moment I made my choice. I squeezed her hand and move from the stillness into the luminous music again.
The empty cavern of an abandoned church, dusty parquetry floor under dustier light flooding in from the eastern window. An intricate, dirty stained-glass window of forgotten saints. An open-lidded grand piano, keys yellow with disuse.
Alice walked, barefoot, to the piano, ran her fingers across the keys in a chromatic scale of popping bulbs of colour. The notes inhabited the space, as though the deserted church was a vast echo chamber in which the music could endlessly ricochet.
They had given me everything I needed. Bottles for echo chambers, to capture the resonances of sound. An abandoned church in which to work. But only finite time. They were growing impatient.
Emptying my bag, I held bottle after bottle to the wire of each note as Alice played, slower this time, the glass reverberating with the resonance of each note. While they still vibrated, I set each bottle in rainbow order, identifiable after the notes dimmed.
Alice began to sing and we gently shattered her song apart, into puzzle pieces that only I would be able to identify. I carved them apart, asking for a repetition of this word, or that key change. Then I coaxed the shapes—mandalas and birds and amorphous shadows—into the glass bottles and vials, matching the phrase or bass line or single notes held just so, into the little resonance chamber that complemented and underscored it. Empty, they had vibrated in my hands; filled with notes, phrases, canticles, they pulsed and shivered, electrified, in a constant dance tiding from side to side.
The still points I left until last. The still points are colourless and refract all music through them like a prism, splitting them into their own hues. The pauses, rests, the almost-silent intervals. In those still points were crammed the words that the songs could not contain. At the still point there is the silence of anticipation. I collected them in a little black bottle, stoppered it with a golden cork.
I looked at Alice, hands resting gently on the keys, staring out the window. I wondered what she thought, but was too afraid to ask. Sometimes, words threaten to shatter more than just the quiet moments and I couldn’t bear to think that she might not love me. That we might part and she would become just a mythologized memory of a person. As though she had never quite existed at all.
A hurried parting; Alice rushing to her show, me with our bottled treasure due to meet with her Resistance friends.
Only I turned left, instead of right, jumped on the tram that would take me to the Rip, the roughest part of the coast where two currents met and swirled, crashing on the rocks. I was the last passenger on the car. This was not a place frequented at night.
“Are you alright, brother?” the driver asked as I alighted, worry lining his face. It was, after all, a well-documented suicide spot.
I smiled and nodded. “Thanks. You’ll be picking me up on the way back.”
The ocean chorus was chartreuse, deep, and soothing in its ferocity. The water eddied at the meeting point of the currents, creating an undertow. Anything caught in it was pulled under and carried far out to sea.
Alice was right. I did have a choice. It just wasn’t the choice she thought I would make. I unbuckled the bottles from the black bag and dropped them, one by one by one, into the Rip. I stood on the rocks and sent pieces of Alice and me out into the world. Messages in bottles, that someone, somewhere might find, uncork, and understand. I would not be a part of turning Alice’s song into weapons, into things to destroy and maim and kill. I would not let the music disappear like so many people had disappeared, a flash in time then gone, a palette of memory fading to nothing.
And perhaps somewhere, those tiny pieces of Alice and me would be the start of new songs and stories. Would be brought to life again.
The sea carried them away and washed me clean, as the gaslight of the return tram shone across the waves. I turned and walked towards it, putting my hand in my pocket to rest on the last, tiny bottle there.
The still points I would keep for myself.
On the tram home, I hummed softly to myself. I was out of tune, but it made me happy, anyway. Two stops in, a man with a face as crinkled and brown as an autumn leaf walked slowly on and sat down beside me. I fell silent.
“I’ve studied the ocean currents in these parts for years, you know. I’m something of an amateur oceanographer. Salt air does the strangest thing to metals, you know. Anyway, those currents…” He smiled at me.
A trickle of sweat ran down my neck. The tram rattled on.
“So, what now?” he asked.
“I-I’m not sure I know what you mean…”
He pulled out a cigarette and lit it, as we wound our way down the hill, towards the city proper. “Well, you can’t go back, is what I mean.” His face became grave and he put his free hand over mine. On his wrist, a blurred tattoo of a bass clef—a signal of the old Resistance that had arisen at the same time the Leader came to power. “They came and took her tonight, in the middle of her show,” he said softly. “I’m sorry.”
Alice and her wild song. That’s why I’m here, wandering the shore from dawn until dusk, collecting bottled messages the current drags in. The Resistance, they weren’t happy when they found out what I’d done, but, strangely, they understood. Some of them had loved her, too. I could barely stand after the rust farmer told me she’d gone, but he pulled me off the tram, held me up and we escaped through the tunnels like rats.
I’m safe here, far from the city. And we’re working on other ways to fight the regime, ways that are cunning and deadly. No word has reached us, yet, of song-weapons. No word, yet, of Alice, but we keep searching, the Resistance in its way and me in mine.
Two bottles so far have washed up here, homes to an emerald coda and a tangerine, star-speckled snippet of soprano notes. Wild Alice and her life of contrasts. Sometimes, I expect her to wash in here like a siren, full of her wry smiles and a lullaby of forgiveness. Washing me away from myself.
The sea hasn’t brought me anything today, only driftwood and a lazy silver chorale of spring tides. Before I head home, I sit on the sand, cooling quickly as the sun slides like butter below the horizon. I keep the jar full of still points with me always, a reminder that in silence, there is possibility. Putting the vessel to my ear, I open the stopper just a crack and the still points loop, over and over. They produce the sensation of skin on skin, as though she is sitting behind me, her lips pressed softly to my neck, her hand resting on mine.
She still finds me despite myself.
Lost, in the wilderness of Alice.
Story copyright © 2017 by Suzanne J. Willis
Artwork copyright © 2017 by Diana M. Chien
Suzanne J. Willis is a Melbourne, Australia-based writer, a graduate of Clarion South, and an Aurealis Awards finalist. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in anthologies by PS Publishing, Prime Books, Fablecroft Publishing, and Falstaff Books, and in PodCastle, Metaphorosis, and Mythic Delirium. Suzanne works full-time and writes in the spaces around it, inspired by fairy tales, ghost stories, and all things strange.
Diana M. Chien is an illustrator, writer, and scientist. She teaches at MIT.