Episode 8: Dead Music

                       

Dead Music 

 

The putters shoved him, arms and legs over head, into the cell.  He landed with a dull crack and rolled over instantly to check his condition.  His left elbow didn’t bend correctly, nor did the wrist on that arm.  He sat there, naked in the dark, soaking wet and dripping dry.  He waited to hear the slam of the iron bars.  The putters outside the cell spat and cursed unintelligibly, their presence diminishing into the distance on the other side of the walls.  Dust and the faint smell of smoke filled his nostrils.

 

                After a few still moments in the dark, his eyes adjusted and he could make out tall, crooked forms standing around him.  He counted four men, bent and waiting, breathing in the forced night.  He could hear their bodies, unmoving but thumping with life.  Also naked and wet, they breathed in silence and watched him.  He lifted his head and parted his mouth to speak just as the man nearest him motioned gently.

 

                The loudspeakers overhead cracked and blared to life.  Harsh shouts pummeled them from above, instantly surrounding them in an unseen, nagging fuzz.

 

                “No talking, no singing.  No clapping, niggers!  Your music is a dead music!  No blues, no rap.  No jigaboo jazz.  Nigger noise is done.  Dead. Gone.  And soon all of you will be, too.  Nigger music is dead music!”

 

                There was a moment’s pause, as the new man realized that one of his hosts had tried warning him to remain silent.  That man, tall and thick shouldered, stood over him now.  His face remained still in the darkness, although the quiet fire of his stare burned a different kind of bright. 

 

                “Nigger music is dead music!  Get it in your heads!  Deader than Trayvon and Malcolm X.”

 

                Bright helped the new man to his feet.  He put his index finger to his lips as a warning grinned warm and close-lipped.  The fuzz of the loudspeaker message subsided, as the putter’s voice ceased to echo in their heads.  When the new man looked around the cell, his gaze was met with mostly concerned smiles.  One man – the shortest of the bunch – did not smile at the new man.  He looked on with an unforced stillness.  Then the screech came.

 

                A sudden, ear-splitting squeal erupted out of the speakers.  The new man fell to his knees and tried to cover his ears, but once the noise had been heard, the damage lingered.  The pulse of the screech outpaced his heartbeat, and within seconds his head throbbed like the inside of a bass drum.  He thought his ears would bleed or that his brain would spilt down the middle.   He cried out, uselessly, as the other men grimaced and bit down, gritting their teeth.  Hardened jaw lines shook aggressively in the dark of the cell.

 

                The wailing stopped and it took a few moments for the new man to sense its conclusion.  His head throbbed ceaselessly between deep breaths.  Bright kneeled down before him, both hands patting the air as a signal.  His eyes were cautious.  The new man studied Bright’s face and quickly closed his mouth, biting down and tightening his jaw.  Another round of screeches shot through the cell, louder than before, but different.  There was a series of beats now, incessant and repetitive, each followed by unnerving crashes, like glass breaking.  The screech was more piercing, its wails fading out on blinding high notes.  The whole cacophony brought a whistle into the new man’s head when it was done, as though someone had kicked a hole into his head for darkness to enter. 

 

The hate noise continued that way forever, interrupting any activity at any given time.  The men were awakened by it from sleep, where they were immediately hosed in cold water - the forceful blasts aimed at them through the bars of their bedless cell.   After shivering until they were almost dry, putters came and lead them into the great hall, where they mixed with other naked brown men from various cells and lined up to work in the factories.  These morning gatherings were usually punctuated with more hate noise, as the mass of men would drop to their knees in agony for the five minutes before being divided apart for labor.  On occasion there were breaks for lunch, but not often.  They worked tirelessly and without quarter, only to be sent back to their cells at the end of the day.  The bunker kept them all in a perpetual night, date and time of day uncertain.  Faint heat from the factories could be sensed under the floor, but never offered any real warmth.  There was a single meal regularly provided, scrapped bread or slopped beans, and the evening announcement brought whatever peace the food provided to an indefinite end.

 

                “There is no talking, niggers.  No rapping.  Your way of life is over.  You are a dead people, thankfully forgotten.  Dead words from dead bodies.  Trophies for a bygone age.  Your people are refuse.  Your culture is shit!  Move on, niggers, move on…”

 

                After a few weeks, the new man was able to discern the identities of his other cellmates.  No names were shared, as no one spoke for fear of a cold hosing or the hate-noise treatment.   There was an elderly man, whose head was balding at the crown.  The wrinkles in his face gave others the impression that he was always smiling and content.  Unknown to his cellmates, this naturally pleasant look initially encouraged the putters to beat him for weeks.  In the cruelest form of irony, the putters showed mercy and ceased pummeling him with straps nightly once they realized his expression was unforced.  Grinner lived in the cell the longest, having outlived every cellmate up this point.  He’d observed the survival traits of every man imprisoned there, and had become an archivist in the behaviors of the putters and their hate-noise.

                There was a lighter-skinned man with aquiline features, whose face always angled down, as though he was counting his toes.  He had long, straight hair, like an Indian of the Old West, and stark white teeth.  Tall and gaunt, he had four unusual ‘X’ scars where his bottom ribs should be – two X’s on each side - and the absence of bone in that area of his torso enabled him to bend over and fold himself like a lawn chair.  Rib rarely did this, as any freakish behavior usually resulted in an immediate violent reaction from the putters.  But he occasionally stretched that way in the morning after the first blast of hate-noise, and the new man would look on with awe.

The shortest man, the only cellmate who rarely recoiled from the hate-noise, spent his sleep time drawing invisible shapes on the floor in the dark.  The new man awoke one night to observe this, as Shorter wrote for hours, his fingertip a slender pen against the grit of the stone floor.  Once, the new man thought he noticed Shorter watching him as he worked, glaring back at the new man with a knowing stare.  The new man couldn’t be sure of what Shorter’s intent was, or if he was even staring back at him, so he quickly blocked it out of his mind and went back to sleep. 

 

                “Some of your cell mates were caught drumming their monkey knuckles against the walls last night.  They have been dragged under the furnaces of the factories and shot.  You will smell their cooking flesh as you shower under today’s cold water.  There is no communication, niggers.  Again – your music is a dead music!  The world has had its fill of you.  The sooner this is understood, the better your perishing shall pass.”

 

                The wailing in the noise was more mechanical now, harsher and more insistent.   Underneath the crashes of broken glass and the clash of metal, a new drone could be sensed, as its primacy was felt more than heard.  The droning introduced crackling fuzz into the mixture; static that lingered in the brain for many minutes after the noise had ended.  The new man snapped back from the latest attack, his eyes open wide and begging towards the sky.  But there was only the gleam of artificial light, its ersatz warmth offering shrill comfort under the bunker’s unforgiving ceiling.  He closed his eyes tight and thought of hot air balloons moving dreamily through misty clouds.

 

                When he looked up from his suffering, he saw that Shorter remained standing, a cocked eyebrow raised against the simmering noise.  It seemed then, to the new man, that Shorter had figured out something - that he’d solved some riddle.  Too clouded of mind to pursue the realization, the new man collapsed into his usual position, dragging up his knees and wrapping his arms around them to hold his self.  He would not drift to sleep for some time.  Slumber came eventually, muddy and disturbed like travels on a faulty vessel.

 

 

The heat from the factories’ furnaces sent scorching burns on the men’s backs.  Some tried to ignore these wounds, while others intentionally spoke to themselves in efforts to be singled out for removal and a cold hosing - a quick relief to the ongoing problem.  The putters realized the ruse after a few weeks and blasted all of the men with hate-noise and announcements when their attempts at relief were growing noticeable.  What had been a slight reprieve for the men had now been fully eradicated.

 

                “Some of your friends were humming in pain to themselves today.  These niggers’ throats were cut and their bodies tossed into the furnace!  You can breathe them now for lunch.  There is no singing!  Yours is a dead music, once played for a sick world now healed, forever free from the grip of your grievances.  Dead music from dead niggers!  Deader than your families.  Deader than your dreams.”

 

                The new man awoke one night to an unfamiliar face breathing heavily from the other side of the bars.  It was a boy, not yet twelve years of age, staring at them and breathing louder than coughs.  Shorter rolled over to the bars and shooed him away, giving the child a loving tap on the small of his back.  Shorter turned to look at the new man and was backed by Grinner and Rib.  Bright rose, too, cracking knuckles and stretching his neck.  There was a new purpose to their postures, as though they’d been fitted with freshly fortified skeletons.

 

                “It’s starting,” Shorter said.

 

                There was a rush of activity outside the bars, as freed dark men swarmed the hall, humming an open-mouthed hymn that made the new man smile, its nasally buzz filled his chest with uncommon burning.  There was a melody to the hymn, something urgent and antiquated and definitely familiar.  The new man rose to is feet and found he was humming this hymn as well, although he could not remember its name.

                A giant, chocolate-skinned man came and forced the iron bars open, sending the sound of grinding metal screeching through the new man’s head like the promise of sunshine.  The four men were in the hall, running with the flow of the freed crowd, the hymn rising through the night air like the buzzing of a thousand bees.

 

                “There is no hope for you, niggers!  A simple malfunction cannot grant you the freedom that you do not deserve!  You are not men.  You are dead niggers awaiting mass funerals!  The dignity of liberty will forever escape you!”

 

                The new man followed Shorter through the halls, as they descended down stone steps into the factory level with dozens of other men.  A squad of putters engaged them from catwalks, armed with rifles and straps but were attacked from behind by unseen men, as necks were broken and throats bitten out.  A single, random shot was fired and sparked above into the lights, and suddenly the factory level was bright as the workday, crowds of freed men swarming the factory floor.  The bodies of the putters were carried atop the fray like surfing corpses.  Their lifeless frames were passed from hand to hand before being tossed to the side or into the furnace.

 

                The screech dropped upon them, a high pitched blast of hate turned to the loudest possible setting.  Some of the men paused in pain and a few dropped to their knees.  But the veterans soldiered on, grabbing and carrying their comrades onward.  Beats kicked into the mix, skittering at first.  The sparse ticks turned to hard thuds, as the crashing, breaking glass echoed a shrill death throughout the bunker.  Shorter moved unfettered, while Rib gritted white teeth and Grinner smiled sincerely. Squeezing his ears between heavy hands, the new man accompanied them up the catwalk steps across the killing floor of the factory.

 

                “The world has moved on from you and your nigger garbage!  There is nowhere for you roam.  No sanctuary from your tombs!  Resistance will only prolong the inevitable: the systemic annihilation of your presence from the body of this earth.  You have nothing to gain, niggers!  You will be defeated again.”

 

                The men found a series of offices on the catwalk above the grand hall.  Shorter picked up a metal waste receptacle outside the office doors and threw it through the office window, sending glass beads raining down upon the uprising below them.  Rib followed suit, having found an abandoned mop.  He broke the head of the mop off, freeing the handle and using it as a pike.  Rib stabbed a putter in the chest as he came out of the newly opened office.  The hate-noise screamed at a fevered pitch, but could not drown out the communal hymn.  The new man heard himself yelling the wordless melody now, pants of air rushing through his lungs.

 

                “Your defiling days are over, niggers!  Nothing you trash here today can –“

 

                Grinner pulled the new man aside as Rib and Shorter fought a rush of putters coming through the walls and from down the hall.  Gunshots filled the bunker; yells and screams escaped and echoed through the halls.  Grinner brought the new man down the catwalk into a new hall, one neither of them had ever seen before.  It was a darkened hall, designed without lighting.  In the dark, the two men strained to make out a door.  It was a wooden door that smelled of lacquer and smoke.  The metal knob clicked when the new man tried to open it.  Grinner held him aside and produced a firearm taken from a putter.  They shared a look as Grinner squeezed the trigger, shooting a hole just below the knob.  The shot reverberated over the din of the revolt.

 

                “ … bitch ... ack … umh … ack, ack, ack … slope, slop … ack …”

 

                Bright came up behind the two men as they entered the darkened room.  A scattering of electronic lights emanated from consoles lining the space.  Before long, the room revealed itself to be a studio.  Recording equipment, DAT machines, and keyboards of various kinds populated the room alongside the consoles.  The men realized that they were in the control booth, and quickly dropped down two steps to break open the door that lead into the sound room. 

                This door, too, was locked but Bright broke through it with a hardened shoulder.  The door flailed open, whipping by with a crash.  The new man entered the sound room first, followed by Grinner, then Bright.  The new man stopped upon their findings and stood still, the wind knocked from him.  Bright nodded at the scene, a dark scowl creeping over his face.  Only Grinner approached the center of the room, his eyes filling with tears.

 

                In the center of the sound room a trio of musical stations had been arranged in an informal triangle.  There was an immaculate set of drums, with toms, bells, high-hats and a series of cymbals that shimmered in the faint light; to its left was an L-shaped double-deck of keyboards, corporate-label names long forgotten still painted on their sides.  To the right of the drums, completing the triangle formation, was a trio of electric guitars of different colors, their cords still plugged into the wall.

                A black man bent over the drum kit, tubes and wires shooting from his forearms.  His eyes were covered in a yellow blindfold, as his ears were taped shut underneath.  The drumsticks had been taped to his hands, monster wads of silver electric tape rolled into mitts, the sticks jutting out violently like deformed twigs.  Strapped to the stool, he let out a creak as he swerved absentmindedly. 

                There was another black man draped over the keyboard deck, his eyes also covered.  A large, ornate white helmet covered most of his head, its lone wire spiraled downward towards the wall.  Two nodes bullied outward, positioned over his eyes.  His fingers were capped with electronic counters, each a different color, and his knuckles were numbered in black marker.  His head hung low, just inches above the keys, as the helmet was much too heavy for his emaciated frame.  The men could hear him breathe.  His ragged breath came through his mouth in short pants.  When he sensed their presence, his shoulders rose energetically and he tickled a figure into the keys in the classic stride piano style, left hand hitting bass keys while the right danced up and down the board.  Instead of a melodic pattern, a squeal of earsplitting hate could be heard from the speakers in the control room, betraying his attempt at recounting the blues.

                On the stool before the trio of guitars sat another black man, an electric guitar strapped to his midsection.  His eyes had been taped shut as well, with a guard-less football helmet stuck onto his head.  The helmet was covered in scratches and scrapes, with an occasional square of red tape placed sparingly among the pockmarks. At least ten years younger than the other musicians, the guitarist sat up proudly and retained his posture.  His knuckles were numbered with black marker in a similar scrawl as the pianist’s.  A thread of drool dripped from his lips.   He made no motion of sensing anyone else around him.

 

                Grinner walked over to the guitar player and held him close, hugging the younger man around the shoulders.  Removing the helmet in a single movement, he threw it against the wall, cracking it.  Startled, the other musicians shook in terror.  He ran his sore, bloody hands through the thick unkempt hair of the guitarist, humming the revolution hymn softly. 

                The new man approached Grinner and the guitarist, observing them.  The guitarist shared similar features as the older man - the same permanent smile was etched into the younger man’s profile.  The guitarist sighed lovingly in the older man’s arms, deep breaths wheezed from sad lungs.

 

                Bright went to the drummer first, gingerly removing various apparatuses from his body while the pianist started to play.  The new man kicked the cords of the keyboard from the wall, disconnecting the instruments and killing the hate-noise.  The pianist’s fingers continued to travel over the black and white keys.  Even without sound, the rhythm of his strides was noticeably enticing. 

                The new man placed a hand on Grinner’s shoulder and waited.

                “Time to go home,” Grinner said.