Short Stories

Alan has twice been highly commended and published in the Momaya Annual Review, most recently with The Bird Organ (2013).

 

The Bird Organ

The square was looking fantastic, nobody could deny that. A low Spring sun was glancing off the cobbles, the bunting strung between the lampposts fluttered in the gentle breeze, and the assembled worthies sat on the staging in dignified anticipation. We were all behind the barricades, of course, but we could still see the finery, appreciate the solemnity of the occasion. All that notwithstanding there was a sense of festival in the air, especially amongst us peasants, and friends were greeting each other, smiling, laughing - it was as if the general population had agreed to suspend their scepticism for the time being, to simply enjoy the significance of the event. Vendors wove through the crowds selling souvenirs, hats and banners made of paper feathers, pictures of the birds as they once had been. I found this a little sad, but others insisted that it was fine, that it underlined the progress of which we were shortly to be the first beneficiaries. I’m not one for confrontation so I acquiesced, but I allowed myself a glance at the empty sky and couldn’t help but sigh.

After a while, despite no visible signal, the gentle hubbub began to abate and we gazed silently at the decorated archway beyond which a low canvas tent hid the object of so much fascination. If we had expected Lorum himself to issue from within we were quickly disappointed: the tent door was drawn aside but it was merely the scientist’s herald, Barkum, who emerged. He made a good show of it though, his official robes gleaming in the sun, his smooth, teenage face belying the gravitas with which he was attempting to progress towards the podium. Above him, banners snapped and curled in the wind and the assembled representatives of officialdom rose to their feet as he made his way forwards. At last he reached the steps and ascended the dais and we waited for the whole show to begin.

“My lords, ladies and gentlemen,” Barkum intoned, a little wobble in his voice at first, quickly hidden, “we are gathered on this magnificent day to witness the greatest, most historic unveiling in a generation!” The mayor, wobble-chinned and pallid, turned to the Lady Mayoress with a look of mingled pride and excitement. His council had approved the work, after all, and he was clearly certain of its value. “Lorum Carolinus, the greatest scientist, inventor and sage in this or any other land, is about to reveal the rewards of years of research and experiment! But stay, those of you who fear progress, to whom science is a strange and sinister mystery. For the Great Carolinus is as much artist as scientist, and you are about to see a thing of true and unequalled beauty! Yea, a distillation of the very stuff of life itself!”

All of this would doubtless have seemed a little overblown but we were largely inured to this sort of rhetoric. Every invention that Lorum Carolinus had ever shared with the population had been heralded thus, and many of them had lived up to the hype. The great man was known for his obsessive love of the physical world and for his unique ability to draw inspiration from it. It was rumoured that conversations with him were virtually impossible, as he would stop mid-sentence, utterly entranced by the movement of a beetle in the undergrowth or an unusual cloud formation, and would become as unreachable as a statue for hours or maybe days. When the trance was past he would disappear for a time, emerging at last with some dazzling new invention. The automata which paced the town on their rickety bamboo legs were said to have resulted from such a mania, and their clackity progress through the streets was now as much a part of city life as the markets and the gala days. His artificial sun, too, had been inspirational and although I did join the movement to have it decommissioned (we do need our sleep, after all, and the blazing light did rather impede it) I was more than able to admire its genius. That said, I little regretted the removal of the twenty acre solar panel which had covered the town to power it.

“Few nations today, or indeed in any age, have been so privileged as to possess a man of such brilliance and to appreciate that brilliance as it unfolds! Where are the witch hunts of yore? Where are the proscriptive priests, presiding over the suppression of innovation? Not here, not here!” This met with goodly applause and we allowed ourselves some vicarious congratulations. We had never thought of it like that before. “Where are the babbling, ignorant masses, fearful of anything beyond their own limited understanding, pitchforks in hand and petitions flying? Not here!” More applause but rather guarded this time. Those of us who had, in fact, petitioned and lobbied quite forcefully against the current project had difficulty meeting our neighbours’ eyes. If our efforts were to be written out of history we were not about to be the ones to refresh the collective memory - in any case, our reservations had been swept aside by the general pageantry of the day and our opposition seemed a rather bizarre and distant aberration. Barkum continued.

“While other nations remain enslaved by the limits of nature, we have one among us who can unravel them, combine them with the most exquisite human brilliance and weave new wonders! One who understands the very language of the world and harnesses it in poetry undreamt of!” Murmurs of approval amongst the blank looks - this was becoming a little highbrow for some of my contemporaries, but I was growing increasingly intoxicated by it all. I remembered Lorum’s Eclipse Accordion and the night spent dancing to its eerie melodies. Over the banners and flags I could see the familiar silhouette of the Tree Machine, the colossal wooden oxygen factory which had dominated the skyline for over a decade. To think that there had been those who opposed the clearing of the forest for its production - those voices had been silent a long while now, grateful for every breath they took in the Machine’s shadow.

“In the past, my master has danced with the wind, reined in the rain, drawn beauty from the very mud and grime itself. But today, in his infinite magnanimity, he will share with you the results of his most ambitious project yet!” You could have heard a pin drop. You could have heard a bird singing a mile away, except, well, you couldn’t, of course.

“Which of us did not, in days gone past, find himself moved by the beauty of the birdsong? Feel a stirring in the heart at that liquid, beautiful sound? Pause in his daily routine to marvel at the wonders that nature has wrought?” A ripple of fond nostalgia moved through the crowd, and I was sure I heard a few sniffles and stifled sobs. “Imagine, then, the effect this sound has always had on one whose sensitivity is so much more finely tuned than that of the common man. One who hears through the surface beauty to layers of complexity and organisation beyond the grasp of the dazzled masses, and whose very neurons begin to vibrate in unique harmony and understanding. To share, ladies and gentlemen, the awesome profundity of that understanding has been my master’s one goal these five long years. And today, he will do it!”

Had it only been five years? The Bird Organ had been such a ubiquitous topic of conjecture and conversation since its inception that I found it hard to think of a time when we hadn’t been waiting for it to appear. Tales of Lorum’s obsession had become common currency - how he had flung every clock in his labyrinthine quarters from the highest turret to silence their ticking; how he had developed cog wheels as fine as snowflakes and pulleys of spider silk to create machinery of impossible delicacy; how the bellows were crafted from rose petals preserved in an elixir of Lorum’s own invention; how, after endless experimentation with reeds and strings, the great man had finally conceded that nothing could compete with the exquisite craft of the birds’ own throats. This last, of course, had led to the Bounty, the great bird hunt which had gripped the island two or three years back. Nothing had been spared. The long, low whistle of the curlew, the harsh percussion of the ravens, the wave-borne mournfulness of seagulls, all was grist to Lorum’s art, each had its tiny part to play. And in his expert dissection he had reclaimed instruments which would, in the natural course of things, have fallen prey to age, predation, famine and infirmity.

Barkum’s thoughts were clearly running along similar lines. “At first, there were doubters,” he exclaimed. “There were those so stuck in their ways that they could not see the unworthiness of birds. Whose sentimentality blinded them to the possibilities. Ladies and gentlemen, after today, those people will stand and denounce their own foolishness and be one with the enlightened many. Today’s demonstration will shatter their unease and perhaps, just perhaps, we will see a new age when ideas are welcomed from the first, and need not battle the forces of darkness and ignorance merely to be heard!”

Stirring though all this undoubtedly was, a certain restiveness began to ripple round the gathered masses and Barkum clearly realised that he was outstaying his welcome. We had not, after all, downed tools for the day to listen to the rhetoric of an enthusiastic assistant, however skilful it might be. He cleared his throat and flushed slightly before hastily resuming, his voice on a slightly higher pitch.

“Without further ado,” he squeaked, “in the presence of our honourable councillors, the Duke and Duchess, the patrons of the arts and sciences who have made this immortal work possible…”

“Get on with it,” came a grumble from behind me. I didn’t dare look around.

“…Who have made this immortal work possible,” continued the herald in petulant defiance, “I present to you, good citizens…

“The BIRD ORGAN!”

Some mechanism which had hitherto been invisible lifted the whole tent skyward and it shot from view in a swirling cascade of feathers. The crowd gasped and applauded as the sky darkened in this unexpected blizzard - no-one had seen a real feather for over a year, and the grace with which they spiralled earthwards, catching the light and riding the breeze, brought tears to more than one eye. And as we followed their progress down we saw the thing onto which they settled, and we opened our mouths in astonishment.

Rolling slowly and sedately towards the centre of the square, Lorum Carolinus himself astride it, came the breathlessly anticipated Bird Organ. The machine which was to harness and enhance the most beautiful of all nature’s creations and to gift it to us, unworthy mortals, in perpetual harmony, unchained by daylight hours, by mating seasons, by long cold winters - ours, to marvel at and enjoy throughout our blessed lives.

Lorum rose. His gnarled old hands were trembling as he raised them in acknowledgement of the crowd. All too aware of the insufficiency of words, he swept his arm over his greatest work and invited us to relish this delicious, last moment of anticipation - an anticipation that he himself shared, as he had placed so much faith in his own design that he had not, yet, tested the machine for himself.

The Organ was, in shape, roughly cuboid, with a tangle of brilliant brass pipes emerging from its edges. Each of these, we had been led to believe, contained the genuine preserved workings of our late ornithological population, improved, recalibrated and harmonised. It was decorated all over in plumage, beautifully ordered in chromatic gradations of which Nature herself would have been envious. The keyboard was made of perfectly carved likenesses of all the birds whose voices it made glorious tribute to: there were owls, peacocks, blackbirds and wrens, robins and cuckoos and geese. As a thing of physical beauty this would have been any artist’s crowning achievement, and we had not even heard it played yet. The applause was deafening and rapturous, echoing off the cobbles and into the uninterrupted sky. But riotous as it was, it stopped in an instant at a signal from the genius before us.

“My friends,” he began in a quavering voice, “I am that most fortunate of men - a dreamer who is allowed to realise his dreams. For that opportunity I owe you all my humblest thanks.

“I would dwell on your kindness and generosity further, but I am, like you, impatient to hear the fruits of so much sacrifice. Some of you may still regret the changes that this machine has necessitated…” (“No, no,” shouted the crowd as one,) “but it is my belief that we shall all be richer now. And so, before any more time passes, let us listen to the voice of Nature herself - distilled, tuned, TRANSLATED!” The old man sat again, positioning himself before the keyboard and closing his eyes in a moment of silent reflection. We watched, breathless, humbled, and perhaps a little scared.

Lorum opened his eyes and looked over the carved keys before him, then slowly, carefully selected those he wished to play for the Bird Organ’s debut. A rook, a nightingale, a goldcrest and a swan. He stroked them tenderly, inhaled deeply, then pushed them all down together with all his strength.

At once, the air was rent with a terrifying cacophony, a shrieking, wailing lament underpinned by grinding gears and bellows. Our hands all shot to our ears and we squeezed our eyes tightly shut to blot out this hideous noise, but nothing was sufficient to block the words “YOU FOOLS! YOU FOOLS!” from penetrating our skulls. Lorum jerked his hands off the instrument as if he’d been electrocuted, but we had to wait for the ringing in our ears to stop before we could realise that silence had fallen. The Mayor had toppled backwards off his seat but was now scrabbling to his feet, chins a-wobble and face a beetroot red.

“Lorum! Lorum!” he cried. It seemed to be all he could manage.

The inventor was quick to recover himself, and he stood, raised his arms and shouted over the rising clamour.

“Friends,” he cried, “friends, be patient! This is a new experience, and our senses, merely human, after all, may take some time to appreciate it! I… I think we should have another shot.” My head was still spinning from the shock of the first blast and I wasn’t at all sure I could handle another. A million feathered ghosts had awoken in my skull and were ricocheting around inside - I really didn’t want to cause them any further alarm. A morbid fascination won over, however, and I, like all the rest, waited.

Before Lorum tried again he paused to offer some words of caution. “May I, ah, remind you all of the ease with which we may be deceived. Our senses, while intricate, are subject to that disease of the mind which we scientists call anthropomorphism. Thus it is that some of you - ah, perhaps many of you - may fancy that you hear intelligible words emanating from this instrument. This is completely impossible - do not be taken in by your brain’s desire to impose its limited order on a work which is, at first, too great for it. Now,” and with that, he tried again.

Perhaps wary of his original combination his fingers hovered over a woodpecker, a skylark, a blue tit and a merlin. Breath held again he pushed, and the force of the blast was sufficient to knock me and hundreds of others from our feet. “IDIOT CHILDREN!” our foolish brains told us we were hearing, “HOW MANY CHANCES DO YOU THINK YOU HAVE?” This deafening dissonance, accompanied by the sound of shattering windows and howling dogs, echoed to the birdless clouds and left us helpless, rattled to the soul.

I am ashamed to record the fact that I did not like the sound, at first. Of course, its beauty has since been explained to us, poor, uneducated masses, and we can now appreciate just how lucky we are. If my work does sometimes keep me from the nightly Bird Organ recitals it is not at all because I would rather avoid them. Friends are kind enough to describe them to me, and each time I know I have missed a sound of rare and inspiring, if perhaps a little overwhelming, beauty. It is not for the likes of me to understand a mind like Lorum’s, still less the unsheathed mysteries of Nature. But I am wise enough, now, to have finally removed the little wooden bird-table from my garden, and the loss of this sentimental totem has lifted a great weight from my shoulders. We are fortunate, indeed.

 

Contact:  Alan can be contacted for bookings or commissions, at:  48 Catherine Street, Gatehouse of Fleet DG7 2JB   alanmcclure70@hotmail.com   Tel: 07496181254

 

Copyright © Alan McClure 2015. All Rights Reserved.