The Quiet

“How do you think it feels to be a tree?” she would ask, and he would always reply with, “I don’t know. I’m not a tree.” The encounter would then end in laughter or dead silence, and the rest of the drive seemed to be determined in some way or another by it. Neither the loud nor the quiet was bad, they just were. That drove him crazy sometimes, especially the more he considered it. Like a good old jab in the gut. He just couldn’t come to terms with it, yearning for the answer so much that he just got in his car and started driving. He figured the quiet really couldn’t be that bad.

The real question behind the quiet is how much sound is to be heard in the moment of tranquility. Is it a deafening silence that permeates through the air with a suffocating blow? Is it the sort of soundless secret that’s told in whispers by the nonliving? Maybe silence for some is just listening, whether it be a laugh or nothing at all. I think that’s what I both love and fear about silence. It can come in so many unpredictable ways.

The drive to the cabin was about three hours, and that silence involved the sound of passing cars and turning tires. When those sounds became old and stale, he’d put on some music, a more involved silence that depended on an organized system of sounds. Looking out the window, you could see great cities shape back into small towns, the buildings shrinking ever so slightly in size and increasing in scarcity. Small towns converted back to lush green and vice versa as if stuck in a constant battle between rewind and fast forward.

Imagine if you could rewind or fast forward anywhere in time. When I was younger, I wrote this story about a boy whose friend asks whether he would rather be able to rewind or fast forward time. The boy assumes that being able to rewind time would make more sense, as he’d always be able to get back to the future, so he chooses exactly that. His fear of uncertainty doesn’t allow him to choose the other. When his friend asks him how far back he’d like to go, he mentions that there was this girl he wished he had asked to the school dance. As if by magic, he is teleported back to that point in time. He takes this girl to the dance and everything seems to be fine, until one day, his friend asks him the same question. The future or the past? Again, he decides to travel backwards, and the cycle repeats itself. Eventually, he realizes he has to avoid this friend at all cost, in order to cease living in limbo. So he never speaks to this friend again, but he soon realizes that there is always a new person in his life who asks him this question. He then has to isolate himself from everyone in his life, until it is only the girl who’s left. He thinks to himself “please, please don’t let it be her too.” The girl asks the question, and the boy is left with the quiet. The story ends there. I never understood why I ended it there, but I now realize that I completely isolated my character, thus ending the story.

As he got closer to the cabin, cell service began to get spotty until it was nonexistent. He remembered this cycle well back when he would go up with family or friends. He started thinking about the trees again. He hadn’t thought about it in detail since she had asked him. “What if the trees felt nothing and just were?” he considered. It was kind of a dull and mind-numbing thought. Painfully plain in many ways, and perhaps even a little unsettling.

Before long, he had reached the cabin, nestled neatly in a clearing looking over a nearby lake. The water was a dark, crystalized blue that seemed to reflect and distort the world around it. The trees stood tall yet thin, and the small mountain across the way looked enormous. Frost had collected on the ground, and the air felt chillingly clean with every breath, like crisp ice. Soon, the silence began to kick in. He could hear a slight breeze in the distance that ran away with the condensation from his breath. A woodpecker knocked with sporadic clicks in the distance and then ceased to exist. The trees responded with an elegant whistle that blew with the winds.

Isolation can be a strange thing. The quiet never produces the same silence as it once did, just as traveling to the same place will never be exactly how you experienced it before. Something will always be different, no matter how slight or major. The major things usually produce an impacting initial shock, but I always seem to trip over the minor things due to my distraction. It can feel like someone spun you around twice over and told you to simply carry on with your routine. Except that person isn’t always there. Sometimes it’s just you, the quiet, and a spinning, unrecognizable room.

When the cold started setting in, he knew that he had to make a fire, just as he had done before when it was just the two of them. He started with the basic shape, building it up steadily from the bottom. He took out his lighter, a flashing flame of memories passing through him, hard-hitting and bittersweet. Just like another hit from Johnny Walker Red, but stronger and more intoxicating. He noticed something wasn’t right. The fire wouldn’t light this time. Things were different. Every flame he tried to kindle died, and it was getting much colder. The world started to spin, and suddenly, he fell backward.

There he laid, on this back, looking up at the trees amongst the midnight sky. He felt a flare of delirium as the quiet came rushing in. He could have sworn he heard the crackle of a fire, as lovers danced on ashes above his head and swung through the treetops; laughter and music echoing into the stars. Just silence, but so much more. Maybe that’s what it was like to be a tree.