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The Thousand Year Echo

Meryl was weeding in her garden when she heard the first voice. It spoke clearly, like it was the neighbor calling over the fence to her, but she didn’t understand the words. She looked around after the voice, but saw no one.

“Hello?”, she said, rising hesitantly to her feet. The voice was still speaking— had been speaking, uninterrupted since she first heard it. Meryl peeked over the fence. Maybe the neighbor had turned on the TV, or a radio. But when she got up on her tiptoes to see over the fence, she noticed the voice was gone. She made a sour face, then brushed it off and went back to weeding. No sooner had she knelt down to take up her trowel again than did the voice come back, along with several others, laughing.

“Who’s there?”, she demanded, stamping her foot as she stood up again and holding the trowel like a knife. No answer, just more of the same talking she couldn’t understand. She checked the other fence, and the other other, both with the same result. She returned to the spot she was weeding and listened. What language was that? Russian? Chinese? No, not quite. Was it just a bunch of babble? Was she having a stroke, or a seizure, and this was a symptom? She took out her phone and looked up “symptoms of a stroke”, and “symptoms of a seizure.” Neither seemed likely. Just making the search and reading the results was a strong indication, in and of itself, that she wasn’t having a stroke or a seizure. Then what was she hearing?

She stood there in her garden, completely baffled, listening to the voice carry on. Could somebody be playing a trick on her? How? Could the metal plate in her head be receiving radio signals? (She had no metal plate in her head, as far as she was aware.) Maybe it was time for a cup of tea, Meryl thought. She dropped her trowel where she stood, took off her work gloves and left them with the trowel, and walked to the back deck. When she stepped up to the deck, the voice cut out, like a radio losing reception. She stepped back down. The voice came back. She flossed the step, up and down: Up, no voice; down, voice.

Meryl skipped the tea. She went to the hardware store and bought a hundred orange marker flags. She systematically combed over each square foot of her back yard, row by row, like she was mowing the lawn. She’d take a step, listen for the voices, and, if she heard them, mark the spot with a flag. When she had covered the whole of her back yard there now appeared a swirl of markers, a spiral galaxy of orange flags with Meryl’s gloves situated in the center.

Over the next two weeks Meryl made a few more trips to the hardware store. She dug up her garden, digging along the contours she’d mapped out with the flags, then filled the area in with poured concrete, making herself a nice, if not oddly shaped and bizzarely placed, new patio. She put a wrought iron bench in the middle of it, and on either side of that, a flower box. It became her habit to spend much of her free time out on that bench, listening to the voices.

It had been a man’s voice the first time, but it wasn’t always. She’d hear, now a gang of children at play, now a young man and woman talking, and a baby crying. A whispering woman—and she could’ve been whispering right in Meryl’s ear—frantically muttering what sounded like a prayer was a recurring one. Always the voices came in that uninteligible, unplaceable language— apart from the baby’s.

Meryl looked for that language, scouring the internet for samples of any she’d never heard before. None of them were right. The more she listened to the voices on the patio, the more unlike anything else their language seemed. It was heavy, and solid like blocks of carved, polished stone. Every other language she could find was a twittering of birds by comparison.

One afternoon Meryl had friends over for dinner. She took the table from the back deck and set it up on her new patio, where they all dined that night. She was nearly as shocked as her friends were when they heard the voices. She’d been operating under the assumption this whole time that she’d gone discreetly and pleasantly insane, or something like it.

Jason—she’d had the biggest crush on him in high school, which no one ever knew about, and when he ended up marrying her sort-of friend, Dawn, Meryl drew closer to her out of some masochistic impulse—was particularly excited by the phenomenon and, after a few beers, announced to the dinner party that he was resolved to solve the riddle. Everyone laughed at this, except Jason. Conversation moved on. No one thought much of the announcement.

Meryl herself wasn’t very curious about the voices. Or, she was, just in the way that she wanted to listen to them, rather than in the way that she needed to have an explanation for them. It was troubling enough to know other people could even hear them. Finding out what the were, where they came from, what cuased them— to Meryl that would just be making matters worse. Jason started emailing her frequently, asking questions about the voices. She answered his questions. He was no trouble to her.

Until one day he showed up with a small crew of—were they scientists?—all duded up in hazmat suits like she had E.T. stowed away in her back yard. He promised her that it would only be two hours, tops, and then it’d be like they were never even there. They just needed to collect some data, he told her, that’s all. He pleaded with her, and flirted, like he always used to do in high school. He was old and ugly now, and the display was farsical, but in fairness she was old and ugly too, and anyway it worked. Meryl relented.

They were in and out in two hours, and they had left no trace, just like Jason said. Then, years passed, and Meryl never heard what came of it. Dawn and Jason had divorced not long after, (but unrelated to), the data collection episode, and their divorce had let the air out of her friendship with either of them. She fell out of contact with a lot of people, as it happened, and drew closer to the voices. She had, over the years, developed an understanding of their language, but she couldn’t articulate their meaning. To listen to a language for years, but never speak it… you get a sense of it, in your guts, like a dog must have for the way its human relatives speak. But a dog doesn’t have the equipment to talk back, and neither did Meryl.

In the same time, she had also developed lung cancer, which she fought and “won.” The sad truth is that one does not win against cancer. Meryl was down half a lung. Her life would be shorter than it otherwise would have been, because of that. And still, not a day would go by, from the first day she was diagnosed until her last, that wouldn’t be in the shadow of her cancer, or its returning. She didn’t think of herself as having won a battle.

Oh, and money. Not much of that was left, meaning the voices that had kept her company for so long now would be repossessed by the bank, along with everything else. This would happen, she was certain, save for a miracle. Then, a miracle.

Jason called her, out of the blue, to tell her that they’d found what the voices were. They were an echo. An echo from a long, long time ago. Using a lot of sciencey words that meant nothing to Meryl and that, truth be told, meant nothing to him either, Jason explained to her that any sound waves propagating through the space enclosing that little patch in what used to be her garden would be repropagated exactly, through that same space, some one thousand years later, by a process distinct from the one which causes familiar echos, but roughly analogous. Jason was very excited about all this. Meryl wasn’t. But along with this news, Jason had also called with a proposal: To make that special little patch of hers a destination. People would pay good money just to sit on her bench and listen to the idle chitchat of our distant ancestors, and even better—he said even better, but to Meryl it seemed even worse—they could leave a message of their own, to be heard by who knows who in a thousand years’ time. “Can you imagine it?”, he asked breathlessly.

Meryl hated the idea, but she did believe it would pay. Again, she relented to Jason. She kept the house, and raked in money besides. She even got to hear the voices still, on Sunday’s, when the house—not her house anymore, the house—was closed to the public.

She thought it was kind of sad, watching all these people come to leave their own personal messages for the next millennium. She understood, like she understood the voices, in her gut, not her head, that there simply wouldn’t be anyone to recieve them.

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