The Static (2nd prize: 2015 competition)

After ‘The Horses’, Edwin Muir

Some listened on after the broadcasts
ended, winding their radios at dusk
for the static to earth their sleep. At dawn,
barely a twelvemonth after, Ennin
rose to speak in the hall and said
he’d heard, ‘distinct as one boot falling’,
the fleet bickering of hooves on tarmac.
It fell to me to tell him how human it was
to hunt pattern; after all those months
of white noise, to hear a voice in the fuss
was to catch hold of the eerie human call
in the surf, like the keening of the drowned,
their voices with the exact pitch and reach
of the waves. ‘We impose order,’ I said.
Then Lenna heard them: a fleet of hooves
tacking from left to right in the static.
‘That falling-into-a-well sound.’ A voice,
the words almost distinct. ‘But nothing more.
A sense the accent was off, perhaps, as if
someone was taking the piss, or vowels
had drifted a century since.’ I explained
static was history, the universe: a strand
of bristling silk clutched in a ratchet
locked shut at the start of Time.
‘You listen too hard, Lenna, gripping
any sound like your ears were fists.
There’s nothing there but background.’
Yet on the quiet I began myself to listen.
Nights fell. I lined the silence with white noise,
wound the radio, left its black thumb out.
The static differed nightly, like the run-in
grooves to records of varying ages, the needle
settling in with the sharp crackle of kindling
catching, or the near inaudible fizz
of a tongue pressed on honeycomb.
I listened and there was nothing orderly,
but for the others, the horses came to one,
then two, then to all. And then more.
‘Children swimming,’ Ahlen said, ‘if I had to guess.
Children swimming back to shore.’
I listened. Tooling down the dial
made me dream of barcodes grown restless.
In the white hours, the static was a language
after a landslip: the sharp coastline left
after the bulk of words had calved into the sea,
only initial ks and ps and ts remaining.
‘I can hear them,’ Oren said. ‘Like a fast tap drip.’
He mimicked the sound of a trotting horse
slowing into a walk’s clatter, then
the fidget clop of bored hooves. I listened
and heard nothing, and dreamt the static
was a rainstorm where each drop
falling was a letter stamped from tin.
‘It’s a playground in the far distance,’ Fenn said.
‘Like a stampede of laughter just audible.’
I heard nothing, nothing, and lying awake,
turning the latchkey fears of dawn wakefulness,
began to believe a thing was behind
the bead curtain of the static, breathing shallow:
a hid child waiting to be sought, growing
more deliriously giddy the harder I listened.