On August 29, 2019, I was meant to travel to Venice to watch a lifelong friend get married — a small reception for just ten people. The friend was marrying a Venetian. When I awoke that morning, I felt a deep drone in my right ear accompanied by a sound I can best compare to a large piece of sheet metal being rocked, a perpetually rolling thunder. I moved from the bedroom to the living room in a controlled panic, where my little black dog stood by the door and barked. It was just past time for her morning walk. The bark, the first distinct, external sound I had heard since waking, was distorted and distant.
When I called out her name, I found my own voice sounded unfamiliar. The volume had been dialed up and the pitch had shifted. A few days earlier, I had been swimming in the Rockaways after a heavy summer rain, and I thought maybe the city water had taken hold.
I went immediately to see a doctor — my flight was scheduled for the late afternoon. At the emergency ear-and-eye clinic, a young nurse looked into my ears. No, I told her, I was not in any pain. She said they looked beautiful and clean, which she then added was not a good sign. After a hearing test, the doctor looked over some graphs and then into my eyes and said, Bad luck. This was a diagnosis. I had been struck by sudden deafness. The term sounded so severe that it verged on comedic for the wingspan of one moment. He said I had lost low-end hearing. There was an explanation for the loss of sound — something had attacked the nerve between the inner ear and the brain — but there was no explanation for the cause. The phantom thunder, he explained, was a result of the brain attempting to replace the frequencies the ear had lost.
Quickly, I became a person of interest. I was referred to three specialists, researchers in the field, who made specific room in their schedules to see me over the next two days. Fees and copays were waived. Within 48 hours, each specialist relayed that I was unlikely to make a full recovery, or any recovery at all — worse, one said, it could mean the onset of a degenerative hearing disease that typically affects people late in life, and concludes with a profound deafness. The sincerest strain of quiet.
We can get to the moon, another doctor said, but we can’t get to the inner ear. This doctor proposed what he referred to as an “attempt-rescue” — a procedure that had no proven positive or negative outcome. The attempt-rescue would entail a local anesthetic and small, javelin-like instrument that would be used to puncture directly through the drum. After creating the hole in the drum, a needle would retrace the javelin’s path and push steroids somewhere toward the problem area. I agreed to the procedure, which took place the following morning, at the same time as the late afternoon wedding reception. The bride’s mother sent a photo of nine white folding chairs on a patio facing the Adriatic Sea: The show must go on…
The procedure had no effect. In the first weeks of hearing loss, I began to think about the idea of luck — the cheapness and the vastness of the word, its relation to fear. I wrote down a sentence from a summary of The Histories (second century BCE), which the Greek chronicler Polybius began writing while being held hostage in a cell in Rome: “When no cause can be discovered for events such as floods, droughts, frosts, or even in politics, then the cause of these events may be fairly attributed to luck.” I wondered about this adverb, fairly.
I began talking to myself out loud to make sure I had retained the hearing I had left. This was a useless exercise, but I carried on with it anyway. I would say things like Hello? at random intervals as though someone had knocked at the door. My voice would always be the one thing I could hear, even if everything else had been shut out. But I could hear my voice more clearly now, and even when I wasn’t speaking, my thoughts felt somehow louder. I had become nearer to myself.
The phenomenologist Husserl, according to one interpretation, suggests that even in the instant when we speak to ourselves silently, there must be something like a tiny rip that divides us into the speaker and the hearer. This rip somehow separates you from yourself in the moment of hearing yourself speak. Moment or instant translates in German to Augenblick — “blink of the eye.” I found that this tiny rip had become, to me, imperceivable.
It was as though the sound I was hearing was not the sound itself but rather its ghost. And like a good ghost, the sound made itself known only when it wanted to, flimsily, moving through the room in vacant form before fading or disappearing altogether. While sitting at the dining table, I noticed the street outside was no longer where it had always been, just through the living room window. I found instead that the street was in my kitchen — the hum of passing cars was now coming from somewhere near my stove and sounded like bees.
I had a follow-up appointment with the doctor, who recommended abstaining from anything that might give way to heightened emotions, from weddings to surprise celebrations, unexpected deaths to orgasms.
Do you remember? he said. Do you remember a heightened moment before your hearing dropped? He said to keep a log of “moments of elevation.”
I explained that a fear had settled in me — that someday, the words I spoke would somehow be different from the words I was thinking — that I would have nothing but faith to confirm that I was saying what I intended to say.
He asked if I would be interested in entering a hypnotherapy trial — a form of potential palliative care. The clinical hypnotherapist who was conducting the trial was based in Bolinas, and would be interested in practicing the hypnosis via video conference each day for one hour over the course of two weeks. I agreed to a consultation session.
I met the hypnotherapist two days later, in the evening, on screen. Behind him was a green parrot in a white cage, Frida, a rescue macaw, born, I learned, with no voice box and therefore not suited for the wild. It was for this reason only that he did not feel sorry keeping her in the cage. We began with small talk. I sat in the white chair. He asked if I had heard of the musician Suzanne Ciani. He told me she was his neighbor there in Bolinas. And not just a neighbor in the loose sense. Their properties touched. The referring doctor had told him that I was also a musician… Sometimes he could hear her digital arpeggios drifting into his window! But not today… not today… he said. The wind was blowing north…
We reached the subject of my ears. I tried to explain the rolling thunder — it’s like God adjusting his piano stool but never getting around to the song. He took sporadic notes. He asked if I believed in God. No, I told him. He said he practiced the Ericksonian method — indirect suggestion, body language, storytelling, metaphors.
He had what I assumed were many degrees hanging on his wall behind him, next to the parrot and the cage. But through the screen, the frames on the wall appeared empty, suspended only by Northern Californian sunlight. He had a sheerness about him. Very pale blue eyes and thin white hair. As the session went on, the light began to erase him too. Our session was broken up by a poor connection and so I never felt I entered any state other than the one I was already in.
Alone in the room again, I remembered reading that a horse and a fish, or a horse and a man, or even two men compared to each other, do not have the same capacity to be affected. That they are not affected by the same things, or not affected by the same things in the same way. And I thought this about my days, that previously one day had been a horse and the next day had been a fish and each day itself had had a changed capacity to be affected, always in relation to other days. Now all of my days just felt like fish.
I had begun to understand my own life by misinterpreting things I was reading and experiencing with only half of my attention. I found clarity in misinterpretation. And I thought that our misinterpretations are perhaps the most individual and specific things we have.
The following day, we met again — this time thirty minutes later. The sun had already begun to set and the hypnotherapist was just a solid dark mass. Could I see him, or was he sitting dangerously close to his own shadow? I can’t seem to get out of it! he said. He added that he didn’t usually hold sessions at this time of day, and that perhaps he should invest in a window treatment, or tack up one of his wife’s many sarongs. I told him that I could only see his silhouette, but that it was fine by me. He apologized profusely for the poor connection and now this. I told him I was used to poor connections.
He said it was funny that I mentioned poor connections. He listened to The Buzzer sometimes for hours a day. I told him I did not know what he was referring to.
He leaned into the screen. He said it was a radio station no one claims to run. The Petersburg Popper. The Soviet Sonata. The Commie Cantata. MDZhB. It had broadcasted a low shortwave frequency from somewhere north of Moscow since at least 1982.
He said that if you tune your radio to 4625 kHz from anywhere on earth, you can pick up the transmissions. Most of the time, all you can hear is a low, long, buzzing drone, but what you listen for is the occasional anomaly — faint words, names, numbers, and very occasionally one side of a conversation — picked up in the background, cutting in and out.
He said that these occurrences suggest that the buzzing tones are not internally generated but rather transmitted from a device placed behind a perpetually live and open microphone. He said that the buzzing tones are believed to be generated by the tone wheel of a Hammond organ due to their irregular pitch.
He said that last month several unusual broadcasts were observed; these included portions of the buzzer being replaced with extracts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and, in one instance, the sound of a woman screaming. He explained that he and his wife, a painter, would tune in while playing mah-jongg in the evenings and sometimes while doing the crossword. It had become a daily ritual. An addiction even! Their long games were soundtracked by the low drone — like the drone of a foghorn calling a faraway ship. He asked if I had seen the film July Rain. He said that the score was made up of constantly flipping radio stations. I told him I had seen the first fifteen minutes. I told him that for a week now I had felt like I was just outside of a station’s range. The signal had been cutting in and out, so to speak, and a perpetual static had arrived and stayed with me — like a radio station no one claims to run.
Finally, he asked me to close my eyes. For several moments he said nothing, then, That’s right, he said, as if responding to something I’d said though I had said nothing… And fortunately, he said… I have had some experience with signals… with letting the outside world drift… He said, let the outside world drift from your awareness… as you grow more comfortable… with each breath you exhale… you can remember to forget… that the world outside… is outside… and then the world inside… is so much more important… it really… doesn’t matter… that today… is a new day… a day you’ve never experienced before… you can rediscover… and enjoy the newness… as you experience yourself… differently… because you are different… you know more now… and all that you have learned… has taught you… how to learn… how to control the dial… how to learn… a simple idea… that was so easy… to forget… until now… when you discover… what can serve you now… in the way that you would like… It went on like that. And I fell asleep. And neither of us noticed until he stopped talking and the absence of his voice woke me up. Like when someone comes and turns off a light when you’re already sleeping and the darkness wakes you. The hypnotherapist said that next time, in order to benefit from the session, I needed to stay awake. I decided to go on and let this man take time from my days — my time was there for the taking.
After the session, I visited the open-source website dedicated to The Buzzer. I found the table where listeners added to a log of overheard words and other notable deviations from the usual drone. On that day, one listener had logged that the station was interrupted by a third-party transmission, likely sent by French fishermen.
Words on the log included:
ГЕЛЬ – gel
ТИМЕЙКА – a word with no real meaning
ДИНГИ – dinghy
БАПТИСТСКИЙ – Baptist
КУХОННЫЙ – associated with kitchen furniture
БЕЗДОЖДЬЕ – rainlessness
ГРУЗИНСКИЙ – Georgian
АЙОВА – Iowa
ИЗНОС – exhaustion
ЗАБОРЧИК – diminutive of fence
ЕРЕСЬ – heresy
ЗЕМЛЕВЕД – farming specialist
БАЛКОННЫЙ – belonging to a balcony
АТОМОВКУС – atomic taste
КЕПЛЕР – Johannes Kepler, famous astronomer
ДАЛЬНОСТЬ – distance
КАЗАЧОК – a Cossack folk dance
Who was listening? I pictured versions of myself, alone, in different bodies and foreign rooms at tables leaning over small radios. The sun, setting or rising. I pictured myself extending the antennae as close to the sky as possible, moving nearer to windows, propping them open with miscellaneous objects on hand. I saw it then, listening as sport — like fishing, or masturbation, it takes a certain type of attention. There is that compulsive element too, tied up with fear. Fear of missing a word or a string of them. Are listeners the people who live lives waiting for clues? I sat in the sun with my little black dog, who had developed an acute licking habit. I let her lick me until it was unbearable.
In the next session, I asked the hypnotherapist how it was possible that I could be experiencing such extreme degrees of fear and boredom at once. Forms of fear I had experienced before were engaging. I told him this was a disengaging strain of fear. He asked me if I felt I was waiting for something. I said yes, it felt like I was waiting for a scene in a film I had seen many times. Yes, it was exhausting to live with this level of anticipation. And what I was anticipating was nothing. This made it all the more exhausting. I told him then that my days felt like exercises.
I had, during this period, taken to grocery shopping at the earliest possible hour — before the music was turned on, before the rush of commuters and caregivers and full-time mothers with small children. One morning, after being told to eat more white fish, due to a vitamin D deficiency from my medication, I arrived at 7 a.m. to purchase my dinner. There was only one other shopper. As I looked down at all of the fish on ice, I tried to remember the last time I had swum in the sea. When the stranger next to me sneezed, I suddenly remembered — it had been at the Rockaways — and said love you instead of bless you, like the words had just been there waiting to come out. The stranger looked up, nodded, and pointed at the fish I had planned to take through the glass. I watched it disappear as it was wrapped in white paper.
In the following session, I asked the hypnotherapist if he had ever contributed to the log.
He said that he’d had beginner’s luck — his first and only log dated back to Christmas Eve, 1997 — at that point, he had been a listener for two months.
The Buzzer had been interrupted by a listing of names repeated twice: Boris, Roman, Olga, Mikhail, Anna, Larisa. Boris, Roman, Olga, Mikhail, Anna, Larisa.
The hypnotherapist and his wife had since given these names to the local strays that they fed and footed veterinary bills for.
He said that he had even developed remote comradery with other listeners. While in Athens last September for an annual international hypnotherapy conference, he met another listener, with whom he had corresponded for over ten years — a mostly mute man, a lifelong bachelor and bellhop at the Hotel Grande Bretagne, who tuned in during his work shifts via Zenith transistor, and in the evenings on his home system. His day off, a Tuesday, they met at a cafe in Exarchia and listened together over retsina and tiropita for an hour before parting ways. This man had the second highest log rate, at eleven contributions. He had dedicated the past eighteen years of his life to listening.
The connection failed, and the hypnotherapist was fixed on the screen, distorted, eyes shut, mouth wide open — a black ovular portal set into his face as if leading to who knows where. He appeared to be calling out to me — or shouting.
The unintentional image looked like one of the Francis Bacon screaming pope paintings, and I thought of the interview I’d read where Bacon says, “We nearly always live through screens — a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that perhaps I have from time to time been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens.”
I looked at the hypnotherapist, still frozen, and thought that perhaps this poor connection had cleared away a veil or two.
Unfixed, the hypnotherapist told me to let myself notice subtle changes in sounds from moment to moment. It doesn’t really matter whether you go into a trance sooner or later, he said. He told me to notice my hands, the way my body made contact with the cushions. To feel the heaviness as my body rested. It’s nice to feel something familiar as you learn something new, he said. Become aware of the parts of your body being supported by the chair. And how the chair is supported by the floor, and the floor is supported by walls and beams, and beneath this floor there are other floors that go deeper and deeper and deeper. That’s right. It became apparent then that he was battling the onset of a hiccup attack. Let your mind drift to any vista that captures your imagination. We learn things in an unusual way, a way that we do not know about. Scan your body. He asked me as I sank even further into the chair to recall an early memory of total liberation. Shut your eyes, he said, and feel each side of the lid and then feel the lid become a shield…
There was a visit to the San Diego Zoo’s aviary… At the age of eight or nine, I had developed a particular interest in the birds of Egypt, after playing the minor role of the ornithologist in a primary school production of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince (a play about the friendship between a statue of a dead prince and a sad swallow whose flock flew off to Egypt and left him behind).
The aviary was built in the 1920s by a local architect, and at the time was the most impressive of its kind in the world — a great vaulted structure, netting draped like skin over bone, fixed into the edge of a canyon to simulate a rookery. The structure was referred to as “the invisible cage” — assuming the bird’s perspective. Inside were over one hundred birds from Africa, man-made brooks, channels, waterfalls, and artificial rain that let down once an hour on the hour, a feature added in the early 1990s.
Inside the cage, the birds were at first more difficult to see than I had hoped they would be. I did not spot many, but could sense their proximity. The green walls. I remember the air of freedom I felt within this enclosure too, as I, alone, crossed elevated walkways over small brooks and canals beneath a tight green canopy. I had never felt so far away, as a true hot wind blew through the enclosure.
At once, the birds fell quiet, and many lined up in a great row along the only structural wire that ran through the center of the cage. I thought of the Rockettes. I assumed the birds were trained, performing some choreography or operating on a schedule. Their quiet procession went on for several minutes. The only sound remaining was that of the water coursing in all of its directions. Then, as though a switch had gone off, the birds resumed their singing and calling and once again disappeared.
When I left the aviary, which led directly into the zoo gift shop, I found a shopkeeper sweeping up many small mountains of broken glass within one giant puddle. She apologized for the shop’s appearance. The entire wall of snow globes had come down off the shelf. Had I felt it? There had been an earthquake, 5.2…
And when I opened my eyes, the hypnotherapist’s own eyes were closed, his head tilted back, one hand holding his nose shut, the other tilting water into his open mouth.
That night, unable to sleep, I read a post by Quicksand53 on a forum about sudden deafness that said birdsong was often the first thing to go. Quicksand53 had thought the birds no longer fancied the tree outside her kitchen window. Birds, like people, move on. But this was not the case, she realized, after making eye contact with a bird as she placed a cup in the sink. The whole flock was still in the tree singing, but her ears refused the song. Loss is a process, she said, not a light switch. Quicksand53 ended the post with, Good luck! followed by a link to a white noise machine with adjustable frequencies.
I fell asleep to The Buzzer, taking comfort in knowing that what most listeners were hearing was just this — not much — and that they, too, were waiting for words to erupt from the waves like little bombs.
The apartment above mine had a minor flood and a leak came down through the ceiling, right over my bed. I woke, face wet, and thought that I had been crying in my sleep. This was before I discovered my pillow was soaked through, before I noticed the hairline crack overhead. My emotional ceiling. I wiped my face dry and contacted the super. Can it wait till tomorrow? he asked.
When the super came to attend to the leak the next morning, he told me there was a new tenant upstairs. The jump roper had left and had been replaced by the former Miss Baltic Sea. As the ceiling continued to let out over the bed, I came to think it was not a person but instead an ocean that had moved in above me. And I thought, People might look at this ocean and say, Oh, this ocean used to be so beautiful. Time is cruel even to oceans. What is this ocean doing in a fifth-floor walk-up? Poor thing. Moving water is better than still water, said the super as he left again to find a wrench.
The following day, I saw Miss Baltic Sea in the entryway, and she was not blue and horizontal — she was blond and vertical, and unable to remove her mail key from her mailbox. I offered to help, but she only smiled and threw the weight of her whole body in the opposite direction of the little key.
The next day, the hypnotherapist was all hard edges. A shadow had surgically cut his face in two. Half-moon biscuit. I began to speak and he shushed me, picked me up, and carried me over to the window. Can you hear them? he asked. But I could hear only his breathing. A heavy nose breath. It’s the chimes of Paolo Soleri, he said, my Cosanti bells… The wind is blowing east! When the wind blows east, he explained, the tree sings. All I could see through the computer screen was a soft grid, the screen of his window. He told me that Cosanti was the combination of the Italian words cosa (“things”) and anti (“against”). He told me that the first weekend of every September, he and his wife always drive to Paradise Valley, Arizona, to pick out a new bell for their Aleppo pine, from which hang 32 bells. In high winds, especially those coming off the Pacific, the sound of the tree can be overbearing. This is all part of it, he said. He told me that decades earlier, the summer after completing his first and only year of architecture school, he had volunteered at Cosanti. There he had apprenticed with the lead bellmaker, another Italian who had a way with bronze.
And I told him that it was funny he mentioned architecture — it was during those weeks of increased dosage that I had felt an expanding sense of regret. A regret like water placed in a glass and then into a freezer — a feeling that grows hard and cracks everything around it. An oceanic regret that proved to me, only in that specific moment, that I had never actually felt regret before.
What I regretted was not becoming an architect, that I had come from a long line of people who carried this regret, including my veterinarian mother, who lived with two architects while attending veterinary school, and questioned her choice as she learned to express the anal glands of house pets. The regret had cycled in me. I had convinced myself that I wanted people to entrust me with their floors, their walls, their ceilings.
Illness, injury… are forms of castration, he said. It makes sense that you would have a desire to erect, so to speak. Anyway, he was not surprised — many architects are composers or musicians or wish they were and vice versa. It’s obvious, he said, music is the architecture of sound. I told him that it felt like I spent most of my time interviewing myself. Each day was a long interview that seemed to carry on even in my sleep. He said that this was good, that it would help me become aware of a fuller spectrum of existence.
His wife walked past but did not stop by the screen. She was busy with a writing project. Not enough hours in the day. She had taken a step back from painting. Instead she was working on something concentrated and durational — for the period of one month. A limitation was what she needed. The hypnotherapist explained that she was writing a romance novel — a romance with the self. But she would like it to be read as a painting.
He told me again to let myself notice subtle changes in sounds from moment to moment. He told me to notice my hands, the way my body made contact with the cushions. He told me to feel the heaviness as my body rested. He told me it is nice to feel something familiar as you learn something new. Become aware of the parts of your body being supported by the chair. And how the chair is supported by the floor and the floor is supported by walls and beams, and beneath this floor there are other floors that go deeper and deeper. That’s right… And then he began to tell a story about searching… The husband dug through the garbage underneath the kitchen sink. He was searching. He was searching for something unaccounted for. A steak. Where had it gone?… And I can’t remember the rest of this story, I suppose because I entered the intended state.
After the session, I walked the little black dog along her usual route. We followed the rats. In the hallway, I passed my downstairs neighbor going through her mail wearing large sunglasses. When I asked her where she was spending the holidays, she said that Jesus was born in September and that Christmas is an opiate for the masses. That she didn’t do opiates and didn’t do the masses. She said that she liked May Day. Pagan fertility rituals. Poles. Posies. May 1 had always been one of her days. She seemed down.
On the forum, MusicMan58 noted:
In deafness, life is… implicit.
The next session took place early in the new year. The hypnotherapist arrived in his frame dripping wet. The light was flat and his face inconclusive. He began without small talk and asked that I focus on one thing in the room only. He told me to transfer myself onto that thing. He asked that I become that thing, wherever it was. Be over there, he said, pointing nowhere. He set a timer and exited the frame.
I looked at something in his room, not mine. A small black painting hung in the top left corner of the screen.
I remembered reading about a color-field painter who spoke about one patch of red being less red than a wall of red. I thought then of how one moment of quiet was less quiet than a long stretch of it. But I found that this long stretch of quiet had in turn begun to feel louder than anything I had heard before.
The image had frozen without my knowledge, and when he returned to the screen, he was completely dry and asking me how long the connection had cut out for.
He said this exercise was called The Portrait. He asked me if I had been able to successfully transfer myself onto anything in the room — this would allow me to make a portrait of myself as a ready-made object.
I told him no, but that I would try it again in the future. He said he was just here to supply the tools and asked what object I had selected. I told him I had chosen the painting in the top left corner of the screen. He said in the future, I should not choose art as the object of my portrait, and he apologized for not saying this in advance.
He said that the painting was painted by a painter who was known not for his paintings but for his frames. That this frame was not even made by the painter known for his frames but by a framer in the garment district. This painting was not known for anything besides its hanging right where it was. It was a gift from a friend who had received it by way of the dead — and it had arrived in the mail, accompanied by a printed email that said, The flowers are chrysanthemums.
He removed the painting from the wall and held it up to the screen. Here, he said. The flowers were painted as if captured by a camera in slight motion — as if they were film stills, not photographs. One red, one not red, another red, another white, and two more that were neither white nor red. What he loved about the painting was that it was painted as though it was getting dark, as though the light had just died in the room of the painting, and minutes later the flowers would be invisible. He said there once was a landscape architect who said, They are actually peonies.
He told me, as he stepped away from the screen, that an email had just arrived from the listener in Athens who had sent him a photograph from the roof of the Hotel Grande Bretagne, of the supermoon rising over the Acropolis.
I told him that the night before, a singer had fallen to her death in Athens climbing to her roof to see the same moon. The moon, so full of itself, doing what it is known for, he said. So today the flowers are for the singer, he said as he placed the painting back onto the wall. I told him that this singer reminded me of Ginevra de’ Benci — short red curls, fair, Florentine, gone. When a life ends it’s like a frame, he said, telling you exactly where to look, to see a thing complete, as art. Some days we are less of ourselves. Some days we are portraits in reverse.
It snowed, then it rained. God is always undoing something. A friend called as I was getting into the shower to tell me she had met someone new. An anarchist. Their sex was the best she had ever had, but he did not approve of her online shopping addiction or the fact that she was receiving funding from the Greek government. He walked in the door and she had to get off before I could say one word.
I once again returned to the forum, where I counted four members who noted hearing the same phantom sound — the song “Silent Night”:
Hi from the finger lakes. Severe hearing loss, started with Silent Night. Female. Sounds like all male choir. Excellent choir. I can make them change songs.
I hear Amazing Grace and Silent Night. Sometimes I hear old time country music. It was so bad at my sister’s house that I went downstairs to sleep on the couch. It stopped. Now why?
It’s not the national anthem, Silent Night or Handel’s Messiah anymore — just a constant sound like a lot of bees. My problem is that it interferes with my ability to listen to real music like at a concert, on TV, CDs, etc. The real music is distorted and so out of tune that I can barely recognize what I am hearing.
Hello! I’m an 18 year old female. Moderate Loss left ear and right. I hear metal music playing when the moving fan in my room faces my direction. If fan is on rotate/low setting I hear Silent Night… which reminds me of church and no offense but I hate church.
Lately, I had been spending my evenings listening to music that I did not want to forget. I believed that the more I listened to these songs, the more clearly I would be able to replay them for myself in a future when I could no longer hear them. I limited what I listened to, worrying there might be a limit to what I could retain with specificity.
But soon I found myself bored of the slim selection and the repetition and feared that this process of sonic tattooing might ruin the music itself. I no longer associated the songs with memories, but rather the songs themselves became memories. I stopped listening to music altogether. The highest fidelity sound is in the head.
For a portion of our final session, the hypnotherapist read aloud a story from his book of Ericksonian Hypnosis about a young woman, my age, who while walking through a Northern Italian town comes upon a boiler factory. He asked that I close my eyes and he began:
The crews work on twelve boilers at the same time, and there are three shifts of workmen that work around the clock. Those pneumatic hammers were pounding away, driving rivets into the boilers. She heard the noise and she wanted to find out what it was. She went inside and she couldn’t hear anybody talking. She could see the various employees were conversing, and she could see the foreman’s lips moving, but she couldn’t hear what they said. The foreman heard what she said. She asked him to come outside so she could talk to him, and then she asked him for permission to roll out her blanket and sleep on the floor for one night. He thought there was something wrong with her. She explained that she was a premedical student and that she was interested in learning processes, and he agreed. He explained to the crew and left a note for the next shift. In the morning, when she awoke, she could hear the workmen talking about that damn fool girl. What in the hell was she sleeping on the floor there for? What did she think she could learn?
And as he read from the book, I sat with my eyes still shut but found that my face had become caught up in a dogged smile — so obstinate that any attempt to drag down the corners of my mouth would make them go the other way. The pull of this particular smile felt like an attempt at dragging two dogs for a walk in the rain, their homes being in opposite directions. I began to laugh and felt embarrassed, worried I would offend him. There was nothing funny about the story, other than its lack of effect. There was the hopelessness of my situation. The innocuous story. Then the sadness I felt gave way to laughter.
During her sleep that night, she was able to blot out all that horrible noise of the twelve pneumatic hammers and she could hear voices, the voices in the factory.
And then he continued reading but it was as though he was addressing me:
You have roaring in your ears but you haven’t thought of tuning them, so you don’t hear the roaring. And you think back. There are a godly number of times this morning, this afternoon when you don’t hear the buzzing. It is hard to remember things that don’t occur. The ringing did stop but because there was nothing there, you don’t remember it. Now the important thing is to forget about the ringing and remember the time there was no ringing. She learned in one night’s time not to hear the pneumatic hammers and to hear the conversation she could not hear the previous day…
How do you feel now? he asked, after telling me to open my eyes, which were already open. I told him that today was a clearer day, and that on clearer days, when the inflammation was down, when my voice had quieted and others had loudened again, I felt that dread of verifiable happiness — the full-body anticipation of its departure. Even the slightest wind could carry it away…
He said that while this was a palliative care trial, this was not just palliative care — that helplessness could give way to wonderful things, that helplessness looked like a very large net with very large holes and that I must be willing to trail that net in the sea for some time before lifting it out to see what I had caught. Of course, there is the sense that any progressive illness moves faster than time. Outpacing it, leaving the days panting, trying to catch up. I explained my sense that the clock was intensely ticking. And he told me to stop imposing my own feelings onto the clock’s ticks. And just like that, we were out of time.
Eliza Barry Callahan is a writer, artist, and musician from New York City. Her work has been published in frieze, BOMB, and The Believer. She is a 2023 New York Foundation for the Arts fellow. The Hearing Test is her first novel.