4010 words, short story
The Rhythm of the Soul
I was ten years old when my father broke the world with the sweet notes of a steel pan.
He created a new version, called it the S-pan, short for soul pan. Like any other, he made it from a repurposed steel drum. Streaks of gold ran up the sides of its five-inch skirt tucked into a red iron stand. When he showed it to me, I laughed. Not because of the colors, though he made it fancy, like some race car. Nah, it was because of the twenty carved notes, much less than normal tenor pans. How he expected to play nice music when he was missing notes was beyond me.
When he played it, the screech of rubber against steel made my ears ache. I stifled my laughter at the look on his face. Slack jaw. Open eyes. Creased forehead. The huge vein above his right eyebrow that pops when he mad-mad, like when I flooded the house to make a beach house or the time I played frisbee with his records.
We drove to the city dump and tossed the thing away. I kept my mouth shut. Ten years wasn’t too old for a cut-tail, and he was in the mood. It didn’t last long. He replaced his silences with pounding, grinding, and staying outside of the house in the little attached pan-yard for hours. Around the same time, scientists discovered the human soul was a musical note. He perfected his S-pan, played it for me, and ruined my life.
Highs, lows, meshed with sweet harmonics tacked with a warm melodic overtone—that’s the best I can describe the sound in any musical way. My chest expanded like a balloon, whereas my head throbbed as though cotton candy spun in my brain. The melody cocooned me, filled me with pleasant memories like when I ate a three-scoop soursop ice cream, topped with sprinkles and pieces of chocolate cake.
Energy built under my skin. The ice cream materialized in my hand. Popped into existence as if I bought it at the parlor. In my shock, I dropped it. The waffle cone crumbled as it splattered on the ground, sending ice cream, and sprinkles and thick chunks of chocolate cake all over the dusty pan-yard’s floor.
My father didn’t quarrel at the mess. He said nothing for a long time. When I described the feeling, he played the pan until another, just like the one he played, took shape. He contacted the scientists, but since my father and I were too small a sample size, they recruited five hundred people to test the effects.
Thousands of people volunteered. Some part of the brain activated with the music. They called it a perfect frequency. Those who heard theirs could manifest; bring into reality anything in existence while hearing the S-pan play. The people tested it outside the confines of the laboratory in the shape of money notes, gold bars, houses, and cars.
It took six months for the government to intervene:
To kill my father.
To ban manifestations.
To imprison those who heard their perfect frequency.
I overheard the madams whispering to each other before the guards came to get me. I was moving to a new hold. This wasn’t my first transfer, and I expected it wouldn’t be my last. Despite the normalcy, I felt afraid. Two guards entered my room before I worked through the fear. The taller one stopped our exit out of the holding cell with a hand to my chest.
“Keep your trap shut and I won’t give you this.”
He wiggled the purple-bluish drug in a syringe in front of my face. Most people needed to hear their perfect frequency while manifesting, but others didn’t, so every hold I’d been to drugged everyone. The guards argued about cleaning vomit and whose turn it was before they shoved me in between them in the backseat where I bided my time.
I had told no one that any sound triggered the memory of my perfect frequency. All I needed was one sound to coax it to the forefront of my mind, to wrap my soul around the energy and manifest. A blown-out tire. Or a weapon.
Forty-five minutes later and I’d yet to move an inch. The guards must have played chess once, because they came prepared. All the glass in the vehicle was soundproof grade. Tall-man held his gun ready with his finger on the trigger guard. I watched the clouds touch the tree line, pretending they followed me.
“ETA ten minutes.” The driver pressed a sign to the divider glass separating us.
The road straightened, and ahead a fortress similar to the one I came from towered above the trees. I dug my nails into my palms as a chill traveled through my body. Not the one which sometimes came with the memory of my perfect frequency. Nah, this one visited whenever I moved holdings, and hid in the shadows of a question.
Do they know who my father was?
We drove into the driveway and Mr. Trigger-Happy stretched and groaned. He tugged me out of his side of the car when it rolled to a stop beside a rusty sign. I didn’t bother to squint to make out the words, as each new holding had had the same sign: “Music is prohibited.”
Nobody forgot the declaration of 2023 that turned Trinidad into an island-wide prison. Even though I didn’t read it, I paid more attention to the sign than the brick house of a man waiting at the gate.
“The devil and destruction in that one,” the guard said, as he shoved me to the man.
“It will leave him soon.” His voice affirmed his brick-house status, mixed with rebar and nails.
They laughed. My stomach clenched.
The guard waved and left. The other man glared.
“Welcome to your last stop,” he said. He pressed his hand against my windpipe. “Don’t follow our rules and you’d die faster than your father did.”
Shit. They know.
His thick hands coiled around my neck, forcing my head to meet his eyes. Light brown with flecks of hazel within the pupil contrasted with his dark brown neck, halfway hidden in the high collar of his muted brown overalls, the uniform of an orderly.
A sneer pulled at his lips, revealing his teeth.
“Do anything I don’t want you to do, and I’ll make your pain ten times worse than you can imagine.”
I ignored the name tag embroidered on his uniform and nicknamed him Tyrant. His hand dropped to my shoulders as he led me into the building, beyond steel doors and security keypads, to the cell the government marketed as a seclusive room. One to protect those without a perfect frequency from those who had found theirs.
Tyrant shoved me inside. Four men dressed in the same brown outfit greeted me with their fists and feet. One punch knocked me to the ground. I curled inwards. This wasn’t the first time I took a beating. I knew not to scream or plead. Neither of those did jack-shit. But as always, I craved to fight back.
A warm, thick glob of wetness hit my cheek. I curled my knees tighter against my chest and tucked my face deeper into the space, ignoring the urge to defend myself. This didn’t stop the beating or their spewed filth passing as words. The angry spiel of how my father ruined everything. And in between the smacks of skin, stomps of heavy boots and taunts, a crueler sound emerged.
Highs, lows, meshed with sweet harmonics tacked with a warm melodic overtone. My perfect frequency wrapped its arms around me and, although I wanted to harness it, to fight back, I smothered the sound.
Everywhere hurt. I scrunched my eyes as I entered the common room. Light dazzled in from the wide bay windows, hazing the small room in streaks of yellow and gold. At the door, Tyrant glared at me as I passed him on my way to a muted gray armchair, which shimmered in invitation. I slumped into it with a groan. Another groan answered mine. A man curled on the ground clutched his white uniform and moaned again.
A shadow fell over me and I jerked. The doorway was empty. My face twisted away from it with the help of the heavy hand on my head and my vision wobbled into Tyrant’s light brown eyes. If I didn’t hate him, I’d call them pretty. His hand drifted down my face in a masquerade of a caress to grip my jaw, fingernails digging into my flesh.
“How is it going, Muse?” he asked.
Although a pleasant tone sugared his voice, the grip tightened. His nails gouged deeper, pressing his fingers against my teeth through the skin.
A calm, heavy voice spoke, and Tyrant slackened his fingers. “Time for this prisoner’s medicine.”
Tyrant winked, slapped my cheeks, and stepped away. The man who spoke came into view. His voice didn’t match his lanky body. He was light brown, scrawny all around with pronounced cheekbones.
His voice smoothed my internal pain as though it were a weighted blanket. After cleaning the broken skin on my face and bandaging my ribs, he approached with a syringe in his thin hands. Purple-bluish fluid stopped at the twenty milliliters mark, ten over the normal dosage. The needle slipped into my arm. My eyes slunk closed. He tapped me on the cheeks as his large, dark brown eyes begged me to cooperate.
“No sleeping here. C’mon, let’s go,” he said.
He urged me onto my feet and out the door. My sight wavered on his name tag. The letters swayed into Drew. I snickered and wondered if his parents had been artists and whether he, like me, was a source of inspiration.
“Andrew couldn’t fit,” he said.
I blinked my confusion away. He laughed and my ears sharpened. Sounds meandered in the air, taking on a haunted echo. Our footsteps bounced and thudded. The air whistled and chirped. A shrill scream from a nearby room scraped my brain as though it was a razor mincing pieces of it off. I squeezed my eyes shut and pushed the sound away.
Andrew ushered me further down the hall. Away from the groans that turned to a pulsing beat of a tenor bass pan set. Six of them, all pounding away at the same time. The drumming faded into the darkness slinking over my eyes.
Warmth caressing my face forced them open. I blinked, disoriented. Tears crusting the corners of my eyes, pulling the skin taut. I rubbed them away and squinted at the sun rays charging through the window across my bed where narrow-spaced iron bars protected the clear glass.
The door creaked open and Andrew entered.
“Breakfast time,” he said.
His boots tapped against the tiles as he escorted me to the canteen. A weak pulse throbbed in my brain. It rose again, like a wave, when the kitchen assistant slammed the ceramic bowl of porridge onto the tabletop. The spoon rattled while the bowl thrummed. I hung onto the strings of their rhythm.
“Eat,” he said.
Although I nodded, I didn’t move.
He held the bluish-purple filled syringe in his hand, but gaped at the clock. Around me, the tables were near empty of the other prisoners. The remaining had blank eyes that looked at nothing while a few others straggled behind another orderly who led them out.
I never liked porridge. The congealed glob wobbled as though I offended it. Andrew huffed beside me.
“Eat it. The first dose shouldn’t be on an empty stomach.”
The hands of the clock crept towards seven. I had survived seventeen hours at this new holding, counting the twelve I’d slept through. Only a couple more to make a full day, and however long for the rest of my life.
I startled as Andrew curled his fingers in the soft tissue under my chin. My mouth popped open, and he shoved a gush of porridge in. Although I coughed and spluttered, more spoonfuls followed. Tears rolled down my face as the porridge trapped my breath in my throat and spurted out of my nostrils.
“Do what I say when I say it.”
His deep voice growled like a ferocious beast. I choked on the thought of him being docile and kind. I scratched his name from my mind when the needle jabbed into my shoulder. His new name would be Paper-Tiger.
“This will keep you until we meet again,” he said with a gentle pat on my shoulder.
The clock chimed, and he pulled me out of the seat to the common room.
Sounds muted around me. People dressed in white flashed in and out of my vision. They draped and slumped on top of the furniture spread throughout the room. The same man who had moaned the first time I entered this room crouched in the corner. I flopped into my armchair as he shouted. The fog enveloping me shattered. Paper-Tiger approached him with the sedative. While none of my other holds overdosed us like this one, it wasn’t strange for an orderly to administer an incorrect dosage. The man cackled, with his hands clasped behind his back.
Metal flashed. The man lunged. Paper-Tiger twisted away. The man held out a short, sharp blade. He had manifested a weapon. Wielded and used it against an orderly working on government orders. He didn’t seem to care as his clearer eyes gleamed, freer from the sedatives than the rest of us. No one knew when someone manifested, since nothing about them changed. It was part of what turned the world to shit because if no one knew you wished for something, then how could someone else control it?
The man charged at Paper-Tiger. His bigger build forced Paper-Tiger to scurry out of the way. It kept the man progressing, and Paper-Tiger retreating. When a long gash split Paper-Tiger’s forearm, the beast lurking within him bellowed. Blood gushed down his arm, soaking the brown uniform sleeve to russet.
The blade skittered across the room. Paper-Tiger crashed into the man. They tumbled to the floor with Paper-Tiger’s slighter form on top, his hands firm across the other man’s neck. Although the man bucked like an unbroken horse, Paper-Tiger balanced above him, persistent.
A gurgling sound accompanied Paper-Tiger’s grunts. The fought-for air reminded me of earlier, when I struggled to breathe through the gobs of porridge. My throat burned. The buzz from the drugs clouding my head cleared, and I heard it. Unobstructed, like the first time in the pan-yard. My father’s voice overlaid the notes in a mimicry of a song. “Music comes from the soul.”
The words caressed my right ear as though my father towered above my seven-year-old self and I was in his pan-yard rather than a prison. Another wheeze, weaker than the previous, ended my memory. Red spots appeared in the man’s eyes. He stared at me, mouth agape.
A solid shape pushed my clenched fist open. My palm tingled as the pressure materialized until it left me holding the cool wooden handle of my father’s heirloom knife. The man’s death-groan hid my gasp. I hadn’t meant to manifest. And not this knife. The blade gleamed despite its age, whereas the spot my great-grandfather engraved with our family name stood stark against the wood.
The common room doors banged against the wall. One of its wooden panels splintered down the middle. Three orderlies rushed into the room. Their speed and bulk squashed me against the wall. I fumbled the knife behind my back and, with sheer luck, avoided slicing my finger off. By fluke, they didn’t notice me, or the knife. Instead, their eyes shifted between Paper-Tiger squatting on the ground and the body.
Anger throbbed underneath my skin. This man was a victim. A casualty of the government’s power and my father’s ambitions. And I failed to help him.
Dressed in casual clothing, Tyrant pushed through the crowd. He slapped Paper-Tiger on his back and laughed.
“You got one, eh?”
My anger built.
“Ain’t no need to be broken up. Write your report and give it to the warden whenever. He never hounded me for any of mine.”
My hands tightened around the knife’s forest green handle. And my anger dissolved. What could I do? If I stabbed one of these orderlies, it left me guilty of assault and responsible for purposeful manifestation. Given who my father was, the ink on the execution order wouldn’t dry before I was dead.
I slid the knife between the cushion and the armrest and hoped no one would find it.
The next day, Paper-Tiger acted strange. He stalked me with his eyes and each time I watched him, he plastered a humongous smile on his face, which made him look like a serpent. It sent a roll of disgust down my throat, thick as three-day-old boiled oats. But I grinned, and tucked my unease under labels like friendly, unbothered, and undisturbed. Pasted it on my face and followed instructions to the tee while my anxiety grew. I needed to get to the common room. To protect the existence of my family knife before the drug drowned me. I sucked in the triumphant cry perching on the edge of my lip when Paper-Tiger waved me out of the cafeteria.
The moment we entered the common room, the world might have ended and I wouldn’t know. My eyes refused to budge from the woman sprawled over my armchair.
“It’s just a seat, Muse. Find another.”
I gulped a breath and prayed the weakness overtaking my legs vanished as I stumbled to another seat. The same prayer included a verse of Paper-Tiger not noticing my preoccupation with the chair as the woman’s spindly arms and legs pirouetted in the air. My brain taunted me. Even if I got into the armchair, I faced another hurdle. I had to move and hide the knife. The sheer impossibility of doing it imprisoned me worse than my current situation, and I drifted away under the pull of the drugs without a plan.
When my awareness returned, Paper-Tiger stood over me. His smile stretched his lips wide. He held a syringe in his hand. When he took my arm, I didn’t feel his touch against my skin. Neither did I feel the needle as it slid in.
“Time to go to your room,” he said.
The smile didn’t budge as I remained seated, but for a second, a fire lit his eyes, until he breathed deep, his chest moving with the action.
“You’ll be more comfortable laying down.” He ducked lower, his face too near to mine. “I’ll convince the kitchen staff not to serve porridge again tomorrow,” he said with a wink.
I blinked at him and rose.
Tyrant stopped us halfway down the hallway. He circled me as though I were his prey. A gleam lit his eyes. The knife. Shit. He found it.
“Your shift ended ten minutes ago,” he said.
It took me far too long to realize he spoke to Paper-Tiger. When I tuned back in, the conversation was as clear as hieroglyphics.
“Tuck away your savior complex. I’ll escort this prisoner.”
“Sorry,” Paper-Tiger said to me. A film of sadness coated his face as he left.
Tyrant fastened his grip around my arm.
“My wife heard her perfect frequency.”
It explained nothing and everything. At least this wasn’t about the knife.
She was dead or imprisoned, and they drafted him to work in a holding.
“You know whose fault that was?”
I knew better than to answer him. The same way I knew better than to maintain his stare. Yet . . .
“The perfect frequency fairy?” I said.
His eyes blazed.
The madness in them increased as I glared.
“You have some nerve, kid,” he growled.
Since I arrived, he’d been nothing but an eyelash stuck in my eyes, refusing to be blown away.
He punched me in my stomach, snarled, and dragged me outside to a courtyard. Sunlight lit his pretty eyes, and I wondered how the notes to his perfect frequency would sound. Tyrant gripped the loose fabric of my top, zipping the gap between my face and his.
“Whatever pain my wife feels, I’ll make yours ten times worse.”
The freaking story of my life. No one remembered I was a child with no say in what my father did. No one saw I was a victim, too.
The beating continued even after the sun dipped behind his head. At some point, I crumbled to the ground, but Tyrant’s thrashing never slowed. A gust of coldness blew. One star thrust out of the darkening sky. Vitriol spewed from Tyrant’s mouth. It blended with the emerging crickets’ chirping and the hushed hum of traffic on the nearby roadway. As I sunk in the melody, a new one rose. The sweet notes of my father’s S-pan.
I would die. Either from Tyrant’s hands, another orderly, or an execution order. But I would die. Death was death, though I had a choice of how it came, of what I allowed to happen to me. I was only a victim if I let myself be one.
My perfect frequency swelled. The notes strummed as if an invisible orchestra played. The fine hairs on my arms stood at attention. Blueish-purple liquid filled my mind. A full syringe materialized in the hand caught under my stomach. With one half-opened eye, I plunged it into Tyrant’s muscled thigh. Forty milliliters flowed into him before he reacted.
He staggered backwards. His eyelashes fluttered. A grimace settled on his face.
His words slurred.
He crashed to the ground, laying starfish wide.
I saved myself, but what now? I scoured the small courtyard for an answer. Empty planter boxes and overgrown vines creeping up a broken trellis provided no answers.
Tyrant’s chest rose and fell. I hadn’t murdered him. Whenever he woke up, he would murder me. And not a person would mourn. They might rejoice. The son of the man who broke the world no longer existed. The headlines splashed across every imaginary news broadcast my brain conjured. A tremble overtook my limbs. I slumped against the wall, pulled my feet under me, and buried my head in between my knees.
A soft rumbling came from further along the road. It beat against my soul like a bass pan thrumming the answer. Two days before my father died, he had said, “The easiest way to deal with difference is to create similarity.”
I hadn’t understood what he meant.
On wobbly feet, I shuffled to the door, manifested an iron link chain, padlock, and key. I ignored the pain flashing across my body and bound the doors shut.
A picture of the prototype emerged in my mind in pieces. The government destroyed all the S-pans, but its first-born brother existed. The one my father discarded at the city dump. One imperfection separated it from its revised brothers, and I knew how to fix it.
My internal music intensified. Loose-limbed, a sense of calm showered me. My father’s S-pan prototype popped into existence. I manifested the modified sticks and started playing my perfect frequency, morphed it into my father’s and ignored the tears streaming down my face.
Afterwards, I lost the ability to identify the notes. I played until my fingers numbed. Faltered, but didn’t stop when orderlies pressed their faces against the glass of the side door. Their words didn’t reach me. Their attempts at breaching the door failed. Emotions splashed across their faces—disgust, remorse, and realization. Then they stopped. Tears streamed down their faces.
I dropped the sticks. A weight lifted from my shoulders. The chain unbolted with ease and I pushed past the orderlies to retrieve my father’s knife. I would not idle the rest of my life in prison.
To fix something, sometimes you must break it and I was my father’s son.
Michelle Julia John is a speculative fiction writer from the twin Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago. She is a 2019 Cropper fellow, and a graduate of the University of the West Indies. She obtained her master’s degree in Sociology and uses it for worldbuilding in her stories.
Though she would love to be at the beach all day, you’ll often find her loudly supporting her favorite football team; Chelsea FC, when she’s not writing, or reading. Michelle is currently working on her first novel.