The first time I noticed Mr. S, his torso was draped over a steel railing, its posts driven deep into the craggy lakeshore. The sun had set, and a crescent moon hung in his wavering reflection. Held in one hand was a tangled mess of fishing line. Suspended from the taut line was a microphone, fastened by a wad of pink chewing gum. His overcoat fluttered in sync with the branches of the willow tree he stood below. It was early May and the nights were becoming warmer.
Crouching, I concealed myself behind a tree as Mr. S mined the roof of the water for its audio. Apart from the lapping waves, all that was audible was his anxious breath. The hand wielding the microphone remained perfectly still. He resembled a sort of priest, speckling the lake with droplets of holy water from an aspergillum. It appeared as though he was collecting something. His own magnetic facsimile of spring.
Suddenly, Mr. S jerked his hand, and the gummy microphone leaped and fell into his opposite palm. He cackled wildly as he stuffed the tape recorder into a satchel, turned, and made his way up the muddy bank towards the road. For some reason, in that moment I pictured him hunched over a wooden desk, carefully fingering the ribbon of grey tape by the light of a lamp. Waiting until he disappeared over the road, I'd follow, keeping my distance.
I made a habit of attending Mr. S's ritual. The first evening became a template for the rest. I would tuck myself behind the tree and then follow his footsteps in the dusk away from the lake. Each night I'd cling a little closer, but would lose his trace before seeing what street he'd taken. A nagging sense of completion bloomed in me. I knew the ritual's beginning, but I needed to know it's end. Where was he dragging these tapes off to? What on earth would he be doing with this mass of unmelodious audio?
Two weeks on, my curiosity overcame my respect for Mr. S's anonymity. This time I didn't wait for him to reach the road. As soon as he turned to make his way up the muddy bank, I left my post and traveled closely in his shadow. Crisscrossing through streets and alleyways, I was surprised when we ended up back on my street. Cackling amidst heavy breaths, Mr. S fumbled with a set of keys before letting himself into the house directly across from mine. I waited a moment to see if a light would appear. On the third floor, three parallel windows suddenly lit up. I walked towards the house to see if there was a name plate. It read, 'Apartment Number Three: Mr. S'.
Spools of tape aside, another question remained: What exactly did this man look like? Apart from spending so many nights in observation, I was left with a distorted image. Granted, it was usually dusk. He wore a black overcoat with an upturned collar and a black brimmed hat pulled down low, shrouding most of his face. One afternoon, talking with a neighbour and her son in front of our adjoining houses, the spectre revealed himself. More importantly, what this ponderous child revealed was an integral element of a broader spectrum. Donning his usual apparel he came hurrying up the sidewalk behind us, carrying a briefcase. Not willing to lose momentum, his shoulder brushed that of my neighbour as he passed. Turning back for a fleeting second, he tipped his hat towards her in recognition of his misstep. I caught a glimpse of his face. His cheeks were sunken and deep furrows were etched into his skin. His eyes were dark pools, as if he hadn't slept in years. His hands and arms twitched and shook. As he continued his frantic pace, the child pulled on his mother's pant leg:
"Mommy...mommy, why does Mr. S's body shake like that?"
"Oh sweetheart I don't know. Maybe he wants to be a hummingbird when he grows up!"
"Oh...I've never heard of a black hummingbird before..."
The boy looked at the ground and kicked a stone onto the road.
"Besides, all the birds I see are with other birds. The seagulls at the lake are always with other seagulls. If he wants to be a hummingbird so badly, why is he alone?"
I smiled at him and said, "Well you know, hummingbirds like being alone! They are small and quick so they don't get eaten by other animals in the animal kingdom. Plus they don't have to wait for their friends when they fly south for the winter, so they can fly as fast as they want!"
"Oh. That sounds lonely...are hummingbirds lonely? Why would Mr. S. want to be a lonely animal?"
"Oh I don't know, sweetie. Some people and some animals travel by themselves. It's just the way it is!"
"Oh. Well, if I were him, I'd probably be sad up there, all alone."
The boy pointed towards Mr. S's apartment windows, two of which were propped open.
One June morning, I awoke to an odd sound. It was an elongated drone, gurgling and bereft of melody, as if it were submerged underwater. The only person I could see from my window was my neighbour's kid, bouncing a soccer ball and meandering aimlessly in front of Mr. S's building. I dressed and went downstairs to ask him if he knew where it was coming from. He kicked the ball onto the grass and again pointed towards Mr. S's windows:
"Oh, that. I think it's coming from the hummingbird's house."
The drone bounced between the surrounding apartment complexes, so it was hard to tell if this was indeed the case. I stood and listened. The sound groaned to a halt, slowly swallowed by the street's ambience. The kid shrugged and ran off.
Sure enough, after several minutes, Mr. S. appeared in the building's entryway. Fishing around in his coat pocket, he pulled out a jingling ring of keys and locked the front door. As he did so, I caught a semblance of the cackle I heard the first night beside the lake. Strolling down the walkway, he emitted a depth of calm that altered my previous impression of him. His eyes now contained a glint of light. Smiling, he tipped his black hat, and as he walked past, said:
I found his cheery disposition unsettling. What lay behind this sudden shift? Between his rapid breathing and trembling limbs, it seemed to me this newly projected serenity was a state of mind that would remain foreign. That evening, I decided to go back to the lake, but Mr. S. wasn't there.
Before long the sound, devoid of musical categorization, became the official soundtrack of our street. No one seemed to mind the auditory addition, but no one seemed to question it either. It always began around sunrise and lasted just over two hours. It became as intrinsic to our environment as the seagulls or car horns. And everyday, like clockwork, I would watch him leave his building, tranquil and collected. When he'd find the boy with his soccer ball outside on the lawn, he'd offer a smile and playfully tousle his hair.
I needed to understand his daily transfiguration. How did he successfully navigate his frazzled core to a point of serenity, even temporarily, every morning? What role did the sound play? Was he swallowing handfuls of anti-anxiety medication?
A few days later, I became determined to find out. As every morning, I woke to the drone creeping through my window. I needed to close the gap in the circle of curiosity. Just before the two hour mark, I appeared on the landing. After locking his door, he turned and found me standing before him. He seemed startled at first, but quickly regained his composure and spoke with an air of quiet confidence:
"Why, hello again."
His eyes were the faintest blue, almost powdery. They seemed to rest on a point beyond my face. Unnerving as this was, I did not flinch:
"Good morning, neighbour."
I outstretched my hand, but he chose not to comply with my offering.
"And, what is it that brings you here? I hope I haven't done anything wrong?"
"No. No, no, I'm just here to inquire about the sound...Is it...coming from your house?"
"It is, yes."
He seemed neither surprised nor apologetic about my question.
"Um, I've watched you before...recording the water..."
"Yes. I know."
"Yes. Your presence is wholly audible in my recordings."
The sentence lacerated my ability to speak.
"You really thought I wouldn't notice? I pay an infinite amount of attention to detail. I've spent countless hours editing out your footsteps..."
"I don't understand..."
"Yes. You do. You do understand. What I don't understand is why you insisted on continually interrupting my work."
His powdery blue eyes became interrogative.
"Every night when I got home I'd replay my recordings. I'd listen meticulously. Ever so faintly, I noticed another presence creeping somewhere in the background. At first I thought I was losing my mind. But no, I wasn't. I was right, there was this faint click-clacking. From the second I'd leave until the moment I'd get home, the recorder would remain on. Each evening is its own singular document."
He continued as I tried in vain to muster an explanation.
"I soon realized that what I was hearing was a set of footsteps apart from my own. At first they were a thin clicking in the distance, but every night they rose in volume and clarity, until it sounded as though I were walking side by side with someone else."
"...how did you know it was me?"
"Very simple. After identifying the footsteps as footsteps, as someone following me, I'd stand by my windows in the dark, watching. I began noticing a silhouette, looming on the opposite sidewalk. When I'd finally flick my lights on, the silhouette would disappear. And, after a few moments, a light would appear in the top floor windows."
This connection made sense. He did see me in front of my house, that day with my neighbour and her son.
"I confirmed it was you using the opposite approach. Any time I'd notice the light going out in your windows, I'd stand by mine, waiting to see who left your building. It was always you."
At this point, justification seemed futile.
"But...the sound...is the sound recorded water? Why record water?"
"Because it's the basis of my therapy."
"Yes. My burden is anxiety. It's followed me all of my life, as close as your footsteps on my tape recorder. It dislodges my thoughts and makes my hands shake like a timid bird's wing."
An image of a hummingbird materialized in my mind.
"I've been though so many pills. So many pills and so many different doctors. Over time, a half-pill no longer produces an effect. So then you take a whole one. Then one and a half. Two. Then the prescription runs out and your doctor accuses you of abusing the drug. That doctor can't get you what you want, so you find one that will. The pattern is cyclical and hideous. I needed to escape the labyrinth I created."
"So you turned to music?"
"In a sense, yes, music."
His fingers contorted into quotations as he said the word 'music'.
"I keep an old reel to reel tape machine on a desk in my room. I've been lugging it around for years. You can play recordings back at a rate significantly slower than intended. What I mean is, It can make a jaunty string quartet sound like a melting glacier. One morning, realizing I had taken the last of my medication, there was no more on the horizon, and as a result my anxiety flared up. I couldn't catch my breath and was sweating profusely. I swear it's like a fiery tongue licking my lungs and heart. I didn't know what to do. I pressed play on the machine and began fiddling with the speed. In fact, a string quartet is what was on the reels it came with, Tchaikovsky I think, or Brahms? I don't know. Anyway, I found that if I focused on the decaying pace, the rate of my heart and breath would slow alongside it."
"I see. It acted as a sherpa, of sorts."
"Yes, exactly. This process took the place of the drugs I could no longer obtain. However, akin to the daily dosage of pills, playing the same music over and over lost its potency. The string quartet would no longer suffice. I began recording various snippets from the radio and applying the same process to them."
"But, after a while, those snippets would no longer work either?"
"It's inexplicable, but somehow even music lost its medicative effect. It did nothing whatsoever."
"But, again, why water?"
"In the midst of those anxious episodes, I'd try and conjure any thought that would offer respite. Water was elemental in these imaginings. Waves, rain, the lake, spring, it permeated everything. So I decided I'd make my own recordings of water and see if that might provide a viable solution."
"Like an experimental treatment. A last-ditch effort."
"Yes. I cut and edited all these shorter snippets of the lake into one long piece, almost an hour in total. But the constant rippling was too chaotic for my heart and breath, so I play it back at half-speed, which gives the water a breathing quality. I needed the water's breath and my own to meet."
"That explains the length."
"Precisely. In my room I've invented a landscape by my own design. A landscape I can escape to where pervasive emotions do not exist. I've built my own facsimile of spring."