And so I want to describe sound to those who don’t have it, so that the words will not be lost and so that those who will never hear have as close an understanding as they can. And perhaps someday, if sound returns, this will guide those who might have forgotten the words of sound.
Riveted, I feel my breath catch. This was why I sought out this scroll, what I remembered from my long-ago browsing. At the time, it had seemed fanciful, the idea of sound returning. But now . . .
Feng Jie’s writings go on to detail a list of sounds. Reading them is like trying to understand another language. I can’t even follow some of the words she uses to define other words.
When a small bell rings, the sound is high and sweet, clear and often staccato. It is a tinkling, almost like the babbling of a brook. When a large bell rings, the sound is deep and ponderous. It echoes in the soul, causing vibrations you can feel in your entire body.
A whistle is the sound made when you blow air between pursed lips. It is high-pitched and often continuous, unless you start and stop the airflow to create some tune. Whistling is also a primary component in birdsong, and their range far surpasses ours.
My mind struggles to hold on to all these new terms and assign them meaning. Ring. High. Staccato. Tinkling. Babbling. Deep. Echoes. Whistle. Pitch. Tune. Song.
All three of her scrolls are written this way, and I absorb as many new concepts as I can. I think back to what I already observed in this short morning. My bed frame was knocking against the wall. Zhang Jing’s breathing was quiet. The dish crashed loudly in the workroom. And the iron pot on the counter . . . was that a clang ? Or a bang ? What’s the difference?
As the afternoon wears on, my head is starting to hurt again—and it has nothing to do with sound but rather with the overload of knowledge from the scrolls, which I have now gone through several times in the hopes of memorizing them. Some of the concepts are so hard to understand that memorization is useless. Still, there is comfort in the terminology. It’s a way to reconcile this unknown sense with the ones I do know.
Something startles me from my study— a sound , I tell myself, trying to use the terminology correctly. It seems neither particularly loud nor quiet, and I wonder if medium is a correct term for volume. Feng Jie didn’t mention it.
The sound came from the library door opening, and I look up to see Elder Chen entering. I quickly put the scroll away and get to my feet so that I can bow to him. He told me to spend the day in study, but I’m nervous he’ll ask what it is I’ve been researching.
You’re feeling better? he asks.
Yes, master , I say. Thank you for this day of rest.
He looks amused, and a soft sound comes from his throat, making me wonder which of Feng Jie’s words apply. Laugh? Chuckle? Giggle?
You didn’t rest much, from what I hear , he replies. The servants say you’ve spent most of the day in here. Even when you have a day off, you still work.
There was pleasure in it, master , I say, hoping to hide my purpose. Not all of it was serious reading.
I used to spend much of my free time here too when I was your age. He pulls out a scroll, seemingly at random, and opens it, revealing images of fanciful creatures. He admires it a moment before returning it to its place. Those are the things I would read over and over—I was always off on an adventure with some fantastic beast. Dragons, pixius, phoenixes.
Something he has said stirs a memory, and I ask carefully, Isn’t there a story about pixius and our ancestors losing their hearing?
I’m not really interested in imaginary creatures, but my hope is that Elder Chen might say something about sound that could be of use to me. Still smiling at me, he nods.
Yes, just a story. One my mother used to tell me. Legend says the pixius used to roam our village long ago. Then they decided to rest and took away all the sounds on our mountain so that they could sleep in peace.
It’s a silly reason for losing our hearing, but no more outlandish than most. All sorts of stories abound about why hearing went away, many having to do with divine retribution. I hope Elder Chen will say more about sound disappearing, but as his thoughts turn inward, I can see he’s more caught up in the pixius than sound.
I always wanted to paint pixius , he remarks. Like winged lions. Can you even imagine? My master would chastise me for having my head in the clouds.
Seeing my surprise at that admission, he laughs again. Yes, you aren’t the only one who daydreams. You remind me of myself at your age. He pauses, and that humor fades from his features. That’s why I want you to come with me.
He turns, and I follow quickly, my heart rate picking up. Has he found out about what’s happened to me? Has someone reported me? The thought is terrifying as I follow him back through the school. A part of me almost welcomes the chance to unburden this secret. Because while Feng Jie’s writings were full of information about hearing, there was no mention of how or why it might come back after being gone for generations. To my knowledge, no one has ever written about such a thing—because it’s never happened.
Elder Chen brings me to a small room usually reserved exclusively for the elders. There, inside, I see Zhang Jing standing before Elder Lian, with the other elders seated beyond them. One look at my sister tells me this isn’t about me at all.
Elder Lian is surprised by our presence. What is Fei doing here?
I thought it appropriate she be present , Elder Chen responds.
This has nothing to do with her , Elder Lian insists.
I am the only family she has , I quickly interject, even though I know it’s impertinent. If she is in trouble, I need to know.
A gleam of triumph shows in Elder Lian’s eyes. You’ve known she has been going blind for some time, haven’t you?