Where I live, everything shifted right smack in the middle of March. But those early days of staying home, working only from home, weighing the risk of every step beyond my front door—those days were too unsettling to even begin to notice the sounds that had gone missing from my world; or the new ones that were replacing them.
By April, the absence of familiar sounds started making new noise in my head. Like the station-nearing blare from the train that for years has shuttled me into and out of the nearby city for work. I actively listened for its horn—loud enough to have sometimes disturbed my sleep in the past—but my ears couldn’t find it. Or the bells that always had sounded from the modest tower of nearby Grace Chapel—a church I’ve walked and driven past thousands of times, although I’ve never been inside. Those bells had been a small comfort, although I’m not sure I’d ever thought that thought out loud until they stopped; and they’d made me smile in part because that chapel bears the name of my youngest niece.
School buses stopped galumphing through the neighborhood where I’ve lived for nearly two decades. They no longer spilled noisy clumps of kids onto corners each weekday afternoon; the chatter and laughter and shouting I had, perhaps, taken for granted, were, alas, erased from my soundscape. Likewise the lanky track teams (boys and girls) from the local high school, who in any other April would have huffed and thumped past my house in herds.
Traffic slowed, of course, and quietened. Overnight, rush hour stopped being a thing, and cars no longer used my block as a shortcut—one that requires stopping and starting and a great deal of (mostly polite) tooting, because it’s a narrow road to begin with, and many residents deliberately park on the street to slow those speedy shortcutters.
I no longer heard easy shouting back and forth across driveways or hedges; neighbors still conversed, but the voices were muted, and guarded. Separately, we scratched at lawns with rakes, gathering crunchy old leaves even as new ones silently budded overhead. Lawnmowers sputtered to life. Leaf blowers brayed. But evenings were so quiet I sometimes thought I heard the neighbors’ newly mounded mulch softly settling around foundations and tree trunks.
Inside my house—a house whose every squeak and rattle and tick I thought I knew by heart—new noises seeped into my consciousness. I wondered how long my refrigerator had been alternating its regular drone with a low gurgle, suggesting a pigeon with laryngitis was trapped in the vegetable bin. Had puzzle pieces always made that satisfying “snick” when they found their mates? Had the thwump-thwump-thwump of laundry in the dryer two stories below always been audible from my office? And what a ridiculous racket my tentative snipping made when I first put scissors to bangs.
Rain fell, and wind blew—familiar sounds, but this April was an especially cruel one for storms. I felt bad weather keenly, since the only escape I got from solitude most days (not counting online and telephonic encounters) was to take a brisk walk (or two, or three). When storms came, they were doozies; the wind shuddered and rasped, sometimes for days at a time. Windows shook. Birds fluttered in and out of the gutters; I could almost hear them sipping stale rainwater.
One afternoon during a phone call for work, I heard an elephant bellowing outside my bedroom, just across the hall. That’s new, I thought. It went on and on, with its trunk occasionally slapping at the window (or so it sounded to me). When the call ended and I could investigate, I found that a stray piece of aluminum trim from below my roof—which had come loose just as winter began and which I’d managed to temporarily secure with a ridiculous amount of elephant-hued duct tape—had escaped its bonds. For the next week, it twisted and bellowed and flapped in the wind and could not be coaxed back against the side of the house.
Meanwhile, traffic had picked up again. Not normal traffic, but fleets of dark gray and white and brown vans that rumbled through side streets and skimmed by stop signs all day long, leaving boxes (often tall pyramids of boxes) on nearly every doorstep. The number of pedestrians grew exponentially, like those other numbers we all were oh-so-mindful of, whether we said so or not. So mindful, in fact, that collectively we invented a new sound, an audible expression of awkwardness—part sigh, part gasp—uttered reflexively each time we made a sudden turn or crossed the street to avoid breathing in what a neighbor had just breathed out.
Solitary teenagers clanged basketballs off rims in driveways late at night, and even during school hours, which were, of course, no longer what they had been. Siblings—by default the only safe playmates—suddenly sounded like best friends; except when they didn’t. The first-grader next door shouted updates from her front lawn: she’d Zoomed with her class, Facetimed with her cousins. While out walking one warm weekday, I heard voices overhead and looked up to see two women—sisters, perhaps, or mother and daughter—sunbathing and laughing on the roof of a garage, beside an open window.
Sometimes sirens screamed by—as they always had done before—but it was impossible not to hear them differently now.
I found solace in the garden, as I do every April. I crawled around flower beds, making space for what was emerging already, and what was still to come. I heard a little pluck each time I yanked at a weed. On my knees, at eye level with new ferns, I could almost hear their tiny green fingers unfurling, one by one. And wait, was that the sound of lilac buds popping, just below the kitchen window? As I turned toward the lilac, I heard a soft tinkling behind my back: the tiny white bells of lily of the valley, as they breached the edge of the garden and tiptoed across the yard. I’d always hoped to catch them at that.
As the days lengthened (in every imaginable way, and in ways never imagined), family-sized pelotons wheeled through the evening hours, gears clicking, tires thrumming. Whole tribes took noisy walks together, sometimes with strollers, scooters, wagons, or tricycles mixed in. Kids filled driveways with hopscotch grids. Hopeful chalked messages like, “We will get through this!” bloomed on sidewalks, their exclamation points shouting encouragement to passersby. Once on a walk I heard soft scraping sounds and spotted a chalk-wielding tween who was transforming every deep-red brick she could reach on the front of her house to a soft pastel.
One young father always seemed to be climbing the same hill hand in hand with his little girl when I reached their block. Sometimes I heard the hem of her shiny green princess dress brushing the sidewalk; other times it was the hem of her shiny pink princess dress. At some point I realized that if I listened closely enough, I could hear the sound of memories being made.
Drive-by celebrations multiplied. Honking horns and strains of “Happy Birthday” emanated from slow processions of cars, with passengers waving signs and sometimes singing through tears. Serenades also came from the edges of lawns and from nearby porches. Gift-wrapped offerings and weighted balloons gently thudded in driveways, to be fetched once the crowd dispersed.
Sounds of celebrations that would not—could not—happen as planned made lots of April noise, too. As I followed my well-worn walking route, my heart heard every sigh that had accompanied the planting of lawn signs to honor high school and college seniors who both would—and would not—graduate in this strange season. Seniors like Elyssa and Jack, James and Lauren, Katie and Mike. Signs of resignation, and love, sunk into newly green grass. Even as the knowledge sunk in for all of us, a little more with each passing day in April that this strangeness would not end anytime soon.
It feels so long ago now, that strange-sounding April, when we were shockingly naïve about what 2020 still had in store for us.
Eileen Cunniffe writes mostly nonfiction. Her writing has appeared in four anthologies and in many literary journals, including Global City Review, Still Point Arts Quarterly, Funny Pearls, bioStories, and Bluestem Magazine. Her essays have received Travelers’ Tales Solas Awards and the Emrys Journal 2013 Linda Julian Creative Nonfiction Award. www.eileencunniffe.com.