The opening closed the fall before. About the time I put up the storms and started with the leaves, the lesser Pacific voices fell away into a great hissing sink. I had not found the ones I longed for, the Melanesian voices, Bougainvilleans, and by raking time Hispanic ones drowned them out, if indeed they were ever there.
In winter, 75 meters is a Spanish band.
I thought about my friend, a Colombian. If she wanted voices she could pick up her phone, dial, listen. Talk back, too. To get voices that’s all she’d have to do. Or she could get a big dish, point it at the bird, tune her sat receiver, find where in the spectrum it splashed down the Spanish it had sucked up from another continent. No problem.
The tropical voices I wanted would arrive by other routes: by polar scatter, by ion bouncing, meteor trails. I visualized lines, sines and cosines, theta, an electromagnetic latticework. I thought they would arrive sometime.
My friend’s voices came with pictures, Spanish evening news, something I’d never seen until Peru, Fujimori, hit the US networks – the fat judge, the red-dressed anchor woman, I remembered her well, speaking excellent English with who? Rather? Brokaw? Well, that I couldn’t remember, but all that fuss, so exciting, We’ve been staying up for twenty hours following that story, Dan. Or Tom. Shining Path was it? No, Tupak Amaru. Shining Path is a better name.
But nothing happened, did it? Nothing happened for weeks, was it months? The newscaster, her English speech so fine, her dress so red, she was pretty, too, and I wondered, What is her life like? Does she have a lover?
She stayed up twenty hours for guerrillas, working, excited. Stayed up twenty hours for nothing except an appearance on NBC. Or CBS. And the thing then pushed off the screen by other news, pushed off maybe even in Peru, going from Spanish news to nothing, then rescue, killing, news again. Years later, a novel. My friend got all this by pointing the remote, and in the language she wanted, too.
For her it was like a multilingual instruction book. Section Five, Spanish. Section Six, Italian. Section Seven, Serbian. But I would never find Section Eight, Neo-Melanesian, never surf through, point and click through to the voices I wanted. Never, no, they were down in the tropical bands, so low down there, and power? Forget it. The Bougainville transmitter was a converted amateur rig putting out eighty watts into a makeshift antenna hidden in the rebel hills. Shining Path? No, nothing so beautiful: my voices would be the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, the BRA.
And I thought I’d receive this in a city more than eight thousand miles away with a cheap receiver?
But I had to keep trying. When my longing overpowered me I called an 800 number, gave my credit card, paid for Fed Ex because I wanted the voices tomorrow, so naive, the overnight forty bucks extra, but since the receiver itself was fifteen hundred that seemed trivial. For fifteen hundred bucks I could have flown to Bougainville but it was blockaded, under siege, I’d never have gotten there anyway.
I called my friend who was good on ladders. We got the antenna on the roof, up three stories, drilled holes for the coax, passed wires down the laundry chute to the cold water line in the basement for ground.
The doorbell rang, the radio came. Unpack the glorious Japan Radio Corporation NRD-525. Nerd-525, I thought, but I didn’t care. Check Zulu time, the BRA should be on in fourteen hours.
I turned the thing on. Who among us reads instruction books? Powered on, it worked, no warmup anymore. Just a little thermal settling-in. The old Hallicrafters I had as a boy took ten minutes to stabilize, this new one about five seconds. Later I had a Collins that settled faster than the Hallicrafters, and the Nerd beat both of them, but to what end? It couldn’t hurry the signal.
Punch the frequency in, not like the old days, those fifties days of analog knobs, main tuning and bandspread, no, now I just key it in, press Enter, that’s it. Provided there’s a signal, it’s time to notch and filter, fuss with bandpass, choose the right width, decide whether to use the upper or the lower sideband, or both. Maybe blank the noise with the Noise Blanker. In a city there’s always noise.
No. Nothing on but Spanish and Jesus and probably Spanish Jesus, how would I know? Then I realized my blunder. The time’s right, the season’s not; I’m a third of the world away. All right, grab the propagation handbook, check out the charts. Oh. It’s hopeless in the winter. How did I forget? Fortunately the equinox is just a month away.
In the meantime, bleeding money, willing to bleed more, I sent for a sophisticated detector, Kiwa (Oregon-made, Oceanic-sounding). Installing it required opening the Nerd, doing a little wiring, but I hadn’t forgotten how to work delicate copper.
I listened for my voices well before the equinox. There’s grey area there, where is it written that the band should open on the very 23rd? No, it’s around that time, around the equinox, somewhere in there. Only listen my children and you shall hear.
By the Ides of March I was awake listening, hearing beats, heterodynes, whistlers: the higher spectrum’s own dawn sounds. Five fifteen seemed early enough to check. I listened drinking coffee, Colombian of course, but brewed before listening. The coffee maker carried the familiar warning: This device generates and uses radio frequency energy. Well, I wanted radio frequency energy too, but not from a coffee maker. I wanted it, I would use it, all I needed was about tenth of a microvolt.
One morning, impatient, I grabbed a yellow pad and wrote a prayer to Saint Marconi of the Kennelly-Heaviside Layer.
Oh Guglielmo, I pray to you, let the signal through,
raise it from the noise, as I raise my prayer to you.
Bless this sloper antenna, bless its traps and dipole
thick black co-ax, RG-8U, bless
this receiver, Japanese, triple conversion,
bless this detector, American, synchronous,
an added-on, unauthorized modification.
Let it not invalidate my warranty.
Only let the voices through and I will pray until
the superheterodyne conversion
of the Heathen. Also I will publish this prayer
three times or more.
I rose from sleep into bird song, more as winter passed into spring, woke mostly into car alarms, their chirps, opening doors, slammings, the urban sounds of dawn. Then to the radio, hissing, gurgling even with faxes. I wouldn’t use the memories or keypad, instead each time tuned by hand as if the ritual might make it happen. I’d slide up, wide band, 3880, 81, 82, 83 — a hint of carrier? — 84, lock on 3885. No joy. Try narrow. Shift the bandpass. Sit on the frequency and wait. Nothing.
In my memory the village eased into day with human sounds, tempered perhaps by a cock crowing under someone’s house, an old woman beating a pot to call her pig. In the village I rose from sleep into voices, a snatch of song, a little trill. Barking, grunting, wood being split. Children calling to each other.
One peri-equinoctial dawn that distant station rose from the noise, the suddenness of it all but stunning me, bringing me voices for an hour or so, voices forty milliseconds delayed from the village’s whirring night. Three eight eight five, risen, finally alive. Radio voices, familiar tones, cadences; I heard pieces in the old style, I heard songs. I heard reports of soldiers killed, of fire fights, of villages burned, of blockades, starvation, death. I heard the names of people I knew.
In the village it was fully night. If their radios survived, if there were batteries, Five Rams or Duck, they’d be listening too.
In my dawn I celebrated our ritual of long ago, not sitting with them on slatted benches, not smelling wood smoke; I performed it hunched over my set, notching, filtering, blanking, solo. No one laughed with me, no one exclaimed. No one called an old woman to hear, a schoolboy to explain, someone’s child to dance. There may be no dancing anymore, no school, I thought, and the old men and women teach the young survival in time of war.
Vibrating ether’s a century gone, no matter. Against all physics I conjured a medium conducting voices, linking us: fluid, listening together, rejoined.