Singing Prohibited

10 Sep

In her commencement speech to the young Plato University graduates, The Minister of Security had just reminded them that anyone caught singing or sheltering singers would be put to death with rapidity.

At the minister’s warning, Zethos squeezed the hand of his lover, Aglaia. The two sat in the back of the great assembly amphitheater, where Zethos had managed to exchange places with a fellow biology student to be by her side. They listened tensely as the flat, metallic voice of the official droned on.

“Behind us stand the centuries of time since the migration of our ancestors from the old world, Gaea. It was our advanced engineers who built the great sky boats in which our people traveled here, to found our beloved Episteme. Many waves of Hellenes arrived later to populate our planet, among many others.

“Concentrated, serious application of science saved out forefathers and foremothers. They transformed this once barren world into a beacon of reason and industry. In the entire Hellenic Archipelago, we remain the most advanced and self-sufficient. All aspects of Greek culture that are frivolous or wasteful have been excluded and eliminated.”

Zethos began to stroke Aglaia’s hand.

“To keep out the dangers of the irrational, we constructed the impenetrable ionized shield around Episteme. No foreign signals or images can disturb the tranquility of our pursuit of science. We are guarded and protected.

“Yet we still suffer a secret evil. There are antisocial psychopaths lurking about who try to tempt us into the seductive vice of singing. This diversion is a relic from old Gaea. These self-indulgent parasites wish us to abandon scientific, rational language for the mindless combinations of sound called music.

“The Ministry of Security depends on all of you to report anyone involved in this crime of singing. Our future depends on it.”

The rows of assembled graduates and guests rose to their feet and raised both arms upright. This was the traditional Epistemian sign of support and approval.

Zethos and Agiaia, stretching with the crowd, no longer held hands.

Later the pair met under a gigantic piezoelectric clock in a deserted part of the campus. Evening dusk was growing increasingly dark by the second. Blue indigo rays from sinking Helios cast an eerie light over Aglaia’s face. Her flaxen hair looked strangely dark and unfamiliar to her lover. He wondered if it was just an effect of the ionized shield, which produced Episteme’s richly blue twilight.

“Where did you go after the ceremony?” she softly inquired. The pair sat down on a silicon bench.

“I had an appointment with Dean Meleager. He advised me to apply for a job in the government.”

“What did you tell him?”

“I said I would think about it. He suggested I apply right away, but I told him that I wanted time to rest and think about my future before taking on responsibilities.”

“You made no promise or commitment?”

“No,” muttered Zethos. “None at all.”

Neither spoke for a moment, but each searched the face of the other. The evening sky purpled. The orb of Helios had disappeared.

“I was worried,” whispered Aglaia. “Perhaps you had decided that it was going to be too dangerous. You heard the warnings from the minister.”

Both stayed silent for a time, listening for any outside sound.

“Heracles is coming to talk with you,” she informed him. “He thinks that would be best at this point.”

Zethos searched her eyes, barely visible in the purple-blue dusk. “Will he try to recruit me, too?”

“He only wishes to explain what making music through song means to people like us.” Her voice became hushed. “It will be up to you, whether you decide to learn how to sing or not.”

Zethos glanced about furtively, then whispered. “I am only curious. My aim is to find out what attracted you to something illegal like singing, Aglaia.”

A sound from the pathway that ran past the bench distracted both of them. A tall, shadowy figure was approaching. “Here he is,” said Aglaia softly.

A gaunt, lanky man stopped at their bench. His broad smile was visible in the darkness. “Hello, Aglaia,” he said warmly. “I take it this is the friend who is curious that you told me about.”

Zethos rose from the bench and extended his right hand. “I prefer not to use my actual name. Sorry, but that is how it has to be.”

The two males looked at each other a moment. Suddenly, Aglaia rose to her feet. “I think I should go. It is best that you two talk to each other in private.” With that, she strolled off down the dark path.

The two left behind sat down on the silicon bench. “You know how singing is done?” asked Zethos.

“I myself have sounded notes,” said the stranger, making no attempt to conceal or lower his voice.

“Notes?” responded Zethos. “What are notes?”

“A vocal pitch. Notes follow notes, sometimes the same, more often different. Some are higher, some lower in the frequency of pitch.”

“It is similar to speech, perhaps?”

“Based on it, but vastly richer and more varied,” explained the tall one. “All of us have the potential for singing, due to our speaking ability. But the two activities are not identical. Singing is a language deeper and richer than that we speak in. If you hear it done, you can quickly learn the art of how to sing and create music.”

“What is music, then?” demanded Zethos eagerly.

“I cannot give you a precise definition. You must hear it for yourself. Then, you will discover what it is.”

“Will you show me singing here, now?”

“It would be hazardous to sing on the campus of Plato University. Like all of the city, it is covered with hidden listening devices of the Ministry of Security that can pick up any voice attempting to sing. Many have been caught and arrested for that serious offense. But I can take you to see and hear our best singer, our leader and founder who uncovered the ancient art. If you wish, we could meet with him tonight.”

“Is it safe to do so?” asked Zethos anxiously. “There are secret microphonic apparati everywhere.”

“Singers live in unending danger. But we are used to it and know how to protect ourselves. I sense sincerity in your voice. Aglaia vouches for you, too. I believe that we can place our trust in you, young man.”

“Thank you,” whispered Zethos.

“Follow me at a distance,” said Heracles.

It was a long, tiring walk beyond the urban boundaries, out of range of electronic monitoring, into the cold, empty desert. There was no vegetation anywhere in sight. Few Greeks ever went to the desert of Episteme.

Heracles led Zethos to a sand hill where a lean-to shed stood. In the cool darkness, the structure was nearly invisible. The rotted, oddly shaped door opened as the pair moved up to it. A gray-haired, bent old man appeared holding an ancient metal lantern. There was something wild and strange in his gleaming dark eyes.

“I am Eteocles,” he said proudly. “I take it that Heracles has brought you all the way out here in order to show you the hazardous art called singing, yes?”

Zethos nodded as the hermit laughed louder and louder.

“There is no need to be careful or silent out here on the desert. No need at all. Come in and sit down.” The host found two stools for his guests. He himself continued standing.

“Our friend wishes to find out what the nature of singing is,” explained Heracles, breaking the silence.

Eteocles eyes the young stranger intently. “It is very simple, once you have done it yourself. City people have been frightened into thinking the art is too difficult for them. Would you sing with me if I showed you how?”

“Of course,” answered the excited Zethos, his pulse turning rapid.

“Good. I will sing notes and you will follow me. A note is merely a tone of the voice. Notes rise, fall, or stay the same and repeat. A scale is a ladder of notes. Let me sing you a simple scale. I want you to repeat it after me. Then I shall sing you a song without words. You should learn it and do the same as I did. Later, we will go on to a song that has words. A love song, perhaps.

“You see, the beautiful thing about music is that more than one voice can sing at the same time. I can let you sing along with me so that you will learn harmonizing. Of course, harmony can become disharmony. You will hear some of that, at times. But the final, ultimate aim of music is always harmony. A disharmony often comes after a harmony, but then blends into a new, higher harmony. You will understand all this once you begin to sing. Shall we begin?”

“Yes,” replied the visitor. “Let us start.”

It was a late hour when Heracles led Zethos back to the city. The population was mostly asleep. As they went through the streets, Heracles whispered to his companion. “We had better part out here where no one will see us together.”

“Good night, then,” said Zethos. “I can never thank you enough for what I learned out there.” The pair shook hands, then went in different directions.

Once alone, Zethos started to walk vigorously, his mind in turmoil. He had learned a lot that evening, most importantly about himself. He took a wafer-thin ribbon recorder out of his breast pocket and tossed it into a refuse container at a street corner. Zethos hurried to his flat, exhilarated by having sung for the first time in his life.

The next morning, there was a telewire message for the young graduate. He was to report as soon as possible to the office of Dean Meleager. The latter appeared angry and impatient. “Did you obtain any information last night?”

“No. I do not believe that Aglaia has any connection to singers. She seems to have no knowledge or interest regarding their activities. Aglaia is a false lead, I have to conclude.”

Meleager frowned and looked away. “I thought as much,” he growled. “But we were compelled to follow up all possibilities. Our surveillance of the young woman will stop at once. You need not see her anymore.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Zethos, relieved at being off the hook now.

“We need not worry about these particular singers. Early this morning, the Security Police arrested their leader, an old hermit living in the desert. No one thought of searching for him in the wastes beyond the city. He has been out of reach for years, but now we have him.”

Zethos swallowed hard, trying to keep a calm face.

“It is interesting how he was found. The informant was his former disciple and will receive full pardon for turning in his master.”

“What now becomes of my undercover service, sir?” asked the young spy.

“It is finished. You have done well, and I will see that you receive a commendation. Are you planning to apply for employment in government service, Zethos?”

“No,” he replied. “I have other plans, sir.”

Aglaia spotted Heracles drinking herbaceous tea in a corner cubicle. She went directly up and greeted him warmly.

Heracles seemed startled by her sudden, unexpected appearance. He glanced about the nearly empty tea room and asked in a low, muffled voice “You know what has happened to Eteocles?”

“No,” she said with apprehension. “What?”

He was caught and arrested. The police authorities are holding him in a hidden location. There is no hope he will ever see the sky again.”

Aglaia trembled. “How could that happen?”

“That will probably always be a mystery,” lied the informer. “I’m thankful that no friends of mine ever suffered exposure. I think the police are mainly concerned with veteran singers and teachers like Eteocles. Once his ilk are silenced, there is less chance others will be recruited and initiated. So, Aglaia, our excursions into the wasteland must end. We don’t want to suffer the fate that’s coming to Eteocles, do we?”

She gave a silent nod, then excused herself and left the tea room in tears.

Heracles felt relief at her departure. No one suspected his treachery and he could keep his friends safely out of danger.

As soon as Eteocles began to sing defiantly in his cell, four guards in uniforms rushed in to silence him. They forced a thick woolen gag inside his mouth that his shackled hands could not reach. When his captors left, he produced a hollow hum, its pitch rising and falling in a cyclical pattern. For hours he sang despite being gagged, till he fell unconscious.

Word of his behavior rose up the ladder of the Ministry of Security. Early the following morning, the Minister herself came to see him. She watched the old singer wake up on the bare, simple cot of the cell.

“I warn you not to practice your subversive vocals. If you do, your interrogation and death will be severely painful.” She beckoned him closer and removed the gag in his mouth. They stared stonily in each other’s eyes.

“Was I betrayed into custody?” suddenly asked the prisoner.

“Of course,” replied the Minister with a sardonic grin. “How else were we able to find you after hunting for so many years?”

“Who was it?” inquired the old man.

His captor took a step away. “You shall never learn that. Every morning and night you may wonder. It will torture you to your dying day. That will be part of your punishment,” she sneered, then departed.

Eteocles remained in painful silence.

Later that day Zethos found Aglaia weeping and he knew why, but concealed this from her as best he could. It was self-evident to him that no one had fingered the two of them as singers.

“What is it?” he tenderly asked her.

“You do not know?” she sobbed. “The oldest of the singers was captured early this morning. How could the authorities find out where he was?”

Zethos suddenly took her in his arms. “Aglaia, listen to me. I went with Heracles last night and met Eteocles. He sang for me and taught me how to do it myself. I sang! I shall teach what I now know to others.”

She wiped away her tears. “I will help you all I can.”

“We will sing together,” he grinned with joy.

“With others who know the secrets of singing,” she added. Aglaia looked at him with brightening eyes. “We must go into the desert tonight, Zethos, and practice how to sing in harmony.”

He nodded his head. “I want to pass it along to the next generation, so that singing does not die out.”

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