Crazy Man Michael he wanders and calls
And talks to the night and the day-o
But his eyes they are sane and his speech it is plain
And he longs to be far away-o
Michael he whistles the simplest of tunes
And asks the wild wolves their pardon
For his true love is flown into every flower grown
And he must be keeper of the garden.
Lyrics from “Crazy Man Micheal” by Fairport Convention
When Michael was a little boy, he didn’t think about much. It was so much easier to let the predictable days of his childhood carry him along in what ever direction his mother chose. He liked it that way. Simple and secure.
“No harm done,” was his motto. And now that he was older, as long as he stayed under the radar, he was happy to let his life move along slow and easy.
After he finished high school, he went to work behind his uncle’s machine shop where he took apart and sorted bits and pieces of metal and other mechanical items he and his buddies would scavenge from the abandoned buildings on the outskirts of town. It was backbreaking, bloody, finger splitting work, but most of the time he didn’t notice the pain. He found that as long as he kept his head as empty as possible, most things looked after themselves. He would get up and go to work each day, and when he came home at night, his mother would have dinner ready for him and they would eat it together while she chattered about her day. After dinner, he would go for a walk up into the hill behind their house, smoke a joint and then go upstairs and get lost in a video game on his computer. Eventually his eyelids would begin to droop and he’d step out of his jeans, fall into bed and sleep soundly until it was time to get up and do it all over again.
Michael and his mother didn’t feel happy and they didn’t feel sad. Like the rest of the townsfolk, they didn’t feel anything. They had accepted their lot in life and were satisfied that their simple lives would continue on the same as always.
And because they didn’t know how to lift their heads up and look into the sky above, they didn’t notice the messages in the murmeration patterns of the starlings that sailed across the sky above the red brick buildings in the town. Their ears didn’t hear the gossip of the sparrows who chattered about the sparks that had begun to move through the tiniest branches of the trees. And their hearts were not tuned to the melodies of the songbirds who sang whole movements about each swirling eddy in the shifting and growing energy flow that had begun to engulf the town.
Yes, the birds could feel it and they echoed it in their songs and in their actions. But they chose not to question it because it didn’t threaten their own sweet world of wind and trees and air and skies.
And back in those days, it didn’t threaten anyone’s world. It simply was. A steady, innocuous, invisible hummmm that flowed through the ground and up into the trees, and along the river that ran through the valley and into the back of everyone’s brain. Although it was there, no one could hear it. It was like noise of a clothes dryer running in the basement, or a fan in another room that goes unobserved until the very moment it stops.
Only the cleverest birds of all, the beautiful jet black crows and midnight blue ravens could hear it and they had from the very beginning. They would cock their small dark heads to the side and try to understand it. Their glistening black bead eyes would stare off into the distance as they listened intently. They absorbed the sound and wondered about what it might mean.
During the day, the crows and ravens flew high above the town, tending to their work; finding food and gathering precious trinkets—buttons and shells; bits and clips and little bells; rusted gears and green glass jewels; bone fragments, lost earrings, metal hearts; zipper pulls and other tiny pieces of art. They kept busy—as they always did—but they knew that whatever had begun to flow through their bodies and into their hearts was something important.
At first the crows didn’t talk about it much, but eventually it began to come up as a subject of conversation at their meetings.
Every day, about an hour before dusk they would gather together in the largest most majestic trees of the city. They would chatter and gossip and caw and titter about what they had seen during the day; bragging about their treasures; sometimes sharing where the freshest food could be found (and sometimes keeping that knowledge to themselves).
But once they began to speak about the hummmm, they could converse about nothing else. They talked about how they could feel it in the deepest depths of their hearts, how they could sense its vibration at the tips of their wings when they stretched them open and flew across the sky and how it buzzed in their claws after they swooped down and perched on the electric wires that were strung across the city.
They spoke about how the hummmm was all-pervading; and they argued about its colour. Some felt it as the deepest blue of the sea and others said it seemed like the whitest glow of a moonflower in full bloom. But one thing they agreed upon was that the hummmm had begun to change. It was becoming more intense, more frantic, it was higher pitched and growing stronger every day.
Although Michael wasn’t aware of the hummmm, he did begin to notice the whispers in the back of his head. And as the birds observed the hummmm become more frenetic, the hissing whispers in Michael’s brain shifted and began to split into one more conversation and then another and another.
Michael didn’t tell anyone about the whispers. Why would he? He knew that no good would come of it. He knew that if he told his mother, her eyes would grow large then she would look down at her shoes because she would remember what had happened to his father. And he didn’t want her to remember those days. He knew that if he told his uncle, he would just laugh and tell him he’d been “smokin’ too much weed”. . . or that he should buy a better strain of the stuff. And he didn’t want to find out what would happen if he told his friend Jeannie. Would she think that he was going crazy? Either way, it didn’t matter because he wasn’t going to tell anyone.
As the whispers became louder they became harder to ignore, and it if he tried to push them away, he would feel a burning band across the bottom of his stomach that felt like smouldering embers. And one day as he was walking home from the pit, along the road in front of his old high school, the burning buzzing band tightened below his navel and it felt like skeletal fingers were pushing the embers up from his belly, along his spine, into his chest and around his heart. He stopped alongside the red brick wall that separated the road from his old school gasping for breath and sat down on it. He swallowed, pushing the saliva down through his dry and brittle throat. Across the street Michael could see a crow perched on the hydro wires strung between the street lamp poles. It seemed as though the crow was staring right at him and as Michael stared back he opened his beak and cawed three times.
Eventually, Michael managed to calm down enough so that after a few minutes he was able to stand up again and manage the rest of his journey home. At dinner, he sat silently and barely tolerating his mother’s nattering about the events of her day. It wasn’t until he escaped her endless chatter and left the house for a smoke that the burning in his belly began to cool down.
A few days later, as he approached the same spot by the high school, he began to feel the anxiety rise in him again. Breathing heavily, he sat down on the wall, pushing his hands down into the cold hard bricks while the burning in his stomach began to crackle and blister within. In desperation, he looked across the street, hoping the crow would be there and sure enough, there he was, perched above, claws wrapped around the wire, coal black wings tucked along his sides. He seemed to be looking directly into Michael’s soul.
Suddenly, the crow raised its head as if to stare at the sky then dropped down from the wire, spreading its wings as it sailed towards Michael and landed on the wall next to him. Once again, he cawed three times and then flew a few feet further along the wall where he landed and cawed again. Michael staggered to his feet and began to follow the crow as it flew down the street towards the foot of the hill at the edge of the town.
Many weeks later, after Michael’s brain had completely shattered in random shards of knowing and unknowing, he actually welcomed the voices that constantly screeched in a cacophony of loathing inside his head. Hour after hour, he would lay splayed on his back on the floor of the abandoned hut on the hill and watch in dull agony as rays of sun crisscrossed through the cracks in the wooden walls in a steady pattern from dawn to dusk. The slow movement of light lines made it easier to stay still and let the voices scrabble and babble inside his brain. For days and days, he lay there until the gnawing in his belly became more than he could bear and reluctantly, he would stagger out of the hut, stumble down the hill and wander through the town until he found some rotting food behind a diner to stuff into his mouth and swallow whole.
Did he exist in the hut for weeks, months or even years? He didn’t know, but eventually the voices in his head began to agree with each other more often and the shards began to merge. And then one day, in the late afternoon, when the sun was just about to sink behind the hill above the hut, he decided to stagger up the path that lead past the shed one slow step at a time, eyes down, ears closed, breathing in and out at a pace that matched his steps.
When he finally stumbled out from the woods into the high meadow above, he lowered his bony ass on the cold ground, lifted his gaze and cast it out over the town. And while the darkness settled around him, the voices inside his skull continued to slow their endless bickering and his muddled mind began to drift freely as wisps of mist floated past him, rolling down the mountain to the townscape below.
As the sun sank behind the spiny hill behind him and the dusk wrapped the town, he tried to count each street light as it flickered on. He listened so intently that he could measure the sound of the traffic and noticed when it began to ease up as the factory workers arrived home, parked their cars in front of their rickety wooden homes and trudged inside to eat their dinner and settle on the couch to blink at the flickering lights of their televisions. He heard a dog bark and a mother shout to call her children home for their nightly bath. And he heard the whiney sound of a motorcycle as it revved its engine and sped along the ring road coming closer and then fading off into the distance.
While he watched from the hill, Michael began to remember the time when his life was new; when he was a little boy who lived in one of the small wooden houses below; just he and his mother. He remembered the quiet times, the safe times, the slow and sleepy times. He tried to stop himself from weaving the story of those early years together, but he couldn’t help but think about how the weft threads that ran over and under the warp threads of those simple days had lead to a place where he found himself sitting on the top of a hill with his brain beginning to come back together after being shattered into a million broken pieces of glass.
One night as Michael sat on the hill he noticed that there were fewer lights on in the town than the night before. And sure enough, the next night he counted fewer still and then eventually he could see that whole chunks of the town below had begun to go dark. The drone of the traffic had changed too. It was no longer steady and reassuring, but had begun to pulsate with a frenetic energy; he could hear engines racing, tires screeching and car doors slamming. He could hear shouting. There was panic in the calls of the mothers as they searched for their children and the dogs’ barks were short and insistent and filled with alarm.
Finally, the night came when he climbed up the hill and all of the lights in the houses and buildings had gone dark. He could still see the lights of cars but they were not headlights. On that rainy night Michael sat on the hill and watched as long lines of red tail lights from the ass-end of cars snaked their way south and away from the pitch-black city.
And it was on that rainy night that the hummmm finally stopped. It sputtered a bit and then everything was empty. The dull and deadened silence was deafening. The crows immediately ceased their twittering and chattering and busy crow work because at that moment, the loss of the hum made the crows feel as though they were moving backwards for a tiny moment. And then it felt as though they were floating down towards the earth like a feather released from one of their wings, light on the breeze and empty of purpose.
The vibration that had become so familiar as it flowed through their wings and the buzzing they had come to expect in their claws when they landed was gone. And they cocked their small heads to the side and listened but there was nothing to be heard.
And it wasn’t just the crows. All the birds and animals felt themselves drifting ever so slowly and sweetly, their ears ringing with the sound of nothing.
On that day, the rain had poured relentlessly, washing away the last of the dirty snow which swirled down through the rusty grates into the storm sewers below. By the time darkness fell, the city was eerily quiet—and a heavy atmosphere muffled the air like a black, damp, cold blanket. For a while, a few streetlights remained on, pulling the last residues of power from the local generating station, but in time, they too began to spark on and off; and on and then off again; and eventually, one by one, all the lights flickered out and the street was lit only by the headlights from an occasional car as it shooshed slowly by along the cold wet pavement.
Behind the locked doors and the shuttered, curtained, closed and boarded windows the people who remained in the town waited for their lights to go back on. They waited while the food in their refrigerators warmed and they waited while the garbage under their sinks began to rot and their kitchens smelled like sour milk. They waited while the frozen lasagnas and breaded chicken wings in their freezers thawed forgotten because their electric ovens could no longer cook them.
They waited and stared at their reflections in the black screens of their computers and tablets and they waited while the batteries in their all of suddenly not-so-smart phones slowly died.
The days passed interminably and the lights still did not come on. The early spring temperatures dipped again and the cold of the dark nights invaded their homes and stayed like an unwelcome guest.
And still they waited. “The lights will come back on soon,” they told their children and their pets and their frightened elderly parents. “Don’t worry; this won’t last long; everything will be alright again soon. It will all go back to normal and our lives will be the same again.”