This is a difficult tale, but I will try to tell it clearly.
There was once a land in which every person had to remain in their own home from birth until death, due to a lethal aversion to crossing the threshold of their dwelling. The houses of this land were so far apart from one another that friendly neighbors could only communicate by the art of letter.
In one of the houses, there lived a young man. His house was a strong house built of big, squared-off stones. He was very pleased to live there and he passed his days with many pleasures. But one day, his pleasures came to an abrupt end.
The fateful day began well, as so many days before it. The young man was tickled awake by a playful wind that wound the curtains around one another like mating birds, and carried the smell of a sweet summer morning to him. He stretched himself awake and leapt from his bed, went downstairs to his kitchen and heated a pot of morning broth. It was evenly flavored and satisfying, and he drank it in six smooth gulps. He then took to his study, where he sat and read one of his favourite books.
When he’d finished reading, he took a leisurely walk around the house, letting his fingers fall on the surfaces of objects as he passed, admiring the ways that the sun was reflected off them: the hazy peach-pearlescent vases in his study, the bright sparkles augmenting his reflection in the bedroom looking glass, the warm indented bronze of the kitchen pots alive with bright semicircles like ripples on water. It was a lovely morning.
After a light lunch, he took another stroll, then settled back down in the study. He read a small pile of letters from friends, and wrote letters in turn to each of them, sharing some of the pleasant things he had enjoyed that day. In the late afternoon, he took another turn around the house, then came back to the study to rest in his chair, with a bowl of soup and a book to slowly consume. And there it began. A clanging sound that was so irritating he dropped his book and his spoon. A clanging sound so ugly he could not imagine what had produced it in his lovely home. It rang and rang, not holding true to any exact location. Keen to solve the problem, he examined the room, pressing his hands to the walls and sending his fingertips into the crevices his eyes could not see. Nothing was apparent.
The young man was unhappy with this ugly visitor, but determined to remain light-hearted. He investigated the rest of the house, trotting about it alert and curious. He sprang at corner shadows, stalked floating rays of light, ran his hands over the kitchen pots, and murmured into the fireplaces.
By nightfall, he was drained of his humor and energy. The clanging had not stopped. He retreated to his bedroom, where the clanging was somewhat fainter. But when he snuffed his candle, the clanging was made all the more vivid by the darkness, and when the young man fell into sleep, he was gripped by nightmares which twisted around his limbs and tightened at his throat. He woke early, shivering, and the clanging of his terrible dreams became the sharp inescapable clanging of his beloved home.
Each day after this, the clanging persisted from morning until night. The young man went to bed pale and awoke paler still. Soon, the noise had bled the distinction between wakefulness and sleep, cold and hot, rough and smooth, so that the world around him became a frustrating stranger.
On the seventh day, he arose before the warmth of morning had settled in, went downstairs without breakfast, and took a blackened poker from the fireplace. He gripped the poker in his hand and raised his shoulders like a dog ready for a fight, stalking from room to room. His stomach felt hard and cold and had risen up towards his throat. His limbs were burning to attack the source of the noise, but the source was hidden and would not reveal itself. The young man fell on the floor, the poker at his side, and hot tears washed over his face. Even as he cried, the clanging penetrated his chest, and the weight pressed on his heart was not relieved.
That evening, he sat in his study. He passed his bloodshot eyes over letters filled with friendly chatter from his neighbors, tracing their words with a weakened hand and trying to think of a nice reply for each. But their news felt strange and distant, and he had nothing pleasant to say. He stared at the wall for a long time, and then took up his pen and wrote a letter addressed to the local doctor. “I write to you with troubles weighing upon me. The troubles began a few weeks ago but now it feels a very long time. A terrible clamoring noise, which I cannot locate the origin of, has taken over my house. I pray that you might guide me in alleviating it. With my sincerest thanks.”
For a while, anticipation of the doctor’s wise assistance soothed the young man’s discomfort. But the clanging was still hard to bear, and he became agitated that the doctor would not reply, and soon the clanging became more terrible than ever before. His house became ugly to him and he walked with tightened fists and a lowered glare. He missed meals and began to mutter to himself. He lost count of the days before a letter came from the doctor, but eventually it did, and he read it carefully three times, mouthing the words to himself through tightened lips.
“I am sorry to hear of your situation. Sometimes the disturbance can be eliminated quite simply. Please take the following actions. Gather up all metal objects and other resonant materials from around the home. This may include musical instruments, vases, and so on. Cast all these items from your home so that there may be nothing for the sounds that are troubling you to reverberate through.”
As he read and re-read, the young man let the doctor’s instructions penetrate his chest and mingle with the anger in his desperate body. The clanging pressed and pressed and pressed. The young man stood up from the desk and set to work.
He gathered, one by one, many things from around his home: the huge brass kitchen pots, the cutlery, the pearl vases, his reading lamp, his looking glass. And he put them all in a sack, and dragged them to the highest window. He then heaved the sack over the window ledge, and let the contents fall out, so that the bag became suddenly as light as the air. Then he looked out of the window, and saw the lifeless pieces smashed against the courtyard’s flagstones below, tiny and pale and indeterminate, fingered by the wind.
He stared out at the ugly sight for a while. His hands wrapped round and round the sack, and they wound it so tightly into a knot that his skin went white. He felt a terrible numbness inside him and couldn’t think. Behind him, pressing up against his back, was the clamoring clanging sound as loud as before, and when he turned towards it, it filled his nose and eyes and mouth and he had to duck his head to proceed back down the steps.
The next day he sat in his bed and wrote another letter to the doctor: “I thank you for your advice. However, the noise has not abated, and I am in desperate need of assistance. The trouble is not just the ugliness of the noise itself, or the fatigue. It is how it presses on my thoughts and disrupts my natural feeling.”
The young man then took to pacing the hallway, eyeing the letterbox for word from the doctor, and on the third day he fell to his knees to grab up the officially stamped white envelope. The young man held the letter in trembling hands.
“I’m sorry to hear that your situation has not improved. Can you give me a precise description of the noise you are troubled by?”
The young man listened to the sound as directly as he could bear, and wrote back: “It is a terrible noise that seems to take up every single frequency but mainly those of the human voice. It sounds like the devil shouting to kill the world. It sounds like something being ripped apart over and over, but the thing being ripped apart isn’t paper, it is an animal and it is myself.” Then he screwed up the paper and wrote again. “It is a clanging sound. It is very loud and unpleasant.”
The next letter from the doctor arrived a week later. “Thank you for specifying that it is a clanging sound. I would suggest that you now try stopping off the entrances and exits to the house, to block any errant winds that may be causing the disruptions you describe. This should include all windows, the fireplace, and any other miscellaneous passages in or out other than the mail slot. Please allow at least two weeks for this to take effect.”
The young man gathered up strength and will as best he could. The clanging reverberated more sickeningly with every step he took, but he crossed the half-empty study, went up the stairs, and sought out sheets and blankets and rugs from around the house. With weak hands, he fumbled to plug the beautiful fireplace, the stove pipe, and every window.
When he was finished, the place was dark and the air clammy, and the stark, plugged-up rooms felt like a different house without an owner. But the clanging seemed to have softened a little. The young man went into the hallway, closed each of the doors leading into it, and found it even quieter still. He was so relieved that his muscles seemed to melt down the length of his body, and he then crumpled to the floor and fell straight asleep, his cheek pressed to the cool tiles.
He awoke not knowing if it were night or day, damp from a night-time fever. He stood up and looked around his new protective shell, in which the clanging remained muffled. The hallway, lit by pallid lamps along each side, was not much wider than himself, and only a few paces long. The ceiling was curved and yellow, set with heavy wooden beams. The walls, too, were a deep yellow, something that had never been so apparent with the doors thrown open and the addition of fresh daylight.
Now, the waxy closeness threatened to turn his stomach, and he had to cast his eyes to the floor, which to his dismay was patterned with frantic geometric shapes that seemed to shift like a snake’s writhing belly. He looked up again towards the ceiling, but felt afraid that the heavy beams were going to crack and fall on him under the pressure of the insistent clamoring about the house, so his eyes returned to the floor. He went to one of the doors leading back into the house, and opened it. A moan slipped out of him, but was dissolved beneath the loud clanging that broke into the hallway. He shut the door again, and sunk to his knees.
From the shut-up hallway, he wrote again to the doctor. When the reply eventually arrived, the young man struggled to read the doctor’s words, spread out like a fuzzy puzzle across the clean page, but slowly and carefully he pieced them together.
“I’m sorry to hear you have not experienced sufficient relief from the clanging and are experiencing some distress. It is good that you have developed some coping mechanisms. Ongoing, be vigilant about any household activities that seem to exacerbate the noise and maintain any effective restrictions. We will review your case in six months. Regards.”
And so, the young man made his home in the hallway. His daily activities began whenever he awoke, as he had no idea if it was day or night. He had little appetite. He paced the hall, up and down, down and up, seeking patterns in the tiled floor and sometimes shouting at the heavy beams that he wished would fall and kill him. He picked up the few items that lay about the hall in turn, and let them fall from his listless hands. Time passed and this new existence became familiar.
Then, one day, the clanging stopped. The young man held himself very still for a while. Suspended in the air was a sweetness he had never so fully appreciated, and he wept with pleasure as the knot in his chest unwound as smooth as silk. He left the hallway and sprang from place to place. He began planning letters to his friends, and read passages from his most beloved books, feasted on forgotten treats. He was spread eagle on the polished wooden floor, admiring the cornices on the grand ceiling, when the clanging began again.
The young man felt very little. His heart and eyes and fingers all seemed to lose sensation as if suddenly choked, and he returned to his hallway obediently. But the memory of his adventure lingered, and over the coming weeks he revisited it in his dreams, and in his waking hours he became aware of the call of his forgotten home beneath the clanging. And he opened the door from the hallway to his study, and let the clanging fall on his head and neck and back as he walked forward into the room.
Standing in the study, his eyes shied from the tall shelves of books that he knew he could not read. His hands found the gnarled carved back of a chair and he drew comfort from the hard textures that pressed into his skin. He smelt the dust that cloaked the velvet seats, and the sour mildew gathering in the air. He took his hand from the chair back, dug his nails into his palms, and he walked his way around the room, several times, until his body was drenched in sweat and his chin was on his chest.
And alongside the sickening repetition of the clanging he felt a tender forgotten feeling that he wanted more of. And so, he walked once more, despite the difficulty, before he returned to the enclosure of the hallway. In the hallway, he took the final letter from the doctor, and ripped it up into tiny pieces. They fluttered to the floor, gathering in the dirt that had been settling for many weeks. He swept the floor clean, and slept a contented sleep.
The next day, he once again went into the house. He pulled away the corner of a sheet stuffed into one of the windows in the study, and watched dust play in the narrow beam of light. Then he tried to climb the stairs to his bedroom, but the clanging gurgled out of the open doors and through the walls in ugly bursts and split the air around his head, and the thought of his beautiful bedroom cracked a hole in his chest. He returned to the study, and walked around it with clenched fists, examining each section of the mottled floor.
And the new life of the young man continued in this way, with expeditions that varied in length and success, in misery and apathy and occasional pleasure. It was a hard and tiring life, but he did live, and it was his life, and this is the end of the story.
Frances is a writer and artist who currently lives in Brighton with five rescue rats and one human partner. She works in digital communications for left-wing activist organizations. She makes synths and facilitates electrifying workshops as half of Rat City Synths. You can contact her here: email@example.com.