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“‘The Recorder’ is as spare and foreboding as the desert of its setting. Mysterious and philosophical, the story questions human existence and purpose. The enigma of its ending will remain with the reader.”
– Viet Thanh Nguyen, contest judge
A man sits cross-legged in the sand and sways gently backward and forward, humming a little under his breath. He wears dark pinstripe trousers that are frayed and torn at the ankles. Behind him, a burnt-out midsize airplane.
He gets up and walks back toward the plane. He drinks some water from a container that hangs from a nail driven into its side. He wipes his forehead and then goes up the makeshift ramp and disappears into the fuselage where he stays for some time. When he comes out, he has with him an old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape recorder.
• • •
Many aspects of his mission are still unclear. He was posted to this structure in the desert. The burnt-out airplane is more cost-effective than setting up a new camp. They must save where they can. This, he understands. But the exact remit of the job at hand remains opaque. He checks his notes again, but gleans little from them.
He has a dream in which he knows that his recordings plot the seismic boundaries of civilization, that they get to the root of the current decay, and he wakes feeling the first tremors of the event that is to come.
The recorder remains a comfort to him. There is something solid about its structure. It has finely-machined round edges and its buttons make a sharp and clear noise when pressed. He is proud of the machine although he did not have any part in its design or manufacture. He thinks of the machine as something “we” created.
After breakfast he takes the machine from its case. He sits in the sand with it between his knees. He cleans it. He makes a test recording and plays it back. The sound of his voice is crisp. He rewinds the tape to the beginning. He is ready to start.
• • •
He walks toward the horizon and stops at intervals. He turns on the recorder, says the date and time, and then holds the microphone to the ground. When he feels that he has captured the surroundings, he presses pause and moves on.
• • •
The report he completes every week contains sections covering various topics: weather conditions, mental states, the location of shops, electricity plants, population. The form is very long, but, conditions in the desert being what they are, he is forced to write in most of the spaces, “Not applicable.”
The fact that his form does not take into account his specific situation disturbs him. He knows that forms are by nature generic, and yet he has a feeling that the inability of the form to grasp his situation undermines the importance of what he is doing.
• • •
One morning there is a new sound. Far off, a strange movement of the air. He rushes around the campsite to bring it to some sort of order. He hides his underwear under his pillow, for example. The aircraft lands and a tall, serious woman in uniform alights, ducking under the rotor blades and fending off the dust in a dignified manner.
• • •
He had been preparing for a camp inspection from the beginning. Most of the training lectures contained a section on inspections and what was considered appropriate preparation. It was made clear that noncompliance could lead to all sorts of complications. In fact, the only printed material he ever received dealt exclusively with inspections. The pages were bound in a small ring binder and protected with plastic.
Some statisticians believe that truth takes place on a scale that has for a long time not been human.
He expects much from the inspection, and, to be fair, while she is busy in his camp, he feels more confident and more certain of what to do. But when she leaves, the sense of disquiet in him grows again.
• • •
From then on, she comes every week to collect the tapes. When she is in the camp, she does not talk much. She wants to know whether he has spotted any anomalies. Sometimes he describes a particular sunset or a wind storm. She makes a note of this in her log. She does not stay long. She brings him food and blank reels for the machine. She makes notes on his general health. She takes his blood pressure and measures his heart rate. He is always in good shape. In top form. He waves as she takes off. The sand makes his eyes water. His week begins.
• • •
He had adequate training. This much he knows. He remembers barracks and the faded yellow interior of a classroom. Maps on the wall. He remembers the lectures and, even now, just thinking about the lecturer’s voice makes him drowsy. His eyes close. The voice becomes a wave on which he drifts.
He did make some lecture notes in the back of an old notepad. The notes help him move forward. They are not very precise, but this gives him freedom to improvise.
• • •
He has a dream in which he knows that his recordings plot the seismic boundaries of civilization, that they get to the root of the current decay, and he wakes feeling the first tremors of the event that is to come. After a few minutes, he feels his vigilance fade. Then he has breakfast.
• • •
At night he plays back the day’s recordings. Sometimes the recordings make him feel whole, as if he is a part of the world around him. He closes his eyes. His head feels heavy and, just as he nods off, he hears a voice on the recording. When he later tries to find the voice on the tape, it is not there.
• • •
He is a light sleeper. Every noise wakes him. Contrary to popular belief, the desert is not a quiet place. The wind, for one thing. And the insects. The desert is home to many insects that are intent on making themselves heard, especially at night. There are some foxes. Or at least he thinks of them as foxes, since this is the least worrying explanation for the noises he hears. He is partial to foxes because they are known to be on the whole cowardly. He never sees snakes, but he sometimes wakes in the middle of the night rigid with fear, his ears aching, so focused are they on picking up the sound of a snake making its way silently toward his bed, tongue flickering.
• • •
His task comes down to interpreting the signs. This much he knows. Of course, he cannot see the big picture.
Before he falls asleep, he imagines all the accumulated research issuing in a single sentence. Or even a single, pure, and astonishing word, dense with meaning.
• • •
He makes a fire at night. He stares into the flames and sometimes he sees words form in the orange tongues that lick upward into the night sky.
• • •
He looks for animal life and from this deduces where his next recording will take place. This method seems, if not entirely scientific, at least in keeping with the general purpose of the assignment. He makes a note of this. He will ask her when he sees her. He does not feel the need to mention that some of the animals seem to point at things. At the sky, for example. When this happens, he holds the microphone aloft and reaches upward as far as he can.
There are certain vibrations, on the other hand, he feels cannot be trusted.
• • •
During their training one afternoon, a specialist visited them to describe the details of the system used to collate and interpret the raw information gathered by all the outposts and recording stations. It is a very long and detailed lecture. It contains mathematics.
He wakes in an empty classroom. The sun falls pale against the rose-tinted walls. He blinks and yawns.
• • •
On the side of one of the new tape reels, someone has written the following with a thin black marker: “We are a thread and we want to know the pattern.”1
• • •
It is good to be working on something concrete at last, he thinks.
The air shimmers and hums.
• • •
She thinks that some of his methods, though unorthodox, are innovative. He is getting the hang of things. She fails to say exactly which bits she thinks he has gotten the hang of, but he is pleased nonetheless.
All the reports go to statisticians who have a model that calculates the odds of this or that happening. They are parsing the data. Strides are being made.
The inspection is over and a worrying silence falls over the camp. The desert around them is quiet as well. It becomes obvious that her return transport is not only late, but in danger of not appearing at all. Their mutual elation is gone. The sand swallows it. Eventually there is a small panic and he takes part in it wholeheartedly.
They walk to the perimeter and back. They shield their eyes against the sun, looking in the direction from which the helicopter ought to come. The desert is quiet.
She ventures out on her own a bit but returns as darkness starts to fall.
Her schedule is mapped out weeks in advance, she says. Tomorrow morning, for example, she says, going through a small pocket diary with her index finger, she has to be in the Danish sector. They have been having technical issues.
She has a headache. He brings out a large metal chest and starts rummaging through it for the first aid kit. When he finds it, he slowly unpacks the contents. The first aid kit was put together to cover all eventualities. Bandages, a small blanket, a pair of scissors, and so on. And then there is a small cask of brandy. The kind a Saint Bernard would have around its neck as it searches for survivors after an avalanche. Neither of them seems in immediate danger of experiencing hypothermia, yet they stop and consider the cask.
They are unsure of how to go about imbibing the liquid, but he puts the kettle on for tea and then, like two people in shock, they add tiny shots of brandy to the tea and sip it slowly.
• • •
What happens to the reports and recordings? She seems for a moment to hold back, but then answers. All the reports go to statisticians who have a model that calculates the odds of this or that happening. Apparently it is not yet clear what the observations amount to. A large number of field agents like him send in readings and observations about the general state of things. But there is not, as yet, an actionable result.
They are parsing the data.
They are moving forward.
Strides are being made.
There is a general awareness that, from time to time, everything moves somewhere and that the current set of circumstances is not surprising when viewed under the aspect of eternity2. Some statisticians believe that truth takes place on a scale that has for a long time not been human.
He is proud to be called a field agent.
Late at night, she admonishes him for using the alcohol outside of an emergency. He shakes his head and says, Emergency? What emergency? She giggles and falls asleep.
• • •
Before first light, they wake and sit for a long time staring out at the desert night. The stars create the effect of a fathomless rain.
This is pretty much it, isn’t it, he says. We don’t know that, she says. If it is, he says, it is certainly very beautiful.
In the morning, her air transport arrives. He remains behind, a small speck on the desert floor below.
She fails to return. Too many days pass. He runs out of things. Tape reels, report forms, firewood, water.
• • •
Something happens while he is sleeping. He wakes to a strange new hum, an uncomfortable shift in the desert air. When he goes outside, the air feels softer, malleable. It is a little lighter. The stars blink.
• • •
When he runs out of tapes, he puts the recorder in its case and closes it. He labels the tapes and puts them in a box. On the box he writes “Final recordings.”
He takes the last bottle of water and leaves the airplane behind.
He thinks of the single, beautiful word and he wonders whether they are on the verge of finding it.
The sun does not feel very harsh. The air is cool on his face. He thinks of all the recordings and reports coming in from everywhere and the calculations that must be done and of the sentence they will discover and of the single, beautiful word and he wonders whether they are on the verge of finding it.
All around him is horizon and the sand is silent as he moves through it. Soon, he thinks, there will be nothing here that can speak at all.
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