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Dream Quest One Third Writing Prize

Winner - Winter 2014 - 2015



of Ontario, Canada




The Sound of Tulips

By Jim Xie


I would not characterize my childhood as turbulent, but it certainly was loud. One summer especially, the noise inside my house, inside of me, seemed to muffle all others. It funnelled into my ears, shattered my eardrums, and took permanent residence in my head, where it amplified like echoes in a rock cavern. Afterward, music still played and birds still sang, but less so. If I were to describe this phenomenon, I would say that I no longer absorbed the sounds of the world in warm and vibrant colors. Colourful timbres became nothing more than shades of black, white, and dulled gray. Melodies became variations of the same notes, and songs became variations of the same melodies. Sound, in all its magnitude, was reduced to white noise; a far-off static.

This summer was buried into the deepest vestiges of my mind, and no matter how many layers I covered it with, no matter how many fake, toothy smiles I sported in its place, it never truly went away. The stubbornness of memories, I realized, was two-faced. A memory can never cease to exist once it has been created; you could push it into a dark recess and let it evanesce, but in that dark recess it will remain with infinite patience, waiting for the smallest opportunity to re-emerge and expand to fill worlds. Funny how, after that summer, time seemed to dilate, each tick just a little bit longer than usual, and while I still received the same amount of time as everyone else, I always felt that I had less.

 That day, it was sunny like all the rest. When I woke, the world was already bathed in radiant hues. Dappled sunlight played tag on jade leaves, insects and birds sang brightly to the sun, and the wind whispered as it weaved through the trees. The flowers outside my house had already bloomed and now danced in vivid colours of yellow, orange, and crimson. My mother used to spend a lot of time gardening and tending to those flowers, but recently, she had stopped. Red tulips were her favourite, though I never understood what made them so special.

I held on to this surrealism for as long as I could before the yelling registered. It was like this every day: waking up, a fragile, infinitesimal moment of tranquility, then waking up again, except this time it was more like a crash, and instead of waking to hope it was falling into angst. My heart made its daily plummet.

Then I was up. Clothes, toothpaste, a cereal breakfast. My younger brother also woke at this time, and unlike me, he still maintained a smile on his face, still had spring in his step. Green vines surrounded my heart in a cage and squeezed. His euphoria was fake, was dirty, and was obscene. It was a tulip blooming in a barren wasteland.

I left my bowl in the sink and went outside. This helped with the noise problem a little. There was a lightness outside that couldn’t be found anywhere inside the house. The sky was so blue, so distant. I imagined that any sound made near the house would be carried off by the susurrus winds, only to be dispersed in all directions. Any noise would be indiscernible by the time it reached the wispy clouds, and altogether cease to exist once it reached the quiet void of space. There, the silence would only be punctured by the deafening beauty of the planets and the stars.

Under the scalding heat of the sun, I made my way to my neighbour’s porch and rang the doorbell. Most of the kids on the street were around my age, which helped to make my community close-knit. A disadvantage of this, of course, was that they all knew about what happened in my house. It was amazing they could believe that such loudness could come from human mouths, as it was a fact that I still had yet to fully comprehend. I was thankful they rarely brought up the subject. It was our, the whole neighbourhood’s, elephant in the closet, though to me a “closet”, even in a metaphorical sense, could never fully embody the presence the elephant had in my life and in those of the people around me. I could sometimes see it in slight gestures; a twitch of the ear, a pursing of the lips. Mostly, though, I saw it in their eyes: a look, no matter which lens it was conveyed through, made of the same mixed understanding, pity, and displeasure. It was what I saw in my teachers after they were told of my family situation. It was what I saw when my friends played games with me at school. It was what I saw when my friend opened his door presently and agreed to come outside. I often felt I would be condemned with this look for the rest of my life, and that scared me, in a way no child should be scared.

 We called out some other friends and decided to play baseball. We got a plastic bat from someone’s garage, and I went home briefly, as briefly as I could, to get a baseball from my closet. When I entered the house, all was silent. But it wasn’t a pure silence. It was heavy, foreboding, and not characterized by a lack of sound, but rather a foreshadowing of sound to come, like a rapidly receding waterline on a beach. There was peace because it was necessary, and because it offered a warning before the impending chaos. The receding waterline, however, in its false tranquility, always failed to mitigate the surging tsunami that came afterward. As if to emphasize this point, the objects in the closet suddenly lurched and toppled in a loud avalanche. I quickly closed the closet and went back outside, a dirty baseball in my hand. I felt both guilty and afraid for disrupting the long-awaited gift of silence.

            When the game began on the street, we were all smiles and laughs and excitement. Here, the only loud noises I had to worry about was the bang of ball on bat and our ardent cries, which were so filled with mirth and joy that they didn’t seem loud at all. Amidst our fervid screams and shouts, however, I heard the first signs of the storm. Derisive remarks were being traded inside the house, and it wasn’t their audibility so much as the intense rancour behind them that spoke volumes. My ears perked up, and I zeroed in onto the sources, the noises around me fading away. Gradually, my parents’ voices intensified, both physically and emotionally. The malice behind their words made me think of them not as invisible sound waves, but tangible attacks, spears tipped with venom and aimed towards opened wounds. I did not notice when it became my turn to swing the bat, nor did I hear the voice that told my friends to give me space and to continue with the game. I attuned myself more and more to the radio frequencies of my house, twisting the notches, jumping other frequencies. All else became white static.

            I found myself making an excuse to go home, and my friends watched me go with earnest stares. Not that I noticed them – by that time, no world existed other than that inside my house.

When I entered, it was chaos. Furniture was displaced in weird arrangements. Objects lay strewn on the floor. A force stronger than gravity pulled me down and made me stumble. All there seemed to be was noise, punctured only by new noise. It was so profound it was palpable, forming walls that kept me where I was standing, stopping me from advancing further. I turned to my imagination as I often did during that summer to make sense of the sounds, the loudness around me.

Alone on a boat, I was caught in a raging storm out in the open sea. Raging waves crested to magnificent heights around me and threatened to swallow me whole. The ship groaned under the merciless assaults of the waves, tipping, tipping. The sea roared, a bellowing beast in itself, loud and angry and implacable to convey its torment. Suddenly, a huge wave devoured the ship and I was submerged. My eardrums broke under the pressure, and I closed my eyes.

When I opened them, I was in a cityscape, modern, tall, and sprawling. The ground shook. The buildings shuddered under their vibrations, and I fell to the floor. Glass began to break and screech, the jagged shards embedding themselves into the ground around me. A building to my left heaved a massive groan and fissured, the tearing causing jagged teeth to form where it used to be whole. The whole building toppled, the ground continued to shake, and I, petrified with horror, folded myself into a foetal position.

I finally peered out of my womb to find myself now crouching in a battlefield where two armies viciously fought to the death. Bombs screeched in the sky, tanks and infantry scrunched the blood-soaked dirt, and bursts of gunfire reverberated in chaotic rhythms. Shouts of adrenaline and wails of suffering mixed into a constant, ambiguous roar, punctuated by the thunder of explosions. Poppies and tulips lay trampled in the undergrowth, broken and decaying. There were thuds when bodies fell, as the battleground is a place where hopes and dreams go to die and rot.

Abruptly, all noise stopped. Only ringing silence ensued. One sound had stood out above all the rest, bringing me back to the disarrayed house, the malicious voices. It was not the loudest, but it definitely was the most deafening.

Because at the center of the sound was my mom.


Fifteen years later, I still have yet to get over this sound and the soft thud that followed. I vaguely remember the events that came afterward – police, school, and decisions. My parents had, of course, divorced, and allowed me to choose who to live with. My brother and I both chose our mom. How could we not? It was ludicrous to even think otherwise.

During all this time, I could not bring myself to forgive my dad. No words could describe what he did; not even sounds, for that matter. In all the fighting that my parents did, they always kept it verbal, though the volume of their words, both physical and emotional, pushed the boundaries of the 6-letter word. My dad had cracked the sound barrier, and I carried this with me in every step. It was a piece of lead in my heart, small but with immense weight, and a muffler at the same time, one that reduced the scope of the world to bits and pieces of gray. Birds no longer chirped and pianos no longer played; they simply gave off sound. And this sound, to me, was all just white noise.

I never heard from my dad after the divorce, and it pained me that I had to learn of his death by letter. He had died in a car accident. When I first read it, I was speechless, and it was only after a long period of silence that I regained my composure and went on with my life, one step at a time.

The funeral was very formal. My regret overshadowed my anguish by leaping strides. During the whole event I felt like a guest, someone who didn’t know the person who had died and was only there because they were invited. My dad was probably too ashamed to contact us after what he did. I understood that. What I didn’t understand was why his shame was more important to him than his children.

So I was very surprised when I received something other than money from his will. Apparently he had wanted to give my brother and me something special; a parting gift, I suppose. The present was covered in white wrapping paper, with a small red bow on top. When we opened it, we found a case of glass. Inside this glass, neatly trimmed and preserved in vivid red, stood a single tulip.

 Outside, a bird chirped. It was beautiful.


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About the author: I am currently attending Pierre Elliot Trudeau High School in Markham, Ontario. I have been reading numerous books from a very young age, preferring works of fiction that depict worlds different but not completely unparalleled from my own. When I am not reading, I am writing, practicing trumpet, and playing tennis. I hope to make literature a part of my future career.
~Jim Xie


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