There is a chaos to sound. And when played back within the peaks and valleys of one’s auricle, that sound can become even more lawless and fitful. I am not talking about a rock concert or an auto-show. I’m not talking about the muted haze that lingers after having danced in the club for all hours of the night. I am referring to the cacophony of life and death.
Let me take you back to an apartment fire:
It was late enough into the evening that the sun had long since tucked itself away on the other side of the world. The black canopy of night hung above our weary city and if searching hard enough, you may even see the twinkle of a watchful star or two. The call came in and we raced towards the scene of what would become the chaos orchestra.
The apartment was in the heart of the city’s downtown. Despite being nestled within a sprawling stack of beanstalk replicas, it was easy to find. From blocks away the naked eye could see an angry bloom of a boastful flame. So bright, that the stars retreated from view.
When we pulled up on scene, there was already an army of firefighters scurrying along the roadway and sidewalk. Hoses were being pulled and carried. There was a gaggle of watching curious on the other side of the street, mouths open and cameras out. A maddening modern impulsivity.
When we stopped the ambulance, that’s when I started to hear it all; the roar of a panicked people and the sinister hiss of an emerging fire. I withdrew myself from the constraints of my seatbelt and before exiting the passenger side of the truck, threw a purposeful glare towards the now towering inferno.
At first, I was greeted by faintly familiar senses—the sound of lamenting wood popping when cooked by heat, the sight of fire itself, the orange and marigolds of its mesmeric dance. But none of these things when contextualized with the backdrop of emergency are serene or comforting. For example, the heat emanating from the orange glow is not warm and inviting—it’s repulsively dense and thick. Flames no longer move poetically. They instead are likened to that of a snake’s tongue—licking spastically for oxygen. A fire’s desired delicacy. The sound an uncontrolled fire makes is demonic. Like Lucifer breathing through pursed lips. Like a bull before the charge. It can even feel like it’s raining, even on a clear night like the one described. This is the mist of those battling ravenous, vengeful flames. The wind carries the man-made rain and fuels the Devil’s burn.
You can hear whimpering and incredulous gasps escaping the newly homeless as they watch their world incinerate. The fire is so loud that it forces you to lean in when speaking or listening to anyone, yet the aforementioned sounds of those watching are arguably the loudest on scene.
Firefighters have historically done such an effective job at fire prevention and notification, that when a fire does break out, people are given a head-start towards escape. This means the scenes of a fire call are always overcrowded by the victims and the apathetically inquisitive. Tears compete with falling water during these times.
The other sounds that accompany this chaos, are that of the metallic voices breaking through our radios. Voices of firefighters, police officers and responding paramedics. News vans always make an appearance and they too bring a brash tumult with them. I have had a microphone shoved into my face whilst standing and talking on my radio about a possible DB (Dead Body). Needless to say, I’m no fan of the media.
And amidst all of that noise of idling engines, spewing waters, cried tears and uproariously shouted commands from those in battle, there is still another noise that trumps all—the hastened call over the radio for: “Man down. We found one inside. We need EMS now!”
Those utterances will suck the sound from the world and envelope you with a hush from all that surrounds you. And on that night, at that apartment, I received such a call. A man had been trapped inside the Devil’s playground.
When fire crews brought him to us, I was introduced to a new sound—the sibilant sizzle of a burning man. If you have ever had the misfortune of smelling singed hairs, imagine for a moment the repugnant stench of burning flesh, tissue, fat and even bone. This was the first thing to invade its way passed my lips and into the back of my unsuspecting throat. Something that I have never been able to duplicate, but when that happened, I tensed every single muscle and fiber within my medic’s body and refused to throw up.
Now, return with me to the present. Here we are, April 22, 2019. I have just awoken from a tortured unintended nap. I am in my apartment and yet I see, smell and taste smoke, flame and horribly burnt human flesh. Each time I breathe in, I feel as though I am sucking on the perfume of an untamed fire—smoke. This forces me to cough. And when I do, I bring my hands towards my face. But before I can allow for my head to rest within the cupped hands rising, I am halted. Strewn across the palms of my hands is a charred mess of human remains. A man’s flame kissed flesh. As clear as you see these words on the screen, I see the wounded discards of a ghost.
On the night of that fire I really did hold a man’s sloughing skin. He was so badly burnt that when we lifted him to our stretcher, his skin came off in my hands. That too, makes a sound. One I am not skilled enough to describe.
I try to move but I can’t. My body is frozen in-between the past and the present. Inside my aching medic’s mind, a war rages. Two voices; one commands that I stop and come back to myself. The other whispers remnants of what once was. It’s funny how sometimes a sinister whisper can silence a logical plea.
Eventually, I am able to move and when I do, I run to the bathroom. Once inside, I dive for the toilet. I demand that I vomit. I even place a finger inside of my mouth so as to induce such a request. But upon doing that, an introspective voice returns and coaches me with reminders that I am not tasting a burning man. That I am not stood outside of an uncontrolled angry flame. It starts to work, but then my palms begin to feel the sifting of skin and its heat. I retreat back to my bedroom and reach for my nightmare basket. I grab Ted. I feel his stitching, fabric and thread. I trundle my fingers atop of his marble glass eyes. I feel the cold of his plastic nose. I look at this simulacrum of a bear and recite what I am seeing. The smoke begins to clear. The noise begins to quiet.
There is a chaos to sound. And I have just told you mine.
Let’s be quiet for a while now, yeah?