We called our screamer Sonya, though not her real name of course, as such intimacies were not permitted. We kept her in the garage next to the Peloton, where she sat silent, gazing at an empty wall as if waiting for the cinema to begin. Head razored close to the skull, she was the ascetic monk of our suffering, devoted to our agonies. Seer, shaman, marionette of grief, she looked into our eyes and saw our godholes, our cancers and our caverns, our pasts bruised purpleblack, dead lovers lowered into the cold. And then she screamed.
The encounters were meant to be human, what they called instinctual in those days. The dead were piling up in our heads, and we had nothing left to say. Murdered nurseries of children, a missile to a church. What noise could one make? So we employed Sonya to look into our eyes and voice our horrors, to shape vowels around the unsayable. Our therapist said it might be useful, a screamer, to remember who we were, but my husband, Bob, thought Sonya odd. Our Manson girl, he called her, but I found her a terrible comfort, the sound of my miseries flowing through her throat, playing my suffering as her own.
It was Bob who found Stanley, our cat, on the side of the road, blood ribboned from his mouth. Outstretched as if leaping into permanent sleep. We had no children. Stanley was all we had. Fourteen years old, nuzzler, licker, dear friend. Sucker punched by grief, Sonya’s mouth became my instrument. I sat across from her in the garage, meeting her eyes, her vision tunneling into mine, and made her roar for days, nonstop, through the terrible sound hole of her mouth, something feral and hysterical, until she collapsed, her vocal cords shot, and withered to the floor.
Eventually, Bob warmed up to her. When he lost his best friend, Hal, to a heart attack, he was almost catatonic until I convinced him to give Sonya a try, and soon a low moan filled the house like a haunted mantra. For weeks, a constant simmering hum in the perfect pitch of grief. Bob exited the garage refreshed, almost beaming. He never wanted that sound to stop.
In our churches we sang “We Will Live in New Jerusalem” and “This World is Not Our Home,” hymns meant to solace us against our sorrows. Through glass meadows God saw our tears, the preachers said, but nothing felt as good as the screamers, that pure shock of sound that restarted our hearts. Our passion for the rapture dwindled, the promise of Christ’s return impotent in comparison to the noise we needed.
Soon all the neighbors had a screamer, storing them in laundry rooms, basements, where they sat still as milk, waiting for their time. They came in all volumes and tones: sharp fangs of sound, deep-throated drones. Many of us modified our models, installing small microphones directly into the adenoids to capture the scream in all its purity. Some even removed ribs for greater lung capacity, severing masticating muscles and scooping out uvulas.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but Bob and I became addicted to Sonya, needing her more than we needed each other. Supermarket massacres, group suicides, the world on fire? We made her scream. We began competing for her like a lover, sneaking away from dinner for a quickie, finding her zero-eyed in the dark for a ten-minute squall. We couldn’t get enough.
Things began to get strange. One morning I found Bob in his chair, fingers moving over his face like an infant trying to determine if he was real. Sometimes I cried for no reason. A nature show on the pilgrimmage of salmon, a perfect V of geese. Once I stopped at a yellow light while other cars continued through the red, into the future, and I sobbed. Sonya yipped and yapped like a small dog, twitched in quick spasms, followed by fits of weeping, murmurs, sudden floods from her eyes. What was breaking in us? Was it all too much? I wanted to care, but I had flat tires, bad bosses, strange pains in my side. Every day a new horror. At least Sonya got to feel, after all. Something we had forgotten how to do.
When the catastrophe happened, the one we had been waiting for all those years, we startled from our sleep. A noise from the garage. Sonya screaming, alone in the dark. We found her thrashing, mouth twisted, a wretched sound cave. But there were others, more screamers, a wounded opera of pain. Our neighbors, our city, our state. Then I felt a nausea, convulsions, volts to my brain. My jaws were thrown open, and I was part of it, too. I howled, Bob howled, in the machines of our grief, red-faced and bawling and gnashing our teeth. The earth’s nervous system red and inflamed. It was the song of the world gone terribly wrong. It went on for weeks, for months, for years. I screamed for the screamers, who were screaming for me.
Ryan Griffith’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Flash Frog, Flash Boulevard, New World Writing, Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions of 2012 and 2022, Best Microfiction 2023, and elsewhere. He runs a multimedia narrative installation in San Diego called Relics of the Hypnotist War.