By Noah Weisz
The old man sang in a whisper as he closed his eyes for the last time. “Oifn pripitchik brent a fayerl,” he said, “un in shtub is heys.” Weakly he reached out a hand. “Gedenkt-zhe, tayere . . .vos ir lernt do . . .”
With a tiny sigh, the breath left him.
Sarah watched his soul abandon his chest and float upwards like a soft white cloud of smoke from a chimney. A tear slid down her cheek as the soul vanished into the sky. Her burning hand gripped the old man’s cold one.
She didn’t know who he was. The man had been lying on the red-stained grass when she’d crested the hill, out of breath. He had asked for some water, so she had taken her bottle from her backpack and let him drink. Then he’d asked for her name. She had hesitated. He was a stranger, after all, and she was on the run. You could never be too careful these days. But she could see the terrible longing in his eyes, and at last she had told him. He’d made a brave attempt at a smile, his ancient face cracking into a thousand lines, like nearly-shattered glass. He had said, in his funny accent, “I will pretend you are named for my daughter.” Perhaps he had lost his mind.
Now he had lost his soul. She hadn’t imagined souls to be quite so wispy, so white. She hoped hers would be pink, whenever her time came, like the sunrise behind the mountains. Or maybe green, like the singing boy’s hair.
She didn’t know what to do. A few months ago, she would have run all the way home and told her parents about the man. Now, of course, that was out of the question. They’d surely already reported her. By now the police would be searching the whole village. She wondered how long it would take before they thought to look for her in the mountains.
And then, with a jolt, Sarah realized that sooner or later the police would find this man. This stranger, who was older by far than any human she had ever seen, older than nature usually allowed—certainly older than any of the stories she had ever been told, older than the history she was taught in school. He was practically from another world. They would string him up in the square, like they had done to the others whose bodies or minds held mysterious powers and arts. It didn’t matter that he was already dead. Either that, or they’d take him away to who-knows-where, like they’d started doing, now that there were too many to fit in the village square. She could imagine—in that strange way that she had, she could already feel—the gloves of the policemen tossing the man’s body into a cart like a sack of onions, feel the jostling, the clanking together of his teeth and the bobbing of his chin, as if it were her own body they were ruining. She couldn’t bear the thought.
The lake. That was the answer. She had to stop there anyway, and there was no time to think of another plan. Taking a deep breath, she placed her hands under the man’s arms and heaved him to his feet. Dizzily, she half-carried, half-dragged him across the grass, through the pine trees into the valley, and all the way to the lake.
It was a tiny body of water, no bigger than a small pond really, but so deep that the ancient pines still standing on the bottom were invisible from the surface. When Sarah reached the muddy bank she gently lowered the man and wiped her bloody hands on her pants. Then she whispered, “Come out, Isabella. Come out.”
The water began to ripple. Silently, a woman’s head broke through the surface. The woman swept her long black hair out of her face, smiled, and said, “I’m so glad to see you, my dear. Is everything all right?”
“No, Isabella. I was with a boy, this boy with green hair, and he needed help—”
“—and they caught me.”
“Oh, no, no,” she said, turning white. “Please don’t tell me. Are they after you?”
“I think so, and—”
“You have to hide! These trees here, they’re thick, I’ll help you—”
“No, it’s not safe, Isabella. I have to get to the border. I was coming to tell you, but then I saw this man.”
“What?” Isabella said sharply, as if nothing but escape could possibly matter now. Then she saw the body on the shore, and her face went even paler. “Where did you find him?”
“On the grass, up there. He wanted some water.”
Isabella was silent, as though debating whether to say something important. “He’s dead?”
“I saw him die myself.”
“Oh, Sarah, what happened?”
“He told me he fell down and cut his head, but I don’t know.”
“Oh, dear . . . this is very, very bad.”
Sarah frowned, unsure what Isabella meant, and with no time to even think about it. “Can you just keep him safe for a while?” she said. “The police will be coming this way soon. I don’t want them to find him.”
“Yes, yes, you’re absolutely right. This is urgent. Give him to me.”
Sarah pushed him down the bank as delicately as she could and Isabella reached out to haul him in. “There, easy now . . .”
The old man hit the lake with a terrible splash. “Stay here,” Isabella said to her, then disappeared underwater with the man. When she resurfaced a moment later, he was gone.
“Thanks,” said Sarah. She realized her cheeks were wet again, but she told herself it was because of the spray. “I have to get going.”
“What? I really have to leave.”
“Aren’t you going to say goodbye?”
She couldn’t help it; the tears flowed freely now. “No, no, because I’ll see you again, I know I will . . . . I have to now, because we still have to bury him, right? I’ll come back. Maybe in a couple weeks, a couple months, I don’t know. Eventually it’ll be safe, right?”
“Oh, my darling, come here.”
Isabella reached her long arms out of the water and gave Sarah a cold, wet hug. Sarah closed her eyes. If only she could hide in the lake, like Isabella had done. If only she could live there with Isabella and the old man, everything would be all right.
Evening came too quickly. Sarah wasn’t ready for darkness; she had surely not gone far enough. The moon shone weakly behind shapeless clouds; the narrow path in front of her was visible, but only just. She should never have forgotten her flashlight—but she’d had so little time to prepare. She’d known her sister was looking for her, to ask her what had happened to all the missing bread and cheese, but still when she’d burst into the barn it had taken Sarah completely by surprise. Sarah hadn’t even finished telling the green-haired boy goodbye.
At last she dropped her backpack on a bed of pine needles, hidden between bushes. It didn’t matter how close she was to the border in the east. She was exhausted from the climb and she had to rest. She took out her blanket, wrapped it tightly around her body, and lay down. But she knew almost immediately that it was hopeless. The breeze was picking up, rattling the branches overhead. An owl kept hooting and something was rustling in the leaves nearby. Her thoughts swirled, reminding her of things she wanted only to forget.
What terror she had felt, when she saw the green-haired boy for the first time. He had emerged from the western forest and she knew instantly, with that inexplicable certainty she often felt, that he was alone, that he was afraid, that he had lost almost more than he could bear. He was one of the unluckiest: his difference, unlike Sarah’s, was evident on the outside. She didn’t know what powers he had, but she knew he had them, and everyone else would know too. What a fool, she had muttered—he probably thought he was coming to safety here. He didn’t realize that the fear and the hatred and the silence had taken over this village too. That soon, everyone here would be the same.
But her fear for his life had been mingled with something else. As she fed the horses, she had watched him walk down the trail, his green hair radiant in the dawn. He was probably around fourteen, her own age. And he was singing softly, both to the world and to himself, as though for comfort—as though he felt things more acutely than the people she knew, was aware of every whisper in the grass around him and was trying to gather them into his song as a sort of protection. How overwhelmingly beautiful it had been, to see something so different. How could she have not felt the sharp, sweet pain of wanting?
So she had hidden him in the barn. One day. Two days. Three days. And then, of course, her sister had to choose the worst possible moment—the moment when Sarah had finally gotten up the nerve to kiss him—for her to throw open the door and scream.
She had jumped backward. The fear for her own safety hadn’t registered at first—all she could do was push the boy out the back door with the food she had given him. He ran for the mountains, toward the border, as she had told him to. Her sister didn’t give chase; she seemed paralyzed with shock. But Sarah knew from the look on her face. It was only a matter of time before she told.
Years before, on a snowy morning, an abandoned bear cub had wandered into the village. Within ten minutes it had been shot by a group of teenagers for sport, or fear, or both. Sarah had almost fainted; she couldn’t understand how no one else had seemed to feel the hollow weight of the bear’s great hunger pressing inside, the puzzled, lonely ache that was the bear’s search for its mother. Isabella had told her then, when she ran to her: told her that she—plain, ordinary Sarah—saw things, heard things, felt things in a way that no one else in the village did, at least not anymore. Never tell anyone, she had told her in a hush. You must not stand out. And so she hadn’t.
But now—now it no longer mattered if anyone knew she was different. Now she’d been seen with one of them—seen helping the boy escape. Her father would not protect her; hadn’t she seen the proud smile on his face as he buttoned up his police uniform for the first time? Hadn’t she sensed his urgent desire to prove himself utterly loyal?
There was no choice. It was head to the mountains or die.
She jerked upright and bumped her head against a branch. She was never going to fall asleep. She stuffed her blanket in her pack and zipped it up. Then she threw the backpack over her shoulders, took a breath, and starting climbing again.
It was getting so windy and cold that she was sure the top was near when she heard something strange. Something too flat, too perfectly rhythmic.
Yes, now she was sure of it: steady footsteps crunching leaves and snapping branches and sending shivers of terror down her spine.
A searchlight swept the mountainside. Sarah ducked behind a rock and waited for the beam to pass. Then she leapt out, fell to the ground, and slithered toward the shelter of the bushes. Her pounding heart drowned out the sound of the crunching for a moment and when the searchlight pierced the night for the second time it seemed much too close.
A shout rang out. Sarah gasped in horror. She’d been spotted.
Frozen, she tried desperately to think. But the crunches and yells and swinging shafts of light exploded in her brain and all that survived the impact was a single word: Run.
She sprang to her feet like a deer. The wind howled savagely across her face as she tore through the trees, stifling her breath and making her dizzy. Still she ran. It was getting so cold. Her mind seemed to detach from her throbbing head, her body from her gathering, condensing soul . . . pink or green. She’d soon find out. If only she could rest.
She staggered to a stop at the edge of a cliff, gasping for air. She had lost all sense of time and direction. As she sank to her knees she thought she heard a voice singing, but then all was quiet.
And then, gradually, she became aware of a smell. A faint but pungent scent, carried furtively into her nostrils by the wind. Slowly it penetrated deeper and deeper and breached her brain, filling her with clouds of its poison. With each gust it grew stronger, until it enveloped her completely, clenching her in a fist of air, squeezing out of some corner of her mind the primal understanding of what it was.
She looked over the canyon to the other side of the cliff and saw a line of long, low brick buildings, one of which had a chimney. Out of the chimney rose a thin column of smoke.
Sarah felt like she was being strangled. Covering her nose and writhing in agony she fell on her back and, quite by accident, rolled over the edge of the cliff.
Her scream was swallowed by the wind. As she hurtled downward toward her death all she could think of was the strange, beautiful boy and how she had saved him from coming to this place. She closed her eyes and tried to remember how it had felt to touch him for the first time . . . .
With a shattering smash she made impact and it was only when she was deep within it that she realized she had landed in a lake. As the water filled her chest and tried to end her second chance at life, Sarah felt something dragging her up to the surface.
She broke through into the cold night air and gulped oxygen into her burning lungs.
“Oh my God, oh my God,” someone was sobbing. And even through the wall of water in her ears Sarah recognized that voice. The most beautiful sound in the world.
“Isa—bella,” she gasped.
“My girl,” Isabella said, stroking her dripping hair and cheeks.
“Thank you,” Sarah barely managed to whisper.
Isabella carried her to the opposite edge of the tiny lake and Sarah climbed onto the muddy grass, coughing and shivering. For a long time she sat there, holding Isabella’s hand.
Finally Sarah asked, “How did I even get back here?”
“You must have run in a circle. Were they chasing you?”
“Oh, my darling, my brave little girl . . . When I heard that splash and saw you go down, my heart nearly stopped, I swear.”
“They’re burning people up there, Isabella.”
“Up there.” She pointed. “There’s this smell coming from a building. It’s the smell of people burning.”
“I know it. I can tell. It’s…the most awful thing you can imagine, Isabella. It’s like—”
“No, Sarah, it’s not possible.”
“It is. I can just feel it. It’s like I’ve always known that smell.”
Now Isabella was frantic. “I didn’t think it had gone this far.” Her ageless face had turned pale. “Has everyone truly forgotten?”
“Forgotten what?” said Sarah. Her voice shook and sweat was forming on her forehead, despite the cold.
“I thought it was impossible. You and me, all of us, we’ve failed. . . .”
“Please, Isabella! Tell me!”
Suddenly Isabella let go of Sarah’s hand and plunged into the depths of the lake.
“Wait!” Sarah cried. The ripples vanished and Sarah felt more alone than she’d ever felt before.
But then Isabella was back, breaking through the surface with something in her arms. Sarah gasped when she saw the old man. Isabella had been protecting his body; he looked just as peaceful, as human, as breathtakingly sad as ever.
Isabella lay him down on the water and motioned for Sarah to lean closer.
Sarah’s heart was beating madly again. Isabella grasped the left sleeve of the old man’s tattered shirt and lifted it to his elbow. Carved into his spotted skin in small green writing, just legible in the moonlight, was the number 483759.
Sarah’s breath caught in her throat and her ears rang. She didn’t know what the tattoo meant but, in that strange way of hers—empathy, Isabella had called it, or something like that—she could hear, across a gaping span of years, the echo of his screams.
“My child,” said Isabella, “You must set off again, I know. But first, I must tell you something. It can’t wait any longer—it’s already too late. Your grandparents should have told your parents, your parents should have told you, and I’m guilty too, safe here in my lake. . . . There are things we choose to forget, Sarah, and things that fade unexpectedly as a result. Perhaps only you can still understand the story of what happened. This man was the last witness. With him, history has died.”
It was at that moment that the music began.
From far above them, on top of the cliff, the distinct sound of an orchestra burst into the darkness. It was playing some kind of marching tune, jovial and triumphant, riding on a brass melody and pulsing to a strapping drumbeat. But as Sarah listened, the melody seemed to melt away, leaving only the endless throbbing drum. The beat seared itself into her mind—One two three four, one two three four—until she heard a deliberate lilt, the faintest unevenness, the barest hint of rebellion. . . . Until she got that familiar shiver and she could see what the drummer was seeing—a man in a uniform rising from a chair, approaching him—feel what the drummer was feeling—a twisting terror like a beast in his chest—listen to the pounding of his heart and sense her heart matching its beat.
And then the music stopped. As Sarah’s mind spun out of control she didn’t notice the first pink rays of sunlight peeking over the top of the cliff. All she could see was the fading image of the drummer, walking limply toward a lump of dirt on the ground and carrying a shovel, forcing a smile onto his emaciated face, turning toward the uniformed man, and taking a slow, quivering bow. Then the picture exploded into nothingness as a single shot rang out.
Her head tilted up. At once she saw a small white cloud drift up into the lightening sky and a whirling object come plummeting down toward the ground. Without thinking, Sarah jumped to her feet and caught it. The impact made her knees buckle and she collapsed into the mud. When she looked at the object in her hand, she saw it was the shovel—rusted and filthy, but strangely warm—and she suddenly knew she would carry forever the weight of that shovel, even if she made it through the mountains to freedom. It seemed to demand something, some homage to the drummer, a sign that he hadn’t died entirely in vain—or at least, some faint recognition of the vastness of the failure she was only beginning to understand. She glanced at the body floating serenely in the lake, then clambered to her feet and began to dig.
Noah Weisz wrote “Echo” while attending the University of Chicago. He graduated in 2012 with a B.A. in English and a minor in biology, then traveled to Far North Queensland, Australia to research and write a draft of an upper-middle-grade/lower-YA adventure novel set in the beautiful Australian Wet Tropics. While there, he worked at James Cook University as a research assistant in environmental education, camped in the tropical rainforest as part of a biological fieldwork team, coached a school chess club, and volunteered as a farmhand/maintenance worker. He currently lives in the Washington, D.C. area.