This Saturday, Zihao woke up and kept his eyes closed to let the sound in. Trained on the four tones of his native Mandarin language, Zihao’s ears could pick out the subtlest shades in a welter of everyday noises and reconstruct the world before he even saw it. Out of habit, he divided the audio input into channels, like those on a sound mixer at the game studio.
Channel one, muffled shrieks behind the wall. Easy, that’s his roommate practicing taekwondo. Channel two, a heated argument in German with a strong Turkish accent. That would be the kebab place downstairs. Channel three, a distant sound of Wagner poking through the traffic hum of Warschauer Straße. Hmm. Inexplicable, but nonetheless annoying.
He imagined pulling the faders of each channel down to mute all input until he came across an intrusive jingling that refused to be faded. His phone.
Zihao opened his eyes, rummaged for the device on the floor, and slid the green circle to the right.
“Uh-huh,” he said.
The speaker chattered in a high-frequency female voice, “Lina from Marketing – tonight – karaoke – my birthday – see you there,” and lapsed into short beeps.
Zihao groaned and sat up. Saturday was for sleeping into the afternoon, gaming, sneaking down for a kebab, and doing other magnificent nothings. It wasn’t for going out with colleagues after a week of endless recording of that blood-chilling creak of the ghoul ship for the new shooter.
His door slammed open, and his roommate sauntered inside with an exquisite multilayered sandwich in his hand.
“Didn’t they teach you to knock, Aaron?” Zihao groaned and closed his eyes again. The sight of sandwich reminded him how hungry he was.
“It’s an emergency,” Aaron said, slurping an onion ring. “Tell me the word for ‘cute’.”
“I mean, teach me to say it. Imagine if I get the tones wrong and say the opposite thing.”
Zihao chuckled and shook his head.
Silence ensued; chomping followed as Aaron savored the next bite.
“She sent me a pic of her dog,” he went on, “I’ve got to reply something.”
Zihao peeked at him. “Is it really cute?”
“A horrid, goggle-eyed rat,” Aaron confessed. “So, how’s ‘cute’ in Chinese?”
Zihao shuddered and opened his eyes.
“Keep practicing.” He sprang to his feet and went to the bathroom to get a few minutes of peaceful staring into space.
Outside, Aaron repeated “kě’ài” several times, never getting it right, of course. After a while, he set off to record a voice message to his girlfriend in Chengdu.
Zihao sighed. Most people he met here in Berlin weren’t apt with their sounds. Europeans never bothered that words came out of their mouths sloppily intoned, flat, and miserable. That was precisely why karaoke was a terrible idea. Especially this Western-style one, with an open-stage performance in front of strangers.
He returned to his room. Aaron was still there, perched on the edge of his bed. He reported happily, “She says my Chinese is charming. You know, she’s totally into this new series, Sushin-shashen, or something. Isn’t it the one with your song?”
Zihao froze. “Come again?”
Aaron mumbled something that in his opinion resembled a Chinese phrase and shoved his phone under Zihao’s nose. “This one.”
The past stuck its cold, slimy fingers between Zihao’s ribs. He remembered endless rehearsals in a stinky garage on the outskirts of Nanjing, recurring arguments with his band, stabbing pangs of chronic gastritis, and of course, the lovely, cosmic-black eyes of Yueqin.
“Yep, I know your dark past.” Aaron leaned back on the bed, grinning. “Or did you think I’d rent a room to a random guy without googling him first?”
He continued, dreamily, “One of your hits even ended up on TV. Well, technically it isn’t your hit anymore — that smug-faced movie lead took it over. You’re just a songwriter, mentioned in the credits.”
Zihao stretched his mouth into a razor-sharp smile.
“Get the hell out of my room.”
“What I don’t understand,” Aaron continued, unabashed, “is why would anyone trade the career of a musician for this boring, nerdy game stuff you are doing now.” He eyed the room woefully.
Aaron shrugged, stuffed the last bit of the sandwich into his mouth, and made his exit. Zihao plopped on the bed and gritted his teeth. Yueqin. It was her song, of course – an airy, spotless melody, the one that finally brought his name before the eyes of big producers. The one that even made it to the Global Chinese Pop Chart. The one that was his best, Yueqin said, and then casually added she was leaving him.
A wave of numbing desperation descended upon Zihao. He couldn’t bring himself to sing again. His band fell apart. His music career crumpled. Left without air, without a voice, he fled to Europe to do the boring, nerdy game stuff. By the time a major Beijing TV network bought the rights for this song, his name was long forgotten. The big producers put his words and notes, his bare soul, into the mouth of that smug male lead. The song was now all ironed down and terrifyingly popular.
Zihao closed his eyes to get distracted by the sounds. His stomach growled; it was time to go down for a kebab and get ready for the bloody karaoke.
Two weeks ago
Alyssa bit her nail and hummed the motif deep in her throat, as low as she could, hoping it would be lost in the usual bickering of the editorial meeting. A couple of days ago, she heard this song in an ad for a Chinese drama series and couldn’t stop humming it ever since.
A sudden silence yanked Alyssa out of her thoughts. The bickering had waned, all eyes were now on her, while the song came out of her mouth, now loud and clear.
“Entertainment, what have you got?” the editor-in-chief barked.
Alyssa opened her blank notepad and blurted, “How about Chinese dramas?”
“What does it have to do with our audience?” The editor-in-chief snapped his metal pointer on the poster of Those Old Times: A Number One English-Language Newspaper for Senior Berliners. “Where have you been? Next, Politics.”
“Sorry,” Alyssa exhaled. This melodic possession had to be cured if it was going to disrupt the drudging routine of her life like that.
She tried her best but couldn’t bring herself to stop humming the motif for the rest of the day. The annoying song seemed to settle more comfortably inside her head. Spread on an imaginary couch, it was sipping a cocktail and grinning at her.
Snuggled on her own couch, Alyssa went online and found the title of the song, lyrics, and all the drooling praise it received. Meanwhile, the song brought an imaginary bookstand into Alyssa’s head and started humming itself, wiping the shelves and putting its books and photo frames there.
On impulse, Alyssa decided to dust her shelves, too. She sorted through the books she had a habit of picking up in the coffeeshops back in Glasgow and here in Berlin. She always chose the weirdest books available to give the strange volumes a second chance to be read and appreciated. It’s no surprise therefore that the titles ran, Twenty-Seven Recipes for a Most Outrageous Date, An Odyssey into Voodooism, and Express Yourself: An ultimate guide to karaoke.
That last one made Alyssa ponder for several minutes. Then she dropped the dust cloth and jumped to her feet: she knew how to chase the song away from her head! What stood between now and then was some self-expression and an insignificant matter of the Chinese language.
The Chinese language came in squared squiggles and unearthly sounds. The words rustled and chirred, dropped into a low drone and climbed back up to a whizz. At times, they wandered off into such ranges that would be considered outright inappropriate in any Western language. Chinese was unruly and discomfiting, and yet there was an ethereal melodic quality to it.
Alyssa hired a Chinese teacher in far-away Shanghai. After two weeks of pre-work pronunciation sessions, the sound of Chinese started to settle in Alyssa’s head along with the song. Together with the sounds, she picked up several characters and now drew them in her notepad during the editorial meetings. Gradually, the song gained shape. Some of the words would still baffle her, but mostly she got them right, to her (and her teacher’s) great surprise. She was ready for the melodic exorcism.
At nine p.m. sharp on a certain Saturday, clad in a long dress of the most outrageous shade of green, Alyssa stopped in front of a sign “KARAOKE NIGHT” and revised all four tones of Chinese language. The bouncer eyed her suspiciously, checked her bag, found nothing of interest, and let her inside.
She ordered the song and turned to study her audience. It was lively, relaxed and multicultural: there were Germans, gargling something in their peculiar language, flocks of American girls, all expressive and sparkling and confident, a group of shy game developers in glasses and skinny ties, and other, less obvious folks.
Her name was called out. After a split second of a cold, nasty hesitation, she jostled through the crowd towards the stage. Once in the spotlight, Alyssa, closed her eyes, caught the wave of the short intro and started.
Zihao didn’t expect such a blow. For a couple of minutes, he just fumbled with his skinny tie and stared at the weird woman in a green dress who was singing a motif he knew suffocatingly well.
He caught himself listening out for the English words, but it dawned on him slowly that those were severely mutilated Chinese ones instead. Every syllable had a wrong tone, every note was either too flat or too sharp. The mishmash of sounds that she plastered his song into made his chest ache; and yet, deep inside that chest of his, Zihao was surprised to find a speck of joy.
The woman was sinking; she clearly overestimated her abilities. He jerked forward and stopped, shrugged and headed to the exit, cursing this day, this woman, his song, Lina from Marketing and her birthday. Midway he paused, spat, and hurried towards the stage.
The crowd was puzzled. Chinese songs were definitely exotic here. The stage went blurry in front of Alyssa and the crowd merged into one sticky mass. She was suddenly very aware — an icy-trickle-down-her-spine aware — that one just can’t learn Chinese pronunciation in two weeks.
The rhythm skipped forward; her Chinese words skidded and fell on their face. All tones clashed together into an indistinguishable mess. She stumbled, disconcerted. The crowd sniffed her insecurity and ebbed a little. So did Alyssa’s self-confidence, but right there, at its lowest ebb, a disembodied male voice interfered.
It picked up the line that she dropped and gave it a gentle impulse to place it exactly where it needed to be. The voice kept at it, assertively, with the perfect pronunciation of a native. The Chinese words scrambled to their feet and resumed their dance.
Timidly, Alyssa followed the voice, as it skipped lightly along with the song, so effortlessly as if it were specifically made to fit it. As she gained confidence, the voice retreated, leaving her more space to fill with her sound.
The last verse came out delightfully dynamic, and the crowd finally caught the rhythm, swarmed forward and started clapping along. Alyssa carefully laid the last note on the air and let it drift slowly towards the crowd. After the pause that it took for the note to span that gap, the audience exploded.
Surrounded by applause and catcalls, Alyssa bowed. She searched for the owner of the voice in the darkness at the edge of the stage, in vain, and made a beeline to the bar.
At the bar, she savored a blueberry shot. She broke the vicious circle! The song marched out of her head, leaving a nice, empty space there, which now started to fill with pleasant haze as the shot did its deed. Somebody climbed the stool beside her. It didn’t matter. The annoying motif was gone, cheers to that.
Zihao had a hard time coming up with a line. He regarded the woman. She was too tall, too gaudy, but she radiated such strong, invincible energy that it tickled him. He couldn’t let her go without knowing why on earth she sang his song in the karaoke in the center of Berlin. That brought him back to the line.
The woman hopped off the stool.
Could’ve done better with the line.
“Why did you choose that song?” he asked.
She beamed at him. “Had to spill it out, I guess. It was stuck with me for too long. Was it you back there on the stage?”
Zihao blushed. He wanted badly to explain himself, to tell her how terrible she was that he had no choice but to intervene. Instead, he gave her a stupid smile.
The woman cocked her head, waiting.
“I couldn’t let you destroy this song,” he blurted.
Her smile vanished. “Pardon me?”
“You see, I’m the one who wrote it. Couldn’t bear to hear you rip it apart.”
She straightened. “If you are not familiar with the concept of karaoke, it is your problem. I’m allowed to fail as much as I please, as long as I enjoy it.”
The woman turned on her heels and left.
Zihao stared into space for several moments. He was miffed, or even appalled, he told himself. And yet —
(“What are you smiling about?” asked Lina from Marketing, tapping him on the shoulder.)
— and yet, there was a wild avalanche of liberation that had approached him stealthily and possessed him. A liberation from what, he didn’t know yet, but he said, “Give me just a moment,” and rushed out of the bar.
He saw the green dress disappear around the corner and in a minute, caught up with the woman. Her taste in clothes wasn’t that bad. She was even attractive in her own way, especially now when her rich black hair fell down her indignant shoulders.
She gave him a cold look.
“I apologize,” he panted. “I didn’t mean it. Please forgive my bad choice of words.”
“Fine,” the woman shrugged and sauntered forward.
He hurried after her.
“I was wondering… The sounds of your life, what are they like?”
She paused, surprised.
“Intrusive. Jolly. Bizarre,” she finally said. “And at times they just keep hanging there, when you want them long gone. Like your song.”
“How do you manage to get them out?”
She stared at him. “You just saw it.”
“Oh,” he paused respectfully. “In the future, you can just pull the faders down. You know? Those sliders on the sound mixer.”
She shook her head. “Not sure it would work. Then I’ll mute everything else and get in trouble again at the meetings.”
“You won’t — you just need to mute certain channels, you see…”
As he walked by this curious creature, speaking his own language of sound, a sparkling happiness filled the space in his chest, a space where his song had been gnawing him all those years, and now that song was gone.
Alya Demina is an LA-based author of imaginative fiction. Coming from linguistics and video game development, she loves to explore what happens at the intersection of the mind and technology and turn it into her eerie sci-fi tales. Find her on her website, alyademina.com.