The music notations on the cursed map looked innocent enough. They rose and fell in various scales and melodies. Samantha studied the notes for a few minutes. They appeared somewhat normal. The patterns did repeat several times in a looping fashion. She began to hum the music. The tune started slow and then escalated into a rising, more explosive melody of notes before falling quickly and returning back to the original slow rhythm. She hummed it several times.
Maybe she shouldn’t be doing this, she thought. How could music be dangerous, anyway. But it was catchy. She sung it again and again, letting it saturate her mind with its tune and rhythm. It didn’t have any words, but it looped around again and again her mind. After an hour or so, she could feel the music touch an area of her mind that she hadn’t experienced before. It was a dull pain in the back right side of her brain. The ache was increasing. She reached up to her head and squeezed it with both hands, applying some pressure to remove the pain.
As she applied pressure, the music intensified, getting louder, repeating the same tune over and over again. Why had she done this, she thought. Others had warned her about the danger of the music, yet she had not believed them. Their ideas seemed foolish. But it didn’t seem foolish now. As the music repeated again and again, it seemed to get louder each time. Louder and sharper, increasing the dull pain, which was now throbbing.
Samantha focused past the cursed tune and searched for the forest song. The string that has been wandering around on its own had quieted and moved to the background, but it was still there, faintly. She exerted all her effort to block out the curse and instead amplify the forest song. If she focused only on the forest song’s rhythm, she could bring it a little louder, more to the foreground. She focused one every note’s detail, picturing the notations in her mind one after another, each succeeding the other. It was working. The sound increased. It still was only half as many decibels as the curse, but her techniques were working.
Instead of pressing on the sides of her head, she lightly touched each pointer finger to the center of her forehead. It helped her focus. She kept her eyes closed and channeled her energy on the forest song’s rhythm. She was still controlling its rhythm, forcing its path. The curse had disconnected from her own conscious playing and was swirling around on its own, still thrashing about with a forceful momentum. Yet with the rise of the forest song, the dull pain started to subside. She caressed the notes in her mind with more energy. Little by little, the forest song began to play on its own. She had culled it up into a life of energy on its own, and its volume and intensity now matched the curse.
The dull pain in her head entirely subsided, and now the two strings began to interact with each other. The ribbons of song swirled into each other, playfully feeding off of each other’s movement. The sound wrapped and danced, rose and fell in a new harmony that wasn’t identifiable to either song on its own. It was like two dancers moving around each other on a stage. The two strands of music wrapped around each other and, over time, began to fall into a more similar beat. At first they weren’t in step with each other; the rhythms were syncopated and a bit out of control. But as they danced together, they started to unify, learning each other’s rhythms and footwork. As two practiced partners, the music looped together in perfect pitches, the notes blending to reach new notes and sounds. It was like two butterflies following the same figure eight patterns with grace and agility.
And at this moment, instead of a dull pain, Samantha started to feel a part of her mind glow. It was a warm glow that felt good all over, almost like a drug filling her body with a rush of endorphins. The part of her mind that felt aglow heightened something inside her. She opened her eyes and looked all around her. Though it was dark and without light, she could see the outline of everything in her tent, could see the shapes with perfect visual acuity.
She zipped down the door of her tent and poked her head outside. She looked up at the night sky, expecting to see thousands dots of bright twinkling light, but instead of tiny dots, the celestial bodies were thousands of large glowing orbs, filling the night sky like large softballs of brilliant light. And instead of a moonlight landscape surrounded by dark, the night was on fire with dozens of different colors. The colors ranged all over the spectrum. She could see patterns, wavelengths bouncing through the night air, like a great symphony of color and patterns.
She unzipped the tent and decided to wander again out into the night to see more. As she climbed out of the tent, Grandpa awoke. He tugged on Samantha’s leg right as she was stepping out.
“Samantha,” Grandpa said. “Where are you going?”
Losing her focus, the music started to fade in volume.
“I’m just getting some night air,” she said.
“I’ll come with you,” Grandpa said, sliding out of his sleeping bag and lacing up his boots. The music was fading away like a kite that has lost its energy and is slowly falling. Samantha stood outside, looking straight up at the fading orbs of light and the mixed colors in the night sky.
“I love nights like this,” Grandpa said, emerging from the tent. “When I was a boy, I used to go camping just for the night sky. Let me show you a few things.”
The music was now only a faint echo, and instead of large glowing orbs filling the sky with brilliant light, the sky had returned to a thousand shiny twinkling dots. The colorful spectrum had also mostly disappeared, changing back into the dark night. She could still see a few wisps of color floating about, like mists in the night, but they were fading into black.
Samantha stood in the night, silent, trying to absorb the last of the moment.
“When I got my first telescope, you couldn’t take it out of my hands. I was out here every night, trying to see some new star,” Grandpa said.
By the time he finished lacing his boots and stood beside Samantha, all the magic of the night had gone. The music had entirely disappeared, and it was perfectly quiet again. In the quiet of the night, the stillness, she could feel a heavy vapor in the air. She could feel it settling in the grass as a night dew.
“What drew me to astronomy,” Grandpa explained, “was the principle of light. You see all these stars. All we’re really seeing is patterns of light that existed millions of years ago. It’s like we’re looking out into the past, seeing the light from objects that escaped millions of years ago from these distant stars. Their distance is so great that, even traveling at the speed of light, it takes millions of years for the light to reach us.”
Grandpa hobbled with a stiff leg out to a nearby log and sat down. Samantha slowly walked behind him, sad that her experience had ended but fascinated nonetheless at what had happened.
“A lot of people say they want to go back to a time in the past,” Grandpa said. “But really, when you’re out at night, you’re looking into the past.”
“What?” Samantha said. “Is this one of your astronomy theories again?”
“It’s not a theory,” Grandpa said. “The light you see in most stars took millions of years to get here. Although light travels extremely fast, 186,000 miles per second to be exact, the stars are so far away, it has taken thousands, or even millions of years for the light to get to us. Who knows what’s really going on with those stars out there now. Some of the stars could have exploded, or fizzled. We won’t know for until millions of years from now, when the light that’s emanating from that star now makes its way through millions of miles of space over to us.”
Samantha liked Grandpa. He had his shortcomings, for sure. He snored, and was clumsy, and stubborn. But he knew a lot about the world. At night, sitting under the stars, everything seemed so complicated and beautiful to Samantha at the same time.
“I don’t suppose you have a plan to find the lost people, do you Sam?” Grandpa said. “I wonder what they learned from the stars, how that affected their society.”
“Grandpa,” Samantha asked. “If light travels 186,000 miles per second, how fast does music travel?”
“Music, like an orchestra? You mean sound? Sounds travels much more slowly. About one fifth of a mile per second. That’s why you see lightening long before you hear it.”
“Oh,” Samantha said. “But what about music in your head. Music that you hear but which doesn’t actually make a sound outside for others to hear.”
“Hmmm,” Grandpa said. “You’re talking about thoughts of music. In that case, I’m … not sure. Neurons send electrical impulses through your brain. It’s a kind of human electricity. In that case, it’s faster that sound, but slower than light.”
The two remained on the log for a while, just looking up at the stars. It was hard to understand how the stars could be so distant, so numerous. In the scope of the universe, Samantha couldn’t help but feel she was a speck, an inconsequential being. And yet, the music that she felt inside her filled her with tremendous emotion and a feeling of importance. She was part of something more than just herself. Wasn’t she?
Grandpa leaned over to Samantha. “Look, I love walking these woods and being with you on this adventure. But things might go sour quickly — if we run out of food, get hurt and trapped, or run into some animal who wants to eat us for breakfast. We need a plan, Sam. The map the people left. Was it helpful? Where did it say to go?”
“I wish I knew, Grandpa,” Samantha said. “It’s just a bunch of musical notes. I need some more time to figure it out.”
“Why don’t you let me take a look at that map?” Grandpa said. “Let me put on my thinking cap and give it a go.”
Samantha hesitated. She was reluctant to involve Grandpa in the map, for he would have endless theories about this and that, none of which ultimately prove helpful. She didn’t want to reveal what she had discovered earlier that night, because he would only think her crazy. And what had she ultimately learned anyway? It was something inside her she couldn’t understand or explain.”
In spite of her reluctance, she couldn’t put Grandpa off without offending him, and she didn’t have a better plan anyway. She retrieved the map from inside the tent and unrolled it. The moon and starlight was enough to light the map. Grandpa studied it with his academic gaze, looking at the various sections, resting his hand on his chin, and then looking at another section of the map. He turned the map and looked at it from another angle. Then he measured various distances and lines with his finger. He squinted at it and then held it farther away from his face.
Samantha knew he was putting on a show, trying to pretend some kind of intelligent analysis while in reality he didn’t know notes from ink splatters.
“Hmmm,” he said.
And a few minutes later. “Ahhhh.”
And then, “Hmmmm.”
And then, “Uhhhh.”
Samantha kept rolling her eyes. She looked up at the stars, trying to make sense of the glowing orbs she had seen. Grandpa continued squinting and measuring the map.
Finally, a look of astonishment came to his face.
“It couldn’t be this easy, could it?” Grandpa said.
Samantha felt a pang of excitement.
“You mean you have an idea?” she asked.
“Yes, I think I actually understand the map,” Grandpa said.
“Go ahead, then.” Samantha said, urging Grandpa. “Where does it say to go?”
Grandpa put the map on his lap for a minute and looked at Samantha. “When Harr mentioned that his people studied patterns in everything, including the stars, and that they also were passionate about music, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were taken in with the music of spheres.”
“Music of the spheres?” Samantha asked, sitting upright. “What’s that?”
“It’s one of the first ideas of astronomy. Basically, it’s the idea that music underlies everything. Legend has it that Pythagorus, an ancient Greek philosopher who lived at about 500 BC, found that notes in an octave were the exact ratios of whole numbers. An octave is a set of notes. Back in his time their octaves consisted of just five notes. Pythagorus was supposedly listening to blacksmiths pound out steel on an anvil. He noticed that the sound was directly related to the length of the metal they were pounding. He then experimented with some music strings. When he halved the string, the sound aligned perfectly with the next note. When he applied another whole number ratio, such as 2/3 the length, it again aligned perfectly with another note. And so on.
“The gist of his conclusion was to reinforce the idea of perfect ratios. Music shows us the divine ratios behind every pleasing thing. If you were to analyze the heavenly spheres, you would find the exact same ratios that we see present in music. Planet distances and rotations align perfectly with these whole number ratios that also underlie music.”
Samantha looked at Grandpa. “I can see that, but I don’t really get it.”
“The music is a stellar map, Sam. If you take only the notes that express whole number ratios, removing all of the other noise, you end up with a much simpler number of notes. Tracing the trajectory of these notes, they outline what appears most like the constellation Pisces. Pisces kind of looks like two swirling fish. And from our vantage point, Pisces is in the eastern sky. If I remember correctly, there is a small lake about 20 miles east.”
“Does that mean we walk east?” Samantha asked. His interpretation seemed quite far-fetched. The music of the spheres seemed strange and a bit confusing. Could it really be that simple? she doubted. But Grandpa had at least given her an interpretation, and she had nothing else to go on.
“Okay,” Samantha said. “Tomorrow we’ll walk east to the lake.”
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