roald dahl – the sound machine (1949)

Kate Street - Orchis Nodulosa

Kate Street – Orchis Nodulosa

For a while longer, Klausner fussed about with the wires in the black box; then he straightened up and in a soft excited whisper said, “Now we’ll try again… We’ll take it out into the garden this time… and then perhaps, perhaps… the reception will be better. Lift it up now… carefully… Oh, my God, it’s heavy!”

He carried the box to the door, found that he couldn’t open the door without putting it down, carried it back, put it on the bench, opened the door, and then carried it with some difficulty into the garden. He placed the box carefully on a small wooden table that stood on the lawn. He returned to the shed and fetched a pair of earphones. He plugged the wire connections from the earphones into the machine and put the earphones over his ears. The movements of his hands were quick and precise. He was excited, and breathed loudly and quickly through his mouth. He kept on talking to himself with little words of comfort and encouragement, as though he were afraid–afraid that the machine might not work and afraid also of what might happen if it did. He stood there in the garden beside the wooden table, so pale, small and thin that he looked like an ancient, consumptive, bespectacled child.

The sun had gone down. There was no wind, no sound at all. From where he stood, he could see over a low fence into the next garden, and there was a woman walking down the garden with a flower-basket on her arm. He watched her for a while without thinking about her at all. Then he turned to the box on the table and pressed a switch on its front. He put his left hand on the volume control and his right hand on the knob that moved a needle across a large central dial, like the wavelength dial of a radio. The dial was marked with many numbers, in a series of bands, starting at 15,000 and going on up to 1,000,000. And now he was bending forward over the machine. His head was cocked to one side in a tense, listening attitude. His right hand was beginning to turn the knob.

The needle was travelling slowly across the dial, so slowly he could hardly see it move, and in the earphones he could hear a faint, spasmodic crackling. Behind this crackling sound he could hear a distant humming tone which was the noise of the machine itself, but that was all. As he listened, he became conscious of a curious sensation, a feeling that his ears were stretching out away from his head, that each ear was connected to his head by a thin stiff wire, like a tentacle, and that the wires were lengthening, that the ears were going up and up towards a secret and forbidden territory, a dangerous ultrasonic region where ears had never been before and had no right to be. The little needle crept slowly across the dial, and suddenly he heard a shriek, a frightful piercing shriek, and he jumped and dropped his hands, catching hold of the edge of the table.

He stared around him as if expecting to see the person who had shrieked. There was no one in sight except the woman in the garden next door, and it was certainly not she. She was bending down, cutting yellow roses and putting them in her basket. Again it came–a throatless, inhuman shriek, sharp and short, very clear and cold. The note itself possessed a minor, metallic quality that he had never heard before.

Klausner looked around him, searching instinctively for the source of the noise. The woman next door was the only living thing in sight. He saw her reach down; take a rose stem in the fingers of one hand and snip the stem with a pair of scissors. Again he heard the scream. It came at the exact moment when the rose stem was cut. At this point, the woman straightened up, put the scissors in the basket with the roses and turned to walk away.

“Mrs Saunders!” Klausner shouted, his voice shrill with excitement. “Oh, Mrs Saunders!” And looking round, the woman saw her neighbour standing on his lawn–a fantastic, arm-waving little person with a pair of earphones on his head–calling to her in a voice so high and loud that she became alarmed. “Cut another one! Please cut another one quickly!”

She stood still, staring at him. “Why, Mr Klausner,” she said, “What’s the matter?”

“Please do as I ask,” he said. “Cut just one more rose!”

Mrs Saunders had always believed her neighbour to be a rather peculiar person; now it seemed that he had gone completely crazy. She wondered whether she should run into the house and fetch her husband. No, she thought. No, he’s harmless. I’ll just humour him.

“Certainly, Mr Klausner, if you like,” she said.

She took her scissors from the basket, bent down and snipped another rose. Again Klausner heard that frightful, throatless shriek in the earphones; again it came at the exact moment the rose stem was cut. He took off the earphones and ran to the fence that separated the two gardens. “All right,” he said. “That’s enough. No more. Please, no more.”

The woman stood there, a yellow rose in one hand, clippers in the other, looking at him.”I’m going to tell you something, Mrs Saunders,” he said, “something that you won’t believe.” He put his hands on top of the fence and peered at her intently through his thick spectacles. “You have, this evening, cut a basketful of roses. You have, with a sharp pair of scissors, cut through the stems of living things, and each rose that you cut screamed in the most terrible way. Did you know that, Mrs Saunders?”

“No,” she said. “I certainly didn’t know that.”

“It happens to be true,” he said. He was breathing rather rapidly, but he was trying to control his excitement. “I heard them shrieking. Each time you cut one, I heard the cry of pain. A very high-pitched sound, approximately one hundred and thirty-two thousand vibrations a second. You couldn’t possibly have heard it yourself. But I heard it.”

“Did you really, Mr Klausner?” She decided she would make a dash for the house in about five seconds.

“You might say,” he went on, “that a rose bush has no nervous system to feel with, no throat to cry with. You’d be right. It hasn’t. Not like ours, anyway. But how do you know, Mrs Saunders”–and here he leaned far over the fence and spoke in a fierce whisper, “how do you know that a rose bush doesn’t feel as much pain when someone cuts its stem in two as you would feel if someone cut your wrist off with a garden shears? How do you know that? It’s alive, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Mr Klausner. Oh, yes and good night.”

Quickly she turned and ran up the garden to her house. Klausner went back to the table. He put on the earphones and stood for a while listening. He could still hear the faint crackling sound and the humming noise of the machine, but nothing more. He bent down and took hold of a small white daisy growing on the lawn. He took it between thumb and forefinger and slowly pulled it upward and sideways until the stem broke. From the moment that he started pulling to the moment when the stem broke, he heard–he distinctly heard in the earphones–a faint high-pitched cry, curiously inanimate.

He took another daisy and did it again. Once more he heard the cry, but he wasn’t sure now that it expressed pain. No, it wasn’t pain; it was surprise. Or was it? It didn’t really express any of the feelings or emotions known to a human being. It was just a cry, a neutral, stony cry–a single, emotionless note, expressing nothing. It had been the same with the roses. He had been wrong in calling it a cry of pain. A flower probably didn’t feel pain. It felt something else which we didn’t know about–something called tom or spun or plinuckment, or anything you like.

He stood up and removed the earphones. It was getting dark and he could see pricks of light shining in the windows of the houses all around him. Carefully he picked up the black box from the table, carried it into the shed and put it on the workbench. Then he went out, locked the door behind him and walked up to the house.

The next morning Klausner was up as soon as it was light. He dressed and went straight to the shed. He picked up the machine and carried it outside,clasping it to his chest with both hands, walking unsteadily under its weight. He went past the house, out through the front gate, and across the road to the park.There he paused and looked around him; then he went on until he came to a large tree, a beech tree, and he placed the machine on the ground close to the trunk of the tree.

Quickly he went back to the house and got an axe from the coal cellar and carried it across the road into the park. He put the axe on the ground beside the tree. Then he looked around him again, peering nervously through his thick glasses in every direction. There was no one about. It was six in the morning.He put the earphones on his head and switched on the machine. He listened for a moment to the faint familiar humming sound; then he picked up the axe, took a stance with his legs wide apart and swung the axe as hard as he could at the base of the tree trunk.

The blade cut deep into the wood and stuck there, and at the instant of impact he heard a most extraordinary noise in the earphones. It was a new noise, unlike any he had heard before–a harsh, noteless, enormous noise, a growling, low pitched, screaming sound, not quick and short like the noise of the roses, but drawn out like a sob lasting for fully a minute, loudest at the moment when the axe struck, fading gradually fainter and fainter until it was gone.


Excerpted from Roald Dahl’s short story, “The Sound Machine”, first published in The New Yorker on September 17, 1949.  Read the full story HERE.

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