Sunday, September 18, 2016

Vignettes by Me, on Themes Picked Randomly: Day 18

Theme 646: Signs

On the first night, at 1:17 AM, a high screaming whistle blared across the town of Ipswich in four distinct intervals of increasing length, followed by a deep but rapid series of knocks that shook window panes and set off three car alarms. The old widower Elton Dunne’s sheepdog began howling incessantly as a result, while the McCullers’ dobermans barked and yapped themselves into a frenzy. The light on Judge Lear’s porch went on, as did the light on Maggie Carroll of Maggie’s Sweet Treats’ porch across the street, and both Maggie and the Judge emerged from their front doors wearing nightgowns and bearing shotguns. Sheriff Calvino, in response to a deluge of calls from familiar voices, spent the next two hours roaming the perimeter of the roughly four square mile town of 1,717 residents with her fourteen inch Maglite throwing its beam across trim lawns, unlit neon signs, empty lots, and open fields. She found no indication of what had made the noise.

On the second night, at exactly 1:17 AM again, the high screaming whistle returned, in the same four intervals, followed by the same resounding series of low knocks, which resembled the cachinnation of a malevolent gibborim. This time, a number of Ipswichians were awake and ready to test out their theories about what the mystery sounds might be. Kenneth Virgil, a journalist and local radio personality, had recording equipment slung around his neck and was holding out a pair of cardioid condenser mics attached to a boom to capture the aural visitation in richer detail; he believed the sounds were caused by low flying secret experimental aircraft, and he wondered if the government could be held accountable for these disruptions. Victoria Ballard, the proprietor of both the Ipswich Cineplex and the Ipswich Pup & Grill on Main Street, had convinced herself, and had half-convinced the circle of friends and neighbors she had invited to listen on the Pup & Grill’s deck, that the phenomenon was a deliberate message of extraterrestrial origin, sent to Ipswich by beings from a distant star, and that it only needed to be properly decoded to be understood. She had even put in a call to an observatory at a university in a neighboring town. The graduate student there assured her that they would look into it. The two longtime friends Dr. Allen Ibsen, a general practitioner at Ipswich Clinic, and Walter Poe, the science teacher at Ipswich High, both believed that the sounds were of much more mundane, terrestrial origin, but they differed vigorously over the exact nature of this origin. Dr. Ibsen believed that the whistles and knocks were coming from malfunctioning equipment at a lumber mill up on a nearby mountain and were carried down through an acoustic resonance effectwhereas Walter Poe reasoned that since the water table had been unusually high that year, the sounds must have been caused by air escaping from previously dry rock formations around Eemian Lake as the water cooled. Walter won the coin toss the friends staged, and so the two spent the night on lawn chairs next to a cooler full of beer on the bank of Eemian Lake to see if Walter’s theory was correct. None of these theories, however, could either be confirmed or discounted definitively by the evidence gathered by the Ipswichians that night.

On the third night, more than half of the town was awake at 1:17 AM, waiting for the return of the whistles and knocks, grouping in their back yards or in the cement lot outside the Pup & Grill or on quilts laid out in Cold Creek Park. One national news outlet had even run a short piece on the event, fueling further speculation. This time, however, 1:17 AM came and went in silence. Nor did the phenomenon return on subsequent nights. And neither the meaning nor the origin of the signals (if that is indeed what they were) has since been discovered.

Explanatory Postscript: When I say “picked randomly,” I mean picked from a Master List that I’ve compiled of 999 themes intended to serve as creative writing prompts (from the following sources: 501 Writing Prompts; 25 Creative Writing Prompts; Examples of Themes; List of Themes; 365 Creative Writing Prompts; 100 Themes Challenge Writing Prompts; List of Journal Ideas; and Top 10 Types of Story Themes). To pick a theme at random, I roll three ten-sided dice (the first for the hundreds place digit, the second for the tens, and the third for the singles) and find the theme under the number I have rolled. If I hit a theme I have already written on, I roll again. If I ever roll 000, I make up a theme. The Master List is a secret, so don’t ask for it.

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