music and prose. your response becomes the prompt.
#1, Jan 1, 2021
My Bone Flute
Apparently, the oldest musical instrument made by humans, is a flute. Five holes and a little mouthpiece, carved from the bone of a vulture. I wonder what it sounded like, if it was used to warn people, or for music. If there was a trio, or a quartet in a cave somewhere, huddled around a fire, improvising. The flute was 34 cm long. That's the size of an adult woman's tibia.
Are you looking down at your leg right now? I am.
Violin strings were made with the small intestines of sheep, they sometimes still are. The intestines are soaked in water and left to decompose, then scraped of fat and mucus and split into long, silky ribbons. They are then stretched out on metal pegs to dry and twirl, dry and twirl, turning a stiff yellow. When they're done, they're snipped to the right length and slotted into little envelopes for nimble fingers to pluck and tune. Human small intestines are about seven meters long. Seven meters of thin, slippery tubing wrapped up inside of me. All that potential just sitting there.
I went for dinner with a friend the other day. As she sucked the sweetness from her chicken wings, I told her that jaws were once used as instruments. Horse and donkey, mostly. A stick would be scraped across the teeth, the two rattling together. I imagine it sounding like a wooden wind chime on the back porch. I asked her what she thought a human jaw would sound like. Human teeth are smaller than horse teeth, so it would probably be a bit higher, a bit lighter. She put down her bits of bone and looked at me with disgust.
"Who thinks of such things," my friend asked, scowling. She wiped her mouth on a pristine, white napkin, and then picked stringy meat from her teeth with long nails. A mallet tapping against enamel. Ting ting scrape. Ting ting scrape. Yes, maybe like that.
"Besides," she said, "you don't even have a human jaw and if you did I'd be seriously concerned." She chuckled to herself and I looked at her, at her mouth and her chin and the glob of barbecue sauce stuck to her cheek like glue. I have one, I thought. And so do you.
Now I stand here, in front of my mirror. Plastic crinkles beneath bare feet. Where should I start? I wonder, running fingers over xylophone ribs and fatty drum tissue. Through thick bow hair and across stiff, piano key teeth.
This body is an orchestra.
#2, Jan 1, 2021
Alex Eastley, bassoon springs/keys; Craig Pedersen, trumpet
#3, Feb 1, 2021
Every day I come into the band room to hear the same five notes over and over. It’s that kid again, god knows why he’s here, sitting in the practice room with the door ajar and plucking the same string of notes on what might be a violin or a mandolin or the skeleton of a piano, hell if I know. He drones on and on like a horror show leitmotif as I stack chairs and vacuum floors and scrub chalk from the ledger lines etched on the board in Sharpie.
When I first joined the janitorial team, I thought the kid was practicing for a pity part in the middle school play, you know, the musical equivalent of a one-liner, the role that can afford to be botched. But he’s been at it every day for the past three months and there’s no play in sight. I ask the band teacher and she says she doesn’t know him.
“The kid’s got dedication, though,” she admits. “A love for music. You can’t kick him out for that.”
“More like a love for the same blasted five notes over and over,” I counter, but she won’t have it so the kid stays. I scrub and scrub the chalkboard as if trying to cleanse away the sound.
Sometimes the kid plays a variation. I can’t tell if it’s a mistake or not, but it’s nice: one pitch repeated or replaced in a way I wasn’t expecting—I suppose the changes keeps me from going insane. You’ve gotta admit, it’s pretty sometimes. Sometimes the kid plucks something that vibrates like a flare of sunlight on a snowy day, and you’re thinking, maybe it’s not all that bad. And then another pluck rattles like a rubber-band, a pulled hamstring, pins-and-needles, tendon on bone.
One day, I hear a snap.
For the first time I remember hearing in this room, there is silence. It’s as if the walls have sucked in a breath. I hold still like the air has turned into wind chimes waiting for a body to sway. Good old acoustics—in the walls of the band room, silence feels so loud. Loud enough to reach out and touch, to pluck straight from the air.
Then a note plays. And another.
It’s four this time, the same four notes, this time parted with a beat where the fifth should have been. I can still hear it in my head, the exact pitch that should have filled that space, the fallen string; I hate myself for it but can’t scrub the clink from my brain.
The kid comes in every day to play those four notes. Sometimes I catch myself humming along.
#5, April 2, 2021
A few years ago I fell in love. I had never been this way before and it was never a word in my vocabulary. She had kind eyes and beautiful rhythm. Much better than my own robotic movements on the dance floor. I enjoyed talking to her the most though. We would talk about all things, the nonessential banter and the deep meaning questions too. I helped her with her work as a project manager for nonprofit fundraising, making calls, talking to sponsors, keeping track of the books. I'm an absolute machine with numbers.
When she wasn't working, she was usually engaged in some kind of physical activity, always on the go. Sometimes she would look at me and tell me how lucky I was, never having to work out. I always reminded her I had my own maintenance program that kept me in excellent condition. She would shoot me her best sarcastic look, roll her eyes, and walk away.
One night, we went out to one of her nonprofit events to see that things went smoothly. I spoke with a number of the guests to ensure they were enjoying themselves. One began talking to me about the event and who had planned it so I talked about her and how passionate she was about helping people through her work. As we were cleaning up later on, the man approached and said, "I can tell by the way he talks about you that this man is quite smitten."
She hesitated a moment and gave a strained smile before saying, "Oh, he's no man, he's just my personal companion, you know, a PC-23."
I didn't hear anything else that was said or pay much attention to the man's look of disgust coupled with embarrassment. My cybernetic coil had turned to hot plasma inside its tungsten-coated cage. My light sensors started to turn on and off intermittently and my gyroscope ground to a halt.
So here I am, after my reboot. Held in status in the same place I awoke for the first time. Trying not to think anything, just waiting for my sensory inputs to get reconfigured and hoping they're able to dull the pain.
#7, June 2, 2021
Your shoes are too tight. Each footstep, loud against the muted night, carries a grain of discomfort. Discomfort you’re reminded of every time you walk, but you forget again whenever you take your shoes off to relax. But this is neither the time nor the place for relaxation.
Deserted streets loom around you, a rainbow of blacks and greys. The same streets you’ve walked a thousand times, with streetlamps casting pools of garish orange, fighting back against the darkness. No one but you at this time of night. Yawning windows peer out at you from darkened concrete facades.
A passing car snatches your attention, pale blue lights illuminating graffiti. An abandoned building, tenacious plants sprouting from between bricks and tiles. Decaying timber hiding long-silent windows. As you walk closer, you start to make out slogans and tags. Spidery spray paint making book pages out of unloved walls.
One thing catches your eye. Knotted wooden boards covering a forgotten doorway. The swirling shapes in the wood adorned with the words, “Spread your wings.” You pause a moment, your footsteps giving way to silence. Just the sound of gentle wind and the faint flutter of bats. You look up, catching brief glances of them between glaring streetlights.
Bats don’t need shoes. Perhaps you should take the graffiti’s advice and spread your wings. Quietly, you wonder. Maybe. Before you walk the same streets a thousand more times. Those streets feel old and worn to you now. Like an old pair of shoes, tattered and painful to put on. But familiarity is comfort in itself, and comfort numbs the mind to greater needs.
A frown crosses your brow. Yes, you should spread your wings. You make a silent promise to yourself to do just that. You look back to the old building, and the graffiti you’d seen before. But you find no words there. Just decaying timber hiding long-silent windows. Knotted wooden boards covering a forgotten doorway.
#8, July 4, 2021
Catherine Lee, oboe d'amore and electronics by the Scuffed Computer Improviser (SCI), programmed by Taylor Brook.
#9, Aug 28, 2021
The child who would be a god was tied by a thread to the moon. A strand of moonlight wove through his ribs and knotted around his heart. When he slept, he floated off his bed and if the moon was full, he would drift towards the window which his mother locked every night.
On full moon nights, the child’s mother lashed his hands to the bed and anchored pots filled with rocks to his ankles. When the moon was at its highest and the night was steely, he strained against his ties and his back arched like a bridge. She feared that the pull of the moon would take his heart right out of his chest and she cried out as if the pain was in hers.
She tied the longest rope she could find around him and tethered the other end around her waist. She would feed the rope out and watch him rise above the tree tops, still asleep and still dreaming with his arms yearning for the moon. She wished she could give it to him, the moon that he wanted. She wished that she could pluck it out of the sky like a fruit and believe that there was nothing she could not do for her child.
The tug of the rope around her waist reminded her of the cord of blood that had bound them while she was carrying him. When she reeled him in, hand over hand on the heavy rope, she felt as if she was trying to draw him back into the emptiness of her body. At the rope’s end, she clasped him to her, his skin cool from night and dew. She sensed the void in him, a space so deep and vast that his voice was swallowed into its depths.
Soon, the priests and the doctors came for him. He is possessed of the evil, they said.
He is an innocent soul, she said, you know not what evil looks like.
They saw the shimmering thread that went into to his heart, as thin as spider’s silk. They set their scissors and shears to it but the thread notched their blades. The strongest arm in the village hacked it with an axe and could not break it. But they realized that they felt no fear in the child’s presence. They saw that his cherubic countenance was one of peace; that his ways with birds and insects were gentle; and that the mother was a good woman.
The gods must have sent him, they said. They took him to the temple and rang the bells for a god had come amongst them. They bathed him in milk, dressed him in rich cloth and put him on a pedestal. The bells pealed for him every night and the people of the village came to see the child. They called him Purnama, child of the moon. He was three years old.
But he is my child, said his mother. And that is not his name.
You have been blessed, they said. Be happy now that your job is done.
On full moon nights, the whole village would come out to watch Purnama fly, this magical child god. They garlanded him with flowers and pinned their written prayers to his garments so that he might carry their hopes and wishes to the skies.
A custom started that once a year, a young mother would be chosen from the village to braid a length of rope from the year’s harvest of hemp and cotton. In mid-autumn when the moon’s pull was at its strongest, the new rope would be added to Purnama’s ties and the village would celebrate with round cakes, boiled eggs and sweet tea. In this way, Purnama floated a little higher every year but never so high that they could not bring him back down.
When he turned twelve, his mother saw the beginnings of a man in her son. He had grown tall and angular, strength biding in his bones. She saw her own eyes in his which were not those of any god but of boy halfway to being a man. She sharpened her largest knife and at the next full moon, she hid it in her dress and went to the temple.
Purnama was covered with flowers and bits of papers when they brought him out. Lighter than air, he floated upwards and when the rope that bound him was pulled taut, she rushed out with her knife. She slashed at the rope made by all the mothers after her and cut him free.
When the villagers fell upon her, the last thing she saw was a shadow move across the moon.
Purnama awakened to a silence. Where there was once a single, keening note in his head, there was now nothing. He looked down and saw the dark land and glimmering lake far below. He rose higher and higher until he could see the curve of the earth’s edge like the swell of a mother’s belly. The moon’s thread tightened around his heart. Tighter and tighter it wound and his heart beat like a tolling bell.
#10, Oct 8, 2021
Matt Hannafin, Chinese gong & pin chimes.
Listening with headphones is recommended to reveal the piece's full dynamic range.
#11, Nov 7, 2021
#12, Dec 14, 2021
Spatial Memory :: Silken Gag
Douglas, electronics; Lawrence, piano; Pella, viola; T, cello; Dead Charlie, contrabass
I want you to engrave three dots on my tombstone; not words to remember me by, not my dates of birth and rebirth; just my name in cursive and three dots. Carve them like you’re carving pumpkins on Halloween—with love, not pity. Do not make an ellipsis, because I promise when I am done, I will not remain unfinished. Scatter them instead. Redefine chaos with three dots. But I need the dots to be perfect with smooth edges, for chaos is only half of me, and I believe chaos is only half of chaos itself with balance at its centre. And it doesn’t matter if I am wrong, because I will be dead, as dead as the barren and forgotten lands in the coldest of winters; dead with a tombstone in my obscure name, and three dots that will mean nothing to nobody.
#15, April 8, 2022
A note from the editors:
We shook things up a little this month and published TWO prompts|responses rather than one. It is always a joy to read and listen to what we are sent and we are consistently inspired by the variety of submissions we receive in response to the same prompt.
My Mistake, I'd Imagined God's Voice as Tender
When, in fact, it is the slicing
of a mountain with a bread
knife. Slow & steady, it wobbles
through the world, searing
all things, his teeth dragging
the words across the ear's
inner rooms until it becomes
a blood-spring. Do you weep?
Have you been seized
by holiness, your conscience
splintered, crackling in the ore
of his cadence? I promise you,
revelation is a fist
to the eye, a hiss
of volcano gushing
out his mouth.
His fingers plucking my ribs
like strings, yield worship out of me.
O, to be a tambourine
awaiting the sway of his wrists.
Let me be consumed, consummated.
If God's voice is a dart,
may I be the bull's-eye —
punctured & anchored,
recipient of mystery.
echoes from a tender ritual
In distant islands and forests, where there are things still held to be sacred, nothing—and nobody, vanishes forever. They exist only elsewhere close by, at the other side of a woven wall. Hiding in plain sight.
About two hundred and fifty feet from Esther Llanes’s backyard, over the border to the town of Antik, stood the ruins of an old church whose name at present nobody knew or remembered. Some call it the Santa Clara church, after Clare of Assisi, patron saint of people with eye diseases, goldsmiths, and extrasensory perception, among other things—bicycle messengers, television, and fair weather. But older residents of Antik say it is only for the people of Santa Lucia to lay claim to the church. Both saints, Lucia and Clara, were related to the eye. Neither of the two towns knew for certain what the church’s true name was. It seemed they wanted it that way.
One bright day, Esther, a child aged eight, stood between the border of these two towns, on the path that led to a smaller building within what was once the church compound. She took great care to not slip over the mossy stepping stones and approached the building. Over the door in letters finely carved into the limestone was written Santo Ovidio. A minor chapel dedicated to the patron saint of ears. The chapel’s outer walls were mottled with moss and lichen. Little Esther, gifted with a great eye, looked through the illusion in gray and green, and saw a pair of ears carved on the sides of the doorway. With impulsive curiosity, she reached up and touched one ear. She ran her fingers on the detailed grooves. It reminded her of the lines on the vinyl records that sat in her grandfather’s bedroom, gathering dust and detritus. Hidden music. She went through.
A broken roof, a broken wall, a faded mural of passions, an empty altar, and a single pew. On the bare floor of broken tile and earth were holes. Some of them were empty, some had dried grass and bits of paper inserted. It would be years until Esther understood what she had felt that day, standing in the ruins, sensing the echoes of a tender ritual. Years before she learned of what the ritual was. Isolation and emptiness that drove the people of the two towns to wish what they had wished for. What she felt was certain was the feeling of wanting to participate in this ritual. To belong to something beyond her. To soothe her own sadness and desperation.
Wind blew on that sunny day. A bright and cool day that follows a night of deep and dark rain. The shadow of leaves danced on the floor and walls. Esther crouched and touched the holes in the ground but left the dried grass and bits of paper alone. She dared not know. She dug one finger into the cold and soft ground to make a hole for herself and prepared to whisper her wish. A flash of golden light issued through the jungle and she thought she heard the tolling of a bell…
Esther opened her eyes. It was raining. She was laying on the couch, and held up her hands. A dream. A deep memory that was emerging from a dream. Outside her apartment window, the city was covered in heavy rain clouds. Buildings were bare, gray outlines. She stood up and went to her door. Mail had arrived. One of them was a postcard, unsigned but addressed from her hometown of Santa Lucia. “Come home, I am here” was written on it. Her missing sister’s handwriting. Esther stood by the door motionless. After all this time. Esther had looked and looked when she should have been listening. Oh, Flora.
In her mind, she saw herself as a girl, lying on the ground in the ruins, watching the shadows dance. What had she truly wished for that day? The night before, Flora had disappeared. Hid in plain sight, Esther believed. She closed her eyes and listened, pressed the postcard to her chest and sighed, yes.
Composed and performed by Sarah Oakes, playing the clarinet.
Created in response to "My Mistake, I'd Imagined God's Voice as Tender" by Pamilerin Jacob.
Composed and performed by Amy Horvey, fretless banjo.
Created in response to "echoes from a tender ritual" by Zeny May Recidoro.
#17, Sept 4, 2022
We have released two prompts again! We hope you enjoy.
- from your editors
The Devil in the Details
I’m the one who added that sharp where you thought it shouldn’t be. The note that doesn’t quite go but once you hear it, it somehow works. I’m the one who made you sit for hours playing guitar until your fingers hurt. Until they bled. Until you realised you were sitting in the dark and the sun went down hours ago. I kept you stuck in the trance they call flow, unable to eat, drink, remember what time it is until you snapped out of it and realised half the day is gone.
I set the fire alight, the one that burns inside you making you want, no need, to create everything you can possibly think of. The hunger that tells you that time is running out and you still haven’t done everything you must in this life. One more song, one more piece of prose, one more poem, always.
I gave you writers block then watched with glee as you half turned yourself mad with thoughts that you’re not enough. Thoughts that paralyse you but eventually make you work harder, better, rising up from the rivers of self-doubt and conquering yourself, your greatest foe.
I am that self. The one that tries to get in your way, the voice of the unrelenting parent, your dark three am thoughts. I am everything you wish you were, wish you had been. I’m every missed opportunity, every lost love, every song you never finished writing. But still, you create more.
I am you and you are me.
Our work is never done.
* created in response to If God is Anywhere, He's in Music by Sarah Oakes
She has bugs in her hair. She has thick freeform locs and the bugs are crawling along the cowrie-shelled ends. That’s the first thing you notice about her. Of course, she’s been lying on the bare grass and there are signs of it all over her, hives on her skin, a micro moth underfoot, an oozing right eye. But the bugs stand out to you. She has been here for two days, only taking breaks to eat and go to the toilet, not sleeping. She has a portable brass field microscope that looks durable and antique, and a little notebook. She is researching a newly discovered kind of social parasitic bee she has found in the nest of a miner bee. This parasitic bee is important because it is colossally different from its host: much bigger, a different shape, and a different colour, and its larvae are enormous compared to its host’s. Early hypotheses are that the miner bee knows the larvae the parasitic bee deposits are not her own: she raises them anyway to avoid her and her nest being destroyed. It is called the Mafia theory and it usually applies to bigger animals – cowbirds, cuckoos. In bees it means something a little different. This is where you come in.
“Hi,” you say.
She looks up at you and then glances at the bag in your hand. All visitors to her makeshift field lab are asked to anoint her with foodstuffs: you have brought an insulated lunch tote filled with a fresh baked non-exploding stone (to keep the heat), gari, and faux chana dal made with late broad beans from your allotment. “Hi,” she says, and she gets immediately back to staring at the bees. You don’t even see how she can see anything, as the nest is underground, and there is nothing on the surface except a little volcanic looking eruption of the topsoil, but you understand that she is very wrapped up in her work right now. This is what you were prepared for.
You explain yourself very quickly. “I think the miner bees might have a version of Nasonov glands that they use when their nest is taken over by obviously not their own cuckoo bee larvae,” you say, “And if they do, I’d like to see them.”
She pauses staring into the broken earth and whips around to face you. “What?” she says.
“I think when the cuckoo bees take over a nest, and the original bee knows it’s not their own larvae, they let out some kind of scent to let other bees know. From their glands.”
“Why would they do that?” she says. “They’re solitary.”
You shrug. You’ve rehearsed this bit at home in front of your mirror. “Why does anyone do anything?” It sounds a lot more stupid out loud and she only looks at you briefly before going back down to her bee nest.
“What did you bring me?” she says, after ten minutes and her tummy audibly rumbling.
You detail the food in the lunchbox. She seems pleased.
The two of you eat. You sit squatted with your feet on the ground and she kneels, her skin pressed into the dry earth and gradually embossed by a collection of tough grass tufts and small twigs and stones. She scratches periodically on the welts that have appeared on her calves. She’s not an entomologist. She’s an amateur, who posts her videos to social media channels in exchange for advertising money. She obviously loves what she does. She hasn’t filmed anything yet, but her followers are waiting avidly to see this parasitic bee and its larvae. She has been loaned camera equipment to catch their movements and the compelling details – how different the parasitic bee looks to the original bee, the enormity of her larvae, her stark lack of pollen catching hairs. She has evolved to not be able to survive without breaking into another bee’s nest and stealing its food supplies.
“So if they do have these glands, what’s it to you?” she says.
This is the weird bit, but you’re a terrible liar, so you don’t even attempt to make up something more palatable. You take a deep breath and you start to explain that you have begun a dream ritual. On a new moon, before bed, you take a ritual bath in rose petals and camomile and comfrey, you cream your skin with hops infused jojoba oil, you climb into bed with your dream book. In the book you write down your question, formally, like the kinds of letters you learned to write in school. You sign it, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on the envelope (it doesn’t work without the stamp, which is something to do with the nature of sacrifice) and you put the envelope under your pillow. That night you will have a series of unrelated dreams, and the last dream you have will answer your question. “And, um, the gland of this bee was the answer to my question,” you say.
“What was the question?” she asks.
You are pleased and not pleased. Pleased that she is obviously interested enough to ask – this is good! – not pleased that you will have to reply to her.
“Um, it was, what direction should my life take.”
“Ah,” she says. “Look.”
She points. The little volcanic eruption is trembling and she hands you the brass instrument so you can see the huge parasitic bee crawling her way out of there. You are trembling yourself, and there are butterflies in your stomach. “Thank you,” you say.
* created in response to Tender Rituals by Amy Horvey
#18, Oct 30, 2022
An interspecies improvisation with the Bombyx mori (domestic silkworm moth)
Catherine Lee, oboe and electronics by the Scuffed Computer Improviser (SCI), programmed by Taylor Brook.
Created in response to "Bugs" by Laura Barker
when we kissed behind the sun
Created in response to "The Devil in the Details" by Jen Eve Taylor
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