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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Vollaro


It was difficult to know if there were more of them than usual. I would hear the sirens coming from a distance, always from the west and headed east on Whitlock Avenue, in the general direction of the Marietta town square, and the hospital.

It was late March 2020, and like millions of Americans, I had been marooned on my own property, stranded by the most elemental of human fears. The college campus where I teach had closed; we were told that we would finish the semester online. My daughter’s school had also closed. My wife had been laid off from her job. The rhythms of life had been disrupted. The fear of death is always with us—a low, nearly imperceptible drone that occasionally elevates in our consciousness with the death of a friend or an unsettling test result from the doctor—but this was the return of an enemy so old it appeared to be new, a shadow from nightmare’s origins in the primordial kháos. We were not prepared for this. 

I was not prepared for this. I sank into an uncharacteristic torpor. I would sit for hours on the patio, listening to birdsong and trying to measure the pandemic in its sonic register. The view from my patio had not changed. This was like every other of the nine springs I had witnessed while living in this quiet neighborhood bordering a park just a mile from the town square of Marietta, Georgia, but the soundscape was subtly different. On any given day in a normal Marietta spring, I could hear a familiar blending of sound underpinned by the rush of traffic on Whitlock Avenue, which is rather like living near the ocean, the traffic a kind of barely perceptible white noise that balances against the other sounds—the birdsong, the voices of kids playing in the park, and the little tappings and muffled voices emanating from inside the house. This was the familiar auditory landscape of spring mornings and afternoons.  When I began spending more time on the patio during the initial COVID lockdown, however, I immediately noticed that the white noise had disappeared altogether. There were no kids playing in the park either. A strange stillness had settled over my neighborhood.

The other sounds that had once blended into the mix were sharper now, set against the blank auricular canvas. I could hear the CSX train passing through downtown Marietta, a mile away, not just the warning horn, which was well known to me, but also the steady rhythmic clack clack clack of the wheels on steel rails and the low rumbling of the train. The park behind the wooden fence at the back of my property, was eerily quiet for most of the day now, but any human activity at all would now ring over the fence top with a new sharpness.  I could occasionally hear voices from deep inside the park that sounded like they were coming from directly behind the fence. The high-pitched squealing of a child or the creaking sound made by the swing chains as they strained against the steel swing set apparatus. The slamming of a car door. A basketball dribbling in quick staccato, then nothing. 

The basketball court is supposed to be closed because of COVID, but somehow the kid got in. Good for him. 

My instincts were speaking to me again, filling in the details, interpreting every sound in a new way. A heightened awareness had taken hold, as if the long-suppressed hunter-gather within had climbed out into the daylight to take charge of my senses.  I was alive to this new acoustic environment, my ears newly attuned to it.

One day in April, I watched a red-tailed hawk hurl itself into my backyard, talons first, to snatch up a small rabbit that was standing not ten feet away, hidden in shadow. I could feel the force of its wings stirring the air separating us, and I heard the tremulous but elegant thrusting of feathers climbed back into the sky with the rabbit clutched in its claws. The drama was over in a few seconds, little more than a blur in my peripheral vision, and I was filled with awareness that I am irrelevant to the hawk, a mere blur in its peripheral vision.

In May I watched an industrious robin building her nest in the trees at the back of my neighbor's backyard. I could not actually see the nest from the patio, but I could see the bird as she flew back and forth across the width of my yard with leaves and sticks for her nest. Each time she passed over the patio I heard the soft but insistent fluttering of her wings. She had discovered a treasure trove of nest-building material in my other neighbor’s gutters, and she was making trips to this cache and then back to her new nest and back again by flying across my patio, low to the ground with her construction material clutched in her beak. When she stood in the gutter, I could hear the dull thup thup of her beak on aluminum as she pecked for little sticks and leaves. 

The entire animal kingdom visible from this spot was similarly indifferent to me. I watched a chipmunk stealing seeds from the bird feeder at the edge of the patio. He made two dozen trips from his burrow in the front yard to the bird feeder and back again, each time with his cheeks packed with seeds, each time glancing over at me to see if I had moved from my chair. I could hear the soft scrambling of its tiny claws on the decorative stones at the edge of the patio. 

I watched a big female painter turtle lumber up from the park, picking her way carefully across my yard, one glacial step at a time. She found a quiet place in the neighborhood to dig a hole and then laid her eggs. Weeks later, I saw a hatchling the size of a silver dollar skittering across the walkway at the side of my house, headed for the pond in the park, its barely audible scuttling amplified by the relative quiet of the COVID soundscape in my neighborhood. It was as if I had acquired a superpower. I could hear everything now.

The dance of life reeled past me each day on the patio as if I didn’t exist.

The dance of death screamed by on Whitlock Avenue, one ambulance at a time. 


I don’t know if there were more ambulances passing my neighborhood than before the pandemic reached Georgia, but I could hear every one of them now, like the suddenly audible sotto voce of the turtle hatchling’s pinprick pawing upon the earth. They made a long approach from far off—each insistent wail rising to crescendo then fading out to be followed by the next, like the rhythmic rise and fall of sine waves. The wailing would be loudest as they passed near the entrance to my neighborhood but then would gradually fade as each ambulance crested the hill between my house and the town square, and the hospital. Were there more ambulances than usual, or was it just that I could hear each one clearly now, and I was there to hear it, that I was listening, paying attention? The case numbers and deaths were rising sharply. There must be an uptick in ambulances carrying sick people to the ER. It was only logical.

How little we understood this ancient enemy. How delusional were the people who ranted with false bravado that the pandemic was a hoax, that it was no more serious than a bad outbreak of seasonal flu, but who lined up for their vaccinations and stayed home like everyone else. How unprepared we all were, fumbling with our masks and bottles of hand sanitizers and doom scrolling our phones for hours searching for answers. How terrified we were, though we tried not to show it. 

The sirens rose and fell, rose and fell. The case numbers were rising too. We were all doing the death math by then, checking our favorite COVID websites, reading the graphs with Argus-eyed vigilance. The sirens rose and fell. 



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