Bathhouse

Bathhouse

Enjoy this story with a coffee.

He was the proprietor of a chain of bathhouses across the old city and it was in this way that he discovered the technique. At first it involved a bevy of odds and ends that accumulated about his home and raised eyebrows but no questions but eventually he had it working by way of a machine that he could quietly plumb in and listen into via a small valve that fed out through the pipes outside the walls installed in the course of a renovation or a routine clean.


Ahead of Edison’s phonograph audio replaying technology, our inventor focused upon the clean recordings of the bathtub, trapping each spoken word and whisper in the small maelstroms of the gurgling drains. His breakthrough was this: he learned the water contained some specious kind of memory, that deep below the surface when it looks otherwise still it continues to move with the rhythm of the speech it has so far endured. He could not record this noise as it happened through the plugs and the robust porcelain but he could capture, record, and replay that aftermath.


They first used the machine on one of the many Padishah’s enemies, listening in on the hissing noise of the drainage from an appointment he knew to be clandestine courtesy of one of their more reliable traitors. Ahead of — and indeed leading directly towards — the invention of the vinyl record, they encased that noise into wax and smuggled it quickly away in a basket as the dignitary emerged from the blinding steam to find himself perforated quickly and violently. He believed his treachery would die with him. It did not.


Instead, it helped facilitate a small shift in the waning power of the imperial court and our inventor found himself elevated from a simple proprietor to the landlord of a manor on the European side of the Bosporus overlooking the water. He was instructed to rent out the rooms of the large house, his family comfortable on the top floors, and to continue to refine the methods of this espionage. He did this gladly. Into these rooms were moved dignitaries, would-be spies, and all manner of attempted deceit upon which the proprietor kept his ears. 


His exact mechanism has been mostly lost to time, shrouded further in secrecy for fear of discovery by the fledgling American creatives who came to the manor and began listening to the walls, the tubs, the pipes with stethoscopes to hear for anything untoward. He was much more careful afterward. What we know is he recorded the guruldamak onto wax and recovered the noise from this early roughshod rendition in such a fashion that he could swore he would turn it back into repeated speech. Some records suggest he kept a library of wax upon which was recorded only the sounds of an emptying bath and that from this he developed an ear for what was and was not a secret. Others say he used this archive’s field recordings to erase, like mathematics, the natural noise of the water from the message by running the records in reverse against each other at speed. Some smaller, perhaps more compelling, communications suggest that he simply had a good ear and was fortuitous and particular about thinning out the walls about his targets. And it is not as if the Sultans or the Caliphs always took him at his word.


Indeed: escalating his technology beyond petty noble squabbles sent him racing one afternoon to the docks with the rumblings of conspiracy. Unsanctioned and paperless but bearing the mysterious pieces of his odd machine, he boarded a ship bound for Iberia by way of Crete, an old schooner, and he left word with the Foreign Ministry that he was chasing a funny feeling he’d gotten from a few choices words inside the gurglings of a known hain’s last clean bath. He made himself at home in the bowels of that vessel as it sailed, his ears curiously to the fragile recorder pressed against the inside of the hull, listening, as if he would hear anything through the endless Mediterranean waves.


And he did but not before the jeering and sneering and strange Italian gossip about the odd ageing man in the engine room who could be hearing only the chefs and the snoring. But what he heard was a gunship and he heard it long before they saw it in the falling fog of a warm, wet winter evening. He could not hear nationality or purpose or drive but he heard audacity through the crush of the swell and the sound, for an hour, two, before he decided to brave the crew and make his way to the captain with news that was hard to prove through fog.


He wanted to warn the slaves and the cooks and the deckhands before the captain but he’d heard from drunken sailors about the wrath of a slighted first mate so he persevered. But he had no time to tell because that furious ship emerged from the dissipating fog and as it did came the white puffs of smoke like from thin cigarettes rolled by amateur smokers. Then the pounding fury of heavy shot that ripped like paper through wood.


He screamed and raced back down below the decks and to his machine as the shot came and came, rumbling the boards beneath him, scattering splinters about the far side of the ship, killing unsober men, smashing his machine to pieces and scattering it about the rushing sea flooding into the galley. He waded into the gyre and beat against it to collect what he could in his arms, kicking his foot in the wash against the flowery brass that had delivered to him so much. The barrage beat the schooner open and apart and he could do nothing but disappear into the hiss with it, his head now underwater, hearing it all as he was so rehearsed at doing. 


Through the water he heard prayers and he heard screams and he heard hopeless bargaining with spirits, with heathen virgins, with prophets, with gods. He heard the thundering of the continued barrage and the muted exhaustion of his transport falling apart. He heard himself freeze up in the water that cooled him to the bone and he heard himself give up as he clung not to hope or faith but to his machine, bringing it with an instinct to his ear to listen to the surf against the too-far shores of the remains of the Theran caldera. 


What he did not hear was the soft start of a wave of violence about to plague the continent. The Foreign Ministry, hearing from nearby merchants word of the attack, wondered why he had gone hunting for what they knew already.

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