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Echolocation: a short story


Dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman who wrote this to me in a letter, “I heard that you played from your heart, and it touched my heart.”


“The mind, too, has a sort of blood. In common speech, we call it hope.” Willa Cather from Shadows on the Rock


The pastor approached.

“Jean Claude, we will need six chairs set up tonight for the French Horn ensemble coming to practice from the University.”

To reenforce what he said, he held up six fingers and then pointed to the chairs.

Jean Claude nodded.

“How are your English lessons going?”

Jean Claude got out the small notebook that he kept in his shirt pocket and wrote, “good” and showed it to the pastor.

“Whenever you are ready, I know a speech therapist who is trained in trauma who could help with speaking.”

Jean Claude’s eyes widened. Then he wrote on his notebook and showed it to the pastor.

“Not yet.”


The doorbell to the church rang at 5:30. Jean Claude went to answer, though he didn’t know who would be ringing the bell at that time.

A very slight young woman stood at the door. She had long straight hair and bangs and worse a plaid school-girl skirt and a pea-coat.

He pointed to his watch. She looked angry. This wasn’t the unfriendly look he often encountered because of the color of his skin. He didn’t know why she’d be angry, but he opened the door. She walked quickly past towards the sanctuary of the church with her French Horn case strapped to her back.


Jane always came early to the rehearsal, warming up in the room by herself, getting a feel for the acoustics, wanting to be prepared: she was the principal horn player in the ensemble.

Everyone else came right on time.

Jane was principal horn in the ensemble because she was the best player in the group. The principal is supposed to run the rehearsal, which she did – to a point. If there was anything to be said, she’d write it down and have the second horn read the sentence.


Jean Claude had to stay at the church to turn off the lights and lock up. The rehearsal was supposed to last until 7:30, and there was no other work to do.

He went into a side room where there was a piano and began to work on a song. He hadn’t had piano lessons and had seen maybe one piano before coming to America. But, one day, he heard someone at the church playing this piano and liked it. When he had time and no one was around, he would go to it, trying notes. It was like trying to figure out a puzzle. He knew that if he found the right combination of notes, what he had to say would come out.


When it was 7:30, he went into the church and found that the French Horn ensemble had finished but had not left. He stood at the door, waiting for them to pack up and leave.

He noticed the angry girl. That’s what he called her in his mind: the angry girl. Someone had asked her something, and she wrote on a pad of paper and showed it to them.


The angry girl always arrived at 5:30. Jean Claude would let her in and then retreat to the piano room. One day, he heard a knock on the doorframe. It was the angry girl.

She wrote on her notepad, “English?”

He nodded yes.

“Light out in church.”

Her handwriting was big and rushed, edgy and messy.

He pointed to the door and began to walk out, but she didn’t move and wrote again.

“You can read English but not speak?”

He took out his notebook and wrote, “Can’t speak.”

The angry girl looked at him and didn’t look angry. She nodded her head.


After that, Jean Claude noticed that Jane didn’t look angry when she came exactly at 5:30 every Thursday.


One Thursday, there was a knock on the piano room door at 5:50. It was Jane.

She showed him her notebook.

“How long have you played the piano?”

He wrote, “Just here.”

She wrote, “What is the piece?”

He didn’t understand, so she wrote again, “What is the song?”

“I make it up.”

She looked at him, curious, her eyebrows scrunched together, and then she nodded.

“I am Jane.”

“I am Jean Claude.”

She smiled, “Two J’s”


One night, Jean Claude was fixing something in the back of the church when Jane rang the doorbell.

He wrote, “Fixing something in the church. Okay with you?”

She nodded.

He had heard her from afar, but to hear her in the church was another experience. There she was: this thin, young woman with schoolgirl clothes and hair who couldn’t talk and who looked angry most of the time, standing in the altar area, playing soaring sounds on her French horn.

On the surface, the details didn’t fit together, but he understood what he heard.

He couldn’t get back to the piano soon enough.


One Thursday, Jane arrived early.

He pointed to his watch. She just walked past and went into the church.

About 5:45, he heard a knock on the doorframe of the piano room where he sat at the piano, working on his piece.

Jane walked in and handed him her notebook.

“Where are you from?”

He wrote, “Rwanda.”

She looked at the paper for longer than it took her to read the word and then looked up.

Then she wrote, “So that’s why you can’t speak.”

He nodded.

She wrote on her notebook, “Understood. I have acquired stuttering. Bad.”

He read it and didn’t understand.

“Can’t read this. Will ask my teacher.”


Jean Claude’s teacher looked at the words and did an internet search and then explained to Jean Claude how very bad events could cause stuttering.

Now he understood Jane’s disconnected parts even better.


One Thursday when she arrived, Jane had her notebook out with something already written on it.

“Have you finished the piano song you are making up?”

He nodded “no”.

She wrote, “I want to hear when it is done.”

“Why?” he wrote back.

“When I hear it, I feel at home.”

He looked at her like he didn’t understand.

“I feel at home here,” she wrote, and pointed to her heart.


Summer came, and the French Horn ensemble no longer rehearsed on Thursdays. Jane, however, asked if she could come practice in the church at that time.

“Sounds better than a practice room, and I can’t practice in my apartment,” she wrote. The pastor agreed, and Jean Claude kept his regular Thursday work schedule.


Sometimes he would come to listen to her practice; sometimes she came in to hear him play the piano. Sometimes they would write on their notebooks in conversation, but not always.


One evening, while Jane was practicing and Jean Claude was listening, there was a siren. Jane stopped practicing and checked her phone.

“Tornado siren,” she wrote on her notepad.

He didn’t know the word. She motioned in the air, drawing a funnel cloud and then wrote, “dangerous wind. We need to go into the basement.”

They went into the basement and into the room reserved for childcare during the services, sitting on a couch.

“Tornados in Rwanda?”

Jean Claude shrugged and then wrote, “Genocide = Tornado.”

Jane nodded and then wrote, “Tornado was the start.”

“There was a tornado. Very bad. My mother and I were the only ones at home. She was hit in the head by something falling. I held her. She died. After that, my family was very bad.”

“We have both been in bad tornados,” he wrote.

There was a lot of wind, and then a storm started.

Jane checked her phone. “It might have gone away, but we should wait.”

The lights flickered. She wrote quickly, “What will be do if the lights go out? We won’t be able to talk.”

“Maybe try,” Jean Claude said. She looked at him. His eyes were wide and then had tears.

He put his arm around her. She laid her head on his chest, and he laid his head on hers.

“Yes,” she said, “Maybe try.”

The end.

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