ell before social networks — which would have been far too limiting — Byrne and I staged communications contests. We had no Pods (reserved instead for horror movies) and the only available instant messages were coughs, homework and parental orders, all of which were unappealing.
Our communications contests were far lengthier and more ambitious.
On non-school days, a Sunday or a holiday, we’d take turns climbing the giant pine tree in my front lawn to the “secret special branch” and, once perched, listen for Zounds.
Zounds didn’t come to every human ear. In fact, they only came to Byrne’s and mine. Byrne excluded girls as “ornamental,” which he pronounced as ornametal, a particularly alarming fusion of femaleness and metallurgy.
Zounds were extraterrestrial wanderers who camped out in the skies above pine trees waiting to network with pre-teen boys. They had sensitive antlers and an array of friends, also from other planets. Though they were invisible, you could hear faint traces of language, a kind of whistling, in the branches. The sounds Zounds made were also called Zounds, which made all social intercourse simpler.
Communicating with them involved sitting on the “secret special branch” and making the right whooshing sounds into the twilight. If a whoosh was returned, you were credited with a communication. But the Zounds appeared to favor Byrne’s larger ears. At times, he’d sit bored below me twirling twigs and tossing stones as I eagerly pondered and squeaked. “Hear one yet?” he’d call out.
How could I? He disturbed my concentration. How could you make room for Zounds amid the rattle of pebbles and twigs? I sent him home.
Those who have ever waited on Zounds can probably guess how I spent my branch time. I wished on stars, looked at the ripples on old bark, dreamed of big ships, and sometimes wondered why girls were so interesting even though they were ornametally burdened.
I carved my name into the “secret special branch” (it didn’t mind) and made lip music to acquaint myself with passing birds, who were either annoyed and startled. Most left. On days when the coming of Zounds seemed improbable, I’d communicate instead with NASA spacecraft and satellites, whose sensibilities were more warming than those of faceless extraterrestrials. The orbital commanders always said hello, at least to me. Some sounded like my father; they warned me not to fall.
I once asked Byrne why the extraterrestrials were invisible. Wouldn’t it be more fun if they just came out to play?
This, to Byrne, was heresy. “The whole point they’re making is that you have to listen for them. Not everyone wants to be your friend.”
So I listened harder, often for days at a time, and they came, high whooshes and low ones, whole sentences of extraterrestrial speech disguised as breeze and wind. I heard the melodies and songs of hovering craft, the nifty arguments of the many invisible. My mind’s slow circuitry got hot and bothered.
“I hear them! I hear Zounds!” I shouted to Byrne.
But Byrne had vanished. Instead, Mrs. Kelly, his mother, had parked herself at the foot of the pine.
“Byrne told me I’d find you out here talking to the trees,” she said, wiping her hands on an apron. “I know it’s important, but the turkey’s on the table.”
“But Mrs. Kelly, I can’t, I’m with the Zounds!”
“Well, bring them, too.”
Mrs. Kelly was a good person (for an adult), but the Zounds wouldn’t budge. The delights of turkey didn’t interest them.
The next year the “secret special branch” broke off and the Zounds went silent. Maybe they found another, more communicative tree. Maybe networks don’t last forever. Maybe boys grow up.