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Echo & the Music Machine

[whitespace] By David Templeton


Editor's note: A year ago, the Independent began what we hope will be an annual tradition: our presentation of an original children's Christmas story. Though we don't presume that this year's offbeat, Roald Dahl-inspired tale stands up to such classics as The Night Before Christmas or A Christmas Carol, we think you'll like it. Read this tale aloud to loved ones: Perhaps it will help make your season merrier and brighter. Happy holidays.

THIS IS A STORY of Christmas, and of music, and of a very small boy. His name was Echo Echinacea Smith, and he had the worst family in the whole wide world.

The Smiths, you see, were not nice people. They owned a wrecking company--Smith Smashing Inc. They drove bulldozers and pushed over buildings. They always carried sledgehammers, in case they discovered things that needed breaking. They lived in a horrible house with a horrible yard. It had once been a nice house, but the Smiths were always hammering holes in it. They smashed up all their furniture and all their dishes and all their beds and all their bric-a-brac--just to keep in practice.

Mr. Smith and Mrs. Smith were not at all fond of their children, and showed it by giving them nasty names like Bugaboo Bugbane, Cactus Cacophony, Doohickey Doom--and Echo Echinacea--because those were the first words the terrible Smiths pointed to in the dictionary. After Echo, the Smiths decided that even this method took too much time. The next Smith children, therefore, were named merely Five, Six, and Seven.

It shall come as no surprise to you that the Smiths--with the exception of poor Echo, who was kind and goodhearted--grew to be as horrible as their horrible parents. When not being snarly and contemptible and selfish and crude, they were petty and mean and loathsome and rude. They feared soap. They never bathed.

Instead of talking, they howled. Instead of playing, they fought. Instead of caring for each other, they loathed one another. And, like their parents, the Smith children were fond of breaking things. As for poor Echo, he was saddened by all the smashing and fighting and noise that went on in the Smith household. He preferred quiet conversation, friendly games, and beautiful music. He never carried a sledgehammer. In fact, he couldn't even lift one.

Now, as you might guess, Echo did not fit in well with the rest of his frightful family. So he was teased and tormented, bullied and bothered, pestered and picked on. The Smiths made a sport out of making Echo unhappy.

And because their odd little Echo loved music, all of the Smiths despised it.

Which was very bad for Echo. But very good for our story. As you shall see.

ECHO was desperately lonely. He had only one unbroken possession--a tiny silvery flute. He'd discovered it beneath his broken bed one Christmas morning, several years earlier. It was the most wonderful thing he'd ever seen. He hid it from his family, of course, to save it from certain demolition. Late at night, he'd creep from the house and onto the cold lawn, where he would play soft, sad songs till the sun came up.

Echo never knew who might have left such a glorious gift for him. So, he simply guessed that the flute was a gift from Santa Claus. This was a good guess. But it was not a correct guess, as he would one day discover.

It did not take Echo long to master this new instrument. The little boy was soon inventing his very own melodies, making up a tune for everything he saw around him, everything he dreamed about, and everything he wished for: slow, sad minuets to accompany stray cats in the alley; light and lovely waltzes in which to imagine taking hot soapy baths; frisky little fox trots to play while dreaming of warm picnics among daisies and butterflies.

Best of all, Echo had a secret song, a Wishing Song, full of lullabies and tangos and rhythm and blues. It was a song that made him feel a little guilty--because of the desperate wish that inspired it--but he really couldn't help himself. What Echo wished for, more than anything else, was to be given a whole new family.

That's right. A different father, a different mother, different sisters, and different brothers. No more sledgehammers. No more breaking and bashing. No more noise. No more sneaking out in the cold of night to play his music, in constant fear of being found out.

What he wished for was a family that he could love, a family that would love him back, a family that loved music and melody as much as he.

ECHO went on wishing his wish, and playing his song, until one Christmas morning when something wonderful happened, then something horrible happened--and then something different happened.

It was very early, while all the Smiths were asleep. Echo was outside in the dark with his flute. He was playing softly, for fear that somewhere would hear him, when all of a sudden he heard a voice in the dark. It made him jump.

"There you are," whispered the voice, both young and old. "Follow me, Echo Echinacea Smith." Peering into the gloom, Echo saw a person dressed in red--with a red hat covered in little bells--vanishing around the corner of the house.

"Santa," whispered Echo, clutching his flute and rushing to follow.

Suddenly, he stopped. There, on the snow-covered lawn, was an old woman, wiry and thin. She jingled as she danced up and down.

Beside her stood a strange object. It was an enormous, outlandish, singularly odd machine, all full of knobs and lights and buttons, with reels and ribbons and microphones on one end--and a strange pair of slots and chutes on the top. One of these slots was marked in, and one of them marked out.

"It's a Music Machine," said the old woman, who was quite obviously not Santa, but Mrs. Claus herself. "The Music Machine's a little thing I thought up myself. I've been working on it for years now! Santa likes building his boats and trains and dolls and bicycles, but I enjoy a toy with a little more oomph to it.

"Something like this," she crowed merrily. "Since you've done so well with that flute I left you, I've decided that I want you, Echo, to test the machine for me."

WITH THE PUSH of a button, the Music Machine whirled to life. It blinked and winked. It whirred and purred. It twirled and flashed. The microphones waved about like eels.

Showing him where to stand and what to do, Mrs. Claus encouraged Echo to play something on his flute. He took a breath and began one of his light-and-lovely waltzes.

Immediately, the machine chugged and glugged and shook and shimmied, as it absorbed Echo's music. From the chute marked out, at the back of the machine, a bright fountain of bubbles suddenly erupted into the air.

"Marvelous," Mrs. Claus sang, skipping and spinning. "Magnificent! It makes bubbles out of a tune about baths. Play another!" Echo played the frisky little fox trot, his picnic song. Out of the machine came a stream of warm summer sunlight, a cloud of butterflies, a blast of daisies, and a ham sandwich. Finally, he played the slow and sad minuet, and a fat furry cat leaped from the machine and bounded off over the fence.

"I'm a genius!" exclaimed Mrs. Claus, spinning in circles. "You're a genius!"

Then she stopped. All of a sudden, she began to glow all over. "I have a few errands to do, dear," she announced. "Would you mind keeping an eye on the machine till I come back?"

Before his eyes, Mrs. Claus began to fade away.

"But please be careful ... ," she warned. "And remember! Anything the machine can do forward it can also do backward."

Then, with a sparkle and glimmer, she vanished.

ECHO LOOKED in wonder at the place where Mrs. Claus had been standing. Then he gazed in amazement at the Music Machine. After a moment, he played again, this time a happy marching tune. The microphone eels bobbed. The machine chugged and chunked, and a bright blast of confetti and ticker tape exploded into the sky.

Echo was enthralled. He was enchanted. He wondered what this magic miracle looked like up close. Forgetting Mrs. Claus' words, he clambered onto the machine and stood up, peering into the mysterious slots.

Then, with a shuddering jolt, the Music Machine stopped.

Echo lost his balance and pitched forward. He tried to stop himself, but was too late. Head first he tumbled, directly down the slot marked in.

Oh my! You must be thinking. Poor Echo. He'll be turned into music!

Sure enough, the machine whirred and purred. The reels and ribbons spun. The lights flashed. Then, up out of the machine rose a melody that was so sweet and so sad it could only have been made from Echo himself.

So the little boy who loved to music had become music itself.

But wait. There's more. The Echo Song rose up and washed over the grubby little house where Echo's frightful family were all still sleeping. They awoke with a start "What is that horrible noise?" they wailed.

As for Echo, being turned into music by the Music Machine was not one bit unpleasant, as you might have worried. To Echo, it felt like falling asleep in a soft bed with warm sheets. It felt like being gently tickled back awake after a night of glorious dreams. The truth is, he'd never felt better in his life.

Then, suddenly, the machine began to do something new. Other lights flashed. The reels and ribbons spun in reverse, stopped, and spun again. Once more, that sweet and fine melody that was Echo began to play through the night. What was happening? Well, the answer is very technical.

Putting it simply, the machine--programmed to do so by Mrs. Claus--automatically made a tape recording of anything or anyone that went in through the in slot, and it was now playing him back the other way. The microphone eels dipped and bobbed. The machine whirred and purred. And with a soft kerplunk, Echo bounced from the out slot and rolled gently to the ground.

He shook himself all over, and looked up. There were the Horrible Smiths, sledgehammers in tow, looking oh-so-terrifyingly down at him. Echo knew that something bad was about to happen.

I WISH I could avoid telling you what happened next. I wish I could report that Echo's family, transformed by the beautiful music that was Echo, gave up all their nastiness and went back inside for a nice, hot breakfast.

But they did not.

Therefore I must tell you that the Smiths, so alarmed at finding a Music Machine in their yard--and so appalled at the sounds they'd heard it make--began to circle warily around the machine. When they were certain it was not about to attack them, they attacked it. Echo begged them not to, but they ignored him, raising their hammers high.

Crunch! went the knobs and buttons as their hammering began.

Munch! went the reels and ribbons as their hammering continued.

They smacked and whacked and crushed and crashed until, finally, all of the machine's lights had gone dim, all the reels and ribbons were broken, all but one of the microphone eels were snapped in half.

Victorious, the entire family clambered to the top of the machine, where they stood, sledgehammers waving, cheering in triumph.

It was a horrible sight.

It must be noted, though, that this awful moment was also the closest that this group of people--this contemptible, selfish, crude, nasty, mean, and loathsome family--had ever felt toward one another. For a moment, they almost liked one another.

The moment lasted eight seconds.

With an enormous twitch, the machine switched back on.

With a jolt and a jerk Mr. and Mrs. Smith tottered and fell into the machine, followed--one, two, three, four, five, and six--by each of the horrible Smith children, sledgehammers and all. The machine chugged and glugged. It would be unfair and misleading to tell you that the Smiths were turned into music, since the unspeakably ugly, discordant squawking that now floated out from the machine could not truly be called music. It sounded like a thousand aluminum can tumbling down a mountainside, like an army of rubber tires being torn into pieces by angry walruses, like a 10-ton woolly mammoth hurtling through a plate-glass window. It was a foul and disagreeable sound. The Smiths had certainly made a terrible family, but they made even worse music.

Now, at this point I'm sure you're thinking about the machine's recording system, the one that taped Echo's transformation and then played him back into a little boy. If only they had not smashed the reels and ribbons to bits, the machine might have returned them to the world. But alas for them, their sledgehammering had been too precise. So the detestable noise faded away into the cold, clear dawn. And that was the last anyone ever heard of the horrible Smiths.

WHEN Mrs. Claus returned for the machine, she inspected the damage. It was nothing she couldn't fix, she declared, once she got the machine back to her workshop. Poor Echo, however--for he was a good boy and never wished that real harm would come to his family--was feeling lonelier than he'd ever felt before.

"Well then, dear," encouraged Mrs. Claus, starting up the Music Machine one more time, "You'll have to choose this next tune very carefully, won't you?"

Now, which song do you think Echo chose to play?

As Christmas morning grew bright and warm around him, Echo stood before the Machine and played his Wishing Song--the song he'd been practicing all of his life. He played the melody with all of its lullabies and tangos and rhythm and blues, and then, holding his breath, he stopped and waited. The machine chugged and glugged and shook and shimmied, as Mrs. Claus danced gleefully on the lawn.

THAT EVENING, Echo had Christmas dinner with his brand-new family. He had a new father, a new mother, three new brothers, and three new sisters.

They were instantly fond of Echo--and he of them. Whereas that other family had been loud and unpleasant and rough and rude, Echo's new family was kind and friendly and playful and good.

None of them had names at first--it would take weeks before the right ones were chosen for each child--but, as Echo's new father said, "A person's name is not the sort of thing you can decide too quickly."

As for the family's last name, it was a matter of much discussion throughout the day--and it was eventually decided that they would take the name Christmas.

So it was that Mr. and Mrs. Christmas, having no interest in sledgehammers or bulldozers, informed Echo Echinacea Christmas and all the other Christmas children that Smith Smashing Inc. was no more. From now on, the family business would be-- well, it would be something closer to all of their hearts. Can you guess what it was?

Here is a hint: When Echo played his Wishing Song that morning, and when the Music Machine chugged and glugged and shook and shimmied, and when the yet-to-be-named Christmas family tumbled happily to the ground, every one of them was clutching--what do you think?

If you guessed, "A musical instrument," you are right!

There were oboes and clarinets and saxophones, trombones, and trumpets and fluegelhorns, and a snappy snare drum for extra good measure.So Echo's new family was everything he'd ever wanted--and more.

And what could be more natural--or make a better ending to this story--than for Echo's new family to form their very own marching band? If you can think of a better ending, let me know.

Till then, the story ends like this:

After a day full of laughter and songs and warmth and hugs and smiles and kisses and music, Echo finally brought out his flute and, surrounded by his loved ones, began to play a brand-new song.

Then, raising their own instruments, the Christmas Family Band joined in.

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From the December 17-23, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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