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The face of silence

On that great American scale of demeanor stretching from preppie to hippie, she stood closest to the latter. She was not what you would call pretty. Perhaps the nose was a bit sharp, the cheeks a little thin, the long straight hair a touch too raggedly pulled back. The clothes, too, were of an indeterminant style - the sort that make you glance round for a companion, hoping to find either a bow tie or a T- shirt to signal the degree of formality she must have intended. Her companion, however, was a young woman in similar dress - also, I guessed, a student from a nearby conservatory.

I don't, as a rule, pay attention to such detail. My wife can attest to that. She sighs over my inability to recognize people I've met at a party just the week before. She is one of those who remembers, with Polaroid-like clarity, the color of each dress and the cut of each hairdo. She can also detect the telltale glaze in my eye when, later, she questions me about details. ''You remember Hilda, the one with the paisley dress in the bright red chair?'' she will say; or, ''Was Robert the one with the hunting jacket, or was he the redhead with the mauve jersey?'' Alas, I would be prepared to swear that I had never met Hilda in my life - and that either or both Roberts were wholly fictitious.

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But that evening was different. We had gone, with friends, to an entirely proper and thoroughly sterile performance of Messiah. In those long stretches where pedantry had triumphed and the music was all math and no soul, I found my attention wandering. It came to rest on the young woman in front of us. And the more I watched, the more fascinating she became. It was not just that she sat more primly than I would have expected. Nor was it that, as she looked over the balustrade of her first-row balcony seat, her attention was focused intently on the music. Nor was it even that she had on the rail in front of her a hard-bound copy of the score.

No, what captivated me was her way of turning its pages. Carefully, gently, she slid her fingers under the right-hand page as she read. And as its last measures passed, she lifted it, caught it in midflight with her left hand, and lowered it softly into place. It was a deft and graceful gesture - and it was absolutely soundless.

What a contrast, I thought, as I watched the conductor slicing the air into neat little hard-edged triangles. On the floor below us, the audience was restless: seats squeaked, coughs sputtered, programs fell. And, of course, there were the inevitable hard candies - the kind only sold, I'm convinced, in theaters and concert halls, wrapped in cellophane so brittle that their opening crackles like a newly lit pine fire, and invariably purchased by well-intentioned listeners who mistakenly believe that the slower they are opened the less noise they will make.

It was to all this that the girl with the score sat in quiet rebuke. She had mastered the elegance of public silence. And that, in our age, is a rare and unselfish art. For somehow we have let ourselves believe that silence is a private matter, that those who desire it must seek out special locations, find particular companions, keep peculiar schedules. Even in the quietest library reading rooms - and I've spent pleasant hours in many - the silence is regularly broken by the soft clash of turning pages, the rhythmic squeak of rubber sole on marble floor, the sibilant whispers of librarians. Complete silence? We hardly know what it means - nor why, in the end, it matters. It is the exception, the intrusion against those undercurrents of noise we accept as natural. In our grocery store music, in the rumble of traffic, in the roar of jets - even in the tweetings and bleeps of electronic cash registers, whose designers apparently would remain sadly unfulfilled if each button produced nothing more than a soft click - we turn resolutely away from silence.

Does that matter? Perhaps not. Perhaps noise is the characteristic ambiance of humanity, a feature separating us from the watchful silences in which so much of the animal kingdom moves. Perhaps we have outgrown the moccasined care with which America's native race avoided snapping a single twig. Perhaps the racket we set up is, without our realizing it, a kind of statement of our dominion over noiselessness, boasting our superiority to all lesser beings that must seek protection in silence.

Yet it was just the other night that, on a weekend in Maine, I stepped out onto the porch for firewood at midnight. The family was asleep; the stars hung frozen in the winter night, and even the wind had grumbled off to bed. Here and there a branch snapped with the cold, and now and then the ice on the lake, shifting and cracking, spoke dark syllables into the pines. But otherwise, silence, a vast, refreshing, wholly uplifting quietness. Under its breadth, the unmuffled clatter of humanity seemed irrelevant: the petty turmoils of dailiness faded out, replaced by a recognition that peace, within individuals and among entire cultures, was possible after all. I had no desire to break it, no wish to assert my control by a shout or a stamp of the foot. I only wished to drink it in so deeply that I might never forget it.

And I thought, as I stood there, of another contrast: the city itself, its lights, noise, and movement all sweeping away from the core of this natural quietness. To my surprise I felt no resentment, no dread at returning to its liveliness, no regret that I could not somehow remain in a perpetual weekend. So vast was that midnight stillness, I felt, that it would surely encompass the city as well. In its way, it already had. It had touched, somehow, the girl in the balcony. It had bathed her with a beauty beyond the physical. Hers was a message from the universe, sent into the very midst of tumultuous humanity. Hers was proof that an elegant respect for silence could flourish in the heart of noise. That night, she and the stars seemed one. Secure in their presence, I turned the page of the night and went inside to bed.

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