{ The Loudest Sound Ever Heard }
Devon W. Thompson
illustration by Alex Smith

tidal wave - alex smithPrior to 27 August 1883, if you were traveling on one of the many trading ships passing through the Sunda Strait between the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java, one of the landmarks certain to direct your route would be the modest island of Krakatoa. Steering your cargo of textiles and rare foods to and from exotic ports of the Far East you would likely give scant notice to its lush slopes and meandering beaches, for the island had made little effort to draw attention to itself in the past several centuries. But this morning would be different, as the long dormant volcanic isle, once thought by many to be extinct, roared to life with an unparalleled ferocity, destroying itself in the process, and sending shockwaves round the world. It produced what is commonly believed to be the loudest sound in recorded human history.
   The violent eruption immediately threw a twenty-cubic-kilometer incendiary cloud of ash and rock and choking gas eight miles into the sky, blanketing the area in total darkness for two days. The cloud circled the Earth for three years, manifesting in spectacular sunsets from California to the Cote d'Ivoire, but it is not where our story lies. The cloud is well behind us.
   The explosion had the effect on surrounding waterways equivalent to dropping a boulder into a small pond. More than eight score villages built near the shore were obliterated by tsunamis estimated at up to one hundred thirty feet high. Blocks of coral weighing six hundred tons were deposited far inland. The Java Sea was perfumed all the way to Borneo with spice and fruit and silk and the dreams of thirty-six thousand dead, and the depleted wave reached the Arabian peninsula only twelve hours later, in a journey that would have taken the finest clippers of the era several days. But these waves are not our story. As massive and as powerful as they may be, they are already at our back, and losing ground.
   We are racing outwards from the eruption in all directions at seven hundred miles per hour, better than eleven hundred feet per second at sea level. We are riding the sonic wave of the loudest sound ever heard. As you've read this we already have raced through the light cirrus cloud cover of the fine August morning, up and out of the troposphere, and soon will disperse in the thin air and ultraviolet radiation of the upper atmosphere, buzzing helium, a view of the stars. Let us stay close to the surface.
   Heading south, we pass the Java trench and the deepest point in the Indian Ocean. In their proximity to Krakatoa, plankton stocks in the deep, cold trench will be stunned and reproduce at a diminished rate. Populations of fish will decrease for lack of food, and Hammerhead sharks will approach closer to land than is their custom in seeking prey. In seven months, Thad Nang will reach into the water to pull in a net only to have his arm bitten off at the elbow. That night in bed, sated with opium, Thad will dream of white cranes flying in through the windows, filling the rooms of his house.
   We see the loudest sound ever heard now hammering tiny Christmas Island. It booms in Flying Fish Cove, sways trees on Phosphate Hill.
   It barrels across the wide expanse of the Wharton Basin, where the sea floor sits more than a mile deep. Below the waves, agitated jellyfish phosphoresce. Eels attack one another. The copulation of anemones is interrupted and confused. Crustaceans hide themselves in the mud.
   The sea floor begins to rise to the Wallaby Plateau, the Cuvier Plateau, approaching the long finger of Dirk Hartog Island and the westernmost tip of the Australian coast. The loudest sound finds a restless pod of dolphins in Shark Bay, it echoes in the gypsum mine at Useless Loop. At Cape Inscription, hidden in the greenery, approached by a narrow path, there is a small plaque marking the date of the first European setting foot in the country. The loudest sound cuts through the eucalyptus and paperbark trees, crosses the path, and rings off the pewter plaque, one high, sweet, sustained note singing to the bay. The plaque reads, Anno 1616.
   In this time the wall of sound has been expanding west as well, following the South Equatorial current along the Tropic of Capricorn, over the Mid-Indian Basin with endless swordfish and marlin, hundreds of giant squid sinking in the depths, pods of Grey and Humpback whales provoked to breach for hours on end, five coelacanths, and the startled natives of the Chagos Archipelago. It is a fine day to be flying above the waves, the water bright and blue, touched here and there with foam. The wall of sound, in passing, raises the surface temperature of the ocean by the smallest fraction of one degree.
   As we cross the Mid-Indian Ridge and approach the island of Rodrigues the loudest sound ever heard, while still large, has diminished considerably. On the beach at Rodrigues stands the Chief of Police, stroking his voluminous waxed moustache. Upon hearing the loudest sound he hurries to the telegraph office. He is a large man with diminutive feet, and runs with small, mincing steps. Heavy guns from eastward, is the message he sends.
   Beyond Rodrigues, we pass the islands of Mauritius and Reunion, the sea floor sloping to the Mascarene Basin, rising to the Mascarene Plain, and find ourselves in sight of the island of Madagascar. Off the eastern coast lies tiny Ile Sainte Marie, island of Ibrahim, abode of pirates from ages past. On the shore sits Guillaume Marguerite, cooking black bass over a small fire, his ship anchored in a nearby cove. Guillaume sits fifty-one yards from the stolen loot of Captain William Kidd, buried there two centuries earlier. Guillaume does not know this. Guillaume has recently contracted syphilis. This he does not know either.
   When Guillaume hears the rumble come to him across the waves he drops his knife, and dark hairs stand on the back of his neck. A sudden firing of neurons in his brain alerts him to a possible threat. Adrenaline is released into the bloodstream, his breathing shallows, his heart rate accelerates. Other neurons fire inexplicably, and Guillaume finds himself suddenly remembering the smell of baguettes baked by his mother, her perfume of fresh gardenias. Guillaume lifts himself to his knees, and sniffs for invisible secrets in the air.
   We pass over the shoulders of Guillaume Marguerite. We step off nearby, onto the soft sand, into a perfect day, the sea at our backs, facing a line of gentle palm trees. The loudest sound ever heard is now no more threatening than a distant roll of thunder. We watch as it enters the thick, green vegetation, there to be lost in the feathers of kestrels and kingfishers, red owls, the delicate weave of ferns, snagging on rose periwinkle, swallowed whole by the endless orchids of the rainforest, here on Ile Sainte Marie, off the coast of Madagascar, more than five hours and thirty-five hundred miles from the violent moment of its birth.

The force of the eruption of Krakatoa was powerful enough to disrupt the fabric of space and time, throwing into the future an endless array of information, from shards of secondhand anecdotal evidence, to fully realized scientific studies, astonishing in their metamorphic density. The amateur archaeologist, with persistence and a little luck, can still to this day find the occasional fragment lodged in modern tomes and journals, just below the topsoil. The story you're now reading was unearthed in Provo, Utah, in 1906. Word of its discovery traveled rapidly across the expanding nation, sparking the interest of Pittsburgh steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who demanded immediate acquisition of the relic for display in his namesake natural history museum, opened only three years prior. Cost was no factor to the burgeoning philanthropist, who knew that the tale would draw endless crowds and be the envy of museums the world over. Carnegie dispatched by train twenty of his best men, in black leather trenchcoats with two sidearms each, and in seven days they returned with the story, still partially embedded in sandstone and wrapped in woolen blankets. It weighed fourteen tons.
   The museum curators had been preparing day and night for the story's arrival, and now rushed to ready it for display. Once the proper structure was determined, an iron frame was erected to support the fossilized mass. A thirty-foot mural was commissioned to show how the story would have appeared in its natural environment, fearsome and towering, red in tooth and claw, consuming all in its path. The morning of the unveiling, spotlights were still being aimed, velvet ropes hung. At eight a.m., with every last detail in place, the twelve-foot wooden doors swung open to a wide line of people stretching more than two miles down Forbes Avenue, soot just beginning to settle on the shoulders of suits and Sunday dresses in the soft light of a September dawn.
   Far back along the line Natalie Hopeman leans against her father's leg, still shaking the sleep from her head. She looks up at the man in front of her, a tall Swede, gaunt and stooped. Blond hair falling over his brow, he gives Natalie a wan smile. Natalie smiles back, and blinks three times. In her braided hair are four wooden beads painted green, the green paint chipped. Her father lays his big, brown hand on her shoulder.
   The bent Swede begins to cough, steadies himself on the man in front of him, a German, rotund and pockmarked. The German turns and glowers, his head a mass of dark curls. The Swede stifles his coughing, apologizes with sad, blue eyes. His collar is fastened with a silver pin.
   The line moves two steps. Natalie drags the toes of her shoes.
   The sun climbs higher in the sky and burns fog from the rivers and the sides of hills. Vendors arrive to sell tobacco along the line. An old, grey man passing by with a tin box says hello to Natalie's father. She turns and watches him walking away, favoring his right leg, nodding to others he knows. The line is longer behind her now than it is ahead. Natalie pulls at the side of her red dress.
   The bent Swede begins to cough again, bumps into the German. The German's cheeks fill with splotchy crimson, lines harden around his mouth. The Swede fights for composure. Natalie watches the shaking of his long, thin hands as he straightens the collar pin.
   The museum is dark and smells of dust, oil, leather. The line of people leads down a hallway of mahogany and marble, brass fixtures, whispers. The crowd makes its way with small gestures of anxious anticipation, a sense of reverence, touching each other lightly at the elbow, the reassurance of a hand laid on the back. The Swede coughs into his shoulder as quietly as possible. The Swede's lungs are full of glass dust from the factory where he works. His eyes fill with tears.
   Turning a corner, Natalie sees the story looming in a cavernous hall, head thrown back, mouth wide, ravenous, and she hesitates. Andrew Carnegie stands on a platform on the balcony, flexing his muscles in a pristine silk suit. He rolls his shoulders, stretches his neck, appraising the scene. Ten men in black leather trenchcoats stand behind him in the shadows.
   Coming nearer, Natalie sees the story's feet gripping a massive slab of granite. Embedded in the granite is a bronze plaque. Natalie, her father, the pockmarked German and the bent Swede, all stand at the velvet rope reading the plaque, in silence. Natalie holds the rope, inventing meanings for the things she doesn't know. Her father watches her mouth form the words, Krakatoa, Periwinkle, Crimson, her face a portrait of concentration.
   Natalie hears a thin wheeze before the Swede breaks into a fit of violent coughing. The Swede, dizzy and overcome, collapses onto the German and tears his sleeve. The German, enraged, batters the Swede with thick fists, barking and guttural, his curls shaking fiercely. The Swede falls to the floor but holds onto the sleeve, pulling the German down on top of him. Four men in black leather trenchcoats appear. Natalie grips the rope.
   The men in trenchcoats grab the German by his curls, drag the Swede by the collar of his shirt, his silver pin falling to the floor. The German howls, kicks at their shins. Natalie looks around at the crowd, their faces lost in the unexpected drama. Her father is trying to help the Swede, now unconscious, blood in the corner of his mouth. She looks at the story standing just beyond the velvet rope, at the one craggy point of its knee that's within her grasp. She reaches out and touches it, her smooth hand spread out on the rocky surface, the solid weight beneath her palm.
   "Ooh," she says, pulling back her hand, shaking her small fingers. "It's cold."

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