When most people hear the sound of a siren, they think “Is it me they’re pulling over?” or “Gosh, that’s so annoying” or sometimes “I hope whoever’s in that ambulance is going to be okay.” What they don’t think about are the siren choirs.

Inside each siren, there are dozens of tiny, very sad people. They stand organized by voice parts on a stage in a room that flashes red, or red and clear, or red and clear and blue. The room itself is only a few inches tall. The tiny singers wail together in studied harmony, their voices rising and falling in a familiar weeee-ooooo weeee weeee-ooooo.

It’s not surprising that most people don’t think about the choirs. If you’ve ever been happy, or even just not particularly sad, you know that interfering in the lives of sad people can only lead to trouble. At worst, you’ll catch whatever we’ve got. At best, you’ll have to carry a weight. Probably you’ll have to listen to a long, unhappy story. And the people in the choirs are some of the saddest in the world.

As for how they become tiny enough to fit in the sirens, well, they do most of that work themselves. It’s simple, really. When you’re sad, you start to feel small, and when you’re very sad, you feel very, very small. Eventually, your body catches up.

It usually happens when you’re thinking about something else, like whether you should order in or just have cereal for dinner. You’re reaching for a bowl in the cupboard and suddenly you shrink down to the size of a sprout. Then forget the cereal—you’re no bigger than a corn flake. Your crying sounds different than before: smaller to match your proportions, but with a kind of desolation that’s impossible not to hear. Sure enough, someone is listening. Soon, that someone comes and scoops you up and takes you to the choir auditions.

Everyone is admitted into the siren choirs, but they hold auditions anyway. It helps determine which part each person is best suited for and which emergency vehicle, too. Police cars don’t sound the same as ambulances, and ambulances sound different from fire engines, and tow trucks have a rhythmic soprano blare all their own. Auditions are also a good way to pick out the soloists: the natural yelpers and warblers who’ve got a few octaves and can take direction from the conductor—the conductors being, of course, the saddest siren residents of all.

The warnings the sirens give to the outside world—the solving crimes and the saving lives—that’s all secondary. The tiny people in the choirs don’t spend much time thinking about the bigger people in the front of the police car or the back of the ambulance. If you’ve ever been sad, you know better than to get mixed up in the lives of others. Our energy is precious, and when we’re sad, we have even less of it. Sometimes, it’s enough to make cereal for breakfast. Other times, it’s enough to let out a small, soft wail.

For most choir members, their time in the siren is only temporary. On their way out, they gush about the therapeutic power of the choir, the ability to wail at the top of their lungs surrounded by other people doing the same. They say it’s like hearing your voice for the very first time: hearing yourself in others. They say it changed their lives and they wish they had done it sooner.

It seems once a singer sees the way their song can stop traffic, or its way of stirring fear, or its promise of a swift journey to safety, the strangest thing happens. They stop wailing, then they stop shrinking. And then they grow and grow.

So if you’re not in a siren choir, you know you’re not one of the saddest people in the world, although it may feel that way a lot of the time. And if you ever find yourself in a choir, rest assured you’re not alone, and at least you’re not the conductor, and you probably won’t be there for long.

At least, that’s what they tell me when I say I’d like a short, happy story—I have enough long, unhappy ones of my own.

Kristina Ten

Kristina Ten

Kristina Ten is a Russian-American writer living in Oakland, California. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared or is forthcoming in Word Riot, The Awl, Jellyfish Review, Pantheon Magazine, and elsewhere.
Kristina Ten

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