For a second or two it could be a playground: Tiny voices cry. Then they keep crying, panting for air from the crying, their voices wavering from the exhaustion from the crying and the panting. “I don’t want them to stop my father,” a child says. “I don’t want them to deport him.” The response is more crying, miscellaneous noise in the background. There are adults in the room, we will learn, but they don’t answer.

A seven-minute audio recording from inside a U.S. Border Protection facility was obtained on June 18 by Ginger Thompson, a senior reporter at ProPublica. It contains the voices of 10 children who fled the violence of Central America. They have been held up at the U.S.-Mexico border and separated from their parents. The children are estimated to be between four and 10 years old. It is, as Thompson wrote, “excruciating” to listen to. The sound file is an irrefutable aural document to American state terror in our time.

That is why it must be heard. As the children cry, a Border Patrol agent says, “We have an orchestra here. What’s missing is a conductor.” Then he hums a few notes. Dum, deeee, dumm, a snatch from some imaginary orchestral tune. The agent walks away, carelessly, from a microphone he doesn’t know is recording him. “Don’t cry,” he scolds. A consular worker tells a little girl not to lose her identification number. The trauma of family separation, described painfully by W.G. Sebald in his novel Austerlitz, is already underway.

The Border Patrol agent asks the children where they’re from. In this place, there are no names, only nationalities, the thinnest outlines of human families, boy, girl, mom, dad, aunt. “Honduras.” “Guatemala-a-a,” the voice trickling downwards. “And you?” the agent asks, and there is a hint of something friendly in the timbre of his voice. It soon gives way to audible frustration.

In the third minute of the tape, a boy asks for his father. It is a lament in the most instinctual sense, an inflection that underlies so much human music. His voice slides down through the interval of a minor second as he begs; it wavers in a thin vibrato. He cycles through different vowels at the end of the word Papá, tries it on different starting pitches, incantation-like. As if saying the word the right way could summon his father back.

Papá. Papá—e. Higher: Papá—e. Papá—i. Lower again: Papá—e. Minor third: Papá—e.

As the boy laments, a girl cries for her aunt. The chaos is almost like a folk song from those old recordings on wax cylinders, where one person sings and others talk in the background, the recording crackling. If the Border Patrol agent meant his comment about the orchestra as a joke, it’s an unbearably cynical one. The U.S. government has, with cruel intent, orchestrated this polyphony of misery.

"The U.S. government has, with cruel intent, orchestrated this polyphony of misery." @glendasplenda analyzes the sounds of state terror. @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet

Consular workers discuss the food arrangements. Not one of the children in the room wants anything besides its family. A six-year-old girl plucks up her courage and speaks. “Are you going to call my aunt so that when I’m done eating, she can pick me up?” Her voice is high, small, but full of that timbre children use when they are trying to sound grown-up. Brave. Another little girl cries.

Mami—ah-ah-ah.

Many people use sight as their primary sense for navigating the world. Maybe that’s why sounds and smells have a way of gripping us, and accessing our memories as if by shortcut. The sounds in this audio will and must remind us of children we know. Their trust; the desperation they show when they can’t understand why they feel pain; their role-playing of adulthood, even in that desperation; the innocence that, when they show it in the most dire situations, reminds us that that innocence is far more than a Hollywood trope. The combinations of the frequencies at which they speak and sing and cry, the molecules moving in air, communicate to us that these are children who deserve protection. If those molecules can’t move us we are lost.

Finally, the girl tells a consular worker her aunt’s phone number. ProPublica blocks it out with a high sine tone. That neutral, piercing note hides a little hope. It’s a brief respite in this testament to the cruelty of what we’ve become. Or maybe have always been.

Towards the beginning of the recording, a consular worker asks, “What’s left to do?” There is too much to list in answer to that moral question. ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.