vow of silence

(photo thanks to Paulina Grabiec)

The machine could answer as well as she.  Always chipper and polite, it always had time, and callers didn’t care one way or the other; in fact, they were quite expansive and put on a little show with chuckles and asides, voices mounting and sinking with feeling.  She imagined she was giving them an opportunity record evidence of their most admirable qualities for all posterity. 

When she decided to abstain from small talk, it began as a little game.  If the conversation turns toward gossip or weather or television, she told herself, I will simply nod and smile; I will refrain from blurting “fine” if someone asks that same old question.  She also eschewed space-fillers:  no “um,” no “actually,” no “do you know what I mean,” none of the empty things she used to mouth while thinking what to say next.  At work, this experiment proved most difficult. After a week she noticed that co-workers had stopped smiling and even stopped talking when she approached.  She didn’t miss them as much as she supposed; she got a promotion.

As it often happens, what begins as diversion soon becomes absorption.  She swore off lies (even the polite ones) and became her own editor, cutting every unnecessary sound before it left her tongue.  She cut politics and religion from her vocabulary since those topics usually left her feeling like a fish on the shore, lips flapping for nothing.  Instead of chatting with people who ask questions and then just nod, nod, repeating “uh-huh” and “oh how nice,”  just waiting for their turn to talk, she decided to save her breath and let them have the floor.  

The waitress approaches:  “How was your meal?”

She says, “Don’t worry, I’ll leave you a decent tip.”

To the man standing on the corner who wonders if she cares at all about whales getting slaughtered, she doesn’t say a word, but she signs his petition. 

When the neighbor’s cat dies, all she can offer is a hug.   

She lines her eyes with dark pencil to draw attention from her lips.  They say that when you lose one sense, the others compensate.   Her actions take up the slack.  With strangers, it’s easy.  She just smiles and points to her lips and shakes her head, fluttering her eyelids; they assume she’s mute or has laryngitis; they fill the space with friendly gestures and exaggerated cheer.   Friends say she sounds like a fortune cookie, like a proverb in clipped English.  Many stop leaving messages on the machine.  Some find her silence charming, and some don’t even notice.

Her husband doesn’t mind at all. In fact, he’s secretly relieved.  Not that he ever minded before, but it’s as if suddenly, after a lifetime steeped in the constant susurrus of a busy city, someone has flipped a giant switch and he can see for miles without distraction.  He experiences real peace for the first time. 

He lies in bed watching her get ready for work in the morning.  She brushes her hair and smoothes lotion over her skin, her gaze fixed on her eyes in the mirror, and her blunt profile slides into his consciousness.  He never noticed her hands before, how delicate they are, how precise, how they move through the air like tango dancers.

One day, at a lunch meeting with a client, with a spoonful of onion soup halfway to her mouth, she discovers she has nothing to say.  She clears her throat—no use.  She flutters her eyelids and shakes her head.  She wipes her mouth with her napkin, places the spoon at the edge of her plate, and walks away. 

At her regular station, she doesn’t get off.  Instead she just sits on the train beside old ladies who grip the pocketbooks on their laps, mothers with faces blank as fog, young men nodding rhythmically to music she can only imagine. Together they tunnel through darkness under the city.

Eventually, the train surfaces for a breath and the buildings make room for trees, and the trees wave and dance in the breeze, and the world hums and sparkles with life. 

When he gets home that night, he finds her in bed.  He lies down beside her.

She turns to him, covers him with her thigh, hears his heart whisper in her ear.

She touches his chest, his throat; he grabs her wrists and breathes her hair.

They utter the same sound as they slide into consciousness.

*

Question:  In my second draft of this story, I changed the main character to a male, then changed “him” back to “her” again.  I wonder how that would have affected your reading of this story?  Do you think I should change her back?  (I feel a little thrill of power when I write things like that so glibly—just imagine if it were so easy in real life!)

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About Anna Fonté

Girl in the Hat, aka Anna Fonté, is an author who writes about invisibility, outsider status, everyday monsters, and her attempts to befriend the neighborhood crows. The things she writes want you to look at them.

26 comments

  1. That question really threw me! My initial response was that if the character was a male, I would interpret his silence as aggression or oddness, while with this woman, it seemed somewhat natural, a silent retreat. I have no idea why!

    The sentence about drawing her eyes with a pencil is what made it all come together for me. I don’t know what the equivalent would be with a male character.

    Really enjoyed reading this, Anna, on my lunch break at work 🙂

  2. Way to get me to go back and read it again! 😉

    I don’t think of myself as a sexist person, but without extending parts of the story to show me how his wife is so different from me as a wife and from other women I know, I wouldn’t buy her refief and embrace of his withdrawal from speech. Not all women are so verbal that they would want a chatterbox for a husband, but it still seems to me that it would be more plausible for a man to welcome this change. While a woman would wonder what was wrong, why it was really happening.

    I absolutely love the last image/sentence, illustrating the conscious communicative powers of sex within love. Of course sex without love can be great, too, but I don’t see it as having so much power for positive communication. I enjoyed this story, too.

    • I think you’re right– most women would would feel the need to talk about it (!) I was surprised by the ending because it is more hopeful/happy than my endings usually are and I have never tried to write about sex before. How did I live this long without once writing about sex, I don’t know. But I feel like two barriers have been breached.

  3. I have always abhorred small talk but I have finally learned how to do it in order to fit into our culture. For example, “how are you?” answer: “fine”. I appreciate a person who is direct and forthright. This was such a good short story. The ending so beautiful and sexy.
    I also love how she starts using eyeliner. I will think more on your question, man vs. woman.

  4. I like the visual of the lips – then fish flapping. The answer fine, so silly. I’m very aware of that word and your story now that I have a very sore throat.Yes, I think women are the ones that need all that talk. When i decide not to answer their talk and have them talk to me they are not really sure what to do.Sometimes more silly talk comes out. But sometimes heartfelt truthful statements follow.

  5. Josette Gasse

    This is a great story that I love! This woman is delicious and very appealing in its silences. I think I’ll put this into practice when I am with people and I will not be on the same thought rather than to discuss and try to give the back of my mind. If he was a man instead of that woman, I think I beat him 🙂 Just kidding because I am a woman absolutely comprehensive, patient and without any aggression and I knew a man
    who could stay 15 days without speak a word but it was not a game …..

    • Ha! Yes, I’d probably beat him, too, demand an explanation! 15 days is a long time. I wonder, was he a scientist or an artist? Still waters run deep, as they say. I have a friend who stopped talking as an experiment, to see if he could listen and understand better if he did not talk, but I think that the exercise was complicated by the fact that he has children (whom, as you know, chatter all the time, and need feedback).

  6. Josette Gasse

    I’m really sorry to say no ….. I think he was in his world: what could be very rewarding but I still have to answer in the negative for him but I learned a lot so for me it was a great experience to know the human! I just almost lost my head 🙂

  7. First of all, I love this story. I love the concept, and I think you executed it beautifully.

    I think that it works much better as a female. I don’t know why, except that maybe I have an easier time seeing a woman make this kind of change than a man. I believe that if it had been a male, the whole experience would have been, for reasons I really can’t even explain to myself, been less believable, less full.

    • That seems to be the consensus. Actually, now that I’ve finished it with the woman I can’t imagine it as a man, either. Funny how a final draft can erase all past mutations… thanks for reading, Emily! Now I’m off to see what you’ve been up to!

  8. Very cool story, just finding your blog. Will continue to check it out with regularity.

    I didn’t read the first draft, but I think the story would lose some of its power if it were a man. There’s something about a woman making these choices that is more interesting, a more unusual character than one that exists in our collective consciousness maybe.

    • Thanks and welcome, Matt! I completely agree with you. I can name few mute women from literature (or history). And most of those I remember are associated with religion… hmmm. Your comment made me think.

  9. What a gorgeous story, Anna. “. . . hears his heart whisper in her ear . . .” So perfect.

    I think the character needs to be a woman, because silence means something different when a woman pulls it off. It’s not such a feat for a man.

  10. Hello, Anna,

    I saw your posting on Betsy Lerner’s blog today about wanting some feedback. I can’t say that I’m wise or clever and I’m certainly not omniscient, nor do I descend from clouds in any fashion, godlike or precipitate. I probably am older, and demonstrably presumptuous (though that was not one of your specified criteria).

    So I shall presume now to tell you what I would do to “vow of silence” if I were your editor. This is how I would recast the opening paragraph:

    “The machine could answer as well as she. Always chipper and polite, it always had time. Callers often were quite expansive and put on a little show–chuckles and asides, their voices mounting and sinking. She imagined she was giving them an opportunity to record evidence of their most admirable qualities.”

    It can problematic to begin a story with any reference to anything starting. The story is starting; that event speaks for itself. Likewise, using the word “because” in a story can suck the wind right out of the story’s sails, especially in the opening line. Why? Because it’s explanatory. It tells instead of showing. And any version of the word “seem” can also be problematic. Seems to whom? How is this seeming known? You can drop the seem and simply say a thing is or it is not. You may find that approach more powerful, more concrete.

    As for her “feeling guilty,” you give no evidence of anything she should feel guilty for. It’s implied, but implication here is not enough. She can feel guilty for something, if guilty she must feel, or she can be possessed of a general unfixed guilt. We don’t know. You don’t tell us. Nor do you show us. But speaking of the feelings of a third-person character is always risky. How are these feeling known? How are they manifest? How can you display that in the story, particularly this early on, without losing momentum in the swamps of explanation? It may be best to leave all reference to feelings aside. Have her wring her hands or something. Then don’t explain why she’s doing that. Bring the reader more fully into the dream-world you are creating.

    That’s as far as I got.

    Yours,
    Tetman Callis

    • Well I’m flabbergasted. Never dreamed I’d hook a response! I feel so grateful that you took the time and I look forward to unpacking what you said here.

      I took a peek at your site. All I know about Gordon Lish is what he did for Carver (which was magnificent) and I always thought that if I could only find my own Gordon Lish, all my problems would be solved. (Is Gordon Lish your Gordon Lish? Do you have an editor or do you fly solo?) How lucky you were to study with him. I am self-taught and often wonder where that leaves me.

      Now, if I can figure out how to subscribe to your blog I will, just to glean what I can of his effect and from your writing.

      Thank you so much. From this end, it was as huge and surprising–not exactly the hand of god, but something quite like it.

      –anna

      • And the irony that I used too many words to tell my story about a woman who decides to stop talking unnecessarily is not lost on me. Thank you!

        • Wow. Oh my, I’m afraid to ask for this, but I need all the help I can get, because I’m self-taught, too. If Mr. Callis would care to visit my site and read a story– Sidewalks, maybe? I’d appreciate hearing anything that could help me get better.

          Way to go, Anna!

  11. I don’t know who said it or the exact words, but I read a quote years ago that went something like “There comes a time at which a person realizes that nothing he can say is anything new and the only reason to speak is to ease the discomfort of others rather than sit in silence.” Or something vaguely like that.

    Having to talk to others is just so, I don’t know, tacky, sometimes, don’t you think?

    Thanks so much for introducing me to Nina Simone; I am ashamed to say that I have really only just heard the name, ever, and didn’t know what songs she did. Maybe she was always categorized as jazz? Anyway, now I am hooked. I love the look in her eyes–she does not look she ever “suffered fools” very much. Mississippi Goddam, indeed.

    • Yes! Totally tacky. A total waste of life! Maybe I’m just getting old and crotchety, but every day I feel less patience for all that. (Although I doubt I could give up talking altogether. And I would miss singing, too. Just wish I could do it like Nina.)

  12. I REALLY like this. Too much to examine it to find out why. It just feels right.

  13. Little Machine

    Reblogged this on Little Machine.

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