Villagers have no ability speak and hear in this post-apocalyptic short story.
|}“Silence is White”
It's quiet. Silent. Quiet is all I've ever known. I don't speak. I can't speak. Nobody speaks. We are incapable. We cannot hear.
The sun shines down on a cool springtime day in the tranquil mountainside town of Naso where a stone statue of someone called Helen Keller stands at the Main Square's center. She is said to be our spiritual mother, one who inspires us to notice the miracles of life and strive to better ourselves. Everyone under 16 gathers at the town well, in front of our “mother” for our daily communication lessons. The teachers clad in dirt-covered yellow robes show hand-drawn pictures and teach hand gestures to correspond with various objects or actions that we encounter around the village. Yellow-2, the head teacher, lifts a large drawing of a man shearing a sheep. Each child seated on the dirt ground can see the picture as Yellow-2 holds it above her head and rotates her body in all directions. Yellow-7 then demonstrates a hand gesture associated with this lesson, two fists coming together - “Shear” followed by a flat hand rubbing along the forearm of the opposite hand - “Sheep”.
“Green-8, please tap Red-4, and tell her to stop staring into the clouds,” Yellow-7 instructs me through various hand signals with a stern look upon her young face.
I quickly tap my best friend, Red-4, on her shoulder and relay the message.
Red-4 discreetly responds to me, “Okay, sorry,” keeping her signs low and out of sight of the teachers.
Several minutes pass as most of us teenagers in the back row pretend to pay attention. Red-4 tugs on my dust-covered green robe. My head remains steadily pointed towards Yellow-2 while I discreetly move my hand from my cross-legged lap, hiding it behind the Primers sitting in front of us and slowly extend a “What's up?” hand signal to Red-4.
I glance over and see Red-4's hands still in her lap as she signs, “Do you think any of these Primers have any idea how many more years of these boring required classes they have to look forward to?”
Taking the bait, I sign back, “How many years has it been since we've learned anything new or interesting?”
“At least you will finally be free of this daily torture after tomorrow,” Red-4 tells me with a smile.
“I know,” I sign with a half-smirk.
Tomorrow I reach the age of sixteen, which is the day of Entrance. The members of our village have three important days of remembrance: Birth, Entrance, and Death. “Entrance” signifies the day we shift from our childhood duties of learning and playing to our adult duties. One positive is I will no longer be expected nor required at daily class in the Square, instead I shall begin my duties that all Greens must upon their sixteenth birthday: gardening. Each of us is assigned our color at our birth. Immediately upon birth, even before meeting the mother or father, every newborn baby is visited by a white-robed shaman and a blue-clad doctor, where they assess a child's attributes, place a colored thumbprint on his forehead, then collect a drop of blood.
“Class dismissed,” Yellow-2 gestures to the class.
All thirty students plant our bare feet into the dirt earth floor and stand up to greet the day and thank our teachers. We first look to the sky with our arms raised and palms outstretched as if to caress the clouds, signing “thank you” to the sun. Our fingers fully extended and palms up, we bend at the waist lowering our palms close to our feet, sign “thank you.” With our arms still straight, palms out, we raise up perpendicular to the ground, now facing the teachers and Helen Keller. Teachers and student both bow our heads together as we sign, “thank you.”
Following our communication lessons, Red-4 and I walked a final twenty-pace stroll together to the hut of Record.
We sit through one sun-hour cycle of history class, the Shaman shares drawings of the Great Divide and the arrival of the dust clouds which have always surrounded our village. We see pictures of green landscapes and large herds of people traveling vast distances from village to village. The picture stories tell of a time before the Great Divide when humans made vibrations through their mouths to communicate and language was deciphered with our ears. It has been nearly a millennium since the planet-wide tectonic shift caused mass volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, altering the face of Earth and its inhabitants forever. Those who survived the initial wave of destruction fled to higher ground as the coastlines moved hundreds of miles inland. Then came the dust clouds that humans had never seen before. The tectonic plates had shifted in such a way that unknown substances from deep within the Earth were released. Once the clouds hit the refugee colonies days after the Great Divide, people began to lose the ability to speak, and eventually the ability to hear. No living creature was spared. Every newborn of every species since the Great Divide is born with the same handicap: deaf and mute.
I have never left the village. The only way to leave the village is through death. The only way to enter the village is by birth. Following the Great Divide, the Founder wrote the village charter, which states:
“In order to protect ourselves from future, possibly deadly infections, all village borders shall be closed for all time, keeping us all in, and all others out.”
Our tiny wooden huts, vegetable garden, and vast grounds are surrounded on all sides by giant wooden fences 180 hands tall. There are no gates leading outside. No one leaves. Occasionally an elder passes or a child is born.
Purple-6, a future weaver raises her hand.
“Has anyone ever tried to leave Naso?” signs Purple-6.
Obviously discontent with the interruption of class with such a question, White-2, in his pristine long white hooded robe gestures, “Why would anyone? It is not safe.”
Every child asks this question at some point before reaching adulthood. The answer is always the same: it's not safe.
White-2 continues, “One villager chose to leave to search for other communities.”
“What happened to her?” asks a very young Yellow-15.
“He was called White-1, Father of Naso,” White-2 pauses.
Several kids sign, “What happened?”
“He never returned.”
Finally, it's time for lunch hour. We enjoy our lunches in solitude as our daily “moment of reflection”. On a clear day, such as today, I collect my stewed beans and garden veggies from the Oranges and hurry to the southern edge of the village where I rest upon a small thicket of green clover and tiny wildflowers. I eat quickly. Meals are always delicious and varied thanks to the hundreds of herbs grown in our garden, which tomorrow, I will be tending myself.
My belly full, I lie upon my bed of clover and gaze into the light blue sky. Watching the birds circle above the village always puts me at peace. They gently glide in elegant patterns across the sky all day and night. I don't know much about the birds because they never land in the village. They just love to fly above our huts, and I love to watch them.
My first morning of gardening goes well. All the other Greens are supportive, but I can't wait for lunch.
“She's a great help,” an elder Green woman signs to the group.
“Green-3, how proud are you today?” asks the elder.
Mother answers, “She certainly takes after her father, Grey-4. A hard worker. Never complains.”
Red's older brother, Green-5 jumps in, “Just wait until she's been at it for a week, and her hands are so blistered she can't carry a rake.”
Great, I can't wait. I still haven't figured out what Green-5 has against me. Maybe he's still upset he wasn't born Red or Brown. When we were kids, we were thick as thieves, and he always talked about how the Fire keepers and the Animal keepers had the best jobs. I always took pride in knowing that someday I would be responsible for keeping our village alive, by tending the plants and vegetables. We can survive without fire, and can tend the land without animals' help. Without food, however, we would die. Green-5 never found that pride.
I spot Red-4. She waves “hello” to her brother and takes my hand. She obviously wants to know how my first day of Entrance is going.
“Was my brother nice to you?”
“He didn't say much other than the usual tease,” I tell her.
“How was your mom?”
“She kept an eye on me and let me complete my duties on my own.”
I continue the conversation, “How was class today?”
Red-4 cocks her head to the side and raises her eyebrows as she signs, “Do you need to ask?”
I am starving. Today's work in the sun was more demanding than I had imagined, much more physically taxing than sitting through White-2's lectures. My arms are so worn out, I can barely hold my bowl of stew with one hand. I signal to Red-4, “See you later,” with a nod of the head and proceed to my private thicket with two hands securing my lunch. I have probably eaten this berberé recipe of squash, yams and beans over a hundred times, but it has never been so refreshing. My body soaks up the nourishment from the food that I now am responsible for growing. A smooth satisfaction envelops me as I lay out for a much needed rest and view my sky-dancing birds.
That's strange. Where did that giant white-crowned bird come from? He's flying so fast! Is he attacking my birds? Why aren't my birds doing anything?
The large intruder glides high above the family of birds, then swiftly swoops down towards them with tremendous speed, grabbing them with its feet. The birds continue their flying patterns as if nothing is happening. The raider hurtles into a smaller bird and they fall in a spinning earthbound heap of diving feather and wind.
I spring to my feet and dive away from the fence as the birds crash into the waist-high brush alongside my thicket. As I approach, I notice a small amount of smoke emanating from the crash site, nothing too alarming. What would have caused a small fire? No fire, but there is nothing resembling a bird either. Apparently tangled in some sort of leather cord, the larger bird must have been unable to free it's claws from my friend; its majestic white feathered head, lay peacefully in a small well of its own blood, while it's body appears to have been singed to a dark crisp by something. My eyes move from the larger bird to inspect its prey. What I believed to be my beautiful bird appears to be nothing more than a smoking bundle of shiny sparking stone pieces attached to feathers. This is no bird! I have seen examples of these “stones” before in the picture stories of men working with shiny stone tools called weapons. The Founder called this shiny stone “metal” and taught us to make dull stone tools that were considered safer. So, where did this metal being come from? Are all of my birds a fabrication of feathers and metal?
Where is the Shaman? White-2's been here the longest; he's the oldest and supposedly the wisest. He was assistant to our Founder, White-1. He'll have answers.
I come upon the Medical hut on my way to locate White-2. Blue-3 emerges from the doorway and signs, “Can I help you, Miss? Did you ---- something a moment ago near the South fence?”
The doctor signed a word I did not understand by pointing to his ear? He rephrased the question with a different word, “Did you notice anything unusual a moment ago near the South fence?”
Did he see the birds fall? I confirm I watched birds fall from the sky and slam to the ground where I was eating my lunch, “I think the attacking bird has had contact with humans outside of our village.”
“Why do you think that, Miss?”
“It had leather bindings tied to its feet in knots.”
The doctor responds, “That is very intriguing isn't it? Did you detect anything else unusual?”
I explain what I discovered in the birds' remains and asked, “How is it possible that so much metal was inside that poor creature?”
Blue-3 unaffectedly tells me how humans used metal for countless experiments before the Great Divide.
Feeling myself become more agitated I press the doctor for more answers, “That was a thousand years ago, this bird can't be more than a decade old at the most. And, who wrapped that bird's feet?”
Blue-3 places a contemplative finger to his chin, “You have some very legitimate questions, Green-8. Unfortunately, I do not have all the answers.”
He then blankly signs “Did any other villagers witness this?”
“I don't think so. Not that I saw. I was on my way to inform the Shaman.”
“Poor White-2 came to visit me earlier, he was feeling quite unwell. I feel it best we do not trouble him with this matter until he is feeling better,” the doctor signs with a merciful look.
The Blues only leave the Medical hut under one condition: a birth. We are told it's because they must keep their quarters and themselves sanitized and sterile.
Now, Blue-3 takes on a serious look, “Please, my dear, I need you to go and collect the remains of the birds so that I may dispose of them properly, to keep our village safe from any outside infection. Can you do that for me? For all of us?”
“Of course,” I quickly sign.
“Go quickly. Do not let anyone see you. We do not wish to trouble the establishment with undo worry.”
“I will be careful,” I assure the doctor.
Lowly clouds now loom overhead, hiding the routine sky-dance of the birds. The heavens spray a misty drizzle over the village; I raise my hood over my head and return to the crash site. I should have brought a container to hold the remains. Leaning against the fence, I begin to assess the damaged clump of feather and shrubs. Suddenly, I feel a strong bump against the giant wall followed by the appearance of a long rope dangling from the top of the fence. Is that...?
A young man clad in a forbidden style of clothing I've only seen in pictures climbs down the rope. The outsider jumps to the ground. My hunched and wary legs pivot as I prepare to run for help. The freshly sodden clover gives way. Before I can raise myself for a getaway, a powerful hand grasps my arm, lifts me to my feet and turns me around. I should be frightened in this moment. I am eye to eye with my attacker. I do not sense danger. A great calm comes over me. Maybe this is what you feel just before you die.
He releases me. Face to face, the two of us are standing still, anticipating each other's next move. Very coolly, he raises his hands in front of him and gestures the word, “Help.” Instinctively I ask, “You know my language?”
“Yes,” he affirms with the hand sign of our village's language.
“What is your name?” I bravely ask him.
He signs a name I do not understand. He then signs one letter at a time, “J-O-N-A-S,”
“We do not have a gesture for your name,” I explain.
He clasps his hands together with his fingers interlaced. It is our sign for friend.
“You wish to be named Friend?”
He nods his head in approval.
“I wish for nobody but you to know of my presence. My eagle and I were merely searching for food. Now that he is gone, I too must leave,” he expresses perfectly with the hand gestures of our village.
I must know, “Where have you come from?”
“I am a hunter. I live alone with my infirm father in a cabin several days hike from here. The animals have migrated off the mountain, so I am searching for game at lower elevation.”
“I must take you to the Shaman, our leader. We call him White-2. He can help you. He is always kind, and I trust him with my life,” I excitedly tell Friend. “He would certainly allow you to have some of our crops.”
Friend appears hesitant, almost disturbed. Friend pulls the green hood down to my shoulders so he can see my face.
“I need to tell you something,” he signs.
“The Founders, the Whites, they have kept the truth from you.”
“What do you know about our village and our Founders?”How dare he!
“The name I was given at birth was Grey-9. I am the son of White-1. The Founder adopted me after my Animal keeper parents died. Shortly thereafter, arguments ensued between my father, the other Whites, and the Blues. I remember watching that conversation. Something was mentioned about the Whites and Blues weren't allowed to have families within the walls of the village. That night, my father confessed he would rather care for me as his own son than remain leader of the village. My father and I gathered as many supplies as we could carry and fled to start our own life together.”
I am frozen.
“You've been living beyond our village walls for a decade? I was always taught that White-1 passed away over fifty years ago,” I ponder aloud, “why would our teachers and parents lie to us?”
Friend gently attempts to cradle my hand in his. I reject it.“How is this possible? Why don't I remember you? How did you survive the dust?”
“This village...The World, is not what you believe it is, Green-8.”
“I know you must have questions that have only seemingly impossible answers. I am sorry I jumped the fence. I only meant to discreetly rescue my eagle and return to the woods.”
He reaches into his pocket then hands me a tiny folded piece of paper. I reluctantly take it and unfold it, my curiosity getting the better of me. Drawings of plants?
“Gather two pebble-weights of each of these herbs. Steep them together over night and drink one cup of the tea in the morning.”
“Friend, if you are a friend, why should I do that? Or even trust you? Do you just carry this recipe with you in case you run into someone who craves a cup of tea?”
“I understand why you wouldn't trust me, but I have nothing to gain from lying to you. I only want you and your people to know the truth,” Friend signs adamantly. “I drink the tea daily and have carried the recipe with me as long as I can remember.”
“If I drink this tea, I will magically know the truth?” I ask with my most disbelieving face.
“Believe it or not, it was magic for me when my father, White-1, gave it to me after our escape.”
I keep the recipe. Friend carries the charred body of his bird under one arm while he clambers up the wall with a commanding ease. He disappears over the fence. Will I ever see this stranger again?
The encounter has left me in a slight state of shock. My first reaction to the situation is to leave the feathered metal mess hidden in the brush for now. What about Blue-3? I decide it is more important for the moment to avoid any undue attention. The Greens have surely noticed my tardiness returning from lunch. The doctor must wait. I return to my gardening duties for the day.
“Where have you been?” questions my mother. “There is much work to be done yet today.”
“First day on the job and you're already slacking!” Green-5 hands me my basket. “It's okay, these herbs aren't going anywhere. They will still need to be picked and dried tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after.”
Was that a hint of playfulness from Green-5?
“Sorry, Mother. I fell asleep after the stew. This gardening is tougher than it looks.” I hate lying to my mother.
I get back to the grind of gardening with the other Greens. Luckily for me, my job for the afternoon doesn't require much concentration, which is a blessing because all I can think about is everything that's transpired since lunch. I feel the piece of paper with the herb drawings crinkle around inside my robe pocket. What could it hurt to steep a few herbs together? I have picked so many herbs by the afternoon's end that no one will miss a few pebbles worth. With the sun only two hands from the horizon, the workday is finished. I trail behind all the other Greens as we file out of the garden. I gather what herbs I need for the tea from my basket and stuff them in my linen waist sash.
Once through the gate, mother takes a soft hold of my arm and signs, “I am so proud of you. Enjoy your first night of Entrance. I know it can be difficult having to remain in solitude for your first night in your new home, but it is tradition, and you will be forever grateful that you had this night to reflect upon your childhood. I can't wait for you to tell me all about it in the morning.”
Nighttime in the village is always very still. Following supper, the Fire keepers allow each hut one lit candle which burns for about one hour. Being that I became an adult today, I am afforded my own hut and my own candle. My mind still reeling from the events that transpired today, I settle into the new hut. I lay down onto my straw cot, place my hands on my stomach and prepare to close my eyes. I am entirely too anxious to meditate on my Entrance or my childhood. My fingertips caress the herbs still hidden in my sash. I need only wait for the village to sleep so I can prepare my tea concoction. As my eyes begin to close, Green 5 appears at my small window holding up a piece of paper. I never went back to the Medical hut! I bounce up and pull open the drape to let Green-5 in. He hands me the blue paper:
Please see me first thing in the morning.
“Enjoy your first night of freedom,” signs Green-5 as he starts for the door.
“Good Night, Green-5.”
The tea tastes surprisingly pleasant.
The sun peeks over the hazy easterly mountains while I enjoy my bowl of hot porridge. Heading to the south wall, I notice Green-5 in line for breakfast. He smiles from ear to ear. What is going on with him? I continue towards the thicket to collect the bird remains for Blue-3. It's gone!
I rush into the doctor's hut, “It's gone,” I sign, panting heavily.
“Sit down, my dear,” Blue-3 signals me to sit on the exam cot.
The doctor places his hand on my leg, and urges me to lie down, “Everything will be fine.”
I start to feel a tickle deep inside my ears. The doctor steps over to a shelf on the far wall and returns with an odd tool in his hand. It is made of clear and shiny materials. The end of it is long, extremely thin and made of metal, like the bird creature.
“What is that?” I ask propping myself up onto my elbows.
Blue-3 responds, signing with the tool still in his hand, “It's a medical tool which we do not have a name for. It is from the old world. The Whites permit us to use it in emergencies.”
“What's the emergency?”
“You seem so stressed about becoming an adult that you have been hallucinating. I am afraid you are a danger to yourself and others.”
What is he talking about?
“I will administer the medicine into your leg and you will go to sleep. Then you will wake up rested, at ease, and will have forgotten all this nonsense about metal birds and boys jumping over the fence.”
I never told anyone about Friend at the fence.
“I think I'm fine, doctor. My mother is expecting me at the garden.”
Now my throat is tickling. I start to get up and aim for the door. Blue-3 drops the tool and viciously grabs me by the arms and throws me to the ground. He climbs atop me and squeezes my arms down so tight I wince in pain. Amidst this one-sided brawl, I feel an unfamiliar sensation developing in my throat. It really tickles! How can something tickle at a time like this?
A long and powerful vibration emerges from my throat and emanates through my mouth, and at once I can feel it in my ears. Blue-3 ceases his assault momentarily and takes on a look of pure shock. In that reprieve, I snatch the metal tool from the floor and stab the doctor in the leg. He releases a vibration that I pick up with my ears. As soon as the pointed end of the device makes contact with the doctor's flesh, the opposite end begins to shorten. I watch the tool's liquid contents slowly empty into Blue-3's leg. I feel his body go limp. He is asleep.
Once I step out of the hut, I began to pick up all kinds of vibrations in my ears coming from all directions of the village. Every breath I take registers inside my ears. What is this unique sensation? Needing to tell someone what just happened, I race for the garden. I see my mother tilling the soil with a few other gardeners. Each time a hoe comes down into the dirt, I feel it my ears. I don't know how to explain it. Before I can reach my mother, I experience the presence of someone's breath in my ears, it's coming from behind me. I turn around.
“Green-5. I need to talk to my mother,” I sign.
“Okay, but come see me after?”
I nod then turn back towards my Mother, still a few rows away. Two Blues come up from behind her and stick her with the pointy tool I used on Blue-3. She goes limp in their arms. I grab Green-5's arm and make him crouch down in the tall row of bean plants.
He signs, “What are we doing?”
“Hiding. Two Blues just abducted my mother in the garden.”
Green-5 shoots me a look of disbelief, “That's ridiculous. Blues can't leave the Medical hut.”
He tries to stand up, but I quickly pull him back down behind the plants, “You must trust me. Have I ever lied to you or your family?”
“Never.” He pauses. “Follow me.”
“Wait,” I sign. I hand him the paper with the list of herbs drawn on it. “We'll need these.”
He smiles broadly, “Trust me. It'll be okay.”
We crawl the length of the row of bean plants. The Blues have left the garden and the remaining Greens have resumed their chores. I follow Green-5 through the gardens to the wall.
Waiting there is a full herb basket and a fifty cubit rope.
Green-5 hugs me. “I had a feeling you would make the tea.”
“How do you know about the tea, Green-5?”
“The Blues and Whites drink it during their monthly meetings. I was given a list with an odd collection of herbs drawn on it and asked to bring them to the Blues' hut one evening just before supper. You know how we used to play hide and seek in the storage bins just outside the Medical hut? Once I delivered the herbs, I climbed into a bin and spied through that crack in the wall as they steeped the herbs for almost an hour. They all drank the tea, then started communicating without their hands. They were using their mouths. So, the next day I started drinking the tea.”
“Tell me why you took all this rope.”
“Aren't we going to use it to climb the fence and get out of here?”
“You are coming with me?”
“Green-8, I go where you go.”
“I thought you hate me.”
“I love you. Since we were kids,” signs Green-5.
Whatever. “You are quite juvenile. You realize this, right? We will discuss this love stuff later. We need to get over this wall before the Blues realize we've stolen the rope.”
He uncoils the rope, ties a rock to one end and launches it. Finally, on the second try, the rope clears the height of the wooden wall.
“You go first,” commands Green-5.
“Mother,” I sign.
Green-5 signs, “Don't worry. We'll come back for her as soon as we find your new Friend.”
This is no time to argue, but I pause a brief moment to sign, “You've been spying on me?”
“I've never been far away from you. I just want to protect you. Now go.”
Atop the highest point of the fence, I look out to the forest and see more trees in every direction than I've ever dreamed. Green-5 is right on my toes, so I hurry over the wall and slide down the rope. He drops to the ground right behind me. With Green-5 at my side, I reluctantly leave my village and everything I know behind.