The Silent People
They awoke as if this were the first time, as if this were eternity. They awoke to hear the murmur, just out of their sight.
The sound of doors, opening and closing, and the sound of feet, dispersing all along the corridor. At that hour, water was sharp. It awoke not only those who felt it fall down their backs but also those who heard it from afar, whipping cold stone. At that hour, before the sky cracked from side to side revealing its purple skin, they heard the crows.
It was the busiest time. They moved back and forth, in and out of their dark rooms, washing, drying, brushing, folding, dressing. They hurried so they would not fall behind and so they could keep the murmur from flooding their minds. They had no name for this sound which hovered above them at the darkest hour. If they paused to make it out and give it a name, it would rush to assault them, seizing their breath, gripping their heads like tentacles, clutching their foreheads, their temples, their eyes.
It would have been easier to let it approach, without resisting. In the darkness, it was hard to tell things apart, like the muffled sounds in and out of the rooms. It was hard to push back the murmur when they didn’t even know what they were pushing. But even in the darkness they remembered other mornings when they had moved past the murmur pressing upon them. And with whatever strength the memory gave them, they finally stepped outside.
Darkness ran through them like a shock, leaving them awake, silencing their restless bodies. They paused for a moment, then walked across the field, one after the other with their heads bowed, while crows called out from the forest.
That was a sight, then, all of them in line, faintly glowing like lanterns. Already, the murmur had begun to pass and their heads were lighter. With the crows and the sky, dark though it was, they would see that the murmur was retreating and the world taking shape—the building, the door, the tree, the field, the hall to which they walked one after another.
This was the whole world to the silent people. The chambers behind them and the hall ahead, to either side the forest and fields. And the sky above. Someone arriving from another place could count the paths on the fingers of a single hand. The silent people had counted them too, when they first came here. But eventually the paths split into invisible others so that they never walked back and forth on the same route but were met with mountains, ravines, and creeks along the way. That’s why the silent people did not always see the sight of themselves. Those from another place would have noticed them gathering and dispersing in predictable patterns, as if they were set to motion upon the orderly paths of a spider web. Those from another place would have thought that the silent people lived in this patterned unity. They would not know all that lay invisible on the silent people’s paths.
And it was a sight when they entered, softly, softly, and took their places. The patch of wood where they sat, day after day, was known to them from the weight of their thighs, their knees, the hardened soles of their feet.
The young ones were still uncertain. They had to rock back and forth into place. But with time they learned to settle—the frail ones like scorpions, the heavy ones all soft flesh—and take their places with a single folding of their bones.
Silence moved like nothing else. It hid itself in their rocking bodies, cloaked its approach in swirls of thought. It never announced its advance. The arrival of silence was like the first time and it was like an eternity.
This silence was unlike the silence of the sky, the silence of their rooms, the silence of the fields. Those others were always there, alongside the murmur, and the people encountered them often, rubbed shoulders with them or watched them pass by. But this other silence required listening, layer upon layer. Of all the silences, it was this one that gave the people their name, if ever they had a name to call themselves.
At first, it was a slow and soundless wind that pulled them from side to side and if they listened carefully it grew deeper and stronger. The elders had gone far inside it, where the silence became a shriek, and some had even gone past that, to where the shriek dissolved. There, the silence was lighter and brighter.
But none, not even the eldest, knew its depths. Eventually, they all came up, gasping for air. No one had ever reached the bottom; no one knew if there was one. And even if the depth had its limit, they did not know what it would mean to touch it.
At this hour before the sky broke and they sat side by side, they could not hear each other’s silence. But they glimpsed, from time to time, the depths that collected like rumors around the elders’ backs. The younger ones who caught sight of these depths wanted to go there themselves, to see if it was really true. That’s how the silence gathered, day after day. If not for their curiosity, they would soon have walked away, breaking the silence apart.
Eventually, other birds started alongside the crows and the silent people were glad at the awakening. They felt it spread through them, felt the dark lifting once again with the birds. The movement of silence was unlike anything else. Sometimes the people heard its unpredictable motion in other things.
By the time they stepped outside, the sky would have shed more of its skin, purple and blue, and would be stretched out in mottled pink and grey. It revealed the grass beneath, blade by blade, spotted with dew and spider webs. They stepped out all in a hurry and heard it all at once— the dew and blades and mottled sky—without having to listen. They heard it like layers peeling off their backs.
They waited a moment to pace themselves at the table, before they bent their heads and brought the first spoonful to their mouths. And then the second, and it seemed then, up and down the long table, though there was only the sound of spoons in bowls, and the sound of their bowls on wood, that they were taken over by soft, light speech. How they loved this silent conversation. How much joy it brought the silent people to eat.
Long ago, it all had names. There were all the words that had given the world its edges: spoon, bowl, lemon, stew, rabbit, sun, field, fence, table, bedside, candle, sickness, sleep. There used to be so many words, so many edges.
Some remembered a dessert made with pine nuts, patted round in the palms of chattering women and brought out of ovens to cheering children. They remembered that the dessert had a round and funny name which gave them a feeling deep in their stomachs.
They remembered other words, too. They let them flow by and more of them appeared; there was no end to the words’ abundance. There used to be words of ritual, of greeting, of parting and condolence. They remembered words which marked their joy and those that witnessed communion. There were words they said in succession, when anger rose burning inside them, and they strung these words together tightly, tightly, so that in saying them they would make a knot, impossible to undo.
When they became silent, the words flowed by or faded, leaving behind them a glowing gate. They saw that the words had always kept something at bay, had cloaked it with their sharp sounds. In their absence, the silent people could see what lay beneath.
Not all of them saw these gates opening up, because they still remembered the words. For those who remembered, silent though they were, the days were loud and the paths of their world were steeper. They saw the others through a mist.
But the ones who had forgotten the words heard another sound. Sometimes, walking in the forest, they heard the trees leaning in, the padded moss spreading up the tree trunks with thick palms, the beetles tinkling in and out of holes. These sounds were not contained, like the sharp edges of words, but continued beyond the forest, so that when they stepped out and the sky opened up above them like a jar with its lid unfastened, the sound of beetles and of the moss and the congregation of trees surrounded them soundlessly and they hurried to take it in all at once, with every step the beetles and the moss, the trees and the sky. They took in the green of the fields, their bright sounds and the tiniest flowers within.
Had they always known that the sun set each evening? They could not be sure. But when the light began to stretch in deep and purple hedges, there was nothing to do but watch. One by one they arrived at the edge of the field. They stood or squatted, they brought their hands to shade their eyes. Some walked along the border, back and forth, as if to gather the colors. But as the blue and purple touched the orange, and the hay thickened and split to its own shadow, they all stood still to listen. They remembered that in the faraway place there was music and it assembled to its peak just like this. It lasted only a moment, and then another, and in another moment it seemed that it would not end and they would not be able to bear it.
To be sure, even those who had forgotten wanted to say something as the sky gathered and split. They did not want to share the silence—it could not be shared— but to show it, to open their palms and say, look, look here.
But the fields sighed out the light. And even though they remained blue and purple and gold for some time longer, the sight was no longer heavy on the silent people and they forgot about the music gathering to its peak, nearly splitting them open like the blades of hay.
With forgetting came remembering. It was the elders who had so forgotten the faraway place that they were no longer frightened of the murmurs. They even allowed the murmurs to approach them. They listened carefully to give the murmurs their faraway names and in so doing they cast them away for good. It was these elders who remembered, as lightly as the first morning light on the leaves, and sometimes at the wooden table, they spoke.
“This tastes good,” they said. Or, “It’s hot today.”
“Oh, my knees hurt,” they said to themselves, and someone answered,
“Better cover them, then.”
Their speech was like water, without edges. It did not break the silence.
How the young ones loved to hear them speak. They had never heard anything like those words, as bright as silence. They wished they could speak like them, without giving themselves up, without being gripped.
Some of them let themselves believe that they could make their words flow, just as the elders did. They believed they would say the words and the words would drift off.
Those ones were the first to leave. Once they left, the memory of the fields and of the silent people would disappear layer by layer like the dark of the sky.
Some left because they were certain they’d gathered the silence fully. They didn’t think that it would flow out. But silence moved like nothing else. They woke up in the old and faraway place to find that the silence was gone.
And yet others, whose silence was delicate as a bird’s nest, left because their hearts were brimming with the light of the fields in the evening, the forest at noon, the crack of the sky revealed to them with the first sounds.
They left, their hearts brimming, and they remembered that even in their deepest silence they’d been talking to the faraway place. They stepped out as if waking up from eternity, their hearts like a nest, folded like a dream, gathering with longing.