Did you know there are different kinds of silences? Yeah, I didn’t either. Not until now at least.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the most basic one, the Idle Silence, the very topmost level of silences. I know this because I scratched myself a chart into the gummy white paint slathered over the cell walls using a speckled penny I’d found on the bathroom floor. A rare find. I’d spotted it during one of my cleaning shifts, just lying there in the corner of the stall. Probably dropped by a prison guard as he was shuffling through his wallet and later picked up by one of the other girls here. I bet she’s wondering where it is now.
A dirty penny found in the dirtiest place in prison—rivaled only by the kitchen—might not seem like much to any of you regular folk, but for me it was kind of special in a way. A secret. You don’t really get to keep those here. Not with all the guards about, staring you down with those bleak eyes of theirs, scorching holes into the back of your head. You almost believed the devil himself was standing behind you, his seething breath rolling down your spine as though you were sitting far too close to a raging cast iron wood stove. Like the one I used to sit in front of at Grandma Lin’s house.
To clarify, she was some hunched over Asian lady down on Fifth Street with a real nasty burn scar disfiguring half her face and some of her scalp. She said it was because of her husband, that he threw liquid fire at her one night after choking down enough whiskey to make a whale float belly up like my goldfish in sixth grade. Apparently, their bellies can explode when you overfeed them, but I figure, hey, at least the little guy died with a decent meal.
Anyways, I used to sit by her furnace after school. I’d usually get something out of it, which I appreciated considering how far out of my way I had to walk. She’d always come tottering in, her moth-eaten slippers shuffling across the carpet as though she couldn’t quite lift her knees high enough. Kind of like Forrest Gump when he was waddling about in those leg braces. She reminded me a bit of him actually. Always ignorantly cheerful. But she smiled more. Especially when there was nothing to smile about. Her English was shit so she could only point to objects and excitedly repeat half-coherent phrases she might have picked up from her TV programs. She couldn’t say my name right though.
Weenay! Weenay! She’d always recite proudly.
No, no. It’s Winnie. WINN-EE. Like that fat yellow bear on TV that eats honey and waddles about. Kind of like you. At this she’d shriek with laughter, not quite grasping the insult I just gave her, and display a mouth full of yellowed teeth with mossy brown stains sprouting up from her pale gums. One of them was missing. Some of them looked like they were on the verge of falling out.
She was an ugly thing. I was certain she didn’t own a mirror because they’d all warped, unable to bear the weight of her reflection. Along with the blotchy scars and the unfortunate state of her teeth, she looked like some kind of Play-Doh figurine made by my brothers. Smooth-skinned, but stout and lumpy, with bulging or disfigured extremities from her untreated arthritis. At the time, all I could think was, no wonder her husband hardly ever came about.
She made good food though. Usually rice. Not the instant kind that comes out of a microwaveable baggy and leaves that dull aftertaste in your mouth. The real kind. Made in a shiny pot on a stove—one that wasn’t missing a knob or dented from that time my brothers and I played sock hockey in the kitchen. The dent was not made from the sock, I can tell you that much.
Oh right, the silence. It’s difficult to keep your thoughts straight sometimes. There are different kinds of silences. The first one is the Idle Silence, as I mentioned before. We all know that one. It’s what you get when you walk into an empty room or house after a long day. Motionless. Undisturbed. Expected.
Now, let’s say you’re in a library packed with people, some carefully pondering the contents pressed onto the yellowed pages of a musty book with torn bindings. This time, it’s different. It’s no longer an idle silence, it’s an active one. Ready to be interrupted at any moment. There’s movement behind it. The atmosphere is constantly being disturbed at a molecular level, invisible to our eardrums.
It also has a faint hint of tension behind it, but maybe that’s just me. I never liked libraries. Always smelled like wet dust. Always filled with eyes that looked down on you like an exhibit at a museum. Curious. Wondering why you’re there.
I used to wonder the same about myself every time I entered Grandma Lin’s house. What was I even doing sitting in the living room of some senile old bat who was obsessed with tacky flower décor? I mean, it was everywhere. The carpet, the curtains, the couch, the cloth covering the coffee table on her porch. Even her dress! Always some gaudy fabric with giant prints of roses or tulips that screamed at you when you looked at them. And trust me, I didn’t need any more screaming. I got enough of it when she was trying to explain things to me in that awful accent. I had to remind her a couple times that I wasn’t hard of hearing, I just couldn’t understand that damn broken English of hers.
She also wore those heavy woven cardigans with loose ends of fabric poking out all over the sleeves. Not even just during the winter. She’d actually wear them year-round. They were the kind old ladies always seem to wear. It’s as though they assemble and coordinate their outfits to look like the contents of a cheap, plastic jewelry box at a mid-July yard sale: an intricate but absolutely hideous display of twisted, brightly-colored necklaces and brooches.
I wanted one of those once when I was in fifth grade. A brooch. A silver one with a pearl in the middle and petals flaring out around it in the shape of a daisy. The pin to hold it in place was a little bent, but I thought it added some character. Gave it a story. I pretended that it was an ancient artifact that would grant you a wish if you bought it. Maybe that’s why I wanted it so bad. A wish that could change your life.
I didn’t bother asking mom for it though. I already knew what she would say. How she would look. Furrowing her brows and shrieking in that nasally tone of hers, “Whaddaya need a thing like that for?” So when I saw one—not the same brooch, a different one with gold wiring in the shape of a dove carrying some sort of branch—lying there on the hideous floral tablecloth on the old lady’s porch, I grabbed it. Didn’t even really want it. I suppose I was just angry at the world for not letting me have the other one. For not letting me have my wish. I realized how stupid grabbing it was when I got home, so I tucked it back into my pocket, prepared to walk the mile back to the rancher. I wasn’t a thief after all. Although, crime does seem to be genetic these days. I used to think to myself, if that’s the case, then I was pretty screwed.
If I remember correctly, that was the first time I stepped into the old lady’s house. I went to return the damn thing and leave before anyone noticed. I found her sitting there instead, those hideous burns covering her face like ivy on the plastic paneling of a house. They were fresh then.
She looked like a Halloween attraction, peering over the street with that haunting face of hers, and I suddenly remembered why all the kids avoided the house at the end of the block. They’d told me stories about how she picked up stray pets and boiled them whole. Jimmy said that sometimes she’d pick up the occasional stray kid too, and threw acid on their face out of revenge. I didn’t believe him.
Once I worked up the courage, I handed the thing back to her with lowered eyes. She didn’t yell at me or anything. I’d ducked my head slightly, preparing myself for a sharp smack to the top of it, the one mom always gave me when I did something wrong. Not a hard one of course. Just a light one to get the point across. A hard one would be considered child abuse and she didn’t want any more cops showing up at the house.
But she didn’t. The old lady, I mean. She invited me in, jumping from her seat and moving her hands in wild gestures, as though I were the president coming to visit her quaint little cottage. Mom always said not to enter a stranger’s house, but what harm could an old lady do? Besides, I kind of felt bad I guess, her being lonely and all.
I also wanted to be the only kid on the block to see the inside and live to tell the tale. I believed it would help my social status in school if I had a cool story to tell. I considered a couple, my favorite being “she tried to put me in her oven, but luckily I escaped,” or “she ate my brother Liam, so I went there to avenge him.” The second was really more wishful-thinking than a plausible story, so I decided to go with the first.
The story did earn me a reputation that lasted up until about 8th or 9th grade. After that, I put a stop to the rumors myself. I suppose I didn’t like the way they painted the villain.
There’s another silence, the Vast Silence, the one you experience under water. I’ve never owned or been in a pool, but I knew what that one was like. Liam once shoved my head into the toilet bowl when I was six—Shit like you goes in the toilet!
Even I had to appreciate the humor in that comment.
At first it was loud, between me struggling under the hand pressed firmly against my skull and the sounds of my brothers laughing behind me. Not to mention the sickening gurgling noise that rose from my throat. But then, it just grew quiet. Motionless.
No, wait, I grew motionless. Tired. Hardly able to move. I think I realized I was drowning right before I passed out. I don’t remember very much about the drowning part, but I remember the silence clearly. A vastness filling my ears, muffling but not quite blocking the noise just outside of its strangling grasp.
It frightened me, but I think it frightened mom more. She was awfully nice to me that day. Even bought me ice cream to make up for the lifelong PTSD I would incur afterwards.
Mom never worried about me much. She was always one to let us kids run off and learn the world on our own—sometimes the hard way—so I was surprised when she held me after I woke up dripping wet on the bathroom tile. The snot and tears were running down her face like a Popsicle melting under an August sun. Her locks of ashy hair were matted firmly to her cheeks. She made lots of promises between the fits of choked sobbing. I think more to herself than to me, because I was too young to really understand what was going on.
It wasn’t until much later that I understood the gravity of the entire thing and what she went through in that moment. Of possibly losing someone, that is. Not just any someone. Someone important.
My favorite has always been the Still Silence, because you can feel it. The hollowness. The peace. It’s the one you get when you walk outside at 2 am after a snow storm. You creep into the front yard, the light from the kitchen window revealing a smooth, dense blanket, and just let everything sink into you like osmosis or something.
I call it the Still Silence because the world is still in the most unnatural way, as though those little white flakes force the earth’s rotation into a complete stop. Almost like it had been reset, returned to its original blank state. I like to imagine that’s what the world was like before it was polluted with people. Well, maybe not so much “polluted.” More like infested.
That’s when I started to go to her house more regularly. Grandma Lin’s. In 6th grade when the world began to freeze over like it did every January. The heater at my house was about as reliable as my mother’s paycheck, so when I remembered the old lady at the end of the block with the furnace, I took the long route home from school and dropped by the dingy little brick hovel knowing full well that she’d take me in. She was a lonely thing after all. What with a husband that never came home and no other relatives around, I’m sure she was desperate for some company.
That’s when I came up with the name Grandma Lin. She’d never given me her real name—or maybe she had and I just hadn’t cared enough to remember the first time. Anyways, I decided I needed to call her something if I was going to raid the kitchen and squat in her living room so often. It needed to be something Chinese-sounding. Not to be racist or anything. Names like Debbie or Martha just didn’t suit her.
I figured Lin was close enough as I wasn’t actually familiar with any of the Asian cultures. I called her grandma, but I don’t think she was really that old. Maybe early 50s, but she sure didn’t look like it. The world had definitely not been kind to her.
She’d always bring me a warm cup of tea, served with that gapped smile of hers, and I’d just sit there by the flames, letting them embrace me in a rush of warmth. I didn’t like the tea at first. Bland. Bitter. I didn’t complain though. Mom always said it was rude to complain. It didn’t matter anyways because I stopped noticing the taste after so many visits. I almost came to appreciate it.
Once I was all nestled in, she’d take her place on the battered olive couch with frilly pink throw pillows pressed neatly against the armrests. Fancy ones. My house didn’t bother with things like throw pillows. What’s the point of a pillow that you can’t use for sleeping anyways? How do you even wash it with all those frilly bits on it?
She’d always invite me to join her up there—Come, Seet Seet!—but I insisted on the floor. More comfortable since it was closer to the fire. It was also in direct view of the window. You’d think a 6th grader would need some sort of entertainment, but I was content just sitting there and watching the flakes drift in front of the glass. I didn’t know glass could be that clear. She must have washed it often. Her house was always cleaner than she was, which I never understood. Maybe a pretty house made her feel less ugly.
Meanwhile, she’d sit there with her knitting needles, tugging and looping threads into a single unified piece of cloth. She liked to sing while she knit. For someone who looked the way she did, she was actually a good singer. She had a real sweet pitch that could rise and fall in the most delicate way I’d ever heard. I didn’t need to understand the language to feel the emotion behind the lyrics. It was those moments that I felt our language barrier was finally lifted. Like we could think and feel the same thoughts for once. I used to wonder who she was in her younger days and imagined that I was actually secretly in the presence of some world famous vocalist.
At the end of my fourth visit she gave me the blanket she had been knitting. A real thick white one, just like the snow I enjoyed so much. The strings formed an arrow-like pattern that channeled your gaze up and down its center, making you want to drag your fingers all over it. Which I did, though I was scared to touch it at first. Not really sure why. I didn’t reach for it so she just shoved it in my arms and sent me off.
I didn’t know what to say to her at the time, although the words “Why?” and “Really?” came to mind. I was almost halfway home before I realized that I hadn’t even thanked her.
When I got home I was excited to put it on my bed. I didn’t have very many things to claim my own. I gently tugged at the corners and pulled the folds apart, all the while careful not to put excess strain on it. As if I were somehow strong enough to rip it. That’s when I noticed something was attached. The brooch. The little gold dove with the branch.
I think I cried. Right then, when I was looking at it all neatly tucked in. I’d never been given a present before. A real present, that is. Not the ones people are forced to give you on Christmas or your birthday. Just presents given out of kindness. I think that’s what made me cry the most. Her kindness.
Sometimes, things aren’t silent at all and it’s just in your head. It happens occasionally when you’re really focused or waiting for something important. Usually when you’re under a lot of pressure. You forget that there’s noise, or that anything even exists outside of your own mind.
Perceived Silence. That’s what it is. But I didn’t experience the usual kind people face. I felt it, the real kind, in the waiting room of Trinity Hospital.
Or was it Mercy Hospital? I’m not sure. They all sound the same around here, all of them with religious-sounding names. As if faith will undo everything. But it won’t. It won’t unclog your heart or unbreak your bones or ungrow a stage four tumor being harbored in your pancreas. It’s like that one Emily Dickinson poem, the one with the numbered title. 201? 202?—”Faith” is a fine invention for Gentlemen who see! But Microscopes are prudent in an Emergency!—This is a job for people, not some fictitious figure.
Besides, why name a medical center after something so clearly connected to death? As if people really need a reminder that their death may be imminent when they’re lying helplessly in a building that offers funeral services on the pamphlets in their waiting room. Perhaps it’s all just religious propaganda. Maybe they try to scare the devil out of you before you die. Make you repent for sins or something. Who knows.
But my thoughts weren’t on the big man in the sky or the name of the building during that time. My thoughts were on her. Grandma Lin. I’d spent my childhood convincing myself that she was a stranger to me, or that I was just using her house. But if that was true, then I wouldn’t have been sitting there, sobbing quietly into my sweatshirt. That was hard for me, because I didn’t like crying in front of people who had no business seeing me cry.
The image is permanently seared into my mind, like an iron branding. I’d found her on that shabby brown rug in her living room, clutching her side. I thought maybe she’d fallen, like one of those LifeAlert Commercials with the old ladies—Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!—but when I saw the vomit beneath her and heard the gut-wrenching groans—I’d never heard a full-grown adult cry in pain like a child before—I knew something else was wrong.
Pancreatic cancer. That’s what the staff told me. And they knew. For years.
You mean to tell me she’s been untreated for that long?
She never came in for treatment. Poor thing. Must be in so much pain.
She looked like a doll. Small, pale, fragile. Her hands were folded delicately before her. Even in her sick state, her eyes seemed to spring to life when she saw me. That was the evening she handed it to me. The envelope with the check. The little piece of paper that changed my life, though not for the reasons you would think.
Where did you get this?
Willfare. I seeck. No work. Government give me money.
No no. It’s yours.
No you take. Keep.
Turns out, she had gone to town that morning to cash the welfare check. The strenuous exercise must’ve caused her to collapse, like the horse on the race track whose heart exploded. Only, her heart didn’t explode. It was her entire body. Just gave out all at once.
I’m sure many of you wonder how I could’ve just taken the money from her, but you wouldn’t understand unless you were there. The woman had walked a good two miles to town just to cash that check. Without any aids to relieve the shooting pain in her side or her swollen joints or the nausea. 2 miles. 3,520 yards. 3,219 meters. 10,560 feet. I’m not sure what unit of measurement to give you to make you really understand how far that was. Especially for a woman who usually only made the journey between her kitchen and living room. All of that just to get the check. To give it to me.
And when she handed it to me, she smiled. Not the usual cheery smile she gives you when she makes food or sings in her living room. One of those smiles that are filled with peace. With purpose. The kind I long to have one day.
Sometimes, there’s nothing louder than silence itself. The Deafening Silence. It’s the kind you try to forget, but you can’t. Because it’s bound to you. Haunts you.
Not everyone has experienced this one. Truth be told, I hope not everyone has to. For those of you who have, you already know exactly what I mean. For those who haven’t, I’m not sure words can do it justice.
Imagine standing on the sidewalk of a city street. The world is in motion. Folks are bustling about, talking, laughing, shopping. Whatever it is they spend their day doing. Suddenly, the atmosphere is pierced by a jarring noise, too loud to distinguish in the first millisecond. It’s only after that you realize what you had just heard was a cacophony of crunching metal, screaming tires, and the desperate blaring of car horns. And that’s when you turn to see it. Two cars pinned against each other by sheer force. That’s when the deafening silence occurs. That single moment when every person realizes what has just happened and stares in silence. Stunned. Unsure what to do. Every thought grinds to a halt.
It’s not long before the world springs once again into action, but that brief interval when time itself is forced into a complete, unexpected stop, when the same horrified feeling assaults every person there, overwhelming you into a silent stupor, that’s the Deafening Silence.
I mention this one because it’s the important one. It marks an abrupt change in fate. It’s the one that can ruin lives.
Except, mine wasn’t in a crowded street and it wasn’t an accident or fluke in fate. It was deliberate. Planned. I was the force that changed fate. For better or for worse, I couldn’t say. But let me ask you this, would you trade away the rest of your life to protect the few remaining years of some old lady? To justify the wrong that had been done to her? Is it worth bearing the consequences? Logically, the answer is no. I think about it even today and still reach the same conclusion. But here’s the thing about logic, it becomes obsolete when emotions are involved. The same with morality. What good are morals if they keep you from aiding others? What if you’re removing the trash to help the treasures of the world? That’s what the old lady was to me. A treasure.
But most people didn’t see her that way, the way I did. They didn’t know the broken woman who wore a grin in place of painkillers, or who provided you with a safe haven even though it had become her casket.
According to Grandma Lin’s husband, she was just a source of income.
I met him on my way back from the hospital. 3 am. On the front porch of her cottage, the same place I’d met her long before. It’s as though that porch is the focal point of my life because things always seem to change there.
He was a slender man, quite the opposite of Grandma Lin. Where she grew stout and bulky, he grew slender. Wiry. He reminded me of a rotting fish I’d once found by the lake. Gray, dried-out skin and black, glassy eyes. His hair was also black, but peppered with bits of gray and slowly receding up his scalp. Like the fish, his face was also empty. Empty of life. Completely barren of emotion.
Are you the husband?
I knew the answer before the words even left my mouth. He nodded cautiously, eyeing me, wondering what a twenty-some year old woman was doing standing in front of the house of a sickly woman. Wondering what I was doing in front of his house. She’s not doing well, you know. She’s at the hospital.
I wasn’t sure what else to tell him. I’d never met the man before. She talked about him sometimes, as though he were still around, but I didn’t believe he actually existed until that moment. I knew her husband wasn’t fond of her, but I expected that face of his to at least... at least twitch with some sign of concern or life. Instead, he had the nerve to shrug at me, as if someone had just told him the grass on his front lawn was looking a little long or that the sky was blue.
Oh. The word sounded stupid in my head and even stupider coming out of my mouth. Here I am before the man who left her in her house to rot, and all I could say was Oh?
I remember the feeling. That hot smoke bubbling up from my gut, threatening to consume me. What was that? Anger? No, not quite. It’s like your body becomes possessed all at once. Dark thoughts rise to your head. Violent ones too.
I didn’t say anything as I marched past him into the house. Not that I needed to. He didn’t really bother to ask.
I reoriented myself, turning my thoughts back to the mission at hand. I wanted to bring her some comforts from home. A blanket. Her knitting supplies. Maybe even one of those throw pillows to brighten the hospital room for her. Give her eyes a break from all that white. White walls, white sheets, white lights... so much white everywhere.
I could tell he had followed me in because I could hear papers rustling in the kitchen. I ignored him at first, following my usual route through the house and plucking anything I thought she’d like. I could hear him muttering what I assumed were various obscenities under his breath. Thick slabs of paper were being flung onto the kitchen tile. He proceeded to kick them in utter frustration before stomping through the rest of the house, huffing about like an asthma victim running a marathon. After a while of this, I had to wonder, was he searching for something?
I poked my head into the kitchen. The pile of mail that was usually stacked atop the kitchen counter was now spread all over the floor, most of them with muddy prints across their surface from his boots. I remember staring at the scene quietly for a few moments before the thought struck me.
I have it. I told him. The money. His head spun quick enough to give any normal person whiplash. That certainly got his attention. I understood then.
The welfare check. He didn’t come for her, he came for her check. The one she had cashed and given to me. Her husband had not only left her for dead, but continued to return and claim the check as his own.
As if that wasn’t disgusting enough, I came to find out later just how much her life insurance was worth. A lot. A lifetime of comfort. And that’s when it all really made sense. After all, her time was running out quickly. Even quicker if she’s left to rot without treatment. Where would all that money go?
But I didn’t know that at the time. Yet, I didn’t really need to.
The words rolled out of my mouth before I could even form a thought—it’s at home. A lie. I followed it with another. I’ll get it for you. And this time, I was the one who wore a lifeless stare. He didn’t deserve anything else. He didn’t deserve to see me cry over how she’d suffered. He didn’t deserve to hear the rage in my voice over his abuse. He didn’t deserve to listen as I described what a beautiful person she was. It wouldn’t have mattered anyways because those are words for people. I’m convinced he wasn’t even human, just a monster that fed off of one.
This is only for emergencies Winnie. You hear me? Only if you or your brother’s lives are in danger. These aren’t toys.
You hear me, Winnie?
And then there’s the final type of silence. Madness. A silence of sanity.
They argued it in court, as if no one like me could’ve knowingly done what I did. I must have been enraged. Or crazy. Or, something, right?
That wasn’t madness. That was a conscious decision. With a single shot I felt like I could change things, do something right for once, so I did.
Madness was something I became acquainted with only after they placed me in solitary. No books or TV or windows of white dust. No one to talk to. Just you. And your thoughts. And your memories.
There’s no clock, so you aren’t quite sure how much time has passed. At first you believe you can count the seconds with imaginary ticking. But then, after a while, that ticking isn’t so imaginary anymore—Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick.
It wasn’t until now that I truly understood what the old lady had been going through, and suddenly, the guilt just vanishes. Truth be told, I would’ve shot him again. Maybe even the guards. At this point, I would’ve shot anyone who could force a human being to live in total isolation. To be stuck with nothing but your thoughts. Those are what destroy you. Not the rest of the system. Just yourself. It’s as if silence corrodes you to your most basic, primitive form.
I was certain at the time that a single shot would finally grant the old lady the peace she deserved. Maybe even give her a little justice in a world that had so often denied it to her. I knew that she was being taken care of by the nurses now, and that she’s finally getting the treatment she deserves.
But, to say I have no regrets at all would be a lie, and lies are inescapable here. The reality is, I’m probably worse than her husband. She knew he would leave her, but she probably never thought I would. And, in all honesty, I don’t know if she ever discovered the reason I no longer visited her side. Why I left her there alone. And I wonder if she’s still there now, in her own solitary confinement, just waiting for me to return.