Sometimes the most terrifying thing isn’t what you hear, but what you don’t hear. Silence can be tranquil and peaceful, but often what breaks that silence isn’t something we wish to be greeted with. For October’s Story Shots, we asked our writers to tackle silence and this is what they came up with.
“I don’t think it’s natural.”
“Let me see,” the doctor said in a heavy accent as she pulled her chair close to me. I had small ear tubes or something, which made me prone to ear infections all of my life. If I got any sort of cold or sinus infection, an ear infection wasn’t far behind.
“I think there’s a blockage,” she said as the warmth of the light made my ear slightly uncomfortable. I sat there in jeans and a t-shirt on the doctor’s table while my little sister sat in the room with me. I didn’t want her to be afraid of doctors, so I took her into simple examinations like this with me. I thought it was good to teach her not to be afraid by showing her not to be afraid.
“I think it’s just my inner ear being swollen,” I offered. This wasn’t my usual doctor. I had an HMO—Kaiser Permanente, so really, I never had a usual doctor. I had whoever was on at the time at whatever hospital I happened to stop at.
“No no no, it’s a waxy buildup,” she insisted.
I hesitated, “I’ve never had that before, but I’ve had ear infections all of my life. I have small tubes and I get them frequently when sick.”
“Trust me” she said as she fetched a long blue plastic stick with a loop at the end. “I’m just going to pull this wax right out and your hearing will be fine again.”
She had me sit still while she fished around my ear with the long blue noose until she hooked what she wanted.
“I don’t think that’s wax; I can feel that,” I said as she yanked.
Blood started to pour out of my ear.
“Oh!” she exclaimed as she got up to fetch something to catch all of the blood.
My sister recoiled and started to cry, “Manda!”
“Fucking shit,” was all I could say as I felt the warmth of the blood from my ripped eardrum sliding down my neck.
The doctor pressed some cotton to my neck and then left the room. Another doctor came in to look at my ear.
“It’ll just need to heal. Here’s a prescription for amoxicillin for your ear.” He handed me a piece of paper. The thing I wanted in the first place instead of the bloody and ripped ear drum.
The silence in my left ear lasted for months as it healed. It never fully recovered due to some scarring from the ripping itself. And, to boot, my sister was now terrified of doctors. And, to be honest, so was I little, now that they had ruined my dreams of being a recording engineer.
How could I mix music if I couldn’t hear it?
– Amanda Riggle
The headboard presses at the back of my skull as I close my eyes and sink into it. For a while, it’s just me, alone in my basement bedroom. I imagine my brother sleeping across the hall, his arms stretched out. The hair on his forehead slick with sweat—the musty scent that is teenage boy in the air, sticking to his sheets. And my mother, in the room above me, face-down on her king-sized bed, her thin hair a halo, her deep snores a lullaby. My sister and her newborn son in my old room. His body rigid. “Relax,” his brain screams, but his muscles don’t listen.
My body screams “sleep,” but my mind won’t listen. In the darkness, I begin to hear voices—muffled, but familiar. I open my eyes and walk to the door. I open it, peer around the corner. Left to right. Right to left. The house is dark and silent, but in the distance, a man laughs. His voice is raspy and high. I quietly close the door.
“Matt,” I call, but there’s no answer. Padding back across my bedroom, back to the bed, I dig my knees into the mattress, lean over, and draw back the curtains. Outside my window is a sea of black, but a woman stares back at me. Her short, brown hair curls away from her face, round and grey as the moon. I lean closer, pressing my skin against the cool pane until she disappears. I squint, trying to make out the landscape of our backyard, the weeds overtaking the flowerbed, the glow of the street lamps lining the freeway behind our fence. The window pane vibrates as a semi passes. The thin walls shake. My world is blue, and there’s no one it.
Back in bed, I reach for the phone on the nightstand. I dial his number with shaky fingers.
“Are you here?” I ask.
“I’m at home,” Matt answers.
“So you’re not outside my window?” And then, unsure of myself, “I can hear you. Is it—is there something wrong with me?”
“You’re just coming down. Everyone’s different.” Goose feathers poke out from the old comforter. I pull them out. One by one, piling them on my lap. Even while he speaks, I can hear him. The other him. A woman joins him, her voice deep, but light. And I can’t make out the words, but I know them. Like deja vu, I’ve lived it all before.
“I can’t sleep,” I tell Matt. “It’s like you’re all here with me. It won’t stop.” The feathers are now a mountain. I wonder how long it’d take to pluck them all. You’ll be fine, he tells me. The words repeat themselves, like an echo, like a shout into a canyon, and I can no longer tell which voice to grab onto. I shift, and the feathers tumble onto the carpet. A rock slide.
I long for the coolness of the window, but fear the woman staring back, eyes like empty saucers. For something else to fill the silence. Something real. A creaking floorboard. The clinking of dishes. I close my eyes again. “Drop dead,” I say to the room. I’m the mad girl, I think, remembering Plath’s poem. I lift my lids and all is born again. (I think I made you up inside my head.)
– Melanie Figueroa
You know what it is. It’s the calm before the storm. It’s the space between events. It’s a stifling stillness that envelopes you whole. It is silence.
You can’t stand it for long. Music always has to be playing. Or a television show has to be on in the background. You purposefully moved between two major freeways so you could always hear traffic. Silence just isn’t for you.
Silence makes you anxious. It leaves you in anticipation. If you were laying on a psychiatrist’s couch, or a psychologist—whichever actually listens to your problems. If you were on that couch, you’d know why the silence fills you with dread.
It was all your parent’s fault.
You were five. No, you were seven. Maybe ten. It doesn’t matter. Your young life was cyclical. It was like your favorite Yeat’s poem (well, let’s face it, everyone’s favorite Yeat’s poem) The Second Coming. Your life was turning and turning in an unraveling gyre, and for you, things were always falling apart. The only center of your gyre was the silence, and that too was fleeting. Silence didn’t last long in your house.
At first you think the silence has won. It’s been a week or so. Your house is calm. Your bed is warm. Your cat is lain across your feet, slightly purring while it sleeps. You feel what it’s like to be human and happy for a night. You let the warmth fool you into thinking you could have peace. You accept the silence as a friend instead of being ever-ready for the foe that is always lurking.
“Cunt,” or “fucking bitch,” or “pig,” would wake you from your slumber. They were fighting again. Of course. They couldn’t have stillness. They couldn’t have peace. Your cat flees out the window. You hide underneath your covers and hope for the silence to return.
You can’t be passive. That never works. Sometimes police come, but they never take you away. Sometimes your mom leaves for a day and your father yells at you instead of her. Sometimes your father leaves for a day and your mother tells you to fuck off so she can get high.
“Stop it!” You shout, placing yourself in the middle of the madness.
Once someone hits or shoves or curses at you a few times, they’ll stop. You’ll cry. They’ll put you to bed and the silence will return.
It was the silence you earned with your pain, blood, and tears.
You can’t stand the silence now because you grew up knowing the cost. Silence is just that terrible still place you wait for something horrible to happen. And once the terror comes, you’ll do anything to win the silence back.