The Loudest Things About Silence
The boy came forward and stood beside the railway after the train left the little station. He held a bottle of whiskey in his right hand. With his left hand, he bade farewell to the men on the train with a certain kind of familiarity, as if he knew them by their names. He neither knew nor loved them, but he understood the sadness that plagued them and envied their courage to shout back against the silence in their lives.
He sat down after the train disappeared and stared at his bottle. He didn’t want to say a toast, but then he let a few drops drip into the cap of the bottle and raised it to the smoke-thick air. He made a sound like the clinking of glasses and poured it into his mouth. It burned him with just the warmth he needed to fight the cold.
It was winter. The icy evening breeze rocked his woollen jacket. The whiskey was there as an anodyne. But he didn’t know why he was there. A part of him believed it was his past that led him with scarred hands to the prattling commotion of the train station. The other part of him – which he always tried to silence – believed he was drawn to the station because it housed the wings that must one day carry him. It was the latter that set his soul aflame with every piston that roared to life, that cuddled his memories in the place between iron and steel.
The first time his mother took him to the station, he was twelve. She wore a shawl that covered half of her face because she didn’t want to be seen by Mr Brenner, the English immigrant who owned a bar across the street, whom she hadn’t paid for the three bottles of whiskey she took last week. Or the brunette from Oregon whom she owed 50 dollars. Or the blue-eyed boy who trained 30 pigeons at the park, then 28, after she ran away with two pigeons to make soup. Or the mulatto at Crane Street who helped her with a penknife to cut a lemon and never saw her again. Or the varicose-veined octogenarian at the Baptist church downtown who sold the shawl to her on credit three Sundays ago. His mother understood that the station was for those who were running from their fears, their faces covered with crooked, plastic smiles and stolen hopes. She understood that the metallic noise of the trains and the crickety chatters of the travellers and ticket sellers and passersby were prerequisites for abscondment.
But now the boy was 24, and still he struggled to convince himself that what he felt for the train was not love. Twelve years later and the train hadn’t changed at all. The place where his mother scribbled his name was still there. It was still legible. And he came to the station to look at it every time he wondered what his name was, what people were supposed to call him.
After his toast, he heard a faint whisper. Startled, he spat out the whiskey and looked up to see who it was. There was a girl standing across the rails. Her face was without an expression. She looked like shapes hurriedly drawn over a white piece of paper – origami, devoid of life.
Then the girl smiled, exposing a set of broken teeth. She had sworn never to smile again after she slipped and fell by the train tracks when she was ten. So this very gesture, done unconsciously, surprised her, and she hurriedly covered her mouth.
She was blonde. She was beautiful too, but that was a long time ago, before she fell. Now she was just blonde, and it hurt her to be only that.
The girl repeated what she had said. Nothing. It was only her lips that had moved. She would have loved to start the conversation with goodbye because all her life, every new friend walked out a stranger. But she had convinced herself to say hello, and even that failed. The word came out as vapour, soft and evanescent.
The girl got tired of trying to say something, so she stood still and stared at the boy, as if he were a thief and had trespassed into her property.
She walked over to where he sat and stretched forth her hands to him. She didn’t want a handshake. She only wanted him to feel her hands and let her know if they were colder than the snowflakes. But the boy could not read her mind, so he shook her hands without answering the questions they asked.
Neither of them was in the mood to talk. They loved the snowflakes, the rails, and the silence, more than they loved themselves. They felt their bodies, jealous, coveting the lifeless things within.
“What are you doing here?” the girl asked the bottle.
She had convinced herself that it was better to ask questions to objects, not people. No one ever seemed to have answers to the questions her soul asked. And the few who dared to answer only lied to her. But asking questions to objects felt different: at least they wouldn’t answer, and they wouldn’t lie.
But the boy owned the bottle, even though its contents owned him. He thought it’d be wrong not to answer the question, even though it wasn’t for him.
“The bottle is drunk,” he said. “Ask me instead.”
The girl laughed. “So what are you doing here?” she said again, looking at him.
Her eyes were bright. It was hard for the boy to believe they were hers. He wondered if she had borrowed them from some happy girl out there.
“I came to watch the train leave.”
“It has left,” she said. “What are you still doing here?”
The girl had been to the station more times than she had been to her home. Now it felt as though this was her home and she owned it. She told herself that she had come to see the train, but that was a lie and she knew it. She knew she wanted more. Every time the train went off, she found that she couldn’t just go back. A piece of her soul hid there in the station, buried. Her memories interlocked in those rails, like the marble floors of modern houses. The trains taught her how to move: slowly, but without fear of breaking; persistently, as if there was no end in sight. The rails taught her where to move: forward, away from the places that bruised you. But she was afraid to learn from them, afraid to hold her life in her hands and pick out everything that tasted like death. So she had put the boy in her shoes and asked him the same question she always asked herself: “What are you still doing here?”
The boy looked in the direction the train had gone. It was out of sight, but he could still hear it, though it was many towns away. That it was out of his sight didn’t mean it was out of his mind.
“I’m here to remember everything,” he said. “It’s hard to remember anything.”
The girl laughed again. It was the first time she had laughed twice in a day since she’d turned ten. Her life had taken on a gloominess that enrobed her, so that to embrace laughter even for a moment left her with a feeling of nakedness, like she was renouncing the only thing that was entirely hers.
The boy passed the bottle to her. She drank from the cap and then spat it out because she had seen the boy do that some moments ago.
“Why are you here?” the boy asked her as she handed him back the bottle.
“Home is where the heart is, where the head is, where everything is. I’m here, I’m home,” she said. “This is why I’m here: to feel at home.”
“No one can feel at home. Home is not a feeling. It is way bigger than that. It’s the entirety of our very existence.” The boy drank from the bottle and swallowed hard.
“Home is not a feeling,” the girl said to herself. “It’s worth more, indeed.”
“What did you say?” the boy asked her.
“Nothing. I was talking to myself.”
“I do that too, sometimes,” the boy said. “And I think it’s better than talking to the train.”
“You didn’t come to board a train, did you?” the girl asked.
“I’ve never come here before to board a train. I came here many times when I was a kid. Never been on a damn train before.” The boy took a sip from the bottle, ground his teeth and fought hard to remember. “But I know someone who has—”
“Everybody knows someone who has been on a goddamn train before,” she said, interrupting him.
“And never came back?” He sighed. A thick ball of phlegm stuck in his throat like the sepia-toned memory of a dead lover. “I know someone who never came back.”
He was angry now. He didn’t know why he was angry yet again. He had taught himself how to come to the station without shattering into tiny, sad pieces.
He was a man at war with himself, his heart, his home. It was better if he came to the battlefield – this station – without memories that’d burden him.
It would have been better if the things that made him did not equally break him, did not leave him standing in a train station where every empty seat might as well have been his.
Every time he tried to lift his burdens, his strength failed him. The burdens came crashing down on him, heavy. It did not matter if he lied to himself that he was strong enough to carry them. Or if he sat in the midst of his own solitude and tried to drown them all in whiskey. They always found a way to remind him that sorrow and his skin were as inseparable as kin.
It took him many years of frustration and inexpressible anger to understand that he had been abandoned. Maybe, it was because he didn’t want to accept that he wasn’t as loved as he had thought he was. Or because he couldn’t read when he was young. Or because he always believed the train that left with his mother would come back with her too.
If God took vacations, or ventured into trifling things like reading the minds of little children, the boy thought, he’d have seen that he never wanted to part ways with his mother. Having never known who his father was, he had grown like a tendril around his mother.
It was on the morning of his twelfth birthday that his mother woke up with a smile for the first time since he had known her. She’d hugged him and told him that he was a man now. He had said no. He wasn’t a man yet. And he didn’t want to become a man either. He was afraid of becoming a man because he did not know what man to become. His father was a shadowy thing. His mother had always told him, “Your father could be any man out there.” Because even she did not know which man fathered him.
After she had hugged him, she opened her bag and brought out a shawl. She stood in front of a mirror and covered half of her face with the shawl. Her eyes, moist and glassy, were the only things the boy could see. She pulled the bed up and took out a piggy bank, dusty and battered by age. Then she broke it. Its parts shattered into irreconcilable pieces. She picked up all the money she could find and put it into her bag. Then she took the boy by the hand and led him to the station.
The men in the town had seen so much of her that even when she walked about with her clothes on, she knew she stood before them plain and naked. Every time she woke up to the same faces on the streets, a part of her died. They reminded her of how so much like death she had become. And she wondered if the men who had lain with her were not, in truth, gravediggers. Or mourning men trying to commune with their dead. Or shamed samurais who sought her only because they thought she was seppuku.
Yet a place in all that deadness yearned for life, like a crack in a door inviting light, a new window that hasn’t yet seen the sun but stands open awaiting the break of dawn. This new life contradicted everything she was, as if to embrace it would mean to let go of everything she had, to leave here, this broken town and townsmen that knew her more than she knew herself.
There are two kinds of flight: one where you run away with things and another where you run away from things. The flight that bloomed inside her was the second kind. She knew, from the very moment she got to the station with the boy, that she would not leave with him. Her stomach churned with the thought of her own selfishness.
She couldn’t go with the boy. The sight of him, even in a new town, would remind her of who she used to be. It’d remind her of cold nights in the street, cigarettes warming nothing but her lips. Of the times she stood in alleyways, unsure which passersby would take her home. Of many men whose names she’d never know but whose tongues were always quick to christen her.
When the train came, she led him to the end of its last coach and carved letters outside its end door with the penknife she stole from the mulatto woman. When the boy, who couldn’t read, asked her what she had carved, she said it was his name. She didn’t read it out for him. And the boy, whom she addressed only as Boy, stood starry-eyed and wondered what it’d be like to wear a noun around his neck that was the same texture as his skin.
The difference between travel and exile is when you are coming back. The woman understood that those would be her last moments in the little town, banished as she was by her unseen fears.
She led the boy back to the waiting bench beside the railway and, pouring it into the cap, little by little, she made him drink from a bottle of whiskey she had taken from Mr Brenner’s until he was fast asleep.
The boy didn’t want to tell the girl how he woke up by the rail, many years ago, only to find the train gone and his mother with it. He didn’t know how to describe the emptiness and brokenness that rumbled in his innards then, the gradual recognition of betrayal and defeat and abscondment, the cruel resignation of all hope to the wind. He did not know, too, how to let her know that he had lived out his life as a nameless boy. Or that he came to the station to fulfil all righteousness (and unrighteousness), to wave at strangers who never waved back because every time he waved at them, with his whiskey in his hand, he hoped to unite his past with his present, to build a bridge between the two rivers he was sure to drown in. But soon he found himself telling her things, confiding in her, as if she were an old friend.
The girl listened attentively as he told his story. It was the first time someone was listening to him that way. He had never even listened to himself that way before.
When he finished the story, it was dark, and everywhere was quiet. The only thing that stood around them was the silence of the little town. The girl pulled him up and told him to follow her to her home. Her home. This place now had meaning: it was no more the burning coal that settled on her tongue. And her claim to the ownership of this home seemed all the more reinforced by the presence of the boy.
They came to a quiet street and walked to its end, to a dark, little house with a single room and a snow-laden patio that reeked of neglect.
The girl, used to the darkness of the room, found a lamp with her hands and set it burning. The darkness, as though pyrolatrous, bowed at the altar of the flames, retreating to the edges of the room where the fingers of the fire could not reach. In the light, the room came alive: an imperfect square with old crepe curtains draping its two windows. The evening breeze caressed the windows, their tunes musical, serenades bent on seduction.
She made the boy sit on the only chair in the room: a coffee-brown Windsor chair that once belonged to her father. She sat down at his feet, her blond, silky hair sprawled on his lap.
The hardest urge to suppress is the urge to tell a story. The girl felt it, like a lump in her throat, this blooming desire to tell the boy everything about her life.
Her own story began ten years ago. Here in this room, the crepe curtains and Windsor chair all present as witnesses.
Her father had walked back home on a cold winter night, sad. The tin factory in town where he worked had laid him off. He was too old, and there were younger men who could do the work better, the manager had said. Two days later, her mother, who had never acted like she knew who the manager of the tin factory was, got married to him in a church three streets away. She was tired of the poverty at home, she’d said. They took the train and left the town together, and no one ever saw them again.
Her father did not exactly abscond. He’d taken to drinking whiskey because he was broken. Then one morning he dressed up and went to the station to board a train headed for another town in search of a job, with a promise to come back before the evening. What came back was the news of his passing, detailed in a newspaper with the photograph of his body sandwiched between a car that had lost its brakes and a wall that had lost its innocence. It was in the beginning of spring, the earth rehearsing childbirth.
Stricken by grief, the girl had raced to the train station in search of her lost father, a part of her believing he still lived. When she saw the train leaving she tried to run after it. But she slipped. And her teeth, whole until then, broke.
The truth dawned on her, moments later, that her father was dead. Yet everything in the world seemed connected somehow with the memory of him. Cold winter nights with blizzards reminded her of the factory shutting down, of the many things that still lay unmined inside her. The sound of leaves swayed by the wind made her think of receding footsteps, of her mother sashaying away from her father. Whiskey, too, held his memory. It was why she walked over to the boy in the station; she saw him with the bottle of whiskey and wanted to tell him the goodbye she never got to tell her own father.
It was the station – with its coarse train and smooth railways – that tied them into a knot of kinship. They marvelled at how such a thing had ruined them both in beautiful ways.
It is appalling. Why is it that the best conversations are the ones we have with strangers whose names we do not know? Are we afraid, sometimes, that if we ask for their names, they’ll become too familiar to be loved?
The boy came down to the floor and sat next to the girl, her story a force stronger than gravity. He moved her hair away from her face and looked into her eyes again, bright, like a million lamps. Then he bent forward and kissed her lips. Her lips did not have the coarseness he had imagined they would have. Instead, they were smooth like porcelain, with a softness that made him think of freshly fallen snow. She held him, her fingers softer than three o’clock. She let her tongue wallow in the warmth of his mouth, her body a melting ice cube in his hands.
The morning light seared through the curtains, its golden speckles strewn about the walls. The girl and the boy, lying side by side on a Murphy bed in the room, understood the light to be the revelation of how much their own lives needed radiance. And the hunger to glow, to become iridescent, seized them and made them long for liberation.
On the bed, they heard the sound of the train plodding back into the station, tired from its journey the night before. At once, as if pulled by a force beyond their control, they left the house and ran towards the station to see the train again.
The first thing the boy did was lead the girl to the back of the last coach. Then he stood for a moment and looked at the place where his mother had carved his name, the whiskey bottle trembling in his hand.
“Can you read?”
The girl nodded. She could read and write. But it didn’t matter to the boy if she could write. If she could read, she could do anything.
The boy pointed to the letters. “Please tell me, what is written here?”
Just as the girl was beginning to read the word out to him, the engine of the train roared to life, so loud the boy did not hear what she said.
She tried to say the word – his name – again, but the boy cupped his hand around her mouth so nothing but silence came out.
The boy had realised at that instant that his life could not be defined by whatever was written there; that he had an identity, even though he did not have a name; that love and happiness and freedom were the things he owed himself. He realised that it was better to bury his burdens than carry them to his grave, to shed his tired skin than spend the rest of his life trying to mend it.
“I don’t want to know it anymore!”
The girl knew, her eyes peering through his heart, that all the boy needed to know he already knew: that he did not need any validation to live except his own.
The engine roared again. Its roar did not strike them as a parting gift anymore, did not make them stand back and wave at strangers who never waved back. It sounded, for the first time, like an invitation to live.
So the boy let the bottle of whiskey fall from his hand. It shattered on the tracks. The girl lifted her flowing gown with one hand and with the other she held the boy’s. Then they ran after the moving train and pushed themselves onto a coach.
It did not matter to them where the train was going. What mattered was that it was going there with them. The little town with its memories thinned out behind them, faded into a distant patch of drifting clouds. They did not care anymore about their pasts, about the fear and anger and sadness that had made graveyards out of them. Somewhere out there, a new world waited for their arrival, its arms open for an embrace, its tongue rolling, softly, into a berceuse.
The boy turned to the girl. “So what is your name?”
The girl cupped his hand and placed it over her own mouth so nothing but the loud silence of her soul could filter through. The loudest things about silence, this silence, was the healing that frothed at its mouth and the motherly hands with which it buried brokenness. She knew that no name could describe who she was now, this free, unnamed being she had become.
Quiet grew around them, so peaceful the whole world seemed to exist only in this silence. Then she rested her head against his shoulder and began to sleep.
Azu-Ume Emmanuel is a Nigerian writer of poems and short stories. He was longlisted (as Ace-Ume Emmanuel) for The Kendeka Prize for African Literature, 2021. His works have appeared in Kalahari Review and Brittle Paper.
*Image by KAMAL IG on Unsplash