Steps of silence

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Steps of silence

Published in: The Little Magazine, (May 1990). Albany, NY: SUNY Albany. 251-58.

Three months ago the Punishers cut my tongue off. Since then I've lost the contact with the normal world, with the world of those for whom silence is a choice and not, as it is for me, an inevitable condition.
I have loved words and the art of speaking, and now I am punished because I tried in vain to fight the Punishers with the weapons they most fear: words. Now they have made me a harmless woman, silent and invisible. Now I can listen, feel emotions for the surrounding world which, despite the presence of the Punishers, is still able to express itself. But they have barred me forever from giving voice to my thoughts, and the cry of my mind will no more become sound.
The punishment launched me into a silence much deeper than that imposed upon me by dumbness. The injunction of the Punishers prevents me from all contact with normal people. The vest I must wear is the unmistakable mark of my guilt and the sign of distance. Nobody can approach me; I cannot approach anyone. I cannot gesture, nor can I glance to draw somebody's attention; I'm not even allowed to express with my face the fear and anguish that overwhelm me. Or rather, I may do it, but all my acts are like signals of light cast against a black and insurmountable wall: all my gestures, all my attempts to communicate are doomed to fade into nothingness.
It's as if I were already dead, or had disappeared. When people see my black vest, they know that it is no longer possible to do anything for me. Any kind of reaction to my presence might be fatal for them. Anyone might be a spy, one of the Controllers, even one of the Punishers. Punishers love to hide themselves into the crowd. Or, at least, this is what is said, or, more likely, what they themselves have succeeded in making us believe. But the possibility that even a single Punisher might wander among us is enough to discourage any kind of initiative. A single gesture or a sympathetic  glance would be enough to decide their condemnation. They cannot waste their lives for so little. They don't want to fall into my same darkness, into silence.

Thus, I have not existed for three months. The last words addressed to me were those of the Punishers in the moments before the punishment, before they slowly cut off my tongue. One of them explained in a calm voice the cruel details which would have enriched my penalty. I discovered that there is no relation between my crime and the duration of my punishment. My sentence to wander as a ghost may or may not be reversible. It might last one month or only one day. Or maybe weeks, or years, or the rest of my life. But I'm not allowed to know it. Its duration is written in the Book of Punishments exhibited to the public at the Penalty Palace. In this way, those who are still able to read, those who knew me and have been told of my punishment can satisfy their futile curiosity. But they cannot speak with me and tell me whether my penalty will last for the rest of my life or just for few more days. And any attempt of mine to read the Book would be further punished with death, a slow and atrocious death that I could see written under my name together with the duration of my actual penalty.


In this way the penalty of silence is complete and perfect in its cruelty. My body is punished and even my soul cannot find peace in resignation. I can still delude myself and hope that the punishment will come to an end. I can think that within a short time I'll throw away this black hooded vest which rolls down to my ankles, and I'll be able to live a normal life again. Or almost normal.
I've often thought of suicide as the only possibility to escape from all this. Death as a solution, as the only form of peace that I'm still able to choose. And before dying I'd keep the Punishers at bay for a while by refusing my role in the game of hopes, illusions, and fears that until now they have forced me to accept. I'd transgress their absurd rules, I'd throw myself towards the Book, I'd know, at last, the duration of my punishment, I'd know the doom which awaits me because of this new guilt. And, eventually, I'd kill myself in front of them in some quick and painless way before they could use me again to satisfy their pleasure.
I've often thought of this. But it's not so simple. It's not easy to find the necessary strength. It's not easy to ignore that any day might be the last one of my punishment. How can I kill myself and refuse this possibility? How can I forget this hope? And, after all, what would my suicide be to the Punishers but an already foreseen variation of the punishment created for me?
A nightmare recurs obsessively during my nights. In the dream I pass the threshold of the Penalty Palace and go next to the Book. I open it looking for my name, but when I finally see it and my eyes run to the date which marks the end of my penalty, I always discover that I am at the last day of my punishment. Then, anguish shakes my heart; I try to shout, but the sounds don't come out of my mouth. In a desperate effort I open it more and more, and suddenly an enormous red tongue slides over my lips, lucid with saliva, so big that it prevents me from breathing. It darts in the air, wriggling like a strange, viscid animal, and I cannot control its movements. I grasp it with my hands trying to roll it and put it back into my mouth, but it slips away from my fingers. Then, while I shake my head up and down and choke and feel the blood quivering violently at my temples, I see the guards coming down the stairs of the Palace. They have been warned of my presence near the Book by the electronic bracelet sealed around my wrist. I'm terrified. I've had the time to read my new condemnation and I know that it's horrible, inhuman: they come to capture me and bring me into the Penalty Palace for the Torture of the Liquids. Without thinking of the futility of my gesture, I try to escape from them, but my tongue covers my eyes and after a few steps I stumble and fall on the floor and soon the rude hands of the guards grab and clamp my arms violently.
My cry wakes me; I find myself lying on my cot, in a sweat, frightened, my mouth wide open seeking air, my hands grasping in the darkness around my face, trying to tear off that now invisible tongue that filled my mouth in my sleep.
During the first days of my punishment I began to wander among the crowd. Dismayed. With no reason to go on. I slowly walked along the streets of the city, crossed the bridges on the canals. I used to spend a long time watching the movement of the lights broken in the water, or the shaking of the bare branches in the wind. When I was tired I sat somewhere until the chill pushed me to wander again without purpose. I watched people for hours. Each of them seemed to have a precise direction, an activity, a goal. They walked around me; they ignored me. The chill condensed their breaths. Mine too. It was the only thing that could come out of my mouth: a white puff, an empty cloud. I counted heads and bodies; I was flooded with fragments of voices and shouts all around me. I could distil each of their frequencies, sounds that came towards me and faded away, wonderful sounds, sweet and incredible, so simple, so normal.


However, as days passed by, even those endless walks lost the little meaning they had. Boredom overwhelmed me. To others' eyes I didn't exist. Day repeated themselves all alike. One after the other, one after the other. What could I do? How can an invisible being spend her time?
Then fear came. Sometimes, when I was in the streets, especially when the sun suddenly came out from the clouds and a flame of light wrapped every object and every person, I found myself looking around too carefully. Little by little the details became more accessible: edges, borders, clefts, complex surfaces emerged to my sight as if my eyes were changed into the magnifying lenses of a microscope. It was as if the world had suddenly exploded, become gigantic, richer. In those moments all things filled my mind; every object had a smell, a fragrance, a special light, a shining, a color...
It was then that I  started being frightened. As the days passed, the call of particulars became more and more insistent. More and more I had the sensation that I could no longer move. Objects were becoming too important; I felt that I could lose myself in each of them; each of them could capture me. It was as if things, knowing the silence that had been imposed upon me, wanted to speak to me, to open themselves to me, to convey messages normally hidden. And all this frightened me, because I realized that that was the first consequence of silence, of distance; that was the first sign of the second fall, the one towards madness, the absolute distance.

Maybe it was because I wanted to escape from the obsessive voice of particulars that I transformed the night and the most dangerous areas of the city into the dimensions that best shelter my life. Often I spend the day in my room, in darkness. I go out when night comes. Usually I go towards the streets that face the canals. Here the shining lights disappear, the contours of things shade, people are different; the expressions on their faces change, the reflections in their eyes change. Shadows predominate; there are sullen sounds and whispered words. In the darkness near the water or in the tunnels below the water, there are the grim rooms where people get drunk. Dim lights are switched on, red and blue. Flickering flames of candles create dancing shadows and uncertain figures.
This is the world where even the Punishers are afraid to venture or to install their controlling machines. Or maybe where the Punishers better control our instincts by giving us the illusion of freedom.  Here, night after night, men and women become violent animals; in alcohol and anonymous sex they seek shelter from the fear dominating them during the day. Strong smells of food mingle in the air and the voices become hoarse laughs and shouts without identity. Here there is no more space for particulars; there is no time for them,  there is no possibility. Here particulars plunge into darkness, zeroed, annihilated, vanished. But I have no choice: this is the only world where I can still hope to maintain my sanity; this is the only world where somebody can still cast a glance at me, or where I can listen to a few words addressed to me, even when they are the words mumbled by some unknown drunk man into whose arms I throw my body for an hour.
But there is also another and more important reason for transforming the night into my day and this part of the city into my city. A reason that has kindled my hope and has pushed back the idea of suicide: the secret meetings of the hooded ones. Here, near the water, where narrow alleyways draw out complex networks of streets, I recently discovered the presence of the hooded ones. Or, more likely, they let me discover their existence. They are like me: they are victims of the Punishers' cruelty and share the punishment of silence. They know it well, they deeply understand its meaning and its consequences. That's why they meet. And that's why it is with them that I might have the chance for a real exchange of ideas, different from the short and casual communication I have when I abandon myself to the illusory satisfaction of sex.


In these streets I saw  them first, and here I come back looking for them. Even tonight, now. While I walk next to the sewers, big black rats wriggle between my legs with rustling sounds. They are the lords of the night, the real owners of this part of the city. Their squeaks pursue me, I perceive their disgusting smells, I shake with fear at the idea that they could cling to the border of my vest, climb my legs, cling to my flesh with their teeth. This thought terrifies me and I pay too much attention to  my steps and get lost in this labyrinth of dark streets. But it doesn't really matter; by now the hooded ones know about me; they will look for me as they did the other times, they will find me. I only need to remain in this area.
I wait for them to show themselves. I move around searching a larger place where I can be easily seen. I find a small square. I stop. I can only wait now. I only hope that they will find me first, before the followers of the Sect of the Wall. It is believed this is their kingdom, but it is not possible to know exactly where they live or operate, or how many they are. I only know about their fame, their cruelty that people say rivals the Punishers'. As a matter of fact, it is not even known whether they really exist or are just another rumor the Punishers have spread to discourage us from going in areas more difficult to control. I don't know. Nevertheless, I remember when people found  in this quarter the bodies of those girls. The way their faces were smashed... their eyes... I shudder. To wait in the darkness frightens me. But I must wait. I don't even know where I am. I can only wait for the hooded ones...
I wait for a long time and, at last, I see them. They are three this time; in the darkness I can scarcely distinguish their black vests; I recognize them from their gliding, like ghosts. I wave and one of them answers me tracing a sign in the air with its hand. They stop and wait for me to approach. I cover my head with the hood and go close to them. When they take the road again, I follow them; we walk flattened to the buildings. After a while, we enter into the tunnel under the Wall of the city; the light is feeble, and we can hardly perceive the contours of the tunnel. The smell of mold floods us mixing in pungent combinations with urine.
When we arrive at the place chosen for the meeting the silence is perfect. The others sit at the tables. The lights of the oil lamps illuminate the frenetic movements of their hands and amplify with shadows the dance of their fingers.
Three weeks have passed since I discovered the existence of these meetings. Since then, I have been trying to learn the language of gestures to disclose the meanings held in the flex of one hand, in a folded wrist, in a rapid click of fingers. It seems that only after long practice is it possible to translate ideas and thoughts into signs. I think I understand that in the past the hooded ones possessed a book on the language of gestures; but, for reasons that I'm not sure of, this book no longer exists. Maybe it dissolved little by little under the fingers of all those who used it. Or maybe someone with the book was arrested before he could give it back, and now the book is in the hands of the Punishers. Maybe. But I doubt that this book ever existed. Apart from the secret microfilms that I consulted when I still worked at the Palace of Justice and Culture, the only text I ever had the chance to see is the Book of Punishments. Maybe the book on the language of gestures is just a legend; one of those books existing only in the tales of those old enough to remember the times when books were read and paper was still produced, before the Punishers forbade its use.
I don't know, it's not clear, I cannot really understand what the hooded ones want to tell me. For the moment, my hands, primitive instruments not trained to reproduce the hundreds of nuances in the position of a nail or in the distance between two fingers, can only convey the emptiness generated by my confused movements. My fingers reproduce only bits of thoughts, fragments of sentences. But the idea that I can talk again, even though with this silent language, has revived my hopes. One day I will know those signs, one day I will finally be able to  communicate
the anguish of silence, the call of madness...


However, the longer time passes the more I feel that there is something strange in our meetings. It seems to me that the codes governing this language are excessively complex; I feel that even those who have longer tolerated the punishment and should be experts, sometimes find difficult to express themselves. It is as if the multiplicity of signs is infinite; as if the rules controlling our mute dialogues change like fluid objects, day after day, or even in the course of the same conversation.
For a long time I have thought about this, and I cannot stop myself from thinking that the Punishers themselves are the inventors of these absurd codes. Sometimes I even suspect that these meetings that we deem to be secret, are only another cruel component of the game the Punishers are playing with our lives. I can almost imagine their pleasure at our struggle against silence. I can almost see them masked like us, with long vests and hoods. They come in small groups to the place chosen for the meeting; they mingle with us, sit at the tables with us, and start with their fingers a silent dialogue, using those signs that we already know. And, as they talk, I see them add, little by little, new conflicting signs to the old ones, in order to confuse us and break down our communication.
Even now, while I sit at this table waiting for my instructor, it is not difficult for me to think of them among us. Anybody can be one of them. Perhaps my master; maybe this figure coming towards me. There is no way to prove it. There is no reason to prove it.
This thought fills me with sadness. I look around me and I see us, poor fool mute phantoms, vainly groping for a sense or a message hidden in those signs. We go on waving our fingers in the air without really understanding each other, without truly speaking. We go on deluding ourselves to be able to say things and read in others' gestures confirmations of what we have said. Doubtful, uncertain about the meaning of the signs, but always anxious to learn the new ones, with the hope to possess, one day, the whole system, and to finally understand, to speak finally, to communicate  finally as persons, as living beings.