Grandmother was sixty-three when the world started running out of words. Now she’s eighty, and the cell phone’s screen illuminates her swollen fingers as she stabs at the keypad. I sit across the kitchen table from her, swinging my foot back and forth, my ratty old penguin slipper a rhythmic whisper against the floor. Mother would scold me for the impatient gesture, but it doesn’t matter. Grandmother can’t hear a sound so subtle, anyway. I stare at the veins protruding from her rice paper skin, dusky blue, twisted and gnarled. I think of a river cutting through unwilling ground.
Finally she finishes, and my phone buzzes against my palm. I look down, my thumbprint already mashing the unlocking sensor.
When I was your age, Grandmother’s text reads, people used to talk about the weather.
I cradle the phone in one hand, thumbs whipping my reply into existence: Out loud?
Her ancient fingers drag again, but I already know the answer before it appears on my screen.
Yes. Out loud.
We’ve had this same conversation several times before, but there’s no point in telling her that. Still, I remember my childish shock the first time she told me. My eyes popped wide; my jaw flapped like a flag in a windstorm. Talking? Out loud? About something as silly as the weather? What a stupid thing to waste words on!
I still have her reply saved somewhere in the depths of my phone. If I scroll up far enough I can find it, the little gray speech bubble with its text laid out in painstaking perfection, because Grandmother doesn’t use shortcuts. “Back then, it was not a waste.”
I can’t remember the sound of Grandmother’s voice, but each time I read that text, I imagine a different timbre and tone. Sometimes she’s melancholy, wallowing in the past, the louder brighter years when tongues were free and the streets filled with the noise of people living. Sometimes she’s cranky, the words leaping from the screen to burn away my youthful ignorance. Sometimes she’s just matter-of-fact, her make-believe voice a dull monotone, full of resignation and acceptance.
For Grandmother it happened mid-sentence, without any warning. Her voice here one instant, gone the next, like power shorting out in a storm. The silenced lined the hallways of every hospital in the country, thick as locusts, an epidemic captured in a million panicked texts and tweets. The world flooded with theories: it was a pesticide in the food, it was a sinister government conspiracy, it was the prelude to an alien invasion. It was God himself, reaching down from the heavens to paralyze his hateful creations’ tongues. The Tower of Babel in reverse.
I asked Grandmother once what her last word was, and she replied that it was “beer.” She’d been setting the table for supper, asking her husband what he wanted to drink: water or beer or soda?
Meaningless!!! she texted me, and her make-believe voice in my head was definitely angry then, seething with the caged frustration of the silenced. I could hear it echo in every uncharacteristic exclamation point. Then she gave me advice I didn’t ask for, because that’s what grandmothers do, even the silent ones.
Make sure you save your words, she texted. Use them wisely. Once they are gone, you cannot get them back. You will never forget your last word. Make yours something more significant than “beer.” Promise me, Sasha.
Privately, I figured beer wasn’t so bad, that worse words could be your last. Something ugly like pig or moist or slaughter. Or something banal, the buts or likes or whats, those crippled words that couldn’t stand on their own. But I didn’t say so. I texted back my dutiful granddaughter promises and kept my real words to myself. Always, always, keeping my words to myself.
I don’t know how many I have left. I can feel them bouncing around inside me, like I’ve swallowed a whole box of live crickets from the pet shop down the road, the one where the animals howl and meow and sing, unrestrained by human voices. I imagine myself opening my mouth and letting them out one by one, but each time one jumps out, it dies and you can’t bring it back to life.
Sometimes when the noise inside and the silence outside is too much, I lock myself in my room, away from Grandmother’s ears, and I part my lips and let a single word break free. Just so my tongue doesn’t shrivel up in my mouth. I pick big ones to make it worthwhile, never anything under five syllables. Anachronistic, lackadaisical, generalization, revolutionary. Is that what it is to have meaning? Does a word count against the quota if no one else hears it? Am I whittling my voice down one syllable at a time, in those moments of weakness when I can’t stand the hush?
I don’t know, and I can never find the words to ask.
Bethany Laurell lives in Columbus, Ohio, and takes creative writing classes through the UCLA Extension writers’ program. When not at her day job in medical coding, she reads, works on her novel, and sleeps when the coffee wears off. This is her first published story.
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