We used to have summers. Then the fog came and never left, keeping the ground damp with slick, making day fade into night almost without notice. Footsteps knock across a hardwood floor. Your wife unbuttons the calendar from the wall and turns a page. Somebody somewhere pulls a lever and the street lights come on. The church bells ring the hour. The date changes on the newspaper. That's how you know.
My last words were, "Thanks, kid."
I'd been at Peacock Farm, up in the mountains. As far as I knew, there weren't any peacocks. It was a Christmas tree farm, the same place my parents used to take me when I was a kid, only they've since nixed the cider and cocoa.
The lean and sober farmer who runs the place used to be an acne-ridden 16-year-old with a BB gun and a thing for my kid sister. Now he was what—-? Forty? That last time up, just before I spoke those words, I watched him cut a banana slug in half with the point of his shovel. Not for any reason, just to see the slug's guts bloom out from its skin, or maybe to tickle a response out of his son, a mirthless boy of 12 or 11 with a face pocked like gingerbread. The kid turned away and got to work sawing down the silver fir I'd picked out. His father kicked the slug halves into the pines and dug in his pocket for a crumpled wad of cigarettes.
His kid drug the fir down a loamy slope of needles and moss, carving a slalom through lichen-covered stones. He bundled the thing in twine and tied it to the roof of my car. Somehow, I'd gotten pine sap on the palm of my hand. The farmer grabbed me by the wrist and sprayed my hand with solvent, something out of an aerosol can. The sap thinned and sloughed off, the skin of my palm was warmed artificially.
And that's when I said them, my last words. I looked at the tree bound to the roof of my car, gave the kid a five dollar tip, and told him Thanks. I got in my car and drove home.
I hadn't noticed the fog. The mountains are always foggy in December, I just assumed it had slipped down even further, blanketing the hills until thick fingers spread out over the pastureland, over the river and into town.
Truthfully, all I could think about was the banana slug, and where bits of earth got stuck on its wet guts. I guess that's why I was too preoccupied to turn on the radio on my drive down. Not that they would have been able to tell me anything.
Halfway out of the mountains, I stopped at a roadside stand where an old woman sold bottles of homemade gin with little sunken sprigs of juniper whirling inside. I bought a bottle, a few stone-colored berries reeling at the bottom. She didn't speak when she handed me my change, so I just nodded. Now I wonder, had it already happened? Did I notice? Was there an itch in my lung, a warm little trickle in the back of my throat?
When I got home, I grabbed the juniper gin and bounded up our steps. I wanted to surprise Karen before she bent the blinds to see a massive tree lashed to the top of our car. I was going to say, "Happy Christmas, Baby," just like that. But when I saw her, she was crying. When I opened my mouth to ask what happened, nothing came out.
Chemical warfare, everybody said. (Or wrote, rather.) But then word arrived that it had happened over there, too. Everybody everywhere had lost their voices. The story was the same: first the fog, then the silence.
Dogs still barked, and the birds still sang. But no one could speak a word. Doctors scraped cells from larynxes. Pathologists exhumed bodies of people who died just after the fog came. They dissected their lungs, their tongues, and even their brains. Nothing.
A couple days after New Year's, I was in a bar on High Street. In the bathroom, I mentally recorded the following inscription over the urinal:
everybody's lost their voices...
and nobody can say why.
You have to smile extra hard, so people can tell you're laughing.
The urgency of thought: so many different strains of sign language evolved at once, the city was like a spastic Babel. Fingers numbed by the new cold communicated little more than the rush of skin across flannel, or the sudden percussion of fist into palm. Plus the fog made it hard to see anything further than a few feet away. So, after awhile, everybody but the dialectical diehards went back to furtively scribbling on matchbooks and along the margins of old playbills and Chinese takeout menus.
A month in, the pawnshops ran out of record players. Then records. Now, you'll pay more for a typewriter than a rifle or a diamond ring. Letters have become real things, like a sudden currency. Last week a guy at work traded a bottle of rye whiskey for a case of Underwood spools, even though he has a Remington. He figures, the ribbon will always appreciate.
The vocality of sex has evaporated. You can hear the sound of skin sliding against skin, the gurgle of an undigested meal, the drudgery of bedposts banging into window frames. A doorbell rings three houses down, a car horn blasts like a banshee shriek. Men leave the bed to look out the window. When a car horn sounds, everyone on the street presses themselves against the damp bricks of the nearest wall, not knowing what might come caroming out of the mist.
Formerly I was in radio, taking calls and writing copy for toothpaste advertisements and late-breaking news. Now I'm at the paper, the Times-Star. We're still a one-paper town, unbelievably, but now we do a second run in the afternoon, and a one-sheet edition around midnight. Mainly I sit at the overnight desk on the off chance a credible story wants to walk through the door, which can happen. Usually it's cures. Somebody figured out why nobody can talk anymore, and they know how to fix it. Something they cooked up in their basement laboratory, or saw in a telescope or read in tea leaves or figured by measuring shadows. Or it was delivered by God, or aliens. But unless they come through the front doors bellowing "Land o' the Leal," I'm prone to be a little skeptical.
So I'm prepared, with my sharpened Ticonderoga and blank, nonjudgmental smile when this redheaded kid walks in, dashing my intention to grab a fourth cup of coffee.
The kid's milky skin is so thin, I can see blue veins the moment he walks in the door. He scrapes his bootsoles on the doormat and walks over to my desk, pausing to take me in. Then he reaches into his pocket and produces a scrap:
You should go to 313 Elm
I grab a slip off my blotter and write,
And he writes,
For a story.
So I ask,
He snatches a fresh sheet from the tab on my blotter and writes earnestly. While he scribbles, I can see dandruff flakes on his scalp, two movements battling each other from different directions, like continental drift at the part of his orange hair.
It's worth it.
Don't tell I told you.
Then he adds:
The password is 'sunflower'
He never actually hands me the note, just holds it where I can see it. When he figures I'm done reading, he crumples it, shoving it into his pocket.
So an hour and a half later it's me you're honking at as I skulk across Elm, realizing the address I'm headed for is the old medical college. The surgical amphitheater, to be precise. A deep pit of a room where medical students once gathered to watch gangrenous amputations, the birthing of sextuplets, and experimental lobotomies for the tragically insane and woefully poor. As the school has since shuttered its windows, I can only guess the kid's tip has little to do with a medical procedure.
I find the oak door and only have to knock once before a panel slides open. Two eyes glare at me distrustfully. I flash a scrap with "sunflower" on it, and the door unlocks. A homunculus in a flat cap bids me enter. Then he flashes me a printed card that reads "$100." Too stunned to think, I cough it up.
I follow his indication down a dark hallway, and eventually find myself in the amphitheater, where two dozen other men look away when I enter. I can't say I recognize any faces. Not that I circulate much, spending most nights behind a desk.
Below us, the operating theatre has been stripped down. The gurney is gone, as is the instrument table. The only vestigial element is the wash station in the corner, a slow drop leaking from the hot water spigot.
I'm in my seat for five or six minutes when the overhead lights intensify, then suddenly darken. All that's left is a spotlight, and a resultant pool of light where the operating table once sat, irradiating a colony of drifting motes and a disk of warped floorboards.
In a dark corner of the stage, a door opens, and a man wearing heavy-framed glasses walks in carrying a small case and pulling something by a length of chain. The chain is briefly illuminated before we see what's at the end: someone in a canvas diving suit. The mysterious diver shuffles forth, wearing slippers instead of weighted shoes, the caged porthole of the copper helmet hiding his face from view, two hoses attached to the back of his suit. As he proceeds, the hoses lead to a third man, short and wearing a woolen jacket, his hair wet and combed over the side of his head. The hoses are attached to a bellows of some kind, which the short man works, compressing the accordion apparatus to circulate air in and out of the diving suit, until the masked figure reaches the center of the floor and stands still in the middle of the light.
By now a complete pall has fallen over all present, though some rub their knees and work their clammy hands furtively. I can sense they've been to this showing before, their sudden palsy a signal of what's to come.
The man with the bellows lays them on the floor and proceeds to help the man in the glasses unlatch the copper helmet from the diving suit. When they've pulled it away, a dazzling bundle of blonde hair cascades over the shoulders of the diving suit. It's a girl, 14, maybe 15 years old.
She blinks. Her eyes are blue.
And then the bespectacled man opens his case and produces a violin. Without tuning, he begins to play. And then, beyond reason, the girl begins to sing:
When I was a young girl I used to seek pleasure,
When I was a young girl I used to drink ale;
Right out of the alehouse and into the jailhouse,
Out of a barroom and down to my grave.
A silent frenzied kind of sob overcomes the audience, each individual spasm hushed by look or nudge. A foot stomp incites a glare, clapping causes reprove. Anything that threatens to overpower the girl's voice is likely to earn a punch in the mouth.
Come Papa, come Mama, and sit you down by me,
Come sit you down by me and pity my case;
My poor head is aching, my sad heart is breaking,
My body's salivated and I'm bound to die.
What is that song? "The Bad Girl's Lament"? "One Summer Morning"? It's a stupid song, it's any song. It's the trigger of two dozen idiotic grins. Unbelievable.
Go send for the preacher to come and pray for me;
Go send for the doctor to heal up my wounds;
My poor head is aching, my sad heart is breaking,
My body's salivated, and Hell is my doom.
Where did she come from? How can she possibly have a voice? I can't help but calculate every permutation lingering at the edge of the possible. But then every thought and every question is shoved behind the absorption of voice.
I want four young ladies to bear up my coffin,
I want three young maidens to carry me on,
And each of them carry...
And then she begins to falter. There's a sudden hitch in her voice, she stammers, misses a syllable, the next words fall off pitch:
A bunch of wild roses...
She coughs the last words in a tragic rasp. A hush falls upon the amphitheater. Then, a monsoon of enfeebled weeping like a broken bottle in a crowded room. The men in the darkness around me pound the rails and stamp their feet in excitement, some already overcome to bawling, of course, as it sinks in that her voice is now as vanished as our own.
The man in the glasses unclips the chain from the collar of the diving suit, which falls away like a shell. The poor girl's in nothing more than a cotton gown.
She takes a first slippered step, climbing the amphitheater steps toward the exit. Each head turns to watch her go, the standing crowd parting to let her leave, the whole house reading the shock of it all on her face. I can tell she hadn't known. I look down and the two men on stage have vanished, along with the diving suit.
The homunculus opens the door to the fog and the girl disappears, maybe to find aid at a welfare house, or perhaps to throw herself in the river.
Men are weeping. The sound is breathless, pathetic. It sounds like choking. I slip outside, the crowd either garroting themselves with sadness, or transfixed by the false hope of an encore.
I bolt outside, into the cold. I pick a direction and I run two blocks. But there is no girl, no anything. Just the moon, the halo of street lamps, and the plodding sound of a distant car, its tires unsticking themselves from the wet road.