by Liesl Jobson
When the man put his gun to
my head, a switch tripped inside. I heard a click. Not the click of the
trigger. I never heard that, nor would I have. And even if I had heard the
trigger pull, I would not be here to recount it. I heard a switch trip below
I also heard, after the
click inside my head, the gunman’s finger playing with the safety catch. He
seemed anxious, flick-flick-flicking, like the way I flick my ballpoint when
my nerves get going. Perhaps I heard the click after I heard the flick. I
wanted to tell him to stop doing that flick-flick-flick story, but he seemed
to be in no mood for being told what to do.
The next day, I
couldn’t stop talking. I chattered, nattered, uttered and chit-chatted for
ten days straight, then discussed, debated, dialogued and disagreed without
pausing for breath for ten solid nights as dirty talk accumulated on the
chinaware. Night after day, I washed my dishes clean of the strange
conversations, the unkind badmouthing, the wicked gossip, swear words, jokes,
earnest secrets, the wishful prattle that I had cleansed already. And day
after night, I made them dirty again with more of the same until someone took
me to hospital.
In the ward I met a man
who couldn’t talk.
I asked the cleaner why
the man couldn’t talk. He swished his broom and made me jump out his way. I
asked the nurse why the man couldn’t talk. She rattled a pill bottle at me
and told me to be quiet. The doctor said it was none of my business and asked
if I had been feeding my meds to the potted plants.
Outside, the assembly
of oaks dropped leaves silently on my head.
One patient told me the
ex-wife of the speechless one had used a carving knife to slit his throat. A
second said the man had paid a doctor to excise his speech organs. A third
said he had swallowed ground glass and lye. Or that, at least, is what he
recalled – when he could recall anything – which wasn’t often.
hissed a coffee urn in the lounge.
satisfied with life, the man who couldn’t speak took a beige plastic Yamaha
recorder from the music therapy room. He took a deep breath, placed his
fingers over the holes, and blew a stream of air through the mouthpiece. He
emitted twittering chirrups as he watched the stream that meandered through
the hospital grounds. Staring at the mossy ferns, he trilled and warbled -
crimson shards when angry, an iron gray keening when sad.
The man with no speech
occupied the bed next to me. He preached in his sleep. I heard unfathomable
warnings, promises of archangels, sobbing of abandoned cherubs, the wailings
of the damned. That’s when I started to think his speech loss might be
Next morning, everyone
in the ward had something to say. “He grunts,” said a lady as she knitted a
“He babbles,” said a
boy who knotted together chairs stolen from the cafeteria.
said an uncle who wore diapers.
squeaked a linen basket on castors.
I wanted to communicate
with the man who could not talk and wondered if we could play a duet, a
call-and-response recitative that only we would understand. I took my own,
the rosewood Dolmetsch, out from the drawer of the bedside table and started
murmured the padlocks on the medicine cabinet.
looked up from their beds, momentarily attracted, transfigured by the duet we
blew. We played love songs then music from the movies followed by Hans-Martin
Linde’s Music for a Bird.
Later we played three
operas and just before handover, while the staff exchanged patient reports,
he played Jesus loves me this I know. I tried to ask what Jesus had to
do with it, but lost my voice. Instead of a question, a twelve-tone serial
pattern flew out of my instrument in a repetitious and jarring seven-beat
PEN-de-rec-ki BERG … SCHOEN-berg PEN-de-rec-ki BERG …SCHOEN-berg
As suddenly as we
started we stopped. The humid anguish in the ward could not bear our effort. Patients in fetal positions exhaled clouds that waterlogged our instruments.
The man and I held
hands across the aisle between our lumpy cots.
The next morning, a
flock of guinea fowl eclipsed the sun and hovered about the ward.
I woke to find
"Blockflauta," tattooed on my arm, and "Blockfleita," on
his. Everywhere was blood. Under the
bed, in sharp splinters lay his recorder, or perhaps what I saw were sticks,
or the spines of autumn leaves that blew in through the window. It wasn’t
clear through the cloud of guinea fowl feathers and the screaming of my duet
partner. He struggled against two orderlies who were also smeared in blood –
or so I thought until a nurse aide scrubbed the red painted lettering off my
arm under the bathroom tap. She cursed the fool who left the art cupboard
“He jumped on his
recorder to make it work again,” explained the lady stitching a bassoon.
“He carved a heart on
your arm while you slept,” said the boy, netting soap bubbles blown through a
“He anointed you,”
said the aunt who wove a daisy chain.
The staff, which
disliked his wailing pipe and, it seemed, mess in general, put him in The Cry
Room without his recorder. The Cry Room is not like the one at church where
babies are breastfed and toddlers play during the sermon. Mattress coverings
rivet to the floor and bolsters line the walls.
“Why is he in The Cry
Room?” I asked the janitor who chased me with his broom. I asked the nurse if
she’d take him my recorder, but she gave me another pill. I asked the doctor
if there were visiting hours in The Cry Room, and he prescribed for me a
sleep-deprived EEG the following day.
I stood at the window
of The Cry Room and watched silence fade color from the cheeks of the man who
could not talk. Could not? Would not? When he was as gray as the stuffing
that wept from the walls, he lay down as if to die. I took my recorder out of
my pocket and played to him, Nearer my God to Thee.
That night by lamplight
from the nurse’s station, I saw a ceramic plate, decorated but unfired, that
hung above his bed. I wondered why
the man who could not talk had hung it there. Then I remembered I’d given it
to him. I’d written it with shaky strokes of a fine bristled brush,
remembered that a Zen master said the wise man thinks before speech so
mischief won’t result from ill-chosen words. I had written Iwanu ga Hana
– the equivalent in Japanese of “Silence is Golden.”
As I stared at the
plate over his sleeping head, moisture-darkened patches formed letters in the
powdery paint that read, “No.”
The next morning I laid
down for a nap under my bed. I woke to hear the medics discussing my EEG,
which by the sound of things came back revealing normal brainwaves. The first
doctor asked if the recorder was an instrument of music.
The second doctor said
it was an instrument of torture.
The third doctor, who I
guess was the professor, said, “Stop that woman’s Fluanxol! Wean her off Lithium and halve the Prozac!
This is a straightforward case of Post Traumatic Stress. What are you guys doing?
Killing a mosquito with an AK47?”
blockfleita, blockflauta, blockfleita!" agreed a kiln from the
Occupational Therapy workshop.
Suddenly I knew that I
could go home again if the man who could not talk would say his name. As
long as the plate had not been fired, the man's speech could be returned. I
knew I could decode his peculiar mumbles if we could but walk beside the
river. I knew we could walk by the river if the plate got off the wall.
I broke the plate to crack
the wordlessness to open the speech vault of the man who had been silenced,
so that he could get his voice back to say his name, so that I could once
again be still.
In March 2001, I attended a Baha’ì prayer meeting
in Johannesburg. Six armed men intruded. We were assaulted, bound, and held
hostage for nearly three hours. The gangsters fled with jewelry, cash and
This story is a fictionalised account of the
incorrect diagnosis I received when I was admitted to hospital three weeks
later. Anti-psychotic medication invoked a semi-psychotic state. When the
Professor of Psychiatry heard me practising my flute in the hospital grounds,
he called me in and re-assessed me. I am eternally grateful to this
experienced clinician for my recovery.
works as a communications officer for the South African Police Service in
Gauteng Province. Her fiction and poetry have been published, or is
forthcoming, in Exquisite Corpse, InkPot, Gator Springs Gazette,
Retrozine and FRiGG magazine online and in the South African
print journals New Coin and New Contrast.