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Breath & Shadow

Fall 2021 - Vol. 18, Issue 4

"The Meaning of Silence"

written by

Margaret McDonald

Hospitals smell like disinfectant and sadness. They’re all the things you aren’t. I jump up on your bed, too impatient to see you. I like pushing my face close to yours. I like seeing into your eyes. I like knowing that you know what I want to say without even having to say it.

You make a ‘mph’ noise of discomfort, but your eyes are bright even if your face isn’t. Your hand comes up like always and presses to my cheek. The bedsheets are scratchy. The wires are uncomfortable. I sleep curled against you.

When I wake, mum is pulling me away. I don’t want to leave, but I’m groggy. My bones feel numb, as if I’ve been given one of those wire-tubes right into my vein like you. Only instead of medicine I’ve been filled with cotton fluff.

Maybe that’s what it is. Maybe that’s why you’re so sleepy all the time.

I wave goodbye as we’re leaving. I don’t think you see me. Or maybe you’re still sleeping. I don’t want to wake you.

But we don’t leave. Mum speaks to lots of people, all different kinds, all wearing different things. They speak too fast and too low for me to hear. They don’t want me to hear. But I don’t have to hear to know what they’re saying.

We wait on hard plastic chairs. There’s nobody left in the hospital anymore. It’s dull and grey, the only light coming in from the window and painting a sea of blue across the floor. It glimmers and floats as if we’re all underwater.

It makes it seem a different place, somehow. Dipped in a parallel universe, where this hospital isn’t a hospital. Maybe it’s the swimming baths, or the ocean itself. I like to imagine everything that it could be other than a house for sick people. I like thinking when night falls, and everything is quiet, it becomes something else. A magical door to another world in a fairy-tale.

But I’m on a hard, uncomfortable chair.

Mum leaves for a minute. She’s pulled away by someone in blue clothes and a clipboard. She tells me to wait, and I wait. I swing my legs back and forth. I chew my thumbnail. I tap a rhythm on the seat. I wait some more.

After a long while, mum comes back. She doesn’t say anything, just walks over and crouches down to me.

I know even before she says it.

“I’m so sorry, Isla.”

Dad? My hands say.

And she doesn’t say anything.

I want to shout I was just with you. I want to ask her what happened. I want to make noise: pour all the sounds of the universe out.

Instead, I push her away. The action feels strange, somehow, as if someone else is doing it. I move across to the wall and bring my knees up. I don’t want to look at mum. I don’t want to make a low, raw sound of pain. It hurts. My throat bleeds from the inside.

The noises aren’t words, because I don’t know how to make sound. I don’t know how to stop it. And I don’t want sound, I want you.


People never seem to understand. ‘Why don’t you try to speak?’

Would they say to a blind person, ‘Why don’t you try to see?’ They thought it was a choice, but I was never given the ability. It was foreign to me, as foreign as another limb. I never knew that limb: I wouldn’t know what to do with it, I found ways to live without it.

When I shook my head silently, I wondered if they possibly thought me deaf. A mute shake of the head as if to say, ‘I don’t know what you mean.’ When I actually meant, ‘you don’t understand.’ Silence overtook me like a cancer, a quiescent disease. Soon enough it had its own blood supply. It took cells away from me. That’s how cancer works; I always found that the worst part.

Most people have never heard silence, not in all the quiet moments of their life. They don’t have to shout around the walls of their mind because they have a voice.

The sounds of the world exist locked inside me. Sometimes I forgot that people couldn’t hear what I was thinking.

I loved you. You would talk to me, laugh with me, laugh for me. There was always something to say. And there was always a point of contact between us. Touching is so important for me: it’s something I speak. It’s how I told you I loved you. It’s how I told you anything. My fingers tugging at your sleeve. A hand held in yours. Arms wrapped around your shoulders.

I used to fall asleep on the couch and you’d carry me upstairs. It was a silent interaction, maybe because it spoke of something bigger than words.

And you took me everywhere. Every good thing in my life was yours. I saw the whole world from on top of your shoulders.

I remember we went to the track at night once, the one we raced on during the summer. But you wanted me to see it at night.

“Like a parallel universe.” You whispered, as if to speak any louder would shatter the illusion.

It kind of looked like it too. The red asphalt was dark, the air biting cold, the long stretch of track seemingly endless. It was a different place, another world from the one during the day.

We dipped under the fence, and your breath puffed out in frozen laughter. It made white clouds. I clapped them with my hands which made you laugh more.

Then you started to run. Your happiness stayed there, in my palms. After a while I started to chase after you. I wanted to run too.

I had to work to keep up, though. My short legs sprinted after your longer ones. But then I was at your side, jogging alongside you easy as that.

You turned around and trotted backwards. Your feet went behind you, moving the opposite way. It looked so strange. You held your arms open for me, welcoming. You were still laughing. You looked like a superhero then. One that stands with hands on hips, chest puffed out, cloak billowing behind them.

Your big beam seemed so protective, as if nothing bad could happen in the face of it.

I still go running sometimes. Dip beneath the gap – everything is the same, you know. The track looks the way it did then.

And sometimes I wonder if you knew. You caught my hand once; it engulfed mine and yet it was still so weak and thin. Skeletal fingers trying to cling on. You used to tell me, ‘Everything will be alright. It’ll be alright.’ I was a child then, but I knew everything wouldn’t be alright. You weren’t lying, though. You were doing something else. You were being a father.

My thoughts are drifting, they’re going up the sleeve of your overcoat and ruffling the hairs of your arm. Those arms were so familiar to me, I was sure I’d have them for as long as I lived. The memory of them wraps around me as they used to.

And everything else in between. Knees bumping as you sat beside me. Your side pressed along the length of my shoulder. If I cried, you’d brush hair behind my ears so I wouldn’t get it wet.

When I stayed over at yours, I slept on your bed. We’d lie on our sides facing each other, and I’d write words into the mattress. Afterwards, I thought about those words. Of all my fingerprints trying to talk to you.

You used to write back, and sometimes we’d have days utterly silent. You’d shrug your shoulders, huff, as if giving up on words. I loved that, but I hated it, too. I never wanted you to be silent for me. I want you to be so loud. I want your breath rustling the fabric of your coat. Your fingernails scratching against the bed.

For a while I had so many things to tell you. And not just in a day. I have years of things to tell you. There aren’t enough pages, not enough paper to hold it all.

Mainly, sometimes I have a dream. It starts and you’re walking backwards. Your feet tug back, your arms swing in opposite directions.

And everything we’ve done together rewinds. On the track, you trot forwards while I sprint back. You shift around like you’re dancing and then we’re side by side.

We’re going back under the fence. My hands open in mid-air and drop away down to my sides. Your breath retracts into your lungs. Your life pulls back inside you. Your cells rush to return.

And we’re rushing all the way back to your house. The door sinks inward. We fall inside. The walls protect us. You are safe.

Margaret McDonald is a Scottish writer with a B.A (Hons) in Creative Writing with English Literature from The University of Strathclyde, and is currently studying for an MLitt in English Literature at the University of Glasgow. She was shortlisted in the Cranked Anvil Short Story Competition July 2020, and is published in The Manifest Station. See her work @margaret_pens on Twitter and @margaretmcdonald_ on Instagram.

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