Somehow or other ten years had gone by and she lost her voice. Her name, Orpha, was the last word she ever spoke out loud. Spoken in a whisper, it sounded like Alpha, a promising beginning. But perhaps creation, once it has been opened with Alpha, can only be followed by silence.
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Sitting in her chair on the porch she watched the empty parked cars. Frost scribbled on the windows and a small after-image froze: her fingers dangled in the air after she crossed herself three times. She often said to herself: I am the only one here.
Much earlier in her life (she had come over mountains and the ocean), she had seen rivers that looked like small streams, cities at night that flashed and were gone. Then she fell from above, and crashed, and ever since then she was in a flat country she never understood.
She would think to herself: It’s only when I’m sleeping that I never say “I’m dreaming.”
There were places out of time that all flowed into different corners of the halls. For instance, her husband Charles reading the Iliad in the yellow chair by the plastic potted ferns. Or a rubbed-out message in chalk that was blowing over the tire prints in the oval gravel drive.
But when she dreamed, she was always the same age she is now.
When a hand appeared, a face, or a voice was heard from staff or visitors, everything changed: the black dog’s paws clicked across the porch, then came the tail eagerly slapping the floor: ear-dreams.
Orpha on the porch, waving her arms, as if she were imitating the movements of the leaves, or saying goodbye to someone, or hailing one of the parked cars. She had angry, comprehending eyes. Palms up, she felt strong, and with her eyes closed she could believe the sunlight that settled upon her was warm fur. Those moments reminded her of nothing but: I AM.
Once, it streamed everywhere, and she was present, joined to one place. Those friendly and curious hands cupped the immense realm beyond the mountains: the edge of a continent. Death for once was all on the surface – the waves took it away. And she existed as skin, hunger, love: I AM, I AM. She smiled, but the eyes in her dream still looked angry. “Why am I here?” she asked herself. “Why am I here?” When she awoke, she was making motions with her fingers as if she were threading a needle.
“Those jerks and jabs with her fingers mimic the speech of someone who stutters,” said the doctor examining her. “Was she a stutterer?”
“The black dog knows,” she heard.
Nurse Jane was panting over her, her face contracted in one firm, set expression. She wanted to shout: “I know words. But do you? No, but you say you do. And that, dear Nurse Jane, that is the broken promise of speech: you think you are using words, but the words are using you.”
They carried her to a freshly made bed. It was a new room. Doctor’s orders. She heard him say the word change and out of his mouth chattered something like tumbling coins. (To whom had thoughts ever been so palpable?).
“Put me out in the forest,” she wanted to say. “Lay me down among the sticks and the rotting leaves.“
The doctor: “Did she say something?”
Nurse Jane: “Orpha, did you say something?”
I’m the log in the forest that will become the Savior. I’m the sculptor carving the log in the forest that will become the Savior. I’m the carpenter nailing the Savior to the post.
The wind made a sound like an animal squishing through wet leaves. Then the animal was gone, too.
But by and by the sliver of light under the door became a thin white bone. A drawer being opened was a short bark. The came the click of nails on the floor and the eager panting, panting, which in the ear-dream again became the ticking of the clock.
Anguish, passing from dark to dark and eyes lying in wait for the light.
Her neighbor in the next bed was again busy counting, one thousand three, one thousand four, but this time Orpha’s pulse didn’t race to catch up. A single sound was repeated over and over – not a word, not yet a word, but something like “hmm?” blown through cupped hands.
Nurse Jane turning to her surprised, said: “If you don’t acknowledge this small miracle now, Orpha, you’ll be mute forever.”
“Yes, yes, “ Orpha nodded, chomping on her teeth, as though the words, her first spoken words in ten years, didn’t really fit her right.
“I want to say something that can be heard long after I’ve finished speaking,” said Orpha.
Nurse June clapped her hands. “Say it! What will it be?”
“Listen,” said Orpha, nearly shouting. “If the Lord really has words for it, this is it.”
“Yes? Yes? Tell me. “ Nurse Jane bent over her. What is it?”
(For Orpha Buchart, 1889-1992)
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