13 The Many Sounds of Words

The Many Sounds of Words

By Fen Hendren

Speaking is sacrilege. Everyone knows this. I know this. And yet, some nights, when my home is silent but for the soft snores of my family, and the moon hangs down ripe and full, I whisper my thoughts, my dreams, my wonderings, my words, into the darkness.

The people of Malenvetia do not speak, as is demanded by our gods, but we are not silent. At our festivals, we make a beautiful cacophony of noise using everything from elaborate handcrafted instruments to the most basic of cooking tools. We spell out our words in a flowing written language, tap them on each other’s skin, and share them with movements of our hands and bodies. We splash our feelings out in paint and weave them from wool. It is not that we are silent, it is that we don’t need voices to communicate.

I am a painter. I’ve loved the feeling of paint drying on my fingers, the look of bright colors spread carefully on canvas or wood or stone, since I was a child. As I grew older, it became my preferred method of sharing my thoughts and feelings with others. I found that there was very little that couldn’t be expressed through the infinite diversity of colo, shape, and texture of a painting. I was painting when Marlin came to me.

I was high up on a ladder, putting the finishing touches on a mural of a great ship, arriving at a harbor, when I felt light tapping vibrating up to my feet. I looked down, and my eyes met those of a young woman, about my age, dressed in bright festival garb. I’d met her before, she was the daughter of a family friend, and we’d interacted on many occasions. I knew her to be a kind and generous person, and I wanted to know her better.

She waved, and I waved back. Placing my brush carefully in a pocket, I climbed down.

She took my hand in hers, and I counted the beats her fingers drummed into my skin, spelling out the bold request to steal me away into the festival. A timid grin bloomed on my face, and I assented. With glittering eyes, she pulled me with her. We whirled through the streets, soon tumbling into the busy Centre, where a festival raged. My ears filled with the sounds of drums and horns, and the smell of fresh food wafted to my nose. I breathed deeply, exhilaration pumping through my veins.

Festivals are a common occurrence in our land, but no two are the same. They are all filled with music, food, art, and good community, but the meanings behind them change, as do the people who attend and the types of street that are present.

My leather boots scraped against the mosaic of cobblestones beneath me. I waved at familiar shopkeeps, manning their booths. I tugged at Marlin’s sleeve, and we stopped at a food stand for crispy delicacies that melted in our mouths. We kept going, walking through bright markets filled

with food, art, and musicians, bordered by decades of murals spread accross beautiful architecture, reaching up to the perfectly empty dome of sky above us.

It wasn’t long before we came across a dance. Dances are always at the core of festivals, as they are in many other aspects of life. What better way to communicate with others than with the movement of your limbs, the flow of your skirts, the way you respond to others’ movements? We are like the bees, dancing together to share our secrets.

A band was seated on a stage before us, and all around, people spun and frolicked to the rhythm. We dove in, and held on amidst the rolling wave of joyous dancers. We were two intertwined reeds, grasping each other as we spun around and around in the wake of a boat or some great beast.

Staring into her eyes, I barely noticed the shift in movements around us. Then, I registered the space clearing around us, the way Marlin moved closer to me in a slow spiral, before we began to spin together, faster and faster, until I could barely hold on to her fingers. It was then that I knew that what had been a simple dance of communal celebration had become something else, inspired by the way eagles lock talons with their mates and drop to the ground in a dizzying spiral, releasing just before they reach the ground.

It was a courtship dance.

As we spun so fast that our fingertips ripped apart and we each entered a tight spin on our own, dizzy and delightfully delirious, my smile grew even wider. My heart fluttered, and I slowed to a stop. Marlin stopped spinning a second after I did, and I met her bright eyes with all the joy and happiness I could muster.

I’d never been courted before, and it was exhilarating. We spent the rest of the day dancing, eating delicious food, and smiling until it felt like our faces were cracking in half.

That wonderful day turned into many, and then weeks, and before I knew it, we had been together for months, learning about each other, spending time together, quietly dreaming of the futures we could have.

We were happy. We went to every festival we could, dining and dancing and seeinhg all the beautiful art our land had to offer. We cooked for each other, shared our favorite books, painted and weaved and played beautiful music for each other. It was the life I had dreamed of since I was a little girl.

Still, something was missing.

I told Marlin I loved her in every way I knew how, through art, writing, and dancing, but I couldn’t tell her. I tapped the words into her skin, and shared them with her through my gestures, and she assured me she understood. I knew she did, but I craved the feeling of the words creating strange shapes on my tongue, the vibration of my vocal cords as I spoke sounds no one knew the words to but me and her.

Eventually, she noticed it. My need to spill my words out into the air bled into our lives, and suddenly I realized that my desire to tell the one I loved that I loved her was making it harder for our love to grow. It made our silences feel more silent, and our wordless conversations became more wordless than conversations. When it all came to a peak, Marlin gave me a letter.

My dearest Adrienne, my love, my beautiful artist. I know what you want. I hear you whispering at night when you think I’m asleep, and I feel the longing when you show your love for me day after day, the need to tell and not show. I know you love me, I always have. And I love you. I love all of you, even your cracking voice that whispers strange pronunciations to words that have none. I do not see you as a deviant, or a blasphemer, I only see you as an artist, trying to paint with a new and exciting brush, and I know that that brush is necessary to complete your mural of love for me. Other brushes will do, but only this one will make the perfect stroke, will spread the colors just right. You will not be satisfied until your painting is complete, so neither will I. I will stand by you, whether you choose to lock your voice away like the rest of us, or to sing your heart out for all to hear. It is up to you.

I was still. My heart was loud in my chest, and my breath tore through me in a slow gust. All my secrets and locked away sounds, suddenly exposed, but to a kind and warm light, tempting them to bask in it.

I resisted.

I thought.

I considered many things, for the duration of the afternoon, and well into the evening. I was quieter than my normal quiet, but Marlin did not push. She did not pry for a response to her note, or do much of anything out of the ordinary. She simply continued on as she normally did, and gave me the space to sit in silent silence.

I was still contemplating when we went to bed, but as I gazed into her kind and beautiful eyes, I made up my mind.

She smiled at me, and I smiled back. I opened my mouth, and from it spilled 3 words. I knew the shape of their curves on paper, the colors that represented them in my artwork, the deeds that showed them, but I didn’t know their sounds. No one did. The sounds that came from my mouth may have been the way the words were spoken by the gods, but in reality, they were just what felt right in the moment. A strange, crackling, fumbling, flowing, indecipherable set of noises, whispered to one person, and one person only, filling up the dark silence of the room with the warm glow of sound.

“I love you.”


Anoka County Library Write On! 2023 Short Story Contest Winners Copyright © 2023 by Avrie Siedschlag; Ella Howard; Greta Graham; Renad Taher; Rachel Mueller; Daniel Gbati; Julia McBride; Audrey High; Lucia Floan; Rhett LeBeau; Anna Moline; Hannah Jemming; Valomi Lewis; Fen Hendren; Kathryn Downs; Megan Nguyen; Lizzie Elsenpeter; Sophia Accord; and Sophia Acord. All Rights Reserved.

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