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  • Writer's pictureRodica Bretin

The Sound of Silence


I was seventeen and still knew nothing: about myself, about the world. Eighteen hundred days in an orphanage, – sounds like something by Charles Dickens. I was in twenty-first century Canada, not Oliver Twist’s England. I wasn’t raised in a prison with moldy walls, floors infested with mice, or steel bars on the windows. On the contrary, everything was comfortable, orderly − large rooms with pastel-painted walls, clean sheets, and pajamas with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. No one starved us, hit us, or chained us to our beds.

It wasn’t a family, but it wasn’t purgatory. It would have been almost bearable, at least until Ernest Wilberforce appeared − the ethics teacher, a puritan, family man, and respectable citizen. And a pedophile. Or a serial killer of souls and dreams, of innocence, and faith in people.

The girls simply called him the Monster.

And just like any predator, the Monster was always lurking, ravenously hungry. Seeking safety in numbers, the girls gathered together like a herd. However, from time to time, one of them was left behind or got lost: at the showers, in the dressing rooms, in the gymnastics hall, or in some laboratory.

One afternoon, it happened to be me.

I had been late in the library, and as I was picking up my books I came face to face with the Monster. He had crept in quietly and now stood between me and the door. His breathing was raspy, veins pulsed in his temples. Then his eyes dilated, became only pupils. The mask of gentleness he wore began to decompose, falling off his face like old skin. He made a step, then another, never averting his gaze from mine.

I was frozen – a bird caught in the serpent’s hypnotic trance. Then he was next to me.

His sweaty hands crawled on my cheeks, then my neck, clawed fingers clenched around my breasts, crushing them under my clothing. His palm covered my mouth.

This had awoken me. But the disgust, the fury had not taken hold yet. Not even the fear. Only a stubborn refusal that this was happening. Absurd thoughts thundered through my head – and what if I let him? I was only one of many stained by the Monster. With time, the pain and the revolting memory would fade, or so the others claimed. It was worse if you resisted, and besides, no one would believe you. You should endure, don’t struggle, don’t scream. He will get bored of you – in a month or two. And there was no shortage of prey...

The Monster slammed his fist into my cheek, turned and twisted me over the desk. But then, a crimson light split my head, sending a burning pain into my mind. I could see faces distorted by torment, hear screams cut short – and again the images, contorted bodies, twisting like marionettes in the hands of a crazed puppeteer, flesh swollen by bites, streams of blood under the black and white uniforms. After some time I understood what I was seeing: these were memories, feelings.

I had entered the twisted mind of Ernest Wilberforce and was digging through his past.

Outside, an alarm rang − seven o’clock, already? The girls were going to the cafeteria, walking in an organized column, silently counting each other. One of them would be missing, being savored by the honest Mister Wilberforce.

If then I had chosen to endure, the next years in hell would have been erased from the blackboard of my life. I would have been just another antelope in the herd, anonymous and safe.

The Monster took his time undressing me, and I found myself staring at my body through his eyes. Knowing what he was about to do to me, feeling the pain and disgust shower over me, seeing the blood staining the floorboards. But nothing happened yet, it would become reality only if...

Something  grew inside of me, something terrible, which had slumbered hidden and unknown. And now it had awoken, surging from the depths, springing forward with a silent scream, like a bolt of lightning striking the one bent over me.

His fingers detached themselves from my body. I heard a strange sound – a grunt, a whimper? – I then turned my head to see the Monster collapsing as if someone had scythed through his legs. He writhed, ravenously gulping air, drops of purple oozing from his eyes, his nostrils and from his mouth he threw up a thick, almost black saliva of blood.

Ernest Wilberforce crawled on the floor like a crushed toad. I pulled up my skirt and tied the rags of my blouse. Walking past him, I made my way to the door, which was now opening. Standing stunned on the threshold were the chemistry teacher and the overseer of my class. After that, the scene became more animated: inside rushed other teachers, the gate guard, and even the cleaning woman – as if they all had been prowling in the corridor. They stared in disbelief at the man now belching out his lungs and entrails, at my torn uniform, the bruises on my cheek, neck, and chest. Until then, Ernest Wilberforce had been one of theirs. Rumors and whispers circulated by girls with eyes reddened by tears − just lies concocted by teens whose hormones had gone wild. But now, what would happen to the school’s prestige?

They had called two ambulances: one for Ernest, one for me. Why all the concern? Where they suddenly about to believe the word of a disobedient, ungrateful and unwanted student? The lights flickering blue and red, like a warning, the girls and teachers clearing a path − were they afraid of me? – then the infirmary staff helped me climb aboard.

The doors slammed shut, and as the sirens started blaring, I felt a needle piercing my arm. A heat wave washed over me, the air becoming thick, murky. Then I felt nothing.

When I woke up, I was in hell, one that was white, sterile, and of course, paved with good intentions: the psychiatric ward in Halifax Municipal Hospital. The devils wore lab coats, stethoscopes, syringes, and professional smiles. They called themselves doctors, assistants, and nurses. They didn’t punish; they didn’t torture. Everything happened with an unfeeling, frightfully mechanical routine.

I had spent a week confined in a padded room, my body crushed in a straitjacket. Then a whole day under the pressurized water jets: one was cold, the next hot and back to the cold. My breath was suddenly cut off by the water which burned − first it was ice, then it was lava –, it pushed against my chest, my thighs, between my shoulder blades, like a massive fist slamming against me, once, a hundred times.

Then, in an immaculate shirt, bare feet, and with my hair hidden under a bonnet, they took me to the hall. First time I walked by myself, not knowing what would happen. The second time they have to drag me, hauled me up while my legs were running through empty air, carrying me away, as far as possible from the bed to which I would be tied with belts, from the electrodes that would cover me like a net of suckers leeching strength, life, and thoughts, until even the pain left me.

Rattled by convulsions, muscles throbbing chaotically, I was biting the rubber gag, I was writhing like a Dervish caught in the madness of death – and they stopped to take notes, listened to my heart, and ravings. And later, it all began all over again.

Sometimes they shot me with sedatives and days – millennia? − I drifted, floating on a sea of gold, alongside monkey-fish and a smiling Buddha whispering to me that Mister Ernest was waiting at the aisle, to take me as his bride, or how somewhere over the horizon, a black shadow gazes at the world with eyes of fire.

Other times they woke me, washed me, gave me pajamas and a robe, slippers, and a cardboard tag to hang around my neck, so I could see Mister Director. The tag had no name on it, only a number. I was to sit quietly on the edge of the couch, only to be told what remarkable progress I was making, how the rebellious teen inside of me was to be killed in horrible agony, until even the memory vanished, and I was to become a responsible, reformed adult. All I had to do was be docile, cooperative, and have patience. A year, two, five – passed quickly. Then the world would take me in with open arms.

What followed was another week of electroshocks, polar showers, and sleeping pills, the nurses taking me off the stretcher and throwing me on the bed like a sack of potatoes, hardly caring if I rolled off and fell on the floor; a doctor glancing at my eyes, burned by the bright light; an assistant huffing in irritation at the swollen bruises in yellow and green where she was unable to stick another needle.

This was my life − and it would be so for a long time, maybe forever. But why? I was sick, or so I was told. Anxiety, hysteria, psychosis, anguish – who could say? And really, who cared? The number on the card, on the files – the doctors, the Director didn’t want to know more, for they had plenty of numbers to bide their time, sometimes even to arouse their interest.

How does one become insane? Are you born that way? Is it a cruel joke, revenge taken by the universe? And how do those creatures live detached from the world, the past, and future, from life and death? Some were a danger to those around them, others only to themselves. Their punishment was eternal imprisonment: in iron and concrete, or their own body. They were strangers to everything that had meaning or value. Like me, they had been excluded from society, from the human race, but they didn’t know it.

I meet them in the corridors, ghostly apparitions, souls lost in the hell of their own being or in that of the hospital, drifting between two torture sessions which were meant to cure them, or not. Blind and deaf moles, crawling aimlessly through a labyrinth of grey walls, until the nurses plucked one of them at random, dragging it behind metal doors, from where not even the buzzing of the generators or the screams could be heard.

Just like them, the mole Kayla allowed herself, without resistance, to be taken to the showers, and the hall. She lay herself down on the bed, waiting for more of her neurons to be fried, accepting the needles that pierced her flesh, without wincing at the encouraging smile of Mister Director – Ernest, Zarathustra, Manitou? – carelessly consenting when reality became a nightmare and her surroundings a spiky chrysalis.

I didn’t know what was happening to me, where I was, or who I was. Past, present: a kaleidoscope of red, black, and violet shards. Pain and horror. Have things ever been different? The years spent with my mother, even the ones at the orphanage had vanished, drowned in the void that had invaded my mind, my memories, feeding on everything I was and everything I was about to become.

Until, one day, I opened my eyes, and…I found myself in a grey stone hall, guarded by suits of armor, old pistols, swords, shields, and torn banners. I rubbed my eyes, but the vision didn’t disappear, and then I heard the first sound: footsteps.

A grey-haired man appeared, wearing a kilt and a plaid over his silver buttoned shirt. His attire was black and blue, the colors of the clans of the Highlands, although I would only find that out later. At that moment, I simply stood shivering before him, with the moist gown glued to me like a second skin, dirty and wrinkled.

You came from the showers, whispered a voice, you’re practically naked, uttered another, you’re dreaming, comforted a third. The stranger removed his plaid and wrapped it around my shoulders before pulling up a chair just as I had collapsed into it.

He poured a steaming, golden drink into a porcelain cup. My hands were shaking continuously, so he gently brought it to my mouth. I sipped: it was fruit tea with cinnamon, like the Victorian heroines of Lewis Carroll appreciated. I burst into laughter − all that was missing was the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, and the White Rabbit!

“I am not a figment of your imagination, Kayla.”

The stranger appeared to know a lot about me. His face was covered in scars; he had silver hair and a calm certainty, not arrogant but natural, harnessed from experience. Bending down, he pushed aside the damp strands of hair covering my cheeks.

“And you’re not crazy.”

For two years, the demons in white robes had sought to prove otherwise. I was sick and they would cure me, one way or another. At first, I believed them. The thing that slept within me, that Ernest Wilberforce woke, frightened me more than the tortures they had devised. Later, however...

She’s displaying aggressive tantrums, alternating with profound depressions that go beyond adolescent anguish. She proves a creative intelligence, in contrast with a predisposition for introspection. These were not my thoughts, but fragments of what others believed I was.

“But who are you, Kayla?”

“I don’t know.”

“What brought you here, and why did you stay?”

“I don’t want to know.”

“But you want it to end!”

It was true. Lately and almost involuntarily, I had begun to rebel: perfusion needles sticking in the nurse’s fingers, a hose dropping out of an attendant’s hands under the pressure of the hot water, doors slamming in front of those who dragged me to the hall. There was no solid plan there, just weak, incoherent attempts to end the torture. Anything was preferable to the sterile hell, even the thing inside my mind, staring through my eyes, waiting and stalking, ready to emerge at any moment. And it was becoming harder to keep it in check. Maybe because I had suffered enough. But why would the stranger help me?

“You shouldn’t be afraid of what you are. Back then, you reacted instinctively, in self-defense. It was the first sign. But from there−”

The Scotsman offered me the forbidden fruit. What would happen if I took it? I would be cast out from hell?

“If I am not crazy, then what am I?”

“You’re different from them. And people shy away from everything that is outside their time and space. The unknown frightens them. But you were born with the will to find the truth.”

I looked around, as he poured more hot tea. The walls, the ceiling, looked so real. So was the stranger.

“I’m Liam, and I am like you.”

What could that mean? I sipped the tea, and then stopped. It had been sweetly flavored, but suddenly it became bitter like gall, it tasted like rubber!

The Scotsman abruptly stood up, hitting the table.

“Kayla, wake up. Now!”

I opened my eyes. I was strapped down to the bed, and the doctor was sticking the electrodes to my forehead. Then he adjusted his device, attentively turning the cursors and pressing the buttons.

I knew what was coming: the needles would dance on the dials, the current would pass through my body like a lightning strike, sending me into an abyss of pain, from which the good doctor would pull me out with a turn of a switch. And again I would plunge with my head downwards, my muscles shaken by convulsions, I would stick my teeth into the rubber gag, listening to the endless screams in my head.

For five days I hadn’t eaten, I didn’t move, I didn’t answer their questions – and they were determined to remove me from this lethargy.

Bored by the stubbornness of the lunatics refusing to mend their ways, many decades ago, some doctors had found a solution. Schizophrenia, autism, apathy, depression? A hundred volts heals everything. Certainly, it could cause cerebral lesions, memory loss, heart attacks, or induce a coma – but what did any number of failures matter, as long as science moved forward?

I didn’t like that idea, at all.

My first thought was to send the wave of pain into my torturer’s head. To turn his neural circuit into an arid wasteland, in which no thought would ever take root. To watch him crawling aimlessly on all fours like an animal, leaving behind him a trail of slobber.

But another voice − who’s? − insistently whispered to me to do differently.

I looked at the doctor, and his hand remained still on the dial, his eyes staring into nothingness. His voice, however, was the same, authoritarian, infatuated, and irritatingly calm. He dictated to the assistant numbers and observations in the psychiatric jargon that I had become so familiar with. They all proclaimed the same miraculous findings, dutifully written down by the bored woman, who was thinking only of her own problems. I was within the limits of normalcy. After seven hundred days, their efforts had begun to pay off.

That was just the beginning.

In two weeks, the doctors and nurses were all puppets whose strings I was pulling, more and more skillfully. No more pills to shove down my throat. No more showers or volt shocks down my veins, bones, and muscles. One file after another built the monument of my victory over all others: she’s responding well to therapy, quickly entering convalescence, on an irreversible road to recovery.

After a month, they brought me breakfast in bed, books, and magazines, everything I asked of them. Mister Director came at my first summons, amiable, and parental. He bought me clothes, shoes, and even arranged a credit card to be made in my name. He didn’t refuse me his golden pen, or my psychiatric folder. I was living in a controlled environment, governed by me, an experimental one; only the guinea pigs were the ones in lab coats. 

In the year that followed, nothing was the same anymore. I had changed my world forever. They were all around me, the humans. I was meant to lose myself among them, to hide in plain sight, the perfect chameleon, the mirror of everyone and no one.

“Not only your powers, but your thoughts too must remain hidden, your gift to see the world as it is. People do not like one of their own living differently than they do, free and showing them where their faults lie.” Liam, the Scotsman, always appeared in my mind. He was answering unasked questions, casting aside my doubts and uncertainty; he showed me the secret of perfect mimicry, to persuade others you are exactly as they wish. To be seen this way, even when nothing is further from the truth.

And I was a quick study. Sometimes I needed to get into the minds of others, but more often all I had to do was trick them into thinking they had won, that I was just as blind, happy to be a part of the crowd, a slave to social norms, traditions, and minor aspirations, ignorant and anonymous. And it was enough.

They had forgotten the rebellious adolescent, tied down to a stretcher while the ambulance entered the hospital gates with sirens blaring. For two years, I had been an oddity, a threat. Now I was one of them, they understood me, they liked me.

I could have left at any time; all it would have taken was a suggestion and a few signatures. But to go where? To wake up on the street, mature and free to trade the orphanage for social assistance?

“The poor cannot hide, Kayla. Everyone sees them, even if no one looks at them.” Like always, Liam knew what he was talking about.

I spent my twentieth birthday in the Director’s office. It was late evening, the whole hospital was asleep or was pretending to be, I was drinking champagne, Dom Pérignon, and the Director was signing papers: a five-year scholarship donation for Medical College, a letter of recommendation for the dean, for the Municipal Library in Halifax, who was meant to hire me as a referent. Had I forgotten something?

I approached the man who looked at me with empty eyes and a trembling lower lip. I smiled, raised my leg on his desk, stroking my fingers over my thigh clothed in shining silk. No reaction, no dilated pupils. I showed him the fireplace where he lit the fire, feeding it with my files, dossiers, and analyses. The flames rose to snatch them, greedily devouring them.

It was summer in Dartmouth, but I patiently waited by the hearth, watching the last proof of the time I had spent in the white hell vanish in smoke and ash. Back then, it wasn’t enough to press a button on a computer to make a life disappear, or a thousand, like it had never existed. You had to carry around mounds of files, tear up stacks of papers, burn them, and rewrite everything that remained. And that the director did dutifully, meticulously changing page after page until Kayla Blackmoon had become a model citizen, a social animal.

But was I really?

Leaving the office, I had discovered the halls full of shadows against the grey dawn. The insane had come out of their rooms, in a farewell procession. Some hesitantly touched my hands, others bowed before me in adoration, like I was some prophet meant to lead them through the desert, towards salvation. I expected they would ask me for something: a blessing, a miracle, a prophecy, anything. They simply followed me, like a ghostly cortege.

In the hallway leading to the exit, they stopped; they just stood there, still silhouettes in a cathedral of darkness. Then I heard the rising rumble of their thoughts, a bewilderingly apocalyptic noise. The sound of silence – I took it with me and sometimes I still hear it, at nights when sleep doesn’t find me.    





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