Home > Soundless(13)

Author: Richelle Mead

Zhang Jing holds her head up, mustering every last bit of pride she has as she gathers her few possessions and ignores the covert conversations that are flashing around the room as our peers take in this new development. I want to tell them this is only temporary. . . but I can say and do nothing as the servant escorts her out. Zhang Jing gives me one last sweet smile before she steps out the door, and for the first time in my life, I feel truly alone.


THAT NIGHT, I DREAM I am in a house with chrysanthemums carved on its walls, just like my stump. It’s beautiful and elaborate but completely impractical. As I admire this fanciful house, I am again unable to shake the feeling that something is beckoning me. It’s as though there’s a line running out of my chest, pulling me to someone else. It’s strange, but at least the dream is quiet, giving me a welcome reprieve from the onslaught of noises that has tormented me all day.

A new set of sounds rouses me from sleep, a succession of short ones that occur simultaneously, over and over, with great frequency. I sit up in my bed, trying to determine what this new source might be. The early morning light coming in through the window is sluggish, and gray skies outside give me my answer. It is the sound of rain hitting the building.

My stomach is in knots as I go about my morning duties. I want to see Zhang Jing, but am afraid to as well. Her absence pains me like a wound that cannot heal, yet I’m afraid to see her in this new role she’s taken on. Whatever they’ve assigned her to do, however, it doesn’t involve crossing my path. I paint and go to breakfast with the others, and then we make the usual journey to the town’s center and our observation posts.

The rain stops by the time I reach the mine’s entrance, which is a small blessing. It’s still damp and miserable, and my heart aches for my sister as I sit on my stump and touch the carved chrysanthemums, thinking back to last night’s dream. My head hurts too, as I’ve had to contend with a barrage of new sounds all morning. I went to the library seeking information on what might bring hearing back, but now I wonder if there’s a way to make it go away again. I can’t see why our ancestors thought hearing was such a great thing, why they mourned its loss so much. It’s jarring and distracting, making it impossible to focus on anything else. What value could all this extra stimulus add to life?

And even more confusing, why is this happening to me? The old stories say that people began to lose hearing in groups. If that sense is coming back to us, wouldn’t it happen to multiple people at a time? Before bed last night, I made sure to check the record in the workroom and even ask some of the other apprentices if anything unusual had happened yesterday or if they’d noted any strange stories. I’d played it off as curiosity about missing my observation, but secretly I’d hoped that maybe others were experiencing what I was and that I could talk about it and get some understanding.

I still don’t know what to do. Should I tell the elders? Will they think I’m crazy? There are times I wonder if maybe I am. It’s true that what I’m experiencing falls in line with what we know about sound and hearing, but maybe I’m just imagining I’m experiencing those things? Is it possible that some old story has lodged itself in the back of my mind and is now manifesting itself this way? That actually seems like a more plausible explanation than suddenly becoming the only miraculous recipient of hearing.

My dark spiral of worries pauses when I hear what I’ve come to recognize as the sound of feet and people moving. I look up, trying to determine its location, and realize it’s coming from the mine’s entrance. I get to my own feet and hurry over in time to see a group of workers emerging, carrying something—no, someone—between them. I back up to give them room and watch in horror as they lay Bao out on the ground. Someone signals for water, but another man shakes his head and signs, It’s too late. Bao’s eyes are closed, and there’s blood on his temple—new blood, different from yesterday’s wound. He isn’t moving.

Sorrow wells up in me, but I push through it, knowing I have a job to do. I tap one of the workers and ask, What happened?

Recognizing me and my status, she bows before answering. A section of wall had become unstable. The foreman put a placard up with a warning to keep us away from that area, but Bao didn’t see it.

Someone pushes his way through the crowd, and I feel my breath catch when I see Li Wei. He pauses to wipe sweat from his brow and peers around avidly, his dark eyes sharp and concerned. When he spies his father, Li Wei hurries over and kneels down by the old man. Whereas yesterday Li Wei was fiery and indignant, today he is all tenderness and compassion. I feel myself choke up as I watch him gently touch Bao’s face, hoping for a response. An overwhelming urge to run over and comfort Li Wei sweeps me, but I stay where I am. Resignation soon fills his features as he realizes what the rest of us already have: Bao is gone. That resignation turns to a mix of rage and grief. Li Wei clenches his fists and opens his mouth.

A sound comes out like none I have heard so far. Really, I’ve heard little in the way of human sounds. There is no need for us to make them. We stopped communicating with our mouths and voices ages ago. But the instinct is still there, especially in times of high emotion. I’ve felt the vibrations myself when I’ve sobbed, when I’ve let out little cries of sorrow, though of course I had no idea what they sounded like.

I do now, and it sends chills through me as I listen to Li Wei. A section of Feng Jie’s words comes back to me:

A scream is a sound we make that is born of intense feeling. A scream of fear, of being startled, is often high-pitched. It may be short or prolonged. A scream may also accompany delight or amusement, though often that is more of a squeal. And a scream of sorrow or rage . . . well, that is an entirely different thing. That comes from a darker place, from the depths of our souls, and when we scream in those times, because we are sad or angry, there is a terrible knowledge that accompanies it, that we are giving voice to our emotions, to what is simply too big for our hearts to contain.

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