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©2018 Barren Magazine. An Alt.Lit Introspective.

To Lie With Silence

by Jamie A. Hughes

This dewdrop world—
Is a dewdrop world,
And yet, and yet…

—Kobayashi Issa


Every night before sleep, I turn on a fan. Sometimes multiple ones. Ceiling and bedside. Pedestal and box. They fill the room with circulating air and soothing noise, creating a different climate than in every other space of the house. I say I need them because still air breathes like flat beer drinks, because my husband—with whom I’ve shared a bed for eighteen years—is a human furnace, because I grew up poor in Arkansas and had to endure too many hot nights, sticky sheets clinging to me, and fans were a kind of salvation.

My husband complained vociferously at first, blaming the fans for every cold and flu he caught. But in time, my misery at night softened his stance. First, he consented to a small one on my bedside. Then the ceiling fan on low. Then high. Eventually, he discovered that he too needed one to sleep, and the battle I fought by degrees had been won.


In his autobiography Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov says, “Sleep is the most moronic fraternity in the world, with the heaviest dues and the crudest rituals. It is a mental torture I find debasing….I simply cannot get used to the nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius.” I can commiserate, but it isn’t surrender that galls me. It’s the silence that comes when the world stops.

Fans ward off the night’s stillness—the long quiet stretch of time when secret things occur, crawling into chrysalises to emerge as something different, possibly unrecognizable, in the faint light of morning. I lie awake, fearing the world I recognize could change irrevocably while I lay prostrate and unaware.


Stormy nights aren’t bad. The rain and wind keep me comfortable, fill my ears with something besides the sounds of thrumming blood and passing time. The struggle is hardest when the power goes out, and the air goes still and settles over me like a mantle. I wake instantly, rip off cloying blankets, expose myself to the darkness. I listen to the pop and creak of the house, the night prowling of animals, the soft rustle of linen as my family murmurs, turns over in beds, their sleep unbroken. That’s when the silence and I speak together. Or, more often, it talks, and I try my best not to listen.


Once when I was away from home for several days, staying in a hotel, sleep became evasive, gaslighting me and spinning lies. It’s your fault, not mine. You always do this. You should just take a pill. No one else feels like this; no one else has so much trouble with me. Frustrated and desperate, I grabbed my phone and downloaded an ambient noise app, hoping to find something close to the soothing purr of a fan. I scrolled past rainforest sounds and gentle waves until I hit “white noise,” which was too bright, too staccato to soothe. “Pink noise” was better, but closer to the hypnotic lull of late-night TV static than a hum. I finally settled on something called “brown noise”—a deeper, more baritone version of the same sound—despite the fact it reminded me of the “brown note” which I’d learned about in college—and turned the phone to half volume.

Yes, I would rather sleep to something that reminds me of shit than make peace with silence.


Some nights, the silence presses—steady and relentless—against my temples and into my chest. Other times, it works its way into my gut, an enormous, gagging bite of something I can neither swallow nor spit out. Only the whirr of a few blades spares me. A mindless, inanimate object keeps a vigil, protects me from something I can’t accept. Not yet.


I believe in heaven and all that Christ promises, but there’s still an inescapable hurdle in the way. Death. A brief (or perhaps vast) and utterly unknowable landscape to walk across on one’s own. I’ve watched death court a loved one away over the span of an evening, witnessed it swoop in and snatch every passenger in a car. Like most people, I have a preferred way to leave this life (slipping away while staring at the ocean) and one I’d rather avoid (being trapped in a burning building). And, like most people, I pretend death doesn’t exist, cover my ears and bellow past the graveyard. The night’s silence denies me that escape; it won’t tolerate ignorance. Rather, it holds my chin and says, “Heed.”


Death is an unknown, but life, even with all its regrets and shortcomings, is certain. We realize what we’re in for when we crawl out of bed in the morning. The coffee and the commute, making do and moving up. In the daylight hours, we snatch at recognition, polish our medals, and mortar plaudits together like bricks in a wall—hoping something will protect us, serve as recommendation, help us lay siege to time.


“He who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion,” according to Solomon, the supposed writer of Ecclesiastes. “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.” The things we have in our workaday world—our loves and petty jealousies, our scant joys and limitless desires—hardly matter in the face of what we are going to be. Yet we stubbornly cling to them because they are familiar and, we falsely believe, fully possessed. To relinquish them to the quiet, even for a few minutes, is to admit that death—that greater hush always at hand—is coming. “Silence,” says St. John of the Cross, a 16th century mystic and poet, “is God’s first language.” If that is true, it is a tongue I often do not wish to speak.


To lie in silence and listen to my husband breathe is to understand that one day, all breath will be arrested, that God will wind it around his fingers like so much string and gather it back unto himself. Eventually, our bodies—all we are and have done—will cease. In the darkness, time creeps between our entwined legs like a cat, nestles down and warms the curve between belly and back. It makes itself comfortable, and though it never begs for attention, I can think of nothing else.


Silence tells me all this and more. Through it, I’ve come to see the truth. It’s knowledge both alluring and terrifying. Awful in every sense of the word. Yet, it is not without grace.

And so I lie down with that knowing each night, meet with eventuality and accept another morsel of it under my tongue. One day, I will be full. Satiated. At peace. But I am not yet ready, so I turn on a fan. Like the red thread that led Theseus out of the labyrinth, its whir will pull me back from the threshold, beat back what I know is coming.

Header photograph © Heather Wharram.

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