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The Universal Language of Silence

a short story

by Forrest Aguirre

There exists a stark contrast between the stage and the back alleys behind a theater that only an actor can appreciate. The audience member moves from luxury car to reserved seat and back with little or no gray pavement between the plush red carpets. The performer, however, emerges from the musty clutter of the back stage onto a perfectly sterile dream world, a spotless fishbowl into which the audience peers, but cannot enter, dares not enter for fear of sullying the perfect illusion. Then, after the curtain falls and the dramatic energy has been siphoned and carried off into the night by the crowd, the spent actor or actress leaves the empty shell of character in the dressing room and walks through dark back alleys, past derelicts and stray animals, finally discharged from the stygian concrete chasms on to an arterial street, far from the dazzling lights of the theater's façade.

It is near these junctions of alleys and streets that the failed performers, the pseudo-actors, ply their metier in hopes of discovery by some famous agent, or at least in anticipation of a few glittering coins. Saxophone players scent the air with cool sadness, jugglers throw their wares to the sky and dance with gravity, beggars put on a show for pity-filled spectators. These miniature circuses line the avenues of the metropole, giving a sense of grim celebration throughout.

When I first passed the mime on my way home from a performance, I hardly noticed her presence. It was the next night, after the stage light blindness had left my tired eyes, that I caught a flutter of gray in the corner of my sight and stopped to watch the mute performer, ears ringing from the blast of music that nearly toppled me into the orchestra pit earlier that evening. Blurred gray settled into distinctive black and white, yin and yang torn from context, then quilted back together in the positive and negative striped shirt, the black hat, pants, suspenders and shoes of the modern-day harlequin. A single red rose blazed upon her left breast, shining from atop her heart, the only splash of color on her monochromatic form excepting her brown eyes and pink mouth. I was reminded of the old film in which a red balloon is carried through a black and white world, causing a ruckus among children wherever it travels.

No children were present at this mimetic performance -- it occurred well after the sandman had dusted their little eyes. A few wandering couples, pairs of lovers out to enjoy cheap entertainment, were the only audience for the lone performer. She finished her melodramatic skit by bursting out of some invisible shrinking box, throwing her hands up in triumph, free of the unseen prison, to the applause of the nine or ten people who stood watching. The lovers proved their generosity to their partners by filling the mime's outstretched hat half to the brim with coin and currency. She smiled and signified surprise by splaying her fingers out near her widened eyes.

It was then that I recognized the face behind the white mask of makeup. With her shocked look a memory bubbled up in my brain, a happy scar carved into my subconscious. I allowed myself to be immersed in the romanticized past, if only for a moment.

Lorraine had the most contagious laughter I've known. She could optimize the most hardened pessimist, raise the depressed from the depths of near destruction -- I should know, she single handedly pulled me from my darkest moments of self-annihilation, never missing a step through my emotional minefield.

Not only was Lori my best friend, she was the one who introduced me to acting. I, who had sent my tenth-grade English class into fits of laughter by misspeaking my lines, was a born actor, she told me, a natural. She saw the spark of the entertainer deep within me where I saw only shyness and easy embarrassment. Only after long coaxing and encouragement from her did I take a minor part in a drama club presentation at our high school.

My part, consisting of three or four lines of poetic drivel only tangentially related to the plot, proved a segue into the world of theater. I was intoxicated by the glare of the lights, entranced by the audience's subtle movements, only half seen in the darkness beyond the stage. Acting, I found, was a drug, an antidote to my self-perceived personal shortcomings. My body was not my own. It was a vessel, a conduit for the spirit of the playwright whose work I performed. It was proof to me of the old mystical paradox that one must lose oneself in order to find oneself.

The effects of my newfound avocation went beyond the curtain call, however. My peers grew to respect me, my teachers overlooked my policy breeches. In the course of two years I became an integral part of the popular crowd, standing alongside Lorraine as the cynosure of the school social scene.

We moved on to college together, my best friend and I, majoring, of course, in theater. Unfortunately our stay together was cut short. During our sophomore year Lori's mother became ill with cancer. My friend, my teacher, my coach, was crestfallen. She took leave from school and never returned.

Two years of intense study, followed by graduate training, afforded me less and less contact with Lori. I heard that her mother finally succumbed to the disease and that the devastated girl finally left our hometown to seek work elsewhere, though I never did learn her destination.

The look of shock resulting from my recognition of Lori must have mirrored the faux surprise on her chalky face. Her eyes narrowed into a squint, then opened soft again in recognition. Before I knew what had happened, her arms were wrapped around my neck, tears of happiness running white rivers down her cheek. As I embraced her a hundred questions raced through my mind, the most perplexing -- What cosmic providence has brought us together, two childhood friends found among a million strangers?

I suggested she walk home with me where we could talk. My apartment was only a few graffiti-riddled blocks away. She did not speak, but, staying in character, shook her head, put the palms of her hands together and pressed the back of one hand to the opposite side of her face, imitating sleep. Fatigue showed under her eyes. I asked if I could meet her for lunch the following day. She nodded and, with her somatic gestures, suggested we meet at noon by a nearby hot dog stand. I agreed, thrilled by the prospect of reopening our friendship. My youthful hope that we might grow to be more than just friends was rekindled as I retired to bed that night. That night, Lori danced in my thoughts.

I was slightly embarrassed when I met her the following day. I had come in my street clothes, leaving my costume in the dressing room, but Lori was fully clad in her zebra suit, as I liked to call the mime's apparel. She curtsied then held up two fingers to the hot dog vendor. "Two? You want everything on those?" he asked. Lori rubbed her belly and licked her lips, nodding in agreement. He laughed and served up the hot dogs.

"Very good, Lori," I said. "I knew you were a good actress, but I never knew you could mime. I'm impressed. You've been doing this for how long?"

She held up five fingers of one hand and silently mouthed five months.

"You can talk out loud, Lori. In fact, I would prefer that. No need to stay in character anymore," I said. I felt somewhere between humored, perplexed and annoyed by her refusal to speak. "It's been awhile since I've heard your melodic voice." I said smiling.

She shook her head no, waving a discouraging finger from side to side with a stern look behind her eyes.

My soft heart won. "OK, I'll play along for now, but it's been a long time. I was hoping we could talk, make up for lost time."

She rested her chin on her hands and batted black eyelashes at me. Her flirtatious smile drew me in like a siren's song, raising my hopes that perhaps a spark might still be kindled between us after our long absence from one another.

I spoke, she mimed and I learned a great deal about her life during my absence. I took the rest of the day off from rehearsing to listen to her wordless account. The interpretation was difficult at times. I wasn't sure why she couldn't just talk. But if it made her happy to speak without vocalizing I would do my best to accommodate her strange obsession for the time being.

After her mother's passing, Lori fled our small town and its stifling history of stagnation, finally settling here in the city where she could lose her sadness in the crowded streets, in the shade of tall glass buildings, anonymity providing a temporary salve to her pain. But being anonymous did not make her invisible. In time the city's predators found her, enticed and trapped her in a net of sociality and drugs, embedding their euphoric hooks in her depression, ripping her fragile psyche at their whim.

At her lowest point, when she felt the barbs might finally shred the thin veil of sanity which kept a total breakdown in abeyance, she happened on a mime team near the place where serendipity brought us back together. While others laughed at their antics, Lori wept for lost innocence, yearning to fill the void that had been cored out of her being, almost eviscerating her will to live.

One of the white-faced clowns noted her sadness and, with an empathetic frown and an outstretched hand, drew her back into the role of an actress, back to her first love, back to her Self. Among the silent she found her solace. They did not need to know of her anguish and didn't care about her past, so she hid her hurt behind the mask. Without attention to feed it, the pain simply withered and died in some quiet corner of her heart. She learned peace, calm, an ease of mind she had found nowhere else, where the outside world, even while looking in on her, could not intrude, where she could sequester herself, alone with silence.

I had never seen Lori so calm and content as she was with me that afternoon. She was always cheerful -- before her mother became ill -- but jumpy, non-committal, bouncing from search to search to search looking for some kind of inner satisfaction that always eluded her mercurial grasp. Now she was at ease, reverent, almost in the religious sense, like she had found something bigger than her self, something awesome, sublime. I wondered what could have touched her to change her so dramatically. It seemed that she had dropped all resentment and worry from her life and was finally at peace.

My musings were cut short as I noted the time. I excused myself -- rehearsals for tomorrow night's show began early in the morning. I agreed to meet her at a local coffee shop the day after the show. I walked home oblivious to the smiles and pointed fingers directed at Lori and me. Let them say what they will, I thought.

Rehearsal was a debacle. I, as Cyrano, swung from a ballroom chandelier, rapier in hand, only to fracture my foot as I landed on the stage floor. The costume manager -- the only person capable of removing the frilly folds and pinnochinose so that I could be examined -- drove me to the emergency room as my understudy learned to leap -- safely -- from the light fixture. After an exam, x-ray and anesthetic the doctor put a screw in my foot and told me that I would not be taking such heroic roles in the future unless I wished the cane to become a permanent prop.

I returned to the theater and cleared my locker knowing that my acting career was in serious jeopardy. I was, in effect, a lame horse headed for the glue factory. Unemployment checks would come in for a few weeks, but after that I seemed condemned to work as a stagehand.

As I exited the alleyway, head and heart laden with angst over the future, something stumbled over my newly acquired cane, knocking me to one knee. Black and white moved beneath me as a mime hit the pavement with an "Ahhh!" and a bloody broken nose. At the sound of his voice, three compatriots, each a clone of the others, threw an accusatory finger down at their downed comrade, faces aghast at the silence-breaking utterance. The crimson-chinned casualty held up a hand in self defense, halting the others long enough for him to rise to his feet, turn heel, and flee from the group. They all ran in place, moving only a few inches with each step, in a ridiculous slow motion chase down the alley, the trio slowly gaining on the offender. Both alley and street were deserted in all directions, curiously clear of pedestrian and vehicle alike. I was sole witness to the farcical charade. The clowns' silent pursuit made me acutely aware of the noise of my own troubled breathing. Eventually the three pursuers caught up to their erstwhile companion, surrounding him, taunting him with wordless jest, then raining down blows and kicks near, but never touching, his head and torso. With their harmless assault they felled the outcast in the alley.

The scene troubled me deeply. While I was sure the victim was unhurt -- no one ever really touched him -- the trio of attackers started at my approached, running off and leaving the first lying among the alleyway trash, nose still bleeding a scarlet stream down his shirt. I approached with the intent of offering my hand to help him up but stopped short when I saw his condition. Lacerations and contusions pepper his face, wide cracks split across one cheek. Red froth bubbled from his unbreathing mouth, freshening the flow from his shattered nose. A rib poked through his shirt, white bone protruding from a black stripe.

My mind reeled as I replayed the thoughts again and again. No, I was absolutely sure that the attacking party never touched the man, yet his body lay limp at my feet as if slapped against a brick wall by the hand of God. Sirens broke the silence, echoing off the concrete as they approached from deep within the city. I fled in spite of the pain in my foot, not wanting to become entangled in a legal imbroglio from which I might not escape.

Sleep was fitful that night, the empty glare of the dead meeting my gaze just as sleep enveloped me. Morning broke as I lay in bed thinking back on the incident. Why did the mimes attack their companion? Was it something to do with his accidental fall? Were they already pursuing him when he tripped over my cane -- a gang of mimes chasing an interloper from their turf? Or was he one of them? How did he suffer such wounds -- what was their source? The answers proved enigmatic. I could not make sense of the scene. Perhaps Lori might have some answers.

She was easy to spot in a crowd. Her black hat shone like a dark beacon above a sea of blonde, brown and red hair. The sight of her painted face churned my emotions end over end -- frustration and fear danced about my heart as if it were a maypole. A smiling tableful of giggling girls lowered their heads to share a secret, pointing at me as I took a seat opposite Lori. My discomfort grew, but I tried not to let my annoyance show. The last day and night had taken a toll on my patience, leaving me vulnerable to the little girls' immature jibes. I did my best to be strong -- for Lori. Her lack of verbal response to my words didn't help.

"Good morning, Lori. How are you?"

She held two thumbs up and smiled.

"Things looking up? Wish I could say the same."

She thrust out her lower lip and rubbed her eyes with her fists, then peeked around the table and grabbed her ankle, feigning sympathetic pain.

I sighed, exasperated. "Lori, why won't you speak? More than anything I want to talk with you, to hear your voice."

Profound sadness showed in her brown eyes. She started as if to speak then stopped, shaking her head, and looked up at me as if daring me to challenge her silent determination.

I stood to leave, tired of the game. "Lori, I am truly sorry. I thought that we could renew our friendship -- maybe even move on to something more. But I can't play these charades -- I can't."

She stood, tears welling in her eyes. It hurt me to hurt her but the childishness had to end. I turned toward the door. A shiver crawled up the skin of my back as I heard her once-familiar voice for the first time since our school days -- "No," she whispered, almost inaudibly. I stopped, then, gathering my stubbornness, walked out, looking back long enough to see Lori with her hand over her mouth like a preacher caught swearing from the pulpit on Easter morn, her face full of surprise -- or was it fear? I walked on.

Days later I secured a part in a local community theater production. It was nothing stellar, but a role that would pay rent for the next few weeks and one that did not require foot-smashing acrobatics. The pall of dark emotion that had hung over me thinned and lifted -- almost. Guilt pulled at my insides, condemning me for my treatment of Lori. I had been far too hasty and nasty to my old friend. How presumptuous of me to think we could reconnect without re-acclimatizing to one another. My selfishness had blurred my emotional vision, my egotism had left Lori truly mute -- I did not know what she felt about her experiences, about her work, about us. She had done so much for me in the past. I owed her an apology and a chance to talk.

I took to the streets, questioning and looking, prodding street performers with promises and bribes in an effort to find my Lori. She was nowhere. The last anyone had seen her was the day I stormed out of the coffeehouse.

When I thought I had exhausted my search I met an old, silver-haired mime, a wise man among their ranks, I supposed. After watching his performance I queried him about where I might look for a lost mime.

"Have you called the police yet? Mimes are quiet and all look the same -- easy victims in this city."

"No, I didn't want to bring the authorities into this until I'm sure I can't find her."

"Her? Well, there is the mime school on 21st street. Have you been there?"

"No, I didn't know about it. Did you go to school there?"

"I went there for one day. Then they tried to get me to swear to secrecy, to swear to silence about the 'esoteric knowledge' they offered. They claimed that their techniques and style had been handed down from generation to generation in an unbroken chain for as far back as the first written record of clowns and even earlier -- 'from the days of Tubalcain, The First Entertainer,' I think they said. Of course it's all bunk -- something about the 'eternal silence' and 'the sleeper who must never be awoken' and some other garbage. I kept myself out of all that hokey voodoo -- they just wanted to look legitimate since they had no real credentials. They took themselves way too seriously, so I left when given the option to stay and be initiated or leave."

I thanked him for the information, excusing myself to continue my search.

21st street was more like a parking lot than a street. The asphalt and curbs disintegrated into rubble under my feet. Derelict cars and windowless vans spotted the pedestrian-free road, punctuating the long rows of generic brick warehouses with their rusting metal husks. The sky began to drizzle gray, muddying the notion of a distinct horizon, as I entered the decaying building under the ancient wooden sign that read "Mime School".

I had brought a picture of Lori in my wallet. Anyone seeing it would recognize her even now -- age had treated her with forgiveness, saving its wrath and wrinkles for me. A few men in full mimely regalia sat on the stairs inside the main entrance. I showed them Lori's photograph and asked where I would find her. They looked up at me with stern disapproval, holding their index fingers to their mouths. They did not speak, but I imagined them thinking you fool, be silent! They handed the picture back and pointed up the steep stairway.

I ascended the stairs, unsure of what it was that I looked for. As I looked up vertigo overtook me and it was only by gripping the handrail that I prevented myself from vaulting backward into space. Every few steps sat a mime. The steepness of the steps gave an impression of painted porcelain figurines stacked one atop another, unsmiling, unemotive, staring down at their own feet or their neighbor's silk hat -- it was impossible to tell. I wove my way through the mass, occasionally stopping to show Lori's portrait. The viewer unerringly gave the same reaction, vacantly pointing upstairs, always upstairs, without a word. I wasn't sure whether I was being led to Lori or simply being passed up an ever-more-cynical bureaucratic ladder -- an exercise in kafkaesque futility. After climbing the dim lit stairway until my thighs burned I finally arrived at the top -- there was an end after all. A thick oaken door twice my height, twin masks of tragedy and comedy carved into the brass handles, loomed before me.

I turned the cold handles and walked through, shocked to find myself in pitch darkness as the door closed behind me of its own volition. I stood in a sensory vacuum -- a place devoid of sight and sound. The room didn't even have a distinctive smell. It was simply there -- or not there, I was unsure which. I had walked into the void.

Had I been led to the wrong place? The generic men on the stairs seemed sure that she was here in the room at the top of the stairs. I remained motionless, the swooshing of blood in my temples and the rasp of my breath the only sounds to desecrate this sanctuary of silence.

Just as I was becoming used to the sensory deprivation, dazzling light spilled into the room from some unidentifiable source, shocking my eyes with visual stimuli. Bare white walls spotted with blacked-out windows surrounded a jet black stool upon which Lori sat. Her face looked strangely stiff, eyes unblinking, lips unmoving. It was only after stepping closer that the head-numbing truth was revealed. It was not Lori's face that stared wide-eyed from her head, but a faux face painted in black and white over the featureless blank where one would expect eyes, nose, a mouth. The skin above her chin palpitated like a goldfish in open air, gasping for breath, soundlessly screaming, mocked by the caricature of a smile painted where once was an orifice. False eyes showed a slight bulge where something organic rolled underneath a thick layer of tissue. A dent fluxed in and out where her nose should have been, desperately struggling for air.

My lungs burned from screaming, but my vocal chords emitted no noise in that place where sound was forbidden, where air did not carry one's terrified cries. I ran to the doorway and threw open the doors, splitting asunder the words that had appeared in red letters on the gargantuan black door -- "Behold the punishment of one who dared oath silence, then broke the sacred promise with her whispers." I stumbled down the open stairs -- hardly noticing that they had been abandoned by the army of mimes -- screams exiting my throat only as I burst out of the building. But my throat was so raw, my tongue so dry from exposure to the dry air, that barely a sound came out of my gaping mouth, not a thunderous shout, but only...a whisper.

© Forrest Aguirre 2001, 2003.
This story was first published in Twilight Showcase in January 2001. The story received an Honorable Mention in Ellen Datlow's and Terri Windling's Year's Best Fantasy and Horror.

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