If their lives had crossed, people would have said they were different, but cursed with the same affliction, and as both hid behind docile smiles, people often viewed them as suspicious. They were spoken about and not to: some people shook them or made them drink deadly brews to banish the demon for what other reason could there be for their continuing silence?
The two women knew this was not true; they had their reasons. Both were the same age with thin lips, silver-streaked charcoal hair and deep, dark eyes. One had a husband, a daughter and two sons; the other had no one: no husband, no daughters, no sons, and no ailing parents, but with both the silence came on suddenly. One became silent from unimaginable shock and the other through her own fear. Both experienced life's hard knocks and responded similarly.
One woke and thought her vocal chords had been cut, while the other gasped like a dying fish. Their breaths hissed, but there were no discernible words. Each thought it would pass and so they practised wu wei: deliberately did nothing. They did not act or resist and their voices lodged in their chests. They swallowed their words and locked them inside their beating hearts.
Mute, time passed slowly. Conversations were dead and neither could express themselves in the written word. Their sound had been turned down, but the volumes around them were shattering. Regular express trains of noise punctured their ears and whistled along their spines. This external noise was so unbearable that neither could leave their mud-brick house. They both shut their doors and took to their beds, or on better days would sit and gaze at their mirror reflection and mimic the words that had been stripped from their mouths. Both struggled to find a way to communicate, to be listened to and heard.
The one who would never become a wife, mother, or grandma began to rap with her fists on the kitchen table: one for yes, two for no, and a shrug for I don't know. The one who was all three, as well as a sister and auntie, coaxed a congratulatory word out which was lost in her family's babble, and so she resisted the urge and used facial expressions to vocalise what she felt.
Beguiled by these new communications, people flocked to see these silent women. Turning up in their droves outside their mud-brick and tile houses. The one who knocked was honoured like a fortune teller; questions were asked and she responded with a knock for yes, two for no, or hugged and dropped her shoulders if she didn’t know. The other one was revered as a messenger; she read people emotionally and acted what they in words could not convey.
But even though both women’s fortunes dramatically changed, their stubborn silence remained, and neither ever regained their previous life. Through silence, each had found their true voice, which while not heard, was a language more powerful than empty words.
*Inspired by Under Fishbone Clouds by Sam Meekings