The Silence Feeders (Short Story)

I.

I have made friends with darkness. There is a warmth in it, the dusky comfort of a plush teddy bear or the soothing delight of just-baked brownies.

I discovered the warmth of darkness two years ago when, at age 25, I lost my vision to a degenerative disease.

At first the darkness scared me. I opened my eyes wide as the color drained slowly from my life. It was like death was coming early, encasing my brain in a deeply buried coffin, isolating my mind as the world around it faded away.

I mourned my ability to see beauty until one day I discovered a different layer of experience – an unexpected world of aesthetic wonder that had been hidden from me. a world of sound and touch richer and deeper than anything I could ever have imagined.

I learned that the most grating sounds, the rattle of a shopping cart, the squeals of children, the shrill cry of the wind during a storm, could become beautiful when you stopped fighting them and just listened.

While I still mourned my sight, I embraced this new dimension of experience, another version of what life could be. All this time it had been there, this other world, sounds bursting constantly like spring blooms underground.

I fell in love with them – the music of the wind, the subtle creaks the house made, the hum of a refrigerator; my new relationship with sound was a gift, and I was grateful to darkness for granting it to me.

On the other hand, silence became my greatest fear; without sound, there was no world, and no me. But most of the time, some sound was there to anchor me to my life

However, it took me many months to fall in love with sound, and to celebrate the darkness that had fully illuminated its beauty.

II.

Beauty. That was something I knew about. I was supposed to have been beautiful – or so I had been told.

But those days were over. Though others could see me, never again would I see my own reflection. I would never see how I aged. I would never know if I was having a “good-hair day.”  I was divorced not just from the world but from myself.

Who was my self? All my life I had been my reflection. My mother had taught me where my value lay with an endless sequence of tawdry childhood beauty pageants. She plastered glitzy makeup and bright lipstick to my face, encased my locks in hair spray. I was taught to preen before an admiring audience, to wear frilly sequined dresses, to smile charmingly; I was a toy.

I loved praise, yet I sensed something was wrong. The horror invaded the nightmares of my childhood in the form of rat ghosts.

The dreams began in silence. Then they came, in chirping, skittering packs, claws scraping the floor. I could feel the warmth of their bodies around my ankles.  They made a collective chant which sounded like, “You are nothing, nothing, nothing” repeated again and again. They spoke the words with a strange, choppy accent. The word nothing was crisply divided into two emphatic syllables: no-thing.

I would argue back with them. “I am too something. I have won ten beauty pageants. I have the crowns in my closet if you want proof.”

You are nothing, nothing, nothing they chanted. But, even in the supposed safety of my dreams, the rat ghosts hurt more than they scared me.

I could see through them, but they had teeth I could feel. Their incisors sank into my flesh. In my dreams I felt the agony of being consumed alive.

Whenever I dreamed of being alone in a silent room, I would cringe and wait for the horror to begin. I knew somehow that it was the silence that lured the rats, maybe because even in my waking state, I dreaded the prolonged pause, the awkward gaps between words. It was in those empty spaces that critics judged me.

My childhood had been a parade of judges, evaluating the warmth of my smile and the effortless grace of my stride. My mother stressed that I must always look natural, but also happy.

I felt that my mission in living was to be judged perfect by others, to not only look perfect but to wear the perfect emotions. When I succeeded in being the ideal, my mom would love me and bestow a proud smile upon me. The irony was that trying to seem a certain way led to artifice, But, according to my mom, perfection that appeared fake was not really perfection.

The contradiction baffled me. Even as a six year old, I knew a convincing lie was no less a lie than one that appeared plastic. Part of me wanted to reveal my scar to the world, but I knew my mother would never let the world see my major flaw. Every day she painted over it with a heavy cream concealer and finished with a decisive sweep of her powder brush.

The scar had come from a sneaky rat. Not a ghostly dream rat, but a real one. It had climbed into my bassinet when I was a baby. My mother had caught it biting my cheek and scared it away, but she was too late. The rat “kiss” had left an oblong scar, my secret shame. The “beauty” I paraded before the judges was a lie. I lived in fear that the hidden taint would someday expose me as the nothing that the rat ghosts had said I was.

III.

Outwardly I complied. Inwardly I rebelled.

I was eight when I thought to defy my mom, but the fact was, she was bigger than me, so I took refuge in the secret, imaginary life of my future. As an adult, I would rebel against my mom, who wanted me to be a high-paid fashion model. I was dead set on being the opposite, whatever that was. Finally I seized on a vision that enticed me and made my pulse race.

I would become a great mathematician.

I had always made mediocre grades in math, but I rarely did my homework. What if I actually started trying?  I always felt sorry for my teacher, Miss Mullins, who could never get the class to be quiet during math lessons.

I became the most attentive student in class. I began asking my teacher questions after the final bell rang. Miss Mullins was so pleased by my avid interest that she could barely contain herself. She would actually sit down with me to explain, her fingers fluttering over the pages of my math book, flashing anxious, questioning smiles. I quickly became her favorite student.

With my determination and her patience, I became adept at solving problems, which filled me with immense pride. My dream was becoming clearer. As a mathematician I would never wear sequins or frills. I would be stately, bespectacled, and powerful.

I would judge others, admiring students perhaps, instead of being judged myself. I would go to symposiums (although I was not exactly sure what a symposium was) and bask in wild applause as others gawked at my genius.

Miss Mullens was beside herself with joy when I attempted some of the “challenge” questions that were at the end of each chapter, the word problems where you had to actually think instead of just following directions.

There were no answers to those questions in the book, so I did the best I could and showed her my answers. Her face broke into a smile of pure delight. I had gotten over half of them right. I was disappointed to have missed any, but Miss Mullins was impressed.  She gave me some more of those types of problems to solve. “You know, you really have a knack for this,” she said one day. “What are you trying to do? Be the next Benoit Mandelbrot?”

“Who is Benoit Mandelbrot?”

Her face brightened. “He was a genius mathematician who worked with something called fractals and the mathematics of chaos. If you go far enough in math you will be able to understand it someday.” She smiled.

“I will,” I said. And I meant it.

Miss Mullins shook her head in dismay. “I would never have guessed you were a math person at first. Why the sudden interest?”

“Because I am tired of wearing makeup.” She gave a nervous, baffled chuckle, but I could see the question in her eyes. I wanted to explain more, but held my tongue.

At home my mom taunted me for my new studiousness. One day she saw me at my desk, my head looming over my math book as I scrunched my forehead in contemplation of a baffling word problem.

She marched over to me and leaned down so that the tip of her nose was almost touching the fine hairs on my cheek. “Every time I look at you, you are staring at numbers. You are only eight, Jacquie. Is that what you want to be? A math nerd? You want to be a boring old computer person? An accountant?”

I gave her a direct, brazen stare. “I am just doing my homework, like all kids do.”

She anchored her hands against her hips. “But you spend so much time on it. You never go out and play anymore. A child should be a child.”

I could have told her the same when she was trotting me in front of judges like a show poodle, but I restrained myself. I said with all the dignity I could muster, “I want to be a great mathematician, like Benoit Mandelbrot.”

“Benny…Man…who?” She slammed my book closed. “For the love of God, Jacquie, that is enough. You are smart, you should be able to learn in class the way you used to. Your grades were just fine before, you were passing just fine.  A new rule: When you are here, at home, you can spend a half hour on math homework. No more. Do most of your learning in class, like kids are supposed to. Now. I bought you some beautiful new dresses I want you to try on, real silk, too, Easter colors with fine lace trim. We are going to win the spring pageant, Jacquie.” She smiled proudly. “No one will be able to resist you.”

“I hate dresses,” I screamed. “I hate pageants And I hate you. Leave me alone. I am graphing!”

My mom paled. I must have too; my outburst had surprised even me.

Mom jerked my straight-backed chair from under my desk, the wooden chair legs screeching protest against the tile. “I bought you those dresses Jacquie, they cost me a lot of money and you are going to wear them.”

She grabbed my upper arm and pulled. I planted my feet hard on the floor, leaned forward, and clamped my fingers around the front edge of the desk, causing it to tilt. A loose sheet of graphing paper went sailing to the floor. As I reached for it with my free hand, my mom released my arm and yanked my hair to pull me out of my seat. The pain was a thousand needles pricking my scalp. I began to cry.

Minutes later, I was squeezing into a frilly Easter-egg-green sequined dress and sparkling shoes.

“Oh, oh, wonderful. It contrasts so beautifully with your red hair.” Mom stood back and clapped her bony hands. “This is what you were meant for, Jacquie. You need to work on your walking though. You seemed a little klutzy last time, which was why you lost the snow pageant. I am going to sign you up for charm school. Maybe it will fix your attitude problem along with your walk.”

“No, “ I glared at her. “I am plenty charming already.”

“Oh?” My mom chuckled, then looked at me with wistful adoration. “You are so lucky, Jacquie. When I was a kid, I would have given anything to look like you. You take me back to my own childhood. You look like the girls I always envied, the popular ones. I only want the best for you. You can have the life I never had.”

I fought her the best I could, but she enforced the thirty minute math rule. She kept a close eye on me.

I tried spending extra time on math homework, sitting on the edge of the tub in the bathroom with my number 2 pencil, but when my mom noticed how much time I was taking, and how I was dragging my textbook into the bathroom, she made a rule that I could no longer lock the bathroom door. She began bursting in on me. It was so traumatic and embarrassing, I began associating fractions with ignominy.

IV.

At school I listened in class the best I could, but without adequate time to do my homework, my grades reverted to mediocrity. I did not even know what questions to ask after class anymore. I could not look Miss Mullins in the eyes anymore. I knew I had disappointed her. She had been bragging on me whenever she passed out the graded math test. Now she was silent as she returned my tests. Now and then, sitting in her desk, she would look at me with perplexed concern. Abruptly I would turn my head away. It was unbearable to think I had disappointed her.

After the school year ended, I left my dreams of being a female Mandelbrot behind me. They seemed as silly as being a cowgirl. In adolescence others told me with admiring glances that my looks were the closest I would ever get to genius. I wanted to be some kind of genius, or at least special in some way, so every morning, I continued the tradition of sweeping a concealer brush over my scar.

During my teenage years there was a portrait I internalized as being the essential me. At age 15, I had a boyfriend who was a poet. According to his poems, there was something “eternally child-like” in the “rosy glow” of my skin and the “subtle pout” of my lips, and the “innocent curiosity” of my green eyes. He wrote that the sheen of my straight auburn hair was the kind that attracted people to ripe strawberries in summer.

The message from everyone I knew supported his message, “You are here to reward the world when it looks at you. You do it well, so for the love of God, never age.”

To compliments, I responded with a sort of queasy pride and a despairing dread of someday losing the only quality that had ever secured love from the world.

In high school, I felt the pull of interest from certain subjects from Latin to biology, but I painfully remembered my stillborn Mandelbrot fantasy. I was afraid to get attached to academic subjects, only to disappoint more teachers.

My mom got me modeling jobs with local department stores to fill my afternoons so, again, my studying time was limited.

Now at age 27 I was blind. I could no longer confirm for myself, through my mirrored reflection, who I was, I had never developed a rich inner garden, a poetic soul, an erudite mind, a personality with depth, or a self with multiple dimensions.  I was completely dependent on others to define me.

V.

I soon learned that blind models were not much in demand. The curious flash of my green eyes had been my most alluring charm, photographers had told me, and now the life in them was gone.

I wanted to console myself by looking at the world outside myself. If I could not be beautiful, I wanted to admire beauty. I wanted to look at the shimmering surface of a lake or the way a falling leaf rocked slowly to the ground. To see outside myself could have soothed me, freed me from my self-conscious prison.

It was on a cool spring day that I discovered the new dimension, a porthole of escape. I was shopping in a crowded grocery store with my brother, when the clamor of screaming babies and rattling grocery carts assaulted me with such force, I thought it would knock me down.

Being blind was too noisy, I thought. There were no images to compete with the daily clamor, so I received the full brunt of it all the time.

That day I was especially tired, so instead of resisting the noise, as I usually did, I surrendered to it. I let the noises fill me. I tuned in to the grating sounds with full interest, and something incredible happened; they stopped being grating.

The shopping cart had a rhythmic, almost musical rattle. The squeals of children had fun in them; peace settled over me as I remembered my own childhood, the good parts like unwrapping Christmas presents or eating ice cream on a sweltering August day. I even found an enticing rhythm to the beeps of the scanners. Like Mandelbrot, I found patterns in chaos, and the result was music rich with wordless meaning.

I still missed my sight terribly, but far less than I once had. Although I had always been able to hear, I had never truly listened before now. What I found was an intricate fabric of nuance and natural rhythms that made the darkness more than bearable.

Sounds eased my sorrow to the point that I stopped pitying myself; my new relationship with sound was a gift.

Rattling, ticking, pealing, chiming, humming, sound became my drug, my addiction. I could not sleep without some kind of noise — relaxing music, a fan blowing, a recording of ocean waves.

I analyzed sounds, how they had form and texture, how they were round, hard, soft, and rough. Sounds moved. Like ocean waves, they rolled in and they rolled out. I mapped in my head the way certain parts of the house sounded and, with my cane and the help of my brother Zack, learned to avoid bumping into things.

However, my pleasure had a flip side: a fear of silence. I dreaded pure silence like I dreaded my own death. Even the pauses between words made me cringe because it was then that the silence feeders came.

In listening carefully to sound, I believed I had unlocked a door of my imagination where the haunts of my childhood dwelled, entered a zone between reality and illusion; maybe blindness was driving me insane, but whenever the external sounds stopped, the internal noise began.

Do the blind hallucinate? I must have. Or perhaps I really did enter a new dimension when I lost my sight.

Whenever silence fell for long, a soft, chittering chorus took its place, the same sound the rats had made in my childhood nightmares. Though I could not see them, again and again, they said the word I remembered so well: You are nothing.

It was not just the words that disturbed me, but the way they made me feel. When the words were spoken, I could feel a visceral hole opening up inside me, a chasm of loneliness; I could feel the nothingness trying to consume me, and I fought the feeling with all I had.

It was harder than it sounds. The feeling that I was nothing was not vague, but powerfully convincing. That is why, months after the silence feeders had re-entered my life, a simple power outage became a disaster that threatened my belief in my own existence.

VI.

The torture began on a mid-January day of cold rain and sleet, which had abated for a time.

I did not see the lights go out, but when the electricity died, I knew. The sounds I depended on for a sense of security all stopped at once, the stereo, the lively lilt of television voices, the watery, thumping gurgle of the dishwasher.

Gone too were the faintest sounds I had always taken for granted: the calming hum of the refrigerator, the whoosh of the heater through the floor vents, the rhythmic ticking of my wall clock.

Without a working heater, the house iced over quickly. I went to where I remembered the floor-to ceiling living room windows being to make sure they were tightly shut. They were, but I could feel the hard chill of one of the window panes when my fingers grazed the glass surface.

I could feel the silence, not just around and inside me, but in the weighted chill of the air. I grabbed an Afghan from the sofa as, by memory, I made my way toward the fuse box next to my bedroom door.

Even the Afghan felt clammy around my shoulders, as the cold wet tickle of the air invaded my lungs. My heart percussed against the walls of my chest cavity as I struggled to breathe the icy air.

The worst part was not the cold, though, but the dread. In my mind I was a child again, a six-year-old dreaming of an ominous empty room and waiting for the horror to begin. I told myself my worries were silly. I was an adult now, and if I was dreaming, I would be able to see; despite my blindness, all my dreams were visual.

Trapped in darkness, my imagination must have gone wild; an odd synaptic tumble drew me into the looking glass. It began with a whisper. At first I mistook it for wind, but it grew louder into what sounded like the collective murmur of human voices.

I hugged myself as tightly as I could to quell the trembling. I am dreaming, I told myself, maybe I am having a non-visual dream after all.

But the immediacy forced me to recognize the sound as reality. As in my childhood nightmares, skittering sounds and squeaks and panting filled the room along with the unified, genderless voice of a crowd.

The voices and, I assumed, their owners, surrounded me. You are nothing, you are nothing, you are nothing, the crowd-voice said.  The words echoed darkly in the chambers of my mind as I felt something inside me give way, some desperate speck of imagined existence that I called my self. I planted my palms over my ears and screamed, “I am not nothing.”

Doubts made me falter. I was older now. I could not see or drive. My job options were limited. I was sure whatever beauty I possessed must be fading, or would fade soon, the walls of my being disintegrating, revealing me to be the empty shell, the useless object, that I was.

You are not an empty shell, I told myself. This is just a dream.

At that thought, I felt something bite my ankle, then my foot. With a sharp gasp, I swatted at the invisible culprit with flailing hands, teetering on the edge of absolute panic. I felt the resistance of  furry bodies seething around me, clambering over the arch of my foot, as I made my way, panting, to the fuse box.

With a cry of hope, I found the small metal door embedded in the wall beside my bedroom. I pulled switches with the frantic desperation of someone trying to defuse a bomb.

Then I felt them swarming, felt their solid weight on the top of my sock feet, the warmth of their coarse fur, and their hard bites. When I flipped the last switch, I lost my balance. I slammed on my side and hit the floor shoulder first.

My bones vibrated with pain. As I struggled to recover control, to rise, the furry creatures surged over my prone body, scrambled over my legs, arms, and face, clawing and biting me. Screaming. I slapped them away. The true torture was not the bites themselves, but the feeling that they were stripping away my outer shell to reveal the true horror: that they would find nothing inside.

With that thought, I lost consciousness.

I woke. With relief I realized The power had returned.

I inhaled the warm whoosh of a heater, took in the humming lullaby of the refrigerator. “I am here,” I told myself, “I am not nothing.” I felt myself, my arms, my face, my hair, to reassure myself that I was real and solid and alive. I ran my hands over my arms, ankles, and face. I expected rough sores where the rats had bitten me, but there was nothing, no blood, not a sign of damage

Yet the suffering had been unbearably real. Had I gone insane? The question mattered less and less as sounds lit the shadowy recesses of my mind with life.

VII.

Though often derided, fear is more than the irrational emotion of children and cowards. It is not just dread of imaginary future suffering, but the memory of past suffering transformed into anxiety.

Over the next couple of days, I knew fear. Most people think of monsters as inhabiting the dark, but I now knew that darkness was harmless. It was the monsters that haunted silence I most feared.

I became a sound glutton. I added more and more sounds to the house, mostly electrical – synthesized bird song, music, nature sounds, multiple loud fans until the cacophony made thinking impossible.

When my brother protested, I encouraged him to wear earplugs, but he refused to do that for long. When he was home, I had to turn most everything off. I would slide padded headphones over my ears, shut the door of my room, and numb myself with loud music, good music or bad; it did not matter.

I caulked the cracks between moments, plugged any hidden holes through which chanting ghost rats could sneak, so there was no way for thoughts about being nothing to take over. I created a life of clamor, a never-ending circus, a clanging, chirping, screeching mayhem.

One day it became all too much. I had a severe headache that day, and the clamor made it worse.  The drumbeat of the stereo was pulsing in time with the angry throb in my temple. Exhausted, I realized how much my clumsy auditory armor was weighing me down. I knew that what I had created was not beautiful anymore – far from it. All around me was the strident music of compulsion. It was ugly.

I decided right then that I was done with running from silence, or from the beasts – real or imagined – that I called the silence feeders. It was too much work. I had to face them, or live a life of strident clamor and fearful turmoil.

Maybe by confronting the silence feeders repeatedly, I would discover that they were not real and could not truly injure me, no matter how much their ghost bites hurt. Then, maybe I would heal; if not, at least the torturous struggle to save my self would be over.

If I truly was nothing, I wanted to know

VIII.

On the next night when I was all alone, a Tuesday, I went into my living room, feeling my way with my lightweight cane, hearing its gentle, reassuring click, click, click against the bare hardwood floor.

I had memorized well the locations of all the power switches. I clung to the walls as I circuited the house. I killed the stereo and silenced the television. I turned off the fans. I even unplugged the refrigerator. Fumbling, I removed the batteries from the wall clock. I softened my breathing.

Each time a sound went away, I felt more naked. The hole of my loneliness engulfed me. My hands trembled. My teeth chattered.

Every new step toward silence took me further down into the dark basement of my psyche. At last, all the sounds were gone except for rain dripping from the roof, so I did one last thing; I went into the room where my brother slept and inserted a pair of his ear plugs. That did it. The silence was that of deep space, the pure emptiness of a void.

In the silence, my tremulous legs wanted to flee, but I ordered them to stay. I waited for the silence feeders to come, but my survival instinct raised a howl of protest. What are you doing? It said. They tortured you last time, they almost devoured you. But I did not budge.

A minute later, they came. They moved in slowly, and I could feel their warmth as they gathered around my body. A few crawled over my feet. I shut my eyes against the pain I knew would follow. Moments later, when no bites came, I relaxed and just listened.

Their voices started as a gentle whisper and rose to a choppy chorus. You are nothing. You are nothing. You are nothing. The ear plugs did nothing to mute the chanting

Each time they chirped the strangely pronounced word “no-thing,” a corresponding void, deep inside me, answered, a chasm, an expanding hole.

The bites began, teeth sinking into my flesh and claws scratching my ankles beneath the hem of my jeans. Involuntarily I cried out. Slapping at my ankles, I backed away from them, kicking the straggling bodies with all my might. What was I doing? I had been stupid. Facing fears was not heroic; it was insanity. I wanted to run, but my legs were trembling so much I could barely stand.

The voices filled my skull until I thought it would burst; I was cold, yet sweating. I wanted to talk or hum to reassure myself that the life blood of sound had not left my life forever, and that I was still alive. Instead I stood motionless and listened, tried to feel what was happening to me because a life of clamor and compulsion was no life at all, and I had come here to face the void I feared.

The back of my neck tingled and my cheeks flushed hot. Slapping the beasts away, I prayed I would faint and wake up in bed safe from this nightmare.

My desperation felt familiar. I felt as I had months ago in the grocery store when a volley of strident sounds had rammed into me; I felt the same helplessness. What had I done then? I had given up.

I did so now. I bowed my head. I let my arms go limp.

I let the words, you are nothing, pass through me like a ghostly wind. Shivering, I let their chill possess me until at last I really did feel empty. Instead of resisting I paid close attention to the words being chanted, the way I once had done with sound. It was then that I realized something odd.

Like the rattle of a grocery cart, like the squealing of children, there was beauty in what the rat ghosts were saying, and in how they said it. Their choppy accent was no accent at all.

Again and again, they were saying a variation of what I had heard before, words with dimension, nuance, and depth.

I took the new words in, whispered them to myself, wrapped them around me like a warm blanket. I breathed them in, becoming the words as they filled me. The words were not “you are nothing.” They were, “you are not a thing.”

Again and again, the collective voice was chanting, You are not a thing, you are not a thing, you are not a thing, until at last the group chanting  gave way to a lone speaker, and it was my own voice I heard, one long forgotten but now vibrantly familiar, the soft protest of a young girl  who was being stuffed in frilly dresses and ordered to look happy for the world, her individuality crushed as she was stripped of her Mandelbrot dreams, a girl who had been robbed of a self and converted into a reflection. Her faint assertion had crept into the world of dreams: I am not a thing.

The words made my heart soar. All my life I had been a something. That is, some thing. A doll. Even if I truly was nothing, then I was not a thing, and to be not-a-thing was to be free.

I knew then that the rat of my baby-hood that had bitten me had not been all bad; with its scarring kiss, it had spared me from being a doll, a toy, making me something more, or something less, than useful.

Now. I embraced the void, experienced a beauty beyond sight and sound, the sublime, transcendent beauty of perfect silence. Freed from the burden of identity, I knew the hopeful ground zero of limitless possibility: nothing.

“I am nothing,” I said aloud, “Not a thing. No-thing.” I could feel the living truth of the words in the air I breathed as the narrow boundaries of what I called my self dissolved.

Never again would I use the concealer on my scar. Never again would I try to sum myself up in a sentence or a phrase. Never again would I return to the narrow prison of being a something.

I turned the appliances back on, plugged the refrigerator back into its socket and listened to its hum, appreciating its steady music, secure in knowing that I did not need it anymore, that I could now enjoy a world beyond sight and sound.

I still missed my vision terribly but I was grateful to my blindness for what it had taught me: There is warmth in darkness, and beauty in silence. Together, they comfort, create, and complete me, illuminating my reality as light and sound never could.

It was only when my senses faded that my hidden self became visible and vibrant. It was through darkness that I came to love the world; it was in silence that I found myself.


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