Fantastic Metropolis

The Cure

Lisa Tuttle

I sit here, day after day, turning my life into language. Books by other writers line the walls, and on either side of me, on the desk, my own writing accumulates: unfinished articles, abandoned letters, the bony skeleton of a novel, beginnings without ends. The typewriter hums as I test words against each other, listening to their click, piling them up, a swaying tower of sentences, paragraphs, pages. The air of the room is thick and murky with words.

Beyond the glass, a gleam. Your golden hair lures me to the window and I see you, a solitary woman standing beside a sorrel mare. You are both so still, you are in another world. A world beyond words. More than glass shuts me out.

At the far end of the paddock the child, his hair a paler gold than yours, is walking, head down, hunting for some special weed or rock to add to his hoard of treasures.

He glances up and for a moment you are both frozen; caught in that moment as if to give me time to examine and describe you. Then he grins, the picture shifts and becomes life, and you are running, you catch him in your arms and raise him to the clear, blue, empty sky.

Behind me the typewriter growls: great, grey, mechanical beast. The one I tell all my secrets to, my only true friend. Waiting for my next failure, my latest attempt to pin you to the page.

Words are magic — I’ve always believed that. Things become real once they are said. But the magic no longer works for me. There is no spell I can say to make you hear me, to bring you back.

Words brought us together in the first place. We were two students in a library, reaching for the same book. Our hands touched and I jerked mine away, mortified that I hadn’t noticed, that I had thought myself alone.

You laughed and spoke, and your voice startled and warmed me like a shot of Southern Comfort. I heard only the drawl and the friendliness, and I asked where you were from.

‘I guess I’d better learn to talk right so everybody will quit asking me that first thing! I’m from Tennessee.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Well, why on earth? You ever been there?’

‘No, I mean — ’ I felt like an idiot and longed to disappear. ‘I mean I’m sorry to be like everybody else and ask you that.’

You smiled and touched my hand, casually, knowingly, as if we were old friends or even sisters. ‘Of course you’re not like everybody else. You’re like me.’

I thought you had to be making fun of me. You were gorgeous and self-assured, the kind of girl everybody liked and boys flocked after, while girls like me stayed home, unnoticed, with their books. But you explained:

‘You’re a freshman, right? But you’re not at any of the orientation parties or mixers - you came straight to the library, first thing. Like me. And then went for the same book.’ You pressed it into my hands. ‘This is not on any of the assigned or suggested reading lists. And they won’t even let freshers take the basic linguistics course!’

‘I know.’

‘I know you know.’ You smiled. ‘I think we’re going to be friends.’

We were kindred spirits, self-determined intellectuals out of place at a party school. The book was Noam Chomsky’s Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. I can never think of Chomsky without smelling oranges, and remembering how you carried that fruit with you in your patchwork leather bag, where they bounced against the periwinkle blue cover of the paperback edition. The oranges were for health, to ward off the colds you expected to catch in our nasty northern winters; the Chomsky was for your soul. Oranges never cured anyone, and we both found the Chomsky book heavy going — the importance was symbolic.

Symbols were important, keys out of the material world into a higher realm of thought, ideas and language. Whenever I think of that first year of friendship what I imagine is our two voices, drifting like smoke into the sky. We talked constantly, when we weren’t writing or reading. We were intoxicated with ideas, and the new freedom we had to express them; mightily impressed by the sound of our own voices saying things we would never have dared in our mothers’ houses. Life without words was not life at all. Words were the basis and meaning of our friendship. Words brought us together and kept us close. But also, for two years, words kept us apart. Words were defence as well as discovery. I was afraid of silence. If the words ever ran out, if you ever looked into my eyes with nothing between us, you would see the truth. You would see that I loved you — and I was afraid that if you knew the truth you would be disgusted, and reject me, and I would have nothing. So I clung to the words which divided but also linked us.

You finally broke that chain, finally told me the truth and compelled the same from me — not with words, but with touch. You stroked my face with your fingertips; you pressed my gesticulating hand gently to your lips, silencing me. We came together slowly, solemnly; our bodies together began a long, easy conversation in which sensation was the only speech. Secret messages inscribed with tongue against flesh. I came to new understandings of you, the world, myself. I discovered new meanings in silence. You taught me that. But we didn’t have to give up words; we just added to them. We never had to make that fatal, absolute choice.

From outside comes the heavy thunk of an axe splitting wood. A familiar sound, a comforting sound. I know just where you are, just what you look like: the way you stand with your legs slightly apart and braced, the way you swing the axe with both hands, the fiercely intent, yet oddly blank, expression on your face as you work to fill the log basket. I love the way the logs split cleanly for you, the two halves clattering off the stump, one after the other with never a misjudged blow.

I’m not as good at it as you are: I swing the axe with too much force, and then too little, and can never fix my eye on the perfect centre point. Still, I took my turn. It used to be a task we shared, along with all the others necessary to keep the house comfortable, but little by little you have taken over all the physical work, and I am left more and more alone in this room, my fingers tapping out messages you cannot or will not read.

The third or fourth day of your silence — memory makes me hot with shame — I took you by the shoulders and shook you as hard as I could, then slapped you across the face as if that would loosen your tongue. Sobs mangled the question- I asked, turning it to a meaningless, animal sound of pain: ‘Why? Why? Why?’

Why won’t you speak?

There was pain, but no comprehension, in your dog-brown, horse-brown eyes. So might the dog look at me if I shouted at her for no reason.

The doctor said he could find nothing organically wrong with you, and recommended I commit you for observation and more tests. I won’t do that: you’d feel it as a punishment, and I don’t want that. Besides, I know that if you ever speak again it will be because, finally, there is something you must say to me, and to me alone.

A psychological problem, the doctor said: all in your mind. Grief over an imperfect son. Guilt over your relationship with me. I stood meekly bearing his condemnation, aware that he was a man disgusted by the idea of two women together, but thinking it more important that he was an expert. You, gazing placidly out the window at the tiny bit of sky to be seen between the buildings, were not there to help me. Our voices floated over your head, having no more meaning for you than the clouds your breath makes on a cold day.

He told me nothing I wanted to hear. Before we left, I asked if he’d heard of any others like you who had lost the ability to speak. ‘She hasn’t lost the ability to speak,’ he snapped. ‘Only the will. This isn’t some infectious disease, you know, if you’re imagining she caught it from her child.’

‘Not from him — but couldn’t it be for the same reason? Because of the Cure?’

‘Certainly not. If you had the least understanding of why the children of the Cured have not - to date - learned to speak, you wouldn’t ask such a question.’

‘But I don’t understand — I thought no one did.’

‘A side-effect of the Cure was to cause genetic damage,’ he said in what he probably thought was a tone of great patience. ‘Do you understand what that means? The ability to learn a language is inherited, like brown eyes. The Cure has caused a chromosomal mutation which is not obvious in the person affected — it appears as an inheritance … or I should say, as a loss of inheritance. It only affects the children because it only affects the ability to learn. In you, and in me, and in your friend, language exists as a structure, and that’s not so easily dismantled. Not without brain damage, and there’s no evidence of that. No, there’s no physical reason why your friend can’t speak … although she's passed that inability to her son.

His flat, hopeless certainty terrified me. ‘But that hasn’t been proven - the genetic basis of language is just a theory.’

‘Oh, yes. Just a theory. And no doubt you have a better one — you and your friend.’

No, I have no better one, and you’ve passed out of the realm of theory, beyond knowing or caring why you do not speak, certainly beyond telling me. Nevertheless, I go on talking to you, go on asking you. It’s an old habit and hard to break, And what other theory should we have but this: that Chomsky was right. His `deep structure’ exists, an innate grammar coded into chromosomes, in-born, pre-existing speech, now wiped out of the gene-pool, a lost possibility. There is no cure for the descendants of the Cured.

‘The Silent Generation’ as a cover of Time had it. But not just one generation, for their children, too, will be speechless; a whole new species has come into being. Millions upon millions.

And as for those who didn’t take the Cure — the poor, the careless, the cautious — what of their children? Will they inherit the earth? Will they decide to tend or slaughter the dumb masses around them, or will they feel themselves locked out of reality, crippled by the words they’re forced to use, unhealthy remnants of a sick and dying race?

You and I belong to that race; it’s not a matter of choice, but of birth. We are composed of words as much as we are of flesh and blood and bone. You cannot strip language away like unwanted clothing — I have tried, and it sticks like skin.

How have you managed to free yourself from it — and why? Is it because you love your son so much more than you love me? Before the boy was born I used to fear that he would come between us. I didn’t want you to have a child, because that was something I couldn’t give you. And I was afraid of competing with an infant for your love — I was jealous of him long before he was born, even before you were pregnant, because of the yearning in your eyes.

Yet I couldn’t refuse you anything you really wanted — I loved you too much for that. So I told you to go ahead. I wouldn’t ask you any questions about the father; I would try to love your child as much as you did. I wanted you never to resent me, never to leave me. Together we would raise him. Together we should now be sitting in this room, holding grief at bay with words, struggling to understand as we stare through the window at him, we locked in by words, he locked out.

Is it guilt that drove you to join him? Guilt because you took the Cure and so deprived your son of language? You shouldn’t feel guilty — you took the Cure as much for his sake as for your own, to ensure he would be healthy. You couldn’t have known. No one did. It seemed a miracle, without side-effects. All it did was to stimulate and strengthen the body’s own defences against microscopic invaders. Gone was the need to be inoculated against many different, specific diseases: after the Cure, the body could fight off anything it recognised as a threat. One simple injection and all the diseases humanity had feared through the ages lost their power. People who had taken the Cure could still pick up infections, but their bodies rallied defences so quickly and surely that invading germs were destroyed within twenty-four hours.

I experienced this myself about a year after we both took the Cure. I had to go to New York to see an editor — you were pregnant, so I took the bus alone. Down in the teeming city, because I was nervous, tired, sleeping badly, missing you, some virus managed to slip past the outer ramparts and gain a precarious hold inside me. Did I ever tell you this story?

Returning home, I felt cranky and sore. My joints were aching and I felt hot — so hot it had to be a fever.

As the realisation hit me, I felt outraged. This wasn’t supposed to happen to me — I couldn’t be sick — I’d been Cured!

Then I remembered that increased temperature is one sign of the body’s defences at work, and I felt better. Already the healing process must be underway. I could put up with a little discomfort, for my own good. Sinking back in my seat, I closed my eyes.

I was immediately caught up in a vivid dream. I still knew who and where I was, but now another reality presented itself to me, one that I accepted as the truth. It seemed as real as the smelly, noisy bus, only it was taking place inside rather than outside my body.

Moving with speed and a horrible, single-minded determination through the hidden pathways of my physical self was a bright orange blob, featureless, yet with a pitted, throbbing surface. Its victims were the individual cells of my body: small, pale circles, bland and innocent, going about their important tasks unaware of danger.

When it brushed against a healthy cell, the blob turned a darker orange and began to flow over the paler creature, engulfing it. A thin, orange stiletto punctured the cell wall, the orange mass flowed in, and the conquest was on.

Silently, without moving a muscle, I screamed for help.

And there they were: blue, upright soldiers shaped like the letter — T, rushing to do battle. They were doctors as much as killers, for they went first to the aid of the infected cells, eliminated every speck of orange and made them whole, a healthy part of me again. They continued until the virus was utterly wiped out.

I woke as the bus was pulling into town, and I felt refreshed, clear-headed, hungry — and as triumphant as if I’d just won a war single-handed. Which I suppose, in a way, I had. Of course it was a fantasy. Mine was the dream of someone untrained in biology and bemused by video games. Yet however imprecise, the dream had a meaning for me which linked it with reality. It was as real as anything else I’ve ever experienced, and since that day I’ve never felt the slightest bit ill.

Until now. Watching you, so happy, so at home in the universe, I can’t help wondering which one of us is truly the more handicapped, the more shut off from life and health. Never before have I felt so isolated and estranged.

What do you know that I don’t? Did you pity him? He doesn’t have to be alone - there are special schools now, and if we lived in town we would have neighbours with silent children. It’s a commonplace now - you’re not the only mother unable to communicate with her child.

Why did you give up hope so soon? He’s only four, and the oldest of them are barely past seven years old. No one knows what they might become. Perhaps they’ll all be late-blooming geniuses. It’s only another theory, after all, that at age two or four or six the door permitting language acquisition clangs sternly shut. Perhaps, deep within their shared silence, a new language is growing. Perhaps they’ll prove telepathic. Perhaps, if we persist, we could eventually reach him with our words. Or he might teach us the meaning of his silence.

But together, you and I. We belong together. You knew that from the first moment, and it’s still true.

If I think back — recapture the past — recall every movement, gesture and word, will I finally understand what you have done? I remember hints, rumours, speculation, fears. The first uneasy sense that there was something different, something wrong, about the children of the Cured. You were pregnant at the time, and I tried to keep those worries from you. It wasn’t difficult, at first, for we were out of the mainstream of life, living alone up on our mountain, surrounded by books which spoke of other days, other lands, imaginary lives. And then the rumours swelled into truth.

I remember when the news broke. I found you standing in front of the television, standing as if the solemn-faced reporter had turned you to stone. You had the baby in your arms, and when I spoke you suddenly jerked around, pressed him tightly to your breast and turned your back to the screen, as if to shield him with your body from the news and so save him from his fate.

But there was no protection, no return to ignorance. The information, and the fear; were everywhere, unwanted and deadly as radiation, in the very air we breathed. It was no longer possible to believe that in a matter of weeks or months the baby would begin at last to talk.

We had to pretend there was hope, though — it wasn’t fair to the baby to give up. I increased my efforts, taking more and more time away from my book to play and talk to him. I used the same simple words and phrases over and over again, getting him to watch my lips, even making him feel their movements with his chubby little hands, begging him to understand.

He wasn’t stupid. He was healthy and lively and intelligent … but was it human intelligence? Without speech, how could it be? I remember that he was two years and three months old when he said his first word. He said your name.

I had been trying to coax it from him for the better part of an hour when finally, beaming with pleasure, gazing up at my face, he said it: one simple, meaningful, syllable.

My heart nearly stopped. This was the moment I had been waiting for, the moment I had almost ceased to believe in. I grabbed him, screaming for you, and promptly frightened him into tears. You rushed in, white and terrified.

‘It’s all right,’ I said, shouting above the baby’s wailing. `Really it is. It’s wonderful! He said his first word — he can talk! He said your name!’

You took him from me. ‘You’re scaring him.’ In your arms he calmed at once.

‘He spoke, he really did. Let me try again — ’

You stared as if you hated me. ‘No.’

‘But — ’ I was astonished by your reaction. ‘Don’t you believe me? I’m not making it up — he actually said his first word.’

‘Imitating you. Even a parrot can do that. It doesn’t mean a thing.’ You sighed, and I saw it was a deep sorrow, rather than anger, that moved you. ‘Haven’t you kept up with the research, the latest reports? They can be taught to imitate simple sounds. That’s not language. I won’t have him making noises like some performing animal. Don’t you understand? He’s my son. Leave him alone.’

You had drawn the line of your loyalties, and I was shut out. My heart ached because what I’d always feared was true: you did love him more than you loved me.

But that night you told me something different with your body. You clung to me and kissed me, and, we made love more passionately, more profoundly, than we had in a very long time. Nothing was said in words, but the breach was healed.

And not only that night but the next, and the next. We made love desperately, wildly, greedily, as if we’d just discovered how. I fell in love with you all over again. I thought I understood. I thought I was comforting you, helping you through your disappointment, reminding you there was more to life than the raising of a child. It never occurred to me that you might be comforting me, preparing me for your departure, your defection. I heard the message I wanted to hear.

Outside of bed we didn’t have much time together, but there had been periods in our life like that before. I was busy with my book, and you were busy with … other things. You certainly weren’t writing, and I suppose you had stopped reading by then, too. Household tasks seemed to consume all your time — things neither of us had bothered much about before. You washed walls, carpets and windows; repainted woodwork; dyed the upstairs curtains and our bedspread to match; put up more shelves in the kitchen; and even stained and varnished the old dresser. Cooking was a new enthusiasm: you made soups and stews and pies, and the house filled with the wonderful smell of baking. You taught yourself to brew beer and wine, and sometimes went foraging for edible mushrooms and berries. I heard no note of desperation in all that, because when I asked you at night if you were happy, you always said yes.

Your familiar tap sounds at the door, and I realise the room is dim: it’s late afternoon. You come rushing in and press your cold cheek to mine. You smell of wood-smoke. The child is with you, and the dog, and suddenly my quiet, stuffy room is full of life, as if a fresh, invigorating wind had swept in from the real world, to blow away my imaginary fears. I look at your beautiful, loved, familiar face, and you smile — the same smile I’ve known for so many years. You’re here — and in my relief, feeling I’ve awakened from a bad dream, I begin to talk, really to babble, about all the things I’ve been thinking and writing in my solitude.

Your smile wavers and then deflates. You stare at my moving lips and then into my eyes, trying to understand. You are attentive and patient, knowing that is what I want from you, but as the words continue to tumble out (I can’t help myself; tears stand in my eyes and my voice wobbles, but I can’t stop) you lose your way, become confused and then bored and finally resentful.

You back away from me, frowning, and I gaze at you through the bars of words until, finally, they falter and fail, and I fall with relief into silence.

I’m shaking. I can’t even look at you now. What was I saying, what was I trying to say? The words seemed to come out independent of my mind, and the only meaning in them was my desire to touch you, to catch you, to draw you to me in a net of words. Was that so wrong?

The dog flops down on the rug beside my chair and her heavy body presses against my legs and she gives a deep, groaning sigh of contentment. The boy gets on his hands and knees to stroke her long, silky ears.

You wander around the room, pausing to gaze out the window and then moving on, touching familiar objects, sometimes lifting them to peer more closely. Do they recall the past to you, or are they puzzlements, like my words? What do they mean to you: the shallow pottery bowl we bought in New Mexico; the pillow your grandmother embroidered half a century ago; the carved wooden box, empty now, where we once kept the marijuana and the rolling papers; a red wool scarf; a book I’ve been sent to review. You hold the book like an unfamiliar artefact, like a box. You gaze at the back cover, holding it upside down, and your blank incomprehension stabs me to the heart.

Gone. Lost.

I look away, at the paper in the typewriter. The little black marks blur against the whiteness, move around erratically and lose their meaning. I cannot read what I have written. Is that how you would see it? The words are gone for you, and no logic, no arguments, can bring them back.

I’ve lost you, but you’re still here. Why? We live in separate worlds, yet you stay with me, you look after me, out of love, I presume. Are you waiting for me to join you in a world I cannot imagine?

I remember a conversation, one of the last we ever had, when you told me something I wasn’t ready to believe.

You came in one day and asked me what a virus looked like. As always, I thought of books, and turned to scan the shelves. ‘We might have a picture somewhere. Why?’

You didn’t answer.

‘You could call the library,’ I said. ‘Or, I know, we’ll go into town tomorrow and go around the bookstores. We haven’t done that for awhile. We should have some basic science books - all our books are about books, instead of about real things! How about that?’

‘I don’t really need it,’ you said.

‘Are you writing something?’

I turned to look at you and saw, with a sickening sense of disorientation, pity in your gaze. You shook your head. ‘I’m not writing.’

And suddenly — finally — I became aware of the rift between us. Bed was miles away; we were two strangers. How long had it been since I’d heard the sound of your typewriter, seen you at your desk or with a book in your hand, since we’d talked about anything but the most necessary daily affairs?

‘What’s wrong? Please tell me.’

‘Nothing is wrong.’ You smiled, slipping away from me.

‘Why are you asking about viruses? What do you want to know?’

‘I was curious … about the colour.’

I remembered a battle between orange and blue.

‘But it doesn’t matter,’ you said. ‘I can see it.’ You were staring in the direction of the bookshelves, but your vision had turned inward. ‘It’s golden. Glowing all over, stretched fine, like golden lace. Like a web, linking cell to cell. I don’t need a picture. I can see it.’

‘Inside you?’

You nodded, then hugged me and said fiercely into my ear, ‘Don’t worry! Now that I’ve seen, now that I know, my body will take care of it. That’s what the Cure was for.’

I was comforted, I was deceived, thinking you ill. If I had demanded a description of your disease, a name for the virus, would you have told me?

Would you have told me that the virus was language?

A virus carried in the genes, waiting to be born, infiltrating other cells in the brain, taking them over one after the other, using the cell machinery to its own purpose. Spreading throughout the mind, and then from one mind to another, spreading through the infection of the spoken word, no one in the world free from it. Then mutating into other forms, into writing, giving rise to such side-effects as stories, books, writers, printing presses, schools, libraries, all through the natural, blind urge to survive and reproduce.

A virus, and no more glorious than polio or rabies except in the eyes of the diseased humans who embrace their sickness and find it good. A highly successful, adaptable virus, for it does not kill its host — not directly — and its colonising ability is outstanding.

You saw it that way when you decided that you were the crippled one. When you recognised the cool, golden web of words as a trap and an affliction. When you used the Cure to turn your own defences.against the very thing that made you yourself.

If it happened to you it can happen to others. All it takes is that moment of recognition, the ability to see language as something alien, something wrong coming between you and life. I, too, have glimpsed that golden web and wondered about life unhindered by it.

I look at you standing by the window, gazing out, and try to imagine what you see and what is in your wordless mind. I try to imagine myself in your place, having given up the whole, named world for love.

For love … yet what is love without words, what does it mean if it can’t be described? What is it that I should be giving up?

If language is a virus, then what about love? Love which begins like a one-celled creature and quickly multiplies within the heart, then spreading throughout the body. But a far less successful virus than language, much more easily killed.

Already I can feel the armies drawn up for battle inside me. It’s beyond my choice; the decision has been made on some deep, unconscious level where my very awareness has triggered the Cure. When I wake in the morning, the world will have changed. I will have changed. The long sickness will be over.

Perhaps I will wake in your arms and be with you at last, without any words between us, well and happy. Or perhaps there will be nothing, nothing between us at all.

Copyright © 2004 by Lisa Tuttle.