All advances in communication, I thought, were forged by the military.
The need to convey messages across great distances belonged first to
generals commanding subordinates, or to troops relaying their position
and situation across a dark field or mountain or lake up the hierarchy
to someone who might then instruct them what to do about it. Intimate
communication, I thought, as between lovers or between mothers and
children, has not needed much technological improvement. However, in
this area too, as in a battlefield where hussars and horsemen, cannons
and bayonets, smoke, fire, mud, and screams of pain obscure signals, so
it might have been that when I was at last lying in his arms in the
dark again, both of us breathing evenly, me so captivated and reassured
by his scent and warmth, skin sticking to skin along most of both our
torsos, there too it was possible that I had no idea what he was
"Sweetheart," he said which I always liked. Not baby or honey or the
linked syllables of my name, or the cessation of name that comes when
the only other person talked to is the beloved, so an absence of naming
sets in, first comfortable, then bleak.
Earlier in the day, a man on the train had been hunched over a
magazine, humming loud enough to be heard through the entire car.
Because he had earphones in, he had to make a lot of effort to hear
himself over his own music. No one, certainly not me, tapped him on the
shoulder and told him to shut up. Nor did anyone attempt to hush the
deafening rattle of the wheels on the track, the screech of brakes, the
The tactile writing of the blind, I thought, began at Napoleon's
behest, a night writing that soldiers could read without risking the
flare of a lamp. Before Louis Braille simplified it, the
general's system of raised dots proved so complicated that only a few
experts had the patience to learn it. In a tent, or in a ditch, or
behind a tree, or at the edge of a woods, the soldier pressed his
fingertips against the pin pricks in the paper. Dots laid out in rows
of two or four corresponded to positions on a grid, like a crossword or
spreadsheet, so many across, so many down. This locus translated to a
letter, each pattern of dots unraveled into only one single clue. The
messenger dropped off thin pages pricked with schematic boxes. "B" the
reader began. "E." Maybe it said "Beware" or "Beyond the…."
Before the recipient got to the "w" or "y," his ungloved digits froze,
and might as well have been an inert stylus bumping over an unyielding
texture. Like many systems, I thought, this code so carefully devised
and workable in a warm, lighted office defied field conditions.
Earlier still, I heard an unfamiliar bird call. In the background, the
chatter of sparrows, behind them a nuthatch. This one, though, came
higher, lighter. A big black thing lofted into a further tree. Was it a
crow imitating a foreign cry? Flashes of white underneath indicated it
was something else unknown to me.
"What is it?" I said. My chest rose up as his chest rose, his ribs
pushing me up, then letting me down. Far beneath us, the furnace
clicked, then began to pour its breath out the vent. The friction of
the air against the metal grate produced a "sh" or "wh" behind an open
vowel, held so long that it lost hope of a consonant arriving at the
end to close it off and give it meaning. While the furnace sang its one
note, the cars every now and then swept over the street outside, the
joists in the walls creaked as they expanded or contracted, the tenant
upstairs turned over in her bed. All these moved harmonically
underneath the furnace hiss, chords progressing towards an inevitable
cessation when the thermostat would tell the heat to pause.
The trees groaned overhead, seeming to take up just as I walked
underneath. The snow clung all to one side. It had settled according to
the wind. The bare branches rubbed against each other. Sometimes an
ominous crack. Then from behind me, the clump of footsteps. The bird
rose and called again. A woman huddled in a scarf brushed by me without
Espionage agencies, I thought, trained lip readers to spy at public
events. The best of them could decipher even words spoken behind
handkerchief, or with the head turned to the side. At embassy parties,
the CIA's deaf girls stood demurely behind the bar. They grasped the
sense of things, the logic and information, as well as nuances of
emotional inflection that those with normal hearing may have filtered
out. Across the room, a couple deep in conversation, their chins
tucked, whispering over their whiskey sours, were sure they couldn't be
heard, yet the lip readers picked up the whole exchange and passed it
on to their handlers. Coders and code breakers, cell phones and e-mail,
messages in want ads, radios and Morse code, all began as weapons, I
thought, to be wielded, deployed.
"Sweetheart," he said.
"What is it?" I said.
I didn't want to know what he was wondering. Don't think, I'd told him
often. When you think too much, it gets messed up. Just lie here with
me. Just us in the dark. Isn't that enough? It's all I wanted.
Angela Woodward's latest novel, NATURAL WONDERS, won the FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize
and will be out this April.
Read more of AW's work in the archive.
Detail of art on main page courtesy
of Mariana Fossatti.
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