Field Conditions
Angela Woodward

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 thinking.

"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 engine whine.

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 a word.

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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