Voices Without Sounds

by on December 22, 2023 :: 0 comments

photo "Home Above" by Tyler Malone

Beautified with holiday lights, the last of the year’s leaves fall. Some are yellow but entire trees are also solid green with one lone orange leaf that seems to know the season. Not even trees know what’s going on while mosquitoes disappear and carolers from Heavensgate Christian Academy arrive with rehearsed songs to Timeless Oaks Retirement Home. Under the awning, Jenny Yu, ready to start her own life even in fourth grade, looks up to see a shape with yellowed plastic eyes in the rafters. A dummy: just a scarecrow owl waiting for prey.

Hudson jumps next to Jenny and says, “Who’s there?” Jenny ignores the joke as Ms. Holland orders, “Single file,” as the children’s crusade is on the march.

“Remember who is the reason for the season,” the teacher says, glancing at Hudson but doesn’t smile in obligation as she continues: “Sacrifice, children,” under her breath with layers of obligation in every letter that, put together, only the most faithful find compelling. Sacrifice children. The new night isn’t cold but winter clothing is part of the performance. Mittens, toboggans; plump, plush jackets. No real threats arrive in winter except time, so it’s time to sacrifice.

The retirement home’s air is chemically clean, covering living bodies. Ms. Holland leads her students past the nurses’ station where each attendant gazes into black mirrors in their palms to examine themselves in obsidian puddles through the lives of others. Eyes still down, they motion the choir of children down a hall to carry nervous music on their tongues. Black spot-blemished white walls reflect large red and green bulbs in the cadence of slow, medically-induced blinks among rows of ruffled plastic poinsettias layered with dead skin.

Ms. Holland shuffles a dozen bundled children to the room at the end of the short wing. She breathes in what seeps out of ancient bodies forgotten by even those who wear them. A lone woman sits in the room, upright as if she sprouted from bed sheets. She smiles at children stacked halfway in and out of her room. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” begins melodiously. Hudson doesn’t sing, though. He looks at the old woman and notices how she resembles his own grandma. In his short time of feeling life, the word loss now begins to fester.

By the time all the children begin to raise their voices to rejoice, the woman moves violently. But she’s retrained. Half-singing, children look to Ms. Holland as she begins to pull the half of them who could fit in the small room out as the woman convulses against her thick black belted wrappings. “Demonic shits!” The words ride on strings of spit in long drug-laced sagging ropes from white lips.

Ms. Holland closes the door. “We are all God’s children, no matter our age,” she says before shoving a fresh set of singers into a room layered with perfectly level photos. America’s wars are in all of them, black and white to color. “Little Drummer Boy. I know we practiced that the most.”

The man in the room stands in gray-spotted pajamas. Heavensgate Christian Academy choir hits the initial note perfectly as the grayed man walks towards Jenny Yu and reaches out with jagged nails and says, “Are you my wife?” Jenny’s black hair matches so many in the old photos. Curled, fleshy knives stab towards young Jenny as an orderly rushes in to fill the shrinking distance. The jagged hands were so close to her dark hair. Ms. Holland violently claps, driving her children into the hall again. The red and green lights have stopped blinking. In the painfully white hallway, Hudson looks at Jenny and sees that she’s past confusion; her face is in quiet but breathable fear as the door slams.

“There are still songs to sing,” reminds Ms. Holland, pointing to the center of the home: the bright common room stiff with reclining chairs with a nation’s forgotten dressed as holiday ornaments waiting for no one. The choir lines up around the television. Living is spoken in the same manner sacrifice was as Ms. Holland says: “What a cozy living room,” while examining those at the end of living. Ms. Holland doesn’t bother to ask a nurse to turn off the television; she knows god always watches when a church channel plays. She whispers, “Silent Night, children.” “Silent Night,” as smells converge in benevolence as everyone gives in to a moment when people, young or old, imagine they don’t exist.

Hudson sings heart-fully as he notices, in constant tiny yellow tree bulbs, his grandma sits alone and looks directly at him, eyes sagging but never closing. He remembers this face, but no song is attached to its memory shape. A year of summer ends as shadows of trees reach out of ground they grew from, shedding leaves no matter if it doesn’t feel like winter. The dying have songs, but Hudson can’t imagine knowing this woman. The evenly lit plastic trees live forever as those around them die as gifts for no one. Hudson’s grandma’s carious eyes don’t see him in her as he sings with all he has to impress her living ghost and to never be haunted by it.

Emptied of notes, the choir walks outside to a Heavensgate Christian Academy bus. Up in the rafters, the plastic owl is surrounded by bats praising with sharp teeth. For now, they have a shepherd. There’s safety, for now, as eyes in the dark prepare to take care of what grows old as colorful lights lead children out into a world not created for them, but they’ll have to sing for it. Ms. Holland ensures no one is left behind at the home for those who deserve to be away from their world’s vast experiences that so few reach until there, simply put, isn’t anything left. That’s the gift.

editors note:

Carols for enders, sung by starters, render a Yuletide gift: Loss as gain. ~ MH Clay

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