Aphonia; Short fiction by Kirsty Lewin

Her mother blames her father.

Her father blames Auntie Sarah.

Auntie Sarah blames Uncle Henry.

Uncle Henry blames Auntie Celia.

Auntie Celia blames the priest.

The priest blames the Bishop.

And the Bishop says och, away with you all, there’s nothing to worry about. Blethering is not a requirement in the Kingdom of God.

all very well for him to say, Emma mouths to purple-haired Cindy, twisting the doll’s legs into a pirouette. The Bishop doesn’t open his mouth and puff like a blowfish. He’s not forced to sit in the front of the class and be mocked by the back row boys and have balls of spittle-screwed paper thrown at him by a nest of cheeping starling chicks gawping for their mammas’ worms.

anyway of course she knows how to do it. The coughing her tongue exercises from the Speech Therapist. The painting her voice from the Art Therapist. The blowing of the bugle from the Music Therapist. The rooting at trees from the Forest Therapist. All of them probing, investigating, jabbing her gullet her mullet, her larynx her chaffinch, her cheeks her beaks, her throat her moat. Every day after school a therapist here a therapist there here a therapist there a therapist everywhere a therapist. Da de da de da.

and never a word spoken yet by Emma aged ten and a half that’s the age she writes in careful black lower case letters until she is eleven and then on to eleven and a half and so on and so on.

there’s no more money for all these damned therapists her father Hugh says to her mother Margaret. You’ve got to rein it in. Her mother rubs a casserole pot with a tea towel. The tea towel has a picture of giraffes on it. Daddy, Mummy and Baby Giraffe pulling at leaves high up on a mimosa tree. Auntie Celia always brings her mother a tea towel back from her foreign travels. Auntie Celia is big on cleanliness. Cleanliness and godliness. Her mother has dried that pot four times and Mummy Giraffe’s eyes are almost rubbed out. She needs to try harder, her father says. No, Hugh, her mother says. It’s you. All you do is cuss and scrooge. Too mean to spend money on your only child.

stairs have ears. Emma listens to kitchen conversations from the fifth stair. The fifth stair is perfect for both hiding and hearing. She has tried all fourteen stairs and written down the results of her research in a table with three columns on the back page of her note book. One column for the stair number. One column for hearing. One column for hiding. A score of one to four for each. Stair five comes out with a four for hearing and a four for hiding. Stair five never falters on its reveals.

Auntie Sarah calls her Emma the Mute and there’s nothing wrong with that she says, her words will come in their own time.  Emma’s father stamps his foot and raises a fist in Auntie Sarah’s prune-eyed face and says never enter this house again which is a shame as Auntie Sarah brings proper presents. A red-haired Barbie doll once, then a Blond Barbie and her horse with proper moving legs. Even a campervan for Blond Barbie to take to the show jumping championships. Blond Barbie always wins because there isn’t anyone else in the competition. Red-haired Barbie cheers her on anyway because that’s what red-haired Barbie is there to do.

during Emma’s black lower case eleven and a half period, Uncle Henry turns up with a brown cloth bag and a frown and a tremble in his left elbow.  He says he has just the thing for the speaking problem. He’s heard it on the radio that very morning and he just had to come over straight away. He says speaking problem like it’s a secret and says it to his shoes probably so that his brother Hugh doesn’t put a fist in his face.  Uncle Henry stands in the kitchen and asks Emma to fetch him a chopping board, a knife and other things as he goes along. Emma perches on the high stool and watches Uncle Henry chop and slice and dip and pour and nods in agreement or shakes her head when Uncle Henry goes too far with a slosh or a sprinkle. Here you are he says serving up a plate of sliced lemons rolled in salt then icing sugar with a sprinkle of parsley and two tears of Angostura bitters dropped onto each slice.

suck on these love. Emma feels funny in her tummy but she adores her Uncle Henry so she sucks sucks sucks until her face is scrunched and her tongue is withered and her teeth are stripped bare. And at the end of the awfully tart procedure, Emma’s lips pucker their silent heart and Uncle Henry’s lashes droop damp and he puts the leftover lemon in his cloth bag and leaves without even a cup of tea or a ginger biscuit.

the priest is sure he saw something in the Bible just for this. The Bible is the Word he says it’s absolutely clear. The priest only comes on a Saturday morning when Emma’s father is out mowing other people’s lawns up on that hill with the exorbitant views. He sits beside Emma at the kitchen table and flicks through the sacred pages. Her mother gives him tea and two chocolate digestives. He wears the crumbs around his clerical collar like jittered rosary beads. Sometimes he licks his finger, paws at the crumbs and pokes them into his mouth. I underlined them when I saw them he says. Just the other day. Where are they? Where are they? Each flicked sacred page splutters more red into his cheeks. The red seeps around the back of his ears and down into his neck. Emma sees that nearly every page has thick underlines in heavy brown pencil. Some words are even circled in red. The Bible has a lot of words. Too many words to find just the words to fix the no words.

her father is at his crossword with a chewed-top biro. Her mother tuts about the mess in the kitchen why does she have to do everything all the time and goes out back to chase the neighbour’s cat’s bottom off the potted parsley. Emma locks herself in the bathroom.  She  stands in front of the mirror a long time, her mouth wide open, staring at this wayward pink bit and that wayward pink bit until her cheeks ache. She washes the anxious hollow with a tiny bit of soap and a lot more water than is necessary.

there’s a bit of a to do with the delivery men who arrive on a Sunday afternoon during the black lower case twelve period. Emma, Hugh and Margaret are vexing their silent lunch. Margaret is spooning Brussels sprouts onto Emma’s plate. Hugh is carving the wretched breast of the over-roasted chicken. Emma is grinding a slice of cooked carrot under her heel. Knock knock. Louder and again. Knock knock. Her mother shakes her head. She says not on the Sabbath. There shouldn’t be anyone coming on the Sabbath. Her father wrenches flesh from the fowl. Emma runs, opens the front door. There are two men. One doing the knocking, the other stooped under the heft of the huge parcel on his back. The parcel, clean brown cardboard, is the height of the door and twice the width of her bedroom chair and has Auntie Celia’s name and address under SENDER in thick pink letters. The neighbours are strung about like bunting, all agog. It’s the biggest thing to happen in the street since Emma wrote five in black lower case letters at her birthday party and looked up with a tongue-tied smile and word got out that they had an actual you’d never believe it real live mute living amongst them.

the parcel is lying on the driveway. The delivery men are throwing up a gravel wake from the back of their white van. Emma’s father is shouting at the neighbours what are you all looking at. Most of them turn away to tend to their hedges or tug a weed from the footpath so that they’re not really turned away at all. Get me the scissors and a sharp knife her father says to Emma. Emma scrabbles in the kitchen drawers and her mother says it’s the Sabbath don’t you go out there and what about the Brussels sprouts they’re horrible cold. Emma shakes her head at her and rushes out to her father with two pairs of scissors and three knives just in case. Given the choice between the Sabbath sprouts or the biggest gift you’ve ever been sent what would you do? 

the cardboard is in a neat pile by the drive and Emma and her father are standing, hands on their hips, gawking, proper gawking at Auntie Celia’s gift. Emma’s mouth is nettle-stung and her father’s lips are two languid slugs caught in a blackbird’s plunge. The long-haired man in the pale cotton robes nailed to the crucifix says lift me up, Hugh, for God’s sake I’m completely at the wrong angle. Hugh moves from one foot to another and his hands do a Cat’s Cradle without the string. Come on Hugh, the nailed man says, I’m not that heavy, but mind your back with the cross. Her father nods but his eyebrows crawl down towards his nose and stick there. He heaves and drags and Emma tries to help until they’ve got the crucifix up against the garage door and the man’s head is flopped down on his chest. His long hair frets across his face in the breeze, and his bloodied palms are open for all to see. Thank you, Hugh, the man says, that’s far better. Could you push the thorns up out of my eyes and that’ll be me right.

staring, her lips wobbling, the neighbours abandoning their hedges and their weeds, pulling out phones, whispering, clicking, crowding, craning, bickering for better views. A helicopter overhead.

Out of her mouth. Out of Emma’s mouth. Words. Spoken words.

But Jesus isn’t real, Daddy. I heard you whisper it to Auntie Sarah. Jesus isn’t real.

About the contributor

Kirsty Lewin
Kirsty Lewin is on a career break from the Scottish Government where she worked on climate change. She has put aside the first draft of a novel to focus on short stories. She is developing an interest in the absurd, the bizarre, and magical realism.

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