House of Whispers
By Nonso Uzozie (Nigeria)
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HOUSE OF WHISPERS.
It always annoyed me seeing Father with his pout mouth and his big glasses, reading the newspaper or watching NTA news at nine. It annoyed me because those big lips would never say more than ‘yes,’ ‘welcome,’ ‘thank you,’ or they would mutter about the pending salaries or delays in the payment of workers’ salaries by the new government. And how the arrival of telecommunication had rendered some post office workers jobless and some in penuries. All these things he would say in whispers. He loved silence. And he looked like silence.
Sometimes I wondered why he could not get drunk like our landlord and raise his voice to Mother or give her punches that would leave her with bruises and a swollen face, but he could not. He always stared like a carved image when Mother twisted our earlobes and hit our heads for offending him with a little noise-like raise of soft laughter while watching Super Story. It was always tuned to the last volume on our black and white TV, which Father promised every year to change. Why could he not tell Mother that it was not her business if we broke the ‘silence rule’ unknowingly? She wanted the house to be in absolute silence. Just like the convent where she said she should have been.
It was called the ‘silence-rule’ in our house: no one could say what would be heard outside the house. Whispers! We were punished for breaking this rule.
Father was too gentle and quiet. This gentle-quietness was his weakness. And this weakness gave Mother a reason to be totally in charge. It bothered me. Was anything wrong with Father’s tongue? It bothered me because Mother had made silence a part of us, making us as quiet as quietness.
‘So that this home will be peaceful,’ Mother would say.
It bothered me until it stopped bothering me, and I became even quieter than everyone in the house. And so stupid and blind that I preferred sucking my tongue instead of using it to talk.
Truly, our house was in peace and peaceful because everything was said in a whisper. But it was not peaceful when you received a sharp knock on the head for laughing or calling someone in the sitting room from the bedroom. You dared not cry!
Constant punishment over slight noises made us abstain from noise or rather fear it. We spoke in whispers since silence had made us fear even our own voices. If you were to say we were humble, you would be lying. I called it a spell. We needed help.
It was in our house that rosary was said in whispers and hymns in soft, hum-like tones. And you were not expected to cry when your ear was twisted—you would go into the room to lie on the bedbug infested mattress to sigh and gnash your teeth softly. And sleep and dream of younger children beating you and your pout-mouthed father watching, saying nothing.
My elder sisters Wunie and Nene seemed unbothered about this ‘silence-spell.’ Wunie could stay the whole day without saying more than the angelus and the rosary in whispers. She preferred shaking and nodding her head to indicate ‘no’ or ‘yes’ to a whispered question. She loved lying on the bed and covering herself with her hand moving between her legs. Sometimes she moaned softly in the night while in this position. I did not know why but I pitied her. I could not tell why she loved sleeping with candle sticks and carrots under her pillow or beside her.
Nene was addicted to the old books on Father’s small shelf. She could sit there the whole day, carefully turning books’ pages so she did not make noise with them. She was skillful in laughing in whisper. I did not know how she did it.
‘Chochi, you will learn it if you want,’ she would say. ‘And don’t always frown. There is always a loud noise in silence. Just give yourself the chance to enjoy the noise beside you.’ Her whispered-laughter again.
The next day, I was hiding with Nene in the bathroom, my head swirling. The bottle of mentholated spirit was a blur, and I saw two bottles instead of one in my hand. The powerful move of the spirit was rioting in my head … cracking its way in!
‘Relax your head,’ Nene had said; her voice echoed, and another voice asked me in a whisper, ‘You remember me?’
‘No,’ I whispered.
‘You do! You do!’ the voice shouted, startling me.
‘Yes I do!’ I lied.
‘No, you don’t.’
‘Then open your mouth and say it … Shout!’
‘Then you will one day lose your voice or your tongue. Open your mouth and scream!’
I was scared. Nene was saying something I could not hear or understand; scared!
‘What did you ask me to say?’ I asked the voice.
‘What? I didn’t tell you to say anything. I said don’t say this to nobody; I made you high,’ Nene said.
She led me to the bedroom and I lay on our bedbug-infested mattress and watched the roof swirl.