Experiment #185

The Day Women Went Silent Part 1

I woke earlier than usual the day the women went silent. Perhaps it was a symptom of what was to come, but the soft little snore I’d come to know and hate and love over thirteen years of marriage no longer came from my sleeping wife. Though the snore would return, her voice would not, and the twilight years of our lives would be spent writing messages and tapping out love songs on an old typewriter that like feminine voices, time had forgotten.

I still do not know whether the silence awoke me, but the fear that washed over me till I knew for certain that Hannah was still breathing, still sleeping at my side, banished all hope of further sleep.

I rose and dressed and went down to the kitchen to have a cup of coffee and read the paper. I remember the news was particularly dull that morning. A shooting, two stabbings, unrest in far-flung parts of the world and the insignificant accomplishments of a local high school senior who was “headed for big things.”

Hannah had not been sick the night before. When she came downstairs and couldn’t muster more than a whispered, “hello,” it was an unwelcome but not extraordinary development. Sometimes colds come on all of a sudden. We chalked it up to a virus. Our daughter, Nikki, our only other point of reference still slept away in her crib or so we thought. When Hannah went in to check on her, Nikki was bawling, hot, angry, silent tears, having screamed so hard that even her harsh whisper had left her. As I kissed Hannah goodbye, naïve of her gender’s plight, we heard the soft sound of our son, Michael, playing superheroes in his room and commanding evil villains to leave his stuffed cow alone.

I arrived quite early at the office, hoping to finish a report before a presentation the next day and was unwilling to squander the time the universe gave me. At the office was the first time I recognized something was wrong. Marcia, my cubicle-mate, another early arriver, had lost her voice too. We laughed about the odd coincidence of my “work wife” and my real wife both losing their voice on the same day. I made a tasteless jibe about a day free of nagging and she laughed a hoarse, jovial laugh. But when two more women came in without their voices we stopped laughing and switched on the news.

The catastrophe was worldwide and inexplicable. They had to turn the mic up so loud for the anchorwoman that little could be heard over the rustle of her clothes and the soft sounds of the newsroom. For the next few weeks the anchorman took over. And for many women that was one of the most troubling things at the beginning, that not only had they lost the ability to speak, they often, for harmless and well-intentioned reasons, also lost the place from which to speak.

My boss, one who’d typically bark out orders to the room as fast as we could complete them, took to barking through email with excessive use of the shift key. Her lack of direct “leadership” made her nervous and many of us would turn around to see her standing behind us, arms folded and frowning.

Later a woman from HR showed up. She typically made announcements to the whole room, including the passing of a colleague’s mother and the downsizing of two other co-workers. She wandered from cubicle to cubicle or huddled with a small group, presumably discussing the issue. She did not even look at me when she passed on her way to Marcia’s desk, and the recent constriction of vocal chords prevented me from hearing what they were saying.

After she left Marcia looked at me with a sour face. “Apparently, we can use our vacation if we want, but not sick leave,” she whispered. “Plus corporate has offered to make interpreters available for phone calls and meetings. Because that’s exactly what I need right now, to put my head down, keep working, and be told I’m perfectly fine.”

Experiment #186

The Day Women Went Silent Part 2

Many theories bounced around. It seemed that everyone but the scientists had their own pet theory about why it happened. Theories ranged from the impractical to the bizarre, patently false to the wildly inaccurate. Everything from gene manipulation to a chemical attack to space aliens was on the table and discussed. On talk radio surprisingly, pundits of every stripe believed it was a divine punishment for feminism, it’s just that one side thought feminism had gone too far and the other side thought it hadn’t gone far enough.

A few men also lost their voice. It was thought that this might lead to discovery of a gene or some such thing uncommon in men, but shared by all women. Most men with the condition hid it, a few even caused self-inflicted injuries in order to explain the speech deficiency. Those pitiful few who did come forward provided no conclusive results.

In the first few months there was hope that this would be temporary but as more and more baby boys were born screaming and baby girls were born with silent shrieks, the hope for it being a temporary condition faded.

In the wake of this event, sexual assaults, already disturbingly high, increased as men who saw this as divine judgment and recompense for feminist movements turned hateful speech into hateful acts. While it is unlikely that such horrors can ever be eradicated from this world, an increased police presence and hard work on a number of fronts including philanthropic provision of whistles and self-defense classes for every woman who wanted either and a renewed sense of urgency the silence brought pushed the numbers down to at least their original levels if not slightly better than in the past.

Nikki grew and flowered into womanhood silently. Her older brother was overprotective, but she took it less well than previous generations who could speak their frustration. She took to starting fistfights with him and while they both often wore bruises despite my wife and I’s efforts to stop them, this was, perhaps, the best possible solution. Nikki developed a solid right hook that warded off unwanted attention whether her brother was around or not.

Middle school and high school girls whom you’d be able to find giggling and talking loudly at every corner of the Mall’s food court sat looking at their phones and audio-texting each other. They’d send odd bodily function noises to each other’s phones to mess with their friends and demand the attention of the odd passersby. New strides in text-to-speech programs made it easier for women to type on their phone and have the phone read it out loud for them. Despite the quickness of many women’s typing this still caused a delay in conversation and many women unfortunately found their conversations with men became one-sided as men nervously or egotistically filled the silence.

Untold number of inventors, tinkerers and flim-flam men came up with gadgets and gizmos and devices that would amplify or heal or repair the vocal chords. But the condition itself was degenerative and eventually even Hannah’s harsh whisper, which I’d come to know and love, left her, and no amount of technology could stop that.

A few companies made millions taking old recordings of famous actresses and singers and creating programs that would allow a woman to type in a message and have it spoken in the actress’s voice. The processing and coding allowed someone to say words that had never been uttered by the actress or new words that had not existed in the actress’s day. Eventually they made implants that would place a speaker in the back of the throat allowing the voice to come out of the woman’s mouth, though having no control over the lips and tongue, the woman had to leave her mouth open to be heard. It was awkward, but many women found freedom in it. I would have bought one for Hannah, but she had no interest in someone speaking for her.

Experiment #187

The Day Women Went Silent Part 3

As time passed women generally took one of two tacts in society. One side took their advocacy to the next level and pushed for more funding and publicity for their plight like Nikki and some, like Hannah, pulled back into themselves, becoming little more than a ghost or silent presence in the house.

Hannah did not fade in an instant the way her voice did, but slowly over time. Looking back I can see its beginning even before the Day of Silence (as it came to be called), but that day pushed it from a temporary dip toward a steady decline. It stayed slow while the kids were in the house but accelerated once they left. She had no one to talk to, for by that point I had gotten deep into my advocacy work, trying to speak for those who no longer had a voice. I took speaking engagements and book deals and anything I could to improve the life of women, to raise the awareness of their causes and issues and to avoid going home. Somehow I always took her silence as criticism. So I threw myself into making a difference and for some women I did, but not for my wife.

Advocating for women’s rights took me far from home. I stopped communicating with Hanna, stopped calling home every day to hear her harsh whisper or video chatting to see her beautiful face. She faded away from me and I let her. I became the silent one. I ran from her smile, from her gentle touch, and from her words.

Her mother moved in and gave her someone to communicate with. I came home even less, not because I hated my mother-in-law, but because her presence reduced my guilt. 

Opportunities for finding solace in another’s arms abounded on my trips and speaking engagements. And though I was never unfaithful, I should not be commended for that. For I committed a sin far greater than infidelity. I chose to speak for her, without ever speaking to her. I determined what she and her gender needed or didn’t. In my brash desire to help, I folded her goals into my own. I used the loss of her voice as an excuse to dominate her desires. I disempowered her far more than the loss of her voice ever did.

One day I called home. I was going on and on about how some small local newsstation had removed women from their cooking segment. Their cooking segment! I was incredulous. It was easier to speak loudly than to listen. Even with the amplifier on full blast she couldn’t break through my rant. Finally she turned on the sound effects. She played Taps at full volume. When I was stunned into silence she said in her harsh whisper. “My mother died.”

I, for once, was speechless. 

She never asked me to come home or stop my advocacy work, but I did both. I moved home to sit with her at dinner, to lay next to her at night, to be there in ways I hadn’t been in years, to be the husband and friend she needed me to be.

Though we had many more years together after that, years of love and happiness, in my arrogance I lost something of her, something that saddened me even more than the loss of her voice. And I will never be the same.