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.”