[locations: Tunisia, China, Colorado]
The Fish is Mute
1. Yes, I guess I knew this. But I’d never thought about it until this fact was pointed out to me by somebody on a short-wave radio. And thank goodness it is. All those fish I’ve caught over the course of my life in high-altitude lakes with my dad—if they’d screamed or whimpered or whined from the pain and agony I put them through digging out hooks, it would have been unbearable. Thrashing and squirming their exquisitely slimy bodies around in my hands as I tried to extract the hook they’d bitten into—either to subsequently throw them back into the lake or to call my dad over to string them up for dinner—was a silent drama, except for my voice cursing at them to be still. Once, the hook somehow got stuck into the bottom of a fish’s eye, right on the rim of its eye socket. It was impossible for me to get it out, and the fish was suffocating while I tried. Finally I cut the line and threw the fish back into the lake to swim around with its hideous wound. All the baby fish would surely scurry away at its approach—the monster with a hook in its eye.
Maybe he was just happy to be thrown back into the icy water. At any rate, I’m glad I can only conjecture at his suffering. For he did not speak of it to me. Not even in a quiet voice, not even a whisper—that most profound and vulnerable form of vocal communication, jabbing tentatively into the air as though our voice crouches behind a boulder, throwing pebbles at ancient, primal fears that we are uncertain how to penetrate.
What I did not know of the fish is that he knows everything. Who would have guessed? Yet, when I think about it, I suppose the fish is as good a candidate as any for the chair of All-Knowing.
We found out this surprising fact—my husband and I—while driving a rented pickup truck in Tunisia. We were driving out of the Sahara. A neat feature of our truck was that, in addition to AM and two bands of FM radio, we also could tune into a short-wave band. We heard all kinds of wacky things and several different languages, from the native Arabic to Chinese, to a variety of European languages. The Tunisian stations had a flabbergasting modus operandi in which they played about two musical pieces per hour and spent the other fifty minutes talking. So we were constantly flipping through the stations to find any kind of music. Once, we landed on a short-wave station with very simple, nondescript music playing in the background while a man spoke over the music in English. At least there was a musical component, so we stayed on the station. Then the man said, slowly, deliberately, in a monotone and measured voice, “The fish is mute. The fish knows everything.”
The music droned on, whispering in harmony.
One of my favorite literary characters. Not because of his earthly manner, his personal feats of bravery and strength, but because of the void he leaves in his friend’s heart. Gilgamesh—towering tyrant turned great hero, joint-slayer of the horrible beast Humbaba, two-parts god, valiant and violent—is left in Herbert Mason’s translation to weep his friend’s name into the woods, into a silence that grows deeper around the sound, as if to pull each syllable down and bury it beneath the soil.
This is my favorite part of the epic. For days, Gilgamesh travels in darkness, virtually blind. “The Road of the Sun” is black, void of light, and frightening. He speaks his friend’s name aloud to still his own fear. When he finally sees a horizon ahead on the other side of a valley, Gilgamesh again speaks the name as if the sound will make his grief manifest to the land, as if the land could share the loss.
“It seemed for a moment he could almost touch his friend, could speak to him as if he were there: Enkidu. Enkidu.”
The scorpion people, with the gaze of death, with the power to open the gates to the dark road, are put off by what they perceived as childishness in Gilgamesh and his dogged quest. They say, Fine, go ahead, go ahead into the darkness, with the air of a parent who knows his child is about to find things out the hard way. So Gilgamesh journeys down the cryptically named Road of the Sun with Enkidu’s name as an amulet to grant strength and bravery in the darkness. But he doesn’t call out loudly, brashly for his friend—his other half, which made him complete—not with an operatic voice of unbearable grief; rather, he speaks with soft intensity, like a lone and ancient flute. “The silence was deeper than before in a place where they had never been together. He sat down on the ground and wept:
Only to realize the valley was deaf.
3. In a tiny Chinese peasant village where I lived briefly, a scorpion man roamed the hills at night. He wasn’t himself the armored, poisonous creature (and, as far as I know, had no key to a mythical gate); rather, he hunted them with a fluorescent black-light which made their pale bodies glow in the dark. With a pair of chopsticks, he would reach down and pinch their squirming bodies, then deposit them into the glass jar strapped around his neck. In the last glow of dusky light, I would see him leaning against our stone grinding mill waiting for night to pull her curtain shut, the creepy jar hanging from his neck. It made me shudder to look at it.
One night I went out to hike the hills alone. A giant yellow disc with mysterious craters intruded into the sky. I was on the heels of the scorpion man, who was harvesting tiny monsters in their habitat of darkness. I watched the glow of his fatal beacon rising and dipping over the topography. It was a brilliant night. I squatted down on a hillside across the valley from the village, reveling in my aloneness, but scared to sit on the ground. The night balanced everything in a matrix of soundless perfection. I wrapped my arms around my knees and tried not to breathe, not to make any movement or noise that would shatter this crystalline moment. The night and I held each other in consideration, gazing at one another through the fragile lens of silence.
This terrible sound broke into the perfection with an alien word.
A whisper. Gliding effortlessly from the other side of the valley to me along the smooth and glassy plane of utter stillness. It began to dawn on me that this word was me. But I didn’t want to acknowledge it.
“Are you out here?” the whisper said.
Someone was searching for me. I’d walked into the night without telling anyone. I hunkered down and tightened my jaw, hoping the voice would go away. I’m deaf, I pretended.
I’m mute. I squeezed my lips tightly together and closed my eyes against the whisper. I wanted to be suspended again inside the perfection before it collapsed at dawn into another anonymous day in village life. I scanned the hillside to my left, searching for the light of the scorpion man. The voice would not stop searching for me.
So at last I answered my worried sister. And everything drained out of me.
4. Perhaps this is why my father never answers me. Perhaps, having passed from this world, he is now somewhere he can behold perfection or something stunningly wondrous.
I’ve called to him numerous times out in the woods. Just a whisper.
“Are you out there?”
If my dad were to be anywhere, it would be in the mountains. I call when I’m hiking or camping, when I’m all alone. Sometimes on a full-moon night in winter, when the moon’s reflection on the snow brightens the landscape like a kerosene lantern, I walk to the end of my neighborhood into the forest, where foxes and coyotes, mountain lions and bobcats, and bears walk also. We all leave tracks in the snow.
“Jerry, are you out there?”
What do I expect in reply? I don’t know. His actual voice? Omnipotent, raining down on me from above? Or a voice that isn’t my own, rising up from a deep cavity inside me? An ethereal spirit-voice floating through the trees? My dad taught me about the wilderness, about the solace it brings, the beauty that strips thoughts from your head and leaves you with nothing but your senses. He taught me and my brother not as a school teacher might teach, with a lesson plan, but as a man whose passion naturally infiltrates and instructs all those around him. He died several years ago of Parkinson’s disease, but he told me that what he wanted to spend his life doing until he could no longer place one foot in front of the other was to backpack into all the wild and remote nooks of the earth, as many as he could get to. And that’s where he died—deep in the mountains of Alaska in a death so poetic as to seem contrived. If his spirit lingers on earth, perhaps it’s trapped inside the poetry, unwilling to speak out and break the perfect meter.
My dad sought two things in life: solitude in the wilderness, and intimacy with scientific knowledge. Beyond his academic degrees in mathematics and chemical engineering, he read voraciously on a wide variety of subjects. You could rightly call him a walking encyclopedia; everything in his mind was indexed and cross-referenced. Formulated in this vast vessel of knowledge, his worldview rejected all world religions, all animism, one might dare to say all spirituality, though it’s a dare one would not take without risk. I often think that if I am ever to find my dad and be reunited with him—assuming an existence after our earthly ones—I would have to know what he knew. That whatever portal he traveled through was constructed by his own notion of reality, of truth; so I would have to know these same truths to perceive and be a part of this same reality.
I know if there was any way my dad could answer me, that he would, that he would show me the way; he would not be childish like me, hiding and pretending not to hear. I’m sure his handicaps are real; when he died, everything must have been revealed to him as one pure and overwhelming prismatic tone, tolling my tiny, earthly irrelevance.
5. My husband and I laughed and laughed over the tremendous silliness of the radio speech regarding the fish—it was so random and bizarre. An excellent product of short-wave radio.
But the more I think about it, that guy might be onto something. I mean, we call out to the unknown—presumably to a force larger and more powerful than ourselves—to ask for guidance, answer, help and mercy. We call out to those we know for companionship, solidarity, and also mercy. But if you’re cosmically omniscient and you already have or do not need those things, for you are of a different nature than the rest of us, you wouldn’t need a voice, eh? Muteness would not hinder or handicap you. If you wanted to reply to a question one of us asked, the scope of knowledge from which you would draw your answer would be so beyond us that we surely could not comprehend anything beyond “yes” or “no” anyway, so you could just swish your tail fin left or right.
I used to have several fish in a saltwater tank in my living room. I’d wonder sometimes, as they hovered there at the glass and eyed me. No particular thought—just a vague wondering, a general pensiveness… “Two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl year after year.” What if God’s trapped in a fish bowl? Maybe we’re not the ones contained in a fish-bowl-like globe; maybe he is. And our universe surrounds him and his container as my living room surrounded our fish tank. The fish bowl is perhaps another type of dimension. God may not even be self-aware, but aware only of us. If we accept the idea that our existence requires an external observer in order for it to become a defined state, then his perception of us is the thing that defines us, makes us real outside of our own mental bubble. In this case, it’s handy that fish don’t have eyelids, or we could regularly blink in and out of being. Does the observer need to be sentient and understand us in order to manifest our existence? Or is an understanding irrelevant to a mere sensory acknowledgement?
A deaf lady, in the documentary film, Hear and Now, has lived in a sensory darkness from birth, “blind” to sound. It’s as if she’s traveled the Road of the Smashing Cymbals—in complete silence.
At age 65, she gets a “CI” hearing implant which allows her to hear sound for the first time in her life. When the device is turned on and she hears her first sound, it startles her, and she becomes emotional. She talks, but only silently mouthing words and signing—she had learned to speak by seeing and feeling the shape of other peoples’ mouths as they talked; though her words were difficult for others to understand, she was not mute. The doctor tells her, “Go ahead and say something out loud; listen to your own voice.” Finally she gets hold of her emotions… but what to say? It’s the first thing she will hear her own voice project (even though she won’t understand the sound being equated to the English word).
When she finally gets a chance to whisper into the darkness, into that black void that has been with her throughout her life, she says hesitantly, “Hello?” As if wondering, Am I really out there? As if she’s making first contact with some foreign and hitherto unknown people or aliens walking out of a spaceship—as though she is a stranger to her self. She’s talking out into the world and expecting to hear the sound back like an echo; she’ll catch it in her ear like a baseball in a mitt. It’s hard for her to imagine the voice originating from inside of her. Hello. She wants to know, Is anybody there?
Months later, walking on the beach, she sees another person standing a couple hundred yards away and wonders if they can hear her speaking. In a normal, conversational volume, she asks, “Can you hear me?” She has no understanding of the correlation of sound to distance. It seems to her entirely plausible that the person can hear her speaking. In the end, the ability to hear never becomes anything beyond a novelty of listening to sounds, for she cannot make much sense of it all; at this late point in her life, it doesn’t help her to communicate; it’s too hard and overwhelming to learn now to identify the sounds of words. She puts the implant in from time to time for curiosity’s sake, as one might listen to a recording of whale songs, trying to decode the eerie noises breaching the water’s heavy silence.
But she prefers that the beaches and birds and people remain mute, for then she can understand them.
7. I begin to wonder, what if it is the other way around—that the fish is not mute because it knows everything, but rather knows everything because it is mute?
8. Three brothers: One was accused of witchcraft, of making someone in another tribe sick. If a person is accused of such a thing, his/her life is forfeited. There is no trial, no demand for evidence; no recourse.
“We all loved him,” says the second brother. The third says, “We tied him up and he cried, ‘Brothers, don’t tie me up! Let me go!’” All of them shed tears in anguish but no one besides the doomed man thought of not cinching the ropes. Only he, muted by his indefensibility, could suddenly fathom the viability of an alternative to the established system. But because no one knew how to reconcile his plea with the demands of justice, the accused brother was surrendered to the other tribe, which promptly killed him.
Looking forlornly down at the ground and poking ants with a stick, one of the living brothers contemplates his actions with regret—not for what he had done, but for the way in which he believes it must be done. “It could happen to any of us,” he explains. Any one of them could be caught in the crosshairs of a fleshy appendage that damns with a dirty fingernail and skin that wrinkles at the knuckle. Though the two living brothers claim they are sad, the sadness is hard to recognize. But this opacity isn’t the absence of emotion, merely the tacit acceptance of God’s distance from us. Cursed with the human obsession of demanding explanation, demanding an end to mystery and culpability for misfortune, the brothers, their tribal kin and enemies, explain it through tangible human rules and rituals. They exist in an immediacy that supercedes the need to acknowledge an ethereal creature silently eyeing us, a deity filtering good and bad, right and wrong through its gills to excrete justice and destiny into the quiet ripples that trail its fin.
The other brother fingers his penis gourd and gazes out into the thick, thick jungle, letting the ants crawl up his leg.
9. What if God’s been mute his whole life and one day gets some sort of implant from that cosmic world in which he was spawned. Something like the auditory CI, but instead it allows him to speak. What if one day I catch a fish and as I hold it in my cold, pale hands, just as I’m about to throw it back, it whispers? A tentative syllable that instinctively pushes through its lips to penetrate the eons of silence? Hhhhheh… The earth would surely tremble and shake in the path of such a cosmic frequency blown unexpectedly upon us.
And the guy with his brilliant short-wave speech runs to his microphone, throwing chairs and shoes and idling pets out of the way as he races to his radio center in the basement. A slim shaft of light angles in from the ground-floor window above. He pushes Play on his cassette recorder for the background music. And this time he says in a voice that is neither measured nor deliberate, but a yelp of sudden fright: “The fish is no longer mute!”
Published in Sou'Wester