Medicinal Radio

by Ben Marcus


This is another deleted passage from an early draft of The Flame Alphabet.


Through the radio came great washes of medicinal broadcasts, an attempt to send a healing sound throughout our communities.  If you tuned your device to the high nineties there were stations promoting an advanced species of white noise, shredding through the vocal spectrum so that language sounds were fattened into moans, the potent syllables cloaked over and ballooned.

Claire and I sat some nights in the living room and bathed in this sound.  We were too weak to hug, too ill to really touch.  But the gush of sound from the radio felt soothing.  You could picture it as a physical thickness in the air, a lather that subdued the harsh sounds, blocked that spectrum of attack.  This was wrong, of course.  It did no such thing.  Maybe it was just that Claire and I were together inside it, sheltered by a blizzard of noise.

Sometimes the noise abated and a voice from another station bled through, squeezed out little speeches, which suggested that perhaps they’d found some safe way to share news.  When this happened I rushed to the radio, stopped breathing, just so I could hear something, but Claire, days ahead of me in the illness—ahead, behind, I’m not clear how to describe it—Claire, when she heard this voice pick its way out of the radio, cringed, felt physically repulsed.

Esther turned civil around that time, even gracious.  She did as we asked, refrained from speech.  When she needed something she quietly retrieved it herself, and if we found ourselves in the same room with her she kept her eyes down, observing a respectful, speech-free distance.

At night I would tuck her into bed, and she would endure my attentions, correcting her blankets to her liking after I left.  Of course she needed no such service.  She was fourteen and she had fastidiously sealed off all visible signs of need, spackling them over so that she was fully unapproachable, impossible to help, a stranger.

But I wanted to visit with her, and in the dark, with Esther beneath her covers peeking out at me, I sat on my knees at her bedside until she finally rolled over and pretended to sleep.

Of course these encounters were not cursed by speech.  The mouth’s poison was withheld.  We sought no hand signals or any other kind of communication.  What I wanted was for Esther to know that I was there, even though, in all ways other than the empirical, I wasn’t.

In those final weeks at home, we were proof that many family interactions can be accomplished in total silence.  In fact they probably should be.

It would not have surprised me to learn that while I knelt by Esther’s bed at night she looked at me with perfect, cold clarity, saying to herself: not once did you kiss me good night or even visit here when things were fine.  You think it’s ok to do so now?  Is that what passes for tender?  You think that builds feeling?  I’m supposed to be glad for you when we cannot speak and when whatever I say makes you cringe?

Whether Esther said these things to herself or not doesn’t matter, because I heard them, and I heard them in her voice.

Sometimes I mustered a response: must affection and attention be measured so unfavorably against those moments that lacked it?