To catch up on parts one and two of Testimony of the Living, check out tmn.truman.edu.
One rainy Friday in April, during the spring of our junior year of high school, I sat with my four friends around the circular table in Easton’s kitchen. None of us had been entirely sure how to spend the day, and what began as an effort to think of something to do had transformed into a prolonged and contemplative silence. April showers create a rather stellar backdrop for the thoughts of those who are about to move to a new phase of their lives; it was exactly what our noisy brains needed. We were individually reaching what would become a collective realization and, as we listened to the rain, each of us was struggling to find the courage to leave the safety of the ignorance we’d been feigning for some time now.
Autumn was the one to speak up; she was always the bravest when it came to words. Or, maybe it wasn’t bravery. Maybe she was just filling the silence because her thoughts were too loud to continue on unheard.
“Did you guys know that my parents think I’m weird? They think I’m crazy for reading and writing and putting so much emphasis on words. They can’t fathom the idea of reading outside of educational purposes, much less the notion of writing a book yourself. If I try to talk about it, they freeze up, unsure how to respond. It’s as if they lack some level of training they believe is necessary to handle something so outlandish and animated as a daughter who’s taken to wordsmithing.”
No one said anything. I wasn’t sure if she took this as a sign to continue, or maybe she would’ve kept going even if someone else had started talking. Maybe she had started something she couldn’t stop. I wonder now if she already knew where we were headed somewhere in that brain of hers, and she needed us to join in her enlightenment. She always seemed to understand the story of our lives so clearly; I wouldn’t have been shocked had someone told me she was the one who had been writing it all along. It seemed at the time that telling us her story was the only way she could get to her conclusion, but perhaps she knew were she was going. Maybe the story was the only way she could make us understand.
But, I digress. No matter the reason, no matter how much Autumn understood in that moment, she carried on. And we listened. And the rain continued to pour.
“You know, I gave them one of my essays once. Asked them to read it. It was the one that all of you guys thought was so good, the one about the tree. They were sitting at the kitchen table; I just walked up and handed it to my mom. I sat and watched her read it, and then she handed it to my dad and I watched him read it, and when he finished it I watched him set the papers on the kitchen table. And he looked at my mom. And I swear I wasn’t breathing. It was silent for a solid minute and everything in me was silent, as if the movement of one microorganism within me could somehow shatter the silence and then everything would fall apart. I had never shared anything I’d written with them. I wanted them to like it.
“Well, my mom looked at me and she just barely smiled. It was the faintest trace of happiness I’ve ever seen in my life. There was even less emotion in her voice when she deadpanned, ‘That’s real nice, dear.’
“It wasn’t as if she didn’t mean it, or had some malicious intent, or was trying to hide some other emotion. She was merely devoid of any reaction beyond that slight upward turn of the corners of her lips. My dad had the exact same look on his face. They weren’t trying to be cruel, I know that. But their disinterest, their lack of feeling, it bordered on cruelty all the same. You know I don’t even have a copy of that essay anymore? I tore it up. I walked calmly back to my room, without a word, and as soon as the door closed I began ripping those papers to shreds. A switch flipped inside me, and suddenly I couldn’t stop sobbing. I buried my face in my pillow to muffle the screams that I couldn’t bear to keep inside of me.”
The image she painted with her words was so vivid. All of us had our eyes glued to her face, but none of us were sure what to do. I almost reached over to grasp her hand, to try to give some sort of comfort. But the idea of disrupting her felt wrong.
She continued, “around the time I stopped shaking, my mom knocked on my door. ‘Time for dinner,’ she said. I got up. I wiped off my face. I went back to the kitchen. And I sat at that table for thirty-seven minutes, eyes glancing up at the clock about every three. I sat there silent with red eyes and they didn’t say a word about it. They didn’t even speak to me. They talked about the factory and about the neighbors. They discussed the weather in great depth. They made time for everything under the sun in their dinnertime palaver. Except me.
“And you know, if they had been talking about an impending world war, or my grandmother being ill, or fear of not making that month’s bills, I would have understood. I would have thought, maybe that’s why. Maybe it’s not that they don’t care. Maybe this is just a bad time. But that wasn’t it. There was nothing else going on. They were just ignoring me. And I think it was because of the same thing I told you all in the beginning: they saw emotion in me, they saw passion in me, and they didn’t know how to handle it. Maybe, just maybe, it made them a little afraid. Because they’ve never felt what I feel when I write. And they can’t understand it.”
A tear slipped out from beneath her closed eyelid. She took a deep breath. I timidly took hold of her hand. She squeezed my hand, allowed herself three more tears, and then her eyes fluttered open and there were no more tears in them.
“I haven’t asked them to read anything else I’ve written,” she whispered. “I haven’t said a word about writing since that day. I haven’t even mentioned reading anything. And they never ignore me. They’re always interested in me and how my day is going. And they don’t think anything of the fact that I’m not behaving like myself. That I’m… that I’m some sort of phantom. It makes them more comfortable, somehow, to interact with a less complete version of me.”