I am eight years old, and he is burning me with a lighter.
He’s holding it near my armpit so my shirtsleeve will cover the mark when I go to school the next day. And I scream. I scream to the point that I can feel it echoing in my head even though his hand is clamped over my mouth. My ear was bleeding; he would shout at me when I couldn’t understand him. I never did. Another boy is cowering in the corner, fat tears falling to the floor. Mom says he is my brother. I don’t know his name, I don’t know the meaning of that word.
I am eight and a half years old, and I am standing with my brother.
His name is Barney, but the closest I can pronounce to it is “Bahby.” When people move their mouths in a certain way I can tell they are saying his name. Sometimes I can tell when they are saying my name, but I still do not know how to pronounce it. The people standing around the boxes are looking at us with pity, and they talk to Barney and hug him or shake his hand. Then they turn to me and pat my head or squeeze my shoulder, but they’ve given up talking to me. I could never hear them anyway. And I never heard what the priest said about my parents twenty minutes later when he closed the lids on their boxes and lowered them into the ground.
I am 10 years old, and Barney is pulling my hand.
We’re running as fast as our lungs will allow with small backpacks bouncing against our backs. His is full of books, mine is full of simple drawings. I understand drawings—they don’t talk or make faces at me, and I don’t need to hear them. And sometimes Barney will write letters on the drawings, and I can match the drawing to the letters. I don’t know that the letters are also attached to a sound. But I am understanding more and more; Barney speaks slowly and sometimes I can figure out that the shape of his mouth means something specific. And sometimes I can even do the shapes with my own mouth, but then Barney shakes his head and I close my mouth again.
I am 11 years old, and Mr. Carson is snapping his fingers in my ear.
He’s been doing things like this all morning. And after everything he tried he would smile because he was always patient with me and never yelled at me or made ugly faces or looked disappointed. Then he brought over a big drum and pounded on it, and my head snapped up. Thmmm, thmmm, thmmm. I can hear that. Just barely, but I can hear it. He gives me a thumbs up, then mimics sweeping so I know to get back to work, and sends me on my way.
I am 12 years old, and a doctor is shoving something hard into my ear.
Mr. Carson is sitting across from me with a big smile on his face, and he is the first person to ever look proud of me. I squirm and try to inch away from the doctor, but he motions for me to calm down. He is shorter than me, one of his legs is longer than the other, and he uses a cane to walk. He’s the size of a toddler, but is as old as the rest of the men in the circus company. I know he’s the boss because he tells people to do things and they do it. Even Barney does what Mr. Carson tells him, even thought Barney is twice as tall. Suddenly there are noises in my ears, and I feel scared. It’s a new sensation, and immediately I try to scratch at whatever is assaulting my ear canal. The doctor holds my hands and sits in front of me so I focus on her face.
That is the first time I heard my name. I am twelve years old and Mr. Carson pays in cash. The circus eats nothing but beans and rice for more than a month.
I am 14 years old, and Mr. Chisholm is poking my back with a bow.
Straighten, he says. And I stand up as tall as I can. I am understanding what people say more and more, although sometimes I miss what they say and they get frustrated. But when I am practicing with my bow I don’t need to listen. I tune out the world and focus on my target. And every day I get better, to the point that Mr. Carson lets me do my own show. We never eat just rice and beans again.
I am 17 years old, and I’m falling from the high wire.
My legs shatter in multiple places, and I can hear them crack. Barney is holding my face and screaming my name, but he’s scared instead of angry. And I can hear his voice and understand what he is saying, but I’m too tired and shocked to respond. He runs away when the police arrive, leaving the bag of money behind. Mr. Carson uses it to pay for my hospital bills. In the weeks I laid in bed, one of the other workers teaches me how to say thank you. Mr. Carson cries when I say it and carefully hugs me.
I am 19 years old, and I am charged with murder.
I didn’t kill the man, the Swordsman did, but whenever I try to say the words that I am innocent they come out wrong. I can say most things now, and I can hear enough to know who is speaking but I really have to concentrate to know what they are saying. But I am taken to a holding cell, my hearing aids taken away, and I am left there.
I am 21 years old, and a man in a tie is holding my hearing aids out to me.
He stops in every other week or so and we go out to the Yard. He draws targets on the wall and I am supposed to hit them with a baseball. Only this time there is another person with him, a tall black man with an eye patch who is holding a bow and a quiver of arrows. They stand behind bullet-proof glass as I pick up the bow and, for a few minutes, I am whole again.
I am 24 years old, and waking up from surgery.
Coulson is smiling, just like Mr. Carson smiled at me when I understood him correctly. There is noise and movement and chaotic sound and a constant whrrrrrrrrrr coming from somewhere in the room, and I feel nauseated at the onslaught of unfamiliarity. When I reach up to take out my hearing aids, they aren’t there. ”You don’t need them anymore,” Coulson said.
I am 28 years old, and I am married.
My hearing aids are back in, and my wife is beckoning me towards a hot tub in our hotel room. They can’t get wet, so I take them out and leave them on the dresser. ”Hi there,” I would mumble into her lips as she sinks into me, her breasts against my chest. Neither of us spoke after that.
I am 30 years old, and Coulson is showing me a picture.
They’re my cochleas, the small snail-shell like bones that are not functioning in either ear when I destroyed them two years ago. But the doctors can repair them, and once again I will not have to use my hearing aids. He’s showing me this picture and I am reading over my divorce papers.
I am 34 years old, and I am standing at another grave.
Only this time I can hear every single word. And I can read what’s on the stone. And when I say goodbye to Coulson, I can say the words.