New Languages

Updated: May 2, 2019

Susan could tell there was a pattern to what the pastor was saying, though she could not recognize it as language. It was closer to breath; the function of his words could be understood very softly just by recognition of movement. At the first sermon she attended, she assumed he was speaking in gibberish and had almost left the commune completely. The member of the congregation they had assigned to help her adjust, a tall twisted woman named Phoebe, had persuaded her to stay.

“It’s normal to have suspicion at first,” Phoebe said, “but the fact that you’re conflicted at all means you’re serious about healing. That’s a good thing. Stay a little longer. See if this is for you.”  

Now she could see the outlines of grammar and order in his words, though she could not yet understand them.

“It takes time,” Phoebe told her.

Looking at it like it was simply a matter of words and time made it feel manageable. If she just focused long enough she could understand the language. If she just focused long enough…

She often remembered Jay before the sermons began in the morning, when the children ran along the wheat fields barefoot and joyous, and the adults huddled together warmly, interacting with one another and holding hands. They are always holding hands. It all reminded her of heartbeats. There appeared to be something incredibly visible that held everything together, something they were trying to protect, but possibly unaware of. Forget the functions. Move on. But that was hard too. Whatever was under the surface reminded her of Jay: his voice, his heartbeat, him taking a deep breath and saying, “I’m going to have to live the rest of my life knowing that you were so caught up in your goddamn illusion that you need to raise me instead of mom that you don’t actually give a shit about me, Sus.”

She heard him say this in the wheat fields, in the children, in the rudimentary wooden church standing in the middle of the farm, in the cots they slept on at night, in the heartbeats and in the way Phoebe told her, “You can start out wearing your own clothing. At some point you will want to dress like us.”

But she couldn’t stop hearing Jay, couldn’t stop wearing the baggy clothing she had stolen from his room after the funeral. She knew it was worse to the other members of the congregation that she dressed like a man instead of dressing like them, but she didn’t mind when they gave her looks after the sermon. Phoebe had made her kneel in the back to minimize the distraction. The sun beat down on their backs during the sermon, but she didn’t care. She tried to focus on the language. Not hearing what she wanted to hear or didn’t want to hear. “You don’t actually give a shit about me, Sus. You don’t actually give a shit about me at all.”

Sometimes she could block out enough of it to hear the words of the pastor, and rest her mind, but after the sermon she could feel the heartbeat again, the underlying frantic beauty. She would follow Phoebe through the crowd of the congregation and try to learn their names, which she never could do. She found the people too friendly and strange. Their eyes bore into her like she needed to be saved; their eyes shifted to her clothing and she knew they thought she needed to be saved. They repeated their names again and again and Susan smiled. She kept smiling. She kept smiling.

“I can tell you’re holding on,” Phoebe told her one night, “By now you should at least know their names.”

When Jay and Susan were younger, people used to tell them they looked alike. When she was older, she was always told she looked more like their mother. Susan never really believed them, saw it more as something people thought would appease her, like her mother lived on in her features. And Jay’s features. But that too didn’t matter. “You’re beautiful like your mother.” They told her, but it felt disjointed and formed in intention rather than reality. Now I look like Jay, she told herself every morning, tired and hard and steady. He lives on in your features.

If she focused hard enough during the sermon, then she didn’t have any features at all, simply lost herself and vowels and pauses. The pastor was a strong, athletic-looking man with bright, helpful eyes and a calming demeanor. The heart. When he came to find her after one of the sermons she had flinched a little bit, at the broken distance she had from him. He didn’t seem to belong to her in the way he did to the other members of the congregation.

“I saw you during the sermon,” he said, “And your name was spoken to me.”

She kept her eyes on the ground.

“Abigail,” he said.

“That’s not my name,” Susan whispered, but as Phoebe shot her a look she began to realize it wasn’t a choice.

He smiled sensitively, put his hand on her shoulder, and said, “You’re not the same person you were before this. You need not hold onto whatever has broken you in this way, Abigail. You are new and you are healing.”

She just stared at him. His blue eyes faded into her.

“What did you think of the sermon?” he asked.

“I didn’t understand the language,” Susan admitted.

He smiled knowingly, “You are letting the past hold you back. You need not think of yourself as a burden anymore. I sense you’re running from something. I hope one day you feel comfortable enough to tell me.”

As he walked away to talk to the other members, she heard Jay say, “I’m going to have to live the rest of my life knowing that you were so caught up in your goddamn illusion that you need to raise me instead of mom that you don’t actually give a shit about me, Abigail.”

When she was sure Phoebe was asleep, Susan rose and went to the closet where Phoebe had hung the three linen dresses members of the congregation had made for her. She had placed Jay’s clothes in the base of the closet, folded gently and without creases. She wanted to pick them up and feel them, but she didn’t allow herself. She focused on the dresses. She ran her fingers across them, thought about the new language and if she even really wanted to understand, if she could really be Abigail, if she could detach herself from the past. She took a deep breath, went to the suitcase she had brought with her (“that too will have to go when you are ready to give up the world you came from”) and pulled out a needle and a thread.

She went back to the dresses, lay the fabric across her lap, and began to sew her name, her real name, into the back of the collar where it would be hidden by her hair. Susan. Susan. Susan. She still wasn’t ready to wear them. Maybe this will help me want to. Should I even want to? And then she paused in her fidgety action. Maybe I’m holding onto the past too much. But she didn’t care. If it makes me feel better then it doesn’t matter.

Jay had all kinds of weird mannerisms like that. In the foster homes he would always write his name in his shoes and line them up along the bed. He memorized all of Leaves of Grass. “Walt Whitman understands death,” he would say, “Really understands everything… You’re self-aware when you’re alive, contained and all that shit. In death you’re also self-aware because you’re part of the earth.”

The pastor made eye contact with her before the sermon. He lightly pushed through the crowd, grabbed her by the wrist, and pulled her to the side.

He put his hand on her cheek, “You can’t let what happened to him hold you back. It’s not your place to feel these kinds of things. If you are to heal you need to let him go. Are you ready to let him go?”

Susan nodded heavily, once.

“Are you ready to tell me his name?”

She shook her head. She couldn’t let the name go.

“Are you ready to tell me what happened?”

“He killed himself,” she replied quietly, “My brother.”

“You can let him go now,” he told her.

She closed her eyes, and when she opened them, the pastor was walking towards the front of the room. Everyone began to take their spots, and Susan gravitated towards Phoebe, her heart racing. How could he know that? She kneeled down beside everyone else shaking a little bit. How could he know that?

The pastor opened his mouth and she began to understand. The words fizzled in her ears.

You are the chosen ones, he said, You were put here for a reason. Whatever happened to you in the past it doesn’t matter. You were brought here to create heaven. You are helpers and you are whispers. You can understand me for a reason. Those that truly understand will be granted peace. He has promised me all the pain in your memories will be erased.

She slid on the white linen dress over her head and stuffed her arms through the holes. On her, it hung unflatteringly, shooting out at the hips slightly and falling to her ankles. It was too large for her, especially with the weight loss. She knew they were watching her when she ate, knew they were giving her extra food. That means they care. Or it means they think I should care. Or both. But it didn’t feel real somehow. Even as she spoke their language. You’re holding onto the past too much. You’re holding onto the past too much. She focused on the heartbeat, on holding together whatever it was that sewed all the members together. She learned all their names. She held their hands. She could hear the heartbeat.

“You’re making progress,” Phoebe told her after the morning sermon that day, “I can tell you are really listening. Tell me, where are you from?”

“I don’t know.”

“Tell me, how old are you?”

“I don’t know.”

“Tell me, where is your family?”

“I don’t know.”

She replayed it over and over again that night. She smiled at herself in the mirror, and traced her features with her fingers to remind her they were hers. You were holding on and now you aren’t.

Something was itching the back of her neck. She reached back and felt the collar. Something grooved. She couldn’t place the texture, and found herself pulling the dress off to look at it. She rubbed the texture between her fingers. She knew something was written there, but the shapes were confusing and yet familiar.

After a few minutes she could barely determine how to pronounce it.

“Susan,” she said, but it didn’t make an impression.

Gem McHaffey, Spring 2018

artwork by Emma Cantor

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