By Alhierd Baharevich
Translated by Vera Rich
I am a stutterer. All these impatient, desperate words – such huge number of words – that I keep inside, very rarely manage to leave my throat freely. I could have become a silver-tongued speaker, a brilliant lawyer or TV reporter, I could have changed the even the most stubborn minds, punishing or pardoning - how I wish I could -, but for this invisible non-functional bit of my organism which thrums away inside me when I try to chase after the bus of the conversation – in vain.
What usually happens is this. Some capricious sound, possibly ‘k’ or ‘l’ which is supposed to be pronounced at the very beginning of a well-turned phrase suddenly starts to resist, grabbing with its nasty paws at the sides of the throat, whining and croaking. The sounds that should follow the “k” or “l” crowd together annoyingly, backing up behind the wretched thing but the damned sound doesn’t give way! The harmonious train of words breaks off; the person I am addressing looks away or contrariwise nods encouragingly, waiting for me to get out all I have to say. But at already his thoughts have stopped interacting with mine; he can concentrate only on my stuttering. I feel I cannot say what I have to in elegant well-chosen words, and I start shivering in panic. Frantically I try to say the same things in different words and sometimes I manage it. But where have my brilliant sentences, my choice words, and the calm voice intended to captivate my interlocutor gone?. The conversation gradually loses its sense, the person I am speaking to looks at me akance with his eyes full of pity and disdain simultaneously - and then off he goes, taking with him his gift of pronouncing every sound as easily and naturally as breathing, a great gift, though he will never understand how lucky he is to possess it.
“You’re not ill – simply tongue-tied!” a friend of a friend keeps telling me. “Impotence is far worse!” says a distant cousin, smirking under his moustache. “I’d much rather stutter…” whispers a blind man. “No one ever died of stuttering,” says a woman I hardly know, putting her hand on mine. How I hate this sympathy!
I laugh along with the rest when I hear funny stories about stutterers. But at the same time all I want is to convince the lot of you all that my stuttering is only temporary, that I suffer from it only when I am excited and all the rest of the time I can chatter away as easily as you do. But I cannot tell you a joke of my own. I tried it once and the feeling of that shame even now makes my stutter worse. Sometimes I forget that incident and say: “Hey, listen to a joke”. But as soon as I begin a friendly hand touches my shoulder as if saying “Better not try”. The forced laugh they tried to produce after doing their best to hear my joke to the end for a long time put me off talking at all. But my joke was really funny, really, very funny! But I belong to this accursed tribe of the stutterers, the people whose “l-l-l language” is reflected in the little hyphens that divide one l-l-letter from the next l-l-letter. When our language is written down it really hits you in the face. Hack writers constantly pick on us to make some of their characters more “true-to-lfe”, A hack thinks that if he makes one character completely bald, gives a second constant snuffles, and makes a third a stutterer, the reader will find this more “convincing”.
I am quite sure that writing was invented for us! It is we who can get the most out of it! Here we have cope to show off our sense of humour, our wit, our sensitivity to language. The written word is our broad field, our freedom, our realm. Surely it was a stutterer who invented the alphabet. But when it becomes a matter reading our own texts aloud to a wider audience… however talented the lines we have created, within a few moments the audience will start making forthe exit – even those who bear the same stigma of stuttering as the author.
No one ever died of stuttering…
Once I spent a whole year with my grandfather, in his shabby one-room apartment that always smelled of medicine. Grandfather did not mind my stuttering. He had become almost completely crazy by that time, hardly ever got out of bed and did not want to answer questions. He ate nothing but mashed potato that I would prepare for him—which I have hated ever since, I had to produce so much of it! I even dreamed of mash; I saw myself lying on my couch in the kitchen, by the frig, unable to move my arms because they were cemented together by the mash; I saw some kind of iron pipes hanging from the ceiling filled with the same yellowish porridge creeping out of them in sausages… Grandfather had taken root in is bed like a weed. This impression was even stronger when he raised his arms under the blanket or turned his head which seemed to be nailed to the pillow. The thing he most enjoyed was staring at the ceiling from under the Brezhnev-like eyebrows. I assume he found the meaning of life in the cobwebbed ceiling and the answers to all his questions. Or maybe he saw his future there instead of in a crystal ball. Sometimes he talked to it in special argot, the language used by crazy people all over the world. When this happened, I felt like a senseless little cloud in the sky from which my grandfather was staring into the inner world of his existence. Nevertheless, I loved my grandfather. I felt happy when the doctor said that grandfather would live a long time yet and with good care he could even recover. But the doctor went away, leaving behind prescriptions and footmarks on the floor that had still not dried out next morning. I felt they were the footmarks of Death who had stopped by to see check if the old man were ready to leave.
This was the order of my days. I would get up at nine o’clock/ My days would pass as follows. At nine a.m. I would get up, give my grandfather an injection, look into his unblinking eyes and go to prepare breakfast. Mash for granddad, a sandwich for myself. I would put a kettle on the stove and look out of the window. We’d have breakfast, then I’d go to the post-office to pick up the money my father sent, and then go shopping go to a grocery store. When I got home, I’d ead until one in the afternoon, make lunch, give my grandfather another injection, feed him, and watch TV until very evening. Around seven, mash would force me back into to cook the five spuds left from the fifteen I had peeled, and to open small round cans of meat pate— the shelves in the vestibule were piled high with those cans—and, trying to bear the tedium, stuff my grandfather with that dangerous dish. Sometimes I would sit by his bed for an hour or so after the supper feeling his almost invisible lips and knotty pale-spotted hands were trying to convey to me: “Stay, sit by me”. I would sit thinking that maybe I would prolong his life by doing so.
Grandfather, by the way, could get himself to the bathroom alone. Lost in my reading, I would always miss that mysterious moment when the old man would get up from his bed. Only the sudden startling sound of the toilet flushing would break the paralysing silence of the flat: as if a thousand glass statuettes all fell on to the floor at once. Grandfather would appear against the door-screen, take a step and disappear. I would sink back into my reading, but could not concentrate on the book any more, rather I would leaf through pages constantly going back a couple. Event after one year of living in the same apartment I could not get used to grandather’s unexpected but completely natural excursions.
After our wordless conversation I’d collapse on the kitchen couch again and start reading once more. However the looming of tomorrow’s mash; the warm breath of the cave between my sprawled legs, the entrance to which was concealed by the book; the comfort of the couch; the warmth of the lamp; the hand approaching the fly of my jeans; the hallucination of a woman’s hair… sameness of all the days of this year would not let me concentrate but simply made it clear that this evening would end the same way as all the previous ones. I would burst into the hall, hide my face in the deaf-mute coats no one had worn since the grandmother’s death. This was the only way to suppress my painful wish for grandfather’s death. Then… then I could spend the rest of the money on wine and meat, fruit and chocolate; and even if not on my own merits—being a weak appendage of my grandfather’s— as a one-off luxury get some woman into the apartment and smell her carbon dioxide till it hurts it hurts. Ready to kill myself for such thoughts, I’d put a coat on and go into the city.
What was I counting on? On a random meeting? Someone asking me for a cigarette (I’d always have a pack of cigarettes in my pocket even though I never smoked)? Was I counting on a glove falling out of a small seductive hand? On a chatterbox woman on a half-empty bus? I counted on anything that could tie me in some kind of some kind of knot. I counted on a gloomy young student-girl who had left home after a fight with her parents and had not known where she would spend the night; on a wife who has been turned out of doors by her drunken husband; on a woman looking for adventures, in the end… I did not need anything special from any of them: just wanted to see, feel, smell, lie down next to her—very close to her—on the kitchen couch, stroking with one hand the warm curve on her back, which I saw now in everything, even in armrests of a chair. Grandfather would not notice anything; he was only interested in the higher spheres. I wandered the shining streets, got into trams going nowhere, I went crazy on steps that looked like piano keys and repeated the same motive over and over again. I was “chercher-la-femme-ing” to full extent. Hard to imagine how my face looked in the light of street lamps or shop windows: thirsty and frightening. Around midnight I was ready to settle for any female: even these two fat women. I would lie between them with my eyes closed, and by dawn I’d have turned into a happy “shashlik”. But during those evenings in town I never found the strength in myself to talk to anyone. I’d come home and fall asleep.
Once however my grandfather started to speak. I was so happy. I didn’t remember myself being as happy as then for about 15 years, from the time I saw the movie “The Return of Sherlock Holmes” and 40 minutes into it I discovered he had survived. My grandfather came to life again. It happened at midday. I was pouring tea into a big mug when I heard his quiet voice behind my back: “I want cucumbers, fresh cucumbers”. I turned around, my grandfather was standing near the door staring at me with reproach. I started laughing, I held him so tightly that he nearly fainted. “He feels better, he is recovering!” I thought. I sat him down to the sofa and promised to come back with the freshest cucumbers I the world. The only problem was that at that time there was only one shop where I could buy cucumbers. I hate those shops where the customer is supposed to shop assistant, I believe they were invented to humiliate people like me. I prefer to choose some stuff for my own, speechless, and then pay for it at a cash desk. However I had no choice.
All cheered up by grandfather’s resurrection I tried for a long time to make sense to the shop assistant, trying to explain why I had come and pointing to the jar of cucumbers. I shall never forget that lunch. We ate mash and salad with sour cream and talked understanding each other completely. Afterwards grandfather wanted to lie down and went to my couch.
In the evening grandfather felt unwell. White and naked he lay on the ironed cotton sheet gasping for breath, it looked as if one had pictured his figure. I tried to help him but soon realized I had to call an ambulance. It was hard to phone the hospital because of my stutter but possible. I dialled the number but when someone picked up the receiver I realized I could not say a word. I tried hard, hiccupped, paused, and roared into the goddamned receiver that repeated its “Hello!?”, “Hello!?” I made three or four more attempts, I don’t remember quite how many, but it was all useless. I tried to call my father who could have understood my spasmodic speech, but, unluckily, he was neither at home nor at work.
In despair, barefooted and wearing only jeans I rushed round the neighbouring apartments. But it was too early; everyone was at work or in school. Only the door of the last flat opened when I rang the bell. A woman I did no know, appeared on the doorstep, wearing a white towelling robe. “Better go and sleep it off, ducky!”, she said shutting the door. I pressed the bell again and again but the peep-hole which a few moments before had gleamed a promising yellow now showed dark on the blue surface of the door. I ran downstairs but suddenly remembered that the grandfather was all alone at home. He could be feeling better not or he could have… I turned round abruptly, hurrying back feeling pieces of plaster that had fallen from the walls sticking to my unshod feet. In a couple of jumps I reached the grandfather’s bed under the shabby ceiling but my grand father had already d-d-d-d-d-d…