The Whispers | a short story for Halloween
Sabina was dressed like a ghost. We’d called it a night early because the storm had picked up. The news predicted hurricane force winds before midnight. And once the patter of rain started falling there was little enjoyment left for her. I would’ve stayed out longer if Sabina had wanted. But she approached me after our third block and signed, “Daddy, I’d like to go home now.”
I’d started working on American Sign Language when the doctors told me that Sabina had a fifty-fifty chance of losing her hearing before her ninth birthday. The thought of not being able to communicate with my daughter terrified me. So I made it my practice to study. I wasn’t fluent, but I had been coming along.
Her school recommended that I hire Mr. Hellman as a private tutor for Sabina. He’d been coming twice a week during the month of October. In that time Sabina’s ASL skills increased to near fluency. She was a very fast learner. But with her new skill it seemed her hearing had evaporated entirely. A month before I could call her name from the other room and she’d be able to respond. But by Halloween, if Sabina wasn’t looking directly at my lips, she couldn’t understand me at all.
We arrived back home. She went upstairs to ready herself for bed. The wind had really started to pick up outside. The redwood tree in the back yard creaked in a long operatic moan. I went to the kitchen and began cleaning up. Macaroni And Cheese boxes blighted the counter. A take out pizza box hung outside the trashcan like a tongue. Cereal crumbs crunched under my foot. I was doing my best. It was hard to believe it was just Sabina and I now. I ran the faucet and closed my eyes as the hot water ran over my hands. I thought about my wife and the newly missing place in our family. It felt lonely. I wasn’t religious, but I started to pray to her on the off chance she could hear me.
“I miss you… I miss you so much… Sabina and I are doing the best we can… You’d be so proud of her… I wish I could speak to you one more time… I’m so afraid that I failed you…”
Tears crawled out of the corners of my eyes, splaying their wet webs across my cheeks. A chortle of snot shot out of my nose in a fast, hot burst. I was wasting water. I began washing the dishes. As I did I replayed the events of the last year in my mind. Sabina’s hearing beginning to wane. My wife’s depression growing to the point where she’d stay below the covers until evening sobbing. It looked like one empty bed crying itself to sleep. I wanted to help her, but I could only do so much. She tried to muffle her cries, but I could hear them even down stairs. Sabina, even with her disability, could too. And, just a month before Halloween, my wife hanged herself on a coat hook in the bathroom. She’d used the belt I married her in. Sabina found her like that. And that’s when Sabina’s condition began to deteriorate.
The hardest part was explaining to Sabina, without the use of my voice, what death means, and why mommy wasn’t coming back. I did my best, with my clumsy signing and mouthing the words. I’m not so sure she understands at all. And if I’m honest, I’m only beginning to understand it myself.
I looked through the blinds into the back yard. The large, low branch on the redwood tree had snapped in the wind and was now hanging by just a few strands to the tree’s trunk. The other half of the branch was leaning on the fence between my neighbor’s house and mine. The wind pushed hard on the tree again. The branch swayed back and forth on the fence like a saw. It had just missed Sabina’s window.
“Sabina?” I called. “It was just the tree branch. Are you okay?”
But I remembered that she couldn’t hear me. I shut off the faucet and blew out the pumpkin candle on the dining room table. I went up the stairs. The tree heaved and hawed it’s heavy breath on the fence putting a dreadful noise into the dark house. The wind leaned on the roof. When I reached the top of the stairs I saw that the light in Sabina’s room was off. I thought she might have already fallen asleep.
I opened her door slightly, knocking. Not that she would be able to hear the knocking. When I opened her door I didn’t see her in the bed. I stepped into her room. It was dark. Empty.
There was no response. No movement. I stood there quietly as my eyes adjusted to the dark. After a few moments I saw an outline of Sabina emerge from the shadows. She was standing at the window looking out. And she was still dressed like a ghost.
“Sabina?” I tapped her on the shoulder. She looked up at me. “What are you doing honey?” I signed.
“It must sound awful.” She signed. “The night.”
“It does.” I signed.
“Can you help me out of my costume?” she signed.
I unzipped the zipper in the back of her ghost costume and helped her into her pajamas. And then I shut the curtains on the window.
“It’s good that you can’t hear the storm, it will keep me up all night.” I signed.
I helped her into bed. The caw of the branch rubbing against the fence moaned again. I was glad the storm wouldn’t keep Sabina awake.
“I wish I could tell you a bedtime story.” I signed.
She shook her head and signed, “I can tell you a story.”
“That’d be nice.” I signed. “But go slow, I’m still learning.”
“You’ll understand.” She signed. “It’s a story Mr. Hellman told me.”
“What is the story about?” I ask.
The wind bumped the side of the house and the tree branch creaked again. It was as if the wood was singing in a hollow moan. A shallow lullaby.
“And what are The Whispers?” I signed.
“The voices you hear in your head when you can’t hear the real world.”
Mr. Hellman struck me as a strange, awkward man the minute he approached our door last month. I thought his peculiar nature was due to his hearing disability. But now I worried about what he’d been telling Sabina.
“So is it a scary story?” I sign.
“No. It’s a true story. And if it is true, then it shouldn’t frighten you.” She signed.
I nodded for her to go on.
“The Whispers are the voices of the dead. They are spirits that come into your ears just before you fall asleep.”
“Mr. Hellman told you this?” I signed.
“Let me finish.” She signed. “The voices say what they needed to say before they died. Since their life was cut short, they climb into your ear at night and whisper to you. They tell you what they’d meant to say. And the more you listen to the dead, the less you can hear the living.”
“Well, I’m going to have a word with Mr. Hellman when he comes next week.” I signed. “The story he told you isn’t true.”
“Mr. Hellman won’t be coming back next week.” She signed.
“Because I’ve cured him.”
“What do you mean you’ve cured him?”
“I’ve taken the Whispers from his head.”
“This is nonsense. You should be getting to sleep.”
The tree branch rubbed again. The wind pushed on the side of the house. The baritone moan of the redwood branch sawed a little louder.
“Daddy,” she signed, “I’ve heard the whispers. They are there.”
“There’s a difference between a thought and the voice of a dead person, Sabina.”
“Of course, daddy.” She signed. “Now are you going to let me tell you the story of the Whispers?”
A chill ran up my back. The branch sawed. I felt terrible that Mr. Hellman had been filling Sabina’s head with these kinds of stories. Especially so soon after her mother had died. If I’d known, I would’ve put a stop to Mr. Hellman’s visits. But there was nothing I could’ve done then. There is no way to unhear a story. I didn’t want to hear it, but I nodded.
Sabina smiled. She looked up at her ceiling and closed her eyes for a moment. It was as if she was trying to remember. Then she opened her eyes and began signing, moving her lips silently along with the story so I could follow.
“Long ago there was a woman who couldn’t hear. She lived alone in a small cottage deep in the woods where no one came to call on her. Then one day a weary hunter who had lost his way stopped in. The woman fed him, gave him water, and made a clean bed for him to stay the night, and he left in the morning. A few years later the hunter returned to the cottage and this time the woman had a little girl whom she said belonged to the hunter. The hunter refused to believe the child was his and so called the local magistrate and a priest to condemn her as a witch. The woman was held at a trial where she couldn’t hear her accusers nor defend herself and she was sentenced to death. They tied stones on her feet and threw her in a deep lake. The priest ordered that the young girl be buried alive in a tomb at the cathedral as a warning against evil. And every so often people who passed by the tomb would hear whispers coming out of it. They said it was the little girl speaking on behalf of her mother. But if any person listened to the whispers in the casket for too long, they lost their hearing until they told another person what the dead were trying to say. And this has been going on for centuries. Mr. Hellman told me I should be very careful who I listen to.”
I was afraid of the story. As Sabina told it with her hands and lips, I felt the quiver of dread shake down my spine. I didn’t want my daughter to think she heard the voices of the dead.
“Do you think you can hear the dead?” I signed.
“How do you know they aren’t just your thoughts?”
“Because they scream.”
The wind had quieted. The branch had ceased its incessant moaning. The worst of the storm was passing.
“Who is screaming?” I signed.
“You hear Mommy scream?”
“Oh Sabina!” I said aloud. I leaned close to her and held her tight. She must have been as distraught over this as I was. “I think I can hear her sometimes, too.” I say aloud. “I was just downstairs praying to her. I miss her just as much as you. But the voices you hear aren’t hers. The dead don’t speak. Not like in the stories.”
I held Sabina tighter. She hugged me back. I think in that moment I needed her more than she needed me.
“Do you want to know what Mommy says?” she asked.
“Oh Sabina. Yes. Alright. What does she say?”
“Are you sure you want me to tell you?”
“Yes, Sabina. What does Mommy say?”
Sabina swallowed hard. She brought her lips close to my ear and she whispered…
“You didn’t fail me. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.”
The tears cracked into my eyes again. I yelped into a sob. I held Sabina and cried. I wanted to be so strong but I couldn’t help it. I thought, maybe if she saw me enduring my grief that it would help her too. She rubbed my head as I tried to catch my breath.
We laid in bed in the dark as the storm passed outside. I drifted in and out of sleep for an hour or so and she kept rubbing my head, comforting me. Outside the storm had calmed. Gone was the cry of the redwood branch. The wind had vanished into a whisper. The fear had even subsided. It became quiet and peaceful.
Then suddenly Sabina shot up in the bed startling me awake. She looked at me with terror in her eyes and mouthed, “What is that?” She pointed toward the window.
I shook my head. I didn’t know what she could mean. I hadn’t heard anything. I walked across the room toward the window. The night felt so peaceful now.
I opened the curtains and the storm outside was raging. The redwood tree had collapsed entirely, breaking the fence and punching a hole into my neighbor’s wall. Lightning cracked. And torrents of rain flooded the back yard. Even the window pane through which I could see my own pale reflection pulsed with the wind as though it had life.
But I couldn’t hear any of it. Instead, in place of the sounds of the storm, small, unintelligible words formed, as if from a distance, and yet getting closer. Whispers. Rising.
I looked back at Sabina who sat in the bed looking at me. Her hands covered her ears to block out the storm.
She began to move her lips without signing. I couldn’t hear the words but I understood her clearly.
“I’ll never get to sleep now.”