This piece by Tracey Slaughter is one of the stand-outs from a new compilation, Strong Words, that showcases the best of the latest Landfall essay competition. Landfall editor Emma Neale wrote of it: ‘I could only read this essay in small bursts; as if I had to rebuild the ability to bear the agony and isolation it describes. At the end, the cry from the valley of pain becomes paradoxically almost as joyous as a child’s kite flown on a cold, windy day.’
The essay is called Notes on a Scale of Silence.
I’ve been to a place where writing doesn’t matter. That’s a hard fact for a writer to admit, a source of shame. I want to tell you that I’ve never doubted words, never once let go of their lifeline, never flinched from an unshakeable belief that language is all we have to feed us, bind us, keep us vulnerable, lend us any kind of grace. But that’s not the truth. The truth is: I’ve been to a place where I lost my faith in language, where I knew words didn’t count. I lay and looked at a world where if I wrote or not, if I spoke or not, it didn’t matter. And the truth is that I stayed there for a long time.
I know the exact moment I reached that place. I can still feel the sound of it. They are wheeling a woman out of surgery into the bed-space next to me, a blue-green vinyl oblong that has been waiting, gleaming and sterile, for her to come around – after the doctors have scalpelled down through her breast tissue, lifted it away, studded the cauterised hole with cleats, a stagger of neon stitches. I can see her face. She’s a middle-aged but still hip woman, a tinge of faded punk to her, still a bit rogue in her chopped rose-burgundy hair, a metal half-moon of piercings she had to pick out pre-op, let them clink on the bedside unit like dud ammunition. There’s still a bit of mean in her acrylic eyes, a touch of tough bitch, smile armoured with blood-black lipstick.
But that was before, when she’d first arrived, with an equally dark-tinted friend, strode in her nine-hole cherry-docs to my bed and said, ‘So what are you in for?’ Self-conscious prison-style, smirking. Now they have razored around her breast. They have traced along its trail of glands. They have severed fibres and feathers and cells. They have had to take more than anticipated—they will draw the curtain around her to tell her this later, a futile scrape of privacy, the soft-pitched neutral grind of steel rings dragging the drape on its one-track hopeless halo. They will not be sure they got it all. I will hear the whole thing. She’s beside me now, post-op, still sunk in the remains of sleep, laced with tubing, the spikes of her hair sweated quiet. She’s a thin frame, flattened and shunted and wired. Ticks and beeps pipe liquid into her, and drain it. She breathes, in the undertow, child-sized, in her electric ligature.
I remember looking at her and knowing this: nothing I could say, or write, could make a difference. Nothing could reach this place we both lay, couldn’t touch it, couldn’t change it. Words were nothing here. They didn’t count. Language was a pointless thing I’d once believed in. Before I came here. Before I confronted this.
In the foreground, as I look over at her, there are books and a notebook stowed on my locker. My husband has brought them in for me—because I am a writer, words are who I am, what I do, so surely they will be the way out. I just need to keep touch with the words. But I don’t. I don’t even pick them up. The books lie still, thick and new, and I don’t open them. The truth is that it hurts me too much to hold them—I’ve come to the stage where, physically, I can’t turn the pages, I can’t hold a pen. There’s no position on the bed where my body isn’t burning, where my vertebrae don’t feel racked, code-red. But worse, I think that what’s inside those books no longer matters. Those marks on the page can’t reach into this place, so why would I ever add to them?
I don’t know if this is the night I hear ‘What a Wonderful World’ played over at the pub, a good-old mongrel local on the corner facing the hospital and the church—a karaoke session at the Salutation that spills piss and wrong octaves and bitter violins, the colours of the rainbow so pretty in the sky, onto the pavement. I know it’s not the first night I’m wheeled in, when a troupe of spry Christian ladies set up a keyboard in the corner and clap through a medley of trembling hymns, and leave a bright Jesus-loves-me basket propped on my locker, pat my forehead with a flannel they’ve crochet-trimmed. I know it’s not the evening the palliative care team come to brief the old girl adjacent to me, to explain to her with appropriate pamphlets that she’ll soon be shifted to a place to die comfortably, even though she has no clue she is terminal; the doctors haven’t been yet to pass on the results of her surgery. It’s not the evening she steers her beautiful creased gaze over the ward at me and says, ‘I’ve always had a box inside me, where I shut up things I don’t want to look at, and turn the bloody key,’ kicks off her mangy slippers and flicks out her light, stoic, final.
I know it’s not one of the nights this constant supply of gutsy old ladies chirp at me about my handsome husband, my fine young sons, try to chivvy me to keep my chin up, I’ll get home to them; I know it’s not the first time I answer them with nothing but tears, because I can barely push my body past its pain enough now to respond to my loud treasured sons when they’re visiting. I know it’s not the first night I am loaded with morphine, but it’s one of the next, or the next, or the next, while I lie and wait for my vein to thread its quick uphill suck, for its sideways flex across my heart chambers, so I feel their borders defined in its broadside flood. For the respiratory drop, which is like my gravestone being lowered down onto my ribcage, its slab dark and prone on my near-extinguished breath.
On the first night that terrifies me, and I think I will die under the weight, but I learn to let go and sink with the drug, learn to listen to the shallow chafe of my own oxygen as if from a distance. I learn to collapse, give in to a lot of things. I have gone beyond using my words to point out I’m afraid, I’m in pain, an unthinkable level of pain, the kind of pain a body cannot be in and not feel as an emergency. There is no way to say this. The pain has now stretched on for months and can’t be found or fixed. I woke up one night of my settled, steady life and collapsed, and seized, with an unknown virus; unkillable pain up the nerves of my spine is its legacy. Nothing can be done to stop it. I have gone beyond believing there is help. And I learn that for some here in the small-town hospital where I’ve landed I’ve even gone beyond sympathy.
So I learn to let the ward nurse scour my chart, disgusted, at the end of the bed, her mission each morning to put a stop to what she sees as malingering. She’ll sometimes even make a point of hissing interjections at the doctors on their rounds, underlining that the findings are all negative, the tests keep coming back blank in blood and light, and without a diagnosis the efficient thing is to ship me out—this bed is needed for the recognisably sick. And look at me, don’t I still look whole?
I learn to keep my number to myself when asked to locate my pain on a one-to-ten scale—‘a nine,’ today’s nurse scoffs. ‘I’ve done a hard day’s work on worse than a nine.’ I learn to say nothing. I learn to swallow the pills tipped into the little frilled cup, although they’re different from the ones prescribed yesterday, and the next rostered doctor will disagree and switch me back—telling me this colour could trigger Parkinsons, that shade disintegrate my bones. I learn not to say the pills do nothing anyway. I give up saying they do not kill the pain; in fact my body seems to turn the pain dial with each new dosage, forcing the nerve signals up, red hot and shrill, over the block. The first time I stammer this out to a doctor he pats my hand patronisingly, saying, ‘My, you have a lively imagination.’
I learn not to use metaphors to try to describe the pain because the next doctor will only roll his eyes at me and tut, ‘I haven’t the slightest idea what you mean.’ I learn to sink. I learn to sink in the therapy pool, when the physio, convinced that action is called for, that vigour, movement and aggression are the principles that will save, grasps my sagging straps and flips my featherweight onto my back. But the muscles of my spine, which are now so much scorched string, cannot even find the power to float.
I learn to spasm, I learn to rattle—and I learn not to quarrel with departmental logic when we beg them to let us rent a hospital bed to take home, because the slanted surface is the only way I can avoid the tremors now that my sinews are wasted. We’ll pay, we’ll pay money we don’t have to get me out of here, we’ll pay anything, but we’re told a firm no. My age is against me—I’m not over eighty—and quite frankly I don’t qualify; put simply, I’m not dying.
I learn not to complain when the curtain is not drawn before a riled nurse strips me down, shoves in an enema, so the man across the room who is browsing a magazine while ignoring his mother can watch. I can lie and cry, and he can watch. And I learn that the pills do the same to everyone else on the ward—turn our insides to stone—so I can hunch in my cubicle and listen to the old man in the next stall weeping as he strains, rest my head on the partition between us and listen to his pitiful shitless keening, and say nothing. There is no point to saying a word. And my husband is learning too. He is learning there is no point bringing me back here after I’m sent home, and sent home, and sent home, yet we have to come back because the pain is still building, still streaming up my spine. I can no longer hold my head up. The feel of the shower on my skin is like nails, the rubbing of the seams of my clothes sends me signals that the joints beneath are being dragged apart. The nerves call SOS, the muscles thrash and lock. But there’s no point coming back here. The next doctor will only shake his head and say, ‘I don’t understand what it is you expect me to do.’ And my husband will go beyond words too, will sit in the ER and answer the doctor by crying.
The worst thing, the thing I am not telling you, the thing I am most ashamed of is: when they wheel in the woman with her breast removed, kohl sponged off her eyes, denuded, coils plugged into the side where her life’s been sliced, there is a moment when I envy her. Because she has a diagnosis. Because she has a wound to show. Because her pain has a visible cause. Because there is some kind of treatment. Because around here people respond with some kindness when you are tagged with a legitimate label. Because her condition might be fatal—and I know by now that if I have to go on living in this level of pain, I will not want to.
To my unending guilt, there is a moment when I want that last word.
We all run the risk of finding ourselves suddenly delivered to this place beyond words. As simply as I awoke one night, and walked down my hallway feeling strange, and suddenly slipped off the tracks of my life into a long bleak stay in pain, anyone can follow. That blue-green vinyl bed-space beside mine is waiting for anyone to be wheeled in. You ‘emigrate to the kingdom of the ill’, as Susan Sontag reminds us, at bewildering speed, with a sudden jumpcut in your daily reality that twists it to unrecognisable blur, and any human citizen, at any human moment, is open to this terrible eviction from their bodily home. You can’t defend yourself. There is no wall. You are welcomed, in a split second, into this desert. ‘Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place,’ Sontag writes. And when you wake up in that other place, you’re introduced to a hidden population, to the nameless, and stricken, and voiceless rows of people who have vanished from the functioning surface, from the visible operations of society, from what W.H. Auden called ‘the common world of the uninjured’, what Virginia Woolf termed ‘the army of the upright’.
The citizens of that other place have been there all the time, alone, remote, in pain. And the truth is that often they have no tongue. They have no agency. They have no advocate. They have reached that point that I reached, even as a writer—fast, dark, soundless, final—where they have given up all hope of words. What is the use of words in the face of this? What can words do? What do they even matter? Physical pain, as Elaine Scarry reminds us, is the ultimate destroyer of language. The reflexes of speech are struck silent by it; it leaves us trapped and mute in an experience that at its very essence is resistant to utterance, cut off, inaccessible to words, inherently unshareable—because while for the person in pain the experience is the ultimate in certainty, for the witness to pain its unseeable, unprovable status can represent the ultimate in doubt. Words fail at this gap, and with them, all too often, empathy. ‘Let a sufferer try to explain a pain … to a doctor and language at once runs dry,’ said Virginia Woolf. Even those whose powers of language seem to pour poetry straight from the bloodstream can find themselves paralysed ‘when the lights of health go down’, as Woolf knew only too well, can find themselves uprooted, silent, lost in the ‘undiscovered countr[y]’ of the ill, rendered dumb by its unsayable waste and blight.
But for this very reason it matters that those of us who go there try to force that wordless place into the light—that we try to recount our descent into its nightmare state, that we stare hard at the desert of days or years when we were stranded there, that we try to track any frail first step that started our lonely journey back. It matters that we fight the narrative that allows us to speak about affliction only when we can do so from a safely restored place of triumph, courage, resistance, overcoming, return—because some of us do not come back, or never wholly; some of us have to stay, overstay, or live at least some of our ongoing days slipping in and out of its shadows. We may have no stories of heroism, valour, deliverance, cure or conquest to tell, no easy mottos of rising above to slap on an inspiring new-age bestseller. We may only have our knowledge of the dark to share, the confession that we went under, it defeated us. It matters that we are not shamed. When years later I read John Updike’s line ‘for the sick feel as shamed as the sinful, as fallen’ I knew exactly what he meant—although I now know that that place of physical shame is open to anyone: it takes less than a heartbeat to travel there, claim residence.
It matters because the act of speaking about pain feels almost unbearably impossible. It matters because it outright hurts to write. It seems to me that human hurt might be one of the core reasons why language came into existence in the first place—underneath the intricate system of dictionary, after all, is the scream, the raw instinctive impulse to sound out what pains, what endangers us, to pull help close, to warn other animals away. It seems likely to me that when the word first graced the hard ground we walked, it burst from our primal cries, it flowed from our wounds, it pulsed from our shudders and our hardships, it formed around our needs and aches. It was physical, made of flesh from the outset, spoke what mattered to the body, what was crucial to survival.
We may find ourselves combating what Scarry calls pain’s implicit ‘shattering of language’, reduced once again to that primitive state of shaping little more on the page than a gut-wrenched groan, but we have to take up the challenge, as Virginia Woolf describes it, of smashing our pain out of silence, into audibility, ‘tak[ing our] pain in one hand and a lump of pure sound in the other, so to crush them together that a brand new word drops out’. It matters that we find new shards of language that can talk raw hurt, that can let pain be faced, and known, and spoken. It might be a jagged pathography, it might have to scalpel away layers of shame, crack old narrative models into skeletal fragments, but it’s necessary surgery, for many of us desperately so.
It matters that when students arrive in my classroom, and they do, who have been to this other place, I can look them in the face and say, ‘Write it. It counts. Your words will be listened to.’ What I remember most from that place on the ward, other than the pain, is the terrible echo of its distances, the stretch of empty impassable miles between the outpost of each bed, the far-off grid of windows a barred horizon on a world so remote it no longer exists. It matters that those of us who lay in that place find a way to reach across those distances, that we try to send some link, some signal to one another, even if all we can do is trade whispers, chant desolations, offer words that are little more than wails, witness the sad community of those who find themselves, as Hilary Mantel terms it, ‘down there with the animals’. That might be all we can do.
So I have no triumphant ending to round off this essay. All I can leave you with is one of the slender threads I found that first helped me trace my way back. Because I did come home, piece by slow piece, in and out of endless days, across years, in pain, to writing. And one of the first things I found myself writing was a story, commissioned by a strange blessed twist from one of Katherine Mansfield’s last unfinished fragments. Of course, when faced with this project, fresh from the hospital, all I could think of was her illness, the fate she shared with so many others of her era, immured in sanatoriums: in my imagination Mansfield’s sickened body was wheeled into place as indelibly as the woman who lay beside me on the ward, breath scraping through her battered chest. So I started some research into Mansfield’s world of pain, into the cut-off realms of the consumptive, into the gothic and snowbound enclosures where the dispossessed of this disease were stored. Out on the porches where the beds were wheeled to heal in the freezing alpine air, my character stared at the soundless far-gone faces around her in sub-zero rows:
Thin as salt, the snow litters our blankets, hardens to a slate. We could scratch our names on it. But we don’t. Perhaps this is despair. But that seems too active, too strenuous a word, too much like a call that still expects to be answered. A cry that imagines it could be consoled. Instead, it is zero, zero that the open eyes show; it is nothing that gapes in the faces. The woman beside me cries, motionless. Her eyes release a long, fused series of tears. They are incidental and soon frozen. Body by body we are dyed white, whiter, in our steel groves. Below, above, there are storeys of us. Ice stretches a ghetto from face to face.
But I also discovered that the children of the tuberculosis wards, who were often tied into their beds, would sometimes, against all odds, slip loose, and stealthily unhook each other, and would use their cords to bind up tiny trails of notes that they’d scratch down and suspend out the windows of their wing. The image of those tremors of paper, signals smudged by brave child fingers to anyone beyond the prison who might listen, testified to the fact that sending out even the frailest string of words represents hope, that the impulse to reach for one another with the thinnest scraps of ink persists in us, is in itself near unkillable. Even in pain we want to be seen, we want to be heard, we want to be found. That image, those dangling strips of paper, continued to flicker within my mind with the message that somehow writing will always matter.
Strong Words 2019: The Best of the Landfall Essay Competition, selected by Emma Neale (Otago University Press, $35) is available at Unity Books.