Words have power. I was cursed by that power at first. The object my ex-wife implanted inside me gave me only three thousand words. She forced it inside me with witchcraft, a sick smile on her face as she told me the curse was “because I never shut up. Now no one would have to listen to you talk again. Who cares about your stupid fat life, you bastard! You only have three thousand words left to say, so choose them wisely. You’ll die if you say any more. Ha! Serves you right, you old cow.”
In retrospect, I should have guessed she was a witch.
The first thousand words I wasted cursing her name and telling everyone I knew what had happened. I didn’t believe it myself. How could I die from saying too much? It wasn’t until my belly started burning where the object had been lodged and I started dreaming of the number of words I had left that I started to believe. I stopped telling everyone I knew what she’d done.
My friends hadn’t believed me anyway. She had charmed them. I had no friends left.
My next hundred were spent trying to keep my house, my children and most important to me, my money. She took all that from me. I dreamed I had only one thousand, five hundred words left.
I said less and less every day and it felt like I was trapped, no one could understand me or my pain. It made me angry. I thought to myself, if I could not say words, perhaps I could write them. It seemed to work at first, I wrote and my stomach felt fine. But, when I read my words, or when anyone else read them, then the pain came back. If anyone read them, the words fled away. The letters I had sent out I quickly found and burned.
My dreams were angry and were filled with the loud clicking of abacuses beads covered with words, snapping down onto the fragile wood frames.
I drank. When I drank, I got drunk, and then I spoke again and my body burned and the dreams came again. I stopped drinking. I could not even drown my sorrows, she took even that from me. My children could not see me, the court ruled me unfit because I could not speak to my own defense. The witch moved on with her life, taking everything I owned with her.
I wandered, silent and alone. I became invisible. No one notices someone who has cannot say anything. Weeks passed and the only things to pass my lips were the meager meals I was able to scrimp from gutters and dumpsters. I lost weight. Even the street thugs refused to look in my eye as I became another insane homeless bum, begging with a dented can on the corner. I developed a twitch. Weeks became months. I could not even make a sign to beg for food, I tried, but if the sign was read, the abacus of words was counted, and I was closer to death. The pain in my belly made me burn the cardboard sign to prevent anyone from reading the words I had so painstakingly written.
Somehow I clung to life.
Revenge was the reason at first. She took my words, but she could not take my thoughts. Twitching there in my own filth, shoving things that could hardly be called food past my lips in bouts of panicked hunger, I thought about carving the witched item out of my gut and feeding it to her. Savage thoughts, dreams of the rabid and insane. Yes, at first revenge kept me alive. It kept me warm.
Revenge alone cannot keep a person without words alive for long. How could I have revenge if I could not even explain myself? She would see it in my gauntness and my mangled body, but would she really know how I had suffered because of her curse? I could not tell her of the misery she had caused me. Would she care? Would her death really do anything?
Shamefully it wasn’t until months after that I wondered what had become of my children. It only proved I had never been much of a father.
How long can someone be miserable before they pick themselves up out of the gutter? A year passed, then two. I found myself wandering. I found I was good at being silent. Silence gave me strengths I did not know I had. I learned to hunt. Outside cities food was easy. If one made no noise, animals would come with patience. Inside the cities, other humans would leave perfectly good food in their trash if one was patient. Other dumpster divers respected my silence. One tried to teach me sign language, but as the familiar tightening in my gut came over me when I signed a word, I realized the witch left even that avenue closed to me. The woman did not understand my sudden withdrawal from her lesson, but I could not explain.
Years passed again, I spoke no words. It became easier with time. I drew into the shadows and became so familiar with them, they became home. I looked back onto those years I had spent endlessly talking and wondered why I wasted all those words.
My curse changed. No longer a curse, but not a blessing. Not yet. I lost track of time. How long had it been since words passed my lips? My thoughts changed. My body grew older and I grew more still. Time seemed to grow longer. I could sense the movement of time around me, but without the words for seconds, minutes, days, time lost it’s meaning. I moved with the seasons.
I didn’t realize how much time had passed until I was in a vibrant part of a city with parks built for children. The sparkling sounds of laughter caught my ears. The heaviness in the air spoke of a distant thunderstorm. It was a day of distant power in the sky. I felt strange, but something drew me to the children’s laughter. Their brightness was like fireworks in my mind. Children never minded the dead cold or oppressive heat, they reminded us adults that weather meant little if you could ignore it for the frivolities of fun. I only wished I had learned such lesson when my own children were young.
I came to the park. My eyes were drawn to one child. He was silent, never speaking while all the other children screamed with glee around him. I looked around and saw my daughter, all grown up and older than I expected. I expected to feel anger or crushing sadness, but I was calm. All those years wasted in anger and regret. She led me to a bench and the little boy silently came to my side. It made no sense, but I felt as though I had known the child all my life.
“Good to see you father. Mother,” my daughter said, without preamble, “cursed the family when she cursed you.”
I raised a brow. If I nodded, it would be a word. The boy reached for my hand. I had not touched another person in a very long time. His hand was small, but strong.
“All the males we have are now born mute, it is that thing in your stomach. Any male born in the family will be born unable to talk, a half a man. Cursed! We know all about it, we made mother tell us everything before she died.” She continued. She dug out a phone and started pressing buttons on it. “I’m getting the rest of the family together. I don’t mean to sound rude, father, but we’ve waited a long time for you to come home and I don't want to waste any more time. We know how to reverse the spell, so you can talk again and you can get our boys to be able to speak. We need you to do this, father, we’ve been looking for you since we found out, but you’ve been impossible to find. All the men have been useless to us without their voices! Do you understand?” Her tone of voice was a little condescending, as though I was unable to comprehend what she said. I was used to this tone of voice, but it was sad to hear it from her.
I sighed. The boy looked up at me and I looked down at him. His eyes were endlessly brown, the color of a field after it’s been freshly plowed.
After so many years of solitude, I was plucked from it and thrust into a whirlwind of activity. The boy was joined by two other males. My son was an adult and the other was a grandson, a teenager. All three were as silent as I. They all lived in the house the witch had taken from me. I was happy to see my son and grandsons. We could not speak, but I knew what they were saying with their deep eyes.
While my two daughters and their girls got the witch’s chambers ready my boys showed me what they had done with their silence. While I had wandered, they had found paint and ceramics and music. My son could play almost any instrument so beautifully it brought tears to my eyes. My teenage grandson made ceramics with a skill I had never seen. The little boy painted dragons that soared as if they were flying on the page. Such skill!
The chambers in the basement were readied and I was brought in. A book was laid out, opened to the page for the counterspell that would release the object inside my belly and for the first time in many years I thought of what it would be like to speak freely again. My daughters and granddaughters were eager, but I needed time. I read the spell and counted the words. Exactly two hundred. I counted against my inner abacus. I had two hundred and one.
I tried to turn to the next page of the spell book, but my eldest daughter stopped me. I shook her hand off she grabbed my wrist. “No, father, those words are not for you.” Her voice was firm. Again, as a mother would speak to a child. It reminded me of the witch.
I narrowed my eyes and took her wrist in my hand. I had years on her, hard years in the streets. I had lived a life she could not imagine. I had suffered because of this object. I had learned to be at peace with it, but I was not going to use all my words except one and nearly die without knowing the consequences of my actions. My own daughter was not going to push me around simply because I could not speak otherwise. No one on the streets pushed me around, and neither would my daughter. I glared at her and firmly took her hand off my wrist. Something in my gaze made her shudder. She looked away. I turned the page and continued to read.
The next page spoke of the curse put on me. The object inside me would kill me, but only if I spoke all my words. If I never spoke again, I would essentially live forever. So would my sons. Their lifelines were tied to mine, no wonder they looked younger than my daughters. They would not be able to speak any more words than I would be able to, even if they gestured a word, no one would understand them. In the margins I read words left by my ex-wife, she expected I would have gone through my words in a month. A quick death. If the curse was removed, I would age immediately, and my sons would become ‘normal.’ I assumed they would lose the creativity the lack of words gave them.
I finished reading and closed the book.
“What?” My eldest daughter asked, outraged. “Why won’t you cast the spell?”
I shrugged, a non-committal reply that did not count against my words because it had no meaning. I motioned to the boys, who all let out sighs of relief. They had known. We started for the door.
“You can’t do this! You have to reverse the spell! No one will understand you, you're cursed!"
I stopped and turned around, pausing to think. I had to remember how to form words, how to make my lips work and move my vocal chords.
I smiled at my daughters as I finally realized the truth of what the witch had done, many years before. Mentally I counted. Nine hundred and ninety nine. Four men can live off that many words for a long time.