Increasingly agitated, I remember how covering my ears with the pillow last night reduced the stimuli. I put my hands over my ears now, and to my amazement, things mercifully fade once more. Even though the reprieve is welcome, my heart races as the implications slam into me. What I’m perceiving when two objects hit each other, the way my ears respond . . . it’s almost like the way the old writings describe . . .
. . . sound.
I immediately shake my head for even considering such a ridiculous thought. It’s ludicrous and impossible. Growing wings would be only slightly more farfetched.
You are unwell? Elder Chen’s hands sign in front of me.
I realize my hands are still pressed to my ears, and I quickly lower them. It’s just a headache , I lie. It’s nothing.
His sharp eyes take me in for a few moments and then turn to my work. Even I can see the imperfections. My mortification increases when he takes up the brush himself and repairs some of my sloppiness. When he finishes, he tells me, Stay back today and rest.
I feel my eyes widen in astonishment. We’ve been taught that doing one’s duty is crucial. Only the direst of illnesses should keep us in bed. The miners, whose work keeps us alive, never get days off.
Elder Chen smiles. You are clearly not yourself today. It’s written all over you. You are one of the most talented artists I have seen in a long time. I’d rather lose one day of labor than risk a long-term ailment. They will make you tea in the kitchen to help with your headache. Spend the duration of the day in rest and study.
There’s nothing to do but bow at the great act of generosity he is showing me. I’m embarrassed at being singled out but even more relieved not to have to face the blur of village activity.
Thank you, master , I tell him.
Who knows? he asks. Perhaps I will take a walk and keep watch at your post. If not, we still have your sister on watch over there, so that part of the mines won’t go unobserved.
My sister! At his words, a jolt of panic hits me. Master Chen’s presence tells me the other elders must be here as well. I didn’t have a chance to check Zhang Jing’s work last night and promised myself I’d do it this morning. I look across the room, and Elder Lian is strolling around, making her way to Zhang Jing’s canvas. Desperately, I search for some sort of distraction, something that will slow Elder Lian and allow me to save Zhang Jing like I always do. Maybe someone will faint from exhaustion. Maybe a servant will burst in with news of another food theft.
But none of that happens. Elder Lian comes to a stop beside my sister, and I am frozen where I stand, unable to help her. It is an unusual and terrifying role for me to be in. Zhang Jing appears calm, but I can see the fear in her eyes. I think she, like me, is ready for Elder Lian to turn on her in rage, to call her—and me—out for the deception we’ve been furthering. But that doesn’t happen either. Elder Lian sizes up my sister’s work for long, agonizing moments before finally moving on. I nearly fall over in my relief.
Things proceed as usual, and soon the apprentices are carrying the canvases to the village center. They move too quickly for me to get a good look at Zhang Jing’s portion, and I pray it was a good day for her. I wave goodbye to her and then heed Elder Chen’s instructions to go to the kitchen for tea. It’s rare for the elders or apprentices to set foot in there, and the servants scurry and bow to me as I wait. The clothing they wear is stained with grease and smoke, only a little better than what the miners wear. One of the cooks sets an iron kettle down heavily on the counter, and the resulting effect makes me wince and grit my teeth.
At last, an older servant deferentially brings me a cup of medicinal tea. Although she is too intimidated to make much in the way of eye contact, she nonetheless explains that I should drink the tea and go to bed. If my headache isn’t gone in six hours, I can return for more. I thank her and take the tea away, but I don’t go to my room to rest.
Instead, I head toward the school’s library, carefully sipping the tea as I walk. I haven’t been able to shake my earlier suspicions about sound, despite every reasonable part of me knowing it’s impossible. I decide this may be the only chance I have to figure out what’s happening to me, short of asking a person for help. And I know better than to do that. If I described what’s been happening to me, I’d be labeled insane.
I finish the tea as I enter the library. Immediately, I seek out the oldest section. It contains writings from when our people could still hear. I’ve skimmed them before, and there is one author in particular I’m seeking. Her words meant little to me in the past, but now they are perhaps my only hope.
The writer’s name was Feng Jie, and she was one of the last of our people to lose her hearing. Three of her scrolls are in the library, and I settle down with them, pleased that my headache has abated. I begin reading the first one:
I wish I was writing some great wisdom, some understanding of why this great tragedy is happening to us. But there is none.
I pause, contemplating her words. Throughout my life, the loss of our people’s hearing has always been referred to as a tragedy, but I’ve never really seen it that way. I haven’t really thought much about it at all since it’s hard to miss something you’ve never known.
Feng Jie continues: Those wiser than me have long sought answers for why hearing is disappearing, and their ponderings have come to nothing. I don’t expect to achieve what they could not. Instead, it is my intent here to record a memory of sound, for I fear what will happen to future generations if they have no knowledge of it. Already, children born today have no understanding when those few of us who still hear try to explain it. With each passing day, my hearing declines more and more. Sounds become fainter and fainter, softer and softer. Soon what is simply quiet will become silent.