Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The Man Called Silence

by Ed Barol


The wind was blowing unusually strong in this clear early morning. It was playing a nimble melody on the aluminum mobiles hanging over the porch. Miller zipped up his jacket and wrestled his bike off the porch and onto the path leading from his house to the country road. He put a cap on his head to prevent his grey hair from flittering in the wind and started to pedal fast to warm himself up, until his old joints began to hurt after only a few hundred meters, forcing him to slow down. Fortunately, the path was straight and not very long, and what was even more important, most of the time there was nobody on it. For some time now, he hadn't dared to go down to the main road. Too much damned traffic. You couldn't find a single car on the road which wasn't over-equipped with electronics. Even the brakes didn't function without electronics, and Miller disliked the idea of some poor blockhead ending in a ditch because of him, or something even worse.

The silhouette of his neighbor's farm appeared behind the grove. A thin cloud of smoke was rising from the chimney. Laura had already set the fire on, although it was clear that the spring sun would shortly turn the weather from warm to hot. He hadn't visited her in the last couple of weeks, mainly because son and her grandchildren had been visiting. Laura's son had never liked Miller. There was no love lost between Miller and any of Laura's children. However, they had all moved away long ago and visited infrequently.

Laura's husband Ben had passed away ten years ago. Ben had been a silent man, always minding his own business, and Miller and Ben got along very well. They used to sit together and drink a beer or two on his porch. Miller missed him now and then.

He stopped his bike some thirty meters away from the house, and stood up, still holding the steering wheel.

"Laura! Hey, Laura!" his voice was still strong and clear despite his old age. The door opened and the little stooped silhouette of his neighbor appeared on the doorstep.

"Come on, come in!" she shouted waving. "There's nothing for you to scare away."

Miller went towards her, pushing his bike. He had never liked this joke. Once, long ago, he had stopped by unannounced and Laura had blurted out:

"You've frightened my washing-machine, Miller. Who will do the laundry now?"

Everybody except him thought it was hilarious, but it reminded Miller of his father.

He had no early memories of his father; the man had been away fighting in the war while Miller had grown from toddler to "old enough to do chores". Miller Senior had returned without his right leg, which he had lost somewhere in the forests of France, and with two Medals of Honor in the bag. He had died in an accident while he was plowing the field, driving his big ill-tempered tractor.

Miller had been only ten years old when the accident happened, but he could still remember that look in his father's eyes, full of hidden fears -- and the fact that his father never touched his only son, as if he was afraid that touching the boy would cause him to simply switch off.

Miller devoutly kept, together with his father's Medals of Honor, a few black and white photos of his father, smiling and holding him in his arms. At that time his parents had still believed that his condition would pass and that everything that was happening to their six-month-old son would somehow turn out right. By Miller's first birthday, his father had joined the army and gone to war, any hope that the boy would "grow out of it" long gone.

Sighing, Miller turned his attention to the here and now. Dwelling on the past was a waste of whatever time he had left.

"Mornin' Laura," he said, entering the wide and clean kitchen with heavy step.

"Mornin' Miller. You haven't been around lately." Laura took the warm coffee pot off the wood stove and poured coffee in two big cups set out on the table.

"I brought you the shopping list," he said, sitting down at the table and resting his palms on the scratched and faded wood. "I need some underwear, but let it be cotton this time, please."

"I've already told you, old man, that the seller cheated me that time. He kept convincing me it was pure cotton, and I can barely see those tiny cloth tags." She cracked a few eggs over the bacon in the frying pan.

His look stopped at her big plush slippers with smiling rabbits' faces and big ears, in which she glided noiselessly over the black and white floor. When she wiggled her toes inside of them, they looked like real rabbits sniffing around the kitchen. A gift from her granddaughter.

"All right, all right, never mind," he said. He took an envelope from the jacket and laid it onto the table. "Here's the money for this month. Put it on the account, please."

She just muttered something and continued cutting bread, and at the same time keeping one eye on the frying pan.

Miller had a flashback. He remembered his childhood again. His mother had told him of all the repairmen coming to their farm after his birth. No one had been able to explain why their household was suddenly left without electricity on the day of his birth. The cause revealed itself a month later, when his mother took him out for a walk on a warm spring day. All the electrical appliances in their house turned on as they walked away. When she returned to investigate the noise, they had all turned off again. The same story had repeated itself over and over. After that day, they had stopped studying the wires and appliances in their house. Instead, Miller himself, only a month old, became a subject of interest of many experts.

They never managed to explain why the electricity ceased to exist in his presence. They just determined the radius. Twenty yards. Within that radius not a single gadget powered by electricity or batteries could function. Current wouldn't flow through a wire if part of its length lay within that distance from his chubby infant body. After a while his parents had gotten fed up and threw out all those nosy parkers from their farm. They were hoping that with time and prayer everything would somehow turn out right.

As he grew, the scientists studying him quickly lost interest in him. Their devices couldn't function when he was around and they couldn't find a way to study him. They explained that he reflected electromagnetic fields at a certain distance. They suspected that a possible reason for his state might be the drug testing his mother had done for one pharmaceutical company before he was born. The company had paid good money, and at the time it was still considered as a decent way to earn something.

They could have been right, considering the fact that his mother died young, just when he came of age. She was eaten by the cancer and the metastases that had spread all over her body like dandelion seeds in the wind.

As the years passed, everyone forgot all about Miller and he got used to his lonesome life. He never had the strength to leave his home and join the people who, because of their religious beliefs, lived a life similar to his own, denying themselves all the things he actually craved.

He had eaten his breakfast before he went back and he and Laura talked for a while about the things she usually talked about recently. About her ungrateful children who didn't visit her often enough and about Mrs. Johansson, who still hadn't returned her two Tupperware bowls. As she was getting older, her thoughts seemed to be running in circles, he concluded.

The day became warmer and he decided to walk back slowly, pushing his bike. Time he did not lack. He frequently tried to imagine the life he would have had if he was born only a few decades earlier. He could have gotten married and had children before electricity became an indispensable part of human lives. Even though later on his children would have visited even more rarely than Laura's and his wife would have leave him for some guy with TV or radio -- the things that have become an inseparable part of almost every home, at least sometimes his life wouldn't seem so lonesome.

At the end of nineteen-forties and beginning of nineteen-fifties he was still in school. He could pedal to the school building across the dirt road, without going out to the main road. At the time no electric appliances were used in school, and the classrooms had big old-fashioned windows that allowed an abundance of daylight to pour inside. His life was embittered only by the cruelty of other kids, who immediately sensed that Miller was different (although, in the absence of any electrical devices, they had only hearsay as evidence) and punished him unmercifully for it.

Miller couldn't go into town alone because people there had already heard of him. They'd even foam with rage when his parents brought him along.

Once, when he was nine, his mother took him on an old steam train all the way to the capital. They had walked around the city centre with no cars, window-shopping, and not caring for the appliances that were temporarily turning off in the houses while they were passing by. His mother went to a confectioner's and ordered pastries and two hot chocolates for the two of them. When the waitress had brought their order to the table by the window, he entered as they had agreed: unnoticed, mingled with a group of other people. They were eating their cakes and drinking their hot chocolate, giggling at the owner, who was silently cursing while fussing over the circuit box. It was the happiest day of his life.

He pushed the bike to his farm, and went towards the barn to store it. His old dog Dull, came waddling around the corner. Dull was a tricolor Basset. As soon as Miller had seen this breed in a magazine he had decided to purchase one. Dull's permanently sad face sometimes made him feel better. The nature of the dog was suitable to his appearance, although Miller wasn't sure if it was inborn, or if he had become like this along his master.

"What's up, chap? Have you found any rabbits back in the field?" He patted Dull's head and got back a few lazy waves with the tail.

"Let me tidy this up so I can find you something to eat."

The mention of food made Dull's tail wag faster, and the dog hurried up following his master.

Miller opened the little door, built-in in the large folding door, and entered. He put the bike next to the tractor, the back wheels of which reached over his shoulder. It was the same tractor on which his father had died -- more or less. There weren't that many original parts left on it after all those years, especially after Miller had replaced the original engine with a smaller diesel, the only kind that worked for him. As it was, he had to use a jury-rigged crank handle to start it, like a car from the early 1900s. This required a lot more power to overcome the resistance of the fly wheel, even with the engine decompression -- the little diesel had ten times the horsepower of any crank-started automobile engine. Once he managed to start it, he wouldn't turn the engine off for the whole day. That big ignition crank had raised a lot of blisters and built a lot of calluses on his hands over the years.

Miller Senior's old Indian Chief 339M was still covered, standing next to the wall. It was the same one father had gotten back home with, together with his already pregnant mother in order to take over the family farm after Miller's grandfather had died. Then, in 1939, he had paid $425 for it, a real fortune at the time, especially for a blue-collar worker from the city, where the shadows of the big crisis were still glooming over the blue-collar neighborhoods.

Miller had tried to fix that motorbike for a long time. At least once in a lifetime he wanted to experience a fast ride with the wind in his hair on some desert road -- to share a common feeling with his father for once. But the little diesel engines he had tried to retrofit weren't very successful. The vibrations were so strong that the parts of the old machine were almost falling off. Now he kept it only as a memory.

Miller filled Dull's bowl on the porch with the dry dog food, patted the old hound on the head once more and scratched him behind one big ear. He settled himself into his rocking chair and watched Dull eat. There, in the chair, rolled in the blanket, still lay a book he had been reading yesterday. He opened it and put on his knees, but he still wasn't in the mood for reading. His eyes were wandering over the field, towards Collin's gas station and snack bar, a few miles away, there on the transnational road, which he couldn't see from his porch.

Miller hadn't been there for years. Collin's father had been his best friend. They had been in the same class for the first three years of primary school -- until Brett, Collin's father, had to repeat the class. Brett was, indeed, rather slow witted, but nevertheless a good and loyal friend, the only one Miller had in his class. Miller had even been ready to fail the next class just to be in the same class as Brett again. But Brett's father, Collins' grandfather, decided that his son had attended school long enough. Brett had learned to read and write, which was more than enough for the work at their rest stop.

Miller had often sat in one corner of the snack bar, far enough from the gas station mechanisms and the workshop to allow them to function, while Brett prepared meals on a gas cooker. Brett loved the silence and the fact that the jukebox wasn't working when Miller was around. He nicknamed him Silence.

"My head chills out from all that noise and brawl when you're not around, man," he used to say.

Miller had continued coming there occasionally, even after Brett's death, until one day Collin approached him with downcast eyes.

"You know, people simply won't stop twice at the place where their mobile phone isn't working. And today everyone has at least one. Some of them come in with those portable computers and become really nervous when they aren't working. You've seen it yourself. You know how the word spreads. I'm sorry."

Miller knew and had forgiven him. Collin had to make a living, after all, and anything that kept customers away had to go. He had counted himself lucky to have been welcome for so long when most businesses had barred him from entering years before.

He was still swinging in a chair, holding the book on his lap, with his eyes wandering around, when he suddenly noticed a line of black limousines approaching his house. He stood up, went to the edge of the porch and leaned on the white fence, expecting them. The line of six cars stopped thirty meters away from his house. Those were modern and very expensive-looking cars. Each had a little satellite dish on the roof which looked like a boomerang.

Out of the first limo came a huge young man, dressed in dark suit, wearing dark sun glasses and earphones with a tiny microphone behind an ear. He went towards Miller, put his glasses and earphones off and gave him a broad smile over his Asiatic face.

"How are you, Miller?" he asked him, climbing up the wooden stairs to the porch. Dull looked at him, wagged his tail, and continued eating.

"I cannot complain, Wang," answered Miller, unlocking the front door and entering the house before his guest. They went through the living room towards the right wing of the house and entered a large room without a single window. The walls were covered with some foamy insulation that even seemed decorative, like some kind of textured wallpaper. Wang had explained that it stopped eavesdropping from afar, directly or through vibrations. In the middle of the room stood a big shiny table surrounded by a dozen of comfortable leather armchairs. The wooden floor was covered with large, soft, thick carpets.

Miller lit five paraffin lamps hanging above the table and the room was suddenly filled with the light strong enough to frighten all the shadows from the corners. Everything was clean in there. Miller dusted every couple of days because he never knew when he could expect a visit.

Wang appeared at the door and waved to him after he had finished his tour of the house.

They came out and accompanied by Dull they went some twenty meters away from the house. The fine pebbles underneath their feet were causing the only noise in that silence. Limos moved and stopped one by one at the gate, and the passengers were coming out. Armed bodyguards, scanning the surroundings, came out first. Some of them spread out around the farm, and two were left on the porch. One of them brought a portable fridge -- propane, of course -- with beverages into the house. When the passengers came out or entered the house, each car would park somewhere in the back, allowing some distance between them and Miller. He knew that there the drivers could listen to the radio or watch DVDs while they waited.

Miller returned to the house with Wang. Dull went his way rather unconcerned. The visitors had already locked themselves in the meeting room. Wang stood in front of the heavy door, and Miller settled in the armchair at his side.

"How's Laura?" asked Wang.

"Fine. She moans about the children not coming around and objects because she still has to take care of me. Although I don't think she would know what to do with herself if she had nobody to care for."

"We, Chinese respect elders. We'd never let an old lady remain living alone or abandon our family possessions." Wang spread his long hands, so that the butts of the two big guns under his armpits suddenly became visible.

"I wouldn't know," shrugged Miller. "I've never been to China."

"Neither have I," smiled Wang with his deep velvety voice. "It is the universal truth"

They babbled for some time while the meeting was in the process. Mostly about him, the farm and the weather. Wang never talked about himself or his employers and Miller never asked. He never found out what his visitors actually did. They might be businessmen -- or gangsters. As long as they paid well for their privacy, he didn't care. Their money helped him to get rid of most of the hard work on the farm.

An hour later the door opened and the visitors started to come out. Miller stood up from the armchair wanting to say goodbye. But most of them behaved like he wasn't there. Some would simply nod. Except one little Japanese around his age who'd bow with a smile every time.

He said goodbye to Wang and went through the back door, so that the limos could come approach the house again. He looked back once more before he left the room. All the visitors had already taken their mobile phones, iPhones and BlackBerries out of their pockets, pressing the turn-on buttons, eager to get away from this seclusion as fast as they could. Back to the society and far away from that temporary sea of silence he offered them. He returned a few moments later and went to the front porch. All he saw was the long line of limos moving away from the farm.

Wang had spent three days at his place while various workers were expanding his house. Those were rather amusing three days. He was showing him some meditation techniques and martial arts. And how to break an inch thick board, using only his fist.

Miller looked around, admiring the beautiful sunny spring day. Maybe today he could practice what he had taught Wang in payment for his lessons: the art of Doing Nothing. He could call Dull and go for a walk over the fields, following the trees, up to the creek, with the face immersed in the breeze. Maybe go fishing for a while. And simply enjoy the sounds of the nature and the chirping of the birds.

THE END


© 2008 Ed Barol

Bio: Ed Barol describes himself as a school teacher (who presumably knows exactly how cruel children can be...) in his mid-thirties, married, with one child. When not trying to impart knowledge and manners to his students, he reads and sometimes writes SF.

E-mail: Ed Barol

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