He would speak, I would listen, but I would not comprehend, for it would not be speech. It was terrible to love someone so deeply but be unable to understand; he would shout into a ceaseless void, and I would watch, but I would understand the void to be only his mind, and I would understand the voice to be his own. His own, his own, his grating ceaseless own, how I loved his voice and would love its words had I only understood them. But it was only through metaphor that it was a voice. I heard no words. I only understood the nonverbal language he made for himself in between the scratching that sometimes came from his mouth.
Sometimes we truly spoke; I could love him with little speaking, for I understood him. (I am of the mind he loved me as well, but he seldom said it. I would never force the words "I love you" from him, for to speak those words under any context but utmost sincerity is to speak obscenity.)
Sometimes we would walk across bridges and keep our hands on the rails and count to twenty silently in our heads, over and over until our fingertips slid off the railings and we were no longer over the water. When we were crossed, we would look up at the sky and number the clouds, qualify with digits the whiteness overhead and its shifting form with the wind. And sometimes we would rest beneath the trees and silently trace their leaves, their veins, in our minds with our eyes. So much was with our eyes and so much was counting, numbers were not words and we could understand them. Digits were letters to us, were letters to everybody who cannot have language to join them together. For he knew our language but he spoke it not, he spoke nothing of any sense. We counted. The leaves were real and so were the bridges and we counted everything we thought was real, and we shuddered in the perimeters of the things we thought were not.
Cobblestones in pavements were ours, as were the plastercracks in the ceiling and walls. Spiderwebbing through the window, cracks in the glass, dust in corners and the sweeping it would take to take them away. The shiny realness of windowpanes. Things nonverbal and things numerical. Things you could count and things you could say. These were ours. All of these were ours. We were their rulers. We had kingdoms.
He was shouting into that void one day and I thought I heard a sound, clanging from a distance, like a dish falling to the ground and breaking but as a bell like the kind that chime when angels earn their wings. I wondered if I was the angel, if I were to get my wings. But it was only an analogy, I recalled, and his shouts were wordless and strange and full of pale undertones and quiet-eyed fury.
We did dishes together and it was how we showed our mutual love, for the most mundane tasks say I love you more than anything else. Words are not as universal as the world would have you think. The world loves words for they come with no actions, but the smallest actions, the most natural, the ones that become natural — these are the things that show us who we truly are. And he in his nonverbal comprehension cleaned for me, cleaned with me, kept our house to show he cared about where we lived and that he cared for me, to take from me the tedious tasks and take them upon himself. A tiny sacrifice; those happen. They seem seldom sacrifices but when they are done to keep another from taking it on, they are the most admirable of tiny things.
He spoke a few times and words came out, and I listened to them, and while I knew not their forms or sounds, I knew their meaning. They came out in tones such as "I wish I had a different life but with you" and "I am poison to my own tongue" and "What color is the world?" Within him were placed questions; within others were placed answers. Within me were placed nothing but statements. Statements and observations and a need to put it all in words, and there was nothing else to be said for me.
There are numbers, I suppose, things to be counted. All the times we counted to twenty on the bridge. All the clouds we saw and gave numbers to. All the leaf-veins along which we ran our eyes and the trees stretching to what we knew was not infinity but that, according to our numbering system, would never end.
"The sky doesn't end," he said once underneath the green. "Nor the tree. Nor numbers."
"We're in love with the numbers," I said.
We said nothing but at the same time we both said, "We're in love with the infinite."
The void into which he spoke ate him one day, but it did so with the unceremonious clatter of dishes, breaking of teacups, shattered china on the floor and cracked hardwood which I never knew could break, but most of all his skull which had within it fire and speech and forever. It seemed it would never stop, what leaked from his brain and what I knew had to be his mind. It was infinite. It was numbers. I counted as I called for paramedics. I counted all the way to infinity. Twenty times twenty million times itself. So many numbers to count but I knew them all. They never ended.
I must never use the word "crazy" or "insane" or "psychotic" for they label people unduly and they stigmatize those who suffer. And they are not my words to use, anyway; I cannot reclaim a term that did not apply to me, much as you cannot fight back with stones that were thrown but not at you. But if I may say his wordlessness made him crazy, not for the fact of being without words but the reason speech was unavailable to him — I may say it was his insanity. I may say he survived it, I may say he survived the same. Trauma is a strange beast and it has a million wings and between each feather is a row of eyes. These eyes see everything and sometimes they allow the person's eyes to open, and sometimes they close the victim's eyes forever, and sometimes one finds eyes growing all over one's mind and seeing things, horrible and nostalgic, with the sense that every memory is a dagger and to see it would gouge one's flesh.
He could speak afterwards, waiting in the wings of trauma, but it was grating (as I'd expect) and full of fire (as I'd expect) and laced with metaphor and cyanide (what else could it be?)
"I'm glad your words have returned," I said.
"I only have words because my head cracked open and they poured out."
"I'm glad," I said again, "even though the reason's terrible."
"It's not your head that was split open."
That traumatization gave him a hundred million words to use and he said he missed the void but he said so in so many words that I wondered if the void had been teaching him all along. Numbers were still our refuge, the secret language in which we spoke. And we counted to twenty along bridges less, and we numbered the clouds fewer times, and the leaves' veins ran without hassle from us and our attempts at counting the offshoots. He was verbal. He made his words and they made him, and he allowed them to make him.
If my brain is made of fire, will I inherit the empty into which he started? I wondered, but my brain isn't made of fire and it is made of gray matter that will never know such eyes as his.
Trauma's wings beat a backdrift and reversed the way the wind blew, and it blew opposite onto his face. He went backwards and I loved him in ways he didn't have words for, I loved him in ways I began to lose words for, I loved him in ways where his silence became my own, and I could feel his love slipping away from me just as he found ways to describe it. I was slipping and maybe so was he but we were slipping in different directions, pulled by different gravities.
The realness of windowpanes lost its shine, loses it still. Cracks in plaster are a comfort but a cold one, he began to lose that. Places lost their meaning and he lost their meaning to them, and they could never replace it when they seeped away. I was sorry on bridges and sad for the clouds and the greenness of the leaves started to fade like a sepia photograph — a relic of memory but depressing when seen as the actual.
"I will never understand you," I told him as we were on a bridge. We walked not, we counted not. We looked into the water on opposite sides and we had begun with throwing in sticks and calling their numbers, but it grew old and the desire to see them float away became stale. "I will not understand what you do or why you do it."
"And I'll never understand you," he said in return. Snapped twigs had been his currency to the water. I had given my things whole.
No words happened. We knew through numbers. The numbers were one, two, the aforementioned sewn together, then a zero, no, a void, no, a nothing with no sense of void for it could have no sense of sense.
That bridge never mattered in the end, but I found him again speaking to the void, and he said nothing to it because he had never spoken to the void to begin with. How can you speak to a void when a void is incapable of speech? You cannot speak in its face. He was a liar when he told me he spoke into it, and I was a liar when I told myself he made words.
"Your face is full of lines," he told me. "This floor is my home. I am made of right, and you are made of everything. Words could only last for so long 'til they overwhelmed me with their meaning."
He was on the floor before I could catch him, because he had always been on the floor. Glassy eyes. Tongue out. White face and swollen lips. All a medical matter but I cared not for he had been like this all the time. He was just himself in a more obvious state.
The void wished it could be mine but I wished it away, and I wished understanding of him. But my brain is set afire every so often when I think of him, for I received his knowledge and I now know why one would never open one's mouth if every word one spoke were fire and I know now why one would never touch anyone if all skin were acid and I know how sensitivity can dull sense and I know why he never had any senses to begin with. His eyes were hollow and I wondered why. They saw every tiny thing. His mouth was still and I wondered why. He didn't have a mouth to move.
I understand. But I wish I didn't. The grating, ceaseless voice was his own and to say I heard it all the time is a lie, is a contradiction, is the exact nature of what I have told you so far, for all I have told is contradictions and semi-lies and metaphors. Metaphors are the work of confusion and they wreak such mischief on our language for their similarity to what they mean but their brutish distance from the same.
I did not love him for he had no mind. I did love him for I loved him without words.
There were no words for what he was or what he could say. All I could do was number it. A binary exists — one, and nothing. He was between that. He died to his words. I took him to the hospital again, but the hospital is a cold one-or-two and the world is a hospital for everybody.
Shiny windowpane. Spiderweb cracking of the ceiling. White and plaster. Uneven in texture, numbers to be found if you know how to make patterns. A human being can always find patterns when they aren't there. These things are alien to me now, where I am, where I would always be, but they were real then and they will always be real now. That is the hospital, that is the world.
I am in a hospital now. It is words, it is iron-wrought language. It murders me. Someday I shall speak and someday I shall be sane, for that word's opposite has been thrust upon me. I guess I loved enough to the point where I had to deny that love or suffer the consequences of the madness of the one by whom the love was induced. Trauma's wings are my own. All I have are eyes and sight. Numbers. His words and his life. My words. My life.
My words exist and they are burning coals because of what love I had or did not have.
Jude Conlee does not exist but has somehow still managed to create fiction and poetry, some of which is good and some of which gets published. Venues that have published this non-existent entity''s work include and/or, Grim Corps Magazine and otoliths.