The doctors came in droves when Lily was three. White coats who smelled in a way that pricked the inside of her nose with needles and who made her wear heavy uncomfortable blue aprons. They put her inside a tiny room with a one-eyed monster that revolved its head around hers while the ground hummed so deeply she felt her own stomach quake with it.
Later, sitting in her mother’s lap, Lily watched one of the doctors move his lips the way her parents did. She read the lip patterns with a hot blade of envy rising in her chest, wondering what magic adults possessed that allowed them to understand each other. When Lily moved her lips in the same way, neither her mother nor father offered the slightest hint of recognition that Lily was understood. On the wall behind the doctor was a framed light that held a piece of black paper and a white glowing picture that looked like a small head with dark swirling shadows in the middle. After watching the doctor point at a whorl of gray on the picture and then Lily’s ear, she understood that the picture was of Lily herself. The doctor’s lips moved in a way she had never seen before, a new pattern and a new idea that she would come to know intimately. His lips stretched into an open line and she could see the tip of his tongue pressed to the roof of his mouth. When his tongue released, his upper teeth met his lower lip. The new word he spoke was one that would hinge onto Lily for her whole life; it was her identity: deaf.
* * *
At the age of four, Lily was introduced to a young, pretty woman named Miss Rachel. Miss Rachel had thick-framed rectangular glasses, blonde hair that was always tied back, and wore an assortment of colorful dresses with skirts that moved like thin curtains swaying in the wind.
On the first day, Miss Rachel handed Lily an apple and then took it away. She immediately started crying and Miss Rachel made a closed hand, pressing her index knuckle against her cheek, and pivoted her hand back and forth. At the same time, she mouthed the word Lily knew was apple—first an open and round mouth, next the lips met and a puff of air burst through to open the lips once more. Lily continued to weep and Miss Rachel showed her the apple this time. With her free hand, she performed the odd gesture again. And again. And again. Until Lily’s tears had long stopped and she began to watch the ritual with curiosity, and then finally mimicked the movement herself. Miss Rachel clapped and smiled brightly and nodded with fervor as she handed Lily the apple. This time, she did not take it away. It took all week for Lily to understand that this gesture also meant apple and that her hands had the power to telegraph her thoughts.
Language came easily. Lily supplanted lip patterns she knew for these new signs and gestures. The new arrangement of words and ideas to transmit a thought fell into place with repetition and constant communication. And now Lily could not stop; she signed every moment as thoughts collided into and stacked atop each other. Thoughts multiplied into layers and bloomed an orchard in her mind. Her mother joined in on these lessons; for the first time, Lily could convey her thoughts, wants, frustrations with her. Admittedly, her mother was slow to pick up the nuances. She thought she could simply replace signs for words in English rather than learn the signs as a new language with its own grammar. Lily’s father was notably absent during these sessions, exiling himself into the basement for stretches. Her mother occasionally rose and traveled down to the basement to chastise her father into keeping the noise of his guitars down, although she was the only one disturbed.
On one of her mother’s trips into the basement, Miss Rachel explained to Lily how she was special. She had Lily place her small hands on her neck as she spoke. It vibrated in much the same way that Lily’s did when she cried or screamed. And then Miss Rachel signed, The vibrations are sounds. Everything that can move can make a sound in some way. Most people’s ears can sense the vibrations and make sense of them. This is called hearing.
It was magic to Lily. She was transfixed by the mysticism of it. People could sense things without looking. People could tell what direction it came from. How far away. Lily brimmed with ugly jealousy. Not because of the sense itself, but because people could communicate without looking. She couldn’t imagine communicating with more than one person. When Lily signed to Miss Rachel, Miss Rachel became her whole world.
* * *
Every weekend, her father played his records and Lily positioned herself on the ground very near to the speakers. The sensations were thrilling—a magical confluence of vibrations, melding together in such odd and beautiful ways. The bass, in short staccatos, reverberated through the hollow of her spine and the harmony of all the treble instruments licked at her skin like a barrage of static shocks. She placed her tiny palms right against the fabric net of the speakers and felt the hums converge together, a dozen lines of sound melting into soup. She loved to feel music. She pressed her back up to the speakers sometimes, let the music under the chamber of her chest and watched as her father danced himself to the beat, swaying his hips and tapping his feet. He was a tall and thin man, short cropped brown hair, and limbs that were long and angular so that when he danced, there was always a sacred geometry mapped by his body.
* * *
When Lily was six, she learned that Miss Rachel was also a special educator at the elementary school and was to be her kindergarten teacher. Every child in Miss Rachel’s class was deaf. Two months into the school year, Miss Rachel signed to the class, I have a very special surprise for all of you. The next week, Lily’s class took a field trip to the zoo. At each pen she tried her hardest to lean over the railing in order to get as close as possible to each majestic creature. They passed birds of every color and size. There was a whole path walled by pens of bizarre hooved creatures to either side: camels whose hairy backs looked like mounds of hay and antelope crowned with spiraling horns and some strange beast Lily had never seen before that looked like a cross of ox, deer, and goat. The class walked along a high bridge suspended over a vast field of green where in the distance Lily could see the heads of giraffes nested on the canopies of their tree trunk necks. All the hooved animals smelled like the stuff the dog left behind in the lawn and the children began to sign to one another, You smell like a camel! They did this with each new animal and burst into fits of giggles. And, after an hour of walking and stopping and gawking, the class arrived at the primate pen where a family of gorillas was grooming each other quietly.
Lily leaned over the railing. The gorilla pen was rather large and contained in a black wire fence. Between the fence and the overlook railing, her body was now slung over a moat of running water that created a barrier between the two. She squinted in disbelief across the distance, trying to affirm what she thought she saw. Some of the gorillas were making signs with their hands. Now the other children leaned forward. They recognized it too. A dozen tiny heads turned to face a zookeeper dressed in a sand-colored uniform and a pith helmet. As he spoke, he signed. His hands told of the puzzle pieces of life called DNA and how the difference between human and ape was like taking a tiny fraction off only one puzzle piece. Lily marveled.
The zookeeper continued. He signed: A long time ago, scientists taught a couple of gorillas sign language. Remarkably, they learned it. It isn’t perfect, but you can make it out. If you have little brothers or sisters, it is a lot like signing to a three year old. They even teach it to their babies now. We try harder every year to increase their understanding. Just imagine what it would be like if humans could actually have conversations with the rest of the world. What would the animals tell us, do you think? That’s what the scientists do here: teach enough so that one day the gorillas might tell us how we’re doing with this whole ruling the world business.
Draping her body over the railing, her mouth hung open. When she looked back for her mother—who was chaperoning the trip—she could see her engaged in conversation with Miss Rachel.
Miss Rachel said, I always love coming here. It’s breathtaking. I can’t imagine what it’s like for the children, to see another species communicating in their native language.
Lily looked back to the apes. Yes, they were signing to each other! The big beast—the mother—was signing to her children, Come. Groom.
Lily leapt excitedly, wildly waving her hands. Hello! Hello!
One young gorilla, no bigger than she was, crawled up to the edge of the gorilla pen and gazed up at her from where the moat began. The gorilla responded, Hello human. Then it bared its teeth and fangs which shocked Lily before she calmed and realized it was smiling at her.
She signed, How are you?
Lily grinned so hard her face hurt. The young gorilla looked like a large infant. Its head was mostly bald; the black hair on its crown was a thin wiry patch of translucent tangles like the dust clouds Lily found underneath the couch. Its eyes were big, round, and surprisingly human-like. She had expected the glassy eyes of her dog, the dumb expression that revealed nothing but the simplest desires: food, play, joy. Even her mother had given the same vacant look before, as if someone had gone and scrubbed out the inside of her head. This most often happened at the doctor’s when the white coats were speaking to her mother for a long time in lip patterns Lily couldn’t recognize. Sometimes, she’d giggle and try to wake her mother up by tugging at a sleeve or a wisp of her hair or necklace. Then through some sudden sorcery, her mother’s eyes would reignite.
The gorilla signed back, Happy. Sign human big. No small.
Lily thought for a second, piecing together the fragmented ideas in her head. She was used to having to reorganize ideas. Before Miss Rachel taught her to sign, she often tried to communicate by combining and recombining lip patterns in different orders to see if her parents could understand better or even recognize her attempts at communication. Though her parents never even looked at her lips, Lily became remarkably good at puzzles. She decided that the gorilla was telling her it was happy to be signing with a child. The thought of the young gorilla’s loneliness saddened her until her classmates rushed the railing and a chorus of small hands gestured excitedly to the beasts.
The jaws of each gorilla split into smiles and open laughter. They raised their hands.
* * *
Every day, Lily’s father came home from work, sat on the couch and watched TV. Lily often scooted up to her father, climbed onto the brown leather couch and nested herself beside him. He always took a glance at her, curled his lips into a smile and then returned his attention to the television. If she slid herself too close to him, she noticed how he’d begin to lean his body away from her. Lily learned to sit precisely the length of her leg away from her father so that he’d be comfortable. She used to try to sign to him while he watched, hoping to catch his attention, but his gaze only fell to her momentarily. She felt a terrible shame in the way he would avoid looking at her, purposefully and unnaturally fixing his eyes straight ahead when he walked by.
Still, every weekend her father took her to the park. In the distance, two basketball courts took up half the park which Lily and her father always avoided. The young boys all gathered there in contest like gladiators. The other half of the park—their half—was an open field of grass, all green save for patches of sandy dirt freckling the ground. There was a playground in the corner of the field that called to Lily. She raced toward it every weekend, leaving her father on a bench. Her eyes absorbed its architecture. There were swing sets and seesaws and her favorite piece of equipment was a bright red jungle gym sprouting from the earth in a twisted knot of metal. Lily bounced on ground that looked like hard asphalt yet yielded beneath her feet in a strange rubbery way.
Sometimes her father took her into the grass and they threw a baseball between themselves. Most weekends, he sat on the bench and read business magazines when Lily made her dash toward the playground. She always climbed the jungle gym. Climbed and climbed. And when at last she reached the summit of the red tower, she sat across two bars, tiny legs dangling, and watched over the entire park. The bodies below were small and Lily felt a tremendous calm looking down over the park.
At first, Lily tried to play with other children in the park. They were welcoming enough, inviting her in when she noticed their lips moving at her. Eventually though, they stopped. She could see from her high tower perch their lips whispering comments about the weird girl who never spoke. They whispered and then they watched her and then they whispered some more. When they noticed her eyes from above, they turned their backs. Sometimes Lily avoided looking at their mouths. Sometimes she couldn’t help herself.
One day, her father ran into a friend of his. The strange man stole glances at Lily as he chatted with her father. She watched her father’s lips. He asked the man how he was doing, how the job was going, how the wife and kids were. The man asked all the same questions in return and her father gave his answers in single words: fine; great; good. As the strange man said his goodbyes, he tousled Lily’s hair, bending down to her level. With his fat purple chapped lips, he said, Adorable little girl you have here. Lily suddenly clung to her father’s leg and turned her head up. She read her father’s lips as he said, Oh yes. This is my daughter. She’ll be turning seven soon.
* * *
According to Miss Rachel, her father had asked why Lily sat by the speakers or played with his guitars. Miss Rachel explained how Lily loved the feel of the music and becoming part of the sound. After that day, Miss Rachel started staying later. She sat down with Lily’s father in the living room, speaking and signing and waiting for him to respond in sign.
It took a year for her father to become the least bit proficient. It was amusing to watch, to see his eyes glow hot with frustration when he failed. Lily was beginning to understand how fundamentally different their worlds were. As far as it mattered to her, sound was still magic, still a supernatural clairvoyant sense. She saw how dependent her father was on sound, how he needed it to organize his world.
Their first conversations were simple. At dinner, he asked how Lily’s food was. She replied, but he took the interim to begin eating. Lily had noticed this early with the hearing children at school: when they talked over food, they could take turns. One person spoke and the other ate. It seemed natural and effortless. Lily and her mother had sunk into a different rhythm. When they signed over dinner, it required both to take a break from eating to have a short exchange. Now Lily felt a sting of envy and hurt over her father’s inconsideration. She turned to her mother regretfully.
Her mother smiled warmly and pulled back the brunette hair that fell over her face. Lily smiled back. Her mother signed, How was your school day?
Good, replied Lily. The new teacher is having trouble teaching us to read though. I’m glad Miss Rachel still comes here.
Miss Rachel had told her that if she learned to read and write, other people would be able to understand her too. So she applied herself with diligence, studying the careful shapes of letters and how they interacted with one another to create ideas. She quickly realized that this undertaking would be her most difficult. As soon as she felt she had a grasp on a word, casting the text’s font into the folds of her mind, Lily would look away from the page and all the letters would dissolve into hills of black sand.
Her mother signed back, It must be hard. Words are in different orders than what you’re used to.
And Lily responded with mild offense: They come in the same way that people speak. I read lips all the time. I’m used to that, but not these shapes.
Her mother just didn’t get it. Miss Rachel had informed Lily that hearing children sounded words out when they learned to read. It was an alien idea. Lily understood that reading and writing were conventions made for the hearing. Written language was predicated on sound, but she was learning English as a set of pictograms, memorizing whole shapes to represent words and never learning how those words were built. She understood the lip patterns of letters and shapes, but little more. Years later, Lily would learn that children in China learned to read and write hanzi in much the same way—rout memorization of symbols—and it was not until then that she would feel less alone.
When Lily and her mother had conversations in the past, her father often sat silently. She could always see the perturbed glint in his eyes, the hidden snarl behind the flat line of his lips, the whole electric aura that radiated from his skin to hers in nasty bitter heat. It elated her when he started to learn sign. At last! Perhaps they would not be so alien to one another anymore.
She felt an ache of longing for her father. It seemed they were always so far apart, both mute in wholly different ways. She was used to the silence of her father, the detached manner of his parenting. She wasn’t terribly upset; she noticed too how her father didn’t speak much to her mother either, how they often passed each other by with sheepish smiles in the kitchen or in the hall, how her mother read in the bedroom upstairs and he watched TV downstairs. So Lily waited as he forked a bite into his mouth and signed again when he looked up. Immediately he stiffened and an embarrassed pink flushed his cheeks as he realized his folly. He set his fork down in a jerky hesitant movement. In reply, he signed, Sorry. Lily smiled, reassured that his slight was unintentional.
Her mother’s lips moved to say, Thank you for trying, dear.
Her father replied, I feel like an idiot.
Learning a whole new language is tough, said Lily’s mother. It’ll come. It was hard for me too. It still is.
Lily turned back to her food and ate. She let her parents recede from her world; she let them saunter casually back to their own without the intrusion of her gaze.
* * *
Her father took her to the zoo one day after weeks of begging and pleading. She wanted him to share this experience with her, to communicate freely across the barrier of species. She took his hand and led him to the gorilla pen. The young gorilla she had first signed with—named Hermes by the zookeepers—was engaged in a conversation with an older female gorilla. She signed, No game.
Hermes replied, Give food. The female repeated herself emphatically. It looked like Hermes was explaining himself: Game gorillas, food give.
Lily looked up at her father. She wondered if he even recognized the signs. When he squinted and leaned himself forward, she smiled. He signed to her, It’s just gibberish.
She shook her head. No, they just don’t know the right order. Lily began waving toward Hermes until she had his attention. She signed, Do you remember me? This is my father.
Hermes smiled and replied, Hello human-small. Hello human-big.
She nudged her father. She signed, Have a conversation. Ask him how he is.
Her father was stoic. He stared at Hermes who started signing something about crushed apples. Then he looked back down at Lily and signed, They can’t actually communicate. They’re just animals, Lily. They’re trained with a few words and that’s it.
She frowned. The gorillas could communicate. She looked over the pen and saw four separate conversations. But then Lily saw the railing, the chasm that had been dug out to create a moat of water and an impassable barrier between the humans and the gorillas. She felt herself floating in the moat, the great gulf built on a fraction of a puzzle piece. When she looked up at her father, she imagined a railing under his nose. He looked down at her and smiled and she felt dirty and feral under his gaze.
* * *
When Lily rushed down the stairs in the morning, turned the corner to cross through the living room into the kitchen, she saw her father on the couch, his body made a fat sausage beneath a blue blanket. She touched his face and he awoke with a start. He smiled. A yellow crust bridged over his eye, connected together his lashes until Lily plucked it away. Her father sat up, folded his arms around her, the blanket cocooning the pair together. Then he stood and Lily watched as his body rounded back the corner to the stairs from which she came.
At the breakfast table, Lily’s mother did not sign a greeting to her. There was just a pleasant smile, although it appeared drawn on her face because her eyes were not reacting to her lips. Lily normally felt her mother was beautiful, the way her eyes and hair were both richly chocolate. Today there was purple rubbed in beneath her eyes. She looked haggard. Her gaze never touched Lily again that morning—always, they were either on plates or silverware or food or the clock. When her father returned, dressed and groomed, Lily saw that neither set of lips moved. She saw the quick darting glances her parents stole of each other, the momentary diagonal line their mouths formed that telegraphed some sense of great frustration. Their bodies radiated a heat of quiet animosity which found form in Lily’s belly as a raw ache.
Lily discovered a new fact about sound at this breakfast table: silence was a punishment. She remembered the vibrations that channeled through the floorboards last night—she was learning to identify them by feel, force, duration. There were quick strong, rapid booms—a series of stomps like her father marching across the room. She placed her small hand upon the wall and felt mild buzzing akin to when she would hold a tin can to Miss Rachel’s mouth and have her sing into it. She went to her door, cracked it open, peeked through the hallway to see her parents’ bedroom open, the light on, her mother’s face flushed pink, wet with tears, and she was shouting. Her lips read, If you don’t love me anymore, why are you even here?
Now her father stepped into Lily’s view. He stared down her mother; it was the most menacing glare Lily had ever seen him wear. He spoke slowly, Why do you think? Then he turned toward the hallway. Her father threw the door shut as he left the room. The sound pulsed through the air with violence. It shook her bones.
* * *
Miss Rachel seemed to age in bursts. Each week the color rubbed beneath her eyes became more and more bruised. Hidden behind the frames of her eyeglasses was the attack of crow’s feet, visible only when Miss Rachel peeled the frames from her face to rub her eyes, leaving them raw and reddened. Lily felt her father’s outbursts of yelling, his pacing stomps, in chaotic vibrations through the floorboards. She could see how much Miss Rachel tried to help and her father’s failure to comprehend. One day, Lily peered into the living room to see her father openly sobbing. Miss Rachel hovered over him, smoothing her hand into his back. His lips said, I love her. I really do. This is just so hard. They always say, Stay together for the kids, right? That’s what we’re supposed to do, right?
That night, Miss Rachel stayed later than she ever had and Lily felt no stomping or yelling. In the morning before she left for school, she hugged her father’s waist. He knelt and met her eyes and his weeping came on suddenly, his eyes and his lips all pulled down and when he hugged Lily to his body, she felt his breathing as a series of jolting pops.
* * *
Her father went through waves. Some nights, he was social with her. He made honest attempts at communication. They’d play together. He’d turn up jazz records and she’d sit down by the speaker. As she felt the music run up through her spine, they chattered through sign over simple nonsense.
Her father signed, The dog bit me today.
Grinning, Lily asked, Really?
No, I just learned bite, he responded. She giggled, felt the hum of it in her throat, and saw her father smile.
And then, inexplicably and for stretches, her father grew distant, pretending Lily wasn’t there or—worse—simply not noticing. Lily did not know if she was the problem or if her mother was. Any interaction, like their weekend park trip, seemed forced and his affection feigned. She felt little more than an animal to her father, some half-aware creature he could placate by throwing a ball around. Lily saw it wearing on him: having to introduce her to his friends with a disclaimer. This is my deaf daughter, he told a woman once in the park. The woman blinked in shock, stiffened unnaturally, and then gave a sweeping and overdone show of sympathy. Lily hated the woman for it. When she looked back to her father, she saw how he had stitched a smile over his face. His words were superficially cheerful; his lips revealed a private calamity.
* * *
And then one day, he was gone. His drawers had been emptied. His toothbrush vanished. He left behind a scribble on a scrap of paper left on the kitchen table. For all of Lily’s progress in reading, she could only make sense of trivial words. I’m. Go. My. You. The. Miss Rachel, when she heard the news, showered Lily with sympathetic attention. Her mother lavished her with toys and treats—Oreos and peanut butter cups and ice cream sandwiches.
It didn’t stop the confusion.
Lily tried figure out this new order, but the pieces didn’t fit. They jarred inside her like bad cheese. She clung to memories of her father, retreating to the empty basement at night, sliding chairs across the floor so she could climb atop them and finger the padded hooks of the now barren wall mounts. Shadow outlines of guitars stained the walls. Each day, she returned home to find more and more relics of her phantom father receding from their home. The albums all vanished in a day, leaving square slots naked. It was unsettling to be able to see the wall so easily through the shelf. Her mother later placed banal ornaments in their place: snow globes, small picture frames, a tiny porcelain statue of a gorilla they had purchased on the zoo trip. It felt to Lily like blowing air into the spaces left by her father.
Miss Rachel continued to visit at least two evenings a week. Lily felt it was as much for herself as her mother. When Lily asked of her father, Miss Rachel only replied that he went away. Her mother wouldn’t reply at all.
* * *
She remembered her father’s distant days, his defeated posture in the park, his total ignorance of his own daughter. She wondered secretly how terrible a burden she was. One day at school, in the cafeteria where the children ate lunch, Lily had spotted a table of children all propped up with their knees on their seats, leaning their bodies hungrily over the table and passing a pair of dice between them. One child shook his fist into the air and dropped the dice. All the children then roared up, cocking their heads back with jaws agape in laughter. Lily approached and peered between the heads and shoulders of children. On the table was a board with an arrangement of colored squares. A number of the squares had tiny colored plastic pieces resting atop them and, at the board’s center, two thick decks of cards stood side-by-side like skyscrapers over the pieces.
Lily gently nestled her way between bodies, eager to join in their game. The boy across the table met her gaze. He asked, Who’s the girl?
A brunette girl beside him answered, I think she’s one of the deaf kids from the Special Hall. I’ve seen her around.
Lily thought that the kids kept chattering on about her, but she couldn’t move her eyes fast enough to catch anyone’s lips. She followed their eyes though, moving from one child to another. There was definitely a conversation. Finally, she saw the first boy say: Ignore her. She can watch all she wants. We don’t have to let her play. With that, another child launched the dice onto the board.
Lily turned away, withdrawing back to her table with her classmates where she felt some semblance of normal. She should have been used to it, the way the children in the park had come to exclude her. Today, she felt weak. Today, the weight of her isolation was crushing. Today, the world felt especially cruel, especially unfair, especially volatile.
Distraught, bewildered, Lily rushed home at the day’s end, sped up the stairs and into her room, waiting until the sun set and cast her room, the hall, the house in darker shades of blue. Waiting until she saw light bleed up the stairwell to tell her that her mother had finally returned home. And then Lily descended in a fury, tears streaming and hands frantic. A blur of fingers and knuckles and fists. Her mother hugged her and Lily drank in the scent of strawberry-melon shampoo, nestled her face into her mother’s shoulder and hair.
Later, after she had calmed, Lily signed, It will always be this way, won’t it? I’m a freak. And then she collapsed into a puddle on the carpet.
Her mother stroked Lily’s hair and mouthed in front of her eyes, You are incredibly special. Now she pulled away, held Lily by the shoulders and her face grew grave so that Lily knew to pay attention. She said, I want you to understand, Lily, that none of this is your fault.
But Lily was not so sure. For all of her ability to pick up a conversation from across the room, to read the buried twists and twitches of a person’s lips, there were things she could never hear or understand: how she cleaved the love between her mother and father in two; what dug the vast lacuna between her father and herself; how being human felt.
* * *
Weeks later, Miss Rachel took Lily back to the zoo. She wanted to see the gorillas again. Lily stood at the railing and gazed down over the beasts, watching their conversations. The gorillas signed in shards of words and ideas and metaphors that made her laugh breathlessly to herself. The younger apes signed upward to the humans on the overlook, trying desperately to be understood. Lily did not respond. Miss Rachel signed, You aren’t going to sign to the gorillas?
This caused the young apes to start signing more frantically. Lily stepped back from the railing so she couldn’t be seen. She smiled and shook her head. No, she signed.
She didn’t explain. She didn’t know the words to tell Miss Rachel why she had wanted to come here. Lily returned to watching the fragmented conversations of the animals. She wanted to experience the gulf between them. She imagined a future life: Lily, the adult; Lily, the scientist; Lily, the bridge between humanity and the rest of the world. Maybe someday, between her mother and father too. She imagined ripping away all the invisible railings in the world. She saw herself filling up that moat with dirt, mud, soil, and all the richness of the earth.