Culture of Silence
~ W. T. Paterson
The bone broth simmered on the stove as the text from my sister Luna came through. He hit me, Riley. Again. Broke the necklace. I turned off the burner and opened the cupboard beneath the sink. Two packed duffle bags ready, our contingency plan, an escape route that never felt like a plan B, but rather something inevitable. We’d meet halfway in the Ozarks if I couldn’t talk her down, a cabin tucked deep in the woods away from my New England residence, and far from her adopted Christian, West Texas town.
Breathe, I wrote back. Suppress the urge to unleash.
Of course he hit her, the bastard of a husband had no idea, and weak men had an unyielding need to feel strong by attacking those who showed kindness. The weak have a certain self-proclaimed entitlement to fury endowed by their perceived laws of nature. A local Christian radio host with ten thousand daily listeners, my sister’s husband Gabe had a following that would blindly side with him should she ever come forward with allegations. That’s what scared me the most.
Outside, the day had maybe an hour of sunlight left before the autumn moon declared victory over the sky and I was no stranger to how the full moon brought out the worst in the world. Neighborhood cats mewled under porch steps with deep, guttural warnings. Dogs paced fenced-in yards with hair spiked down their spine. Treebound birds sang in furious prose only to fall as silent as a tomb.
People were no better. They drove like maniac heathens swerving between lanes, jamming on brakes, attempting to break the sound barrier with howling engines, and got into confrontations with total strangers over the most peculiar things. That morning, a neighbor had knocked on my door demanding that the stench from my basement be dealt with.
“Smelting,” I told the short, squat man. “A lost art.”
“Whatever it is, it stinks,” the man said. He thrust his arms and balled hands by his side like a toddler throwing a tantrum.
An old New England house with a stone and dirt basement, the previous owners were a family of jewelers from the 1800’s and had left behind their kiln, lead pans, and scales. Even though I used an exhaust fan modified into a dryer vent that connected to the furnace chimney, that heavy wet-dog scent fell back toward the earth like a cursed soul instead of up against the heavens into sainthood. I bought, sold, restored, and designed silver jewelry, same as my father.
“I’ll see what I can do,” I said, pinching my eyes. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a thin silver bracelet. “Take this. As an apology. Made it myself.”
The neighbor collected the bracelet in his palm with a side smirk.
“A man ain’t supposed to give another man jewelry ‘les they . . . you know. You one of them?”
“One of what?” I asked. I knew what the neighbor implied, weak men love to attempt emasculation, but they also crumbled under scrutiny. Watching him squirm held a certain satisfaction.
“It’s jus’ I ain’t seen women comin’ and goin,” he said.
“Then I’m like you,” I said, and the man’s bald head went as red as the leaves on the autumnal trees. “Single. Nasty divorce.”
What weak men don’t realize is that if you back someone into a corner that knows how to fight, they better take note of their exits. The divorce part wasn’t true, but true enough in that it shut the man up. After what happened with my parents, I doubted I’d ever get married.
My neighbor pocketed the bracelet and nodded his way down the steps.
Now as the sun set, I watched him through a window gather with his male friends around a firepit. Their guts pushed against their shirts as round as the moon, bottles of beer in hand, single malt whiskey being passed around, howling with laughter like the faux dog-men they were.
I’m done, Luna wrote. If there was an hour of daylight here, that meant she had two before a cover of darkness might better hide the damage.
What happened? I asked, not to uncover the source and imply that she might be somewhat to blame, but to bide time. If I could get her talking, I could cool her rabid heart.
He. Hit. Me. I’m done with this culture of silence. I speak up, they’ll say I deserved it and call me a bitch. I stay quiet, he thinks he’s right to do it again.
She got it from my mother, likened herself after the woman, that hot and cold polarity of emotion. Catch her right and she was the kindest, most loyal person on the planet. Cross her or her pups and she’d change into something unholy that made entire neighborhoods cower in fear.
One time, a boy pushed my sister down the twisty slide at the playground. She tumbled across the plastic bends as static shocks nipped at her exposed flesh. My mother leapt to her feet and grabbed the boy by the back of his neck demanding to know where his parents were. The kid pointed to a bench where a guy in untied boots and dirty jeans sipped from a paper bag. She marched over and gave the man the what-for so bad that he collected his son and booked it.
“Sometimes, you gotta show the world you have teeth,” our mother told us. We walked home under the canopy of fiery red leaves. It wasn’t the worst I’d ever seen her lash out, those times when our father packed us into a car to get away were once in a blue moon, but our mother’s sense of justice was a beast in and of itself. My sister had that same thing, that gene that made her snap and change into something feral. Only no one ever saw it really come out because it never had to. Our father was the counterbalance to add perspective because once home, the police showed up to ask questions. They brought my mother to the station.
“But that boy pushed ME,” my sister pleaded with my dad, her sad puppy-dog eyes brown and full.
“I know,” he sighed. “But when a woman shows the world she has teeth, scared men try to pull them from her mouth. There’s nothing more dangerous than scared men in power.”
Later, my mother came home. No charges pressed, but my parents argued with their door closed until the small hours of the morning. The next night, my mother wore a brand-new necklace that my father crafted. She needed to feel loved, and jewelry was her love language. It was like she was a different person with that necklace, calm to the stressors of life and care-free. Whatever had been brewing inside of her had been pacified with that necklace. It had been silenced. We never really spoke about it again.
And that boy and his father never once gave us any more trouble beyond hushed whispers in line at the grocer.
Sometimes silence has teeth of its own.
The men next door built their fire too large and gawked at the reaching flame. Their need to destroy and dominate the inanimate spoke to a deep-seeded insecurity of a time that could have been, never was, or falsely yet to come.
Bags are packed, I wrote. You say the word.
Fuck the bags, she wrote, and my heart thumped with dread. She meant business and inside of that small, Christian, West Texas town, there’d be hell to pay if she wasn’t careful.
But I guess that was kind of her point.
You don’t have to do anything, I wrote. Just leave.
You sound scared, she wrote. Stay quiet, no retribution, move on and pretend it’s all ok.
That’s not what I meant, and you know it, I wrote.
The night stalked forward swallowing the edges of daylight in its mighty teeth. The laughter of the men next door sounded like wild animals gathered around a carcass jawing and snapping at meaty bones. I pulled open the cupboard with my knee and looked at the packed duffle bags. I’d leave if I had to, but I really didn’t want to. After moving so much as kids, this two-story New England house finally had the feel of home, a place where Mom and Dad could visit and be proud.
If they ever came out of hiding, of course.
When my sister told me she’d met someone, I had natural reservations. Not just as a big brother, but real reservations about who this guy pretended to be. Outgoing, polished, and magnetic, he knew how to draw and maintain crowds. That radio voice was the salve to soothe the burns of the exhausted working class, but underneath was a small, terrified boy hiding in the shadows of the man he had become. It was something about the way he interacted with people and bullied them away under the guise of being helpful. Never fully present, never spending too much time with any one person, it was like he was afraid of anyone seeing the real him.
“So, Texas,” I said the first time we met. At a barbecue cooking salmon, chicken wings, and ribs, I stood next to the grill watching my sister catch the scent of cooking meats in her nose. Summer food made her the happiest. Gabe smiled his toothy grin and pushed a hand through his salon-quality hair.
“You know what they say about Texas,” he said and winked.
“What do they say?” I asked. I flipped the wings and ribs to let the sizzle of the fat roar like applause from a ballgame.
“You know,” he said and winked again. He nudged me with his elbow. “Everything’s bigger . . . doesn’t matter. Hey, would you mind getting me a fresh brew? One more sip and this bottle is dead.”
He put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed, then pointed to the plastic tub with ice and bottles along the fence in the backyard. I pulled down the grill cover and went to get him a drink. By the time I came back, he asked if the food was ready.
Luna met him at a charity event, one of those minor league baseball nights where a cut of the gate went to wildlife preservation. She got selected from the crowd to play the line drive challenge where people stood in the outfield as professional batters nailed balls toward the fence. Whoever caught the most won $100, plus a special shoutout in the charity’s monthly newsletter.
Luna loved minor league ballgames. The crack of the bat, the fast pitches, the constant game of catch, she was in her element near the field. When her name got pulled, she hustled to the bathroom to pee before making her way out onto the stretch of green.
The first two contestants didn’t catch anything. They both high tailed it from center field, to right, to left. The third got lucky and caught a looping fly ball, but when Luna took to the grass and loaded up on her haunches, she watched the batters and their fly balls with an almost obsessive focus. She caught every single line drive and I sat back thinking the jig was up.
Gabe, impressed by her performance, introduced himself and explained his status in that Christian, West Texas town before asking her on a date.
“You sure?” I asked her later that night after she explained how she had a good feeling about this one. Luna smiled and nodded.
“Everyone has a role, everyone has a place,” she said. Christian towns tended to let outsiders know real quick if they were welcome or not. Most often, they silently demanded that a person play their expected part and not deviate. Something about a man’s role and a woman’s place, a mindset stuck in a bygone era.
“And if he expects you to just . . . obey?” I asked.
“It can be satisfying knowing what someone wants, and then giving it to them,” Luna said, and I could see in her face that she’d made up her mind.
That night, I packed the plan B bags just to be safe.
Outside, the men around the fire pointed to the ground-level windows of my basement. My neighbor seemed to be explaining to them about the silver and gold I kept down there for smelting. He held up the bracelet and made an obscene, airy gesture with his hand and pranced around in a circle. His buddies laughed, but one of them asked to see the bracelet.
“It’s yours,” my neighbor said, and his friend slid the bracelet on. He admired it in the flickering light of the fire. The irony seemed lost on my neighbor.
The first time Gabe hit my sister, she told me at a local flea market while we waded through the aisles looking for trinkets and treasures. The sun-bleached wooden tables threatened splinters to the unaware. Vendors puffed at cigarettes and barked with promises that all prices were negotiable.
“Leave him,” I said. She’d come to visit for a week to let the dust settle.
“I can’t,” she said. “The community would hate me.”
“Who cares?” I said. I bent over and picked up an old pocket watch. It had stopped at 11:58. Two minutes to midnight, or midday.
“That’s $30,” the vendor said, an older woman with wrinkles so deep that they cast their own shadows.
“For tin?” I asked.
“That’s copper,” the woman said. I looked at the watch again. It wasn’t copper. It still maintained its shine, even though the date etched into the back read 1920.
“Copper oxidizes and turns green. Tin doesn’t. This is tin,” I said and put it back on the table. The woman picked up the watch and held it close to her eyes, then called out for her husband to come take a look. The tone in her voice lilted with betrayal.
“You’re so good at seeing things for what they are,” Luna said.
“Leave him,” I said again, and Luna pawed at me like I was playing.
“Let’s not talk about it anymore,” she said, and shoved everything down to that dark place inside of her that collected pain and guilt, that dark inner kiln that altered the physical makeup of everything locked within.
I should have listened, Luna wrote. Especially after what happened with Mom.
You’re not Mom, I wrote.
She passed on the bitch, Luna wrote.
Our parents left in the night when I was twenty and Luna was seventeen. Our mother had fallen into one of her moods after a drunk man assaulted her and the cops passed it off by saying the attacker was just drunk and fooling around, to let it go, that he never intended to hurt her. My mother’s bruised wrist and swollen cheek told a different story.
My father packed their stuff. He said we’d understand one day, that my sister and I needed to leave this place at dawn and change our names, but to not go outside before then, that it was my job to look after Luna. Though we followed his commands and sloshed through the bleeding streets lined with limbs at sunup, the pain of abandonment never healed.
When Luna left for Texas, I thought she’d be able to handle herself. I gave her a silver necklace fashioned from our mother’s old jewelry to double down, to let her know I cared. Love languages and such.
But with the necklace broken and tensions rising like the fur on a dog’s back, I felt only failure.
Call me, I wrote. My phone buzzed and I answered halfway through the first ring.
“I’m sorry to drag you into this,” Luna said, and my heart dropped.
“Be better than her,” I whispered, and through the receiver Luna whimpered.
“Weak men . . .” she said. “I’ll see you at the cabin.”
Over the phone, I heard the tearing of flesh and painful cries of a body in transformation. Luna grunted and coughed as I imagined thick fur tearing through tender skin. Outside, the darkness had settled, and the full moon stood victorious in the dark sky. Shadows had already begun to fall over that Christian, West Texas town that would never see morning. I heard panting, then the gruesome snapping of jaws.
She was her mother’s daughter alright.
As the call went dead, the men next door howled. They peeled off their shirts and swung them like helicopter blades above their heads, their back hair and chest hair patchy and thinning. Whatever they thought they were, they weren’t.
I grabbed the bags and dumped the bone broth down the sink. Steam rose and fogged the windows creating momentary privacy as I killed the lights, said goodbye to the house that had finally begun feeling like home, and escaped through the front door.
That culture of silence works both ways.
Along the twisting backroads of my small New England town, the moon pierced the tips of the trees to create shadows in the forest where, if I squinted and looked away, I could vaguely make out the shape of my mother and father waving goodbye.
W. T. Paterson is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of New Hampshire, and is a graduate of Second City Chicago. His work has appeared in over 90 publications worldwide including The Saturday Evening Post, The Forge Literary Magazine, The Delhousie Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and Fresh Ink. A semi-finalist in the Aura Estra short story contest, his work has also received notable accolades from Lycan Valley, North 2 South Press, and Lumberloft. He spends most nights yelling for his cat to “Get down from there!”
Visit his website at www.wtpaterson.com.