The rattle of machine gun rounds cracking words, the heft of laughter, rocketing shouts, drew her towards the living room. Focused on her, as though she was all that mattered. The patter of their indistinct talk drawing sharp edges in Joan’s chest. She was used to a craggy, off-beating heart.
Joan brushed the velvet touch fabric on her thigh.
She had changed from her work clothes after finding a choice of outfits in the hot press. The smooth material, warm and gentle was a baby pink as though not to offend. There were other choices available but thinking now she couldn’t remember what they were. She could picture their form in her mind, their shape, their purpose. Pants, blouses, skirts, sweatshirts folded and piled high on a rough cut wooden ledge. Dresses, some formal, some flowing and free, hung on a rail. She had memories of holding them up, her arm crooked so she could take in the whole of the garment but still examine the intricate detail of the small woven patterns. She knew they were fine pieces, detailed and rich, but of what those details were she had no clue. She couldn’t make herself know.
Walking down a window lined walkway she looked out but didn’t see what was there. She did know what she saw, or had seen, was fine and familiar, bright and clear, and of no concern other than it was reassuring. The sun was strong—although she didn’t believe she could imagine seeing it—with the glass to her right amplifying its warmth. This was a place of warmth.
She looked at her feet. The brown shoes she wore snug and soft. Open at the back they had just the right air of casualness that today felt like a Sunday morning’s indulgence away from presentations to others—powerpoints, power-stances, stand-ups, now sit down, ‘Thank you, Joan”— maybe it was a Monday morning when the whole world is at work and you’ve been freed by circumstance. It did not feel the Tuesday morning she last remembered it being.
She walked down the warm hallway.
From through the shuddering grate of close-by chat—always present—came a roar that focused on her. It was no danger.
Screaming towards her she became fully aware of it, beyond primal keening, and filling her breath. It was not a warning, or a pained cry, not even the bellows of attack. It was as though she too should perform a shout of truth, and strength, announcing herself, announcing and acknowledging her small presence. She couldn’t announce herself. The roar grew louder.
She pushed back the pine door she found herself before and walked into a room where men and women sat on thick grey couches wearing bright red faces, smiling and laughing after what must have been triumphs of release.
“Sit here,” a man said, looking up. His face was rough and beaten from years fighting back experience. The rawness it held offset by sharp colour in his eyes. Joan moved into the room as an inevitability she couldn’t dam. He shuffled a few inches to offer the corner seat on the sofa and welcomed her with a smile, then placed his hand surely back on his leg, and tucked his feet in.
Instead, Joan moved towards an armchair, made of the same roping grey material as the couch and sat herself down in a firm tangled pile. She looked back at the man, who had moved a little back into the space he’d made, and smiled. He glanced free of the chat enough to bear witness to her friendliness then returned his attention, with a deathly scowl, to a conversation Joan couldn’t hear despite being no further than a few meters away.
Joan looked around the room letting the conversation she hadn’t tuned into continue its way around her. It was no longer the firing of guns, instead it was the telling patois of people who were in love with their circumstance. A pit of hate boiled over in her stomach at their ease and her the opposite; she remembered her roar. She inspected the room so she could ignore their warped, unidentifiable laughs.
Above her was a skylight, greyed out, semi-opaque. It gave enough colour to tell her the sky must only be a clear bright blue. She didn’t think this room was filled with light. The light was definitely strong, coming from a fiery sun high in the sky she couldn’t see. The shadows were thin and short as to be invisible but the room wasn’t full with light. Instead it gave the appearance of emptiness, a not complete room. She felt abandon around preserved hearts, and despite the friendly clutter, soft furnishings, and troves of books lining high and solid shelves the room was empty.
The conversation reached a turning point. Instead of fractious chat the murmur began to follow a rhythm. Again she tried to piece together the running trail of conversation but listening to each voice, now becoming a single speaker, was an impossibility. She followed the eyes of those sitting in the circle to find the one who spoke. A woman’s lips moved. Not the woman who welcomed her to this house but a woman with furious red hair. Her lips formed open, closed and speckling phrases. Tongue licked teeth. Teeth cracked with chattering smacks. Despite this woman speaking with ambition and fulsome purpose of deep oratory Joan still couldn’t make out her words. She was certain the woman was clear, and it was clear she could not be heard.
Joan looked at the man who offered her space as she entered the room. He was now slowly rolling wads of body back into a portion of chair that felt like an invitation for her. Joan had not taken it and wondered if this craven individuality, her slight, and his following scowl—whether he scowled or not she didn’t know, just that she felt it—had damned her. She trained her eyes around all that had filled the room still empty despite everything within.
Whatever the red hair woman was saying it had captured the attention of everyone sitting down. She was speaking words, sentences, thoughts and rights, as no-one else’s face showed signs of confusion. Some nodded. A thin man, with brown skin, short grey beard and grey hair cropped up to baldness crossed his legs, folded his hands on his knee and tilted his head as though a slow realisation was gently forming a fight within to interrupt and have its say. Joan was sure it would be welcomed by them and not by her.
He spoke, and Joan thought she heard some words, a gentle laugh, “Haha, you’re ready to die.”
It was obvious they were talking but Joan could not hear in any clarity. She didn’t hear them, she knew them. She did not hear the words of death but was sure they were said. What language they were speaking was a mystery. Even these sounds she heard, if made of constituent elements of a human language, escaped her. It was not only death escaping her, but the taunt of death.
She sat back. She rubbed her hand against her knee. She felt at ease. She hated herself for it, feeling the relief of comfort despite a seeming threat. Her clothes, never worn or even inspected by another as evidenced by the plastic wrapping she escaped it from, these light pink sweats new to her, as she was new to this place, brought a calm in their thick softness that sent her sinking into her chair.
Studying the language these people engaged in for highs and lows, barks and breaks, brought her to no new understanding. Whether a cracking heng was good or bad, a snapping lul meant hope or fear, or whether a lazy shh contorted with its counterpart sounds was adjective, verb or noun she didn’t know. Joan halted, and care for order escaped her as she gave in to undeserved relaxation as much as the cushion of her seat. The words were a bath, a second skin, their meaning irrelevant.
The light blasting from above that was just moments ago so broad and full came the steady hum of twilight that seemed forever but she knew should be temporary, as all twilights were two opposing forces come to meet, then depart, and this the fallowing of their never begun fight.
She felt herself rise from comfort. “I thought it was the middle of the day,” she said. She had to say. The scattered language they spoke around her showed no sign of change, not slowing in recognition or stopping to bring either a considered or hasty response. No tell of a sideways shush, no cry in anger, no smile of care. She didn’t know if she even spoke. She pushed her thoughts to her lips to see if they bore signs of movement. They were closed and she became aware of their fullness. She licked at them, smooth and yet cracked, and pulled them back as though to bite on their outer, soft flesh. She inhaled a deep strong breath.
Looking again she saw there were no lights, here. No lamp or bulb. But then no-one was turning to look for a light but her, and no-one stood to find something to brighten their way. Their faces were bright and Joan’s light a faint glimmer.
“It’s going to get dark,” Joan said. “We’ll be sitting in darkness,” as though these people didn’t understand the biology of vision. They didn’t pay her statement any credence, as though she was not there.
Joan stood. The floor was cold and harsh and despite the soft shoes she wore she felt as though she walked across a glacial floe beneath stone and not the rich hardwood flooring it was. The muscles in her chest began to tighten and with it came the anger at where she was. Where she didn’t know she was. Why she came to this place that promised goodness and so far delivered only isolation and comfort with hate at her place.
Building up inside the anger was an impetus. She tracked each face as though to find the one she could express it to. A face filled with pity could work out for her decision. Pity at themselves for not quietening the room to hear Joan speak.
Better, she tried to find a spark of tolerance, to which she could call. She thought she would demand. She needed to find so she searched for
A face filled with righteousness. As though only their words, their look, their grace could acknowledge the simple truth that this was not a place for everyone.
Or fleshy cheeks warming with their nearby eyes that would laugh with Joan and admit all this was absurd. Admit that they, too, had no clue what was being said.
Or the tight crossed legs that formed foundations for an arm that stretched to fingers that massaged a forehead bowed to migraine and wondering why this was at it was.
Or hand or hands formed into fists, that would surely strike with Joan when she screamed her power in her core.
Why was this the way it should be?
Joan inhaled a breath as though her first and readied herself to scream and demand an answer.
They all laughed. And stood.
So Joan laughed too, a small feeble laugh but feeling she had to. “You probably want to know why we’re here?” The grey haired man said.
They saw her. Acknowledged the depths of her feeling. Her presence now somehow known, her readiness to action made tangible, her desires understood and so welcome.
“But first we should eat.” And he smiled as one person made their way towards the door, followed by another, and then the rest in a disorderly trail. Joan realised she was hungry. For answers, yes, although she knew she’d had all those answers when she first entered this house but also for good food, and cheer, and company.