Sibley set dinner in front of the nursery children, beef stew and thick slices of bread from which they could pluck the carrots and soft middles respectively.
Naughty children, she signed to them as she took her seat at the head of the table and spread her napkin over her lap. A chorus of waving hands answered her, fingers rippling in silent laughter. What will Silversack think when he arrives to carrots instead of cookies?
The kitchen door banged open and Sibley alone turned toward the sound, looking at the widow Nek who entered on a gust of cool wind. Her cheeks were flushed with color, snow melting against her temples. Sibley smiled at the woman who had raised her, but Nek was in no mood for niceties.
The lodger is here, in his room, Nek signed.
Sibley pushed back from the table, turning over the salt cellar. Her napkin fell to the floor where the ginger cat pounced upon it. Joni dipped her licked fingers into the spilled salt before she righted the cellar.
Locked himself in! Nek signed while she paced, the abrupt turn of her body placing gaps within her dialogue, but Sibley understood well enough. Silversack was here and rather than go straight to the town square as he had done for the past seven years he had taken to Sibley’s parson’s room, where he normally lodged and–
–locked! My candles are going to waste. Nek’s hands cut sharp angles through the air. She normally spoke with reserve, her hands rounded and slow, but tonight she could not disguise her anger.
Sibley pictured the town square illuminated with a year’s worth of golden beeswax candles, each made by the widow, waiting for Silversack. When Sibley signed to Nek, she was mindful of the children who watched the scene with widened eyes, having abandoned both stew and bread, even the soft buttered middles.
I will speak with him, Sibley signed. If something was wrong, she would try to fix it. She couldn’t stand the idea of disappointing the children, of their seasonal hopes written in careful letters, bound with ribbons and set into the letter-carrier’s basket, going unacknowledged.
For the first time in the seven years of his coming, Sibley had sent her own wish, as heartfelt as any the children had written.
Joni pulled on Sibley’s sleeve. Has Silversack come?
Her small hands moved more precisely than they ever had and Sibley smiled. After months of long therapy Joni could now make herself understood, despite the broken fingers she had suffered a year ago. Last wintertide, Silversack brought her a game of cords and ribbons, which helped strengthen her fingers as well.
No, Sibley signed carefully. Just an old friend. Would Silversack lodge here? She wriggled her fingers in laughter against Joni’s cheeks. Eat your carrots and he may yet come.
Entrusting the children to Nek, Sibley left the kitchen, drawing her coat from the peg beside the door before stepping into the snowy night. She pulled the coat on and looked down the length of the long covered porch.
What had changed that Silversack would seek solace rather than those who gathered to see him? He would know they were waiting. Every year, the town looked forward to his arrival at the turn of wintertide, when the days were once again more bright than dark.
Sibley knocked on the door and when there came no answer, feared that he had gone when no one was looking. He went to the great cities when he was not in their company, places of sound and spoken conversation. He had told them of such places, but Sibley could only imagine them.
She tried the doorknob. It didn’t move and she felt a great relief. He was still inside then–unless he had tried the window. Sibley peered around the corner of the house to check the window.
She straightened and managed a smile for Silversack who stood in the doorway of the parson’s room. Tall, his hair damp from snow, he still wore his gray coat, but it was unbuttoned, red scarf in a tangle at his throat. The children had knit him the scarf, each taking a turn, each producing a length of wool unlike the one before it. He wore it every year.
“You thought I went out the window,” he said. He didn’t return Sibley’s smile. His face was more stern than Sibley could ever remember seeing it. His eyes, the color of toasted nuts, appeared even darker tonight.
Sibley blushed. I’ve known many children who prefer windows to doors when it comes to leaving a room. Not that you’re a child by any means–
She felt absurd and gratitude flooded her when Silversack stilled her hands by covering them with his own. He was warm and smelled like the fire beyond the door.
“Come inside,” he said.
It was a simple room, with a narrow bed, a small table with chair, a chest of drawers. Sibley let it to travelers throughout the year for enough coin to ensure the children had a surprise or two during their time with her. The town elders would pay her for Silversack’s time when he left; no one ever suggested that he pay–they were all too fearful that he and his sack would not return the following year.
This was the first year Sibley shared that fear.
He sat on the bed and clasped his hands before him. Sibley longed to hear him speak again. When he had first arrived, lost in a storm, the idea that a speaking people existed astonished her. His voice was a miracle, a sound she had only dreamed before. The cities were full of such people, he told her. Sibley could not believe it, even though Nek had mentioned the distant cities to her. Visitors to the village were rare, but it always seemed to Sibley that none of them spoke. None before Silversack.
That first day, Sibley made him speak until he begged off, said his voice was tired, but the next day he’d sung a song for her, and the day after, and the day after.
“My name is Camden Druce,” he said. “Not Silversack.”
The tone in his voice made Sibley withdraw. In her years of knowing him, she had learned how his voice had tones, as the river had tones; quick and merry or slow and grim. He was the half-frozen river now, hard and strange.
“I never wanted to be that–never meant it.”
Sibley went to the table with its chair and sat. His sack sat in the center of the table, drawn shut, packed with less than it had held in years prior. The idea that it could possibly contain Sibley’s own wintertide wish abandoned her.
It was folly all along, she decided. How foolish she had been to wish for such a thing, to speak the way Silversack– The way Camden Druce did. His sack did not hold a voice for her, nor picture books for Laci, nor glass marbles for Toma.
“It was your letter, Sibley.”
She looked across the room at him, his face a dance of shadow and light from the fire. He peeled his coat off and left it on the bed, to join Sibley at the table. He loosened the bag strings and pulled the mouth of it wide. He dumped the insides out, scattering clothing, letters, small bottles, and loose coins over the table. No wishes. He picked up one letter.
Sibley recognized the paper as her own, handmade by Nek when her hands didn’t bother her. Sibley didn’t want to hear Camden’s voice shape the words she had written, didn’t want the absurdity of her wish spoken aloud in this room or any other. She lunged across the table, catching the edge of the page. It ripped as Camden pulled backward.
“It doesn’t matter. I’ve memorized it,” he said, and still spread the torn and wrinkled page upon the table. “It was this letter that proved to me I couldn’t do this any more.” His blunt fingers smoothed the page down. “Gifting children with toys is one thing, but to give a young woman a voice is something I cannot do. I never meant to give you that hope.”
Sibley closed her eyes, feeling a great breath leave her. When Camden’s warm hand covered hers, she kept her eyes shut for a moment longer, wanting to believe as a child might that this was all a dream, a terrible one at that, and that soon she would wake. She would find Silversack with the children in the square, gifting them with kindness, lifting little Tola in his arms to dance.
When at last she did look at him, he looked older and more tired than she had ever remembered; as old and tired as she felt tonight, cold seeping into her bones as it never had before.
Sibley withdrew her hand so she could sign. A foolish wish.
“Never that.” Camden shook his head. The end of his scarf slipped loose with the motion, tumbling to the table where it covered Sibley’s written words. “It came from your heart and I knew I couldn’t lie to you–you of all people. I am not anything special, Sibley. You have taken me in believing it to be true, but I’m just a man. A traveling man who one year amused some children and thought to do it again the next.”
Camden took her hand in his and pressed it against his chest. There, Sibley felt the warmth of him, and the pounding of his heart, much as any man’s, steady and true.
“I have something to ask of you this year,” he said.
Sibley had no idea what she might give him, but nodded.
“You seek a voice, but I seek the silence of this place. I would like to live here, Sibley, among you and your people.”
What made him seek their silence, she wondered. Was it the thing that made him shelter within these walls when he would normally be celebrating with all the town in the square?
The elders would never turn this man away, she knew. They would never say no to someone who had given them all so much. Sibley stood, feeling the keen need to leave this room. It was too warm and Camden was too strange by half. The heart of a man perhaps, but not the man she had known these past years.
I will speak with them, of course, she signed and Camden smiled.
“Thank you, Sibley.” He said it and signed it at the same time. It did Sibley good to see his hands make the familiar motion.
Sibley left and stood for a long time outside the closed door. She twisted her thin coat in her hands and stared ahead of her. Why would a man who could speak in such beautiful tones wish the silence of her people? Sibley watched the snow softly falling and heard the distant whicker of a horse, and could make no sense of the request.
Still, she had to tell them.
Sibley returned to the kitchen, to find that Nek had somehow convinced the children to eat their carrots. The children applauded themselves and pointed with great enthusiasm at Mit’s mouth, open and full of half-chewed carrots. Sibley shook her head. Mit closed his mouth and continued to chew.
Shall we walk to the square? Nek asked Sibley.
Sibley shook her head and said nothing.
The meal was slow and when finished, Sibley bundled the children in their boots and coats. Not even gloves could hide the excitement of their hands, flying in a rapid conversation that Sibley didn’t fully grasp. She shooed them out the door as their parents arrived to collect them and promised she would be there soon.
Nek caught Sibley by the arm and pulled her back inside when the last child had gone.
You have sent them to an empty square, haven’t you?
Sibley made an attempt to walk past and begin clearing the table, but Nek sidestepped in front of her. Not empty.
But no Silversack. You tell me–what has happened? Is he unwell?
Dodging her foster mother’s questions would only prolong the agony of the truth. Sibley shook her head. His name is not Silversack and there are no gifts. His name is Camden Druce and he wishes to live with us. Sibley paused before adding, I must speak with Elder Bret.
Nek’s shoulders slumped and she took a step backward. Sibley caught her before she tumbled into the dinner dishes.
On returning home, she found a small gathering of people on her porch, each one of them quite curious as to what the elders meant to do with this man, this gift-giver, who wanted to settle among them. Sibley waved for silence.
Leave him be, she signed and tried to push her way through, but they would not let her pass.
Sibley, we have only ever taken one other person in–
Sibley bristled at Habon’s reminder, but Ayl’s hand on Sibley’s arm calmed her.
Sibley was but a child, what could we have done, leave her in the ravine? Ayl asked.
–he is so unlike us–
Everything will change. Has he explained his reasons, Sibley? Why would such a man stay here?
We do not want him here!
Is he guilty of a crime?
The last had never occurred to Sibley and she couldn’t allow herself to believe it now, not after having seen Camden’s face.
What upset them, Sibley wondered; was it the idea of a speaker living among them, or that they had lost an icon to the children? The children would learn that Silversack was a ordinary man, and life would no longer be so magical. As much as she wanted to tell them that life would not change, there was no denying that it always did.
He has been given the Lun place, Sibley signed, and would no doubt appreciate time to settle in before you overwhelm him with requests–
Goss took offense at Sibley’s words. We would do no such–
His wife nudged him. You know you would, Goss.
Sibley left them to their bickering, stepping into the house and closing the door behind her. Nek was seated by the fire in the kitchen, Camden handing her a spool of thread for her darning. Sibley watched them from the doorway, hidden in shadows, listening to Camden’s smooth voice as he told Nek how pleased he was at the prospect of settling here. Nek said nothing, her hands filled with mending, but her brow was narrowed, angry.
“Sibley. Did you speak with Elder Bret?” Camden signed and spoke both, allowing Nek access to their conversation.
Sibley nodded. He has granted your request, Camden. I am to take you to your new house.
“Shall we go now?” Camden picked up Sibley’s coat and hand, and cast a glance over his shoulder. Nek had not moved from the fireside, nor did she set her mending aside to greet Sibley. “I’m not certain Nek wants me here.” He signed even this, but garnered no reaction from Nek.
Nek is cross with you, Sibley allowed as they made their way through the town toward the Lun house. You cost her a good many candles.
“Easily compensated,” Camden said.
She works an entire year on those candles.
“Another reason to let the charade die,” Camden said. “I never intended for anyone to go out of their way.”
And we never intended to become so attached.
Sibley nodded to those they passed. Everyone seemed to watch them as they made their way, the adults more than the children. She breathed a little easier by the time they reached the Lun house and was able to close the door on those few who had deigned to follow them so far.
Sibley didn’t know what to do with Camden now. See him settled, Bret had said, but Camden knew their town already. He knew where the market was, and no doubt knew how to make his own bed up. He was no child in need of a caretaker such as herself.
The Lun house was filled with furniture, draped with cloths to save them from dust. Camden pulled one of these free to reveal a cabinet filled with pottery dishes.
“What happened to them?”
Their carriage overturned and they were thrown down the hillside. They could not summon help–could not call out. Sibley frowned. Elder Bret found them a week or so later.
“Ah, Sibley, that’s terrible. Have they any family left?”
That was the end of them.
Sibley opened Camden’s sack and withdrew what little clothing he had brought. Everything looked like it had been hastily gathered.
Did you leave in a hurry?
–until once again their paths crossed.
So had Silverwood changed him, browning his skin, strengthening his hands, putting thoughts other than beautiful women into his head, Rhona now took interest and welcomed him into her home where she said “paint these lips.”
Rhona thus became patron and lover both, but as the seasons turned, Camden felt the tug of his home, and he left Silverwood and Rhona and everything he had learned of them both. Headed straight home and spent a winter there, until once more spring’s warming breezes called to him and made him crave the touch of salt water on his skin. He gathered his supplies and a small paper heart that he had painted for Rhona, golden and so bright it seemed a fragment of the sun itself.
Once more, Camden set himself upon the well-worn road between the towns, but winter was not yet done; it was false spring who led him far from home. He was forced into the deep forest where a young woman found him and guided him into her village.
It was a village he had heard stories of, the place his parents told him the silent folk left the cities for. Even now they continued to go, seeking the silence of their own kind.
Camden gifted her with the painted heart and this young woman’s face brightened so that Camden didn’t mind losing Rhona’s present. Something in this girl spoke to him, something he was at a loss to explain to Rhona once he reached her.
Year after year, Camden left Goldleaf before wintertide, to make his way to the village, and learned the silent conversation the people made with their hands. He had no idea the impact he had on the inhabitants until he received a letter from a young woman, asking him to gift her with a voice.
She nodded and crossed to the door and as she reached for the knob, Camden cleared his throat. Sibley looked back at him.
He signed the name, his left hand curving into a cup while his right hand balanced it. It was the first thing she had ever taught him to sign. It made Sibley’s breath catch unevenly in her throat.
Sign my name.
Sibley signed his name, her flat right hand covering the stone of her left. Camden. How similar a motion, she thought.
If he meant to say more, he left it unspoken now. He turned to his cleaning and Sibley slipped out the door, into the graying afternoon.
Sibley didn’t want to see Camden’s work; didn’t want to know him any more than she already did. Someday he would leave, she reminded herself. He was a lodger, transient. As he had left Rhona and Silverwood, someday he would leave this village, too.
But Camden worked the wood boxes open with a small hammer, prying the nails loose to toss them into a small pot. Sibley chewed on her bottom lip, jumping as Camden pulled the first side of wood away.
She found herself looking at a foreign, yet familiar sky, a clear blue she had never before seen. The sky seemed fragile, framed on one edge with fluttering, silvered leaves, until it solidified across the clouded horizon, in shades of gold and orange.
What were the words that would describe how Sibley felt at the sight of this image? She did not know them in any language, could not even say them with her hands.
“Sunrise in Silverwood,” Camden said. “What do you think?” He stepped back to look at it, crossing his arms over his chest. “Sibley?”
Sibley turned from Camden and his art and fled the porch. She ran into the firs that covered the property, cresting a small hill that overlooked the river. Ice still clung to the banks, the water having carved a sure path down the middle.
She heard Camden come through the trees behind her, boughs whispering as he stepped into the small clearing. He lay a hand on her shoulder and squeezed.
“Are you all right?”
She turned, her hands angry in the air between them. Why could you not bring me a voice? Why? She pushed him away from her, slapping his hands back when he tried to hold her.
Sibley felt the tears and she turned before Camden could see them. She fled up the riverbank, through thickening trees, until she could run no more. She fell to the damp ground, curled her hands into the ground, and heard the ragged sobs that poured from her mouth. She pressed her hands over her face and heard a low moan. She saw no animal in the trees and heard this moan again and took it for her own. She rocked, back and forth, training the moan into a hum, feeling the vibration of her throat under her dirty fingers.
Begged with her voice and not her hands.
Late at night, she would curl under the blankets and hum to herself, and feel the strange motion her throat made when she did it. Other times, she would lay with her head on Brother’s stomach, and his head on their Sister’s, and Sister would laugh, and Brother would laugh, and Sibley would laugh.
And it was a sound that was all too fleeting, because when they all died in a tumbling carriage–all except Sibley who was found some days later–there was nothing more to laugh about.
He lifted a small bottle, one Sibley recognized from his shelf. “You are convinced I can give you a voice. Drink it.”
She took a glass of the brew every time they were together, and if her schedule did not allow it, she found a small bottle of the potion waiting outside her door at the end of her day. It wasn’t what she expected–but then she didn’t know what she had expected when she asked Camden to give her a voice. How did one give a voice?
Winter slipped into spring and spring into summer and still Sibley had no voice. Maybe it could not be gifted.
She would often catch herself humming as she worked and the children would press their fingers against her throat to feel the vibrations there. They would laugh with their hands, waving and silent, so silent Sibley could not stand it, for she had begun to remember real laughter.
She tried to make this sound as she walked alone up the riverbank, through the firs and a rain that had fallen off to a gentle mist, but could not. She closed her eyes and remembered the laughter in the carriage–and the shriek of the horses as they rounded a blind curve and encountered two more horses. Tangled, shrieking–
Sibley opened her eyes to a real shriek. The river before her was storm-swollen, angry and lashing, and Camden flailed within the riot. He tumbled over once and twice, struggling to make his way to the shore. As he made progress, the water slapped him back and over and under, until he hit a downed tree, and went under once and for all.
Sibley stumbled down the bank and leapt into the waters, letting them carry her toward the tree and Camden. She grabbed the tree and the water sucked her under, swirling and blinding. But amid the chaos, Sibley found Camden’s paint-stained hand, and she dragged him toward the tree. She wrapped his arms around her, and her own arms around the trunk, and together they held on until they could carefully make their way to the bank.
Camden? Sibley turned him on his side. He spluttered water, but was breathing, and somehow smiling.
“I was painting,” he said, “and the bank gave way.” He closed his eyes and rested his head on the muddy ground. “The bank gave way.”
Stupid to be out in this weather! she chided.
“You’re one to talk,” Camden said with a laugh. His muddy hand fumbled with hers. “You spoke, Sibley.”
Sibley twisted away, angry with him; angry that he could have been so easily swept away. Stop it–
“Don’t sign.” He clasped her hands within his own. “Speak to me, with your mouth.”
Sibley shook her head, resisting his hold. She turned out of his arms, took two steps away, and slipped on the muddy bank. Camden gently set her upright.
“You spoke my name.”
Sibley wanted to cry or scream–and scream she did, lifting a voice she had never heard into the trees around them.
“Beautiful,” Camden said when she had finished.
“Cam-den,” she whispered.
He smoothed his muddy hand over her already muddy cheek. “Yes?”
Her throat was raw, in need of some of Camden’s drink. Instead, he softly placed his mouth against hers, sending a jolt through her. Your potion worked, she signed against his chest.
“Is that what it was?” he asked softly. He brushed the strands of hair from her temple and heck, down her back in a muddy trail.
“W-what else?” she asked.
Perhaps this was how the people of the village spoke, was his second to last thought. His last thought was oh my littlest daughter has lived and how she cries.
“She taught you to sign.” Camden came up beside Sibley and gently touched her shoulder. “I saw you when you looked at my painting. Some part of you remembers that sky.”
She looked back at Camden, unable to deny his words, nor the fact that she was different from the people of the village.
“The people here cannot hear, Sibley. I remember you, even from my first year. You responded to sound when I saw no others who did. You would react to my voice, when the others would not.”
I cannot remember living anywhere else, she signed and sank to sit on the muddy bank.
Camden lowered himself to sit beside her. “Nek said you were quite young. As little as Mit now.”
Four or five winters old, then, she thought. Sibley worried the wet hem of her skirt between her fingers.
He is so unlike us.
Everything will change.
The villager’s words cluttered Sibley’s thoughts.
Tell no one of this. Sibley gathered her skirts to stand. She walked away from the river, from Camden, and he let her go.
“Nek!” she cried and then remembered Nek could not hear.
Nek sat at the fire, working on the basket of mending. The ginger cat pounced on a strand of thread as Sibley rounded her and placed the vegetable basket aside.
“W-where is Cam-den?” Sibley spoke the words aloud even as she signed them.
The color seemed to drain from Nek’s face. Nek said nothing; she clutched the mending against her chest. Sibley saw Camden’s stack of canvasses stacked neatly beside the fireplace, faces turned to the wall.
“He was here,” she said and signed. “Tell me where he’s gone.”
Nek shook her head and squeezed her eyes shut. She dropped the mending to sign I knew his coming would make you speak, make you leave!
Sibley crouched before the only mother she could remember. Tears gleamed on Nek’s wrinkled cheeks, bright in the firelight.
Nek’s gray hair shivered around her face with the shaking of her head. Do you know how I dreaded wintertide? Hated every time you sat down with the children to write their letters. Every year, knowing you might remember to speak when he came. I watched you with him, now and then. Sibley, my child.
Sibley recalled the moment she realized, as a small child, that Nek could not hear the sounds around them. Did not know the call of the birds as the sun touched the tops of the trees, or the burble of the river as it slid over rocks. Sibley asked why; why didn’t Nek know these things, and Nek said that they were for a child to know, not an old woman.
After years of study, Nek could read Camden’s lips, but she could not hear the voice Sibley had come to cherish. Sibley wished Nek could. Wished, too, that Nek could hear the sound of her own hands in Sibley’s mind; the flutter of spring leaves, the scamper of mice in underbrush.
Do you know the road from this place?
Only so far as the curve where you were found. Nek sniffled and Sibley fished a handkerchief from her pocket.
Camden tells me stories of it. It runs in both directions–it comes and it goes. She winked at Nek. So see, I can come back, Sibley signed. I will come back–but now, I need to follow Camden.
He has gone to Silverwood, and you never followed anyone, Nek signed and withdrew a small envelope from her mending basket. Go your own way, child.
Sibley opened the envelope to read: if I had your voice, you have had my heart.
Sibley moved as only the young can move, swiftly and with ease. She gathered what she needed to, kissed Nek’s cheek, and didn’t worry what the next morning would mean, when the children came and she was not there. Nek would be there; Nek would explain.
(She would explain like this: that Sibley had found the thing she looked for every wintertide–her true voice carried in a slim bottle next to a man’s ribs. And better yet, the courage to use it. Nek would say that Silversack too had found what he dreamed of, what kept him on the road these many years: the young woman who stole into his dreams even when he slept with Rhona in Silverwood; guided him out of the stormy woods and into a place of warmth.)
Sibley hurried down the village road, and didn’t even pause on the easternmost edge; she kept going, and seemed to know her way, even though her feet had never touched this path.
She ran until she gasped for breath, until she noticed a shadowed figure ahead of her, perched atop a boulder. The tail of a red scarf lifted on the breeze.
His head lifted, turned. He slipped off the boulder, balancing his sack upon his shoulder.
Sibley tossed the aged paper heart toward him. She and the heart tumbled into Camden’s hands as the first snow of the season began to fall.
E. Catherine Tobler climbed mountains in her youth, in a bright yellow coat, with shoes that were red, yellow, and blue, and made her feel like a clown. She endured. Writing, she decided, is not that much different. Her website can be found at http://www.ecatherine.com/