It was the Castaigne building, I’d heard it as Castagne. Before I went through the double doors that swung like an old western, there was a small sign saying ‘Oto-Rhino-Laryngology (ORL) and Head & Neck Surgery, Implant Services’. Only Oto-Rhino-Laryngology was familiar to me. When I was little, I’d seen it as a sub-branch of rhinoceros studies.
In my ears were muted thumps, the drumbeat of my pulse. I took a seat at the end of the hallway, next to a table covered with magazines about deafness, one of them offering up anecdotes about isolation at work. I glanced up with every line so I wouldn’t miss my name being called and saw that an old woman in a wheelchair had parked across from me, right by the magazine Thirty Million Deaf. I read a sentence in a box on the cover: ‘Language can be reassuring or restrictive: people think that complicating blunt words softens them. They’re ashamed to say deaf, blind, old, mentally ill: from “hard of hearing” to “critical cases” by way of “vision impaired” and “senior citizen”, the dead will soon be called the “unliving”.’ When I realized that the old woman, or the senior citizen, or the elderly person – whatever I ought to call her – was shouting at me, I interrupted: ‘Ma’am, I don’t think I hear any better than you do,’ but she didn’t understand and kept on with her croaky monologue.
A man put an end to the one-sided conversation: ‘Come with me, please.’ I followed him into the padded room; he shut the door behind me. I noticed the huge chrome-metal handle and couldn’t help making the parallel to butchers’ cold rooms. Here, what was slaughtered was sound, meticulously, sliver by sliver. He placed the headphones over my ears, delicately, as if putting electrodes on a chicken’s head, and handed me a joystick. The first sounds came through, but not all; some just pulsed against my eardrum.
Then it was time for the words. I had to repeat the list like a messed-up parrot. Most of it was absurd and I had to resist letting my imagination fill the gaps.
The deep voice ran through the words which grew more and more muffled before slowly fading into fog. To fend off the emerging landscape, my mind chased in the half-darkness after these words: they were my stronghold against the widening craters of language being shelled. I was in the habit of drifting amid the silences and lost words, swallowed up by that imaginary force, but this time the wisps of words had so heavily pockmarked reality that certain images rose up in me with renewed vigor. This was an old-fashioned, post-war space where a husband was back home from so many dead bodies, rediscovering a forgotten world. I could see his face in the slanting light, he was there naming things in a flat voice to reclaim the life he’d had. He said ‘woman’ and his eyes were lost in the ringlets of his wife who was sobbing silently, then his eyes dropped to the fruit basket, and he said ‘lemon’, and then his face tilted up to the window and the craggy Brittany shore, and he designated it with his mouth: ‘boulder’. And he recalled the life he’d returned from: ‘soldier’, and all the seasons he’d spent in that role. He said ‘poppy’ while looking at that spring flower swaying between her and him, now split open. He looked down to hide his misty eyes and uttered ‘button’; his uniform reminded him of all those other soldiers. His lips whispered ‘blacksmith’; he was dead behind the eyes, but his lips went on whispering something his wife didn’t hear, ‘apron’ – the blacksmith always kept with him a piece of the dress of this woman he loved. The soldier couldn’t hold back the smile that came over him, until he said ‘shoulder’, loud enough for the woman to startle and look at him with concern, recalling the shoulders of the other soldier torn apart by heavy artillery.
‘Now we’re going to do the left,’ the audiologist said, pointing to my other ear. The story of the soldier reverberated in my deaf ear. The sounds that crashed against the dead eardrum were the soundtrack of his memories. The lingering trace of words was reduced to a presence.
I sat once again in the chair that faced the office to assess the damage on the audiogram. I took careful note of the concave curve on the paper, a tight grid of x- and y-lines quantifying the remaining sound. It was like a bird’s-eye view of the Normandy coast: the tide of silence was now covering more than half the page.
In the ORL consultant’s office, cutaway diagrams of the inner ear enlivened the room with their red and blue shades. The depicted outer ear was a harsh pink while the inner ear was sand yellow, carmine red, pinkish beige ending in a blue labyrinth. That was the cochlea. It looked more like an overcooked Burgundy snail.
The doctor sat down at her desk, the folder with all my audiograms in her hands, and over-enunciated her words. It doesn’t bode well when a doctor who specializes in implants looks at your latest audiogram and then talks to you like you’re an idiot. I wasn’t feeling so good all of a sudden.
‘You’ve effectively lost fifteen decibels. That’s a lot.’
I told her how it had happened, or rather how it hadn’t happened.
No warning signs – but why would any signs have come and warned?
It had just withered away, it was as simple as that.
But actually there were two moments in time when I realized that the sound was gone.
The first time was early August in London, when I had a coffee and the server spoke to me. He stood there, lips moving, but no sound coming out. I stammered in broken English that I didn’t understand, not a thing, the distress was clear on my face. He responded – well, I think I got a response from his lips and the words parting them – that I spoke bad English. I lost the soundtrack there, in the city of London. Somewhere between Churchway and Stoneway, the tide ebbed.
The second time, in Brittany, at Plougrescant, I’d gone to see a friend and while we were having dinner, once again the sound cut out. I saw his white hair and his mouth stretching into a smile, the corners of his lips bracketing a story. But it was carried away by the wind, while a heavy silence dropped between us. I could make out ‘Brazil’, so he had to be talking about his conference. I laughed to keep the conversation going.
All I told the doctor was: ‘It happened gradually, in August.’
To which she replied that I needed to consider a hospital stay to undergo a treatment, but that it wasn’t a sure thing. That otherwise there was another solution: ‘a cochlear implant’. She thought an implant on the right, the ear that worked, would be best; with the left ear, the sound would just be an unintelligible mess. She clarified that after a long stretch of rehabilitation, between six months and a year, I’d be able to hear better at every frequency. However, this operation would be irreversible, and I would lose my current ‘natural’ hearing.
The few cilia remaining deep in my right ear caught high pitches and a few low ones, which just barely allowed me to reconstruct the meaning and mainly to get a sense of the warmth of sounds, this light patina of wind, of color, all the roughness of sound.
I looked at the gray and blue plastic buttons, those scale models of implants on her desk. They could have been fridge magnets.
I didn’t know what else to say. She held out her hand, I gripped it and felt like someone clinging to any branch she could.
I made my way to office 237 so the secretary could give me the paperwork, then on to the Babinski building, named after an early-twentieth-century neurologist. His portrait was by the entrance, on the small enamel plaque: joseph babinski (1857–1932).
I learned that he was mainly known for a neurological exam that consisted of stroking the arch of grown-ups’ and babies’ feet. His concept of pithiatism (from the Greek for ‘to persuade’) wasn’t as well known, but still had had a huge impact on many World War I soldiers. At the time, war-related trauma still wasn’t recognized. In the vein of Professor Jean-Martin Charcot, who was a pioneer at the neurology school, Babinski had defined a new form of hysteria: in the absence of a clear causal relationship, many soldiers were suffering from issues that were orphaned.
Yes, that was very much what I’d always felt, this sensation of not belonging to any world. Not deaf enough to be a part of Deaf culture, nor hearing enough to be fully within the hearing world. It all depended on what I’d convinced myself to be or not to be. The collateral damage that had chipped away at my ego and my confidence were, for those soldiers, orphaned issues that they struggled to understand. Did the void in me come from that? Was it an absence that had to be filled by excess?
‘With you, things are tout noir ou tout blanc,’ I was always told. Black and white. But I kept hearing ‘trou noir’ there. Black hole.
‘You hear what you want to hear.’
How could I have convinced them otherwise?
But this was perfectly real, and the hospital was shining a light on the hole at the center of it all.
My mother was beside me, staring at the newspaper. She showed me the front page: ‘Look, it’s the first photo of a black hole.’
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