I came across the short story, Do You Hear What I’m Saying? by Kori Waring on Carve magazine. Click here to read it.
There are very few stories I read in the recent times that made me go, ‘Aha!’. I am happy to say that this story is one of those. Do You Hear What I’m Saying? starts with a failed author getting married and then becoming mother to a beautiful girl. The girl grows up. One day, when she is in third grade, she loses her voice and becomes mute. Until here, the story reads like perfectly normal, describing events in the real world. But then, the realm of magical realism drops in (I must say that I was a bit surprised by the sudden transition for I did not know beforehand which genre the story belonged to).
In the next scenes, the girl’s parents drive her to the doctor only to find the waiting room filled with other third graders (who have become mute as well) and their worried parents. With time, all these kids have whiteboard hanging across their neck onto which they scribble what they want to say with marker pens. One day, the girl’s mother goes to the school to pick up the child, and she finds a royal blue parrot accompanying her daughter. She discovers that all the third graders have parrots now, and when she asks her daughter about it she [the daughter] explains, “at recess a bunch of parrots landed on the playground and went straight to the kids in her class, and this one picked her, and the birds stayed with them all day no matter what the teachers did.” The parents allow the third graders keep their parrots because the birds make the kids smile, which they had rarely been doing since they lost their voice.
One day, the narrator finds her daughter talking and she rushes to her bedroom, only to find that it is the parrot which is speaking in a voice identical to her daughter’s. Soon, all the third graders’ parrots are speaking in their voices, quoting from books.
But the best bit is yet to come. One day, fire breaks out in the school. The kids are evacuated and stand on the lawn, but the parrots kept in the cages in teachers’ lounge could not escape. While they burn, the birds scream quotes from books in the children’s voices. The kids try to run into the school to save their birds, but the parents restrain them, holding them back. When the birds finally die, and their cries stop, the third graders “sound a collective moan, and crumple.” The story ends soon after this. The parents drive the kids home as they “try to forget that now you know exactly how her [the kid’s] voice would sound if you crashed the car and it exploded in flames with her trapped inside.” Towards the end, there is indication that the kids find their voices back, though this change is so subtle that you might almost miss it on the first read.
The story is written entirely in the second person POV. Every paragraph starts with the word ‘Imagine’. I loved this quirky style, so much so that I wrote one of the stories in my debut book of short stories, Bound by Life, along the same style.
Kori has a powerful voice, and that reflects in this story. One can not help but feel the pain, worry and helplessness of the parents when the kids suddenly become mute. More poignant still is the description where the birds die in the fire. Their painful screams made me want to cover my ears, and I felt as if I was present at the scene witnessing their death.
The best thing about this story is that it can be interpreted in various ways. One can read it simply as a story of the magical realism genre, or can see it as a figurative commentary on present human condition (Do read the comments section following the story on the site for more on this). Kori does a great job of leaving things to the readers’ imagination. Few authors can do that successfully.
The one thing that confused me, however, was the last line where the little girl is shown murmuring in sleep at night, after the horrific incident at school. It was not obvious to me that the kids were getting their voices back as they parrots were dying (though there are a few sentences in the story which point to this: “the third graders sound a collective moan”, “she runs straight to her room and throws herself into bed and will say nothing but “Go away!” in a voice that is hoarse and hollow”). Maybe, it wasn’t easy to figure out because the author uses the last paragraphs to describe how deeply the accidental death of the birds affected the kids and the parents. There is no indication as to the parents feeling relief or joy after the kids get their voices back, which would have been natural and an expected reaction. Maybe the author wanted to focus mainly on the pain one feels when s/he witnesses a loved one suffer/die.
I totally enjoyed reading this story. Did you? If yes (and even if it’s a no!), please share your thoughts on the story with me in the Comments below. Also, if you liked the style of the writing and would love to read more, please read my story, ‘The girl with the white patches’ on Bound by Life. Bound by Life, my first book, is priced at $ 3.00 and releases on June 20, 2015 as Kindle edition on Amazon. It is available for pre-order here.