Would You Rather Be Deaf or Dumb?

This past weekend I attended a live theater performance for the first time in 20 months. It was an electric evening. Everyone was thrilled to be there, sitting next to “real” people (vaxxed and masked). When the artistic director delivered his opening remarks, we applauded like released lunatics for everything: the sponsors and contributors, the cast and crew, even for ourselves. We were delighted by everything. As the show began we sat in the dark, remembering and relishing everything we have always loved about the synergy of live theater, actors moving and emoting, exchanging their energy with the audience.

Usually after premieres (which this was) refreshments are served, but due to Covid there were no refreshments. Still, people gathered in the lobby on the way out to greet each other and to chat for a short while. There were people there who I had not seen since I lost my voice. It was a “coming out” of sorts. I stood next to my husband — a playwright and prominent in the theater community — and we greeted people. There was conversation about the play, but even more conversation about the joy of finally being able to socialize after being confined for so long. People embraced me and included me in the conversation. I nodded. I laughed. I gestured to indicate “so-so” or “maybe.” I shrugged. I was present and participating as well as I could, but I couldn’t engage in nuanced conversation. I was acutely aware of how my inability to speak separated me from everyone else, as if I had transmuted into another species.

As kids we loved to ask each other hypothetical questions. Would you rather burn to death or freeze to death? Would you rather be blind or deaf? And: Would you rather be deaf or dumb? Dumb meaning mute. We had no idea what wasn’t politically correct back then. We only had a vague vision of someone dumb having nothing to offer and being unresponsive as a rock. The word “dumb” reflects on the general perception people hold that those who can’t talk are stupid. We asked that question not because we imagined we ourselves would ever be afflicted. One never imagines becoming “dumb.”

I recently wrote a book in which animals play a prominent role; when I began writing it I started observing animals with new interest. Numerous animal species visit the three quarters of an acre where we live on the edge of town. Most prominent are squirrels and birds, foraging high and low. The squirrels fascinate and frighten me, their greedy little bodies moving with such speed and agility and skittishness. Their lives appear to be characterized by constant vigilance and fear that keeps them dashing here and there, startled by the slightest noise. The birds too, rarely rest, especially the hummingbirds who flit between the crocosmia and the honeysuckle and our feeder. I can’t imagine such an itinerant life (I have some traveler friends who, like the hummingbirds, seem incapable of staying put). I feel downright sluggish in comparison (to both the birds and the traveling people). There are two goats on a neighboring property who are also restless. They sometimes try to balance together on a seesaw, a truly humorous sight, and they almost never cease vocalizing. It’s unclear what their noises mean. It sounds like distress, but I think it’s actually a social articulation, a call to the world to recognize their presence.

The deer can be skittish too, but they also pause for long stretches to munch on apples, gazing at me with impunity. Even when I try to shoo them off — something I often did before we installed a fence — they always have stood their ground, knowing I’m no threat. Once a deer came right onto our patio and our cat went out to greet it. Knowing deer can be aggressive, I was afraid for our cat but he wouldn’t retreat. Just as I considered going out to rescue him, I saw the two of them already nose to nose, sniffing each other in a getting-to-know-you way, not the least bit afraid of one another. They were communicating in some way, one species to another. Were they learning anything beyond the threat the other posed? A tantalizing mystery.

I am drawn to the slower animals, particularly cows who are content to graze in one place for hours before ambling on. They seem to look out from their lustrous eyes with such acceptance and empathy. I know I am anthropomorphizing, but still I watch all these animals seeking guidance about their ability to go about their business without speaking.

Trees, tall redwoods and firs along with some pear trees, dominate the view from my study. I observe them too, wondering what it would be like to be fixed in place, passively absorbing sunlight and rain and CO2, exhaling oxygen, possessing neither speech nor the agency of movement. There may be something to envy here.

I imagine our next excursion to the theater. I will be standing next to my husband and acting like a tree as people greet us, mute and proud, accepting my place on the earth, the soil I’m in, the rain I receive, the sun I’m exposed to, unbothered by being incapable of speech, embracing my “dumbness” and doing my best to grow.

Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.