©Steve Tollefson, 2013

©Steve Tollefson, 2013

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Almost a fairy tale

When Gundrud was small, she was very noisy. Not that she talked a lot (which she did), and not that she was a little hell-raiser (which she was). She was just noisy. When she played with her toys, noises came out of her mouth: “grunnn, grunnn, grunnn” when the little trucks were trying to make it up the dirt pile in the back yard; “eeiiiyaaaaaaaeeeiiyyaaa” when the little soldiers or cowboys or knights or Indians would fall down in battle.

She was noisy when she ate: spaghetti was a specialty, because she could make a wonderful sound when sucking the strands into her mouth—not the ordinary sounds people can make with spaghetti, but the sound of semis down-shifting through the Mont Blanc tunnel on their way to Italy, of water rushing over the spillway at Hoover Dam. Most foods took on new sounds when they met with her mouth. Fresh carrots sounded like giant redwood trees being felled by loggers; cooked peas sounded like someone squishing around in mud in heavy boots. Even mashed potatoes, known widely as the most silent food, could sound like a fresh lava flow when Gundrud dealt with them.

She was noisy in school: interesting facts from the teacher would elicit an “Ohh!”; thought provoking ones an “mmhmmhh”; and silly ideas from classmates, an “eyyahh.” During quiet reading time, she kept up a constant patter of sounds and words, “hummm,” “yeeahh,” “oh, that’s it!” “doodoodooo,” “hrummphh,” “really?” and so forth. When the teacher would ask her to be quiet, she would simply lower the volume, but keep right on, sounding quite like a long-haul truck idling its engine at a truck-stop.

But sounds just seemed to come out of her, too. She smacked her lips a lot, for all kinds of reasons. Her behind would squeak on any seat, whether she was in school or church. She would belch, or blow her nose, or swallow loudly. And even when she slept, the noises would continue: a light snoring, followed by yelps, and putts, and giggles, and snorts, and hiccups, and burps.

Her shoes squeaked. Her knuckles would pop on their own. Her hair made noise, even if she wasn’t touching it. Sometimes it sounded like a forest in the wind; sometimes like dry grass in the late summer.

By the time Gundrud was eight, her parents were exhausted and had taken to wearing ear muffs, except when she was at school. They had tried everything: softer shoes, softer foods, medical exams. But nothing stopped Gundrud. They encouraged her extra-curricular activities so she would stay away from home longer; but the school officials thought she might do with more parent-child bonding and encouraged her to not come to quite so many functions.

When she was a teenager, her parents tried new tactics. They tried logic, reasoning, and clichés.

“Silence is golden,” her mother said to her one day.

“Well, actually, it’s not,” Gundrud said. “Silence is not a color at all. It’s the absence of sound.” And then she cracked her knuckles or burped, or both.

“But I didn’t mean that it’s a color,” said her mother. “I meant that it is something as valuable as gold.”

“Have you checked commodities prices recently?” asked Gundrud. “Gold has tumbled, you know. But platinum is holding its own.” For all her noisiness, Gundrud was very smart.

“It’s just a metaphor,” said her mother.

“Calling it ‘just a metaphor’ devalues it, don’t you think?” said Gundrud.

“I suppose so, dear,” said her mother, who had forgotten what they were talking about.

“If you were a quieter person, perhaps you would find a boyfriend, and then maybe a husband,” said her father one night at the dinner table. He had read a grammar book recently and wanted to try out the subjunctive mood in a conditional sentence.

“Ah, the subjunctive,” said Gundrud. “Something contrary to probability. Its main purpose is to help us speculate.”

“Speculate about what?” asked her mother.

“About what it would be like if she were quieter,” said her father, with a slight pique in his voice.

“Don’t you find it interesting that you used the subjunctive again just now, to explain the subjunctive?” said Gundrud.

“So, do you have a boyfriend?” asked her mother.

“I have a number of boyfriends and I have a number of girlfriends,” said Gundrud, as spaghetti “ffvvooohh-pop” ed its way into her mouth.

“I mean a special one you might marry?” asked her mother.

“Certainly not,” said Gundrud. “I don’t want to marry any of my girlfriends. They’re girlfriends, after all.”

“Your mother means the boyfriends,” said her father. “Although the girlfriends would be fine, too.” He cared about silence, not gender.

“Certainly not,” said Gundrud. “I don’t want to marry any of my boyfriends. Then they’d no longer be friends. They’d be husbands and boys don’t make good husbands.”

“What’s wrong with that?” said her father, personally offended.

“Yes,” said her mother. “Your father has been a perfectly acceptable husband. And he was just a boy when I married him.”

“Well, I doubt if he’s ‘perfectly acceptable,’ but have you every looked up the word ‘husband’? It means ‘to manage economically or to conserve.’ I don’t really care to be the object of something like that,” she said.

“So, you don’t plan on getting married?” said her father, crestfallen and thinking that he would have to wear earmuffs until he was eligible for a nursing home.

“No, I don’t plan on it. But then I don’t not plan on it, either. It’s not something that can be planned. Like a retirement portfolio.” She scratched her head and it sounded to her parents like chalk on a chalkboard.

“Well, what do you plan on?” asked her father.

“I don’t actually plan on anything. Life is not a building, after all. Blueprints don’t help.”

“Are you taking drafting in school?” asked her mother.

“I’m using a metaphor, mother,” said Gundrud.

“I thought you told us not to,” said her mother.

“But what are your plans? You’ll graduate from high school soon. Then what?”

“I’ll go on and do something else,” she said, and little noises escaped from her armpits.

“But what will it be?”

“If I knew that, I would have already done it. But I haven’t done it yet, so I can’t know.”

“I see that you’re pretty handy with the subjunctive yourself,” said her father.

“Yes, I’ve always thought she was pretty,” said her mother. “But not particularly handy.”

“It was just a figure of speech,” said her father.

Just is rather demeaning, don’t you think?” said Gundrud, cracking her knuckles so it sounded like trees being snapped in two in a hurricane. “Figures of speech, after all, allow us to say things in new and interesting ways.”

“But we can hardly even say them in the old, uninteresting ways,” said her mother.

“That’s why figures of speech are used so often,” said Gundrud by way of explanation.

“A passive construction. First you have no plans; now you’re slipping into the passive. ‘Are used so often,’ indeed. Used by whom? Who uses them?” said her father.

“The passive is a perfectly acceptable choice when you don’t know or care who uses them and when your focus is on the thing, not the user of the thing,” said Gundrud, who moved slightly in her seat, causing a sound like a child being beaten.

“I doubt if it’s ‘perfectly acceptable,’ wouldn’t you agree?” said her father, thinking that he was winning.

“‘Quite acceptable,’ then,” said Gundrud, admitting defeat, but not quite.

“So, then, will you be getting married soon?” asked her mother.

“Sooner, or later, I suppose,” said Gundrud, “or not at all.”

“And college? Will you go to college? Or a job?”

“Certainly one or the other,” said Gundrud. “Or perhaps something else.”

“What would that be?” asked her father.

“If I knew, I wouldn’t have said ‘something else,’” said Gundrud, “I would have been more specific.” Her stomach rumbled and her parents at first thought it might be an earthquake.

And much to her parents’ surprise, Gundrud, didn’t do this or that, one or the other, or perhaps none. She did all four, in random order. She went to college, she got married, she got a job, and she did something else. Actually, she didn’t do something else, she did some things else. She lived in a commune and an ashram, floated down the Amazon and the Congo, worked on a fishing boat and a kibbutz.

But in the ashram, during chanting, she kept burping. She kibitzed too much at the kibbutz. And when floating down the Amazon, she mumbled and said “eiyyassaahh,” and “wowiewhoopielookitthat” so much that she was asked not to take another tour. At the wedding reception, she was, without trying, able to get the wedding cake (another famously silent food) to make the sound of hot mud bubbling as she forced it down. The nuts sounded like boulders falling down a mountain, and even the little pastel mints sounded like dinner plates being broken as she ate them. But she didn’t burp, or mumble—too awfully much.

Her husband who was very handsome was also very quiet. He liked nothing better than to sit at home, reading a book like All Quiet on the Western Front or Quiet Flows the Don or Silent Spring. He never seemed to notice the sound of Gundrud brushing her teeth (which sounded like the ice breaking up on Niagara Falls) or combing her hair (which sounded like yards and yards of silk being ripped by maniacal cats). He was in love with her, and if he heard any sounds at all, he probably thought they were beautiful.

As they grew older, her parents began to go deaf, much to their relief. For although they didn’t see her often, when she did drop by, she gurgled, and belched, and squished and squeaked and snorted just as much as she always had.

And then one day, they thought they had both lost their hearing entirely and simultaneously, because Gundrud was suddenly standing in front of them as they sat in their easy chairs, and they hadn’t even heard her coming.

“Hello,” she said, and made no other sounds. Then they knew that they hadn’t gone deaf together, but they thought perhaps they had died without knowing it and were in heaven.

“I’ve come to tell you something,” said Gundrud. “I’ve discovered something.” And still no sounds.

“Are you all right, dear?” said her mother, loudly.

“Have you seen a doctor?” said her father, just as loudly.

“I’m fine,” she said loudly. “Why do you ask?”

“No reason,” they both said, holding their breath and waiting for the explosion.

“There is always a reason. Usually when people say ‘no reason’ what they really mean is ‘I’m sorry I mentioned it because I don’t want to tell you.’ I will assume that is what you meant. But I’ll ignore it.”

“What?” said her mother, because she couldn’t hear as well as she used to.

“‘It.” I’ll ignore it,” said Gundrud, misunderstanding her mother’s “what.”

“You said you came to tell us something?” said her father.

“Yes, I said that. And I did.”

“Did what?”

“Come here to tell you something.”

“What is it, then?” asked her mother.

“I came to tell you that I’ve decided to become a kind of nun, and take a vow of silence.”

“How can you of all people take a vow of silence?” said her father.

“Your father means, ‘How can you tell people that you’re taking a vow of silence?’ Don’t you have to talk to do it?”

“I haven’t taken it yet. And I think it’s something you probably have to announce, first. You can’t just suddenly stop talking, you know. People will wonder. People will worry. You have to tell them before you stop talking.”

“This vow, is it just words, or is it complete silence?”

“We aren’t allowed to hum or mumble or whistle.”

“What about your husband?” said her father.

“He can still talk all he wants to. But you know he doesn’t talk much anyway.”

“I mean, how is he about this?”

“He’s fine, thank you. He says to say hello.”

“I mean, what does he think about your becoming a nun.”

“I didn’t say I was becoming a nun. I said I was becoming a kind of nun.”

“Well, what kind of nun?”

“Yes, what’s the difference?”

“Well, there are nuns, and then kinds of nuns.”

“And what kind will you be?”

“The kind who has taken a vow of silence.”

“Would that kind have a name?”

“We aren’t allowed to talk about it.”

Her mother began to sob—at least a little.

“But why a nun?” she wailed—at least a little.

“I’ve always been attracted to that line on job applications that says ‘None of the above,’ so I thought I’d give it a try. Oh, look at the time! I’m sorry, but I must go now.”

“Where?”

“To the nunnery, of course.

“Will we hear from you?”

“The vow, remember.”

“OK, then, will we see you?”

“If we’re in the same place at the same time, you probably will see me. Good-bye.”

“Good-bye, dear,” said her mother.

And as the years passed, they did see Gundrud from time to time in the distance, and sometimes closer, and she always smiled at them. After they had seen her, they would always return home and take turns belching, or making noises with their arms, or squeaking their seats, or going “iiyeeahhahahaupmupmupmhht. ” Although they were deaf by then, they could hear the sounds in their mind’s ear, and they smiled, remembering the precious years of Gundrud’s childhood.

Then again, they were quite glad she was in a nunnery.

©Steve Tollefson, 2013

Steve Tollefson, BAWP 1978, has been teaching writing at UC Berkeley since 1973. He recently retired as Director of the UC Berkeley Office of Educational Development, but continues as a lecturer in the College Writing Programs. As the son of a Lutheran minister, he tries to practice what he preaches to his students.

5 Responses to “Silence is Platinum by Steve Tollefson”

  1. katiejohnson612 Says:

    I loved your story, Steve. Thank you so much for sharing your humor and musings.
    Katie Johnson (your neighbor who was in BAWP ’78 with you)

  2. Kimberley Gilles Says:

    Charming and alarming and thoroughly wonderful! A marvelous parable about the emotional trajectory of parenthood. I look forward to reading more of your work!

  3. Jenne Says:

    I was looking for summer camp info for my tween son, and stumbled on your story. You crack me up! Well, not literally, it’s just a figure of speech!!!

  4. Pat Manley Says:

    Great story…even though it was a little weird. I just couldn’t help but love the character of Gundrud…but wondered where the name came from.

  5. Maureen O'Leary Says:

    I love this clever jeu d’esprit; such a pleasure to follow the fast-paced saga of Gundrud. She delights in the way that Pippi Longstocking does. (I am so glad that I was the parent of neither!)

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