This is the piece that I submitted as my primary writing sample for university. It’s the background for a character in the Invisible Sun world – her life in Shadow – though you don’t need to know the setting to appreciate it. I really hope you like it.
When I was a child, in the life that was not a real life, I often wondered what the silent voices of the world sounded like.
What curses did my grandmother’s chair let out when she sank into it? If my father chopped up vegetables straight on the counter, rather than using a board, did it scream? They might not feel pain, but surely the slow distortion of their material forms meant something.
These thoughts I never voiced out loud, at least not after the first time, when my mother glared at me as if I’d spat on the carpet. Young ladies were not meant to speak of strange things. Young ladies were meant to be presentable and plain and pretty and – much like the chairs and the chopping boards – silent.
I did not like the idea of being silent. But at least, I thought to myself, I wouldn’t be alone. There were many silent things in the world.
So I did my best to do as mother said. I went to school, such as it was, and learned to read and write and do simple math. My English was good, which pleased my family. A foreign language, my father said, was a good thing for a girl to know. Plenty of women had helped out in The War that way.
I wondered too if The War had a voice. It seemed like it ought to. Like its voice should be a chorus of screams, muffled to naught but a whisper, ever present in the background. It was less of a shadow that hung over our house, and more of an absence from it. It had been part of my life since I was born – it had been born along with me. That whispering scream was my childhood.
But we did not speak of it, just like we did not speak of my aunt and uncle and grandfather and great uncle and two cousins on my mother’s side. Their voices, I thought, would be amongst the screams of The War’s voice.
I let it lie silent as my parents wanted, and I finished my schooling – ever reminded of the fact that going to secondary school was a privilege, and one that my family paid for with other things we did not speak of, like the money we had been given when my grandfather had died.
Then, sixteen and full of poise and prettiness and other such necessary things, I went to work.
Of the many things my family had questioned, they had never questioned my desire to go to work. That, too, was the whispered screams of The War. Perhaps the voice of The War was just the words we said in response to its terrors. Either way, young ladies – as I had now become – were a part of The Effort, and it was right to seek employment now in a way it had not been before.
So I went into the city, which we had lived on the very outskirts of for my entire life, and I found a room with several other women and took up work as a translator. My English was better than theirs, and to be quite honest so too was my French.
There was a painting on the wall of the narrow room that I shared with Sandrine, a beautiful, blonde-haired girl who was working in the restaurant our rooms overlooked. It was a replica of a Monet, or Manet – I could never remember which. The ones with swirling rivers. I wondered if its voice would be of the canvas and the oil, or of the picture itself.
And the problem was, without my family around to stop me wondering, I just…kept wondering.
But I didn’t just wonder about the voices of silent things anymore. I wondered about the post boy who came at the same time every day except Thursdays, when he would be exactly fifteen minutes late. I wondered about my employer, who would sneak off at lunchtimes and return with lipstick marks at the corners of his lips.
I wondered about a lot of things.
Eventually I couldn’t stop. Turning one person’s words into something else no longer sated me. I needed to learn more, to understand more, to quench this neverending wondering. I left my job, to my parents’ horror, in a fit of passion – and never looked back.
Two weeks later I had a job bringing coffee to the reporters in Le Figaro, and it wasn’t answers but it was something. It was enough, and it was enough in the seven years it took me to work my way from coffee girl to assistant investigative journalist.
I ended up there by accident. One of the senior reporters had taken a shine to me, and – well, my mother always told me that being pretty would be important, I just don’t think she expected me to find it useful. He took me on an interview with a potential source, some sugar to bait the fishing hook, and when I listened to the woman talk I realised that something in her words had a voice.
It was the silence itself. The silence had a voice, and it was singing the truth of her story, the truth that she wasn’t telling.
I wove the truth out of her, the story made the front page, and even the senior reporter trying to kiss me in the street didn’t dampen my elation at finally having found the answer to something.
After that, things went a lot faster. I moved out of the tiny, narrow room I’d lived in for those seven long years – the room that I had thought was so magnificent because I didn’t have to share it with anyone. I got an apartment in a better arrondisement, with a porter who guarded the building all day and night, and began investigating all manner of things for the paper.
They gave me a nickname a year later. In the business it was the sign that you were someone. They called me la petite flèche, which was meant to mean little arrow, but I knew from Sandrine was a lunging move in fencing. It was the kind of move that either won you the point or lost you the game.
Everyone around me was becoming grimmer, the whispering screams of The War resurging in its absent presence. Something else was about to happen; I could hear its voice amidst the perpetual yell of the city. Paris knew, and the world knew, and I…I didn’t care.
Because I had learned to listen to the voices of silent things, and that was its own kind of magic.
I just didn’t realise how true that was.