The Person of Silence

December 31, 2011

A Short Story

This is a short story that was inspired by a true one but poetic license has been taken so liberally that I can only classify it as a piece of fiction. Nevertheless, I think it reverberates with a truth so true that even I am somewhat alarmed by it. I invite you to try tracing your thoughts and reactions as I tell you a quick story and wonder how your story would end if this were you.

Zephany lived in an urban setting once he left college. He came from a standard-sized family that raised him well enough with morals and work-ethic. He wasn’t much of a church-going man. In a certain sense, he was waiting for something or someone to come along and speak to him in some huge theophany like all the stories in the Bible. Until then he was just going to mind his business. Zep, as he was known to his friends, worked as middle-management in an up-and-coming audio equipment manufacturing and distributing company. He was a well-meaning man who worked really hard to provide for his family while at the same time made sure he spent time with them as well.

Most people see Zep and think that he’s more or less got his life together and they’d be more or less right. He just jumped from school to work and never looked back. Being in an industry involving major shipping in a world more and more dependent upon internet commerce is quite demanding of his time but he enjoyed what he did. He married his long time girlfriend from college and as soon as they were both settled into their jobs they had a few kids.  Whatever time he had aside from work he made sure was time spent for family. Zep even made time for the occasional drink with his buddies while their team played on the TVs around the bar. Zep had good friends, was good to his friends and had good food going all around.

Zep was a bit on the talkative side but that’s why he made friends so easily. His friends and coworkers found him to be quite upstanding. Zep wasn’t afraid of honestly expressing how he felt. If anything this was something the people around Zep very much appreciated about him. In tandem with his honesty was his natural and genuine care for others. Sure, it was possible for someone to upset Zephany and he’d let them know he was upset; behind any such expression, however, was the unshakable willingness to forgive and make things right again.

Yes, his life was quite well rounded except he still felt like something was missing; rather, that there was too much of everything. What was missing was having a bit less. He sometimes hoped that there was less time working but also less time with family and friends. He didn’t quite understand what this feeling was but he felt a certain guilt with it. What could his heart desire that would mean spending less time with family? It was one of his heart’s desires that he really couldn’t pin down. He talked about it with his wife who was very understanding. Partly it was because she was going through something similar. He wrestled with this a bit here and there but was able to keep it under control with a few anti-depressants and openly communicating with his wife. They did their very best to make sure they talked and were open with each other. In this way they supported one another.

After a few years of working, seemingly non-stop, Zep finds that he has the rare opportunity to go on a weekend hunting trip way up in the mountains with an old and good friend that he’d like to catch up with. He jumps at the chance for some quiet rest and relaxation “away” for a while. The last time he even went camping was during his childhood. He really enjoyed it. Though it was a campsite among other campsites, it was definitely quieter, and more peaceful. There was just something about being miles away from highways and buildings larger than two-stories that was really comforting. Zep figured it would be a good to reduce the pace of his life a bit–to experience that comfort once again.

In a mild excitement Zep makes all the preparation he needs to; he informs his wife who lovingly concedes, organizes the vacation schedule from work and packs up his gear. His friend lets him know that there isn’t electricity much less any kind of cellular signals at the cabin they’re staying in so it wasn’t prudent to bring any mobile devices. They were really roughing it, whatever that may mean today. Oddly, this only excited him a bit more. It was one more degree of quiet–a step further away.

One morning after meeting up at his friend’s house, they get the 4×4 saddled and ready and head up to the mountain cabin. Immediately, Zep and his friend begin to chat it up about what they’ve been doing since they last met. The radio lightly laced the sound of their conversation. The occasional commercial set comes in but it doesn’t hinder their conversation. They’ve got a lot to talk about and it’s a long drive.

As they draw closer to the cabin, the terrain surrounding the road subtly transitions from buildings to trees. The road also subtly becomes a bit more winding, narrow and uneven. The two notice the change but they were not fully conscious of it. The pauses in between their bursts of conversation became lengthened as they began to take in the rapidly passing sights. Ironically, Zep was intent on making sure they were caught up on one another’s lives so he frequently had to snap out of what he  thought was a stupor to tell his friend about the difference these new shoe inserts had upon his posture.

They continued to talk until they came across their first panoramic vista from the mountain side. Zephany was in awe of the trees and the light fog that decorated the mountains across the valley. The view quickly passed from sight as they rounded the next curve. Realizing that he had dropped the conversation, Zep asked, “What was I talking about again?”

Curve after curve, Zep really started to notice his present separation from what had composed his daily routine. It was about this time that he ‘d be starting his workday. Zep, thinking aloud, announced, “I’d usually be sitting in my office right now.” At that moment he also realized that he had done much more of the talking. Zep hadn’t asked much about his friend’s life so he made it a point to ask.

The radio blared with intermittent white noise with increasing frequency until the signal was lost altogether. It was finally disrupting of their conversation so his friend shut the radio off and continued on with his story about the last time his son really pissed him off. The conversation was altered by the absence of the background noise but the conversation was good and it didn’t phase his friend. Zep was a little distracted, unnerved even but he continued to try and focus on hearing what his friend had to say.

Upon reaching the cabin the men breathe in the crisp air with the light scent of pine and moist rich soil. Zep steps out of the car, stretches and groans a bit while he takes a quick glance around. The cabin sits atop a lesser hill or mountain and so the horizon is contoured by the surrounding pine-covered hills.

He likes what he sees.

It vaguely reminded him of the high-definition desktop picture of a redwood forest that he has set on his laptop; though it was often quickly covered by the spreadsheets and sales reports he worked on. Seeing a forest in person was quite-breathtaking at this moment because everywhere he looked it was there–off in the distance or a stones throw away, at the center of his vision or in the peripheral. The only way to escape it really was to look straight up but even then the clouds and the tips of tree tops were there too. And it was so very quiet. Yes, it was beautiful and he looked forward to spending the weekend here “away” from the city and all that that meant.

Zephany finds himself taking an extra long look trying to survey the whole region but finds that it was much too grand. As soon as he looked in one direction he realized he was leaving out some other feature of the valley that he’d very much like to be able to see. Then Zep reprimanded the silliness of his mind at that moment. He thought, “This is what I came out here to see. I’ll see each bit a little at a time as the weekend goes on. I have plenty of time to enjoy it all.” It was something that did not fit on his laptop monitor and that he simply could not find back where he lived. So instead of trying to have the most all encompassing view possible he decided to try and focus on a few trees way off in the distance. Looking down in the middle of the valley he saw a few trees that to him looked like little green sprinkles.

Taking some time to think about it those trees were probably as tall as the building he worked in if not taller. In fact, thinking about it a little more, seeing this whole valley and how it can make a tree like that seem like a little green sprinkle made him realize that this was quite a huge forest to be wandering around in. Zep shook his head as if to physically jar his mind out of where such thoughts led.

Moving on in thuoght, Zep actually found the freedom to enjoy the grandiose sight pricking at his conscience a bit. It was as though there was something else he was supposed to be doing. He suddenly craved the glow of his laptop or phone. In fact, Zep’s urge was so strong that he reached  for the pocket where his phone would have been even though he knew he left it behind in the hope that he accidentally brought it with him. Even if he knew he didn’t get a signal it would’ve been nice just to see the time spelled out for him and the little icons for his apps. For a moment, he doubted whether or not he should have come. As quickly as the doubt came, it went as he thought about why he was there in the first place.

Turning back to his friend who really was enjoying the same view, Zep says, “why don’t we unload and set up camp. The quicker we get it done the less time we’ll have to enjoy this place.”

Correctively and smiling, his friend replies, “you mean more time, right?”

“I mean… yeah! You know what I mean.”

As they unloaded and unpacked his friend realizes that they’ve forgotten some key supplies. There was a general store nearly two hours away so they decided to divide and conquer. His friend, knowing the area, would go back to the store and get the stuff while Zep stayed behind to set up camp. There wasn’t much gear, organizing would only take about half an hour. For the rest of the time Zep thought that then maybe he could take a look around afterward. No big deal.

His friend was gone for four hours.

Given the cloudiness of the day it still looked like morning although it was already a few hours past noon. Upon his return, his friend enters the cabin and finds both of their gear inside. He noticed it was in rather meticulous order. He then became curious to know where Zephany had gone off to. He stepped back outside to see if Zep decided to just stay out for a bit to take in the view again, but no, Zep was nowhere to be found. He wasn’t panicked though.

Looking down he did see the tracks in the dirt shaped by the boots Zep had on. He saw that some prints that led out from the cabin in shorter steps. It signaled to him that Zep was walking casually out to where the tracks suddenly stopped. Zep had stood again where he admired the valley earlier. But it seems he didn’t stand there long, the ground would be much more packed there. Instead he finds that there are tracks leading right back to the cabin door. These steps are much more spaced apart. “That’s odd,” his friend muttered to himself.

Zep’s friend returns to the front door. Taking a quick look around the small one room cabin, he sees a misplaced cloth-covered lump in the corner. He sees the lump fidget a bit and hears a faint whimper. It was Zep huddled up and lying on his side. He had been crying and it was very obvious to his friend. Zep didn’t try to hide it. His friend went over to him to ask what the problem was. Did something come and attack him? What happened? “Zep?” His friend began to ask, “what’s the matter?” but his friend never made it past the the first syllable. The look in the man’s face revealed there was no attack, no intruder, not even a creepy noise. No–there was no noise at all. Intuiting what was wrong, and without saying a word, his friend picks him up off the ground guides him back to the truck without any resistance from the man, packs everything back up himself and drives them both back home.

While the details of this story are written with a poetic license this is a true story. It happened to someone my dad knows. Living most of his life in the city and within shouting distance of someone, the silence and the wide-open freedom of the forest truly and severely affected him. Similar experiences are accorded to people who have been tossed overboard in the vastness of the ocean, even if they never made it far from the boat, that utter “big”-ness of the ocean is something truly terrible and shatters any delusion of having any mastery over any of it. The utter freedom and solitude of the forest forced this man to face himself and his dwarfed spirituality because he had never been so solitary. In the city there was always noise, always lights, always someone around. But there in the cabin among the mountains…

God is a God of silence. As silence becomes increasingly scarce, how would we react if we were to suddenly find ourselves facing a valley filled with it. 

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