It wasn’t his cough reaching me from the inner cells across the dark, narrow hall that struck my interest more than the slamming of a door or the resonating ring of a pot falling on the hard floor. Rather, it is what followed that changed the sense of the trivial event and imbued it with meaning.
Shortly after the coughs, sharp and successive, emerged from the heart of the hall, I was coincidently afflicted by my own coughing fit—less harsh though, and just about over when two throat clearings followed from the hall: “Ahem, ahem.” They seemed contrived. They didn’t carry any trace of a real cough, as if they originated in a mouth rather than an abdomen or throat. So, I experimented—in turn—with a short cough, to the tune of a question: “Ahem?” This was met by another cough, without the timbre, though replete with certainty and intention as if responding to a greeting with another greeting.
“He’s communicating with me, but who is he? What does he want with these little coughs? Does he know me? Are they a sign from him which I can’t understand?” I took out a nail. I had slipped it off the wooden door of my cell to allow a small circle of light to seep through. The guard was not around. I put the nail back. I let out one tiny cough to reconfirm. He replied—corroborating my suspicion. I cleared my throat again, and so did he, and then me again, then him!
Suddenly the cell got bigger as if these tiny vocal vibrations broke open the walls, slipping a stream of light into this silent darkness. The light made me happy but I was afraid that he would leave, so I strutted around noisily. Then he made a sound as if he too were strutting around.
We held fast to the game.
He’s on his side, which is, from what I can tell, those sunken cells located in the center of the hall. I’m on the other side, in my cell, which faces the entrance of the hall.
Across the oppressive abyss between our cells we started to pull, from time to time, a rope of little coughs. I would see a guard, so I would let out an “ahem.” He would feel at ease and would clear his throat. By keeping this game up we brought light to this silent darkness. It broke up the monotony of days; repeating and crawling along like prayer beads. I forgot my solitude. I was no longer alone, and perhaps it did the same thing for him.
The days passed more enjoyably, taking up both his loneliness and mine. His spirit was attached to mine. The game was merely a way of breaking the suffocating obligatory silence. It was a sweet preoccupation. Luckily and out of the blue, I now had for myself a meager alphabet—an alphabet which spread camaraderie, compassion, and continuance, nourishing a heart that the impermeable walls and cold emptiness had dried up.
I had never given much thought to any deep-seeded revelation hiding behind sounds until I lived those days with my anonymous friend. I could sense his concerns, his happiness and sadness by the tone of his “ahem”s—whether they quivered or were lax, whether they were thrust forward or retained hesitancy, whether they emitted an injurious staccato or were replete with power—they nested close to my heart.
Because it was forbidden for prisoners to utter a word, our scheme was sweet and therapeutic. We entertained ourselves by changing the sounds, looking for new words to add to our recently discovered “language. We would yawn loudly to express boredom or the desire to sleep, and would sneeze forcefully to wake each other up. We even added jokes to our special new language.
After meals were distributed, we coordinated drawn out “ahem”s and flirtatious coughs intimating whose share was bigger and more delicious than the other’s. He usually beat me to the first “ahem.” To annoy him I would follow with two similar coughs not because my food was any more delicious or plentiful, but just to pay him back and tease him.
For a few days, before what happened happened, I tried to see him by widening the hole. We had agreed upon a sound that would signal the moment he leaves his cell; and so I saw him—because the only unfulfilled element of our friendship was seeing each other with our own eyes—because we lived together like two blind men unwittingly brought together in one cell. We decided that if one of us was late or delayed, the other would clear his throat rapidly, and if he forgot, though rarely he forgot, he would be reminded with a scolding “ahem.”
Did I forget to let out a “guard cough” that day? Was my surveillance and reassurance too late? So that it was he who let out the first angry and scolding cough.
I didn’t cough after I heard his. I immediately removed the nail and peered through the hole. I was surprised by the stealthily hunched guard, most of whom was hidden behind the hall door. I withdrew in fear. The vocalizations of my friend grew louder, more animated—changed. I tried to peek through the hole again, but noticed the guard was still in the same sly position and on the move. I cleared my throat trying to release a small cough. It felt confused. I tried and tried, but the sudden turning of the guard’s key beat me to it and covered up the sound of my friend’s voice. Then, as if slowly ripping a dress, the thud of flesh on flesh resounded—hissing, crashing—one after another. Then, for me, guilt or that I had unwillingly deceived him, overcame me.
The guard left. With every step he moved farther away. I was slipping into an abyss of sad and raw pain. After this silence reigned. A silence I had not heard the likes of a day since I entered the cell. I gnashed my teeth and rose with agonizing fear toward the hole. An empty hole of light. I spit. I cleared my throat. The coughs clashed with the silence and returned. I shouted out my coughs. Then I prepared myself . . . he didn’t respond. I pleaded. I felt my coughs collapsing, dilapidated and weak. I kept crying out, then questioning, then joking as if it were mealtime, but my voice began to resemble the yelps of a hungry and cold puppy whimpering in a dark and narrow hall where nothing is heard except the reverberation of his lone hollow echo.
Like a seashell closing down on its own darkness, the stream of light withdrew from my cell, shutting its wall on my cold, cold body.