“How do you feel?”
“Like being hit by a car.
“You're not fine. That was a stupid question.
It's not your fault.”
“I know. But I'm still sorry.”
His counterpart rose and took off her coat. She put the coat and her bag on a stool and joined him on the couch, taking his hand in hers.
“Of course, I stay.”
He loved his sister. But he had never known how to talk to her about things. It didn't matter, either. They didn’t need to talk. They understood each other in silence. They had needed to. Saying the wrong thing, raising your voice, or making a noise at the wrong time had been dangerous. In their childhood they had learned to be silent. To be quiet. Silent and invisible.
They were no longer children, but the silence remained. It accompanied them in their lives and when they were together, it switched loudly between the walls. Sometimes he wondered if they would ever overcome their childhood, sometimes he thought they were already free from it. But if they were free, why were they still silent? Why could they only silently stand by each other, show their sympathy only through gestures. Wordless sympathy.
He remembered one evening. No screaming, no breaking of dishes, only the silent tears of a child who knew that they were not allowed to make a sound, no matter how much it hurt. He had been standing next to the door when he wanted to run away, but he knew it wouldn't do any good, that it would only make things worse. He looked away.
During the night, his sister came into his room. She moved soundlessly. He did not hear the door open, no footsteps on the floor, nothing. But he felt her presence, the lifting of the covers and the slight sinking of the mattress as she lay down with him. He took her hand and she squeezed his tightly. She did not say a word, not a sound did she make. For a long time, they stayed like that. Hand in hand, they stared at the ceiling in deafening silence. At some point she left again as soundlessly as she had come. The bed next to him was warm and he rolled over so as not to lose the remainder of her warmth. As he did so, his cheek touched the place where her tears had soaked the sheets and there his unshed tears fell onto the bed as well.
All that was many years ago. A youth far from the tormentors of their childhood helped them to find a life. They learned to speak without fear of expressing an opinion, they had learned to laugh. But no matter how far away they moved from that childhood, no matter how free they had gotten, it never completely let them go.
Life separated them from each other. They went to different universities and made different friends. They moved to different countries. Lived different lives far away from each other.
It had not been an intentional decision. It just happened. They simply had nothing to say to each other and this eternal shared silence would not let them go. And when they were together, it was all present.
So, they lived far away from each other. They wrote letters. They kept in touch and informed one another about what was happening in their own lives. After her bachelor’s degree, his sister moved to Ireland. She was doing her master’s and sent him a letter telling about getting an offer from an Icelandic research institute. He did not go to her graduation. He sent a letter congratulating her and wishing her luck. Two years later, he sent her a letter explaining that he had started his own business with some fellow students. She sent him a card with a picture of Iceland’s landscape, explaining how happy she was for him.
In one letter he wrote about the shared apartment he was living in, in another about the new toaster he had bought. In some letters he talked about women he met, in others about friends, experiences or the political events in the country. Sometimes he put photos with the letters, sometimes newspaper clippings, and often funny postcards he found. Back came stories about her research, colleagues, her dog, and at one point a girlfriend who would become a constant in her letters. She traveled a lot and from everywhere came cards with images of landscapes, of sights and absurdities.
Years passed, they grew older and still they wrote to each other. There was no regular rhythm, but there was a constancy. There were few phone calls and contact via cell phone and social media gave them little. They continued to write letters.
When he learned that he would become a father, he wrote her a long letter. He explained his bias, his joy, his fear. It followed a long letter with congratulations, understanding and good coaxing. Shortly before the birth of the child, his sister arrived. They had not seen each other in eleven years and so, the reunion was strange and despite their lively exchanges and knowledge of each other’s lives and sensibilities, they could not find words to express the feelings of the reunion. So, they kept silent. But it was no longer an awkward silence. It was not a silence enforced by fear. It was the silence of two people who didn’t know how to talk to each other and yet knew it was okay.
When his girlfriend came down to the hospital, his sister sat with him in the waiting room and held his hand. She didn’t need words to let him know she was there.
In the following years, he sent a picture of his daughter with each of his letters to Iceland, followed by pictures of his two daughters and finally his three children. Although they continued to communicate mainly through letters, they saw each other more often. He came to Iceland once a year with his girlfriend and the children, and thus met his sister’s girlfriend. In return, the two of them came to Germany at least once a year, sometimes more. Sometimes they stayed in his guest room, but often they decided to explore different parts of Germany and he traveled with his family to visit them and explore together.
Most of the time they were together as a group, with laughing and energetic children and funny and talkative companions. It happened that his sister and he were going away for a moment from the colorful noisy hustle. Then they were often found walking together, mostly in a shared silence. But it was not an empty silence, it was a silence marked by understanding and peace.
The years went by. His children grew up, moved out, and then his girlfriend left him. It wasn’t like he didn’t see it coming. It wasn’t an overnight decision. They had grown apart. They lost the common denominator and were living side by side. He still loved her, part of him probably always would. But he was no longer in love with her. So how could he judge her for feeling the same way? Instead of saying something, talking about it, working on it, he remained silent. He just didn’t know what to say, or how to fix what they had lost. So, he remained silent.
His girlfriend had never been good at silence. She always said what she thought, and how she felt. He had always loved that quality in her, and respected her for that. And he was grateful to her for breaking his silence, even if he knew it was unfair that she had to do it, because he couldn’t. She spoke up and left.
He stayed behind and not knowing what to write, he called his sister. Two days later she was there. In her long coat, she stood in front of his door. Silently she came in and sat down opposite him. He saw that she did not know what to say. Finally, she asked him “How do you feel?” and he answered her. But it wasn’t about the words. She knew him and he knew her. So together they were silent. And in the silence, a silence that had once been forced, a silence that had taken them through their childhood, he found the support that his sister had always given him through shared silence.
Written by India Wittmershaus.
Cover photo by India Wittmershaus.