Editor’s Note: The average person speaks 16,000 words per day. But what if women were limited to just 100? That is the premise of Vox, a forthcoming novel from the linguist Christina Dalcher. “Last year,” she says, “for a doomsday-themed contest, my inner linguist (who’s got a tremendously loud voice) suggested I imagine a world without language, which was terrifying, but not as terrifying as the next idea — where I imagined a world where only half of the population had language taken away from them.” Check out the exclusive cover reveal, and read an excerpt from the novel, which goes on sale Aug. 21.
Sometimes, I trace invisible letters on my palm. While Patrick and the boys talk with their tongues outside, I talk with my fingers. I scream and whine and curse about what, in Patrick’s words, “used to be.”
This is how things are now: We have allotments of one hundred words a day. My books, even the old copies of Julia Child and — here’s irony — the tattered red-and-white-checked Better Homes and Gardens a friend decided would be a cute joke for a wedding gift, are locked in cupboards so Sonia can’t get at them. Which means I can’t get at them either. Patrick carries the keys around like a weight, and sometimes I think it’s the heaviness of this burden that makes him look older.
It’s the little stuff I miss most: jars of pens and pencils tucked into the corners of every room, notepads wedged in between cookbooks, the dry-erase shopping list on the wall next to the spice cabinet. Even my old refrigerator poetry magnets, the ones Steven used to concoct ridiculous Italo-English sentences with, laughing himself to pieces. Gone, gone, gone. Like my e-mail account.
Some of life’s little sillinesses remain the same. I still drive, hit the grocery store on Tuesdays and Fridays, shop for new dresses and handbags, get my hair done once a month down at Iannuzzi’s. Not that I’ve changed the cut—I’d need too many precious words to tell Stefano how much to take off here and how much to leave there. My leisure reading limits itself to billboards advertising the latest energy drink, ingredients lists on ketchup bottles, washing instructions on clothing tags: Do not bleach.
Riveting material, all of it.
Sundays, we take the kids to a movie and buy popcorn and soda, those little rectangular boxes of chocolates with the white nonpareils on top, the kind you find only in movie theaters, never in the shops. Sonia always laughs at the cartoons that play while the audience files in. The films are a distraction, the only time I hear female voices unconstrained and unlimited. Actresses are allowed a special dispensation while they’re on the job. Their lines, of course, are written by men.
During the first months, I did sneak a peek at a book now and again, scratch a quick note on the back of a cereal box or an egg carton, write a love note to Patrick in lipstick on our bathroom mirror. I had good reasons, very good ones—Don’t think about them, Jean; don’t think about the women you saw in the grocery store—to keep note writing inside the house. Then Sonia came in one morning, caught the lipsticked message she couldn’t read, and yelped, “Letters! Bad!”
I kept communication inside me from that point, only writing a few words to Patrick in the evenings after the kids were in bed, burning the paper scraps in a tin can. With Steven the way he is now, I don’t even risk that.
Patrick and the boys, out on the back porch close to my window, are swapping stories about school, politics, the news, while crickets buzz in the dark around our bungalow. They make so much noise, those boys and those crickets. Deafening.
All my words ricochet in my head as I listen, emerge from my throat in a heavy, meaningless sigh. And all I can think about are Jackie’s last words to me.
Think about what you need to do to stay free.
Well, doing more than f–k all might have been a good place to start.
None of this is Patrick’s fault. That’s what I tell myself tonight.
He tried to speak up when the concept first bounced around the concave walls of a blue office in a white building on Pennsylvania Avenue. I know he did. The apology in his eyes is hard to miss, but speaking up has never been Patrick’s strong point.
And Patrick wasn’t the man who showered votes on Sam Myers before the last election, the same man who promised even more votes the next time Myers ran. The man who, years ago, Jackie liked to call Saint Carl.
All the president had to do was listen, take instruction, and sign shit—a small price to pay for eight years as the most powerful man in the world. By the time he was elected, though, there wasn’t that much left to sign. Every devilish detail had already been seen to.
Somewhere along the line, what was known as the Bible Belt, that swath of Southern states where religion ruled, started expanding. It morphed from belt to corset, covering all but the country’s limbs—the democratic utopias of California, New England, the Pacific Northwest, DC, the southern jurisdictions of Texas and Florida—places so far on the blue end of the spectrum they seemed untouchable. But the corset turned into a full bodysuit, eventually reaching all the way to Hawaii.
And we never saw it coming.
Excerpted from the book Vox, by Christina Dalcher. Reprinted with permission of Berkley.