DP FICTION #98B: “Bottled Words” by Carol Scheina

When Dad sent me into the kitchen for a container—any lidded vessel at all—to bottle Grandma’s voice, all I could find were lonely lids.

That wasn’t unexpected. When Dad cooked, he turned the bottom of pans into crusts of blackened rice, resistant to any amount of scrubbing, eventually slipping them into the darkness of a closed trash bag. He somehow managed to explode our ovenproof casserole dishes when baking. Thus our pots and dishes had vanished, though he’d kept the lids, vowing to find a match at the thrift store. He never did.

I spread lids over the white kitchen tile like a buffet of metal and ceramic, these orphans of failed dinners. Wondering what would work best to capture a sound.

Not knowing what would work best for, in truth, I’d never actually heard a bottled voice. I didn’t want to risk it. Not with hearing aids.

Unbottle a voice and it would vibrate through air, giving you one—just one—chance for your brain to turn those waves into recognizable words. But for me, it’s not like I could stop a bottled voice and ask, “Can you say that again?” There was no listening over and over, trying to see if I could recognize a new word here or there. There was no telling a disembodied voice that yes, I could hear it with hearing aids, but no, the sound wasn’t clear enough, or my brain wasn’t able to piece the sounds into words, or that I’d much prefer to read its voice on paper.

Dad wanted to bottle Grandma’s voice while she stayed with us, these three summery-melty days before her room at the memory care facility opened. Three days of feeling sunshine through windows and trying to catch a glimpse of warmth in Grandma’s eyes. It had been so long since I’d seen that warmth.

Three days to bottle words I’d never risk listening to.

I couldn’t tell Dad that, though. People can keep words bottled up too.

When I finally dashed upstairs, I carried a cereal bowl with a yellowish Corningware casserole glass top sliding around like an oversized hat. But I was too late. Grandma’s words had vanished into silence.

Silence never really bothered me much, since all it took was a little click-off of my aids and I’d be in silence again.

Except with Grandma, the silence from her was also in the way she sat, the way she looked and didn’t see you.

Dad’s sigh was too soft for my hearing aids, but I could see it, the way his shoulders sagged like one of those droopy thrift store sweaters you see slipping off the hanger. “I wasn’t expecting Grandma to be lucid, but she came back to me for a bit.” He looked at the cereal bowl and casserole lid. “I’ll see if I can find some secondhand pots at the thrift store tonight. We’ll be ready next time.”

I watched Dad’s mouth as I listened. I’d been watching that mouth since birth, connecting the sounds I picked up along with mouth movements in some strange dance that formed words in my mind. Even if I didn’t always get every sound, I could always nod like I understood everything.

I nodded.

Grandma shifted in her chair, the one that had given Dad that wide, excited grin when he’d brought it home from a yard sale. It was exactly like the chair Grandma used to have in her house, but this one was too stiff. Grandma’s chair had rings from the stains that had been washed out, a few threads pulled here and there, but it had always smelled like clean lemons and molded around your butt like a soft hug.

Grandma used to be hugs and smiles, and now we were all shifting around uncomfortably like we were in stiff chairs of our own.

Grandma didn’t look up when I popped a kiss on her cheek and stepped out of the room.

Dad tapped my shoulder to draw my eyes. “We’ve got time. I want to make sure her voice is there with all our family voices. We’ve got a lot of bottles. A lot of family history waiting for you.”

I nodded.

“Your mom’s waiting too.”

I don’t exactly hear when a voice cracks, but I can see it. The cracks were there in Dad’s eyes, blinking a faster-than-usual rhythm. They were there in his clenched jaw. The little ways a body can crack and show the sorrow under the surface.

I couldn’t do a simple nod-response to those cracks, so I muttered, “Soon.” I’d been muttering that since I hit twelve and Dad thought I was finally old enough to be able to remember the voices. To remember Mom’s voice.

More cracks in Dad’s face.

I slipped into my room with an echo of “soon” around me. I didn’t want to hear that. That was a lie. I turned the aids off, the abrupt silence ringing in my ears until that faded.

I sat on my bed and felt like a lid in our kitchen. Unable to hold any sound.

***

I lived in a house with a never-ending game of Telephone keeping the family stories alive.

Nearly every free wall had vintage bookshelves that Dad purchased from online yard sales, estate sales, antique shops. They all veered toward shades of dark brown, shiny with oils and age, with scents of dust and cigar smoke and bitter wood settled in like a house guest you’d never be able to evict.

Those bookshelves held our ancestor’s bottled voices. The oldest containers were rusty tin cans, the lids held on with yellowed string that Dad had reinforced with duct tape. A family member whose name has long blurred to forgetfulness in my mind (Dad remembered them all) had been organized and put voices in clear mason jars topped with round lids and a square of plaid fabric. I liked to trace the swirly glass patterns with my eyes and imagine what a voice looked like.

Oh, people wrote stories down, of course, but as Dad always reminded me, with that eye-sparkle he got, “It’s powerful when you hear a bottled voice. You get the feel of their breath in your ear. The smell of oranges or spaghetti sauce or whatever they’d last eaten. Bottling a voice is more than just words on paper, or a video or tape recording. You can hear more, feel more. You get to sit down with someone in the past.”

Seems like a lot of stuff wasn’t the same unless it came straight from the voice, but I wouldn’t know about that.

The family rule was when you heard a voice, you remembered the story and told it again in a new container. One day, I was supposed to bottle my own voice—probably into a pot with a mismatched lid.

Our family stories would literally speak-and breathe—for generations to come.

Except Grandma had stories she still hadn’t bottled. Dad had found Grandma’s records and knew there were stories that were missing. Stories he wanted to save, stories for me.

***

On Grandma’s second day at our house, the sky grumped gray clouds at us, matching Dad’s mood. Grandma stayed silent.

Come evening, the three of us sat at the dinner table—one of those vintage white Formica tables with aluminum legs. All our chairs were different shades and shapes of wood, as Dad hadn’t found matching chairs just yet at his weekly thrift store visits.

While Grandma ate, she kept her eyes aimed at her plate, fork moving up and down with the regularity of a machine.

Dad pulled up old videos to watch on the computer. He watched videos most every night—old family tapes converted to digital, YouTube videos on ancient wars, past methods of food preparation—you name it.

A lot of stuff wasn’t professionally captioned, and the auto-captioning was just cringe-worthy. I used to get angry over the lack of words on the screen, but … no, to be honest, I still get angry. A whole online world that shut me out simply because I couldn’t hear well enough. But I didn’t like feeling angry all the time, or making Dad feel guilty about enjoying his videos. It wasn’t his fault the captions sucked. So as Dad watched his videos, I turned my hearing aids off and opened a book.

Slipping into a book was like slipping into Grandma’s old, familiar chair. It hugged my brain.

Until Dad tapped the table to get my attention.

I looked up. His mouth moved. I nodded, but he knew I wasn’t listening, his fingers pointing at my ears. Sometimes, I couldn’t bluff at hearing. I turned both aids on.

Dad waited for my thumbs up confirmation. Sound had been activated.

“I burned another pot.”

“Oh, Dad.”

He grinned. “Saved the lid! I’ll try to find a new pot next time I go shopping. But hey, scoot your chair closer to Grandma. I’ve got a video I want us to watch together.”

“Is it captioned?” I stepped into that question carefully.

“I’ve got this new captioning plug-in that should work. Besides, it’s good practice for you to hear her voice. You’ve been doing great with the hearing aids.” Dad fiddled with the computer. “I remember when you were born, doctors thought you wouldn’t be able to hear at all, and now look at you.” Pride in his voice.

What could I say to that? I nodded.

The video on the computer screen showed Grandma with fewer lines in her face, more blinks in her eyes. There were no stumbles in her voice. I could hear the rhythm, the surety as she spoke. Yet Grandma’s voice was a pattern of rising and lowering pitches that my brain couldn’t fit into words. Puzzle pieces that couldn’t be pounded into place.

I shifted over to the captioning to help: “Prince esterable knowing five anna into the sea.”

How I despised auto-captioning.

Dad rarely noticed the words onscreen. I don’t think he’d notice if a tornado screamed next to our kitchen, to be honest, so lost he became when it came to history. I didn’t want to break the mood and bug him once more about the indecipherable words on the screen.

Instead, I watched Grandma’s face as she watched her younger self on the screen—the way she leaned forward on that stiff chair, lips moving as though reciting the story along with herself. She’d grown softer in just a few moments of video.

Dad had an aluminum pot ready when the video ended.

“Do you remember that story? Can you tell it to me?”

But Grandma had gone stiff again.

Dad slumped back into his chair. “I want to at least get one of Grandma’s voice to put up there. So many voices up there for you to hear. See that ugly tin up there? That one’s from the 1890s. Not sure why no one’s opened that yet. I’ve always wanted to be the first, but figured I’d wait for my kid so there’d be another generation to hear it.”

I gave a quick smile and nod.

Dad didn’t let up, though. “At some point, I bet you’ll be ready to hear your mom.”

“At some point. Soon.” I pushed my chair back from the table.

Dad looked at the shelves. I didn’t want to look at him.

Grandma looked at her food. Her eyes didn’t move as I kissed her cheek.

In my room, my eyes slipped back into my book. People talked on pages, but you didn’t have to hear them. I never had to worry if a hearing aid battery died mid-sentence, or if I didn’t hear the sentence properly. I never had to say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that.”

I never had to smile and nod and pretend.

***

On Grandma’s last full day with us, Dad’s mouth had gotten all tight and pinched at the ends.

Dad was convinced that even though we’d still visit her at the memory care center, it wouldn’t be the same. If she was ever going to open up again, it would be here, surrounded by family.

He settled into a chair beside her, videos of Young Grandma speaking. Several times, he started the opening of a story and waited for her to continue.

I could feel the pressure building like one of Dad’s casseroles in the oven, his voice bearing down on Grandma’s thin shoulders.

No wonder she never spoke. Stories should be comfortable places to slip into.

Dad called me in close to dinnertime. “I need a break. Can you watch her while I make dinner? Call me if she starts to talk?”

I nodded.

Grandma’s eyes focused on a book, thin and tall, the cover’s bright colors rubbed to pastels. It looked like one of Dad’s thrift store finds.

Book in hand, I sat into the seat opposite Grandma, and we settled into our worlds.

Silence nestled around us like a warm blanket. She looked comfortable in her chair, for once.

***

Dad tapped the table that evening before I could start eating. “Are you plugged in?!” Not shouting, but his lips over-enunciated every syllable.

“My aids are on. Sound’s activated.”

“I noticed you two were reading earlier. She say anything about that?”

“No. Maybe she just doesn’t want to talk. Maybe she just wants to read her book.”

Grandma’s fork moved up and down.

Dad’s eyes sparkled. “Our family stories aren’t like anything you’ll ever find in a book. I got to hear an account of our ancestors during the 1700s, told by my grandmother, who’d heard it from hers. I listened after my grandmother had died, and hearing her voice again, feeling the breath against my cheek, the smell of her rose perfume… It was powerful.”

I nodded.

His eyes shifted to the shelves of Our Family History. “Time goes by so quickly. Things change, a jar accidentally breaks, and the opportunity is lost. Look at your grandmother. Her stories are gone, and I wonder if we’re ever going to get them back.”

I mumbled, “It’s okay.”

“What?”

Voice a bit louder. “It should be okay if Grandma doesn’t talk. We don’t have to bottle everything.”

Silence, and this one stretched an oily film of discomfort over the table. “Those bottles are our connection with the past. People we’ve lost. Your mother’s voice is up there waiting for you.”

“I know. I’ll listen soon.”

“When is that going to be?” Cracks in his face.

“When I’m ready.”

“Why don’t we listen to something tonight. If you practice more at listening, you’ll get better.”

My knuckles turned white gripping the fork. “Practice is not going to magically restore my hearing.”

“Your hearing aids…”

But I’d tipped a ball down a mountainside, and I couldn’t stop it from rolling. “I can’t even understand videos without captioning. I don’t catch every word that’s said. I don’t hear like you!”

Grandma looked up, fork frozen.

Dad’s eyes shifted to the bottled voices, then back to me. I wonder if he was thinking the same thing I was: I would never be a part of the family history.

Who could swallow dinner after swallowing that truth? My chair scraped back as I scrambled from the vintage table, past the vintage shelves. Past a history that would never be mine.

Into my room. Onto my bed, the bedspread soft and welcoming, a book with words I could dive into and always follow.

I read. I understood every word.

Like Dad didn’t understand me. Like I’d never understand Mom.

I couldn’t read any more; not with a face full of wet.

***

When my face dried off, I realized Dad had slipped in and out without me hearing him. The only way I knew that was because of the note on my bed. My eyes still felt blurry, and I had rub them a bit to make out his sloppy word shapes.

Your mom liked to make up silly songs. Like Grandma. These are the words your mom bottled for you:

Little baby, sweet as ice cream

You are why I’m craving ice cream

Gonna send your dad to pick some up for me

Chocolate chip or cookies and cream

Having you is such a dream

Little baby, you’ll be my sweetest ice cream

All these years, he’d asked if I was ready to hear Mom’s voice. Had he unbottled Mom’s container now?

Why did that hit me so hard?

I didn’t want to open it anyway.

I wouldn’t hear it properly.

But I’d never have the opportunity now.

That hit like every one of our vintage bookshelves were pressing down on my chest.

I threw off the soft bedcovers.

Dad sat at the Formica table alone, forehead resting on a green jar with a neat gold lid. He heard me coming in. Of course he did.

He spoke first: “I never told you which container held your mother’s voice. I just realized you’ve never asked.”

“Did you open it?” I asked.

He shook his head. “I listened to every single other voice she bottled. I went through them all in a few weeks. But this is your jar. She made it just for you. I was there. Three days after she bottled this, she went into early labor and …”

I knew this story. Dad didn’t have to tell me any more. I’d been born too early, with ears that didn’t work right. The birth hadn’t gone right, and her story ended shortly after mine began.

Dad’s voice sounded full of lumps. It took all my lipreading to make the rest of his words out: “I’ve been trying to remember her voice all this time. The past, it just … slips away, no matter how hard I try. It’s so hard to find things to bring it back.”

Silence can be knowing there’s a river between two people and wondering how to build a bridge across it.

Into that quiet, Grandma walked in, the thin rubbed-cover book in her hand. She placed it on the white tabletop and looked at me with a hug behind her eyes. Let’s read together.

So much can be said without words. Grandma was proof.

And sometimes, you need those silences to form words that can’t be kept inside.

I let the silence linger before taking a deep breath. “Dad, even with aids, I still don’t pick up everything you do. That’s why I like reading. Captions, books, anything. It’s my way of understanding things. Not through sound. That’s why I’ve never asked which bottle was Mom’s. I’d never hear it right.”

Dad’s turn to step into the silence. “I always liked to think you couldn’t bluff me. That I’d know if you weren’t listening or just pretending to understand. You bluffed better than I knew.”

He gave a lopsided grin before growing serious again. “When I found out you couldn’t hear, someone recommended I use sign language with you. Maybe it’s time to look into that.”

Sign language. What would stories be like through that? I knew about sign, but my world had always been voices, lipreading, hearing aids. What if I could be a new pot, ready to be filled with new words and stories and … signs?

A future tickled at my thoughts, but first—

“Can we open Mom’s jar?”

Dad’s lips tightened. “I don’t want to pressure you. You don’t have to listen.”

“I’m going to read. You’re going to listen.”

Did people feel all fluttery when they uncorked genies in bottles?

When the gold lid came off, Dad, Grandma and I sat around the kitchen table. I squeezed Grandma’s hand. She squeezed back as sound vibrated through the air. Dad listened with soft lips, eyes closed, holding my other hand.

It didn’t matter that I didn’t hear every word. Family surrounded me.

I read my father’s words, eyes tracing every letter of Mom’s song.

I felt my mother’s breath.

Vanilla ice cream. She smelled of ice cream.


© 2023 by Carol Scheina

3324 words

Author’s Note: The overwhelming majority of deaf children (around 90 percent in the United States) are born to hearing parents. A large number of those parents do not learn to sign to their children. I fall into that statistic, as I grew up a deaf child in a non-signing family. Many families – mine included – have traditions and songs from generations past. Those traditions are a beautiful thing. But for me, with a 90-100 decibel hearing loss in both ears, I struggled with words to religious ceremonies and lyrics to songs. I struggled to explain that hearing aids didn’t fully restore my hearing. Those experiences formed the basis of this story.

Carol Scheina is a deaf speculative fiction author who hails from the
Northern Virginia region. Her stories have appeared in publications
such as Escape Pod, Cossmass Infinities, Daily Science Fiction, and
more. You can follow her work at carolscheina.wordpress.com.


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