The Mute
    In John Banville's Booker Prize winning novel The Sea, the narrator recapitulates his boyhood summers in a small, Irish seacoast resort village. Avoiding his unhappy parents most of the time, he attached himself to a more affluent and somewhat eccentric family nearby, the Graces, among whom his contemporaries were the twins Chloe and Myles. The twins, almost inseparable, are curious children: Chloe moody and unpredictable, on whom the young narrator develops a crush; and her odd brother Myles, mischievous, silent, and probably autistic. Here is one account:

They were twins. I had never encountered twins before, in the flesh, and was fascinated and at the same time slightly repelled. There seemed to me something almost indecent in such a predicament. True, they were brother and sister and so could not be identical --- the very thought of identical twins sent a shiver of secret and mysterious excitement along my spine --- but still there must be between them an awful depth of intimacy.

...How, how would it be? I itched to know. In the makeshift picture-house one wet Sunday afternoon --- here I leap ahead --- we were watching a film in which two convicts from a chain-gang made their escape still manacled together, and beside me Chloe stirred and made a muffled sound, a sort of laughing sigh. "Look," she whispered, "it's me and Myles."

Once --- this is an even longer leap forward --- when I got up the nerve to ask Chloe straight out to tell me, because I longed to know, what it felt like, this state of unavoidable intimacy with her brother --- her other! --- she thought for a moment and then held up her hands before her face, the palms pressed almost together but not quite touching. "Like two magnets," she said, "but turned the wrong way, pulling and pushing." After she had said it she fell darkly silent, as though this time it was she who thought she had let drop a shaming secret, and she turned away from me, and I felt for a moment something of the same panicky dizziness that I did when I held my breath for too long under water. She was never less than alarming, was Chloe.

The link between them was palpable. They were tied to each other, tied and bound. They felt things in common, pains, emotions, fears. They shared thoughts. They would wake in the night and lie listening to each other breathing, knowing they had been dreaming the same thing. They did not tell each other what was in the dream. There was no need. They knew.

Myles had been mute from birth. Or rather, he had never spoken. The doctors could find no cause that would account for his stubborn silence, and professed themselves baffled, or skeptical, or both. At first it had been assumed that he was a late starter and that in time he would begin to speak like everybody else, but the years went on and still he said not a word. Whether he had the ability to speak and chose not to, no one seemed to know. Could he have a voice that he never used? Did he practice when there was no one to hear? I imagined him at night, in bed, under the covers, whispering to himself and smiling that avid, elfin smile of his. Or maybe he talked to Chloe. How they would have laughed, forehead to forehead and their arms thrown around each other's neck, sharing their secret.

"He'll talk when he has something to say," his father would growl, with his accustomed menacing cheeriness

It was plain that Mr. Grace did not care for his son. He avoided him when he could, and was especially unwilling to be alone with him. This was no wonder, for being alone with Myles was like being in a room which someone had just violently left. His muteness was a pervasive and cloying emanation. He said nothing but was never silent. He was always fidgeting with things, snatching them up and immediately throwing them down again with a clatter. He made dry little clicking noises at the back of his throat. One heard him breathe.

His mother treated him with a sort of trailing vagueness. At moments as she weaved abstractedly through her day --- although she was not a serious drinker she always looked to be mellowly a little drunk --- she would stop and seem to notice him with not quite recognition, and would frown and smile at the same time, in a rueful, helpless fashion.

Neither parent could do proper sign language, and spoke to Myles by way of an improvised, brusque dumb-show that seemed less an attempt at communication than an impatient waving of him out of their sight. Yet he understood well enough what it was they were trying to say, and often before they were halfway through trying to say it, which only made them more impatient and irritated with him. Deep down they were both, I am sure, a little afraid of him. That is no wonder either. It must have been like living with an all too visible, all too tangible poltergeist.

--- From The Sea
John Banville © 2005
Random House
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