Tuesday, July 05, 2005

FINGERED: deafblog serial #6

by Joseph Santini
copyright 2005

She knew, thought Amil. She knew something, anyway. At the moment Amil did not care. His job, his books, his family, even the reason he'd gone to the Bowery last night. All paled in the heat he'd felt from the stage last night. All his plans had been erased by the vision of light-bathed hands which moved like a dream holding a dream.

Amil sat on a grey couch in a grey New York room, made slightly clean by half-hearted efforts. On his television a tape played. Some very ugly woman was repeatedly signing "Abortion. Abortion,"with a rather irritated look on her face. He'd learned far more from watching the young man on stage last night who had turned, however briefly, into a god.

The others had not affected me half as much, he sighed to himself. These beautiful Deaf people, with their wide and open faces, the power of the gyroscope powering the communicative drives fixed in their bodies. He remembered the first one he had met, the path he'd been tumbled onto, like an egg carefully but deftly passed from hand to hand.


He remembered the first Deaf man he had met. They had met because of warts, in Riyadh, in the white school not far from the gardens he tended to support his medical school habit. As he often said, he hoped to kick it one day.

"Herpes simplex," his teacher intoned. "The unfortunate personal habits of these young, uncontrollable children mean that when it arrives, it spreads rapidly. Fourteen cases are here, all presenting elevated, rounded vesicles and even a couple of ulcers doin' the jiggy wit' it." The man smiled unpleasantly. "A little proof, I think, that this sign language is dangerous in the wrong hands."

Amil knew his teacher had some association with the Oralingua people, who believed Deaf children must spend their early years learning to speak a language they cannot hear. This meant the particular school in which they were working today was anathema to him, and he took every opportunity to criticise it. Instead of saying, "These children use their hands more often, have their teachers thought to tell them to wash their hands more often?" he blamed the children for their quite natural behavior. Amil knew nothing of the theory behind the battling systems of education; the children here seemed happy, and he thought the man and children would benefit if he would pay more attention to his job. "Your job, Amil, is to check them for any secondary infections, treat them if necessary, and instruct them in the rules of cleanliness."

So Amil saw his first Deaf people – children. Saw, but not met, for though he smiled at them and welcomed them in his heart, he could not ask their names. They communicated through gesturing. In the old days people believed that sign languages were "slower" than spoken languages. This had more to do with gesture; sometimes stories are so visual that they beg to be gestured rather than signed, in the same way that sometimes people will be talking about the sound of a bird and pause to imitate it – to show the clarity of the bell. They communicated through precise gestures, but this did take hours. On his eighth child he ran out of gloves so he took a break while the teaching assistant went to get more and pick up the next. Outside the grey little room he'd been left in by his grey teacher was a fuqara, sitting on a bench smoking a cigarette in the dry wind.

As a fuqara he wore a mask, so the young student-gardener Amil could not see his face. fuqara were powerful people, still. The shamans of the desert. They could be right in front of you on the sands and you would only see them if they wished you to. It would pay to pay his respects. He did so, closing his eyes and bowing.

When he rose the fuqara considered him. Not sure what next to do, Amil said, "Sir, how can I help you?"He felt as if he were a five-year-old boy again.

The man's hand cupped an invisible ball and he moved it back and forth, then created a sphere with it and his right hand in the air above his head. Embarrassed, Amil folded his hands behind his back respectfully, waiting for the mystic to complete his rituals. He started when he heard giggling, croaking laughter and the thonk! of a thunking foot.

"No, do not worry," the man said. "I did that, show you what I am. I can speak. But I sign Arabic. These children are my tribe." He pointed. The most recently-seen child, Abbas Khossein, was walking around to the front of the school, singing quietly to himself. The man signed something, then shook his head and smiled. "You have done good work today. I have had to do nothing. I heard there was a new student come to work at the school. I wished to see that these jureibe'e were cared for by one with the mark of Allah as healer."The man stretched, so skinny his robes seemed to cover only air and pulled a small bag from his robes. "Here, then. A welcoming gift. If you need me and my help to keep these little ones together and alive, set this on fire and bury the ashes in the ground." He held the wifq out to Amil, whose conscious, Western-educated mind was reasserting itself. A crazy old Deaf man who could speak, giving him this bag which was probably full of old dry bones?

The old man laughed. "Don't believe me, do you? Well, I shall tell you a secret. In my people the Deaf man is highly prized as a fuqara. We can see things others cannot, and our skill with sign language means our spells are tightly made. We can steal hearts. We can heal. What is more important, we also see the relationships between these things. It is the children I care for. I ask for nothing for myself. Will you not trust me?" He said the words of insult with a grain of affection; with that, the twig of a man shoved the wifq at Amil and left, hands… chanting? Yes. They were repeating. The old Deaf fool was signing. And… and… he'd just repeated, word for word, the little not-quite insult his teacher had given earlier.

Over the next two years as a student Amil would meet the old man again and again. Though he had no talent for the work of a shaman, he could see and appreciate the wonders his friend could work. His friend was not supposed to be there, a child of the old regime and neither recognized or supported by the current one. They both had the welfare of the children first; for Amil, such things made rules flexible.

He had cause to use the wifq only once. He had saved it for dire need. One day in the morning he came to the school to find the children clustered around a body on the ground. It was Abbas Khossein. He lay naked and bleeding and strangely twisted. Amil felt his mind shift as the children sparked and signed around him. A part of him watched his body examine the body. Another part of him – saw the wifq.

He blamed himself always for letting the first part overcome the second. He called his teacher, the doctor (who he knew now was trained in America, and had more than a little pride in himself because of this.) The doctor examined the boy and found him a victim of rape and assault to the head – and very near death. Hearing this – joined with the look of pain in the eyes of the boy (eyes the doctor himself chose never to meet) – Amil said, half to himself: " I will call Colu Colu." This was the fuqara's name.

The doctor heard him. "That fool! That charlatan! You'd trust in his services? Where has he studied? What has he learned?"

"He can talk to the children," was all Amil could say. The doctor refused him again. Amil recognized the pride growing, cobra-like, hissing to strike. So he simply nodded, and left, and went to the wifq in his dormitory, and burned it, and buried the ashes in the sand. But when he went back to the tent, the doctor stood in front, smoking a cigarette. Apparently he had decided to stand guard all night. Amil went back to his dormitory, and watched from a window on the roof. He could just see the lights in the windows.

That night strange things happened. First, a low windy hum rose from the desert, and sand seemed to coalsce around the tent. When it faded the doctor was still there. A warning, thought Amil. He was surprised to see no lights in the windows, other than that of the sickroom; the children were so abnormally curious…

Secondly, cobras seemed to descend outside of the sickroom. Amil counted a round dozen of them, hissing. A warning? A reminder? thought Amil, for the cobra was also the symbol of medicine. This time the Deaf children did come to their windows, laughing and pointing at the snakes. In the light of the candles they seemed utterly unafraid.

An hour later, just before dawn, a cry echoed through the night. Sure that Abbas was dead, Amil ran to the sickroom. He found the boy sitting up in bed, perfectly well; the doctor lay on the ground, holding inside. "One of the snakes," he gasped. "It came in, it bit me, it came out from under the boy's pillow." Then he died, and there was a thonk! like that of a walking stick. And though he did not see Colu Colu again for two weeks, he knew the man had been there on that night, taking care of the children of his people. He made arrangements for Abbas to go away for a short time, to hide the miracle of his recovery, and that night he wept with fear and relief.

Amil did not himself have the talent to be a shaman. Eventually the man who called himself Colu Colu taught him two things – one, two speak in a special way Deaf people could understand more easily. And the second thing – to see the glow of those who did have the talent to be a fuqara, and serve their community. "For," the old man had said, "I will live not much longer. You will be a hunter instead of a shaman. Perhaps you will bring one to me. Perhaps you will simply let them know what they are, and their own path…" he coughed.

Amil nodded. He would be going to America, to complete the training he'd begun. He would start there. But still, he hesitated. Colu Colu, I have to know. Was it you who sent the snakes that night? To kill the doctor and save the boy?

The old man laughed. "Was it snakes that made you go to the school of medicine? Was it the wind that drove you?" He coughed again. "I will tell you what you already know. Sign languages are dangerous in the wrong hands." He paused a moment. "And something you might not: that the Deaf Nation has many tribes. This world, this school, is only one of them." Quiet again, he stared at the setting sun.

A month later, he'd been in New York, hunting for Natalie.


Last night the glow surrounding Mark had been the glow of a shaman. This troubled Amil; his promise, long ago, was to help the old man find a replacement to serve the tribe of the Deaf. It was a promise with strength to compel him equal to the directive from his former employer which had brought him to the States, the directive to find and watch Natalie Fallon.

Yet – more disturbingly – it was not the only thing that had kept his eyes on Mark last night. There had been beauty there. Attraction. "We steal hearts," the fuqara had said, as if Deaf people were refugees from Fairyland. And now he'd had his stolen twice in two weeks.

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