He Breathes the Past

(January 19, 2009)
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The flight to South America was dull, except when it was upsetting. Par for the course, really, thought Michelle, who was trying - and, generally, failing - to avoid descending into cynicism. That's why they were winging their way away from their typical routine, after all: to inject a bit of levity into a landscape of banality, to try to inspire a change in tone via a change in scenery, to go someplace where she wouldn't need to feel so perpetually confused.

That was her secret, the one she had hidden from her family for as long as that family had existed: despite the love and acceptance that flowed as richly and surely through her veins as hemoglobin, Michelle felt lost and confused more often than not. She couldn't decide if the emotions were so powerful because she understood too much about her life and those who shared it, or because she understood nothing - that life was a poem she was being forced to recite in a language she didn't speak. The syllables were heavy and pregnant with potential meaning, but moments after they flowed free of her they fell from the air, pelting her body like rotten tomatoes thrown by an unimpressed audience.

She considered this as she watched her son, who wasn't peering out the window or playing with toys like the other children on board. He sat instead with unfocused eyes and twitching fingers, gazing into the middle distance between the back of the seat ahead of him and his Spider-man t-shirt. Don was attempting to engage him, waving his hands above his head like rabbit ears and squealing in a cartoonish voice - If ever there were a man devoid of embarrassment, it's my husband - but it was a hopeless effort.

The boy was almost impossible to interact with at the best of times, and she'd noticed long ago that flights made him behave in ways that were unusual for him. His doctor had assured her that it was just the shock of the enclosed and pressurized environment, but she worried all the same. He normally waved his limbs and was extremely expressive, even if those expressions were inscrutable. Each time he had flown, he had fallen still and quiet moments after takeoff, remaining that way until the plane had reached its destination. It was as if his light dimmed temporarily, leaving him without motivation. Don, never one to give up without a fight, had attempted to talk, touch, dance around, and wave toys at his son, but nothing changed his hunched posture, his unseeing stare.

The stewardess had passed by several times, growing less sunny and more perturbed with each pass. She saw that there was something unusual about the boy, but she was unable to categorize it as retardation or illness; his demeanour was distant, almost alien, and more off-putting for that. Michelle was in no mood to explain the situation, so she ignored the woman's curious stare, flipping pages of the novel she was failing to read. It was a long flight, and her face and her book gradually grew closer together; she hovered at the edge of sleep when she heard the stewardess's anxious voice overhead.

"Is your son all right?"

She sat up, reaching out to lay a protective hand on his shoulder. "Jakub? What are you doing, sweetie?" He didn't respond, which she had expected, but neither did he tense up at her touch. He was still staring, but he was also frowning, brows knitted like those of an old man struggling to remember his own name. Don was already trying to rouse him, but he was lost somewhere far from them, focusing on something they could not perceive.

The noise that had woken Michelle was what had alerted the stewardess. Jakub was humming loudly, a sound she'd never heard him make before. His mouth was open slightly, reducing the vibrations; his voice trilled up and down the scale, wobbling and wending its way between notes without settling on any.

It sounded just like birdsong.


They reached the city of Uberaba half an hour after landing; by then, things were back to normal. Or neurologically abnormal, as the case may be. Jakub had stopped singing about an hour after he had started, and had spent the ground travel time looking all around the taxi's interior, touching the seats with a look of fascination. He ignored the scene outside of the windows, but Michelle wasn't surprised by that; the child always focused on his immediate surroundings as he narrated what he saw in an unintelligible mutter, his attention rarely straying to scenes more than a few feet away from him. She had no idea what grounded him so thoroughly, though it had its perks: he'd never run away from her.

Unlike their son, Michelle and Don were enamoured of the view: on the outskirts of the city, the river wound around farmland dotted with cattle and teeming with crops; nearer the core, the skyscrapers acted as punctuation for waves of adobe-roofed houses. The sky was a bright, clear blue, and the palm trees seemed much better-situated in this brightly-coloured landscape than in their native Pasadena. Michelle had been dubious when Don had proposed a trip to the city that housed his company's main source of corn and ethanol, but actually arriving there made the prospect seem much more pleasant.

Maybe this is just what we need. A vacation is always a good idea, and as Don said, it may help Jakub to see a completely different sort of place, where no one expects him to talk to them...

They arrived at the hotel, and when they walked to the front desk to check in, a cheerful man with brilliantly white teeth greeted them: "Boa vinda a Brasil!" Michelle smiled back and tried out one of her three Portuguese phrases. "Obrigado, senhor!" As Don signed off on their room, she walked Jakub around the festively decorated lobby. He stared mostly at the floor, tracing the mosaic tiles with the toe of his sneaker, but after a few moments, he glanced up and uttered a string of sounds. One of the bellhops spun around and glared at them both, inhaling sharply.

"Pardon me?" His English was perfect. Michelle stared in confusion.
"My son and I were just looking at your hotel, sir. Is there a problem?"
The man frowned slightly, visibly weighing his words. "No, senhora. I must have misheard your son."
"You must have. My son does not speak."

She was happy to see Don coming their way, and happier still to go up to their room for the night. Anything to avoid yet another explanation, yet more confusion.


The next day, they rented a car and drove to Historia Escura, the plantation Don did business with. After the customary greetings, salutations, commiserations, and obsequious affectations, his business contact, Mr. Niyardi, referred the family to a slender young man who had just arrived from the field.

"Davi Pueria is one of our senior farming technicians. Most of our men don't speak English, but his is very good. He can show you around, take you on a tour of our organic crops; you'll inhale a lot less pesticide that way." He and Don shared a knowing grin. "We'll meet for a late lunch and some business once you're done. Before work, have some fun!"

Davi was sun-kissed and muscular, traits obviously related to his line of work. Michelle did not find him particularly handsome, but she appreciated his easy smile; he seemed like a good choice of guide. She felt sure of this when he turned to Jakub and crouched so that he was face-to-face with the boy. Jakub did not make eye contact, but he glanced in the man's direction, which was more than he generally did. Davi waved to him. "Bom dia, homem novo! That's how we say good afternoon here in Brazil. My name is Davi. What's your name? Would you like to see our fields?" Before he could realize that no answers would ever be forthcoming, Don spoke.

"This is Jakub. He's five, and he's friendly - and he has autism. He's nonverbal, which means he won't respond to your questions. We believe he understands what we say, though, so please talk to him." The lead-up varied, but the answer was always the same, whether or not the question had actually been asked.

The farmer, to his credit, took this news better than most people did. He nodded to Don and Michelle, then pointed them toward the door. "I can talk enough for both of us - all of us, if you two want some quiet time, too. Now, povos, let's show you around."

They walked down a path cut between two rows of corn, a long corridor with walls nearly twenty feet tall. The midafternoon sun was hidden behind the plant, lending the field the appearance of a labyrinth. Jakub seemed to be impressed, which impressed Michelle; his little hands quested toward the undergrowth, and he mutteredin a constant undertone. When they reached the end of a row, Davi leaned into the wall of towering green husks, picking a small cob and turning to show it to the child.

"This is called maize, Jakub; it's what we grow here. It looks a little different from the corn you're used to, but it's descended from the same plant, and it's even more delicious. Here in Uberaba, we're very proud of our maize - we produce more of it than any other area in Minas Gerais. This is the Brazilian equivalent of the orange trees you have all over the place at home. Here, look."

With the deftness that comes from moving one's hands in the same directions so many times that they require no new instructions from the brain, Davi split the husk, pulling it away from the corn in three long strips.

As the kernels' mottled amber and brown patterns appeared, the boy began to scream. Michelle, accustomed to sudden outbursts on her son's part, scooped him up and began to rock him back and forth, asking, "Baby, what's wrong? What's wrong? Shhh. What's wrong?" Long practice had taught her to sound soothing no matter how she felt about his reactions. Don grabbed Jakub's sneakers, pinching his toes lightly in the hope of breaking him out of his terrified fugue. Michelle stared at the child's face, and could not begin to understand the panic and horror she saw there.


Nestled inside the grainy outer skin of the vegetable, in place of the kernels, are row upon row of human teeth. They are cracked and fragmented, roots reaching outward in places with bits of mangled flesh still attached. The mass undulates in the breeze, held in place by a thick mortar of coagulated blood.

The air is filled with a haunting song, a lilting ululation he'd been trying to ignore ever since they'd gotten to the farm and which had drowned out all of The Corn Man's words. As he stares at the macabre thing that no one else seems to mind, the stream shatters into distinct sounds.

It is a woman's voice. She is wailing in a torn and dying pattern, round and round and round; the same few words flit past and through him in discordant cycles. Almost everything he hears is repeated this way, echoing forward from some ancestral place to fill the gaps in his stream of consciousness so seamlessly that he can never tell where they end and his present begins. He is aware of this sometimes, but he can never remember for long. The past is huge, after all, and he is very small.

She sounds no less solid than his own mother does as she calls to him, and he hates her for it because she won't stop screaming. He can't hear anything else, and it infects the world around him, littering his visual field with suggestions of blood, of bodies lying in tatters. He has heard ten thousand conversations in a hundred different languages, though he has never been able to identify or count any of them, but nothing has ever been this terrible, this all-consuming. He cannot see, cannot see...

she is chased, and she cries for mercy
a flash of white flesh, a man with a knife and half-open trousers
a torrent of sound, some vocal, some not
her voice, the voices of others, era upon era collapsing into this moment of pain
whips cracking horses whinnying men yelling stalks falling
she is singing blood


"Sangue... assassinato! Eu estou morrendo, morrendo! O deus ajuda-me! Thiago, Thiago, não!"

They had heard him vocalize before, of course; he made sounds constantly as he moved through life, a solitary island inventing its own national anthems. Michelle had learned to tune them out as pleasant background noise after years of attempting to discern some sort of meaning, finally accepting that they were and would remain nonsense. It had hurt, that realization that her only offspring would never communicate with anyone, but now it hurt more to hear the strange, madcap syllables emerging from his mouth, because it was obvious that they were words. This cannot be.

She glanced at Davi; he was ashen and shaking. "Davi, what is he saying? Tell me what he's saying!"

"He..." The farmer choked on his words, offering what sounded like a prayer in Portuguese. "He is talking about blood and murder, and begging someone named Thiago not to kill him."

Don reached toward Michelle and pulled Jakub into his arms, holding him with his face pressed tight against his chest. "No one's going to hurt you, we won't let anyone so much as lay a finger on you. You're safe, you're safe..."

They headed back to the main office, Jakub repeating his haunting words the entire way. As they ran, Don focusing all of his energy on the boy, Michelle spoke to Davi.

"He's really speaking Portuguese?"

"Yes. Note-perfect and with the right tones, but he sounds old - it's a dialect from generations ago, the kind someone's great-grandmother would speak. Could he have learned it anywhere?"

"I... I don't see how. He's never spoken, not even English, he just mutters and sings and cries. We've never been to Brazil before, either. Don and I don't even speak the language; I've been learning to order chicken from a guidebook!" She felt hysterical in both of the ways the word implied - out of control, afraid, and strangely close to laughter. Well, I did want to break the boredom cycle. My poor baby, you're trapped inside of yourself and there's something in there with you...


They stayed for a full week as originally planned, but it was a tense passing of days, one filled with incomprehensible meanings and the threat of full disclosure. Before they had returned to the city, Mr. Niyardi had confirmed that in the early nineteenth century, the plantation predating the modern farm had been owned by a man named Mr. J. Thiago. They had no formal records of any kind and could not confirm that a murder had occurred, but the coincidence was startling to all involved. Michelle could practically see the men erasing it from their minds as their guests waved goodbye, writing it off as a mystery best left unsolved.

Jakub calmed down once they were well away from História Escura, returning to his distant demeanour, but Michelle started listening more carefully to his babble. It had a cohesiveness she had never recognized before, and it varied by location; his tone in the coffee shop was not his tone in the field where they went to pat cows, nor on the river when they went sailing. What she had taken for the automatic responses of a deeply autistic child had become something else. She felt like she had when he was first diagnosed, but there was no doctor to explain this turn of events, no website to consult. Don, for his part, was torn between fascination and fear. She watched as he toted his son from location to location, desperately trying to find meaning in morphemes and clucks like a priest looking for God in the flickering of a candle.

It was one thing to accept that he was different, but there are shades of difference, and some are more striking than others. Both parents vacillated between denial and confusion, unable to reconcile the possibilities. Jakub, for his part, seemed unaware of this shift around him; he continued on as before, stroking fabrics and whispering to the spaces between things.


After talking about it for a while, they decided to record him and stream the audio online, asking the anonymous mass of the Internet to help decipher what seemed to be speech. Michelle collected his most common noises, the ones he uttered at their house; if anything was going to define him, it would be those, the sounds he marinated himself in almost all of the time. For months, they received nothing useful - the e-mail responses all agreed that the sounds were moderately well-organized gibberish, just as Jakub's doctors had originally determined. But one morning, Michelle came home to find Don sitting at the computer, frozen as still as a statue. He was holding himself in the moment he'd read a message from a professor at Berkeley. After reading it over his shoulder, she felt the same way, that to react in any way would be to change their life in ways they could not handle. The e-mail went like this:

Good afternoon,

My name is [...]. I am a professor and faculty researcher at Berkeley who specializes in the study of American First Nations languages. I listened to your clips, and am willing to help you translate them. However, before moving forward with this project, please satisfy my curiosity: how did you obtain audio of someone speaking Yurok? It is the native language of the Yurok people who once lived in California, but it is almost completely deprecated. Only a dozen speakers are alive today, and having interviewed them all, I feel confident that the voice in your mp3s does not belong to any of them.

It may interest you to know that in the clips, the phrase that repeats most often is Pirwrksimek' ‘ne-chekos, which translates to "I love my mother."

Sincerely, [...]

Jakub, for his part, was unaware and unmoved; he had been content ever since they left the blighted cornfield. He sat on the floor behind his stunned parents, chanting quietly and raking his fingers through air that only he seemed able to breathe.