Night and Silence by Maurice Level
They were old, crippled, horrible. The woman hobbled about on two
crutches; one of the men, blind, walked with his eyes shut, his hands
outstretched, his fingers spread open; the other, a deaf-mute,
followed with his head lowered, rarely raising the sad, restless eyes
that were the only sign of life in his impassive face.
It was said that they were two brothers and a sister, and that
they were united by a savage affection. One was never seen without
the others; at the church doors they shrank back into the shadows,
keeping away from those professional beggars who stand boldly in the
full light so that passers-by may be ashamed to ignore their
importunacy. They did not ask for anything. Their appearance alone
was a prayer for help. As they moved silently through the narrow,
gloomy streets, a mysterious trio, they seemed to personify Age,
Night, and Silence.
One evening, in their hovel near the gates of the city, the woman
died peacefully in their arms, without a cry, with just one long look
of distress which the deaf-mute saw, and one violent shudder which
the blind man felt because her hand clasped his wrist. Without a
sound she passed into eternal silence.
Next day, for the first time, the two men were seen without her.
They dragged about all day without even stopping at the baker's shop
where they usually received doles of bread. Toward dusk, when lights
began to twinkle at the dark crossroads, when the reflection of lamps
gave the houses the appearance of a smile, they bought with the few
half-pence they had received two poor little candles, and they
returned to the desolate hovel where the old sister lay on her pallet
with no one to watch or pray for her.
They kissed the dead woman. The man came to put her in her coffin.
The deal boards were fastened down and the coffin was placed on two
wooden trestles; then, once more alone, the two brothers laid a sprig
of boxwood on a plate, lighted their candles, and sat down for the
last all-too--short vigil.
Outside, the cold wind played round the joints of the ill-fitting
door. Inside, the small trembling flames barely broke the darkness
with their yellow light...Not a sound...
For a long time they remained like this, praying, remembering,
Tired out with weeping, at last they fell asleep...
When they woke it was still night. The lights of the candles still
glimmered, but they were lower. The cold that is the precursor of
dawn made them shiver. But there was something else---what was it?
They leaned forward, the one trying to see, the other to hear. For
some time they remained motionless; then, there being no repetition
of what bad roused them, they lay down again and began to pray.
Suddenly, for the second time, they sat up. Had either of them
been alone, he would have thought himself the play-thing of some
fugitive hallucination. When one sees without hearing, or hears
without seeing, illusion is easily created. But something abnormal
was taking place; there could be no doubt about it since both were
affected, since it appealed both to eyes and ears at the same time;
they were fully conscious of this, but were unable to understand.
Between them they had the power of complete comprehension. Singly,
each had but a partial, agonizing conception.
The deaf-mute got up and walked about. Forgetting his brother's
infirmity, the blind man asked in a voice choked with fear, "What is
it? What's the matter? Why have you got up?"
He heard him moving, coming and going, stopping, starting off
again, and again stopping; and having nothing but these sounds to
guide his reason, his terror increased till his teeth began to
chatter. He was on the point of speaking again, but remembered, and
relapsed into a muttering, "What can he see? What is it?"
The deaf-mute took a few more steps, rubbed his eyes, and
presumably, reassured, went back to his mattress and fell asleep.
The blind man heaved a sigh of relief, and silence fell once more,
broken only by the prayers he mumbled in a monotonous undertone, his
soul benumbed by grief as he waited till sleep should come and pour
light into his darkness.
He was almost sleeping when the murmurs which had before made him
tremble, wrenched him from an uneasy doze.
It sounded like a soft scratching mingled with light blows on a
plank. curious rubbings, and stifled moans.
He leaped up. The deaf-mute had not moved. Feeling that the fear
that culminates in panic was threatening him, he strove to reason
"Why should this noise terrify me?...The night is always full of
sounds...My brother is moving uneasily in his sleep...yes, that's
it...Just now I heard him walking up and down, and there was the same
noise...It must have been the wind...But I know the sound of the
wind, and it has never been like that...it was a noise I had never
heard...What could it have been? No...it could not be..."
He bit his fists. An awful suspicion had come to him.
"Suppose...no, it's not possible...Suppose it was...there it is
again!...Again...louder and louder...some one is scratching,
scratching, knocking...My God! A voice...her voice! She is calling!
She is crying! Help, help!"
He threw himself out of bed and roared, "François!...quick!
He was half mad with fear. He tore wildly at his hair shouting
"Look!...You've got eyes, you, you can see!..."
The moans became louder, the raps firmer. Feeling his way,
stumbling against the walls, knocking against the packing-cases which
served as furniture, tripping in the hole in the floor, he staggered
about trying to find his sleeping brother.
He fell and got up again, bruised, covered with blood, sobbing, "I
have no eyes! I have no eyes!"
He had upset the plate on which lay the sprig of box, and the
sound of the earthenware breaking on the floor gave the finishing
touch to his panic.
"Help! What have I done? Help!"
The noises grew louder and more terrifying, and as an agonizing
cry sounded, his last doubts left him. Behind his empty eyes, he
imagined he saw the horrible thing...
He saw the old sister beating against the tightly-closed lid of
her coffin. He saw her super-human terror, her agony, a thousand
times worse than that of any other death...She was there, alive, yes
alive, a few steps away from him...but where? She heard his steps,
his voice, and he, blind, could do nothing to help her.
Where was his brother? Flinging his arms from right to left, he
knocked over the candles: the wax flowed over his fingers, hot, like
blood. The noise grew louder, more despairing; the voice was
speaking, saying words that died away in smothered groans...
"Courage!" he shrieked. "I'm here! I'm coming!"
He was now crawling along on his knees, and a sudden turn flung
him against a bed; he thrust out his arms, felt a body, seized it by
the shoulders, and shook it with all the strength that remained in
Violently awakened, the deaf-mute sprang up uttering horrible
cries and trying to see, but now that the candles were out, he, too,
was plunged into night, the impenetrable darkness that held more
terror for him than for the blind man. Stupefied with sleep, he
groped about wildly with his hands, which closed in a vise-like grip
on his brother's throat, stifling cries of, "Look! Look!"
They rolled together on the floor, upsetting all that came in
their way, knotted together, ferociously tearing each other with
tooth and nail. In a very short time their hoarse breathing had died
away. The voice, so distant and yet so near, was cut short by a
spasm...there was a cracking noise...the imprisoned body was raising
itself in one last supreme effort for freedom...a grinding
noise...sobs...again the grinding noise...silence...
Outside, the trees shuddered as they bowed in the gale; the rain
beat against the walls. The late winter's dawn was still crouching on
the edge of the horizon. Inside the walls of the hovel, not a sound,
not a breath.