Between nineteen eighty four and eighty eight, Zoe struggled to say anything at all, apart from a muted muffled noise of discomfort that occasionally broke her silence. In the four years during which a sound did not issue from her mouth she was taken by her worried mother to first a pharmacist, then after numerous visits to a doctor, to a specialist neurologist, all of whom concluded that there appeared nothing wrong with the little girl, except she had no desire to speak.
In all other ways, she was endearingly normal, she learnt to roll, crawl and walk, smile, snear and to frown severely which ended up being her preferred means of communication. Despite constant reassurance from medical professionals she used to seek the opinion of my mother who she claimed offered more solace, even though at the time she was only training as a dentist and when pressed would claim that even when qualified would only nominally be a Dr. and was not trained to cure ailments let alone assess the development milestones of speechless infants.
Although my mother can’t recall the conversation, her advice to Zoe's mother Francine that maybe she should start playing with other children was closely followed. It was only later that the advice would be heralded as visionary. Zoe was subsequently taken on a regular basis to public play areas, and encouraged to spend time with children, whether it was with her numerous cousins, at the playground, with friends or with us kids. Reassure her though she would, my mother secretly contemplated Zoe’s noiselessness and how, when the small mute girl was surrounded, whether through her aura or others’ mimicry, instead of taking motivation to babel, she inspired those around her to quietude, as if she inhaled the sounds from those around her as a two foot tall, eleven kilogram muffler.
She needn’t have worried though. Half way through Zoe’s fourth year, her increasingly concerned mother became heavy with child again. Francine, distracted by pregnancy, finally permitted Zoe to dwell in her tranquillity. Upon discovering that her mother was six months pregnant, serene as Zoe had always been, she became a clingy and anxious baby, increasingly so after the expectant woman was advised to spend a night in hospital after some light bleeding. Even though she didn’t speak just then, this was the moment before the deluge that Zoe came closest to saying something, according to the babysitting grandmother, who saw the small girl open her mouth, dark black cherry eyes focused anxiously, and lean pensively forward as if to say something. In this position she stayed for a short while, before swallowing the potential utterance and continuing to fiddle with her playing blocks.
A few months later, Francine gave birth to a massive healthy baby boy two weeks late. All at once, the birth worked to physically and psychologically alleviate Francine’s mounting anxiety over her lost for words daughter and colossal newborn son, Emmanuel. Unburdened at 5am in the morning of 11lbs of infant, she in her tired, delusional and euphoric state welcomed a few hours later Zoe, who upon being introduced to the baby, pointed and spoke her first word absolutely and emphatically. ‘Baba!’ she announced.
At that, all the sounds she had been vacuuming up for the preceding four years, every single coo, yell, babble and word digested in anger and happiness erupted and like gas issuing from a ruptured aerosol can, her words exploded into this world. Overjoyed at the sight of a true companion, she proceeded to rattle off every piece of language contained within her. Yet despite her prodigious effort, as she worked through every pitch, tone and volume setting of sounds familiar to numberless languages, current and extinct, not one word liberated from her mouth amounted to anything intelligible, except the oft-repeated and never dropped ‘Baba’.
to be continued...