Once upon a time, long ago, or maybe this morning, a very unfortunate boy awoke from his dream. The dream was quite exciting and a little confusing. The boy was still trying to sort out just what had happened and what it meant as he was becoming reacquainterd with his bedsheets and the sunlight trickling in to fill his room with a new day.
It was not unfortunate that the boy had dreamed. Neither was his misfortune the fact that he was having such trouble making sense of the details of his dream. When he would think about what he had just been experiencing—the bird flying into the theater from the bathroom, the missing bags of candy he had filled so carefully, the strange email address he copied from a check that seemed to refer to multiple people—he wanted to talk out the sequence of events, perhaps repeat what some of the characters in his dream had said. This, he knew, would help him to hang on to the wisps of mercury smoke wafting up from his dream consciousness by infusing the thoughts into sounds that he could hear while he was awake.
But he could not speak. This was most unfortunate.
He could not speak because his mouth was muzzled. The boy wore a harness on—well, really, in—his mouth that kept him from making all those subtle and powerful motions toward self expression that the rest of us so often take for granted. Such subtle power was not granted to this boy. Well, it had been granted to him; it had just been taken back, little by little, as he had spoken things that others around him had not wanted to hear.
That’s the important part, one would suppose, because if they had only wanted to avoid hearing what the boy said for the moment, but would be open to hearing it a little later—say, in an hour or next Tuesday—then the boy could just close his mouth and express the thought again at another time (provided he could remember it). But the boy understood in no uncertain terms that the resistance he experienced to the expression of his ideas was because the ideas themselves were utterly inappropriate for expression at any time whatsoever. This he knew because the resistance came first from the very people whose lives were dedicated to showing him how to live in the world. They fed him and played games with him, taught him to walk and to count. And their resistance came with such absolute conviction that there could be no mistaking the absolute inappropriateness of the boy’s thought which had inspired it.
(Incidentally, the boy’s extreme youth when he began experiencing this resistance makes it seem unlikely that he had developed any real sense of time. He probably had little idea what “an hour from now” or “next Tuesday” meant. So if they had really only meant that he should save his thoughts for later, when there would be a more appropriate time for expressing himself, he didn’t get it. Still, no means no, and he certainly knew what that meant. They made sure.)
And while at first it was just one thought that was checked with the vehement and authoritative resistance of those who had charge of him, one quashed thought was soon followed by another, and more after that. Then he began to witness how ideas from his brothers and sisters met with the same authoritative resistance, and he could smell in the buds of their expression ideas very much like his own. They were like his dream—glimpsed inexactly, enough to interpret a tone or pick out a detail, but not resolved to full clarity. And as he grew it wasn’t just his brothers and sisters, but everyone around him—friends, neighbors, enemies, guys in line at the sandwich shop or ladies socializing in the parlor—everyone seemed sometimes to express ideas that would meet with resistance of the same vehement conviction. And these ideas were invariably the ones most like the boy’s own most cherished ideas. The thoughts no one wanted to hear were the very thoughts with which the boy knew he could best express himself. They were exactly the kind of thoughts that would occur to him when he had some idea he wanted to share with the world.
And being a smart boy, he learned from the experiences of his brothers and sisters and all the people around him about what ideas were acceptable and which ideas were not appropriate for sharing. With each new revelation came a deeper and more exact sense that his life would be much more copacetic, and that he would meet with much less resistance, if he could only find some way to keep his thoughts to himself. So when his father misquoted a song lyric while he was teaching it to the boy, he pressed his lips together and held his breath and didn’t giggle enough on the inside for even himself to notice. When his teachers sent the wrong students to the principal for shooting spitballs, or didn’t understand that both A and C were correct answers (owing to the sloppy phrasing of the question), he stared at his paper a moment, shook his head and moved on (92% is not really so different from 96%, after all).
His first impulse, of course, was to say, “Sorry (because he knew that authority doesn’t like to receive useful information from subordinates except when it is explicitly requested—and perhaps not even then), but this is how I see it, and I know I’m right.” But that impulse grew weaker and weaker over time, even as his impulse control grew stronger. But as weak as the impulse had eventually become, it was still apparent, and more and more frequently, until it seemed that every thought the boy had was something he knew, from years of bitter experience (and not just his own), that no one really wanted to hear. And though the one impulse to assert that he had asked for swiss cheese, not cheddar, or that March actually has thirty-one days, so the next meeting would fall on the third, not the fourth, was sufficiently puny to be squashed like an ant, he couldn’t help noticing that he was squashing ants with every step he took. His soles were slick with the spilled guts of all the ants he was crushing as he waded through the conversations that were the cobblestones of the path of his life.
As the corpses of crushed ants oozed up like grapes through the toes of wine makers, and their liquid innards coalesced and fermented, the fumes of the distillation became heady enough that he found himself occasionally drunk on the deep appreciation of his own pure essence. On these occasions, he would express his self-satisfaction, against his better judgement, and over the objections of any who would care to, in a somewhat haphazardly poetic manner. Sometimes, if there happened to be music playing, his ramble might take the form of a song, sung alternately like a nodding Billie Holiday or like a mix of Jimi and Sly, stoned.
While poetry and songs are generally considered to be good things, they did, like all good things, end. And at the end, in the sober self-reflection immediately following, the boy saw himself clearly, but alone; purged, yet sterile. He would be reinvented—no longer the well-suited and assiduously appropriate version of himself that he had been before. He was like a man from Mars, with no idea of the proper protocol for behavior among these people of Earth.
So he consulted with his old ant-crusher self for counsel. Ant-crusher would make a few suggestions that got things going. The Man from Mars would appreciatively take a few halting steps forward then look down at his feet to find that they were smeared with ant goo.
“Oh, it wipes off,” says Ant-crusher.
But Man from Mars found it unseemly to wipe his feet, though everyone around him considered it unseemly for him to do otherwise, so he would step back and leave negotiations to Ant-crusher until, in no time at all, they were back to the old way, wading ankle deep in the spilled guts of the ants (who were never really ants, you’ll recall, but symbols of the boy’s impulse to speak what was truly on his mind).
So on the morning when the boy awoke from his dream wanting to tell himself what had happened, it was already too late; he was mute.
Until that morning he had held on to some vestiges of his capacity to speak his mind. Earlier in the week he had stood up and told a roomful of friends “Hello,” though he was at a loss for how to continue the conversations when some of them came up to him afterward to return his greeting. But this morning he sensed that even that simple gesture would be beyond him from now on. The boy had muzzled himself with a device of psychological efficiency, binding his jaw shut and swallowing his tongue any time he felt inclined to shape his thoughts into a word that felt like truth to him.
Oh, the poor, unfortunate boy. Perhaps he would be revisited by his Martian alter-ego, but he was learning to be like the kind of functioning alcoholic who drinks to avoid withdrawal, yet doesn’t feel the effects of inebriation. Even so, such a visitation, he knew, would only serve as a temporary release from the awesome fatigue that comes with the eternal responsibility of holding his terrible swift tongue. Muzzled he was, and from the inside out, by a shackle of his own careful design.
He would speak no truth (“But no evil either,” he reminded himself). His tongue would not dance in the winds of revelation. But, alas, his fingers remained free…