A Voice in Her Mouth

by Louis Rakovich

Sam kept his hands flat on the table, stiff, cautious bony fingers. "She used to be a teacher," he said. "That was a while ago, but sometimes she still gets these notions."

I waited but he said no more. Thirty seconds, perhaps a minute, passed. He was young, not much older than myself, but dressed older, and his face thin and lined with soft wrinkles. He seemed tired.

"What notions?" I asked.

"It's—it's silly. She thinks she's still in the classroom, still teaching."

"I see."

"There's more to it," he said. "It's not so much the thinking that—the problem is not with the thinking. The problem –" He looked down at his hands on the table, then up again, smiling with one side of his mouth.

For a moment there was a flash of youth in him, even good looks. Then the smile disappeared and the face froze into a weary mask again. A bony hand brushed through brown hair. A throat cleared loudly.

"This isn't just dementia. Sometimes it can get quite unsettling. Like I said, in her mind she's still teaching. One moment she talks to you as if nothing's the matter, then suddenly she's gone someplace, standing by the wall, pointing at imaginary—I don't know, maps or equations or something. Can you manage that?"

"Yes. Is that all?"

"No. But I recommend you get out of the room before she starts to do the voices."

"The voices."

"The voices of her students. The children, so to speak. I don't know how many there are now. I go to the other side of the house when it starts. I can't listen to it anymore."

"I can manage that."

"All right. We'll listen to the recording now, so there are no surprises down the line."

We listened. When it was over Sam looked at me with wide, asking eyes. I shrugged and said, "Yes, I can manage that." And he said, "Good. When can you start?"

* * *

I started a week later. Judith was pleasant enough to work with, albeit cold at first, and disapproving of the fact that her son hadn't hired a woman. But he showed no intention of reviewing others for the job—I suppose he preferred to hire the first candidate he'd met than continue discussing his mother's condition with strangers—and having no alternative, she resigned herself to a simple and basic decency toward me. She was somewhere between seventy and eighty years old, her hands thin and her face wrinkled, but there was a beauty in her, some forsaken, unmaintained elegance.

She enjoyed spending time alone and had the physical strength to support this independence, so my job wasn't difficult. I brought anything she needed from around the house, filled her prescriptions, served her food, helped her get dressed and stood outside the bathroom while she took her showers, just in case. But the rest of the time she read her books or watched her programs on television, and I was left to my own devices at the corner of whatever room she was in at the moment.

Sam said that he had given up his job to take care of his mother, yet now he didn't seem eager to resume any type of work. Much like his mother, he watched movies in his bedroom and read on the front porch, and why wouldn't he? He had the house, and money—probably an inheritance, I thought, but never asked—and I'd have done the same in his place.

* * *

Two weeks passed before I witnessed any unusual behavior on Judith's part. The three of us were having tea in the living room and discussing some mundane thing, when suddenly the teacup trembled in the woman's hands, then dropped to the floor. I knelt to wipe the hot tea off the lacquered hardwood.

"It's okay," I said. "Nothing's broken. Are you all right?"

Judith nodded, just barely. Her blue eyes stared behind me. I stood and turned around; she was staring at a space in the upper corner of the room.

"Mom," her son said. "Mom, he asked you something. Are you all right?"

Her lips parted, revealing a line of shiny yellowish teeth. She took a few timid steps forward, then straightened her back, lifted her chin, and moved toward the fireplace in a brisk walk. She leaned on the mantle with one arm and placed her other hand on her hip.

"I'm sorry I'm late," she said. "I was held up at—no, I won't waste any more of your time. Who remembers where we stopped last week?"

Sam stood up from his chair and gestured with his head toward the door. "Let's go."

We left Judith alone in the room.

"I don't want to see it, I don't want to hear it," he said. But we did hear it, hideous little voices fading behind our backs as we walked down the corridor.

* * *

Weeks went by. More often than not Judith was lucid, and when she straightened her back and went to stand by the wall Sam and I would leave her alone with her students. But the sound followed us, and no matter how fast we walked there was always a moment when the cackling, screeching voices stuck in our heads.

My room was on the other side of the house, but sometimes late at night I would pass by Judith's room on my way to the kitchen and hear them, her, a bustling classroom studying theorems I had never heard and mountains that had never stood on this earth. Sometimes I could swear I heard more than one voice at once.

* * *

One time, not long after midnight, I heard the front door open and went to see who had left or come. It was Sam, walking slowly on shaky legs with a young woman leaning on his arm, her knees bent. This four-legged creature limped a few feet inside before noticing me. "Who's that?" asked the girl, and Sam answered, "My roommate." I left them alone and went back to my room.

A few minutes later Sam knocked on my door.

"Can you sleep closer to my mother's room tonight?" he asked. "Make sure she doesn't wander off in our direction."

That night I didn't sleep. The voices argued, asked questions, interrupted Judith while she spoke. They didn't sound like children. I tried to close my eyes and imagine their forms in the darkness beyond the wall, their eyes, their moving mouths. Then I tried to talk in my own head to drown them out. Then I tried to count them. Finally I just opened my eyes, lay on my back, and listened.

At one point the woman sighed and said, "All right, let's take a break from this. What did everyone do while I was away?"

She didn't speak to them like they were children. She spoke as though she were a guest, a foreigner among them, addressing them respectfully but distantly, as a tourist addresses a local.

Their tone was not as pleasant. The vile voices spoke of the things they'd done and the places they'd been in the past days, and their words made little sense to me. One had visited "the hole where the dark is," another stayed "under the moon," a third one—"She said she didn't want to but I took my wife to the red room between the corners."

I had to remind myself that it was merely the rambling of a deranged woman, but those nonsensical stories scared me, and when something rustled—a sound like a nail scratching the wall—I started and turned on the light.

* * *

As I brought the breakfast tray to her bed the next morning, I said to Judith, "I hope you didn't mind me sleeping in the other room last night."

She took a gulp of orange juice. "Not at all," she said. "I wasn't here anyway."

It was the first insane thing she said to me in an apparent moment of sanity. I wondered whether the reason was merely that I'd asked.

"Oh, where were you?"

"I was away. At work."

"Is it far?"

She picked up a spoon and handed me the jam jar. I opened it.

"Yes, it's far, but I manage."

"When did you come back?"

"This morning."

"How did you get back home?"

She spread the jam on a piece of toast.

"Judith, how did you get home?"

She didn't answer.

"Did you drive?"

"I don't drive."

"Did you take the train?"

She pushed the tray to the floor. Juice spilled everywhere, the jar shattered into a lump of glass and jam.

"Enough already," she said. "None of your business how I got home."

* * *

There was a flu outbreak in town around that time, and somewhere between filling Judith's prescriptions and buying groceries I must have caught it. Lying in my room with a fever I drifted in and out of sleep, my head growing heavier and heavier. There was a moment when I felt myself falling, and then I felt fine, and I was walking down the hallway toward Judith's room.

She was teaching. She told them of a road beneath the earth, stretching far along the border of three different countries that I did not know, but may have heard of once, a long time ago. She spoke of invisible oceans—they rise around you and you notice them only because your clothes are suddenly wet.

I walked closer to the door. They asked questions, sometimes refusing to accept her answer, arguing, bringing up their own evidence and memories of dark holes and red rooms. She was patient with them. In the end they were always convinced that a river flows like this or that an equation is solved exactly like that.

Sometimes the voices interrupted one another; sometimes they faded and others took their place. One voice rose above the rest, not in volume but in timbre. It was not screeching, nor deep and gargling and ancient.

I pressed my ear to the door. My voice spoke inside, "The wet place under the tree." I remembered it, a damp hole barred with the exposed roots of an old oak—a secret childhood hiding place that had always covered my clothes with mud.

I woke up. I realized that I had never seen Judith teach—Sam would always lead me away with a disgusted expression on his face, as though his mother were involved in some shameful activity and by witnessing it I would embarrass the both of them. I had only heard her through walls. I looked at the alarm clock. It was late.

I walked down the hallway to Judith's room, feeling my way along the walls in the dark. I could hear the voices talking. I stood there for a long time, waiting for my voice to appear, for myself to appear inside. Cold needles passed through me in waves and a burning in my chest made me want to cough. I held it in and kept listening. Finally I heard it, distant, muffled by the wood of the door.

I reached for the handle. I didn't know what I would see—my face in a crowd of monsters or an old woman talking in my voice. And I didn't know which knowledge I feared more—that something like myself existed in Judith's classroom, or that I was merely a voice in her mouth.

BIO: Louis Rakovich writes sometimes-fantastical literary fiction. His short stories have appeared in The Stoneslide Corrective, The Fiction Desk, Criminal Element and other publications. He's inspired by authors such as Truman Capote, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Edgar Allan Poe, and filmmakers such as David Lynch and Andrei Tarkovsky. He grew up in Jerusalem, and now divides his time between New York City and Tel Aviv while working on multiple writing projects, including his first novel—a psychological thriller. You can find more fiction by him at louisrakovich.com, or follow him on Twitter at @LouisRakovich.