In a Silent Voice

Bonnie Thompson

Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks/Flickr (CC-by)

The other boys won’t play with Kevin. In his pink pullover and purple leggings, he twirls around on the parking lot by himself, singing softly and shaking his head back as if long hair cascades down behind it.

Ruthie sits on the curb, waiting for recess to end. The thin November sun catches a shard of amber glass in the gutter next to her, its curved edge like a shark’s tooth. Kevin spins an imaginary baton, and when Mrs. Peavey rings the bell, the other kids rush past him for the classroom’s back door. One boy clips him with his shoulder, but Kevin just turns the jolt into a jerky dance move.

Ruthie takes off her jacket as she passes the empty desk next to hers, heading toward the scrum of kids in the closet. She edges around the flying hands and heels, the hard leather soles of the girls’ shoes. Two weeks ago, her best friend, Betsy Greenaway, moved to Pennsylvania. Miss Monroe, lacing her fingers together nervously, reminds Mrs. Peavey that two students still have to make their presentations.

Mrs. Peavey’s black hair sweeps off her liver-spotted forehead like the glossy wings of a crow. “End of the day,” she tells the student teacher, looking over her half-glasses at the skinny little girl already back in her seat, as separate from the commotion around her as if held within a shell.


Mrs. Peavey chalks two columns of numbers on the blackboard, the first in base 10, the second in base 4. Fourth grade is early for this material, but she believes her students can handle it. She describes how base 4 works, and then she writes out a couple of equations.

Ruthie gnaws at a hangnail. To her left, David Weeks has aligned all his pencils at the top edge of his desk, their sharp points aimed toward her. You can use the real numbers on the left, she sees, then translate to the column on the right. She takes her finger away from her mouth—You look like a little rat when you do that—but soon it goes back again.

Mrs. Peavey pulls down the map of the United States, hiding the half of the board that holds the key. The chalk taps like a secret code as she poses another equation.

Ruthie frowns. Then a wave rushes though her head and everything shifts, so that what used to be 4 is now 10. She sits up in the plastic chair anchored to her desk, her hands pressed under her thighs, like two hot little pancakes, and waits for the next equation.

Across the aisle, Donna Schmidt protests. She flips her ponytail, a shimmering yellow plumb line. “But there is a five,” she argues. “You can’t just take it away!” Behind her, lynx-eyed Katy Halloran leans sideways and echoes the objection.

Mrs. Peavey’s lips make a thin maroon line, and she leads the class through more equations. Then she turns to write another problem on the board, the chalk long and cool in her stiff hand.

“Tell me the equivalent,” she says, and next to the base 10 number 16, she etches two options: 40 and 100. “How many people think the answer is forty?” she asks. Donna understands now; her hand shoots into the air, followed by Katy’s and then some eighteen others. “Four sets of four with none left over,” David Weeks chants, repeating the formula.

“And how many vote for one hundred?” Mrs. Peavey says.

Only Ruthie’s arm floats up, sickled above her head.

“Superb!” Mrs. Peavey exclaims. “Ruthie, do you want to tell the class why the answer is one hundred?”

Ruthie shakes her head, a barely perceptible movement. Mrs. Peavey notices the parted sea of faces turned toward Ruthie, their expressions of wonderment and suspicion, and reveals the secret herself: there is no four.


Bolted to the cafeteria’s ceiling are rows and rows of long light fixtures, yet three feet off the floor, everything seems murky.

Ruthie extracts her lunch items from a brown paper bag. She lays the expected peanut butter sandwich on the table and reaches for something soft and silver. When she peels back the tinfoil, it turns out to hold last night’s leftover string beans, now sumpy-smelling and congealed. She presses the foil closed and pushes it back inside the bag, and the last item rolls forward. Under her fingertips it has a familiar, too light feeling.

There is an empty seat next to her, and another one across, where Betsy used to be. Ruthie nibbles at the sandwich’s crust. To her right, a short, round lunch lady with a large magenta birthmark scorched across her neck cackles at something.

Donna jolts the table, shrieking as she jumps up to take a brownie from Katy. Under the fluorescent glare, Donna’s skin looks ghostly, her nose as sharp as a book’s corner. Ruthie cuts her eyes across the aisle as a second grader walks her tray toward the garbage bins. The girl’s spindly legs and knobby knees look like a starving child’s from TV. Ruthie feels queasy and angles her head down, the peanut butter dry in her mouth.


Miss Monroe tries not to startle the little girl, but when Ruthie turns in response to the tap on her shoulder, the expression on her face flusters the student teacher. She squats down at the end of the table, her nylons scissoring as they slide past each other.

“Hi there,” she says. She is aware that this is something Mrs. Peavey, eating her chicken salad sandwich in the faculty lounge, would never do. But the children are not in a one-room schoolhouse, working out the three Rs on slate tablets; the world is more complicated now, Miss Monroe understands, and it can be hard to reach some of the kids.

“We’re all looking forward to your presentation this afternoon,” she says. “Are you excited about it?”

Neither sentence makes any sense to Ruthie, her little fingers wrinkling the plastic baggie.

“It’ll be simple.” Miss Monroe tucks her shiny auburn hair behind one ear and smiles with the sort of confidence instilled by years on soccer fields. “All you have to do is tell the class what your project shows, and then a little bit about how you made it.”

That radiant smile has caused a few of the boys to develop obvious crushes on the petite student teacher. Ruthie sees the pink flesh of her gums above her even white teeth, glistening with saliva, and the pale fine down on her cheek, and, when she blinks, how the eyeliner on her right lid has bled crookedly into the follicles of her lashes.

“You’re a little worried about speaking in front of the class, aren’t you?” asks Miss Monroe, and Ruthie nods. “It’s no big deal,” the student teacher assures her. “Once you get started, it’s easy-peasy.”

Ruthie stares at her, as if hoping to hear how this can be so.

“You’ll do fabulously,” Miss Monroe goes on, shifting a little because squatting is making her legs go numb. But Ruthie only looks as if someone has struck her.

Miss Monroe changes tacks. “Remember that girl from third grade I introduced you to?” the student teacher prompts. “I thought she could be your twin!”

Ruthie pictures a brown-eyed, brown-haired child wearing a sweater like hers, a sky blue crewneck. The girl had been as bubbly as soda pop, as bouncy as a puppy. Ruthie had hoped to never have to see her again.

“See? We’re all alike,” Miss Monroe says.

Ruthie starts putting the last corner of her sandwich back into its flimsy bag.

Miss Monroe places one hand on the table to get some of the weight off her legs. She wants to ask how things are at home. “Is there anything,” she says softly, studying the greenish cast in the hollows under Ruthie’s eyes, “you want to talk about?”

Ruthie’s dark gaze returns to Miss Monroe’s face. She raises one shoulder and tilts her head; Miss Monroe has seen children use that gesture before they bring up something they don’t understand. She smiles again and bobs her head encouragingly, light bouncing off the flat silver heart on the delicate chain around her neck.

Ruthie’s mouth works, and she looks off to the side. In the kitchen, something heavy and metal crashes against something else. She pulls her shoulders in.

When Miss Monroe stands, she finds that her right calf has gone to sleep, and she walks slowly so that the children won’t see her limping.


Ruthie folds the plastic and puts it in her lunch bag with the fragile egg and the packet of squished green beans and walks it up to the trash bins at the front. Ricky Kirwin spikes his own balled-up brown bag into the open receptacle. “He beats the buzzer!” he whoops as he spins around, almost knocking into Ruthie. “Argh, back to class,” he says to her in cheerful grievance. Everyone likes this freckle-faced kid: boys, girls, even other classes’ teachers. His grin is open, guileless, the edges of his front teeth minutely scalloped. Ruthie, smiling back up at him, sees where a green film of mucus has gotten caught partway across one nostril.

Johnny Iovine, returning his lunch tray, tries to wing it through the slot in the wall from a couple of feet away, and it clatters to the floor, mashed potatoes exploding into the air. A small, dark boy, he holds his sides when he laughs.

“Shame on you!” squawks the lunch lady, her neck livid beneath the red blotch.

Ruthie flinches and moves over to the line in which they will return to class.


Ruthie understands that her project isn’t very good. Libby Berger, whose father is an eye doctor, brought in an actual snuffbox, a delicate oval case made of engraved silver worn almost smooth over the centuries, with an enamel portrait of Benjamin Franklin on the lid, and all the kids were allowed to touch it. It wasn’t, technically, relevant to the unit the class is studying—the pioneers’ move westward—but Libby had also made a poster that tied snuff to tobacco and tobacco to how we smoked the peace pipe with the Indians but then took all their land during the Gold Rush.

Back in the classroom there’s an edgy energy, kids clumping and splitting and clumping again. All the projects are lined up on the shelves under the windows, past which brown oak leaves swirl in a coppery wind. While they were in the cafeteria, low clouds crept in, and now it feels to Ruthie like nighttime.

She sits down, her fingernails finding the little ridge at the edge of the laminate desktop. Her whole idea is dumb: a relief map of the journey Marcus and Narcissa Whitman made from St. Louis to the Oregon Country, across the Continental Divide. That is the focal point of the effort, in fact: all that flatness in the east builds to the crisis of the Rocky Mountains, which Ruthie made from a recipe she found in a magazine and painted brown with white tops. Her project was just playing with mud pies, and she doesn’t see how she can explain it to the class. The paste map shows only the route, not how, a few years after that crossing, the Whitmans were massacred.

Mrs. Peavey quiets the children and says that half of them will work on the marine life mural and the other half on their independent Reading Rally exercises. When Ruthie learns that she’ll be in the reading half, she stops pinching the skin of her fingertips between her nails and the desk.


At the end of the day, with only the final two presentations to go, the students are given a few minutes to look again at one another’s projects. A frigid wind seeps in through the loose sash where Ruthie is peering at Katy Halloran’s diorama in a shoe box of a pioneer family’s sod hut, with a dirt floor and two small, dim windows made out of waxed paper. Ruthie has just recognized the Monopoly iron in front of the red-hot fire when Kevin appears next to her and says, in his soft voice, “This stuff is so stupid.”

Ruthie starts and angles her head toward him. He had sewn a perfect replica flag of the short-lived California Republic, with its bear and star, and he’d held it up proudly in front of the class and described how he’d had to use both machine stitching and handwork. She’s gotten nothing from her project that she hadn’t already understood from reading about the Oregon Trail—instead, there’d been a moment of terror when she banged it into a metal seatback on the school bus and thought it would all crack apart.

“Those aren’t, like, volcanoes, are they?” he asks about her line of chocolate mountains, pointing at the snowy top of one that is unintentionally cratered.

Ruthie shakes her head no.

“Because my folks took me to Hawaii last year, which was really beautiful, all these strange flowers everywhere, and we saw a volcano with smoke coming out of the top.”

Ruthie nods. She didn’t think there were volcanoes in the Rockies, but now she wonders if there are, if she should have put one in.

“So how’d you make them?” Kevin asks.

Ruthie sucks in her lips. It was flour and salt and water, but the instructions also called for cream of tartar, which they didn’t have. So she followed the recipe, only skipping the tartar, hoping it didn’t do something crucial, and she spread the mixture on an unused FedEx box, flat for sea level and adding another layer for Oregon’s high desert. And then, obviously, built up the peaks.

“Well, I guess you’ll tell us soon,” says Kevin, his eyes flaring as, at the front of the room, Mrs. Peavey claps her hands sharply to get everyone back in their seats.


Even Johnny Iovine understands that his project is lame. He makes snorting, honking sounds as he sidles up the aisle between the desks to the front of the class, flipping it between his hands, and he guffaws again as he plunks it down on the old metal typewriter table set up there.

It’s a totem pole, like that majestic symbol of the Northwest Indians. Only instead of a large pillar of cedar, his has been made from one of those white foam rollers people use in gyms, and instead of being carved, it’s just painted.

He explains about the figures he drew on it, snickering when he can’t help but point out the divot where his pencil stabbed into the foam, and a speck of spittle flies from his lips. The traditional totem pole typically shows a tribe’s ancestors or its myths or history, he says, so he used his own family. He webs his fingers over the big-toothed grimaces that represent his grandfather and grandmother and the triangular black snoot, as he calls it, of his dog, turning the tube to show it to each side of the class. As he pivots, the kids on the opposite side glimpse blank styrofoam, since he only painted the front.

Mrs. Peavey looks at her watch, then takes off her half-glasses to clean the lenses with a white handkerchief. She puts the cloth back in her purse, the latch catching with the sound of a trap snapping shut.

“OK, Johnny, very good,” she says, explaining that she’s giving him credit for his understanding of the material but subtracting points for his “cavalier attitude.”

Johnny drops his head between his shoulders and shuffles back to his desk. Just before he sits down, he can’t resist bopping Jimmy Dombrowski on the head with his foam totem and guffawing.


Ruthie carries her Oregon Trail project up to the front of the room, the blood rushing in her ears like rolling thunder. As she sets it on the little table, the loose window rattles, and Mrs. Peavey twists in her chair and scowls at it. Ruthie tilts the map up so that the class can see it, but it shakes, skidding on the metal, and she lays it flat again, afraid that the mountains will shear off. An acrylic fiber on one of her knee socks pricks her skin like a needle.

Her tongue feels like it’s been wrapped in gauze. She points at the Rockies, those towering, white-capped peaks, because they’re really the focus of the map, the pioneers’ crucible, the thing that would forever separate life before from life after—if there even would be any life after. In the back of the room, Miss Monroe smiles her big, gummy smile and Ruthie looks away, through the heavy mullioned windows, where, in the seasick light, the wind is whipping dead oak leaves in a fresh fury.

Donna Schmidt torques her neck and pops her eyes at Katy.

Ruthie understands that her map is pointless—basically the same picture from right in their history textbook, only larger and made out of sludge. In her chest, a squirrel’s claws scrabble against wood.

Again she points to the Continental Divide. Rust blisters one edge of the wheeled table under the map. Again Miss Monroe, in the back, nods and smiles, though less widely this time, and again Ruthie looks out the window, at the cold, dead leaves.

To Ruthie’s right and a little behind her, Mrs. Peavey shifts in her chair, the vinyl creaking forward.

“Marcus and Narcissa Whitman.” Her voice sounds tinny and far off, like she is a great distance from herself.

She introduces the pioneers, and in the back of the room, Miss Monroe beams, her cheeks bunched like rosy apples. Donna Schmidt slides down in her chair and fiddles with something in her lap, but Ruthie stares straight ahead, like a horse wearing blinders, and plows on, explaining how the Whitmans traveled by sleigh and then steamboat and then covered wagon.

Mrs. Peavey gently clears her throat and suggests that Ruthie speak a little louder and not so fast. She peers over her narrow glasses at Andy and Russell, who always have to be stopped from battling with their action figures during class but are now both staring, open-mouthed. “You’ve even got the attention of our two rowdies,” she says in a funny lilting tone.

Ruthie takes a ragged breath and projects her thin voice forward, drawing it from deep beneath her ribs, and says how in the mountains, they had to abandon the wagon, leaving behind all their furniture and most of their clothes. Her lungs feel like gills, their filmy membranes fluttering and catching. At the rear, Miss Monroe leans back against the wall, closing her eyes, and Ruthie thinks that what passes over the student teacher’s face is relief, like the lightness in Mrs. Peavey’s voice.

She realizes that they were afraid that she would not talk at all, and she falters and struggles to pronounce the word “flour.” They think she’s triumphantly crossed the mountains, but she knows that’s not true. Remaining silent would have exposed her entirely; only through this pointless and terrifying bout of speaking is she able to conceal herself.


Bonnie Thompson is a writer and book editor who lives in central California. Her work has been published in several literary journals, including the Antioch Review, Ascent, and the late, great Elysian Fields Quarterly. Email:[at]

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