The Stillness by G. Ranger Wormser

He cringed in shuddering awe beneath the stillness. He could not stand the heavy, deep silence of it; the muffled, sucking thickness absorbing so completely all sound into its deadening mat. He had gotten so that he had to be perpetually stopping himself from screaming. He had to keep watch on himself always. He was terrified that he might go mad. He feared the oppression of the awful quiet would craftily draw his reason away from him. He did not want to scream. He did not want to attempt to defy the harrowing, rending silence. He was afraid of the blanketing, saturating weight of the stillness.

Sometimes when he could bring himself to think he thought that he might after all like to go about shouting at the top of his lungs. His mind kept on surreptitiously toying with the thought of the relief from the thing. He thought of it a lot. He knew that shouting about his own farm would not do him any good. He was too far away from everything and everyone in the strip of valley hemmed in between the rolling hills. Of course there was old man Efferts. Old man Efferts did not live so very far away. He knew he could not count on Efferts. Efferts had lived there too long in the stillness that rolled down to him from the hills and came together to lie flat and sluggish, thudding down on the valley land. If he could bring himself to walk into the ten-mile-off town shouting so that other people would follow after him shouting; so that there would be some kind of continuous, human noise for a while. It was that he wanted more than anything else; human noise.

At night he would wake suddenly from his heavy, quiet slumber; from the dreamless, ponderous pit of it and listen to the stillness.

When he first went to bed it would take him hours before he could get himself off to sleep. He dreaded the muted, frantic struggle of those dragging, pulling hours in which he would try to shut his ears to the soundless, deafening silence that throbbed noiselessly from a great distance and was noiseless in the room all about him; and pressed noiselessly against his blood filled ear-drums. He had the feeling at night that the stillness became more real sweeping in a greater rush down the hills; that it had an heightened, insidious power to get inside of him.

He would toss about on his narrow wooden bed for hours; moving cautiously and carefully so as not to do anything that would offend the drugged burden of the silence. He would move a leg or an arm slyly and then he would lie quite quiet for a time holding his breath until the cracking pain came plunging again and again into his chest. He could feel the stillness filling in all the spaces and crevices around him, so that he thought it rose and swelled hideously.

He was afraid of those hours before he went to sleep; before he could drop off with that overwhelming sense that in losing consciousness he was consciously letting himself drown in a tremendous, swollen wave of silence.

And then toward morning that sudden, inevitable awakening. His rousing himself to listen. His whole body becoming rigid; tautly holding itself with straining, shaking muscles to the position in which he lay. The sweat breaking out all over him and trickling coldly down from his armpits along his sides. His cunning shifting of his head so that he could clear his ears to hear better. His futile harkening for the sound that never came. His intensive shivering waiting for it. And nothing but the stillness. He could never make himself move. The thing was so actual; suffocatingly potent; malignant. He had grown terrified of attempting to disrupt it in any of those little ways at his command. He had begun to think that the noise he would make would not be a noise. He could not have stood the shock of making a noise that would be quite vacantly without sound.

All day long, working in his fields, he used to wonder at it. In the sunlight it was with him still and bated. It rose up to him from the ground at his feet, from the soil it had wormed itself into. It crushed down on him from the clear, blue sweep of the sky. It spread unseen toward him down the long, uncertain slopes of the hills coming on always from all sides and staying.

It had become so that nothing was real to him; nothing but the stillness that drenched everything; stifling and choking.

The old mare working her way in front of the plow along the narrowed, deepening furrows, was a ghost creature to him. The grayness of her blurred ahead of him in the brightest stream of sunlight. Her foolish, stilly gliding played horridly on his raw nerves. At all times she was a phantom animal, stirring with the intangible motion of the silence. He felt that she did not belong to him; that she was a thing of the stillness.

He would trail after her, his quivering, thin hands on the plow handles, his eyes riveted on her bony withers. He would try to concentrate his thoughts on the way she moved and then overcome quite suddenly with the quiet, insidious stealth of her ambling, he would pull her up and stop to mop his forehead, his eyes going slowly around him as if he almost expected to see the thing that had lain that smothering, strangling hold on to him.

His one and only companion was a yellow mongrel that had come slinking in at the farm gate, its tail drooping between its legs. He had been glad at first of having the dog with him. And then gradually he had come to feel the oddness of the animal. If he could have done so he would have turned the dog out again into the stillness from which it had come to him. He was sure that the mongrel must be old; unnaturally old. He could not understand the dog's awful quiet. In his heart he was scared of the dog. The mongrel followed incessantly at his heels, always with dragging tail. Whenever his eyes turned behind him they met the mongrel's eyes that were fixed on him; the eyes that were filled with that uncanny, beaten look as if it had been horridly cowed. There was an age of agony in the dog's eyes. As the days went on he became more and more afraid of the mongrel's eyes.

He had come out to the farm to start with because of the silence. He had felt that he would have to get away from the noise and the tumultuous uproar of the city. After what he had done he could not stand it. He had gotten away. He thought now that his mind would snap; that it would break from under the lull which had come into it—The lull which devastated him with its hushed brutality.

He had never been fond of people. Even in those days back there in the city before he had done the thing that was wrong he had mistrusted them. And after it he had run from them. Run wildly and unthinkingly to cover with the fear of them coming on behind him. The deathly, lonely farm was to him at that time a haven of rest.

He had made up his mind to live on the farm until the end of his life. He used to think bitterly of his waiting so patiently for his death. When he could think of anything other than the silence he thought of his dying; of life being squeezed out of him by the shrouded quiet. Sometimes he would wonder if it were death that ominously waited for him in that appalling, threatening stillness.

There had been days when he had tried to recall the sound of voices he had known. He had spent long hours in awakening in his memory those voices. He had wanted particularly to think of people laughing. He used to want to get the pitch of their laughing; to surround himself with the vibration of reiterated laughter. And then when he had gotten it so that he almost heard it, so that he felt that with concentrated attention he might hear the laughing, he would find himself listening to the frightful, numbing stillness.

He had not the courage to go on trying that.

Following the plow and the old gray mare through the fields with the dog skulking abjectly at his heels, he would think of that thing which he had done that had ostracized him from the rest of humanity. He never thought of the possibility of making his life over again. He could not have thought of it if he had wanted to. It was all too hopeless; too impossible to think about. The deadening quiet in which he had been steeped had drained him; sapped from him all initiative.

When evening came he would go into his shack and close the door. He would light the oil lamp on the old table that stood in the center of the room and he would go about getting supper for himself and the mongrel. He took great care always to move his pots and pans gently. If he picked up a plate he did it slowly, softly. When he put his bowl of food on the table he slid it consciously onto the surface without noise. And going to and fro not oftener than he had to, his feet in their padded moccasins lifted him to his toes.

He ate quietly and quickly, swallowing his food without chewing, feeding himself and the dog with his fingers. And all the while feeling that the stillness was rushing down from the hills and gathering to greater force about him.

And when he was quite finished with the clearing away of his dishes he would sit beside the table, the mongrel in front of him, and he would think frantically of the relief of talking. His lips would begin to quiver hideously; to move. That hoarse, inhuman muttering that had no sound of voice in it would start. And then he would see the dog's eyes, filled with that horrid, beaten look, fixed on his mouth and he would stop, gasping.

Once every little while old man Efferts would come down to the shack in the valley.

He knew nothing of old man Efferts other than that ever since he had come to live at the farm Efferts had stopped in for an evening now and again.

At first he had resented old man Efferts' coming. Later when he had seen that Efferts would not interfere with him he had not minded so much. He had become quite used to seeing the bent, huddled figure of the man trailing down the hillside and shambling into the room to sit there opposite to him quite silent. Of late he had gone about fetching the old man a glass of cider and a piece of bread. And they had sat facing each other, never talking; just sitting rigidly with the dog on the floor between them and the silence spilling itself in gigantic floods all around them. And then old Efferts would light his pipe and when he had finished it he would get up and go out of the door. And after he had watched old man Efferts go, with the feeling that he might not be real, he would stumble up to his room to lie in the narrow wooden bed trying to shut his ears to the deafening silence about him; cringing between his blankets as the swell of it heightened insidiously.

He knew that the stillness had swamped itself into old man Efferts. He could see the stamp of it in the uncertain, stupefied face; in the bewildered eyes that had behind them something of the look that stayed on in the dog's eyes; in the thin-lipped mouth that drooled at the corners; in the old man's still, quiet way of moving, the unreal, phantom way in which the gray mare moved. He did not know why the old man should come to him to sit so dumbly opposite him for a whole evening. He did not care. He was long past caring.

There were times when he thought he might tell old man Efferts of that thing which he had done years ago and which had isolated him from his fellows. Not that he thought so much of it. He had almost forgotten it. The stillness had made him forget everything but itself; had pushed everything out of his mind before its own spreading weight. But he kept the thought of speaking to Efferts of what he had done in the back of his head. He knew how his telling it to Efferts could not fail to act. He knew that something would infallibly happen; that the surprise of it could not help but penetrate the thickness of Efferts' silence. He always felt, soothing himself with the thought of relief, that when the power of the stillness became unbearable he would shock old Efferts into talk. There were moments when he hungered savagely to force old Efferts out of his walling quiet. Moments when he was starving for the comfort of human sound. His voice and Efferts' voice. Voices that would rise above the stillness; voices that would penetrate cunningly through the quiet; voices that would speak and answer each other.

He was sitting in the center of his lamp lit room. He had had his supper and had cleared away the dishes with his usual crafty carefulness. He had lighted his pipe. He sat in the chair beside the table; his body quite rigid; his arms and legs stiffened to a torturing quiet. The mongrel crouched at his feet. There was something strange in the way the animal lay; in its tightened muscles that pulled and twitched as it breathed. Whenever he looked down his eyes met the dog's eyes.

Outside the heavy shadows of the night crept along the ground, pushed on by the rushing, rising silence behind them. He knew that the stillness was rolling down the slope of those long hills. He knew that its awful quiet was gathering in the valley. He knew that it was trickling horridly still into the low ceilinged room. He had the feeling for the thousandth time that the most minute noise was swallowed up in the stillness before it came into being.

He looked up then to see the door shoved warily ajar. A wrinkled, ugly hand showed against the dark wood in a lighter patch of brown. A coarse booted foot came behind the swing of the door. Standing against the black of the night he saw old man Efferts.

He watched the old man come into the room.

He saw him pull up a chair, lifting it from off the floor and setting it down opposite to him within the pooling space of the yellow lamplight. He stared at Efferts as he sank into the chair.

Old man Efferts took out his pipe and lit it.

He kept his eyes on Efferts as he had so often done; on the uncertain, stupefied face that was turned to him; on the bewildered eyes that had something behind them of the look that stayed on in the dog's eyes; on the thin-lipped mouth that drooled at the corners.

He got up then and went on his toes to the door and closed it softly. He felt that Efferts' eyes were on him; and the mongrel's eyes. He came back and sat down in his chair.

They both smoked quietly.

He remembered the glass of cider and the piece of bread.

He could not bring himself to move to-night.

He felt the suffocating weight of the stillness crowding past him. It was expanding menacingly throughout the small room. It filled in all about him.

Presently old man Efferts would finish his pipe and would get up and shamble out of the door. He would sit there and watch him go as he always watched, wondering if perhaps old man Efferts was not real. And then he would stumble up to bed and lie awake and listen to the stillness that grew greater and greater.

He wanted the relief from that silence; wanted it desperately; passionately.

He remembered that if he told Efferts of that thing that he had come so near forgetting in the smothering quiet that he would have what he so frantically wanted. Some human speech. Human talk that would break the silence even for a little while; the sound of human voices that would rise and answer each other.

He glanced at the old man surreptitiously. He tried to think what expression would come into that stupid face with the bewildered eyes; he tried to see the thin-lipped drooling mouth as it would look with the lips of it startled into moving.

He sat very still.

Words formed themselves; lagging into his mind.


He would start to say it to old man Efferts that way.

He could not stand the stillness any longer.

Anything was better than the appalling agony of the quiet.

He made a little tentative movement with his thin, shaking hands.

He felt that Efferts was staring at him.

The mongrel crouching at his feet moved stealthily. He heard no sound from the animal's moving. He knew it had gotten to its feet. He saw it standing there between where he sat and where Efferts sat.

He felt his lips begin to quiver.


He got the words into his head again through the menacing, waiting stillness.

He muttered something.

Old man Efferts leaned forward, his hand behind his ear.

In a sudden blinding flash of knowledge he realized that old man Efferts was deaf.

He felt his mouth twisting around his face.

He tried then to shout.

His eyes avoided the mongrel's eyes that he knew were filled with that uncanny, beaten look and were fixed on his jerking, grimacing mouth.

All about him the ominous, malignant silence.

He tried again and again to speak. He could not talk. Sweat stood out in great, glistening beads on his forehead and dribbled blindingly into his wide, distended eyes. His body shook with the stupendous effort he was making. His tongue was swollen. He could feel his throat tightening so that it hurt. He could not get his words into that hoarse, inhuman muttering that had no sound of voice in it.

He kept on trying and trying to speak——

He saw that old man Efferts had finished his pipe. He watched him get out of his chair and go shambling across the room and through the door.

He sat there.

His hands went up to his working mouth. He wanted to hide the hideous jerking of it.

His eyes met the mongrel's eyes.

The stillness grew appalling.