Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Fourteen

Tuesday, 11:05 AM southern Illinois, USA

A spoken word intruded. Vocal, exotic, melodic.

She did not know the meaning of the sound, and fully woke at the shock. Her earphones had slipped during her nap, and the sound had entered her consciousness. How long had it been since she had listened to a word, a complete identifiable word, but not understood something about it? She could not count the years. Even if she didn’t know an exact meaning, she could always make a good guess: French to Spanish, Italian to Romanian, Hindi to Sanskrit.

Again. Clearer this time, the spoken word shimmered from several rows ahead of hers in the bus. Hannah recognized the voice. The smear of sound was nearer now than in the handy-wipe store, and Hannah could distinguish phonemes and sound groups. But the language itself was elusive. Or was it familiar? She wanted to believe so, but that may just have been her vanity reacting to a new idiom.

The masculine voice spoke into a phone, or at least spoke without a vocal partner that Hannah could hear.

One person speaking sounds just outside her grasp – it pulled Hannah’s attention and challenged her. There was an entwined quality to the words. She had difficulty deciding where one word ended and another began. It was a puzzle to distinguish, this slur of sounds. She needed to give meaning to this voice.

The excitement from the other passengers had receded since their last station stop. Things in the bus had quieted. Hannah could concentrate on just this one-sided conversation. How long would it take her to study the cadence of these words? The speaker used low tones and whispered his thoughts. The lure of the speech pulled at her. She sat up and leaned forward.

He used his throat as he spoke. Hannah heard the tightening of his larynx as if he was wringing out his epiglottis from a good washing. Similar to Russian, she thought, but not quite. Hannah had never bothered to become proficient in Russian since so many others had tackled that perplexing tongue. She enjoyed a challenge, but couldn’t see the advantage to learn the language, even one so appealing. Then, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the array of Eastern European languages had called to her but she had been concentrating on Hebrew, Arabic and Sanskrit at the time.

The speaker’s words shushed and coughed. Where had she heard those sounds?

She listened to the soft patter of connected syllables, curiously foreign, tentatively familiar. Hannah lusted after every word. Each syllable begged her attention, pled with her to listen and learn the unaccustomed sounds, so exotic to her English-worn ears. Where had she heard the spoken partners to these sounds? Besides the handy-wipe store, where was home for this conversation?

It was a place more western than Russia, she thought. Its language had changed, leaning toward Europe, when Russian had stayed stubbornly apart. A place Americans don’t often think about, but one that pays close attention to Europeans and Western life. Hannah heard some of that in the voice, she was sure. This language’s home was a place not so much forgotten by Westerners, but one that had yet to be discovered by them. A complex language, sounds from a completely divergent phonetic ancestry than American English.

Hannah sat straight, breathed in sharp excitement. She knew. She was certain. She had figured out the birthplace of the voice.

“He’s Ukrainian,” she said.

Then she smiled in congratulations and began to listen for the meaning behind the words. It was all theoretical. But Hannah knew so many connections between languages, even if she had never been to the country, she could link the usage of sound, and trace it back to places she had never been. She hadn’t used this skill in years and was excited she still possessed it.

By the time the bus entered the outskirts of St. Louis, the other passengers had roused themselves, and Hannah had learned seven hundred and forty-eight words in the exotic Ukrainian language.

Cleo Fourteen

Tuesday, 12:05 PM maybe Missouri, USA

The intensity of the headache surprised her. Perhaps it was the dust in the Midwest air; perhaps the lack of sleep. Cleo didn’t want to think that it might be a stress headache.

What if, instead of just a lack of experience, what if she simply couldn’t do this work? What if, after investing five years in John Smith and Associates, she would never become an associate? Cleo would remain a side-show, never able to do anything but write reports about what other people did.

A stress headache – that would be the likely result of this type of thinking. What if she just didn’t have what it took? Cleo had been able to ignore this part of the work until now, when she realized that even Hannah, odd little Hannah, had what it took.

She had been trying to get a phone call through to Sandra for hours. No-coverage zones seemed to find Cleo every time she reached for her cell phone. Finally, Sandra answered her call.

“She took the bus,” Cleo said, then waited, as she knew that Sandra would not scream or shout. Sandra would collect herself, then relay instructions in tight well-chosen words, without the usual banter, because her boss, like Hannah, had skills that Cleo did not.

“Hhhnnmmm,” said Sandra.

If she couldn’t see her boss’ physical reaction, Cleo wished Sandra’s response had been in a more reliable word form.

“Good God, Sandra. I haven’t been trained for this. Follow Hannah Antrim. That was my only instruction. And now I am lost in god-only-knows where Missouri.”

“I had thought that the scoundrels were our safeties.”

“Maybe not even Missouri. I’ve been following Ms. Antrim’s bus for hours. What do you want me to do?” asked Cleo.

“Destination?”

“The bus? West on the Amtrak connection. Maybe St. Louis?”

“The microchip still working?”

“Yes. I need to stop for gas.”

“We’re in this far, I’m sure John Smith will have us continue,” said Sandra.

“What if she gets off again in the middle of nowhere? I couldn’t find a public gas station at the last stop,” said Cleo.

“What the hell do I know about the middle of nowhere?”

“I’ve been to St. Louis. If she gets that far, I assume it’s a long break there at Union Station.”

“What the hell do I know about Union Station, St Louis? If she’s still working off her Amtrak ticket, we can only hope she’ll follow their route. Call back when you get there. I’ll have your instructions.”

“What about Carlos? He drove off in that beat-up truck like he knew where he was going. What does he know that I don’t?”

“Don’t worry about Carlos.”

“I’m not worried about him. But shouldn’t we have stuck together? He didn’t seem to think so.”

“He has a different concern than we do.”

“What about the Ukrainians you failed to mention before I left for LA?”

Cleo tested the heat on her forehead with the back of her hand.

“No worries there,” said Sandra. “I’ve got them under control. They’ll be fine. It will all be fine.”

“Fine. It’s all fine.”

“And, Chérie, not everyone starts with difficulties in the field, but they always come along from time to time.” 

Relief from her boss’s comment welled in Cleo’s chest, and she held herself tight so that it would not pour out in the form of a sigh, or more likely, a sob. “Thank you for saying that, Sandra.”

“Then let me say this also. You need to find a way in with this woman, a way to make yourself important or necessary. The scoundrels did it over time, but time is something you don’t have.”

Just as Cleo began to feel the headache lift, it crashed right back down.

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