Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Thirty-three

Friday, 1:35 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine

Light banter from every direction. Hannah had identified it as Russian, but that was only an educated guess. She had very little experience with that language, but could distinguish a ‘nyet’ from a ‘no’. At least that’s what she hoped she was hearing. The speech was so fast.

Anton had taken up a conversation with two men from the next table. As Hannah held her tea cup, she listened. There was the casual overlap of speech, occasional laughter with the usual person-to-person variation. Humor, teasing, relief, aggression. There was much to learn in laughter aside from the short respite from having to listen for words.

Hannah also heard the conversation from the table behind her. A man and a woman speaking in low tones with less gusto than the men in Anton’s conversation. What language were they speaking? Hannah tried to concentrate. Why was she having to concentrate?

Through all the conversations, with her relaxing cup of after-lunch tea, Hannah should be absorbing the words like a succulent absorbing water, letting the words fill her mind. Learning should be instant, without effort.

Hannah forced herself to listen, carefully, every detail. Why didn’t these people slow down and enunciate?

She understood the occasional words spoken in Ukrainian. Those, she had acquired earlier while talking with Anton, mostly on the airplane. Words had swirled around her then, new, but within her understanding. That learning experience had been swift, almost automatic. It now amounted to the vocabulary of a 10 or 11-year-old, she figured. Those words, the ones already a part of her repertoire, were hers still.

But there were so many other words, nuances of pronunciation, or regional colloquialisms, that she should have been learning, should have been adding to her knowledge base. Those words were not adding up.

Twenty, fifty, one hundred words a minute she had always been able to pick up in beginning to learn a language. Right now, though, she wasn’t learning any. None in Russian, no new ones even in Ukrainian.

Not only that, she heard several differences of speech around her that she assumed meant regional accents or personal choice in word usage, or perhaps even a different tongue altogether. But each word around her simply dropped into a puddle of sound. Hannah could hear them, but they were no longer significant. They had no meaning.

She asked a question to Anton. ‘What time is it?’ – a most basic question spoken well in Ukrainian. He answered that it was nearly two o’clock. All of this was fine, her language fluent and competent, her understanding easy. She hadn’t lost any of the words she already possessed.

She felt no sensitivity from the bone in back of her ear. She had no ache, no need to find the hum of distraction. No pain. None at all. Something else, though, was also missing. Hannah’s special language learning had shut down. She sensed the vacuum it had left behind. That talent had turned off completely at the loss of the pain.

Hannah’s breath accelerated, her palms tingled. Panic from an unexplored idea set in. She had never questioned her ability in language. It had set her apart – not always in a good way – and had been her life-long companion. Anton had said it well. Hannah was that little language lady.

Who was she if she lost her talent?

Hannah realized what was happening. It made her hand shake and her breath catch. She saved from splashing over what little tea remained and placed her cup on the table. Hannah turned fully toward the window, seeking some privacy as she sorted her thoughts.

Wait. A young voice spoke. ‘Chernyy khleb.‘ A new word association she picked up in context. The boy from two tables over pointed to the bread on his plate, repeated the words.

Was she certain of the meaning? No, but having heard each word in other contexts, Hannah might presume the meaning. Dark bread? She would have to remember and test out the words. She would have to study it, experiment, perhaps change her understanding. And it was the simplest of word connections. Dark bread? No – black bread. That was it.

Hannah was struggling to learn. Would she have to work this hard with each small, insignificant piece of meaning in vocal sound? Was this what other people went through? A numbness spread from her hands up her arms, around her shoulders and through her chest.

She would have to learn language like a normal person.

Ease with language had been her longest identity. Maybe she had been odd, short, abrupt, with a general forgettable physical ugliness. Maybe she behaved awkwardly, always, by her nature, and because of that, people reacted to her as a peculiar, difficult person. Maybe she had always looked like she did not fit in with any social group. Perhaps that gap had strengthened and become a part of her outward life, and her self-concept. All this had become who she was.

But she had also always been gifted with languages. It explained away her oddities. Now, though, with her unique talent disappeared, she was left with simply being odd.

Cleo Thirty-three

Friday, 1:45 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine

Carlos had disappeared like the phantom he seemed to be. He would follow them, but how he would accomplish that, Cleo had no idea. The only thing she had learned from Carlos was that he might not be trusted with telling the truth. Well, she had noticed the lie. That was something.

She walked back into the restaurant, where Hannah and Anton were still at the table.

“Anton,” Cleo said, “I need a plan. I’ve come with you on trust. Now, I’d like to know what to expect. Please answer in English. I’m here because of Hannah. What does she need to do for you?”

“Is easy. Hannah does this.” Anton waved his hand around the restaurant. “Is simple.”

“She eats in a restaurant?”

“She learn language. Talk. Is all.”

“This is the work you were talking about?” asked Cleo.

Dah, yes. Is work.”

“No, Anton. It’s not work. This is not at all the impression you gave us.”

“You ask what work. I tell what work,” said Anton. “Is problem? Is no problem.”

“Hannah. What do you think of this? Was this your understanding?”

Cleo turned to their companion and saw confusion on her face. Cleo had thought Hannah had gotten over the jet-lag.

“Anton,” said Hannah, “say ‘restaurant’ in English, then in Ukrainian.”

Restoran. Restaurant.”

“Oh, please. There was enough of this on the airplane,” said Cleo.

“Now say something I wouldn’t know in Ukrainian,” said Hannah. “Say something very specific, a word that isn’t often used, and let me figure it out.”

“Hannah, let’s stay with one topic,” said Cleo. “Finally, Anton begins to give us an answer about your work. Let’s stay in that conversation.”

“Say ‘elastic’,” said Hannah. “Let me see if I can find the root word.”

“I do not know word,” said Anton.

“You don’t know this English word,” said Hannah. Anton nodded. “I see. You, a normal person learning the English language in a normal way, don’t know such a specific word yet.”

Dah.”

“No more,” said Cleo, trying to keep the shrill out of her voice. “Let’s get back to the work plan. In English.”

“And you can’t guess the meaning,” said Hannah. Anton shook his head, then shrugged his shoulders. “But there is some doubt. Perhaps you could attempt a reasonable estimation.”

“Maybe is clothes thing,” he said.

“Ah,” said Hannah. “You’ve heard the word ‘elastic’ and it is associated with clothing. I see.”

Cleo could feel the heat on her forehead.

“Just stop right now,” she said. “I want an answer from you, Anton. I want to know how much longer we will be here.”

Cleo watched as Hannah placed her hands on the arms of her chair, stretched her feet to the ground, first one then the other, and used the traction to push her chair from the table with an effort that put a sad look of concentration on her face. She rose and spoke.

“I won’t be leaving just yet, Young Cleo.”

Before Cleo could respond, Hannah left the table and walked out the restaurant door.

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