To be published on April 6, 2015 by W.W. Norton & Company, The Language of Paradise is Barbara Klein Moss’s first novel. Set in 19th-century New England, it is the story of a young minister’s daughter, Sophy, and her theology-student husband Gideon, who falls under the spell of his charismatic friend, Leander. When Sophy becomes pregnant with the couple’s first child, Leander convinces Gideon to experiment with the baby in a scheme reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fiction of science, nature and obsession. Moss is also the author of the story collection Little Edens (Norton 2004). What follows is an excerpt from the chapter “Annunciation.”
Bathe in it, they tell her. Also, rest in it, taste it, breathe it in, dream in it, listen to it, learn from it, think about it, and then, don’t think about it. Apparently there are Commandments of Silence, written on air instead of stone, said air emanating from Gideon and Leander, who expend a great many words to describe the absence of sound.
They are silent on Sunday afternoons and at dinner three days a week. The sessions remind her of prayer, in all the worst ways: one might wish to set one’s mind on higher things, but even in this quiet place, the hum of the world intrudes. Contemplations are tolerable, even pleasurable, as long as she fills them with reading or painting. Evening devotions are what they have always been, though she has yet to see anyone open a Bible. Now that they don’t go to church, they’ve become their own Quaker meeting: she knits for the baby, enjoying the clack of the needles; Gideon pores over one of his tomes; Leander sits square in his chair like the Pharaoh, in one of his waking sleeps. Meals are a trial.
This Sunday, at table, they point to what they want—as the monks do, Gideon says, but she thinks, more like monkeys. Please and thank-you pared down to the stab of a forefinger. Cider! More squash! Mastication is a cacophony, every chew and swallow and swish of the tongue resounding. Bite into a hard crust and the crackle lingers like a curse. Leander makes a great show of savoring his food, chewing each mouthful slowly, pretending to muse upon its qualities before he releases the morsel to its destiny. For all his efforts to prolong the process, dinner is over in a quarter of the time it used to be. If silence is a sanctuary, no one chooses to shelter in it for long. Gideon says she must think of these interludes as islands in a sea of talk, but what if the islands should spread into continents? What if the chatter they’ve all bathed in since infancy should dry up? “One of us could read aloud while the others eat,” she suggests when speech resumes. “We could take turns. The Bible, or whatever the reader pleases. Even the monks allow that.” She would happily listen to Papa’s Lexicon, let the Hebrew seep into her hungry ears and fly straight to her brain sans impediment—only a smattering of French to keep it company, and a few stray bits of Latin from the boys’ lessons.
“But Sophy, don’t you see—it wouldn’t be silence.” Gideon sighs and wrings his hands as if she’d asked for lettuce from the witch’s garden. Words often fail him nowadays; he looks to Leander to supply them. She feels that he is struggling to confide in her, but can’t find the proper expression.
Leander is never at a loss. “You must give yourself to it, Sophia,” he exhorts. “You won’t reap its benefits until you do.” He fixes her with his greenest eye, all glitter gone. She’s warranted the rebuke only once before, when Micah made a sheep-face at her across the silent table and—owing to her pent-up state—laughter spurted out. It’s like being observed through the wrong end of a spyglass, the object being to make her small. “If you can’t submit for your own sake, think of your husband! Think of your child! Measure your petty resistance against their well-being.”
“I would gladly give myself to it, if I knew what it was,” she says. “Perhaps one day you’ll enlighten me.” She turns to go, but not before catching the look that passes between them. She can’t help herself then. She throws a dart over her shoulder. “Who are you to lecture me about my family’s well-being? A bachelor with no family of your own. Did you think you could borrow ours?”
Sophy doesn’t stay to see the effect. She marches straight to the conservatory and slams the door as hard as she can. Glass shudders all around her, the tremor resounding in her bones. The fire in the stove has burned low, but she doesn’t mind. The cold is clarifying. She stands by the easel, taking an odd comfort from the sight of her breath on the panes. Her new painting repeats the view outside: a stark November landscape, black tree trunks reaching bony fingers to a pallid sky. The branches seem to be pleading. Please, let us keep a few leaves to see us through the winter. Or, Please, help us shake these clingers off.
Strange that a place so exposed should be her only refuge in this house. The transparent walls don’t bother her—not even when she catches Leander looking in on his way to the woodpile. She likes being able to watch the weather, and has thought what a picture it would make if she could mark nature’s changing dress day to day, week to week, the costume gradually altering at the bidding of her brush. But then, what else would she ever paint?
With both hands she strokes the mound under her apron. She feels closest to the baby in this room; she talks to it and sings to it, always in a low voice to protect their intimacy. If it is still, she knows it’s listening, and if it moves, she senses a spark of will, a reminder that her tenant is restless, just as her mother used to be when she was in residence, and won’t be content with such modest accommodations forever. “Sometimes I wish you could stay,” she’d confided yesterday, and was answered with a flurry of kicks.
“We might as well do some painting while the light lasts,” she tells it now. The baby is a good companion while she works, though each week the distance between her arms and the easel seems longer.
A knock at the door. “Sophy . . . may I come in?” Hesitant, which means nothing.
She stands tall, armoring herself with the tatters of her anger. One look at Gideon’s face and she is seized with a need to apologize. “I am sorry—” she begins.
“No, I am sorry. I should have spoken to you before. I was waiting for the right moment. I see I waited too long.”
She says nothing. There are other uses for silence.
He pulls the chair away from the easel and sits, gazing bleakly at the supplicating trees. “We—Leander and I—feel that an extraordinary child deserves an extraordinary upbringing. We have made special plans for the baby. For you, too, of course.”
“I’m happy to know our child will be extraordinary, but shouldn’t I have been consulted?”
“We thought it best to introduce you gradually. We hoped you’d take to the silences as we do—find nourishment in them, and pass that richness on to the baby. It gives me such comfort to think of our little one inside you, nursing on sweet peace.” Gideon scrutinizes her landscape as if it were a page of Aramaic. “Our aim—our mission—is to preserve that peace. To shield the tender new soul from pollution, once it is born into this babbling world. We’re the gatekeepers, you and Leander and I. But we must be united.”
Her skin goes cold. “Look at me,” she says. “Tell me plain.”
He turns to her. “We intend to raise the baby in an atmosphere of love and beauty, and answer its every need. But in its presence, we will—all of us—refrain from speaking. We’ll listen as we’ve never listened before, and record every utterance, from the first cries and gurgles to the first spontaneous word. Leander has presented me with a journal—a handsome one, worthy of its contents. The boards are the color of new leaves.” His face brightens. “Oh, Sophy, I dream of the day I make the first entry. Will it be a fragment of an ancient language or a tongue not heard since angels barred the gate of Eden? What an honor to be God’s clerk. His amanuensis . . . I like to think the Reverend would be pleased.”
“Are you saying we’re not to talk to our child? How are we to communicate? Will we make signs with our hands as they do with the deaf?” It is the extremity that keeps her calm. Her voice sounds like Papa’s, dry as dust, sorting out the facts of a parishioner’s calamity. A flicker of uncertainty in his eyes. He seems to weigh the possibility that she’s being farcical.
“Some gesturing is inevitable,” he says, “but we mustn’t use our bodies as a crutch. The baby will see what we see and hear what we hear, lacking only words. It will be steeped in the sounds of nature and domesticity, as we are. Our paradise is earthly, so we can’t expect to shield our little one from the hubbub of daily life. Its first words may mimic the plash of water in a basin, or the call of a bird—or a dish breaking. Few believe now that speech began as imitation, but we’ll have an excellent opportunity to put that dusty old theory to the test—”
“How long?” She cuts him off.
“Until the words come. A year and a half, three at most. Leander and I are of two minds on the subject. He thinks language will evolve slowly, given the lack of a model. I’m persuaded that, in a mind so clear, speech will bubble up like a natural stream. There’s much we don’t know. The ancients conducted similar experiments, but their methods were more primitive.”
He’s speaking quickly now, caught up in his ideas. “What we envision has never been attempted before. To return to a pre-Babel condition. To create our own paradise, and let a child come to consciousness there in perfect freedom, nurtured by affectionate caretakers—but with a light hand! We must never impose, only observe. I called us gatekeepers, but our function is higher than that. We will stand in the place of the Lord in Eden, watching over our precious creation.”
“And if—after a year or two or three—the words never come?” Sophy has heard of children raised in the wild, bestial creatures who walk on all fours and howl like the wolves that nurtured them.
“That won’t happen. The Bible tells us God brought the beasts to Adam to see what he would call them. We can infer that the names were already in him, dormant, waiting for the proper objects to present themselves. If Adam is the model for humanity, why should our little man be different? With the three of us to entertain him, he won’t lack for stimulation, and the garden room will feed his senses year-round.” Gideon looks about him with a mildly puzzled air, as if the lush flora had taken it upon itself to vanish out of spite. “Leander wants to acquire a pair of peafowl to strut outside. To amuse Prince Adam, he says: every kingdom needs its court jesters. The fellow is besotted with poultry.”
Our little man. The baby has been an it until now, neither of them willing to confine it to one sex or another. Sophy tries out this new identity on her intimate companion, and sees it—him—in her arms, then teetering on squat legs as she beckons him. A presence become a person.
“You’re too late,” she says, not bothering to contain the note of triumph. Her emotion makes her careless. Let them try to use her boy! “He’s been listening to us all these months. Do you think he doesn’t know our voices? We have conversations every day, he and I. We’re already quite familiar.”
“Why must you always oppose me?” Gideon gets up and paces from one end of the conservatory to another. “No one is more aware than I am that we can’t achieve perfection, we can only try to approach it. Look at this place! The greenery was supposed to be installed two months ago.”
“Gideon.” She is sweet reason, calling him home. “This is our baby that we waited for all these months. We don’t have to put him in a glass case and study him. Only to love him. What else does a little child need? Our love will be paradise enough.”
“If you had seen more of the world,” he says, “you would know it is never enough.”
Barbara Klein Moss is the author of the story collection Little Edens and the novel The Language of Paradise, both published by W. W. Norton & Company. Her fiction has appeared in a number of journals including the Missouri Review and the Georgia Review, and in Best American Short Stories. She has received fellowships from MacDowell, Bread Loaf, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives in Annapolis, Maryland.