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Nightwriting

By Margarita Engle

It's the only quiet place in the entire prison, with a velvet chair, candles, a rose in a vase.  I read to the blind, even though they are far away and my voice will travel alone, without me, using this audiotape the way children in fairy tales use magic carpets.  For now, I am the only one listening.

Each time someone requests a textbook or scholarly article that's not available in Braille, I am the one who volunteers.  I read out loud for hours, in the solitude of this soundproofed cell.  Reading to the blind has taught me about epithelial cells and ancient Rome, the laws of thermodynamics, photosynthesis.  It has taught me about the invention of Braille by a blind teenager in France.  He wanted nothing more than to read and write, but there were only a handful of embossed books with raised letters so flowery and difficult for the fingertips to decipher that by the time Louis Braille had reached the end of a sentence, he had forgotten the beginning.  Then he learned about a military system called nightwriting, with raised dots and dashes arranged in patterns so that orders to attack or retreat could be passed from hand to hand in complete silence, on the battlefield, on moonless nights.

Louis prowled the campus of his school in secret, passing out awls and tablets of stiff paper.  He taught all the blind students how to punch holes that left raised bumps on the reverse side.

This is the part I love.  Each sequence of six bumps is a cell.  Braille cells, epithelial cells, photosynthetic cells, my cell, this special soundproofed cell.  So many meanings for a single word.  So many ways to arrange the bumps.

As I read these black symbols printed on smooth white paper, I hear them transformed into sound, my voice a motionless traveler passing through walls topped by razor wire and guard towers. 

I imagine a blind person far beyond those walls, a stranger waiting for this audiotape, waiting for my voice, a wandering pilgrim plunging in and out of the far reaches of distance and darkness.

Margarita Engle is a botanist and the Cuban-American author of Singing to Cuba (Arte Publico Press), Skywriting (Bantam), and The Poet-Slave (forthcoming from Henry Holt).  Short works appear in a wide variety of anthologies, chapbooks and journals such as Atlanta Review, California Quarterly, and Caribbean Writer.  Awards include a Cintas Fellowship and a San Diego Book Award.  Margarita lives in central California, where she enjoys hiking and helping her husband with his volunteer work for a wilderness search-and-rescue dog training program.

Skywriting
Skywriting

Also by Margarita Engle

Photos courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.


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