I sit up straight. Breathe. Pull the tone up from my gut. Let it rest in my mouth, in front of my teeth, as far forward as I can place it. I feel it sequester there. I hold the note. Time it. Breathe again. This is how I get my voice back.
For a year now, my voice has been trapped in the tight cage of my throat. Short muscles meant for swallowing pin my windpipe against the ropy length of my neck, while the sounds within are small, imprisoned, come out whistling or bisected or dusted with gravel. Inside, something grows.
I have seen this growth on a screen, small and pink, looking as benign as it is. The doctors tell me that it could get larger, or shrink, or stay the same, but that it will not disappear on its own. That it has moved in to stay.
I read about surgeons using lasers to shave molecules from the vocal cords of opera singers. There are too many details; they make me lightheaded. I have never had surgery, never been chemically rendered unconscious in the absence of a party. The procedure the article describes doesn’t sound like a party; it sounds like a tightrope across the Grand Canyon.
Middle age seems like a late time to learn the art of accommodation. Better late than never, people tell me, and, You can’t just muscle through this one. It takes all the willpower I have to not say, Watch me. To not even think it.
So far, only one person has asked if it makes me sad, losing my voice—has listened seriously when I said, Yes. Has said, Sorry. I nodded and stood there for a moment and felt sorry. Then I decided I didn’t want to feel that way again, and so I didn’t. This may be the thing I do best.
I lean my head back. Hold the stretch for thirty seconds. (This takes empirically longer with a stopwatch than without one, which amuses but does not surprise me.) If you move more quickly, the muscle thinks it’s exercising: contraction, rather than release. I think, not for the first time, that my problem may be metaphorical.
More tones, twice a day. Spring into summer. I joke about the vile anesthetic that let the tube through my nose and into my throat to view the placid pink mass—a local paralytic, under the influence of which my voice magically lost its whistles and pops, stayed within “normal parameters”—I joke about getting some to go.
Years ago, in a dim basement confessional on West 31st Street—where all I could say that day was that I’d had a chance to do a small bit of good for someone but had been too preoccupied to realize it in time—the priest said that my penance was to Relax. The hardest penance I had ever received. Across the river, in Brooklyn, is a church that keeps the Host in a box glazed with Gilded Age diamonds donated from lady parishioners’ engagement rings. What’s wrong, I think, with something that shining? Something so unnecessarily beautiful?
I chant my syllables. Ns and Ms, long vowels. Raise the pitch, lower the pitch; hold the pitch, hold the pitch, hold it. Someday sing.
Magdalen Powers teaches composition and creative writing at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon. She herself was educated at Reed College and at the University of Florida. She is the web editor of Subtropics magazine, and spends the rest of her time writing, editing, cooking, singing, and digging in the dirt. Her work has appeared in The Southeast Review, Spork, 5_Trope, H_NGM_N, and elsewhere. Her very-short-story collection The Heart Is Also a Furnace is available from Future Tense Books.