Written Silence

“Written Silence” is by Ashlee Havlak, a student at Texas A&M University. It is a fanfiction based on Octavia Butler’s, “Speech Sounds,” an SFF short story first published in 1983. 


Critical Introduction

 If the person whom your heart yearns for is the one who could hurt you most, would you choose love or survival? This is a question that I wanted to explore for my final project. For my project, I chose to create a fan fiction using Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds” as a base text. I chose “Speech Sounds” because I felt that the world in which the story takes place is one of which I could grasp onto and base a story off of. I find that the beauty in short stories is that they lend themselves to be added on to. Therefore, I wrote “Written Silence” about how Rye’s husband must choose between his love for Valerie and his own safety in order to open the door for readers to see “Speech Sounds” through a new lens.   

I decided to name this piece “Written Silence” because I wanted to make it similar to the title of “Speech Sounds” so that readers would recognize the similarity, and I wanted the title to represent the limitations of Valerie that ignites conflict. Since Valerie is now unable to read or write because of the effects of the disease, her most treasured form of expression has now been silenced. Also, I chose to not include dialogue because this piece is centered on the thoughts and memories of Valerie from her husband’s perspective. This is also the reason why I chose to use Valerie’s real name instead of her nickname “Rye”. Her husband would have most likely used her real name when referring to her.

If a reader then decides to reread Butler’s “Speech Sounds” and sees Valerie through the lens that I created, he or she may walk away with something entirely different.

In “Written Silence”, James, (Valerie’s husband), is struggling with decisions he made in order to save the lives of his children and care for his struggling wife. In “Speech Sounds”, Valerie believes that the disease is what killed her children. I noticed that the only time that Valerie mentions her family in the original text is when she mentions that the disease killed them. Therefore, I felt that this detail needed to be extended, and Valerie needed a deeper back story. I decided to tell the story from Valerie’s husband’s perspective because I felt that by looking at Valerie through his eyes, readers would get a better sense of how the disease affected her. In addition, by giving Valerie the “blackouts” and “aggressive outbursts”, I feel like I further added depth to Valerie’s character and challenged readers to view her a little differently while still aligning with details in the text. Technically, when reading this piece, the statement that the disease took Valerie’s husband and children from her is still accurate. It was the disease that caused James to send the children away, and it was the disease that made Valerie kill her husband.  If a reader then decides to reread Butler’s “Speech Sounds” and sees Valerie through the lens that I created, he or she may walk away with something entirely different.

In addition, I decided to set my work in a time slightly before when “Speech Sounds” begins. I was inspired by how Octavia Butler tends to throw readers straight into the action, and readers are left to piece together the context of the story. Therefore, I decided that I would also begin my piece in media res. Because of this, I had to further analyze Butler’s writing techniques in order to make my story clear to the reader. By using flashbacks, I put the pieces of context back together for the reader by slowly revealing details a little at a time. I was particularly interested in the method used by Butler because it creates suspense and draws interest. So while at the beginning of the story, the reader may be confused as to why the tombs in the ground are empty, by the end the answer will be revealed. Additionally, I knew that readers of “Speech Sounds” would already be aware that Valerie was no longer with her family, so I needed to create a way to make the situation more dramatic. Therefore, by using the slow reveal strategy, readers are given time to reflect on the additions I made to the story.     

While this piece is a work of fiction, and its primary function is to entertain, I intend for readers to walk away questioning what he or she would do for family and love. In extreme circumstances, it is hard to say where one’s allegiance would lie. This is why I feel that it is an interesting topic to explore. It really forces the reader to put his or herself into the shoes of the character and make a difficult choice. I have always found it amazing that, in many cases, familial ties are often stronger than one’s own desire to survive. In times of struggle, the unselfish decision to put the needs of others first is something to be admired. In this case, James put the safety of his children and the love for his wife above his own well being. Therefore, by making readers think about this uncomfortable decision, I am asking readers to evaluate the strength of love versus the desire of survival.

The intended audience for this piece would be readers who are college age and older and those who are familiar with Butler’s work. While this piece could technically be a story on its own, I feel that the reader will be much more engaged and will understand more if he or she has read “Speech Sounds”. A reader that is familiar with Butler will expect to be thrown into the middle of a world they are uncomfortable with, and he or she will anticipate some form of other worldly circumstance, (in this case the disease). Therefore, I catered to the expectations of readers by providing elements that would still feel like a Butler story while adding my own changes in to alter the way the reader might view “Speech Sounds”.


“Written Silence”

I held her tightly as she cried and kneeled over fresh dirt that covered the tiny tombs. Tombs should never be that small, but it was a good thing that they were empty. Although, she would never know that – she couldn’t.

Sending our children away was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do in my life, but I knew that I made the right decision. They were struggling to keep their abilities a secret, and Valerie was struggling to contain her aggression. I knew it wasn’t her fault.

While she was fortunate enough to still be able to speak and understand speech, the disease took away her greatest love – literature.  I, on the other hand, had yet to be affected by this disease. There were days when I could feel myself slip into angry fits or struggle to form coherent sentences, but I still had the strength to restrain the symptoms from pulling me over the edge.

I gently pulled Valerie off of her knees and led her into our small three bedroom house. The third bedroom would now be permanently locked since there wasn’t a need for it anymore, and it would only provoke sadness. I watched Valerie walk slowly as she passed the door. She paused when she heard the fan still humming in the room. As though by natural instinct, she reached for the doorknob but stopped once she felt the cold metal hit her fingertips. She turned back around and walked into her bedroom that we once used to share. How could I have done this to her?

It took every ounce of strength that I had left to keep myself from comforting her as she slept. I knew that she still needed me here, so I had to keep my distance in order to stay alive. I used to be able to tell when her aggression was building up, and I would instruct the children to go into the crawl space located in Winnie’s closet while I guarded the door until she calmed down.

The first time she had an outburst was when she caught Andy flipping through the pages of one of her old history textbooks. He used to love the pictures of the old paintings. He said that one day he would travel back in time to fight in the American Revolution so that he could be the hero and the first president. That boy’s imagination was his greatest gift because even for a brief second, it allowed him to escape the hell that the world was turning into.  He had just started first grade and his reading skills had began to improve, so he would grab the books with the “hero pictures” and try to sound out the words.

It was two weeks after Valerie had lost her ability to read and write, and she was struggling to cope with her new life and limitations when she saw him. She ripped the book from his small boyish hands that still had dirt under the fingernails from climbing trees all afternoon, and she started tearing out the pages one by one. The frightened look on Andy’s face and the sound of Winnie whimpering behind me as she clung to my leg was what let me know that after this moment, our family would never be the same.

The Valerie that I fell in love with was slowly chipping away. I told Andy and Winnie that it was the disease’s fault, not their mother’s, but they could never look at their mother without fear again. It wasn’t her fault.

After that, she would be triggered by the sight of someone reading, the sound of a pen on paper,  or the feeling of paper between her fingers as she turned a page of yet another book that she would never be able to read again. If I could trade places with her, I would in a heartbeat. Nothing I do now can ease her pain. I just clean up and burn the torn pages after she has finished her rampage.

I know this is not her fault.

I expect to hear cussing, screaming, and the familiar sound of her beautiful books being ripped apart, but there was nothing.


The silence was even more deafening than the usual screams. I always knew when the screaming would end when she returned to me, but the silence…

The outbursts usually lasted anywhere from one hour to five. Then, she would glide back into the room with that gentle smile on her face, and she would be my wife again. She would be Winnie and Andy’s mother again. She would be Valerie again.

But she could never really be Valerie. Valerie loved being a professor and sharing her love of learning with her students. She would come home after a long day of work, pick up one of her millions of books, and continue her research. I could see the exhaustion taking a toll on her, but whenever I would ask why she wouldn’t just come to bed, she would look up at me with those youthful eyes and a tired smile. Her silent response would let me know that she wouldn’t be coming to bed anytime soon. 

What does this silent response mean?

I feel the frustration and aggression begin to seep into me. The disease found me in a moment of weakness, and now it wants to take over. I can’t let it take me. I can’t. Valerie needs me to protect her from the others. To protect her from herself.

 I kick over the stack of books in the hall to release some of the anger. Maybe if I give in a little, I’ll regain my strength. These damn books. In this moment, I hate all of these damn books.

Our first fight after we got married was over these damn books. I couldn’t stand all of the books piled up all over the house. I begin to feel like these books were the walls closing in on me and suffocating me with all of the new challenges that come with marriage. I wanted them gone. Or at least on a bookshelf in a designated room. I had even offered to give up my home office so that she could have a library. No. She never gave me a clear reason as to why we had to have them stacked up all over the house.  Then one night, I went in the kitchen to get a glass of water, and I overheard a conversation she was having with her mother on the phone. Her dad wasn’t doing well. Apparently he didn’t have much time left. Valerie hung up the phone, and I could hear her breathing begin to grow faster, shorter, and more panicked. Then, with tears in her eyes, I watched her pick up the first book she laid her eyes on , and she began to read. I then understood that her books are what kept her sane. In all of the craziness going on in the world, her books are what brought her back down to earth.

I never complained about the books again.

I can’t control myself anymore.   I pick up a stack of books and slam them to the ground. I make as much noise as possible in order to drown out the silence. The silence leaves me feeling empty and useless. It mimics the way she feels now that she is unable to express herself through her beloved writing.

When Valerie lost her ability to read and write, my first instinct was to get rid of the books. I knew that seeing them every day would remind her of her limitations and possibly provoke her aggression.  But Valerie insisted on keeping them. She wanted the children to still be able to enjoy the beauty of literature even though she would never be able to again. I complied with her wishes, but after every outburst, more and more books were destroyed.

When she would come out of the aggression, she would never remember what happened. It was almost as if she would blackout each time it happened.  I would tell her it was me. I would lie and say that the disease had caused me to do it and that I was so sorry. She would hold me and reassure me that it wasn’t my fault.

It wasn’t her fault.

It’s not her fault.

This is not her fault.

She was aware of her blackouts, but she was convinced that that was all they were. Blackouts. Sometimes I would tell her that she had been asleep for days, when it had only been hours.

This is how I was able to save the children.

A few days ago, I heard the all too familiar sound of screams and tears, so I knew this was the time. I had been planning this for months, and I had to execute the plan now or it would be too late. I gathered the children, told them to grab their “go pack” that they had prepared a few weeks earlier, and got in the car to speed to Pasadena.

Valerie’s brother lived in Pasadena, and he was in on the plan. He would protect and raise the children until Valerie could gain better control of herself, and when we decide it is safe. I told the children I loved them, and I drove home as fast as I could so that Valerie would not be suspicious. Tears were racing down my cheeks, and I could barely focus on the road.

What if I would never see my children again?

I got home just as Valerie was coming to her senses. With my face still flushed, and tears still on my face, I explained to her that the disease had killed the children while she was asleep. No, there were no symptoms. It was very sudden and unexpected. I told her that I had already buried the children if she wanted to go to the backyard to say goodbye.


How could she not say anything?

How could she not come in to check on me while I’m destroying the living room where we used to play board games and read stories to the children? I could be being attacked by one of the dangerous neighbors right now, but she wasn’t coming to my aid.

It wasn’t her fault.

 It is not her fault.

  I scream Valerie’s name. I scream for Winnie. I scream for Andy. I scream for the life we once had, but now nothing will ever be the same. I collapse on the floor in a heap of defeat. Maybe the disease really was starting to infect me. I have to fight. I remind myself of the day I met Valerie.

It was my first day at the boring office job that I held for 15 years. I was an accountant for a local printer company, and I actually enjoyed my unexciting job. When words would fail me and not make sense, numbers always did. There was always and equation or formula that could solve the problem.

Valerie was my complete opposite.

I was sweating while trying to withstand the Los Angeles heat and walk to work in my suit and tie when I saw her. She was sitting on a bench, completely content with a book in her lap. She was the most beautiful and captivating thing I had ever seen. Her hair was long and flowed in the summer breeze along with the skirt of her cotton dress. She looked up and caught my stare. Instead of calling me out or turning away, she gazed at me with those youthful eyes and smiled.  I knew in that moment that I would marry her someday.

I was still lying on the floor when I heard movement. There was the sound of rustling from someone walking through the scattered pages on the floor. I closed my eyes and imagined it was Valerie in her cotton dress and flowing hair walking through the leaves on an autumn day. The air crisp as we take a stroll through the park and gaze up at the sky through the red and yellow trees.

At least the silence was gone. I hear muttering, but I can’t make out what she is saying. I still don’t feel strong enough to get up off of the kitchen floor. I don’t trust myself either. What if I become aggressive again? Now that Valerie was up, she might walk in, and I might…

No. I will not allow myself to think about that. If I imagine it, the disease may take over and carry it out.


I roll over on the cool tile floor and see a small stack of books that had been left unharmed. I scan the titles to see if I find one that peaks my interest. Then I lay my eyes on Valerie’s diary.

I hadn’t seen it in so long. The first year we were married, she would write in it every single night. I always wondered what she had written about me. Or if she had written about me at all. Maybe I wasn’t interesting enough to be “diary worthy”.

I decide to try Valerie’s trick, and I carefully pull the diary from the stack. Even though Valerie was still in her room, I felt a slight sense of guilt from touching the diary. I had never seen it up close before, let alone held it in my hands. Maybe reading will ease my anxiety like it always had for Valerie. I turn the book over in my hands to feel the worn leather and unwrap the string that held together all of Valerie’s most personal thoughts and feelings. I slowly open the diary and read the first words written on the inside cover:

Dear James,

I hear a loud thud coming from behind Valerie’s door followed by an ear-shattering scream.  I am suddenly filled with so much confusion and fear all at the same time.

Why was the diary addressed to me? That’s not usually how diaries work.

Then all returned back to silence. I should probably go check in on Valerie. But I had to read this diary. It might be my only chance.

I reopen the leather book to begin reading again, but I am only able to read two more words before the painful shriek begins again:

I’m sorry.

‘I’m sorry’? For what? What did she have to be sorry for? The disease hadn’t even started yet when she began this diary.

I check again to see if I can find the date. I see the last word:


Then underneath that word, I see the date. It was marked with today’s date.

I rush to Valerie’s door to ask her what this means, but as I open the door, I feel a sharp pain in the back of my head. I turn to see Valerie with a large textbook in her hands and an angry look in her eyes. It was the same textbook that Andy used to love to read. The one with all of the pictures.

This wasn’t Valerie. This was the disease.

I feel the force of another blow hit me again, and I brace myself for the inevitable. She won’t understand when she wakes up. She will assume that one of the neighbors must have broken in.

As I feel myself growing weaker from the blows, and I wonder if I should fight back with what little strength I have left. But I know that if I start, I won’t be able to stop. The disease will kick in. I know that this isn’t Valerie. But if I hurt this diseased, angry being, I hurt her. I think of Winnie and Andy. Maybe I should’ve left with the children. But I couldn’t do that to her. I love her.

This is not her fault.

Copyright 2018 Ashlee Havlak

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