Paul Hostovsky


Waverly was all pissed off about the new braille code. "They're changing everything," he cried, throwing the pages to the floor in a flurry of white braille dots, then shaking his head back and forth, back and forth, the way some blind people do, not in negation or disagreement, which would have made sense in this particular instance, but in a sort of pleasure of release, of getting the energy out that couldn't get out through his eyes. "They're messing with the symmetry of it, the beauty of it, the blind mind, for god's sake!" Belinda had never seen him so upset.

"What sort of changes?" she asked timidly, picking the spilled braille up from the floor and running her fingers over the dots, which were as indecipherable to her as a page of print would have been to Waverly. Belinda didn't know braille, and had only known Waverly since moving into the apartment directly across from his a couple of months ago. She had seen him coming and going with his white cane but she hadn't spoken to him because, well, because he hadn't made eye contact. And since she didn't know him and he didn't know her, and since she wasn't one to initiate conversations with strangers, especially strange men, especially strange men who didn't make eye contact, she hadn't introduced herself or even said hello. In fact–and she was ashamed to think of it now–she had frozen when she saw him coming, as though she were an intruder or a thief standing there guiltily in the hallway, still as a statue, holding her breath and wincing while she waited for him to pass by with the click, sweep, click, sweep of his cane.

Now she handed him back the pages which he had thrown to the floor in disgust, and he accepted them reluctantly, giving them a smack with the back of his hand, then caressing them lovingly, sadly, the way you might a favorite, refractory child. "They're calling it UEB," he said, "which stands for Unified English Braille. Unification by mutilation, is what I call it. Those Braille Authority of North America wonks have taken it upon themselves to change our braille code, which has remained basically unchanged for two hundred years. And they didn't even ask us. For starters, they're cutting out nine contractions, including some of my favorites: -COM, -BLE, -ALLY, and -ATION. And, incredibly, O'CLOCK. And they're changing the punctuation. Look!" He held up a single white page for her inspection, his accusatory index finger stabbing at some dots in the upper left-hand corner.

"Waverly," she said, "you know I can't read that. I mean, I see what you're pointing at, but I have no idea what that is. What is that?"

"That, my dear, is a parenthesis. And a very unprepossessing parenthesis. The old parentheses were beautiful, uniform, each one a perfect little square at the bottom of the braille cell. The opening and closing parentheses were like two symmetrical merlons on a crenellated parapet, one and the same symbol, simple, lovely, two identical gates at the beginning and ending of anything parenthetical. But now they've gone and changed them and these new parentheses are ugly, vulgar, artless. And they take up too much space. They take up four whole braille cells. Can you imagine!"

No, she couldn't imagine. And that, in a nutshell, was the problem. She couldn't imagine what he was talking about; couldn't imagine how he was able to make sense of all those tiny goosebumps on the white page; couldn't imagine what it must be like for him–what it must be like being blind. And she couldn't imagine, finally, what it must be like to kiss him, or to be kissed by him, which, surprisingly, she found herself trying to imagine, watching his mouth as he spoke, that most beautiful and expressive part of his face. But now his mouth was frowning, spewing disappointment and hurt about something wholly his–though he was trying to share it with her–something that had apparently changed suddenly and irrevocably and without his permission.

His hands were trembling as he turned the pages. "Look at this," he said. She leaned over for a better look. "Do you see all this wasted space? Here? And here? And here? These lacunae, these black holes where there used to be constellations that shone with the light of logic and efficiency? You used to be able to conjoin many of these symbols, to save space, and time. But look, they're no longer linked, they're just floating around here on the page looking disconnected, dispirited, glum. For example, TO and INTO no longer connect to the subsequent word. TO isn't even contracted anymore, for god's sake. Nor is BY. And I'll bet I'm not the only braille reader mistaking the BY for a BEYOND."

Mistaking the BY for a BEYOND? Belinda was lost. It was as though Waverly were speaking a different language. "Is braille a different language?" she asked him with a slight quaver in her voice, which he must have noticed because he seemed to calm down a little now, reaching for her hand and trying to soothe her. "No, my dear," he said, "braille isn't a different language. It's the same language. But it's sort of a different music. When the words are different but the music stays pretty much the same, that's translation. Braille transcription is when the words stay the same, exactly the same, but the music that contains the words, that transports them, carries them to wherever they're going, that music is a different music. It's like English is the boat and braille is the sea."

She didn't quite get the analogy, but she liked it when he called her "dear," and she liked the feel of his warm hand, and she found herself nodding her head, which Waverly couldn't see, of course, but her hand was still in his hand and he could feel the echo of a movement, which encouraged him, and so he continued: "Take the word darling, my darling. It's the same word in print and braille, with the same meaning, the same phonemes, the same spelling. But in braille the word darling contains two contractions. AR and ING. So it's only four characters instead of seven: D-AR-L-ING. Letter, contraction, letter, contraction. Think of the heart, the way it contracts and relaxes, contracts and relaxes, constantly, dependably, over a lifetime. Braille is like the heart, contracting and relaxing. That's all it is. Like the sea, rising and falling." And he put her hand on his chest so she could feel his heart beating, his chest rising and falling. She looked into his blind eyes then, and down at his smiling mouth, his white teeth, his slightly parted lips, and as he held her hand there over his heart like that, ardent, listening, waiting for her reply, she leaned in and kissed him. Deftly, nimbly, fully on the mouth. And the braille pages dropped to the floor again in a blizzard of white dots, all those Unified English Braille dots that someone had gone and changed without Waverly's approval. And this time neither of them bent down to pick them up, because how important was it after all, now that they had found each other's mouths, found this new and unreadable thing that was contracting and expanding in their chests, too late to understand or approve or disapprove, and they began to explore it with their fingertips and tongues, with their eyes closed and everything wide open.

But then, suddenly, Waverly unclamped his mouth from hers and pulled away, his lips separating from her lips like the rubber lips of the refrigerator door unsticking and sending an arctic exhalation of cold air into Belinda's face. "And then there's the accent mark!" he exclaimed.

"What?" she cried, straightening up and smoothing her skirt, beginning to close her heart now just the littlest bit. "What are you talking about? What accent mark?"

"You know," cried Waverly, " accents, diacritics: the grave and the acute accent, the umlaut, the tilde, cedillas and circumflexes. All of them. Every last one of them."

"What about them?" Belinda squealed, reaching for his hand and trying to bring him back. But he was already gone, down on the floor on his knees, sweeping his hands around for the dropped braille, gathering up the pages in his arms like little paper boats, little pieces of the spilled sea–the braille sea–and shaking his head back and forth, back and forth. "They've gone and changed the accent mark," he said. "So now there are lots of different accent marks instead of only one, and they all take up two whole braille cells. Actually, three braille cells"

The braille cell, thought Belinda. It was like Waverly was a prisoner of the braille cell. And he wouldn't or couldn't come out. And she couldn't get in. All she could do was visit him, talk to him through the thick glass that separated them, and listen while he ranted about the unfairness of it all, the injustice of it all, like some innocent prisoner going on and on with his inscrutable, unending story: "There used to be a single accent mark, the dot 4–the unique and dependable dot 4–that came before every diacritic, no matter the language or lexical borrowing. Equal opportunity for all. It was pithy and perfectly adequate. But they've gone and booted the old accent mark and now they're using all these different symbols for all those different accents. They've gone from the beauty and simplicity of a single exquisite dot 4 to a congeries of ugly and unrecognizable configurations, all of them taking up two whole braille cells. Three, actually, when you include the accented letter itself. I mean, can you imagine?"

Belinda stopped trying to imagine. "No," she said. "I can't." Then she kissed him once on the cheek, got up and walked out the door, leaving the door wide open. Waverly went on reading, shaking his head in dismay and disapproval, or maybe just to get the energy out, all that toxic energy that had been building up inside the braille cell with no means of escape or release or relief, and which otherwise would surely have gone kaboom.


Paul Hostovsky works as a sign language interpreter and Braille instructor in the Boston area. His poems, stories and essays have often appeared in Wordgathering. He has won a Pushcart Prize, two Best of the Net awards, the FutureCycle Poetry Book Prize, and five poetry chapbook contests. He is the author of nine full-length collections of poetry, most recently, Is That What That Is (FutureCycle Press, 2017). To read more of his work, visit him at: