The traveler arrived, motion-sick and weary, in the country where everyone was happy. She had slept on the trip over, but it was a journey kind of sleep, fitful and unrefreshing. She stood on aching legs until the official in the booth called her over to check her documents.
She had studied the language of happiness before. She’d spent several terms in university flipping through a dictionary, till the spine was cracked soft and flexible, and listening to recordings in the language lab, teaching her tongue to mimic the sound. She’d gotten up to the intermediate level—good enough to ask a difficult question but not to understand the answer—and then, for reasons of work and life, had set her studies aside. But recently, the stars and visas had aligned. On paper, she had a research grant in comparative economics between her land and the land of happiness. In her heart, she had questions, and in those questions, a desire, and now she was here. She was, perhaps, ready.
The official in the booth was used to dealing with travelers. Anyone coming through an airport after an overnight flight was bound to be a little unhappy; exhaustion stuck to the skin like sweat, clinging even more thickly than the actual damp of the late summer air. The officials, too, were a little unhappy. That must have been why the traveler was able to understand this one so well: he spoke clearly, like he was snapping the tough end from fresh asparagus.
The traveler stated her name and her purpose for entry. The official stamped a page somewhere in the middle of her passport. “Welcome,” he said.
“Thank you,” she said, and smiled. She could hear her accent improving already.
• • •
The traveler woke the next morning in her hotel room. The bed was so large she could lie down in any direction and still not touch the edge. In the night, she had rotated herself so that her head was ninety degrees left of the headboard. A small earthquake—regular in these parts, and gentle—shook her in the morning; she woke facing the window. The sunlight streaming through the curtains was the softest she’d ever seen. She stretched, rubbed the crust from her eyes, felt clean.
“Good morning,” she said, and got out of bed.
This was an auspicious start, she told herself. But augury is inexact. As the day wore on, the sun continued to shine bright and clean. The tall buildings downtown flashed the light back, less glare than gleam. Her brother would love this view. She tried to express this to the fruit vendor on the corner, who was blending up a smoothie for her, but whether it was the whir of the machine or her own unpracticed tongue, the words failed. The vendor smiled and shrugged, as if to say, Thank you for trying.
“How much?” the traveler asked, as she took the cup of thick orange liquid.
The vendor said something back. It sounded like a flock of birds greeting the spring sunrise. She couldn’t make out how many birds.
“I’m sorry, could you repeat that? Slower? Please.”
The vendor spoke again, again a chorus of birds warbled from her throat, again the traveler looked back, uncomprehending. The woman splayed her fingers with a patient smile. The traveler counted out eight coins and slid them over.
“Thank you,” she said again. Her words were flightless.
• • •
On the best days in that first season—days when she slept, and ate right, and spooned soothing honey into her morning tea—the traveler could sing on so many things. Her ear was getting better, too; she could discern species and season with greater accuracy. She could occasionally identify accents: this northern, this southern, this eastern.
But on the lonely days, it was all a mess. She tried to order a cake at the café, but instead received a bowl of rubbery oatmeal. Too sad, she corrected. She tried to purchase a monthly bus pass but received only a single ticket. Too lonely, she thought. She bought a coffee at one of the university stalls; when she took a sip, it was black and bitter. She had to ask again for milk and sugar. When she sipped again, the sweetness overpowered everything.
Summer blurred into fall and then into winter, though the traveler could hardly perceive the change. In the land of happiness, she was coming to realize, all her senses were slightly different. Not stronger, exactly; just—a bit left of where they had been. How much of this was due to the new climate, she couldn’t say. Her skin itched every time she emerged from the shower, still unused to the too-humid air. Colors were brighter: something was always blossoming here, even in midwinter. Her eyes went pink with pollen. She looked her fill anyway, and kept looking, looked until she overflowed. Magenta blossoms burst from the roadside, blanketing the pavement with petals. Every footstep opened more scent: as she paced, double-checking the bus arrival clock, the sweetness of smashed flowers filled her nose.
The fullness of the language of happiness continued to elude her. The traveler had never been good with words, but, before, she had not needed to be. Mathematics had never failed her. In this place, however, it was different. Numbers didn’t stay in the same places; they flocked together in different arrangements. It was all right at the library, where the values stayed on the page long enough for her to track gross domestic product and inflation rates, but her ear was unused to the quick calculations needed for the pace of everyday speech. In the evenings, before cooking dinner, she sometimes practiced with her next-door neighbor, an older woman who ran an accounting firm. The neighbor spoke clearly, each digit distinct and well-shaped, crisp as fresh toast. The traveler, when she spoke, sounded like she tore chunks of bread straight off the loaf with her teeth. But she was, at least, beginning to get the quantities right.
The neighbor plied the traveler with leftover stew every Sunday, claiming she was still in the habit of cooking for a big family and always made far too much. She claimed this even though she did, in fact, still cook for a big family: the accountant’s son and his husband and their three children came by for lunch every weekend. Once the traveler even mentioned this, pointing out that surely a family with two teenagers and a toddler could use the food more. The neighbor merely pushed the bundle back over to the traveler, saying, “I cooked, so I get to share my meals how I like. Eat.” The traveler could smell in her voice the hot tang of curry, the tender creaminess of coconut, and a faint hint of ocean. The traveler remembered that the accountant had earned her degree at a university overseas. The traveler said thank you and took the bundle. Even as her words were flat, she could feel saliva fill her mouth in anticipation of the flavor on her tongue. From the proud expression in her neighbor’s eyes, she knew that the hunger had come through in her thanks. She was almost embarrassed, to be caught in such impolite eagerness, but her neighbor squeezed her hand and released her.
“Enjoy,” said the neighbor, sounding like cumin.
This was something true about the language of happiness: no one spoke it in the same way. This was not, in fact, the same as saying that no one spoke the same language. Some spoke with taste, some with birdsong, some with the coolness of a breeze off the broad eastern ocean.
She tried to describe it in her letters back to her brother—her brother who, with his twin babies, was encountering anew all the world’s colors and sounds and flavors, as she found herself doing—but the best she could do was buy postcards. The corner of her desk housed a small tower of them. Beside them grew an ever-taller stack of letters from home, which arrived every week. Whenever she scrawled a note back of her own—Thinking of you! 🙂—the overbright photos on the card looked as false and lifeless as her words. Still, every couple of weeks she dropped three or four postcards in the mail at once, already planning to blame the international post for the irregularity of her notes, before silently apologizing for the intended, unfulfilled deceit. Neither family nor postal service was to blame, really. Her words, in any language, never seemed quite enough. Every time she went to the post office, she came home with a low fever, so she saved her post office trips for Fridays, so she could sleep in the next day.
Those nights, she dreamed vividly; in the mornings, she woke full of desire to share half-remembered journeys. Yet in this, too, her words fell short. Both the strange cities of her nights and the not-quite-familiar landscapes of her days resisted her, refusing the shape of letters or tongue. Her steps slowed, weighed down as she was with all she did and could not say. Her fingers itched. Her head ached. She filled herself with tea.
• • •
The traveler, after a season or two of exploring, had set herself into a routine: mornings working at the library; afternoons spun down through a series of cafes; dinners taken at home or, occasionally, with the acquaintances she did not dare call friends.
Her favorite day was Thursday, when she went to the teashop. She took the trolley to the eastern edge of the city. She walked through small alleys, where green plants spilled over balconies and the mountains that ringed the city cast friendly shadows at sunset.
The teashop, which doubled as an art gallery, did not have many foreigners, but the traveler never felt unwelcome here, despite the halfness of all her conversations. Wordlessly, she eyed handmade paper; once, she hugged a round moon jar. Her fingers sketched the air above needlepoint landscapes, trying to trace the path of each stitch, imagining how she’d make her own designs. Mostly she sat in the teashop and listened as a series of artists drifted through, chatting with the shopkeeper: I’ve been trying a new technique… He’s about to graduate… She’s retiring soon and plans to travel… The new exhibit…
Her ears grew tired quickly. Listening soon became hearing as the traveler focused on her tea: brown and gold and red, it smelled sweet, tasted warm, and hit the tongue with a bright bitterness. She swallowed the last mouthful and felt gold in her veins. She bade a clumsy farewell and felt gold shimmer in the shopkeeper’s reply.
When the traveler stepped outside, the rain fizzed off her skin, she was so warm. She walked to the bus stop draped in a little mist. In the gaps between buildings, at the distant ends of wide avenues, she saw the mountains bore their own personal clouds, too. She waved a hand in greeting, and when the earth quaked beneath her, she thought for a moment it was the mountains nodding back. Perhaps it was; she couldn’t know, not for sure, because even here in the land of happiness, mountains did not speak. Unless (perhaps) they spoke in the voices of the people, like the man at the library who helped her find materials for her research. He was patient, with a voice like gravel in a clear alpine stream: low and rumbling and cool enough to shock the listener into wakefulness.
“I found some newspapers for you,” he said to the traveler one day. With the air of a friend returning from a long separation, he passed over a slip of paper with microfilm codes written on it. “They’re from the early days of the city, when our language was still new.” He had watched her linger over the earliest documents in her research and must have noticed, she imagined, her interest in these things: the establishment of currency, trade agreements, all the artifacts of how a place becomes itself.
“Thank you,” the traveler said, trying to call crocuses into her voice. “Could you—would you—might you help me?”
“Of course,” said the librarian. He showed her how to load the microfilm and how to adjust the viewfinder. The traveler sat and started to read.
In the beginning, she had to sound out the words, her voice a constant murmur as she sought meaning from symbols and sentences from the series. At first all she could make out was the smell of dust and old books, but, as she began to recognize more and more words from the older script, she found herself reading faster, more vividly, and silently—except for the blare of trumpets in her ear.
Her skin prickled with the heat of bonfires: in the early days, after the great earthquake that uprooted the old forest of the valley, the founders of the city had burned the fallen trees for days on end. They burned, too, the bodies of family members who had died. Mourning was not unknown to the citizens of the land of happiness, the traveler realized; it was just that the words were different.
Loss was “how lucky we were to have had so much good.” Death was “life that has been and will be.” The traveler recognized the terms for grief only because, in all the long columns of records, these words alone brought no feeling to her at all. She did not know if the absence lay in the text or in her.
• • •
The traveler continued to fall ill with distance. Over a year had passed and she was no better. The condition was chronic, she thought; it did not always interfere with her daily life, but it flared up suddenly and unpredictably. After one unbearable week, where she could barely push herself out of bed, no matter how clean and bright the morning sun, she went to the doctor.
But at the doctor’s office, she was unable to explain herself. Her throat didn’t work properly. Her words came out flavorless, less birdsong than binary: 01101110 01101111, with no processor to make meaning. She had not thought to ask for an interpreter, never having needed one before; when one finally arrived, a young woman in a blazer and jeans, the doctor looked at the traveler in patient bemusement.
“I miss my family,” said the traveler.
The interpreter told the doctor, “I am thinking of my family,” and turned back to the traveler. Apologetically, she said, “We don’t have a word like that,” and the traveler nodded in understanding despair.
“Perhaps you can meet a friend for coffee,” said the doctor. Even through the tentative cast to their words, the traveler could taste warm, sweet chamomile.
“Thank you,” said the traveler, flavorlessly, and the doctor looked doubtful. The traveler tried again and again. Each time the gratitude was colorless, flavorless, flightless.
“I’ll be all right in the end,” she said at last, with only cold midnight in her voice.
“I know,” said the doctor simply. The traveler’s chest loosened a little. “I know you will be. It’s the ‘now’ I’m sorry about.” The doctor pushed over a small packet.
“It’s not a prescription,” they explained. “It’s just a gift. Open it later, at home.”
The traveler went back to her apartment before she unwrapped the packet. It did not contain much, just a few blossoms of chrysanthemum tea and a note:
I know I do not understand, but I have read that tea and tears can help. Here is the tea. You will have to provide the tears.
On the other side of the note was a poem from a classical poet. When the traveler read it, she felt something inside her unspool and spill onto the tiles beneath her feet. She gathered it up and wound it carefully on a bobbin. She carried it in her pocket all that week, fingering the smooth silk as she swayed on the bus and waited in line at the store.
Weeks later, she found herself sitting at home on an empty afternoon, threading the silk through a needle. She stretched fine cotton lawn over a frame and stitched out a scene: moonlight, and one bundled figure tramping through a broad field of deep snow. A bright beam cast the whole scene in silver. Solitude, read the label in translation. The title she herself gave the piece, in her own language, was Loneliness.
The piece hung in a gallery downtown, run by one of the artists who frequented the teashop she loved. Visitors, intrigued by the foreign artistic style, wept to see the scene and dabbed their damp cheeks with awed fingers.
“Thank you for saying something new,” they said, drying their hands on tissues provided by the gallery. The traveler nodded, not so much in agreement as in acknowledgment. The act of creation was as natural as it was mysterious to her. She did not trust herself to speak; her throat was knotted with pride and sadness and words that did not exist in the land of happiness.
The visitors went home to their families and friends. They had no words to describe the piece in the gallery, so the friends and families went themselves, and wept, and patted their faces and fingers dry with tissues. The traveler gathered the tissues and set up a second exhibit, in the opposite corner of the gallery: a mountain of wrinkled paper lightly salted with dried tears. She called the piece Cross-Cultural Communication. This piece broke attendance records, too, and grew larger with every visit to the gallery.
The traveler, having found herself called a success, wondered if she still counted as a traveler; was she perhaps elevated to permanent guest, or was she still exiled as a stranger? It was not something measurable in the months and years of her residence here. It was easier to track other things: the hundreds of visitors, the weeks the show was open, the number of glasses poured at the show closing, where she drank champagne with the director of the gallery. She invited the librarian, and he came with his new wife. The traveler laughed the whole evening, to the extent that everyone complimented her on how much her accent had improved. “You’ve progressed so much,” said a painter, kindly, and the traveler shook her head modestly. The modesty was not even very false.
At home that night, she boiled water and drank the last of the doctor’s chrysanthemum tea and stared out the window. The dark was only in the sky; below her, in the street, the red and white headlights of cars rolled down the avenue in a steady stream, emerging and turning out of sight.
• • •
All that year the traveler had been writing home, but it grew more difficult every day. The letters she received made her so sad: illness, injury, inflation. Long lines and short supplies. Storms and droughts and a flood of corrupt politicians. Too-thin, too-terrified children. Sometimes she didn’t even open the letters; for a full day an envelope would lie quiet and thick on her small desk, until she woke, surrounded only by the dark, so alone that her fingers found the paper and flicked the light switch before her mind could catch up. She took in the words at a glance: to see her home language was to read it, in a comforting kind of instantaneousness, even if the sick feeling in her stomach grew tighter with every word. She turned the light back off and slept on a wet pillow. The mornings after, she rubbed salt from the corners of her eyes and tried to carry on.
The tower of thick letters from overseas grew taller, then unstable. She began building a second tower. Beside it, she tried to write about her life, but her home vocabulary failed her. She tried to translate the clipping about her exhibit and found herself without words. Was it that she’d forgotten her first tongue? Was life here so different that only the language of happiness could describe it? Or was she simply not trying hard enough, selfishly hoarding her small scraps of joy, unwilling to diminish them by sharing?
A shock of guilt flashed through her. How mean, how miserly!
One day, when she was supposed to be typing up her research notes in the library, she instead spent hours writing a letter to her brother. Every draft failed: this one too rambling and disorganized; that too gloating, flaunting her ease and small worries to those who were suffering. This one too dull and empty of truth.
How peculiar, she noticed, to be able to write untruthfully; she’d forgotten language could do that.
“Can I help you?” said the librarian, on seeing the growing stacks of crumpled paper beside the traveler. Small springtime birds cheeped polite curiosity in his voice.
“Thank you,” said the traveler, trying to sound undespairing, but the librarian merely blinked at her, uncomprehending. She tried again, letting only gratitude leak in. “Thank you, but I have to do this myself.” All afternoon she wrote, and in the end went home with only a bag full of unsendable letters. She could not bear to put them in the recycling bin.
The next day, the traveler went on a trip to the mountains outside the city. The day was rainy, but the traveler had woken that morning suddenly unable to bear the city of happiness. She packed a bag with two bottles of water and a bag of fruit before boarding a northbound bus. She disembarked at the end of the line.
No one else was in sight; even in the land of happiness, few people wanted to hike in the rain. She draped her poncho over herself and her backpack. In the gray mist, she made a solitary, lumpish figure, her plastic poncho a bright blue only natural in the waters around sulfur vents, but the color made her smile even on this lonely day. It was warm and stifling under the plastic; she could feel her armpits growing damp with sweat. Her lower back was already sticky. But she breathed in through her nose the sweet-sour scent of mountain rain and pressed on. Her thighs ached and she slipped in the mud and still she hiked on, her vision full of green leaves and gray mist and here and there a flash of yellow where mountain flowers beaded the vines dangling from tall soft-needled pines.
At the summit, she looked down at where the city ought to be.
“Hello,” she whispered, first in the new language, and then in her own first tongue. The rain had stopped and she sat on a slick rock to eat. The damp crept in through the seat of her pants, but she didn’t notice because behind her, with a great crack, a pine branch fell and crashed through the brush. And before her, the wind cleaved a gap in the clouds, and far below she glimpsed the corner of the city; a single ray of sun leapt through the cloudbreak to glint back at her, shining off the river, which was itself a silver ribbon, the color of solitude, not loneliness, and the traveler cried out—in what language, she did not know—and the whole valley filled for a moment with the echo—ah! ah! ah!—and then grew quiet. Now all she heard was her panting breath and the drip of water from pine needles.
She did not, in the end, write home. Instead she sent a sketch: a single figure on a mountaintop, looking down on a city in the valley below. A river wound across the page before turning out of sight. Together, she titled the drawing, and weeks later she received a picture in return. I will not tell you what that picture showed, for it belongs to the private heart of the traveler, but I will tell you that she smiled and was not a traveler anymore.
She went back to the library. She read and ate dinner with friends and sent pictures back every few weeks, each bearing the stamp of her new signature, one small word that now she could say with full moonlight in her voice.
She signed a lease on a new apartment, in a quiet neighborhood.
“You speak so well. How long have you been living here?” asked the agent, as he readied the contract. Pen in hand, poised over the signature page, she spoke.
“Oh, a while,” she said. She scrawled her name on the line. She picked up the keys. She closed the door behind the agent. She picked up the sketch she had made of the view from her new kitchen window.I’m home, she wrote, and made herself a cup of tea.