As you age, you gradually begin to notice the threads that run throughout your life. You see a red thread dangling from your blouse, and when you follow its trail down the hallway, through the front door, and along the last three decades of your life, you enjoy a sort of surreal perspective—a new awareness—of your own life.
I suppose nobody was surprised when I opened up a bookshop in the village near Bemmingrad, but I surprised myself. Whenever I was asked what I wanted to do in life, as a teenager I always responded, “Travel!” But after I moved across the country to attend college for four years (college being “the right thing” to do, they told me) and how my grandmother passed away just weeks before my college graduation, there was a part of me that mourned her passing by moving to Lilleville, which was a little up-and-coming indie town south of Bemmingrad, about forty minutes from where I grew up. As a young woman with a diploma and fresh trauma, the way I coped was by rubbing salt on my wounds, driving through the streets of my hometown in search for the essence of my grandmother.
But then one day, passing a vacant building around the block from my apartment, I noticed a “For Rent” sign, and as though the wind whispered my fate, I decided in that moment to open a bookshop.
I thought for a second that Raymond might yell.
It was the way his eyes squinted at me almost imperceptibly after I asked him about his books. His face—weathered, yet not wrinkled—was wide and round, spotted around his temple, and although his eyelids contained subtle movements, his expression was altogether calm like a still, pensive lake. My heartbeat quickened as I assessed how likely it was that he could read my mind.
But then he smiled and answered, and I opened my eyes even wider so I wouldn’t miss anything he said—or anything he didn’t quite say.
“There’s maybe a few thousand books that I’ve written,” Raymond responded. “I scribbled furiously as a young man, but I was helpless to conquer the million voices inside me. My arthritis had become so painful that I often found my fingers quite useless.”
“What are some of their titles?” I asked, fishing.
“Oh, I hardly remember the titles… I believe there’s one called The Farmer’s Wife. Another called Tow the Line. The Mountain.”
In my head, I cursed; those titles sounded familiar, but they were so generic that I wasn’t proving anything to myself by gaining this information. “What were they about?”
To this, he shook his head. “You have been very sweet so far, but unfortunately I cannot share that information. I am no longer living as the other voices. Just this one vessel.”
It took a moment for me to comprehend his statement. He wouldn’t even talk about them?
“Well, maybe I could just read the books you’ve already written,” I said, recovering. “Could you give me a list of the titles and the author name you used for each?”
He began to shake his head. “No, I—”
Raymond was interrupted by the sound of thundering overhead, a rhythm of dense thuds drumming above us. It sounded as though a shelf of books was pushed over upstairs, sending each book to the floor.
His startled eyes glanced to the ceiling as his mouth parted, and then he dressed his face in an unnaturally large smile and said, “Yes, please excuse me a moment.”
As he pulled himself out of his chair and shuffled out of the room and up the staircase, I flipped over my phone and texted my grandmother. She had texted me back a thumbs up, and I sent her, “About to wrap up… Should be out soon.” The hyper-paranoid young woman in me feared harm; although I disliked my worrying, I couldn’t help but feel nervous that he would come back down here with a weapon or another person. It was unfounded; he had displayed no violent mannerisms, and yet every true crime episode I’d watched about young women being murdered flashed in my memory.
Avoiding the urge to poke around his house, I sat somewhat impatiently for him to return. I planned my next moves, rehearsing in my head lines that would politely excuse me without sounding fake. It seemed I wasn’t making any headway with this encounter.
However, as it turned out, I never had to use any of the “Well, it’s been nice to meet you”s I had brainstormed, because moments later, Raymond briskly descended the stairs and said to me, entering the living room with a straight face, “My apologies, miss Nagatelli—”
“Napatelli,” I corrected.
“It is time for you to leave. I must—you must go,” he said, and as I sat there, stunned, unmoving, he frowned deeper and gestured towards the door, chanting evenly, “Go… Go…” He had a scrap piece of paper in clutched between his thumb and index finger as he ushered me.
Quite embarrassed, I grabbed my bag and my phone and scuttled to the front door, stammering. “I’m sorry, I never meant to be unwelcome—Is that by chance the list for me?”
His mind was distracted though, and he muttered something irritated, and as my arm was reaching out to pluck the paper from his loosening fingers, the door shut in my face and I was on his front porch, once again, a door between me and the man who had given me a thousand more questions and nearly no answers.
When my grandmother asked how it went, I told her, “Fine!”
On the car ride home, I stalled her off, explaining that I wanted some time to revisit the story a few times before I was prepared to share it. She excitedly agreed, saying she understood. I could practice on my own and then share his story the next day.
I don’t know why I lied to her. I had never lied to my grandmother before then, not in such a deliberate way. Having had no practice, it immediately felt uncomfortable, like accidentally biting the inside of my mouth and having to live with the throbbing sting for days as I chew through it.
Yet telling her the truth seemed disrespectful. After all, she had believed in the magic of his voices since she was a young woman, and how could I obliterate her lifetime’s worth of hope and wonder with my account of such an awkward and confusing visit? It just felt cruel. I couldn’t do it.
I didn’t sleep much that night, as I pondered Raymond somewhat restlessly. However, while I had thought about Raymond and his thousand voices countless times before, this time it was from a drastically different perspective. Rather than excitedly fantasizing about possibilities, I was anxiously flipping through the fake versions of his story that I could tell my grandmother. The fact that I was devising a lie made me even more depressed with my situation, like I was committing fraud against my old idols—both Raymond and my grandma.
Moreover, I was confused with my findings and trying to piece together what was truth. Could a person even physically write a thousand books? I wondered what titles were on that scrap of paper I couldn’t quite retrieve; were they names of books I’d read? Would he claim to have written To Kill a Mockingbird, and if he did, would I believe him? Who’s to say Harper Lee wasn’t a pen name—well, other than Harper Lee’s whole family…
Late into the night, I fell asleep finally, and my colorful dreams bled into one another, creating a kaleidoscopic circus of reality in my subconscious, blending my hopes and fantasies with facts and fears, and by morning, I knew what story I would tell.
“Comfortable?” I asked Grandma Napa, after she had settled herself into her rocking chair by the fire place, lap blanket placed upon her, her reading glasses dangling from the gold chain around her neck.
“As comfortable as a baby at a bosom,” she said, smiling brightly at me.
“Don’t say stuff like that,” my mom winced, sitting on the couch, next to my father. They were both in their work clothes, having both just arrived home. It wasn’t my idea to invite them as an audience, but their timing aligned perfectly and so my grandmother pressured them to join.
“What? You once suckled at my bosom, sweetie,” my grandmother responded, cackling in her good-natured way.
My dad cringed now, and he interjected, waving, “Okay ladies! I’m here for the story—do you happen to know what time that starts?”
“Sorry, Paul,” my grandmother said, winking at my mother, who rolled her eyes with a smile and crossed her arms. My grandma then turned to me and said, “Go on now, Rosa. Tell it from the beginning, too.”
Since that day in my family’s living room, I’ve told my story of The Man with a Thousand Voices just about a thousand times. Perhaps what I am about to record is exactly the way I told it as a seventeen-year-old, but it is also possible that it is quite different than its first form. Every time I’ve told it, I’ve been a different version of myself, and as my new memories and experiences touch the story with each telling, it’s difficult to peel the specifics apart from each other, like two pieces of paper wet and stuck together. They become one tale, evolving with me.
Until now—which is perhaps why it has taken me so long to document this story—this story which has hitherto existed only among tongues. It took me many years to set my fingers to the keys, and now the story will flow rather from my mouth but from my hands. In my life, I have written many stories, but none I love as much as this one.
And this is where I hold out some hope for Raymond and his peace; I have spent decades wondering, if he had let the voices use his voice, I wonder if then they would have had release. Perhaps he was just ever so slightly misguided all these years; perhaps rather than pen their voices, he should have spoken them, told their tales, but I suppose now, it won’t ever matter again.
“Once upon a time…” I began…
Once upon a time in Bemmingrad, I sat in the living room of the Man with a Thousand Voices and he told me of his life. We only had an hour’s time, yet he shared his saga as much he could.
Long ago in a land far across the ocean, in a country that no longer exists, two gypsies fell in love and gave birth to a silent babe. No tear shed his eye, no wail left his lips, and no giggle gurgled from his belly, even as his gypsy mother passed him into the world of living. Enchanted by their precious child, they worried not about his quietude and praised him how he was.
This peculiar, quiet baby was well-behaved and handsome. His parents were closely acquainted with spirits of other realms and Raymond often found himself in solitude—quiet company for a quiet boy. He read their books during the days and snuck into the woods at night, wandering the forest with his restless, unsleeping mind.
And then one day, tragedy struck! His village was ravaged by colonizers who blazed through their town with showers of fire and canons! Raymond’s family swiftly grabbed what they could and fled, making the months’ long pilgrimage to our country, where they struggled to find work. Raymond’s parents were not respected here as they were in their home, and so the only work they found was performing trapeze in the circus. Their nomadic life began.
But all along, this quiet Raymond was not so quiet in his head. At first, he was only aware of his own voice, but on his fifth birthday, he was joined by another voice, which sounded nothing like his own voice, or his father’s, or his mother’s. It was a little girl’s voice, and she was often humming or singing to him. She told him her name was Maria and she was born in a tropical island near the equator, and that she had seen a lot of bad things. It took a long time before she eventually described these events to Raymond, and he was horrified by what she told him.
Then other voices began joining them. Pascal. Genevieve. Markus. Gentle River. Susanna. Yuri. He was able to remember all of them distinctively, and would often “call” for specific people. He heard their voices but they were not him—he didn’t control their thoughts or feelings and could only listen in his mind to what they told him. As he gained more voices, Raymond continued to speak with Maria every day. He was scared to ask her the question he had always wondered: Was she dead?
However, Raymond never told anyone about his voices. There simply wasn’t anyone to tell. Raymond spoke now, but only said what was necessary to exist with others. Plus, his parents heard voices all the time, and he didn’t have any friends or other relatives. His family moved so frequently that he didn’t know what it was like to have stability or a home life.
Raymond’s voices kept multiplying by the day, and the chaos of a hundred voices began to distress him—voices would argue with each other, shout over one another, cry with agony. His head pulsed with pain and consciousness became a living nightmare.
Once when he was a teenager, he hit a particularly low point in his adolescence. He was beginning to break under the burden of a thousand perspectives, when he recalled the advice of a teacher who once told him that writing was often a way men negotiated with their demons. Raymond wasn’t sure if he was occupied by demons, angels, or spirits of the other realms, but he supposed writing could only help.
So, he decided he would write a book for each voice he heard. But he had never written before, and hardly spoke to anyone, so his writer’s block stalled him from even beginning… Until one day his senior year at Bemmingrad.
A spunky young dame approached him after school one spring day, and asked Raymond who he was. She had apparently heard of his eccentricies and wanted to know more about him. He was somewhat shocked; no one had ever asked him about himself before. They went somewhere private, and he shared his tragic story with her. This was the first time he had ever told someone about his life.
Thunder sounded far away, and Raymond sensed it right away! Without a moment’s explanation, Raymond said farewell and ran home, amazed by the sensation he felt. It was like everything around him was much more vibrant, and every sensation was heightened. For the first time in his life, he felt absolutely in the driver’s seat of his own consciousness. It was like he had come into his own being.
The electricity of existence he felt faded gradually, but the event made him wonder. Raymond mulled hard. A couple weeks went by as the seedling in his mind grew. His hunch began to materialize in his mind…
And then he had to try it out—he could wait no longer! If it worked, who knows what could happen to his life, if it would ever return to normal. But at the same time, Raymond felt there wasn’t much in his life he had to lose. His parents had long ago been lost to alcoholism as their circus careers struggled. He was lonely, poor, and had nowhere that felt like home.
So one night, he was overcome with impatience. Raymond, a young man only eighteen, walked to town in search of a pair of ears. He wandered down the sidewalk on a cool, cloudy night, looking for the right person who would have the time to humor a boy’s whim.
Raymond found such a man in a drunkard slumped in an alleyway. He called to Raymond as he passed him, soliciting a light. Pulling out a matchbook from his wallet, Raymond looked at the pathetic man and shrugged. Why not this stranger, sitting in his own stench and unshaven for years? Clearly he had nowhere else to be.
“Say, sir, you got an hour to hear my story?”
“Ehhh, sure do, son. Long as you keep the lights comin.’”
For the next hour, Raymond told this drunken man—who was only conscious enough to balance a cigarette between his lips—the story of Susannah. She was a city girl who married a farmer and became widowed after the farmer died during the Depression, leaving Susannah by herself to raise her children and care for the farm.
He spoke as though it were his own story, referring to the events as though they had happened to Raymond. The words flew from his mouth, picking up speed; they were eager to escape. Parts of Susannah’s life that he had never known before formed as he told her tale, and Raymond found himself moved by her story of struggle that he told. The drunken man grunted in amazement, his head bobbing upon his neck.
As Raymond finished sharing Susannah’s story—the first time he had ever spoken as his voices—the drunk man slumped over, the tip of his cigarette falling to the puddle beside him. Thunder clattered far away, and Raymond felt his entire body tingling. With a final glance at the drunk man, he left the alley and ran back home.
The thunder roared for an hour, though Raymond never saw a single tentacle of lightning or fleck of rain. When he made it home, he leapt in bed, scolding himself for running about so late at night when he could have gotten attacked or injured. But the thunder had hit—same as last time!—and his nerves were buzzing again, except with more intensity this time, and he panicked that he was having a heart attack and would be dead by morning.
Maybe in a sense, Raymond had died by morning, because when he woke up and realized his own body, he shouted—he was a white woman!
The straight, straw hair felt so weird hanging around his face, and his cream white arms felt foreign, like puppets he was controlling but didn’t embody. When he dressed, his regular clothes were baggy and smelled bad to him. He was partially terrified by his situation, but also in an odd, phenomenal way, he felt like he was seeing an old friend in his new self. He considered his options.
It had worked. It hadn’t worked in the way he expected, but something had worked. He had become Susannah. He could just tell. Something in his essence knew it. He spoke. It was a woman’s voice, and she had a Southern drawl.
Susannah, where are you? He asked the voices in his mind. Where’s Susannah?
But none of the voices knew where she was, nor did Susannah reply.
If we didn’t know any better, we’d say you were Susannah, they said.
Clearly Raymond couldn’t go to school like this, so that day, he skipped and stayed home. He was hoping that the effects would wear off soon, just as they had when Raymond told his own story. But a few days went by, and while the tingling went away, he was still Susannah. And he couldn’t keep hiding from his parents, who were often drunk, but not blind.
So, what is a boy—excuse me, girl?—supposed to do in that situation? Raymond-Susannah ran away.
Raymond missed Susannah’s voice at first, but he found that any time he missed her, he could recall her own memories as if he had lived them himself. He felt closer to her. In fact, he felt he was her.
For a few weeks, Raymond lived as Susannah. Life was both harder and easier. People paid less attention to him because he was white, but they were hateful in a different way. He struggled to feed himself, and one night while he was walking about a strange city, a man grabbed him and attempted to assert himself on Raymond.
Fighting off the man, Raymond ran home. Susannah’s heart was beating rapidly, and while he had tried to swing as hard as she could, Raymond found that he just wasn’t as strong in her body. This seemed to pose a threat to his safety.
Raymond became skilled at finding the listeners. He discovered that whichever voice he told, he became. When he told Pascal’s story next, he became Pascal just as he had become Susannah. Except now, Susannah’s voice was gone forever.
He enjoyed being a chameleon. Raymond traveled the world, living a thousand different lives in little snippets. Sometimes, he would live as a certain voice for only a week; other times, he would accidentally lose himself in the identity of a voice he particularly enjoyed and spend months as a person. He lived almost a decade as a Native American named Gentle River and lived on a mountain, until a night at a pub when he got drunk and accidentally shared the story of a different voice, transforming himself into a stranger. Gentle River had been one of his most beloved voice friends.
But Maria was the love of his life. Although her “story” had not developed since she first came to Raymond, as a young girl decades ago, she had grown up, so to speak, as she spoke with Raymond in his mind. She had only five years of life’s events to speak of, but her voice had spent fifty years in Raymond’s head, growing into a woman.
Raymond never wanted to tell her tale, because it would mean losing her. He had come to view the process of releasing the voices as a way to put them to rest. He spoke their stories with peaceful, loving intent, and so he felt that after he shared their story and their lives, that they would no longer struggle to claim their space in Raymond’s thoughts. Now their essence dispersed throughout the world.
But even though he would be helping Maria, he clung to her. He put off telling her tale, selfishly. Maria loved Raymond, too, but she was ethereal, and she told him that even when she was no longer a voice inside his head, she would still be a voice inside his heart. Then, so that he couldn’t refuse her, she told Raymond, “Find my brother. Tell him what happened to me.”
This was Raymond’s last tale. He traveled to South America and located her younger brother, who was now a man practically Raymond’s age. When he became Maria, he took the form of a young girl. He cried, and sobbed. He could no longer hear her.
In fact, he could no longer hear any voices. He had released them each, one by one, and now his head was silent save for his own thoughts. He felt truly lonely, for the first time.
Then, Raymond told his own story once more, bookending his thousand lives with the saga of The Man with a Thousand Voices. He changed into himself—an old man now, a body he was unfamiliar with as if it didn’t belong to him either, but he was used to that strangeness, by now, and he moved back to Bemmingrad, the only place Raymond Johnson himself—and not any of his thousand voices—had a friend, so that he could live out the rest of his life, quietly, reading the voices of others.
So then, you may be wondering, What happened to Raymond Johnson as he told me of this tale, of his life?
The power of his words were so moving that as I sat there, listening to him recount his lives, he was sitting across from me as though he were just an eighteen-year-old lad again, a boy with a thousand voices in his head, as I felt them there with us, too, those thousand voices, even if they no longer occupied his mindspace, because they were present as he conjured their essences. The thousand voices live with him, and us, always.
“What?” my mom asked, as soon as I had finished. “That guy’s a whack job, I hope you don’t believe all that.”
My dad was a little gentler. He put his hand on my mother’s and said, “Rosa, that was very well-told… Maybe you shouldn’t go to strange men’s houses without your mother or me.”
Nodding, my mother agreed and said that I clearly took after grandma, and that she was going to start dinner, leaving the room and shaking her head. My father got up and kissed me on the forehead with a smile before leaving the room as he yanked at his tie.
I felt I had done a good job. In fact, I had almost convinced myself that this was what Raymond had told me, and not the disappointing interaction that had actually transpired. However, all that mattered was if I had delivered the story my grandmother had always craved, if I had given her the closure her story always yearned towards.
She had closed her eyes while listening to me, and a moment after my parents exited, she slowly opened them, looking at me meaningfully. We stared at each other, letting the story settle upon us, this new chapter we would now add to the collection of tales we shared.
There was something about the way she looked at me. When you spend enough time with a person, you begin to feel their thoughts like you feel the air pressure shift. Suddenly I was struck that my grandmother knew that this wasn’t what Raymond had told me. Yet, there were trembling tears at her eyelids, and a couple slipped down her cheeks, falling into the wide grin that stretched across her soft face. She was proud of me. I had told it perfectly. I had given her the most meaningful gift I could ever: a story she could believe in, whether or not it was true.
Although I enjoyed several more years with my Grandma Napa before she passed, she never asked me if I had told the truth, if Raymond really did live those lives. It didn’t matter, I realized.
Part of me still wonders if my grandmother knew that Raymond’s reality would be a disappointment compared to her story of him. Maybe that’s why she never tried to visit him—not because she felt insecure about her appearance. When I devised my plan to return his bookmark to him, she may have told me to go alone because she knew she couldn’t handle the weight of both of our disappointment. Something tells me that she had decided to test me. Sent me by myself and to see what I would make of it.
I wondered for a while if I was right to lie about Raymond’s life, though. To my grandmother, it was the story that was important. Eventually I changed the Man with a Thousand Voice’s name to Raymond Johnson in my telling so that we could respect his privacy.
In the end, I didn’t know what to make of the Raymond I met. I figured he was a troubled writer, like so many others of the craft. But his reality withered away from me as his legacy became somewhat immortalized by my storytelling, and eventually he became the man whose story I told: the amazing Man with a Thousand Voices.
To honor of all this, and because it felt right, I named the quaint bookshop I now own A Thousand Voices. I wish my grandmother could see it, but in a way, her essence lives here too, through the thousands of stories we exchange each day.
Her stories will keep being told.
This is the final part in a four-part series! Find the whole story here.
Read more stories by Slanted Spines on the Stories page!
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