A tongue came through town with a traveling parade of spectacles. Gypsies, my mother scoffed and waved at the word like it were a bird come in through the flue. The heat stuck on her skin and lingered in the air of the house, where the smells of our combined sweat and the well-fed houseflies held still in the windless summer. Please son, she began. She wiped her temple with the butt of her palm. Go if you really want to.
The gypsies brought wagons and tents fabricated from rich cloth, designed in busy cosmic patterns and repeating images of naked women. Although the show had only just arrived in town, the ground was worn with dusty paths and trails leading up to the tents. Men and dogs reclined on each other in the midmorning heat, each giving off the distinct odors of oranges and tobacco. The grass flattened around each ware-scattered rug, lit by lanterns shaped like stars. We heard the main attraction was not the great black tusks of the fabled white elephant, nor the woman who could play a violin with so much heartbreak, the instrument itself wept. Women in loose skirts lifted up handfuls of brass figures bearing the image of a god I did not recognize. None came to see these as much as they came for a six inch long tongue, floating in a glass mouth.
I followed the worn trail to the tent of the tongue and fell into the long line of hopeful observers. The jar was designed by the glassblowing widows in a town near the harbor. Their paradise grew from the fall of an oppressive patriarch, leaving them free to pursue a new, more impassioned economic system. The widows treated the project with all their attention so that the mouth-shaped jar, as it emerged from the hot flames, blew a kiss in gratitude. The widows, their town independent of crushing male rule, melted like the heated glass when it expressed to them this love.
The story of the tongue itself was what captivated the audience. It belonged to a sailor of the seas, a lover of women and treasure alike. On a meeting with a Persian lord, the sailor let slip some snide observation and had this most vital muscle torn out with his own blade. I looked into the shredded edge of the tongue, ripped apart as if with a dull blade. In fact, the blade had gone dull. The sailor’s own weapon had been used against him in the struggle. Gone were the days of the swarthy sailor’s charm, his tricks, and his humor. His favorite way to please women was through that vital instrument, whether by serenading tales of treasure and adventure or as he dove to part the hair between their legs and lick as if extracting honey from a freshly baked roll. Gone were his feasts of fish—bones and all—the ink-stained potato and squid in tough bows of pasta. No more would his tongue spit in the eyes of his crew.
No longer would it curl around crystals of salt on the posts once the ocean spray had dried. No more would it mutter in the dark the early childhood songs from school, oh which weather would you rather skip along to my dear? We could bury the day or we could run away together through rain or through sun, as the boat rocked and daybreak was a skid in the heavy ocean clouds.
I stared at the muscle, looking tip to base as close as I could to try and see beyond the tongue, into the language of the sailor—foreign to my own, into the warm wet crevasses of a woman’s sex—also unknown to me. I wanted to walk barefoot up and down the tongue until I understood exactly the taste of something sweet after tasting the salt of the ocean for so long. I wanted to feel the surprise of my wit in a room full of men, who laugh and slap me on the back and spit out their drinks on the table. I wanted to feel the dense flattening of those muscles beyond my teeth when someone told me I could not have what I arrived for, and taste the irony specks of blood that came from inside my mouth when I took a bite to the cheek. Indeed, the man lost everything. I paid to see the spectacle over and over. Every time I got back in line I fidgeted and inched until I was in front again, facing the tongue, fascinated, until I was nudged aside by the people behind me, waiting their turn to understand what kind of dishonor would cause a person to lose this important tool.
I ran out of money.
When I returned home Mother was flopped into a chair and fanning under her arms. Lord, she said, bring us some damn rain. I looked out the window toward the gypsy tents and longed for the tongue. I longed to feel the sailor’s drink on my own tongue, his laugh to burst from my chest. I turned to my mother, who was slackened in her chair, her thin arms like clotheslines that let her soft white dress dance in the mild breeze of her fan. One of the big flies rested on her arm and cleaned its back legs.
I want to sail a ship, I declared. She looked at me and I thought she would cut out my own tongue right there for saying it.
Like hell, she replied. No son of mine…she trailed off and that was the end of it for her. I studied the windless air outside and felt the cool kitchen tile on my bare feet. Before I had a ship, I better have a drink. A drink like the sailor drank, then a curse like the sailor cursed. I left my mother in the kitchen and went to the stash of coins she thought I didn’t know about. Under my father’s urn was a loose wooden board where she kept our smallest valuables. I dipped my hand into the musty dark and skimmed a few coins off the top. This is not an everyday thing for me to do. Only in emergencies, and becoming a sailor was an emergency. I scooted the urn back into place and gave a silent thanks to my father for giving me this money for something to drink.
I followed the worn trails again to the gypsy market, passing by exotic birds in golden cages and toothless old men stringing up purple flowers. I turned left down a shady narrow path crammed with vendors advertising goods under their breath. Their eyes darted around, looking for any unseen danger that could put them out of business. They looked ready to scoop up their goods at any moment and dash off into the shadows. A small raspy voice called out rum, rum, rum and I followed it, holding the coins tight in my pocket. The path darkened. Words from the vendors grew more obscure. Some names I recognized and others I didn’t. Opium, hash, hemlock, cyanide. The low rasp of rum was close. Men and women in dingy cloaks swept past me, kicking up grey dirt tornadoes. Their breath heavy beneath dark clothes like another storm blew inside them. Rum, rum, rum pulled me down, down, down the alley of vendors. I kept the tongue at the front of my mind. I knew what I wanted for the first time in my life.
A life as free as his.
Finally, a decrepit old man with long hair in his ears and on his chin appeared. His hands planted on the small table, only tall enough to cross his legs beneath, and the dusty green bottles laid out front called my name. I approached the old man. Even seated, I could tell he was small, smaller than myself perhaps.
What can I do for you, young fella? he asked and discontinued his chant.
I want to sail a ship. I replied. I’m here for a drink.
He bulged out one eye which he used to look me up and down. How old are ya?
Sixteen, I lied.
Bit small, he concluded and drew his wet eye back under the lid. He reached for a mid sized bottle on his left and yanked out the cork. This’ll here’s a personal favorite with the young boys. A rum from Spain. He handed me the dusty bottle. The liquid glowed amber behind the green glass as it caught a glimpse of sunlight through the awnings of the market. I tilted the spout up to my lips and let the sugary fire fill my mouth. My tongue swam in the sweet bath for a moment, all buds on the surface blossomed to take in the details of every flavor. When I swallowed, my tongue longed to chase the liquid down my throat as if to elope in some intestinal love affair. I coughed from the strength of the drink and wiped the spit from my mouth. The old man cackled like a small, fierce fire. First taste, eh? That’s the mark of a good rum there. The next sip goes down a little better, you bet.
I tilted the bottle again for another sip but his thin hand snatched it away.
First one’s free. Not the second.
My tongue lusted after the sweet sensation of the golden liquor. It all but leapt from my mouth and dove into the bottle, where it would have been happy to stay forever, alive in it’s own glass display. I dug out the coins from my pocket and made the exchange with the man. When I dropped the change in his hand he smiled a black and silver grin.
A pleasure, son.
I walked the streets of town with the cool dusty bottle pressed against my hot stomach. I had some money left from the purchase and thought about going back to the tent to gaze at the tongue some more. The long days of summer with mother and the fat house flies would be there when I returned home. There was a bay nearby, not quite walking distance, but at least I knew the way.
For twenty-six years I conquered the seas.
From the first bottle of rum–which fell into the sea with only a single drop remaining on the night of my first storm–to the rum I drank this evening, I remember it all. The merchants found me stowed away my first week, pickled from the salt and the sun. They tossed me out and I hit the Indian ocean like a sack of shriveled dates. I floated on my back for several briny hours, thinking about the layer of sweat my mother left on our wooden chair the day I left home. A shadow passed over me in the sky and I thought my time had finally come, until a voice shouted out and several gruff men hauled me on board. The men promised me fresh water and food, more rum, and gold medallions if I would provide a hand in their raid. I coughed up strands of salt water onto their deck and some of the men eyed me with disdain. There is no place for a boy on this ship, I heard them mutter. He will not be allowed to stay. They put me to work for the months we sailed on our way to the merchants. The men tossed me scraps of meat like they would to a dog, kicked me in the ribs if the ship wasn’t spotless, and denied my insatiable thirst for rum. At night I lay on the stuffed burlap sacks in storage, turning around with the weevils and roaches as the ship rocked and swayed. My lust for revenge on the captain that tossed me out grew with my desire to sail a ship of my own. Not one single night went by that I did not dream of the tongue floating in the glass mouth, reminding me in its perpetual silence what I had set out to do.
When they didn’t push me around, the men taught me to maintain agility and balance on a moving vessel. They gave me a heavy stick and made me practice sword play while they chucked apples at my head. They used my size to my advantage and shoved me into gaps within the ship to retrieve lost or hidden items. Since I was not strong enough to overpower a grown man, I practiced furtiveness. When a man would go insane from the lack of relations with women, I learned the art of stealth and the patience of waiting for danger to pass.
We caught up with the merchant ship almost a year after they tossed me out on their run to Haiti. I was delirious with the fermented choler that seeped out of the cracks the dry sun made in my skin, but I was stronger and smarter than before. I envisioned the merchant who found me stashed away. I replayed again and again the expression of pure hate on his face and the sweep of his hand out to the blue field of the sea as he gave the command to dispatch me. My life and my future now balanced on the tip of the nail that connected to the finger that gave the motion: “toss him overboard”. When we boarded their ship and the men shoved me back onto the deck I was exiled from, I sliced off that finger and then I plunged the knife into the merchant’s chest until his heart leapt out and smacked me in the ribs with its final beat. I stole his boots, which I wore stuffed with hay until I grew into them.
The thieves saw this and changed their plans. Instead of sinking me with the merchant boat like they discussed, they gave me control of the ship for as long as we sailed toward our next destination. My first ship, the ship I was ejected from and then took control of in a delicious revenge, sank first in the back and then was pulled down into the unforgiving waters. All I could see of the ship were the tops of masts sinking below the surface, like the fingertips of a man as he finally drowned. The thrill induced by pools of blood on the sand and the brutal father of sea in the distance carried me to a part of the sky I never knew. The men taught me to protect myself instead of my preferred method of sneaking away, only swooping in to save me from a brawl if they saw I was not going to come out alive. I lost many fights, being smaller than the boys who grew up in this rough life, but when I started to win, I was unstoppable. The fierce men of the ship listened to my story of the tongue and the ones who knew the fabled silent sailor filled in the gaps of my knowledge. They said he, like I, wandered onto a boat one day and never left the sea after that. They said he had a mother, who mourned his father after his death in a cliff-side struggle and was never a complete woman again. They said he also waved his sword, at first, like a girl. They cracked up and smacked me on the back and drank from their rum until daylight ruptured the sky. I looked toward the great expanse of water and thought I could hear the fat black flies buzzing around the kitchen, and a voice that wove through the air and whispered No son of mine…