I recently entered a short story competition for Mansfield Arts Week and the following was one of the winners. The theme was ‘Peripheries’.
But for one more tongue
When she awoke, she had lost a language. Something in the recesses of her brain didn’t work any longer and she forgot the language of her children. Her mother tongue she remembered. It was a cruel twist of fate that whilst her body survived, remembering its trauma only in the ever fading silver moons of her scars, her mind culled its memory, faltered.
She was still her and for that we were told we should be grateful. She showed herself in that familiar smile, in her laugh. She knew she had known another language. It was worse that she knew what she had lost. We spoke it around her every day, in the kitchen to each other or when we spoke to doctors and nurses who had become old friends, though gradually we tried more and more not to let her hear the strangeness of our tongue. I think she wished that was how it had always been, that her mind had not betrayed her then but years before, that she had not lost but never gained another language. Maybe she had to imagine it like that. Losing a language seemed to me worse than losing a limb, a constant reminder of the fragility of the mind which we tell ourselves will always be there even when the body slows. Maybe she had to pretend that all her memories of our childhood, of her teenage and adulthood, the years when she studied and wrote in another language, had been lived in another country, another place, another time. To know otherwise would be to admit that so much of her memories were and would always be veiled even and only to the one who had lived them.
My father spoke to her with his polished, university-taught tongue, a clipped and mutilated one, and forgot sayings he hadn’t heard in years – and which she hadn’t either, living in a country where her only access to old wives tales and proverbial wisdom was through phone calls from a place I’d last visited when I was seven and didn’t want to see the new baby. My brother and I spoke to her in our own broken fledgling language, not truly hers and never really ours. She couldn’t pronounce my name correctly, in the perfect English she’d conquered once before. It changed in her mouth and cloaked in her thick accent it took on tones I’d never heard before. She said ‘eat your food’ and ‘have you done your work?’ but her sentences were codes to break, indistinguishable sounds.
Even when she cooked she made dishes she remembered from her childhood. Her recipe books, written by a calligrapher’s hand, were pages blotched with wasted ink. She couldn’t read the headlines of the newspaper; the bold black lettering confronted her and we learnt to throw away flyers posted through the doors and hide letters under mugs. One evening I saw her on the floor opening book after book on her shelf, piling to her left the ones she could read and to her right the ones she couldn’t. The right towered, toppled and fell and as she leant to rearrange the neat stack, she stopped, drew back her hands. A leaning tower of Babel after the confusion of tongues.
She told me what in English would translate as ‘it keeps hiding from me’. The pronoun ‘it’ could also mean ‘he’ and I wondered if she imagined her adopted language as a little boy sneaking round corners to avoid her possessive new love. I didn’t have the grammar to ask her in my own new adopted language. She couldn’t get close to her loss and we couldn’t get close to her.
Though in the day my brother and I were closer than ever, co-conspirators who tested out our inchoate vocabularies on each other and grimaced at the accents we heard, the accents we failed to place, we stopped whispering late into the dark and instead watched the light fade listening to the different notes of silence. Silence reigned in the corridors of our house and echoed under the ceilings. A plate dropped and the world shattered, glass vaults we had hung from the sky unsuspended.
When she awoke, she had learnt another language. A month after she came home, the silence had to break and it broke not in whispers but in a piano chord.
There had always been a piano sitting in the hallway to our house. Whilst she was away it became more decorative than anything else. I stopped playing it weeks before we knew. Sometimes flowers sat on its lacquered top – not ones we had bought but which strangers brought and left at our doors. The first flowers, red tulips with their yellow eyelet sleeves, broke the careful white sanatorium we had enclosed her in. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them out and after that someone always placed something colourful on the black lid, a rose or a pebble or a pen. Maybe that’s why she went to sit at the piano one day, to reach for some colour and noise. A miracle in the bright white sunlight, a gift from the gods. We forgot that her mind still worked, even if it worked differently and we forgot that she’d always learnt quickly because she could not learn the one thing we’d asked her to. We had asked too much of her and yet at the same time we had asked too little. It was not her silence that hung like shadowy cobwebs but our own.
Even when I read her diaries I felt as if I was a small black figure in an old photograph, lost in mist. As much as I wandered through her words, as much as I learnt about her – what she’d thought as a twenty something lost in a new land as strange as that sudden mist, what new word she’d learnt, what she was thinking when she read to a child nearly asleep on her lap, what she thought when she saw her first cherry blossom, which fell pressed and yet still flush with pink from between the pages – I always ended up lost. I was listening to the last recording of the last speaker of a language or a dying voice over a breaking radio, a voice from another time. Her mother tongue, now technically my own, seemed like a lost language to me, spoken by only a handful in another century, like the five people in Oklahoma who speak Yuchi for the cameras or the few elders in Hokkaido who speak a language where one verb can mean as much as a sentence can.
I had forgotten the very meaning of the word language. I forgot that a note could hold many sentences, not just a single line of text. I forgot that a chord could be a diary entry in itself, a crowded leaf of paper. You could be swimming in the sea and walking across a desert, under a night sky or in coral reefs after playing one single page. And somehow my mother knew scales and concertos and the Goldberg Variations I’d pored over for hours. Somehow she knew how to read Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and play chopsticks. She knew the lonely language of one folio of music and the polyphony of another. As the weeks went by, I learnt to lean on the piano’s lid to turn the page. My brother stood in the doorway, listening to a different rendition of the pieces he’d heard me play so often. My father spoke not a word. Closer and closer we neared as to a foreign shore. It was not the shore from which she’d left her mother tongue, nor the shore she’d once reached. When she played, she gave something up and we could breathe again. How long would it last? For a few moments we didn’t care. For a few moments, our loss was no loss.