Sarah Kain Gutowski
Chapter I: She Leaves Home
A long time ago, and very far away,
a little girl began to speak with the language of birds
and insects. Even when she cried her sobs were thin,
brittle: the pitch of bats, sporadic as cricket song.
Her laughter flew around the room like a frantic lark
trapped inside four walls. And how she loved to talk!
There came a rising in her chest, a sudden impulse
to comment she couldn't check. Compulsory as breath,
this music was a measure her body dared not work against.
After a while, her parents, neighbors, and family friends –
they all tried to suppress her endless chatter. Stop,
they'd reprimand, stop talking. Nothing dammed the noise
cascading from her mouth, however – not the doctor,
who peered into her throat's dark recess and hoped to find
some rare illness sat within; and not the priest,
who searched her heart and head through prayer, and yet could not
expel the demon working there, the devil cupped
inside her tender soul. He declared her lost, her cause annulled.
Everyone had given up. She recognized
defeat in her father's face, and knew she'd drained his patience.
Her mother trembled with frustration. So she left,
a girl no longer, but a woman young and filled
with dread at what she might encounter in the world.
She shuffled down the road, its tar face flat and silent.
Sometimes she'd stop to chat with catbirds on a fence,
or join an open field's frenetic nighttime riot,
but she was often alone, and growing very sad and quiet.
Chapter II: She is Warned, and Ignores the Warning
(Interdiction and Violation)
One day, her gut swollen with sounds she hadn't voiced,
she stopped to read a sign hanging above a door.
Come in, come in, the healer coughed at the shadow she made,
and since he was the first person who'd spoken to her
for many weeks, she entered. There in a dim room
a hobgoblin sat: his hair oak-dark, his limbs gnarled
like thick tree roots. She stood still at the door and sang,
the creature sounds riding her ragged breath. It's a curse,
she spoke in birdsong. I cannot form their words. What could be worse?
The hobgoblin rubbed his knotted hands together and blew
inside the nest they made, as if coaxing flame from tinder.
Small sparks starred the darkness, followed by clouds of smoke
that filled the room, their long, dense plumes coming apart
like drafts from a signal fire. She waved away the fog,
and moved closer. He touched her lips with warm fingers.
Speak, he urged. She opened her mouth and out flew bees
and hummingbirds, wasps and crows, a swarm of katydids,
an elf owl, beetles, moths, and swallows – and last – a lonely finch.
The abandoned branch of her throat felt sore. Her tongue began
to swell and stretch, growing beyond her lips and teeth,
until she couldn't hold it back. Unleashed, it fell
and lolled across the floor, sticky and gathering dust.
The little man laughed coarsely and rolled the dark, long muscle
from tip to root like carpet. He tucked it inside her mouth
and helped her close her jaw. Then he pointed to the door.
Now mute and choked by silence, she turned and walked away.
She coughed and spluttered down the road, alone once again.
Unable to speak, and full of sorrow, the woman walked
until – overcome, exhausted – her feet dragged to a stop.
Above the trees she saw a tower's gilded turret
The old, familiar rising in her belly told her:
This is home. So she made her way through thorns and brush
until she came to a door at the tower's base. She knocked.
The door, unlocked, swung open. Up the cramped stairs
she pulled herself, her head tilted to keep her tongue
inside the cage of her mouth. Her jaw ached from restraining its bulk.
She entered the tower's one round room, the kind of place
where she, a woman newly changed and worn threadbare,
could lay her body down and rest. On the large round bed
a skein of silk and a ladder, roped around the bedpost,
remained – a futile effort made by the last girl here.
Atop a table beside the bed, a silver knife
glinted next to a slender needle carved from stone.
Robust vines clung to the window sash, invading the room.
Their leaves ticked softly against the walls. The air was damp and cool.
She perched on the bed, and sensed her tongue's desire to slide
past her teeth and down to the cold marble floor.
It pulsed behind her lips – an animal testing its cage.
She held the needle to a beam of light and watched
the dust motes drift around and skirt the fine, sharp point.
Then she stitched the silken floss across her mouth until
a lattice formed through which water and air could slip.
White and clean as bone the needle worked her flesh.
The stitches were true and tight. She closed her eyes and tried to rest.
After many days, a man approached the tower.
A prince. On errand, and weary from his search, he hoped
he might find rest within the tower's high room.
He climbed the stairs and when he saw the woman there
something inside his memory creaked, like cartilage
remembering how to work inside the knee again.
As if his life were a question and she, the calm reply,
he bent to take her answer. But when their lips touched
he felt the net of stitches: each thread tight, stiff, and cached in blood.
Something lived in there. He sensed it lurking, curled
and tense, preparing to strike. He pulled away, cobwebs
stuck to his teeth. The woman's eyelids flickered open.
She raised her head and stared into the prince's face,
handsome and scared, regret already written there
and mirroring her own, for they both knew he held
an empty promise in his kiss, and no solution.
She wiped the spider's silk from off his face. He left.
And there the woman stayed: her mind raging, her jaw clenched.
Mama, What Is Regret?
She misses her voice and its insect ring. The tower's emptiness tolls
waves of quiet, to the point where even her thoughts are mute,
and a series of pictures, not sounds, move through her head.
The world moves around her. Every tossed tree limb,
every detached cobweb, whatever the wind shifts, speaks,
and it says to her: you were once this light, this moveable.
When she wakes from restless dreams and the stitches strain
between her lips, she feels more fully the reach of her silence.
She cannot even click or tsk her tongue in shame.
She has never felt so clumsy, so burdened and ungainly –
when she spoke with the black cricket's creak and whistle,
she knew someone, somewhere, understood her,
no matter if he was very small, and very slight, and likely to be crushed
between animal jaws or flattened under a human foot.
Even in her tower room, lying unencumbered on her bed, she sympathizes:
she feels it looming in the air above her, the force of that sudden, obliterating weight.
Mama, How Does The Woman With The Frog Tongue Eat?
The regret she feels turns to rage, and with it the tenor of her dreams
changes, too: now she is a giant wave, an accumulation, a wet mouth
screaming toward the shore. She wants to devour it all,
beaches, trees, and grassy dunes. They disappear
beneath her massive overbite: Small towns, long roads,
the suburbs of cities and then the cities themselves.
She feeds the river and lake beds like a mother bird
who has chewed and digested food for her young,
and then they rise up, too, to devour the land and its inhabitants.
And then she is no longer water but a whale within it,
the detritus from felled and sea-scrubbed civilizations collecting
in her spiny teeth. She eats and eats: less to be full, more to destroy.
When she wakes, her jaw aches in the place where her molars ground together,
and her hunger is nothing but a nightmare: in daylight, less frightening, and gone.
Chapter III: She Cultivates a Harvest She Cannot Reap
(Trickery and Deception)
She woke one morning to whispers, sounds entwined like threads,
brushed along her outer ear. The feeling remained
when, standing beside the tower's window, she scanned the mist
floating above the trees and early summer grass.
She followed the whispers down the tower steps until
outside, and found a clearing. There, the world stopped
its soft murmur, and asked, distinctly, to be touched.
In answer she bent and dug her hands into the earth,
tilling the soil until her fingernails were lined with dirt.
By noon her back ached and her forehead glistened with sweat.
Her hands were blistered and marked with work's sheen, yet she sought
more: a planting. She searched the forest for fallen fruit,
their seeds, and roots she raised gently from dark, rich beds
then cradled inside a sling she made with her long hair.
Back in the clearing, she placed the seeds in tidy rows,
built hills for the roots, and carried water cupped
in her small palms to slake their thirst. She knew too well
the drought induced by change; everything had to be relearned.
The woman sheltered each tender and vulnerable sprout
as if it were a human child stuck in the ground,
thin new skin exposed to the sun, and little arms
that waved to catch her attention. She hummed to them a lyric
from when she was a child, when her mother's face loomed
above her, large and cool as a moon that follows a day
of blistering heat. Her mother's voice, word after word,
soaked into her dreaming life, so that now, by rote,
she sang it too, although only the melody left her throat.
This kind of mothering made her happy, briefly, until
the season lengthened. Her plants rose tall above her head,
dense and heavy with fruit of their own. She knew, too late,
that what she'd grown had only grown to be eaten.
Her lips, sewn together to hide her long, coiled tongue
behind them, prevented even a taste. So back inside,
she watched from her tower window's vantage the weeds riot
unruly and thick between the rows. Her dry crop blanched,
and birds and rodents consumed the rotting fruit from dead branches.
Chapter IV: She Collects Objects That Are Not Hers
In time, the silence and the non-silence – her stifled breath,
her furor without words – began to irritate
like a hair, unseen, will torture the skin it hangs against.
She wanted to rip it out. The empty, cold room
amplified every noise until the walls rang.
Beyond those walls, the landscape erupted with heat and rain,
the season coaxing brambles into a green riot,
a gloss of leaves from the trees, and roses wild with color.
She looked on them all without pleasure; they seemed crude and vulgar.
When she could no longer endure the nothingness
rolling through her head, she ventured into the woods
searching for objects that pleased her: silent, incapable
of noise – like berries, bright and mute, reflecting not
the sunshine nor her face in their dark bodies, but
the bruised and burnished places housing her memories.
She tramped through the forest, nettles caught inside her hair,
and scalped the moss from trunks of trees. She lined her room
with these, her trophies, but they turned brown and brittle too soon.
Unable to bear her quiet room or the dead things
littered across the floor, she left the tower again,
but this time pressed beyond the woods to a nearby town.
Its houses mottled the land with shadow, and from those homes
came raucous laughter, high-pitched, volatile arguments,
and soft exchanges between lovers. Their noise made worse
the numb silence she dragged with her like a palsied limb;
she schemed to punish them by stealing objects they used
but left outdoors, on window sills or back porches or stoops.
She started small: ceramic dogs that guarded gates;
shingles felled by raging winds; a key untucked
from plastic, hollow stone; and various bubble wands
deserted or lost by children with fickle, careless hands.
Then larger items became her prey: gasoline cans,
lawnmower chains, old spades and rakes left leaning up
against a house, and pitchers of tea left out to sun.
She shuffled every stolen gadget and garden gnome
into the tower, until it was full and she felt less alone.
But with each passing day and item she'd collect,
her tongue would press more forcefully against the gate
she'd stitched across her mouth. Her stolen odds and ends
were safe inside the tower, and yet inside herself
a danger grew, a threat, although she couldn't say –
even inside her head, the place her voice remained –
exactly what or who it was she should protect.
She knew she felt more fear the more her corrupt mouth bulged.
If she clipped the last of its fraying strings, who knew what she'd become?
Chapter V: She Discovers What She Desires
The woman felt her sadness most keenly at night,
when voices raised together, ecstatic, and sang at once
in varied tongues. She wished that she could answer back –
instead, she sat among her collected baubles and watched
their rough, skewed surfaces refuse the moon's dim light.
The darkness, like sackcloth, rendered the room without color.
She knew that somewhere within this clutter and junk there lay
the splintered pole of her voice, which once upon a time
she might have used to vault from this quiet that left her unsatisfied.
And yet she heard in her head: stop talking, the old reproof.
It cycled through her daily, a marble riding the slant
rims of her mind and chiming against its many corners.
This wasn't the noise she craved, and only when she tilted
her head into her pillow did the torment roll
to sudden, still silence. So she settled for sleep again,
and rode its numbing waves through many nights and days,
until she heard a child laughing, and woke from dream
while running to the window, her hands outstretched, as if she would leap.
The casement kept her from spilling down the tower's walls,
even though she leaned over the sill and strained
to hear the last notes that splintered her heavy slumber.
The treetops swirled with reflected sun: a thousand leaves
caught the light and threw back a refrain, like knives
somersaulting toward her face: too late, too late.
But still, she clung to the sill and searched the canopy,
as if a bird with a child's face lighted there and called
for others to sing with raucous laughter, too. The day grew long.
At last she gave up, and despaired of seeing the mouth
or beak to blame for her broken sleep and manic watch.
But just as the sun began its slow descent and dissolve
behind the forest's vast, outstretched palm, two children
marched through the brush and onto one of the narrow paths,
hand in hand and homeward-bound, toward the village.
They brandished walking sticks like spears, and their eyes were round
and wide as shields, defense against the shapes that appeared
in mist and shadow along the trail. She recognized their fear.
They vanished beyond the tower's view, and even though
the sun was setting, the woman ventured into the woods
in search of where the children spent their day playing.
At dusk, the trees on either side of the narrow path
shook their spindle arms at her in shadowy clouds,
leaves amassed like ghosts and rustling all around.
Crickets evaded lizards along the forest floor,
so the ground seethed and churned darkly beneath her feet.
Her brave resolve lifted away like fog. She made her retreat.
The next morning she woke again to children's laughter.
It traveled up the tower walls and ricocheted
around her crowded room. When their baby voices argued
how best to find a way inside, she appeared above
specter-like, a waxen face without its body.
Startled, the children skittered into the brush like mice
suddenly raked by open air and a predator's gaze.
She hovered there, silent except for the whistling sounds
that only she could hear, that hastened past her cross-hatched mouth.
She stood, a quiet, unmoving figure, until at last
the boy and girl scrambled from out of the shrubs and gazed
up at her face, back-lit by sun and blurred by that light.
Then the boy called, let down your hair, and his sister laughed.
She nodded toward the tower door, ajar, with stairs
visible just beyond. The boy and then the girl
picked up some stones, and hurled them through the door's dark gap.
The stairs spat back an empty sound. The children looked up,
but she was gone. So they chucked their rocks at the window ledge above.
A shriek of rusted metal hinges cut through the noise
of crag and pebble lobbed against the window pane.
They turned to see her standing close: her eyes bright,
her strange mouth webbed with string. She raised a hand in greeting.
The girl's face broke from its brave smile. Her brother ducked
under the heavy hail of stones they'd thrown overhead,
although one pierced the skin on his brow. With a cry, he ran.
His sister remained, her hand tracing the lines of her mouth –
testing the bars of its open gate, more curious than cowed.
Stumbling through the trees, the boy became aware
he'd left his sister all alone with the strange woman.
He doubled back, a red path working down his face.
When he found the tower again the woman held a rag
for him to take, and gave a tight, closed smile in welcome.
The girl accepted, and pressed the scrap to her brother's head.
Then she said, We've made a fort inside the woods. A house.
It's where we play. Would you like to see it? Come with us.
She took the woman's fingers, still outstretched, and gently tugged.
Many years had passed for the girl who spoke like birds
and insects, who grew to be this woman, frog-tongued –
and many years since she'd heard a voice addressed to her,
directly – so she felt wary, as if this child deceived,
as if the girl were old enough to do her harm.
The boy looked, too, like he couldn't quite believe his sister
would make such a request of such a stranger, but
she had offered the rag for his head, and she didn't seem
to want to do them harm. So he shrugged, and followed them through the trees.
The children led her down the path to a small clearing,
a patch of sun-bleached weeds eclipsed by a ring of trees.
A dry creek ran through one corner, covered in part
by sticks and vines woven together to make their fort.
The woman felt exposed, crossing the field, like a doe
that steps in front of the hunter's bow, aware of danger,
but too palsied by fear to do more than stand and twitch.
In slow arcs, hawks drifted above their heads, while rabbits
hunkered between the tall, sheltering grasses, still as granite.
At the creek bed the children jumped over the edge
where water should have lapped and dark clouds of guppies
swirled inside a gentle current, but drought instead
had licked the basin clean of waves and little fishes.
The boy pushed by and moved aside a rag curtain,
revealing a hollow filled with broken porcelain cups
and chipped plates, random forks and spoons from mismatched sets,
dolls with heads and dolls without. Their cubby looked
adored and alive, their well-used toys entwined with vines in the bushes.
The woman crouched and crawled on her knees after the children,
her skirt and hair sweeping the dust, her long body
compressing over and over like accordion folds,
until she sat inside their fort, curled, tight and small
as meat in a tree nut. She waited, eyes cast down,
for one of them to speak. Instead they let the silence
hang like the cups and dolls in the shrubs, waiting for use,
and fixed instead small holes in the shelter, pinning back
the branches ripped free by the wind and making the roof less slack.
And then, without reserve they began to play as if
they'd always kept a woman with a stitched mouth
for playmate or prop within their secret forest hut.
The girl brewed tea from air. She served it cold with cakes
made from clay lumps, dried and cracked, that came from the floor.
Her brother cut a wand to use as his hunting spear,
then left the females to hunt for boars in the field he called
the Great Wide Plain. Against the walls his shadow grew
and fell throughout the day, while the girl concocted a witch's brew.
And all the while the woman with the frog tongue
sat beside the chattering girl and wove a bowl
from reeds and grasses within arms reach. Her fingers rent
and laced and fixed the whips as if she'd spent her life
teasing useful shapes from stuff that wouldn't bend.
The girl exclaimed and clapped her hands fast together
when the woman tied the final knot and filled the bowl
with spools, rocks, buttons, pennies and bottle caps – whatever
she found inside her pockets that gleamed and flashed in the light like treasure.
She knew she'd found a friend. Even the boy grinned
when shown the bowl by his excited sister (but asked
she make a basket large enough to hold his kill,
the dragon he'd slain and dropped on the ground outside the hut.)
In answer, she raised her mute face up to the fading sun.
She crawled toward the door, unfolding her stiff legs
past the children, and into the early evening air.
The children grumbled and claimed they didn't want to go.
So she started down the path, and it wasn't long before they followed.
Mama, Where are Their Parents?
For the first time, the woman with the frog tongue
is forced to consider a story other than her own.
At night she lays awake and wonders what makes these children walk
into the woods each day. (Once a woman stabbed her finger while sewing,
then watched her blood drop and crawl through snow on the window sill.
She gave birth to a daughter, and shortly after, she died.
Once a woman craved a root that burned her mouth with its lightning taste.
She made her husband steal it from a witch's garden. The witch stole her baby.)
What mother doesn't listen with alarm while her daughter prattles on
about the lady in the woods, her silent, stitched mouth,
and her isolated tower? What father doesn't forbid these visits,
or his son accepting her weird gifts, fashioned from reeds and grasses?
(Once a woman drank the mead a fairy brewed
from reptile parts. Her son was born a frog.)
Who does or doesn't miss them when they do or don't come home?
She wonders why she never cared to wonder like this before.
(Once a woman fell asleep on a tuft of grass, and she conceived
a talking pig. Once a woman ate juniper berries until she bloated
from happiness. She gave birth to a daughter. And yes, she died.)
Who made the boy that worsted coat? Who tied the knots
on the girl's small shoes? Who shook the green pollen dust
each evening from their tangled hair? (Once a girl swallowed a rose leaf
and her girl's body swelled with a child. The fairies said she was just a girl
giving birth to a girl. No big deal.) And then, without an answer and before she sleeps,
she dwells for just a moment on the time she heard her father weep:
Her mother stood before him, unknowable and blind as rock.