We put my tongue in a coffin and laid it to rest on July 2, 1994, a
gloomy Friday on a rainy morning. In some sad attempt at affection or
cruelty, my mother sewed a miniature quilt for the tongue to keep it
warm and stabbed the needle right through the lolling thing so it would
stay somewhat still. As we covered my tongue, it became frantic and
began banging against the coffin lid but my parents ignored the noise. I
didn’t cry or attempt any rescue. I just stood there.
The pattering of raindrops drummed along my umbrella. It was foggy with
the rain drizzling, and I silently watched my father toss a shovel of
dirt over my tongue’s coffin as it sank into the earth, gone from my
childhood for good. His expression was cruel. He was a serious man.
There we were, staring down at a dirt mouth swallowing my tongue, a
strange metaphor for how I felt my whole life, my dry throat desperate
to croak out words anyone would hear.
I wanted to say a few words, but I couldn’t. They were buried along with
the tongue, then eventually covered by time. I tried to open my mouth,
waggle the nub of nothing inside, but it must have looked more like a
silent scream, like drowning in air—the way a hooked fish dies in
agony when someone watches it suffocate to death on land.
When I moved away from that town and that old life to try to start one
of my own, I found that most people are terrible listeners, and it’s
unfortunate to be a listener in a world of people who gravitate to
listeners but refuse to listen themselves. I think it was for this
reason that people liked me, because everywhere I went, being
tongueless, they knew I’d listen. When you’re quiet, people decide for
you what you’ll say. And I didn’t know how to tell them they were wrong
about me. No one cared what I thought. No one ever asked.
It took years of feeling hopeless until I realized I had to face what
I’d been avoiding all my life. I had to return home to dig up the tongue
coffin. I arrived at the house I grew up in, plants looking sick and
overgrown, unkept by my haunted family. In the middle of the night, I
jumped the fence. Like usual, no one noticed me.
After I dug it up, I brought my tongue along everywhere, traveled the
world, and tried to hand the coffin to strangers or new acquaintances,
to get them to understand. Maybe if I can’t tell them, I can show
them, I thought. They still didn’t get it.
I needed help, and I tried to ask.
Can you teach my tongue to talk? I’d plead in my silent mouth scream.
But without me all this time, it’s like the tongue gave up. It didn’t
“What is this, like a pet? Is this a dead bird or something?”
Not quite, I thought. No, I shook my head.
One woman rolled her eyes when she opened the coffin. She passed it back
to me in disgust, as if I owed her an apology for subjecting her to my
dilemma, to me.
I tried teaching my tongue other languages, one from everywhere we went.
I tried dead languages, some near-dead like my tongue. Nothing worked.
Not Yiddish, not German, not Portuguese, not French, not Farsi, not
Mandarin—no words would come. I soon realized that even if I could
speak ten languages, I still wouldn’t know what to say.
The silence seemed to tell me that maybe I should just leave it all
One last time, I opened the coffin up. I hoped to at least give the
tongue a final goodbye. See if it would plead for its life. I turned the
box over and let out the tongue, watched the shriveled thing plop on the
dirt. It looked weary and sad after the decades, having grown accustomed
to loneliness, to just lying there. Finally, it slid. It inched toward
my feet and began to drag itself across the ground, to spell something
in the sand. The scrawl looked like marks, nothing that made any sense.
Nothing I had taught it. No languages or characters I knew.
I picked up my poor withered tongue, felt its bumps against my palm.
Strangely, it still felt warm. In a moment of sudden clarity, I realized
what I must do. I examined that tiny quilt left in the coffin, unstuck
the needle inside. I held my tongue up to my face, to the hollow cave
behind my teeth, pierced the needle through the scarred tissue in my
mouth and began to sew my tongue back in.