A short story by Yasmin Inkersole.
On days when the hoptails were too sullen to come out, Spiro took her ledia down to the meadow to play to them.
She sat cross-legged in the tall grass, each of her short fingers teasing the metal tabs that criss-crossed the bowl-shaped instrument. She only played harmonies the townsfolk hadn’t sung. Not the rowing rhythm of the fisherman’s throat as he hummed to the boats on the river. Not the tunes the barman sung in his dark voice as he stacked the barrels of malt. Not even her father’s songs of beautiful women and desolate men travelled through her fingertips.
Spiro played the song of the wind as it stretched its legs out in the meadow. She plucked the metal tabs in the sequence of the trees swaying at the foot of the hill, shaking their leaves out over the church roof. And slowly, small earthy hills pushed up from the ground. Hard green buds broke through the dirt first, followed by stems as thick as rope that climbed taller than her head. Spiky green leaves unfurled and buds cracked like eggs, opening deep canary petals to the world. The plants swayed slightly, like lovers walking side-by-side down the street.
The voice rolled gently down the hill towards her. As soon as the word reached her ears, the hoptails snapped their flowers closed and shot back into the earth as fast as they had risen. The ground fell flat and still, pockmarked from where the shoots had broken through.
Spiro turned her head. Her father walked at an angle down the steep slope, carrying a bottle in each hand. He clambered awkwardly towards her in his bulky boots, his six foot five frame jutting out in the meadow like an overgrown plant.
“I heard you playing,” he said, settling himself on the ground beside her. His voice reminded her of soft beds and the birds nesting at the end of the garden. “It was beautiful. I’m sorry I always scare them away. One day they’ll get used to my voice, eh?”
A faint smile glimmered on Spiro’s lips. She wanted to lean her head against his shoulder and watch the sun go down at the edge of the village, where smoke from the blacksmith’s charred the sky an ugly grey. But he was still in his work clothes. Her eyes flickered over his dark robe and trousers. Both were splattered with dried blood.
“Didn’t stop to change, Eso,” he apologised, handing her a warm bottle. “It was a quick one today,” he said, as if it would make her feel better. He must have noticed the look on her face as she glanced down at the ground. “He was a thief and a murderer. Part of a horde that pillaged the western towns. He broke in less than an hour, and wrote the longest confession I’ve ever seen,” he chuckled awkwardly.
His stories always followed the same pattern. He was an evil man. He deserved to suffer, but I made it quick. It was all right and proper. It was justice. He never used the ugly words the villagers bent their lips around, like thumbscrews and jawcage and rack of ribs.
Spiro took a sip from her bottle. The warm mata inside slipped over her teeth and the space where her tongue wasn’t, passing down her throat. It smelt of bitter reedroot and rich ginger. She thumbed the worn label on the bottle, which bore her father’s angular handwriting. Tell and Daughter Brewers.
He’d made about a thousand bottles a few years ago, the only time he’d ever been serious about hanging up his robes forever and pursuing a different line of work. But before he’d sold a single bottle the prison warden was at their door, wringing his hands and begging his best inquisitor to return. “The money’s too good, Eso,” her father had said when she woke the next morning to find him pulling on his boots. She had scowled and slammed the kitchen door, a memory that still made her flinch. How could she have been so stupid, to waste even a day being angry with him?
“It’s a nice batch, eh?” he smiled over the lip of his bottle. He had the scariest face in the world until he broke out in a smile. It used to frighten her when she was little. He would bend over to kiss her forehead goodnight, bringing his weathered cheeks and misaligned nose up close to her face, and she would force herself not to flinch.
She lifted her bottle to his and clinked the necks together.
It was in moments like these that Spirospeak passed between them. He’d coined the term when she was small and made faces at her vegetables at the dinner table. Her face had learned to move more subtly now, small lines emerging at her mouth and the corners of her eyes when she felt scared, or sad, or tranquil. Too delicate to seem like more than a blank face to anyone but her father; together, they had become the only people in the world fluent in Spirospeak.
“You know, one day you’ll have to learn how to make this,” he gestured to his bottle.
She shook her head.
His smile faded at the edges. As much as he’d tried to show her the blood that broke through the skin of the world, she insisted on gripping onto hope with both hands. “Eso, you remember what I told you on the walk home?”
He meant the walk home from the witch physician.
She wrapped her lips around the words and mouthed them slowly. He had made her repeat them every time he caught her crying. Sometimes he would say them out loud as she mimed, as if she were a puppet that he gave voice to. Together, they spoke:
It’s no use pretending the sun doesn’t set.
Her father died in shades of carnelian.
For months his cheeks held a permanent blush, and his chest a ruddy red glow. He would almost have looked healthy, were it not for the sweat that gathered on the tips of his ears and trickled down his jawline. Spiro stayed up late at night, lying on her wooden cot in the corner of the kitchen. Every time she heard him coughing from the other room she balled her fists tighter around the bedsheets.
His face darkened to currant in the autumn. It was a fast change, like the trees at the end of the hill whose leaves turned mustard and crimson overnight. He began to miss meals. He stayed at work later and later, as if hiding from her. When he did come home, there was a long silence between the sound of the heavy door closing and footsteps approaching the kitchen, as if he was bracing himself.
It was on one of those days that he brought home the box.
It was the most beautiful box Spiro had ever seen, made of cherrywood and polished until even dim light shone on its surface like spilled water. A round piece of glass was set into the centre of the lid, and there were two compartments each sealed with a lock.
“I had it made specially for you,” her father said, lowering himself slowly into a chair at the crooked kitchen table. He leaned back and tried to hide a wince from her. “Sit, Eso.”
She did as she was told. She had never been more obedient in her life than these past few months; his fragility unnerved her, his shrinking frame carrying a peculiar kind of authority.
“I need to tell you something,” he said, but he wouldn’t look up from his lap. He was mute for a long stretch of time, staring into his calloused hands until a cynical smile broke out on his lips. “Look at me, lost for words.”
Spiro didn’t smile back. She had never seen him this way, quiet and nervous like she had been at the village school. He wasn’t even being chided for his silence.
Finally, he cleared his throat. “This box contains a gift,” he said carefully. “It’s the most expensive thing I’ve ever bought in my life, and the most important thing. I want you to open it when I’m… when the time is right.” He locked eyes with her now, his large brown pupils bearing into her. “Promise me that you’ll use what’s inside, Eso. Swear that you won’t be scared.”
She frowned at him, coaxing him to explain. But his eyes were hard and unyielding, gatekeeping the secret of whatever lay in the box. He had never asked her for a promise before, and his earnestness teased a hesitant nod out of her.
They never spoke of the box again after he placed it on the shelf above the fireplace. Spiro didn’t like to look at it; its cold presence reminded her of what was to come.
At the end of autumn her father turned the speckled red of apple skin. He carried a vacancy about him, a lost expression that aged his rough face. He missed whole paragraphs of her Spirospeak, his eyes roving about the house as though it belonged to someone else. He clung onto routine, peeling off his bloodied robes when he returned from work each day and leaving them in the wooden tub to soak, the water turning thick and scarlet. He worked right until the end, even on his very last day. That was a comfort she tried to hold onto, afterwards. At least in his final hours he did something that satisfied him, that made him feel like he was doing right in the world.
He died on her bed. He must have laid down there to rest while she went to the garden to gather herbs for supper. She knew as soon as she saw him that there was only flesh left now, that whatever had been him was gone. She was scared to go near his body, so she went to the cellar to cry. It was the one thing he had warned her not to do. Don’t cry over me Eso, you’ll be too busy to cry. There are the chickens to feed and the land to be tilled and the hoptails will be lonely without you.
But she cried anyway. And she drank.
A dozen bottles of Tell and Daughter mata slid down her throat. The cellar became thick with the smell of yeast and bitters, and she wrapped herself up in that scent like a baby clutching a blanket.
She didn’t know how long she spent in that place. Days, perhaps. She had begun to convince herself that could live in that dark world forever, swallowed by its silence. Perhaps she would have tried to, if nausea hadn’t forced the mata back out of her, and in her sickness the memory of the box hadn’t risen up to drown her.
She wiped away her tears with hands sticky from mata and forced herself to remember who she was. She was supposed to live and drink tea and feed the chickens, to be a human with a name and a story. She was Spiro whose father was dead, whose mother had abandoned her, who lived in the last cottage on the hilltop. Spiro who had swallowed her own tongue in the womb, and who everyone in the village was afraid of.
Everyone except the man who lay upstairs, foetal on her childhood bed. She had only ever made one promise in her life. Didn’t she owe him that, at least?
She dragged herself up the stone steps and pulled open the cellar door.
The house had the same cold quietness of an empty church. It was flooded with purply darkness, and Spiro fumbled with sleep-deprived hands to light a candle. In the twilight she made her way slowly to the small living room, careful to keep her back to the kitchen. She couldn’t bear the thought of glimpsing his slumped silhouette.
Everything looked peculiar in the dark; the fireplace was a black mouth, the armchair a hunched old woman. She fought not to be afraid, realising dully that there was nobody left to soothe her fears. She had only herself now.
She looked towards the box; its polished cherrywood shone brightly under the candle’s sputtering light. It sat on the mantlepiece like a prized gemstone, beckoning her forward. She set the candle down beside it and reached her hands forward. Only then did she realise she was shaking, her fingers twitching with fatigue and anticipation.
She opened the lid carefully to find… nothing.
The velvet-lined section was empty, save for a little blue pebble. She stood on her tiptoes, peering into the corners of the tray, searching for anything in the emptiness. Disappointment stole through her tired body, and she felt herself on the verge of tears – until she realised that the box had a second, lower compartment.
She picked up the pebble and snapped the lid shut, her hands jumping eagerly to the second drawer. She slid it out, and leapt back as quickly as if a spider had scuttled towards her. Nested in the small drawer was unmistakeably, undeniably, a human tongue.
Spiro stared at the salmon-coloured organ laying on its bed of velvet. It was so clean and well-preserved she thought it must be fake, and dared herself to touch it. Her tentative finger stretched slowly towards the tongue, and she pushed her fingertip gently into the rubbery flesh.
Swear that you won’t be scared.
Spiro fought back the nausea in her stomach, the mata rising again at the back of her mouth. She looked down at the pebble in her hand, realising for the first time what she was holding. She had only ever seen a storestone once before, and the thought of what this tiny rock might contain made her breath hitch in her throat.
She pressed her thumb into a shallow groove in the stone, and felt the rock flood with warmth in her hand, like a creature coming to life.
Her lips clamped together. Her whole body tensed. The pebble hadn’t changed at all, but with her thumb resting against it her father’s voice resounded off the cold walls of the house. The weight of the rock tripled in her palm. He was here again.
She shuffled backwards and lowered herself to the floor beside the armchair, as if sheltering herself from the view of the box. On the hard floor she stroked the pebble again, bringing his voice back into the air. She remained there, huddled and listening, until long after the candle had spilt all its wax down the side of the mantle and the sun had risen to bathe the room in an egg-yolk glow. Over and over, she replayed the message.
“I’m sitting out on the back stoop, watching the wind blow through the apple tree. Do you remember how I used to have to bribe you down from there? I swear you would have stayed in those branches all night. You’re sleeping right now, and I won’t speak louder in case I wake you up. Maybe you’ll hear this and wish I had told you all of it when I was still here. I tried to, that day I gave you the box. But I’m a coward Eso, and it’s easier this way.
I have failed you. It is the job of a father to raise a child who can enjoy the world – all of it, not just the meadow and the apple tree and the fireside on cold nights. I know you are young yet, but there is so much that I want for you to experience in life. Love, children of your own…
I want you to be happy, whatever that means. So here I am, fixing my mistakes from the grave. Maybe Tell and Daughter Brewers wasn’t the best way for me to build a future for you. At least now, you’ll be able to choose whatever life you want. I always knew if you could speak, you’d have the world at your feet – you could go anywhere, be anything. Forget your little cottage and your old dad, and find the rest of the world.
The witch physician helped me make this gift ready for you. She has spent the last few months since my illness began working tirelessly to prepare it. It will do everything my own tongue does – tell stories, sing lullabies, call out to the birds in the morning… I hope you will use it, Eso. There may be some discomfort at first, I won’t pretend otherwise. The magic that binds the tongue is new and powerful. It will take some time to adjust. But you can do it, I have no doubt of that.
Don’t let the thought of where it came from stop you. It’s no secret that my type of work involves… Well, let’s just say that nobody will come knocking at the door to ask for the tongue. Eso, I want you to pack up everything, sell the cottage, and leave this place. Go somewhere nobody knows you. Live a new life, try everything, talk with people. Be happy. Can you do that for me?
I hope you’re nodding.
Now go back to the box. I’m going to tell you exactly what to do.”
There was the matter of the body to deal with.
Spiro walked down the hillside into the heart of the village, her boots treading the soft mulch of decaying leaves and rain-soaked earth. In her fifteen years of life she had never lived anywhere but the windblown cottage on the hilltop, and though she had made every effort to walk in the village as little as possible her father had often forced her to go. It had started with the village school, but even once she’d finished her education he had dragged her alongside him whenever he left the house.
It was the stares that got to her, and they were worse than ever now. The villagers had become careless as to whether she noticed them or not. The blacksmith’s boy stood in the doorway, clutching a broom and openly examining her from her dirty boots to her woollen hat. The cobbler on the corner locked eyes with her, held her gaze for a second and then turned his back as if to shun her. A dull ache began in the pit of her stomach. They had never dared be so obvious when her father was beside her.
She felt herself growing hot and clumsy; she bumped one ankle against another and almost tripped, blood rushing up into her cheeks. She longed for the heady haze of the alcohol fumes in the basement. Her eyes flitted to the lopsided tavern on the corner, its rooftiles half-shed like the skin of a snake. Her feet itched to step towards the barrel-shaped front door, but she forced herself to pass by without so much as looking in the windows. She could only imagine what the barman would say to her. Where’s your voice gone, little one? with a sneer. And she would glance at the empty chair beside her, where her tongue used to be.
Now there was only the heavy weight in her mouth. She didn’t know if she had put it in correctly; her father’s instructions had been thorough, but her hands had shaken so much when she’d finally built up the courage to do as he said. The surface of the tongue was rough like the skin of a newborn chick. Even holding it had repulsed her, and she had stood with the organ in her hands for what felt like an eternity, her lips parting by only a millimetre with each passing minute.
Finally, she had taken a deep breath. She pinched her nose shut. She opened her mouth wide, imagining the gaping mouth of the well on the hillside. She put in the tongue.
Her first instinct was to swallow, but a great bulge rose at the back of her throat and hooked itself to the tongue. The base of the tongue lashed itself to the floor of her mouth and she gagged, her fingers flying to her gums to pull the thing out-
She forced her hands down to her sides and clenched them until the waves of discomfort began to slow. She opened her watering eyes and clenched the mantlepiece. It was done.
From that moment forwards, the presence of the tongue had become all-consuming. Now she felt it pressing against her teeth, jolting with her every step, tasting the burnt flavour of the blacksmith’s fire. She hadn’t dared use it yet. Not a sip of water or bite of food had entered her mouth all day. Not a word had spilled from between her lips.
Immediately, this new piece of her had felt as intrusive as a midnight house caller.
Spiro reached the end of the cobbled street and came to the Governors’ Hall, the least crooked building in the village. She started up the stone staircase, her feet thudding on the heavy steps. She reached the top of the stairs breathlessly, and knocked on the dark door there before her nerves had time to catch up to her.
The old hinges whined open. A tall figure in a long brown cloak appeared in the doorway, his skeletal hands folded together. Elder Garmont. He signed every important piece of paper in the village, and though Spiro had never seen his face from under his baggy hood she had always believed his nose was as long as a pencil. He was a prying, gossiping man – a ‘snide weasel’, as her father had liked to call him.
“Spiro, please come in.” His voice was thick and slow-moving, like the sap of a mellowbrook.
She followed him into the stone room that lay behind the door. It was a tiny dwelling, an office-cum-bedroom-cum-library. Spiro slid down into a chair and he took the one opposite her, resting his bony sandaled feet on a pile of books. Spiro tried to peer under his hood, her face a picture of you talk first, but her Spirospeak slipped past him like a gentle breeze.
She reached her hand out to him, a ball of paper scrunched in her closed fist. Elder Garmont took it and read slowly.
“I will arrange men to collect the body right away,” he said in a toneless voice, as if the note had simply told him that his milk had gone off.
Spiro rose stiffly from her seat. At least that was over with.
She headed towards the door, eager to spirit herself away from this stale-tasting room, when she heard Elder Garmont rising behind her.
“This note says he’s been dead three days. Why didn’t you come sooner?” he paused, savouring his words before he spoke them, “did you forget how to write as well as talk?”
Heat flooded Spiro’s body. She spun on her heel, heartbeat thundering in her ears. “No,” she said, in a voice that was meant to be firm and filled with resolve, but which hung hoarsely in the air like a scratch of wind.
In shock, Elder Garmont raised his head, and for the briefest of seconds she glimpsed his face. His cheeks were sallow and grey, his weaselly eyes a shocking shade of blue. His expression was a picture of horror.
It was a week later when Spiro convinced herself to talk again. Perhaps her voice hadn’t been as jagged and weightless as it had felt in that stuffy little room? Perhaps she’d imagined saying anything at all? Hadn’t her father told her that a tongue would open the world to her?
She spoke to the mirror first. It was easier to try speaking to someone, even if that someone was a short brown-haired girl with a small face and sad eyes. She stared at her reflection and a wave of instinct passed through the tongue, muscle memory that she didn’t have snapping into action. She felt part of her awakening, like a dead thing revived. It was at once as though the tongue had always been there, nestled in her mouth and used a thousand times over, and as though it were a dead animal buried behind her lips.
She spoke in a voice as quiet as the draft coming in under the door.
The sound jarred her nerves, the inflection irritating her temples. Was this how she was supposed to sound? Hoarse and gritty, a shadow of a voice, a mutilated half-noise? Who was she?
“A storm is coming in,” she choked, fighting the rising sobs that clawed at her throat. Was this what it meant to be fixed?
She tried phrases. She tried poetry and conversation and her father’s jokes.
All of them fell heavily to the floor like marbles spilling from the corners of her mouth.
She tore herself away from the mirror, unable to utter another word. But still the tongue lay limp in her mouth, a slice of dead meat she couldn’t swallow. She forced herself to take slow breaths, and fought to convince herself that this was part of her now, that she was whole. But her stomach ached with a deep hollowness, and she flew to the pebble that spoke her father’s last words.
She didn’t sleep a wink that night, only rocked back and forth on her empty bed, playing the message over and over again, her thumb rubbing the small blue stone. Eso. Eso. Eso. She spoke his own words softly back to him, as quietly as she could so that she wouldn’t hear herself. She wondered why in all his preparations her father hadn’t warned her of the grief she would feel when she killed her old voice to make space for this new one.
On days when she was too sullen to go out, Spiro’s father would tell her to take her ledia down to the meadow and play to the hoptails.
Before dawn had the chance to rear its head, she took the instrument from its hook on the wall and walked with the pace of one heading to their own execution. She thought of all the things her father had wished for her: love, children, people. Communication. It was easier to gift a tongue than teach the whole world Spirospeak. She should be grateful. She had a father who loved her even from the grave, and a tongue to reinvent herself with.
She raised her chin slightly. She owed it to him to try. To live, and be happy, and part of the world. In fact, just the feeling of the mid-morning air on her skin was working a kind of magic on her, awaking a deep tranquillity at the base of her skull. She inhaled slowly, deciphering the notes of wildflower and damp earth that hung on the breeze. She could taste them – earth and copper, honey and lavender. It was a fine taste, better even than her father’s mata.
She reached the meadow on the hillside and looked down the slope to the village that lay at the bottom. No smoke rose from the chimney tops, the streets were barren of people. She felt like an adventurer discovering new land.
She trampled the tall grass and made her way to the patch where she always sat. She lowered herself slowly to the ground, setting the ledia down beside her. She felt the dirt around her, her thumbs finding the wide holes where the hoptails slept. A smile broke out across her lips, and she lifted the instrument to play.
She played the song of the river at the end of the village, every curve in its slumbering banks, the whistles of the blue beaks as they chased each other across the surface, the delicate ripples that spread around its rocks like lacework. She closed her eyes and plucked the strings, finding the world through her memories, playing its voice with her fingertips. Without realising it, her tongue joined in the harmony, humming and rising and ah-ing at the twists in her melodies. For once, the sound of it felt smooth and strangely fitting.
When she opened her eyes the ground was as still as it had been before, and the hoptails lay unmoving in their deep world. The morning sun was rising over the rooftops, spilling cold blue light into the base of the valley. Spiro placed her palms down on the earth as if checking the hoptails for a pulse. But she knew in the back of her throat that they were never coming back.
Read more about the author Yasmin Inkersole HERE.