Sarah Kain Gutowski: Chapter VI: The Children
Have a Request
The season stretched itself thin, weakened by storms and heat.
Inside the damp, shadowy space of the children’s fort,
the woman with the frog tongue wove baskets and bowls
with tight, interlocked laces, while her silk stitches
began to fray and lengthen. The gap between her lips
widened to where the children could see the white of her teeth.
They stared at her, sometimes; she saw them clench their jaws
and try to speak to each other without moving their mouths.
Before long they’d begin to laugh, and she’d shake with relief at the sound.
Then one day, when the trees broke into glittering shards
of gold and red and green, and light spun pinwheels above
their heads as they walked together between the falling leaves,
the girl looked at the woman and asked if she had a name.
At this, the woman jerked to a stop. The old surge,
the impulse to speak that rose within her belly and chest,
overwhelmed. She wanted the girl and boy to know her name.
Her tongue, rolled tightly and barred from moving inside its cage,
strained against her teeth and cheeks, contorting her face with its rage.
The boy stepped back when he saw the change on the woman’s face.
The girl moved closer, though, to pat the hand she held
like she might a frightened kitten or skittish, fallen bird.
Let’s guess your name, she said. The woman’s jaw fell slack,
as much as the stitches allowed. Her panic passed away.
The boy saw her relax and began to hop around.
A game, a game, he chanted. Across her eyes the sun
sliced its blade, and though her vision bled with its light,
she felt cheered by the girl’s hand and the boy’s excitement.
Aurora. Jezebel. Serafina, guessed the girl.
Her brother laughed and grabbed a fallen branch, whacking
the moss-covered roots of the trees surrounding them.
The woman laughed, too, short bursts of air through her nose.
Her happiness shocked them all. The boy laughed again,
a raucous sound, and she looked the little girl in the eye.
A curve tested her mouth’s seams, more grimace than grin,
but the girl smiled back and sighed with some relief. Then she reached
toward the woman and pulled her close, until they were cheek to cheek.
The girl’s face, cold and smooth, smelled of the moss and earth
her brother lashed and whipped with vigor into the air.
The woman with the frog tongue hugged the girl loosely,
as if those little shoulder blades were planes of cloud,
a shifting mist she could see and feel between her arms
but couldn’t collect, or hold, or keep for her very own.
The girl stepped back yet kept her hands by the woman’s face.
Her small, thin fingers hovered before the fraying threads.
Why don’t you take these out? she asked, as she touched each ragged end.
At this the boy stopped his joyful assault of the trees
and ran to see for himself what they discussed each night
when walking home: her muffled, choked murmurings,
the gray lattice unraveling across her mouth.
He peered closely at each loose stitch, searching beyond
her lips for whatever monster she’d locked so poorly inside.
He found no monster, just a hint of pink tongue.
So he shrugged, said Yes, and spun on his heel to resume his game.
The girl jumped up and down, shouting: And then you’ll tell us your name!
The woman watched the boy whip tree roots free of moss,
the tufts spinning into the air and separating,
becoming dust, the dark green spores like beaks of birds
that plummet toward the rocky earth without fear.
She watched the girl’s hair lift and fly away from her head,
the wind dividing its strands, the way it hung, suspended
like dust in the sun, then sank like spores: a sudden drop.
She worked her mouth from side to side, and by degrees
opened her lips enough to burble a sound that said: Maybe.