Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Some jog, breasts and buttocks jiggling. Some treadmill, some bicycle indoors and out. M. does word exercises. In her small bedroom she leans against the old painted dresser. She is tilting forward, looking at herself through the looking glass above the dresser. Her eyes watch as the words curl out of her mouth. Her eyes watch as her thumb and forefinger dart and rush after her words to catch them. She is picking her words out of the air. Her mouth opens and closes. She mouths. She jaws. She is word-gathering.
Quick M. catches most of her words. With her snipper-snapper thumb and forefinger she pinches and picks up a consonant by a sharp corner, the vowels fall below and dangle. She transfers the word from the right palm to the left. Her head lowers over the palm. Her eyes squint as she peers to examine the word closely. Then cupping the word in her left palm she brings it up to her left ear. She is listening to the word. Her head nods up and down, up and down, approval for a good word. She puts the word in her apron pocket. She is going to keep it. Her eyes are blinking, hands moving, ears listening.
Some words spew out of her mouth. Nasty words. She is almost afraid to touch them. They don’t go in her apron pocket. After she catches them, she holds them far in front of her, distant from her eyes and ears. She walks to the window ledge, to the aquarium tank sitting on the radiator under the window where the angelfish have died. She drops the words in the muddy water. The words sink. The words ooze into other ugly words she has dropped there before. M. has often plunged her hands into the tank and scooped out a handful of words, mire, and sludge and thrown it, a fistful of abuse, at Mike or Alice or the cat.
Some words float out of M.’s mouth. Sweet words. She doesn’t claw after them. She doesn’t snipper-snap them up. All her fingers dance over them. She teases them, circles them, captures them gently and brings them into her palm. Then she cradles them, fondles them, then stretches them out and lets them rest. In time she listens to them. She smiles if they sound fluid and soft. Her lips arch up with pleasure when she hears words like tertiary, evanescent, liquefaction, sandaled, cinnabar. “Bacalao” is her favorite word. When “bacalao” leaves her mouth, its little tail, “lao,” “lao” echoes in the room. She hums along with it. She wishes it were in her own language and that it didn’t mean codfish. How she loathes codfish!
Sometimes she snips off pieces of words and moves the jagged cut edges around until she makes a new one. If she likes the sound, she keeps it. Yesterday, she coined “liquibareven” and she placed it in the box on her dresser labeled “New Words.”
* * *
The door to the bedroom opens and daughter Alice comes in. Alice says, “M. what are you doing, opening and closing your mouth? Just going up and down. Not a sound. Are you catching flies, old girl? Are you snapping up dust, old girl? Are you sick, old girl?”
M. lowers her hands into her apron pockets. She ferrets out her words and broken pieces of words. She grabs the “New Words” box from the dresser top and empties its contents into her hands. She opens her right hand, she opens her left hand and she tosses the contents into her mouth.
M. eats her words, chews them up, swallows them down. New words, old words, sweet and ugly ones. M. saves the most venomous. She throws them at Alice.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Support us with a donation this giving season.
Robin D. G. Kelley on the midterm elections.