CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|The Commander Is Oppressed by His Tongues
The commander visits his collection every day now. Each morning he puts on his parade boots and coat and steps into the little room adjoining the bedchamber with the same mixture of piety, dread, and latent boredom with which a child enters a cathedral. It’s a stark, uninviting room—cracked plaster walls and a stone floor, a plain maple chair against the back wall with a standing lamp on one side and a small table on the other. On the table is an ironwood box the size of a fat, unabridged dictionary. He sits, lifts the box onto his lap with both hands, then unclasps the lid and swivels it back on its hinge.
His tongues greet him as a multitude, a dense rabble of specialized flesh. An inexperienced eye might not notice their minute writhing, but the commander feels their attention as though they were all speaking to him at once. They seem longer and thicker here, away from the confines of their inhibiting mouths. As always, their tips point toward his face, more or less. If he were to place the box in the middle of the floor and walk around it, they’d follow him like half-drunk compass needles.
He handles them at first as a crowd, raking his fingers through them as through a shoal of sardines. They are damp and pinkish blue and respond to his touch with a quickened twitching. He feels a mild shame in indulging his gluttony—to be tasted by so many tongues at once!
He selects a single fleshy one and holds it up to the light. It is the tongue of Meuralt, the old journalist—a wide, lusty thing with a deep crease down its middle, bulging veins like blue wires on its underside. He strokes his neck with the pleasurably abrasive topside, caresses his ear with its tip. It goes limp—perhaps a gesture of defiance on the part of his old adversary.
Placing the root of the thing between his lips, he tickles the severed nerves with his own tongue. He can feel that it is responding, moving side to side, then arching up and bowing down, slowly, tensely, a charmed snake. He adjusts the angle of the box lid and looks into the mirror inset in its underside: there is his own face brandishing Meuralt’s wagging tongue. It’s a funny sight, this clownish face with the dark, worried eyes, the chubby cheeks, and that clumsy, almost bovine tongue. A laugh bubbles up from his belly, pushes his mouth wide open, and the tongue falls to the floor. He shakes with the laughter, watches his face in the mirror as he does so, pulling his own tongue back so that his mouth looks and sounds like the gaping maw of an idiot.
He continues to laugh—he can feel his cheeks and the fat on his chest jiggle in rhythm as his hoarse voice honks out guffaws that are as good as tongueless. The humor drains away, but the laughter continues, a little out of control. And now a wave of self-consciousness washes over him: his audience of mute tongues seems suddenly to embody a single, feminine awareness, and that mystifies him—these are, after all, the tongues of men. He falls silent a moment, pondering this new perception. But then he recognizes the individual organs—there is Vermudas, the university student, and Pagno of the machinists’ union—and this illusion of a female presence evaporates.
He sucks in a breath full of idle mischief, and now he mocks the naked guests in his little hardwood hotel with words that he knows excite their nostalgia. They are the simple phrases a tongue says so many times that they roll off it without any effort of articulation. He has found that it is these everyday utterances, meaningless in themselves, that the tongues long to give shape and voice to again. Like exiles in a foreign country who crave the commonest foods of their native land, the tongues have developed a hunger, a pained desire, for the wheat and potatoes of the language. “On the other hand!” he shouts. “In the event of! What do you mean by that! Of course! I forget! Unforeseen difficulties! Plenty of time!” The tongues respond, squirming with grief and indignation. The commander is satisfied.
There is a commotion outside the door, the voice of a guard calling the commander. He quickly sets the box on the table, lid shut, clasp in place, then stands and straightens his uniform. But he remembers Meuralt’s tongue on the floor, and stoops to pick it up. It is nowhere in sight. Could it have wiggled off to a dark corner in so short a time? The guard again calls from the other side of the door. It occurs to him that the tongue may have fallen back into the box. He reaches for the lid, but changes his mind: the problem in the jail must be serious for the guard to seek him in this place. He hurries out, locking the door behind him.
Charlotte, awakened by the commotion of the guard’s intrusion and the commander’s hasty exit, sits up on the bed and looks at the door to the little room. She, too, has been spending time in there. It used to be her dressing room, before the commander had it stripped to a bare cell and placed the furniture and box inside. For months afterward she stayed away from that room. But she felt that her association with the prisoners was incomplete, that to know them meant to know every part of them; and so she too began making regular visits to the room. She knows the commander agonizes over that fact. He even confronted her once: what could she be doing that keeps her in there for hours at a time? Charlotte revealed nothing. But the next time she went in, she made sure he saw her first remove her underwear from beneath her skirt.
She knows he has inspected the room several times immediately following her own visits, and must have noticed that the tongues are always a little more turgid and flush. She enjoys provoking his jealousy. Yet his jealousy is far from her mind when she is with the tongues. She does not think of the commander at all when she is with them. She doesn’t think of the jail with its brutal guards and tongueless prisoners, or of the odd music that so often floats up from the cells at night. What does she think of?
Closing her eyes and yawning profoundly in the massive oak bed, Charlotte tries to answer her own question. But she has absolutely no memory of what passes through her mind when she’s in that room. And without memory, she wonders, what is it that compels her to go back there? She caresses the key that hangs from her neck, then jumps up and moves quickly to the door.
The problem in the jail is not serious, really, it is just persistent. The prisoners have been howling all morning. The guards—the tall, clumsy, morose Vlibbeck, and Sessel, the wiry little extrovert—are turning mean. They curse the prisoners, throw garbage at them. Meuralt seemed to be the ringleader, so they dragged him out and beat him unconscious, but the howling persisted.
The commander steps into the cellblock and observes the men on the other side of the bars. The noise they make is loud and animal-like. But they look directly at him and seem to be trying to yell words. The inarticulate yelps and howls and grunts start out as proto-vowels in chests and throats, search vainly for consonants as they pass through mutilated mouths, but acquire only the occasional stray k, m, or b. The men are protesting, making some kind of demand. The commander wonders what these demands might be, if they are reasonable. He sees Meuralt, stirring slightly, in a bloody heap in his cell. If Meuralt was truly the instigator of all this, then the demands will be so extreme that they cannot be met. But maybe the men have some simple, legitimate requests? Not likely. They’re here in the first place because they made illegal demands. Let Charlotte worry about the reasonable entreaties. Let these animals howl themselves hoarse. Howling doesn’t bother me. It’s the music that bothers me.
He tells the guards to be sure Meuralt is spoon-fed his porridge tonight, and leaves to inspect the barracks.
Charlotte champions the rights of the men in the jail. When a new prisoner first arrives, bleeding from the mouth and moaning the high-pitched cries of a terrorized lamb, she sees that the wound is treated with antiseptic, and that he is given opium for the pain. She has argued for and gotten better conditions—less crowding, minimal plumbing, some heat during the winter months. She believes that her simple presence in the jail—sympathetic, feminine, elegant, enigmatic—is a comfort to the men. And so it is. There is often a palpable hush as she walks the concrete corridor between the rows of cells. The men never make disrespectful noises or gestures when she is nearby. They watch her intently, with gratitude, even awe—and sometimes with distrust or fear. She can feel these gazes, these emotions cast her way, they wash over her body like beams of colored light. She basks.
But today she has stayed away from the jail all morning. She feels herself in the grip of something like stage fright, and keeps postponing her tour of the cellblock. The longer she waits, she tells herself, the more poignant will be her entrance, the more appreciative her audience. Yet she knows she lacks the self-possession, the energy and focus to properly parade herself before the men. Ever since she left the tongue room this morning she has felt a vague, gnawing exhaustion. She can’t remember what happened in there that could so distract and enervate her, but there it is: she was full of enthusiasm and anticipation when she woke up, and now she’s unable to carry out her daily routine. She frets over what clothes to wear, consumes too much sausage and wine for breakfast, and by noon has fallen asleep in the big armchair by the bed, a book of life-affirming aphorisms in her lap.
As the afternoon air warms the cells the men begin singing. One by one they join in in the slightly dissonant, increasingly complex refrains. The newer prisoners, still bleeding from their mouths, sing the loudest, with vengeance and spite. They believe the singing is some kind of protest or defiance. They can’t yet hear the haunting beauty of tongueless singing.
But the commander hears the beauty. It settles on his skin like a delicate frost and cools his blood. No matter where he is—in the barracks or the courtyard, sitting on the commode or asleep in bed—the music finds him, takes hold of his emotions, renders him confused and melancholy. His heart hurts, physically aches from the pressure, as though a toothless mouth were biting into it.
Charlotte finally comes to the jail late in the day, after the singing has begun. She doesn’t enter the cellblock at all, but decides to sit in the guard room and listen to the music that floods through the open door. The guards, Sessel and Vlibbeck, have learned to ignore her, and go about their poker game with the usual lascivious talk and crude humor. Charlotte doesn’t hear them. The music enters the guard room and washes away all the other sounds, all vision. Even the clothes she wears seem to melt away, until there is just her lone female body and the enveloping music of men, of man—the same tongueless man multiplied by several dozen. She doesn’t dare walk among the prisoners at a time when they wield such power. She, too, is an artist, and knows when her audience is truly receptive, truly captive.
Charlotte sits at the edge of the bed, picking at blemishes on the commander’s back. She loves his hulking size, the power in his shoulders. She runs her finger over the line where the tan of his neck ends, half expecting to feel a seam where rusty leather meets delicate, white silk. She tries to recall the shape and color of his tongue, but no image will form on the spongy retina of her memory.
“They beat Meuralt pretty badly today,” the commander says. “He seems to have lost his vision. He might not live. It’s unfortunate.”
“It’s criminal, that’s what it is,” Charlotte says. She just caught a glimpse of the tip of the commander’s tongue, and suddenly is able to call up an image of the whole thing. “He’s a decent man who cares about his fellow prisoners.”
“His life has been one continuous crime, which has only slowed a little since we’ve had him under lock and key. But I don’t approve of the actions of Vlibbeck and Sessel. They went too far.”
“Then do something. Punish them.”
“You know I can’t.”
The sound of the music drifts up from the jail, and Charlotte feels the commander’s back tense under her hand. The strains enter the bedroom with a peculiar harmony. Or rather, it is a very ordinary harmony, and that is peculiar—their harmonies are usually dark and ruminative, they often poison the commander’s sleep, cast an ugly, depressing light on his dreams. But tonight the music comes to them in simple, consonant phrases, an old folksong that neither Charlottte nor the commander can remember.
Charlotte massages the commander’s shoulders. “I know what they were howling about this morning. They want to be given fruit once a week.”
“They get some fruit every so often. Enough that their teeth don’t fall out from scurvy.”
“They would like me to carry a bowl of fruit into the cellblock once a week. They want the fruit to be garnished with flowers. They want me to offer a piece of fruit to each of them.” She slides her finger down to his mouth, touches the tip of his tongue. “They want me to be naked.”
The commander laughs, flopping over onto his back and shaking as he did this morning at the sight of Meuralt’s tongue in his own mouth. He regards Charlotte’s large teeth and fleshy lips, the dyed-red hair pawing at her shoulders, her drooping breasts and ample hips that give shape to the pale green satin of her nightgown. “Well then,” he says with great cheer, “I don’t feel so bad about Meuralt. What a ridiculous demand.”
Charlotte is silent, as he expected she would be.
“His tongue is gone.” He waits a moment, searching her face for any visible reaction. “Meuralt’s tongue. I seem to have lost it. Dropped it somewhere in the room this morning. I couldn’t find it when I went back to search this afternoon. It’s not in the box.”
“It can’t have gone far.”
“I suppose not.” He continues to observe her face, sees the desperate eyes and tense jaw behind the mask of boredom. “But it really doesn’t seem to be anywhere in that room.” He waits, wonders what sorcery she draws on to create the illusion of her personal power, an illusion he cannot shake. She has been so pensive this past year, so much her own person, walking through the halls in that smug trance, humming the tunes she hears from the jail as if they are hers, as if she has earned them. Does she recall that I am her provider, that the only genuine authority she wields has dripped onto her like so much sweat from my body? Does she still understand that I rescued her from a life of squalor?
Charlotte’s face slowly fills with an evil blood, until she can no longer hold back the words. “How could you lose it! It’s the most beautiful of all of them. It’s thick and sly and confident and full of wit and …” She stops, examines her own words, which left her mouth and have stationed themselves around the room. It is the most she has revealed of herself to the commander in years, and it cannot be taken back. The words, everyday ordinary words with no particular power on their own, have carried an inner truth into the world. She would like to stop them from going any further. How? Bash his brains in, cut out his tongue! Yet the words have been said, they’re there, along with their meaning, perched on the bedposts and backs of chairs, waiting to fly out the first open door or window.
Again that simple song-like harmony of the prisoners floats up through the floor. Charlotte sighs, looks the commander in the eye for the first time in—how long?—and she feels the possibility of something like comfort from this man she was once so devoted to. “I love that tongue. It’s my favorite. The tongues, the men, they’re all I have, my only life apart from you.” She begins to sob, and the commander takes her in his arms and rocks her gently in the lap of the sagging mattress.
From the chorus of the prisoners’ singing rises a single voice, louder and crisper, more highly articulated. It has taken the melodic lead, and sings the old song with purpose and thought that transcend pure music—using recognizable words.
Meuralt’s tongue has been gone two days now. It is clear that it’s somewhere in the jail. Every night words drift up with the songs, emerging from that sea of inarticulate moans like the miracle of the first words from the throats of beast-men. The guards haven’t been able to locate the tongue. They’ve searched the likely suspects. At first they were convinced that if Meuralt’s tongue was in the jail, it would be within spitting distance of Meuralt’s mouth—this in spite of the fact that Meuralt could barely move and seemed deranged from the last beating. They searched him thoroughly, and again beat him mercilessly. They got nothing but grunts and whimpers. At one point Sessel was certain he heard the word “hyenas” shouted from one of the other cells—the precise n betraying the light tap of a tongue’s tip at the front of a palate—but he went on kicking Meuralt’s ribs. Soon the only grunts were those of the guards themselves. They would have killed Meuralt if Charlotte hadn’t come into the jail and screamed at them to stop. Vlibbeck backed away immediately and stood staring at the hickory club in his hands while Sessel got in a final kick.
The commander sits with his box of tongues but can hardly bear to look at them. They no longer seem to pay attention to him when he opens the lid. They all look the same—dry and weathered and despondent. Which one is Vermudas, which one Pagno? But there is Pagno—I do recognize the tongue of the dogged unionist. There’s that whitish scar near the tip, where his front teeth must have sunk into it in a childhood accident. It’s easy to tell Pagno by the scar. And yet … well, there is nothing very Pagno about this tongue. I no longer feel Pagno’s presence. It’s one thing to identify a corpse, quite another to recognize the person who once animated it. Even a tongue can have some fragment of that breath and spirit that gives a thing presence, the electricity that demands an attitude, a stance, from others.
He caresses his face with the tongue. What does he feel? Something like fine leather, that has had all animal awareness, all anger and resistance, tanned out of it. There are tyrants for whom this would be a moment of triumph; but he is not that sort of man. He misses Pagno, and begins to feel alone in the room. With a single mistake (a slip of the tongue!) he has lost a boxful of companionship. Slight carelessnesses can be so costly to the powerful. It’s not fair! Why should he feel more lonely than those beneath him? He gazes morosely into the box of tongues, lets his eyes relax out of focus, until the lifeless organs resolve into a single blurred, faintly roseate organism in front of him—a complex flower, perhaps, or a convolute mollusk, confined in the box like an oyster in its shell. Once again he feels that single female awareness emanating from the box, and he is no longer alone, he is under the uncomfortable scrutiny of another. She knows him, remembers things about his early childhood, his infancy, and before: she remembers when he was a wet, labile creature, without a tongue, neck, thumbs or eyes. She murmurs to him in something like music, a dozen languages all at once, woven into a single mother tongue that implies a mouth and a body, yet he can’t imagine what it might look like.
Demoralized and afraid, the commander closes the box. For a moment he caresses the inlaid ivory of the lid—the box was a gift from Meuralt’s half-wit sister Genevieve, intended as a bribe—then hurries from the room.
Since the confrontation with Vlibbeck and Sessel, or maybe even since the evening she heard of the lost tongue, Charlotte has been strangely animated, almost cheerful. She glides eagerly around the garrison, fluttering like a coot on a pond, spending more time in the jail than ever before. Vlibbeck and Sessel, who have been served official reprimands and are on probation, don’t dare interfere with her dubious visits to the prisoners. Naturally they make their own private jokes about her carryings-on, but they stay away from the cell-block when Charlotte is there, in deference to the commander’s explicit orders. Apart from the lewd jokes and cruel remarks, they suspect Charlotte of abetting the fugitive tongue. They consider her not just a champion of the prisoners’ rights, but a rebel and traitor herself.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Charlotte has no idea of the whereabouts of Meuralt’s tongue. She has become a kind of wandering tongue herself, wagging among the prisoners, trying to translate their beastly grunts into requests for improvement. And she’s no traitor. On the contrary, she feels a reverent, almost limitless love for the commander, as she did when she was a teenage girl and he paid off her indenture at the glass factory. She enjoys a renewed gratitude for his wisdom and compassion. He has shepherded us, all of us here, to this little land of promise. He has contrived a kind of purgatory, and entrusted me, his vicar, with the hearts of many men. I have sufficient power to see my healing effect on these tragic souls, yet not so much that my indignation, my passion, my purpose, are ever threatened.
The commander steps into Meuralt’s cell. The floor is sticky with the blood of the hapless rebel. Meuralt greets his old rival with the same ironic smile and impish squint that have incensed his enemies for decades. The commander sits on the edge of the bed, then slumps with an abandon that he hasn’t felt in years, not even with Charlotte. He hasn’t spoken with Meuralt since his trial, yet he addresses him with the familiarity of a close female relative. “Ah, Meuralt, my love, so it’s come to this. Once we faced one another as equals. Equals? that’s a lie, I was no match for you in those days. You wrote that clever nonsense in your column, and thousands of angry souls dressed up in your opinions and stormed the garrison, demanding this reform or that improvement. I was afraid to wake up in the morning—what trouble would that newspaper bring us? The people thought we were eating small children for supper here. They thought—God knows what they thought. But now you know firsthand how we treat our guests. Now you can write the truth as you have seen it, and not as some deranged derelict tells it to you—and believe me, anybody who gets out of this place alive is more than a little deranged. You can say that we feed the men, and only beat them when given cause. And we let them sing at night, in spite of the distress it causes me personally.
“Sweet Meuralt, I feel bad about this last beating. I’ve told those two animals to leave you alone. And Charlotte, I believe, is taking care of you.” He bends close to the prisoner’s ear, lowers his voice. “I must confess I’m a little jealous on that score. Your tongue was always her favorite. Mine, too. The sheer breadth of the thing, the expanse of surface area—and there’s a roughness about it that is, well, very sensual. You know, it has a sweet taste, a little like licorice. When the ants got into my box of tongues, they went straight for yours, swarmed all over it. I think the tongues of Vermudas and Rosen felt slighted. But I digress.
“I’m not here to ask you for the tongue. It’s clear to me that you don’t have it, and you probably don’t know where it is. But this singing has gotten out of hand. Even before the tongue found its way here the music was beginning to drive me to distraction. I know you are a ringleader of the singing—that you spent some years of your youth in the conservatory and are an expert in the hypnotic, the persuasive, the destructive power of music. I only ask you to alter its flow a little. Give them some more complex tunes. These simple tunes they croon—at first I didn’t mind them, in spite of the words, because they were so unassuming, so weak. But they stick with me like stupid radio commercials, I hum them during the workday without thinking, and that can be a great embarrassment. I believe this is true for everyone, the prisoners included: the more we live with this new music, the more disquieted and exhausted we become. It is even more demoralizing than the old strains with their intricate, doleful harmonies.
“And please be discreet about this, but I think it is the music that is behind Charlotte’s strange behavior. With this damn tongue of yours putting words in on top of all that howling and crooning, well it’s just been too much for her. I’m worried. And I’m a little suspicious.” He’s whispering now. “She’s so intoxicated by the music, lord knows what she might do. I’m not entirely convinced she hasn’t been involved in this whole affair with the missing tongue. There’s no way of assessing her complicity. She’s so, well, inscrutable.”
He feels a presence behind him and falls silent. Vlibbeck is famous for his eavesdropping. He is stealthy, and may have been standing there for some time. The commander prepares his heart for the confrontation and turns to face the guard.
It is Charlotte. She looks through his eyes and into the back of his head. “Whoever do you think you’re talking to,” she says coolly. “Meuralt has been dead since last night. They just left him here out of laziness. Or maybe as a warning to the others. Or to me.”
Meuralt’s tongue is still at large in the jail. Words of defiance echo among the cells. Coherent sentences are rarely heard, just individual words and short phrases, nearly always comprehensible, spat out of an injured, out-of-practice mouth. “Tyrant!” “Horse’s ass!” “Freedom!” and the like. And sometimes, “Torturers! Murderers!” Vlibbeck and Sessel have eased off on the beatings, become more subtle in bestowing them. They no longer bludgeon prisoners bloody, but rather administer well placed kicks and punches—usually in the groin, abdomen, or back—avoiding the face, hands, or any other easily noticed area.
Charlotte continues to walk among the men. She always wears the same dress when she visits the jail, a white linen wrap-around. An angel. To them I’m an angel, passing through this nightmare of their lives. Maybe that’s all I can give them—a brief vision. But isn’t that a kind of grace, to bring to the afflicted something soothing to rest their eyes on? This woman’s body, aging and imperfect as it is—surely it’s a small miracle in the world of prisoners and guards.
She stops at a cell whose door has been left wide open. A little man lies face up on filthy pallet near the back wall. Is it Pagno? He looks older. But then it always surprises her to see him so grown up, with his double chin and those sallow calluses on his skilled fat fingers. I suppose I will forever remember him as that disheveled, clumsy schoolboy who galloped around with ink stains on his shirt and his fly open. He never cared about anything but himself then. How did he get infected with principles? How could he choose such a miserable path for a lifetime with easier possibilities?
She enters the cell, stoops next to him, touches the homely face with the pushed-in nose. He looks up at her with that boyish smile, both pained and amused, as though he has just tripped on his own shoelaces and fallen on the blacktop of the schoolyard. “Pagno,” she says, “it’s Charlotte, your old classmate from the convent school. Do you recognize me?”
Pagno nods, and his smile broadens, and somehow he is that same clownish boy, you can see it in the tilt of his head and the way his crooked teeth push out from his lips. Yes, he knows her. He looks her over with interest—perhaps he sees her as she was back in those days—bony body, shy, hunched shoulders. His gaze, fierce, guileless, is surely that of the boy Pagno, not of a defiant rebel. Principles? No, not Pagno. Maybe it’s just his boyish exuberance and his stubborn will—he was always a relentless fighter, if not an agile one—that have led him down this unhappy, dissident path.
A sound toddles out of his throat. Then another. They are faint at first, but grow louder, and his lips begin to move. He’s talking, but in that tongueless gibberish that is the common tongue here. He holds forth at length, calmly, his voice at a low and constant volume, as if he can be understood perfectly. He pauses, smiles, then utters a single incomprehensible sentence that ends with the upward inflection of a question. He becomes silent, looks to Charlotte for a response.
She smiles back at him, strokes his face, nods agreement. And now he picks up the conversation again, chattering without a care. Even as she stands up, turns, exits the cell and resumes her daily tour, he drones on with his amiable jabber. There’s no pain or protest left in him, she thinks, he’s just talking for the sake of talking. It’s a conversation she has no use for, a childhood she doesn’t want to revisit. What could she and that child-man have to talk about? She walks past the other prisoners, wonders if each lived a childhood as simple and forgettable as hers and Pagno’s. Who are these men she has bound her life to? Just creatures like herself and her old schoolmate, no more and no less. Pagno’s voice seems to speak for all of them, even for her.
But Pagno’s talking has changed, in volume, timbre, cadence, pitch. He’s broken into song, an eerie lament that seems to have no connection to the voice that spoke to Charlotte only moments ago. It is not a voice directed to her or the other men, but to something, someone, else. It reaches beyond this place, pushes outward, like a gas. She stops and listens, in a state of real awe. Where did he learn this song? Who is it for? And the voice itself, was it somehow a gift from Meuralt, passed along as a guitar is handed from one player to the next?
The other men begin to sing along, with their own peculiar harmonies and rhythms. Charlotte suddenly feels both useless and anxious, and decides to come back another time, when the men are more prosaic and earthly in their voicings. As she leaves the jail, hurrying past Vlibbeck and Sessel (somnambulant in their endless card game), she hears words bursting forth from behind her: “Meuralt lives!” The voice is a little like Pagno’s, but she no longer has faith in her ability to recognize the familiar, that is, the past.
The music will not stop. The commander wanders sleepless, intoxicated and oppressed by his grandchild, this music. It has invaded his body, bivouacked in his head, it pokes at the inside of his skull like a bayonet. He tries to steady his breathing, slow it down to the tempo of a dirge. As God is responsible for the works of men, so did I take these souls and put them in this little world, only to be mocked and plagued by them. This is the fate of any creator, since any worthy creation has a mind of its own. Tolerance. I must maintain tolerance, even kindness.
A moment later he is on his way to the jail to have Vlibbeck and Sessel put an end to that music and that tongue no matter what it takes. If tongues are not enough, then we shall take throats, lungs, diaphragms. If arms dip fingers into bloody mouths, scrawl words and pictures on the stone walls, then we shall take arms and fingers and blood until the will of these miscreants has been beaten to a filmy leaf that gilds our whim and purpose.
But he stops: was that her name? Yes, the song that harasses his face like a gritty desert wind now carries her name. It is a plea and demand for Charlotte that assaults him with the force of spiritual hunger, the heat of anger, and the acrid scent of sexual craving. Where is our Charlotte? And now he finds himself echoing the call: where is my Charlotte, I must see her. I, too, am a prisoner in need.
Wandering through a remote corridor, away from the cellblock, he stumbles upon the garrison’s oldest soldier, who leans against a corner at the intersection of two hallways. A shriveled little man who has stood guard for generations, he was old, too old, when the commander first arrived. He is so old now that his name has been lost entirely, even to himself. He stands there, eyes closed, inert as a pillar; he is nearly always asleep now, yet he knows the goings-on of the inhabitants of the garrison as though he can feel them in his stomach. The commander taps his shoulder and observes the movement of eyeballs under crusty lids. “Old man, tell me: where has Charlotte gone to?”
The guard’s face becomes annoyed, though his eyes remain shut. “She’s in that room with the box of rotten tongues, where else!”
Of course. Charlotte has spent the last two days in there—she says she won’t leave until the music stops. She is weary of the men in the jail, who have but one tongue and few words. He realizes that he knew this all along, but somehow the music has been playing tricks with his memory, important facts seem to slip between the cracks, get lost among hazy emotions for which there are no words. He starts to leave, stops. “And what of Meuralt’s tongue—where is it now?”
The guard chuckles with the dry, throaty, clicking sound of a tired hen. His eyelids slowly open, perhaps for the first time in weeks, and the gaze of his yellow eyes moves up the commander’s body until it reaches the dark, worried face. “Meuralt’s tongue … For God’s sake, if I could tell you things like that I wouldn’t be standing guard in these damp, smelly halls all these years. I’d be a commander like you, a commissioner even. My, what a question. What a question.” The clicking sound in his throat continues and his hands begin to shake, as if he intends to say more or do something, but now the crusty eyelids slowly come down, and the frail body relaxes against the wall.
The commander hurries to the bedchamber, stands in front of the door to the little room. Putting his hand on a dark oak panel, he feels a vibrant hum from inside. He presses an ear against the wood, closes his eyes. Voices, dozens of them, are chanting in a rhythmic pulse, but each in its own, indecipherable tongue. An exquisite babel has possessed this dense membrane that tickles his ear. Where does the sound come from? What bellows and vibrating cords produce it, what lips give it shape? Is the room itself a great mouth? A new rage—or is it terror?—surges in him: what has Charlotte done now? He envisions her naked on the floor, covered with tongues like a corpse thronged with insects. He yanks open the door.
The room is silent. Charlotte sits in the one chair, wearing a simple, modest dress of heavy blue cotton. The closed box rests on her lap, an island on a still lake. Her eyes find his, and the grief in her face turns to supplication. You who have piloted my life, who brought me to this place that has been my refuge, my sanctuary—please help me find my way again, for I am lost.
The commander opens his mouth to speak, but nothing happens.
Michael Pearce’s stories and poems have appeared in several magazines, including Epoch, Shenandoah, Nimrod, and Ascent. He lives in Oakland, California, and plays saxophone in a couple Bay Area R&B bands.