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Black Tongue
There was a socket in the wall my mother told me not to touch. The wire innards of the plug spilled out of the unguarded hole. The wires looked like black spaghetti. When my mother left the room I walked over to the socket and bent my small body down so that my head was level with the wire mess. I inched close to the wall and closed my eyes and stuck out my tongue. My brother, who was older, once told me that one of our cousins got his tongue stuck licking a pole in winter. When my tongue licked the wires I thought, spaghetti. When my tongue burnt black I pulled it back into my mouth and pulled both hands to my chin. Things are so easy to ruin, I remember thinking. I remember thinking, why did I do this thing that I knew was going to have a bad ending?


Little drips of white pus came out of my ears and my nails all felt as if they had been lifted off my fingers. There was an absent, lackluster silence. I couldn’t hear. I wandered around the backyard and went to the shed where I kept my treasure. I dug up the box and opened it. Inside the box was a mirror.


Much later, when I was an adult, I played a sport that required one to break a lot of fingers. The two smallest sets of fingers were the ones that got broken the most. The bones are too tiny to set, all the doctors told us, so just brace them with the other, non-broken fingers and bathe them in ice at night. The result was me having hands that looked like paddles. I wrapped the broken digits to the good ones with white waterproof tape. I imagine now, a decade after the finger breaking, that if someone were to cut open my fingers and peel back the skin, the bone would be shattered—fissured like the way rivers snake around maps of valleys. I can still feel the cracks when I make fists.


The summer of the black tongue was the summer my parents were building a new home for us. We, the children, were young, still, young enough that our parents didn’t think it would matter much if we had to move schools. The parents bought a single-story rancher an hour outside of the city. We moved into the rancher and they lifted off the roof the week after we moved in. I slept on an air mattress in my would-be bedroom. If it was supposed to rain my father got up on a ladder and put big, blue tarps over all the rooms. The tarps made everybody look like they were underwater. Most nights, though, it was just stars and birdcalls. We’re doing a live-in remodel, our mother told us. This live-in remodel was maybe the most fun thing we had ever done. It was like a permanent camping trip, only with better food. Most rules seemed to be forgotten. And everyone was so much nicer to one another because we were building something together. We could see the house grow day by day, mushroom out with my father’s new electric saw and the new kitchen he was building in the back. It felt like the house would keep growing if I willed it. I never wanted the live-in remodel to end. I wanted everything in my life to be live-in. I wanted to do a live-in basketball game and live-in birthday parties and live-in Marco Polo with live-in friends. Can we do live-in friends? I asked my mother. That’s called a commune, she said. When you’re old enough you can do live-in friends.


My black tongue grew into a giant slug, the kind you find in the ocean that have white dots on their backs and slippery skin. It no longer fit in the confines of my mouth so I opened my lips and let it hang out. The bigger my tongue got the smaller my air-hole was. My throat felt like the cave Jesus was left for dead in, the one whose entryway had a giant rolling rock. Don’t let the rock roll over the opening, I remember thinking, keep breathing. I lay down in the shed and put two fingers in my mouth. I pressed my fingers to the top of my tongue. I felt the air go in and out of me and pictured myself from above, deflated and wrinkly.


I have only been in one serious car crash. I was driving on the highway when it started to rain. Traffic bottle-necked and went from seventy to zero. I stopped my car along the ribbon of red brake lights. And then I saw the car from behind coming for me. I could see it the rearview mirror. He’s coming, I thought, he’s still coming, he’s coming so fast for me, where is my body going to go? My body went forward, significantly, and then the airbag knocked me out cold. I came to bathed in my own blood. It was still seeping out my nose and onto the white balloon in front of me when I heard the rain coming through the broken windshield and landing on top of my head.


My brother has always been bad with blood. When his wife birthed their daughter he passed out as soon as the stuff started gushing out of her. People say it’s like that with men, that it’s not that uncommon, that even something less blood-violent than birth is liable to irk them. People say it’s because women are so used to bleeding that they’re better at preserving their own feelings, better at understanding what is at play when one’s own liquid leaks. I don’t think this is the case with my brother. I think he just never thinks about all the things that can go wrong. As in, there are the types of people who constantly envision what it would be like to be beheaded, and there are those who don’t. My brother is the latter. He is very satisfied with his veins and the work they do to keep his blood within him. He never thinks about what would happen if they exploded and it all went wrong.


The bumps on the top of my tongue looked like white pimples. I examined them in the mirror of my treasure box and squeezed to see if they would pop. Watery blood leaked out onto my fingertips. The red was only there for an instant and then it seeped into the black.


When I realized my tongue was continuing to grow, I knew I had to tell my mother. I walked back into the house, found her working on setting some tile in one of the would-be bathrooms, and stuck out my tongue. What did you swallow, she screamed at me, what have you done?


It is difficult for me to reconcile two of my tendencies: I have a great fear of diving boards and yet when I am on high-up platforms, such as roofs or cliff trails, I have an impulse to jump. I feel it in my feet, this kind of airy giddiness that goes what-if what-if. Whereas, up on the diving board there is the certainty of the outcome and I clam up. I’ve been made to go up that long ladder by peer pressure and then there I am. I famously as a teenager actually turned around once and retreated from a high-dive, an unspeakable, shameful act at that age, so why do I have such an urge to jump off other things? Is it because the outcome is unknowable? What does my brain think I am going to do—fly? It’s ridiculous that my body says, just jump off it. When I lived in a big-city apartment building and was smoking a cigarette with a friend up on the roof, I once confessed this to them and the friend said, oh of course, me too. It’s a strange feeling, the friend said, wanting to fling yourself off things. Is this why we are friends? I asked her, because we both want to jump?


In the car on the way to the doctor my mother said, oh when I get my hands on your brother. I couldn’t speak because of my black tongue. If I had been able to speak I would have told her, it wasn’t him. He didn’t threaten or dare or make false promises of riches. He didn’t push my head down into the wires or tell me that if I did it I would gain eternal life. I did wonder at the time if this experience would make me live longer or make me more conductive. You hear stories about people who are, by no coincidence, struck by lightning twice. I did this to myself, I wanted to tell my mother. I don’t know why I did this. Your guess is as good as mine.


There are good things about having the impulse to throw yourself off the side of a cliff. I think it makes you more likely to survive. If things get bad I’ll just learn Arabic and move to Beirut, I have thought before. If my relationship falls apart I’ll just move to Bangladesh. Surely there I can make myself again, make myself new. Maybe that’s what I thought was going to happen when I stuck my tongue in. Maybe I thought it would let me start over and be reformed.


In the ambulance after the car crash I remember putting my fingers in my mouth and feeling my tongue, all around it, underneath it and on its sides. It felt normal-sized. What was I feeling for at the back of my throat? Some type of closing? The threat of it all lurking back there deep in the depths of my mouth?


In the pediatrics ward my mother said, only you would do this to me. What have I done to make you do this to me? My black tongue hung out of my lips. A doctor came and put a clear moist bandage on it. Wrapped in the doctor’s swaddling cloth the black tongue looked like a piece of shellacked rotten fish. Through the bandage the doctor put a needle. It felt like he was sucking out the black tongue’s extra blood. Deflating, I thought again, important things are leaving me. How important is it to keep things like blood inside?


For my brother’s 30th birthday I had him and his wife over and made squid ink spaghetti. Not from scratch—I just bought it at the store. My brother was very skeptical of the color of the noodles. He was the type of kid who, for a long time, only ate things that were white and starch. Why did you make me this weird thing? my brother said after the meal was done. Why didn’t you just make something I like? What happened—you went to the grocery store and you jumped in the wrong food aisle? Just because something is on the shelves doesn’t mean that it’s for you to try.


In the broken-finger days I did a lot of punching. It was all above water, legal hitting, but it was still very violent and I would, often times, cause people to bleed. I crushed noses like cherry tomatoes. I made black eyes turn purple, then yellow. I was running miles a day, eating like a maniac, because no matter how much food I put in my body I could not equal the amount of energy that left through my hits. Over the couple years I was heavy hitting, parts of my tongue got taken off while fighting. Some nut would get me hard in the cheek and my jaw would clamp quick before I got a chance to get my tongue back inside my teeth. They were just little chips, for the most part. It always felt like they more or less grew back. Whenever this happened I’d swish my blood tongue bits around my mouth and then, before the next throw, spit into the glove of my left hand.


There is only so much of your body you can ruin.


I bend down on my knees and look into the hole. In the hole I see my parents’ roofless rancher and my brother playing pick-up-sticks by himself in the backyard. My mother is wearing blue jeans and a flannel shirt. She is humming to herself, scrubbing at something. She’s upright and at the kitchen counter, sponge in hand. I crawl up on a chair next to her. Dinner, says my mother, and my brother rushes in. Wild rice, my mother says, nothing more. Nothing more? my brother and I exclaim in unison. My mother, unfaltering, shovels the spoonfuls of it into our mouths. I choke on the rice and spit it out. My brother guzzles it down and inhales.


The summer of the black tongue didn’t tame me. It made me wilder, in some ways, more willing to try things because I had done the worst and survived. Yes, my mother was mad at me for a day or so but eventually, during the afternoon of the next day, she gave in. I think the live-in nature of the whole thing made the forgiveness come faster. I was a child in a half-built house—what did she expect? I had a summer birthday so we ended up having to do a black tongue celebration. Although the black only lasted a month or so in the family mythology the black stuck around the whole year. The summer of the black tongue turned into the black tongue birthday, which turned into the year my tongue was colored black. My father framed a photo of me from that birthday, shirtless in our brown backyard with a stick in my hand and my tongue out, not even trying to blow out the candles, not even trying to please. Look, I was saying to the photographer, who was probably my mother, look what I’ve done. I have a black tongue. I won’t do anything you ask of me unless I get to take off my shirt and do live-in friends.


When I look closely at my tongue I can tell it’s actually a forest of flesh-colored flaps, small and floppy, that comb down flat when I pull them across my upper teeth. You have to brush it, my mother says. I’ll have this tongue until I ruin it. Zing, I think as I stick it out, spark sizzle black.

Rita Bullwinkel is the author of the story collection Belly Up (A Strange Object). Her writing has been published in Tin House, BOMB, ViceNoon, and Guernica.