"As a man, I am far too passionate for this contemporary life," I murmured to myself as I strolled along the Viale Carlo Cattaneo. "As an artist, I am of the highest order, up-to-the-minute, the 100,000 follicles of hair on the human head obeying my commands as so many helots might those of a Spartan king . . . Raised on the over-pungent sauces of antique philosophies, I could have been anything: soldier, spy, diplomat or adventurer; but the seeds I plant in the little garden of my profession are those of updos and chignons, elegant hairstyles for sophisticated women and . . . men."
I turned and walked past the library, into the park. It was autumn and, in the light of the late afternoon, the leaves of some trees had the appearance of cascades of gold and copper coins. The scene was as charming as one of those seasonal paintings by Boucher—or really, more truly, a certain piece by Claude Monet—a shimmering display of colour, almost outrageously, radioactively bright. And I was in optimum spirits, making my way forward with buoyant steps, widening my nostrils—though it was not so much the lake air that I sniffed as the bouquet of my own thoughts which, sensorial as they were, emitted perfumes of cinnabar and sericato, odours such as Ty, that famous ancient hairdresser, probably anointed his patrons' necks with.
Exiting the park, I crossed the Riva Giocondo Albertolli, onto the Via Stauffacher and into the city centre. Rapid motion of pedestrians. Faces. Fur collars. Hair: grey, red, black. Improperly tended. Needy. And like a good little scout I moved on, guided by my desire to be amongst men, human beings.
As I was passing the Café Down Town, I sighted Marsyas in the window, sitting with a young woman of Praxitelean appearance, the equivocal symbolism of their profiles rich with nuance. I tapped on the glass. He gestured frantically and then came rushing out to greet me. He gripped my hand in a brotherly fashion, and I had to move my head to one side, or his nose, which was excessively long, would have poked me in the eye.
He said, in his flute-like voice, that he was glad to see me, and I would have liked to have replied, but could not. "She is vain," he continued, nodding towards the young lady in the window, "but twice a day she allows me to reap the corn of her passions, and of this the chine of my scythe, which is well polished, never grows weary. For truly Elba (that is her name) is as venereal as a rabbit, an animal as delicious in its own way as any shellfish . . . Oh, I had seen her before, in the snowy bosom-shaped peaks—the Bietschhorn, the Aletschhorn, but to have such a creature nestled up against one, to have the opportunity to melt her glaciers with my mercury, is a sensation that makes a dreamland out of days."
I listened to his words as the Japanese poet Joso might have the song of a thrush. And then I attempted to give a suitable response, to comment knowledgably, with a hint of disdain on his indiscreet exultation; but no sound was forthcoming. At first I imagined it was just some temporary case of ankyloglossia. I endeavoured to run my tongue over the roof of my mouth and then experienced a lack of sensation. Alarm. Wonder. I felt for it with my teeth, but it was not there.
Marsyas asked me if something was wrong. A sensation: of blood rushing to my face. I motioned him away. Through the corner of one eye I saw Elba observing me: a circle of imitation marble framed in chestnut hair. I turned and made my way down the street, around the corner in the direction I had come, checking pockets, front and back, as I went.
A mild aura of panic descended on the city; and I was upset. To lose one's tongue is an especially unpleasant experience (as: a painter losing his eyes; a duellist, his sword; a farmer his land) . . . It was the tool with which I expressed my desires, my wants, my hates and antipathies; and surely it was my body's loveliest muscle.
I rapidly retraced my steps, my eyes panning over the sidewalk, the events now taking on the appearance of some antique Cecil B. DeMille silent. Hand-tinted. Low-key lit. Crowds directed. I looked around at the people on the street, wondering if one of them had picked it up. There was a fellow with the demeanour of a dog and a mane of long black hair; a woman with an overt bosom; a Chinese man wearing a bright pink tie . . . Or could some animal or bird have taken it? Cat. Child. Thief. Anyone who found my tongue would love it, very possibly be adverse to parting from it.
My mind flew over the incidents preceding the mishap . . . I had last used it on the Viale Carlo Cattaneo, while murmuring to myself before entering the park. Had I left it somewhere along the way; had it dropped out?
Biting my bottom lip. Speculating curiously. Anger and fear.
I saw something red on the ground and picked it up. It was the skin of a persimmon.
I carried my legs along and the cars swirled past me, them greeting the new night with their headlights, like so many monstrous devotees of the goddess of misfortune. Through the dark streets I wandered, those I passed transformed into monstrous toads, giant heads attached to swift-stepping feet; me, without the ability to shriek as I dove from shadow to shadow.
That evening my home was an unhappy one. I ate a green salad, a lambchop, drank a bottle of Bordeaux, but without tasting any of it, without enjoying any of it—and then afterwards I sat in front of the fireplace, swallowing innumerable cups of chamomile tea and smoking cigarettes. It rained and the liquid occasionally came whisking against my windows. I went to bed and tried to read myself to sleep, switching from Restif de la Bretonne to a book of poems by Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac to a play in Paduan dialect by Ruzzante. Finally I settled into a sort of dream-like torpor in which I spent many aggravating hours prancing over twisting tongues of flame and then collecting screams from the garden and wrapping them in a batiste handkerchief.
"Screams of beasts," Elba said.
"Lovers and beasts."
"But shame never?"
The next morning I placed an anonymous ad in the paper. I mentioned that an organ of elocution was missing, was terribly missed, and described it as strawberry red, U-shaped, exquisitely supple, and offered a suitable reward for its return.
Afterwards I went to my studio and taped a hand-written sign on the door, claiming an indisposition and begging my clients' patience. The day was overcast and I was possessed by a feeling of inadequacy. I threaded my way through the streets, gazing at the tips of my shoes, depressed by the sensation of not having anything with which to lick my lips. I dreaded encountering someone I knew, a client, a friend, the jeers of an enemy . . . I avoided the crowded Via Nassa and the Piazza Della Riforma; took small byways, unfrequented alleys; then along the Via Gerolamo Vegezzi; the Via Canova ; into the park with my collar upturned and a whiskered five-o'clock-shadow look to my person—appearing, I imagine, vaguely like Napoleon on the day after Waterloo; and hoping, somewhat desperately, that I would see the red jewel lying about in the grass or hanging from the branch of a tree.
There are days when the world is reduced to cinders and we stalk across it inhaling the smell of our own burning flesh. At such times our sense of identity is mutated, awful, and we are guided by odd magnetic principles—pushed forward like lonely clouds.
I saw: water, sky, earth; heard the distant sound of motors; looked over at: a man with a square-shaped chin on a bench. He wore a sort of loutish sloppy-Joe jumper. He seemed to have fallen asleep; probably some labourer resting on his lunch break after swallowing meat sandwiches and cheap Merlot. His mouth was open, and I could clearly make out his tongue lolling from it, a glistening somewhat brownish item, like the liver of a cow. Though I am normally a veritable phoenix of politeness, on this occasion I acted the part of a son of nature, following my first impulse. I grabbed the thing, turned and made off with it, my legs moving in express mode over the grass . . . Exit stage left . . . At the Corso Elvezia, crossing, avoiding speedily moving cars. . . . The sound of the wind in my ears, my steps on paving stones . . . I put the tongue in my pocket, darted into the Casino. Lazy croupiers, black-jack tables and the dim lighting of decay. I needed some place to hide and, after dodging the inquisitive glances of a few gamblers, ushered myself through a door. A room whose walls were painted with hills and trees. A group of youths and girls were sitting around a fruit- and wine-loaded table which was set in the middle of the floor. To one side of the room stood two young men, one dressed in a waistcoat and tailcoat, limp and too large, and a great shiny hat, the other in a work-a-day costume of centuries gone by. On the other side stood a man with a baton, between two pretty ladies who sat on the floor. One played the guitar while the other was frozen in the act of singing a cadenza, her eyes raised towards heaven.
"And who are you?" cried the man with the baton, looking at me. "Can't you see that you are interrupting the charming tableau based on the description in Eichendorff's Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts describing the tableau based on Hoffman's Die Fermate—the story about Hummel's great painting at the Berlin exhibition in the autumn of 1814?"
A few drops of sweat flew from my temples and my lips twitched uneasily as I retreated back over the threshold . . . And through the Casino I went; the smell of air-freshener and cigars; searched and found the back door.
More turns; more frantic movement; more distance gained. Furtive glances from side to side. No danger . . . I leaned against a wall and exhaled air through my lips . . . And then I took out my prize and held it up to the light. It was certainly not pretty, certainly not an Annika Irmler tongue, but I had turned renegade and would settle for relieving sows of their ears when there was no princess to divest of her silks . . . So, without wasting time I shoved it in my mouth, and considered myself once more to be an articulately speaking man.
With long strides I now made my way forward. I would drink, eat and live. Not like a foul, silent brute, but as an individual at the highest level of development, able to reason and speak.
An aged woman, in a helmet-like wig, stopped me and asked for the time.
I looked at the elegant silver circle on my wrist.
"It—half—past—three," I said, my words rolling clumsily out, heavy as stones.
Clearly I was not capable of singing an aria from Figaro; the organ did not function so well as I would have wished.
It could not appreciate good living: It salivated every time I passed a hunk of ham or was in the presence of fried potatoes. I imagine he had been a dirty feeder . . .
I felt as if I were some kind of human bell or drum.
To educate that beast, make my pupil repeat the sounds I wished; with what difficulty instil in it the proper pronunciation of vowels
"If—I had been—born in the time of Tuthmoses III, I would have been Supervisor of the Dancers of the King." My voice clunked along. Stunted words fell from my mouth. "My neck—heavy with necklaces. Razor of flint and oyster shell in my—grip."
Realisation: there is nothing rarer in this world than a supportable tongue.
My custom began to fall away. As far as manual and artistic skill went, I could match the best of them, Allen Edwards, Fekkai, Sergio Valente, Alba, but with a tongue like that I would never be able to rival them in fame, never be able to utter those lisping phrases à la mode which differentiate the master craftsman from the common barber.
After work, I made my way sadly home.
There was a letter for me in the mail box. I opened it as soon as I entered my flat and read the following:
This is a difficult letter to write. Sincerity is always difficult; and I embroider my words with the utmost care, the needle of my pen not wishing to agitate your already scarred vanity. You see: you did not lose me, I was not stolen from your grip, but rather left of my own free will—something you should know about, having once made me read Diderot out loud, in the sighing tones of a heartbroken theorist.
Oh, you treated me well enough, bathing my flesh in wine and cream, letting me now and again roam across the lips of some beloved, but still: for long I had felt I was meant to serve a greater master. You never did satisfy a particular part of my being which I will leave unmentioned, and specific cravings drove me from your side.
I know my dear Lorenzo that you will suffer. If you can, do not think me merely fickle; because truth be told I have always put a great deal of thought into my every motion.
I cast the letter aside with disgust, feeling that, veiled behind those soft zibeline words, was a spirit full of bitterness—one who, like a cannibal feeding on human limbs, was nurtured on pretended wrongs. A groan came from my mouth, not the groan I would have liked, something artfully lyric, but rather the pathetic howl of a road worker whose thumb was being crushed by a steam roller.
I went to the rest room, doused my face with water and dried it with a great fuzzy towel.
There was a knock at the door. It was Marsyas, dressed in puritanical black and white; his hair in poetical disorder. Gone was his sparkling enthusiasm.
He glided around the apartment talking of white things in his flute-like voice, his shadow rolling over the wall, looking like that of a flamingo, something fantastic, monstrous.
"We were very high up," he said.
"She—her flesh like bread made from the purest flour—is unattainable, as some mirage that recedes as you approach, always maintaining the same distance from the observer. Clouds. Foam. Sheep. And her ghostlike vapour swirls around me as the dust of platinum scattered to the wind . . . But I dare not flush the precious remnants of that metal from my eyes, for blindness matters nothing to me; only her kisses, with their flavour of fire and honey."
"So, she left you," I said roughly, pouring him a glass of Cliquot. "Come. Sit. Drink. Etiquette—did you have etiquette? Did you lift up her hair when she put on her jacket? When you danced, did you put your hand over it—or under?" I barked out my words. "And your bed linen—I would guess that—it is not of satin, that material so fit for long-haired women, brides, virgins and whores!"
His Adam's apple quivered in his throat.
" . . . don't understand."
"Perfectly . . . "
"Pungent amours. There's common ground here. Both losing . . . "
"How can you lose what you love?"
"Christ was also pinned up like a butterfly. It is all a matter of interior decorating."
I have carefully cultivated my neuroses as others might flowers and have dwelt in my autistic fantasies like a snail in its shell. When the door closed behind Marsyas I felt sumptuously sad. I washed my hands three times, slept, woke, and it was day. The bells of churches rang out endlessly and I took to the streets, bought a paper, sat in a café. Articles. Words. Black liquid stained with white. Then rising, moving slowly down the sidewalk.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned. There was that square-shaped chin, that sloppy-Joe jumper. And then that awful moment of mutual recognition: me, pale with apprehension, him, white with rage. And so a giant fist came hurrying towards me. For an artist, all experiences are exquisite: The pain—his fingers groping between my teeth—the absurdity of my role a minor revelation as two oily tears slid from my eyes.
Obviously stealing another tongue was out of the question. I considered the possibility of purchasing one on the black market, maybe some lithe little South American piece able to utter liquid consonants and the occasional rolling wave of r's. Undoubtedly there were many fine and inexpensive specimens available from Asia—Chinese tongues used to complex four-toned pronunciation—or the Thai tongue practised in the eleven ways to say 'only'.
But of course all that would take time. The only tongues that were available immediately were those of farm animals—dull and oversized.
There was nothing to do but claim that I had an inflammation of the larynx which prevented me from speaking; and I decided that the part would be best played with a colourful new scarf wrapped around my throat . . . So I went to the ancient and not far distant city of Como, centre of the Italian silk industry . . . The weather was very cool, most certainly the type for knitwear. I sheltered myself in the English primness-twinset-vibe, found myself behind the old city walks; walked by the house where Pope Innocent XI was born on the 16th of May in the year 1611.
But where was Pliny born?
I turned, made my way along the Via Independenza , to the Via Vittorio Emanuele II , passed by several shops, gazed at the silks in the windows, with their million patterns: those of birds, and insects, and phantastic shapes, wads of paisley, tiger-striped flowers, cosmic wonders, imploding stars of ultra-marine and pink.
I entered a reputable establishment. A saleswoman moved smoothly towards me.
"A scarf?" she asked. " . . . For a woman?"
I brushed the issue aside, shrugged my shoulders, pointed to my throat, gestured . . . She dragged out box after box, each one loaded to overflowing with richly designed silks and I felt like diving in, making my bed, my home amidst those soft and colourful quadrangles . . .
After a reasonable amount of deliberation, I opted for one that seemed particularly suited to my state of mind: a crown of thorns pattern with a faded pewter boarder.
Leaving the shop, I wrapped it around my white throat and turned down the Via Rusconi , carrying with me a sense of resignation. I wandered through a crowd of fur coats, through tall women and fat men. Via Pietro . . . Via Fratelli Cairoli . I looked over the lake. It was beautiful and I wished I could have cut off a piece and sent it to my mother. I walked eastward, with the water to my left, then turned, crossed back over the street.
In the window of a café people were knotted together like in a Veronese painting. A group of students came by me. I heard Lombardic expressions; pigeons cooing; it seemed that everyone had a voice but me.
My legs led me into the Piazza, past the pink striped Broletto, to the church, its façade artistically acceptable, and I decided to venture in, knowing full well that there were a few decent paintings inside. I sighed as I entered the cool Gothic interior of the temple. I walked by the numerous grand tapestries, stopped before the Holy Conversation of Luini, gazed at the great organ, inspected Gaudenzio Ferrari's Flight to Egypt. I sat down in the midst of that Latin cross and abandoned myself to my dreams. Beautiful Absalom with his two-hundred sheckel head of hair . . . Solomon . . . hair like a flock of goats . . . Lilith . . .
I heard the combative click of woman's heels and looked over. An elegant figure was making its way towards the confessional. She made obeisance, crossed herself and approached. Long chestnut hair, which had the soft shine which comes from a sage rinse, fell over her shoulders; her profile was pale and cold.
She kneeled; the black sleeves of a priest slithered out from the edge of the box.
The two proceeded to murmur together like conspirators, she undoubtedly revealing to the black bandit her most sacred mysteries, which he surely drank in with glee, soaked as they now were in the savoury blood of Jesus.
Ah, to be able to tell another one's secrets, the hidden shade of one's dreams! Indeed, at that moment it would have given me great satisfaction to have poured forth a chronology of my sins—from the harmless little items which chirp like scissors, to those grave manias which are launched like ships.
I thought thus as vague and familiar accents reached my ears—tones which moved through the air like tulips cast in slow motion by children in far away places . . . Then, the criminal communication ended, she rose to her feet . . . A shadowy figure slipped from behind the curtain of the confessional . . . began to walk . . . not towards me, not towards the presbytery, but rather in the direction of the front exit . . .
Then I too was in motion. I went towards the woman. I nodded my head and she bestowed on me a cold smile . . . There was a frozen moment. Revulsion. Rapture. Flame. I then moved on, inhaling her quietly as I passed.
The priest glanced over his shoulder and began to walk with more rapid steps—through the door and out onto the Piazza. But I had seen his profile and did not wish him to escape. A moment later and I was in the open air. A group of German tourists stood admiring the church and blocking my way. I pushed through them, saw the beast scurrying away, its cassock flying as if it were being carried off by a strong wind. Exerting myself, I advanced after it at great speed. Several times my grip closed on empty air, several times it merely grazed the cloth . . . But then I seized, collared it, and it squealed like an animal. It flung itself about. It slipped from its garments, slipped from one of my hands and I grabbed it with the next, me joyful, thrilled to feel the warmth of that red meat . . . It tried to wiggle away, acting like some loathful red toad in a putrid swamp, but my fingers, fit for tending the beards of kings, were strong and agile and not averse to being covered in tepid slobber.
Now I sit sunk in a plush chair, writing these words in a notebook with a large gold fountain pen. The creature is currently chained up in the corner. It sits and whines like a little victim, without recalling the suffering it has these past weeks granted me. Pleading and soft words will not alter my resolution. Experience is wisdom. As soon as I lay down my pen I will chastise it . . . bid it welcome to this cage of teeth.
About the author
Brendan Connell was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1970. He has had fiction published in numerous magazines, literary journals and anthologies, including McSweeney's, Adbusters, Nemonymous, Leviathan 3 (The Ministry of Whimsy 2002), Album Zutique (The Ministry of Whimsy 2003) and Strange Tales (Tartarus Press 2003). His first novel, The Translation of Father Torturo, was published by Prime Books in 2005; his novella Dr. Black and the Guerrillia was published by Grafitisk Press the same year.