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Mother Tongue

           It was the last night before we left, the last night before a week of sharing one cramped hotel room, the last night I could cry in private. Curled in a fetal position on the rug, I mourned to pop melodies and crooning voices that were irrevocably attached to him. I poured over old texts and pictures that my tears blurred into smudges of light.
           When I was exhausted by crying, I collapsed facedown on my bed. The sky outside my window grew paler, sunlight threatening to break over the horizon. In the light of dawn, I felt a wound inside me, in my chest cavity. Nothing would reach it without tearing my body apart.

Day 1

           “Those Chinese people are so loud,” Mom said in the scratchy tone of a whisper that was loud enough for the Asian people admiring Dali’s The Persistence of Memory to hear.
           “They’re speaking Japanese.”
           She narrowed her eyes, genuinely baffled, like I had asked her to simplify a fraction. “Wait—who are the ones that make sushi?”
           I turned away and exited to the next gallery, then the next, and the next, until I was certain it would take her a very long time to bumble back to me. The MoMa was a big place, and at every crossroad, I took whatever appeared to be the most obscure turn.
           I swayed in front of a lesser-known Dali, Illuminated Pleasures, wondering what he would say. It would be a fluid conversation, weaving from Vonnegut’s conception of temporality to the new Strokes single to that massive painting we saw of a hyper-realistic door in Chicago. I had grown so attuned to his pockets of esoteric knowledge that these exchanges had become a logic embedded in my brain. I was constantly assaulted by the meanings he would have ascribed to things.
           Dozens of foreign languages floated through the air, a soundscape of speech, refreshingly undecipherable. As I haunted the galleries, I imbibed these pure sounds, trying to let them drown out my inner dialogue.
           Three kids with dark curly hair sat on a bench in front of Frida Kahlo’s Fulang-Chang and I with a hijab-clad woman I assumed was their mother. In melodious Arabic, she sang to the infant in her arms. The oldest boy kept attempting to flee into an adjacent gallery filled with Brancusi sculptures, but his mother caught him by the wrist at the last second each time. Across the room, in front of a Mondrian piece of primary colors and right angles, two impossibly tall and blonde men spoke in a Scandinavian language I couldn’t pinpoint. Norwegian? Swedish? Finnish?
           I spotted a neon orange sweatshirt and fluorescent yellow basketball shorts. They belonged to my younger brother, who was sitting on a bench holding his iPhone sideways, playing Clash of Clans. I plopped down next to him, wrapping my arm around his neck. He smiled slightly into the screen.
           In front of us was Magritte’s Les amants. Two people with bags over their heads kissing. The rough outline of their faces fit together in an almost mechanical way, with the woman’s chin and the man’s nose interlocking around their mouths. That is exactly what it was like, said a voice in my head.
           I opened the Duolingo app on my phone and scrolled through all the languages I had started studying, only to abandon them after a few days of lessons. German, Russian, Polish, Swahili, Navajo, Korean. They all seemed like great ideas at a moment in time, but once I got past learning the words for “man,” “woman,” “boy,” and “girl,” my motivation dissipated. None of them gave me that sensation of secrecy and enriched interiority that I sought from a second language.
           “Surprise, surprise, honey, the kids are on their phones.” Mom appeared behind us with Dad in tow, who snapped a picture of Les amants with his Nikon D850. A security guard yelled “No photos!” and Dad glanced over each shoulder and whistled, as though searching for the culprit. Mom poked her head in between me and James, her transition lens somehow still tinted though we’d been indoors for a couple hours.
           “You know you guys are surrounded by priceless works of art, right?”
           “They still have prices,” James said, eyes still glued to whatever pillage was taking place on the dim little screen.
           “C’mon kids, you can stare at those phones anywhere! Come see The Campbell Soup Cans with your father and me!” I winced reflexively at the sound of her voice. She sounded more Midwestern than she ever had, almost Canadian.
           “I think I’d like to sit here and look at this one for a while.” I crossed my legs and rested my chin in my hand, trying to look deeply thoughtful out of spite. “Not just snap a picture of it and move on.”
           “Well, okay, we’re gonna move on. We don’t want to miss any of the highlights!”
           “I’m sure I’ll see all the highlights posted on Dad’s Facebook later tonight.”
           She shrugged her shoulders and waddled onward to the next gallery. I could never tell if she ignored or unregistered my attacks. Dad ruffled James’ hair and gave me a thumbs up, then rested his camera upon his belly as he followed Mom out.
           I turned to James. “We should learn a new language together.”
           “Sounds like a lot of work.”
           “Yes, but if we did it, we could speak to each other without Mom or Dad or anyone back home understanding. Wouldn’t that be cool?”
           The prospect drew his gaze to the painting, thinking for a few seconds. “I guess it would be pretty cool.”
           “Get the Duolingo app and we can both start learning Esperanto. It’s a man-made language, so it’s supposed to be easier to learn. I mean, all languages are man-made, but literally one man sat down and made up this one.”
           But I think I lost him during those three sentences. He’d returned to the screen. “After this game.” That meant never, of course. How could I expect him to learn a new language? He had no reason to flee English.

Day 2

           Mom and Dad were making fruitless attempts to hail a cab outside of the Mets’ stadium. It had rained all game, and my black Converse were soaked through to my feet. I could feel the skin pruning.
           In the monotony of nine innings, my mind returned to memories of sweaty afternoons hammocking with him that melted into aimless late-night drives. The innings happened in front of me, but I couldn’t recall which team had won.
           It was early evening, but it could’ve been any time of day. The grayness lent the sky a certain ambiguity. I was swallowed by a disposable rain poncho that dragged on the ground, feeling far away, like a ghost.
           From across the busy street, I heard a woman’s voice call I’ll see you very soon in another language, a language I couldn’t identify. She stood frozen amidst the crowd in the sprawling parking lot. Her whole body cloaked in pink satin fabric that whipped around in the wind. Cars were zooming down the street between us, cutting her in and out of view, but I could tell she was looking at me.
           “Alice, come on!” Dad called, waving his arms. He had managed to stop a driver by putting his body in front of the taxi, love handles quivering beneath an undersized jersey, as he tried to hold his ground. When I looked back across the street, the woman was gone. “Jesus, Alice, hurry!” I ran over, dirty rainwater splashing my ankles.
           In the taxi, I watched the glistening streets, silently repeating the syllables she had uttered. I’ll see you very soon. I might have picked up that phrase in one of my short affairs with an obscure language, yet I could not place its sounds. I could not even fathom how they would look written. Back at the hotel, I searched online for every permutation of those letters that I could conceive, but ten searches yielded no results. I cleared the browser history, worried that someone would see my queries and think I was schizophrenic.
           “Who are you texting?” Mom asked, sitting next to me on the starchy white comforter, her thighs encased in tight Bermuda shorts.
           “Nobody.” I shut my phone off and tucked it away.
           “Julian?” She looked at me with a wide smile, the same smile she had when he was last in our family room, filling the house with the warmth of his presence, eliciting belly laughs from my parents.
           “Jesus, Mom, I said nobody!”
           My heart pounded hard, a flight-or-fight response. Dangerous emotions harbored under my skin, now bubbling up to the surface. The wound in my chest was widening.
           Breathless, I excused myself to the bathroom. I lied on the cool white floor, my tears flowing down the grout channels that separated each tile.

Day 3

           It was 2 p.m. and we were walking down Fifth Avenue, starving and at each other’s throats. We spent the morning on a double-decker tourist bus that looped around the city. My parents were so swept away by the chance to knock out all the key tourist sites in one go that we blasted right through lunchtime. By the time we considered eating somewhere, everyone was too hungry to make a rational decision. Every restaurant was too expensive for Dad’s wallet or too exotic for James’ tastebuds.
           We heard sneakers smacking against the pavement from behind us. I turned, confronting a black ski mask that plowed through my mother at a full sprint. She toppled forward, catching herself with her right wrist, which let out a crisp snap. Bystanders gasped, slowing their gait for a few paces. But the masked man did not stop. He weaved through the crowded sidewalk and disappeared at the next corner.
           Wearing his MAGA hat, Dad was too old and too large to catch the man, but he cursed down the boulevard. When the cops appeared, my father described the suspect as a young black man, though his skin was not visible. My mother clutched her wrist, struggling to sit up. She wobbled like a bowling pin not quite ready to topple over. I grabbed her good arm, stabilizing her. “I don’t like this big city,” she sniffled. My precious, delicate mother. I should have pitied her, but repulsion swelled in my throat.
           We walked to the hospital, my mom on a stretcher, my dad behind her with his arm around James. I heard the same voice speaking the mystery language before the automatic doors closed behind me: You are not one of them. You are one of us. We are coming back for you, Alice.
           Spinning around, I saw the woman through the glass, the same seemingly endless pink scarves swirling around her body, obscuring its shape and size. Her face was tan, her age vague. She could have been old as my mother or grandmother. Without another word, she vanished into the hedges lining the hospital entrance, and I blacked out in the vestibule.

           When I came to, I was in a hospital bed next to my mother’s. Her arm had already been put into a shockingly bright green cast, and she was sleeping soundly.
           “Alice, oh my God!” My father’s stubbled face loomed over me, backlit by the bright ceiling lights. “We have to get you some solid food! You passed out in the doorway, and they had to put you on some kind of sugar water IV. James and I just had a big meal in the cafeteria. Finally, some affordable and satisfying food! Let me bring you up a grilled cheese or something.”
           I requested a long list of food, which Dad jotted down, to keep him busy. When he left, I found my phone on the bedside table. My blood sugar was desperately low, but I felt over-caffeinated, fingers quaking.
           I opened Safari and typed, “People understanding languages they’ve never heard before.” A well-placed Wikipedia article disclosed the technical term I was looking for, xenoglossy. A putative paranormal phenomenon, one that paranormal psychologists fudged accounts to prove it was real.
           I kept scrolling. There were tangential posts about people with the ability to understand a language they cannot speak and people who lost their first language entirely. But no stories about xenoglossy, not even in the depths of Reddit. I tried rephrasing the question.
           Mom stirred in her cot, seeing me beside her, and smiled sleepily. “Hi, sweetie. I’m so glad to see you’re awake. How are you feeling?”
           “I think I was just tired and hungry.” I thought to wait a while, but then I couldn’t resist asking. “Mom?”
           “Yes, dear?”
           “Was I ever exposed to languages besides English as a kid?”
           “I guess it’s possible, but I don’t think so.” She pursed her lips, gazing up at the ceiling. “Who do we even know that speaks other languages? There are Mexican families in town, but you never went to school with their kids. We know the Yangs, but I’ve never heard them speak Chinese. They didn’t teach it to their kids because they wanted them to speak English good.”
           I halfway rolled my eyes but stopped. “I’m thinking of maybe more obscure, less identifiable languages,” I said.
           “What? What do you mean?” She narrowed her eyes at me. I felt stupid for hoping that she could shed some light on my situation.
           “I don’t know. I had a weird dream while I was asleep, about another language. It’s nothing, I’m sure I made it up.”
           She shrugged and started scrolling through Facebook, holding the phone in her good hand, using the fingers sticking out of her cast to swipe in large motions.
           I turned toward James, who was sitting on a chair by the door, playing the Switch. He dragged his chair over to the side of my bed. “Do you wanna watch a Vine compilation?” he asked, knowing no purer source of dopamine to offer.
           “Of course.”
           He opened YouTube, propping up the Switch on the nightstand, angling it so we could see the little screen. He placed his arm on the bedside and rested his head in the crook of his elbow, his face all soft rosy features and long eyelashes pushing against his glasses.

Day 4

           The hospital released us the next afternoon. We squished inside a cab, and Mom – unable to maneuver her cast gracefully – plopped down in the seat beside the driver. As Mom and Dad watched the scenery and James scrolled through Instagram, I watched their faces. Dad winced, ripping a hangnail off his thumb with his incisors. Mom awkwardly applied lipstick with her nondominant hand.
           You are not one of them. You are one of us.
           We hid in our hotel room for the rest of the day, taking in small doses of the city’s ambiance through a slightly cracked window. Harry Potter was playing in the background, maintaining the illusion of family bonding, while everyone was absorbed with their phones.
           I teetered on the bed’s edge, the cold metal of my laptop resting on my thighs, as I scoured Wikipedia for obscure languages. James kept looking at me from behind the Switch screen, his eyes wide and probing. He knew I was bursting at the seams.
           For dinner, we scrawled orders on the back of a receipt, and Dad – his tube socks almost knee high – walked to a Chinese place a few blocks away. An hour passed, silent as a moth’s shaky flight. Then a pounding on the door made all three of us jolt upright.
           “That’s odd,” Mom said. “He has a key.”
           “Susan,” Dad answered. “Please let me in.”
           She looked through the door’s peephole and gasped. An intrusive image appeared in my thoughts, something stabbing through the peephole into my mother’s eyeball. But she recoiled, eye intact, and swung the door open.
           Dad stumbled in, his nose bleeding and face bruised, still clutching two half-spilled bags of takeout. Mom screamed. Blood ran into his mouth, down his chin, dripping on the perfectly white sheets and blooming into little red flowers. He explained with uncharacteristic composure how the same masked man mugged him with a handgun.
           Mom dragged Dad into the bathroom, where she stained the stack of towels with his dark blood. She was barking Fox News dog whistles about gangs and thugs. I listened to her voice, muffled through the bathroom door, and I stared at the pinkish splatters on the sheets. The more I stared, the more beautiful they became.
           We are coming back for you, Alice.

Day 5

           That night might have marked a premature end to the trip, but my parents insisted thugs would not ruin our vacation. We had purchased tickets to see the Statue of Liberty, crown access and all, by boat. As my dad put it, we sure as hell were going. Packed into another cab, my mother’s cast smelling putrid and my father’s scabs ready to burst, a strange revelation came over me. It was another rainy day, but I was realizing this city was a place I could live.
           We arrived half an hour before the boat’s departure. Mom searched for a bathroom, her viridescent cast shining in the mist. Dad took James to a corn dog stand for a bite, and I stuck around, guarding our designated spot at a metal table. A flimsy white umbrella was my shelter from the rain.
           The bay stretched out toward Ellis Island. The wind chapped my skin, like the wind that sliced across Lake Superior, where Julian had snapped a casual photograph of me, the sun at my back. That was once my favorite picture.
           There was a steadying hand, emerging from wisps of pink satin, on my shoulder. It was her. Ghostly as she had seemed, she felt like solid flesh and bone. Her eyes were so dark that I could hardly distinguish pupil from iris.
           Don’t worry, you’ll be with us soon.
           I asked, How can I understand you? The words exited my mouth, but they were not English.
           Because you are one of us.
           What? The edges of my vision darkened.
           Your name is not Alice. Your real name is—
           I do not know how to transcribe into the English alphabet the sound of she made, but it felt like felt like a homecoming.
           Why are you doing these things to my family?
           Because they’ve lied to you. Because they took you from us.
           Why should I believe you?
           With each strange syllable leaving my mouth, I lost sense of the present, which was overshadowed by a formless, opaque past. I felt my body suspended in the air.
           Because you are speaking to me in your mother tongue now. Just as you always wanted. You’ve known it for so long.
           She held my shoulder and pulled me close—
           Tonight, slide a key under the door. We’ll take care of everything. Then she vanished, dissipating toward the sea, her face obscured by a black umbrella. 

           I was dreaming that I was with him, somehow plunging back into that place, but I could only see swirling shapes dancing behind my eyelids in the darkness. Tossing in hotel sheets, I awoke to a hollow feeling. My sleeping family was littering the small room. I was the last person in the universe, a dam ready to break.
           That mysterious language emanated within me, quelling the pain: The person who loved him is not you. The person with these parents is not you.
           My mother, alien to me, slept with outstretched arms. Drool leaked out the corner of her mouth.
           You are not this broken person. You are somebody else.
           I peeled the sheets off my skin, sinking my toes into the dark carpet. I quickly spotted the glint of the white keycard on the desk. Creeping toward it, I kicked the remote, which turned the TV on. The silent pixilated screen illuminated my family’s sleeping faces, distorting them. I scrambled to click the power button, waiting to make sure no one was stirring.
           My hand reached the keycard, and became depersonalized, like something had pulled me down a predetermined pathway – I did not resist, I had no control.
           I slid the key under the door and retreated to the bed, where the mother who raised me slumbered. I looked down at her, resenting how much she had fucked up.
           We will fix you, the voice said.
           I descended into a black, dreamless sleep.

Day 6

           When I awoke, I was being gently rocked by lapping waves. I reclined against a ship deck, clouds of light blue silk swaddling and kissing my body. The rhythm of soft footsteps radiated throughout the wooden planks. There were perhaps a dozen pastel wraiths, all women, moving about the ship. All were dressed like my vision, profusely draped in a distinct color of silk. Everyone had a warm complexion, a face like a cherub, and dark twisted hair that cascaded in curls. I looked down, and my forearm appeared tanner.
           My first contact, the woman in pink, ascended from the ship’s cabin. She carried a snow-white kettle and a porcelain cup. She poured the steaming liquid and placed the cup into my hands. Her palms were veiny, shaking slightly.
           Good morning.
           Then she whispered my name, its strange sound sending a warm tingle down my spine. The tea she gave me smelled of rosemary, lavender, something unidentifiable.
           Drink this and listen.
           She pointed toward an old woman hunched in pear green. Girls, nimble statures that seemed to be my age, knelt around her in a circle.
           She is telling the tale.
           The tale of what?
           Of us. Of everything.
           She extended a bony hand, lifting me off the floor with surprising strength. The silks, which did not feel at all attached to my body, moved with me. Completely clothed, I felt naked.
           Soon this will be perfect sense. You will see it laid in front of your eyes, like the pages of a book.
           She guided me to the circle with a hand on my shoulder. The old woman slowly smiled as I approached. I kneeled with the others, examining their expressions. They were in enthusiastic reverence, which was comforting. The old woman raised her arms toward the sky.
           Watch and listen to the dream of time and space. It comes out now, flowing like a river.
           Dusk fell in minutes as her voice oscillated. My thoughts melted into her narration, the clouds passing over at double speed.
           You were our children, but they took you from us. They said we could not care for you because we cared differently. The tyranny of English made it impossible to explain the way we lived. That primitive tongue cannot capture how we love. Our language is a vast and ancient ocean. English merely offers tiny bubbles of its meanings. We are born poets in our language. You babbled beautiful and profound things as infants. Things beyond any human prophet. Our language once united the plurality of the world. Then speech became fragmented, stunted.
           Our language may feel strange now, but you carry the words within you, no matter how long they have remained dormant. Our language will return to you as a surge. You will swim in oceans of meaning. This is the beginning.
           The space had darkened, gone cold, but my silks cocooned me in warmth. A light red like a blacksmith’s forge burned in the cabin, and I descended into it. There were aromas and tastes that belong to the language, our language, alone. We feasted together in shadowed light.
           Conversations were ceaseless, but a message rippled through the room.
           We are leaving tomorrow.

Day 7

           The vessel was disembarking, and we would return to the motherland.
           On the shore three people screamed hysterically in a foreign tongue. The man and woman were strangers, but the boy was familiar.
           Who are those people on the shore? I asked Mother. She squinted into the distance.
           They are not for us. They do not understand us.
           We carved through the open sea, but a boy’s weeping was diffuse in the wind. He was saying things recognizable in our language. Listen, the boy speaks our tongue.
           It’s a mirage, my child. Sing with me, and do not worry. There is nothing for you there. We are going home.
           Together we coalesced in perfect harmony, singin a melody ancient as language itself. The boy, his voice painful, was shrinking on the shoreline as the turquoise ocean swelled on the pale horizon.

CARLY TAYLOR is a contributor to Sagebrush XVII.

Cover Art: Portrait of the Marquise de Miramon, née Thérèse Feuillant, Jacques Joseph Tissot, 1866, Oil on canvas (via the Getty’s Open Content Program).