‘New Tongue’, Third Place in Fiction

New Tongue

by Nazanin Soghrati

You arrive in your new home without even being able to pronounce its name. You know how to spell it – C-A-N-A-D-A – after days of staring at its name scrawled on the yellowed-out globe your father bought you years ago. That part of the world had always seemed like an exclusive region to you, an exotic jungle where people of an entirely different species lived. They were C-A-N-A-D-I-A-N-S – you enunciate the word with your pink, floundering tongue – with white skin and blue eyes. For them, the color olive was known in the context of the fruit and not of their skin.

You watch the tumeric orange clouds in the Western sky and wonder whether they look different from the clouds back home. Yes, you decide; they look like the clouds in Van Gogh’s paintings: Vivid and bursting with life. Even the stars twinkle differently than the ones you used to gaze on while lying on your back in your grandma’s house. They feel closer to the Earth. You could catch them if you were just a little taller and could jump just a little higher. You bike around the streets of your new home with eyes saucer-wide in fascination. Everything is wonderfully new and different: The ice cream trucks, the snow gushing from the sky every now and then, the Christmas lights and pizza days and Halloweens and the way women’s hair fly and swirl around in the wind, unobscured by a scarf.

You decide that you love your new home. You love all the colors of its people, the musings of its schools, the liberation of its nature.

But sometimes, just sometimes, a string twists itself around your heart, begging for what used to be home: The scorching Isfahani summers and the dry wind.

Just sometimes this ache grows, borrowings its wings from the old photographs you have kept of your grandmother’s house, of her lovely face and paisley couch-pillows.

Sometimes, the small bits and pieces of your past come haunting you in the middle of the night – the mosques, enduring the aching hunger during Ramadan, the colorful chadors of women in Islamic shrines. You see yourself in the middle of these childhood moments so clearly that suddenly, you feel yourself bloat with memories, swelling and swelling until you can almost burst. And then your mother’s crying face appears – her body hunched over the laundry, tears spilling to the barren ground at midnight, brewing with worry about her place in this new Universe. You watch her every morning as she smooths out and irons her tongue, only to come home with an oil spill sloshing back and forth in her mouth – all the things she cannot say. A thousand tides pulling at her lips. A thousand griefs pressed onto her mouth.

“This language isn’t mine,” she whispers to you.

Every night you read to her your new English books. A series you particularly like is the Adventures of Tintin. As a child, your mother had read the Persian translated comics to you every night, and with her animated narration, Tintin quickly took the shape of a childhood hero in your head.

Now, it is you who reads to your mother, because here, everything is reversed. The words tumble quickly off your tongue, light and sweet, like an airy baklava that crumbles with ease. But they get stuck when they reach your mother. She tells you that she hears the stories through the sound of waves lapping to her feet, each word overpowered by a rain that thunders in her mind. You keep reading. The rain in her ears fill yours too and the words keep slipping out of your mouth like a fish.

This is how you pass the time.

Every night the creases on your mother’s face grow wider and wider until they form streams, rivers, ditches. You sometimes imagine yourself jumping from one crease to another, pulling the two ends closer and closer together until they are sewn and can finally disappear. Every night after you read, you mother pulls you close to her with glossy eyes, papery arms unfolding around your body like an origami, her body warming yours. She never understands the stories you read, but she listens to your voice as it plays this new language – rising in a soft soprano, falling in a deep tenor over the letters. She tells you to learn this new tongue well.

She never had, but maybe you could. For her.