It must have been a summer day when all my cousins were packed into the old farmhouse in Clyde. Our skin must have already had enough of the sun as we rolled on the dingy green carpet in the kitchen. The blacktop must have already burnt our feet because we had them propped up on chairs, the residue of asphalt still rich on our skin. The air must have been too heavy to cuddly furry kittens against our necks and the plastic sun chairs must have been sticking to our thighs, because instead, we chose to lounge in front of the fans in the living room. It must have been one of those days where we were driving our parents crazy, getting in the way of Grandma’s cooking lunch, crowding up the space at the table and eating Tootsie Rolls from Grandpa’s pocket. It had to have been one of those days that called for striking the fear of human kind into kids to get them out of the house. And they did.
I don’t remember which aunt said it, or my mother or my uncle, but someone, among the bustling, said, “Why don’t you go look for Jessie Simmons’ tongue?”
“What?!” We were all shocked. A crime on our own turf. Something real.
“Jessie Simmons’ tongue. She lost it in the barn.”
“Oh yeah? How‟d she lose it?” one of us asked. Even children can be skeptical.
“No one knows. All we know is that she lost it in the barn.” This was too good to be true. This was better than the blood that appeared on the walls when Grandma smashed a huge fly. It was even better than our fake massacres behind the barn, raspberry blood boiling up from our fingers and our heads. I imagine our eyes growing wide while they secretly elbowed one another to continue the story. “We looked for it when we were younger. You should go try to find it.”
“No way,” one of us said, suddenly afraid they were teasing us with a story that only excited out of our chairs and back onto our blacktopped feet.
“That didn’t happen. How do you know?”
“It was written on the wall. It said, “‘Jessie Simmons lost her tongue here.'” Somehow, this solidified our beliefs. It was written on the wall in the barn, they said, and if someone had taken time to document such an occasion on the wall, then it must have been true. I pictured white, spray-painted words across the splintered wall, sliced open by the sunlight that came in through the slats as the dust swirled in the stagnant air. I had to see it.
No sooner had they given us this information, we were outside, out of their hair, out of the house for the next three summers. Meghan and I were the ones who took the most interest in the idea. The younger kids tagged along, but soon fell into disinterest and picked up an old cash register or jerky jar or a kitten that had escaped from beneath the wood pile. I imagine our conversation went something like this:
“We have to find where it says it on the wall because the tongue‟s probably around there. I mean, that’s where they wrote it.”
“And then we have to find the tongue.”
“Would there really be anything left?”
“I don’t know, they didn’t say when she lost it.”
“How do you think she lost it?”
The question had to come up. How does a girl lose her tongue? Now I know it’s just something people say, I know it’s a phrase, and I know what it means now, but to a kid under the age of ten, horrendous ideas went through my head. I can still see Meghan’s blonde ponytail moving toward the barn as I imagined a girl dressed in all black, and she must have been Jessie Simmons. Her named seemed to bite at my own tongue when I said it. She was tough. Jessie Simmons could have pushed me against a wall, pinned me there with her hip. Jessie Simmons. It was the s’s in her name, the hiss, the slits she glared through and the hollow cheekbones she sucked in, the sallow skin.
I imagine her back-talking, standing up for something, maybe protecting a little brother. Something heroic. Opposite her are two boys, wearing older clothes, high socks and torn knickers. They wear plaid hats and vests and chew tobacco as they tower over Jessie. I see my grandparents’ house in the background, the high peaks and the uneven square windows of a hand-built home, the concrete back porch and the big maple outside the bedroom window. The whitewash of the barn wall and the gravel driveway melt together. No birds chirp and no children yell as the two teenage boys standing across from Jessie, one wielding a shiny knife, the kind Dad used for gutting fish, snarl in Jessie’s face. Her long hair swings in the breeze as she says one thing, and then another, but it’s all silent. The look in the boys’ eyes turns lethal when they realize she is not afraid. And then the scene turns black and white. One boy spits and wraps his arm around Jessie’s neck, the other arm around her waist, pinning her own arms to her sides. The other boy takes his time, walks up to her, just stares. A snarl that could be a smirk lurks on his lips and tobacco shavings litter the crevasses between his teeth. His broad hands, the hands of a young boy raised on a farm, raised on hard work and slaughter, worked hard into flesh-colored shells to the point where even sharp hay couldn’t stab through, reach for Jessie. With one hand on her chin, he uses the other to pry open her mouth. She fights, turns her head until the first boy tightens his lock. Jessie purses her lips, never letting her angry brow rise in fear, even as the boy with the knife sticks his thumb between her lips and grips her cheek, leaving a black smear down the side of her face. Jessie squeals as a mixture of dirt and mud and the steely taste of his skin sinks into the saliva that slides down her throat without the aid of a swallow. The boy snatches her tongue in a matter of seconds, pressing his thumb into the soft, pink, dotted top while he hooks his index finger underneath. Jessie grunts from deep down in her throat, a grunt of defiance, a daring growl. And then the knife flashes. It comes down slowly from the top, and down torturously slow into the meatiest part of her tongue.
Jessie falls to the ground, her hands covered in blood as soon as she begins to claw at her own face. It is the only color in the shades of gray, her face a font of life liquid. A little boy runs up next to her, sees the blood and runs away screaming as all the sound suddenly resumes. The boys are gone as Jessie kneels in the gravel, the sharp stones digging into the taut skin over her kneecaps means nothing as she sees the small trail of blood that disappears into the barn. It didn’t last long. After all, only so much blood is held in such a tiny vessel pressed into a farm boy’s palm.
Even picturing it now, I get the chills. And Jessie could never tell what happened to her. She could never speak, never defend her point, never prove guilt. The boys disappeared into the barn, but who knows how long they were there or which of the extra doors they escaped from.
To never be able to speak again, and to go through the pain of a knife through a muscle as strong as the tongue. Why would my mom and my aunts tell me this?
Part 2 tomorrow!