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Jessie Simmons’ Tongue Part 2

I apologize for being gone for so long.  The post I scheduled for Friday did not post for some reason.  I apologize.  However, here is the second half to Jessie Simmon’s Tongue.  Read Part 1 here.

Meghan and I spent days scouring the walls of the barn, looking for what we though might point us in the direction of the actual tongue. “Jessie Simmons lost her tongue here.” So literal to a kid under the age of ten: “Here.” The boys must have written it as they shoved the tongue into the dirt or into a box. They must have been proud of their work, but had to hide the evidence. What had she done to deserve that? As far as I could tell, nothing called for such extreme gestures.

We searched the walls of the barn doors and the back wall by the woodpile. We climbed over old engine parts and shovels, broken rakes and boxes of papers to the side walls to see if we could find the faintest hint of a word or two, but we found nothing. Meghan wanted to see this tongue, but I wasn’t so sure I could. I imagined it in a Garcia Vega cigar box, shriveled into hardly anything, looking a bit like the deer jerky my father ate. It seemed disrespectful, too, to look upon the tongue of a young girl, but in our minds, it was our duty to do it.

Avoiding half-hammered nails and splintered wood, we tried to look higher on the walls with a ladder, and when our parents weren’t looking, Meghan and I climbed into the hayloft where we were never supposed to go, stirring up dust that remains in my nose to this day, and stepped from plank to plank, over trash and cats and beer signs, even an old Bridge Out sign, to look with only a flashlight and what little sunlight found its way through the cracks. There was nothing up there, either, and our time was limited in the loft anyway. Had any one of our parents caught us up there, we surely would have gotten the kitchen spoon across our asses. The tinny sting reminded me of what the boy‟s thumb must have tasted like. But I think now it would have been worth it, to justify the injustice caused to that one Jessie Simmons.

Beaten and tired of looking, we asked our parents if they remembered where it had been on the walls of the barn.

“In the granary, but you can’t go in there.”

“Why not?” we asked, never having thought to look in the granary, pissed that the adventure might be put to an end. I felt Meghan pinch me and I looked at her. It wasn’t over.

“Because it’s packed full of Grandpa’s stuff from the store. And there are rats in there anyway. You can’t go in there.”

“Oh yeah?” Meghan and I ran out the door and into the barn. We tried to pry open the door to the granary, but it had been closed for so long that two kids were never going to provide enough force to open it. We settled for looking just for the tongue.

As the days and weeks passed, it eventually got old and we quit looking as much, but it was always in the back of my mind. Each summer we returned, devoted some time to looking for Jessie‟s tongue before we began to realize the scale of the world, of a tiny tongue to a huge barn. It would be nearly impossible.

I wondered if anyone had ever said anything to those boys. I bet they denied it up and down. How could they have done that? I had smashed my share of spiders on the walls, pushed little cousins into bushes with thorns and prickers, but I never seriously hurt anyone. I wanted to talk to Jessie, but realized that would have proven worthless. All I could see was the square stub of her tongue lashing about in her open mouth as she struggled to tell anyone what she was fighting for, who had done this to her, why they had done it. Her eyes must have been sad all the time after her tongue got cut, and I thought about how hard it would be to never be able to talk to her children or her grandchildren, if she ever found a way to fall in love with a boy. Taking  away the ability to talk makes everything a little difficult, and I can‟t imagine how one goes about French kissing or kissing at all.

We never found the tongue, and the truth was that we kind of let it go after a few summers. It came up in conversation, but only briefly, and I always imagined Jessie’s terrified face before Meghan started talking about something else. We moved on to climbing trees and keeping secrets from our younger counterparts. Once we started our periods, it seemed juvenile to worry about a tongue anymore. The talk turned to boys, and dating and where we were going to shop for school clothes. Until one day in the kitchen at Grandma and Grandpa’s house:

“Remember when we spent all those summers looking for Jessie Simmons’ tongue?” I asked.

“Yeah, we never did find it.” Meghan fiddled with something.

“We did.” My mom piped up.

“What?!” We both looked up at our mothers. Our parents had never assumed the seriousness of our mission.

“We found it.”

Recreating this conversation would be a jumbled mess, but the story alone is enough to make my question my own sanity as well as that of my family, maybe the entire northwestern part of Ohio.

All according to my mother, my grandparents and their children moved into the farm house on C.R. 185 on April 21, 1968. It was Grandma and Grandpa’s twelfth anniversary and all the kids were excited to finally live in the country, to have room to run, play baseball, normal kid things. That spring and summer, they explored the property, all the barns and buildings that were later torn down to build Grandpa’s “Gene’s Drive-Thru/Carry-Out.” One of those buildings had great red paintings on the insides of the doors and my mom and her siblings were convinced that Indians had done them with blood. Great, I think, we’ve been fascinated with blood for generations!

While they were playing house in the barn that still stands, they ventured into the granary to see what was there. It was on the wall there that they saw, what my mother late recalls, “Jessie Simmons lost her tongue here in 1938.” She is unsure of the year, which I fully believe is wrong. They were excited and ran into the house to tell their own mother about the writing on the wall. No part of the barn was left uncovered as they did what we did. They searched high and low for the tongue, even going so far as to dig up the sand floor of the barn to see if it had somehow shuffled beneath the loose grains. Their mother, my grandmother, even helped them look for it a few times.

After a couple of months, they “found it!” as my mother writes me. In one of the smaller stalls of the granary, she and her sisters uncovered a brown piece of gristle, shaped like a tongue, rough and covered in dirt. To them, it was the very tongue that was written about on the wall, the very one that had been cut from Jessie Simmons’ mouth in 1938. They picked it up and ran across the driveway and the backyard into the house to show my Grandma Cleobelle. She congratulated them, gave them an old Sucrets box to put their little treasure in, and shooed them outside. Mom remembers guarding the tongue for days, never letting it out of their sight. It was more valuable than anything they could have found in the barn. They had a human tongue, the cruelty of the boys, all in one sacred Sucrets box, and they fully intended on keeping it.

About a week later, Mom, her sisters Karen and MaryLynn, and her brother Mike were playing outside. The box was close-by, the unspoken words of Jessie Simmons unceremoniously screaming from a little tin box. And then came the incident. Mike got pissed off at the girls and managed to wrestle the box away from them. Without any warning, he dashed into the barn and flung the Sucrets box and Jessie Simmons‟ tongue up into the hayloft.

The girls wailed, cried for hours and told my grandma all about it. But they, like us, were not allowed to venture up into the hayloft, so a few days later, they convinced Mike to go up and get the tongue for them. They found the box, but the tongue was gone. They assumed that Jessie’s thankful spirit had come back to retrieve the tongue from the box in the barn and that she was able to speak again, wherever she was, if she hadn’t been granted the gift to speak after her death. After that, they had let it all go, happy that they’d done something for the poor girl who lost her tongue.

Once we found out that our mothers had looked for the tongue, too, I started to realize that it was a sick and twisted tradition. At this time, Meghan and I were old enough to understand that there probably wasn’t a real tongue in the barn at any point in time. This Jessie Simmons girl that I had imagined so many times probably just lost her tongue there in the barn, became speechless because of what someone said to her. Maybe those boys weren’t as vicious as I had made them as a child. Maybe one of them asked for her hand in marriage, or even a date, and left a spirited-tongued young woman lost for words. Which is still interesting, to think that this girl always had something to say and that a man could easily set her off kilter. Was that enough to make someone speechless? Men, love, lust.

But I was certainly not made speechless by the mistreatment of rodents. Or the fact that I spent so much time looking for a tongue. It took a lot to make a girl speechless if it wasn’t a matter of the heart.

Before my mind wandered too far, Grandma Cleobelle piped in, “We looked for it when we were little, too. You girls’ Uncle Joe and me.” Now wait a minute; three generations of women in my family looking for the tongue of a woman who never even lost her tongue? I stared at my tiny grandmother, her fingers immersed in bubbles at the sink and her shoulders sloped forward. The band-aids that capped off each finger were sopping wet, some of them held on by more layers of flesh-colored rubber. She smiled like she did when she’d been keeping a secret from us and it was all beginning to surface, the way she did on Christmas morning when we sat around the dining room and poured through mountains of paper to the gifts she spent hours wrapping. Her eyes disappeared in laugh lines, and her cheeks became tight, right up under her eyes, and she looked young again. In one of Grandpa‟s shirts and torn up shorts, Grandma Cleo scratched the back of her calf with her toes and raised her eyebrows, a silent, “You didn’t see that comin’, didja?”

It turns out that when she was little, Grandma and her brother Joe and sister Pat used to come down to the farm where they live now to pick asparagus and raspberries. Their uncle lived across the street and before that, a family named LaRue owned the land. While the kids were out in the fields doing the farm work, they took breaks to play around and in turn, found the writing on the wall and searched for the tongue throughout their childhood…

So to break this down, my grandma and her siblings looked for this tongue, never found it, and eventually moved into the house. Grandma let her own kids look high and low for this tongue, even going so far as to help them look for it, humor them when they found a piece of gristle that was probably stole by a cat from the pork chop waste, and dragged into the barn. Later, they tell my cousins and me the story and we spend hours, days, summers looking for this damned tongue that would have surely decayed. My mother recalls now that the writing on the wall said, “Jessie Simmons temporarily lost her tongue here in 1938.” Temporarily. They asked Grandma what that meant, and she told them that it meant nothing, that a girl had really lost her tongue in the barn. And because we never actually found the writing on the wall, the “temporarily” never tripped us up.

I don’t know whether to feel misled when I think about the times I actually spent looking for that tongue. It was fun.

It seems like a cruel joke, a sick thing to talk about, especially through three generations, but it’s a good story, worth a good chuckle, a great way to get someone to look at you with horrified eyes. I take some sort of sick pleasure in seeing the faces of people who I talk to about my hometown, and I think I tell them the gross stuff on purpose. Why not? Why not let them see what I am, where I came from, what I’m doing? Blood is nothing, animal cruelty, nothing in regard to the animals that are not our friends. Mistakes happen on the farm. They have to.

After I found out that the story was kind of a joke passed down from one generation to the next, I started to wonder if Jessie Simmons had actually existed. In a list of Sandusky County residents in 1905, sure enough, there was a Thomas C. Simmons listed and he lived in Clyde, one and a half miles from Greek Creek Township. He was an American fruit grower. He owned thirty acres. Do you know what else? He was married to a Mrs. Elva Simmons. Children? You bet. Thaddeus, Edith. And Jessie.

 
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Posted by on May 16, 2011 in When I Was Young

 

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Jessie Simmons’ Tongue

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!

 
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Posted by on May 12, 2011 in When I Was Young

 

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