A Sudden Education
June 1, 2003
I was born with a mouse's tongue
by Mark Rigney
hen my mother was pregnant with me, she carelessly took a drug that said, right there on the bottle, "This medication has caused laboratory mice to be born without tongues." Nine months later, there I was. No one could find anything wrong, at least at the outset. The doctors told my mother to stop her worrying, but sometimes pills are like voodoo, they have a mind of their own, and now I sit in the echoes of a college English class and the professor calls on me and he doesn't realize that I, for reasons unknowable, have inherited what those rodents lacked. He thinks I am silent because I am willful; he thinks it's personal: a useless, sullen tug-of-war. He's not a fool, but he is blinded, full to the brim with things he's learned; he cannot see that I have a mouse's tongue because such a possibility does not exist in his chilly academic world.
Mouse-tongued girls do exist in poetry, and that is what he teaches. If only he could remember to remember why it is he teaches this! Instead, because I do not answer, he will call on me again. I have seen him do this with other students, and now, three weeks into the semester, my turn has come at last. He will persist and persist and persist. It won't do any good, not with me. I couldn't answer if I wanted to, for in my chest beats the heart of a frightened young rabbit. How the rabbit got there, I don't know. I'm sure they didn't say anything about that on the medicine bottle. "Warning:" it should have said, "your child may be born with the heart of a rabbit. Ingest at own risk."
My mother is the sort who would have listened; she's a firm believer in warnings. She follows speed limits and never rips the tags off her furniture, even when the tags peek out from beneath the cushions and amuse our guests. Unfortunately, my mother is also the kind who doesn't always notice things, important things especially. My being two thousand, one hundred and forty-two miles away from home hasn't made it any easier. She reads my infrequent letters, but she doesn't hear the cries for help. When she calls, she can't tell when I'm crying. "You're not crying, are you, hon?" she'll ask. "Everything's okay, right?"
You would think, having been blessed with the tongue of a mouse and the heart of a rabbit, that I couldn't have much else going wrong. If only! I've got the legs of a moose, the face of a walrus, the ears of an African hyena. My stomach came straight from a hippo, my neck from a sandhill crane. I concede that I do have delicate hands. They're my best feature, and I like to think I inherited them from something diaphanous and magical: a sylph, or a beautiful, enchanted prince.
Some days, I suspect that medicine bottle had an entire taxonomic system locked inside its little childproof cap. Why did my mother set her womb on blend? Maybe mother should have paid more attention to the other pertinent warning she ignored. "No jumping," counseled her obstetrician. "You are not so young as you once were, and this pregnancy is very precious. So. Listen up. No. Jumping."
Poor mother. She was a dancer. Jumping was in the blood, just as not jumping is now in mine. Thanks to her, I crawl like a muskrat. Only my nerves got the requisite dose of kangaroo.
"Miss Swann," says Professor Stroud, trying again. He faces the opposite side of the circlewe've drawn our chairs into a ringand shows me his back. He clears his throat discreetly. "We're waiting."
I'd always assumed that the bullying would end in high school. Couldn't he leave me to pass or fail at my own specific pace? No. Apparently not.
He is probably not a cruel man, although his looks suggest a certain enjambed mean streak. Perhaps he harbors the soul of a shark, a gift from his mother's medicinal diet. He does have a permanent scowl, a bunched mustache and shaggy, unkempt eyebrows. His neck alliterates his nose. Both his hair and his beard are pepper-pot gray, wild and woolly and entirely appropriate for a specialist in Romantic literature. Appropriate or not, I'm sure people fix him with scolding, skeptical glances when he shops, or sets foot in any Heorot beyond the academic.
Aside from the physical, he's clever and inclined to be didactic. When he talks about his poets he becomes his own antithesis, pompous and tearful all at once. His material moves him, and he wishes it would move us. He yearns for this with a stoic desperation both endearing and pathetic. Poor man. If he'd stop focusing on me as a student and think of me, just for a moment, as something other than his job, he'd realize that I have a hopeless crush on him.
Sadly, I will never get him alone. My rabbit's heart will never permit me to master the mouse that rules my tongue. All I have left is my brainand for that, mother took nothing at all. My mind works well enough, certainly. It chugs along in an organized, plodding sort of way, but it isn't much good at coping with the rest of my internal zoo. In fact, using overcompensation as its primary tool, it has concluded that I average out, most days, to being a badger. At other times, a mackerel. When things get international, which is often, I wind up a wombat.
"Miss Swann," the professor resumes, while the whole class frets and wishes he'd stop, or that I would spontaneously vanish and spare them the trouble of their second-hand embarrassment, "Miss Swann, perhaps you don't remember that class participation accounts for ten percent of your grade. You have yet to contribute a single iota of verbal wisdom, or even reaction, to this class. I know you can write a perfectly competent essay. What I'm looking for is a little spark, a sign that you exist in the realm of the responsive. Do you think you can provide that?"
Damn the man! He's done it now. God give him strength, he doesn't yet know I have the hide of a rhinoceros: rough, Kipling-esque and oh-so-very-sensitive. Worse, I've got the rhino's nose for trouble, his famous myopia and his truly terrible timing. The mouse scampers for shelter; the rabbit ducks down its burrow. I, sweating like a race horse, leap to my feet.
"The Romantics were fools!" I cry. "Shakespeare's plays were written by a Belgian scullery maid and the only really great book in the English canon is Clifford the Big Red Dog. Okay?"
Startled, the class cannot muster so much as a giggle, but the distinguished Professor Stroud knows exactly what to do. He takes me out to dinner at the finest local restaurantcandlelit, with real linen tableclothsand then he takes me home. By nine, he's eating out of my handand other choice places. "Julia," he purrs, as he strokes the peach-fuzz below my belly-button, "you're so soft. Like a little mouse."
Well. I'm allowed a little fantasy now and again, aren't I? This one doesn't stand up, of course; I knew it the moment I let him to take me to a local restaurant. That could never be. Somebody would spot us; people would talk. The lecherous Professor Stroud, six months from tenure, caught in a romantic tryst with a frisky young coed! Things would get ugly; a bevy of indignant, outraged trustees would run him out of town on the proverbial rail.
So much for fantasy! What he really does is stride over to my chair, drop to his haunches so his eyes are on a level with mine, and say, "Now that we've unlocked your jaws, pray continue. Explain, if you would be so kind, what any of that has to do with our topic for the day, which, if you'll recall, is Mr. Whitman. No scullery maids, no matter what the nationality, and no big red dogs."
There are momentsmostly disastrous, like this onewhen I wonder if I haven't carried this whole mouse-tongue analogy too far. True, my mother did suck down a few too many pills during her pregnancy, and it's also true that one of them really did carry that weird, arcane warning about mice. However, I am not a latter-day Stuart Little. I am a perfectly normal, generally average Caucasian female Homo sapienor possibly Homo ferox, as T. H. White opined. I test well; I like to read. I can shoot a basketball slightly better than my brother, and I can pat my head and rub my tummy, interchanging hands on command, for as long as anyone cares to watch. If I'm unique, it's only because I have the sad advantage of being able to trace my insecurities to a single in utero event. The reality of that event is not the issue. My dependence on it, howevernow there's a sticking point.
Fact: if I did not have the tongue of a mouse, I would need to find another explanation for my failure to speak with the quick, dangerous fluidity exhibited by my classmates. If I did not have the heart of a rabbit, I would have to challenge my own innate cowardice and confront it head on, instead of scooting awayrabbit-likeas I currently do. If I did not have all my horrible features, I would be forced to examine my status as a social and sexual outcast, a young woman estranged from and shunned by her peers. I would be forced to hatch at last from the incipient egg called me.
Professor Stroud has no such problems. He's not an egg at all. Wild and woolly, yes, but he's handsome, powerful and surprisingly graceful. He walks with rhetoric, glides with rising rhythm. Was he an athlete in his day? He has a look of residual strength, as if he used to wrestle bears. Now, perhaps, he practices more respectable, domestic pursuits, like splitting backyard cordwood with a solid, heavy maul. And his scent! Heaven.
He's almost in reach. I could just lean over, grab the back of his head with both hands and plant my lips on his. Dare I try? He'd certainly be surprised. Would he notice the size of my hungry tongue, how small it is? Would he feel my frightened little heart, beating like crazy through the tips of my fingers and into his scalp? Most importantly, would he kiss me back?
My penchant for older men can't possibly be healthy. I am, what, twenty years this man's junior? He may even be married, I have no idea. The fact that he wears no ring doesn't signify; neither did my father. But did my father smell this way, if only to my mother? Did he have such arms? Were his hands like these: the gentle, supple hands of a Titan come to Earth?
Now the Titan holds both hands on his kneecaps, one on either side; I have to avert my gaze to avoid the splay of his crotch, hidden behind the folds of his dark brown pants. His black turtleneck shows a trace of dandruff, not from his head, but from the thickets of his beard. The blazer over top is ruffed and mottled; reduce it to a single color and that color would be olivenot olive drab, like the army, but olive tweed, the kind of color that only professors and cranks would ever wear.
What is this man's component animal? Is he, too, secretly a mouse? More importantly, what's his first name? I saw it once in the course catalog, but I've been too frightened to look it up again. Such knowledge might breed a terrifying familiarity; who knows what I'd then be capable of?
It's Milton, isn't it? Milton Stroud? Or is that just another leap of literary pretension on my part, a clumsy piece of wish fulfillment?
Why won't he let me go?
"Miss Swann. Give me something, anything, that lets me know we're in the same classroom, or at least on the same planet."
Before I know what I'm doing, my lips part, my jaws openI will not kiss him, I will not! Not here, not in public!and then I'm speaking, my tongue flying through my mouth's red cavern entirely of its own accord. My shock at my own behavior prevents my voice from rising much above a whisper, but the words come clearly enough, half plea, half challenge.
"I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles."
The shock in his eyes is palpable, but the shock in mine must be ten times greater. Even I didn't know that I'd memorized my reading! Whatever has possessed me? I can hear my mother now; she's supposed to call tonight. "Are you crying, hon?" she'll ask. "Come on, honey, tell me. Tell me all about it."
But, oh, mother, what splendid words shall I use to describe the face of a man whose heart I would like to imprison, the face of a man who has no particular goal regarding myself except, perhaps, to stuff me and enlighten me, to push me into a specific sort of formalized box, one with the word "EDUCATED" stamped on the sides in bright, blocky letters? Though it's not his fault, I am, for him, a mote in a line of faceless hordes, one passing swiftly after the other, class after class, year after year, numbing waves of students, and I no different than the pack.
Or am I? Milton Stroud stares, he narrows his eyes and gathers his forces. He peers at me, he darts a look at the rest of the class, then pushes himself to his feet. Standing now above me, he looks me over once and then begins to pace, to swing himself around our circle and I know, I know it suddenly and for a fact, that he, too, is caged and it is I, the silent one, the one with the tongue of a mouse and a heart as great as the song of myself, who has caged him.
(With apologies and gratitude to Walt Whitman.)
Lines quoted from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself."
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