Native Tongue

I love hearing how writers got an idea for a novel and being able to follow its journey. In light of that, I thought I’d share how my novel ‘The Waiting Usurper’ began. It started as a short story written in response to an essay by the philosopher Julia Kristeva. In it, she claimed that children learn spoken language to enter the world of the father and so become a subject. The essay is pretty dense reading and not one I enjoyed reading. What I did like was my story and the character in it. About 4 years later, I returned to the idea and the character.

Native Tongue

My mother was the maker of myths, told from a face ever-changing in the flickers from our fire. It was her words I mimicked, copying the movement of her mouth.  She filled the hut with a voice of many shades. Her language was an ancient and private one. Long words eased from her lips like honey dripping from our wooden spoon into my mouth.  I cut those words into unrecognisable shorter syllables. 
      Her stories were meant as teachings and prophecies, but, as a child, I only understood the sound and the push of her warm breath down my ear. Those stories and words lodged themselves somewhere, somewhere deep. Maybe inside my bones or inside my stomach. Later, when I was older and she was dead, I whispered those stories to my love: stories of him that he shouldn’t have heard. They made his princely chest puff out and his chin jut up. At first, I spoke the stories in his father’s language. Though it was an ugly, guttural thing, the stories lost none of their potency and I fooled myself into believing I didn’t betray her by sharing our womanly tales. 
      Slowly, I taught him a few of my words. I taught them under my scratchy blanket while his body moved at my bidding and his hair darkened at the temples with sweat. I licked the words onto his taut stomach and his muscles, desperate for their first battle. Like me, he didn’t understand the words at first. Like I had, he listened with his eyes mesmerised by the movement of lips. It was a hypnotising language with the lilting cadence of each word drawn out in a woman’s voice. It was clumsy in the baritone of a man. He never learnt to flick the words from his tongue. I would laugh at his attempts and his confused face. When I got bored of his fumbling attempts, I kissed him and said him he’d pronounced the word correctly. 
      In bed, my body spoke the language; my stomach and chest rippled with the breath for each word. The word for lover was so long, so languid, my body would soften into the word same as it would a long exhale. If he squeezed me, I elongated the word further, till it faded into the night like a distant tree song. No wonder he sought me out every night when I had that language. But the language wasn’t always good: it was like me.
      Those words, the power of them, made me wanton with a dangerous spark in my eye that told him I could torment him as easily as I loved him. I had a look of nature reclaiming ancient castles. It was a look the other village girls lost when they were baptised in the river. They lowered their gazes away from him, out of deference, out of servitude. I held his gaze unintimidated by his position or royal beauty because I had this secret language. The language of birth. Of monthly comings. Of the screech owl. Fertility was in my eyes but I wouldn’t call it that. The village saw it, named it that. I named it hunger. And the village knew I’d staked my claim on him. 
      He was the only man powerful enough to take my thrashings and my nails down his back when I needed pieces of flesh, when I needed to release the violence done to my language. He feared me because I could read his body with my ancient words; he couldn’t hide anything behind his long golden lashes. My body held the same force as the earthly rhythms we live by, he knew this. 
I am not other. I am not a conquered woman. I am a woman created from a long line of women who held secrets in the first language we shared, a language coming from a place men don’t have. He loved my language and sought it in the tastes, the textures, the flush of my skin because it’s the closest thing he had to returning home.

Copyright 2015 A Head/Photo1 by Catalin Pop on Unsplash/Photo2 by Dalton Smith on Unsplash  

Like this poem? You can show your support by buying me a coffee @ or by buying one of my books (The Waiting Usurper, Asphodel Meadows, The Family Care). They can also be borrowed via Kindle Unlimited.

Extracts are available on my website


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