For this, the spookiest weekend of the year, Zoe Bellerive’s debut short story, “Mother Tongue” captivates even as it delivers on the chills. ~ Julian and Fran, October 29, 2023
by Zoe Bellerive
Listen: my mama is a witch, and I am going to tell you the worst thing she ever done to me.
Last Wednesday she cut out my tongue! Then she cut hers out too and sewed it into my mouth with a blunt needle and some catgut.
She could not then tell me why she done it, for she had no tongue in her head. And I could not ask, because hers was too big for mine, and that was making a hard job of all the yelping and yammering I was doing already.
She shoved me out the back door and locked it after.
I screeched and it sounded like underwater. There was a bucket of scraps from the kitchen on a broken chair by the door, all rotten marrows and putrid rinds. I heaved it up both hands and slopped it at the window. Then I ran off.
It was three days before my tongue was right-size again and I was not going home considering what my mama’d get up to with a magic big as this. When she was doing big conjuring, you didn’t wanna be anywhere near that house on account of the cat-piss smell and the customers, even when she was just using roadkill parts. So I went to the edge of the swamp behind the Super Walmart where there was a broken-down trailer nobody lived in, which was a good hiding spot because it was easy as nothing to sneak up to the store in the middle of the night and take what food they threw in the dumpster. Good food, too! One time I got a whole box of Twinkies a little squashed in the middle and a carton of eggs, still cold, with only two broken, and also a head of lettuce, which is important ’cause if you don’t eat vegetables, your stomach rots.
I know how to cook eggs. Mama taught me two years ago when I turned eight. And the best thing about the trailer, why it’s my best hideaway, is that it’s got a stove without the gas cut off so I don’t have to suck eggs raw like a fox.
Anyway. So I was there in the trailer figuring out my new tongue. I couldn’t tell exactly when it was done being swelled up ’cause it was bigger’n mine anyway; Mama’s got a big mouth. When I thought it was maybe down to size, I tried speaking some words.
“Beep bop boop. Wiggly waggly. Crumb bum dumb,” I said. “Damn yer wicked soul to hell.” It seemed to work all right. I looked in the old cracked-in-half mirror in the bathroom and my face didn’t look no different than before, ’cept that my hair was in limp yellow strings.
The trailer creaked. There wasn’t even a television for noise to cover up the creaking. I felt lonesome after being there three whole days all on my own. Didn’t wanna go back to Mama’s till it’d been at least a week, though, so I went to visit my friend Maribeth, who lived a mile or so down the road.
When I knocked on the door, her mama answered. “Hi, Cassie,” she said. Then she looked around behind me. “Does your mother know you’re here?”
“Oh yes,” I said, in my best definite voice. “I told her I was gonna walk over here and she said sure it’s fine, Cassie, just be home in time for dinner.”
That seemed like the kind of thing Maribeth’s mom would approve of.
“You looking for Maribeth?”
“I need her help with a . . . a project,” I said.
She crost her arms and shook her head. “Sorry, sweetheart. Maribeth’s got homework.”
She said “sweetheart,” but her voice was sour. I stamped my foot a little.
“Just tell her to come outside. Just for a minute.”
Then she left me standing on the porch and shut the door, which I think was not very good manners, but I waited. I waited a long time. Finally the door opened and it was Maribeth and not her mama.
“What happened to you?” she said.
I shrugged. “Got muddy. Whatcha doing?”
“Just some science homework.” She scuffed her shoe on the stoop. “It’s boring.”
“You wanna come with me frog-catching?”
Maribeth scrunched her face. “It’s gonna be gross and muddy out there. I don’t wanna stink like swamp. You stink like swamp already.”
“Come with me. It’s just a few minutes. The spring peepers are out. We can catch one.”
Maribeth followed me out of the cul-de-sac and through the woods to the edge of the swamp. The peepers were loud there, screek-screek-screeking even in the middle of the day. Hungry, Mama would say. Them’s hungry critters. I don’t think she meant they wanted food.
I climbed out on a big old tree root over what looked like a good spot for frogs. I laid down on that root and stretched my bony witch-daughter fingers toward the mud. Then I got real quiet.
“You’re gonna fall off there, Cassie.”
“Stop talking! You can’t talk or they’ll scare. Now I gotta start all over again.”
Maribeth pouted and picked dead swamp grass and tied it in knots. When I still didn’t move, she wandered off to where spring flowers bloomed under the mulberry trees that were still all bare and winter-like.
A slick frog came jumping up the bank and settled a hair too far away for my hand to reach. Not a peeper, a big one, all glistening green and gold. Come on, I thought. Just a little closer. My hand hung over the mud like a night snake, waiting to flash.
There it was: leap! grab! I got him, right round the waist. He kicked something fierce, but I didn’t let go. Heavy feller, near filled my hands.
“I got one! Maribeth! I got one, come see!”
Maribeth came back from where the flowers was. She had a bunch of crocuses in her hand. She looked at the frog, and her face got weird and scrunchy, then something else that was maybe scared.
“It’s just a frog.” I held it up. My elbow had pits in it from the bark on the root. “Won’t hurt you none. You wasn’t scared of frogs last year—what happened?”
Maribeth shook her head. Her ponytail slapped the sides of her face and she opened her mouth but nothing came out.
“Tell me what’s the matter,” I said, like my mama would have.
She gasped. “What did you do to me, you freak? You told me to hush and I couldn’t talk!”
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