Louish & Benim
(This short story won the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award 2019. It took me years to write. Most of which were spent adding words, until I realised the story required reduction.)
When the soldiers arrived they lined us boys against the church. The captain moved from one to the next, his gun at head height.
This was how they identified insurgents in the South, where the civil war raged white hot. It was how they won. This is how we rooted you out, the captain said. Lisping tongues are snakes’ tongues.
When I refused to speak he broke my nose with the pistol butt. Other boys cried, surrounded by men who had felt death at their fingers, who would gladly feel it again. Benim stemmed my blood with cloth torn from her dress. That was how we met.
Say, sea salt.
Say, vanilla pod.
Our language was forbidden. No private word seemed to go unheard or unread; the regime’s control bled into everything. Every poem I wrote for her, Benim put to the flame. When I found her diaries, she burned those too.
A generation of children had children. Our mother tongue became their grandmother’s tongue, the forgotten tongue of their dead great-grandmothers.
Say, passenger pigeon.
Say, Bali Tiger.
For seventy years the regime ruled, until a water supply was poisoned. Whole towns sick, soldiers and police too, the people rose up. Even when clean water was brought in on flat-bed trucks, they kept rising.
Fragile was the peace that followed. Sons kept watchful tongues around fathers; lovers whispered redacted secrets. To wield such power even in defeat, this was the regime’s greatest victory.
You spoke the language in private?
Never, Benim said. That tongue is a dead tongue.
She sat at a desk in the old elementary school. Under a light too fierce, too close, she remembered me and the resistance that almost got her killed. She remembered the night of my disappearance.
Benim looked down at herself: an old woman with old hands. She had long accepted that her death meant the death of our language. Yet now this anthropologist, she said to call her Amanda, sought to embalm it in recordings and transcripts.
The language and story of your people need not end with you, she said.
The tape machine’s mechanism clicked and shunted. Amanda said, I will start by asking you to say individual words in the language. Say, orange.
Benim felt the pistol at her mouth.
They had interrogated her like this when she was nineteen.
I will not, Benim said.
Amanda took her glasses in her palm and squeezed the flesh between her eyes.
I want to help you, Benim said. But what is dead is dead.
Would you recognise it? If you heard it aloud?
There is no one else.
Amanda ejected one tape and inserted another. It whirred to life.
On the recording Amanda said, Say, orange. Benim bit her lip and I spoke a word that blossomed citrus bitter and citrus sweet. She felt how she had that first time, my body shivering above her, though it was summer, though we burned with heat.
Is that the word for orange? Amanda asked.
The tape spooled on; I said apple and I said papaya.
To Amanda it seemed that Benim was hard at listening, her eyes fixed on the turning of the reel. But Benim was not listening at all. She played out the probable events that had led to my voice speaking words that barely seemed part of her anymore. In this, Benim found a truth that had long stood on the periphery of her knowledge.
Do you recognise these words? Amanda stopped the tape and they were once more alone.
After my disappearance there had been rumours and, some years later, an old friend came to find Benim, sure that he had seen me in a café in the capital, wearing the uniform of the regime.
Do you want me to play it again?
No, Benim said. I do not know what this man has told you, but this is not the language of my people.
Are you sure?
It was getting late. Benim was hungry and the journey home was long; there were still checkpoints and peacekeeping forces in the North. The bare bulb flickering above had brought on a dull headache. They agreed a date for one more interview, but Amanda never saw Benim again.
Say, Poppy Seed.
When she heard the news, Amanda visited Benim’s home. She was welcomed suspiciously by the small group of mourners. Accepting tea and giving her condolences, she stayed for a respectful amount of time, thinking of all the research and resources, all the good fortune and hard work that had brought her here. The sheer distance travelled. She thought of the old man whose testimony had been cast into doubt. The study was dead, to be worn like an albatross around her neck. She could not bring herself to ask anyone present if they knew of the language she was sure Benim had continued to speak.
A tearful granddaughter had already thanked her for coming when Amanda saw a pile of charred books still smouldering on the hearth. They watched her with mistrust as she lifted a scorched piece of handwritten paper from the fireplace and held it to the light.
You can read a piece of flash fiction I wrote in this place. It’s an idea that I’ve been playing with for some time. We had, by the end of the subscription, two shelves of faux-leather bound books that weren’t for reading in our house. Banned books are exciting books.
(Written for the A3 Review. I’ve been shortlisted a few times, but never managed to get in. This is my favourite submission. 150 words.)
As a kid nobody told me to look up, or said, appreciate these buildings. Manchester’s a crossroads, dad said. Them who can, leave. I studied in Porto, then Barcelona; I work in Bilboa. After years of Gaudi’s ceilings, Gehry’s shifting lines, I’m back in Albert Square. Albert, like my dad.
The neogothic town hall, its façade like a thousand blunted copper knives, personifies the city I’d never truly appreciated. Its inscription reads, Teach Us to Number Our Days.
In the square, Albert’s figure stands inside a ciborium. He lies in state. Four pillars surround him, four sides. They represent the four sciences — chemistry, astronomy, mechanics, maths — the four arts — painting, music, sculpture, architecture. I perceive its meaning: Man is ensnared by learning, by achievement. By pride.
My dad never saw my first commission. When I rang, he said, Remembered where he comes from, has he? They never let you forget.