Sublingua

By Cameron Finch

The dream goes like this: I am standing in a kitchen, standing at the sink. The world is dark outside, morning or night. Over the sink, I am holding a knife, a startling chef knife for chopping very fine onions or apples. Always the knife is arranged horizontally, as if I’m restraining it against the pull of levitation. Sometimes I bring my face to the knife, sometimes I bring the knife to my face. I look at the knife, I really look at it. 

Do I look at anything the way I look at this knife? 

As if it were a world. 

And then, I lick the blade, I just lick it! 

The thinness. The slicing part. Left to right, tip to handle, as easy and pleasing as finishing an envelope, or inspecting the long end of a wooden popsicle stick. 

I lick it and am satisfied at the person I have been. I am the one with the tongue that survived another dream.

Knives are concerning matters. I know this. Yet I am safe in the cushion of this dream. There is no pain here, no death drives, no fear or stress or anger. And when there’s bloodshed – because there is sometimes bloodshed (my real body has been on the hunt for alternate ways of punctuating itself for some time now) – it’s the thoughtless blood, the kind that isn’t real, cinema blood, the riskless blood.

This is not a confession. It is a releasing of bodily burdens. It is curiosity for another way.

Still, in the dream, I look over my shoulder with caution. Do not get caught. And yet, the halving through the wide part of my tongue releases into me a coolness, like the outlaw coolness of menthol as it trickles down a lacquered throat and finds itself a home, a coolness that evaporates all concern of being found out. Sensation over conscience. 

I imagine the slit scarring my tongue like a nest of striations. You know those rocks with white stripes – I call them measuring tapes – around their bellies. My slit is not a measuring tape – it isn’t numbered or readable. It is there and then is not, repairing and preparing for the next dream to come. 

Still, imagine having two tongues! Little meats, the one standing on the other’s back, keeping each other warm, keeping each other company. Why stop at two? I am fighting – fighting – binaries. Let us stack the tongues up like carpets, sliced finely as tomato skins. What a thrill! to possess your own private champion right there in the satchel of your mouth. 

I’ve been reading about lemurs and their sublingua, a quest or maybe distraction on the way to knowing myself. 

Sublingua. Under-tongue. With no taste buds of its own, the sublingua’s function is to remove unwanted fur and debris from the crevices between the lemur’s grooming teeth.

Sublingua. I want to speak this word to everyone I meet. Sublingua, the Musical! Sublingua, how luxurious! An under speech, a quieted ecstatic dance, a dust ballet beneath a muscled stage, with a grammar of gestures all its own.

I’ve been seeking out a tongue body to cast away all this lingual debris that daily enlivens, emboldens our world’s mighty impasse. The fricative impasse of my own body, too. 

So, what is the function of the tongue dream? Other than to have something to tell you about. 

Are dreams our brain’s sublingua? 

I keep a knife between the wall and my bed, in case I dream throughout the night. Why the night? Where does the knife tongue spend the day? Is this what it means to be sub-lingua? A night being, a fruit staticking a bowl? 

The under-language. Some of us power in the dark with it. 

If my sublingua is a sock hand in the mouth, marine creature sleeping as I do, who can hear this alien puppet’s song? 

You can, of course. 

You can, and I imagine so can the tongue, with its own unique and impossible listening mechanisms. 

The body was very difficult last night. Having one > I mean. 

Everything is seeping to the surface it seems. 

The mounds and their meanings. 

I am everywhere I go, and I am tired of assumptions. 

Do I wish for myself a tongue body? Chestless, sexless, exempt from public haunt, nothing but tongue and the dance of itself. 

Do I think of anything the way I think of tongues? As if they were another world.

There’s a Dutch poem I always liked – 

Ik wou dat ik twee hondjes was. 

I wish that I was two dogs. 

Dan kon ik samen spelen. 

Then I could play together. 

Play with me for a moment. Let’s replace the hound with tongue. 

Is this lonely? Sexy? 

I can see only tongues as they are. Nothing modifying. Two tongues, plump and significant not-quite-genders, side by side, or maybe stacking. They have no need for contact in order to play together. They are playing, together apart. They are creating their own survival. Their playing and existing are of symbiotic natures.

But, what is all this romanticizing about the wealth of tongues? Tongues are not free. Enslaved by our wants, they are ridiculed and beleaguered and victims of quick judgments or no judgments at all. 

Here comes the confession, I am ready to confess this part. 

I have never consulted with my tethered tongue. Not even at the sink with the knife in my hand. 

I ask, the tongue does. Now what does the tongue have to say about that.

To my tongue: tell me you can keep a secret. I do not know my tongue’s own language – terrible, I know. If not with words, then where does a tongue find its voice? 

Robin Wall Kimmerer: “What if you were a teacher but had no voice to speak your knowledge? What if you had no language at all and yet there was something you needed to say?”

Kimmerer is speaking of plants, but who is speaking for the tongue? What language does our most articulate organ use to express itself? What sound does the tongue make to entertain itself in the dark aloneness of a mouth?

“Wouldn’t you dance it? Wouldn’t you act it out? Wouldn’t your every movement tell the story?” 

Tongue, what are you trying to tell us? Don’t you, too, speak with waltzing, writhing motions? A tongue sliced out of its home body – would it stay still and silent? What then? 

“In time you would become so eloquent that just to gaze upon you would reveal it all.” 

Open your mouth, tongue. Your sublingua is listening. The knife is on the table. 

Tongue: 

It is impossible not to reveal yourself.

Tongue: 

More impossible to unreveal once begun.

The knife is on the table. The sweetheart of the Green Berets, with the warning pink sweater and molten oil smeared on her face, the blackened leather tongues strung like impaled cicadas on a copper coil around her neck – she is nowhere to be found. She will not make a spoil out of you. We are told she is part of the land again, creeping back into it. She still knows power and torture, oh yes. She carries that with her. Just different now. And the tongues? They are returning to the land, too, crawling on their hands and knees as they turn into other things, relieved.

Tongues are rampant in literature. Gendered, mostly. Violent, mostly. Hacked,  wrenched, stolen, swallowed, molested, held, worn.  

Could there still be a chance for us yet? The sea witch is in the other room. Her cauldron is bubbling over, she is distracted, her back is turned. We can escape back into ourselves, our pith language, by the skin of our tongues. 

I feel I am beginning to see myself in every common tongue. Is this true? I don’t know. I’m finding it impossible to speak about anything, about bodies, about having one, being one. Tongue or no tongue.

But the mind knife is again in my grasp, slick and spooling, silver between my teeth. My glossary is salivating. The taboo of the lick, the theater of it, I am almost haunted by all this hope. 

You see, in my dream, what I lick can’t hurt me. I articulate and it comes out just right.


References: 

  1. The phrase “exempt from public haunt” is from William Shakespeare’s play As You Like It. 
  2. The Dutch poem refers to Michel van der Plas’s poem, “Spleen” (2012). 
  3. Lines from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s essay, “The Three Sisters.” Braiding Sweetgrass (2013).
  4. The story of the Green Berets and the tongue necklace refers to Tim O’Brien’s story,  “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.” The Things They Carried (1990).
  5. In Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”, the sea witch cuts out the mermaid’s tongue and boils it in her cauldron. 

BIO: Cameron Finch is a writer, dreamer, editor, community arts member, and tree kin, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Cameron’s writing appears in various places including The Adroit Journal, The Common, CRAFT, Electric Literature, Isele, Michigan Quarterly Review, Tiny Molecules, and The Rumpus. Read more at ccfinch.com.


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Published by Sarah Leamy

Sarah Leamy, MFA, is an award-winning writer and a bit of a wanderer. She has lived in England, Germany, Spain, Guatemala, Baja Mexico, and the Southwest of the US. She is the founder and editor of Wanderlust, an international travel journal.

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