Mother Tongue

Edited by Julia Rios

May 2019

Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:

“I opened my mouth and my mother came out.”
I hear the words but can’t comprehend
the yawning pit I feel beneath them
the self-effacing laughter
prepared to devour the unwary.

I stand at the mirror
above my bathroom sink and stare
open mouthed and waiting
on cold tile, under cold light.
I stretch my jaw cat-like, a serpent
ready to swallow my own tail,
if only I could catch it, if I only knew
where it began.

I think I catch glimpses
between strands of dark hair and darker eyes
but it’s only my reflection gazing back
in the way I think I thought you might.
   (Were your eyes like mine? Did you place them
   in my hollowed sockets, trading sight
   for knowledge that I would never have?)

I can almost make out your shape
locked inside the chambers of my heart,
flowing blue in narrowed veins
carrying what-if and never-was
in equal measure.
I search the whorls of my fingers and find
the only parts at once both me and mine,
the only place where I can read
a chapter in my story with all pages
intact.

When I open my skin, I find traces
in coiled loops of intestines and entrails
wrapped like an augury,
in ripples and in blood.
An open wound beside my liver and
a branch of possibilities
breathed out from my lungs.

But I don’t know the sound of you,
never learned to form air
and silence in proper sequence,
the right patterns,
the code needed to pass across
the cords and wires of my throat.
No matter how wide my mouth opens
you will never emerge
and for this I feel a stinging guilt,
as if I am at fault for being born
without a cypher to unlock
more than the name
you left me with.

I think if I could only twist
my body the right way round,
a helix in chains,
then I might somehow translate
the blank pages of the future
you coded for me in language
we never shared.
But there are only so many words
you can spell with letters A, T, C & G
and not one of those is
mother.

About the author

Jessica Jo Horowitz

Jessica Jo Horowitz is a speculative poet and writer who studies fencing and circus arts in the time between. Other works published or forthcoming in Twisted Moon, Apparition Lit, Star*Line, Grievous Angel, and others. Born in Korea, she now lives in New England, where she balances her aversion to cold with the inability to live anywhere without snow. Tweets at @transientj.

Support Fireside

Subscribe to Fireside Quarterly, the beautiful new print edition of Fireside.