it was a medical breakthrough. the man received a new tongue. the new tongue seemed to like its new mouth. and the side effect of the new tongue was new hope. (but sadly, no new taste buds.)
the new tongue was once the old tongue of another man, a brain-dead donor. it was cut out of his brain-dead mouth while he was sleeping. and he’d been sleeping a long, long time. but regardless of his impossible condition, the removal of his tongue sadly seemed to officially cast him out of the human race. sealing his fate that he would never speak his heart to another person again.
the man with the new tongue thought about this often. while his connected blood cells explored their new territory, he wondered if his first words to himself would be his own. he imagined that his new tongue might curse him, or speak another language altogether. (he’d always wanted to be bilingual.)
the man felt undeserving. because he used to think of himself as an introvert. he'd simply choose not to talk. ideas and emotions would weigh down his head, but he’d close his mouth shut. and his heavy tongue would just lie there obediently, like a barricade. it made him feel protected.
but undetected, the old tongue quietly organized a coup d’etat. and before the man could form the sounds to object, the tumors crowded his mouth as if to say, “there. just what you wanted.” soon not-talking was not his choice to make. soon freedom of speech did not apply. and he found himself silenced, like the brain-dead donor.
the thought astonished him now and he laughed bitterly at the absurdity of it all (puzzling the nurses who happened to be in his room at the time).
once he had stopped talking, he’d realized how much people talk. how they throw about their words. when he was younger, he, too, would spray careless words like machine-gun fire. even though his grandmother had taught him the power of the tongue. she’d said the tongue could be a flame of fire. untamable.
after weeks of lying in the hospital bed with weakened leg muscles, he thought about how the tongue was one muscle that hardly tired from use. or overuse. or under-use. he envisioned the wagging tongues of his old aunts, chatting incessantly about the neighbors while they sat around the kitchen table, stuffing his favorite sausages. hands and necks and backs ached, but the tongues could still run marathons.
he knew his taste buds could no longer be tantalized. his new tongue would never recognize the spice of these sausages. or cringe at the bite of jalapeno peppers. or savor the dripping sweetness of a nectarine. but right now, he didn’t care. later, after the excitement of the transplant had quieted down, his mouth had long healed, and all he wanted was to be able to break up his monotonous days with the comfort of a familiar meal—he would care. but not now.
now, he thought about all the quiet yearnings he’d had before the operation. before, when his stifling sickness had taught him how to plead with his eyes. he thought about his maddening inability to blurt out ordinary thoughts. how people would often discuss him as though he weren’t there. how lonely and meaningless his daily thoughts or experiences seemed when he couldn’t utter them aloud to share them. he never knew he needed others so much.
in fact, he had realized moments before the anesthesia blacked out his eyes that although he could have lived without a tongue, he could not live without it. it was a vital need—for he had a vital need to be heard.
so he had prayed that, undeserving as he was, his new tongue would not reject him. and he'd sworn that if given the chance, blessings would pour from his lips. he would relish every “r” that rolled off his tongue. he would talk volumes. his heart would always be on the tip of his tongue. he would be tongue-in-cheek. he would bite his tongue. he might even speak in tongues. and he would always be thankfully, joyfully tongue-tied.