Tongue of the Dead
"Kyevet," says the young woman, waving what is clearly an apple in my face. "Kyevet. Debeh?"
I want to swat at it, but my hands are heavy. So are the arms that connect them. It is cold here in the conference room and there is a faint wisp of papyrus on the air. I stare unhappily at the kyevet and out of spite I say "apple."
It is taken away.
"Ja, nyecht debeh," says the woman brusquely. "Khait rhalu?"
I think about that for a moment. I am not sure if I do want to learn. It's exhausting picking up a new language at this age.
"Khait rhalu," I sigh. No other answer would be accepted. Even to tell the woman that I will not learn my new speech, I would need to use Muhit. When I speak in English, she pretends she cannot hear me. "Maha tvahtin," I continue, looking pointedly at the place where the apple vanished.
The young woman smiles and shows me the kyevet again. When she asks if I debeh, I tell her tcha.
Pancreatic adenocarcinoma was a long word and it lay like a leaden weight on my tongue. Like a leaden weight on my life, I suppose, since everything after it felt so compressed.
My daily routine became about as compact as it could get. Meager breakfast, series of appointments, drip of a needle, make a few calls, whisk myself back and forth between cancer center and home. It might as well have been one of those meal-replacement sticks, the kind that harp on their healthy fiber and protein counts despite having been extruded out of a machine that looks like the guts of a steamroller.
I made time for family and friends as best I could, making sure to squeeze in a little each week to see someone. Eighty percent of people with my particular diagnosis did not make it to five years, so my goodbyes were racing the clock, but I was refusing to let that rush me.
I had done that once already and found it was not for me.
The first day after the diagnosis, I had agreed to have a lovely dinner with a married couple I had known back in college. That night, I had crawled into a bottle and stayed up until three in the morning, just sitting on the lip of my treadmill and staring at my medications, all massed together in a pill-container army.
When I sobered in the morning, I had resolved to take things as slowly as I could afford to.
And I just about made it.
I was being wheeled along down brightly lit corridors when the moment happened.
Pancreatic adenocarcinoma, I was saying, just trying to make my lips move. Just trying to chew on the syntactic structure of the thing that was killing me. Pancreatic adenocarcinoma. I know you. I speak you. I reject you.
I do not know if it heard me. I am not sure it was even listening.
When you die, it is never peaceful. There is a roaring and a shaking and a whiteness that abounds.
And then you sink into it.
You become nothing.
And then your nothing becomes something else.
"Debeh miswah," I say, my throat parched. "Yih debeh miswah," all without prompting.
The young woman smiles, professionally whitened teeth shining under the office lights. She screws the cap off of a plastic bottle emblazoned with a brand I cannot read and tilts it back so I can drink. "Suffiyit?" she asks me after a few gulps.
"Tcha," I splutter and she takes the bottle away.
We have been reviewing proper lexicon. That is, in fact, all we do. It is all we have done since I woke in this chair, stiff and fragile and panting with hurt. I want to touch my chest, to remind myself that I am solid, but my arms move only an inch before falling back to their sides.
"Nyecht. Khait dybaswah?" asks the woman, tutting.
I do not want to hurt myself, but it is frustrating all the same. I shake my head incrementally.
"Wisyim," prompts the woman.
"Nyecht khait dybaswah," I reassure her. "Yih khait rahlu."
"Ja, rahlu," she says. Outside the office room, I imagine I can hear the snapping of alligators. I imagine I can hear the creaking of golden scales.
"Matrihet," says the woman, enunciating carefully as she holds up a picture of an airplane.
Or as she holds up a picture of a matrihet, I remind myself.
I was never much of an atheist. Never stuck to it with the same passion I had seen others use. In the face of my own mortality, I found myself slipping more than once into prayer.
I was a comfort seeking behavior, I told myself. There was no room for God in a world made up of bullet-trains and cat-scans and the complaints of millennials. Nevertheless, I would sometimes find a pew and listen in discomfort to the yesterday dreams of a kingdom held high.
It gave me just enough solace, like a handwarmer cupped between palms, to carry me through the clinical-smelling spaces that composed my days.
It saw me to right up near the end, when it fractured around the aching in my guts and never came back.
No big loss, I had thought during one of my last waves of lucidity. Now I can die clear and rational, not like some desperate superstitious ape.
Imagine my surprise when I awoke again to cool, conditioned air and the distant metal shaking of a sistrum.
As my education continues, my body grows looser. Arms which were nyecht mobile slowly begin to flex and shed their rigor. My toes cease to be a single stiff lump. My jaws unclamp. My rahlu improves and I find my repertoire of words broadening maha and maha.
Eventually, yih am able to stand with ease and the woman invites me to walk around the room.
"Miklik," she tells me. "Shytah miklik."
I go as shytah as I can, knocking over a chair and having to catch myself on the edge of the conference table. I wonder briefly if I ought to feel winded, but my lungs are two inert lumps in my chest.
"Misprillah," the woman says, clapping her hands excitedly. This is the first praise that I have heard since waking. She tells me that I am almost ready to go outside.
I do not remember the time before I was born.
When I think about it, though, it yawns like an impossible gulf in my mind. It waits hungrily just outside of my history, ready always to take a bite.
Fortunately for the human psyche, we lose sight of this quickly, settling as we do down to the frustrations of living.
For me, the first of those was speech.
I can remember being barely a toddler, wailing while I gestured inarticulately at a cookie. And I can remember just as clearly my mother standing by, arms folded, prompting "treat. Can you say treat?"
My intentions are clear, I must have thought wordlessly. I know I am understood. Why must we go through these extra steps?
Eventually I managed a "weet", because the memory ends with my lips saturated in crumbs.
The woman sits me down with a partner. We are in a broader hall, long and laid thick with cheap plastic tables, and the subdued din of a thousand other conversations fills the recycled air.
My partner is young, perhaps thirty eight, and a red-head. She still wears the car accident that killed her in the unhealed cuts on her face and in the canted break of her neck.
"Yih pladhim atreu," she tells me and I extend the greeting back.
Looking at her, it is impossible to tell what her native language might have been. Her posture is German, but her cheekbones might be Irish. Her attitude is modern; which is to say lost and scared and all closed in by a world she does not yet understand.
I offer her a fraction of my old CFO smile. "Atreu rahlu benet."
She shakes her head. Shorn vertebrae grind together but she does not seem to notice. Out of politeness, I choose not to either. "Yih rahlu latimah. Maha latimah."
"Maheuse latima," corrects the woman that is minding us. We both look chagrined. "Wisyim," says our minder, and we repeat after her: maheuse latima.
Unwilling to be stymied, I dive back into the conversation. In grammatically inexact snatches of syntax, I tell her about how much I like crisp, red kyevet and cool harumah's days. I tell her about my own rahlu and how I bring dybaswah down upon half the words I try. My partner snorts and tells me that this is nyecht the case. That I am very johtah. That she likes speaking to yih.
An hour passes before we are both rotated away. Other partners on other benches share with us their own learnings, and by frustrating dribs and darumachs, our understanding grows.
When you realize with absolute certainty for the first time that you are going to die, there is a culling that happens. A winnowing of thoughts. All the non-essentials get rounded up and swept to the sides of the mind, there to lie in heaps while the core parts of your identity are inventoried.
In a similar way, your language also shrinks. Certain words are simply not meant to belong in a mind that is headed for death.
There is no such thing as a susurrus. No solipsis. No partisan. These are living words of a taste too rich for those who are preparing to pass. They smack too much of life. Of its nonsensical luxuries.
To remember behemoth, or alterity, or quisling is to cling too close to the world just as it is being taken from you.
To die properly, you really only need three words:
I, hurt, and afraid.
The sliding doors open and let me out onto the little asphalt circle. There are sedans being brought around by men who look like crocodiles. Automobile exhaust fills the pavement-warmed air.
My minder gives me a little push and says "atreu benet. Ikyim."
"Garad adanah," I thank her and step up to a waiting cab.
High overhead, Ra is just starting to descend the horizon. The ground is still baking under his light and off in the highway-marked distance, I can see the skyscraper outline of a city in the desert.
I have no coin with which to pay the man that attends me, but he tells me through a heavy accent that he does not mind. This is simply his job.
Before I step into his vehicle, he points a long clawed finger at the entrance to the building I just left. Large block letters over the doors spell out "Yatasheh."
"Immigration," I realize it means - but that is a word torn from a world I no longer occupy.
I sweep immigration out of my brain.
And in its place:
yih rahlu yatasheh.
- Dedication -
For Sir Terry Pratchett.
May there be strangeness also in your desert.