by Joanna Turner
(2023 Short Story Competition 2nd Place Winner)
I was born with words in my bones.
They seeped out as I grew and as they floated by, I caught them in chubby hands, greedily gobbling them back up: seeping; eating; over and over. I was a child with no fear of consuming a word before I understood what it meant. While my father dreamily pondered what to do with such a child, cheerily drinking his warm beer at the pub, my mother wondered why I could not have shared the words with my older brother, who had none of the inclination or bone bearing words that I did.
My mother tried to help my brother. She acquired flash cards, with 100-point font in bold black letters printed on one side of the thin flimsy card, with a coloured image representing the word on the back. She diligently went around our home, sticking them to the associated physical item at a child’s eye level. As my brother toddled around our house, his eyes would slip and slide over the black markings, while I lay swaddled in a cot in the corner. She wasn’t to know that his eyes were not hungry for those black letters. Nothing tells you in advance about your children and their proclivities. His eyes and his mouth were hungry for bright toys and fun games and the tasty food our mother created.
My mother did not recognise my unusual hunger until I was a toddler, crawling around the house, chasing down the black marks like a scavenger hunt. I was oblivious when they fell in my wake but gurgled my delight when upon turning, discovered a horde. Where would the magical marks be next? My hunger was never sated, even when I found a bundle of unused cards in the toy box, and I tore through them excitedly. What magic these things contained, that explained themselves? Words appeared in my head, like a thought bubble in a cartoon. I imagine it to be like this, for the reality is that I have no memories of that time. No memories of my mother enunciating the words to me, or memories of using the cards, or roaming the house as I gathered my own regurgitated collection of slippery little letters.
The hunger for the words didn’t leave. In pre-school I devoured stories about a dragon living in a magical place called Puddle Lane. I leapt from blue boards, to green, to orange. I neither understood nor cared what the stage numbers, carefully labelled on the top right-hand corner on the cover, were supposed to mean. I ignored the children around me as I gorged on the words, going eagerly back and forth between the big box of magical word containers and my place on the mat on the floor, as the words piled up around me. All I cared about was more words and the way they made what appeared to be a television show in my head.
Not long ago, my father told me what a problem I had caused. The school said I was consuming too many words and not sharing them with others, and worse, eating those that were years ahead of my peers’ tastes. What were they to do, he laughed, with a child like that?
I wanted to say, give the child more words. Words are recyclable, they could be shared, they should be shared. If I had known, I would have shared all the words when I was done with them.
The hunger was never sated. I ravaged my mother’s library. It was carefully curated between my room and my brother’s. I assume it was sorted between what my mother had hoped would attract my brother, and the more age-appropriate words in my room. They were from her childhood, set in another country and another lifetime that I would never live in. I tasted words from different places, homing in on an age and world I wish I might have lived in, with people I wished I knew. I was not particularly discerning, but I didn’t eat from a wide array either. I knew what I wanted, and I wanted those words again and again, written by those names I recognised. New names were to be viewed warily, until they conformed with what my hunger desired. I ferreted in the garden shed, searching amongst my mother’s and grandfather’s leftover library, which was neglected and left to grow musty, nibbled by mice, because all the words couldn’t be contained in the house. They dribbled and trailed out of the cardboard boxes, bent, creased, and mingling with the dead cockroaches and silverfish. Treasure was sometimes unearthed, rewards for a diligent search of images with names and words I recognised. My coveted prizes were carried back into the house and displayed to my mother with pride. Once my mother said to me, I am glad you like these. These words are from my life as a child. These were the words I ate long ago.
It is difficult to appreciate the words that make up a person when you are not living with them at the same age of consumption. With those words, I got to know my mother as I never had known her before. Words created long ago, coming forward through time. My mother no longer consumes the words, and I cling to those she left behind. I horde the last collection of words she was consuming, wondering if I will ever be brave enough to find out what they are, the crease holding her place forever between one word, one world, and the next.
I now feed the hunger and gobble down many other words because I know that time, and words, can disappear. Sometimes, I sit among old words, smelling the mouldering of vanilla and musk. I taste words again and again. I hope my hunger is never sated because that will mean it is the end. Unless I share my words.
Would you like a taste?