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How to Steal a Language, by Olga Musial

Updated: Aug 24

This piece is part of our “Tails + Tales” teen summer writing initiative inspired by the 2021 national summer reading theme chosen annually by the Collaborative Summer Library Program.


Ma slides out of an elevator mouth, hefting boxes into the car until the trunk can’t quite shut. Empty cardboard hemmed in with duct tape, my name sharpied onto them in black. The littlest of us are still asleep, waiting for Ma to snatch our pillows from beneath our heads in the morning, hoping we’d gotten enough sleep to drive me cross-country to the south. In the south, the heat is something personal, like a dog rubbing in-between your legs, exhaling sticky breaths. The south, I hear, melts people into flexible clay.


The plan is easy, and hangs up on our refrigerator–melt, melt, melt. Bones into clay, dead tissue in place of skin, limbs that only move when she moves them, like a puppet. Clay cannot tell Ma it doesn’t want to touch throats for a living, like she does. Treat people by removing unwanted objects from their throats, keys and keychains and languages. The second floor of the laryngology department is a treasure chest, a drawer brimmed with wooden toys and statues and words she’d uprooted from the stems of strangers’ mouths. Each child is a section, each named in pink sharpie, Johnny, Annie, daughter.


‘It must be medicine,’ she says, and I tell myself in front of the mirror,


‘I am into white-frocked people, sting-like needles and formaldehyde burning my nostrils.’


Perhaps if we knew how to talk, we’d have sorted it out. I must understand, how sometimes, between two people, language doesn’t work the way it’s meant to, only buzzes hopelessly, and turns into static, where it should’ve been words and phrases. Sometimes, it is not language that should be blamed – sometimes, there’s thieves ambushed to snatch the sounds from your throat.


‘Have you brought the pans? Your underwear? It signifies unluck if you forget something of yours while moving, you know,’ she struggles out, gurgling, as if it was her language departing, as if she was in the process of forgetting it, as if language could be a lost wallet, something you leave mistakenly on your kitchen table.


The pans rattle, squeaking like toddlers when I bathe them in foam. Only it is not them squeaking, but sister. She’s sneaked out of her room and now has her feet planted downstairs. Sister has legs like noodles and must be watered to grow and not whither.


‘I came to say goodbye. You know, it doesn’t have to be medicine. It doesn’t have to be all her and zero you,’ she says. ‘The easiest way to snatch a person is to strip them naked of their language, so they have no words to protest, no tales to tell. What’s left of a person if you strip them of their stories?’


Sister has been at a school, only grew ill and had to come back. She was sent there after a pony-tailed social worker had come to haul her along. ‘She does not speak!’ the woman said. ‘She needs rules, strict rules and rulers on her palms and palms on her burning cheeks. But whatever have you done to her, Ma’am? It must be those diets, all over the tv…’


She was at the age of skirts and satin bows, only came back in battered bedsheets, a home-cut hairstyle which left her hair rugged, a woolen nest of red hay-like strands. She cut it by putting a pot on top of her head, she says. I hear it’s either you have your hair cut by a pot or practice bizarre dietary restrictions, like the girl who worshipped beans.


‘Oh, but I do that, too!’ she says pridefully, nibbling only on Ma’s low-calorie fruit from the market.


‘They’re easy, so easy to convince!’ marvels Ma, her eyes glittery, almost, with excitement ‘they say the mangoes are quite remarkable for your health, and low-calorie, too!’. She thrusts spit-out bits of mango into her pocket, to put in the drawer. If sister used to be her language, she now remains as mangoes. Without our language, she whispers, we are nobodies. What’s left of a person once you strip them of their language? and louder,


‘Well, it is a new diet, top notch, really.’


I see her deflating, without her backbone of language, and she doesn’t even need Ma’s low-calorie fruit for that. Losing one is a tiresome process – it goes gradually, threads of sounds leaving their stems, until they grow muffled against the knot of your tongue.


‘Come here,’ says Ma, and thrusts a spoon of mashed mango into her half-open mouth. Sister has grown too easy to feed. I hold my fork tight, clutch a spoon and put it in my mouth myself. Instead, I thrust a spoon into her half-open mouth. ‘Try out those conjunctions,’ I tell her when Ma turns to slice the gorgonzola. ‘They’re delectable.’


Remains of my nouns rest on her scratched-up plate, beneath the mountain of fork and knife, beneath the potato mash and cooked beets. She does it so I don’t notice, sneaks up on me and tucks my language away in her pot, to mix with salt and pepper and perhaps some chili. She scratches plates with forks and knifes, squeezes sound out of them and eats them too. Forks and knifes, they don’t have many means of stopping it. Me, I’d take vocabulary quizzed nested underneath the curve of my duvet, muffling Ma’s flashlight with a cotton sock, to stop it.


Ma feeds the trunk with cardboard until it doesn’t close. She butts into the house and up the stairs, creak, crack, creak, they cry. In the hall, she has hung up stack of pictures, pig-tailed girls and her hands clutched around their necks.


The girl on the picture heard only gibberish stories from a mother without a mother tongue, and horrors from sister.


Your verbs loosen their grip on the swells of your brain, she’d say, nouns fade into blotches of fog. Ma is an inconspicuous thief and hides those words deep down her throat, almost devours them whole, smuggling vowels in her stomach, consonants in her liver. Just wait until she snatches up on your I am’s. Sneak up on them at night, rip them apart, vowel by vowel, consonant by consonant. I-a-m. I-a-m. aɪæm, snatched right from the throat, fresh and sound. They have tools for that, you know. That’s what they do for a living.


But language can’t be an easy thing to steal if it takes so much trickery. Ma, she had to grow a tunnel out of my mind into hers. ‘It’s beautiful,’ she said, ‘this connection between us only. So spiritual, I think.’


She’s been squatting before the tv, watching too much yoga.


Ma is now hefting boxes of words out of my mind and into the car, empty cardboard hemmed in with duct tape and tagged with her name in black marker.


I worry I might need them at college, perhaps ask politely to have them back, but the day we’re about to leave I wake up to find the sock from my flashlight is missing, and in my body, there is nobody.


Olga Musial (she/her) is a dedicated Garamond enthusiast and fiction writer from Warsaw, Poland. She is forthcoming in The Global Youth Review. For more literary endeavours, follow her on twitter at @olgamusial.


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