SHORT STORY: Speaking With Tongues
An insightful tale of woe in a village called Lack, from DW Lewis
The village is called Lack. The villagers wear rags, shoes with no soles, hats that are holes. Doors hang crooked, the wind insolent in the gaps. Windows have a tendency to be broken, like the people, who are arrayed with slings and crutches and bandages. Lack is a broken kind of a place. Clocks run slow, trains never leave the station, televisions flicker and fade, lawnmowers swipe circular chunks from the earth. The world is a kind of dementia. Taps drip brown water. Streets are paved with excrement. Heavy metals pollute the schoolyard, where a basketball hoop lolls at the end of a rusty thread.
Asides modern play facilities, the villagers of Lack are also lacking:
a winning mentality
a sense of destiny
patio tables (and chairs)
Shaker style kitchens.
But what the villagers lack most of all is tact. People say what they think and what people think is disgusting, mean and hurtful – thoughts that should fester in dank places, multiplying but never going forth, are liberated, brain to lip in a nanosecond. Tongue biting is anathema, the result endless arguments and feuds. Everyone is at odds with everyone else.
The villagers are also incapable of learning. Experience counts for nothing. They repeat the same mistakes again and again. For example, a man hits a woman, apologises, then five minutes later, hits her again. The woman laughs it off. It would break a mother’s heart. But then such a mother beats her children with a poker and never apologises. More than stupidity, this inability to learn is a force in its own right.
Life has been boiled down to its essence – EAT, SHIT, FUCK, SLEEP, and when it works WATCH TV. This is the mantra that can be heard in every dwelling in Lack. EAT, SHIT, FUCK, SLEEP, and when it works WATCH TV.
Beyond these parameters, the villagers have one desire only – to cross the border. The border is barbed wire and dogs and shards of glass. The border is wailing klaxons and deep-rooted thorny hedges. It is moats and mantraps. It is insurmountable, unsurpassable.
Over the border, far beyond the reach of any of the villagers, is Plenty. The citizens of this handsome metropolis wear hand-tailored suits and orthodontic braces. Sickness is confined to rest homes in leafy suburbs. The canals are dredged twice a year, the hanging baskets watered regularly. Smokeless fuel burns in every grate. Plenty is a city of bells, with churches, chapels and cathedrals in epidemic proportions, one if not two for every day of the year.
Asides places of worship, the citizens of Plenty also have in abundance:
fresh cut flowers
emergency exits in public buildings
Shaker style kitchens.
Plenty has never left the good old days. Citizens ooze civility. Back doors are left open, young constables stroll the boulevards. Bluebirds nest in the clock towers. Chewing gum is banned. Supermarkets open 24 hours a day and only stock local produce. There are night classes and training days and part-time degrees and correspondence courses. The inhabitants of Plenty are always learning. Their mantra is SEIZE THE DAY, YESTERDAY AND TOMORROW AND MAKE THEM IDENTICAL.
Yet the citizens of Plenty are not easy in their happiness. They are afraid of exile to Lack. Occasionally, and at random, the courts make an example of a petty criminal – a bankrupt, drug addict or speeder say – and order the police to drive the unfortunate from the city, across the border. Lack is the bogie man. It keeps citizens awake at night.
Despite their differences, the villagers of Lack and citizens of Plenty have at least one thing in common. Neither is aware that a tunnel runs beneath the border, beneath the barbed wire, watchtowers and moats. The entrance is on a hillside, concealed by thick bushes, a cave, then a tunnel, made fast by an iron gate. The key to the gate has been in the possession of my family for generations, during which time we have performed a singular service – the provision of bell-ringers for the cathedrals of Plenty.
The city has four cathedrals, all with giant bells, some as big as horses, some as big as houses. St Augustine’s, the oldest cathedral, requires a band of sixteen ringers to make its five bells sing in unison. The air in the ringing room judders, the noise phenomenal. The ringers of St Augustine’s go deaf in a month. In St Michael’s where the bells are slightly smaller it takes three. St Hugo’s, which has several wooden floors between ringers and clappers, anything up to six. And in some strange twist of acoustics, in the bell-tower of St Brigitte’s, which has high-pitched bells set hundreds of feet above the ringers’ heads, the notes are so piercing that deafness occurs after a matter of weeks. The onset of madness is less easy to predict but most of the bell-ringers succumb in the end.
Candidates are not hard to find. Walk down any street in Lack and there in the gutter lies the inevitable man, woman or child. I pick them up, wash, clothe and feed them, then put a contract on the table. I tell no lies, I do not oversell the life that awaits them, I do not coerce. Is it my fault that the majority of villagers are illiterate and cannot read the small print? In any case, the handful that do manage to read it – petty criminals from Plenty say – are still eager to sign.
I take them one by one. We slip out of Lack at night, the villager blindfolded. In the cave, I replace the blindfold with a halter and let them lead. Halfway along the tunnel is a small chamber, with a tabular stone at its entrance, and a series of knives hanging on the wall. Here, directly beneath the border, neither in Lack nor in Plenty, I cut out the tongues of the villagers. I am so practiced by now that I like to think they hardly notice a thing. It is a necessary evil. They must not talk. No one in Plenty can know where they are from. When I’ve finished I throw the neatly severed tongue into the chamber.
Five hundred yards on, the tunnel ends at a trapdoor, which opens into a cellar in a house belonging to the bishop of Plenty. I rap on the wood. For the last twelve years the trapdoor has been raised by the same burly priest, an administrator of the bell-ringing programme. I deliver my charge, he hands me a bag of coin, a nod passes between us.
On the way back, I pause at the chamber. The pile of tongues inside is considerable, the work of generations. Due to some quirk of atmosphere – the salt air perhaps – they do not rot. The tongues desiccate, shrivel up. Yet still I can hear them whispering, pleading their case. “Take me to Plenty, take me to Plenty.”
I point out to the tongues that there is no difference between Lack and Plenty, that the lives of the villagers and citizens are identical in their depravity. I tell the tongues about the bell-ringers, about the space they term ‘the void’, the space between the ringing room and bell chamber through which the bell ropes pass. I AM THE ROPE THAT PASSES THROUGH THE VOID. I exist between Lack and the bells of Plenty. That is enough for me, let that be enough for you, I urge the tongues. But the tongues do not listen, the tongues do not care, the tongues carry on whispering to themselves in the dark.
DW Lewis was born in Lisburn in 1974. He studied for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, under the tutelage of WG Sebald and Andrew Motion, and was a winner in the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award in 2004. A selection of his short stories has been published in Lagan Press' Short Story Introductions 1. He recently received funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to write an historical novel and is director of the CultureNorthernIreland website.