Upon the many things that fascinated Bo, the most inspiring of all was the anatomy of the tongue. Staring endlessly into the hand mirror Sister Slade gave him, he would search the bottomless pit of his mouth, musing that the missing organ might suddenly skyrocket from his throat like a wild-growing rose if he wished hard enough. When the nuns cradled him as a babe, he amused himself by pressing on their pink squishy tongues. He called them “mouth pillows.” No one understood him though. It’s quite difficult to speak without a tongue. The nuns cooed and laughed at his inquisitive nature anyhow. Babies are adorable, no matter what.
Sometimes the nuns watched movies in the den. The blue light from the television always glowed and flickered like a wonderful and mysterious carnival. Bo was a curious child. Tiptoeing, he would inch the door open just a smidgen and gaze at the black and white figures on the square box. What were the men and women doing with their mouths? Was that French kissing? That’s what he heard the young nuns call it in whispers and giggles. Either way, it looked magnificent! It looked warm! Heavenly, even! Sister Slade found him in the hall one night when a steamy movie called Cowboy Holiday was playing. Bo scurried back to his room after a tap on the butt and being labeled as a “little pervert.” Safe in his room, in the quiet moonlight that penetrated and separated through the blinds, he pretended to French kiss his stuffed bear who he had named Settie. But, without a tongue, he could only bite Settie’s black thread-woven nose to show affection. He chewed and gnashed until Settie’s nose unraveled from the stuffing and ended up somewhere in Bo’s throat. The thread made him gag and choke. He apologized profusely to Settie.
Bo grew into a strange teen. He was bone-tired of living with nuns, especially Sister Slade, who treated him less than human and kept him away from the other children and from learning. Perhaps Bo’s speech issues were frustrating for the nuns, maybe he truly was weird, or maybe no one spared the time to understand him. Whatever it was, Bo felt the Home’s antipathy toward him, and he acted accordingly, growing bitter, less inquisitive, isolated and withdrawn. He even became hunchbacked and pale; materializing into the beast they made him out to be. He embarrassed the nuns, and he knew it. For instance, when the Home had visitors, he was told to stay in his room. He didn’t understand it initially, but he was clued into the drill after the first couple times. Ding-dong meant, “Go to your room and stay there.” Potential parents scare easily, and challenged children weren’t good for business.
Bo didn’t feel challenged though, he felt like a monster––so he told me, and so I witnessed. Plus, the Home didn’t understand his peculiarities. For example, he used to wrap scotch tape, sticky side out, on the tip of a stick. After the tape was in its correct position, he’d dab anything that had a hint of flavor––lemon drops, sugar sprinkles, strawberry juice, chocolate pudding, and even steak sauce––onto the gluey tape. He must have been spared a slab of tongue, because deep in his throat he found a nub with a single taste bud on it. He was about ten when he found it. Imagine being blind and then one day you realize if you squeeze and wiggle your eyeballs hard enough, you can summon all the art and color of the Earth right into your retina. It was like that, but better.
He realized that dabbing the flavor-filled tape on the bud brought him closer to heaven then any being could ever feel or imagine. All his senses worked together, almost supernaturally, to alert his brain that his mouth had finally found the secret human sensation of taste. Of course, he could only reach that spot with the help of an adhesive stick. And of course, it looked entirely insane to the nuns. If they only knew he was trying to experience taste, a simple sensation they took for granted, they might’ve understood. But, they didn’t. So, they rid his room of sticks. But the Home was made of wood, and it wasn’t difficult to find lengthy wooden helpers at the plinth of railings or edges of doors. Once, Sister Slade tried to take his tape-stick away, and Bo hissed savagely at her. Curling his lips to show his pointy teeth and hollow mouth, he curdled Slade’s blood so much that she could only hypothesize that Satan had possessed him. Without negotiation and with much fearful twitching, she ordered him to his bedroom with a Bible and a rosary, alerting the other nuns and children to stay away. Feeling dehumanized, he never came out, and no one minded.
One thing that was special about Bo was his strange luminous green eye. In contrast to his other brown eye, the green one was a fiery emerald magnet. If you were to raise Sister Slade from the dead and quiz her on Bo’s eye color, she would be a clueless sack of bones. The Home was very dark, and it was hard to see any color let alone one unique green eye, which I might add shone brighter than a jade gem. I noticed his green eye immediately. It was January, and the Home was freezing. I wondered how anyone could survive in such an icy house. The chill hit me as soon as I entered. I was visiting with Aunt Dill. I should’ve told you by now that the Home was called Christ’s Home for Children, but we only referred to it as the “Home.” I always forget to call it by the proper name.
Aunt Dill was my caretaker. My real mother died giving birth to me. My father fled to another country upon notice of my existence, not caring to explain which one, but I am sure it was a country filled with sun. The ass! Anyway, Aunt Dill told me we were visiting the Home to inquire about a Christian-filled education for me. I had not known it at the time, but Aunt Dill was actually looking to deposit me at the Home, permanently. She was getting old and poorer by the second, wanting to have a life of independence I suppose. And me, well I was becoming more needy, requiring education, wanting more food, outgrowing clothes, and asking for an allowance. I was a mosquito sucking on drained skin. I was very curious at that age too, always thinking there might be a secret somewhere—a hidden entrance beneath a stairwell or golden nugget in the lid of a toilet. I looked everywhere, for nothing in particular, but I always found something good. Once I uncovered a wad of money in the shoe of Aunt Dill’s man friend. He died shortly after, and I felt bad, but not for long. Another time, I knocked and knocked against my babysitter’s floorboards until it echoed hallow, leading me to her diary beneath a wooden panel. Like a little nosey rat, I pulled it out and discovered she didn’t like me very much, and that she was only caring for me to earn extra money for dental school. I even found the floorboard that contained her savings, an impressive nest egg for a young girl who wasn’t even college-aged yet! It was easy to find. The panel rung hollow and was differentiated from all other boards by a purposefully placed yellow dot for quick finding. Her savings were just beneath my feet, just a board hoist away. Oh, it was a thick bankroll too. Can you believe I didn’t take a bill? Nope, not one! Not even after reading her December 14th entry where she called me a lanky worm! I was very quiet around her after that. Growing up without money has this effect on you. You are always on the hunt for something, even if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
I had crept away from Aunt Dill’s watch for just this purpose, to discover something, anything. The Home looked old enough to store a secret or two, to contain arrowheads beneath the basement or Mozart manuscripts stuffed in Hymnals. I found myself on the top floor while Aunt Dill spoke with Sister Slade. It seemed to be about eight floors high at the time, but now I know it was only four. When I reached the pinnacle of the stairs, I came across a long creepy hallway. It was invigorating! I mutely wandered the hall and discovered noise coming from the furthermost part of it. It sounded like someone playing jacks. When I was just outside the noisy door, the racket came to a short stop. A pink rubber ball rolled under the door’s crack and politely tapped my saddle shoe. I bent down to look in the keyhole, and that’s when I first saw his gleaming green eye. I only managed to whisper “hello” by the time my name was being called by a chorus of women.
In the weeks that followed, Aunt Dill and I visited the Home two more times. Aunt Dill reviewed paperwork with Sister Slade while I crept off to see that glowing eye again. It was right where I thought it’d be, shining in the keyhole. “What’s your name?” I asked. No answer. “Do you talk?” No answer. “Do you want your ball back?” No answer. “Do you want your ball back?” I asked, louder. The door unlocked, and I managed to see a sliver of dark room, drenched in zigzag moonlight on a floorboard of scattered jacks. A shaky palm jutted out. It was the whitest, ashiest hand I had ever seen. When I placed the little pink ball in his little hand, my skin momentarily coming into contact with his, the strangest thing occurred. The boy made a noise, an incoherent puzzling noise with his mouth. What is wrong with his voice, I thought. I later learned to speak his language of grunts and murmurs, and had I known what I know now, I would’ve realized he was saying, thank you.
The third and final time I visited the Home with Aunt Dill, I was informed I was staying there for good. I must admit that the news was not entirely rotten, or else I was in such shock I didn’t care to act out. The boy with the milky white hands, green radiant eyeball, room full of moonlight and wooden floor of jacks, was the only thing on my mind. I was drugged with a veneer of composure, confident in the fit of dismissal, berserk for the boy upstairs. Or else I was so offended I didn’t know what to think, so I didn’t. I assume Aunt Dill expected me to be bitter because she bent to her knees, her bones crinkling on the way, to inform me of the news. I simply responded, “Where’s my room?” Knowing I was born an orphan probably made it less weird. Maybe I knew I was headed for the sweet saving grace of charity, so it seemed natural. All you need to know is that Aunt Dill disappeared with more of a skip than a dawdle, that my room was in the girl’s corridor, that I was warned to stay away from the top floor, and that I never listened.
Bo was hesitant at first. He wouldn’t let me in, and I made it my goal to convince him otherwise. I don’t know what I wanted from him or that room. But, if I was told to stay away from it, I knew there must be something frighteningly riveting in there. I carried on with the other orphan children, ate beef stew and dry potatoes with them, learned Latin in a musty classroom, read Macbeth in a colorless library, played hopscotch with the sad skinny girls, taped posters of flowers to my wall, and daydreamed about the boy with the iridescent eye.
Without trying, I soon became admired, respected and adored by the other children. I was tall and smart. I knew about the city too. I had walked its alleys, bought bread and meat for Aunt Dill at the market by myself, and had so many hoodwinking stories and tips to share that I could of entertained those children till they hit puberty. Plus, I had kissed boys, a lot of them. I explained to the girls what kissing was like. I remember describing it in detail, as though I were the Shakespeare of kissing. “Eye contact is key,” I said, acting dignified. “So is laughter. Actually, eye contact and laughter are partners. Listen, you must find where his eyes land after he cracks a joke. If they land on your eyes, he wants to kiss you. The question after that is, do you want to kiss him? Laugh, if you do.” Then I’d act like I was kissing a man, a bulky invisible man, with my tongue wiggling about. It was a hoot. They laughed until they were practically pissing. They were boring. It was Bo who fascinated me.
I taught him to write. This was the first step in getting him to let me in. I concluded that if he couldn’t talk to me, maybe he could write. At first, I assumed he could! His voice register implied he was the same age as me, and surely I wrote fine. So why couldn’t he? I passed a note under the door one day: “Hello, what’s your name?” But I believe it frustrated him more than anything. The note came back as a pile of snow. Oh, it was a painstaking process, sitting against his closed door, slipping notebooks underneath it with scribbled letters and poorly drawn images on it to represent C for Cat or D for Donkey. It was only when I drew a picture of jacks and wrote the letter J beside my artwork that he began to catch on. I was so giddy when he finally did I almost told Sister Slade. Instead, I just stole more notebooks from storage.
I started off with the alphabet, and then I moved onto sentence structure and grammar. I waited in the dingy hallway while he mimicked my writing, sliding it back under the crack for my critique. At first, his cursive was laughable. Soon, however, he picked it up, and with impressive speed. It’s amazing what you can learn if you have the time. In fact, his penmanship became so stunningly gorgeous I’ll admit I wondered whether he was in fact bewitched. But his boyish and charming laugh always convinced me that he was just as human as you and me. During one late night lesson, he slid the notebook back to me with the message, “Stay, Izza,” neatly and beautifully drawn with flowing “z’s” and a curly-cued “a” as the tail. My name is Lisa, however, I had never told him that. And perhaps, when my name was called, it reverberated through the Home as “Izza.” You should know that I began calling myself Izza after that. You should also know that I stayed the night, and we held fingers beneath the crack of the door, my head resting on the thick notebook of lessons. I had never slept better.
Bo finally let me in his room my second winter at the Home. “I have a surprise,” I whispered through the keyhole one night. His green eye met me at the aperture. It was wide and attentive, like a child opening a Halloween candy bag. I slid the notebook underneath the door. This was our twenty-eighth notebook. The other twenty-seven were inside his room. Anyway, I arranged a pile of snow on the lined notepaper, real snow––a gift from outside. He had not left his room in years after all, and the moonlit window was his only frame to the world. He cooed with gratitude. He blew the fluffy flakes through the keyhole and they landed cool and wet on my nose. We both laughed. I stopped laughing first to let his enchanting giggles fill up my ear. He was silent after that, and I wondered what he was doing in there. I held my ear to the door and could only hear his pen moving wildly on paper. When he slid the notebook back to me, I almost died. He had meticulously drawn a portrait of me, with the genius of Picasso, the flare of Duchamp, the gusto of Galileo, the heart of God. I never looked more beautiful than I did in his blank ink beneath remnants of winter flakes and wet spots, a keyhole view of myself. I was silent. I knew his cursive was a skill to envy, but his art was from another planet. When I tell you that his artwork appeared as though he might be possessed, I say it mordantly, scathingly, and with spit flying at the tombstone of Sister Slade. I wish you could have seen it, but we had to leave everything behind. He unlocked the door after my silence took up too much time.
When I entered Bo’s room, wind from the wooden hallway swept inside and rattled hundreds and hundreds of notebook pages that were taped to the walls. Bo had masterfully arranged words from the twenty-seven notebooks into a three-wall mural of script. Words were cut out, letters arranged in order to create stanzas and stories and beautiful heart-drenched poems. Some poems reeked of romance. Some were doused in death. Some were funnier than jokes we made about Sister Slade! He had woven our lessons of prepositions, contractions, adjectives, superlatives, comparatives, and even the initial C for Cat and D for Donkey into entertaining anecdotes and woeful librettos. I say while blushing that some poems were shaped in my honor.
I could tell that the word-filled murals weren’t his first project. Beneath the flapping lined notebook pages were the leftovers of glorious illustrations. Mountainsides, waterfalls, rolling farmlands, deer grazing in fields, angels with trumpets, squirrels in trees, mothers with children and snowmen with oddly-shaped hats were painted in black ink beneath thousands of words we tirelessly sketched.
After taking in the magnum opus, waiting for the moonlight to highlight new sections, I spotted a corner in the room where he had drawn something curious. He ran to cover it up when I noticed it, his toenails tinkling against the floor like a rodent. I told him it was all right. He moved aside after some generous coaxing. When he finally shuffled aside, I saw a comic-like illustration, beautifully yet gorily drawn in sequential order of events. In the first square, I saw a happy mother cradling a baby; the baby was spewing musical notes from his mouth as the mother smiled. In the second square, I saw an evil-looking man entering the house, frightening the mother and baby. In the third square, I saw the baby crying and the evil man trying to shut him up. In the next scene, the mother was trying to stop the evil man as the baby cried harder. But in the next, she was bleeding on the floor, the man’s knife trickling with blood. Then, the evil man was cutting off the baby’s tongue with the sharp knife, tossing it to the floor like a rubber ball. In the next square, the baby was choking and belching blood as the evil man stealthily left the house with the mother’s purse and a television set bundled in his arms. Finally, the baby was praying to the ceiling as the mother drifted above it as an angel.
Bo was deadpan when I turned around. In his very unique language, he told me that if he hadn’t cried, the man wouldn’t have retaliated by taking his tongue and his mother. Maybe he would’ve just settled for the TV. I held him against my chest like the mother in the first square, whispering, “It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault.” I found a marker on the ground and drew a final square: Bo and me breaking free.
By this time, I had learned to understand Bo by his grunts, and he soon let me in his room no matter what. He knew when to expect me too: during the Sisters’ television programs and in the middle of night while the Home slept. I knew when the Sisters visited his floor too, painting the shape of a cross on their chests before climbing the stairs, to leave food outside the room and collect his waste. I was adamant not to visit at those times. But sometimes, their schedules were awry. Re-run nights. Once, Sister Slade discovered me creeping up the stairs, and she pulled me down by my hair, shouting a prayer so loud I think Bo heard. I bowed my head and said, “Thank you, Sister Slade.” Months later, she found me in Bo’s hall and turned white with deafening shrieks assuming I’d fallen into Satan’s spell. She ordered the Sisters to pray with me and had me visit Father Borgis to make sure I wasn’t possessed too.
It was summer when we were finally caught. Although you already know I was an experienced kisser, I swear I wasn’t trying to lead Bo astray. Honestly, I wanted to kiss him because I loved him. He was shy when I lunged. But he quickly turned brave and let me feel around in his empty mouth. I massaged his skin, touched each tooth, and reached for the lonesome taste bud deep in this throat. I penetrated him so hard, he might’ve sworn to the God of Goodness that it was his own tongue swooshing about in my mouth. I could feel his entire body flowing with adrenaline, his hands not knowing what to do, his teeth knocking awkwardly against mine. The merriest moment of all was when I felt his hips push against me and into the papered wall. Of course, Sister Slade arriving with a plate of porridge and beans interrupted this momentous connection. Perhaps she heard us scuffling about. Maybe she wondered if Bo was cured. Whatever possessed her to open Bo’s door and witness our latched lips, she dropped the food to the floor, breaking the porcelain and running away, shouting, “The Devil got Lisa, the Devil got Lisa!” It was hilarious. I still remember the shrill of her ostrich-like voice, the pitter-patter of her tiny feet, and the rushing rhythms of both our hearts.
Everything I told you, the Sisters of ignorance, the moonlit room of poetry, the cold beans spilled in the hall, the first night I held Bo’s fingers through the crack, these mementos, they visit me each night before I sleep and pray to the God of Goodness that the world will be different for my child. This is what you must sadly know: Bo passed away just last year from a fast-moving illness. He lived a long life with many blissful moments. He left me with one child and one final poem, which he slipped under the door from the bedroom he died in. I found it in the hall while I was placing hot towels in the pantry. Maybe he knew he was dying and swooping a poem under the door was all the strength he could muster at that moment. Or maybe he wanted to remind me how our love began. I’ll never know.
You should know that we never saw Aunt Dill or Sister Slade again, nor did we want to. You should also know Christ’s Home for Children is still in operation. Of course, it is much more structured, and the idea of Satan possessing children is amusingly ludicrous. If we were able to vocalize that back then, we wouldn’t have had to run off into the cold unknown, through the window that belonged to the moonlight, down alleys I knew as a child, breaking toenails against cobblestone, lips against wind, into my poor babysitter’s home where the hollow-sounding yellow-dotted board waited for our prying fingers. I swear we only took enough to get us going, just enough to buy shoes for Bo and a coat for me. Just enough to stock up on pens and notebooks to keep us busy on the train ride south. And just enough for a single needle and thread to stitch up Settie’s nose, the only belonging we savaged from the room where Bo was the Devil.
If the world weren’t scared of differences
Ignorant of handicap, blind to the blind
The world would be as kind and warm
As the first night you held my hand