Sparks from Stone Guts
My mother pushes play. The cassette clicks and rolls, glossy tape unspooling in the radio’s innards. The little girl bursts from the speakers: high pitched, bold, splashing in the bathtub. But she is not me, is not me, is still not me. Cantonese phrases stretch out in spontaneous song—she asks and declares and protests and laughs, to her mother, in her mother tongue. I have no recollection; no connection.
I listen once, take the cassette out of the player, and give it back to my mother.
Much later in my life, someone tells me that my ancestors’ language has nine tones. I can say home and fear and dream and brother and safe and god and wicked in Cantonese. The music crumples my throat, thickens my breath, vibrates my diaphragm. Each word drags airy filaments of memory and feeling, tangling me in nebulous, wordless meaning. Translation is like trying to outline a half-remembered dream with pen and paper.
I cannot write any of these words. Nine tones? I know none.
In high school, I decline Latin nouns. I murmur their mutations: nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative, ablative. Masculine, feminine, neutral. Singular, plural. The brown pages of my pocket dictionary soften under my fingers, emitting a worn odour. My friends groan that they will never score well in Second Language Chinese VCE because too many native speakers sneak in. I laugh with/at them.
I study on the other side of the table from the white girls; in spare period, I ask my white teacher for extra translations; she adores me, like a rare trinket. I tell everyone I’m studying a dead language. I tell everyone how much I love grammar. I translate Virgil and Ovid, and I dream myself into the Trojan War, into the tragedy of Pompeii. My metamorphosis is in full bloom.
My university friends share an idiom and laugh uproariously.
Tell me what it means, I beg.
They shake their heads. It’s not the same, they say.
I tell them this is ridiculous. Of course you can explain it in English.
They insist it’s not the same. Chinese is elegant—succinct but potent with meaning. There are things you can say in Chinese that you can’t say in English.
I snap: it works the other way too.
Heat roars through me. I want to be a writer, you see, and I am so in love with words, words, words, English words. Nothing will shake my love, because my mother always told me to be good at English, to be better than all those white kids who called you ching chong ching chong, to be proud of this (but not of anything else, no, pride is sinful), to teach them and show them I belong and beat them at their own game, and I’ve done it, Mum, I’ve done it. I topped the fucking state in English and I’m going to be a fucking writer.
—they come up to me in hospital corridors, brown faces creased with worry, holding out their hands like they would to a daughter. You speak Chinese? Their soft eyes flick from my nametag to my face. In their eyes I see a reflected familiarity. I shake my head. Sorry, I say. Just a little
—and my stumbling syllables are answer enough. The way their shoulders slump fills me with an old companion, shame, which has not yet turned to yearning
—I’ll never forget him: the international student who knelt sobbing on the floor in front of me. I knew him but I did not know him. I tried to speak to him, I really did. I mashed Mandarin and Cantonese together into an awful, mangled mess
—and in the midst of his anguish, he managed to laugh at me. In that stark room, in the busy ward, sharing a silly secret, we laughed together.
Sprawled on the couch in the throes of post-work exhaustion, in a mischievous passing glance at a friend’s dinner, in the interminable darkness of insomnia, the one I love soothes me. He pulls me towards him. Words float into my ear, heavy with ancient music, drawing me down and down into a peaceful sinkhole. I echo language. Mother tongue, father tongue. It sparks from somewhere buried: runes carved deep into my stone guts, stinging my lips as they reincarnate. My tongue has its own knowledge, curls into its own patterns. I have loved other languages, but they all pale in comparison. This language is love. It loves me, still, despite everything.
Grace is a speculative fiction writer and doctor. Her writing explores brains, minds, technology, and narrative identity. Her short fiction can be found in Clarkesworld, Going Down Swinging, Aurealis, and other places. Her debut novel, Every Version of You, will be published by Affirm Press in 2022.