Other Tongues

Other Tongues by Sarah Freligh

I decided to learn French so I could finally talk about my brother. I wanted his death to feel distant, more like a movie I could turn off when it got too sad. And for months I’d been too sad, and in the most ridiculous places, the vegetable aisle of the grocery store, say, where I’d be feeling up avocados, pressing their little green buttons to test for ripeness, and I’d get so choked up I thought I’d suffocate. The therapist I was seeing said that the grief I’d stuffed down probably wanted out and I immediately thought of the horror movie my brother and I had watched a long time ago, about some amphibious pet that had been flushed down a city toilet and was only now crawling up out of the sewer, monstrous and nuclear and ready to wreak revenge.   

The French class was cheap and close by. Once a week I’d show up at the elementary school a couple blocks from me with my notebook and the “textbook” I’d been given, stapled sheets that smelled of ink and booze and cigarettes because the teacher liked to duck out for a smoke whenever we broke into conversational groups. He was actually French-Canadian, but he’d lived in Paris for several years where he worked as a copyeditor for les journals and had subsequently been fired when the French, like everyone else, started reading les journals on line for free. I liked that he called it what it was – a firing—unlike here in the U.S. where they try to clean everything up to make it sound not as horrible as it is. Downsizing. Rightsizing. Passed away, instead of dead, like the person has slipped into another dimension to live for a while. 

The classroom was full of little desks that we stuffed ourselves into and copied what our teacher, Monsieur Bernard, wrote on the blackboard. He had funny handwriting, s’s looked like f’s so that “sister” was foeur and suis was fuis. Also, he liked to draw little stick figures to illustrate what he was talking about whenever we looked puzzled: le chien et le chat, though le chat was twice as big as le chien and had les dents de lion, like the dingy orange stray that yowled around my back door and bit me whenever I was slow to feed him. He’d showed up months ago, right after my brother was killed, so I let him stick around. Once he snarfed all the food in the dish and strutted over and peed on my leg. Whenever I tried to pet him, he bucked and hissed.  I understood that. I’d felt the same way at my brother’s funeral whenever someone tried to hug me and tell me things like God’s will or this, too, will pass. 

By the sixth week, we were down to a handful of people, the way it always is with classes. People show up shiny and enthusiastic with brand new notebooks, each blank page a new beginning that lasts until the pages are dirtied by crossouts and then it’s all about failure again, everything you tried to do and couldn’t. I kept showing up because French shoved the monster out of my head for the ninety minutes I was there, like having new, quiet tenants living above me instead of crappy frat boys. 

On this night there were only three of us, Marie a woman with blue hair who muttered to herself, and Bob the accountant who had been rechristened Ro-BEAR during the first class. We waited fifteen minutes and still no Monsieur Bernard. The Spanish class next door was shouting replies to the questions I couldn’t hear—TACOS! 

QUESADILLAS!—and I was suddenly hungry though I’d eaten a pack of salted peanuts right before I came.  

After fifteen minutes, Marie left so it was only Robert and me. He clicked his ballpoint pen and I studied the turkeys the kids had made by tracing their hands and coloring in the finger/feathers. There were a lot of rainbow flags or red, white and blue turkeys. The ones my brother and I had made were tame by comparison, brown and grey and dull as a November sky, and yet my mother had taped them to the refrigerator where they stayed for decades. After the funeral, I tried to unpeel my brother’s turkey from the refrigerator but the paper crumbled and tore.  

The Spanish class was on ENCHILADAS! when a woman came in, Annie, she said she was, the administrator for adult education. She was red-eyed like she’d been crying or was tired. She said Monsieur Bernard was unable to meet with us tonight or ever again, for that matter, and that she would process whatever refund was owed us and mail a check ASAP. 

For weeks I googled his name and found nothing about him, so I’ve begun making up stories to tell the orange cat who stops by for breakfast now: A Russian spy, a deadbeat dad, and the latest tale, a murder. The cat loves this one, I can tell. I’m teaching myself the French words for gun and six-pack of beer, for holdup and convenience store and senseless, but brother, there are no words for the monster that lives on inside me.   

Sarah Freligh is the author of four books, including Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Press Poetry Prize and the 2015 Whirling Prize from the University of Indianapolis, and We, published by Harbor Editions in early 2021. Recent work has appeared in the Cincinnati Review miCRo series, SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Fractured Lit, and in the anthologies New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (Norton 2018) and Best Microfiction (2019-22). Among her awards are poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Saltonstall Foundation.

Margriet Hogue's mixed media work Conversations is featured above.