Creative Nonfiction Prize
This Tongue by Matthew Hooton
This week we're publishing the five stories on the shortlist for the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize. Stones, cobras, and lies: Matthew Hooton takes us on a poetic and serpentine journey through his memories.
“I don’t believe in coming clean.”-Bruce Chatwin
My first lie:
Four years old, outside in the sun, pressing my palms to the flat stones leading to our doorway, imagining that I am able to draw heat from them, killing time while my parents entertain company. A shadow falls over the stones, a woman’s, asks me what I’m doing.
I say I’m playing with rocks and I swallowed one once but it’s okay because the doctors got it out in time.
The shadow shrugs and disappears and it doesn’t occur to me that I should turn around until I hear the front door open and close.
Now, more three decades later, I wonder if the shadow belonged to my mother, if I knew the voice but didn’t register it at the time, and if she remembers this, wonders quietly about her son—the liar.
In a village north of Hanoi, I swallow the still-beating heart of a Cobra after watching a man slit open the snake head to tail and drain its blood.
He gave me the heart in a shot-glass of vodka—palpitating against the glass. I’d asked him not to kill the thing, but he only spoke Vietnamese, assumed he knew what I wanted. Once it was dead, I thought, well, fuck, this is my fault—might as well...
As I'm writing this, I'm thinking of my first lie, of the imaginary stone I didn't swallow, wondering whether it was the same size as the foreign heart. And I'm thinking of the serpent in the Garden, of the first lie. And the Exodus: Moses and the bronze snake, a symbol that healed the sick (the paramedic snake and cross). And finally, I'm thinking of a photograph of Bruce Chatwin taken a few years before his death at forty-eight, in which he’s holding a holy snake outside the Python Temple of Benin. The snake that didn't heal him. And a tightness creeps across my chest.
Sometimes our bodies lie to us—tell us we cannot take another step, that there isn't enough oxygen, that there's a tiny stone wedged in our windpipes and that if we continue climbing we will simply run out of air. Seven hours through jungle full of orchids, lush chatter and carnivorous plants, and overnight on bunks in a shack so we can summit for sunrise. Kota Kinabalu: the highest peak in Southeast Asia. Also: the revered place of the dead.
Hard not to wonder what spirits haunt the freezing moonscape of the peak at four a.m., my partner doubled over, one hand on the rope, altitude sickness causing the world to shrink around our headlamps, our guide just shaking his head and saying, this not so good, over and over. So ten steps at a time, counting, ignoring our bodies, both of us thinking of all that training, backpacks full of books as we climbed every peak we could find, and me trying to forget the story of the heartbroken Kadazan woman who wept on these very rocks and turned to stone.
Somehow, we summit at sunrise, a handful of climbers huddled together on the pale rock surface pretending to stare out over sun-lit clouds and the South China Sea, while we watch each other breathe, each short, shared breath a reminder that the next is possible, that we haven’t hiked out of the atmosphere altogether. And the sunlight warms our bones, helps us stand and start our descent, bewildered at the sight of the rock face we've managed in the pitch black, and me secretly glad I hadn't seen it, knowing it would have scared the hell out of me, petrified my feet.
Eight hours back into the jungle, my bones telling me the secrets of the trail. Broken limbs. Lost bodies. Dragons. Our guide walks behind us smoking—this his ninety-eighth summit in three-hundred and fifty days. I point at plants as we hike and he tells me their names in six aboriginal languages, then in Malay, and when I name flowers in English he just laughs and shakes his head, as if to say, ok—call it whatever you like, but those sounds will never be right.
Just past a waterfall he leaps forward and pushes me off the path, strikes out at a small green snake with his stick, chases it into the jungle, then continues walking as if nothing has happened. Beside the path on one knee, my partner too tired to help me up, I think about just lying down in the dirt and ferns and orchids, closing my eyes. But I can’t shake the ear-prickling fear of the serpent's tongue smelling the back of my neck.
I catch up and ask our guide if the snake is dangerous. He shrugs. No. Not dangerous. But biting. I ask him how he'd treat the bite, fix it, I say, when he doesn’t seem to understand. Head tilted, another smoke out of the pack without breaking stride. Not fix bite. Maybe die.
We hike the final two hours in silence, legs shaking with each step, lungs full of air and on fire.
When I am four and a half, my family returns to Calgary, to Foothills Hospital, the place of my birth, to watch my grandmother's skin turn yellow from the cancer that will take her ovaries and then liver.
I ask my dad if her skin is changing colour because it’s going to shed like the snake cast-off I found in our garden that spring. He shakes his head, so I ask if she’ll get better. He says maybe, lifts me up so the dying woman can see me.
I remember her holding out her thin arms, veins popping, a visible palsy. And my dad saw it too, knew she couldn't take me so he just held me there, feet dangling. I can't for the life of me remember the colour of her eyes. Can't even seem to add a colour to my memory. That bothers me.
No one else spoke in the hospital, or much afterwards, so it was years before I learned she was full of tumours because of the X-Ray unit she'd worked in northern Alberta. That she'd spent two years quarantined in an asylum in Calgary after being wrongly diagnosed with TB, had walked out the door and into the arms of an alcoholic plumber who she took with her up north—took him because he was the only man in the province who knew how to work the machine and owned a truck to tow the X-Ray unit.
I have dreamt of my father holding me above her, holding me for years as I grow, until I am tall enough to stand beside that elevated hospital bed, rest my elbows on the metal frame, look her in the eyes. But still there is no colour there.
Now, I wonder why no one told me she was dying, and I wonder if this is a type of lie. I would have liked to have said goodbye. And who knows what she might have said to that? And who knows what I might remember?
One final memory: I am seven and I find a snake lying severed on the asphalt of Deloume Road. The snake is sun-baked, its blood rust. Tiny forked tongue still.
Rust the colour on the shot glass as the blood dried. This tongue the tongue of the snake on Kinabalu. This twisted flesh the same pale flesh that made Chatwin wish he could shed his skin and become someone different, shed his skin like my grandmother couldn’t. And this last memory time-traveling, created to bring healing, even if all I can think of is that first lie, each word a small stone on my tongue, even after all these years.