You wouldn’t really notice it the first time you met her. And she was good at hiding it too – the seeking eyes, the perky pout, the dangling calf – all worthy additions to her well practiced act.
The doctors speculated her’s to be a case of the palatine uvula – that seemingly useless, positively unpleasant piece of skin hanging from the posterior edge of the soft palate, just above the human tongue. You might remember it as ‘that thing that makes you gag while brushing’.
Now this same palatine uvula, or as some surgeons preferred – ‘the bum’, the ‘squatter’, the ‘one who must not be named’ had long been a bone of contention for the medical fraternity. Bone, perhaps being a wrong choice of word here. There was certainly no bone in the palatine uvula; and frankly, very little of anything else – no muscle, minimum mass, zero protein – just a good old dead weight. A puny piece of superfluous flesh that served no apparent function in the human body but had yet somehow managed to acquire prime real estate in it. But how could this be? Some experts had mused. Could it be an evolutionary oversight? Or was it just another sign of divine incompetence? The fraternity was perplexed. And rightfully so – being subjective was hardly their key skillset. As you can well imagine, no easy decision could be reached and so eventually, in the interest of more pressing medical matters, this hunchback of oral-fame was given the mutually agreeable title of ‘that icky thing that tingles’. That was that. The issue was settled. TB was cured.
Now things would’ve moved along just as sunny if only our erstwhile subject of interest hadn’t proved to be such a resourceful little nugget. You see it’s almost mystical function and rather convenient location made it a near perfect antidote for undiagnosed cases – ‘I’m afraid Mrs. Grempleton it seems your son has the case of the palatine uvula’. ‘Unfortunately Mr. Rackenshaw, it seems the paltine uvula is at fault here’. ‘There’s nothing we can do for Master Richard Mam. It’s that palatine uvula we were afraid off’. Retirement, it seems, wasn’t quite on the cards.
Which, when you think of it, is rather fortunate, considering our lady’s problem fit smack up this alley.
Her’s was a peculiar case to say the least – The girl who couldn’t speak more than four letter words. ‘Hmmm, sure’ she would say. ‘But why me? Why can’t I spea…pah, pooo, pfft, sigh.’ The doctors had ne’er heard anything like it. Tests were furiously conducted, exercises were routinely scheduled, but nothing came off em. Not a word worth its weight. And before long, our lady’s casual anxiousness had given way to seething frustration. ‘Dammit Doctor! Is there nothing you can say to help me anymore? I can’t take this any longer!!!’ she wondered. Her articulation wasn’t so clear of course.
The famed palatine uvula was thus invoked. And with good measure too. Considering it’s fateful position, the tingling tyrant could well have been supposed to work in tandem with the throat, the air and the lungs to create a number of guttural sounds. A slight shift in orientation or a marginally unnatural size was certainly plausible grounds for her vocabular malfunction. ‘Hmmm… there it is’ her doctor routinely pronounced. ‘It’s too short and too thin. The air from the lungs just cannot reach the tongue properly. That explains the loss of certain words. A surgery is near impossible. It’s that stinking palatine uvula again…’
What could she do? What could anyone do when it came to palatary pneumonia such as this? The doctors had left her no choice. What If I pretend I could not speak from birth? She considered resolutely. That way at least my mind will stop messing with my mouth. But wouldn’t that be unfair to those who really suffer? Or should I just continue with this splintered conversation; At least it’s all vivid in my mind?…No. But why not? Yes. Maybe. Urrrgh. These thoughts consumed her day and night, lunch and dinner, morning and eve. She didn’t eat for weeks. She didn’t speak for months. Years went by in deafening silence. In fact things hardly changed until the year she turned 16. After that…
Ah 16, that wonderfully savage age of bloom.
You see at 16, this state of existential dilemma was often mistaken for the poised mysteriousness of a much older woman. The boys went, well, cuckoo over her. ‘She doesn’t say much, but perhaps there’s too much to say already?’ ‘Her eyes, they say everything. It’s like there’s a revolution inside!’ ‘Such intensity! I must have her, now!’
Well there’s only so much attention that a girl can lawfully refuse. Slowly, she began to open up to the idea of all this gentility. ‘I can’t speak but I can surely listen. And my silence seems pretty attractive too. What’s the harm in repaying a little courtesy?’ The boys certainly agreed. They would yelp & yap and she would respond with gentle sighs and purrs and paahs to keep them oiled. Occasionally, she’d slip in a tilt, or a tap or a tender glance just incase their interest began to wane. It was near perfect. She hadn’t gotten so much attention in her life. And for a while, the boys seemed content with her complicated silence. But then again, these were just boys, boys who were soon to become men, men who needed more answers, men who needed to unravel her mystery once and for all. ‘Meaningful conversations’ they began to say one day.
‘I know you don’t like to talk, but it just seems like I know nothing about you’
‘I like you, I really do, but why is it always my story and never ever yours?’
She tried to explain, but she was petrified. If they know my truth, they’ll probably never see me again. Who want’s to date a bumbler anyway? Perhaps if I just keep listening, they’ll eventually come around? Someone will come around who wouldn’t care so much. Someone, somewhere, somehow…
It happened to be the local town conference where he was selling paper pens for a living. A strapping young man with wavy hair and a smile to beat. Spit spot. And he loved to talk too. ‘That’s my business he would say! If you can’t spell, you can’t sell! I talk and tease and try and toast, and sell me pens like a perfect host!’ A real social fish he was, outtalking every other mammal in the room – especially the kind who wouldn’t talk at all. ‘Say, you look like you could use a paper pen? They’re the best in the business! I guarantee that!’ ‘Pppf’ She grunted. Her way of saying ‘Please. Leave me alone. I am only here to feel the crowds again. I don’t wanna talk. And I don’t want to be rude’. He continued of course, blissfully immune to such rejection, as men of sales often are. ‘Say, I think you ougghta try this pen once. It’s free and flowy, it’ll change your life I tell you. It changed mine. Just this day I was…’ ‘Gosh’ she huffed. Does this guy ever cease? ‘Bah! Boo, Blah’ she pushed periodically, but he persisted. It was a challenge after all, his Mount Everest for the day, the kind of sale only the best in the business could make. How could he let that go? ‘And when I told that other guy that this pen is actually magical, he just laughed and laughed and today he’s writing for the local paper and thanks me all the time and this is so…’
And somewhere, muffled in the drone of his perfect pitch, came the sound of something wonderful snapping in her head. As if a switch flew open to seed her malnourished heart. What if he was the kind of man she needed? The kind who didn’t really care about her faults, but just needed someone to listen? The kind who would require gentle encouragement now and then, but had enough stories for the both of them combined?
Ah yes, she thought, perhaps, perhaps, Oh! It’s been so long.
‘Hmmm’ she tried now watchfully. An instant response followed. ‘Oh, that’s right. Then of course she asked me Mr. are you sure this pen can save my son from chronic arrhythmia? And I said, Mam I’ve seen things that a man shouldn’t have. Just trust me’. ‘Sigh’ she gushed, subtly flicking a few strands of hair. ‘Oh yes, it’s true, uhmmm; so, she did, and guess what it worked! Her son fought through that wretched infection, and she ordered a hundred more just in case! Now that’s a story they tell in the pubs here!’ ‘Weee’ she harked, her lips perched in a perfect pout, her hands gently caressing her sweaty collar. ‘Oh my, certainly, you got yourself a deal!’ he smugly declared, knowing very well that this was one sale he was going to be awfully proud of.
Travel was a big part of his job so they made a pact to call each other every night. He would ring with his stories and adventures, the mothers and ministers he was meeting each day and she would offer her gentle touches, always there, listening, loving, learning. It was a match made in the heavens. Even the doctors approved.
Then one evening, a few months down the line, he called sooner, his voice a little raspier than usual – ‘Ummm darling, I was wondering, it’s been so many months and we’ve had such a great run and I’… Oh lord she thought. Let it not be… He’s… Why does it need to be like all the other men? Please lord, just let it not be! ‘Mmm huh’ she cautiously replied…’Well love I was thinking, I have a break for a few months and perhaps this time I’ll come over town and live down there for a while. You know really get to know you, talk to you; I’d love to hear your stories too. I’m afraid I talk too much. There must be so much you have to tell me…’ By the time she got her bearings right, he had already left – the lone ranger rushing to claim his beloved prize. Also, the smell in the booth had been much too strong to continue. Now what would she do? How would she share? What if he lost interest like all the other men did? Even the mere thought of this made her repeatedly gag. An infected palatine uvula eased the process no doubt.
As she lay down on her bed that night, prepping herself for the ordeal ahead, there was just thought on repeat – Please lord, let me not disappoint him. I just cannot break another man’s heart…Not a noble, kind and gentle heart such as his. There must be a better way, she mulled, chomping away at her nightly cucumber salad. There must be a way to let him down easy. And this cucumber salad is positively delicious. But that’s not the point. Or is it? For as she fondled the last piece of watery goo in her hands, it hit her with the jolt of freshness they promise only in television ads.
You can’t talk with your mouth full! Everyone knows that. It’s just plain irresponsible. Even our mums disapprove. What If I were always eating when I meet him? This way I’d have a good enough reason not to talk, and I can listen and listen and listen. Even he would approve – after all, how could you possibly talk with your mouth full? She supposed, enjoying the sweet aftertaste of an idea well struck.
So it was decided. They would meet at the local diner at exactly 3pm for a leisurely Sunday lunch. He rushed in, dressed in his finest linen, only to find her dressed for the occasion too. A new white dress that dripped right below her knees, exposing just enough flesh to make his bones tingle – An anatomic revelation to his simpleton mind. ‘So good to see you again my luv’ he said taking her lips in a passionate kiss. But her lips felt oddly crumbly, bitter with a fleeting tinge of olives. Surprised, he kissed her again, this time tasting the certain trace of grapes with rough garlicky undertones. His confusion was swiftly met when she pointed to the half eaten, special edition, all-inclusive, extra garlic, breadbasket combo with white wine. She had gotten in a bit early and ordered for the both of them. She hoped he didn’t mind, she tried to say, pointing at her rather busy mouth. ‘Of course my dear, nothing, nothing should come between a creature and its food. Chomp away, I’m famished too’.
They ate in silence for a while. He talked in spurts of course, of his quests and conquests and she ate, never breaking, always munching. When he paused for a reply, she simply tapped her mouth. ‘Ah, yes, one can’t talk with their mouth full, of course. Not a worry my luv’ and he continued… For he had many stories to tell, and apparently a girl’s appetite, and she could always tell hers when she was done. There was plenty of time. There always was.
Now this dietary charade continued through the evening till it was almost near dusk. The setting was perfect and he could think of no better time to do what he had intended in the first place. His talk with the manager had helped no doubt. On cue, the waiters parted ways for the local clarinet band, the light dimmed, the candles burnt and he was on the floor, one knee to be precise, asking her to be his lawfully wedded wife. She was shocked and happy and shocked and petrified and delirious. She didn’t know what to say or how to say. ‘Pfft, ummm, wooh, paah, peee, deee, wuum, baah, peer, pumm.’
‘Is something the matter my luv?’ he asked, anxious yet oddly optimistic. ‘Did I do something wrong, do you not love me the way I love you? ‘Ummm, nooo, buut, laaah, deee, weee.’ ‘Can we not be together? Do you not want to be my wife forever?’ ‘Yes, but, iiii, blah, boo, bee, bum’… She was losing him, she was losing everything. Here was a man, a fine man, a man finally asking her hand in marriage and all she could muster was irrational noise. She pointed at her full mouth but he wouldn’t budge. ‘Come on now, you can spit on some food at this point. I’m on one knee for Christ’s sake!’ The clarinet band agreed. Her chewing wasn’t helping their co-ordination one bit. So she tried again, “Iiii just can’t…baah, boo, weee, munch, crunch, try to speaa, slurp…”
“i..just..want..baah..crunch….to…say..munch…that slurp… I have…glob never’t met any…tick crunch, munch one like you…I love you and yes I will marr slag y you. Burp.”
Apparently the presence of adequate food in a healthy mouth can appropriately compensate for a diminished palatine uvula, allowing just enough assembly for the air from the lungs to flow freely through the mouth.
She was caught off-guard. It had been so long since she had completed an entire sentence and that too at a time like this. It was uncanny. He didn’t understand of course till she told him later when they were celebrating. ‘I just munch cant slurp talk gob unles bah crack I am eat slop ting.’ ‘Oh, that’s quite alright. We’ll eat together then my luv’ ‘I love you’ she said biting her cucumber salad in bed. ‘And don’t you worry about what people say, we’ll talk with our mouths full till they all walk away!’
And talk they did. At dinner and diners, and pubs and parties. She ate, he fed, he talked, she ate, she talked. Even the crowds began to see the love in their eyes despite the specks in their teeth. ‘It’s disgusting, but just so awfully cute.’ ‘Such sacrifice is nothing less than a miracle.’ ‘They’re lovers first, animals second.’
Soon enough, the couple mapped out a clear pattern to her sounds. Greens were ideal for softer words, meats where more emphasis was required and wine to finish off sentences with flair. And with some trial and error, it wasn’t long before they thrashed out the specifics too. Rocket leaves for the hissing s and baked broccoli for the crunchy cs. Chicken wings for the nifty ts and caramel pie to ease in the Is. They even documented this find in a little pocket chart, one she carried everywhere they went. You never knew when she might eat a new sound.
Eventually, he left his job to study the uvula in more detail. ‘Well frankly it was an opportunity waiting to be had’ he would brag to his friends. ‘With the perfect research companion and my love for words this could become quite the venture I suspect’.
In time, they traveled far and wide, presenting their experiments with dietary truth. ‘Each food has a distinct sound,’ he would habitually declare, ‘You just need to have a ear for it.’ Seeing them, more people began to come out and acknowledge the uvula as a real problem. She wasn’t alone in the world after all! They had tried her techniques, and had crunched and munched and talked and teased and gulped and burped their way to many a conversation. A few people, to a few cities, to a few countries to a global phenomenon. The world got fatter, even trashier, but a lot happier. It got noisier too, but let’s not ruin the moment.
A fitting finale, you could say, to the oft misunderstood legend of the palatine uvula. What else could justify this hopelessly disgusting, positively revolting, socially unacceptable, wonderfully ecstatic lifetime of the girl who couldn’t speak more than four letter words?
Ask your doctors about it sometime.