Jen Soriano is a Filipina-American essayist and social justice strategist originally from Chicago. Her literary work has appeared in STIR, aaduna and Waxwing, with an additional essay forthcoming in the 2017 issue of TAYO Literary Magazine. Jen holds a BA in History of Science from Harvard, and is currently an MFA candidate at the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.
Making the Tongue Dry
I’ve blown a bubble, and rather than chase it with the wand, I catch it on my tongue where it stays – plump, seductive, shining – till it bursts.
My infant son shrieks with delight, claps for more. Is this a natural human impulse, to desire bubbles even though they burst?
The residue has left an acrid dryness on my tongue. I run the kitchen faucet, cock my head to catch sips of the stream.
Rinse. Spit. Repeat. A dozen washes, but the bitterness remains.
Faucet shut, I walk with baby on hip to our balcony. In the harsh afternoon light, we quietly watch the surface of Puget Sound recede.
Nearby, a monumental face reflects on the same waters. Four stories high, she looms like a sentinel over the Sound. She is sculptor Jaume Plensa’s version of tragedy: Echo, the disembodied Greek mountain nymph who loved Narcissus, protected Zeus, and was condemned by Hera to forever repeat others’ words.
Echo’s eyes are mathematically angled toward Mt. Olympus. They are full of longing and calculation.
From our balcony, beyond the silos of a rusted grain elevator, I can see Olympus’ bald twin peaks. They are jagged breasts jutting frontward from a bony spine. I imagine what Echo might say, if she could:
“I want to speak about bodies, bodies austere and plundered, then changed into new forms.”
Instead, lips melted, she echoes only the hum of cargo ships cutting ponderously toward sea.
Bubbles have burst and bodies have withered, from Athens to the Pacific Northwest. Clear-cut spruce and pulped hemlock, amputated pensions and popped securities. Now mercury rises in direct variation.
The product of this equation is my infant son’s hair matted with sweat, seagull droppings steaming on Echo’s head, my father’s ankle bursting with gout. And bald eagles — or is it plucked chickens? — coming home to roost.
Bulging deficits. Damaged climates. Seismic shifts.
Backs of workers. Spine of earth.
Subtraction. Extraction. Contraction.
The end of this long division is not a natural number.
How can I explain this to my baby? Better to just blow bubbles that burst?
Let’s begin here: with the origins of the word. Austerity: from the Greek austeros, meaning “bitter”, “harsh” and especially, “making the tongue dry.”
Bitter like creeks run with dust.
Bitter like once-tree ash flying wild now unrooted flame.
Bitter like blood from biting tongue to bear cuts, like hungry backwash on sand.
Harsh like nets cut beneath the failing trapeze.
Harsh like once-run water crippled now spigots drip rust.
Harsh like skin from bare backs mending holes in silk pockets, like a starved Narcissus and a nymph turned to bone.
Dry like Echo’s tongue, thick with longing for her Olympus home — even the baldness of it, the austerity of it — where just last summer she could lap its ice peaks like popsicles. Now she licks gravel and dirt.
Dry like tongues unleashing stories of bootstraps and chains. Like mouths demanding first a tightened belt and now the belt itself. Dry like those who — from Greece to Puerto Rico to the mountains of the Pacific Northwest — go thirsty to grow the nest egg of Narcissus.
Eco, I mean Echo, the four-story nymph, reflects soberly across the receding Sound. She hums the cutting of cargo ships pondering toward sea.
She wants to part her lips and blow seeds of the unimaginable, not to reap-eat what has passed. She is weary of plunder and its brother austerity, bored of all the counterfeit bubbles that burst.
Echo longs for transformation from tragedy. She calculates the balance of myth. In myth there are dreams: flexible bubbles, stable waters, dandelions.
How can I explain this to my baby? Will he grow to blow bubbles that burst?
The silent Sound continues to recede, like water draining reluctantly from a bathtub.
“Let’s begin here,” I say. “With the origins of our world. And the ancient lesson that all things old must give way to the new.”
My infant son giggles again. From our balcony, the afternoon light recedes to purple dusk. I dab his forehead, but fail to stop the sweat from salting his right eye. He stops laughing, rubs a tiny fist across his lids, opens his eyes once more.
“Are you my little Narcissus, admiring your reflection in the Sound?”
I trace his gaze across the water, beyond to the horizon, where the bald twin peaks of Olympus are dragon’s teeth on fire.