The Man with the Rotting Tongue
By Lydia Trethewey
For the SPOKEN WEIRD award
Luce emerges from the icy bowels of hallucinatory sleep with her lips pressed against the cold stone floor. She shivers, her shaven body naked in the dim cell, ridges of red criss-crossing her skin where the gaoler’s razor cut too closely. Through the gloom she hears the gibbering of a fellow prisoner, his voice struggling up as if from beneath a black ocean. With one eye open she peers through the bars.
Two men press the prisoner against a wooden frame and bind his shaking limbs. The doctor opens his case with a flash of metal, the gaoler leans inquisitively forward. The prisoner’s teeth chatter and saliva spills down his bare chest.
A horrible shriek rents the air as the doctor makes two long incisions through the fatty skin of the patient’s scalp. Carefully he peels it back, exposing white bone. Muscles bunch in the man’s neck as he bellows like a wounded animal, straining against his bonds as the doctor rubs blood from his skull and incises a mark for the trephine.
Luce pulls her legs up to her chest and rocks gently on a sea of nausea. The man’s screams continue, unending, unfathomable, as a hole is drilled through his head.
Eventually his shrieks dribble away into whimpers, and then silence. Luce looks up and sees the doctor glaring down at her, his eyes full of quiet fury.
‘Witness how futile your efforts are, daughter of Satan. Your black magic may bring lunacy into the minds of innocent men, but by morning those demons will have fled through the passage I’ve opened in his skull. Tomorrow I will rejoice in seeing you hanged.’
He disappears down the darkened corridor and Luce falls backwards into tainted unconsciousness.
Two days earlier the man with the rotting tongue entered the village.
He drags his feet behind him like an injured animal, grinning around grey teeth and breathing putrefied air. His tongue is swollen and decomposing in his mouth, so that in the morning he has to pick maggots from between his teeth. When he flexes his vocal chords all that passes his tongue turns to garbled wickedness.
Luce stands inside the apothecary, sorting willow essence from cormorant’s blood. From a secret cupboard in the cramped storeroom she retrieves a small parcel of raskovnik weed, wedged between the bezoars and the ox fattened owl meat.
‘Are you sure you can handle the store by yourself?’ Elìngunnur asks, taking the wrapped weed and walking out to her horse.
‘Yes master,’ Luce replies.
‘Be careful. It’s not often safe for a woman to live alone, without a male companion.’
Luce smiles tightly.
‘What is the raskovnik for?’
‘A lady has taken ill in the next village. They say it’s a curse. Raskovnik weed, kissed by the spirits of the earth, unblocks any foul passage and opens any closure.’
Master and apprentice bid one another goodbye, and Elìngunnur rides away into the icy sunlight.
Three hours later the man with the rotting tongue spies the apothecary.
Staggering and swaying, drawn forward with his chin as if guided by invisible strings, he pushes open the door and approaches the counter.
‘Wah-ye-goth-ca-hel-me-fi-i-mi-li-la-e?’ he says, the swollen purple tongue rolling around inside his mouth.
Luce gags from the stench of decay that bursts forth with every utterance. The man’s eyes are yellow with mould, his chattering lips black and bloated.
‘Ple-i-ca-hel-ple-i-nee-som-i-ca-cah-ngh,’ he says, choking on every sound.
He stares glassily at her as if looking up from the bottom of a well. Luce senses the glinting desperation in his face, and pity swells in her stomach.
‘I might have something,’ she says, edging backwards into the storeroom.
Raskovnik weed resembles clover, but is darker and smells of earth. Luce grabs the remaining store and takes it to the man.
As he chews the man’s breathing eases, his panic eking away. The wildness leaves his face, replaced with something more human. He lets out a gurgled hiccup, and follows it immediately with a laugh as the engorged passage of his throat opens wide.
‘I can’t believe it,’ he says, touching the inside his mouth with a finger.
Luce smiles. The ecstatic man bounds out into the street.
Only one day passes before he returns, with the sheriff in tow. Inflating his chest, garbed now in a handsome coat and boots, the man speaks smoothly through his blackened lips.
‘That woman is a witch!’
The prisoner in the other cell whimpers in his sleep, mumbling nonsense words. Through the bars Luce hears the sound of approaching footsteps and feels a phantom rope tighten at her neck. Someone stops before her cell, breathing silently in the gloom.
The familiar voice tickles her ear. Luce starts violently and scrambles to her knees.
The master apothecary grins.
‘Don’t ask how I got down here, lest I too face the charge of witchcraft. Suffice to say the guards have big appetites and are now indisposed.’
Elìngunnur’s eyes glint and she removes a small parcel from beneath her dress.
‘I did warn you to take a male companion. Good wives aren’t often accused of maleficium.’
Fingers whispering in the gloom, Elìngunnur takes a small leaf from the parcel and rubs it into the lock. With a click the door swings open.
‘I thought you of all people would know, nothing works better for unlocking than raskovnik weed.’