Said as he pushed the hypodermic—OK, pulled the trigger—on the last of the morphine solution. Not so much a command as a plea: please sweep it into the gullet. Down the hatch, Dad. Please. Yet, under the tongue it puddled, stuck, the tongue still and grey like boiled meat, the solution glowing scarlet.
Deglutition: so simple, easy as a dump in an adult diaper. Swallow two thousand times a day, they say. Times three hundred and sixty-five days. Times, in his father’s case, eighty-eight years. After the previous dose—the rattling and the gasping and the spit-up all over the front of the gown like a wound, followed by the sour child’s face—the son had consulted Wikipedia. The elegant and perilous architecture of the swallow: tongue to pharynx to esophagus; flick the epiglottis closed or down the trachea it goes into the lungs. Wrong, and he drowns himself. Right, and there’s Sauvignon, saffron and soufflé slicked with saliva and ringing his brain’s bells like a cathedral. 64,240,000 times in his lifetime. Perhaps one more.
The crows called from outside the window, a black presence stalking the palm tree’s husks. Two of them visited daily, maybe the same pair, but too hard to tell. They scoffed and gossiped at the people inside, weak and sentimental as they were, especially about the dying part. The holding on long after the expiration date. The selfish lingering by the door. When they felt inclined, the crows would chase the flock of orange parrots, descendants the nurses said of escapees from a mid-century pet shop fire. The crows did this listlessly, obligated and supposed-to, knowing that the parrots would never be caught.
Just a week before, when his father could still speak, he recalled the swallows returning to San Juan de Capistrano, just down the coast. His memory, not yet misfiring, conjured a hand-painted postcard of the Old Spanish Mission, culled from his first trip to California. Exhausted from their six-thousand-mile journey, the birds rested in its eaves, and his father, then a nine-year-old boy, wondered what a swallow was and why it returned every spring: a flying article of faith. From his hospital bed, head elevated and feet gauzed, he had mumbled a song:
When the swallows come back to Capistrano
That’s the day you promised to come back to me
When you whispered, “Farewell,” in Capistrano
’twas the day the swallows flew out to sea.
The sitting son pecked at the lyrics on his phone, followed by the technical terms for the American cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) and the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)—all blessed facts. In many birds, the esophagus is largely a mere gravity chute, and in such events as a seagull swallowing a fish or a stork swallowing a frog, swallowing consists largely of the bird lifting its head with its beak pointing up and guiding the prey with tongue and jaws so that the prey slides inside and down. The old man, suddenly a boy, hummed another chorus from spotted lungs, with something approaching lust.
The son reads that Lingua translates as tongue: the former of language, the initiator of digestion. His father’s tongue, now grey and tumbled as spent laundry, can no longer make the sibilants or the glottal stops or the word “sun.” Disconnected from his lips, it cannot suck or be suckled. His mouth inks a carbon black target now, with his bridge removed. A flash of gold fillings in the darkness. His husk-colored, old growth teeth clench down on something remembered. His lips turn winter blue.
He may fly from the morphine, who knows, or crawl on his sharp, ashy knees. But go.
Marc Morgenstern, a lapsed journalist and occasional digital consultant, is an MFA candidate at the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. His work has been published in Soundings Review, Blue Lyra Review, the New York Times, and the Huffington Post, among others. Marc traveled across the U.S. with an original copy of the Declaration of Independence, an experience that he presented on The Moth’s stage in Santa Monica, CA.