Marilyn A. Johnson

Remnant Tongue
April 24, 2024 Johnson Marilyn A.

Remnant Tongue


I woke wounded
didn’t speak for weeks
When I talk about it
I’m told
I put my hand
over my mouth


you know how this goes—
once it gets a taste
it comes back and back


it—I don’t like to use the word
I don’t like the word


I’d rather write this
and hand it to you
like the slice of my self


slid into a kidney-shaped basin
and rolled out of sight
parked on a shiny table by the elevator
near a clutch of doctors
who wag and cluck
while my divided tongue


throbs in its tray




such a long walk—
I didn’t think I’d been gone for years
I scratched at the screen of the sisters
their house down our old street
head full of things I needed to tell—
tongue still tender


no one came


I stepped through the bushes
cupped my hands to the picture window
like a lizard insinuating myself
in the between place


I caught the swish of a pale bathrobe
as it left the room
I called out to my old friend
or meant to call      Debbie
when I lifted my tongue
the gauze dislodged and
blocked my throat
I stood in the dirt
choking on her name




oldest of our siblings
Debbie and I
our bond—
were all the other children
really necessary


I was lucky
I had to share a room with two sisters
but we each had a bed
she had to share
with four sisters    two in each bed
she got the cot
dresses rehemmed     passed down through the girls
the youngest      the beauty
wore the most threadbare clothes—
before the mother turned them to rags
she razored off the buttons


what happened to Debbie
I asked too late
couldn’t guess how she died
from the obit
no donations     no in lieu of flowers
her sisters wanted flowers




on foot
tasting blood     always     still
I walk the side of the road
as far from childhood as I can get


when a car comes toward me
I step back into the vines
turn sideways
make myself a smaller target
press my right fist to my heart


an apology for inconveniencing
the traffic
a gesture from the museum of gestures


three times we struck our chests
with our fists—all the little Catholic children—
subjects begging mercy from our baby king
mea culpa
mea culpa
mea maxima culpa


though nothing was our fault
any more than it was my sister’s fault
when our mother said
honey go walk him across the road


tongue frantic now
remnant tongue


and my little sister
our beauty
said come on mom
he’s old enough to cross on his own


and he said I’m old enough

Marilyn A. Johnson’s work has appeared in Plume 149, and also in Salamander, North American Review, FIELD, On the Seawall, InkwellNine Mile, and Hole in the Head Review, where she is now an associate editor; her poems will soon be published in Rhino and The Provincetown Independent. She is the author of three works of non-fiction, including The Dead Beat (Harper Perennial). She lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.