by Brooke Wonders
Medomai was the only daughter of the bellmaker Monody. By the time Medomai was six, she could construct a mold of brick and wax. By the time she was twelve, she’d memorized the formula for bellmetal. By the time she was fifteen, she had mastered the mathematics of pitch. Medomai cast hand cymbals for festival dancers, carved musical mobiles to hang above cradles, even assisted her mother in the founding of an enormous carillon meant for a cathedral’s steeple. At seventeen, she’d had enough of the expected.
She began constructing bells in all manner of shape: ovals and oblongs, turrets and tureens, dollhouses and doll faces. She cast them in all manner of substance: knitting needles and knifepoints, licorice and lapis-lazuli, grapevine and glue. Medomai knew her experiments tested her mother’s patience; most of her bells failed disastrously, leaving the tongs sticky with adhesive and the kiln smelling of anise. Some did not fail: the knifepoint bell keened like a dying man when struck. After Medomai displayed its peculiar reverberations to her mother, Monody handed her daughter a small bell made of thick glass.
“Make for this bell a perfect clapper, and it will speak your heart’s true purpose.” Monody’s tongue, a gorgeous clockwork model of gears and bronze, accented every clipped fricative.
Medomai set to work, her own tongue of pink flesh peeking between her teeth as she concentrated. She had always assumed she would cast off her fleshly tongue and take up her mother’s trade, but now, under her mother’s silent supervision, Medomai struggled to cast a simple silver clapper. The brick mold writhed beneath her tongs; the clamps refused to stay in place.
At last she pulled from the coalbed a malformed hunk of metal resembling a human tongue. Hung inside Monody’s glass bell, the lopsided clapper clanked atonal as a cowbell.
Monody dampened the clapper and eased the bell from Medomai’s grip. The silver tongue she loosed from its leather thong and flicked into a cauldron of molten metal where it curled, melted, and was consumed.
“We’ll try again, until your tongue can answer.” Though her tone consoled, her mother’s words rang hollow; Medomai cursed her mother’s bell, and the malformed tongue she’d made, for its inability to speak her heart’s true purpose.
Her dismay was interrupted by a roar like oncoming forest fire. Monody stepped outside with Medomai at her heels. Above them hulked a dragon.
Wide as a tidal wave and tall as a tornado, it bore down on them with eyes bright as two bronze cymbals, each the size of a floodwater lake. Every time it blinked, two vast carillons sounded. Its scales were glass, through which she could see organs and gears chugging away.
“You summoned me with the song of a thousand knives,” said the dragon. Its voice was the rumble of earthquake, for dragons are every disaster. It unrolled its vast tongue like a carpet. Down the tongue’s length ran a novel’s worth of crabbed script. At its two-pronged tip, the word The ran along the left fork and End down the right, the story’s beginnings disappearing down its gullet. The dragon flicked its forked tongue, inviting. Medomai wondered if a heart’s true purpose could take the form of a dragon.
Monody stepped between daughter and dragon. She kissed her daughter’s worried brow. “Trust the bell. When you can make for it a clapper that speaks truth, I’ll return.” Monody took one step onto the word The, another step onto the word End. Then the dragon wrapped its story around Medomai’s mother and gobbled her up. Its tongue unfurled once more to lap at Medomai’s toes, and she was certain she’d soon be following her mother into the belly of the beast, but instead the dragon pulled back, frowning down at Medomai.
“You’re not yet cooked through,” said the dragon. “I’ll send demons to stick toothpicks into you.” Then it hoisted itself into the air, the creak and groan of its unnatural parts the sound of an Industrial Age in flight, and lit off toward the city.
In swept a terrible, lonely autumn. The townsfolk whispered rumors of nearby villages razed by dragonfire, whole provinces consumed overnight, and armies of demons marching in the dragon’s wake. That first day, Medomai shouted herself hoarse calling “come back,” and “take me,” and “but I am fully cooked.” She took a vow of silence, unscrewing the tiny metal plate connecting her long, pink tongue to the back of her throat. She pulled the apparatus free, tucking it beneath her mother’s workbench, voice set aside for better days.
At first she set to with demonic diligence, sure if she could cast the perfect clapper, Monody would return. She made tongues of silver and bronze. The glass bell sounded cheerful and melancholy and fierce by turns, but her mother did not return. She tried wood and clay and cast-iron. The bell sounded wrathful and wary and somnolent, but her mother did not return. Medomai returned to her sketchbook, fabulating clappers of leather and lace, claw and bone. She chipped a clapper of ice and one of coal, but not once did the bell ring true.
Medomai despaired. She ate little and worked less, rarely opened the shop, and took to bed. All through the fall and into a bitter winter, she couldn’t work. Beside the shop’s till, Medomai hung her mother’s clapper-less glass bell, the one that had so wrongly cast her fate. She took to ringing the silent bell absently, as if its absent voice might distract her from her absent mother.
When three months’ mourning had passed, she dusted off her tongue, imagining she might wear it again. Grief clotted her throat; she had no wish to talk. Instead, she tied the tongue inside her mother’s bell where the clapper ought to hang. She rang it vigorously, expecting a salivary hush.
“Meadow-may, meadow-mine, your hands are idle,” said the bell. It spoke with her mother’s voice. Medomai could have swallowed her tongue in surprise, had she been wearing it.
“Meadow-may, meadow-mine, a maker’s hands must make.” Whatever might the bell mean? That she ought practice her mother’s trade once more? Or something else entirely? And even if she could interpret its meaning, why should she trust a talking bell, even if it sounded like Monody?
“Meadow-may, meadow-mine, you must make for me a proper tongue.”
Its request lodged, it fell silent; no matter how Medomai tugged on the bell-pull, it refused to speak again.
She loosed her tongue from where it hung and stared hard at the fat rope of muscle before replacing it in her throat. The workshop was strewn with the detritus of a hundred failed clappers: pinecones, needles green and brown, acorns, feathers, bark. All these she spread across her workbench. Pinecones for prickly repartee. Acorns for the warm fullness of laughter and the seeds of friendship such laughter contained. Feathers for quickness of thought and flights of fancy. Bark to roughen the timbre and make the voice unique. Larger and thicker than her attempts to mold a clapper, the finished work resembled a sylvan version of her mother’s clockwork tongue.
Medomai used a leather thong to tie her creation to the roof of the bell’s mouth. Ecstatically she rang it, expecting to hear her mother’s voice again. But the only sound echoed round the quiet store was the shush of wind against the panes. Frustrated to tears, she loosed the bell’s clapper, examining her work for imperfections, misplaced components, dangling threads.
Then she lifted the completed tongue to her mouth, setting its damper deep in her throat. Screws dug into bark as the tongue settled into place.
Her mouth filled with the wildness of winter. She gasped as cold air swirled into her lungs, chill laced with the menthol taste of wintergreen; when she lifted fingers to her lips, her breath frost-rimed her lunulae. Medomai was laughing joyfully when she finally pulled the evergreen tongue past her lips.
A customer came into the shop the next morning and purchased the wintery tongue. He was delighted with its pine scent, the minty flavor it lent his breath, the way it colored his thoughts with holiday cheer.
Now Medomai worked in earnest, producing tongues in every material, sure she was on the path to solving her mother’s riddle. Long strips of leather hung from her ceiling; these became tongues for hunting and sport. She cast tongues of metal for strength, wood for growth, and bone for war. War tongues she’d stud with iron filings; when she tested such tongues in her own mouth, they screamed with agony before gurgling out a dying breath. She rolled pliant tongues of dough, baked them, and fed them to beggar children; for weeks after, everything they ate tasted of sugarcake. For women betrayed in love, she’d cut a short stub of tongue from old shoe leather; that woman’s husband soon found himself with breath like sweaty feet every time he flirted.
Medomai tested every tongue she made, but in a few hours’ time each one shriveled in her mouth crying not for you, not for you like a whippoorwill. Bereft of a crafted tongue of her own, she continued to rely on her birth-tongue—her mothertongue, as she called it, for the time when it had hung inside the glass bell and spoken with Monody’s voice.
Medomai’s tongues leapt off her shelves. The baker bought three warm, sugar-crusted tongues for his young son. The grocer’s wife, worried about her husband’s frequent trips to the city, brought in a pair of old boots with which to keep her husband faithful. The mayor bought twelve bone tongues for his twelve daughters, that they might better dissuade potential suitors.
Gradually she moved her mother’s bells from the front of the store to the back, and then into storage. Still, the secret of her mother’s bell and her own true voice eluded her.
There was one material she had yet to test.
The town glassmaker was pleased when Medomai arrived on his doorstep. In barter he requested one of her finest teaching tongues, folded of textbook pages soaked in midnight oil. Under his expert tutelage, within a few months she’d produced an array of transparent tongues. But when she placed a glass tongue inside her throat and turned the screws, it sounded the same eerie cry: not for you, not for you, not for you.
Medomai was hard at work etching a blown-glass tongue when a knock disturbed her. On her stoop stood a tall, thin man wearing a blank mask.
“Where’s your toothpick?” she asked the demon.
The demon’s masked face remained constitutively impassive. “I met your mother once. In the belly of a dragon.”
“Which one?” She had to be sure; demons were liars.
“A dragon with words where its tongue should be. A glassblown dragon with sunset in its eyes.” The demon held hands out to her, palms open, but its movements were unnerving, mechanical as a puppet.
“Will it hurt?” she asked.
“No more than anything else.” The demon’s mask grinned. “I’m a seller of faces. Might you wish to purchase one?”
He tore the mask from his face and handed it to her. Beneath it, another mask. She looked to the blank oval in her hand, but it was no longer blank. Instead she held a perfect replica of her own visage. Except where her eyes were narrowed in doubt, the mask’s eyebrows raised high as if in excitement. Her lips, so often pursed in grief or concentration, had relaxed into a soft smile. The mask resembled her, yes, but with regret replaced by joy, worry by clarity of purpose. This version of herself seemed happy.
“Your future self, should you choose to put her on.” His fingers spasmed like stuck gears; he shifted his weight from side to side, jerky as an automaton. “I’ll even gift her to you. What’s your name?”
“Medomai.” The word hung in the air, resonant.
With a toothpick that resembled a scalpel, he inscribed her name inside the mask while she held it steady. She considered dropping it, handing it back to him, even placing it over his face to hide his vacant expressionlessness, but she did none of these things, too captivated by the peace emanating from its contented features.
On impulse, she shoved a glass tongue into his stuttering hands. “A gift in return.”
In a single angular gesture, he doffed his mask, beneath which she could see yet another blank mask. “May you wear it to pieces.” He bid her good-day and quitted her porch.
She boxed up the mask and slid it beneath her workbench, but all through the afternoon and into the night the mask whispered to her like a forgotten mothertongue:
“Meadow-may, meadow-mine, pick me up, put me on, and I’ll make you the happiest of girls.” It spoke in her mother’s voice gone rancid, sickly sweet with pleading, gravelly in demand. It would be too easy to slip behind this other, happier face.
“Meadow-may, meadow-mine, pick me up, put me on, and I’ll show you the secret of mask-making. You’ll have no need of tongues nor bells.” Its words emanated from a thin slit cut where its mouth ought be. Medomai knew better than to put her trust in a tongueless thing.
At last she gave herself up for sleep. When she went to put her mothertongue in its box for the night, the mask spoke loud and clear:
“Meadow-may, meadow-mine, you must make for yourself a proper tongue, but you don’t know how. Pick me up, put me on, and I’ll teach you.” She’d spent her whole life desiring a tongue of her own, a tongue like her mother’s, one with brass fittings polished to gleam.
She picked up the mask, and as she did, a low vibration settled in her bones, a hum like bellmetal struck at shatterpoint. She felt the skin of her face shear away. Beside her workbench stood the mirror she handed to customers so they could better appreciate the aesthetics of a well-worn tongue. In its reflection, she watched her skin turn translucent, all the better to see the gears rotating beneath her skin. At the corners of her eyes, rivets. In the crease above her chin, interlaced cogs. A system of pulleys branched down her nose; thin beams cantilevered across each cheek. She dropped the mask, but it did no good; the effect spread downward, revealing the bellows of her lungs, the pistons of her fingerbones, her clockwork heart.
Her hands shook rhythmically. To steady them, she wrapped fingers around a glass tongue. Where skin touched glass, her skin paled over again, peach as pie. Carefully, still terrified, she slid the glass tongue inside her mouth.
“Not for you, not for you, not for you,” cried the tongue.
The mechanized thrum ceased and she began to vomit forth cogs, screws, spool upon spool of kinked wire. When she was through, her stomach ached. Puddled at her feet, a flood of metal, but when she looked into the mirror once more, her face was hale. When she looked to the mask, its face was an assembly line, a factory floor, a patchwork machine. She went to bed wearing the glass tongue, too afraid to spit it out, though it kept her awake with its sighs of not for you not for you.
Dawn had begun to lick pink across the sky when Medomai put in her mothertongue, locked up her shop and went out into the frosty morning.
She recognized her neighbors by their clothes alone. They came from everywhere at once, hundreds of masked faces. There was the baker in his apron speckled with flour, and beside him his young son; both of their faces were oval voids. There was the grocer and his wife; there, the mayor and his twelve daughters. They stuttered toward her, encircling her, using the wall of their bodies to herd her toward the town’s border. Beneath their see-through skin, the crunch of gears.
She cried stop and what do you want of me? and speak to me please, but they remained silent. She clawed at their masks, hoping that even once there’d be a face behind. In her wake she left a trail of masks, as behind every mask she loosed and flung to the ground she found only another indifferent mask. Friends, neighbors, and childhood playmates drove her to the edge of the forest, where houses disappeared into endless trees and trees into endless darkness.
The demon waited for her there.
“Where is your mask?” From the transparent tongue she’d gifted him spilled words slippery as sand.
“I had no need of it.”
The demon ignored her reply, turning to address the blank crowd. “I will now accept your payment.”
As one, the townsfolk reached beneath their masks and pulled free their tongues, wintergreen and hunter’s leather and xanthic bone. As one, they flung them to the earth, where the tongues lay still and silent.
“Why have you left us?” cried an abandoned tongue.
“Don’t leave us here, we’ll freeze!” said another.
Tongues began to speak on top of one another, their voices overlapping into cacophony. Her creations loved their owners, couldn’t understand why they’d been forsaken. Medomai couldn’t save them. The demon pointed toward the woods and she fled into them, mothertongue leaden in her mouth. Behind her a hundred tongues crawled and hunched and slithered to follow.
She ran until she couldn’t run and then she stumbled to her knees and crawled until her wrists gave out and then she curled into herself like a spiral bevel and was still. She’d been cast out by a demon, watched her mother devoured—the cold leeched away every warm thought until she did not think at all.
Medomai woke beneath a moist, heavy blanket: thousands of tongues hooked one to another to form a vast quilt. They’d kept her alive through the night. When she stood, they delinked into a pile of silver, brown, pink, and green loops, then began to frolic, kicking up snow and digging tunnels, speaking to each other in many languages, only some of which she understood. They accompanied her while she foraged, and she mused aloud to them, asking how they planned to survive.
“You must cut out your tongue,” said a tongue of hardened leather. The rest took up the chant. “Yes, you must cut out your tongue your tongue your tongue!”
“Why would I do that?” she queried, “when I’ve got two perfectly good tongue screws?” They offered no reply, just glossolalia’d sadly amongst themselves as if she’d disappointed them.
Two leather tongues perished that first night, and a third, a chimney sweep’s tongue of soot and coal, sacrificed itself that she might have a fire. The others crowded around the small, still forms and sang in haunting minor. Her hands were frostbit and she wondered if they’d ever craft another tongue. Perhaps it would be for the best.
The tongues’ mourning chorus was maddening. “Will you sing for every dead one of you?” she spat at them.
A bone tongue lashed out, slashing a two-inch gouge into her ankle. “You wallow while we wither and die.” The other tongues inched away from the aggressor.
Benumbed, she felt no pain, just saw the splash of red at her foot, a fan opened across snow. “What can I do?”
“Cut out your tongue.” The bone tongue stretched itself across the fan, an offering served up on a crimson platter.
Slowly, with white, bloodless fingers, she dismantled the offending tongue into its component parts. Using its serrated edge, she sawed her mothertongue free of its moorings. Blood gushed into her mouth and she swallowed down its warmth. The dismembered mothertongue she flung to her posse.
They swarmed over the bloodied bit of flesh; she couldn’t see past the braided red-brown-silver of their bodies. They were stretching it, stretching her mothertongue wide, wider, widest until it resembled a thin, slick tarpaulin. She cast about for sticks to form a rough frame, and together they built a makeshift tent to huddle beneath. That night, no tongues died.
By sunrise, her mothertongue had grown back as if it had never been severed, and the tarpaulin still covered Medomai and her brood. Again she cut free her tongue, and this time her merry band built a fire and roasted it red, then fed it to her whole. That night, she believed they might actually survive til spring.
Each day she’d cut out her tongue and each day her band of homemade tongues would contrive a new way to surprise her. One day they blew up her mothertongue like a moist balloon, stuffed it with needles, and presented it to her as a pillow. On another, they baited a trap with mothertongue and caught a mink. Finally, after several weeks’ sawing and stretching, they’d built for her a house of tongues, its roof thatched with needles.
Medomai counted her charges each night to make sure none had gone astray. She ceased to cut out her tongue only once her clever pets had run out of ideas, and not before she’d added five mothertongues to her brood. She lost a few to hunting mishap, but no more to hypothermia.
They were fascinated by her mouth and would perch on her shoulders, the better to peer between her lips. When she loosed the screws to remove that day’s lucky tongue, they clustered around her eagerly, hoping for a turn. She named her favorites: Hunger, Solace, and Numb. They had their own personalities, too. Mothertongues ordered the other tongues about. Tongues of metal engaged in hunting contests; the winner secured an evening as Medomai’s voice. Hunger was a storyteller; when it crept between her lips of an evening, she’d find herself spinning tales of demon hunters and dragonslayers. Sometimes she let it sleep in her mouth, as she’d grown fond of its dumb weight against her teeth. Her tongues lulled her to sleep each night, their voices invading her dreams. Medomai did not permit herself to miss her hometown or her mother. It was simpler to have a mind of winter.
V. The Work of One’s Hands
Medomai woke to a terrible roar and claws shredding the needle-thatch of her hut. Tongues scattered as the roof came down. She covered her head with her arms.
“Meadow-may, meadow-mine, your hands are idle,” the dragon said, its voice an arctic wind.
The dragon had a point: she’d done little since her exile. She hunched lower.
“Meadow-may, meadow-mine, a maker’s hands must make.”
What riddles did dragons tell? Ought she craft it a present? But what gift could she offer such a beast? And even if she could interpret its meaning, dragons lied, were worse than demons.
“Meadow-may, meadow-mine, you must make for me a proper tongue.” The dragon coughed, a harrumphing sound like a very large, very old grandmother. It spat out a masked demon who rolled the length of its inscribed tongue to sprawl at Medomai’s feet. Her tongues hissed and hid behind her ankles.
“Why should I make you anything? You’ve eaten my mother and flattened my house.”
“If you do, perhaps I’ll spit her up again.”
A war tongue ululated and her brood beset the dragon, slapping at its claws, clambering up its scaled feet, dogging its heels. Medomai grabbed wildly as they barreled past her; she came up with a wriggling tongue in each hand, but the rest she couldn’t stop.
“Demon, round up these coy pets,” ordered the dragon. Quick as sound the obedient demon corralled her friends onto the dragon’s storied tongue, and quicker still the dragon slurped them into its maw, a hundred tongues sliding into its belly.
They were gone. All but Hunger and Numb straining in her grip like tortured muscles.
“I’ll cough them up too, once you’ve made what I ask,” said the dragon. It wrapped claws around her, lifted her up, and winged her away to the city.
VI. Gold and Precious Stones
Medomai’s dragon was a slum dragon. It lived in the sewers beneath a meatpacking district, reaping profit from nearby towns. The dragon spat out a demon in every village through which it passed, waited a week’s time, then returned to plunder. It stored its ill-gotten gains beneath the festering city. Plumbers and city workers who came upon the dragon’s hoard were promptly consumed, later to be spit out as demons.
This hoard made up the sum of Medomai’s materials. Sapphires, pearls and spinels rolled around the insides of carrion-scented, rust-encrusted pipes; stacks of bronze, silver, and gold gleamed bright against the gloom.
Medomai and her two remaining tongues built a makeshift workshop of sawed-off pipe, helped by the many magical tools the dragon had accumulated. At first Medomai plotted her escape, but as the golden tongue grew larger, the project expanding in scope, she began to formulate a better plan, one that might save not just herself, but also her tongues and her mother. Too, she found she loved the work: deciphering the precise proportions of a metal alloy, delinking mail into sturdy chains, or discovering the perfect device for the job at hand buried in a pile of tarnished coin.
Time passed strangely in the tunnels below the city. Medomai could not tell if it took days or months or years, but one day the dragon returned from demon-sowing to find Medomai’s masterwork complete. The tongue she’d sculpted was massive, ten times as long as a demon is tall. Solid gold studded with precious stones, its mechanical workings featured weights and chainlink pulleys, along with two bolts of iron with which to secure the enormous contraption.
“You took too long,” the dragon opined.
“It will take longer still. I need to check the abutment inside.” Medomai rapped the dragon’s left nostril and it unhinged its jaw, which clanked to the floor.
“Be quick about it, or I’ll swallow you up.”
Unafraid, for she’d heard this threat many times, Medomai walked deep into the dragon’s throat. She walked past its epiglottis, past its larynx and down its esophagus into the cathedral of its torso. Hundreds of demons labored inside. Some worked the bellows of its lungs. Others managed the pistons that moved its legs. A few swam laps across a vast pool of bile.
Medomai tapped a demon on the shoulder.
“I’m looking for a bellmaker.”
The demon eyed her warily, then shrugged. “You’ll be wanting the head.”
Medomai climbed up the dragon’s spine and into its brain until she found the quiet room where her mother worked alone. Monody sat with her back to Medomai, a mallet in each hand. Two enormous carillons stood before her, beyond which Medomai could see the dappled darkness of the sewers. Of course Monody the bellmaker would be the one to hold the mallets and strike the gongs each time the dragon blinked. At her feet curled hundreds of tongues, and these came bounding over to Medomai, licking at her fingertips, dancing atop her toes.
“Mother, I couldn’t make a clapper for your bell. I made a hundred tongues instead.”
Monody turned, but where her face ought be, there was only mask.
The tongues quieted their dance.
“Help her,” Medomai pleaded. One by one Medomai’s tongues slipped between Monody’s lips. One by one Medomai tightened the screws, connecting them to her mother’s throat. One by one the tongues strained to speak, but the words came out gibberish.
Medomai wept and cajoled and pried the mallets from Monody’s hands. Her mother said nothing, did nothing, only allowed herself to be led from the room, Medomai guiding her along by the elbow. Together they slid down the dragon’s glass throat, tongues slipping and slapping along beside them.
They came to a stop at the abutment where the dragon’s tongue attached to its insides, the place where its story began. She skimmed the words inscribed there:
Once upon a winter’s day, a demon wrote out the words that would become its mask and its armor. The words bonded with one another into a coat that made it indestructible; they formed a flat, oval helm that made its face inscrutable. If its coat were ever stolen, if its mask were ever broken, if its words were ever eaten, it would cease to be a demon. But wearing its mask and coat, it could devour worlds. This was the birth of the world’s first dragon…
Medomai unscrewed the dragon’s story from its base, rolled it up into a scroll the length of a walking stick, and slung it across her back.
“Slide your jaw beneath the new tongue,” she called out. Go, she mouthed to her tongues, and they obeyed, herding Monody farther down the throat.
The dragon did as it was bid. Medomai slid the heavy iron bolts into place, affixing the new tongue securely.
The jeweled tongue was so enormous it blocked the entire cavity of the dragon’s mouth; Medomai could barely squeeze herself free. No one could get inside now, and no demons could get out.
“How does it feel?” she called up to the dragon, her voice echoing through its cavernous interior.
“A little heavy,” the dragon confessed as Medomai leapt free of its jaws, pulling Monody with her. A hundred tongues came too, landing with a hundred wet plinks, the sound of heavy rain. “Are you sure you linked up the pulley system correctly?”
“Positively certain,” said Medomai.
The beast tried to lift its too-heavy head, thrashing its body from side to side, trapped by a too-weighty a tongue.
“You’ve tricked me, tongue-maker!” it cried. The dragon sent demons boiling up its throat, only to gag on its minions as they clogged its esophagus, unable to bypass the jeweled tongue.
Medomai instructed her coven of tongues to swarm over the dragon’s body and pry loose as many diamond-sharp scales as they could carry. She left behind every bit of gold and every bright jewel, taking only the rolled-up scroll that was once a dragon’s tongue and a hundred tongues’ worth of glass dragonscale. Bowed beneath their transparent burdens, the dragon’s piteous roars ringing in their ears, Medomai’s band ascended toward the city’s surface.
Medomai and her mother returned home under cover of night. Inside the shop, their workbench stood gray-furred with dust. Medomai oiled her mother’s tools, wiped them down with rags, and set to. Monody sat beside her, a dozen tongues laced across her shoulders like a shawl.
At first Medomai worked with demonic diligence, sure if she could cast the perfect tongue, she could break Monody’s machine-mask, just she had her own. Medomai made tongues of bronze and ones of silver, carefully screwing each one into her mother’s throat. The tongues spoke from between her mother’s masked lips, cheerful and melancholy and strange by turns, but her mother did not speak sense. Medomai tried wood and clay and cast iron. The tongues whispered, wrathful and wary and somnolent, but her mother did not speak sense. She tried leather and lace; she chipped a clapper of ice and one of coal, but not once did her mother’s mind guide the tongue with which she spoke.
Medomai wore the dragon’s scroll in place of her mothertongue now, that story she knew from beginning to end. It was much too big for her; she had to fold its width in on itself multiple times, and its length ran the perimeter of the store a dozen times over. Medomai’s tongues rigged a system of hooks inset into the shop’s walls, and from these hooks Medomai’s tongue draped like a vellum garland. Every evening, when Medomai had given up in exhaustion, they’d read passages from her storied tongue, which contained the collected history of dragons. Sometimes they’d read ancient lore. Other times, the stories were contemporary, featuring familiar demons embroiled in unfamiliar squabbles.
One night they stumbled onto her mother’s story.
There once was a girl named Monody who did not yet know her calling. She went to the dragon of history and asked a boon: that the dragon search through its archives and find her a life of purpose. The dragon presented her with a stack of books on bellmaking. In return, the dragon asked her to return in five years’ time and make for it an impenetrable hide. So Monody went on her way. She mastered her trade, fell in love with a man who didn’t believe in dragons, gave birth to a girl she named after the sound of thought, and in five years’ time returned. The dragon was impatient to receive its new scales; it acquiesced when Monody ordered it to drink mandragora tea, the better to sleep through Monody’s efforts. Then Monody plated its hide with transparent glass instead of bellmetal. When the dragon awoke, it was furious to find itself more fragile than ever…
There were only a handful of stories with Monody in them, and Medomai begged her tongues to read them to her again and again. Her mother remained catatonic, but Medomai kept on as if work alone could save her. She melted down dragonscale into glass and cast thick tongues the width of flower vases and narrow tongues the width of spectacle lenses. Each time she placed a dragonglass tongue between her mother’s lips, it cried not for you not for you and then cracked in two or shattered to bits or exploded into sand that gathered in Monody’s canthi. Medomai’s hands were crisscrossed with open cuts and half-healed scars; the tongues bore strange lacerations from assisting with cleanup. A risky enterprise, the melting down of one’s past.
That evening, the tongues read past Monody’s part of the story, to the moment when the dragon met Medomai.
“Trust yourself. When you can make a clapper that speaks truth, I’ll return,” read the tongues. Medomai stopped them, shaking her head. “That’s not what she said. The dragon’s rewritten it.”
Monody sat at the workbench, and Medomai went to stand behind her. She fit scarred hands over her mothers’ wrinkled ones and began to puppeteer. The tongues braced Monody’s wrists and elbows, and together they shaped a mold of clay. Together they melted dragonscale. Together they poured molten glass into a mold. A bell being far too difficult, instead they made a clapper. Every so often Monody’s hands shook themselves free and moved of their own accord. Medomai let her fingers fall away as her mother’s body remembered what her mind could not.
A clapper, then, at last, a malformed hunk of glass resembling a human tongue. Her mother’s glass bell still hung beside the till, and Medomai tied the clapper inside. Would it clank? Would it whippoorwill? Would it speak with Monody’s voice and cry, “Meadow-may, meadow-mine, you were never meant for bellmaking. Deceiver of dragons, it’s tongues for you, tongues for you, tongues for you”?
Heart thudding like a thousand demons running laps around her lungs, she rang her mother’s bell.
It split in two. Medomai felt endless winter settle in her throat. Then gear teeth jutted through the flat surface of Monody’s mask. Bits of metal tinkled to the floor, a thousand tiny chimes, as her mother retched up a year’s worth of accrued metal. Behind the blank oval, her mother’s face was older but with the same gentle eyes and weary smile.
Medomai and her mother held each other and wept a thousand tears that sparkled on their faces like cut glass. When they were through weeping, her mother wanted to know everything she’d missed. Medomai gestured to the loops of tongue that fluttered from the walls like cut-up dolls. She loosed her tale from its hooks and let her mother read every word, until Monody found the ones she needed:
If its coat were ever stolen, if its mask were ever broken, if its words were ever eaten, it would cease to be a demon.
Mother and daughter worked in unison, a bell and its clapper. Under Monody’s hands, each dragon scale was melted down and reformed into a tiny glass chime, which Medomai hung with one of her hundred tongues. Homespun tintinnabulists, mother and daughter loosed their creations into the world, that masked demons might find them and, curious, ring them and, once rung, be freed.
Brooke Wonders’ fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Apex Magazine, and The Dark (among others), and has been anthologized in the &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Writing and the Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror. She is an Assistant Professor at the University of Northern Iowa.