The Girl with the Song in Her Mouth
by Dvora Wolff Rabino
One spring day, when blossoms first appeared on the cherry tree outside her open latticed window, Clarimonde gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. The aproned midwife gave the newborn a sharp slap on her rear, but the babe did not cry out; she chirped. Clarimonde laughed with delight and named her daughter Ava.
When Ava lay in her cradle, she cooed. When she crawled, she crooned. When she walked, she warbled. The melodies were wordless and mesmerizing.
When other children her age began to say “Mama,” Ava continued to sing. When other children began to say “More!” and “No!,” Ava sang some more. “Talk to me,” Clarimonde begged her daughter. Ava looked at her mother with round gray-blue eyes and changed her tune but did not speak.
Often, Ava’s singing was light and airy, like a piccolo. Other times, it was bright, like a fife. But on occasion the songs sounded to Clarimonde like the low, slow notes of a mournful cello.
With no words, Ava could not tell her mother when she was hungry or thirsty, when her tummy ached or her head burned with fever. She could not say when she was lonesome or sad. Clarimonde tried to guess at Ava’s needs, but was never certain she correctly divined the meaning of her daughter’s music.
Clarimonde tried not to worry. The physician reminded her that children matured at different rates. If Ava did not learn before, he said, she would surely learn in school.
In due course, Clarimonde walked Ava to the one-room schoolhouse and introduced her to the teacher. But when the falling leaves were replaced by falling snow, the schoolmarm sent home a letter. Try as she might, the mistress wrote, she could not induce Ava to recite her tables or read from her primer like the other children. Ava would be allowed to sit in the back row, she continued, whilst the rest of the class did their lessons. If she could not help herself, she could hum quietly from her seat. But the mistress could not promise that Ava would be learning.
The other girls in town completed their after-school chores and then played outside until supper, coasting down hills on their sleighs, skipping rope, or tagging each other with a ball, all the while chattering or chanting rhymes or calling out “Red Rover, Red Rover.” But Ava did not join in their play. In fair weather, she climbed the cherry tree in front of the house and looked down at the other girls. Otherwise, she sat on the window seat, folded her long legs under her, and crooned to her rag doll or organized her growing collection of feathers.
Clarimonde was not sure if Ava’s songs were a bounty or a curse, an aperture or a cage. The music was soulful, often heavenly. But without words, how would Ava learn? How would she make friends with other young ladies? How would she be able to find work as a shopkeeper or a seamstress, or wed and have children of her own?
The following Monday Clarimonde brought Ava back to the physician. He clapped his hands behind her head, observed her startle, and looked in her mouth and throat as she sang. “Your daughter’s hearing and throat are fine,” he said. “And she already makes the ‘ah’ sound when she sings. For the next fourteen days and fourteen nights, give her a cup of hot tea every morning with breakfast and a cup of hot mead every evening with supper. Have her breathe in the steam for ten minutes and then drink it up, every drop. When her throat is warm and wet, have her watch you and feel your mouth and throat as you form the sound of a single consonant: say, the letter B. Form her own lips into the proper shape. In a fortnight’s time, she will be able to make a B sound. You may then proceed to the next consonant.”
For the next fourteen days and fourteen nights, Clarimonde followed the doctor’s instructions to the letter. She was fortunate to have a dutiful child who did what she was asked. Ava drank the tea and the mead her mother served her each morning and evening, down to the last drop. She let her hand rest against her mother’s lips as Clarimonde said “Bah” and “Bah” again. She let Clarimonde her mother gently pinch and release Ava’s lips into the same shape. “Say ‘Bah’ for me,” Clarimonde said. “Bah. Bah. Bah. Can you say ‘Bah’?
Ava remained quiet.
On the last evening, Clarimonde repeated the ritual one more time. Then she looked into her daughter’s eyes.
“The fortnight is over, my dear,” she said. “Will you say ‘Bah’ for me? Please?”
Ava trilled in reply.
The next day was windy. Clarimonde bundled Ava up in her favorite fluffy coat and walked her to the apothecary on the main street. The woman behind the counter looked in Ava’s mouth and clicked her tongue. “Hot beverages and mouth exercises are insufficient for a problem this serious,” she said. “The girl’s throat is clearly diseased.” She handed Clarimonde an amber bottle of patent medicine. “For the next thirty nights,” she said, “you must give your daughter a spoon of this cough syrup at bedtime. In one month’s time, she will be cured.”
That night and for the next twenty-nine nights, Ava swallowed the tonic that Clarimonde spooned into her mouth. Afterwards, she slept long and deep. During the day, she woke slowly. She ate and drank silently, as if in a stupor. Then she returned to bed, pulled the quilt over her shoulders, and fell back into a peaceful slumber. Clarimonde chattered to herself to fill the sadly soundless house.
On the thirty-first morning, when the grandfather clock struck nine, Clarimonde tiptoed to Ava’s bed. She surveyed her daughter’s face from the top of her soft head to the ends of her narrow nose and chin. Finally, she gently kissed her brow. “Good morning, my sweet,” she whispered as Ava opened her eyes.
Ava trilled once again.
Clarimonde’s heart filled with both love and sorrow.
Finally, in desperation, Clarimonde called upon the surgeon. Like the physician and the apothecary, he inspected Ava’s mouth and throat. Afterwards, however, he instructed Ava to remove her apron and open the rear buttons at the top of her frock.
Gently, the surgeon let the bodice of Ava’s sky-blue frock drop from her shoulders. He pushed her feathery hair forward, off the back of her neck. With a magnifying glass, he inspected her shoulders and upper back.
“You are certain you want your daughter to speak?” he asked Clarimonde.
Clarimonde was puzzled. “Naturally,” she said.
The surgeon nodded soberly. He removed from his black bag a pair of tweezers with intricately carved handles of exotic wood. From the crest of Ava’s right shoulder blade, he plucked out something that Clarimonde could not see. He blew it away. He did the same with Ava’s left shoulder. Clarimonde saw Ava flinch, as if she’d just been bitten by a flea. Two tiny dots of blood shone brightly against her ivory skin. The surgeon placed a small bandage on each.
Clarimonde heard a soft whoosh depart her daughter’s mouth. She felt the air stir. She saw the curtains blow outward, toward the garden just outside.
“You may dress now,” the surgeon instructed Ava. She pulled her frock over her bandaged scapulae and shoulders and refastened the buttons. She hung her apron around her neck and tied the strings with a bow.
Clarimonde could barely breathe as she inspected her daughter’s face. “Hello, my dearest one,” she whispered. Her hand trembled as she reached to stroke Ava’s cheek.
“Hello, Mother,” replied Ava, in a voice that sounded halting and hoarse. She took
Clarimonde’s hand in hers and brought it to her lips.
Clarimonde’s eyes filled. Sobbing, she embraced her daughter. The girl’s frock grew wet with her mother’s tears.
That evening, Ava did not sing. But she told her mother she was hungry and asked for boiled potatoes. She said she was thirsty and requested ginger ale. As she continued to speak, her voice lost its raspiness; it sounded like the voices of the other girls. For the first time in as long as she could remember, Clarimonde smiled as she prepared her daughter’s supper.
Clarimonde walked Ava back to the schoolhouse the next morning with a lightened step. That afternoon, when she returned home, Ava told her mother that she had recited her tables and read aloud from her primer. Clarimonde gave her a big hug and a small mince pie. “Go play,” she said. “You have worked hard, and the day is too beautiful for chores.”
Clarimonde peered out her open window. The cherry tree was beginning to bud once more. She watched Ava venture beyond it to the very end of the lane and walk up to the cluster of other girls. She heard Ava join in their laughter. She heard her call out “Red Rover, Red Rover” and chant rhymes as she turned the skipping rope.
Clarimonde hummed a happy tune.
It was a late spring day and the birds were singing when Clarimonde noticed that something was not right. Ava spoke less, and the words were becoming harder for Clarimonde to hear. Her cheeks were pale and her body thin; her head hung from her frail frame. In the middle of supper, she pushed away her plate and limped off to the bedroom.
Clarimonde felt her own supper rise in her throat. “My heart,” she said as she tucked her now-ashen daughter in bed; “whatever is wrong with you?” She felt Ava’s forehead with the back of her hand, but detected no fever.
“I—“ Ava whispered. But Clarimonde could not make out what she said next.
“Once again?” Clarimonde requested. “Please?” She leaned down and placed her ear just over Ava’s mouth. She could see, outside the window, the ground littered with the pink blossoms of the cherry tree.
“Mother, I—” Ava croaked. She let out a long sigh like the last air coming out of a rubber balloon. A single tear rolled down her cheek. “I miss my song.”
Since her retirement from law, New Yorker Dvora Wolff Rabino has published short fiction and personal essays in numerous journals, been nominated for a “Best of the Net” anthology and a Pushcart Prize, and received the Inscape Editors’ Choice award. She is currently working on a novel. For more info and to connect, please visit dvorawolffrabinoauthor.com or https://www.facebook.com/people/100070445074307/.