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Manuel Gonzales

The Mouth

There was a time in my life (it began, I believe, in the middle of 1974) when, while brushing my teeth one evening, odd, inexplicable things began to fall from my mouth. Not food – nothing as recognizable as those soft, mouth-colored particles knocked loose through flossing or over-vigorous brushing – not drips of blood, nor spit and toothpaste.

The word ‘things’, I realize, is inadequate, inaccurate. ‘Things’ refer to those everyday objects of life (a toothbrush or hairbrush, a box of Q-tips, a roll of toilet paper, hand soap) – such inanimate objects did not fall from my mouth. What fell from my mouth was animate; organisms, life-forms fell from my mouth.

Of this period in my life, it seems unlikely that I did not feel afraid nor worried nor concerned in any manner whatsoever, but, in my memory I can only remember a wonderment – an odd curiosity about it all. This absence of fear is, perhaps, due to a failure of memory, but, then again, perhaps not.

Earthly creatures flew, squirmed, crawled, and squeezed their way out. Small songbirds wobbling from the unexpected wetness, a snake, long and thin and unmarked by patterns or colors, minnows, tiny and quick, that circled down the drain too fast for me to catch, a host of winged ants, two acrid snails, whose trails stained my lower cusped. Other, smaller organisms, too small to be seen, emerged from the depths as a group large enough to cover the light bulb hanging over my bathroom mirror, throwing the room into temporary darkness before the lot of them fell away, their exoskeletons burnt to little crisps.

Once assured that no creature much larger than the width of my mouth would shove its way through, I fell into the habit of standing at my bathroom mirror, waiting to see what might come next. Some of the organisms, the ones I could catch, the ones that did not eat each other (the songbirds fell prey to the unmarked snake) – some of the organisms, as many as possible, I kept. I bought two large fish tanks and placed any fish that passed my lips (I had since covered the drain with a light, gauzy net) in one tank and the snake in the other. A small, underdeveloped pigeon, a Northeastern Screech Owl, and a mockingbird flew out of my mouth after the two songbirds, and for these I purchased three brass birdcages. The pigeon and the mockingbird I fed on seeds and small pieces of bread and popcorn; the snake and the owl were fed mice and rats.

I cannot give a reasonable explanation as to why I kept the animals. Some of them died, possibly from the shock, the trauma of their damp and cavernous birth. I couldn’t fathom any reason for their existence inside of me. Could only wait and watch as their wings fluttered against my cheeks, their beaks clicked at my front teeth, their nails or claws pinched into the fleshy parts of my tongue. The truly unfortunate ones appeared in my mouth as I ate breakfast or as I finished dinner, forced back down my gullet in a rush of food and saliva, and the only implications of their brief existence were severe cases of indigestion followed by a coughed up feather, or a small bone or claw that would clog the plumbing system of my toilet.

I wanted to make some sense of the matter. Wanted to find some pattern – why a bird followed by a tadpole followed by a small swarm of carpenter bees? Why only snakes, birds, amphibians, and insects? So far, there had been no mammals. No spiders, millipedes, or scorpions. No moths.

I kept a catalog of what my mouth produced and studied it long into the night, arranging and rearranging a growing list of animals. I read through the Bible, looking for references – the Old Testament’s plagues of frogs and locusts, the New Testament’s bounty of fish (Jesus, casting his nets to draw in Peter, the fisherman) but could find no correlation. These creatures held some significance, foretold some happening – the end of the world, the beginning of a new millennium of peace. But then, after no more than a month, the actions of my mouth stopped. And still unable to piece together a meaning through the simple observation of these creatures in their cages, I decided that the best way to solve their riddle would be to kill them and study them from the inside. The insects and the smaller lizards and frogs, I killed with fumes, large doses of nail polish remover and rubbing alcohol. The snakes and birds (including the Northeastern Screech Owl) I fed simple combinations of rat poisons and over-the-counter drugs – sinus medicine, ibuprofen, and cough suppressants – and in the end, I wasn’t sure what killed them, only knew that they all died. I checked out biology text-books to use as a reference so that, if anything were different – if the frog were three-hearted, or if the snake were without a skeleton – I would know.

I suppose that, with each incision, I hoped to find a message. The tiny rib-cage of a pigeon warped and twisted into a name, a time, an idea. A piece of artifact, once swallowed whole by the unmarked snake, left untouched these hundreds of years. The hieroglyphs of some unknown civilization imprinted on the inside of the skin of a goldfish. One by one I cut into them, and in each, I found reflections of everyday life – veins and arteries, small, fragile bone structures, livers, hearts, digestive tracts, undigested pieces of bread, seed, fly. And as I came to the snake, who I had left for last, I noticed a bulb-shaped lump halfway down the length of its body, and my pulse quickened as I cut into its skin. I envisioned a small clock stopped at midnight. A robin’s egg, unhatched. My grandmother’s butterfly brooch. Instead, what I found was the gray, wet body of a rat I had fed it over a week before.

Manuel Gonzales lives in Brooklyn with his wife, their dog, and their cat. His work has appeared in McSweeney's and The American Journal of Print and The Believer

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