Kathryn was doing all she could to get her son to touch his food again. She wanted him to eat. “I don’t know what to do,” she said to the doctor. “I don’t know what’s wrong.” The pitch of her voice revealed her panic but she tried to speak slowly, to make sense. “Michael used to eat like a horse.” The flesh under her eyes was dark, bags. “Not anymore,” she continued. “Now he won’t go near his plate. Won’t even look at it.”
The doctor said it had to do with Michael’s tongue. “It’s a powerful organ,” he said, unfrosted. Days before, he had listened to Kathryn when she called to tell him about Michael got his hands on a hot piece of pizza, as fresh out of the oven as it could be. She had been on the phone with a friend, talking about how her husband was always at work, how she secretly liked it, the quiet. She put the pizza down on the table and turned away, and Michael, a toddler, put a slice in his mouth, curious. “Powerful organs heal,” the doctor had said, “quickly.”
“People burn their mouths all the time,” Kathryn had said, her voice like someone examining a dented can of soup. “He’ll be fine, right?” Oddly, Michael hadn’t cried in pain. He hadn’t even yelped. Instead, he had swallowed the pizza, not whole, but just a bite, a piping and steaming bite, the last one he would take.
“I believe he will be,” the doctor had said.
After her second call to the doctor—after a week—Michael still wouldn’t eat. He was disappearing. He was becoming less and less of a son, fading like the ashes that crack from a fire. He was pale, and the rims of his eyes were dark, his eyes like glass. He shrunk, becoming skinnier and skinnier, refusing to eat.
“This isn’t normal,” Kathryn told her husband, talking with the force of an engine yet still in the tone of a whisper, so that Michael couldn’t easily overhear. He was sitting on the floor of his room, playing with model cars. Kathryn paced the kitchen as her husband typed on his phone, sending reports, maybe, answering other questions. “Are you listening?” Kathryn snipped. She had never heard of a child who burned their tongue and then refused to eat. She had never heard of that happening to anybody. “We have to do something.” She had tried everything. She had whipped up every recipe she could think of, only to watch each dish go un-tasted, each mouthful go stale.
“Bring him to a doctor,” said her husband.” Her face was flat, and he recognized it. “Another doctor,” he said.
“Have you seen him?” Kathryn asked, making sure he heard. She assembled a plate of tiny snacks: a sliced leftover hotdog, bits of a potato, some crackers. “It’s not healthy.”
“Yes, I’ve seen him,” her husband said, looking up from his phone. “He’s my son.” He looked back down at the screen in front of him, plugging away at some numbers.
Kathryn grunted and marched out of the kitchen, carrying the plate. When she got to her son’s room she eased her stride, and entered gingerly. “Michael?” she asked. “Sweetie?” He kept playing with his cars, lining them up in a row. “Sweetie, are you hungry?” She spoke as if rubbing the belly of a puppy.
“Not really,” Michael said. He took one car out from the line and carried it through the air, making it fly.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, starting to plead. She had asked her friends what to do and not one of them had a sensible idea. The saner of them told her to wait it out but she didn’t want to wait. Her son’s health was at stake, his livelihood. She asked again, “Can you tell me what’s the matter?” She had even tried to pray.
“I’m okay,” Michael said, landing his car. He took a different one from the line and pushed it around his space on the floor, in a circle.
“I brought you something to eat,” Kathryn said, drawing closer to her son and holding out the plate. She was careful not to put it near his nose, in case it was his sense of smell that had gone haywire, in case it was his nose that was making him sick. She had tried to do some research and she read that smell and taste are related. She thought that maybe the burning one of could lead to the destruction of another. “Do you want to try one?” she asked, eating a cracker. “They’re good.” She held out the plate further.
Michael continued to drive his car in circles.
“See?” she said. “There’s nothing wrong.” She exaggerated her chewing. When Michael didn’t respond, she left the plate on the floor next to him and ruffled his hair, leaving without a word, pressing her hands into her eyes.
On the way to a specialist—an oral surgeon—and with Michael sleeping in the backseat, Kathryn thought about the piano. She used to fill the house with the sounds of it, lazy and sad sonatas. And her husband would listen. He would ask her if she could play old standards and she would learn them, songs with names like “Stella by Starlight” and “The Nearness of You.” She would tap out the songs and giggle, as her husband sang them loudly, whipping up the sloppiest Sinatra impression he could muster. He would even sing the wrong words to song, intentionally. “Fly me to the moon,” he would drawl, snapping his fingers, as Kathryn tried not to lose it. They had poked fun at a distant era because they were so alive in the present, and she wanted to go back to that time and tell herself that the present would slip away. She wanted to go back to the time of music and tap her old self on the shoulder, her two selves watching her husband tenderly dancing with a lamp, pretending he was fondling a supple woman, her. She wanted to whisper into her own ear: “It won’t stay like this,” she would explain. “It can’t.”
She would even play the piano for Michael. When she was home by herself, she would play for him as she grew inside her. She believed in his fragility, the way in which he could easily scatter into pieces. And now he was. He was scattering. It was as if ropes were tied to his limbs, pulling them apart. Who would have an appetite, going through something like that?
She couldn’t come up with even one answer.
“You should have brought him sooner,” the specialist said, Michael sitting on the examination table, his legs dangling. “He’s not well.”
“Should we talk outside?” she asked, motioning toward the hallway. She didn’t want to make Michael listen.
As if the specialist didn’t hear her, he continued. “Here,” he said, rubbing the nodes of Michael’s neck. “Swollen.” He had already taken Michael’s blood pressure, had written the data down while making a sour face.
“Should we go outside?” she repeated, impatient.
The specialist turned to the counter and took out a tongue suppressor from a jar. He asked Michael to open his mouth wide, to make a continuous noise in his throat.
“That’s enough,” Kathryn said, with a heaviness that made the specialist freeze. Michael continued to sit until she told him to come with her. He looked at the specialist and then to his mother and bounced off the table. “We’re going,” she said. She didn’t want other hands touching her son. He was already so weak. He had to be. A child can’t go without eating and stand without trembling, and yet her son didn’t quiver. It had been a mistake coming to see another doctor. He would tell her what she already knew, that Michael needed help, and he would prescribe some remedy that wouldn’t work, a liquid diet or pills filled with nutrients and vitamins. “We’re going,” Kathryn said to the specialist, her son’s hand in hers. She refused to let her son live on liquid alone. The majority of his body was already water, the same as everyone’s. He didn’t need any more.
“The tongue is a muscle,” the specialist said. “Actually, eight muscles.” His voice was coarse, like a bucket of nails. Kathryn could hear it better now that he was speaking in longer sentences. “Four of its muscles give it its shape and the other four are anchored to the bone, helping it to change its position on command.” He kept going. “The tongue can protrude, retract, or move from side-to-side. It receives its blood from what’s called the lingual artery, which is located near the neck. Its membrane combined with saliva is what allows you to taste.” He did not move, but instead stood still, reciting what he knew. “There are then four characteristics of taste that the tongue can detect: bitter, sour, salty, and sweet. Your taste buds react only to chemicals that dissolve in water. This is why you can taste salt, it dissolves quickly. This is why water has no taste.” Kathryn stood still, too, her feet planted. These were answers. “The tongue is your body’s strongest muscle. Each tongue, however, is different. They’re like fingerprints in this regard. They are also flexible.” Michael started to cough. “They are the fastest healing parts of the body, so if they do not heal quickly then they will likely not heal at all. Close to fifty percent of the bacteria in your mouth sits on your tongue’s surface. There are 9,000 taste buds, so either food tastes especially good or some bacteria are not as disgusting as we might think.” Michael kept coughing with more violence. He couldn’t stop. Kathryn stopped listening. She wasn’t listening to the specialist anymore. She wasn’t listening to her son, either, but she was thinking about him. She was lost there, in the place of her thoughts. She thought about when Michael was small, recently born. He was born early, after all, too early, so she would wake him from sleep to feed him, to make sure he was strong. She would look at him in his crib, the early sunlight pooling in and touching his head, turning him gold if even for a moment. He would gurgle and laugh. Sometimes he would cry because he was still tired. He didn’t know what his mother was offering, only that she was his mother and that that should be enough. And then she would talk to him carefully, making a game out of it. “Look at you, Michael,” she would say. “You, yes, look at you.” This was her way of saying food was near, her attempt at working an appetite into his body. “What time is it?” she would coo. “Is it time eat? What would you like to eat?” And she would pat her belly, showing her son the meaning of hunger.