I Speak Four Dead Languages by Emily Jaeger
verter zol men vegn un nit tselyn
words should be weighed not counted
There were no recipes passed down, no broaches, no candlesticks. No full sentences. Only the phrases my grandmothers would toss back and forth over the babies’ heads. Only the song my father played until his teeth became too tender to carry the blow from his lips, his throat. When you learn Yiddish this way you never learn how to put the words together properly. Only the shrieking clarinet, a little confused in the trumpet’s windy chest. If a fiddle can sound like a woman crying, a song can sound like that single word you remember but can’t figure out how to speak.
Everyone who speaks it has one of these stories—of traveling to some dusty corner of the earth, meeting there an old local Jew in a half-abandoned synagogue, or sharing tea on a chessboard table in the park. How they exchanged unconjugated verbs, hands waving over ivory and coal, Boston and Casablanca, or Madrid, or Buenos Aires. I’ve heard this story many times.
Also the story of how Hebrew was revived like a monster of biblical words stitched back together with European thread and Eliezer ben Yehuda kicking his son down the stairs (to figure out the curses of course). Or maybe it was more like Ezekiel raising a field of dancing bones— Swallow this scroll, fold by fold. Tell me, does it taste like honey?
I can speak Hebrew, read and understand. I’ve been trained. Except for the gutturals: אח הרע—lined up in a row, they spell out the evil brother. I can fake the gutturals but they aren’t planted right. A grafted skin catching, kinking, ripping.
My mother could pray that list of sounds every Saturday.
I think of Anne Sullivan sticking her hand down Hellen Keller’s throat to show her the exact door of air to close to say the letter K. I’m waiting for that woman.
You sign up for it. I signed up my first week of college. I thought, This funny-sounding language is a door. Because of the name, mistaking it for Urdu. Because I hadn’t left my hometown or my old friends. Behind the door was a beige classroom with smudged windows. A Semitic language. My name the mason-mark on the lintel.
Our blue books trade twenty-two spears wedged into clay for Latin letters: ‘Alpu wa šu—the ox and the sheep. Rabu kahinima—there were many priests.
How comforting—a language whose true speakers have been dead 3,000 years. No chance of speaking wrong or wrongfully. The consonants retired to the page. The vowels fallen away. All the buttons left behind on a hundred unnamed streets the wearer has already forgotten, holding his coat, just trying to close out the wind.
I’ve forgotten more languages than I remember. Supposedly dying, Guaraní slurps its way into my brain and chews out all the others—cannibalistic or carnivorous, I’m not sure. I swore I wouldn’t write down a single letter. I wanted to be able to talk. I sat under the mango trees and shared tea, shared the straw with every family. I learned how to peel an orange into a foot-long spiral.
In Guaraní, each word is made up of tiny exclamations. In the kitchen, Mirna poured out the remains from each jar—beans, rice, noodles, onion skins—into water, into a feast. The bare sticks I pitched in the mud sprouted tiny lime buds.
For two years, it was easier to teach in Guaraní. Knowing only one word for anything is a blessing. Song. Bone. Door. But then I left. A language dies with its penultimate speaker. Sitting on the train, I search for old words, wait for them as I climb the grimy steps, press through the turnstile. Turning a tablet over and over in my mouth, chewing it back to mud.
Emily Jaeger is an MFA candidate at UMASS Boston and co-editor/co-founder of Window Cat Press. A Literary Lambda and TENT fellow, her poetry has appeared in Four Way Review, Soundings East, and Rust + Moth, among others. Her chapbook The Evolution of Parasites was published by Sibling Rivalry Press July 2016.