By: Braveen Kumar
She was not the first to show up at the entrance to the village without her tongue. There had been three before her.
They all arrived in the same condition: in a desperate panic, unable to do more than repeatedly moan what sounded to be a name.
Each victim had apparently set out for the neighbouring town, but nobody was sure what had happened to them along the way. They could not tell their tales without their tongues and, like most of the farming village, they could neither read nor write.
The first man, a particularly poor artist, sketched a picture of this Woheha. It looked like a lion, at least according to the drawing. But why and how would a lion only take his tongue?
The second scribbled a picture of a tall man with a gaunt face. The third, a dog with a flower where its head would be.
The only thing that was consistent was that, whatever had done this to them, they seemed inclined to avoid the topic altogether, even had they not been condemned to silence.
The Woheha became a legend that lived in whispers and was buried in questions.
The fourth victim was different though. For one, she was just a child of 16 years. But what’s more is she could not only read but would often write in her spare time.
She could tell her story.
A few weeks after she arrived, when her mind had recovered from what had happened, she was handed a pen and piece of paper. She sat still an hour, carefully weighing her words, before she committed any ink to paper.
This is what she wrote:
I live here alone with my mother. We’d gotten news that my aunt, who lived in town, had fallen ill. A lingering fever. Nothing life-threatening. My mother had sent me with things to bring her: medicine, soup stock, vegetables from the garden, and a small pouch of spice.
It was my first time making the journey. We were often told the best route to town was to travel north on the road that led around the nearby forest. It took nearly a full day walking to get there.
Mother had reminded me, before I left, to stick to the road so I would not get lost. I should have listened.
If you have ever traveled this road and bothered to look through the trees, you would notice that there is actually an open field if you cut through the forest: a grassy clearing that made for a tempting shortcut into town.
I found it strange that this shortcut was not common knowledge. It seemed like it would save several hours getting to the town.
So I cut through the forest and arrived in that empty field. And empty it was with nothing but green grass and blue skies. Not so much as a single tree interrupting my view from one end to the other. But what I noticed first, as soon as I stepped foot into this sprawling space, was the unsettling silence.
Thinking back, I had never known true silence until I entered that field. I’d known quiet but not silence: the kind only the dead hear. I saw birds fly overhead and crickets sitting amongst the grass. But I heard neither a song nor chirp. The field seemed to swallow every sound.
The squishing sound of grass was absent as I walked over it with mute footsteps. The trees moved in the breeze, but I could not hear the familiar whistle of the wind through the leaves. I walked in awe through this soundless scene. Had I gone deaf? Had the world gone dumb? I exhaled deeply, only to hear the sound of my breath suffocated as I walked further into the field.
“Visitor.” A voice behind me, unlike any I had heard, shattered the silence. I turned around slowly to face the speaker.
I fell backward as my face met what seemed at first like a massive flower that crawled slowly towards me on four legs. I opened my mouth to scream, but I nearly swallowed my tongue as it fled back into my throat.
“Do not be shy.” I stared speechless as this golden beast lumbered forward on all fours, five long fingers where I expected paws. It spoke in a voice that seemed borrowed — sporadic in tone and manic in manner
The creature shrugged itself upright and tilted its head forward, revealing a pale, yellow, sunken face with slit eyes like a snake and a flat nose that hovered over a small mouth. Every time it spoke, its expression remained blank and its lips did not move. But it was the crown of petals — at least I thought so at first — that shocked me into silence. It was only when I had a moment to take in its appearance that I realized it was a mane of tongues.
As much as the creature’s form had frightened me, standing as tall as three of me, its voice made my heart sink into my stomach.
“Might I have the privilege of your name?” it asked as it drew closer, a long tail like a lion’s following behind it. There was no rhyme or reason to how it spoke, but every syllable seemed both familiar and strange, like each beat belonged to a different speaker. The creature sounded like a chorus of voices, speaking, singing, yelling, whispering, out of sync, and altogether. I am hard-pressed to put it into words here.
I felt exposed in the middle of that field, anxiously aware of my open back. I pursed my lips at the sight of some hundred tongues that framed the creature’s head. It was at that moment that I remembered the rumours about the walking flower, the men who came back without their tongues, and the single name they spoke: Woheha.
The Woheha raised its front legs, doubling its height as it slowly stood upright as I did. “You are a quiet one. Speak with me, will you not?” the creature asked, its lips unmoving on its expressionless face. A chill ran down my spine as the friendly words that left its mouth were mangled by a voice that sounded simultaneously like an angry child and a sleepy old man.
“Speak,” it repeated in a seductive lisp.
I shook my head. It was like the hollow air that hung about put a firm finger to my lips. I knew a terrible thing would befall me if I dared to break this ungodly silence.
“Peculiar. My previous guests were more t-t-t-talkative.” The beast now had a stutter I was sure was not its own. Now standing, it moved one of its hands onto my shoulder. I could feel the weight of its heavy palm and long fingers as if they were reaching for my racing heart — erratic, beating against my chest, fear rattling around in my throat.
I tried to move past it, but each time the beast followed and cut me off at every turn. “Sssssstay,” it groaned in a slow whisper.
I stared at its crown of tongues, each alive and flailing as if struggling to escape. And then I remember my pack.
I set my bag down and rummaged through it for a small pouch among the vegetables and other contents. The creature tilted its head to one side, conveying a curiosity it did not wear on its blank face.
I remember trying to stifle my heavy breathing as I opened the pouch filled with spice and scattered its contents over the tongues that circled the beast’s face. The Woheha roared in a hundred tones, tongues lashing about as if on fire.
I left my pack and ran as fast as I could across the field.
I ran until I ran out of breath, not daring to look back. After a few minutes, I finally turned my head to see it wasn’t following. The towering creature was nowhere to be seen. There were no places to hide in that empty field; it was as if the Woheha had vanished.
“How rude,” said a sultry voice raw from frequent tobacco smoke. I turned around slowly to see its face hanging inches from my own. “Keep your name for yourself. But know mine. I am the Word Eater.” Even amid the mixed emotions conveyed by its speech, the anger it felt still came through.
“What are you?” I meant to ask without thinking, but “What” was all I managed. The moment I spoke I was swallowed up by the Woheha — the Word Eater — caught in what seemed a mouth of salivating tongues instead of teeth.
That was the last thing I remember.
I woke up outside the field beneath a tree, groggy, confused. It had been a dream. For three brief seconds, I felt relief. Until I searched my mouth and couldn’t feel my teeth.
I screamed. I screamed. For minutes, alone on the outskirts of the field, I screamed. But only a moan escaped my lips.