She was not the first to show up at the gates to the village of Sehman without a tongue. In fact, he was the fourth. They all arrived in the same condition: afraid, unable to do more than babble with their tongues gone, repeating again and again what seemed to be a name: Woheha.
Each victim had been initially bound for Tica, the neighbouring town. Nobody was sure what happened on the way; men without tongues do not tell good stories and, like most of the farming village, they could neither read nor write.
Whatever happened to these men outside the village, they were eager to cast it from their memory, content to live their remaining years in silence. The first man to see it, a particularly poor artist, sketched a picture of how this Woheha looked. It looked like a lion according to the drawing. But what would a lion want with tongues?
The second and third victims provided different accounts: one scribbled a picture of a tall scraggly man, while the other’s illustration looked like a dog with a flower for a head. One thing was certain: whatever had frightened them, they seemed inclined to avoid the topic altogether even had they not been condemned to silence anyway. The Wohehaa became a legend, one shrouded in many questions.
The fourth was different though. For one, she was only 16 years old. But what’s more is she could read and write, and therefore still tell her story. A few days later, after she had calmed down a little, she was handed a pen and pad. She sat still for an hour, as if carefully weighing his words, before she committed any ink to paper.
This is what she wrote:
My name is Lin. My parents live in Tica, the next town over. I stay with my aunt in Sehman to help tend to the crops. A week ago, I received news that my mother was ill. It was nothing that threatened her life, but she had a lingering fever. My aunt sent me over with some things to bring her: medicine, soup stock, some vegetables from the garden and spice.
It was my first time making the journey. The villagers were often told the best route was to travel north on the road that lead around the forest to Tica. It take a full day of walking.
My aunt had reminded me, before I left, to stick to the path so I would not get lost. Looking back, I should have listened.
If you have ever travelled this road and bothered to look, you would notice that there is a swath of open land off the path that cuts right through the forest: grassy plains that no one had bothered to name. I passed by it on my way, and through the trees I could make out the rooftops of Tica in the distance on the other side. This made it a tempting shortcut to take.
I expected something as I entered the field—I found it strange that this shortcut through these plains was not common knowledge in Sehman— but what I encountered defeated every expectation I had.
There was nothing in those fields. Nothing but green grass, blue skies and wide open space. But what unsettled me was that the field was as quiet as it was empty.
I felt I had never heard silence until I entered that field. Absolute silence: the kind of quiet only the dead can hear. I saw birds fly overhead and crickets sitting amidst the grass. But I didn’t hear a thing. The plains 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, almost in awe, through this soundless sanctuary. Had I gone deaf? Had the world gone dumb? I exhaled deeply, only to hear my breath suffocated by the silence as I walked through the plains.
“A visitor.” A voice behind me, unlike any I had heard before, shattered the silent space. I turned around slowly to face the speaker.
I fell backwards, scrambling away as a four-legged flower met my face. I opened my mouth to scream, but I nearly swallowed my tongue as it fled back into my throat almost instinctively.
“You need not be shy.” I stared in awe as the golden beast lumbered forward on four legs, five 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 just 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 at second glance that I realized the beast had a mane of many tongues.
As much as the creature’s form frightened me, standing as tall as 2 men, 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 following behind it. There was no rhyme or reason to how it spoke, but each syllable seemed both familiar and strange, like it belonged to a different speaker every time. The creature sounded like a chorus of voices spoke and sang and yelled and whispered, out of sync with the words it used. I am hard pressed to put it into words myself.
I felt exposed in the middle of that field, ever aware of my open back. I pursed my lips at the sight of the some hundred tongues that framed the creature’s head. It was at that moment that I remembered the stories of the walking flower, the men of Sehman who came back without tongues, and the single name they all spoke: Woheha.
The Woheha raised its front legs, doubling its height as it slowly stood upright like a man.”You are a quiet one. You make these plains seem loud. Speak with me, will you not?” the creature asked, it’s lips unmoving on its expressionless face. A chill ran down my spine as the seemingly amiable words that left its mouth were mangled by a voice like a woman’s fearful scream. Each time it spoke, it spoke with a new and random tone, emotion, accent. “Speak. I am curious to hear you speak,” it said in a deep voice, seductive with a hint of fear I think.
I shook my head. The soundless space almost forbade me from opening my mouth as a cloud of birds flew by without a song. I felt that a terrible thing would happen if I dared to break this unholy silence.
“Peculiar. The other guests were more t-t-t-talkative.” The beast had a stutter that I was sure was not its own. Now standing, it moved one of its hands onto my shoulder. I could feel the full weight of its heavy palm and my own racing heartbeat. It was erratic, beating against my chest, as I felt fear like I had never felt before.
It continued to speak as if a thousand different voices said its words, reminding me vaguely of a sickly old man this time. “Come now, until you speak we cannot be friends. Honour me with a conversation, please?” The Woheha’s suspicious insistence sealed my silence.
I tried to move past it, but the beast followed and cut me off at every turn. “Stay. I have long been confined to this open prison, and I would enjoy your story as only your voice may tell it”.
The creature would not let me go. I stared at its crown of tongues, each alive and flailing like a struggling worm. Driven by desperate fear, a brave idea struck me. I put my pack down and rummaged through it to look for a small pouch from 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, fearful breathing as I opened the pouch of spice I had brought and scattered its contents over the beast’s circle of tongues. The Woheha roared in a hundred tones as its tongues lashed about as if on fire.
I slung my pack over my shoulder and ran as fast as I could across the field.
I ran until I ran out of breath, looking forward all the while. I stopped for a moment as I realized I was not being followed. I looked back to see that the towering creature was nowhere to be seen. There were no places to hide in those empty plains; it was as if the Woheha had vanished.
“Rude boy,” a voice said over my shoulder. I turned around and gasped. “Keep your name for yourself. But know mine. I am called the Word Eater. Do you know… why I am called so?” Even amid the mixed emotions conveyed by its speech, its anger came through.
“What are you?” I meant to ask without thinking, but “What” was all I managed to say. The moment I spoke I was swallowed by the crown of the Woheha— the Word Eater—caught in what seemed a mouth of wet tongues instead of teeth. I blacked out.
I awoke where I first entered the field, groggy and confused. It had been a dream, I thought at first. But I remember the horror I felt as I thought the teeth had been stolen from my mouth. But then it dawned on me: what was absent was my tongue.
I screamed. For minutes, alone on the outskirts of the plains, I screamed. But only a desperate moan escaped my mouth.