TONGUE

Image via Pixabay

Henry had made a deal. That much was clear. But how he did it, and with who, was not. When the deal was done at first, he of course did not want to mention it. He wanted to pretend that everything was coming to him from his own success. But afterwards, when people started to realise something was not right, he still never admitted what it was that he had done.

It almost certainly had something to do with the engraved metal keepsake box that Sarah saw him carrying around after Christmas. She wondered if it had been a present from a distant relative, or something he had picked up in the sales. He never said anything about it, just muttered that it was something along those lines and stashed it out of sight. She, being naturally jealous, ended up sneaking into his study the next night to examine it, but it was no longer there.

That was New Year’s Eve, and he was late to our party. Sarah arrived on her own — they had two cars — and he came later, looking like he had been outside for a while. He was wrapped up warm but still shivering. That’s the first time anyone figured there might be something going on. He’d made some excuse about needing to grab something from the office. Sarah got it into her head that there was another girl involved, and that was the last word you could say to convince her on the matter.

“Henry!” I remember saying, fetching him a beer. “Drink?”

“I’m behind,” he noted, nodding and taking the bottle from my hand. “Better catch up.”

He got bitterly drunk that night, first the beer and then the champagne with the first bells of the new year. Somehow though he never got chatty, not like most people do when they get drunk. He didn’t even want to fight. Sarah got mad at him after a few too many glasses and stormed off, but they were both planning to stay until morning anyway so she never went far. He didn’t go after her shouting or persuading. That much was odd in itself. But it was New Year, everyone drinking, a social situation — easy enough to explain it away. That was what we said at the time. Lots of little odd things can pile up before you realise what a mound they make.

Henry had always been one for talking. Me and him, we would sit by the river pretending to fish, not even putting poles in the water. Just an excuse to sit away from the wives for a while, without hurting their feelings.

“Say, Sam?” he would start. “Did I ever tell you about this one time in New Jersey, with the one-armed man and his twin sister?”

Or else, “Have I ever told you about the night in St Louis with the fifty fresh crabs and the ice cream?”

Or once even, “Did you get to hear about the time in high school, when I was away for a couple of weeks and everyone thought I had tonsillitis?”

He would launch on then, telling wild and wonderful stories that were just too fantastic to believe. On the other hand, you couldn’t not believe them. He put in so much detail, so much realism, that you came out the other end thinking it must all have been true. Nothing like his stories ever happened to me. He knew people, Henry, that I could never imagine even existed. He talked to them and collected their stories from them. Sometimes I think he told them as if they were his own, but they weren’t. We were just a couple of ordinary guys, that’s all.

Anyway, back then Henry was a manager at a small-time tech start-up, and I guess he always wanted more. He wanted to be a musician. Okay, well, a lot of people do. But Henry did have talent. It’s just these days it takes a little more. You have to have the luck, the record deal, the fans. And Henry was a guitar player, not a singer. That meant he needed to have a band around him. It was kind of a pipe dream, but a strong one. I remember him telling me fiercely one night, halfway down a case of beer and with the fire of youth, that he’d rather die than work in an office for all of his life. Maybe he was right; the start-up never went anywhere. Last I heard they just had too much competition and went bust.

Well, that was Henry. Wild and passionate declarations, stories so fantastic you could neither believe or not believe them. He and Sarah met in college. That was it for them. They were joined at the hip. More than anyone else, she loved to hear his stories.

I knew them both before they started; maybe it was even me that introduced them. Either that or they introduced me to Hannah. One way or another, the four of us got close. We would sit around all night in college with beers and stories, and when we got older, we still carried on meeting up like that. We ended up getting flats on the same street, split into two couples but never very far apart.

“Hey, Sam,” I remember her calling one day, Sarah, her voice sounding somehow thick and strange. It must have been halfway through the January. “Is Hannah around?”

“No, sorry Sarah, she’s out with work people,” I explained, tucking the cordless home phone under my chin so I could pick up pen and paper. “You want me to give her a message?”

“No,” she said after a breath, sounding hopeless. “I just needed to talk to someone. About Henry.”

“What’s wrong with Henry?” I asked, only realising my mistake a moment later when a stifled sob come over the line.

“I can’t get through to him anymore, Sam,” she cried. “It’s like he’s gone so far away that he won’t come back.”

I sighed quietly to myself, and took the phone into the lounge. I could see through the glass door right over to the hills on the other side of the lake. It wasn’t a clear day; rain was falling heavy, big drops bouncing up high after they hit the ground. “So tell me all about it,” I said, wishing I’d never answered the phone. It was always hard to deal with conflict within our group. One way or another, you always felt like you were a traitor to somebody.

“It’s this other woman,” she said, and I could hear her hair swishing as she shook her head. Swish, swish, swish. Adamant. “I know it is. Ever since he started seeing her, he doesn’t want to talk to me anymore.”

“He doesn’t talk to you?” I asked. She was right. That didn’t sound like Henry. Not a normal happy Henry with nothing on his mind.

“He won’t talk at all,” she reiterated, and I think that’s when I knew something really was the matter.

Anyway, we never did get to the bottom of it. As much as Sarah looked for evidence of the other woman, she never found it. She said there wasn’t even any porn in his browser history. Just a load of strange searches about demons, the magic of crossroads, and whether the human soul really existed or not. Nutjob stuff. The kind of things you see on forums spouted by people who never graduated high school because they got pregnant by older men. Not the kind of stuff you might have associated with a hard-working office manager who played guitar in his spare time. I think back then I put it down to his stories. I guess I thought he was looking for another wild tale to tell.

But the change in Henry was permanent. Just like that, he barely spoke any more. I even had to spend months convincing him that we were in need of another fishing trip. He finally agreed, after perhaps the longest drought in our adult lives.

“So Henry,” I said to him by the river, “What stories have you got today?”

He shook his head. “None,” he grunted, and that was all. No follow-up, no explanation.

I tried to push him into conversation all day. I remarked on the weather. I handed out beers like they were free as the air. I talked about Hannah, about Sarah, about football. I even suggested we try actually fishing this time, but he just shrugged his shoulders. I could see why Sarah had a problem. Whatever I did, he was closed off and silent. Like a man who didn’t want to waste his breath.

Later that year, in around the summertime, he got his first record deal. Seems he’d found a band that needed a guitarist, and signed up for auditions. He made it through, even though he apparently barely said a word through the whole process. Whatever he did to impress them, it was enough. Sarah confessed to Hannah that she was worried about his career; he’d had formal warnings at work about his newfound reticence. His boss called him surly. They even made him undergo drugs screening to check that his personality change wasn’t the result of some kind of narcotics.

Even though we were worried, Hannah and I went to go watch him play. First it was just getting invited to the local town hall or a pub with live music, watching them perform cover versions of rock songs. But there was something about Henry. Something about the way he played now. You couldn’t stop watching his fingers. The rest of the band were alright, but he had some kind of magic in him. Even now, they still say that. He was hypnotic.

The record deal led to bigger shows, and soon the guest list was only big enough for us and Sarah. Once or twice I even had to swap places with his brother so he could watch him play. When their first song hit the radio something went crazy. Soon it was playing everywhere you walked. After that, money couldn’t buy a ticket to their shows. They were like gold dust.

But he got a reputation, Henry did. When he wasn’t holding the guitar he couldn’t hide the fact that he wasn’t exactly a publicist’s dream. He never did interviews, barely had any time for fans. No matter how big the band got, he never loosened up. Me and Sarah and Hannah, we were his only friends left. The only people who knew him from before. He never seemed to meet anybody new.

“Sam,” he said to me one day, out of the blue. We didn’t sit by the river any more, but he bought a house down the road from our little shabby flat. Just close enough to us to count, just far enough away to show how far he’d gone. “Sam, what do you think it would be like to live without words?”

“Without words?” I echoed thoughtfully. “Like as if no words ever existed?”

“No, just you,” he said. “Everyone else can talk.”

I considered it. “Not so bad,” I said. “You could write on paper.”

“What if you had nothing else left either?”

“Like what else?” I asked.

“Like talent. Or luck. Like if you were all washed up and out of your prime.” It was probably the most words I’d heard him say at once in four years.

“So you’re all washed up, an old has-been, with no talent and everything going wrong for you,” I repeated, “And you can’t speak any more either?”

He nodded.

“I guess… you’d still be alright. With the paper.” I said, mulling it over.

“No paper either,” he said.

“No paper?”

“No words at all,” he confirmed.

I considered this new development carefully, running it through my head. “Well, that’d be kinda tough,” I admitted. “But so long as you had the right people you’d get through. Like you and me. We have each other, I have Hannah, you have Sarah. Those people would look after us.”

He mused on this a while, nodding, but in a way that suggested he did not agree.

I guess that fame has its price; after five years, he and Sarah divorced. As far as I can tell, there never was any other woman, even in that time. And that was that. Henry just started drifting further away. In the sixth year, his manager called me and said that I was the only one Henry ever talked to anymore, and could I please intervene and make him speak again. I didn’t know what to say. I had never known.

I didn’t really even know why I stuck by him. Some nights we would meet up and not even say a single word. That was hard. Hannah got pregnant and I had to think about my family then. But he was still Henry, even despite all of the changes. Somewhere in there I could still see him. He came across as surly, sure, but underneath that I saw him still. There was that old glimmer in his eyes from time to time.

Record sales were good, but in the eighth year, the band went their separate ways. They couldn’t take working with Henry anymore. They resented the silence. They thought he was crazy, or else that he considered himself too good to talk to them. Enough of that, they decided. The singer was fine; went off and performed on his own. I heard he has a concert back in town in a few weeks, but I won’t go. I can’t say I ever liked their music, apart from Henry’s playing. Actually, I think the others just live off the royalties. They made enough.

It was about sixth months after that that Henry called me. The phone rang and rang, and when I picked it up there was only silence. I could hear him breathing. At last, with deliberate slowness and yet an edge of desperation in his voice, he spoke.

“Need you,” he said. “Rooftop.”

He hung up, leaving me to figure out the meaning in what he said. I could only guess that for some reason he was up on the roof of his building. He’d been up there a few times, with me, drink in hand. You could see half the city from there, but they could see you, too. It was better to turn the other way, out past our old flats, where in the far distance you could still see the lake and the calm tranquillity that it lent to the world.

I joined him there maybe twenty minutes later, after dressing, walking over, and convincing the security guard to let me in. It was a kind of breezy day, not quite cold but not warm either, not when the wind blew. He had his back to me, staring out over the city.

“Henry,” I called out, walking over to him.

He looked around and just nodded, then held up a hand to me to stop.

“Sorry,” he said, which confused me right out.

“It’s alright,” I said. “It’s not like I live far away.”

“No,” he said, and shook his head. Something about it told me the ‘no’ meant ‘that’s not it’.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. I could see something was happening. His face was contorting, creasing, every inch of his effort going into the thought processes occurring behind his eyes. Several times he opened his mouth, then shook his head, then opened it again. At last he turned away for a moment, then back to me, with a new mission shining in his face.

He held up a finger, just one. Solitary.

“One?” I said.

He nodded emphatically, then added another. Crossed over the other, like a plus sign.

“One plus? One more?” I guessed, until he nodded. “One more? Okay. One more what?”

He made a rolling gesture with his hands, the universal charade for ‘keep guessing’.

I rubbed my chin and sighed, impatient for the game to end. “One more… one extra… just one… one more left…”

He stopped rolling and pointed instead, right at me, nodding like his head was going to come off. Okay. One more left. One more what?

He took a deep breath, then looked over the edge of the wall at the street. I didn’t like the way this was going.

“Henry…” I began, taking a step towards him, but he shook his head this time.

He put up a hand in front of him to stop me, and then took another look around. The sky, the buildings, the far-off sun shrouded in clouds. Me. Then he took another deep breath.

“Goodbye,” he said, and jumped over the wall.


I guess I’ll never know what really happened. His body was broken in a hundred places. From that height, he’s lucky he didn’t kill a pedestrian. What I’m saying is, he never got the chance to speak again to disprove my theory. That doesn’t mean he ever would have.

Tonight I’m going to see if I was right. I might not understand what was going on in his head, but I can understand the deal he made. I figure I could get by without words for a very long time, with my family to support me. Tonight I’m taking a box to the old crossroads, out by the dead tree that got struck by lightning back in the 70s. Tonight I’ve got a box with a lock of my hair in it, and a photograph of my father, and a vial of blood and a cow’s tongue from a butcher up in the east side of town. I’ve got a lot of internet printouts telling me how to make a deal with a demon, even if he asks me to give up my voice for it. And I know what I’m going to ask for.