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TONGUES

SECOND HONORABLE MENTION
The 2017 Screw Turn Flash Fiction Competition

BY EMMA MURTAGH

Maria turned wearily in her chair and looked out across the River Corrib from the office window. It was too dark to see the bridge and archway and Claddagh quay, reaching out to where the river met the ocean, but the streetlights on the walkway between the canal and river threw columns of light on the water that glimmered gold and white on its inky, restless surface, like flickering spectres standing watchfully in line.

Her desk was in the corner of the small office, facing toward the open door that framed the corridor, which was dark and quiet without the daytime commotion of clients and other office workers banging their way through the fire doors and setting off the sensor light with its obnoxious ping. Maria was glad. The text she was working on was dense and unforgiving. It was almost impossible to concentrate on such a difficult translation in the hum of the office during business hours. She liked working late at night when there wasn’t another soul in the old converted mill that perched upon the river like the herons did along its banks.

With a burst of resolve, Maria got to work. She was deep in yet another ludicrously long and complicated sentence when she began to feel a distinct sensation. It arose before she was aware of it, like an insect crawling on skin for a while before the tickle is felt. She began to feel an unpleasant tingle, starting first at the back of her skull and spreading so intensely it demanded action: She was being watched.

Her eyes snapped towards the corridor and the silent figure that stood stock still in its shadows. “Joder, que susto!” Maria cursed as she got to her feet, her heart thumping.

It was a man. An older, slight man, dressed in a dark suit. She was relieved it was not someone more threatening—but something still felt wrong. In her panic, it took her a while to realise what was niggling at her as she stared, frozen with shock, at the man in the doorway. The lights. Of course. Perhaps the sensor was broken. But she hadn’t heard him open the door either.

She cleared her throat and—after such an unmerciful jolt—found it hard to put some words together in English.

“I’m sorry. You scared me,” she said, attempting a smile.

He said nothing but walked towards her. Instinctively, she tried to back away but there was nowhere to go other than out the window. Subtly, she palmed her phone and unlocked it, opening her boyfriend Eoin’s contact. Her thumb hovered over the call button.

“I’m sorry, we are closed.” Her voice sounded weak.

Still silent, he moved into the light. There was something slightly off about his face. His pale blue eyes were too big for his withered skull and they peered up at her in the most peculiar way. He took a leaflet from her desk and held it up, pointing at the word “translation.”

“Yes. We do translations. . . . ”

Maria felt a rush of guilt as she considered that he might be deaf or otherwise impaired. He was old and could be confused. She should help him. Feeling heartless, she tried to relax, despite her gut insisting otherwise.

The man fumbled in his pocket, taking out a rectangle of paper and unfolding it carefully. His huge eyes were bright as he extended it to her in a pale, trembling hand.

Warily, Maria took it from him, expecting to find some kind of plea for help. She knew immediately that the ornate script on the yellowing page was not in one of her languages. She scanned the words looking for a clue to its origin. It was in the Latin alphabet but other than that it was indiscernible.

“I don’t recognise this language,” she told him, still trying to read it, “Can you…yu…ya…” She cleared her throat. The letters on the page were contorting in front of her eyes, becoming increasingly meaningless.

“I…eh…eeehhh…”

Her trembling hand went to her mouth as if she could scoop the strange, strangled noises back into her throat. Her eyes wide, she met the old man’s gaze. He was smiling now as he walked around the desk toward her. Maria backed into the corner helplessly. She tried to speak again and, failing that, tried to scream but only produced whimpers.

The old man, rounding the desk, watched as she sank to the floor with her hands held above her in surrender. He crouched down and looked at her closely. Still smiling, he reached a hand toward her face; Maria flinched as his index figure came to rest on her lips, quietening her strangled gasps.

Shhh,” he said. Maria shuddered. Removing his hand from her mouth, he gently unfurled her fingers from the crumpled page and took it from her.

“Thank you,” he said. He stood and she heard him plod from the room, laughing wheezingly. The sound faded to silence in the dark corridor.

FIVE DAYS LATER

“Mr. Canavan, we’ve done every possible test. Physically, she is perfectly normal and healthy. It has to be psychological.”

Eoin slouched in his chair, exhausted.

“What kind of psychological event makes you forget not one, but four languages? She can’t even recognise letters. She keeps trying to draw, but all she can muster are scribbles. I don’t . . . ”

His voice caught and he bit back tears as the doctor shook her head sympathetically. At a table nearby, Maria hunched over a lined notepad, her eyes wide and desperate, trying to recreate the image of the man in the doorway. She needed them to see it. But she could only manage a vague rectangle and a deep, dark spiral.



Emma Murtagh is a writer based in Galway, Ireland. She is a project manager at a non profit and likes to write stories and poems in her spare time. Emma loves books and has a Master’s Degree in Literature and Publishing from the National University of Ireland, Galway. Growing up, Emma was fascinated by Irish superstition and folklore and is working on a novel set in this world.

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