House of the Bleeding Tongue
I have only a foggy recollection of the house on the outskirts of Cumberland, Maryland. It was on a hill, that much I remember, and to this day I carry the bumpy scar on my tongue as evidence. There was a flight of ten to twelve cement steps carved in the hill from the street level to the small house. It was there one day when I was four that my older brother, Ben, my senior by seventeen months, convinced me to ride down those steps in our Red Flyer. He was persuasive. He did it first and the jolting ride looked convincingly fun. He pulled the wagon up the hill. He showed me how to steer with the handle. This was long before wagons had been redesigned with their modern safety features. I got in and he gave the wagon a shove and I went barreling down the steps.
It was fun until all the delightful jarring and bouncing came to an abrupt stop at the bottom. I had bounced to the front of the wagon, all the while holding the handle with both hands in a death grip. My weight in the front of the wagon made the wagon nosedive off the last step onto the cement landing and the wagon tongue jammed into the cement. My body’s forward momentum was stopped by the sharp-edged, metal wagon handle wedging itself firmly in my mouth. I still don’t know how I managed to slice only my tongue and not knock out all my front teeth in the process.
I remember the blood very well. My throbbing tongue was pumping out a steady, heavy stream of blood with every beat of my heart. By the time I climbed back up the hill with my brother’s help, screaming all the while, my mother had run outside to discover the cause of the commotion. I still can see the look on her face. At the sight of me it seemed all the blood drained from her face and went right into my mouth. I was covered in blood down the front of my shirt, spewing a fountain of red from my mouth, and crying and screaming at the same time. She scooped me up by the waist and rushed me inside through the small, front sitting room to the kitchen sink, as I watched blood drip on the linoleum floor the whole way.
At the sink she held my head over the basin, turned on the cold water spigot, and splashed water on my face as I continued dripping blood onto the white porcelain enamel. The dramatic image of the red blood hitting the bright white is burned in my memory. She didn’t ask me any questions. She must have known I couldn’t answer them anyway. She told me to open my mouth, and swish a mouthful of water around and spit it out, so she could get a look inside around all the blood. I did it, and it hurt even more, and the bleeding did not stop. I can still feel the throbbing of my heart in my tongue fifty years later.
Mom was able to spy the only damage done was a mean slice on the top of my tongue, in the middle, about half an inch from the tip. She stood me on a chair over the sink and told me to rinse again while she went to grab a clean dish towel. I did not rinse. She washed my face again when she returned a few seconds later. She told me to open my mouth and she pressed a gathered corner of the towel to the gouge on my tongue. That hurt, too, but she would have none of my fussing, insisting the towel stay where it was. That towel tip got soaked through quickly, and, in short order, so were the other three corners. The bleeding began to slow but it was clearly far from being stanched. She had come prepared with a few more towels. She made me rinse after each soaked corner and it seemed the torture would never end. Finally, after the third or fourth towel, the bleeding began to slow and so did my sobbing. It seemed I wasn’t going to bleed out and die after all, which I had convinced myself was going to happen.
She carried me to the front room and laid me on the yellow vinyl sofa with a clean towel in my mouth. She returned shortly with an aluminum ice cube tray, lifted the metal handle on the tray to loosen the ice cube compartments, handed me half an ice cube and told me to suck on it while pressing it against my tongue. That, too, sounded painful, but there was no sense protesting since I couldn’t speak to voice my concern.
To my surprise, the ice felt good in my burning mouth and seemed to numb the pain in my tongue a bit. The metallic taste of blood from swallowing the melted ice water was odd. When the first half ice cube was gone, I took another, and worked my way through most of the tray over the next hour or so, till the bleeding had mostly stopped.
Band-Aids or bandages of any kind are hard to keep on a tongue. I tried. And eating with a slice on the tongue is not pleasant. I spent the next several days with a clean dish towel handy, sucking on a lot of ice, and eating mostly pureed foods and nothing solid I would have to chew. The cut opened up and bled on occasion, especially if I wasn’t careful enough about talking very little or eating very cautiously. You’re never really conscious of how much your tongue moves and contorts when you speak and eat until it hurts and bleeds when you do it. So, for several days I was mostly a towel- and ice-sucking mute.
Ben was very solicitous those several days. I am confident he got a stern lecture about endangering his little brothers. It stuck with him for a while but it would not be the last time our older brother led us into escapades. Oddly, though, after that sliced tongue incident, I don’t recall any significant losses of blood during my childhood, except for several incidents when Ben, usually the ring leader, was the victim. I never needed stitches. He got stitches on his cheek, his hand, his knee, and all down his forearm, all on separate occasions. Later he broke a collar bone playing dodgeball in gym class. A few years after school, working at a factory, as our father did, he sliced off the end of a finger, as our father had also done. As for me, I came off relatively unscathed except for the tongue incident, especially if you ignore the small scar on my forehead from where Ben hit me with a tossed brick as we cleaned out the drainage ditch in front of our new house in Ohio. I’m pretty sure that was an accident, too.
My memory of that first house and its environs is framed by that single, unforgettable event of my early childhood. The hill, the flight of cement steps, the small front room with its linoleum floor and vinyl sofa, and the kitchen with its white porcelain enamel sink are the elements I remember. I don’t remember the bedroom I must have shared with my brothers. I do not remember the bathroom. I only remember the scenes framed by pain and blood.