Sometimes her words simply fell away unnoticed, like pearls through a careless queen’s fingers. But one was as good as the other, and she had too many to miss a few. When she came across them again, glinting in the shag carpet her children kept telling her to upgrade, she would dig them up from the dusty strands, blow off the dirt—as good as new.
Sometimes they dropped like breadcrumbs she never meant to leave behind. She thought they were in her mouth, but they vanished from her tongue, leaving only a flavor she couldn’t quite name. But almost-right sufficed.
Soon enough, the words were kittens hiding under couches. Someone younger would pull them out and utter them into her lap, where they settled and purred. Teeth clenched behind a smile, she squeezed her knees together so the words wouldn’t slip out again.
Why wouldn’t they stay in her lap, her mouth, her hands? Sometimes they rolled off her palms and hid for days. She’d wait until after dark, go out with a flashlight and find them glittering in the cracks of sidewalks, tumbling down dark alleys, purring in other people’s lawns. She had to approach them sideways, half looking, or they would scatter.
Often now, they flicker at the edges of her vision, flitting to a new periphery every time she moves her head. She sees the tree limbs shivering, but she can’t see the words through the leaves. How did they get up there?
Why won’t the words stay in her head? Do they know something she doesn’t?
Is there something dangerous there?
Perhaps she’ll start collecting empty boxes. She’ll label them WORDS and stick them in the attic and tell herself that’s where the words go when they leave her. They’ll all be up there, next to her light-up rooftop Santa, her deceased husband’s service records and her children’s basketball and spelling bee trophies. She’ll have the foresight to put packing peanuts in the boxes, so if she ever goes up and shakes them, she’ll hear something rattle. She’ll know that the words are still there, waiting for her, whenever she wants them.
But with time, as more words escape her, it will be more difficult for her to follow them into the attic. Her shoulder will protest when she reaches for the ladder; her knees will groan on the steps. Her children, when they visit, will give her the words she’s looking for. She’ll worry about wasting theirs—she always loses them again—and insist they go up and get some of hers. But her children will tell her they’ve thrown out their backs, or the attic is too dusty, or they’ll climb up there for the words next time, but for the meantime, they’ll just give her some of theirs. They’ll say they don’t mind if she misplaces them, they have more where those came from.
Besides, they’ll tell her, you gave them to us in the first place.
And they’ll have so many words, they’ll never miss a few.
Notes from Guest Reader Meagan Cass
I love how ‘Where the Words Go’ imagines language as physical, a series of objects and creatures we can lose our connection to. It’s such an original way of capturing the personal nature of language, how certain words can come to feel, over time, uniquely ours. Also, as someone with a family history of Alzheimer’s, the story spoke powerfully to me of the terror forgetting words, of having to rely on others to remember. This one will haunt me for a long time.