Christine Kitano: Ligature

After years of knowing its meaning, I encounter
the word out of expected context and must look up the definition,

one I know I learned early, studying music—ligature, a mark
to indicate notes that belong together, a phrasal unit.

Now, I read the word and think binding, picture the figure-eight
cuffs around a person’s wrists or, on a crime show, the red

circling the victim’s neck. I think then of the word frenulum,
a misstep in my synapses, but my tongue demands

I now pronounce its syllables: fren-u-lum, the sounds
like small hills, rolling. Frenulum, a fold of skin that limits

movement—in the human body, found on the penis,
in the clitoris, and under the tongue, our natural instruments

of pleasure and pain. My mother once told me about a Korean father
who slit his American son’s frenulum to ensure full lingual movement

for unmarred English speech—no mistaking “l” for “r,” saying “loyal”
instead of “royal,” “regal” not “legal.” Fearing my own

tongue cut, I practiced pronunciation the way I practiced piano,
in private, the obsessive rigor of learning the right way

to alight on language. Puberty came early, at ten,
each month bringing its stabbing pain, blood that soaked

through my underwear as I sat on the wooden bench running
Hanon scales, chords and arpeggios, the skin between my fingers

near splitting. And so, the word circumcision comes to mind, how pain
by design must numb memory. I quit piano because the music

refused me. In my mother’s perspective, I wasn’t willing
to make the sacrifice. Now, music-less, I drive through falling

leaves to yoga class, where my teacher returns
from maternity leave, baby in tow. She describes the birth

as “spinal labor,” a pain she knows she felt but now cannot find
words for or maybe can’t remember. Twenty-seven hours

of labor, an unreasonable, unfathomable fact, beyond language,
beyond memory, beyond sacrifice, all of which puts me

to shame. The other women nod sympathetically and there’s
a small piercing in my left abdomen, another egg beginning

its monthly descent. My teacher smiles and sips tea: she’s come
out the other side. In a circle of sunlight, the baby dozes and wakes,

waves mittened fists; blinks, giggles, babbles,
and sticks out an intact pink tongue.

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