When Suzy was born, her parents filled her mouth with sand. But this is normal and natural and the way things are always done.
And if she finds it uncomfortable to keep it there, to eat with it there, to talk with it there, she’s just going to have to learn to live with it.
“Sand” is a heart-wrenching tale about generational trauma and healing.
When I close my eyes, I can conjure the feeling – a smooth gum, wrinkling up as grit scours it. It’s so clear I can almost convince myself it’s a real memory, that I can really recall those rough grains steadily filling my mouth. I can’t. Of course. But the edge of the memory is there, as if the tendrils of my neurons were stretching out to each other across my fresh, pink brain. As if they knew that act would become my bedrock.
In that moment just after I was born, my parents filled my mouth with sand. They inserted a funnel between my lips and tipped it through. The sand trickled into the back of my throat, muffling my squeals, clustering over my tongue and toothless gums.
In this half-imagined memory, Mum clamped me still so the funnel’s sharp base wouldn’t cut my lips. She watched me watching her, and her eyelids fluttered uncertainly. She hesitated, slowing the stream of sand. I took a deep breath through my nose and tried to cry through the grains in my mouth.
My grandparents urged her on, ‘It’s as it should be. Come on now.’ Dad told me that’s how it went.
The doctor paused stitching Mum’s parts back together to watch the sand being poured into me. Mum told me that. Mum glanced at the midwife, who shrugged, holding up a bloodied, gloved hand.
Dad snorted impatiently and tapped the side of the funnel, making the last grains fall into my mouth and turning my cries into a nasal hum that made the sand vibrate.
Mum held me close to feed me, and I imagine the comfort of her warm skin quietened me. ‘Now, just hold the sand in your mouth, darling.’ Her version, again. ‘Don’t swallow it or try to chew it, or it’ll damage your gums.’ I concentrated on straining her breast milk through the granules.
I suppose I became used to the sand quite quickly. After all, there had not been much time before it: my dark gestation (during which my body had changed daily anyway); the flood of birth; scant minutes of air before my parents pushed the funnel into my mouth.
Even so, teething was nightmarish. Ivory spikes punctured my gums and the tiny sand grains got caught in the gaps between them, or in the indents of my fresh molars, causing a low-level, thunder-like grinding when I moved my jaw. When I moaned about it, Mum only rocked me, and told me to just keep holding the sand. I know this is true because it happened again when I lost my baby teeth.
That was when I really began to hate the sand. Around six years old, when childhood amnesia gave way to memory, my conceptual horizons expanded enough for me to understand that the sand hadn’t always been there. I’d spend hours watching my goldfish opening and closing its hollow mouth against the crisp tank water, dwelling on what my first, uncongested inhalations must have been like – what it was like for the air to rush over the roof of my mouth and into my lungs; whether I had been allowed to drink my mother’s milk before the procedure, without straining.
‘What are you thinking about there, Suzy?’ Mum always checked in on me when I stared at the fish tank.
At first, I didn’t respond because talking was too much effort, but she asked me so often eventually I sighed through my nose, tucked the sand into my cheeks, and told her.
She put down her book and flicked her reading glasses off her face into her hair. ‘The sand in your mouth? That’s what you’re thinking about?’
I nodded and hopped off our copy of The Yellow Pages, which I’d been using to boost myself up to the tank. I approached her seriously. ‘I don’t like it. I want to spit it out.’
‘You can try,’ Mum said. ‘But it’ll come back and there’ll be more of it next time. Anyway, it’s bad manners to talk about your sand. People might start thinking things about us. Keep it to yourself, now.’
That afternoon, I slipped into the courtyard that was our garden and tried spitting the sand into one of Mum’s potted ferns, but within an hour it had returned, and my cheeks bulged, fuller than ever.
Dad got wind of my obsession – I don’t remember how, maybe Mum told him, maybe I was stupid enough to let on – and he took it upon himself to advise me.
‘Got to chew it up and swallow it.’ He instructed me over dinner. ‘Here, your mum’s cooking will help – like taking a spoonful of sugar with your medicine. Like Mary Poppins, right? It’s easy.’ He demonstrated with a head of broccoli.
I tried following his example with some of Mum’s signature mustard mash, scooping it into my mouth with my Mr Happy plastic fork. It was not easy. The sand grated all the way down my throat and Mum had to feed me hollyhock syrup before bed. During the night, I sicked the sand back up into my mouth, where it stuck, covered in a foul acidic bile.
‘Didn’t do it properly,’ Dad said in the morning. He remained adamant that I must try again, and it went on – in my memory, though not in anyone else’s – for weeks. The harder I tried, the faster I gagged the sand back up, with a sound like a plunged drain.