I sieve the syrup through the gaps between my teeth as if I am rinsing my mouth. Fine tendrils like waves breaking against a shore of enamel. Mum says don’t play with your food, but it’s a habit, making sure each strand permeates every inch of my mouth. Swiftlets’ spit is brittle, translucent, painstakingly delicate. Slightly yellowed, like the drool on my pillowcase and the stains that can never be erased from the cotton underneath. Think back to the apothecary in the Chinese medicine shop handling all those nests shaped like open mouths, gloved fingers leaving smaller finger-mouths on the surface. When the swiftlet builds up to the act—is it a long roll at the back of its throat, a trill crescendoing to release? Or does it wait patiently, hoarding, like a tap trickling drops into a basin? When I was younger, we used to hawk spittle onto passersby under my aunt’s low-rise flat, an art that required you to make the drops just right. Too large and they caught you right away, hurling curses and threats to tell our parents, but other times the wind caught your spittle and landed so perfectly that we saw people look up while we crouched behind metal railings, searching for rain. Swiftlets make their nests in the dark cave crevices where they think they will be safe, spinning saliva into sculpture like early modern confectioners building their towers saying: yes, this could be a home where my mouth lives. When I hold a mouthful for too long, the urge to swallow rises. My saliva is all enzyme, searching to break down and destroy, as if digestion can turn plain into pretty, as if gorging on enough nests could transmute dribble to gold dust. Like the fairytale where one sister is cursed to slobber toads while the other coughs up diamonds and marries a prince. I imagine that’s all she is for a kingdom, slack-jawed and rough-tongued—a mouth. Creation, working its way upwards from gullet to gaping hole. The nests are, too, a miracle cure for beauty and old age. Who was the first person who crunched down with their teeth, and let their tongue say this was a spell? The lifeblood of one creating life for another. We are obsessed with smoothness, peeling back layers to find new skin, limpid glassiness of complexion. I use my teeth to savage strand from strand. Rinse with rock sugar and red dates. Pour gelatinous substance into mouth. Slipping down throat to spine to bone. Mouth to mouth. An intimate act of swapping spit.
About Kwan-Ann Tan
Kwan-Ann Tan is a Malaysian writer, a medievalist-in-training, and an occasional quartet player. You can find her at kwananntan.carrd.co or on Twitter: @KwanAnnTan