The Way We Speak

Written By: Michelle Donahue

When angry, Koko calls herself

red mad gorilla, she signs

the symbols with her thick, black

hands. When I was 5, I’d flap

my arms, zip around the room,

a pretend bee that couldn’t buzz, the zzz

too hard to speak, bee, bee, bee,

I said. Dolphins speak

complex language through high-

pitched clicks, measured pulses,

squawks. Koko jokes, says

Koko good bird, pretends

she can fly, laughs. I’d carry

a blanket around, I called

it, ba. Chair, rock, table, all

the same. Ba I bleated. Released

pet cockatoos remember

our words. They teach their

wild companions speech. At

the Sydney Botanic Gardens

they tell visitors hello. Koko’s

handlers call her a goofball,

juvenile, genius, she signs No,

gorilla. I couldn’t say my name

the ch in the middle of Michelle

too challenging. I spent hours

concocting new names: Robin, though

that rr was hard, or Kat, so short

& soft. I tried to convince

my mother to change my name. Mother

dolphins buzz their babies to tell them

not to stray too far. I wanted

to be a cat because my pets

understood me. When Koko wanted

juice but got water, she

called herself sad elephant. I told


my friends I came from Indonesia,

Australia, France. I relished

my exotic accent until my tongue

formed human language. It sounded

too animal. Noise.

I learned the proper way to talk.

Michelle Donahue has work published in CutBank, Word Riot, Bayou Magazine and others. She was the managing editor of Flyway and is a prose editor for Adroit Journal. She has an MFA from Iowa State and is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Utah.