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Science Fiction Speculative Coming of Age

English only! That was the rule on Persephone. Of course it wasn’t always called Persephone. We called it Meirth. Then the ships landed from another world and told us we lived on Persephone. That was when my grandpa’s grandpa was a boy. They outlawed all our languages. It was too confusing, they said. It would make life easier if we just spoke one language. We’d find we could express ourselves better, understand each other better. Of course, people still spoke their own languages in secret. But by the time it wasn’t illegal anymore, Meirth was really Persephone.

So, I grew up speaking English. I never spoke Cwn, the language of the grandfathers. Mum spoke it a little. My first lullabies were in Cwn, but the teachers warned Mum that it would hold me back and she always did what was best for me. So the lullabies stopped. Sometimes, I would hear her whispering with Grandpa and something inside me would flutter. The quietest, sleepiest yearning. I always meant to learn Cwn later. When I had more time. When I didn’t need all my brain power to work and study useful things.

When Mum died, I delivered her eulogy in English and I worked really hard to make it meaningful. I chose all the beautiful words I knew. I compared her to flowers, trees, sunlight. Grandpa just looked sad and said three words over her.

“Ellina nor pianu”

“What did that mean?” I asked afterwards.

He shook his head.

“I don’t know how to explain to you.”

I nodded understandingly. Some things don’t translate well, “But roughly though?”

He shook his head again and wandered off.

Frustrated, I asked some of the other guests.

“Peace”

“Go safely”

“Rest”

“Slip into the dream”

“Thank you”

“It’s done”

“War is over”

“Goodbye”

I turned to my old teacher. Should have started with him.

“Which of those definitions is right?”

“None of them.”

“None? How would you translate it then?”

“You can choose any of them and it would do. But none of them are quite right.”

I shook my head. I could feel it meant something. Something concrete. I looked it up a few times and got many different answers but somehow I knew none would satisfy Grandpa.

***

Grandpa doesn’t speak to me anymore. He doesn’t remember any English, just like he doesn’t remember me. His milky eyes try to focus but I know he’s not really here anymore. He’s back running through fields with his siblings. All eight of them, alive and well and laughing. He sings songs from his youth.

I invite my old roommate over. He studied Cwn at the university. They’re bringing the language back, he said. But he can’t understand Grandpa. Grandpa sits in his chair and burbles reams of words but they all float past my roommate’s understanding.

“He speaks some old dialect” he says airily, “That’s not really how it’s supposed to sound”.

And he leaves. As helpful as ever. I smile at Grandpa. I was desperate to speak to him or at least for him to speak with me. The curtains would draw soon and the chance would be gone and I needed him to know I was there. And if he couldn’t know me, at least he’d know someone was with him. I hate the idea of him feeling he’s all alone in a world of aliens.

“Inara?” asks Grandpa

I stare at him hopelessly.

“Inara?” he points to his mouth

“Food?”

I bring him wafer cakes and water.

Crash!

He knocks them to the floor, shaking with anger. I try not to take it personally. I fail.

“What do you want?”

“Inara”

I grab the dictionary, flicking as quickly as I can. None of the words look like that. Not under I or E or Y. All the time Grandpa grows more and more agitated. Unable to stand unaided, he thrashes in his chair.

“P—psni?” I stutter, asking if he needs medicine or at least I hope that’s what I’m asking.

A dove white tear rolls down my Grandpa’s cheek. He stills and sighs deeply. His breath rattles through his chest. His hands, so recently weapons, now quiver like leaves in an autumn breeze. I move to sit next to him, take his hand in mine, try to ignore the scratchy thin skin and the way I can feel each individual bone.

“I’m sorry, Grandpa. I wish I could talk to you.”

His hand clutches back.

A tune drifts gracefully into my head. One I thought I’d forgotten. I hum it gently. Grandpa’s hand grips tighter. His mouth opens and from it emerges the raspiest most tuneless noise I have ever heard. And yet it is the lullaby. The last thing my Grandpa will ever teach me. We sing it again and again until I knew all the sounds. I still don’t know the words or the meaning but it is ours. Something my Grandpa taught my mother, something she had passed to me without me even knowing, way back when. She gave me this one gift to share with Grandpa, planting it like a seed to blossom when it was most needed.

***

Grandpa dies three weeks later. There aren’t many at the funeral. He was very old and most of his contemporaries have already slipped on ahead. He lost a lot of friends in those final months. People who couldn’t bear to watch him fade beyond reach. But I don’t care. Whether there had been a thousand mourners or six, there would really have only been me and Grandpa.

I look at him, wrapped in the quilt Grandma sewed him when she agreed to marry him. It has the colours of his birth star and the colours of Grandma’s birth star and a tiny little star that had been added later when Mum had joined them.

I pick up a square of noble black gauze and cover his closed eyes with it.

“Ellina nor pianu”

“What does that mean?” asks my cousin.

I shake my head.

I now know there are a thousand answers. My roommate would have one. My old teacher could probably come up with another. If we could ask him, Grandpa’s grandpa would have a third. None of them would be right. These words mean something to me in that moment that I could never condense.

They mean family and hope and respect. They mean my mother linking us both. They mean the lullabies and the distance. They mean the past and the present and even the future as well. I could give my cousin an answer that would take me hours to express. But I know I don’t need to. She doesn’t really care. She’s already eyeing up the celebrant, wondering if he’ll be free after the service. The words weren’t for her anyway. They are for Grandpa and Mum and maybe someday they will be for me.

December 23, 2022 14:30

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2 comments

21:56 Dec 28, 2022

Your story is a good one.

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Ivona Coghlan
19:50 Dec 29, 2022

Thank you for taking the time to comment.

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