~ Ro Smith
Dandrata ophosa meyrata mahan.
His earliest memory. Playing at the bottom of the long garden, near the ditch and the running stream and the strange sense of standing on the bank as though teetering but not falling—
not even close
—but hanging suspended in connection because . . .
Dandrata ophosa meyrata mahan.
Her mother in the kitchen kneading dough to make bread. And she doesn’t even know what kind of bread, only that it will be warm and earthy—fresh from the oven, crisp enough to cut on the crust, but fluffy inside. This is seeds and milk-pounded-to-butter that was grass-for-the-cow, and they’re not so very different really, but separate they are one-thing-here and another-thing-there, and together they are food and sustenance and people grow from them and people live and die and become food for worms and it’s beautiful…
But she tells her mother that the bread will make her worm-food and her mother is appalled.
Sends her to her room to sit in the dark until she can
But all she learns from the darkness is to be alone and cut off from the bread and the grass and the cows and the grain.
Until a spider brushes her hand and she feels the fly it sucked dry and the ripe warm tomato where the fly laid its eggs and—
Of course when she tells her mother about that it’s worse again.
But she hears it in the rhythm of the dough-pounding:
The chewing of the cow:
The laying of the eggs:
The brush of the spider:
He’s twelve and his father said he must invite boys to his party and there are some and they’re fine. They don’t really know him, but they’re fine.
He wants to play tag in the garden, but they’re too old now.
And he wants to play tag because what he really wants is to play pretend that they are nymphs and sprites and dance in the muddy ditch and say it’s a sacred stream—but when they were young enough to pretend they would have asked to play tag instead and he would have agreed.
So instead they play man hunt.
And one of them is hiding in the little wilderness beyond the ditch.
And he should be hunting that other—the other boys are laughing and shushing each other—but instead he hesitates at the old stream and feels a pull in its sluggish waters.
Dandrata ophosa meyrata mahan!
And the laughter bubbles out of him.
And he’s like the other boys, but also not. Because this is beautiful—this rushing and hiding and brushing with branches and rustling in leaves and hands pressed down into soft loam and—
The forest is with them, but they don’t even know.
And after he laughs, he sighs.
He knows where the hiding boy is, and he walks to him, holding out his hand.
The boy groans, but accepts it.
He is caught.
Those are the rules.
The rules they follow to do something that isn’t about hunting men at all.
It’s about running and hiding and rustling in leaves and burying your fingers in loam.
She’s an adult when her father dies.
They haven’t spoken in years.
He wanted her to be a boy (who played with boys) and she wasn’t.
And if not a boy, then a girl (who made bread with mother). But she wasn’t that either.
Really, Dad just wanted normal.
And after all this time, with the funny moments and the words in the breeze and the lost minutes staring at water as it swirls down the drain . . .
. . . after all this time, she doesn’t feel abnormal.
She’s just whatever she is.
And so were the boys.
And so were the girls.
And so was the ditch that thought it was a stream and the bushes that thought they were a forest and the grain and the butter that thought they were the same . .
They all just were whatever they were, whether it was what Dad wanted or not.
And she . . . she had been far away from him for . . . oh, a time that floated on twilight.
Five years. She supposes it’s been five years.
And then she hears it.
A cry in the darkness across her cheese pasty as she fumbles for a grip on the rubber rail of an escalator.
And she knows he’s dead.
And she knows she has traveled a very long way to find herself so close to home.
At his mother’s door he dies a little at the bell-chime call of familiarity in a depressed off-white button.
His mother’s tears have stained her cheeks red, although they are dry.
“I keep hearing these words,” he confesses, over the luke-warm tea they have both failed to drink. “I heard one and I knew. Before you called. I knew.”
She looks at him, but he can’t read the look.
“‘Mahan’,” he says. “I heard the word ‘mahan.’ And I’ve never known what it meant. But I’ve always known what it means. That’s stupid, isn’t it? That’s what he’d say—I’m being stupid again.” He ran a finger around the rim of his teacup, waiting for her sigh and correction.
“Not stupid,” she says. “Just not what he wanted to hear.”
He snorts, but doesn’t look up.
“Dandrata ophosa meyrata mahan . . .” she says quietly.
Their eyes meet.
“‘The tendril, the part of, all over, of us’,” she said. “That’s what it means. You’ve always heard it, haven’t you?”
“I . . . what?” he said. “That’s nonsense.”
“Did you hear it by the stream? In the trees?” she asked. “That’s where I met him, you know. When we were young. And he asked me. He said: Dandrata ophosa meyrata mahan, and it meant that he wanted to be with me, not as man and wife, but as the stream and the trees and the mud and the forest. But I didn’t understand. Human beings, we don’t think like that. I said, if you’d be with me, you must be my man, and we must wed, that’s how my people do it.”
She frowned and brushed the hair from her face. “So he was. He was my man and we were wed. And for me, he was one of us. He wanted that for you. And you loved me too, so we thought . . . but you’re still a part of that larger thing. Aren’t you?
“I think what you heard—mahan—I think that was them calling him back. In as much as there is a him and a them. And maybe one day you’ll be ‘of us’ again. You hear the call, but . . .”
“No, Mum,” I interrupt. “I’m just me. I think that’s what father never understood. I’m not them. I’m not us. I’m not a man. I’m not a woman. I am. And that’s everything and it’s me, too.”
She looks away and I know she hasn’t heard me.
“And he’s everything, and so are you,” I add.
She looks up and meets my eyes. Does she understand?
“Perhaps,” she says. “Let’s make some more tea.”
Ro Smith writes fantasy and science fiction that challenges our assumptions about reality through the veil of fiction. Ro has a doctorate in epistemology and metaphysics from the University of York and her short stories have been published by Distant Shore Publishing, Fox Spirit Books, and Hub Magazine. As an non-binary author it means a lot to her to represent a diversity of identities in her fiction.
You can find Ro on Twitter @Rhube.