Grandfather is warm, skovrada-scented, and completely impossible to understand.
He speaks the tongue of the otherland, which is hard, because most people who speak it live across the sea and those who live here don’t have time to teach it. Mama and Tata speak it with their mouths full as they scarf down milky, cinnamon-sprinkled farina slop at dawn, twenty minutes before the first bus. At night, they don’t speak at all, just grunt and snore.
Grandfather does all the talking in their stead, but he speaks the old otherland tongue. The one not even those across the sea remember. The one in which phrases like ‘la bulivar, birjar!’ can mean ‘the school bus is coming’, even when they don’t contain any of the words ‘school’, ‘bus’, or ‘come’.
If he’s mad, he sputters out sibilant sounds that don’t resemble words at all. When Tata ate the entire airless-packed sheep salami Tanti Mitza had smuggled in her checked luggage, Grandfather snarled at him: “Your mother’s onions and your midwife on cracking ice at night!”
We asked, “What does that mean?”, and Grandfather replied, quietly, “He knows what it means.”
Tata said nothing, only left the table with his salami breath, and Grandfather made us skovradas in the blackened frying pot. Later, Tanti told off Grandfather for making such a fuss over a loaf of salted meat, and he said only, “When there’s no head, woe to the legs.”
We rarely understand what Grandfather says.
Often, he compounds the confusion by sprinkling in Latin and French. “Verba volant,” he says, finger waggling, when I promise to turn off the lights to lower the power bill. “Pièce touchée, pièce jouée,” he snorts, when I dangle my knight over our chessboard, then decide to move the rook, instead. And when he’s being glib, he sings ditties about Russians requisitioning land in the name of friendship.
We learn many things from Grandfather, yet never fully grasp his language.
But the strangest of his words come when he leaves for church and pulls on his gloves, yellowed, crackled leather squeaking as it swallows his gnarled fingers.
Mama always wrinkles her nose and says, “I’m going to get you new gloves.”
“No, no!” Grandfather always shakes his head. “These are good. Solid gloves. Grandfather-skin gloves.”
We ask Mama often what he means. She throws up her hands, “You know how he is,” and she buys him nice, new gloves, which he smiles over delightedly then keeps safe in a drawer, while the grandfather-skin gloves, peeling and faded, go out with him every day.
We try to get the story of the gloves. But Grandfather is still impossible to understand.
“Where did you buy them?” we ask, and he says, “Little Father Flower gave them to me. They were the gloves he wore out on the field, so the scythe didn’t slip from his hand when he cut the grass.”
“Who’s Little Father Flower?” We never knew there was another man with Grandfather’s name.
“Little Father Flower.” He pronounces this “Flower” differently: his own is always short and sharp, but Little Father’s comes out slow, mellow, like blowing on the chai mug to cool it. “My father’s father.”
We knew of Grandfather’s father, Grandfather Mitica, who hid library books in his attic to save them from burning. We knew of his mother, who made bread during the famine out of grits and sand, and of his brother and sister who died, and his aunt and uncle, Tanti Mitza’s mother and father, who died, too, and of the little boy, Fanel, who almost made too much noise when Grandfather was hiding in a ditch from passing soldiers.
But we don’t know Little Father Flower and his scythe-gripping gloves. Mama shrugs and says she never met him. Tata snorts and says Grandfather’s ancestors all lived at the tail end of a cow.
So we ask Grandfather again and again, and pick apart his words like hungry baby birds picking through the last bits of membrane from their hatched eggs.
“Little Father Flower used to take me out to the fields right before dawn,” he says, “and he packed skovradas in an old dishrag, because we didn’t know when we’d be home.”
“We had to get an early start to get our grains for the mill. Too dangerous to walk the fields in proper daylight, when the heat came close to scorching.”
“He taught me how to angle the tip of a spade to stab deep,” he says, “and how to hit with a shovel, and how to hold the hatchet right to make a clean cut.”
We ask, “Clean cut of what? Hit what?” and he says, “The wheat and the hard earth,” and we picture him, a sun-baked little boy with knobby joints running across a golden field, until he tells us: “When a hatchet took off a chunk of my calf, Little Father Flower picked up a handful of fresh dirt and packed it in the wound, to stop the bleeding.”
We gasp and cover our mouths and ask, “Who cut you?” and Grandfather says, “Just a hatchet,” and he shows us a shiny crescent scar under his knee, a little to the side.
“Then Little Father Flower gave me his gloves,” he says. “So whenever I wielded a sharp blade, my grip wouldn’t slip.”
“And what happened to him?” we ask, many times, and Grandfather tells more stories of the two of them going to cut wheat at dawn, but we never learn what became of Little Father Flower.
“The dirt he packed into the wound sealed to the flesh,” Grandfather tells us, once, “and skin grew over it. Now I carry that piece of the land with me.”
He lets us poke the scar, and we try to feel the old dirt of the otherland shifting beneath leathered skin and wispy, wiry hairs.
Ana’s fiction is inspired by her experiences as a woman, immigrant, scientist, and lover of Eastern European folklore. She loves eldritch horrors getting happy endings, and she will apply a flamethrower to the ‘bury your gays’ trope. Her works have appeared in Cast of Wonders, Planet Scumm, Apparition Lit, and others.
Art (cropped): Mirko Virius Public Domain ALT Colourful painting of four farmers holding scythes in a field by a river
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