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Mother Tongue

Fantasy. Around 20 pages. Published June 23, 2022.

You’ve heard of Siltasampra, yes? Jewel of the southeast, ancient city built upon a city upon yet another a city and so on until you’re back thousands of years and you’re looking at the first great city of the region: Kha. Not much is left of Kha, with the remnants of its glory largely built over or looted in the centuries since, but Siltasampra has proven itself a worthy descendant. In fact, recently I saw a petition (with many signatures) to give Siltasampra the name of Kha Urdit, which in the Khan tongue means “Kha Reborn.”

But I digress. Among the millions and millions of people living and marrying and reproducing and dying in the city (whatever its name) was a young man named Dagh Ribandra.

He lived on the sixth floor of a rickety apartment on Olorth Road. That apartment, let me tell you, should have been torn down the day it was built. Shoddy craftsmanship, dangerous to all, and smelly to boot. It hasn’t collapsed yet, but the day it does is lurching toward us.

Where was I? Dagh. Yes, Dagh. He’d been living there with his family, but his father died and his mother remarried and moved south to live with her new husband and his fourteen children (must have been true love), and his sister married and moved to the north side with her husband, and Dagh was left alone.

He did not like being alone.

Not because of fear, mind you — he was a man of twenty-five by this point, strong and healthy. Handsome, too. But strength and health and looks don’t a companion make.

Oh, don’t pity him too much. He spent most of his life surrounded by people. Some don’t even have that. And he wasn’t alone much longer.

So Dagh lived in his dreary concrete apartment with a scattering of decoration and adornment but nowhere near enough to lift the place from drab to delightful. Almost purely utilitarian.

Most of the time — and perhaps this is why he didn’t put much thought into his apartment — he was out walking the streets of Siltasampra, picking trash up off the ground, sticking it in large plastic bags, and hauling it to Ciocizzi & Rue for pitifully small amounts of cash.

He knew that he was not living the life, but he didn’t know what to do to climb out of what he had. It took all his money just to pay rent and buy food. He hadn’t been able to go to school. Most of the people he knew lived at the same level. This was life, and while he’d try to make the best of it, no grand change was coming.

(Which was true. He never did catapult himself out of poverty. This isn’t a rags to riches story.)

We’ve set the stage. Now we get to introduce Maria Bonita Sanchez, his neighbor two flights up, and his friend for going on fifteen years. They were next-door neighbors as children, in another apartment on the riverside. (The river reeked. They were glad to move.)

Maria Bonita lived up on the twelfth floor with her four-year-old terror, José. Pure energy, all the time. He was an exhausting child to care for, and it showed. Maria Bonita’s marriage to José’s father had collapsed the year before for a handful of reasons, none of which she’d told to Dagh, but he had some ideas.

Now the breadwinner, Maria Bonita made wicker baskets and brooms and sold them on the streets, walking to and fro with her toddler in tow. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d tried to sell José at some point.

(I really should add here that José wasn’t quite as bad as I’m making him sound. Turns out exaggeration is kind of fun. He grew out of it and turned into a remarkable human.)

Now that you have a picture in your head for these people (Maria Bonita, by the way, was short and skinny with long black hair), we can get to the interesting part. The pivot, the crux, the hinge.

It was during the hot season. (That’s a joke. It’s always hot in Siltasampra.)

Dagh was out picking up garbage, stopping regularly to rest in the shade and drink from the half-full water bottle in his canvas bag. (Dagh would have said it was half-empty.) He’d wandered into a neighborhood he hadn’t been in before (yes, there were still a few), in the Olepre quarter.

This one had massive, creepy statues of crocodiles standing guard at the entrance, with too many limbs tangled in some kind of pattern. Dagh was surprised. There aren’t any crocodiles in the waters next to Siltasampra, for one thing, but more importantly, the statues were in the old Khan style, with inlaid gold down recessed lines along their sides. (The gold had all been scraped off already. Not a rags to riches story, remember?) Also, he’d never heard of any crocodile gods in the Khan religions.

Dagh walked through the first narrow lane of this neighborhood and came to the end. It opened up onto a concrete courtyard jammed right up against the forest. Half a dozen monkeys were hanging out on a large pile of trash, and all of them turned to stare at him as he approached. A glance told Dagh that the pile had several shiny things that were probably worth the hassle of shooing the monkeys away. Still, it was dangerous, and he didn’t like it.

He picked up a clod of dirt and hurled it at the white monkey squatting at the top of the pile. He missed. The monkey chattered back — clearly an insult — and hurled a roll of toilet paper at him. He dodged it easily. He’d had practice.

Monkeys being monkeys, the rest immediately joined in the fun. Good thing Dagh had had all that practice. Rotten food, diapers, cardboard boxes, it all came flying toward him. He avoided it all.

Then (you knew a then was coming, didn’t you) a small orange-and-black monkey with a wicked grin reached deep inside the pile and pulled out something shiny and dark. Dagh smiled to himself. Maybe he could get the monkeys to throw the valuables to him and he wouldn’t even need to shoo them off.

The shiny, dark thing hit Dagh in the shin. It was also hard. It hurt. He knelt to look at it, holding his arm up to protect his head.

A spider. It was the size of his fist and looked like it had been hammered out of bronze. Filigreed decorations lay along its thick legs, inlaid with what looked like silver. Into its underbelly were two large, lustrous yellow gems set in the shape of an hourglass. As Dagh turned the spider over, the gems caught the light and took his breath away. This was worth…a lot more than Dagh had ever gotten from trash-gathering before.

A soggy something hit his arm. Well, then. No sense in staying any longer. He dropped the spider into his bag and retreated back to the lane, and thankfully no monkeys followed.

He made his way out of the neighborhood, his thoughts racing. He made a mental note to avoid monkeys in the future, then amended the note to add that monkeys could be particularly lucrative so maybe he should seek them out, actually.

How much could he get for the spider, he wondered. Thousands, maybe. The thing was, though, Ciocizzi & Rue was almost certainly going to bilk him out of most of its value. That’s how they operated. He could talk to Ciocizzi himself and try to wrangle a fair price out of him, but the more Dagh imagined going down that path, the more certain he was that at the end of it he’d be sprawled in an alley with a shattered neck or a chopped-up throat.

So he had to take it somewhere else. Somewhere respectable enough to be honest, or at least closer to honest.

He had no idea. He’d never dealt with anything valuable. (Except in his daydreams, of which there were many.)

In the absence of a good plan, Dagh decided to stick with the safest option: take it home and let his future self figure it out.

On his way home, Dagh stopped by Choramn’s shop to pick up Maria Bonita’s knife, as she’d asked him to do that morning since she’d been having nerve pain in her left leg and didn’t feel like walking more than she had to.

Choramn had taken his sweet time on the custom-made knife — well over a month, which pulled Maria Bonita’s patience like brittle taffy. But the knife was finally done, and Dagh had it in his bag.

He trudged up the endless stairs to her apartment. Someday, he swore, he would move to a house with only one floor. (He did, years later. It was lovely. He did miss being perched up in the sky like a bird, though, peering down on the bug-size humans far below.)

His apartment was far enough from the stairs that as he passed his floor, he decided to go straight to Maria Bonita’s first.

She opened the splintering door half a second after he knocked, like she’d known he was coming. (She didn’t. She thought she heard someone cry out for help in the hallway.) He made a mental note to talk to the super about fixing the splintering.

“Come in, come in,” Maria Bonita said. “You got it?”

He followed her into the sparse front room, sat down cross-legged on the floor across from her, exulted in the cool air conditioning, and with more than a little unnecessary showmanship produced the knife. Flair! Drama!

She laughed and rolled her eyes as he handed it over to her. “Thing of beauty. Never thought I’d see it.”

“Choramn does good work,” Dagh said. “Even if he’s a snail sometimes. Where’s José?”

“Nap.” She gestured to the back room. “Also something I never thought I’d see again.”

Dagh shrugged. “It’s a day of miracles. In fact, guess what I found over in Olepre.” He reached into his bag and pulled out the bronze spider, showcasing it on his palm for her to see.

“Ooh,” Maria Bonita said. “Pretty.”

“I have to figure out what to do with it. Where to get a good price. Know of anywhere?”

“Not Ciocio?” Her nickname for the company.

“They’ll rip me off.”

José appeared in the doorway at the back of the room, rubbing his eyes. “Heya, Uncle Dagh.”

Because of what happened later, we need to be clear here: Dagh and Maria Bonita weren’t blood relations, just close friends. At least as far as I know. Given where their families came from, it wouldn’t even make sense. So don’t get icked out later.

“Hey, kid.”

Maria Bonita stretched out her arms for José to come hug her. “Kiddo, how was your nap? Want to see something?” She turned to Dagh. “Can I show him? I’ll give it back.”

“Sure,” Dagh said.

She plucked it off his palm and walked over to José, who had not come over for the hug because he was on the young side of four and even more stubborn than his mama. (He also didn’t like people touching him in general — and not just as a kid.)

Maria Bonita knelt down in front of her son with the spider in her cupped hands. “Kharaka silmit esh,” she said. (That’s Dagh’s best recollection of it, anyway, and it could be wrong. At the time he thought she was making pretend spider sounds to humor the boy.)

To their surprise, José began to cry. Not just a whimper, either. Torrential sobs. End-of-the-world-level crying. Maria Bonita set the spider on the ground and tried to whisper consolations to him but it didn’t work. She’d become agitated herself, too, with a terrified look on her face.

“It’s not real. It’s just a sculpture,” Dagh said weakly. “It won’t hurt you. You’d think he’s never seen a spider before.” Which he knew wasn’t true, and which seemed like maybe the wrong thing to say as soon as he’d said it.

He picked up the spider and put it back in his bag. “I can leave,” he said. He began backing up toward the door.

Maria Bonita held up her hand for him to wait. Her trembling hand. “Ezvir sa troit khazavmirk.”

Dagh almost responded with a pretend spider language of his own, but Maria Bonita clearly was not joking. He’d never seen her so serious. Or so overcome with deep horror. “I…”

“Ezvir,” she said, more slowly, a crisp, jagged edge to each syllable, like each was slicing up her throat on the way out. “Sa troit. Khazavmirk.” With a wail she sank to the concrete floor, lying face down, awkwardly clutching her still-crying toddler with one arm.

Dagh had no idea what was happening. All he knew was that something was wrong — very, very wrong. A vast, dark, queasy something began to unfurl in his stomach. The spider was just a gaudy bauble, but somehow José’s fear had…it didn’t make any sense. Yet it was fundamentally Dagh’s fault, that much was sure.

(You can’t really blame him for the confusion. This wasn’t something any of them had ever had any experience with before.)

What he wanted right now was to quietly slip away. The spider had caused this; so if he took the spider away, maybe it would fix everything.


“I don’t know what’s going on,” he whispered. Realizing she probably couldn’t hear him under her wails, he said, louder, “What can I do to help?”

Maria Bonita managed to prop herself up on her elbows. She stared at him with her mouth slightly open, confusion shot through her eyes. She shook her head slightly and shrugged.

“I’m sorry,” Dagh said. There was a stain on the concrete beneath his feet. It was from a party Maria Bonita had held a few years back, when their mysterious tall neighbor had spilled his bowl of curry and fled from the room in shame. “I shouldn’t have showed you. I didn’t know he’d be afraid of it.”

“Ezvir sa,” she began again. She shook her head vigorously. “Ezvir. Ezvir. Ezvir.”

“Why do you keep saying that?” Dagh asked. It was like something had gone wrong in her brain. Maybe a stroke? He hadn’t considered that — she wasn’t an old woman at all — but it was more than just pretend now. “Stop. You’ve got to talk normal, okay? I have no idea what you’re saying.”

Shaking her head slowly as if in a dream, Maria Bonita crawled over to the wall, grabbed a pen, and waved it at his bag of trash.

Dagh understood. He poked through the bag until he found some parchment paper. It was spotted with grease stains but would do.

She took it and furiously wrote down a line, like it was the most important thing she’d ever written in her life. It probably was.

When she finished, she jumped to her feet and stuck the paper too close to Dagh’s feet. He stepped back.

“I…can’t read this,” he said, shrugging. “It’s just lines and loops.”

Gritting her teeth, she gave him the pen and paper and motioned for him to write something.

I hope the joke is almost over, he wrote.

From over his shoulder Maria Bonita was biting her nails. He could tell from the hopeless look on her face that she couldn’t read what he’d written. It was not a joke.

Dagh didn’t know what was going on, but to his credit, he did see that Maria Bonita’s world had just shattered. If she couldn’t talk to anyone anymore — not in any meaningful way — she was now a solitary raft adrift in an empty sea. Unending loneliness.

Though it wasn’t quite that dire, he told himself. She could still communicate with gestures, as she’d just done. Perhaps she could draw pictures, too.

Besides, he thought, maybe this was temporary. Why couldn’t she wake up the next morning speaking Silt again? Not all roads were one-way, after all.

(Kind of charming, isn’t it. Such hope! Misplaced, of course. I think it’s also safe to say that things would be very different for some of us if Dagh had been right on this.)

“Can you understand me?” he asked, because he wasn’t sure.

Maria Bonita shrugged violently, like a spasm. It made Dagh uncomfortable. But it was a discomfort he embraced, because this was his fault and (even if it hadn’t been) Maria Bonita was his friend.

He didn’t know what to do. He tried to motion that he was going to return to his apartment to put the cursed spider away. (This was where it clicked for him — that touching the spider had caused this.)

Maria Bonita — who had calmed down a bit — nodded and motioned for him to come back afterwards. He nodded. He would not abandon her now.

Veena felt several joints pop as she gripped her makeshift cane and stood up. Standing wasn’t the right word for it, though. Leaning, maybe. Always leaning. Or slumping. Or lying prone.

She’d never expected to live this long. Siltasampra was not a forgiving city, and she had watched her parents and almost all her friends’ parents fall before their sixties — some to illness or infection, more to violence.

Yet here she was, still standing (leaning), a lumpy, wrinkly crone of seventy-two. Unbelievable.

Enough. One moment of indulgent self-reflection was all she could give herself. There were tasks to do.

Veena limped out of the shade and onto the street, under a wild sun. She should have woken up earlier, when it was a smidge cooler.

(Wondering what’s happened to Dagh and Maria Bonita? We’ll get back to them before long, don’t worry.)

A long, burning eternity later, she made it to the market, with its sweet, blessed roof of tarp and the magnanimous shade it gave. She wandered the aisles, pointing out the vegetables and fruits she wanted, handing over her hard-earned coins, laying most of her purchases into the ratty bag she’d found on the street a couple months back.

She stopped by the orphanage on her way back home — why the sun had to be so infernally hot, she did not know — and, pulling out a few mangoes for herself (she didn’t eat much these days), gave the rest to the kind young woman in the office, for the children. Scrawny little things. The orphanage used to get more funding, but the new mayor (curse his name) had promised generosity but post-election ended up being stingier than a street dog.

She kicked a couple of said street dogs on her way home, when they tried to nip at her ankles. She gave one of the mangoes to a vagrant young man who’d been sitting shellshocked next to the park these past few days. She picked up her patched dress from the seamstress and paid over another few coins. (It was something she should have done herself to save money, but she hated sewing more than she hated the mayor.)

Errands done, Veena returned home, put away the mangoes, turned the stuttery fan on high, and settled down on her mat for a much-anticipated nap.

As promised, back we go to Dagh and poor Maria Bonita (and poor José, too, by extension).

The next few days were rough. A shadow of despair fell across Maria Bonita, strapping her down to the floor almost as effectively as real bands would have. Dagh carried over meals each day to her and José and tried to get her to eat, with middling success. Every morning they all woke up hoping that the damage had undone itself and that she’d be able to speak Silt again. Every morning they ran into ice cold disappointment.

When Dagh was younger there had been an old man in his neighborhood who had been hit in the head by falling bricks (supposedly an accident but everyone suspected foul play), and from then on the man’s speech was garbled. The words were all real (unlike Maria Bonita’s case), but they made no sense strung together. Dagh figured this might be what had happened to Maria Bonita. But even that didn’t really make sense, since she hadn’t hurt her head at all.

Her friend Rosa was able to come over to stay the nights with her. (Rosa, Rosa, why you turned out the way you did, we’ll never know. This was her kind phase. About ten years later she picked up a nasty habit of sprinkling shattered glass into the bins at the market. No one knows why.)

In the mornings still-nice-Rosa told stories of Maria Bonita’s night terrors, where she’d shrieked awful gibberish for hours. Neighbors complained, of course, which made it even worse. Luckily for Maria Bonita, Dagh was able to persuade the kind landlord to give them some time to figure things out.

At the beginning of the weekend, Maria Bonita started to feel a little better, enough to stand. Dagh felt she needed some fresh air, and rightly so. He helped her to the front door, but just as they got it open, a neighbor walked by (one of the complainers, as it happened) and sneered some unkind words at her. Maria Bonita couldn’t understand what was said, but the facial cues were hard to miss. She stumbled back to the floor and back to her depression. It took a solid week before Dagh was able to get her to try again.

But finally they did make it out the apartment and down the stairs and along the street. It was a hot afternoon and Dagh would have rather stayed in the shade, but if Maria Bonita was ready at last to walk down the street, so was he.

She held José’s hand and stared at everything as if she’d never been here before. (Not being able to read the signs made it feel like a foreign city.)

They went down to the corner to Ping’s ice cream cart and got crepe rolls with chocolate mango ice cream, then found some shade on the curb and sat down to eat.

The street was busier than normal. A chaotic river of cars and bicycles and motorcycles and skateboards overflowed all four lanes. There were seven or eight kids on bicycles on the other side of the street, circling round and chatting. Several businessmen marched down the sidewalk with their suit jackets hanging over their arms, wiping sweat off their foreheads. A withered crone limped along with a bag swung over her shoulder, stopping to rest under each tree on the walk. A group of four or five young mothers, Maria Bonita’s age, carried their babies or pushed them along in strollers as they chatted.

Dagh and Maria Bonita ate in silence. José didn’t know silence and chattered between and through each bite.

“That’s a big, big car,” he said. “So huge. It costs 68 million chortas. Why is a grandpa driving it? Grandpas just want to sleep, sleep, sleep. Look, an elephant!”

Before Dagh or Maria Bonita realized what was happening (their sorrows had slowed them down), José had jumped up and began to run along the sidewalk toward the elephant on the other side of the street.

“Tak! Tak av!” Maria Bonita yelled after him. She jumped to her feet and began chasing him. Dagh followed, trying to push away memories of childhood friends who’d met their demise in the streets of Siltasampra in moments not too different from this. It was not a safe city.

José passed the old woman and was about to leap off the curb into the street when she dropped her bag and, in one surprisingly swift move, reached down and scooped the boy up. Startled, he went limp and tried to squirm out of her grip, but by that point Maria Bonita was there to take him (and hold on to him with a grip so tight Dagh worried it might leave a bruise).

“Zorav kimit,” she whispered to the boy. “Zorav kimit.”

Dagh thanked the old woman, but she was staring at Maria Bonita like she’d seen a ghost.

(You probably picked up on it already, but that old crone with the bag? That was Veena.)

Veena’s heart was juddering, both from the excitement and from the effort. She could already tell she’d overdone it, going off the sharp pain in her calves and lower back. She’d have to get some ice to salve them.

But that was all forgotten when she heard the boy’s mother speak.

“I thought I’d lost you,” the young woman said. “I thought I’d lost you.”

Veena stared at her. She was so used to being unable to understand what everyone was saying, for so many years, that the shock of this — of comprehension! — made her legs go weak.

“You,” she managed to get out. She had to stop and clear her throat. “What did you say?”

The young man who was with the girl now had quite the look of surprise on him. But it was nothing compared to the relief that flooded over the young woman’s face.

“I thought…I thought I’d lost…you can understand me?”

Weak legs notwithstanding, Veena jumped a little in the air (it hurt) and clapped her hands. “Sure can. Did you know, girl, you’re the first person I’ve been able to talk to in twenty years? Lost my husband because of this curse. Kids don’t visit me anymore, either. Always a stranger. But now here you come along out of nowhere! Where do you live? We’re going to be friends, you know. We have to be. Have to stick together.”

She was talking too much, she knew, but all those words had been dammed up for so long that she just didn’t care.

The young woman said, “I’m Maria Bonita. This is my son José. Thank you for saving him, I am so grateful. And this is my friend Dagh.”

“I’m Veena. I live that way.” She pointed. “Couple streets down. Doesn’t matter. How’d you get the curse?”

Maria Bonita blinked. “A curse? No, something went wrong with my brain, maybe a stroke, but…” She stopped. “But then how can I understand you?”

“You can understand me because we’re speaking the same language, girl.” Veena cackled with joy. She didn’t want to scare off the girl but couldn’t help it. “Witchtongue. The language of the coven. The bond that binds the undying sisterhood together. Or at least it would if anyone were still left. But here you are, you beautiful, lovely person.”

She let out a big, glorious, satisfied sigh. After so many years she’d been convinced she’d never be able to talk to someone else, the witchtongue a cage of ice that kept her lonely. But now, at long last, it was melting away. Amazing.

At this point Maria Bonita was in a mild sort of shock. She felt sure the old woman was a crazy loon…but here they were, speaking and understanding each other. So the woman couldn’t be completely insane.

Witches. Covens. Maria Bonita didn’t know what to think. There’d been talk, yes, but always laced with uncertainty — were there witches at all, were they here in Siltasampra or did they stay cloistered in the woods, was their intent as malicious as people said or were they harmless after all. She’d never heard about a different language for witches, though.

“Wait,” she said, shaking, still wondering if maybe the woman was mistaken. “If you can’t understand anyone else, how do you know it’s this witchtongue thing?”

“Found a book.” A vaguely guilty look crossed Veena’s face. “I’ll show it to you, don’t worry. Now, whence your curse?”

Maria Bonita desperately wanted to see the book, if it was something she could still read. Maybe there was a fix, a way back.

She shelved that thought for now and turned to her curse, if curse it was. Really, when she thought about it, it had all started with the spider. (This was no doubt incredibly obvious to all of you. For her, not so much. She’d had no experience with anything like this, and the shock of it all had muddied her thinking more than she realized.)

“He” — she pointed at Dagh — “found a metal sculpture of a spider. I touched it. But he touched it too…”

“Ah,” Veena said. “Khan? Of course it was. Mine was too. So the coven was in Kha. I suspected as much but wasn’t sure till now…” She shifted her weight and squinted in the bright sunlight. “My curse came when I picked up a shiny jade amulet. Never been the same since. But here we are, sisters bound by witchtongue. Come, let’s go to my place in the shade and we can talk more.”

Maria Bonita was torn. Someone who knew more about her condition, who she could talk with, was more than she had expected. Truly a blessing. But witches and curses? She’d hated those stories as a child and wanted nothing more than to stay as far away from it all as possible.

But that was no longer possible, was it.

So she stood up, wobbling a little, and held José’s hand with an unbreakable grip. He was her anchor. She was so glad she had him. Dagh, too. He was a good man to help her like this.

Veena began walking toward the corner. Maria Bonita and José followed, and Dagh shrugged and went along because this was the most interesting thing that had happened to him in a while.

The second worst mistake of Maria Bonita’s life was now behind her. The worst was yet to come. (Poor José.) But that’s a story for another time.

At the intersection, a horrible, dreadful thought occurred to Maria Bonita. “Am I a witch now?”

Veena chuckled, the sound crisp and crunchy and disturbing to Maria Bonita’s ears. “Not yet,” the old woman. “Not yet!”