For Every Word My Children Speak
by Avra Margariti
The future is knocking on my door, and I’m too heavy to welcome it inside.
We’re hurtling through space in a foreign vessel, our own ship, our home, gone gone gone. The patter of small feet echoes through the Spelkian starship’s metal belly. Muted voices linger: Itia and the rest of the children, speaking in a dialect I cannot always understand even without a door’s barrier between us. Already they’re forgetting our language and adapting to the Spelks’ with an alacrity only young children possess. I am the only tribe adult on board. Perhaps the only one left alive to preserve our language and tradition.
Yet I cannot talk to the children who come a-calling. Nor can I lift my weary body off of my borrowed bed. So sometimes I sleep. And sometimes I pretend to be asleep. Either way, there’s no escaping the nightmares. In my head, memories of the invasion are always running in a loop and everything is red and loud and terrifying.
There’s someone with me in my tiny room when I awake. My vision is blurred with tears. My tongue wants to speak my dead wife’s name.
“It’s me,” a woman’s gentle voice lilts. “Ali.”
Although their tribe is human, the Spelks don’t view time the way we do. Their winding, flowering language reflects this. I was born me, I am myself now, and I will always be me, is what she actually says. Ali is the starship captains’ daughter who has been bringing me meals three times a day. The one who fished me out of the rubble of our escape pod, too.
“Easy now, Daphne. Mind your injuries.” Ali switches to my language with ease. Her smile is kind, but her eyes look moist and darkened like an eclipse. Did I burden her with this sadness? There’s no way to tell since I’ve never seen her outside of my gray, windowless room.
My shoulder and right leg were shattered in the crash. The fragmented bones mending under the Spelks’ nanite bandages should have been one of the most painful things to ever happen to me. Instead, the pain barely registers, drowned out by this howling inside me that I don’t know how to quiet.
I let Ali place a tray of gruel and a protein shake on my blanket-covered lap. She pulls up a stool and sits at my bedside, a daily occurrence that never fails to surprise me.
“Have you been doing all my chores again?” I ask when the silence stretches for so long that I fear I’m being sucked back into space.
“What if I have?” Ali asks. The edge of her smile glitters with mischief.
“It’s not fair,” I mumble, staring down at my spoon without bothering to pick it up.
She’s sticking her neck out for me and the children, and how do I repay her? By being incapable of pulling my weight around the ship and needing her to babysit me. I know I’m not being kind to myself, but at the moment I don’t want to be.
“None of this is fair,” she says. “I’m sorry, Daphne.”
“No, it’s not.”
She sits with me a while longer, then leaves with her customary wave. I save my untouched food for the children who will no doubt visit later. They will tell me stories of adventure and discovery in their new mixed dialect of Spelk and Dorian.
And perhaps I will be strong enough to pretend they aren’t breaking my heart.
“And then Miri said she’s a better fighter than me, so now she has a black eye and she’s my new best friend.”
I stare at my stepdaughter as she finishes her long-winded story. Itia is nine Earth-years old; a creature without fear, taking after her mother. I always admired that, but now I am horrified.
“Don’t pick fights with the Spelk children,” I screech, the loudest noise my newly healed throat has made since arriving here. I screamed so much when I was floating in space, despite no sound coming out, that I ripped my throat to ribbons.
Itia laughs, bell-like. “Daphne, it’s okay. They won’t throw us out.”
I don’t know whether her conviction comes from childish optimism, or from having lived among the Spelks for three months now and understanding them better than I do.
“No,” I say, “I guess not.” They don’t seem evil enough to rescind sanctuary to the only survivors of our tribe. Twenty children, and me.
Itia curls her little body around mine under the blankets, careful not to jostle my bandaged shoulder. I can’t bear to look at her in profile: her soft chin, sharp nose. She is the only reminder I have left of my wife. The rest of the children lounge around the tiny room, talking over each other in their rush to tell me all about their day. They’re healing, inside and out. At times they even sound happy, which sends electric pangs straight to my heart. I don’t want them to be sad forever, but I need them to remember. If I’m not here anymore, someone needs to be able to continue our tradition, tell our stories. The history of the invasion, too.
The children’s tongues move with little effort between the Spelkian hard consonants and wet vowels. They’re young enough that I understand why it’s easy for them to absorb the language they’ve been immersed in for months. But the way they have adopted so quickly the circular, ever-blooming manner with which all Spelks view time.... That I cannot understand. Because I cannot lie here and be told the people we lost--my wife, every parent, grandparent, and sibling--are not lost forever. I cannot accept that they lived, and therefore they’ll live on and again, now and always.
Not when so many of them died right before my eyes.
So I tell the children tales of the invasion in our own static, linear language. How the blood was spilled by the enemy tribe’s swords, how we herded as many children as we could toward the escape pods but only the one vessel remained undamaged, how I kept trying to find my wife through the inferno of screams and blaring alarms but I couldn’t, so I held onto Itia, hard enough to crack our bones.
I keep talking, and sobbing from within the black hole of my chest. The children watch, silent and wide-eyed, like they’re sad for me but not for themselves. I want to tell them, Remembering hurts more than forgetting, but there’s not much left without our language, our culture.
At last, Itia extricates herself from my embrace and tells the others something I’m too tired to decode.
“Stay here,” my stepdaughter says. “I’ll bring help.”
Ali’s face is a palimpsest, concern papered over sorrow.
“I think I really scared them away this time.” I release a humorless laugh as she sits by my side.
“They’re just worried about you. To be honest, I am too.”
I roll onto my uninjured side to stare at Ali. She was the one who rescued me, the first face I saw when I woke up. Sometimes this means nothing to me. Other times, it means everything.
“They shouldn’t worry. If anything, they should be angry,” I say. “I know I am.”
“Angry,” Ali says, softly, carefully, as if tasting the word. I wonder if it has a different meaning in her language. How do you feel things in the moment when you can see where every emotion stems from, and exactly how it’s going to be resolved? “What for?”
I don’t want my anger gone. I need to hold onto it, or else I might as well be floating in nothingness again.
“There were only so many spots available in the escape pod,” I say, looking away from Ali, her tray of food, her compassion. “The designated adult survivor was nowhere to be found. I took their place in all the chaos since Itia and I were close to the pod. One second later and neither of us would have made it. I stole someone else’s spot, yet here I am, the galaxy’s most useless caretaker. I can’t even get out of bed.”
“It’s not your fault,” Ali says, her star-gazer’s eyes shining fierce with faith. “Someone had to be there for those children, and you were that someone. Never apologize for surviving.”
“I don’t feel like someone. I feel like no one! I feel like space flotsam.”
Despite my outburst, Ali stays. “My people have always been nomadic,” she says in her calm, even voice. “We have settlements all over the galaxy, but my family chose to live on this ship, traveling the cosmos for generations.”
I look down at my hands as they fiddle with the loose threads of my blanket. “We only left our country, and then our planet, to escape a tribal rivalry that spilled over into a civil war. But even in the neutrality of outer space, we were still attacked.”
“I’m sorry,” Ali says, laying a careful hand on my shoulder. I want to flinch away, but her touch reminds me of my wife waking me up each morning in the living quarters I shared with her and Itia. So I let myself be held.
“I’m tired of being sorry.”
Despite her heaving sigh, Ali still has a smile for me from her endless reserve. “You just rest. I’ll check on Itia and the rest of your kids.”
“Daphne, Daphne, look what we made,” Itia’s high voice calls out.
“Come in,” I say as the torrent of children make themselves comfortable on stools around me or simply jump onto my mattress.
Itia deposits a stack of cards onto my lap. They’re rough as only handmade things can be, the children’s handwriting, blocky or curly, adorning each page.
“What’s all this?” I ask, stunned.
Itia smiles at me, and it’s her mother’s brightly infectious grin. “You weren’t feeling well, so I asked everyone in my art class to make you something.”
Itia has always been good at collecting people, getting them to listen. Make a card for my caretaker. Follow us to the escape pod. The other children wouldn’t have survived the invasion without her, and her soothing words, and steady hands.
I open the topmost card and peer inside. The colorful glitter spells Get well soon in Dorian, and right below in Spelk, We love you. Only, the words also mean we have loved you and we will always love you. I’ve picked up enough Spelk from Ali and the children to know that the sentiment is all encompassing and unconditional. An ouroboros of love.
“We know you’re trying,” Itia says. First in one language, then the other.
I wait until the children’s footsteps recede down the hallway before I let my chest rattle with sobs.
I’ll try. For them, I will.
Ali doesn’t snark, Finally decided to join us? Nor does she say she’s glad I’m having lunch in the cafeteria with her and the rest of the ship’s residents. Her solar smile speaks volumes anyway.
I gaze around at Ali and her family, my children and her people’s children, and from a distance I can’t tell them apart as they eat, bicker, and laugh around the long tables.
After dinner, there’s storytelling. The Spelk elders gather by the hearth’s blue flames while the children sit around them in a circle.
“I can translate for you, if you want,” Ali offers from my right side. “It’s the story of the Great Tree, from which our people were born.”
“Our stories... They were meant to keep our tribe’s memory alive.” My words are choked, but Ali understands.
“You can have them here, too. Spelk and Dorian stories, together.” Ali’s lips pull upward. I am becoming better acquainted with her smiles. Happy and melancholy all bundled together. “You know, there doesn’t have to be a choice between remembering and forgetting. For my people, opposite concepts have always coexisted harmoniously side by side.”
I nod, because I am beginning to understand now. For every Spelk word my children speak, Ali’s little siblings learn a Dorian one. Examining death through a Spelkian lens keeps the memory of our lost loved ones alive, suspended between past and future but also deeply rooted in the present.
I sit with Ali and let the elders’ storytelling wash over me like leaves drifting down from the Great Tree, nourishing its old soil, its new growth.
Avra Margariti is a queer Social Work undergrad from Greece. She enjoys storytelling in all its forms and writes about diverse identities and experiences. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Vastarien, Lackington’s, Flash Fiction Online, Daily SF, Arsenika, and other venues. You can find her on twitter @avramargariti.
Fiction by Avra Margariti:
"For Every Word My Children Speak" February 2021