Memory four: Language lessons
Shades of brown, orange and red crumple underneath my shoes as I follow the music through the garden.
Sometimes I get lost in a book for so long that I forget that the outside world is a wonderful place to be.
I take a deep breath, pulling in the smells of fresh fruit that hangs abundantly on the trees and bushes. The berries in this bush are black and shiny, they look almost covered in lacquer.
“Those berries are bitter lady Elizabeth, If you want something sweet may I suggest a nice peach?”
Our gardener is a man with a wrinkling face and a balding head. Yet his eyes shine with vitality. His name is Sehe and he points up at a tree I couldn’t possibly reach by myself.
“Can I?” I ask politely.
“Your wish is my command.” Sehe bows then reaches up into the tree and pulls down a pink fuzzy fruit.
“Thank you Sehe.” I bow to him, then take a bite. It’s juicy and sweet like candy. “It’s delicious.”
“Thank you very much. I’m very proud of these peaches, they need to put a lot of effort into growing before they make their fruits. But like always they did an excellent job.”
“You did an excellent job giving them the care they need so they can grow.”
He seems taken aback by that, I don’t quite understand why because it’s true.
“Thank you, lady Elizabeth.”
I look at the fruit, turning it over in my hand “Can I ask something?”
“How do you say ‘peach’ in your language?”
“Wuso?” I try to fit the fruit to the word but in my head, the two just don’t match.
The man nods “Exactly wu means soft or fuzzy, so means water.”
“So together they are fuzzy water.” I chuckle at this “That’s so funny.”
“It’s how we make words.”
“So what about this one? I ask gesturing back to the bush with the black berries”
“You call those bloodberries, we call them socha translating roughly to iron river.”
“The berries are bitter and metallic tasting, and they’ll give you a nasty tummy ache if you eat too many of them.”
“Good thing you were there to protect me then.” I smile widely at the gardener, he bows “Indeed, well, if that’s all-”
“Hmmm” I look around the garden “What about this one?” I point to a tree with red feather-like leaves.”
That’s hafai, ha means wood, fai means fire so together they become fire grown from wood.”
“Because the leaves are red?”
“Amazing, so what about this one?” I point to a mushroom sticking out of the ground.
“Oh, uhm We call them yebou.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means…well it means ‘man sticking from the earth’”
All the previous words had something to do with the things they looked or tasted like, but I don’t think I ‘get’ this one “That’s weird…”
Sehe chuckles uncomfortably “Indeed, now unless there’s anything else I should get started raking up these leaves. They don’t clear away themselves.”
“Of course! You need to do your job, I apologise for keeping you.”
The old man smiles “Don’t worry little lady, I could never say no to your company.”
As I’m about to walk away I have a bit of a realisation “Can I ask one last question?”
“You speak my language very well, Did you have to learn it so you can work here?”
“Thank you for the compliment lady, yes I did.”
“well, your father doesn’t know our language and we need to be able to take orders from him.”
“Huh.” It’d make more sense if he learnt your language instead of the other way around. But I doubt that’s something I should be saying out loud.
I bow swiftly “Good luck with the leaves, I won’t keep you any longer.”
He waves pleasantly “Have a nice day.”
Before picking up his rake again and getting back to work.
I knock on the door of the house and Shayu opens the door almost immediately.
“Welcome back lady Elizabeth, did you enjoy your walk?”
“Immensely, where’s father?”
Shayu’s face pulls “Uhm, your father has company right now and doesn’t wish to be disturbed.”
I cross my arms “Is the pretty lady here again?”
I feel a hint of annoyance worm its way up my throat “You know what, don’t answer that, if father needs me I’ll be in the lilac room.”
“Would you like some tea while you read?” Shayu calls after me.
I don’t like the pretty lady.
I don’t even know her name and I’ve only seen her a handful of times. She comes in through back-doors and tries her best to evade me but the one time I followed her was enough to make it clear to me that she’s supposed to be mother’s replacement.
And I dislike her for it.
What is she even thinking, mother and father are still married!
I bet she just saw a man with lots of money and power and seduced him for a cushy life as his mistress.
But she’s going to be very disappointed when father goes back to Cygne with me and leaves her behind!
Very disappointed indeed.
I throw open the door and drop myself onto the cloudy glass sofa. I pull the book on the coffee table towards me without so much as glancing at the cover and open it on a random page.
The legendary island of Niaguillia is said to be so fertile to life that the flora and fauna have vastly outgrown their mainland counterparts. Explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries describe being on the island as ‘being the size of an ant in a world of giants.’ Of course, modern people have tried to find the island using the old maps and descriptions but the island has not been found since.
I close it again, drop it to the floor and look for a nice Delarouge to take my mind off things instead.
“Elizabeth will you pass me the salt?” father asks at the dinner table.
The corner of my mouth twitches but I hand him the silver shaker without complaints.
I cut off a piece from the filet and bring it to my mouth. It’s tender and salty with a hint of white wine, the cook did an excellent job.
“So how was your day?” father asks from the other side of the table.
I shrug “It was okay. How about you?”
“Good, yes…” he sighs.
We both go back to eating again.
“Is there anything…bothering you?” Father asks carefully and I almost choke on my food.
I cough, hand reaching for the crystal glass beside my plate and try my best to stay inconspicuous while my head races. You cheat on my mother behind her back and you expect me not to notice or to be okay with it!?
Are you mad!?
“No, no I’m fine, just a bit tired. I finished another book today.”
“Really what about?”
“It’s an island with massive creatures on it.”
“I want to go and find it one day.”
“That’s great sweetie.”
“It would be terribly dangerous of course, there are wild cats and everything.”
“Uhu.” Well at least I know he’s not listening, normally the mere idea of danger is enough to forbid me the most mundane things.
We go back to eating in silence.
That evening I’m in the garden again.
The lights are burning fiercely in their copper lanterns and the air is fresh but not cold.
I take a deep breath, sit down on a bench and just try to think.
I find it harder and harder to look at father, never mind talking to him.
There’s a distance growing between us. I’m angry at him for keeping secrets but don’t know how to communicate that without sounding accusatory or mean.
“Good day lady Elizabeth, do you require anything?” Sehe asks walking up to me, rake by his side.
“Some company perhaps? How are the leaves?”
“Well, they’re leaves so I rake them up and then by the time I’m done I look around and a bunch of new leaves have fallen to the ground. But I have a suspicion there are other things on your mind than leaves.”
I want to tell him about the pretty lady, about how father is being unfaithful and bad. But these are the things one cannot talk about. “Oh, that’s, nothing important.” I jump up “Don’t worry about me, do you need help?”
“Pardon?” Sehe looks at me confused.
“With the leaves, I’ve never raked before but if you tell me how I can surely get it right.”
The man smiles and shakes his head “I can take care of the leaves lady Elizabeth.”
“Then… what are leaves called in Jaobaian?”
He laughs “No, no Jaobai is the country, but the language is called Jigani.”
“Well, It’s a combination of ‘Jao’ meaning holy or elevated and ‘bai’ meaning earth or land. Where Jigani is a combination of Ji, that’s holy again, ga meaning ‘rules’ and ‘ni’ which depending on the characters around it can mean either ‘animal’ or ‘people’ combining into the ‘the language of the holy people.’”
“Are you holy?”
“Our ancestors were, I guess we are too in a way.”
My eyes grow wide at this “How?”
He leans on his rake as he talks “You see, the god of love and the god of life had ten thousand children together. But the other gods said heaven was getting too crowded so they created Jaobai essentially as a nursery. Each and every Jaobaian is a descendant of those ten thousand gods. That’s why we refer to the land and the people as holy.”
“That’s amazing! So… if Jigani means holy people then what does kani mean?”
His mouth twitches at the word “Where did you hear that word?”
“Father says it when he refers to the people outside…” I point to the wall surrounding the gardens but drop it the moment I see his expression. “Is, is it a bad word?”
Sehe averts his eyes “Yes, it’s a bad word.”
I feel a tension in the air surrounding those two syllables “Can, can I ask what it means?”
“It means ‘violent beast’, it’s a war term, used by them for us back when Jaobai wasn’t conquered just yet.”
“That’s terrible.” The longer the time I spend here in this foreign land the more I feel like father’s changing into a man full of secrets and hypocrisy.
He does realise that pretty lady he fools around with is ‘kani’ too right?
“I’m sorry.” I cross my arms.
“For my father, I don’t know why he’d say things like that but I’ll apologise in his stead.”
“Thank you. But your father’s actions are not yours to bear. I’m simply glad you wish to learn the language and learn about the culture.” A red leaf touches down next to the man’s sandals. He picks it up “Babai. A leaf is called ‘babai’” it combines two different earth-related signs together. The first ‘ba’ means wood and is also used as ‘tree’ on its own, but the second sign ‘bai’ is used for plants in general so babai means plant growing from a tree, which are the leaves.
“So, ba can mean two things? Isn’t that confusing?”
“Context helps a lot. Do you still know what these are called?” Sehe asks pointing to the peach tree.
“Yes! Very good.” He gets up from the rake and pulls a peach from the tree giving it to me. “If you understand the logic behind the characters in Jigani it becomes easy to learn new words, but if you don’t you’ll get overwhelmed easily and give up again.”
“So it’s like a puzzle then?”
“In a way, yes.”
“So what about the lanterns?”
“Faicha, fire combined with metal.”
“And the birds?”
“Luna.” Sky combines with fauna, although for the birds as small as the ones we have out here I would use ‘lunati’, ‘luna’ is generally used for hawks and other big birds.”
“Ti means small then?”
“Ti means small.”
“That’s wonderful, a whole language made of puzzle pieces!”
Sehe smiles, “Will you wait here for a minute?”
“I think I have something you might like.”
And with that Sehe disappears into his small house that stands on the outer skirts of the garden. It has a flat roof and wooden walls with glass windows. It looks a bit strange if I’m honest.
By the time Sehe appears again the wind has gone chilly and I regret I didn’t bring a scarf.
“Apologies for the wait lady Elizabeth, I couldn’t find it for a while.” He holds up a book with strange signs on the cover “It’s the dictionary I used to learn your language. Look there are tables and lists inside.”
He opens it up and indeed, the strange characters get laid out inside a table with explanations on the side.
“Can I have this?” I ask uncertainly.
“You can borrow it. I will need it back when you are done with it.”
I jump up and hug the old man “Thank you.”
“Now I think it’s time for you to go back inside, It’s getting cold.”
“You’re right, thank you, Sehe, good night.”
I follow the pebbled paths for a little while longer and look out to the wall that keeps me away from the bustling city of Choumuri.
I remember being so very terrified of the city after ‘the incident’ but now it feels almost like it’s challenging me.
Learn my language, discover my secrets.
Perhaps even become my friend?