by S. R. Larin
Momsy’s been sniffing the air for the past week ever since Pops and the boys left for Big Market, and every day she says the twister is on its way and keeps us huddled close to the house. Limmonella is perfectly happy building little playhouses for her dollies out of wood blocks Pops made for her, but I’m itching to get out and check my plumjugger patch in the back field. Fall fair isn’t too far off, and I need to feed those plumjuggers one last dose of zebry milk to fatten them up.
But every time I try to sneak away from the house, somehow Momsy spies me. “Triskie!” she hollers from the kitchen or the cellar or the attic. “You listen up and get yourself back in here afore that twister comes!”
I swear, that woman has eyes in the front and back and probably the sides of her head too.
So when I wake up this morning before the sun’s barely yawning, I slide out of bed, leaving Limmie snoring gentle as a guffin, and pad my way to the back door. With Pops and the boys away, Momsy’s allowing herself that little extra bit of sleepy time, and I mean to take advantage. Outside the clouds over the distant crags are just beginning to show their underskirts pink against all the pouffy grey, and the air is nippier than I expected.
I slip into the barn for my hoe and bucket. Zilla is awake too. I toss her some handfuls of hay and rub her snout, but she backs away from me, rolling her eyes one at a time and stamping her pointy little hoofs.
“Fine,” I say. “Be that way,” though I’m not quite sure just what way that is. Dragging over my stool, I manage to still her enough for a quick milking into the bucket, all warm and frothy white. It can’t take more than a few minutes, but when I pull open the barn door again, the wind has kicked up and the trees are tossing their coppery heads, all fluttery anxious and trembly. A flock of icewings kinks and curlicues its way far over the woods, and for a moment I just stand in the doorway, shivering.
But I want that ribbon. No way am I going to let Jemmyjon Jenniker take the prize again this year. As my feet crunch out to the back field, I can already see myself tripping my way up to the judges to receive my ribbon amidst all the applause, sailing right past Jemmyjon with a faint, superior smirk on my face and a scowl on his. I scrunch my hugger tight about me as I picture heading to Big Market with Pops next year, having proven my worth. “Now that’s how you grow plumjuggers, boys,” he’ll say, rubbing his big, calloused hand over the bumpy purple rinds. “You might take a lesson from our Triskie, here, in what it means to be a real cropper.” They’ll roll their eyes just like Zilla, but they know Pops’s approval means everything.
So I’m thrilled when I reach my plumjugger patch and find them growing like warts on a leathertoad. Carefully I hoe away the weeds that have crinkled their way up over the past week, then pour the zebry milk into steaming moats around each gourd. They’ll suck that up with lip-smacking gusto just like Grammsy used to do when she sluiced it into her pinchnettle tea. She was the one who taught me how to milk a zebry, in fact; how to calm them one eye at a time and pick pebbles gently from their hoofs after mountain grazing. I was still just a kid when she passed on and didn’t understand why those last couple of years her speech was all garbled-like. Most of the time all she did was stroke my head and trill at me real soft and silky, her words all laced with m’s and l’s and aaa’s that nobody could understand, real pretty like music from somewheres afar-off, so that was why Limmonella ended up with the outlandish name she did.
I tried copying the strange sounds she made, and she smiled and nodded and trilled them back at me, and for a while I hugged it to myself that we had our own secret language. Other times I’d tell her stories I made up about how guffins got their spotted tails or why the little moon danced around the big one, or I’d read to her from the handful of books she’d brought along when our folk settled in the valley, all creaky-old covers and dry whispery pages like leaves sifting loose in the wind. It was Grammsy who taught me to read that old-country language, too, because almost no one else in the valley could anymore, not even Pops. I tried all manner of ways to get her to talk with me like she used to, but her tongue just curled up like a zitherlily petal and sang melodies of its own making.
Except that one time, that one time I brought her the biggest plumjugger I’d grown that season, all harvested and ready for the fair, and laid it in her lap. She stroked it just like she stroked my head, but when I asked, all bursting with pride, “Am I a good cropper, Grammsy? Am I as good as the boys?” she shook her head and breathed at me, all in one word, “ListennowTriskieyoulistennowlisten,” and my heart plummeted heavy as a full water bucket dropped back down the well.
Furiously I rake some loose dirt back over the moats I made round the plumjugger gourds and tamp it down. I’m not a little kid anymore—I’m taller than Momsy and I can heft a hay bale as well as the boys. I am too a cropper and I’ll prove it, Pops and Grammsy and Jemmyjon or not.
But as I straighten back up, I’m breathing heavy, and that’s when I catch it—not the sound, not the feel, but the startling, crackling, icy-glittery smell of it. The twister.
All the bunches of hair on my head stand up at once and I drop the hoe and run.
The air chuffs in and out of my lungs, burning them, and all I can think is to get to the house, get to safety, get into the cellar with Momsy and Limmie and the twister won’t smell us anymore either and will go away to some other valley and leave us alone and we’ll be safe. I fling a glance over my shoulder but there’s nothing to see, just the feel and the sound and now, for the first time in my life, the smell, the taste of that tongue twister scratching a raw tangy scrape down the back of my throat. I gasp, trying to spit it away, but it’s found me and it’s prodding at me, curious-like, prickling in and out and about my head. Everything around me’s jumping up and down like I’m some giant leathertoad as I pound towards the house where I can see Momsy yanking the cellar door open with one hand while dragging a howling Limmie with the other, and then Limmie starts shrieking, “Triskie! It’s Triskie!” and Momsy turns to me gone all grey and screams, “Triskadeska!”
And I open my mouth to scream back and the twister has me. Down my throat and up into my skull it swoops, a slushy cold rush the taste of frozen winterberry leaves. Everything goes white with black edges as I stumble and throw out my arms, the earth flying up to meet me, and I fall with an “oof!” that jars the twister loose for just that one second that I need to screech, “Momsy!”
But instead what comes out is a musical trill, all l’s and r’s and u’s, and the twister leaps away from me like Limmie when she burnt her hand at the cookstove. Panting, I haul myself upright, and colour begins to flood back into my eyes. I know the twister’s still there, hovering at the edge of my senses, and I know that if I don’t stop it, it’ll get me and Momsy and Limmie too. Frantically I wave at them, bellowing, “Inside! Get inside!” but they just stand and gawp at me like a pair of dimwit hrenken scratching in the barnyard dust.
And then I turn all my attention to the twister. It spirals around me, making a crackle-crazy wake, and I uncurl my tongue and sing at it the sounds my Grammsy sang, sweet shimmering sounds I never understood before but that now make perfect sense. I feel the first flow of words lasso out from my throat and catch that twister by the tail, reeling it in as it leaps and bucks. Hauling at it with nothing but my voice, I drag that twister away from the house and back out to the field, battling it, soothing it, warning it all at once:
“Imblanzaja…linistranya…zhormiri ura murmira….”
I have no idea how I’m saying it, and yet I know exactly what I’m saying, my tongue tightening and tensing, curling and twirling around this unknown language that fills me brim-full from my toes to the top of my head. My mind whips from silver to white to streaks of brightness I’ve never seen before, and for a moment I’m not making the music but it’s making me instead. The twister tugs at the riverrun of words, and I smell its desperation as it tries to stop them by squeezing round my throat.
“Eleberenza renunzhara…” I croak. It relaxes and I feel the sweat dripping down my face and plopping to the ground, my breath juddering in and out of me. I close my eyes and in that instant the twister jerks and snaps my grip on it and is gone, fleeing across the fields and beyond the curve of the foothills.
“Triskie!” Momsy and Limmie charge at me faster than guffins at a supper trough, and it’s all I can do to stand up to their fierce hugs. Then Momsy holds me out at arm’s length and demands, “ Triskadeska Kettleklatch, what in all that’s sane were you doing out there?” Her eyes are snapping but her arms are still shaking, so I know she’s more scared than angry. I swallow a few times to make sure I can speak properly.
“It’s okay, Momsy,” I say. “It’s gone now.”
“I know it’s gone now!” she says. “I can smell it’s gone!” Then her eyes widen. “Can you smell it, Triskie? But then why would you go out there? You know what happened to Grammsy. You know what they do. You know…”
“I was—talking to it,” I say. “Momsy, it has—stories. And poems. Songs.”
She stares at me while Limmie, ignored all this time, begins to snivel, squashed between us. She’ll be building herself up to a full-blown wail in another minute.
“I heard them, Momsy. I heard them.”
And I did hear them—strange and wonderful and wild as mountain zebries all tangled up inside that twister, just like they’d been tangled up inside Grammsy who didn’t know how to explain them to us, but I do. I can. I have the words.
Momsy’s eyes are practically bugging out of her head, and then she huffs. “Well… Well.” She huffs again. “But just you wait until your Pops hears about this. Running out and about after plumjuggers when I told you a tongue twister was on the way.”
For a flash I picture Jemmyjon, mouth all agape, when I tell the whole village how I talked with a twister, and those plumjuggers don’t seem to matter so much anymore.
Momsy shakes her head as we all tramp back to the house. “It’s like you don’t listen to a mortal thing anyone tells you.”
I know what she means. But I’ll be listening now. I’ll be listening real hard.
S. R. Larin lives in southern Ontario with four cats and more books than she can count. She grew up in the Laurentians and still feels the call of mountains and trees, which sometimes make it into her writing. Although she holds graduate degrees in English/ Literary Theory and Creative Writing, her genre kryptonite remains science fiction. She currently teaches college-level writing part-time and runs her own editing business at https://www.robineditorial.com.