Grandmother sits on the floor of her ruined house wearing only her nightshirt when I find her the morning after the shockstorm. It has taken me half the night to climb to the little village at the edge of the cold, clear mountain lake, where a handful of elderly villagers stubbornly cling to their traditional ways. The rest of us have moved down to the city by the river. The storms are coming more frequently now, here in the mountains. This is the second in as many years. The storms are fierce, too, the leftover magics from the War colliding with ever greater intensity, rather than dissipating as expected.
Half my grandmother’s house is torn away from its stone foundation and swept down into the lake, vanished beneath its smooth, still surface. All that remains of the other half is shards of pottery, shredded fabric, splinters of wood, crushed glass. Grandmother’s hands rest in her lap, cradling fragments of paper torn to ribbons from the force of the storm. She rocks back and forth, murmuring words in the old tongue. I kneel next to her, place my hands gently over hers. They are pale and shaking, flecked with dark bruises and bloodied scratches. She looks up at me. There is a mottled abrasion at her temple, another on her cheekbone.
“Can you stand?” I ask her.
She shakes her head and reaches for another shred of paper, plucking it from the debris, smoothing it carefully before adding it to the pile in her lap. “Iai, mele. Ailoth ayersel fa-temeri lasirit.”
“Come, let’s get you to the lake and clean you up.”
“Mele, mele. Erhanim istar. Ailoth ayersel fa-temeri lasirit, meshta.”
“Grandmother, you know I can’t understand the old tongue.”
“Iai, Iai,” she wails at me, then says in the common language, “Granddaughter, I do know. No one wants to learn our traditions or speak to the elders. The enemy couldn’t destroy us with the war. They destroy us instead by taking our children. Taking them away from the mountains. The children have forgotten us. We have forgotten them. This book is the only thing to remind you of what you are.”
She continues to gather the paper, pushing aside and sifting through the debris, wincing as a sharp edge catches her fingers. I put a hand on her to stop, but she pushes me away.
“Grandmother, the book is gone. It can’t be salvaged.”
She shakes her head vehemently. “Tat, tat, mele. Roqim distrali umat lo.”
In the next days, she sifts through the debris, again and again, dust and shards falling through her fingers, searching a second, a third, a fourth time for any last shreds of the book. She collects them in a leather satchel.
When the repairs to the house are finished, I go back to the city. The next time I visit, the elders tell me she has gone to our ancestors.
We are eating supper, my daughter and me. I feel the changes in the air, the compression that precedes a shockstorm. We glance at each other, pewter spoons halfway to mouths, frozen in fear. I drop the spoon, hear it clatter against the bowl, rush to stand, pushing the wooden bench over in my haste.
We begin to count, knowing we have somewhere between ten and twenty before the storm hits. One. Time enough to run for the shelter in the yard. My daughter bolts toward the door. I run the other direction. She stops at the threshold, reaching for me, spins frantically when she can’t feel my hand in hers. I see this from the corner of my eye. I am running for the bedroom. Four. I catch my shoulder against the doorframe as I flee through. I hear my daughter screaming for me. Five. I hurtle myself over the bed to the far side, rummaging through the clutter on my night table, the unfinished embroidery in its hoop, the socks that need darning, the candle stub and matches, pincushion, needle case, scissors, an empty cup, two thimbles. Where is the book? Nine. My hands shove aside the other objects and grasp the leather bindings of the satchel which contains the same pages my grandmother had gathered so many years ago, painstakingly put together with fine thread and glue. The only thing I had left of her, of the village, of all the traditions of the past. The only thing I needed to save. Ten. I hurl myself through the house, catching my daughter, running. Twelve.
We reach the shelter just as the shockstorm hits. We don’t have time to go inside, only enough to fling ourselves to the ground behind it, hands covering ears, arms protecting our heads, faces to the dirt, limbs tucked. The book is pressed against my belly. We feel the storm as thunder rippling through the ground, around our bodies. The air surges and recedes. Debris clatters.
I sit in my rocking chair. The fire is warm behind me and glows on the faces of my grandchildren, who sit in a tangle of limbs on the rugs scattered across the wooden floor. I unwrap the bundle in my lap, peeling back the soft cotton cloth which covers it, and unlacing the leather stays and bindings. The older children lean forward, anticipating. The children each have copies of this book, this and many others, written in what used to be called the old tongue. It is a special night. I am reading from the original pages, generations old, restored again and again, passed down and treasured.
“Iai, Iai, mele,” I begin, and the older children say the words with me.
— Sheila Massie