by A.E. Prevost
Piscrandiol Deigadis clutched the battered suitcase close, jars rattling inside as the train whined and staggered to a halt. Piscrandiol waited, eyes shut tight, feet and elbows pressing in all around them as passengers rushed for the exit. Over the din of disembarking, the rain made itself insistently known on the steel roof of the car.
The rain had started sixteen miles back, well beyond the border that separated Piscrandiol’s native Salphaneyin from Orpanthyre. It had begun as a mist and crested to a deluge, and it had cracked Piscrandiol’s life wide open like a miracle. Piscrandiol pressed their palm against the cool glass, heart pounding. Every trickle of water on the other side ghosted a kiss across their skin.
It had not rained in Salphaneyin for so long.
Orpanthyre was a city of rain, a city where no one went thirsty and anyone could find work. The storm battered against the tarred roof of the train station like a thousand shouted promises as Piscrandiol waited for the exodus to subside. Finally, Piscrandiol took a breath, adjusted their skirts, and stepped out onto the platform.
The street outside the station was a noisy jumble: handcarts and chickens and babies, sunken-eyed miners, families struggling not to lose sight of each other in the heaving human tide. Copper roofs covered the downtown sidewalks, patina battered by seasons of rain, which traced elegant green arcs against a backdrop of stone and wood. Piscrandiol let the flow of the crowd lead them away from the station.
Despite the roofs, there was water everywhere: splashed up by carriage wheels and the jostling steps of strangers, pouring out of the rumbling and broken-open sky, rushing down cast iron eavestroughs and churning white in the grate-covered gutters by Piscrandiol’s feet. It was an excess, an exuberance of water, enough to fill every well in Salphaneyin. It sloshed through Piscrandiol’s sandals and weighed down the hem of their skirts like it had nowhere better to be.
Piscrandiol braced themselves against a stone wall at a crossroads where the crowd thinned out, and forced down a breath, eyes closing for a fluttering moment of reprieve. In just a short while, they’d reunite with their cousin Geluol, who’d left for the city three years ago. There would be a meal, a roof, a bed. All Piscrandiol had to do was keep their feet moving towards Seven Ingot Three Homeshare, and then the ordeal of traveling would be over.
“If it’s an umbrella you need, you’ve certainly come to the right place.”
Piscrandiol’s knuckles turned white on the handle of their bag. They turned to the source of the voice – tall and ruddy-tan, with elaborate clothes, standing beside a narrow cart hung with dozens of colourful umbrellas.
The stranger graced Piscrandiol with a businesslike smile. “New to the city?”
Piscrandiol nodded, years of Orpan language classes tumbling together and screeching to a halt in their mouth.
“You’ll need one of these – get you started right. Salphaney, aren’t you? Lots of you coming ’round these days.”
Piscrandiol nodded again. They could feel the blush seeping into their cheeks, volunteering all the information their words couldn’t provide.
The umbrella-seller smirked. “Look, I’ve got a nice blue one that matches yunna skirt. Fifteen lam.”
Piscrandiol’s mind stumbled over the pronoun – first gender, if they remembered right, but was it Piscrandiol they saw that way, or themselves? Piscrandiol had encountered the concept of gender at school, of course, when they’d studied the Orpan language with everyone else, but having it thrown at them in conversation shattered six semesters’ worth of confidence.
Piscrandiol shook their head. “I’m sorry,” they managed, handing over a few coins before the umbrella seller could say anything else. “I’m sorry.” They grabbed the umbrella and hurried back into the crowd.
The homeshare turned out to be a broad, four-storey square of dark tarred wood that flanked an open central quadrangle, with a custodian’s office at the front. Rainwater pooled on the floorboards around Piscrandiol’s shuffling feet as they tried to take in the fact that they were being turned away.
“Not moun fault we’re full up, child,” the custodian was saying, round brown eyes watching Piscrandiol like a clock ticking down to the end of their patience. “There’s a lot of you, coming into Orpanthyre. Not even just you Salphaney people, either. There’s fires in Mollend, flooding downland…” They shook their head, dark coils tumbling about their shoulders. “I don’t want to turn yeym out, but there’s no room here.”
“But… but makes no sense,” Piscrandiol said, trembling slightly. “Please, I – I need to see my cousin. Geluol Bibenia?”
The custodian rapped sturdy fingers on the top of their desk. “Bibenia. Wait half a minute, Bibenia. Hiy’s the one been called out of town, isn’t hiy. Left a message. Wouldn’t be for yey, would it?”
Piscrandiol sighed, letting their eyes close briefly. Out of town? “Probably.”
“Well, I can’t read Tisalpha, but here. I presume this is for yeym then.”
The custodian handed Piscrandiol a flat metal container, and they accepted the familiar weight in their hands with some relief. Popping the latches revealed a hastily-imprinted clay tablet, its workmanship unmistakeably Geluol’s.
Babyhead, work beckoned & when the work calls I go. Sorry I couldn’t be here to welcome you good & proper. We’ll catch up when I get back – mining gig’s usually 2-3 mo. but then I’ll buy you dinner promise. Bunch of dinners. Anyhow if you need anything ask Dolein, they’re good people & saving keys to apt. five-four for you. Stay tough. – Dumdum
Piscrandiol couldn’t help but smile at the childhood nicknames, but the idea of spending two or three months in the city without anyone they knew made the room spin. They closed the case and looked at the custodian. “When?”
“The message? Oh, week ago, maybe. Was it for yeym?”
Piscrandiol nodded, placing their hands on the desk to steady themselves. “Who is Dolein?”
The custodian’s patience cracked, a humourless smile carving dimples into their smooth cheeks. “Me.”
Piscrandiol put down the first month’s rent, effectively handing over most of what remained of their savings, and walked into the quadrangle past a busy jumble of sheds and tarps that suggested a vegetable garden and chicken coop. They dragged their suitcase up four steep flights of indoor stairs, legs trembling and aching, and turned the key in the latch of apartment five-four.
Piscrandiol let the weight of their suitcase pull them through the door. The empty rooms echoed the drumbeat of rainfall on the roof immediately above, a hollow sound that trickled into every corner of the space. Piscrandiol wandered to the window and cracked it open, letting the downpour rage against their outstretched hand. They put it to their lips and drank; they splashed rainwater on their face. This was real. This was home.
Well, not quite yet. Piscrandiol carefully opened their suitcase. With all the jostling, they’d feared the worst – but the only casualty of the trip was one aloe leaf, snapped off and oozing. The jars themselves were all intact.
Relieved, Piscrandiol unfolded the trellis against a wall, hanging the hoops straight. The heavier jars went on the bottom, of course – cloudy glass packed with earth and life-giving moisture. Piscrandiol spoke gently over each of the succulents, fingertips soothing leaves and stems, tiny petals, squat bulbs. In the topmost jars, thin, fleshy tendrils of dark blue spread out, banded with luminescent rings that cast a soft fairy-light against the wall – glowweed, Piscrandiol’s favourite. Now this was home. Whatever came next, just like the plants, Piscrandiol would lay down roots and thrive.
The tendrils’ gentle glow wouldn’t light the whole apartment, though, and a search through closets and corners came up empty of candles. Piscrandiol steeled themselves in the bathroom mirror before trudging back down the stairs to face Dolein.
The custodian’s office was unexpectedly busy. Two road-weary travelers were in heated conversation with Dolein, while a third tended to a small child; a second, older child crouched off to the side, playing with a bit of wire.
“But I’m telling youm we wrote ahead,” the tall knife-faced one said, black hair clinging damply to their collar. “Weeks ago.”
Dolein pursed their lips. “And I’m telling yiym we don’t have record of it.”
The traveler’s barrel-chested companion tugged at their downy beard thoughtfully. “Gislen, if the letter got lost, there’s nothing we can do.”
“Like hell there isn’t. I’m not letting min family rot in the damn rain.”
The third adult hoisted up the toddler, offering Piscrandiol a timidly apologetic smile. “I’m sorry, were yey wanting to speak with the building manager?” They eased one long, ink-dark braid away from the child’s grabbing hands. “We’re in a bit of a situation, I’m afraid.”
Piscrandiol shook their head. “I have arrived here today,” they said, as if that would explain anything. Classroom sentences snapped apart and melded with others. “I wish to get a candle. For upstairs?”
“Oh, I think we have some,” they said, setting the toddler back down. “Outside, though, in the cart. Appi, go play with Tafis, okay?”
The toddler hid their face behind the adult’s knee, clinging to the trouser fabric with needy hands. Piscrandiol smiled, lightly, and shook their head. “I can wait.”
The tall one, Gislen, walked over to lay a hand on the braided adult’s shoulder. “We’ll work this out, Annat,” they said, voice gentle. Their black eyes took in Piscrandiol. “Hello,” they said. “And you are?”
“Hey lives in the building,” Gislen’s friend said, before Piscrandiol had a chance to embarrass themselves. “Hey’re looking for a candle.”
“Oh, we have those,” Gislen remarked.
Piscrandiol blushed. “I can buy,” they insisted.
“Nah, we’ve got this.” Gislen’s smile made them blush more. “Refe and Annat can handle the housing muddle; I need some air anyway. Come on.”
The tarp was fastened securely to the pull-cart, but Gislen seemed to know the exact location of everything underneath, because it took them mere moments to yank out a fat yellow candle and hand it to Piscrandiol. Piscrandiol thanked them earnestly.
“Not a problem.” Gislen rocked on their heels, glancing over at the water spout gushing nearby. “You’re from Salphaneyin, right?”
“You can tell?”
“The way you speak,” Gislen said, offering Piscrandiol a quick smile. “Nothing wrong with it to mim. Hear you’re having quite the drought, right? We’re from downcountry, opposite kind of problem. Fields are washed out. Family decided to give it a go in the city.”
“Twenty years,” Piscrandiol said. “I think. The last time it rained, I was baby.”
Gislen frowned, nodding sympathetically. “Rough. Well.” They barked a laugh. “Got all the rain you could possibly want here, I guess.”
The one with the beard burst through the door. “Listen, shou’s being a goddamn hardass— oh hello,” they said, noticing Piscrandiol. “Refe Eibas Suu.” They shot out a broad hand to shake. “Gislen bothering you?”
Piscrandiol giggled, shaking Refe’s hand. “My name is Piscrandiol Deigadis, how do you do. Gislen is very nice.”
“Oh, I see,” Refe grinned pointedly at their companion. “Anyway, not that I wish to interrupt, but— Gis, yi’ve got to try talking to this person. Shou says they’re full up, offers such kind sympathy for the children, of course, but says there’s rules, Gis, including not renting out an apartment contracted to someone else. If yi’ve ever heard of such a thing.”
Gislen chuckled, shaking their head. “Love, I’ve spoken all I can to that one. Unless Annat has some tricks up shun sleeve, I think we’re at an impasse here.”
Something compelled the words out of Piscrandiol’s throat. “I—” Both travelers turned to look at them, and they continued, face burning. “I, ah, you can stay with me. Tonight. Your family. I have big space, a-and small things.”
Gislen pushed the hair out of their blinking eyes. “We couldn’t do that. Put youm out like that.”
Piscrandiol shrugged. “The weather is very bad.”
“Yeah, it is.” Gislen admitted. “I mean… if Annat can’t work something out with the building manager… You’d really do that?”
Piscrandiol shrugged again, smiling.
The custodian wouldn’t commit to the safety of leaving a pull-cart in the quadrangle, so Gislen and the other four members of the Eibas family, with Piscrandiol’s help, lugged everything up to apartment five-four. Appi, the toddler, ran to the plants immediately; only Refe’s reflexes saved the trellis from disaster, scooping Appi into their arms, where they squirmed and reached towards the droopy glowweed.
“That’s a pretty plant, isn’t it, Appi,” Refe said. “We don’t want to hurt it, right? So don’t touch.” They turned to Piscrandiol. “Nothing in there that would hurt a child overcome by curiosity, is there?”
Piscrandiol shook their head. “Maybe, if… if Appi decides to fill the belly with rocks and dirt… it could be problem, but the plants? They will not make sick.”
“They really are beautiful.” Refe grinned. “We’re very honoured you invited us into your home tonight, Piscrandiol. We’ll pay, of course.”
Piscrandiol shook their head. “No, no,” they said. “You… your childs – children, they should not be in the rain.” They blushed. “Ah, you also should not be in the rain, but…”
Refe laughed, a warm sound that shook their stomach. “I understand. Don’t worry about it. We really are thankful.”
“Let us provide supper, at the very least,” said Annat, carefully putting a metal-cornered crate down on the floor before taking Appi from Refe’s shoulder. “We have enough to share.”
“That would be nice,” Piscrandiol answered, smiling. “Thank you.”
The meal was sausages fried on an elaborate stove that Piscrandiol would not have known how to light, along with apples, dry bread, and cheese. Piscrandiol brewed a hot, sweet tea from a bundle of dried herbs, which garnered compliments even from the children. That evening, the Eibas family laid out their mats in the main room and slept in a pile, Tafis and Appi tucked among their three parents. Piscrandiol smiled at the scene of familial comfort, but declined the generous invitation to partake, explaining that they preferred their own mat. They wished the Eibas clan good night and retired to the nearby bedroom.
Piscrandiol laid a thin wool blanket on the floorboards and stretched out on it, listening to the rain. They felt guilty for lying about having a mat, but the companionship in the living room wasn’t theirs to enjoy. It should have all been different. It should have been Geluol offering candles and dinner and friendship, not the warm pile of strangers snoring outside of Piscrandiol’s door. Geluol, their only family in Orpanthyre; Geluol, who would be gone for months.
Piscrandiol rested their palms against damp eyes, shoulder blades digging into the floor. No one here even spoke Tisalpha; no one knew the same stories or laughed at the same jokes or loved the same food. But going back to the drought and hunger of Salphaneyin… No. Their parents were counting on them to send money home. Their parents were counting on them to thrive.
The grey light of dawn teased Piscrandiol’s eyes open from an almost-sleep of fears and memories. They rolled onto their back and let out a soft breath.
Piscrandiol stretched their aching bones by the tall narrow window, watching the world turn slowly golden in the sun. At some point, during the night, the hammering rain had stopped; Piscrandiol rested their forehead on the glass, and watched layer after layer of Orpan architecture reveal itself as the day burned away the lingering mist. It was a beautiful city, really, this foreign place, when there were no people to ruin the view: verdigris domes and wrought iron swirls, tarred wood, green glass, smoke drifting from the factories downwind. A city built for rainy days.
Piscrandiol sighed and headed into the small bathroom, taking a quick wash before changing into clean clothes. They shaved carefully in the plate-sized mirror, taking time not to miss any patches in the corners of their jaw, and brushed the tangles out of their waist-long hair.
Piscrandiol smiled, looking down to the source of the brave attempt at pronouncing their name. “What is it, Appi?”
“Nanat says, Na, Nanat says breakfast is ready.” The toddler hopped from one foot to the next. “I need to poop.”
Piscrandiol laughed and let the child take over the bathroom, heading out into the living room where Refe was stirring a thick white porridge on the stove. Their sleeves were pushed up, their hairy arms tattooed in bright blues and pinks and greens.
“Just in time,” they said, smiling. “It’s a sunny day in Orpanthyre. The rarest of miracles.”
Piscrandiol glanced out the window. “This is sunny?”
Refe laughed loudly. “I like yunna sense of humour!”
Piscrandiol smiled shyly and busied themselves with making tea. It had been so easy, for a time, to completely forget about the Orpan concept of gender. Of course avoiding pronouns forever would have been too much to hope for.
Studying Orpan at school, they had run up against its dizzying array of pronouns – three genders with three grammatical cases, a system that at least made up in consistency for what it lacked in common sense. Memorizing the words had been work, but not nearly as hard as understanding when to use them. The teacher had tried to explain the concept of gender: a way the Orpan people spoke and presented themselves differently, based on some sort of internal social sense of being. In class, some had gossiped behind chalk-dusted fingers that gender was about what Orpan people had between their legs, but the teacher had overheard and categorically denied it; whatever it was, as far as Piscrandiol was concerned, it was as inscrutable as how bats flew in the dark.
Watching the Eibas family communicate over breakfast, though, with their effortless and ever-shifting palette of pronouns, made Piscrandiol feel clumsy and wrong. For one thing, it didn’t even seem like the words people used always stayed the same. Annat said heym to refer to Refe, while Gislen said hem. Where Gislen called Annat shum, Refe said shumma. Whatever gender the Eibas clan saw themselves as having, it changed depending on who they were talking to, leaving Piscrandiol scrambling after clues in the context. It all seemed needlessly complicated for something that, as far as Piscrandiol could tell, didn’t mean anything at all.
After breakfast, Refe helped Piscrandiol with tidying up, drying each plate as best they could. “I hate to ask, but the little ones were on their feet all day yesterday, and… Well, is it all right if I stay here with the children while Annat and Gislen go look for somewhere else to stay?” They frowned, a crease puckering their brow. “I’m very sorry to add to the burden we’ve already placed on you…”
“No, no.” Piscrandiol shook their head quickly. “No burden. Please stay.” The thought of suddenly being alone in a bare apartment with only the plants for company opened a yawning pit of dread in Piscrandiol’s stomach. It wouldn’t even be so bad, really, if the Eibas clan stayed a little longer.
Refe was charming and warm, and gestured expansively when they told stories, which happened a lot. The children made a game of exploring the apartment, which allowed Refe and Piscrandiol a quarter hour of storytelling before the toddler was back at the trellis of succulents.
Piscrandiol stood up quickly, but Appi’s sibling was already carefully pulling the little one away from the fragile plants. Piscrandiol gave them an appreciative smile.
“Um, Piscrandiol?” Tafis said, squinting at the jars. “Why’d you carry all this stuff with you from Salphaneyin? Gis said you didn’t even bring candles.”
Piscrandiol looked down, chuckling a little. “Well, ah, hmm. For us, every plant has meaning, has useful. All from my family home in Salphaneyin, but at home,” Piscrandiol said, gesturing broadly, “the whole wall. We can stay cool, and – look,” they said, pointing to the dip between two fleshy leaves, where moisture was collecting. “We can… ah… A system, it takes water from all leaves and puts together for drink.”
Refe walked over. “That’s amazing.”
“Why don’t you just collect rainwater?” Tafis asked, frowning in a sharp way that suddenly brought out the resemblance to Gislen.
“It doesn’t rain in Salphaneyin, Tafis,” Refe explained.
“Like, at all?”
Refe shook their head. “Right, Piscrandiol?”
Piscrandiol nodded sadly. “Twenty years, almost, no rain.”
“Wow,” Tafis gawked, looking towards the window. “That must be amazing.”
Refe laughed and rubbed the child’s feathery black hair. “You need rain to make food grow, Taf. And to drink, and clean things, and all that. –Appi, what’s that in yenna hand?”
The toddler quickly hid something behind their back, but not before Piscrandiol recognized it.
“It is broken leaf,” Piscrandiol said quickly. “I put on window side yesterday. Not dangerous. Good for sunburn.”
Refe crouched down in front of the toddler. “Give it to me, honey.”
Appi scowled and shook their head.
“I just want to see it, okay? Come on. I’ll give it back.”
The child hesitated, then grudgingly handed their parent the snapped-off succulent. Refe stood, sighing. “Definitely chewed on.”
“Not dangerous,” Piscrandiol repeated, reassuringly. “Also…” They indicated a low, moss-like plant with tiny yellow bulbs. “This one, for when you have stomach hurt. Very good, even when small child eats things.”
“But this stuff looks really heavy,” Tafis said, prodding one of the jars. “Annat said we couldn’t bring anything heavy. I had to leave all min best toys.”
Piscrandiol’s fingertips traced the ridged edge of a leaf. “Heavy, yes,” they mused, wondering how in the world they could express in Orpan what the trellis meant to a Salphaney family. “Heavy but… this one,” they said, reverently lifting a small jar with sharp, red-tipped leaves, “it is cut from… very old plant. Many generations. And this one, I found in desert. I was about same old as you.” They indicated a bubbly little spray of light green. “All here, these are from kitchen of house when I was a child, and – ah! This one,” Piscrandiol quirked a smile, showing a coral-blooming cactus, “is ah, how do you say, farewell? Farewell from my first sweetheart.” They grinned. “Do you see?”
Refe hoisted Appi into their arms. “Yeah,” they said, smiling softly. “I do.”
“I don’t,” said Tafis.
“Some things,” Refe said, “you carry around with you no matter what, because… Well, maybe they’re heavy, but they lift you up, too, right?”
Tafis tugged on Refe’s sleeve. “I don’t get it.”
Piscrandiol turned to the window, smiling, blinking back tears.
Maybe it was the influx of refugees fleeing the devastation of the floods, or Salphaney filling train car after train car, but when Gislen and Annat returned that night, they proclaimed there was not a single available apartment in the city. Piscrandiol grinned from where they sat on the floor, hair twisted into loops by Appi and Tafis, and made the offer they had been thinking about all day.
It was surprisingly easy to agree on the division of rent and chores, easy to accompany Annat to the market to invest in sleeping mats and lanterns, cups and rice and soap, the many necessities of family life. Piscrandiol spared a little for clothing, as well: no one in Orpanthyre wore skirts, since there was always a gutter or a drain for them to get sodden in, so they brought a pair of simple tan trousers, and boots that sealed the water out. Annat taught Piscrandiol how to pull their copper-brown hair into two long braids, flat and skinny down their back; it took hours to get it right, leaving Piscrandiol perplexed by the apparent ease of Annat’s deft brown fingers to do the same, but in the end the braids received the Appi tug of approval. Annat laughed with delight.
Annat was also the first to find employment, carding cotton at one of the city’s sprawling mills. Things were looking hopeful for Piscrandiol, as well: they were on the mill’s waiting list, and would be contacted as soon as a position opened up. Refe, who spent most days out in the city seeking work, told Piscrandiol that if they’d made the list it was best not to continue applying elsewhere, so they ended up shouldering most of the home and childcare duties with Gislen, at least until the family could afford to send Tafis and Appi to school. This suited Piscrandiol just fine.
One morning over a cup of tea, as the children practiced their letters in chalk on the floor by the window, Piscrandiol asked Gislen about Refe’s work.
“Heh’s a professor, by training,” Gislen said, shifting comfortably on the floor cushion. “History. There must be a hundred unemployed professors of history in Orpanthyre, of course, but heh’s dead set on finding work in hen field.”
Piscrandiol looked up from the dewflowers the two of them had started sketching with a bit of the children’s chalk. “It is not good?”
“I mean… Sure, I’d also love to work in my field, but instead, I’m answering every ‘help wanted’ sign I see. I don’t blame Refe, really I don’t,” they said, running a hand across their forehead with a sigh. “Heh’s good at hen job. But we can’t feed five people – six,” they smirked warmly at Piscrandiol, who blushed, “on one person’s salary. We’ll barely make next month’s rent, in this… What.” They narrowed their eyes. Piscrandiol was laughing.
“You…” Piscrandiol shifted a bit closer, reaching out to brush the smudge of chalk from Gislen’s brow. “This.” They raised a chalky fingertip before dotting it playfully on the tip of Gislen’s sharp nose.
Gislen laughed and grabbed Piscrandiol’s hand, and Piscrandiol’s heart rioted in their chest.
Gislen’s eyes were black and bright like galaxies, long straight lashes casting flickering shadows over flushed clay-dark cheeks. Gislen’s fingers laced with Piscrandiol’s tightly, and Gislen’s lips… They were soft, hungry, and hot and bitter like tea, and Piscrandiol never wanted the kiss to end.
Appi shrieked something at their sibling, and Gislen and Piscrandiol parted, far too soon. Piscrandiol’s heartbeat throbbed against their interlaced fingers. Piscrandiol could barely dare presume – barely had the words to ask – if this was all right, but in the way Gislen held their hand, in Gislen’s irrepressible smile, Piscrandiol seemed to understand that the Eibas family would approve. They rested a flushed cheek on Gislen’s shoulder and watched the children play.
It wasn’t much later that Gislen found work at a butcher shop, and Piscrandiol was left to look after Tafis and Appi alone. Gislen came home every night tired and smelling of blood; Piscrandiol heated water for their bath and regaled them with tales of their day. And when the children slept, there was time enough for the two of them.
“I hate waiting list,” Piscrandiol sighed, limbs tangled with Gislen’s, blankets kicked to the edge of the mat. “Annat doesn’t even need to say anymore. Just comes home and looks sad.”
“Something will open up,” Gislen said, kissing Piscrandiol’s temple. “Refe seems to think so.”
Piscrandiol made a quiet noise. “Refe is a good friend. Sometimes, ah, many times, I worry about jealous… About us… “
Gislen smiled. “Very considerate, but you don’t need to worry. Refe thinks you’re great. You know that, Pisc.”
Piscrandiol tucked their head under Gislen’s chin. “I… I don’t think I… I’m attracted,” they admitted.
Piscrandiol nodded, but looked up sharply when Gislen laughed.
“Oh, that’s hardly what I meant. It’s not like you’re expected to – to be attracted to all of us. Refe never thinks about that stuff, anyway. I mean, it happens sometimes.” They grinned. “Or else we wouldn’t have Taf and Appi, but…”
Piscrandiol smiled, looking down awkwardly. “Oh, ah, about that, I won’t… I mean… When we…”
Gislen nuzzled Piscrandiol’s hair. “You’re not going to get me pregnant, no. I’m being careful.” They stretched happily. “However, I do know that Annat’s been thinking about having another baby, so if you’re interested…”
Piscrandiol sputtered, and Gislen laughed, muffling it with a pillow. “I’m kidding. Shou has been stealing glances at you, though,” they said, thin lips drawn into a smirk. “Shou thinks you’re adorable but is much too kind to express jealousy.”
Piscrandiol tucked their blushing cheek against their lover’s arm. “Well, ah, shou can, ah, talk to me about it, at some time. I would be happy to know shou better.”
Gislen laughed, twining their fingers together. The sound filled up Piscrandiol’s heart with light like a balloon.
“All right. That’s fine by mim. But… it’s not shou; for you, it’s shum.”
Piscrandiol squinted, still flushed. “I …Sorry?”
“Shou likes youm, you should talk to shum,” Gislen said. “Is it okay if I explain?”
Piscrandiol sighed. “You … Orpan has much too many pronouns.”
“We don’t have that many! Anyway, I haven’t wanted to correct you, but you should probably say yiy to me instead of you, actually.”
Piscrandiol grabbed the pillow and smacked Gislen with it. “It is difficult!” They complained. “We have four pronouns; Orpan has forty-five.”
Gislen wrestled the pillow from their grasp, grinning. “Fairly certain you have more than four.”
Piscrandiol counted irritably on their fingers. “Okay, well, then nine. It is still not forty-five, Gislen.”
Gislen smiled, tossing the pillow aside. “I love the way you say min name,” they said, and pulled Piscrandiol into a kiss that made them forget about words entirely. It was unreal, finding such brightness in the grey of Orpanthyre’s endless storms. Under Gislen’s tenderness, their hunger, Piscrandiol unraveled like an abandoned skein.
Just when it seemed the rain would go on forever, the season fizzled into something hotter and hazier. The air hung yellow in the evenings; the streets were loud with the buzzing of insects, and blossoms in a riot of colours burst out on the trees. And one heavy, humid day, Refe came home jubilant, arms full of sweets and flowers.
It was a part-time position, Refe was quick to qualify, a teaching assistantship for a single course that was hardly their specialty, but the faculty at Five Rosewater College had seemed happy to take them on, and they would start next week. It was a trek, on the far side of town, but with the additional income they’d finally be able to send the kids to school. Tafis ran around the apartment in glee, and their little sibling followed suit without really knowing why, hands full of candy.
The following week, Piscrandiol walked Tafis and Appi to Ingot City School, and found themselves alone in Orpanthyre for the first time in nearly two months. As they wandered towards the vegetable market, it was hard to ignore that they were the only adult left without a job; the only member of the household, even, without a place to be. Back at the homeshare, Piscrandiol chopped parsnips and chard and hot green peppers for stew. Two months on the waiting list at the cotton mill. Two months. It was impossible nothing had opened up. Unless there wasn’t one at all; maybe “waiting list” was just a way to let Salphaney off easy without actually giving them employment.
Piscrandiol slammed the knife into the cutting board.
Geluol hadn’t trained as a miner. Their cousin was a poet, a painter, who had woven worlds of beauty onto the best pottery from the family kiln. But Orpanthyre had robbed them of that gift. Orpanthyre had thrown them in a pit full of sweaty, aching bodies and demanded coal. And Geluol was one of the lucky ones; lines stretched along the sidewalk at the day-labour agencies, Salphaney skirts and sandals and unbraided hair, and very few Orpans between them.
Piscrandiol would never get off that waiting list.
They took a deep breath. How could they explain this to Annat, whose eyes held a steadfast shimmer of hope, whose little heart beat so fast in the darkness? How would the Eibas family react, hearing that the city that had welcomed their kin had no mercy for the stranger? The hospitality of their people was tarnished, but rejecting it would paint Piscrandiol as ungrateful.
Piscrandiol’s stomach churned with dread. The Eibas clan had been so kind. They could never know.
Every day Piscrandiol visited the vegetable market, and every day they pushed through their awkwardness and asked the merchants if anyone they knew was looking for help. It shouldn’t have surprised them that no one ever was. It shouldn’t have surprised them that the ‘help wanted’ signs had all been taken down from the shop windows. It shouldn’t have surprised them that by the time they made it to the day-labour lines after market, the jobs for the day were already taken, or that the factories weren’t hiring. Every day, Piscrandiol went home filled with grey thoughts, and sought solace in a trellis full of plants that had adjusted far better to Orpanthyre than they had. And every evening, the Eibas clan came home full of stories, and Piscrandiol served them soup and let them talk. No one seemed to notice Piscrandiol’s silence and secrets, and Gislen still shared Piscrandiol’s sleeping mat, sometimes.
It was so easy to pretend that nothing between them had changed, so tempting. Piscrandiol should have known that Gislen saw through the silence. That they would wait for the middle of a quiet night to bring it up, catching Piscrandiol unwound and vulnerable.
“Is there anything we need to talk about, Pisc?”
It wasn’t even a reasonable secret to keep. It was taking up all this space between them and it was pointless – a tangle of shame and worthlessness, a weight of unbelonging. Why couldn’t Piscrandiol just let it go?
“Talk to me,” Gislen pleaded. Skinny fingers tangled in Piscrandiol’s long hair.
“I talk every day,” Piscrandiol snapped, pulling away. “I… I talk every day at the market.” It was like pruning away what they were too ashamed to share, working to shape a palatable fact. “Every day… every day I speak Orpan until I have no words anymore.” The sculpted truth filled Piscrandiol’s gut with bitterness.
Gislen sighed. “I’m sorry. I wish I spoke Tisalpha… Maybe you could try teaching the children.”
Piscrandiol closed their eyes. “Maybe. I’m so tired. Everything is shou this and yunna that, and every person knows well how to say it, but I…”
“You’ll get there.” A hand reached for Piscrandiol’s shoulder.
Piscrandiol shrugged off the touch and sat up. “I don’t know.” They swept their hair off to the side, locks clinging together with cooling sweat. Nothing ever dried in Orpanthyre. “I can’t… how am I supposed to know.”
Gislen sat up beside them. “Your gender? You just do. You don’t need to overthink it.”
“You – yiy just do,” Piscrandiol retorted. “Annat just does. Refe just does. Maybe Appi even. I just don’t.”
Gislen sighed. “I’m sure you do, Pisc. Listen – maybe I’m wrong, but you… you’re more like Annat than Refe or mim, right? It’s not like you can not have a gender. Maybe, I don’t know, youn culture and min culture present it differently. But—”
“Our culture doesn’t present it at all, Gislen,” Piscrandiol said, glaring at them. “Why is this so hard to understand? We don’t think, ‘Oh, I am this, that person is an other this’. Some behave this way, some behave that way, but it is not gender.”
“Pisc, I find it seriously hard to believe that youn entire region doesn’t have anyone with gender in it.” Gislen rubbed at their forehead.
“Well, I – it doesn’t matter what yiy think! I’m sick of – of always being youn and shou and – I don’t want it!”
Gislen tried to take Piscrandiol’s hands, but they pulled back.
“All right.” Gislen’s hands hung in the air. “All right. I can use different words, love, I can… Just tell me what you want.”
Piscrandiol ran a hand across their face. They were having an argument, now, and none of it was even the point… Except that it was. Just one more way in which Piscrandiol was an outsider. “It… Yiy’re kind, yiy’re so kind, Gislen,” Piscrandiol murmured, voice dull with exhaustion. “But… It is everywhere. Everywhere I go, I – I can’t get away, everyone looks and assumes, one thing, another thing…”
“I can’t change society, Pisc.” Gislen clutched at the blanket. “Even if you don’t feel it, you… What can I say? You give people a certain impression. It’s just how we work.”
Piscrandiol stood and left, naked feet scuffing across the floor to the living room.
Piscrandiol didn’t listen. Ignoring the sleeping family, they stood on tip-toes to grab the pruning shears from the top of the trellis before returning. Gislen gasped and took a step back, but Piscrandiol ignored them too, heading for the bathroom.
“What are you doing? Please, I’m sorry—”
Piscrandiol looked straight in the mirror as they lifted the shears. Two feet of stringy red-brown hair fell to the floor like dead leaves, like shed skin. They heard Gislen gasp and stifle a cry, but did not stop until their head felt weightless, untethered. Then they put the shears down on the sink, and looked up.
Gislen was weeping.
Piscrandiol shivered, their shoulder blades catching the chill of the night air. “All it said was lies,” they said, feeling like they should cry as well, but finding tears too distant to answer the call. “All these pronouns are lies. So now? Am I different pronouns now?”
“I…” Gislen took a careful step closer, then another, finally pulling Piscrandiol into their arms. “I don’t know,” they said. “I don’t care. I love youm. Yem. None of it, all of it, forget it. Forgive mim. I’m sorry. We’ll figure this out. It doesn’t matter.”
Piscrandiol stood in the resolute affection of Gislen’s embrace, until, with time, they stopped shaking.
The children spent the morning grabbing handfuls of Piscrandiol’s new short hair, getting it to stick up in ways that made them topple over laughing. Piscrandiol knew they should find some way to speak with the adults about what happened, address the rift that was slowly taking form. But the silence stretched out through a day and a night of missed opportunities, and then Tafis came home from school with tiny sprouting peas and asked Piscrandiol for help planting them, and Piscrandiol found it far too easy to focus on that instead.
The quadrangle was crowded with summer-rich gardens, and among them, waterlogged and flecked with moss, Piscrandiol found the patch of soil dedicated to apartment five-four. They spent a morning on their knees in the mud, Tafis eager to help, until the sprouts were nestled in grooves in the fresh-turned earth. Piscrandiol showed the child how to hammer together a frame to help the pea shoots grow tall, and the two of them went out every day to watch the tender green vines reach for the sky, until they grew strong and thick with sweet-smelling flowers.
The garden was a revelation. Little by little, through the days of planting and weeding, Piscrandiol found their spirit returning. Appi surprised them with a shriveled piece of taro that had sprouted long hungry tendrils – a cherished toy, which they’d been hiding somewhere. Piscrandiol and Appi planted it together, reverentially, and it soon spread broad, heart-shaped leaves that thirsted for the sun. Piscrandiol bought seeds from the market to keep it company, traded with neighbours, and even brought down a fat little blockleaf succulent from the trellis upstairs. Soon the garden was flourishing with watercress and climbing spinach, and Tafis’ vines had sprouted pods of fat peas that the children scarfed down by the handful. In time everything grew, even hair.
Or, almost. One morning Piscrandiol found the blockleaf sagged and wilted, drowning in the sodden earth. Piscrandiol kneeled at the edge of the plot and dug their trowel into the soil, carefully lifting the plant up. Rot was spreading in its shallow roots; but maybe if they kept it in a pot, with holes in the bottom…
It took Piscrandiol a moment before they realized that the deep voice had spoken in Tisalpha. They turned just in time to be swept up in familiar sinewy arms and spun around as if the mud on their knees and the plant clutched in their hand didn’t matter. They stared up into a grinning umber face.
Geluol was back.
Piscrandiol’s cousin hit it off immediately with the Eibas clan, talking easily about everything and nothing, and also talking about Piscrandiol, which made them want to disappear. Annat insisted they have a special supper, and Refe ran out to get a whole goose already roasted while Annat and Gislen fried vegetables and Tafis tended the rice. Piscrandiol threw together a salad of garden greens and stumbled through their cousin’s giddy questions. Had they gotten the tablet; had Dolein helped them out? How had they met the Eibas family and ended up living with them? Did they have a job? Were they seeing anyone? Piscrandiol tumbled through replies in a mother tongue that felt clumsy until it didn’t, and suddenly they had their own voice again.
And Geluol… Geluol was perfect at Orpan, too, navigating pronouns like all of it was a breeze, like they’d always known how, like gender was the simplest thing in the world. Watching them all chat over tea in the lamplight, with Appi falling asleep in their lap, Piscrandiol wondered when Geluol had become more of a stranger than the rest of them. Piscrandiol stroked Appi’s ink-black curls and stared into the lamp’s flickering flame.
The next morning, before they could change their mind, Piscrandiol pulled Gislen aside. “I’ve been lying to you.”
Gislen frowned and cast a glance over their shoulder where Annat was dressing the children. “What?”
Pisc tucked their hair behind their ears. “For a few weeks. I’m sorry.”
Gislen glanced away again, then took Piscrandiol’s hand. “Let’s go outside.”
Pisc nodded. Their hand felt cold and clammy inside Gislen’s all the way down the stairs.
They stood on the covered walkway outside their door, sheltered from the light rain.
“What’s going on, Pisc?”
Piscrandiol watched the rain trickle down the taro leaves. “I’ve been looking for work.”
Gislen turned and looked at them. “Yeah?”
Piscrandiol nodded. Thunder rumbled, but distant.
“And?” Gislen said, encouraging. “Did… did something happen? Did you find something?”
Piscrandiol bit their lip and shook their head.
Gislen took a deep breath. “So… what, uh, what have you been lying about?”
Piscrandiol glanced over. “Annat… Annat believes the waiting list, and Refe said, I mean, Refe said I shouldn’t look, and… I don’t think the waiting list is real, or, not real for me, and…” They took Gislen’s hands, looking up into their gaze. “You all work so hard. But no job wants Piscrandiol. So many Salphaney looking for work. So I… I make soup, and I grow vegetables, and every day I look for work, but there is no work. And my parents, I need to send money, and you, your family, I take advantage. You are so generous, but this city, I can’t always…”
Gislen gently squeezed their hands. “Oh, love,” they murmured, tugging until Piscrandiol was in their arms. “Oh, love.”
Pisc closed their eyes, cheek on Gislen’s shoulder. Gislen was quiet for a good long time, and Piscrandiol hung on, scared that when they let go, Gislen would say something terrible.
“You’re not taking advantage of anyone, Pisc,” Gislen said, finally. “I love yem. We all love yem. The children think you are the greatest thing they’ve ever met.”
Pisc chuckled, in spite of themselves, and gave Gislen a squeeze.
“Listen,” Gislen continued, parting enough to be able to meet Piscrandiol’s eyes. “I’m so sorry if we gave yem the impression you… you shouldn’t be looking for work because Annat put yem on a waiting list. You can do whatever you want. And we’re happy having you at home, if that’s what you want. I didn’t realize we were putting this pressure on yem. I know we didn’t mean to.”
Piscrandiol smiled weakly. “Yiy’re mixing up pronouns,” they pointed out. “First and second.”
Gislen blushed, grinning. “I’m trying something new. Adapting.”
Piscrandiol took Gislen’s hand back, threading their fingers together. “Geluol has no trouble with pronouns,” they complained.
“So what.” Gislen kissed Piscrandiol’s head. “Some people behave one way, some people behave another way, and that doesn’t mean anything, right? That’s what you told me. I believe it.”
Piscrandiol leaned their temple against Gislen’s shoulder and looked out at the garden. The peas were all but harvested, their vines growing tough, but the season was far from over. It would be time to plant something else soon.
“Sandals Full of Rainwater” (© A.E. Prevost) was published in Issue 9 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.