Planting Life in a Dying City: Season 1, Episode 11 — The Grandparents

Season Content Notes: Natural disaster/death, ableism

Pronunciation Guide

While Chotaikytsai spoke with eir visitor, Lefeng and Kolchais continued discussing what they needed to build a new home. “I don’t know how much any of it will cost, but we also need money for food and drink and the bathhouse,” Kolchais was saying, “And no matter how much we have between us, it won’t be enough.”

“It’s walking season for the far-walking families. That means little leather or furs are coming into the city. I could go foraging in the forests near here. I’d need to find an area that hasn’t been hunted clear or claimed by another family though.”

“What most familyless do — and some of the poorer families — is take day-labor. The city is always hiring day-labor for work on the roads or walls. And many families will hire day-labor for things like extending their home or unloading a ship after a successful trade-run.”

Lefeng nodded and focused on digging around the burnt post. Nothing remained of the old daub, and little of the wattle, but most of the support beams remained. They were stubbornly stuck in the ground. Ey was beginning to suspect…

“Stillness throttle it!” Buried to the depth of Lefeng’s forearms, was a thick beam with holes drilled into. The poles of the wattle and the roof’s support beams were set into those holes. Possibly a few in the middle of the home for the central support beans.

Ey stood up and dusted eir hands off. “We need shovels. There are base-beams down here. I suppose that’s normal for city-construction?”

Kolchais shrugged, “I don’t know.”

Paiokp spoke up for the first time, “Probably. Only far walkers who don’t care if their home falls apart in a few years don’t put foundation beams in. And foraging would be a mistake — you’d be gone for a week or more while we need help here to get a new home built and roots only know what the council will require.”

“Enough for now, then,” Kolchais said. “Let’s put our money together and see if we have enough for at least one good shovel. We’ll need it for building as well so might as well get a good one if we can.”

Lefeng agreed and carried the last of the broken bits ey had been able to gather to the new scrap woodpile. Kolchais said they’d be able to sell it, and if not it would be firewood for a good while. That done, ey washed eir hands at the water bucket and dug out eir small pouch of trade tokens. Ey gave them to Kolchais to make sense of.

They all ended up gathered around the firepit. It was becoming a bit of a thing and Lefeng enjoyed the familiarity of it. While Kolchais went through the money and maked sense of it, Lefeng turned to ask Chotaikytsai about eir visitor.

“Tsouchm,” Chotaikytsai said, making Lefeng wince at the free use of a stranger’s name. Chotaikytsai smiled gently. “Ey has been a friend and is another family-less who has some influence in the family-less community but is very much a loner.”

Kolchais chuckles and said, “Tsouchm would have started courting Chotaikytsai years ago if ey thought Chotaikytsai would accept eir.”

Chotaiktysai looked down and away, as if embarrassed. “Stop being silly,” ey said, but it didn’t come out as forceful as Lefeng thought ey had meant it.

Kolchais laughed and said, “Now we know it’s true — if it wasn’t Chotaikytsai wouldn’t have gotten flustered.”

For a moment, it seemed the world was still. The current unsure of which direction it should turn. Lefeng looked up at Paiokp and Kolchais, and saw them looking back, just as wide-eyed as Lefeng felt.

“You know,” Lefeng said, picking eir words as carefully as footsteps on a strange night-trail. “A family should have at least two grandparents. That way they can trade off baby care and such. Even with the cenn helping out, you need at least three trading off if anyone is going to get a good night’s rest with a new baby.”

Paiokp and Kolchais grinned. “You’re right,” Kolchais said. “Isn’t ey right, Chotaikytsai?”

Chotaikytsai laughed uncomfortably. “Stop being ridiculous. Tsouchm is a friend and, yes, I like em, a lot. But ey is the biggest loner in the city. The family-less often form fake-family groups, for support and protection. Tsouchm is famous for refusing to join any of them. If ey doesn’t even want to be part of the loosely structured fake-families because it will restrict em, why would ey want to be part of a real family with even more demands on em?”

In the corner of eir eye, Lefeng saw Kolchais mouthing “Nope.” and chuckled. But the young adults all let the topic drop. A few minutes later Kolchais announced that they should have enough for the shovel, but it would mean tight rations for a week and they’d need money soon after that.

“The first of the winter beans should be ready to harvest soon,” Chotaikytsai said. “We will do well enough.”

Kolchais and Paiokp went out to buy the shovel, Lefeng having had enough of the city’s markets to last em a season. Shortly after they returned — and Lefeng was once again digging in the dirt — the gate bell rang again. Lefeng put the shovel down and heads for the gate. Paiokp rolled eir eyes at Lefeng’s hurry to get to the gate first. Paiokp, Lefeng suspected, saw it as a version of the childish ‘Me first!’.

If it made em happy to think so, Lefeng wasn’t going to try to convince em otherwise. Kolchais, ey expected, understood.

To Lefeng’s surprise, Chotaikytsai’s friend was waiting at the gate once more. After their earlier conversation, Lefeng didn’t bother asking eir to wait but invited em in immediately. This time, ey followed the strange family-less to the fire pit and squatted down near Chotaiktysai, who was preparing dinner. To eir relief, Chotaikytsai didn’t try to introduce Lefeng to the stranger. Lefeng would prefer not to have eir name given freely, no matter what the customs of the family-less were. And they had not yet discussed how to label themselves until their new family could be made official.

Instead, Chotaikytsai said, “Back so soon? Well, it may be the current steered you well for us. Kolchais was explaining to long-stride here about day-labor in the city.” Lefeng managed, barely, to keep from wincing. Ey hadn’t told the city-folk the name of eir lost family, and ey did have a longer stride than the city-folk. It was just an unfortunate nickname.

The stranger’s eyebrows reached for eir hairline — and it was a long reach. The other’s greying hair had receded to eir ears.

“We need money for building supplies,” Lefeng explained, “and we have no trade yet. I could go back on the trails, leather and furs sell well here. But that would take me from the city for too long.”

“Then day-labor is your best — possibly your only — option,” the grey-haired one confirmed. “Now that the wood has had time to dry, the city will be hiring many to do the work of repairing the roads. It will be hard work, but steady, and pays well. I’ll show you where to go for it?”

“That is good,” Lefeng said, and then let the topic drop. The grey-haired one had come for a reason, and Lefeng had hopes as to what it might be. Thankfully, the stranger didn’t wait to speak.

“I have been thinking all day on what you are doing here.” Lefeng bit back a cheer and glanced at Kolchais who had come to stand behind Chotaikytsai and was biting eir lip and trying to hold back a grin. “I know well my reputation, but while I have embraced my solitude, being alone has not been entirely my own choice. I would join this family you are creating, if you would have me.” The grey-haired one glanced around at the gathered group, but Lefeng wasn’t surprised when eir gaze was drawn to Chotaikytsai.

Lefeng held eir breath, waiting, and it seemed Paiokp was doing the same. Neither of them looked at Chotaikytsai.

Kolchais was not so restrained and whatever ey saw in their grandparent’s face made the hearth-fire flare-up — ey burst out laughing.

Worst thing ey could do. The grey-haired one mostly kept eir face blank but Lefeng saw the slight wince ey couldn’t control. Lefeng didn’t know how to save the situation. Kolchais started gasped words through the laughter. “I told eir… A dozen times… I…. told eir and… ey… didn’t believe me.”

The hidden wince changed to open confusion and Lefeng sighed in relief. Perhaps ey should have trusted the city-folk more. “I do not understand,” the stranger grated out.

Kolchais was still laughing too hard to be fully coherent and Paiokp had once again withdrawn to an unaccustomed silence. Lefeng was surprised at how hard it was to speak, how heavy eir tongue was in eir mouth. But someone needed to say something. “Of course you don’t.” Ey nudged Kolchais. “Stop it. Even I know better than that!”

“After you left earlier,” Lefeng said, speaking past a lump in eir throat. Why? Ey should be happy… “We,” ey gestured to eirself and Paiokp, “got to witness the hundredth cycle of an argument. That stubborn-one has been sure you were interested in courting the once-weaver. And our parent-to-be has been sure you were too much of loner to ever court anyone.”

Kolchais finally got control of eirself and stood, nudging Lefeng in turn and tapping Paiokp on the shoulder. Lefeng nodded heavily and stood. “The spouses – or spouse in this case,” Kolchais said, ” accepts the courtship. We had our say earlier, anyway. Come on, you two.”

Kolchais and Paiokp rounded up Chestef and headed toward the sleeping shed. Good, it was time for Chestef to sleep.

But Lefeng was unable to make emself follow them. Instead, ey moved off a short distance and looked through the charred scraps for a piece that might be worth carving. Far enough that ey wouldn’t be intruding, but close enough ey could still hear.

Ey had to know.

“So,” the grey-hair said, “You thought I could not be interested, hm? Did you also think I was a dead? Even trees twine their roots together, though they stand apart.”

“Are you a tree? I see no leaves.” Chotaikytsai’s voice was full of humor and Lefeng was glad of it. The grandparent needed someone to play with.

“No? But here is my lustrous bark and my limbs dance in the wind.” Lefeng couldn’t help glancing over eir shoulder at that — the stranger had raised eir hands over eir head and was waving them around. Ey and Chotaikytsai laughed together.

“I don’t know anything about being part of a family. And tides know how I’ll manage as a grandparent when I have never known children. But I will do my best by this family. And I have been alone long enough.”

Lefeng heard Chotaikytsai accept, and then the whole world blurred.

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