"The Duolect" by Krzysztof Pelc
2017 CBC Short Story Prize finalist
"Do you remember what daj buzi means?"
She shakes her head. She has no knack for languages. To her all languages are difficult, but Polish is harder than most. This isn't just her impression; there are objective standards to go by. She knows diplomats get extra months and more cash to learn it when they are dispatched to Warsaw. And still, most avoid it on their wishlists to foreign affairs and beg for Berlin instead: English has Germanic roots.
"Remember? I told you last week."
She doesn't remember. It doesn't sound like any of the ones she knows. She shakes her head again.
"It means 'give me a kiss.' Daj is give, buzi is mouth. So it's literally 'give me your mouth.'"
She thinks that's lovely and says so. Many of the words are, she just struggles to attach them to anything familiar. But their daughter Mika knows what it means and she's only three.
Now she observes as Maciej tells Mika "daj buzi," as their daughter puckers up as instructed, and waits for him to kiss her face. She had hoped to learn alongside the baby. Her friend Sadie, who has married an Italian man, claims it happens naturally. The child points to things, a dog running or a beetle on the ground, and the Italian man says the word, repeats it slowly in his singing inflection and Sadie learns it together with the baby.
She asks Sadie what the word for beetle is.
It's scarafaggio, which sounds beautiful to her. Exactly what "beetle" should sound like — it rings scary and exoskeletal, she thinks. Sadie is the one who teaches her to use mnemonic tricks, memorable images attached to words. The more vulgar or colourful, the better they stick, she says. It works. Whenever she wants to ask Maciej to make Polish gingerbread, which she often craves, she now thinks of their friend Pierre in the nick and the word comes to her: piernik.
Later that day, when she asks Maciej the Polish word for beetle, he smiles and grimaces and says it's a hard one. Then he writes it out for her and pointing to the word, pronounces it slowly: chrząszcz. She stares at him. It is the same impossible syllable smudged into itself five times. It seems to her an affront, evidence that the land she has married into is deliberately pushing her out. She throws up her hands, but Maciej laughs and grabs her by the waist and tells her not to worry. "When's the last time you actually saw a beetle?" It's petty consolation. Sadie can talk about mnemonic tricks. Italian's easy and Sadie took Spanish in college.
She looks at her daughter in wonder. They speak, she and Maciej, like people imitating the sounds of leaves rustling in a wind. "She-shy-show-sha," they say. Her daughter, her own flesh, can produce sounds that her mouth cannot. And she hardly seems to try, it comes effortlessly: hearing him rustling leaves with his mouth, she has learnt to do it with hers. "She-shy-show-sha." To think that any meaning could travel through this rustling, she finds it hard to believe.
It is harder still to imagine an entire country of leaf rustlers. To her the leaf rustling happens only at home, between the two people in her life. Sometimes she thinks that Maciej could be making words up, words and whole rules to go with them, a language that reflects him entirely — and no one would be the wiser.
This possibility only makes her envious. English is the language of school and chores, of the grim news on the radio. Anyone can come in and bend it out of shape. While Polish is the language of nighttime stories, of bilateral walks, of quiet exchanges between the two of them in the living room. It is unsullied by the world's ugliness. She envies its hermeticism. In English the daughter yells at a high pitch. In Polish she seems never to speak above a whisper.
Mika is an accident. Until then they had talked about a child in a more ambiguous future. But she rose to her defence immediately, with a fierceness neither of them suspected. They moved, made room, braced themselves. And Mika came, a child of summer. They picked a name that worked in all of the world's tongues, a name that grandparents on all sides could pronounce.
Maciej raised the question of language early on, long before they knew Mika would be Mika. Right away she was keen, she liked the idea of their daughter learning her ancestral tongue. The studies she read all agreed: children exposed to many languages come to have a better understanding of each. She never was, as a child, and faults her parents for it. It is probably why today she cannot remember what daj buzi means. And Maciej is right, he did tell her last week.
A couple is a world onto itself, with its own conventions, its fused foods, its books that no one else has read. There are jokes that only she and Maciej know the meaning of, now reduced to single words - the original joke long forgotten, but the words still carrying their initial charge of complicity. It is enough that one of them drops the word "babaganoush" for both of them to fall over in stitches, their friends looking on and smiling uneasily. Asking for the "flour juice" instead of the milk produces the same result. Efforts at explaining the source of the hilarity inevitably fall flat.
She calls it their duolect. All couples have their own duolect, but theirs is more evolved, its etymologies more intricate. Its phrase book would be thicker. It is like the jargon of sailors at sea together for months at a time.
One day, as they still keep count of their daughter's first words, Mika blurts out, enunciating clearly, "babaganoush!" Looking at one another in bewilderment, they explode in fits of laughter. Mika is a prodigy. They pick her up and kiss her in turn, they repeat "babaganoush" together, they can hardly believe it they are so proud.
Later, she looks at her daughter in bemusement, this child who has so swiftly cracked their duolect. For a while, they keep trying to get her to say it again, but they no longer play the babaganoush joke with one another. Even in the store, she now switches to buying only hummus.
By the time she is five, Mika knows which language goes with whom and she no longer rustles leaves at other children in the playground. No longer does she ask questions to her mother that her mother cannot answer. This occurred only twice, but she recalls both times vividly.
It sounded the same to her on both occasions, though she does not trust her ear. What is certain is that it sounded like a question: her daughter looked to her expectantly. She could only reply in English. Gently, she asked, "What's that, my love?" But Mika reiterated her leaf-rustling interrogation.
"You have to speak English to me," she said again, in vain.
How can a mother protect a daughter she cannot understand? In the evening, she tried to recall and reproduce the sounds for Maciej, but she must have mispronounced them; the game of telephone in Polish is rigged. They were unable to decode it. "It couldn't have been important," Maciej reasoned. But she remains unconvinced.
Later she learns this early confusion is normal for multilingual children, who pick the easiest path across either language. There is even a term for it: code-switching. But if that were true, she thinks, Polish wouldn't stand a chance. It never seems the easiest of the two.
Poles have some atavistic need for walking. Regardless of the weather, it is their daily ritual and when she is five, even Mika looks forward to it. Today is stormy, but Maciej has spied an opening in the clouds and they go out, all three together, bundled against the cold. The air is wet and ionized. She fills her lungs with it, she feels alive. The mighty oak trees that line their street whip about in the unbridled wind, but she has wrapped their daughter in thick scarves. As the sun shoots through the trees, they look for a rainbow, the conditions are just right for it. Mika walks between them, holding both their hands, and then runs ahead and Maciej calls out to her. Behold her leaf rustlers among the rustling leaves, she thinks.
As Mika turns around and looks towards them, there is some change, sudden fear in her eyes — their daughter is shouting something to them. It is a single, foreign word. She has heard it before, yet she cannot place it, it conjures no mnemonic trick. But she feels Maciej cowering next to her, he has lurched down, his left arm stretches out to her in vain.
The next moment, she is on the ground as well, thrust from behind, as the large branch, with all its foliage, hurls through her, and it is all she can do to fall with it. The ground feels harder than the branch itself, it is more pervasive. She is aware only of greenery, of wet leaves on her face.
In what follows, she is given a lot of time to think and remember, to replay the episode and to wonder at the odds. Of all the trees and all the moments, she thinks. Out of this contemplation, the word comes back to her on its own. Uwaga. It is one that Maciej often says to Mika. It does not sound like most of their other words. That is why she didn't recognize it when Mika shouted it. There is no rustling in it. Uwaga. Perhaps to memorize it she can think of the Bay of Ungava, she thinks. It lies north of Quebec, that's all she knows of it, but it must be a treacherous, frozen sea. And now she remembers that uwaga means "watch out." Is "watch out" harder to pronounce that uwaga, she wonders? It is two words, yes, but fewer syllables. The Bay of Ungava is good, but it may not be vulgar enough to stick.
She is aware of both of them in the room. Her love and her flesh. She is no longer swathed in wet leaves now, but in gauze, the smell of it is medicinal. On the periphery she is aware of flowers, cards standing upright, uneaten meals in Tupperware. The bed feels softer than the one they sleep in at home. As she peers at them, she sees better through one eye than the other. Soon she will move and get their attention. Even now, she hears them rustling leaves together.