As Ona rowed through the thick of the White Swamp, she did what the Rumna had taught her to do whenever her feelings overcame her. She breathed slowly, drawing the water back with her oar in the same steady rhythm as her breath. She focused her gaze on the details around her—the moss-bearded tree limbs, the algae-coated waters, the blue and green and purple dragonflies dancing over lily pads.
But, even as she rowed, Ona’s throat tightened, and the moss beneath her eyes moistened whenever she blinked.
“Are you all right?” Jep asked her.
Her twin brother sat in the back of the canoe, so quiet she could have forgotten he was there.
“Yes,” she said, not looking back at him.
She rowed between the protruding legs of two white-barked cypress trees, the ivory tree roots clutching the scummy water like knobbed knees. Water knocked against them as she passed through, creating a bubbling sound like water boiling in a clay pot.
The motion of rowing the oar was a good distraction.
“Is it because of Lidda?” Jep said.
Ona hesitated. Jep seemed to always know her thoughts. “Yes.”
“You still can’t think about it, can you?”
Ona stopped rowing to twist her body around to see him.
She and her brother could not be more different. They both had brown skin patched in sage-green moss, but his face was hard, his cheekbones jutting towards his ears. Dark eyebrows bent low over his eyes. His hair and beard were black and curled. His upper body was strong and muscled from years of rowing and climbing and lifting himself with just his hands—movements he’d had to learn after he lost his legs below the knee.
His injury would always be, to Ona, an outward symbol of everything he had lost.
“It was fifteen years ago since I left,” Ona said. “And it still—” She stopped, sighing.
“I know,” he said. “I understand.”
“I just hope Lidda is stronger than I was.”
“She will be.” He opened his mouth to correct himself, but Ona stopped him.
“It’s all right. She is. She’s excited, I think, to be a Mother. That’s good.”
“It still doesn’t make sense to me,” Jep said, shaking his head. “If I’d been born the first woman in the family, I don’t think I could’ve done it. You’re stronger than you think, Ona.”
Ona flushed, turning back to row.
“We don’t have to go,” Jep said, “if it’s too much for you to see Sanifa.”
“No. I was a Mother. I want to encourage her.”
“Good,” he said. “She’ll like your gift.”
She knew he was trying to comfort her, but she still hoped he was right. In a small pillow at her feet, she had collected a few handfuls of lantern mycelium—the web-like roots that fruited into glowing blue mushrooms. Ona had kept one when she had gone to the mountain fifteen years ago, and had squeezed it by her nose when she was lonely, smelling the rich dirt that reminded her of home. When she was ready, she had soaked the pillow to shock the mycelium, and after three days several white mushrooms curled up from the fibers and, at night, illuminated a soft blue glow. She had gazed at it in wonder until she forgot her pain. When Ona had slept in her cold stone room with the scent and the glow, she could imagine the deep blue nights in the swamp when fireflies the size of fists pulsed bright, imitating the white moon and scattering of stars. She felt safe, close to home and the quiet treehouse where her parents slept even when they seemed too far away to exist. She knew they were there, chests rising and falling, waiting for her.
They rowed toward the edge of the swamp now to give this pillow of mycelium—this memory of home—to Lidda before the Rumna, Sanifa, took her to Bar-Rum to be a Mother.
For the past fifteen years, Ona had practiced numbing her emotions about the past so that they were only brief feelings and images—an ache in her stomach, the image of the small body of a faceless, nameless child held to her chest. Only when she had nothing to do with her hands, or no one to talk to, did the images and feelings take full shape and twist her insides, like an oar spinning in her gut. But they were always the same—that unknown child, crying, asking for its Mama.
“Will Willow be there?” she said now, thinking of her pregnant sister. Ona was happy for her sister, but being around her was a painful reminder to Ona of everything she wanted, and everything she couldn’t have. Willow was the only sister of hers who still lived at home with Ona and her parents, but her pregnancy had confirmed that she and her betrothed were ready to be married. Not all Hypha began marriage this way, but Willow was a natural mother, always caring for her nieces and nephews, and no one had been surprised.
“Tilla, if it’s a girl,” Willow had said the day before as she and Ona cleaned silver fish beneath their family’s treehouse. “Fern, if it’s a boy.”
“Those are good names,” Ona had said, but she kept her eyes on her hands and her knife. It was silver like the fish and made by her nomadic friend, Tishna, who had traded it and many other things with her for language lessons. She followed this thought, wondering how she could teach him all of the names of the plants. Until Willow had continued to talk about her baby, Ona had successfully distracted herself.
Today, however, her mind kept taking her back to the faceless child who would never have a Mama. A Mother, yes. A distant figure it would never know. If it only knew that she, Ona, had always loved it. It may never have a Mama, but Ona had a child.
The child would be fifteen now, but it would always be a child in Ona’s mind, and she was always eighteen, holding it in her belly. She had known the child as her own for those long, quiet months when it lived inside her. She had known it was there from twinges, from hunger, from sickness. Her stomach grew, tight and round, until she couldn’t see her own toes, and putting on sandals or picking up dropped items was difficult. She had felt the baby explore inside her and press its hand against her, trying to reach out. She had seen it, sometimes, a strange, tiny handprint in the skin of her belly. For months, she had walked with her hand holding it up as though she already cradled it.
Afterwards, she had tried not to guess the color of its eyes, or the name she would have called it—Priya, if it were a girl, Roe, if it were a boy—or how it slept at night, curled up or laid flat, restless or still. She tried not to think about it saying Mama to her, or I love you, or fya.