Soul of the Wild Wood
By Brenna Hanson
Date: July 4, 2021
Ch. 22

Her old face folded into a delighted smile. “I like you already, Your Majesty. That I do. Don’t worry. Bright Eyes – that’s the woman you met earlier, my granddaughter, too – she’s moving my things to the Great Hall even now. I don’t think anyone here rightly guessed at the difficulties you might have settling in until they were faced with them this morning.”

“I expected to need to learn a new language,” I said. “My ear has always been good for picking them up and my eye for reading them. I’m not sure that either skill will help me this time.”

“When you read, do you see the word or do you see what the word means?” the old woman asked.

“What it means, I suppose,” I said after careful thought. “But I see no books here.”

“If you imagine the world as a book, this village as a page, and the people the story, you will begin to understand that our gestures are the words,” She moved her hands as she spoke, matching the spoken words to her movements. “I will help you with the translations until they become second nature to you.”

“What is your name?” I asked. “In all of the newness, I’ve been rude in not asking. Mine is Natalia.”

“It is lovely to meet you, Queen Natalia,” she said. She made a gesture that implied a delicate crown and followed it with a series of finger movements. “I am River.”

The movement for her name was flowing and strong. I could see how it should mean river. I glided my hand in an approximation of her movement.

“That would be closer to serpent.” She chuckled. She made the motion for serpent. It was quicker and somehow both cruel and lighthearted. It made me think that whatever made that motion would be a trickster and should be watched closely. That was not at all how I felt about River. Then she gestured her name again. “Lighten your fingers this time. Feel the soul of the river flowing through them.”

I tried again with more success. I could see that the big challenge would be learning the subtle difference in words.

“I never knew that a person could misspeak so terribly without even opening her mouth,” I said as I practiced River’s name.

“You’ll catch on quickly,” she said with a smile. “Everyone will know who to get when you sign for me already and we haven’t even been at this for a half an hour.”

I blushed under her praise and hoped she was right to give it.

“Do us a favor and catch the attention of my granddaughter. We can have some breakfast while we talk. Here’s the sign for her name.”

I practiced the quick opening of fingers that ended with a small wiggle next to my eye until River was pleased. Then I drew back the curtain and took a calming breath. When the woman who had helped me dress that morning heard the fabric rustle, she looked over. A dazzling smile lit her face when I signed her name. She made a series of hand and finger movements toward me and then shook her head and let a quiet, tinkling laugh slip past her lips. She held her hand up in a way that meant wait. Then she began adding food to a tray. When she was done, she raised an eyebrow in question and I nodded. It might not have been the most intricate conversation I had ever had, but the meaning on both sides was clear and I was grateful.

She looked amused when I held the curtain open for her. Maybe it was strange behavior for a queen but it gave me a chance to see what I would be expected to eat. My stomach rumbled with anticipation at the more familiar offerings. Although there were a couple of things that I did not recognize, any trepidation about my future diet was alleviated.

River caught Bright Eyes’ attention and made a series of signs. I tried to follow but could guess at none of their meanings. Bright Eyes frowned and set the tray down on the closed trunk by the window. When she straightened she shook her head no. She held up a hand when River argued. The next exchange showed that the two had come to an agreement but I could not guess at what.

I found it frustrating. With the spoken languages, I knew there were often similarities enough that I could make my best guess at the overall meaning. In this land of fluttering fingers and precise hand placements, I felt deaf. It was a most peculiar sensation.

Bright Eyes courtesied to me. Just as gracefully, she made the lovely movements of my name.

“She said: Enjoy breaking your fast, Queen Natalia,” River translated before Bright Eyes left the room.

“I think you should teach me to say thank you next, River,” I said. I added the movement that meant the old woman’s name as I said it. Then I saw it in my head. I saw how the movement was a river. I nearly felt the water flowing with my hand. I gasped in delighted surprise.

“That was exactly right, Your Majesty,” River said with a smile that added to the maze of wrinkles on her face. “Did you understand it in your heart that time? It looked like you did. Once you understand it there and really feel the soul of the thing you are describing, you’ll never forget.”

“I think I did,” I said. I made the sign again, feeling my hand become the river. It was beautiful. I could have sat making that one gliding motion for the rest of the day and never become bored.

“Ah, and so,” River said. “You’ve found me. I think you will find the whole of our world quicker than some of our own children do. But first, we eat! An old woman shouldn’t put off that delight. She can never be sure when her constitution may refuse it and reduce her to thin, tasteless porridge. Best to enjoy a good meal when the moment offers one. Afterward, my great-granddaughter, Nettle, will be in from the garden to join us for a lesson. I’ve been teaching her to speak your words so that the skill can grow among our people. She’s a quick study, too. I asked Bright Eyes if she would like to learn as well, but her duties to the Great Hall will not provide the time. ”

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