Lona's Grandmother

Content warnings: experiences of dementia 

The picnic was Lona's idea. They suggested it one day while the two of them were out hiking, and Hali agreed at once. So Lona's mother packed a basket for them, and they and Hali set out around midmorning and sat down to eat at the head of a small kelp-strewn inlet. They ate flatbread with butter and cheese and rhubarb compote, and followed it with blue potato dumplings and a savory broth of fermented vegetable paste mixed with hot water. For desert they had milk tea and bowls of rice pudding favored with saffron and currants. Lona opened a bottle of small beer, and took out a box of dried fish.

Are you a vegetarian? they said.

I don't know, said Hali. A lot of masya are, except in the far south where it's impossible. More today especially.

Lona nodded. My mom figured you'd be a vegetarian and sober. But she packed a second bottle of ale, if you want one.

I'd rather drink tea, said Hali. Ale's too bitter.

You get used to that, especially if you don't take sugar with your tea.

Hali nodded and brushed a few crumbs from her lap. She wore a long red kilt and a sleeveless ivory shirt. It wasn't a cold day for either of them, though as usual Lona wore a short jacket over their tunic, without which they would have felt exposed. They took a peach from the basket.

You want half? they said.

No, I'm all right.

You sure?

I already had two, didn't I?

Right, said Lona, smiling. They took a bite of the peach, frowned, and took out a knife to peel it.

How are your studies? said Hali.

My Alansi and old Sanenu are coming along. Dad thinks I should also learn Sayel.

Oh, that's a good idea. Sayel's lovely.

The sound system is ridiculous. I can't see how anyone speaks it. Also my mom doesn't want me learning a colonial language.

You speak a colonial language.

Yeah, fat lot of good telling her that will do. Oh, damn.

Hali started. The knife had slipped and cut into Lona's finger. It's fine, they said, setting down the peach and reaching into their bag. I have an adhesive, it's fine, don't worry. It was stupid of me, the knife is dull and I wasn't paying attention.

I can fix it.

Oh it's a tiny cut, don't stress yourself.

I mean it. I was distracting you. Beside, it would take no effort at all.

Lona had already taken out a bandage. It's nothing, really.

No it isn't.

Lona hesitated, then held out their hand.


Hali placed her thumb and middle finger at either end of the cut and began, almost whispering, to recite a spell, and as she did the blood grew sluggish, and the pain dulled, and the skin was persuaded to close itself. Lona pulled their hand away and looked up at Hali.

Thank you.

They put away the bandage they'd taken out and turned to look at the ocean.

Math's going better than I expected, they said. When I'm done with standard I might take a course in algebra. The teachers think I'd be good at it.

Hali nodded. What are you going to be, when you grow up?

I don't know. I wanted to make radios with my dad when I was a kid, but I don't like that idea anymore. Besides, only men make radios.

That's a stupid rule.

Well my family isn't going to change it. I think when I'm done with school I'll try to get work as a fisher. My mom won't like that, but she'll allow it. I'll save up to get a place, then maybe I'll go to college. I could just get a fisher's hut and catch cod for the rest of my life but I think my parents would kill me.

Isn't fishing men's business too?

Less so than making electronics, said Lona. You know how it is. Men have lightning in them.

Hali laughed.

In all seriousness I think I'll go to school and become, well, I'm not entirely sure. I think my parents would like me to be a merchant or a technocrat, it would make them a lot of money.

What do you want?

Like I said, I don't know. Librarian sounds nice. No gender expectations and you get to read books and make tea all day. Fat chance of my parents letting me do it, though. They won't be satisfied with something that isn't stressful and high-paying.

They sighed.

What are you doing these days? Anything significant coming up for you, or your folks?

No, I've just been memorizing spells. It's getting too monotonous even for me. You should come over, you can follow along with your drum while I chant. That was really fun last time, even if it got a bit out of hand.


What about you? What are you doing?

Lona didn't respond for a while. They drank the rest of their ale.

I'm going to visit my grandmother tomorrow, they said. She lives north of here, in Tuhasa province, near lake Kojida. Do you want to come? It's only an hour's ride.

With you and your family?

No, just me. My family is busy. They'd come otherwise.

Lona shook their head. I shouldn't have asked.

No, no, it's fine. I'd love to.

She's unwell. She doesn't make for the best of company. And she only speaks Ngoski.

I don't care. I like people's grandparents. They're always so much nicer than other grown-ups. And they tell stories and give you tea and sweets, usually. At least around here they do. And I can heal her, if she's unwell.

She has dementia. It's incurable.

Oh, said Hali. Yes, that is usually incurable. I'm sorry. I could try to help, if you want.

That isn't my choice to make, said Lona. Do you still want to come?

I would, if you'd like me to.

Lona smiled. All right.


The electric bus rolled along the dirt road to Kojida, making no noise but the crackle of macadam under tall thin wheels. Tall grass waved outside the window. There were few passengers, most of them old and clad in traditional garments. Some of the men even went without shirts, which was no longer common.

Good god, said Lona. They have so much hair.

What's wrong with that?

Nothing I guess. I suppose I'm just used to people who don't have very much. My dad doesn't have hair on his face or chest.

That I find strange, said Hali. It seems unnatural for an animal not to have hair.

So you'd have a pelt, if you could?

Maybe a faint one.


Lona turned away and popped a clove lozenge into their mouth. They looked a long time out the window. Hali smiled at them.

What are you thinking of?

An old story.

Tell me.

So Lona told her the story of how the world began, how the sun was formed by drifting stars and made the world by blowing ash across the ocean, how the sun and the moon bore children and their eldest daughter was the leviathan and their eldest son the firebird, how the firebird battled the demon king and lost his great love when she sacrificed herself to kill his foe, and how in that last struggle an egg fell from the firebird's nest and hatched the first man, child of thunder and lightning, the one who carries fre and has no fear of it for his ancestor was the king of storms.

It's very thrilling, said Hali.

Thanks. I always loved hearing it as a kid. I don't know if I like it so much anymore. It's very violent. Too many of our stories are.

They paused.

I wanted to be a pirate when I was a kid. All my favorite stories were about pirates and sea raiders. My brother was the same way. Every Sanenu boy wants to be a pirate for a while, and every Sanenu child who isn't a boy but would like to be.

You wanted to sack coastal towns and burn boats and steal ivory and gold?

Yes. I wanted to have exciting adventures.

Too exciting for my taste.

I know, said Lona. I like that about you. Your stories aren't violent, not usually, but they're never boring either.

Would you like me to tell one?



In the old days of the world the shepherd Tuvas bore a child, Silis, whose name means little seabird feather, common finery. The child was kind and hard-working, as strong as a ram, but not as stubborn. She was beautiful, and had many suitors, but none pleased her. She only wanted to milk goats and spin wool and take care of old Tuvas. So it went until Adlavo, the prince of the risen sun, saw Silis bathing in the river Unru. He felt at once he must be with her, so he came to Tuvas in his finest cloak of redpurple wool, woad lines painted on his cheeks, gold and ivory on his wrists and neck, his long locks falling to his waist. Truly a very pleasant man to look at. He said, old woman, I am without peace, I have no comfort awake or in my dreams. The image of your daughter possesses me. Let me marry her and I will give you fifty head of cattle, men to work them, a new house and gold enough to raise others. You will be the grandmother of all this fine country around us. It will be good for everyone, not just me. Tuvas nodded and drank her tea and said, all right. I know you're impatient but come back in a while. I need to think about this. Adlavo was indeed impatient but he had a healthy caution of old women so he didn't complain. And nothing would have come of it, except Tuvas had grown sick, and her sleep was troubled, and her bones were frail. So when she told Silis about Adlavo's offer, Silis was quiet. She had never seen anyone as rich or grand as the prince, and was as flattered by his interest as she was concerned for the health of old Tuvas. Eventually she replied, dear mother, you know I don't want to be rich. Nor do you. I want to have peace, and I have peace. I love you and I love this place and what we have. But you're not well, and we would be better of with what he's offering. Perhaps I should go. At that Tuvas cast down her eyes, knowing it was for her sake that her daughter went, and in turn Silis began to weep. She promised her mother that she'd visit every year. Then Adlavo took her north, to his castle among the cypresses, where there are rivers of warm water and trees with honey for sap. Adlavo's kinfolk were haughty and refined, but they doted on her, and soon she was fond of them. She kept her promise, but often, preparing to travel south, she thought of how her new family remarked on what a wasteland she had come from, and how lonely Adlavo and their children were without her. And so with time her visits grew briefer and less frequent, and on each she and Tuvas said less to each other, for among Adlavo's folk she used a different speech, and the words her mother used had grown unfamiliar to her ears. Time passed, and eventually, one year, she did not go south, and never went thereafter. By then Tuvas was very weak, and seldom left her home. She sat by her window, quiet and expressionless, and watched Adlavo's herdfolk minding the cattle he had paid for her daughter.


Around noon they disembarked in a small hamlet of nurses, orcharders, and craftspeople, the sanctuary half a kilometer above them on a sheltered hill. Do you want to stop anywhere? said Lona, and Hali heard unease in their voice. The tea at the sanctuary isn't very good, so if you'd like to stop for a cup down here, well.

No, no, no need to wait.

Right, said Lona, turning away.

They walked. The paths were narrow but very smooth and gentle, so that wheelchairs could move up them without difficulty. The slope, being protected from the wind, was planted with many trees, all of them beautiful, gingko and sycamore, pine and birch, apple and cherry. The leaves of the seasonal trees were just getting their gold tinge. Behind them down the slope they saw the lake, and north across it the distant kneeling ridge of mount Kosuma. They went further along the path, through a sunken garden carefully sown with vulnerable, slow-growing rockmoss, and there, in a light airy place among the rocks and widely spaced trees, was the sanctuary, a modern building of light grey stone projecting from the hillside. Large sections of the wall were composed of sliding wood and glass panels, and outside were a number of dark stone patios where people sat conversing with their elders and a few nurses took tea and snuff. They got closer, their shoes crunching on the gravel path.

It's really lovely, said Hali. She was surprised by the condition of the place, which looked so much fancier and costlier than anything she was used to. Lona seemed to suspect her thoughts, and replied, yeah, it's one of the better ones. We wouldn't be able to pay for it but she had some money set aside.

What did she do?

Nothing. Women of her generation couldn't do much of anything. The money is from my grandfather, her husband. He died in the war. He was in the navy.

Hali nodded. Lona opened a door for them and they went in.

We're here to see grandmother Anasivya Arela.

A petite, dark-skinned man with impeccable manners and the dark blue uniform of a senior nurse led them down a hallway paneled with beautiful dark wood. Trough a window they saw an old man and those who must have been his grandsons sitting in a pebble garden. The nurse opened the door to Arela's room. He smiled at Hali.

She's very well today. Sleepy, but peaceful. She's been talking. I hope you have a pleasant time.

The room was very small, and contained little. There was a low bed covered by a vividly patterned quilt, a small desk with an electric lamp, and a chest of drawers. A few smooth stones and a potted jade plant had been placed on the chest. A pair of calligraphed papers hung side by side above bed were the only decorations on the walls, they were in a form of Ngoski too archaic for Hali to read. They seemed to be naval certifications. The north-facing wall was dominated by a single huge window, with translucent white curtains drawn across it, and on a large cushion by the window sat a very old woman, about seventy, wearing a gilet and a scarf and a blanket draped over her shoulders. Her skin was a very light brown, lighter than Lona's or Hali's. She was humming. Lona sat down beside her.

Tkesammi, said Lona, which means grandmother. They did not say hello. There is no word for hello in any Sanenu language.

Arela looked up at her and smiled.

Oh, yes, she murmured. I remember you. I'll have them send us tea.

She looked towards the door, and the nurse, still standing there, nodded and went away. Arela turned back to them.

How are you doing?

Good, good. How are you, grandmother?

The old woman tittered. Such a polite little girl.

I brought a friend, said Lona, turning. Grandmother, this is Hali.

Aha, said Arela. You are a Duzrasi, yes?

Yes ma'am. Hali from Sohtey. It's an honor to meet you.

And such a polite young man, said Arela.

She's a girl, Lona almost snapped. They turned red with shame even as they said it, but Arela didn't seem to notice their discourtesy. Hali, also embarrassed, looked at her hands.

Your Ngoski is good, said Arela, hesitating. You have good pronunciation.

Tank you. Lona's been helping me practice.

Lona glanced over at Hali and shook their head. Arela frowned. Who's Lona?

My friend meant me.

Oh. How odd. You, she said, turning back to Hali. You have a lovely name. We also use it. It means little seabird to us. I don't know what it means in your language.

Faithful child.

Yes. I like that.

It was difficult for Hali to understand Arela, but her speech was very slow, which helped. What does your name mean, grandmother? she said.

Arela smiled. Mother of, mother. Mother.

She paused.

Of warriors. We were warriors. Yes. When I was young my cousin fought at fourteen, and took his first head within two years.

Hali's eyebrows rose. Oh, don't worry, said Arela. It was a Sanenu head.


Hali, said Arela, still smiling a little. Isn't that a girl's name? Or is it different for you, your people?

Anybody can be Hali, said Hali.

Hm, tittered Arela. Well, yes. A Sanenu head, an Alansenisi. A lot of wars then, on the mainland. But eventually we had a king again, a good king, Vako and his wife Emaru, the great queen, the jewel of the deer hunters, yes, very noble. We all cried for Emaru.

She was assassinated, Lona explained.

The world will not see another woman like her, Arela said.

I can imagine, said Hali. Arela nodded to herself. As she did she straightened, and her vision seemed to focus.

Ah, she said to Hali. What would my name be in your language?

Arela perhaps, but more likely Arla.

Arla, said Arela. The word was difficult for her to pronounce. That's lovely. You have such a beautiful language, you know? When I was a girl all the young ladies had crushes on you native boys, you know?

Ah, said Hali. Lona looked as if they might pull their own hair out.

Yes, I think it's because of the language. That and the long hair. Women are supposed to like it when men act like men, but secretly they like it when they act like women. Men are no better. No one catches a man's eye like one of your girls with her head shaved.

Grandmother that's quite enough, said Lona, horrifed. Hali was tempted to laugh. Arela nodded and looked out the window.

My friend told me you were born on the mainland, said Hali.

Yes, said Arela. Yes, I was born in, well.

She paused, frowned, said, in, stopped again, then said, well I was born near Ngoyisi, so it must have been one of the better towns there, I think it was Hakaso.

She was born in Pusuhu, Lona whispered to Hali, in Duzrasi.

You see, said Arela, an old woman can forget just about anything.

Hali smiled.

But my family came here when I was very young, Arela continued. We were very happy here, you know. All of my friends were little Duzi boys and girls. They were so much fun, though they did tease us to no end for our hair and our clothes. Yes, they were so good to us. And we lived in a little den underground for a long time, just like your people, and ate your food even after we had a proper house built. We had a Duzi cook and she was perfect. She died during a revolt. It was so terrible. A terrible accident.

Grandmother, said Lona, hesitating. It was deliberate. Her killers knew who she was. They just didn't care.

After a very, very long silence, Arela looked at her grandchild with confusion but no anger, and said in a weak, almost childish voice, no. No. No. What are you talking about? They thought she was a spy. They were our neighbors. They wouldn't have done it on purpose. We didn't kill people, not people who'd done nothing.

You killed so many people who did nothing, Hali thought.

We didn't, Arela said again, now looking at Hali. We're not barbarians. We came here to guide you. To civilize you. You're a good child, you know that, don't you?

Lona winced. Grandmother, they said. That's over now. Varu is an independent country. Its people never needed to be civilized.

But the king, said Arela. The king recognizes us. He said he would obey. So did the cook. You were all so grateful that we'd come, so happy. Aren't you happy, Hali? We've given you so much.

Hali did not reply. She looked at Lona. Their body was rigid with shame, but they did not speak, whether because they thought it was not their place, or because they thought it was hopeless, Hali couldn't tell. Arela looked away from them. Lona sighed.

Osasne sends her best wishes, they said. She's sorry she couldn't come.


Yes. Your daughter, Osasne.

Oh, yes, said Arela, and her face lit up. Yes. I remember now. She's getting married. We finally found someone for her. He's not that remarkable, but his family's business is doing well, and he's very kind. Have you met him?

Yes, said Lona. He's my father.

What? But he's not even married yet.

No, grandmother, he and your daughter were married years ago.

I, I see. Are they good parents?

Yes. They're very kind.

Good. Sometimes I think people forget that. They have a firm hand but they forget to be kind. That's how my mother was.

I know, said Lona. You've told me about her.

I don't remember.

It was a long time ago.

A few minutes passed. Their tea came and Arela had a nurse lead her to the washroom.

Are you okay? said Hali.


That's not true.

Then why ask? snapped Lona. They looked down immediately. I'm sorry.

No. It's okay.

I shouldn't have brought you here.

It was my choice to come. I don't regret it.

She paused.

She's sweet. Funny, too, though some of what she said was insensitive. More than some. But she's a nice old woman.

She's a condescending imperialist. She always was.

Yes, but being ashamed of her behavior won't change it.

I know that, said Lona.

Have the doctors been able to do anything for her? Or the witches?

No, said Lona. Nothing helps. Her memory just gets worse and worse.

They frowned. I don't want you to try healing her, Hali. It's not safe. It wouldn't work. 

I might be able to bring back some of her memories, at least. There'd be no risk to her.

But there would be to you. There's always a risk to you.

Hali knew Lona was right. She said nothing. Lona sighed. You can ask if she wants you to try, they said. I doubt she does. She can't tell anything's wrong with her.

They put their head in their hands again.

I'm sorry.

It's okay.

No it's not. Nothing about this is okay. I don't even know why I suggested you come.

Because you wanted support? Or you wanted me to meet someone you care about? Both?

It doesn't matter.

Of course it matters.

Arela returned. Grandmother, said Lona, but she didn't respond. Instead, she turned and stared at the curtains.

Grandmother Arela, began Hali, but Lona said, there's no point when she gets like this.

After a while Lona muttered something about the washroom and got up. They looked profoundly uncomfortable. Just leave if she's rude to you, they said, then they stepped into the hall and shut the door.

Who was that? said Arela.

Your grandchild.

I have grandchildren?

Yes, you have several.

Oh, said Arela. She trembled a little and Hali realized with horror that she was crying.

I know that, she said. People have told me. But it's confusing. I forget them sometimes, I don't know why. But I know they exist. Please, you have to believe me. I haven't forgotten them. 

Hali reached out and took Arela's hand.

Shh, shh, Arela, she said. It's okay. I believe you.

Arela smiled and nodded. You're such a nice young man, she murmured. So good to me.

Her smile widened. As it did, her hand became very warm, and Hali felt magic, long withered with neglect, beneath her skin. She looked up and saw lights that changed Arela's eyes, and she suddenly wanted to weep.

You're a witchy boy, aren't you, said Arela.

I am a witch, yes.

She paused.

So are you.

Arela laughed. Oh no, she said, no, no, don't say that, we don't allow such things, we wouldn't have a witch in our family.

I'm sorry, said Hali.

Arela did not reply.

Do you want me to try healing you?

Why? said Arela. There's nothing wrong with me. Only people, they, well, something's wrong. I don't understand what happened. This isn't my home. What happened to my home?

She was crying.

What happened, she said, trailing off.

Hali reached out and touched her cheek, and Arela met her gaze. Hali tried to sense how she could heal her, what parts of her she might persuade to repair themselves. But there was nothing to speak to. There were only chasms in her mind, and at their edges fragments, like bits of stone on the side of a mountain, so reduced from the structures they'd once formed that she couldn't imagine how she would convince them to be whole again, not without risk to them both. She lowered her hand and looked down.

Lost, said Arela. It's lost.

You lost your home.

Arela didn't respond. Eventually Hali said, I lost a name. I lost it on purpose. I can make people forget things, you see. Tings that hurt them. I did that to myself. But I can't make them remember, not like this. I can't make them remember things that aren't there anymore.


After a few moments she pulled away and Hali let go of her hand. Lona came back, and Hali stood up. I'll give you some time, she said. Lona nodded.

Outside, one of the many nurses, an older man, brought Hali a cup of tea and sat down with her.

You all right dear?

No. My friend brought me to visit their grandmother. She's not present anymore.

Ah, said the nurse. Is your friend Anasivya Lona?


They’re a very loyal child, said the nurse. They come here once or twice a month. It must cost them a great deal.

Doesn't their family come?

Not so often, said the nurse. You don't know much about Sanenu culture, do you?

No. I'm actually very ignorant.

Tis disease is considered shameful by them. Sanenu people with dementia were traditionally left in the woods to die.

Hali nodded and sipped her tea. Milk tea with honey, as her people usually made it. In the room with Lona and Arela they had drunk Sanenu tea, black tea smoked with pine needles, very bitter, taken with nothing except a bit of lemon. The nurse got up and went away. Lona came out of the room, and they and Hali bid Arela goodbye. She looked at them for a moment, not speaking, then looked away, and Lona closed the door to her room.


They were on the bus again, driving home under a brilliant blue sky.

When did you meet her? said Hali.

She must have seen me often as a child, said Lona. But I don't remember knowing her until I was six. She wasn't sent away until I was ten. By that point she'd had trouble for years.

Hali nodded. I wish I could heal her, she said.

There's nothing for you to heal, said Lona. Her mind's gone. You can't repair something that doesn't exist. Anyway the problem is only half her own. The place is a hospital. Who wants to live in a hospital, no matter how nice it looks? There isn't much anyone can do for her anymore.

I know, said Hali. But you go there. I'm sure that helps. More than anything.

How can you know that?

Because she likes it when you're with her.

Lona didn't respond for a while. I shouldn't have asked you to come, they said.

No, it's okay. I'm really glad I got to meet her.

As if there's much of anything left to meet.

They paused.

I'm sorry.

Don't be sorry. None of this is your fault.

Lona nodded. After a long time Hali said, are you okay?

Lona shook their head. Hali reached out to them and touched their hand, and Lona took it and held it as the bus wound its way back towards the ocean.

Harper Petrasovich (she/they) is a student at Bennington College, where she studies literature and creative writing. She grew up in New England.