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Untranslation (Kipperman's Curiosities)

wanktok: people who speak the same language as you do and have some claim on you.


The house is built on words. From the rust-colored water that runs from the faucet in the upstairs bedroom to the cracked wooden floor, they are always tripping on letters.

Their mother collects words and sells them in her curiosity shop; on every birthday, a new one is wrapped in paper and a bow and left at the foot of their beds. It must be opened before breakfast (words are best digested on an empty stomach). Toska takes the packages and buries them in a cardboard box that she has labeled Miscellaneous (Birthdays). When she was sixteen, Leala crossed it out and wrote PORN in thick sharpie across the top.

Wabi keeps hers beneath her bed, guarded jealously.


avoir le mal de quelqu'un: to miss someone so much it makes you sick.

All three girls work in the shop after school. Toska handles the more dangerous items--firecrackers, seamonsters, cursed daggers--because she is the oldest and their mother doesn't have the heart for it. Leala, who would rather be outside, spends most of the afternoon in the garden section, baiting the Venus Flytraps. She's not a good salesgirl. She oversells the danger.

Wabi works the register. She is careful when she handles things, wraps them up like gifts even when they aren't.

Her favorite time to work is the beginning of autumn, when all the leaves are falling. They have a lot of local college students then, all of them frantically looking for synonyms, and freshmen trying to figure out for the first time how to tell their girlfriends that they love them.

Wabi is leaning against the counter reading Vogue when they get their first lover of the season, a skinny boy with a poorly done-up tie and hair that looks so frankly stupid it can only be intentional.

He coughs into his hand, wandering down the Baisle. He pauses toward the middle, fingers brushing up against some half-forgotten noun, before curling his fingers into a fist and tugging at his hair.

Wabi smiles at him across the counter. "Can I help you?" she asks.

He sighs, shoving both hands into his pockets, and looks hard at the ground when he mutters, "I left my girlfriend back in New York. I needed to--I want to tell her. That. You know."

He gives her a look she's well-versed in, the kind that says don't make me say it.

"Great," Wabi tells him gently, reaching under the counter for the special box she keeps for boys like these. "Do you--I mean, is it bad?"

He nods, approaching the counter at a half-lope, leaning in so close that she can smell his aftershave. "Really bad," he confesses miserably. "Really really bad."

Wabi smiles. She hands him her favorite of all the autumn words, watches him run his fingers along the edges in a kind of rapture. "What does it mean?" he asks.

"She'll know," Wabi promises, and drops the word into a bag.


yaourter: attempting to speak or sing in a foreign language that one doesn't know very well; it often involves throwing in nonsense sounds or words when one needs to fill in the blanks.

"You're such a light fucking touch, Wabs," Leala mutters over dinner. "I swear to God. Every autumn you get the Edward Cullen sparkly eyes over a bunch of ham-fisted frat boys."

Toska rolls her eyes. "Don't be an asshole," she admonishes, kicking her sister's leg under the table. "There's nothing wrong with being a romantic, Wabi."

Their mother sighs. "A whole shop full of words, and you can't keep your mouths clean," she mutters. "Can't you at least be more creative with your vulgarity?"

"Sorry," Leala says, not sounding it. "You get Edward Cullen sparkly eyes over a bunch of ham-fisted ikibaris."

Wabi stays quiet. Words are precious. She doesn't want to misuse them. She doesn't know how to speak Leala's careless language. She says, "They're not--that. You don't know that they're like that." She frowns across the table and takes a bite of her salad, chewing slowly on the sliced apples.

Leala rolls her eyes. "Good comeback, Wabalabs."

Leala uses her words carelessly. Her birthday gifts are always strewn across the floor like dirty laundry or lost socks. Wabi once found one with a hole in it, sewed together badly. Her middle sister speaks all the time, says anything at all, just wants to hear herself make noise. She shouts from the sidelines at soccer games; she mutters the answers to test questions around the chewed eraser of her pencil; the only time Wabi knows of that she snuck a boy into her room, she talked through whatever he was doing to make her voice sound too full of air.

Toska shakes her head. She reaches across the table to gently tug a strand of Wabi's hair. "Ignore the snorker," she murmurs. Even when she smiles, Toska always looks a little sad.


torschlusspanik: the fear that the opportunities in life presented to you will diminish as you grow old.

They have a big sale just after Christmas. Toska cries when they lose the giant squid to a family from Texas. Sometimes at night she used to sneak out and sit with her feet in the water of the tank, watching the squid with sad eyes. Toska had never been good at seeing animals in cages.

She will turn nineteen in June. Wabi remembers her spending hours on the computer, filling out college applications. But things are tight--their father works as a freelance writer and their mother runs the curiosity shop, but even still, things are tight. Wabi wears clothes that have been worn for years and years before they touch her hangers. Leala can't play sports that require the purchase of equipment. Toska used to paint, but Wabi hasn't seen her do it in a while.

"We shouldn't have kept him," Toska says quietly into the dark of their shared bedroom the night after the family from Texas comes to get the squid. "We shouldn't have had him in the first place."

Leala shifts in her bed. Usually she stays up reading, but Toska's frown had been so deep that she'd agreed to the dark. It is the kind of night for talking in the dark, so no one can see the pinched face everyone has to make when they taste their own words.

"I'm sure he'll be happy in Texas," Wabi offers, hesitant.

Leala snorts. Toska makes a soft, angry sound. "He's in a cage," she snarls, sitting up in her bed. "He's stuck, he can't get out, he can't go anywhere, and that's not--he's not meant for this, he's meant to be out in the ocean with--others, with his own kind, where he knows what he's supposed to do and he can do it without everyone staring at him!"

Leala gets out of her bed and slips into Toska's, curling up along her side. Wabi stays where she is for a minute, then in the silence follows suit. The bed is too small for the three of them.

"No one should be kept where they aren't meant to be," Toska said, her voice breaking.

Leala murmurs, "Shhh, shh," as she tangles up their fingers. Wabi twists them together at the ankles. "Shhhh," Leala whispers again, but all three of them hear I'm sorry.


mencomot: the act of stealing small things, like food or drink, partly for fun.

Wabi knows that Leala sneaks out. Probably everyone knows that Leala sneaks out, weeknights after their parents have gone to sleep. She doesn't bother to be quiet. Toska always levels her with a sad look in the morning, when Leala's eyes are rimmed dark and puffy, but all Leala ever does is smile back, wide and toothy.

The only time Wabi ever heard her come back in, she had a backpack filled with plush dolls. She was laughing and had to hold on to the kitchen table to keep herself from falling off the chair.

Wabi woke up because of all the noise she was making. Leala was sitting in the kitchen, her gaze fixed determinedly on a glass of water.

"Are you all right?" Wabi whispered, kneeling beside her sister's chair.

Leala turned to gaze at her, mouth tipped up in a tight smile. "Is Tozz still asleep?" she asked.

"She won't be for long if you don't lower your voice," Wabi hissed. "God. Drink your water."

Leala giggled. "I stole the doll collection," she said, keeping her voice at the same level. "They were going to throw it out. I took the whole box. The whole box!"

Wabi watched as her sister raised the water glass to her lips and took a long, determined sip. "Why?" she asked.

Leala put the water down. She gazed at Wabi for a long time, her eyes going soft around the corners. "Just because," she said, before pressing a long kiss to Wabi's forehead and falling asleep with her forehead balanced precariously on the kitchen table.


ya'aburnee: a declaration of love, from one person to another, indicting how difficult it would be to live without them.

By the time Wabi graduates high school, Leala is gone. It's hard to say where: she rarely stays in the same place for long. It's hard even to know what it is that she does--sometimes they receive clippings in the mail, places she's been and people she's shaken hands with, but never any detail of why and how.

Toska is gone too, but not as far. She lives in a small apartment above the movie theater and teaches at the elementary school. She has a rooftop garden that is always more beautiful than the ones on the ground. She still looks sad when she smiles.

Wabi is valedictorian. She stands at the podium and looks out at the crowd and still doesn't know how to speak the language that they want her to. She still knows too many words that they don't. She can explain how it feels to be homesick for places that don't exist, to be strong when it is impossible to be strong, to leave without leaving a trail behind you, but ask her to sum up eighteen years and predict eighteen more and she is left blank, voiceless despite all the words in her mother's shop.

She looks down at the audience and finds her sisters, side by side. Toska smiles, eyes wrinkled at the corners. Leala tosses her two thumbs up and a shitty grin that makes Wabi want to hug her and punch her at the same time.

Everyone is waiting. Wabi takes a deep breath.

"Ya'aburnee," she says, at last.

#sisters #language #magicalrealism #kippermanscuriosities


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