If Only a Word for All Things
by Jameyanne Fuller
I hunched my shoulders and leaned closer to the automatic ticket machine. I punched in the date and time with tense fingers, chose the train I wanted, and stuffed some crumpled Euros into the slot. At any moment a carabiniere would take one look at me, know I was somewhere I shouldn’t be, and march me right onto the train back to Assisi. But I wasn’t running away, not really. I was going to Paris to find Maman and bring her home. We needed her home. Her and her magic words.
The ticket machine thought, then spat out my ticket. I seized it.
“Do you know where to go, signorina?” a station guard asked at my shoulder. I jumped, but I reminded myself she was only trying to be helpful. As long as I didn’t give myself away, I would be fine.
I looked down at my ticket as though I’d forgotten what it said. “The train to Paris?”
“Track 1 East.” She pointed to my left, “just keep walking to the end.”
“Grazie.” I set off at a brisk walk, a little too brisk for an Italian, but maybe she would think I was a tourist or student. I stopped to validate my ticket, then slid it into the inside pocket of my jacket, adjusted the straps of my backpack, and kept walking.
It felt as if I walked for at least a mile, but at last I found track 1 East and the long, red train. I climbed aboard, chose a seat next to the window, and pressed my face against the glass. It was growing dark outside, the lowering ceiling of gray clouds turning a dull blue as the sun set. By morning, I would be in Paris, and once I was there, I would find my mother.
I didn’t know exactly what had happened between her and Babbo. There was shouting in French and Farsi, and the only Italian words I caught were the swears. All I knew for sure was Babbo had decided to take an Italian course. He was embarrassed that he hadn’t done it sooner, that he’d been in Italy eighteen years and could still barely speak the language, that he needed his wife or his sixteen-year-old daughter to take him to the post office or the pharmacy. So he had brought home a textbook and an exercise book and a Farsi-Italian dictionary. And Maman had left. She packed a suitcase, kissed my cheek, and tucked a folded scrap of paper into my hand. She said she loved me. She said she would miss me so much, but I belonged here, in Assisi, with Babbo. She said she was sorry. And she left, closing the door quietly behind her.
I sat in my room for hours, bewildered and lost and scared. I didn’t know how to face Babbo or the gaping hole in our apartment Maman had left behind. So I stared at the note she’d given me for hours, trying to make sense of it. All she’d written, the one word that she thought encompassed everything she could possibly have said to me, was “Maggari”: If only.
We didn’t have internet at home, so during break at school the next day, I went to the computer lab and did a search for “maggari.” There had to be a reason she’d written it on that paper and given it to me, some meaning I didn’t know. I scrolled through the definitions and etymology and synonyms. Attempts to translate it into other languages. Someone had written a blog post about how Italians used “maggari” to mean whatever they wanted it too. “A word for all things,” the author wrote.
Finally, at the bottom of the fifth page of results, I found something promising: an article about an old legend. The word, the legend said, had power, but the article didn’t explain more than that, and before I could dig deeper, the bell rang. I went off to sociology, more confused than ever.
Did “maggari” have some sort of power? It seemed ridiculous, but I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. As the days without Maman wore on, I found myself turning the word over on my tongue, as if I could taste its secret power.
My doubts turned to conviction. The magic must be real. Maman must have been using it, somehow, to hold us together. Babbo and I needed Maman back. So I was going to Paris. I would find her. And I would bring her home.
She’d left me the word. She must have wanted me to find out about its power and then come get her. Still, a worry tickled the back of my mind—why did she leave?–but I pushed it aside. This must be what she wanted.
The train jolted forward, and I fell back against the seat. I pulled my backpack off my shoulders and set it in my lap, wrapping my arms around it and tucking my hands into my sleeves.
My parents met at a summer program at the University for Foreigners in Perugia. Maman was French; Babbo was Iranian. They failed to learn much Italian, but they fell in love across their textbooks and espresso and dark Baci chocolates, drawn together, I thought, by their mutual feeling of foreignness in the mountains of Umbria. They could barely understand each other—their only common language the Italian they were not studying — but Maman told me you didn’t need words for love.
After the revolution in Iran, Babbo came back to Italy and bought an apartment building in Assisi, just below Santa Chiara. He hung pots of geraniums from the windows, and he made his home on the top floor and rented the two apartments below him out to tourists. He opened an Iranian bakery on the bottom floor of his building, and he saved all his money. When he had enough, he went to Paris, following the return address on one of Maman’s incomprehensible postcards, and when he found her, he got down on one knee and held out a diamond ring. He did not say a word.
But she did. Whenever Maman told me this story, she said she flung her arms around Babbo and told him that of course she would marry him, because she loved him. She loved him so much. And he understood her.
Now, with the train speeding northwest into France, with only darkness rushing past the windows, I wondered how much of that story was really true.
Babbo had learned a little Italian—mostly the words for food and numbers and how to give directions — enough to scrape by, but never enough to feel at home. After they got married, Maman did all the talking. Somehow, she’d learned Italian and Farsi. Somehow, everyone understood her.
The door of the train car slid open, and I turned to see the conductor entering. I watched him make his way up the aisle until he reached my seat.
“Your ticket, Signorina?”
I handed it over. He checked the time stamp and gave it back to me. “Grazie.”
I nodded, and he walked on.
I pulled my French book from my bag, opened it on my lap, and flipped through the pages. “Où est la Rue des Patriarches?” I muttered over and over again, trying out different pronunciations until it sounded right, until it sounded like something Maman would say. The syllables came from farther back in the mouth than in Italian—practically gargled up from the back of my throat—and I was sure that, no matter how hard I studied, it would never feel natural. But I said it again: “Où est la Rue des Patriarches?” And then, “Où est la Jardin des Plantes?” Finally, I tried, “Je cherche pour ma mére”—I’m looking for my mother—which was harder to say—I couldn’t quite figure out what to do with all the Cs—but I didn’t think I would need that.
Maman left almost three months ago. Since then, I switched into the linguistic course at liceo and I’d been working hard to catch up with my classmates in Ancient Latin and Greek, Spanish, English, German, and most important to me, French. Before Maman left, my French was terrible, and my Farsi even worse. Maman was the only reason my family could understand each other. And when she left, nothing made sense anymore. We needed her back.
Maman was wrong. Maybe you didn’t need words for love at first, but you couldn’t live your whole life without understanding each other. And now that I’d stopped to think about it, I didn’t know how we’d lasted as long as we did.
So I’d studied French until I thought I could make my way through Paris on my own without getting completely lost, and I’d stolen that postcard Babbo had used to find Maman so many years ago, and I’d run away.
It sounded terrible when I said it like that, but I wasn’t going to stay in Paris. I was going to find Maman and bring her home. We would get off the train in Assisi, and Babbo would be waiting for us, and we would be a family again. Everything would go back to normal. Babbo’s hands would stop shaking as he poured olive oil on the bruschetta every night. And I would be able to sleep without dreaming of French verbs that chased me, conjugating as they came, up through the dark, empty streets of Assisi, until I reached La Rocca at the top and looked back, with nowhere else to go, and realized there was no city spreading below me—there had never been—there was only darkness and Babbo’s quiet sobs in the next room.
There was a thin streak of silver along the horizon when the train pulled into Paris. I slid my backpack onto my shoulders and struggled up from the depths of my chair where I had fallen asleep. I couldn’t remember ever feeling so stiff. My feet felt too big for my shoes, and my head felt full of cotton. I hung onto the back of the chair as the train slowed, pulled into the station, and stopped with a lurch that made me wobble. I staggered to the door and almost fell out onto the platform, catching my balance at the last minute before I jumped down.
It didn’t seem that different from Rome or even Assisi, but then, it was a train station, and train stations always managed to look the same. I bought a map of the city at a news stand, and whispering the French phrases I would use over and over again, I approached a station guard. He said something to me in French that was so fast I only caught the word “you.” This was going to be harder than I’d thought. “Parlez-vous Italienne?” I asked.
He shook his head.
I took a breath. “Where can I find Rue des Patriarches?” I asked slowly in French, hoping he would take the hint and speak slowly in return.
I made him repeat the directions three times, tracing the route he described on the map. When I was sure I knew where to go, I thanked him and left the station.
The sun had not quite risen, and the sky was clear and bright but for bands of fiery clouds that stretched across it like scaffolding. I headed off toward the river, trying not to think about what would happen if Maman wasn’t at her parents’ house.
Before I’d walked more than a dozen paces, my phone buzzed in my pocket. It was Babbo. I hesitated, breathing in the early-morning smells of the city—metal, sewage, old stone, Christmas trees, and sunlight. Cars whooshed by so fast I could feel their motion along the base of my skull. I hit “ignore” and stuffed the phone back in my pocket. I didn’t want him to worry, but he wouldn’t understand me anyway. I would call him later, once I could tell him Maman was coming home and everything was going to be all right.
The sun was rising properly now, glinting like a great orange coin off the windshields of cars and glowing in the Seine. The trees along the road were already decorated for Christmas, but the rising sun was warm on my face and hair. I checked the map regularly, but it was no longer where I was going that worried me. In fact, the farther I walked, the more I recognized from the summers I’d come here to visit my grandparents—the cafes along the Seine; the cedars, branches bare and spindly now, in the Jardin des Plantes; the grand main gallery of the Natural History Museum. I had no idea what to say when I found Maman. What did you say to someone who left you with only one word? How could I convince her to come home? And what if I was wrong about the magic altogether?
Before I had any answers, I was outside my grandparents’ tall, narrow house. The wind off the Seine blew my hair around my face, and I hugged myself for a moment. I came here to find her. I didn’t come all this way just to stand on her doorstep. I screwed up all the courage I had, raised my fist, and knocked.
I stood there, breathing hard, and waited.
Nothing happened for a full minute. Maybe they were still sleeping. Maybe they weren’t here. Maybe they just hadn’t heard me. I raised my fist to knock again, but then the door opened, and I was looking up into my mother’s pale face.
I opened my mouth, but no words came out. She looked older than she had when she’d left. There were white strands in her mussed pale blond hair and lines etched deeply around her eyes that hadn’t been there before.
“Annachiara?” she gasped.
“Maman!” I cried, and I flung my arms around her and buried my face in her shoulder, pressing my cheek into the warm flannel of her dressing gown that smelled just like her. “I came to find you,” I said in Italian, and then I found the French words and said it again, “I came to find you.”
I showered, changed into clean jeans and a striped t-shirt, and brushed my teeth. Then Maman took me out to a café near Notre Dame and ordered me a large mug of hot chocolate.
I clutched it between my hands, trying to warm my fingers while I searched for the French words for what I wanted to say. “Why did you leave?” I finally managed.
“I had to, Cara,” she said. But at the same time I heard this, I also heard only one word. “Maggari.”
“Why do you keep saying that?”
“Maggari,” I said. “Why do you keep saying it?”
“Maggari.” But there was more behind the word, tension in the set of her jaw and her white-knuckled grip on her coffee cup. “How did you know?” This time, she spoke French.
I pulled out her note and pointed to the one word on the paper. “I looked it up. I found…” I couldn’t remember how to say what I wanted to say—the tenses, the conjugations, the pronunciations—and I was so frustrated I thought I might cry.
I came all this way to find my mother, and I could barely talk to her. I stirred my hot chocolate, more for something to do than because it really needed it.
“Is it true?” I asked in Italian. The words were close enough to the French. “È magica?”
“Oui,” Maman whispered. “Annachiara, I’m so sorry.”
“But then… Why did you leave?”
She spoke slowly to be sure I understood. “Your father and I fell in love, but we could barely understand each other. I knew nothing about him but his name and… Well, that summer it was enough, but…”
“You said you don’t need words for love,” I said. A sharp pain pierced my heart, and I clutched my mug tighter. My next words were like a plea. “You said it didn’t matter.”
“It didn’t matter then. But I knew it would, if we wanted it to last, and I did want it to last, Annachiara.”
“Then why did you leave us?”
“Listen to me, Cara. Just listen to me.”
“Okay. Tell me.”
“It didn’t matter then,” she said again, and she looked older and sadder than I’d ever seen her, “but I knew it would matter later. So when I got home from that summer program, I signed up for Italian classes to really learn the language. I was terrible—so terrible. It shouldn’t have been so hard—everyone says Italian is easier than French—but I just couldn’t do it. I went to the professor for extra help, but he said I’d do better to just drop the class. I told him about your father and how it was the only language we had in common. I had to learn it. He agreed. But instead of giving me extra help, he taught me a word that I could use to mean whatever I wanted. I could speak this word, and whomever I was speaking to would understand exactly what I wanted to say, as long as they didn’t know about the word’s magic. So as long as your father didn’t know about the word, I could speak to him, and he would understand me.”
“But…” The real implications of what she’d done started to sink in. My head spun, and I took a big sip of hot chocolate. I took another sip, trying to work out what I wanted to say. “But then, he could understand you, but you couldn’t understand him, right?” Somehow, this didn’t seem any better than a marriage where they couldn’t understand each other at all. Worse, even. The more I thought about it, the more the magic seemed like a lie.
“Why not just learn Italian?” I asked.
“I was never good at learning languages,” she said. “One of the reasons I went to the Perugia program in the first place, but you know what they say. After a certain age, your brain just isn’t built for it. And why should I if I didn’t have to?”
“Maybe because you loved him?” My voice came out harsher than I’d meant it to.
“It wasn’t like that, Annachiara. When you fall in love, you’ll understand.”
I drank the rest of my chocolate in one gulp. I fervently hoped when I fell in love, I’d want to put in the effort to make the relationship work the way it should. I didn’t know much about love—only what I read in novels—but I was sure that a relationship where real communication could only happen one way could never last. Add a child who never managed to learn either of her parents’ languages into the mix, and we didn’t stand a chance. The hot chocolate seemed to bubble up from my squirming stomach into my throat.
“So…” I didn’t know what to say anymore.
“So when your father decided to take that Italian course,” Maman said, her voice hollow and brittle, “I had to leave. It was over. As soon as he found out what maggari meant…”
I pictured Babbo, sitting at the kitchen table while I siphoned sugar onto the top of tiramisu, struggling to remember the conjugation of essere: “Io sono, tu sei, lui—lui—“
“Lui è, Babbo,” I’d said. “Lei è.”
I am. You are. He is. She is.
“He might not have found out,” I said. “Or he might not have cared. If it was the best you could do…”
“He would have cared, Annachiara. Wouldn’t you care? If you found out every time someone told you they loved you, all they were really saying was ‘if only?’”
“But that’s not what you were saying,” I said. “You were saying what you meant to say. You were just—just—“ I looked down at the table and twisted my fingers together. “I just found out,” I whispered, “and I’m still here.”
She didn’t speak.
But why was I still here? I didn’t believe that the simple word “if only” meant she didn’t love me. All it meant, really, was that she never tried as hard as she could have to keep us together. So did she really love us?
“Please come home, Maman,” I said. It was why I’d come. I had to say it, but it felt as if I had to dredge the words up from the bottom of my empty mug to give them to her. It felt like they weren’t my words at all, and as soon as I’d spoken them, I wanted to take them back.
“I can’t,” she said. Disappointment dropped into my stomach. I was disappointed with Maman, but I was more disappointed with myself. Of course she wouldn’t come home, not if she saw our family as one word. If only. So I just nodded and stood. The sun was warm on my face, and I could feel its heat on my clothes all the way down the right side of my body. But the warmth didn’t sink below my skin. Inside, I was all ice.
My phone buzzed again, and I fished it out of my pocket. “Pronto.”
“Annachiara.” It was Babbo. He launched into a stream of incomprehensible Farsi, but I knew what he was saying. Where in the world was I? Didn’t I realize he was frantic? Where was I?
I looked at my mother. “Say it,” she mouthed. “It’s all you can do. He’ll understand.” But it seemed like she was trying to say something else.
I’d thought I could fix everything. I’d thought things could go back to normal. I could barely look at my mother, but I was just as disgusted with myself. I’d wanted the magic to fix things. I’d run away from Babbo, leaving him to worry, while I searched for an answer that could only hurt us more.
“Babbo,” I said, cutting across his tirade. Then I spoke in slow, deliberate Italian. “Torno a casa. I’m coming home.” I hung up. It would be hard, but I would not run away from that. I would fix things the right way. The way Maman should have.
I picked up my backpack and swung it onto my shoulder. I felt heavy, weighed down by more than my bag. “I have to go home,” I said slowly in French, and I turned away. Was it really about the word at all? Had she just fallen out of love with him? How long had she been waiting for this excuse? And what about me? Hadn’t she wanted to try for me? Or was I the only reason she stayed as long as she did?
“Annachiara.” Her voice cracked, and in spite of myself, I turned back. She said something in French, the words too fast, tripping over each other. I shook my head. “Maggari!” She’d risen to her feet, reaching towards me, but the table still stood between us. “Maggari!”
But it didn’t work anymore. I knew about the magic. “I don’t understand you,” I said quietly, and I left. I wove my way through the tourists snapping photos of Notre Dame and the Parisians on their way to work or school, passing the Christmas trees and nativity scenes in store windows, returning to the Gare du Nord and the train back to Assisi. I would go home, alone, but Babbo would be waiting for me, struggling to learn Italian, and I would help him. And maybe one day, we would be able to mend our broken hearts and finally understand.
About the Author
Jameyanne Fuller is a law student by day, writer by night. Sometimes she sleeps. She writes young adult fantasy and science fiction stories, and her short fiction has appeared in the 2018 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide anthology, Andromeda Spaceways, Abyss and Apex, and of course Cast of Wonders.
When she isn’t studying or writing, Jameyanne can be found reading, playing the clarinet, or plotting world domination with her team of black labradors, retired Seeing Eye dog Mopsy and new Seeing Eye dog Neutron Star.
About the Narrator
Diane Severson is a lyric soprano specializing in Early Music, especially Baroque and medieval music. She is an enthusiastic teacher of singing (taking her cues from her mentor the late Cornelius Reid and his long-time student and mentor in her own right Carol Baggott-Forte).
Diane has been blogging on this and that since 2005 and has been involved in the SF Poetry Scene (yes, it’s a thing) since 2010. She has narrated for the StarShipSofa Podcast Magazine since Tony C. Smith started running fiction and found out that she reads aloud to her husband. She quickly became his go-to-girl when he wanted poetry read. As a result of that affinity with poetry, and because she does her best work when she has a Cause (a budding superheroine?), she decided to take up as Science Fiction Poetry’s Spokesperson. She produces the sporadic podcast, which runs as part of StarShipSofa, called Poetry Planet and is a member of the Science Fiction Poetry Association and currently serves as Membership Chair and Newsletter Editor. She reviews genre poetry for Amazing Stories Magazine and the SFPA’s Star*Line magazine. She continues to narrate stories for StarShipSofa and other podcasts (notably EscapePod, PodCastle and Tales to Terrify) and has begun getting paying jobs as a voice actor.
The best place to find her is on the web because she tends to pick up and move to another country at the drop of a hat, having lived in Germany, the UK, and France in the past 10 years. She and her family, a Rocket Scientist and a young multi-linguist, currently reside in a Home County of England.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.