By Julie Sondra Decker
“It’s a boy!”
I do what newborn babies do. I take my first breath and cry.
It’s one of the only times in my life I did what was expected of me. If I’d understood what my father’s words had sentenced me to, the crying would have been on purpose.
“Oh yes, Mister Big Eyes!” says Grandmommy. She bops me on the nose and I make a squealy sound. “Mister Big Brown Eyes looks just like his daddy.”
She tickles my cheek and I try to grab her ring because it’s sparkly and green. She resists my grip. It’s a game. I beam up into her face and hope she keeps playing.
“He really makes eye contact a lot,” says Grandmommy to Mommy.
“Avey is the same age and he won’t sit still for a moment to look at anybody’s face,” Grandmommy continues. “Boys this age are usually all action. This little ducky acts more like Siret, sweet little thing.”
“If you want proof he’s a boy, feel free to take the next turn changing his nappies.”
Grandmommy laughs. I make the same noise with my voice.
Mommy runs in the door and throws her arms around Daddy. I look up from playing with the bread dough. Something’s going on. They’re laughing. Her feet have dust on them.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” says Daddy, talking into Mommy’s hair. I drop the dough and stand up. I want to laugh too, but I also want to know why we’re laughing, because I didn’t see anything funny.
“Look, he’s curious,” says Daddy. “Go on, tell him the news.”
“He won’t know what it means,” she says.
“Of course not,” says Daddy, “but he’ll only start talking if we talk to him first.”
Mommy drops to her knees and grabs my shoulders like something is very important. I’m paying attention.
“Mommy’s going to have a baby,” she says. “You’re going to be a big brother, Lihill. You’re going to have your own baby sister.”
“Sister?” echoes my daddy. “They said it would be a girl?”
“They’re not always right.”
Mommy gives him a look. “Nobody’s always right. But don’t look so disappointed. You already got your son.”
“I wanna go with Mommy,” I say, ready to cry, but Daddy won’t let go of my hand.
“You’re not allowed over there, son. Ladies only past the curtain.”
I hear my baby sister crying on the other side while the women sing and ring their bells. It’s not fair. Cyani just got here a couple days ago. She shouldn’t be allowed to do what I’m not even allowed to do. I’m older! Why is she so special?
Daddy picks me up. “I know you miss Mommy,” he says sternly, “but you’ll see her after the ceremony. Now come on.”
I don’t miss Mommy. I just want to be on that side of the curtain.
Daddy takes me out back with all the husbands and brothers and uncles and granddads. The torches are lit and there’s a fire in the middle pit. It smells good, but it’s scary to me. Dad sets me down on the log next to Uncle Eliak, who pats my shoulder and tries to hold me still when I start fidgeting.
I watch the drumming and chanting, and watch the two priests casting blessings for my sister. The Flame priest in red yells a lot while he’s writing the blessings on curled sheets of rice paper. I don’t understand what he’s saying. The Wind priest in gold is quieter, and when he swings his rod the winds pluck the tiny scrolls from the Flame priest’s hands and they fly into the central bonfire. I don’t know why doing this is supposed to help my new sister with anything, but when I ask questions they always say “It’s just what we do.”
When it’s over, I ask Uncle Eliak whether I got a blessing like this, back before I could remember, when I was new.
“Of course, kid.” He tells me about my own naming ceremony, describing the smoke and ash and the ritual that welcomed me into the world of Fire and Air. I’d emerged choking and red-faced and covered with soot, fighting like a baby boy is supposed to, evermore the child of the gods. It sounds like a story that should belong to someone else.
Who decided I had to be a fighter? Who decided to give me a boy’s naming ceremony? I want a sand blanket and herbal bath like they said Cyani is getting.
Who do I have to tell to get this changed?
My new friend Mymei invites me to her house after play group. After we eat some wafers, she brings me out to her yard, where she has her own play hut behind the sheep pen. We run up under the grass canopy and try to think of a game.
“Let’s play grown-ups,” she says.
“That sounds fun,” I agree.
Mymei goes around the hut telling me which part is the kitchen and which part is the pretend hearth and which part is the baby’s room. When she holds up a cloth doll and sets it on its leaf-pile cradle, I tell her I’m good at taking care of babies because I have a little sister.
“Let’s play she’s asleep, so we don’t have to take care of her yet,” she says. “How about let’s play it’s dinnertime. I’ll make a dinner and you go pretend you’re at work. Then come home and I feed it to you.”
“What do I pretend my work is?”
She regards me seriously. “Whatever you want. Whatever your dad does.”
I scowl. “Why does it gotta be what my dad does?”
She shrugs. “’Cause I’m doing what my mom does? And you’re the daddy.”
“I’m not the daddy!” I shout.
“I know not really,” Mymei says, laughing. “We’re just pretending.”
“Then why can’t you pretend to be the daddy?”
She sniffs, sounding annoyed. “I’m a girl, Lihill.”
“Why can’t we both be mommies, then?”
“Because it doesn’t work that way. And you’re a boy. Boys are daddies.”
“Well I don’t want that. I want to be a mommy.”
She gives me a sideways look, then walks over and picks up her doll. She gives it to me.
“I guess I can make dinner and you can take care of the baby.”
I relax, and give her a grin before picking up the baby on my hip. It’s too small to feel like a real baby, but I pretend it is crying and sing to it like I do with my sister. Mymei laughs as she stirs pretend soup.
“We’re a good team,” she says.
“Cut his hair. He looks like a little girl.”
“He says he doesn’t want me to.”
“His troop will make fun of him. . . .”
They talk about me like I can’t hear them, or like I don’t understand.
Daddy opens the back door noisily. “If your son comes home with a black eye, it’ll be your fault.”
“No, if our son comes home with a black eye it’ll be a bully’s fault. Besides, who would hit such a sweet little boy?”
“Anybody who thinks little boys aren’t supposed to be ‘sweet.’” Daddy slams the door and I hear his boots stomping outside. Maybe he’s going out to burn our rubbish like he sometimes does when he’s mad. When he lights things on fire with his hands it scares me. I come through the curtain once he’s gone. Mommy sees me but I don’t say anything.
“I don’t know what you heard,” she says, collecting me against her hip, “but nobody’s going to give you a black eye. You’ll be fine.”
I nod and touch my hair. It seems unbelievable that anyone would want to hit me just because they don’t like my hair, but it’s true that people act in all kinds of terrible ways if I want things girls want and do things girls do. One day they’ll see I’m supposed to be doing those things.
Mommy gathers up Cyani and we take the ferry across the river for my first day of troop, where I’m introduced to the master and given a seat on a bench. I’m in a motley collection of boys about my age. This doesn’t look good.
A man dressed in the same kind of crimson robe my father wears during rituals gets up in front of our group and tells us all about how we’ll be attending troop thrice a week to learn how to be men. I already want to leave and find something better to do, but I don’t have a choice because “this is just what we do.” The crimson-robed man tells us all about our proud future and the choices we have before us, claiming our studies here will prepare us for apprenticeship and becoming future heads of household. I feel like I’m not really here, or like I’m seeing something I’m not supposed to see. I’m invisible and the crimson-robed man is talking through me.
Next a man in gold takes the stage, leaning on his pale wooden walking stick. He tells us our first year will focus on reading stories, learning dances and chants, and gathering information on our elemental studies. In about a year—the summer after we turn six—we’ll have to decide whether we’d like to take the path of the Wind or the path of the Flame. Most of us have the ability to learn either talent, he says, but choosing a track will hone our personalities and prime us for work that will fall in line with our temperaments and our inclinations.
“Any questions?” asks the priest.
I want to know. I want to demand an answer to why I’m not offered a chance to claim a blue robe like my mother’s, or a green one like my grandmother’s. Why are the gold and crimson robes my only options? I have questions, all right.
But for the first time, I feel ashamed of what I want to say. I can’t speak it. I wonder, in a deep pit in my head, whether something is horribly wrong with me since I don’t want what I’m supposed to want. I stare at the two men as they carry on with enthusiasm about our future, and I’m terrified by the idea of becoming like them. What if everyone’s right and I really am going to be that someday?
What am I really?
Mymei and Cyani and I are playing grown-ups in the backyard when Daddy gets home and takes a peek at us. I feel like something bad might happen when I notice how much his face looks like a thundercloud.
“What’re you kids playing?”
“I’m a grown-up!” chirps Cyani. She’s pretending to wash dishes. We’re running our own play house again: I’m cooking the meal and Mymei is taking care of the babies. Today we have twin dolls. I glance up and meet my father’s eyes, then just nonchalantly turn back to the cups full of rocks that I’m preparing as delicious food.
“Come here, Lihill.”
My hands shake and I put down my stick-spoon. I trot up to my father pretending I don’t know he’s upset, but it’s hard to hold my fear in.
“If you want to play a game,” he says, “maybe you should find some other boys to play with. You shouldn’t be playing at cooking and keeping house.”
I shrug and look away. “It’s just a game, Daddy.”
“You know that when you grow up, your wife will keep the house. Right?”
I just look at the ground, stomach churning. I’m not sure which is worse: the expectation of being a husband, or the idea of having a wife. I bite my lip and try not to cry. That’s when my mother charges out onto the deck and takes my father’s arm.
“Why are you yelling at him?”
“I’m not yelling!”
My mother glances at me, then out at Mymei and my sister. She gracefully ducks back inside and pulls my father with her. He doesn’t resist her summons but he’s certainly not done arguing. I sit down in the dirt between the other girls and listen. They stand on either side of me, motionless as statues. The walls are too thin to protect us from my parents’ conversation.
“He plays with girls too much. He’s getting to think he is one,” says my father. “Did you see what he was doing?”
“Children play games, Alet. It’s not a crime. He’ll grow out of it.”
“Not if you and everyone else don’t stop coddling him. He’s soft—he needs some toughening up if you ever expect him to have a normal life.”
“He likes plenty of things other boys like. I’ve seen him throwing pinecones at targets and climbing trees, just like any boy does. And he dances with the men at holidays just fine. He can like a few feminine things without you trying to shame him over it.”
“When kids play, they’re preparing for life. I don’t approve of what he’s preparing for.”
“Well what do you suggest I do about it?”
“Get him to make friends with other boys. Get his cousin over here—Avey’s the same age, and he knows how to be a boy. Get him around some regular kids.”
My mother is silent for a moment, and then she says, more quietly, “This better not be about the track he picked, Alet.”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“He’s around other boys all day at his troop. Do you think they don’t count as ‘regular kids’ just because his troopmates wear gold?”
I look at the ground and feel myself blushing. I never wanted to pick Fire or Air, but at least Air seems gentler, with less yelling, and I don’t mind playing the pipes.
“You can’t turn him into something he’s not,” my mother continues. “Some boys aren’t as aggressive, and it’s fine. We need both kinds of men to keep our ways alive. So stop letting your Flame pride get in the way of letting your son be what he is. He probably won’t change his mind, and you’re just going to have to face it.”
“Just make sure he keeps his options open,” my dad barks back, “and if he’s got to grow up to swing a wand, so be it. I just don’t want him missing the chance to walk in his father’s footsteps.”
“I think you should stop worrying about it,” she says, “and let Lihill worry about Lihill. No matter what he chooses, neither art is less of a man.”
I hear my father’s heavy footfalls punctuating his stalk away from my mother, with no final words to acknowledge that she’s won that round. My mother generally does come out on top whenever they lock horns like this. It’s natural that Water would have an easy time putting down the Fire.
Cyani is only a little kid, but even she can tell I need a hug. When she crouches and embraces me I can’t help but cry, and Mymei puts her arm around me too.
“You’ll be all right,” she says. “You don’t have to be a Flame just ’cause your dad wants you to. Wind is just as good!”
“I don’t want to be Wind either,” I hear myself saying.
“Then why’d you pick it?” she asks, pulling back somewhat while Cyani just keeps hugging me and holding my hand.
“They only gave me those two to choose from, but I’d rather be something else.”
“. . . They keep saying boys can’t study Water.”
She nods, slowly. “Yeah . . . you do always say you wish you were a girl.”
She doesn’t understand. It’s not really that I wish I was a girl. It’s that I don’t understand why the world sees a boy when they look at me.
“Let me see it, then,” Mymei says.
“Just me?” I don’t really want to dance by myself.
“Well, it’s not like I can do it with you,” she says. “Come on, you can show me, right?”
“Only if you’ll show me one of yours next.”
Since we’re at Mymei’s house I don’t have to worry that my dad is going to catch me showing Air dances to a girl. I look around for a stick that’s big enough to be a walking stick height for me, but I don’t see any and decide I’ll just pretend. Mymei and I have been pretending forever; she’ll understand. I take my first stance and relax.
Imagining pipe music and muted drums, I show my best friend the dance I’ve been bragging about. Even though it’s supposed to be a boy’s dance, I have to admit I really love doing it. It’s a very fast dance, and all the foot-drumming and rod-banging is supposed to call up energy to be fed to the gods. When we’re older, we’ll learn to train that energy into controlling our elements, but as kids all we can do is go through the motions. I like motions. But I don’t know how to give my energy to any gods at the end. I feel like they don’t know I’m here.
With my final spin completed, I pretend to bang a stick into the sand. Mymei claps her hands politely. “You’re really good at this,” she says.
“Thanks. Now you.”
I watch my friend sort of hungrily as she clambers up and assumes her first stance. Even if I didn’t know Mymei had decided to study Water, I would have felt it from seeing her dance: she flows between her positions, without so much stopping and starting. She spins and waves, and the calmness and grace of her dance make it look like there’s no ground beneath her. I’m too breathless to applaud when she drifts to a stop.
“That was beautiful,” I say finally, and there are tears in my eyes. She bends over me, puzzled.
“Oh, please, it wasn’t that great. You’re a much better dancer.”
I shake my head. “It doesn’t matter.” What I can’t seem to say is how much it hurts to watch her embrace the element I’m not allowed to touch.
Mymei just nods, embarrassed, sitting back down in the dirt with me.
“What do they tell you to think about?” I ask her.
“You mean when we dance?”
“Well, the goddess, of course.” She pops up on her knees and crawls over to the play hut’s single wicker table, where she picks up a doll that looks nicer than her other ones. She hands it to me.
“Who’s this?” I ask.
“That’s my goddess doll. We made them at troop. Don’t you guys make gods?”
I nod. “We carve them from wood, though.” We’ve made plenty of god dolls—figures, mostly, from animals to men and mixtures of both, and even strange things like horn-shaped spirit-catchers and triangle talismans. I never thought they were important. I wonder now if that’s disrespectful. And I wonder whether I might get better at dances and pipes—and enjoy them more—if I could really feel like I’m being seen and heard.
“What is she made out of?” I ask Mymei, indicating the doll.
“I’m not sure,” she says. “We just did what the mistresses said. They gave us the cloth and the filling, and I think those braids must be corn silk.”
“Do you know where I could get the stuff to make my own? Or . . . can I have yours?”
She draws back. “Why do you want my doll?”
“I’d like to have a goddess doll, that’s all.” I look down at the doll again. “And I guess people would ask questions if I tried to get stuff to make one.”
“I’ll think about it,” she says, guarded, and I accept that grudgingly and let her have it back.
“Hey Mymei, at your troop, do they ever say why there’s hundreds of gods but only one goddess?”
“Um . . . well, I guess they didn’t exactly say, but the mistresses tell us there’s only one Mother Earth, and that it’s our goddess. She keeps everything going, and everything comes from her, and she’s what everything centers around. Like the planet has a billion seeds but only one ground,” she recites.
“That’s funny,” I say.
“Why’s it funny?”
“Oh, I don’t mean the story is funny. I just think it’s funny that . . . the way the guys tell it is different. They say there’re so many gods because men need to be able to do so many different things, and girls only need one goddess because they all have the same job.”
“The same job?” she says, incredulous.
“Yeah, you know. How ladies keep the house and raise kids. And guys grow up and do all kinds of different work to support ladies.”
“We do so many different things at home though! We can be healers, or seamstresses, or cooks, or wisdom keepers—”
“I know! Guys think they run the world.” I don’t know why even our masters at troop seem to think men are the only ones with lots of skills when we all see wives and mothers doing a hundred different tasks in the home every day, and some who don’t have families make their living with their own trade.
Mymei speaks after a silence. “Sounds like boys and girls both think the other is the less important one.”
“It’s not fair.”
“But you don’t think girls are less important, do you?”
I shake my head. “Of course not. Especially since I’m not even really a boy.”
Mymei doesn’t protest—she’s used to the way I talk—but she does look at me in a way I’ve never seen her look before. Her gray eyes are almost critical.
“What?” I ask.
Instead of replying, Mymei reaches behind my head and pulls out the band that holds my ponytail together. I don’t stop her when she fluffs my curls around my face and takes a good look at me.
“You look like a girl with your hair this way,” she says, then grins. “You should keep it like this.”
“I do sometimes, when I’m by myself at home. But my dad doesn’t like it. He wants me to cut it short.”
Surprising me, Mymei takes the little flower clip out of her own hair and puts it into mine. I wish I could see how it looks. “If you were wearing a dress right now,” she says, “I’d definitely think you were a girl. So would everybody else, I bet.” The smile fades from her face as she looks at me. “But I think that’s ’cause we’re kids. It’ll be different when you’re bigger. You might get a beard.”
I just don’t say anything because that idea makes me want to throw up.
Mymei and I get some more wafers and don’t say much for the rest of our visit. I think about our talk, and about how she danced, and the thoughts of the goddess and the water movements wash into my dreams that night.
When I wake up in the morning, Mymei’s goddess doll is next to me in my paillasse, and I grin and find a good hiding place for her. I don’t know how Mymei got in without waking anyone up, but I have no words for the gratitude I feel toward her for risking it.
Seeing my sister go off to the girls’ troop is starting to be so painful that it’s burning my insides.
Day after day I watch Cyani hop off the ferry and run in the opposite direction, off to learn about Water and Earth and to have her pick of either when she gets old enough. She gets to learn those dances and sing those songs and listen to those stories about the goddess. And I bet she never feels like the goddess can’t hear her voice.
I sit outside in our hammock after troop, pretending to read but just staring into space. It startles me when my mother slides in beside me.
“You look like a boy with something on his mind,” she says lightly. I scowl and turn away, but she puts her arm around me and I can’t bring myself to pull apart from her.
“You can tell me, Lihill,” she says. “What’s bothering you?”
I shut my book. “I think I don’t want to go to troop anymore.”
She chuckles. “Why?”
“It’s not right. Nothing’s right.”
She thinks for a moment before speaking. “What would you change about it?”
“Nothing,” I say. My mother strokes my ponytailed hair while I nurse my silence, and I feel strongly that she wants me to talk about what’s bothering me, but what can I tell her that will make any sense?
“If there’s nothing you’d change, then why don’t you want to keep going to troop?” she asks.
“I don’t think it needs to change. It’s fine for everybody else, but I wish I could go to a different one.”
“What do you mean?”
I close my eyes and experience a sudden burst of courage. I decide to say it. “I want to go with Cyani to her troop.”
My mother stops petting my hair, fingers frozen in my curls.
“You know you can’t do that, right?” she asks quietly.
I turn and look up. “Why can’t I? Why not? Why not?”
“Boys can’t go to girls’ troop, Lihill. You don’t get to pick and choose what you are.”
My hands make fists, letting my book fall out of the hammock. “I didn’t choose! I didn’t try to! I just am.”
“You are what?”
“Mom, I’m not a boy. I’m really not.”
She doesn’t know what to say to that. Neither do I. We’re sitting close enough that I can feel my mother’s heartbeat pick up speed, and it makes me angry. If she thinks this is hard for her, how does she think I feel? I lunge forward and dump myself out of the hammock, leaving her sitting in it by herself.
She catches my wrist before I can run away and hide.
“This has to stop, Lihill.”
My eyes are burning. “Yes it does!”
“Listen to me. You’re only eight years old. You’ll feel differently when you grow up. I promise. You’ll get more comfortable with what being a man means. You’ll grow into it. You’ll see.”
“No I won’t!” How would she have liked being told she’d be a man one day?
“Please listen to me, son.” She drops my hand but I don’t run away. I just hold my arms around myself, shivering. She goes on. “We don’t get to pick how we’re born. You’ll get used to your tasks and you’ll find something you love. You’re doing great at your Wind tasks and I’m sure your element will call you strongly when you reach your tenth year. You’ll feel it and you’ll embrace it.” She has her hand over her heart. I feel cold.
“Can’t I just go to troop with Cyani for a little while?” I ask, with my voice cracking. “To see if that calls me instead?”
Her face hardens. “No. They won’t allow it.”
“‘They’ who? Who do I have to ask?”
“Just never mind that idea, Lihill.” She stands up too, leaving the hammock swinging. “You’ll see one day that this is the right path for you. As you grow up you’ll find your own special way to be a man, and no, honey, that doesn’t mean you have to be a tough guy, no matter what your father says.” She tries for a smile. “There are plenty of mild-mannered, gentle men in this world. Some of them even have long hair.” With an awkward smile, she reaches to touch my head, but I duck and back up.
“I love you just the way you are,” she says.
I turn away from her and run.
Once I’m hiding in the corner of the bottom room clutching my goddess doll, I let myself cry. I look at my goddess doll and think about growing up. It seems ridiculous that I won’t mature into a woman one day. My mother did. My sister will. But I have to turn into a man, and they expect me to just accept it?
I hug my doll. The goddess will know what I need. When it happens, I’ll finally be able to start my life.
“When your tenth birthday comes, you boys will have your first chance to demonstrate competence in the element of your choice,” says the Flame priest, addressing the mixed group of Air and Fire nine-year-olds.
The element of my choice, huh?
I listen to the master explain the training we’ll be going through during the year. We can only pursue apprenticeship if we can command an element during our trial. If we fail, we’re in for a year of reevaluation, practicing our energy-raising techniques, exploring, and waiting for our next birthday before we can audition again.
“You don’t want to hit your teenage years without passing, or you could end up a burden on your parents,” warns the priest.
I raise my hand with a question, heart pounding.
“You said ‘the element of our choice.’ What element we pick is totally up to us?”
The priest studies me. “Well, yes,” he says. “Of course, we encourage you to pursue the element you’ve been training in so far, but you’re not barred from switching. If, in the eleventh hour, it’s Fire that calls to you instead of Air, you should listen, and we’ll try to prepare you.”
“That’s not what I meant,” I say. My heartbeat is rattling my teeth. But despite not relating to the element itself, I feel the fire in my veins. I have to do something before I get trapped into this way of life forever. Admitting what I want can’t possibly turn out worse for me than letting circumstances force me to be a man.
“What’s your question?” the priest asks, confused.
“I want to know if I can audition for Water.”
I can practically feel the air pulling away from me as the troop boys draw involuntary breaths. The priest cocks his head, then grins like I’m joking. “Interesting question. No, female elements aren’t an option for boys.”
“What about for me?”
He actually laughs. “You’re not an exception, Lihill. You’re a boy, aren’t you?”
My head is swimming. Because I can’t believe I’m actually saying this in front of everybody. I try to act like this is a matter of fact—try to act as steadfast and self-righteously certain as any girl would if she were asked to try to be a man. But really, I know it’s not the same. I know they all see a boy on the outside and don’t understand how there can be a girl on the inside. They think I’m being ridiculous.
The priest doesn’t seem to know what to say, so I say another thing.
“I’d like to get moved to the girls’ troop, please.”
Clearly dumbfounded, the Flame priest clears his throat and wipes his hands on his crimson robe. After a couple moments of strained silence, he shakes his head.
“I’ll have a word with your parents later, Lihill. All right, anyone else have questions?”
I’m flooded with hope and trepidation. He’ll talk to my parents? Does that mean he might actually ask my parents for permission to put me where I belong? Or does that mean he’s going to advise my parents to do something drastic because their messed-up son thinks he’s a girl?
After the day’s activities are over, I’m too nervous to get up. I can’t stall too long because my mother will be waiting to bring my sister and me back across the river, but my knees are watery. I take a few deep breaths to try to gather some strength to stand.
“He actually does look like a girl,” says a voice, and I turn. Three of my gold troopmates are looking at me. I’m not friendly with anyone from troop, but I know who they are. After seeing their expressions, I quickly break eye contact.
“Yeah, you’re awful pretty,” says another voice. “How about a kiss, Lihill?” He makes smooching noises while the other two laugh. Oh, great. I should have expected this. I’ve been mentally preparing for the inevitable harassment from my father, but now I’ve got to deal with these guys too. Keeping quiet as long as I did was my only protection, and now that’s gone.
“Thanks for the compliment,” I say lightly, and stand up as confident as I can. Oddly enough, I don’t feel flattered by being called pretty. They’re not saying it because they believe it.
I pick up my stuff and start to walk away, but one of the boys grabs the strap on my bag and yanks me back. He dumps the contents of my bag on the ground.
“Hey!” I yell.
“What, no lip paints? Where’s your hairbrush?”
“Just leave me alone.”
The boy who took my bag is standing over my possessions like he wants me to come and get them, and I’m pretty hopping mad, so I’m brave enough to do it. So much for Wind students being the mild-mannered ones. I advance toward him and try to get my stuff out from under his feet, but he takes a swing at me. I dodge and he misses.
“Wow, not bad for a pansy.” He laughs.
This time he doesn’t bother to actually hit me. He just grabs my shoulders and shoves me, and I end up on the ground. I try to pretend it doesn’t hurt. I’m shaking, but it’s more with anger than with fear.
“Hey, great job today making everyone think Air kids are sissies,” says one of the boys. “Like we really need more of that.”
“Yeah, really,” adds another bully. “Why don’t you change your name to ‘She-hill’?”
“Let’s kick him between the legs,” says the ringleader, “and maybe he’ll remember he’s a boy.” Before I can stand up one of the boys drags me to my feet and traps my arms behind my back. I’m almost strong enough to get away, but he keeps twisting my arm so I can’t. I let out a scream, not caring what they’ll think.
I see the foot swinging my way and I turn sharply to the side like a dance move, catching it on my calf. Somehow I get one of my arms free, and before I can even think I’m gritting my teeth and swinging at him.
“Hahaha, what kind of a girl does that?”
I don’t answer and shove him weakly, but then when I manage to get an elbow in his stomach I almost think I’m holding my own. It doesn’t take long before they overpower me and pin me to the ground, but it doesn’t hurt—it almost feels good to just let my fury out through my fists. I manage to leave marks on all three of them by the time our shouts bring the adults.
Girls can fight. It’s silly to pretend we can’t.
After they break up the fight, one of my priests gets my mother and they walk me back to the ferry, with Cyani tiptoeing next to us, concerned. I’m dirty and disgusted but feeling like I stood up for myself in more than one way today. It’s like I really had nothing left to lose, so nothing can really hurt me now. The priest still wants a conference with my parents, and I have a terrible feeling everyone thinks I brought the fight on myself.
I hate that they see me hurting and want to hurt me more.
Despite my appeals, my well-placed pleading, and even my outright begging during the past year, my requests to audition for Water or Earth have all been rejected. My mother made exasperated sounds every time I asked about it, and whenever I tried to prove what a good girl I would be by doing household chores for my mom, I got snapped at and told to go help my father.
I even tried to make a blue robe for myself, with Mymei secretly teaching me some girls-only sewing techniques, but my father caught Cyani and me working on it at home and punished both of us. I should have known he wouldn’t believe the robe was for Cyani. Why would someone so happy with the Earth track be making a blue robe? She stopped helping me after she got in trouble that time. She doesn’t want me around when she spends time with “real” girls from troop.
And now I’m ten, with a future that feels a lot more gray than gold. Everyone keeps saying that going through the motions of auditioning for Air will help me transform into the man I’m “supposed” to be. I don’t think that is going to happen. And yet, a transformation did take place today. I woke up this morning with short hair. My mother chopped off my ponytail while I was sleeping.
“For my own good,” of course.
I try to approach the altar looking like I haven’t spent the morning crying.
I hate standing here in this yellow robe. I hate that I’m holding a wooden walking stick and not a set of bells. I hate the feeling of the severed ends of my hair tickling the back of my neck. I think I hate myself. And now I have to pretend that I want a Wind god to bless me and accept me as his own. As if I can fool a deity. As if I’m fooling anyone.
A priest beckons me and tells me to begin my dance. I feel beaten and humiliated and completely without a choice, so I do what I’m told. Even though I don’t want to master Air, I do love this beautiful dance, and I do love the simple pleasure of building my energy. When I mark the end of my dance with a half-hearted shout and a downward stab of my stick, the lead Air master is impressed.
“Very nice energy you have there,” he says, and I nod. “Go on through.”
I end up in another room with a single priest. He hands me a wand. I’ve never held a real wand before since it’s forbidden for pre-audition children to use these tools or learn their secrets, so even though I don’t want to be an Air dedicant, I’m sort of awed about holding it. The priest reads my expression and tells me this is the moment of truth. If I’m acceptable to the gods, I should be able to send my energy through this little stick of wood and summon an actual breeze. I don’t know if I want to succeed or fail. Both options seem terrible.
When I hold the wand aloft and summon my energy, I really do try, but nothing “catches” like I’ve been told about. Nothing lifts me up and comes out in the form of a breeze. Nothing about the wand I’m holding recognizes who I am.
So I put it down.
The priest makes me try the whole process again. He expects me to be disappointed and a little distraught, I guess, but I’m not. I just feel sort of blank. This time, just on the off chance it will work, I imagine offering myself to the goddess instead of one of the gods, but she doesn’t answer me either. And of course not. What would she have anything to do with bringing out one of the male elements?
I’m dismissed with condolences, told to pray and train and keep my chin up, and wished better luck next year. On my way home I wonder whether my father will insist that next year I audition for Fire. How can he not see I should be its opposite?
Maybe Cyani and her friends don’t realize that sound carries through the floor, and maybe they just don’t care if someone overhears.
“If you ask me, your brother should stop trying to be something he isn’t,” says Cyani’s friend Haliya. She talks through her nose, so it’s easy to recognize her voice.
“It’s not like he tries to fail,” my sister counters.
“Still. If he’s failed Air for the second year in a row he really needs to face it and try Fire already. Does he hate the idea of being like your dad that much?”
“Yeah, really,” says Cyani’s other friend Suhi. “He shouldn’t be so immature. It’s going to make you look bad, Cyani.”
“Don’t talk about him like that,” she says. “This is my family you’re making fun of here.”
“Sorry, but, well, aren’t you worried?” asks Suhi.
“I’m worried about how he’ll feel if I pass my audition when I’m ten, yes. I’m supposed to be the little sister—I shouldn’t be the first one to get to apprenticeship.” After a moment of silence, she continues: “But things aren’t really fair for my brother, so don’t make fun of him.”
“What’s not fair about him?” Haliya asks, sounding indignant.
“Well, don’t tell anyone I said this,” she says, “but my brother wants to be a girl, and nobody will listen to him.”
“He wants to be a girl?” squawks Haliya.
“Shhh! Yes. He says that’s why he fails. Because he thinks he should be learning girl elements.”
“That’s sad,” says Suhi, sounding like she means it. “Do you ever think they made a mistake?”
“The people who say it’s a boy or a girl when a baby is born,” says Suhi. “Maybe it was hard to tell and they picked the wrong one? That happens sometimes.”
“I don’t think so,” says Cyani. “I asked my mom about that once, though.”
“About what?” asks Suhi.
“If she was sure Lihill’s a boy.”
Well that’s news to me. I keep listening to the girls talking above me.
“When we were really little I guess it confused me that everyone said ‘he’ when they talked about Lihill, because I really thought he acted more like a girl and wouldn’t let anyone cut his hair. But my mom said he has all the boy parts.”
Haliya giggles. “Did you check?”
Cyani makes a weird noise that sounds half offended and half disgusted. “Gross! Who asks their older brother to pull down his pants?”
“If he really wants to be a girl, at least somebody should double check.”
“Well, my mom says he’ll grow out of wanting to be a girl, but I dunno . . . he really doesn’t want to do Air or Fire, and how can you pass an audition if you don’t even want it?”
“Well,” says Haliya, “there’s no way a priestess would test him on girl elements. That’s just not right.”
“Well what do you think he’s supposed to do?” asks Cyani. “He can’t help how he thinks. He’s pretended like he’s a girl as long as I can remember. It’s just how he is.”
“Well, if he doesn’t want to live with your parents the rest of his life,” says Haliya, “he’d better either figure out Air or Fire, or just leave the community and live with people who don’t practice elements. Some places in the world have tons of people who have no elements, ya know, and on the outside they actually let those people learn trades.”
“I don’t want my brother to leave!” Cyani barks.
“He might just have to, ’cause nobody’s going to take an apprentice with no element alignment. You don’t want him to just be useless, do you?”
“I actually think he does have an element,” says my sister, “and I wish they’d let him try Water.”
“Water?” repeats Haliya. “That’s hilarious. Your brother is girlier than you are.”
“I know,” sighs my sister. “I don’t see what it’d hurt to let him try Water. He wants to be a girl so bad.”
At this point I just can’t listen anymore. I climb the ladder, walk over to the curtain and push it back. I glare at my sister and her two friends.
“I can hear you,” I say to their surprised faces. “Quit saying I wish I was a girl. I’m not pretending. One day you’ll see.”
I drop the curtain and stride away before they can say anything, but Cyani is pretty fast. She bursts out and grabs my shoulder.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you heard—”
“Everything.” I look past her at her two friends: petite preteen girls with their long hair and flower bracelets, pouting. “I’m sure my problem is I just hate my dad or something, and if I left it’d be less trouble for everyone.” I look at Cyani.
She sighs, her brown eyes peeking up at me through her eyelashes. “I didn’t mean anything bad! But, you know. It’s hard if you . . . mostly look like a boy and keep saying you’re a girl.”
“I don’t care if it’s ‘hard’ for you. What do you think it is for me?”
“If you’re ‘actually’ a girl, then why doesn’t the rest of you match?”
I just stare at her. And finally, I narrow my eyes. “You know what, Cyani? I think that’s something you should ask the goddess.” I spin around and head for the ladder, off to go anywhere but here. “Go ahead and ask her,” I call, “because believe me, I do that every single day.”
When my twelfth birthday comes, I end up failing Air for the third time. My parents pull some strings and get me tested for Fire during the same week, even though it means I have to learn the dance from my father. Fire is even less intuitive for me, and I feel nearly barbaric clutching a sword during the audition. I fail that task too, with relief, and end up with my parents sitting me down to ask what they’re supposed to do with me.
“I don’t know where this terrible attitude is coming from,” my father says, “but you’d better get it through your head that you have to grow up sometime. Are you failing your tasks on purpose?”
“No,” I mumble.
“Then why do you act like you don’t even care if you pass or fail?”
I just shrug.
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” my father snaps, and I can’t help but cringe. My mother puts her hand on his shoulder.
“Let me try, Alet,” she says. “Lihill, can you tell us . . . can you tell us what you want? What is it that will make you happy?”
I look at her sharply. “You don’t already know?”
She sighs. “I’ve been telling myself you just have growing pains, but I just don’t know anymore. All I know is I’ve watched my son become more and more distant, more sullen, more angry as the years pass. I just don’t know how to reach you, or what’s making you act like this. What do you want?”
I sit there looking at her, unable to believe she doesn’t understand.
When I was eight, I told my mother in no uncertain terms that I’m not a boy, and she acted like I was being silly.
When I was nine, I told my masters at troop and all it got me was a parental conference and a fist-fight.
When I was ten, my mother stole my hair from me and said it was for my own good.
My mother can’t imagine why I don’t have much of a desire to live my own future?
I can’t say it in front of my father. I can’t say “I’m a girl, and I want to audition for Water.” I can’t say “I do want to grow up, but I want to become a woman, not a man.” And I can’t say I deserve a chance even though it seems impossible to them, because right now I really don’t think I deserve much of anything. There’s not much left of me to want with. I don’t know whether it’s worth it to hope, but I have to say something that won’t get laughed at and insulted and dismissed. I lick my lips and tell my mother what I want.
“I want to talk to somebody who’ll listen.”
Some days later I’m loaded onto an unfamiliar ferry with my mother and we set off to see a wise woman. The lady we’re going to see, an elder named Teinan, belongs to the same Water-aligned wisdom group that correctly predicted Cyani would be a girl. No one’s ever told me whether the wise women guessed right for me—or what would constitute “right” in my case.
For an elder, Teinan turns out to be not quite so old. She has long silver hair, but her face has yet to attain the relaxed multitude of wrinkles I’d normally expect on anyone called “elder.” My mother leaves me in her care and signs the written contract to obey whatever wisdom Teinan dispenses to the best of her ability. That makes me nervous. Wise women are really good herbalists. What if Teinan has a potion that forces me to learn to be a man, or orders my parents to exile me to unknown lands? Then again, what if she has the real answers?
“Come on into the kitchen, dear,” says Teinan once we’re alone. “What did you say your name was again?”
“I say let’s have some tea and wafers, Lihill.”
Sitting at her blond wood table, Teinan and I chat about unrelated nonsense. She asks incidental questions about my family. She tells me my hair is a lovely color. She comments on the weather and discusses the temperature’s effects on her moods. She asks about my likes and dislikes, and I find I have trouble discussing my tastes. So many of the things I love are either forbidden for me or marred by someone else’s opinion on whether I should like them at all. I’m finally able to say I love dancing and music and the goddess. She doesn’t ask why I don’t name a favorite god. I watch her hands with their slightly raised veins playing peek-a-boo in the sleeves of her silky light blue overcoat.
“Are we supposed to be talking about why I’m here?” I ask finally.
She sits back, comfortable. “Why do you suppose you are here?”
“Didn’t my parents say?”
She smiles. “No. That’s our job. Do you want to tell me about . . . what kind of push you need?”
Teinan flows into another relaxed position, glowing in the fading light from the window. “People come to me when they can’t find their path,” she says. “I’m good at getting people to find the answers inside themselves.”
“Oh. That sounds great. I do have the answers inside me.”
“Well of course you do. We all do, though we usually don’t know it. How would you like to go about bringing yours from the inside to the outside, Lihill?”
I shake my head and put my teacup on the table. “I’ve been telling people my answers all my life, and no one wants to listen. They think I’m confused, or wrong, or pretending . . . but since you’re supposed to be so wise, maybe you’ll actually believe me.”
“If what you say is true, I’ll believe you, because I always believe the truth.”
“All right.” I sip my tea again, trying to figure out how to say this nonchalantly. “Um, I . . . I’m twelve years old and I’ve failed four element tests. Three times for Air and once for Fire.”
“I see,” she begins. I plow ahead.
“My sister passed her Earth audition on her tenth birthday. She’s already apprenticing.” I pause to think about Cyani in her pottery apprenticeship, wondering if she’s happily learning to make dishes for the kitchens of our community as we speak. “I should have passed an audition years ago,” I say, “but I know exactly why I’m failing. It’s because I’m meant to embrace Water.”
Suddenly the position she flows into doesn’t look quite as comfortable.
“Hmm,” she says finally. “Peculiar indeed. I don’t know if this will make sense to you, Lihill, but . . . I’m afraid Water is inherently feminine, and most emphatically so. Earth is female but closer to center, and elements wax masculine through Air and finally into Fire. That’s how it’s always been. I’ve never seen a male person want to bond with Water.”
“You still haven’t,” I say. “I’m not a boy.”
She mulls that over while sipping her tea.
Three sips later, she’s ready to speak.
“So you feel your soul is female and you were born in the wrong body.”
“Well, that’s kind of right.” I have mixed feelings about the concept of “the wrong body,” but I can’t verbalize it. I don’t actually mind my body most of the time. But I definitely don’t want to get a beard.
“That would explain a lot,” she says, and she doesn’t say what. She gets up and takes the dishes to her basin.
“So what should I do?”
“About?” she asks, turning.
“How my parents . . . and everyone else . . . won’t let me be who I am?” I get out of my chair and scratch at my hair. “See this? My hair used to be a lot longer than this. I had long hair and my mom chopped it off before my first audition because she wanted me to look like a boy. She chopped it off while I was sleeping. Because supposedly it was good for me.” I make a fist and push it against my chest. “How is that good for me?”
She smiles. “Well, does having shorter hair stop you from being a girl?”
“Of course not! But she did it because . . . because. . .” I trail off when I realize there are tears in my eyes, and I turn away, leaning on the table. “I don’t really know,” I say. “I don’t understand why making me look like something I’m not is supposed to be so good for me.”
“So you really want to be a girl, Lihill?”
I look up, still braced against the table edge. I don’t have the energy for the passion I want to deliver, but I say it anyway. “I already am. What I ‘want to be’ is . . . seen.”
“What else do you want?” she says, clearly sensing she’s found the underground spring in my head. Well, she isn’t a wise woman for nothing.
“I want people to say ‘she’ instead of ‘he.’ I want Cyani to call me her sister, not her brother. I want to be a wife when I grow up. I want to be a mother, even though I don’t see how I can. I want to take a Water apprenticeship. I want to have a future.” I’m panting when I’m finished, and there are tears all over my face.
“Well,” says Teinan, and I brace myself for the inevitable backlash.
Silence reigns, except for my sniffles as I get myself under control.
I wipe my face and look at the Water elder. She’s regarding me kindly, eyes holding a touch of confusion but her overall expression inviting me to trust her.
“What do you say,” she says, offering her hand, “we try giving you what you want, and see what you do with it?”
In Teinan’s sleeping quarters, she dresses me up.
“I’m not only doing this for you,” she says. “It’s for me, too. I think I just need some help if I’m going to treat you like a girl.”
I don’t even care that what she says rubs me the wrong way. I can’t get over how ecstatic I feel at putting on these elegant, silky clothes that really fit me. I’m in a dress. I’m wearing a dress.
Next, Teinan makes me sit on a little stool while she combs out my hair. Then she takes an iron from near the fire and presses my hair to get rid of its tight spirals. As she works some heavy oil into it, I feel one lock flip past my cheek and hit my shoulder, which startles me into gasping. It’s almost as long as it was before my mother stole my ponytail!
“It’ll grow in time,” Teinan says, “but at least for now it’s got some borrowed length.” And she’s right; when she lets me stand up my hair is strangely straight but quite long. I feel so different . . . almost like I’ve been put back together after being broken, even though I can still sense the cracks. I have to hold in my excitement when she takes a ribbon and slides it under my hair, tying it in a bow at the top. This all feels so different—not because I don’t like it, but because I’m not used to the idea of another living soul looking at me wearing this and thinking it’s all right.
After Teinan decorates me with an opal necklace and some crystal bracelets, she takes a quick look at me and then shrugs.
“I’ve seen more boyish girls,” she says.
I don’t feel entirely right about that comment either, but again I overlook it. “So . . . what now?” I feel like I’m blushing, and I’m lightheaded.
She shrugs again. “Now . . . just be you.”
“And do what?”
“You be you, and I’ll watch. And tomorrow, if I think it’s safe, I’ll tell you a secret.”
I have no idea what she wants me to do, but I feel like celebrating the closest I’ve come to outward femininity in my whole life, so I decide there’s no wrong answer and just grant myself license to dance.
Because of my training, I’m sure my dance looks more like a Wind dance than anything, but in my mind I look like Mymei the day she demonstrated her Water dance for me. I can feel that I’m successfully flowing between the positions, and I love the way my clothes swim on my body. When I coast to a stop, I don’t bother meeting Teinan’s eyes. I just rest for a moment on the balls of my feet, then scamper out of her room and back to the kitchen.
“Do you mind if I make some more tea?” I call. “And maybe make some rice? I’m famished.”
“Go right ahead,” she calls back, coming closer until she’s leaning in the doorway. I have no trouble lighting the fire and putting the kettle on even though I’ve never been allowed to do it before, and she just watches me as I bounce around in a giddy cloud.
I’m too hungry to make any effort to look dainty and ladylike while I eat. This isn’t an act, after all. This is me. And sometimes hungry girls eat like pigs. After we’ve partaken of everything I prepared, we sit by her fire. The garment I’m wearing encourages me to sit on my knees with my legs together instead of on my bottom with crossed legs. When I find myself in that position I realize it feels natural enough, and that it matches the sitting position Teinan chose. I’m glad I didn’t have to think about it.
As my excitement winds down, I feel content and somehow sated, but I’m trying to put away a dull ache that pulses at the back of my mind. I’ll treasure this night forever, but what if it’s the last one? What if I have to go back to “being” a boy? Having a taste of this and knowing how right it feels—how it meets and exceeds the way I’d dreamed it would be—I don’t think I could bear it. Teinan notices that I’ve withdrawn my attention from whatever story she was telling. She leans over to wipe the tears off my eyelashes with her sleeve.
“It’ll be all right, sweetie,” she says. “No matter what, you’ll be all right.”
I’m glad she is wise so I don’t have to tell her what’s wrong.
“To dreamland with you, I think. Let’s get a paillasse set up for you . . . I’ll prepare it while you get changed for bed.”
“ . . . All right, but what am I wearing? I didn’t bring any clothes.”
To my delight, Teinan lends me one of her sleeping gowns. I try to be nonchalant about what it means to wear it but some more tears slip out. She doesn’t ask.
I fall asleep nestled under a fluffy blanket, burrowed in the sawdust-filled cushion with my hair splayed around my head. I don’t know if Teinan will have a judgment on whether I sleep like a boy, but I know for sure I dream like a girl.
I hurry to dress after my morning bath and then take my time brushing out my wet hair. I want it to be smooth and straight like last night so it’ll feel like it’s long, but I know when the water disappears my curls will return, retracting back up to my neck. I like it on my shoulders, even though the wet spots on my clothes make my back cold.
Teinan and I have tea and breakfast and talk about our dreams. Then she says she’s ready to tell me the secret she promised me last night.
“I want to audition you for Water,” she says. “Not officially, of course—I can’t—but off the record. I want to see if you’re really what you say you are.”
I just give her a wide-eyed stare.
“So, will you do it?”
I leap out of my chair, light on my feet. “Of course I will! What do we do first?”
Teinan says she wants me to go through the motions of a Water dance, even though it’s entirely possible at my age that I won’t need a lot of build-up to bring the energy out. It turns out I know most of it already because of how often I’ve rehearsed this moment in my mind, and it’s not long before I can demonstrate the steps without help, even if I lack a bit of grace that will only come with repetition. She nods in satisfaction, then takes my hand and leads me to her gazebo outside.
“So this is what you’ll do,” she says. She ladles some water into one of the crystal bowls sitting on her table, and after holding the bowl in both her hands for a moment, she passes one hand over the water’s surface and touches it with her fingertips. When she pulls her hand up, the water reaches up to kiss her fingers, extending in an odd, springy way that makes it look like it’s turned to glue. “The water’s attracted to me,” she explains, “because it knows I’m one of its own. Are you ready to find out if you’re also the water’s sister?”
I get a lump in my throat at the word “sister.” She hands me the bowl.
“Just connect with it through the bowl,” she says gently. “See if it’s willing to meet you.”
I hold the bowl like she did, and I’m a little bit nervous, but my heart doesn’t race or anything. I feel so right, finally being taken seriously as a Water dedicant, lingering in this moment of truth. Just for a second I worry the water will reject me, but that fear slips away because I feel like I know what’s going to happen. I know the water. I’m made of it, after all.
I flick my fingers out over the bowl and am not surprised in the least when tiny funnels spin up to curl around my fingers. For some reason I hadn’t thought it would be wet when it touched me, but the little spout soaks my palm and leaves my pretty blue sleeve sopping wet. Obviously I don’t know how to control this stuff yet, but it’s clear for the first time that I actually have it.
Teinan gasps at my success, startling me. I look up, concerned, and see she’s clutching the folds of her robe with one hand. I’ve seen her confused and surprised and skeptical, but this is the first time I’ve seen her look shocked.
“It’s true,” she says finally. “There’s no faking this. You’re a miracle.”
I put the bowl down. “No,” I say. “I’m just a girl.”
“That you are.” She nods and touches my shoulder. “Well, now we know what to do. I’ll summon your parents.”
Teinan irons my hair again while we wait for my parents to arrive on the ferry. She says I can stay in her blue dress. She also tells me I can’t mention the water audition to anyone. Teinan would get in trouble if people knew she was letting an uninitiated child manipulate elements with her bowls, but she broke the rules for me because she just had to be sure she was giving the right advice. She’s certain now, she says.
When my parents arrive Teinan lets them in and brings them to her kitchen for the same tea and wafers I had yesterday. They actually see me as they first come in, but they walk past me as if assuming I must be a servant girl. I grin and come to the doorway as Teinan makes my parents comfortable.
“Where’s Lihill?” asks my father as he helps himself to the wafers.
“Right there,” she says, casually indicating me with a flick of her wrist. Both their heads swivel to take in the image of their supposed son wearing a dress and a big grin.
“Hiii,” I say, waving my hand with its big, floppy sleeve.
“I’ve been examining the state of Lihill’s soul,” Teinan says, “and it turns out you have a daughter.”
My mother just stays silent and blanches, while my father does the opposite and turns red. “Did he tell you he wanted to be a girl and you just went along with it? Is that what this is?” He stands up, steaming.
“That’s not it at all. I listened to the words she chose, but I also listened to what the goddess said, and, well, the goddess said ‘that child is not a boy and never has been.’ Who am I to argue?” Teinan shrugs. “You can dress her up like a boy all you want, but she’ll still be a girl. You might as well dress her like one.”
“With all due respect, don’t call him that. Don’t call my son a ‘she,’” says my father, refusing to look at me.
My mother clears her throat. “Did you—did you examine his . . . you know, Lihill’s parts? Does he have girl parts I didn’t know about?”
I feel myself blushing. My life certainly would have been easier if I had different parts, but even if I did I don’t think I’d want to discuss it in front of my mother.
“I didn’t need to do a physical examination, dear. I just did what I do best. Lihill is an unusual person, but you should really go forward from now trying to make the best of her future.”
I just can’t get over how wonderful it is to hear that word “her” assigned to me. It’s just a silly word but it’s making bubbles of happiness fizz out of my ears.
“But how did this . . . happen?” my mother asks, still breathless and pale. “Is it a sickness?”
“I don’t know how she got a girl’s soul, or how it ended up in that body, but that’s how it is. The world isn’t black and white. You know as well as I do that Water is the pinnacle of femininity, while Fire represents the deepest masculinity. Toward the middle, we know some men feel more neutral and are comfortable with Air, while some women who feel a bond with Earth are feminine in a less extreme way. There are plenty of ways to be in between. Perhaps the goddess and the gods give us people like Lihill to remind us of the in-betweens.”
I sigh, a little bit disappointed. For all the wisdom Teinan holds, I have to remember she doesn’t truly understand. I don’t want to be an “in-between.” I’m not some example the gods presented as a lesson to everybody normal. I want to be she, her, daughter, sister, and girl. And someday, woman.
“I recommend her to be tested for Water on her next birthday,” says Teinan, “and I recommend getting used to seeing this girl as a girl. I know it will take some adjusting, but just follow her lead and you’ll see how easy it is. Just look at her.”
My mother is the first to look, and my father follows suit. I try to bear their stares gracefully, and come a little farther into the room so they can see me. See me for the first time, hopefully. Maybe now they won’t see a “boy who wants to be a girl,” or a “boy who’s confused,” or a “boy who failed Air three times,” or a “boy who has identity problems.” Maybe now they’ll see a girl who just wants to grow up and do what girls do.
My mother’s eyes are shining. She touches my father’s arm. “Look,” she says quietly. “He looks happy.” Choking up a little, she turns to my father. “I haven’t seen him looking really happy like that since . . . I don’t know when.”
“Oh, believe me, I noticed what a transformation it was,” says Teinan, “and I don’t just mean how different she looks with her hair down in a dress. As soon as I agreed to try to treat her as a girl, it was like a lantern came on. This is how she naturally is, so of course she seems happier.”
My father looks at the floor. “I know what my wife signed,” he says, “and I know we’re supposed to take your advice. So I’ll let Lihill audition for Water if that’s what he wants so much.” He lifts his head to glare at Teinan. “But until he proves that he’s suited for it, I’m not putting up with the rest of this.”
“‘The rest’?” asks Teinan.
“I won’t have him wearing girl clothes unless he passes Water,” my father says, “and I certainly won’t call him she.”
“And if he does pass Water?” asks my mother, getting her coloring back bit by bit.
“If he does pass Water, then. . . .” My father finally looks at me without real anger on his face. “Well, then I guess I won’t have a choice, will I? If he passes a Water audition, the goddess knows better than I do.”
I’d love to cry and hug him and say “Thank you, Daddy!” like the twelve-year-old girl I am, but somehow I feel like that would be a bad idea. I just clasp my hands and look at the floor, smiling.
“Well, you folks can be on your way,” says Teinan. “One thing, though, Lihill.”
“I’m afraid I do need my dress back. It’s an heirloom.”
As my parents and I leave the wise woman’s house and get back on the ferry, I don’t really mind that I’m in my old clothes, with my hair curling back up behind my ears in the strong sun. With my mother’s hand on my shoulder, floating on the water toward home, I finally feel like I have a future, and it’s one I actually want to live.
“Can I let my hair grow?” I ask my mom, touching her hand.
Waiting for my Water audition is like torture. I decide not to request admission to the girls’ troop to learn goddess literature and dances, even though my parents probably would have let me. I don’t want to do it now because the oldest kids in the classes are supposed to be among the troop leaders, not just beginning to learn themselves. I’ve already missed that part of my life as a girl, but I’m determined not to miss any more. Mymei takes pity on me and teaches me what she knows. And what’s better, she lets me wear her clothes during my visits. My father still won’t let me do that at home.
And it’s in Mymei’s clothes that I report for my audition on my thirteenth birthday, ducking under the hood of the blue robe so no one looks at me too closely. I don’t know anyone in the small crowd of applicants, and none of them seem to suspect me of being any different than the other girls. When I finally enter the audition hut, relief washes over me. This is just like it’s supposed to be. Three women are waiting to watch me perform. They’re there in their blue robes and so am I. I’m finally going to get what I want. I’m finally going to be who I am.
No one looks at me oddly when I pull back my hood and accept a set of hand bells. One lady makes a lighthearted comment about how tall I am and tells me to go ahead. And after I’ve finished one of the most joyous dances of my life, a different lady calls me “graceful” and sends me into the next room for the final test.
An older priestess is in the darker room, sitting with her mirrors and candles and some sheets of rice paper to mark her recommendations. She nods and hands me the crystal bowl full of water, and I pass my hand over its silver surface, brimming with confidence. The water splashes up to kiss my palm like an old friend. I don’t make anywhere near as much of a mess this time. The priestess chuckles and congratulates me.
And then she asks me for my name. She pauses when I give it.
“Lihill,” she says. “Lihill is a boy’s name.”
I’m just silent. I manage to give her a little shrug.
“You must have some cruel parents,” she says, somewhat to herself as she shakes her head.
I can’t help but laugh. She thinks I’m just an ordinary girl whose parents gave her an improper name! I love that that’s her first thought, rather than “you must be a boy, then.”
The priestess pauses again and looks up at me. She puts her paintbrush down and raises a finger to her lips, pondering. My heart speeds up.
“Come a little closer,” she says.
I obey her while my stomach sinks.
After she studies me for far too many heartbeats, the priestess speaks again. “Well, you’ve passed your Water audition,” she says, “but I need to know what else there is to this story.”
I meet her eyes. “What do you want to know?”
“Are you really a boy?”
I shake my head no, vigorously.
“Ah. You’re afraid, not confused. Which means you know why I’m asking.”
I feel like I’m going to cry. I’m sure my face crumples, but I can’t help it.
“You say you’re a girl, then?”
I’m unable to speak, but I nod.
“But you weren’t born a girl, were you.” It isn’t a question. My eyebrows are trying to touch each other. I don’t really know how to handle what she’s saying. I was born a girl as much as I’m a girl now, even though other people couldn’t tell at the time. The priestess stands up before I figure out how to answer her.
“I’ll need to consult some older sisters before I can figure out how to write your recommendation,” she says. “I’ll call you in again when my superiors answer the summons.” With that, the priestess sends me outside to wait, and she supervises everyone else’s auditions in the meantime. By the time two other blue-robed adults arrive, everyone else has gone home. I’ve been sitting on a rock outside for hours, trembling off and on.
When I’m finally invited inside again, the new elders have apparently dug up my birth records and want to talk to me. They know my body matches my name. And now they want to figure out how it’s possible for someone like me to be female.
“So you’re a boy who’s managed to bond with Water,” says one of the elders. “How did this happen?”
I wrap my arms around myself as I deliver my answer. “I’m not really a boy, that’s how.”
They all look at each other.
“These papers say otherwise,” says the same elder.
“In my head I’m a girl and that’s what’s important,” I tell her. I pick up a bowl and show them how the water reacts to my touch like magic. “It’s more than just bonding with Water. I’ve always felt like a girl, so I think I should be allowed to act like one and grow up like one. For a long time my parents wouldn’t allow it, but this is everything to me.” I put the bowl down.
The oldest-looking priestess holds up her hand, and the other two watch her patiently. She must be the boss.
“Let me see if I can solve this mystery,” she says. “First of all . . . Lihill, how are you, honey?”
I blink. “How am I? Nervous, I guess.” She seems nice, but where is this going?
“Because if you tell me I can’t live as a girl, I can’t start my life.”
“You can’t ‘start’ your life?”
“My parents, especially my father, don’t understand me being really a girl. So they made me audition for male elements and I can’t do it. I thought all I had to do was show I really am Water and everyone would understand I’m telling the truth . . .”
The eldest priestess smiles. “Well, we do believe that. But we’ve never had someone who’s a boy on paper turn out to be a girl. Let me give you a little history lesson.”
The priestess takes her time telling her stories. By the time she’s done, it’s clear that throughout our people’s history, folks who don’t fall into clear male or female categories do exist, though they’re not very common. However, she’s only seen people fall into categories not quite like mine. She’s seen women or men who master the elements they’re expected to, but grow up to want relationships with other men or other women. She’s seen people who have successful auditions but grow up wanting to do a job rarely assigned to their sex. And she’s even seen people with bodies that aren’t really male or female—more of a mix.
“With those folks,” she says, “we end up having to wait for them to come of age before we know. They tend to figure it out on their own, and during the elemental trials the soul answers what their bodies could not.”
“That sounds like me,” I say. “Except I . . . don’t think my body looks mixed.”
“I’d venture to say there have probably been others like you,” says the priestess, “but our community is . . . very attached to its opinions on what boys and girls should do. It wouldn’t surprise me if I just haven’t seen a girl with a body like yours before because it’s hard to defy what we’re taught since birth. I’d say you’re very brave, young lady.”
I feel myself blushing. I do feel a bit like I’ve been brave, but at the same time I don’t like being called that. I can’t really see myself as “brave” for fighting to have my life when the alternative is so horrifying. I’m pleasantly surprised by being called a young lady, though.
“There’s still the matter of what to put on the paper,” says the other new priestess. “The family records show his parents as having one son and one daughter. If you write a recommendation for him to apprentice in a Water trade, he’ll run into trouble anytime he has to do anything officially.” She raises her hands helplessly.
The eldest priestess looks annoyed. “Well then,” she says, “they’ll just have to change the birth record to show that Lihill was born a girl. That’s the most accurate way to handle it, I think.” She looks up at me. “I can have my sister here write you a recommendation to change officially, if that’s what you’d like. To go along with your Water apprenticeship application approval, of course.”
I feel like someone lit a candle in my head. “Oh! Yes, I would like that.”
“Well, go on and write it up,” says the eldest, gesturing at the audition priestess. She hesitates, surprised, but doesn’t argue.
“Would you like her to write you one for a name change permission too?”
“I’m not sure.” Oddly enough, I never figured out what I’d prefer to be called. I’ve always been fairly satisfied with my name. But, much like the rest of me, I’ve just wished people responded to it like it belongs to a girl.
“Thinking of keeping it, then? A girl called Lihill?” She chuckles. “Perhaps you’d like to be a living reminder that everything isn’t always what it seems?”
I feel a frown cross my face. “Not really, no.”
“Well, do think about it. I’ve often thought it’s shameful the way this community separates its men and women so cleanly—it’s bad for us, and I think the folks in the middle could use a champion as brave as you.”
I let my frown relax, defeated. I’m not “in the middle,” but how many people might be out there who are? What if there are boys who aren’t girls at heart but still want to study Earth or Water? What if there are people who don’t want to choose?
Maybe I’m not so brave, because I don’t feel I can fight for them. I just want to live my life. I just want to have my community’s blessing to be the girl I’ve always been.
“Yes, I might want to change my name one day, too,” I say. “Thank you.”
“Are you sure this is right?” asks the priestess who isn’t making recommendations or writing them. “What are we going to do if he . . . or she, as you say . . . wants to get married?”
“Let her?” says the eldest priestess with humor.
“They wouldn’t be able to have children,” she protests. “How will that work?”
The eldest priestess is silent a moment. Then she surveys her colleague critically. “I suppose it will ‘work’ like it does for any woman who’s sterile. Or maybe Lihill will get lucky and pair herself up with a boy who was once a girl, if that ever happens.”
I really just want to leave. They don’t understand. I don’t know what my future will be like or what I’ll want when I’m grown up. I’ll need time to figure it out.
The audition priestess finishes painting my papers and hands them to me. I can’t believe I have one with a blue seal on it. I’d expected to pass, but at the same time it’s surreal. Mist overtakes my eyes.
“Thank you,” I say again, and the eldest priestess clearly picks up on the emotion in my voice.
“Don’t thank us,” she says. “You’re the one who passed.”
I look away from my papers. “But . . . you recognized it.”
“Of course we did, sugar. The goddess must be in you if you can charm the water. There’s no question about it.”
“But I had to do that before anyone believed me. Everyone else . . .” I trail off, thinking about how the other priestess really doesn’t seem happy about recognizing me as a girl, and I wonder how different things would be right now if she had been the one in charge. Or how different my whole life would have been all along if only I’d had a mother and a father who thought like the eldest priestess, or like Teinan.
“Well, ‘everyone else’ will just have to get used to you,” says the eldest priestess brightly.
“So will I,” I say as I’m dismissed.
As I make my way back home, I can’t wait to see my father’s face when I come home wearing Mymei’s robe. And he won’t be able to make me take it off. Will he congratulate me? Will he act ashamed? Will he accept me?
After a few months of trial work, I managed to get Teinan herself to accept me as a Water apprentice, where I began to learn herbalism and Water wisdom. I got to go to the ladies’ holiday rituals and collect my own appropriate clothes and let my hair grow longer. Being a girl all the time was exciting and perfect at first, then just brightly natural, but always joyous and never something I took for granted.
I loved being seen outside in a dress, and wearing pretty jewelry, and finally getting to try pinning my hair and painting my lips, and being called “young lady” at market. And even more, I loved that what I wanted to do wasn’t shameful anymore; I could help my mother in the kitchen or mend a quilt or accompany my female relatives to a baby’s naming, and never have to worry that people wondered why I wanted to do it. It was all exactly what I’d wanted since forever. But there are still rough patches.
My father still calls me “he” sometimes and seems to think of me like I’m his son in a dress, but there’s not much I can do about it. My mother spends too much effort on praising me for certain feminine things I do so it feels like the opposite of a compliment. My grandmother tells her friends that I “used to be a boy.” My sister keeps saying it’s so strange to see me happy—like she doesn’t see why I wasn’t before—and one time she even said it’s weird that she doesn’t have a brother anymore. I don’t know why she thinks she ever did, or where “he” went if I’m him.
And now, even though Mymei is still my best friend, she’s got a lot of questions for me about boys. Especially since she’s quite interested in them these days and wants to know how I’m going to handle that part of my life. Like, if I’ll have to be courted by someone who’s interested in boys too. I just don’t know. I’m not ready for that yet. And I haven’t found a name either. I’m still thinking about it.
I’m fourteen. I wear dresses and behave like a lady and mostly get treated like one, but now that I’m finally starting my life, I don’t know what I want that life to be about. I haven’t been able to think about it all my life like most people. And I’m afraid maturity is lurking around the corner waiting to take it all away from me again. Teinan and I are talking about concocting an herbal medicine that will help me not grow up to look like my father, maybe, but it’s still in the early stages of our research and I’m afraid we’ll figure it out too late. I enjoy working with the herbs, though. Maybe this is what I’ll do for my adult life. Now that I know I’ll have one.
I’m grateful to the water and the goddess who blessed it—and to my mentor, Teinan, who saw my potential—but sometimes when I’m learning about water techniques and ringing my bells, I think about how sad it is that I needed the water before anyone believed me. Nobody believed my soul was female until they saw it do things only female souls are supposed to do. I’m disappointed I had to prove my inside with my outside, and until I did I was just a boy who wanted to be something he wasn’t. As hard as this was for me, there must be people like me who can’t prove it in the places that don’t bond with elements, and that must be even harder.
Most of the time I just want to be a girl doing what girls do, but sometimes I think about who else is out there and wonder if I should try to find those girls. If only just to tell them I see them.
Julie Sondra Decker
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