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When the Moon was Ours
Author:Anna-Marie McLemore

His grandmother had told him the name for these girls. She had brought it with her from Pakistan, and from stories she’d heard from across the border in Afghanistan. Bacha posh. Dressed as a boy. Girls whose parents decided that, until they were grown, they would be sons. Sam and his mother had lost his grandmother when he was so small he could barely remember the wrinkles of her face and whether the brown of her eyes was more gray or gold. But he remembered her voice. Her telling him that their family’s saffron farm in Kashmir had been small, but for its size the most productive for a hundred miles. How it took a hundred thousand of those purple crocuses to yield less than a kilogram of saffron.

When his grandmother told him this, it was always with a current of sadness beneath her pride. Their family had had to leave Kashmir to stay with distant relatives in Peshawar, abandoning their bright fields. As things around them grew worse—that was how she always put it, things were getting worse—trading the spice from their fields became impossible. And when she got to that part of the story, the part that left her heart bitter, she turned to stories that did not pinch and bite, like the stories of these girls. Daughters who lived as sons in families who had no sons. These girls spoke to boys and men in the street. They escorted their sisters out. When Sam heard these stories, he felt a clawing envy as strong as if he knew these girls by name.

He had been four, his grandmother only a few months gone, when he decided he could—he would—be one of these girls. He would be a bacha posh. He would be the same kind of boy as those girls who lived as sons.

But when those girls grew up, they became women. And maybe their lives as wives and mothers at first felt cramped, narrow after the wide, cleared roads of being boys. But whatever freedom they missed was not because they wanted to be boys again. It was because they wanted to be both women and unhindered.

That was his problem. Sam was sure of it. He couldn’t be a girl. But maybe if he waited out these years in boys’ clothes and short hair, he would grow up enough to want to be a woman. He would wake up and this part of him would be gone, like rain and wind wearing down a hillside.

“You know, I never wanted a son or a daughter,” she said.

“Mom,” he said, trying to cut her off.

“I didn’t think about it that way,” she said, ignoring him. “I just wanted a child.”

Sam nodded. He’d heard the story before. How his father had come from a family of fishermen in Campania, all of whom were famous for catching a kind of red-mantled squid that came close enough to the surface only during new moons. And how his father’s lack of talent with that squid was the first of many things that made Sam come to be.

But she didn’t go on with the story.

“Do you want to talk?” she asked.

Sam picked up the tapestry bag, to take it upstairs for her. “No.”

bay of the center

Miel picked up the phone thinking it was Sam. When he got back from his shift at the Bonners’ farm, he’d call her, never starting with a greeting. He’d hear her answer and then start with something like, “I just saw a woman jog past the hardware store with two parakeets, one on each shoulder.” Or, “The king of hearts is the only one without a mustache. Ever notice that?”

She was one of the few people Sam would talk to on the phone, afraid of how the line skewed his voice a little higher when he was always working to keep it low.

But it wasn’t Sam. It was Ivy. Asking Miel to come over.

Not asking. Just saying, “Come over.”

Miel wondered if Ivy was calling on the ivory princess phone that had once belonged to her grandmother. So old it had a rotary dial and a silver base, that phone, according to Sam, was something buyers always wanted to see when they came to negotiate pumpkin prices. Carlie Zietlow, the girl Miel shared a desk with in math class, said the Bonner girls took pictures of one another with it each time they dressed up, once before dances and now before the pumpkin lighting each October.

A week had gone by since Miel had seen Ivy at the river. She’d settled deep into the relief that Ivy had disregarded her offer, and had forgotten about it.

Now Ivy hung up, so softly the noise was a single, crisp click.

Ivy’s voice stayed inside Miel’s ear like the sound of the ocean caught in a shell. The words had sounded open, guileless, one girl asking another outside to play. But there was also the edge of something a little alluring, like the piloncillo sugar Aracely melted into hot chocolate. It made Miel cringe, thinking of every time Sam heard that voice as he bent down to the vines crossing the Bonners’ fields.

But in those two words, Miel thought she caught a little of that same sadness. Ivy’s voice matched that same blank, damp-cheeked look she’d had by the river. So she did what Ivy said.