Wednesday, December 19, 2007


This is draft one of my sci-fi novel Skene. To read earlier chapters, go to LABELS in the right-hand column on this page, scroll down to the Skene tags and click on the one you want to read. Skene is set on a human-habitable planet in the Alhena star system at least 500 years in the future. There's a considerable amount of appendix material and diagrams also available here as needed:
NEW: Skene Map: Beras
Skene Glossary (Skenish to English)
Skene Cast of Characters
Skene Culture, Calendar, Clothing, and Islands
Map of All Skene
Map of Riesig (the main island)
Map of The Manage on Riesig
Map of The Lofthall on Riesig


Dinner was Yerush's hearty cabbage soup with salt pork and potatoes in it, with sides of roasted beets and steamed kale. Halling finished her bowl first and went to get a second helping from the pot on the stove. As she sat back down, Bux said with a grin "We'll need to keep the bedroom door open tonight", nodding her head at Halling's soup. "For ventilation."

"Hey" protested Halling.

"Let's just hope it's her alone in her sinner tomorrow" added Yoj.

Halling was beginning to turn red, but Veida leaned toward her and said sotto voce "Don't feel bad, Qen has the same reaction. Sometimes I wake up thinking it's hailing, and then I smell it -- "

"That's enough said Yerush. "We're at the table, and besides, that's my soup you're maligning."

"Not maligning, emma" said Bux, giggling. "It's too good to resist."

Halling pointed her spoon at Bux and began "Yeah well at least I never cut loose during -- "

"Enough!" said Yerush. They all resumed eating in a subdued manner until Qen lifted herself up on one cheek and a loud fluttering was heard. The three younger women shrieked with laughter, and even Yerush smiled, putting her hand over Qen's and saying "You're incorrigible."

Qen lifted Yerush's hand to kiss it and stood to get seconds.

Among the items Bux, Halling and Yoj carried home from the monthly allotment dispersal was a five pound bag of flour made from the new grain at the ejida called red wheat. It had been set aside for their Manage by orders of the botaniste herself; the first main harvest would not be in for months.

As her partners dried off from the downpour outside and put things away in the larder, Yoj opened the bag and sifted two cups of the unusual flour into her massive Ng-made bread bowl. All the emmas gathered round to watch, wetting their forefingers to take a taste. Yoj pulled out canisters of rice flour, potato starch, nut meal and vis, and frowned in concentration, trying to decide on a mix that might lead to a successful dough with the new, untried product.

Qen took a pinch and mixed it with a few drops of water in a tablespoon, showing the resultant stickiness to Yoj. "Look at that gluten" marveled Yoj. "I think it might rise a lot more than what we're used to."

"It'll need less sugars for the yeast" predicted Qen.

"Okay" said Yoj suddenly. She began adding other items to her bowl of red wheat flour. "I mean, we're going to eat whatever comes out, right?"

Veida grinned at her. "Unless it's toxic."

Halling said "I can't imagine Yoj making a bread that's toxic."

"Where did you learn how to bake?" asked Yerush. "I don't think that's something Rosz taught you."

Yoj gave her an unreadable glance and answered "No, she was not a student of the culinary arts. The summer after I graduated, before I went to U, I lived in a Manage on Chloddia. My lover and both her emmas were spectacular cooks."

Halling said casually "Amba, wasn't it?", sitting down at the table with a cup of tea.

A reminiscent smile crept over Yoj's face. "Amba the golden" she said fondly.

Bux, standing nearby, went very still. Yoj had turned to get butter from the larder and noticed her face. Yoj looked at her with a steady gaze for half a minute, then stepped in front of Bux and said softly "I was sixteen."

"I'm well aware of how old you were" said Bux. "I was thirteen, and I was not going to see you every day, I thought ever again, since you'd left school. And I knew you were off Riesig with some heartthrob, although it took me a while to find out who."

Yoj put her arms around Bux's waist and said "I am yours for the rest of our days."

"I know that" said Bux. "But I didn't know it then. And that was the year I put you at the top of my list. I had seven more years to wait." The leftover pain in her voice affected everyone in the kitchen.

Yoj pulled Bux to her, and Bux wrapped her arms around Yoj's neck tightly, her eyes closed tight. Then she opened her eyes and looked at Halling. "And you -- you were second on my list but by then you were already Xaya's."

Halling said "I was, indeed." After a pause, she said "But I, too, am now yours for the rest of our days."

Bux laughed, with a catch in her throat. She pulled back so she could see both Halling and Yoj's faces. "I'm being silly, acting like that lovesick schoolchild."

Yoj whispered something in Bux's ear, and Bux looked at her, her eyes glowing, then leaned in for the sort of kiss that they seldom shared in front of the emmas, a kiss of heat and surrender and extreme familiarity. The emmas looked away, while Halling just grinned.

When the kiss finally trailed to an end, Yoj caught her breath and moved on to the larder for butter and yeast. Bux went to sit on Halling's lap. Everyone watched intently as Yoj made her sponge, leaving out spices or nuts this time so she could be sure of the basic chemical interactions. Before she put a damp towel over the bowl, everyone took a small pinch of dough to eat. Qen's ginger eyebrows shot up almost to her hairline as she swallowed. "It's -- like I've been waiting all my life for this particular flavor" she said.

Yoj put the bowl by the aga, looked at the clock, and said "I guess it's laundry for me now."

"Not just yet" said Bux shyly, standing up and pulling Halling to her feet. She walked to their bedroom door and turned for a moment, saying "Coming?" with flushed cheeks.

Halling burst out laughing. Yoj made sure she avoided the faces of the emmas as she and Halling went to join Bux.

Inside their bedroom, Bux pulled off her shati and gilet together in a single motion. Yoj, having to take a slower route, said "How do you do that? I have to untie the bow on my gilet."

Grinning as she unbuckled her pants, Bux said "I keep my laces loose all the time now, and I never tie the bow at the bottom any more. Ever since you first kissed me."

"But what about that first day, when we came here -- you yanked your clothes off, whoosh, then too" persisted Yoj.

"I was loosening my laces all the way home that day" laughed Bux. Halling was laughing so hard, she'd stopped stripping. Once Yoj was naked, Bux pushed her backwards on the bed and straddled her, looking down at her for a minute.

"Tell me it's better with me than Amba" she said softly.

"Oh for oceans' sake, Bux -- it doesn't even compare" said Yoj, trying to pull Bux down to kiss her. But Bux locked her elbows and stayed where she could watch Yoj's face.

"Did you love her?" she asked Yoj. Halling, finally unclad, slid in bed beside them.

"Of course I loved her" said Yoj. "I wouldn't have gone to bed with her if I didn't love her, I'm not that sort."

"But not as much as you love me, right?" persisted Bux.

Yoj blew out her lips in exasperation. "Do you want me to tell you or show you?" she answered.

Bux finally relented and lowered herself down full on Yoj's body. As Yoj began kissing her, she rolled Bux onto her side, toward Halling who was waiting.

When Yoj emerged from the bedroom some time later, she washed her hands at the sink and was glad of the music coming from the radio to cover her embarrassment. Turning her sponge out onto the bread board, she said "Is that the Kinusanders?" This was a band from Seda, made up mostly of silk farmers.

"Yes" said Qen, coming to stand beside her and inspect this sponge like no other.

"However did they get all those heavy drums up Sigrist Poke?" marveled Yoj. "In this rain?"

"A few fadians have run a wire from a room at the University music hall up to the Sigrist transmitter" said Yerush. "The performers are at the U, and their signal is going up to Sigrist who broadcasts it. They say they're going to have concerts every night, if people want it."

"I sure do" said Yoj, very distracted by the rich sounds coming from the radio. Finally she tore her attention away, back to the dough between her fingers. She worked it with curiosity, noting the changes as the gluten was broken down and redistributed, the lovely sheen it took on. When she thought it was ready, she looked at the clock again, recovered the bowl and set it back to rise again.

Bux and Halling shuffled into the kitchen. From the look of them, Halling had had one last turn. Yoj was sorry to have missed it. She went into the bath room and began a load of laundry. Bux sat down next to Qen, at her sewing machine, and began helping with the garment she was making. Halling looked in the larder and Yerush joined her, planning dinner. Veida was patiently combing the long, damp fur of shaggy katts. Everyone seemed to be moving to the rhythm of the music. The windows were steamy and it was an early dark outside because of the rain.

After Yoj had run the rinsed laundry through the press three times, she came out with a basket of things to hang on racks by the hearth in the living room. Veida helped her. When they were done, Yoj began a second load, then, as it was soaking, punched down her bread and took a big sniff of the lentil and vegetable stew Halling was now stirring. "We thought, with fresh bread, something to dunk it in would be best" said Halling. Yoj kissed her shoulder and said "Can't wait."

Veida claimed half the kitchen table to lay out new sheets and pillowcases from wide lengths of linen from this year's allotment. Her sewing skills were not up to Qen's, but she liked stitching items with long straight seams. Yerush set papers to grade on the sideboard and sat in a chair next to the table, reading and making marks with her pen.

Yoj said "The grey water indicator is almost at the top."

Halling offered "I'll go flush the privy, then drain the rest into the municipal pipes. I'll feed the chickens and shut them up for the night, too." She pulled on her burzaka and went out the back door. Yerush commented on the coldness of the draft that blew in.

Yoj finished her second load of laundry and hung it up as well. All the rack space near the hearth was now occupied, and with the damp air, she couldn't guess how long it would take the clothes to dry, especially the quilted and woolen items. She put a couple of small floor fans to blow on the racks. Veida had two sets of sheets and pillowcases done. Looking at Yoj, she said "Okay if I use the washtub to dye these?"

"Yep. But I don't where they'll dry" warned Yoj.

"I can set the rack up by the cupboards in there, these are thin enough to dry away from the hearth" said Veida.

"What colors are you going to dye them?" asked Bux, looking up.

Veida had three small pots of clay-based dyes, one a pale green, one ochre and one rose. Halling came back in, blowing steam, with a basket brimming with eggs, saying "They've been inside all afternoon, nothing to do but lay, I guess." She consulted with her partners on their sheets, and they settled on the rose color. Yerush and Qen voted on the green for theirs. Veida gathered up the linens for dying as Yoj cut her dough into loaves and fit it into three greased pans. She had enough left over to make a dozen rolls. "These will come out sooner, so we don't have to wait quite as long for the taste test" she said.

Halling baked several apples for dessert, as long as the oven was on full. The 5:00 forecast was for rain and fog, which made Yoj and Bux grin gladly at Halling. The music went off after the forecast, and everyone's energy flagged a little. Halling declared that after dinner, she was getting down on her hands and knees to scrub the muddy kitchen floor. Yoj went to help Veida with the dyeing. When they emerged half an hour later to drape the linens over racks, Veida's hands were greenish and Yoj's were pink.

Yoj pulled out the rolls and dumped them into a basket. She set them on the table with butter and jam. Everyone dropped what they were doing to grab a roll, passing it back and forth between their hands quickly until they cooled enough to be split and buttered. Qen was the first to take a bite. She sprayed out crumbs as she cried "Oh, fabulous!"

Even Yoj had to admit, it was the best bread she'd ever tasted. The rolls were gone in five minutes. Halling stood up and said "Time to set the table."

Dinner was punctuated with unending praise of the bread. Veida said to Qen "You need to let the botaniste know, this grain is a keeper."

Veida asked "Any idea how much they'll be able to plant, and how much flour will come to us in allotments?"

"Not yet" said Qen. "This first year, it'll be scanty, though, it always is with new crops."

Bux said to Yoj "You should put your recipe up at a kiosk, so others will know how to make the best use of this flour."

"Now, now, don't give away what's going to become our most popular barter item" warned Yerush. Halling answered "The recipe is not the same thing as how Yoj makes it, her loaves will still be snapped up, as much as we can spare."

"I understand the leveling of terraces on Argile is almost done. Is there any other ejida land going to be turned over to this?" Veida wanted to know what Qen knew because of her friendship with the botaniste.

Qen glanced at Yoj before answering "There are two Flings currently uninhabited, both of them for reasons of transportation. With additional landshaping, both of them could be turned into decent-sized fields, much more productive than they are now."

"Ah, but the transfer of Manage habitat to crop land, that's not up to the botaniste" said Yerush. "And the loss of two Flings would mean a reduction of perhaps 10 in the replacement population, which the Genist will have something to say about -- that's a 1% loss, which could be critical at some point. We walk a thin edge as it is."

"What do you mean?" asked Halling.

Yoj knew the answer, she'd had this class with Yerush. But Yerush was happy to instruct. "We have a balanced ecosystem at the moment, highly interlocking and efficient. It depends not only on the exchange between variables, but also on enough human power to do the work. A 1% loss in our raw work power has to come from somewhere -- fewer people to grow and harvest rice, for example, would mean less rice. And once a spiral starts downward, further losses could occur. If we were to have an epidemic, for instance, at a certain point the diminishment of population would mean the loss of key aspects of what we take for granted. Like sewage, or building materials, or ferry service." A somber silence fell over the table.

"What about flying?" said Halling.

"Pilots feed the world" said Veida, the Lofthall mantra.

"Yes, the protein from sinning plus all the raw products that kelp gives us -- linen, plastics, dyes, thickeners, the list is long -- we can't do without it. For over a century, Skene survived on little else but fish, rice, and whatever you could grow in your own tillages" said Yerush.

"The Troubles" murmured Bux.

"Then, but also after the Troubles" said Yerush. "It took a few generations, even after the cultural changes at the end of the Troubles, to achieve equilibrium enough to cautiously expand. But the truth is, lighting and sinning are phenomenally expensive -- the minerals needed for craft and nets, the upkeep of Sigrist Manage which would not be essential if we had no pilots, the high salaries for everyone connected to the Lofthall."

"Not to mention the horrific loss of young life" said Yoj angrily. "Just as an aside."

"I was getting to that" said Yerush sharply. "Piloting attracts the best of our young people, our smartest and bravest and natural leaders. If we could fish normally, some of that talent would be diverted elsewhere, and those people would live decades of contribution."

Yoj was still mad at how calmly Yerush reduced it to economics. Bux asked "What do you mean, fish normally?"

Yerush looked irritated at the ignorance of her own child. Bux's refusal to attend University was still an unhealed wound between them. "I mean from boats. That's how they did it on the planet our ancestors came from: Big boats on the ocean."

Veida, trying to soothe Yerush, said "It's almost impossible for me to imagine safe oceans, without leviathans in them."

In the silence that followed, Halling got up to take baked apples from the aga. Bringing them back to the table, she set down cinnamon next to the butter and honey already near the bread. Everyone began splitting open an apple in their empty soup bowls. After taking one big bite and sighing in happiness, Halling said "Did those first colonists bring any of the sealife with them? I mean, is everything in the oceans native to Skene?"

"I'm not sure" answered Yerush. "Some of our crabs and shellfish may be introduced -- anything that can live in more protected waters. You have to remember, in the beginning there wasn't even Bohaira Lagoon, and no morrie vaseos. People lived here on Riesig and on Chloddia, a mining encampment, that was all. Next was Beras, to grow rice. Even a hundred years ago, Argile and Bosca had only one Manage each."

"So hnisas were already here" mused Halling.

"Yes, but that name comes from the home planet where it meant a different kind of fish, only vaguely like our hnisas. Same as robins -- their robins weren't blue, apparently." Yerush was in full professorial mode, now. She was in fact a charming instructor. Bux could see why University students gushed about her aggie, even as they feared her.

But Veida had had decades of Yerush the professor. She focused on Halling instead, nudging with "What about hnisas?"

"Well..." Halling took another bite and licked her spoon before figuring out how to express what was in her mind. "Mayim, the sinner who retired not long after I switched to sinning -- her habibi had also been a sinner. And she said there used to be a lot more hnisas in our catches than there are now. We net a hnisa only every five or six times, and then it's almost always a young one."

"Which is too bad" said Qen, "Because I love grilled hnisa. And you're right, even when I was a child there seemed to be more of them coming through at the Market."

"But the numbers haven't diminished in the oceans themselves" said Halling. "They're out there, just as many as ever, if not more. There are huge schools of them. They've just figured out how to avoid the nets. I mean, I can't think of another explanation, can you?"

Everyone looked blank. Veida said " we've become part of the Skene natural environment, they've learned how to sidestep us, that's what you mean?"

"Um...yes, but more than that." Halling took another bite, to give herself time to think. "I mean -- how is it that hnisas aren't just hunted to death by leviathans? They're large, they're tasty, they're in big schools. And leviathans mostly hunt schooling fish, that's why they come hurtling our way when they see us, because they know we spot schools. Well, that's one of the reasons" Halling added with bitterness.

"You know" said Veida slowly, "You're right. I've never seen leviathans, even a great nasty mob of them, go after a nearby school of hnisas."

"I'm just wondering -- what do hnisas know about dealing with levs that we don't know?" finished Halling.

Bux felt indescribably proud of Halling. You didn't have to go to University to be brilliant or inquisitive about Skene.

Yoj was fascinated. "Do you think they have a means of communicating among themselves? Hnisas, I mean."

"I've never heard sound from them" said Halling, looking to Veida for confirmation, who said "Me neither." Halling went on "But they have those big bumps at the front of their heads, which turn out to be mostly bone that morphs into cartilage and then spongy tissue at the bottom. Nobody knows what those are for."

Yerush was interested in spite of herself, and also longing to regain her role. She said "It's generally accepted in science that the features of every organism in nature have a functional purpose. Either now or in their past. Nature doesn't favor the development of useless attributes."

This stopped Halling's spoon in mid lift to her mouth. "Huh" she said.

"I can ask the natural scientist at the U if there's any theories about the head plates of hnisas" offered Yerush. "Maybe there is some capacity for sound projection within them."

Halling was a little distracted, Yoj could tell. "Uh -- okay, that'd be great, Yerush." Yoj poked Halling and said "What?"

Halling focused on her and said "Those blue spots. What are those blue spots for, then?"

"On hnisas?" said Qen.

But Veida followed Halling's train of thought. "No, on leviathans. Near the tail, on one side, they have these big blue spots, no two the same. And it really stands out against their pink skin."

Yoj grinned at Halling and risked "You mean they have blue spots on their ass like you?"

Halling laughed, but Bux was startled. "What blue spot? On Halling?"

Halling was embarrassed, but answered "Yeah, on my low back just above my -- I was born with it, and it's almost gone now."

"Used to be a lot more visible" said Yoj fondly.

"About one baby in five on Skene is born with those" said Veida. "They are very vivid at birth. I had one, too."

But Bux was focused on Halling. "How come I've never seen it? I mean, I can't have missed it."

Now others were embarrassed for Halling, too. Yoj interjected "She said it's mostly gone now."

"But you know about it. And you never bothered to tell me, either one of you?" Bux's voice had become high with upset.

"It wasn't a secret" said Halling. "I just figured you'd seen it; I mean, Yoj often traces it with her fingers." The minute it was out of her mouth, she was mortified.

Veida and Yerush stood up to begin clearing the table. Yoj was not meeting Bux's eyes. She realized she had thought of it as something just she and Halling shared.

"I want to see it!" demanded Bux.

"Not at the dinner table" said Qen, standing up also. "You're making Halling uncomfortable, Bux."

Bux retreated against her will. She glared at Yoj, and Yoj knew she'd get chewed out later. She wished she hadn't made the comment, not only because of the ruckus it caused, but more because Halling's point about the leviathans had been lost.

The next morning, Yoj discovered the fans had, in fact, dried her laundry. She put it all away, helped Veida fold the new linens, and was stashing the racks when a knock came at the front door. Before she could turn to answer it, the door opened and two women stepped in, laden with luggage and parcels.

Veida cried "Paha! And Tlochin!" She rushed to hug them.

Yoj stayed out of the way as Yerush, Qen and Bux crowded around them, taking their burdens from them. Halling came to stand next to Yoj. Paha pulled loose from her family and came to hug both of them, saying "My new sibs-in-law! This is my own darling, Tlochin!"

Paha was a darker brown than either Bux or Yerush, but she had the same sturdy, ass-generous build. Her brown hair and eyes were gleaming, and her hands were thickly calloused from work in the rice fields. Tlochin was short and golden brown, with black eyes and long frizzy hair in a braid. She was from Bux's sui, and Yoj did not remember her well from school.

"We brought a fat goose, an even fatter duck, and two bottles of rice wine!" said Paha, turning back to her emmas. "We didn't know we'd have a day off that would coincide with favorable ferry runs until yesterday, too late to write you, so we just took our chances with dropping in on you, I hope that's all right."

"It's perfect!" said Veida, who couldn't seem to keep her hands off Paha.

Qen said "We'll roast the birds for dinner. And Bux, go make up your bed for these two."

"With the new linens" added Veida.

Yoj trailed after Bux to help. "Where will we sleep?" Yoj asked.

"We can put pallets down in the living room loft, I slept up there all my life until my sibs left, it's toasty" said Bux, stripping the bed. Halling had joined them and was piling pillows on a clothes chest.

"Up by the rafters?" said Yoj doubtfully.

"It's okay" said Halling quietly. "You can have the middle."

Yoj looked at her gratefully and carried the old sheets to the laundry bin. Then she helped Halling haul small rolled mattresses, blankets, and a change of clothes up to the loft, which was tucked against the far corner of the living room, above cupboards and part of the hearth, against the wall which separated the living room from the kitchen. She looked warily into the dim rafters above them and shivered involuntarily. Bux scrambled up the ladder after them, saying "Isn't it cozy up here?"

"No" said Yoj almost inaudibly. "Where are the air exchange vents?"

Bux looked at her in bewilderment. "Are you having trouble breathing?"

"No" mumbled Yoj again. Halling pointed to a vent next to the rafter in the nearby corner. Yoj lay down in the middle of the loft and considered the rafter that ran directly over it. Then she sat up and said to Halling "It's all exposed. Maybe I should sleep on the cot by the hearth tonight."

"Whatever is wrong with you, Yoj?" said Bux, sitting down beside her. Halling put her finger to her lips, indicating Bux should lower her voice, and whispered "Isola Fling had shu all through the rafters. They came in through the vents a lot. And the kids were -- in direct line from the rafters to downstairs."

"Oh" said Bux, in a tone of voice that sounded dreadfully to Yoj like pity. "Well, Yoj, I've lived here all my life, and for 20 years, I've seen a shu in the house exactly once. And that was one a katt brought in to eat."

Yoj couldn't help shuddering at the idea. Bux put her arm over Yoj's shoulder and said "We have six big tough katts. The fact is, I hardly ever see shu even outside. Baker and Yarrow, our most determined hunters, have to go three Manages over to the cliffs beside Bohaira to satisfy their bloodlust. And -- Siggy, the eldest? I gave her that name because she sleeps up here in the rafters, right over there by that vent -- I said she was like the Sigrist, preferring to look down on everything. There's nothing that would ever get by Siggy."

Yoj felt ashamed that she needed reassurance, and it did not penetrate completely as a result. "Okay, fine" she said, shrugging herself out from under Bux's arm. She went down the ladder into the kitchen. Bux looked at Halling, who said "Let's make the beds and leave her alone."

Paha and Tlochin were being given a tour of the current garden by Veida. Yerush had the larder door open and was talking menus with Qen. Yerush turned to Yoj as she came in and said "I know this is rude to ask, but could you possibly make more of that wheat bread today? We could use some of the day-old for stuffing the fowl. And maybe some more biscuits? Just to wow our rice-farming visitors."

"I'd be honored" said Yoj, meaning it.

"All right then" said Qen. "That means your eggplant casserole for lunch, topped with cheese, plus coldframe lettuces and cucumbers in the salad. For dinner, the birds, baby carrots and broccoli, stewed greens, and -- what for dessert? We can ask Veida."

"We might have enough wheat flour left over for a cake, if she feels like experimenting" offered Yoj. Qen and Yerush looked at each other in excitement.

"Can you imagine what a cake with that flour must taste like?" said Qen. She was taking the items Yerush handed her and setting them on the counter. Yoj washed her hands and began a new bread dough in her bowl. "I think maybe I can afford to add pepper flakes to half of this" she mused, and Qen said "Go for it."

Bux and Halling joined them, relieved to see Yoj now completely distracted by bread-making. They jumped in to help with lunch preparation. By the time the gardeners returned indoors, a first sponge was rising and the casserole had just been set to bake.

Still daubed with flour, sitting at the table with an array of ingredients, Yoj said to Veida "What do you think about trying a cake with this new flour?"

Paha picked up the canister and took a deep sniff. She and Tlochin both took tastes of the raw flour.

"I hope this doesn't put rice out of business" grinned Tlochin.

"No chance of that" said Qen. "It takes too much precious land to grow in bulk."

Veida was conferring with Yoj, and Halling was eavedropping hopefully. Finally Veida plunged into the larder and came back with a large orange, a large lemon, a small bag of almonds, and a bag of brown sugar.

"Oceans!" said Halling. "All that in one cake!"

"Your orange cake" exclaimed Paha. "I haven't had that since I left home."

Bux said to Halling "It's the richest thing I've ever put in my mouth." Halling waggled her eyebrows at Bux and managed to completely mortify her, sending them both into laughter. Paha grinned affectionately, guessing at the joke. She went to the aga and with easy familiarity made them all tea, saying "All right, Halling, we'll start with you. Sit down there and I get to ask you all the questions I've had my entire life about the adventures of pilots."

Bux was thrilled at her siba's earnest attention to her new life. She, in turn, pulled stories from Paha about their daily routine on Beras. Yoj and Veida half-listened as they sifted flour, chopped almonds into meal, zested and squeezed citrus, and then concocted a batter so moist it looked almost too liquid to set. Veida used the juices, half the sugar, star anise, cloves and cinnamon to make a syrup that simmered on the aga as the cake baked. When the cake was done, she turned it upside-down on a lipped platter and left it to cool. Just before lunch was ready, Veida perforated the cake in a fine pointillage with a thin skewer and poured her warm syrup over it to soak, putting it in the larder to settle before dinner. She gave the batter bowl to Paha and Tlochin, the syrup pan to Halling, and they licked them both clean.

Yerush's eggplants, Qen's out of season cucumbers and Yoj's bread from last night were the hit of lunch. Tlochin remarked "Paha complains at every meal that she never eats as well anywhere as she did growing up here, and now I know what she means."

"Maybe we should move back in" Paha teased.

Bux didn't quite laugh as heartily as every one else. Paha said "Not to worry, sibu, I love Tlochin's emmas too much to leave them."

"Which one of you is going to aggie?" asked Qen.

Paha paused, then said in a serious voice "Neither, emma. We don't want children. Tlochin's three sibs are all nearby and they all have little ones, so we're going to focus on helping raise them."

Qen's disappointment was not something she could conceal. Veida said "That's a good choice, Paha, and they'll be glad to have you as their sibemma."

"So will my children" Bux couldn't help adding.

"Yes? For sure?" said Paha, genuinely glad for her. "And who's to aggie?"

"Me" said Bux, followed by a little squeal of delight that Paha joined her in. Lunch lingered long, and eventually Yoj had to get up and punch down her sponge for a last time, then form loaves and set them to baking. Halling insisted on clearing the table and doing dishes, leaving the family to continue talking and drinking tea.

"She's a keeper" Halling murmured to Yoj by the sink.

"They both are" Yoj whispered back. Bux, with her preternatural ability to hear them, turned and flashed a smile their way.

Finally, Paha declared her intention to see what might be changed in Riesig and asked for a tour of Qen's current classroom, as well as a chance to read the kiosks and maybe check out a shop or two. Everyone except Yoj put on rain attire to accompany her; Yoj regretfully begged off because she had to wait on the bread to be done.

"I'll make the stuffing while I'm waiting" she told Yerush. "And if you're not back by 4:00, I'll start the roasts, so don't feel the need to rush."

When they were gone, she realized it might be the first time she'd ever been alone in the Manage. After a ten-minute wait for safety, she climbed the ladder to the emma's loft and gazed at their wide bed, their row of clothes chests, the dazzling quilt no doubt made by Bux. She felt suddenly like a snoop and went back down the ladder quickly. She started her self-appointed tasks, already feeling a little lonely. When Sigrist radio came on with another live music performance a few minutes later, she was overjoyed and began dancing a stuffing-making dance. The katts, drawn by the smell of goose and duck set on the counter, watched her dubiously and avoided her feet.

She went all out on the salad, pulling one of everything from the garden and finding a beautiful way to present it in spirals around their huge salad platter. She set a massive pot of collard greens to simmer with a thick slice of salty bacon in the water. She stuffed the goose and duck, created a different spice rub for each of them and put them in the roaster. She pulled out her bread to cool and mixed whipped butter with honey in a clear red bowl to spread on it. She peeled the broccoli stems, then sliced them to cook with the carrots first before adding the florets at the last minute.

When her music ended abruptly at five and the forecast came on -- high chance of storms -- she was shocked at how quickly the time had passed. She had just gone to begin setting the table when her laughing family tumbled in the front door.

"Oh, Yoj, I wish you'd been with us!" cried Bux, rushing to her and trying to lift her in a hug.

"I missed you, too, Bux, ever so" Yoj answered, kissing her with emphasis.

"Wow, does it smell good in here" said Halling, coming to kiss her as well.

"Dinner is ready" declared Yoj with pride. "Wash up and find a chair."

Yerush and Qen insisted that Yoj sit down and let them serve, since she had worked all afternoon. Veida pulled the two bottles of rice wine out and uncorked them, beginning to fill small stemmed glasses on the sideboard.

"None for me" reminded Halling. "Nor me" added Yoj.

Paha stared, but Tlochin said "Lofthall, right?"

"That's right" said Halling, pleased at her knowledge.

Bux looked uncertain. "Will it bother you if I --?" she began.

"Not in the least, join the merriment" assured Yoj. Qen brought blue glasses of tea for her and Halling, saying "You can share our toasts with this."

Paha and Tlochin carved the roast birds with practiced skill. All of them ate ravenously and regaled Yoj with stories of their silliness out and about Riesig. She, in turn, told them about her stuffing dance. By the end of the meal, all three emmas were definitely tipsy. Halling got up to help Veida with the cake, probably worried about it ending up on the floor. After her first bite of the syrup-soaked confection, her eyes seemed to roll back into her head. Paha said "Wheat is now my favorite food of all time. Sorry, my rice-farming love."

Bux poured herself a third glass of wine, none too steadily, and draping an arm around Paha's shoulders next to her, said in what she probably imagined was a low tone of voice, "Tell me, siba, how do you manage with just one lover? I mean, my two are just plain full of vigor and even then I often feel an ache you know where that I can hardly wait to attend to. What do you and Tlochin do, sneak away in the afternoons to the rice barn and -- "

Paha put her hand gently over Bux's mouth, while the rest of the table sat in disbelief. She whispered something in Bux's ear, and Bux looked around the table in mortification. "Oh, lev, I am so levving sorry!" she swore.

Halling burst into red-faced laughter, and a second later everyone joined her. Bux kept her face buried on Paha's shoulder, Paha patting her back as she chortled with everyone else, and Yoj found herself very moved by the sibaste between them. When the noise died down, she turned to Tlochin and said "I guess maybe you and I should go outside and compare notes, eh?" which sent them all off again and drew the focus away from Bux, allowing her to show her face again.

By the time they finally got up from the table, the wine bottles were empty, the goose and duck were picked clean (but carcasses saved for stock nonetheless, much to the chagrin of katts), and Halling and Tlochin shooed everyone in the living room, declaring them a menace to dishes. Yoj cleared the table and fed the katts, mixing a little of the dripping from the duck pan with milk and pouring it over their fisk as appeasement. She fed the chickens and used the privy while she was out there, feeling virtuous about her courage in doing it alone. By the time she joined the others in the living room, Bux was almost asleep, sitting on the floor leaned back against the legs of Paha in a chair. Paha was gently combing Bux's silky brown hair.

Yoj sat down on the floor near Bux, accepting a cushion from Yerush, then cadging a second to put in her lap so Bux could lie her head down. She and Halling listened to delicious family stories about Bux and her sibs, full of goose and cake and feeling a part of this Manage, truly. When at last it was time for bed, Halling helped Bux to the privy and Yoj brushed her teeth, unwilling to go into the loft without them ahead of her. She got a chamberpot out of the cupboard in case Bux's wine came back up during the night.

Halling led the way up the ladder, in a now darkened and quiet living room, and whacked all the bedding thoroughly as Yoj climbed protectively behind a still sloppy Bux. They put Bux at the edge, next to the chamber pot, and she didn't even kiss them goodnight, dropping off instantly. Shivering a little, Yoj put on her schmatta and crawled in between them, more glad than usual of Halling's big arms held out to her.

"Our little Bux got well and truly hammered tonight" whispered Halling with a giggle.

"Oh my yes" agreed Yoj. "They all sucked those bottles dry, I had no idea Yerush could pour it down like that."

"But a happy bunch, aren't they?" said Halling with satisfaction.

"Our bunch" said Yoj. "And -- do you think we aren't doing enough to keep Bux satisfied?"

Halling turned to bury her laughter into her pillow. Yoj rolled over to face her and said "I mean, should I touch her more often here, do you think?"

Halling's laughter slid into a soft moan.

"Or maybe I'm not going far enough, like to here?" continued Yoj. Halling closed her mouth over Yoj's and pulled Yoj on top of her. Yoj whispered "What if she wakes up?"

"She won't" said Halling, then, urgently "Or if she does, she can satisfy my ache you know where."

"Allow me" said Yoj, catching Halling's urgency.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.

No comments: