Wednesday, December 26, 2007


(On Skene, the front doors of Manages are copper, brass or zinc and usually have decorations for easy identification. This is the front door nickel tile inset of the Manage at Motu Fling, which boasts several apple trees at the edge of its tillage.)

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:
Map of Riesig (the main island)
Map of The Manage on Riesig
Skene Glossary (Skenish to English)
Skene Cast of Characters
Skene Culture, Calendar, Clothing, and Islands
Map of All Skene
Map of The Lofthall on Riesig


A month after their partnering ceremony, while summer still held, Bux announced at dinner one night that she, Yoj and Halling had arranged two trips for the emmas. One was a visit to the same cottage at Pomar where they had gone, a two-day visit for Veida, Yerush, and Qen. The second was another weekend, two weeks later, at the hostel on Yagi, this one for Qen and Ng.

Halling said "The hostel is literally right next to the jichang, emma, and the private room there has a back garden overlooking the Riada river. A wonderful restaurant next door has agreed to deliver your meals to your room, which has a table and chairs. Plus, if you want to trek around Yagi, I've contacted our cousins there and they'll carry you, emma."

All of the older women were speechless for a moment. Qen began laughing first and said "I get two vacations!" Ng said "Reward for sleeping around, I guess" which made even Veida and Yerush laugh.

When Yerush hugged Bux in thanks, she whispered "We haven't had a trip away, the three of us, in -- well, I can't remember when."

"I know" said Bux happily. "We've arranged for you to use the boat, too, and go to the grotto we did."

Yerush looked her in the eyes and said "We've worked it out, you know. The four of us. Qen's happiness is worth -- any adjustment."

"Thank you, aggie" whispered Bux.

Still, on the nights when Qen slept in Ng's bed, which was usually every other night, sometimes the tension after dinner was noticeable. Nothing was said openly, and everyone said goodnight exactly the same no matter who was going where. But one night, when they were alone, Bux turned to Yoj as they settled in to sleep and said "Don't you think that if you bring someone else home, I'll behave like my emmas. There'll be no fourth for us in this Manage."

Halling snorted with laughter and said "I wouldn't dream of asking that from you." Yoj thought about making a joke that it was a good thing she had her cubicle, then, and at the last minute caught herself. When she told Halling about it the next day, Halling went a little pale and said "Don't you ever suggest such a thing to her, she'll set fire to the U just to burn down your possible love nest!"

"I think growing up with Yerush has skewed her" said Yoj. "I'm not going to be like Yerush. I'm not like any of them, actually."

Halling looked at her thoughtfully and said "Well, maybe like Qen. We'll see." Which Yoj took as a compliment.

The weekend that Yerush, Qen and Veida went to Pomar, the younger women stayed attentive to Ng, sticking around the Manage and spending long hours with her in the tillage or her studio. They made her favorite dishes, and Yoj took over rubbing liniment into Ng's joints for her after dinner.

Halling traded places with Yoj so Yoj could sit near Ng. As Halling settled into Yoj's usual chair, picking up pie crumbs with a moistened forefinger, she said "I've been thinking about bringing back the next baby lev who bumbles into our nets."

All eyes turned to her in consternation. "Won't that open you up to -- increased attack?" said Bux.

"Maybe. It's hard to know" said Halling.

Yoj, more knowledgeable, said "But that's why -- " She didn't know how to finish her sentence.

"Why Xaya died? Yes, if you look at it one way. But the truth is, the lev who pulled her down would have done just the same if there wasn't a baby in the net. It was Xaya's altitude that made her a target, not what else was going on" said Halling. Yoj was astounded to hear Halling viewed it this way.

Ng said "Isn't that against Lofthall regulation?"

"Well, yes" said Halling. "I can't do it on my own, I'll have to have the consent of my crew, at the very least. Since it's their risk as much as mine. And Igoz will probably drop kittens out her ass if I suggest it. But I'm thinking about asking her, anyhow."

"Why?" demanded Bux. "What good will it do?"

Now Yoj was astounded at Bux. She answered before Halling could "Because we could study it. Take it apart, see how they are constructed, find out if they have weak spots. We don't even understand how they swim in a spiral, why doesn't that make them so dizzy they lose their orientation?"

"Well, don't treat me like I'm dumb" said Bux defensively, "But what it help to know their weak spots? Law forbids any action against them."

A long silence fell over the table. Ng, her eyes closed as Yoj massaged in blue lotion, finally said "You'll have to have an answer for that when you bring it to Igoz. Because that is the next logical step."

"I could argue it might save us the cost of replacing nets when we have to drop a load, or help us avoid fatal encounters" said Halling, struggling to not be angry. "Especially if I make it about eks..."

"Talk it over with Veida" suggested Yoj.

"And aggie" said Bux. But Halling was irked, now, by the lack of support within her own intimate circle. She stubbornly approached Igoz the next day after her shift, without even warning Qala of her plan. She came home in a foul mood and went to bed without bathing, refusing to talk to anyone at home about what was wrong.

That night, the trio returned from Pomar in time for dinner, looking younger and lighthearted, their bags full of fruit and nuts. "What, no kittens?" joked Yoj. Ng pulled Qen down onto her lap, insisting it didn't hurt which was clearly a lie, and the three of them burbled stories about their trip while Yoj and Bux set the table.

When Halling joined them, groggy and still tight-lipped, Veida was the first to notice something was wrong. She asked Halling gently "Did you have a bad day?"

Halling, chewing angrily, said "I talked to Igoz."

Bux and Yoj both exclaimed "Oh, no, not so soon!" Ng quietly explained to the other emmas about Halling's idea. Halling wasn't meeting anyone's gaze, just kept shoveling food into her mouth. Ng put her arm over Halling's shoulder, or tried to -- Halling was much taller and Ng's joints didn't give her much range of motion. Her effort got through to Halling, however.

Halling said "She told me that even considering such a thing was a violation of law she ought to take to the Ethicist and have me placed on probation. She said I was advocating war!"

She showed some gratification at the outraged response of her family, until Yerush said calmly "Of course that was her answer."

Bux looked blue fire down the table, and Yerush smiled a little patronizingly at her, "I'm not agreeing with her. I'm just saying that would be her inevitable position. She campaigns to commerce, in particular, on how the Lofthall is committed to the smooth flow of business on Skene and will never lend itself to the aggression it participated in long ago. Your idea banged at her walls, Halling, I could have told you that."

Yoj was afraid if Halling chomped any more vigorously, she'd bite her own tongue. She said to the table at large "She's a levving coward, and it's not even her who faces the risks."

Veida leaned forward, trying to catch Halling's eye. "Is she going to pursue talking with the Ethicist, do you think?" Her face was suddenly lined with fear.

Yerush answered for Halling. "No, it's an empty threat. Making it that public, even writing it down in Halling's file, will create a record that she's desperate to not reach the ears of those who buy her office for her every year. She'll just hike her leg over Halling and walk away to let the urine dry."

Which got a chuckle from Halling, and finally persuaded her to look at Yoj and Bux. "No wonder I smell so funky at the moment" she said, and they laughed in relief.

The brief summer gave way to a return of rain, and warm weather crops were gathered in, replaced by cabbage, broccoli, and kale. The ducks and geese were slaughtered one exhausting weekend, a few put into the freezer and the rest hauled to the smokehouse near the docks to be preserved for the coming year. Their pen and houses were broken down and stored, the dropping-rich soil turned and planted with sugar beets. Only Halling was certain the months of coming endless weeding was worth the payoff of sugar at the end.

Not long after the one-year anniversary of when Yoj and Halling had first come to the Manage, the three of them returned home one day from meeting Halling at the jichang to find Lawa, Halling's sibu, sitting at the dining table drinking tea with Ng.

Halling hugged her jubilantly and said "What are you doing on Riesig in the middle of a work week? Are you well?"

Lawa was grinning widely. "More than well. I have two big pieces of news!" Halling noticed Ng's eyes were dancing as well. She took the cup of tea Ng offered her and sat down. Yoj and Bux joined them.

"Which one should I tell them first, emma?" Lawa asked Ng, but she couldn't seem to wait for an answer. Turning back to Halling, she said "I've been allowed to transfer from Byli to the ejida here on Riesig! I'll be living in the dorm there, just a ten minute walk from here!"

Halling stood back up and wrapped Lawa in an even more exuberant hug. "You can have dinner with us! Every night!" she cried.

Lawa, laughing, said "Not every night, I need to have my relationships at the ejida, siba. But yes, often. I'll get to see you and emma as much as I want."

"And us" said Yoj. "We're your sibs now, too. And you'll be the sibemma our children know best."

Which utterly overjoyed Lawa. Laughing breathily, she said "And that brings me to the second piece of news: Moasi is pregnant!"

This time Bux stood up, clasping her hands together. "Definitely? How far along?"

"Enough to show, and to be sure all is well" answered Lawa. "She was going to write you, but I stopped in there on my way to Riesig and she allowed me to be the one to tell you all. So she'll beat you in the race to produce the next generation, but you're right, your children will be the ones I get to spoil most often."

"She won't beat us by much" said Bux. "We've decided to begin trying with my next cycle, in two months."

Ng choked on her tea and after Halling thumped her on her back, the first thing from her mouth was "Qen will be beside herself!" Which moved Yoj more than anything else.

Lawa stayed for dinner, a giddy meal, but insisted she had to return to the dorm for the night. The next day was her first at her new job. She arranged for Halling to haul her clothes chest and a crate of personal items by sinner at the earliest opportunity. They all wrote a letter of congratulation to Moasi and Ktiva, enclosing the traditional silver 2-ek piece.

That year they barely noticed the freezes and wretched cold of Kall, they were so busy with talking about children to come, adding Lawa to their table two or three nights a week and enlisting her opinion on that year's spring tillage planning. The week after sheep-shearing began on Faar and Juh, Yoj met Halling at the jichang and walked home with her after she ate. She didn't feel like taking a nap, however. Bux was going to work late at the Sheng Zhang's office because that morning her testing indicated she was coming into ovulation. She left a note for them on the table saying they had an appointment to pick up their first Contribution from the Genist the following afternoon, after Halling's shift.

Halling kissed Yoj after reading this and said "Here we go, huh."

"Do you know how to do it?" asked Yoj.

Halling snorted. "Where would I have acquired that experience? We can ask Veida at dinner. Or emma, or anybody who's had a kid, for that matter. Or -- it seems pretty self-evident. Listen, I'm beat, I have to sleep."


Nobody else was home, not even Petunia. Yoj felt too restless to go into her study or start dinner. She put on her jacket and went out the door, heading up the lane toward the school. At the school, however, she decided children were the last people she wanted to see at the moment. She went on across North Ramba and turned left along the river, heading toward the tolt that sprawled across the northwest corner of Riesig. A narrow, steep path wound upward through the tolt, and the entire upper crest of its bulk was split into vertical rocky fissures, thousands of them, ranging from black to reds to greens. These were known as The Shatters, and it was here that Skeners commemorated their dead.

Yoj unconsciously headed for her family's plot. Something about the bareness of the rocks, or their mineral make-up, was repellant to shu, and despite the unlimited number of hiding places, none were ever seen here. When she reached the crevasse where her family's plaques were stashed, she reached in fearlessly. Her fingers first found the new copper plaque she and her family had placed here for Rosz. It did not yet have a complete patina on it, and was still shiny in spots. She ran the end of her finger over Rosz's name, her dates of birth and death. She read out loud the names of her emmas, her partner, her children. The engraver Bux had found to carve the plaque had put a rather nice picture of a loom at the side, next to Rosz's name. On the bottom lip, it said "Born and died on Isola Fling -- last full-time resident."

She sat down, then, right on the hard path. It felt like she had been missing Rosz all her life, not just a year. Her chest ached. She imagined being able to see Rosz, ask her about how she had gotten pregnant with Yoj, what it had felt like, was it a funny story? Despite her writer's imagination, she could not come up with a version that felt plausible. She felt too bleak to cry.

Suddenly she heard footsteps, the slide of boots on rock. She looked up at the bend in the trail where she had come, and after a few seconds, Yerush appeared. Yoj couldn't have been more surprised.

"What are you doing here?" she said baldly.

Yerush smiled briefly. "I was near the bridge and I saw you heading up this way. I called after you, but you didn't seem to hear. So I followed you, to see if you were all right." Yerush was standing in front of her now. She squatted, with cracking knee joints, and looked at the plaque in Yoj's hands. "Did you come to talk with your aggie, then, about becoming an emma?" she asked gently.

"I guess" said Yoj. "Except I don't know what to ask her that I think she'd answer."

Yerush sat all the way down, her knee touching Yoj's lightly. "Why don't you ask me, then? I can keep a confidence."

Yoj's face began growing warm. Yerush, looking at her keenly, laughed and said "Oh, you want to know how it's done, don't you? I remember worrying about it, way back when."

Yoj said, not meeting Yerush's eyes, "I don't know if -- it's so embarrassing..."

"I'll use my gakusha voice, how's that?" twinkled Yerush. She launched into a clinical description, avoiding Bux's name or any personal attributes. She was done in economical time, and Yoj found she had no questions left in her mind -- a Yerush trademark. She grinned in relief, looking right at Yerush again.

Yerush took the plaque from Yoj's hand and read it. She asked "Are you going to name your first child after her?"

"We haven't discussed that yet, but -- no, I don't want to" said Yoj. "Not yet."

"What are your other family names?" said Yerush, glancing up at the crevasse. "This is an old part of The Shatters, like ours is, your line must go back very far."

"Bux has traced it. But I'm not familiar with them. I mean, my abba's plaque is in there, Dodoj, and I remember her. That's about it. I know more about historical figures than my own people" said Yoj.

After a long silence, Yerush said "Your line from here on out will be different, Yoj. All of your descendants will know about you."

"Even if I'm just the emma, not the aggie?" said Yoj in an almost inaudible voice.

Yerush breathed deeply, then said "The heart of our Manage is Qen. Not me. I'm sure you're aware of that." Yoj looked at her, startled. "Qen is why I had children, she's been the force that keeps up all hale and happy. She's who will be remembered, more than me or even Veida, although I'm not discounting Veida's influence. And I'm not discounting Bux, either -- she's an extraordinary woman, and she will be the best aggie our line has ever seen. But she picked her match in you and Halling. And your children are going to breathe your name with adoration."

Yoj's temple pounded a few beats. More than anything, she wanted Yerush to be right.

Yerush kept talking, almost to herself. "I know Culisa has taken her distance from us, and in particular she never answers my letters. I have let her down, there's no arguing it. But I wonder if the greater hurt wasn't that she didn't get a chance to bond with Qen like the other two."

"What do you mean? What happened?"

Yerush's voice went dry and cool. "I -- had an affair when I was pregnant with Culisa. Late in the pregnancy. Shocking, I know. It was a scandal for a while. I don't know why I acted the way I did; hormones, perhaps. The woman in question -- I see her often and I feel nothing but regret, no trace of the longing that once was there. Anyhow, Paha had just started school and I had begun my pregnancy leave, and I made an ass of myself. Even after Culisa was born, a month later I was still leaving home during the day, carrying a nursing infant, to meet my lover. Qen and Paha would come home after school to an empty house. And Veida wasn't good, yet, at comforting Qen. It was a terrible year. Even after I stopped seeing that woman, Qen was tortured by it. And although she never slighted Culisa in any way that I can remember, still, there was the association. Culisa lost out on the kind of welcome and joy a baby should receive."

Yoj was horrified and struggling not to show it. Yerush said "It's all right if you are offended with me."

"How did you -- weren't there any emmas around, to help? Your emmas, I mean?" asked Yoj.

"Well, that adds to the mix. Yes, my aggie B'ruch lived with us, but she was an invalid by then. And -- she had indulged me all my life, yet not in a warm way. She was not a warm woman." Yerush sighed again. "And Qen, poor Qen, her aggie Ndigo was dying of lung disease on Byli. Her whole family was caught up in that long, dreadful death. Veida's family was in the opposite direction, on Beras. We didn't have a pilot in the family, only ferries to get us around. Oh, thank goodness that kind of difficulty is behind us, I can't imagine going through a year like that again" said Yerush, handing the plaque back to Yoj and standing up. "And by the time Bux came along, everything was as it should be."

"I'm glad for her" said Yoj. "And you all. I'm so glad you're standing behind us, I don't know what we'd do without you." She got to her feet, feeling a reluctance to put Rosz's plaque back into the crevasse.

Yerush watched her for a minute, then said "How about if we go put her in our family plot? I mean, the one for our Manage. You're part of that, now."

"But she wasn't" said Yoj. "She definitely would not felt that way."

"She's gone" said Yerush gently. "You are what lives of her now."

"But if my sibs or emma come to remember her, and the plaque isn't here -- "

"They didn't come to place the plaque" said Yerush. "Despite your invitation. How often have they visited you on Riesig?"

Yoj looked at her. "Never" she whispered.

"So this is for you, not them. This is how you define your family. And what your children will make of it."

Yoj turned and walked up the path, toward the area where Bux's family plot was located. They had visited it twice, to look at the plaques of Bux's abbas and leave flowers. Yoj said over her shoulder, "Qen and Veida, their plaques will be with yours, yes?"

"Of course" said Yerush, following her.

At home, Halling was up with an array of salad vegetables on the chopping block and Bux was setting that day's fish in a marinade.

"Where did you go?" asked Halling.

"To the Shatters" said Yoj. Bux and Halling both looked at her.

Yerush said "I'll finish dinner, you three should go talk."

Bux said, wiping her hands, "Emmas walked down the block, there's a new baby at the house on the corner and they took that extra pie from yesterday, plus some fresh eggs and some of Veida's soothing tea."

Yerush shooed them off to their bedroom. Yoj lay down in the middle, and Bux tucked her head onto Yoj's shoulder, saying "Are you all right?"

"Yeah, actually" said Yoj. She told them the last part of her conversation with Yerush first. She felt nervous about sharing such an appalling story about her aggie with Bux, but it had come from Yerush. Bux was clearly upset, and she pressed close to Yoj.

Halling said "Who was the woman -- who would have an affair with a partnered woman about to give birth?"

"She didn't say, and I didn't ask" said Yoj.

"But she said she saw her all the time?" asked Bux. "That means it's someone we know."

"You're right, better not to have a name" said Halling, after a pause.

"I'm really, really proud you put your aggie's plaque in with ours" said Bux, hugging Yoj.

Halling said thoughtfully, "I'm pretty sure emma is going to want to be with Mwezi. And the Motu folks. But I'll ask her about it. 'Cause I'd love it if she were with us."

"It's not her, it's just a plaque" said Yoj. Halling poked her, then said "What was Yerush doing near the bridge?"

In an instant, they all realized she must have been at the Genist's.

"Oh, I don't even want to think about that!" said Bux, rolling onto her back in distress.

"Okay, this will change the subject" said Yoj. She began telling them what Yerush had shared with her about the pregnancy process. She didn't do as well as Yerush had, because her partners peppered her with need for clarification. Eventually, however, they were all grinning at each other.

"Tomorrow" said Halling softly.

"This ovulation is rattling my ribcage" said Bux. "Early to bed tonight, I'm famished for you both, okay?"

"Speaking of famished" said Yoj, and slid out from between them, heading for the door.

A few days later, when Halling, Bux and Yoj walked into the Manage after Halling's work, Yoj remarked "It smells a little funky in here. Is the compost bucket overfull?" But when she went into the kitchen to look, the odor lessened. Halling had already gone to the bath room to fill her tub. Bux, however, stood in the living room and said "I smell it, too. It's in here." The two of them walked around until it became clear it was coming from a corner, above them.

Bux climbed into the loft, and Yoj heard her say "Siggy? Siggy, sweet katt -- wake up!" Then Bux cried out, "Oh, no!" Halling rushed up the ladder and Yoj heard Bux beginning to weep. Halling leaned over the rail and said "We need an old towel or rag, Yoj."

Yoj climbed up to bring the towel and held Bux while Halling wrapped the now stiff body of Siggy. Then Yoj went back down so Halling could hand the body to her. Yoj turned off her bath water as Halling went to get Ng from her studio. They all gathered at the plot of grass. There had been a recent rain, and it was fairly easy for Yoj to peel back a large square of sod. Ng sat on the back steps, her arms clenched tight against her chest from the chill of dusk. Yoj and Halling took turns digging. Whoever wasn't digging stood with her arms around Bux. Yerush came home before the hole was ready and joined Bux in her grieving.

The other katts were within line of sight, watching with large eyes, when Halling lay the wrapped bundle into the hole. Yerush said a few lines of a language Yoj had never heard. "What is that?" she blurted out.

"I don't know" answered Yerush. "It's just something we've always said in my family at a death."

When Yoj poured the first spadeful of earth onto Siggy's body, Bux burst into wailing. "She's been with us since I was itty-bitty!" she sobbed. "I named her, remember, aggie? Nobody else liked that name but I insisted it was what she wanted to be called."

"You were right" murmured Yerush, her lips on Bux's head. "She loved being our Siggy. She went to her high place to die."

Once the hole was filled, Halling lay the sod back over it. She helped Ng to her feet, and Yoj walked Bux into the house. Yoj said quietly to Halling "Go ahead with your bath and nap, I'm with her" and Halling, looking wiped out, headed for the bath room. Bux sat next to Yerush at the table, where they held hands and drank tea. When Qen and then Veida came home, they all wept together again. Yoj and Ng made dinner.

Before they sat down to eat, Bux got up and fed the silent cluster of katts in the corner of the kitchen. She gave them extra and petted each one fervently. Later, during the meal, Petunia sneaked, as usual, into Yoj's lap. Bux saw her tail and her eyes filled with tears again.

"Here" said Yoj, "You get to have Petunia in your lap for tonight." She handed the kitten over, and Bux tucked Petunia into her gilet, openly feeding her tidbits from her plate. Petunia was a little confused but offered no argument. Nor did Yerush. After a few minutes, she asked Bux "Do you want to find us another kitten? It would be nice company for Petunia."

Bux looked at the katts still washing themselves in various locations around the kitchen and living room, then answered "No. Foggy and Basil are almost the same age as Siggy -- was." She began choking up again. "I think we should wait a year or two."

The implication made everyone deeply sad again. Bux hugged Petunia and whispered "How about another piece of samaki, kitten love?" Petunia rumbled a reply. That night, Yoj left the bedroom door open and Petunia crept in to sleep between her and Bux.

A week later, Ng emerged from her studio before dinner with a flat object wrapped in cloth. She handed it to Bux, and Bux opened it curiously. Ng had made a ceramic commemoration plate, just like the ones placed in the Shatters for people who had died, only this was smaller and had a beautiful raised likeness of Siggy, her calico colors in a vivid shiny glaze, with her name below and the legend "Best of Katts". Bux cried hard again, her arms wrapped around Ng.

After dinner everyone went to the rongyan wall next to the plum thicket and affixed the plaque in a crevice with sticky clay. Yoj wasn't sure who was prouder of Ng: Qen or Halling. She couldn't imagine anyone in her family blending into this Manage so elegantly as Ng had. Then she corrected herself: She had. She was the member of her family who had gone out to become part of greater Skene. It was a comforting notion.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.


letsdance said...

deep sigh............
sad and sweet, the same. (a phrase from "Love is Everything" by Jane Siberry)


Blue said...

I am really enjoying reading this. Thanks, Mags.

Maggie Jochild said...

THX, you two. It means a LOT to know you both, in particular, are reading. (happy here) -- Mags

Maggie Jochild said...

Y'know, Blue, it just occurred to me there might some points of similarity in at least one of these characters to -- well, your life this year -- that you're relating to. Just want to say (a) I'm basing them on my life, not yours, and (b) I became quite attached to Yerush as the novel progressed and her character insisted on being "herself", foibles and all. I found her fascinating and sympathetic and a pain in the ass, all at once. I rather imagine she was a Scorpio, don't you?