Sunday, December 16, 2007


("Dancing Peasants", painted 1911 by Natalia Goncharova)

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:
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


The next morning before dawn, Halling went as silently as she could out the back door to the privy. When she came back in, Veida had a pot of tea steeping on the table, along with two cups and the honey jar. "Sure you don't want some toast or eggs?" whispered Veida.

Halling sat down beside her. "Nope, they lay out a spread at the Lofthall and nervous energy really makes you hungry in that room."

They sipped their tea in companionable silence. Once there was a creak from the loft over the kitchen, someone turning over in bed, and Yerush's soft snoring drifted down to them. Veida smiled fondly.

"She's used to having her way, or thinking she does" whispered Veida. "But your Bux is turning out just like her."

"Not exactly like, I hope" said Halling, not quite awake enough to censor her speech.

Veida chortled. After a minute, she said "She grew up in this Manage, an only child." It wasn't an excuse, only explanation. And then, completely unexpected, "She's a wildkatt in bed."

Halling was mortified, yet it was useful information -- she looked forward to repeating it to Yoj. Another minute passed, and Halling said "I forgot to tell you all last night, sinners get first dibs on the haul at the fish docks. I've never had occasion to go pick up my share, since I've been fed at the Lofthall. But I can go this afternoon. What's your favorite?"

Veida's dark eyes lit up. "Sakana! And Qen loves samaki. Do you ever catch hnisa?"

"Rarely any more. But sometimes there's dogefish. Or hamsa."

"Mmm, either of those will delight Yerush. Thank you, Halling."

Halling drank the last of her tea and stood up, pulling her guibba from the back of her chair.

Veida said softly "Carynn by."

It wasn't simply that this was the goodbye all pilots gave each other as they set out each day, it was the tone in Veida's voice. Halling stared at her, and Veida said "Yes. I was a lighter. Back before you were born."

"That's why your name was familiar" whispered Halling, "I must have read it on the wall of the Lofthall. How long did you fly?"

"Five years" answered Veida.

"Were you a sinner, too?" asked Halling, buckling her guibba.

"No. I -- I lost my partner, Maszon. That's when I quit, became a comadrona instead."

Halling went very still. "I'm so sorry."

"Me, too" said Veida.

"Bux didn't tell me" said Halling.

"I don't think she knows" said Veida. "It's not a secret, it just never seemed to come up."

Halling glanced at the clock. She really didn't want to leave this conversation, but she was going to be late. She leaned over and kissed Veida on the cheek, and whispered "I'll see you later" as she moved swiftly to the door.

"Carynn by" Veida mouthed again silently, as the door clicked shut.

Yoj and Halling were plunged into a world of new relationships, new schedules, new challenges. After Halling left in the mornings, Bux shellacked herself onto Yoj and they slept on for another hour or two, waking up to light and the pleasure of each other. They had long, earnest conversations, and explored each other's souls as well as bodies. When they got up, Qen and Yerush would have eaten and left, and Veida would usually be busy if she was at home, so they had the luxury of breakfast alone together. Yoj would then go off to her cubicle to write or the library to research, and Bux went to her job with the Sheng Zhang.

Bux made a point of being at the jichang every day, however, to see Halling come home. Halling had already been the only pilot having someone who loved her waiting to greet her each day. The pilots who landed before her had often walked directly to Yoj, to blow off nervous energy talking about their day. Now, the presence of two sparkling women left the other pilots a little awkward and shy at first, until Bux began chatting them up and many of the younger ones developed severe crushes on her. They would stand around until Halling landed, and then a throng of pilots would walk around the trio to the canteen, sitting at a big table to eat and horn in on Bux and Yoj's attention. None of the three minded; in fact, it was touching.

After eating, Halling would usually walk back to the Manage arm in arm with Bux. They had time for just the two of them, then, to talk, sometimes make love, or just nap together. Yoj returned to her writing until 4:00, when she hurried home to help make dinner and do whatever chores the Manage needed that day with Halling and Bux. The sudden appearance of three emmas was almost as exciting to Yoj as her love for Bux. She threw herself into getting to know them as well, in ways she never had.

After a couple of weeks, one day at the jichang Halling said to Bux "I'm going to Yoj's cubicle with her after eating, instead of home. I miss sacking out in her tiny bed and listening to her rustle papers. I mean, if that's all right with you."

Bux looked surprised, then apologetic. "Oh, sweetheart, of course -- you two never get time alone with each other, do you? Let's make sure this happens more often." Still, when they walked off together, her heart sank. She trudged home and found Veida at the water tank, running grey water through the filtration system before it got used on the garden. She sat down on the wall at the back and said "Do you ever feel left out by the other two? Yerush and Qen, I mean."

Veida raised her black eyebrows and said "Left out? You mean, excluded? No, never."

"No, I mean -- the way they love each other, it's different from how each of them loves you" said Bux, feeling sorry for herself.

"Of course it is. All love is different" said Veida. She looked at the house and said "Where's Halling?"

"With Yoj" said Bux. Veida managed not to say "Aha." Bux kicked her heels against the wall. After a minute, Veida straightened up from the valves and said gently "I've never, to my memory, seen an established pair take in a third as passionately as those two have hurled themselves at you."

"Really?" asked Bux, brightening a little.

"I don't know how they're making time for it all" said Veida. "I know they're over the moon about you -- but are they okay here, with us? We're a little set in our ways here, I know."

Bux thought for a minute, then said "All they ever say is how lucky they are. Yoj is thrilled to be cooking, she says it's like writing for her. And Halling -- yesterday after we got home, she cried about how she wished all the other pilots had a home life like this. They are so idealistic and young, even the ones that are older than her seem really young. And they have the sibaste, but they -- they miss their emmas, they miss having children. And -- I think they're scared all the time. That's why they joke and sing so much."

Veida's eyes filled with tears. Her voice dropped a register as she said "I'm so glad you brought them to us, Bux. For my sake as much as for yours."

Bux slid off the wall and gave Veida a strong hug. "Okay, what needs doing out here? Never mind, I can see the weeds in the carrots."

"Pick some for dinner" Veida called after her. "Anything getting long in the tooth, we'll simmer 'em with butter and cloves, that'll be great on a cold night like tonight."

Bux said "I can't wait until we have fresh tomatoes again."

"We could ask your emma to make tomato bisque from some of her preserves" suggested Veida.

"Oh, and I got whitefish at the docks today, we could add filets in at the end to simmer" said Bux. She had stopping worrying about Halling and Yoj.

After dinner that night, she found a moment alone with Yerush and said "Aggie, the metalsmith who made your partner rings, for you all -- is she still working?"

"I think so" said Yerush, her face enigmatic. "She has a room in her Manage where she takes referral business." After a pause, she said "They live overlooking the West Tendril -- take the middle bridge across South Rambla and go all the way to the end of that lane. They have a nickel knocker in the form of a dahlia on their door. Use my name."

Bux thanked her effusively, her mind already occupied with designs.

By the following Roku, both Halling and Yoj had hauled their clothes chests up to the Manage and lined them against the wall next to Bux's chest in her bedroom. Now their bedroom. Two of the cupboards with shelves atop them which lined three walls of the living room had been cleared out for their personal possessions and keepsakes they wished to display. Yoj kept all her books and papers at her cubicle, along with a schmatta and change of underwear.

Roku dawned clear, so Halling went off to work and Yoj slept in with Bux until 7. They got up and had breakfast with the emmas. Yoj added breadmaking items to their shopping list and left for her cubicle to finish this week's song. Bux went to Market with her emmas.

After they got home and ate an early lunch, Bux went into her room and began rifling through Yoj and Halling's clothes chests. She left the door open, and when Qen saw what she was doing, she came into the room and said "Don't you think you should ask them permission?"

"Oh, I'm not snooping" said Bux unconvincingly. "I'm pulling out dirty laundry. Yoj wears things too long between washing. Not Halling, though, she's fresh as flowers. Emma, look at this." Bux had a pile of Yoj's underwear and socks in her lap.

Qen was embarassed, and, keeping her eyes on Bux's face, asked "Look at what?"

"Her clothes are in terrible shape. They're years and years old. Every single sokken here has a hole in it, and there are no skarpetki at all, nothing for dress wear. She only has one dress outfit, of linen, not silk, and it's actually pulling apart at the seams in places. Her shati are stained, her gilets are faded to's as if she's not had clothes made since she was an adult."

Qen did look, then. Checking under the bed, they found pantuflas for around the house and presumed she was wearing her otos, but no dress shoes. Yoj did have a new-looking burzaka for rainy weather, and the kabat she'd left the house wearing, but they found no manteau, the wool cloak that everyone wore under a burzaka on cold days.

"She's always been thrifty" said Qen equivocally.

"This isn't just thrift. Either she doesn't notice, which is possible given how much her head is full of songs, or she's too busy looking after Halling to take care of herself" said Bux.

"Or she can't quite believe she deserves this kind of attention" said Qen quietly. She knew Yoj in some ways better than Bux.

"Well, I'm going to dress her from head to toe" said Bux emphatically. "She's going to look as sharp as Halling when I'm done with her. And she's going to have warm clothes for winter, including gloves and a hat. I'm taking her allotment book and getting to the dispersal center before it closes for the week -- will you come with me and help me choose fabric?"

"Not only that, I'll make her dress clothes" said Qen, who was quite good at sewing. "You can do her shatis and underthings. And the sokken, I've never cared for knitting."

"Actually, Yoj told me she loves to knit, if I just give her yarn and remind her, she can make her own sokken. But I'll make the silk ones."

They looked over Yoj's current wardrobe that they had seen her in and Qen estimated yardage.

"Let's make a few nice, bright shati for Halling, too. Anything she can wear to set apart her time away from work" said Bux. They bustled out the door toward the center of town and spent the next two hours arguing about color, drape, and pattern. Literally weighted down with huge kelp-plastic bags they'd brought from home, now stuffed with fabrics, thread and yarn, they walked back outside, to the smell of sea breeze instead of sizing, and Bux said "Oh! It's time for Halling to get off work! Come with me, we don't have time to go home!" Her bundles banging against her as she ran, she broke for the jichang. Qen followed her at a respectable walking pace.

When Qen reached the jichang, Bux was lounging in Halling's arms, both of them beaming, Bux's packages dropped at the edge of the tarmac. Yoj was hosing down Halling's sinner.

"My goodness, Qen, you and Bux have been on a binge!" called out Yoj. "What is all this largesse?"

"We're making a whole new wardrobe for you" declared Bux. "And some for you, too" she assured Halling.

Yoj abruptly stopped the jet of water.

"Without asking me?" she said.

"I know what you'll look good in" insisted Bux. "And of course I'll consult with you about how many pairs of this or that. But you're the dichter of Skene, you need to dress commensurate with the respect you deserve."

Another pilot standing nearby began laughing. "Shall we call you Nan Dichter now?" she asked Yoj, teasing.

"The Ineffable Nan Dichter to you" retorted Halling.

Yoj made a rude sign in her direction and resumed washing the understruts. "All right, Bux. From now on, though, ask first."

"I'm ravenous" said Halling. "Listen, Bux, will you take my place at the fish docks and pick out dinner for the Manage? I need to get to the canteen pronto."

"Okay. Are you coming home after?'

"No, I'm going back to Yoj's cubicle with her for my nap, because she has to set the parts of her song and drop it off at the Lofthall by the end of the day. She works better if I'm snoring in the background, don't ask me why" said Halling.

Yoj grinned at her. She said to Bux and Qen "We'll be home in time to make dinner. And I'm baking bread for the week this evening."

"There's a play at the school tomorrow afternoon" said Qen as Bux gathered up her bags.

"Wonderful, count us in" said Halling. "And there's a dance at the Lofthall tomorrow night" she said to Bux, waggling her eyebrows.

"Oh, glories, I get to walk into a dance with you two on either arm?!!" cried Bux. She kissed Yoj energetically and said "I've seen you dance, you are gorgeous in motion." The eavesdropping pilot began giggling and pretended to be waltzing with a swooning expression on her face. Yoj gave her legs a quick squirt of the hose, sending Halling into shouts of laughter.

Yoj and Halling came to place sweet kisses on Qen's cheeks before they strolled off toward the Lofthall.

Bux bubbled to Qen as they headed for the docks, "I know you'll want samaki, you always want samaki. We could poach it in a wine sauce, how does that sound?"

Qen was starting to feel a little tired. She slowed down and after a minute, Bux slowed down, too. When Bux paused in her chatter to take a long breath, Qen stopped and looked at her, with a fond smile.

"Have I ever told you that you're my favorite child?" she asked Bux.

Bux's face melted. "No. Oh, emma, you're my favorite too! Always. When I turned three and was old enough to walk to school with you every day, it was one of the best memories of my life."

"Well, I just want you to know, of all the students I ever had, aside from my own children, the next two I loved the most are those two women you've brought into our family" said Qen, starting to walk again.

Bux was so happy, she couldn't think of a thing to say. Which was fine with Qen.

Yoj and Halling got home shortly before 5:00, in time for Halling to hear the forecast for the next day. "Sounds like you'll be working" remarked Yoj. "I'll take an extra long nap afterward" replied Halling, "'Cause I'm going to that dance."

Halling was making samaki as per Bux's recipe -- she was very good at cooking any kind of seafood. Bux was steaming cabbage and broccoli, and she planned to add chard and kale in a few minutes. Yoj had started three different sponges, one for a rice-flour and vis haidan, one for a fruit bread, and one with lots of nut meal and a handful of dried pepper flakes in it. While they rose, she was grating carrots and parsnips to make what she called biscuits, a kind of veggie-grainy muffin that would be ready for dinner.

The emmas were anticipating their new free time each evening, relieved of preparing meals. Yerush had a stack of paper and class notes in front of her on the table. Veida was sorting herbs and making tinctures in small stoppered bottles. Across from her, Qen had all the carefully gleaned seeds from last spring and summer's harvests, in small plastic envelopes arrayed in rows. She was making a large sketch of this growing season's tillage, periodically stopping to ask bed rotation advice of Veida and Yerush. At one point, Halling asked from the stove "Aren't you a little early for the garden planting? We still have Yaomur to get through."

Qen turned to answer "With our coldframes plus the good light from the window under the sideboard, we can start almost everything ahead of time. We put healthy little plants into the ground, not seeds. Gives us a wonderful head start."

Yoj said "The almost constant rain and fog of Yaomur gives Halling loads of time off. I mean, sinners do hauling in the mornings if the wind isn't bad and there's any kind of visibility, but that doesn't start until commerce opens, and she's done by noon. And if the lighters are off, then I'm off. We can't plan ahead, but we can make the most of it. So think about big projects we can do around here."

Bux's face indicated she knew exactly what big projects she had in mind, and they all took place in the bedroom.

Halling added "We've usually gone to Beras to help with the rice planting -- most of the pilots do, it's a way to stay in shape, and it's fun. But I'd rather be here, this year." Bux rubbed against her, expressing her agreement.

Bux said "It's actually a fairly busy time for me, Yaomur. A lot of people have it as a slow period, and Manages put off hiring a wandmaler to update their murals until they can be home to watch, which concentrates in Yaomur. Plus my Sheng Zhang is always overextended, all year."

Yoj pulled her biscuits from the oven and began gingerly lifting them onto a plate with her fingers. "Time to set the table" she called out. The emmas shifted all their projects to the sideboard and set the table rapidly. Bux left her veggies for Yoj to dish up so she could crumble fisk into six bowls and add a dash of goatmilk for the katts, lined up with bushy winter fur and eyes that gleamed in the reflected light. It was full dark outside, the windows of the kitchen steamy from heat and cooking inside.

After dinner, Halling insisted on washing the dishes and shooed everybody off to resume what they had been doing. Yoj punched down her sponges a second time and set them back near the aga to rise again as Bux scrubbed the table and dried it. She claimed the non-emma half for the fabrics she and Qen had bought, spilling them out onto the gleaming black table in the overhead light like folds of jewels.

Everybody except Qen stopped what they were doing to come feel and exclaim.

"Look at all the silk!" said Halling.

"Mm-hm, and some of it's for you" gloated Bux. She pulled out a fold of glossy gold silk woven in an extremely fine pattern of crashing breakers and flecks of foam. The silk was so heavy as to seem almost liquid. She held it up to Halling's face, and everyone said "Ahh!"

"And -- not only does this pattern match this other color here -- " she located a three-yard swatch in bright copper -- "But I have a shirt already in this pattern, only in silver! The copper is for you, my beauty" she said to Yoj, holding it next to Yoj's bare arm. The chorus of "Ahh!" went up again.

Yoj's face was hard to read, a blur of emotions. She traced the raised pattern of the silk and said softly, "My aggie made this."

The shock in the room was palpable. "Really? I didn't know she was a takashkinu!" said Bux.

Yoj met her eyes, in a mixture of shame and pride. "It's what she does best of anything, weaving and dying silk. I've heard it said, all my life, that she's the best on Skene."

"And here I've been wearing her work for years" marveled Bux. "What else here is hers?"

Yoj pulled out a silk of either crimson or burgundy, depending on how light fell on the folds, traced throughout with a frost-crystal pattern in delicate silver; a sumptuous ochre brown limned with crackles of scarlet that looked like cooling magma; and a pale sea-green the color of Seda lagoon somehow washed with blurry lines of cerulean that resembled anemones.

Bux looked into Yoj's eyes. "I picked out every one of these for you. How did I know?"

Yoj was deeply moved. "You know me, Bux." Halling lanked her elbow around Yoj's neck and kissed her temple with a smack. "And you are just this beautiful" Halling whispered in her ear.

The emmas suddenly went back to their chairs, busy again. Bux pulled a pad of paper from a kitchen drawer, along with a pencil, and sat down too, saying "Okay, let's decide what fabric to use where. Put those underwear woolens back in the bag, will you, Halling? Now, Yoj -- you need at least one pair each of dress celana, calcas, and dubikun, plus some linen nadraj for things like dances. Halling, you need some nadraj as well, I noticed."

Halling and Yoj glanced at each other over this "I noticed" remark but there was no interrupting Bux. "And you have lots of nice silk shirts, Halling, but you could use more shati that are somewhere between swabbing out the privy and going to meet the Sheng Zhang quality, so that whole stack of linens there by your right hand are for your to choose among. You too, Yoj. Plus, Yoj, you need two or three hanshan, and jirekinu, either matching or contrasting, to wear over them. I'm making you skarpetki to wear with all this dress attire, but we have to get you some zaoxue in dress leather -- I know a good bootmaker a few streets over. You also need at least one, preferably two uwagi to wear over your dress outfits, and a manteau plus a new kabat. Halling, you don't seem to have a manteau, do you need one, too?"

Halling answered "I don't see the call for it, not with my guibba. Or, if it's very fancy, I do have an uwagi."

"Yes, that lovely dark blue one" said Bux. Halling and Yoj looked at each other again: She'd been through their clothes chests, had to be.

"A couple of new schmattas each, and all new sokken for you, Yoj, I'm unraveling the ones you have for the yarn to make work gloves and caps. Now, as for everyday, Yoj, you're also in dire need of new ku and bukser -- do you have a preference as to which kind of pants you wear?"

The planning went on. Bux entertained herself mightily when it came time to take the measurements of both Yoj and Halling, leaving them red-faced and the emmas silently buried in their tasks. After an hour, Yoj took a break to punch down her sponges and begin shaping loaves. Once the aga was crammed with baking bread, Yoj came back to the table to find Bux was done with her list.

"I'm starting with that copper length in the morning and, with Qen's help, I hope to have it finished for the dance tomorrow night" said Bux. "Balloon sleeves, a V-neck with lapels, loop buttons, and roomy so you can whirl me around the floor."

Yoj leaned over Bux's back and kissed her cheek beside her ear very thoroughly. "Whirl you I definitely will" she murmured. Then she went to Qen and kissed her cheek as well, chastely, and said "Thank you, emma. Thank you so much."

Qen's face was aglow. She patted Yoj's hand on her shoulder and said "That bread already smells heavenly."

"I made 12 loaves, four from each batch. If we eat all of that in a week, next Ot I'll make another 12 plus whatever will be popular to barter at Market. Check out all three and tell me what you think" answered Yoj.

Katts began finding nap spots on the sideboard and looked longingly at the rich piles of fabric on the table. Drum was snaking her way into the bag of wool when Bux noticed her. She extracted the katt and began putting the cloth away, pulling the drawstring atop each bag to make it katt-proof. Halling was making tea and carrying cups back to the table. Yoj had sat down next to Qen and was getting the low-down on her tillage plan.

"We really don't have enough land here" Qen complained at one point. Then she quickly added to Yoj "We didn't when we had all three children here, either, it's not because of you and Halling."

"I've been thinking about that" said Yerush. "I'm working on an idea." She declined to elaborate. Veida looked at her blandly, then said "All right, poobah, as long as you're scheming, figure out a way for us to get more cold-frames and maybe a small vertical greenhouse to grow a couple of fruit or nut trees."

"Avocado" breathed Qen. "Lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit -- "

"Or walnut" said Veida.

"Oh, oh! There's something the botaniste told me about last year, called mangos. Big oval-shaped fruit with flesh like dense melon, and she said it was sweeter than the sweetest apples, but orangy-gold in color. Needs warm air throughout the winter." Qen drew a picture of a mango on the margin of her paper.

"You need to be kept away from the botaniste" said Yerush with a grin, "She leads you down her paths of tropical fantasy."

Qen squeezed Yerush's hand as Halling said "Put me down for mangos, sounds like they were made with me in mind. But what does tropical mean, exactly?"

Bux looked blank, too.

Yerush's voice became slightly professorial. "Tropical refers to a region on a globe near the equator where, because of planetary tilt, more sunlight hits the surface and it's much warmer all year round. Hot, in fact. If we had land masses on Skene near our equator, they'd grow all kinds of things we can't produce here."

"What we could do with another land mass..." said Bux speculatively.

Yerush coughed, then said "There are rumored to be maps in the original settlers' records which may or may not show another skein of islands, either at the same latitude as ours below the equator, south of us, or in the same position on the other side of the globe. I've never seen them, and most gakusha now argue that they are maps of our islands before the original settlers began reshaping them."

There was a charged silence, then Yoj said "What do you think?"

Yerush smiled enigmatically. "What I'd prefer is to get a look at the map alleged to be held by Igoz, the Sheng Zhang of the Lofthall, a map which might not be so equivocal."

Halling leaned forward in startlement. "I've never heard of such -- a map of the entire planet, you mean? Not just lighter distances?"

"So I've heard" said Yerush. "But don't quote me if you decide to charge into her office and demand a look."

Yoj snorted. "The day Igoz decides to share with the pilots -- "

Halling was agitated. She turned to Veida and asked "When you were flying, before this Sheng Zhang, did you ever see other maps?"

As Veida was shaking her head, Bux and Yoj said in unison "You were a pilot?"

Veida smiled and answered Bux. "Yes, before I partnered with Yerush and Qen."

"Lighter or sinner?" asked Yoj.

"Lighter. Five years" said Veida.

Bux was thunderstruck. "How could I have not known about this? Did you keep it from me for some reason?"

"No. I'm proud of my service. It's just -- associated with pain."

Yerush put her hand over Veida's and said "You don't have to talk about it."

"I know. But she's my child, I want her to hear whatever she wants to know" answered Veida, still looking at Bux.

After a silence, Halling said "She lost her partner. Like I lost Xaya."

"Well, not exactly the same" said Qen.

All three younger women with almost breathless with curiousity, but not sure it was respectful to pry. Veida took a deep breath and said "I began lighting right out of high school, same as you, Halling. And I partnered right away with Maszon." She turned to Halling for a moment. "The Sheng Zhang then was Zeman -- she's dead now. She was, by all accounts, far more collaborative with her pilots, but no, I never saw or heard of the map of Skene, except from Yerush later."

Returning her gaze at Bux, she said "We were in the northeast one sunny day, and had located a good school. There are already leviathans in the vicinity, but the sinners were working fast and we started the pattern." She paused, and said almost inaudibly, "I've never forgotten the song that day..."

Shaking her shoulders once, she continued "They were really going for us. Especially me and Maszon, we had the quadrant farthest from the baby levs, so the bigger ones could jump with impunity. A big bastard got close enough to Maszon that she had to dodge, and rather than risk bumping into my pattern, she dipped toward the net and -- miscalculated. Just barely clipped the net with the end of her wing, but at that speed it was enough to send her spiraling. She managed to pull out and start back up, and was out of range when -- her engine began stuttering, stalling, something had racked out of sync during the spiral. She couldn't keep altitude. She started back for home, and I was right with her, doing every diversion I could think of and then some, but she steadily lost altitude until she was -- too low. And five of the pack were following us, they knew something was wrong."

Here she turned to look at Halling, the panic in her eyes almost unbearable. "I didn't know what else to do. Any second, one of them was going to burst from the surface -- "

Halling scooted her chair over to Veida and put her arm around her. "I know" she whispered.

Veida was wringing her hands together. "I told her to unlock her hatch and when I came underneath, to jump, I'd catch her on my wings. I didn't know what else to do. I wasn't going to let them have her."

Recognition mixed with horror now showed on Halling's face. She'd heard this story.

"She did what I said. And I caught her, I did. I pulled away from her tumbling lighter and I slowly gained speed and altitude. The levs went for her craft, and I had time to get away. But I could hear her screams, and I could smell..."

Veida broke down now, great gulping sobs consuming her body. Yerush stood up and pulled her into her chest, and Veida clung to her.

"I don't understand" Bux whispered. Halling faced her with tortured eyes.

"The tops of the wings, the flat surfaces, are all solar panels. After you've been in the air even half an hour, they're red hot -- like molten lava. Maszon landed on those, it was the only flat place Veida could catch her."

Bux gasped. Veida continued crying. After a minute, Qen said quietly "She got her back to the jichang, and they carried her to the hospital. She lived three days, sedated the whole time."

Halling put her arm on Veida's shoulder "But you got her back. You brought her back to earth. She didn't die -- like Xaya did, out there. You had a body to bury. And she died with you beside her."

Yoj could tell what Halling was close to bursting into tears herself.

Halling said, fiercely, "You honored her. You honored your partnership, and the sibaste. I'm proud to follow in your bootsteps."

Veida lifted her head to look at Halling. "It's not enough" she managed to get out.

"No" said Halling. "But it's something."

Bux had begun crying. Halling looked at her and took both her hands in hers. At that moment, the timer went off -- the bread was done. With a silent oath, Yoj stood up and went to the oven. Qen came to help her. They lined loaves upon the counter and turned down the aga. By the time they returned to the table, everyone was wiping their faces and able to talk again.

Halling stood and said "I need more tea, anybody else?" There was a universal request, so Bux got up with her to refill cups. From the stove, Halling said "Yoj, could we maybe cut into one of these loaves right now? The aroma is about to do me in."

Yoj got up again and put one loaf of each type on a breadboard with a knife, a pot of honey and a bowl of butter. Setting this in the middle of the table, she handed out small plates to everyone and Veida, looking much better, began carving thick slices per request. The mouth-filled cries of appreciation in Yoj's direction made her beam. After chowing down one slice each of the fruit bread and nut/pepper bread, Halling slowed her chewing and sipped at her tea, eyeing the third loaf.

Yoj grinned at her. "Or you could have seconds of one you've already tried" she said.

Halling laughed. "You know me too well. Okay, gimme more of that fruit bread."

Yoj cut it and slathered it with honey and butter, the Halling way.

Bux said, to Halling and Veida sitting side by side, "Thank you. For telling me, and for surviving."

Halling leaned over with buttery lips and kissed Bux on her mouth. "Thanks for being the home I get to come to."

"What she said" echoed Veida, raising her tea mug in a toast. Everyone toasted and kept eating bread until all three loaves were gone.

Pressing up crumbs with her forefinger, Qen raised her eyebrow at Yoj and said "Once people try your bread, we are going to get anything we ask in barter. I can't believe you've been forced to eat other people's poor imitations all these years."

Yoj grinned slyly. "The cooks at the canteen let me come in once a week and use their supplies to bake for the pilots."

Yerush guffawed. "I just bet they do! You make them very popular, I imagine."

Halling drawled "Not after I made sure all the pilots knew it was Yoj's bread they were eating."

"Speaking of which -- it's your bedtime" said Yoj with regret.

"Yep" said Halling. "But let's hope for rain on Shmonah, so we can stay at that dance until they shut it down. You're all coming, aren't you?"

Veida turned and looked at Yerush, who had a surprised expression on her face. Qen did not hesitate, however. "I'd love to, we've not been to a dance in ages."

Yerush smiled fondly at Qen. "And this woman knows how to cut a rug."

"Then it's settled" said Veida. "Where's it held?"

"In the fisk warehouse" said Yoj. "I know, I know, it'll smell, but the floor there is wood, not stone, and there's plenty of room. And musicians like the sound they get in that space."

"When we get home, the katts will find us tantalizing to sniff" predicted Yerush, standing up and stretching. Veida began clearing the table, and Yerush went to bag up the bread.

"I'm going to the privy, will you go with me?" asked Yoj.

Halling followed her out the back door.

Bux said "Have you noticed that Yoj won't go to the privy alone in the dark? Halling always goes with her."

After a pause, Qen said "Yoj has a mortal fear of shu."

Bux giggled. "Well, that's the silliest thing I ever heard."

Qen opened her mouth, but at a glance from Yerush, she said no more. Bux moved her bags of fabric into the living room, then went to the privy and washed up, joining her partners in bed. Halling was on the side nearest the door, since she had to get up early. Yoj was spooned behind her, and Bux fitted herself in behind Yoj.

"I adore your emmas" Yoj whispered.

"They adore you" Bux replied. She repeated what Qen had told her earlier that day. Grinning, they all went to sleep.

Yoj woke up at midnight to the sound of Halling's grunts in her ear. Halling's body was jerking. Yoj rolled over and just as she put her arms around Halling, Halling stiffened and gave a choked scream before waking up. She pushed at Yoj for a moment, then relaxed against her as she broke into heartbroken weeping.

"What is it? What's wrong?" said Bux, sitting up.

"Xaya" answered Yoj. "It's a nightmare she has, at least once a month."

Halling was wailing "No, no, no", her face pressed against Yoj's chest. Bux reached around Yoj and put her hands on Halling as well. Yoj murmured "I know, my love, I know. It got all stirred up tonight"

After the rawest of her grief was out, Halling, said "I can still hear her. All the way -- down. I wish I didn't remember it, Yoj."

Bux said "Scoot over, I'm getting on the other side of her." Yoj moved over into the spot Bux vacated, Halling followed and Bux scrambled over the foot of the bed to spoon Halling. Halling lay on her back between them.

"The worst part is, now I think that's all I remember clearly about how she sounded -- that last scream. I can't conjure, always, how she talked" said Halling.

Yoj's ear gave her a gift for mimicry. She said, hesitantly, "I remember her...She'd say 'Hahling dahling' when she was teasing you -- " Her imitation was spot on, and Halling broke into new wails.

"Yes, oh oceans, I don't know if I can bear it" she cried. Recollection came back to her, and she and Yoj shared a few more sentences. Then Bux spoke up.

"I remember the first time she -- the two of you, actually -- came back to school, in your brand-new blues. She had her gloves buttoned into the front of her shati, and she told me that taking off was like swallowing honey, but landing for her was still like trying to choke down dry crackers."

Halling laughed abruptly, still crying, and said "I remember that! Took her forever to land without a last-minute jolt. She claimed the ground always reached up and grabbed her early."

"She had the most beautiful curls of anybody I ever saw" said Bux. "They bounced around her neck. I had a terrible crush on her at one point."

"Did you?" exclaimed Halling. She pulled Bux onto her shoulder and said softly "She would be so happy to see you and me together."

"Well, of course she does" said Yoj. "Who do you think got me to finally notice Bux? Who do you think got me into your arms, for that matter? Xaya's been looking out for you non-stop since she died, Halling. Love like hers doesn't disappear, it just -- changes form. She's in every drop of water in the ocean now, and every time it rains, that's Xaya kissing you again."

Halling tried to see Yoj's eyes in the darkness. "Do you really believe that?"

"I really do."

Halling sighed, her body finally relaxing. "I think I can go back to sleep now. Here, switch with me, Bux, so I don't wake you up crawling over you at dawn."

"No way, silly. You stay in between us, and wake me up all you want" insisted Bux. Halling kissed them each and snuggled down into the quilts, dropping off easily.

Before daybreak, she pulled herself slowly from her partners' arms and lifted herself over Bux, dressing in the dark and going to the kitchen where Veida was waiting with tea. After a couple of sips, Veida whispered "Did you have nightmares last night?"

"Yeah. Did you hear?"

Veida nodded, then said "Me, too."

Halling loved her own emmas dearly, one dead, one still alive. But she was beginning to think of Veida as another emma. It felt like Veida had been in her life much longer than she had. And this crowded kitchen, every surface made useful, was starting to feel as safe as the Lofthall.

A while later, Veida asked "Is there still a lev with a -- mark on one side? Near the head, shaped like an H?"

Halling was startled. "Yeah, I've seen it. Was it around when you flew?"

"I've never seen it, but some of the other lighters told me. That mark -- it's a burn."

Halling felt shock deep inside her. "From -- Maszon's lighter?"

"Yes. It flipped over as they fought to be the one to rip it apart, landed on its back. They said it was bright red for a while."

"It's not, now. It's a dull brown. No one knows where it came from..." Halling was thinking, hard.

"S'all right with if you tell the others" offered Veida.

But Halling had gone in another direction. "How long ago was it, then?"

"Thirty -- no, thirty-one years now." Veida had given upon reaching a point where she didn't miss Maszon, although they would no longer have recognized each other, she knew.

"So they live at least that long" said Halling.

Veida looked at her. "We know next to nothing about them" she confirmed.

"Ignorance is dangerous" said Halling.

"You need to go" said Veida. "We'll talk more, I'm with you on this."

Halling kissed her cheek, as always, and said "Thank you, emma."

"Carynn bye."

As Halling was about to open the front door, Bux tiptoed from their bedroom, naked, young and ripe, and melted into Halling's arms. Veida looked away, then looked back, unable to not watch. Bux kissed Halling's mouth over and over, and murmured "You come home to me. You promise?"

Halling whispered "Promise". She stepped out into the bitter dark, and Bux scampered back to bed, waking Yoj up briefly with a request that Yoj warm her again.

Halling got off work after a single sinning because rain and fog was settling in around Skene. She came home directly at noon, ate Yoj's sandwich and salad while Yoj made herself another, and lay down without bathing, saying to wake her up half an hour before the play was due to start, she could wash, dress and still be there on time. She was asleep before Yoj closed the door to their bedroom.

Yoj walked down to the fish docks and came back with a metal bucket full of fresh mussels.

Qen exclaimed "You didn't get that from today's sinning!"

"No, I got sakana, but as I was leaving there was a mussel farmer just in from Bohaira, and she was glad to trade with me. I'm going to change the water on these and we can steam them at the last minute" said Yoj.

Veida said "I make a great tabasco for mussels" and went out to pick tomatoes for it. When she returned, she showed Yoj her recipe while Yoj started a fresh pot of rice. Qen had to leave for the school at 1:00, and Bux continued working on the lapel for another fifteen minutes before pushing the unfinished shirt into a bag and rushing to wash her face, put on a clean shirt, and wake Halling. Yerush had said she would meet them at the play, coming from the University, so Veida, Bux, Halling and Yoj walked briskly up the hill to the school together. Yerush had saved them seats.

The play was a musical based on the misadventures of the first attempts at raising goats on Skene two hundred years earlier. It would have been only mildly funny except for the errors and performance traumas of the first graders who made up the cast. Qen's hissed prompts from the wings became hilarious punctuation everyone was waiting for. When it was over, the little ones got a thunderous standing ovation. They rushed off the stage, looking first for their emmas, but soon after congregating around Yoj, Halling, and a couple of other pilots there.

They were begging Yoj to sing with them, to sing a lighters' song, and she led them out to the playground, cocking her head for Halling and the pilots to follow. Once they had lots of running room, Halling picked up two of the three-year-olds and settled one on either hip, instructing them that they were "a load of big juicy fish" that the sinner was bringing home. But she told them to also hold out their arms, cocked at the elbow to look like the truncated wings of a sinner. She began rumbling sounds of flight, interspersed with a deep-voice cry of "Bringing home dinner, gonna feed Skene!" which her load of fish began shouting, too. Yoj chose a lighter song the children already knew and, to their extreme delight, the other two pilots demonstrated the formation that went with it, teaching them when to dip, when to go right or left or weave, until every child on the playground was flying the pattern and singing in chorus.

Emmas came out to watch as their children lighted from one end of the playground to the other. At the far fence, Halling dumped her fish onto the docks and one by one the lighters came in for melodramatic landings. When the last child had squatted down to the ground and turned off her engine, several jumped back up and said "Let's do it again!"

But emmas began calling them to go home, the fine mist in the air was turning to light drizzle, and Yoj promised they'd come back to play another time. Once the littlest ones were out of the picture, several awkward teenagers shambled over to Halling and the pilots, mumbling questions about when they had become lighters, giggling behind hands that couldn't hide the awestruck expression in their eyes. Halling talked to them without condescension or hurry. Bux by this time had her arm linked through Yoj's, and she whispered to Yoj "Doesn't it remind you of when she was that age? Right here on this very ground, talking about becoming a lighter?"

"Yes. Except you never saw her without Xaya within arm's reach of her" answered Yoj.

"Somewhere in that cluster is the Xaya and Halling of five years from now" said Bux.

One part of Yoj's brain whispered I hope not, thinking of Xaya's absence.

When the teenagers were finally too shy to talk any more, Halling went with Bux and Yoj into the schoolhouse to help Qen and the other teachers set the room to rights again. One of the teachers said to Halling "I hear your siba Moasi is planning to aggie. Won't be long before her children are in my class here!"

Halling answered "I can't wait. Even better, my own children will be coming your way."

This caused great excitement -- Qen had obviously not told her colleagues about Bux's new status. "I thought you should get the honor of making the announcement" she explained, reveling in all the attention her family was getting. When they finally locked the schoolhouse door and started down the hill to home, Bux walked arm-in-arm with Qen along the lane, trailing Yerush and Veida, with Yoj and Halling bringing up the rear.

Once home, Halling took a real bath while Qen and Bux began finishing Yoj's shirt with determined haste. Yerush and Veida pulled dance attire for themselves and Qen from their clothes chests and hung them up to smooth out the wrinkles. Yerush asked Yoj what pants she intended to wear with her new shirt, and Bux answered for her: "She has a pair of brown ku that will do."

Yerush looked at Yoj's hips and belly in a way that caused Yoj to blush, then said "We're close enough in size..." She climbed to her loft again and returned with a pair of black silk celana that had a muted vertical stripe traveling the length of the ballooning legs.

Bux looked up and said "Oh, lovely!" as Yerush told Yoj to try them on. When she came back out of the bedroom wearing them, everyone looked at her ass and thighs for far too long. But Bux declared them perfect, so that was good enough for Yoj. Yerush gave her a pair of black skarpetki to go with them.

"You need to polish those otos, though" she said, looking at Yoj's scuffed and muddy footwear. She showed Yoj where the shoecleaning kit was in a cupboard, and Yoj sat down in the doorway to spiff up her boots. When Halling emerged from her bath, she said "Wanna do mine?" and Yoj answered "Sure, bring 'em on." Veida, with a grin, collected all the dress shoes in the house and lined them up next to Yoj. Then she said "I can help you."

"No, actually, I love this kind of work with my hands" said Yoj, her mind already testing out rhythms of buffing.

Halling brought out two possible outfits and, without hesitation, Bux glanced at them and said "The calcas." Halling blinked, then hung up the pleated silk breeches of jade silk, the dress hanshan of matching color with a jirekinu vest of black brocade, putting away the rejected outfit.

Bux planned to wear her silver hanshan in the same pattern as Yoj's new shirt with bright blue breeches and silver skarpetki. She had two sets of garters, one to loan Yoj. Yerush's attire was entirely of pale blue silk that set off her eyes to perfection. Qen had an ivory wide-sleeved shirt over cranberry celana, and Veida's silks were honey over chocolate. With everything hanging in the living room side by side, Yoj felt a little overwhelmed by how dazzling it was. At least I can dance really well she comforted herself.

Halling and Veida made dinner while Yerush took a quick bath, then fed the katts. Qen finished the last hem on Yoj's shirt while Bux cleared all the fabrics scraps and sewing paraphernalia from the table. Yoj came to dinner with shoe polish still staining her hands. They ate every last mussel, plus mounds of cooked carrots and greens over rice, Veida's tabasco making their eyes run. Veida gathered the empty shells to wash and use as drainage in the tillage. Yerush and Halling did dishes as Bux and Yoj grabbed a bath together.

When the three of them went into the bedroom to dress, Bux said "This is the first party of my life where I'm not going to end up a wallflower."

Yoj was dismayed. "What do you mean? I've seen you dance, you're good at it."

"Yeah, well, you never asked me to dance before, did you?" retorted Bux.

Yoj put her arms around Bux's underwear-clad body. "My darling, I cannot begin to express to you my regret at having been so ignorant for so long -- " she began.

Bux laughed and cut her off. "I don't care, Yoj, let's just go on from here. And what I want from you two tonight is that I never have to sit out a dance alone, not a single one. I get first dibs on you both tonight."

"You got it" swore Halling, and Yoj sealed her promise with a kiss.

The fancy attire was even more dazzling once it was on their bodies and they were all standing in the living room, adjusting each other's shoulders and waists. "The pilots are gonna fall over in a dead faint" predicted Halling.

"They'll have to wait their turn in line" reminded Yoj. She didn't want those lighters making moves on Bux. Bux gave her a smirk.

"Seems a shame to cover all this up with burzakas" said Qen as they got ready to go out into the rain.

"But think of the effect when we pull them off in the dance hall" said Veida with a chortle. And she was right. The room did go a little silent when they hung their coats and began making their collective way to a table in the corner. Nearby a cluster of blue and gold uniforms called out greetings but foreswore their usual teasing, slightly overwhelmed by the collective elegance.

Once the dancing began, however, all formality disappeared. The band had 11 pieces in it, including three different kinds of drums, and the music seemed to bulge out the warehouse walls. Bux never sat down, going from Halling to Yoj and back again, polka to two-step to jig. The emmas, too, never went without a partner, either between themselves or among other women their age. Qen was in particular demand. Yoj had as much fun sitting at the table on her rotations out, studying the scene thundering past her, as she did dancing with her luscious Bux.

Yoj loved watching all the ways people moved their bodies in unison -- rowers on the lagoons, shearers on Juh, apple pickers, dancers. She loved how one Skener body looked much like another. Yes, some were fat and some were lean, but everybody was muscled, broad in the shoulders and thick in the chest, and the difference between tallest and shortest adults was less than a foot. The tiny museum attached to the Archives had an exhibit of clothing worn by the original settlers, on a model made to scale, and she had always found it shocking how much taller and narrower those people had been. Or at least that person who had worn those clothes -- one instructor had told her there was enormous variation in size between some of those colonists. This was a disturbing idea to her. Skin color, eye color and shape, hair color and texture, noses and lips, all of these spanned an incredible spectrum on Skene: She wanted this palette to appear on a stable frame, the familiar Skene build.

Most people she'd met were not at all curious about the original settlers, and in fact adults had tended to ignore her questions when she was a child. The first person who had encouraged her wondering was Qen in second grade, and later Yerush. Especially Yerush. The term she'd taken Founding History with Yerush, she'd haunted that museum and the part of the Archives accessible to her, and when she didn't have an answer to the questions raised in her head, she'd nervously gone to Nan Yerush's office and posed it to her. And she'd always gotten at least a theoretical answer, with that tight-lipped brief Yerush smile.

Yerush was now smiling with her mouth wide open, her cheeks as red as Bux's as she galloped around the warehouse floor with Qen. Veida was dancing with a curandera Yoj recognized. Halling was laughing so hard at Bux's antics that it was a wonder she could still breathe. Halfway through the reel, Qala bounded up to her and said "My partner had to run to the privy, will you finish this dance with me?" Deciding this would not violate Bux's request for availability, Yoj leaped to her feet and let Qala whisk her away. They caught up with Halling and Bux, and Halling began trying to cut Qala off, guffawing even harder. When the music ended abruptly, on a high flourish, Halling bent over at the waist, her hands on her knees, laughing and gasping to catch her breath. Yoj gave Qala a bouncy kiss on her cheek before being claimed by Bux.

Qala's date apparently never returned, because Qala joined them for all the dances after that, taking whoever was free. She even went round the floor once with Bux during a waltz, which allowed Yoj and Halling to have a slow turn in long-familiar arms. For the next-to-last dance, a schottish done in long lines, the emmas joined them, interspersed between each young woman. Qen was next to Yoj, and she marveled at how such a dumpling of a body could execute crisp turns and complicated leg work.

It felt incredibly good to walk out into the chilly dark afterward. Yoj's new shirt was soaked through with sweat -- she'd need to do a load of everyone's silks the following day, to keep them from staining. In two linked rows of three, they strolled home through gathering fog, still talking loudly with bright voices.

By the time they got home, the warmth and light inside was again welcome. Halling made tea as everyone else retreated to privacy to rub down with towels and put on schmattas. Veida undid her braids and let her hair flow loose down her back. She and Yerush seemed to be holding hands under the table. Bux sliced another loaf of Yoj's bread into toast, and they ate it wolfishly with big gulps of tea.

"What's on everybody's schedule for tomorrow?" asked Yoj.

Bux and Qen answered in unison "Sewing!", then collapsed into giggles. Halling said "I'm looking at that aga and thinking a good scrub and polish is in order." Yoj added "Laundry for me, even if I have to dry it over the hearth racks."

"I still have a stack of papers to grade" said Yerush with a sigh. "But there's a chunk of work I want to do in the tillage. Trellis-rebuilding, mucking out the hen house, weeding the winter beds -- "

"I can get to that" said Veida. "I'll help" said Halling.

"Oh, and tomorrow at noon there should be a new allotment at the dispersal center -- let's walk down and get bacon, cheese, whatever else is in" said Bux.

Halling's eyes lit up at the mention of bacon. "Let's go early, so they don't run out" she said.

"Well, but I wanted to see if we could collect some of your back allotment" said Bux, "And they won't want to give that until everyone has gotten their regular share."

"We'll go twice" said Halling.

Bux said "In between, we could walk over to the shoemaker's and see if she'll open up long enough to take Yoj's measurements, at least. If not, we can look in her windows and discuss styles."

"And read the kiosks" said Yoj. "Maybe stop at the cafe and see who's playing."

"A Shmonah off" sighed Halling happily.

"You need to write your emmas, too" said Qen, "Ask them to come visit."

Yoj's smile faded. "I don't think my aggie will come, she never leaves Isola except to run the ferry to Yanja."

"Then we'll go visit her" said Bux. Yoj didn't look happy about this idea, either.

"Well, at least write them all and catch them up" said Qen. From the corner of her eye, Yoj suddenly saw that Yerush's foot was in Qen's lap, under Qen's schmatta. She felt her face flushing deeply. She stood up quickly and said "Privy and bed for me."

"I'll go with you" said Bux before Halling could offer. Halling grinned and said "I'll clear the table, see you in our room."

When Yoj and Bux came back into the house, the kitchen lights were off and the emmas were already in their loft. "G'night!" Bux called up to them. Their replies of "Sweet dreams!" all had giggles in them.

Yoj went back to sleep after their lovemaking in the early morning, but Bux and Halling got up and made breakfast for everyone. By the time Yoj stumbled out of the bedroom, the kitchen table was covered with patterns and fabric.

"Good, c'mere" ordered Bux, "We need to do a fitting."

"I have to pee first" mumbled Yoj. After the fitting, she took a quick bath and dressed warmly. Back in the kitchen, Halling had her head buried in the oven, but she looked up and said "Poached eggs on the back burner, and stewed prunes next to it. Plus a plate in the warmer up top with pancakes."

"Bless you" said Yoj.

She ate standing up, leaned against the sideboard, watching Bux and Qen cut around plastic pattern pieces. Veida was sweeping the front room. When Yoj was done eating, she gathered up laundry and did two loads, the silks and another set of towels and undergarments. She did the silks in tepid water with minimal use of the hand agitator and a final rinse with vinegar in the water. After running them lightly through the press, she placed them on padded hangers in front of the hearth -- the silks would definitely need remoistening and ironing before wearing again. When she had been a child, one of her chores had been prewashing and ironing dry all her aggie's finished bolts before they were sent to the dispersal center.

After a quick bowl of vegetable soup made by Yerush, the three younger women headed for the dispersal center with shopping bags and allotment books. The line was long, and it took them a while to get their basics for the month. Afterward, Bux was able to persuade her pet shoemaker to trace Yoj's foot onto a sheet of paper.

"Look at those sokken!" said Bux, when Yoj pulled off her otos. "When we get home, you start knitting a new pair."

The shoemaker said hopefully "I have some in stock that will fit you, already made." Yoj began shaking her head, but Bux said "Let's have a look." She traded one of their new cheeses for two pair plus a down payment on the boots, heading off Halling's protest with "Just wait, we'll get more."

The cafe had a fiddler that Yoj was wild about, so they sat down to mulled apple juice and haunting music for half an hour. Yoj's favorite tune of all time was an ancient song whose title, translated into Skene, meant "Come on Ilen." When the fiddler played this, tears stood in Yoj's eyes. Returning to the dispersal center just before it closed, they had the place to themselves. Bux slapped their allotment books on the counter and said "Show me what's left."

When the three of them staggered down the steps of the Manage, they were burdened with bags and jugs almost to immobility. Yerush leaped up from the sofa where she'd been grading papers to take a 20 pound sack of rice flour from Halling. On Halling's other shoulder was another 20 lb. bag of brown rice, and slung from her back were bags full of five ten-pound rounds of different cheeses.

Yoj's hands carried a one-gallon bucket of fresh goat's milk and a two-gallon jug of mulberry syrup. On her back were bags of bacon, salt pork, sausage, lard, three ten-pound bags of nuts, and assorted dried fruit.

Bux had a 50 pound case of fisk, which got the katt's instant attention, and in her pack was 2 liters of zayit, a liter each of cherry brandy and vinegar, and four ten-pound bags of assorted dried beans.

They divested themselves of their loads in the living room, not willing to stagger one more step. They sprawled into chairs nearby and let the emmas sort through the loot.

"Pork chops!" cried Veida. "I haven't had any in a year."

"That's for dinner" said Halling.

"And half the goat milk I'm going to make into yogurt and curds, when I can stand up again" said Bux.

"We thought whatever of the brandy you three won't drink we could use for barter" said Yoj. Sinners were teetotallers, by Skene law and by pledge to one another when they entered the Lofthall. Yoj never drank, either.

"We barely made a dint in the back allotment, even so" said Bux.

"The next time, we need more carriers" said Yoj.

"The next time, I need to get things for my emma's Manage, too" reminded Halling.

Yerush stood in the larder and put things away according to her system while Veida and Qen ferried items to her. Yoj was the first to rise again, going into the kitchen for a long drink of water, then setting white beans to soak in the cast iron pot. She planned to bake them with rice syrup, red miso and onions, to go with the pork chops. She pulled half a dozen large potatoes from the larder, squeezing past Yerush who was still rearranging, and put them into the clean oven to bake.

She picked up a skein of sokken yarn and knitting needles, plus her notebook and pencil, but then wasn't sure where to settle down -- Qen still claimed the kitchen table, and Bux was rejoining her there after starting her cultures in the warming oven. Yerush saw Yoj looking around and said "Come sit with me on the sofa, it's cozy despite the damp clothes in there."

Halling was heading outside with Veida. Yoj sank back into the cushions with a sense of accomplishment and reminded herself how to begin a pair of sokken. Unwinding yarn from the ball, she read at the title of one essay Yerush was grading: Yikes, had she once been that pretentious?

After half an hour of utter peace, Yerush said "I can hear you muttering some kind of rhythm -- is that based on the knitting you're doing?"

"No -- I mean, yes, the knitting is in time to the rhythm, but the rhythm comes from someplace else" said Yoj, stopping to jot a line in her notebook. Yerush looked at her quizzically, and Yoj explained: "The sidewalks in front of all the shops in town, they're made of roughly leveled pumice, to give us traction in wet or ice, right? And the sound of bootheels on them, especially when they're wet and glisteny black like today, has a certain flat echo. But the roads are lined with that red volcanic gravel, which has a much hollower sound compared to, say, gravel at the beach edge or shingle. And when it's standing with water, it's not just hollow but -- crunchy. While we were walking around, I was listening and comparing the two different cadences with the soft drizzle of rain, and I'm trying to put all three together into a meter."

Yerush's blue eyes were intrigued. "And, do you have words yet to go with the meter?"

Yoj said shyly "Not much. Just an idea."

Yerush waited.

"Well, about how when you soak food and cook it very slowly, it becomes so much more tender and full of flavor? And comparing that to how love is the same way." Yoj was embarrassed. She was pretty sure Bux was listening from the kitchen.

After a moment, Yerush said drily "A lyric that will feed the hearts of pilots." She went back to her papers.

Exactly thought Yoj.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.


C. Diva said...

I want to know what "Come on, Ilen" sounds like. I hear an old pop song in my head that fits that title but it seems rather more bouncy than the mood you describe.

Maggie Jochild said...

It is, in fact, that same song you're remembering, by Dexy's Midnight Runners. It's one of the songs I want played at my wake. I figure the violin instrumentals may survive 500 years, and the lyrics can alter with time.

C. Diva said...

By the way; "Poobah?"
also, all those dance styles that are western european in name...