Wednesday, December 26, 2007


(Orchard of Plum Trees, by Vincent Van Gogh)

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: Pomar
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 small collection of Manages on Pomar which housed huertaneras, soybean processors and the woman who managed the public park were in two short rows on a hill overlooking Tundu Zaliv, a wedge of bay taking a bite out of Pomar's eastern curve. The Pomar park keeper was partnered with a fruit picker who had a large house with her elderly parents, so the tiny Manage allocated for her dwelling was now available as a guesthouse for visitors.

Halling had rented this guesthouse for two days. She would divulge no details about it except to answer Yoj's concern about shu: "Just wait til you see Pomar" Halling had laughed. "Shu would be attracted to fruit, you know, so to keep them away I hear there's a katt for every tree in the orchard." Yoj let herself be reassured.

The ferry route to the point of Pomar was one of a triangle of routes, to and from Riesig and Verzin, as well as the heavily-used morrie vaseo between Verzin and Riesig. The ferry shuttled back and forth between the two main islands unless there were passengers on the docks wanting the Pomar leg. This morning the ferry arrived from Verzin as they walked up, discharging a handful of early morning riders. Bux told the faryaste they wanted to go to Pomar, and she blinked. She studied them, assessing they were not residents of Pomar, then said "The park doesn't open until 8:00."

"We know" said Halling. "We're going to the guesthouse there."

The faryaste examined them again, noticing their red attire, then said with a smile "Ah, you're the ones who just got partnered!"

"That's us" said Bux happily, tucking her arm through Halling's.

"There's hot tea in the cabin if you want it" the faryaste said graciously. She began working the grapples which released her from one route and clamped her onto another. Ferry lines which followed morrie vaseos in lagoons and other always-protected waters were run along thick metal cables below the surface. On such lines, tiller use by the faryaste was nominal, designed more to reduce wear on the grapple surfaces than an actual necessity to keep them on course. Yoj and Halling, each with an emma who had worked as faryastes on open water ferries, unconsciously relegated this kind of chained boat piloting to a lesser status.

Yoj had walked on to the prow and was leaning over the railing, looking down into the water. It was cold and damp -- every morning on Skene was cold and damp -- but there was no bite to the air because it was summer, and she had had enough of being indoors for a while. She shrugged off her pack and set it behind her. As the ferry changed heading, Halling and Bux came to stand on either side of her. The engine rumbled underneath their feet, and the high whine of a cable passing through bumpers began as the ferry headed onto Bohaira Lagoon.

Once clear of the dock, sunrise over Verzin burst into unobstructed view. The Manages along Verzin's shore were silhouetted by apricot light, and their ripe tillages seemed almost blue. The lagoon was shades of orchid and jade. Yoj felt like she was breathing in not just air but also light and water. Halling had one foot protectively behind Yoj's foot, and Bux turned for a moment to kiss her shoulder. Yoj compared herself to the prow of the boat, and for once it wasn't frightening to be a locus. Especially with the warmth flanking her.

Halling said "I keep thinking about what Yerush said, about how on that other planet, the first planet, people fished from boats instead of the air. How they used boats to travel the open seas, before they had aircraft. I can kinda imagine that. I'd like to be that sort of fisher, I think."

"And give up piloting?" asked Bux, looking at her past Yoj.

"No, never give up the air" laughed Halling. "But half of what I do is harvesting the waters, you know. And -- I'm not on the ocean, technically, but I'm relating to it intensely, all the same."

Yoj said "When I get on lagoons, I can remember what it was like when I was really little and I wasn't afraid of the ocean, yet, or levis. Just curious."

Bux said slowly "I guess I'm a protected Riesig child...I've never been really afraid of the ocean. I am scared of leviathans, yes, now more than ever." She looked at Halling again, her eyes big. "But -- I try to imagine land so wide that you can't see the water nearby, you don't automatically understand you live on an island, like on those maps. I can't quite understand how that must feel. I mean, part of why I love our tillage so much is because it's dry soil stolen from the water around us -- it's precious, you know."

"You'd love it even more if you'd grown up on a Fling" said Yoj, and Halling nodded. Yoj thought for a minute before saying "We're so different from them. The first people who came here, I mean. Their brains were arranged to think of land as a given, huge scapes of not just crops but also wilderness, plants and animals of such a multitude -- I read the books and look at the pictures, and it's beyond me. It's as if we still only had rice and fish to eat, like the first hundred years, without garlic or oranges or cheese or anything else. We're like that, in comparison -- we have only a minute amount of the life forms they knew about. Plus space between planets, they knew about space."

Her partners were silent for another long minute, looking at the light that changed every second, the deep waters of the lagoon below them. Bux said softly "I don't feel deprived. I feel like I have more than I can take in, often."

"Me, too" said Halling. "Soaked through."

Joy warmed Yoj from the inside out. After another minute, she whispered "I hope they never remember us. I hope they never come back."

"Hear, hear" said Bux.

When they landed at Pomar, the faryaste headed into the cabin for a few sips of hot tea and to check her radio, see where passengers needed her most. Calling out "Morrie vaseo!" to her, the trio shouldered their packs and walked into Pomar Park, past the picnic area and the small playground, into open stretches of grasslands and small groves. The meadows were silver with heavy dew which drenched their pants to the knees. The central lake was almost black, but flush from the sunrise mingled with reflection of low clouds overhead to make the water's surface appear to move in rosy swirls.

Walking to the right of the lake, they found the rusted metal gate into private Pomar. The fence demarcating park boundary was high and overgrown with blackberries. Once through the gate, however, they could see down long avenues of beautiful old trees stretching north to ocean cliffs over a mile away, the understory green with soybean bushes. They kept angling to the east, following a wide dirt path, and suddenly katts were everywhere. Katts of every hue and size. Some watched them suspiciously from a distance, but many came frolicking up to the trio, especially kittens, chirruping greetings and weaving in front of them, a tail-held-high escort up the lane which, at a bend, opened to a single graveled street. Halfway along the street was Pomar's only store. Halling said they were to call in at the store for keys and instructions.

The store was not yet open, but a door beside the main entrance had a knocker on it, so Halling knocked. In a few minutes, a woman tucking her shati into ku answered, saying "You must be the young ones who just got partnered!" and ushering them into a warm kitchen. She gave them tea, introduced her still sleepy family putting together breakfast, and explained if they were hungry, they should stay and eat with them. Otherwise, at the end of the row was a sort of cafe and tavern combined which would serve them all their meals during their stay -- it was included in the rental, and the guesthouse did not have a real kitchen.

Halling looked at Bux and Yoj, and Yoj answered "I'm too tired to eat. I can wait until lunch." This was interpreted by the storeowner and her partners as a veiled reference to their eagerness to get to bed for other purposes, and their ribald laughter made Bux and Yoj both blush. The storeowner handed Halling a key and said "Well, then, I guess we'll see you tomorrow, when you come for the -- other". Halling winked and said "After breakfast". She refused to tell either of her partners what surprise was planned the next day.

They walked to the end of the lane and turned right to climb a last small hill on the cliffs of Tundu Zaliv, with a glorious view of water and Verzin beyond it, still claret and golden from sunrise. At the crest of the hill was a one-room building of ruddy stone. Halling turned her key in the lock and motioned her partners ahead of her.

The cottage was immaculate and smelled of the sea. A warm hearth was on, and beside it was a small table with a kettle and the makings for tea. In one corner was a screen, behind which they found a large copper bath and cistern. The main room they had entered held a sofa and two comfortable chairs, all made of rare applewood. Overhead was a loft containing a spacious bed. The bed faced an extra-large window overlooking Bohaira.

"Oh, Hall, it's beautiful!" exclaimed Yoj. Bux had climbed into the loft and was pulling a set of sheets from her pack.

"They provide linens for us" Halling called up to her.

"I know, but I made these sheets for us last week, our very own that we can take back home with us -- to remember this by" said Bux as she stripped the bed and remade it.

"Good idea" said Yoj. Halling must not have completely closed the front door, because suddenly three katts were locating places to nap on the sofa and chairs. Yoj looked at them and said "Don't put them out, I like sharing". She did go lock the door, however.

Halling said "Well, exhausted as I am, I'm not getting into clean sheets without washing off my all-night-dance sweat", and she went to the alcove to draw a bath.

"I'm joining you" said Yoj, and Bux called down "Me, too." Yoj found towels in the cupboard, and pulled some of Veida's scented soap plus a schmatta from her pack. Bux, back on the ground level, took the soap from her hand and headed for the alcove, but grinned at her "You won't need that schmatta."

They didn't go right to sleep after their bath, after all. The view of the bay, and the brilliant morning light pouring in on their naked bodies, enticed them to stay up a bit and then hands began straying, and suddenly there was only one thing to do about the happiness inside them.

They woke after only four hours, marveling at being in a completely new place, and now very hungry. They dressed in outdoor clothes and walked back down to the cafe, where their entrance caused a general hush and much whispering and giggling. Halling hooked her arm around Bux's neck and murmured "Wonder how they know what we've been up to", which made Bux laugh so hard that everyone in the place was charmed. They sat at a long table with huertaneras and ate what everyone else ate, a glorious meal thick with fruit and tofu and crabs from Bohaira, nutbread and lots of famous Pomar honey. Their mealtime companions were interesting and funny. Two young women there were former classmates of Halling and Yoj, now partnered and planning to aggie. All awkwardness was gone by the end of the meal.

Stuffed and tired again, they decided to first walk down the length of the orchards, looking at all the different kinds of trees. It was a rare experience to relish, being in an outdoors setting with so much space and privacy. They took their time, sampling anything that was ripe despite not being at all hungry, because it was too tempting to pass by. They kissed and leaned against each other, whispered though they didn't need to, and worked themselves up again by the time they ambled back to their hideaway and stripped just inside the front door.

They were late for dinner, which caused much merriment when they returned to the cafe, but they didn't care now. After eating, they sat with their new friends and listened to various musicians, until finally the park keeper said "Isn't one of you the Dichter?"

Yoj allowed as how that was her, and a clamor went up for her to stand and sing some of her lighter tunes. "Only if you two join me" she said to Bux and Halling. So they stood, arms linked, and went through half a dozen songs in lovely three-part harmony, finishing up with their partnering song from the night before. They begged off from yet another encore, claiming a tiredness which was real but not believed.

Two of the same katts showed up at the cottage door, and Yoj let them in, saying "You get to guard us tonight, okay?" This time, the young women did go to sleep quickly, despite the allure of moonlight on the bay and one another. They slept hard and sweet through the night, and woke up again at dawn, entertaining each other until the cafe opened for breakfast.

After eating, they strolled down to the store where Bux bought apricots, peaches, almonds, and pistachios for the emmas. Halling was handed a folded quilt and a picnic basket by the storekeeper, who came outside with them and pointed to a trail leading down the nearby cliff. Before they reached the bottom, Bux had spotted their small yellow rowboat upside-down on the shingle at trail's end. Two aluminum oars were tucked inside the boat. After a heated discussion where the complete lack of experience any of them had at rowing gave way to comparing arm muscles and made-up feats of coordination, Bux and Yoj finally relented and let Halling have first turn at propelling their boat, "On account of maybe piloting will be similar" said Yoj doubtfully.

Halling labored the boat in frustrated circles for a while, laughing so hard that she had to stop and lean over to catch her breath. Finally she got something of the hang of it, and managed to sloppily splash them north -- "This is against the tide, I'll have you know!" she exclaimed -- around the headland where, thankfully near, was a tiny beach only accessible from the water. Behind it a small grotto was gouged from the cliff wall, and inside it was dry and level enough to spread their blanket. Katts sauntered in before Yoj had a chance to think about shu.

It was a day they'd remember the rest of their lives. Yoj wrote more than one song about it in the decades to come. Bux would paint over and over the dance of light on the grotto walls from ripples just outside, the changing color of the bay, the faces and forms of her lovers as they swam, waded, or had another try at rowing, the remains of their lunch on a green-veined rock, even the katts who showed up to beg for tidbits or petting. They left, reluctantly, when shadows became very deep, replacing the rowboat as they had found it and climbing the cliff with many sighs. They cleaned their cottage, replaced the sheets, and, now in full dark, went back to the cafe for a final meal.

As Bux was settling their bill, Halling returned from a trip to the privy accompanied by the park keeper, carrying a crate from which came loud, high mews. A malkin katt was right at her heels. Halling said "They've got kittens ready for new homes, look, Yoj". The three of them lifted plump-bellied kittens in both hands, reassuring the malkin they were not going to hurt her babies. Halling said "I think you should pick one for your very own, Yoj. A permanent shu-patrol to come live with us, a Pomar memento." Bux exclaimed "Oh, perfect! A new kitten will liven up our stodgy bunch. Which one do you like, Yoj?"

Yoj began crying, which embarrassed her but no one else -- young lovers staying at the guest house often cried, for one reason or another. She pretended to look over the entire clowder of kittens, but she knew instantly which one she loved -- it had been playing with her fingers the entire time, a fluffy pink gib that didn't protest when she tucked it into her gilet. It stuck its small head out at the top and looked expectantly at her. Halling paid the park keeper half an ek, which the keeper protested was too much but Halling said "No, it's not." Yoj said she was going to name the kitten Petunia.

The trek through the park was rushed because they were cutting it close to catch the final ferry. It was waiting for them at the dock, the faryaste eating a piece of chicken and not at all cross, saying "How was it? Think maybe you'll have a good life together?"

"The best ever" said Yoj, answering both questions at the same time. Petunia emitted a series of nervous mews as the ferry engine rumbled into motion, but the faryaste passed over a morsel of chicken and Petunia was diverted from her worry.

Walking back past the Lofthall, it seemed that they had been gone much longer than two days. The turn into their lane was both slightly unfamiliar and very welcoming.

"I really hope Paha and Tlochin stayed over" said Bux, as all three of them began walking a little faster.

"I do too" said Yoj. Halling added "I hope Veida brought back some of those desserts." They swung open their front door with yells of "We're home" and "We have a new katt!" The cluster of faces around the kitchen table turned with gladness toward them.

Four months later, Yoj came home for lunch and found soup on the stove, with Veida and Ng already eating. Ng looked very glad to see Yoj. Yoj wondered how things were between Veida and Ng when they were alone. She got herself a bowl of soup -- as usual, vegetable with fish stock -- plus a slice of bread and sat with them.

Veida let her get one bite down before she said "I caught Petunia spraying the bean plants today."

Yoj managed to suppress her laugh. Veida's tone of voice was severe.

"Oh. I guess that means she's coming of age" Yoj got out.

"If we neuter her immediately, we have a chance of keeping her liveable around here" said Veida.

Yoj felt fear now. "Okay, I'll take her to the vet after lunch."

"No need. We can do it here" said Veida.

Now Yoj did laugh. But Veida wasn't joking. Yoj looked at Ng, who was fighting a grin, which didn't help. Yoj cleared her throat and said to Veida "You know how to do that?"

"Yep. And when we're done, you will too." Veida crunched a stalk of celery between her teeth, and Yoj looked away from the flash of her incisors.

Yoj dragged out her lunch as long as she decently could. But, soon enough, Veida had cleared the table, washed it down with alcohol, and spread a plastic cloth. Ng offered to help, and Veida, after a pause, said "That would be good." Yoj was directed to go get Petunia.

She went out back, hoping that Petunia would be off on an adventure somewhere. Instead, the kitten came scampering up, her pinkish fur beginning to grow in with an adult's thickness. When Yoj picked her up and held her close, she could smell a faint rankness to her. She held Petunia up to look at her -- yes, her gib balls were getting pronounced.

Murmuring endearments and feeling like a traitor, Yoj took her to the kitchen. Veida's array of bottles and instruments on the sideboard was chilling, and one -- a blade with an insertable razor -- was horrific. Petunia chirruped expectantly, clearly hoping for an after-lunch treat. Instead, Veida poured alcohol on her hands and said shortly to Yoj "Hold her tight, I'm going to sedate her."

Yoj felt relief flood her. She had half-expected Veida to do it without anesthetic. The injection she gave Petunia made her limp in a short time. Yoj lay her on her back on the plastic cloth, holding the kitten's legs spread while Ng used Qen's good scissors to trim away the fur around Petunia's genitals.

When it was all over, Yoj could not have given a clear account of the process. So much for learning how to do it: She kept turning her face away. Veida put a neat stitch into each neat incision, splashed more red-orange antiseptic onto Petunia's now diminished nethers, and said "Go make her a litter box in your study. Put her bed down on the floor, she'll need to not climb or move around much for a couple of days."

Yoj complied, adding a bowl of water and another of milk-soaked fisk. She expected opening the fisk box would bring other katts running, but none of them ventured through the katt door. They must know what Veida was about.

She carried Petunia to her study and sat at her desk, cradling the kitten, until she began stirring. She had the door shut -- she was ready for a break from Veida. As Petunia came to, Yoj talked to her, offering steady reassurance and love. When Petunia tried to wriggle free, an expression of profound shock came on her face. Yoj felt stricken.

"No more spraying, sweetheart. You get to stay a kitten forever. My kitten, my darling Petunia" she said, a little pleadingly. Petunia kept moving, gingerly, and Yoj put her down beside the food bowl.

Petunia declined to eat, however. She went stiffly to her bed, sniffed of it nervously, then lay down and began washing herself, distaste on her face.

Yoj stayed in her study, working on this week's song distractedly as Petunia complained about her confinement and kept trying to walk around, with painful results. When she heard Sigrist radio announcing the forecast at 5:00, she reluctantly said goodbye, slipped out the door and went into the kitchen to wash her hands. Halling and Bux were already well into dinner preparations.

"How is she?" they asked Yoj with concern.

"Disbelieving" said Yoj shortly. Veida was not in the kitchen, just Qen and Ng working on salad at the table. Yoj said quietly "Veida was, well, not brutal, but it scared me how good she was at the cutting and all."

They heard Ng reply "You think it scared you..." Qen burst into giggles, and then Halling roared.

Yoj looked at Ng quizzically and said "I don't get it." She heard Qen draw in her breath, and the expression on Ng's face was unreadable. After a long pause, Ng said softly, "You do know that I'm a Y, don't you, Yoj?"

Yoj was afraid to react. She stood, motionless, especially not looking at Qen. From the corner of her eye, however, she saw Bux turn and consider Qen with a speculative expression on her face that Yoj found a little unnerving. Halling kept laughing and said to Ng "Apparently not."

But Yoj finally found a way around her immobility by looking at Ng's tender face. She walked to Ng and kissed her, right on the mouth, saying "I'm a rockwit sometimes, emma. But now I get the joke. You're a brave woman to have helped Petunia face that razor."

Ng pulled her into a tight hug, and Yoj breathed in her smell, subtly reminiscent of Halling. She felt much better. She returned to the counter and made a batter with grated beets and rice flour, then fried them into bright red fritters to go with dinner's beans and broccoli casserole.

Petunia recovered quickly and became even more cuddly as she put on size. She developed a sweet friendship with Baker, napping and grooming each other. One day Qen announced she'd found Petunia eating a shu out back. When Yoj froze, Qen said "She brought it over the wall from behind us. She caught it somewhere else, hauled it home to devour. She had to fight the other katts off, and did a good job of it, too. Baker taught her well."

"Or her aggie, one of those wild Pomar katts" remarked Halling. "When we want more kittens, we should think about going back to Pomar."

"Beras katts are superior hunters, too" said Veida.

"And Byli" countered Qen.

"Motu Fling are the best" said Ng with a grin. Yoj wouldn't argue with that.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.

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