Sunday, December 30, 2007


This is draft one of my sci-fi novel Skene. To read earlier chapters, go to LABELS in the right-hand column on this page, scroll down to the Skene tags and click on the one you want to read. Skene is set on a human-habitable planet in the Alhena star system at least 500 years in the future. There's a considerable amount of appendix material and diagrams also available here as needed:
NEW: Map of Western Flings
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


Yerush and Qen waited at the Bosco hostel on Shmonah until Veida was done, so they could ride the ferry back together. They arrived in time for dinner. Yoj, frying chicken, looked up at them as they unpacked their bags of dirty laundry. Veida came over to Yoj and put her arms around her to say "They convicted Z'Bef. She leaves tomorrow for Peisuo."

Yoj fought the urge to be sick. She said thickly to Veida "I can't finish this right now" and Veida took over for her. Yoj sat down and Halling handed her a mug of tea. Qen sat down beside her and said gently "There was no family to vouch for her. She does have friends, good friends, and they pleaded on her behalf. But -- there were earlier incidents, and the witnesses said she could have just walked away from the argument this time."

Yoj began weeping. Qen said "I gave her your letter, and I sat with her as she read it. She didn't show much emotion -- she was like a stone the whole time. Shock, I imagine. But her eyes were glad, and she told me to thank you. And she asked if you would consider writing her."

Yoj blew her nose and said "Of course I'll write her." She looked at Halling and said "Do you ever do the deliveries to Peisuo?"

"Not so far. Sinning is opposite that on the schedule. But I'm on that roster" answered Halling.

"Is there ever any way you could have an extra passenger?" said Yoj.

Halling's face was grieved. "No, sweetheart. Peisuo runs carry guards, and are heavily supervised."

Mill, now being held by Yerush, leaned toward Yoj and said "Emma crying? You have booboo?"

Yoj laughed in spite of herself. "I do have a booboo, in my heart, Mill."

"Like a cookie?" asked Mill brightly.

Bux turned to Halling and said "Where has she picked up this notion that if someone is upset, the best thing to do is offer them a cookie?"

Halling shrugged guiltily. Yoj told Mill "No, what I'd prefer is a sweet kiss from my favorite child of all time." Yerush moved closer to Yoj so Mill could reach her, giving her a slightly messy kiss on her cheek.

"Oh, all better!" declared Yoj. Mill chortled. Yoj stood and began carrying dirty clothes to the bath room. She said over her shoulder, "Mill, come with me, practice your walking. It's time to potty."

Mill slid from Yerush's arms and toddled after Yoj.

Two months past Mill's birthday, Bux made another appointment with the Genist. The three of them took Mill this time, as Raisa had requested seeing her as well. Raisa still did not have an apprentice. She let them in herself, served them tea and cake, and watched quietly as Halling negotiated bites of cake with Mill, taking "turns" that meant Halling ate almost three-fourths of the slice. When their plate was empty, Mill turned to look hopefully at the plates of her other emmas, but theirs were now empty as well.

After a few seconds, Mill tried to slide down to the floor. Bux was talking over her cycle with Raisa, indicating she would likely have another fertile period in one to two months and she felt ready to be pregnant again. Halling whispered noiselessly in Mill's ear, and Mill was quiet for a minute. When she began wriggling again, Yoj offered to take her and Mill reached, no doubt thinking it might be easier to get away from Yoj. But Yoj pulled paper and a pencil from her jacket and set them on the table before Mill. This kept her more or less quiet for another 15 minutes, long enough for Yoj and then Halling to be briefly interviewed.

By the time Mill got restless again, Halling was also beginning to feel weary of Raisa's persnickety tone. She wasn't offensive as Dest had been, she was just pedantic. Halling could not imagine her with Yerush. Halling took Mill back and interrupted politely to ask "Do you absolutely need me here for the next while? Because if not, I'm going to take her for a walk outside. We'll stay within earshot, she just needs to move her body."

"Of course" said Raisa. She'd never been around children but she'd memorized the developmental tables as part of her training, and it was obvious that Mill was more mature and well-behaved than most children her age. Halling and Mill escaped with equal gladness.

Yoj went over the household accounts with Raisa -- they had managed to add impressively to the Manage's savings, despite the expansion and Mill's birth. This was in particular due to Ng's contribution, and Ng's presence as a fourth abba, home all day, greatly enhanced their standing as a household for raising children, Yoj was sure. Plus, they had that Absolute Warrant. Still, going through bureaucratic motions was second-nature on Skene, done with somber rectitude, and she worked in earnest tandem with Bux.

Just when Yoj thought it was all over but the hand-shaking, Raisa said quietly "I understand you have an extra-partneral relationship within the household."

For one wild moment, Yoj thought Raisa was somehow, madly, bring up Yerush's affair with herself. Bux, however, cleared it up with "Yes, Ng and Qen have become lovers. It's all out in the open -- as it must be, for you to have heard of it."

"Is there unresolved tension between the three partners over this -- dalliance?" asked Raisa. Yoj looked at her sharply. If she dared demonstrate any avidity or hopefulness on her face --

Again Bux answered. "Well, first, it's not a dalliance. They were old friends who resumed a friendship, and it grew into love. It's solid and good for all of us to be around. My emmas have never been exclusive, although heretofore only one of them availed herself of the option. Repeatedly and diversely. They're long-accustomed to the communication required to keep their bonds strong, and both of Qen's partners are, in fact, quite fond of Ng. As are we all. I am glad to have an additional emma."

Oh, well done! thought Yoj. Raisa's cheek muscles had gone tightly smooth at the "repeatedly and diversely" comment. Halling was going to be sorry she missed this.

"So am I" jumped in Yoj.

Raisa's small eyes turned on her. "And what about you three -- I understand you, likewise, have not agreed to exclusivity?" There was an expression very close to a smirk on her face -- very close, but not quite.

"Technically, yes. But I cannot imagine the day will come that I'll ever exercise it" said Yoj. "What interests me most is doing deeper with the women I already love, adding on commitment and children and family connections there. The best of Skene existence, if you ask me."

Halling was going to be sorry to miss that one, too. Yoj had just kicked Raisa's personal choices in the kneecap. Bux said "She expresses it for me, very well. If you want to ask Halling, we can call her in -- "

"No, that won't be necessary" said Raisa, a faint hint of derision in her voice. "It all looks well for you, I congratulate you and look forward to what the years bring you."

A standard Skene benediction, yet much more potent coming from the Genist.

They all stood and began goodbyes. Halling and Mill were called from the door to shake Raisa's hand, and Mill was prompted to give her a kiss on the cheek, which did not melt Raisa as it did most people. Bux took Mill from Halling and adjusted her cap against the cold afternoon as they walked away.

Once around the corner, Yoj began whooping. She and Bux took turns regaling Halling with the latter part of the interview, correcting each other to remember the exact wording. When they got home, all four of the older women were at the table, trying to appear as if they weren't waiting.

Bux boldly repeated the conversation without any elisions, making Qen guffaw over the lines "repeatedly and diversely". But Yerush joined her, to everyone's relief. Ng reached out her hand and put it over Yerush's, saying "Your youngest has a brain and tongue to match your own, I hope you are eternally proud of her." Which pleased Yerush enough to make her go pink.

Bux became pregnant at the first try, declaring she had it all down pat, now. Which was crowing too soon, as it turned out. Her morning nausea with this pregnancy was severe and debilitating. Yoj was frantic, trying to come up with dishes Bux could keep down, and even Veida's tinctures had little effect. Bux began staying home until noon, because of the need to vomit, which meant she had to work all afternoon, right until dinnertime. Yoj went back to meeting Halling at the jichang on her own. One day, walking home, Halling said "What if she loses this baby?"

There. It was out in the open. Yoj linked her arm through Halling's and said "I don't know how we'll bear it. Except of course we will, because there's Mill."

Another few steps, and Halling said "I can't imagine loving any child as much as I love Mill."

"I know" said Yoj.

"And no nibbles at all with regard to an apprentice for you?" said Halling, seeming to change subject but not really -- the issue of her family's needs was a big tent.

"Nope. Lots of talented kids, some of whom go into music or poetry at the U, but nobody wants to take on this job. Am I some kind of deviant?" asked Yoj, only partly joking.

"Different, yes. In a good way. Maybe you make it look too easy" said Halling, not joking at all.

Once home, Mill rampaged with Halling while Yoj quickly got her something to eat. As Halling wolfed down her stew, Yoj ran bath water and persuaded Mill to take a wash with Halling -- her hands were filthy from helping Veida in the tillage. Yoj went into the bath room with them and quickly scrubbed Mill, who had hoped for an extended round of water play with her emmas. She then lifted her out, dried her, and put her in clean clothes, insisting that Halling needed a nap and unless Mill wanted to nap with her, they had to go find something else to do. A daily reminder, and every time, Mill wept tragically and had to be carried outside to calm down.

After Halling was safely in bed, Yoj let Mill run around the living room and kitchen, "helping" her with the beginning of dinner. Ng returned to her studio and Veida pulled vegetables for the meal. When Qen got home, she took over playing with Mill, joined by Yerush, while Yoj finished dinner. After eating, Halling and Bux took turns with Mill and Yoj retreated to her study, to make up the work she'd missed that afternoon.

Not for the first time, Yoj felt an ache for Rosz, who had had so little help, so little company. Even if it was partly of her own devising -- sometimes we need to be rescued from our own choices.

At the three month mark, Bux's retching stopped overnight. She began eating steadily, as if to make up the weight she'd lost, and by her 20 week visit to the curandera, her abdomen was bulbous. Veida arranged to go with her and Yoj, peering at the scanner with the curandera, and after a minute she yelled "I knew it! The way she's carrying them, it seemed obvious."

"Them?" said Bux, her face lighting up.

"Two" confirmed the curandera. "Both in good shape."

Meeting Halling at the jichang that day was ecstatic. They all went to the canteen to celebrate with the pilots. Mill kept being asked what she thought about having two sibs at once, and she was patently bewildered -- the idea of sharing her universe with a rival was nonsensical to her.

Until they were born. Nursing two babies became a daily logistical challenge. Bux could produce milk easily enough, and she seemed to always either have a baby at her breast or be attached to the pump. Yoj held whichever baby Bux was not feeding, and Mill increasingly claimed Halling jealously.

The twins were not identical. Ndege, born first, was two pounds bigger than Dodd. She had black curly hair and skin almost as dark as Mill's, with a long elegant face and a healthy cry. Dodd was paler, close to Yoj's color, with no hair at all for a long time and when it did grow in, it was a lighter brown than Ndege's. Her eyes were lighter brown, too, with a greenish cast in bright sun. She was fussy and didn't put on weight well. Yoj began working from home exclusively, holding Dodd for hours at a time, willing her warmth and energy into this baby who pressed against her more gladly than Mill had, or even Ndege.

The third day after they were born, Bux was sitting at the table nursing Ndege while a recently-fed Dodd was being held by Ng. Yoj was making dinner when Halling got up from her nap. Mill rushed to her as if running from peril, which is how Mill usually experienced boredom. Halling talked with her briefly, still groggy, then sat down next to Ng and offered to take Dodd. As Ng was handing Dodd over, Mill tried to push her way into Halling's lap, shoving hard enough at Dodd that the baby nearly slipped from Halling's grip.

Halling yelled at Mill, "Hey! You must NEVER do anything to harm people littler than yourself."

"I'm tired of them" said Mill. "When do they leave?"

Ng laughed and said "They're part of our family now, they're not going anywhere."

Mill looked incredulous. "Not ever?" She thought for a moment, then said "Maybe we could barter them for something?" Her tone was dubious, as if she doubted they'd be worth much.

Bux joined Ng's laughter, which made Mill scowl. Halling said gently "These are my children, too, honey. I love them, too."

Mill stared at her for a count of five, then burst into outraged wails. Halling handed Dodd back to Ng and picked up Mill, carrying her outside. A very fine mist was falling, almost like dew. Halling strolled the path beside the tomatoes as Mill clung to her and sobbed. When the worst of it was over, Halling said "I remember when my sibu Lawa was born. I couldn't believe how much my aggie held her, and how Ng fussed over her. It hurt my feelings."

"Does abba love them, too?" asked Mill at the mention of Ng.

"She surely does. We all do, every one of us. We love them like crazy, just like we loved you when you came to live with us."

In Mill's mind, she had always been with the Manage -- there was no "before". Her family came into existence simultaneous with her birth. Which, in some respects, was accurate.

"I want you to love me!" she said, working up to crying again.

"But I do love you, just as much. I love you more each day, and will for the rest of my life. Our hearts are big enough to love lots and lots of people, there's plenty to go around" said Halling.

"Nuh-uh" argued Mill. She had not been experiencing anything like plenty for several days now.

"Well, I know you're finding we have to spend time taking care of the babies, because they are too little to do anything except eat, sleep and fill their diapers. You were that way at the beginning, too. But in a couple of years, they'll be able to walk and talk, and they will be your day-long playmates" said Halling, remembering Ng's words to her on this same subject.

Mill fingered the hair at the back of Halling's neck with her small fingers and considered this. "Will they play tag?"

"Mill, they will play anything you want. They are going to adore you and follow you around like you are their head pilot. They will do their best to be just like you, because you are their siba, always bigger and smarter and more talented than they are. Until you're all grown, and things even out a bit." Halling knew she was feeding Mill's ego, but thought Mill had earned it.

As Mill chewed this over, Halling added "And when they start first grade, you'll still be in first grade. By that time, you'll have a big circle of friends who like you oh so much. You and your friends will be the big kids then, the cool kids. And your sibus will discover they have an easier time in first grade because their amazing siba Mill had paved the way. The thing is, Mill -- there isn't another child on Skene who has twins as sibs. You are the only one. They are the only twins to have been born in 15 years. So people are going to look at you, all of you, with a lot of curiosity, and wonder how come you are such special children. You will have to behave with the dignity befitting a citizen of Skene who is the siba of twins. You'll be showing everyone how it is done."

Mill was a born leader. Her face, still tear-streaked, began to shine. "Okay" she said softly.

"And one more thing -- if you begin feeling left out, like there's not enough for you at a particular moment --- you come tell me, okay? Use your words, tell me directly. I promise I'll listen and make it better. Can you agree to that?"

Mill nodded. Halling knew she'd have to remind her often, but she meant her end of the promise.

"Okay, let's go back in so either I or Ng can help with making dinner. One thing the babies can do right now is squeeze a finger, especially a small strong finger like yours. I'll show you how much fun it is." Halling wiped the droplets from Mill's frizz and kissed her as they headed for the back door.

When the twins were two months old, Dodd came down with the croup. Yoj didn't leave the house for four days and, in fact, hardly slept, spending all her time rubbing liniment into Dodd's tiny chest, sitting with her in a steam-filled bath room, singing to her, or just holding her as she coughed and intermittently dozed. When Dodd's lungs finally cleared and her fever disappeared, Veida forced Yoj into bed for a day, saying exhaustion would only make her unable to care for her children at all.

At six months, when Bux went back to work, she told Halling and Yoj that she wanted to wait until the twins were at least two years old before she even thought about getting pregnant again. Yoj and Halling agreed immediately. As far as Yoj was concerned, it would be fine with her if Bux had no more children: They had one each now, and every second of the day was filled.

Dodd continued to get sick and listless in ways that Ndege did not, until they were a year and a half old. Then, for no apparent reason, Dodd suddenly began eating normally and running around with vigor. By this time, however, Yoj was accustomed to watching her nonstop and worrying about her in a particular way. Dodd continued her habit of spending much of her time in Yoj's study, playing quietly on the floor or reading picture books in the small chair Yoj had set up next to her own. Dodd began reading at two. She also became the first person each week to hear Yoj's newest lyrics, before her other emmas or the pilots.

Ndege, on the other hand, attached herself to Veida most. From the outset, she seemed to feel the injustice of not having been the firstborn and competed with Mill for attention. She got the solace and primary focus she wanted from Veida. She never competed with Dodd, however. With her twin, she was protective and gentle. Dodd had trouble sleeping soundly unless Ndege was within reach.

Halling and Mill remained fixated on each other. Mill was likewise in thrall to the pilots who began dropping in two or three times a week for dinner: Rark, Danaan, and Qala. Qala persuaded Yoj to not make bread on Ot until after dinner, so she could share the work and learn from her. Bux seemed to not be jealous about their friendship, and Qala's interest in conversation with Bux appeared as strong as her connection to Halling or Yoj. Still, Yoj was uneasy until the day Bux declared "Qala, you've become one of us here at this Manage. When you retire from the Lofthall, I expect you to move in and become the fourth abba to our grandchildren, okay?"

Qala had been moved almost to tears. After a long minute meeting Bux's eyes, she had said "All right." Yoj knew well that Qala had no other place to spend her elder years, and whether it was kindness on Bux's part or a genuine wish, she was glad it had occurred. From then on, Qala involved herself even more directly in chores and spending time with the children.

But the first time Mill announced at dinner that she, too, was going to be a pilot, Halling had frozen in her seat and not been able to reply. Later that night, in bed, Halling said fiercely to Yoj and Bux, "She will not go into the Lofthall, I'll make sure of that."

Bux laughed painfully. "I don't see how you'll stop her. Any more than someone could have stopped you."

"I'll find a way" vowed Halling. In that moment, Bux understood how dangerous what Halling did truly must be, and her chest went cold. They lay in silence for a while, not sure if the others were awake. Then Halling said, "Seems like the more you love, the more risk you have to face."

"Our babies" agreed Yoj in a whisper.

Still, once the twins were fully mobile two-year-old sinkholes of energy, Bux announced she was ready for a new baby. Mill and the twins were transitioned to sleeping in the big bed above the living room, with a locking safety gate attached to the top of the ladder that Mill promptly learned how to pick. Halling spent a lot of breath warning Mill to never climb over the railing and to wait until someone came to help them down the ladder each morning. These were admonitions that occurred in every Manage on Skene -- children in lofts above stone floors were a universal emmas' nightmare.

Ng had a brief respite of sleeping alone or with Qen. They already had one night a week together, on Sju, but now they had a little honeymoon, spending every other night alone in Ng's room. Yerush and Veida found solace in each other, from the sounds of things when Yoj was late going to own bed from her study.

Once the twins could handle a long walk, Halling began regularly taking all three children to The Shatters to fly homemade kites. Kite-flying was very serious business on Skene. Every child had several, fashioned from a particular kind of kelp-paper which would balloon outward like a jelly and decorated with water ochre from Argile or Saari Fling. Outside of school hours, there were always children flying kites from the crags of Sastrugi Prime, Sigrist Poke, The Shatters, Robin Buono, or whatever cliff was available on their particular island. It was understood that lighters would come from the ranks of the most serious and adept kiters. For what child doesn't want to fly? And the ones who could thread their kite out over the deeps and play the upwells skilfully enough to avoid the leaps of a leviathan -- leviathans could not resist trying at kites -- well, that child had a head start at lighting.

Six weeks after Dodd and Ndege had begun walking to school with Mill and Qen -- leaving Yoj unsure how to handle such an empty, quiet house -- Bux delivered a large, exuberantly healthy child who looked irresistably like her.

The week before, as Bux tried to find a comfortable position for sleeping and Halling finished rubbing lotion into her hands and elbows, Yoj said "I know we've been talking over a list of names for this new life to join us. And since Dodd was taken from my abba, and Ndege is from Qen's aggie Ndigo plus Ng, sort of, and Mill is from Yerush's emma, Melli -- "

Halling interrupted, saying "It's funny, but inside I always think of Mill being named for me. You know, Hall -- Mill."

Yoj grinned at her. "Well, it's turned out that way, hasn't it? Anyhow, I know for this name we should be thinking about Veida or Mwezi, maybe -- "

This time, Bux interrupted her. "Or Nilma."

Yoj shook her head. "I don't care if we include Nilma. The thing is, I want to ask that we consider naming her for someone who is, in fact, an ancestor in all three of our lineages: Pearl Goldfarb. Only, I'd like to pronounce it more Skenish, like Prl."

Her partners stared at her in delight. "Perfect!" said Bux. Halling kissed her cheek and said "Count me in."

So Prl arrived, a contented, blue-eyed, confident baby whom Yoj fell for just as hard as she had swooned over needy Dodd. When she was half a year old, Bux returned to work, taking her pump with her to express milk that she stored in the colder portion of the larder for the next morning. Yoj stayed home with Ng in the mornings, writing paeans to new life in her head as she held her latest heart's desire.

Not long after, Veida left mid-morning on a birthing call for Mrand on Hynys, one of the Western Flings. These Flings were an irregular chain of ten flings that began at Seda and coiled around to Yagi with only Byli as a large island interrupting their pointillage of the West Tendril. Most of them had a gabal, or steep rocky cliff, at one end which impeded complete tillage. These outcroppings could have been leveled to increase arable land surface, but by the time the Western Flings were settled, Skene was complacent about its ending expansion. It was hard enough to drop lava debris into the deeps between each island to create morrie vaseos. The commute from Motu to Pulo could take several hours. The school contracted a large sinner to pick up Western Fling children on the small jichangs placed on each island, and even that took most of an hour. Skene was not inclined to encourage more families to settle on these Flings.

That night, Halling had just gotten the older children to bed in the loft, Ng had retired with an already slumbering Prl, and Yoj was in her study writing letters to her sibs. Yerush and Qen were sitting in the kitchen, drinking tea and talking in low voices, when the front door swung open. Veida walked in and dropped her bag on the floor. She pulled off her manteau, her face expressionless, and hung it carelessly beside the door. Her ku and gilet were splashed with large dark brown patches that Bux slowly realized must be dried blood. Yerush and Qen rushed to Veida.

Yerush exclaimed "Your hands are like ice, where are your gloves?"

"I couldn't find them" said Veida tonelessly.

"Come here by the hearth" commanded Yerush, pulling Veida onto the couch and sitting pressed against her. Qen took a quilt from the big chair and spread it over their laps as she settled on the other side of Veida. Yoj and Halling were both entering the living room, from opposite directions, when Yerush said "What happened? Why are you back so soon?"

Veida struggled to speak. "I caught a ride with Balt."

Halling reacted. Balt flew the sinner used by the coroner, a pilot skilled enough to handle night and bad weather flight.

Yerush took Veida's chin gently in her hand and turned her face so her eyes met Yerush's. "Who died?" she whispered.

"Both" said Veida, disbelief in her voice. "Aggie and baby." Terrible sobs tore out of her then, and she bent her face into Yerush's neck, her body collapsing.

Bux pulled up a chair to sit in front of Veida, tears springing to her own eyes. Halling went to make tea. Slowly, the story emerged from Veida. By the time a request for her help had gone out on Sigrist radio, Mrand's labor was already advanced. Her Manage's radio was broken, and her partner with two small children in the house had not walked over the ridge to the other Manage on Hynys for an hour, afraid of taking the children into sleety weather. When it became clear something was very wrong, she had desperately made the trek with her toddlers and used the other Manage's radio, leaving her children with the only woman at home, an elder.

Back at her own Manage, Mrand had begun bleeding. Her partner did her best to staunch the flow, unable to leave again to declare an emergency. Veida had gotten a ride to Hynys in an off-duty lighter, but even so, she was too late. Mrand died of blood loss five minutes after Veida arrived, and the baby, pulled from Mrand by Veida's hands, lived only a few minutes even with Veida breathing into her tiny mouth and lungs.

Mrand's partner couldn't take it in. She refused to let go of the baby or Mrand, and Veida was afraid to leave her alone. She waited with her, witnessing her unbearable grief alternating with outright denial, until at last the other members of the neighboring Manage got home from work and one of them came to check in. She returned to her Manage to place a call for help. Bux looked at Qen at that point -- how had they missed this call? They realized it must have occurred when they had all walked down the lane to take food and condolences to a Manage whose eldest member had died the day before. During that walk, the radio call must have been.

Veida waited for the Ethicist and coroner, flown in by Balt, and helped discuss plans for care of the partner, who began screaming when the bodies were taken away. The children would be kept overnight by the neighbors. Sibs would arrive by morning ferry to take them home. In the end, Veida packed a bag for the partner and she was persuaded onto the sinner. The Ethicist was going to take her home, or to the hospital if she proved to be a danger to herself.

Veida kept saying "If I'd been even half an hour earlier, I could have saved them both, I know it." Qen kept reminding her "It's not your doing. It was out of your hands before you arrived."

Yoj heard a creak in the wood of the loft above them, and realized the children were probably at the railing, listening. She stood up, indicating to Bux and Halling that she'd handle it, and began climbing the loft ladder. She heard a flurry of motion, and by the time she reached the top, all three of the children were in bed, eyes squeezed unconvincingly tight. Dodd was on the edge nearest her. She sat down next to Dodd and whispered "Make room for me, I know you're awake."

Dodd scooted over an inch, but immediately reclaimed the space by pressing herself against Yoj. Ndege crawled over Dodd to lie on top of Yoj, and Mill sat upright, saying "Is abba all right?"

"She is" whispered Yoj, "She's just very sad."

"A baby died?" said Ndege in a horrified voice, followed by Dodd's "And an aggie?"

"They did. Every now and then giving birth goes wrong. That's why we have comadronas like your abba, who make it go right. But they couldn't call her in time." Yoj thought to herself that anyone who lives on a Fling with small children, a pregnant aggie and doesn't get a broken radio repaired instantly -- but she stopped the thought before finishing it. That woman would have to live with herself the remainder of her life.

"So, abba will feel better after she cries out her sadness. If there's help we can offer tomorrow, we'll offer it. In the meantime, I'll tell you another story while you get some sleep. Mill, lie back down, and Ndege, could you just move your knee from my bladder? There, that's comfy."

Yoj began telling the riddle of the tillager on Yagi who needed to transport three things across the Riada River: A katt, a shu, and a bowl of figs. (Though why anyone would move around a shu was a question never answered.) Her boat was only large enough to carry her and two of the three items. Left alone, the shu would eat the figs or the katt would eat the shu. (And good riddance, Yoj always thought.)

The solution was long known to most Skene children, but Yoj could drag it out as a wonderful story, making up voices for all the characters, even the bowl of figs -- her fig voice was hilarious. She went off on tangents, added description and silliness, until the final answer was anticlimax. By that time, she could tell from Ndege's weight and Mill's open-mouthed breathing that they were both asleep, and Dodd was on the verge. She sat up slowly and lifted Ndege back to the middle, where she and Dodd immediately fitted themselves into each other they way they had slept together all their lives. Ndege made sure she had an arm protectively over smaller Dodd, and Yoj thought, not for the first time but with unending emotion, that they had likely done that in Bux's womb. She covered them all and went back down the ladder.

Yerush, Qen and Veida had gone to bed. Veida's bloody clothes were on top of the laundry pile in the bath room when Yoj washed her face. She ran cold water into the boiler and put them to soak overnight. When she joined her partners in bed, Halling and Bux were still up. Halling had awakened Ng, told her briefly what had happened, and purloined Prl for the night. Prl was now tucked into her baby bumper between Bux and Halling, sleeping on her stomach. Yoj felt a rush of relief -- she leaned over Bux and kissed Prl lightly but fervently on her downy head, her sweet neck and cheeks, her morsel of a shoulder.

Bux whispered "How're the older children?"

"Fine" said Yoj. "Beautiful, glorious, the most wonderful beings ever to live on Skene." She lay her head on Bux's shoulder and said "Don't leave us." Bux kissed her forehead and said "Never."

Halling turned off the light and spread her hand on Prl's diapered rump. Yoj stretched her arm across Bux and put her own hand half on Halling's, half on Prl's lower back. She closed her eyes in cascades of gratitude and dropped off instantly.

Once a week, Yoj helped all the children onto the roof where she set a telescope among the coldframes and they took turns watching the stars. She told them stories about mythical figures for whom the constellations were names, as well as real science from cosmology. She carried Prl in a yameen and helped Prl put the lens next to her eye -- she couldn't tell what Prl might be seeing, but you never knew, and certainly Prl was thrilled at being included. She just had to be kept from putting her drooling mouth over the eyepiece.

One Empat Yoj announced to the family that the coming weekend was likely to be clear at least one night and it was dark of the moon. The following evening they had a swift dinner and then set out for Sastrugi Prime on Verzin, everyone but Qen and Ng who opted to stay home alone together. The long trek along the main road next to Nahar River, the workyards full of equipment and industry that was Verzin's hallmark, not to mention the ferry ride after dark, were all enormously exciting to the children. Once up the hill, other families with children were scattered around the dark terrace next to the observatory, with their own telescopes and blankets spread on the ground.

The Astronomer was there, walking from cluster to cluster, helping locate objects in the deep darkness. When she got to their family, she shook hands enthusiastically with Yerush and Veida -- apparently Veida had delivered her grandchildren. In a whisper, she offered to take their three oldest into the observatory for a look through the great telescope. Masking it as a trip to the privy, they sneaked around the back and went into the rotunda, hushed and inky black. The twins were carried, and Mill clung tightly to Halling's hand.

But the views through the huge scope made them cry out in awe. Prl was asleep in Yoj's yameen, so she missed what became an event the children talked about for years.

The long slog home was wearying -- every adult was now carrying a sleepy child or an armful of blanket and telescope -- but they agreed it was worth it, and agreed to make it a monthly event. When weather permitted, of course.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.

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