Monday, December 31, 2007



(Ndege and Dodd)



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


Before the Manage began to be filled with children, Yoj had been in the habit of keeping a journal. With Z'bef's exile to Peisuo, Yoj transferred her daily lines about her thoughts and the events in her life to plain paper, adding in Skene news and gossip as it reached her ears. Once a month, she bundled this sheaf into a large envelope, along with extra drawings done by the children or seeds Qen felt they could spare. She went to the second-hand stores and bought a tape player plus any decent music tapes they had. She got a mic and blank tapes as well. She persuaded the cartagen who made copies of books for her to make two copies instead of one. She enlisted Bux's help in locating drawing and painting paper plus a set of paints and brushes. Yerush gave her precious jars of jams and chutney, Veida made teas and tinctures, and Yoj added a loaf of her bread, a round of cheese, and smoked eel to the large package she mailed to Z'bef each month.

Z'bef wrote her back, always a month late in response but the things they talked about were often timeless. After Z'bef confided that an earlier exile had rigged the radio so it would sometimes pick up the chatter of pilots sinning in the Southern Wasa, Yoj bought a set of electronic tools, wire and radio parts, plus copied a general repair book from the library. Veida helped her create a false bottom in the metal shipping crates they reused, and in the next letter, Z'bef let her know she had rigged a new antenna that gave her flawless reception. She got up early each day to listen to the songs and voices of lighters and sinners. She commented acutely on Yoj's lyrics.

Yoj began sending her poetry books, music texts and blank composition sheets. When they had family photos made, she had an extra print made for Z'bef. Into the secret compartment went small bottle of cherry brandy, a plate by Ng, or a pair of sokken knitted by Yoj -- educational or survival tools were okay to send exiles, but personal items were discouraged. And alcohol was strictly forbidden.

When Z'bef wrote that the last two katts on Peisuo had died of some lung ailment, Yoj went directly to the Ethicist and would not be turned away until she had extracted a promise that three adult katts and two kittens would be caught on Pomar and flown out to the exile the following day, instead of waiting for the monthly delivery. Z'bef was surviving on next to nothing in the way of contact -- it was unthinkable that she should be overrun by shu. The island had no chickens, as an earlier exile had eaten them all and the coop had fallen into disrepair. The pilot who made the monthly delivery, with an armed guard, was allowed to stay only ten minutes, just enough time to make an exchange and perhaps shake hands. Z'bef told Yoj most of the time the handshake did not occur; she did not ask for it, and it was seldom offered.

Z'bef's letters to Yoj were as voluminous as Yoj's to her. Yoj usually read them aloud at night to her partners in bed. She had offered to share them with Veida as well, but after a moment of consideration, Veida had said she didn't think she could bear to know the details. It was enough to know what a difference Yoj was making.

As Prl began walking and talking, her calm and sunny nature spread to the other children, and squabbling noticeably diminished, even between Mill and Ndege. She was confident and pampered. Her older sibs were fond of explaining things to her in a somewhat patronizing tone, and she got into the habit of saying serenely "I know" whenever she was told something. When she was a year and a half, Bux told Yoj and Halling, "All right, I'm ready for one last baby."

"Are you sure?" asked Halling. "I mean, we have four."

"And how will it disrupt Prl's idyllic existence, to no longer be the adored youngest?" worried Yoj.

"Youngest isn't necessarily a bed of roses" said Bux knowledgeably. "And yes, I want five, I want this Manage to have five children. I'm still young and energetic. This will be my chief contribution to Skene."

"None bigger" said Yoj softly. Once again, Bux got pregnant on the first try, and this time her morning sickness was brief. When she began showing and they were all out in public together, it was entertaining to watch people do a head count of the children, then glance at her belly in surprise. Bux seemed to revel in it.

At dinner one night, Mill asked if she could be the one to name the new baby. Before Bux could say "No", Halling turned and asked Mill "What names are you considering?"

Mill tried for nonchalance as she said "I like the sound of Danill. Or maybe Mallark."

Yoj and Ng burst into laughter simultaneously. Mill scowled at her bowl of soup, and Halling said kindly "Those are original names, huh. And I like how they sound. But, it's up to emmas to name their children." Bux kicked Yoj under the table and Yoj managed to choke off her laughter. The next day, when Halling repeated Mill's suggestions at the Lofthall breakfast, it caused an uproar that left Rark and Danaan both blushing.

The next night, the two young pilots came for dinner. As they were helping to set the table, Veida said to Yerush "The folks behind us are moving. They're going to live with their child on Juh, now that it's just them over there."

Yerush said "Shards, I was hoping they'd hold out another ten years or so, until our grandchildren got old enough to need their own Manage."

"What do you mean, our own Manage?" said Mill. "I'm going to live in the Lofthall." Halling's jaw set into a hard line.

"And I'm living here with you" said Dodd, her face troubled.

"Good plan" said Yoj, giving her a quick hug.

Rark and Danaan, however, were looking at each other. Rark said "Is it definite, then? Have they notified the Ethicist?"

"Yes" said Veida, stopping to glance at them. "Why, do you -- oh. Ooohhh."

Danaan motioned behind Mill's back and shook her head, indicating they shouldn't get her hopes up. Mill was already demanding "What? What ooohhhh?"

Veida dodged the question, but Mill persisted. Finally Halling said "Mill, take your sibs to the sink and all of you get your hands washed."

Halling got up to carry Prl herself, and as she walked by Rark she murmured "I can't think of anything better, let me know if you want us to petition on your behalf."

Qala showed up just in time to sit down with them. Once everyone was eating, Yoj asked Yerush "Do you know where I could find the exact records of the testing they did to determine how often songs had to be changed to keep levs from learning them?"

"I'll have to look" said Yerush. "It'll be in First Generation Texts, likely buried in some dense military report. The Lofthall was considered part of the military then."

Which startled Rark and Danaan -- the concept of military was an alien one on Skene. But Halling focused on Yoj, saying with a slight challenge to her voice "What are you thinking about? You want to use songs longer than a week?"

"Oceans, no. But I am wondering how long they retain the memory. Is it for their lifetimes, or is it some kind of species memory? Because -- well, I just wondered if anyone had ever re-used songs from the past. I mean, the distant past" said Yoj.

Halling's face immediately softened. "You getting worn out?" she said quietly.

"I'll do my job as long as it takes" said Yoj stoutly. "But -- there's never been a stretch this long without an apprentice. If I could find some way to get even one week a month off..."

Bux looked at her carefully, then, noting the spreading white in Yoj's hair, the lines around her eyes. "Do you have records of the songs from previous dichters?" she asked, just as solicitous as Halling.

"Not the one I trained under. At least, no one can find them." Yoj's tone was slightly bitter. She had not much liked the dichter she had apprenticed with. "But before that, from thirty years ago -- your era, Veida -- I have lots of those in a big crate. And there are bound copies from various tenures even earlier in the stacks at the library."

"How do they compare to yours?" asked Qala curiously.

Yoj glanced at her, modesty making her hesitate. Finally she said "In the beginning, they were pretty rudimentary. Just enough to get the job done, looks like. Jingoistic lyrics and melodies that were long on percussion, short on beauty. Every now and then I run across some truly amazing songs, but -- I'm far from objective, I admit it -- still, it seems like I pour myself into it a lot more than most dichters have." She looked at her hands shyly.

Danaan said "If you want to have a try at using an old song, to see if it registers with them, I'd be willing to experiment with it." Rark nodded her emphatic agreement.

Yoj began protesting "Oh, no, I can't ask you to risk yourselves that way -- "

Halling said "Well, maybe we can figure out a method that minimizes exposure. On a voluntary basis, of course, not during a regular sinning run." She looked at Qala, who said "After the shift is over. And -- when Igoz is out of the dispatch room." Meaning they were going to do it secretly.

Halling said to Yoj "It's information we need to have. I'd say, look for songs that are at least 100 years old. And -- pick one that's really striking, you know, memorable on its own account. We have no idea how long the shitters live, or how they do remember things, but this could help narrow things down a bit."

Making a project for the good of pilots helped persuade Yoj to not feel guilty, as Halling intended it should. The next day, after her shift, Halling and Qala sat in the dispatch room and, between Qala's turns on the radio and Halling's bites from a tray of food, they hatched a plan.

"We'll have to test it in both the North and South Wasas -- there's some overlap of levs, I think, but not entirely" said Halling.

"All right" said Qala. "That means two different days. I can coordinate a set of delivery runs to, say, Yanja and Exploit, that just happens to result in Rark and Danaan being near the north and south ends of Skene, on the eastern perimeter, at the same time."

"And me" said Halling. "There has to be a sinner present. The levs will expect it, and I'm not going to let those two be exposed to this kind of danger without me there."

Qala looked at her speculatively, then said "How are you going to tell if they recognize the song?"

"By which ones of them are leaping, and how they're tracking" answered Halling. "In any given week, the older ones figure it out first. I mean, I'm guessing at that because we stop one day before they act on it, but I see a few of them starting to position themselves at key points, where a lighter is going to dip lower than usual on the next pass. Makes runs on Shmonah gut-clenching. Still, the older ones are also more cautious, so that extra day of waiting is what does them in. By Moja, there's a new song, and they have to start from scratch."

"Well, then, how long will you have to fly the pattern before you can tell if the older ones have it sussed out?" asked Qala.

Halling pondered. "On Shmonahs when I see what looks like them tracking it too well, it happens within the first half hour. So -- I guess if we do it for an hour, that'll cover it. We never sin in a single spot for an hour."

"Are you actually going to lower a net?" said Qala, with alarm.

"Lev, no" said Halling. "Not on my own. But I will run the radar, because it's possible they can pick up on that -- we don't know what kind of sensory apparatus they have -- and I'll center us over a big school that we actually would sin if we were all there."

Qala was beginning to look dubious. "I dunno, Hall -- I hate the idea of letting those two kiddos skim within reach of death just to see what happens, even if they're all for it."

"Oh, I agree" said Halling. "I'm going to insist that the first two passes, the tail-flash as we call it, be no lower than 20 meters. That'll still get the levs worked up but they won't have a chance to make an effective leap. Then the lighters will stay at 28 or 29 meters from that point on. The juveniles will leap themselves silly but not be able to reach that high. It's only the big 'uns, which are also the older ones, who can sometimes make it the edge of 29 meters. And I'll be watching -- that's all I'll have on my mind, watching what's going on."

"Videotape it" suggested Qala. "In fact, let's mount cameras in all three craft."

"Great idea" said Halling. "Now, if word of this gets out, you're to let me take the heat. I'll divert it from the lighters, Igoz will be happy to settle the blame on me."

"No way on blue blue Skene will I do that" said Qala with a grin. "Let her threaten to fire me. It would take three people to replace me. Besides which, I know -- things."

Halling grinned back at her. "Care to share?"

"Not yet" said Qala. After a period of them looking at schedules and deciding on days for the tests, Qala said quietly, "She wants to be Archivist, you know."

She didn't need to say Yoj's name. Halling answered "I know. If Bux weren't pregnant now, I'd push for talking to ZaMa right away." ZaMa was current archivist apprentice.

"ZaMa's young yet, so even when the Archivist retires, which ought to be any day now, it's possible ZaMa will never turn over the job to Yoj" pointed out Qala.

"Yeah, I know, and that will count against her. Yet what Yoj wants most is not the title, but access to the training and the Archives themselves. If she plays it right -- if she acknowledges ZaMa may always be the Archivist and they'll need to train a younger apprentice together -- and if we can get Yerush's help, I think ZaMa might like the idea of having an apprentice who can never usurp her. And of training the second generation beyond."

Qala laughed. "You're getting really sharp at this politicking kind of thinking. Must be Yerush rubbing off on you."

"Oceans, I hope not" said Halling, not really joking.

That weekend, Rark, Danaan and Qala spent Shmonah afternoon in the living room with Halling and Yoj, learning a song that had been written 111 years ago. Yerush and Veida took the children to South Rambla for the afternoon, to splash with their wellies through the shallows, turn over rocks looking for water beetles, and haul back plastic bags of river sand to replenish the katt toilet area beside the privy. Bux took a long nap. Qen and Ng also claimed to be napping, but Halling was grateful for the steady singing which might drown out any noise from Ng's room.

The following Shmonah, the trio from the Lofthall returned shortly after lunch, hauling between them a video player and a viewing monitor which Halling set up on the sideboard. There was a whispered discussion between Halling, Yoj and Bux, which the older children tried to overhear despite distraction from Qala and Veida. At one point, Halling clearly said "At least Mill, definitely her". At another point, Bux said "She's still a baby, I don't think it'll register" and Yoj replied "You underestimate her."

Eventually accord was reached, and everyone was asked to get a drink, then find a chair. Every child was pulled into the lap of an adult. Halling claimed Mill, and Yoj, torn between Dodd and Prl, finally let Bux take Prl. Ndege had her choice of pilots or Veida, and after smirking about it to Mill, she chose Qala.

Rark pushed in a tape and said "We had almost three hours of footage, but we edited it down to this hour as most representative." She settled in close to Danaan.

The film began with leaving Skene, exhilirating panoramas of the islands, beautiful jewels set in vivid blue. Everyone exclaimed and began pointing out sights. The earthbound adults were as enchanted as the children. When the first Morrie Strati appeared on the horizon, however, the adult faces grew somber.

"What's that?" asked Ndege.

"Where the leviathans live" answered Qala. Dodd silently curled her hand into Yoj's.

The footage was not continuous, and switched from North to South Wasa, which was evident from a change in water color. Vantage points varied considerably, too. Halling's camera was steady, a frontal view that revealed an increasingly horrific mass of leviathans milling below and the lighters darting in and out of the lens. Danaan and Rark's segments, however, were dizzying, at times blurry in motion, the singing much louder, the breathing and grunts of pilot effort loud between bars of melody.

The first leviathan leap made everybody scream except the pilots and Prl. Prl turned to look at Bux and said "Wat is dat, emma?"

"That's a lev, baby" said Bux, her throat thick.

The malice of the attacks was palpable, and percolated even through to Prl. One shot, of a gaping mouth with that spiral of serrated cartilaginous blades, made Qen turn her face away. The juxtaposition of predator with the elegant, gleaming craft and the joyous singing was bewildering. Bux looked at Halling, who met her eyes for a long minute. "I really had no idea" Bux finally whispered.

"I wish I didn't, either" said Halling. But of course that wasn't true. If it occurred on Skene, Halling would want to know about it.

Mill became very still and had a blank expression. Halling held her tight, and after half an hour, she said to Rark, "I think that's enough." Rark immediately turned off the video, and no one protested. Halling said "We made it all back home, here we are, and we found out something very important: The levs don't have the capacity to store memories beyond a certain point. They never recognized this song, not on either run, not even the apparent elders." She finally smiled, at Yoj.

"Thank the stars" breathed Ng, also turning to grin at Yoj.

"This means you get a break, my darling" said Bux.

Yoj looked worried, however. "How are you going to get it past Igoz?" she asked. "I mean, you can't tell her you did this, you'll all get in trouble."

"We have an idea" said Qala, a mischievous expression on her face. "It so happens that a gakusha turned up records which indicate that songs are not retained beyond a certain time -- perhaps we can get help from a gakusha to create a convincing old manuscript."

"Or a photocopy of one, they can't leave the Archives, you know" grinned Yerush.

"So we tested it on a voluntary basis, with all the safeguards in place, and here's the result" continued Halling. "We'll ask the pilots if they're willing to try -- if they aren't, then it's a no-go. But after they see this footage, none of them will have doubts. These attacks are actually not that bad, as it goes."

Bux looked at her incredulously. Dodd finally began crying, and Yoj turned her around to hold her close, murmuring "It's all right, sweetie, we're taking care of things just fine." Prl immediately tuned up, and there was a sense of relief in the room when Mill joined them. Ndege was determined to hold back until Qala whispered in her ear, and then she let her fear give voice, too.

Qen got up to refill everyone's tea, and Veida got a wet washcloth from the bath room to wipe faces when they were done. Everyone felt better, even the adults.

"What would you like, every other week off?" Halling asked Yoj.

"Wow. That would be -- unbelievably good" said Yoj. "But -- will that mean I go to half-wages? Can we afford that?"

Before Bux could answer, Qala said "Here's the thing: We've gone ten years now, at least, without paying an apprentice. So that 15 eks a year has been extra in the Lofthall budget."

"That slimy -- " began Halling.

Qala went on "I think Igoz will be glad to not have that information made public, and the only way to insure it not coming out seems to be revising the budget to reflect Yoj's full salary for part-time work. Retroactively. If you get my drift."

Yerush and Yoj both burst into laughter. Halling said "You got any plans for your new free time, honey?"

Yoj said "Well, Prl is still at home, and we could use more special play time, right?" Prl nodded at her. "And I could do more outings with the kids on weekends. And the baby will be here soon."

"But what about studies?" interjected Halling.

"I'll get to that" said Yoj. "When I don't have babies to distact me."

"And at some point, I want to consider running for elected office" said Bux. Halling looked at her sharply, but Bux and Yoj were gazing at each other sentimentally. Halling snorted almost unaudibly, and Qala raised her eyebrows.

Qen said "I'd like to show that film at the school. I think it's -- important for children to see it. At least the upper grades."

Halling was surprised, and consulted with Qala silently, then said "I agree, emma. But I can't imagine Igoz agreeing to it. She'd say it would discourage children from becoming pilots."

"Exactly my point" said Qen.

"We'll try" promised Qala. "I'll hide the original footage, so it doesn't get lost. Maybe we could start with a community viewing, for adults, as a way of easing it into public consciousness."

"Okay" said Yoj suddenly, "I think it's time some of us go outside into this window of sunshine and have some games. It is Shmonah, after all." Dodd slid off her lap and joined the other children running for the front door.

"Let's get string and bread, take them to the fish docks and see if we can catch crabs at the cortices" suggested Bux. Rark and Danaan immediately asked if they could go along, and Bux directed them to get buckets from storage as she helped Prl put on sokken and kiatu.

A week later, Iro, Danaan's emma, arrived at the Manage one afternoon just as Halling was getting up from her nap. She sat down at the table with tea and toast, and got right to the point.

"I've been to see the Ethicist. Ektr and I put in a request to have the Manage behind you. We'll give up our family Manage on Abfall, which is almost equal in value, she says, and both our high-paying jobs will come onto the market. But we need to be on Riesig for Danaan and Rark to be able to have a family." She looked determined.

Halling and Qen both exclaimed in delight. Qen said "We'll write a letter immediately, urging the Ethicist to make the exchange -- we have some pull, it will help."

"Thanks" said Iro. "It'll be an -- adjustment. Ektr and I both grew up on Abfall. Ektr has a cousin here, but you're the only folks in the neighborhood we'll know."

"We'll introduce you around" said Veida. "And their tillage has declined somewhat" added Ng, "But we'll give you cuttings and starts, get you back up to eating strength in no time."

"What will you do for income?" said Yerush. Her tone was not critical, but Bux still gave her a scandalized glare.

"Well, that's part of why I'm here" said Iro. She looked at Halling: "I can fix just about anything mechanical, that's been a lot of what I do at the junkyard. I'm wondering if I can get a job at the jichang as a jigong."

"Oceans, yes" said Halling. "It's hard for us to find good folks -- not just the skill level and the demand for perfection, which is high, but the hours are long. Starts before dawn and often isn't over until dark. The pay is good, though, 18 eks a year."

"I was making 20 on Abfall, and Ektr was making 15. But, it'll work out. Danaan and Rark are both insisting they can support us without either of us working, which of course is out of the question" Iro grinned.

"I'll talk -- well, not to Igoz, my recommendation might count against you" said Halling slowly. "I'll confer with Qala, she'll know how to convince Igoz it was her own idea. The head of the jigong is Enyi. She's tight with Igoz, which is mostly just politics, and I've noticed she likes to supervise more than do hands-on work, but the other jigongs are superb. I'll drop a quiet word to them as well."

Iro said "Are you sure this is all right for me to ask of you?"

"All right?" exclaimed Halling. "I'm thrilled, our children will be over the moons to have Rark and Danaan next door. Those of us in the Lofthall, we function as an extended family."

"I'm catching on to that" said Iro. "I -- we, both of us -- fought so hard to keep Danaan away from the idea of piloting. Ektr wanted to blame Rark's influence, but the truth is, Danaan was bedazzled by Xaya long before she became friends with Rark."

"Xaya?" said Halling, shocked.

"Yeah, her family lived across the lane from us. Ektr and I tried for over ten years to have a child, and during that time, our Manage became a kind of open-house for any child in the neighborhood. Xaya was our favorite, though. So lively and strong-willed. Whenever she came back to visit her emmas, she'd drop in on us, too, have tea and hold Danaan in her lap, fill her head with stories" said Iro.

Halling's face showed recognition: "You're the people she talked about -- the ones with the apple tree!"

Iro broke into laughter. When she laughed, her usually serious face was incandescent. "That child stole more apples than we ever harvested! We never brought it up to her, though. She'd come work in our tillage, I think from a guilty conscience."

"That's right, she told me" said Halling. "I had no idea Danaan knew her..." Her voice trailed off, her eyes cloudy with memory.

"Knew her and adored her" said Iro. After a long silence, she said "I'm sorry her emmas haven't stayed in touch with you. They're wrong to blame you, we all know that."

Halling was fighting tears. "That's kind of you to say. I -- miss them."

"Xaya's sibu has a child that's just started first grade" said Iro. "Keep an eye out for her, she looks the image of Xaya and she's got magma in her veins as well."

"What's her name?" said Halling and Qen simultaneously.

"Tlunu" said Iro.

Qen nodded at Halling, indicating she would befriend her. Halling said "Good name. Xaya's abba was Tlurim."

Bux slid her hand into Halling's and squeezed it. Halling shook her head free of longing and asked Iro "What about Ektr? Her work, I mean."

"Well, she wants to stay home with the babies when they come. And focus on the tillage, which she'll have to with me working those long hours. But she's going to apply at the fish docks as a loader operator, with all her heavy equipment background. It's a three-hour shift, and she can bring home fresh fish for us every day" said Iro.

"Listen" said Yoj, "I don't mean to be presumptuous, and you can say no -- but it's a long walk around to that place behind us by the lanes, and our back wall is high because we train berries along it -- would you be open to the idea of us having a gate between our tillages? I mean, our children are going to haunt your Manage, with Rark and Danaan being there, you might as well know that."

Iro laughed again. "Yeah, we're counting on it. Still like being an open house for children. By all means, let's put in a gate. We'll be bringing our four katts from Abfall, they'll have to sort out local territory on their own, of course."

"Let us know when the Manage is yours and we'll handle the installation of the gate" said Veida. "No, I insist, you'll have enough to contend with, that's a major move."

"Yes, and your first couple of days here, plan on eating all your meals with us, until your kitchen is up and running" added Qen.

"Count me in for sinner hauling of your possessions, as well, if Rark and Danaan need a third" said Halling.

Iro clasped her hand and said quietly "I'm honored to be part of the Lofthall. I mean, I do live in fear -- "

"That's always part of it" said Bux, just as quietly.

"Well, I need to catch my child and see if she'll save me a string of ferries home" said Iro, standing. Yoj said "Wait just a sec" and got a loaf of bread from the larder. "As an advance welcome-neighbor gift" she said, handing it to her. Halling walked Iro to the door.

While Yoj and Bux made dinner, Qen and Ng wrote a compelling letter to the Ethicist. They all signed it, with titles, and after it was addressed, Yerush called in Mill from the lane to deliver it to the post. Halling told her what it was, and Mill's face flooded with joy. "Can I tell the others?" she said, hopping up and down.

"Yes, and the twins can go to the post with you. But tell Prl to come in now" said Halling.

Prl was covered in mud, requiring a shampoo as well as a bath. She explained she had been lifting the cobbles at the side of the lane, looking for bugs. "I just hope she didn't eat any she found" said Halling, carrying her into the bath room.

Two months later, Bux gave birth to a baby as large and healthy as Prl had been. They named her Speranz, which pleased both Veida and Halling's sibs. She was as dark as Ndege, with the same hair as Mill, and her eyes were shiny black. This time, Yerush moved in to form a tight bond, and Speranz readily attached herself to Yerush. Despite the difference in coloring, there was a strong likeness between them in facial structure. And, as Speranz got older, it became clear they were alike in temperament as well.

When Speranz began vocalizing, at first random elongated vowels and later strings of gibberish, Yerush always listened to her with acute attention and then responded, as if having a conversation. At first, only Prl was taken in by this performance. Yerush would say "Oh, now that's an interesting observation. Clearly you've read the essay by Vriska about the economic impact of eliminating calcium deprivation from the aggie portion of the workforce in 285. But do you agree with the offset equation about soy sustainability?"

Speranz, raptly focused on Yerush's face, would flail her arms and make a few more utterances. Prl, at Yerush's elbow, would ask "What did she say, abba?"

Speranz shortly moved on to making effusively complimentary comments about her sibs. She began with Prl one day, Yerush translating "Siba, your eyes remind me of the azure urchin beds of Bohaira Lagoon on the most spectacular day of Ljeto". Prl melted, leaning over Yerush's arm into Speranz's face and saying "You beautiful too, baby sibu."

Ndege was next to be drawn in, as Speranz commented on her amazing agility and powers of observation. Dodd, watching doubtfully, said "How do know what she's saying, abba?"

"Decades of practice" said Yerush. "Here, come watch her face as she talks, you can start picking it up, too." Which was enough to make Mill try, as well. And Speranz's uncanny ability to see their best qualities, her often-expressed longing to become just like them, convinced even Mill that two-way communication was occurring. Thus, Speranz became part of family conversation before she could say a single word, and her intellect was admired by her sibs before she could hold a spoon.

When Speranz was four months old, she was sitting in Ndege's lap one night after dinner when Ndege suddenly said, "Oh, she's stinky again" and shoved her at Halling nearby. Speranz's face registered surprise at the abrupt movement, but Halling, taking a cue from Yerush, said "Look, you've hurt her feelings, calling her 'stinky'. She's just doing her job, which means taking aggie's amazing milk, using it to make every part of her body grow, and then getting rid of the leftovers. Right, Speranz, you clever, clever being, you?" Halling gushed at her. Speranz dimpled, and Prl echoed "Cevver, cevver bean."

Halling looked at the older children and said "It's time you learned how to change diapers. You'll either be emmas or sibemmas some day, it's part of being a good Skener." Ndege took a step backward, but Halling said "Get the diaper bag from our bedroom, will you?" Ndege complied at a run -- she liked errands that required running.

As Halling spread the plastic changing cloth on the table, she kept talking to Speranz, saying "It simply isn't polite to tell a person that they stink, is it? You know better than that, don't you?" Speranz burbled back at her, and Ndege asked, "What did she say?"

"She says you absolutely didn't mean to be thoughtless, she knows that, you are well-regarded for how often you think about the feelings of others" Halling improvised. Ndege said earnestly to Speranz, "Thank you!"

As Halling unpinned Speranz's diaper, she explained about keeping the pins away from "oh so tender baby flesh" and how "It's exciting to have relief on the way, yes, kick those legs, that's right" as she showed them how to wipe up as much of the mess as they would with a corner of the diaper. Ndege and Dodd looked green but they stayed at Halling's elbow. Halling folded the diaper tidily and handed it to Ndege, saying "Take this to the pail in the bath room, then wash your hands well. Before you come back, wet two washclothes with warm water, wring 'em out and bring 'em to me."

Ndege held the diaper gingerly and opted not to run this time. While she was gone, Halling showed baby leg exercises to the other children, drawing peals of laughter from them and Speranz. When Ndege returned, Halling gave one washcloth to Dodd and said "Now we wipe her very, very gently. Be sure to get the folds at her chubby thighs. When you can't see any more poop, fold that cloth, set it down, and wipe her a second time with the clean cloth. Look good to you? Great, go put those cloths in the diaper pail and wash your hands, too." Dodd was no longer fighting back gagging, and she opted to run for her errand.

Next, Halling showed Prl how to dry Speranz with a clean diaper and then "sprinkle some of abba's special powder, to give her that trademark Manage smell of lavender and lilacs". Prl overdid it a little on the powder, but Speranz praised her all the same. Last, Mill with her "superior powers of coordination and leadership" folded a new diaper onto Speranz and got the pins replaced without damage to fingers or baby.

Halling lifted Speranz into the air, making her crow which turned out to mean "You are the finest sibs any baby ever had! I chose to come live with you, chose you especially!" Ndege asked to have Speranz back in her lap, and Halling handed her over, going to wash the changing cloth and hang it to dry. Yoj, grinning, whispered "Do you think I could teach them how to wash the diapers, as well?"

After that, if the children were in the house, Speranz's diapers were changed by committee. Eventually, of course, grumbling set in, but all children on Skene had unavoidable chores, and at least in this case Speranz's commentary was entertaining.

One change brought about by Speranz's birth was that when Yoj wrote her sibs and emma about the birth of this final child, she got a letter back from Owera -- the first letter Owera had ever written her. Bux was the one who collected the mail that day, and she could hardly wait until Halling and Yoj got home. As soon as they came in the door, she waved the envelope, saying "You got a letter from your sib!"

Yoj's face was worried. "Oh, shards, I hope everything's all right." They sat down with her as she began reading. After one paragraph, she looked up, her face starting to flood with gladness, and said "It's okay, she's writing to congratulate us on our children and, well, it's just a plain old letter". Halling patted her on the back. A minute later, a look of irritation crossed Yoj's face and she clicked her teeth with her tongue, but by the end of the letter -- front and back of a page -- she was smiling again.

"What does she say?" asked Bux.

Yoj pushed the letter toward her, answering "It's about her job, mostly, and how she likes the wheat, which is good to hear. But she referred to the kids again, and asked if we had any Y's." Her irritated expression returned.

"Just like that?" asked Bux, shocked.

"Yep. I mean, is it all qigongers who are so lacking in -- social graces, I guess you'd call it -- or it just my family?" asked Yoj, exasperated.

"I don't know" said Halling. "Still, it's grand she wrote. It's a big step."

"Yes, and I'll write her back. I am glad about hearing from her" said Yoj.

"What will you say about her question?" asked Bux.

"I'll tell her 'Yeah, just the one.' And leave it at that. No names" said Yoj, with a grin.

"That'll work" laughed Halling.

Bux picked up the letter to read it, and Halling leaned beside her to share it. After that, Owera wrote once a month, and Yoj answered with long, interesting letters. She sent copies of the children's drawings, family photos, and her regards to Nilma. Sometimes she asked questions about their childhood, Owera's memories, but Owera never answered those. Even so, it was a connection that made Yoj feel less like Z'bef.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.

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