Tuesday, January 15, 2008


This is draft one of my sci-fi novel Skene. To read earlier chapters, go to LABELS in the right-hand column on this page, scroll down to the Skene tags and click on the one you want to read. Skene is set on a human-habitable planet in the Alhena star system at least 500 years in the future. There's a considerable amount of appendix material and diagrams also available here as needed:
Map of Riesig (the main island)
Map of The Manage on Riesig
Skene Glossary (Skenish to English)
Skene Cast of Characters
Skene Culture, Calendar, Clothing, and Islands
Map of All Skene
Map of The Lofthall on Riesig


Raccolto and New Year rolled around again. After Halling got home from work, she checked the kids' homework, sent Speranz and Prl out front to play in the waning light, and assigned various tillage chores to the older three. Oby was there, as usual, so Halling gave her jobs as well. She ignored their groans and walked out back with them, heading to the duck and goose pen. She emptied the water trough over the fence into the garlic bed and began scrubbing it out. She was tired of how much they crapped in their own water. Another two weeks and it would be time to kill them, dress the carcasses, take a short breather and then plant sugar beets. This year, all five of the kids were going to do the incessant weeding and hoeing of the sugar beets -- let them earn their sugar.

It was also time for Mill to be taught how to slaughter the birds. She sighed, her hands numb from the chilly water as she scrubbed at the metal trough with a piece of steel wool. She wished she didn't have to be the one introducing Mill to adult hardships. But Ng and Mwezi had started her killing chickens when she was 12, so Mill was overdue. She could hear Mill and Oby now at the other end of the tillage, joking with each other as they turned the compost with forks.

Dodd was digging for potatoes and reshaping the hills. Ndege was down at Halling's end, cutting spinach for dinner, pulling onions and setting out a few more cabbage starts while the weather held. When Ndege was done, she rifled hopefully through the blackberry tangle for a few overlooked autumn fruit. She found one, popped it in her mouth, then promptly spit it back out.

Halling chuckled to herself as she began refilling the water trough and opened the feed bin. The ducks and geese set up a cacophony at the prospect of dinner. She poured a can of feed into the second trough, then immediately emptied the scraps bucket over it -- let them work for the good stuff.

When she turned around, Ndege was leaning against the gate into the duck yard. "Don't lean on that, it's not that sturdy" Halling said for the thousandth time. Ndege straightened , her upturned gilet full of yellow onions and dark green leaves. Her long bones seemed to be proportionally lengthening as she got older, and her high cheeks were gorgeous. She was a looker, even when the blank face she had now portended trouble.

"What's up?" said Halling, coming out the gate and latching it carefully. She walked over to the greenhouse door, to make sure it was shut against the cold night. Ndege trailed after her.

"I need to tell you something" Ndege said. Her tone was not one of dread, which meant she didn't think she was in trouble. Tattling, then. Halling tucked her hands into her pockets, seeking warmth, and faced her. "Do you need privacy, or can we do it in the house?" she asked.

Ndege glanced at the end of the tillage and said "I'd rather -- out here."

Halling sat down on one of the Isola Fling chairs they'd scattered around the tillage for Ng long ago, never removed because, in fact, it was nicer for everyone to weed sitting down. She suddenly missed Ng with an ache all the way through her middle. Ndege stood on one leg, then the other, and whispered "I saw Mill and Oby."

"Saw them what?"

Ndege's tone was prurient: "Kissing".

Ah, lev. Mill was 14, Oby 15. Way too early, still.

"And where did you see this, Ndege?"

"I came out here to pick some limes, remember, last weekend for lunch, emma sent me? And, well, I just happened to see inside Mill's window. They were lying on her bed, and Mill was laying on top of Oby, and they were kissing." She gave the final word the same spin as before.

"Did they see you?"

Ndege didn't tumble to the fact that if she wasn't sneaking peaks, the answer to this should be "Yes." She kept whispering to say "No."

"Well...." Halling pulled out her hands and rubbed them together. It was going to be a hard winter, no doubt about it. "First of all, I appreciate you telling me, Ndege. This is a serious matter, for our entire Manage, not just Mill." Ndege looked gratified.

"Have you mentioned this to anyone else?"

Ndege shook her head.

"Not even Gerra?" Halling was watching her closely, for the wide-open eyes and earnestness that would mean she was lying. But Ndege just shook her head again, and said "I wasn't sure which one of you to tell, emmas, I mean."

"Telling any one of us is the same as telling all. We don't keep secrets from each other. The thing is, I'm going to have to address this with Mill and Oby, because they will not be old enough to kiss and have -- intimacy -- of that nature until Mill is 16. I'm also going to have to tell Oby's emmas, one of whom, as you know, is the Ethicist of all Skene. This could mean bad trouble for them both. At the very least, it will hurt their feelings, what we'll have to tell them. It will likely hurt for two years. So if there's any part of you being glad that Mill is in trouble, you need to replace that with concern for your siba. Concern for our entire Manage." Halling's tone was soft and kind -- she imagined how Ng would say this, and tried to emulate that. Ndege's face fell.

"Also, I'm going to have to let Mill know how I found out about this -- that you looked in her window and violated her privacy. She's going to be hurt by that, too. I'll stress to her that you did the right thing, coming to tell me, and hopefully she'll be mature enough to understand that. But maturity is something you need to be trying to acquire for yourself as well. You will be a woman in four years; that may seem a long way off, but it's not, you'll need every minute to get ready." Now Ndege was intrigued and a little apprehensive.

"You must keep this secret, for the sake of our Manage, not just Mill. If it's bothering you, come and talk to any one of us, abbas or emmas. Even if you think we might be busy or have -- other worries, still, talk to us. And -- I want to say, when I was Mill's age, I loved Xaya the way she loves Oby. I had to struggle with what she and Oby are trying to figure out. It was extremely hard, and my heart is going out to her. Mill has pressure on her you don't and I hope you never have. And -- she knows her beloved abba Yerush is dying, we all know that, and she wants some comfort, somewhere. That may be the main reason she and Oby decided to begin kissing now, because they are so scared and bruised by having to watch Yerush die. So, I'll help her find another way to reach comfort, and I want to offer that to you as well. You need your sibs. Some day they will be all you have left of your childhood, as it is for me and my sibs -- we have no emmas any more. And I can't express to you how precious it is to me to be close to them. I wish that for your five, as well."

Halling seldom made a speech this long. Ndege's eyes were now full of tears. Halling pulled her close, the onions bulbous between them, and let Ndege cry on her shoulder. "You are a remarkable child, and I adore you. Thank you for trusting me" she murmured.

When they finally went to the back door, Dodd was already inside. Mill and Oby were finishing putting away the chickens. Halling emptied Ndege's gilet for her onto the table and told her to go wash up. Veida stared after her, noting her puffy eyes, and looked at Halling. "Later" Halling mouthed.

Qen was in bed with Yerush, rubbing her bones and listening to her talk. Halling washed the spinach and set it into a pan to steam. She said to Bux and Yoj at the stove, "We'll need to talk after dinner. With Mill and Oby. I think we'll need to send the other children over to Rark and Danaan's for an hour."

They both looked worried, but Halling said "It's all right. Or it will be." These days, they were each running a full schedule with work, public service, tillage, and Manage. Yoj was doing most of the caretaking of the two youngest children, Halling was handling the elders, and Bux was trying to keep her three emmas from as much heartache as possible. At night before they went to sleep, they listened to each other the dark for a few minutes, glad to be intact, to be still in love, to be healthy and warm and fed. It was a strategy for emergency times, but it kept working. They knew they could lean on one another.

Yerush joined them for dinner, as she did most nights. Veida would give her half a pain pill, enough to keep her from being in torment but not so much that she couldn't converse or eat. Being at the head of the table seemed to stimulate Yerush's appetite, and they were all determined to keep her taking in nourishment. She was becoming gaunt, except for disturbing bulges here and there. Veida said the tumors were consuming her sustenance.

Veida was also focused on keeping Yerush's bowels moving. She knew that intestinal obstruction was common on strong pain medications, and if that occurred, surgery would be out of the question at this advanced stage. She didn't want Yerush to die that particular way. She had created a laxative tea which she laced heavily with sugar and coaxed into Yerush at every meal. A couple of weeks earlier, Speranz had surreptitiously down half a cup of Yerush's undrinken tea, after seeing the sugar spooned into it. She had been up all night with severe diarrhea, which Bux and Halling had found hilarious -- "She won't pull that stunt again", said Bux. Yoj was, however, not entertained, likely because she was the one who had sat up with Speranz and because laundry was her chore.

After dinner, Halling walked over to talk briefly with the Manage behind them. Rark and Danaan looked at one another and said "We had to deal with the same issue. We managed to wait, and it was good for us. We'll be glad to talk to them both, when it's a good time."

Halling thanked them, and Danaan walked back with her to invite the younger children for an hour of play. Once they were out of the house, Mill and Oby -- who had been asked to stay behind -- sat apprehensively at the table with the emmas, Qen and Veida. Yerush had been given her pain injection, the reward she accepted for the ordeal of sitting up through dinner, and was in a drugged sleep.

Halling led the discussion and covered the same ground she had with Ndege. She put her arm around Mill as Mill wept, and when Oby finally broke down, Qen comforted her. Halling ascertained they had, so far, only kissed; they seemed to be not entirely clear on what else they might do with one another.

"Well, and that's the point" Halling said. "When you're ready for this part of your life, you'll be sure about the process. But you have to grow into it. Remember last summer, Mill, when Qala let you try out the training program in that rigged lighter, on the ground? Despite her giving you the easiest tests and being wholly biased in your favor, what happened?"

Mill, redfaced, said "I crashed three times before I finally gave up."

"You're a talented child, with every reason to excel as a pilot. But your body isn't ready to handle the task. Just like when Speranz was a baby, she understood what we were saying yet could not speak in Skenish back to us yet. If you try to become lovers before you're ready for it, you'll crash. It won't take your life, but it might damage your relationship permanently. And if you truly love each other and want to be together forever, you won't take that risk."

"Did you wait with Xaya?" asked Mill.

"I did. We kissed some, and I got -- very scared. And she could tell how scared I was. She loved me more than she -- wanted pleasure. She insisted we hold off until I could be with her, not numb with fear." Halling's eyes filled with tears. "She was so good to me."

After that, it was easy for Halling to extract promises from them that they would not continue kissing, and would hold off becoming lovers until Mill was 16. Halling said to Oby pointedly "This means you will reach the point of readiness ahead of her. I'm counting on your honor as well as your caring for her." Oby's grey eyes flashed as she said "Yes, Nan Halling."

Qen suggested they stop sleeping together almost every night, and limit it to twice a week. Mill and Oby both rebeled at that, outraged, and Qen said "I won't force it on you. But I want you to consider it. Removing yourself from temptation is one of the lessons of adulthood."

Halling told them that Rark and Danaan were available for conversation, which mortified Mill. Oby, however, said "That would be good." Then Halling said she was going to have to relay this conversation to Oby's emmas. Oby looked like she might pass out, and Mill began begging Halling to hold off.

"No, they love Oby" said Halling, "and trust me, we all know what this is like. They'll understand, and it will help you both to have them on your side as well." At that point, Halling stood and said "Let's walk Oby home for tonight, Mill. I'll talk with her emmas, and she can sleep at home tonight. You'll see each other at school again tomorrow."

They went out the front door, two of the three wretched. Yoj walked back to their neighbors to bring home the other children and get them ready for bed. As the three of them were finally in the dark together, at the end of another day, Bux said "If you'd said yes, when I was Mill's age, I'd not have waited, I don't think." Yoj answered "I know I wouldn't have. But I wasn't smart in certain ways then. Not yet. I had luck and substitute emmas keeping me from total self-destruction at critical junctures."

"Mill's in good shape" said Halling drowsily. "Thanks to you both."

"What did Api say?" asked Yoj.

"She didn't look surprised. And she's the Ethicist, she doesn't rile easily" murmured Halling.

"Oby's like her. Good choice on Mill's part" observed Bux. But Halling was now asleep.

A week later, Yerush stopped being able to sit up for dinner. Her bones simply wouldn't support her without agony any longer. She told Qen she didn't want to get shut away in the bedroom -- "I don't want to die in here" she whispered, "not in our bed". So Bux and Yoj opened the couch bed, lined it with two extra feather mattresses and a leak-proof pad, and Halling gently carried Yerush into the living room to be with them at all times.

Despite her now having to wear diapers and her frequent moans, Yerush retained her dignity. When the children came home from school, they sat down quietly around her bed and, if she was awake, told her the highlights of their day. Bux and Qen took turns feeding her, when she could eat. Veida bathed her, with Ndege's willing help, and at night Yoj read to her for an hour before bed instead of telling the children stories, the children gathered around to listen.

Eventually Yerush refused to eat any more, claiming it hurt her jaw to chew. Veida arranged for a curandera visit, who set them up with an intravenous line and bottles of clear liquid that dripped slowly into Yerush's thin arm. Finding a vein took 17 tries -- Yoj counted.

Letters were sent to Culisa and Paha. Paha came right away, sleeping in Halling's office at the Lofthall and spending her days at the Manage. Culisa came on the weekend. By that time, the pain medicine Veida was injecting into the line lasted less than two hours before Yerush would begin crying out again, even in her sleep, a sometimes constant low moaning that Yoj heard as a rhythm like breathing. Yerush woke up less and less. When she did, she was usually not clear about who she was talking to, and her mind rummaged around through memory.

She turned to Yoj at one point and said "I didn't want to be pregnant, you know. I was always sick, except with Bux, and it damaged my career at the U for a while. But we tried and tried, and finally they said Qen couldn't have the babies. And there was no question of leaving Qen without babies, was there? So I went to Dest. That's when I began meeting with Raisa. And then I got pregnant with you, Paha, and that's when I met Veida. So it was the right thing, after all, for me to have the babies. But Qen and Veida were far better emmas than me, I know."

She confused Prl with Bux and Yoj with someone in her past named Ubal, a childhood playmate from the sound of it. She said to Halling, "Do you remember the first time we made love, my dear Eeda? You made me cry, I was so surprised by that." She reached out a hand and Halling, with red cheeks, took it gently and kissed it. One afternoon, when the pain shot had worn off way too soon, as Veida came to measure another dose into the syringe, Yerush looked at her with eyes turned dark by wide pupils and said "You remember your promise to me, right, Eeda? You won't let me down?"

"I'll never let you down" said Veida. Bux, the only other person in the room, felt a chill at this exchange.

Two days later, on Roku, the pain shots weren't lasting even an hour. Nobody went to Market. Qala and Lawa were there, along with Paha and Tlochin, Culisa, Iro, Ektr, and Rark. Danaan was out front trying to keep distraught children in play for a bit. Mill and Oby, however, elected to stay in the living room.

That morning, Qen had sent a note by Mill to the Genist. There had been no reply.

Yerush's moans had become sharp cries, ragged and almost continuous. A fine sheen of sweat covered her dark yellow skin. Qen was stretched beside her, one arm under Yerush's neck, and Veida sat on the other side of her, rubbing ointment into spots bulbous with tumor.

Bux got another wet washcloth to wipe Yerush's face. Veida took it from her, however, and began stroking it across Yerush's forehead. Yerush opened her eyes and stared directly in Veida's face. "Oh, my love, I'm so sorry" she breathed. "It's time. I can't bear it."

Yoj thought she saw Veida's spine collapse on itself just a little. Veida kissed Yerush's forehead and said "All right. You've been so brave. Thank you for this year."

Yerush had gone back into her private torment, however, with closed eyes and tossing of her head. Qen turned to wrap herself around Yerush. Paha looked at Oby and said "We're going to need your emma, honey. Do you think you can go find her?"

Oby was on her feet instantly. She paused, bent to kiss Mill's cheek, and went swiftly out the door. Rark followed to call in Danaan and the children. She whispered to them in the doorway, picking up Speranz. Prl and Dodd came to lean on Yoj, and Ndege slid into Lawa's lap. Halling had her arm around Mill.

Veida reached down to her leather bag beside the bed and pulled from it a different syringe, along with a small glass bottle. Qen was whispering "I love you, Yerush, I will always love you." Bux saw Veida's hands trembling as she filled the syringe and held it to the light, making sure of the amount. Suddenly, Bux stood and crossed to her, saying "Emma, I can't let you be the one to do this. She's your sweetheart, and I know she asked you, and we know you'll live up to her trust -- but I don't want you to carry this, you've always been so strong. I'm -- give me the syringe, emma."

Veida looked into Bux's face, a tortured mix of hope and argument there. Bux gently took the syringe from her hands, saying "It's all right. I want to do this for you." The expression on Bux's face was pure Yerush, thought Yoj, except far, far more beautiful.

Veida lay down beside Yerush and Bux tenderly lifted Yerush's arm with the line in it. She leaned forward to look at the line, and once more, Yerush's eyelids flickered open.

"Bux" she said clearly. "You've forgiven me, then."

Bux hesitated before saying "A long time ago, aggie. I forgave you completely." Yoj stopped breathing for a minute. No telling what had come out of Yerush during the last few weeks.

"I never meant you harm" said Yerush.

"I know" said Bux, tears spilling down her cheeks.

"You'll look after them always, you promise?" said Yerush, her breathing almost a gasp.

"I treasure them" said Bux.

"Let's go, then" said Yerush, with her old crisp tone. She closed her eyes and turned to kiss Qen on the lips. Bux carefully slid the needle into the line and, as Yerush turned to kiss Veida, she pushed in the plunger.

Two minutes later, an incomprehensible stillness had settled over Yerush. Speranz wailed, and it was easiest for everyone to join her. When Api walked in, the entire room was in terrible grief. She stood in the doorway, her arms around Oby in front of her, until the coroner arrived.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.


letsdance said...

Death is part of life, but how hard it is to let our loved ones go.....

letsdance said...

whaaaaaaaaa, I just read your note that this is the next-to-the-last chapter. I will miss my Skene friends.