Sunday, January 6, 2008


(Another double-chapter post because of an interrelated theme -- read below for the preceding chapter.) 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


Finally, without another option left to them, they put on burzakas and stepped out from the coroner's into the downpour, a phalanx of umbrellas shambling back up the lane. At the Manage, the four younger children threw themselves on their emmas and cousins, but when Speranz said "You left abba behind!" everybody cried again.

The kitchen was laden with food, and everyone who hadn't eaten yet was kindly brow-beaten into taking a plate of food. Moasi and Ktiva's children sat at the table with their cousins, Rark and Danaan persuading bites into Mill, while the adults settled in the living room. Yoj sat down on the floor, leaned against the wall, and insisted Halling sit in front of her. She held a plate for them both and sweet-talked Halling into eating, whispering it would set a good example for Mill.

Iro gathered up plates after a while and dispensed lavish desserts, giving the children big slices of cake and pie. Yoj got Halling to eat most of a lemon custard. She could feel how exhausted Halling was.

Yerush said, in a low voice, "We should talk about sleeping arrangements for the children." Everyone turned involuntarily to look at Ng's closed bedroom door.

Halling said to Lawa, "You're staying here with us tonight." It wasn't a question. Lawa said "All right. How about if we make a pallet on the floor here and I can take the littlest ones in with me. I'd really like that."

"They'll be thrilled" said Bux.

"I'm worried about the older ones in the loft alone, though" said Yoj. Danaan, who had come in to gather dessert plates for washing, offered "I'll squeeze in with them. There'll be no sinning tomorrow, from the looks of it."

Halling heaved a sigh. "That would be perfect, Danaan. If they have nightmares or troubles, come get us up, I mean it. But it's possible with you there, they'll really sleep."

Veida turned to Moasi, Ktiva and Tu to say "Come eat breakfast with us. If you come at 8:00, we'll have time before we leave for the viewing." Danaan handed them their keys to the hostel.

Lawa said to Qala, "Would you like to join us, me and the babies?"

Qala hesitated -- it was clear she wanted to stay. She answered, however, "I need to be at the Lofthall in the morning. I have to arrange your transport to Yanja, and if there is any chance of work around the islands, I'll arrange that as well."

"Thank you" said Halling wearily.

"It's going to be a hard night after a terrible day" said Yerush, standing up. "Qen, Halling, the rest of you, it's time for bed."

Qala offered to walk the Motu and Seda folks to the hostel on her way to the Lofthall. Iro and Ektr had cleaned the kitchen and put away all the food. Rark, Lawa and Danaan carried children to the privy while Bux and Yoj got roll-up mattresses from storage and made a bed on the floor. All of the children were thrilled with their overnight guests. As they were kissing their emmas and abbas goodnight, Speranz asked Yerush "You'll be here in the morning? You won't die, too?"

After a shocked moment, Yerush said "I absolutely will be. Not to worry, darling."

Veida pushed herself close behind Qen as they climbed the ladder to their loft. Yerush waited to turn off lights, then suddenly cried "The katts! And the chickens!"

Ndege's voice came from her loft: "Iro and Ektr fed them and put the chickens away."

Bux and Yoj put Halling between them. They breathed together in the dark for a minute. Halling said "It hurts so bad, I don't think I'll ever be okay again."

"I know" said Yoj.

"You've seen me this way before" commented Halling.

"Yes" said Yoj. "And now we have Bux. It will heal, Hall. But not tonight. You wake me up for any reason at all, promise?"

"Me, too" said Bux.

"I promise" said Halling. She didn't think she could sleep. Two minutes later, however, she was out -- she had no emotional reserve left in her.

She woke up at dawn with a strong sense of dread. She rolled over and whispered to Yoj, "Something's wrong, wake up." Yoj was instantly alert, and even in the dark she could see memory overtake Halling. "Oh, no" Halling whispered. She felt too shredded to cry. After a minute, she said "I need to piss."

"I'll go with you" said Yoj, sliding out of bed. They put on sokken and boots, moving noiselessly because Bux was sleeping soundly. When they came back in from the privy and pulled off drenched burzakas, Halling whispered "I don't want to go back to bed. Can we just drink tea here in the dark?"

Yoj poured aga water into a pot and set it on the table with a plate of honeycakes from the neighbors. She was gratified to see Halling begin eating without a nudge. They sat side by side, sipping and chewing. After a while, they heard the moans of someone having a nightmare in the loft above them, but Yoj wasn't sure whose voice it was. Then Qen said "Veida, honey, wake up." Veida gasped and began crying raggedly. "Oh, Qen, I'm so sorry for you, but I'm sorry for us all, what will we do without her?" Qen wept with her, quietly, and Halling held Yoj's hand tight.

Just as first light began wading through the rain outside, Lawa joined them. Yoj made fresh tea and found a platter of cold sliced pork that she put in the aga to warm. Lawa and Halling both ate the pork, along with applesauce and more honeycakes.

"Neither of them woke up once" Lawa whispered. "Prl is quite the cuddler."

"Speranz kicks, though, right?" said Yoj.

"Like a billygoat" said Lawa. When she was done eating, she said "I'm sorry I couldn't do the -- body stuff -- "

Halling began reassuring her, but Lawa continued, "I want to clear her room for you, though. I remember helping when aggie died. That I can handle."

"All right" whispered Halling. Lawa went into Ng's room and returned with all the bed linen, taking it into the bath room. They heard the boiler filling with water. Lawa emerged with a bucket which she filled at the aga with boiling water, stirring in handfuls of salt: the Skene tradition for cleaning floors after a death. Getting a mop from the cupboard, she returned to Ng's room and closed the door.

When she emerged some time later, her cheeks were wet with tears. She emptied the bucket, wrung out the mop, and sat next to Halling again. "It still smelled like her in there" she said. Halling pressed against her silently.

A few minutes later, Veida came down the ladder. "I thought I smelled food" she whispered.

"I hope we didn't wake you up" said Yoj.

"No, this is when I get up anyhow" said Veida. She got a cup of tea and began helping herself to the food on the table.

"How did emma sleep?" asked Halling.

"Interrupted. But she's dropped back off" said Veida.

At 7:30, all of the children woke up, and no more sleep was available to anyone. Dodd cried in Yoj's arms for a bit, and Mill kept clinging to Danaan. Ten minutes later, Iro and Ektr arrived at the back door with a huge pot of buttery oatmeal and a bowl of steaming boiled eggs. Danaan asked "Where's Rark?"

"Tending to the chickens" Iro said. She and Ektr began setting the table.

Bux came to Yoj and said accusingly "How long have you been up?"

"Since dawn. We didn't mean to stay up, it just happened after we went to the privy. And before you get mad at me, I think for right now, whenever anybody can sleep, they should. We'll be needing to relieve each other as best we can" said Yoj.

Bux relented, then whispered "How is she?"

"She ate breakfast" Yoj answered, which made Bux smile cautiously.

The cousins blew in the front door, and soon everybody was eating. Yoj got up to finish the laundry Lawa had started, leaving her with her sibs, all of them trying their hardest to have a normal conversation. Once the sheets and quilt were pressed, she piled them in a basket. Rark poked her head in the door and said "You can't dry those here, not with the house full of people. Let me take them to our Manage and hang them by our hearth."

Yoj handed her the basket, kissing her gratefully. Halling's sibs had brought their funeral clothes but they were wrinkled from being packed, so Yoj set up an ironing board and began pressing them. She noticed that Kpahi was the only child without a white shati. She went to Dodd's clothes chest and dug to the bottom, finding a cream silk shati Qen had made for her years ago, barely worn before she outgrew it. She sponged it down, ironed it, and hung it with Kpahi's dress pants -- it would fit her perfectly.

Everyone was done eating by 8:45. As the table was being cleared, Halling glanced at the clock and said "We've got time." She went into Ng's room and came back carrying two boxes, one flat metal, one rectangular of Seda mulberry, from Ng's cupboard. The children were set up with a game in the living room, and all the adults sat around the table.

"Oh" said Halling. "Bux, that jewelry I put in my pocket last night?" Bux went into their bedroom to retrieve it. Halling set the ring in front of her sibs, saying "Her partnering ring with aggie", and began inspecting the necklace. On the gold chain was a tiny, odd-looking gold ring, a small silver broach with an enamel logo, and a piece of wood carved into a crescent moon, very worn and dark.

"I don't know what any of these are" said Halling.

"Let me see" said Moasi. "Oh, I know what that ring is, don't you remember, Hall? Aggie had a pair of these as earrings, she wore them for dress-up occasions."

"I remember" said Tu.

"And one fell out of her jewely box, and you found it" said Moasi. "You were maybe two or three. You crammed it onto your pudgy little finger without telling anyone. When aggie noticed it, she informed you that was her earring, and you spun her this whole story about how no, in fact emma had given it to you as a promise that when you grew up, she was going to partner with you instead of aggie -- aggie could still live with you and be your aggie, but emma was going to be all yours."

They were laughing, now. Halling's cheeks were flushed. "I can't believe I did that!" she said.

"Sounds just like Mill to me" said Yoj. Hearing her name, Mill came to stand in the doorway, listening.

"And this moon, it's something her emma carved for her when she was little. There was some story that went with it, about a flying pig" said Tu. They passed it around.

Lawa picked up the enamel pin. "Oh, this is when she was honored by the keramiker guild, this is some kind of award" she said. "She's glued the hasp shut so she can wear it on a chain."

"You're right about all three" said Qen quietly. "She referred to that little ring as her promise token from Halling."

The sibs looked at her with wet eyes.

"All right" sighed Halling, pulling the flat metal box to her and opening it. It was full of photographs, starting with last year's Manage group photo and going back in time to what were clearly Ng's emmas and abbas as children. Halfway through, Halling said "We'll have to come back to these. I don't know how to divide them up between us."

Yerush said "I'll get copies made of them, three extra of each. That way, you can all have the whole set."

"Thank you" said Moasi. "We'll need to meet again to see if we can put names to the unidentified older ones."

Halling returned the photos to their box and, taking a deep breath, she opened the large wooden box. It, too, was full to the brim. There were copies of Halling and Moasi's partnering announcements, drawings by all of the sibs when they were children, Ng's partnering certificate with Mwezi, and her faryaste license. Beneath that was a thick envelope which turned out to hold a copy of Ng's will, which left everything to her children "except for special bequests, see enclosed." It was dated four years earlier. There was also a sealed letter to Qen. Qen's hands were trembling as she accepted it from Halling, and she said "I -- I need to read this later. Alone."

"Of course" said Bux.

Another set of letters turned out to be the ones Halling had written Ng to tell her when she had fallen in love with Yoj, then Bux. Halling gave these to Bux and Yoj to read. In the bottom of the envelope was another gold ring, to match the one Ng had been wearing on her hand. "Aggie's ring!" breathed Halling. She set it with the other jewelry.

Now visible was a bottom layer of something the dimensions of the box, wrapped in quilted linen. Around the perimeter of the box was a continuous series of filled silk tubes, each tube but one the same shape and length, cylindrical and taut. The eighth tube, however, was lumpy.

Halling pulled out one of the cylindrical silk bags, surprised at its heft, and heard the jingle of metal. "What in the world?" she said, untying the cord and pouring it out onto the table. A shower of gold eks appeared before them.

Halling gaped at her sibs. They began counting with her, and reached 25 simultaneously. Halling stacked the coins, and noticed a small piece of folded paper which had fallen out with the coins. "For my grandchild Mwiva" it said, "With love and pride, Abba Ng."

Halling opened the next cylinder and found the same amount of coins, only this bag was for Prl.

"Thunder me down" said Lawa. "It's her bequests -- she's given each grandchild 25 eks!"

"How in blue blue Skene did she ever save up that much money?" said Tu.

"She worked hard, constantly" said Halling. "Her pottery sold better all the time, and she's responsible for more than her share of this Manage's well-being. I had no idea she was making this much more, intended for her beloved descendants."

Qen said "That's enough for a degree at the University, if they live thriftily". They all looked at her. Bux said, "Did you know about this?"

"I sewed the bags" said Qen. "She intended to make it up to 50 eks per child, but -- " She swallowed a sob.

Halling picked up the last bag, the lumpy one. Qen stared at it and said "I made her one extra, in case Moasi had another child -- I don't know what that is."

Halling poured it onto the table. Everybody gasped. A shower of emeralds and sapphires, various sizes and cuts, rolled before them.

"That's why that old miner friend of her came to visit every so often!" said Yoj. "Lev, but those are beautiful!"

Halling had located the fold of paper and opened it, already guessing what it said. She pushed the paper, the bag, and the jewels across the table to Qen with a grin. "This one's for you, emma."

Qen couldn't speak, only shake her head. Her jaw quivering, she picked up the paper and read in a whisper "For my darling Qen, who gave me the riches of her depths." Qen lay her head on the table and sobbed. "I can't take this, it's too much" they heard her moan.

"It's her legal will" said Yerush, "You absolutely will take it. It will be your nest egg, in case you ever need it. It's how much she loved you, sweetheart."

Which only made Qen cry harder.

Lawa said to Tu, "She was so steadily happy, living here. She told me once, she never expected to love again after aggie. She said despite her useless levvin' legs -- sorry, that's how she put it -- she felt like a young woman again most days, what with the tillage, her grandchildren, her work, and of course Qen."

Moasi nodded. "Well, she's certainly taken all our breath away. I can just hear her laughing now."

Suddenly, Yoj could too.

Halling looked at the final object in the box with trepidation. She pried it up, again being caught off guard by its weight. She unwrapped it carefully, and almost dropped it when she saw what it was. Ng had created her own memorial plaque, cast from clay and decorated with embossing, deep rich colors, and the very best of her engraving skills. It gave her name, the places she had lived, listed her emmas, her partnership to Moasi, her children, and the last line read "Ecstatic lover of Qen." Around the border were the names of all her grandchildren, except for one blank at the lower right-hand corner. Moasi pointed to it, laughing wildly, and said "She just wouldn't give up on me having one more baby! She could fill in that space with a name, if I came through for her."

Buried under and tangled around the lettering were flora and fauna of Skene. It was a peerless work of art. Halling called all the children over to read it and to trace their names. Bux and Yoj began repacking the box, Yoj saying "We'll get you copies of every memento and document as well. And we'll hand out the bequests tonight, after we get back. We're going to be late if we don't get dressed."

Bux put both boxes in her cupboard and locked it. Lawa said to Halling "I just realized, I don't have my dress clothes here, I have to run back to the ejida -- "

"We're the same size, I've got extra, you can have your pick of Bux and Qen's fabulous sewing" said Halling. They went into the bedroom together.

People were changing all over the house. Yoj said "All our boots are muddy, but they'd be that way anyhow, walking through the streets today." Danaan dashed back to her Manage to get dressed; Rark, Iro and Ektr were already in their attire.

Somehow, the misery was lifted. The glimpse into Ng's mind and heart had lifted them into precious memories of her. The viewing lasted for three hours, and Halling was almost overwhelmed at the numbers of people who came, from all over Skene. At the last minute, she carried Ng's plaque with her, and they propped it up on the table beside her, her final accomplishment as an artist.

They came home for a late lunch, with even more food left on their table and counters by folks who had let themselves in. Rark and Danaan took all the children back to their Manage for indoor play after eating, and the adults relaxed, telling endless stories about Ng and Mwezi, finding room to laugh and sometimes sing. At 3:00, the children were brought back, cleaned up, and everyone headed for the jichang. Rark and Danaan were each flying a passenger sinner. Qala rode with the family, and two other passenger sinners -- the entire allotment Skene had -- carried a crowd of pilots to Yanja.

Mill completely broke down when Ng's body was dropped into the magma-fall, and Halling was too distraught to pick her up, so Qala held her as if she were still a baby. Szebel and her entire Manage came. Yoj looked for Nilma or her sibs, and set aside her disappointment when they did not appear. On the flight home, misery overtook them again. Adults hectored the children to eat something besides sweets, but didn't take in much food themselves. Finally, at 8:00, Halling's sibs were escorted back to the jichang by Halling, Yoj, Bux, Mill, and Qala, as well as Rark and Danaan who were flying them home.

"Come back as soon as you can" begged Halling.

"We will. You come to Motu too" said Moasi. They waved at each other through the dripping darkness until the sinner could not even be heard any longer.

Lawa was persuaded to spend another night at the Manage, and they made up a bed on the floor again. This time, the older children were put to bed in the loft without Danaan, but encouraged to come get somebody if they had any need. Yerush told Qen she was absolutely not to return to work the following day, and Qen finally agreed. The forecast was for continued rain, so Halling planned to take a second day off, as well. Yoj encouraged Bux to go in for at least half a day, she would stay with Halling. The children had all expressed an interest in going to school, which was likely the best thing for them.

The next morning, Veida was up early and fed Lawa breakfast before she went back to the ejida. The Manage was awash in food, so getting the children fed was simple. Bux walked them to school before going to the Sheng Zhang's. Yerush decided to stay home, as well. After lunch, she, Halling and Qen went through Ng's clothes, sorting out bundles for each of her children and a small stack to give away to the free clothes bank. Qen kept Ng's schmatta, sealing it in a plastic bag after taking a deep whiff of it and starting to cry. Halling decided the indigo silk celana Ng had worn to their partnering ceremony would fit Mill in a year or two -- Mill was built like Halling from the waist down, not Ng -- and set those aside for her.

Ektr walked over with Ng's linens and quilt, and the bed was remade after being sprinkled with lavender, the way Ng had liked it. Ng's empty clothes chest was put into rafter storage, but the photo of her and Mwezi at their partnering ceremony was left over the bed. Qen announced she would sleep with the little ones in their bed that night and for as many nights as they needed. Yerush kissed her and said "I'll miss you, but I'm glad, for you and for them."

Halling went back to work the next day, Qen the day after that. One or another of the children still cried daily, and Halling's nightmares were frequent. Ng's last batch of ceramics was fired, marveled over, and given out to family members and friends. After a couple of months, her kiln and wheel were bartered for a new couch that folded out into a double bed. They called it Ng's guesthouse, and Lawa slept on it at least once a week, as did Tu and Pank when they came to visit.

Qen told Halling "I am truly your emma now, in all ways, and don't you think otherwise." Halling said "All right. I need you." A month later, on a sunny day Shmonah, the extended family walked up to The Shatters and placed Ng's plaque beside Moasi's. They lived around the gaping hole in their midst, and Bux tried not to feel guilty for still having all her emmas.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.

1 comment:

letsdance said...

so sad....I will miss Ng as will her family. Well written, Maggie, very thoughtful and realistic.