Sunday, October 9, 2011


[This may be Chapter One of a new Skene novel, following both Skene and Pya. You will need to open several auxiliary files to understand some of the terminology and characters if you have not yet read the first two books. Check my Labels in the sidebar for Skene/Pya Glossary, Skene Lineage Chart, and the basic introduction to this science fiction world. For the rest of you, this action starts about a decade following the epilogue of Pya. Maar and Pyosz are both about 40 years of age. And please give feedback.]


It was so cold Pyosz felt a shock stepping outdoors. Rain had stopped at midnight, leaving rimed puddles and a slippery crunch underfoot. She was glad of her sheepskin-lined gloves, not only for herself but also for the few non-pregnant doelings she had to milk this time of year. The rest of her herd was either rambunctious kids or very gravid emmas-to-be, whose bulbous sides barely seemed to fit in the stalls.

She felt a little guilty driving them out to pasture, but they needed the air and graze, however reluctant they felt. She left her cans of milk in a row beside the feedbox, where Thleen was already hoisting them into a small cart. They were silent dawn workers, she and Thleen, each occupied with their own goat-related contract to Pya. Thleen didn't have the new baby, Pothl, born from Thont, strapped in a yameen to her back as she did most mornings. Pyosz assumed it was because of the freeze outside.

She wanted to ask Thleen how she kept peace with her official partner Ziri while having a child with Thont, but it felt too personal in the close crowded quarters of Owl Manage. Pyosz was also feeling out of touch with Maar, who had been insanely busy lately dealing with the recent loss of a lighter and an experienced pilot.

Pyosz skittered away from that crash and all its attendant tragedy. She let the lead goat, Mildew (Killer's great-granddaughter, she always reminded herself), select a spot she deemed suitable for the herd that morning. She followed them out into the pasture, reluctant to return to an always cacophonous breakfast table in the Manage. She pulled her cap far down, wrapped herself tightly in her new grey manteau, and squatted despite protesting knees to conserve her own body heat. One yearling came to lean companionably against her for a while as the sun rose high enough to hint at a warmer day, though Pyosz retained her doubts.

She didn't realize she was scowling until her cheeks began to ache from the unused muscles overlaid by cold. She rubbed her face smooth and returned to brooding. On top of all else (don't think about that right now, she warned herself), her best friend Jinya had visited her at the studio yesterday afternoon to confide news Pyosz had later decided she'd rather not have heard. Jinya's oldest child, Raki, was partnered with Pyosz's firstborn, Qux, which had consolidated the kinship they felt to each other. Pyosz still struggled at times with the grief she felt at Qux no longer living on Saya Island. Qux would inherit Grasak Island with Raki, and her destiny lay there, visible across the kuono from Saya.

But visible wasn't the same as having her grinning Qux's face under the same roof. And she hated that Qux had followed Maar into sinning. Especially --

She wrenched her thoughts away again. She reminded herself that despite her responsibilities elsewhere, Qux managed to stop by almost every day for a few minutes, tying at the dock one of Raki's speedboats from her transit business around the Pea Pods, between Dvareka and Hamsa. And Pyosz always sent something of Saya home with Qux -- her breads or pies, jams, honey, or Thleen's djoste. She proclaimed them gifts for Raki, now in her third trimester, but underneath was her desire to still be the one who fed her own child.

Thinking of Qux puttering up to the dock reminded her of the fight Merrl had picked with Qux two days ago, shouting at her that her speedboat mooring sometimes block the ferry from Dvareka. Merrl had threatened to ram the smaller boat next time it was in her way, and Qux had flown into an uncharacteristic rage, screaming if she damaged Raki's property she'd call out the Ethicist to extract damages from Merrl's salary as an administrator at the Polytechnic. Maar had not been home, and there were no elders now to wade in to dispense peace. Pyosz didn't think of her emma, Prl, as an elder, although in fact she was.

Eventually Ziri had handed off her 2-year-old to wide-eyed Lawoj and waded into the fracas, accusing Merrl of displaying territoriality -- a taboo on Skene -- and telling Qux to stop acting like she was Raki's plaything. They had separated, now pissed at Ziri, and in the subsequent silence both babies began crying.

Pyosz shifted her squatting weight from one side to the other, making sure her manteau stayed tucked into her otos instead of settling on the icy ground. She could tell Mildew and the other emmas-to-be were not pleased with the grass they were finding, giving her sidelong looks which seemed to suggest Pyosz could make warm mash in the barn and fill the ricks with hay instead. Pyosz ignored them. She was now head of the capriste guild for all Skene, alternating election each year with her cousin Vants. What she didn’t know about goats wasn’t worth knowing.

Her thoughts returned to what Jinya had told her, insisting she not share it with anyone else yet, even Maar: Jinya and her partner were seriously discussing taking a third into their partnership, an old friend named Dero who had recently become a left-behind. They all loved each other and the balance seemed possible.

Three-way partnerships were common on Skene, though not as common in Pya itself for reasons which the gakushas loved to speculate about. Pyosz had not held a strong opinion about which she preferred until she had fallen in love with Maar, and then her need to have Maar to herself became ferocious. Since then, she had felt occasional discomfort when witnessing women she knew working out the dynamics of a trio, and she avoided conversation about it. Now, two of her closest friends were bringing it right into her family, and the best she had been able to give Jinya was attentive listening with a neutral face. Even that had drained her energy.

She ached for Yoj right now, someone she could ask about what it really meant and felt like, who would not be disappointed at her prejudice. She could not remember a time when her abba Yoj had been disappointed in her. She felt a few tears spill down her cheek, instantly leaving unpleasantly cold tracks.

She shifted her weight again, wiping her cheek with a gloved palm, and her gaze took in the kissing gate. She focused on a blur of red halfway up the bars of the gate, and realized it was Szeko, the two-year-old, trying to work the latch. With a sigh, she stood, hearing her knees creak in that new troubling way, and strode toward the gate. Before she reached Szeko, the child began yelling “Abba, abba, you missed breakfast!” She saw half a piece of jammy toast in the child’s grubby mitten, waved at her triumphantly.

Pyosz’s mood melted a little. This child seemed as eager to feed Skene as Pyosz and Maar both, and maybe she would become the Saya Island capriste when Pyosz had to retire, keeping Owl Manage in the family. Certainly her other descendants show no inclination: Merrl liked being a balky bureaucrat at the Polytechnic and never dated the same person for more than a couple of tempestuous months. Lawoj only wanted to read and play Gongtong, it seemed. Precocious Ngus had hied off to the University in Skene, and her rare letters home were at times bewildering. Thleen would never take on slaughtering goats, and Qux – well, Qux had been nabbed by Grasak. And the Lofthall, blast it all to magma.

So Pyosz was now pinning her hopes on babies. She scooped Szeko up and balanced the toast on a fencepost as she tucked the toddler under her own manteau, sharing the neck-hole with her. A doeling who had followed her managed to steal the toast while Pyosz was occupied, and when Szeko spied this, she burst into wails.

“Ssh, ssh, it’s alright, she’s about to have babies and she needs the jam” Pyosz murmured as she carried Szeko back to the herd. “When I go back into the Manage, you can butter me a warm piece of toast, yes?” She squatted again and let Szeko sit on the lap this made, her hips now protesting as well as her knees. A couple of the younger goats came to nibble at Szeko’s red cap, and Pyosz shooed them away.

“Why you out here?” asked Szeko.

“I’m a capriste, and I feel like something is up with my goats. Before the week is out, one of them will kid, but it could be as early as today or tonight” said Pyosz. “Kid means having a baby goat, a kid” she added at the look on Szeko’s face.

“Who?” asked Szeko, twisting her face around in the neck-hole.

Pyosz gave voice to what her gut had been telling her. “Bolt. I think Bolt will be first. That’s her over there, with the black face and a white streak on it? I think I’ll name her baby Flood, if it’s the right color.”

“Fud” repeated Szeko, with a smug tone. Pyosz kissed the side of her head and whispered “This can be your herd someday, if you want it.”

“Okay” said Szeko. She burped lightly and wrapped her fingers around Pyosz’s wrist under the manteau. They kept chatting about the goats for several more minutes, until a high voice reached them from the gate: “Abba! We’ve lost Szeko, come help!”

Pyosz stood up, this time groaning at the jolt to her joints, and faced the gate so Szeko’s siba, 10-year-old Thiri, could see her. Thiri made an exasperated face and gave an imperious “Come here” sign in their direction.

Pyosz’s sour mood returned. She carried Szeko as far as the slope up to the gate, where Thiri had opened it and glared down at them. She set the wriggling toddler on the ground and let her surge up the small hill under her own power: Szeko was adamant on doing things herself.

Pyosz said sarcastically “It’s nice somebody in the Manage missed her. She’s been out here at least 20 minutes, roaming around on the coldest day we’ve had.”

Thiri flared at her “Why didn’t you bring her back, then?” At that moment Szeko slipped on the mud and slid down backwards, somehow scraping her forehead on a chip of frozen rock. The sobbing face she turned to Pyosz had streams of blood on it already, but after quick examination, Pyosz said “It’s a small cut, she’ll be all right. Take her to Ziri.” She handed Szeko over to a shocked Thiri and returned to the pasture, scowling at the fresh blood droplets on her new manteau.

She gave herself another half hour before hunger pushed her back to the eastern end of Saya. Even then, unwilling to face domestic drama just yet, she stopped in at the djostiker building they’d added when Thleen took over those duties. Thleen was sieving cooked milk, pulling out curd, her face red and sweaty. Pyosz helped herself to a wedge of yesterday’s product, along with a mug of tea and some of the crackers Thleen kept on hand for customers. She sat on a cooling box and ate silently.

Brushing crumbs from her lap onto Thleen’s immaculate floor, she remarked “That eldest of yours can be a real snot.” Thleen raised orange eyebrows and decided not to reply. Pyosz added “And she doesn’t get any of that from you.” Thleen grinned at her and said, “No. But some is from you.” Pyosz began laughing, and Thleen joined her. After that, Pyosz pushed herself upright and headed for home.

The seven-year-old, Aleqa, was on the porch hammering at nail heads in the wood. “No new nails, no pulling anything out” Pyosz reminded her.

“Will you come play with me?” pleaded Aleqa.

“I can’t, it’s about to get very hectic for me. But I’ll call around the cousins and see if I can find a playmate for you this afternoon” offered Pyosz. “Put your gloves back on, even timmers hammer with gloves on this time of year.”

Inside the Manage, Ziri was holding a still-sniffling Szeko while trying to warm a bottle for the baby. “How did this happen?” she demanded of Pyosz. Pyosz took the toddler back in her arms and explained succinctly, ignoring Ziri’s exclamations. Szeko said “We make toast now?” Pyosz considered and said “I need a bit more, yes. You sit here on the counter while I slice bread and fry some bacon. You want another piece?”

“Wif honey?” said Szeko, fluttering her black eyelashes.

“Sure” said Pyosz, followed by a snort from Ziri.

“Where’s Thont?” Pyosz asked.

“Sleeping” said Ziri in a clipped voice. Pyosz unwillingly remembered the days when there were plenty of elders to hold babies or entertain toddlers. “I miss Qala today” she said aloud without meaning to.

Ziri glanced at her, and said in a kinder voice “I’ve always regretted her not getting to see Aleqa before she passed.”

Aleqa, her and Thleen’s child, had been born one month to the day after Qala died. Pyosz remembered that the next day, as Thleen had held her new baby, she began weeping and said “I know it’s not logical, but I think she resembles Qala.”

Pyosz had been startled, because she’d had the same thought. Ziri, sitting up in bed, had said “Maybe Qala’s spirit distilled itself from the wasa and came back to be breathed in as Aleqa was born. She could be looking up at you right now.”

Pyosz was furious about this particular superstition and wanted to snap it off like a bean, but Thleen’s face looked so hopeful, she let it slide.

Now Szeko asked “Who died before me?”

Everybody thought Pyosz. She said “Too hot to pick up yet, sweetcakes, let it cool a little more. Here, let’s get the honey out instead.”

They ate at the breakfast bar, Pyosz calling Vants on the radio as Szeko chewed. “I think Bolt may go as early as tonight” she said.

“Two days early” observed Vants. “But the cold will do that. She look like she’s dropped?”

“Yeah. How about yours?” She and Vants had bred their herds four days apart so there would be some extra help available at the ends of the birth cycles.

“Mebbe Grunter, she tends to go early. But call me if you need help,” said Vants.

“Same to you” said Pyosz.

“Well, I’ve got Lehen” reminded Vants. It was not meant to be snarky, Pyosz knew, but it still irritated her, this reminder that her own partner did not share in her vocation. She had completely forgotten their early years together, when Maar slept in the barn with her during kidding, before Maar became Sheng Zhang of the Lofthall.

She called Herne Island next and got her cousin Chank. She left a message for Chank’s emma, Ulcha, the veterinarian they all used. As she was clicking off, looking with dismayed resignation at the honeyed fingerprints left all over the breakfast bar by Szeko, the front bedroom door opened and Prl emerged from her room, followed by Neoma. Neither looked groggy, and Pyosz thought perhaps they had been up for a while, barricaded behind a locked door.

Well, Sju is the one day of the week they sleep in Pyosz told herself. Prl went straight to the privy but left the door open so Szeko, scrambling in her direction and shouting “Habibi!”, could mar Prl’s clean clothing with sticky hands. Neoma came to kiss Pyosz’s cheek and take the now-fed Pothl from Ziri for burping.

“Oh, you smell so good” she murmured into the baby’s neck. Aleqa came in the front door, sans hammer, and yelled to Pyosz “Did you find somebody to play with me?”

“Not yet” said Pyosz. “Put the hammer away.” Aleqa went back out, leaving the door standing open until her return.

Neoma said “We’re going to Talaba after lunch, we could take her to visit my little ones there.” Aleqa shouted “Yes!” which startled the baby. Prl took Szeko directly to the sink to wash her hands, and asked “Yes, what?”

“I said we’d take these two with us.” Her nod included Szeko. Ziri said with relief “That would be a blessing.”

Prl frowned briefly. “I had promised Dodd we’d eat lunch with her on the way, but I suppose that will work. If Dodd needs to talk privately…” She didn’t finish but looked at Neoma meaningfully. Neoma replied “Of course. We’ll go visit the Lofthall, see if we can visit Maar.”

Pyosz did not want to be part of this conversation. She left the mess on the breakfast bar and stalked into the bath room to start washing all the milking rags she’d brought from the barn. They’d need every rag and sack they could find, once kidding started. As she ran the washer crank, she distracted herself by trying to come up with more names for the three dozen new goats who would arrive soon. Well, at least the ones I won’t have to slaughter in four months she thought.


Jen said...

So good to be back on Saya Island, even though Pyosz is having a no-good, very-bad day and aching in so many ways. I did feel all the aches with her, and wondered (as always) what's to come...!

C. Diva said...


Blue said...

It is good to be back on Saya. Well done, as always. Are there sheep on Skene, for sheepskin gloves?

Maggie Jochild said...

There are sheep. The two small islands just east of Verzin in Skene are sheep-based islands, and there are similar sheep farms in Pya. Guibbas are lined with sheepskin, and Pyosz went to help with shearing during her first year on Pya.

Yes, Pyosz is dealing with a load. Soon to be revealed.

It IS good to have her and the place back in my head. Even without those original characters I love so effin' much, and all those demanding little ones. And the disillusionment of raising children to be whoever they are, then discovering they want to live in a realm where you are not the center of their universe. The suckiness of being the parent of adults.