Wednesday, February 8, 2012


[This will likely be Chapter Three 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. Chapters 1 and 2 of Iyabrd can be found in the sidebar labels.]


Two afternoons a week Ngus had a break in classes designed to give her library time. However, it coincided with most of the other students' library time, and she preferred to save her perusal of the stacks for weekends when she wouldn't run across older youths necking or flirting. She detested the whole notion of sex.

Instead, she would flee the U, stopping first at a foodstall which sold fried beancakes with a side of rice and taro dumplings. Beans were not often made in her sibemma Speranz's house, nor were they popular at the U canteen, and Ngus missed them. Her emma Pyosz started a massive pot in the aga slow-cooker every night before bed, changing the kind of bean according to the day of the week. Their aroma was a waking-up memory, linked to Owl Manage.

As she now doused her fresh-from-the-fryer caked in their paper twist with a judicious meander of turskokhat sauce, she wondered why her family ate more beans than others on Skene seemed to. It wasn't for lack of protein on Saya: sinners and capristes meant they had plenty of B vitamins. Pyosz had once said that her habibis had been fond of growing beans -- Ngus thought she meant Lawa and Qala, but she wasn't sure -- and the immediate family had to find ways to metabolize what their tillage provided.

She took a test bite now of one beancake and felt the turskokhat sauce instantly send water to her eyes. Turskokhats were tiny lime-green peppers introduced to Skene by the botaniste when Ngus was a toddler. Their name in Skene meant "sphincter acid", and Ngus had been different from most children in her love of the heat in this condiment. Always different she thought to herself as she ordered a coconut milk drink to go with her meal.

She then ambled to what had become her outdoor spot on Riesig, the southeast point overlooking the Southern Wasa and Yanja to her left, with Peisuo a dark break on the horizon. The jetty where she liked to sit was avoided by others on the island for two reasons: It was within leaping distance of deep water where levs congregated, and it was behind the massive tanks where Riesig's sewage was collected before transport to Abfall for soil creation.

Ngus didn't mind the pong, and liked that it kept others away. The novelty of old Skene's bustle had worn off this semester, and she had begun to ache for the isolation she could easily find on Saya. Isolation in nature she corrected herself. And she was not at all afraid of leviathans. In fact, the constant ululations of their song here at these waters was a draw for her.

Ever since Ngus had been able to leave Owl Manage unattended -- which was earlier than her emmas knew -- she had sought a point above the sea to think out complicated puzzles. There was a good spot north of the Manage, with a bench, and another east of the greenhouse, with a view of the Pea Pods. But the one she liked best was the rock extending most westward on Saya, adjacent to the hot springs, where levsong could be heard any hour of the day or night.

It was funny that everybody called it levsong. She didn't really think it was music, not the way people made music. But then she didn't think birdsong was singing, either. By age five, she had learned all the birdcalls in Pya, and could distinguish between those on Nec, say, from those all the way across Pya on Trumpinne. Minute differences that she now knew to call dialects.

Birds weren't singing, they were talking, really. Saying "This tree is mine" or "The sun is good today" or "I'm lonely", as best she could guess. Every species had a set of phrases -- Abba Neoma speculated it had to do with beak morphology and habitat range -- and a narrow window of available elaboration. Ngus thought this made them like the old folks who sat outside the Koldok Cafe and repeated the same opinions over and over. Not like singing at all.

She did have her wonderful cubicle at the U, right next to a privy and at the end of a hall. But that was nothing like the open space of Pya, where you could pretend it was just you and the wasa, with all the force and mystery of nature moving in and out with every breath.

And levsong could move through a human body like waves and breath as well.

She settled cross-legged on the jetty and alternated bites of beancake and rice dumpling, her eyes fixed on Peisuo. There was an exile at Peisuo right now, a murderer who, rumor had it, was beginning to crack from the strain. Ngus was grateful they had no such island in Pya. She tended to understand rather than judge most things, but she found the idea of exile to be evil.

Thinking about exile set her brooding about the recent loss in her family, the death of Qoj. Qoj’s child Ulodd was Ngus’s favorite cousin, closer to her emotionally than any of Ngus’s actual sibs. Ngus had spent at least one night a week at Ulodd’s house since they had begun school, and leaving Ulodd behind in Pya had wrenched Ngus much more than parting with most of her family.

She had clamored to come home for Qoj’s funeral, throwing an unprecedented tantrum when Pyosz and then Maar had told her flatly “No.” Maar tried to explain about the inability of the huolon to fly that week, with Pyosz audible in the background ranting “No child of mine is climbing on a craft until the new engines are safe”. Which was an empty statement, since Ngus knew Qux was going to be sinning the next morning.

Ngus had begun shrieking in a high voice, “I have to be there for Ulodd!”, stunning Maar into silence and bringing in her sibemma Speranz from outdoors at the Manage in Riesig. Between sobs she heard the radio crackle and then her abba Prl’s voice began talking to her with commiseration. But even after Prl’s reassurance, Ngus had been walking around forcibly removed from her family, and regular calls with Ulodd had only deepened her misery because Ulodd was monosyllabic in her grief.

Ngus finished her coconut drink and set the bottle aside for return. She was scowling at crabs on the rocks below when a burst of levsong seemed to push her nearly backward, coming from yards to her right. As she watched the surface, a cluster of adults and juvies appeared, pinky-grey blobs turned sideways, she guessed, so they could see her best with their slanted rows of eyes. She pointed a finger at them and said “You don’t have to shout, I’m right here.”

A voice from behind her said “Shit my pants, is that what you do out here, talk with monsters?” Ngus wheeled and stared at the shocked face of someone about her age but lustrously dark, almost the purpled black of eggplants, with a buzzed brown frizz and largish ears. Ngus shrugged irritably and replied “What I do out here is my business.” She turned her back to the intruder.

She waited to hear retreating footsteps, but none came. Instead the voice said “They can reach you from there, you know.”

“They don’t” said Ngus shortly. After a pause she said “What do you mean, what I do out here? Are you spying on me?” She turned to squint at the stranger, whom she now realized she’d seen a few times in the halls of the U, on the offices and cubicle floor.

The youth stepped closer, though not to the edge, to Ngus’s secret scorn. “I see you around, I know who you are.” Everybody knows who I am thought Ngus resignedly, the pale Pyan freak who got into the U four years early. The voice surprised her by explaining “My aggie is one of your gakushas. I think you’re her favorite student.”

Ngus wheeled again, this time examining her visitor critically. “You mean Nan Brish?” she said after a minute. “You look like her.” Brish taught cultural geography and occupational vocabulary at the University.

Brish’s child shrugged and said “Yeah, everyone says that. I’m Mbaye, third grader at Skene School.” She leaned her arm around Ngus’s back and grasped her wrist in greeting.

“Have a seat” offered Ngus, half-taunting. After a long scrutiny of the leviathans who were watching them unwaveringly, Mbaye sighed and settled lightly on the jetty, tucking her legs under her in imitation of Ngus as if perhaps that helped keep her safe from attack. She earned points from Ngus by letting them sit in silence for a couple of minutes. She flinched, however, when another wail of levsong hit them, this time from the near right.

Ngus turned and looked in that direction, saying “It hasn’t surfaced yet but it’s talking to the ones in front of us.”

“How do you know that?”

Ngus raised her eyebrows. “Common sense. Hello is hello whatever’s saying it.”

After a hesitation, Mbaye ventured “Aggie says you’re a musical genius.”

Ngus fought the urge to stand and walk away. “So they say” she replied with a bite in her tone.

Mbaye looked undeterred. “So do you understand their music?” She pointed discreetly at the levs, not wanting to draw more of their attention. She gasped as a large adult suddenly surfaced between the jetty and the group of leviathans.

“It’s not music” answered Ngus, and in spite of her irritation, she explained her theory. Mbaye nodded, saying “I only heard birdsong once but it sounds right. When I was little, we visited my cousins in Pya.”

Sharp interest appeared on Ngus’s face. “Where? I mean, where do they live?”

“Pertama. We were there for Lamminsade Fair, and it was the most fun I ever had” said Mbaye with relish in her voice.

Ngus felt seized with longing. Mbaye added “I remember the goat cart, I guess that was your family? I don’t remember you, though.” For some reason that pleased Ngus, to not stand out when among her family.

“I miss the goats” she said softly. “They’re kidding this week, I think, and I won’t get to help name the babies.”

“You could radio them and suggest names” offered Mbaye.

“No, you have to be there and see them come out, or newborn, to know what name suits them” said Ngus sadly. “I’m missing two or three generations of new doelings by being here, I’ll be a stranger to them when I go back.”

“You won’t stay in Skene? Aggie says you could follow any discipline you want” said Mbaye, and this time she regretted the look of anger that flashed in Ngus’s eyes.

“I’m Pyan” said Ngus with a finality which would have made her emmas’ hearts soar if they could have heard it. Remembering to be polite, she added “Not that Riesig is so bad.”

Mbaye pointed across the water. “We live on Yanja. My aggie works here and commutes on the school sinner with me and my sibs. My other two emmas and all my abbas live in Kividall Manage overlooking the Eastern Tendril.”

Ngus’s mind flooded with questions. She began with that intriguing word Kividall, which translated loosely to “making soup from stone”. “Are you family yanjangers, then?”

“One emma, one abba, and various cousins” assented Mbaye, looking bored. “Aggie says she is the only scholar in a world of trades; she expects me to follow her lead.”

“And are you?” asked Ngus.

“Not a gakusha, that’s for sure” said Mbaye. “Since you came along, the pressure has increased.”

“Is that why you’re here, then, seeking me out to make Nan Brish happy with you?” asked Ngus, her face abruptly shuttered.

“Lev, no. I just noticed somebody being crazy enough to come sit between shit and monsters more than once, and I got curious. Last week when it was raining, you weren’t wearing a hat and I recognized you as the one pointed out by someone at the U, the genius from Pya. I wondered why a genius would behave so oddly, is all.” Mbaye’s teasing tone relaxed Ngus completely.

“What’s your answer to that question?” said Ngus, leaning over slightly to bump Mbaye’s shoulder with her own.

“I guess even geniuses can be idiots” retorted Mbaye, finally taking the risk to dangle her legs over the edge of the jetty. “And to answer the question you rudely didn’t ask, yes I am very bright for my age, just not in your category.”

“I’d rather be in your category” said Ngus with more emotion than she meant to express. To distract Mbaye from noticing, she added “What about yanjanging, are you attracted to that as a career?”

“Nope” said Mbaye. “I don’t like the heat. And don’t ask me what I do want to become, I don’t know and that’s years off yet.” Ngus grinned for the first time, her blue eyes sparkling, and Mbaye realized Ngus was beautiful in her own pallid way.

“So, back to your Manage and its view – does it look out over Isola?” asked Ngus.

“Yeah, partly.”

“That island used to be the birthright of one of my ancestors. She gave it back to Skene” said Ngus.

“Really? Why?”

“I don’t remember exactly. She was a great gakusha herself – Nan Yoj” said Ngus shyly. “I remember her from when I was little.”

“The Archivist” breathed Mbaye. “Oh that’s right, aggie talked one night at dinner about all the personages in your family, she has this theory that it all pooled together to create you.”

Ngus let her impatience erupt. “That is shu shit. I’m just me, not a Genist experiment!”

Mbaye formed her hand into the pax sign. “Turn down the aga, there, I don’t care about that folderol either. Clearly, since I’m sitting here risking my life and soaking the offgas of feces into my manteau.”

Ngus’s attention was caught by a subadult leviathan abruptly diving. “Come on” she said, standing fluidly and reaching out a hand to Mbaye. “That’s a juvie up to no good.” Mbaye turned and fled toward safety behind the tanks.

When Ngus caught up with her, chuckling, Mbaye said “Were you fooling me?”

“No, I did get alarmed. But you run like a pullet.”

Mbaye stuck her tongue out at her. Ngus held up her bottle and said “I need to return this, come with?”

Mbaye glanced toward the clocktower beside the University and said “Okay, but then I have to go collect my sibus from the park and meet aggie at the Lofthall for our ride home.”

“I’ll go with you if you promise not to use me to suck up to your aggie” said Ngus with laughter in her voice. Mbaye stuck out her tongue again.

Ngus said “I’ve never been to Yanja.”

“You want to come home with me some time? I mean, if you deign to associate with non-scholars” said Mbaye.

“I’ll risk it” retorted Ngus. “I’d like to see Isola with my own eyes. How many sibs do you have?”

They continued chatting as they walked into Riesig.

Copyright Maggie Jochild 2012


C. Diva said...

Great way to introduce us to levsong! and new characters! We love new characters!
now coconut milk on Riesig....


Margot said...

I spotted the coconut milk, too! Who's looking after Qala's greenhouse these days?

Maggie Jochild said...

I love my sharp-eyed readers. Yes, a few greenhouses have added coconut palms and dates to Skene's food offerings. Thont does part-time ejida work and handles the orchard and greenhouse on Saya, or she did until she gave birth. Now everyone is pitching in until she can haul the baby around with her.