by Tyree Campbell
I never saw my Mother eat. Nor can I recall a hug from her, the taste of her milk, the sound of my suckling. In retrospect I might have guessed the reasons--but when you never have something, how do you know you've been deprived of it? Tempo might have told me. I think he wanted to, that evening of Varianiís Night. But adults never tell the children everything.
Each year Tempo always visited us, a decaday before the harvest. On this particular Variani the man from AgQualCon had also signaled his intent to arrive [inconveniently] around dinnertime. Father had us spread the table for three, and scolded us for our distracted whispering--Elanet having built a peeper into the crawlspace above his cell. Twice before we had tried to eavesdrop while the adults dined, and Father had caught us twice, three years ago, and two years before that, just after Tovaret had been born, giving Kyanet a little sister to doll with, but this new peeper was truly camouflaged. This time Father would never suspect a thing, and perhaps we'd at last discover whatever it was that we were not supposed to know.
The first time I saw Tempo I thought he was a farmhand, like the ones old Didiv has to hire for the harvest, but Father treated him like a longago friend. He had a kind of used look about him, like dried rafter wood, and hardy skin you could finish stone with. Taller than Mother and shorter than Father he was, with short hair blacker than Mother's, and eyes like hers, like blue Rigel on a cold clear night. He always wore those heavy brown bibbers AmText manufactures out on Relay, and boots good for slogging through spring mud, but his were never dirty--or he always cleaned them before he arrived. It would have been his way, he had such an aura about him.
So we spread the table for dinner, and when we thought we were done, Father said to me, "Set one more place for yourself, Mik. You're fifteen now."
Elanet went slack-jawed, terrified I'd betray him, now I was grown just like that. I gulped, and gaped at Father, and I saw in his eyes that he knew.
"Elanet, you take your sisters and go to Kyanet's room. You'll take dinner there tonight."
Elanet shepherded the girls from the dining room, and when they were gone, Father dropped his hand on my shoulder for attention. It felt like cold rock, and I shivered. "Misu Rezen is headed up the glideway, son. Let's go keep him from getting underfoot while your mother sees to the spread."
Another privilege! My leaping heart took up all the play and fought the line as we went outside, off the porch and onto the plankstone walkway and past Mother's buttery globeflowers and indigo doll-eyes and rose-and-cream pogtail lilies and down to the fence, shooing the blue davids off the top rail. Shart, the color of old straw this late in the day, glanced a large diamond off the bow of the skimmer as it passed through the windbreak of spindly candelabra dapplers to the southwest. The light flash sharped my eyes; Father had raised a hand to shield his, anticipating the glint from that angle.
"A new model, I think," he said. "This one's egg blue."
"He had a new one last year, didn't he, Father?"
"He's an administrator."
The skimmer's twin fanblades cycloned loam dust as it drew near. On the bridge stood a figure vaguely familiar, balding with a fringe and a topknot in dull brown, florid, hot in the late Shart summer. His pastel green outsuit looked travel-weary, matching his expression. He downdocked beside Mother's crimson chromatias along the fence, the left skirt crushing several thick polyblossoms. A scent like burnt honey wafted past us and died in the light breeze.
"Zuv," said the man from AgQualCon, nodding to Father. He did not offer the customary wave of greeting.
"Misu, my oldest boy Mik. Mik, this is Misu Rezen of Agriculture Quality Control."
"Not three years ago you were Mikket," said our guest. His tone added that he did not see much difference between then and now.
He came to a stop on the other side of the fence and crossed his arms on the top beam, a neighbor who had come to chat. Father did not seem to mind him taking the liberty. Misu Rezen gestured toward a cultivated plot on the other side of the glideway that extended to the grassy foothills that guarded the southern boundary of our holding. His tone was both critical and curious.
"How many consecutive years have you planted fabiola beans there?"
"We let it fallow last year, Misu" Father said patiently. "And the third year before that."
Misu Rezen harrumfed. "Plant two and fallow one. The medieval system."
"Sometimes the old ways serve us best, Misu."
"But you aren't on Earth, Zuv. You're only a descendant."
"Second generation. And Mik represents the third."
"Earth abides, yes, I know." Misu Rezen produced a white cloth and proceeded to wipe the sweat from his forehead and dome. "Things change, Zuv. Maybe you don't see that. You're still just a colonist. Born here, live here, die here. You've never been off the land, except to the Post Exchange."
"I can see the mountains from here just fine," said Father. "They were there when I was born, and they will be there when I die. I don't expect they'll change much during my passing."
Shading his eyes, Misu Rezen glanced up. His hands helped him speak. "That sun burns the rock. Wind burnishes it. Frost shatters it. Rain moves it. Those mountains are doomed, Zuv."
"That plot is for fabiola beans," said Father.
Misu Rezen tightened his lips. I think he wanted to insist on a point, but as long as we provided the full annual crop the land was ours to till as we wished.
"How is Pinpo?" he asked instead, too late.
"Inside, spreading dinner. We're awaiting a guest."
"Ah, yes. Variani's Night. In honor of the first woman to be impregnated here on Skadany. By a ghost of the previous inhabitants of this world, now extinct, if I recall the legend correctly." Misu Rezen fleered at Father. "Whatever happened to equinoxes and solstices and associated spirits? Why no chants and candles and garlands?"
"We mark those events, Misu Rezen. But isn't it cause for the most joy, when the seeds take root?"
Misu Rezen made a little sound deep in the back of his throat, and opened the gate, unbidden, to enter the yard. In midstride he stopped, staring at the house. I turned around. A man garbed in brown bibbers was standing on our front porch, in front of the whitewashed set-a-spell Elanet had built last year, waiting for us to notice him.
Father clapped his hands together with a solid report. "Ah, Tempo has arrived. Now we can eat."
Tables are not made to seat five evenly. The youngest, I sat near a corner, at an angle to everyone, who had to turn their heads to meet my eyes. Parents never, ever tell you everything you want to know. Certainly in my tender years I missed nuances and obscurities that experience might have interpreted for me. Grown now, I find my memory nestled in stubborn weeds, and even certainties are clouded. But I recall that Tempo did not partake of dinner, receiving only the traditional stoneware mug of mead, which he set before him like a plate. When dishes and seasonings were requested, he passed them on, but took nothing for himself. He listened with a guest's courtesy to Misu Rezen, who had shifted his focus from fabiolas to licopas, our main and money crop.
"Not satisfactory at all," the man from AgQualCon was complaining, between bites. Fascinated by Tempo, I scarcely heard him. "Many of the licopas you shipped were infested with something that altered their taste and caused a slight discoloration." He punctuated his points with short stabs of his fork. "Two years ago we were alerted to several cases of licopa sauce that had been returned as spoilage. We conducted the usual tests, and found no biodegradation. No processing error could account for the alteration of taste and color. Ingredients were consistent, in type and in proportion. As the sauce is the primary medium for common cuisine throughout the Amphictyony, AmFoodCor was concerned, having gone to great effort and expense to assure consumers a reliable uniformity of taste and piquance. A complaint was lodged with AmAgCor."
Father raised a small plate of fuzty ochres, sliced and laid out around the circumference, a dollop of thick herbed cream in the middle, and offered it to Misu Rezen. At first the visitor waved off the interruption, but upon inspection he allowed
himself a sampling, forking two slices onto his plate and a third into his mouth.
"When the spoilage occurred again last year, we were able to isolate the source to a particular sector...this sector, and specifically to a cluster of holdings..." His voice trailed off, and his tongue began to worry loose a flake of skin that had become lodged between two teeth. "This has an unusual taste," he said clumsily. "Tart, yet uncommonly sweet. What is it, if I might ask?"
"A licopa," answered Father.
Misu Rezen sputtered. "But that's impossible! Besides, licopas are bright red."
"Not all." Father pointed to another plate, with pale blue slices. "These are Nangy's Eyes, the brown ones in that basket on the counter behind you--would you serve our guest, Mik?--are called scorms. Had you come just after the solstice, you might have been treated to sweet cyanips and rutilant winx."
With a visible effort Misu Rezen regained his composure. "You will please explain yourself, Misu," he said. "What have you done with the licopa seeds AmAgCor allots you each season?"
His low, hostile tone was unforgivable at the dinner table, but Father overwhelmed the offense with a smile. "Outside we spoke briefly of the old ways, Misu Rezen. Farmers used to hold back a small portion of the crop for the next year's seeds. But your hybrids produce sterile seed, for no better reason than to prevent farmers from doing just that. Allots, you say? We pay for that seed, Misu."
Misu Rezen flicked his eyes to the scorms. "And did you pay for that seed as well?"
"It was given him," answered Tempo. All eyes turned to look at him, and he continued. "Licopas grow almost anywhere, Misu Rezen, but here they are native. Here the seeds have been preserved, and handed down from generation to generation. It is
possible that some of these licopas found their way into the harvest."
"And what is it that you do, Misu Tempo, if I may ask?"
"Tempo, please. And I tend my gardens."
"Perhaps some of your produce has also 'found its way' into the harvests sold to AmAgCor."
"My harvest is...of another seed." Very adroitly Tempo directed attention from Father to Mother. "Elanet has grown this past year." There was a slight hesitation after the remark, as if he wanted to insert a name--her name.
"He has begun to show some skill at working with wood," she informed him.
Tempo smiled warmly at Father. "The talent would seem to come from his mother's side."
Mother looked down at her plate, which sparkled in the glow from the ceiling panels. Her skin reminded me of a pink denda on the first day of sunlight.
"That's true enough," said Father, slightly embarrassed. "My own skills leave me prying splinters from my fingers."
Involuntarily I glanced at a corner of the ceiling. But Elanet's gift was carpentry, not deception.
"And Mik?" asked Tempo, startling me from thoughts of the offense I'd planned with Elanet. I lowered my eyes to him, and realized that he was still looking at Mother.
I cleared my throat to speak, and Tempo cocked an ear in my direction, though his gaze never wavered from Mother.
"I will attend the lyceum in Tondopekie and study philosophy and mathematics. Perhaps I shall teach. And one day, I will go into space, to see what there is to be seen."
"A dream of space. Another gift from your motherís side, I think. But that is an ambitious undertaking, Mik---"
"Bah!" spat the man from AgQualCon. He jabbed at an errant bean with his fork. "You need no higher mathematics to count bushels or to balance accounts. Philosophy will not gain you a deeper understanding of licopas. Your education is already sufficient, young Mik, provided that you plant the crops you are directed to plant."
Tempo shrugged. "Philosophy enables one to regard the Universe that only mathematics can describe. His studies are fundamental."
"But superfluous. He is a farmer, nothing more. Already he has risen to his proper station. Perhaps you should tend to your gardens, Misu Tempo," added Misu Rezen, unforgivably.
"Yes, of course. Mik, forgive my inquiry, but have you given any thought to someone for a wife to be husband to?"
Midday Shart struck my face. I managed a vague response.
"I see. If you will permit this intrusion, there is a girl in Sendabout I would ask that you meet. Her name is Klaronet. She is, I believe, thirteen, and not uncomely."
"If you say so, then: yes, I agree to meet her."
Abruptly the man from AgQualCon pushed his plate away. "In the future, Zuv, please see that these, ah, varieties of licopas do not find their way into the marketable harvest. I do not approve, of course, but current regulations do not prohibit you from growing whatever you wish for your own consumption. Were I you, I would not jeopardize that liberty."
"In my view," said Tempo, "the sauce is bland, the new ingredients an improvement."
Misu Rezen glared at him. "People rely on that sauce and that flavor. It is what they want, what they have come to expect. Instability diminishes profits. Nobody wants that." With a grimace and a sigh he stood up and said, too late, "Pinpo, dinner was superb."
"It's already dark," said Father. "You are welcome to spend the night."
"I have other errands, Zuv. Yours was not the only holding we traced back to. Good night. I'll see myself out."
Although I still had food on my plate, Father declared the dinner at an end after Misu Rezen departed. While Father took meals to Kyanet's room, Tempo and Mother stepped outside to the porch. As I began placing dishes in the sink, I realized that Tempo had not touched a drop of mead. I hurried out to the porch, and found it unoccupied. The light was off. In the darkness I scanned about for him and Mother.
Presently I spotted them down by the chromatias Misu Rezen had crushed. Wisps of white fog swirled around them like dustyjohnnies to a flame. To me it seemed Tempo and Mother merged somehow, for a fleeting moment. They became--not one, but as one, like a touch of dawn on dew. And then there was only Mother, standing at the fence, staring off at the stars above the guardian hills.
I ran inside, the door banging shut behind me. Father had just emerged from Kyanet's room. He seemed unperturbed by my agitated state. "I saw Mother!" I gasped. "Mother and Tempo!"
"Only your mother is out there," Father said calmly.
"Yes, yes, I saw that, too!" Something caught in my throat as I gaped at him. "You know!"
"Let's pass a moment on the porch, Mik."
Mother was gone by the time we reached the set-a-spell. Father sat down, but I leaned out over the rail, searching the darkness for fog. Chimera, or substance? When you see things you are not meant to see, do you truly see them?
"What do you see?" asked Father.
I was looking for a dark mass: the discarded brown bibbers and black boots. If my eyes had been truthful to me, Tempo's clothing had to be out there somewhere. Fog needs not a stitch.
I did not turn around. "What did I see, Father?"
"As much as you might have seen through Elanet's peephole."
Boards creaked; Father had stood up. Presently I felt him draw up beside me. For a long time I heard only the sound of my breathing and his. Parents never, ever tell you everything. Some things you are expected to discover on your own, and interpret them as best you can.
"Klaronet, Tempo said."
I felt Father smile. "When would you like to meet her?"
"Is she like Mother?"
"She has Tempo's benediction."
"And what I want for myself, Father? What of that?"
"I am certain you also have Tempo's benediction."
Beyond the carpet of precious flowers and triumphant fabiolas loomed the guardian hills, their slopes my catapault to the stars. In the dark I could distinguish little, recognizing everything from day memory. Misu Rezen had been right in one respect. Things die, change, move on. The body dies--individual, or entire species--but the spirit remains, as forever as the Nangy's Eyes.
Father's arm slipped around my shoulders. Even now, on the bridge of my 'skip as I gaze at the blackness of space spangled with so many new, glistening seeds, I can feel him beside me, watching me, watching over me, with Tempo and Mother ever present in Klaron, our destinies revitalized. For as long as there are seeds for blue licopas and dustyjohnnies and pogtail lilies and dreams, nothing can ever truly die.
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