A JOLLY HOLIDAY
The thing I miss most about Castle Misne is awakening each morning to the same blurry view of the flared edge of bulkhead by my head where the cot met the cabin, my plastic blue diary resting in the corner with its eye casting a feeble glow into the mattress.
It was not a magnificent view, but it was consoling in its regularity. Aside from my time in the hospital it was the only period in my life in which I have slept in the same place for more than one night.
Thus, it was with a kind of pre-emptive nostalgia that I considered the polished wooden edge of the nightstand as I awoke. I smelled the heavy, warm air moved by the slowly turning ceiling-fans. I heard the pizzicato chirps and warbling laments of the birds and other assorted Solar bric-a-brac living in the trees outside.
As my eyes and mind focused I considered that this flavor of morning would not seem strange to me for long. I could expect to wake up here over and over again, for weeks or even months and years...
My weird nostalgia flipped to a feeling of suffocation. I sat up in bed quickly, my pulse beating in my temples.
A small yellow lizard was perched on the end of the bed. We regarded one another for a moment, its intricate little eyes as still as a robot's. I blinked, and the lizard scurried across the sheets and disappeared over the side of the bed in a single quick flutter of movement.
Pish slept on beside me. I looked up and met Jeremiah's impassive eyes as he stood by the door, hands at his sides. I suddenly felt like the bedroom was the last place I wanted to be.
In the closet I found a blue silken dressing gown, which I donned and then wandered out into the upper hall. Omar was jogging up the spiral staircase. "Goodmorning, Mr. Fell!" he called, his bass voice booming jovially. "Did you sleep well?"
"Sure," I said, looking around at the creative holographs framed between the doors, depicting fanciful creatures half-human and half-beast (perhaps camels) enjoying some sort of sport with bows and arrows. Warm sunlight streamed in through windows on the opposite wall, casting blurry holographic shadows down the wainscoting. "Where've you been, Omar?"
"Keeping the feeders back from the front gate has me fairly busy, sir."
"The news media," he explained. "Some guy from Annapurna sold his story to the subscription networks claiming your memory's been erased, and that he saved your life in a shoot-out with bandits."
"Greskin," I said, rubbing my chin thoughtfully and chuckling.
"That's right, Greskin Mile. He actually met you?"
"Lizards to lies," I confirmed.
"Pardon me, sir?"
"Greskin Mile did indeed save our lives, Omar," I said. "This is of interest to anyone?"
"It's of interest on Maja. You're a very prominent citizen, Mr. Fell, especially around Summer Festival because of all the funding Fellcorp contributes." He cleared his throat awkwardly. "We're sponsoring the Ladies' Sumo Basho this year, and I believe we provided the floats in the Nyambe Blossom March last Starday."
"Ah." I tightened the sash on my robe. "My wife mentioned something about a picnic..."
"Yes, Mr. Fell. I'm here to show you to the men's wash-hall, get you dressed, and to have you downstairs for nine o'clock." His eyes flicked over to mine uncomfortably. "This is normally the sort of thing little people would help you with, but, seeing as you have no Sign, sir..."
I nodded. "Right. I understand." As he led me down the hall I added, "What's that in Sign? 'I understand'?"
Omar tapped his index finger to his head in a brisk, snappy motion, and then did it again more slowly as I tried it with him. "Not bad," he said. "You'll catch on, Mr. Fell."
"What is 'I understand' in Soshi?" I asked.
We turned a corner, and Omar motioned me through a wide set of white double-doors. "Man, don't ask me, sir," he said with an apologetic shrug. "I was born in the Archird Joviat -- we speak Kawelu at home. My wife speaks passable Soshi but I'm hopeless, sir."
"Then you don't speak Soshi with Madam Fell...?"
"No way, sir. That would be inappropriate. My family doesn't live here, Mr. Fell. This is your house."
We passed through the doors into a round, tiled spa with a thin sheet of water cascading down one side -- a private waterfall swallowed by a gutter shaped like the gaping maw of a tortoise. There were mosaics of lizards on the floor, and a squadron of real, living lizards darting out of our way as we entered. "I have so much to learn," I sighed, unbelting my robe.
Omar cast his eyes away quickly. "You should just wait until I'm done showing you everything, please, sir." He coughed awkwardly. "Add this to your list: Maja has a strong nudity taboo when it's not festival time. Um, sir."
"Oh," I exclaimed, retying my robe. "I'm sorry!"
It was funny to see the forboding, bear-sized man cowering on account of the possibility of seeing a pale cheek of my ass, but I tried not to smile as he regained himself and turned around with a neutral expression forced over his chocolate features. "Okay now," he rumbled, "I'll show you how to call the soap."
The master bedroom was wide and sunny, though I passed through it only briefly on the way to a closet which was really a room unto itself. I eyed the rows of unfamiliar, itchy-looking outfits suspiciously but what Omar withdrew from the rack suited me just fine. "These are traditional Homeday robes, sir. Once you put them on we'll get a little person in here to tie the sash properly."
And so I was presented in the main hall to my wife: freshly shaven of face and shorn nearly bald of pate; washed within an inch of my life and perfumed like a girl; small circles of red painted on either cheek; barefoot and enwrapped in a many-layered but somehow light swaddling of silky purple robes sashed at the shoulder.
She grinned. "My dear Nestor Simonithrat, how dashing you look."
Jia herself had abandoned her severe black dress in favour of an armless white shift, her bare feet and forearms painted with swirling lines of henna. Her cheeks bore twin circles of red and her dark hair hung loosely behind her shoulders, two clips shaped like beetles above her rouged ears.
"Jia Hazinnah, your beauty astounds me."
We bowed to one another and then hooked arms and walked outside, where little people were arranging baskets that hung over the sides of the rumps of two sleek, short-haired humpless camels. Jia traced my gaze and giggled. "Do you know horses, Nestor Simonithrat?"
The animals were elegant in a way the camels of the Thither Sea had not been -- almost aerodynamic in their well-proportioned contours -- and there was a grace and sensitivity about their eyes the camels had never shown. One of the horses snorted, flicking its ears toward me as I stepped closer. "So, are these horses to carry our provisions?"
"Yes," smiled Jia, "and us as well."
I furrowed my brow, and in reply she hopped up upon the creature's back and straddled it, her bottom resting on a kind of curved leather seat. She reached forward and patted the beast's muscled neck tenderly. "Mother of love!" I exclaimed. "The horses allow this?"
"Certainly," said Jia. "Your turn now."
With assistance from the incredibly strong hands of several little people I was propelled upon the curved seat upon the back of my horse, instinctively crouching low and flinging my arms around its neck. I gasped as the beast shifted its weight liquidly beneath me for a moment, finding a new point of comfort. The little people hooted and chortled in a way that I knew instantly was laughter among their kind. I raised my head carefully until I could see Jia over the spine of dark hair that fringed the top of the horse's neck. "All set," I claimed.
Jia clicked at her steed with her tongue and it set off. My horse turned to follow sedately, and I pressed my knees into its sides to keep my balance. I slowly allowed myself to sit up straighter until I could see the swishing tail of the horse in front of us over my own mount's ears. Jia looked back over her shoulder and called, "How do you do, Nestor Simonithrat?"
"Like I was born to it, Jia Hazinnah," I replied, frowning suddenly as the horse stepped over a low stone wall, causing me to hitch forward in alarm. "Lovely day," I mentioned.
The sky was clear and green. The tall, spindly, flower-like trees swayed only slightly in the warm breeze. As usual the air was filled by the sounds of dozens of unseen creatures, clicking and buzzing and singing from the bushland beyond the mowed borders of the estate.
Her horse found a well-trod path that meandered through the dense bush for a quarter hour before opening up into a grassy field. My mount followed hers across the field to a shallow stream, and then stopped in the shade of a tall, ropey tree with curious leaves that hung in long, vertical lines through which the breeze was sussurussing.
Jia hopped down from horseback deftly, and I myself fell off suavely. She laughed and helped me to my feet, then she told the beasts they were free to graze, whistled at them, and slapped them on the shining hair of their rears. The sleek quadrupeds wandered a short distance away and began mawing the grass, tails flicking lazily.
We lay down a square of cloth, and unloaded our provisions upon it. Jia opened a slender-necked bottle of chilly wine, and poured it into two glasses. "You know," she said as she sipped her drink, "I think I like you better this way."
"How's that?" I asked. I sampled the wine. Sweet, but well textured.
"It used to be that you were the dapper one," she explained. "You used to jump on that horse with a cavalier flourish that made my mount look quite pedestrian, really. But now I have the grace of experience, while you're the one who tumbles." She laughed in a friendly way. "And I'm not sure your pride could have swallowed it, before."
"I have become accustomed to erring," I admitted.
She smiled again, a movement that affected her eyes as much as her cheeks and mouth and chin. "That's what I mean," she said softly. "Nestor tempered by failure is a Nestor I might like better...Simon."
"You called me Simon."
"Well," she replied, turning away from me and rummaging through one of the baskets, "maybe a new you isn't such a bad thing. Maybe everything I fell in love with is still there. Maybe what we've lost was mainly pomp and kipple."
We talked for many hours, Jia and I. She told me all about her childhood spent attending the weddings and the funerals of the rich and famous, as her father and his husband were celebrated florists and mould engineers. I asked to hear about how we had first met, but she only smiled demurely and said, "Let's pretend we met yesterday, why don't we? Because in a way, we did."
She explained to me her present work on the Maja Council for the Arts, reviewing proposals from artists all over the globe applying to fulfill commemorative sculpture or holograph contracts for the cause of the Recovery. "Some people have a very morbid idea of what constitutes a memorial, mind you," she said ruefully; "but my office does somehow manage to sort the wheat from the chaff."
For my part I told her all about escaping from the hospital, fighting off Boss Preen's thugs, and being herded by rivers of ants on Annapurna. I told her about Fartles and Captain Gold, and about how I manoeuvred myself in freefall with even less grace than I managed upon a horse.
We ate samosas of jerked meat dipped in a sauce thick with cubes of vegetable. We sipped wine. For dessert we had fruit in cream and cinnamon. Jia opened a second bottle of wine, and then withdrew two narrow white cylinders and stuck the end of one in her mouth. She offered the other to me. I bit down on the end and grimaced. "Pah!" I critiqued.
"Are you eating it?" she cried. "Don't eat it, Simon!" She laughed uproariously, gasping for breath. "It's a cigarimeme -- you smoke it," she giggled.
"Is it...a narcotic?" I asked shrewdly, thinking of Glory's little orange sticks that flashed and vanished into an inhalable dust upon being lit.
"No," Jia said, blinking slowly at me as she held my eyes. "It's an aphrodisiac."
She flicked twice at the free end of the white stick and it glowed in response, crackling quietly. A languid, curling line of pale vapour began to stream from the end. Jia inhaled lightly on the end in her mouth, and then after a pause exhaled twin ribbons of exhaust from her small nostrils.
I flicked my fingers against my own cigarimeme six or seven times before it came alight, and since I was slow to notice this I burned the tip of my finger as I continued flicking. Once I saw the smoke I put the other end between my lips and sucked experimentally. Mouth filled with a warm, tingling bath of sweet-scented fume -- which was fairly pleasant until I realized I didn't know quite what to do with it once I needed breath, thus causing the smoke to explode from my mouth and nose as I coughed violently.
I took a sip of wine, my eyes watering. "Delightful," I croaked.
She laughed again. I laughed, too. Laughter came easily between us now. Hand in hand we walked along the bank of the stream, smoke trailing from our mouths. We spoke expansively on the subject of nothing in particular. As the hours passed I realized that the narcotic was her company...
"There's a place I want to show you," Jia said as we remounted our steeds. Her horse set off at a brisk trot and mine emulated it. We passed through a glen and then emerged into a second grassy plain, this one girdling an open pond fed in part by the stream we had lunched beside. "Quiet now," warned Jia.
A host of creatures attended the pond. There were birds and small, furry things but there was one kind in particular that gripped my attention: great wrinkly grey quadrupeds with legs like trees and nails like stones, their heads flanked by wide, light ears and terminating in a long, flexible hose in place of a nose. The beasts were using these long noses to inhale water for spraying over one another.
Due to my love of nature documentaries, however, I was proud to for once not be left entirely in the lurch of ignorance. "Dinosaurs!" I exclaimed.
"Er, no," said Jia. "They're elephants, actually."
"Marvellous!" I whispered, watching the massive things canter and play, their footfalls causing the ground beneath our horses to shimmy.
"In Soshi we call them petu."
"Peedoo," I essayed.
"Not bad," she smiled. "Petu are very powerful animals. Like us, they have the strength of culture supported on a bed of instinct. Like us, they tell each other stories. It is said they never forget anything they are exposed to. 'Memory of a petu' we say about someone who remembers all the details of their days."
We dismounted and walked toward the pond. One of the elephants raised its tusked head to regard us, and a moment later the others all raised their eyes in turn. "I hear no language. Do they sign?" I asked.
"No," said Jia, eyes on the beasts. "We cannot hear their speech. It is too low. Besides, they never say anything of much interest to people. Even when translated their expressions are...difficult to put in the appropriate context."
"What do they talk about?"
She shrugged. "Beast things. Where to find water, what the weather smells like, who has died and need be honored with a dance. Nothing to shake the galaxy."
We arrived at the edge of the pond, our bare toes lapped by the ripples caused by the animals on the opposite shore. The elephants had resumed bathing playfully, the younger ones bleating like horns through their long noses. I jumped the first time they sounded. "Jia, I've been wondering about something. If there were such intelligent things as little people and elephants at the Solar star, why did human beings inherit space?"
Jia looked at me. "Why, that's quite a question!"
"Forgive me," I said. "Many of my questions tend to be...broad."
She turned to the cavorting elephants again. "The first thing you have to understand, Simon, is that elephants and little people weren't nearly so clever when they lived with us on the First Earth. They underwent generations of selective breeding, especially during the Ark Time."
"What is the Ark Time?"
"The time Solar life spent travelling through normal space, from Sol to Eridani aboard three great arks. It was during the Ark Time that the little people rose up in rebellion and demanded their rights as thinking things. They cursed their name as beasts and called themselves little people."
"What did they used to be called?"
"Shim-ba-tzie," she pronounced with effort. "It's a very old word," she explained. "I think it might be Late Hengrishe or Ancient Marsgo."
"Did the elephants have their own rebellion, too?"
Jia shook her head. "They want no place in society." She touched my shoulder. "They do not crave the way men do, for something greater. Even the Pegasi understand this, though they had barely discovered spaceflight when we came down upon their world to introduce our civilization. Even the Pegasi are unique in their biosphere, for eating rather than being eaten."
"That's what Captain Gold said," I told her; "that we are predators."
"Predators and dreamers," she corrected. "The former alone is merely bloodlust; the latter, bovine."
"Corinthia Tag told me that at the Old Star true wisdom only came in the years of change between regimes, in the cracks between Imperial Mars and Mother Ares, in the schism between control and indulgence."
"Nobody," I said. "Just a tourist."
"She speaks of balance and change," continued Jia; "both essential forces for peace. Change without balance is violent, as balance without change is stagnant. This is understood in this ancient symbol," she said, withdrawing the end of a necklace from beneath her shift. It carried a pendant that winked in the orange sun, depicting two interlocked droplets of metal liquid curved into a disc, each bearing a circle of the opposite's lustre in its midst.
"Imperial Mars and Mother Ares," I said.
"Yinyang," Jia named it. "It is a symbol, an idea, and a way."
She looked up at me significantly. We were standing quite close together now, the pendant still dangling in my fingers, my knuckles brushing her breastbone. "It is also a symbol for the union between men and women in love," she said.
"Beautiful..." I said again.
Our kiss was somewhat different than those I had shared with Corinthia, and grossly different from the kissless intimacy Glory had shown me. Whether it sounds nonsensical or not, I confess to you that the kiss between Jia and I felt more like a place than an event -- an amorphous womb of warm connection in which we could bask timelessly.
When we returned to the house we found Jeremiah and Pish waiting for us, Pish waving brightly and calling out as we approached. I dropped off my horse heavily, stumbling upright and grinning. "Pish!" I pulled him into a hug. "What have you been doing with yourself?"
"Oh, I don't know," said Pish, scraping one shoe with the other. "Not much. This place is kinda boring."
"You'll start school soon enough," promised Jia, walking up beside us as the little people led our horses to the stables. "That will be loads of fun, I'm sure. Wen and Jissa simply adore being at school!"
Pish looked suspicious. "Would I have to sleep there?"
"Well naturally," smiled Jia encouragingly; "all children stay at their schools during the term, and then we all come together again as a family for the holidays and winter vacations."
Pish's expression became more somber. He reached out blindly behind him and caught Jeremiah's arm. "But Jeremiah could come, right?"
Jia shook her head. "I'm sorry, Pish, but robots aren't allowed at school. In fact," she added, glancing at me nervously, "it isn't quite proper to keep them in the home, either."
Pish looked severe. "Well!" I interrupted jovially. "Let's chat about school later. If we need some diversion now why don't we take an orb to the city and see the festival?"
"I had planned a dinner for us..." Jia trailed off, whispering into my ear.
"Can it stand a delay?" I asked, taking her hand. "The child deserves some amusement. He's been through a lot."
She seemed nonplussed but squeezed my hand back reassuringly. "Okay, Simon."
And so Pish and I rode the roller coaster together -- a short train of open cars that flew around a filament of suspended light, twisting and curling in nausea-inviting loops across a kilometre of air. Pish screamed and so did I. As we rounded a wide bend I caught sight of Jeremiah watching anxiously from below, his padded hand raised to shield Nsomeka's ruddy glare from his black eyes. In another instant he was lost to my vision as we plunged down the next grade, our stomachs leaping to our gorges.
We bought candy floss and saw a performance in which actors in elaborate masques pantomimed a lurid drama of killings, romance and revenge in time to chilling, droning music punctuated by the clash of cymbals.
Pushing through the crowd afterward I spotted a tall, striped pavilion bearing a flashing multilingual sign that said in Common Verbal: Ladies' Sumo Basho. "Hey," I said, catching Jia's elbow. "Don't we sponsor that event?"
Jia crinkled her nose. "Well, yes."
Indeed as we drew nearer I spotted the interlocked triangle crest of Fellcorp billowing on a flag that changed colours with the direction of the wind. We stood in line to pay for our tickets but the grinning man at the booth waved my wallet away. "Mr. Fell -- you know your money's no good here!" he beamed, gesturing us inside the tent. "Salutations, Madam Fell!"
Shortly after we found our seats in the crowded stands surrounding a sandy ring we were approached by two stalky men in black sweaters bearing the corporate shield. "Mr. Fell, is Commander P. with you?"
"Commander P.? Oh, you mean Omar," I replied. "No, he's not with us."
The stalky men exchanged looks. "We'd best sit with you then, sir, if you don't mind."
"Is that really necessary? Am I in some kind of danger?"
"Better safe than sorry sir," they claimed, vacating two nearby seats with a flash of their plates. The patrons stood up and moved along the row so the two security men could sit down. I saw their necks working as they muttered subvocally into their telephones.
A man in scarlet robes entered the ring and the audience hushed. He made a long speech in what I assume was Soshi, and then translated his introduction of the two first contenders: "From the jungle dark of Mahuea -- weighing in at two hundred and twenty kilograms -- Rutanna Massimer!" The crowd cheered. "And from the Nanedi's cool shores -- weighing in at two hundred fifteen -- past champion of the Ninurtan belt -- Hilla Ved Tush!" The crowd exploded into a paroxysm of applause and spittle-flying cheering.
Two loincloth-clad women the size of baby elephants walked up to opposite sides of the ring, stepping gingerly over the short barrier and then padding across the sand to face one another. They planted their feet wide, their tree-like thighs quivering with the impact. Hard eyes stared down one another from within doughy faces, their locks tied back into small buns atop their round heads.
The man in scarlet gave a loud cry, and then stood back.
Both women bowed. Rutanna Massimer, a barrel of dark, folded flesh with stripes of blue painted across her shoulders and back, reached down to her side and picked up a handful of salt from a shallow dish. She brushed the crystals between her hands and cast the remnants out across the ring, then resumed her wide-footed pose hunkering over the centre.
Hilla Ved Tush, a golden-skinned whale, flexed her neck menacingly back and forth, her pendulous breasts jiggling in slow rhythm. Then she too reached for a handful of salt, and cast it across the ring.
Another moment passed. I scooched to the edge of my seat, eyes wide in anticipation. The opponents held each other's gaze, frozen.
And then suddenly they were at each other, clashing in a heaving mound of slapping flesh and grunts. With amazing speed they separated and then re-engaged, Hilla straining to grab the belt of Rutanna's loincloth across her broad back. Rutanna bucked without warning, casting Hilla's enormous weight over onto the sand with a loud boom and a cloud of dust. The audience shrieked and stamped their feet.
There was another flurry of movement from the ring, and then Hilla gained a grip on Rutanna's belt and hoisted her into the air, her face purpling with the effort. She held her opponent suspended for a brief second and then cast her across the ring like a sack of potatoes. The crowd hooted and the men in scarlet rushed out into the ring, gesturing to Hilla who raised her meaty arms over her head in triumph.
Rutanna recovered herself with an effort, and bowed low. Hilla bowed in turn and both fighters left the ring. "That was so cool!" crooned Pish.
Over the next two hours we were witness to titanic clash after clash, the mad frenzy of the wrestling heightened by the suspense created in the moments before they engaged as the opponents stared each other down and cast salt into the ring ceremoniously. Some matches were over in seconds, but several lasted almost as long as two minutes. By the time the event closed for the day we had seen two dozen unspeakably massive women hit the sand in defeat, lying in the shadows of the equally giant victors. Every bout ended in polite bows, though it was possible to see flashes of naked hatred flicker across the eyes of the bested on the magnified holographic projection shining above the ring.
By the time we returned home Pish had fallen asleep, and Jeremiah had to carry him up to bed. Jia and I retired to the dining hall to sup. Tonight the room was lit by candles, and the table had somehow been shrunk to accommodate just two people at an intimate distance. She said, "You know, it was amazing today watching you watch Pish."
"What do you mean?" I asked, moving my elbow as a little person placed a tray of food on the table.
"I've never seen you like that before...so enraptured by the boy's happiness."
"Surely you must have seen me fawn over our own children," I pointed out.
"Well, yes," she said hastily. "Naturally I meant to say I haven't seen that look on your face for years." She winced, then.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"Just a little headache," she said, closing her eyes briefly and waving dismissively. "I probably just need to eat something, dear."
The meal was exquisite: broiled woodfruit-glaze ham, spiced grasses, polyander cakes, and a wonderfully sour soup called fen with little bits of shaved carrot floating in it. The pink wine was too tart for my tastes, and I accidentally started drinking from the washbowl before dessert, but otherwise things went very smoothly.
We talked mostly about Maja, which Jia clearly felt was on par with paradise. "The Majan tradition already dominates this Joviat," she told me earnestly. "And every world around Ninurta is half-way Majan, too. It makes me very proud."
"You're of Maja origin, then?" I hesitated a moment. "And while we're at it, where am I from, exactly? Do I have parents?"
"No, I was not born on Maja," she said quickly; "and I'm afraid neither of your parents are still with us, dear. Your father died quite a number of years ago, but we only lost your mother recently. She was really far too young. But there's only so much medical science can do."
"Oh. I see," I said, playing with my pie. "...So it's your adopted homeland, then?" I looked up, hopeful to restore the original subject.
"Oh, yes," beamed Jia. "I've adopted Maja, or Maja adopted me, when we married. And you've always regretted not spending enough time back here, where you grew up, so I thought -- well, when I heard about your...accident -- I thought this would be the house you'd want to come home to."
"I think," I said after a considered pause, "that any house would have done fine as long as you were there." Then I flushed, suddenly embarrassed. "That was a dumb thing to say," I mumbled. "I sound like I'm trying to seduce you."
Jia sniffed, her small mouth drawn into a tight smile. "In Soshi," she said, taking her napkin off her lap, "we call seduction suma."
"Suma," I echoed. "Did I pronounce it right?"
Jia stood up from the table, and smoothed down her shift with her hands. "Yes," she said.
Many hours later, when I got up in the night to go pee, I fished my diary out of my clothes and dictated these events as I sat on the tiled floor of the wash-hall, surrounded by lizards, my voice occasionally rising to a whisper that echoed off the hard walls.
There's no place like home.