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Homecoming #01: The Memory of Earthby Orson Scott Card
THE MEMORY OF EARTH (ONE FATHER'S HOUSE)
Nafai woke before dawn on his mat in his father's house. He wasn't allowed to sleep in his mother's house anymore, being fourteen years old. No self-respecting woman of Basilica would put her daughter in Rasa's household if a fourteen-year-old boy were in residence--especially since Nafai had started a growth spurt at the age of twelve that showed no signs of stopping even though he was already near two meters in height.
Only yesterday he had overheard his mother talking with her friend Dhelembuvex. "People are beginning to speculate on when you're going to find an auntie for him," said Dhel.
"He's still just a boy," said Mother.
Dhel hooted with laughter. "Rasa, my dear, are you so afraid of growing old that you can't admit your little baby is a man?"
"It's not fear of age," said Mother. "There's time enough for aunties and mates and all that business when he starts thinking about it himself."
"Oh, he's thinking about it already," said Dhel. "He's just not talking to you about it."
It was true enough; it had made Nafai blush when he heard her say it, and it made him blush again when he remembered it. How did Dhel know, just to look at him for a moment that day, that his thoughts were so often on "that business"? But no, Dhel didn't know it because of anything she had seen in Nafai. She knew it because she knew men. I'm just going through an age, thought Nafai. All boys start thinking these thoughts at about this age. Anyone can point at a male who's near two meters in height but still beardless and say, "That boy is thinking about sex right now," and most of the time they'll be right.
But I'm not like all the others, thought Nafai. I hear Mebbekew and his friends talking, and it makes me sick. I don't like thinking of women that crudely, sizing them up like mares to see what they're likely to be useful for. A pack animal or can I ride her? Is she a walker or can we gallop? Do I keep her in the stable or bring her out to show my friends?
That wasn't the way Nafai thought about women at all. Maybe because he was still in school, still talking to women every day about intellectual subjects. I'm not in love with Eiadh because she's the most beautiful young woman in Basilica and therefore quite probably in the entire world. I'm in love with her because we can talk together, because of the way she thinks, the sound of her voice, the way she cocks her head to listen to an idea she doesn't agree with, the way she rests her hand on mine when she's trying to persuade me.
Nafai suddenly realized that the sky was starting to grow light outside his window, and here he was lying in bed dreaming of Eiadh, when if he had any brains at all he'd get up and get into the city and see her in person.
No sooner thought of than done. He sat up, knelt beside his mat, slapped his bare thighs and chest and offered the pain to the Oversoul, then rolled up his bed and put it in his box in the corner. I don't really need a bed, thought Nafai. If I were a real man I could sleep on the floor and not mind it. That's how I'll become as hard and lean as Father. As Elemak. I won't use the bed tonight.
He walked out into the courtyard to the water tank. He dipped his hands into the small sink, moistened the soap, and rubbed it all over. The air was cool and the water was cooler, but he pretended not to notice until he was lathered up. He knew that this chill was nothing compared to what would happen in a moment. He stood under the shower and reached up for the cord--and then hesitated, bracing himself for the misery to come.
"Oh, just pull it," said Issib.
Nafai looked over toward Issib's room. He was floating in the air just in front of the doorway. "Easy for you to say," Nafai answered him.
Issib, being a cripple, couldn't use the shower; his floats weren't supposed to get wet. So one of the servants took his floats off and bathed him every night. "You're such a baby about cold water," said Issib.
"Remind me to put ice down your neck at supper."
"As long as you woke me up with all your shivering and chattering out here--"
"I didn't make a sound," said Nafai.
"I decided to go with you into the city today."
"Fine, fine. Fine as wine," said Nafai.
"Are you planning to let the soap dry? It gives your skin a charming sort of whiteness, but after a few hours it might begin to itch."
Nafai pulled the cord.
Immediately ice-cold water cascaded out of the tank over his head. He gasped--it always hit with a shock--and then bent and turned and twisted and splashed water into every nook and crevice of his body to rinse the soap off. He had only thirty seconds to get clean before the shower stopped, and if he didn't finish in that time he either had to live with the unrinsed soap for the rest of the day--and it did itch, like a thousand fleabites--or wait a couple of minutes, freezing his butt off, for the little shower tank to refill from the big water tank. Neither consequence was any fun, so he had long since learned the routine so well that he was always clean before the water stopped.
"I love watching that little dance you do," said Issib.
"Bend to the left, rinse the armpit, bend the other way, rinse the left armpit, bend over and spread your cheeks to rinse your butt, bend over backward--"
"All right, I get it," said Nafai.
"I'm serious, I think it's a wonderful little routine. You ought to show it to the manager of the Open Theatre. Or even the Orchestra. You could be a star."
"A fourteen-year-old dancing naked under a stream of water," said Nafai. "I think they'd show that in a different kind of theatre."
"But still in Dolltown! You'd still be a hit in Dolltown!"
By now Nafai had toweled himself dry--except his hair, which was still freezing cold. He wanted to run for his room the way he used to do when he was little, jabbering nonsense words--"ooga-booga looga-booga" had been a favorite--while he pulled on his clothes and rubbed himself to get warm. But he was a man now, and it was only autumn, not winter yet, so he forced himself to walk casually toward his room. Which is why he was still in the courtyard, stark naked and cold as ice, when Elemak strode through the gate.
"A hundred and twenty-eight days," he bellowed.
"Elemak!" cried Issib. "You're back!"
"No thanks to the hill robbers," said Elemak. He walked straight to the shower, pulling off his clothes as he went. "They hit us only two days ago, way too close to Basilica. I think we killed one this time."
"Don't you know whether you did or not?" asked Nafai.
"I used the pulse, of course."
Of course? thought Nafai. To use a hunting weapon against a person?
"I saw him drop, but I wasn't about to go back and check, so maybe he just tripped and fell down at the exact moment that I fired."
Elemak pulled the shower cord before he soaped. The moment the water hit him he yowled, and then did his own little splash dance, shaking his head and flipping water all over the courtyard while jabbering "ooga-booga looga-booga" just like a little kid.
It was all right for Elemak to act that way. He was twenty-four now, he had just got his caravan safely back from purchasing exotic plants in the jungle city of Tishchetno, the first time anyone from Basilica had gone there in years, and he might actually have killed a robber on the way. No one could think of Elemak as anything but a man. Nafai knew the rules: When a man acts like a child, he's boyish, and everyone's delighted; when a boy acts the same way, he's childish, and everyone tells him to be a man.
Elemak was soaping up now. Nafai--freezing still, even with his arms folded across his chest--was about to go into his room and snag his clothes, when Elemak started talking again.
"You've grown since I left, Nyef."
"I've been doing that lately."
"Looks good on you. Muscling up pretty well. You take after the old man in all the right ways. Got your mother's face, though."
Nafai liked the tone of approval in Elemak's voice, but it was also vaguely demeaning to stand there naked as a jaybird while his brother sized him up.
Issib, of course, only made it worse. "Got Father's most important feature, fortunately," he said.
"Well, we all got that," said Elemak. "All of the old man's babies have been boys--or at least all his babies that we know about." He laughed.
Nafai hated it when Elemak talked about Father that way. Everyone knew that Father was a chaste man who only had sex with his lawful mate. And for the past fifteen years that mate had been Rasa, Nafai's and Issib's mother, the contract renewed every year. He was so faithful that women had given up coming to visit and hint around about availability when his contract lapsed. Of course, Mother was just as faithful and there were still plenty of men plying her with gifts and innuendoes--but that's how some men were, they found faithfulness even more enticing than wantonness, as if Rasa were staying so faithful to Wetchik only to goad them on in their pursuit of her. Also, mating with Rasa meant sharing what some thought was the finest house and what all agreed was the finest view in Basilica. I'd never mate with a woman just for her house, thought Nafai.
"Are you crazy or what?" asked Elemak.
"What?" asked Nafai.
"It's cold as a witch's tit out here and you're standing there sopping wet and buck naked."
"Yeah," said Nafai. But he didn't run for his room--that would be admitting that the cold was bothering him. So he grinned at Elemak first. "Welcome home," he said.
"Don't be such a show-off, Nyef," said Elemak. "I know you're dying of the cold--your dangling parts are shriveling up."
Nafai sauntered to his room and pulled on his pants and shirt. It really bothered him that Elemak always seemed to know what was going on in Nafai's head. Elemak could never imagine that maybe Nafai was so hardened and manly that the cold simply didn't bother him. No, Elemak always assumed that if Nafai did something manly it was nothing but an act. Of course, it was an act, so Elemak was right, but that only made it more annoying. How do men become manly, if not by putting it on as an act until it becomes habit and then, finally, their character? Besides, it wasn't completely an act. For a minute there, seeing Elemak home again, hearing him talk about maybe killing a man on his trip, Nafai had forgotten that he was cold, had forgotten everything.
There was a shadow in the doorway. It was Issib. "You shouldn't let him get to you like that, Nafai."
"What do you mean?"
"Make you so angry. When he teases you."
Nafai was genuinely puzzled. "What do you mean, angry? I wasn't angry."
"When he made that joke about how cold you were," said Issib. "I thought you were going to go over and knock his head off."
"But I wasn't mad."
"Then you're a genuine mental case, my boy," said Issib. "I thought you were mad. He thought you were mad. The Oversoul thought you were mad."
"The Oversoul knows that I wasn't angry at all."
"Then learn to control your face, Nyef, because apparently it's showing emotions that you don't even feel. As soon as you turned your back he jammed his finger at you, that's how mad he thought you were."
Issib floated away. Nafai pulled on his sandals and criss-crossed the laces up around his pantlegs. The style among young men around Basilica was to wear long laces up the thighs and tie them together just under the crotch, but Nafai cut the laces short and wore them knee-high, like a serious workingman. Having a thick leather knot between their legs caused young men to swagger, rolling side to side when they walked, trying to keep their thighs from rubbing together and chafing from the knot. Nafai didn't swagger and loathed the whole idea of a fashion that made clothing less comfortable.
Of course, rejecting fashion meant that he didn't fit in as easily with boys his age, but Nafai hardly minded that. It was women whose company he enjoyed most, and the women whose good opinion he valued were the ones who were not swayed by trivial fashions. Eiadh, for one, had often joined him in ridiculing the high-laced sandals. "Imagine wearing those riding a horse," she had said once.
"Enough to make a bull into a steer," Nafai had quipped in reply, and Eiadh had laughed and then repeated his joke several times later in the day. If a woman like that existed in the world, why should a man bother with silly fashions?
When Nafai got to the kitchen, Elemak was just sliding a frozen rice pudding into the oven. The pudding looked large enough to feed them all, but Nafai knew from experience that Elemak intended the whole thing for himself. He'd been traveling for months, eating mostly cold food, moving almost entirely at night--Elemak would eat the entire pudding in about six swallows and then go collapse on his bed and sleep till dawn tomorrow.
"Where's Father?" asked Elemak.
"A short trip," said Issib, who was breaking raw eggs over his toast, preparing them for the oven. He did it quite deftly, considering that simply grasping an egg in one hand took all his strength. He would hold the egg a few inches over the table, then clench just the right muscle to release the float that was holding up his arm, causing it to drop, egg and all, onto the table surface. The egg would split exactly right--every time--and then he'd clench another muscle, the float would swing his arm up over the plate, and then he'd open the egg with his other hand and it would pour out onto the toast. There wasn't much Issib couldn't do for himself, with the floats taking care of gravity for him. But it meant Issib could never go traveling the way Father and Elemak and, sometimes, Mebbekew did. Once he was away from the magnetics of the city, Issib had to ride in his chair, a clumsy machine that he could only ride from place to place. It wouldn't help him do anything. Away from the city, confined to his chair, Issib was really crippled.
"Where's Mebbekew?" asked Elemak. The pudding was done--overdone, actually, but that's the way Elemak always ate breakfast, cooked until it was so soft you didn't need teeth to eat it. Nafai figured it was because he could swallow it faster that way.
"Spent the night in the city," said Issib.
Elemak laughed. "That's what he'll say when he gets back. But I think Meb is all plow and no planting."
There was only one way for a man of Mebbekew's age to spend a night inside the walls of Basilica, and that was if some woman had him in her home. Elemak might tease that Mebbekew claimed to have more women than he got, but Nafai had seen the way Meb acted with some women, at least. Mebbekew didn't have to pretend to spend a night in the city; he probably accepted fewer invitations than he got.
Elemak took a huge bite of pudding. Then he cried out, opened his mouth, and poured in wine straight from the table jug. "Hot," he said, when he could talk again.
"Isn't it always?" asked Nafai.
He had meant it as a joke, a little jest between brothers. But for some reason Elemak took it completely wrong, as if Nafai had been calling him stupid for taking the bite. "Listen, little boy," said Elemak, "when you've been out on the road eating cold food and sleeping in dust and mud for two-and-a-half months, maybe you forget just how hot a pudding can be."
"Sorry," said Nafai. "I didn't meant anything bad."
"Just be careful who you make fun of," said Elemak. "You're only my half-brother, after all."
"That's all right," said Issib cheerfully. "He has the same effect on full brothers, too." Issib was obviously trying to smooth things over and keep a quarrel from developing.
Elemak seemed willing enough to go along. "I imagine it's harder on you," he said. "Good thing you're a cripple or Nafai here probably wouldn't have lived to be eighteen."
If the remark about being a cripple stung Issib, he didn't show it. It infuriated Nafai, however. Here Issib was trying to keep the peace, and Elemak casually insulted him for it. So, while Nafai hadn't had the slightest intention of picking a fight before, he was ready for one now. Elemak's having counted his age in planting years instead of temple years was a good enough pretext. "I'm fourteen," said Nafai. "Not eighteen."
"Temple years, planting years," said Elemak. "If you were a horse you'd be eighteen."
Nafai walked over and stood about a pace from Elemak's chair. "But I'm not a horse," said Nafai.
"You're not a man yet, either," said Elemak. "And I'm too tired to want to beat you senseless right now. So fix your breakfast and let me eat mine." He turned to Issib. "Did Father take Rashgallivak with him?"
Nafai was surprised at the question. How could Father take the estate manager with him, when Elemak was also gone? Truzhnisha would keep the household running, of course; but without Rashgallivak, who would manage the greenhouses, the stables, the gossips, the booths? Certainly not Mebbekew--he had no interest in the day-to-day duties of Father's business. And the men would hardly take orders from Issib--they regarded him with tenderness or pity, not respect.
"No, Father left Rash in charge," Issib said. "Rash was probably sleeping out at the coldhouse tonight. But you know Father never leaves without seeing that everything's in order."
Elemak cast a quick, sidelong glance at Nafai. "Just wondered why certain people were getting so cocky."
Then it dawned on Nafai: Elemak's question was really a back-handed compliment--he had wondered whether Father had put Nafai in charge of things in his absence. And plainly Elemak didn't like the idea of Nafai running any part of the Wetchik family's rare-plant business.
"I'm not interested in taking over the weed trade," said Nafai, "if that's what you're worried about."
"I'm not worried about anything at all," said Elemak. "Isn't it time for you to go to Mama's school? She'll be afraid her little boy got robbed and beaten on the road."
Nafai knew he should let Elemak's taunt go unanswered, shouldn't provoke him anymore. The last thing he wanted was to have Elemak as an enemy. But the very fact that he looked up to Elemak so much, wanted so much to be like him, made it impossible for Nafai to leave the gibe unanswered. As he headed for the courtyard door, he turned back to say, "I have much higher aims in life than skulking around shooting at robbers and sleeping with camels and carrying tundra plants to the tropics and tropical plants to the glaciers. I'll leave that game to you."
Suddenly Elemak's chair flew across the room as he jumped to his feet and in two strides had Nafai's face pressed against the doorframe. It hurt, but Nafai hardly noticed the pain, or even the fear that Elemak might hurt him even worse. Instead there was a strange feeling of triumph. I made Elemak lose his temper. He doesn't get to keep pretending that he thinks I'm not worth noticing.
"That game, as you call it, pays for everything you have and everything you are," said Elemak. "If it wasn't for the money that Father and Rash and I bring in, do you think anybody'd pay attention to you in Basilica? Do you think your mother has so much honor that it would actually transfer to her sons? If you think that, then you don't know how the world works. Your mother might be able to make her daughters into hot stuff, but the only thing a woman can do for a son is make a scholar out of him." He practically spat the word scholar. "And believe me, boy, that's all you're ever going to be. I don't know why the Oversoul even bothered putting a boy's parts on you, little girl, because all you're going to have in this world when you grow up is what a woman gets."
Again, Nafai knew that he should keep his silence and let Elemak have the last word. But the retort no sooner came to his mind than it came out of his mouth. "Is calling me a woman your subtle way of telling me you've got some heat for me? I think you've been out on the road too long if I'm starting to look irresistible."
At once Elemak let go of him. Nafai turned around, half-expecting to see Elemak laughing, shaking his head about how their playing sometimes got out of hand. Instead his brother was standing there red-faced, breathing heavily, like an animal poised to lunge. "Get out of this house," said Elemak, "and don't come back while I'm here."
"It's not your house," Nafai pointed out.
"The next time I see you here I'll kill you."
"Come on, Elya, you know I was only joking."
Issib floated blithely between them and cast an arm clumsily across Nafai's shoulders. "We're late getting into the city, Nyef. Mother will be worried about us."
This time Nafai had sense enough to shut his mouth and let things go. He did know how to hold his tongue--he just never remembered to do it soon enough. Now Elemak was furious at him. Might be angry for days. Where will I sleep if I can't go home? Nafai wondered. Immediately there flashed in his mind an image of Eiadh whispering to him, "Why not stay tonight in my room? After all, we're surely going to be mates one day. A woman trains her favorite nieces to be mates for her sons, doesn't she? I've known that since I first knew you, Nafai. Why should we wait any longer? After all, you're only about the stupidest human being in all of Basilica."
Nafai came out of his reverie to realize that it was Issib speaking to him, not Eiadh. "Why do you keep goading him like that," Issib was saying, "when you know it's all Elemak can do to keep from killing you sometimes?"
"I think of things and sometimes I say them when I shouldn't," said Nafai.
"You think of stupid things and you're so stupid that you say them every time."
"Not every time."
"Oh, you mean there are even stupider things that you don't say? What a mind you've got! A treasure!" Issib was floating ahead of him. He always did that going up the ridge road, forgetting that for people who had to deal with gravity, a slower pace might be more comfortable.
"I like Elemak," said Nafai miserably. "I don't understand why he doesn't like me."
"I'll get him to make you a list sometime," said Issib. "I'll paste it onto the end of my own."
THE MEMORY OF EARTH. Copyright 1992 by Orson Scott Card
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