It was the baskets again. It was always the baskets in some form or other. Every time there was a stall, they checked the baskets first, then worried about other possible problems. Nine times out of ten it was the baskets themselves, and the tenth time it was the way the machine was trying to deal with them. When it wasn't the machine's fault, it was usually Dassy's.
She tried, she really did. Countless times she had watched her parents and her sisters, listened to them explain how the cloth went in the bottom, the leaves flat against the sides of the basket, spiraling toward the middle, seed side always out. All her life, it seemed, she had been hearing Zari or Leima or their parents talking about the separator, and the crop, and how much they were paying the workers. None of it had ever interested her or seemed to sink in, and all of them knew it.
If she wanted to be uninterested in running the farm, though, Zari thought, she picked an odd way of doing it. She sat in her room all day, not reading or pouring herself into her studies (of which there were precious little, it being that she was theoretically needed on the farm), not preparing to find a job or working to get passage to a manufacturing town, but drawing. She liked to do it, and Mora knew she had some talent, but there was no way she would ever be able to live off it. Yet her parents let her do it, for reasons Zari couldn't fathom.
Zari reflected as she jogged through the barn that her sister was probably just spoiled. She had never had to do much work, having been born just as her older sisters were becoming able to take over some of the essential jobs, and having grown up in prosperous times when farm hands were plentiful. And without much work to do, there were more chances to be coddled and fewer to be scolded. So when she started receiving scoldings for mistakes regarding things about which she neither knew nor cared, she was noticeably rebellious. And so she had earned from the workers the title of "spoiled brat."
At times like this, when Dassy was hiding in the barn, Zari tended to agree with them. It felt good to get away from the account books and go exercise once in a while, but this type of exercise too often led to someone being angry with her. If Mama wasn't furious with her for ferreting out the child she would as soon have let go without dinner, Dassy was sullen about being dragged from her hiding place. She never seemed to be visible from any vantage point, which maddened everyone who had ever had to find her, especially since they all knew the barn like they knew their favorite color. And since she would only come out of hiding of her own free will for Zari, the sister closest to her in age and friendship, Zari was usually appointed to find her.
"Dassy!" yelled Zari, startling a few maroka grazers but not caring. It was the only way she had found to communicate with her sister in this kind of mood: let her know someone was looking for her and who it was, and let her make up her mind. When she was unfindable, there was little choice.
"I know you're here." Zari lowered her voice from a yell, speaking loudly enough for the barn to hear but not loudly enough to wake the dead. "I don't care if you come out or not. Mama said I had to tell you it was just the machine this time and not you. She's sorry and she wants to talk to you." The last was a lie, but she didn't care.
"You're lying," came a thin, plaintive reply from the far end of the barn. "She never wants to talk to me."
"That's because she's stupid," Zari answered, playing to eleven-year-old sensibilities. "You know that."
"It's stupider to lie to me," said the voice.
Zari almost answered with an "Am-not," but decided that she didn't want to get into it. "Where are you?"
"Close your eyes and count to ten and I'll be out when you open them again," the voice singsonged.
Zari sighed. She had been through this countless times before, usually with the rhyme Dassy had made up specifically for the situation, and it was getting beyond boring. "All right," she said, closing her eyes. "One, two, skip a few--"
"Hey, that's cheating!" The voice sounded a little nearer.
"Conceded." Zari smiled, a little grimly. "Three, four, five, six, seven, eight-nine-ten," she finished in a rush. "Are you out?"
"Yes, cheater." The voice was right behind her now, sounding quite miffed.
Zari opened her eyes and turned to face a small blond bundle of indignance in a dirt-smeared blue dress and white pinafore. From the stony eyes and folded arms, Zari could tell that her sister was angrier about the cheating than she could have guessed. "Hello there."
"You cheated," Dassy said sullenly.
Zari grabbed her arm and towed her toward the door. "A fine thing to say to your sister and appointed peacemaker."
Both were silent until they reached the separator barn. Then they were silent again as Leima bustled around them, because they knew from experience that they would never have a chance to be heard.
"Oh, Dassy, you're all right! Mama tried not to let on but she was worried, and I've been just so anxious waiting for you to get back, and oh, good Mora, what happened to your dress? I hope it isn't completely ruined, did you rip it? And look at your pinafore and your face is all dirty . . . " Leima trailed off, grieving silently for her sister's looks.
Zari saw her chance and pounced. "Can we just talk to Mama? I promised Dassy she'd get an apology."
Dassy looked up incredulously.
Leima stared for a second, then nodded, moving aside.
Zari, with Dassy in tow, went into the separator barn. Their parents were reloading some baskets into the machine and took no notice of the girls. Zari cleared her throat loudly, and they obediently turned around.
"I found her," said Zari, bracing herself. "I think you owe her an apology."
Both adults blinked stupidly. Zari considered that she might have caused some kind of malfunction in the gears of their brains.
Her mother recovered first, snapping to attention. "I owe her no such thing. She ran out of here before we could find out what happened to the machine. If she had stayed, I might have considered it."
"In your considering," Zari retorted, "would you have considered that she always runs out of here when the machine goes seedsprung? Or that she hates the baskets most of all and you always make her do them?"
"It's for her own good," said her father, from deep inside the machine. "The world isn't going to coddle her. She has to learn."
"But she doesn't want to learn!" Zari exclaimed, then realized suddenly just how much of her foot she'd managed to swallow.
Her mother seemed to grow a foot in every direction. "It doesn't make any difference whether she wants to learn or not!" she boomed. "She has to! Mora knows she can't do anything else. And we can't keep this place running all by ourselves. You know that, Leima knows that, all the workers in the field know that! That's why they're there!"
"Why can't Dassy work out there with them, then?" asked Zari. "It's easier for certain."
"Because it's not proper!" her father exclaimed, scrambling out of the machine. "I can't let my daughter do a job like that. It's--low. And she'd get filthy."
"Like she is now?" Zari couldn't resist the jab.
Just then, Dassy sneezed.
All three people discussing the blond dust bunny suddenly remembered her presence. "Are you all right?" asked her mother, by way of making up for forgetting her.
Dassy nodded. "Dust."
Zari looked at her parents. "Just one apology. What will it hurt?"
After an interminable silence, her mother sighed. "One, and one only. I apologize, but I don't know why. And I am not sorry."
Zari renewed her grasp on Dassy's hand. "That's perfectly fine. Thank you. Come on, let's go."
"You're not through here, young lady," her mother called after them.
"Yes, we are," Zari threw over her shoulder, hoping her voice didn't sound as scared as she was.
Leima, presumably having heard everything that had transpired, didn't bother them as they left the barn. On the way to the house, Dassy asked, "Why did you do that?"
"You're my sister," Zari answered automatically, to cover for her own disbelief at her actions. "And they do that to you too often."
At length, Dassy said, "Thank you."
"Don't mention it." Zari opened the house door that led to the washing room. "Now let's get you cleaned up."
Dinner was shaping up to be a tense affair. From the tidbits her sisters swiped on the way to Dassy's room, it was apparent that Leima had done her usual wonderful job with the food, but when neither Zari nor Dassy said anything about it, she immediately frosted over. Zari, for one, was content to let her; she herself was in for an evening of watching Dassy. Since the washing was scheduled for the next day, and since Dassy had already spilled something on nearly every other dress since the last washing, she had only her party dress to wear while the previous one recovered from the scrubbing she and Zari had given it. Zari saw to it that the current dress and its wearer were both swathed in layers of aprons and towels, but Dassy seemed to have a supernatural talent for circumventing such precautions. At least none of the food looked easily spillable.
There was someone new at the table, Zari realized as she sat down. He was dressed too nicely to be one of the new help, and at any rate the help would be more muscular, and wouldn't wear spectacles. Moreover, he was seated too far from Leima to be one of her suitors, and much too young to be anything she could put a finger on.
"Did you see the new doctor?" Leima suddenly asked in Zari's ear, making her jump. "He came by about half an hour ago when you were still cleaning up, and Papa invited him to dinner."
"Is that who that is?" Zari asked. "Isn't he too young to be a doctor?"
"Search me. Maybe I'll find out. Or you can." Leima set her dish of mashed potatoes on the table and returned to the kitchen, leaving Zari to ponder this doctor--and her sister's flip comment, she realized, a second too late as always. She could see why Leima had said it, though; the man was young and preoccupied looking, and had the kind of careless good looks that preoccupied people often did. He probably wasn't even aware that some women could find him attractive. He was aware of her gaze, she realized as he returned it, and quickly looked away.
Leima and her mother finished bringing out the food, and sat down. Immediately, family and workers alike began serving themselves and each other, passing tureens and platters along with individual plates and nonstop chatter. Zari dished out the roasted onions that were stationed in front of her and passed her plate around to be filled. It came back to her loaded with greens, bread and butter, potatoes, fish, and chicken. Once her serving duties were through, she added half an onion and some stewed fruit, and started to eat. She hadn't made much progress when the conversation in the middle of the table rose sharply in volume, and she paused to listen.
"--cut enough flesh in my vocation to last me all my life," someone was saying. Zari investigated and found it to be the doctor.
"But ye can't just eat no meat, now can ye? It don't seem right," said one of the harvest bosses, and noises of assent went up around him.
"You can, and I have for several years," said the doctor, looking around as if for a means of escape. His eyes landed on Zari, and she looked down, afraid for a moment that she might be holding a chicken leg and finding to her relief that it was a piece of bread. I suppose I can speak, then, she thought, knowing it was irrational but feeling a need to defer despite her certainty that no one else was going to defend him.
"Yes, you can," she said into the hubbub of dissent, "so long as you eat enough other foods to make up for what you don't get." There was a general pshaw from the workers, many of whom took extra slices of roast just to prove their point. The doctor looked at Zari, then at them, and leaned forward as if to speak to her across the two intervening people, then thought better of it and leaned back in his chair. Zari did the same, looking at him behind the workers' heads.
"I realize there's an order to where I'm seated," he said, frowning, "but is there any way I can move?"
Zari took a moment to consider. There really wasn't much she could do to change the seating order without upsetting someone. She could make room for him in the kitchen, but that wouldn't be fair to him. A solution of sorts presented itself, and she seized it. "Follow me," she said, then picked up her plate and silver and excused herself, heading for the kitchen. Looking back to see if the doctor was following, she caught a daggered look from Leima, and decided to ignore it.
The kitchen help, which at this point consisted of the two daughters of one of the field workers, had decided to take advantage of the warm weather and eat on the veranda, leaving the kitchen open. "Nobody should bother us in here, unless they're more silly than they were last season," said Zari, setting her plate on the vegetable board, "which I think is impossible."
The doctor laughed and put his own plate down. "It's no worse than I've gotten traveling," he said. "I really only wanted to change places with--"
Zari had gone back out to the dining room to retrieve their glasses of water. When she got back, she preempted any attempt to repeat what he'd said. "Don't worry about it," she said. "Truth told, I don't much like being out there myself. You've given me a wonderful excuse to get away."
He laughed again, less nervously, and adjusted his spectacles. "You're one of the landlord's daughters, right?"
"The middle one. Zari," she said, grabbing a bite while she had time.
"Zari." He thought for a moment. "Short for . . . Zarinya? Zarina?"
Zari swallowed. "Zarinya, yes. After one of my parents' friends. How did you know?"
"It's a hobby of mine," he said. "Names, that is. Mine's Temin."
"Nice to know." She looked for something else to say. "So at least now I won't always be calling you 'doctor.'"
"I hope not!" said Temin, laughing. "I'm guaranteed enough of that from the locals."
Zari, chewing, nodded in agreement. A few bites later, she asked, "So can you guess what my sister Dassy's full name is?"
Temin smiled. "That one's easy. It has to be Dassira. Or maybe Dasrina."
"You were right the first time," Zari said. "How on earth did you know?"
"Where on earth did your parents hear that one?" he returned. "They must have truly interesting friends. There aren't many full Kjechorii around."
"You're right," Zari agreed. "They do have truly interesting friends. Leima makes me jealous sometimes for getting off with a normal name. My older sister," she clarified upon seeing his puzzlement.
"Ah. The one who was cooking."
They ate in silence for a while, until Zari noticed that she had quite a bit of food left while Temin was nearly finished. "Did you get enough to eat?" she asked. "I can go out and get more if--"
"It's all right," he said. "I don't usually eat much when I'm out."
"Are you sure? I'm serious," she assured him. "It's no trouble."
"Really, I've had enough," he protested. "You don't have to--"
"As a co-hostess of this dinner, I'm obligated," she told him. "I at least have to ask."
Temin looked at his plate and then back up at her. "Would you? Please?"
Zari smiled, suddenly afraid Leima was rubbing off on her. "Of course," she said, taking the plate. "Everything?" she asked.
"Everything but meat, of course I mean," she assured him. He nodded gratefully, and she slipped out to the dining room. She managed to get helpings of everything appropriate, along with an extra slice of bread for herself and a look of mixed anger and jealousy from Leima.
Back in the kitchen, she delivered the plate to Temin amid profuse thanks. "Is there anything else?"
He looked wistful for a moment. "Most of the other houses I've eaten at had beans or something else that makes up for meat. I was hoping, but I won't ask you to spend hours cooking for me."
Zari thought for a moment about her cooking skills and the availability of ingredients and time. "I could boil an egg," she said at length. "Is that--"
"That would be wonderful, if you could," Temin said. "And yes, I do eat them. Thank you again. I must seem like some kind of demanding--"
"You're a guest," Zari said from inside the cupboard where the egg baskets were kept. She came up with an egg and set it on the counter before rooting in another cupboard for a pot that hadn't been used for dinner. "I wouldn't have asked if I weren't serious."
Temin waited for her to restoke the fire in the stove and add enough water to the pot before speaking again. "So what exactly do you do around here, if your sister does the cooking?"
"I keep us from going bankrupt," she said. "I keep track of how much we're spending on things like food and animal feed and the wages for the workers we don't rent to, how much the ones we do rent to have to pay in barter when they have to pay, and how much the crop is worth on the market."
"You're the accountant," Temin summed up as Zari returned to her plate. "Good thing your parents have you to do that instead of having to hire someone. They're getting expensive these days."
Zari was too surprised by that news to notice that he hadn't made the usual what's-a-beautiful-woman-doing-running-the-books comment. "Can they do that?"
"There's a new college just opened up, in Tamnang," he said. "They're offering an accounting program. And everyone who's graduated recently has banded together, sort of like guilds, so they can charge more. People still hire other people who didn't graduate, but that's going to change."
"It's a good thing I'm Papa's daughter, then," she said. "Unparalleled job security."
Temin laughed. "Where did you learn how to do the books? I didn't see a schoolhouse in town."
"Papa," Zari told him. "His parents taught him and his brothers. I was the only one of my sisters to want to learn it, so I got the job. Mama taught us to read and write, and for a while some of the workers' wives had a school in someone's house, but I could only go for a year before I was too old. I mostly read books Papa brings home."
"You could probably get into the college," he said. "They have tests for people who don't have school certificates."
Zari made a noncommittal noise. She could dream, but she knew she'd never be able to leave. "Where did you go to college?"
"Ralennis. In Shara."
"That's a medical school?" asked Zari. "I only knew about the law college."
"Oh, it is," Temin said. "It has been for years. A lot of the best teachers and doctors are there, but nobody knows about it yet . . ."
The conversation continued, encompassing colleges and varala crops and younger siblings, long past the point when the egg was gone. One of the kitchen girls had to remind them that there was dessert, and then that the kitchen had to be cleaned. Zari remembered that it was her job to clear dishes, and Temin that he had some studying to do on animal diseases, and they parted company at the kitchen door. She attacked the books with renewed vigor, thinking of every sum and difference as a problem on a test to get into college. Her dreams were filled with mathematics and bespectacled faces.
Zari sipped her varala and looked over the books for the third time. There were three crowns missing--not a large enough sum to worry about, but she prided herself on keeping the records neat and accurate. They had to be hiding somewhere, and she would find them or--she didn't know or-what. Fall asleep, likely. It was late enough.
Her thoughts somehow kept dwelling on the night before, her impromptu dinner with the doctor. It annoyed her that she had managed to spend all that time with him without asking him any of the questions she wanted answered. Would all men be like her father and the other workers, expecting her to be brainless until she haggled a deal that left them barely holding onto their pants? Were the people who ran the colleges like that? Would graduating command respect? Where were those three crowns?
She looked again at the notes in the margins of the account book, where she scribbled memoranda of petty transactions to decipher later. "Bandin owes Jorey 4p" didn't help; neither did "rem. buy flour tmorrw." She made a mental note to check whether they needed flour again and turned the page.
"Zari?" asked Dassy's voice.
"You should be in bed," Zari said automatically, not looking up.
"I tried," said Dassy. "It's too hot, I can't sleep. I think I'm sick."
Zari set down her cup and looked at her sister. Dassy's hair and nightgown were rumpled, her eyes too shiny. "Come here," she instructed, laying a hand on Dassy's forehead. "Good Mora, you're burning up. Let me wake Mama." Towing Dassy by the hand, she went down the hall to her parents' bedroom.
Her mother was none too happy to be awakened. "What? Dassy, what are you doing out of bed?"
"She's sick, Mama," Zari told her. "Feel her face." The younger girl's hand was hot as well.
"I trust you, Zari," her mother said. "You know what to do for her. Your father and I have to get up early to run the harvest or I'd stay up myself." She reached out a hand to pat Dassy's shoulder. "Try to get some sleep. You'll be all right in the morning," she assured her daughter, and retreated to the bed.
Zari did know what to do, and even though she knew it was necessary for her to do then, she couldn't help thinking that her mother had sat up with both her and Leima when they were younger and not feeling well. She took Dassy to the kitchen and found the packet of herbs for fever tea, wrapping her now-shaking sister in one of her bed blankets once the water was set to boil. "Do you want me to stay with you?" she asked. "When you're sleeping?"
"Yes. No. I don't know," said Dassy, trying valiantly to keep her teeth from chattering. "Why does Mama have to work all the time now? She used to sit up with me."
"I don't know. I wish she'd do it again."
"Because you don't want to sit up," Dassy guessed.
"No," Zari told her, "because she's your mother and mothers should do that."
"You don't have to if you don't want to," Dassy said, but her eyes said something else.
"It's all right," Zari assured her. "I can sleep other nights. Or take a nap. Mama can't do that."
When the tea was finished, Zari took it, a candle, and Dassy to the younger girl's room and stationed herself in a chair by the bed while Dassy tried to get comfortable under the covers. "You do know this stuff has something in it to help you sleep," Zari said.
"Good thing too," said Dassy. "I don't think I could otherwise." She took the tea and sipped cautiously, then jerked back. "Yuk, too hot."
Zari pointed to the saucer on the bedtable. "Pour some of it out," she suggested. That cooled it enough to drink, and once it was gone Dassy fussed with her quilts before lying down. She didn't complain that she was too hot under the bedcovers, something she hadn't done since before she was old enough to talk, so far as Zari knew.
When Dassy had fallen into restless sleep, Zari went to the library for a book. Later, when the fever broke, she got a blanket from her own room and tried to nap. Something intangible woke her a few hours later, and when she checked on Dassy she found that the fever was back. Chills attacking her own spine, she traded her book for the family medical reference and read intently through another breaking and rising before the sun rose, worry mounting with every fruitless chapter.
In the morning, against Leima's wishes, Zari sent one of the kitchen girls for the doctor. She got her way mainly because everyone could see that she'd been up for the better part of the night.
"I've never seen a fever like this," said Zari when Temin got there. "It breaks and rises, breaks and comes right back up again. There's nothing in the books we have that matches it."
"That is a little odd," Temin agreed. "It's probably just taking its time to run its course, but I do want to know what it is. Are any of the other children here sick with anything?"
"One of the girls who helps in the kitchen had the sniffles a week or two ago, but that's all," said Leima. "There aren't many other children around here, just in town. And Zari did take her on the marketing last week. She could have caught it then."
"She begged me to come along," said Zari, feeling suddenly defensive. "She wanted to pick out new paper."
"That's not important, Zari," said Temin. "First things first. We need to get this fever down and keep it down, or she's not going to get better." He dug through his bag and came up with a pillbox and a small envelope. "Does she know how to swallow pills?" he asked, opening the box.
"No," said Leima. "Mama always gets her the powders for draughts."
"Then crush one of these up and give it to her in a glass of sugar water, no more than four times a day until the fever's gone," he said, counting pills into the envelope and handing it to Leima. "If she's not completely awake, make it a small glass or it won't all get down. Call me if she's not better in two days, or if anything more unusual than the fever happens." He paused in reloading his bag and looked at Zari. "Can I talk to you for a minute?" he asked.
Zari nodded, looked back at the sleeping Dassy, and stepped out into the hall. Temin exited a moment later and closed the door. "I'd--like to thank you again for what you did when I was here last," he said. "I know I said so at the time, but--"
"It wasn't a problem," Zari assured him. "I know how it is being at a table full of people who don't understand you."
"That's just the thing; I don't," Temin said. "I come from the city. My father's a doctor too, and my mother runs the library. They both went to colleges before it was fashionable and sent me to high-class schools. There was just never any question about what I'd do."
"Lucky for you that you like it," Zari remarked, thinking of herself.
"It is, isn't it?" He smiled, not showing whether he understood what she was implying. "I'm just not used to being around people who--well--"
"Have trouble reading most books? Can't afford for their children not to help them in the field? Count everything on their fingers?" Zari supplied. "I've heard them all, believe me. But don't ever say them out loud or you'll never get a practice going. They're all good people, and it's not that they can't think of things beyond where they are--"
"It's just that they never have," Temin finished gently, surprising her. "Which is one reason I'm here--to let them know what's out there."
Zari wondered if that included her. "You are a surprising man," she said, unable to think of a better word.
He laughed. "Good. I aim to please." He cleared his throat. "Which, ah, brings me to something else. Would you . . . be open to the prospect of another evening in like-minded company?"
"Of course! When shall I tell Mama and Leima to expect you at dinner?" asked Zari, making plans for eating on the veranda. It was still warm enough out--
"No, no," said Temin, shaking his head. "I meant for you to come and have dinner with me."
Zari made a conscious effort to close her mouth. "I-I couldn't, couldn't possibly," she said, suddenly lightheaded. She thought for a moment that she might be coming down with whatever Dassy had. "Mama would never allow it, she hardly knows you and--"
"All right," said Temin, looking at the floor briefly and then meeting her eyes. "Maybe some time later? When she knows me better?"
He sounded so hopeful that Zari nodded. "Maybe. I'll ask."
"Thank you." Temin looked to make sure he had his bag, then put on his hat. "I should be going," he said. "I'll see you later."
"Goodbye," Zari called as he went down the hall, wondering what had just happened.
Seconds later, Leima bounced out Dassy's door, grinning fit to split. "Did you say yes?" she asked eagerly.
"Yes to what, dinner?" Zari responded. "I said I couldn't go with him, not till Mama--"
"You said no?" Leima nearly shrieked. "Zari, what kind of fool are you? Can't you see--"
"It's just dinner," Zari protested.
"He's trying to start courting you!" Leima exclaimed. "You can't tell me you didn't know that!" Zari tried to say that she sincerely hadn't, but Leima kept going. "I don't believe it! I really don't! What's probably your one chance and you don't even see it!"
"Can I help it if I'm not thinking about men all the time?" Zari retorted.
"Ha! If you don't want him, send him my way," said Leima, and stormed off down the hall.
When she was out of sight, Zari leaned against the wall, waiting for her brain to catch up with what she'd heard. Of course it was true, and of course she had missed it. Was it her fault that she hadn't been expecting an offer of courtship, hadn't known to look for it, or even what it looked like? It was, and she knew it, but it certainly wasn't her fault that he'd offered. And, if he was truly serious about it, he would offer again. But the possibility that--good Mora, had she just wished he would offer again?
She had. Now she knew what the strange flutter in her stomach was, why she had had such trouble acting normal when he asked her to dinner. And if it hadn't made her miserable to know that she'd just turned down a potential suitor, knowing that she was sorry about it did the trick.
Copyright © 1999 by Katherine Foreman.