by Katherine Allen
|Table of Contents|
Chapter X appeared
in issue 179.
In the somewhat distant future, Japanese and Arab emigrants share a small planet where they live in separate colonies. They name the planet Hon’ya, ‘world of books’ because the Arabs are a ‘people of the Book’. The Japanese colony into which Skoshi is born has reverted to ancient social norms whereby women are severely repressed and treated as chattel.
Nonetheless, Skoshi acquires an education by stealthily reading books from her father’s large library. While she contemplates with dread an arranged marriage, the premature death of her beloved younger brother frees her to flee with grandmother. A brilliant student, Skoshi integrates very successfully among foreigners in the Space Corps. But she and her grandmother are being pursued...
When you look at the night sky, what do you see?
Astronomers might say that they see Cygnus Major, or the lesser Magallanic cloud. A child might say they see “Never-Never Land.” But our story will not take us to any of those places. Our story begins in a large house in a small province on Hon’ya, a planet far beyond the second star to the right and too small to be of consequence unless you had ever been there. If you ever have, that you are either very rich or you were born there.
Our story begins with a history lesson. A long time ago, on a planet named Earth there was a war. The topic was, as usual, something that no one, most especially those who started the war, could remember. At the end of the war, members of both the Japanese and the Arabic cultures decided to leave Earth. It was not uncommon for a set of people to decide on colonization: Earth was an old planet, and, because of earlier abuse, it was not the best in some areas. So they independently used their own science to build shuttles and to find a suitable planet to colonize.
Strange as it seems, the old saying “great minds think alike” proved true in this instance. After much searching, the Japanese scientists found a small planet, similar to Mars in size but with an atmosphere closer to Earth’s. Coincidentally, the Arab scientists found a strikingly similar planet, the same one in fact. Both cultures prepared to leave their home of centuries for a faraway planet.
Still blissfully unaware of the others’ plans, the two groups set off and landed on their new home a few months apart. When both peoples saw that their chances of a solo home were rapidly diminishing, certain of the younger men prepared to fight over the planet. But the older generation of the groups knew that that would solve nothing and only repeat the mistakes of countless others before them; so the elders of the two cultures got together and reached an agreement.
What happened behind those closed doors we will never know, but the formal announcement was that the two cultures would share the planet, the Arabic group taking the warmer equatorial section and the Japanese group colonizing the cooler, more temperate areas. Since the Arabs are sometimes called “men of the book,” the planet would be called Hon’ya, a Japanese word that changed its meaning from ‘bookstore’, to ‘planet of books’. And so the Hon’yans’ problem seemed solved: they were truly going to live “Happily Ever After.”
Ah, the plans of mice and men. You know, they say that the best way to make God laugh is to tell him all your plans?
After a few years the cultures began to blend in seeming harmony. And because of Hon’ya’s beauty the planet became a very exclusive resort. The people seemed polite and hospitable, and the tea baths were considered a highlight of the planet’s tourist trade. But, you know, no tourist had ever been outside any city unless he was in a guided tour, so no one really knew what Hon’ya was really like.
Unless, of course, you were a Hon’yan woman.
It is to be expected that when you crash two cultures together there will a certain amount of clashing, then they will find a common ground and things will improve. Unfortunately, the common ground is not always the most pleasant one. You see, the two groups had decided to return to their roots, so to speak. And, neither the ancient Oriental nor the ancient Arab cultures had a terribly high opinion of women. So, right away, they had a common ground.
In ancient Asia, when the first child of the family is born, there is celebration. The father traditionally buys red cloth and red-dyed eggs. He will throw a feast, and all of his neighbors will come and rejoice with him.
Hon’yans had a similar tradition. But there was a small — or large — difference. Only if the firstborn was a male child did this ceremony take place. If the family had the misfortune of having a girl child for their firstborn she was dressed in white — the traditional color of mourning — and kept in a cradle covered in white crepe for the first month. During that time anyone who wanted to console the family could come and mourn. No relatives from more than fifty miles away made the trip. As it was a girl child, why waste the expense?
And so it was when Skoshi entered the world. Though it must be admitted that she was a beautiful child she was shunned and ignored by all unless they were her servants. Though she was nothing but a girl she was still the daughter of Toyoko Hara, the granddaughter of Matasako Hara. And, though a girl, if she did not have adequate servants it would bring shame upon the family.
So Skoshi lived, viewed as nothing but a source of shame for her family. For her father it proved that he had not chosen his wife correctly. For her mother she was a constant reminder that despite, all the teas and potions her mother had given her she was still unable to please her husband by bearing him sons. It was shame enough to bear daughters, but as your first child!
Many husbands would have divorced her immediately, for fear that all her children would be girls. Instead Skoshi’s father merely took a concubine, who within a year bore him twin sons. It was another five years before Skoshi’s mother gave birth. True, it was a boy this time, but within a year, anyone could see that he was severely retarded, another hated failure. As this went on, Skoshi continued to grow up. In the confusion of the grown-up world no one but her grandmother noticed that she was an extraordinary child.
After Skoshi turned three and was weaned she was turned over to her grandmother to be educated in things that befitted a woman. Grace, poise, silence. And she did teach her this, among other things.
* * *
“Ma’may, tell me again about how you ran away. Please.” Five-year-old Skoshi pleaded as she ran up to her Grandmother.
Skoshi’s grandmother chuckled and picked her granddaughter up in her arms. “All right, Skoshi love. The story of when I ran away:
“When I was sixteen years old my father told me it had been arranged for me to marry your grandfather. So I decided to run away.”
“But, didn’t you like grandfather?”
“Skoshi love, I didn’t know him. All I knew was that he was forty-eight, three times my age.”
Skoshi’s grandmother laughed and hugged her granddaughter close. “To me it was. And besides, I had heard that he was a mean-tempered man. And I would be his second wife. His first had died in childbirth. All her children were girls. So he kept her pregnant so she would have a boy. It didn’t work though, she died at just twenty-five years old.”
“That’s very mean.”
“Yes, it was. That’s why I didn’t want to marry Matasako. I decided I would run away. I would leave the planet and never get married. I had seen the ships leaving the planet, on my trips to the city. And I wanted to pilot them. So I left. I hid in a cart going toward the city. I was almost caught. The cart held tobacco, and some soldiers stopped it, so that they could ‘borrow’ some. As they poked through the bags, trying to find the choicest pieces, I heard them describe the girls in the last town. Bragging how they had impressed them with their battle stories. One of them began to describe a ‘certain fiery girl’. That girl was me. They went on about how spirited I looked. How they envied the man who would ‘tame’ me. I hated them for talking about me that way, like I was a horse or a dog.
“Only one said that he saw intelligence in my eyes, and that I would be trouble. The others only laughed and went back to making crude remarks about how well I was proportioned.”
“Eww is right. Anyway, I got to the city, and made it to the space station, even to the first stop on the space cruisers’ course. But they caught me and brought me back. And you know the rest.”
“Yes, you married grandfather and had father and Uncle Seiichi, and Uncle Hotzumi and Uncle Miyago. And father married mother and they had me.
“Yes, fate’s revenge on me seemed to be that all of my children are male.” Skoshi’s Grandmother looked down on her little granddaughter. She say something she had always wanted, a little girl who she could love as she had never been loved... except once.
* * *
Under the influence of her grandmother Skoshi grew up into a beautiful young woman. Not only was she graceful and poised, but also, to her father’s eyes, she was demure and humble, acknowledging her place, and respecting men’s place.
What was less known of Skoshi was that she was intelligent, very intelligent. Because of Hon’ya’s name, “planet of books,” it was expected that all men on the planet be well educated and well read. So Skoshi’s father had an extensive library, handed down to him from his father, to whom it was handed down to by his father. With three generations of collecting, the library held over ten thousand books, it was the largest private library on all of Hon’ya. With Skoshi’s mind she loved the library, enjoyed reading, and, if she could, would spend hours doing so. But there was a small problem; women on Hon’ya were not allowed access to thing like libraries. It was a well-known fact that a woman’s smaller mind and lesser intellect could not handle the extensive education and learning a man’s could.
So, in order to protect the well being of the weaker gender, man must shelter and protect woman from herself, shielding her from anything that might harm her. So, out of love and respect for their weakness and frailty, women on Hon’ya were not allowed more than three years of schooling, and reading was restricted to subjects such as poetry and folklore. Instead they were trained in the domestic arts, cooking, cleaning, everything to help them in what was ultimately their fate, an arranged marriage to a man with whom they spoke for five minutes before the wedding day.
Most commonly the marriage was arranged on the grounds of material profit for the father, with little or no regard as to either party’s feelings. Hon’yan women owned no property, and, on their husband’s death they either returned to their father’s house or lived with any sons they had born.
In a world in which this system was the norm one can easily imagine the difficulty Skoshi must have had in obtaining knowledge. But, with ingenuity and her grandmother’s help, she managed.
Since she had had a strict, old-fashioned father, she had been forced to fight for every bit of knowledge she got. She would take books from her brother’s nightstands and read all night in order to finish them. When she slipped up one night and was caught by her oldest brother and beaten, she had to devise new ways of getting books.
Her youngest step-brother, who was born a year after her and brother, was one place of comfort. Even though they had servants, the nannies never complained when Skoshi came and relieved them of this rambunctious little boy.
When he was young he would ask her to read to him, and, even though the books were for small children, it was the written word that Skoshi loved so much. When her brother got older his father was delighted how much he loved to read, and how he seemed to devour books. What he didn’t know was that the books were really for his daughter. She would read the book and write a detailed report for her brother so that when their father questioned him about the book he would be able to give a coherent answer with only minimum prompting.
Her own brother, Sako, was a beautiful boy, and, even though he was severely retarded, he was a brilliant artist. He could see the mist rising from the marsh at sunrise, and paint a picture enough like the original to bring tears to Skoshi’s eyes. Since Sako was not “normal” he was shunned by most of the family, they never admired or hung his paintings, and his oldest brothers called him “stupid one.” Only Skoshi, and her grandmother, ever showed him any kindness. They hung every one of his paintings on their walls, showing him the only love he ever received. The three people had a kinship; all three were shunned and hated. They were living examples of failure. For the children they were a failure on their mother’s part to give her husband a healthy son, and failure on their father’s part to bring honor to their ancestors. On their grandmother’s part, she was just considered a failure as a woman.
* * *
Skoshi read the lines of her favorite poem.
“The elegant reflection
Of two white lilies;
Now the pond is fragrant.”
To some people it might be nothing but a silly haiku, meaning nothing. But to Skoshi, it meant something special. It meant that, no matter how small, a little bit of beauty makes a whole person beautiful. And, even if you can’t see them, the lilies fragrance the pond; thus, if the beauty is on the inside, it does not make the person any less beautiful.
That was an important thing for Skoshi to believe in. In her culture a woman’s only beauty was thought to be on the outside. If she was beautiful she would get a better husband than if she were plain. But Skoshi knew, as her grandmother had taught her, that the real, lasting beauty, is on the inside.
Skoshi read that poem every day. And she thought about it. What had the ancient poet Seien been thinking when he wrote it? Did he think what she thought? She knew that her people had not always been as they are now. Once, there had been respect for members of both sexes.
In the ancient legend of emperor Showa it spoke of the young emperor and his empress, Nagako. After an engagement of five years, filled with threats, lies and extreme heartache on both sides, the couple married. It was not until two years after their wedding that Nagako became pregnant. When she gave birth, it was a girl. And so the nation prayed, for without a son the emperor’s line could not continue. And the prayer was answered, Nagako became again pregnant; she gave birth to a girl. This one died at two years of age.
Twice more she gave birth to girls, they were married for ten years before Nagako finally gave birth to a son. And all during that time, even though the emperor was duty bound to provide and heir, he never once turned to a concubine, though he was urged many times by many different people too, for “the good of the nation.”
The Hon’yan men all interpreted the legend as proof that men are all-wise and know when thing will turn out all right. But Skoshi thought that maybe, just maybe, emperor Showa had not wanted to shame his wife in that way. Though it rarely happened, occasionally you would hear stories of a young man who would work and save for years in order to buy his wife. It involved a concept, not often used in marriage, love. Like the love of a woman for her sons, some men loved their wives in a way, so powerful, that they never wised to dishonor them, or harm them.
Perhaps, Skoshi thought, she was merely a silly girl after all. But it was nice to think that maybe emperor Showa loved, and trusted his wife enough, that he would never wish to be with another woman, that, he knew his wife would not let him down. And, though Skoshi’s mother did not love her, and viewed her as a failure, she could not help but wish that her father had trusted his wife and that emperor Showa trusted his.
Copyright © 2005 by Katherine Allen