“Squeaky“ Kayla loved going through the old things.
She sat cross-legged in the middle of the loft surrounded by varnished wooden boxes, linen finery, and leatherbound albums. All of it was more than a hundred years old, but it was all well-preserved by the meticulous attention with which they had been cared for. A single skylight let in the noonday sun and made the dustmotes that swirled in the air glow with golden light.
Squeaky --who had earned the nickname by squeaking like a mouse whenever surprised, delighted or tickled -- had found a leatherbound journal belonging to her great-grandmother. She handled it carefully because the yellowed parchment pages had grown brittle with time.
The most of the journal was about everday life in the land of Cornerstone, like working the fields of cornberry and pinkmelon, glass-blowing for friends, and raising Squeaky’s grandmother. But there was one long entry that absolutely captivated her.
The entry was long and detailed. Nas-Kayla, had tended the birth of a friend’s first child. Seated in a birthing seat made of knotted silk rope and suspended from the ceiling, the friend, Mibolin, worked her way through the contractions and pains with the help of her sisters and closest friends. Nas-Kayla was the partuitor, the one who would deliver the baby and see to its care in the fragile first moments of life. Mibolin’s pregnancy had been as uneventful as a pregnancy could ever be, but she had been in labor for two days and nights, and she was exhausted.
Nas-Kayla lit seashell trays of incense of an herb known to help ease deliveries. The baby finally came, easing through the strands of the birth seat, down into Nas-Squeaky’s waiting hands. The baby was healthy and Nas-Kayla wrapped her in a soft linen and put her in a wicker bassinet.
Sisters and friends cared for Mibolin, batheing her and giving her reparative juices and muffins. The house was quiet and peaceful when a knock came at the door. A sister answered it.
Nas-Squeaky had written of every detail. Her first look at the newcomer was as she stepped in, silhouetted by silvery sunlight. When the sister closed the door, Nas-Squeaky saw her more clearly.
Squeaky gasped as she read.
It was a Guardian. She wore nothing at all but carried a small waterskin. In a soft, lyrical voice, she asked the sister if she could come in. The sister could only nod. No one would ever turn away the honor of a Guardian visit!
Nas-Kayla stood up from the bassinet as the Guardian approached. She wanted to kneel before her, but she knew the Guardians didn’t want that. She stood respectfully, hands clasped behind her back.
Though nude and utterly hairless, the Guardian was the most beautiful person Squeaky’s great-grandmother had ever seen. A bony crest rose proudly from the head. The skin, deeply wrinkled, moved with graceful fluidity over a body defined by the sensuous curves of strong, expanded joints. Elbows, knees, wrists and ankles were three times larger than in an ordinary person. Anyone else would have been helplessly crippled by joints so swollen, but on a Guardian they were a sign of great strength. The wrinkled skin was natural protection against the elements and any weapon smaller than a javelin.
The Guardian gently lifted the baby from the bassinet and cradled it in the crook of a giant elbow. Amazingly, the baby didn’t stir, didn’t cry. The Guardian traced her forefinger over the baby’s head and kneaded its abdomen. She listened carefully to its breath. When the child finally opened its eyes, the Guardian peered intently into them.
Everyone gathered at the doorway to the bedroom, keeping a respectful distance. The Guardian sniffed the baby thoroughly. Then, as if knowing immediately who the mother was, she brought the baby to Mibolin and handed it to her. Then the Guardian spoke again.
“She is a beautiful child, Mibolin. She will live long and happily. Care well for her.“
“Thank you,“ Mibolin said softly.
On her way back to the door, the Guardian paused at Nas-Kayla. “You do us honor with your work bringing new life into the world, Nas-Kayla. I am Tok, and I will remember you.“
It was a rare privelege to hear a Guardian’s name from her own mouth. All she could do was nod.
A moment later the Guardian was gone.
That was the end of the entry. Squeaky closed the journal and put it with those that had belonged to her mother. She straightened up the other things, moving with the greatest care. Nothing must be broken.
A Guardian! Squeaky thought. A Guardian who spoke her name! To my great-grandmother! Once finished in the loft, she went back downstairs to the house’s main floor.
Squeaky had lived in this house her whole life, and knew each room, pantry, cupboard, and cornice by heart. At night, with all the oil lamps extinguished, she could dart through the house without fear of stubbing a toe or banging a knee. She loved this house, and cared for it and the people who lived in it as for a sacred trust.
The house had been built by Squeaky’s great-great-grandmother. It stood on the crest of a rolling green hill, looking out over the green land of southern Suna. Cornerstone House was a place of hospitality for weary travelers and a permanent home to any who wished to stay and contribute to the household. The main house was a stone quarter-sphere -- an apse -- two stories tall surrounded by gardens and slate courtyards. Winding cobblestone paths connected the main house to smaller apses that served as guest houses, ceremonial cottages, and storage rooms. Other walkways ran away through groves of trees and around ponds to eventually descend the Hillside to join the traveler’s path.
Pets and wildlife lived among Cornerstone’s gardens and trees. Daily Squeaky made the rounds to put out food and clean up after them. At least four cats shared the estate; resident deer ate from Squeaky’s offerings, and there was a family of night-burrowers living near the east pond. Ducks and water skippers lived in the pond itself. Giant bumblers buzzed between flowers, furry legs coated with golden pollen.
Last week a foal had been born in one of the groves. Squeaky had happened upon mother and foal shortly after the birth. Not wanting to alarm them, she hadn’t approached. She hadn’t seen the foal since, but the mother was still on Cornerstone, so the foal was also somewhere nearby.
The main house was a warm and inviting place. Tapestries, all made by past and current Cornerstone residents, hung from the curved walls. The slate and redwood fireplace formed the centerpiece of the house, around which grouped sunken conversation pits with big circular leather chairs and rich mahogany pillars. Behind brocaded curtains were private and communal sleeprooms. The loft overlooked it all.
The kitchen was Squeaky’s favorite part of the house. Here she prepared meals and snacks for the people who lived here. Expansive marble countertops, deep pantries, wood stoves and iceboxes gave her all she needed for make simple snacks and banquet-style meals. The smell of incense and spices had permeated this kitchen for over a hundred years, and had flavored the wooden fixtures with the cozy scents of home.
More than a kitchen, the kitchen was also where Squeaky prepared herbal soothers for minor injuries and sicknesses. When someone had a bad cough, polonberry juice mixed with the oil extract from glimmerleaves helped. A cut was soothed by a bandage soaked with grape seed oil and the eluate from boiling elbow-root bark. Over the years, the girls who lived at Cornerstone had come here for Squeaky to care for them.
It was a privelege to care for others. Squeaky was close to all the permanent residents. Each of them was a sightsister, a sister not of blood but of spirit. To keep Cornerstone as a place of healing, love, and laughter for all gave wonderful meaning to Squeaky’s life.
Squeaky herself had no blood sisters. She had been an only child in a household that had yet to mature into what it was today. Then, Cornerstone had been smaller, and had been home only to Squeaky, her mother, aunt, and cousins. Over the course of Squeaky’s childhood her mother and aunt had built up Cornerstone into what it was today. Squeaky had worked alongside her cousins in expanding the house and planting gardens on the land around it.
Her childhood had been long and happy, but darkened by the year pneumonia had taken two of her cousins and her mother. It had been then that her mother had given Squeaky charge of keeping Cornerstone as a place of warmth and hospitality. When her aunt had become too old to work on the estate, Squeaky took it over and continued the projects her aunt and mother had started. Her remaining cousin, Yush-Kayla, had helped for years until her own mother died, then had gone to live in the communes in the Mountains of Chaos.
By then other people, other sunae were coming to live at Cornerstone. Travelers had learned it was a place of rest from their journeys. Cornerstone had never been empty, and Squeaky had quickly grown to love the travelers and her new sightsisters. And they all loved Squeaky in return. All of them had told her that she was an indispensable part of their lives, that she gave them a warm place to live and a kind spirit to watch over them.
But today Squeaky realized she had spent too much time in the loft. Ahmerie had been alone in the workshed all morning, and Squeaky knew that once Ahmerie got working on a project she would forget to eat. Squeaky hurriedly prepared a lunch of buttered dark bread and juice, put it in a basket, and left the house.
The sun felt nice on Squeaky’s nude body. She paused at the portico to slip her feet into sandals, and headed for the workshed.
Like many others, Squeaky was a committed nudist. Being nude meant she felt the cool breeze, the sunshine, and the soft rain all over, with her whole body. It put her in glorious touch with the natural world. She could luxuriate on a hand-woven throw-rug or revel in the invigorating sensations of water bubbling over her when she swam. Nudism had been a family tradition for generations.
She never could understand the shame other people felt about their bodies. It was as if they didn’t like themselves. Maybe wearing clothes was a way to separate themselves from Nature, a way to pretend that they themselves weren’t animals. But for Squeaky it was a joy to be an animal, to be part of the wonderful natural world.
The shed was on the other side of the central courtyard, behind one of the guest cottages. The cottages were all empty today. This wasn’t the traveling season: the rains could turn all the paths in Suna to mud with little advance warning. The other permanent sunae were working the small fields behind the estate.
Squeaky walked through the cottage’s back garden, through a profusion of violet burstblossoms and busy bumblers, to the shed. The shed was a shingled wooden apse, and housed the blacksmith’s tools and furnace built by her mother. Now Ahmerie used it as a workshed where she could work on her motors without distraction.
Motor-makers were rare. Few had the mix of theoretical knowledge and tinkerer’s intuition needed to build motors. Ahmerie was just such a person. She had been at Cornerstone for ten years, and though eccentric, she was a kind and tender person.
Sounds of metal banging against metal came from inside the shed. Squeaky hesitated to bother Ahmerie when she was working, but she had to eat. Squeaky knocked at the door. When the banging continued, she pushed the door open and entered.
Lit by upright shafts of sunlight from the skylights, the shed was filled almost to overflowing with contraptions of brass, iron, crystal, and glass. Intricate machines with rotors and pistons lay disassembled on the workbenches. The blacksmith furnace leaked black smoke from the seams of its cast iron door, but a motorized fan blew the smoke out an open window before it could build up inside the shed. But it was still hot in here.
“Ahmee?“ Squeaky called. She couldn’t see her among the machinery, and couldn’t tell where the banging was coming from.
Bang. Bang, bang.
The bang stopped. A face popped up from among the machines. “Yes? Hello?“
“Hi, Ahmee,“ Squeaky said. She lifted the basket. “I brought you some lunch.“
“Thank you, Squeaky. You’re a doll.“ Ahmerie disappeared and the banging resumed.
“Ahmee, why don’t you take a break?“ Squeaky called into the banging. “You have to eat!“
Again the banging stopped. Ahmerie got up from whatever new device she was working on. She wiped at her grease-stained face with a grease-stained hand, leaving a wide swath of grease across her forehead and one cheek. Her short, straight sandy brown hair was likewise streaked with grease. Though she wasn’t a nudist, she had taken off her shirt in the heat, and her shoulders and breasts gleamed with perspiration.
“All right, Squeaky,“ she said. “I know better than to argue with you.“
Squeaky smiled. “Come on outside. Sit in the garden.“
Ahmerie paused to wipe her face with a greasy rag, with little effect, and weaved her way through the maze of exotic machinery. Together they went out into the garden behind the guest cottage. Squeaky retrieved some cushions from inside the cottage and they sat down on a stone bench. Harmless and humorous in their clusminess, bumblers buzzed back and forth, frantically feasting from sunflowers and lotus blossoms.
Squeaky gave Ahmerie her bread and juice. Ahmerie consumed the first half-loaf quickly, and took long drinks of juice. After taking the edge off her hunger and thirst, she reclined on the bench. Squeaky sat cross-legged and sipped juice and nibbled at bread.
“You really are a treasure Squeaky,“ Ahmerie between bites. “You take good care of me. If it weren’t for you -- “
“You’d starve to death in that shed of yours!“ Squeaky said.
“What are you working on?“ Squeaky asked. “That piston driver you started last falan?“
Ahmerie shook her head. “No, I ran into problems with that one. The pistons were too heavy to be run by a small stator. And I think I originally machined them to the wrong size. They seize in their channels. Even after I took a few hair-breadths off them with the lathe, they moved too slowly to transfer the force to another machine.“ She took a drink of juice. “I don’t know. Maybe the pistons are a dead end.“
“Don’t say that, Ahmee,“ Squeaky said. She refilled Ahmerie’s juice from the carafe. “You’ve been working on them for a long time. Don’t give up.“
“I’m not giving up. Yet. Maybe I need another differential gearbox in there to make the pistons work. It’ll make the motor more complex, and heavier, but reciprocating motion would be so useful! We could use it for water pumps -- “
“The pumps you made last falan work fine. We can recirculate the water in the ponds fast enough to keep the algae from growing. Those are your old kind of pumps, the peri... peristaltic pumps.“
“Yes, Squeaky, but imagine a reciprocating pump powerful enough to pump water from the river directly out to the fields. We could water the fields all through the falan.“
Ahmerie finished her juice and politely burped. She handed the tumbler to Squeaky, to stowed it in the basket. “Thank you for lunch. How did you know I was hungry?“
Squeaky giggled. “Ahmee, you’ve been in that shed all morning! You haven’t been back to the house since breakfast.“
“I guess time got away from me.“
They got up and Ahmerie hugged Squeaky. When they parted, Squeaky’s cheek was smeared with grease. Ahmerie laughed, and Squeaky put a hand to her cheek. When her fingers came away grease-stained, she laughed too.
They went back to the shed. In front of the door was a pile of wooden circular frames, rotor housings for magnets. Ahmerie looked through them. “I’m going to make a ceramic stator based on one of these wooden ones. It should be lighter and stronger. Could I use the pottery wheel later in the week?“
“Sure. Nealah is finished with it. I’ll clean it up and make some more clay for you. But tomorrow I have to go to North Grove and plant those polon bushes. It’ll take most of the day. Can you wait until the day after?“
“Of course, Squeaky. At your convenience.“
Ahmerie went through the circular frames. Each one had brackets and sockets around its rim to hold the array of small magnets that made motors work. “So what have you been doing, Squeaky?“ Ahmerie asked as she turned them over, looking for the right one.
Squeaky beamed. “I found another of my great-grandmother’s journals!“
“That’s great. That’s the fourth one, isn’t it?“
“Mm hm! It’s in good shape, though the pages are starting to split apart. I was thinking of transcribing it and the others into new journals, so my children will be able to know their great-great-grandmother. But guess what I found in this one?“
Ahmerie stopped with the frames. “What?“
“You’ll never guess!“
“No, I won’t. Tell me.“
“Just guess, Ahmee!“
“Just tell me, Squeaky!“
“Okay,“ Squeaky said, grinning. It was a guilty pleasure to tease Ahmee. “In the journal was an entry all about how a Guardian came to a birth my great-grandmother did! A Guardian!“
Ahmerie frowned. “A Guardian? Are you sure?“
“Mm hm! She called her a Guardian, and described her in detail. It was a Guardian!“
“Are you sure your great-grandmother wasn’t talking about a legend she had heard?“
“Positive. My great-grandmother was a partuitor. She delivered babies. She had a friend named Mibolin, and after Mibolin had her baby, the Guardian came.“
“Just how did she describe this Guardian?“
In her mind’s eye, Squeaky went back to the scene she had imagined. “She wrote that she carried a waterskin. And she was nude. She didn’t have any hair on her body, and had a crest on top of her head. Her skin was all wrinkly, and thick.“
“She looked like she had real bad arthritis.“
“The Guardian’s joints were much bigger than a normal person’s. Like this, I think.“ Squeaky made a half-circle with one hand and cupped an elbow.
“And what did she do?“
“She examined the baby, like she was checking to see if it was all right. She smelled it, too. Then she spoke!“
Ahmerie still looked a little doubtful. “What did she say?“
“First she spoke to Mibolin and told her she had a healthy baby. Then she spoke to my great-grandmother and congratulated her on her work as a partuitor. And she gave her name. Her name was Tok.“
Ahmerie looked upward without moving her head, a sign that she was thinking. “Tok. I’ve heard that name before. I know I have.“ She looked at Squeaky again. “So, the Guardian came right after a new birth, checked the baby, and gave her name as Tok?“
Squeaky nodded energetically.
Ahmerie glanced down at the frame and picked one up. She took it inside the shed and returned a few moments later. “This is interesting, Squeaky. I know that name but I don’t know from where.“
“I can get Great-grandmother’s journal for you, if you want.“ Squeaky started back toward the house.
Ahmerie grabbed a handful of Squeaky’s long chestnut hair and tugged gently. Squeaky stoppped. “Hold on, Squeaky,“ Ahmerie said. “I need to look this up in my books. Did your great-grandmother date this entry?“
Squeaky nodded, eyes rounded. Ahmerie’s books were books from the University in the big city, and contained the most valuable and rare knowledge in the world. “You think the Guardian’s name is in one of your books? Do you have books about Guardians?“
“A few books, mostly about legends and mythology, that mention Guardians in different guises. But I don’t know; it seems to me that if I’ve heard the name Tok anywhere, it was at the University. I can look it up tonight.“
“Oh, Ahmee, can you do it now?“
“Squeaky, I just started working on a new motor. I’d like to get something finished today -- “
“Please? If my great-grandmother wrote something so important in her journal that it’s also in one of your University books, I want to know.“
“I understand that, I really do, but I want to get going on the ceramic bracket. I have calculations to do and designs to draw up... “
Squeaky bounced up and down. “Pleeease? It would mean so much to me.“
Ahmerie smiled and shook her head. “You know I can’t say no to you.“
Squeaky hugged her tight. “I’ll draw you a bath so you can clean up.“ With that, Squeaky bounded back to the house.