“Lying! Deceitful! Manipulative!” Morganzer was warming up for a good, long yell. She knew from long experience that it was difficult to keep up a good mad in the face of a gathering of aunts’ placid acceptance. So she screwed her eyes shut and clenched her fists.
“Mean! Uncaring! Flatulent!” The aunts were unimpressed by theology, biology, or scatology, leaving a child raised by them with no ready set of group-designated invective to draw on in times of high emotion. Although acting while in high emotion was frowned upon, so the fact that Morganzer was yelling while upset had a certain moré-defying satisfaction to it.
“Pus-pocketed! Gull-squirting! …”
“Poop! Poop! Poop!” a high-pitched, happy voice joined in, putting Morganzer off her stride.
“. . . Nail-splitting . . . uh. . . Spit-dribbling . . . “
“Dung! Cockerel! POOOOOOOP!” there was a creak in the voice when it warbled up to its highest notes.
Morganzer clapper her teeth together, clenching her whole body. Her cheeks burned with embarrassment. This was just wrong. Aunts shouldn’t be allowed to be mocking and childish. It was bad enough that they were stubborn and insufferable patient.
“Pooop! Poop! Pooooooooooooop!” Rhythmic splashing began to accompany the voice.
“Now, Mother, would you like a cookie?” a calm, more auntish voice asked. The voice became mumbly and preoccupied.
Morganzer unclenched a bit, but kept her eyes shut. No one else spoke. She became aware of a steamy heat. Even going into summer, heat was a welcome thing this far north. Putting that together with the splashing and various background clanks and clacks, Morganzer decided she was. . .
There was no keeping eyes shut, now. No one went Downside until they were declared adult. Since she was still only 15, Morganzer assumed that the aunts were bending their own rules. Information about Downside was gold Topside. Talking about it would be like talking about visiting Dureyni gods. No matter how unfair calming down was, Morganzer had to calm down enough to get a good look around.
Her first thought was that she wasn’t sure she liked the aging thing. There were things that most Topside children knew, or ended up knowing. Most of it was pieced together from random comments made by aunts or stories from older children. Not that all the stories could be believed.
Downside. Morganzer looked around, determined not to meet anyone’s eyes until she had had a good look. It was only mildly irritating that no one seemed to be taking any note of her. Because you had to expect that aunts would be annoying. It was what aunts did.
The room was big for Topside. Almost as big as the . . . yes, it was almost exactly like the baths. The baths were brighter, though, at least they were when the doors and windows were open, which was the only time Morganzer ever saw them. Using her skill at modeling, she mentally measured the room using the oblong barrel tubs as the unit. The tubs were about one aunt long and the room was a circle about eight tubs across. Only about half of the torches were lit along the outer wall and those were lit with summer fire, whose flame was bluish and gave off no heat.
The heat was coming from . . . where? Morganzer could not make that out. There were stories of where the heat came from. The aunts told the nemen that it came from deep in the earth. There were old pipe works, they said, that had been cut off by a shifting of rock in an earthquake. There was no way to get down to the pipes any more, but the baths above still worked. There was a tunnel that small boys were sent down. The aunts said it was to adjust a few exposed valves, to keep the water hot without building up so much pressure that the old pipes above would blow and need repairs.
The aunts told the nemen lots of stories, though. It was difficult enough to trust the stories that the aunts told her age-mates, it was impossible to trust what they told to nemen. And the boys would never tell. Or they’d tell so many different stories that you had to just throw them all out. Boys were a nuisance. At least they got sent away before they got too big. Big boys would be as bad as nemen, worse, maybe, because they’d be harder to lie to.
The nemen thought that aunts immolated themselves when they got too old. Morganzer had known that the aunts went Downside for years, now. It was never something that anyone said to you. You were left to work it out. It was radush – if you didn’t have enough wit to work it out for yourself, you probably couldn’t be trusted to know it.
Morganzer approved of fooling the nemen. She approved of having aunts Downside, where they could spend their time thinking and planning and keeping everyone safe. And incidentally, not being in a location from which they could directly poke at children. But she had never thought through the results of aunts getting older Downside. She was now experiencing a revulsion that she knew was caused by absorbing the story that the aunts told, even though she knew it wasn’t true. She knew that the aunts fooled the nemen and lived longer lives, but she was repulsed by those longer lives. Part of her obviously believed that lives like this could not be worth living. Part of her thought that these women would be better off dead.
Well, dead would also make them easier to deal with. It was natural to want someone difficult out of the way. Morganzer could forgive herself for being repulsed by the aunts. She told herself that she’d probably get used to them in no time. It wasn’t her fault that she’d been denied a chance to get used to . . . this kind of thing.
So she was Downside. She was Downside ahead of time. They’d probably try to convince her that she shouldn’t talk about it back Topside. She’d see. She’d agree, of course. That was the easiest way, with aunts. There was no way she’d give them any reason to keep her here. Warm or not, this place felt wrong. It was too enclosed. Something felt pressing.
“Come along to the kitchen,” said one of the old aunts. She was wearing a raw muslin tunic and baggy pants, tied just below her knees. Her bare shins and feet didn’t look too misshapen.
Morganzer followed. She had questions, but she knew better than to ask them directly. Food wouldn’t be a bad idea. Sometimes aunts talked while they watched you eat.