SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS – snippet 43:
Howard was unprepared for the kitchen she propelled him into. He didn't really mind the cooking part, that she seemed to expect him to do. It was abnormal, but then, so was their society. And he wasn't planning to spend very long here. Just long enough to find Kretz and get out of this piece of Gomorrah. It could have been worse, he supposed. It could have been Sodom.
But how was he expected to cook without a methane-burner? What were these glass-fronted cupboards with dials? And where were the essentials of a good kitchen: the sides of bacon, the hams, the strings of onions and bunches of garlic? He didn't even see a single crock or any preserves, let alone wicker baskets full of fresh produce hung where they would catch the cool tunnel-breeze. Perhaps there was a pantry? The only thing he felt familiar with was the sink.
She was obviously watching his face. "We could get food from a take-out, but we're too far from town for anyone to deliver, and the scoot still needs fixing," she said, her voice defensive. "I've got a fair number of instant meal-for-ones in the freezer, but I haven't got around to doing much food-shopping lately."
"I don't understand all these things," he said humbly. He seemed to spend a lot of time being humbled. "In New Eden almost everyone grows their own food and barter with their neighbors. I have never bought any food."
It was her turn to gape at him. "Grow your own? Do you each have your own harvesters and plant-tender robots then?"
"I'm not sure what this 'robot' you mention is. If it is a machine, we have no machines. God gave us hands to work with. I plant, tend and harvest my crops. I tend, feed, milk and slaughter my animals."
Her mouth hung open. "Really? With your own hands? Doesn't it take a lot of time?"
"Yes. But we have no machines. It is good honest work."
"Well," said Lani, obviously trying to take something positive out of this, "I guess they can't break down then. I suppose I'll have to show you how to work all this stuff." She sighed. "I'm not really very good at men's work, you know."
She opened a chest full of coldness, and took out two square packs. Took a look at Howard and took out a third. "You're going to be expensive to feed."
"I'm sorry," he said. He supposed that he would be, compared to the tiny little men he'd seen.
"Don't be so damned humble!" she snapped. "You make me feel guilty, always apologizing like that."
"I'm sorry," he said again, before he realized what he was doing, and felt foolish. "It's a habit. I am always in trouble back… among my people."
She laughed. "Probably for picking up women and breaking things."
Howard was acutely uncomfortable. "No. I've never even touched a woman before, well, except my own mother and my aunt, and Sister Thirsdaughter. I mostly got into trouble for fixing things. For taking apart mechanical devices too. And for going to places I wasn't supposed to."
"Who is this 'Sister Thirsdaughter'?" she asked, head tilted.
"The healer and midwife for our community. We are blessed indeed to have such a wonderful woman with us," he explained.
"Pretty, is she?" asked Lani.
Howard blinked, suddenly getting the drift of the woman's questions. "She brought me into this world. And my father and mother before me," he said.
She had the grace to look a little embarrassed. "Oh. Well, look you put these into the micro. Here. You set it on three minutes thaw and one reheat for each. Have you got that? To think I'd be teaching cooking!"
It wasn't much like any kind of cooking Howard had encountered. He had it fixed in his memory, but he also had no idea what it meant. And he wished that the kitchen was a bigger room and that she wouldn't lean on him like that. He wished that he could get a bit further away from the temptations of her body. He had found himself reciting psalms to keep his thoughts from straying. There weren't enough psalms. And by the look on her face, she'd noticed.
The light went off in the square glass-fronted box she'd put the icy blocks into.
She opened the door of the device, and took them out. Slightly fragrant steam curled up from them. She put the now obviously hot blocks onto plates she took down from a cupboard. At last—something familiar, although these were not made of wood.
"I normally just eat out of the container, she said guiltily. "It saves on washing up. But I suppose we'll get used to using plates now."
The knives and forks were just knives and forks. The food, revealed once the cover was pulled back, was like nothing Howard had ever seen. It had been cut to fit the shape of the container. Square meat. Square-ended vegetables.
It wasn't like anything he'd ever tasted, either.
He prodded the square of meat. "What sort of animal does this come from?" he asked, trying hard not to sound critical.
"It's vat-protein beef."
"Ah." Howard desperately struggled for something polite to say about it. "It's… very tender. They don't run about much, these beasts."
"It's not really an animal. It's a cell-culture. We don't actually have any animals in the Matriarchy, although I've read about them and seen pictures." She looked a little wary. "You actually have them running around? And then you kill them?"
Howard nodded. "It is the normal thing, yes. Of course we keep cows for milk, butter and cheese too, and chickens for eggs and meat."
She shuddered. "It sounds barbaric."
Howard, fresh from his new meeting with technology, felt a bit embarrassed. "It… tastes good. There is a certain satisfaction to it too, raising and providing your own food. Of course it isn't as quick as this."
"Well, you can buy unprocessed stuff. It's very cheap. I have no idea what to do with it, though. I'll get you some and you can try."
Howard wasn't planning to stay here that long. But, although it was not quite honest, he had a feeling that he'd better not tell her that. At least the food filled the gaping hole in his belly.
She yawned. "Leave the dishes for the morning," she said. "Let's go to bed. You'd probably like to wash first. I would."
It was the kind of invitation that part of Howard thought would be worth a fall from grace. And he wasn't thinking of the opportunity to wash.
"Can I draw and heat the water?" he said. A cold bath would help him anyway. "Where do find the buckets?" Maybe here they would not frown on his bucket-yoke.
She looked at him very oddly. He held his head up high. Some were born to be hewers of wood and drawers of water. There was no shame in that. "I still have working faucets, Howard. And hot water," she said, leading him into another room, overfull of bath.
He found the idea that hot water could come out of a tap fascinating, and a little threatening too. What was a man to do if machines did all the work? Still, the bath was convenient and a welcome thing after the sort of day he'd had. The bubbles were… odd, but fragrant. Howard felt he ought to disapprove of them because of their frivolity, but then he wasn't too sure that they were frivolous. Maybe they served some purpose that he knew nothing about. He got that feeling about half the things in this world.
He climbed into the warm fragrant water, sat back and relaxed, closing his eyes, let the troubles and complexities of this new world ebb away.
"Move up," she said. "You occupy a wholly indecent amount of a bath, you know."
Howard sat up hastily, as she stepped into the bath. He tried to get out, slipped and nearly submerged. Fortunately, it was quite a large bath without that much water in it.
She laughed, and, while sitting down into the water, pushed him back with a hand on his shoulder. "Don't be sillier than you have to be," she said calmly.
"It's not… decent. Not right," he spluttered reverting to trying to avert his eyes.
"I don't have a problem with it, and it's my world. Nobody wears clothes here. Now relax. You still need to wash. And I want you to do my back. And open your eyes. It's not as if you hadn't seen me already."
"You are making it very hard for me," he pleaded. "I had never even seen a naked woman until today."
She smiled at him in a very alarming way. It reminded him of a cat, stalking a chick when the hen wasn't watching. "I intend to make things very hard for you. You'll just have get used to it."
"I feel I have seen too many naked women today," he said, gloomily.
"That wasn't quite what I meant. Anyway. I need my back washed."
"I told you to call me Lani. It's a privilege, you know."
"The mistress's privilege and slave's view of the same thing are not alike."
"You're not a slave."
"You paid for me. That's slavery."
"Actually, the money is held in trust for your care if I throw you out, and also to pay for your children's maintenance. I pay it in installments every month."
"It still feels like slavery," said Howard, taking the loofah.