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Someone was standing by his bed, a person completely unlike anyone Tendai had ever met. In the predawn light his features were unclear. He was simply a presence of darker blue than the sky behind him. But there was about him a scent of woody smoke and new leaves and the honey of far-off, unseen flowers. The presence pointed at Tendai and said, "You!"
The boy woke up at once. The first rays of dawn were sliding over the garden wall, and the window was empty. What a strange dream, thought Tendai. He pulled the sheet over his head as he tried to remember it better. The image faded away, leaving a strange sense that something important was about to happen. His ancestors must have felt this way before a big hunt.
Tendai imagined them lying on the warm earth of their huts, feeling it tremble with destiny. Their shields and spears lay ready by the door. Not like me, he thought. He snuggled into a soft bed in one of the finest mansions in Zimbabwe. Around the house were a large garden and a wall studded with searchlights and alarms. The automatic Doberman growled as it made a last tour of the lawn before retiring to its kennel.
Any tremble of destiny would have had to struggle through the concrete foundations of the house. It would have had to work through inlaid wooden floors and thick carpets, to creep up the grand staircase to the second floor. Only a whisper could have found its way to his waiting ear.
Yet find him it did.
He heard the robot gardeners clipping the grass along a walk. Hoopoes called from jacaranda trees, but a microchip went on with a far better selection of birdsong. It was certainly beautiful, but Tendai felt a pang of regret at not being able to hear the real birds. The mynah – a living creature smuggled in by the Mellower – stirred in its cage. "Mangwanani," it said. "Have you slept well?"
Kuda, Tendai's little brother, sat up and answered, "I have done so if you have done so."
The mynah paid no attention to this polite reply. "Mangawani! Mangawani!" it shrieked, rattling the door of its cage.
Kuda hopped out of bed and released the bird. It fluttered to a table and snapped up a crust of bread from last night's supper. Tendai could hear the crumbs showering over his books. He pulled the covers more tightly around his ears to keep in the light, happy feeling of excitement.
A house robor purred as it went from door to door with tea. It entered and placed two steaming cups on the table. The mynah squawked as it was pushed aside. "Good morning," said the robot. "It's September second, 2194. The time is six-fifteen A.M. Breakfast is at seven. Be on time if you know what's good for you."
"Go away," muttered Kuda as he blew on the hot tea.
"Anyone who oversleeps is a big fat booboo head," retorted the robot as it glided out.
"Rita programmed it to say that," Tendai said as he threw back the covers.
"I know. Well, are you going to ask him?" Kuda swung his short legs off the edge of his chair.
"I'm not promising anything."
"You're a wimp."
Tendai didn't bother to argue. Kuda didn't know how difficult it was to ask Father anything. That duty fell on the eldest brother. Besides, when Kuda got an idea in his head, it took an earthquake to dislodge it. "I had the funniest dream this morning," Tendai began.
"The mynah just knocked over your tea," Kuda remarked. Tendai grabbed a towel and cleaned up the mess. Then he quickly took a shower and dressed in his Scout uniform. Breakfast was at seven, not a minute earlier or later.
The two brothers stood outside the dining room door, where they were joined by Rita. She was also in a Scout uniform. A hundred years before, Boy and Girl Scouts had belonged to different organizations, but now they were lumped together. Father approved of them because they taught the virtues most revered by the people of Zimbabwe: loyalty, bravery, courteousness and reverence for Mwari, the supreme god.
Kuda had no Scout uniform because he was only four. He did his best with a sand-colored shirt and a pair of shorts. "Breakfast!" chimed the door as it swung open. The children trooped in. They lined up in order with Tendai, age thirteen, first and Rita, eleven, second. Tendai was secretly embarrassed that he and Rita were the same height. Kuda was last.
Mother smiled at them from her chair. She looked cool and elegant in her long white dress. She toyed with a slice of cantaloupe on a blue plate.
"All present and accounted for," said Father. "Rita, stop slouching." The children stood as tall as they could manage as their father marched from his great chair at the head of the table. He wore a general's uniform with gold braid on his massive shoulders. His chest was covered with medals. Since it was breakfast and he was home and it was a warm day, he left his cap on a hat rack.
"Shirttail out, Kuda. Five push-ups for you. Rita, pull in your stomach. You are not a watermelon. Tendai-" Father stopped, and Tendai felt sweat prickle on his forehead. He loved his father, but sometimes he wished he wasn't so – so military. He suspected Father would like to have Mother at the end of the line, tall and perfectly groomed. But even Father could hardly order her to do push-ups if he detected a loose thread.
"Tendai passes inspection," said Father, and he stalked back to his chair. Tendai relaxed, not letting it show. Passing inspection was as close as Father ever got to praise. Perhaps he could ask the question after all.
They were allowed to sit down, but things began to go wrong at once. The maid robot spooned porrideg on the tablecloth. She had to be sent to the kitchen for readjustment. The butler took over the serving. He wouldn't give Rita extra sugar, and she sulked. The holophone trotted up to Father's chair and clamored until he answered it.
A report began to feed in: pictures of fire engines and ambulances flashed across the screen. Tendai watched idly because he had nothing better to do. The Masks, the only ganag remaining after Father's war on crime, had set off a bomb in a shopping center. Bodies were taken out of the smoking ruins. Statistics rattled across the bottom of the screen. Tendai turned away. It was all remote, of no interest.
"Accursed Masks!" shouted Father at the holophone. "Get me the police chief!" The phone bobbed and dialed. Father and the police chief made plans while the omelets on everyone's plates got cold.
Of course no one thought of eating until Father was ready. He was an elder and head of the family.
"Lizard eggs," muttered Rita, poking at her omelet.
"Don’t start," Tendai said in a low voice.
"Chickens are descended from reptiles. I read it in a book."
"Nasty old cold lizard eggs."
"Is something wrong?" thundered Father from the head of the table.
"No," said Tendai, Rita and Kuda all together.
"Everything's delicious," added Rita. "Especially the eggs."
"Is it too much to ask," shouted Father, "when I'm trying to protect ten million citizens from packs of hyenas that want to tear down our civilization, is it too much to ask for a little peace and quiet at the breakfast table" He slammed the receiver down. The holophone whimpered and cowered against a wall.
Everyone ate in silence. Tendai had a mental picture of his father lining up everyone in the city. "Ten push-ups for you, twenty for you," he would growl as he inspected a line of ten million people. Tendai had to clench his jaws to keep from laughing.
"What's this?" said Father as the butler robot placed a rack of dry toast by his plate.
"No butter until your blood pressure goes down. Doctor's orders," the butler said.
"I hate dry toast." But Father piled it with blackberry jam and ate it anyway.
Tendai listened to the birdsong in the garden. He couldn't ask about the Scout trip now. They were going to spend another long, boring day locked up in the house. All because Father was afraid they would get kidnapped.
"It's time for the Mellower," said Mother in her gentle voice. Everyone looked up, even Father, although he pretended he was only checking the time. The butler robot cleared away the dishes. They sat expectantly, watching the door.
"He's late," said Mother.
"He's always late," said Father.
Tendai felt a disloyal twinge of pleasure. The Mellower was the one person Father couldn't organize. The Mellower had smudges on his shoes. Buttons dropped off his shirt and were forgotten. His lunches lasted three hours, and he made paper airplanes of the homework he was supposed to supervise. Tendai, Rita and Kuda often covered up for him.
"I'll send the butler after him," sighed Mother.
"If he were one of my soldiers, I'd order him to do fifty push-ups," Father said. "No, a hundred."
The sprinklers in the garden switched on; the odor of wet dust drifted through the window. It made Tendai think of the storms that blew out of the Indian Ocean. He thought of the faces of his ancestors turned toward the sky. They smiled as the rain opened the earth. They sang praises to Mwari, whose voice is thunder, and to mhondoro, the spirit of the land—
"Wake up," whispered Rita, kicking him under the table. Tendai straightened just as Father looked at his end of the table.
"It can't be seven-thirty," came the Mellower's voice from down the hall. "I'm sure I set the alarm. Oh, dear, I'm such a bad boy." He hurried through the door and brushed a mop of blond hair from his pale forehead.
"What wonderful, patient people you are!" he cried. "I'm so lucky to be here. When I tell the other Priase Singers I work for the great General Amadeus Matsika, they're so jealous they could spit!" And before Father could react, the mellower launched into his Praise.
Tendai had heard Praise Singing described many ways. It was an ancient custom meant to call forth the powers of the seen and unseen worlds. It was music. It was poetry. But most of all, it was medicine for the soul. Some Mellowers were public and had offices. Many worked for hospitals, but a few were attached to great houses like the Matsikas'. They stood at the breakfast table and recounted the glories and strengths of each family member.
"Today this place is full of noise and happiness.
The guiding spirit of the General stands over us Like a great tree: let all who are afraid Take shelter under his mighty shadow!"
Tendai noticed he was starting out with traditional poetry. The Mellower compared Father to a victorious bull in a green field, to the lion that represented Father's totem.
Then he changed to modern speech and described some of Father's actual victories. He recounted how Father rescued the President when Gondwannan terrorists attacked her house, how she made him Chief of Security for the Land of Zimbabwe. He pictured the long, bitter struggle against the gangs. As the Mellower talked, the lines on Father's face relaxed. His eyes became distant and dreamy.
Tendai thought the change was amazing. As the cares and irritations dropped away, General Matsika became the father Tendai wished he really had.
Then the Mellower spoke of Mother's chemistry discoveries and her position as a professor at the University. Mother's eyes shone with pleasure. He praised Rita for winning a National Science Prize. He expressed happiness over her plumpness, which showed promise of great beauty. The peevishness in Rita's face melted away.
Kuda, said the Praise Singer, spoke as clearly as a child twice his age. Nor did he have childish fears. Kuda was brave, a little elephant whose tusks were itching for battle, like the great General himself. Kuda scowled fearsomely, as though enemies were present right in the room.
Now a struggle began as the Mellower turned to Tendai. The man always saved him for last because, Tendai suspected, he sensed the resistance. Tendai didn't like the power Praise had over him. Of course he trusted the Mellower. No one else paid him as much attention. If the truth were known, he liked the man as much as his own father, but sometimes—often, actually—he had trouble remembering exactly what the Mellower had said. Afterward there was a period when he felt sleepy and a little foolish. And so he fought to keep from being entranced.
Most of the time he won.
Tendai listened coldly to a description of his swimming prizes and the badges he won in the Scouts. He wavered a little when the Mellower talked about how he rescued Rita from a boating accident. Then the man reverted to the traditional style of Praise Singing:
"He goes forth to explore, as his ancestors once Followed rivers to new lands, as they stood on hills,
Their spirits bold as lightning—"
Tendai was lost. Or perhaps it was a lingering effect of the dream he had that morning. He was surrounded by the scent of wood smoke mixed with distant honeyed flowers. He was following a trail. The pugmarks of a lion preceded him like flowers printed in the dust. It waited for him on a rise not far away and shook its glorious mane. Follow me, it whispered.
Tendai woke up. He couldn't tell how long he'd been hypnotized. Everyone sat around the table with contented smiles. Microchip birds sang sweetly from the garden.
"Mmmm," sighed Mother, stretching her arms before her. Rita yawned and prodded Kuda.
"No push-ups for you," rumbled Father. The Mellower bowed politely and withdrew. Very slowly, the room came back to life. To Tendai, it was like walking underwater.
Father lounged in his great chair with his large feet stuck out before him. He nodded benevolently at the family. Now was the time to ask about the trip, but the same torpor that had overtaken Father also affected Tendai. He knew he ought to speak, but it was so uncomfortable to go back to the beautiful vision he had seen during Praise.
The holophone rang. "Library," ordered Father, rising from his chair. The holophone skittered in front of him as he strode down a passage. The library door closed, and Tendai's opportunity was lost.
"Where does the time go?" cried Mother as the ancestor clock in the hall announced that it was eight-thirty. She gathered up her lecture notes and, somewhat distractedly, called the children together. "Do your lessons well—remember, the martial arts instructor is coming at nine. Tell the Mellower I've programmed the pantry to provide a nutritious lunch, and this time he is to see that you actually eat it." She looked sharply at Rita. "Kuda, you may not tease the automatic Doberman. Its chain is almost worn through—bad boy! Tendai, I expect you to be responsible for the others." Then, because the stretch limo was already humming on the antigrav pad, she patted them fondly and ran out the door.
Tendai, Rita and Kuda waved as the limo flew off toward the University. "Oh bore," said Rita. "The martial arts instructor's already here."