Ma Mullins is in the kitchen, kneading bread dough for rolls. She is using a fine ground, bleached flour she picked up in Hannard's Ford: an expensive luxury, but she does have company, and one must put one's best foot forward.
Ma: So, Reema, how was your trip? Train travel is exhausting, isn't it?
Reema: It is tiring, but it's only a few hours. Not like your expedition!
Ma: Yes. We were traveling for... well, I'm sure it only seemed like forever.
Reema is Ma's younger sister, who took her parents' advice and married a well-to-do storekeeper. After years of listening to complaints from her parents about her sister's regrettable marriage to Jed, it was inevitable.
Ma thinks she got the better of the bargain -- Reema's husband is a dead bore, and going bald, as well.
Ma finds that easier to remember, now that the roof doesn't leak.
Reema takes a piece of fine cotton and an assortment of colored silk threads from her reticule and continues her embroidery. Her smooth well-kept hands don't snag the fine threads as Ma's would.
Ma thinks it's just like her little sister to rub her fancy embroidery supplies in Maree's face, as a not-so-subtle comment on the poverty of the Mullins farm. Fortunately, she doesn't have to put up with that sort of thing any more.
Ma: What pretty colors, Reema.
Ma sets the rolls to rise and washes the flour from her hands.
Reema: Aren't they? They're selling very well, despite the price we've had to put on them.
Reema: I don't know. They come from a supplier in New Washington City who specializes in art needlework supplies.
Ma: Ah. Well, the Simes particularly like those bright colors. Let me show you the trim I found.
Ma goes to her sewing basket and pulls out a length of silk ribbon, beautifully machine-embroidered with a pattern of bright flowers in six colors.
Reema: That is rather nice.
Reema takes the ribbon and turns it over.
Reema: Machine brocade. You do have to sew it down. If you try to use it as a loose ribbon the threads on the back will snag and you'll ruin it.
Ma: Yes. I got enough to trim a new dress and a matching hat, for the summer.
Reema: Well, if you wash it carefully it should be all right.
Ma: And I'm going to make a shirt for Jed out of this.
Ma pulls out a beautiful fabric like none she's ever seen, even in Hannard's Ford: all shimmery colors in a striking abstract pattern.
Reema: Oh, yes. That artificial silk the Simes make. Pretty, isn't it? But is doesn't wear well.
Ma: Well, one would hardly wear such a thing for mucking out the stable! It'll do very well for dressing up.
Ma doesn't mention that a year ago, Jed had to wear his faded work shirts (clean and mended, naturally) for dress occasions.
Ma: I got another pattern for Vrian.
Ma shows her sister another envy-inducing fabric.
Reema: You have to wash it in cool water with mild soap and never wring it. The fibers will break down and the colors will fade if you aren't very gentle with it.
Reema wonders if her sister has ever had any mild soap. She suspects it's all homemade with lye and tallow.
Ma: It'll be worth the effort, don't you agree?
Reema: Oh, yes. I'm sure people here in Gumgeeville will be impressed.
Ma: These fabrics will turn heads in Hannard's Ford and anyplace this side of New Washington City, as you well know.
Reema: I suppose.
Reema wonders where the men will wear the shirts. She knows the family doesn't go to church.
Ma has plenty of other places to show off her menfolk: shopping at the Ford, weddings, and so on. She notes that her little sister, as usual, is reluctant to admit that Maree has anything desirable that little sis doesn't have twice as much of.
Reema: So, tell me about your trip. How's Bart, now that he's living with Simes?
Reema thinks it's a rather bizarre thing for the boy to do, but it's not as if there's any future for him on Jed's farm.
Ma: He seems quite happy, although he misses Gumgeeville a bit. And he's certainly going to be able to set himself up nicely.
Reema: The Simes do pay well for what they want, I've heard.
Reema shudders delicately. She's heard the term "selyn whore" but would never repeat it.
Ma: He's a respected professional now. That place he graduated from was a regular college. And he's hasn't forgotten his family, either.
Reema: Well, it's only been half a year, hasn't it?
Reema doesn't think half a year is long enough to get a 'regular college' education, either.
Ma: Plenty of time for a youngster to forget where he comes from, in a big city. But Bart's got a good head on his shoulders.
Reema: Yes, he does. From our side of the family, I suppose.
Ma: He gets his loving heart from his father, though. He really likes helping people, and he couldn't be a healer here.
Reema: Even we couldn't easily afford to send a son to medical school. Well, we might if the boy really wanted it, but of course they're much too young to know.
Reema threads a needle with a different color.
Ma: Yes, it's kind of hard to interest kids in their future when they don't know if they have one, isn't it?
Reema: Oh, well, I'm sure our children will be all right.
Ma: Really? You have three. That means chances are that at least one of them...
Reema: It's too early to worry about it. They have years yet. And there's a Sime Center in town now if worse comes to worst.
Ma: I thought my dear brother-in-law felt that would drive off his customers? Has he changed his mind, then?
Reema: Nobody talks about it. I suppose it's mostly for the poor people, who need the money. So he doesn't have to extend them credit. It's on the other side of town anyway, near the tracks.
Ma: Have you told your children that you'll help them over there if they turn out wrong?
Reema: It's too early to talk to them about such things. Let them have their innocence as long as possible.
Ma: Just don't think you can leave it until they come of age. Vrian's still a boy, for all he's so sturdy and dependable, and he and his brother have been Gen for over a year.
Ma is only mentioning that both her boys are safely Gen for educational purposes, of course.
Reema: Our children take after their father -- rather stocky and robust, so they'll likely be Gen. But the oldest is only ten, now, so he won't be at risk for a couple of years.
Ma: That's a very short time. If you two don't want to explain things to them -- and I remember how hard it was to have that talk with Bart and Vrian -- I'm sure Jed would be glad to help out.
Reema makes a sound resembling a snort.
Reema: I don't think my husband would want Jed to involve himself in our private affairs.
Reema wouldn't either. Her original, parentally provoked prejudice against Jed hasn't improved on further acquaintance with her brother-in-law.
Ma: Ah, yes. Jed might demonstrate that he knows more about the subject than most, including your man. Can't have that.
Reema: All they need to know is to come to us if they have any suspicious symptoms, and we'll look after them. Isn't that what you told your own sons?
Ma: I believe Jed actually told them what symptoms to watch for.
Reema: Of course. So will we.
Ma makes a mental note to check with her nieces and nephew to make sure the conversation has taken place.
Ma: They actually teach that sort of thing in the schools in Simeland, Bart says. It sure seems to help prevent unfortunate accidents, too.
Reema: I suppose it would. My husband does say that with the Sime Center in town, we don't have to worry about berserkers as much.
Ma: One thing's sure: the Gens in Simeland are a lot less concerned about having a Sime attack them than folks here.
Reema: Well, I have no plans to move there. I don't suppose you and Jed do either.
Ma: No, our home is here. But it was an interesting place to visit. Not at all what you'd expect.
Reema: What was it like? Do most of them speak English?
Ma: More than speak Simelan here, certainly. It was a sophisticated town, after all. And all the students have to learn at least a little English, if they don't speak it already.
Reema: I don't think I'd want to visit a place with Simes walking around loose with their tentacles out.
Ma: It takes a little getting used to, but most of them seem to be pretty civilized. They don't go about waving tentacles in people's faces, after all.
Reema: Still, I'd rather visit New Washington than Simeland.
Ma: That would be interesting, to be sure, but you have to admit, it's far less... exotic... than Simeland. Much less broadening.
Reema: New Washington is exotic enough for me.
Ma: I expect it is. You've never been the adventurous type.
Reema: Oh, Maree, it's not as if you have.
Ma: Who says that? I took a Sime in as a boarder, didn't I?
Reema: In desperation, with Jed out of work and in debt.
Ma: It turned out to be a sound business decision.
Reema waves that away.
Reema: At least Jed is doing something to support the family now, even if it's that.
Ma: We're doing quite well, actually. Jed thinks that we'll be able to expand the farm when Vrian's ready to marry.
Reema: From the three of you selling your... stuff to the Simes?
Ma: And Bart -- he sends part of his salary home.
Reema: So you're doing it too, now? I thought Jed promised not to make you do it.
Ma: It's a requirement for crossing the border.
Reema thinks it's kind of disgusting that her sister and Jed are living off selling their children's stuff to the Simes.
Reema: So you're not doing it every month but Vrian is?
Ma: Yes, he's quite determined to rebuild the farm.
Reema: Frankly, Maree, it will take a lot of rebuilding. He might do better going into a trade.
Ma: We've made a good start, just this past year. And the boy much prefers to own his own living, not rent a storefront.
Reema: To each his own, I suppose.
Ma: To each his own, but to all a roll... I think the bread's risen. Let me show you the new pan Bart found. It's got a coating on it that makes food decline to stick, like a well-seasoned griddle you've been oiling for years. It's supposed to resist rusting, too.
Reema: I like to grease my bread pans with butter. It give the crust such a nice taste.