by Jo Walton
a man called Walter who was born out of a tank. It shouldn't
have been so unusual, after all, when Pyrite was settled
everyone had been born out a tank -- they only sent enough
people from Earth to run the equipment and get all the babies
started and bring them up. They kept right on running those
tanks, too, until there were enough grown up people to have
babies of their own, people to populate Pyrite City and Great
Canyon and Simbardo and clear out to Fool's Gold, people enough
to be talking about building cities off on the other side of the
By the time Walter was born they were only running the tanks if
the children of the children of the first tank children didn't
have enough children. There would be numbers in the news on
Landing Day every year, how many babies had been born, and if it
wasn't enough, how many tank babies would be born to make up. So
having tank babies meant people weren't doing as much as they
could, and that meant that tank babies were bad, and pretty soon
the whole idea of tank babies got to be embarrassing and not to
be mentioned around nice people.
Walter grew up well enough in the orphanage, and qualified as an
engineer. When he was twenty-four he met and married a nice girl
called Maud, who was prepared to overlook his shortcomings of
background because she loved him. His shortcomings weren't very
obvious as shortcomings, to tell the truth. In fact he was so
good looking and smart and hardworking that when he told people
he was tank born they just didn't know what to say. Maud didn't
like him to tell people, though. It made her uncomfortable.
The only way his background made him really unusual was that he
didn't have any family. Everyone on Pyrite had more brothers and
sisters and cousins and uncles and aunts and grandmothers and
grandfathers than they could really keep track of. Walter didn't
have anyone, except once he'd got married he had Maud's
relations, who accepted him into the connection fairly
graciously, considering. Now Maud was a Delgarno, or at least
her mother was, and her father was a Li, and you'd think that
would be enough relations for anyone, and that's what Maud told
her daughter Arabetsy when she was getting old enough to be
Walter's lack of family made him surprisingly fond of Maud's
family traditions. He especially loved all the holidays when
they'd get together in each other's houses and eat. One year it
was their turn to host the Landing Day dinner for the whole
clan. Walter was helping Maud cook in advance, and she asked him
to cut the end off the ham for her.
"How much should I cut off?" he asked.
Maud hesitated, and Walter wondered if this was something that
everyone knew except tank kids. "Oh, about ten centimetres,
honey," she replied.
He cut the end off in a jiffy with his monofilament saw, and as
he gave the ham to his wife he asked, "Why do you do that?"
"What?" she asked, busily sticking silverburrs on sticks.
"Why do you cut the end off that way? It's good meat, it seems
"Oh honey, it's just a thing you have to do with ham. I don't
know why. I do it because that's what my mother showed me how to
do. Maybe you ought to ask her."
At that moment, Cleo, Maud's mother, who lived in Fools Gold and
had come early for the party, came into the kitchen looking for
a drink. "Do you know why you cut the end off ham?" Walter asked
Cleo poured herself a drink and looked down her nose at Walter.
"Did you never see anyone do that before?" she asked. "Well, I
suppose it isn't surprising. I don't know exactly what it's for,
but that's the way my mother taught me how to do it."
The next day as they were eating their dinner, Walter remembered
about the ham. He was feeling quite stubborn about it by now. He
was an engineer, and it didn't make sense to him. He wasn't
ashamed of having no family, and he refused to feel that way. He
went up to his grandmother-in-law, Alyssanne, who had never
quite approved of him, and he asked about the ham. At first she
tried to put him off, but at last she admitted that she didn't
know the purpose of it either. "My mother used to cut the end
off, so I do it."
Now Britney, Maud's great-grandmother, wasn't at the Landing Day
party. She was old and sick, on the end of her life-extension
treatments, and she lived in a retirement community over at
Johnson Bay. The next time Maud and Walter took the kids over to
see her, Walter was glad to have something to talk to her about
as she sat in her rocker staring out across the aubergine waves.
"There's something I was wondering," he said.
Britney turned her head to look at him. She was so old that she
had almost no hair and her eyes were hard to see in all the
wrinkles. She still had a lovely smile. "What's that, Walter?"
"When you cook a whole ham, for the Landing Day party, why do
you cut the end off before cooking it? Maud said she did it
because Cleo did, and Cleo said she did it because Alyssanne
did, and Alyssanne said she did it because you did. I know I'm a
tank kid and don't have any family traditions of my own, so I'm
kind of interested in Maud's, and this seems strange because
it's good meat and it doesn't make sense."
Britney rocked a moment, and then she said, "You know, I'm glad
you asked me that question. I was born from a tank myself, and
my whole generation, as you know. The thing is, when the ship
first landed we only had what we'd brought from Earth, before we
got the Mufug Plant set up, and even then, it could only make
certain things, not like today. So when I was growing up, in the
orphanage, and when I was first married we didn't have any
dishes big enough to take a whole ham, so we used to cut the end
off to fit in the dish."
And Walter laughed, and Britney smiled her sweet smile, and Maud
laughed, and Arabetsy, who was the only one of the children old
enough to understand, laughed until she almost fell off the
balcony into the sea.
About the Author:
Jo Walton is the author
of four fantasy novels: The King's Peace; The King's Name; The
Prize in the Game; and the World Fantasy Award winning Tooth and
Her latest novel is the Nebula
nominated Farthing. The sequel, Ha'Penny, will be
out from Tor in October 2007.
comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more
varied. Her exciting online journal, with word counts and occasional
actual content, is
Story © 2007 Jo Walton.