I reread a lot of Lois McMaster Bujold’s books while I was sick, first the Sharing Knife books and then the Vorkosigan series — all of it, this time, not just my favorites. I adore these books. Well, Cetaganda is boring as all get out, and this time through I realized it’s because the supporting cast is boring. The plot is fine, and Miles is Miles, but the rest of the players have very little to do. The Cetagandans, especially the haut women, are inscrutable by design. The ambassador and the local ImpSec guy are being deliberately kept in the dark. Ivan spends half his time seducing ghem women offstage, and the other half unconscious. It’s just not much fun, being stuck alone in a mystery with Miles. He needs a proper foil.
Anyway, I wanted to talk about Komarr and A Civil Campaign, not Cetaganda. I notice something new every time I read these (as it should be, with good books). This time, one of the things that struck me was the clever way Bujold uses Ekaterin’s skellytum plant as a metaphor for her emotional state.
The first time we see the plant, at the beginning of Komarr, it’s so distorted that Miles doesn’t even recognize it. When she explains that it’s been bonsai’d, he exclaims, “I didn’t know you could do that to a skellytum!” Of course, Miles sees it as an analogue for his own deformities, but the description of it mirrors the way Ekaterin thinks about herself: stunted, twisted and bound up within the confines of a bad marriage.
A short while later, when she tells Tien she’s leaving him, he drops the plant off the balcony. He’s asking her to choose between him and her self. She can’t choose him and she feels that she’s betrayed her own oath, so she refuses, and he throws her away. The plant shatters on the pavement, and after he leaves the apartment, she goes downstairs to (literally) pick up the pieces.
Next, Tien is murdered and Ekaterin has to undergo an interrogation, during which she reveals some of her innermost thoughts. She’s widowed and humiliated in quick succession, and during this process, Miles realizes that he’s fallen in love with her. After the interrogation, he’s wandering around looking for something to do, and he finds the pieces of the skellytum in the trash. He rescues them and tries to put the pieces back together, but he can’t. She comes in and shows him that there are a few roots that can be salvaged and transported back to Barrayar. She mentions that it wouldn’t have occurred to her to try to save the thing, if it hadn’t been for him. Very neatly done. You can’t just grow out a bonsai; you have to start all over.
The next time we see the plant, we’re back on Barrayar in A Civil Campaign. Miles spots it in the garden when he first visits Ekaterin at her uncle’s house, and she says that most of the fragments died on the trip home, but one of the rootlings survived. She points out that it’s the beginning of a new skellytum more than it is a remnant of the old one, and the conversation immediately turns to the gardening project Miles wants her to take on — the start of a new life for her.
The gardening project is a false start. She plants the skellytum, and it becomes a victim of Miles’s ineptitude. He’s tried to take over as the caretaker of her soul, as he admits in his searing letter of apology later, and he wasn’t ready for the job. (Or, you could say, he can’t be that to her; she has to do it on her own.) The skellytum withers in his garden.
Later, after she’s mostly gotten over his ill-timed proposal and events have spurred her to start talking to him again, she finds him standing over the forlorn thing (“the only plant in the whole blighted expanse”). He’s been pouring water all over it when he should have just watered the roots, and she has to set him straight. He spends the last third of the book figuring out how to care for her without drowning her in an extravagance of Miles-ness, and that’s the last we hear of the skellytum.
I don’t think the skellytum is mentioned specifically in “Winterfair Gifts,” although the garden in general is. The story is told from a different point of view, and the plant doesn’t have any inherent significance to Roic. To stretch the metaphor, though, we could say that as Ekaterin’s sense of self has expanded, the symbol has widened from a single plant to the entire garden — which, we’re told, is doing quite well even though it’s presently covered in a bit of frost, which is a nifty way of looking at Ekaterin’s pre-wedding fears.
(Incidentally, “skellytum” sounds like a small child’s mispronunciation of “skeleton,” which works for me as a name for a bony sort of cactus.)