I've been given a squash, a bowl and a knife, by my enemy who refuses to act the part, after yet another needless handwashing. I'm not too dumb and I know what's going to happen next: the tomcat of the house will show soon. Should I greet it in sullen silence, playing the role of a defeated captive, or should I act as I used to do at a friend's house (friend now dead) when his father (also now dead) returned? I don't need Tiger's advice on that; what I need to do is decide for the third or fourth time whether consorting with the enemy isn't wrong and disgusting. Tiger has laid out a map of the trails for me to look at, and there's a broad lane, possibly enlarged by its furry finger, leading to thriving in this crazy family. I can't have this fight every time the issue comes up, if only because I'll drive myself out of my mind and I need to stay tough for a long time to carry out my revenge. So, Simba will get greeted. Shadow is sitting next to me on the cloth tent floor peeling and cutting carrots, and I elbow it in the ribs, not too roughly.
Me: Simba. (And I make each of the three handsigns I know, in succession.)
It shows the name sign and with its rough pads it corrects my finger position. Tiger has not missed the interaction. And I'm glad I was quick about deciding, for Shadow grins, points out the door and signs to me, one of the signs being ``Simba''. I stand and put the finished bowl of squash pieces on the table, with the knife, as this masculine version of Tiger, striped in reddish-brown over the color of dry grass, ducks under the tent flap. The tufted end of its tail is not brown but black. I make my sign and fake a confident appearance.
Simba (speaking Shqip): Well, good afternoon, Gerbil. Welcome to our family. I regret the events that brought you here. If I can do anything to ease your burden, please tell me.
Me: Um, thank you, sir.
Simba: You're welcome. So what's for dinner?
Me: Um, well, there's a squash, and carrots.
Simba: Tiger just signed to me: it's ratatouille. Do Albanians make anything like that?
Me: I don't know, sir.
Simba, laughing: I guess you wouldn't know until you've tasted it. Excuse me a moment until I've washed up.
Before washing it greets and hugs Tiger and briefly discusses its bandaged arm. From the back --- its tail is long and sinuous and its butt is not too different from a person's --- I see a smaller bandage on the side of its neck, that doesn't seem to want to stay stuck to its fur. If I look carefully I can see a number of holes and scars in both its fur and Tiger's, that I was too busy to pay attention to before. Its stripes run all the way down its banded tail. I thought that tigers in stories were supposed to have stripes. It chats a moment with Shadow who's been waiting patiently, evidently about me, and then I'm astonished to see it pick up Shadow bodily and hug it and stroke it all over, like a mother might do to a little baby, and Shadow reciprocates with obvious pleasure and not a bit of shame. Shadow impressed me as mature for its size and tough as an Albanian boy. I'd better brace myself for unexpected attention, and prepare myself to endure it without fighting. No, passivity isn't how this family runs.
Me: Sir, hugging like that isn't my way.
Simba: Oh! I guess I should have expected it. We'll talk about the issue later when we're able, but until then I'll conform to Albanian custom on that.
Then it washes its hands, removing any residue from the battlefield and from Shadow's butt where it was sitting on the floor, and gets out another knife, and starts hacking away at one of the odd purple vegetables in Tiger's pile.
Simba: So, Gerbil, I heard you got a lesson in computer use this afternoon, including computer security.
Me: Yes, sir. Tiger told me I'll get most of my lessons from the computer. I've learned to identify myself to it, and to get off. Shadow has a permission from Tiger to fix any problems I may cause, and it has my password, defended by its own.
Simba: Do you trust Shadow with your password?
Me: I've done so, yes.
Simba: I've done so, he says. That's a good choice of words. I'll enjoy reading your reports, when you know enough of our language to write them. Now on a different topic, what have you been calling Tiger?
Me: Calling it? Um, I call it Tiger.
Simba: If you're going to call me ``sir'' you should call her ``ma'am'', but we had a pair of human orphans before and we had them call us just Tiger and Simba. You'll notice that's what Shadow does.
Me: Um, yes, Simba.
Simba: We expect respect, but we don't need to have you acknowledge the relation in every sentence. Now the next item is pronouns.
Me: I haven't learned what those are.
Simba: Good response. You use ``it'' to represent Shadow and Tiger, and presumably me. Why? Why not ``he'' or ``she''?
Me: Because you aren't people.
Simba: A ram or ewe would be ``it'' in Shqip, right?
Me: Right, animals are ``it''.
Simba: There's a lesson for you here: are you an animal, or a plant, or a mushroom? But I don't want to get sidetracked that way. How do you know I'm not a housecat, aside from the size?
Me: I'll call you ``he'' from now on.
Simba: As with all our lessons, I want performance from you, but I also want understanding, because then you'll be able to do the right thing in surprising and unusual situations, when it's most important that you be able to choose what's right.
Me: If you act like a parent... but a cat takes care of its kittens. The birds and sheep talk to each other, of course not in Shqip. If you're going to get impatient, it might be better to just tell me.
Simba: Yes, our time is short today and dinner is almost ready. Compare how you respect me, versus how you might respect a sheep or a cat. That's how I feel the issue. But you may feel differently. Think about it. But maybe later. Use your feet to scoot your blanket roll into the center, to help you relax your back as you sit with your butt against it. Do you use, well, there's a word in Shqip for ``fork'' and none that I know for eating sticks, so I'm going to give you a fork. Here's your plate. What do you want to drink? We have milk, with milk sugar, tomato juice and orange juice.
Me: The tomato and orange, I'm not sure what those are. Maybe it would be best to just have water.
Simba: I don't want to put pressure on you when you've decided you've had enough. But being adventuresome in food can be very rewarding.
In other words, don't be a coward. I pick at random.
Me: Could I have just a small amount of tomato juice, so I don't have to drink a lot if I don't like it?
Simba: Sure. This is tomato, this is orange, go by the color, and the white bottle is milk. You may refill your cup yourself, later.
The box on the floor with the drinks magically spilled coldness on my bare toes when Simba opened it. Nobody has mentioned magic. I intend to get magic lessons, by subtrefuge if necessary. Hey, the tomato juice isn't bad: a little sweet but not like a kid's drink; a little sour but not as bad as vinegar; and amazingly cold from the magic. I'll refill, but not immediately, looking like a boy. The rat dish is OK, not my favorite, but what it mainly lacks is meat: not really rats. Having a hundred and fifty eight sheep in two flocks, my family had meat almost every day. I wonder if these cat people are too poor for that. If so, I'm going to have a problem, because meatless boys turn out scrawny.
Me: The vegetable dish is good, but Albanians would put a piece of lamb or maybe a quail with it.
Tiger: I'm glad you like it, because we have a lot of dishes in this general style. But Gerbil, I've noticed that you generally don't open your mouth without a reason. Were you commenting on your nutritional needs? A growing human needs meat, or some substitute. Right?
Me: Yes, Tiger.
Simba: We're familiar with the issue and know what to do about it. That reminded me of something I don't want to forget, or for you to forget. What were you told to do at every meal?
Me: Um, Tiger didn't tell me. I think.
Simba: Earlier than that. Back at your village.
Me: Yes, Simba.
The bottle of worm medicine is with the toothbrush, and I can reach it from where I'm sitting. But the cover won't come off. Simba holds out his hand; I give. He shows me how to line up the little notches and push it off with my thumb. The pill is large but I get it down. Now, by what magic did it know about the pills? Tiger only spoke a few words to it in their language, and most of that was about the bandage on her arm. Can they read minds?
Simba: I'm not translating now for Shadow: how are you getting along with him? Are you comfortable sharing responsibility with him? I'm thinking of having him help you get the right balance of foods from among the ones we have, until you've learned enough to do it yourself. I'm proposing to give the job to him rather than do it myself because it's a good lesson. It's a service you can do for him, offering your belly as a lesson, while you're developing your abilities.
Don't be a coward, it says. He says. But I'm trusting Shadow with a lot of myself.
Me: Would I end up scrawny, if Shadow did it wrong?
Simba: Yes, if you ate an unbalanced diet for years. I'd hope we would notice long before problems developed; we watch you eat at breakfast and dinner, after all. And Shadow is sharp. His parents were doctors and he's studied to emulate them. Also I hope you'll get to the relevant lessons fairly quickly, so you'll be able to judge for yourself how good Shadow's diets had been.
I don't like ``offering'' myself to be taken care of by someone younger than me, but it's what we call an offer I can't refuse. Besides, I wouldn't like being taken care of by Simba or Tiger either. Next, I'm supposed to be acting like a brother, meaning I should tell Shadow. I elbow it, that is, him, gently so as not to spill his food, and handsign his name, then point down my throat and rub my belly. Simba picks up in their language, and again Shadow puffs up with pride like a frog, and smiles at me. I like making Shadow happy. I wish my brother could have had this lesson.
The meal ends with another cookie for each of us. Then there's another ritual; now I know why it's called a toothbrush. Tiger says my breath is more pleasant now, and laughs; in truth my mouth does feel different and it's not a bad feeling. Washing dishes is no thrill, but my attitude is much tempered by not having to do it alone as a captive normally would: everyone has a part to do, and it's over quickly. Finally Simba sits me down on my mat, sandwiched between him and Shadow like Tiger did, but Shadow evidently is keeping himself occupied, not listening to boring explanations in Shqip. There's no fireplace to give light in the evening, but Tiger has put a spell on a bottle hung in the center of the tent, which casts a steady white light.
Simba: I'd like to get you started, Gerbil, on your lessons. Would you log on, please?
Will I have to ask Shadow again for my password? No, I get on, but now there will be the ordeal of making the computer work for the lessons, and then of faking it to read the lessons themselves.
Simba: This icon, the Lion Foundation logo with a book in the lion's mouth, when clicked on signals our training material to start. Do that now. Scroll down to the end of that listbox... I guess you've never seen a listbox before. Put the cursor on the square, hold down button one, and roll down, there, you've got it. Let go. We've been using this program, fifth from the bottom, to teach our language to adult Illyrians, so just click on that, no, click again to turn that one off and select the one above. You got the African version; the cultural examples are wrong for you. Gerbil, can you read Shqip?
Me: No, Simba. (Why didn't it read my mind?)
Simba: Oh. Well, I'm going to give you a choice. When you read most Terran languages, see these letters on your keyboard? Each one represents a sound. A, S, D, F, see how it goes? You have to memorize which letter goes with each sound, but once that's done you can turn written material into sounds and then recognize what it means, or turn sounds into writing. Our language of course can also be represented by the various Terran alphabets. But our language is designed to be used with the handsigns, and we have a handsign writing method, and a computer input method for it too. Since you have no work invested in alphabetic language, and since you have to learn the signs anyway, I'm going to suggest that you do it all by handsigns. You can learn the alphabetic language later.
Me: OK. I don't know anything about this. I guess I'd better take your advice.
Simba: Good, Gerbil. But get the experience to make your own judgements as quick as you can. This menu button, click on it, the bottom item is to quit the training program. Let me at your keyboard, OK? I'll reconfigure it for Tiger signs. Log out and log in again so all the programs know what you decided.
It sounds like there's an army in there to help me do stuff I can't even imagine, except one of them is a teacher. Shadow's password will defend mine from attack, because he told it to. I miss my dog, who's probably faithfully guarding my sheep, which are going to starve or get eaten by wolves. I thought of that because I had this image of Shadow commanding his password like a dog. How can a bunch of letters come to life like that? OK, I'm on, and I click on the training icon (Simba doesn't stop me), and now the opening rectangle has one short row of squiggles on it, which look subtly different from before.
Simba: Click twice on the lesson title. No, do it again, without moving the cursor between clicks. This is the basic language lesson, but I'd like to configure it for you; let me get in there again. First, you need to do all four of voice, keyboard, writing and handsigns. Let's turn on voice input and handsign output, which aren't normally on. The next problem is, which handsigns should you learn first? The program has a particular order that it normally uses, that's best for most people, but you're not most people. Poke Shadow.
He's learned his name in Shqip and doesn't need to be poked. Simba translates for him in signs.
Simba: I'd like both of you to be able to put signs on your active list, but I think at least for tomorrow it will be Shadow doing it most. See Shadow, it's on the ``Words'' menu. Add a word. I've seen you use my name and Shadow's, and presumably Tiger's, so we'll put those in; let me at the keyboard again. See, I make kind of a squished version of the handsign; see, this is my name and this is how I put my fingers on the keys, click, there it is on the list. Look at it carefully; I'll grab it with the magnifier; now can you see it clearly? Look at my hand and compare to the picture. What do you see?
Me: Well, I'm not that good with pictures (I look to see Simba's reaction), but I'll do my best. Well, there are the same number of curved fingers and curved lines. And in the same order. Could it be like a map of your hand?
Simba: Correct. Look closely at which of my joints are bent, and how that's shown in the picture.
Me: I do see it! Could we try another?
Simba: There's one, and now magnified. Copy the sign with your own fingers, then tell me what it is.
Me: Tiger, right? Could I try to add the next one, which would be Shadow?
Simba: Go ahead.
I have to try three times before I get my fingers right on the keys, and Shadow giggles at the variations being made on his name. These people have a very different style about mistakes than I'm used to. It doesn't seem to bother Simba a bit that I can't do it on the first attempt, nor does it seem to occur to Shadow to tease me. I'll have to hold myself back strictly from my natural instincts and fantasies regarding a formerly imaginary little brother. I'll be expected to show similar forbearance, and I remember Tiger's warning that if she came back and found slashes on my arms she would definitely punish me, whether or not she also punished Shadow.
Simba: Good, Gerbil. Now let's add your name. No, cancel and try again. There, this time it's right. Is that what Tiger showed you, just one sign?
Me: Yes; she thought I wouldn't have time to learn all three.
Simba: I can imagine, but there will be plenty of time tomorrow. Let's add the rest, and also you've probably noticed us saying ``name'' before each name, and I'd like you to get in the habit of using correct grammar as quick as possible, so I'll give you that one too. Copy my handsign.
I'm getting plenty of practice typing handsigns on the computer's keys. But there's a detail: each sign has a picture to go with it, and if I do some fancy ball rolling I can draw a box around any sign or group of signs I want, click on another icon, and a picture will appear of what the sign represents --- except for mine. Simba takes from a cabinet a small object, and the red glow cues me not to jump when the bright light explodes. Simba configures the dictionary, or whatever you call attaching the picture to the words, and he explains to me the terms ``symbol'' and ``referent'', though he tells me not to add those words to the lesson list, to wait for the program to get to them in its normal order. It's cool to select my symbol and make its referent pop up, though I wasn't prepared for what I actually look like. I really deserve those teases about being furry, and if I'm going to have that much fur I'd look a lot better with more than just a trace of fuzz on my upper lip.
Me: Simba, if I'm going to act like a brother with Shadow, if we had a picture of me and him together, that might be like a referent for being a brother, and if we had trouble I could point to it.
Simba: Very good, Gerbil. But in this case the picture is the symbol and actually being a brother is the referent. It's the same for the others; this handsign is the symbol and the real me is its referent, but you can't put the real me in the computer so we use another symbol, but one that's less abstract than the computer-generated handsign: the picture. See? Now communicate with Shadow what you want to do.
For the picture I sit and Shadow stands beside me and actually puts his arm around my shoulders. That isn't how we do things in Albania! But we also don't make symbols of being the brother of a cat creature.
Next Simba supervises Shadow as he guides me through the actual lesson. Really, it's more nervewracking than actually hard, in that I'm not sure at first if I can make the lesson work. One of the little guys inside --- I know it's not really alive, but it seems so real! Anyway, something speaks from inside the computer, or it puts up a picture of a hand, or a large written sign, or a referent picture, and it indicates how I should respond: by speaking to it, or twisting my fingers to hit several keys at once, or choosing with the cursor from written signs, hand pictures, or the referent pictures for the signs I know. I'm far from perfect, and it's funny that I find it hardest to learn my own three-part name, which isn't ``Gerbil'' in their language just as Shadow is called ``Shtino'' by them. But like the live Simba the computer shows me the correct answer without anger or impatience, and lets me repeat the response to help learn it.
It's fine to learn names, but if I have to get Shadow to do something I'll need the sign for that. Tiger said there would be time tonight for only a few signs, and I can feel myself tiring already, so which should I ask Simba for? The Albanian way of teaching would be to tell the kid which words and to beat him until he learned them. Tomorrow we'll wake up... Skip ahead to when Tiger and Simba are gone fighting Illyrian jackasses. If I'm doing this lesson and something happens that I don't understand, well, how could I ask Shadow to explain it to me?
Me: Simba, could we add some signs for stuff I'll have to talk about tomorrow with Shadow?
Simba: Something that these names actually do, right? Do you have some ideas what you might need?
Me: Well, a sign that I don't understand something. But I'm not sure how Shadow could explain it to me. My computer doesn't work: that's another sign. I have to take a leak. Let's eat; let's drink. Come here. Speak slower; give me time. If Shadow wants to do too much and I'm close to getting angry, what could I say? And during all of this, what's Shadow going to be saying to me? Maybe we ought to ask it. I mean him.
Simba: That's a good list, Gerbil. But tell me. Out in the villages, you know Tiger and I get the toughest ones, because being lion people our shock value can often convince a headman to listen to what we have to say, when they would just try to drive away a human negotiator by force, and the whole thing would break down into warfare, as unfortunately it did at your village this morning. So, I get a lot of experience talking with unhappy Illyrians of all kinds. And it just seems very uncharacteristic for an Illyrian to ask what the other side is going to be feeling, or to suggest involving someone else in the decision. What made that jump into your head, Gerbil?
Tiger: I want to hear this one too.
Me: Um, well, um, I'm on my own now, and tomorrow you aren't going to be here and it will be just Shadow and me. We're a team. If that's going to work, we need to know what to do, and Shadow has to work on his part. It's like on a raid: you have to think about what to bring, not start the fight and then find you haven't brought enough ammunition. Except tomorrow it will be handsigns, not bullets.
Seeing Simba's translation Shadow giggles, but shuts up seeing that neither Simba nor Tiger think that analogy is funny.
Simba: It looks like you experienced a different side of Albanian life than I come into contact with. You're making good use of your training. Wait a minute while I talk this over with Shadow.
Something I said made Simba and Tiger uncomfortable. But now we're working on handsigns and they generally avoid being diverted. I'm pretty sure that Simba and particularly Tiger will bring the issue up again, tonight or tomorrow, and criticize me and tell me what they want me to do differently. In my real family having that hanging over me would make me very uncomfortable. But from them I think I shouldn't take the criticism so seriously, or the praise. Of course I have to do as I'm told, or as Tiger would put it, I have to do the right thing after she asks me prodding questions so I figure out what the right thing is. But there won't be any beatings or threats or shame. Similarly on the praise, I haven't advanced in their favor; it just means that they want me to keep doing what they saw: to use my training in teamwork, in this case. And speaking of which...
Me: Tiger, would you show me the handsign for ``team''?
Without comment Tiger shows me, and I program it into the lesson's word list, of course having to do it over once. Simba is just finishing with Shadow, and before he can start talking to me I start a handsign sentence to Shadow: ``Name Gerbil name Shadow team.'' Shadow smiles so broad I'm afraid his tooth daggers are going to fall out, and he stands up and grabs me (still sitting) in a hug. I expected something like that might happen, and I imitate what I saw previously, though not to the extreme of lifting Shadow. It's really not the Albanian style and I'm sure my father, any of my friends and particularly my brother would criticize me for acting queer. But I'm not in Albania any more. And when I hug Shadow, I really do feel he's on my side. And I'm on his.
Shadow programs a few more signs into my word list, like ``run'' and ``Chang bush'' and ``learn'', an important one I had missed. Working from the list, rather than from the regular lesson, I go over all the signs a few times to make sure that I at least know which referent pictures mean what; for example, while ``run'' is obvious, you have to be told that the picture of someone reading a book means ``learn'' and not ``read''.
Simba: Did you get them all, Gerbil? It's getting late and we all ought to get some sleep, and I'd like to get another dose of ivermectin down your throat. Can you eat about three cookies and then take a worm pill?
I do as I'm told. But that was the name the doctor used for the medicine. How could have Simba known?
Me: Simba, I'd like to get lessons in magic, later when I'm able to read them.
Simba: Magic? You mean like hiding things so an audience can't see, so they think the object disappeared and reappeared by magic? That would be fun. I'm sure there's some instructional material on the net somewhere, and it would be a good lesson for you to hunt for it. We would help you.
Me: Well, yes, that's part of it. Tiger did that to my knife.
Tiger: I just put it in my pocket. See, a lion person has a pocket to put a kitten in, and it's very useful for other objects too, if not too large.
I'm shocked; it bothers me to look at that gaping opening in firm, solid Tiger, and seeing my reaction she closes it up. But like her, I don't intend to be sidetracked from the goal.
Me: Simba, how did you know the name of the worm medicine? That's the magic I meant.
Simba (laughing, at me): Oh, Gerbil! I'm sorry; it's not right to laugh like that, but calling it magic is just so funny! You'll have your lesson, Gerbil, maybe not tomorrow, but, well, wait a second while I tell Shadow. I've told him to show you how to write an essay, and Tiger and I will read them the same way I read the doctor's report. That could be tomorrow. What you write will be very simple, just using the signs you know, like when you told Shadow that you and he were a team. As you practice, and particularly as you learn our grammar and more words, your essays quickly will express more complex thoughts. Is that OK, Gerbil?
Me: Yes, Simba, I'd like to learn that. But what about the magic?
Simba: All the computers are linked. What's written on one can be read from any other, if you have the authorization codes, like permissions and passwords. As your guardian I have permission to read your medical records, which I did while flying back from my afternoon village, since one of my jobs is to supervise the health of our family members. That's how I knew about the ivermectin. It might have seemed like magic to you, but to us it's as ordinary as, well, maybe shearing sheep might be to you, and that's why I laughed. It was wrong to tease you for not knowing, and I hope you'll forgive me for that.
Me: Come on, Simba; as teasing goes that was nothing. You don't have to ask like that.
Simba: Thank you, Gerbil. It's late, people. We should be getting ready for bed. Shadow, would you see to neatening up your own area, please? Now. Gerbil, there's something we really need to explain to you.
Simba's posture and expression change, and Tiger stands next to him. Did I do something disrespectful?
Simba: It's better to make this clear to you now, then to have to punish you about it later. Who's the boss in this family?
Me: You are, sir. (I notice that Tiger is translating for Shadow, watching from his own mat.)
Simba: Don't forget Tiger. How about Gerbil?
Me: I'm respectful and I do as I'm told.
Simba: Now the key point: who makes the kittens around here?
Me: You do, sir. Not me.
Simba: Right, not you. Tiger and I are sexual creatures. It would be nice if we had more room than this tent, but we don't. We're discreet about our sexuality out of consideration for Shadow, and now you, but I doubt there will be many secrets kept from you. You'll tolerate that without complaint or disrespect. Right?
Me: Yes, sir.
Simba: Good. Now about Shadow. He's young, and from time to time he discreetly enjoys his body. Discreetly, so it's not a sexual challenge to us. We tolerate that because it's necessary to his proper development. You also have something of a parent's role with Shadow. Specifically, you'll tolerate his sexuality, again without complaint or disrespect.
Me: Yes, sir.
Simba: Now about your sexuality. Unlike Shadow you're able to make kittens, and if you try to get away with what he does, we would definitely treat it as a challenge, one which you would lose. Got that?
Me: Yes, sir.
Simba: And Shadow would also be disturbed. See your situation? You tolerate others; others don't tolerate you. Right, Gerbil?
Me: Yes, sir.
Simba: I'm glad to hear that ``yes, sir.'' It will save you a lot of sorrow later. I suggest that you take your sexuality elsewhere, where questions of challenge don't come up. And another thing: human sexuality involves scent, but we lions are even more scent oriented; it's how we recognize who is male and female. Wash yourself after sex. If you come in here reeking like a cathouse, we won't be pleased.
Me: Yes, sir.
Simba: Thank you, Gerbil, for taking your correct place in our family, in this aspect. Now Tiger mentioned that there was a young female this afternoon who showed a certain interest in you. To a certain extent your sexuality is up to you. But we would be less than responsible if we just turned you loose to try to emulate Don Juan.
Me: Yes, sir. Um, I don't know the story of Don Juan.
Simba: Remember the problem of doubling you did, which Tiger mentioned to me in a written message. Think of more sexual conquests than that. Some people might say that would be a wonderful accomplishment. We have lessons for you about sex which you should read as soon as possible, together with quite a lot of others. If you find yourself attracted to one of our females, a normal male would have had the lessons long ago and would know the right way to proceed, not just making your organs work but how to make a proper team with your mate. Not knowing, and particularly if the female expects you to know, you can hurt yourself and her very badly. I request --- out of respect for you and your developmental state I'm not demanding, much as I'd like to --- I request that you consult with me or Tiger and get at least the basics from our lessons. At the very least, before vaginal intercourse you should wait for your population control shot to be fully effective and you and your partner should have been checked recently for sexually transmitted diseases.
Me: Yes, sir. Um, well, since I'm, well, not very advanced in education, I might not have heard the educated words for what you're talking about.
Simba: Fucking. Clapped out. Do you understand now?
Me: Yes, sir.
Simba: Good. I'd really like to spend an hour or two right now giving you a summary of our lessons, but it's late for all of us and I think you've had enough jerking around for one day. You can go back to calling me Simba.
Tiger: I have an issue, Simba. Gerbil, several times you were very upset by the possibility of betraying your parents. This afternoon when Sally batted her eyelashes at you, you gave an answer back. I'm not criticizing you. But tell me what connections you feel between getting to know that female, and parent issues. Are you moving too fast?
Me: I didn't think then, and maybe I should have. I don't get opportunities like that very often, and I felt I should move, not ignore her. If I'm going to thrive here I need a wife, and, well, sometimes you get an opportunity but there's a reason for you to hold back, but you want it, and you make up a reason to move. I might have made up a reason when I shouldn't have, but it won't be the first time I screwed up.
Tiger: Good points. But my feeling on opportunities is, the females won't evaporate. If, or when, Sally or anyone else makes a move too early, tell her honestly what the situation is: you're hurting inside from the loss of your parents, and you haven't had the lessons she has, and you're serious about building teamwork with her, not just after the banging feeling, so you want to take it step by step, slowly.
Me: Thank you, Tiger. And thank you for respecting my parents.
Tiger: You're welcome. Now let's all hug and get into bed. For you, Gerbil, hugging is optional. I'll turn out the light.
It's pitch black in here, but I can hear them moving around, presumably hugging each other and Shadow. Of course I remember which is my corner, and I feel around, get the blanket spread out, and take off my clothes again.
Tiger: Gerbil, put the sheet on the blanket. Shadow, would you show him how, like we do in winter?
Furry Shadow brushes against me and fusses with my sheet. It feels like it's on top of the blanket, like Tiger said. Then Shadow hugs me.
Tiger: Gerbil, can you see? Shadow is pointing to tell you to lay down on the sheet and roll up, sheet and blanket together.
Me: Oh. I can't see a thing. Sorry, Shtino. (This in their spoken language using a word I learned tonight.)
I pet him like my dog; I don't know if it's his front or back. Then I roll up as instructed. I really am exhausted. Maybe tomorrow I can investigate this business of seeing in the dark, which most likely isn't magic.
Why did it have to happen? Why couldn't I have just gone on with my family and my village, herding sheep? But it did happen, and my life with Tiger and Simba is turning out to be a hundred times harder. But that's coward talk! I'm scared, and totally alone. I am not going to cry! Saltiness flows into my nose and down the back of my throat, and a drop escapes to make its way past my ear. If I'm very, very careful I can keep my breathing even, to avoid revealing my weakness. I thought I'd be beaten, eventually dying if I couldn't escape by trickery. But these lions want me to make my parents proud! My parents, or anyone from my village, would be disgusted with me. I have to choose the right thing, and they're not in here, trying to breathe (without sobbing) this air filled with the spicy scent of devil monsters. They don't know how easy and sweet it would have been to do the Albanian thing, to leap on Tiger and die upon her claws and mouth daggers. To fight gloriously and accomplish absolutely nothing. I have a duty to avenge my family, and that requires me to stay not just alive but strong, healthy and growing, and for her own incomprehensible reasons Tiger helps me gain the strength to kill her! I am utterly alone.
Except for Shadow. Except for my brother with a tail who I can speak about two words to. If tomorrow is going to be anything like today, I need to yield to the weight of my eyelids. Shadow and I are going to be all alone, the captive turned loose from his ropes and assigned to the care of a cat nine years old. Something's changing position on the other side of the tent, several times, and it, or they, are a lot bigger than Shadow.
I will survive. I will not cry where they can see me. Salt drips down the back of my throat.
It's early morning, I guess; I can make out moving shapes. My dreams weren't peaceful but I can remember only one, where I was being chased through my demolished village. My blanket is in disarray. Yesterday's adventure in food evidently was not a success: I have a bellyache.
Simba: Good morning, Gerbil. Let's go wash up, then start our exercises.
Our what? I rise, dress, and fold my blanket in a semblance of order, as I see Shadow doing with his sheet. Then we all troop to the latrine tent. The ground is freezing under my bare feet, as always in the morning. I'm told to wash tears from my eyes, and I have a moment of fear that my weakness has been discovered, until Simba demonstrates his method and explains that tears get on your eyelashes overnight and rot, irritating the eyes. Then it's back to our own tent, but not for breakfast. The first exercise is to sit on the mat, bend forward, and touch your toes. Shadow reaches over and presses my knee down flat, preventing me from doing the exercise. I remove its hand.
Simba: The value isn't in touching your toes; it's in stretching your leg muscles. You can't get a good, controlled stretch with your knees floating up and down. And don't let your pride tell you to rip your muscles to reach your toes. You have a lot to do today and if you injure yourself in the first five seconds, well, that's the choice of a jackass, as Tiger puts it.
Me: An Illyrian jackass?
Simba: Young men all over the world let their pride run away with them. Learn patience.
Lacking words, I replace Shadow's hand on my knee, then do the stretch as best I can, stopping well short of my toes when pain in the backs of my legs warns me that injury is close. As Simba guessed, a proper Albanian jackass would laugh at that pain and lean through it. All three lions put their muzzles right down to their knees.
There are about ten of those stretch rituals where the point is not to bear pain but to flirt with injury. Lions must be more flexible than people, though Simba assures me that in three months I'll be doing just what they do. After stretching come strength exercises, and those I'm much better at. I don't have the impressive and lady-attracting muscles of my older brother, but I get meat almost every day and it's found its way under my thick chest hair. Pushups, chinups, leg lifts and bending over: that last one scarcely could be called an exercise, but I keep that to myself. Shadow does as many as we older people do. For chinups they have put a bar at the peak of the tent, but even so the adults have to bend their legs to hang with their arms straight, before lifting themselves over and over. But Shadow can't reach it, so he leaps and first Tiger, then I give him a boost for the last arm's length. He keeps his tail out of our faces, not like my dog would do. Lifting Shadow would make a good exercise, but he would probably object.
Tiger: Is everyone done? Then let's run. Follow us, Gerbil. You're stiff, but you're strong. What exercises did you do with your real family?
Me: Well, we didn't really do exercises. We ran races. We fought; that's probably what does most for your strength. I climbed trees sometimes to pass the time, watching the sheep; sometimes I'd mess around kind of like your chinups. There's a stream that's too deep for the lambs to cross, and I'd have to carry all of them over.
Tiger: Turn onto the side trail. Thinking back to the Illyrians I've dealt with, I'd say that few were out of shape, but few were as flexible as we are. Flexibility is important to me, and not only in combat. Work on that, OK? We'll turn left again here.
The running is at an easy pace in the predawn light. We're overtaken by two groups, and we meet several people going the other way on the narrow trail, who greet Tiger and Simba with cheery words which probably mean ``Good morning.'' Once the tent is in sight we walk to cool off. I could run farther, faster and steeper. And from personal experience I know Tiger can too.
I was hoping the run would pack down the spoiled food so I could shit it out, as happened to me several times before. But no, my belly still hurts. I'd best eat moderately. And I'd best be seen to take my worm medicine without being reminded again by Simba. I choose Chang seed mush cooked with water; I'm not surprised that Shadow has his with milk but I am surprised that Tiger and Simba choose the same. This flavor of Chang seed isn't familiar to me: it's called maize and is from America. The meal ends with toothbrushing. And I see Tiger and Simba putting their computers and other equipment in their bags. At home I did a lot of responsible things independently, particularly caring for the sheep in the various mountain pastures, but never anything like this. I'm scared. I'm not going to act, or think, like a coward! Shadow looks apprehensive too; then he catches me looking at him.
Shadow (by signs): Shadow and Gerbil are a team.
Me: Gerbil and Shadow are a team.
He hugs me briefly and I pet his head; then he gets hugged by both Simba and Tiger, and I get a pat on the shoulder. And they're gone.
Now what? Shadow looks at me; I look at him. There's another twinge from my belly. Then Shadow hands me an unwashed bowl, dips some water into another one, and starts washing it out.
The dishes are now clean, but what should we do next? Well, what's most important? That's obvious.
Me: Gerbil learn.
Shadow brings his rolled-up blanket over from his mat and we sit together on mine. I'm able to log in though I have to type my password twice before I get it right. But I find I've forgotten a lot of signs overnight. I push aside fear, and I practice. They come back gradually. Shadow's lesson has broad panels of writing, and most frames have a map or drawing. I have no idea what it's about, or even if he's sticking to the same topic like I am. I practice diligently. Undoubtedly the little guy inside the computer has seen smarter students, but he's not programmed to make comments about that.
After some time, Shadow closes up his computer and gets up and stretches. He digs behind the food cabinet --- and appears with the chinup bar. He raises it over his head, stretches to his best height on tiptoes (his feet are short like a cat's), and lets go of the bar, and it just hangs in the air by magic! He jumps, pulls himself up to sit on the bar, then stands, then carefully lifts one leg, keeping his balance by lashing his tail. Oops, he drops, but he gets his hands on the bar as he goes over head-first. A nasty fall is turned into a spectacular swing after which he drops to the ground and spreads his arms in a victory pose. What's my responsibility? I go over and hug him, but then I pantomime hitting the ground hard. I guess I didn't get through to him; he wants me to try. Pride and prudence battle, and pride doesn't exactly lose. Luckily, though, I'm too tall to stand, only to sit, so I do a backward drop I've learned on one low, smooth tree branch. Then I shift over to chinups; I do twenty with my knees curled up to my chin. Shadow does twenty. Then he shows me which button to push to move the bar. I do the next twenty in a much more comfortable position, then put the bar down for Shadow. But he signals that I should put the bar up to the top of the tent, then lift him. We each take another turn, but Shadow doesn't want to try for sixty. I stroke his back; then I do try another set, and with difficulty I continue for ten more. While I stand panting, Shadow puts the bar away. And we go back to learning. I wish my belly would get better, but it seems to hurt more now.
My teacher adds two new words to my list. One is ``sleep'', but I have no idea what the other one means. It could be a little child's ball, but I have the impression instead that it's a fruit. Well, I learn to say the word and make the sign and recognize the picture, even without knowing the exact meaning. I'd never imagined that learning would be such hard work, and I'm not sure if I'm doing it right. It would be terrible to go through all this and find that I had messed it up, so Simba and Tiger and Shadow would think I'm stupid, and I'd have to do the whole thing over. Come on, Gerbil, that's coward's talk! Just like in a fight with a bigger young man, I'm going to do the best I can, and hope not to make any stupid mistakes. There, that's the fourth time I got ``sleep'' right... and now the program has another new one for me that I don't recognize the picture for. Aah, Shadow is taking a break again, which is a relief for my mind and my back, if not for my belly.
Shadow (by handsigns): Let's run!
With pantomime he gets across the idea that I should run ahead at first, but he will win in the end. Sure. In the morning sun this will be hot work, so I leave my shirt in the tent. We start out, faster than this morning, but if that's as fast as he can go I could ditch him totally. I'm very aware of wanting for once to be the ditcher and not the ditchee. But Shadow and I are a team, and I don't want to do that and break up the teamwork. I slow down a bit to keep myself about twenty paces ahead of Shadow. I can run like this all day. At a trail branch I look back and he points down the straight path.
Did Shadow speed up or did I slow down? I pick up the speed and move out again twenty paces. This is a good hard run.
That little cat just keeps coming! I push myself to maintain the lead.
My legs are like pieces of stone! I have to be careful not to step on a rock and cut my foot or twist my ankle. I won't allow Shadow to beat me!
So much for Albanian pride, but I won't quit just because he got by me. That would be totally cowardly. Here's a trail branch.
Me (by voice): Shadow! Come!
He turns in a flash. For pride I run to the actual branch and then turn around, while Shadow stops and makes sure I'm returning too. Then he takes off, but this time he goes a little slower, slow enough that I can run beside him. I'm angry to be beaten by a little kid, or rather, a little lion, and to have him slow down so I can keep up. But Tiger would be honest however she felt. I pat him on the back and he looks at me, not too sure of what I mean, so I try a thumbs up sign, and this brings a smile to his face. And it does a lot to dampen my anger with myself.
We walk through the tent city to cool off, and crossing the bridge over the central stream or pond, I notice one of the young ladies from yesterday, and her friend, noticing me. I walk straightly. I wish my belly weren't making it hard for me to maintain a confident and attractive expression and posture.
I can tell that Shadow is on a different lesson: the little guy is speaking Greek to him. I can cuss in Greek, but that's about it. I wish I had more than one lesson; constant handsign practice is trying my patience. Simba promised me a lesson on writing; how could I get that across to Shadow? I open my active lesson list with its one item, and point to it. I point to the button on Shadow's display that opens his lesson list, and he clicks on it; the listbox has nine topics and I point that out. Two fingers over my listbox; is he getting the idea? Yes! Using my keyboard he's looking through the long list of lessons I haven't done. But then:
Shadow (in handsigns): Simba (something) Gerbil learn (something).
And now he closes my lesson program entirely and does a bunch of stuff I don't understand. But Shadow makes me repeat it until he's satisfied: the impression I get is of a sequence of containers, and the final one shows as a blank rectangle. Now Shadow types on my keyboard and the rectangle is blank no longer: ``Shadow and Gerbil are a team.'' And he indicates I should do it. Yes! I can duplicate that sentence on the second row. I hug Shadow and he grins. Now my magic lesson can begin! I won't let my belly distract me.
Simba said I should start by making simple sentences out of the signs I know. A report is a kind of essay where you tell the other person what you did. I've told as much as I know how: Gerbil learn. Shadow learn. Gerbil Shadow run. Shadow Gerbil eat. It was pretty easy once I shoved aside cowardice about doing it wrong; I still might be messing it up but some of it has to be useful learning. The problem is, I've used up everything we did that I know signs for. Should I stop now? I don't want to; I can feel from just these few sentences that they help me remember the words. What would Tiger say? My anger flashes, inflamed by the pain in my belly, but I hold my face impassive to keep from having to deal with Shadow as well. Why should I care what Tiger says; this learning is for me! Adding sentences that aren't real, such as ``Computer sleep'', will help me learn the words. So I'll do it my way and if Simba or Tiger don't like it, they can shove it. I get to work. Shadow was too absorbed in his lesson to notice.
Aah, I've done just about every combination of words that I know. And now it's time for a break. Tiger said the first step in learning their combat skills would be to learn how to fall without being hurt, which seems unlikely, and to be knocked down and get up a hundred times without tiring. Maybe the pain in my belly will be masked by the pain from that lesson. A real Albanian man is not slowed down by a little bellyache. I close my essay (it works like the main lesson program), log off, and get up; and Shadow pricks up his ears and does the same. I sign for him to come, outside. Now this is going to be a challenge.
I sit down and kind of tip over, then get up, then do it again, then I hold up ten fingers and try to move them to represent ten sets: a hundred. Shadow is sharp: he imitates my down and up much more fluidly and holds up one finger, then repeats with 2 fingers, and waits for me. We do it two or three more times together, but then he stops me and points to his leg. He does the movement really, really slow, and as he bends down he points at his right knee, which is bent and turned so his lower leg goes crosswise behind him. I try to imitate, slowly, and apparently not very well, because Shadow tries to force my leg into position, and I fall. Almost on Shadow! But he rolls out of the way, and as I land heavily (that wasn't good for my belly either) I'm astonished to remember Tiger twisting out of my grip when I tried to kill her yesterday. Tiger trained Shadow, and I'd better respect him and his lesson.
The sides of my knees and feet feel almost rubbed raw, and my thighs ache and sting, but I've done my hundred ups and downs, at each of which my belly threatened to burst. But a little bellyache doesn't stop a real Albanian man. Shadow is barely breathing hard. Maybe tight wins fights, maybe, but loose and fluid gets you back into combat in an instant, if you haven't exhausted yourself. I'm expected to be ready for a full lesson at this point, and that's going to take hard practice, but actually I'm pleased with how much I've been able to learn from Shadow. Plus a thorough chastisement, after I broke a fall by putting out my hand, in which Shadow took a stick, explained by pantomime that it was a symbol for my arm and wrist, then rammed it into the ground and smashed it. Maybe it's better if your teacher can't talk to you, so he has to use symbols that really get your attention. I slap dirt off my clothes and Shadow brushes off his fur; and I help him with his back which he isn't aware is dusty, and he helps me the same way.
Shadow (by signs): Come; let's eat!
Ooh, maybe Shadow is hungry but food would definitely not be good for me right now. I'm going to skip lunch. In the tent we wash our hands, and Shadow seems to expect me to pick a food. I place a yellow obscenely shaped fruit in Shadow's hand, and giggle. He gives me another one, but I put it back in the bowl, and he looks puzzled. I pat my belly, then try to pantomime twisting and pain.
He takes my hand and leads me to my mat, points, then twists my hand so I have to repeat our falling exercise. He lifts my shirt and listens to my belly. Ouch! I push his head away from the tender spot. He turns around and looks at me, then starts feeling around towards my right hip, which is ticklish but not painful. I point at the top center. He looks puzzled and pokes experimentally at my hip, and I point again. He very delicately feels up there and my hand hovers to shove him away again. He listens again over the sore area, but not pressing hard like he did last time. He looks at me, puzzled. Then he signs ``come'', but immediately turns back and from a small cabinet near his mat he produces his name card.
Where's mine? And where are we going and what part will the name card play? The doctor said not to lose it. How stupid I am; how can I make it in this family if I can't keep track of my stuff! I shove aside fear and shame and cowardly thoughts, and I think. It was in my pocket... with the worm medicine! I look next to my mat, and my knife and the worm medicine are there but the card isn't. Shadow helps. Aah, I found it; it must have slipped under the mat when I tossed around last night. So where are we going?
Shadow leads me to the front building where Tiger took me to get my mat and so on, but we turn a different way, and here's a room of moderate size. Waiting are an old lady (not Albanian but I can't tell what variety) on a wheeled bed, and two soldiers with bloody bandages. Shadow introduces me to a middle-aged lady in soldier's clothes, behind a desk.
Lady (speaking Shqip): May I see your card, please, Gerbil? So, Shadow says you have a tummyache.
Me: Yes, ma'am. My belly was hurting when I woke this morning, and it's gotten worse. I can bear the pain, of course, but it's interfering with my learning.
Lady: May I feel? Come around here and lift your shirt.
Me: Shadow checked down there, several times. It hurts up here, in my stomach.
Lady: I doubt it's your stomach. Always the same place?
Lady: Well, you definitely should be seen. Have a seat.
The wait is long, and Shadow fidgets. I try a hand game with him that I used to do as a little boy, but we're not able to communicate the moves and make it work. The old lady is wheeled through the inner door. More waiting. Then there's a commotion in the hall, and a soldier is brought in quickly by his comrades on a cloth between poles. He looks bad! There's blood all over one side of his body, and where his hand ought to be, I catch sight of white bone. My stomach threatens to embarrass me, and I can tell now that my pain is nearby but in something else. The supervisor lady points and he's rushed inside. Shadow stands up and the lady signals to him to follow. But he looks back at me. I point; he runs, tail flowing behind. But what's going on, a boy, or as Tiger said, a kitten doing a man's job? When you don't understand, speak up, so I go over and ask the lady.
Me: Excuse me. What will Shadow do in there?
Lady: Bring bandages, take away trash, and learn what medicine really is. We don't have enough people, and he helps a lot. Did you know, his parents were doctors? He wants to be a doctor when he grows up, and helping us helps him prepare for that.
Me: He's a good little creature. He and I have been getting along. Well, I guess I'd better let you get back to your work.
And I guess I'd better sit down, experience my belly, and think about what I did and thought in that incident. What's real is, I put myself in the soldier's place, and I can't imagine how bad I'd feel having my hand taken off by one of our grenades, or a defective weapon, or whatever. Not just the pain, but being ripped to shreds and being left with that bone sticking out! My immediate reaction was to help. My best contribution was about as important as one small pellet of sheep dung, just telling Shadow that I didn't expect him to stick with me. But this was a soldier who was fighting Illyrians, possibly even Albanians! He might even have taken part yesterday in annihilating my village. My Albanian duty was to be happy at his misfortune, and to interfere as much as I could (the sheep turd again) with his survival. Am I thinking like a jackass?
Yes, if Tiger is right. But if she's wrong, I'm acting as a traitor. It takes all my discipline, learned from enduring punishments in my family, to hold that thought in my mind, to turn it over and look at it, and not run from it like a coward. Is there right and wrong here that doesn't involve Tiger? Well, maybe. When we fought as children we were supposed to fight hard, but when the issue was decided we were told not to rub it in, to go back to being friends and not to poison the whole village with vendetta over something childish that an adult would find ridiculous. It didn't really work out that way, but I at least could understand my uncle's reasoning. Here, even at the adult level of war, we might avoid some killing if we did the same. I think I have a pretty good justification for vendetta, but I don't have to spew poison all the time. So, the soldier will get sympathy from me rather than vicious laughter, which I've had directed against me often enough. Tiger I think would agree; it's her style; but I decided this for myself like a man.
After a considerable and painful time, the inside lady puts her head out the door and calls my name. Me next? I point at the two soldiers, who are not looking pleased, but she looks at me and one of her words (in their language) is ``come''. I obey. Inside I can hear activity and groaning, but I'm placed in a room off to the side and told to remove my shirt. I wait quite a while, listening to sound effects. Finally a man appears in green clothing.
Doctor (speaking Shqip): Good afternoon, Gerbil. I understand you have a stomach ache. May I feel?
Again he starts in my lower right area, but soon he's found the sore spot and I struggle to hold back an outcry.
Doctor: I felt you jump there, Gerbil. You can feel your insides and I can't, so I'm relying on you to tell me when it hurts.
Me: Um, that was it.
Doctor: OK, let's feel around the edges. Tell me when I'm missing it.
I let him know, doing my best for a manly calmness. What a joke!
Doctor: It feels like your gall bladder. When the doctor examined you yesterday, did it hurt like this?
Me: No, sir.
Doctor: Well, let's have a look inside. This is ultrasound. It won't hurt. Oh, here's Shadow. See him in the door? Do you mind having Shadow help out here?
Me: Mind? Of course not. We're a team.
Doctor: Oh, you're the boy that Tiger brought in yesterday? What a tragedy. I'm sorry what happened to your family. OK, see on my computer; here's what it looks like inside your body.
My guts look like a pile of stuff, like when we butcher a sheep, but there's a round thing that the doctor and Shadow are pointing to and discussing. I wish he wouldn't call me a boy.
Doctor: You're taking ivermectin for worms, and you can see here, here, and maybe here, those are worms that have gotten into your liver. I suspect that one of them died and slid down your bile duct and got stuck. It's good that you came in for treatment rather than trying to just bear the pain, because when the bile backs up into your liver it can be really bad for you. We have to remove the worm.
Gulp. This is going to be bad. And in our village, people who had to have their bellies opened rarely survived.
Me: May I have a piece of wood or a cloth or something, to bite on?
Doctor: Here's a towel if you need it. Some parts will be painful, but it won't be that bad. This little device is what I'll use. You'll swallow it and it will swim through your guts and deal with the worm. Now this is very important: you mustn't bite it! It's delicate and expensive, and we have only this one. Keep it away from your teeth, both going down and coming up. OK? Now put it in your mouth, head end first, and swallow a big mouthful of water. There, that was well done. Lay on your back and watch the screen.
So that's what my guts look like from the inside! The view is like through murky water, probably vomit that hasn't been vomited yet, and the pink skin writhes and heaves grossly. A hole opens and we seem to slide through it. Shadow points, and we swim towards and into a small side branch. That's tender! I fold the towel and put it in my mouth, in case it gets worse. Yes, it does, aaah! The towel helps me bear the sharp pain as the viewpoint comes up to a gray wall and presses against it. Oooh, this is horrible, but I have to go through it. There's motion in the picture. Aah, release! The pain fades as if by magic.
Doctor: Feeling better, Gerbil?
Me: Aah, yes, thank you! Was that what I saw, the worm being pushed aside, and it let all the stuff out?
Doctor: Exactly right. That worm is fat; no wonder it blocked the duct. Now I'm going to cut it up so the pieces will fit through. Did your towel help?
Me: Yes it did, thank you. I needed it.
A real Albanian man would have said, ``The pain wasn't much and I didn't really need the towel.'' That's jackass stuff. Somehow I feel more manly being honest, saying that the pain was bad but I did well and used what I had to get through it. More bumping and shoving in the tender area is needed to cut up the worm, and the little mechanical fish hurts me as it swims out through the narrow passageway pushing the worm pieces ahead of it, but nothing as bad as the trip in. Finally I'm told to drink water and then I vomit it out when the little machine rubs the back of my throat, dumping the thing safely into a dish.
Doctor: Well, that's over. For the rest of the day you should eat moderately and not do any violent physical activity. Shadow says that you and he were running and doing martial arts practice, which I wouldn't have enjoyed with that gall bladder. You can resume that kind of stuff tomorrow, but give it a rest this afternoon.
Me: OK. Should I eat lunch? I'm feeling a lot hungrier now. And should I take the worm medicine with lunch?
Doctor: Yes, eat a small meal and take your ivermectin.
Me: Um, what's going to happen about payment? I'm afraid that I just followed Shadow when he told me to come, and I didn't think about that part.
Doctor: Well, that's a good question. If you're an Illyrian refugee we treat you for free, but staff dependents should pay. I'll check. There it is; there's a blanket authorization from Simba and Tiger to treat both you and Shadow. They're paying.
Me: It doesn't feel very manly for me to be taken care of like a little kid. But I have no money, and never have had any. How much did this cost?
Doctor: I'll have the program calculate it. Thirty one point five fangs. If you feel an obligation, you could talk to your guardians about paying it back to them, perhaps getting a job.
Me: Is there work I could do here, maybe like what Shadow does?
Doctor: How are your language skills? Can you understand what we tell you in our language?
Me: Not much. I guess a lot of things are going to have to wait for that. I made some progress today learning words, but there's a lot more to learn. I guess that's what I'll do this afternoon. Thank you again, doctor. Do we just leave?
Doctor: Tell the triage nurse in the front room that you're finished. Then you can go. If the problem recurs, or if you get a sudden increase in pain, come back so we can find out the reason. Good luck, and welcome to our community.
As we walk back to Tiger's tent, I feel good. My belly is still a little sore, but being rid of that rotten pain, and the worry that went with it, is a big relief, but even more, I conducted myself in an exemplary fashion while taking the treatment. The only problem is the matter of payment, but I'll talk that over with Tiger and Simba this evening. Well, well, I seem to attract attention --- the good kind, for once in my life. Another young lady is checking me out. I make sure to present myself well; I straighten my shirt... Oops. Tiger said she didn't want her ``son'' dressed in rags, and I'm sure the ladies have been saying something similar, though with a different emphasis, whenever they've seen me.
Our lunch consists of the sexual fruits, a loaf of interesting bread split between us, and a cup of juice; this time I give orange juice a try, and it's quite good in a sour sort of way. Shadow has tomato juice. And he insists that I cut off and eat a generous piece of cheese, while he has a thin slice. Actually I prefer the cheese we made in our village from sheep milk. I'm sad that everything I loved is ruined, burned or piled in rubble or buried. But a real man doesn't linger over what's lost; he goes forward with what isn't lost, lest he lose that too. And there's good here, and bad, and it's just different from what I grew up with, and I'm going to have to learn to deal with it. And right now I'd better not let myself get slowed down by sad thoughts, because I have a big job ahead: mending my clothes. I finish the last of my cheese.
I hunt for the roll of thread with the needle stuck in it; it's in the corner of the tent with my worm medicine, which I take, remembering; and I return my card there. Now what? I show the thread to Shadow. He takes the needle out and tries to stick the thread through its little hole, but fails. He frowns and his tail twitches. Then he opens up his computer. A lesson in mending clothes? It doesn't look like a lesson.
Oops. Yesterday I was too upset, and this morning too, but with the worm out of the way I was again able to eat, and what goes in must come out. Rather urgently.
Me (by handsigns): I have to take a crap.
Shadow rolls his eyes, then signals ``come''. The thread in my pocket, we go to the latrine tent instead of whatever he had intended. Once there, Shadow insists that I watch him, and clearly implied is that I'll do the same thing when he's finished. At the rear of the white bowl in the floor, lion shit looks a lot like sheep shit. Shadow has to tell me twice before I get the idea that I'm to look right underneath him as he shows me the final step. First he turns a handle to start up a little water machine that squirts from the side of the bowl. Then this disgusting short tube descends from his arse, and a lone pellet of shit drops out, and he giggles. Then he delicately dips the end of the tube in the stream of water, and it vanishes up into his body. I've never seen anything like it! He then takes some paper off a roll and mops underneath, making a big production of it. Finally he presses a button and a surprising flood of water carries everything to some unseen place under the building. He stands, but won't let me do as my bowels demand until I've watched the obligatory handwashing.
Finally! My extrusion doesn't need any tubes. There's a lot of it and it's not in neat little pellets. Come on, drop; I know it's all out. I look underneath --- and there's this long thing hanging from my arse, tangled in my turd. Not just one, two of them! Eeeuw! What am I going to do? Get help from Shadow. I point underneath. Shadow's eyes pop. He thinks a moment, then places my hands on my knees as a sign I'm not to move. He thinks some more, then climbs up on one of the washbasins (young children of all species like to climb like that) and fiddles with a box I may have noticed but not attended to. He gets it open, and inside are several bottles; he takes one and stuffs it in his pocket. Tiger mentioned that the pocket was for ``kittens'' and the bottle reminds me of a baby doll. On the ground once more, Shadow prepares himself with several sheets of paper from the roll. He'll protect his hands that way from whatever is coming out of my body. Kneeling behind me, he's working up his nerve, and it's going to take nerve... There, he tugs on it (or them), but they don't move. He pulls firmly, and the things break off inside me. Aah, free at last!
But when I move to get up, Shadow dithers, wanting to push me back down but not wanting to touch me with his hands. The business with the water machine! These people are so obsessed with cleanliness! I get it started and rinse my hole. There's a scrap of mirror stuck to the bottom of the bowl and now I know why it's there; Shadow insists on looking at the reflection too, and tells me to repeat the rinse. Twice. Then mopping with the paper, and the flood, and the obligatory handwashing. Why isn't Shadow washing his hands? Because he wants me to open the bottle and pour the acrid-smelling poison on them. He washes thoroughly, even his wrists, while making gagging sounds and squinting his eyes. Then I start the water machine for him and he rinses. Then more poison, and finally he's ready to use soap. At his cue I put the bottle back in its high box and press the door closed.
Shadow (by handsigns): Shadow and Gerbil are a team.
Me: Thank you. Shadow and Gerbil are a team.
And he hugs me, and I hold him to me and pet his back. OK, that ordeal is over. We get moving, presumably to the original destination.
Across the stream, on the other side of the tent city, we arrive at the place, a tent no different from any of the others. Shadow speaks in a polite tone and is answered, whereupon an old lady emerges. Shadow explains what we want. I show the roll of thread, in case she doesn't get the idea.
Lady: Good afternoon, Gerbil. I'm Ermelinda Ruka. My parents emigrated from Albania when I was a girl, but I still remember how to speak Shqip. Shtino says you need a lesson in mending clothes, and I can see why. Come on inside. Could you take off your shirt so I can have a look at it?
Inside, I comply. We sit on the floor. Mrs. Ruka isn't as flexible as Tiger or Simba, but does a lot better at sitting than old people from my village would have. Prematurely dead old people.
Mrs. Ruka: It's going to be hard to repair this shirt, Gerbil. There are so many torn places, and I'm afraid the fabric is rather worn to begin with, which is why it tore so easily. Have you thought about getting a new shirt?
Me: Yes, but, well, I'm afraid I'm being childish about this, but my mother made these clothes and it's the last link I have left to her.
Mrs. Ruka: That's sad, Gerbil. But if you keep wearing and washing the clothes they'll wear out quickly.
Me: I suppose you're right. Yesterday Tiger wanted to get me new clothes and I said no. But now I've lost my chance.
Mrs. Ruka: I'm sure Tiger isn't that draconian. Let me talk to Shtino.
She talks quite a while with Shadow about my shirt. Then:
Shadow (by handsigns): Shadow and Gerbil are a team.
Mrs. Ruka: Shtino is pretty sure Tiger will still pay for your clothes. I explained to him how you felt, and he had an idea which I think is good: you and he could buy a new white shirt and embroider an Albanian design on it. You could copy this one, or I could show you another.
Me: Well, let me think. I really don't want to give up these clothes, but like you say they weren't exactly new, and they'll wear out soon, even if mended. Well, there's another problem: I don't have any money. I couldn't buy new clothes anyway.
Mrs. Ruka: Shtino mentioned that. He's willing to pay, and then work out the repayment with you and Tiger. He said you're looking for a job, and he has an idea that he wants to do and you might be interested in too.
Me: I have to think about that. You understand what's bothering me? I'm a young man while he's a little... person. But I have nothing and know nothing. I guess I have to put my pride away for this. We're a team and I have to be cheerful about letting Shadow, Shtino help me. I already did that; he's going to help me get the right foods, because the lions eat foods that humans don't thrive on. It's crazy that being helped is harder than helping.
Mrs. Ruka: Actually it's hard for Shtino also. Clothes are expensive for such a little person to buy.
Me: Oh. (To Shadow:) Gerbil and Shadow are a team. (And then I hug Shadow right in front of Mrs. Ruka.)
Mrs. Ruka: I'm glad to see young people working together. Why don't you go over to the quartermaster and get a pair of pants and a shirt, and bring them back here and I'll give you a lesson in embroidering. Oh, and you'll need underpants, and a belt. An army belt is fine; you don't have to get a really fancy one.
Me: Thank you so much, Ma'am. (To Shadow using one of the few words I know in their language:) Come on!
Shadow (translated by Mrs. Ruka): We'll come back after we wash the clothes.
Me: Wash? Why? The cloth is clean when they're made. At least when my mother made clothes. And how do you know what to do with clothes anyway?
Shadow: When they're made they're clean. In my preschool one of the human girls got a new sweater and didn't wash it. Someone put something on it, poison or a biowar germ or something. She didn't die but she was in the hospital a long time, and some of the other kids who played with her had to go to the hospital too.
Mrs. Ruka: How terrible, what happens these days. You're certainly right that the clothes should be washed first.
What's with these people? They, or their enemies, would randomly poison little children! Well, on raids we slaughter the enemy like vermin, but we're not that bad! We proceed to the main building and find the quartermaster's stockroom.
Maybe it would have been smarter to go over with Shadow what I wanted in the way of clothes, while Mrs. Ruka could translate for us. But with a lot of handwaving and a lot of patience on everyone's part, the quartermaster, Shadow and I negotiate a short-sleeved white shirt, the right size, some rugged-feeling brown pants, a wonderful belt with a buckle similar to what the soldiers get, except in shiny brass, not painted black, and a package of underpants. I try to get plain white ones but Shadow won't hear of it and insists on some kind of garish pattern. He pays and we leave, returning to our own tent. I collect the box of soap, and we proceed to the latrine. Shadow is nice enough to help, both washing and drying, which speeds it up a lot. The new clothes, particularly the underpants, feel strange to me, and particularly the pants aren't as soft as my old ones, but then, the old ones are almost worn out so you'd expect them to be soft.
Finally we get back to Mrs. Ruka's tent, where she embarrasses me by telling me how nice I look. She lays out the pattern, marking it on the cloth, and lends us two rings to flatten and stretch it out, and a second needle, and some colored thread. Shadow and I get to work on opposite sides of the shirt. But mature as Shadow may be, there's a limit to his patience.
Mrs. Ruka: I think, Gerbil, that it's about time for Shtino to do something else. You can take the embroidery hoops home with you; just bring them back when you're done.
Me: Thank you so much, Mrs. Ruka. I've lost a lot, but people have been helping me and I never expected that. Thank you, and I'll bring the rings and the needle back. Bye.
In my new pants, but bare chested since the rings are still on the shirt, I think I cut a dashing figure, and I think at least one young lady agrees, if I judge her expression right. I hope she likes fur, both mine and Shadow's.
Back in our tent I get right to work on the embroidery, but Shadow seems to have another idea involving my computer. I pantomime that I'm going to embroider but he's welcome to do his own lessons. As best I understand, his response is to ask permission to use my computer. Obviously to look at or modify the work I've done. I go along, and log in, but I'll get back to the embroidery as soon as I can. No, he doesn't want the lesson program, so what else is there? The ``magic'' writing lesson! I wrack my brain for the procedure to start it; Shadow points out a key control button in the last step. He inspects my work, which he didn't get to see in the lunchtime uproar, and laughs, pointing to ``Shadow Gerbil eat''. He raises my hand to his mouth which he opens, and opens, and opens! I snatch my hand back and he laughs, then signs ``Shadow Gerbil eat'' and makes noisy slobbering sounds. Now I'm instructed to open a blank line after that writing, and I copy Shadow's signs: ``Team Shadow Gerbil eat''. But it's wrong. Shadow shows me that the key hit by my thumb corresponds to wrist rotation, and with that help I'm able to copy his signs to his satisfaction. So what's so important about the wrist? Now he starts my lesson program and adds a new lesson to my active list. Obviously I'm going to discover that it's related to the correction Shadow just made.
I'm irritated at being dragged away from what I want to do. I'm irritated at being criticized by a little cat creature half my age. I'm irritated that I botched the writing, to the point of saying that Shadow was eating me. I'm irritated that Shadow is messing with my lesson list. I feel that I'm slipping into anger. When I was a normal Albanian young man in a normal Albanian family, I learned about anger, both by speaking angry words myself, and by seeing what happened to my brother when his temper got away from him when dealing with his friends or his young lady, who often after that wasn't his any more. There's a lot here that I could lose, so I'm going to swallow my pride once again. Will I have any pride left?
From the dead worm I suffered badly this morning and like a good Albanian man I didn't let it stop me from my duties. The treatment was scary and very painful, but I endured it without unseemly complaining. Despite all the help Tiger, Simba and particularly Shadow have given me, just existing in this crazy litter of animals is an accomplishment I ought to be proud of, and I'm sure nobody from my previous life could understand that. And I have my doubts that most of them could even survive what I have. In fact, they did not, and I'm beginning to understand that cowardice on my part had nothing to do with my survival. And now seems to be the time to make my new family work, not just to tell myself how wonderful I am, because Shadow is looking at me with a puzzled and worried expression.
Me: Gerbil and Shadow are a team. Thank you. (And I pet him across the shoulders. He smiles.)
But I set the computer aside, not turning it off which might signify rejection to Shadow, but I control my own life by getting busy embroidering my shirt. Shadow looks puzzled again, and I pet him again, and he goes back to his own lesson.
After a time I feel my patience wearing thin as the thread goes up and down in a pattern of ivy leaves, and I'm also curious about that lesson, so I put the shirt behind me on my mat and start up the lesson program. Indeed, it has me rotating my wrist and scrunching my thumb like to fall off. I fix my essay using what I learned, imitating what Shadow did, that is, leaving the incorrect version and writing a better one below. What's this now? Shadow is brushing off his mat, neatening his blanket roll which by now is rather out of shape, and sweeping tracked-in dirt toward the center of the tent. I log off, and take over the brush for my side. They have a neat thing that you can sweep dirt into, then dump it in the trash can.
Then Shadow points to the lice soap, picks up his own soap, and tells me, ``Come.'' I grab the metal comb too, and we're off to the latrine tent with its rain machines. And now I catch sight of the reason for this change of activity: charcoal-black Tiger is approaching from the direction of the front building.