Next Previous Contents

Chapter 4: How Much Did I Screw Up?

Tiger is stiff in her movements and she guides Shadow to hug her just on her right side.

Me: Are you hurt, Tiger?

Tiger (also signing to Shadow): Yes. My whole left side is bruised and a couple of ribs are bent, though not actually broken off. I got shot, right here.

Me: But, but, why are you still alive, being shot in the heart? And where's the blood or bandages?

Tiger: The wonders of polyimide fiber. We wear body armor to protect against just this problem. Also my heart is right in the center; our hearts and lungs are quite different from yours. Simba is in worse shape than I am: he got shot in the face. He's over at the weapons range seeing if he can still shoot; evidently the bullet knocked his right eye a little out of alignment. And it took a piece out of his right infrared sensor. It will grow back, but that will probably take about two years, if I remember correctly. I'm going right over there myself; we'll shower afterward. I'm sorry; dinner will be a little late; but we have to tell our lieutenants promptly whether we'll be leading the teams tomorrow or if they will. Both of you, come on over to the weapons area.

Me: If you could tell us what to do, we could have dinner ready by the time you come back. We'll wash ourselves first. (Tiger translates and Shadow looks disappointed.)

Tiger: I'm tempted. But making dinner helps me relax, and Simba feels the same way. Are you avoiding the weapons range? I won't force you to come.

Me: No. Let's go. (Shadow smiles and his tail stands right up.) What shall I do with the washing stuff?

Tiger: Shadow has to get his ID card. Give it to him, unless you have to get your card too.

Me: Mine is in my pocket. An Albanian man should know how to shoot, and I know how to handle the rifle, of course, but I've only shot real bullets twice. Ammunition is hard to get. I guess you have an unlimited supply.

Tiger, laughing: Yes, unlimited, but not the way you think. It's more of our magic. Do you find it odd that I'm taking my supposed enemy to the range for weapons practice?

Me: Everything you do is odd. When there's an opportunity I take it, whoever gives it to me.

Tiger: That's something like honesty. I like that. Come on around on the back side of the main building. The entrance is on the other side of the enclosure. The firebrick walls keep stray plasma bolts from killing people in the camp. Give your ID card to the sergeant and check out a rifle. I need to talk to Simba.

The shooting range smells like thunderstorm, not gunpowder. Tiger has received her weapon. Presented with my ID card, the soldier supervisor looks at me askance and starts questioning me. With handsigns from her shooting station Tiger presumably points out that his questions aren't being understood. There's then a handsign conversation, after which I receive the rifle. I hold it pointing in the air, as I should, but where's the bolt handle or lever or whatever device to check if there is, or isn't, a bullet in the chamber? And where's the safety latch? I omit those steps and hope a simulated confident smile and a ``thank you'' in their language will substitute. Evidently it doesn't, but the soldier doesn't demand the weapon back, contenting himself with a caustic comment to Tiger in signs. I proceed to a shooting station. Simba resumes what he was doing when we came in; he puts on a strange hat that covers his eyes and pointed cat ears, then starts blazing away at unseen Illyrians; the rifle spits actual fire! Shadow arrives and checks out a handgun, being kind of small to handle a rifle.

Tiger: See here, Gerbil; this switch is the physical safety, and you'll need to log in to use the weapon. Use the small keypad on the side, here.

Me: There's a computer in the rifle?

Tiger: Right. It keeps unauthorized people from using it. Shadow is very responsible, but others his age are less so. OK, now that you're on, slide the safety forward, and that powers up the plasma injector. See the light here, it changed from yellow to green? That means it's ready to fire. An orange X means it's hot, and a red X means if you fire it you're likely to break it, like from overheating, or else it's already broken. On your weapons at home, do you know about sight picture? See the lighter yellow bricks in the wall? Aim at one of them and look through the sight. It looks like two little holes in the center; shift your head so they're exactly in line, and then whoever is in the hole is who you're going to kill. Try ten or twenty shots to get used to the weapon, and you can judge your accuracy by the hotspots and the X's. Target the light bricks; that's what they're for. Then call to me and I'll show you what to do next.

It's so easy to see the target! Something in the sight makes it larger than life. I press the butt into my shoulder to take the kick when it fires. OK, right in the center of the vertical yellow brick, blooie! I pull the trigger. There's a flash and a swooshing sound, but there's not a bit of kick. And a glowing red spot appears well above the top of the brick, fading slowly, and the computer puts an X which stays on it even though my aim isn't steady. I'd better aim lower. This time the spot and X are on the brick, but just barely, and there's another X at the very bottom of the sight, where I was aiming.

Tiger: Squeeze the trigger, loose and fluid.

Remembering my falling lesson today, I respect what Tiger told me. This time the spot is in the bottom half of the brick, but still above where I aimed and to the right. Am I jerking the rifle out of line? I aim for the center. Loose and fluid, I gently squeeze the trigger, and the red glow appears just two hole diameters above the aim point.

Tiger: That was good, Gerbil. You were shooting for the center, right? Keep doing that until you feel you're consistent. Kill different bricks at random. Likely you'll spend all of this session on that, but if you feel you're ready for the next lesson, call to me.

She puts on the hat at her station and imitates Simba, but to my eyes her motions aren't as easy and deadly as his. I'll bet this morning they would have been. I get busy ``killing'' bricks. I'm still jerking. I try to force the rifle to stay still, but that makes it waver more. Loose and fluid! My arm is tired, but if I put aside thoughts about my arm or the rifle and just look at the brick, my shots hit much closer. My arm feels like a stone were tied to it, like my legs did, but my pride tells me... that if I can't keep the rifle pointed the right way I shouldn't be shooting it. I latch the safety (the light goes out) and rest my sagging left arm.

After a short rest I resume my practice, often managing to avoid all three mistakes at the same time: jerking, forcing and forgetting the target. Loose and fluid! I need to rest again. I'll have to build up my strength, and I wonder if holding the chinup bar would be a good exercise. No, it's useless because it holds itself up in the air by magic. Now a third set: how many shots can I get within two sight-hole diameters of the aim point? When Tiger interrupts me I've had five good shots out of twelve. I latch the safety and the green light goes out.

Tiger: That's enough for me. I'm still going to be stiff and sore tomorrow, and I'm not going to be at my best in hand-to-hand combat, but I'm adequate with the rifle and I think also at hand-to-hand, so I'm going to lead tomorrow, not stay home.

Simba (removing his hat): Same for me. My eye feels funny because of the swelling, but it seems not to be actually misaligned, or else I've already compensated for it. On the exercises I did, my scores were as good as I usually get.

Now that he's facing me, I can see that Simba has a bloody bandage on his right cheek, tied on with a strip of cloth around his head, and around the bandage, under his brown and dry grass stripes, his face is all swollen.

Me: Simba, I'm sorry you got shot. Are you hurt badly?

Simba: My head is pretty hard. Seriously, it feels like all my teeth on this side are loose, and my infrared sensor sinus is completely filled with clotted blood so I can't see anything with it, and my voice sinus is full too, and I still have a headache from the concussion. It could have been a lot worse. And a lot better too, if I had dodged better. They had agreed to the population control plan, and I was explaining a point to this guy, kind of their second in command, and he suddenly flew off the handle, pulled his pistol and blasted me. It took me a moment to shift mentally into combat mode, just one moment too long. I killed him with my claw, but my people and their people held back from a firefight. I'm a little surprised that you're sympathetic with me. Why is that?

Me: Something that happened today: a wounded soldier. I had to think, and I decided that I don't have to spray poison at you and Tiger all the time; I can act like you're sort of my family, and still do my duty and stay loyal to my village.

Simba: I'm glad to hear that. It will ease my burden a lot. Come on; let's put our weapons away and go wash up. Did you turn off the safety and log out?

Me: I got half of it right. How close to the target do I have to hit?

Simba: I didn't see the exercise you were doing.

I log out and we all turn in our weapons to the soldier in charge.

Tiger: On the beginning phase, accuracy practice, you'll get little dots the same size as the sighting hole, and the shot has to hit the dot to count. For a top score it has to be within one fifth of the dot diameter from the center. Today I did one set of targets and got ninety-nine, meaning one shot out of ten was farther than that.

Simba: I got a hundred, which is how I know my eye is actually OK. Tiger usually gets hundreds. But most of my exercise was surprise targets, and I did a little firing from the hip.

Tiger: I did it mostly from the hip, because that puts the most stress on my rib muscles and pecs. I have to know if I can do it for real, tomorrow.

Me: Aren't you going to ask if I hit anything? An Albanian parent would, or more likely, would have watched me. I'm not blaming you; you had your own practice to do.

Tiger: When we're killed, or when you move out to make your own family, you're going to have to decide what your goals are and how much effort to put into achieving them. You know what the standard is. I think if you're not sure of something, or if you're stuck and not making progress, you'll speak to us. Right? When you shoot your first hundred I'm sure you'll tell us. We'd be happy to hear progress reports before that. But I judge you don't need pressure from us to keep working on weapons practice, which is why I didn't ask you.

Simba: Shadow got an average of fifty six percent on his exercises, which is decent for his age, and he's curious how you did.

Me: Tell him I didn't hit any.

Shadow puts his arm around me and I pet his fuzzy head.

Simba: Grab your soap. And your comb. Do you have some idea how close you were coming?

Me: Within two hole sizes of the aim point, I got five of twelve, in the last set when I was counting.

Tiger: Not bad. It looks like you worked through the jerking problem you had at the beginning. And a quantitative measure like that really helps you improve. Can you accept that you didn't do as well as the more experienced shooters, yet did well even so?

Me: That's not the Albanian way. I'm not saying no to you, but I'm having a lot of trouble understanding your ways. My father would have beaten me.

Simba: I hope you'll compare which parenting style gets the job done better. I hope you'll take seriously our lessons in teaching kittens. I don't like to hear about beatings.

Me: Yes, sir. I'll practice shooting whenever I'm allowed, and I'll do my best to improve.

Simba: Good. That's just what we expect of you. Now let's loosen up; wash away the tension with a nice relaxing shower. We'll get a formal report from you afterward. I've read Shadow's report, and it looks like we'll be hearing a tale.

Me: Yes, sir, Simba.

The rain machines and dryers are noisy. An old lady is washing herself, so Tiger tells Shadow to wait; she wants me to take plenty of time to get rid of whatever lice survived yesterday's treatment, and I'm the one who's going to be using the metal comb, because she wants to concentrate on helping Simba to get clean but to keep water off his wound. Then it's Shadow's turn, while she changes Simba's oozing bandage. Before I dry myself Tiger quickly goes through my hair with her claws. She breaks a few nits with the comb, but doesn't send me back to do it over, for which I'm very grateful. Now we males are dry but Tiger is still washing.

Tiger: Go on back to the tent and start dinner. I'll be there in just a minute.

Again it's a vegetable dinner. We have lots of round, red, juicy tomatoes, which I wash and cut, and fat, long, muddy green leeks, which are Shadow's responsibility. Simba prepares wheat-flavored Chang seeds with various spices that I don't recognize. It's not mushy like at breakfast: cooked enough to eat, but the grains are still grains. My mother had a dish kind of like it. Returning, Tiger slices mushrooms and dumps them in, and the leeks join them as soon as Shadow has finished washing them and (this is astonishing) cutting them up with his claws. I'd better respect those claws. The tomatoes go in near the end so as not to overcook. Shadow brings out a small cup of some white substance and lets met taste a small spoonful... It's yogurt! But cold; it must have been hiding in the magic box. We make it from sheep milk in late spring, but these people can get it in mid-summer. This isn't for babies, and I tell Shadow ``thank you'' and set the yogurt and spoon on my mat where I'll be sitting; then I return for my bowl of vegetable couscous. I eat it carefully at the beginning, and shift my grip frequently, because it's hot, but it soon cools and I can satisfy my hunger. These lions may not eat meat (so what are the mouth daggers for?) but they know how to fill a belly.

The dinner conversation is wide ranging, and Tiger or Simba translates between Shqip and their language so both Shadow and I can participate. I'm asked to confirm that I deliberately didn't outrun Shadow when we started our race, and that Shadow deliberately didn't outrun me at the end. Shadow gives a preview description of my new shirt. Tiger points out to us that aside from the damage to Simba himself, his afternoon village was excellently done, with only one person killed, and hers was adequate by their standards, with six dead. I feel I should be participating, but not on that topic, so I ask how they get yogurt. It seems they have cows that give milk year round, and I mention that we didn't keep cows at our village, only sheep. Tiger brings up some future plans: they have to get started on language training for their next duty after Illyria, so they have to get a definite agreement where that duty will be.

I hide my emotions, but this is a revelation to me. I had assumed that conquerors would just stay. If you don't understand something, speak up.

Me: What will happen to Illyria when you go? Won't people just go back to the way they were, making large families?

Tiger: I should hope not. When I leave you and Shadow here alone, do you goof off, or do you work on lessons? Why do you pick the lessons?

Me: Because they're important.

Tiger: Not because I'll come back and criticize you, right? I hope the same principle applies to population control. We're going to set up an Illyrian government and you people will govern yourselves, including keeping after each other to maintain population control.

Me: Illyrian? Not Albanian, and Serb, and Croat, and Macedonian, and so on?

Tiger: Of course not. You're all mixed together. Having separate jurisdictions would invite fighting, like the raids you already do on each other but worse. Organized.

Me: Oh.

Tiger: Honesty, please, Gerbil. Say what you think.

Me: Albanians wouldn't accept being governed by Serbs, and particularly not Croats. I think the Croats would feel the same way.

Tiger: All the ethnic groups would govern all the groups, as a team. It wouldn't be Croats governing Albanians.

Me: Shadow did something today and I had to think about teamwork, and how others in my village might have reacted if put into your, our family. I have my reasons for not acting like an Illyrian jackass, however hard it is, and others lack my motivation, and also aren't as good at keeping a lid on their tempers. Don't use me as an example of what you can get away with in other villages.

Tiger: No, I'm not overestimating the average Illyrian. But we can't stay here permanently. We're needed in Sri Lanka and China, and I'm taking your warning seriously, Gerbil, and you're not the only person who's told me that. I have the distinct feeling that Sri Lanka is going to have to do without our tender mercies until the Chinese are solidly nailed down. I hope you like Chinese because you're going to be hearing a lot of it.

Shadow (translated): Me too? What about my Greek?

Tiger (translating for me): You should keep up your Greek. You have the goal to read the Odyssey, and I think that's good for you, and as your modern Greek improves, while we're in Illyria, you're more able to help Macedonians in the hospital. But if you're going to be in China, you're going to find Chinese in the hospital. And you can look forward to reading Chinese literature and philosophy too, if you can continue making progress in both languages. I'm not pushing, understand, but if it's fun for you I think you'd get a lot out of both languages.

Shadow: OK, but I'm going to have to give up something else.

Tiger: Like I told you, meteorology isn't bad, but it isn't meeting immediate goals, and I'd pick a different topic to introduce you to science. Also on history, you need that, but you need Chinese more. Cut your history to half speed, and use your judgement, hint, hint, on the meteorology. OK?

Me: Should I learn Chinese?

Tiger: Yes and no. Your first priority is to learn to read, write and speak Tiger signs. But if you and Shadow learn Chinese together it would be a lot easier and more effective for both of you, and you could make yourself useful interacting with refugees. How about you do this: both of you learn spoken Chinese, but Gerbil, commit to it only to the extent that it doesn't detract from your primary goal. And Shadow should learn written Chinese, and Gerbil won't. Simba, what do you think of that plan?

Simba: Reasonable balance, I think. What do Gerbil and Shadow think?

Shadow: Yes, yes!

Me: OK, I'll do it with Shadow.

Simba: But Shadow, remember that Tiger signs are a lot more important to Gerbil than Chinese is.

Shadow: Yes, I'll remember. And I'll have to use mostly Tiger signs with him because at the beginning I'll know as much Chinese as he knows signs now.

Tiger: Good point. Is everyone done eating? If so, let's brush our fangs and wash the dishes.

Very interesting: Shadow can get away with defying Tiger on the choice of lessons. I'll have to dig for the reason, later, and privately. Why am I being excluded from the written Chinese? Obvious: I have so much else to learn that's more important. I wish I weren't a country bumpkin. I wonder how hard it's going to be to learn two languages at once? Will I mix them up?

Simba, placing a bowl in the drying rack: How much Greek do you know, Gerbil?

Me: I can cuss a little.

Simba: If you'd picked up some Greek from Macedonian neighbors, Shadow could learn from you.

Me: Cuss words?

Simba: Maybe not. It was a good idea that didn't work out. Shadow mentioned that you worked out on the bar this morning. What did you think of Shadow's exercise? (Shadow, who's watching the running translation, is looking nervous.)

Me: Maybe we should get Shadow to tell about that part.

Simba: I think we will, but later. (Shadow is not looking relieved.) The wounded soldier you saw, was that while you waited for your gall bladder to be treated? Like I said before, I'm glad you decided you didn't need to spew poison.

Me: My uncle explained to me that boys should fight hard, but should be friends afterward, so they don't poison the village with vendetta over childish stuff. I thought it might apply to adult wars too. I'm still angry that Tiger killed my family, but my job is to thrive here, and if I do the Albanian thing I poison the family. That's not right.

Simba: Thank you for your wisdom. You did well to get treated, because a blocked bile duct is really bad for you. Shadow mentioned something about the payment.

Me: The doctor said it cost thirty one point five fangs, whatever that is. And I don't understand what the point means. But I want to get a job and pay it back to you. Thriving means being able to take care of myself, and, well, having you pay for everything might be easy like a baby needs, but it isn't manly.

Simba: I understand your issues, and your attitude is commendable. (I smile inside.) But you made a serious error, and I'm not going to use Tiger's style of making you work it out for yourself because I don't think you have the background to spot it. Shadow, can you help out Gerbil?

Shadow: Um, no; I didn't see anything wrong with it then, and I don't see it now.

Simba: Impetuous youth! Never make a commitment when you don't understand what you're committing to. Promise, both of you?

Shadow. Yes, Simba. I should have seen that.

Simba: Next time you won't miss the issue.

Me: I guess I was acting like an Illyrian jackass.

Simba: A noble jackass, but still an ass. Let's have a math lesson, about points. Ten sheep; how much is half of that?

Me: Five sheep.

Simba: Good to say the unit, not just a naked five. And how do we write the two numbers?

Me: We find out from our lessons when they get around to teaching it.

Simba: I guess that's right. But half of ten is five, half of a hundred is fifty, half of a thousand is five hundred, right? So half of one is five what? Imagine the one sheep sliced into sandwich meat, ten slices; then five of those would be half the sheep, right? We're talking about five tenths. The point tells you that you've finished with the whole sheep, or in this case whole fangs, and are starting on the fractional parts, and when you say point five it means five tenths. Does that make any sense?

Me: I can sort of see it. Could you take one slice and make ten pieces out of that?

Simba: Exactly! And you'd be saying point five two, or point five three. You should start math lessons as soon as your language skills allow. You'll do well. But now let's learn what a fang is. An average worker earns one fang per hour. So how long would you have to work to pay the doctor?

Me: Well, obviously, thirty one... hours and five tenths! There's a problem, though: I don't really know how long an hour is. Our family has a clock, but it broke when I was younger, and I never learned to use it.

Simba: Each day has twenty four hours. You sleep for eight hours, you work for eight hours, and you do other things, like eating and washing and playing, for eight hours. Your work is supposed to be learning.

Me: And I don't get money for that. To get money to pay the doctor, I'd, let's see, I'd have to get money instead of learning, for almost four days. Just under four days.

Simba: Very good, Gerbil! Shadow, isn't he good at math? But there's a little detail: you're not an average worker; you're just beginning. Most likely it would take you more like six or seven days.

Me: If I took out seven days from learning your language... And a for lot of jobs I need to understand what I'm told to do. I guess I let my pride get ahead of me.

Simba: Right, and that's why I landed on you for making a commitment you didn't understand. But I'm going to offer you a compromise. We'll give you the same terms we get from our government, for medical insurance. You work for money six hours a week, same as Shadow does, and don't act like a jackass about not doing more than Shadow; you need lessons a whole lot more than you need money, right?

Me: Yes, Simba.

Simba: Then, you pay us one tenth what you earn until the full amount is paid. After that, you should open your own medical insurance account, with us as backup. When you do that you would learn how to make it work, but basically, you would be paying them a tenth your income for quite a long time. What you had paid in, you could take out when you were sick, plus more if needed, within limits, and they would hope you stayed alive to pay them back. When you had seven hundred fangs in your account, you could stop paying, until you got sick and used some of it.

Me: I'm having trouble to figure how long it would take to get seven hundred fangs.

Simba: Do the math lessons. That calculation is a standard exercise. What do you think of the plan?

Me: Well... I'll do the part for repaying you, and I'll try to know enough to understand the second part, before I have to start that.

Simba: Well done, Gerbil. That's the right way to make a commitment.

Shadow: Do you think I ought to do the medical insurance account?

Simba: What do you think, Gerbil?

Gulp. Think fast.

Me: Well, um, a tenth of what we earn isn't going to detract a lot from whatever else we need money for, is it? And taking care of yourself would be the manly thing to do. Let's see, if Shadow works six hours a week, that's less than six fangs, and the payment would be less than point six fangs; see, I used the fractions. If sicknesses cost like thirty fangs or more, might there not be enough money available?

Simba: You're right, but Tiger and I would still stand behind you and Shadow when your payment limit ran out. That's what I meant by backup.

Me: OK, then, we both should do it, except I have to, we both have to learn all about what we're committing to.

Simba: Good. I concur. Shadow, when you've read and understood the insurance agreement, tell me or Tiger and we'll set it up for you; since you're a minor it takes our permission. Now I'd like to go on to another payment that was made today. Money is not as simple as it looks, and it's easy to make mistakes with it and to hurt each other. I'm referring to Shadow paying for Gerbil's clothes. It was a noble gesture, Shadow, like it was very nice of Gerbil to resolve to pay his doctor bill. But if there's any screwup, that 3.17 fangs is going to cast a shadow over your relationship that's not worth whatever good may have come from getting decent clothes for Gerbil. Any comments, Shadow?

Shadow: I guess I shouldn't have done it. But I wanted to help!

Simba: How do you help most: by getting Gerbil out of his rags, or by getting Gerbil out of a threat to the family? Gerbil said thank you today, I'm sure, but what's going to happen a month down the road, in the worst case scenario?

Shadow: Everyone gets mad at everyone. I think I can see my punishment coming. I'm not going to get paid back. Right? Then I can get mad at you, and not at Gerbil.

Simba: Right.

Me: That's not fair! He was trying to help! We're a team and we'll stand together.

Simba: Don't worry, you're getting punished too. Shadow won't be alone. It generally takes two jackasses to really screw something up. Now the issue of help is important. If you help and make things worse, what reward should you get?

Me: The reward I'm going to get, obviously.

Simba: And that's what is happening to Shadow: he tried to help, he made matters worse, and he's getting punished. Both of you, it's important to be careful when helping. Good intentions aren't enough; they must be coupled with competence, and if you don't have the competence you have to at least have the judgement to step back from the situation. Shadow had neither.

Shadow looks devastated by Simba's criticism. I put my arm around him and hug him. He looks up at me and gives me a sad smile.

Me: How bad is the punishment, refusing to pay Shadow back?

Simba: Explain it for him, please, Shadow.

Shadow: It's about four hours of work down the toilet. It's, well, harsher than my friends would have gotten, but I'm tougher than they are. What really makes me feel like an ass is, I had lessons on this, and I didn't do what I learned. I'm... I'm tough and steady, and however much I may feel like an idiot, I know I'm not.

Simba: Good, Shadow. I'm proud of you. And think of it as four hours spent to get a lesson not of your choosing, OK?

Me: Now my punishment. I should have refused. I put the teamwork between us at risk. I should be punished the same amount as Shadow, 3.17 fangs. But how? Let's see...

Simba: How's this: Shadow has made an involuntary gift to you of one set of clothes. You need two. Because you stuck your nose into an area you hadn't been trained for, we're going to refuse to pay for those too. Earn the money and buy them yourself, after you earn the money, not before. You only need one belt, but let's not nitpick over hundredths of fangs. Is that fair?

Me: Yes, Simba.

Simba: And another thing. Seeing transparently through certain jackasses, I can sense a plan forming to pay back your debt to Shadow under the table. I want a promise from both of you that you, Gerbil, won't offer it, and Shadow won't accept it.

Shadow: I promise. I made a mistake, I need to be punished, and I won't wriggle out of it.

Me: I guess I promise too. But it just doesn't feel fair to me. I mean for Shadow.

Simba: I'm not surprised. It took me a long time to learn ruthlessness, and I had discussions like this with my supervisor, more than once. Let it stew in your mind, and bring it up from time to time. Tiger will also have some good viewpoints. Now I'd like to go on to another item that both Tiger and I noticed in Shadow's report. On the payment issue I knew I'd punish both of you, but on this one you're going to have to convince me one way or the other. Shadow, when Gerbil had the tapeworms stuck in his arse, your actions were exemplary, with one exception. First the praise, and Gerbil, from this learn what we expect of you too. You recognized the situation from your lessons. You made a plan first, before executing it. You put teamwork before personal disgust; it would have been hard for me too to grab those worms. Then you instructed Gerbil how to clean himself, and you cleaned yourself effectively too. So, where did the alcohol come from?

Shadow, looking nervous: From the locked cabinet above the mirror.

Simba: Which you observed the combination of, at some previous time.

Shadow: That's right.

Simba: Did you do the right thing to open the box?

Shadow: No, Simba.

Simba: Why was it wrong?

Shadow: The alcohol is poisonous, and there are worse poisons up there. The alcohol could light on fire. Kittens should use the dangerous materials only under adult supervision.

Simba: So why did you choose to do the wrong thing? You did think why not to open it before you did it, didn't you?

Shadow: Yes. I was afraid that if I went looking for an adult to supervise, Gerbil would try to get the things out and then try to clean himself, and I wouldn't be watching, and he'd get caca and worm ick all over everywhere, and I wouldn't even know where it had gotten to. If I could have talked to him I could have explained, but he doesn't know enough words.

Simba: Gerbil, what would you really have done if he had run off looking for help?

Me: He told me to stay and not move. I understood that; I would have waited.

Shadow, crestfallen (translated by Simba): I'm sorry, Gerbil. I should have trusted you and I didn't.

I hug Shadow and make my signs so he can see: Gerbil and Shadow are a team.

Simba: Tell me, Shadow, if the positions had been reversed and Gerbil had gone to get help, would you have tried to get the worms out yourself?

Shadow: I might have stayed steady. Not very likely. I probably would have pulled on the worms.

Simba: I think you're right, and you had to assume that Gerbil would act like you would, right? OK, the judgement first, and then I'll tell you how you could have done better. I'm not happy with you, understand, but I'm not going to punish you, because we don't ask you to do more than you're able. But listen to what this experienced adult would have done. Of course I'm authorized to use the alcohol, but let's ignore that. First, you have a rule that you should get all the supplies together before starting, because suppose you were halfway through and the alcohol couldn't be found? I would have broken that rule, and gotten Gerbil dewormed and cleaned, holding my hands in the air, as I suspect you actually did. Then, with the threat from Gerbil neutralized, I would have gone out and asked an adult to help me clean up. And if you couldn't find an adult, or if the alcohol bottle was empty, where could you have found more?

Shadow: Oh, dumb! At the hospital!

Simba: Right. But I'd rather have you fixated on the rule of getting your materials together first, and have you think about the rule of adult supervision and deliberately choose to break it, than to have you get sloppy with your materials and mess up ten or twenty projects and get nothing in return. Agreed?

Shadow: Yes, Simba.

Simba: Forgetting a rule and drifting into error is a lot worse than knowing the rule and having a good reason to break it, even if in the end I disagree with your reason. And now here's a hard task for you: remember Tiger asked Gerbil if he could understand that he shot well, even though we did a lot better? I'd like you to do the same. You did very well for a ten-year kitten, and can you accept that, even if an adult would have chosen differently?

Shadow, brightening a little: Yes, Simba. Thank you.

And I give my little brother a big hug with rubbing all over his fur, and he gets his arms around me and pets me too. I can see Tiger smiling. Shadow really is mature and tough, and I hope I don't disappoint him. I think Simba would put it, I hope I only do things that make him proud of me.

Simba: One last little item: the gymnastics. Gerbil, you avoided telling me something. Shadow, I assume you have a pretty good idea what he's avoiding to tell me. First, I want to find out from Gerbil why he's clamming up. But that involves talking about what he's decided not to tell me. That's a hint to Shadow.

Shadow: We need to learn, Gerbil. Tell Simba what he asks. We have to be brave, and we have to be fierce.

Me: When you say clamming up, what do you mean?

Simba: Maybe you don't eat clams. They live in water, they're completely covered by a shell in two halves like this, and they close up tight when they feel threatened.

Me: Oh. In an Albanian village you don't tell adults about what your friends did. It's called ratting a person out. If you're captured you don't tell the enemy about how many people your side has or what weapons and supplies.

Simba: Adults are the enemy. I'm familiar with the concept, though that isn't how I was brought up, and neither was Shadow. Learn from him.

Me: I think, when I make a mistake I'd rather be honest and tell you myself, rather than having Shadow tell you.

Simba: What do you think of this, Shadow?

Shadow: I think I should tell on myself. If I wasn't telling, I think you should let us talk it over and decide what's right.

Simba: Well. I see we're getting some maturity and pride here. OK, Shadow, you have the floor.

Shadow: I showed Gerbil my flying leap.

Simba: And Gerbil, what was your reaction?

Me: It was scary! I wish I could talk to Shadow when you aren't around. I hugged him to show I was impressed, but I tried to get across the idea of hitting the ground hard. Shadow, did you understand that?

Shadow: Yes, Gerbil.

Simba: And what's Tiger's and my position on flying leaps?

Shadow: You love me and you don't want me to break my neck. But I'm good! I've never missed the bar.

Simba: Let's take a hundred people and start them off doing flying leaps. And ten, twenty, thirty of them finally make a mistake and break their necks. Now you go through the remaining seventy and ask them, did you ever miss the bar? What do they answer?

Shadow: No.

Simba: And the other thirty, what do they say?

Shadow is silent.

Me: Does the exercise bar work outside the tent? There's a pond, and I saw kids swimming in it, and if Shadow did his thing over the water and missed, he'd get wet but not hurt.

Simba: Bingo! Two meters of water: the deep end. Agreed, Shadow?

Shadow: Yay! (And he throws his arms around me. I like making Shadow happy.)

Simba: Overall, we're happy with how you two conducted yourselves today. We were wondering, when we left this morning, whether our tent and our family would still be here. Each of you screwed up a couple of things, but there were a lot more things you did right, and some of them were very difficult. Shadow, you deserve a big hug. (And Simba gives it.) Gerbil, I know you have loyalty issues. Do you want to be hugged now, or do you want to save it in your hug account?

Me: Well, um, thank you for your praise, but I wouldn't feel quite right about hugging.

Simba: That's fine. When you're able. Now, I'm curious: what did you find hardest to do today?

Me: It was all hard! I can't say one was more than the other. I think holding myself back from acting like a jackass with Shadow: I could have really screwed both of us up, and I could feel myself wanting to act like my older brother had done to me, and I wanted to avoid being taken care of like a baby, but I had to go along because I didn't know enough and couldn't say enough words. Shadow, you didn't put yourself over me, and that really helped me bear the situation. Thank you. I'm glad to have you as a brother. Hug?

He's happy, Simba is smiling, and I can see Tiger smiling too, on her mat doing something with her computer. Am I smiling? What would my parents think? I know that answer! But come on! We Albanian jackasses carry vendetta to the whole family, but Shadow had nothing, absolutely nothing to do with killing my parents, brother and sister, and I'm not going to spray poison when it's not right.

I'm smiling too. We have a good hug.

Simba: I have a feeling that kind of hugging isn't common in an Illyrian family. But let's get back to business. We haven't had a chance to look at your shirt. May Tiger and I see it?

Me: Sure; here it is. Shadow found Mrs. Ruka and she lent us the stuff to do the decorations. I hope that's not going to get me another punishment.

Simba: You're doing a good job on the embroidery. It will look nice when it's done, and that fabric is very durable. Our people worked out the specifications and how it was going to be produced, before the collapse. And there's no problem with borrowing equipment as long as you return it promptly in good condition. Look, on punishment, the more you do, the more chance you have to screw up. Today you did really a lot, and that's good. Now if you screw up, would you rather have someone who cares about you give you a lesson that includes a punishment, to make sure you remember, or would you like to be reminded like I was today to keep my paranoia engaged?

Me: I don't quite get the relation.

Simba: Look what happened to Shadow on the issue of paying for your clothes. I was afraid that somewhere down the line you wouldn't be able to pay him back, not necessarily for the clothes which both of you expected us to pay for, but maybe for something else. Then he blames you and you start fighting with him and it's a bad scene. Which is better: just to let that happen, or if I stick both of you with a hit in the wallet that you're never going to forget, but in a controlled way that doesn't set you at each others' throats?

Me: I see it now, and if you've told this to Shadow before, now I understand why he said he needed to be punished and he wouldn't wiggle out of it. That surprised me; I'd never heard anyone say anything like that before. How did you punish Shadow for the flying leaps? Shadow, is it OK if I talk about that?

Simba: He says yes. We didn't actually punish him, just had a long discussion about risky behavior and broken necks. We couldn't figure out a punishment that was related to the activity but wouldn't do excessive damage. Our punishments are harsh enough to get the job done, as you've experienced, but we aren't brutal. I don't like what I heard about how you were punished in your family, and I hope you'll study our methods for use with your own children. Enough on that topic? It's getting late and I want to finish up any questions you might have about your lessons today. I looked at your writing exercise, what you called your lesson in magic yesterday, and it was well done, particularly the corrections. I see someone added the grammar lesson to your list.

Me: Yes, Shadow did that. I needed it. I did have one problem I couldn't get over. The words program gave me three of them that I couldn't understand the pictures for. Here are the signs.

Simba: Start up your computer and I'll show you some of the supplementary material. In the word finder, type the first one. I have to admit, that referent picture doesn't tell a whole lot, but see the button in the corner? You don't know the signs yet, but it means ``picture story''. Hit it.

Me: The child named something is something; do you suppose that could be ``all wet''? That's what the picture looks like. Now the other child makes the first one wet, using a bucket! The next pair of pictures: the child laughs; the other one makes the first one laugh by tickling him, and you use the sign for *gasnu. Am I getting it?

Simba: Perfect. Now do the same thing with the other two signs.

Me: Asleep, waking up, awake, but what does *binxo have to do with it? In the other pictures first the person is one way, then the other. Is this for changing?

Simba: Not quite. Not just changing, but becoming something specific. You become awake, become standing or sitting, and so on.

Me: OK, and the other one... ``Become running'' is stupid, so you have a separate word for starting, right? The next picture is hard to understand, but the third one, well, are you trying to use ``start to be awake'' to mean ``wake up''?

Simba: Right; that's it. What's next?

Me: Well, more practice, I guess. Should I get busy on that now?

Simba: No. You've had a very full day, Gerbil, and you need to give your mind a rest. And so do I. I think... Tiger says she has about ten minutes more work to do. I plan to fly the simulator now, and Shadow, you're welcome to join me. But Gerbil, if you want to learn how, I'd be happy to teach you how to fly. Or you can just watch, if you've had enough for today.

Me: Real flying, like the truck... yesterday.

Simba: It's a training exercise on the computer. You don't leave the ground; only your imagination does.

It's something Shadow does. Enthusiastically. He doesn't hide his emotions, or probably as Tiger would say, he lets people know what he thinks. I don't feel comfortable saying ``it would be fun'', particularly given how I first made my acquaintance with flying. But it doesn't feel like a useless game.

Me: Sure, Simba, let's do it.

Simba: So many people like flight games that there's an icon for it in the standard setup: that one, the airplane picture. Click on it.

It's rather complicated, and all the labels are in their language, Tiger signs, so I can't read them. Simba sets my airplane so I can't crash, a baby setting, but one that I need, so yet again I go along. There's a grove of trees at the end of the runway and it's funny to just fly through them; Shadow giggles and laughs. Occasionally I can see his airplane. It seems he's using me for target practice, and Simba says I can ask him to cut it out if it's bothering me, but I decide to put up with it in the interests of inter-brother harmony. When my skill is better, then I'll turn on Shadow and really have a firefight in the air, which Simba says is normal and appropriate as long as we keep our promises about what we're going to do in the game, and as long as we don't detract from our friendship in real life. I really am able to keep the airplane steadier as I practice.

Now there are two other airplanes: Simba and Tiger! Simba lands at our airfield and I fly toward it to watch what he's going to do. Tiger is elsewhere. Simba calls out ``go'' (in Shqip) and streaks down the runway. There's Tiger coming over the ridge line. Both planes spew fire, twist and turn, then rapidly circle back for another try. Oh, Simba's plane is trailing smoke! But he still can turn... and Tiger is going faster than he is, and can't slow down quick enough. He's behind her and blazes away again! Her tail is burning and the plane plunges downward. Something comes off.

Tiger: Good shooting, Simba. Gerbil, I've bailed out, riding a parachute to the ground. In real life I'd survive, maybe with broken bones, unless I landed on a fence post or someone shot me. That was a good exercise to get the frustration out, for both of us, killing or being killed in the simulation so we can hold back better in real life. But really, I'm tired. Let's play some music, and then I, at least, am going to bed early. Do you do anything musical, Gerbil?

Me: Should I try to land, or just close the program?

Tiger: I think it's good discipline to do it as if it were real: try to get the airplane back to your base safely. Press the ``I'' key twice; Shadow will show you; do you see the crossed lines on your screen? Fly so they cross at the center. Follow Shadow's cues for slowing down. And for putting down the flaps and wheels.

Landing is a lot harder than just flying, particularly since I have to figure out what Shadow wants me to do, quickly, at the same time I'm trying to steer the plane. I land in the bushes, but at least by the time the airplane stops it's reached the runway.

Me: Aah, that was hard, but fun. Maybe we can do it again tomorrow. Tiger, you asked about music. I sing our Albanian songs, but I don't know anything about your music.

Tiger has gotten out a beautiful wooden fiddle like my uncle had (his wasn't beautiful), and Simba has taken out a long thing with many white teeth, that I saw stored on top of one of the cabinets.

Tiger: Well, then, hum along with this. It's called ``Oh, Susanna'' and it's an American folk song about a young man travelling to see his young lady. Shadow likes it.

She launches into a spirited melody, and it sounds like a whole wedding of musicians is accompanying her inside Simba's thing, obviously computer musicians instructed by his flying furry fingers. Tails dance to the rhythm. I hum as Tiger told me to, and the tune is pretty easy to pick up. I'm not going to spray poison all the time; I set aside guilt and have some fun with the music.

Tiger: That one's a lot of fun. Would you like to show us a song, Gerbil?

Me: OK. This one is about a frog and his lady. But it's in Shqip.

Tiger: So Shadow will hum this time, or do the best he can with the sounds. Simba and I will do the same with the melody.

So I give it a whirl, and the croaking chorus has Shadow rolling with laughter. The second time round, both Tiger and Simba have music to offer, and they join in the chorus by voice too. I like doing this, and I'm also surprised and pleased that they had no reservations about doing an Albanian song. Albanians wouldn't ever sing Croat songs, for example.

Shadow yawns, and I'm tired too. But Tiger isn't quite finished. She does a slow, sad melody on her fiddle, magically playing two notes at once. It sounds like she's giving a voice to the Illyrians she's killed. My mother speaks to me through Tiger, and I feel my eyes filling; a drop sneaks down my cheek. Hide? I'm surprised to not feel the need. Simba silently passes me a towel.

Shadow hugs Tiger and Simba, and me too. Simba puts his paw briefly on my shoulder; I don't flinch away. They hug too, then turn out the light.

Wrapped in my blanket and sheet, I think about my condition. My parents shouldn't have been killed. But, they were, and I'm here now. A real Albanian man gets on with his life, and I'm doing that. My parents wouldn't be proud of me, because they only know Albania, but I've had lions' life thrown in my face, and in my liver, and up my arse, and I've had to learn it, and I'm not going to say it's all wrong, that only Albanian ways are good. Tiger says she wants me to make my parents proud. What I'm going to do is, to make myself proud. I wish I could make my parents understand. I can taste the salt, again, down the back of my throat.

Am I all alone? Totally alone? No! I miss my mother, my father, my brother, my little sister, my uncle, my best friend Ilir, now all dead. But I'm not alone: I have three fierce lions on my side, and other people in this tent village help me, more so than Albanians might, in fact. I will survive. Not only survive; I'll thrive.

Next Previous Contents