Next Previous Contents

Chapter 5: Love at First Sight

In the morning I'm more confident about the coming day. I manage to avoid injuring myself in stretching. For the strength exercises I'm sore because I overdid the chinups yesterday, but I know I should just ignore it, and certainly I shouldn't mention it to Tiger or Simba. For breakfast we have Chang seed mush again, but it's oat flavor, and Simba suggests putting cinnamon in it. I like cinnamon but at home we could rarely get it. It's interesting: Shadow has a definite cinnamon odor when I hug him, and Simba smells of cinnamon too, and other things, but Tiger has a different combination of scents. Shadow urges me to make my mush with milk because he says I need the nutrition, but milk is for babies.

Simba's bandage was soaked with blood overnight, but the wound doesn't seem to be oozing very much when Tiger changes it for him. And she seems to be moving easier too. I keep it to myself, but I hope their skills are shown in their best light today, and if any Albanian villages are on the schedule, that they listen to what the lions have to say about population control and don't act like jackasses in the face of overwhelming force, whether they agree with Tiger or not. I've heard Tiger's explanation and I'm not sure if I completely agree with it, but I'm going to go by what's real, and it sounds right enough that I'm not going to just blow off Tiger. And then get blown away, like Bashkim led our village to. I don't give a goodbye hug, but with Shadow I wave politely to them as they march toward the main building.

After washing the dishes we start our work day with lessons. I have to review all my signs, but after a while the program rewards me with a new word, another one with a useless referent picture. The picture story, though, reveals that it's for no longer being something, like no longer being asleep, or hungry. Soon after, Shadow is ready for a break, and since I'm not used to sitting in one place and twisting my brain, I'm ready too. I get another word on my list, ``choose'', because Shadow tries letting me do that, to choose between running and bar exercises. I choose running, and this time we run together all the way, and not straight either, rather on twisting trails through the nearby hills. The leaves of the bushes make the world smell fresh and clean.

We return to our tent, but Shadow hands me a stack of small boxes and some tools and a cloth bag, and he turns us right around out the door. These smell like Chang ant perfume. And sure enough, we arrive at a reasonably flat area planted with Chang bushes. Each bush is a little taller than I am, and a lot taller than Shadow is. The branches reach out almost as far as my arms would, so I could just reach the trunk, but the ends have been cut off to leave enough room that a person can walk sideways between the plants, carefully not touching them. The ants don't like anything to touch their plant.

Shadow (by signs): This belong Tiger. This belong Simba. This belong Shadow. This belong Gerbil.

Five rows of around twenty bushes ``belong'' to each person. And Shadow has a squirt bottle of ant perfume! In our village perfume and fertilizer were the hardest to get, and the most prized booty from raids. Being a shepherd I never did this, but I've watched other kids do it: Shadow takes each box (we used baskets), sprays once into it and sets it under one of his bushes, doing one row. And yes, there are twenty bushes. Already a river of black ants is bringing seeds to the first box. Now it's my turn, in one of my rows which Shadow points out. Not hard, is it? But Shadow calls my attention to the ants, which seem very healthy and active, then to his mouth daggers, and then he imitates biting me; I jump back. He again points to the ants. I know Chang ants bite, but I think I was just warned that these reflect their health in their bite.

Each of us has a hand-operated machine for cutting branches, and I watch what Shadow does, and practice moving the cutter. In one row where the ants aren't working, he looks appraisingly at a plant, then very, very carefully reaches among the branches and snip! He cuts just once, and flips the branch out on the ground with his other hand. We then retreat and move to another plant, not an adjacent one, because the cut plant boils with furious ants, including the ones that were on or in the branch on the ground, and their agitation is noticed by their neighbors. You can actually hear the ants skittering on the leaves and clicking their wicked jaws. Shadow is very brave, and now I'm being invited to be brave too. But which branch should I cut?

Shadow (by pantomime): The sun. The sun shines on the plants. The light stops at that tangle of branches. Cut there. The light will go through.

So I reach oh so carefully to the base of that branch, cut, and like Shadow did, I snatch my cutter out while using the other hand to yank out the cut branch. I drop it where I was standing and both of us take a careful step away in opposite directions, not touching other bushes. I don't know if ants can smell fear, but I certainly can smell something from under my arms. Those ants really want to get their teeth into me! I don't think people took this good care of Chang bushes in my village; I'm a shepherd so I didn't pay that much attention, but I think the bushes were a lot more tangled than these. And the ants were a lot less fierce.

My job turns out to be cutting the branches that are too high for Shadow to reach, in all twenty rows. I can see some stubs of high branches, probably cut off by Tiger or Simba, but the lower part of the plant is much better maintained, and (having learned from Shadow) I can tell that with my height I'll make a big contribution to this little farm plot. It's a contribution of blood: I'm bitten four times, and Shadow gets two bites. He teaches me to bite the ant back! Since it will never let go voluntarily, I guess that's the only way to get it off. He swallows the little corpse; yuck! I spit mine out. He laughs. A real Albanian man isn't stopped by discomforts, and Shadow is very manly for his age.

My dead parents would consider him to be at best a pet, and at worst an abomination. I don't like criticizing them, but I have to go by what's real.

The ants have stopped bringing seeds to our boxes, and we empty them into the cloth bags. We've gotten quite a lot; each of us has enough to eat for a week. Of course Tiger and Simba would expect their share. If today is the normal day for harvesting, not delayed by my arrival, these bushes should be enough to feed our family. More branches need to be cut, but that will have to be done another day, because all the ants are on high alert, patrolling their plants. I spot the skeleton of a mouse that was injudicious enough to try to steal seeds from a branch that bends down and touches the ground. I hope it isn't a gerbil.

It seems early to finish this work, but there's nothing more to do, so we carry our bags, not back to the tent, but to the quartermaster's room in the front building. It seems we're selling our seeds! Shadow points indicating I should put my seeds on the floor, then he plops his load on the counter and proffers his ID card. Oops! The country bumpkin left his in the tent! To Shadow I point at his card, then make a show of fishing in my pockets, and come up empty handed.

Shadow (by signs): Run. (Then he drops his card in his pocket.) Come.

I'd miss learning the procedure! But I don't dither; I run, fast. Will the quartermaster cheat me? I think it unlikely that Shadow will sell my seeds as his own: something that would have to be thought about with some kids in my village. I'm back; I set myself straight on my foundation before walking briskly, not running like a floppy puppy dog, into the room. I place the bag of seeds on the counter and hand over my card. The quartermaster slides it through a slot in his computer, pours my seeds into a large bowl, fiddles with the computer, pours the bowl into a bigger barrel behind the counter, then returns my card and bag. Shadow signs ``thank you'' to the quartermaster, and ``come'' to me. Where's the money?

When you don't understand something, speak up. To two people who don't know Shqip, and if I accuse the quartermaster of cheating me (whether I'm right or wrong) I definitely won't be able to handle the shouting match to follow, and I'll probably make worse the unknown other consequences. I also don't want to look like a country bumpkin, more than I already do. That last thought is cowardly and I'm not going to pay any attention to it. But... If I was just cheated, I've lost a few meals worth of Chang seeds, the production of four ant bites and not a lot of time. My pride doesn't like being cheated one bit, but I can really screw myself up if I let my pride run me into an area I'm too incompetent to handle: another blow to my pride. I'm going to wimp out: I'll keep my mouth shut, because the risk of opening it is just not worth what I actually lost. I'm not going to have much pride left, am I? When we get back to the tent I'll try to communicate my concern to Shadow.

In my village we would say that this or that person was so brave in retaliating for an affront to his pride. I had no idea it would actually take courage to keep a lid on my pride and to bear the pain. I feel like to go back out and harvest more seeds, and this time we'll take them home and eat them ourselves!

In the tent, Shadow looks puzzled. He opens his arms to hug me and I make a face and show my teeth at him; he jumps back. He's not to blame and I shouldn't put our teamwork at risk like that! I reach out to him and we hug.

I take one Chang seed, a bean, from a jar in the food cabinet, hold it up, and give it to Shadow. Then I pantomime taking something back from him, avoiding his attempt to give the seed back. Then I repeat my show of searching my pockets and finding nothing. I guess I didn't get the message through; Shadow still looks puzzled. Well, let's try a different way. I open up my computer, log in, start up a writing lesson, and a word finder nearby. I draw the word finder's targeting box. I ask for the seed back and hold it in the target box.

OK! Now I know the sequence of signs for ``Chang seed''. Using a closed fist for ``something'', I sign ``Gerbil something Chang seed'', and I offer the word finder to Shadow. Eat? Hungry for? Give? We're getting closer, and I take the opportunity to add ``give'' (as well as ``Chang seed'') to my words lesson list, but I make it clear that ``give'' isn't what I mean. I repeat the pantomime of giving the seed to Shadow, but he interrupts me halfway through and gives me a word. The picture story clearly shows that this word means ``sell'' or at least ``trade''. I add it to my list, then sign to Shadow... This is amazing; I can't figure out how to say it in Shqip! I can say something in Tiger signs that I can't say properly in the language I was born with! ``Gerbil lack that which would have been given in exchange.'' The Tiger sign for what I didn't receive just takes one sign and two wrist twists tacked onto ``trade''; my lesson yesterday on wrist twisting was all about that kind of thing. Shadow's eyes open wide. He starts up his computer quickly.

Shadow: Look! Shadow trade Chang seed for that, something something something. Gerbil trade Chang seed for that. (And he uses my keyboard to show a rectangle with writing in it, and ``that'' is one of the ant tracks in the rectangle, similar to the more complex version on his own screen.)

Obviously the money is in the computer, and we're looking at it. This is all Greek to me. Of course Shadow is fluent in Greek, enough to speak to wounded Macedonians. OK! I wasn't cheated! By keeping my mouth shut I was smart, not wimpy! I grab Shadow and give him a big hug, rubbing his fur all over.

In this rectangle are numbers. Closely observed by Shadow, I get right to work with the word finder. Shadow points out a button next to ``picture story'': the numbers from one to nine appear all together, plus others. This button shows a family of words, given one member. I transfer one through nine to my word list, but Shadow won't shut up until I also transfer a sign with nothing in its referent picture where the others have dots to represent the quantity. And there's another one he wants transferred. On his own money display he points out a row and starts holding up fingers. Sixty-eight things, sixty-eight fangs he has. Aha, there's the pair of signs for ``fang'', and its referent picture is ``big tooth'': a lion's mouth dagger! I carefully touch the smooth outer face of one of Shadow's fangs, and he laughs and opens his mouth wide like a child-sized Chang ant. I laugh and shudder at the same time. But he has more than sixty-eight fangs, I mean money. He has 68.374 fangs; they break an hour into ten parts, and that into ten, and that again into ten; it's so precise!

Now how much do I have? To the left of the point is that sign with no dots, and now I know how many it represents. 0.258 fangs: that's how much my bag of Chang seeds was worth. I'm proud of that accomplishment. But one tenth is owed to Simba and Tiger (how will I figure out how much that is?), and I have to save up 3.17 fangs for my sort-of punishment. What I earned seems rather skimpy, and also way under one fang per hour, if I've guessed right how long an hour is. I envy Shadow his sixty-eight fangs. I'd better sneak around that very Albanian jackass emotion, and not endanger our teamwork. All these numbers are going to have to be used, and Simba said I should learn to do that as soon as my language skills allow.

Me: Gerbil learn that.

And Shadow comes through: he remembers what Simba said, and adds a lesson to my active list. I hope it's the right one. I start it up. It's hard. I have to use the word finder a lot, and the writing yields its secrets slowly, but it does yield. Shadow keeps an eye on my progress for a while, then goes back to one of his own lessons. The numbers themselves are easy to handle, and while counting pink bunny wabbits I get the distinct impression that the lesson is for a little child, but I know I'm like a baby in my knowledge of these foreigners' ways, specifically their number skills, which are formidable if Shadow is any example. And at first I thought I was shirking my language study, but I find that struggling to make sense of running text is good for my skills. I reach over and pet Shadow, and sign to him, ``Thank you.''

Shadow is starting to fidget, and my brain is overheated too, and also my finger from drawing the word finder's targeting box over and over. It's time for a break. I'm about to log off, but Shadow stops me and gives me a new word: swim. I smile. I'm not expert at it; nobody in our village was; but I saw the kids in the pond and I think swimming would be fun. I remind Shadow to bring the exercise bar, and he smiles at me.

The kids in the pond are naked, of course, but there are girls too, which wouldn't happen in an Albanian village. I'm shy, and I'm honest with myself to accept that, and I'm adaptable enough to remember that these people care about clothes as much as a sheep does, and to remember that the new Gerbil is going to feel the same way. Shadow doesn't have to peel, of course. The water is of a reasonable temperature, as water goes.

Shadow carries the bar overhead and enters the water. The other kids are watching what he's going to do. Now here's a problem: how is he going to get the bar into position? And what's going to happen if he falls while pressing the button that allows the bar to be moved, dropping it into the water? I pantomime and he puts the bar back on the bank and substitutes an expendable stick. It's useless for him to try to place the bar. I can go out further, but at the deep end where piled rocks block the little stream my head would be underwater and my arms would raise the bar only a little above the surface. On the other hand, if he stands on my shoulders... He falls off with a splash, knocking me down too, and hitting me in the face with his wet tail. The other kids are laughing when I come up, and I give them a wry smile: no point in trying to enforce a grave and respectful aspect from them. We try several times but it's clear that my plan for practicing flying leaps isn't going to work. I shouldn't give up so easily, which is cowardly; the right thought is that my plan is going to have to be modified.

So let's just swim. Who is faster? My longer arms seem to give me the advantage, and I won't tire in just the length of this pond. I hear splashing behind --- and now ahead, for one of the other children has just overtaken both of us. Oh well, I know I'm not expert in swimming.

Young Lady: Well, hello there! (And wonder of wonders, she's speaking Shqip! Accented, but understandable.)

Me: Hi, my name is Gerbil. What's yours? (She's entering the water. Where I'm standing the water comes up to my bellybutton, and I suddenly realize it isn't prudent to venture into shallower water.)

Young Lady: I'm Angela. I've seen you around, yesterday and today, and I wanted to meet you. (How is it that her words seem to have little hearts drawn above and below? I'm having trouble to breathe.) I'll race you.

Me (in signs): Shadow: run swim! (There must be a word for race but I don't know it. Shadow doesn't look all that happy, but he jumps along the surface of the water.)

Angela: I beat you! (And she splashes me and Shadow, then shakes her long black hair and other body parts. My eyes are hazing over.) Come on, stand up! I want to look at your fur again. You have as much fur as your little friend. Let's ditch the cat and you can show me just how much fur you have.

Oops. Internal pressure drives me to risk my relation with Shadow. Suddenly a hail of water spews from beside and behind me: Shadow too is feeling the threat even if he doesn't understand the exact words. Angela splashes back and she's a lot stronger than Shadow is. But he digs in and wades forward. I don't like the looks of this! I'm not going to let my little brother get punished for slashing Angela. And of course that would terminate my own chances with her too.

Me (in spoken Tiger signs): Stop! Stop!

And I step into the fountaining water and hold them apart. Angela throws down my hand; I've touched something softer than a man's chest; and Shadow removes the other hand slightly more gently. At least they aren't splashing each other, but their glares, at each other and at me, are hardly better. There's no longer any need to be cautious about the water depth. I take my place next to Shadow.

Me: Gerbil and Shadow are a team. (And continuing in Shqip:) Really! We have to stay together, and I'm not going to ditch him. I want to get to know you, but we have to work something out that isn't going to break up our teamwork.

Angela: You're going to show the cat and me how much fur you have? Hah! If you want to play with the little kids and your pet cat, go ahead. (And she shakes her tits subtly but suggestively.)

I feel a warmness underneath, but I'm aware of Shadow beside me and the threat to our teamwork is cold, and in my mind I place it against the warmth. I wish I didn't have to do that! But in the last few days I've had to make quick and correct decisions with my life and my pride, and I'm unpleasantly aware that this is another of those decisions: if I sacrificed Shadow to get Angela, what then? I've watched my brother, and hanging onto a young lady for a month was great performance for him, the most successful, or should I say prolific, lover in the village. After at most a month I'd have no Angela and no Shadow. I hardly have to think to make my decision. My balls are going to sting as if Chang ants had gotten to them, all of today and probably tomorrow too, and I'm going to feel like a total loser, and it will be interesting to hear what slant Angela will put on the issue.

Me (to Shadow in signs): Gerbil stop swim. (And to Angela:) Keeping a good relation with Shadow is important for me to survive here. Getting to know you doesn't help me survive. Perhaps we'll meet again. I hope the three of us can get along better then. (And I turn my back on her and leave the water. Shadow is right beside me.)

Angela: You'd leave me for a little cat boy? God, you must be queer!

Ignoring the jibe I put on my pants with difficulty because I'm still dripping wet, but I omit dampening the rest. Angela has followed us out of the water.

Angela: You forgot to put on your underpants, little boy. What, are you ashamed to put on your rag shirt?

Shadow has gone to retrieve the exercise bar, but instead comes up behind Angela and shakes himself like a dog, spraying water all over her! Since she's still naked it doesn't do her any real harm, but it's very disrespectful. Angela delivers a load of invective in spoken Tiger signs and moves to grab Shadow, but he refrains from slashing her and merely dodges; only then does he display his fangs and claws. She calls him a name, makes a universal gesture at me, and stomps off.

We slink back to our tent.

Shadow: Gerbil hunger Angela? (I guess it's a question.)

Me: Yes. Gerbil and Shadow are a team. Gerbil learn.

And I start up my computer. Shadow pats me on the back, thinks a moment, and then vanishes out the door. What's going on? He's never done that before; we've always gone everywhere together. Well, there's no use worrying; I'll find out when he comes back, and most likely it won't be anything enjoyable. I get busy enjoying the stinging feeling in my balls, and sunless dampness, and learning more words.

Quite a long time passes; lunch will be soon. I've worked some on wrist twisting, and now I'm back to the numbers. Oh, Shadow's back at last.

Angela: May I come in, Gerbil?

Me: Sure, come in, come in.

I set aside my computer and rise to meet our guest. She has a shirt on this time; it's too late to put mine on, because she made that crack about it and I don't want her looking at me doing it.

Angela: Shadow and I have been talking. I'm sorry, what I said back at the pool. I'd like to start over, between us.

Me: Well, um, I'd like to start over too. I was sorry to have to walk out on you. But I'm serious about what I said: Shadow and Gerbil are a team. (The latter is in spoken signs so Shadow can hear it. Back to Shqip:) How much did Shadow tell you about me? Well, I had probably better just tell you what's important. I know almost nothing about your ways. I've been told that there are lessons that you, not I, will have had about how young men and young ladies are supposed to interact. I have a lot of trouble to talk to Shadow since he doesn't know Shqip. Greek is what he knows. And, well, I'm still hurting inside about what happened that brought me here. They're all good reasons for doing everything really slow, I think slower than you want to.

Angela: You're smart, you know? So what do you want to do slowly?

Me: First, um, when Shadow and I are together, Tiger and Simba speak Shqip to me and signs to Shadow, or one talks and the other translates. Would you do that for us? You're the only one who knows both languages.

Angela: So how can you be a team if he doesn't understand you and you don't understand him?

Me: If we work hard we can get a message through. I know a few words and Shadow knows which those are, and I have other tricks, but it goes very slowly. Would you translate that for Shadow, please, so he can participate? If the three of us are going to be a team, we can't leave out an important member.

She looks at me like I'm crazy, but she does the translation, and Shadow responds.

Angela: He says it's hard, but you're learning words as fast as you can, and it's worth it to have a big brother who respects him. Some of my friends' brothers treat them like dirt. I'm glad I don't have one.

I pet Shadow, and remind Angela: Shadow would like to hear what you said. (She translates.) I worked out how to treat Shadow partly by thinking how my older brother treated me.

Angela (translating): He must have been pretty nice.

I change the subject rather than criticizing my brother to someone I hardly know, even if certain body parts want to get to know hers a lot better.

Me: My job here is to learn the language as quick as I can, and then to go on to lessons that everyone else has already finished. I don't know what Shadow's lessons are, and I probably wouldn't understand even if I could read his list, but he has a lot of lessons and he works hard on them. I see you brought your computer. Let's do lessons until we get tired, then eat lunch together.

Angela: Do you think you'll be able to concentrate? (She's translating and Shadow snickers.)

Me: I've managed to keep my mind on what's important in a lot more... Yes. I know what I have to do to survive and thrive, and I'll do it.

Angela: I've never met anyone like you, who can just say no to me like you do.

Me: Maybe you've never met an Albanian young man before.

Angela: Maybe not. So shall we put the girls on this side of the tent and the boys on that side? (Shadow frowns.)

Me: I think it's not a good idea for you to sit on Tiger's or Simba's mat. You could sit next to me. Young lady.

Angela: Sitting on the Marshal's mat! You don't know how hard it is for me to resist. But my Albanian young man is more attractive. (She sits. I struggle to control my breathing. Shadow rolls his eyes heavenward.)

Angela is right that I'll have trouble concentrating, particularly when she's so obviously concentrating on me rather than on her own lessons. But she's wrong if she thinks I'm not tough enough to overcome the ``trouble''. I work on wrist twisting. I'm happy to see Angela finally doing something useful on her own job. After a while I change back to the numbers.

Angela: Oh, is that a lesson on counting?

Me: Actually it seems to be through with just counting. Now it's telling me about putting flocks together. Of course I already know how to do that, but I have to learn the Tiger signs for everything and it goes slow. See Shadow's ears? When they turn toward us like that it means he's curious what we're saying.

Angela: Oh. (She translates.) It seems like kind of a baby lesson.

Me: That's what it seems like to me, too. It's hard on my pride to be doing baby lessons. I'm going to get lots of practice standing up to that.

Angela: Oh.

I guess that's going to be the end of that. I could have handled the issue several ways: twisting the interpretation, which she would then have untwisted embarrassingly, or getting angry and looking like a jackass. Honesty hurts, but only once. Well, well, I must be making progress! The program now wants me to split up a flock of five little chickies into two and three, and there's a new sign, which I transfer to my word list, for the operation.

Me (in signs): Gerbil learn subtract!

Shadow gives me a thumbs up, but comes around and asks to write on my writing lesson. There's another sign that should have been before ``subtract''.

Me (in Shqip): Angela, could you translate that? I mean the new sign; does Shqip have anything like it? Remember to let Shadow know what I'm asking you.

Angela: Well, I don't know the Shqip word for the number thing, but you could say ``Gerbil learns to kiss'' instead of ``Gerbil learn kiss''.

Me: Oh, that's what it means! (In signs:) Thank you, Shadow.

Angela: Why did you say ``Gerbil'' rather than ``I''?

Me: Because, I guess, nobody taught me and I got in the habit. Remember to translate for Shadow. Would you give me the sign?

She does, plus the one for ``you'', and I add them to my list. Shadow doesn't look thrilled.

Me: Translate for Shadow, please. Shadow, does it bother you that Angela taught me those words?

Shadow (in signs): No, no. (Through Angela): Learn from both of us. We're a team.

I move over (on my knees) and hug Shadow. He looks somewhat happier. I check one of the signs I was just shown.

Me: I'm hungry.

Angela: How like a boy! I think it's lunch time, too. How about you, Shadow?

Shadow (in signs): I'm hungry too. (I'm guessing that last sign.)

So we split the loaf of bread three ways, and Angela and I both get yogurt, and we all have fruit: an apple for me, an orange for Shadow, and one of the yellow things for Angela. She strokes it suggestively.

Me: One part of me wants to do what a young man and a young lady do. Would you translate this for Shadow?

Angela: Translate that? You're crazy!

Me: I'm part of a team. We don't ditch the cat. We have to all work together like we were in a family. You and I should be discreet sexually; we shouldn't force Shadow to watch us, including rubbing that fruit. But we're going to be talking about something that involves him, so let's get him involved.

Angela: You asked for it. OK, he has what you said.

Me: So what is Shadow going to do while we're involved together? (Shadow answers to the translation.)

Angela: We talked about that before he brought me over here. We'll find a nice spot in the bushes, and he'll guard the path in, far enough away that we don't gross him out, but close enough to not be ditched. I wasn't trying to ditch him; I've just never met anyone who would talk about that with a little brother.

Again I pet Shadow and smile at him, and he smiles back.

Me: Simba said it was very important to learn the lesson about being a team with your mate. Do either of you know what he was talking about?

Shadow (through Angela): Of course! See how Simba and Tiger work together, teaching us, keeping the family running, and doing their work too?

Me: Well, yes, this family is a team, and Simba and Tiger do work together. But we do too, washing dishes, cooking and keeping the tent clean.

Shadow: Right; it's a team within a team; and now we're making another team with Angela that overlaps; and you and she are supposed to become a kind of core team.

Me: With you on the outside. I'll give up a lot to keep our team together.

Angela: Don't you care about me? I feel like I'm on the outside, not Shadow. (In response to Shadow's prompting she translates what I said and her response, and I wait for that.)

Me: I care about both of you. I wish we could have overlapping teams: I wish I could work with Shadow some of the time, and with you some of the time. What we did before lunch was the best: we're all together and we learn from each other as a group of three, not the two of you competing for my attention.

Angela: But if you have to pick one, you'll go with Shadow and dump me.

Me: We already did that. We don't have to make the same mistake twice. Remember, I have to learn about your world. I've been told that young ladies can wait, and I don't like that, but I know it's true.

Angela: When you talked about us being like a family, were you talking about marriage? I don't know if I'm ready for that kind of thing.

Me: I do know that I'm not ready. Parents would have to approve, I mean in an Albanian village, and the young man would have to have enough sheep or plants or whatever to support the family, which is a total joke right now. But you marry one of the young ladies who you know. If I don't know any, I can't ever marry. Do your parents make a team, like Simba and Tiger?

Angela: Well, I guess. But it doesn't seem that teamlike to me, and they aren't romantic at all. Are Tiger and Simba romantic? Shadow says they mate, but my parents screw too. I meant something different by romance.

Me: Maybe we'd better figure out just what romance is. I don't really know.

Shadow (through Angela): The male bird has to bring food to the female to prove that he'll do it when they have eggs or chicks. Monkeys do something similar. We say it's romantic, but there's a reason for it.

Me: When I was younger, one of our neighbors, the young man was just sniffing around this young lady, you know, like dogs do. His mother baked cakes and he'd bring her one. It was a team effort, to catch that young lady. A couple of times he bribed me with a cake to watch his sheep, so he could waste the time on her. It was worth it, for a boy; the cake was good. But a few months ago I heard them fighting, arguing real loud. She said he'd lost all his romance, and he was more interested in his ewes' behinds than hers. She was just being bratty. It takes a lot of time to raise sheep, and he should have picked someone who could have made a team with him: he watches the sheep and takes care of them and gathers the wool, and she does her end: feeding him, which he can't do when he's with the sheep, and spinning the wool and weaving cloth out of it.

Angela: It sounds pretty unequal to me.

Me: You try being a shepherd then. You think, what a wonderful job, just sitting around up there in the hills doing absolutely nothing. You try to keep from going crazy! I kept myself occupied practicing counting, and Tiger said I'd already done pretty well in that, even not being able to read and write. But every now and then, something happens and you have to show you're a man. A storm hits, and you have to keep the sheep together, and when the storm is over you have to find the ones that ran off. Wolves come. Or raiders from another village; that's the worst, because you have to not be captured and killed, and to get the sheep to safety, but you also have to warn your people. I gave the alarm once and I think being ready probably saved our village, but they got ten sheep, and my father wasn't pleased. The woman has a lot of work every day on the wool, but the man has his work too. It just isn't as obvious. They have to work as a team, and my parents did that, better than our neighbor. Maybe that's why we had more sheep.

Angela: A sheep's behind doesn't sound very romantic. If he comes home and just grunts and stuffs his food and goes off to watch football on TV, of course the wife got mad. Maybe they were working as a team on the sheep job, but there was no teamwork after work, if you know what I mean.

Shadow: Remember, Gerbil, when Simba and Tiger were playing the music? They do that a lot. And the team computer games.

Me: It looked like Simba was trying to kill Tiger. Not trying, succeeding.

Shadow: But that's part of the game. They were doing it together, as a team. Often they and I just explore, not fighting, or we fight computer enemies together. Yesterday they had a lot of fighting mind to blow off, being wounded like that, both of them. Every day they worry that they'll be left all alone; they never say it, but I've talked with Simba and I know. They have to be a team, or they'll go crazy.

Angela: Wounded? The Marshal?

Shadow: If it weren't for her bulletproof vest, Tiger would have been shot near the heart, and Simba got shot in the face.

Me: I hope they stay alive. I have a lot to learn from them. And whenever they aren't shot at, they aren't shooting my people.

Shadow: I hope so too. I've already lost one family; I don't want to lose another.

Angela: I don't know what would happen without the Marshal. And this talk isn't very romantic.

Me: Maybe that's what Simba meant: the romance is fun at the beginning, but to really thrive you have to be tough, and to get through tough times by working together, and to take big risks as a team, which you wouldn't have the nerve to do alone.

Angela: I've never heard a boy talk like that to me. It sounds like you learned the lessons real well.

Me: That's a pretty good trick for someone who can't read them. But a boy probably wouldn't think like I do, and certainly wouldn't have the experience... Sure, an older man would have more experience, but I have more than a boy. Too much, that I wish I hadn't had.

Angela: Shadow says he's glad you're his brother, but he's not glad how you got that way. What does he mean by that? (I put my arm around Shadow and rumple his fur.)

Me: A very sad story that isn't one bit romantic. Could we leave it for later? What would you and Shadow think about taking a little walk into the hills?

Angela: Teamwork in the hills? I would never have thought of that! Come on, Shadow!

Angela leads the way; she seems to know exactly where she's going. Shadow has his computer in his bag. Oops: Simba warned me of something, and obviously I have to warn Angela.

Me: There's something I have to tell you, Angela. My population control shot won't be fully effective for three weeks. That means we mustn't fuck. Also, I was warned that both of us should be checked to see if we have the clap.

Angela: What a romantic sentiment. Well, let me see. I think we can work something out. Yes, I do. And right around the corner, let's see if my favorite spot is already occupied. It would be real embarrassing if we went behind these bushes and someone were going at it back there, wouldn't it? Let me translate that for Shadow, loud enough that it wouldn't be ignored. (She does so, translating for the hoped to be imaginary lovers.) Well, it looks like we have it all to ourselves. (She speaks with Shadow.)

Shadow (through Angela): Have a good time, you two.

I rub behind his ears. Then we proceed inward. Behind the bushes, invisible from the trail, there's a flat area with dry grass which reveals that we won't be the first people to lay on it. But now what? I've only heard tales from my brother and my friends, likely exaggerated and likely not the best examples among non-Albanians even if honestly told.

Angela, speaking much more softly: You already have your shirt off. Help me with mine.

The two globes are again revealed, and Angela shakes them provocatively at me. I don't need much provocation! And now she's undoing my army belt.

Angela: Mmmm, your fur goes all the way down. My, you're well developed.

I lower her pants and she gracefully steps out of them. Then the underpants, exposing her much more circumscribed fur. Before I can get up she hugs my head to her belly and I instinctively kiss it; she rubs against me.

Angela: Lay down on your side. Is that comfortable? Now I'm going to ride you like a horse.

She's laying on top of me; I twist around and get my arm around her and stroke her as she runs her fingers through my chest hair and also the hair on my back. She loves that fur, doesn't she! She's rocking her hips, sliding wetly over mine. Teamwork: I tilt my hips too, matching her rhythm. She catches her breath sharply. I'm about to explode too. She throws her mouth upon mine and her tongue dances on my lips. I try that too, having been instructed by my brother. Oooh! Something's happening inside her, a frenzy of passion! It must be like when I cream; my brother never talked about this part. I like making Angela happy!

Angela: My young Albanian man! Oh, that was good! And now it's your turn.

She reaches down...

Taking turns, we seem to have found out how much cream there is in a young man's body. Such a variety of ways there are to enjoy sex beyond the conventional grown-up style. Angela clearly has had lots of practice. After I cream my dick needs time to refill, and I concentrate on giving pleasure to Angela with just about every part of my body except that. Then she has pleasure for me to sink into. This is teamwork! But there's a member of our team who is waiting for us and is probably starting to fidget.

Me: Angela, we've been doing this for quite a long time, and Shadow is probably getting impatient. How about you have one more turn, then we'll go home.

Angela: So soon? Come on! You have at least three or four squirts left in you.

Me: Teamwork, remember? If we're selfish we break up the team.

Angela: You're so serious about your little cat brother! But I've learned my lesson: you won't change on that. So loyal! Come on, let me show you what to do. Let me sit on your lap, OK? Now you can stroke me, front and back. Yeah, I like that; just brush me with the fur on your arm, and I can wiggle against your manly chest hair. Aaah! Now with your other hand, put your thumb here, and slide your fingers...

Having dressed, we emerge holding (sticky) hands.

Me (speaking signs): Hi, Shadow. Thank you. (Angela greets him in more detail. He smiles. But then he flaps his paw in front of his nose to drive away a bad odor.)

Me: Tell Shadow he probably should stand upwind of us. Simba warned me that he and Tiger would react badly if I came home reeking.

Shadow (through Angela): You'd better not even go into the tent. Not even be upwind of it. I'll go in and get your soap. Come on. Did your mating go OK? I guess that's obvious. Or is it impertinent of me to ask that? (Angela: He's so cute! I'll tell him yes, and yes.)

Me: I guess we kind of got cream and cunt juice all over everywhere. We're so messy!

Angela: Yeah, we were pretty adventurous. Like a bunch of kids! Shadow's right; we need to take a shower. Together, of course. We'll stop by my place to get my soap. Have you ever been washed by a girl?

Me: I might consider being washed by a young lady. If it could be done privately. Seriously, adults walking in and out would think it a sexual challenge, and like I said, I think we should be a little bit considerate of Shadow. What do you think, Shadow?

Angela: He says he's willing to put up with guard duty, because otherwise you'll drift away from him, but he wishes we'd, as he puts it, limit the disgusting stuff when he's around.

Me (in signs): Gerbil, Shadow and Angela are a team. Thank you, Shadow. (In Shqip:) I won't pet him until I've washed my hands.

We meet some younger lovers on the way up, and from behind we hear but ignore their giggles. Returned to the tent city we wash ourselves conventionally, with plenty of soap, while Shadow talks with Angela; translation is impractical. When we finish, Shadow checks us critically using his animal sense of smell. Angela passes.

Shadow (translated by Angela): Gerbil, your dick still has a strong odor. Is there any way you can get it off?

Me: I washed it thoroughly.

Angela: On the inside?

Me: Oops. In my village we never did that, and I forgot. I'd better do it over.

Now I pass inspection. And more irritating junk has been loosened from inside by the fluid bath and by Angela herself. The foreigners have a point about how to wash my dick. We return to our tent for an afternoon of study.

Me: Angela, I have to write a report about what I did today, and, well, I think we need to talk about how much detail I should put in, and I'm going to need help with the words. And remember, let's involve Shadow in teaching me.

Angela: You're going to report to the Marshal? My God!

Me: Well, yesterday Simba went over the report with me. It might be Tiger today.

Angela: I thought you couldn't write. Or read.

Me: I couldn't. I learned. I can't do very much, and what I do is slow and people laugh at my sentences, but I have to go through that to thrive in your world.

Angela: And you're just going to write down: ``What I Did Today. Today Angela and I went up in the bushes and hand-fucked.''

Me: I wish I could say it more tastefully. I particularly want to avoid a sexual challenge to Simba.

Angela: Why don't you just leave out the whole thing? What they don't know won't hurt them, or us.

Me: What's Shadow saying? I didn't notice if you translated.

Angela: He says it's better to be honest. Like he's an expert at dealing with parents.

Me: He is an expert at that, when the parents are Simba and Tiger. And I had a practical lesson in that too. You're probably going to think I'm crazy, and any of my friends from before would think that too, but I welcome telling Simba what I've done, and hearing his criticisms. I got punished last night, and I don't like to be punished, but neither Shadow nor I understood what was going on, and without Simba's lesson we still wouldn't know and we'd go on messing it up. A relation with you is pretty important, don't you think, and if we're doing it wrong we'd better find it out fast. Right?

Angela: He'll totally freak. They'll both freak. Trust me, I'm experienced with freaking parents, and you don't want that.

Me: Tiger and Simba face death every day. They have to talk angry Illyrians with guns into accepting something that Illyrians really don't want to accept. If they freak out they ruin everything. Look, I trusted Tiger and Simba, and Shadow, with my life, and Tiger trusts me with hers. I think I can trust them to give me an honest lesson, if I'm honest with them. I should say, if we're honest with them. We're a team, right?

Angela: Shadow's an echo: ``We're a team, right, Angela?'' I don't like where I think this is leading to.

Me: Yesterday Shadow and I got through a rather difficult day by teamwork and courage, and then we stood together before Simba and told him what we had done, without hiding anything, and he told us what we had done right and what we had screwed up. I want to do the same thing tonight, and I think it's important that the whole team stand together. If we don't, I know he'll say that we haven't learned how to be a proper team, and we ought to wait until we've learned that lesson. Really! We talked about this, and there's a lot I don't know, but I'm not dumb and I can at least figure out that much. Shadow, what do you think?

Shadow (through Angela): You're right (he says, I don't say): we're a team and we ought to be together to hear what Simba and Tiger have to tell us. I think we've done well (he says).

Me: Believe him! Do you understand about teamwork? You had a pretty harsh lesson in it today, and I thought you had it figured out. Be brave, like you were this morning, when you talked to Shadow and then came to me.

Angela: You want me to stand up to the Marshal of Gondor and her husband.

Me: Yes. I do it every day. They haven't eaten me, and they won't eat you. Come on, you were talking about sitting on Tiger's mat. Treat it as an adventure.

Angela: And if I don't, I'm a wimp, right? I know I'm going to regret this...

Me: You won't! Are we a team?

Angela: Yes, we're a team.

I throw my arms around her, and Shadow comes over and hugs her too.

Angela: Oh, come on, you're embarrassing me.

Me: It's good to be a team. I'm learning that all the time with Shadow, and now with you.

Angela: Shadow says the same thing. But I'm not used to it.

Me: You will. For me it was very fast. OK, let's plan. First, I need some help from both of you on my report, like I said. Second, let's make a special dinner for Tiger and Simba, as a team. They'll insist on helping, because it seems to relax them, so we'll plan jobs for them to do. Shadow, what do you think of that?

Shadow: We don't tell them what to do; we just, like, leave a particular vegetable on the table. They'll get the idea, and we can control which vegetable without controlling them. And if they really don't like that one, they can switch and we keep our mouths shut.

Me: Good point. Angela, when I was little I had to tell my mother if I was going to eat at a friend's place, or she'd be mad that she made dinner and I wasn't there to eat it. How do you handle that with your parents?

Angela: Well... I don't think I've been in this situation before.

Me: You must have had young men before. Didn't you ever bring them home, or go to their place?

Angela: We say ``boyfriends''. And remember, I told you about parents freaking out?

Me: How strange your ways are. I think our Albanian ways were better, in that.

Angela: Hmmm. I'll send my mom a message; that should be enough. Now there's another problem: I know zilch about cooking. My mother wants to teach me like I was a little girl and I don't like that one bit. You'll have to show me what to do.

Me: I'm ahead of you by about two dinners; I know how to slice stuff and that's about it. Shadow, can you handle this?

Shadow: Well, I've done a lot of parts, but I've never planned a whole dinner before.

Me: I know! Remember Simba told us to get adult help when we needed it? We could ask a neighbor. Like Mrs. Ruka.

Shadow: Good idea! Well, maybe not so good. Suppose she says, I mean this is obvious, we ought to make a squash pie for dessert. OK, I've done the whole job, once, but Tiger was looking over my shoulder and telling me what to do. That doesn't mean I can do it alone.

Angela: Web search! Squash pie recipe. Six thousand hits! Come here, Shadow, and let's pick which one is best, from the first few listings.

While they're handling that job, which I can't participate in, I get started on my report. Shadow rummages in the cabinets and the cold box. It turns out that I know many of the words I need, but a few key ones slow me down, and for these I interrupt Angela. She acts irritated the second time I do that, but Shadow speaks with her, and the third time she keeps her irritation to herself. I'm about to discuss what happened after lunch, when the recipe team seems to be coming to a conclusion.

Angela: We've picked out our recipes, and we're going to have lasagna as the main dish. Shadow says he's watched Simba and Tiger make it.

Me: I guess that's OK. I don't really know what that is. I hope we aren't trying to do too much. Remember, we have our reports to do, and cleanup, and washing.

Angela: I'm not supposed to do a report, am I?

Me: I don't know.

Shadow: You have to write something every day. I generally do a short report, and an essay on something cool, which is where I really get the practice. Gerbil gets plenty of language practice just doing the report. If nobody is going to read your report, at least you should do the essay.

Me: Have you done your essay yet, Shadow?

Shadow: No, and if we stand around yakking, we're going to have to give something up.

Me: OK, Angela, what shall I do?

Angela: You cut up the squash, which Shadow says you have, and a quarter kilo of tomatoes, which you're also supposed to have. Shadow can boil the pasta, and I'll start on the pie crust; Shadow can tell me how to do the hard parts, as much as he can remember. Be brave, says Gerbil! This is going to be the wierdest adventure I ever had with a boy, I mean young man.

Adventure is a good way to describe it. Besides using my greater strength to cut up stuff like the hard cheese, one of my jobs turns out to be keeping people from giving up when they get stuck, and figuring out ways of salvaging situations that have gone sour.

Shadow: Oh, no, the pasta things have stuck together!

Angela: When it says stir, I think it really means stir. Maybe you can't cook pasta in the microwave oven.

Shadow: That one broke when I tried to peel it off.

Me: Try cutting them apart with a knife. Careful, don't burn your fingers.

Shadow: It's sort of working. Thanks, Gerbil. I'll just put them in the metal pot and do it on the electric heater.


Angela: Shit! Shit! The crust broke when I tried to flip it into the pan!

Me: Can you put the pieces in place? No? Well, glob it all together and roll it again.

Angela: That's so much work!

Me: Better than starting over, right? We say that an Albanian man doesn't dwell on what's lost, but pays attention to what isn't lost. I think that could apply to young ladies too.

Angela: Albanian aphorisms! Well, I guess you're right; re-rolling it is better than starting over.

Later yet...

Me: This sauce smells funny.

Shadow (through Angela): That sauce smells burned. Turn down the power.

Me: You told me to turn it up!

Shadow: That was then, to get the pot warm. Look, the wire is red-hot.

Me: It's all stuck to the bottom. What can I do now? Taste it; how bad is it?

Angela: I think it's OK. Shadow says it would be lying to say there's no burned taste, but it's faint. Put it in another pot and this time don't use so much power. Yuck. You finish the sauce and I'll scrape that ick off the bottom of the pot. Shadow, you want to help me wash stuff?

The pie gets the first turn in the oven. Since Shadow and Angela washed most of the pots and tools, I sweep the tent, not making a big deal of it, but Shadow signs to me, ``Thank you.''

Me: Shadow, do you think Angela and I should wash ourselves again?

Shadow, sniffing: You don't smell too bad, but you don't smell perfect either. Tiger would probably like it if you washed. Did you do the lice shampoo last time?

Me: No, I forgot. Well, that decides it. Should we go now, and leave the pie to cook?

Shadow: No way! When power is on, one person has to be paying attention at all times. That's a safety rule and you don't want to clean up the mess when you break it. You two dry quicker, so you go now, and I'll have my turn when you're done. I can start the lasagna baking when the pie comes out. What was it, 175 degrees for the lasagna?

Angela: Right. Come on, Gerbil.

At the latrine we get busy washing; like last time, anticipating adults, we omit the sexual games. I'm not surprised to see Tiger and Simba come in.

Angela: Good afternoon, Marshal. My name is Angela. (This is in signs and I'm guessing more than half of them, including ``Marshal''.)

Tiger (in signs, translated by Angela): Good afternoon, Angela. You live across the stream, right? I assume it's no coincidence that you're showering here with Gerbil.

Angela: No, ma'am.

Tiger (just in Shqip): Welcome to this side of the stream. If you're not one of my soldiers I'd prefer to be called Tiger, not Marshal or ma'am. It's just a courtesy title, and it reminds me of things I'd rather be done with at the end of the day. This is Simba.

Angela: How do you do, Simba? (She makes a little dip with her legs, which isn't an Albanian gesture but somehow seems appropriate for the situation.)

Simba: Fairly decently, today. I'm pleased to meet you. Let's all get washed, because afterwards I imagine we'll be hearing another tale. Tiger, I think I can keep the water off my wound myself today. Take your shower; don't fuss over me. And remember not to get water on your wound.

Tiger: Ssst!

The puffiness on the right side of Simba's face does seem to be going down, and Tiger, as she washes her fur, is still stiff but looser than this morning. I wonder how the Illyrians are feeling who met Tiger and Simba today. Though I'm furry my hair traps less water, evidently, than a lion person does, and Angela and I are dry long before the lions.

Me: We'll go back to the tent now, so Shadow can have his shower.

Simba: Why did Shadow have to wait?

Me: A safety rule: someone has to watch the oven.

Simba: Aah. I'll be interested to see what's in it. Go on.

Once out of earshot...

Angela: Talking to the Marshal barearse! You said this was going to be an adventure. She was pretty cool, wasn't she? But she and Simba, they both just look right through you, don't you think?

Me: Ooh, if Simba asks a question, I don't even think about hiding anything; I'm as honest as I can be. That's not the Albanian way, when parents question you, but it's the right way with them.

Angela: It's not the Angela way either, like I told you. Shadow, we're back. You can take your shower.

Me: How's the pie? (Angela translates.)

Shadow (with his soap): It smells good. I started the lasagna cooking.

Me: Angela, I wonder what we should do now. Tiger or Simba is going to do the beets that Shadow picked out. I've never heard of eating beet tops. I hope putting them in the lasagna didn't ruin it.

Angela: You're supposed to have tomatoes and stuff, but I've never heard of wadding up greens between the noodles. If it comes out bad we'll make Shadow eat it all, since it was his idea.

Me: Simba told me to be adventurous and brave in food, as in everything. I think he's right. OK, what haven't I done today that I should have? I planned to finish my shirt, and I'm halfway through my report. I think the report is more important.

Angela: What's this essay Shadow was talking about?

Me: He posts them for Tiger and Simba to read. If he's finished, maybe you could read his essay.

Angela: It's worth a try. No, I don't see it in his public area. He said he writes about something cool.

Me: Lasagna?

Angela: That's hot, not cool. But it's an idea.

Me: Before you get started, what's the sign for hand-fuck?

Angela: You're really going to put that down for Tiger and Simba to read. You're crazy, you know? ``Fuck'' is this sign, and here's ``hand''. Got it?

Me: Yes, thanks. The referent picture for ``fuck'' is pretty tame.

Angela: Not like us. We'd better shut up; look who's coming.

Tiger: Aah, that smells good. Squash pie, right? And is that lasagna in the oven? There's a smell... Beets on the cutting board, so if the tops aren't visible, they must be in the lasagna. That's a creative idea. We'd normally use spinach, if we had it.

Angela: Shadow thought that one up.

Tiger: He's smart and tough. I'm glad we saved him. Have you been getting along with him?

Angela: I think he's satisfied with our teamwork. It was made clear to me that this family operates as a team, not excluding Shadow.

Tiger: I'm glad to hear that. Angela, let's work together on these beets.

Excluding me. From the tent flap, Simba signs ``come''. Be brave; don't be a jackass; don't do his work of criticism for him.

Simba: Since Angela speaks Shqip, we have to disappear out of earshot. You understand, Tiger and I read your and Shadow's essays on the flight back, and we're curious about a couple of items. First, your essay ends just after lunch. Why nothing after that?

Me: That was as far as I had gotten when we started cooking, and there was no time after that. I was going to finish while you and Tiger relaxed by cooking the beets, but that's not how it worked out.

Simba: You cut it off not because of the topic, but because you ran out of time, right?

Me: Yes, Simba.

Simba: How about you tell me the rest of it verbally.

Me: Spoken Tiger signs?

Simba: No, in Shqip. I'm after the content. Do the language practice, but later, not now.

Me (taking a deep breath): OK. Angela and I hand-fucked; that's the sign we decided to use. Shadow stood guard by the side of the trail to make sure we weren't disturbed. He studied. After that we washed up. We talked some more about teamwork, and I convinced Angela that it was important that I tell you about her, and that it was important for her to be here when you were told. I suggested a special dinner, which Shadow and Angela planned. We each did our part cooking it, and that brings it up to now, I think.

Simba: Do her parents know she's here?

Me: She said she'd send a message to her mother.

Simba: That's enough. If she's misjudged what her parents expect, our supervision wasn't lacking. Next question: why did you stay with just your hands?

Me: (Gulp.) Because my population control shot hasn't become effective, and we hadn't been checked for the clap.

Simba: Actually you have been. You're clean, except for a problem washing out accumulated smegma. But we don't know about Angela. You were wise to limit yourselves to hand jobs.

Me: Well, hips were involved too.

Simba: That's OK. I'm glad you had the strength to limit your activities to what's prudent, and I'm going to trust your judgment about how much you should do before you've read our lessons about sex. Now, what about parent issues?

Me: Parent issues?

Simba: You're concerned about doing what's right relative to your parents and family. You're here; you now have a girlfriend. Are you feeling any conflict there?

Me: How can I be happy when my parents' death is all messed up with you people, and Angela is one of you people? Is that what you're trying to get at?

Simba: Understand, I'm trying to avoid putting words in your mouth. But you thought of that conflict, and I'd like to hear about the conflict you're feeling.

Me: I don't understand you a bit!

Simba: Sorry that I'm not Albanian. If you're having a conflict inside I'd like it thrashed out, so you don't screw yourself up with guilt or by doing things that are wrong.

Me: You look right through my mind!

Simba: I have a certain skill in inducing you to look right through your own mind. And then to not turn away; to make it better.

Me: OK. An Albanian man doesn't dwell on what's lost; he goes on with what isn't lost, so that isn't lost as well. I'm here, and that's the way it's going to be. I have to survive and thrive for a long time. And I ought to do something that would make my parents proud. An Albanian wife is almost certainly out; they'd think I was a traitor; so I have to meet young ladies among your people if I'm going to have any chance at all for a wife and family, which is one of my goals that ought to make my parents proud. Meeting Angela, and getting her to not kill my relation with Shadow, was a step in that direction.

Simba: Are you thinking about Angela as your wife?

Me: I'd be lying if I said no. We talked about marriage. We're both far from ready. Some young men my age were already married, and I suppose I could have been too, if it weren't for certain difficulties. My father would have given a share of our flock as the bride-price, but traditionally it would stay with the bride, and be taken care of by me, to support the family. Here I have two tenths of a fang; I could support myself and my so-called wife for about three days. What a joke! Angela and I would have to stay together for a rather unlikely time before we could get married.

Simba: I wish you luck in that project. I hope you will do your best; that it won't be you who messes up the relation.

Me: You do? I was... Well...

Simba: ...Thinking that I'd tell you to break it up? Lions choose mates very, very differently from how you're doing it. We get a bunch of people together, eight to ten each of males and females, and we have a formal procedure so everyone can evaluate how well each person will fit with each potential mate. Most people get a good one. The ones who have only poor matches try again the next year, and almost always succeed. That's not exactly how you're handling it. But Tiger and I had a pair of human orphans, I think she told you, and they did what you're doing: meeting other humans and trying to establish a pair bond. Both of them had to try several times before they got it right. The lessons were painful, but it looks like you're brave about that.

Me: Um, thank you, Simba. Could we go back now?

Simba: Why? Seriously. There are several reasons you might have and I want to know which one.

Me: I have a team, even if it's shaky, and I'm going to feel better with them around. I don't want to lose sheep because I'm not watching. I don't like talking about stuff that's important to the team, without them being part of it. The lasagna is cooking and I should be there when it comes out. Tiger is alone back there cooking the beets and you're not helping.

Simba: Five good reasons. But try to remember, even if it's anti-Albanian: you and I are on the same team. And Tiger is doing her job so I'm free out here to do mine. And, an important part of teamwork is letting the other members do their jobs without interference and under your confidence: in this case, Shadow and Angela are responsible to take out the lasagna when it's ready, and Tiger is responsible to discreetly supervise them, and you should have confidence in all three of them. Before we get within range, do you have anything you want to ask me?

Me: Do you think I'm moving too fast with Angela?

Simba: Of course! And your punishment is going to be this. If you screw up your relation with Angela through sticking your nose in an area you haven't had the lessons for, you're going to get hurt, and you're going to have to listen politely when I tell you, ``I told you so.'' And if you've picked a team member who's also not ready for this kind of commitment, the same thing will happen even if otherwise you're without fault, not very likely. Dig in for some fairly painful learning, and do your best to keep the relation afloat. And do try to overcome your natural reluctance to talk to me or Tiger about your troubles. OK?

Me: Thank you, Simba, for not forcing us to break up.

Simba: You're welcome. For your own family, learn our style: if things get too much out of hand we'll intervene, but if you're getting chewed up to a degree that we consider to not do permanent damage, we'll let you get yourself out of trouble and learn by doing that. We'll listen to your feedback and your questions, but we'll keep our interference to the minimum that we think necessary to keep you alive and thriving and learning what you need to. That may be more or less than you'd prefer. If you don't like what we're doing, speak up, and we may or may not change.

Me: Thank you, Simba. Angela, is the lasagna finished? It smells good.

Angela: It just came out of the oven.

Tiger: And the beets are ready and Shadow has the silverware and napkins on everyone's mat. Let's serve this stuff. I'm starving. Remember, the lasagna is hot, so be careful not to burn your mouths.

The lasagna is very hot, but it tastes good if given a chance to cool off. Angela says the beet tops give it an interesting flavor. We talk, as if Angela were a family member, about non-family things. Two of Tiger's Illyrians ended up dead in the morning, and three after noon, but one of her soldiers was seriously injured. Simba had two and one, and one of his people was shot on the vest, not as crushingly as Tiger got. All but Shadow are interested that I learned to trim Chang bushes; apparently Angela doesn't work on bushes.

Angela: A quarter fang seems kind of small. That's all the money you have? Didn't you have money when you lived in your village?

Me: Knowing that other people have more money, I have to hold myself back from jealousy. That would just hurt me and hurt my teamwork and get me nothing.

Angela: My parents give me an allowance. Tiger, you practically own two whole worlds; how come you don't give money to Gerbil? How come you live in a crummy tent like everyone else does?

Tiger: Let's take that step by step. First, on Thor I have a modest civil servant's pension, and I can check out the equipment I actually need for government projects, but there's no palazzo or anything like that. Thor may be ``mine'' but we own one modest dome there and that's about it. It's like kittens: you may be ``your parents' kitten'' but your parents don't own you, do they? And here on Terra I have even less; Simba and I aren't even alive, officially. You can look it up if you could ever find the records in the wreckage of Atlanta: we're legally dead. The Eridanus Corporation has all our money, and they aren't me. It's also not true what people say, that the Corporation owns everything worth owning. It's true that we had a lot better idea what was coming than most governments or corporations, and we did a lot better job of buying up assets and preserving them through the chaos, but there's a lot out there that we never touched. So why do we live in a crummy tent? We have to be here to do our job: like Gerbil says, we have to be with our team. And when we're done with Illyria we have to move, which means tents, not permanent structures. Also I don't think they're crummy; they're pretty durable and they keep the rain and wind out.

Angela: But I thought...

Tiger: Something that wasn't real. Now on the allowance issue, well, the history on Thor is pretty instructive. There wasn't any money until the kittens were about twelve Terran years old. With our help they actually made the physical coins out of brass and copper and nickel. Again with our guidance they also made the referents of those coins.

Angela: Reference?

Tiger: The coins are symbols and our kittens had to build what they were symbols for. One fang represents one hour of work, modified for different people's capabilities. On Thor, and now here for Shadow and Gerbil, we have important jobs that we want done, and we're willing to pay for them, or the quartermaster is, in the case of Chang seeds.

Angela: What could your kids do when they were twelve years old?

Tiger: There was a comet impact and most of our plants were out of reach until we put new covers on the domes. We also had a shortage of plastic for the covers. Grow plastic, kittens, or starve. We and they found out that money was essential in coordinating the work. Here, like on Thor, we take pride in growing enough food to feed ourselves, not sponging off the Illyrians, who have enough troubles of their own. In China under Chairman Mao their army did the same thing; the soldiers had their own farms and the army fed itself. You kids are an important part of meeting that goal.

Angela: Well, some kids are. Am I going to get a lecture about what this team does every day?

Tiger: Probably. Now comes the main point: at one fang per hour, it's just undefined to give allowances, or gifts of money, or anything like that. It goes against the definition of money. Now we taught our little kittens, our first family born on Terra, how to use money by going to the store, giving one of them some bills or coins, and saying, tonight the recipe needs a kilo of onions; buy them for us. Each one got a slice of the grocery list. And when they were older we had them doing financial planning and budgets in parallel with us, and at the end of the budget period we'd go over with them what actually happened, so they could learn from their mistakes, and occasionally ours.

Angela: My parents never did any of that. I don't even know how much my parents make.

Tiger: We feel the lesson is important. As you do the lessons on finance you should be aggressive in digging out real-world examples. Before the collapse company reports could sometimes be instructive, but family finances are the best learning tool.

Angela: Yes, Tiger. Are we all about done with the main dish? If so, let's cut the pie!

The pie is good too, kind of like a pastry my mother made from a pumpkin. We all help wash dishes, and Tiger compliments us on having already washed the pots. Not Albanian at all, washing pots! Shadow and I work on embroidering my shirt while Angela watches and learns what to do, but Shadow soon grows bored and lets Angela have his place. She's good at it, dextrous, quick and accurate; she never has to pull out stitches like Shadow and I do. Just a few more leaves to do... and my side is finished! And now Angela has finished too.

Shadow: Put it on, Gerbil! Let me see it! (This in signs, all of which I've been taught by the program. I smile inside, and comply.)

Angela: Oh, that's handsome! A lot better than your rags. Did Tiger slash you?

Me: No, a thorn bush did that, when Tiger was capturing me.

Tiger: It looks good, Gerbil.

Me: Tomorrow we can take the embroidery rings back to Mrs. Ruka. Angela, you'll like to meet her; she speaks Shqip. Shadow, thank you for buying this shirt for me, and helping me decorate it, and thank you too, Angela.

Shadow: When you get the other shirt we'll do it too, like Mrs. Ruka said. OK, who wants to fly the simulator?

Today I'm better controlling the plane, less swoops and staggers. Tiger leads us west to the coastline, then north. She says that when the war is over, if she survives, she would like to come back here and see this coast for real, not simulated, and at ground level. We fly up a canyon she knows and it's very beautiful.

Me: What did you mean, ``for real''? Isn't this real? See the trees along the ridge line and the big rocks that the stream is flowing over?

Tiger: But where are the people and animals? And the wind in the leaves? We have a detailed map so the shape of the ground is real, down to about a hundred meters resolution, but the program makes up smaller details like trees on the fly. It's very good, but it isn't real.

Me: It's like magic!

Tiger: It's a very fast processing unit. In our world, Gerbil, you always need to ask yourself, how real is what I'm seeing? We can synthesize a lot of things, and sometimes it's important to know that they're synthetic. We can even make people to order. A big reason we lions have tails and fur and these spectacular fangs is so you know we aren't trying to sneak past you as if human. Check out the waterfall ahead. The computer does it very well, don't you think?

Shadow: I'll bet Gerbil would get a kick out of meeting Quin and Valeria.

Tiger: That will be soon, in about a week. We've decided that when they're done with their current project they'll try to reactivate an Albanian ceramic factory and a Macedonian textile mill. There's a serious shortage of toilets in this part of the world and that factory, which we identified before the collapse, will go far to satisfy the demand. That's why we've been pushing so hard east of Lake Scutari: to ensure a stable environment for the ceramic factory. I think we're ready now.

Shadow: Will they stay with us? And Cricket too?

Tiger: Yes, Shadow. It will be fun. Angela, you'll like Cricket. She has some sauce in her, like you do.

A guest's female offspring, or orphan, seems to worry Angela. I'll have to make it clear to all parties, politely, what the teamwork issues are. Myself included, no matter how much of a stunner this Cricket is. We're flying southeast now and if I haven't gotten confused in the directions, home is this way. Yes, there's a familiar mountain that we actually see east of this camp, and now the airfield is coming into view. I circle while the others land, then I give it a try. Not too bad; this time I actually smack the plane onto the runway before drifting off into the weeds along the side. I like flying, though I'll probably never get to do it for real.

Angela: Heh, heh, that was a pretty creative landing, Gerbil. People, it's been wonderful. Tiger and Simba, thank you so much for letting me have dinner with you. But my parents are going to totally freak if I'm not home pretty soon, so I'd better get going. Gerbil and Shadow, I'll see you tomorrow. Bye.

Me: Goodbye, Angela. We'll see you tomorrow.

Tiger (after Angela is presumably out of earshot): Well, Gerbil, Angela seems like a nice young lady. Shadow, what do you actually think of her? I imagine you haven't been able to talk with Gerbil about that, until now.

Shadow: Well... I wanted to keep Gerbil all for myself, but I knew that older boys have this thing about girls. He says he'll choose me over Angela, but I worry that it won't last. If we can keep this three-way team working, I won't lose him. Angela was nasty at the beginning, but once she figured out that it was teamwork or nothing, she was kind of fun, like when we were cooking. I knew the most stuff, from what you taught me, but I never would have had the nerve to try all that stuff alone. She just went out on the web and got recipes and got us moving. And Gerbil kept us moving when we had trouble, and figured out how to fix things that went wrong, like when the pasta stuck together. There's going to be one problem, though. I've seen Angela before, and she's always been with a boy, and it's always a different one. I wonder if she really understands about teamwork with your mate.

I remember what Simba said about getting hurt by rushing into an area I hadn't been trained for, when I don't know the people involved, like I would have in my village. I also remember what he said about doing my best, to not be the one to screw up the relationship.

Tiger: So, Gerbil, let's hear your side of it. What led you to charge ahead like a lovesick elephant, having been warned to take it slow with the females?

Me: The jackass between my legs did a lot of the charging ahead. But I could have said no to her, and I did say no, when she was trying to break up my team with Shadow. She said nobody had done that to her before. When Shadow somehow got her to understand what she had to do, to join our team rather than break it up, well, I was kind of surprised when she showed up at our tent. I thought, well, I have to be honest. I don't mean this as a challenge to Simba, but I thought about fucking. But like I said, I could have told her no. But she speaks Shqip, and it really helped our team to have her as a member. I'll bet none of the other young ladies can talk to me, nor translate for Shadow. And I thought this: if I'm going to thrive here I have to meet the young ladies: none of them means no wife. In the far future. Yes, I'll get hurt just like my brother did, but a man has to go through that; if I wimp out I end up with nothing. And something else: Shadow did something really brave for me, and I still don't know how he managed it, and I can understand how you feel, Shadow, about how an older brother might ditch you and go with the young lady. Now suppose I told Angela and Shadow that Simba and Tiger had both warned me to stay away from the young ladies, and Shadow was a jackass to forget it, and Angela should just buzz off. How do you think that would make him feel? We're a team and I have to trust his judgment in a lot of things, and this was one of them.

Simba: That would make him feel just rotten. But what's real? Shadow, were you a jackass?

Shadow: Gerbil, you have to go by what's real. You can't say, I'll do something wrong because Shadow will feel bad if I don't. I'll feel worse later when I find out it was wrong. But on Angela, I wondered if I was sticking my nose where it shouldn't be, but, well, Gerbil was so miserable, and, well, I guess I should have taken my own advice and let him stay miserable. But Angela worked out! I was careful! I explained to her how it was going to be, and I talked to her about teamwork, it must have been for an hour, and I told her that Gerbil was special and I didn't want her to just throw him away like her other boyfriends. She seemed to understand. She said she did.

Simba: I'd like you to put something in your calendar file for one month from today. With a month of experience behind both of you, or let's hope, all three of you, then ask Gerbil whether you were a jackass. OK?

Shadow: OK. But we can't just say, I shouldn't have just said, Angela worked out. It has to be, was I prudent? I think I was, but I'm a kitten and I'm not sure.

Simba: Good, Shadow, very good. And I'm also not sure. Gerbil will find out, the hard way. And remember, at any time Gerbil could have said no.

Me: Hug, Shadow? Wrong or right, I'm glad you're my brother and I'm glad you brought Angela into our team, even if it doesn't work out.

Tiger: So, judgement has been rendered, and you two probably did well. Do you feel like some music? I certainly do, and not the Bach partita this time. Simba, let's do one of the Slavonic Dances. How about the Furiant?

It's a bouncy, active dance tune, sounding vaguely Serbian, definitely not Albanian. Then some American folk songs which all three lions can sing while fiddling, and I can hum. For their last piece Simba picks something by Bach, but not sad, or solo: both Shadow and I find it pleasant to hum the melody over the complex fiddle and synth parts.

Me: Simba, Tiger, your music is fun. If I were to learn music, what instrument should I learn to play?

Simba: You can't go wrong learning keyboard, this thing. It's portable, and versatile, and not too expensive. If you want something rugged that you can take in the field, like watching sheep, a harmonica is good. I've said something similar to Shadow. Hint, hint.

Shadow: Well, I've meant to try out your synth, but I always have so many other lessons, and the synth is always on top of the cabinets and I'm too short to reach it.

Simba: Oh! You should have reminded me to put it down. How about here, leaning against the cabinet's side? That should be safe.

Shadow: Great! But now that Gerbil is here he can take it down for me. We can learn it together. I know where the lesson program is. Would you like that, Gerbil? And we should find out if Angela plays an instrument.

Me: Sure, Shadow, we'll do that.

It's time for bed. We hug, and roll up in our blankets. Such a normal family! My eyes fill silently. My normal family is gone forever. The clump of grass pulled out by the roots, it hurts to put new roots into new soil. Why did it have to happen? But Tiger's plan to build my strength is working. I was manly and rock solid, not to be controlled by Angela, there at the beginning. I know my brother would say I was stupid, and particularly for not taking my proper chance when we got together later, but he would just have been used by Angela for a dick toy. I'm scared, what I've gotten myself into with Angela. But it's important, and I'm going to be brave, and I'm going to do my best to make a proper team with her and Shadow, like we discussed about my neighbor whose marriage was going bad. We're not jackasses, none of us, if we just put some thought and care and courage into how we behave toward each other.

And there will be more behavior tomorrow. With luck, some pumping, throbbing behavior. Tomorrow is anticipated down below. I'd better sleep if I'm to be ready.

Next Previous Contents