It did not take me long to figure out who Carmine’s old girl friend was but it kind of blew me away at the same time. She was built about as opposite of me as it was possible; only an inch shorter than Carmine, statuesque, beautiful bone structure and auburn hair that would have been gorgeous if she didn’t keep it buzz cut short and spikey … it looked like a piece of brown colored berber rug on her head. Boy was she giving me heck with her eyes; it was like being looked at with chips of black ice.
I would be lying if her looks didn’t cause me a twinge. Carmine felt my attempt to cover it. “Saloli you told me you wouldn’t have a problem with her.”
I shook my head. “No. I said I wouldn’t have a problem with her unless she gave me one. The woman is simply drop dead beautiful. Do you want me to pretend she isn’t?”
“She’s a sour puss. It takes her a month of Sundays to warm up. It got old trying to wheedle her into a good mood all the time.”
I snorted. “Yeah and I’m sunshine and pancakes all the live long day.”
He barked a loud laugh that drew more attention than I was comfortable with. “That’s my Gurl. Better go pay our respects to Sally.”
A harassed looking Clarey jogged passed us with a large plastic jug of water. She’d overheard Carmine and said, “I wish you would. And Gurl¸ you wouldn’t have happened to have brought your sharpening stone would you? Grandmother’s needles are as dull as ditchwater from all the stitching she has had to do. She’s being forced to use a surgical awl to make holes to pull the stitches through.”
I looked at Carmine and said, “She means sewing up people?”
He sighed, “Yeah, I’m afraid so.”
We found Sally under an awning changing dressings of different people. When she was between patients I told her, “Clarey says you need some sharpening done.”
She looked up and started to say something but her eyes widened for a moment. “What on earth are you wearing?”
I did an exaggerated pirouette and then twisted this way and that like I’d seen teevid models do when they showed off what they were wearing or their assets underneath. “Like it? Carmine made it. It’s probably a litter mate to the one that went into the river with me. And he made me moccasins lined with rabbit too. Carmine got the cat but I got the rabbits.”
She asked, “What did you do, track it?”
I shook my head. “No. It was gonna eat us so we decided to eat it first. I wasn’t too fond of the beastie at first but I like the irony of a rat wearing a cat.”
Sally looked like she wanted to smile but was just too tired. “Ask Clarey, she knows where I keep things.” In just a matter of seconds we were forgotten as the next patient groaned.
I looked at Carmine. “I can hang with Clarey and see what I can here do if you need to go pay any more respects … like to U-gu-gu or Jack?” He was debating and I could tell he wanted to say something. I gave him a small grin and told him, “I’ll stay out of trouble as long as trouble leaves me alone.”
He gave me a small grin and then added for my ears alone, “Don’t become a push over just to stay nice. You do what you need to.”
I would have anyway but didn’t say it for the sake of keeping the peace between us. I walked into the house behind where we had found Sally and was nearly run down by Clarey as she came from the back with a bucket full of dirt. She stopped and saw me, “Don’t tell me Grandmother has another errand for me already? I’ll never get this cleaned up in time for U-gu-gu to take his afternoon nap in peace.”
“Relax, just point me in the direction of the stuff that needs sharpening.”
She wilted a bit. “Sorry, that was a rude way to great you. Things have been … but I guess Father told Uncle Carmine and he told you. By the way, I never asked but what do you want me to call you … Auntie or something.”
I nearly choked on my spit before saying, “Uh … if it’s not some family thing could you just stick with Gurl?”
She grinned. “Sure. To be honest that’s a relief. I’ve got enough Aunts and Aunties to make a respectable size herd.” I told her as soon as I was done sharpening I would help her clean unless Carmine needed me for something.
I had just put the last one back into its case when the sun was blocked from the door. A box of things got thrown at my feet. “I’ll be back for them shortly so you better have them done.”
I looked up and sure enough it was the old girlfriend. Clarey stood there looking embarrassed and upset. The woman had already started to walk away and I shoved the box hard with my foot and it caught her heel right as she was about to go down the porch steps. Instead of going down gracefully she went down them like an old bag of bones that had forgotten out to walk. She didn’t land in the dirty snow but only because she did a fancy two step and had grabbed the porch railing.
“Why you little …”
But I was already up and on the porch facing her. “Just because I’m small doesn’t mean I can’t be dangerous and mean if I need to be. You treat me with respect you’ll get the same from me but I won’t be treated like a slave … I’ve already lived that life under SEPH and will not repeat it.”
The woman started to come towards me but Sally called imperiously, “Chandra. Where are your manners? Saloli is my niece by marriage and you will treat her with more consideration.”
The woman named Chandra said, “With all due respect to you Sally, you are not my clan leader.”
As quick as lightening a very angry Sally told her, “Then I suggest you go to my daughter’s caravan and stay out of mine.”
Ouch. Sally might as well have slapped the woman and it was obvious that Chandra was embarrassed at being called out in such a way by an elder. Sally wasn’t too happy either. I hadn’t meant to cause problems and was going to say so but Sally read it on my face. “She was due a reminder Saloli so don’t worry about it.” It was odd but she had picked up Carmine’s name for me and I decided to just let it stand. “Just stay out of her way. She needs to pay attention to her own family instead of things she has no business being into. Those boys of hers are about to drive the men into doing something drastic.” With another shake of her head she asked, “Were you able to do anything with the needles or were they hopeless.”
“Just finished the last one, cleaned it and put it in the case it came from.”
Sally looked relieved and nodded then went back to tending to patients. I went back inside to find Clarey trying to move an old broken sofa. With me lifting on one end and her on the other we managed to move it into a side room that looked like an old utility space. Clarey groaned. “Father doesn’t want to throw any of the furniture out until he looks it over to see if anything is salvageable.” Since we were both covering out faces due to the smell of dust and mildew I was tempted to tell her that the sofa was a lost cause until I realized that there was probably a frame underneath the stuffing that possibly could be made into something.
We headed upstairs and saw there were three bedrooms up there. Clarey told me, “Grandmother and Jack will sleep in the big room. Bina and I will share the small room and Father will take the room at the head of the stairs. U-gu-gu will have the bedroom downstairs so he doesn’t have to climb. I’ve stripped most everything from the rooms that wasn’t worth saving. What do you think?”
I saw ropes coiled on the floor in each of the rooms and asked, “What are those for?”
“I’ll weave them around the existing bedframes and we’ll put our sleeping pads and furs on them so we don’t have to sleep on the floor. Bina and I will share this bed so we won’t need a stove to keep us warm. Grandmother’s room has a fireplace in it and Father’s room has a small wood stove. So does U-gu-gu’s room.” She headed downstairs and I followed her. “Help me with U-gu-gu’s bedding?”
We were in the middle of it when Bina ran in and said, “Uncle Carmine is looking for you Gurl.”
I was pulling the ropes tight so that Clarey could tie them off and started to say, “Tell him …”
“… that he’s the love of my life and I miss him desparately?”
I looked at Carmine where he was leaning against the door jamb and said, “No, tell him that if he doesn’t come help with this we’re never going to finish it which means he’ll be waiting even longer for me.”
Carmine chuffed a laugh and took Clarey’s place and with that the job was done in less than five minutes. Carmine said, “Bina, help your sister. I need Saloli for a while.”
We walked into the woods and I thought he wanted to show me something when he pulled me behind a clump of trees and kissed me breathless. “What was that about?” I asked.
“Just making sure I hadn’t imagined how good you taste.” I arched my eyebrow at him and he added, “And I’d heard you’d had a run in with Chandra.”
“Sally intervened. I don’t like your old girlfriend Carmine. I really, really don’t. But I’m not looking for a fight.”
“I know Saloli. Just do the best you can. She’s bit off more than she can chew by taking up with that Johnson and his younger brothers and trying to turn them into her sons. I think she had in mind starting her own clan until she realized what a weak man Johnson is … but then again she seems to like it that way. I’ve already heard from several people the boys are out of control. Jerry is about ready to knock them on their backsides if they don’t settle down. We should keep an eye on them, they don’t respect other people’s property very well. In Ishana’s clan … that’s one of Jerry’s sisters … everything is community property. The differences in the way the clans are operating have already caused some problems just on the way here. The boys are making it worse.”
I growled, “Nice neighbors.”
“Hopefully it will only be until snow melt but Jerry has mentioned making this the new winter camp … or possibly just staying here year round. Our people are farmers by culture and the hunter-gatherer system doesn’t come naturally so some of them. Others are talking about it too.”
I wanted to shout no, that we had found this place first – that I had – but didn’t. I’d run into this several times as a street rat. Sometimes it was just best to move on when things got crowded.
Carmine tipped my chin so that I had to look at him. “Hey, you are disappointed aren’t you?”
I shook it off and told Carmine, “I guess I was just wanting this to be the place but you’ve already pointed out there are some problems with it.”
“Well, remember I said that I had a couple of other places I wanted to check?” At my silent nod he said, “One isn’t too far from here; really just over that ridge over that way. Cabin is a little bigger but what used to pass for a garage needs some roof work. Well was clean and clear last time I was there, covered with a real cap and not just a piece of sheet metal like we’ve got. It has a finished basement as well. Even has composting toilets downstairs and in the basement too. It sits back in a little v-shaped area and with not too much stump pulling I think we could have a flat place to have a field and garden. Garden will have to be fenced and I’d like to have a dog or two to roam the field to keep the varmints out. We could take the glass out of this place and see if it’ll fit in the few broken windows that place has.”
I thought and then asked, “What about fireplaces?”
He smiled, “For your cold feet? Nice one down in the basement, another one in the great room, a wood stove in the kitchen, and a couple of small ones in the upstairs rooms. The loft is smaller than the one where we are now but that’s made up by the fact that there are two bedrooms upstairs and a bedroom down. Kitchen is bigger too which might mean something to you down the road; has a nice island in the center and all of the counter tops in the place are all made of local granite.”
“Stone counter tops and all of that other stuff? What kind of cabin is that?” I asked.
“A rich man’s hideaway more than likely. There’s all sorts of furniture left in it – some of it even salvageable – but the location is real remote so anything we want we’ll likely have to make or haul in by hand. There’s a small creek that runs beside the cabin on the opposite side from the toilet clean out that is good for fishing but not for moving supplies up and down. The remains of a helopad is just barely visible if you know where to look. But no one has lived in the place since before the war if they even lived in it then … didn’t feel like a lived in kind of place, more like a vacation home that didn’t get used very much.”
I’d been in a couple of places like that and understood the difference. I thought about it but there wasn’t really much worth debating. “How’s the hunting?”
“As good as here which is why I wanted dogs for the place. Even have mountain goats if we want to walk and do some hunting up on the ridges. Wouldn’t mind having some horses … or maybe mules would be better … and …”
“Whoa Carmine, aren’t you getting a little ahead of yourself? Or,” I said looking at him a little suspiciously. “Have you had this planned all along?”
He shook himself to come back to earth and realized how he must have sounded. “I’ll admit that place has been on my mind but only comparing it to this place. I would have stayed here – the apple trees are a plus – but not if the clans are going to set up camp every time I turn around. Family is all well and good but I think the two of us, we need our own space away from crowds.”
I relaxed because I could tell Carmine was being honest. “OK. I’m willing to take a look at this other place. Just makes all the time and effort we put into this one …”
“Not wasted so don’t think that. We still need a place for the winter and we don’t know that the other place is still available. It’s been a little over a year since I was there last. I haven’t told anyone else about it, keeping it in mind for my own getaway. Let’s just let it be for a bit. No use counting our chickens before they’re hatched.” We walked back towards the road and the noise of the clans getting moved in and Carmine asked, “You feel like showing that coat off a bit. I want Jerry and Jack to see it up close and see if any of the other hunters have seen any cat like it.”
It didn’t take long for the men to start wondering if there were any more where the one I was wearing came from. One guy that was dressed like a mountain man said, “Looks like a half breed between a snow leopard and a mountain lion. It’s spotted like a leopard but it’s too yeller to be purebred. And look at that tail what you used to trim the sleeves and collar … can’t see it being any less than half snow leopard unless it’s a throwback of some type. Didja keep the head and paws? I could mebbe tell you more from them.”
Since the face of the thing made up part of the hood of the jacket it was easy enough to show. “Yep, head’s more like a mountain lion but lookit them eye sockets; that there thing had some leopard in it. You say it was as brazen as a painter?”
I looked at Carmine who mouthed, “Old word for panther.”
I left the men discussing what the animal was and wasn’t and wandered over to look and see if I could find any of the woodpeckers that I had been hearing all morning. I don’t know why but I find woodpeckers to be just about the funniest creatures I’ve ever seen. Academically I know they aren’t banging their head against whatever they are pecking at but it sure does look like it.
I was standing, listening for the birds and a direction to take when the world went dark.
“Don’t give me that Chandra, that branch was partially sawn and she was under it, not on it like she’d done it to herself. We also found a bunch of other branches done similarly and your boys were caught red handed up a tree, sawing branches in another area!!”
Carmine’s voice had once again punctured my haze. I know I’d heard him bellowing before but couldn’t remember exactly what he’d been saying. I was lying on a pallet in front of a fire. It felt like I was roasting on one side and freezing on the other.
“If Bina hadn’t seen her moccasins under the branches who knows how long she would have been … she …” I could hear the very real fury in his voice but something else as well that caused his words to have an emotional catch to them. “If she catches sick again because of those boys of yours you better hide them long and deep. As you’ve so often pointed out I’m not one of the clan. I won’t make excuses for those little brutes like everyone else is doing. And in case you hadn’t given it good thought, several of the Elders like to take walks in the woods to have some quiet place to think and enjoy nature. What if one of them had been under the branch instead of my wife?”
I heard some quiet muttering from other people at that before Chandra said defensively, “You can’t prove that it was my boys and it wasn’t an Elder, it was your little …”
Obviously Chandra didn’t have a very high opinion of my morals but I bet mine were better than hers. And I was about to show her that it was nasty business to take on an educated rat. And I’d gone up against a lot more clever and brutish women than her.
I rolled over and up trying to get into a sitting position so I could stand but Sally and Clarey were there to stop me. Ignoring them for the moment I said, “Carmine, don’t try and talk sense to brick walls because they are incapable of it. An easy way to solve this to everyone’s satisfaction would be to say what happens to the boys from here on out. Isn’t it the culture of the clans that after the boys reach a certain age they are given to the men to raise? Maybe there weren’t enough men before to follow through on this tradition but there certainly are now that the clans have all but merged.”
Carmine started to open his mouth then closed it slowly, fighting the knowing smile that I could see hiding behind the beard and mustache that he’d allowed to grow for the winter.
It was U-gu-gu that nodded and in a sage voice said, “True, true. Boys are taught by their uncles while girls are taught by their mothers and aunties. And Chandra’s sons are passed the age this should have started. They are many years off the cradle board.”
Carmine and I never had to say another word. Everyone jumped at the chance to put the incident behind them but at the same time I suspected there would be a good bit of surprise in store for the boys in question. Clarey muttered, “Thanks, now I’m going to have to take care of the terrible trio.”
Sally said, “You will be too busy tending to your own lessons and those boys will be with the men, not sitting around waiting to be taken care of.” She gave me a brief look that told me she knew exactly what I had done but didn’t seem to mind it in the least. She did call Carmine over and say, “Saloli doesn’t look like she has had any lasting effects but I would suggest that you go to your place and perhaps keep her out of the cold for a while. Monitor any headache and let me know if it gets worse or if she begins acting oddly.”
Carmine muttered for my benefit, “How would I tell?”
I looked at him and said, “You are getting good enough that you could take that on the road. Perhaps you’d like …”
“Nope,” he said quickly realizing that I wasn’t quite in the mood for that much teasing. “Like it right where I am thanks. You up to walking or you want me to carry you?”
He was serious so I didn’t let it bother me. Instead I told him, “In this snow? We’ll both wind up face first and covered in slush. I’ll walk; I just may need to do it slow.”
My admission caused him some concern. The fact that I was actually willing to admit to needing to move slower than normal let him know that I really wasn’t feeling top ace. We left – escaped more like it – before Chandra could really spew in our direction. She was too busy dealing with the fact that the whole clan thing and tradition that she’d tried to use against me had had the opposite effect.