Continued from Chapter Sixteen
["The Mastodon Diaries" is rated NC-17 for Violence, Language, and Graphic Sexual Content. Reader discretion is advised.]
An enormous beaver crossed the swimming hole each sunrise and sunset, nosing logs downstream to its dam. Four hundred and fifty pounds if it was an ounce, the oversized rodent was eight feet long and resembled a black bear more than one of its own 20th Century descendants. It didn’t have a wide flat tail like a modern beaver, but it was an agile swimmer. And with six-inch-long incisors, it was no slouch at cutting trees.
Mulder decided to hunt and kill the beaver while Scully and Gini were upstream foraging for breakfast. He figured one well-placed spear would do the trick, and then they’d be feasting on flank steaks, tenderloins and T-bones for a week...uh, assuming beavers had all those parts.
Hell, even if the oversized animal turned out to be inedible, its hide would make a warm sleeping skin, or a couple of decent winter coats. And a few logs from its dam would go a long way toward building a smokehouse.
The beaver’s dam was an astonishing thirty-five to forty feet long. Made of mud, brush and logs -- some as thick as a man’s waist -- it bisected the river, effectively blocking its flow and creating a deep, wide pond on the upstream side. Mulder climbed out onto its uneven surface with some difficulty and took up a position at the midpoint, where he would be able to throw his spear at the beaver as it made its morning run.
Sure enough, it arrived right on schedule, guiding a freshly fallen tree toward the dam with its nose.
Closer...closer, Mulder silently urged, raising his spear shoulder high and gripping the mud-covered timbers with his toes.
The beaver swam toward him, oblivious to the danger. If it could see him with those beady little eyes, it didn’t seem perturbed to find him standing atop its weir, armed with a spear and wearing nothing but his lucky boxers.
“Your hairy ass is mine,” he mumbled under his breath.
Jesus, the thing was the size of a fucking Volkswagen.
Mulder squinted against the glare of early morning sun and fine-tuned the angle of his spear, thankful for its new stone tip.
The spearhead came courtesy of Gini. She’d brought a nice selection of goodies with her from Turkey Lake: scrapers, flints, fishhooks and line...her backpack had been chock full of useful items. He’d appropriated a yard of her fishing line to secure the spearhead to a seven-foot-long shaft, making a formidable weapon, much better than that clumsy driftwood club he’d used to beat the snapping turtle into submission two days ago.
Visions of Scully and Gini dressed in matching beaver-skin coats boosted Mulder’s courage and fueled his determination to nail the unsuspecting animal. He pictured them gnawing happily on its huge spareribs while complimenting his impressive hunting prowess for the gazillionth time.
The beaver suddenly stopped paddling. It lifted its flat head to sniff the air. Could it smell him from ten yards away?
Small eyes blinking, it floated slowly into range, carried by the current.
Mulder waited, itching to throw his spear.
Come on, you ugly...
The beaver appeared to be staring straight at him.
It was now or never. Mulder hurled the spear. It made a quiet whooshing sound as it sailed through the air. The trajectory was perfect, the speed more than adequate. Its point sank deeply into the beaver’s humped back with a satisfying thud.
The surprised beaver reacted by diving underwater, disappearing beneath the surface and taking Mulder’s spear with it.
“Shit.” He was going to lose the animal *and* his new spearhead.
His instinct was to dive in after it, but a breakwater of logs bristled beneath the river’s surface, blocking his way. So he scrambled over the edge, lowering himself feet-first into the water.
The river was deep and startlingly cold. Mulder gasped when he sank up to his armpits. Gooseflesh sprouted along his shoulders, and his testicles felt as if they were being squeezed in an icy fist. Not wanting to linger, he filled his lungs with air and ducked beneath the surface.
The water was crystal clear, allowing him to see all the way to the toe of the dam, where whip-like plants swayed in the current, anchored to the logs. A blood trail was blossoming out of one shadowy tunnel where two trees crossed each other. He swam toward it, using branches as handholds to drag himself quickly into the crimson cloud.
Ten feet ahead, the pale shaft of his spear disappeared behind a jumble of timbers. He plowed after it, angling more deeply into the dam. Gaining on his target, he came close enough to reach out and grasp the spear’s butt end. The beaver lurched forward, jerking the shaft from his grip before veering into a side tunnel. Mulder gave chase, confident he could easily fit into any crevice that could accommodate the massive rodent. A trickle of air bubbles escaped the beaver’s nose, keeping Mulder oriented as he insinuated himself between timbers, unwilling to abandon his pursuit.
Two powerful strokes brought him within range again. He grabbed the spear and this time managed to hang on when the beaver started thrashing. It pulled him forward, deeper into the labyrinth of logs, scraping his unprotected ribs against clawed branches. Pain blazed along his right side from armpit to hip.
The beaver’s strength was astonishing and Mulder worried he would lose his hold, or dislocate a shoulder. He was pitched into another rough-barked tree when the beaver flailed again. His lungs began to call for air. Time was running out.
He braced his feet against a log. Using the leverage to propel himself forward, he embedded the weapon solidly into the animal’s back and lungs.
Blood gushed from the wound and the beaver ceased its violent struggle. Although not dead, it floundered as its strength ebbed.
Mulder latched onto a fistful of its long fur and dragged it backward out of the logjam. His lungs hitched as he grew more desperate for air.
Towing the oversized animal was no easy task, especially given his oxygen-deprived state. He felt light-headed. His chest ached to take a breath.
He kicked harder, trying to increase his speed. His pulse hammered inside his ears. Sunlight and blue sky guided him, becoming brighter as he rose. Stale air leached from his lungs in a mass of bubbles that blinded him as they swirled past his face.
Damn it, he wasn’t going to make it.
He considered releasing his hold on the beaver.
Only a few strokes to go.
Hang on...hang on...don’t breathe...Finally he punched through the surface and gasped for air. His lungs filled. He swallowed a mouthful of water and coughed, but he was okay. Thank you Jesus! He’d made it...with the beaver *and* his spear.
Panting, blinking water from his eyes, he hooked one rubbery arm over a branch to steady himself while he caught his breath.
After a minute, his heart stopped its awful pounding and he gave the beaver a shake...turned it so that he could stare into its dull eyes...decided it was truly dead.
Fingers gone numb, limbs quaking with fatigue, he began swimming towards the shore, shoving the carcass ahead of him, wrestling it with elbows and shoulders and even the crown of his head. By the time he finally beached it, he was covered with mud, bark and blood...some his own.Muscles trembling from overexertion, he rose on unsteady legs to yank the spear from the beaver’s lifeless body. Pride surged through him as he pulled the weapon free, giving him the strength to stagger up the bank onto dry land. Dropping to his knees in the grass, he felt exhausted but indomitable. He’d done what he’d set out to do. And he couldn’t wait to see Scully and Gini’s expressions when they saw what he’d brought home for breakfast.
* * *
Dzeh took no notice of the sun’s daily journey, nor did he discern the change of terrain from red rock cliffs to open grassland to wooded hills as he and his kinsmen traveled steadily northward. His thoughts were focused on Gini, and his regrets grew heavier with each step toward home.
He tried to imagine how he might have conducted himself differently on that last awful day with his sister, scrutinizing his every action, word and decision. But no matter how often he reviewed it, he could think of nothing he’d done that contradicted Clan ways. He’d followed every rule, acted precisely as any reasonable clansman would act, and still Gini had run away from home -- away from *him* -- to chase after a couple of depraved chindis. She’d left behind a loving family to follow strangers.
Why would she do such a thing?
Before coming to Turkey Lake -- before the arrival of Muhl-dar and Day-nuh -- Gini had been a reasonably obedient girl. At times headstrong and independent, but not intolerably so. Usually she was helpful and polite, eager to contribute to the welfare of the Clan, giving no argument when performing everyday tasks like butchering meat, preparing hides, or collecting firewood. Truly, she did whatever he or Klizzie asked, with very little complaint.
Except when it came to the matter of finding her a mate. For some unfathomable reason she’d balked at being Promised. The mere mention of it had caused her to run from Lin’s shelter the day of the yea-go match as if chased by a saber-toothed cat. Later he’d had to force her to attend her friend’s Joining Ceremony, dragging her against her will while she screeched and struggled to be let go.
The members of four clans witnessed her willful disrespect. They were clearly appalled by her outburst and expected him to put an end to it.
So he’d struck her.
What else could he have done?
It was true he’d hit her more forcefully than he’d intended. With every passing heartbeat he wished he had not. She was just a small girl and he a full-grown hunter and he could understand how his foul temper might have frightened her. But was one slap cause to run away? Certainly she knew he loved her. He’d never struck her before -- not even once -- although it was within his right to do so. Men were always hitting their children to maintain peace at their hearths.
Perhaps he should have been stricter with her from the start. If he’d disciplined her more frequently, instead of allowing her to go her own way for so many seasons, maybe she would have grown used to it, the way other children seemed to. Then she might not have overreacted to his reprimand. And she would be alive now, safe at his hearth.
Preoccupied by his regret, Dzeh failed to notice the hunters had stopped at the edge of the swamp, and he bumped into Chal, startling them both.
“Why are we stopping?” he grumbled.
This dark and inhospitable quagmire was not a place to linger. The swamp bristled with dead trees, gray and naked as corpses, spearing the sky as far as the eye could see. Blowdowns crisscrossed the murky lowland, uprooted by violent storms, fallen victim to age and rot. Rancid air snaked into Dzeh’s nostrils and down his throat like a rattler looking for respite in the shadows.
Chal pointed to the ground, directing his attention to Gini’s small footprints, still visible in the deep mud.
Dzeh wondered again why she had left the others, only to turn back and follow them. Her motives were as difficult to discern as doves in fog.
“I should have asked,” he mumbled.
Lin’s brow wrinkled with concern. “Asked what, Nephew?”
“Asked Gini why she objected to being Joined.” He had discounted his sister’s distress without ever learning its cause, and now she was dead and his lack of understanding weighed heavily on his heart.
“Gini did not want to be Joined?” Chal’s eyes rounded with surprise.
“That is absurd,” Wol-la-chee said, frowning. “Why would a girl not want to be Joined?”
Dzeh shook his head. He could think of no logical reason. Taking a mate and having children were desirable, necessary things. There was no alternative. Life without family was impossible. No one, not even a seasoned hunter, could survive for long alone.
“Perhaps...” Chal’s voice grew thin, losing its strength. He cleared his throat and began again. “Perhaps she was afraid.”
“Afraid?” Lin blinked in astonishment.
“Of what?” Wol-la-chee asked.
The boy squared his slim shoulders and faced the hunters. Lifting his chin, he said, “Maybe it is not easy to be sent away from kin and made to live with strangers.”
Dzeh shook his head, trying to dislodge the boy’s perplexing words from his ears. “All girls must move away when they take mates,” he said.
“It is the Clan way,” said Wol-la-chee.
“It is the manner in which these things have always been done,” Lin agreed.
“Yes, but...” -- Chal licked dry lips -- “maybe...the old way is not the best way.” He tightened his fists, stilling his shaking hands, and locked determined eyes with Dzeh. “Perhaps some rules need to be reconsidered.”
“You are suggesting we change what is custom?” Dzeh scowled at him.
Clan traditions came from the Spirits and could not be altered without their divine guidance and blessing. It was not up to men to say, “We will no longer send girls away when they are Joined.” Only the Spirits could determine such things and their rules were made for the good of everyone; going against them would bring misfortune to all. If a girl was frightened by the prospect of moving to a new clan, she should simply pray to the Spirits to give her more courage.
“This boy knows nothing,” Wol-la-chee announced with a wave of dismissal. “He is arrogant to think we should amend the Spirits’ ways.”
Lin placed a large, gnarled hand on Chal’s recently tattooed shoulder and studied the boy’s beardless face. “You have a season or two yet before you are wise to the ways of the Spirits, young man. Until then, it is best that you do not question their decisions.”
Chal did not back down or avert his earnest, almond-eyed gaze. “Even if their decisions are unsatisfactory?”
Wol-la-chee hissed at the boy’s disrespect. Lin quieted them both with an upraised hand. “There is nothing for us to decide here. We still have a full day’s hike before we are back with our families. Let us not waste the daylight.”
With that, he headed north for Turkey Lake. Wol-la-chee fell immediately into step behind him. After a moment, Chal followed, too, with his head hanging. But Dzeh lingered, his eyes fastened on Gini’s small tracks.
He could feel the Spirits squabbling in his chest and their quarrel frightened him. Most of their voices seemed to be in agreement with Lin, Wol-la-chee and Clan tradition, yet a few were casting spears of doubt at their arguments.
Dzeh had lived his entire life according to the customs of his people, always knowing which actions were correct and which were not. He had never before questioned the Clan’s ways.
Until now. Now he felt confused. He wished he had not struck Gini, even if doing so was the accepted way to chastise an unruly child. He wished, too, that he had asked her why the prospect of taking a mate had been so upsetting to her.Dzeh took one final look at Gini’s small footprints before he turned to follow his kinsmen. Right or wrong, what was done was already done. Gini was dead and he would not see her again, not until he, too, passed into the World of Spirits.
* * *
Scully paused to readjust the pack that hung from her right shoulder, while Gini skipped ahead. The girl’s unraveling braids bounced against her straight, narrow back and the sleeves of Mulder’s oversized shirt dangled loosely from her short arms as she ran. Scully smiled, glad Gini’s energy and enthusiasm had rebounded after Mulder’s demonstration two days ago. She’d even slept peaceably in her own bed last night.
This morning they were heading upstream to collect mushrooms, fresh greens and “a-ye-shi” -- duck eggs -- along the riverbank. The sun was already warming the post-dawn air, causing vapor to rise from the water. It gilded the entire valley in blonde light, and the cliffs appeared peach-colored, the sky rose-hued. Fluttering tree leaves sparkled with silvery dew.
Again Scully was struck by the beauty of this place. The river meandered serenely through the flat-bottomed basin, hemmed by shade trees and sweet smelling flower blossoms. Herds of animals grazed on long grasses or drank their fill along the winding shores. Birds celebrated the sunrise with a trill that cheered her in a way she wouldn’t have thought possible given the precariousness of their situation.
Up ahead, Gini stopped to pluck a bright orange bud from a long-stemmed lily. She popped it into her mouth, then gathered a few more before hiking upstream at a more leisurely pace.
They had left the cave as the first rays of sunlight were cresting the cliffs, and in less than an hour they had collected enough food for the entire day. Scully decided to extend their hunting expedition a little longer; she wanted to learn as much as possible about edible plants from Gini before the girl returned to her family. She and Mulder would soon be fending for themselves, and everything she learned now could help them survive on their own later.
She stooped to pick a toadstool from a rotting tree stump. Holding it aloft, she called to Gini, “Is this one okay?”
Gini ran back to her, a serious expression on her face. One glance at the mushroom and she shook her head. “No. Do-ya-sho-da. No good.” Her accent hummed in her nose and her pronunciation was flat and gravelly. Her croaking voice didn’t match her diminutive features and every time she spoke Scully was taken a little by surprise.
“What’ll happen if I eat it?” Scully pantomimed taking a bite.
Gini frowned and pointed out the toadstool’s defining characteristics and then, mimicking obvious body sounds, she demonstrated quite clearly how it would make her sick.
Scully tossed the mushroom to the ground and waved the girl upstream.
Gini’s knowledge of Pleistocene flora didn’t surprise Scully. She remembered reading an article in one of her journals that described a group of hunter/gatherers on the island of Mer in the Torres Strait in Australia. The study had shown that even very young Meriam children could quickly master the knowledge and skills needed to engage in productive, adult activities -- like spear and line fishing -- as long as those activities didn’t require adult size and strength. Most of the children were fishing by age six, and by age nine they’d become as good at it as the adults. The children weren’t as successful at collecting shellfish, however, although it required very little knowledge or skill. Apparently their size didn’t allow them to cover much ground, so they were ineffective at it.
It was logical that Gini, even at the tender age of seven or eight, would have accumulated considerable knowledge about her world, and be skilled at whatever survival techniques her size permitted.
As the morning wore on, they stopped often to study one plant or another. Sometimes Gini would pick and eat what she found, or offer it to Scully, while other times she left the plants alone, presumably to let them ripen. She cheerfully attempted to explain her choices, or describe various methods of cooking or practical uses, but Scully found it difficult to follow most of her instructions.
For two days they’d been playing word games, exchanging a multitude of phrases. She guessed Gini’s vocabulary had grown to more than four or five hundred English expressions. Scully was not as adept at memorizing the tribe’s language, so more often than not, Gini used English to make herself understood.
“Who-neh?” she asked in her own language as they continued their walk along the river. She pointed at the red cliffs to the west and switched to English. “Wha’zat?”
“Cliffs,” Scully answered.
“Close. Cliffs. Culliffs.” She emphasized the L. “What do you call them?”
“Tse-ye-chee?” Scully tried her best to pronounce the expression and fix it firmly in her mind.
Immediately Gini pointed to another object, a dark stone that stood like a lone sentinel on the riverbank. “Wha’zat?”
“A tall black rock.” Scully enunciated each word with care, uncertain which aspect of the rock Gini wanted clarified.
“Bul-lak rok,” Gini repeated, before giving Scully the tribe’s translation, “Tsa-zhin.”
Many of Gini’s words began with an unfamiliar “TS” combination, making it difficult for Scully to differentiate between them. Tse-e meant mosquito. Tsa-zhin meant rock, or maybe black rock, or even tall black rock. Tsee...the cheese? -- or something like that -- meant cliffs. Already she had forgotten the precise pronunciation.
Gini glanced back the way they’d come and began to chew on the cuff of her dangling sleeve. “Muhl-dar seep?” she asked without releasing the fabric from her teeth.
He’d been sleeping when they left -- Scully had hushed the girl, hoping not to wake him -- but he was typically an early riser and, no doubt, was up by now.
She tapped the girl’s arm. “Don’t chew your shirt, sweetie.”
An embarrassed smile spread across Gini’s face and she let the sleeve drop. This wasn’t her first reminder.
“Muhl-dar’s sssirt.” She had trouble pronouncing SHs and THs, yet she managed her own tongue-twisting DLs, DZs, TKs and TSs with ease.
“Yes, Mulder’s shirt.”
“Pretty.” She patted the fabric that covered her flat chest.
Since she seemed cheery and relatively calm Scully decided this might be an opportune time to broach the subject of returning to Turkey Lake.
Keeping her voice light, she asked, “Gini, why did you leave home?”
“Leaf?” The girl scanned the surrounding trees with a confused look.
“No, not leaf. Leave. Why did you...?” How could she phrase it so the girl would understand? She gestured at their surroundings. “Why did you come here...to this valley, this river?” She knew Gini understood the words for valley, river, come, why, you. Surely she would put it all together. “Why did you follow Mulder and me here?”
Gini’s sleeve-covered fist lifted once again to her mouth. She stopped herself before she actually took the fabric between her teeth. “Bring...baby.”
The carved bone idol. “Why else?”
“Elz?” She didn’t understand.
Scully was hesitant to mention Dzeh, since his name had triggered such an extreme reaction two days ago. Obviously he was somehow involved in the girl’s decision to run away.
Taking a less direct approach, she smiled and said, “I like Klizzie.”
Gini glanced nervously to the north. She bit her lower lip instead of her sleeve.
Scully reached out and smoothed a few stray hairs from the girl’s worried face. “She braided my hair, put beads in it. And gave me her pretty comb, too. Remember?”
Gini nodded but said nothing.
“She took good care of me when I was sick. She took care of Mulder, too. That was kind of her, wasn’t it?”
Still the girl didn’t speak.
“I imagine she misses you a lot.”
“Klizzie--” Gini stuffed the shirt cuff into her mouth. Tears welled in her eyes.
“Sweetie, we can take you back to her if you--”
“No. No go Too-key Lake. Peese.” Her body began to tremble.
Scully set down her travel pack and crouched in front of her. Gently, she removed the cuff from the girl’s mouth and rolled the sleeve up to her wrist. Turning her attention to the other sleeve, she rolled it up, too. Then she took both of Gini’s hands in hers. “Why don’t you want to go back to Turkey Lake?”
“Tehi ah-na-sozi.” Gini pulled at Scully’s hands, urging her to stand. “Yah-a-da-hal-yon-ih--”
“No, sweetie. First tell me why you don’t want to go to Turkey Lake.” She spoke kindly but refused to budge. Reaching out to stroke the faint bruise beside Gini’s right eye, she asked, “Are you afraid Dzeh will hurt you again?”
Gini lifted her hand to the bruise. “Hurt?”
Scully nodded. “Dzeh hurt you, didn’t he?” She pointed to the injury and then pantomimed a slow, left hook.
Gini didn’t flinch. Her expression was one of bewilderment, not alarm. Scully began to sense she might be on the wrong track.
“Sit, please.” She patted the ground beside her, then settled cross-legged on the grass. Gini squatted beside her.
They were in a narrow clearing in full sun with an unobstructed view of the river twenty feet away. The water made a tinkling sound as it flowed south between gravel-lined banks. A mother duck and her lone chick waddled along one pebbled shore, searching for food among the wet stones.
Scully pointed to the birds. “See those ducks?”
“Dose duhks,” Gini sounded out the new phrase.
The duckling wobbled after its mother, almost toppling in its effort to keep up.
“Baby duhk run...um...” Gini waggled her head from side to side to demonstrate the word she was looking for.
“He reminds me of you, Gini.”
The girl seemed to take offense at this. “Gini no run tip-pee.”
“No, I didn’t mean that.” Scully smiled. “He’s following his mother the same way you used to follow Klizzie.”
Gini frowned and stared at the ground between her feet. “No talk Klizzie.”
“Is Klizzie your mother?” Scully was determined not to let the subject drop. She suspected the girl was a blood relative of Dzeh, not Klizzie, because Klizzie looked too young to have an eight-year-old child, and Dzeh and Gini shared the same eye color and slanting grin. It was possible he was the girl’s father by a former partner. Or he could be her brother, or a cousin or uncle with a strong family resemblance.
“No muht-her,” Gini said without a hint of self-pity.
“Your sister then? Or your aunt?”
“No...want...talk Klizzie! No want talk Dzeh, no want talk Too-key Lake!” she said firmly.
“Gini, we have to talk about this.”
“Why?” the girl whined. Fear peaked her brows and her chin quivered. “Day-nuh no want Gini?” she asked, sounding heartbroken.
“Sweetie...” Damn, how was she going to explain? She reached out and placed her hand on Gini’s back to gently rub circles between her shoulder blades. “I’m not angry at you. You’ve done nothing wrong.”
“You can’t stay. I’m sorry.”
Frustration crumpled Gini’s face. “Here...good,” she said, searching hard for the proper words, and staring up at Scully with tear-filled eyes. “Day-nuh, Muhl-dar, Gini...ummm...ta-bilh.”
“Ta-bihl? I don’t understand.”
“Ta-bihl...ummm...means...” She pointed toward the two ducks.
Mother and baby?
“Dzeh and Klizzie are your family, sweetheart. Dzeh, Klizzie and Gini ta-bihl.”
Too upset to speak English, Gini rattled off her woes in her own language. Tears spilled over her cheeks as she hiccupped her way through her concerns. Scully recognized a few of her words and phrases: go, Badger tribe, no, want, big...be-zonz? Wasn’t that the word Mulder said meant penis?What the hell?
* * *
Gini was desperate to make Day-nuh understand. She would not go back to Turkey Lake, but trying to remember the right combination of Eel words to say so was impossible. The words were difficult to pronounce and she didn’t know enough of them to express her thoughts. So she spoke in her own language, and once she got started, her worries poured out of her like water from a spring.
“I can not go back there, Day-nuh. Dzeh wants to send me away to live with a boy in Badger Clan. He has already Promised me to Chal, I think. I am so scared. I do not know Chal! I do not want to be Joined with him or live with him. I am afraid he is going to make me lay with him on his sleeping skins and it will hurt because his be-zonz will grow too big to fit inside me, just like that awful stallion with his mare--”
“Sweetie, sweetie, slow down,” Day-nuh interrupted. Her voice and manner were soothing and her concern was evident. She asked several more unintelligible questions, something about...Dzeh’s penis?
“No, no Dzeh be-zonz,” Gini said. What was Day-nuh talking about? “*Chal’s* be-zonz.”
“Chal? Who is Chal?”
“Badger...” She didn’t know the Eel word for boy. “Badger man,” she said instead, before switching back to her own language. “I do not like him very much. He looks like a stork and he is rude and mean.”
Day-nuh shook her head, not understanding. “A-nah-neh...?” she asked for clarification.
“A-nah-neh-dzin.” Gini lowered her brows and grimaced, trying to make her face look as fearsome as possible to convey the nasty look Chal had given her on the day they first met.
Day-nuh’s eyes widened as if she had been bitten by a rattlesnake. Gini realized her impersonation of Chal was perhaps unfair. He hadn’t been *that* mean. But still, she didn’t like him and she didn’t want to live with him or his peculiar Badger Clan kin. She particularly didn’t want to share his bed or touch his disgusting be-zonz. Ugh!
Day-nuh reached out and wiped away her tears. “Gini, help me understand. Explain again what’s frightening you.”
Although Gini couldn’t translate the request word-for-word, she’d learned enough over the past two days to know that Day-nuh wanted a more precise explanation, even if it meant using hand signals and a mix of Eel and Owl Clan words.
Gini did her best to detail Dzeh’s plans to Join her with Chal. She repeated the story about the dreadful stallion and his frightened mare several times, too, until finally Day-nuh’s frown changed into a smile.
“What is so funny?” Gini asked in her own language, a little hurt that Day-nuh was laughing at her troubles.
Day-nuh seemed to grasp this was serious talk and her face grew more solemn. “Sorry,” she said. Then she leaned forward and embraced Gini.
It felt nice to be held in her arms, like being hugged by Klizzie.
Suddenly Gini missed Klizzie with an intensity that made her chest hurt. Tears filled her eyes again, and she hid them by throwing her arms around Day-nuh’s neck and burying her face against her chest, trying to push away any thoughts of Klizzie, hoping beyond hope that Day-nuh -- and Muhl-dar -- might someday love her as much as Klizzie had.
Day-nuh murmured more unrecognizable but reassuring words into her ear, while rocking her and smoothing her hair.
They remained like that for many moments, until a faint call came from the direction of the cave. Muhl-dar was shouting and he sounded excited.
“Scully! Sculleee!” His voice echoed off the valley’s rosy cliffs.Day-nuh rose to her feet and pulled Gini up after her. “Let’s go see what he wants.”
* * *
Hill Air Force Base
Computer Lab, Hangar 19
May 14, 1998
Beck dropped the faded Black Sox cap onto Nichols’ keyboard. “Does that mean what I think it means?”
Nichols leaned back in his chair to look up at him with mock-innocence. His hands slid into his lap without touching the hat. “I don’t know, Colonel. What do you think it means?”
Lisa Ianelli was sitting in her usual place beside Nichols. A 3-dimensional computer model undulated on the monitor in front of them, disintegrating as it writhed. Beck recognized the image as a diagnostic of last night’s test. It clearly showed a malfunction had occurred while the aircraft was operating in gravity pulse mode.
“Just answer the question,” he said through gritted teeth.
Nichols shrugged, seemingly unconcerned by Beck’s threatening tone. Ianelli, on the other hand, appeared nervous...and confused. She picked up the hat. “I don’t understand. What’s this got to do with us or our work?”
Before Beck could answer, Nichols sighed loudly and said, “The Colonel thinks it’s a clue to the whereabouts of the missing agents. Isn’t that right, Colonel?”
That was precisely what he thought. Security had searched every square inch of the Base and had come up empty handed...except for the ball cap.
“The Baltimore Black Sox haven’t played ball since 1934. I checked it myself,” Beck said.
“So? It’s a reproduction.”
“Does it look new to you?”
Nichols shrugged again. “Maybe someone here at Hill collects baseball memorabilia.”
“My men deny ever seeing it before.”“So it belongs to the missing agents. That doesn’t necessarily connect it to last night’s test...at least not in the way you’re implying.”
“It does when you add to it the evidence on that computer screen.” Beck nodded at the monitor.
Ianelli glanced at the undulating image, then down at the hat in her hands. “You think the missing agents went back in time to--”
“To the 1930s, yes, I do,” Beck finished for her. “I think the anti-gravity propulsion system caused a warp during last night’s test. Agents Mulder and Scully got caught in that warp. That model...” -- he nodded at the screen again -- “proves it.”
He was guessing a sudden shift in the craft’s trajectory created the distortion, and that the agents had been in close proximity to the AGPS when it malfunctioned, bending time, and throwing them several decades into the past, while depositing the cap in the present.
“I want you to find those agents,” Beck ordered, “and bring them back. ASAP.”
“Suppose they’re dead.”
“If they were dead, the model wouldn’t be reacting like that.” Beck jabbed a finger at the swirls on the computer screen. There was no doubt the agents were still alive and their presence in the past was affecting the stability of the continuum.
Nichols eyeballed the model, his expression guarded. A twinge in Beck’s gut warned him that Nichols knew more than he was saying.
“Open a new hole and haul them back,” Beck ordered.
“It’s not that easy.”
“Make it happen...*before* General Kaback gets here.”
Nichols leaned back in his chair while continuing to study the model. “It might be possible to open a small hole, to allow the transfer of electronic data.”
“Electronic data? I want those agents, not a fucking email.”
“The data would just be a test...to ensure stabilization of the warp before we actually try to retrieve the agents. As a matter of fact, we could use the data to send them a message, notify them of our intentions, make sure they stay in one place long enough for us to pinpoint them and grab them.”
“A message?” Ianelli sounded incredulous. “To what? Their cell phones?”
To Beck’s surprise, Nichols nodded at her suggestion. “Actually, that would work perfectly.”
Was such a thing even technologically possible?
Beck knew that Mulder and Scully carried FBI issued cell phones; he’d seen their numbers listed in Captain Linden’s background report. But would the agents have their phones charged and turned on? More importantly, would a cell phone work in 1930?
“Do it,” he said. “Rerun last night’s test, recreate the distortion. Make it look routine. I want this done quietly.”
Nichols no longer appeared to be listening. He was already punching keys, altering the model’s makeup.
“Kaback’s due at 1100,” Beck reminded him. “Do whatever you need to do before then.”
Nichols nodded absently.
Beck wasn’t certain he grasped the seriousness of the situation. “We’re running out of time, Nichols.”The scientist swiveled in his chair. “Interesting choice of words, Colonel.”
* * *
July 1, 10:19 a.m.
Gini gutted the beaver, while Mulder and Scully watched. They sat a few feet away, leaning comfortably against a fallen tree in a grassy clearing approximately ten yards from where Mulder had beached the animal. The tree was without branches or bark, having lost them decades ago to wind and weather. Its thick trunk was bleached silver-gray by the sun, and it felt smooth and warm against Mulder’s sore, bare back.
It surprised him how happily Gini was going about her grisly task. She chattered as she slit the beaver from gullet to groin, carefully cutting around its genitals and anus without penetrating the bowel, which he supposed was to prevent contamination of the meat. She used one of her small stone blades, brought from Turkey Lake, having declined his offer of the pocketknife. She was evidently more comfortable with her own familiar tools.
Using bare hands, she scooped entrails from the gaping body, emptying the cavity onto the grass. She pointed to the growing pile of organs and rattled off a string of what sounded like questions or commands.
“What’s she saying?” he asked, not understanding a single word.
“I didn’t get all of it, but ‘a-chi’ means intestines and ‘cha’ means ‘beaver.’ I think she wants to know if we plan to use the entrails,” Scully said, rising to her feet to inspect the gore. “You really should make an effort to learn her language, Mulder.”
“I’m not good at languages.”
“With your photographic memory?”
“Doesn’t seem to help. You should hear my Spanish. It’s embarrassing. ‘Mi nalga se confunde fácilmente.’”
She laughed. “You just said, ‘My rump is easily confused.’”
“Did I?” He grinned at his mistake. “Oh, well, considering how often I have my head up my ass, that’s not too far off the mark, actually. But what I meant to say was ‘My brain is easily confused.’ Guess I proved my point.”
“‘Brain’ is ‘cerebro,’ not ‘nalga.’”
“‘Patata,’ pa-tay-ta. The Vineyard’s a long way from the Mexican border, San Diego Girl.”
Bending over the bloody entrails, she frowned. “How is it you were able to remember the tribe’s words for the male and female genitalia without any trouble?”
“Easy...that’s a guy thing.”
She rummaged through the guts and retrieved what looked to him to be the liver.
“You interested in eating this?” she asked, holding it up. It draped heavily over her arm, dark, slimy and wholly unappetizing.
His throat closed and his stomach rebelled. “Uh...no, thanks.”
To avoid watching her pick through the gore, he inspected the injury on his ribs. The scrape he’d received underwater was beginning to sting like hell. It was raw and inflamed looking. Carefully, he pulled a long sliver from the wound.
“I was kind of hoping we wouldn’t be here long enough to make learning cavemanese a necessity,” he said, letting the bloody splinter drop to the ground.
“Do you have something more pressing to do?” She abandoned the beaver’s innards to come inspect his wound. “You should rinse that.”
“It’s fine.” To be honest, he felt too tired to rise to his feet and traipse all the way down to the river.
“Mulder...” Her warning tone.
“Give me a few minutes,” he wheedled. “I wanna see how Gini skins this thing.”
Gini was already separating the hide from the carcass, cutting and tugging, while taking care not to puncture it. With Scully’s help she removed the entire skin in about twenty minutes. Mulder was content to simply sit and watch them. The work appeared to be strenuous. Sweat was slicking their faces by the time they laid the hide on the grass -- sans head -- in one unbroken piece.
Opened flat, it was wider than Gini was tall. Gore still clung to its inner surface, making it too unwieldy for Scully and Gini to lift on their own.
“Muhl-dar na-e-lahi?” Gini pointed to the skin and pantomimed draping it over the fallen tree.
“Come on, Mulder. Help us.”
Reluctantly, and with an exaggerated groan, he rose to his feet to help them lift the pelt into position over the log. Once it was where they wanted it, Gini crouched beside it and immediately began scraping off a layer of sticky membrane with her crescent-shaped blade. She held the stone knife at a ninety-degree angle while she methodically removed fat from the pelt, until the underlying pores began to appear.
While she worked on the hide, Scully butchered the beaver using Mulder’s knife. Mulder returned to his comfortable position beside the log.
“Too bad we don’t have some way to preserve all that meat,” he said.“The tribe had a smokehouse.” Scully sliced through what was once a muscular thigh, trimming away several perfect steaks. “Maybe we could build one, too.”
“Maybe.” Without tools it would be difficult to build anything. He plucked a blade of grass and stuck it between his teeth. “If we had another knife, I could help you cut that up,” he said, glad there was only one.
“You killed it, I can clean it. Nice job, by the way, Tarzan.”
She glanced at him and smiled. Her praise lessened the ache in his limbs.Half an hour later, Scully and Gini were still cutting and scraping. Apparently ready for a break, Gini rose to search through the pile of guts. To Mulder’s disgust, she dug out the heart, from which she took a big, bloody bite. She chewed with obvious relish and swallowed.
“Mmmmm. Gud!” she said, wiping gore from her lips onto the back of her hand.
“Jesus.” Mulder’s gag reflex kicked in and he felt his gorge rise. He looked to Scully to see if she was going to object.
Instead she simply shrugged. “It can’t harm her, and I doubt it’s any worse than the raw snake meat you and I ate.”
Maybe not, but... “I’m going to wash up.” He stood and headed for the river.
By the time he returned, Gini was finished with her scraping and Scully was bringing the snapping turtle’s shell from the cave.
“What’s that for?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Gini asked for it.” She handed the turtle shell -- which was as big as a punch bowl -- to the girl.
Gini set it on the ground beside the log. “Muhl-dar break head,” she said.
“Excuse me?” he asked. “Break head?”
Gini smiled and pointed first to the turtle-bowl, and then to the beaver’s decapitated skull lying beside the entrails in the grass. After several minutes of sign language and broken English it became clear that she wanted him to crack open the beaver’s skull with a rock and dump the contents into the turtle shell. Why, he wasn’t exactly sure, but guessed it must have something to do with curing the hide.
While Gini was showing Scully how to rough up the pelt’s underside with sand and fine gravel, he hunted for an appropriate sized rock to hammer open the beaver’s head.
A fist-sized stone caught his eye. He brought it and the grisly severed head to the log where Gini and Scully were abrading the skin. A few well-placed blows between the beaver’s eyes punched a hole through its fur and bone, opening its flat forehead and exposing a gray soup of brains inside.
“There you go.” He nudged the mutilated head toward Gini.
She took it from him and scooped the brains into the turtle shell. Mulder was reminded of a grotesque little verse from his childhood. He began to chant while she emptied the skull: “Great green globs of greasy, grimy gopher guts; mutilated monkey meat; little turdy birdy feet; French-fried eyeballs swimming in a bowl of blood; And I forgot my spoon!”
“But I’ve got my straw,” Scully finished the ditty for him, and followed it with the prerequisite slurp, which made Gini pause at her brain mashing to giggle.
Her laugh was so throaty and infectious Mulder couldn’t help but chuckle, too.
Smiling broadly, Gini held out the bowl to him. “Muhl-dar bel-dil-khon.”
“Sorry, I didn’t quite get that.”
“Bel-dil-khon. Um...fill...uhhh...” She thought for a moment, trying to come up with the appropriate words. “Muhl-dar...make...uh, tkoh.”
Now Scully laughed. Loudly.
“What?” he asked, not getting the joke.
“She wants you to fill the bowl.”
“I get that, but with what?”
Scully seemed to be struggling to suppress another laugh. “Urine.”
“Urine? She wants me to pee in this?”
Scully nodded. “I remember Dr. Diamond telling us that Sub-Arctic People used animal brains and human urine to tan caribou and moose skins.”
“Well that’s fine and dandy, but why do *I* have to piss in the pot? What’s wrong with your urine? Or hers?”
She shrugged. “It could be a tribal preference. Maybe male pee is thought to be luckier than female pee.”
“I don’t know, Mulder. Just do it, will you?”
Reluctantly he grabbed the turtle shell from Gini and headed for the trees. Behind him he heard Gini ask Scully, “Where Muhl-dar go?”
“He’ll be right back, sweetie.”
Sequestered behind dense foliage, he set the turtle shell on the ground between his feet. Didn’t this just take the proverbial cake? Pissing into a bowl of beaver brains. “Highlight of my professional career,” he muttered as he emptied his bladder.
Walking back to Scully and Gini, he tried not to blush or trip over his feet and fall face-first into the damn bowl.
“Here.” He passed the bowl to Gini, who set it on the ground and began mashing its contents with a paddle-shaped stick.
“Ut-zah,” she said after a few minutes of mixing. The gray contents had become a greasy slurry, which she applied to the inside of the pelt with her bare hands.
“Isn’t that...unhygienic?” Mulder asked, face wrinkled in disgust.
“Human urine is sterile when it’s fresh,” Scully informed him.
Twice Gini smeared the entire skin with the brain mixture, buffing the surface between coats with a handful of sand. Then she rolled the skin into a tight bundle and left it beside the log.
“That’s it? It’s ready to be made into fur coats?” Mulder asked.
“Not yet,” Scully said. “Dr. Diamond described several traditional methods for softening hides, to keep the skin flexible.”
“Chewed by Indian maidens?”
“Something like that.” She turned to Gini, who was smeared with blood, brains, sweat, and no doubt, Mulder’s urine. “Bath time, sweetie. Let’s get you cleaned up.”
“Bat-time!” Gini grinned and immediately stripped off Mulder’s soiled shirt. She dropped it onto the ground and ran naked to the river.
Scully collected the shirt from the grass. “I’ll wash this.”
“You do that. I’d prefer it didn’t smell like my pee.”
“Your *lucky* pee,” she called over her shoulder, waving the shirt at him.From the water’s edge, Gini high-stepped into the water and shouted at the top of her lungs, “Lug-hee pee, lug-hee pee, lug-hee pee!”
* * *
A knife of defeat prodded Chal between the shoulders as he and the others crossed the sun-washed ball field at Turkey Lake. He gripped his spear in bone-weary fingers. The weapon seemed as burdensome as a bull mastodon tusk, tugging painfully at the muscles of his arm. His travel pack caused him irritation, too. Its strap chafed his neck with every plodding step, and the pack itself pressed heavily against his spine although it contained nothing more than a few meager supplies. The hunters’ journey to Ye-tsan had yielded only empty bellies and disconsolate hearts. No fresh meat, no redress for the transgressions against Owl Clan, and no happy homecoming for Gini.
Chal conjured up an image of her the way she’d looked the day he met her at the lake, her eyes flashing with indignation, her pretty mouth set in a taut frown, while the midday sun glossed her braids and a light breeze rattled the beads in her hair. His bones had rattled at that moment, too. It took all his strength to quell the trembling in his limbs as he stood on the bank above her. No girl had ever set his knees to wobbling the way she did. It was as if he had been caught unawares by a powerful punch to the gut. The feeling was unexpected and alarming, yet he found himself rooted to the riverbank, curiously delighted as he gazed at her clenched fists and angry wide eyes, eyes that weren’t afraid to meet his own blinking stare.
It was at that exact moment he decided to bargain with Dzeh and the Spirits to make her his mate.
And now...now he must forget that she had ever lived.
How was he to do such an impossible thing? She had occupied his thoughts every day and every night since he first laid eyes on her, and now her spirit was haunting his heart. While awake he imagined himself returning to Ye-tsan and rescuing her. While asleep he dreamt that she shared his sleeping skins or tended his hearth. Last night he saw their children playing by the fire, two daughters and four sons, all strong and healthy, long-limbed like him, yet marked by her dimpled smile. He was loath to wake from this happy scene, preferring instead to imagine a life with her. Upon opening his eyes at daybreak, he was met with the disappointing truth that she was lost to him forever.
Four sunrises had come and gone since he and the other hunters had turned their backs on Ye-tsan Basin. Finally they were in sight of the domed huts of their summer home. The mouthwatering aroma of roasting meat greeted them even before they heard the cheerful voices of their kin at the lakeshore where all the clans were gathered to watch teams of girls and boys compete in water games. Even without looking, Chal knew his best friends Nash-doie-tso and Tsah were there, winning prizes because they were vigorous swimmers and skilled divers, able to hold their breaths for long periods. Chal was an excellent swimmer, too, but he had no interest in joining his friends or competing in the games. Not this season. The rituals of the Mastodon Feast had lost their appeal; now Chal longed only to see summer end, so that Badger Clan could return to their eastern territory, far away from any reminders of Owl Clan or Gini.
Chal was walking a few paces behind Dzeh when they arrived at the Men’s Prayer Lodge. The Owl clansman split away from the group to slip sullenly inside, no doubt intending to paint his face with white clay to honor his dead sister and make offerings to the Spirits on her behalf. Chal would have liked to join him and give a heartfelt prayer of his own, but it was not his place. Gini was neither kin nor mate, and so any prayer or blatant show of sorrow would be considered improper, bordering on an insult to the deceased’s family.
Wol-la-chee and Lin did not follow Dzeh into the Lodge, although it was within their rights to do so. Instead they headed to their respective hearths, where they would no doubt deposit their packs before going in search of their mates at the games. It was up to them as Owl clansmen to spread the word about Gini.
Left on his own, Chal scuffed along a worn path between shelters. Another cheer sounded from the lake, drawing his attention. Even at this distance, three spear throws away, he could see the men placing wagers while women congregated in groups, chattering like blackbirds. Young children splashed in the shallows, imitating their older brothers and sisters in mock races. Meat roasted over a communal fire built on the gravelly shore. The clans would remain by the lake until long after sunset, feasting, singing, dancing and betting.
Arriving at his mother’s hut, Chal ducked into its cool, quiet interior, eager for its shadowy solitude after spending nearly a quarter moon in the company of the Owl clansmen. It wasn’t that he disliked Dzeh and his kin. To the contrary he found them to be admirable men in almost every respect. But he associated their company with the misery of Gini’s disappearance and he longed for a private moment to let the ache in his chest escape. He was barely through the door when tears sprang to his eyes. A fist of anguish lodged itself in his throat. He tossed his spear onto his sleeping skins and shrugged out of his pack, which he set beside the spear. Crouching, he wiped his wet cheeks and waited for his grief to come full force.
The hut was just as he’d left it. Two hearth fires glowed, one at each end of the oblong shelter, their red coals illuminating the hut’s ivory bone supports. Other familiar things came into focus as his teary eyes adjusted to the dark: the smooth, tan roof, the softly furred beds, twelve in all, the stockpiles of supplies along the outer walls. He could smell the pleasant odor of sage, which hung from the roof supports, drying in upside-down bunches. Its familiar aroma helped soothe his uneasy heart.
“Chal?” A woman’s voice from the back of the hut startled him. Not his mother. One of his aunts?
“Auntie?” He strained to make out her face in the dark.
“No, it’s me...Klizzie.”
His cousin. His shoulders sagged. Now he would have to be the one to relay the heartbreaking news about Gini.“Why are you not at the games?” he asked, stalling.
“I am not feeling well.” She rose from her bed to come to him.
At closer range he saw that her face was painted with white clay. The mask of grief, created by mixing powdered stone with water, then applied as a slip and allowed to dry. Once hardened, the thin coat cracked around the eyes and mouth as the mourner cried. Tears washed the pale clay away, leaving dark rivulets striping each cheek. The mask was frightful to behold in its disintegrating state.
For a moment Chal was confused, thinking Klizzie wore the clay mask because she somehow already knew about Gini. But that wasn’t possible; only the hunters knew. And from the ragged state of Klizzie’s mask Chal guessed she’d been grieving for several days.
Her sorrow must be for someone else.
More bad luck had befallen the Mastodon Feast.
“Did you find my Little Chick?” she asked, sounding hopeful and nervous behind her cracked mask. “And the strangers from Eel Clan? What of them?”
“We did not find the strangers,” he said, avoiding the subject of Gini. How was he to deliver such dreadful information? The story should come from Dzeh, or one of the other Owl clansmen, not a Badger cousin. “We followed their tracks as far as Ye-tsan Basin.” It was remarkable how calm he was able to keep his voice. “When we encountered the footprints of giant serpents, we turned back.”
Alarm lit Klizzie’s eyes. “The serpents are real?”
Chal wasn’t certain if they were or they weren’t. The hunters hadn’t actually seen any of the mythical beasts. “There were tracks in the stone, some as long as a grown man’s stride.”
He left it at that, moving away from Klizzie to stir the ashes in the hearth. The hut seemed suddenly as cold as midwinter. He knew she was going to inquire about Gini again, and to postpone her inevitable question he asked, “Why are you not inside your own hut, Cousin?”
He hoped his words didn’t sound impertinent. He hadn’t meant them to.
“My hut is occupied.” Anger creased her clay-covered features. Her voice growled in her throat when she said, “Our cousin Klesh has returned.”
He pictured their scarred cousin, victim of a saber-toothed cat mauling. Chal had been very young when Klesh left the Clan, and could not recall the details of his departure. He remembered only the man’s frightful deformity.
After his banishment, no one ever talked about him. It had been as if he had died, yet not a single clansman painted his face with clay to show respect.
In light of Klesh’s return Klizzie’s mask was even more perplexing.
“Please, Chal, tell me about Gini. Is my Little Chick safe?” Once more she moved to stand beside him. She placed a feverish hand on his shoulder.
He could not lift his eyes to meet hers. “I am sorry,” he whispered, “we did not find her.”
Klizzie gasped. A moan began deep in her throat. It hummed behind clenched teeth. Chal had never heard such a mournful sound and it made him want to clap his hands over his ears. He forced his fists to remain at his sides. When he finally looked up at her he was met by a heartrending sight. Klizzie’s face was contorted with grief, her clay mask a spider web of bleak cracks.
Cheerful shouts burst upon them from the lake, startling in their contrast to Klizzie’s distress.“I am sorry, Cousin,” Chal repeated. He didn’t know what else to say. He could not tell her that he, too, felt as if buzzards were pecking at his heart.
* * *
It was sundown when Dzeh finally finished his prayers. He painted his face with clay and spoke at length to his mother’s spirit. Gini was not with her. Not yet. It would be several days before the Spirits guided her across the chasm between the worlds of the living and the dead. He would need to wait before sending his apologies to her on a column of sage-scented smoke.
Soon after nightfall, Lin, Wol-la-chee and several others arrived to pray with Dzeh. Lin insisted on painting his face with clay, although it wasn’t required, and Dzeh appreciated his uncle’s respectful gesture.
The Owl clansmen ate a meager meal of bitter herbs, representative of the many hardships in life. They sat around the fire with legs crossed, drinking wo-chi, chanting and rocking as they passed the gourd between them. Lin told Dzeh that Klizzie had been informed about Gini.
It was only after three gourds were emptied that Dzeh felt ready to rise from the hearth and go to his mate. She would want to hear his version of events, and to be honest, he felt the need to tell her. Only she would understand the depth of his sorrow.
“Little Chick” she had called the girl, always treating her as tenderly as a beloved daughter.
Dzeh stumbled with watery eyes and an unsteady gait from the Prayer Lodge to his hut. Wo-chi burned in his gut; it numbed his fingers and feet, but did little to ease the pain of his grief. His spirit longed to find Gini inside the hut, asleep beside Klizzie, dreaming of tomorrow’s blanket toss games.
Wo-chi rose in his throat, stinging the back of his tongue with its sour heat when he realized she would never play the game again.
He waited outside the hut for the wave of nausea to pass. Through the crack at the door he glimpsed a low fire burning in the hearth. A lone figure crouched beside it. He pushed the flap aside, expecting Klizzie to turn toward him, eyes red-rimmed, cheeks streaked with tears.
Instead he found Klesh stirring the coals.
Dzeh rocked back on his heels and blinked in disbelief at the sight of Klizzie’s chindi cousin. “What are you doing here?”
“Keeping your mate company while you have been gone,” Klesh sneered. A strange shiny bracelet dangled from his wrist, reflecting firelight. Except for the unusual ornament and a loincloth, which Dzeh recognized as his own, he was naked. His body appeared more scarred and deformed than Dzeh remembered.
Klesh regarded him through hooded eyes, black holes in the white mask of grief he wore.
Why was he donning a clay mask? He barely knew Gini. This presumption was an insult, as was his presence in Dzeh’s hut.
“Get out,” he said, lurching toward Klesh with fists balled.
“You would put out a grieving man?” Klesh asked, not moving.
“You have no right to grieve!” Dzeh was incensed. He would throw this vile man out and then beat him severely for his impudence.
Klesh’s scarred brows rose. “But I *do* have the right. Tse-e was my best friend and my cousin.”
Tse-e? What was he talking about? Had something happened to Klizzie’s brother? “But it is Gini who is dead.”
“Muhl-dar killed her, too?” He nodded as if he expected this. “He is a cruel man. No doubt he tortured the girl before he sent her to the Spirits.”
It was too much to take in. Dzeh felt his legs grow weak. The wo-chi threatened to fly from his stomach. “What do you know about it?” he asked.
Eyes blazing, Klesh leaned toward Dzeh. His face was crisscrossed with gouges where the clay of his mask had caked and cracked around his scars. “Muhl-dar murdered Tse-e. And he left me to die at Toh-ta Lodge. If you desire revenge against this man, I am willing to help you.”
Under any other circumstances Dzeh would not have considered siding with Klesh. He had loathed this despicable cousin of Klizzie’s for four long years, blaming him for forcing her to submit to his sexual demands against her will.
But...that had turned out to be untrue.
And now it seemed Klesh was suffering from Muhl-dar’s cruelty, exactly as Dzeh was suffering. His head pounded from too much wo-chi and too little sleep. He felt dizzy and sick to his stomach. The stranger from Eel Clan had wronged him. Had wronged Klesh, too. They had both lost kin because of his treachery.
Feeling overwhelmed by anguish and outrage, Dzeh was suddenly seeing Klesh through new eyes.
“Where is Klizzie?” he asked.
Klesh shrugged his scarred shoulders. “She has been feeling poorly. A woman’s matter. Ho-Ya has been caring for her.”
“A woman’s matter?”
“Don’t tell me you did not know?” Klesh rolled back on the sleeping skins and laughed, a harsh sound that scoured Dzeh’s ears like winter wind upon a frozen lake. “It seems your Trading Partner planted a gift inside your mate before he stole your sister.”
No, this could not be. Please, Spirit Mother, no. “A g-gift?”“Yes, Cousin. Klizzie is pregnant. She is carrying the child of your enemy inside her womb.”
* * *
Mulder squatted beside Gini beneath the overhang at the mouth of the cave. He was dressed in jeans and jacket, his unzipped coat exposing his bare chest. She was still wearing his commandeered turtleneck, and sat without smiling, facing the river, legs drawn up inside the loose fabric of her shirt. Her arms were folded across her knees, and she glumly propped her chin in the crook of one elbow.
Rainwater, cool and heavy, streamed from the overhang, creating a veil that tinted everything beyond it silver-gray. Fat raindrops slapped against glossy vegetation throughout the valley and the noise sounded like quiet applause. Tree leaves pitched and rebounded beneath the relentless tap of water. Mulder watched a ruddy rivulet wind its way downhill around rocks and tree roots toward the river, until it became lost in the thick blanket of mist below.
Behind him, Scully worked on the beaver hide. Gini had shown her how to soften the skin, pulling it from side-to-side and from head to tail, stretching and buffing it with sand until it was dry and supple. The process looked tedious and hard on the arms and hands, but Scully didn’t appear bored or fatigued. She hummed tunelessly as she tugged at a tough spot, a small smile curving her lips.
Mulder turned to Gini and tagged her cheek to get her attention. “Hey, pipsqueak.”
She responded with a shy smile. “Ba-hal-neh Hor-ton Hears Who?”
“No, no Horton Hears a Who. How ‘bout you teach me some tribe words instead.”
“Word sted?” Gini asked, parroting him and looking confused.
Mulder gave Scully a pleading stare. “Tell her I want to learn her language.”
“Tell her yourself.” Scully paused at her task. “She understands more than you think.”
She did seem to grasp most of the things he said. And it was he who had been resistant to learning a new language.
Knowing his limitations, he decided to start with something easy. “What’s this?” He tapped her nose.
“Nose,” she said.
She had evidently missed his point. “No, what do *you* call it?”
“Nose,” she said again. A sly grin produced a dimple in her plump right cheek.
Scully chuckled behind him. “She’s pulling your leg, Mulder. Gini, ha-neh-al-enji Ne-as-jah Din-neh-ih.”
The girl giggled but explained, “Nose is ‘a-chin’.”
“A chin?” Mulder repeated. “Well...then what’s the word for this?” He pinched her small chin.
Again she laughed before giving him her translation. He asked for more words and they spent the next several minutes pointing and translating simple things like hand, eye, lips, teeth, smile, tongue. This last one began a tongue-rolling demonstration, which was followed by a face-making contest.
When they’d exhausted every possible contortion of their features, Gini quizzed Mulder on his new vocabulary. He failed miserably, unable to accurately repeat back most of the words she’d just shared. His mispronunciations and wrong word choices set her giggling at his expense.
“Go ahead, yuck it up, Miss Smartypants. It’s not my fault mi nalga se confunde fácilmente.”
It was Scully’s turn to laugh, a deep throaty chuckle that delighted Mulder so much he didn’t care that the joke was on him.
Leaning toward Gini, he draped one arm over her small shoulders, and said, “Tell me, pipsqueak, what’s the word for...TICKLE!”
He began counting her ribs, making her shriek with delight. She rolled into his lap, laughing uncontrollably.
After a moment he stopped to let her catch her breath.
“Atsanh yeh-hes,” she said, grinning up at him.
“Atsanh yeh-hes,” she repeated, reaching beneath his coat to wiggle her fingers against his bare ribs.
He smiled, then pinned her hand between his chest and arm, while thrusting his other hand into her armpit, making her curl into a chortling ball.
“Stop!” she said through her giggles.
Immediately he ceased his tickling. “Did you say stop?”
She nodded, then apparently changed her mind and shook her head. “Tickle more, Muhl-dar, peese.”
“Really?” He tweaked her belly. “More atsanh yeh-hes?”
“Yes...more...ahhhh!” Again she shrieked, twisting onto her back between his bent knees as his fingers crawled over her stomach, hunting for sensitive spots.
“If you insist.” He prodded under her arms. Every few seconds he paused to ask, “Stop?”
“More, peese,” she begged, going so far as to lift her arms to give him better access to her ribs.
After another minute or two, she was once again gasping for breath, so he announced, “That’s it.” She was flushed from exertion. Her small chest heaved beneath the loose turtleneck. “Enough,” he said, up-righting her in his lap.
She straddled his legs, facing him, and gazed up at him with a contented and ingenuous expression. For whatever reason she trusted him...had trusted him right from the start. Emotion welled up in him. Trust was a hard thing for him to give or accept, and he viewed it as the ultimate compliment. It touched him to be on the receiving end of something so precious and unexpected.
He slid his thumb gently over the faint bruise below her right eye where Dzeh had struck her.
“My father hit me once...like this...in the eye,” he said.
Gini didn’t reply to his soft-spoken confession, but Scully stopped working the beaver hide to stare at him. “When?” she asked.
“The day Sam fell off our backyard swing and broke her collarbone. I was ten.” He recalled the pain of his father’s hand connecting with his right cheek, followed by his mother’s frantic screams and Bill Mulder’s hoarse accusation, “Damn it, son, you were supposed to be watching her!”
His father’s disappointment had hurt more than the slap.
“Surprised the shit out of me,” he admitted. “I think it surprised Dad, too. He’d never hit me before. Never did again either.”
“Prized shhhit outta me,” Gini repeated.
“Oops. Guess I need to start watching what I say.”
He decided to distract her from his indiscretion by fishing into his jacket pockets. Pulling out his handkerchief with one hand and his picture ID with the other, he passed them to her.
“Hangertiff. Badj,” she said.
Scully resumed her work on the hide. “She’s not afraid of him, you know.”
Mulder guessed “him” referred to Dzeh. “How do you know that?”
Gini set the items in her lap and reached back into his pockets to look for more.
“She told me.”
“Then why does she act so afraid of him?”
Out came his car rental receipt and his keys. The items were quickly laid aside.
“He’s planning to mate her,” Scully said.
Mate her? What the fuck? Blood pounded in Mulder’s ears as he pictured Dzeh forcing himself on the little girl. Gini sat contentedly in his lap, digging into his pockets for hidden treasures. “Jesus, she’s just a kid! And isn’t she his daughter or sister or something?”
To his surprise, Scully chuckled. “He doesn’t want to mate *with* her. He wants to marry her off...for lack of a better expression.”
Oh. The heat in Mulder’s face cooled.
Gini found his binoculars and, twisting at the waist, used them to inspect the valley.
“She’s too young to get married...isn’t she?” He thought back to the wedding ceremony in the village, the night all hell broke loose. The bride and groom hadn’t been much older than Gini. Ten or eleven maybe. Twelve at the most.
Gini pointed to the valley and began listing aloud the things she was seeing through the binoculars. “Trwee. Boord. Kiffs.”
“It’s not the idea of marriage that scares her, as much as the wedding night,” Scully said. “Apparently she thinks men are hung like horses...literally.”
“How the hell did she get that idea? I mean...” -- he lowered his voice -- “Can she really be that naive? Her people all sleep in the same hut. Surely she must have seen...or at least heard...”
“She’s a kid.” Scully shrugged. “She made it up, based on bits and pieces of things she’s seen.”
He didn’t even want to imagine what those might be.
Gini set down the binoculars and was once more digging into Mulder’s pockets. She withdrew his cell phone. “Ffffone,” she said, and then imitated one of its musical rings.
Mulder took the phone and showed her again how to turn it on. “You set her straight, right?” he asked Scully.
“Not really. I mean, I tried, but the language barrier made explaining the facts of life more complex than you’d imagine. Feel free to give it a try yourself, if you’d like.”
“Uh...no thanks. Sounds like a mother-daughter moment, not something I’d be very good at.”
At the push of a button the phone played a few bars of “Yankee Doodle,” delighting Gini and making her laugh. “Me do,” she said, taking the phone from his hand.
He watched her play, relieved that her objection to going home wasn’t connected directly to Dzeh. Given more time they could learn her language or teach her enough of theirs to explain about the birds and bees, allay her fears, and take her back to her family without initiating another temper tantrum.
The rain was letting up. He took the phone from her, turned it off and returned it, along with the other items, to his pockets. Then he lifted her into his arms and rose to his feet. “Whaddaya say we build that smokehouse Day-nuh asked for, huh, pipsqueak?”
Gini nodded, although it was doubtful she really understood everything he’d said.
“I’ll have dinner ready by the time you get back,” Scully said.“She’s so good to us,” he whispered into Gini’s ear before bending to give Scully a quick kiss and heading out of the cave.
* * *
Hill Air Force Base
May 14, 1998
No matter how many times Jason saw the aircraft he was always impressed by its sleek design and alien technology. It surpassed anything on the planet, in speed, maneuverability, stealth...and so much more.
He crossed the hangar with Lisa following close at his heels, their shoes clacking loudly against the concrete floor as they headed for a set of portable metal stairs that led up to the cockpit. He paused at the base of the steps to look up at the imposing ship. Jet black and shaped like a shallow pyramid, its triangular sides extended thirty-two feet to its snubbed tail. It cast a chilly shadow over them, dwarfing the hangar and making Jason feel insignificant.
The craft’s power and potential were almost unimaginable...at least for anyone but him. He’d seen it in action, not just last night, but many times in the future. When his older self died last year in the fire at MIT, Jason suddenly found himself in 2038, where he learned how to open doors through time. He’d used the technology to travel back to 1998. Four decades passed in a nanosecond. The experience had been unnerving, but survivable.
It turned out that his freezing compound was unnecessary for time travel, and no one had been more surprised by this discovery than him. Advances in technology had rendered cryogenic sleep obsolete. Journeying from one time to another became an everyday occurrence, as uncomplicated as stepping over a crack in the sidewalk.
And therein lay its danger.
It was too easy. The world became obsessed with seeing and experiencing the future. People wanted to learn how they would live...and die. Soon every event of their lives was anticipated, expected, and dreaded. Who could have predicted the horror of knowing every single moment of one’s life, or the lengths to which desperate people would go to try to alter their futures, even in some small, but impossible way? They found themselves living out a nightmare, the same nightmare, over and over again. Even the most pleasant experiences were unbearable after constant repetition.
The world became a violent, intolerable place, which was why Jason returned to 1998. He intended to thwart his own experiments and, with them, the development of time travel...just as his older self had tried to do.
In order to succeed now, he needed to return Agents Mulder and Scully to the present where they belonged, before their existence in the past disintegrated the continuum to the point of chaos.
He climbed the steps to the cockpit with determination. Lisa followed him up and inside.
“You weren’t serious back there, were you?” she asked, settling into the copilot’s seat.
He powered up the craft, causing the instrument panels to cast a greenish glow over their skin. Methodically he went through the checks, flicking switches and noting the readouts. “Serious about what?”
“Contacting Agent Mulder by phone. That can’t be possible...can it?”
Lisa could be brilliant at times, but she rarely let herself think outside the box.
He tried to tamp down his impatience. They didn’t have time for lengthy explanations, but he needed her help and didn’t want to alienate her by showing his annoyance. “Look beyond the technology’s current practical application,” he urged her, while he listened for the familiar, low hum of the engines. Their telltale vibration tickled the soles of his feet and the palms of his hands. “Consider the theoretical potential. All the necessary components are there.”
“But the physics--”
“There are no physical barriers,” he snapped, sounding more brusque than he intended. He took a slow, deep breath and turned to face her. “Listen, in October, 2001, a team of scientists in Wales is going to prove physicist Dr. Henning Voss’s theory of synchronization by successfully transmitting a continuous data signal via a fluctuating laser beam. Their data will be recorded on a receiver nanoseconds before the transmitter actually sends it.”
“That’s...incredible, but I don’t see what it has to do with us.” Frustration creased her brow. “I’m not following you, Jason.”
Of course she wasn’t. How could she? She didn’t have the advantage he had: a front row seat to the future.
He reached out and caressed her cheek. Her worry seemed to vanish at his touch. “At it’s most basic, the scientists will send electronic data through time. It was -- or will be -- the first step in developing a workable process for human time travel.” He waved at the blinking instrument panel. “We’re going to do something similar here, only our conduit will be a hole through the continuum, created by this ship’s warp drive instead of a fluctuating laser beam. The agents’ cell phones will be the receivers.”
“Because...they can store simple electronic data...emails, digital voice messages.”
Yes, she was getting it.
“That’s right, and we can use the phone’s digital readout to alert them. We need to let them know we’re going to bring them back, so that they’ll be ready, waiting for us. We may get only one shot and we can’t afford to mess up.”
She shook her head. “But how are we going to pinpoint their location or zero in on the specific frequency of their phones?”
Again she was letting herself get bogged down by technical details.
“Don’t worry. We’ll find the frequency. And our message will leave a clear trail, giving us their physical location. I already know where they are chronologically.”
“In the 1930s, like Colonel Beck thinks?”
“Not exactly.” Jason returned his attention to the controls.
“What do you mean not exactly?”
The footprints in the computer model had led to a rather surprising conclusion. “They, uh...they went back a little further than that.”
“How far back?”
“More like...twelve thousand years.”
Lisa gasped at this revelation. “Oh my God.”
He’d rerun the model half a dozen times and it always came out the same; the agents were definitely in the Pleistocene.
“The model showed something else, Lisa, something I hadn’t anticipated. It might complicate things.”
“What did you find?”
“The agents appear to have fallen into some sort of accelerated time stream.”
“Time is passing more rapidly for them than it is for us. As far as I can tell, an hour here is equal to about a week there. To be more precise, it’s equal to one week, twenty-six minutes and 16.52 seconds. By noontime today, when we’re just starting to get hungry for lunch, they’ll have already eaten their way through a month of lunches. The differential is going to make their recovery risky.”
“More like impossible.”
“Maybe.”But they had to try. The anomalous distortions to the continuum were growing exponentially. If they didn’t successfully return the agents to the present before nightfall today, it would be too late...for everyone.
* * *
If Mulder had been keeping a journal, every entry would read almost the same for the days between July 1 and August 3:
//Today was another good day. Plenty to eat. No injuries or illness. Gini taught us the tribe words for onion and weasel, “tlo-chin” and “gloe-ih” respectively. I taught her the words “birds” and “bees,” but the concept was still lost on her. Could be my delivery. Whatever. She showed Scully where to find pine nuts (pine cones...who knew?) and sunflower seeds...halle-fucking-lujah...although they aren’t ready to be harvested. Scully still hasn’t started her period, but I’m not worried...not too much anyway. Neither of us has experienced another time anomaly or vision, which is good, I guess. Scully asked again when we are going to take Gini back to her family, and as usual I dodged the issue by saying maybe tomorrow.//
Every night after Scully and Gini fell asleep Mulder laid awake on the furs and wrote a new passage in his imaginary diary, listing the events of the day, cataloguing edible plants, and outlining the instructions for things like tanning hides and making pemmican...necessary survival skills for when Gini finally did go back to her people, and they were once again living on their own. In his head he referred to his fantasy journal as the Mastodon Diaries, and he fell asleep each night hoping that the next day’s entry would be its last: “Going home tomorrow.”
Most days were spent on matters of simple survival, like building the smokehouse. He’d started that particular project by dismantling the top-most section of the beaver dam, selecting sturdy timbers, free of branches and not too heavy to haul. Gini and Scully helped him by swimming the logs to the shore. Together they transferred four-dozen stout timbers to a relatively flat location between the river and the cave. Over the course of the next several days, he built a stone fire pit and then positioned and stacked the logs around it, creating a three-sided shelter with a low-pitched roof. The beaver meat was spoiled by the time the smokehouse was completed, but he soon speared a pronghorn, which provided enough meat for curing.
After finishing the smokehouse, they began a few home improvements inside the cave. Gini and Scully wove six large sleeping mats out of cattail reeds. Joining three pairs of mats along their edges, they created “envelopes,” which they stuffed with cattail down, dried grass and pine needles, before weaving them shut. With the sleeping skins thrown on top, these homemade mattresses became moderately comfortable beds.
While they were working on the mats, Mulder constructed a windbreak of stacked stone inside the cave. It stood about four feet high and stretched halfway across the entrance, cutting off the worst of the incoming drafts, while allowing smoke from the hearth to drift up and out.
Staying warm was a growing concern as autumn approached. Even though it was only the beginning of August, temperatures at night were already chilly. Twice they’d woken to frost in the valley and ice on the edge of the river. Mulder worried about snow and the possibility of spending an entire Ice Age winter in the valley. They had a decent beaver blanket, but it wasn’t going to be enough. Gini and Scully were working as fast as they could on tanning several pronghorn hides, a deerskin and at least a dozen rabbit furs, but they wouldn’t have them made into winter clothes for quite some time.
Mulder’s own lack of wilderness skills continually worried him. He’d learned a lot from Gini, and was getting better at hunting and fishing, but it seemed he no sooner succeeded at spearing a deer or snaring a rabbit when he’d do something really stupid that put them all at risk.
Like the time he’d left a butchered carcass lying out on the grass beside the river. The remains attracted scavengers, including a flock of nasty-looking buzzards and a hungry saber-toothed tiger. The cat came nosing around while Mulder and Gini were swimming.
They were playing a game in which Gini used Mulder’s interlocked hands as a diving platform. Standing chest deep in water, he had just tossed her up and backwards, and was waiting for her to resurface, when he heard the cat growl. The sound prickled his scalp, reminding him of his and Scully’s first night in the Pleistocene.
Gini popped up a couple of yards away, startling him. “Muhl-dar, do agai--”
“Shhh. Come’ere. Quick!” He motioned her toward him.
Her wide smile vanished and her eyes rounded when the cat growled again. Immediately she swam to him and he scooped her up in his arms. Edging them toward the opposite shore, he tried not to splash or make any sudden movements that would draw the tiger’s attention. All the while he wondered where Scully was. She’d headed upstream about an hour earlier to collect greens for their dinner and it was possible she was already on her way back. They had to stop her.
Gini clung to him, legs wrapped around his waist, eyes glued to the cat. “Tiger no like swim,” she whispered.
“Good.” He kept his voice low, talking directly into her ear.
“Eat bones. Go away.”
“That’s what I’m hoping.”
He tried to still the trembling of his limbs as he backed cautiously through a stand of reeds on the far shore. The tiger ignored them, content to feast on the carcass.
“Where Day-nuh?” Gini asked.
“That’s what we’re going to find out.”
Once on dry land, he jogged upstream, carrying Gini. They found Scully more than a quarter mile north of the swimming hole. She was collecting shellfish, unaware of any danger. He waved and waded to her.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, obviously surprised to see them.
“Big tiger!” Gini said as soon as she was put down, naked and shivering. She mimicked its fearsome growl. “Eat bones. Maybe eat Muhl-dar and Gini, too!”
“Tiger?” Clearly shocked, Scully looked to Mulder for an explanation.
“It wasn’t that big, really. Just a kitten. We weren’t in any danger.”
“Then it’s okay to go back?”
“Yyyyeah-nooo. I wouldn’t.”
They waited until nearly sunset before returning to the cave. The tiger was gone when they arrived, so Mulder dragged what was left of the carcass downstream and dumped it beneath the falls at the dam.
Thankfully most days weren’t fraught with danger or filled with hard work. One lazy afternoon Mulder built Gini a makeshift teeter-totter, using a flat, bark-free timber left over from the smokehouse project. He balanced it across the driftwood log where she’d scraped the beaver pelt a couple of weeks before.
At first she was apprehensive about the seesaw. She perched nervously on one end, hands gripping the log, gasping whenever Mulder pumped them up and down.
He was sitting close to the center of the timber to balance their disparate weights. “Too fast?”
“N-no.” She shook her head, but her eyes rounded in startled surprise when he suddenly leaned back, shooting her skyward. “Yes!” she shrieked.
Her shout brought Scully out of the cave.
“Can three ride?” she asked when she saw what they were doing.
“Sure. Get on.”
Mulder lowered Gini’s end so that Scully could scoot on behind her. Then he adjusted his own position to counterbalance their combined weights.
“Now we’re cookin’.” He pushed away from the ground.
Gini must have felt safer tucked between Scully’s legs because she soon lost her nervous expression and began to smile.
“Faster!” Mulder said, rocketing them up.
“Oh!” Now it was Scully’s turn to gasp. She burst out laughing at her unfounded fears.
Gini laughed, too, and was soon urging Mulder “Go fastoo, go fastoo!” They rode for a quarter of an hour, when Gini suddenly demanded, “Sit Muhl-dar now.”
Mulder leveled the board and stood stiff-legged, while Gini hopped off, ran to his side and climbed on in front of him.
“Push up, pipsqueak.” He nudged her toward Scully. “We’re too heavy on this end.”
After a few minor adjustments they found the perfect balance, and began a swift, stomach-churning ride. Gini squealed when Mulder propelled their end suddenly upward. Scully squealed, too, much to Mulder’s delight, as she plummeted to the ground.
Perhaps more than any other activity, Mulder enjoyed telling bedtime stories after their evening meal. Every night Gini begged him to recount the tales of “Eel Tribe.” These were usually narratives of events from his childhood, mundane for the most part, despite his attempts at embellishment. He illustrated a few of his stories on the cave wall, next to the stickman and stickwoman he’d carved for Scully.
Sometimes Scully objected to his choice of pictures.
“Do you really think it’s wise to show her what a TV set looks like?”
“It’s not like she’s gonna invent one and change the course of history after we’re gone. I’m not that good an artist.”
Gini’s favorite stories were about Sam.
“Tell baby Sam story, peese?” she asked after settling onto her sleeping skins for the night.
“You’ve heard that one at least a million times,” he objected. Crouching beside her, he drew the beaver-skin blanket up over her shoulders.
He rolled his eyes with exaggerated incredulity. “All right. You start me off.”
“Once ‘pon time...” She snuggled beneath the covers and gave him a satisfied smile.
“Once upon a time there was a handsome boy named Fox who lived with his mother and father in an old house by the ocean.”
“What ‘howz’?” Usually she didn’t interrupt, accepting whatever he said without comment.
“Uh...it’s kinda like a cave.”
“Why no say cave?”
“Because a house isn’t a cave...exactly.”
“It’s a shelter made of wood, like our smokehouse, only bigger.”
She nodded, then asked, “What is ‘o-shun’?”
“A very big lake.”
Satisfied with this explanation, she said, “Okay, story go like this: one day Fox muht-ter say ‘I haff baby today.’”
He considered taking the story in a different direction this time, using it to explain where babies came from. Her grasp of English had improved to the point where such a discussion would be possible, but he wasn’t quite sure how to approach the part about men not being hung like horses. So he continued the story the same as always, describing how he’d anxiously waited five whole days for his mother to return from the hospital with his sister Sam. He’d been eager to see the new baby, but fearful he might not like her. “What if she turned out to be ugly--?”
“Like bug,” Gini said.
“Like neighbor cat.”
“Scratch Fox thumb so he get stitch.”
“Medicine needle in butt!” She giggled.
“Who’s telling this story?”
Gini smiled shyly. “Muhl-dar tell.”
He finished by recounting the wondrous moment when his mother and father finally brought Sam home, instructed him to sit on the couch and then laid her carefully in his lap.
“Fox love new baby sister,” Gini said, sounding as pleased as he had felt at the time.
“Yes, he loved his sister very much.”
“Happy ever after,” she finished for him.
“More or less.”
She surprised him by suddenly sitting up and throwing her arms around his neck. “Gini love Muhl-dar,” she mumbled against his beard.
Tears sprang to his eyes. He folded her in his arms. “I love you, too, pipsqueak.”
“Mulder...” Scully’s tone warned him it was wrong to let the girl become too attached to him. He knew he shouldn’t encourage any sort of emotional bond, but her innocent admission had touched his heart. He couldn’t help but respond with a confession of his own.
Releasing her, he gave Scully a conciliatory shrug. She frowned and he knew she wasn’t going let it drop.
As soon as Gini was asleep, Scully nodded toward the cave’s entrance and said, “We need to talk.”
Reluctantly he followed her out around the windbreak. She sat down beneath the overhang, her feet dangling over the lip. Stalling, he bent to collect a few loose stones from the dirt floor.
“Sit, Mulder...please.” The air was chilly, causing her breath to fog.
He did as she asked. Rattling the stones in his palm like dice, he asked, “Am I in trouble?”
“It’s been a month.”
He tossed one of the pebbles into the shadowed valley. It disappeared into the dark, pinging against rocks and vegetation as it plummeted to the valley floor. “I know.”
“It’s time to take her back.”
He threw another stone. “We will...soon.”
His shoulders slumped and he let the rest of the stones fall to the ground between his knees. “Why tomorrow? There’s still so much she could teach us that would help us survive after she goes back. You know we can’t live with the tribe again; they’d never go for it. We’ll be lucky if they don’t kill us just for showing up.”
“We’re using her.”
“No, we’re not. Not really.”
“Yes, we are, and you know it.”
He did know it. They were getting far more from her than she was getting from them. “I just think we should wait a little longer. She’s not ready.”
“You mean you’re not ready.”
“What does that mean?”
“You really don’t see it?”
“Why don’t you enlighten me?”
“Gini is a substitute, Mulder...for Sam.”
He chuffed in disagreement. “That’s not true.”
“Then let’s pack up our things tomorrow and take her back to her family...where she belongs. We have no excuse for keeping her here.”
“She’s not gonna like it.”
“Maybe not, but we can explain it to her. She’s perfectly capable of understanding what we’re saying now.”
“Fine. *You* explain it.”
“I need your cooperation.”
“Don’t ask me to haul her back against her will.”
“You know that’s not what I’m asking.” To his surprise, she reached for his hand and laced her fingers with his. “It’s the right thing to do.”
It was the right thing to do...but that didn’t make it easy.
“All right. You explain it to her and I promise to go along.”
“You won’t undermine me?”Would he be able to go through with it? Even if Gini launched into a tearful tirade and begged him not to make her go? He gave Scully’s hand a squeeze. “I’ll do my best.”
Later that night after Scully fell asleep, Mulder lay awake on the furs beside her, staring up at the cave roof and writing another entry in his imaginary diary.//Today was another good day. Plenty of food. No injuries or illness. Gini taught me the tribe words for deer liver and purple, which are “be-bih-zihde” and “dinl-chi” respectively. I taught her the words “house” and “ocean,” but chickened out again on the subject of sex. She told me she loves me. Scully asked again when we’re going to take her back to Turkey Lake, and against my better judgment I agreed to go tomorrow.//
Continued in Chapter Eighteen...
Special thanks to mimic117 and jeri for beta of Chapter 17.
See The Mastodon Diaries Dictionary for an explanation of the paleo-indian terms and names.