Three weeks had passed since the Wolf Cave Massacre, and still we weren’t sleeping well. I hadn’t needed to go on the road, which was a major blessing, but Sissy and Judi and I slept snuggle-tight together from bedtime till the alarm clock went off, day in, day out. Neither woman had fired a shot, but they’d seen the results of my handiwork right enough. Odd, we admitted, that not one of the men we’d had to kill over the years had bothered us like this, but there it was.
Okay, so Judi hadn’t killed anybody that we knew of, but she’d sure enough thrown a tray of food at the ex who was shooting her, and she didn’t blink when Jack and I dropped him.
Diamond Paws, on the other hand, didn’t seem bothered by nightmares at all. His species didn’t have such things, he said. They knew dreams well enough, but for whatever reason, they were hardly ever troubled by ghosts. He did admit to the death troubling his waking thoughts some, but never his sleep.
We humans were coming out of it. The night sweats were becoming less frequent.
When Jack Hill called to ask if I’d like to ride with him down to Missoula on Saturday, I jumped at the chance. I didn’t really like riding shotgun in the Subaru Outback all that much, but the wagon did have all wheel drive, the snow was melting but not gone yet, and some of the supplies he was planning to pick up were more easily hauled in and/or on the hatchback than in the Pontiac. It made more sense to take the Subi. And at that point, I’d have been willing to ride a tote gote if it would get me some time away from the convalescing Umthnn. I needed a breather. Seriously.
I also needed some time alone with Jack. His presence, especially when the two of us were on the road, calmed me.
“Got a whole bunch of Umthnn info,” he said as soon as we’d cleared the driveway, “mostly gathered by mega-Mommy Carolyn.”
“She’s still mothering Diamond?” I knew she was; it was just something to say.
“And then some. She’s also gathering information by the truckload while she’s doing it. Our house guest seems to be plumb enamored of Miz West, talks to her in a way I’ve not seen him talk to anyone else. Not that he’s ever been reticent, but when he and my sweetie are in the same room, it’s a turbo case of diarrhea mouth on the loose.”
My gut was bothering me a little, a touch of nausea. I didn’t really want to talk about the furry fellow, but there was no question it was necessary. “The more we know about him and his people, the better. No gainsaying that. Lack of knowledge has already resulted in me gunning down one of them unnecessarily…and a sister-wife at that.”
“I know.” He did, too. Diamond Paws had explained, a day too late, that the moment the Goliath ex-husband hit the skids, it was all over. There could have been four survivors left in good health. My first kill had been completely unnecessary, a waste of sentient life.
But I hadn’t known. I hadn’t considered the possibility. Diamond hadn’t understood humans well enough to realize one man with a lightweight rifle could drop six hundred pound tunnel diggers like flies. Double ignorance, double guilty conscience.
I’d get over it, but the thirst to understand more, to make sure a needless death born of ignorance never happened again…right now, that was a powerful motivation.
We were just coming up on Clearwater Junction when a northbound flock of Canadian geese flew overhead. Spring was on its way. I rolled down my window and leaned my head out to get a better look. Like to froze my ears off, but I could hear those honkers calling to each other, and I got a count. “Thirty-three total in three vees,” I told Jack, rolling the window back up. He seemed more interested in cranking up the heat than tallying the goose census.
“On the back seat,” he said, “there’s a notebook. Carolyn’s been logging most of what she learns about the Umthnn in it. You might want to take a look.”
You’d better believe it. Carolyn West wrote fluidly enough to be a penmanship teacher, back when they still had such things; her entries were art as much as they were intel. “Hunh.” A lengthy entry on pages two and three caught my eye. “Says here the Umnthnn number in the hundreds of thousands, ranging from southern Canada clear down into South America. The U.S. hosts the biggest number, from border to border and coast to coast, dug in everywhere except where the elevation is either too high or too low.”
“That’s interesting.” Jack slowed, eyeing an oncoming car. No. It wasn’t a law enforcement vehicle after all. We’d seen one of Granite County’s ghost cars already, a rare and definitely unwelcome sight on these back roads. They had at least two that we knew about, a sensible investment of the rural county’s tax dollars.
That’s sarcasm, right there.
Jack’s latest project, the one requiring the supply run, involved reworking the room currently occupied by our four eyed, eight limbed friend. Hill’s household didn’t need that bedroom, especially not after Sissy Harms moved over to the mobile home to be with me, so he figured to covert it to a permanent guest room for the Umthnn. Not that Diamond Paws would be living there per se; the big guy freely admitted he got a tad agoraphobic when he stayed above ground for too long at one time. The room in Jack’s home was better than most in that the only window faced the forest. Also, it was not huge, something like ten by thirteen feet, and the door could be dead bolted from inside. But still, it was not a snug burrow tucked under thirty feet of Mother Earth, either.
So Hill had decided to cut a trap door into the floor, allowing Diamond to cut himself a tunnel that would come up into the crawl space. Jack would build a wall around the entry hole to both secure it from small varmints and hide it from any possible unfriendly eyes in the future. In order to be large enough to comfortably accommodate the Umthnn’s furry bulk, several feet of one floor joist would have to be eliminated. Two would have been better, but Diamond insisted one would be enough. Concrete blocks and wedges would be needed to keep that modification from weakening the building. We’d be hauling several hundred pounds in the back, plus a few beams and boards on the roof. The Outback would definitely earn its pay on the way back.
“Well, I’ll be.” I’d come to a section in Carolyn’s log that detailed some of the societal structures used by the Umthnn. Jack had seen it all before, and no doubt Carolyn had bent his ear a bit as well, but I read the pages out loud anyway.
Umthnn use a clan structure, not exactly like the Plains Indians, not exactly like the Scottish clans of old, but there are similarities.
There are at present 1,032 Clan Chiefs, with an average of three hundred plus individuals belonging to each clan. This puts the total (current) Umthnn population in the 300,000 to 400,000 range, consistent with Diamond’s earlier statement. But the average is essentially meaningless; there are only 29 living members of the Sapphire Clan (the smallest) and more than 2,000 in the Limestone Clan (the largest). I asked Diamond if all Umthnn clans are named after minerals, which would be difficult with so many names to consider. He said yes and no; there are variations such as the River Rock Clan (342 members) and complete departures such as the clans named after soil types. The Silt Clan is one of these and, from what I could gather, the Silts are generally despised, or at least scorned, in Umthnn society as a whole. Not quite like Untouchables, I think; perhaps more like “trailer trash” in American society. Or somewhere in between. I am not sure.
I asked him if by any chance he was a member of the Diamond Clan, which would be quite a serendipitous coincidence. He laughed at that; the Umthnn definitely have a sense of humor, or at least this one does. No, he said, he was of the Granite Clan–not a bad name for where we live in the Rocky Mountains, which are largely composed of granite. Granites as a whole have always been seen as some of the most stable people in the entire society; it is a huge loss of face for the rebel lawbreaker (for that’s what Diamond is, in the eyes of his people) to have come from the Granite ranks. And a First Wife at that.
About wives: An Umthnn “man” becomes one by projecting strength, power, and in “necessary” cases, brutality. When Umthnn are hatched (the mothers lay eggs, reminded me of dragons, though I refrained from sharing this with our friend), they are both hairless and sexless, but not helpless. A clutch may contain a dozen eggs or more. The firstborn, if it is quick enough and strong enough, will destroy the others in their shells if it can. No cannibalism; it appears to be strictly a matter of competition for survival. But often it is not the winner; hatchings in a clutch are somehow timed, simultaneous or nearly so, and the ultimate survivor is determined by combat, not birth order per se. On rare occasions, there are two or even three who prove themselves equal to each other, strong enough to prevent their own deaths but not strong enough to kill every opponent. These rare cases are viewed with suspicion and watched closely as they develop, but they are not oppressed in any way, and they are fed.
“Whoa, dude,” I said. “This is some intense stuff. Remind me never to take up, you know, biological science. I thought my childhood was tough enough.”
Jack chuckled, slowing as we passed a minivan parked on the narrow shoulder of the road. The driver looked to be a man in his thirties, already jacking an axle up to change a flat tire. He didn’t need help; we motored on. “It gets better. Keep reading. I did read that notebook, but hearing it is something else.”
“All righty then.” I turned a page and continued.
Or rather, I started to, but stopped. I had to say it. “I’m glad he’s going to be popping into your place and not mine,” I said.
Jack was quiet for a few seconds, processing this. “Why?”
At least he asked why. No assumptions, at least none that he was voicing. That was good, right? “I’m not sure I’m ready to offer easy access to an eight foot sharp-clawed semi-permanent house guest who could take out all three of us in our sleep, just like that.”
Damn. I was never sure if Jack could read me that well or not, but there were times–“The mind reading thing. Sure, my girls do it; they know what I’m thinking sometimes, or close enough. But not like Diamond. I can block him, just like I blocked all of them in the cave until it was time to pull the trigger, but….”
“Yeah. I get that.” Hill took one hand off the wheel for a moment, rubbed his chin in thought. “But consider this, Tree. He was already reading our minds for weeks before he made contact, saw us for what we are, and he still went ahead with it. If one of us decided to do him harm, his mind reading powers would most likely give him warning enough to disappear, but other than that? Seems to me, he’s accepting us one hundred percent. Unconditional acceptance. I can live with him being able to read me, all things considered.”
I didn’t say anything else. Jack was right, of course. He usually was. Didn’t mean I had to buy into it…just yet, anyway. Give a guy some time, why doncha.
“Carolyn West.” I tapped the notebook lying open on my lap. “She writes as smoothly about Diamond as any professional I’ve ever read. I didn’t expect that.”
Hill grinned ear to ear. “She didn’t always make her living being my main slut, dude. As a youngster, the girl had serious academic aspirations. One thing and another, she never got to go get the schooling, but she’s been educating herself for a long time. You ought to see some of the work she’s done on her laptop. She may not be up to shooting folks in the head, but she’s one helluva researcher.”
“No kidding.” Well. I returned to the notebook.
The hatchling combat is usually completed, the outcome determined, within hours of the first emergence from the egg(s). From that point forward, the young aggressors are treated with…Diamond can’t seem to find the right word in English for this. It’s not quite reverence, he says. But the young are cared for very well, allowed the run of the tunnels, with only one restriction: Until their fifteenth Rising, they are not allowed to attack anyone else.
And of course they are not allowed Up Top (outside, in the open air) without adult supervision.
Note: I was confused about the Rising. Diamond clarified; the “fifteenth Rising” corresponds to the winter solstice. Every fifteenth year, at the solstice, a “fifteenth Rising” is declared.
At the Rising, any youngster born during the previous fifteen year cycle is allowed–but not required–to compete in the Winnowing. They grow fast and are nearly adult in size at age fifteen, with brains that have developed considerably from birth. No longer ruled by instinct alone, they tend to conform to Clan rules and standards, to think for themselves within the guidelines. Realizing the dangers they face, few of the “Fifteens” choose to Winnow, but some do.
By age thirty, they are expected to Winnow. At age forty-five, they are required to do so.
Winnowing is combat, but more structured than hatchling combat. There are rules: No eye strikes, and no kill strikes. (Kill strikes will terminate an Umthnn’s life in a single slash. Diamond would not tell me more than that about them, but I suspect that’s what he used to euthanize the Umthnn that Treemin had shot through the eyes. It is not hard to understand why he would not want us to know any more about killing his species than we already do.) An Umthnn defeated in the Winnowing may die of its injuries, but not from deliberate homicide.
A loser in the Winnowing is usually injured, sometimes severely so. It will then be patched up–there are talented healers among them–and allowed to consider its options, which are two. It may choose to fight again at the next Rising, hoping to do better, or it may Yield. Those who Yield become females. I am not (yet) clear about the process but believe it involves a powerful male claiming it in some way, triggering the Change. I do know it’s a two step process; first comes the Yielding, and later the Change.
Those who survive the Winnowing but have not yet reached the mandatory points of becoming either female or male–and there can be many; it’s not like the hatchling combats–must go on to repeat the process at the next Rising.
There is a cutoff point for both winners and losers: A youngster who has lost three Winnowing combats in a row is…the term that comes to mind is “force feminized”. There is no Yielding, yet the Change is mandated and does occur. Likewise, the fighter who is victorious at three Winnowing combats–whether in a row or not–becomes male.
Talk about the War of the Sexes!!
Jack shot me a glance, amused at my outright laughter. “Hey, the War of the Sexes is right, eh?”
“Eh,” I agreed. “Nice to see the Umthnn are more honest about it than we are.” I looked ahead, down the road. We were halfway through the canyon already; time really flies when you’re having fun. But there were more pages in the notebook, a lot more. I got back to it.
Note: Diamond is something of a language Nazi. He will correct me if I get the slightest word wrong. This is comforting; it means that what I report here–which has all been “cleared” by our guest–is most likely accurate, or at least as accurate as the differences between us can allow. About the word, “Umthnn”. He assures me the plural is correct either way, “Umthnns” or “Umthnn” with no change from the singular. I find myself tending toward the latter.
I began this section as a way to explain wives in the Umthnn society. So far, we (editorial we) have covered the highlights regarding the way(s) in which unsexed young Umthnn become females…but not all females become wives. A male may claim any previously unclaimed female of his choosing, but there are many (very many) more females at the end of any given Winnowing than there are males. Those females who are not chosen are relegated to low caste worker status for the rest of their lives, not allowed to breed. Their lives tend to be the longest of all Umthnn, perhaps due to the avoidance of the stress of “wifely duties” (smile), but the scope of their activities is quite narrow, a bit like worker ants or bees.
The society is strongly polygamous. Powerful males are expected to take as many wives as they can claim and control–and control is truly the operative word here. A dissatisfied wife is a disgrace to a male Umthnn. One who “talks back to her man” is enough to get him laughed at behind his back. One who acts out to the extent of seeking sex with another male–which is not entirely uncommon–will cost her husband status within the Clan.
One who deserts entirely, reverting to male physiology and bearing, reversing the shift from submissive to dominant, is unheard of. According to Diamond, there have been no more than a handful of cases recorded prior to his own violation of every major taboo held sacred by the Quencil. It is no wonder the husband headed the assassination squad gladly enough; he had held a position as a member of the Quencil itself for more than eleven thousand years and found himself suddenly reduced to less than a female worker of the Silt clan.
And yet, though Diamond is too close to the facts to see clearly in this matter (in my opinion), it seems obvious he was the “perfect” candidate for rebellion. Not that he ever talked back to his husband or fooled around or any of that. Quite the opposite; until he made his move, he never gave a single sign of discontent…because, I believe, he was far too intelligent to do so, knowing it would mean his own death. But Diamond was exceptional from the beginning. As an “it”, he was the sole, successfully survivor of his egg clutch. Although he lost in his first Winnowing at age fifteen, he won at age thirty by a clear and decisive margin. Then he won again at age forty-five, only to lose–by a hair–at age sixty to the peer who would one day become his husband, as it happened. Now he held the record of two wins, two losses. Many adults were still placing bets on him to become male; they are great gamblers, the Umthnn, in such matters.
But at age seventy-five, he lost because of a crooked Judge. Up to that point, he’d had complete faith in the system, but he had reason to know–I couldn’t get clear on just how he knew, but it doesn’t matter–that the outcome was rigged in favor of his final opponent that year. Diamond first knew bitterness, realizing that instead of the victory he’d earned, he would have to face the sixth and final Rising of his young career.
If he won, he would still become male…but if he lost, it would be three times in a row, and he would be force feminized, female all the way, like it or not, it’s not about the individual, it’s about the society as a whole.
He lost. He won’t talk about the details of that one, except to say that he lost. It took a Canard (not any definition of that word as we know it, but he insists) of nineteen males, one of them his husband to be, to force the Change…but it was done, and he became his former competitor’s wife. Not the first to be chosen, but the ninth; he worked his way up from there in his husband’s tunnel-hold.
Happy camper? I was outraged at hearing this, but our furry friend just chuckled. It could have been much worse, he says. He could have ended up a mere worker, and then where would he be?
So he (a she at that time, of course) determined to make the best of it. For more than twenty thousand years, he followed the course set for him by his people, obeying his husband in all matters…except for one. The spark of resentment in him, the disillusionment that was born at the moment he realized he had been judged unfairly in his fifth Winnowing at age seventy-five…that spark did not die. It smoldered. Took root. Grew. It was that awareness, the knowledge that high officials could lie, could cheat, would play favorites…from that single incident, a rebel was born.
If they could be wrong about that, could they not be wrong about other things? Such as the advisability of contact with (gasp!) humans?
I closed the notebook. There was more, but I needed to absorb what I’d just read. Besides, we were closing in on East Missoula. “Brunch at the Half Castle?” I asked. We’d not stopped there in some time. The Chinese food was excellent, though; even if we didn’t have any business to transact with Mr. Gray, I could use a plate of chicken fried rice.
“Might as well,” Jack agreed.
“After reading this, I feel kind of…stupid about what I said earlier. You know, about not wanting Diamond Paws popping up in my place whenever he liked. The big guy’s been through stuff I can’t even imagine. If he can be a woman for twenty thousand years before deciding to bail on his marriage, he’s not going to suddenly decide to terminate the very humans he’s coming to cultivate. By the time he did think something like that through, we’d all have been dead for a few thousand years! Well, maybe not you, but…you know what I mean.”
“Uh-huh,” Jack glanced at me shrewdly. Or at least that’s the way I interpreted his expression. “And?”
“More like a but. But, the mobile home’s not suitable for whacking a hole in the floor. It’s not like we have any extra rooms, you know?”
“So…maybe it’s time I built myself a place.”
“Got a site in mind?” Hill’s tone was neutral. I suspected his thoughts weren’t, though. Me and my girls, we’d been staying in his trailer for free all this time, paying for nothing but the utilities.
“Maybe. You know the trailer floor’s starting to rot. Just about fell through in the hallway the other day.”
“You told me.”
“Yeah, so, I was thinking…if you could be persuaded to trash the trailer eventually, I could maybe build a house right behind where it is now. Then we could expand the front yard between us, still be close enough for mutual support in a firefight or joining up for supper, that sort of thing. And I’d even have a place where we could all fit in for supper.” It was about time I did something. Rodeo Iron had topped $17 million in gross sales in 2014 and the sole owner was still living in an old, rotting, rent free mobile? What’s wrong with this picture? There always seemed to be something else clamoring for attention, but still.
He was silent for a long time, two minutes or more. I knew what he was thinking, or at least I thought I did. Let him stew; I had a comeback in mind.
“Tree,” he said finally, “as much as I love you, I’m not selling you a piece of land right in the middle of my home base. And I’m not building you a free house, either.”
“Of course not,” I said, straight faced.
“Of course not?”
“No. Can’t imagine what would have made you think that. But what if you gave me a hundred year lease? You know, like the railroads used to do? I’m not planning on having any kids; God knows, I’ve got enough on my plate without that. So there wouldn’t be any descendants freaking out when the lease runs out in 2115. It would revert right back to you, presuming you’ve figured a way to keep it past the usual fifty year recycling pattern you’ve been doing. Unless of course I pull off a never-say-die routine, too, and we’re both still here, at which time we could certainly renew it if we both thought it was a good idea.”
He didn’t hesitate. “That could work. You pay me rent for the rest of your life, and I still own the land and the house you build on it. Nice investment, right there.”
“I thought so,” I said, a bit smugly.
“All right.” He held out his hand. I shook it quickly, letting him get two hands back on the wheel; we were just about to the turnoff.
“One more thing.”
“Diamond Paws. If he’s up for it, I’ll design the place with a trap door tunnel room for him built in, one with an outside door so he can bring in his own firewood for lunch.”
“Fair enough,” Jack laughed. “Wouldn’t want to spoil the bugger or anything.”