Grunt, Chapter 78: Bright Spirit in a Blizzard


“Should have known we’d end up being called Roosters, living here in the Roost.” I shook my head, dislodging snow from my flaps-down hat. We shucked our wraps, hanging them on pegs, before moving into the cabin’s main room. An oversized kitchen, really, with shelves covering three of the walls and a genuine Fort Steel combo cook-and-heat stove holding pride of place near the fourth.

“Better than getting called a bunch of turkeys. They roost, too.” Lauren twinkled at me before moving to check the double fireboxes. Enough in the big heater section for now. In the smaller cookbox, a bit of stoking and the addition of two cut-to-size sticks of firewood, then water from the wooden barrel to fill the tea kettle. We’d have a cuppa now, supper later. “Could be worse, O Head Councilman.”

I groaned in mock distress. “A brand new Constitution incorporating the best of everything, yet Captain Blake’s historic remark had to be a question asking me how it felt to know I was the Roost’s Head Rooster? Heresy! Blasphemy I say! Picking on the poor boob in the hot seat. Not fair.”

Julia brushed by on her way to peel potatoes, her distended stomach leading the way. She dimpled at me merrily. “Methinketh thou doth protesteth too mucheth, milord. Besides, he probably thought you had it coming for promoting him to Captain over his rather vehement protests.”

Ugh. I knew when I was whipped. “At least we have a legal structure now. Fort Steel never did have that under Strator Tucker.”

“A modified United States Constitution,” my statuesque and extremely pregnant blonde agreed, winking at her sister wife. Lauren winked back. “with no need for a Second Amendment because it’s included in the original document. And population size cutoffs to automatically trigger structural changes as we grow. Bet there’s never been anything like this enacted by a group as small as ours.”

“Council now, three-branch government eventually, with steps in between,” I agreed. We had something even Grunt had missed. Fort 24 had a similar constitution but without the population-triggered changes written into it. I was pretty sure our transition periods as we grew would go a lot smoother than they would for our farthest-south ally.

But we shouldn’t have to deal with that for some years yet, barring massive immigration. And it was funny how few truly yearned to live in the high country. Most folks, it seemed, preferred to dwell in areas that weren’t quite so up-and-downy. What we Roosters saw as protective terrain, they saw as close, smothering, claustrophobic, and of course vertical. A hill they could handle. A mountain was something else. So a huge influx of new residents didn’t seem likely, at least not any time soon. Shelve worries about that for later. What we needed to do now was plan for the summer Rendezvous. I stepped over to the cabin’s lone window, strategically positioned on the leeward side of the storm. Swinging back the open shutters, I leaned on the frame and stared out into the swirling snow. It really wasn’t that cold yet and the fat candles weren’t blowing out, so neither lady told me to shut it. “I say a foot and a half.” We had a snow-guessing pool between the three of us. Whoever guessed new snow depth the closest didn’t have to wash dishes for a week.

“Two and a half.” Julia didn’t hesitate. Her only disadvantage rested in her years on the Gunderson place at Fort 24. She still based her guesses on that experience but the Roost seemed to have its own weather patterns. So we’d see.

Slender Lauren, her movements as graceful as ever, lifted the kettle to pour boiling water into the already prepared teapot. The heavenly aroma of spearmint filled our little 16′ x 16′ cabin. At least I thought it was heavenly, the way my Lady of Wisdom prepared it with one part mint, two parts some other herb I never could remember, a dab of honey added at the table, and about ninety parts love. It had to be that. When I fixed my own spearmint tea, I couldn’t stand the stuff. “You two are way too conservative tonight,” she opined. “This one could drop four feet of snow on us. The adults will be working hard to dig trails to take care of the livestock, but the kids will be ecstatic. Snow caves, don’t you know. And mazes with snowbanks above their little heads. Lots of happy yelling, shrieking, and screaming. Some little MacGyver will come up with a birch bark sled before tomorrow is out.”

No doubt about that. Kids treated potentially deadly snow depths as their own personal, very special playgrounds. Except when they were required to shovel paths on the orders of adults. But we were raising a colony of worker bees; shirking work was not an option. I thought about the Before world Grunt had described during our travels together. Kids sitting in warm houses, tapping little devices with their fingertips and thinking they were living. Ew-w. Thank goodness for the Fall. Those billions of people deserved to die, as useless as they were when the night soil hit the spinners. Teacher Lynn Burch, as well as Grunt, had told us how few even knew how to start a fire, let alone keep one from burning down a town. Unbelievable.

Unworthy thoughts. Unworthy thoughts. Possibly accurate, but still unworthy. I was going to have to watch that. Would I have done any better, raised in a society that averaged more than a thousand people per acre in some cities around the globe, stacked atop each other like sardines in a can? I’d seen a picture of those salty little dead fish. Except the human cans were called high rises or apartment buildings or towers. How could humans function so far removed from nature?

In the end, not very well. Not very well at all.

I closed the shutters and turned to my supper-related task. The ground bison ball had been retrieved from the heavy-timber lean-to shed at lunch time. It was well thawed now, easy to work into small patties. Lauren could cook a boot and make you beg for seconds, as could Julia to a lesser extent, but Jules was peeling spuds and Lauren preferred to avoid touching raw meat. Said the farther removed from the living animal the meat was, the less bad juju she absorbed. So that’s me, bad juju absorber guy. Most of the time, my lady of the Rose Garden would eat none of the buffalo burger, though she sure enough knew how to prepare it and swore she understood us carnivores who simply had to have the stuff.

“There are going to be a lot of different discussions at the Rendezvous,” I said, handing the platter of patties off to the chef. “Every detail is likely to be important. We might even come up with a joint-use monetary system to simplify trading, and of course we’ve got to make absolutely certain MAP doesn’t adopt any rules that would strip the smaller communities–meaning us and the Badge–from home defense forces in favor of beefing up a joint venture military operation.” I rubbed my hand over my face without realizing I’d done it. “I know the whole MAP concept was mine in the first place, but I certainly did not foresee it growing so fast, and of course there was no way I could know the Jews were on their way to our neck of the woods. Five sovereign states we have already, bound by nothing but general good will and a few sheets of paper outlining a mutual defense treaty. Right around a thousand souls all told.”

“Impressive.” Julia smiled at me. She was already done peeling potatoes and had placed the quartered sections in a pot of water on the stove to heat, with a pinch of salt added just because. Most of our salt was added at the table except when we were having meat that had already been preserved in salt. The burgers had not, having been harvested from a yearling buffalo taken during the November hunt when temperatures had already dropped enough to freeze anything not placed over a constant fire.

“Scary,” I retorted. “I’m starting to feel like I’m a very small tail trying to wag a very big dog. What scares me most, though, is the subject of boundaries. None of us have ever had to worry about such things before, but with the country filling up like it is, you can bet I won’t be the only one looking to stake out territory for his home community at the Rendezvous. The Native Americans will retain the right to migrate and hunt anywhere they darned well please. Jake will see to that, so will I, and the Gathering owes us too much not to vote our way on a social justice issue like that. And any of us, no matter where the boundary lines are, will remain free to travel on established roads throughout all of MAP territory, to visit, to trade, all that good stuff. I think those are givens.

“But there will be extremely difficult negotiations in at least one instance. South of us, the Badge has established control of eight hundred square miles in the Wild River Valley, some of the finest…no, the finest piece of land in the entire Territory, both for defense and for productive living. It’s likely they’ll be satisfied with that, at least for now. Or maybe not, but if they want more, my bet is they’ll go for the rest of the land down-country from their home, which is bordered by Rocky River on one side and Wild River on the other, with the small but growing Roil River dead-centering down toward the Gathering. In either case, I don’t see them trying to push us.

“But Fort Steel will push. Weasel Compton is a good man, his wife Laura is an even better woman, but the man’s got to keep the interests of his home Fort uppermost in mind. And the Library is a very short seven miles or so from Steel, a mere three miles as the crow flies.”

Both women looked thoughtful at that, though Lauren did not forget to flip the bison burgers. Julia tapped a finger against her lips, considering, then said, “Allies now or not, he won’t want our border sitting that close to his seat of power. And yet you’re right. There’s no way we can let Fort Steel get control of that building.”

“Oh, I figure to get control of more than that. I intend to see the entire city written in as part of our territory, with the boundary being the eastern ridge that visually separates the ruins from Weasel’s Fort.”

Lauren paused in the act of setting plates down on the table. Her eyebrows arched. “That would put the border just two miles west of Steel’s stockade gate. You think you can get Compton to go for it?”

“Nothing’s guaranteed, but I think so, yes. And I know exactly how I’m going to convince him, too.”

The conversation would have continued in that vein for some time, but Julia suddenly bent over, one clawed fist clutching the edge of the table, the other hand on her belly. “New priority, guys,” she gasped. “Pretty sure my water just broke. I’m going to need help getting out of my buckskins.”

She wasn’t kidding. It was a mess, at least to my eye, but Lauren proceeded as if she’d midwifed a thousand new babes. A stray brain cell fired between my ears, giving me enough awareness to quick-like-a-bunny get the food off the stove before it burned the house down. Within minutes, though it felt like hours to me and probably longer to my mate, Jules was stripped down except for her shirt, which she retained.

It was a birth like no other I’d experienced…because I hadn’t experienced any, except for witnessing animals in the act. The mother to be did not lie down but squatted on the birthing perch, a low set of padded supports for her thighs that left a foot or so of free air between her Gate and the rabbit fur piled thick on the floor to catch the baby–just in case Lauren missed catching the newborn, which wasn’t likely. Julia leaned forward, reminding me of my position when relieving myself in the woods rather than in an outhouse. There was a pole for her to grab and supports for her forearms. She laid her face down between her arm. grunted as a labor pain hit, and settled in to work.

For six. Solid. Hours. How she managed, I couldn’t imagine. Lauren stayed with her, I stayed clear except for bringing the pan a couple of times when she had to pee, and Julia Gunderson Jade got on with it, never screaming or yelling even once. She’d explained this birthing technique to me long since, but seeing is believing. It was the way her mother did it, supposedly a way of sprouting babies taken from pre-white-man Native American lore, though considerably modified. Whether or not that lore was accurate, I had no idea, but if it worked for mama…. Then again, did I know how other women did it?

Not really.

There wasn’t any baby-butt-slapping to make the little red thing breathe, either. It just…did. No crying, not even at the beginning, just a pair of squinched-shut eyes protesting the brightness of the room, and–

“It’s a boy,” Lauren said, passing the scary little bundle to me to hold and inspect before shifting the wee one to the breast of his sweaty, exhausted, joyously smiling mother’s breast. “And it’s a girl.”

Indeed he…she…hoo boy. Penis, one. Vagina, one. Our firstborn had come into the world as both genders, what they used to call a hermaphrodite. (Hermes plus Aphrodite? No doubt. Huh.)

The funny thing was, we didn’t care. We certainly weren’t going to sew the vagina shut and pretend our child was a boy-only like so many of our barbarian ancestors did as recently as the twentieth century. There were the requisite number of fingers and toes, two squinchy eyes, one mouth and a nose. Two arms, two hands, two legs and two knees, ankles. etc.

“Wow.” I still couldn’t stop smiling. Neither could Jules. About those swing-either-way private parts, we just didn’t care.

“The other kids will try to bully this one,” Lauren said softly, “so he–I think it would be best to say he unless this soul decides to go all girly-girly later on, since he could impregnate a female easily enough. We’ll need to stay aware as he grows, and as much as the pacifist in me hesitates to say this…he’ll need to learn to fight earlier than most.”

“Getting ahead of ourselves, Sis?” Julia was curious, not upset.

“I don’t think so. Worst thing we could do would be not to think ahead. I do have a suggestion for a name, if you don’t mind?”

As if she had to ask. “Which is?”


“Hubert?” Julia seemed to be tasting the name, rolling it around in her mouth. “Not the worst I’ve ever heard, but why Hubert?”

“Hubert is really a combination of two words. HU is an ancient name for God. In one of the Chinese dialects, the characters that look like an English HU mean the whole, and our little one here certainly arrived with the whole package. Taken together, the name means Bright Spirit.”

“Couldn’t do much better than that,” I observed. “Jules, what do you think?”

She nodded. “I’ve never known anyone by that name, but it feels right. It even sounds compatible with Herman the Hermit, our resident gorilla-pumpkin herbalist extraordinaire. If Herman doesn’t take little Hubert under his wing every chance he gets, I’ll be surprised.”

And so it was settled. We not only agreed on Hubert’s name, but we’d about half planned out his entire future as first-child parents are wont to do. Hubert would have a whole lot to say about that eventually, but for now we could dream.

I cracked the shutters just long enough to check outside, not long enough to chill the baby. Still snowing. Born during a blizzard, I thought, with double barreled sex organs. Hubert Jade. A name, I was sure, that history would remember.

In that, as it turned out, I was right.