As Time passed, the weather began to change. It had always been pretty much the same: dry, sunny, and warm, with the occasional light rain. But it wasn't like that any more.
There were days when the wind blew so hard that it was tiresome to be out in it for very long. The wind always came from the direction of the islands, which meant that it was stronger on the beach than it was further inland. If we wanted to get away from it, we had to shut ourselves in the cave, or go into the forest where the trees helped to block it. The one good thing about the wind was that it kept Zan and Nar off the lake and away from the truffles -- although I suspected that the lack of truffles didn't matter. The humans already had enough ideas to keep themselves busy for the foreseeable future.
Another thing that changed was the temperature. The warm days were warmer than usual, and some of them were so hot that I wished I could take my fur off. And then it would cool down, to the point where we spent most of the day in the cave while Nar kept a fire going.
And the rain, which had always fallen in a gentle, warm sprinkle, was cold now, and sometimes it rained so hard that I thought we were going to drown.
The humans finally got fed up with the unpredictable weather, and one particularly chilly day, as we huddled in front of the fire, Zan said, "Let's go find those sheep again. I need more wool so I can make clothes and blankets to keep us warm. Then we can do things outside, instead of being stuck in the cave."
"Maybe we should bring some sheep back with us," Nar suggested. "If we had a few sheep, we wouldn't have to travel all that way to get wool. It would save a lot of bother."
Zan thought about that. "It would be convenient to have the sheep right here. But they like the grass that grows in the meadows, and we don't have that kind of grass around here."
"Then we could move upriver," Nar said, "and build a cabin in the meadow where the sheep live. You would have plenty of wool, whenever you wanted it."
"What about the boat?" Zan reminded him. "If you make a boat way up in the hills, how are we going to get it to the beach? We won't be able to carry it, and it will be too big to float on the little brook that runs through the meadow."
"I can't build a boat in the rain," Nar said, "and it's been raining a lot lately. The wood has to be dry when I put the pine sap on it. And even if I took the time to make a shelter that I could work under, the wind is usually so strong that it would keep us from sailing away from the beach. Let's build the cabin first, and we can come back and work on the boat after we have some clothes to wear. Maybe the weather will be better by then."
That seemed reasonable, as long as I could get out of the damn cabin when they felt like playing music. And maybe Zan would make a blanket for Wimsie and me to sleep on. I had really liked that blanket.
And so, once again, we packed up for a journey. Zan put the blanket, Nar's tools, and some other useful items into a pair of baskets that she had woven from reeds. She had made a big one for Nar and a smaller one for herself. The baskets were done in a completely new style -- they had shoulder straps, and were made to be carried on the humans' backs. With back-baskets on, the humans had their hands free to grab food as they walked along.
When both of the baskets were full, Zan eyeballed me as if she were measuring me for a basket. Bullshit, I thought, and I scooted out of there before she had a chance to try it. There was a limit to the indignities that I was willing to put up with. I had already been afflicted with rafts, houses, and music, so the basket thing just wasn't going to happen. Dogs didn't carry baskets, and that was that.
So off we went, traveling from calladia tree to calladia tree in search of a herd of sheep. Along the way, we noticed that the ground was littered with nuts that the wind had shaken loose. Nuts always used to drop from the trees a few at a time. But now they fell like rain if it was windy, which made them easy to collect, and that was unfortunate for the critters that ate them. The chipmunks and squirrels had stuffed themselves with nuts. Most of the greedy little critters were so fat, they could hardly climb a tree! They were fun to watch. They would go a couple of feet up a tree and just hang there, clinging to the bark and looking around, and then they would jump down. I laughed my ass off, until Wimsie, dear soul, reminded me that I was getting a bit plump myself. After that, I still laughed at the little rodents, but quietly, so she couldn't hear me.
The further from the beach we went, the more the weather improved, and it was a beautiful day when we arrived at the sheep-meadow. It was sunny and warm, with no rain in sight. Every now and then, a faint breeze would make ripples in the long grass, and the ripples would move from one end of the meadow to the other. We hadn't had a day like that in quite a while.
But I wasn't fooled for a moment. I had that prickly feeling again, the feeling that Something was creeping up behind us. It had been following us since we left the beach. For the first time in my life, I felt a sense of urgency. I wanted the humans to hurry up and build the cabin, and make the clothes and blankets, and fill the baskets and jars with food. When the Something finally caught up with us, there was going to be trouble. Bigi trouble. We had to get ready for it, and soon. Wimsie sensed it, too. She wasn't her usual, frisky self, and she stayed close to me instead of bounding off into the brush in search of new playmates. Even Zan and Nar felt it, and they tended to be oblivious to things that a dog would notice right away. They kept glancing into the forest. I don't know what they were expecting to see, but whatever it was, it made them quiet and subdued, as if they were trespassing in a wolverine's territory. I had done that once. I wouldn't recommend it, because wolverines can be finicky about who's on their turf.
The first item on the humans' "to do" list was the cabin. Once we had a good, solid shelter, the humans could work on other things, inside the cabin if necessary. Nar surveyed the trees around the edge of the meadow, and cut down several that were just small enough for two humans to handle. With Zan's help, he hauled the logs over to the spot where they wanted to put the cabin. Nar cut notches in the logs with his axe, and then he laid four of the logs in a rectangle on the ground and fit their notches together to make corners. One of the logs was shorter than the others, to leave an open space for a door. Then he cut more logs, notched them, and fit them into the notches on the logs that were already in place. I could see that the wind would have to be pretty damn strong to blow a log house down.
The following day, the wind tried. Dark clouds had moved in and brought the smell of rain with them, and the humans were working fast to get the cabin put together. They had it about half-built when the rain started to fall. We stood under some hemlocks, hoping the downpour would pass, but when the wind picked up, the hemlocks were no help at all. The wind blew so hard that the drops of rain stung my face. We ran to the cabin and took refuge behind one of the log walls, where there was a relatively dry spot, and we huddled together under the blanket until the "storm," as the humans called it, was over.
Everything was soaking wet, but Zan and Nar went right back to work. They were determined to finish that cabin. And they did finish it: walls, roof, fireplace, a shutter for the one big window, and a door that actually fit and didn't have to be tied to rocks.
It was a decent enough place, den-like and slightly larger than the bamboo house had been. The only problem was that Wimsie and I couldn't work the door handle. We could reach it if we stood on our hind legs, but we couldn't turn the damn thing by gripping it with our teeth. What made it worse was that the humans got tired of having to stop what they were doing so they could open the door to let us out. I didn't see what the big deal was, since they stopped what they were doing when they had to take a piss. They didn't have any trouble with the door, because Nar had made that handle for them and not for us.
I solved the problem of the ungrippable handle rather neatly, one day, when Zan was making a piece of cloth on the bigger and more complicated loom that Nar had built. She had been working on another blanket, and it was just about finished. I waited until she had the "shuttle", which was a small, pointed piece of wood that had the yarn tied to it, halfway across the row of vertical "warp" threads, and then I whined and scratched at the door.
"I'm almost done, so hold it!" Zan said, and she kept working.
Well, I resented the tone of voice that she had used, and it wasn't the first time that she, or Nar, had used it. I felt that some drastic action was needed, something that would send an unmistakable message that the humans had finally crossed the bounds of decorum. So I raised my leg and pissed on the door.
Needless to say, that got Zan's attention. "No!" she yelled, and she ran to the door, opened it, and shooed me out.
Nar came running from the stream, where he had been scooping up clay to fill in the gaps in the log walls. "What happened?" he asked Zan.
"We need to do something about the dogs," Zan said, in the same acerbic tone of voice. She pointed at me. "He peed on the door."
"Why didn't you let him out?" Nar asked her.
Zan put her hands on her hips. "I was right in the middle of something."
"And I was at the other end of the meadow," Nar pointed out.
"Then maybe we should make the dogs stay outside," Zan stated. "All of the other animals are outside."
I was appalled. Who the hell did these people think they were? Humans were animals, too! Furless animals that couldn't run very fast or swim very well. They were clever, and they could build things, and their cleverness gave them an attitude. Well, I could have an attitude, too, and I intended to piss on everything that these hairless monkeys owned. I trotted over to the stream for a big drink of water.
Wimsie, who had moments of simple clarity that I truly envied, could tell that I was up to something, and she nipped my ear. "They're upset because things aren't right," she said, "and they're trying to figure it out. Don't be mad at them."
Dear Wimsie. Bless her little heart, she was right. Pissing all over the house wasn't going to solve anything, and deep down, I knew that. And she had been so quiet lately that I knew she was upset, too. We returned to the house and lounged unobtrusively in the shade of a tree, while the humans had a discussion about "the dogs."
Nar's solution was to build a dog-sized house just for us. He made a little square shelter, with a sloping roof to keep the rain off, and a door-flap cut from a piece of the very first blanket that Zan had made. The doorway was narrow, to keep the heat in. He folded the rest of the blanket and laid it over a thick layer of rushes for our bed. One side of the shelter was the wall of stone at the back of the fire-place, which would certainly keep us warm.
When Nar was finished with the dog-house, he said, "Try it out!" while gesturing for us to go in. Wimsie went first, nosing the blanket aside and slipping through the narrow opening. "It's cute!" she said, and she turned round and round on the blanket, making a comfy little nest. If she thought it was cute, then I could live with it. I curled up next to her and "tried out" the place by taking a nap in it. Later that day, another storm hit us, and we stayed cozy and dry in our little house.
The humans, who apparently felt guilty for evicting us from the big house, came out after the storm to check on us. They were happy when they saw that the dog-house was a success, and then Zan had an idea.
"Why can't we build a house for the sheep?" she asked Nar.
Nar looked at her as if she had lost her mind. "Why would sheep need a house?"
"Because their wool gets wet," Zan explained. "And when it's wet, it's hard to work with and it has a strange smell."
Nar tried to be reasonable. "So wait until the sheep are dry, and then get the wool."
"But the sheep deserve a house," Zan said stubbornly. "When I cut their wool off, it's harder for them to stay warm, and they huddle together under the trees. If we build them a house, it will be like a . . . a payment."
"A what?" Nar asked.
Zan tried to explain. "A 'payment' is something you do for someone after they do something for you. That way, everyone gets something."
"We get the wool, and the sheep get a house," Nar said. "Well, okay."
So they set about building a house for the sheep. They put it at the other end of the meadow, under the trees where the sheep liked to congregate. The house had a doorway at one end with an awning over it to keep the rain out.
At first, the sheep ignored the house. I knew that would happen, because the intellectual reach of the average sheep extended as far as the next mouthful of grass, and no further. To them, the house was probably just an odd thing made out of trees, and since there were trees all over the place, the house wasn't special in any way. And the next time it rained, the sheep stood outside in the rain, just like they always did. When the humans noticed that the sheep weren't using the house, they went outside and coaxed the sheep into their new shelter. Once the sheep were inside, they realized that they weren't being rained on, and it didn't take them long to start using the shelter every time it rained.
I was impressed, and I would have said so if I had been able to speak the human's language. Anyone who could teach sheep to live in a house deserved some credit.
As the days passed, the weather didn't improve as Nar had hoped it would. There were more cold days than warm days, and sometimes it got so cold that the raindrops turned into flakes. The leaves on the trees, which had been green for as long as I could remember, changed color. There were red leaves, yellow leaves, and orange leaves. They were pretty, but they weren't supposed to look like that. We waited to see if the leaves would turn green again, but they didn't. They fell off the trees and covered the ground, making rustling sounds when we walked through them. The hemlocks, pines, and firs stayed green, but they had needles and not leaves. Apparently, needles didn't mind the cold as much as leaves did.
The fallen leaves would have been fun to play in, if we hadn't been so worried about our food supply. Not only did the trees lose their leaves, but they also stopped making nuts and fruit, and many of our other food plants were also disappearing. When Nar wasn't cutting wood for the fire-place, and Zan wasn't making clothes and blankets, they were out searching for food that was becoming harder and harder to find. And other animals were searching for the same food. The humans would spot an oak tree, only to discover that the chipmunks and squirrels had already made off with the acorns. Or they would find an apple-tree that didn't have any apples under it, not even dried-out ones, because the deer had eaten them all.
Wimsie and I decided to do a "payment" for the humans. After all, they had given us a lot of food since we had first met them, so we helped them find some food that they probably wouldn't have found on their own. Wimsie had a particularly sensitive nose, and she was able to locate edible roots, such as parsnips, yams, and carrots, even if the part of the plant that was above the ground was shriveled and brown. She also found leeks, radishes, and even a kind of nut that we had never seen before -- peanuts -- that grew under the ground! We dug up the roots and brought them to the humans, who were very happy to have the help. In fact, they were so happy that they let us live in the big house with them again. Nar tied a vine to the end of the door handle, and the vine hung down far enough that Wimsie and I could reach it and open the door. It was plain that he had been giving the situation some thought.
I briefly wondered if our move back into the house was a payment from the humans for all the food that we had been helping them to find, or if we were now expected to give them a payment for letting us move in. Then I realized how easy it would be to go crazy trying to keep track of payments, and what a horrible world it would be if everyone did that. And then I remembered that I had seen such a world, briefly, in the dream with the Bad Things in it.
I sincerely hoped that such a world would never happen.
To be continued...