One day, the whole village had a big outdoor picnic, the last one of the year. They usually had three communal picnics to mark the beginning of spring, summer, and fall. Wimsie called them the Hooray! The snow is gone! picnic, the Hooray! The butterflies are here! picnic, and the Hooray! The leaves are falling! picnic. It was a fine, sunny day, and Wimsie decided to bring her crystal along so she could play with it.
We prowled around the edge of the meadow where the picnic was being held, looking for a sunny spot, out of the way of the bustling villagers, where Wimsie could play her Crystal Game without being stepped on. We finally found the perfect place, a moss-covered rock that was right in the middle of a patch of strawberry plants. It was too late for berries, so there was no reason for anyone to intrude. She put the crystal down on the moss and nudged it with her nose, moving it around until the sun hit it just right and made little rainbows right above it. Then she stretched out on her belly with her paws crossed, and stared at the rainbows.
I was in such a good mood that I tried to play the Crystal Game, too. It made my eyes water, so I played my own little game instead: People-Watching. I lounged on the moss, observing the villagers as they scurried around and got everything ready for the picnic. There was always a possibility that someone would Fuck Things Up, and it would be a shame if I missed it. And I kept an eye on Skeem, who was waddling back and forth and trying to look busy without actually doing anything, because someone would eventually corner him and put him to work -- or, at least, try to put him to work. More often than not, Skeem would deliberately fuck something up so everyone would leave him alone and not ask him to do anything. He was lazy, but he wasn't stupid.
Eventually, the sun moved far enough to make the rainbows go away. Wimsie nudged the crystal with her nose until they reappeared, and then she resumed her trance. I happened to glance over my shoulder, and I saw that a woman was coming toward us with a little one in tow.
It was Burka, one of the youngest of Zan's many children. She was old enough to have children of her own, and one of her twin toddlers was clinging to her skirt. I didn't know which one it was, because I couldn't tell the little bastards apart. I didn't really like children, but I tolerated their presence unless they started in with that tail-pulling shit.
"Doggie!" the child shouted, and he let go of the skirt and weaved his way toward me. His gleeful yell snapped Wimsie out of her trance. She shook her head in irritation, and then she looked around to see who had disturbed her. When she saw that it was a toddler, and that the toddler was, more or less, heading straight for me, she gave me a doggie grin and thumped her tail in malicious glee. Attracted by her waving tail, the kid changed course and headed for Wimsie. I grinned at her and waited for the fun to start.
About halfway there, the kid lost his balance and fell right on his face. It would have been hilarious if it hadn't been accompanied by all the screeching and crying. His mother ran over and scooped him up, and the screeching eventually stopped. Why anyone would actually want one of those little noisemakers was completely beyond me.
When the child had calmed down, Burka turned to walk away. She happened to glance down, and she noticed the crystal that was on the ground in front of Wimsie's paws. "What's that?" she said, stooping down to take a closer look while trying to hold on to the child at the same time. She reached for the crystal with her free hand, but Wimsie put a paw on it and gave the woman a look that meant, quite plainly, that Burka could hike to the beach and get her own fucking crystal. "Well, excuse me!" Burka said, and she straightened up and walked away.
The intruders had ruined the mood for the Crystal Game, so Wimsie picked up her crystal and ran off into the woods to hide it somewhere. I wandered over to the tables, in case anyone felt an urgent need to throw me a snack. Nobody did, so I curled up under one of the tables, where I overheard a conversation between Burka and Zan. The two women were filleting a bucketful of catfish.
"What was that pretty thing that your dog was playing with?" Burka asked Zan. "I just wanted to pick it up and look at it, but the dog wouldn't let me. I've never seen anything like it. It looked like part of an icicle, but it couldn't be."
Zan laughed at the thought of someone trying to get Wimsie's beloved toy away from her. "It's a crystal, from the cave that we used to live in at the beach," she explained. "There were several of them stuck in the wall. They're a kind of rock, although they do look like ice." She grabbed another fish out of the pail and slapped it down on the table. "I've never thought they were anything special, but the dog seems to like them." She picked up her knife and expertly sliced two fillets from the fish.
But Burka wasn't ready to let the topic go. "Did you say there were more of those crystals?"
"At the cave," Zan said. "The other dog brought that one back from the Truffle Expedition." She rolled her eyes. "At least the dog came back with something."
"So did I," I heard someone say. I immediately recognized the voice, because I had heard it complaining constantly during the Truffle Expedition. It was Skeem, waddling over to the table with another pail of fish. There were a limited number of ways to fuck up the process of "taking a pail of fish from here to there," so he hadn't been able to get out of that one. He put the pail down on the ground, but instead of walking away before the girls had a chance to give him something else to do, he sat down on one of the benches. He must have really wanted something, if he was willing to take such a risk, and I wondered what he was up to.
"Oh, really?" Zan said, trying to be polite. "And what did you come back with?"
Skeem made sure he had Burka's attention. "Some crystals from the cave."
So the fat prick had ventured into the cave. I wished that I had hidden the crystals that I had left behind, instead of leaving them in a neat little pile right in the middle of the floor. He would have been too damn lazy to dig around for them. And I was surprised that he had gone into the cave at all, because he didn't like to get dirty.
"You found more crystals?" Burka said. "Can I see them?"
"I have a couple right here, somewhere." Skeem made a big show of searching through his pockets, as if he couldn't remember where he had put the crystals. "Well, I thought I did," he said as he checked each pocket again. What a crock of shit. I knew that he knew right where the damn things were. He was trying to look as if he didn't really care if he found them or not, which meant that he was up to something. I suppressed the urge to bite one of his fat ankles. "Ah, here they are," he finally said as he extracted the crystals from his pocket.
"Ooh, they're pretty!" Burka exclaimed.
"Yeah, they're kinda nice," Skeem said, trying to sound casual. "And I'll trade you for one, if you're interested."
There it was. I didn't know what the word "trade" meant, because it was a human-invented word, but it had to be the reason he was hanging around.
"You'll what?" Burka asked him. So she didn't know about "trade," either.
"I'll give you a crystal in exchange for something else," Skeem said smoothly. "Like a tray of cookies. You make the best cookies in the village."
"What kind of cookies?" Burka said eagerly. She desperately wanted one of those crystals, and if she wasn't careful, she would wind up baking cookies for that fat asshole for the rest of her life.
Skeem gave it some thought. "How about the Pink and White Coconut-looking Balls on Crackers in a Spanish Box? Those are my favorite ones."
"A whole box?" Burka said, temporarily coming to her senses.
"I think that would be fair," Skeem said, "since I brought those crystals all the way from the beach."
"Well, okay, but I don't have any boxes right now. My husband was going to make some more, when he had the time." Burka's husband, Spanish, was the best woodworker in the village, and he made special little boxes for her so she could put her best cookies in them and give them as gifts. Everyone called them "Spanish boxes," and looked forward to receiving them during the Winter Gift Exchange.
"Then a tray will be fine," Skeem said magnanimously. "I can't eat the box, anyway."
The women laughed, but I knew what they were thinking. You would eat the box if there was nothing else around, you hog.
Skeem gave Burka one of the crystals, and she told him to stop by her house the following day so he could pick up his cookies.
I thought the matter would end there, but it didn't. Burka showed her crystal to several of the other women, and they all made a fuss over it and wanted one of their own. They were less than thrilled when they found out that they would have to get their crystals from Skeem, and that they would have to "trade" for them, but that didn't stop those crystal-crazed women. The crystals seemed to affect humans the same way that the truffles had.
I slinked from table to table, ostensibly prowling for treats, but actually listening for any gossip about Skeem and the crystals. By the end of the day, I had learned that Skeem had traded away all five of his crystals. Four of the trades had involved food, but he had swapped the fifth for a new pair of moccasins. Obviously, he did have one skill: flattery. The women were proud of their cooking and baking and sewing, and he took full advantage of that fact.
And there was another thing that the clever bastard did. As he ran out of crystals, he asked for bigger trades in exchange for the ones he had left: a basketful of eggs, a ham, a wheel of goat-cheese, and, finally, the moccasins, which took a hell of a lot of work to make. I know, because I had seen Zan make several pairs of them.
Skeem ran out of crystals before he ran out of women who wanted one, and several of the crystal-deprived ladies badgered him, thinking that he was just holding out for even bigger trades. Even from my position under one of the tables, I could tell that he was enjoying the attention.
"Oh, come on, Skeem," one of them said. It was Bina, a bossy redhead who usually got her way. "You had to have more than five! What do you want? I'll give you a leg of lamb, and I'll even cook it for you!"
"It sounds tempting," Skeem began, "but . . . "
Not to be outdone, another woman, Ashmi, joined the game. "I'll make you a new coat! The one you have now has holes in the elbows!"
Bina upped the stakes. "A leg of lamb and a rack of lamb!"
"Ladies, ladies," Skeem said, laughing at the squabbling hens, "I appreciate your offers, and as you know, I'll never turn down a meal. But," he continued, "I'm telling you, I don't have any more crystals!"
"Can you get some more?" Bina asked him.
Skeem didn't answer right away. Then he said, "I suppose I could try. I didn't really look around much, but there might be more crystals at the . . . er . . . the place where I found them."
"Where did you find them?" Ashmi said, trying to wring information out of him.
Skeem wasn't going to give away the location of his pretty rocks that easily. "On the Truffle Expedition," he said casually. "I was just wandering around, and there they were . . . "
"You could go on a Crystal Expedition," Bina suggested, and her friends enthusiastically agreed.
To be continued...