Creek wends its lazy way through the bottom of the red rock valley, waters clear as the desert skies above. Joshua trees and mesquites rattle in the breeze, ochre dust kicked up by the wind. Bighorner munches on a clump of desert needlegrass, chewing placidly in the afternoon sun. Child’s laugh fills the air, high and giggly, kneading small heels into the dirt as her father works comb and fingers through her hair. Twists strands into locks, smaller versions of the ones he wears: hanging down to his back, adorned with intricate patterns telling a long story that few can read. Caps a coil with a bead of carved juniper-wood, colour of desert sand.
“Marks where you were born,” he explains, gravelly voice warm like rocks in the sun. There’s pride in his eyes, as he rolls curls between callused palms; can feel the weight of emotion, in his words. “Walked far, coming home, your mother and I; born on that trail. Tree stands as a marker, took a branch.”
“Yeah,” the girl’s mother says, laughing. She sits on a creaky wooden chair near the shack, old leather duster draped over the back, a babe at her breast. Her hair hangs down in a long braid she’s too proud to ever cut; Sand-Sister, the Nightstalker, sleeps curled up by her feet. “You shoulda seen your father fret when you turned up two weeks early. Way he was carryin’ on, you’d think it were him goin’ into labour!”
“Didn’t help it, spent half the time yelling at me,” Ulysses huffs. “Dangerous enough, giving birth in Deathclaw country, without signalling our presence to the beasts.”
Cactus Flower giggles, squirming at the tug of hair, unable to sit still (“Takes after you,” Ulysses said to Jane, once, but there was fondness in his voice.) Tiny fingers toy with a bracelet of brightly-coloured threads, woven together in a pattern Jane’s father taught her, long ago.
“Didja really fight Deathclaws?” she asks. She’s always asking questions, curious, won’t rest until she has answers; that part, they know, comes from the both of them. “Eagle-Wing’s dad said you did.”
Ulysses chuckles, a warm, rich sound. He laughs more, Jane says, away from wars and storm winds; the sound of a man found something he’d thought forever lost.
“Seen your mother sniping the beasts on the High Road as I have, wouldn’t have to ask that question.” Twists again, patterns of the coil showing all of her summers. She’s so young, still; not near so much history for her hair as his. “Thought she was some goddess of the hunt, out of Old World myth.”
Jane flushes pink, prods her husband in the back with the toe of her boot.
“Ah, stop it, ya big softy.” Brings another chuckle from him.
“Were ya really that cool, mom?” Cactus Flower’s eyes shine bright. Battles of the Mojave are all far-off fairytales to her; best if it stays that way, as long as it can.
“Cooler,” she snorts. “But your dad ain’t one to be talkin’. Once tried to take on an alpha with nothin’ but that stick of his, had to drag him away lest he get hisself killed.”
(Old Glory rests on a stand in a corner of the shack; Jane’s gun on a high shelf out of the kid’s reach. Need them, still, for radscorps or cazadores or roving bands of Legion remnants, but not as much, these days.)
“Dad coulda beat him, anyways.”
Ulysses turns his head to Jane, half-smirk on his face.
“See, Gentle Rain? Child keeps faith in me.”
“Usin’ my own daughter against me, man?” Jane grins. River Running’s drunk his fill; she buttons her shirt back up and comes to sit by her husband, nursing the babe in her arms. Sand-Sister stirs lazily, yawns in the sun. “That’s low.”
Ulysses gives her a fond look, continues his work. Child’s hair carries simple stories; births and bloodlines, no profession yet, no hunts, no kills. Wonders uneasily what she’ll think when she learns to read the patterns fully, sees what his locks tell.
(Won’t stop him from teaching her, though; have to face the truth of it, someday. But today, there is laughter and pride and home.)
His fingers work quickly; this one is more familiar, though it is new. Twisted Hairs never met Twin Mothers; not while either lived, at any rate. Way they called themselves was different, too; bore their parents’ hopes with them. Needed to put some thought into the names, how to show them in the turns, the words-without-words. Had practice, though; wove it into his own hair for years, now, in a different place.
“For your mother,” he said, puts the bead high, for a first child. This one was of turquoise, blue as the desert sky. Had to think about this one, careful to get the meaning right. Would have said something different before the Road, but the history between them had changed since then, flowed like a stream, shifting at every course, took them across the miles. Settled on blue for skies, rivers, water in the desert, the rains that brought life to dead wastelands, a future to where there was none.
Hopes she knows what he means, in the choosing of it. She meets his eyes, smiles. Says nothing, but the look tells him she understands.
When he’s done, Cactus Flower twirls the lock between her fingers, this way and that, admiring the play of light on polished stone.
“See, ain’t your mom pretty?” Jane prompts with a wink, rocking River in her arms.
“Mind your words, child,” Ulysses cautions. “Say otherwise, she might hunt you like a Deathclaw.”
Cactus Flower’s eyes grow big, twin pools of brown, colour of rich earth. There’s a gap in her mouth where the front milk tooth fell out and she woke her parents with crying, thinking she’d broken it. Jane gives Ulysses a playful shove, careful not to disturb the baby.
“I would never! Th’ hell are you teachin’ our girl?” she grumbles, and he laughs.
Next one’s easier still; knows it like the palms of his hands, the scars on his arms, the way he moves, for it is all of those things. Has his first name in it, his real one, spoken aloud but twice since Dry Wells, but written bold in his hair, where Vulpes could see but couldn’t see.
“For your father.” Another bead, high again. This one made of brass, from a spent casing; took a long time, working it into shape, but couldn’t think of better, for him. His wife had watched him make it with pursed lips, thought at first she didn’t want the skin of a bullet in her daughter’s hair, but no, turned out she didn’t like the choice for himself, the message in it. Thought he ought to take on something different, something new, or from before, but this was his history, couldn’t change that.
Looks good lined up with the turquoise, he thinks, and a glance at her face tells him she thinks the same.
“For your brother.” River Running’s is easy, the patterns simple for an infant. Younger brother, second child, crowned with a simple ring of carved mesquite-wood from a tree by the stream, reminder of where home is. Might change, as the boy grows, takes new symbols, but will do for now.
He moves the comb, gathers up the rest of Cactus Flower’s curls with careful tenderness. Last part’s the most important, because it’s hers. He works slow, deliberate, weaving meaning into every move, something for her to know who she is. Brings a final bead from pride of place in his pocket, a polished piece of rose quartz, the deep pink of her namesake.
The name had been of Jane’s choosing, but he liked it well enough. Cactus flowers were born out of gentle rains; life in the desert, despite the odds, carried a message of hope to match her mother’s.
“For you.” Slowly, slowly slides the last bead into place.
It is done, and his child wears the symbols of the Twisted Hairs.
She doesn’t see the weight in it, too young, twisting her head to and fro and laughing at the unfamiliar feeling. As he stares at his handiwork, lost for words, the girl slips from his arms and bounds down to the stream, kneeling on the bank and checking her reflection in the waters. Sand-Sister stretches, tastes the air, pads down after her.
Gentle Rain understands, though; steadies their son in the crook of one arm and slips the other around his shoulders, holding tight. Shuffles closer and rests her head against his, cheek-to-cheek, feels the wetness there.
“Don’t forget to thank your father!” she calls down to their daughter, now splashing happily in the creek, Sand-Sister watching on with interest.
“Thanks, dad!” Cactus Flower turns, gives them a dazzling, gap-toothed grin, the patterns in her hair looking familiar, looking right.
Bighorner bleats in the distance, hooves kicking up the ochre dust. Wind rustles through the Joshua trees, makes the branches of the mesquites creak. Golden sunlight dances on the surface of the water as their daughter plays, trembles with the ripples made by her feet. Walls of red rock seem safer than Flagstaff, the Fort, the Temple.
Wasn’t Twisted Hairs, this small, strange, patchwork tribe of theirs; wasn’t Twin Mothers, either. But for Ulysses and Gentle Rain, it was home.