“I can’t believe you would do this to me!” Raven shouted.
She didn’t look genuinely hurt or betrayed, just angry. Even in her paint shirt and with remnants of plaster clinging to her arms, from her sculpture making that morning, she was serious looking and formidable. I wasn’t certain how seriously I should have responded to her outrage for three reasons. One, she was uncannily good at presenting the traditional characteristics of one emotion while she truly felt something else. Two, she was somewhat unreasonable when it came to her objections over Erik. Three, people in general behaved irrationally by letting their emotions take precedence.
Then again, she looked really pissed.
“I didn’t do anything to you. I merely added a dimension to Erik’s skill platform. We have to take into account the lasting effects of role dissonance. He’s coming from a highly organized social schema where one’s niche is set throughout life. He was a hunter, thus conditioned to a certain status with a certain role contribution. Charles and I think he’s been depressed over his lack of material contribution to his new social schema. I simply proposed to resolve that issue via a concept he could easily grasp, and in a way that I am capable of monitoring.”
She didn’t seem to be placated by my explanation even though it was thoroughly logical.
“You showed that barbarian how to use a bow and arrow.”
“Yes. That’s precisely what I said.” And unable to help myself, I added, “Barbarian is an imperial term from Roman times that’s really quite offensive when you think about it. It comes from discrediting foreign languages by describing it as a pointless ‘bar-bar’ sound. So it’s basically like calling a foreign person a blahblahian or…”
I cut myself off, seeing her increasingly aggressive glare.
“I only mention because I know you don’t like… imperialistic…”
And I just stopped, feeling like I was descending into something that I wouldn’t be able to get out of if I kept talking.
After a long silence, she said, “Why am I the only sane person here? How can you not see the glaringly obvious cliff-face ahead of you that you’re going to run off? Why do you think it’s acceptable to let him have weapons?! He already walks around like he owns the place. This is only going to make him worse.”
“I don’t really understand what you mean by that.”
“Really?” She said, with an arch eyebrow and pointing at Erik to the left.
Erik was sitting across from us at the kitchen island, with his feet, dirty from our most recent trek on the grounds because most days he still refused to wear shoes, up on the counter, ignoring our conversation. He still was ignoring most of our conversations as his vocabulary was less than fifty words at last count, and when we weren’t actively teaching him we probably spoke too fast for him to understand a lot. Ever since that morning he resorted to hanging his bow across his chest when he wasn’t using it. I’d barely convinced him to leave the quiver of arrows outside in the shed. And even then I had to invoke Charles’ name to get him to do it. And he was eating an orange.
I pulled out my phone to add the data to the diary I kept of Erik’s food choices.
Oranges were something of a problem food.
From the frequency with which he partook of them, he obviously liked them. However, despite being shown how to peel them and take apart the segments, he either had trouble with the concept or had no patience for the procedure. Judging from Erik’s capacity to learn a task when he wanted to, I conjectured it was the latter. He didn’t so much as peel the orange as tear off a bit, throw the peel aside, and take a big bite out of the pulp, leaving the membrane and skin and seeds for spitting out later.
Sometimes he would squeeze juice out of the massacred remains over his open mouth before he threw it away. It was oddly fascinating to watch, despite how vicious it was.
Yet when he ate meat, he was quite tidy. I had yet to figure out a reason for the discrepancy.
When I looked up from my phone, Raven was standing with her hands on her hips, waiting for something.
“I still don’t know why you’re upset. I explained my rationale.”
She rolled her eyes. “That doesn’t change that he’s less socialized and more entitled than a cat. And you showed him how to operate a weapon, when he was already more than capable of killing us.”
“I would think if he had any intention to kill us he would have done it already.”
“Is that seriously your argument?”
“Firstly, Erik is perfectly capable of understanding that he is dependant on us and that not killing us works out in his favor. Secondly, your assumption that Erik, or anyone really, would kill simply because he has the capacity to do so is fallacious.”
Thankfully, Charles walking into the kitchen interrupted Raven’s glare.
“Good, you’re here,” she said. She gestured between him and me. “Translate from Spock to normal. Tell him why giving Captain Caveman a bow and arrow was a bad idea.”
I did not tell her that her intended jibe was in fact a compliment, suspecting it would make her more exasperated with me. I most definitely grok Spock.
Charles looked at me cautiously, but was delayed from responding due to Erik climbing over the kitchen island and jumping down to Charles’ feet. Erik had yet to respect the purpose of tables and cupboards and shelves. We could all eat at the table together, but he seemed to see no difference between the table and the floor. He would eat at and stand on both.
Erik always brightened when Charles appeared, but he was particularly exuberant that day. He removed the bow slung around his shoulder and babbled in his language, showing it to Charles, miming our shooting from before. I’d bought a polystyrene-foam decoy in the shape of a deer. Basically we spent about an hour and a half just using it for target practice, much to Erik’s delight.
A bow and arrow was simple technology theoretically. However, I’d given an aluminum alloy compound bow with a sixty-pound draw weight and arrows made out of carbon fiber with artificial fiber parabolic fletching. It had a relatively complicated pulley system with thermoplastic polyethylene strings. It weighed approximately five pounds, but could shoot up to two hundred and fifty yards at full test. And it wasn’t even one of the more recent or complicated models.
Charles stumbled over some words, peering at the bow in Erik’s outthrust hands. Or at least I thought he did. But it appeared he was speaking in Erik’s language.
“You can speak to him? You didn’t tell me,” I said, torn between wanting to make note of it and wanting an explanation.
Charles waved me off. “It’s just a few words. We’re probably on par with each other’s words, actually. And it was my idea, Raven. He needs something to do, something to feel important. I don’t want him feeling left out or trapped or—“
“Like a science experiment?” Raven said. “When are you two going to realize you don’t have any control over him? You keep acting like you do.”
“She says Erik is going to kill us,” I said.
“I don’t think he’s going to kill us. I think he’s more dangerous than you realize and that’s not fucking helped by giving him a freaking bow and arrow. It’s not like he can actually go hunting anyway, so what’s the point.”
“Actually, I see no problem with taking him hunting,” I said. “Some place secluded, obviously. And not until he has a better understanding of language so we can communicate more efficiently. But eventually.”
“Not a fucking improvement,” Raven said. “You can’t just let him run wild in the forest! With a weapon! I hardly think that people with permits and a high school education should be allowed to do that.”
“He won’t be running wild,” I said, holding back some frustration. “And I can control him in that atmosphere. I do actually know how to hunt. And how to shoot. I’ve been doing it since I was seven.”
“Yep, you’re a regular Grizzly Adams,” Raven said. “Tell me how many Lord of the Rings toys do most frontiersmen like yourself have?”
“That was a spectacularly good movie based off a highly respected and critically acclaimed work of English literature,” I said in my defense. “And those models are limited edition—“
“Oh, stop it, both of you,” Charles said. “Raven, Erik needs to learn if he has any hope of acclimating at all. And this is the best avenue to start in teaching him about technology, because it interests him and hunting and weaponry is something he can understand. Hank is far more suited to teach Erik about that sort of thing than anyone else. He does have the experience and the… rustic upbringing. The Midwest is very country, isn’t it? They have all sorts of wild animals running around. Like bears and wolves and eagles and cows and things, don’t they?”
I knew nature wasn’t Charles’ strong suit, but I had never heard of dairy cows referred to as wild before.
“Um, yeah, I guess. I mean, Illinois isn’t very—“
“See? Hank’s quite prepared for this.”
“Okay,” Raven said, gripping the bridge of her nose. “You fucking goons. Cro-Magnon here, the first day he got here, went out into the groundskeeper’s shed and constructed a spear from garden tools and killed himself a bear.”
“Bear!” Erik shouted, finally sort of paying attention to us again. That was one of the words he definitely knew. “Erik bear!”
Raven continued, “That takes a level of rugged gumption and murderous savvy neither of you two nerds have. It’s going to get you killed.”
“I would not try to confront a dangerous animal like that,” I said. “I was only considering, one day, not soon, to maybe take him deer hunting. If I thought there was any chance of encountering a bear population, I would bring a gun.”
“Under no circumstances are you letting him use a gun,” Charles said firmly, even as he politely ignored Erik’s offer of his mangled orange.
“No, of course not. I’m just listing my credentials. I do have insight in this area. I think Erik recognizes my value in that respect. I did help him tan the bear hide, after all.”
“Bear!” Erik shouted again. He waved his bow triumphantly and said a string of words in his own language. He pointed northeasterly, vaguely in the direction of the bedrooms, where the bearskin resided. “Bear more!”
Charles took the bow out of his right hand and the leaking orange out of his left and set them both on the table.
“No bear. No more. We have a bloody freezer full of bear. No.”
Unexpectedly, Erik took the bow back and thrust it against my chest. He pulled me off my chair to stand next to him, sliding an arm around my shoulders and squeezing my face with his other hand.
“Hank bear man do!” He squeezed my shoulders again in a very strong grip and continued to speak in his own language.
Raven looked at me dubiously while Charles failed to conceal his laughter.
“Well,” Charles said, clearing his throat. “I think he’s trying to say that you have to or should kill a bear. You know, to become a man. Which I think would be a fascinating aspect of prehistoric culture to see unfold. A manhood ritual?”
“Hank man do! Hank bear!” Erik said, squeezing my face again like a drunken uncle, as though he understood what Charles was absolutely joking about.
“Great idea,” Raven said, her voice laden with so much sarcasm it was almost visible. “Good. Let’s do this. You two go bear hunting and then we’ll find Hank’s corpse half eaten by weasels the next day and we try to explain to the authorities about this crazy guy with no ID or social security who can’t speak English and jumps on the furniture occasionally kills wild animals for shits and giggles. That’ll work.”
I extricated myself from Erik’s grip and set the bow on the table.
“Come on, it’s time for English lessons,” I said to Charles. As Raven was rolling her eyes and leaving, I said, “Would you like to help today?” Because she did help on occasion. And I believed that the reason she had such a negative attitude towards Erik was because she didn’t spend enough time bonding with him.
But she ignored me and walked away toward her studio.
English class didn’t go very well. Erik was restless and uninterested. He most likely wanted to back outside for more shooting. What we’d done that morning was getting him used to the mechanism. He still couldn’t shoot straight. He’d been pretty amazed that I could. To be perfectly honest, I would rather have done the same. But the most vital part of Erik’s education was to get him speaking a common language.
But after several attempts to get him to concentrate, he covered my mouth with his hand and said, “No Hank. No Hank talk. Hank go.”
Charles smiled brightly. “He’s putting subjects before verbs all the time now.”
Erik only knew seven verbs: talk, eat, sleep, go, do, make, and see. And he didn’t have quite a handle on ‘do’ and ‘make’ as being different. He couldn’t grasp ‘you’ or ‘I’ yet and only said names. It was difficult, but his understanding of words was developing at a fast rate. But he also had a low tolerance for lessons sometimes and used physical indicators frequently. Putting a hand over my mouth was something I learned early on not to push. The first time it happened, he covered my mouth twice before he physically dragged me by the ear to Raven’s room and shut me in. And a simple “no Hank” meant he didn’t want me around anymore.
He never did this to Charles.
He was, in fact, ignoring me completely now that I’d been dismissed, sitting next to Charles and holding his hand with the palm up, drawing his fingers over Charles’ palm lines. He brought Charles’ splayed hand to his lips and kissed one of his fingertips.
I felt weird having to watch this, but also half-wanting to observe. Which was strange and made me feel unclean. On one hand, seeing the distinctions Erik made between Charles and then Raven and me were fascinating. He basically pushed me out of the way if he needed to, but would more or less dote on Charles. On the other hand Charles was my colleague and something of a mentor and I did not want to see him kissed or petted or groped or anything less than fully clothed.
“I, um… I’ll go. Can you handle him?”
I blushed at Charles’ far too pleased smirk. “I think so.” He looked at Erik and said, “Do you want me to go? Charles go?” He pointed at himself, then the door.
Erik huffed in indignation and pulled Charles into his lap, muttering, “Chara, chara, chara, Chars,” into Charles’ neck.
I turned quickly to leave, hearing only Charles’ self-satisfied laugh before I shut the door behind me. They weren’t going to continue working. I just knew it.
When I let myself in Raven’s studio, she didn’t say anything. She just shook her head ruefully and continued slathering wet plaster on a chicken wire frame for whatever she was building. It was new and she hadn’t told me about it yet.
“What are you making?” I asked.
She didn’t answer.
“Are you angry with me?”
“Why aren’t you in with Tarzan and Jane?”
“They… I don’t think Erik wants to have a lesson right now. He wanted some alone time with Charles.”
She snorted, not taking her eyes off her work. “I bet. But that’s what happens when you use blowjobs as positive reinforcement.”
I knew from reading Charles’ notes that he had some success when he was alone with Erik, during… intimate times, teaching Erik words. For example, Erik’s vocabulary for body parts was developing quite rapidly, but I had never once done a lesson plan about the body. So I knew Charles taught him things when they were alone, but I didn’t think that was what Raven really meant.
“Raven, are you angry with me?”
She sighed, running a hand over her brow for a second, leaving a smear of plaster above her eyebrow. I had to resist the urge to wipe it off.
“No. I’m not angry. I’m, ugh, concerned.”
“About the hunting thing?”
“Well, yeah,” she snapped. “Erik’s fucking crazy. I don’t want you getting killed!”
“Erik isn’t crazy. He’s quite intelligent. And when it comes to the outdoors, he knows what he’s doing. He has a natural inclination to hunt. Last week we were on the far side of the lake and he was stalking a fox. I think he’s actually keeping track of the animals on the grounds. It’s pretty remarkable.”
Raven continued to look unimpressed.
“He killed a bear,” she said. “Now he wants you to kill a bear.”
“Well, that’s obviously not going to happen.”
“Is it? Because you and Charles seem to be falling pretty hard for Quest for Fire other there. And it’s even worse for you, because you’re not after his dick. No, you two are buddies. Guys do stupid things to impress their buddies.”
“Do you seriously think I would try to hunt for bear? I can’t even fathom doing that with a rifle let alone whatever jury-rigged torture device Erik can construct.”
“Then why are you even contemplating this, this hunting expedition bullshit?”
Raven didn’t sound angry. She sounded worried. I wasn’t certain why. Unlike Charles, she wasn’t even a vegetarian. But even Charles had a scientific, sort of laissez-faire attitude toward animal life. He seemed to have no qualms about letting Erik eat meat or go hunting so long as he had no part in taking life.
“Because he needs to do it. He can’t be completely cut off from the routines and habits he knows.”
“I thought you didn’t like hunting.”
“I don’t. Well, I was never comfortable with the actual killing part, but spending time with Erik has reminded me what it all about. You know, the bonding with my uncles and my brother and my cousins, going through the woods to observe the flora and fauna. Spending so much time outdoors as a child is what got me interested in biology and science in the first place. I kind of miss it. But, you know, without having to shoot animals.”
Raven sighed in resignation. “Well, shit.”
“I just… I’m not going to ask you to stop your stupid male bonding time. Just don’t get hurt, okay?”
“It isn’t dangerous, Raven. Not really. And like I said, he’s not ready to leave the grounds yet, so it won’t be for some time.”
“I just don’t like him,” she said, getting back to her sculpture. “He’s like pure testosterone.”
“I think you should spend more time with him.”
She didn’t say anything, but simply raised a quizzical eyebrow at me.
“I mean it. He can surprise you. He can be very gentle, particularly with Charles. I know you think he’s one step away from, I don’t know, dragging Charles back to his cave.”
“He does that,” Raven said adamantly. “He did that. Yesterday.”
“To be fair, Charles was laughing the whole time. I think he planned it.”
“He’s such a slut.”
I think I was getting better at reading her emotions, because I could tell she didn’t mean that judgmentally. It was just one of the flip insults she and Charles usually passed between each other. She wasn’t really tense anymore.
“Doesn’t your feminist card get revoked if you call someone a slut?” I said, hoping she would appreciate my attempt at levity. Of course, she was much sharper about that sort of thing.
“Oh, no,” she said convincingly. “I’m a gold member. That means I get three free ‘sluts’ a month. And two ‘bitches and hoes.’ You have to pay more, but it’s a nice perk.”
I couldn’t help myself from laughing. Because I was overcome with how great she was. She was clever and funny and beautiful. Even her disapproval of Erik came from a concern for me and Charles, which showed her protectiveness possibly, if not her territoriality. Which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I felt unbelievably lucky to have her in my life.
“I really like you, Raven.”
She looked up from her work, surprised. “Well, golly, Hank. I like you too.”
“No, I mean it. I really appreciate you. I know I’m not suave. And I’m not particularly skilled at saying things like that, so I have to be blunt. But I’m very glad that I know you and that we’re dating.”
She smiled an earnest, blushing smile that I wished I saw on her more. I was unaccountably delighted.
“You’re honest, Hank. That’s better than being suave.” She added a little more quietly, “Me too.”
Then she said, “You know, you don’t need to suspend our day because they’re getting their horizontal on.”
“Yeah, I can plot some of the cumulative data—“
“No, dummy,” she said, pushing the cart she was working on aside. “I mean they aren’t the only ones allowed to have midday sex.”
“Oh, right!” I said, happily taking her suggestion. “Do you want to go…?” I trailed off, vaguely pointing the direction of the bedrooms, but couldn’t finish when she leveled a steamy, desirous look at me, gently grabbing a hold of my shirt lapels.
“Not really. I know I’m probably reaching here, considering you’ve never even seen The Godfather and your movie knowledge is a little limited, but, as long as we’re here, have you ever seen The Pillow Book?”
“I know of the landmark work in Japanese literature of the same name by Sei Shonagon, but I don’t—“
She smiled and hushed me. “Let’s just say I’ve always wondered what it would be like to use living skin as a canvas.”
And I knew I really was exorbitantly lucky to have Raven as my girlfriend.
Some time later, before I even had a chance to shower off the remains of Raven’s artwork or put on more than my boxers, which was a humorous one Raven had given me that read “Scientists do it on the table periodically”, I dashed into the kitchen. I had been discovering that having regular sex made me really hungry afterwards. I would have waited but I had been pretty sure that Erik and Charles would still be… engaged.
However, half way through making a sandwich, Erik walked in.
Thankfully, he was also wearing boxer shorts, but only that. It had taken many weeks to convince him, and even then Charles probably a lot more arduously than I did, to wear underwear. Every day.
There is a palpable awkwardness in meeting with your girlfriend’s brother’s also mostly naked boyfriend in the kitchen after you’ve both, immediately preceding said meeting, had sex with your preferred sibling. I kind of wanted to say something to dispel the obvious situation we were in, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. But apparently Erik had either more aplomb or a more lackadaisical attitude to the sexual politics of the household.
He let out a grinning laugh, clapped me on the shoulder in a congratulatory manner, and hugged me, before retrieving a gallon of milk from the fridge and leaving with his customary swagger.
I wasn’t exactly sure how to treat that, except that I would have a lot more to speculate about prehistoric social dynamics regarding adults of consenting ages in family groups in my journal later.