I finally felt confident enough in both my use of HAish and my
knowledge of the basic norms of HA society to undertake my
ethnographical survey. I cleared it with Lakka before commencing, in the
half-hope that he would secretly go round the village first, asking the
questions himself so as to impress me with his helpfulness. Sadly, Lakka
felt no need to impress me with anything that week, rather preferring to
impress the wife of one of his brothers who lived in another village but was
OLtic consists of 61 households. Its population is 496, comprising 172 men, 182 women, and 141 children. And me. This makes it just below average for HA villages (the smallest have around 40 or 50 households, and the biggest over 100).
The household is an anthropological unit of measurement, basically meaning "group of people living together". The textbooks tell us that there are two main ways that these can be arranged: nuclear families (mother, father, children) and extended families (at least two generations of adults). Unfortunately, the HA do not have access to the textbooks. For the HA, I had to redefine a household as something ambi-nuclear, being a woman plus her children, plus any husbands who just happen to be around at the time. I broke things up this way because the HA women tend to remain in their huts, and the HA men tend to move around, although that's not always the case (Lakka, for example, usually arranges for his wives to visit him rather than vice versa, because his bed is the best in the village).
As expected, the HA marital arrangements gave me major headaches. Most cultures adhere to a rule of monogamy; of those that don't, most use polygyny (one man can have many wives); of the few that don't do that either, most use polyandry (one woman can have many husbands); of those that don't even use that, well, there aren't any that don't, except the HA1. This simple fact threw all the normal conventions about kinship out of the window (or, in HA terms, the hole in the wall with a shutter on it if you're lucky). I therefore had to customise my own definitions for inter-personal relationships, in order to find out who was connected to whom.
Because the HA live with their mothers, one might suppose that they follow a matrilineal ideology, whereby clan membership takes the maternal line. Well, the HA don't have clans (ie. large groups of families supposedly descended from a single individual), so that isn't applicable; they don't have surnames, and they don't inherit goods or property automatically down lineages, either (the person who owns it makes it known through his or her lifetime who is going to get what, then there's a big argument after the funeral as various friends and relatives learn they were all promised the same things). This basically means that the HA don't have the unilineal descent group beloved of early anthropologists, but then they don't have quite the same kindred groups which we have in Western society, either. If you were a HA and you wanted to borrow money, the first person to ask would be your mother's brother, then your own brother, then your own sister, and then your friends.
I know, I know: anthropologists find this stuff fascinating, but you don't, right?
My survey went smoothly, except for one incident which left me with a pencil stuck up my nose. I knocked on a door, and a bleary-eyed woman answered it, holding a baby. The conversation went something like this:
"RICHard! Yes, until you came along. Sleep well?"
"Very well. Look, I'm doing a survey, and wondered if I might ask some questions."
"Well, just as part of my study: about who lives here, your relatives, your husbands - that sort of thing."
"My relatives... You wake me up at nearly two hours after noon, and want to know about my relatives." She didn't seem to happy.
"Well, er, if you'd rather I came back later."
"No, no, you want to know..." She definitely wasn't happy. "Relatives, right: so what do you think of this one?" She held up the baby for me to see.
Well, the baby was thoroughly repulsive. I've seen some ugly children in my time, but ho boy, this one had them all beat. Orcs have big - enormous - noses, but this one's was more like a finger than a nose, all thin and wiggly. Its eyes looked in quite different directions, and its teeth were extraordinarily buck. They didn't teach us about monsters like this back at anthropology school.
"Well?" she said.
Conscious that all mothers think their children are dear darling darling dear little angels, I was loathe to pronounce her infant a beast, despite the fact that it obviously was one.
"He looks just like you," I replied, smiling as best one can with gritted teeth.
"Are you calling me ugly?" she snarled.
"No, I, er..."
"But you said I looked like this little brute!"
"Well, now that you come to mention it, his nose is a little, er, different."
"So's yours," she replied, whereupon she snatched my pencil and thrust it 3cm up my left nostril, eraser-end first. "And now you look just the same as him."
Only the very real possibility that slamming the hut's door would have caused it to tumble from its mountings prevented her from doing so. Instead, she turned on her heel and went back inside. The baby she was holding found the whole thing very amusing and laughed vigorously.
At that moment, I felt a tap on the shoulder: it was SKUP. I turned round, pencil still dangling down beyond my chin, and sighed, glumly.
SKUP registered the pencil, looked me in the eye, and said, "Why the long face?"
One day, I was sitting beneath a tree watching a bunch of children squabbling over a ball (studiously recording the number of times per 15-minute period that they attempted to kill one another), when I noticed that the village was unusually busy. The HA are basically hunter-gatherers when it comes to their food procurement system2; although they do indulge in a little subsistence farming, basically they eat what they happen to have around, and when that runs out they go into the forest or the hills and get some more. This means that there's no large-scale herding or harvesting, so if everyone was suddenly co-operating at something it could only mean one thing: a festival was approaching!
I made a few enquiries and yes, sure enough, Rat Day3 was impending. There would be great feasting (yum yum, more REKchit) and dancing and, surprise surprise, drinking. The highlight would be when the oldest orc still up to the task recited the Rat Day story to the men of the village.
I was interested in this for three reasons. Firstly, any celebration is likely to have great significance in a society, since it involves much investment of time and material. Secondly, for a culture without a written history, the story-telling tradition is the only way that knowledge of past generations is transmitted to future generations. Thirdly, I was bored rigid, and even the prospect of listening to a senile old orc drone on while everyone else got steadily drunk was an enticing prospect.
Thus, I cancelled my trip to MIkuMIku that week, and awaited the festivities.
Rat Day came.
It began with a huge feast, which was basically a buffet that started at breakfast and continued throughout the entire day. The HA do usually keep to meal times, in as much as "time" means anything to them: they eat something when they wake up; they eat something when the sun is high; they eat something before they go to bed, if they're in a fit state to do so (otherwise, they instead throw something up before they go to bed). However, they couldn't believe it when I told them that, where I came from, people ate different things at different times of the day; the HA will eat anything (but mainly REKchit) for any meal, and are as likely to have something rich and spicy for breakfast as they are for lunch or dinner. Upon seeing one of them pour honey all over a slice of bacon I was almost shocked, except I recall having witnessed an American friend do exactly the same thing once when attending a conference in San Diego.
The buffet thus consisted of all the food the HA had to hand (but mainly REKchit) at all times of day. I was wary that, this being Rat Day, a lot of it would probably be rat, but apparently rat was about the only edible creature for miles around which wasn't on the menu. I thought briefly that this might be because the HA held the rat to be sacred, but having seen a female HA showing her child how to bite the head off a live one once, I felt sure that I was mistaken in this hypothesis. As it was, the reason they spared rats was rather more interesting.
Around noon, pretty well everyone was out of bed. I was in the middle of a conversation with a female orc, SHApiNA, who had a crush on SKUP (I was explaining that if she gave him some cheese in the evening, he'd have a bucketload of dreams and he might be grateful to her; she asked what cheese was) when Lakka jumped onto the banquet table and clapped his hands. Everyone stopped what they were doing, after about half a minute or so, and looked over, expectantly.
"Men of OLtic," he began. "Sleep well?"
There were a few mumbled replies. Lakka apparently considered this to be wild enthusiasm, and beamed a huge smile; rarely have I ever seen such yellow teeth on a living creature.
"Right, the story teller is awake, so if you men want to listen, you'd better come along. You might have to do it yourself some day, so best pay attention."
"Not if MOllok keeps on living I won't," said a creaky voice. "This is his 15th year in a row! Why doesn't the old fish die and give someone else a chance?"
"If you're thinking of cracking him over the head with a bottle, JaSEP, remember whose father he is..." answered Lakka, darkly.
"Pretty well everybody's," said JaSEP. "And don't forget that I'm your father, too."
"Are you lot coming or not?" shouted a third voice. It was MOllok, the orc who was to deliver the Rat Day monologue. "Or is that water-lover JaSEP trying to hold up the ceremony in the hope that I might die while I'm waiting?"
The orcs roared with laughter, except, of course, JaSEP, who blushed ferociously instead. "Oh, let's get it over with," he snarled, whereupon he and the rest of the men of the village made their way over to Lakka's compound in suitable dribs and drabs.
I had already resolved to join them, and luckily there was no objection to my presence (possibly because anyone who actively wanted to listen to the proceedings must, by definition, be a raving lunatic, and therefore out of pity ought to be humoured). It's times like this that an anthropologist finds a cassette recorder really handy, although sadly mine was a few million light years out of reach. I did think to buy one in New Dulwich, but unfortunately didn't think to buy any tapes for it. Mike Froggy had loaned me one of his, however I had to transcribe everything off it each time before I could re-use it. Still, at least it meant I could get down the story verbatim, so long as it didn't last more than an hour (the length of the tape).
Well, it didn't last more than an hour. Here is the complete, unexpurgated version, as spoken by MOllok and translated by yours truly:
"There was a time when the realm was overrun by rats. They climbed the trees and ate the berries. They climbed the trees and ate the SaRAL nuts. They climbed the trees and ate the eggs from the nests. The king ordered all the orcs to kill as many rats as they could. Whoever could show him the most tails would be rewarded. Our ancestors tried very hard, and they caught many rats, but they were not rewarded. The rats did not go away.
The next year, the king again ordered all the orcs to kill as many rats as they could. Again, whoever could show him the most tails would be rewarded. Again, our ancestors tried very hard, and they caught many rats, but they were not rewarded. The rats did not go away.
The third year, the king once more ordered all the orcs to kill as many rats as they could. Once more, whoever could show him the most tails would be rewarded. This time, however, our ancestors were prepared. This time, they caught so many rats that they could not even count all the tails." (There were gasps of awe from the assembled orcs at this point). "This time, our ancestors were rewarded greatly. Yet, the rats did not go away.
How could this be? How could so many rats remain, when our ancestors had killed such vast numbers?
Our ancestors were wily. They had learned: it is much easier to breed rats than to catch them!"
MOllok's story had given me plenty to think about. As I watched the other male orcs make their way back to the feast for a spot of whatever was due to happen next, I approached MOllok with a view to finding out more.
"That was a very interesting story," I began.
He looked at me blankly.
"I said, that was a very interesting story," I repeated, louder4.
"I heard what you said. Are you trying to start a conversation or something?"
"Well, I was wondering if you could spare me a few moments."
"Why not?" he shrugged. "I'm nearly 62 years old; I don't suppose I'm going to be much good at the rat dance."
So, by talking to MOllok now it seemed I was probably going to miss some important part of the ceremony; having obtained his reluctant co-operation, though, I could hardly tell him I'd call back another time. Besides, he might drop dead any moment.
"This story you told, it was for male HA only?"
"Yes, that's right; it drives the women crazy."
"Why do you only tell it to the males?"
He looked surprised. "I just said: it drives the women crazy."
Well, it's as good a reason as any, I suppose...
"I was intrigued by the reference to SaRAL nuts. What are they? I don't know what the word SaRAL means."
"It's a kind of nut. We don't have them here, so I don't know what they're like."
"But that means the story took place somewhere else. Do you know where?"
"The realm. Weren't you listening?"
"But where is the realm?"
"I have no idea. All this is from the time of darkness, so we don't know a lot about it."
"And now you're in the time of lightness?"
"Well, we think so, yes, but this might be a time of darkness for those HA who come after us in future generations."
"This lightness and darkness stuff: if it's of spiritual significance, why doesn't the HAIKAG come to the ceremony?"
"It's Rat Day everywhere in the HA lands. Why should he come here?"
"So let me get this straight. Every year, on the same day - Rat Day - your village and every other HA village hold a celebration?"
"And every village's eldest man tells the story you told?"
"Every village's eldest man who is able to do so. If the eldest man is demented, he doesn't get to do it."
"What is the significance of the story?"
"It tells us about Rat Day."
"Do you tell any other stories from the time of darkness?"
"The Rat Day story is the only one we know."
"Is that why you tell it?"
"That is why we tell it."
I had exhausted my questions, which is just as well because MOllok was getting a little tetchy; I think the scent of fresh whisky from the feast had reached his still-sensitive nose. Nevertheless, I had learned a lot: the HA had had a dark age, from which no records but the Rat Day story remained, and they didn't used to live where they do now. Whether or not they knew how or why their circumstances had changed, I would have to learn by further questioning, which could probably wait a few days while I formulated some hypotheses to test.
"Oh, one last thing," I suddenly remembered, as MOllok stood up to make his way back to the village circle. "Is the reason you don't eat rat on Rat Day because you somehow feel sorry for the little critters?"
"Of course not," he scoffed. "We don't eat rats on Rat Day because we are the rats."
Rat Day ended in the expected fashion, with most of the males getting what Cambridge undergraduates serendipitously refer to as "rat arsed", and most of the females attempting to cajole the remaining males into undertaking mammoth acts of procreation.
I must admit, I had been worried for some time about the general HA way of life. Something about it did not feel quite right, anthropologically speaking. It's hard to explain to a non-anthropologist, but I'll try to do so by means of an analogy. It's as if you were reading a book with a reasonably interesting storyline, but with a completely different sub-text. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for example, is, on the face of it, a story about a bunch of kids and a lion and, er, a witch and a wardrobe, but it's actually a Christian allegory. Similarly, Animal Farm reads reasonably well as a story, but of course it's not just a story, it's a political statement. So it felt to me with the HA: they have a reasonable, functioning culture, but it seems to have echoes within it of some more distant, hidden culture which can't be accessed directly - it can only be deduced from context.
For example, the HA word for themselves is "HA". Why is that? I know for a fact that the name came about because of a misunderstanding by early human explorers. Why do the HA use the human word for themselves? The aborigines in Australia don't call themselves aborigines in their own tongue - "aborigine", or "ab origine", is Latin, meaning "from the outset"5. English people don't call themselves "sassenachs". Why do the HA call themselves "HA"?
Another thing: creation myths. One of the things ethnographers have noticed in the past is that that the more convoluted the creation myth, the greater the hardship generally endured by a people. For example, there are two South Sea Islander cultures which, when individuals are questioned about such matters, evoke responses along the following lines.
This sort of thing is typical across many cultures on Earth. What do I get when I try it on the HA?
I mean, what can you do with that?! It's a perfectly reasonable, rational answer, but it's scientifically accurate! Where's the romance, the colour, the mystery? More to the point, why don't they have some obscure, primitive explanation? It's almost as if at some point they collectively forgot the primitive one, and were been obliged to come up with a new one when there was more systematic evidence available to them on the subject than there was in the depths of pre-history.
I was going to have to give this considerably more thought.
Part of any good ethnology is a description of the economics of a society. Indeed, some anthropologists look at everything with an eye to determining the prevailing mode of production, the contradictions inherent within it, and the social conflicts which arise because of it (although not so many people do this nowadays as used to: the name for the approach - Marxist anthropology - perhaps explains why).
The concerns of dialectical materialism aside, though, what do the HA do for money? Well, I know what SKUP does - he fleeces me at every opportunity - but what of the rest of the population?
It took me a while to figure it out, protected as I was by SKUP from the day-to-day household management deals which, had I been obliged to undertake them myself, would have led either to my death from starvation, my bankruptcy, or both.
Of course, the HA are keen barterers. I want your bowl, you want my eggs, we do a deal whereby I get the bowl for an agreed number of eggs. Simple. Well, yes, but it's not actually how most of the transactions among the HA get done. Instead of physical coinage, the HA employ a system of favours. If you want someone else to perform a service for you or to provide you with some goods, but you don't have anything to hand with which to bargain, you offer them a number of favours. These can later be cashed in when your circumstances change (eg. when the whisky you are distilling is ready, or when your goat has kids, or when your cold gets better). Most of the time, however, they're traded. This can lead to conversations which seem amazingly convoluted to the uninitiated.
"Well I'll patch your roof, but it'll cost you three favours."
"Right, so I owe you 28 now."
"Well I owe HAK 18, so you can owe me ten and HAK 18, and tell him I'm square."
"Tell him yourself, and since he owes me 5 I'll only owe him 13."
"Well, whoever sees him first can tell him."
There are two things to note about this system. Firstly, it depends very much on honesty: if one HA lied to another HA, they would basically be manufacturing credit for themselves, thereby increasing the money supply drastically, potentially leading to rampant inflation. Secondly, every favour is equal: a favour from Lakka, the chief, might well get more done than a favour from some bloke who collects firewood, but they cancel out on a one-for-one basis (not that Lakka gives out favours of his own very often, the skinflint).
Of course, this system also means people need to have bank books for memories and adding machines for brains... Nevertheless, it works. The first issue (why don't people cheat) is addressed by cultural practices which greatly discourage any such actions (death by having your head stomped on), and by the general honesty the HA seem to have even when practically destitute (which is their normal state of existence). The second issue just isn't an issue: what you get for a favour from Lakka might take him less time to perform than what you get from the woman who suckles babies, but its worth is equivalent6.
When a HA tries to cash in a favour, it is not incumbent upon the favour-giver to do what is asked; it's an option. Most will do it, but, as I'd noticed before, they don't like the idea that they have to do it; they're likely to exchange the favour being cashed in for another one owed them by someone else if they can and they're feeling moderately stroppy.
Now if you consider that there's a whole society of people operating this favour system, it almost beggars belief that people can memorise so many numbers without making the kind of mistakes that would result in their getting a head stomping. The way it tends to work, though, is that people will try to collect favours belonging to certain individuals, so if you have 30 favours from orc X and are offered 15 favours from orc Y, you might ask for them in X favours if they're available, rather than in Y's own. Using this system, most orcs only need keep tabs of around 10 principal accounts, with perhaps a pool of 10 or more others at any one time (but less for a while if someone drops dead and you can't cash in their favours any more).
It's still horrendously complicated, though, even if people take the precaution of never performing transactions when too drunk to remember having done so. How do the HA cope?
I discovered the truly astonishing answer to this question when I was investigating how the system fitted in with the concept of external trade. Favours are all well and good for getting your mates to carry you home when you're sloshed one night, but they're not going to get you that flashlight you wanted from MIkuMIku.
"SKUP," I began, as I usually did when I wanted half a chance of understanding the answer to one of my questions. "All this coin I'm paying you: what are people doing with it?"
"They're saving it."
"Why are they saving it?"
"So that when they think of something to buy with it, they'll have it to spend."
"Right. But normally, if there wasn't so much coin coming into the village from me, what would they do if they wanted to acquire something made somewhere else?"
"They would trade goods, for it, or they would trade favours for coin from someone who has some saved up."
"How many favours buys a penny?"
"Sometimes seven, sometimes eight, sometimes nine. It depends on how many coins there are."
I found this quite interesting. Since coins were regarded as the variable-value commodity, it couldn't be the case that people would go out and buy goods with them, because then the goods might be worth more in favours than were the coins. Could it be that coins were therefore treated more as some kind of communal resource, like food, which in times of plenty were worth less than in times of the opposite of plenty?
I probed... "Why don't people keep their coins until they are worth nine favours, rather than exchanging them when they are worth seven?"
"Sometimes, mugs are worth four favours, and sometimes they are worth five favours. If everybody has a lot of mugs, they are worth fewer favours."
"But coins can be exchanged for real goods. Nine pennies isn't 63 favours, it's a sack of potatoes in MIkuMIku. Seven pennies is only seven ninths of a sack of potatoes."
"Favours can also be exchanged for real goods. Coins are real goods. I guess everyone could price their goods or their services in pennies, but we prefer to use favours. A mug is worth a penny farthing in MIkuMIku, which is eight and three-quarters favours even if there are only seven favours to the penny. But here, we have many mugs, and they're worth four favours, or sometimes five."
"But why use favours, when everyone else uses coin?"
"We have always done it."
"Always? Since when is always?"
"Go and see MOllok, I don't know."
MOllok was lounging in his cart near the path encircling the village. Luckily, it was still early enough in the day for him to be both awake and sober.
"MOllok! Sleep well?"
"RICHard! Very well! Sleep well?"
"Very well! SKUP sent me."
"You're not having another hut built, are you?"
"No, no, he said you might be able to help me with some information."
The old orc scowled. "Help you before I drop dead, he means."
"No, I think he just wants me out of the way so he can take a nap," I replied, trying to make light of things.
"Wants to sell rides on your motorbike, more like..." He sat up. "So, RICHard, what is it you want to know?"
Strangely, I found that what I wanted to know was whether SKUP really was selling rides on my motorbike, however I put such thoughts to the back of my mind.
"SKUP tells me that the HA have used favours instead of coin for always."
"Well he's a liar. The HA did used to use coin."
"When was that?"
"I don't know."
"But you do know that they used to use coin?"
"Yes, I just said that. SKUP told me you could be stupid."
I sighed. "Very well: how do you know that they used to use coin?"
"Because I have some. Want to see?"
"Yes please, if you're not too busy."
MOllok looked at me as if I were crazy. "You're crazy," he said, and crawled out of the cart to his feet.
MOllok's hut was on the opposite side of the circle to where my first one had been, and thus caught the prevailing winds at the back rather than through the main entrance. As a result, it was rather snug, although the stench inside was nevertheless something not really to be experienced on a full stomach.
MOllok strode up to a pile of rags in a corner ("my clothes"), rootled about underneath with his hand, and pulled out a small, leather pouch. He opened it to reveal four silver coins, each about 4cm in diameter, and stamped with the head of an orc.
"See?" he said. "These are HA coins."
"May I pick them up?" I asked.
He nodded. "They're made so you can pick them up."
The coins were clearly very, very old. They were moderately worn, as if they had once seen regular use, but they also bore enough grime to show that they hadn't seen service for many years.
"What does this say?" I asked, pointing to two large triangular symbols on the back which I took to be letters.
"I can't read, so I wouldn't know, except my uncle told me that this thingy is a six and this thingy is a three. These are 63-CrICH pieces."
"63-CrICH," I murmured, or rather tried to - it's hard to murmur when the language you're speaking requires you to shout every so often. "How much is that in pennies?"
"They are from before the time of darkness. That is all I know."
"So we can suppose that they didn't have pennies in those days?" They were minted before the English settlers arrived in Virginia, then.
"No-one had pennies, you're right, but I guess they had CrICH."
I was making progress. "This is all really very fascinating. I know it's rude of me to ask, but do you mind if I borrow one of the pieces? I want to show it to some friends in MIkuMIku, and maybe photograph it."
"Go ahead, but don't expect your hut to stay standing for long if you lose it..."
"I'll be very careful. Are these the only ones you have?"
"They're the only ones anybody has! I have heard that a woman called ShELK in village of NemDAK has six smaller ones, but I've never seen them."
"But surely these are very important! You must think so, or you wouldn't keep them. If they date from before the time of darkness, they are a link to the past of the HA. Why doesn't the HAIKAG want them as relics?"
"I keep them because my uncle gave me them. When I die, my eldest nephew shall have them. The face of the orc on the other side is my uncle's uncle's, back 20 generations. The woman on ShELK's is her mother's mother's, back 21 generations. If the HAIKAG wants the coins, he has to change his ancestors."
"But that means you're descended from a king! Do you know where the kingdom is?"
"I've no idea. Look, if we don't know what happened in the time of darkness, you can hardly expect us to know what happened before it, can you?"
"Ah, but we do we know some things. We know the HA had a king, or an emperor, or someone who liked making 63-CrICH coins. We also - ". I paused. "Hey! That's another thing! Why is this a 63-CrICH coin? Why isn't it a 100-CrICH or 50-CrICH?"
MOllok looked blank. "Come again?"
"Most coins except the small-value ones are in round numbers. Ten, 20, 50, 100..."
"Numbers that are easy to add up."
"Lots of numbers are easy to add up."
"No they're not."
"Yes they are."
"No they're not."
"Yes they are."
"No, some numbers, ones that are divisible by 10 or 100, are much easier."
"No they're not."
"Yes they are."
"No they're not."
"Yes they are! I'll prove it to you. What's 10+10."
"Now wasn't 10+10 easier than 19+19?"
"No, they were just as easy. What's 5,611+2,364?"
"7,975. Couldn't you figure that out? What's 1,430+2,770?"
"It's 4,200. That's divisible by 100, so why didn't you find it easier if what you say is true?"
"It's a big number!"
"1,430 and 2,270 both divide by 10, and that didn't help you?"
"No, but they're not round numbers!"
"So which would be round numbers?"
"1,500 and 3,000."
"You can add together 1,500 and 3,000?"
"4,500, yes." I think.
"But you couldn't add together 1,430+2,770?"
"Well I'll be..."
I didn't hear him finish the sentence because I was suffering from a massive realisation: orcs have innate arithmetical skills some considerable way beyond what standard-issue humans have. They may not care to use them for anything worthwhile, but their brains are wired up that way, like so many not-so-idiotic idiots savants who can tell you seventh roots of 24-figure numbers but can't tie their own shoelaces.
What evolutionary pressures led to this state of affairs is for someone else to figure out, but I was convinced from what I already knew of the HA that the ability was principally nature rather than nurture. How good was it, though?
The answer: very good! I asked further questions of MOllok and found that he could perform 8-digit multiplications as quickly as I could have answered 1+1. He couldn't tell me how he did it, he just "knew" the answer, although when I gave him bigger or harder sums he began to say that he didn't know the answer, and, what's more, he wouldn't try to work them out, either. Nevertheless, he was still faster than using a calculator - and this is for a 62-year-old orc who can't even read, let alone write.
It all sort of fell into place. Right from my arrival in orc lands, I'd noticed the somewhat arbitrary nature of the numbers they used in cases where precise values weren't really important. Whereas you or I would have set an urban speed limit at 25 or 30 or 40 miles an hour, the orcs set it at 28. Why? Well why not? To the orcs, all numbers are subjective, so there's no reason to treat 30 any differently from 28, or 100 any differently from 101. If you tell even an educated orc that the gross national product of a country is 22,000,000,000 sovereigns, they want to know how you can be so sure it's exactly that amount. What I had taken as a not-so-bright way of doing things seemed perfectly sensible to people capably of performing prodigious feats of arithmetic without thinking.
Mathematically, of course, the orcs are correct, and no number is any more nor any less important than the next one. Anthropologically, however, it blew my socks off.
I got no further in the ensuing weeks with my attempts to find out about the period of darkness which the orcs insisted preceded their current state of lightness. Had I not been so sure in my belief that there was something decidedly odd about their culture, I might have concluded that they were merely deceiving themselves about their distant past. However, since I had developed my suspicions independently, I stuck by them.
So it was that I continued my daily routine of observing the HA at work and at play (mainly the latter, given their predisposition to it), generally writing up my notes in the evening by the light of an atomic torch, and planning what I should study the day after.
Then, one morning, SKUP came up to me rather excitedly. I thought for one blissful moment that he might have finished his postal law course and I wouldn't have to cart him on the back of my motorcycle all the way to MIkuMIku every week, but no, it was because today was the day the HAIKAG had told them that the CHAtren was due.
No, I didn't know what the CHAtren was, and had to ask.
"It's a wind," said SKUP, barely able to contain his excitement. "It blows up from the south, and it's very warm. We climb up the mountains and sit in it. It's very good! You must try it!"
I decided I would. It wasn't so much the fact that I felt I would enjoy the dubious pleasures of wind-bathing, but if it was that strong a wind then there was a good chance that I could spend a happy few moments without having the bodily odours of 495 orcs overpowering my sense of smell.
"Is it just OLtic which has this CHAtren, or do other villages have it too?"
"We all have it. The CHAtren blows right across the HA mountains."
"It's not just in one place, then?"
"No, it's everywhere. You sound disappointed." SKUP's ability to read tonal changes was obviously getting quite well honed from his being exposed to my moaning about everything day in, day out.
"Well, on Earth many groups of people have yearly fairs, where they all get together to trade and have fun."
"What do they trade? Whisky?"
"Horses and the favours of women mainly, to be honest, but the chiefs do discuss matters of importance to the whole tribe. It's usually nomadic people who do this sort of thing, but communities which are isolated or spread across great distances can do it, too. I was wondering if the HA did took advantage of the CHAtren to make some kind of an event of it."
SKUP rubbed his long, rubbery nose deep in thought. "No," he replied. "We don't do that."
Drat. Oh well, another piece of culture not to write about.
"If you want to go, we'd better hurry along to the side of the mountain immediately. We only have six hours."
"Six hours? How far up do we climb? I'll be exhausted!"
"Not far, we just go round the peak. It's about five miles."
"Five miles? But it doesn't take six hours to walk five miles!"
"Well it may not take you six hours, but it takes me six hours!"
Of course, he was right, it would take him six hours: four to get around to setting off, and two for the actual stroll.
"OK, I'll get my things. Call me when you're ready to leave."
In public lavatories, there are these wall-mounted devices that blow hot air. The idea is that you put this slimy stuff ("soap") on your hands out of a dispenser, and you try to get it to lather. Having failed in this, as everyone does, you then wash it off with water that is only just in its liquid state (because it is either so hot that it's nearly steam, or so cold that it's practically ice). Then you have to dry the water off and the towels are never trustworthy, so you put your hands underneath the machine and hey presto! A scorching blast of air bakes your flesh quicker than a fan oven, and you whisk away your fingers just in time to save a trip to the burns unit at the local hospital. And somehow they're still wet.
Well, those hand-drying machines are a good, small-scale approximation to the CHAtren. SKUP and I arrived early (about seven hours after he spoke to me, which made it around 4pm) and we consequently found good places to sit. Before me, I could see some other mountains and escarpments to the left and right, but between them, right in front of us, lay the large plain occupied by the SHEPKATmiMEK orcs, stretching all the way to MIkuMIku and beyond.
Other people arrived and took their places, obviously quite excited about the approach of the yearly phenomenon. How the HAIKAG knew when it was due I wasn't sure, but I strongly suspected that he had the advantage of owning a calendar. Anyway, everyone trusted that this was the day when the CHAtren would come, and they sat and giggled and tried to calm themselves down so they wouldn't miss a moment of it.
Atmospherically, though. nothing remarkable seemed to be happening. The sun was getting low, and I was about to pester SKUP about how long I'd have to sit on cold, damp rocks, when suddenly he pointed. "There it is!" he exclaimed, and, sure enough, in the distance I could see huge clouds of dust flying up in a rather startling fashion. Other people had seen it too, and they also strained their eyes to see. The phenomenon approached quickly, causing trees to shake and birds to fly squawking out of the way, the whole rolling forwards across the entire width of the plain like the rotors of some giant combine harvester. Closer it came, its presence announced not only by the debris it was churning off the ground but by the "What the hell is that?!" attitude of sheep and goats as they shot for cover at speeds to which they were manifestly not accustomed.
"Nearly here," muttered SKUP. "Ready - you're going to love this..."
WHUMPH! I was almost knocked to my back by a huge, buffeting billow of air, hotter than a paint stripper but similar in impact to being hit by one. It could easily have melted plastic. For 20 or 30 seconds, I did my best to stop my lungs from searing and my eyes from shrivelling up, and when at once it was over I could barely move because my clothes had set.
I could hear people talking in tones of great approval.
"Wasn't that fantastic?" enthused SKUP, looking over to me with unabated awe.
"Am I right in supposing that `CHAtren' is the HA word for `dragon breath'?" I croaked, flattening with my hand the hair at the back of my head, which for some reason was sticking out horizontally.
"Yes, of course it is. Didn't you know? It's obvious."
"Next year at this time, I think I shall endeavour to be elsewhere."
1 The Nayar of Kerala, India, did used to have a system of group marriage which enabled men and women of suitable caste to have multiple partners at once, however the British authorities put an end to it. Spoilsports.
2 Official Anthropological Term.
3 Official HAish Term.
4 By this I mean I invested each syllable with more volume, but kept the relative volumes intact.
5 This rather undermines the claims made by early European settlers of Australia that the continent was terra incognita...
6 This would confuse the Marxist anthropologists no end.
21st January 1999: ltlwo7.htm