Rock Trudgeson returned to his cave after a long day on the hunt and found his customary repast of bear nuts neither toasted nor cracked.
“Until you bring me back a snow leopard loincloth,” Trudgeson’s lone wife, Phyllis, began a new variation on her cyclical threat to walk out of this hole in the ground and never come back, “one like Arch Strongbow’s favored helpmeet wore to the gathering today, you can fix your own nuts for all I care.”
This somewhat irritated Rock. Half a lifetime had passed since the juvenile raid that had won him her submission, and after so many moons, the heart-melting horror that had once shone in the Neanderthal girl’s eyes was gone. The critical moment came after the stillbirth of offspring number three or four (it was impossible to keep track), when Phyllis finally assimilated the local grunts sufficiently to start insinuating unfavorable comparisons between Rock’s be-fruitful-and-multiply apparatus and the veritable whalebones of the big-headed nomads she claimed to have known in her pre-wheeling youth. As this unconquered outsider usurped rightful authority over his hearth, Rock started turning ever more clams into firewater, which led to ever more emasculating gestured grunts, which led to ever more whalebone blows across the helpmeet’s increasingly hunched back, which usually restored the natural order of things—at least for half a moon or so.
While the other hunters had been off wrestling lion cubs, branding one another, and torturing hobbits, the shy gatherer had been plotting his revenge on society.
This Strongbow business, however, was another matter altogether. Rock and Arch had grown up together—had earned a few extra clam shards polishing spearheads for the same hunters, had learned how to make fire from the same tribal scholars, had sodomized a few of the same domesticated goats. Even back then though, Arch had been kind of a gatherer. The berry-picker hadn’t even come along on the raid that landed Rock his helpmeet. Sure, Phyllis was getting on in cycles—almost nineteen winters old now—yet Rock simply could not forget the plaintive way Arch had eyed her as the glorious pranksters carried their booty back into camp tied face down and naked, dangling from a sapling trunk.
But Strongbow would not possibly deign to have her now, would he? Phyllis, to iterate, was so broken in that not even a whalebone up the dunghole could keep her walking fowl-legged—and behaving—for more than a few consecutive days. And her constant murmurings were rising to such an ungodly pitch that Rock had begun to wonder whether it might not just be time to cut out her word-maker once and for all. Even without a tongue, she could still purse her lips in such a way as to increase the tension and pressure, just as Rock had learned to do as a kid one clam shard short of a gourd of firewater.
After cracking that nut, Rock grabbed two clams, announced his departure, and set off for Merlin’s. Still, through the river and rubbing his wood, the hunter could not shake the thought that Strongbow, even after so many seasons, might yet retain some perverse desire to make the saggy, scarred Phyllis his sixth helpmeet.
Fire only knows he had the clams for it. While all of the other pubescent hunters had been off wrestling lion cubs and rustling chattel, branding one another and torturing hobbits, the shy gatherer had been plotting his revenge on society, though not even Strongbow could have predicted that the engine he’d fashion—a sinew tied taut twixt the ends of a mammoth rib bone—would obviate his planned course of action. How could Rock forget the day when Arch, frail and squinty, had lugged his tool out of the bushes, climbed the sacred rock, and started shooting off spears indiscriminately? Fortunately for all concerned, Arch was still more of an almond collector, and so the projectiles fell mostly harmlessly about the settlement. Killed a hobbit though (lucky, because sometimes people do get hurt, like the time those savage Neanderthals snuck in in the middle of the night and cut off cave painter Guy Slater’s phallus with a piranha jaw—just snapped the thing right off at the base and hightailed it out of there with his helpmeet . . . or, at least, that’s what Guy told everybody had happened). Anyway, put that strongbow in Rock’s hands and he could take down a grizzly bear from thirty feet away. Every hunter around wanted one. Arch was a hundredaire overnight.
After a distance of two turtle-days, Rock pushed his way through a familiar pair of bushes and into the clearing in front of Merlin’s Flaming Saloon. There was a new booty behind the bar, and Rock tipped her an extra little hunk of clam on his first gourd of the evening. A few more regulars than regular were already seated on various tree stumps and sea turtle shells.
“Your old helpmeet bitchin’ about it too?”
“The damn leopard skin?”
“I’ll never understand it. All those clams for a few splotches of brown on a dandelion-piss background. The thing’s thinner than unicorn hide, it sheds like a molting chicken, and yet somehow they want you to pay five times the pelf for a piece of fur that won’t keep anybody’s apparatus warm, just so the other helpmeets have to be the ones to come cave and quit cracking nuts and . . . ”
“I’ve been working on a solution,” Guy Slater, who ever since the incident had nothing but time on his hands, interrupted. “Walnut shells boiled in bear dung yield just the right shade of dark brown. Daub it on the hide of a sheep sheared half a moon before slaughter and you’d swear the skin came from some sort of albino leopard. I still haven’t been able to find anything that reproduces a convincing tint of dull yellow though.”
The guys brainstormed everything in their world even vaguely sun-colored—from chamomile flower to egg yolk to yak urine—but Slater had tried every last one of them. Then everybody ordered a second round of gourds. Then a third. Then a fourth. Rock’s tips grew larger with each drink until, by the end of the night, he didn’t even have enough left over to get himself a rabbit-jump’s time with a big-footed hobbit. It was off to Shepherd Smith’s menagerie for him.
Handing over his last quarter clam, thrusting himself again and again into the chosen lamb’s offspring opening, rubbing his hands on the domesticated beast’s furry hindquarters, Rock was nearly finished when Shepherd gave the call that the client would either have to remove himself presently or else hand over another quarter clam. Rock, having no more cash and poor credit, did his best to combat the firewater’s enduring effects, but he was unsuccessful, and Shep soon stormed over to remove the uncooperative john. Just as the keeper of the flock managed to separate Rock from his prized ewe, however, the client’s uncontrollable release caused all three of them—initially—to get rather grossed out.
One would have expected Shep to demand Rock’s pledge to cover all cleaning costs. One would have expected Rock to acquiesce, to make his mark, and to get out of there before Shep released the mountain lions. One would have at least expected some sort of visceral response from the offended innocent. Instead, Shep’s rant about the “dandelion piss” stain that the dried seed was going to leave all over the backside of his cleanest piece of capital gave Rock the idea of a lifetime. Arrangements were worked and marks were made as Shepherd and Sons Skin Corp. cut a deal to sell a substantial number of “half-moon sheared” pelts to the hunter, who was offering up his rocks as collateral.
It took an almost superhuman level of constant toil, but Rock Chemicals Inc. succeeded in supplying Guy Apparel LLC with enough “dandelion piss” furs to flood the market with authentic “snow leopard” loincloths just in time for the big winter solstice shopping season. When the gathering helpmeets returned to the foraging grounds following the holiday, every last one of them was fitted out in the latest fashion. Rock was a hundredaire. He even took a second helpmeet: the plumpest of Strongbow’s three eleven-year-old daughters (who for some reason looked nothing like their father).
Then the trouble began. With the market for decorated loincloths saturated, Slater introduced a line of hats, then of evening gowns. In order to generate the excess clams necessary to keep their helpmeets happy, all of the hunters started bringing home ever more mammoth meat and, for a season, the tribe was better fed and more stylishly attired than ever. Even before the start of the spring equinox Lenten fast, however, the uneaten backstraps waiting their turn for the smokers had started to stink as rancidly as the pools of excess dye in Rock Chemical’s tortoiseshell vats. The price of everything once held dear had collapsed, and if something wasn’t done soon, the settlement was going to drown in overproduction.
Here Phyllis came up with an idea. Her poorly-dressed old Neanderthal clan had always run around with too many mouths to feed—maybe, in exchange for a few surplus “snow leopard” loincloths, the big-headed tool polishers would be willing to part with a handful of slave laborers otherwise destined for ritual sacrifice? Slater and Shep were all in on the unorthodox proposal. Rock was skeptical, but he was so occupied with his new helpmeet that he didn’t even notice when the mother of his first six surviving children disappeared for a few days.
Rock Chemicals Inc. succeeded in supplying Guy Apparel LLC with enough “dandelion piss” furs to flood the market.
And so, as a week’s worth of company dye went to other uses down in the cave, Phyllis, the only bilingual member of the tribe, was put to work as lead translator for the trade mission’s make-or-break negotiations. From the very first toasted ram’s horn of virgin blood, it didn’t take a firemaker to notice that Slater and Shep had no idea how to talk to these hairy-backed nomads; likewise, no amount of explanatory clicking could communicate to the hairy-backed elders exactly why these weak-stomached civilized types had barely even touched the rump portions of the hospitable sacrifice laid out before them at the banquet preceding the two peoples’ first fireside chat. By the middle of the afternoon session, however, Phyllis had begun to take certain poetic liberties when conveying the positions of both sides. After a bit of extended wrangling over the cranial slopes of the chattel to be taken as payment for the first shipment of “snow leopard” skins, a mutually beneficial deal was sealed in ever more virgin blood. Naturally, the emotionally underdeveloped businessmen (business-eunuch in Slater’s case) were permitted to take all the credit for a contract that brought home several whale-boned captive males in exchange for the pile of textiles that none of the helpmeets back in the settlement even considered to be all that fashionable anymore.
Everyone was better off. Despite the domestic market’s turn toward more refined black-and-white zebra prints, the two indefatigable Neanderthal slaves assigned to the dye factory took production to new levels, and with the trade mission opening up fresh markets by the week, Rock Chemical was raking in enough clams for its head to drag home helpmeets number three and four. The Trudgeson cave may have become a little bit more crowded, but with Phyllis off translating terms Moonday through Sunday, Rock’s domestic situation had become every primitive male’s dream.
Which was why it came as such a shock when the successful entrepreneur was found sprawled out face down in an upturned tortoiseshell of “dandelion piss #7.” Questions arose as to whether the enterprise could survive without the strategic inspiration of its visionary founder, but Phyllis quickly assumed full control of the company and ably oversaw day-to-day operations until—an old woman and full of years—she was gathered unto her people, aged thirty-two. The world’s first female thousandaire was survived by nine children and more grandchildren than extant technology could number. The mystery around Rock’s apparent suicide was never solved.