The Secret of Cawley’s Skull was started in 1992 and took three years to write. Upon finishing, I began searching for a literary agent willing to represent it, spent a couple of years or better sending out query letters by the dozens and dozens, all with no success. By this time, I had started writing columns for Boise Weekly and my thirst to get published had been slaked. I gave up on the book and set it aside.
Ten years later, a friend convinced me I should try again, so out went another flurry of query letters, dozens and dozens, again with no takers. Except one: a very elderly and gracious gentleman from Philadelphia with a long and distinguished history in the publishing biz. He tried. For six years or better, he tried so hard. He was convinced it would be published, eventually, and sent me long, typewriter-written letters detailing his efforts. But time ran out for him, poor fellow.
I could try again. Once more, I could send out dozens and dozens of query letters, trying to attract a literary agent from the dwindling pool of literary agents, one of which might attract the attention of a publishing house from the dwindling pool of publishing houses. But time is running out on me, too. I think it’s a good story, and I want people to read it, even if I must rely on a dwindling pool of readers.
I will post a chapter a week, and there are 45 chapters. At the end, I intend to self-publish The Secret of Cawley’s Skull and make it available on Amazon. That’s the plan, anyway. It might be said that this experiment in literary exposure is the real reason behind “Mr. Cope’s Cave,” and that all the rest—the opinions and pictures and whatever—is just garnish to give it a setting. I wouldn’t argue.
Do give it a try. Like I said … it’s a good story.
My name is Daks.
Among my earliest memories is being called “Daggely-Waggely Daks” by children as they tickled my belly and rubbed my ears. Mom shortened it to “Daks” and it seemed right. I’ve never found a good reason to change it.
My mother is Wen-dee, of the WeenDok clan, and I know nothing of my father other than he was Kok Span-Yell. Mom told me he lived outside the hedges that surround the yard in which I was born, and that he came to my mother only once, in her first fertile burn, and left without telling her his name. I went after him once, went to find my father, but Mom caught hold of me before I made it through the hedge and brought me back. She said, “You’ll never find him, Daks. That’s just the way it is with us. Fathers come and go, but you’ll always have me. I pray for that.”
This isn’t my story. This story belongs to Gray Mish-Shka, Peter, Ah-Teena, Bandy, and it’s important that it be preserved. But it might also be important to know something about me. After all, I’m the one telling the story.
* * *
I joined Mish-Shka’s tribe in the seventh month of my first year, well after my mother began keeping her teats from my brothers and me. My brothers were taken away, one by one. The children brought their friends to choose and they chose everyone but me, I suppose because I was the smallest and rather shy. I was alone with Mom for weeks before the children’s father took me to the empty fields and left me there. The children cried and Wen-dee curled up in our box and trembled, but he took me anyway, out to a place where men don’t infest the land quite so thickly.
Mom knew I was going. She pressed her nose behind my ear and told me she would always love me and that she would never forget me. I didn’t understand then how this is our way, to lose our families and never see them again. I was too young. But some day, things will be different. Our families will remain together. With leaders like Peter and Mish-Shka, things will be different. I pray for that.
The children’s father put me into a paper box on the seat of his car, next to him so he could see what I was doing, and talked to me throughout the entire trip. “Sorry, fella,” he said, “but I di’n’t even want yer Ma much, let alone a whole dang litter. Y’ll be okay. There’z farms out here, lots of ’em, and they al’ays take in strays. Al’ays! Them farmers don’t let strays go hungry.” I was confused and sad and terribly afraid, but still, I could feel he was truly sorry for what he was doing. I stood on my back legs and put my nose on his hand to let him know I understood and didn’t blame him, but he pulled away and said, “Ungh! Dog snot!” It hurt my feelings but now that I’m older, I know that men listen to very few tongues. Now that I have seen so much, the only mystery remaining in my mind about men is how they have accomplished such marvelous things with so little understanding of the voices coming from every corner of the world.
* * *
I saw little for the rest of the way, and I saw it only when I dared poke my head above the rim of the box. A barnyard filled with particularly noisome pigs. A man-hewn pole against the backdrop of distant mountains. A stand of elms silhouetted against the sky. The sun was low, sitting atop the trees when the man abandoned me in the wilderness. He didn’t even get out of his machine. He plopped me onto a roadbed and said, “Go find a farm, fella. Follow yer nose. You’ll be okay. Now go. Scoot!” He snorted, maybe trying to imitate an angry bull because he wanted to shoosh me away from the tires of his machine. It worked. I backed away and told him not to do that anymore because it scared me. But he wasn’t listening. He closed up the machine and tore away with gravel and dust flying from the tires.
Silence like I’d never known before settled over the road. It stunned me how quiet things could be when there were no men about, or none of their grinding machines. It wasn’t until the sun fell below the trees that I learned birds don’t stay up all night. I had assumed they remained awake through the darkness and never stopped yakking. I would have welcomed some yakking, even from birds.
I wanted to do what the man had advised. With no sensible plan of my own, I meant to find a farm. But I couldn’t see anything but high weeds and higher stalks of corn and even higher poplar trees. In every direction, all I could see was a jumble of stems and stalks and rough bark. Dry leaves were dropping on my back. Just the other side of all that confusion, there might well have been one of those farms he told me to look for, but I’d have had to be of the Dane clan to see it. And that’s assuming I knew what to look for. I could smell hints of a million things, most of which I’d never smelled before, but my nose could tell me nothing helpful. My nose is not, nor was it ever, the strongest of my assets.
So I sat on my butt and cried. I would have exchanged anything for a few seconds with my Mom right then, just long enough for her to lick my head and nuzzle her nose under my chin. Just once more.
* * *
Night was nearly complete before I could stop crying enough to think about leaving the roadbed and finding a more comfortable spot in which to die. Oh yes, I was quite sure I would die and I didn’t care. I had decided my life had taken a drastically wrong turn and was no longer worth living. Small, sharp rocks were poking into my bottom when I sat and into my tummy when I lay, and it was getting terribly cold. So I pulled my sore body out of the gravel and went to the side of the road. There was a ditch, mostly filled with leaves and brown weeds, and I’m lucky it was shallow because I fell into the darn thing before I knew it was there. My nose filled with crackly weed dust and dried seeds. I sneezed until I thought my ears might pop and when my vision cleared, I was looking straight into the eyes of the biggest, grumpiest-looking Scrat I’d ever seen.
Only his broad head showed through the scraggly corn and grass. I think he’d been watching me for a while, maybe all that time I sat crying in the road. I have nothing against the Scrats. Really. I just don’t like to stumble across them unprepared. My mother’s human family had a Scrat called Puff and I got along fine with her. I felt sorry for Puff most of the time. She had to spend every night outside and she always seemed so nervous. There were a number of other Scrats in the neighborhood and anytime one of them came close to our home, my mother yelled at it and told it to be gone. Or else! Mom actually chased one away once and Puff chased it right alongside her, cursing like a magpie. Scrats don’t even get along with other Scrats.
This fellow in the weeds was huge, a dull-yellow with golden eyes. I am ashamed to admit that I wet myself a little, he startled me so. I gasped and told him he was scaring me, but if there was any sympathy in him, he kept it well hidden. He hunched his back into a hump like a spider’s and spat at me. During my hasty retreat, I told him what a miserable scab of a Scrat I thought he was.
I went into the corn on the other side of the road, not because I wanted to or meant to, but that’s where I found myself after I got over the shock that bully had given me. I ran and ran, and sneezed and sneezed. I know now that corn fields and I should keep our distance from one another, but since that was my first corn field, and since I didn’t really mean to be there anyway, I was learning as I went. My eyes watered and my nose itched. Corn leaves caught in my curly hair and pulled at me. I wanted nothing but to get away from those raspy stalks, but the more I ran, the more of them there were.
Even had the thick corn parted, blown flat like the hair on a bumble-bee in a high wind, and even had I been of the Dane clan or bigger, tall enough to see over peony bushes, it wouldn’t have helped me see a path to a more pleasant place. It had become dark beyond decent seeing, utterly black. I could hear things rattling away in the night, some close and some far away. Every noise brought back vivid memories of the nasty Scrat, and I tried to run even faster. Whether or not it was actually the Scrat, I ran because I had never been out in a night before. I had no idea what slithering horrors came out when the sun went down and Oggs went into their basement sleeping boxes where they belonged.
I ran, then walked, then ran some more, and finally all my strength was gone. My legs collapsed. My head came to rest against a clod of dirt and it poked into the soft part of my ear. It hurt but I didn’t care. A foul-smelling beetle used my runny nose for a shortcut from one blasted corn stalk to another but I didn’t care. The scurrying sounds I had been hearing came closer, but I just didn’t care. The last thought on my mind was that death, whatever it was, couldn’t be as bad as this.