The Secret of Cawley’s Skull



Chapter 2

        I dreamt of Wen-dee and my brothers.  Something huge was chasing us through a world of nothing but cornfields.  It crashed through the stalks behind us and in spite of how desperately we struggled to escape, it came closer and closer.  My mother was frantic.  She pushed at our backsides to move us faster, but we couldn’t be fast enough.  Like a fool, I looked back and all I could see was a monstrous head reaching down to me out of the sun.

        The dream ended, I jerked awake, but the fright just kept right on coming.  A few feet from my nose was a pair of cloven hooves on the end of long, spindled legs.  The same monstrous figure from my nightmare was hovering over me and the shadow of the beast’s head alone covered my body.  Its ravenous snorting was a horrible thing to hear from so near.  Out of nostrils big enough for gophers to hide in came gobs and gobs of snot.  I may have fallen asleep the night before with no fear of death, but the sight of this creature first thing upon awakening put my will to live back into perfect working order.  I was so afraid I was speechless.  My mouth was open but all that came out was a watery wheeze that had more to do with my plugged-up nose than any language.  I rolled over on my back and flailed at the air with my legs.

        Not the bravest of reactions, I admit … opening my soft belly like that to the first monster I encountered in life.  But I must point out that I was very young when this all happened, and rolling over wasn’t something I planned to do anyway.  My body took control without my conscious involvement, and all I could do was snuggle into the dirt and await my demise.  I might also defend myself by noting that I’d never seen a cow before.  It’s easy to make fun of an abandoned, lonely youngster for becoming a craven lump of exposed throat over a simpleminded and harmless cow, but the easy thing to do isn’t always the right thing to do.

        The cow had merely a passing interest in me.  She snorted one last gob of green mucous out of her nostrils and pulled her head back through the loose wires of a fence.  I rose from my embarrassingly meek stance and shinnied under a slack strand of barbed wire, following her.  I was sleepy and still frightened, but curious.  Had I taken three or four more steps the night before and broken through one more row of corn stalks instead of giving up and falling asleep, I would have found myself in a lush pasture.  The grass had been gnawed down low and it felt wonderful on my sore paws.  Stumbling over dirt clods and sharp rocks and those nasty corn leaves had left them raw.

        There were cows scattered all over the pasture, and every last one of them was black and white.  Black and white are my favorite colors, so much easier to understand than the others.  It takes no exertion whatsoever to comprehend good old black and white, where I have to think about the more ostentatious hues.  So I was relieved that these creatures were black and white … comforting black and white … because they were so incomprehensible in other ways.  At least I didn’t have to worry about their color scheme.

        The lady who had just frightened me so thoroughly had moved farther on down the fence, and was pushing her head through the wire again.  She stretched her neck and wrapped her tongue around a corn leaf.  I wondered aloud how she could do that and not cut her tongue to gore, but she ignored me.  She pulled the leaf off and munched it up.  Her eyes were as big as sparrows and as she chewed, they were the least bothered, most contented eyes I’ve ever seen.  I concluded there was nothing to be gained by trying to talk to this happy cow, and it wasn’t until I attempted conversation with some of the others, munching on the pasture grass as though it were the finest meal ever, that I realized she wasn’t merely a particularly slow-witted member of her clan.  I approached a number of them, asking directions to the nearest farm (and the nearest food suitable to my more sophisticated tastes), and not one of them had the clarity of mind to give me a reliable answer.  Most of them ignored me entirely.  One of them, a younger girl judging from the size of her odd looking teats, came chasing after me.  “What ‘cha doin’? … what ‘cha doin’?” she asked over and over, as though she’d never seen a WeenDok/Kok Span-Yell cross before.  Other cows lumbered along with her and I feared for my safety.  One clumsy misstep, and I could well imagine myself wedged like mud between one of their cloven hooves.  I dodged their feet and asked them to be careful, but they kept coming.  The chorus grew.  “What ‘cha doin’?. . . what ‘cha doin’?”

        I gave up.  Don’t ever ask serious questions of cows.  Whatever answers cows have apply only to cows’ questions, and any question a cow might ask probably doesn’t deserve an answer.  I resolved then and there that if I ever found myself with nothing at least moderately intelligent to say, I would keep my mouth closed.  I haven’t always lived up to that resolution, but whenever I catch myself rambling on as I am wont to do, I think of those goofy bovines. Their memory is usually all it takes to quiet me down.

        It was early enough in the morning that the sun was coming through the lowest branches of a batch of pine trees opposite the cornfield.  I’d had my fill of cornfields, so I slipped between the hooves of the two matrons closest to me and headed for those trees.  In leaving, I remarked, “Thanks a lot for the enormous help you’ve been,” but the irony rolled off of their black and white hides like dried fly dung.  They switched from chanting “What ‘cha doin’?” to “Whur ya’ goin’? … whur ya goin’?”  It was easy to outdistance them, even with legs as stubby as mine.  One by one, they quit following and went back to munching grass.  By the time I reached the trees, I truly think they had forgotten I’d ever been there at all.

* * *

        Once I was inside the shadow of the pines, the ground rose.  I sat to catch my breath and review my circumstances in a comfortable place, a spot of sunlight and soft dirt.  Birds were going through their morning announcements, chattering amongst themselves like … well, like birds.  They showed no interest in me.  I knew from past experience that birds consider themselves quite beyond the concerns of anyone who can’t fly, and my Mom warned me about their snobby ways.  So I didn’t even try to get any advice from them.

        My stomach grumbled and boiled like it was being squeezed down a field mouse hole.  It was clear that before anything else could be done about my situation, my belly’s needs had to be addressed.  Was a “farm” the solution?  I honestly didn’t know.  If my limited experience had included any information about farms, I would have known that when there are cows around, a farm couldn’t be far away.  But at that early stage of my life, I didn’t know what either farms or cows were, let alone the relationship between them.  I had been told that farms take in strays and I knew I was a stray, but was it good to be “taken in”?  Cows “take in” grass.  Birds “take in” bugs.  I, myself, was desperate to “take in” something.  But did I want to be, myself, “taken in?”

        I stayed in the sunny spot, weighing my options and resolving nothing, until sounds from some distance away began to intrude into my self-pity.  It was machinery.  What else makes a racket that carries so far and sounds so ugly?  And it was coming from the other side of the hillock.  The warmth was so cozy I debated whether to leave that place, especially to put myself at the mercy of strange men who had nothing special going for them other than they might know something about a farm–whatever that was.  It wasn’t even clear in my mind if I liked men or not.  The children had been good to me and my brothers, if you don’t count the rough tugs on our tails that came when we grew tired of playing with them.  And my Mom seemed genuinely to like humans.  Whenever the family returned home after even a short absence, Mom would perk up until I worried she might pull a muscle in her ears.  She would dance and spin like a wind-blown leaf.  They fed us and scratched us and threw red rubber balls for us to chase, but I wasn’t sure what I actually thought of them.  As animals go, they smell funny and that trick they have of walking on only two legs is interesting, but the novelty wears off.

        In the end, my decision had nothing to do with whether I liked humans or not.  What got me up and going was my belly.  If nothing else can be said about humans, it must be noted that the food they eat and even the food they throw away is worth putting up with a tug on the tail now and then.

* * *

        From the top of the hill, I could see a road and a cluster of buildings, and beyond the buildings were vast fields and more trees on more hills.  The hills stacked up one upon another like clouds, each one taller than those before it.  The noises were coming from an odd machine crossing and re-crossing a field, back and forth.  Behind it, the ground was being turned up into lumps of dirt taller than I stood.  A man sat in a glass box atop the machine.  I searched the scene for some children or even a female because I had learned the males were the most apt to treat us badly.  The children pull at our tails and the females shoo us off, but it is the males who do the lasting damage.

        I trotted down the hill, coming out of the trees directly across the road from a lane leading to the buildings.  My plan was to scratch on the first door I came to and wag my behind so hard that whoever answered couldn’t help but see how I would be excellent company.  The plan might have worked, had I stuck to it.  But this wouldn’t be the first time I got into trouble over what men throw away.

        At the entrance to the lane was a sight I knew well.  Two big plastic bags sat next to a mailbox, and there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that somewhere inside them were some discarded potato bits and some cheese, maybe even some fragments of bacon or crust from toast.  There is always something to eat inside of those plastic bags.  Always!  And almost always it’s something that tastes wonderful, certainly better than the monotonous pap they feed us.

        My better judgment fluttered away like a startled dove.  I raced across the road and went at a bag with tooth and claw, and as soon as I had a hole torn in the side, I could smell eggs and pancakes.  Oh my, eggs and pancakes!  This is what the family in my old home ate upon awakening at least every third day.  Mom tried to explain that we were not supposed to show too much exuberance when we begged for table scraps, and under normal circumstances, I followed her advice.  But whenever the family had eggs and pancakes, my self-control stood to one side and watched me behave like a wriggling, slobbering, exuberant fool.

        I went into the bag like an earthworm, using my nose to push aside papers and tins and plastics, until I reached what I was after.  Someone had thrown away an entire half a pancake, all buttered up and sopping with honey.  I nearly blacked out from joy.  The last shred of doubt that I was doing the right thing disappeared.  Half of a pancake alone was worth the swat with a rolled-up newspaper my butt would probably get, but the honey?  Oh my, the honey!  Is there anything in this world better?  I would suffer anything for honey.

        Or so I thought.

* * *

        There were even a few bites of pancake left when I disentangled myself from the garbage bag.  I chewed slowly, letting every drop of butter and honey linger on my tongue for a moment.  The sun warmed the hair on my back and sweet smells blew across my nose on a baby breeze.  I was still awfully depressed.  It seemed like forever since I’d seen my Mom and I didn’t want to think much about the future.  But for the first time since this adventure began, I felt that maybe things weren’t as bad as they had seemed.  I began to think I could cope with the humiliation of having to beg acceptance from strange humans and the pain of never seeing Mom again.  I thought these things as the butter and honey assuaged my fear and the sun massaged my back.  It would be a few seconds yet before I would fully understand how cruel humans could be.

        The odd machine had stopped in the field on the side closest to where I stood.  I didn’t pay any attention until the man climbed out of the glass box and stepped down to the ground.  The only reason I paid attention then was because I assumed this was the person I would eventually have to see about permanent residency.  He was bigger than Wen-Dee’s master, moderately fat, and his clothes were covered with soil.  I was a tad too far away to see his face clearly, but I decided, hopefully, that there was a big grin on it, mixed with a dollop of aggravation over the hole I’d made in his plastic bag and the mess I had spread out over the lane.  “This is it,” I told myself and began to wiggle my butt.  As far as I was concerned, the interview had begun.

        He put something to his shoulder and stared at me along its length.  The thing was made of metal and wood, but it jerked into the air as though it were made entirely of muscle.  I felt a tug on my body from behind.  Had one of his children crept up and pulled my tail?  That’s what it felt like, until the pain set in.  A paralyzing explosion followed and I was shocked by the sound.  It echoed sharply off the hills and over the open fields while the man brought the long thing back to his shoulder.  He sighted down its length again and I knew I was near to death.  There was no big grin on his face.  There was no mild aggravation.  There was only desire, and what an angry desire.  “So this is life on the farm,” I told myself, and gave up all hope.

        I closed my eyes.