The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

PART ONE

HENRIETTA’S COLLAR

Chapter 4

        My mood went from dark to darker.  As the day neared its end, we saw fewer farms and crossed fewer of men’s byways.  Taken alone, that should have been a relief, if not for me, then for Peter.  I was just beginning to grasp the depth of his aversion to all things human.  As for myself, being away from human influence meant being nearer to more things unpleasant.  In particular, hills.  The farther we went, the steeper and more primitive the hills became.  When I wasn’t straining upwards on narrow paths littered with sharp stones, I was working to untangle myself from a bramble, usually leaving matted clumps of my hair behind.  Or I was slogging through a mire of sucking mud and fetid water that accumulated like rancid body fluids in the pleats between the hills.

        As the terrain became more difficult, Peter stopped more often, waiting for me to catch up.  “I’ll carry you, if you wish,” he said.  I don’t mind if you don’t.”

        “I’ll get there on my own, thank you anyway.  Wherever we’re going, I’ll get there.”

        “Mister Daks, the truth is, I’m taking a few short cuts.  I know it’s hard on you, but it won’t be long now.”

        “Don’t worry about me.  I’ll either be with you when you get home, or I won’t.  It’s as simple as that.  You and your friends will get along quite well whether I’m there or not, I’m sure.”

        “Goodness, is this self-pity I hear?  Is it possible that my tough little friend is feeling sorry for himself?”

        I was simultaneously embarrassed and enraged.  “I suppose you big galoots wouldn’t mind losing your tails?  Wouldn’t mind it a bit, huh?  You’re above all that, aren’t you?  You big guys don’t need tails, oh nooooo!  And . . . and I suppose you don’t ever miss your Moms?  You big galoots are all above that sort of thing, I bet.”

        The Golden sat down at the side of the meager trail we were following.  The sun was perched on the top of the hill to my back and its red glow danced over his coat with breathtaking results.  He seemed to vibrate with warmth.

        “I’m sorry.  Very sorry, Mister Daks.  I have no right to tease you like that.  You will forgive me, won’t you?”  He lowered his head so that he could look into my eyes more directly.

        “Weeeelll . . . ,”  I was still plenty mad, but the charm in his words was as genuine as the warmth flowing from his striking coat.  I ached to remain righteously angry.  I wanted to yelp at the top of my lungs and declare that the world and everything in it, including gorgeous, towering, Golden Tree-Veers, were rotten to the heart and full of the worst possible sorts of injustice and misery.  But my steam dissipated like an early morning mist.  “Well . . . maybe.”

        “Let’s rest a bit, Mister Daks.  When you’re ready, we’ll go on.”  I brushed aside some prickly rocks and laid down in the warm dust.  It was exquisite to be off my feet.

        Peter stretched out with his broad feet before him.  His tongue lolled out so far ants might have used it for a ramp.  “You know, you’re wrong when you say we big galoots don’t miss our mothers,” he said.  “I miss mine, and it’s been four years since she was lost to me.  I still miss her very much.”

         “You never stop feeling like I do now, Mister Peter?  Never?  I don’t think I can bear it.  I . . . I just don’t think I can go on feeling like this.”

        “You can, just as I did.  Just as most of us do.”

        “How?”  I started to cry and couldn’t stop myself.  I had cried so much over the past day that I couldn’t imagine where the tears came from.  “What’s the point?  What makes you want to go on?”

        Peter set his jaw.  His eyes burned.  “What comes ahead, my friend.  All those times before us.  Things will change.  Someday, our families won’t be torn apart and strewn about like wildflower seed.  These abominations will not go on forever.  I swear to Lah-Tsee!”  I shrank away from his intensity.  “You’ll go on, little Daks.  The loneliness never goes away.  Not ever.  But it dulls and then becomes a part of you.  You become a stronger fellow because of it, and if you’re the sort I think you are, your strength will add with ours and we’ll end it.  Someday, we’ll end it.”

* * *

        We rested along that isolated path until the heat went out of the ground and a chill took its place.  There was still light, but it carried no warmth.  Cramps moved like burrowing insects into my muscles.

        “Mister Daks, we have two more ridges to cross.  That’s all.  This one before us and one more.  We shall eat and sleep with friends tonight.  You can make it now, can’t you?”

        “I can.”

        But I wasn’t so sure.  When Peter said two more ridges to cross, he was obviously counting only the big ones.  By my reckoning, we crossed a lot more than two, but I include all the scrabbly inclines and toe-tearing rock faces.  In the drainage basins, there were flatlands we might have used—thin meadows and grassland twisting around the hills like coiled snakes—but Peter avoided them as though they were covered with stinging nettles and broken glass.  For the most part, they were bare of cover except for the occasional lonely pine, standing apart from the forest as though banished for misbehaving.  The grass had been chewed down almost to the roots by a clan of red cows, a very different sort of creature than the black and white ladies I had encountered earlier.  These cows were wild and fat, more apt to run from our scent than pester us with stupid questions.  Throughout the meadows were the remnants of fences, the posts beaten grey by weather and the wires rusted, broken and tangled.  But for the ever-present trash scattered about, these fences were the only traces of a human’s touch upon the land, and obviously they hadn’t been touched for many a season.

        Still, Peter wouldn’t take the easier trails over the pastures.  He insisted we go around, slipping on the slopes, trying to make our left legs long and our right legs short so as to negotiate the downward pull.  My patience came to an end when we stumbled across a patch of hillside that had become the final resting place for a great many bottles and empty tins.  I recognized the containers.  They had once held a beverage my mother’s master was fond of.  Exceedingly fond, actually.  “Beer” he called it, and he called for it often.  As awful as beer smelled when fresh, the stench was magnified mightily by age.  I tripped over a can and rancid, foul gook splashed out on my foot.

        “This is just stupid.  Stupid!  If we have to get to the other side, Mister Peter, why don’t we simply walk across?  Those cows won’t bother a big guy like you.  It’d be a lot easier.  And shorter.  And flatter!”

        “Wherever men touch, go around that place, Daks.  When ever you can!  Anything to do with men, go around.  Never go where they are unless there’s no choice.”

        “But there’s no men out here.  Nothing but a few run-down fences and sleepy cows.”

        “Those beasts  . . . those Kiddle . . . they belong to men.  Men consider them valuable.  Never, never! . . . come between a man and what he considers valuable.  There’s not a more sure way to destruction.”

        “But the chicken you killed belonged to a man, didn’t it?  Don’t they consider chickens valuable?  Don’t they?”  I was ready to argue, having grown a bit weary of Peter’s pontificating at the expense of my feet.  But as I pestered him for an answer, a most shocking change came over him.  He stopped, tested the air, then whirled and struck me across my snout, pushing me down into the dirt.  Pinned to the ground in such a manner, I could hardly move.

        “Quiet!  Not a word!”  His fangs were pressed to my ear and his voice sounded like escaping steam.  I thought he was going to kill me.  At that moment, I truly believed the entire day had been a ruse to get me out into the dark wilderness so that he might eat me in solitude and at his leisure.  It made me mad.

        I fought.  A brown bottle rolled into another as I kicked out with a free foot.  Peter came down with his other forepaw and squished my butt into the same space my chin occupied, and then I could barely breathe, let alone fight.

        “Daks, our lives depend on your doing what I say.  Don’t move!”

        Well . . . as long as he put it that way.

* * *

        I stopped struggling and froze, and once Peter felt confident I would remain frozen, he released me.  “Stay, brother.  Don’t move from this spot.”  I nodded and he crawled into a bank of mulberry saplings, never bringing his belly off the ground.

        Of course I followed.  Stupid?  Certainly.  But it’s important to point out that I was still naive enough to believe a rapid heartbeat and rushing adrenaline meant there was adventure to be had, and I was still young enough to believe that adventure was always worth pursuing.  My heart beat rapidly, my adrenaline rushed.  So how could Peter expect me not to follow?

        There was still enough dim light to see the outlines of the mountains and the profiles of the Kiddle scattered across the meadow, but inside the mulberries, it might well have been the deep heart of night.  I was as silent as I could be, creeping along behind the Golden, but my tiny body wasn’t nearly as silent as Peter’s big body.  A twig snapped.  A rock rolled into another rock.  It must take practice.

        Peter pressed himself into the dirt.  I skiddled aside his flattened body until my nose was even with his chest, but before the first question could form on my lips, my companion swung a leg over me and pulled me in close.  No more admonishment was needed.  The sight before me, even in the dim light and even through the screen of mulberry stems, was enough to squelch whatever curiosity I felt.

        Not so far below us, on a thin leg of pasture that extended into the trees and brush, a young cow was down and she would never get up again.  Only one leg was still in working order, twitching feebly at the sky while the rest of her was being torn from her bones.  Two creatures, blacker than the night around them, crouched over the not quite dead cow, ripping away pieces of her flesh almost as big as me.  I didn’t need to smell the gore.  The sounds they made—those snarling, swampy, engorging sounds—twisted my stomach into a knot.

        It might not have been quite so bad, if only they had waited for the cow to die before dining.

* * *

        Peter quivered from the inside out.  A fellow can tremble from hunger, and certainly from fear—I was shaking, too, and I was hungry and very afraid—but I sensed Peter’s tremors had nothing to do with appetite, nothing to do with fear.  I recognized it for what it was.  Desire.  Swelling up from within him with artesian force, pure and uncomplicated desire.  At that tender age, I had experienced desire in very few of its manifestations.  I had no idea that desire was seldom pure and never uncomplicated, so what I couldn’t know was the object of his desire.

        These voracious creatures were nothing I could identify—skeletal legs, long pointed snouts.  Even their ears looked vicious.  Without thinking, and more to myself than to my companion, I started to ask, “What . . . what . . . ?” but Peter tightened his hold.  No sound escaped my mouth, but my back leg kicked out with a start, striking a mulberry stem.  Over our heads, dry leaves rustled like insects.

        One of the reptilian things stopped tearing at the cow and looked up, directly at us.  A midge of starbeam, the first of the evening, found purchase on a dripping fang and hung on to that gleaming surface.  The eyes of this beast could never have reflected such a gay little light.  I felt my breath being sucked into those twin, obsidian holes.

        Peter held me like I was his own flesh.  My heart stopped beating, my throat closed tight.  I couldn’t have moved had I wanted to.  Then both of the beasts were peering into our cover.  I didn’t know they could not see us.  I didn’t know they could not smell my blood.  In my imagination, these empty-eyed specters could see straight into my heart, could see the terror clutching at me like a centipede stretched along my spine . . . could smell the heat from my twisted nerves.

        But my imagination was wrong.  What breeze there was pushed into our faces, away from the monsters, and Peter knew that as long as we moved not even a whisker within the blackness, we could not be seen.  His muscles tensed.  I was drawn even deeper into his petrifaction.

        The largest of them took a step forward, with legs as stiff as bones and ears that took on a life of their own.  I knew then it didn’t matter that we couldn’t be seen or sensed.  This creature knew.  He couldn’t know what we were, or exactly where we were, but his mind stretched out, reaching into me like an ice spider testing its web, and I could feel it.  The blackness of his eyes was no match for the blackness of his soul.  A second step . . . a third . . . and there was no doubt left.

        We were discovered.

* * *

        Peter took the loose skin of my neck and pushed himself away, backwards, never leaving his belly.  I was dragged along like a rubber boot.  My face caught on mulberry saplings and my butt bounced from stone to thistle.  A rough ride, indeed, but terror had silenced me.  Even with the scrapes and bumps, even when my bestubbed tail beat against every obstacle on our path, I kept my voice inside.  However much it hurt, I was aware this pain was nothing next to what that poor cow felt in her last moments under the slashing jaws of those black horrors.

        From the other side of the mulberries, they spoke.  “Through heerzzz Anna-Bar!  I saw movement.”  The tongue was my own.  They were Oggs!  But the inflection was alien, as if from some scaly clan that swam through fetid waters deep below the surface.

        Peter rose to his full height and dropped me.  “They can’t yet know we’re Dahm-Ogg, Daks,” he whispered.  Take one of these and knock it into another.”  He grabbed up one of the metal containers and banged it against a flat rock.  I was stunned.  If he’d wanted them to catch us so badly, why didn’t we simply leave our cover and lie down meekly next to the corpse of the dismembered cow?

        “Pet . . . , ” was all I got out before he reached out and kicked my mouth shut.

        “Rattle them, Daks!  Beat the cans!  Now!”

        I couldn’t pick up a can in my jaws as he did, so I used my noggin and pushed a long-necked bottle downhill into a piece of metal I couldn’t identify.  The clear sound soared through the trees like a sun-yellow canary.  Any living thing in the forest that couldn’t have heard that crisp noise—or the steady clinking Peter made—had a heart fed by chlorophyll, not blood.

        “Roth! . . . Rothums!”  The other beast, a female, hissed from another direction.  They had split up and were coming at us like the pincers of an enormous earwig.  “MAN SOUND!”

        Peter threw the can over his shoulder and jumped with all four feet into the pile of refuse.  Thin metal clattered with the bold audacity of a machine.  He then took a sturdy branch with his mouth and flogged the trash repeatedly.  Cans and bottles sang out their artificial song.  The regular pulse echoed back from all directions.

        “THEY COME THIS WAY . . . NO . . . BEHIND YOU, SMEEKUMS!  BEHIND YOU!”

        The female screeched in confused terror, and I realized what Peter was trying to do.  He was imitating a man.  Several men, in fact.  Aside from a few self-abusive birds who knock their beaks into tree bark for hours at a time, no creature I know of is as attached to metered and rhythmic sound as humans.  To have spent anytime at all around men is to have been subjected to the monotony of their world, and the ears suffer the most.  One legitimate guess as to why they create so many machines is that they cannot live without the throbbing, endless cadence those machines produce.  Even the human tongue irritates with its repetition.

        In my amazement, I could do little but watch Peter for several seconds, and listen to the panicked conversation between the strange Oggs in the mulberries.  “ESCAPE! . . . ESCAPE!  ROTH . . . WHICH WAY? . . . WHERE CAN I GO?”

        “ANNA-BAR!”

        “AWAY!”

        They thrashed about in the thick brush until I feared they might crash out upon us by mistake.  With all the strength in my jaws, I took a bottle throat in my mouth and swung it down upon another, careful enough to make the sound coincide with Peter’s beat, but not careful enough to avoid a swig of nasty beer on my tongue.  The bottle shattered and I gagged.

        “AWAY!  AWAAAAaaeey!”

* * *

        Peter continued to thrash at the refuse until no sounds came from the forest but those he made.  I would have helped out more, had I been able to stop spitting up.  Eventually, I had to make him stop, or he might have continued the night through.  “They’re gone, Mister Peter.  They ran away.  It worked.”

        Finally, he stood, panting, his eyes wavered with desperation.  I could smell his heat.

        “They were Oggs, Peter.  Weren’t they?  Oggs!”

        “Yes.  Ogg in form, but they have the soul of something else.  And don’t ask me what that might be.”

        He would say no more.  No matter how many times I asked the same questions, he would not answer.  “You’ll never be old enough to understand some things, Daks,” was all he would say.  And by the time we reached his home, I had stopped wondering what sort of devils we had brushed against, and had started to wonder whether my exhausted and confused bones would ever make it through the night.

 

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