“Jahl-Habra and Louis found no trace of Bon-Bon.”
Peter spoke with none of the teasing humor I had grown to expect from him. The same gentle concern was there, but it was now drenched in sadness. “They went as far South as the rapeseed field, but they found nothing.”
The tribe remained as poised and alert as a field of tulips. But for the muffled sobs of the mother, I could have heard my own blood flowing.
“They followed his scent until he crossed the river. After that . . . nothing.”
I absorbed his words, though the weight of them did not affect me as it did the others. There was nothing but anguish on the faces around me. Tears quivered in Ah-Teena’s dark eyes and I wondered whether this Bon-Bon were special, or whether the tribe felt as strongly toward all its members.
Chew was the first to break the anxious silence. ” Tol’ ya’. They got ‘im and I tol’ ya’ so,” he muttered.
The ancient grey giant flashed his fangs, frightening me and weakening my knees. The dryness in his voice turned to the sound of rock shards. “Chew, you’re a fool! You’ve always been one, and I hold no hope that you will ever change. But for once in your wasted life, could you keep your opinions to yourself?”
Chew answered with defiance. “I only say wha’s on m’ mind, gamdassit! That’s fair and not’in’ y’r gonna say’ll change that, you decrepit stink.” He was large, of one of the Sheep-Herd clans for the most part, but he was no match in size for the grey Ogg. Even so, he showed not a breath of fear. He rose to his feet, the ruff on the back of his neck bristling like spider hair.
The giant reared up as well. In a dreadful, hoarse snarl, he said, “You gas-passing, foul-breathed reprobate! The finest thing I will have ever done is to feed your entrails to the snails.” His legs were stiff and saliva dripped from his eyeteeth.
“Friends. My old friends. Stop.” Peter’s voice was like cool water on hot embers. “This won’t solve a thing. Don’t turn on one another.” The two hoary creatures continued to glare at one another, but it went no further than that.
I whispered to Ah-Teena, “Who is the big one? The huge one?”
“Mish-Shka. That’s Grey Mish-Shka,” she answered quietly. “The eldest of the elders. He founded the tribe, he and Chew. Been together for most of their lives, those two. They would die for one another.”
I freely admit I was bewildered.
* * *
Peter continued. “Chew . . . Meesher. Please. You’re frightening our new friend. I’m certain his first impression of us isn’t good.”
I was closer to Mish-Shka than I was to Chew. When he turned his fearsome mass to me, I felt my stomach quiver and my legs wobble. His eyes were buried under thick brows of coarse, slate colored hair, but they glowed through like magic stones from a full moon. It was an illusion with an explanation in the sparkling fire, I’m sure. But as he examined me, it seemed that he burned from the inside out with an energy unknown to any but him and me.
“I apologize, Mister Daks. It must seem we are savages, but I assure you, any battle I wage with Chew will be conducted with words alone. Please forgive me. I have become cranky with age. Right, Chew?”
“Cranky? Crang-keee? ‘At’s a durn polite way of puttin’ it.” Chew seemed to delight at getting in the last word. He grinned like a goat. “An’ I’m sorry, too, young feller. Don’t pay any ‘tention to us old farts.”
It was embarrassing enough being the focus of attention for almost thirty Oggs, but to make matters worse, I began to stammer. My tongue flapped against the roof of my mouth like a moth against a window pane. “Thuh . . . thuh . . . at’s okay. I uh . . . uh . . . nderstaaaa . . . “ Ah-teena giggled and I felt hot blood rush to my face.
“We have much to discuss,” said Peter. “We have to consider the hunters know we’re around, even if they saw no one but Bon-Bon. They’ll wonder why he happened to be in this place, and they might guess where our home is.”
“Do we have to move, Peter?” The question came from an underfed and overly anxious female sitting in the shadows at the back of the chamber.
“That is what we must decide, Henrietta. There may be another way.”
Mish-Shka was leaning against the rock wall on one shoulder. He looked tired, as weary as the stones around him. “Tell them what we spoke of outside, Peter,” he said. “They must know everything. To decide well, they must know everything.”
“You tell them, Meesher. You understand more of Lah-Tsee than I do.”
The great head bowed. “If you wish.” Around me, two or three others in the group whispered “Lah-Tsee . . . Lah-Tsee” in reverential tones.
“Miss Ah-Teena,” I whispered, “why are the men hunting you? Does it have anything to do with missing chickens?”
Mish-Shka pulled his enormous body away from the wall and came upright, his feet together with martial rectitude. Since that night in the cave, during my travels and adventures I have learned that somewhere, in lands soaked with age and blood, there are figures of gods, cut from hard stone, hidden in dense forests under creeping vines and moss, and seen only by the boldest of creatures. But I tell you, such monuments could never be as impressive as this Grey Mish-Shka.
* * *
“Most of you would agree that if he were able, Bon-Bon would have been back by now.” He paused and slowly took in so much air the fire flickered. “As much as I hate to admit that Chew might be right, we must prepare ourselves for the possibility that he might be . . . might not return.”
I looked to the mother, as she seemed to be the individual apt to react the strongest to Mish-Shka’s announcement. The anguish in her eyes was palpable, but she remained silent.
The giant continued, “Whether or not Bon-Bon is safe, we all know we have a problem to deal with. A great problem. The hunters have been coming ever closer. Today, they might well have walked into the middle of our camp. We have Bon-Bon to thank that they didn’t, but tomorrow might bring an end to it. Or the day after. Or it might be weeks until they find us, but I am convinced that they will find us. You all know what that means.”
“What does that mean, Miss Ah-Teena?” I asked of my sweet-smelling neighbor. I tried to do it as softly as possible, but it seems the entire tribe heard me. “SSSSHHH,” said at least eight of them. Ah-Teena groaned.
Said Chew, “It means we get our tails out o’ here . . . y’ll have to excuse my choice o’ body parts, little feller . . . or we all end up getting bran’ new holes installed in our heads.”
* * *
From my introduction to the tribe, I had sensed fear, even though most of them covered their anxiety with strained congeniality and humor. But with Chew’s comment, panic took over. It was as though the mine’s roof was collapsing. Peter rose and went to the center of the cavern, very near to the fire. I worried for his beautiful coat as he spoke.
“Thank you for your assessment of our situation, Chew. Your talent for graphic description remains legendary.”
“Y’r welcome,” nodded Chew.
“And we all love to hear your stories because of it,” Peter continued. “But please, save the vivid embellishments for the day when we can look back on this from a safe distance.”
Chew hung his head. “Gamdassit, Peter. I just try to say things honest . . . like they are.”
“I know, Chew. That’s okay. And the rest of you, remember, the old ones moved here in the first place, and if need be, we can move again. We aren’t in danger of having ‘new holes installed in our heads’, because . . . well, because we can run away. We can always go farther up into the mountains.”
“Peter. The winter! Winter’s coming!” It was the skinny female in the back who spoke. She was a short-haired setter of some sort, and her ribs showed through her coat. Other than the intensely worried look in her eyes, her most outstanding feature was the collar around her neck. It was a light blue and in it were embedded clear stones the size of my eyeballs. Each stone reflected light from the fire into a dozen places, giving the impression that the wall behind and the ceiling over her head were crawling with luminescent beetles. On the top of the collar, written with smaller, red stones and glittering thread, was her name. “Henrietta.” I came to think of her as Henrietta the Nervous.
“The winter will kill half of us,” she whined. “And we can’t move the fire.”
“No,” murmured others. “We can’t move the fire.”
“We’ll find a way to move the fire, Henrietta. I don’t know how yet, but we’ll find a way. Winters will be hard, I know that. And getting there will be hard, too. We have young, and we have old. But if we’re destined to run from men . . . forever, as it seems . . . we are left only with places where men won’t live. Those are hard places, my friends, but we’ve run out of easy answers.”
Chew went to the center, across the fire from Peter. He was grim. The mock grumpiness had disappeared and genuine rage had taken it’s place. “I say we stan’ an’ fight. I’m tired o’ runnin’. I ain’t gonna go up into them durn rocks any further. They’ll pro’bly get me. They pro’bly will, that’s right. But I mean to make sure they know they had a damnaceous fight.”
“I’ll fight too, Peter,” said Ah-Teena. “It’s no good to always run away. I don’t want to run anymore.”
Mish-Shka moved to Peter’s side. Peter had seemed so large earlier in the day, but next to the old one, he looked runty.
“These are no choices, friends. To stay and die, or to migrate and die. We cannot fight men. You know that. All of you know that, and it’s absurd to consider it an option. Chew . . . Ah-Teena, the tribe needs you both too much for you to rush yourselves into ashes. No, we cannot fight men. And we can’t forever run from them.”
“Then what, Meesher?” asked Ah-Teena. “What do we do?”
“The Bridge. Mother Lah-Tsee.” He paused for a moment to let what he’d said register. “If there was ever a time to appeal to her for help, it’s now.”
“I leave when the sun rises,” said Peter.
Mish-Shka added, “And I go with him.”
“Well, gamdassit, then I’m a goin’ too.” Chew stiffened his legs like a wet Scrat.
“No, Chew,” said Peter. “And no to you, Meesher. I’ll go alone. You’re both old, and if what you’ve told me is correct, neither of you would ever return.”
“It’s not important that I return. As you say, I’m old. It will be enough that I reach Lah-Tsee, and I would go to ashes with no regrets.”
Chew spit on the ground and growled. “Why you feeble old rag! You ain’t got the stamina to get to the potty grounds half o’ the time, Meesh. Now y’r saying you can get all the ways to Lah-Tsee, just so’s you can spit up and die at ‘er feet?” It was astonishing how blunt Chew could be. The two of them went back to snarling at one another as though they were intermittently rabid.
“Chew, I have stamina left to take your heart to her, to show her how vile and putrid a fool’s life can leave one’s remains.”
The tribe remained unperturbed by the vicious things Chew and Mish-Shka said to one another, and in fact, as the insults became more intense, the atmosphere in the cavern became more relaxed. Ah-Teena was actually smiling, and Peter sat in such a loose way that he might have been waiting for a ball to fetch. He interrupted them and said, “You two. You have our permission to destroy one another later, but for the moment, we need you both. And the truth is, if either of you insist on going to Lah-Tsee with me, I won’t go. Someone must look after things while I’m gone. Someone we can rely on.”
Chew puffed up like an overly ripe peach. “You want me to lead the tribe while y’r gone, Peter? Me?”
“You and Meesher both, Chew. Get them safely through the winter. I may be gone that long. I may be gone quite some time, I don’t know. But it will be hard, what with the winter coming. And the men. Your combined wisdom has never failed us.”
“You can rely ‘pon me, Pete. I don’ know how much help I’ll get out of a senile old sack like Meesh. But I’lls a keep things straight ’round here, so’s you can relax an’ have a good time on y’r trip.” Chew’s chest was extended to the point of bursting and his tail was swinging so hard that had he tried to stop it suddenly, his hip would have dislocated.
Mish-Shka said, “Such an odious dilemma you have offered me, Peter. If I go with you, Chew will follow like a bad smell. And if I remain, I have to suffer the fool without any buffering from you. But I will stay, as you ask. I suppose the opportunity to see Lah-Tsee has passed me by, and I will do what is most needed.”
“Thank you, Meesher. And you, Chew. If I reach Lah-Tsee, she will hear of you. Both of you.”
Ah-Teena asked, “Shouldn’t we give Lah-Tsee something? I mean . . . well . . . I don’t know how these things work, but it seems to me you should take her something, Peter. An offering, sort of.”
The Golden shrugged and looked to Mish-Shka. “Do we need an offering?”
Mish-Shka’s brows pulled together like two woolly caterpillars. “My understanding of Lah-Tsee is meager at best, and I can’t really know if there’s a procedure to be followed, but my best guess is that Lah-Tsee would no more expect an offering than any mother would from her children. But to be safe, it might be better if Peter didn’t make this pilgrimage carrying nothing but our pleas. I suppose it couldn’t hurt.” He shrugged.
Peter asked, “What have we got worth offering, Meesher? We have nothing. I could take her a chicken, but surely Lah-Tsee can have a chicken whenever she wants one.”
“We have Henrietta’s collar,” said Ah-teena.
There was a shocked silence, interrupted only by a whistling sound as two or three members of the tribe sucked air through their teeth. Obviously, everyone knew of, and held some anxiety over, Henrietta’s collar. Every head turned, cautiously, to Henrietta. The Nervous.
* * *
She sat on the outer edge of the circle, and her eyes bulged out of her head like grubs straining to escape a tight spot. “If . . . even for a moment . . . you think I would let you take my . . . my precious COLLAR! . . . (the word came screaming out from the depths of her bowels) . . . on some . . . some wild expedition . . . and give it to some . . . myth we don’t even know exists, you . . . you . . . why, it’s absurd . . . the most absurd thing I can imagine.” Then she began to cry. Tears poured out of her bugged eyes and the entire tribe began to talk at once.
Peter put his nose close to Mish-Shka’s ear. “Let me take care of this, Meesher. Some delicacy is required here.” He whispered, but I was close enough to hear. So was Ah-Teena. She stepped forward and hissed, “I’ll get you the collar, Peter. You’ll never talk her out of it. She knows you too well. But I can get it for you, on one condition. I go with you.”
“Teena, please. Don’t joke around. You can’t go. I go alone. Besides, the tribe needs…”
“Don’t try to feed me that mother’s milk, Pete! The tribe doesn’t need everyone. Meesher and Chew will be here. And Louis and Jahl-Habra. They don’t need me. I either go with you, or you go without Henrietta’s collar.”
With eyes that begged for advice, Peter looked to Mish-Shka. But the giant shrugged. “When her mind is set, you might as well try to loosen the jaws of a Bull-Ogg as convince her she’s wrong. And I’m not so sure she is wrong.”
“Meesher, don’t abandon me. I can’t take a . . . a female.”
Ah-Teena grinned. “When do we leave, Pete ol’ pal? Should get an early start, don’t you agree?”
Peter howled his protestations. “I won’t take you, Teena. I won’t! You’ll only slow me down.”
She was as defiant as she was pretty. “I have outrun you more than once, Peter, and you know when. I will probably have to sit and wait while you pull cockleburs and foxtails out of your fancy coat every time we go through some heavy brush.”
I could actually hear the blood rushing to Peter’s face. He came to his feet and I wasn’t sure that he didn’t mean to take a bite out of Ah-Teena. He well might have, if Mish-Shka hadn’t spoken up.
“Peter! Think! Your journey will be dangerous, lonely and arduous. You will have occasion to wish for help. If you go alone, who will stand watch while you sleep? Who will tend to you if you are hurt? Who might comfort you when things get so desperate that you regret your decision to make the trip? Take her, Peter. This is what the tribe needs, for you to be successful. And she can help.”
Peter could argue no more. He looked from Mish-Shka to Ah-teena, back and forth. It was clear he wanted to say more on the subject, but didn’t know what. Henrietta had retreated to the back wall of the cavern and a number of Oggs had gathered around her. She continued to wail even though the others were trying to assure her it was the best thing she could possibly do, to part with her treasured collar. But she would have none of it. She turned her back on them and pushed her head into the crumbling dirt of the wall. “Never!” she screamed. “Never! Not while I have four good legs and my poor heart throbs with the love of art and beauty.”
Peter slumped and looked at me. “Welcome to the family, Mister Daks.”