The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

PART ONE

HENRIETTA’S COLLAR

Chapter 7

        Peter, Mish-Shka and the one they called Louis left the cave, but not until Peter agreed to take Ah-Teena with him.  He did so with great reluctance.  All the while she pressured him, he kept swallowing and gulping for air as though he had something enormous lodged in his throat.  I concluded it was merely his pride.

        The scene had turned to chaos.  Henrietta continued to wail out how awfully the world was treating her while Jahl-Habra, a husky fellow with small, pointed ears and a tail that curled over his back like a rooster’s topknot, was arguing with Chew.  The mother sobbed in her corner, the puppers were yipping for her to stop and the rest of the tribe chattered among themselves like panicked squirrels.  I didn’t know where to turn.  Peter was gone and Ah-Teena was pushing her way through the yabbering crowd to Henrietta.  The pupper Poo-Lee bounced up to me with his chubby bottom flouncing from side to side, and said, “Mister Daks, I’m really sorry if I hurt your feelings.  And besides, I think you look super without a tail.  Real super.  When I grow up, I’m gonna get my tail taken off.  It looks neat-o.”

        “Apology accepted … uh, son,” I said, and immediately felt silly and pretentious for having called him “son.”  He was only a few moon cycles younger than myself and he was already nearly as tall as I, and growing.  “Tell me, Poo-Lee, where do you all sleep?”  The question came out of a blossoming awareness that wherever I might be allowed to fall asleep had best not be far from where I stood.  The day was rapidly catching up with me, in spite of the excitement all around.

        “Oh, we each sort of have a place, Mister Daks.  You can sleep with us.  Mom’ll let ya’.  There’s room right next to me, down by her back legs.”

        Had Poo-Lee not evoked his mother, thereby evoking within me my mother … and if I hadn’t been so exhausted … and if I hadn’t been brought into this world of strangers at such a time of turmoil … I might not have begun sobbing right then.  I’m grateful most of the adults, notably Ah-Teena, didn’t notice. Thankfully, I can sob in a discreet way.  Poo-Lee was as understanding as only the very young can be.  He led me to his family and even with the anxious noise all around, I fell asleep, pressed against his sad mother’s belly.

* * *

        I would likely have slept through the night, but my bladder was full.  The cave was still when I awoke, and very nearly dark.  The fire had died to nothing but throbbing embers, and what light they offered shimmered as though it were filtered through a flock of sleepy birds.  The cavern floor was littered with the bumps and lumps of twenty or more sleeping Oggs and the silence was broken only by soft, wet snoring sounds from Poo-Lee and his siblings.

        It took a time to orient myself, to remember where I was.  I rose to my haunches and sat for a minute, considering what to do about my urgent need to pee.  It would have been quite inappropriate to relieve myself there in the tribe’s sleeping quarters, of that much I was sure.  Had that been the common practice, I would have smelled the accumulated urine.  Besides, it hadn’t been too many days earlier that I’d been whacked on my butt with a rolled up newspaper and had my nose rubbed in my own pee for leaving it where it ought not to have been—on a sickly yellow carpet, to be exact.  Living with men can make any water-drinking entity a bit self-conscious about where he empties his bladder in the middle of the night.

        In the dim light, I was unsure where the entrance to the mine was.  Everything looked different, strange and misshapen.  What illumination the fire still offered was exhausted a few feet from its source and the mounds of dozing Oggs all around created an alien scene, a deeply shadowed landscape strewn with heaving, fur-clad boulders.  I pulled away from Poo-Lee’s limp body and he rolled over.  His mother looked up with eyes that were only half open.  She said something—it sounded like “MmmBomBommm”—and I think even her dreams were filled with sorrow.  Then she was asleep again.  I asked her with a whisper where the proper peeing place might be, but she was too far away to answer.

        So I took a guess and stepped between the two nearest lumps.  One of them I recognized as Henrietta.  It was a wonder that she had been able to get to sleep, as distraught as she had been earlier.  Her brilliant collar reflected even that feeble light and made it beautiful.  It took some delicate maneuvering to get through the maze of sleeping forms without stepping on any of them, but I managed to do it.  I made it all the way to the wrong place, the back wall of the cave … the wall opposite the entrance … without so much as touching anyone …

        … until I bumped my nose into the skull.

* * *

        Even then, I might not have disturbed anyone, had the portion of wall I bumped into not been a skull.  A human skull!  I couldn’t immediately tell what it was, not until I backed away a bit and aligned my vision.  At first, it looked like a smooth rock, bulging out from among the other rocks, but then I made out the ragged eye sockets and teeth.  I had never seen a human skull before.  In truth, the only skull I’d ever seen was that of a gopher my Mom found one day under the shrubs in the back yard.  But it seems a skull is remarkably recognizable, no matter the species.  And it also seems a skull is remarkably shocking, especially when one stumbles upon it in the dark.

        My throat constricted and my jaws locked.  I couldn’t even properly scream.  I jerked backwards and pinched out a high “Erk”, but that was the only sound I could make.  What awoke everyone was the racket Chew made when I tripped over his legs and plopped my bottom down on his face.

        “GAMDASSIT! ” he bellowed.  “GET OFFA MAH NOOOOZE! “

        I would have obeyed him immediately, had my legs cooperated.  But my legs were as shocked as I was, and they could do nothing to lift my butt off of Chew’s old snout.  I tried, really tried, but I managed only to squirm around like an exposed grub, while renewed pain from my wound further incapacitated any coordination I possessed.  In fact, the only part of me that seemed to function as it was supposed to was my bladder, which emptied—just as bladders are meant to do—on poor old Chew’s face.

        When he realized he was being peed on, he roared and came to his feet with alarming agility for one his age.  I was flung off and I landed on my back so hard my breath left me.  Chew snorted and shook his head violently.  I could feel droplets of my own moisture raining on me.

        “HE PEED ON MAH FACE!  THE LITTLE WHELP PEED ON MAH FACE!  LIKE I’M SOME GAMDASSIT MAR-EE-GOLD!”

        The tribe was awake, staring at Chew and I as though, between us, we had ten legs and four heads.  “PEED ON ME HE DID!  SAT DOWN ON MAH FACE AND PEEEEED!”

        “I didn’t mean to,” I wheezed with what little air I could muster.  “There’s a skull.  There, in the wall.  A man’s skull.”

        “PEED ON ME!  JUST ‘CAUSE HE AIN’T NEVER SEE’D A SKULL STUCK IN A WALL A’FORE.  Y’ EVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE IT?”

        Jahl-Habra took a piece of wood from a jumble of branches and bark stacked in a niche and laid it gingerly into the smoldering embers.  “He didn’t mean to do it, Chew.  Calm down.  He’s just a pupper,” he said, then yawned and went back to his nest, curling up with his nose under his leg.   The others went back down, one by one, as I made my way out.  Only Henrietta remained on her feet, pop-eyed and defensive.  She watched after me until I was outside, like she thought I might pee on her, too—or try to steal her precious collar from her.  I was deeply grateful that Peter and Ah-Teena weren’t there to see this.

        Chew continued to grumble until I was out of hearing range.  “Now I smells like a fire plug.  A gamdassit fire plug!”

        Poo-Lee was the only one to speak to me as I shuffled out the mine’s entrance.  “Gosh, Mister Daks. That took a lot of nerve, to pee on old Mister Chew.  I never thought of that before.  Neat-o.”

* * *

         Some moonlight managed to find its way through the thick canopy of brush, falling to the ground in uneven splotches.  A light wind shuffled the pine needles and dry leaves.  I was chilled but it felt good to cool down, having grown all-too warm under the scrutiny of the tribe and the displeasure of Chew.

        It was no longer important that I find the place where the tribe went to relieve themselves.  That problem had taken care of itself, though I can’t claim it had been much of a relief.  I might have gone back to Poo-Lee’s mother and her comforting belly warmth, but I had no desire to return, not until Chew and the others were well asleep.  My mouth and throat were dry and I knew I could find my way to the creek, simply by following the slope downward.  A good, long drink of cold water, that was what I needed.  And by the time I returned, they would all have drifted off and I would finish out the night, curled up next to Poo-Lee and his mother.  And in the morning, I would make some serious decisions about whether I could stay here with this tribe and risk further humiliation, or go it alone and die in the wilderness.  Actually, I had already decided to go out and die alone with whatever dignity I still had left.  It was the very least I could do after demonstrating what an incontinent little fool I was.

        The path Ah-Teena along which had brought me was simple to retrace, though I stumbled over the same tree root I had tripped over before, and with the same toe I had stubbed before.  I limped the rest of the way down the slope.  The pain in my foot was just one more entry to a growing list of unpleasantries that defined my new life.

        The creek sparkled in the moonlight as beautifully as Henrietta’s collar.  Its pretty song was soothing and I felt calm as I drank, more confident.  I licked the sweet water from my snout and put my foot in among the smooth pebbles.  The ache in my toe eased, then went away, so I sat down in the creek, submerging what little remained of my tail.  It was the obvious thing to do.

        Sitting in the creek brought the first relief from the persistent hurt I’d had since my tail and I parted company.  I admit that it was less than total comfort, letting my genitals dangle in the frigid water like that, but I was beginning to learn that comfort is never total and comes in many forms, all of which are relative to one another.

* * *

        “Hey, Daks, didn’t anyone ever tell you not to piddle in the drinking water?”

        I jerked my bottom out of the water and spun around, slipping on the glossy stones in the process and falling face-first into the stream.  It was Ah-Teena who had startled me so, from atop one of the huge boulders.

        After I’d cleared my nostrils of water, I told her I hadn’t been piddling.  “What are you doing anyway, sneaking around like that?  Spying on me? “

        “I’ve been here all along, before you came.  I’m lookout tonight.  Sorry if I scared you, Daks.”

        She was smirking, and I was growing weary of being smirked at.  I sloshed out of the water and shook myself off.  “Lookout for what?  Men aren’t apt to leave their beds and tromp around these hills in the middle of the night hunting for a bunch of mongrel Oggs to kill.  You aren’t all that important to them, I’m sure.”

        “Maybe not … maybe not.  But we’re that important to each other, Mister Daks.  My friends are plenty important enough to stand guard over.  Besides, men aren’t the only danger in this world.  There are plenty of others.  And most of them come out at night.”

        “What dangers?  Miss Ah-Teena, what’re you talking about?”  A chill coursed through my body, and it had nothing to do with the wind.

        She sat down and studied me.  “There are old enemies about.  You’ve already run into them, I believe.  Roth and Anna-Bar.  They’re horrible.”

        A memory grasped hold of my spine and shook until even my mind shuddered.  A cow’s leg flailing desperately at the night … black eyes with nothing in them.  “Horrible … yes … that’s the right word for those two.  But Peter scared them off.  Didn’t he?  We beat cans together.  We scared ’em off.”

        “Maybe.  But Roth and Anna-Bar aren’t the only hungry mouths to worry about.”

        “Like what? What hungry mouths?

        “Weeellll, let’s see.  A bear comes through here now and then.  A big black fellow with a nasty disposition.  And the coyotes are always waiting to catch one of the little ones alone.  There are eagles and snakes and hawks.  And we have a particularly ill-tempered badger for a neighbor, up there above the mine.”  She paused, looking over me and beyond, into the night.  “Then, of course, there are the wolves.”

        “Wolves?  There are wolves?”

        At that time, I didn’t know what wolves were.  I also didn’t know what a bear was, or a badger, and I wasn’t sure about the other things Ah-Teena listed.  But there was something about the way she said “wolves” with such a hushed reverence that made them seem like beasts to be avoided with utter enthusiasm.

        “Not often.  Meesher says he saw one about two years ago.  And Chew insists wolves are watching us all the time … waiting.”

        “But have you seen one, Ah-Teena?”

        “I might have, I’m not sure.  Peter and I were out one night last winter.  Hunting.”  She stressed “hunting” as though she were concerned I might think otherwise.  “We were stalking an elk.  I was convinced we could never take it down, just the two of us.  But the tribe had gone hungry for weeks, and Peter thought an elk would feed us for a long time.  It would have taken many trips just to get the whole carcass back here, but it was a hard winter, and food was not easy to find.  We had few choices.

        “The elk was high up, above the tree line.  He was fidgety, sniffing at the night, and I supposed he knew Peter and I were there, somehow.  Peter was on the verge of going for the kill.  You can tell when he’s ready because he stops breathing for so long you wonder that he doesn’t just drop to the ground, dead.  But before he could strike, the elk threw his head straight up and screamed.  It was the eeriest, most desperate sound I’ve ever heard, Daks.  Absolute resignation.  Then he sobbed and dropped to his knees.

        “I was stunned, totally at a loss for what to do.  I crouched, waiting for Peter to make the attack, but when the elk went down, I jumped up and yelped.  Couldn’t help it.  Peter grabbed me by my ruff and jerked me back down to my belly.  I was ready to fight him, I was so rattled, but he nodded in the direction of the trees below us.  Something was standing in the shadows, maybe eighty paces away.  I couldn’t tell what sort of creature it was, but it was big.  Not as big as the elk, but big in another way.  Big like thunder is big.  Or terror.  There was another in front of the elk, and yet another behind us.  We were surrounded by these things.  I think they were wolves.  Whatever they were, I knew why the elk had given up.  I was ready to give up, myself.  For the first time in my life, I felt like the prey.  I felt like food.  I would have lain there in the rocks and snow and waited for the finish if Peter hadn’t nudged me up and walked me out of there.”

        “They let you get away?  You walked away?”

        “We moved slowly.  It wouldn’t have done a bit of good to try to outrun those things.  Peter stayed so close our hair got tangled and together, we crossed the open ground and entered the trees.  I could feel their eyes and smell their heat, but they didn’t move.  We got away.  I don’t understand it, but we got away.  The elk didn’t.”

        Ah-Teena paused, as though she were picturing what happened to the elk.  Then she shrugged.  “I don’t know for sure, and neither does Peter, but if they weren’t wolves, I can’t imagine what they were.”

        “What did they look like, Miss Ah-Teena?  Did they have pointed ears?  Really pointed ears?  And thin legs?”  I still had other monsters on my mind.

        “I told you.  I couldn’t be sure what they looked like.  It was too dark and I was too afraid.  More afraid than I’ve ever been.”

        “But you believe they could have eaten you and Peter?  That is, if they hadn’t wanted the elky-thing already, do you believe they would have eaten you instead?”

        “Daks, I believe whatever I saw would eat anything in the world.”

        One scary thing after another.  In just over one day’s span, I had come face to face with maternal separation, allergies, infernally stupid cows, a farmer with a rifle, a vicious Scrat, cranky elders, a human skull, and now, the prospect of being slaughtered and eaten by creatures that lurked in the shadows and made even heroes afraid.

        “Miss Ah-Teena … uh … can I come up there and sit with you?  Please?”

        Instead, she came down off of the boulder, jumping to smaller and smaller rocks until she stood at my side.  “I have a better idea.  Let’s walk down-water.  A hot springs comes out of the hill and you can get warm lying next to it.  You look a bit chilled, Mister Daks.”

        I’m not sure “chilled” was the appropriate word for what I felt.  “Spooked” would have been better.  We meandered back and forth among the boulders in the direction the water flowed.  The soft sand and moss was good to my sore toe.  I said as much to Ah-Teena.

        “When we are stung by bees or cut our paws, we put this mud on our wounds, Daks.  It heals.  Not all the time.  But if the wound is small enough, it heals.  This place has been good to us.  I hate to think of leaving.”

        “You don’t believe it will help to go to this Lah-Tsee, do you?”

        “I didn’t say that, Daks.  But I have my doubts.  From what Mish-Shka says, it’s a long ways, and very difficult.  We may never get to Lah-Tsee … never be able to ask her for help.  We’re only Dahm-Ogg, after all.  No machines to carry us, no symbols to guide us.  I just … oh, I don’t know.”  Her shoulders slumped.

        “You’re afraid?”

        She didn’t answer me, so I didn’t ask her again.

* * *

        We reached a place where steaming water ran in broad sheets over a shelf of rock before it joined with the creek.  A pool had formed from the hot springs and even the air around it was warmed and wet.  Everywhere else in the world, the foliage had turned brown and dead, but under the canopy of steam, ferns and moist grasses grew with vigor.  Ah-Teena lay down on her back and squirmed.  “I will miss this place the most.  Sometimes, young humans come here and sit in the pool.  I watch them from the top of the hill.  Up there.  Daks, have you ever seen humans without their garments? “

        “A couple of times.”

        “They do that here.  They come at night and walk up the hill to sit in the pool, naked.  Have you ever seen a naked man and woman have sex?”

        “Er, uuh … no, I haven’t.”  Have sex for what? I wondered.  Dinner?  It would have been helpful if I’d known what “sex” was.  I know what it is now—of course I do—but at that stage of my life, sex was as mysterious as bears and badgers and wolves.  I felt vulnerable enough already, without admitting to pretty Ah-Teena that I didn’t know what half the things she talked about were.  “I haven’t seen humans have a sex, but I saw a human skull once.  Incidentally, do you know there’s one in the cave?  Stuck in the wall?”

        “Cawley,” she said, and never stopped wiggling in the grass.

        “Cawley?”

        “That’s Cawley in the wall.  That’s what we call him.  Mish-Shka gave him the name long before I was born.  Cawley.  He was there when the tribe first made this place home.  Meesher thinks Cawley dug the mine, and then the mine buried him.”

        “Well, doesn’t it bother anyone his skull is there?  I mean, would you want your skull to hang out of a wall like that?”

        “Daks, Cawley spent years digging that hole.  If he believed whatever he was after was worth living for, I presume he believed it was worth dying for.  His skull has as much right to be there as we do.”

        “But does it bother you?  A skull?  Where you sleep?

        She rolled over to her belly and smiled.  “Just a little.”

        Moonlight reflected from her eyes and her tongue played over her teeth.  I was being teased again, and I knew it.  But it is a grand thing to be teased by someone as appealing to behold as Ah-Teena.  As I studied the finer points of her face, something I’d never experienced before came over me.  Something odd and strange, but not unwelcome.  My tummy churned about in a most pleasant manner, entirely unlike the desire of hunger, yet I knew it to be a desire of another sort.  A desire that demanded satisfaction even more urgently than hunger.  Slowly, I began to understand this oddness that had overcome me had something—if not everything—to do with her appearance, her beauty.  All I could think about was being next to Ah-Teena, and getting as close to her as possible.  I had no idea why, except that she was so deliciously appealing to behold I moved towards her.  “Lie here with me, Daks,” she said.  “It’s damp … but it’s warm.”

        At that very moment—such a sweet and luscious moment—Bon-Bon came home.

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