A branch snapped behind me and simultaneously, an awareness of blood filled my senses. It’s probable I had smelled the blood all along, and that Ah-Teena and I both had confused it with something else, something just as basic and as urgent. It was the startling crack of the breaking branch, though, and the accompanying realization we were not alone, that squelched the developing mood. It was a small branch, in terms of girth, but a singularly large branch, in terms of the effect its breaking had upon the evening’s outcome.
Ah-Teena was on her feet and ready to attack even before I could blink. She glared over my shoulder into the low, dark brush to my back and I turned, convinced that some creeping horror was about to make a late-night snack of us. Something deep within me shrank back and cowered, like a sow bug curling into a tight ball.
Lying half in and half out of the ferns was a pattern of black and white splotches, panting heavily. I thought for a moment one of the smaller cows from the day before had followed me and was now stupidly interrupting my encounter with Ah-Teena.
If only life were such farce, it would be much more endurable.
* * *
“BON-BON!” Ah-Teena jumped over me as though I were a low fence. “Bon-Bon, what’ve they done to you?” She put her nose to his and it was all he could do to pick his head up from the soggy ground.
“They followed me, Teena.” Bon-Bon’s voice held no more strength than a dying moth. “I led them away, I think. Didn’t I?”
“That’s right, Bon-Bon. They’re gone and you did it. You led them away,” said Ah-Teena. Then to me, she barked, “Get Mish-Shka, Daks! And Peter. Fast! RUN!”
“I don’t know where they are, Miss Ah-Teena. Where do I go?”
I went directly from not having the slightest notion of what to do, to stumbling, butt over button nose, through the night in whichever direction my tumblings took me, bellowing as loud as I could for Peter—and not having the slightest notion what else to do. I must have re-stubbed my toe a dozen times, but it was later that the ramifications of my blind flight came back to haunt me. Somewhere in my scattered thoughts was the idea that I must return to the cave and muster the tribe, but having a multitude of wrong directions to choose from, I chose them all. It would be too simple to say I ran around in circles. I certainly must have outlined every geometric configuration ever imagined, and at every corner, I re-stubbed my toe and fell face first into another colony of wild and scratchy things.
I ran into bushes and into trees, into rocks and into sumps of putrid, standing water, and then I ran into Mish-Shka’s shins. “Calm yourself, little fellow. You’re waking up the whole world. What is this about?”
I pulled enough air into my chest to form a few words. “Bon-Bon … by the hot water … hurt, bad … there’s blood smell!” It stretched my neck trying to look straight up, straight into Mish-Shka’s fiery eyes. Then, just as he had come out of nowhere, he was gone. There was no hesitation. He had the advantage of knowing where he was and where he was going.
There was only so much I could do, and I had done it. It was no longer important that I should find Peter. The grey giant was eminently capable of doing whatever else needed to be done. He blended back into the night like a breath from the lungs of a ghost, and I was left without the advantage of knowing where I was, and not the merest hint of where I was going.
* * *
I heard Peter’s voice, so dimly that I couldn’t have possibly made out individual words. But his steady baritone carried through the heavy trees as though the forest’s belly was growling. All I had to do was follow that sound, and the closer I came to the source, the more I heard. Along with Peter’s voice were Ah-Teena’s and Mish-Shka’s.
I could even hear Bon-Bon’s thin testimony before I came out of the moist ferns. “They kept shooting, every time they caught sight of me. The bullets came so close they blew sand up into my eyes. But they didn’t hit me, not until I took them all the way to the river. Just above the river, when I came out of the trees, I looked back. I shouldn’t have, but I wanted to see where they were. That’s when they got me. They searched along the banks for a long time … must have thought I jumped into the water. But I didn’t jump. The bullet threw me in. I came up beneath a dead tree … could see them, but I stayed down until they left. I’ve crawled for hours, Meesh. Hours ‘n’ hours. I wanted to be here. With the tribe. My family. I … I led them away. Didn’t I? I led them away?”
“You did. You saved the tribe,” answered Mish-Shka. “Bon-Bon, I … I love you.”
He lay on his side and Mish-Shka knelt over his fading form. When I’d last seen the stricken Bon-Bon, he had been on his stomach, with his front legs before him and his rear legs extended out so flatly that his pelvis might have never existed. But he was now sprawled over the mud, his head resting on Mish-Shka’s paw, his ribs heaving. Bon-Bon was another Sheep-Herd breed of some sort, with long hair and earnest eyes, different from Chew but with the same conspicuous honesty. Smattered over his coat was blood, entirely too much of it. It shimmered in the moonlight. On his abdomen was a gory, semi-dried clot. He had come back to the tribe on his stomach. On his wound.
“It’s all that’s important now, Meesher. Isn’t it? I led them away. Tell it … ” He coughed, ” … tell my sons.”
My own knees weakened upon hearing how feeble Bon-Bon’s voice had become.
* * *
Death is never a stranger to one who spends his life as close to the ground as I do. My earliest memories include ants partially smashed on concrete by oblivious feet, and starving robin chicks under the hedges. The crushed ants were everywhere and even their brothers seemed to not care that they were dying. The robin chicks had fallen out of nests in the summer trees and their mothers cared, but could do nothing about it. Puff the Scrat usually took ultimate care of them.
So you don’t have to be old to recognize death when you meet it, be it either on sunny sidewalks or in the dank woods. You don’t even have to be especially experienced. You simply have to accept it for what it is. I had accepted Bon-Bon was going to die as soon as I heard his voice. And Mish-Shka had accepted it.
And Bon-Bon had accepted it.
It was all the more tragic that Peter and Ah-Teena didn’t seem to accept it. The two of them were frantically scraping in the mud next to the pool of warmed water. A Bon-Bon-sized, concave depression was forming under their paws and it was clear what they intended to do.
“Mish-Shka, bring him down. It’s ready.”
The giant whispered. “It’s not enough.”
Ah-Teena dug with more fury than Peter. “The mud heals. You taught us that, Meesher. The mud heals.”
“Ah-Teena. Beautiful heart, Teena. The mud heals wasp-stings and thorns. The mud heals a queasy stomach … but not this. There is no healing for a belly torn open.”
Bon-Bon could not even raise his head, but he rolled his eyes over and looked to his friends. “Meesher’s right, Teena. Come and be with me. Now. Time is almost gone. I need you. My friends. Here, beside me.”
Peter stopped digging and put his nose to her brow. “Let’s go, Teena.”
Small clouds were passing the moon and the wind was becoming stronger and colder. Patches of skittish light moved in tight circles over the ground as the trees swayed, and Bon-Bon’s black and white coat blended into the confusion. He faded in and out of my vision so that I had to strain to keep him in focus.
But I witnessed it all. They knew I was there, on the fringes, but none of them knew how to include me in these sad moments. I was too recently arrived to be anymore a part of it than witness.
When Ah-Teena finally stopped flailing at the muddy bank and dissolved into sobs and sorrow, she no more cared that I watched her do it than if I’d been one of the dripping ferns.
When Peter nudged her up from the healing mud, the inadequate mud, and led her to their wounded friend, I was no more a part of his thoughts than the icy wind.
When the three of them laid down and put their heads on Bon-Bon’s body, I was as distant as a star, and when Bon-Bon’s last breath was drawn, I was as near as the night.
* * *
My earliest memories also include this: as those pathetic ants struggled to pull the part of their bodies that hadn’t been stepped on away from the part that had, I was ceaselessly compelled to pause and tell them how sorry I was they had died, and that the world was diminished by their passing. I don’t know why I thought I had to do that. I just did.