The Secret of Cawley’s Skull



Chapter 9


        The tribe put Bon-Bon to the earth the next morning.  To be precise, the tribe put him to fire, and it was the wind which spread his ashes about the earth.  But whatever process they might have used, the results would have been the same for poor Bon-Bon.

        By the time I awoke, the others were up and aware that their friend had died during the night.  Most of them were already out, helping build the pyre.  Only Poo-Lee and his brothers and sisters were left in the mine, and it was they who woke me.  I opened my eyes and there they were, all five of them, sitting all alop on their pudgy rumps and staring at me from inches away.  More serious looks I had never seen, especially on faces that should have been worried about nothing beyond how best to chew up a boot.

        “You sure slept a long time, Mister Daks,” said Poo-Lee.  “I’ll bet you can sleep longer than just about anybody.”

        “I came back to bed late, Poo-Lee.  Very late.”  As soon as I put weight on my bad toe, I remembered my wild chase through the woods.  The rest, all of those events surrounding Bon-Bon’s final moments, I needed no such painful prodding to recall.  Images of blood and tears and moonlight had rippled through my dreams.

        “Uncle Peter said you were there when Uncle Bon-Bon died.”

        “I was.”  I limped around the cave, trying to put my foot back into working order.

        “What was it like, Mister Daks?  Did he … er … I mean, well, did it hurt him a lot?”  Poo-Lee asked.  The other four were as still as Cawley’s skull in the wall, waiting for my answer.

        “Bon-Bon was very brave, Poo-Lee.  If it hurt him, he didn’t show me.  Even when he died, he was brave.”  I don’t know how satisfied they really were with my answer, but they all nodded solemnly, as though they understood perfectly.

        Not much later, Ah-Teena came for us.  I had begun to resent being left with the youngest of the tribe’s young, and when I told Poo-Lee I wanted to go outside and see what was happening, he stopped me.  “Uncle Peter said he wanted you here with us, Mister Daks.  He said you’d just be in the way if you went outside.”

        “I AM NOT A PUPPER!  AND I DON’T NEED YOU TO LOOK AFTER ME!”  I said it rather sharply and with more than a little spittle flying.  Poo-Lee dropped his eyes and his shoulders sagged.  I hurt the little fellow’s feelings and immediately felt sorry for doing it.  He was just doing what he was told to do, after all.  I thought he might cry, but instead he looked at the ground and replied.

        “Wull, uh, sir … maybe Uncle Peter meant you don’t have to be a pupper to be in the way … sir.”

* * *

        When Ah-Teena entered through the brushy gate, I was sitting at one end of the cave and the youngsters were at the other.  It’s not that I was mad at them—not mad in the usual way, where you want to bite and snarl.  It’s just that Poo-Lee had a way of wording his thoughts that made me question my own worth—which is much the same as being mad, even though it’s hard to know who to bite.

        “Mister Daks, did you keep the rascals out of trouble?”  Ah-Teena was still seeped in sorrow, but she winked at me with warmth.  The litter went to her, wriggling and wagging like their bodies had become disconnected from their good sense.  She took time to lick each of them on the head and greet each by name.  What a fine mother she would make, I thought, and the notion made my own tail, as absent as it was, begin to wag.

        But before I let such a pleasant reflection get the best of me, I gathered all my resentments into one lump and threw them out.  “Just because I don’t know everything about you guys and your darn old tribe … and … and just because I didn’t know Bon-Bon … and just because I peed on Chew’s face and stubbed my toe all night long  … that doesn’t mean I deserve to be treated like a teat-sucking whelp!  It doesn’t mean I deserve to be told I gotta stay inside so’s I won’t get in the way.  Does it?”  I said, all in one breath.

        “Daks.  Oh, Daks.  We just wanted you to watch over the puppers.  That’s all.  Their mother didn’t want to leave them alone, so Peter assured her that they’d be just fine, as long as a stout fellow like you was seeing after them.”

        Obviously, she was patronizing me.  But to a confidence-starved individual, even being patronized tastes good.

        She came to me and licked my head, just as she had done to the puppers, but differently—more slowly, and with more saliva.  Her tongue stopped on the knot between my ears and lingered there.  My body shuddered with excitement, and though I tried to hide it, she knew.  “Come outside with the rest of us now, Daks.  We need your help.”  She winked again, and again it felt like a tease.  A wonderful, warm, patronizing tease.

* * *

        Clouds that had been small and fleet during the night had massed overhead, swollen and threatening.  They covered the sky and hung low, just out of the trees’ reach.  It would rain very soon, and rain very hard.

        Ah-Teena led me and the puppers up the slope above the mine.  In the woods on either side of the path, I caught glimpses of tribe members, some carrying deadwood branches, and some searching the forest floor—for more branches, I assumed.  Ah-Teena said, “Daks, if you see a piece of wood you might carry, bring it along.”

        “Us, too, Auntie Teena?” asked Poo-Lee.  “Can we carry some wood, too?”  Before she had time to answer, the puppers swarmed out on either side of the path and picked up twigs, bark chips, even pine cones, and then came back in line.  They marched up the hill proudly, with their loads between their lips and their spit flying out behind them.

        “What’s all this for?” I wanted to know.

        “You’ll see, Daks.  It’s for Bon-Bon,” and she would say no more.

        The slope steepened.  I was having a bit of trouble negotiating the path myself, so I knew Poo-Lee and his siblings had to be struggling.  Ah-Teena looked back often to see that they kept up.  Eventually, others joined us on the narrow trail and nudged the puppers over the more difficult spots.  Every last one of them carried a piece of wood.  I searched for a branch to bring along, but everything I found was either too large to get between my jaws, or so small that were I to pick it, I would look as silly and ineffectual as the puppers.  As more of the tribe joined the procession up the mountain, the more I feared for my image.  After all, the last time most of these Oggs had seen me, I had just finished peeing on one of their elders.  So rightfully or not, I felt I had some atoning to do.

        We came into a clearing and as soon as I stepped out of the trees and saw the mass of branches, bark slabs, and brush that had accumulated, I knew we had reached our destination.  It wasn’t a large clearing.  Had there been many more Oggs, we wouldn’t have all fit into it. The surrounding firs appeared to be especially tall and regal, but my perception of things might have been influenced by the solemn and formal demeanor of the mourners.  Half of the tribe was gathered around the clearing already, and those left were coming out of the trees from every direction, each carrying another addition to the pile.  The puppers’ mother was there, close to the center of things, and now that the question of Bon-Bon’s fate had been answered, her sorrow was complete.  Her babies went to her and nestled against her side, after first depositing their meager offerings upon the heap of wood.

        Henrietta was next to Jahl-Habra.  Even in mourning, her raw nerves were as apparent as ever.  At every sound and every movement, she jumped as if wasp-stung.  A crow flew over the clearing and lit on a high limb of a commanding pine.  Henrietta came to her feet as if the tree itself were coming down on her, not just the curious gaze of the black bird.

        Louis and another male entered the clearing, each dragging stout branches full of dry pine needles.  First Louis, and then the other, laid his burden down upon the stack with a ritualistic grace.  Others did the same.  By the time it was finished, there were twenty-five or thirty sad Oggs congregated in a circle, the center of which was the pyre, massed atop a slab of rock that came out of the hillside like a broken bone.  It was an imposing sight, made even more so when the murmuring and muttering of the tribe came to an end.  The silence was nearly complete.  The sky itself seemed to freeze in muted grandeur.  Even the crow sat still.  The only sound to be heard came from me, as I stumbled around on my sore toe, trying to find a place to be.

* * *

        “Daks, would you come here and sit down,” said Ah-Teena.  She was close to Louis but she edged over, making room between him and herself.  I slipped into the space provided, but not before I lost my footing one more time on a roly-poly pine cone that looked very much like the one Poo-Lee had toted up the hill.  I went sprawling and Ah-Teena looked at me like she was trying to decide whether to snap my head off or giggle.  “Sit!  And don’t move!” she hissed.

        Chew, Mish-Shka and Peter were the last to arrive.  That, in itself, was not surprising.  I had come to understand that the three of them were leaders through the virtues of being either wise, brave, or old.  Nor should I have been surprised at the burdens they carried up the path and into the circle, but I was.  The first shock was that Mish-Shka and Chew could have negotiated the cramped path as they did, side by side—abreast of one another.  The second came when I realized they had done it carrying Bon-Bon.

        Mish-Shka had him by the loose skin around the throat, and Chew held onto the loose skin around Bon-Bon’s groin.  It looked painful at first glance, but the initial impression soon gave way to reality.  Bon-Bon’s legs stuck straight into the air with no flex to them at all.  His head hung to the side and his jaws were partially open, revealing a swollen tongue.  He was as stiff and unyielding as most of the things made by man are, but of course, this version of Bon-Bon had been made by man.  If he hadn’t been torn open by a man’s rifle, he would still be pliant, soft, and giving.  The world would be quite a different place if men didn’t have such a talent for turning soft things hard.

        The only resemblance Bon-Bon had to the living was the movement in his hair as a breeze crossed his chest.  He was clean.  The white parts of his coat and the black parts alike were fluffed, as though he’d been swimming in spring rainwater.  When I’d seen him last, he was as begrimed as the sole of a foot and his hair was stringy with blood.  But now, he was the cleanest member of the tribe.

        “He’s clean,” I whispered to Ah-Teena.

        “We bathed him in the creek and dried him with our tongues, all of us.  He was always beautiful.”

        Peter followed Mish-Shka and Chew at a reasonable distance.  He brought the fire.

* * *

        Peter waited patiently while the two elders placed Bon-Bon atop the pyre.  The firebrand he carried smoldered on one end—no conspicuous flame, merely the threat of it.  Mish-Shka and Chew climbed to the high side of the kindling mass and laid their friend down on his back.  Bob-Bon’s legs tipped into the pile as though they themselves were no more than dislocated branches.  Mish-Shka then put his nose under the center of the fallen Ogg’s back and using his powerful neck, nudged the body into the center.  Bon-Bon settled into the huge nest like a sleeping bird.  With even the smallest hint of life—a rib cage rising and falling in rhythm, or a black nose vibrant with fluids—he would have seemed quite comfortable, at nap with his friends watching over him.

        The silence continued.  All audible expressions of mourning had been exhausted.  As I looked around, trying not to stare too long into the pained eyes, there was not even a sniffle.  But there were tears aplenty.

        If tears, falling on the ground from fifty eyes, could be synchronized to fall at the same moment, and strike the earth at exactly the same moment, then they might make a sound … but I doubt it.  I believe that the fall of tears are heard only by the one who cries them.

* * *

        Mish-Shka and Chew backed away and Peter tucked the firebrand into a tuft of yellowed grass and spindled twigs near the edge of the pyre.  It was such a final act, such an irreversible act, that I couldn’t stop myself.  I added my own tears to those dropping from the faces around me.  Very near to that precise moment, it began to rain, and though I would never imply that the heavens had taken Bon-Bon’s death as hard as his friends and family had, the coincidence was striking.

        The droplets increased in size and frequency, leaving tiny craters in the dust.  There was some doubt as to whether the kindling would ignite.  Sickly, green smoke, growing ever more thick and pungent, rose from the cluster of grass and pine needles.  As much as I secretly hoped the tribe would have to wait for another day to complete this horrid task, the rain came too slowly to squelch the fire.  I didn’t know the fellow, but it seemed that everyone would feel a bit better if Bon-Bon were around a few more hours, even given his current condition.

        The smoke turned to flame, and the flame spread throughout the pyre.  I wanted someone to say something.  I wanted Peter to rise and speak of Bon-Bon as he was—how Bon-Bon used to do this or do that.  Or I wanted Mish-Shka, or even Chew, to tell us how it was good that Bon-Bon had died, not bad—that there were reasons for everything, and the reasons accumulated like the branches of a cremation pyre to a purpose, and the purpose was ultimately beautiful and for the best.

        But whatever eulogies there were, they were private and internal.  Peter simply stared into the growing flames, his head cocked to one side as though his curiosity were more powerful than his sorrow.  Chew slumped, watching the rain-pocks forming at his feet, and Mish-Shka turned away entirely to gaze into the trees and barren foliage.  Some of the tribe lay down and closed their eyes.  That’s what Ah-Teena did.  I felt compelled to lick her head.  So I did.  It seemed right.

* * *

        “What about the smoke, Miss Ah-Teena?  Won’t it bring men?”

        She answered in a soft voice, “No, Daks.  Men can’t give us credit for being capable of using fire.  If they did, we wouldn’t be in the trouble we’re in.  Could they hunt us if they knew we had mastered fire?”

        It made sense, what she said, but I wasn’t convinced she was entirely right.  Men have been presented with ample demonstration of talent and intelligence in any number of creatures, yet their response has been the same as if we were all nothing more than stones.  To men, some stones are to step on, some to throw at enemies, and most to simply get out of the way.

* * *

        Bon-Bon burned away.

        In the end, his remains were indistinguishable from the charred stubs and ash of pine and cedar, aspen and juniper.  Only Bon-Bon made different sounds from the wood as he burned, and his smell was more horrid.  Wood crackles and pops as it turns to smoke.  Bon-Bon bubbled.

        Wood smells bad when it burns.  It hangs on in fur, stings the eyes and congests the lungs.  Bon-Bon’s hot smells went directly to my stomach.  I wanted to leave.  Others were going, with heads sagging and tails dragging the ground.  They left one or two at a time.  Respects had been given, and there was no more to give.  I wanted to leave with them.  My coat smelled, my eyes stung, my lungs were congested, my stomach was convulsing and my heart had heard enough of bubbling Bon-Bon.  The rain had turned to a steady and cold drizzle.  This was my first autumn, and in turn, my first muscle-chilling, fur-penetrating autumn rain.  I wanted very much to leave, to go to a dry place and push my body so close to a friend that our fur would dry from each other’s heat.

        All I needed was a friend.

        But the closest thing I had to a friend was Peter or Ah-Teena, and neither of them would leave.  When Bon-Bon had boiled down to nothing more than hot dust and a bone or two, they still remained.  So did Mish-Shka.  They stayed until the fire was cool enough to walk on.  Poo-Lee was there, along with his family.  His mother seemed too devastated to rise.  The puppers, even though they were trying to sit as still as they might, were far from sitting still.  In their wriggling, they smeared their mother’s coat with mud.  She didn’t care.  Chew went to her side and laid his hoary body next to hers, nearly covering her, protecting her from whatever rain or pain or loss that had left her incapable of even tending to her young.

        That was the kind of friend I was looking for.

* * *

        Mish-Shka finally ended it.  He rose and tested the residue with his fore-paw, then went into the center of the ruination.  “It’s out … it is cold,” he said.  “Let’s go to the cave, friends.  My joints are aching.”  He stood on the rock that thrust out of the hillside like a shattered bone.  My vision was blurred from the rain, but it seemed as though the stone and ash had risen up on four legs and spoken.