The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

(As originally written, Chapter 10 is very long—almost 35 pages. Rightly or wrongly, for the purposes of this blog, I have made the decision to divide it into two sections, the second of which will appear next Wednesday.—BC)

 PART ONE

HENRIETTA’S COLLAR

Chapter 10 (part 1)

        The fire in the cavern could never match the size or grandeur of Bon-Bon’s spectacular departure, but Jahl-Habra and Louis stoked it into a blaze rambunctious enough to illuminate every corner and hot enough to warm the most chilled blood.  A small fissure opened in the roof, and wherever it lead, that’s where the smoke went.  The hole was no bigger than I am, and it barely accommodated the effluence from the fire.  Much of the smoke hung in the air, only a small distance above Mish-Shka’s head.

       It was no coincidence that once again I found myself situated near Ah-Teena.  For fear of looking foolish and alone, I pushed my way through legs and tails until I was beside her.  Chew was on one side of her and Poo-Lee’s family was on the other, and in truth, there was hardly room for another body.  But I squeezed in, much to Chew’s chagrin.  He looked at me as though I were something he’d just vomited up.  Ah-Teena nudged me behind my ear with her nose and it made up for Chew’s scorn.  It was a quick nudge, I’m sure a meaningless gesture to her, but it was a welcome treat for my wobbly spirits.

       Nothing seemed to have improved the mood of the tribe, not the completion of Bon-Bon’s cremation and not being inside, away from the rain.  They remained as somber as the bloated clouds outside.  I asked, “Where does the smoke go, Miss Ah-Teena?”

       “Daks … dear … I can’t answer that.  No one can.  Wherever Bon-Bon is now … well, that will be a mystery until we each die and go there ourselves.”  She was patient, but tense.

       “I didn’t mean that smoke.  How does this smoke get out of the cave?”  I pointed my nose to the ceiling.

       Ah-Teena stared, then looked up, then back to me.  “Oh, I thought … never mind,” and she began to giggle.  Her laughter felt incongruous, in that there were still tears in the corners of her eyes.  However, the tension was gone.  Brightness returned to her eyes and it took more than the tears to account it.  “I’m sorry, Daks.  It’s just that some things are almost impossible to bear.”  She paused and shook her head.  “Anyway, the smoke is drawn up that hole and comes out of the hillside not far from where Bon-Bon … from the clearing we just left.  Mish-Shka calls it a ‘chimney’.”

       Chew shifted his weight upon hearing Mish-Shka’s name and in doing so, pushed my nose into Ah-Teena’s chest.  “T’at old fart has a name fer ever’thing.  He’s as bad as men.”

       “Oh, Chew,” Ah-teena said.  “You’re such a cranky wad of mooshy mud.  Meesher wants us to be able to speak our thoughts.  There’s nothing wrong with that.”

       “Maybe … maybe.  But jus’ maybe what men do is a’cause dey have a gamdassit word fer ever’thin’.”

       Most of the adult males were gathered near the entrance and Peter called across the cavern from their midst.  “Teena, will you be ready to leave when the night comes?”  An awful realization hit me like a sharp slap on the rump.  The only individuals I felt I could consider friends were going away.  And for how long, I had no idea.  I would be left with virtual strangers.  I would be left in the care of Mish-Shka and Chew, of which the former seemed to be made from stuff other than flesh and blood, and the latter owned a face I had urinated on.

       I despaired.  My future didn’t seem to be improving to any noticeable degree.

       Ah-Teena answered, “I’ll be ready.”

       “Have you taken care of that matter we discussed last night?”

       Ah-Teena looked to Henrietta, then back to Peter.  “I have broached the subject, yes.  But the negotiations are not yet complete.  They will be by the time we’re ready, Peter.  Be assured.”

       I knew what they were talking about, but Henrietta’s collar wasn’t foremost among my concerns.  “Let me go with you, Miss Ah-Teena,” I whispered.  The notion seemed absurd even to me, and I didn’t want anyone else to hear, especially Chew.  But I guess I didn’t whisper as much as I thought I had.  Chew heard me, and so did Poo-Lee.

       Chew merely snorted—as disdainful and disgusted a snort I never want to hear again, especially directed at me—but Poo-Lee erupted with enthusiasm.  “Me too, Auntie Tee.  Me me me!  I wanna go too.”  The entire tribe heard him.

       “You are not going with us, Poo-Lee,” Ah-Teena said.  “And neither are you, Mister Daks.  This won’t be a walk on a manicured lawn, and it is no trip for babies.”

       The entire tribe heard Ah-Teena’s answer, as well.  They heard her lump me into the same nursery as Poo-Lee.

       I didn’t cry, but I came very close to it.  To fend off tears, I imagined myself tearing into her, all teeth, claws, and withering wit.  Well … well, if it’s not a trip for BABIES, it certainly isn’t a place for a FEMALE I told her in my hot thoughts.  Or, You think you’re tough!  You think you’re soooo tough!  If you can make it on your feet … well, then … I can make it on my tummy!  I spent the next several minutes carrying on that sort of inner dialogue and grinding my teeth.  But I didn’t cry, thankfully.

       Chew said, “Ya’ might as well take the whelps along, Peter … fer all the good it’s gerna do.  All this Lah-Tsee hoolah ain’t gerna stop what’s gerna happen, anyhows.  Them shooters’ll take us, one at a time er all t’gether.  But sooner or later, there won’t be any’un left to light the last pyre.”

       The tribe responded as if they had been waiting their entire lives to agree with Chew on something.  “Yes!  That’s right!  Chew’s right!  What do we really know about Lah-Tsee?  How do we know Lah-Tsee even exists?  Maybe she doesn’t even exist!”

       Doubt and dissonance spread like the flames had spread through Bon-Bon’s last bed.  Peter went to the center of the cavern.  He looked angry and hurt.  His coat seemed several shades redder, almost hot.  “What choice do we have?  I ask you what choice do we have in the matter anymore?  It’s either Lah-Tsee or die.  We’ve been through all of this before, so why bring it up again?”  He was pleading, and I felt great empathy for him.  I also felt great admiration.  As angry and hurt as he was, he didn’t cry, either.

       But his arguments weren’t enough to stem the rising panic.  It was Mish-Shka who brought calm back to the cave, and he didn’t need to do much more than rise to his feet to do it.  Again, I had the sensation that the elements had taken a commanding form and come to life.

       He went to Peter’s side, nearer to the blaze than I would have been comfortable with.  “I understand your doubts, my friends.”  Whether it was because of what he said, or the way he said it, I don’t know—but the mood softened, and they listened.  Even Henrietta relaxed, somewhat.  “I understand your fear because I am afraid.  I understand your uncertainty because I am certain of nothing, myself.  Fear and uncertainty seem to be conditions we are born with, as much as the tails on our bodies.  But we all know that chasing one’s own tail is a folly only for puppers and crazed minds.”

       Mish-Shka paused for a moment, to let his allusion take hold I think.  There were a few nervous giggles here and there, but other than that, they waited for the giant to continue.  “It’s equally as useless to pursue fear, you know.  If you chase after it, it will be all you see and all that occupies your mind.  It will corrupt you and turn you against everything, even yourselves.  But you will never catch it.  Fear can’t be taken and it can’t be escaped any more than you can outrun your own tail.  Fear gnaws you away, and the only way to live with it is to fill the vacuum with something else, something brave and hopeful.  That is all I can offer you.  Something brave and hopeful.”

* * *

Mish-Shka’s Tale

       “Most of you know my past.  Forgive me if my old story is tedious.

       “I was bred to fight.  For centuries, my clan had been bred to fight.  A time was when the world was nothing if not a battle between men and everything else, and there was no certainty who would win.  Whichever creatures they weren’t battling against, they used in battle.  They used my clan as weapons, back then.  As tools to kill.  They bred us to be big and strong and fearless.  To fight Wolfen.

       “My clan came from a land so far away you would never reach it in a lifetime of running.  Ah-Eer-Land, the land of my ancestors.  The Ah-Eer-Land Wolf-Hunds.  We fought the wolves for men and it should have never been so.  Wolfen have as much claim to food and space as men.  But it is a moot point now.  There are no wolves left in Ah-Eer-Land.

       “My mother and my father never saw one another.  She was impregnated with my father’s seed, and she never knew even where he lived.  He may have been as near as across the road from her.  All their lives, they may have been that close.  Or he may have lived in Ah-Eer-Land.  Men can do that, you know … create offspring from two parents a world apart from one another.  I only knew my mother for a few weeks.  The man who created me must have felt that if I were with her one moment too long, I would be less a fighter.  He didn’t allow me to grow close to anyone, even his own children.  He separated me, put me into a cage and fed me horse meat and rough cereal from a bucket.

       “Cawley was a skinny man who wore the same clothing day after day, and once a day he would take me out of the pen and cuff my head from side to side until I became angry and tried to bite him.  Every day, it took less time to become angry.  As I grew older, I stayed angry all the time.

       “For training, he put other animals in the pen with me.  The first was a young Scrat.  A Scritten, really.  A baby.  I doubt it had even properly left her mother’s teats.  I killed it before I realized what I was doing.  Killing came as easily as eating.  Simply close your teeth and shake.  If I thought at all about what I was doing, it was Cawley’s hand I had in my mouth.  The hand that slapped me, always, for no reason I could understand.

       “Different creatures came after that.  Rawl-Colmbs, adult Scrats.  Cawley put a hungry little mix-breed fellow in … a  Kok-Spanelle, Poo-Jadle mix … and he meant no more to me than the baby Scrat.  Or the horse meat and cereal, for that matter.  Eventually, I didn’t even think of the man’s hand.  I killed because I liked to kill, and I did it because it was the only thing left for me to do.  The only thing to look forward to.

       “They fought back, particularly the full-grown Scrats.  Scrats are bred to fight, too.  They just aren’t bred to fight anything as big as me.  It enraged me when they fought back and made blood drip from my nose or around my eyes.  I tore at the bodies until the pieces were too small to tear at any further.  But I was never seriously hurt, not until Cawley brought in a badger.  He carried it in a burlap sack and when he dumped the beast out, it smelled of dry grain from the bag.  It went for my throat before I could even come to my feet.  It ripped at my legs and my chest and I had no place to go because I was backed against the wire.  I pushed and snapped but it did nothing to that badger.  I warn you, friends, badgers are bred to fight.

       “My anger saved me.  It was the first real fight I ever had.  I won and the badger died, but not before he tore my legs open to the bone and tried to disembowel me.  I fought back and hung on until he lay on the cage floor along side the sack he came in.  When it was over, I lay down and expected never to get up again.  Cawley tended my wounds.  He put ointments on me that burned like a whole nest of red ants had stung me at once, and he wrapped me to stop the bleeding.  My nose was torn and my skull showed beneath a flap of scalp the badger had dislodged.  But the man … the man I hated as much as I hated the cage … he made me well.  ‘Yer too damned good a scrapper to let die, you big son ‘o’ bitch,’ he said.  ‘And when yer back on yer feet, yer gonna make me money, you tough son ‘o’ bitch.’

       “I healed.  The badger hadn’t damaged me as much as it first seemed.  It took a long time, but my strength returned.  The man tested me with a Rawl-Colmb and the rage I felt left the frightened thing no more than a smear of gore.  A week later, he put me to my first professional fight.

       “He drove me tied with a rope in the back of his truck.  We traveled throughout an afternoon and went so far and took so many turns that I lost sense of direction.  We traveled through small towns and countryside and when we arrived, the sun had set.  He drove down a long, rutted lane with his truck lights on and I bruised my shoulder bouncing around in the back.  There were other trucks and cars stirring up dust and they all stopped at a clearing in the trees.  Loud men stood around huge fires and laughed when my scrawny handler led me to the fire.  “Why dern’t ya’ have that freak in a cage, Cawley?’ they asked.  ‘He’s too damn big.  Couldn’t find a cage he can stand up in,’ he told them.

       “There are many fighting breeds, and I believe at least one of each of them was there that night.  Each truck had one or two … even four … cages in the back, and in each cage was a fighter.  It was all so dreadfully loud.  The Oggs screamed through the wire how strong they were, or how angry they were, or how frightened they were.  The fires roared like a flooding river and the men bellowed to one another.  I was overwhelmed.

       “I wasn’t the first to fight, nor was I the last.  Cawley tied me to a tree in the dark, outside the firelight, and I listened to the others fight and die.  You don’t realize what you sound like, all that snarling and screeching, when you’re doing it yourself … when you’re in the center of a ring of men with another killer and it’s either tear him up or he tears you up.  You don’t hear the rage and the panic in your own voice.  But tied to a tree in the night, with only shadows for company, I heard.  In the voices of the scrappers going in before me, I heard all the terrible things I had become.  The smell of blood mingled with the smells of men and smoke and the foul things men drink.  It filled the clearing and spilled into the trees.

       “When it was my turn, Cawley dragged me through the men.  I was horribly afraid.  I wasn’t afraid to die, nor was I afraid of being hurt.  I was afraid because I didn’t want it to happen with those loud men as witnesses.  Whether I died or killed, it seemed so ignoble to be forced to do it while such savages watched.  I pulled against it, but other men helped Cawley drag me.

       “The other fighter was already in the arena, a Baj-Ztn Terror, and a powerful fellow he was.  His muscles rippled in the orange light like snakes and he pulled at the leash as I did.  But while I was pulling back, he was straining to get at me.  He screamed through the din, explaining in graphic detail what he meant to do to me.  I wasn’t frightened of him, but I was stunned by his fervor.

       “I killed him, and it didn’t take long to do it.  His handler let him go at the same time Cawley released me and he came with a fury.  He was no match for my size. No match at all.  While he was busy trying to tear out my throat, I took his skull in my jaws and twisted until his neck snapped.  It was a technique I used over and over.  Even the most muscular of fellows have the same bones as the rest of us, underneath all those muscles.

* * *

     Mish-Shka stopped speaking.  His head hung from his gaunt shoulders like a melon left on the vine into winter.  He seemed so weary.  No one else uttered a word.

       I peeked at Chew.  His concern for his friend was palpable.  If concern could be put into a cage, Chew’s would fill a cage big enough even for Mish-Shka.

* * *

      “I fought at least fifty others.  I didn’t kill them all, but I killed most of them.  I did it with indifference.  In others, I could sense a thirst to kill … an addiction.  Inside their hearts, they lived only to kill.  But over time, that same focus drained out of me.  Eventually, there was nothing in my own heart that was worthy of living for.  Not until I heard of Lah-Tsee.

       “I fought for two full years and never lost.  Cawley often carried me so far in his truck that it took two days of driving to get there.  Other men shrank back when I came into the arenas.  It was the first thing in my life I remember actually enjoying, the fear I smelled in those men.  The fear of me!  Even Cawley began to treat me as though he weren’t sure what I might do.  I can’t be sure that I made him a wealthy man … they measure wealth in such absurd ways … but I do know that he carried me to my first fight in an old truck, covered with rust and filth, and he carried me to my last in a truck so new and glossy it hurt my eyes to look directly at it in the sunlight.

       “The first time I heard of Lah-Tsee was while I waited my turn to battle.  We were in an immense building, a warehouse full of newly cut lumber, and I was tied to a post.  At the next post was a stocky mix-breed, I could only guess at the clans that contributed to his blood lines, but he looked to make someone a formidable opponent.  His jaws were wide and powerful and his chest was built like an ash tree.  It was clear he had been through the ordeal as many times as I, or probably more.  His body was covered with scars and one of his ears was gone.  I calculated that if this was the warrior I was to battle that night, those might well be my last moments in this world.  The longer I thought of that possibility, the more it seemed like an acceptable, even a preferable, future.

       “He was calm.  I could never have been that calm before a battle.  It seemed at first he was asleep, the way he lay on the concrete floor.  If he heard the screams coming from the arena, he ignored them.  He was talking, muttering to himself.  I could barely hear him and couldn’t make out anything he was saying.  ‘Are you speaking to me?’  I asked, but he went on as though I were nothing, and I didn’t pursue the matter.

       “He continued like that for a few more minutes and then said quite clearly, ‘I beg you, deliver us from the killing.  Deliver us from this darkness.  Deliver us from the confusion.  Lah-Tsee, you are the bridge, and I offer my blood to your purpose.’  He stood up and for the first time seemed to notice I was there.  ‘I’m sorry,’ he said.  ‘I wasn’t ignoring you.  I had to finish my appeals.’

       ” ‘And to what are you appealing?’

       ” ‘Lah-Tsee,’ he said.  ‘The bridge.’

       ” ‘You pray to a bridge before a fight?  And what are you praying for?  A quick kill?  A painless kill?  I don’t understand.’

       ” ‘I ask Lah-Tsee to help men see our hearts and hear our words.  I ask her to speak to all things and bring them together.  It’s the only way out of this, friend.  Or are you happy with what you do?’

       “Whether I was happy or not wasn’t a question I’d ever put to my mind.  I didn’t know where to begin an answer.  ‘Who is this Lah-Tsee?  I’ve never heard of him.’

       ” ‘Have you ever done anything beyond killing?  My friend, have you ever enjoyed the company of another creature, or spoken with anybody about anything?’ he asked.  ‘And Lah-Tsee is not a him, sir.  Lah-Tsee is the mother we all share.  She knows the pain of each of us.  She crosses the chasm between us and men.’

       “I was not overwhelmed with his explanation.  ‘How long have you been appealing to your Lah-Tsee, brother?  Did you ask her to save your ear?  Do you expect her to save you from this battle ground tonight?’  I was surprised at my own cynicism.  Cynicism is an emotion, and I had become convinced all emotion had abandoned me.

       “They came for him then, and he had only enough time to say, ‘I wasn’t trying to convince you, friend.  You asked me and I answered.  I only meant to suggest there is another way.  Do with it as you wish.’

       “A few minutes later, they carried his corpse past and threw it into the trash bin.  It took two men to carry him and they struggled, at that.  A hefty fellow, he was.  One of the men said, ‘Worthless … worthless damn mutt.  Cost me plen’y to get ‘im here and he sits there like a paintin’ ‘n’ lets his throat get ripped out.’

       ” ‘Yeh,’ said the other.  ‘I seen more fight in my kid’s bunny rabbit.’

       “I had never been troubled before by the death of another.  I had seen many a corpse slung around like so much mud and left in piles along with everything else humans discard.  But for the first time, it bothered me to see the way they treated this serene fellow’s remains.  It bothered me that he was dead, and I’d never even learned his name.  He was the first to show an interest in me other than bloodlust.

       “His corpse was trash, but his words stayed with me.  They tumbled around in my head like dry leaves do on empty roads.  ‘She knows the pain … The mother we all share … She crosses the chasm between us and men.‘  The words meant nothing to me.  I could make no sense from them.  But yet, they ignited some sort of reaction.  They did something.  There was a crack in my shell, however small.  For the first time, there was more in my heart than basic functions could explain.  It was small, the way the smallest creature works at the roots of the mightiest tree, and I was no more aware of its happening than the elm is aware of the beetle.

       “Weeks later, as I waited for Cawley to open the leash so that I might strip the flesh and drain the blood of another brother, I heard my opponent appeal to Lah-Tsee.  There in the dirt and the viscera remaining from the preceding duels, I saw him bow his head and touch his forepaw to his brow.  He looked to the sky and through the noise of the men, I distinctly heard his offering.  ‘I lend my life to you, Lah-Tsee.  I lend my breath, that it might help you speak.  I lend my eyes that it might help men see.  I lend my heart so that all might know.  Lah-Tsee, you are the bridge.  Use my life as you will.’

       “I didn’t kill him.  I tore his hamstring and crushed his leg, but I wouldn’t kill him.  The strangest notion came to me when Cawley said, ‘Tear ‘im a new ‘un, Killer,’ an pushed me into the fight.  I decided quite consciously not to kill him, but instead to cripple him.  To maim, so that he would never have to enter the arena again.  I truly didn’t want to see him die and I realized if it wasn’t me that killed him, then it would be another.  Sooner or later, he would be torn open and his spirit would flow out unless he was incapable of fighting.  So I ruined his leg and he didn’t do a thing to stop me.  I could have pulled out his guts and he wouldn’t have resisted at all, of that I’m sure.  I did what I did, then strutted around his prostrate form as though I’d done him a favor.

       “I’ll never know what became of him.  It’s possible that his handlers put him to death rather than go to the expense of repairing him.  But what I did was right.  For the first time … and for what I understood of life and of Lah-Tsee … what I did was right.  As Cawley put the leash back on me, and before they carried this wounded brother away, I caught his attention.  I whispered to him, ‘Hold onto your breath and your blood, brother.  Hold onto your eyes.  Lah-Tsee might put them to better use if you live.’

       “He smiled.  ‘Time solves all mysteries,’ he said.  ‘Do whatever you can, and have the best life possible.’

       “I continued to come across them, these believers.  The encounters came seldom at first, but then seemed to accelerate.  The faith was spreading, slowly but irreversibly.  I was witness to one fight where both participants did nothing but sit on their haunches and pray to Lah-Tsee for a rapid and meaningful death.  It would have been comical if their handlers hadn’t been lashing them with belts to make them rip into one another.

       “I wish I could say I never killed again after hearing of Lah-Tsee, but I can say I was more discriminating in my slaughter.  If an opponent gave me reason to believe he was a follower, I did nothing more than cripple him.  The idea that it was better to disable an opponent so that he might never fight again was stunted ethics, at best, but it was the only ethics I had ever lived with.  It was all I had, and it sustained me.

(end of Ch. 10: part 1)

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