The Secret of Cawley’s Skull



Chapter 10 (part 2)

       “The end to my battling days came in the same arena where I first fought.  It was a huge gathering, crowded and loud, and the men became particularly noisome and drunken.  Some of them went to beating one another with fists in their stupid, clumsy way.

       “I was being held back for the end, having gained some fame as a strong and vicious winner.  The ‘main event,’ as Cawley used to say.  If I sound like I’m boasting, forgive me.  I took no pride in my status then, and I take none whatsoever now.  I tell you how important I had become in that world because it emphasizes my conversion.  Had I been a weak or middling competitor, or had I been continually afraid, it well might detract from what strength my story contains.  But I was unbeatable.  If there were an Ogg in the world who might have torn my throat in those young days, I had yet to meet him.

       “The moon crossed the sky before my match came up.  The men grew ever more sullen.  I had seen sullen men before.  It happens whenever they drink those foul concoctions.  But I had never seen so many of them at once.  In one of the most brutal acts I have ever witnessed … and I have witnessed many … I watched a handler kick his beaten fighter through the crowd, all the way back to the edge of the meadow.  The man rolled his Ogg along with his foot, like a watermelon or a steel can, but this Ogg had just lost a leg … yes, his entire leg … to a much stronger fighter.  The brother was dying quickly from blood loss, but he was denied the opportunity to slip out of life in such a natural way.  When the man had booted him far enough, he took out a pistol and shot the scrapper between the eyes.

       “I had never gone into a match with so much trouble in my heart.  I realize now it was the effect of an accumulation of things, not simply one atrocity among many.  At that time, though, I was so disturbed by the savagery of that poor brother’s death, I felt nauseous.  I felt something had to be done, that I could no longer allow such cruelty to pass.  The outrage within me had nothing to do with Lah-Tsee.  I was thinking more towards identifying the man with the pistol in the crowd and tearing off his head.

       “As Cawley pulled me through the mob, I even planned how to do it … to get it done before the other men had time to react and kill me.  That’s how far things had gone.  I decided my life was worth losing if I could take just one of these beasts with me.  It is testament to the power of Lah-Tsee that I had come far enough to hold such violent emotions.  A few months before, I would have been as unconcerned about another dead Ogg as I was about the stars above my head.

       “More men than I had ever seen before thronged the pit.  They were so thick, there was not enough room between them for a snake to pass.  But they parted to let me through.  They moved aside like willows in a high wind.  I watched their faces, hoping to spot the savage with the pistol and I wasn’t even sure I would have recognized him if I did.  Across the ring, they made an aisle for my opponent, just as they made room for me.  I was so focused upon trying to identify the man I meant to gut that I didn’t realize who my intended opponent was until the circle had closed again.

       “When I say I was unbeatable in the ring, or that I had never met the scrapper who could defeat me, I leave out one notable exception.  I had never actually met him, or even seen him until that evening, but I had heard both men and Ogg speak of him.  Cawley bragged how I would ‘tear ‘im a new ‘un’ when we fought.  The men laughed and said I was going to be ‘one dead-meat dog’.  Other scrappers spoke of him with awe, though none of them had ever actually fought him, either.  There were none left that had actually fought him.

       “Bee-Hee-Mouth … that was his name.  And there was no doubt that it was he standing across the ring.  I am big, but he was bigger.  Not quite as tall as me, but he seemed to be as broad as I am tall.  I thought him to be of the ‘S’Bear-Nard clan, but he was pure white, as white as a mountain of snow and his coat looked impenetrable, a sheath of fur as thick as muscle.  I would have more luck chewing through the bark of a cottonwood tree than I would finding the throat of this ‘Bee-Hee-Mouth.’

       “Beyond anything else, I wanted to take the life of a man as I died.  I could see I was probably finished, just by looking at the monster Bee-Hee-Mouth, and another look around at the savages told me I would never pick out the one I most wanted to kill.  The man with the pistol.  For a desperate moment, I considered laying upon my handler.  Upon Cawley.  Of turning his scrawny body into ribbons of flesh.  My heart raced with a craving to do one final thing that might better the world.  But time ran out.

       “They released us and the savages erupted.  ‘KILL ‘IM’, they screamed.  I heard my name and I heard his name.  ‘BEE-HEE-MOUTH … MISH-SHKA … BEE-HEE-MOUTH!  KILL ‘IM!  KILL “IM!’  It was deafening.  I frantically searched among the drunken eyes for the faintest glimmer of justice, and I was painfully aware of its absence among that dung-heap of humanity.

       “I stood frozen.  Emotions flooded over me.  I have never hated so much as I did then.  I wanted to take a man.  Any man.  It didn’t matter which because they all were the same.  I wanted to take one in my jaws, shake him.  Destroy him.  Caress him.  Lick him.  Make him understand what he was missing.  What we were all missing.  Whatever it was that we were all missing but couldn’t even know we were missing it because I … even I … even as sure as I was that we were missing something of the utmost importance … couldn’t put it into words or thoughts or deeds.

       “I quivered and Bee-Hee-Mouth came at me.  He came slowly, not dashing and snapping like most of the scrappers do.  His head was down.  His powerful shoulders rolled like waves of great water.  The screaming of men turned from distinguishable words to a smashing presence, as heavy as wet snow.  His terrible muzzle closed upon the left side of my head and even then I was unable to react, not even out of defense.  I could feel the dampness of his breath.  And he said, ‘Brother, you won’t die because of me.  And if you decide to take my throat, allow me enough time for my last thought and my last word to be ‘Lah-Tsee.

* * *

       “If you ever doubt that there is a purpose to the lives we lead, maybe even the deaths we endure, you must at least concede that the timing of things … the juxtapositions of events, you know, especially when those events are of an extreme nature … suggest if not a purposeful will at work, then at least a sense of humor.  There I was, ready to die, aching to kill, stricken dumb by the gentleness of the most imposing fellow I will ever encounter, and at that strangest of moments, a drunken fool of a man bursts through the wall of drunken fools screaming, ‘HIDE THE DOGS!  HIDE THE DAMN DOGS!  THE COPS’RE COMIN’!  COPS!

       “It was as though they were suddenly all on fire.  They knocked one another to the ground and stepped on each other’s faces, trying to gain a foothold to nowhere.  They climbed over each other like mating snakes and they flung themselves like bees trapped behind glass.  I could do nothing but marvel at the scene unfolding before my eyes.  A sound rose out of the woods as if the forest itself were screaming for mercy.  Dahm-Ogg were howling from the pain in their ears.  Bee-Hee-Mouth said, ‘I think it best if we stay where we are, brother.  For the time being, anyway.  It’s as safe here as it’s apt to be anywhere else.’

       “I had to agree.  The crowd had disintegrated into such turmoil that to move from the center of the ring would have required chewing our way through a sea of human flesh.  As eager as I was a few seconds earlier to do just that, I now wanted nothing to do with the maelstrom of men.

       “The wailing grew louder, nearer, coming from three or four directions at once.  The trees pulsated with light, blue and red and orange.  A lardy man whose beard smelled of rancid tuna fish tried to take a more direct route to wherever he hoped to go and ran through the middle of the arena.  He tried to vault over Bee-Hee-Mouth, as though the giant were merely a low-growing shrub, but he tripped, landed at my feet like hot fat spilling from a bucket.  When his ragged face came out of the dirt, I looked directly into his eyes and curled my top lip enough to show him my fangs.  He moaned and wet himself.  The scent of his urine and the scent of his lunch mingled and turned my stomach.  He covered his greasy head with his arms and didn’t move.

       “It seemed Bee-Hee-Mouth and I were the only sane ones there.  Men were running amongst the trees as though they thought they could see in the dark.  But of course, men can’t see in the dark. Intermingled with the howling of frightened Oggs and the howling of the sirens were the howls of men who had collided with rocks and low-slung branches.  Some reached their vehicles and were frantically trying to drive out of the forest at the same time the cops were driving in.  This mindless panic spread to the Oggs and they were squalling like swine being slaughtered. Bee-Hee-Mouth remained calm.  If he was disturbed, he didn’t show it.  I, too, felt an odd serenity, the sort of serenity that comes with drastic change.  My life was taking a new direction, I knew that much beyond doubt, and I was equally aware I had no control over which direction it might take.

       “Bee-Hee-Mouth waited until the confusion had spread over the entire clearing and far into the trees.  His timing was perfect.  When they were as dispersed as they were ever going to get, both men and cops, he said, ‘Now, Mish-Shka!  RUN!’  He bolted but I didn’t.  I watched him go but couldn’t move.  I wavered like a befuddled pupper while he sprinted towards a snarl of heavy brush.  It was startling to see how fast Bee-Hee-Mouth could move his great bulk.  My reflexes were dulled, my mind was overwhelmed, and my heart was reeling.  I might well have stayed there.  I was so entranced with the panorama of chaos that if not for Bee-Hee-Mouth, I might have remained frozen and addled until I was re-taken by the men and put to some other degrading use.

       “But he turned. ‘MOVE!  Don’t you know a gift when you see one?’ he cried.  His mighty voice lifted above the din, and my legs responded before my mind could.  I leapt over the prostrate fat man and ran.  Two more men, one a club-swinging cop and the other an Ogg handler I’d seen at many fights, were struggling in the glare of headlamps.  I went between them, slamming my body into the mid-section of the handler and spilling him to the ground.  The cop shrieked.

       “But my legs were still working without benefit of my mind’s cooperation, and I ran into the path of a truck careening through the high grass around the arena.  The light blinded me.  I stumbled, then stood with my legs stiff while the truck came down upon me.  The madman driving the vehicle would not have hesitated to run me down.  He was interested only in escaping these cop men, and I was merely one more bump in his path.

       “Bee-Hee-Mouth hit me hard and we both rolled through the grass and rocks.  The truck passed, chewing through the rough ground and throwing hunks of sod over us even as we rolled.  A few yards further, it crashed into a tree so big it would have taken a blind driver not to see it.  Bee-Hee-Mouth rose and came close to my ear.  ‘I’d heard you were a great fighter, Grey Mish-Shka.  Yes, I know of you.  I’ve heard you were intelligent.  Powerful.  A warrior of the first order.  Now, show me you’re worth the reputation.  FOLLOW ME!’

       “I followed.  A sharp pain appeared in my side, in my ribs where Bee-Hee-Mouth had rammed me, and one of my front legs felt like it had been bent in three directions at once.  But I followed him.  We dodged more machines and men and cops.  I have no idea how that was possible, they were so thick.  Somehow though, Bee-Hee-Mouth led me through this pandemonium and into the brush.  One uniformed man made a grab at us, but stopped as if he’d been turned to ice when he understood Bee-Hee-Mouth’s true dimensions.  Far into the trees, cars and trucks screamed like wounded horses as they tried to pull themselves out of ravines and mud slicks.  Drunken men tripped through the night with cops chasing after them.

       “Bee-Hee-Mouth meant to put so much distance between us and the situation that no tendril of that evil might reach out and pull us back in.  We ran until the sounds of men and their machines were a distant echo, and then we ran farther.  Everything in the forest was awake, I think.  From the centers of trees, birds groused about how they needed their beauty sleep.  Deer jumped out of black hollows and disappeared into dense bush without a word.  My breath was short and pain raced through my leg every time I stepped on it.  When he eventually did stop, Bee-Hee-Mouth motioned me to be still while he tuned his ears to the night and sniffed at the air.  ‘They’ll never find us again, Grey Mish-Shka,’ he said.  ‘If you’ve ever dreamt of freedom, take note of what you feel at this moment.  And try not to be disappointed.’

       “I had never dreamed of freedom, so I felt no disappointment.  ‘What now?’ I asked.  ‘Where will we go?’

       “‘You can come with me if you want,’ he said.  ‘It’s your choice.  There are two things I mean to accomplish, and it is most important to me that I see them through.  But what compels me probably will not compel you, Mish-Shka.’

       “We began to move again, but at a relaxed pace.  The forest quieted down and went back to sleep.  We spoke little to one another as we walked.  Our voices seemed sacrilegious in that cathedral of silent trees, almost blasphemous.  Bee-Hee-Mouth was as stricken as I.  Moonlight poured like honey through the tall ferns and every breath of wind made the trees ring with distant music.  The beauty of those sensations has never left me, even after all these years.  They remain in my mind the very ideal of freedom.  Part exhilaration, part awe … and part panic.

       “We came upon a stream, just a bit of moving water.  Its small song blended with the night sounds as though it were alive, but sleeping.  We stopped to drink. ‘Where are you going, Bee-Hee-Mouth?  What are these important things you need to do?’

       “‘I’m going to my mother.  They separated us before they put me to fighting, but I think I know where she is, and I mean to bring her out of that world.  She deserves it, Mish-Shka.  All Dahm-Ogg deserve it, I say.  I’m going to start with her.’

       “‘You’ve thought it all out, have you?  You didn’t decide something like this in the last few minutes.’

       “‘I’ve thought about it for three years, chum.  When I was younger and more impetuous, I plotted to turn on my handler someday, rip him to death, and escape into the hills.  That was before I learned of Lah-Tsee.’

       “‘You were going to let me kill you, not so long ago.  There are plenty of fighters who would have accepted your invitation and torn out your guts.  That wouldn’t have helped your mother much.’

       “‘I made my decision to live a life Lah-Tsee would accept, Mish-Shka, and I stick to it.  Think whatever you will, but it hasn’t turned out all that badly, has it?’

       “I took a look around, into the shadows and wilderness, trying to see the opportunity that Bee-Hee-Mouth saw in this spider web of freedom.  The chill air had begun to nibble at the sorest spots on my body, and I felt the first hints of hunger.  A hunger that for the first time, would be my responsibility to satisfy.  ‘That remains to be seen, Bee-Hee-Mouth.’

       “‘And then, when my mother is safely away from men, I will go to Lah-Tsee.  It would do you good to come with me, Mish-Shka.’

       “‘You know where Lah-Tsee lives?  You know for certain that Lah-Tsee is even alive?  That there really is a Lah-Tsee?’

       “‘No.  I’m not certain.  But one has to do something with one’s life.  If Lah-Tsee does live, and if I find her, I will offer up myself to her purpose.  In that way, I will have done more than a billion other Oggs have ever done.  And if I spend the rest of my life looking and still don’t find her, it will be a better way to live than I have lived so far, don’t you think?  Anything I do will be better than what I have done, Mish-Shka.  And can you argue when I suggest the same might hold true for you?’

       “I couldn’t argue with him, but I couldn’t go with him, either.  ‘I wouldn’t know what I could do, Bee-Hee-Mouth.  Even if this Lah-Tsee lives, and even if I believed you might find her, it would do no good for me to be there.  I don’t even know what this purpose is.  I don’t even know what purpose means.’

       “‘You are stubborn, aren’t you?  I’d heard you were.  Lah-Tsee’s purpose will most likely remain a mystery to all but Lah-Tsee.  Understanding comes to very few, I suspect.  But discovering her purpose isn’t why I wish to join her.’

       “‘Then why?’

       “‘To have a purpose, my friend.  Whether I understand it or not.’

* * *

       “We parted company the next morning.  As the sun rose, Bee-Hee-Mouth brought down a young deer, and we shared it.  There was a lot of meat, but we almost finished the entire carcass.  Our appetites had grown in proportion to our new surroundings.  We completed our breakfast with some purple berries that smudged Bee-Hee-Mouth’s white face until he looked like he’d been set upon by berserk children with only one coloring pencil between them.

       A light shower had come shortly before dawn, and as we ate, sunlight glinted off of everything in the forest.  It was exquisite, I tell you.  It was as though the world had been swathed in crystals and magic.  Even the air was stimulating.  I don’t know how far we were from the nearest man, but there wasn’t even a hint of human presence.  There was a sense of disbelief in my mind, because I’d never been outside the reach of men’s scent.  It was as though we had somehow stumbled across the one enchanted place in the world in which no man had ever been, and I wanted to stay.  And I wanted Bee-Hee-Mouth to stay with me.  As exciting as freedom was, I wasn’t yet ready to be alone with it.  I said as much to him.

       “‘You’ll learn, Mish-Shka.  I’ll learn, and you’ll learn.  I just learned how to take down a deer, did you know that?  And we both just learned of a berry that won’t kill us when we eat it.  At least … not immediately.”

       “‘What do you mean, ‘not immediately’?  I thought you’d eaten those berries before, the way you went at them.’

       “‘No, Mish-Shka.  That was my first time.  But I was teasing you.  We’ll be fine.  If those berries were going to kill us, I believe we’d be doubled up on the ground with stomach cramps by now.  Besides that, they smelled right to me.  Didn’t they to you?’  Bee-Hee-Mouth grinned and I could feel no anger at being teased.  ‘That’s what I mean, friend.  We will learn as we live.  We will learn from experience, and the experiences will accumulate.  We will make plans.  We will project the outcome of our actions.  We will take command of our futures.  We will be like men, good fellow.  Shaping the world instead of merely being something else that men shape.  Or would you rather go back to learning everything by repeating it until you’re ready to scream.  To being fed a chalky biscuit when you do it right and slapped on the nose when you do it wrong?  If that’s what you want, Mish-Shka … to have it decided for you what to learn … then I’ll stay.  I’ll tell you what to do.  Everything!  I’ll tell you when to eat and when to shit, and I’ll cuff your nose if you shit in the wrong place.  I’ll roll pinecones down the hill, and you’ll learn to bring them back for me to roll again.  You’ll learn because I want you to learn.  And then neither one of us will be free, Grey Mish-Shka.  I will have taken your freedom, and you’ll have taken mine because my life will be given over to ruling yours.  But if that’s what you want, I’ll stay and begin now.  We can start by you bringing me some water.  NOW!  WATER!’

       “I looked at him hard, trying to tell if I was being teased again.  But his enormous eyes were blank.  A feeling overcame me that I was back in the arena, that Bee-Hee-Mouth was an enemy.  But I pushed it away, and when I did, I realized in an indisputable way there was no part of that world I wished to return to.  I said, ‘What’s the matter … your leg broken?’

       “His eyes came alive again.  ‘That’s the spirit, chum.  That’s the answer I was looking for.’“

* * *

       “Bee-Hee-Mouth went to the west, and I went to the east.  He made his choice because he had reason to believe the western road would take him to both his mother and his Lah-Tsee.  I made my choice for no reason at all, other than I was practicing the art of making choices.  I asked him what made him think Lah-Tsee was to the west.

       ” ‘I don’t really know she’s there, chum, but I do know my mother is.  And I’m guessing that in whichever direction I’m pulled the strongest, that’s where Lah-Tsee is.’

       “The last thing he said to me was, ‘We will certainly never meet again, Grey Mish-Shka.  It’s a wonder we met even once.  But our children will meet, or maybe their children.  It will be better for them, a different world.  You and I shall see to it, right?’

       “I could only nod.  But as I watched him lumber down the hill, a more complete answer came.  “Yes, Bee-Hee-Mouth.  I’ll see to it.  If I do nothing else, I’ll see to my part of the world.’

       “I don’t know if he heard me or not.”

* * *

       Mish-Shka gazed into the fire, watching an old ghost disappear among the flames.  With every distant step, and with every twig popping with the heat, another year added its weight to his craggy back.

       “Maybe I’ve helped make a different world.  Maybe not.  Everything I have to show for my life is you.  This tribe.  My friends.  We have lived free, at least that can be said.  But Chew, Peter …  all of you and all of those who have gone to ash … you are as responsible for that as I.  Some of you don’t even know of the horrors that men can bring.  But I’ve done whatever I could to keep you free, and to teach you that being free is the best way to live.  We have run from men before, and we can run from them again if we have to.  But friends, we are not creatures meant to live in high mountains and deep snow, and if we continue to run, that is where we will have to live.  It is the only place left where men won’t find us.  Many will die, and they will suffer slow, lingering deaths from hunger and cold.  To live free is worth facing such an end, but I only speak for myself.  I would rather sink into the ice and disappear forever than go back to living under men’s twisted rule.  But I cannot bear to think of my friends … this family … fading away.

       “The only other solution I have is Lah-Tsee.  It must not seem like much to you, but she’s the only thing in my experience that offers any hope.  I don’t know with certainty she even exists.  I’ve never seen her, I don’t know where she is, and I don’t know how she might help us.  But the thought of her has guided my life and relieved my anguish for many years.  I have nothing else to offer.  This is all I have left.  Do with it as you wish.”