It was deep into night when I awoke. A feeble light from the fire’s embers rippled over the stone walls in purple and violet waves. I had fallen asleep next to Ah-Teena, my head on her rump. But now she was gone and Poo-Lee was in her place, almost. His head was on my rump. I couldn’t say when this shift had taken place, but Poo-Lee’s drool was soaking my skin. Most of the tribe was sleeping. Jahl-Habra was near the exit, gnawing on a rabbit bone, and Henrietta lay alone in a back corner, sobbing. Chew and Mish-Shka were next to the fire, head to head, whispering to one another. I tried not to disturb Poo-Lee as I got up, but his head plopped lazily onto the ground. He stayed lost in pupper slumber and I considered myself fortunate. I envied him for his buoyant spirit and youthful enthusiasm, yet a little bit of Poo-Lee went a long ways.
I stretched my legs and back, and a tiny fart escaped my body. It served to remind me why I woke up. Hunger. Every solid thing in my stomach had either passed on, or had turned to hot gas which churned in my tummy like a three-legged mouse. Chew either heard or smelt the flatulence. He said to Mish-Shka, “Looky here! As soon as the li’l bug wakes up, he’s lettin’ off some sort o’ foul effy-luence. Keep yer nose high, Meesher, ‘er he’s apt to pee on it.”
Mish-Shka turned to me and winked. “Good evening, Mister Daks. Would you care to join us? We’re about to pull some potatoes out of the coals. You’re welcome to share them with us.”
His smile was as broad as I am long, yet I was intimidated by the invitation. I had the uneasy sensation my thoughts were as available to Mish-Shka as a breath of air. But the potatoes sounded delightful. Anything sounded good, as long as I could chew it. I would have eaten pinecones, had they been cooked right. “Yessir, Mister Mish-Shka. I’m starving.”
Chew snorted. “An’ keep yer fluids t’yerself this time, y’ li’l blister.
I stepped between, around and over the slumbering Oggs and joined the elders, being very careful not to touch Chew. With his paw, Mish-Shka rolled a number of potatoes out from the fringes of the fire. They were burnt on one side, black and scabrous like beetles, and pink and tender on the other. As I ate, half of each potato crunched between my teeth, and half disintegrated into a tantalizing mush. I admit that when I’m hungry, I’m easily tantalized, but those tubers seemed particularly scrumptious.
My enjoyment of the meal was enhanced by the fact I’d been invited to dine by such a figure as Mish-Shka. If a few days earlier, I’d been given a chair of my own at the table of my mother’s masters and served a portion of pink roast beef and pancakes soaked in honey, I’m not sure I could have been any more pleased than I was as I ate these poorly-prepared potatoes. Even Chew’s scorn didn’t spoil the moment.
“These are good. Really, really … really good,” I sputtered between gulps of steaming spud.
“Save one fer me, piglet,” said Chew. “I may be old, but that dern’t mean ya can starve me to death, gamdassit!’
“Sure, Mister Chew. I’ll just eat the little ones. See? I won’t touch the big ones. Say, where’d they come from? The potatoes, I mean.”
“Ah-Teena took them from a farmer’s back porch the last time she went to the low lands,” Mish-Shka said. “She can be brave to the point of foolishness, that Teena. She hid behind a lilac shrub while a woman struggled up the steps with grocery bags, then snatched a whole sack of fresh spuds when the woman sat them down to open the door. And all this while the farmer was no more than a few paces away! Jahl-Habra and Peter watched her do it, and they couldn’t believe the chance she took.”
“Yep. That Teena, she’s somethin’,” added Chew. “If’n I was a li’l younger, I wouldn’t mind seein’ a batch o’ puppers running around here with her guts an’ my good looks.”
The two of them could barely keep their lascivious snickering to a level that wouldn’t awaken the others. I smiled, but it was a false smile. Something about the thought of Ah-Teena bearing a litter with Chew—or with anyone else for that matter—gave me a twinge in my stomach that made me feel like I’d swallowed a large and living spider along with the potato.
Chew ate slowly and for the first time, I noticed he had few teeth to work with. He manipulated food with his tongue, rolling it around his mouth until it was situated between two opposing chompers. When he did get a potato munched up enough to be swallowed, he swallowed gingerly, and relished each bite as though it were the last he might ever have. I slowed down, suddenly aware I had finished off all the smaller morsels before he had even reached for a second helping.
“Jahl-Habra, give up on that bone and have a spud,” offered Mish-Shka. “One day without meat won’t kill you.” Jahl-Habra was by my side in an instant, as though he’d been waiting patiently for just such an invitation. He was a sturdy fellow, both in body and soul—mostly Black Lab’Ador, I believe. I had already noticed he said very little, but responded quickly to any need the tribe might have. I suspected his dependability might outweigh his intelligence.
“You too, Henrietta. Come eat. You’ll feel better. I think Mister Daks has left you one or two.” Mish-Shka winked at me again.
Henrietta turned to us only partially, just enough that we might behold her suffering profile. She held her quivering chin up. “No. Thank you, but no. I haven’t any appetite whatsoever.”
“Aw, c’mon over, Henny,” said Chew. “Yer bawlin’s gerna wake ev’r’un else up, then we won’t have enough taters to go aroun’. C’mon over here and shove a spud in yer mug.”
” I shan’t eat another thing. You’re wasting your time, Chew. I shan’t take another bite until I have my collar back.”
It was then I noticed Henrietta’s neck was bare. There was a line of thin hair, punctuated by small bald spots where the collar had rubbed. But the treasure itself, with the sparkling jewels and intricately-lettered runes, was gone. A bottomless pit opened beneath me and my heart dropped in.
Mish-Shka spoke to Henrietta with a fatherly patience, though there was a hint of exasperation in his voice. “Henrietta, my goodness. They could be gone for months. You cannot starve yourself for months.”
“Yazzir,” Chew said. “You can’t afford to get much skinnier, Henny. We’ll have trouble findin’ ya ‘mongst the reeds.” Struggling not to laugh, he snorted instead. Poo-Lee stirred in his sleep.
“I shan’t take water. I shan’t take food. I shall sit here in this forlorn corner until they bring my lovely collar back.”
“If’n yer gerna sit there in that corner fer months an’ months, Henny, I hope y’ shan’t gerna shit, neither.” At that, Chew couldn’t suppress his laughter any longer. He blew a gob of greenish snot the size of a robin’s egg out of his nose and flattened in the dirt, covering his muzzle with his paws. Jahl-Habra shook until his eyes filled with water, but he managed to keep his laughter to a muffled choke. Mish-Shka clucked at Chew as though he were scolding, but he couldn’t suppress a thin smile.
To the same degree they were enjoying Henrietta’s anguish, I was panicking. Clearly, if Henrietta’s collar was gone, then so were Peter and Ah-Teena. Fer months an’ months. A cold wind blew up my spine, against the lie of my fur.
Jahl-Habra asked, “Months, Meesha? You really think they’ll be gone for months?” I didn’t hear Mish-Shka’s answer. By then, I had slipped away, out of the range of hearing. Out of the protective reach of the tribe.
Before I went through the brush at the entrance that one last time, I looked back. Poo-Lee was turning over in his sleep. One ear was turned inside out, so that the pink showed. From the depths of slumber he scratched at it with a hind leg, but he missed and pushed at his nose instead. I knew then that I would miss him.
Chew, Jahl-Habra, and Henrietta paid no attention to my exit. Chew was still quivering with mirth in the soft dirt. Henrietta, always the victim, stared stoically into the back wall of the cave, ignoring the cruel world and her crueler friends. The rest of the tribe slept like smooth rocks in a pool of still water.
Only Mish-Shka saw me go. He watched me over the others’ heads, his eyes glowing …
… like stones from a full moon … there are figures of gods, cut from hard stone, hidden in dense forests under creeping vines and moss, and seen only by the boldest of creatures ….
… and I was unable to meet his gaze, to admit to him what I was doing. I averted my eyes and looked directly into the pale dome of Cawley’s skull, then timidly back to the giant. He smiled and said without sound … “Go with great care, Daks, and keep our friends from harm.”