The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

PART TWO

BERTIE’S BALL

Chapter 13

        Whatever it was, it wasn’t behind me.

        There was nothing but a decrepit locust tree at my back.  A great gob of its roots lay exposed and much of the inner meat showed where broad slabs of bark had pealed away.  Presumably, at one time or another, this stream bed had been the course of a violent deluge, for the locust appeared as though it had been ripped at by teeth the size of cows.

        I peered into the tangled roots and the darkness beneath, conjuring up shapes there.  Shapes that peered back and crouched, ready to come screaming out of their mud lair the moment I turned away.  But the shapes stayed put, motionless.  Nothing but mud, themselves, with some moss thrown on for hair and roots stripped white for fangs and talons.  Whatever the source of that wet inhale and absolutely liquid exhale wasn’t under the grotesque tree.

        My head jerked about so many times in rapid succession that had I been one of men’s machines, my neck would have needed some sort of lubrication.  First forward, and there was nothing.  Then right … then left … then right again.  Nothing …

        . . . nothing but that miserable, swampy breathing.  Close and coming closer.  No one had ever warned me of invisible things.

        I had heard a thing or two about badgers and bears and wolves, and the image of those two ghostly beast-Oggs dismembering that living cow would forever haunt my dreams.  My mom had warned me about something that lived in the dark corners of the basement and only came out to feast upon puppers that didn’t obey their mothers.  But nobody, not even Mom, had mentioned anything about invisibility.  And I had always assumed that Mom had my best interests at heart.

        How does one fight an invisible foe?  My solution amounted to no more than sitting on my paralyzed butt and snapping to and fro in a vain attempt to see what could not be seen.  It didn’t seem to be working.

        The horrible, slobbering menace was upon me.

* * *

        “Your head’s going to fall off.”

        The voice came from directly over me.  I reared up with such alarm that I fell over backwards and lay in the mud with my legs dangling in the air.  Not even a cricket’s leap from the tips of my toes was a fat belly over a pair of dainty paws, placed properly together on a gnarled branch.  Above the belly, a devilish face grinned down. “I say, your head’s going to fall off.”

        “WHAT?”  I couldn’t help but scream, for I was considerably startled.

        “It’s the truth.  It happened to a casual acquaintance of mine, and I was there to see it.  Nervous fellow, he was.  Always imagined he saw something in the corners of his vision.  He kept spinning his head around like you’re doing and he spun it once too often.  His noggin just screwed off and rolled down a hill until it got stuck in some raspberry bushes.”

        “WHAT?”

        “It turned out splendidly, though.  I would have never known those raspberries were there if not for him.  And there isn’t much in the world I love more than raspberries.”  His voice was nasal and high-pitched, and he sounded as though he were speaking through a veil of thick mucous.

        “WHO ARE YOU?   WHAT ARE YOU?”  As appropriate as it might have been to stop screaming, I couldn’t.

        “Sir, I am Fawrlingswad Porthlam-Candling, out of the most honorable Hengsly Porthlam-Candling and the most erudite Merrymum Blotsford-Spengzer.  But you can call me ‘Bandy’.  I stand fourth in line to administer the Grand Clan Rawl’Colmb.  And who, might I ask, are you?”

        “Daks.  That’s my name.  Out of Wen-Dee and, uh … somebody else.”

        He snorted in disgust, and an enormous bubble of snot formed over his left nostril.  “That’s all?  That’s it?  Daks?  I’ve known fresh-water clams with better names than that.”

        “Wull, uh … I’ve never found a reason to change it.”

        I scrambled out from under the limb and it’s dripping occupant.  He swung down, grasping the branch like a Scrat would, and then dropped to the ground, hind feet first.  In the better light, I could see that what I’d believed to be a shadow across his eyes, or a swipe of dirt, was actually part of his coat.  He was bigger than I, and I didn’t like the looks of his claws.  They were long and they were sharp.

        “Keep your distance, Mister,” I said.  “You still haven’t answered what you are.”

        “Rude question!  Rude, indeed.  Especially coming from one with such ambiguous physical qualities as you.  Why, with even the hint of a tail, you’d be one of the raggediest rodents I’ve ever run across.”

        “Hey there!  I’m an Ogg.  And my Mom’s one too.  I’m no rodent!”

        He sniffed.  “In sophisticated circles, we consider Oggs nothing more than over-rated rodents, young fellow.  But say hey, let’s be friends anyway?  I’ve gotten along with earwigs, so I can certainly get along with one scroungy Ogg.”

        “That’s awwww-fully decent of you.  But as for myself, I hesitate to become close with someone until I know, at least, what sort of creature he is.”  I was trying to be as cloyingly affected as this Fawrlingswad-Bandy, but as hard as I tried, I still fell short.

        “You are obviously a stranger here, Sir Daks, or you’d know what I am.”

        “It’s true, I’ve never been here before.”

        “Then you have never heard of the Grand Clan Rawl’Colmb?”  He rolled his ‘r’s so thickly I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t my own tummy growling.

        “No.”

        “Then you couldn’t know how influential my family is in this forest, could you?”

        “No.”

        “And you couldn’t know we virtually own this forest, could you?”

        “No, I suppose I couldn’t.”

        “Well we do, sir.  You are on a Rawl’Colmb estate, and you don’t even know it.  But say now, help me find some crayfish, and I’ll forget you’re trespassing.  Haw-eeng.”  He laughed, and in doing so, unleashed a river of snot from his pointy nose.

        “You Rawl’Colmbs aren’t related to raccoons, are you?  By any odd coincidence?”

        “We prefer to choose our own name.”

        “But that’s what you are.  A raccoon.  That’s true, isn’t it?”

        “If I say ‘yes’, does that mean you won’t help me find crayfish?  HAW-EENG!”

        I have encountered few personalities that irritated me as much, or as quickly, as this fellow.  Even his laugh was abrasive, like a toenail caught in a metal grating.  I suppose it’s all part of growing up, to meet creatures like that, but there are no natural laws that say one has to spend any more time with them than necessary.  I meant to learn as much as I could from him, and then be off.  “Uh, Mister Fawrlingswad, have you see a pair of Oggs pass through here tonight?”

        The raccoon scrunched his face in thought.  “Was one a big, ruddy fellow whose coat smolders in the moonlight like bronze?”  His eyes were as earnest as a hungry baby’s.

        “Yes … yes!  That’s Peter.”

        “And the other was a female with an amber coat and ears like a fox’s?”

        “Miss Ah-Teena.  That’s Ah-Teena.  YES!”  In lieu of a tail, I wriggled my entire back half.  For the first time since my adventures had started, I felt circumstance had possibly turned in my favor.

        “Nope.  Haven’t seen ‘um.  HAW-EENG!””

        What a twit I thought.  “If you’ll excuse me, Mister Fawrlingswad-Whatever-Bandy, I’ll be leaving now.  I’ve things to do and I don’t have time for your nonsense.”  I strutted away, up the creek bed, meaning to put as much space as possible between myself and this raccoon in the shortest amount of time.

        “Okay, okay, okay!  I saw your lumpen friends. That’s the trouble with you Oggs.  No sense of humor.  None at all.  Next to Oggs, my earwig chums are absolute wags.  Get it?  EARWAGS!  HAW-EEENG!”

        He walked next to me and I couldn’t get away from him.  I accelerated to a trot but the raccoon bounced effortlessly along at my side.  With every step he had another disparaging remark to make about the collective Ogg wit.

        “Not so long ago, I was chased up a tree by a pair of floppy-eared, knot-headed hounds.  We had all night long to entertain one another, but do you suppose I could get a chuckle out of either one of those stodgy oafs?  They spent hours clawing at that tree, threatening me with the most dire consequences if I didn’t come down from my perch and let them tear me to bits.  The more I teased, the madder they became.  It’s disgusting to see others lose control, don’t you think?”

        I could feel drops of sticky moisture flying into my face from the raccoon’s nose.  I sped up into an all-out run, which I knew I couldn’t maintain for long.  Endurance, along with the other strengths I lack, is not one of my strong points.  Bandy seemed to have endurance for both of us.  He was running sideways, and still keeping up with me.  The shower of snot turned into a veritable monsoon.

        “I watch Oggs from a distance.  I study them, you know.  It’s rather a hobby with me, the study of boring creatures.  ‘Dullardology’, I call it.  I followed your two friends for a ways because I have generally found that the larger the Ogg, the more boring he is.  So I wanted to compare the one you call Peter to the female, and it’s true.  He’s a great deal more boring than she.  She demonstrated a certain amateurish flair for satire and irony, while, from what I could hear, he had nothing … ab-so-lute-ly nothing … to contribute to the general body of pleasant banter.  Did you know your friend Peter’s tongue hangs out of his mouth to an extraordinary length?  It’s true!  He could have been an insect-snagging amphibian with that tongue and a modicum of training.  Of course, trainability precludes a measurable amount of intelligence, you must agree.  And from what I saw of your chum Peter, intelligence isn’t something he’s troubled with.  Not to any noticeable degree.”

        I stopped, winded and mad.  “Don’t you say another word about Peter, I warn you.  Not another word!  He’s my friend and that’s all that matters.  And can’t you do anything about that runny nose?  My eyes are sticking shut.”

        “A little sympathy, if you please.  It’s a head cold.  Happens every year when the weather turns.”  As if to demonstrate his point, Bandy sneezed, then planted himself right in front of my face.  “And as for your lop-tongued friend Peter, I’m sorry if I’ve offended.  I just thought you looked like the sort who might be interested in the occasional scientific observation.”

        “Peter is about the bravest, smartest fellow you’ll ever run across.  He saved my life.”

        “I’m sure he’s everything you say he is.  And even though we could quibble over the definition of ‘smart,’ I will henceforth keep my opinions to myself.  For the sake of a harmonious and pleasant journey, I won’t say another word about your Peter’s ridiculous tongue or his dubious mental capacities.”

        “What do you mean?  You don’t mean to say that you’re coming with me?”

        “Of course I’m coming with you.  I have to escort you to the end of Rawl’Colmb land, at the least.  Beyond that, we’ll see.”

        “But Mister Fawrlingswad, I don’t want you to come with me.  Why do you want to come with me?”

        “Science!  In the name of science, dear fellow.  Let us think of it as an expedition of discovery.  There is much yet to be learned about why Oggs are so stupifyingly dull.”

        “But I don’t like you much.  You don’t want to be where you’re not wanted, do you?”

        “I’ll grow on you, sir.  I’ve got a zillion stories.  I’ve got stories that will leave tears of mirth in those yellowing eyes of yours.  You’ll beg me to stop.  Of course, most of my best jokes are about Oggs, but I’ve got some good Scrat gags, too.  And besides, if you want to know in which direction your friends went … “

        “Aren’t I going the right way?  Tell me.  Didn’t they go this way?”

        “Weeeellllll, sort of.  It wasn’t far from here that I saw them.  But I’m hazy on exactly which direction that was in, being so upset.”

        “Upset?  What are you upset about?  I’m the one who’s lost.  I’m the one who can’t find his friends.  I’m the one who should be upset!”

        The raccoon stiffened and his voice raised to an excited pitch.  “Well, well, well.  I’m the one who was just told he isn’t wanted here.  I’m the one who was just told he isn’t liked.  And that is upsetting.   Anyone with rarefied blood like mine would be upset.  Only a coarse mongrel could be told he isn’t appreciated without feeling some degree of anxiety.”

        I felt a measure of remorse for being so blunt.  Bandy seemed genuinely hurt.  “Uh, I suppose you’re not as bad as I think you are.”

        “A mixed compliment, at best.  If you can’t do any better than that, sir, my anxiety may become a permanent condition.”

        “Okay … I like you.  A lot.  A whole lot!  Is that what you want to hear?  I think you’re swell.  Grand.  Magnamorious!”

        “Stop!  Stop … you flatter me, sir.  You swell my head.  But I thank you for recognizing that certain essence in me that I have always felt myself, but have never been able to express quite as eloquently as you.”

        “Where did you see Peter and Miss Ah-teena?  Pleeeeaaaase.”

        “Follow me, Daks.  You’ve asked just the right fellow.”

* * *

        We climbed the bank and left the creek bed.  It was difficult for me to put my trust in such a pest as this Fawrlingswad, but I was beginning to have doubts I could find my friends on my own.  I certainly couldn’t continue to follow the creek bed forever, simply because it was the convenient thing to do.

        Bandy led me up a track made smooth from thousands of paw pads.  How many different sorts of creature had come this way to the water I couldn’t guess.  My nose registered more varied spoor than I could count.  Most of them had been laid there within minutes of our arrival, or my mediocre nose wouldn’t have registered a thing.  The trail took a turn or two up the steep bank.  I would have never seen it, it was so well hidden among the rocks and brush.  I started to say something, to warn Bandy of the thorns, but before I could, he ducked his head and was gone, with only a quivering sprig of dried leaves to show me where he went.  I closed my eyes and followed.

        The brambles were filled with the whispers of other creatures, small creatures who scurried away on feet the size of lupine seed, judging by the furtive nature of their sounds.  In their sleep, birds muttered amongst themselves, and their sleep-talk was revealing.  “How clever we are.  How pretty we are.”  It occurred to me that birds might have to exalt themselves continuously like this to maintain the gift of flight—that if they were to put anything serious in their heads, the weight might cause them to drop from the sky like wet leaves.

        I couldn’t see much.  Whatever moonlight filtered its way through the thick brush did not satisfy my eyes’ demands.  I followed the raccoon by smell and sound, and he provided a plethora of both.  I hadn’t noticed before, out in the open, but Bandy exuded a unique aroma, a strong and randy smell, and I could only wish it were more pleasant.  It was as cloying and rich as a Scrat’s, but with a wild, gamy flavor that carried memories of the wild rabbit I’d eaten the night before.  An unwelcome thought crept into my mind.  I wonder what a raccoon tastes like?  I quickly pushed the notion away, but it didn’t leave easily.  I had already begun to wonder how my next meal might find its way to my belly.

        “Watch your head, Daks m’ boy.  It’s a little cramped here.”  He made no attempt to muffle his voice.  Birds came out of their sleep to declare how displeased they were, and he laughed back.  “Go back to sleep, ladies.  But first, meet my chum, Daks.  Sir Daks.  He’s new around here and the two of us have important things to do.”

        The birds were unimpressed.  “Go away, bandit” they trilled.  “Get out of our bush and take that rat with you.”

        “I’m no rat,” I told them.  “And neither was my mom.”

        After I’d crawled out from under the last of the thorns and come to Bandy’s side, he asked, “Exactly why are we trying to catch up with your muddy, muddled friends, Daks?”

        “Because they’re searching for Lah-Tsee, and I want to be with them when they find her.”

* * *

        Of course, it took a while to explain about Lah-Tsee and why we were searching for her. But as it turned out, we had more than enough time.  The raccoon led me hither and yon, through forest and across secret meadows, where my coat filled with the crinkled remains of summer wildflowers.  The spot where he’d last seen Peter and Ah-Teena was a considerable distance from the creek, and it twisted my stomach to think how far I might have gone in the wrong direction.  Having such an eccentric guide as this mouthy Bandy wasn’t a great comfort, but I consoled myself with the thought that even if he was leading me into a trip through his own imagination with nothing at the end but wasted steps and wasted time, at least I could blame him for the failure, instead of my own ineptitude.

        When I was thoroughly disoriented, we entered a thick stand of aspens.  A breeze I couldn’t feel shuffled the yellow leaves and toyed at the frail tree tops.  “Right here, on this spot.  They were right here,”  the raccoon said.  “I climbed that tree.  That one over there.  My view was perfect.  They stopped here for a few minutes, argued, and then went on, arguing all the way.  Don’t you think that sort of thing is best done in privacy?  I certainly do.  Propriety, you know, is what separates us from the plants.”

        “What were they arguing about?”

        “Your Peter seemed to be extremely upset and angry with

the female.  Something about a jeweled collar, if I heard right.  I don’t generally like to spend my time eaves-dropping on domestic squabbles.  It’s embarrassing to witness.  Demeaning to all concerned, I say.  But after all, I was conducting research.”

        As Bandy blathered on, I put my feeble nose to the ground and went from tree to tree.  “The female seemed to be enjoying his chagrin, and one could hardly blame her.  The oaf was making quite a spectacle of himself.  The more angry he became, the more she laughed, and the more she laughed, the more angry he became.”

        I could smell her!  Faintly.  They couldn’t have stayed long.  But I could smell her, just the same.  Peter’s muscular odor was there, as well.  He had sprayed two of the trees.  Just when my spirits had slipped to another low point … just when the raccoon’s incessant chatter had brought me to the edge of civilized behavior … just when I had despaired of ever seeing my friends again … my mediocre nose delivered me.

        Bandy sat on his broad bottom and watched.  “As much as I disapprove of scenes in public places, I must say I enjoyed it.  I’m not trying to ruin your image of that golden dud, Daks, but he has set a new standard for foolish behavior.  I’m sure of it.”

        “Mister Fawrlingswad, please.  Which way did they go?”

        “Why, he was so mad that if anger could melt flesh and bone, at this moment we’d be standing neck-deep in a puddle of your friend.  We would have to rely on his floppy tongue as a raft.  And I do believe there’d be room on it for both of us.”

        “WHICH WAY DID THEY GO?”

        Bandy drew away in mock alarm.  “Goodness, goodness … speaking of tantrums.”

        “I’m sorry I yelled.  But I’ll have enough trouble catching them as it is, without having to listen to more of your … uh … scientific observations.”

        “I suppose you’re right.  We should be on our way, and we’ll have scoodles of time to talk as we go.”

        “You mean, you’re still going with me?  You don’t mean that, do you?”

        “Of course I’m going with you.  I don’t abandon my responsibilities simply because they involve boorish louts.”

        “That’s very decent of you, Mister Fawrlingswad.  Very decent, I’m sure.”

* * *

        I gave in to Bandy without a fight, without even a whimper.  I recognize overwhelming force when I see it, and the raccoon was nothing if not overwhelming.  It would have to fall on Peter and Ah-Teena to decide what to do with him, once we found them.  And I prayed they weren’t so accustomed to eating wild game that they couldn’t distinguish food from friends.

        We traveled the night through.  Beyond two or three relatively painless ridges, we began a steady descent.  The trees began to thin, the more intrusive underbrush gave way to coarse grasses, and the walking was easier.  My legs began to feel like legs again, instead of lairs for fire-breathing insects.

        Here and there, we crossed paths with other night-wandering creatures, and to each and every one, Bandy felt compelled to tell—at length—what we were doing and why we were doing it.  Each time he retold the story, it came out sounding more like I was merely incidental to the heart of the matter.  And as my role slipped into the dimly-focused background, the raccoon projected himself as the central character in an ever-expanding saga.

        To a confused chipmunk, Bandy told a tale of how I was on a vendetta to find two ill-bred Oggs who had stolen my personal totem, a magically empowered collar.  The collar had been given to me by Lah-Tsee, who was half man and half Rawl’Colmb —a mixture of the Savage and the Divine, in his words.  I protested that there was almost nothing of the truth in what Bandy said, but the chipmunk couldn’t have cared any less.  The poor little chap had been sleep-walking when we surprised him, and was terrified to find himself so far from his bed.  All he wanted out of the encounter was not to be eaten.

        To a surly porcupine, Bandy told how I and two accomplices had enchanted a raccoon Grand Dame (named Lah-Tsee) so that we might abscond with her tiara, the emblem of her right to rule.  Bandy, being a Rawl’Colmb knight of the highest order, had trapped me during the escape and was now pursuing the other two thieves in order to retrieve the crown, which was sacred to the entire Rawl’Colmb kingdom.  He kept me in tow only to insure I didn’t engage in any more larceny while he was gone.  The porcupine interrupted him in mid-lie.  “Who are you trying to fool, coon.  I know you, bandit.  Go away and leave me be.”  His quills bristled and we moved along.

        To an owl squatting in a half-dead spruce, Bandy told how a malevolent being of immense dimension (Lah-Tsee) was attacking the very fiber that held the world together, assisted by the awesome power of a bejeweled pendant, forged in the bowels of a flaming mountain.  The only one with the wisdom and personal strength to save all of creation was, of course, the Most Honorable Bishop Fawrlingswad-Bandy.  He didn’t fully explain what I was doing there, but he did mention something about enlisting the aid of a “stunted minion of ignorance and beastliness” in his mission.

        The owl said, “What?”

        “Oh, never mind,” huffed Bandy.  “I have more important things to do than repeat myself to slow-witted owls.  Come along, Daks.”  He waddled off down the hill.

        I asked the bird, “Have you seen a pair of Oggs pass this way tonight?  A beautiful male and an even more beautiful female?”

        “What?” the owl repeated and turned his head so far around on his body I was left with the impression there were actually two creatures, one curled into a tight, round ball and perched atop the other, a much more relaxed fellow.  That impression included the feeling that neither one of them had enough sense to know in from out or up from down.

* * *

        The solid forest gave way to ever smaller knots of trees, which in turn became ever farther apart, until there were no longer groves at all, just isolated pines sitting in the middle of expanses of yellowed grass.  In the distance below, lights punctuated the landscape.  Artificial lights.  The lights of men.  They were few and scattered, and we were moving toward them.

        “Mister Fawrlingswad, I don’t think Peter would have come this way.  I really don’t.  Peter doesn’t care much for humans.”

        “Do call me ‘Bandy’.  I feel we’re well enough acquainted that you can forego the formalities, at least when we’re alone.  Now, if we were to stumble across another Rawl’Colmb, I would prefer you call me ‘Bishop’, or ‘Bishop Porthlam-Candling’.  I’m not entirely sure what the title means, but it sounds quite exalted, don’t you think?  I have wanted to be called ‘Bishop’ since summer before last.  You see, I was hovering around a gaggle of humans on the other side of the mountain.  They come every summer and doddle around the forest on their knees for hours at a time.  Wonderful trash.  Absolutely wonderful.  Have you ever tried an egg hardened with heat?  Or blueberries baked into a crust?  Just scrumptious.  And you see, there was this one exceedingly erect man there whom the rest seemed to fear … they called him ‘Bishop’ … and … “

        “Bandy!  Are you sure Peter came this way?  This doesn’t seem right.”

        “This is the way they came, Daks.  Trust me.  Who’s the expert here, anyway?”

        “Expert at what, Mist . . er . . Bishop Bandy?”

        “Expert at solving problems.  You have a problem and you want it solved, am I right?  Am I?”  Without giving me time to answer, he went on, “Daksie, the future belongs to those who can identify precisely what the problem is and then resolve it with intelligence and perception.  I pride myself on possessing those same qualities.  You must see them in me, don’t you?  Intelligence?  Perception?”  He turned to the side, as though these virtues could be better seen in profile.

        “Way-yull … I do see things about you I’ve never noticed in anyone else.  I suppose they might be intelligence and perception.”

        “You see, you think your problem is that you can’t find these two Oggie friends of yours.  You think they’re doing something important and that you ought to be involved … all this ‘Lah-Tsee’ pilly-dilly.  Right?  You think your problem stems from not being with Peter right now, at this moment, doing important things.  Right?”

        “Right.  That’s my problem.”

        “Wrong, Sir!  Your problem doesn’t have anything to do with those thick-skulled Oggs and whatever they’re up to.”

        “It doesn’t?”

        “No, no, no, no, NO!  Give it some thought, my boy.  How much of a problem could it be that you aren’t with your friends, participating in their important mission, when everyone in the world knows that nothing Oggs do is very important?”

         I stopped in my footprints and sputtered out the preliminaries to a furious objection, but Bandy went on, interrupting my anger before it ever cleared my mouth.  “No, Daks,” he said.  “Your problem is a dearth of self-esteem.  An absolute abscess.  I can smell it in others, you know.  I can spot shaky confidence through a thicket of Scrat-back tulles, and I have never seen shakier self-esteem than I see in you, Daks.  I’ve met offal-eating larvae that have more pride in themselves than you do.  Not that I question why.  After all, number one, you’re an Ogg, and number two, you’ve been rejected even by your Ogg friends.  That would depress even a sunflower, Daks.”

        “I AM NOT DEPRESSED!”

        “Oh yes, you are.  You just don’t know it.  All Oggs are depressed, but none of you have the acuity to recognize it for what it is.  Believe me, there isn’t another creature breathing air who doesn’t understand why Oggs are so depressed.  If we Rawl’Colmb spent our lives being humiliated, we’d be depressed, too.  You live off of men like intestinal parasites.  You abase yourselves at their feet.  You lick their fingers for whatever tasteless smudge they feed you.  You assume ridiculous poses and call it pride.  But, Daksie, just betwixt us, you have less to be proud of than fungus.  So is it any wonder your self-esteem would fit under your tongue with room left over for a good sized toad?  I think not.”

        My mind was busy forming rebuttals to each of Bandy’s points, but he wouldn’t stop yakking long enough for me to say anything.  The only thing to put pause to his nattering was a sneezing fit, one of which gave me an opening.  “Listen here, raccoon.  Whatever you might think of me, you ought to know that Peter isn’t any finger-licking intestinal parasite, and neither is Miss Ah-Teena.  In fact . . .”

        Bandy regained control of his sinuses, and he was off again.  I might as well have been talking to myself.  “But, say hey.  We’re going to do something about it, my little self-deprecating friend.  I’m going to solve your problem.  You must have been born under a moon of great fortune for having run into me, Daks.”

        “What are you going to do, Bandy?”

        “Start you on the road to high pride, my wiggley-Oggly chum.  And for that, you must have something to be proud of.  Before I’m done, you’ll be able to approach the biggest man alive, pee on his boot, and kick dirt on him with impunity.  I’ll teach you courage.  Courage and self-reliance.  And the art of independent thinking.  I’ll teach you to make your own decisions and find your own food and think your own thoughts.  Before I’m done, you won’t need the company of those two wandering friends of yours, or any other Ogg.  You’ll be a citizen of the wild world, Daks.  Fit to take your place in the grand scheme.  Ooohhh, what a marvelous experiment.”

        “Experiment?  What do you mean, ‘experiment’?”

        “To my knowledge, Daksie, no one has ever taught an Ogg to do anything worth doing.  I have no idea if it can be done, and … no offense … but I have serious doubts that you or any other Ogg has a quick enough wit to capture more than the vulgar basics.  I will feel I’ve succeeded if I get you to master only one or two of the finer points.  There’s nothing to be gained by holding unrealistic expectations, now is there?”

        I tasted blood, I was biting my tongue so hard.  “No.  No, I don’t suppose there is.”

* * *

        I could have leapt on his back and taken his skinny neck between my jaws.  I could have bitten and twisted and shaken and minced his flesh until he was dead.  I was so enraged, I could have howled to the moon over his corpse.  At least, I think I could have done those things.  I was more than mad enough to do those things.

        His teeth might have presented a problem.  They were a little longer —and a lot sharper —than mine.  And there might have been further problems with his claws, which made mine look as deadly as a pug nose in comparison.  He was also noticeably larger than I, and all put together, he probably would have been hard to kill, or possibly even hurt much.  But if anger were a weapon, I could have reduced him to a smattering of shredded meat for the ants to carry away.

        In spite of eyes nearly blinded by rage, though, I could still see that to attack him would prove his point —that Oggs were louts and brutes.  Even if I were to tear him apart, I could anticipate his dying words.  See what I mean, Daks?  Was I right or not?  Oggs are capable of only the most simple tricks.  LIKE MURDER!  I decided to show him he was wrong.  Wrong about me.  About Peter.  Wrong about all Oggs.  As the intensity of night began to fade and the sky to my back lightened and turned to rose shades, I was determined to show this arrogant raccoon there was already a noble side to Oggs, and I didn’t need his help to reach citizenship in the wide, wild world.

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