The winking rim of the sun found us crossing an expanse of black soil, turned up into lumps and clods, and every lump and every clod was just enough higher than my legs to make walking torturous. While I trudged along like a stubby bug, Bandy seemed to skim over the rough ground like a tumbling weed. I couldn’t imagine how he did it because I was so exhausted. Every step was a challenge, every breath a chore.
At sometime or other, I had stopped listening to Bandy’s chatter. He’d gone from insulting my species to telling jokes and stories about everything alive, ranging from soaking-wet Scrats to upside-down clams. I didn’t understand most of them, and the few I did understand didn’t seem to me as funny as they seemed to him. I had the impression the raccoon had told these stories many times, and to many separate ears, but he still laughed like a disturbed magpie at the end of each one. I tried to remain attentive, to listen and learn, but on some hillside or the other, I gave up. It took all of my attention just to put one foot in front of the other and push myself forward. I began to wish I could close my eyes and sleep, yet continue to walk. I tried it, and though I know I wasn’t truly asleep because I was still aware of the cramping in my legs, I did manage to shut out Bandy. His voice receded into the background, becoming no more demanding than the drone of a persistent mosquito. I don’t know how long this went on, but when my senses returned and the world came back into focus, I found myself in the middle of that open field, clambering over the backs of those blasted clods.
“. . . and when we get there, Daks, be quiet. Very, very quiet. Like dandelion seeds on a weak breeze. Some of these farmers get up as early as the dew.”
“What? Where? When we get where, Mister Bandy?”
“Have I been entertaining myself for all this time? Daksie m’ boy, let us gather up our wits and keep them all in the same place, shall we? I told you. We’re going after chicken. Marauding in the master’s manor, remember? Raiding the ruler’s roost. It’s a wonderful concept, don’t you think? And I thought of it myself.”
“Peter steals chickens, ” I muttered. “It’s no big deal to steal a chicken.”
“Sir, when I steal a chicken, it’s a big deal. When I steal a chicken, the farmer knows he’s had a chicken stolen. And besides, have you ever stolen a chicken? Or are you satisfied to eat second-hand chickens for the rest of your life?”
“No, I’ve never stolen a chicken.”
“Well, you shall. And soon. You shall outstrip your oopsy-doopsy pal Peter. I’m sure he’s never taken a chicken when the chicken’s owner was within spitting distance, has he?”
“I’ll bet he has. Peter’s as brave as they come.”
“Peter may be as brave as Oggs come, dearie Daksie, but we pursue higher goals than the average Ogg. We pursue profound goals. Wide goals! Indeed, towering goals!”
“Mister Bandy, is this what you meant about teaching me the finer points? Is stealing a chicken from beneath a farmer’s nose a ‘finer point’?”
“Daks, to scale the grand heights, one has to start with the paltry humps and bumps.”
I lost my footing on a slippery clod and went down. My chin stopped my fall. “For the present, these humps and bumps are as grand as I care to scale,” I said.
Before us sat a number of low and squalid structures. Farm structures, I presumed. Most of them were situated near the edge of the clod field, but one crouched by itself, away from the others, and it was clearly the living quarters for humans. It was the only building with glass in the windows, and behind the dirty glass, dirty yellow curtains hung over sickly plants potted in tin cans. Coming upon any farm, even a luxurious farm with richly dressed little girls playing on thick grass, would have caused me considerable consternation, seeing as how my only other experience with a farm had left me with a stub where a tail should be. And with this particular ensemble of rundown buildings and littered yard came a deep flutter of dread. Every board on every building was naked and rough in the rising light, except for what scabs of paint hadn’t yet blown off with the wind. Two dilapidated machines sat off the ground on oily stones, and all around them lay the machines’ entrails, too grimy for even the crows to pick at.
“Listen, Daks, if you know how to be silent, do it now. Our skins are at stake here.” Bandy was prancing about and breathing quickly. His eyes sparkled. “One wrong noise can bring the end of us. Do you understand? One minuscule misstep will be our finale. Ooooh, Daks, doesn’t this make you tingle? You couldn’t possibly know this yet, but being so near to a violent death as we are at this very minute … this is what makes life worth waking up for. Silence is the most important thing. Silence is the very foundation of stealth. And stealth will be your first and most important lesson, fellow. So remember … as quiet as dandelion seeds.”
“You’re doing all the talking, Bandy. I haven’t said …”
* * *
The first building we came to was a ragged hut, elevated off the ground by the same sort of artificial, squared stones upon which the machines had died. A space not quite as tall as me separated the sagging floor from the dirt. The raccoon flattened himself and skiddled under the rotting shed without losing a step. I went down on my belly and followed, but I didn’t like it. The structure smelled of dust and dry wheat, and my nose began to itch and quiver as it had in the corn. Bandy would be more than a little displeased if I were to sneeze, but it was not his displeasure I feared the most. As full of gas and nonsense as Bandy was, I sensed he was right about one thing—that we were in a bad place, with horrid things awaiting us if we were careless.
I crawled into a spider web, heavy with mummified corpses of the summer’s flies and crickets. It covered my nose and mouth and I wanted to gag. The builder of the web—a pale, double-jointed horror—stirred and shrank away before me. She was fat from a season of eating well and slow from the cold. In a tongue as tiny as a glass sliver, she hissed, “Leave me alone, beast. I’ve never bothered your kind.” I felt bad that I had ruined her trap. Clearly, she would never again have the strength to rebuild it, but it was done. I shifted to one side, so that I could go around her without smashing her overly ripe body, and went on.
“Stay behind me, Daks,” Bandy whispered. “And keep your knobby head down!” He peeked out from behind one of the supporting blocks. Most of the farmyard was still in morning shadow. Only the very tips of the barren trees showed the sun’s glare. Like open sores on a balding Scrat, puddles of muddy water dotted the hardened ground between us and the house.
“I don’t think they’re up yet, Bandy. I think these farmers aren’t the sort that wake up early.”
“Remarkable. Just one night with me, and you already know everything.”
“I only said that I don’t think they’re awake yet.”
Bandy turned somber. He spoke with a lower, more serious voice than I’d yet heard him use. “Even sleeping men are dangerous, Daks. They can reach out and strike you down from anywhere. They can put a hot stone through your heart from hundreds of steps away. Or they can entice you to eat what you think is tasty grub, but your guts will twist into knots and you will die screaming holes in your lungs from the pain. You might step into steel jaws they have hidden in your favorite places, and the only way to escape is to eat your own flesh and leave a leg behind. That’s what makes this all such a challenge, don’t you see? It doesn’t matter if they sleep. Any time we are close to the world of men, we are close to death.”
What Bandy said—and the fervor with which he said it—made my heart skip and my bowels quake. There was fire in his eyes. “You see, Daks? Do you see? Their entire world is about making death, and we shall step up to these brutes and laugh in their faces. We shall make them timid with our bravery. Awfully exciting, don’t you think?” I nodded, but he had turned away and didn’t see me. The truth was, I was having difficulties sharing in Bandy’s anticipation.
“Look sharply, then follow,” and he was gone. The next structure over was a much larger building, constructed of some rusting and rippled metal. One entire side, the side facing the house, was open. Whatever awaited inside was lost in shadow. It might well have been full to the roof with venomous snakes and mean-tempered children, but Bandy dashed across the gravel and into the dark as though it contained nothing but ripe peaches.
I bolted. I ran with my eyes on the house and while I was still in the open, I saw movement in one of the ground-floor windows. The fright it gave me served to move my exhausted legs even faster. I entered the dark cavern of the metal barn without slowing, with no thought whatsoever given to stopping. A large piece of farm machinery took away the need to concern myself with that. With a crash, I was stopped in a very abrupt manner, and my snout still bears a small but permanent bump from the experience.
“Is that your idea of being quiet, Daks?” Bandy sat perched atop the very machine that had so abruptly ended my run. It was a grotesque affair, this machine, with spikes protruding in all directions and grinding wheels designed to pull anything before it into its maw. I felt sorry for whatever this machine was built to harvest.
“I hurt my nose.”
“And I think maybe someone was at the window. I think maybe they saw me.”
“Daks, if they have ears, they won’t need to see you. Now, stop banging about and get serious. There are chickens near. Do you smell them?”
No, I couldn’t smell any chickens. As inadequate as my nose was under the best of conditions, it was even more useless when it was bleeding. Bandy climbed down the backside of the machine and with a quick look at the house, I went around the monstrosity, squeezing between the wall and a wheel as tall as a blackberry bush. The raccoon was nosing around the top of an oily shelf. “What are you looking for?”
He ignored me and continued to examine each and every item on the bench. Oddly shaped metal tools hung on the wall and containers partially filled with foul liquids littered the floor. More tools leaned like tired bones against the walls. The place was a mess, and it took some careful treading not to trip over something.
“Bandy, what’re you looking for?”
“SSSHHHHUSSSHHHH! If you must know, I like to find whatever they need the most, the thing that’s most important to them. It’s simple. What ever is covered the heaviest with their scent is what they use the most.”
“What do you want it for?”
“I’ll take it away and drop it where it won’t be found for a long, long time. It’s another hobby of mine, you see. I like to imagine them when they reach for it, and it isn’t there. ‘Why, it was here yesterday! I had it JUST YESTERDAY! Where is it? I NEED IT NOOOWWW!'”
In affecting this imaginary man’s tantrum, Bandy’s eyes bulged and his lips were pursed so tightly that a baby earthworm would have struggled to get through them. I couldn’t help but giggle. “You’re trying to make them mad?”
“Oh my, yes. It’s least I can do in return for all they have done for us.”
* * *
A door swung shut. It was the sort of door with a steel spring attached so that it can slam on the fannies of slightly tardy, unnoticeably short Oggs. I knew the sort of door from where I was raised, and I knew well the sound it makes.
“Bandy! Someone’s coming!”
The raccoon landed at my side. In one paw, he held a shiny length of steel forged into a shape that only a human would understand. “Don’t panic, Daks. We’ll hide. It’s that simple.”
“Well now, the best sort of hiding place is the kind where you can’t be found. I was once being pursued by a lynx … very ornery, over-blown Scrats, those lynx. And even the other lynx didn’t like this character. He had a festering grudge against me, you see. Something about a trifling dead salmon I had borrowed from him. All perfectly fair and an honest piece of thievery, but he didn’t see it that way. Let me tell you something, Daks. You can’t climb a tree to get away from those scoundrels. Believe me, trees don’t help when it comes to escaping lynxes. Or is it lynxii?”
I looked under the machine, out into the yard. A man lurched from beneath a tree next to the house, approaching slowly because every fourth step, he leaned down to pull on a boot that resisted every attempt to be pulled on. The boot was crumpled on his foot and it made him look like he’d stepped in something. If only he had taken his time with the stubborn boot, it would have been properly fitted onto his foot in no time. But this fellow was more concerned with making his way to the shed than with how awkward and clumsy his walk there might be.
“So climbing a tree was out of the question. And you don’t outrun a lynx. If you were a fleet deer, Daksie … which you aren’t and neither am I … you might outrun a lynx in the long stretch. But in a sprint, a lynx will be clawing at your bottom before you have time to pee down your leg. So I was left to match wits with wits, and of course, it was really no match at all.”
He was a large man, in fact a huge man, with a belly girth that on any other creature would have required four legs to support. He was also a hairy man. His face was covered with a thick, black mat, and since he hadn’t taken the time to close his shirt, I could see his chest and belly were befurred as well. “Bandy, if we’re going to hide, let’s do it now!”
“And hide I did. But did I cringe under a mossy rock? Did I slink behind a bush and pray that this thug lynx wouldn’t find me? Do I look like my wits have no more depth than THAT?”
“Band-eee!” I was frantic. The man was only a few steps from the entrance. He was close enough now that I could see, not only was he a huge and hairy man, he was a furious man as well. He was grumbling to himself like an approaching thunderstorm. “Mutts … mutts … MUTTS! Had mah fill o’ yew mutts comin’ in here mussin’ with mah chickens!”
“The only place to hide from a lynx, my fine young friend, is where the lynx least expects to find you. And a lynx will look anywhere. Anywhere but his own lair, that is.”
“Bandy …” I pleaded in a thick whisper. I could no longer see the man’s bulk, only his feet and lower legs, just on the other side of the machine. He entered the shed with the problematic boot still flopping to and fro like a weasel with a broken back, and he continued to declare how disgusted he was with us “mutts.”
“Do as I do, Daks,” Bandy whispered into my quivering ear, and he was gone.
* * *
Oh, that I could have done as he did! But what he did was quite beyond me. To do what he did would have required that my toenails be much longer and much sharper, for Bandy used his nails to skitter up the giant tire, still holding on to the gleaming tool. I tried to climb the tire, but my blunted claws would not penetrate. I leapt as high as I could, a number of times, in vain. The tire was much too high.
“MUTT! YEW MUTT!” The man was down on his hands and knees, glaring at me from the far side of the reaper. If hate alone could kill, I’d have been crow pickings. “I’M GONNA SKIN YA’ AND USE YER HIDE FOR A BELT, MUTT!”
I couldn’t move. The man’s bellowing was a powerful weapon in itself, but the added threat of becoming a clothing accessory immobilized me. My body, all those muscles, all that blood, all of those bones and best of intentions, seized up like I was a tadpole caught in frozen mud. “Mister, all I want to do is find my friends,” I wanted to tell this enraged creature, and would have, had my tongue not turned to cold stone along with the all of rest of me …
. . . and if men weren’t, by nature, deaf to everything but their own voices.
He began to crawl under the machine, dragging the ends of his shirt through a swab of yellow gook. His belly swung from side to side as though he were full of milk. Every time his head banged into the under-guts of the machine, he announced that the horridness of my impending demise had doubled. Still, I couldn’t move. The man might have reached out a grimy hand and squeezed my neck until my brains popped out my ears—he came that close—only he couldn’t seem to coordinate his hands from the stance he was in.
Bandy had no such problems with coordination. Whatever else might be said of the raccoon, his remarkable agility must be included. Who else could have hung upside-down like a fat fly from the side of a hard-rubber tire, grabbed a paralyzed Ogg by the scalp, and pulled himself and the Ogg out of the clutches of a rabidly mad human? The man howled with rage, his head colliding once more with the metal belly of the machine. “MIZER-BUL MUTT! MIZER-BUL! … THIEVIN’! … GLAMDOOZAL! … MUTT!”
“What’s the delay, Daksie? We’ve more important things to do than listen to this cheap bluster.”
I struggled to regain my feet but Bandy allowed me no time. I was being dragged on my back over the rough terrain of the ugly machine by an ear. Bandy had laid the metal tool onto a flat spot, and on our way past, he took it into his mouth so that his paws were free to mishandle me. “Quee’ higheeng, ‘aks. Ah gah yah hess in-eressess a’ hahrrrr.” As near as I could tell, he wanted me stop resisting, that he had my best interests at heart. Up and over the machine he hauled me, and when he finally let me go, we were on the ground, outside the shed, with the wide mouth of the metal beast behind us.
Bandy took the tool from between his teeth. “Now, on to his lair, Daks! Scurry like a squirrel. Like your legs are on fire.” He took off in the direction of the house, skirting around the larger puddles, leaping over the smaller ones.
“To his WHAT, you say? Mister Bandy, you can’t mean … ” but he was already half-way there.
“FILTHY! … FUNGOO! … MUTTS! The man was flopping and kicking about, still trying to come up from beneath his reaper. His errant boot had fallen off. It lay behind him in a pool of grease. He managed to crawl his clumsy bulk forward enough to rise, but now he was on the inside and to get out, he would have to circle around the far side of the machine. He would never squeeze that bloated belly between the wall and the tire. I had trouble getting my own body through that space.
“OOWWWCH, GROODLESKAT … BULMDIT … FUNGOOO! AHHHWOOOO!” My oh my, what a racket he was making in there. I don’t know what he’d stepped on, but it was his own fault. After all, it was his trash wreaking so much havoc upon his unprotected foot.
It would have been so simple to escape into the clods and mud, to the hills and safety, and I was appalled that Bandy had chosen to dive even deeper into this peril. For a moment, I considered leaving him, abandoning him and his wild schemes and silly lessons. From near to the house, he called back, “Dawdle not, Daks. I can’t pull your fat out of the fire indefinitely.”
Yes, I could have run alone. I could have bolted back into the plowed field and left Bandy to his own devices. I could have—but I didn’t. The raccoon had saved my life. As frightened as I was, I was still aware that I owed every breath I took from then forward to this Fawrlingswad-Porthlam-Candling.
* * *
A false rock path led to some crumbling steps and a flimsy screened door. The skeletal remains of a tall ragweed stood next to the steps, its roots clinging to the beaten soil. Other than that, the only vegetation near the house were some splotches of brown grass and an enormous walnut tree. A few yellowed leaves and withered fruit still dangled from its branches, but the great body of the summer’s growth was gathered into piles around the massive trunk. A rope hung from a branch that swept away from the house and on the end of the rope was a battered tire. I had seen the arrangement before. The people who lived next door to Mom’s family had hung a tire from their cherry tree. All the children within walking distance came there to swing in it and scream in mock fear. I, myself, was once awarded the dubious honor of a swing, sitting in the lap of a little girl who kept me there by squeezing my neck until I almost passed out. I had to bite her on the arm to breath, and I suffered for it later—a vigorous butt-beating with a newspaper rolled tightly. At the time, though, I sincerely felt my life was at stake. And I must point out that I didn’t even draw blood.
Brightly colored toys cluttered the ground on either side of the walkway, and it appeared most of these scattered playthings were defective in one way or the other. Broken. Tiny wheels and tiny arms lying amidst tiny trucks and tiny dolls. I have never understood most of the things human children play with. Their toys, as a rule, are nothing more than miniatures of the larger ugliness in their lives. There is one marvel, though, for which I have unbounded appreciation. The soft rubber ball. One of my favorite things in life, a soft rubber ball, and I have never outgrown my love for them. I inherited the predilection from my mom, I suppose. Her happiest hours came from playing with an old rubber ball. It had once been red, with a natty yellow stripe. There was enough left of the outer coating to tell that much, but most of the color had been gnawed off. I did a little gnawing on it, myself, but not much. That ball was the one thing Mom didn’t want to share, not even with me. Whenever I was lucky enough to get hold of it, she would race in and scoop it away before I saw her coming.
I imagine that’s why I took the risk of grabbing the rubber ball from the lawn, from where it beckoned amongst the other toys. I imagine I was compensating for an early deprivation, maybe. For whatever reason, that’s what I did. It was the only toy on the lawn that was complete, unbroken, and it seemed as new and fresh as an egg still wet from the hen. There wasn’t a fleck of paint missing from its marvelous surface. And the ball was red, as red as blood in sunlight, with a wide yellow stripe. My mother would have swooned, for it was the perfect incarnation of her favorite thing. I may be a tad dramatic about how I felt at that moment. But I tell you, that beautiful ball lying there at the edge of the morning light seemed to speak to me.
Take me with you, Daks. Your destiny and mine are the same.
“That’s the spirit, Daks. We’ll hide it along with this toolie thing. The entire family will wonder whether their wits have flown south for the winter.”
I couldn’t answer. Beyond the obvious—that no one can articulate much with a mouth full of rubber ball—I was speechless over what Bandy was up to, clawing a hole in the screen door with his free forepaw. He was on his way inside, which seemed to me an extremely foolish decision. A quick glance across the yard confirmed what I feared most. The bovine man was just coming from his shed. He hadn’t seen us yet, but he soon would if we didn’t quickly get into the house. No matter how foolish a decision that may have been, there was nowhere else to go to avoid detection. I wiggled through the ripped screen, following Bandy’s lead.
Inside, it smelled of stale air and the last night’s meal. Garments of all sizes and hats in various stages of decomposition hung from pegs in the walls, and the floor was covered with muddy footwear. In the corner farthest from the door, leaning against a crippled bicycle, was one of those things that was responsible for me being in one place and my tail being in another. A “rifle,” Peter called it.
Another door, wide open, led into the room where food is prepared, and it was clear that the last food to be prepared therein was a lot of cooking grease with some fish tossed in for texture. I crept uneasily from the porch to this kitchen and made a feeble attempt to hide myself under a dining table in the center of the room. Bandy had already pulled himself up to a counter-top. “Fish heads, Daksie. Eureka! We have found our morning meal.”
I dropped the ball. “Sshhh, Bandy. There must be other humans here.”
Bandy winced. “Oooohhh, that’s right. I tend to forget these creatures are herding animals.”
“That man out there, he’s going to find us. He’ll figure out where we went.”
“Fish heads, Daks! Burned up crispy and black. Food for the brain … that’s what fish heads are. We’ll nibble some greens later. For roughage, don’t you see.”
“What about the chickens? I thought I was supposed to steal a chicken.” If Bandy heard me, he was too enraptured with his fish head treasure to answer.
The porch was covered with windows, lots of them, small windows bunched together like the eyes of a enormous spider. I clawed my way up onto a roughly-made trunk and by putting my forepaws on the sill, I could just see out the lowest window. The man was still hobbling inside and out of the black bays of his machine barn, searching for us under the reaper, behind the barrels, amongst the prolific weeds that surrounded the structure. He carried one leg stiffly, out in front of him, and when he stepped on it, he allowed only the heel of his foot to touch ground. It was all so clumsy looking. What if men used all four feet to walk like the rest of us? I thought. What a difference that would make. No more idle paws constructing troublesome things. It wouldn’t matter how smart men were then, if they had to use those spindled hands for balance instead of mischief. Good noses and four, healthy feet being used for feet and not to reshape the world … that would have made all the difference.
* * *
“We have to get out of here, Bandy.” I dropped down from my vantage point on the trunk.
“Fret not, Daks. Remember the lynx? They never look in their own lair, and that blubbery thug outside isn’t nearly as smart as a lynx. We’re in the safest place we could possibly be. Now, have a fish head and settle down.” He was rummaging through an oily paper bag, tossing table leavings left and right and over his shoulder. A potato peel landed at my feet with a wet splunk and I ate it without thinking. My tummy took over. Bandy tossed down more peels and a fish head or two. Fish heads, burned up crispy and black, may indeed be food for the brain, but if given a choice between fish heads and just about anything else, I would abandon my brain’s needs for those of my scrumptious glands every time.
But I ate with no hesitation. In the last three days (or four—I was beginning to forget when I’d last been with my mother) I had not eaten a bite without being aware that it might well be my last. Some of my meals had been exquisite—notably, the freshly killed chicken and the wild rabbit—and others had been strictly utilitarian, as were Mish-Shka’s charred potatoes and these greasy viands. But all of them had been accompanied by the feeling that it no longer made a difference what I ate. It was only important that I get it eaten quickly, for the next blink might bring another unpleasant surprise.
Bandy was relatively silent while we dined. Even he can’t speak with his mouth engorged with food. He grunted and snorted with obvious pleasure, and he sneezed often, either from his cold or the heavy dose of pepper coating the fish remains. The sun was high enough now that its light poured through the kitchen windows onto his back, and a vibrant glow, an aura, radiated from him. I watched as I chewed, watched him scatter the inedible refuse all over the kitchen as he grubbed for the edible refuse. It was quiet. I could hear the man in the distance, still banging his possessions about and cursing us. But still, in this kitchen, there was a calm. A moment or two to reflect.
I reflected on the food. The potato peels were nearly tasteless, uncooked and stale, but they were filling. Bandy seemed to be holding on to the majority of fish heads for himself, but I didn’t mind. I ate three or four, using the slippery peelings for relief from the pepper heat, but I couldn’t say I enjoyed them.
I also reflected upon Bandy. I wondered how such bravery could fit into the same plump body with such an abrasive personality. He had saved my life, and I could never forget that. Of course, if it hadn’t been for him, I wouldn’t have been in such a perilous place to start with, but I forgave him. I was forced to admit, if not for him, I might well have died in the forest during the night. Particularly if there is such a thing as dying simply from being lost. As irksome as he could be, and as careless with my future as he was, I decided I was glad to be with him.
But reflecting further, I would preferred to have been with Ah-Teena and Peter. The sense of purpose I’d felt so strongly the night before was almost forgotten. The search for Lah-Tsee, my attraction for Ah-Teena, my admiration for Peter, all of that was slipping away and I hardly saw it going. Slim hours earlier, I had taken my destiny by the whiskers and declared a goal that nothing could ever change. And now, here in a monster’s kitchen, eating a monster’s table leavings, I was in the tutorial of a reckless and condescending raccoon, who had come near to convincing me I knew nothing—that I had to follow his directions or forever trust my fate to the whims of monstrous men.
I suppose it’s fortunate the monster’s wife waddled into the kitchen at that moment, or I would probably have become monstrously depressed.