The Secret of Cawley’s Skull



Chapter 15


           I’d seen her coming and Bandy hadn’t.  At first, I wasn’t convinced she was a threat.  Living with my mother’s masters had taught me that danger and pain were more likely to come from the human hes than the shes.  It was almost a relief to see this woman, every bit as fat and tattered as her husband, twaddling around the corner into the kitchen.  There was even the possibility of a tummy rub in the works.

          I’m not sure where the broom came from.  It may have been against the wall and I didn’t notice.  But one moment, she was shuffling along as though she were walking in her sleep, and the next, she was waving this broom in the air like she might use it to knock apples from a tree.  “I’LL BREAK YER NECKS, YEW VERMIN!”

          The woman went after Bandy first, he being the closest vermin to her.  She swung the broom down with a terrible fury and the blow might indeed have broken his neck, had he been either slow enough or stupid enough to be there when it hit.  Bandy sprung from the counter like a black fly, kicking several pots and pans to the floor in his escape, and her weapon struck the oily paper bag instead of his head.  Whatever was left of the previous evening’s meal exploded into a blizzard of coffee grounds, potato peels and fish bones.  From under the table, Bandy giggled crazily.  “The game is on again, Daks!”

          “Game?” I said.  “Game?”

          “YOU’RE NEXT, FLEA FODDER.”  The woman didn’t seem to notice that she’d missed Bandy.  She came at me and I stumbled backwards, pushing my bottom along the slick floor with my forepaws.  The broom brushed my eyelashes and when it hit the floor, a rush of air pushed dust up my nostrils.  I sneezed.  My toenails clattered on the tiles and I couldn’t gain a hold.  She struck again, and again, but missed.  She was having her own difficulties getting around the kitchen.  A chair with metal legs and torn cushions tipped in front of her.  I wasn’t sure if she’d knocked it over herself, or if Bandy did it as he dodged about under the table.  She smashed a knee into the chair and at the same time rammed the big toe on her other foot into a table leg with a stomach-churning snap.  “AAWWWOOOO!  FUNGOO DRIDDLE BULMDIT!”

          Whatever else would come from the events of this day, these humans would remember we’d been there by the pains in their feet, alone.

          “Out the door, Daks!  Out the door!”  Bandy was now scooting about on top of the table, knocking all sorts of things off.  He yelled at me over the ridge of the woman’s frizzled head.  She was bent over, nursing her foot, howling in rage, and poking at me with her broom all at the same time.  A butter dish fell first to her ample buttocks, then on to floor, butter-side down.  She had me trapped in a corner.

          “I can’t make it!  Bandy, go without me.”

          “Silly Ogg!”  he spat, and leapt from the table with his front legs extended straight out before him.  He flew through the air like a frog, but instead of plopping into a placid pool or landing flat on a lily pad, he belly-flopped into her tangle of hair, wrapping his legs around her.  I averted my eyes, certain something horrid was about to happen the way his paws covered her face.  I believed he was going to rip her eyes and tear her flesh with those birdy talons of his, that he would dig and scramble with his hind feet until the woman’s neck and back became a cascade of gore.  I didn’t want to see it.

          “AAWWWRRREEEEK!” she screeched.  Clearly, she didn’t care much for the idea, either.

* * *

          “And what are we up to now, Daks?  Nap time?  GET OUT OF HERE!”  When I looked back, there was no blood.  No gore.  Only a terrified human rolling about on her squishy belly and frantically beating at her own hair.  Her flesh was still in one—ugly—piece.

          Bandy close to me, face to face with her on the tips of his toes.  His back was arched.  His legs were stiff and his tail stuck out straight and fierce.  He was trying, trying oh-so hard, to look bigger than he really was, and he made the most awful noise.  Some sort of arcane and dire raccoon threat, I suppose, but it came out sounding like his teeth were rattling about loose in his mouth.

          The woman came to her knees amidst the clutter of items Bandy had knocked off the counter and table—pots, pans, a clattering porcelain bowl that had held bananas and oranges made entirely of wax.  She continued to screech and thrash about as though a raccoon was still on her noggin, and she threw everything she could reach at us.  The wax bananas.  A pot.  A pan.  The porcelain bowl.  Fortunately for us, her aim was as wild as her hair.

          “Out the door, Daks!  I’ll hold her off!”

          I needed no further encouragement.  I snatched the ball and tore out of the kitchen.  My paws skidded one way, then the other on the greasy floor, all the way out the door.  The wrong darn door.

          “DAKS!  NOT THAT DOOR!”  But by the time Bandy scolded me, I was already aware of my mistake.  Out of only two directions to run, I had picked the wrong one.  I was even deeper into the house, standing on a carpet that reeked of cat urine and ancient food.  With another step or two, I would have been stopped dead against a wooden staircase, and down that staircase came thumping two short humans.  Little boys.  They couldn’t have made more noise if they’d fallen down the stairs.  Excited little boys, dressed for school.


          “YEH, MUH-MUH.  A POGGY,” echoed the shorter of the two.

          “DON’T TOUCH THAT VERMIN, YEW TEW!  GIT BACK UP THEM STAIRS!” screamed their mother, but they were already after me.  Their greedy little hands strained to reach my ears.

          I spun, legs churning as I scrambled from their fingers, back into the kitchen, the boys close on what would have been my tail but a few days earlier.  The woman was still on her knees, bellowing like a lost calf, but her off-spring didn’t seem to notice.


          “YEH, MUH-MUH.  A COONY.”  They froze in the middle of the room, awed by the mess and the wonderment of finding a wild, snarling raccoon in the kitchen.

          “‘awree ‘an’ee. Ah ‘en’ a ‘ong ‘ay.”

          “Daks, for the love of enunciation, take that ball out of your mouth and tell me what’s on your mind.”

          I spit it out and it rolled against a wall.  “I said I’m sorry.  I went the wrong way.”

          He rolled his eyes.  “What say I lead this time.”  He whirled about and tore for the porch, passing between the children.  The taller boy shrieked with horror and his younger brother shrieked with delight as he brushed their legs with his tail.  I followed all the way to the screen door, until I remembered what I’d left behind.  I couldn’t leave it.  Wouldn’t leave it.  The boys were still hopping about like crickets on hot sand when I raced back into the kitchen and grabbed it up, and the woman hurled one more missile after me as I left.  “FILTHY, FILTHY FUNGOO!”  I’m not sure what she threw—the butter dish, by the sound of it—but I was squirming through the hole in the screen when it landed and I wasn’t about to look back.

* * *

          I can’t say when morning air ever smelled so good.  Outside amongst the broken toys and brown grass, I was quite pleased with myself.  I ran as far as the walnut tree before I stopped to look for Bandy.  Not only was I near to being out of danger, I thought, but I was going to carry this splendid ball away with me.  That was more than my tutor had accomplished with his booty.  I knew for a fact he had left the purloined tool laying on the counter as he rummaged through the trash.  My first lesson, indeed!  As far as I was concerned, I had outstripped my teacher.

           Ah, but self-satisfaction has always been a fleeting sensation for me.  I had forgotten entirely about the woman’s hairy mate.  And as for my teacher, he was nowhere to be seen.

          “NOW, YEW LIDDLE MUTT … NOW YER GONNA GED IT!  I MEAN REALLY GED IT!”  The man, in all his suet-soaked and surly bulk, was limping across the lawn, red-faced and grinning.  The one foot was still bootless and I caught a glimpse of his big toe poking out through filthy fabric.  In his bloated hands was a vicious-looking shovel.  “I’M GONNA CHOP YEW UP IN LIDDLE PIECES AND FEED YEW TO M’ PIGS, MUTT.  TO M’ PIGS!”

          What a destiny!  I’d been so concerned with wolves and badgers that it had never occurred to me my lot in life might be to satisfy the appetites of snuffling swine.

          “Don’t believe him, Daksie.  He doesn’t have a pig to his name.”  Bandy’s nasal voice came from above.  He was in the tree, peeking out from that place where all the bigger limbs join into one.  “Now, run like there’s no tomorrow.  I’ll catch up with you.”

          I tried to run.  I tensed to run—oh, how I tensed to run—but once again my legs failed me.  Once again, this fat man and his dreadful threats turned my will to dust and my strength to water.  “I’M A GERNA USE WHAT’S LEFT O’ YEW WHEN I’M DONE T’ FERTILIZE MAH CABBAGE SPROUTS, MUTT!” he screamed, and as much as I ached to run, my cowardly body gave up, surrendered like a fallen hatchling to a merciless slaughter.  I keeled over onto my back and quivered.  The ball dropped from my mouth.  I hadn’t the resolve to hold onto it.  I could see Bandy looking down at me with utter disgust.

          NOW, MUTT! YEW’LL SEE WHAT IT MEANS TO CROSS PATHS WIT ME!”  The monstrous man raised his shovel high over his head.  If it weren’t for the way Bandy threw such a fit, I do believe my various body parts would have been strewn about the lawn along with the tiny dolls’ arms and tiny truck wheels.

          Bandy jumped from the tree’s crotch, out onto a limb over the farmer’s head, repeating those same Rawl’Colmb threats he’d made to the woman.  He also meant to attack the man’s hair, I do believe, to revisit the success he’d had on the woman’s head.  But the man saw him coming.

          “A DAGGUCK COON! AH SHOULDA KNOWN THERE WERE A DAGGUCK COON IN ON DIS!”  He stabbed at Bandy as though he were trying to spear a sparrow, and my friend had to retreat further up the tree.

          The rest of the family spilled through the screen door, and the smaller of the boys was on me before I could react.  I made an attempt to growl, to let him know I was not to be trifled with, but all that came from my throat was a thin, watery squeak.  The boy laughed.  He grabbed me about the neck and jerked me up, cradling me in his arms with the sort of tenderness I imagine a hawk reserves for a rabbit.  “PADDY, I GOTTA YIDDLE POGGY.  LOOK!  O’ER HERE, PADDY!  CAN I KEEP ‘UM?  HUH?  PYEESE?  CAN I KEEP ‘UM?”  His brother joined him and together, they chirped out a duet of greed.


          Their mother was quick to answer.  “NOOOOOO-UH!  GRACIOUS GRAVY, NO!  I AIN’T GONNA HAVE NO FILTHY VERMIN ‘ROUND HERE!  NOOOO-UH!  NOT ON YER SCRAWNY BOTTOMS!”  She hobbled painfully after the boys, glaring at me, her broom poised to strike.

          The father threw his shovel into the tree, several times.  Each time, Bandy simply moved aside as the clumsy weapon flew by.  And with each miss, the man grew more agitated.  “GLAMDASKIT!  Booger, GO git out m’ shotgun.  I’lls show ya how t’ git a coon down from a tree, by gummit!”  Booger whooped and streaked back into the house, coming out seconds later with what had to be his dad’s “shotgun.”  It was that thing from the porch.

          That rifle thing.

          The lardy man snatched it from Booger’s hands and pointed it at Bandy.  “STAN’ BACK, BOYS.  I’M GERNA BLOW THAT MUTTY COON TA’ BORNEO ‘N’ BACK.”  A terrible thunder followed.  A cluster of brown nuts over Bandy’s head disintegrated into a fine dusting and particles of pulverized walnut shell drifted down onto the woman’s frazzled hair.

          “YA’ MISSED, DAH-YUD,” Booger wailed.  “YA’ MISSED ‘IM BIGGER’N SPIT!”  Bertie stopped prancing around and stood frozen, stunned by the tremendous sound of the rifle.

          My own cowardly body could not stay immobile after such a noise.  I kicked out to escape Bertie’s hold.  I was prepared to bite his arm if it came to that.  And I would have, too, had not his mother used the opportunity to dive in and swat me with her broom.  It was as though she thought she could sweep me from her son’s arms like so much dried mud.  The blow glanced off Bertie’s shoulder and caught me squarely between my ears.  My goodness, did it hurt.  For a moment, I believed she had broken my neck, indeed.  My head was jammed down into my chest, my ears filled with a deafening buzz and I bit my tongue something awful.  Whenever you’re getting bonked on the head, it’s best to keep your tongue as far from your teeth as the limitations of your mouth allow.

          Bertie let out a high squeal and dropped me.  Were I a Scrat, I would have flipped over in mid-air and taken the fall on my feet.  I might have dropped twice the distance, ten times the distance, and just strolled away, licking my shoulders just to show how smarmy I was … were I a Scrat.  But not being a Scrat, I landed full on my back.  The impact drove the wind from my lungs, and that’s what hurt the most.  The ringing in my ears, the pains in my neck and head and tongue, all of them were puny next to the fire in my lungs as I struggled to pull in a breath.

          Bandy called my name, but I couldn’t see him.  My eyes wouldn’t focus and even if they could, I had my back to the tree.  The rifle roared again, but all I could do was lay there and gasp for air.


          Bertie grabbed me up again, this time by my hind legs, and squeezed me so tightly I farted.  “MUH-MUH, I WANNA POGGY!  I WANNA POGGY”  He waded through a pile of leaves to get away from his mother, and finally I could see Bandy.  He was far out on the longest, thickest branch, over the rope and tire swing.  His lips curled back and his teeth flashed.  Maybe he was trying to tell me something, but I couldn’t know what.  Next to him, a large bite of bark was missing from the farmer’s second shot.  The yellow meat of the tree showed like naked flesh.

          “I’LL KILL ‘UM, BOOGER.  YOU C’N BET I’LL KILL ‘UM.  I’M GONNA SEND ‘IM TA RAC-COOOON HELL!”  He fiddled with the rifle, clumsily, like a bear pawing at his own belly-button, and then brought it to his shoulder again.  This is what Bandy had been waiting for, this killing pose.  He appeared to fall head-first off of the limb, pitching forward as though he were already dead.  When the device released its thunder, the spot he had been occupying a heartbeat earlier turned to a mess of flying bark and walnuts.  Somehow, he had grasped hold of the rope, directly under the limb, and was hanging by one leg.  The rope was spinning, whether from Bandy’s weight or the blast, I don’t know, and he was struggling to find a hold with his other paws.


          “POGGY, POGGY, I WANNA POGGY.”  For another brief moment, Bertie held still, chanting his desire to keep me.  Then, as I watched the farmer once more raise his rifle to my helpless friend, the mother attacked.  She clawed with a red hand to pull me away from the boy.  Bertie spun away and ran.  The rifle exploded, but bouncing around in Bertie’s grasp, I couldn’t see what had become of Bandy.

          Could the man have missed again?  Could he possibly have had four opportunities to slay my friend, and missed all of them?

* * *


        I hurt so much.  Aside from the assorted pains I’d accumulated in the last few seconds, Bertie held me so close I felt like my ribs were cracking.  My poor breath was fighting to come back, and would have by then, were it not for the boy’s strangling grasp.  My head was pushed upwards into his chin, and he jumped up and down and around in circles.  Each bounce brought another flash of pain.  Had he ripped me to the bone in a hundred places with sharp rocks, it couldn’t have hurt worse, but I don’t believe he did it intentionally.  It’s a curious thing about humans, their capacity to cause as much hurt with affection as with hatred.

        Yet the greatest pain was yet to come.  As the child continued to spin and jostle me about, I could finally see what was happening around me, although in a very disjointed way.  The woman was chasing us around the yard.  “PUT THAT MUTT DOWN, BERTIE.  THAT VERMINOUS GUNGROO ATTACKED YER MOMMA!  PUT ‘IM DOWN, SO’S I CAN HIT HIM.”  She carried her weapon high in the air and in her pursuit, it kept knocking into tree limbs and catching in the lower twigs.  Her mate was fumbling with his clothing and prancing on one foot, his weapon cradled against the other leg.


          I had to assume he feared it was I who might “get away,” because it certainly wasn’t Bandy.  In short bursts, as the youngster twirled and whirled away from his mother, I could see what had become of the raccoon.  My heart fell.

          The tire lay on the ground, and the rope which had held it in mid-air was draped over Bandy like a long, rough string of spaghetti.  I expected blood.  I expected to see great hunks of the raccoon’s flesh spread out over the lawn like a chewed-up newspaper.  But that was not the way of Bandy’s remains.  He lay unperturbed.  A whispery breeze lifted his fine fur and danced around his wilted ears.

          Everything else stopped mattering.

* * *

          The two boys wrestled over me as their mother swatted at the tangled mass of arms and myself.  “IT’S MY TURN, BERTIE!  I WANNA HOLD IT!” demanded the older boy, as he tugged at my hind legs.

          “YED ‘IM GO BOOGER!  ‘E’S MINE ‘E’S MINE ‘E’S MINE!  I SAW ‘IM FIRSTUS!  AHHWOOO!” cried the younger.  In her frenzy to thrash me out of her life, his mother hit Booger on the head with her wild broom.

          Their father disappeared but returned in a short time, pushing something about the size of his hammy fingers into his weapon.  “YEW KIDS BEEN PLAYING WITH MY SHOTGUN SHELLS AGAIN, AIN’TCHA?  NOW PUT THAT MUTT DOWN.  PUT IT DOWN,  BOYS, SO’S I CAN GET A GOOD, CLEAN SHOT!  RIGHT NOW!”

          Bertie pleaded, “PADDY, YET ME PICK UP ‘IS POOP!  I DOO’T!”  Booger suddenly seemed to be more excited about a “good, clean shot” than he was about having a pet to maul.  “PUT ‘IM DOWN BERTIE!  DAD’S GONNA BLOW HIS HEAD OFF!  CLEEEEEN OFF!”

          “MUH-MUH, DON’ YET PADDY BOW ‘IS ‘EAD OFF.  PYEEEESE,” Bertie wailed.  His tears dropped off his chin and onto my nose.  Under different circumstances, it might have been a pleasant tickle.


          Booger protested, Bertie sobbed, but they obeyed.  He put me down in the center of the yard, and with a skritch—a truly tender skritch—under my chin, he and his brother left.

          “MAKE IT QUICK, DAD.  I’M GONNA MAKE LEFTOVER FISH WAFFLES FER BRAKE-FAST, ” said Momma, and she followed her boys inside.

        It was the second time I had looked at one of those rifle machines and seen only the small hole at the end of it.  The first time, I hadn’t been aware of what the black hole meant, what blood-hungry secrets hid therein, and I lost my tail from the ignorance.  This fat man’s rifle had two black holes, not one, and they were both looking down at me like a devil with close-set eyes.

          My breath was back, my neck would now turn with an endurable pain and my legs seemed functional.  I might have tried to run.  I might have been up to it, not that it mattered.  My will had suffered the greatest damage.  In so few days, I had lost my mother, my only friends (yes, it was clear in my mind, finally, what I’d known in my stomach for some time—that Peter and Ah-Teena were far beyond my ability to reach them), and my raccoon.  My irritating, abrasive raccoon, who I wasn’t even sure I liked much.  But my, how I already missed him.

          So why run?  And where?  And to what purpose?

          Besides, I had a more pressing question to address.  How did I want to meet my end?  Is there any way to have one’s head “blown clean off” and still maintain a semblance of dignity?  Should I assume a contemplative, pensive pose—something to demonstrate my sensitivity?  Or should I stand with legs stiff and chest forward?  It must sound awfully shallow that I worried so about looking my best as I met the demon’s stare for a final time, but I wasn’t thinking only of myself.  As I died, I wanted to display a bit of what I admired about the way Bandy had died, some small echo of the quality that made his death different from the crumbling of a lump of dung or the dropping of a petal from a flower.  I wanted to show the farmer a trace of bravery.  Of uncommon spirit.  Something he might wonder about and marvel over while he gnawed on his fish waffles.

          In all likelihood, if the farmer marveled over anything, it was probably the copious quantity of urine that seemed to leak out of me as though it knew my bladder was no longer a safe place to be.  But no matter how undignified my body behaved, I had every intention of performing a lofty and noble death, befitting the memory of Fawrlingswad-Porthlam-Candling.

          And I might well have done it, too, had the farmer been a bit more expeditious with his part in the performance.

* * *

          I tried sitting—the contemplative pose—but the pee all over my legs made sitting feel sticky and uncomfortable.  So I stood and prayed my chest was noticeably forward.  The farmer stood over me like a tree whose fruit was blubber and aimed the devil eyes into the lump on the crown of my head.  “Sorry, mutt,” he said, “But I done had it with yew mutts pushin’ me around.”

          I met the rifle’s gaze, fought the urge to cry, and something shifted.  Something changed.  It was as though a fog settled suddenly about us, just me and the farmer.  At first, I could hear the rest of the loud family squabbling inside the house.  I heard a bird coo far away, possibly a dove that had missed the news that winter was coming.  Yet, it was muffled.  All of it.  The bird song.  The loud family.  It was as though this fog—this fanciful brain fog—were a nest of soft straw and shredded pillows that absorbed and muted all noise from beyond, until there was nothing but complete, comforting silence.  I could see the farmer’s mouth moving, but heard nothing.

          And then … I floated away.  At least, that’s what it felt like, that I was floating.  Instead of looking up at the man’s puffy face, I was looking down on him, from a vantage high above the snarl of his greasy hair.  I could see myself, as well.  I was proud to note my chest was indeed forward, but was otherwise disappointed that my body was quivering like a cocoon suspended from a pussy willow.  In the very center of my vision was the instrument of my imminent destruction, obsidian metal and blood-stained wood.  In an odd way, it was pretty.  Pretty enough to chew up.

          I understand now (in a very limited way) why birds have become so unconcerned with the tribulations we dirt-walkers endure.  After their first flight, everything connected with the world’s gritty surface must seem mundane and paltry.  I can appreciate that—in a very limited way—now that I have floated.  In that moment, I was light and liberated, like a feather drifting upwards on a warm wind.  And in that moment, I had a light and liberated notion.  I imagined that, by virtue of the fact I seemed to be sailing through the void at a height well above even a tall man’s reach, I could flap my feet and never come down.  That I had been a bird all along, a bird who had simply dreamt he was an Ogg.  I imagined there had never been a Bandy.  Never been a Peter.  Even a Wen-Dee.  I imagined my real mother had just now pushed me out of that soft nest, and with a little effort and a lot of flapping, I could be far, far away.

* * *

          At the edge of my fancy, the fog took solid form and converged on the center like a maelstrom collapsing in on itself.  The man clenched his finger and I heard a cold, metallic snap.  I blinked, my floating moment forever over, and my eyes reopened upon a most astounding sight.

          The farmer was down, squirming about on his ample belly and trying to cover his head with his hands.  For a moment, I believed it was the fog holding him down, snapping at his flabby arms.  But this savior was no mere imaginary mist.  I stumbled backwards, away from the mass of rancid human flesh and coarse hair, until I could see beyond the sweaty creases and strands of muscle—until I could tell which legs went with which torso and which hair went to which head.  When his mouth wasn’t being pushed into the grass, a frantic wave of cursing poured from the farmer, and it was all in the language of terror.

          Ah, but he had every reason to be afraid.  He had reason to burst like a blister from fear.  Straddling his soft body like a snarling stone was Mish-Shka.

          Gray … glorious … terrible … Mish-Shka.


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