The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

PART TWO

BERNIE’S BALL

Chapter 16

           “Eeeeww, Mish-Shka!”

          “I suggest we get ourselves away, young brother.  We’ll talk later.”  Mish-Shka never took his eyes off of the terrified farmer for more than a blink.

          “Mish-Shka  … eeewww, Mish-Shka … eeeeww . . .” I said, and struggled to say more.  I wanted so much to tell him how pleased I was to see him, and how sad I was.  And how lost I was.  But “Eeeewww, Mish-Shka” was what came out.

          “Daks, pull your wits together and collect your Rawl’Colmb friend.  We have other places to be.”  He sounded nervous.  Beneath him, the fetid man was not moving, unless you consider an uncontrolled quivering a movement.

          “Mish-Shka, he’s dead.  Buh … Buh … Bandy’s dead.”  I tried not to sob, but in vain.

          “Not dead, Daks.  But he might be dizzy for a while.”

          It was true.  The raccoon was untangling himself from the rope, pushing it away with stiff legs.  “Never … not if I live to be as old as a leaf-eating tortoise … will I ever be as dizzy as the most steady Ogg,” he snorted.

          “Bandy … eeewww, Bandy … eeeeww.”  I was overcome with every emotion, every wonderment, everything but a functional vocabulary.

          “The rope was shot away above him and he fell on his head.  That’s all,” said Mish-Shka.  “A knock on the noggin, but nothing more.  Let’s run.”

          “Eeeeewwww, Mish-Shka … Bandy, eeeeeeeewwww!”

          Bandy struggled to rise.  “Daks my boy, the overgrown fellow is right.  The lesson is over and now it’s time to go.  The females and offspring are every bit as deadly as the males.”  His eyes rolled as he spoke, and his words came slowly.  When he gained his feet, he teetered.

          “You’re alive!  Bandy, you’re alive!”

          “Ahhh, Daksie.  You’ve learned something after all.”

          Whatever other injuries he had suffered from the fall, the raccoon’s talent for snottiness remained intact.

* * *

          The man’s wife came waddling out the screen door.  Booger followed, peering with wide eyes from behind her ample hips.  The sight of her mate sprawled out and at the mercy of what must have seemed to her a gaunt and ravenous monster set her to screaming anew.  She sounded crazed.  Booger’s eyes opened ever wider, to the size of hen eggs, and he let out a low whistle.  “HOLY MULBERRY, DAH-YUD.  THAT DAWG COULD RIP YER HEAD OFF.  CLEEEEEN OFF!”

          Mish-Shka stepped away from the man slowly, never taking his eyes from the oily skin on the back of the fat neck.  With his jaws, he took the rifle thing by the polished wood.  I went to Bandy and nuzzled him behind his ear.  A small scratch on his neck was bleeding ever so slightly.  “Would you kindly get your cold nose out of my ear, Daks?”

          “I’ll help you walk, Bandy.  You really do look dizzy.”

          The woman was hopping from one foot to the other and grasping at her breasts with clawed hands.  “LAH, LAH, LAH!  A PLAGUE O’ MUTTS ON US!  LAH, LAH!”  Booger was holding onto his mother’s filthy gown.

          Mish-Shka drug the rifle towards the plowed field.  The metal end left a thin furrow in the dirt.  “Come.  Now!  The two of you.  I can’t keep these humans frightened forever.”

          Bandy and I followed, but before we had quite left the lawn, Bertie came running out and picked something up off the grass.  “HEY, POGGY, HEY!  TAKE DIS WIT’ YUH.  YUH CAN HAVE IT.  I GOT A ‘NUDDER ONE.”  He threw it, and it winked red and yellow in the sun as it bounced into the gravel of the drive.  Mish-Shka and Bandy flinched, as though the boy had heaved a weapon, but I knew what it was.  I chased it down and thanked Bertie for the gift.

          He understood.  I know he did.  For the first time in my experience, a human had listened to me and understood.

          “YER WEY-COME, POGGIE.”

* * *

          The farmer and his family had no will left to do us harm.  The last I saw of them, the mother was helping her shaky mate off the ground, Booger was running in circles around the lawn screaming something about monsters that ate men’s heads, and Bertie was standing next to the walnut tree, waving goodbye to us.  None of them showed any inclination for further violence.  Out of their sight, Mish-Shka dropped the rifle in the plowed field and pushed dirt over it with his hind feet.

          I carried the rubber ball as far as I could, until it was obvious even to me that I could carry it no farther.  My jaws quickly grew sore from holding it and my tongue raw from rubbing on it, but I simply could not leave it behind, not at first.  Not before later—much later—when I came to understand the true seriousness of our situation, only then did I turn my back on it.  I have never envied humans so much as I did on that snowy morning when I hid my lovely ball under that bed of bloodied leaves and moss.  Oh, to have a couple of those long, flexible fingers on the end of just one of my legs.  I could have walked on three and carried the ball with the fourth.  With two sets of long fingers, I might have constructed some sort of pouch, maybe out of willow bark and rabbit hide, and carried the ball around my neck.  With fingers, I might have tossed the ball high into the sky, run ahead to catch it, and waited for the others to catch up.  With long fingers (and a couple of those sneaky thumbs) there are a plethora of ways to transport a simple rubber ball from one place to another.  But with all four feet locked firmly and forever to the ground, I was left with no alternatives but to bury it beneath those leaves and hope that some day I might return.

* * *

          Bandy was uncharacteristically quiet throughout the morning.  He sneezed occasionally, and muttered to himself.  But he did what Mish-Shka asked him to do without comment and refrained entirely from insulting Oggs.  His good behavior can be explained in part because of the knock he’d taken on his noggin, I’m sure.  Beyond that, though, I suspect that even he—the paragon of uncompromised rudeness—was intimidated by Mish-Shka’s size and bearing.

          Mish-Shka led us into an island of spruce trees amid the ocean of tilled land and provided me with some tasty purple berries.  Bandy wouldn’t eat them.  He said he’d had his fill with fish heads, but I think he had a natural aversion to eating anything he hadn’t stolen himself.  While I ate, I told Mish-Shka how I had reason to believe that Peter and Ah-Teena had passed through the same area the night before.

          “That farmer said some other Oggs bothered him last night, stole some chickens.  It had to be them … Peter and Miss Ah-Teena … it had to be.”

          “No, Daks.  I’m sorry, but Peter and Teena didn’t come this way.  I followed your scent and theirs for quite a while, but they left the creek bed long before you did.  I elected to come after you, brother.  I … and don’t take this in the wrong way … but I anticipated that you could use my help more than they.  When you and the Rawl’Colmb crossed paths with them again, I thought I might find you all together, but you and your friend lost the way.”

          “But the farmer said . . .”

          “There were other Dahm-Ogg, Daks.  I picked up their scent just before I reached the farm.  They were traveling to the north, a male and female, but they were not Peter and Teena.”

          “Then where are they, Mish-Shka?  I need to be with them. They’re the only friends I … you’re not going to take me back, are you?  To the tribe?”

          He answered me at length, but his words turned backwards and upside down.  I fought with all of the muscles in my eyelids to stay alert, but the hours without sleep caught up with me.  With berries in my belly and anxiety in my heart, I fell asleep, right next to Bandy, and the two of us slept away the rest of the morning under Mish-Shka’s steady guard.

* * *

          Around midday, Mish-Shka had us on our feet and halfway up a middling mountain before my eyes were finished opening.  Coming out of a sound sleep is always a slow process for me, and to be engaged in conversation soon after rising is confusing and irritating.

          In contrast, Bandy came awake rapidly, and he was an artesian font of opinions from the moment he opened his eyes.  “Daksie, get thyself awake and prepare to learn!  You mustn’t treat sleep as though it were important, you know, or else it will be the end of you.  You must stay alert.  Oggs, generally speaking, have allowed sleep to become the largest part of their lives, and that’s the problem with Oggs, you see.  Wild things never really sleep.  An important secret, that.  The core of it all.  Never, ever let yourself slip completely into unawareness, and you’ll never, ever be caught napping.  Believe me, Daks, this is paramount!”

          Mish-Shka stayed a few paces ahead, saying nothing.  He continually tuned his ear to all directions and sniffed at the air.  In the distance, there were machines traveling thin, black pathways, but I could see no reason for his concern.

          “And another thing about sleep, Daks.  Too much of it makes you a dull fellow even when you’re on your feet.  Look at yourself right now.  You’re lethargic … depressed … dim-witted … sluggish … constipated … and you’re following this gargantuan, freakish chum of yours with not a doubt in your mind.  He could lead us into a universe of agony and starvation, and you wouldn’t question it, would you?  That comes from too much sleep, Daksie.  You spend entirely too much time with your belly splayed out beneath you.  Your whole personality is a result of sleep-induced stupidity.”

          “Tell me, Rawl’Colmb, what’s your name?”  We’d entered a hedgerow of low bushes and were hidden from any but the shyest of creatures.  A trickle of a water coursed along a muddy cut in the ground and we drank from it.

          “Sir, it is past time we were properly introduced.  I am Fawrlingswad-Porthlam-Candling, out of Hengsly-Porthlam-Candling and Merrymum-Blotsford-Spengzer, and I stand fourth in line to administer the Grand Clan Rawl’Colmb.  You may have heard of me?”  Bandy sounded hopeful.

          “Hengsly-Porthlam-Candling was your father?”

          “Yes.  Why, yes.  Good old Hengsly was my father.  Indeed.  You’ve heard of my father?”

          “I knew your father, Fawrlingswad.  Knew him well.”  A wide grin wrinkled Mish-Shka’s stony face.

          “You knew him?  My father? Eeeww, you knew him?”  Bandy pranced from foot to foot.

          “Certainly did.  Yes, I certainly knew your father.  More than once, your father stole food that belonged to me and my tribe.”  Mish-Shka paused and gazed into the distance.  “There was a time, if I could have caught old Hengsly, I would have torn his coat from his flesh, hair by hair.  Tell me if I’m wrong, but I believe he also stood fourth in line to administer the Grand Clan Rawl’Colmb.”

           “Uhh … er … well, he was actually third in line for a while … after Barnstram-Whetblum-Strink had that unfortunate collision with a gravel truck.”

          Mish-Shka had a twinkle in his eye that I had seen before, when he was teasing Henrietta.  “Goodness, I hope he wasn’t sleeping when it happened.”

          Bandy had considerably less to say as we continued on.  I think he was entertaining visions of having his coat torn from his flesh—hair by hair.

* * *

          Not much was said between the three of us for the rest of the day.  I understood why Bandy was so uncharacteristically mum.  I was certain—somewhat certain—that Mish-Shka had intended no threat to the raccoon.  But by the nervous glances Bandy kept giving him as we traveled, I could tell this confidence was mine alone.

          Mish-Shka was silent, as well.  And nervous, as well.  He never stopped testing the air.  He wouldn’t tell us what he feared, even though I periodically asked him why he was being so skittish.  It was disconcerting to see a fellow as commanding as Mish-Shka act as though the earth might crumble away beneath him at any moment.

          As for me, I had little to say because the only thing I wanted to talk about was whether or not I was being taken back to the tribe, like a rubber ball that had rolled away by mistake.  I was afraid to ask Mish-Shka exactly where we were heading, afraid to hear that I was being bounced further and further from Peter and that heroic mission.  I had asked him once, before I fell asleep, and all I remember from his answer were disembodied words and phrases, like “dangerous” and “hazards”, and “. . . so young and small, Daks”.  Taken together, it was clear he considered it to be the wrong thing for me to do, to pursue Peter.  If the old giant was returning me to the warmth and comfort of his tribal cave, I wasn’t going to resist or argue.  I was too much in awe of him to differ with what he thought best.  But that didn’t mean I had to be happy about it.

          Wherever we were going, it wasn’t a retracing of the path I had traveled the night before.  We ascended into hills, but they weren’t the same hills Bandy and I had descended.  These hills were much rougher, carved into a wasteland of ravines and gaping roots by water moving too fast down slopes too steep.  It was hard going for me—down and under, then up and over, always—through a continuous maze of one grasping shrub after another.  These trees grew higher and this underbrush grew lower than I had grown accustomed to, and through much of that day’s journey, I forgot how miserable I was and marveled at the wilderness.

          Bandy was at home.  He moved over the landscape like he was born there, and for all I know, he was.  His body was considerably chubbier than mine, and his legs weren’t so much longer than mine that it would explain how he moved with such ease while I stumbled through the terrain like a clot of animated mud.  He remained moody and quiet, but while I labored through the forest, and even Mish-Shka slipped occasionally and lost his footing, Bandy danced over the surface as though he were part of it, as though he were a flea crossing the skin of the world.

          The day was clear as days are in late fall after a rain, and it was cold, becoming colder as time passed.  We plodded along with such determination that the cold didn’t matter, not as long as we were moving.  But when we stopped for any reason at all—for water, or for one of us to eliminate waste on a flat spot—I wished Mish-Shka had brought a little of the tribe’s fire with him.  My muscles would quake from the cold, and my jaws would ache from the burden of the rubber ball.

          “Daks, I regret having to tell you this, but you will never make it to where we are going with that ball in your mouth.”  Mish-Shka was matter-of-fact, not in the least condescending or sarcastic.

          I told him I was okay with the ball, that in spite of the way I looked, I was entirely at ease carrying the toy through this grotesque forest, that soon my jaws would become accustomed to the chore and it wouldn’t bother me.
“Have it your way, little brother.  But I warn you, things aren’t going to get any easier, and that ball will do nothing but cause you problems.”

          He was right, of course, but it took another day of strained jaw muscles—and a near-death experience—for me to admit it.

* * *

          Darkness came to these twisted wilds far earlier than it should have.  The same sun that was still glowing red upon flat lands and paved streets fell behind the hills, and what meager warmth it had provided went with it.  Even the rigors of walking couldn’t keep my muscles from quaking, and if I hadn’t had the rubber ball between my jaws, my teeth might have been knocking together and chipping away to jagged, useless stubs.  It was a wonder to me how Bandy’s and Mish-Shka’s teeth could weather the cold so well without rubber balls between them.

          It seemed that Mish-Shka might continue to walk on throughout the night.  His craggy shoulders sagged and his tail hung between his legs, but he showed no inclination to stop.  Bandy went ahead, simply because he was so much more comfortable in these woods, and every so often, he crouched down on a fallen log or a sloping rock and waited for us to catch up.  I prayed that he keep his mouth quiet, that he not make comparisons between Oggs and raccoons or comment upon their relative strengths.  I didn’t know Mish-Shka so well that I could be sure, but my hunch was he wouldn’t tolerate Bandy’s brand of wit for long.

          Yet Bandy remained well-behaved, almost shy with the huge wolfhound.  The intervals of time it took Mish-Shka and me to catch up became longer and longer, and several times Bandy asked in a polite manner if we would like to stop and rest.

          “No,” Mish-Shka would reply.  “This is not a good place,” or, “We’re good for a few more miles, aren’t we, Mister Daks?”

          I agreed, of course.  I wasn’t about to admit I was tired—exhausted, to be precise—and that my feet couldn’t have hurt more if I’d been dragged across sun-baked rocks on the end of a rope … that I was hungry enough to eat thistles … that I was catching the raccoon’s cold … that my head had begun to feel like it was filled with rancid cheese … that my mouth was dry enough to grow fossils in.  “Sure, Mish-Shka.  I’m good for a few more miles.”

          A “mile” meant little to me.  Was a “mile” a million more strides through a stinking bog of rotting pine bark?  Did a “mile” consist of twenty stubbed toes, or thirty?  Had I walked a “mile” yet when my ear caught up in a strand of mistletoe, or when I jabbed my eye with a twig protruding from a stunted sumac?  If a “mile” was any of these things, I’d walked a lot of miles, all the while ashamed to tell my companions I wanted desperately to stop.

          Bandy’s caustic tone finally returned, and not a moment too soon.  I felt like I couldn’t have walked another “mile,” even if a “mile” was nothing more than a casual roll in a road-killed corpse.  The moon had risen, a bloated, golden thing, and as Mish-Shka and I climbed a slope towards the silhouette of Bandy framed in this icy moon, the raccoon said, “Listen here, giant.  Are you going to grind our little Daks down to dust all in one day?  You aren’t going to catch your friends by wearing holes in our feet, you know.”

          Mish-Shka stopped, frozen in his tracks, and sighed.  I was next to him, more hopeful than I’d been all that day.  “Fawrlingswad, I have always felt that when a Rawl’Colmb is right … as seldom as it occurs … there’s no arguing with him.  Daks, could you use some sleep?”

          “Well, I … what I mean is … if you think we ought to.”

          “I think we ought to.  You stay with Fawrlingswad.  I’ll be back shortly.”  Mish-Shka loped back down the hill we had just climbed and Bandy and I were alone.

          “Where’s he going?” I asked.

          “I suspect you’ll be dining soon, Daks.  Venison, if I can trust this plugged nose of mine.  A young female, not quite old enough to bear young.  She was a ways back, asleep in a thicket.  An easy kill for a brute like your friend.  As for me, I’m in the mood for crayfish.  Venison and diarrhea go paw in paw for me.  Be back in a bit.”

          Bandy waddled away in a direction opposite the one Mish-Shka had taken, and there was nothing to hear but the moonlight falling to earth.  I have no idea as to when my evening meal arrived or when Bandy returned from his seafood dinner.  I fell asleep almost immediately after they left, with Bertie’s ball under my chin, so that it wouldn’t roll downhill and lose itself in the wild.

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