The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

PART TWO

BERTIE’S BALL

Chapter 18

 

          I don’t consider it a dream, what I had.  What happens to a mind that’s been shocked into a swoon simply can’t be the same thing as what happens to a mind nestled in sleep.  Had I experienced the same dim images while sleeping, I might have sobbed aloud with despair, and to escape such loneliness, I might have flown among the clouds or walked through stone.  And down bone deep, I would have known it wasn’t real.  I would have known that Oggs can’t fly or walk through stone, and I would have known the despair was merely a temporary thing, and would be gone when I came awake.

          No.  This wasn’t a dream.  Even bone deep I despaired, and there was no escape, not through stone or flight or any other miraculous, dreamy talent.  Within that hallucination, all I could do was plod along like a dim cow, except without the haven of stupidity in which to retreat.  It was a land filled with dead and dying trees through which I plodded.  And fog, so much fog.  A land precisely like that we were in.  Carcasses littered my path and the dead were all friends.  I stepped aside to miss Mish-Shka’s mummified haunches only to wade shoulder-deep into Bandy’s festering corpse.  His intestines were strung out over the brush like bindweed.  I tripped over the body of my mom, I was sure of it, but she was so long dead and so thoroughly decomposed, I could recognize nothing about her but her momly presence.  In the distance lay the remains of Peter and Ah-Teena but I could never reach them.  I plugged on and on, but never came any closer, even though I could smell their separate and distinct putrefactions.

          Putrid though she was, Ah-Teena still smelled sweet to me.

* * *

          “Wake up, you lethargic little lump.  Some day, you Oggs will have to realize that life is more than stumbling from one nap to the next.”

          “Fawrlingswad, since being compassionate doesn’t seem to work, why not try some of your condescending smarm and see if that doesn’t wake him up.”  Mish-Shka’s basso voice was nothing but a whisper, but it cut through the darkness and brought my brain back from that place where everything was dead.

          Bandy was licking my nose and about my face with the tenderest tongue that has ever spread spit on me.  Still, trying as hard as I might, I could not open my eyes.  Lifting those heavy lids seemed impossible, but my voice worked.  “I thought you were dead.  Both of you.”

          Bandy stopped licking.  “Daksie, if you don’t stop assuming I’m deceased every time I get into a little fracas, I’m afraid your fantasy might turn to reality.”

          I finally hoisted open my eyes and could see I’d been dragged from the stone bed upon which I had fainted.  My head lay on a cushion of damp, cool moss.  Bandy must have carried me there because it was clear Mish-Shka would have struggled to move even himself.  He was lying like a fallen cloud next to me.

          “But your guts!  Bandy, your guts were hanging out!”

          The raccoon rolled back onto his bottom like a pudgy human baby and displayed his belly.  “Is this what you saw?”  He pulled a flap of raw skin away to expose the pink fat beneath.  “A bit of unanchored Rawl’Colmb pelt, Daks chummy.  That’s all.”

          “That’s right, Daks,” said Mish-Shka.  “Never confuse Rawl’Colmb pelt with Rawl’Colmb guts.  The guts are useful in small ways, while there is no use at all for the smelly hide.”  He giggled, but the laughter quickly turned to a hoarse cough and something rattled in his chest like small pebbles rolling around in a metal tub.  Blood mixed with spittle ran from one corner of his mouth.

          “Mish-Shka?  Are you okay?”  To see this giant so weak and vulnerable made my breath catch in my throat.  “You sound … well … you sound … not very well.”

          Bandy was not as confused as I for a proper description.  “He sounds like he’s already dead, Daks.  Already dead, but his brains haven’t heard the news.  That’s what he sounds like.”

          His crass diagnosis made me so mad I showed him my teeth.  “You don’t say that!  You don’t know what you’re talking about, bandy, so keep you’re BIG ROTTEN SMELLY mouth shut!”

          “Don’t bite your friend, youngster.  Never bite a friend.  Especially when he’s right.”  Mish-Shka put a torn paw at my feet and looked into my eyes.  “I’m going to die.  Before the sun sets … I’ll be gone.  You, you’re a good, strong friend.  You go on.  You must.  Find Peter, somehow.  Warn him about Roth.  If you don’t, that devil will hunt him down and destroy him.  Roth will never stop.”  He was agitated and began to cough again.  I tried to lick him, but his head was bobbing about so spastically that we collided, the crown of his head against my chin.  The coughing tapered into a thin gurgle and Mish-Shka swabbed blood from his jowls with his paw.  “Roth will never stop, Daks … not until he destroys the tribe … my tribe.  Not until my entire family is gone.”

* * *

          I waited until Mish-Shka’s breath returned to a steady pace.  I waited—and thought—until the birds began to chatter again in the brush around us and the sound of the infant creek rolling over the rocks was the loudest thing to be heard.  Only then did I speak.  “I will stay with you until you’re well, Mister Mish-Shka.  I’ll stay here until you’re ready.  Then together we’ll go find Peter and Miss Ah-Teena.”

          “Listen to me.  Listen to me!”  It seemed that Mish-Shka might go into another coughing fit, but I interrupted him, coughing fit and all.

          “No.  I won’t listen to you!  But I will stay with you until you’re well.  That’s all there is to it.  If I can’t do anything about this moment … if I can’t change this, here and now … then I can’t change anything.  So I’ll stay and make you well.”

          “But … Roth. . . “

          “Roth!  Poop on Roth.  He isn’t in any better shape than you are, Mish-Shka.  That’s his ear lying down there on the rocks, isn’t it?  And a good share of his scalp?  You can’t suppose he’s feeling up to a whole lot of destroying right now, can you?  And that Anna-Bar witch, she’s plenty messed up, too.  They won’t be doing any serious destroying for a long while.  Not those two.  In fact, I’ll wager that right now, they’re skunkered down in some muddy hole in the woods thinking they won’t live until the sun goes down.  Just like you, feeling sorry for themselves and sure they’re going to die.  Is that the way you want to be remembered, Mish-Shka?  Is this what you want me to tell your tribe.  ‘Yup, Ol’ Meesher … he just skunkered down in a muddy hole and whimpered ‘til he died.’  Is that what you want your family to hear?  Hmmm?”

          It was the longest-winded speech I had ever made to Mish-Shka—maybe to anyone—and it was certainly the most aggressive.  When I was done, they both stared at me with wide, amused eyes.  I was embarrassed, but committed.

          “You have to answer me, Mister Mish-Shka.  Is this what you want?  To lie here and fade away like a bald robin chick who fell from the nest?”

          Bandy remained courteously, mercifully, silent.  Meager sunlight heated the mist and it rose, spiraling up into the overhanging forest.  Weak light and mottled shade played over the creek bed.  The sound of water and the vacuous dialogue of birds was punctuated only with an occasional burst of wet coughing, and eventually even that stopped.  Time enough passed that I began to believe Mish-Shka had ignored what I considered a rather eloquent appeal, and died.  His eyes were closed, his chiseled head was lying on his paws in a final way, and he had stopped trembling.  I was ready to honor his passing with salt and water, blended and warmed by my own trembling eyes.

          “Okay,” he said, without moving so much as an eyelash.  “Okay.  Stay with me, Daks.  Have it the way you want.  I will die, but you are as fine a comrade to watch me die as any I’ve known.”

          “You won’t die, Mister Mish-Shka.  I’ll see to that.”

* * *

          He didn’t die, but I can’t take the credit.

          In spite of wounds that opened and re-opened every time he moved, in spite of his inability to hold down food, in spite of a weakness that went far beyond his muscles and invaded his heart and will, Mish-Shka lived.

          But it was the raccoon who went into the densest growth and brought pale roots and withered berries back to our hole in the woods.  Not me.  It was the raccoon who ground the roots and berries down to a gooey mush with his own teeth.  It was he who mixed this awful-smelling mess with moss and muddy water, and then spit globs of it down before Mish-Shka’s nose, close enough that the wolfhound might take wee bits of it on the tip of his tongue.  And it was Bandy who daubed the black mud on Mish-Shka’s wounds and showed me how to prepare a bed for the sick giant under a water-carved overhang of the creek bank.  Together, we gathered brown grasses and damp leaves in enough bulk that heat was generated in our nest and stayed there.  We pushed this steaming blanket up and over Mish-Shka’s body as though we were burying him and he stayed warm enough not to die when the sun went down and ice formed on the wet ground outside.

          These were all Bandy’s ideas, so I cannot take credit.  My only contribution was to constantly tell Mish-Shka that he must eat the mush and must drink the water.  I cajoled him.  I teased him.  I shamed him when he left me no choice—When he’d given up because his pain was too great.

          “You think you’re so smart, Mish-Shka.  You think you know it all, just because you’re old and big.  Three days ago, you told me you’d be dead before night fell.  That’s how much you know.”

          His eyes would flash a dim glimmer of that inner fire and he would croak like a stone frog.  “I was wrong then, but I’m not wrong now.  I’m going to die, and you, brother, are a fool for staying here with me.  And you’re an awful pest besides.”

          It went on like that day after day.  I would say whatever I could dream up to get him to take nourishment, and he would argue with me like the crotchetiest, crabbiest, foulest-tempered, oldest, hole-dwelling, hard-shelled crustacean that ever felt an ache or a pain.  But in the end he ate, a little every day.  And every day he had the stamina to argue a bit longer than the day before with a voice that became stronger and steadier.

          Getting Bandy to stay took an entirely different tactic.  I can’t know if he actually would have left us to the forest worms and entropy—the two monsters he seemed to invoke the most—without my pleading and crying and groveling.  But I didn’t dare take the chance.  So I begged and cried and groveled.

          “I have never even dreamt that someday I might be missing the fall apple season to feed one overgrown freak of nature like a newly-hatched chick, and putting up with another so that he won’t whine himself to death.”

          “Bandy, puh-leeeeeze don’t leave.  I need your help.  I don’t know what to do.”

          Mish-Shka might awaken from his feverish sleep at these moments. “Let him go, Daks.  Let him go.  When I have to depend on a verminous Rawl’Colmb for my life … and a son of that reprobate Hengsly-Porthlam-Candling to top it off … I would rather be dead.”

          I felt like a soft pillow, being rammed on both sides by angry goats.  As the days passed, though, I began to suspect that Bandy didn’t really want to leave us, anyway.  And that Mish-Shka didn’t really want to die.

* * *

          On the morning of our eighth day there, I awoke to a marvel.  Everything was covered in white and the world was exquisite—in a monochrome sort of way.  I had learned a few of the hardships brought on with cold weather, but I had never seen snow before that morning.  I smelled it and tasted it, then tested it with one foot at a time as Mish-Shka watched.  He said, “It’s not bad when there’s no more of it than this, Daks.  But it’s a miserable nuisance when it’s neck high.”

          Bandy was already up and away, out foraging for breakfast.  His tracks led through the powdery fluff and across the creek bed.  Even his tail had left its trace.  I could have followed the raccoon anywhere and left my nose in bed with Mish-Shka to do it, as long as there was snow.  At first impression, it was wonderful, this snow.  When I was convinced that the worst it could do was chill my toes, I rolled in it and ran up and down the stream, kicking it into teensy blizzards.  Mish-Shka laughed—actually laughed!—for the first time in days.  “Aahhh, to be so young and simple.”

          “What do you mean, simple?”

          He struggled to a sitting position, and that was the best part of all.  He had done nothing but lie on his side for days.  “I don’t mean anything by it, little brother.  It’s just that you make me remember what it was like when I was your age.”

          “I thought you spent your youth in a cage, Mish-Shka. Preparing for the fights.”

          “That doesn’t mean I couldn’t enjoy my first snow fall,” he said, and we laughed together.  I played in the snow until Bandy returned.  In his teeth, he carried a fish, dead but still twitching.  “A trout?  You brought a trout for our breakfast?  I detest fish,” Mish-Shka groused.  “A trout is not fit food for Oggs.”

          Bandy dropped the meal at Mish-Shka’s feet and sat down.  “Take notice, Daks.  Pay particular attention to the ingratitude of your gaunt friend here.  But we wild heroes are used to it.  We have had to accustom ourselves to this sort of thanklessness from Oggs and the other domesticated slavies.  I only hope I’ve caught you early enough to teach you better.  As your first … truly important … lesson, remember this: the more savage the circumstance, the more gracious manners and gratitude will carry you over.”

          Mish-Shka growled and stiffened.  “‘Gracious manners?  Gratitude?  Every Rawl’Colmb I have ever had the misfortune to encounter confused poofery with grace and guile with manners.  And as far as gratitude goes, why would anyone ever be grateful for a gamdassit fish for breakfast?”

          “And here’s another lesson for you, Daksie.  Being an ill-mannered grouch will gain you nothing.”

          Bandy was perilously close to Mish-Shka to be so free with his opinions.  Before his head and the ungracious grin on it became a substitute breakfast for the fish-hating wolfhound, I offered a new subject.  “Bandy, don’t you think it’s nice that Mish-Shka is sitting up?  I sure do.  And Mish-Shka, that fish looks purt-ee good to me,” I said, even though it didn’t.  In truth, it looked as slippery as an exposed vein, and it still moved.

          I ate from it anyway, and so did Mish-Shka.  Once it was on my tongue, this fish wasn’t as unappealing as it seemed, twitching wide-eyed in the snow.  It held none of the excitement that comes with freshly killed chicken or rabbit, but then it held none of the warm blood that comes with freshly killed chicken or rabbit.  From a culinary aspect, I believe that warm blood makes all the difference.

          Still, I have to give that fish, as well as all the other fish Bandy brought us throughout the following days, credit.  Whatever properties fish meat contains, it was enough to bring Mish-Shka back to his feet.  Bandy didn’t stop feeding him the foul mush all at once.  He mixed the medicine with the fish gradually, as though he were a mother weaning her litter away from the teat.  The root-and-berry sludge appeared from Bandy’s mouth less and less, and fish appeared more and more.  When we finally left the creek bed and went after Peter, it was a diet of fish that sustained us.  Occasionally, we might chance upon a partially-eaten carcass left by some creature who obviously wasn’t as hungry as he thought he was when he picked his prey, and Mish-Shka would gulp down the red meat as though he had never seen food before.  But as the snow deepened and the world became colder, those carcasses became rare.  It was Bandy’s steady stream of fresh fish that kept us healthy and moving.  Though ostensibly, we were being led by Mish-Shka, he conceded he was in no shape to bring us our meals.  Without Bandy’s trout, we would have been lost.

          And by the time snowfalls had became a daily event, Mish-Shka had even stopped complaining about how much he hated fish.

* * *

          The morning we set forth, I hid my rubber ball in the same pile of grass and leaves that had soaked up Mish-Shka’s blood and kept his body temperature at a life sustaining level.  My friends didn’t have to talk me into leaving it behind.  I just knew I had to.  I had come to realize that most of what life has to offer precludes the luxury of carrying a pretty red and yellow ball wherever you go.

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