The Secret of Cawley’s Skull



Chapter 20


        When I learned we were no longer searching for Peter and Ah-Teena, a glum slump descended upon me that stayed for all of that day and most of the next. In his perverse and caustic way, Bandy tried to lighten my mood. “You’ll never miss those other two Oggs, Daksie. It’s my experience that Oggs are the most forgettable of anything on four legs. Why, my cousin … that would be Heglestrom-Blotsford-Pythlee, from my mother’s side of the family … he was being chased through a moss swamp by a snarling, slathering lump of frothy Ogg when he simply forgot the creature was there. Here was this beast snapping at his tail, and Heglestrom just let him slip from memory. And guess what? The beast simply petered out. He was there, then he was gone. Like a fish fart in a waterfall. You know, Daks, there is a school of thought that holds Oggs are merely hallucinations brought on by creative minds and odd fungi we ingest unknowingly with our meals. So think about other things, my boy, and all memory of your Miss Ah-Teena will fade away.”

        I thanked him for his concern but I can’t say his efforts alleviated my depression to any noticeable degree.

        Mish-Shka didn’t even attempt to cheer me, and the reason was obvious. He was as distraught as I. Before we slept that night, he said to me, “If there were anything I could do to find Peter … anything at all! … you must know I’d do it, Daks. I’ve searched my memory for something I’ve missed, something I used to know but have forgotten over the years, some trick to bring back lost friends. But there is no way. Nothing I can pull up that will help us find them. I’m sorry.”

        It’s no way for a noble race to live, to lose friends—and mothers—like they were dried out bones, and I told Mish-Shka as much, in a burbled, teary sort of way. He agreed. “You’re right, exactly right,” and he seemed to want to add something. But he turned away and withered into himself. A little while later, as I dropped into sleep, he whispered, “I know how much it hurts, but we must go on, Daks. We must.”

* * *

        The next night was the coldest ever, maybe in the history of the world. All during the day we climbed, until we were higher than all but the bravest trees. Snow began to fall in the morning and didn’t stop falling until the sun set. The wind blew so hard it cleared the snow from the stone and filled the air. If I hadn’t stayed close enough to Bandy’s rear to taste his musky tail, I would have been lost in the storm just like one of those snowflakes—left to twirl round and round on that blasted mountain. Mish-Shka followed, and whenever I faltered and dropped back, he nudged me on the way my mother used to when I was a stumbling pupper. “Daks, you must keep up. This place is the edge of death.”

        “And a glorious leader you’ve turned out to be, you hoary geezer,” Bandy snorted. “Do you take all your friends to the edge of death? Enormous fun, this. Tell me, geez. Have you ever led anyone back from the edge of death?”

        Mish-Shka answered, “We go west, Rawl’Colmb, and this mountain is in the way.”  After that he said nothing, even though Bandy threw any number of insults his way. I defended Mish-Shka until the driving wind took the breath from my tongue, but Bandy never let up, not until he grew so exhausted himself that he had to choose between talking and walking. By the end of the day, none of us had the strength for both.

        Had there been shelter, we would have stopped. There were trees, but they were twisted mutations of what a tree should be, beaten into hunchbacks by the elements, and they offered no protection from this frenzy of wind and ice. Whatever features the geology might have provided at one time had been ground down as by ancient teeth. The slope was smooth and wish as we might, there was no haven to be found on it.

        So we walked. And walked. And climbed. We slogged through and struggled on. I worried about Mish-Shka and he worried about me. Bandy worried about the both of us, though he would never have admitted it. In a gentler wilderness, he would have left us behind and delivered an insult when we caught up. But here, every few steps he looked back and slowed his pace.

        At the end of the day, the wind first pushed the storm away and then died, quickly and quietly. Snow that had clogged our breathing and vision all day long found a bed for the night and every star in the sky gathered out of curiosity to witness the spectacle of us freezing to death. The moon wasn’t quite full, but there on that high place, with nothing to block the light, its illumination was magic. Each ice crystal reflected it’s own crisp prism and every sound seemed to come from within my head. Snow creaked under our feet and the dry sound made it feel like my skull bone was being rubbed against a flinty rock.

        And the cold! Oh, it became so cold. When it becomes that cold, even words freeze. My mind chills when I remember. We moved through miniature clouds of ice formed from our own breath. My snout frosted, as did my eyebrows and the fur on my chest. Bandy walked at my side so that our bodies rubbed together, and if it weren’t for that, there would have been no heat at all to live on. I don’t know if he kept so close to warm me or to take warmth from me, but I was grateful.

        “Bandy, are we going to die?” I whispered so that Mish-Shka wouldn’t hear.

        He answered with no such sensitivity, “Yes, my boy,” he said, in his normal, nasal voice. “Yes, I have no question in my mind that we’ll die here. Right here in this … this desert. And I have already made my plans for the next life. If I have any say in the matter at all, I will come back as the most voracious flea the world has ever known. And I will plant myself on whatever odious sort of creature your freakish chum reappears as. I will set a new standard of misery for your Mish-Shka … the Great Pathfinder.”

        I glanced back to measure Mish-Shka’s response. He rolled his eyes, then winked at me, but responded in no other way.

        “Yes, yes, yes. We will die, and as deaths go, ours will be extraordinarily awful. We will slow down like apples rolling through thick mud and our limbs will stiffen. With every step, another toe will shatter and our coats will turn to sparkling dust. Be careful that you keep a presentable expression on your face, Daksie, because when the scavengers find us next spring, you’ll want to look your best. I wouldn’t suggest a very wide smile. You have a certain buffoonish quality when you smile too broadly.”

        As I gathered the breath to respond, something penetrated my misery—a sound, so dim and far away that I dismissed it as my empty stomach protesting such desolation. If Bandy heard it, he didn’t let it interrupt his tutorial. “For you, Daks, I suggest a wide-eyed sort of look, an expression that reflects your clownish nature. Just before you feel the ice worms reach your heart, you ought to force yourself to ask the geez back there this question: ‘Whassa happenin’, Meesh-Ka?’ and you’ll have the perfect expression to become your death mask.”

        It came again, that eerie moan, only it was bolder now, and closer. This time, there was no mistaking it for a whining stomach. It pierced the frigid air, wavering on the highest pitch like a question. It was spooky enough by itself, but an answer came, from ahead of us. And from even nearer, came another voice, more sure of itself than the first.

        My heart fluttered. I was certain the ice worms had reached it. Mish-Shka stopped, his ears and nose quivering, and so did Bandy. “By my estimate, geez, they’ll be upon us before you decide what to do,” he said.

        “What’s happening Mish-Shka? What’s making that sound?” I asked, but was ignored.

        “I thought at least we might reach that old scrub pine before they came.” Mish-Shka nodded to a gnarled outcast of a tree, standing alone against the sky some ways ahead of us. “I was hoping you might help the little fellow up, Fawrlingswad.”

        Bandy snorted, reminding me that he had never gotten entirely over his head cold. A bubble formed over one nostril and immediately turned to ice-snot. “Phenomenal plan, just phenomenal. I tote him up a tree, and after they’re through with your stringy old meat, they sit and wait for Daks and I to drop like ripe fruit. Rather like dessert, what? Is that your idea?”

        “Who? What’s coming?” They both continued to ignore me.

        “Let me hear your plan, Rawl’Colmb, or are you too busy with your cynicism to come up with one?”

        “Gamdassit, Mish-Shka! What is it?” That was the first time I had ever cursed … aloud.

        “Please, Daks! I’m trying to think.” He was short with me. Normally, that would have hurt my feelings, but this was not a normal situation. That piercing wail came again, and was echoed from two different positions—from ahead of us and to our left flank. That made three distinct voices.

        Bandy turned to me, “We’re in luck, Daksie. No lingering deaths for us, and you needn’t worry about the expression on your dead face anymore. You’re worth maybe two gulps, and I’m worth about three, so we shouldn’t have much time to concern ourselves with anything else. Now the geez here, he’ll have lots of time to think things over. That is, if they don’t find him so old and distasteful that they let him go.”

        “Mish-Shka, what is it? What can I do?”

        “You can do nothing, Daks. I’m afraid Fawrlingswad might be right. Those are Wolves. And they’re hunting us down.”

        Wolves … wolves …


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