The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

PART FOUR

GROOMER’S HOUSE

Chapter 26

 

Each day, for several days, we crossed more ground than I could have believed possible, judging from our experience in the mountains. The land was next to flat, for one thing, and what trees and brush there were proved more help than hindrance. They were tame trees and tame brush, domesticated and planted for the convenience of humans and confined to decorative clusters around houses.

          Backyards and empty fields, this was our road. In the distance were mountains, and when the drizzle and mist cleared long enough to see all the way, I watched and listened to them as I plodded along. Yes, listened. Until then … until I gained that distance, I would never have believed mountains had their own language, but they do. It’s a soft and persistent tongue that never demands or whines or screams for attention. It’s always there, this rugged voice, beneath the rumbling traffic noise and incessant clatter of machinery, speaking with a steady meter, like the beating of a monumental heart. But one has to be a distance away to hear. I never once noticed their voice when I was atop their broad and rough backs.

          They didn’t speak directly to me—mountains don’t chat with just anybody—but I couldn’t help but overhear, and I listened in with a great deal of ambivalence. The message itself was lost on me, but within the subtle and slow song of the mountains was a poetry that tugged at my fiber in a way I can only compare to my mother’s memory. In an indisputable way, I missed being atop those broad and rough backs. Yet the switch from sharp thorns, jagged rocks, grasping branches, steep slopes and raw fish to smooth roads, manicured grass, dry nests and a delightful variety of scavenged table leavings was a pleasant change indeed. In that respect, I couldn’t have cared if I ever climbed so much as a gopher hill again.

          My companions had no such ambivalent feelings. “A blight it is,” complained Mish-Shka. “I’m afraid their disease has no answer.” He strained to lick the wound on his shoulder. It had finally, after several miserable days, stopped hurting and had begun to itch.

          Bandy found some hope in the congested mess. “I tell you, if we can hold on long enough, the world will be ours again, Meesha. My great-uncle … that would be Dingles-Berry-Hiddlewad … you’ve heard of him, no doubt … was once besieged up a tree by a gaggle of dim-witted hounds. No offense, but certainly you’ve been around the flop-eared Oggs and you must recognize how relatively slow they are, generally speaking?” Mish-Shka grimaced but nevertheless nodded in agreement. “Well, old Dingles-Berry simply waited them out. They kept baying and shitting and flopping around and shitting and scratching and shitting … and lo and behold, they suffocated in their own shit. Old Dingles-Berry near fell out of the tree from starvation before the hounds finally crapped enough to cover their own nostrils, but he held on. Went on to become Vice-Chancellor to the Greater-Upper-Rawl’Colmb Nation. You must have heard of him?”

          They had become quite good friends by now, those two. In retrospect, I believe their intimacy began with that lascivious conversation about the females of their respective species, the conversation in which Mish-Shka treated the honor of Ah-teena so rudely. On our way through the domain of men, they found they had even more in common than lewd memories. They both hated all of the same things, and those things could be lumped together under the general category “MANKIND.”

* * *

          For Bandy’s sake, we traveled mostly at night. Two Oggs, even as odd a couple as Mish-Shka and I, would not have attracted an undue amount of attention in this land of oddly-bred canines. But Rawl’Colmbs are not, and I speculate will never be, a comfortable fixture in man’s world. On the few occasions when we were left with no choice but to make our way in daylight, we were seen. Being in the thick of humanity, it was impossible not to be seen, and it wasn’t the imposing figure of Mish-Shka or me that drew the surprised remarks. It was the raccoon. For instance, on one weedy and littered foot path—a place in which we gambled that humans would be rare—we stumbled upon three pocked-face boys, breathing in smoke from some foul herb and giggling like starlings. I’m not sure they even noticed Mish-Shka and me, they were so taken by Bandy. “GHEESHUN CRIPES, DUDES. IT’Z’A COOOOON!” said one, and they all burst into raucous laughter.

          Shelter was plentiful. There was always a dilapidated shed or bridge to sleep under, and the machines were scarce during the dark hours. The longer I live, the more I become convinced it’s the machines that need to be avoided even more than the humans who operate them. The men, flabby-fleshed and fragile-boned, are not the primary danger. Without their machines—all those whirring, exploding, speeding, burrowing, smashing, cutting, entrapping machines—men would be no more lethal than slow-footed, shaved and declawed bears. Easily outrun, with teeth not fit for much more than ripe peaches and spongy legumes.

          On the other hand, Bandy (ever the contrarian) had to remind me that we would have never caught up with Ah-Teena and Peter if not for Buddy’s muddy red machine, carrying us miles and miles beyond the mountains, in a mere half a day.

* * *

          “Wait here! Right here! And I’ll bring back chicken. The air is thick with chicken. Can’t you tell?”

          Even I could smell it, and my, oh my, what a fine smell it was. We had eaten well for several days, since we came into these infested lowlands, and there was a trail of shredded garbage bags to show for it. As content as I was with buttered-bread crusts, cow ribs still succulent with marrow, and my all-time favorite, honey-soaked pancake bits, the idea of a whole chicken, complete with warm blood for relish, set my tummy to laughing out loud.

          We were nearing the end of this broad and long valley, climbing once again into low hills that were footpads to more mountains. The thickest clusters of men and their homes were behind us and for two days we had been able to skirt the farms and orchards that lay on the fringes of the city. When possible, we avoided cows and horses as well because they would chase us like two-ton fleas, hungry for diversion. The cows followed out of sheer silliness, but the Whawr’Hawrz seemed genuinely hostile to us—which brought to mind Gglongh’Ribblm and Brawdle’Whingree.

          I asked Mish-Shka how he had ever calmed the two of them down enough to ride in the trailer all that way. “Simple. Once their initial panic was over, they spent the rest of the ride swapping stories of glorious ancestors with Bandy. You know, Daks, Whawr’Hawrz aren’t hard to manipulate. All you have to do is mention that you’ve heard of them or their family, and they swoon. As easy as stroking a terrapin’s tummy. They’re like Rawl’Colmbs in that respect.”

          Bandy took the teasing with a good nature. “True, true. I did occupy their time. If they had rocked that box much more, I’d have turned inside out. But Meesha, you set the proper tone to the conversation.”

          “What’d he say, Bandy?”

          “Why, he looked that Gglongh’Ribblm in the eye and said ‘if you don’t quiet down, horse, I will take out your eyeballs … one by one … and replace them with your testicles.’  Very persuasive, the old geez.”

          The weather was growing increasingly unpleasant and erratic. For a time, it would rain cold water, then switch to slush or snow. Minutes later, more freezing rain followed. Though Bandy didn’t agree, Mish-Shka decided it would once again be appropriate for us to use the light hours for traveling. He was as chilled as I, and it was with a great deal of relief to both of us when we found a culvert with a bed of dry leaves to spend a particularly miasmal night. The culvert was in the midst of an orchard and a few tart apples were still on the trees among the brown leaves. That’s what I had expected for my evening meal, tart apples. Cold … mushy … tart … apples.

          Or a hot … still-dripping … chicken.

          Not a hard choice, at all.

* * *

          Bandy whirled twice and sashayed away into the gnarled tree trunks. “Prepare thyselves, chums,” he called over his shoulder. “I’ll bring ’em, Daksie, but you have to pluck ’em.” He was happy. We were all happy. There was a feeling amongst us that the end of our trek was near, and things were turning out fine. After all, we had survived the loss of our friends, a variety of men wielding a variety of weapons, Roth’s savage attack, Kruk and his Wolven barbarians, ice fields, numbing cold, mud, blackberry bushes, horse histories, thorns … what more could the world throw in our path?

          In anticipation of a hot meal, my belly sang out like the biggest bullfrog in the pond. “Heavens, Daks. If you can’t tone down your stomach some, you’re going to bring the Ogg-catcher down on us.”

          “Mish-Shka, I hear your stomach too. You’re looking forward to that chicken as much as I am.” He laughed and I snuggled into the wiry fur on his chest. “Uh … Mish-Shka? … what’s an Ogg-catcher?”

          “You don’t know about Ogg-catchers? No, I don’t suppose you would. You see, some men do nothing but chase down Dahm-Ogg who haven’t cowed under a human master. They travel in trucks stacked with cages. That’s where we found Teena, in one of those cages.”

          I was incredulous that someone—even a man—could find nothing better to occupy his time than nabbing free-range Oggs. “You saved Miss Ah-Teena from a cage?”

          “Actually, Peter did the saving. I merely kept the Ogg-catcher pinned against a flowering hedge while he did it. We were hunting together. Probably too close to the farmlands for our own safety, if you care to know. And we happened upon the Ogg-catcher’s truck. He was cramming a muddy terrier into one of the cages and Peter became enraged. He was just a youngster then. Young and full of Scrat piss.” Deep within himself, Mish-Shka chuckled, then continued. “Peter was never fond of terriers, but even then, he had learned the value of living free. And he could not abide this atrocity. ‘We can’t let this pass, Meesher! We just can’t,’ he said, and I was forced to agree with him, even though Ogg-catchers sometimes carry weapons. Actually, Peter saved a number of Dahm-Ogg from the cages that day, but Teena was the only one who showed any interest in following us home.”

          It was exciting to hear stories about Peter and Ah-Teena again. And a bit melancholy. When this journey started, my mind was filled with them. Especially Ah-Teena. But lately, days could pass without my ever once remembering how great a champion Peter was, how brave and beautiful Ah-Teena was—how proud I felt when I was in their company. It made me sad, when I realized how far they had slipped from my attention, and I wanted to know every detail of this Ogg-catcher adventure. “How’d Peter ever open the cages, Mish-Shka? It’s not really a cage if it’s easy to open, is it?”

          “You’re right, Daks. Not if it can be opened from the inside. But from the outside, it doesn’t matter. Peter’s smart. It took him no time to figure out what held the gates shut. They came pouring out of that truck like fleas off a dead pig. There was every size and configuration of Ogg running about, yipping and happy … “

          At first, it seemed my imagination was providing sound effects for the story—all of those freed Oggs chirping like birds as they disappeared into surrounding fields—but then Mish-Shka tensed, his ears quivered and his nose twitched. The yipping was real. And it sounded far from happy.

          They were converging on our position rapidly, a well-balanced choir of Ogg voices. On top were quick yik-yaks of obviously small Oggs, creatures that might have been smaller even than me. The altos and tenors were terriers and thin bird-hounds, earnestly yelling out how they would pursue this newest cause, or die trying. But the bottom, the basso, was most profound. It was the first voice I heard, but I didn’t hear it with my ears. Starting as a vibration in my bowels, it blended with my own stomach’s grumbling and proceeded throughout my body, a dull thumping in my bones. (Do mountains bay?)

          “Wha … Mish-Shka? … what is this?”

          He came to his feet, rolling me to one side, and went into his battle stance as naturally as water running downhill. He had to bow his head—the culvert wasn’t meant for anyone the size of Gray Mish-Shka—but his legs were stiff. He flinched as Bandy flew out of the dark and careened into his ankles, but he held.

          “SAVE YOURSELVES!” Bandy shrieked, and flew out the other end. “IT’S EVERY ONE FOR HIMSELF!”

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