The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

PART FOUR

GROOMER’S HOUSE

Chapter 29

 

          “We’ll either run together or we’ll die together, comrades!” Bandy’s noble declaration lost much of its intended stature, in that bouncing around on Alexander’s bottom as he was made him sound as though he had the hiccups.

          It took the combined persuasive powers of Mish-Shka and myself to talk him down from the terrified Ayurd’O’Dell. He was riding backwards, straddling the Ogg’s spine and snapping at his cropped tail between brave proclamations. “It’s all for one and I, for one, am all for getting out of here!” With his hind feet, Bandy clawed at Alexander’s rib cage through the kinky hair. The Ogg circled the room like a dust devil, and others ran either before him as though they were being chased, or after him, as though they were doing the chasing. “Run, Daks! Head for the hills!” Before it was over, almost everyone in the room had entered into the chaotic parade, hissing, grunting, shrieking, or howling. To the sightless Groomer, it must have sounded like the end of the world.

          No real harm was done to Alexander’s hide. Bandy had merely used him for speedy transportation to our location. (He later explained, “My scheme was to leave you in there long enough for them to become complacent, you see, and then I introduce the confusion. Complacency … confusion … complacency … confusion. A magnificent combination, particularly effective against Oggs.”)

          But it was Bandy who became confused when, instead of making for the door, Mish-Shka and I remained in the center of the room and begged him to stop. “FLEE! ESCAPE! FLY! WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?” he cried.

          Alexander twirled about in a tight circle. “BILL-EEEE … GET ‘IM OFF’N MEEEEE. HELP ME, GROOMER!”

          On the fifth or sixth turn around the house, Bandy caught sight of Bee-Hee-Mouth and let out a sound I would have expected from the distraught chicken. “REEK-llllll!” he said, and the sound trailed off into a thin gurgle. “My … you are a big one.”

          Eventually, we convinced Bandy he was among, if not friends, then less dangerous enemies than he’d imagined. He let go of Alexander and scrambled up onto the fireplace mantle. The Ayurd’O’Dell regained a semblance of his dignity and left the house, still furious but too embarrassed to remain. The tribe settled down, except for Geep, who continued to scramble about yelling of thieves and deceased chickens until Goonter took the initiative. She leapt from one of the wooden chairs and swiped at Geep’s bottom as she came down. That was all it took. Geep trilled all the way back to his hiding spot beneath the porch.

          After making introductions, which Bandy accepted from atop the mantle with no small dose of mistrust, Bee-Hee-Mouth brought out the beer. “Fawrlingswad, is it? Of the Candling gang? I knew some Candlings. One of them, Fratney-Dinkum-Candling, was Chief of Imaginative History for the entire Skookumchuck Creek quadrant, if memory serves. Any relation?”

          Bee-Hee-Mouth knew his Rawl’Colmbs. Bandy was immediately put at ease. “A distant cousin, I’m sure. Administrative talent runs in my family.”

          After Bandy came down from the mantle, Bee-Hee-Mouth offered him some supper, but Bandy declined. “No, thank you. Earlier I had some … er … uh …”

          “Chicken?” Bee-Hee-Mouth offered, winking to Mish-Shka.

* * *

          Watching the giant serve beer was even more entertaining than when he prepared our eggs and milk meal. The beer was in cans, held together by one of those artificial, rubbery substances that are so fun to chew but afford so little nutrition. He carried the bunch to Groomer, who separated them and kept one for himself. “Ah, is it already that time of the evening? Hah! Thank you, Billy. Don’t mind if I do.” Out of the other five, Bee-Hee-Mouth carried one to the middle of the room and jumped on it with his full weight. A geyser erupted from one end of the can, spewing out over the floor. A yeasty aroma filled the room, and I was reminded of my night in the clutches of Ferb and his hunting cohorts. I looked to Mish-Shka and indicated I wanted none of this stuff by crinkling my nose and shaking my head.

          “Drink up, chums, before the bubbles are gone.” Bee-Hee-Mouth said, and lapped eagerly at the frothy pool. Other Oggs joined him, along with the old orange Scrat. Groomer took a long draught from his can, poured some on the floor for Milton, then cradled some in his hand for the wounded bird-Ogg. It appeared this tribe was well accustomed to beer. Every Ogg tail in the room wagged with delight. Every tail but Mish-Shka’s and, of course, mine.

          Bee-Hee-Mouth noticed our reticence. “Oh, come on, Master Daks. Take some. The smell may be unpleasant at first, I know, but you’ll get over that. And the taste will leave your tongue by midday tomorrow, I promise.” A few of the others snickered in a secretive way, as though what Bee-Hee-Mouth said was a joke on me. “Really, Daks … Meesha, there is so much to be said for beer, but I can’t explain. You’ll have to experience it for yourselves. And the three of you look like you could use the experience.” At that, they all laughed robustly. Even Groomer chuckled along in an absent way.

          The hackles didn’t just raise on Bandy’s neck. They shot up. Breath escaped between his teeth in a low hiss. Mish-Shka didn’t like being laughed at any more than Bandy, but he showed no resentment other than a tightening at his throat.

          “Ohhh, take no offense, really. We’re not laughing at you. It’s just that beer gives us a great deal of pleasure, and it’s especially fun when someone is first introduced to it. Don’t be angry, Fawrlingswad.”

          Groomer nodded his head and stroked the bird-Ogg’s leg, all the while staring at the blank wall before him. “Ya … ya, that’s right, Billy. Old friends are the only thing that separates us from the animals, you know. Eeee-hee-hee.” His eyes glowed from the heater box fire like white pebbles polished sightless in a river bed.

* * *

          We drank of the beer. Bee-Hee-Mouth opened another can in that same spectacular way, only with even more panache than before. He first bounced up and down, missing the can by a whisker, and counted each bounce. The tribe counted out with him, “One … two … three … four,” and jittered with anticipation. On a raucous “FIVE!”, Bee-Hee-Mouth came down on the colorful container. Beer and bubbles shot halfway across the room, splashing against our toes.

          Bandy shrugged and went to lapping. “You know what they say, Daksie? ‘When in Rubedom, do as the rubes.’”

          Mish-Shka agreed. “What harm can it do, Daks? What could happen that hasn’t already?” He went at the beer with his broad tongue and made sounds that brought to mind webbed feet in black mud.

          I held my breath and drank. Initially, the bubbles were an annoyance. They wanted to climb into my nostrils and tickle me silly, but I drank on. The urge to sneeze dampened the aroma and before much time had gone by, I realized the taste wasn’t so bad—that in fact, I was enjoying it. The effervescence burst on my tongue like rolly-polly bugs scurrying for cover. Normally, I wouldn’t enjoy the sensation of having my mouth filled with insects, but it seemed the ideal accompaniment to the beer taste. I found myself slapping the floor with my tongue to stir up more bubbles, and the room began to sound like an army of webbed feet in black mud.

          It didn’t take long to finish off that can, and when the floor was dry, Bee-Hee-Mouth opened another. I heard my own strange voice added to the chorus, ” … two … three … four … FIVE!”, and I heard Mish-Shka’s as well, tinted with giddy youthfulness. I looked to him and he looked to me, both of us surprised at our silliness, then we giggled like ducks. By the end of the next can, our giggling had turned to choking laughter.

          At some point during the fourth can, I fell over on my side and stayed that way. I managed to continue licking up beer for a time by contorting my neck and pushing my tongue out so far it cramped. But then everything I could reach was gone. When I tried to rise, my legs had the strength and consistency of violet stems. I floundered about until everyone in the room was laughing at me, or so it seemed, and I threatened them. That was my last memory, of some vague and arcane warnings that I had difficulty enunciating. In a corner nearest to the artificial fire, Mish-Shka and Bee-Hee-mouth were engaged in a serious discussion, judging by the serious looks on their blurry faces and the serious tone in their blurry voices. Bandy came to me out of a swirling chaos and slurred into my ear, “Youz ish embasherin’ me, Daskshie. A truly, truly … trew-leee embasherin’ embasherment.” Then he collapsed, nose to nose with me. I licked him.

          “Shorry I embashered ya … Ban-eee.”

* * *

          I awoke during the night having to pee so desperately that my belly hurt almost as badly as my head. My eyes throbbed crossways, my stomach churned, and my thinking was as dusty as Groomer’s house. I prayed that Bee-Hee-Mouth hadn’t been joking when he said the taste would be gone on the morrow. My tongue was coated as with mud. Somewhere in the house, Mish-Shka and Bee-Hee-Mouth still talked, but their voices were misty whispers, so soft a bat would have struggled to find them in the dark. From another room, Groomer snored as only old creatures do, dry and brittle, and his snoring was echoed from all over the house by members of his tribe. I bumped from one obstacle to another until I found the doorway, an affair that swung both ways, never latching. I scratched at it and ducked outside between swings. The sky was clear, the moon fat and wise, and the yard was as wrapped in sleep as the house. All except for Geep.

          “Yuh-yuh-yer n-not sposed tuh-to puh-p-p-pee there.” I had gone to the end of the porch, not wanting to brave the rough lawn in my delicate condition. Geep, alert and pesky, was sitting on a dilapidated swinging chair that hung from the roof.

          “And where am I supposed to pee?” I asked, committed to being a proper guest even if it meant humoring this obnoxious yipper. He ignored my question.

          “I fuh-found the ch-ch-chickens you kuh-killed. Alex-a-a-ander and muh-me. We fuh-found ’em.”

          “I didn’t kill any chickens, Geep.”

          “Muh-maybe so. Buh-buh-but you were guh-g-gonna eat ’em, and Alex-a-a-ander and muh-me fuh-found ’em.”

          All obligations to my bladder fulfilled, I tried to leave. “Excuse me, Geep. I’m very sorry about the chickens. But I don’t feel very well, and I want to go back to sleep.”

          “Yuh-you’re Rawl-cuh-c-c-Colmb chum duh-dropped ’em right wh-where those thieves luh-last night duh-d-dropped the chickens they killed. Yuh-you thieves always thuh-think you cuh-c-can hide Gr-Gr-Groomer’s chuh-chickens in the buh-buh-bog buh-bottom.”

          “I’m really tired, Geep. Really. And I’ve never been in your bog bottom. I don’t even know what a bog bottom is.” I made a move for the door, but Geep jumped to the floor before me. His nails were a tinny, clicking annoyance that reverberated in my skull as he paced back and forth in my path. I couldn’t have gotten around him without pushing him aside.

          The more he talked, the more agitated he became. “Thuh-thieves all thuh-think they’re so duh-d-danged smart! Buh-but thuh-they’re never as smart as Guh-Guh-Groomer. Nnnn-never. Or Buh-Billy. Your fuh-uh-riend … thuh-that Mum-Mish-Shka  … he thuh-thinks he’s so smuh-smart … and that Ruh-Rawl’Colmb … he thuh-thinks he’s so smuh-smart, tuh-too. Y’know. … juh-juh-just because yuh-yuh-you’re b-b-big doesn’t mean yuh-you’re smuh-smart! That’s fuh-fuh-fer d-dang sure. Like that thuh-thief last nnnn-night, and his snuh-snooty ggg-girlfriend … thuh-thought they were so smuh-smart. Buh-b-b-but they weren’t anywhere nnnn-near as smuh-smart as Guh-Groomer … or Buh-Billy. Juh-juh-just a buh-big … duh-dumb … Guh-Guh-Guh-Golden … that’s all he wuh-was. “

          “Geep, really, if I don’t get back to bed right away, I’ll … Golden? You say ‘Golden?’  How do you know?”

          “I suh-saw him, that’s how I nnn-know! I’m the one who c-c-caught ’em raiding the rur-roost. I’m the guh-guy who woke up Buh-Billy and Guh-Groomer. If it wuh-weren’t for mmm-me, they’d o’ guh-gotten off with all o’ Guh-Groomer’s chuh-chickens. I cuh-caught him and that snuh-snooty guh-girlfriend of his. Shuh-she told me to ggg-go away and stuh-stick my yap in a cuh-cuh-cow pup-pup-pie, that’s what she tuh-told me to do. Wuh-well, I went away, all right. I wuh-went away and wuh-woke up Buh-Billy and Guh-Groomer. We chased those thuh-thieves from huh-here to the Fuuuuh-lammagin Buh-Breaks. We sure muh-made ’em drop Guh-Groomer’s ch-ch-chickens.”

          As much as I tried to control my voice, it still quivered. “Was the female … “

          “Snooty, snooty, snuh-snuh-snooty … that’s what shuh-she was. Shuh-she told me to guh-go st-st-stick my yap in a cuh-cuh-cow puh-pie. Snuh-snooty!”

          “Did she have pointed ears? Like a fox? Pointed and beautiful?”

          “Snuh-snooty ears, that’s what I c-c-call ’em. And the Guuuh-olden, he was plenty snuh-snooty too, fuh-for as duh-dumb as he wuh-was.”

          “GEEP … SHUT UP!” No quiver in my voice that time.

          Geep stopped cold and stood poised on his toenails, regarding me as though I were a ton of trouble. “Now … answer me … did the female have fox ears?”

          “I sh-suh-suppose you could suuuh-ay that.”

* * *

          It was unfortunate for old Milton and the fat orange Scrat that they were in my path as I chased through the house searching for Mish-Shka. It was also unfortunate for everyone who picked that particular time in the middle of the night to be asleep, because there was nothing I could do about my excitement, and noise seems to accompany excitement like smell goes with poop.

          “PETER’S BEEN HERE … AND AH-TEENA! MISH-SHKA, THEY’VE BEEN HERE!” I scaled Milton’s rib cage and came down on the orange Scrat’s tail. Both of them expressed their displeasure with shocking language.

          From the darkest corner of the dark house, Mish-Shka spoke. “I know, Daks.”

          “JUST LAST NIGHT! THEY WERE RIGHT HERE!  THEY STOLE CHICKENS!” After rolling off the Scrat’s tail, I slipped on a spot of beer that had somehow been passed over. Entirely out of control, I skidded face-first into the wounded bird-Ogg. It wasn’t my fault that his broken leg was sticking out like an exposed root. My, was he loud.

          “Daks … please, Daks. Quiet down. Bee-Hee-Mouth has already told me.”

          Whether or not it was my fault, I made a hasty apology to the bird-Ogg anyway, then collided with the heater machine, sending it into a bevy of glass jugs filled with apple cider. One broke. “WE CAN FIND THEM. MISH-SHKA WE CAN FIND AH-TEENA! THEY WERE RIGHT HERE!”

          Strong jaws took me firmly by the nape of my neck and lifted me out of the broken glass and gooey juice. “Go back to sleep, Daks,” said Mish-Shka. “If Peter can be found, we’ll find him tomorrow.” It was Bee-Hee-Mouth who picked me up, and when my legs stopped churning in midair, I understood how it was clearly for the best. The white giant, by holding me high in the air, was not only keeping Daks from doing any more damage, but he was keeping his angry tribe from damaging Daks. Groomer had risen from his bed and was tripping around his home, trying to find answers to the commotion.

          Milton was furious. His voice trembled and his body swayed from side to side. “Billy, let me at that runtlin’. I’m gurna chew ‘is head off, I swear I am.” Those sentiments were echoed from various throats. Goonter had the audacity to stand below and claw my pendulous bottom. Bee-Hee-Mouth deposited me beyond the reach of his cranky tribe. I ducked beneath Mish-Shka while Bee-Hee-Mouth calmed his comrades down.

* * *

          Sleep didn’t return easily. Mish-Shka promised that as soon as the sun rose, we would find Peter’s trail, but my skull was filled with an odd mixture of anticipation, anxiety, and the lingering after-effects of my first encounter with beer. Had I not been able to fall back on plain and simple exhaustion, I never would have slept.

          Bandy was no help at all. Just as I felt those churning thoughts being pushed into a corner by cobwebby images and cool dark, he put his cold nose to my ear and said, “Don’t worry about this Peter and the female so much, Daksie. Even if we do find them … and we probably won’t … they won’t remember you, anyway. When it comes to long-term memory, I’d rank your friend Peter just after pinecones and fog.” He giggled and rolled over.

          “Bandy,” I said. “If it were you that I’d lost … and then if it were you I’d found again … I’d be as happy as I am now.”

          I’ve learned that even the best of friends have to be reassured now and then.

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