The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

PART FOUR

GROOMER’S HOUSE

Chapter 30

 

          Contrary to our expectations, but consistent with our luck, we didn’t leave when the sun rose as Mish-Shka promised. Nor did we leave by the time the sun had set again. There was no need to hurry, for by the time the sour taste of beer had left my tongue, we had learned that Peter and Ah-Teena were not far away, quite close and going nowhere—locked in a metal cage.

          I was the last to awake. Ever the early riser, Bandy was up and gone to wherever Rawl’Colmbs go in the mornings. Bee-Hee-Mouth had already taken Mish-Shka to this “bog bottom” place, the place of purloined chickens, and found what remained of our friends’ scents. Alexander accompanied them and his younger nose was a great help, even though his motives had more to do with hastening our departure than being a gracious host. The three of them followed the trail, right up to the point where it disappeared.

          “I thought I’d found them, Daks!” Mish-Shka pushed me awake with his cold nose. I would have preferred to keep light from my eyes until my skull stopped throbbing, but Mish-Shka was anxious and demanded my attention. “We could smell them. Their spoor was strong. But they followed a stream for a ways … probably thought that pest Alexander was still chasing them. We couldn’t find their trail after that.”

          Before I could respond, I had to have water, and a lot of it. My lips stuck together and my tongue felt bigger than my mouth could hold. I lapped long and noisily from a pink pail under the sink while Bee-Hee-Mouth tried to calm Mish-Shka. “All we can do is wait. We should learn something soon.”

          When news came, we had Alexander to thank for delivering it, as bad as it was. “The Catcher got ’em, that’s what Spitter said. Catcher caught ’em an’ took ’em ‘way. An’ dat’s da end to dat. Thieves get what thieves got comin’.”

          Mish-Shka was not satisfied with the way Alexander passed over the details. He questioned the pouting Ayurd’O’Dell relentlessly, until Alexander snarled. “Dat’s all I know, ya’ old thief, an’ if ya’ want my whole say-so, I say ‘good riddance to chicken-thievin’ trash’.”

          For a moment, I thought Mish-Shka was going to turn Alexander into a lump of guts and fly bait. He stiffened and drew up to full height. The muscles in his shoulders knotted. Bee-Hee-Mouth was standing near and he too tensed, preparing to break up whatever was about to come. But Alexander wheeled away and trotted into the orchard. “I say it agin! Good riddance!”

          I cried. Couldn’t help it. To have come so far and gotten so close, only to learn that we had lost Peter and Ah-Teena to one of those Ogg-Catcher monstrosities, and only the day before. It was more than my tear ducts could take standing still.

          “Daks, don’t you dare cry. Not yet!” Mish-Shka was more than just cross. He seethed, he boiled. With crazed eyes, he searched the empty sky and fought back his own tears. “There’s more, Gamdassit … and I must know it! Bee-Hee-Mouth!” He snapped at his old friend. “Who is this ‘Spitter’?”

          “I’ll take you there, Meesha. I’ll take you to Spitter. We’ll do whatever we can.”

          I followed them to the edge of the yard, until Mish-Shka told me to stop, over his shoulder as he passed into the orchard. “Stay here, Daks. This isn’t a thing for you.”

* * *

          I followed anyway.

          There is no shortage of disadvantages to being smaller than a casual consideration, but this was one of those rare occasions when it was fortunate that I was overlooked, passed over, not even given a second thought. Had I been just a little bigger—had I been of a stature that he could dismiss but not ignore—Mish-Shka would have met my eyes. He would have told me to my face me to remain behind, to sit on my heels and stay out of the way, because this was the work of “big and serious Oggs.” But, lucky me, I have no stature, and I am easily left out of affairs that shouldn’t concern a heart as insignificant as mine.

          I waited a few moments after the two giants loped into the apple trees and then I slipped into their footprints, sloughing off my bitter thoughts as I ducked and bobbed to keep out of their sight. It wasn’t far to the next farm, and by keeping a few trees and mangles of grass between us, I was able to stay within sight of Bee-Hee-Mouth and Mish-Shka without them seeing me. Halfway there, Bandy flopped out of a tree and startled me so much I almost yelped, but he pushed my snout into the ground . “Shhhhh! I don’t know why we’re hiding, but if it was worth doing until now, it must be worth keeping up.”

          “Where have you been!”

          “I had to get out of that house, Daksie. Too much Ogg hair and wa-a-a-a-a-y too many Oggs.”

          “Come on, before they get too far away. And keep low.” I told him the story as we ducked and bobbed together, and I couldn’t help but note that Bandy was a lot better at ducking and bobbing than I. He made it look almost graceful, while I felt like a rolling toadstool.

          “Daks, if your friends have truly been captured, then Meesha’s right. There’s nothing you can do. Incidentally, there’s nothing he can do either, but he will have to learn that on his own.”

          “If that’s the way you feel, Bandy, maybe you ought to go back to the house and have some more of that beer stuff. I’ll find Ah-Teena and Peter without you or anyone else, if I have to!”

          “Oops. I guess there’s no point in discussing realistic expectations with you, is there?”

          I ignored him for the rest of the way.

                                                                              * * *                                                                                                  Spitter came out loud and just got louder. He was a strange looking amalgam of breeds. Pied Sheep-Herd I think, and some of the exotic Wire-Haired Djin-Go. And possibly some porcupine, judging by his wildly splayed coat. It appeared each cow on this farm had taken a turn at licking him until every hair on his body pointed in a different direction. His eyes, one brown and one blue, were crossed.

      Before they even entered his yard, he met Bee-Hee-Mouth and Mish-Shka with vociferous objection to their being there. “Gally Beedabob, what’ur you doin’ here, Billy? This here’s my place. I juzz got rid o’ Alexander. Lissen here, Master Beedle dun like you an’ yer folks comin’ over here, shiddin’ ’round our trees. An’ who’s that?” Spitter regarded Mish-Shka with a lunatic gleam in his brown eye, and a dull sheen over the blue. There was no fear in him, not even of a strange Ogg twice his size. I was glad I wasn’t there to face this fellow directly. What he lacked in sanity, he made up for with aggressive bluster.

          I crawled forward on my belly. Hidden by a thick hedge of tulles and cattails, I came close enough to hear the conversation. “Spitter, just a moment of your time, please. We needn’t come any closer.” Bee-Hee-Mouth was patronizing the edgy Ogg. “Yesterday, you saw two Oggs taken away, that’s what you told Alexander. Is that right? Or were you just trying to scare him?”

          “Twas truth. All truth. Two of ’em, that’s right. A big Goldern and a female cur. They part o’ Groomer’s clan? Must be! Gotta be! They both shid on Mister Master’s trees.” Spitter had a distracting habit of peeing while he spoke—peeing on everything that rose high enough to trip over. He strutted stiffly from tree to stump, from rock to twisted weed, hoisting his hind leg and spraying urine with abandon over the landscape. “Lissen here,” he continued, “my Mister Master Beedle says old Groomer iz crazy as a load o’ bad coconuts. That’s what he says. Dun matter anyhow nohow anyway. Them friends o’ yerz’re gone gone gone. The Catcher got ’em. Mister Master got the Catcher. . . Catcher got the Groomer’s Oggs.” He soaked down the remnants of a frostbitten wild strawberry while he spoke.

        From behind the gnarled limb of a cherry tree directly over my head, Bandy whispered, “His name’s Spitter? As I see it, they named him after the wrong end. ‘Pisser,’ that’s what they should of called him. ‘Pisser‘.”

          Mish-Shka took the questions away from Bee-Hee-Mouth. His voice was so strained it brought shivers and bumps to my skin. “How were they taken? Tell me, did the Catcher … how did he catch them?” Even from where I was, I could see the lump catch in his throat.

          “Shot ’em! Yep-yup-yep-yup-yep. Shot ’em … thaz what happened. They juzz got done shiddin’ on Beedle’s trees. Catcher got ’em out on the road. Shot the Goldern right in the butt. Then shot the female when she came a runnin’. Beedabob, gamdassit mad she was. Said she was goner chew her way up the Catcher’s leg to his balls and beyond, but he got her first. In the chest … lissen here … right in the chest. Took ‘er a while to drop. She had that feller’s boot in ‘er mouth when she finally went down.”

          Mish-Shka sagged all over, like a withered vine, suddenly all wrinkles and age. He turned away from Spitter and looked directly through my eyes, into my own slumping heart.

          I saw—finally—those rarest of waters. Mish-Shka’s tears.

* * *

          I didn’t duck, and my bobbing days were over. Whatever I had been hiding from had found me. Bandy whistled so low it came out like pity hissing from a broken root. I don’t think he was even aware he did it.

          Bee-Hee-Mouth laid his broad head on Mish-Shka’s shoulder, and in that simple gesture, gave all the sympathy Mish-Shka could absorb. Spitter stopped peeing for a brief enough time to offer a more dubious condolence. “Gerndern tough when ya’ lose a goody pal. Lost a few m’self, whenever Master gets tawrd o’ feedin mouths. But ya’ gotta go on. That’s the secret to successful livin’. Ya’ gotta find out who yer real friends are an’ go on. An’ speakin’ o’ that, you fellers’ gotta go. Now! Before Mister Master Beedle brings the Catcher down on ah-yeeew.” Not one to succumb to compassion for long, Spitter went back to peeing and posturing.

          “Wait,” Bee-Hee-Mouth said, and jerked away from Mish-Shka. “Spitter, you said the female was shot in the chest and still kept coming?”

          “Lissen here! I’m not juzz jokin’ with ya’. Mister Master’ll bring the Catcher back if’n he sees ya’ here, Billy. Crazy as a load ‘o bad coconuts … that’s what he says ’bout old Groomer. An’ he’d be gerndern happy to watch the Catcher drag you an’ yer goody pal here off.”

          But Bee-Hee-Mouth persisted. “Was there blood, Spitter? When the Catcher shot them, was there any blood?” Mish-Shka became just perceptibly unslumped. His ears twitched.

          “Blood?” Spitter went to a spruce sapling, dousing it down with what urine he had left. “Gerndernit, now that ya’ mention it, there weren’t no blood. No blood … no guts.”

          Like a goofy pupper, Bee-Hee-Mouth went up on his hind legs and clawed a broad swath of bark from one of Spitter’s fruit trees. “ASLEEP! OH-HO … ASLEEP!” He arched his back and laughed into the crisp sky.

          Mish-Shka was as bewildered as I, and both of us stood up straight, strengthened by curiosity. Bee-Hee-Mouth licked Mish-Shka’s face until spittle dripped like sap from both of them. Mish-Shka didn’t know whether to snap, sit or sob, so he simply stood inert with mouth gaping foolishly wide.

          “Don’t you see? Meesh, your Peter lives.” Bee-Hee-Mouth’s voice rolled about the farmyard like shock waves from a happy earthquake. “They both live! ASLEEP … THAT’S ALL! THE CATCHER PUT THEM TO SLEEP!”

          At that moment, the ugliest man I have ever seen came out of the house to see what was rattling his windows.

* * *

          It’s said, mostly by those who have nothing better to occupy their minds but superstition, that a human adopts the physical characteristics of the Ogg he controls. It’s some sort of divine and symbiotic revenge, if true—the destiny of those who dominate others. And well deserved, since the features of an Ogg, while fine and handsome on an Ogg, are generally hideous on the otherwise bland human face. I had heard stories of men whose ears sagged towards their shoulders in unconscious sympathy for pitiful Bazz-Eth Hunds they kept tied with rough ropes in small yards, and women whose cheeks sank like sumpholes, indistinguishable from the primped, preened and powerless Apso-Lapsoes who slept all day on plush couches. I had even noticed an uncanny similarity between the finely tapered snout on my mom, Wen-Dee, and the shrewish noses on the family she lived with. But until I saw Spitter’s Mister Master, I had dismissed most of this as mere coincidence and apocryphal imagination.

          The man’s hair was every bit as chaotic as Spitter’s, especially in the back, where it spewed out at angles like tall grass that had been rolled in by fat creatures with hooves. And his eyes were crossed, or at least one of them. While one angry eye burned with murderous intent, the other meandered about in his head like a dead frog floating down stream. One moment it seemed to be examining the brown lawn at the edge of the porch, the next it was searching for the highest-flying birds. Uncanny, it was.

          It was certainly Bee-Hee-Mouth’s boisterous joy that had brought the man out. Before I could comprehend what had elated Bee-Hee-Mouth so suddenly and completely, the man was waddling bow-legged down the steps from his porch, yelling orders to his Ogg. “SICK’M, SPITTER! SICK’M! GET THEM GROOMER DOGS THE BLAM DASKIT OFF’N MAH PROP-TEE!”

          Spitter’s swagger immediately became more vigorous, more exaggerated  “GET OUT ‘O’ HERE RIGHT NOW, BILLY. AN’ TAKE YER FRIEND WIT YA’, ‘ER AH’LL RIP YA’ UP … BOTH ‘O’ YAH. LISSEN HERE! LISSEN HERE! I’LL DO IT! I’LL DO IT!” It wasn’t until then that he noticed me. “WHATZ’ IT? WHATZ’ IT? MORE ‘O’ GROOMER’S GRIMY BUNCH?”

          The man came across the yard, picking up stones and heaving them at the big Oggs. “I DUN ALREADY CALLED THE DOG CATCHER, YOU FLAMMIGUNS. YOU FLEA-INFESTED FLAMMIGUNS. YER GONNA DIE!” A rock bounced once and hit Spitter in the rump.

          Mish-Shka swept Spitter aside and braced his legs, ready to meet the man with tooth and gristle, but Bee-Hee-Mouth shouldered him back, and pushed until the gray giant was forced to turn and run just to stay on his feet.

          “But he brought the Catcher down on Peter and Teena. I want a taste of him for that, Bee-Hee-Mouth. I want a big taste!”

          “For now, settle for this,” and Bee-Hee-Mouth stopped just long enough to squat next to a cherry tree and shit. He left the largest turd I have ever seen come from an Ogg.

          The man shrieked and Spitter twirled around in confusion. “I SAW THAT! I SAW THAT! LISSEN HERE … YOU GOTTA STOP THAT FER-EVER!”

          Bandy dropped to the ground at my side. “Are we leaving, Daks? Or are you going to stick here and find out if that chap’s personality gets any more pleasant the closer he comes?”

* * *

          An odd, moody change had come over Groomer’s place in our absence. Groomer was feeling his way around the teetering house, outside, calling for Bee-Hee-Mouth. “Billy … o sweet Bill-a-boy. Come a homin’ darlin’ Billy.” There was an ethereal quality to him, like a warm and damp breeze ruffling mushroom spore and wee ferns, like the mere skin of a thought—no flesh and no bones.

          The gray goose ambled around Groomer’s feet, trying to take control but not sure how to do it, and every tribe member I had so far seen, plus some I hadn’t, was pacing about the yard, or laying on it, or hunched over whispering to one another. Alexander and Geep were in our faces before we quite came out of the orchard. “Muh-Muh-Milton isn’t fuh-feeling so g-good, Buh-Billy.” Geep was twitching and shivering like a plucked bird.

          Alexander was slower, deliberate even beyond what might be expected, as though his muscles had become painful to use. “It’s more’n that, Billy,” he drawled. “Milton … wulla … he’s dead.”

          Bee-Hee-Mouth sat—no, it was more than sitting—his hind legs numbed, his ice field flanks sank to earth while his stubborn forelegs held his head and chest aloft. For the second time in one sad morning, I witnessed an Ogg king learn of an adored comrade’s death. Alexander came forward to touch Bee-Hee-Mouth’s nose with his own. “Died in his sleep he did, Billy.” Mish-Shka laid his stone head on Bee-Hee-Mouth’s shoulders, the circle of sympathy complete.

          Groomer nudged his way through a net of sumac switches at one corner of the house and leaned his thin body against a patched wall. The tribe, all of them—feathered, be-furred, web-footed, retractably clawed, cloven-hoofed and all—turned to him. He stared into the sun without blinking and they listened while he spoke.

“That Oldee Friend,

He cain’t forever bear me weight, I s’ppose.

He laboured proud, ne’er once asked ‘How’d

I do? And When can I expect reward? The World owes

Me That for dedication.’

Noooooo … ,

Not He nor any Oldee Friend

E’er slipped ‘neath sea of Worldly Woe with any Expectation.

Anew I’ve vowed, with this worn head bowed,

That payment’s Truly due. My life shayn’t close

and let their Mem’ry slip from this continuing Creation.”

          For a time, Groomer’s words floated about the yard like the last dragonflies of autumn, then were gone. Bee-Hee-Mouth stirred. “I must go see to him. I must. Milton was his eyes.” He went to the frail man and licked his lifeless hand.

          “Ahhh, darlin’ Will. Lead me in so’s I can kiss that old goblin away.” They disappeared behind the swinging door and didn’t re-emerge until the sun threw long shadows.

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