What remained behind of Milton amounted to little more than a dried-out coat and an armload of brittle bone, light enough for even Groomer to carry. Bee-Hee-Mouth was on one side and Alexander was on the other, twin buttresses to steady the old man’s fragile legs. There wasn’t much left of the day when they came out. The afternoon had been spent in washing and drying Milton’s fur, and then scenting his body with herbs. As they passed, the aromas of sage and desiccated roses filled the air.
With the goose leading in a meandering fashion, the procession wound through the orchards, through trees stripped of plums, apples, cherries and apricots. Thirty or more creatures followed, past the culvert, past the peat bog, and on up an anemic slope. At the top rim of the fruit trees were grape vines strung in long rows on rusted wire and rotting post. The leaves were frosted red and they hung on stubbornly, creating a thick barrier. A few purple grapes still peeked like erotic insects out of the foliage. Bee-Hee-Mouth took Groomer by the hand and steered him through an opening in the vines I would have never seen. On the other side, the wilderness began.
We had been amongst men and their groomed world for so many days, the bountiful disorder of the wild came as something of a shock. And to watch goose and goat, Scrat and Ogg negotiate the dead-falls and fern clusters, each in their own way—and with a blind human in tow— was a sight so incongruous that it seemed more a dream. There were even chickens along, flapping over the high points and scuttling under the low. Ducking in and out of the brush like something trapped in the corner of my eye, was that long and furry thing that continually escaped my direct gaze.
Mish-Shka, Bandy and I lagged behind. “W can not share in this, Daks,” said Mish-Shka. “We can only watch.” And of course he was right. I felt little of the sadness that had befallen this tribe. Milton was in my life only a brief time. I knew no stories, no history. I hadn’t been there long enough to hear of how fiercely brave he had been in his prime, or how much fun the tribe’s youngsters had playing tricks on him as he grew old and grouchy, or how he had once loved a beauty beyond all others and fathered heroes with her. I could only think how glad I was that it wasn’t someone dear to me being borne through these shadowed woods.
“Mish-Shka, what about Peter? What about Ah-Teena? We should do something. Shouldn’t we? What’re we going to do?” Earlier, Mish-Shka had tried to explain that they weren’t necessarily dead just because they had been shot, but it all remained quite vague in my mind. Mish-Shka himself didn’t seem to understand it. “Something about adjustable rifles, Daks,” he’d said. “Bee-Hee-Mouth thinks the Catcher has a weapon that can either kill or bring sleep. It all sounds farfetched, but when this is over, Bee-Hee-Mouth will help, I’m certain.”
It was a cedar forest we were in, so thick that if the sun had been straight overhead, it still would have been dark. The lower branches drooped to the ground and each tree became a concealing cavern. It was thick going, and I was impressed with the way Groomer negotiated the trail with only two feeble legs. Of course, he had Bee-Hee-Mouth and Alexander nudging him this way and that, protecting him from stepping into a mighty fall or a rough tree bole. But still, he was old—very old—a good twelve summers and twelve winters, in Ogg years—and he carried the husk of Milton. As he stumbled along, he hummed some wordless chant that was both pleasing and appropriate.
There was no mistaking when we arrived. I had expected a pyre—some great and elevated flat spot with plenty of room for the tribe to circle a cleansing fire. But Milton would meet with no fire in this place. I whispered to Mish-Shka, “Don’t they know they’re supposed to burn the dead? Doesn’t everybody know that?”
He said, “We’re all new at making myths, Daks. We each have to create the rituals as we go.”
Evidently, the rituals of this tribe tended more to the mausoleum than the crematorium.
* * *
What a morbid place this was. The sun, if it was still up at all, was up on the other side of a granite and moss wall that rose out of the forest like a blunted tooth. Heavy limbs projected out over the top of this rock edifice and obscured any view of the sky. Between forest and stone ran a frigid, tiny stream. It had come straight from the frozen mountains beyond and split into dozens of separate paths as it dropped, caressing black rocks and embracing wee islands. Trees crowded our backs and there was just room for the tribe to spread out. Goonter the Skritten clawed her way up a cedar and sat on a branch directly over my head. Geep found a soft hummock of mud and moss. He sniffed every few seconds as though his nostrils were as seeping damp as the forest floor. On the other side of the creek, in stony crevices and sharp ledges climbing up the granite face, were more members of Groomer’s tribe, members who would never leave this spot. Big bones and small bones, gray bones and fresh bones, some dressed in feathers or beads of glass or fading colors—each becoming part of the rock monument in that slow way of death.
* * *
The man wrapped Milton in his coat, a battered thing that was more hole than cloth, and patches of the Ogg’s fur stuck out like dried lichen. “He was always cold. A chilly old chum. Couldn’t stand the damp,” he muttered as his stiff fingers worked. Bee-Hee-Mouth then took one end of the coat in his mouth, Groomer took the other, and together, they edged the bundle upwards to a narrow shelf that remained empty of bones. “Milton was an Sou’West boy, you see. Born in the Great American Dry ‘mongst the cactus and the sidewinder. Never did get used to the damp. No, he didn’t.”
Groomer stumbled and nearly fell down the slope, but Bee-Hee-Mouth put a wide paw against the small of his back. Alexander steadied his legs. The man didn’t even seem to notice he had very nearly spilled. “Found ‘im in the belly of a deserted DeSoto, chewing on a ham hock that was older’n me. Just a pup … no Momma … no family ‘tall. I was wanderin’ out in those devil sand dunes lookin’ for demons and what do I find instead? A starvin’ whelp. And a better pair o’ eyes no man ever had.”
Groomer spoke slowly, leaving echoing canyons between phrases and barren washouts between words. The tribe waited silently for each strained syllable. In the half-light of a forest evening, it is easy to see things that aren’t really there, but I’m convinced I saw a small movement amongst the remains crowding the granite face, as though the tiniest of breezes were lifting the decorative feathers and patches of dead hair, but there was no breeze. The only air moving was what the tribe drew into their lungs.
The shadows grew ever more deep, and the sad lump that had been Milton blended into the rock mountain. The only distinguishable feature was a white hanky, as white and pure as Bee-Hee-Mouth, that hung halfway out of a pocket on Groomer’s coat, Milton’s shroud. Groomer laid his hands on his dead friend and bowed his head. The words came from him like dried seeds falling on hot sand. “There … there … ,” he choked and wiped his nose with his fingers, then went on,
“There was a old pup from Yuma,
So noble he’d take on a puma.
We occasion’lly made light
Of this crusty old knight,
But then … Milt was never known for his hum-ah.”
* * *
Well into the night, on the floor of Groomer’s kitchen, Bee-Hee-Mouth told how he had come to be with the man. Groomer himself had gone to the tattered chair immediately upon returning from the tribe’s cemetery and had fallen sleep almost as soon as he sat down. Bee-Hee-Mouth brought him a beer, but too late. The man’s head lolled to his bird-wing shoulder and he was gone. “He always has a beer before he sleeps,” said Bee-Hee-Mouth, and worry lit his eyes. “Milton was with him the longest … longer than me.” The old yellow Scrat with the missing ear settled onto the man’s lap and Groomer caressed her instinctively. His eyelids fluttered, but remained closed. Bee-Hee-Mouth opened the can, served us, then told his story.
“I wandered about for months, chums … thinking I would simply stumble over Lah-Tsee. As though it were that easy to find her, some sort of divine luck. I stayed as far away from humans as I could, but as you know by now, Mish-Shka, it’s impossible to stay either far or forever away from humans. My hate grew, Meesha … grew like a sour stomach. It couldn’t be helped. Everywhere I went, there was more of man and his vile spoor. Green nests torn apart to build fields of stone. Chemical scum and carcasses stuffed with artificial fibers and plastic eyes. These are the things I saw … death in a thousand ways and what wasn’t dead would have been happier dead.
“I lost her. I lost Lah-Tsee to hate. Even when I’d fought in the pit and killed brother Dahm-Ogg, not even then did I hate men so much. Isn’t that ironic, Mish-Shka? When we met, you wanted to kill men and I taught you to seek peace. You nurtured that faith while I let a nasty storm grow in me until I wanted to see them all dead.”
Mish-Shka nodded and stared into the past.
“But I did kill, Meesha … that’s the difference. I killed a man.”
* * *
I knew then, and I know even more now, that human’s kill a million of us in every blink of the eye. We are smashed under wheels, butchered for meat, skinned to decorate their homes, and poisoned in our beds. But as bitter as all that is, when Bee-Hee-Mouth told us he’d killed a man, it seemed the most shocking thing I’d ever heard. Goonter, Alexander, and the few others who listened took this news so nonchalantly it was clear they’d heard this story before, probably many times. But I spit up beer through my nose and even Bandy gulped.
“You … you killed a man?”
“A poacher, Daks.”
What’s the difference between a poacher and any other man, Bee-Hee-Mouth?”
“A poacher kills creatures for the profit. He deals in parts and pieces and kills us with no law.”
Bandy spoke from his perch on the mantle. “Like Daks said, what is the difference between a poacher and any other man?” I was the last one in the circle to realize the rhetorical nature of his question.
“I had reached the pinnacle of hate. I had watched a beaver gnaw away its leg to escape steel jaws and then bleed to death in the water before she could reach her brood. I’d watched a Whawr’Hawrz stumble and die from hunger because his master left him for weeks without food in a lot that was nothing but churned mud. I watched an adolescent boy set fire to a Skritten and laugh while it burned. I dwelt on the fighting pits and the men who shoot the Oggs that fought poorly. And when my mind was like a festered boil and all I could feel was a thirst for vengeance, I came across this poacher’s camp, as high in the mountains as he could drive his truck. Near there, I’d found bear. Lots of them, with their paws cut off and their guts sliced open. The gall bladder was gone, but the rest was left to rot. Deer and elk were hanging from hooks and their antlers were stacked against a tree. He had Oggs … three of those mindless gnomes that have been force-bred into stupidity and savagery. They attacked me but there were only three of them. If the devil hadn’t been drunk, he might have heard the battle. He might have come and shot me … sold my coat, maybe.”
Bee-Hee-Mouth had been telling us his story as though he were throwing up a vile intestinal liquid, as though he wanted it quickly out of his body. He tripped over his last words and lay silently, looking to the sleeping Groomer. “If he hadn’t been drunk, he might have awakened in time to save himself.”
Mish-Shka asked in a whisper, “You killed him in his sleep, Bee-Hee-Mouth? In his sleep?”
“Not exactly, Meesha. He was sleeping in the back of his truck … one of those covered affairs … and he woke when I jumped up. I stood over him and looked into his eyes, all cocked and rummy, and he was awake. Or as awake as a sick, drunken beast can be. I was looking for joy again … looking for the relief I’d found when I believed in Lah-Tsee. I took his throat and found nothing. No joy. Just blood.”
* * *
Alexander opened another container of beer with not nearly as much flamboyance as Bee-Hee-Mouth, but it filled an awkward gap as the old king recovered from his horrid memory and continued.
“I came very near to killing Groomer in the same way. I remember almost nothing of how I got from the poacher’s camp to this valley, but I know that I’d eaten nothing for days and I was covered with mud and blood. I must have been something to see … must have looked rabid. Of course, how I looked wouldn’t have mattered to Groomer. He wouldn’t have even known I was there, except for Milton hollering at me. But for Milton, I might have taken Groomer and he wouldn’t even have known what sort of creature I am.
“They were ‘hitching’ … that’s what Groomer called it, ‘hitching’ … begging for a ride in someone else’s machine. Only Milton didn’t know the difference between a busy road and a deserted one. He’d led Groomer onto a country lane. I was hunkered down in some reeds next to the road and Milton didn’t smell me until it was too late. He warned Groomer. And he warned me to stay away but by then I regarded every Ogg who went with humans as the worst kind of tawdry sympathizer. Traitors. And they deserved to die. That’s how sick I was, friends. Sick and twisted.
“I tore Milton up badly. He always limped after that. Maybe you couldn’t see it, but I did. I never stopped seeing it, actually. I would have easily killed him … and then Groomer … had not Groomer waded into the fray. Can you imagine? Blind, and he was old even then. He climbs between us as though we were two Skrittens playing at war. ‘What’s this about?’ he said. ‘Come about now, Lassie. And go home. Leave my Milty be.'”
“Lazz-ie?” I asked. It came out a burbly chirp and no one noticed but Mish-Shka. He glanced at me with a sideways nod. Bee-Hee-Mouth went on without responding.
“I was stunned by this man’s audacity. Humans had always recoiled from me as though I were made out of snakes and shit, but Groomer climbed up on me like he would a flop-eared burrow and grabbed my cheeks. I could not believe it. Milton came at me, dragging his leg and all, but Groomer stopped him with a word. He caressed my head like I was no more than a fawning Scrat, or a scrawny runt … excuse me please, Master Daks. A figure of speech, that’s all. I was ready to turn on him. I could have taken
a leg off with one chomp. But he began to croon into my ear. I’ll never forget that song …
“‘Where’re ye bound, me angry Lassie friend?
Stay around a bit, and your wounds I will attend.
A stormy soul, a troubled heart, these things I can help mend.
First, let me feed your empty gut … I sense you’re a gourmand.’“
“Yes, Daks. ‘Gourmand’. Someone who appreciates the finest food, but it took me years to find out what it meant. At the time, I was more stricken by the other name he called me.”
With a hoarse voice, Mish-Shka said, “Lah-Tsee.”
“Uh-huh. It was too much of a coincidence even to my addled brain. My rage subsided, but I still distrusted him. I bolted from beneath him and ran. He picked himself up out of the roadbed and called to me, but after a time they went on. I followed them, and they knew I was there. Every now and then, Groomer would invite me to join them, but I couldn’t bring myself to get closer than few yards. You see, I was convinced that Groomer knew about the man lying in the mountains with his throat missing. It was part of my sickness, to believe that all men knew of our sins, that they share knowledge like ants. And I believed it was only a matter of time before this Groomer punished me for what I did. What must the punishment be for an Ogg who murders a human? Can you imagine? But I stayed after them because I had to know why he’d called me ‘Lah-Tsee’. I stopped when they stopped, slept when they slept, and ate when they ate, mostly because Groomer threw me carrots and parsnips that he heated over tiny fires. Carrots and parsnips certainly weren’t what I was used to eating, but I probably don’t have to tell you, Meesha, there are times when salty sand might taste good.
“An inch at a time, another foot a day, I came in closer. Milton snarled and called me the worst names. He was still awfully mad at me for ripping him up, and who could blame him. But Groomer wouldn’t listen. ‘Easy, Milt,’ he’d say. ‘Lassie out there, why, he’s just looking for a chum or two. He doesn’t know it yet, but that’s what he wants.’ My distrust melted away. It happened very slowly, but before I knew for certain what had happened, I was sitting at his side and he was washing the filth off of me in a stream.
“Groomer would occasionally stop at a farm … he was trying to find his way here, you see … and I would hide when he talked to the other men.”
Mish-Shka asked, “Groomer built this house? Groomer and Milton and you?”
“The house was here … or part of it, at least. We added on as the tribe grew. It belonged to Groomer’s sister, the house and the orchard. She gave it to him to live in, just so he would stop wandering over the land. That’s all Groomer had done for most of his life, roam from place to place. He tells me that he once believed wisdom came with travel. Now he says he has no idea whatsoever where wisdom comes from.” Bee-Hee-Mouth giggled to himself and even dour Alexander smiled.
“His sister is … was … the only family he’d ever known, but she died. Her children come to see him now and then. They bring him what he needs. But we are his real family now. Large family, don’t you think? Wait ’till the hard snow falls down on this valley, and the deer and elk show up for dinner. They’re fickle cousins. They’ll leave when things grow again in the higher country. To keep us in food and beer, we pick the fruit and Groomer sells sour cider and apples.”
“And eggs!” Alexander growled. He glared at Bandy. Geep chimed in. “Yuh-y-yyeh. G-G-Groomer sells aaaygggs!”
“Yes, yes. Let’s not forget the eggs,” Bee-Hee-Mouth nodded. “You see, Meesha, that’s why we become so distraught when our chickens are stolen. That and … well you must see by now that we don’t discriminate. Even chickens are family.”
Bandy rose to his feet and bowed deeply. “Please accept my most sincere apologies, Alexander … Bee-Hee-Mouth. I have always regarded a chicken as the end and not the means, but had I known that they were trading their children for this fine beverage we’re drinking, I would have gone out for crayfish instead.”
“Apology accepted, Fawrlingswad.” Bee-Hee-Mouth returned the bow graciously, but the scowl on Alexander’s face led me to believe he couldn’t forgive so easily.
Groomer stirred awake. The yellow Scrat jumped to the floor. “Milty … oh Milt. Take these banged-up bones to bed. Tired, tired, oh … so tired.”
Bee-Hee-Mouth rose and put his head where the cat had been. “I’m here. It’s Billy. I’ll take you in, old chum. I’ll lead you in.”