The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

PART FOUR

GROOMER’S HOUSE

Chapter 32

 

          I slept, not well, but as well as I would that night. We stopped drinking beer after the second can, and it didn’t have such a stupefying effect on me as it had the night before. I was troubled in my flickering slumber by images of Peter and Ah-Teena, disturbing and dark pictures of them lying on granite ledges, no flesh to them, all bones and wisps of dry fur dancing in dream breezes. Milton sat up on skeletal haunches and grinned through rotting lips. “There’s room here for you too, noisy Daks.”

          I came awake with a start and leapt to my feet as though cold worms were trying to push their way into my hind-end, but my clarity of thought was slow in coming. Bee-Hee-Mouth stood over me, pushing at the top of my head with his broad nose. “Wake up, little chum. Let’s go rescue your friends.”

           “What? … whooz? … wheebie?”

          “Ssshhhh,” Mish-Shka hissed. “Try not to wake the others. We’re going after Peter and Teena.”

          “You’re taking me with you? I get to go?”

          “We need you, Daks. We need your help.”

          The eastern sky was showing just a hint of rosy glow, and the air was frigid. Water had frozen in small pools about the yard, and as I stepped down on them, the fracturing ice snapped like insect spines. The sound echoed through the orchard. Bandy waited beneath an apple tree. “Daksie, you still need a great deal of training in the ‘feral grace’ department.”

          Frankly, I was still drowsy enough to be in no mood for a lecture. “Blow off, Bandy,” I said, and both Bee-Hee-Mouth and Mish-Shka snickered. Alexander was there, as well. He sat a distance away and glowered sullenly at our shivering huddle.

          “We have a plan, Daks, and you are central to its success.” Mish-Shka’s tone was so morbidly serious that I shuddered.

          “I’ll do anything, Mish-Shka. Anything.”

          Bee-Hee-Mouth was just as serious but not quite so morbid. “It will be dangerous, chum.”

          Bandy interrupted. “What kind of scheme have you hatched, geezers? The two of you will get Daks killed.”

          “No, no! Relax a bit, will you, Fawrlingswad.” Mish-Shka clucked his tongue. “No, his life is in no danger. We simply want to give him over to the Catcher.

          I tried to repeat my vow to do anything to save Ah-Teena and Peter, only it came out as, “GRAWWWWK?”

* * *

          “You’ll have to carry something with you, Daks. It’s vital to the plan,” said Bee-Hee-Mouth. “Bring it here, Alexander.”

          “Groomer’s a’ gonna be dangshet mad at us for this, Billy. We lose chickens ‘n’ chickens to thieves, then we steal this out from his herby stash, just so’s they can save the hides o’ more Ogg-trash chicken thieves.”

          “Just bring it here, Alex. I’ll make it right with Groomer.”

          Reluctantly, the Ayurd’O’Dell picked up something at his side and passed it to Bee-Hee-Mouth. It rustled like dried corn leaves and swung from side to side. Mish-Shka took one end in his mouth and it opened into a roughly circular shape. They lowered it over my head and let it drop to my neck. There is no such thing as a nose so dysfunctional that it doesn’t recognize the reek of garlic, especially when one is dressed in it.

          Mish-Shka was jumpy and eager to leave. “We’ll tell you the rest as we go, Daks. We must get to moving.” He took the first steps into the trees, but at that moment, Groomer swung open the door and shuffled out onto his porch. He shook from the chill and wrapped his thin arms around his thinner shoulders.

          “Out they march, those busy Souls,

          On to noble Occupation.

          Reject Ye, Knights, all trivial Goals

          And keep yer Concentration.

          That dreary, final Bell will toll

          But ask not for ‘Lumination.

          Be satisfied when you’ve filled y’r Role,

          And brought y’r chums Salvation.”

          I can’t say if his words were for us or merely a generalized benediction to the awakening world.

* * *

          The plot was unveiled to me as we crossed the orchards to Beedle’s farm. I listened, choked back garlic fumes and hustled to keep up with the long-legged Oggs. “We have no hint where the Catcher takes Dahm-Ogg,” explained Bee-Hee-Mouth. “No one who has seen the place has returned to tell where it is. We could wander about this valley for days … all winter, maybe … and not come within even the dimmest scent of your friends. I’m sorry I couldn’t help out yesterday. Milton always did have a tendency to do things in an untimely fashion. But from here on, every moment counts.”

          Mish-Shka dripped impatience. With an unnerving urgency, he glided through the orchards and stood tapping his tail as the rest of us caught up. “Yes, yes, yes. Every moment may be their last. Daks, the Catcher will carry you to the same place he’s taken Peter and Teena, and we’ll be right behind. Do you understand? Daks, do you understand?”

          “Uuhhh, how’re you going to find me, Mish-Shka? I mean, the Catcher will have a machine. Won’t he? You can’t keep up with a machine. Can you?”

          “Hah! That’s the best part of the plan, Master Daks. This old tail-chaser Meesha thought of it.” Bee-Hee-Mouth pranced like a pupper. “This is where the garlic comes in, you see. We need a trail to follow, so we’ve given you this garlic necklace. It’s up to you to drop cloves behind as you go. I’ve seen the cage in the Catcher’s truck. It’s an open affair, made from wire, so it should be easy to drop a clove through to the road.”

          “You follow the garlic? Are you … I mean … what if you can’t smell it? What if I leave them too far apart?”

          With a more gentle tone, Mish-Shka said, “Daks, we couldn’t think of anything you might carry that we could smell any better. Can you?”

          I couldn’t. My watered eyes and choked breath were a powerful testament to the odoriferous superiority of brother garlic.

          Bandy climbed a stump and demanded to be heard. “Wait right there, you overgrown nightmares. If this is such a fine plan, why don’t you fellows let the Catcher take one of you? Eh? Meesha, you go in the cage. Or you, Bee-Hee-Mouth. Why feed Daks to the Catcher?”

          “I understand your concern, Fawrlingswad, but the Catcher would surely shoot an Ogg of our size. He wouldn’t take any chances.”

          “That’s right,” added Bee-Hee-Mouth. “And whether he killed us or put us to sleep, we wouldn’t be able to leave the garlic trail.”

          Bandy chewed his lip and rolled his eyes, trying to refute the logic of this argument. He couldn’t, and neither could I. But a doubt did occur to me, and I was compelled to ask it. “Mish-Shka, what if the Catcher takes the garlic away from me before he puts me in his cage?”

          I was flanked by the two giants, and when I posed my question, they both froze on their feet and stared over my head into one another’s eyes. Mish-Shka swallowed as though his mouth had suddenly become as dry as a moth’s wing.

          Bee-Hee-Mouth had the only answer available. “Daks, we’ll have to take that chance. We have no other plans.”

* * *

          We circled around Beedle’s farm and came out of the trees next to a pen filled with muddy cows. They were standing in an uneven line, waiting to enter a low, dimly-lit barn, and when we appeared, they bawled and gallumped across the pen to investigate. “Get away, you dumb cows. Get away!” I whispered, but Bee-Hee-Mouth shushed me.

          “No, no, Master Daks. We want to attract as much attention as we can,” he said, and to prove his point, he began to howl at the top of his lungs. “BEEDLE IS A BUMBLING, BILIOUS BUFFOOOON!” He grinned at me, proud of his alliterative talents, I’m sure.

          Mish-Shka joined the racket. “SPITTER GIVES ALL BASTARD MONGRELS A BAD NAME.”

          Spitter was first out of the barn, as brittle as frozen pine needles. He shrieked into the morning air, “THAZZ YEW, BILLY! I KNOW IT’S YEW!” Then Beedle himself came to the door and yelled.

          “Sic dem sCumz-a-bidges, Spitter. Rip ’em silly. Is THEM GROOMER’S MUTTS?”

          Bee-Hee-Mouth strutted out into the middle of the yard, out to where he was plainly visible. Spitter couldn’t decide whether to attack him, attack Mish-Shka, who stood with his forepaws on the top rail of the wooden fence, or attack me. I would have been the hardest to find, hiding behind the cows’ knobby legs, but easiest to “rip silly.” In his indecision, Spitter twirled frantically around in circles and screamed a wealth of useless invectives. When Bee-Hee-Mouth was certain that Beedle had his good eye focused upon him, he squatted and shat a great, steaming pile that stood out on the flat yard like a monument to excrement. Beedle screamed, ” ‘AT’S IT!  ‘AT’S IT! AH’M GONNA KILL YER GORMEY HIDE.”

          The ugly man went loping across the yard and into his house as fast as he could. Bee-Hee-Mouth laughed and said, “Come on, Meesha. Your turn. You too, Daks.”

          I didn’t really feel the need to defecate, but I followed Mish-Shka out into the open and tried. I was still squatting and straining when Beedle reappeared with a weapon in his hands. Any eliminatory urges I had fabricated were quickly sublimated by a condition I call “rifle shyness,” of which one symptom is a radical clenching of the muscles most involved in sitting down.

          “Don’t worry, Daks,” Bee-Hee-Mouth said. “He can’t hit anything with that wandering eye of his. That’s why he has to bring the Catcher.”

          It was true. Beedle fired wildly about the yard while Mish-Shka and Bee-Hee-Mouth danced in erratic circles. Chunks of frozen mud flew into geysers all about them, but not even the flying mud came close to hitting anything important. Once, he almost shot Spitter and a milk cow with one attempt. Spitter had focused his lunatic attentions on Bandy, who sat atop a wooden pole, enjoying the spectacle, and Beedle fired a shot that exploded just inches from the Ogg’s foot. Spitter flinched and manure crystals covered the face of a cow who had let curiosity overcome any semblance of judgment she might have had.

          Beedle shot at us until his weapon was empty, and then kept trying. I heard the cold click of steel against steel three times before he brought the rifle down from his shoulder. A female had joined him on the porch, a woman every bit as ugly as Beedle. Her teats were swollen with milk and her belly was swollen with litter, and these were by far her most attractive features. I shuddered to think of what their children might look like. “GO CALL THE COUNTY MAN, GRIZZIE, ‘N’ TELL ‘IM TO GET HIS FANNY O’ER HERE. AH’M A’GERNA GET RID O’ GROOMER’S MUTTS ONCE ‘N’ FER-EVER!” The woman waddled back into the house, holding her protruding belly as though she were afraid it might see something unpleasant.

          “That’s it, chums. Now all we have to do is wait.” Bee-Hee-Mouth went to a spot next to the cow pen and sat down, grinning at Beedle. Mish-Shka lifted his leg high and peed against the barn wall while Beedle howled like a bee-stung bear. His words were indecipherable, but the tone was murderous.

          Spitter continued yelling at Bee-Hee-Mouth, though from a distance, to be sure. “Yer makin’ me look bad, Billy. Real bad. Master Beedle’s gonna kick me around.”

          Bee-Hee-Mouth was understanding. “Spitter, surely that grotesque grimilkin doesn’t expect you to take me on? Or Mish-Shka there? You mustn’t try that. You’re no match for either of us.”

          “Wull … uh … could we at least make it look like I was doin’ my job? Couldn’t yew run from me? Juzz a liddle bit?”

          Bee-Hee-Mouth slumped against the fence and sighed. “Okay, Spitter. You chase us and we’ll run some. Is that okay with you, Meesha? Just to keep Spitter out of trouble?” He turned back to the pied Ogg and said sternly, “But Spitter, we’re going to stay right here until the Catcher comes, so don’t ask us to leave. And if you bite me, I’ll bite back.”

          So Spitter chased us around the barnyard for a while. My larger companions displayed a mock, and sometimes comical, terror over his clumsy attacks, but when he once chased me down and snarled into my exposed belly, Mish-Shka turned deadly serious and warned him away. “The little one is off limits, and if you do that again, Spitter, I’ll feed you your own entrails.” Spitter backed humbly away.

          This farce went on until the Catcher came. It wasn’t a long wait, but in that interval, Bee-Hee-Mouth deposited three more loads of poop in strategic places around Beedle’s yard, and Beedle twice filled his rifle and scattered shots randomly about. Beedle’s mate dutifully brought out rifle refills whenever her man screamed for them. As long as we kept moving, we seemed to be in no real peril. Even Bandy came in closer, to be at my side. “Daksie, are you quite certain you want to take part in this scheme? Things can go wrong, you know. Things could go dreadfully wrong.”

          I couldn’t answer him right away. I could imagine how wrong things could go. What if Mish-Shka couldn’t find the garlic I dropped? He was old, after all, as was Bee-Hee-Mouth, and their noses were just as old. What if the Catcher took off my garlic necklace and threw it away? What if, when they found me—and Peter and Ah-Teena—they couldn’t free us? What if … what if …

          The answer came to me despite these poisonous doubts. “Bandy,” I said. “I’d do the same for you.”

* * *

          The Catcher was a fat man. Standing next to Beedle, they hardly seemed to belong to the same species. “Got a lot o’ gall, Beedle … bringin’ me out here this early, and all for one stinky runt like this!” For such a wide human, he had an awfully high and squeaky voice.

          I shook my bottom about in a feeble attempt at congeniality and the Catcher grinned. “Sort ‘a’ cute,” he said.

          Beedle spat out a wad of the brownest, foulest saliva and snorted. “See that shid out der? Now that’s cute, ain’t it?”

          The two men stood on the porch watching while Spitter hovered over me like a rooster, still straining to impress his master. But he wouldn’t touch me with anything but his attitude. The second-to-last thing Mish-Shka had said before he left was, “Remember this, Spitter. If there is so much as the smell of your breath on my little friend, I will come back and deal with you. Harshly.” The crazed Ogg seemed to grasp the sincerity of the threat. He tripped over his own stiff legs, twice, in avoiding contact with me.

          The last thing Mish-Shka said was, “Be your bravest, Daks. And tell Peter I’m coming.”

          Then he, Bandy, and Bee-Hee-Mouth went far into the sheltering trees, far enough away that the Catcher couldn’t reach them with his rifle. They disappeared even before the Catcher drove onto Beedle’s farm, as soon as they heard the approaching machine. Bee-Hee-Mouth licked the top of my head—”For luck,” he said—and Bandy grabbed me about my neck  and wrestled me down. “These old-poop, senile Oggles might forget what they’re here for, but you can count on me. And … Daksie … I’d do it for you, too.”

          I watched them fade into the orchard and waited until the Catcher was out of his truck. Then I walked directly to him and announced I was ready to go.

* * *

          “What’s that purty necklace ya’ got there, pup? Old Groomer got you rag-tags tryin’ to sell garlic now?” I shook my backside furiously and swallowed hard. This was it. The crucial test. The deciding moment. Or one of them, at the least. The Catcher came off the porch and fingered my pungent collar.

          Beedle rubbed his frizzled chin. “They was sum big uns here, too. Big as mah cows, I’m here t’ tell ya’. But they must o’ ran back t’ Groomer’s. That blam daskit Groomer … as crazy as a truckload o’ bad coconuts, ah’m tellin’ ya’. Yaw’ll oughta lock ‘im up and gas e’ry an-mule he’s got o’er there.”

          Gas? I’d learned of many things during these adventures, but this threat of “gas” was new to me. Could human have found a way to turn our own farts against us?

          “An who’s gonna clean up all that shid out there? HUH? I got dogshid e’ry where I step! Blam daskit! Who’s gonna clean id up?” Beedle spat another gob and Spitter went to the corner of the house and peed on it. Beedle hunched over and took off a stiff boot. “They got mah own drang dog doin’ it.” He heaved the shoe at Spitter and hit him in the ribs.

          Spitter yelped. “Forgot m’self, Master Beedle. I up ‘n’ forgot m’self. Won’t happen again. Nope … won’t happen again … never!” He slunk around the corner of the house with his frazzled tail tucked under.

          “Ah ask ya … who’s gonna clean up that shid?”

          The Catcher squatted with a grunt and picked me up, scratching me behind the ears. I was beginning to warm up to this man somewhat, and I prayed he didn’t have any “gas” hidden in his clothing. “My job is to take care of these gypsies, Beedle. Not clean up their leavings. The dog’s mine … the poop’s yours.”

* * *

          There was only one cage in the Catcher’s truck, but it took up the entire back. It was empty, I’m sure because it was so early in the day. The sun was barely above the barn and the cows were gathered at the fence, so engaged in my capture that only a few of them remembered they hadn’t yet been milked. “Whazzit? Whazzit all mean?” they groaned.

          “How’d ya’ like to sit up front with me, pup?” The Catcher tucked me under one arm and reached for the door of his machine. “But we gotta lose the garlic, bub. I hate garlic.”

          The plan—the only plan—was on the thin lip of oblivion, and that could only mean that I, too, was in a precarious place, falling prey to the Catcher’s taste in flavorings. It seemed an enormous risk, but without a lot of time to consider, and without any guidance from more experienced advisors, I had to take it. I bit the web of the Catcher’s thumb.

          What I risked was the chance that he might put me on the ground and shoot me, then and there. He seemed a nice enough fellow—much more gentle than I would have expected from a slave trader—but nipping even the nicest of men on the thumb is risky business.

          “GLAM DRAMMIT! Okay, bubber. You’re going in the back.” I growled and bared my teeth, just to solidify the deal.

          Spitter peered meekly around the corner of the house as the truck pulled away, and Beedle stuck his tongue out at me. I returned the insult, but Beedle’s wild eye rolled sideways and I doubt he saw it.

* * *

          I waited until we were off the dirt lane leading to Beedle’s house and on the paved road beyond until I dropped the first clove of garlic. My neck gets stiff to this day, remembering what a struggle it was to tear off each and every garlic bead. It felt as though my lower jaw retracted all the way to my spleen before wedging under the ring around my neck, and then, in that twisted and uncomfortable position, I had to chew through the stringy fibers that held the cloves together. It took forever to release each clove from the chain, or so it seemed, and then came the ordeal of pushing them through the cage wall. I took each clove between my teeth and positioned it so that it would drop, with a favorable bounce and roll, onto the road. I worried I might never get the taste of garlic out of my mouth.

          And oh my, how the worries multiplied. I became anxious at the notion I wasn’t dropping them quickly enough. That I would leave them so far apart that Mish-Shka would never find them. He was old and his nose was just as old as he. So I rushed, frantically lobbing cloves through the cage as rapidly as my tiring jaws could work.

          But what if the Catcher’s place is so far away that I’ll run out of garlic before we reach it? What if I’m left with no cloves to lob and we’re only half the way there? That grim scenario occurred to me like a slap on the rump, and I suspected it had eluded my friends entirely. So I slowed down and tried to establish a deliberate and steady pace, a mechanical rhythm. Gnaw one off … click! … position it well … click! … garlic AWAY! (click! click!)  Gnaw one off … position it well … and so on. I couldn’t know if my spacing was correct, but the steady meter calmed me and my pulse slowed to a rate more familiar to mammals than birds.

          All this while I bounced around in the back of that machine like a canary in a rolling cage. Every time the Catcher maneuvered his truck through even the gentlest of curves, I lost my footing and was thrown against the sides. On the less gentle curves, I would find myself cartwheeling through the limited space, butt over eyebrows.

          Continuously, I searched the road behind for any glimpse of my comrades. I knew it was futile, that even if everything about the plan was proceeding without flaw, they would never keep up with this machine. But to have spotted just one gray and grizzled ear poking out of the yellowed grass beside the roadway would have done wonderful things for my spirits.

          There was little spare time left for general sightseeing. I was vaguely aware that the road was lined with more orchards, fallow fields, and beaten-down farms. Beedle’s place looked much like the other places along this twisting lane. There were notable eye-grabbers along the way—a farm silo painted a sickly brown, a mailbox hanging off a post like an amputated head, a rusting hulk of machinery in a bed of clinging weeds. But I paid little attention. The Catcher stopped the truck on occasion, at junctures with other roads, and each time I prayed we would remain idle long enough for Mish-Shka to gain ground. But we were never stopped for more than a breath or two, and we often changed directions. I took extreme care in placing a clove where it would best show the new course the Catcher had taken.

          My jaw ached and the taste of garlic, combined with the erratic movement of the truck, was turning my stomach. I couldn’t have been more relieved when the Catcher parked on the side of the road, next to a garishly painted building. The garlic scent was overwhelmed by odors of burning fat and broken eggs. The man carefully unleashed his belly from the confines of his truck and said, “I need a coffee and a piece o’ pie, pup. Dang ol’ Beedle got me out o’ bed and I ain’t had my breakfast. I’ll see if they got some bacon scraps for you … if you don’t bite me again.” For a dreaded and monstrous Catcher, this fellow wasn’t a bad sort.

          I couldn’t guess how long it would take him to consume his coffee and pie. I’d seen a pie before—essentially, two overcooked pancakes filled with pre-chewed fruit—and I’d even gnawed the burnt parts off a pie pan. Mom had helped and together we scooted the pan to all four corners of the kitchen before the metal bottom shone through. That being my only experience with eating pie, I assumed it would take the fat man quite some time to gnaw the crust off the bottom. Predicting human eating habits is random at best, but I took the opportunity to lie down and settle my roiling stomach.

          Two small children skipped by the truck and almost didn’t notice me until one stopped to lace her shoes on tighter. They each carried a metal box covered with inaccurate pictures of pink Skrittens playing amiable tag with blue mice. What twisted imaginations these men possess. The youngsters were brother and sister, of that I’m sure. They both had hair the color of dried carrot scrapings that hung in messy shocks over blue eyes, and they wore identical clothing—red tops and green bottoms, the whole decorated with more absurd images of mewling, big-eyed, coy creatures so unlike what they were meant to represent that I had to wonder where the artist had spent his life.

          “Hey, doggie,” trilled the female, and the little boy dropped his tin pail to the pavement and slapped his face with dirty hands. “BOGGIE-BOGGIE-BOGGIE!”

          His sister put her hands on her hips. “Grammy, you pick up that lunch bucket right now ‘er I’ll tell Mawmaw.” But the boy wasn’t listening. He ran about, searching the ground for something. “BOGGIE-BOGGIE-BOGGIE.” He found what he was hunting for in the gutter behind the truck. I believe it was walnut wood, but it may well have been maple, and it was slim enough to slip between the wires of the cage. It took little imagination to see what was coming and I backed into the farthest corner.

          “Mawmaw’s gonna spank yer bottom, Grammy. Put down that stick, right now!” Grammy took a brief moment to point his tongue at his sister and make a fart sound with his lips, but past that, he had only one thing on his mind, and it involved that skinny stick and my ribs.

          I showed him my teeth and explained, “I’ll bite your booger-packed nose if you poke me with that stick!” That only caused him to squeal with anticipation. “LOOKEE-LOOKEE, HE’S MAHHHHHD!” Even the girl was intrigued by my snarling. She rushed to the cage.

          “Don’t hit ‘im too hard, Grammy. See if he bites it.”

          I did bite the stick—even took a piece of it off—and I still couldn’t tell whether it was walnut or maple. I was too involved with flipping over and screaming out in pain to savor the taste. Against his sister’s wishes, Grammy went ahead and hit me. Hard. For such a stunted and puny child, he was able to deliver quite a whack. I managed to get my teeth around the stick and tug, but my feet wouldn’t hold on the metal floor and Grammy jerked it away. He laughed and wound up, preparing to strike me again.

          “Poke ‘im in the bum, Grammy. See what he does. Here, let me get a stick, too.”

          “What’r’ you kids doin’ with that dog? Get that dang stick out of that dang cage, RIGHT NOW!” I was so pleased it hadn’t taken the Catcher long to eat his pie. With both of these grungy children performing experiments on me, I didn’t know how long I could have held out.

          Grammy and his sister backed away from the truck and dropped the sticks. Their bottom lips pouted out and they looked down at the ground.

          “I told you three days ago to don’t never do that again, you kids. Remember what happened last time, Grammy? I know what your papa’ll do if he finds out you treated this poor little pup that way.” The Catcher pointed a fat finger at them and the girl shrank even further. Grammy smiled sweetly and blinked his eyes in mock surprise.
“Whaz duh boggie’s name, Midder? Whaz ‘is name?”

          The Catcher, with great, floppy effort, knelt so that he could look more evenly into the boy’s eyes. “Don’t know, Grammy. But I think I’ll call him ‘Pete-Zah’. That’s it … ‘Pete-Zah’.” He giggled at some inner humor. “Don’t you think he smells sort o’ like a Pete-Zah? What ya’ think, Grammy?”

          The girl saw an opportunity to redeem herself. “What’cha’ gonna do with ‘im, Mister. Where yah takin’ Pete-Zah?”

          “Prob’bly have to gas ‘im, Honey. If nobody comes for ‘im, I’ll gas ‘im … then put ‘im in the Pete-Zah oven.”

* * *

          The stop for coffee and pie was the midpoint of the journey—the exact midpoint—because, as I was soon to discover, our destination turned out to be an easy lope away from where we started, just over a brushy ridge and a field of barley stubble from Beedle’s farm.

          After shooing the children on their way, the Catcher dropped some blackened bacon and a half sausage into the cage, then turned his truck around and followed the same route that brought us there. For some time, I didn’t realize we were retracing our tracks and I must admit that for brief periods, I lost sight of my mission. I faithfully continued to spread garlic, but my rhythm and concentration were interrupted as I savored that delicious, fatty breakfast. The tang of garlic actually became acceptable when combined with the smoky flavor of sausage and brittle bacon. It wasn’t until the fourth or fifth change of direction, after I had completed my meal, that I regained the presence of mind to examine my surroundings and focus on what I had been assigned to do. At a crossroads, I was preparing to deposit a clove on the road when I spotted a sheeny bead lying on the pavement, its husk moving in the truck’s exhaust wind.

          Had I so lost track of time and spacing that I was ready to drop two cloves in the same spot? Did it take a mere handful of man-cooked, grease-heated pig meat to make an Ogg warrior forget his duties?    

          I finally recognized a few landmarks—a rusting hulk of machinery in a bed of clinging weeds, a mailbox hanging off a post like an amputated head, a farm silo painted a sickly brown—and I realized what was happening. My first thought was that the Catcher was returning for Bee-Hee-Mouth and Mish-Shka. Or maybe I was being delivered to Beedle, so that he might shoot me from close range, just for the pleasure of it. But the truck turned into a nearly-hidden lane and I detected the scent of many Dahm-Ogg in close quarters. Only then did I understand what had happened.

          The Catcher fumbled with the garlic necklace, cooing smoothly into my ear as he worked. “Gotta take this away from yah, Pete-Zah. I’m gonna take it home with me. My wife makes a lasagna that’d make yer tail grow out. Say, you been eatin’ this stuff? I’d a’sworn there was a lot more … aw, the heck with it. Let ‘er bring home ‘er own garlic.” He tossed the few remaining cloves into a patch of weeds. “Now, if you promise not to bite me again, Pete-Zah, I’ll carry you. And if you do bite me, I’ll put you in a gunny sack and drag you in.”

          Whatever this man was by profession, he was not, by nature, cruel. I acquiesced to his request by licking his oily fingers. A trace of pie remained, dislodged from beneath a fingernail by my tongue. Some sort of berry. Boysenberry, I think. I had no reason left to bite him, and I owed him something for saving my hide from those kids. My mission was complete. Everything I could do to further the plan had been done, so I saw no need for further biting.

          Besides, though I didn’t know what a ‘gunny sack’ was, I knew what ‘dragging’ was, and I preferred to be carried.

* * *

          The Catcher had parked his truck next to a small house—his own, I suspect—and several yards away, across a field of gravel, was a squat, squalid building made from blocks and tin. As soon as we entered that low building, I was overwhelmed by the smells and chattering of anxious Oggs, every one of them demanding immediate attention from the man.

          “I DON’T BELONG HERE! I HAVE A COLLAR … SEE? AND TAGS!”

          “CALL MY MASTER. CALL HIM, PLEEEESE! THIS IS A DREADFUL MISTAKE. HE PUT ME OUT OF THE CAR BY MISTAKE! I’M SURE OF IT.”

          “DON’T WE GET FED AROUND THIS STY? I HAVEN’T EATEN SINCE YESTERDAY.”

          “MY BABIES … TAKE ME BACK TO MY BABIES.”

          If these desperate souls were a single tribe, they would have been a Dahm-Ogg army. Not one of them approached the stature of a Bee-Hee-Mouth or a Mish-Shka, but most of them were plenty big. There must have been fifty, maybe sixty of them. Setters, scarred mongrels, muscular terriers, Huzz-Ghees and Chee-Ows! with coats so thick it would take teeth as long as my legs to penetrate. There were Span-Yells and yippers, bird-Oggs and Poo-Jadles, and every one in the bunch showed a lean, tough desperation that must come with imprisonment.

          It is a measure of a continuing ambivalence in me that I shied away from that noisy, scrambling Dahm-Ogg horde and cringed deeply into the arms of a man. A Catcher man, no less. Even though these unfortunates were shut securely into ceiling-high cells, I couldn’t help but feel intimidated. They clawed at the mesh and rattled their cage’s walls. Some snarled out threats while others sobbed. In retrospect, I realize they were frightened, terrified, for most of them understood this “gas” thing far better than I. And even those who didn’t were caught in the trap of uncertainty, which may well be worse than “gas.” But all I saw at the time were troubled eyes and hundreds of slathering fangs.

          “Don’t you worry, Pete-Zah. I’ve got a special place for you.” He covered my head and eyes with his free hand. The cages were on either side of us and he walked me down a long, central aisle. “I wouldn’t put a little guy like you in with these big ol’ meanies.” The racket had no affect on this man. He must have heard every threat and every plea before. His hand massaged my brow and squinched my eyes shut so that I couldn’t see.

          “CATCHER … OH, CATCHER. GIVE ME A MOMENT. I BEG OF YOU. I CAN’T STAND BEING CRAMPED. IT MAKES ME CRAZY.”

          “I DIDN’T MEAN TO BITE THAT BOY. HE WAS POKING ME WITH A STICK! A STICK, I SAY! I DON’T KNOW WHAT CAME OVER ME.”

          This last plea caught my attention. The combination of ‘stick’ and ‘boy’ was still fresh in my mind. I shrugged off the Catcher’s hand to see who had spoken. He was a Span-Yell of some sort, of medium build and miserable health. He’d been a stray, I imagine, when the troublesome Grammy and the stick found him. His ribs showed through his dull coat and his eyes leaked yellow tears that clotted in the thin hair on his snout. The fellow might have been older than Mish-Shka, or he might have been barely middle-aged. It’s so hard to tell with Span-Yells.

          But what was most notable about this rheumy Ogg wasn’t his health or the coincidence that he and I may have happened across the same sadistic Grammy child. It was his roommate. Beyond him, in a corner barely lit by the slim rays of sunlight coming through the high windows, was a still and calm patch of unmistakable color, that burnished golden dignity standing aloof from the pandemonium all about. I glimpsed it for only the briefest of moments as the Catcher carried me past. I gulped in as much scent-laden air as I could, praying my faulty nose might pick up a piece of what I yearned for, but all I could detect was the sour shit and urine and vomit of sixty fearful Oggs.

          Fortunately, Peter was born with a fine, noble nose.

          “DAKS! WHAT? … GRAMMUS GRAVY, WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?”

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