The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

Somehow or other, I managed to screw up the “close” quotes on this chapter and couldn’t figure out how to fix the problem. I hope it isn’t too distracting.–B. Cope

PART FOUR

GROOMER’S HOUSE

Chapter 33

 

          Need I say I was excited?

          The Catcher, as strong as he was fat, kept his hold on me no matter how wildly I struggled. But he had no such control over my bladder, and my bladder was, possibly, the most excited part of me. The man’s tan uniform darkened from the middle of his chest to the knees of his trousers. “BLAM GASKIT! WHAT’RE YOU DOIN’ TO ME, PUP? I PUT THESE ON CLEAN JUST THIS MORNIN’.“

          I can’t blame him for dropping me to the concrete floor. Who knew I was going to get that excited?

          Peter rushed to me. His beautiful brush of a tail nearly swept the Span-Yell to the side, it waved so strongly. The warmth continued to spread through my body like a joyous fever, and it wasn’t only because I was happy to see him. If there is anything better than feeling love for a friend, it’s when you realize he feels love for you.

           “Daks … oh, my Daks.“ He pushed his face to the cage wall and I touched his nose. “How did you get … it’s so good to … what … ahhh, Daksie. “Nothing he said made much sense but that still bettered me. I could say nothing, at all …

           … until the Catcher grabbed me up again. I managed to sputter out, “We’ve come, Peter. We’ve come for you.“

           “If you hurt him … “ Peter threw himself against the cage and he roared. “If you hurt him, I swear … “

          The threat went uncompleted, and it never registered on the Catcher that Peter wasn’t trying to destroy me. “C’mon, Pete-Zah. These big ol’ meanies’d chew you up right good. I got a special place for you. And don’t pee on me again!“

          I tried to climb over the Catcher’s shoulder for one more glimpse of Peter, but he held me too tightly.

* * *

          The Catcher’s “special place“ was where the smaller Oggs went, full of shaggy Pekes and Poms and Ween-Doks. They scampered about like low-flying bats, yipping out high-frequency opinions. The cage next to it held a large Huzz-Ghee and against the block wall in back, sitting calmly like a sedate rock in a rapid current, was the one I longed to see the most. Ah-Teena. Henrietta’s collar circled her neck. No queen could have looked more beautiful.

           “I heard you coming, Daks. You haven’t lost your knack for stirring up a racket.“ I had to push through the yipper throng until I was next to her. “I’ve come for you, Miss Ah-Teena. You and Peter. I’M HERE!“

          She cocked her head to one side. “I can’t imagine how we got along without you, Daks,“ she said with a broad grin. Then she licked my face against the wire. At that moment, I realized that if there’s anything better than the love a friend feels for me, it’s the love I felt for Ah-Teena.

* * *

          We passed the time telling one another of our adventures, and could have used another three or four days to finish. After the Catcher left the building, the Oggs quieted down, for the most part. There were still those haunted souls who howled out an endless lament, but I learned quickly they had to be ignored, that to listen seriously might bring on the same madness that infected them. “They never stop,“ explained Ah-Teena. “It’s probably best they’re in here, and not out free, giving the rest of us a bad name.“

          One of the tiniest yippers, a hairless fellow with a face like a rat’s, stood at the front wall and screamed up into a light bulb hanging from a single thread.  “THE ITCH WITHIN MY EARS GOES ON AND ON AND ON … THE ITCH WITHIN MY EARS NEVER STOPS,“ over and over and over, like a piece of broken machinery. Ah-Teena and I moved as far from him as our cells allowed and huddled together in a corner. She wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic as was I about the chances of rescue.

           “Daks, listen to me. Mish-Shka will never get into this place, much less get us out,“ she said as a matter of fact.  “Look about you. Everything here was made to keep us in, designed for snaky fingers and those grotesque thumbs of theirs.“

           “Oh believe me, Miss Ah-Teena,“ I argued.  “You haven’t met Bandy. You haven’t met Bee-Hee-Mouth. You don’t know what they can do.“

          In truth, she had raised the same questions that had nagged at me since coming into this place. The cage doors were latched with sliding metal rods and the main entrance into the building was opened by one of those slick globe devices that do not respond well to padded paws. How are they going to get in? How are they going to get us out?  I swallowed my doubts and said, “It’s going to be fine, Miss Ah-teena. Mish-Shka has a plan.“

          Early on, Peter tried calling down to us through the cages, but the moaning and incessant raving of the deranged few was too much distraction for a decent conversation. Over the howls of the wee, itchy-eared fellow, I tried to talk to him as best I could, but eventually I had to tell him to wait. “It will all come clear, Peter. You’ll see. Mish-Shka has a plan!“ I yelled, then gave up.

          Ah-Teena remained skeptical—disdainful, in fact—of my optimism. “I wish you weren’t here, Daks. This is no place for you. But it’s wonderful to see you, anyway. Really good.“ Her eyes softened and her smile made me quiver. I struggled to form those words that had whispered across my heart since the outset of this adventure, almost since the first moment I met her. Like a bladder filled to bursting, or an itch in that one place at the bottom of my spine I can’t get at with my claws, I ached to say,  I did all of this for you, dear Teena. I kept going because the world seemed like a hollowed-out carcass when I thought of it without you.

          But when they reached my tongue, the words were, “Geemanee, Miss Ah-Teena, it’s really swell to see you, too.“

* * *

          Around midmorning, the Catcher carried a large bucket into the prison and poured food onto the floor of each cage. It took him a number of trips to finish, there were so many cages. The food was small nuggets of some crunchy substance that tasted like wood with a vague hint of rancid meat soaked into it. I watched the bigger Oggs gulp it down virtually untouched by teeth, but we smaller fellows had no choice but to chew the stuff. I’ve eaten worse, but not by choice. It gave me the runs for the rest of the day, and Ah-Teena giggled every time I dashed to the far side of the cage and splashed excrement onto the concrete floor.

          When the food was gone—and it took little time for these hungry captives to scarf it off the floor—the Catcher pulled a long, green hose into each cell and blasted the floor with a stream of cold water. We all ended up soaked to the skin, though the man didn’t spray us intentionally. “Sorry, Pete-Zah,“ he said. “But I gotta do this every day or the smell makes the neighbors complain.“

          On the wet floor, I took a brief nap and awoke just in time to see the Catcher take the infirm Span-Yell from Peter’s cage out a back door I hadn’t noticed before then. A noticeable difference had come over the sick Ogg. He still seemed weak and his head trembled, but there was a gleam in his pus-filled eyes and he walked with a strong purpose, as though he were eager to be wherever he was going. I was still drowsy, but out of curiosity, I went to the front of the cage to watch them pass.

          The Catcher was leading the Span-Yell with a short length of rope. He winked at me. “Say good-bye, Pete-Zah. Ol’ Buck here is goin’ on to a better place.“ The Ogg nodded in agreement.

           “I’m ready. I really am. Things could have been a lot better, but they weren’t. So I’m ready. I have been hungry my whole life.“

          I didn’t know what they were talking about. Their words were like clouds shifting into unfamiliar, disturbing shapes.

* * *

          During the course of the day, the Catcher escorted two more Oggs out the back door. One was a mangy female Sheep-Herder and the other was the insane yipper from our cage. Neither of them went with the resigned grace of the Span-Yell, and neither of them returned. “He’s letting them go free, isn’t he? Miss Ah-Teena, where are they going?“

          She rolled her eyes and I prepared myself for a broadside of sarcasm, but she thought for a moment and replied, simply and with sadness, “It’s their time, Daks. That’s all.“

          It was easy to understand how a fellow might lose his mind in that place. Had I spent a few more days there, I might well have been telling the light bulb about itchy ears, myself. Confinement is bad enough all by itself, but to be confined along with so many other individuals with nothing to do but eat once a day and evacuate their bowels, this could make any creature question his own mind. “Peter’s all alone over there, Ah-Teena. Do you think he’ll be okay?“

           “Don’t worry about him, Daks. He likes to be alone. Besides, he won’t be by himself for long. New Oggs come in all the time. I imagine the Catcher will have Mish-Shka and your Bee-Hee-Mouth in a cage soon.“

          I wanted to answer her pessimism. I wanted to tell her that epic figures like Mish-Shka and Bee-Hee-Mouth would never let themselves be taken, that great tales and greater endings do not come from mundane cynicism and realistic attitudes. I wanted to tell her I had learned lofty heroes don’t follow the rules of common and low logic. But I let it pass without comment. Great expectations came hard in that gloomy dungeon, and doubt grew in me like a well-fed maggot.

          I steered the conversation back to more pleasant matters. “How does it feel to get shot, Ah-Teena? Did it hurt?“

           “Best sleep I’ve ever had, Daks. It stung at first, but I’d do it again if I thought I wouldn’t wake up in this place. Peter slept longer than me. He didn’t wake up until far into the night.“

          A young Peke-Knees/ Poo-Jadle blend, a nervous chap who had spent the greatest part of the day staring shyly at me from beneath his shaggy brow-hair, came forward and asked me what had happened to my tail. I didn’t want to talk with him. It made me mad that he had the effrontery to ask such a thing. But Ah-Teena said, “Go on, Daks. Tell him. You don’t have anything better to do. Besides, they don’t have many stories of their own in here.“

          By the time I was done, most of my cellmates were gathered around, eyes popped wide at the part about my first farmer and his rifle. It was even sort of fun telling these yippers the story and watching the excitement grow. When I was done, finished to the point of the story where Peter fed me my first freshly-killed chicken, Ah-Teena suggested that I tell them more, about my travels from Cawley’s cave to this awful place. That’s how we fell asleep that night, listening to each other’s adventures. Ah-Teena joined in with stories of her own, and then, one by one, they each told a tale. Not every story thrilled the blood and shivered the spine. Few among them had ever met a demon like Roth and none had ever faced a Wolven tribe on a frozen mountain. Yet every one of them had come to be there in a different way, and to share our most intense memories with one another brought warmth to a cold place.

* * *

          In spite of everything … the stories, the deranged yapping of the unstable Oggs, the glaring light that hung from the ceiling and never went off, the thrill of being with Ah-Teena again … I fell asleep. The last thing I was fully awake to hear was a rather tame narrative the shy Peke/Poo had worked up his nerve to tell, of how his owner had carried him in a cane picnic basket and left him with the Catcher without even a good-bye. What the story lacked in action and peril, it made up for with betrayal and pathos.

          The Peke/Poo—’Clancy’ was what his owner had called him—was far from being a dynamic personality. His voice droned on with a tinny monotone, and I struggled to stay alert and hear him out. Clancy’s bewilderment at being abandoned was earnest, and as his story slowly unfolded, bitter tears blossomed in his bulging eyes. By telling about it, I believe, he was becoming fully aware of the injustice done to him. But it had been a long, anxious day and try as I might, I could not keep my eyes open. My attention melted away like a paw-print on sand. Ah-Teena had already fallen asleep. There had been a certain lethargy about her all that day, a lasting residue from being shot with that miraculous sleep-rifle, I supposed.

          A pair of stringy hounds started up before anyone else could hear what they were hollering about. Their voices, sounding from deep within their guts, dwarfed the lunatic ramblings of the unstable Oggs. Had I been more acquainted with the local idiom, I would have immediately known what was going on, but I had never before heard the expression “coon’s on the climb.“

          Ah-Teena came out of her stupor, angry at the loud hounds. “Would you knotheads give it up for the night? I have to rest.“ Other Oggs joined in from cages up and down the building, Peter included. His rich baritone insisted on knowing what the fuss was about, then the sense of any one individual’s words were lost in the cacophony.

          I put my nose through the fencing, right against Ah-Teena’s pointed ear. “What’s happening? What’re they all yelling about?“

          She snorted and lay back down with a flop. For the first time, I noticed how loosely the collar fit on her. I would never have guessed she had a more slender neck than Henrietta’s scrawny scruff, but it just goes to show how important the right proportions are to true beauty. I also couldn’t help but recognize she had put on some weight during her travels. Her belly was surprisingly round and solid, and I can testify that she hadn’t eaten so many of the wooden nuggets that she should look so well-fed. “Silly males,“ she huffed. “One whiff of Rawl’Colmb and they all have to act like randy badgers.“

          Bandy!  “They’ve come, Miss Ah-Teena. Get ready, ’cause we’re GETTING OUT OF HERE!“

          If she was impressed, it didn’t show. She was asleep again before I could chase an imaginary tail in a circle for three complete laps.

* * *

          It will come as no surprise that I never smelled what the rest of them did, but I was the first to see Bandy.

          But of course, I was the only one expecting to see him.

          He came in through the narrow window over my head, squeezing his shoulders and belly through like a worm being born. “Hey hey there, Daksie. Can’t say I admire your choice of accommodations.“

           “BANDY!“ I couldn’t hold still, simply couldn’t keep all four pads on the floor. I asked him about Mish-Shka, but Clancy and the other yippers caught sight of him, and my inquiries were swept away in a flood of high-pitched fright. The bigger Oggs went into a frenzy, throwing themselves onto the cage walls with fury. Bandy waved and yelled down, “You’ll excuse me if I don’t come down right away, m’ boy. Your rambunctious friends are a bit too worked up. And besides, I have quite a list of things to get done.“

          At last, Ah-Teena showed enough interest in what was happening to rise—or try. She’d lain so near to the fencing that when she moved, Henrietta’s collar caught on one of the frayed wire ends on the bottom of the enclosure. She pulled, but to no use. Her head and chest were held in place, close to the floor, as though she were sniffing for something under the concrete. “Daks, be a good fellow and help me get loose, would you?“ She waited, somewhat impatiently, while I pawed the leather strap from around the wire. “I swear, every time I move, this blasted collar catches on something.“

          The incredible din ruled out my making any proper introductions between Bandy and Ah-Teena. He leapt from the window ledge to the top of the wall between her and I, then hung there, his claws wrapped through the mesh. I hadn’t noticed before, but there was a space, very thin and very high, between the top of the cage and the ceiling. The wire unraveled into separate and sharp stubs, just as they did on the bottom. Yet Bandy got through un-scratched. His body might have been made from water, the way he stretched and bent and flowed through that small gap. Now, he was in the same cage with Ah-Teena and her slathering cellmate. The Huzz-Ghee jumped as high as he could, trying to get a piece of him. It took my breath away, he came so near to Bandy’s tail. But my friend moved like a squirrel, sidling across the face of the wall as though he’d never heard of gravity. With another exercise of fluid elasticity, he was out of that cell and into the middle aisle.

          Oh my, then the real noise started. Once Bandy was on the safe side of the wire walls, he dropped to the floor, stretched his back like an awakening Scrat and yawned. He strutted up and down the aisle, right under the flaring nostrils of a host of fellows who would have traded the flesh from their ribs for just one opportunity to sink their fangs into his guts. Such a display of nonchalant arrogance was a shock, even coming from Bandy, and it propelled the captive Oggs into the higher altitudes of rage.

           “Bandy, what are doing? Where’s Mish-Shka?“ I stood against the door on my hind legs and he waddled to me and licked my nose through the wire. We strained to hear one another over the vivid threats and insults coming from every direction. “Let me out of here.“

           “Not yet, Daks. It’s not in the plan. If I let you out too early, I’ll be neck deep in your newfound buddies. You be patient.“

          With that, he left me and went back to parading up and down the walkway. He seemed to be deliberately trying to antagonize the inmates. Whenever he found an Ogg starting to show signs of disinterest, he did something to bring that individual back to furious attention. A sad-eyed Bazz-Eth two doors away had gone back to complaining into a bare wall, just as she’d been doing all day, and Bandy scampered up the face of her cell and rattled her door by shaking his body as though he was in the throes of a violent fit. The Bazz-Eth came around with a passionate rededication to Rawl’Colmb hate.

          Peter stood in the very center of his cell. Through the sea of noise, I could hear his concerned voice calling for decorum. “You’re making fools out of yourselves over a rodent. Can’t you see that? Find your dignity, you fools. That’s all we have left in here.“ To rouse Peter’s ruff, Bandy did a particularly offensive thing. He sprayed urine through the mesh onto Peter’s feet. Peter forgot any notions of dignity and went at the raccoon in a frothy rage. I feared the door of his cage would unravel like a grass mat beneath his onslaught. It was such an absurd situation, that two friends—each of whom I could rightfully call my best—would not understand the intimacy they shared in the grand scheme. I craved to set things right, to inform them both that they had so much in common. It gnawed at my heart, that these heroes should not know they were on the same side.

          For what seemed to be a long time, Bandy continued to agitate the imprisoned assembly into ever more intense fury. He orchestrated the clamor artfully, swishing his tail in the nostrils of one fellow, spitting on another, swatting at yet another, to bring forth a sweeping crescendo of protest with every gesture. Before he was finished, even some of the older, lame and near-blind Oggs were beating their weak bodies against the cage doors. It was embarrassing to watch. My Ogg brethren were losing all semblance of sense and proportion, as though they actually believed they had a chance of reaching the Rawl’Colmb through the steel fencing. As though they’d heard a rumor that all the rules had changed and that if they acted like imbeciles long enough, the walls would melt away.

* * *

          It’s astounding that I heard anything over the uproar, especially considering it came from outside, through the skinny window. Any other voice but Bee-Hee-Mouth’s would have gotten lost in the storm, but that great basso thunder of his came from beneath, as if from the gut of the world directly to my gut. One didn’t need ears to hear Bee-Hee-Mouth, only sensitive bowels. “NOW, FAWRLINGSWAD! DO IT NOW!“

          I had no notion of what it was Bandy was supposed to do, but I passed the message along, worried that his bowels weren’t as sensitive as mine. “DO IT NOW, BANDY! BEE-HEE-MOUTH SAYS SO.“ My function as intermediary was unnecessary. By the time I’d opened my mouth, Bandy was scuttling down the aisle as fast as I’d ever seen him move. Ah-Teena, the only Ogg other than me who hadn’t been launched into lunacy by the raccoon’s antics, came to the front as though she’d just come out of a deep coma. “I heard it, Daks. Something big.“

           “That was Bee-Hee-Mouth. Told you they’d come, Told ya’!“

           For the first time, she showed a bit of real interest in our salvation. “Tell me what’s going on, Daks? Is Mish-Shka out there too?“

           “Watch. Just watch!“

          Bandy ran to the far end of the walkway, to the front door, and scaled the mesh nearest it. I had to twist my neck in three different—conflicting—directions and roll my eyes to the farthest corner of their sockets to see what was unfolding. And even then, the vision was vague at best. That end of the building was far from the dim light in the center, and as Bandy poised at the top of the fence, I could barely see him. He was hardly more than a shadow.

          You can always hear a human coming. It matters little how much other noise there is. Were all the loudest sounds in nature to occur at once, at precisely the same moment—if a volcano erupted with all it’s bombast, and all the hoovened beasts herded together and jointly threw the largest stampede ever, and the stars exploded, and crows the world over gathered to argue religion, all at the same time in the same place—I believe you could still here a single, grumpy man complaining, “GRAM DASKIT! THERE’D BETTER BE A BLAMM MUFFER GOOD REASON TO GET ME OUTA BED AT THIS TIME O’ NIGHT!“

          I even heard his feet crunching the gravel outside as he approached. When the Catcher fumbled with the globed knob and kicked at the hollow steel door, part of the Oggs cowered and withered away to the back of their cells, while the rest screamed out with renewed strength. Some begged. Others threatened. My last thought before the door swung open was how odd it was that all these Oggs could agree on the virtue of hating Rawl’Colmbs, but differ so greatly on how they should feel about humans.

* * *

          My first thought after the door opened was … How many times can Bandy execute the old leap-on-the-enemy’s-head-and-shock-the-poop-of-out-him gambit … and live to laugh about it?

          The Catcher came armed. As much light as the blue steel of a rifle absorbs, it still reflects enough to identify it as long and lanky death. The nasty end of the weapon came through the door first, even before the Catcher’s protruding belly. How many times can we face one of these killing machines and expect to come away with nothing missing but a tail?

          “He’s going to shoot us all,“ I moaned.

           “Ooooh, good. He’s going to put me to sleep again,“ Ah-Teena sighed.

          He had time to do neither. Bandy executed the gambit perfectly.

* * *

          No bull ever out-bellowed this Catcher man when he found a snarling, foaming, flailing, (over-acting?) Rawl’Colmb avenger atop his head instead of his hat. As the hat fell to the floor, the Catcher fell to his knees. “ORMBEE BLASKIT GLEE-CHEE SWEET MAY-REE GHRIST! GET OFF UH MEEEEEE!“ Bandy’s tail hung over the man’s face like an eyebrow gone berserk. It was an ideal handle for the Catcher to pull at in his scrambled efforts to dislodge the terror on his head, but Bandy was attached too firmly. He had locked his teeth into the collar of the man’s shirt, and his front claws were entwined into the fabric around the shoulders. As the Catcher tugged on Bandy’s tail, his shirt rode up his back and the neck opening snagged on his ears. Bandy slid down the man’s nose until the bellowing was muffled in chubby raccoon belly. Then, with a desperate yank, the Catcher pulled Bandy down to his chest—and himself down to the ground—rocking back and forth between his fat belly and his terrified face …

           … with Bandy beneath.

          My friend squeaked once, farted twice, and I heard nothing more from him.

* * *

          The Catcher pushed at the floor, rising to his knees, and examined the limp thing lying beneath him. With characteristic Rawl’Colmb luck, Bandy wasn’t crushed dead. He twitched and spastickly tried to find his feet and his breath. “Wulluh … ah’ll be groon-swankled … ,“ the man marveled. “A raaa-coooOOOOMPA!“

          Poor Bandy. I winced in sympathetic pain as the Catcher flopped down on him for the second time. When I unsquinshed my eyes, Mish-Shka was straddling the Catcher’s spine with his front feet and snarling into the man’s quivering ear. My first words didn’t accurately reflect how ecstatic I was to see him.

           “Mish-Shka! you’re smothering Bandy!“

          How he heard me over the chorus of frantic inmates, I don’t know, but he looked up with some surprise. “Oops.“

          The reality of what they were witnessing dawned on both Peter and Ah-Teena at the same time. “MISH-SHKA! OOOOH MEESHER!“ Peter rolled over on his back and snapped at his tail with a jubilant loss of composure. Ah-Teena swelled with joy and sighed, almost beneath hearing, “Meesher, you old scoundrel.“

          Mish-Shka stepped off the Catcher’s broad back, being very careful to keep his fangs as close to the man’s neck as he could. The rifle lay a few steps away, half in and half out of the open door, but there is no wisdom in assuming a man has no way to cause pain simply because he is unarmed. The Catcher rolled away, to his side like a pig turning in sleep, his arm covering his face as though that could save him from Mish-Shka the Terrible. Mish-Shka stepped over the still-twitching Bandy and put his snout directly on the man’s sternum. With a snap and a twist, the Catcher’s throat would have been dangling from either side of the Wolfhound’s jaws.

          Bee-Hee-Mouth appeared out of the night like a snow blizzard. His grin was as wide as the door. “My, my, my … and a pretty picture it is, dear Meesha. Except you have smashed the only fellow who can open the cages.“

          One of Bandy’s front legs was pawing at the air and the other was flopping limply on his heaving stomach. His eyes had rolled over in his skull and there was nothing but white orb showing. “He’ll be fine,“ growled Mish-Shka. “He has to be fine. Bee-Hee-Mouth, see what you can do for him.“

          Bee-Hee-Mouth licked at the raccoon’s face and neck, but to no effect other than a blind flurry of reflexive kicking and scratching. Evidently, in his stupor, Bandy believed he was being eaten instead of revived, and he fought back.

           “Maybe water is what he needs,“ I offered. It distressed me that they were treating Bandy’s condition so lightly. He looked in very bad shape to me, but Bee-Hee-Mouth and Mish-Shka acted as though he were merely suffering from a bout of clumsiness. “Splash some water on his face.“

           “I believe you have something there, Master Daks,“ said Bee-Hee-Mouth. “Water. That’ll do the trick.“

           “Over here. Bring him here.“ Peter pushed at a white plastic pail with his broad brow until it was next to the aisle. Soiled water sloshed over the top. Bee-Hee-Mouth took Bandy by the scruff of his neck and pulled his pathetic body across the floor until his nose was against the wire mesh.

           “NO … no! Just splash him,“ I said, but too late. Peter pulled the bucket over and a wave of water engulfed Bandy’s face.

           “NOW YOU’RE GONNA DROWN HIM!“ I wailed, but I was only half right. They only half drowned him. He snorted and choked. Water spewed out from him in twin nostril-geysers. He clawed his way to his feet and sputtered in shock. “I … (spit, spew) … I distinctly heard … (sputter, spume) … Daks tell you to splash me! (cough, snort)  Not commit my soul to the deep!“

* * *

          Agility comes so naturally to Rawl’Colmbs, right down to their bony toes. Still, it took time for Bandy to figure out how to lift up on one thingy and slide sideways on another thingy … and hang onto the mesh to keep from dropping off, all at the same time. As he skiddled across the walls and opened cage after cage, I swooned with pride that he was my friend. I doubt there is more than a handful of humans in the entire world who could have opened one of those cages while hanging by their toes.

          A significant number of the Oggs had to be coaxed from their cells. While some of them were intimidated by the sheer size of Mish-Shka and Bee-Hee-Mouth, others seemed oppressed by their prospects beyond those walls. When Bandy opened the cage I was in, the yippers clotted together in the farthest corner, climbing over one another’s heads like mice from a fire. Few of the larger Oggs showed any more adventurous spirit. As soon as the door swung open, their threats turned to whimpered excuses. “I can’t go out there. I have sensitive paws.“ Or, “What? You want me to walk away from steady food and a dry floor? Do I look stew-pid?“

          Better the suffering you know than the suffering you don’t, I guess.

          On Mish-Shka’s advice, Bandy released Peter before any others. The Golden then joined Bee-Hee-Mouth, then using entirely different approaches, they managed to talk most of the reticent out of their cells. Those they couldn’t convince were probably best left where they were, being individuals with a very flimsy grasp on sanity, anyway. Not every Ogg needed convincing. Some of them strained at the cage doors and disappeared in a flurry of shedding hair the moment Bandy found the latch. The Huzz-Ghee burst forth lusting after Peter’s throat, and one of the knot-headed Hounds came out lusting after my raccoon. Suspended upside down as he was, I worried that Bandy would never get high enough, quickly enough, and Peter seemed no match for the crazed Huzz-Ghee. But Bee-Hee-Mouth stepped forward and reminded both the Huzz-Ghee and the Hound, in the most gentle of tones, that if it was blood they were after, “I will be pleased to feed you each other’s livers.“ The Hound backed away immediately, but the Huzz-Ghee needed a slap on the jaw and a nip on the flank for the message to register.

           “Would you kindly speed things up,“ Mish-Shka barked out. “I can’t hold this man down all night.“

          The Catcher became ever more agitated and distraught as each new wave of Dahm-Ogg leapt over his legs and fled into the night. “You’re lettin’ my career fly out that door, big hoss,“ he moaned to Mish-Shka. “I’ll either lose my job ‘r’ spend the rest o’ my life chasin’ these mutts down again.“

          Ah-Teena and I stayed out of the way. After having a number of Oggs trample me in their rush to freedom, I realized there was nothing I could do to help with the exodus. Ah-Teena seemed to be quite uninterested in what was happening. She went to the far end of the hall and lay down. I was beginning to worry about her, this lethargy of hers. I sat next to her and tried to rouse her, but to no use. She was already asleep, gasping and peeping in her slumber as though she were dreaming of old playmates.

          The Catcher began to stir about, testing the limits of Mish-Shka’s ferocity, and I noticed his movements were decidedly in the direction of his rifle, still lying in the doorway. Every time the man shifted his weight, Mish-Shka assumed an even more terrible pose and offered even more terrible consequences, but the Catcher continued to inch his way across the floor.

          The great escape seemed to be going fine without me. The aisle was filled with confused Oggs, and there was nothing I could do about anything, so I did what I do best whenever I feel both nervous and ineffectual. I squirmed. The back door was behind me and it cracked open under the pressure of my squirming. I decided to do a bit of investigation on my own. “I’m going into this room here, Miss Ah-Teena,“ I said. “Maybe there’s more Oggs there.“

          Ah-Teena raised her head and looked at me with glassy eyes. “Phrttlemumt,“ she said, and her head dropped to the floor.

          There was no latch, nothing to hold this door closed. It hung loosely from its hinges and it was no problem for me to wedge my nose in and slip through. Behind me, the door swung closed and the light was gone. I blinked over and over to make out even the simplest of shapes in the suffocating black, but the images formed very slowly. In the center of the room stood a high, metal table, wheels built into its legs. The walls were lined with shelves and cabinets. There was no clutter, nothing out of place. A strong, pungent aroma filled the room, the kind of smell that comes from beneath kitchen sinks and makes the eyes water. Various bottles and containers filled the shelves, arranged neatly, as though each were precisely where it ought to be and had never been placed anywhere different. The only thing that seemed incongruous to the tidy setting was a large, lumpy bag that lay under the table, conspicuous by it’s rumpled appearance.

          I was drawn to that bag. The heart of this room was in that sack, I knew that from my bones out. The ordered shelves and sterile settings were mere cosmetics, meant to disguise.

          I also knew what was in the sack before I nosed it open, but I had to see for myself. All three of them were in there—the deranged little fellow with the itchy ears, the female Sheep-Herder, and the sad Span-Yell. They had been dumped in head first, so carelessly that the Span-Yell’s tail flopped out as soon as I touched the sack. Three dead Oggs, back ends poking out of a burlap bag. I pulled at the fabric until their heads were uncovered. The yipper’s legs were as rigid as frosted willow twigs and his paws lay along the female’s curled lips as though he were embracing her. The Span-Yell gazed into a table wheel, no opinions left on his face. His eyes were more like lumps of pork fat than eyes.

* * *

          I sat with them until Bee-Hee-Mouth pushed open the door and announced we were leaving, and then I stayed longer. They had come to such an ignoble end, it seemed the least I could do, to not shy away from the sight of them now.

           “This is where he killed them, Bee-Hee-Mouth. In this room here.“

           “Yes, Daks. This is where they all would have come, given time.“

           “And then he dropped them into a filthy sack.“

           “I see that.“ Bee-Hee-Mouth was respectful and somber, but I wanted more. This atrocity demanded more profound anguish than Bee-Hee-Mouth seemed willing to give.

           “They’re dead. Dead because … because he needed the room, that’s all. He had to make room, so he crams them into a sack. We … we should kill him, Bee-Hee-Mouth. He deserves it.“

          He came further into the room, towering over me. The swinging door slipped off his flank and closed. “We mustn’t do that, Daks. You mustn’t even think that. It’s not why we’re here. We can’t avenge everyone who’s died. Besides, this isn’t the Catcher’s fault. He has a job to do, and he must be good at it.“

          I was struck almost senseless by his defense of the man. “You … you … Bee-Hee-Mouth, it’s killing Oggs … that’s what he’s good at!“

          Bee-Hee-Mouth shook his broad head and started to speak, but I walked through his legs, through the door, and straight down the long aisle. With each step, it felt like my stiff legs might puncture my lungs and slice right through the hide on my back. The Catcher was sweating under Mish-Shka’s breath, but his fat hand still crept out to the wooden end of his blasted weapon. Never have I felt such loathing. I could have killed him, of that I’m sure. I could have used his layered gut as stair steps and chewed away at the lard hanging from his chin until I found that mighty vein. I was angry enough to do that, to be washed away by man blood.

          But Bee-Hee-Mouth shouted after me. “DAKS … Daks, brother. You can’t kill them all. Take a close look, little chum. Who they are and what they do aren’t the same.“

          I stopped on the man’s knees. My tears were so bitter they stung my nose as they dropped to his trousers. Mish-Shka, Bandy, Peter—even Ah-Teena—had come alert. They all watched me. The Catcher held his breath. The lard under his chin quivered and invited, but I took a close look, and saw the man who had spared me the torture and torment of that little boy, Grammy. This man had treated me with gentleness and respect, had given me a name, and had killed three Oggs, all in the same day. Bee-Hee-Mouth was right. Who they are and what they do aren’t the same.

           “how can you do these things, Mister?“ I asked, knowing well I could expect no satisfying answer. “You live off of our carcasses!“

          He reached out slowly, carefully, so that Mish-Shka understood his intentions, and rubbed the top of my head. “Pete-Zah … Pete-Zah, li’l buddy. You’re not gonna pee on my pants again. Are ya’?“

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