The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

PART FIVE

A HARD WAY HOME

Chapter 34

 

          Travel is a fine thing, stimulating to both the senses and the mind. It heightens one’s awareness, broadens one’s views and deepens one’s understanding. There is much to recommend in travel and I’ll never regret that I have done so much of it.

          Only, I never again want to bid another friend good-bye.

          We bade good-bye to Bee-Hee-Mouth and his tribe before the sun rose. How I could have formed an attachment to a pest like Geep or a sour fellow like Alexander was difficult for me to understand, but as I faced the prospect of never seeing them again, I felt authentic sorrow. Experience thrusts family upon us every bit as much as blood and lineage, I decided. And just as in the normal understanding of family, it doesn’t matter whether you like them or not. Before we left Groomer’s house, I had licked them all, even Goonter the Skritten, on her runny little nose.

          I even licked a chicken or two. I licked Groomer’s thin fingers and in return, he recited a poem—something about tiny, pink tongues leaving large impressions.

          And, my oh my, did I lick Bee-Hee-Mouth. During the night, he shared beer with us for the last time, and the more I lapped up, the more I licked him. I embarrassed myself in truth, with all this copious licking—especially with Ah-Teena. I couldn’t keep my tongue off her and she said, “Daks, I’ll never dry out if you don’t stop.” After some more beer and one last attempt to lick her, she snapped at me. So I licked Bee-Hee-Mouth instead, until my tongue hurt.

          “Daksie,” said Bandy. “You possess the maudlin sentimentality of a much larger fellow.”

          Peter received his share of my saliva, too, but he didn’t seem to mind. He was dazed by the whole turn of events. Mish-Shka convinced him that Groomer wasn’t a threat, but Peter, in the course of one night, could have never become accustomed to Scrats and chickens sharing the same quarters with Dahm-Ogg and goats and a man. And he was entirely in awe of Bee-Hee-Mouth. Before him was the mightiest legend of Mish-Shka’s tribe. It’s possible that Peter had come to think of him as a wishful myth, yet here he was. Bee-Hee-Mouth! Popping open canned beers and laughing like a regular fellow. Who could blame Peter for spending the hours in a far corner, watching the scene as though it were all an hallucination.

          Eventually, neither joy nor sorrow is any match for exhaustion. I slept, curled up where I fell after slipping on beer, under the sink, along with an overly protective chicken and Goonter. The chicken had laid an egg in a nest of rags, and she pecked at my butt unmercifully. Goonter insisted on wrapping herself around my neck and smothering me with that cloying, limpid sort of affectation that Scrats call friendship. But I didn’t mind. Between the beer and a full day of thrills, I was stuporous. My eyelids took control and brought it all to an end.

* * *

          Peter pushed me awake. The house had grown cold and I wiggled away from him, resisting consciousness. But he persisted. “If we wait until light, the Catcher might find us again, Daks. We have to leave now.”

          I wasn’t the last one up. Mish-Shka was still trying to rouse Ah-Teena, even after I’d gone outside to pee and search for water. My tongue was painfully dry and swollen. That was when the embarrassment set in, when I recalled why my tongue was so sore. “Bee-Hee-Mouth, I … I may have made a bit of a fool out of myself last night.” For our departure, he was putting a meal together of apples, milk, eggs and flour. “I’m sure sorry if I licked you too much.”

          “Not at all, Master Daks. You’re a good chum and I’ve enjoyed your stay here immensely. I will miss you. I wish you and that old poop Meesha … all of you … could stay with us.” This put me to thinking how nice that would be, to stay in Bee-Hee-Mouth’s tribe and not have to retrace that horrid path.

          It would be even worse on the way back. Day after day, the world had become colder. Yet I knew there could be no comparing the frigid, damp climate here in Bee-Hee-Mouth’s valley with how awful those high mountains would be, packed with ice and snow, Wolves and hunters—possibly even those mated monsters, Roth and Anna-Bar. I took some comfort from the thought that Peter and Ah-Teena would be with us on the trip. That if there is any strength in numbers, our return would be safer, if not warmer.

          But if there is indeed strength in numbers, why not stay put in the comfort of Groomer’s menagerie, where the numbers wouldn’t even matter? Where we would never doubt our strength because the Wolves and the monsters were distant, nothing but fading memories with which to impress the others on cold nights around warm fires and warmer beer? “I sort of wish that too, Bee-Hee-Mouth … that we could stay here with you.”

          He cracked the last of the eggs and let it drip from his mouth into the platter of milk. Then he laid his bulk down to look me in the eyes from a lower level. “Would you do that, Daks? If you were making the decisions, would you stay here with us and never go back?”

          I don’t deny that I hesitated before answering. Mish-Shka once told me there is no shame or cowardice in wishful thinking. Ultimately, though, I said, “No … no, I guess we can’t stay here. Mish-Shka’s tribe, Chew and Henrietta and all the rest, they need us. Well, they need Peter and Mish-Shka. I’m not sure how much they need me. But, Bee-Hee-Mouth … ” and I dropped my voice so that none of the others would hear, ” … I haven’t told anyone this, but … but something terrible might happen on the way back. I don’t know what. I just have this … this bad feeling.”

          Bee-Hee-Mouth dropped his voice as well, so low it resonated like the passing of a glacier, enormous and eternal. “Daks, listen. Something terrible happens every moment, every single moment since the birth of the sun. Somewhere, right now, something terrible is happening. And something wonderful and joyous happens as well. Terrible things and joyous things. They go on forever, Daks. They are older than me and Mish-Shka put together. They’re older than the mountains and the rocks. You and I … even Groomer … we only pass through a world that belongs to them. And in the end, terrible things and joyous things get it all back, as though we were never here. Nothing we do can stop that, so don’t fear them, little Daks. The wonder of it all is that we are here to see it.”

          Because the rest of the time was spent in different ways, with different individuals gathered around, and because of other good-byes that didn’t involve me, that was the last time Bee-Hee-Mouth and I spoke, just us. I licked him for the last time, and he licked back.

* * *

          And after Bee-Mouth and Mish-Shka stood nose to nose at the edge of the orchard, blessing one another as only the oldest of friends can, Bee-Hee-Mouth grinned at me through bright tears and said, “Believe me, Daks … most of it is well worth seeing.”

* * *

          By the time three days had passed, I began to believe it wouldn’t be such a bad return trip after all, despite the melancholy of leaving Bee-Hee-Mouth. For all of the first day and the best part of the next, Mish-Shka stayed quiet and reflective, sad over parting with his oldest and first friend, but relieved at being with Peter and Ah-Teena again.

          We hung onto the slopes of the valley rather than crossing the center, circling around those areas where men gathered in the densest clumps. It was a longer trip that way, but there were fewer problems. The garbage bins were still plentiful enough that we ate well, and there was no need to bother any local chickens or fish with our appetites. Humans don’t like their trash stolen, but they mind that less than losing chickens. And the last thing we wanted to do was arouse humans. “The simplest way home, Daks. That’s what we’re after,” Mish-Shka told me. “Let us hold complications to a minimum.”

          Thanks to me, one enormous complication was avoided on the very first afternoon. Had I not had to clear my bowels so desperately, and had the others not waited so impatiently for me to execute my function, we might well have strolled directly into the Catcher’s hands. He was driving slowly around a sharp curve and because of my delay, we watched him from brushy cover on a rise above the road as he coasted by. His window was down and his head was turning in every direction at once. It reminded me of Bandy’s story about the fellow who spun his head around, looking for something, until it twisted off and rolled into a raspberry patch. I began to giggle and Mish-Shka scolded me. “Daks! Shush! He’s listening for us, too.”

          Other than that, we encountered no more humans than one might expect to encounter on chilly days in an isolated terrain. We crossed roads without the annoyance of machines coming along every breath, and we raided the garbage after dark, when the men and their families were huddled around dim lights in lonely farmhouses. As we walked, Peter and Mish-Shka filled one another full of their respective tales. Endlessly, Bandy provided comment, in typical Bandy fashion. It took some time for Peter to become accustomed to his personality, having never spent any time in the company of a Rawl’Colmb, and it was a strenuous adjustment on his part simply to refrain from biting Bandy’s head off at the first opinion about “dull-witted, Ogg vermin turning his ancestral forest into a neighborhood that even the slime-slugs were abandoning.”

          On more than a few occasions, I had to interject myself into their conversations and remind Peter that if not for Bandy’s help, we would have never been reunited. That, while the raccoon did push one’s patience to the purple edge, he had saved the skins of both Mish-Shka and myself. I was perturbed at Mish-Shka for not helping me out more. Every time Bandy took Peter to that stiff-legged, curled-lips, wild-eyed limit, the old fellow would sit back like a proud ancestor and laugh from his belly. I don’t know what he would have done had they actually taken to fangs and claws.

          “Bandy, would you stop!” After one particularly hostile exchange, he and I were following the others by a ways. It was the first opportunity I’d had in a while to speak to him alone. “Couldn’t you keep the insults to yourself? At least until Peter gets to know you a little better? He’s ready to rip you up.”

          “Daksie, worry is going to turn you old and shaky before you’re due. I’m simply trying to fill in the time. If your constipated Peter can’t take a bit of teasing, it just goes to show you how correct I am about the species.”

          “It won’t matter how correct you are, Bandy. Not if he rips you up.”

          Bandy arched his back and puffed his chest. “Now look here, Daks. You underestimate me. Do you suppose we Rawl’Colmbs are not prepared to meet the world straight on? I am a master at battle techniques that go back to times when Oggs were still slithering around, chasing down moths for dinner and worshipping tree bark for its superior intelligence. It’s all balance, you see? You might be surprised at what delightful tricks I could pull with a clumsy fellow like your Peter.”

          “Oooh, Bandy. Sometimes, you make me so mad.”

* * *

          Ah-Teena stayed apart. She held no interest in the stories, the bickering, or anything else. If she weren’t continually catching the loose collar on this and that, low branches and ferns and exposed roots, it would seem she’d have had no use for the rest of us whatsoever. Several times, Mish-Shka or I untangled her from something, and she walked off without so much as a thank you.

          I worried over how withdrawn she seemed, showing little of the spark and sting that had initially attracted me to her. She trudged along as though she were slogging through molasses mud and bread dough, and never entered into conversation except to complain that she was hungry. “I! Am! Fa-a-a-mished!” she would announce. “When are you mouthy males going to stop for dinner? And what are you looking at, Daks?”

          Judging by the size and waddle of her belly, I would have recommended a regimen of spare food and vigorous activity to bring back the svelte, spunky Ah-Teena I had first known—had she been in a mood for recommendations …

          … which she wasn’t.

          Every time I said anything to her—even the most mundane of things, like, “Do you suppose those are snow clouds or rain clouds?” or, “It’ll be nice to be back in the cave again, next to the fire. Won’t it, Miss Ah-Teena?”—she would remind me with a brittle snap that she had no interest in chatting. I had to blink back tears and remind myself she was treating everyone harshly, that it wasn’t just me. She ignored Bandy with astonishing completeness, and while she was discernibly warmer to Mish-Shka than the rest of us, if she couldn’t respond to him in one or two words, she didn’t respond to him at all.

          Peter took the sharpest thorns. If he so much as looked at her, Ah-Teena turned on him like a wet wasp. “What are you staring at? Go chase field mice or something, will you? And leave me alone!”

          For the better part of three days, Peter took her disdain with exasperated dignity. But on that third afternoon out, he rebelled. After a vicious barb that alluded to both the breadth of his brow and the length of his peener, he planted himself under a half dead willow and proclaimed he wouldn’t take another step until Ah-Teena stopped insulting him. “I don’t deserve this shoddy treatment, Teena. You’re blaming this whole thing on me.”

          Ah-Teena’s reaction was startling in its ferocity. “AND WHO ELSE WOULD I BLAME IT ON? WHY … WHY … YOU SLACK-EARED DIMWIT. WHO GOT ME INTO THIS MUDDLE IF IT WASN’T YOU?”

          Peter’s voice remained calm, but his body trembled. “If I remember correctly, Teena, you had as much to do with it as I did. Or more! And you certainly didn’t seem to mind while it was happening!”

          I was convinced one of them would die in the seconds that followed. And given the intensity of Ah-Teena’s fury, it would have probably been Peter. But Mish-Shka jumped between them and took the brunt of Ah-Teena’s attack. “Whoooo-aah … you two. Wait, wait, wait! Peter, you take Fawrlingswad and Daks. Go on ahead and find us a place to spend the night. Teena and I will be along in a bit. We have much to consider, don’t we, Teena?”

          Ah-Teena continued to spit out threats but her energy melted until all that remained of her strength was the scorn she felt for Peter. She dropped to her belly and panted. I thought she might even fall asleep, in spite of her rage.

          Peter hesitated, then loped off into the direction of distant hills. “Fine! That’s just fine!” he snorted. “Come along, Daks. You too, Rawl’Colmb!”

          I couldn’t bring myself to move. If confusion were a stomach fluid, I would have thrown up great ponds of it. Bandy nudged me from behind. “Let’s go, Daksie. They have Oggie things to discuss.”

* * *

          For the rest of the afternoon, Bandy had the good sense to keep his opinions to himself. A fortunate thing, that, for I feared if he had uttered one syllable, sarcastic or not, Peter would have made short work and small bits of him. And all of the ancient battle techniques and arcane balance secrets in the world would not have spared him for a blink. Peter stomped through the winter wheat and stubble fields as though his paws were petrified, muttering and snorting and scowling. Whenever the muttering reached a certain dynamic level and the scowling threatened to permanently distort his handsome features, he dug furiously into the hillside, leaving gouges in the soft soil large enough for a family of woodchucks to live comfortably. It was all very perplexing. I had even less an idea why he was so angry than I had about what made Ah-Teena so volatile. Yet, I wasn’t about to ask. I had the disturbing sensation I was straddling a boundary that I would preferred to have never even neared.

          Bandy and I followed with our eyes to the ground, and when Peter wasn’t tearing up the terrain or gnawing on tree roots to relieve his acute rancor, we had to skip and occasionally run to keep up with him. My tummy twisted and gurgled and belched in sympathy with Peter’s foul mood, and I developed a previously undetected stammer every time he remembered he wasn’t alone. “Have you ever in your life seen anything like it! Daks, can you believe how irrational she is? That … that FEMALE!”

          “Uhwulluh … I duh-id notice uuhhhh certain uhhhh … “

          “There is no dealing with them. There is no reasoning with them. They are … ” he paused to dig another excavation into the center of some wheat farmer’s fallow field. “They are INSANE! That’s it! They are all insane! Henrietta, Bedd-Dee, CoLeen … all as crazy as rolling rocks. And that Teena! She’s the queen of them all!”

          “Upuhwulluh … she duh-uzz-uh seem to be uuuuhp-uh-set. Buh-ut … insane, now … thuh-at’s another … “

          “INSANE! THAT EXPLAINS EVERYTHING! RARGGGGGGG!”

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