The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

PART FIVE

A HARD WAY HOME

Chapter 35

 

         For a time before darkness, the sun sank lower than the clouds, bathing the world in a pulsating, golden light. Our shadows stretched out before us to a grotesque length and moved with a jagged life of their own. Even the mountains looming near took on a gilded enchantment. They shimmered in the frigid sunlight like precious stones at the bottom of a clear streamlet. In another day of travel, barring more complications like rampant insanity or random excavations, we would be at the feet of those snowy mountains.

          I yearned for the sight of Mish-Shka and Ah-Teena, topping a hill on the horizon behind us. The sun burned my eyes when I turned to look. “They’ll catch up, Daks,” Bandy said. “Don’t worry. Even if we weren’t leaving plenty of scent, they could simply follow us from crater to crater.”

          “Don’t tease,” I whispered. “Peter’s not in any mood for teasing, and neither am I. Besides, he stopped digging holes a while ago.”

          This was true. Peter’s rage had ebbed. He no longer muttered and scowled, and he no longer clawed at the ground to release his frustration. But he still loped along at a pace that indicated both a lingering bitterness and an utter disregard for my stubby legs. Bandy and I were many lengths behind him, not so far as to feel abandoned, but far enough for me to feel anxious about losing sight of him.

          “We should be thinking about shelter, Daks. The sky is clearing … you see? It’s going to be a night to numb the dangling nuggets, I can tell. But your grand hero up there, all he can think about is the female. You should say something to him.”

          “Why me, Bandy? What happened to you? Break your tongue?”

          “I’m capable of many things. More than the average furry fellow, you must agree. But even I am not capable of talking sense with an Ogg.”

          “Bandy, my legs are getting tired. I don’t think I can run anymore.”

          “All the more reason for you to broach the subject, Daksie.”

          And so, I agreed to raise the issue with Peter, for what good it would do. There was little around that might serve as shelter. For hours, we had seen nothing but the clods and stubble of the vast fields that draped over these rolling hills, and five of us certainly were not going to fit under one clod.

* * *

          As it turned out, Peter wasn’t so far ahead, after all. He was sitting just over the top of the slope, digesting the sight before him.

          Crouched into a slash of gully were two squat structures, the same sort of block buildings as the prison we had so recently escaped. My innards did a flip and roll, for I briefly believed we had traveled in a circle to end up back in the Catcher’s domain. The buildings themselves were unremarkable, but surrounding them were a series of ponds, so precisely round in shape and so uniform in size that they were obviously put there by flexible fingers and opposable thumbs. There was nothing natural about them, and whatever water the humans had found to fill these ponds had to be the foulest in creation. Islands of multicolored foam and globules of greasy solids floated lazily on the surface, as though stirred by enormous, web-toed creatures from beneath. Rising from the turgid waters on stringy wisps of yellow steam was a stench so acute and powerful that even my weakling nostrils reacted.

          “Yugh! What is that smell?”  I gasped. Peter’s nose was twitching to shut out the choking stink and Bandy gagged.

          “Scat. Human scat. That’s what it is,” Peter answered. His eyes watered from the noxious vapors. “And stuff you’ll never find in nature. They mix in the very worst of things. This must be where every man in this valley comes to shit.”

          I knew Peter to be wrong on this one point. In my old home—my mom’s home that seemed so far past it might have been another Ogg that had lived there and I was merely sharing his memories—there was a toilet machine as white as Bee-Hee-Mouth and as smooth as ice that served as a receptacle for the family’s excrement. I used to watch as the children straddled the bowl and performed those same functions that earned me a swat on the bottom were I to perform them anywhere inside the house. But since I knew Peter had a limited experience with the habits of men, I didn’t correct him. I didn’t want to embarrass him in front of Bandy.

          Around each pond was a railing about Peter’s height which served either to keep someone out of the ponds, or to keep something in. I assumed the rail was to keep humans out, for I had also learned that once humans empty their bowels and bladders, they want nothing more to do with what they’ve left behind. Not once had I ever seen them so much as sniff at their stool, let alone roll in it. The most phenomenal thing about the porcelain machine was, with the push of a simple lever, it created a sucking maelstrom and sent any number of things—jewelry, small toys, my Mom’s rubber ball, and scat—down to the center of the world, I guess. Even the smells were sucked away by another machine in the ceiling. I’m not sure what humans have against their poop, but I suspect the aversion is, in some way, part of their problem.

          “Let’s get out of here,” begged Bandy. He was trying to cover his nose with his paws and talk at the same time. “I’ll retch up my liver if I have to breathe this evil gas much longer.”

          “For once, I agree with you, Rawl’Colmb. This is the vilest place I’ve ever been.”

          A narrow, gravel road ended at the entrance to the largest of the buildings. The fetid mess of waters lay on both sides. The shortest way, the straightest line out of there, would have been across this road, through the ponds, and up the slope on the other side. But for the sake of our noses and stomachs, we went around, scrambling through thick black locust saplings that grew from the bottom of the washed-out gully. We all came through with scratches on our snouts and burrs in our coats, but the trade-off was worth it. I truly believed Bandy might have retched up his liver had we come any closer to those stinking ponds.

          Peter and Bandy tore ahead to reach the top of the opposite slope. I was halfway to it when the loudest machine I have ever heard thundered around a distant curve and sped down the road towards the ponds. The last rays from the sinking sun reflected off its curvy window and struck me directly in the eyes. I froze. A cold quaver, born in my heart, worked itself into a violent tremor by the time it reached my limbs. It wasn’t the chill of descending night that caused it. It wasn’t that flash of reflected light, nor was it the noise from the garish pickup truck. None of those things could have created such a desperation, not even in combination. The “bad feeling” I had tried to tell Bee-Hee-Mouth about awakened into a great, black worm. It took hold of me from the inside out.

          Unable to reach that nipple-shaped crest, I watched as three young males spilled out of the truck and urinated into one of the ponds. They laughed with foolish and forced gusto, and threw glass bottles into the nauseating waters. When one of them returned to the back of the truck for more beer, he saw me. Had I only kept up with my friends, I would have been well over the hill and these strutting adolescents would never have noticed me. But that devouring gloom held me in place, drained my legs of strength and clouded my mind with bottomless shadow. I was as visible as a boil on a bald spot.

          “Hey lookee up there, you dudes. Up there on the hill. Some kind o’ beaver. Er sum’tin’.”

          The tallest of the three banged his head on the machine’s roof in mock exasperation. “That ain’t no beaver, Goofus. That’s a dringle butt dog. Just a scrimpy, mutty, dog. That’s all. ‘Beaver’ … did you hear that, Smiddy? Goofus thought that damn dog was a beeee-ver.”  He laughed and slapped the fellow named Goofus on the shoulder.

          ‘Smiddy’ scrambled around the truck, screaming hysterically. “THREE POINTER … ‘AT’S A THREE POINTER! LET’S GO GET ‘IM, PUMPER!

          “I ain’t taking my rig up in-tuh that mud. Just fer a three pointer? Ain’t no way! ‘Side’s, that scrimpy mutt ain’t worth no three points. That mutt ain’t worth any more’n a point an’ a half.”

          It was an extremely funny thing this “Pumper” had said, judging by the frantic laughter it elicited from the other two. They were still laughing and spitting while they climbed back into the machine. “YA’ GOT AWAY THIS TIME, MUTT!” yelled out Smiddy, cupping his hands around his mouth. “BUT DON’T GET IN AWR SIGHTS AGIN.”

          “Yeh,” said Pumper with a curled lip and a guttural snicker. “A point an’ a half is still a point an’ a half.”

          The wheels squealed and smoked as the machine drove away. I was still unable to move out from that cold spot, not until the truck had rounded the far curve and was gone. Even then, my legs trembled and would not respond. I wished for nothing more than to be away from there, far away, but this wormy dread was too powerful. I panted just to catch a breath. It wasn’t until Peter and Bandy returned and nudged me out of my tracks that I could either move or speak.

          “What in the world is wrong with you, Daks? Those boys could’ve had a rifle with them.” Peter was like a furious mother, but Bandy sensed my malaise.

          “Daks. Daksie, tell me what’s wrong?”

          “Bandy … I have a terrible, terrible feeling that … something … ”  This was as close as I could come to describing the despair that squeezed at my heart.

* * *

          We went on. Peter insisted. I seemed to be capable of nothing much beyond shivering fits and drooling from the corners of my mouth, so the others had to prod every step out of me. But even had I been able to speak coherently, I wouldn’t have known what to say. That sucking dread offered no words, no pictures to describe—nothing I could take hold of with my tongue and pass on. A dense and noxious confusion had numbed my mind, and somewhere inside that murky mess was the black worm, gnawing away. Gnawing away.

          I slogged along, barely able to hold my nose out of the mud, until a tree brought me to a stop. That’s how conquered I felt, to stumble face-first into a tree and not care enough to even wince.

          “We’d best stop for the night, Fawrlingswad,” said Peter. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him, but maybe sleep is the answer.”

          “… terrible … horrid feeling, Peter. Something bad … we have to find Mish-Shka. Oooow, it’s terrible … horrid …” Bandy nuzzled my neck and watched me with worried eyes.

          We weren’t yet into the endless forests, but rather a small, tight grove some farmer had not yet gotten around to destroying. Peter found the only shelter available, an abandoned vehicle, almost totally enveloped with crawling briars and sumac. One door was laying some ways away, as though it had been ripped off the machine and cast aside by a power beyond man’s … if there is such a thing. Bandy coaxed me into the rusting carcass and onto a seat that was shredded down nearly to the springy, metal framework. Then the two of them settled in around me. To an extent, it was comforting, just to see them touch each other and share a concern.

          Peter was clumsy at giving comfort. “Whatever it is you feel, Daks, I tell you … it’s just plain silly. That’s all. Silly! Mish-Shka can take care of himself, and so can Teena. Even the way she is now.” My head nodded, but there was no conviction in it.

          “Peter’s right, Daksie. As shocking as that might seem, he’s right this time. Meesh? … why, the old geez is simply taking his sweet time. You know how perverse old folks can be. Not to mention a pregnant female.”

          Pregnant?

* * *

          Did he say … pregnant? pre-HEH!-gnant? The word ricocheted back and forth across my skull like a gleaming metal ball.

          “PREGNANT?” I asked, as nonchalantly as I could with a voice that made me sound like a magpie being throttled. A gale-strength wind had entered one ear and blew the confusion from my mind, out the other, leaving only the shiny shard of that word behind. Suddenly, completely, the mysteries made sense. Teena’s mood. Peter’s nerves. It all made sense. “Miss Ah-Teena is PREGNANT?”

          “Why, yes. Teena’s pregnant,” said Peter. “You knew that didn’t you, Daks? It was hard to miss.”

          “Uuuuuhhhh, SURE! Of course I did. I knew it all along.” I had the unfortunate luck to be staring straight into Bandy’s eyes as I lied. He saw my eyes water and the good fellow kept it to himself, for which I was oh-so thankful. I prayed for Peter to know nothing of my stupidity. This new misery was every bit as painful as the other, but I could see the face of this pain. This worm was ice-water clear.

          “And, uh … and I know that you’re the father, Peter. That’s right, isn’t it? You and Miss Ah-Teena … you and her, uh … and now you’re going to be a … a daddy?”

          “Oh, Daks. I’m so sorry. I thought you knew.”

          He knew.

* * *

          As I bolted from beneath their pity and stumbled through the fields, no one could have convinced me there could be anything worse than what I was feeling. Betrayal. Humiliation. Shattered hope. A three-pronged thorn straight into my softest part. There is nothing worse …

          … I thought …

          … for not much longer …

          … for I was soon to learn how bad things can be.

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