The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

PART FIVE

A HARD WAY HOME

Chapter 36

 

          Bandy and Peter were somewhere behind, calling my name. What remained of my rational self knew they would catch up. I could never get away from Peter’s nose and long legs. Yet I was quite prepared to snap his stupid nose off and ruin those stupid long legs of his with my righteous rage. I hated him.

          I hated Mish-Shka as much. And Bandy for not telling me.

          And I hated myself, for being so dense. And Ah-Teena. She must have known how I felt about her. How could she not know? Pregnant! Carrying Peter’s spawn! I was ready to fight and puke up at the same time.

          My own legs have never moved faster. My own nose has never cut the cruel air with anymore resolve. Any light or warmth from the sun was long gone and Bandy had predicted right: it was a night to numb the dangling nuggets. But I didn’t care. No cold, no gaping wound ringed with gangrene, no prolonged and writhing death … nothing could ever matter again. Such shame I felt, and such anger.

          I was atop the teat-shaped hill before I knew it was there. A chilling breeze blew off the ponds, pushing the steam directly to me. But the nauseating odors were nothing, insignificant—not while the very perpetrator of my agony, the worst betrayer of them all … the pregnant witch, herself … was there. Right there, at the bottom of the hill.

* * *

          They were huddled against one of those steel guarding rails. Mish-Shka was hunched over her, mounted over her back and noodling about in some ungainly fashion while she remained relatively immobile. The BEAST! He was taking her! He was using her in that same ignoble way that Peter had. And she STOOD for it!

          Could they do this thing, even while she carried Peter’s bastards, behind my back? Had this been why Mish-Shka came on this expedition in the first place? Did he miss her promiscuous ways? Ooooh, the treachery of it. Surrounded by betrayal!

          My oh my, are they going to hear a piece of my mind! My revenge would be as merciless as words can possibly be. This time, I will say what I think! And they’d better listen! The promise of seeing them shrink away in shame from my scathing accusations was almost—almost!—enough to make me ignore the thunder of the truck as it returned around the far curve. Powerful lights blazed through the drifting steam like tiny suns, casting monstrous shadows over the buildings and the hills behind. I stomped down the slope blinded by the glare—actually stepped through the immense shadows of Mish-Shka’s legs as they snaked and twisted over the hillside—and was halfway there. Halfway to my revenge.

          Mish-Shka rose over Ah-Teena, standing to full height with his front paws on the guard railing. What a demon he could be, gnarled and gaunt, beyond fear. The machine’s lights brought a hellish fire to his eyes, completing the vision. As I hurdled towards him, he snarled at the approaching truck. I was all tumbling fat and incoherent mind, just a swirling boil of rage, jealousy and shame. Even as I reached the narrow swath of weeds bordering the first of the ponds, I still believed Mish-Shka had joined with Ah-Teena, entered her there atop the filth of men, mocking me in my full view. But then that didn’t matter, suddenly. The worm returned, the dreadful worm, only now I could see it’s terrible purpose. I knew beyond doubt why the young men had come back. “GET OUT OF THERE!” I screamed.

          The brazen, white light emphasized the rolling curve of Ah-Teena’s belly. The belly I adored but Peter had filled. She pulled, clawed with her forelegs, strained with her hind legs, but could not escape. The jewels on Henrietta’s collar reflected the light back in a thousand shards, and as Ah-Teena struggled, the shards spun around the hillside like stars. The collar held her in place. It was looped over something that projected from the guard rail, and no matter what she did, it would not loosen its hold.

          “GET OUT, AH-TEENA! MISH-SHKA!” The giant bellowed back a command for me to stay away, then leapt to the very center of the road, into the path of the machine. He bristled with defiance. His shoulder blades were like wings sprouting from his back. I reached Ah-Teena just as Mish-Shka disappeared beneath the truck. Through a cloud of dust, stinging gravel and machine noise, I saw Smiddy hanging out the side window. His arms waved wildly above his head and he cackled with lust.

          “THREE POINTS! THUH-REEEEEEE POINTS!”

          From a lifetime’s share of agility, Mish-Shka must have saved up the last sip to escape that truck’s wheels, for whatever it takes to throw one’s self out of the way, that is what he’d done. He was on the other side of the road, fighting to his feet. The truck went on, nearly smashing into the first of the buildings. But at the last possible moment, it turned sideways and careened off into a new direction before shuddering to a stop.

          Bedamned feeble brain of mine. I could do nothing but swing back and forth, from Mish-Shka to Ah-Teena. “Daks! Do something about this collar!” she whispered. She was choking.

          “GET HER LOOSE, DAKS!” One of Mish-Shka’s hind legs seem to be causing him trouble, stopping him from finding his balance. It skewed off an odd direction away from his withered hindquarters and flopped about with a lunatic mind of its own. “GET HER AWAY!”

          I was vaguely aware that Peter was also screaming at me, screaming at all of us as he tore down the hill, but I couldn’t tell what he said. The machine was moving again and rattling with a mechanical fury. YA’ MISSED ‘EM, PUMPER!” screeched Smiddy. “YA’ MISSED ‘EM BOTH!” Pumper maneuvered his truck, spinning the tires and throwing smoke and stones into the pools. Once again, the headlamps blinded me.

          “DAKS! THE COLLAR!” I ducked under her chest and grabbed at the metal knob. A dreadful mistake. Cold steel. I bit so hard that I could hear my teeth chipping and I could taste blood. The truck was coming again. I didn’t have to look. Beyond the crunching roar of its engine and the spin of its tires, I could feel Ah-Teena’s body tense even more and strain to escape. The collar was twisted once around the steel knob and every move she made only tightened it more.

          “Go … go, Daks,” she hissed. “They’ll kill us all.”

          What I did next came out of pure desperation, but pure desperation was all I had left. I crammed my nose into her soft underthroat hard enough to make her cough and snagged Henrietta’s collar with my lower jaw. There was no more than one sore tooth hooked into the thin strap, but I pushed and pushed and worked it farther into my mouth. Ah-Teena winced and tried to speak, but she had no air left. With two of us now occupying the same collar, there was no room for a breath. The jewels cut my tongue and ground like pebbles on my teeth, but I kept chewing and gnawing until I felt the aged leather begin to give way, a tiny strand at a time, so slowly. So slowly.

          Given the proper time, what is there we couldn’t accomplish? There are no other limits so catastrophic as running out of time. Stature, weakness, stupidity—no handicap is as overwhelming as having not a moment left. Given enough time, everything is possible. Given enough time, I might have chewed through the collar, released Ah-Teena, and we would have been on our way with no further loss. But machines hold no regard for time. There is nothing in them that allows for the extra moments most of us need on occasion.

          I would never be allowed the time to finish gnawing through the collar, that much I knew. Smiddy shrieked out, “THREE POINTS … SIX POINTS … NINE POINTS,” as though he were measuring off the shrinking distance. “THERE’S NINE POINTS NOW, PUMPER!”

          “Daks … let it go,” said Ah-Teena, very softly, and I could feel her body relax, give up. With whatever I had left … with the brittle fibers of my nails on through my quaking legs and curdling blood … with lungs filled with fire and a heart filled with ice … I took the strap with teeth that normally couldn’t crack a hummingbird’s spine and jerked backwards with muscles that normally couldn’t push away an angry squirrel. My eyes nearly popped from their sockets, and when the collar came loose, I scraped my ribs and bonked my head on the rough road as I tumbled butt over eye-brow, backwards.

          But, yes … Henrietta’s collar came loose.

          Ah-Teena was free.

          And there was I, sitting in the center of the road …

          … with Henrietta’s blasted collar dangling from my mouth …

          … with time only to lick the black tire before it turned all my addled components into a small, flat smear …

          … or …

          … enough time for Mish-Shka to take my addled head between his loving teeth and throw me like a lost slipper over his loving shoulder.

* * *

          I have seen silly birds challenge these machines. They’ll sit on a road until the last possible moment, picking at small, flat smears, and then spring into the air just before being hit. If given the choice … if, as Ah-teena believes, we return from death in different forms … I never want to become the soul of a silly bird. In my adventures, I have dined on crunchy seeds and crunchier insects, I have perched in a tree, and now I was flying over the deadly nose of a smear-making machine. I have served enough time as a bird.

          In his younger days, Mish-Shka could have sent me sailing me over the top of the truck. Over the tops of trees, I bet. I barely cleared the fender, twirling in clear air, a chubby mottled snowflake in a high wind. The edge of the truck passed below. A whisker brushed a headlamp. A toe might have scratched some paint. Henrietta’s collar pinged on glass. The breeze off the truck hummed in my ears, a high-pitched whistle that was almost pleasant, like the sound a single, puffy cloud might make in a blue sky.

          If only it hadn’t been punctuated with that wet thud.

* * *

          My flight ended against another structure of steel, a sharp post on the other side of the road from Ah-Teena. Some day, when men have completed their hideous mission, all of creation will be turned to cold, unyielding steel. Anything else but steel would probably not have broken my leg. Even the roadbed was softer than steel. Or with a little more height to my trajectory, I might have cleared the post and come down in the pond. In his younger days, I bet Mish-Shka could have thrown me well out into the pond, maybe to the weeds on the other side. Yet I’ve never faulted him. In his last moment, his strength was ebbing away, his leg was broken like mine, and he gave the only thing he had left to save my life. For me to have come out of it with nothing but a broken leg is testament to Mish-Shka’s real strength, something so vigorous it can never fade with age. Something that grows and sharpens and is ever more beautiful the older it gets.

* * *

          He came to rest not far from where I did, and the truck made it not much farther. I felt satisfaction that Pumper and Smiddy and their blasted truck went over a steel rail and into a lake of shit—probably because Pumper was a drunken, murderous fool who couldn’t steer the truck straight after hitting such a large bird as Mish-Shka. Or maybe it happened because Smiddy, another drunken fool of a murderer, went uncontrollably insane with their odious victory and screamed like cold steel tearing along a jagged line, all the way to the bottom of the pool. “THHHREEEE PO-EEEEENTZ!”

          There was satisfaction in that, too. Particularly since none of us saw Pumper or Smiddy come from below the surface. (I spent days hoping—praying—that their throats had filled with the noxious waste and they had drowned.)  The other fellow, Goofus—the one who had mistaken me for a beaver—he lived. He flailed to the surface, spat up on the side of the pool and bled from a wound in the head. But I never felt he had taken an active role in the murder. He was simply a drunken fool. (Then, after that period when I’d prayed Pumper and Smiddy were drowned, I was angry they hadn’t made it to the bank like Goofus, so I could have ripped at their throats and eaten their hearts.)

          But still, there was some satisfaction to be had from the affair, though I didn’t experience it for many, many days after. (It took many, many hours just for Ah-Teena and Bandy to convince me to open my jaws and leave Henrietta’s collar behind.)  After many days of not knowing how to comprehend the enormity of such a crime, I decided that if Pumper and Smiddy return from death in another form, it would be satisfying if they come back as steel.

* * *

          The pyre lacked the grandeur of Bon-Bon’s. The setting was much less than Mish-Shka deserved, but they couldn’t have carried him any farther, not one step. It was just Peter, Bandy and Ah-Teena doing the lifting, and with Mish-Shka’s size, they were near to collapsing by the time they got him to that tight grove of trees some farmer had not yet gotten around to destroying. Even if I’d helped, we would never have reached the majestic and solemn place he deserved, and I couldn’t help. I couldn’t even walk. They carried, mostly dragged, Mish-Shka for a distance, then Peter returned and hauled me by my scruff. Even without the shattered thigh, I’m not sure I could have helped carry Mish-Shka. I was already carrying so much. My mouth would not let go of Henrietta’s collar, not for hours yet, and my mind would not let go of the notion that if we took him all the way home, to Cawley’s warm cave and his tribe, everything would be okay. That all the limp giant needed was his home and his friends and he would be himself again.

          With much difficulty and maneuvering, they laid him on the front seat of the abandoned car and surrounded his body with whatever twigs and branches could be found in such a small grove. All the while, I argued with a fever how improper it was to leave him there, in a strange land, with mountains and mountains and mountains separating him from his family. They didn’t try to dissuade me and they didn’t ignore me, either. But they never quite answered me. They just did what they felt had to be done, and of course they were right. It would have been impossible to take Mish-Shka home. But no argument, no degree of logic, could change my mind. Not for hours.

          When they had him covered as completely as possible, when only a few patches of wiry, grey hair and his broad nose could be seen through the kindling, Peter took off into the night and was gone for a long time. Bandy led me to a dugout spot under the tail end of the car and curled his body around mine. I didn’t sleep. My thoughts were swirling about like muddy floodwaters. Steel and mountains and mountains and steel … and throats that must be ripped if there were any justice ever … and friends that can never be lost. I told Bandy all of my swirling thoughts and he nodded and licked my brow. He didn’t sleep either.

          Nor did Ah-Teena sleep. She spent the whole time outside the ripped-off door and sobbed until Peter returned with fire.

* * *

          He had followed a scent of burning pine through clusters of houses, until he found the one with a chimney that still fumed. Through an entire wall made of glass, Peter could see a woman asleep in a chair with her feet warming at a dying fire. The only other light inside the house was a moving-picture machine that cast blue shadows out over the frozen lawn. What that woman must have thought, to be snapped out of sleep by the shock of glass shattering—to open her eyes on the figure of a Golden wraith, stealing fire from beneath her nose. Peter knocked a heavy, steel cooking chamber into the glass wall—a barbecue, my mother’s masters called it. If humans have legends and myths (and if they don’t, they should, for nothing would bring them the humility they so conspicuously lack as a few heroes to emulate and a few monsters to fear) the woman will tell her children of the fire-eating specter that invaded her home, and they will tell their children. Our legends will overlap with theirs, like two rivers converging.

          And when some farmer gets around to destroying that tight grove, when he finds the burnt-out, abandoned car with the charred bones of a mighty Ogg mixed in with the seat springs and twisted metal, will he combine his knowledge with the frightened woman’s? Will they piece together the story? When they pull Pumper’s truck out of the pond, will they fit the two dead boys into the puzzle?

          I wish I knew.

* * *

          The torch was weak by the time Peter returned, but fire still lived within it. He came loping awkwardly through the stubble field with the unburned end in his mouth. Sparks popped from the other end and went dim as they floated down. Ah-Teena gathered wisps of pine needles, dried out from the cold, and put them all on one spot next to Mish-Shka’s body. Peter waited patiently, then pushed the reluctant ember into the needles. Bandy huddled close to my back and said kind things into my ear as they smoldered.

          “Daks, you must let go of the collar,” whispered Ah-Teena. “Henrietta won’t mind. And you must let it go.”

          “Leave it with Meesh, Daksie. He’d like that.” It was the first time I’d seen Bandy cry. It confused me even further, for Rawl’Colmbs don’t cry like Oggs and at first, I didn’t know what was happening to him.

          “That’s it … he’s right,” said Peter. “Henrietta would love to know her collar stayed behind with Meesher. Let me have it, Daks. Let me put it in with him.”

          “No. Let me.” I tried to climb up into the car, but my broken leg wouldn’t allow it. Mercifully, it had remained relatively numb, but only as long as I didn’t try to step on it. Climbing into the car was out of the question. “Put me up … please, put me up. I’ll show you. Mish-Shka doesn’t need any old collar. Put me up there, and you’ll see.” Peter shrugged, then put his nose under my belly and lifted while Bandy steadied my hind legs until I was on the car seat, touching Mish-Shka’s cold nose with my own.

          Only then did I know he was gone. Only then did I realize the old warrior would not be healed by my love or anyone else’s.

          The car filled with acrid smoke and if not for that, I might have stayed there. I laid my throat against his and my snout against his ear until my eyes were swollen shut and I couldn’t breath without coughing. I arranged Henrietta’s broken collar over his shoulder so that one end draped down on his great chest. Even then, Bandy had to coax me away.

          The dry needles caught, then the thin twigs, the heftier branches, right on up through Mish-Shka. The smoke turned to black and flames sprouted from the open door into the frozen trees. The smells were horrid. Plastic shriveling. Hair burning. Flesh boiling. But we stayed until there was not an ember to be seen. Before we left, all of our eyes were swollen shut and none of us could breath without coughing.

          Did even one human rise from his bed and see the flames in the distance? Could even one of them have guessed a king was gone?

          Oh how I wish I knew. There would be some small satisfaction in knowing.

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