A HARD WAY HOME
… and didn’t come awake for many anxious days.
I felt awful … responsible … culpable! … for his horrifying condition. The items I had sent him to retrieve remained crammed to one side in a crumpled mess as testament to my guilt. He floated between death and delirium. His hindquarters had been badly mauled, a rear leg ripped to the bone at the thigh. Worst of all, his tail, once so bushy and alert it seemed to have a mind of it’s own, was taken off by half. All that remained was a length of bone and gore-soaked brush. It was more than I had, but I knew that whenever—and if—he came alive again, knowing that his tail was ruined would kill him.
Ah-Teena dug down into a rotting tree and found grubs. I spit them, one by one, into his mouth while Peter forced his jaws open with a tapered stick. Bandy fought back reflexively, but we kept at it. He had to eat, after all, or surely he would have died. When we weren’t force-feeding him, Ah-Teena warmed him with her ever-expanding belly and Peter roamed about outside, patrolling the area. “It’s Roth for sure,” he said. “I can smell him on Fawrlingswad’s coat.” Day and night, he watched the surrounding hills.
I told them about our previous battle with Roth and Anna-Bar. Peter had already heard it from Mish-Shka, but I told them anyway, about how Mish-Shka had almost died. Peter hadn’t heard that part. The old hero had left out a few pertinent details. I also told them how Bandy had saved us, but Mish-Shka hadn’t left that detail out.
“Daks, I know he’s your friend. I know he fought with you and I know how much we owe him … I know. But I don’t think he will live. He can’t live through this, I just don’t see how he could. He’s lost so much blood. And those murdering D’Buerr-Munns are out there, slithering around. I’m so worried, Daks. Roth could have followed Fawrlingswad’s trail here with his eyes gouged out. I … well, I just don’t think we can afford to wait.”
My skin tightened and I braced myself. “You aren’t implying that we leave him here? Alone? Peter?”
But I had been unfair and had judged too quickly. He stared at me for a few moments before he answered. “I … no. No! I wouldn’t leave him here. I couldn’t do that! That would be wrong. It’s just that … “ His eyes wavered with desperation, “It’s just that the puppers are coming. I’ve never been so worried, Daks. Don’t tell Teena, but … the puppers … Teena … I’m afraid for them. I’m no match for those two devils. Believe me, I know. But to leave Fawrlingswad … that would be wrong. Just wrong!”
* * *
We waited it out. Through three snow storms, five nights, two heavy freezes and six days, we hunkered down around Bandy and warmed him while he shivered with fever, fed him while he trembled with weakness, and comforted him while he swooned with visions. When Ah-teena wasn’t licking his wounds, Peter was, or I. The tear on his thigh festered and changed from one ghastly color to another, but Peter chewed the bark from shrubs and saplings I didn’t know the names of until there was nothing but a slushy paste which we spread on his wounds. Then we packed on special mosses from hidden places.
“Will this work, Peter?”
“I don’t know, Daks. I just don’t know. But it couldn’t hurt. Nothing could make matters worse.”
Something worked. He lived.
Six days after Bandy came crawling back to the shelter, he came crawling awake. “His first words were, “Grubs? I get grubs? This is what Oggs feed their disabled veterans?”
You might have thought we’d witnessed a miracle, the way Peter and Ah-Teena carried on. Peter put a sore on his tongue, licking Bandy so passionately, and I feared that Ah-Teena might start spewing out puppers. She was spun around in an intense celebration dance.
Of course, I was happy. More than that, I couldn’t control myself and I wet all over Peter’s leg. But it wasn’t as though I didn’t expect Bandy to live. There was never a doubt in my mind he would come through it. It was simply a matter of basic nature, of how the world cannot abide a vacuum. My heart had room for only one void at a time, and Mish-Shka was enough. Nothing, not even basic nature, could ever have been so cruel as to allow my heart another hole so huge.
* * *
My marvelous idea for the extra sack and the extra plastic mesh proved to be even more marvelous than I first believed. Originally, it had been my intention to load the other sack with the proper quantity of stones to counterbalance my weight. But with Bandy’s misfortune, we didn’t have to gather up rocks. His weight was sufficient to counterbalance mine, and then some.
It took a great deal of explaining for the rest of them to comprehend what I had in mind, and it was even harder to execute. The bags had to be attached to the plastic net securely enough that they wouldn’t drop off. We tried everything. I was ready to give it up when Ah-Teena hit upon a solution. “You see,” she said, with a somewhat smug tone to her voice. “All we have to do is poke this end through there … yes, like that … then pull that end back through the other end. No no no, let me show you how. Peter, do make yourself useful and hold onto this while I pull, okay? There! That’s it! You see? You see? It will hold!”
The end result? Both bags were laced solidly to opposite ends of the plastic mesh. “Bandy in one side and me in the other,” I cried, elated to see my idea in practice. “The weight will be on Peter’s shoulders, not his jaws.”
When the practicality of my invention dawned upon them, I was the hero of the moment. “Fine. Mighty fine, Daks,” Peter told me. “I do believe it will work. Yes, indeed.” Even Bandy congratulated me.
“How did you come up with this, Daksie? There must be Rawl’Colmb blood in you.”
For a satisfying while, I allowed them to think I had created this marvel myself, with no help from any outside source. In truth—and I felt compelled to confess the following afternoon—the idea occurred to me because of something I had seen in the hunter’s camp, hanging on either side of the horses, Sam and Dave.
Getting into the bags proved to be another problem. We struggled for hours, Bandy and I, trying to slip into our respective compartments without pulling the whole thing off Peter’s back. Next, we tried to drop in from the tops of stumps and large rocks, both at the same time, but we could never coordinate our landings properly. Everything is harder on three legs after becoming accustomed to four. Eventually, Peter lost all patience and stormed off into the forest to cool down. When he returned, he had reached the solution. “Get into the bags first, fellows. Then I’ll crawl under and lift you up.”
And how embarrassing this hadn’t occurred to me, this obvious solution. But I had learned a useful lesson. Marvelous ideas are seldom the sole property of one individual. Marvelous ideas need to be shared to be truly marvelous.
* * *
We spent one more night there and had ourselves a feast. Peter brought a goose—a big, wild fellow which had beaten him nearly senseless in the taking—and Ah-Teena found a root that would have been tasteless by itself, but smeared with goose fat, it was wonderful. While we dined, Bandy told us about his encounter with Roth and Anna-Bar.
“On a straight-away path, it didn’t happen very far from here. Two or three ridges over, that’s all. There’s a glacier of trash there, spreading down into a gully like festering mange. I think every human in the world has thrown at least one thing out, down that hill. It’s fascinating, you know, what they will discard. I spent half the morning, just browsing and chatting with the locals. There’s an entire Rawl’Colmb family living in a big metal box. Mater, Pater, and a horde of youngsters. No relation of mine, thank the ancient kings. They’re so out of touch with mainstream Rawl’Colmb thinking, they’ve never even heard of me. When I assume the throne, I am committed to bringing a proper education to those benighted outlanders. That I am! As a fact, I tried to do some educating while I was there, but they would have none of it. Never let me be the one to say that ignorance and obstinacy are to be found among Oggs, alone.”
“Ummm, Fawrlingswad … about Roth, if you please.”
“Of course, Pete. I’m coming to it. Well, Daks, let me tell you. I could have found all the bags and plastic nets you might ever need. Bags were blowing around like hatchling spiders, stuck in the bushes, clogging up streamlets … an ugly mess. So, after the ingrate Rawl’Colmbs chased me away, I picked the strongest looking bag and started up the hill. You know, those bags are no easy thing to carry when the wind fills them up. It tangled my feet and tripped me. The mesh wrapped around my nose. Hard, hard work! By the time I made it to the scrabble road at the top of the hill, I was one frustrated chap. If not for all the distraction, Roth and that witch of his would never have surprised me like they did. They came at me before I had time to prepare a proper defense. The only thing I could do was dive into a short piece of piping. Oh, I tell you, it was horrid. I had to crouch like a rat to get in and could barely turn around. The bottom was covered with the filthiest, foulest fluids you can imagine.
“It was just large enough for the savages to get their snaky heads into, and just short enough for one of them to reach my back parts while I faced the other. From both ends, they came at me, chewing away at my poor bum a little chunk at a time. That female, that Anna-Bar, she took my tail off. She’s a scarred horror now, after what I did to her on the other side of the mountain, and she is one bitter, bitter bitch. She danced and crowed like a devil triumphant with my beautiful tail in her teeth. Ah, had I but finished the job before. You know, I had her throat in my grasp, that morning with Meesh. But alas, I let it go out of natural Rawl’Colmb magnanimity.”
“Very generous of you, I’m sure, Fawrlingswad.” Peter was unusually patient, waiting for the raccoon’s story to unfold. “But how did you escape? I’m sure it was a spectacular display.” He turned his head away and rolled his eyes.
“Well, I would rather say it was something I did that saved my own fat. But unfortunately, that wouldn’t be entirely true. The fact is, if some humans hadn’t come along just then, I would have been nothing more than a glop of D’Buerr-Munn dung by now. I was so stunned to see my tail wafting in the breeze that I dropped my guard and the male got my leg. He was pulling me out to finish me off when these humans rumbled down the road. A seedy couple they were, in a seedy truck full of trash and filthy children. But they gave the Oggs enough of a scare that I was able to slip away. The Oggs went one way, and I went the other.
“It wasn’t for some time that I understood the true nature of my wounds. I left so much blood behind even Daks could follow, and I knew good and well those two monsters didn’t consider themselves done with shredding me up. I was fortunate to come across that small river we had crossed the day before. The water might have killed me, even if my wounds didn’t. But I went in anyway. Only Rawl’Colmb trackers know how to follow a trail through water.”
“But that river ran away from this spot,” Ah-Teena said. “And it flowed fast and strong.”
“That’s right, madam. That’s exactly right! It doesn’t flow as much as it cascades. It carried me further and further away. I was fortunate to grasp onto a floating log before I lost consciousness. I don’t know how long I was out, but I awoke to find myself washed up on a sand bar with three hungry-looking crows eyeing my poor, mangled body. From then on, it was walk a while, crawl a while, until it all turned into ‘crawl a while’. I think it’s rather remarkable that I ever returned. Don’t you?”
“And you saw no more of Roth?”
“Oh, I heard them, haunting the forest in the middle of the night. They howled and chanted together as though they were worshipping something hovering just overhead in the black. I was a good ways from them, but it turned my spine to ice, I tell you! They are mad, those two. Moon mad! Their brains must sit inside their skulls backwards.”
I asked the question that had so obviously been on Peter’s mind for all of the days Bandy spent recuperating. “Where are they now? Are they still … are they near?”
“Can’t answer that one, my boy. All I can tell you is that they were going away from here the last I knew. Following the river down, no doubt, and chasing shadows through the woods. They might be halfway to the edge of the world by now.”
We sat for several minutes in silence, chewing on goose meat and thinking, each to ourselves. Peter stared into the night and swallowed. “I doubt it.”
* * *
By midday, we were climbing onto the very lap of the highest mountains, that same range from which I had descended weeks earlier under Mish-Shka’s guidance. Bandy and I did none of the climbing. We hung like two, immense testicles down either side of Peter’s back while he did the climbing for us.
What a clownish spectacle we must have been, Peter struggling upwards through snow and rock with we crippled lumps on his back, and Ah-Teena waddling along behind, her belly so full she might have been carrying another crippled lump on the inside. Bandy was unrelenting in his criticism of the ride Peter provided. “Don’t try to go through there! Can’t you see we’ll be scraped off like great scabs! Go around … over there, where the brush isn’t so thick. And watch out for that tree, you … you … “ He always stopped short of calling Peter a name, and for that much, I was extremely grateful.
Ah-Teena, in contrast, honored no such boundaries as Bandy. It seemed her disdain for the Golden was without limits. “You clumsy oaf! You just smacked me in the face with that branch. And on purpose, I’m sure. You’ve done everything possible to destroy these little ones. Now, you’re battering me with tree limbs. A fine figure you are, Peter. Fill me with puppers, then beat me to pieces. A great example to your sons you’ll be.”
Peter endured the abuse. Not once did he turn on either Ah-Teena or Bandy and tell them how unfair they were being. Like a champion, he took their constant insults and invective, and pulled us along. Step after step. Up and up. Through the bag, I felt his noble chest sigh and his broad shoulders shrug, but not once did he let his frustration come out.
At least, not until I made the mistake of saying something.
“Peter, I remember this place. We came down this way with Mish-Shka.”
“Shut up, Daks! I can’t abide the constant chatter. Just … just shut up!”
Hours later, he apologized. “That was awful of me, Daks. I don’t know how I could have said that to you.”
We had stopped for the night. Within the cradle of a huge tit of stone, split down the middle by some ancient catastrophe, we were out of the piercing wind. Peter was going for whatever he could scrounge for supper, but before he left, he called me aside. I was getting proficient at hobbling on three legs for short distances, and I followed him out into the gathering dusk. “That’s okay, Peter. I don’t mind if you yell at me. If only you wouldn’t do it in front of Miss Ah-Teena, though. It’s sort of embarrassing. You know?”
“I know, little fellow. What I did was terrible, but I’m so afraid we won’t get home before the puppers come.” His voice dropped to a thin whisper. “The heart of winter is upon us. I just don’t know quite what to do.” Then he cried.
He didn’t want me to see, and turned away, into the forest. But I don’t have to see the tears flow to know when someone is crying.
* * *
At least once a day, usually in the evening before supper, Ah-Teena and Bandy helped me out of the plastic sling and made me stretch that busted leg. I dreaded those times more than anything. It hurt so much, to have it bouncing loosely, useless, and every move I made put that entire side of my body through a number of unique sensations, all of them painful.
“That’s exactly why you have to do it, Daksie. Does it tingle?”
“By tingle, do you mean that feeling like a million red ants are snacking on my leg and shoulder and foot and back?”
“That is blood, chummy. Your blood. Squooshing into places it hasn’t been for much too long.”
“I don’t want to talk about blood.” I still had in my mind the image of Bandy’s blood flowing from his haunch like melting poppies, and the unnatural colors it had turned as the infection took hold. And I still remembered with vivid sorrow the thin streamlet of blood that dripped from Mish-Shka’s lips in lieu of final words. “Let’s just not talk about it.”
“Daks … oh, Daksie, my boy. We must never ignore blood. Warm and gooey and secret … it’s remarkable stuff. If your blood isn’t moving about, neither are you. And even when you’re not moving, you’re blood is. That’s assuming you’re not belly-up, eyes-back dead. Every tip and corner of you’re pudgy body needs blood, and that inconvenient leg has not been getting its proper dosage. You don’t want to wear a beer-can truss for the rest of your life, do you? You don’t want that leg to wither up black and drop off?”
Ah-Teena was no help. She agreed with the Rawl’Colmb and forced me through a rigorous therapy every night. “I know it hurts, Daks, but move it anyway. Step on it. Just a little bit, or you might never step on it again.”
For a long time, I couldn’t put even the tiniest bit of pressure on that foot, not enough to bend a moth’s wing, without needles of pain streaking up and down the leg. “Don’t try walking,” Ah-Teena said. “You’ll know when it’s ready to carry your weight again.”
Bandy healed quicker than I. The mushed concoctions Ah-Teena applied to his wound worked, and the gash began to close. “You’ll be walking again in no time, Fawrlingswad,” commented Peter.
“Oooooh dear me, I don’t think so.” Whenever anyone brought up his torn flank, Bandy swooned and sniveled as though he were living his last moments. “I don’t think that would be wise at all. According to the latest in Rawl’Colmb medical arts, the best treatment for a festering botherment as I have suffered is to remain nest-ridden. And if that proves to be impossible … as in the present case … it is imperative that I be transported from place to place until such time as the hair grows back over the wound. And really, Peter, you are getting quite good at toting Daks and myself through the rough spots. I commend you. You seem to have overcome your natural clumsiness.”
* * *
Even in those frozen altitudes, we were surrounded by food. I felt some guilt over eating so well when our primary source of nourishment consisted of starving deer, but maybe it was for the best that Peter brought a few of the weaker ones down. What a miserable existence these pathetic creatures endured. The hunters had left the mountains, so the deer no longer had to live every moment with the threat of their flesh being blown apart with rifles. But they had traded rapid death with the wasting famine that came with deep snow. We Oggs, given padded paws and a degree of common sense the deer and elk didn’t seem to possess, were able either to avoid the deepest drifts or to stay atop them. The deer, weakened by a dearth of vegetable food and cursed with sharp, penetrating hooves, floundered through the snow and forfeited any semblance of the lithe grace they possessed in better times.
“They should have made it into the lower places before they got trapped here,” grumbled Peter. “It’s stupidity to be in these mountains in winter.” We were huddled together for the night beneath a jagged outcropping of black rock, chewing on a tough old bull’s thigh and passing the evening commiserating about the deers’ misfortune. Ah-Teena had already fallen asleep, as she was wont to do every time she got off her feet.
“Pete, lest you have forgotten, all of the lower places are infested with human plague. The deer can’t go downhill for the winter. They are more conspicuous than even the most grotesque Oggs!” Bandy wasn’t being intentionally rude, but he became awfully grumpy when there was nothing to eat but venison. He didn’t much like deer meat or the diarrhea it produced in him. But he was in no shape to go after his own food, and Peter wasn’t about to go dunking for crayfish for his benefit.
“Stealing a little clover from humans, even to face their rifles, is better than starving, that’s what I say. And I repeat, they are simply stupid to be caught up here during the winter.”
I snuggled further into the warmth my companions offered, watched Ah-Teena’s swollen belly squirm as though she had swallowed live sparrows, and conducted an internal debate on whether or not I should point out that we had been caught up here during the winter.
* * *
What is winter good for, anyway? Just what purpose does it serve?
I try not to let unanswerable questions rule my thinking. Indeed, I had pushed aside other conundrums, pushed them from my thoughts in the same way I hold my breath when passing Skugh-Unks. I had stopped asking why Ah-Teena couldn’t have found me as attractive as she did Peter, why those puppers she carried couldn’t be mine. I had stopped asking why my darned leg had to break and why I had to lose my tail and my mother. I had stopped asking why Mish-Shka had to die. I had stopped wondering about Lah-Tsee—why the commitment to our search seemed to have faded away like a mist in the sun. In the cold and snow, all of that misery, death and dissolution had come to seem inevitable, even natural. As natural as crocus blooms in early spring and stinging flies in late summer. Maybe the answers to all bitter questions can be found in the deep of the grayest, coldest, bitterest winters. All answers but one.
What is winter good for, anyway?
Not one single creature seems to like it. Nothing thrives in the snow and cold. The deer die in droves because of winter. Bear and badger and squirrel prefer to sleep away the time. Bugs and snakes disappear altogether, and birds—the few that don’t leave the land entirely—spend those months puffed up like angry thoughts. Only the crows and magpies feed well, off the iced carcasses of the old and the infirm. But being fat and being happy aren’t the same thing, especially in winter.
It must be remembered that this was still my first winter, so I might be excused for having a jaded opinion of the season. When I opened my eyes for the very first time, back in the warming spring sun with my mom hovering over me and my brothers at my side wrestling over her teats, the first thing I remember seeing were crocus blooms in a bed of damp, black earth. When Ah-Teena’s puppers first opened their eyes, the first things they saw were needles of ice in a bed of bloodied snow. I imagine they have an entirely different view of winter. The three of them might even think of winter with fondness and nostalgia. The three of them might even say that winter is a good time to be born.
Of course, they will have no memory of the tiny sister and brother who were lost. Nor will they remember there were five of them at birthing, and there would likely still be five …
… if it weren’t for the winter.