The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

PART FIVE

A HARD WAY HOME

Chapter 39

 

         “Don’t you do it, Teena! I mean it! Don’t even think about it! This is no place … NO PLACE AT ALL!”

          Peter’s tongue swung from one far corner of his mouth to the other, his flanks quivered like fish flesh, and he danced about as though he were dodging bumblebees. “I’ll never forgive you, Teena. If you do this now … here in this place … I’ll never forgive you!”

          “You fool. The matter has been settled. Not by me, not by you … but … Oooooow!” For the entire morning and most of the afternoon, Ah-Teena hadn’t been able to complete even the shortest of thoughts without erupting into terrific moans. It’s fortunate that both Peter and Bandy had been around a birthing or two, for had I been alone with her, I would have been convinced she was dying. They ought to tell us things like this, those teachers of ours. Our mothers ought to pass it on and warn us what to expect. Who could guess that we are born in the midst of pain and blood, that our first moments are immersed in horror, that we resemble nothing so much as remarkably slimy turds when we emerge?

          I, for one, could have used the warning.

* * *

          By mid-afternoon, it was clear to Bandy what was about to happen, whether Peter liked it or not. About the time Ah-Teena’s birthing pains took the strength from her legs and her moans turned to tears, the Rawl’Colmb straightened up in his sack, throwing Peter off balance, and said, “I suggest you find us a shelter, chief. This is going to require as much warmth as we can muster up.”

          “No! Certainly not! Let’s keep our heads. Don’t jump to conclusions, Fawrlingswad. She’s simply having digestive troubles. Isn’t that right? Teena? That sick cow I brought in last night … you just had to eat the liver, didn’t you? I tried to tell you … I did! … I tried to tell you the deer looked sick, but you had to eat the liver!”

          Ah-Teena grimaced. “The puppers are coming, Peter. They’re here, and there’s nothing you can do to stop them. Oooh, my goodness!” She flopped to her side and tightened up like a rolly-polly bug.

          “Don’t do it, Teena! I mean it! Don’t even think about it. This is no place. . . NO PLACE AT ALL!” This was Peter at his most frantic, his most debilitated. His most useless.

          Bandy scrambled out of his side of the saddle and I dropped to the ground like a sack of swine guts. I don’t think Peter even noticed. He was hopping from foot to foot and denying the obvious. By the time I freed myself of the bag, Bandy had clawed a hole into the side of a frozen snowdrift big enough to accommodate his whole body. If his torn leg bothered him, it didn’t show. “Daks, see if you can get your googly friend Peter to help me out here.”

          “What are you doing?”

          “SHELTER! THAT’S WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT, DAKS! HAVING SHELTER WHEN WE NEED IT! THE BLOOD MUST BE KEPT WARM, OR IT’S NO HELP AT ALL!”

* * *

          With no help from Peter or myself, Bandy hollowed out a cave big enough for Ah-Teena to stretch out and deliver five puppers. Then, in between helping her with the birthing, calming my nerves, and keeping Peter from stepping on the slimy puppers, he chipped away at the cave until it was large enough to accommodate all four of us—all nine of us if you include the newly arrived.

          We filled the cave like the puppers must have filled Ah-Teena’s belly. There was heat to spare. And blood, oh my. Yes indeed, a fellow ought to be warned about what to expect. If only I could have remained blissfully unconscious after the first time I fainted. But alas, some perverse and sadistic resilience kept bringing me awake. And each awakening was timed so that I might witness Ah-Teena’s eyes popping out of her skull while another dripping, indistinguishable lump came bubbling out. My tummy would flip, vision would flutter, my breath would catch, and I would blink out again. Had I seen the whole thing from beginning to end, and without the emotional haven those fainting spells provided, I believe my hair would have turned grey.

          By fainting, though, I was conveniently out of the way. Peter and Bandy were fully occupied throughout the entire ordeal and neither of them had time to nurse me through my terror. The Golden was at one end, comforting Ah-Teena as best he could by allowing her to chew on his paws and claw at his chest when the pain was at its worst, and Bandy was at the other end, taking each pupper by the loose skin and tugging in the most gentle of ways until it was clear of her body. By the time it was done and all five babies were mewling at Ah-Teena’s teats, Bandy was soaked with blood and Peter had a bare spot on his chest. The three of them looked ragged, like they had gone for a full moon cycle without sleep. I felt quite rested and refreshed, myself, and ready to discuss the day’s events.

          “Is anyone hungry?” Peter asked, interrupting me in the middle of a dissertation on the merits of remaining heirless. He was panting as though the heat of summer were upon him. I feared his tongue might actually drop from his gaping mouth. He looked crazed—demented with pride—as he watched Ah-teena lick her swampy fluids off the newborns.

          Bandy yawned. “I suppose it’s venison again. Oh my, what I wouldn’t trade for just a whiff of pinkly salmon. Or just one succulent crayfish.” He was scratching lazily at the walls of the cave, covering the copious blood stains with snow shavings.

          “Fawrlingswad, I’ll be lucky to find even venison. Have you noticed it’s dark? I’ll probably have to go all the way back to last night’s kill and hope the crows left something for us.”

          “Don’t leave, Peter.” Ah-Teena turned to him with more concern in her eyes than I would have imagined possible a few days earlier. “We can go one night without eating.”

          “No. We have to eat. You have to eat, Teena … for five mouths and five bellies. They’re a good looking bunch, don’t you think? Teena … don’t you think they’re a good looking bunch?”

          “Absolutely beautiful, Peter. Just beautiful.”

          As for myself, I couldn’t think of food. Memories of the birthing were fresh in my mind and sticky birthing gunk still matted the pupper’s coats, squelching whatever appetite I might have had—if that appetite were not already squelched by a revived melancholy. Those wriggly puppers had put the final touches to what I had tried to deny, but could deny no more. Those puppers, as well as the tenderness that coated Ah-Teena and Peter both like some sticky birthing gunk, meant that she—all of them—belonged to something in which I could not be included.

          A family.

* * *

          Peter left and Bandy invited me to accompany him outside for a bit of air. Having no ready excuse not to, I hobbled after him on three, wobbly legs. “We’ll be back soon, Miss Ah-Teena. Don’t worry,” I said, but she was ministering to her children with a dedication that precluded any attention to either worry, or me.

          A bright moon was rising over the mountains and broken clouds, each dropping its own private little snowfall, drifted one by one across the sky like sleepy cows on their way to the barn. The flakes were the size of butterflies. It was not quite cold enough to bring on the shivers. Bandy stopped every few steps and filled his lungs with crisp air. “Delightful … just delightful. As delightful a night as one might find away from home, don’t you think? Daksie? Nice night, isn’t it?”

          “I suppose so.” We were walking downslope, following Peter’s tracks in an ambling, noncommittal sort of way. Bandy favored his wounded leg, and I could see that he would indeed have had difficulty trekking throughout an entire day without help. But for the leisurely stroll we were taking, he was perfectly capable. In fact, he was virtually running away from me. As I lurched along, my chin dipped in and out of the powdery surface, my whiskers iced and tufts of snow stuck to the end of my nose, forcing my eyes to cross. “I suppose it’s a delightful night … as nights go … given this miserable stupid snow and stupid cold and puppers squirming around like stupid wormy turds, taking up the only warm place on this whole stupid mountain … I suppose it’s a nice enough night.”

          I would have gone on, extolling the virtues of the evening, if I hadn’t had to stop and snort ice boogers out of my nostrils.

          “My, what a dour spirit we’re in, Daksie.” He stopped and waited for me to reach his side, then slowed his pace so that I could keep up. “I agree, a litter of bright-eyed Rawl’Colmbs would have added more to the average intelligence of the living kingdom than a crop of squishy Oggs. But there is a certain miraculous quality to any birthing, don’t you think? To see that bleary love in a mother’s eyes … well … it sort of brings out the romantic in me. Makes me ponder those higher truths. Makes me feel rather good about it all.”

          “I’m very happy for you, Bandy. But, frankly, I’ve seen a few higher truths tonight, myself. And I can’t say I’m all that pleased with the vision.”

          Bandy didn’t respond quickly. Other than the sound of our paws on the feathered snow, the mountain was as still as deep water. We came upon a steep drop, a rim plummeting nearly straight down and beyond the reach of the moon. A line of trees, limbs sagging under the weight of wet snow, cringed away from the abyss as though they were afraid of falling off. Bandy and I absently followed the ledge between the trees and the black plunge. Finally, he quietly asked, “What bothers you, Daks? Why are you so troubled?”

          I could no longer stop hot anger from washing over me, from the ugly stub on my butt to the toes on my trussed-up, busted leg. “I don’t know how you could see anything ‘miraculous’ in that … that … slimy mess. That’s all it was. A great, big slimy mess! Nothing ‘miraculous’ at all. Just blood and pee and stuff I can’t even name. And as far as your ‘bleary love’ goes, that was the worst part. I’m ashamed. Ashamed of the whole simpering bunch. Even you, Bandy. I’m ashamed of you!”

          “Aahh, you thought she might come your way, didn’t you? I see now. Oooh, I see. You were hoping she would turn her affections on you. That’s right, isn’t it Daks? I didn’t realize … “

          “You didn’t realize? YOU DIDN’T REALIZE? You didn’t give it much thought, right? You … Peter … Miss Ah-Teena … “ As her name passed from my mouth, it felt like a fish spine had caught in my throat. “You just didn’t give it much thought. None of you! Not even Mish-Shka. Well … well … I don’t care anymore. Not even a little bit. You can all go to blazes, as far as I’m concerned.”

          “Oh, Daks. I’m sorry. You didn’t say anything.”

          “Why should I say anything? There’s nothing to say … not to a bunch of insensitive … simpering … uh, uh … “

          “I know it’s painful, dear chum. I know.”

          Everything he said made me more angry. I was so mad that even if Bandy had been the size of a bull, I would still have challenged him. “Ooooh, you know how painful it is, do you? There’s nothing painful about it. I DON’T EVEN CARE! NOT ABOUT HER. NOT ABOUT THOSE PUKING PUPPERS. NOT PETER … AND NOT EVEN YOU, BANDY. I DON’T EVEN CARE ABOUT YOU!

          The mountain quaked beneath my fury. I would have challenged a thousand bulls. Maybe a million.

          “There will be more love for you, Daks. You won’t believe that now, but there’s always love to be had.”

          I stopped, my three good legs ready to kick the good sense out of a billion bulls, my tongue prepared to lacerate Bandy and his maudlin theory to bits. But as I set for the attack, another voice trembled out of those black shadows beneath the trees. A voice I knew, sweet and toxic. “You can love meeee, Daaaaeeeegz.”

          The shadows shifted and a face that could turn a brave fellow to stone came out into the revealing moonlight. Anna-Bar, her face grisly with scars, stepped into the open. “And I’ll love you back. I’ll just love you to death.”

* * *

          Bulls? Yes, I was prepared to chew the hide off bulls or the fire off stars.

          But I was not prepared for Anna-Bar.

          All that time ago, on the other side of the mountains, Bandy had done her mesmerizing beauty more damage than I could have imagined. Her thin lips had been torn in so many places each serpentine fang was exposed, and her jowls were a mangle of grotesque slashes. Almost nothing remained of one ear and on the other side of her face, an eye had been replaced by a horrid gash that still throbbed with purple hate.

          She was no more than ten paces away. She could have been upon us before my breath came back …

           … had she been in a hurry.

          “And you, Rawl’Colmb … fuzzy-wuzzy … lardy … Rawl’Colmb. I will love you too … to pieces. A thooooow-zand pieces. I am going to separate your liver from your lips, your eye balls from your ass. I will spread you out so far even the worms won’t know what they are eating.” As she spoke, spittle and air escaped from the crevasses in her cheeks, adding a wet and macabre inflection to her words. More than ever, she made me think of a huge, malevolent snake.

          With a bit of luck and a spectacular vertical leap, Bandy could have gone straight up, into a snow-bent bough over our heads, and on into the safety of a tree. I knew he was capable of such things. I’d seen him do it before.

          He did leap, yes. But instead of coming to roost in a branch, he lit between Anna-Bar and I, his legs stiff, his backed arched, and his teeth bared.

          “WITCH!” he shrieked. “You’ll not escape this time.” From my perspective, as I could see Anna-Bar looming over him like lethal black smoke, his threat seemed empty of all promise.

          But when left with nothing else, bluster has to do. “Yeah … yeah!” I blustered. “We took care of you once, and we’ll … “

          From above, from the direction we had come, a jagged scream echoed from cliff to cliff, gathering force as it soared over the cringing trees. I have heard the screams of just about every creature that has the ability to scream—Whawr-Hawrz, huge mountain Scrats, humans, birds, even the collective shriek of ants as wild fire swept them away—but nothing so utterly chills me as the scream from another Ogg. And no scream from any Ogg has so utterly chilled me as that scream. Even Anna-Bar stiffened with the shock, then her ravaged lips broke into a lusty grin. “Oh, drat. I so wanted to be there when the bitch died.”

          In pain unimaginable, combined with terror unthinkable and rage unfathomable, Ah-Teena was calling into the night for whatever help might be there, calling with the force of six vulnerable hearts.

          There was no question of what to do next, no thought of betrayed love, no time to consider my wounded affections. I reared up and spun like a determined hero. “Hold on, Miss Ah-Teena! I’m coming!”

* * *

          I went nowhere except over the side, into the silent plunge.

          Bandy, as though he were a mule, planted his front feet and kicked out with his back, and sent me soaring me out into the empty drop. “Luck be with you, chum,” he said after me. And once more, Daks was flying …

           … drifting through the ethers with no idea of direction or destination.

          Nothing particularly new.

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