The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

PART FIVE

A HARD WAY HOME

Chapter 42

          We came back to life, slowly, more like a walnut hardening off than a crocus bursting through or the explosion of lilacs. The stronger we became, the less I saw of the Wolven.

          Almost as soon as he was able to walk, Bandy went to bring in food. It wasn’t much at first, for he didn’t have the strength to go far. He might spend no more than a few minutes outside the cave and return with a sprig hung with some freeze-dried huckleberries. But he was mightily proud of those huckleberries. I asked him why he felt so compelled to search out nourishment when the Wolves were supplying us with all we needed.

          “Oh, I suppose I could lie here and turn into fungi along with the rest of you. But the truth is, I have to get out on occasion … get away from Oggy ways.” He shuddered. “Daks, do you know this morning, one of those whelps of Teena’s tried to nurse off me? Nurse off me! I tell you, my boy, without a walk now and then, just to get out for a bit, I think I might go crazed and start chasing what’s left of my tail in circles. As it is, I’ve been feeling an urge to wag my butt, let my tongue hang out, and slobber when I talk.”

           Whatever other injuries he’d suffered, it seems Bandy’s capacity for sarcasm came through unscathed.

* * *

          I went for walks as well. I felt the need to try out that ravaged foreleg. Between her own wounds and her demanding litter, Ah-Teena had no energy and no time to direct or encourage my therapy, so if I were ever to use the leg again, it was now my responsibility to exercise it. In the evenings, as the sun was going down and the puppers were most insistent about dinner, I went out into the ice field and hobbled around in circles, experimenting with the leg’s capacity to bear my weight. The pain was minimal. Actually, as the days passed, there was less and less feeling of any sort left in it. Had we buried it under the rock shelf along with Meesh and Shah-Kah, it would have made little difference. I could step down on it with no more sensation than if it were a frozen chicken wing. Only, I’m afraid a frozen chicken wing would have given me more support. Over and over I fell, chin first.

          On one such evening, lying out in the golden snow after my trillionth or so tumble, I realized without any lingering doubt that I would never walk on the leg again. I couldn’t stop my tears, not even when Kruk came and lay down beside me.

          “You didn’t really expect … I mean, Daks … after what that savage did to your leg, you didn’t really think it would be right again? Did you?”

          I turned my head away. “How long have you been watching?”

          “Every night. Yes. Either myself or one of my family watches. We must watch. I don’t suppose you would know, but there are some very hungry and very tough characters out here at night.” It seemed so incongruous to be warned of tough, hungry characters by a Wolf that I giggled.

          “I’m serious, Daks. There are lynx. Puma. Wild cats as big as me. And every night, they eat twice their weight. Any one of them could snap you up as an appetizer on his way to an entree of your friends. Wouldn’t that be a waste. After all this work I’ve done to keep you alive, you get swallowed by a nasty panther.”

          I couldn’t help but laugh, and Kruk laughed with me. Then we lay quietly for a while and watched the stringy clouds turn from orange to red to purple. Softly, he said, “There are worse things than being lame, Daks. As long as your heart is strong, your life will be good.”

          “Kruk, why have you done all these things? I mean … why did you take the bother to save us?”

          “Oh, little Daks. A hard question to answer, that. Believe me, there are certain disgruntled members of my tribe who have wondered the same thing.”

          “What did you tell them?”

          “‘Wolves are where you find them.’ That’s what I told them. ‘Wolves are where you find them.’”

          “Kruk … uhm … I’m not very good at solving riddles.”

          “Neither is my tribe. They had no idea what I was talking about.” His laughter echoed back from distant mountains.

* * *

          Once I started talking, a mouthful of dust and desiccated spiders wouldn’t have stopped me. My mind was a bladder, stretched to bursting, and I had kept so much to myself for so long that when Kruk asked me how Mish-Shka died, the contents came flooding out.

          “It all started with this mission, Kruk … believe it if you can. We had a reason for being here. Mish-Shka’s tribe needed help. Still needs it, I suppose. And we came to find someone he thought could provide it. That’s how we ended up in these mountains. Oh! Except for Bandy. He just came along because … well, I imagine he didn’t have anything better to do.”

          “He, too, knows a Wolf when he sees one.”

          “That’s another riddle, isn’t it?”

          “I mean, Daks, possibly he recognized the makings of a true, brave friend.”

          “Well, for whatever reason, he came along. And I’m glad he did. He saved my life, you know. He saved Mish-Shka’s life. He can be a bit … um, abrasive, if you know what I mean … but … “

          “Tell me, Daks, did you find who you were looking for? That old Mish-Shka, before he died … was his mission worth dying for?”

          My heart jumped a beat and my throat tightened. “No. No, and that’s the worst part,” I whispered. It was a wrenching admission, and I had to clear my eyes before I could continue.

          “We didn’t find her, Kruk. Lah-Tsee. That’s who we were looking for. Great, great Lah-Tsee. I don’t think we even got close. I think … I really do believe … Mish-Shka died for nothing at all. I don’t even think there is a Lah-Tsee. Anymore, I don’t believe there ever was a Lah-Tsee. What I think is, if we’d stayed back in the cave … back with Chew and Henrietta and Pooh-Lee and the rest … Mish-Shka would be alive right now. Peter … Miss Ah-Teena, they would both be healthy and well, instead of lying in that hole all scarred up and sick. And maybe those puppers would be mine and she would love me like she loves Peter now because they wouldn’t have spent all that time together looking for the great Lah-Tsee. I suppose I wouldn’t have met Bandy, and that was good. I’m really glad I met Bandy. I love Bandy … in a way … you know what I mean … but I wouldn’t have lost my leg and Bandy wouldn’t have lost his tail and I wouldn’t have been kidnapped away by those stupid hunters! That stupid fat man! Buddy! Ferb! Grammy! No Ogg Catcher! No Roth and … and Anna-Bar! I might even have gone back for my Mom! think about that! I might have gone back and saved my Mom! I think … “

          Bile rose from my stomach and I trembled with anger. “I think … when I think about it … Mish-Shka was a fool. And Bee-Hee-Mouth, he’s a fool, too. All of this silliness over some great, great Ogg no one has ever seen. Old fools! And I was a fool for wallowing in that ‘Lah-Tsee’ nonsense with the rest of them. Lah-Tsee, hah! You know, I wish there really was a blam gaskit Lah-Tsee! I wish she was here right now! I’d tell the great, greaaaat Lah-Tsee how she got Mish-Shka killed and put every friend I have through more misery than  … than … than any living thing deserves! And what did she do for us? Huh? What did blam daskit Lah-Tsee ever do for anyone?”

          Kruk remained silent until my tongue stopped fluttering and my blood stopped boiling. One of his ears drooped lazily as he watched me finish. “It may not mean much to you right now, Daks, but I’ll be forever thankful I met Lah-Tsee.”

* * *

Kruk’s Tale

          “It’s been years. Many years .,,” he sighed. “But, yes. I met her, Daks. Her name was different then. Glondl-Kree. And she wasn’t an Ogg. She was Valk-Hund. The greatest of all Wolven queens. And … well … I didn’t actually meet her, but … “

          “Oh, Kruk. I’m not in a mood to be teased.”

          “I know you’re not, Daks. And I’m not teasing. I saw her from a great distance. Oh my … I didn’t actually see her.”

          “KRUK! I AM NOT A TOY!” I was furious. Even Wolves have no right to ridicule the anguish of others.

          “Do calm down, Daks. If you continue to yell, you will bring those panthers down for certain.”

          “But … “

          “My tribe was dying. One by one, the Wolven were fading away. I lie awake and their names come back like tough meat. Graw … Borgl … Schwum … Throoll. Ah, what a king Throoll was. He was my father’s father’s brother, Daks. Ferocious and huge. And can you guess how he died? He took tainted food men laid out during the worst winter there ever was. You see, we were starving. The herds were thin. Deer and elk had been hunted down to almost nothing that fall, and we couldn’t feed the tribe. In the end, we took a few lame or lost cows, so men laid out butchered sheep along our trails. Throoll tried to drag one back to the lair for all of us to share. He puked up everything, then he went into convulsions. Almost disemboweled himself clawing at his own belly. Graw and I found him. His head was thrown back so far it lay against his spine. This is how my tribe was dying. Grotesquely! From clever poisons and steel traps. Throoll had once driven Horak the Grizzled away. He could take down a bull moose by himself. Yet they killed him with a lamb’s corpse. His poor body was so twisted he looked like driftwood.

          “That night, after we joined Throoll with the ground, Borgl told me about Glondl-Kree. Borgl was horribly old … older than I am now … and as sad as a fallen star. He had heard of Glondl-Kree from his mother’s mother, a story she told him before he was old enough to chew his own food. ‘She’s our only hope, Krukker’, he told me. ‘She runs in the Far North. Never sleeps. Never gives up. The Mother of all Valk-Hund, Krukker,’ he told me. ‘She’s the mother of all Wolves’.

          “I was the only one left strong enough to go after her. There was Schwum, but Schwum was blessed with a dull, dull mind. He would have been lucky to find water in a spring downpour. Graw was lame. He’d left a hind leg in a trap meant for beavers. And everyone else was either too young or too old. So I went North alone. Two years, season after season, I slogged through those far mountains. I couldn’t come back with nothing, and I found nothing … so I stayed. There were other tribes, Wolven clans, and I had to fight my way into every one of them. They all knew of Glondl-Kree. They’d heard the same stories … Mother of all Valk-Hund … the very soul of wisdom, bravery, strength. Whatever they felt they needed the most, that’s what Glondl-Kree was to them. The most ancient members of every family passed it on, and the young ones forgot until they grew old and everything looked to be lost. That’s always when the hope of Glondl-Kree passed through the lairs … when things seemed to be at their worst.

          “But, Daks, listen. Glondl-Kree … Lah-Tsee … she won’t be found when things only seem bad. Things truly have to be at their worst. That’s when you find Glondl-Kree.

          “Two years searching. Story after story. And so many hours listening to decrepit elders that I began to feel like one of them. Two years, then I gave up and came back. Borgl was gone … the only one to die a natural death in years. Graw was gone. He stumbled into another trap and bled to death because he couldn’t crawl home on only two legs, can you believe it? The only ones left were Schwum and three pups. They weren’t even his. ‘I waits for ya’, Kruk,’ he told me. ‘I waits all dis time fer ya’ to come back. I knew’d ya’ would.’ A dull mind, old Schwum, but a heart as clear as this sky and as strong as this mountain.

          “All the others were dead. I had failed. More than failed. I lost all hope. I decided then that there was no Glondl-Kree … decided there never had been a Glondl-Kree. Daks … Daaa … “ Kruk began to stammer. He wasn’t crying—I would never see that, nor would anyone else—but he was doing the closest thing to crying that Wolves can do. The bitter memories caught in his throat like the spine from the meanest fish in the world. He squeezed his eyes shut with such force I feared they might pop like grapes. “Daks, all goodness was gone. My wits left me and I raved about these forests for days, many days. I had let them die, running through the North like a fool, chasing a phantom. I cursed her name. I no longer believed in her, yet I cursed her. Schwum found me. Fine, old Schwum. Came looking and found me. I was very near dead. Hadn’t eaten … had taken no water … and Schwum tracked me down. ‘T’s not yer fault, Krukker. Ol’ Glondl-Kree be here all ‘long,’ he said. ‘T’snot yer fault yew coon’t find ‘er up der in dose far hills. She be here all ‘long. She tol’ me how t’ take care o’ dem puppers. She tol’ me how t’take care o’ myself. Krukker, she tol’ me yew’d come back … ‘

          “‘You saw her? She came to you?’ I couldn’t believe. Here was simple Schwum telling me the mightiest Valk-Hund of all had talked with him. Led him. Saved him. Schwum! Good Schwum. Daks, never forget this. The most wonderful things come from the most unexpected places. Schwum told me, ‘Yezzer … yezzer, Krukker. Glondl-Kree be here all ‘long an’ Schwum woon’t make it widout ‘er. Borgl was wrong, Krukker. He had it wrong. Glondl isn’t jus’ the Momma of all us Wolvers. She’s the Momma of all brave t’ings. All the brave t’ings there be.'”

* * *

          “You might not believe in your Lah-Tsee, Daks, but you found her, regardless. You, your friends, Mish-Shka … even the Rawl’Colmb.”

          “Kruk, is this why you stopped your tribe from killing Mish-Shka and me and Bandy up there? Up on top the mountain?”

          “Daks, you haven’t been listening. I couldn’t let my tribe kill you anymore than I could let those two snaky devils kill you. We have the same mother, you and I.”

          Kruk rose from the snow and put his nose to mine. “Three legs are plenty. Wolves like us? … we don’t really need legs at all, do we?”

          I looked up into his eyes … eyes that glowed like stones from a full moon

           … and if there are figures of gods, cut from granite, hidden in dense forests under creeping vines and moss, and seen only by the boldest of creatures

          … and licked his face with no shame. “Nope. I guess not. We don’t need legs … “

* * *

           … or tails.

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