The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

PART FIVE

A HARD WAY HOME

Chapter 43

 

        The mountain thawed and we continued to heal. Whatever beauty and grace Peter, Ah-Teena, and Bandy might have taken pride in at one time had been replaced by jagged scars and awkward limps. At the same time, little Krookle, Billy-Mouth, and Groom were developing into fine looking specimens.

          When the paths were clear of all but the most stubborn patches of compacted ice, and the snow fields had melted back to the higher peaks, we—seven of us—knelt one last time before the tiny graves of Meesh and Shah-Kah. The next morning, we left our encampment among the Wolves and slowly made our way home.

          Bidding farewell to Kruk was easier than watching Mish-Shka die, but that’s the best thing to be said about it. The bulk of his tribe had left and followed the snow to the higher slopes. He and Gruewen, along with a couple of others, stayed behind, watching over us like guardian spirits.

          He was waiting for us along the path on that first morning out. “Good-bye, little wolf. Be true to your heart, and your life will be good.”

          It seemed like the sort of thing Mish-Shka would have said, had he known he was saying good-bye forever.

* * *

          There were other adventures. There will always be other adventures when life is good. But the hardest times were behind us.

          Kruk hadn’t lied about the Lynx. We found that out when I inadvertently stumbled over a litter of Lynx Skrittens experimenting with the world outside the lair, probably for the first time without their mom. The whole episode could have been avoided, had I been born with a passable sense of smell or had patience been one of my stronger virtues. It was the puppers who drove me away. Groom and Billy-Mouth in particular seemed to regard me as one of their own. They pestered me unmercifully, treating my hide as though it were a chunk of dried leather. Krookle wasn’t as bothersome as her brothers. She had a sweet soul, shy and intelligent, and she was as timid and respectful with me as she was with her Dad and Bandy. I grew exceedingly fond of the way she would sit apart, with her back to us, as though her feelings were eternally bruised, and peer at me so wistfully over her slumped shoulder.

          But those other two! They have since turned into fine heroes and have pulled the tribe through some difficult predicaments. But back then, they were undisciplined, unruly, devoid of the most basic courtesy, and were irredeemably filthy. After many days of having them nipping at my heels, clinging to me like matted fur, asking me the rudest of questions about my useless leg and tail stub—and watching Peter and Ah-Teena swell with pride at every obnoxious thing they did—I was consumed by the need to spend some time by myself. The puppers’ behavior didn’t seem to bother even Bandy. The more they tormented me, the harder he laughed, and it reached a point where I had to either be by myself or choke on the resentment.

          Had I not been in such a foul mood, I might have sensed the Lynx Skrittens before tripping over them, but my eyes were down and my mind was seething. I trudged into a small meadow, ripe with bluebells and other spring bloomers and found myself in the middle of a game of slap-tag—only I didn’t have the retractable claws that were necessary to win. There were four of them, spitting at me as though their nostrils were jammed with peas. They pretended anger, scrawny backs arched over double, ears flat against their skulls, but it was all theatrics. In truth, they were delighted I had come along, such a novel toy.

          “A woodchuck! It’s a woodchuck!” explained the one behind me in a tongue full of teeth and spit.

          “That’s no woodchuck,” protested another. “Woodchucks have tails. Mumzy said so.”

          “Woodchucks have schtubby legs. Mumzy said that too. And have you ever seen schtubbier legs than this fella has?”

          I was in no mood to be confused with a blubber-backed woodchuck and I just about had them convinced I wasn’t one when their “Mumzy” arrived. My angry protestations most likely played some part in her return.

          Let me tell you, it took some special dodging to keep away from that over-protective momma. For the first time, it was an advantage to have only three functional legs. The Lynx couldn’t predict which way I might fall next. It’s probably what saved me, my balance being so out of alignment. I rolled around like an egg, tippling unevenly this way and that, and she couldn’t find a solid hold. Though I’m sure it was really a matter of seconds, it seemed like hours passed while she tripped and skiddled over me, somersaulting around like fury with a bobbed-tail, until Peter came raging through the bluebells.

          Still, she screamed and fought, even with the arrival of Ah-Teena and Bandy. She stood against them—actually stood all three of them off—while her Skrittens swatted at me. I would have been torn to bits and pieces, had their claws been long enough to puncture my hide. I honestly believe the mother would have ripped all of us apart, had Groom, Billy-Mouth and Krookle not come stumbling through the grass, eager to get involved. I discovered a secret then that I could never have learned from Mish-Shka. Or Bandy or Peter or even Kruk.

          Only a mom can understand another mom.

          Groom ran right between his poppa’s legs before anything could be done about it, right up to the Lynx, within easy range of her claws, and yipped with shrill authority. The Lynx was baffled, confused at his audacity and the bluntness of his accusations. She froze, balanced on her toes, poised to strike. All of us, Scrat and Ogg alike, held our breaths. I just knew, with no more than a flick of one broad paw, that Lynx could have separated Groom from his nervy, noisy head.

          But it wasn’t the Lynx who hit Groom and blasted him butt-up into a copse of grass many feet away. It was his mother. Ah-Teena covered the distance in one leap, swatted her son away and came to ground nose to nose with the Lynx. The Scrat flattened to the ground, no longer immobilized by confusion.

          “WAIT!” The command in Ah-Teena’s voice could have stopped the sun from rising, and the Lynx waited, crouched and ready to spring. “MATER … PLEASE! Please wait and hear what I have to say. We mean no harm to your babies. Let me take my youngsters away and we will bother you and your family no more.”

          An elegant whisker twitched. A steely tendon on her coiled hind leg relaxed. “Thizzz … zzzrunt! HIM! (and we all knew who she meant)  He hazzzz no bizz-nezz coming here! He ssssscared me babzzzz!”

          “He didn’t mean to. He … he’s Daks. And Daks sometimes … well, he sometimes does the wrong things. But for the right reasons, I assure you.”

          “Dahgzzz? What kind of namezzz Dahgzzz?”

          Ah-Teena dared to take her eyes away from the Lynx and winked at me. “And sometimes, he does the right thing for the wrong reasons.”

          The Lynx cocked her head, regarding me curiously. “Dahgzzz?”

          “Yes, Mater. Daks. But usually, he does the right thing for the right reasons.”

          “Funny Dahgzzz … funny beazzzt.”

          “Yes, that’s right. Daks is a funny fellow.” Both mothers nodded in agreement. With a smirk like that, the Lynx didn’t need claws.

          “Zaaah funny name … Dahgzzz.”

          I could think of nothing else to say. “Well … well, I still haven’t found a good reason to change it.”

* * *

          I stayed close to my companions for the rest of our journey. Fortunately, and for a variety of reasons, I even grew to tolerate the puppers—on a limited basis, of course. With the Lynx Skrittens, I had been given a glimpse of how truly bothersome some youngsters can be, and in comparison, Groom and Billy-Mouth were pleasant company even at their worst. What’s more, after witnessing my encounter with the wild Scrats, they assumed an attitude of polite deference towards me. There was respect in their eyes that bordered upon adoration whenever I deigned to walk or talk with them. And in the evenings, while we adults waited for sleep to overcome them, they insisted I tell—again and again and again—every detail of my episode with that “mean, scwatchy ode Skwat.”

          “Mister Daks,” asked Billy-Mouth, “was she gonna eat ya all in one gulp, ‘r was she gonna chew on ya for a loooong time?”

          “Eat Mistew Daks?” sputtered Groom. “Ya gotta to be kiddin’, Mout’. Ain’t no Skwat Yynx in the wowd could even yay a toot on Mistew Daks, yet ayone eat ‘im. Wight, Mistew Daks?” Groom had become my most staunch defender. In his opinion, my talent for battle had reached mythical proportions. “Heck, Mistew Daks c’d beat a Gwizzwy beawah. Wight? You c’d do it, coon’t ya’, Mistew Daks?”

          By the time we rejoined Chew and the rest of the tribe, Groom had learned to pronounce his ‘r’s and ‘l’s, I had learned what winter is good for, and Krookle, with her pensive sighs and shy detachment, had entrapped my imagination like an ivy vine covers cold stone.

* * *

          Winter is good for one thing only. I’m willing to admit this announcement might come from a profound ignorance of those truths that transcend the understanding of simple souls like me. But from my lowly position, it is clear without complication. Winter is the brain before the berry, as it were. All part of the healing, a process that couldn’t go on without all of its separate parts in proper sequence. Without the bleak framework of winter, spring would be a flabby parody, maudlin and overly-wrought. A season-long symbol for the persistence of life with no good reason given to continue living.

          The further we traveled from winter, the more it occupied my thoughts. Berry shoots and baby gophers were popping out of the ground in such profusion that I had to be alert every step, lest the life be crushed out of something just coming awake. Aspen and willow were exploding into soft green leaf. Wet fawns teetered precariously on spindly legs, impatient dandelions thrust themselves to life, Krookle went from cute to beautiful in a blink and the earth pulsated with birth. Even the sky seemed alive.

          None of this could have happened without the skeletal winter. Barely covered within the flesh of every bloom and every baby was the raw presence of the dead season, without which the new world would collapse onto itself like a pillar of fat and fluids. I could not escape the reminders. A shelf of jagged ice hiding from the sun beneath a cutaway stream bank … Kruk’s shoulder blade. An angular stone that had broken away from a beaten escarpment further up and tumbled unto a bed of fresh camas flower … the line of Mish-Shka’s jaw. The slant of Anna-Bar’s flank in the way a snake warmed itself on a rock. The gleam of Roth’s exposed spine in the way a length of driftwood bobbed about in a swollen stream. The memories would not stay concealed.

          I didn’t seek these things out, but I could not help but find them. Even within Krookle’s sleepy grace and chubby poise, I could not help but see the outline of an icy elk’s skull, half buried in the bed of a frozen creek. And knowing it was there made her all the more precious.

* * *

           Familiar landmarks loomed before us, then disappeared behind. And with every passing day, Bandy dwelt more on his past. I could no longer ignore the notion that he might leave our company, and the thought was so depressing that even brushing against Krookle while she slept—accidentally, of course—didn’t lift my spirits as much as I’d hoped it would. If Bandy indeed was going to desert me, I couldn’t blame him. After all, he belonged to a different clan. He wasn’t even an Ogg—an obvious fact to everyone else, but I had to force myself to remember it. Why would he want to live with twenty or so Dahm-Ogg he didn’t know?

          “I detest those maudlin homecoming scenes,” he commented in passing. “It’s true even with Rawl’Colmb royalty, the best thing to be said about all that emotional blubbering is that it’s deathly boring. And imagine how a gaggle of bourgeois Oggs will behave. I just don’t think I could stomach it. I really don’t.”

          On the surface, he seemed to be teasing, but I suspected he was preparing me for a day he might go after crayfish and not return.

* * *

          Peter and Ah-Teena grew ever more preoccupied with their brood and ever more single-minded in anticipation of uniting with their lifelong friends—those same individuals whom I had spent a total of two days with, and who I feared were not overly anxious to see me. I was virtually a stranger to them, and a pest of a stranger at that. The most notable thing I remembered about Chew was how he took such offense when I peed on his face. We neared our destination with unrelenting surety and my anxiety grew with each step. Finally, lying alone with Bandy on a hillside while we waited for Ah-Teena to feed her children, I admitted my fears and begged him to let me go with him.

          “I’ll make a good Rawl’Colmb. Just wait and see, Bandy. Really. I can be good at it. Not as good as you, but I won’t get in the way. And I’ll do everything you tell me to do. And … and … well, I don’t suppose I’ll ever be able to climb a tree … or stomach crayfish … or have babies of my own. But you’re my best friend, Bandy. Let me stay with you. Please?”

          He was genuinely surprised. “Daks! Dearie, dearie Daks. What about Peter? He’s your friend, too.”

          “Peter has Ah-Teena. Don’t you see that? And Ah-Teena has Peter. And they both have the puppers. And Mish-Shka, he was my friend, but … well, you know. I just don’t think anybody wants me around anymore.”

          “And what about Krookle, Daks? You’d miss Krookle, and don’t tell me you wouldn’t”

          He had me there.

* * *

          “You have made my decision for me, Daks. There’s still work to be done and I swear to you, I shall not abandon you or my duty. Duty is paramount and science must prevail!”

          “Bandy, I’m sorry, but I have no idea what you’re talking about.” We were almost home when Bandy made his announcement. I was chewing some fresh grass to settle my nervous stomach.

          “From the beginning, I have seen the glimmerings of hope in you, Daks. The potential for a real jump in Oggy evolution. And I have always maintained that every Rawl’Colmb should give back something in return for the plethora of endowments with which we are blessed. My fuzzy chum, you are my contribution to the bedimmed and benighted of the world. I shall sacrifice my comfort. I shall subject myself to whatever primitive conditions there be. I shall endure the indignity and debasement of living among Oggs. And whatever the cost to my personal fulfillment, I shall remain by your side.”

          “Uh … thanks, Bandy … I think.”

* * *

          We came into the tribe’s territory at the end of day, and being so close, we pushed on despite our exhaustion. Within a ridge or two of the cave, Peter stopped and asked Bandy to stay behind for a while, to remain hidden, simply to allow time to explain why we were bringing home a Rawl’Colmb. The suggestion didn’t go over well.

          “If you feel I’m something to be ashamed of, Pete, tell me right now and I shall never, ever … “

          “Fawrlingswad, calm down. It’s just that … well, we have friends who were chasing your kind out of corn cribs and chicken coops not so long ago. There will be some explaining to do.”

          “You mean ‘apologies,’ am I right? Am I not right? Let me tell you something, Mister Peter. A Rawl’Colmb prince needs no apologies, thank you very much! Or explanations! And what’s more, I make my own introductions. Charm carries more weight in this world than you or any other Ogg will ever imagine. I’ll show you! Charm works wonders.” And before any of us could stop him, he was off.

          Peter chased after him, shouting over his shoulder for us to gather the puppers and come, but Bandy must have found a shorter way. We were so close anyway, and by the time Peter reached the lookout perch, Bandy had already made his introductions. More precisely, he and Louis were entwined, snout to snout, rolling in the mud of the warm springs creek, screaming out threats to one another. Such were the wonders wrought by Bandy’s charm.

           I came through the brush just in time to see Peter standing over the disagreement, trying to pry them apart. “LOUIS! HE’S A FRIEND. A FRIEND, LOUIS! FAWRLINGSWAD, STOP THAT!”

          Louis, with his forepaws wrapped around Bandy’s neck, stopped gnawing on my friend’s loose skin and cried. “PEET-ERZ! OOOOOOW PEET-ERZ!”

* * *

          Sleepy feet padded down the path, and sleepy voices asked, “Peter? Did he say ‘Peter’?”

          “Peter’s back? Is Peter back?”

          “Ah-Teena? Teena’s with him, isn’t she?”

          “Mish-Shka?”

          “Meesh?”

* * *

          Chew.

          Louis. Henrietta.

          Poo-Lee, Jahl-Habra—the tribe, all of them—my goodness, was it ever a pleasure to see them again. To the same degree I had been anxious about whether or not they would accept me, I was exactly that relieved when the tribe crowded around and caressed us—all of us—with their tongues.

          They fell upon Peter like a warm, soft snow. Like he was both father and son to them all. And when Ah-Teena came with the puppers, the ritual started all over again. They danced. They sang. Their joy brought the forest awake. Birds wanted to know what all the excitement was about. I stayed in the shadows, unsure of my place in this celebration, until Poo-Lee sought me out (“Mister Daks? Where’s Mister Daks?”) and brought me into the riotous dance. Without thinking and without judgment—they were too happy to judge—they drenched Bandy with spit and acceptance. Everyone of them but Louis.

          I asked Bandy what he’d said to make Louis so mad. “Nothing. Nothing at all, Daks. I simply told him that he was an inarticulate, lumpen Ogg, and that he should go back to where ever he came from if he couldn’t speak the language properly. I have no idea what made him attack me.”

          “Ooooh, Bandy.”

          To this day, Louis sniffs and turns his head away whenever Bandy walks by.

* * *

          Chew danced with the rest, but with every step, he asked again.

          “Meesher? Where’s Meesh?”

          The answer crept through the homecoming like a slow, cold burn, from one soul to another. One by one. Until it reached Chew.

          We mourned again, until dawn …

          … until summer ended …

          … and some of us mourn still.

          I know this now. Once winter sets in, it never really leaves.

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