It was still too windy to go out on the water, so the men took their time and built a sturdy raft that was large enough to carry all seven of us, Skeem included. When the raft and the paddles were finished, the men relaxed and did a bit of scouting around, looking for flints and any unusual things that we didn't have back home, such as pistachios. The pistachio trees were smaller but more numerous than they had been before, and one of the men collected a bagful of nuts so he could start a pistachio orchard.
I wanted to take a look at my old home, so I picked my way across the narrow, driftwood-clogged beach until I reached the mouth of the cave. I cautiously peeked around the edge of the opening and sniffed at the air, in case a bear had decided to move in, but all I smelled was bat droppings and mouse turds. I padded into the room and took a good look around. The water had eroded the white walls somewhat, but they still sparkled in the afternoon light. The floor was covered with driftwood, gravel, muck, and dried seaweed that had been brought in by the waves during storms. I snouted around in the debris, to see if anything interesting had washed in, and I was surprised to find several of the crystals that Wimsie had loved so much. They were mixed right in with the gravel. I glanced up at the wall that the crystals had been embedded in, and I saw that the water had knocked them loose from the eroding rock. It seemed a shame to leave them there, in the muck, with no one to look at them, so I decided to bring one back for Wimsie. I gathered all of the crystals that I could find and put them in one spot. Then I picked out the one that had the straightest sides, because it was the straight ones that made the best rainbows. At least I had remembered that critical fact. There was no point in bringing a crystal home if it was going to make shitty rainbows. I glanced around the cave one more time, and my fur suddenly prickled at the thought of being trapped in there by the water. There had been no sign of a storm, but the wind was so strong that it could blow one in from the other side of the lake. I had seen it happen. Carrying the crystal gently in my jaws, I hurried out of the potential water-trap.
As I emerged from the cave, I heard someone say, "Hey! Where were you?" I had been lost in thought, and the voice took me by surprise. I looked up and saw Skeem waddling toward me. I didn't want him in my cave, so I stood my ground until he was right in front of me. That was a mistake. "What do you have in your mouth?" he demanded, and he reached for the item that I had, for a moment, forgotten that I was carrying. You might get the truffles, I thought, but you're not getting my crystal. I scooted right between his legs and ran away as fast as I could, because I would rather hang around with a dyspeptic wolverine than spend one minute with Skeem. I took the crystal straight to Nar's tent and buried it under one of the back corners. Even Skeem wouldn't dare to poke around in Nar's stuff.
On our third day at the beach, the wind had subsided and we all went out on the rafts. My memory of the exact positions of the islands was a little vague, but as far as I could tell from what was left of them, the two islands that were still visible were Berry Bush Island and Fuzzie Tree Island. Berry Bush Island no longer had berries, and Fuzzie Tree Island was still devoid of Fuzzie Trees, and neither island had any Truffle Trees growing on it. As for Truffle Island, it had been one of the lowest and flattest islands, and it was now safely hidden under the waves. It might have even been one of the sunken islands that we had paddled right over the top of.
The men were extremely disappointed when they realized that they would have to go home without any truffles. I knew that the ladies would be even more disappointed, because they loved their chocolate and had been looking forward to sampling the new, tree-grown confections.
As for me, I was delighted that the damn Truffle Tree no longer existed. That one simple fact was worth all the tiredness and stiffness that I had suffered in order to get here and see it for myself.
It looked like a storm was brewing, far out on the lake, so the men hurriedly packed up their gear as soon as we got back to shore. After Nar had rolled up the tent, I dug the crystal up and put it in my food bowl, making it plain to Nar that the crystal was mine.
Nar reached for the crystal, just like Skeem had, but I knew I could trust Nar. "Where did you find this?" he said, holding it up to the light. I cocked my head at him as if he were a moron. He stared at the crystal, and then he laughed as he finally remembered. "You found this in the cave, right?" I barked and wagged my tail, and then I stood on my hind legs and gently retrieved the crystal from his hand. He laughed again. "Okay, I can see that it's yours," he said. I dropped it in my bowl again. "I'll keep it for you until we get home, so you don't have to carry it all that way," he said, and he picked it up again, wrapped it in a scrap of cloth and put it in his pocket. I knew he would give it back. After all, humans didn't have any use for the crystals. They were cute, and they made pretty rainbows, but that was about it.
When everything was packed, Nar and his men got on their horses and set off at a trot, wanting to get as far inland as they could before the storm hit. It wasn't long before I made an embarrassing discovery: this time, I couldn't keep up with the horses. The whole pack-train disappeared around a bend, leaving me to hobble along in their wake. It was the most humiliating thing that had ever happened to me. It looked as if I would never see Wimsie again, at least not until both of us went to the Dream, because something would surely come along and eat me before I could get home. Not knowing what else to do, I sat down in the middle of the path and howled.
Fortunately, Nar had remembered our Secret, and he came galloping back with one of the packhorses in tow. He emptied one of the baskets, which had been full of bark that someone had wanted, and put a folded blanket in it. Then he picked me up and put me in the basket, closing the lid but leaving a gap so I could see out and get some fresh air. His eyes briefly appeared just outside the gap. "We'll be home soon, old fella," he said, and this time, I didn't resent the comment. He was an old fella, too. Nar got on his horse again and we caught up with the others, who had stopped on the trail to wait for us.
By the time we got home, I felt as if I were about ready to go to the Dream. We rode into the village, and after the horses had all stopped, I could hear Wimsie whining. I realized that she was looking for me and that she didn't know that I was in the basket, so I barked until Nar came and lifted me out. When he put me down on the ground, I could hardly stand up, and I splayed my legs out so I didn't fall over and humiliate myself even more. Wimsie came trotting over, and I was relieved to see that she looked just the same as she had on the day I had left. But Wimsie, dear soul, was so shocked by my abrupt transformation into an "old fella" that she couldn't even speak. She just stood there, eyes wide, and stared at me.
If I look the way I feel, I thought sourly, then she must be staring at a big, steaming pile of horseshit. Plainly, it was time for a distraction. I limped over to Nar and scratched at his foot to get his attention.
"Now what do you want?" he said, smiling down at me. I woofed at him and looked pointedly at the pocket where he had put the crystal. "Oh, sorry, I forgot," he said, and he unwrapped the crystal and gave it to me. I limped back to Wimsie, who was still rooted to the same spot where I had left her, and dropped the crystal at her feet.
This time, the distraction didn't work. She looked down at the crystal, and then up at me, and finally she said, "Fez, what happened to you? You look . . . old."
I was too tired to explain, so I said, as cheerfully as I could, "The trip wore me out, that's all. I should have stayed here with you, and let the truffle-chasers fend for themselves." I picked up the crystal and shuffled off to our doghouse, with Wimsie anxiously pacing along beside me. I hid the crystal under our blanket and then flopped down for a nap.
I was awakened by Wimsie licking my face. "Nar brought you some food," she said, and she nosed the bowl toward me. It smelled like beef stew. It was beef stew, with sizable chunks of meat, and I wolfed it down in one go. When I finally came up for air, Wimsie was looking at me with her head cocked. "Your snout is as gray as my fur," she said. "I thought that wasn't going to happen to us. I don't understand."
I tried to think of an answer, or even a passable lie, that would satisfy her, but I couldn't. My mind was still fuzzy from sleep and from traveling. "I don't understand it either, Wimsie," I finally said. "It was just a trip, like all the hunting trips I've ever been on. There was nothing different about it."
Wimsie's simple logic quickly proved me wrong. "But it was different. On hunting trips, you don't go that far away," she pointed out. "You always come back before dark, or on the day after you left. You went far away, and you were gone for days and days."
I couldn't see where any of that mattered. I shook my head, trying to clear the fuzz out of it. "Yes, but I've traveled between the beach and this valley several times. Think about it. When we lived in the cave at the beach, we walked all the way up to this valley to get some wool, and then we went home. And I was just fine on that trip, right?"
"Well . . . yeah," she said.
"And then, after the Bad Things started to happen, Zan and Nar decided to come up here and live in the valley where the sheep were. I made that trip without falling apart."
She sighed in frustration. "Yeah."
"And then there was our very first trip to the beach, when Nar had to carry those damn clay jars. I didn't turn gray on that trip, did I?"
"No," she said, and she put her head down on her paws.
I stretched out on my side and rested my head on her rump. "It just doesn't make any sense," I said. "Maybe the Bad Things finally noticed me. I don't know why they would have, after all these years."
Wimsie looked at me in alarm. "Maybe they'll notice me, too."
"I'll bite 'em if they do," I said, as fiercely as I could. Then I clacked my teeth together, in order to show any Bad Things that might be lurking around that I meant business. But how was I supposed to fight something that I couldn't even see, and that might, even now, be contemplating harm to Wimsie? I didn't know. All that thinking had made me tired, and I dozed off on Wimsie's rump.
The next morning, I felt a little bit better than I had on the previous morning. I was able to stand up without toppling over and making Wimsie even more worried than she already was. I was glad for the change, because my mornings had been getting progressively worse and not better, and it gave me hope that my affliction, whatever it was, would pass. In spite of my apparent symptoms of aging, maybe I was just sick. I didn't want to get Wimsie's hopes up, so I kept quiet and waited to see if there would be further improvement in my condition.
To everyone's surprise, I did improve. Slowly but surely, day by day, I became my old self again, and by "old," I mean "young." The stiffness in my legs went away, my muzzle went from gray to red, and I gradually regained my vigor. It was nice to be able to go outside and take a piss without wondering if I would have enough energy to make it back to bed. For that matter, it was nice to be able to raise my leg and take a proper piss in the morning, instead of having to stand in an awkward position and hope that I wouldn't hit my own front feet. And it wasn't long before I started going out with the men on their hunting trips again. Wimsie didn't want me to go on any trips, anywhere, ever again, because she was afraid that whatever had happened to me on the Truffle Expedition would happen again. I finally told her that guys needed a Guys' Day Out, every now and then, and that Chasing Deer was simply our version of Chasing Butterflies. When I put it that way, she was okay with it, because Chasing Butterflies was one of her favorite activities, and she couldn't imagine anyone telling her not to Chase Butterflies anymore.
The villagers began to look at me oddly -- especially the ones who had gone on the Truffle Expedition, and who had seen me become old and decrepit in the span of about two weeks. One night, over a game of dice, a man named Raju finally brought up the subject.
"There's something strange about your dogs," Raju said, glancing over at Wimsie and me. We liked to hang around while the men played dice, because the winner of each round would usually share his good fortune and throw us a snack. "I mean, they're just not normal. That one," he said, pointing at Wimsie, "doesn't age at all, and the other one got old, really fast, and then he got young again." Raju shook his head. "The other dogs aren't like that. There's just something there that's not . . . well . . . natural."
The "other dogs" that Raju had referred to were the tame wolves that some of the villagers owned. I had been offended when the humans had started calling those pathetic excuses for wolves "dogs", and I was even more offended that Raju had just compared Wimsie and me to those "dogs" and found us wanting. Tame wolves, by definition, weren't natural. In fact, they were so unnatural that they were willing to fight their wild cousins in order to defend the humans' livestock. That's how fucked up they were. And for that matter, humans themselves weren't "natural," either. They had departed from "natural" a long time ago, after Zan and Nar had eaten that very first batch of truffles and ideas had started spilling out of their minds. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Raju was right. Wimsie and I weren't natural, and that fact was becoming more apparent every day.
Nar's answer surprised me. "Maybe it's the rest of us who aren't natural," he said, with a sweeping gesture that encompassed the rest of the village as well as the men at the table. "I've told you stories about how it used to be. There was food everywhere, all the time. It was never cold. There were no storms or diseases. There were no births. And,", he emphasized, "there were no deaths, either human or animal." Then he pointed at us. "We should be grateful that there's still something left of that world, and as long as those dogs are around, maybe that world will return some day."
It was a magnificent speech, and as far as I know, nobody ever bothered Nar about his "strange" dogs, ever again.
To be continued...