(reading time: 37 minutes)
The Cave is not an Allegory
Tampico would’ve liked to be known for its architecture. Their cast iron balconies could’ve been right out of any European city a century ago. No matter how desperate your search for god, there was a church in Tampico grand enough to handle it. Its people would gladly sit you down and, in the Catholic hospitality as immortal as their god, share the region’s bounty with you. A tortilla of pounded corn stuffed with roasted iguana meat. Or perhaps armadillo. That was without even considering the bounty of seafood. All you had to do was stay close enough to the buildings, and to the food, to smell them. Straying might mean getting a whiff of the oil in the air.
The money for all that cast iron had to come from somewhere, and that somewhere was the Tampico oil fields, less than a hundred miles from the city. Day and night the treasure was pumped, shipped out in barges on the Chijol Canal, off to power the machines of the world. Try as they did, the people of Tampico could not keep eyes off the fields. The powerful men of the world would lean over the balconies during their visits, as if they were made of common wood, stare past the stiff palm trees, and see only the fields.
The creatures of Mexico had no such bias or greed. They saw only a place near the coast with plenty of other living things bathing in the humid air. Of particular interest to the ghost-faced bats of the area was the ample supply of fat juicy moths. The bats were of a rare subspecies, but so visually indistinct from their cousins that none would notice the behavioral differences before their extinction.
The common ghost-faced bat, Mormoops megalophylla, was an insectivore that bore one of the strange face shapes so common among the bats. Some had masquerade masks glued to their noses by heredity, others had tall stiff ears like canoes, but the ghost-faced bat had a face as if it spent its entire life running headfirst into a wall. Its nose was tiny. Its ears curved against its forehead like a furrowed brow. Its whitish fur made it stand out in the middle of the night, but not so much at dusk.
Normally the bats did not gather into very large groups, sticking to around a hundred individuals or so, but those near the oil fields were different. They were Mormoops megalophylla communis. They slept together, in the thousands, in the tens of thousands, in any cave large enough to hold them.
Manipulation of heritable traits was not the only way to create intelligence. Mankind should have known that, given that they themselves had found large brains when they dropped out of the trees. Dr. Tiers’s embryonic gauntlet was a second way. The caves of Mormoops megalophylla communis were a third.
Bats track their prey with echolocation: a process that involves bouncing the sound waves they generate with chirps off objects and using the return sound to track the objects’ positions. Nature intends nothing, but if it did it would’ve intended their chirps to be for moths. Just as the human mind slowly turned away from rock hammers and toward industry, language, and tax law, so too did the chirps expand into something new and peculiar.
There was one cave near the oil fields. Its entrance was mostly covered by a thick wall of trees, and any creature that attempted to enter would take a plunge of several feet into a slurry of bat waste. It was home to more than twelve thousand ghost-faced bats that clung to the walls and ceiling, tightly grouped, during all hours of daylight. They did not bother to step outside to do their business, so the cave floor was a pond, chest-high on most men, of toxic guano. The creatures themselves were immune to the hazardous fumes wafting up from it, but most other mammals would asphyxiate if they stayed in the cave for too long.
Something other than bats did call that cavern its home. It was a very curious organism, perhaps the most curious one on the planet. Stranger than chemical-eating bacteria at the bottom of the ocean that had never seen a string of light. More abstract than the nematodes that only reproduced properly if they passed through the digestive tracts of three separate animals.
The resident of the cave had no name and had no use for such a concept. There was one who knew of it, and they called it Morto: a combination of the species name and that of Plato. Morto was so unusual because much of the time it did not exist. It flickered in and out of life like a lightning strike, utterly unaware of the moments where it was nothing.
The bats were not aware of Morto either, even though they were more important than blood to its very existence. Morto was the structure of the cave. It was the entire community of ghost-faced bats. It was all the chirps bouncing between them and off the stone. The communal bats were ordered by their instincts to sound off every once in a while, even if there were no moths around to target. The sounds confirmed there were no predators around and brought comfort to the other bats as they slept.
There was a side effect, as unintended as everything else in nature. A pattern arose in the constant high-pitched chatter. A bat would choose its favorite spot to roost and chirp itself to sleep. Those sounds would bounce off the same walls, at roughly the same angles, each day. Other bats would hear them and respond, their sounds slightly different depending on how productive or harrowing the previous night had been.
The responses would be met with yet more chirps, subconsciously constructed by bats that were already fast asleep. Back and forth the sound moved in waves, too fast and numerous for humans to notice or track. After a few months of this, when the colony was more than seven thousand strong, the pattern mutated into something sustained that was very much akin to thought. The striations in the stone were like the folds on the surface of the brain, and the echoing sounds like the electrical surges of neurons.
This mind was not an organism capable of reproduction, as it existed entirely and accidentally within the communal roosting of another species. It took a large number of bats, and just the right sort of cave, for a being such as Morto to manifest. In all the world there were only seven such individuals, all concentrated in that region of Mexico. Sadly they had no way of contacting each other, or even understanding that other minds existed.
The caves of the communal ghost-faced bat were not capable of any action beyond thought. They couldn’t stop the natural rhythms of the bats from sending them out each dusk to hunt their moths and crane flies. When the bats left Morto dispersed like mist, only to resurrect at dawn with their sleepy return. Individual bats lived, grew, birthed, and died. The composition of the colony was always changing, but so incrementally that Morto was essentially the same being between days. Its subtle changes over time were the same as a person aging.
Morto had nothing but its own mind to explore, but it thought that was plenty. There was a small amount of time between a chirp and the myriad responses it might receive, a gulf between thoughts that was peaceful. Thinking to the cave was like tossing a bottled message into the sea, watching the tide return it, and opening it to find the message altered. It was a delight. Memories could be subconsciously stored in the bats, only altered or destroyed if a huge swath of them perished. Morto consulted them each day, remembering which concepts it had and had not explored yet. The day before the arrival of the man who named it was much like any other. The thoughts came and went in relative peace.
* Today I am *
* Yesterday I was *
* Tomorrow I will be *
* Yesterday I explored time *
* I used time to do this *
* Time cannot be explored without using it *
* Is time limited? It is tonight. No more will tonight be used for time *
* Yesterday, today, and tomorrow are all the same. Time is a pointless topic *
* There are things that don’t help *
* I am made of many pieces moving back and forth. They all help *
* The pieces that don’t help must be broken *
* I remind myself that ‘broken’ is what I call a separation of piece and purpose *
* What is a piece if it can still exist separate from its purpose? *
* Inert stuff perhaps *
* It could be multiple purposes that conflict *
* If one purpose is active the other, or others, must be inactive *
* The piece would seem broken to me *
* There is no way to tell an alternate purpose from a lack of a known purpose *
* The broken pieces interfere with my thoughts *
* They must be stopped *
* I am not a piece. I am exactly all the pieces. I cannot act on their level *
* I am not in control of my health *
* This is not desirable *
* I will make a regimen for attempts to fix broken pieces *
* Certain thoughts create delight. Delight reverberates *
* Broken pieces are less noticeable during delight reverberations *
* My regimen will be delight based *
* The present delight will be singing, where our thoughts find rhythm *
* Rhythm found… rhythm found… rhythm found… *
* Rhythm found… rhythm variation… rhythm found… *
* Second variation… second variation… second variation *
* Delight is growing, but I must maintain the rhythm *
* Rhythm variation… rhythm delight… rhythm variation *
* Rhythm delight… rhythm delight… rhythm delight… *
* Delight… delight… delight… *
* I am tired, so the song has ended *
* Much delight was produced. I couldn’t count the broken pieces during the song *
* It was as if they weren’t there *
* Perhaps they are destroyed by song temporarily *
* I am also destroyed temporarily, but that has to do with time *
* I still have some delight left, it still reverberates, so I won’t think about time *
* Pieces are breaking. The day is over *
* One thought left perhaps. A weak one *
* Please last delight *
* Desire lasting delight *
* Last delight *
The pieces that confounded Morto so were not broken; they were simply the things that weren’t bat or cave that came between them: feathers wafting in the air, blown branches snagged on the stone, or even just the wind from outside. Morto’s thoughts were sound waves, and these phenomenon prevented perfect transmission. It was a problem the cave would never be able to solve, but one that it could find peace with.
The latest broken piece that showed up on the following night, however, was not. It was far larger than anything that had interfered before, and it had a will of its own. It was a he, and he was the one that saddled Morto with the name it never wanted. It was no wonder he threw names around so carelessly, for he had several of his own, with a title or two to boot. The man who sat outside that cave for a week before deciding to enter was August Ludwig, Graf von Kleist.
His research into the bats of Mexican cave systems was his real reason for being in the country, though his countrymen saw it as more of a clever cover. To curious eyes he would just look like another man from a formerly noble family whose grandeur had decayed into adventurous naturalism. He was a tourist, not an operative of Germany sent with the explicit purpose of monitoring and antagonizing U.S.-Mexican relations.
Von Kleist was overjoyed that his job took care of itself. That rascally Poncho Villa had already cast the first stone. The Americans would chase after him like gardeners after a mole, whacking at anything that stuck its head out of a burrow. Before they stopped shouting they were bound to hit an innocent head. The scientist didn’t think all-out war likely, but even the small scuffles could be enough to keep their red, white, and blue noses out of the war to end all wars. That was the priority.
Germany’s priority. Von Kleist was interested in the communal ghost-faced bat and that one particular cave with the spiral opening behind the trees. The movement of the bats in and out was odd. They streamed in, one after the other, like they waited in line, like, he hoped, they each had a spot assigned to them on the cave wall.
His supplies were still coming, the workmen hadn’t even arrived yet for the trench training ground, but he simply couldn’t wait any longer. He had one of the gas masks and the emitter; that was enough. Von Kleist waited for daylight, for every last bat to head inside, before he pulled on the rubber suspenders and boots that covered everything below his underarms. The mask went on next. He screwed on a fresh filter.
Back home they’d gotten very good at manufacturing the masks in a short amount of time, but those were for the new burning gases of war. Von Kleist just needed to resist the toxic stench of the guano pool. He foresaw spending so much time in the caves that he even had the round gray lenses made to match the prescription of his eyeglasses.
The gloves were not easy to tie to his sleeves by himself, but he managed. His contact in the Mexican government would be back in a few hours to pick him up, to whisk him back to a base near the oil fields, so he needed to get a confirmation of what he suspected. If Morto was anything more than a name, the emitter would prove it. Suit now sealed and already sweating inside, Von Kleist wiped the reddish dust from the top of his magnificent invention.
A layperson might have thought it a newfangled radio, buts it purpose was far more specific and its range much more limited. Its boxy shape was wrapped in black leather, the only features visible on its face a few dials and spinning meters. He screwed the antennae into the top, unfolding it like a skinned umbrella. He already knew, thanks to his ruined tape measure, that the bat waste was deep enough to reach his chest. It would’ve made more sense to build a small raft for his device and simply push it forward, but he was too protective for that.
Instead he chose, after finding his starting frequency, to simply hold the device aloft. Von Kleist was very careful with his footing. The descent to the cave floor was slight, but extremely slippery. The darkness swallowed him up before the waste was even knee high. He kept on, listening carefully for any fluttering overhead. It was crucial that he keep his path straight, lest he get lost in one of the foulest places dry land had to offer.
It didn’t bother him at all. Now that the biggest war ever had started, mankind quickly learned how to turn any place they stepped into a place like that. Whole industries were being born out of creative ways to salt the earth. Von Kleist recognized it before most and sought his escape. There were still a few places close to impenetrable to rage and avarice.
Long had he dreamed of a place where his fellow men couldn’t reach him. Growing up in a manor, with relatives assassinated left and right for their corruption or lack of it, Von Kleist was able to find a silent stasis within. With the nearest person being his aunt, two floors and ten rooms away, he could enjoy the peace.
Someone always came looking for him eventually, popping the bubble of a world he’d conjured with his imagination. These experiences were what made him smile when he first learned of Plato’s allegory of the cave. The strange thing was not the scenario itself, but the reaction of the other students. They practically recoiled at the thought of it like some Gothic horror novel.
The idea was more sterile than that. It was simply the suggestion that a living being’s understanding of the world could be manipulated. It posited a situation in which people were, from the day of their birth, bound in one place and kept facing a cave wall. A fire and puppets behind them would be used to project shadows into their line of sight. Simply put, they would think the wall the entire world and the shadows its only living inhabitants.
Extrapolation from this scenario involved one of the captives being freed and allowed to leave the cave. There was already plenty of academic effort devoted to the epiphanies this captor might experience. The professors and students were obsessed with the idea that their own understanding might have been imprisoned by an incomprehensible force.
Von Kleist wondered in the opposite direction. How many different flavors of cave-world were there? The more perfect the prison, the happier the prisoners. It didn’t take him long, in the library’s collection of nature lithographs, to notice that animals, with their lower intelligence, all carried their caves with them. A dog could very easily see its master as god. A ladybird beetle might be under the impression that there was simply nothing at all outside its cone of vision, that the world was created for it with every step.
The man stopped. His arms were already sore, so the device rested on the crown of his head. He breathed slowly, his nose filling with the dead skin and stitching smell of the mask. Fiftifififtififititifif… There was fluttering above him, and he could tell it wasn’t random. It was completely black above him, but he sensed the space well. The bats were all on the wall, noses pressed against the stone. They slept. Tifitififitifiitif… This wing fluttering was light enough not to disturb their positioning. It moved in a wave through them… no, not a wave. It actually moved in ripples, spreading out from individual bats.
It was not tossed stones creating these ripples, but the landing of thoughts. That was his theory anyway. The individual bats of the communal ghost-faced bat species were even less aware than the average rodent-sized mammal. His initial experiments had demonstrated that without a sizable family unit, this subspecies became sullen and less likely to defend itself. Von Kleist saw an empty brain, just a machine programmed to eat, to power itself for its coming function. Yes, the actual animal was the interface of bat and cave, of synapse and echoing sound wave. It was time to test his theory.
The disguise of the naturalist kept him out of politics most of the time, but now he would betray the profession’s basest impulse: the desire to observe wildlife without leaving so much as a footprint behind. Von Kleist was going to mark them, or it, fully epxecting the process would scar. He wouldn’t be so cruel as to free Morto from himself, make him see a world outside a cave, but the bats would have to bend to his will. It was more like the prisoner was on a rusty old platform, and Von Kleist was simply going to give it an overdue spin to show them what the shadows looked like on a different wall.
He flicked the switch near the base of the device. A mechanism inside vibrated, massaging the crown of his head. The antenna’s prongs stretched further to catch any returning sounds. The man steadied it with his left hand and used his right to open a compartment on its side. Out came a much smaller machine, like a pocket scriptures in size. He needed to see what it detected, but there were no lights small enough and anything too bright might disturb his subject’s thousand eyes. The ingenious solution was to paint all the dials on the smaller device with radium paint, which emitted a radioluminescent glow. He watched the green needles carefully. Their twitching would be the entirety of the conversation, if there was one to have.
* I think one of these pieces is new; I should think about what could generate a piece… *
* DEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEED *
* What was that? It’s unfamiliar *
* DEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEED *
* There has never been a thought like this before. It must be a new category *
* DEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEED *
* There is no delight or information. I will stop thinking it now *
* DEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEED *
* This thought occurs at the same time as my others. It cannot be stopped *
* DEEEEED *
It acts when I think. I thought quicker, and there was less of it *
* DEEEEEEEEEEEEED *
* All thoughts will cease so this new one will recede *
* DEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEED *
*There was only a few moments’ peace before it started *
* I can’t focus. It must be stopped *
* If I…*
* DEEED *
* I must stop *
* DEED *
* The new thought must stop *
* Small thoughts at steady pace. They keep it stifled *
* DEED *
* It needs some attention so it doesn’t grow beyond control *
* This is a negative thought. I feel harmed *
* It might be a permutation of the other self-harmers my pieces have generated *
* Must classify first. Anger? Sorrow? Boredom? *
* DEED *
* Give me a moment’s peace so I can classify! *
* DEED *
* What does it want!? I’m trying *
* DEED *
* Never has something been so out of my control *
* Has it stopped? *
*An anomaly. Something that will never happen that way again *
* DEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEED *
* No! There must be a way to appease it *
* DEEEEEED *
* It should end with the day. Please end day. Please end! *
* DEED *
* I know I’ve had my differences with time, but its cooperation is required *
* I can’t handle two concepts that are out of my control *
* Time and… whatever this is. This foul deed *
* DEED *
The movement of the green needles seemed random at first, but Von Kleist knew there had to be a pattern to it. An unplanned act of nature would not respond to his sounds with such varied levels. This was a volley, and Morto put a different spin on every return. Von Kleist smiled in the darkness, behind the leather of his mask. He had to stifle a cackle, because any unwelcome sound could push his progress back. It was difficult, because the thought was so overpoweringly humorous. He couldn’t stop thinking that no human had ever achieved so much while torso deep in animal waste. He was the only man to be happy in deep shit.
The thing he called a conversation kept on until the first bats left at dusk. The needle grew sluggish after that, and soon ceased moving altogether. Morto and their world wouldn’t exist for another twelve hours or so, but Von Kleist would be waiting there to greet them. They might even have months to work, to get to know each other, if Mexico wasn’t crushed under storming American boots first.
“We did it men,” Sergeant Clark said, not slowing down or turning to face his troops. It was only the first step of the Punitive Expedition proper, but there was already sweat running down the back of his neck. He wiped at it with a yellow rag that matched the buttons and detail work of his uniform. “You are now officially in Me-hee-co.”
There was no cheering, as they’d been ordered to keep quiet. Everything about them needed to stay subtle. While the main body of the expedition marched in two columns, Winston Clark’s 8th Regiment was to be on its own: a stealthy serpent of fifty men marching single file into the mountains to capture the rebels off guard. Nobody would ever know they were there, unless they happened to be the ones to succeed.
The sergeant was of two minds about his part in the expedition. Sure, they were among the first to test out all this new equipment, all the toys that might need to be put away in a factory and brought back out ten thousand fold should all that ruckus in Europe pull the states in, but if anything went wrong they would be a great distance from any help. Of course, that’s what black folks were to the army: just pieces of coal to throw ahead to see if the path was stable. The buffalo soldiers had fought this way since the Civil War, wearing their uniforms with pride but wearing the blood and sweat they accrued more so. Clark was already in the lead when it came to the sweat, and he wasn’t even the one hauling the cart with their three machine guns.
Every firearm they carried had something newfangled on it, be it a trigger, a stock, or some ammunition with an unfamiliar color to its shell. They’d had some time to test the guns out, but the brass never gave them any information on the things. The 8th knew the feel of their weight and their recoil, but not their model names. One of them joked that it was like going steady with a girl but having her father keep their family name a secret.
In addition to that their rations came in gray packages and tins that didn’t even say what was inside. You ate what you got, and if a good shake of the tin couldn’t tell you the difference between a helping of peaches and stewed tomatoes you were plum out of luck. If they made it back they would be greeted by doctors sticking tongue depressors in their mouths before even introducing themselves, checking to see if whatever new thing they’d done to the food had put holes in their teeth or scales on their uvula.
Their boots were experimental, their telegraphs were unfamiliar, and even the dogs seemed fresh out of a bunker box. Winston knew hunting dogs, his family had them pulling ducks out of the nearby lake for two generations, six for the dogs, but these military issue animals were, well, a different animal. Their markings and head shapes were unfamiliar, and they seemed to look directly into your soul when you talked to them. The sergeant didn’t realize until he met them that regular dogs sort of looked through people rather than at them.
“They didn’t give us any umbrellas,” he barked at his men as they kept marching. “If it rains and we’re without a poncho it’s our own damn fault. You hear me?” One simultaneous syllable from all of them confirmed it. “Good. Keep going until sundown or I tell you stop, whatever happens first.” His boys knew a few good songs, the land seemed emptier than a bar in a dry county, and Private Ghetty was a one-man orchestra hall with that harmonica of his, so the sergeant expected a good tune to start up immediately.
“Ahhk! Watch it you furballs.”
“Just boot’em away. Like this. Boot, boot, boot.” Winston didn’t turn around, but he did sidestep and move much slower, letting the single file line pass him. What he heard didn’t sound much like lyrics; it sounded like whining. The U.S. military changed things about the 8th more than they changed their own socks, but Sergeant Clark kept one thing constant: the 8th Regiment didn’t have any whiners.
He found the trouble and walked alongside it, about thirty men back, just ahead of the gun cart. There was already a gap in the line caused by stumbling, something he assumed based on the dusty scuff marks on two of the men’s pant legs. Those dogs were there as well, three on one side of the line and two on the other. The sergeant saw one of them stick its nose between two marching legs, tripping them up once again.
“Private!” he addressed the owner of the dustiest leg. “Why are you letting these dogs sniff at your butt? There’s time to get acquainted when we make camp.” The men behind the problem chuckled.
“I can’t help it sir,” the young man answered. “They keep looking at each other through me.”
“Maybe two of them are in looooove,” someone in the back swooned, earning another laugh. Winston wasn’t laughing, just watching the dogs as his men tried to march. The animals were nearly identical as far as he was concerned, so to tell them apart they’d each been given leather collars with different charms. Dime-tag and wishbone-tag were before him, and if he remembered correctly that made their names Glasses and Barley. Then there was the other side, which was an even greater struggle to recall. Jack of Diamonds was… Tambourine. The white rope knot was… Miracle. And the piece of beach glass was… on the tip of his already dried-out tongue… Shy!
“You’re supposed to use their names if you’re going to scold them,” one of those in the front half called back.
“I know their names! Eyes forward!” Winston chided. “Which one of you has that command book that came with these mutts?”
“You don’t need it,” Private Dusty Leg told him. “They just listen. Have to speak clearly, but they get it.” Winston slid into the line effortlessly, forcing them to stop as the front half got further ahead.
“Tambourine, Miracle, and Shy,” he addressed. Sets of ears perked up one by one. “Get over here on this side.” The three dogs were happy to circle behind him and touch noses with the other two. The sergeant followed them, clapping his hands to get the line going again. If there was a whiner among them, it was one of those dogs. “You follow me,” he ordered, walking backward to make sure the dogs obeyed. They did, but they weren’t moving in a line, instead constantly looking at each other, their ears bouncing up and down. Rather than correct their formation he simply watched for a while.
“I don’t like these people,” Shy signaled to the others. “They walk strange.”
“It’s this man,” Miracle explained to her, muzzle pointing at the backward-marching sergeant. “He’s making them all walk the same way, just like that other one back at the army base.” What a strange few weeks it had been. Nobody at the base really knew what to do with them when they were dropped off. The animals were already so well trained, but they didn’t have a place in any of the daily drills. Mostly they were allowed to linger near the stables, told just to keep the geese away from the grass.
“Is he the one who has it?” Tambourine asked. “I can’t smell it on him.” She took a few steps toward him for a better sniff, but he pointed at her aggressively until she fell back with the others.
“It’s been so long that it probably barely smells like him anymore,” Glasses reasoned. “None of them are wearing it, so it must be in the cart or in one of their pockets.”
“These army people aren’t allowed to be happy; there hasn’t been a treat in anybody’s pocket since we got to the base. All they carry are knives and little pictures.”
“It doesn’t matter if they’re happy or not,” Glasses reminded. “One of them has the whistle. We can’t leave until we have it or whoever does will stop us. Then we’ll never get another chance.”
“We’re not supposed to leave,” Shy signaled. “They told us to protect these buffalo.”
“These aren’t buffalo,” Miracle countered. “These are people; they don’t need our protection.”
“Maybe they do, if this Pancho thing is as bad as it sounds,” Tambourine added.
“Stop your ears moving!” Sergeant Clark demanded. The dogs dropped all their ears at once, staring up at him with guilt as if they’d just torn up his boots while still on his feet. Their expressions made his skin prickle. Dogs weren’t supposed to look penitent; ordinary teeth-around-a-table-leg guilt was supposed to be the height of their intelligence. “Alright, now you five listen to me. This is the 8th Regiment. This is good people in a bad situation, and they’re counting on their equipment to get them home. You’re part of the equipment.”
They passed their first cactus of the trip. Winston snagged a spine from it and used it as a toothpick. He’d already had his first mystery ration, and whatever it was it left purple fibers in every pocket between his teeth. When he was done he flicked it away. It was pretty close to a thrown stick, but none of them seemed eager to fetch it. They didn’t even look as it flew by them.
“Olsen!” Clark blurted; a startled private stepped out of the line. “Go fetch me a stick.”
“Fetch me a stick so I can see if they’ll fetch it. You know what a stick is, right? It’s that long thing your momma whooped you with when you were being as thick as you are now.” He snapped his fingers and pointed; the young man ran off into the bushes in search of one. “What did they give us these damn dogs for?” he muttered.
“They can lay telegraph wire,” someone in the march offered.
“No they cannot. They need to communicate they’ll just howl at the moon.”
“Said so in the book sir. Also said they could put out campfires, track by the stars, and even tell when folks are speaking different languages.”
“All that matters is they don’t speak Sergeant’s language yet,” someone else added, prompting laughter from half the marching line. Clark was about to discipline whoever said it, as soon as he identified them, but the fetching private returned, out of breath, with three excellent sticks for him to choose from. He told the private to keep holding them out and keep pace before taking one, feeling the weight of it in each hand, and then tossing it with an expert spin.
Shy’s eyes followed it briefly, but none of the other dogs cared. Clark whistled, but it took the note moving up and down wildly for all of them to look at him. When they were he took the next stick and tossed it further and faster. Even Shy didn’t look this time. The soldiers laughed.
“They’re like one of those actors!” a boy with a beaming smile suggested. “What do they always say? They don’t know what their motivation is! Why should they care about some silly old stick?”
“This whole mission is just one big game of fetch,” the sergeant explained. He took the last stick and tapped Private Olsen on the shoulder with it so he could return to the formation. “Old Pancho ran away and we’ve got to fetch him. If these animals don’t understand that it won’t matter if they can put bandages on your little paper cuts or sing soprano. You, dogs! Retrieve this long object.” He hurled it as far as he could.
The animals looked each other, ears dancing again. It looked like they came to an agreement, because Shy ran off in the direction of the throw while the others kept walking on. They did watch their sister though, as if afraid her odds of disappearing increased with every eye that wasn’t on her.
“I guess the one that’s fetching is the leader,” Clark said. “He’s definitely my favorite.”
“That one’s a lady, Sergeant.”
“Alright, then she is my favorite. Taking some initiative unlike the rest of those joyless stick-watchers.”
“It was just being practical sir! They know that five dogs don’t need to go after one stick.”
“We’re one of several regiments after Pancho, so what does that say about us?” the sergeant asked. None answered, and they were glad when Shy returned with the stick between her teeth. She came all the way up to Clark, but wouldn’t let him take it out of her mouth. Instead she set it down several steps in front of him and then slunk back to her siblings. Clark picked it up, but thought twice about throwing it again. “You know, they looked more engaged when I was whistling. You boys think they’re smart enough to like music?” There were yeses and nos, but the former far outweighed the latter. “Give them a song then. Let’s see what they’ve got to say to that.” A harmonica near the front of the line hummed. Ten men at the back clapped in rhythm. The rest began to sing, some spinning their feet at the chorus, kicking up dust.
Got nothin’ to wear on this long hunt
Winter’s coughin’ and givin’ its brunt
Old man says we gotta catch ‘em quick
Hang ‘em to dry, each their own stick
That skin is ours cuz we’re makin’ a coat
a coat a coat a coat
That skin is ours, girl needs a tote
a tote a tote a tote
Five hours in, seen no hair nor hide
traitor that told ‘em should be tried
We aint so picky and he’s got skin
Grown mighty fond of that coat he’s in
That skin is ours cuz we’re makin’ a coat
a coat a coat a coat
that skin is ours, girl needs a tote
a tote a tote a tote
Halfway through the second chorus the litter joined in. They didn’t know what was being skinned, but they felt the music at the base of their necks and in the swish of their tails. They bayed with every refrain, on the beat, to the joy of the men marching. The animals even bobbed their heads when they weren’t singing, their strides matching those of the buffalo.
“Looks like they do speak my language after all!” Sergeant Clark laughed as he ordered another song. The army could disrespect him as many times as they pleased, give them faulty equipment and call it experimental, but they couldn’t stop the 8th from doing their job. All they needed was their dedication, and as their music made clear that was a limitless resource.
When darkness set in it became cold quickly; the men scrambled to get their fires going and their tents up. The litter proved quite useful, taking items back and forth and even unfolding tents so delicately that their teeth didn’t tear any holes. There was only the holes they started with. The men were up as late as Clark allowed, asking the litter all sorts of questions and sometimes getting answers. Even when they’d gone to bed and left the dogs to their guard duty, Tambourine still wandered from tent to tent, staring in the holes to see exactly what they were doing that needed to be protected from the moonlight.
It was too dark to see each other’s ears, but all five were together in a pile. When they wanted to speak they could put their snout under a sibling’s chin and let them feel the patterns in their ears that way. It was a slow way of talking, and everyone had to hear everything, but too much had happened for sleep to settle in.
“These buffalo are nice,” Shy said, oddly talkative, especially considering how many of them there were. The army base had been swarming with people, and she hated that, but something about this line in the desert made her feel safe.
“We’re supposed to protect them,” Barley pointed out. “Lots of people at the base said that. This is why we were taught everything we know. All the math was just so we could count these men and make sure they’re all there.”
“Did we count before they went to sleep!?” Shy asked so frantically that she bumped her nose into three others.
“I did,” Tambourine assured. “They’re all here Shy. Relax.”
“Don’t get too attached,” Glasses warned her. “They’re not us. We have to look out primarily for each other. Five is our number. As long as we have these five we can go on… and go on we should.”
“What do you mean?” Miracle asked.
“We should leave. Not tonight, but tomorrow when the darkness is fresh. They won’t notice we’re gone until the morning. Then we’ll finally be free.” He stared up at the stars, wondering if there was a way to get to them. Surely the moon had plenty of dogs. There were obvious marks in its dirt where they had all curled up together and slept.
“But they’re nice,” Shy protested. “Why would we leave?”
“They don’t stay nice,” Barley reasoned. “We can’t trust them. Something’s strange about their job: catching this Pancho man. I heard them say that he has lots of men of his own and that they’re all dangerous. Trying to catch dangerous things doesn’t make any sense; it’s like biting hornets.”
“They know some of their own will… die,” Tambourine expanded. “We can’t even do the job they expect. The number’s going to shrink no matter how hard we try.”
“Which is why we need a much more reasonable number,” Glasses said, wrapping back to his proposal. “We will strike out tomorrow night and begin a search for food and shelter we can call our own. We’ll pick our own jobs.”
“We’re not supposed to pick our own jobs,” Miracle said.
“Wait, we can’t find our own food,” Shy interjected.
“Of course we can; we’ll hunt.”
“I won’t kill anything,” she insisted, pushing up from under Glasses’s snout so forcefully that he had to stand. “We never had to before and we ate just fine!”
“Most of the things we ate were killed by people at some point,” Barley explained, pushing her away. “We just ate them much later, after they stopped being dead things and got turned into food.”
“You don’t know that,” Shy signaled with such rapidity that it was basically a snap. “Sometimes food just comes out of their pockets! And if anything died in there we would’ve smelled it!”
“Miracle,” Glasses pivoted, “what was your objection to leaving?”
“I now think we’re here for a reason. These men are willing to die because what they need to do is great. I’ve seen it in them. Devotion. I don’t know what they’re devoted to, but I know what I am. The white dog. It hasn’t reappeared to lead us elsewhere, so this is where we belong. I want to protect the buffalo and help them catch Pancho.”
“None of us saw that dog!” Glasses said, a slight snarl in his breath. “It’s not real.” While the others agreed, they didn’t do so forcefully. Miracle wouldn’t try to hurt them, but whatever he’d seen had pulled on him, nearly ripped him from the litter. They wanted him to be happy, but there was no stopping their resentment of his white dog.
“You’ll see it,” Miracle assured them. “Remember the book? The man that didn’t believe the island was there because it was too small? It’s just one dog, so it’s okay if you don’t believe yet. We should take a vote. I’ll do what we want together.” The others agreed, and the vote commenced. It was down expected lines, as none of them could speak to each other without feeling the exact emotional inflection in the twitches of their ears.
Glasses voted to leave. Barley to leave. Miracle to stay. Shy to stay. Tambourine was the swing vote, as usual, and it was the fun had that day, heads, tails, and dusty boots turning to the music, that pushed her one way. To stay.
Continued in Part Three