Authors: Walter Wangerin Jr.
A Division of Diversion Publishing Corp.
443 Park Avenue South, Suite 1004
New York, New York 10016
Copyright © 2013 by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
First Diversion Books edition June 2013.
To my friend Larry Bamesberger,
A man most intimate with mouths
“Sum Wyrm, sub terra!”
The voice seethed from the restless river. From the ground around the camp (where the Animals shrank in terror), from the forest, and from all the the lands beyond, the voice echoed and reechoed as if the whole earth were a drum thundering. The battlement wall was shaken by the sound: parts of it cracked, other parts crumbled. It seemed to Chauntecleer that he was hearing the voice through the very tembling beneath his feet.
“Sum Wyrm, sub terra.
Once, Chauntecleer, you had an opportunity,”
the voice roared.
“But you have squandered it. Your opportunity is lost.”
This voice was legion—a chorus of voices, a thousand choirs chanting all around his head:
“I am Wyrm from underneath the earth, coming, coming! I mean to be free!”
The little Rooster on the top of the battlement and facing the sea, Chauntecleer, in the grip of his wife Pertelote, began to shriek, “Come, snake! O viper, come! I don’t care! I don’t care anymore! This is the way that it ends!”
The shaking of the earth grew more violent. Whole sections of the battlemen wall slipped sideways, broke into great, tumbling chunks; and then there were gaps in the wall. A mysterious confusion struck the waves of the sea south. Instead of their rhythmic rolling toward the camp, there was a dizzy turning. They slapped and struggled against one another, giants without direction, enormous hands clapping.
Chauntecleer jerked against Pertelote’s hold, writhed in her wings.
“Why not?” he screamed as the breach in the wall came very close. Soon he and Pertelote were on a narrow pedestal, and nowhere to go. “Why not? This is the way that it should be, Wyrm! It is all, all of it, falling apart!” In spite of his broken body, he doubled his effort to tear himself out of Pertelote’s grip. And he would have slashed her, if he could.
But a ponderous growl ascended from the river—a new sound—and then the very earth sprang back.
Chauntecleer was thunderstruck.
As if the earth had a mouth, as if that mouth were yawning, a chasm had opened up where once there was a battlefield. The pedestal, the whole camp, moved backward slowly, as if in reverence before this hole, to give it space. Suddenly Chauntecleer and Pertelote were on the edge of an abysmal cliff, while across the chasm the other edge was hidden by the torrents of water falling into it. The crack in the earth knifed both left and right, as far as the eye could see—and the gorge was widening. The mantle of the earth had split!
“Sum Wyrm, sub terra!”
The voice was greater than the roaring of the waterfall—a falls with no ending east nor west. The chasm was drinking the sea before it, and the sea rushed in it like suicide. But ever farther did the sea and the falls spead from the Rooster and the Hen beside him. The gorge was widening still.
“Coming, coming! I mean to be free!”
Now, for the first time, this great voice arose from a single source. All in spite of himself Chauntecleer found that he was bending forward to peer into the bottom of the chasm. As he did he felt as if he were high in the air and in danger for his life. But he looked to find the voice.
“Wyrm,” he whispered. But still he saw nothing. He saw the waters cascade and boil at the bottom. He saw mud sliding down the nearer wall and stones spinning past the mud, down and down deeper than the pits of God.
Then the bottom of the gorge convulsed, rumpled—and in a moment the odor of rot fulminated in Chauntecleer’s face. He lost footing. Unconsciously he reached for Pertelote and buried his face in the feathers at her throat. Her scent was sweet. Pertelote touched him at his shoulder. The Rooster swallowed twice and wept—ashamed.
The voice from the pit, frightening in its clarity.
“Who knows the nostrils better than I? I am conimg, coming! I mean to be free!”
Without releasing Pertelote, Chauntecleer looked down again to the bottom, and the he did: he saw great Wyrm.
Slowly easing itself between the lower jaws of the pit was a long black body of horrible size. Neither head nor tail, neither beginning nor end could be seen, for they passed miles and miles away through the caverns of the earth. He saw the surface of the monster’s flesh, for its greater bulk lodged yet deeper than the bottom. The body was turning like a rolling mill, turning, sloughing huge fields of rotting flesh—and this body was itself the floor of the gorge.
As Wyrm turned, the chasm, the earth crack, grew—a mighty power driving it. And the water, when finally it hit Wyrm’s flesh, steamed.
Chauntecleer drew Pertelote to himself and held her in despair.
You all are broken. The earth is breaking. And I shall be free!”
“God forgive me,” Chauntecleer breathed.
Pertelote said, “He will. Watch forgiveness: there is one thing left to do.”
“What is left?” said the Rooster in an agony.
Their pinnacle tumbled. Chauntecleer leaped and landed and immediately had to race back from the collapsing ground. Sections of the camp itself began to fall into the chasm. The earth along the edge of it simply gave up and slumped the near side down.
“What is left?” cried Chauntecleer, clawing at his breast. For the Coop nodded drunkenly over the edge of the precipice. Then its back end lifted off the ground. It hung on the edge a moment, considering death. Then it tipped over and passed away.
“What?” Chauntecleer screamed as he found himself suddenly next to the eating cliff. “Pertelote,
A long time the Coop spun downward, until it was tiny—until like a dry leaf it landed on Wyrm’s flesh, and flashed into flame.
Who was that? Who called the name with such a piercing conviction?
Chauntecleer looked up and stared wildly about.
The Animals were mewling north, just short of the forest, frantic at the disappearance of the ground, one Animal squirming under another’s belly, making an ingrown knot of themselves.
“WYRM!” that fearless cry. “Can evil look upon a Dog?”
Not from the Animals! But running in a shaggy, loping, easy gait along the lip of the chasm, never missing a step, drooping his nose over into the vile depths, was Mundo Cani Dog, far west of the Rooster!
“Wyrm, look at me! Wyrm, see me! A Dog! A Dog! A nothing to look upon!”
Chauntecleer saw the rotting body cease turning. Wyrm, wound through the caverns of the earth, held still.
“A Dog is going to fight with you!”
Chauntecleer shot a narrow look at this Dog. Fight with
For God’s sake, Mundo Cani!
Then a closer look and recognition: Mundo Cani was carrying a weapon. Wood, it seemed, like any other bleached branch, but curved and dangerously sharp. Or bone brought to a lethal point. Or this: it looked exactly like the lost horn of the Dun Cow.
“O Wyrm! O Wyrm!” Mundo Cani challenged Evil in a ringing, imperative bark. Lightly he ran along the wasting cliff, dancing away from the chunks that nodded and tumbled in. Mundo Cani had a talent.
“Great Wyrm is afraid to look at a nothing? A nose, a flea? Wyrm fears to see the speck that calls him out? Such mightiness wants to hide from a Dog? WYRM,” Mundo Cani cried to high heaven and into earth, to all the regions underneath the earth, cried, “WYRM!”
Chauntecleer cast a glance at Pertelote. Had she expected this? Was this the thing left to do?
When he looked at her he saw that she too was huddled, covering her face and her eyes and her ears against the good Dog’s lonely game.
The Rooster’s heart split. He began to gather dust and throw it upon himself. The high, thin wail of grief and guilt rose from his chest and filled the air.
“Oh, my God,” Chauntecleer wept.
“Wyrm! Wyrm! Wyrm!” Mundo Cani was sneering. Like needles he sent the utmost scorn down into the pit. He was running the edge of it far away from Chauntecleer.
Then the monstrous body below began to move again. Not turning this time, but with a new purpose sliding straight through the crevice, bunching and sliding, bunching and sliding.
“A Dog is going to fight with you! Of all the noble, a Dog is chosen. Look at me Wyrm—and see yourself!” Mundo Cani swung the horn in wild arcs. “But look! O Wyrm, look at me!”
Then, deep in the gorge, thrusting itself out of stone, out of God’s dungeons, there came a single, steady eye.
A glistering orb, unblinking, lidless and looking, that cold eye. Wyrm’s eye. White around black, and black so black that all the hosts of night might enter there and never be found again.
Mundo Cani had his wish. Wyrm was looking at him.
For an instant Mundo Cani crouched, taut upon the cliff, the long horn between his teeth. Then, with a triumphant howl, he leaped.
Over the edge, past the mud, missing the rock like a shadow, down and down Mundo Cani descended, the white horn livid.
Wyrm’s eye had almost begun to turn. But Mundo Cani had aimed himself well, had made a cross-bow bolt of his fall. He hit the eye hard, with all four feet. He scrambled, grabbed a footing with his sharp claws, raised the horn, and drove its butt through the white flesh.
How Wyrm raged then!
Back and forth the body slammed against the sides of the canyon. Roarings ascended, as if the caverns of the earth were all Wyrm’s throat, filled with hideous dismay. No longer was his vast motion controlled. Evil went mad—and blind.
Now the far side of the chasm began to crumble altogether. Boulders hurtled into the deep. The streaming water gouged the cliff face, gouged the weaker parts and vomited rock. Soon the whole wall collapsed inward. The sea above simply stumbled, as if surprised in its forward motion by the drop-off. It stumbled, then settled much lower than it had been before. And in a moment—by the mountains of loose earth and by the mixing of the water, forming a strong mortar—the chasm filled, the earth crack closed.
In heaven the clouds ripped asunder like a veil. And the light of the sun plunged down and filled the earth. And Lord Chauntecleer saw. And in a world suddenly silent, suddenly bright, the Rooster grieved.
Behind him: neither Coop nor camp nor wall. A desolation.
In front of him, a sparkling and peaceful sea. And, finally, between him and the waters, an endless scar east to west in the face of the earth—a hard and sterile seam.
It was this scar that the miserable Rooster was watching. But he wasn’t seeing it. In his mind, as if the scene were still unfolding, he was watching the immediate past. And this was the sight: as Wyrm was battering the earth-pit, and as the wall was caving in on him, there was a Dog in his eye, stabbing and stabbing with a long horn, shredding that black orb until it was no more, a bloody, sightless socket.
Wyrm, and more than Wyrm—O heavens, witness the calamity!—that scar had knit Mundo Cani too beneath the earth.
In sunshine Chauntecleer went to Pertelote and lay down next to her.
“Marooned,” he said. He buried his face in the flaming feathers of her throat. “Marooned.”
John Wesley Weasel did not die; but it took him a long time to accept that fact.
He had developed an abhorrence for the light. Sunlight made him sick, both in body and in soul, because he should have awoken in death’s darkness. He was, after all, a Weasel, and his every Weaselish weakness was intensified during his convalescence. It humiliated him, for he observed how other animals flit glances at his one-eared head and at the hairless scar along his side. It angered him, for the sun had never—never once—shone upon the Wee Widow Mouse when she was alive; but now that she was dead, and now that the sun had no business even to be, it shone with an outrageous glory. For John Wesley Weasel, daylight was a cruel gift, come altogether too late.
As soon as he could walk the Weasel took himself into the darkness. There was no Coop for the shade, no roof for the covering, no floor nor any space beneath a floor for the hiding. Therefore he went back to his old burrow at the base of a maple tree.
“Is no use in it,” he said, and he determined never to come out again.
Pertelote heard his remarks. She had been tending to the Weasel all through his physical healing.
“Mice cleans in the spring. What’s cleanings to kill for? What’s cleanings for taking a house away?”
When, after several days and nights, he neither came out of his burrow nor made another sound inside of it, Pertelote took the problem to Chauntecleer—who dealt with it directly.
“Yo, John!” He set up a clamor from the middle of the flat, empty yard. “John, yo! Wesley, yo!
The Animals whom he had called as troops before the war began—these he sent back to their own homes. Scattered around him now, pecking and working with an afternoon’s industry (for it was the middle of the afternoon, and he had crowed the proper canonical crow as ever he had before) were the ten Hens that had survived, and the seven Brothers Mice, orphans after the death of the Wee Widow Mouse, their mother whom John Wesley mourned. The Creatures of Chauntecleer’s coop were busy gathering foodstuffs.
There came no answer from the burrow, neither a shift nor a vibration.
“John Wesley! Laggard! Get out! Come here! We are not going to feed you. We’ll spend no pity on a fool. And when you’ve wasted away to bones, we are
going to mourn a blockhead’s passing. Get out! Get to work! There’s work to be done!”