The woods are not safe for the likes of you—best you learn to love the hearth and the blessings of a barred door. Lay your head upon my slipper, my dear, my flop-eared, fox-pawed pup, gaze into the fire, and listen:
A dog much like yourself left home in the heat of an Indian summer, sure the sun was calling him to follow. As he trotted west through the whispering grasses, he glanced back often to admire his shadow’s growth; he’d never covered so much ground before. As the sun reached the horizon, the dog reached the river: pebble-banked, tree-flanked, and wide as the sky. Through eyes stung by the water’s sparkling, the dog considered his options.
It felt disloyal to turn back now: anticlimactic to return to his yard. The fields had been rife with burrs and standing in the shallows refreshed his feet. Perhaps a little further in.
The water nipped at his belly, encouraging him forward. Hurry, it coaxed. Or be left behind.
He swam head-up, squinting into the light to keep his trajectory true. By the time he’d reached the middle—or what he guessed was the middle—he had only a burnt orange nub to follow: a nut, a berry, rolling over the edge of the world. He’d never doubted he could catch the sun; he hadn’t prepared for solitude in the dark.
His hip cramped and he went under, gulping great draughts of frigid water. When ribbonweed ensnared his hind legs, he decided dark air was a better risk than dark water and thrashed free. After an eternity of blind panicked splashing, his pads scraped the pebbles of the far bank.
Chilled through-and-through, he waded up the shore, stomach sloshing. He vomited gouts, then trickles of water, but the weight barely budged … or rather, it moved in disconcerting ways, twitching like a rabbit. He collapsed, letting the warm shore-stones comfort his body. When he slept, his dreams muddled weeds and water with a weak voice protesting—or pleading. Something in him was afraid.
“Please let me sleep,” the dog whimpered. “After I wake, I’ll help if I can.”
When he awoke, the reedy lamentations had migrated, occupying his gut instead of his dreams. “Who are you?” the dog demanded.
“I am Fish.”
Aha! thought the dog, I knew I took more than water from the river.
Fish spasmed and the dog yawped in discomfort.
“You have eaten what I have eaten,” groaned Fish and grew still.
“Poor poetic fellow,” thought the dog, “But so we all must end.” And satisfaction alieved his sorrow, for he needed nourishment for the trip ahead. But to what destination? The river was charcoal; the sky indigo; the forest black. Only the shore gleamed faintly, its gray stones hinting at a path into the woods. Was it wiser to sleep away the night here or continue in search of the poor shrunken sun?
While he deliberated, a new voice entwined itself round his thoughts. Sly and cruel, barely discernible, yet all-consuming, with a hint of crunchiness in its articulation, it passed into the dog’s mind through his bones. What it said made the dog run.
He ran without consideration of path or tree or bramble, of thorn or beast or boundary. He ran past hope, past reason, but he could not escape the voice or the tales it whispered in a ruthless singsong—tales about things which you, my sweet, my sheltered pup, have dreamed could not exist.
When he came to a house, he threw himself against the door until it sagged on its hinges and let him wriggle in. An enormous hearth held an enormous fire, banked against the empty room.
Is this where the sun sleeps at night? He flung himself down on the red hearthrug, so close to the coals that his whiskers curled in the heat. Still he shivered from cold and fear; still the shard-thin, shim-sharp voice sniggered viciously in his brain and bones. He lay on his side, legs convulsing, and thus the giant found him.
Puzzled at his askew door, the giant had his club in hand, expecting marauders of a respectable size, or burglars of surpassing foolishness. When all he saw was a damp brown beast lying on his hearthrug, the giant slammed the club on the flagstones.
“You realize I eat dogs?” he shouted.
But the dog opened just one eye (the top one: he was flat like a flounder). “Listen,” he groaned, and opened his mouth, admitting the chill to the room.
The giant sagged into his chair. “Who is that?” “Worm.”
“What does he want?”
“He wants us all dead.” Then, faintly, past hope and reason as he was, the dog turned his head, looked the giant full in the face, and asked for help.
“I am no ally of dogs,” mused the giant aloud, considering the stench and impudence of the morsel drying before his fire. Then he stamped his muddy, bloody boots on the floor and drove himself upright. “But I will NOT have it said that I am an ally of the Worm!”
Thinking to drive Worm out by force, he seized the dog’s hind legs and whirled him in a great circle, clenching his teeth with the effort. What river water remained was flung across the walls, then the dog’s face changed, becoming more piscine than canine, as Fish protruded into the dog’s skull.
The giant braced his feet and spun faster, and for a moment, he saw the malevolent maw of Worm drive through Fish’s profile: blank-eyed and barb-jawed. Even the giant, accustomed to all manner of cruelties, trembled. His arms grew weak and he slowed, dangling the dog from his fists.
Worm retreated to his stronghold, leaving the dog looking only like his weary self, with the skin sagging over his bones. He keened in pain and the giant lowered him to the rug. With uncharacteristic tenderness, the giant stroked the dog’s ears and tucked them under his jaw. He smoothed the dog’s eyes shut, watching his pupils roil under the lids. Closing the mouth and nostrils posed a problem; how to block light but not air? He reached down his blunderbuss’s grease-cloth and laid it across the dog’s muzzle. Faint breaths rustled the rag. The giant smiled.
When he’d secured the dog’s head, the giant took his club and sat facing the dog’s bedraggled tail. He discoursed on sticks and steaks and the virtues of rabbits. The dog remained inert.
“Good,” muttered the giant, and settled his elbows on his knees, twirling the club’s head against the floor. He began a story that had nothing to do with “onces” or “times,” but rather addressed all times and all places: a story whose theme was not the quest, but what follows quests gone wrong— or quests gone right, depending on whom you speak to after the shouting and sparring and crowning is done.
He spoke of blood running through farmers’ furrows to the sea, of empires squirming under implacable plagues. He spoke of gibbets, of guillotines, of blackened tongues and swollen feet, of the stench of dead sailors gone soft like old pickles from being too long in the brine.
Chiefly though, he spoke of fire; all the horrors of his tale wove around the burning of a great city. He described hundreds, no—thousands of people running, wailing, clothes alight, from the sizzling, martyr-fed flames. Bodies fell by the roadside; ashes rose in the air. In short, my dear pup, the giant laid a smorgasbord of misery before the Worm and bid him to table.
Have I not told you that, when force fails, persuasion may ease a problem from its sticking place? Worm grew rapacious, hearing of these delights. What was the body of a fish, or a dog (no matter how succulent with terror!) in comparison to cities on fire and wounded men fleeing? He peered through the eyes of the fish. All was dark towards the dog’s head. He coiled end-for-end, driving deeper in search of a way out.
Worm wriggled out Fish’s gut and into the dog’s bowels, aiming towards the dim glow. The farther he went, the brighter the light and the louder the crackle. With each twist, each doubling back, he slavered over thoughts of clotting blood and rotting meat. At his first peep from the sphincter, he saw the firelight on the red rug.
“The city burning!” he gloated, and began squirming towards paradise.
But the giant had stopped twirling his club and poised it in midair, bracing his elbows on his knees, and when three inches of Worm dangled, thrashing, from the dog’s backside, the giant smashed him precisely on his vile little head.
“Death is an upstanding fellow,” said the giant. “But I do not care for those who glut themselves on his labors.”
He untucked the dog’s ears, and pulled the cloth from his nostrils. The dog’s breath grew strong and rhythmic. Under the eyelids, the pupils ceased their twitching. After a moment’s thought, the giant laid a log on the fire, then two more. The night was cold as the trail of lost souls and the weakened door let in draughts.
In the morning, the dog limped into the kitchen. The giant was cooking oatmeal and sausages. “I am grateful for your kindness,” said the dog. “But I must start my journey home.”
The giant regarded the dog with bemusement and (could it be?) pity. “Is it possible you didn’t know?”
“What is there to know?”
“We can only cross the river once.”
The giant had found a small bowl in his cupboard, shoved to the back of a top shelf. Now he filled it with warm milk and set it beside the stove. It seemed an incongruous thing to find in such a place, crazed pink china with a pattern of birds, and the dog lapped from it until it shone.
Katherine West is the bemused possessor of an undergrad lit degree and a well-worn hard hat. The degree launched her career welding and inspecting railcars; the wear and tear sent her back to her desk in Norman, Oklahoma. She’s writing a canine mythology for her good dog Freya and a retelling of “Rumpelstiltskin.” Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cricket, Gargoyle, and The Drabblecast.
A few of her best hiding places: Palm trees with low-hanging branches. Bikes on back roads and low spots in pastures. Under a weld hood, blinding the curious with a shower of sparks.
Art — kAt Philbin is an artist based in Los Angeles, CA. She draws inspiration from fairy tales and personal mythologies to create her delicate illustrations with many, many tiny pen lines. See more of her artwork at www.katphilbin.com.
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