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A Dog’s Life

Killigrew O’Stoat loved mornings like this. As mornings go, this particular one was not exceptional, pervaded, as always, by copious amounts of chilly fog. The quality that Killigrew appreciated was daylight. It was midsummer and although very little occurred to mark the changing of the seasons on Hopeless, the summer months gave him the gift of being able to finish his work while basking in the semi-opaque dawn of another Hopeless day.

 

For three years Killigrew had been the island’s first – and self-appointed – Night Soil man. Being reclusive in the extreme, the anti-social stench, coupled with the nocturnal nature of the work, gave him the solitude he so craved. With his night’s labours finished, it was pleasant to rest for an hour on the rocky headland, listen to the waves breaking upon the rocks far below and allow his mind to wander wherever it wanted. On the morning of our tale, however, his reverie was interrupted by a sound he had not heard for some years; the barking of a dog. Although the founding families had brought a few pets and domesticated animals with them to Hopeless, these had not fared well, mostly falling prey to the many hazards – natural, supernatural and decidedly unnatural  – that were (and indeed, are) the scourge of the island. The mere sound of a dog barking, therefore, released in Killigrew a wave of nostalgia. If there was a dog on the island he had every intention of getting to it before it met an unpleasant fate.

 

The little that was left of the life-raft had been reduced to matchwood, having been dragged over the rocks by two long, sinuous and suckered arms. Those arms were now wrapped tightly around the middle of the raft’s former occupant, a grizzled man in nautical gear, who thrashed around like a fish on a hook, fighting desperately to avoid being dragged into the creature’s lair. The source of the barking – a scruffy looking dog of indeterminate breed – dashed frantically around in impotent rage. Killigrew raced along the headland and down to the beach, leaping over rocks and boulders, careless of his own safety. To the Night Soil Man’s horror he could only watch helplessly as the terrified seaman was pulled, kicking and screaming, into a dark cleft in the rocks.

Yet another tendril-like arm slithered out and tightened itself around the frantic dog, who snarled and bit angrily.

Killigrew knew that there would be no reprieve for anything dragged into that lair. He had never seen any more than those serpentine, grasping arms but knew from experience that the nightmare that wielded them was a vicious killer. He had witnessed this before.

Gasping for breath, Killigrew threw himself heroically into the entrance of the cave, thankful that the gaping maw devouring the gory remains of its victim were somewhere deep in the lightless recesses behind him. Immediately, as if by some unheard command, the dog was unceremoniously dropped on to the ground and the writhing arms seemed to shrivel as they receded past him, back into the cave. Killigrew smiled to himself. His overpowering stench had, at least, served to save one life today.

The great curse of the Night Soil Man’s existence is also its blessing. The work is foul and the incumbent, though respected, is a pariah, avoided by all. The silver-lining to this malodorous cloud is that he is also shunned by every living creature ( not to mention the undead and the not-at-all-sure-whether-they’re-alive-or-no) on the island. There are, of course, exceptions but these, like the monstrous Wendigo and Pamola, the bird-demon of the Maine Indians, are as ancient as the land itself and don’t really count. Dogs, however, are the undisputedly non-mythological exceptions that simply adore awful smells. Every dog owner knows that their beloved pet loves nothing better than to inhale or roll in the vilest of things – and this is how the dog on the beach became Killigrew’s only friend and faithful companion.

It would be less than helpful if I continue referring to the dog on the beach as simply ‘the dog on the beach’; in future I will call him by the, frankly unimaginative, name that Killigrew gave him: Dog.

In fairness to Killigrew, he remembered that the hairy, bouncy creature with a leg at each corner and an exceptionally long tongue standing before him was generally referred to, in the English-speaking world, as ‘dog’. The constraints of his amnesia, however, prevented him from recalling that these animals would usually have a unique name bestowed upon them, such as Bonzo, Lassie, or possibly Spot, a useful attribute when summoning them for walks, etc. Fortunately confusion was avoided, as on Hopeless such niceties are not necessary; in the absence of any other canine competition, ‘Dog’ was name enough.

For ten short but happy years Killigrew and Dog were inseparable. If anyone spotted the Night Soil man – usually no more than a silhouette on the skyline – rest assured, Dog was at his heels, or chasing ahead in pursuit of a spoonwalker, or other quarry (which he always failed to catch). Occasionally Dog would wander off on his own, sniffing and snuffling around the island while Killigrew slept but always returning in the evening, announcing his presence by scratching at the Night Soil Man’s door. Those were the best years of their lives. Then one dreadful day, in late spring, Dog went for a lone walk and did not come back.

Killigrew was frantic with worry. He waited for hours, neglecting his work, hoping for the familiar scratching at the door that would tell him that all was well but it never came. At midnight, in desperation, he decided to go and look for his beloved friend. He scoured the island with a flaming torch in his hand, calling Dog’s name, his voice breaking with anguish. It was dawn when he found him, curled up in one of his favourite hideaways, in the shadow of Chapel Rock. At first Killigrew thought  – hoped – that his friend was just sleeping, but the awful truth soon dawned. Weeping hot tears, Killigrew scooped Dog’s lifeless form into his arms and grief-stricken, carried him back to his cottage.

The Night Soil man could not bear to think of Dog lying in the bare earth, where his body could be exhumed by any scavenger who happened to pass. To give him to the sea would be as bad, or even worse. He needed to keep Dog as safe in death as he had in life – but what could he do? And then he remembered the sinkhole at the end of his garden. He had not looked into it for years. Though it would break his heart to do, it seemed the best place to let his only friend spend eternity.

With some difficulty Killigrew dislodged the capstone that had served to seal the sinkhole. He peered down into the depths, then fell back in astonishment. He dimly remembered having seen a vague iridescence, deep in the bowels of the island. What Killigrew was witnessing now was no faint glow but a green inferno, raging untold fathoms beneath him.

With a heavy heart, Killigrew picked Dog up for the last time, buried his tear-stained face into his friend’s neck and sobbed a heartfelt “Goodbye, old friend.”

With as much tenderness as he could muster, he lowered Dog’s body into the mouth of the sinkhole, then let it go, watching in anguish as Dog fell, for what felt like an age, into the abyss, down to the cold green flames, far, far, below.

Like a man in a trance, Killigrew knelt by the side of the hole for an hour or more, his gaze transfixed upon the final resting place of his only friend.

Replacing the capstone, Killigrew scratched upon its face a large letter ‘D’ by way of a simple memorial.

It was with reluctance that Killigrew strapped on his night soil bucket that evening. He went to work feeling more alone than he had ever felt in his life.

 

Spring turned to summer, summer slipped into fall and the days became shorter. Killigrew had taken to spending hours just sitting by the capstone, where he recounted to Dog his adventures and the gossip of the island. Then, under the cover of darkness, he would go to work, returning home, hours later, exhausted.

 

Killigrew had no idea how long he had slept. It was dark outside but night fell early at this time of year. The Night Soil Man lay on his bed, hardly daring to breathe. Something had disturbed him, something familiar. There it was again… a scratching at the door. It couldn’t be… could it? Killigrew dashed outside, half-expecting to see Dog, tail wagging and ready for a night’s adventures. But Dog was not there. Of course he wasn’t! Then Killigrew stopped in his tracks. The capstone had been moved and was standing on end, the scratched letter D clearly visible in the moonlight. He raced over to the sinkhole and peered in. There was some faint illumination in its depths but nothing like the eerie conflagration that he had seen when Dog died.

Sadly, and cursing himself for being a fool, Killigrew made his way back to his cottage slamming the door behind him. Someone was obviously playing a very cruel joke on him.

 

A short distance away, Hyacinth Jones discovered that her husband’s long underpants had been mysteriously removed from the washing line… and somewhere, out by Chapel Rock, a dog barked.

By Martin Pearson-art by Tom Brown

 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightdress

For a thousand years, or more, the mysterious island of Hopeless, Maine has witnessed a long cavalcade of migrants scramble up its rocky shores. Few have come here willingly but each one, in their own way, has attempted to construct some sort of life for themselves in this most inhospitable of places. For most, that life has been brief; the natural – and supernatural – perils of the island are many.  Some have gone without leaving any trace of their visit, while others have left various possessions, enthusiastically recycled by successive generations. This is why it is not uncommon to see a Hopelessian wearing  spats, plus fours, an Edwardian tail-coat and a tricorn hat. Nothing is ever wasted.

When Philomena Bucket came to the island, having stowed away on the ill-fated merchant ship ‘Hetty Pegler’, she owned nothing but the clothes she stood up in. Over the weeks and months that followed she acquired a modest wardrobe, garnered chiefly from the storeroom in the Squid and Teapot, where the forsaken possessions of some of its previous patrons were housed. Despite her humble beginnings, Philomena had no wish to abuse the hospitality of the inn and took no more than was necessary. There was one particular item, however, that caught her eye and she coveted above all others; this was a full length Victorian nightdress, buttoned at the neck and sturdily constructed to repel all but the most ardent attentions.

Washing day tended to be a somewhat drawn-out affair in ‘The Squid’. The process, devoid of any mechanical aid, was long and arduous, involving heating several cauldrons of water and the dexterous application of a wash-board. Soap, more often than not made from wood ash and any hard fat that was available, would be scrubbed into the soiled items, which were then rinsed and dried. It was a thankless task but perversely, Philomena enjoyed it. She appreciated cleanliness, having been forced to endure a certain amount of squalor in her formative years and being able to wash her own clothes gave her particular pleasure.

It was on one such day, some  ten weeks after her arrival on the island, that our tale begins. With the inn’s freshly laundered washing drying reluctantly on the line, Philomena felt free to tackle the task of cleaning her own clothing and bedding, which lay in a basket awaiting her attention. While, over the weeks, she had become accustomed to the strangeness of the Hopeless, nothing would have prepared her for the events that were about to unfold.

Although she could have sworn that no one or nothing had entered the laundry, the contents of the wash basket appeared to move. A sock was thrown across the room, closely followed by a rather pretty chemise that Philomena had inherited from a previous tenant. More disturbing, however, was the sight of her beloved nightdress rising from the tumble of washing and making its way towards the door. Its progress was slow, as though some internal force was being impeded by the cloth that held it. Then, with a whimper, the nightdress stumbled over the step and clattered to the ground with a noisy and totally unexpected rattle. Gingerly, Philomena carefully lifted the vagabond garment by the hem and gave it a gentle shake, then jumped back with a little squeal as a collection of bones clattered out,on to the smooth flagstones. She was even more surprised when the bones dragged themselves up into some semblance of a small quadruped that yawned, shook itself, raised a languid rear leg against the door frame (which remained defiantly undampened) then bounded away in the general direction of Hopeless town. Philomena could only stand speechless as she watched its bony tail wag its way into the distance.

Over the following week Philomena made a few discrete enquiries around the island regarding her osseous visitor, expecting to be denounced as a madwoman at any moment. To her surprise, no one even raised an eyebrow at her description of the skeletal beast. She had, it seems, encountered Drury, a hound of indeterminate breed, or breeds, who resolutely refused to allow the small matter of being dead to spoil his fun. Indeed, the general feeling was that Drury had no sense of his own demise and continued to do all of the doggy things that he had done in life. Philomena heard this with tears in her eyes, remembering her canine friends whose short lives had slipped by all too soon. If only they could have been like Drury and cheated death and if – unlike Drury – they could have hung on to their bodies at the same time, how lovely that would have been.

Of course, Drury was not universally adored or even approved of. While he could be something of an annoyance to various sections of the general community, the ghost population detested him. It is said that all dogs can see ghosts. I have no idea if this is true but Drury, having more than usual access to the afterlife, could see them quite plainly and found them boring. He made it his mission in death to get them to lighten-up a little and enjoy some jollity, an exercise which mainly involved Drury having fun at their expense. Whenever the Mild Hunt appeared (see the tale ‘Ghost Writers in the Sky’) the wraiths of the maiden ladies would try to shoo him away as he upset their highly-strung spaniels and nip the ankles of their mules, who became even more agitated – and therefore more flatulent- than ever. Obadiah Hyde, the ghostly Mad Parson of Chapel Rock detested him with a vengeance. If there was anything that Hyde disliked more than papists and adulterers (as described in the tale ‘The Headless Lady’) it was dogs, especially those of the deceased variety that stubbornly refused stay that way. In fact, the only ghost that Drury was unable to tease was the Woeful Dane, Lars Pedersen, also known as The Eggless Norseman of Creepy Hollow. Poor old Lars had been haunting the island for almost a thousand years and was so faded as to be almost non-existent. Try as he might, not even Drury could get a reaction out of him.

Following the curious incident of the dog in the nightdress, Philomena Bucket could often be seen with a skeletal hound running along beside her. She did not care that the biscuits she threw fell straight through him, bouncing off his rib cage on to the floor, where it would be retrieved to be thrown again. Although he was not her dog – Drury did not seem to belong to anyone in particular – she knew that he would always be there.

“Maybe he is just an assembly of old bones,” she thought to herself, “but that doesn’t make him any less of a dog – and there can be no better friend to have”

As if reading her thoughts, Drury agreed by lovingly licking her hand with his imaginary tongue. It was good to be alive.

Story by Martin Pearson-art by Tom and Nimue Brown