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