Black Dog Running
Bright grey clouds, back-lit by the sun, hang low over the ocean. The wind blows in from the sea straight over the beach. It strips foamy brine from the tops of waves and wisps of sand from undulations on the beach that are too shallow to be called dunes. The sand and foam, curves that give shape to the wind, race up the beach as if fleeing the tide.
The sea is a dark, gunmetal grey, full of chaotic shifts and sharp fractal shapes. The wind builds the swell higher and higher, pushing inland from deep water. Offshore, jagged rocks thrust out of the seabed and into the air. Waves smash themselves to mist in explosions of white against the rocks. One after another, waves strike the beach in a never-ending cannonade, creating, over aeons, shell-shocked sand. Each wave disintegrates into rushing torrents that push sand, seaweed, shell and driftwood up the beach. Momentum spent, the water rushes back with a hissing glee.
Herring gulls skim the tops of waves, flying through the spray.
A black dog runs on the wet and shiny sand. He spots a gull and veers toward the water, barking a tirade. His paws splash crowns of brine and his chest smashes into an incoming wave. A flower of foam blooms over his head. He reappears farther along the beach. Running. He runs fast, tail high, paws blurry and ears flapping.
The dog sees another low-flying bird and plunges into the surf. He doesn’t seem to mind that he never gets close enough to catch it. He runs because that is exactly what he should do with the wind and the sea and the birds.
He skids to a halt with paws in the surf. He looks along the beach, panting hard, ears raised. Was that a bark or an echo?
His tail wags.
The sky stretches wide over the flat horizon. Tall, dark clouds press down, threatening rain. In a wide field, green corn swirls and eddies in the wind. A single tree stands alone in the middle of the cornfield. Its boughs and branches are bent over to one side, sculpted by decades of wind. The leaves give shade, creating a corn-less shadow on the ground behind the tree.
At the far end of the field, the cornstalks part as something runs through the corn straight towards the tree.
A black dog bursts out of the corn and trots to a halt at the trunk. The dog looks up into the leaves and barks.
Two crows leap into the air with alarmed caws and the clap of wings. The dog leaps off the ground, all paws airborne. His tongue lolls, jaws open, eyes bright. Corn husks cover his fur.
He watches the crows fly away. He turns, sniffs the trunk, lifts his leg, and sprays.
Something farther up the field catches his eye, and he’s off. He darts past the tree and disappears into the swirling corn. A straight line of parting stalks races away from the tree.
The crows return to their perches. They shake and settle their wing feathers and huddle down out of the wind.
The black dog runs along a narrow country road. Hedgerows press in to narrow it further. His ears fly back and his tail sticks straight out. His claws make ticking sounds on the crumbling tarmac as he races forward, pushing hard.
Just ahead, there is the flash of white tails.
The dog’s tongue hangs out the side of his muzzle and flaps in time with each stride. He manages three panting breaths in the time it takes for each four-pawed bound.
The tails flash white as they zig and zag.
The dog runs on, no closer, not yet, down the straight length of road. He will not stop. It’s in his nature, in his genes, as he focused all his attention on the prey. The whitetails don’t have the endurance. He’ll wear them down. The straight road lends him time. Already, they have lost much of their zig now, and most of their zag. He smells their fatigue and desperation and panic.
Drool spills out over his jaw and falls to the road.
The dog picks up his pace, pushing the whitetails past their limit. One veers to the left and into a dark space in the hedgerow. Another veers to the right and is gone. He lets them. His eyes stay locked on the last remaining whitetail.
It senses the dog bearing down and cannot stop itself from trying to evade, but doing so only slows it down.
The dog barks, loud and harsh, directly behind the whitetail. It stops running and freezes. The whitetail’s last desperate defence is to become still, play dead.
The dog shows his teeth. He leaps forward and snaps his jaws closed.
He stops running long enough to eat.
The black dog trots into the room, his head held low and his tail held high. He casts his head to the left and right and samples the room with his nose. He smells human smells: burnt toast, hot grease, rancid milk and human excrement. His claws tap on the wooden floor, and the pads of his paws leave oval smudges in the thick layer of dust.
There is no scent of prey, no scent of fresh food.
He trots into another room and smells mould and damp. The carpet and sofa cushions are bloated. There are islands of fungus within dark fluffy seas of mould. The leather of the sofa rebounds his tail as if it were full of air, like an inflated cow.
The dog sneezes twice and shakes his head to clear his sinuses of spores. He keeps moving and leaves through a gap in the wall and into a hallway.
To the right is the faint scent of human sweat and dead skin, the telltale odour of where humans sleep. He turns in the other direction: there! The faintest of smells, barely there, by the stairs. His tail wags and he bolts up one flight. His snout held high. Stronger here, old but stronger. He whines. A quiet note in the empty house. He scampers up the second flight of stairs.
The scent comes from a closed door in the hall. He scrapes at the door with his paw. It doesn’t open. He stands on his hind legs and pushes higher up. It moves inwards, creating a gap. He lets out another whine, which transforms into a multi-toned whimper. He drops to all fours and sniffs around the door frame. The air at the gap is full of the scent. He shoves his snout in and pushes. His head enters the room, but his shoulders can’t make it through.
Inside, the room is dark, but the scent is unmistakable.
He backs out. His tail wags. His movements are quick and jagged. He gnaws the wood of the door frame a couple of times. He shoves his muzzle back into the gap and pushes hard with his shoulders, wriggles from side to side, his claws scrabble at the floor. The door slides open a fraction more and the black dog slithers in.
He ignores the first bed and heads straight for the second one on the far wall. He barks once, unable to hold it in. His tail sweeps in wide arcs and knocks dust into the air from whatever it hits. He dips low, snuffles under the bed, the scent is there but faint. He rears and puts his forepaws on the bed.
He hops up onto the bed. There is something hard under the covering. The scent is everywhere. He yelps and whines. His whole back end moves with his tail. He paws at the covering and it pulls away from the bed. The scent becomes stronger. He paws the covering again and exposes something pale and white. He puts his nose against the white thing and inhales. This is it. This is where the scent is coming from.
He nips a fold of the covering with his teeth, ignores the sour taste of dust on this tongue and with a step back and a shake he pulls the covering off. He sees more white shapes in the dim light.
The small human scent is everywhere.
But there is something else. The scent of food. The scent of something delicious.
His tail stops wagging. He salivates.
He takes one of the long white things between his teeth in a gentle grip. He tries to pull it away. It won’t come. He twists his head and gives a tug. The white thing comes free and there is a muffled clattering from under the covering. He jumps off the bed with the thing in his mouth and pads out of the room into the hall. He drops it on the rug. A bone. A big one. It smells of the small human, but also, confusingly, of the delicious stuff found inside.
He wags his tail happily. Lays down on the rug, grips the bone between his paws. His teeth crack it open easily. And there it is, the tasty food in the middle.
He gnaws and scrapes and licks. His tail makes lazy swirls and swishes as it sweeps a fan-shaped portion of the carpet clean of dust.
The black dog jumps out of a broken window and onto the overgrown lawn. His coat is dusty and his muzzle is wet.
He licks his chops.
He stands on the lawn for a moment. Looks back at the house, then turns and runs out into the street. He cuts across a garden, leaps a wall and races across a wide road. All the cars are still. They have been for as long as he can remember. He runs into long grass by the side of the road that is full of flowers. He remembers when this grass was short; it smelled nice then, sharp and green. It smells even better now.
The slope levels off and he stops to look at a slow-flowing river. He remembers chasing a ball thrown by his human and leaping off the bank and into the water. His tail twitches. It feels good to chase things.
He barks and runs towards the river and jumps in with a splash. The water washed the dust from his coat and the saliva from his snout. His four legs kick underwater, one after the other. An arrowhead bow wave spreads out behind him.
He struggles to find a way out on the other side. The reeds are tangled and tall and the mud is slippery. But he finds traction and is up and out. The river water flows off his back and streams onto the grass as he scrambles up the far bank.
He runs over the hill, snout low to the ground, tail high. Belly full, interesting scents ahead, he feels like he can run forever.