Offered for consideration for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards 2021, category of Short Story.
If you think this work is worth a nomination, please take a couple of minutes to fill in this form at the SFFANZ page, before 31st March 2021. Thank you so much, and I hope you enjoy it.
Night Wolves by Tabatha Wood © 2020
(First published in BLACK DOGS, BLACK TALES, Things In The Well Press, 2020, raising money and awareness for the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand.)
I close my eyes and hope the Night Wolves are not waiting for me. Sleep without fear, without dreaming, that’s all I want. What I desperately need. I do my best every day to let go of the memories, to move beyond the pain that holds me back. But the monsters that dwell in the dark corners of my heart, they want me to let them all out.
And whatever I do, wherever I look, I’m not sure what’s real anymore.
When dawn breaks, the new sun peeks through my bedroom window and kisses the sheets where I lay. I rise from a night of broken, fitful sleep, my skin made oil-slick with sweat. Long scratches run down the lengths of my arms. There’s dried blood under all my nails. I’m not rested, my bones feel weary and weak, but I’m awake, and another day has begun.
The dog is at the end of the trail as usual, waiting for me to arrive. It’s not mine. I don’t know who it belongs to, or if it has an owner. It’s not a big dog, at least no bigger than a Labrador, yet it gives off the impression of filling the space around it, of being somewhat larger than its skin. It follows my path with its round, brown eyes – eyes that seem much older, wiser than its years – and as I walk deeper amongst the trees, it wags its coal-black tail.
Another tail thump comes as its reply. I don’t pet it. I’ve never even tried. Those eyes may seem gentle, but I am wary. I’ve seen it bark and snarl at other walkers. Seen it chase and snatch at rodents running nimble-quick across the forest floor. Two rows of white barbs in a cavern of red; its teeth are savage and sharp. It has a history, this creature, I’m sure of it, but I have no interest in what that might be.
We walk, just like we always do. The dog to my right, a mere paws-length ahead, straight-backed and alert as it sniffs the cool air. Our destination is always the same, our route never deviates. Over the hill, through the woods, past the stream. Away from the town and its people. The sun guides our journey as our shadows trail behind us; two figures enshrouded in black.
Grey stones greet our arrival. Monuments rising from the earth, engraved with names and dates. It’s quiet, as it always is, only Dog and I are ever out here this early. It knows where to go and picks its way to the ornate marker through the long grass of untended graves. Hers is one of barely a handful kept neat and regularly trimmed. I pull any weeds as I find them. Trim the edges with a pair of long-handled silver scissors I keep in my pocket all times. They used to be hers. Ones she used to gather plants and berries. She plucked flower heads from the hedgerows and snipped slim branches from trees.
The dog brought them to me one morning, an exact year after she’d gone. I don’t know where it had found them, or how it knew what they were. It dropped them on the trail in front of me, both blades smeared with dark brown. I should have handed them in to the Sheriff, but I couldn’t bear to let them go. I cleaned them in the stream under moonlight, wishing I could wash away my feelings just as easily.
The dog stops at the grave and licks its front leg. It looks up as I draw closer, then, as always, it runs back to the gate. It never stays with me when I come to visit her. Like it knows I need the time on my own. It sits by the gate and watches me, regardless of how long I stay. Other visitors are few and far between, but it won’t let anyone else enter while I’m here.
I kneel down in front of the marker, put my fingers to the stone and trace the letters of her name.
Emily Catherine Dumond. My baby sister. Three years gap between us. Five and a half years passed.
It’s a sham, of course, this memorial. There was no body to bury or burn. Only blood. So much blood. When we were finally told the inevitable, we had little choice but to accept it. Sheriff Bradley was a decent man, barely two years older than I, and a close family friend, he’d known Emily for as long – almost as well – as we did. He tried his very best, but he couldn’t find her. Nobody could find her. She was gone.
Our Mama, God rest her, she’d needed this. If I’m honest, so did I. But it’s a poor substitute for knowing the terrible truth, a band-aid on a wound which will never heal. I come and I grieve, and I talk to her. And most days that’s enough.
I stay until the light fades, and my stomach starts to grumble. My limbs have gone rigid and tingly, too long sitting still in one spot. I rub at the flesh to reawaken them. Dead legs are what Emily would have called them. I wonder if that’s what it’s like for her now. Impossible, such feelings are linked to signals from the nerves. No body. No nerves. No more feelings.
Tomorrow I will bring flowers. All her favourites, as many as I can find. I refuse to acknowledge any anniversary that marks the date of her passing, but her birthday, I always celebrate. She should have been turning thirty. Too young to say goodbye.
The dog starts barking as I shuffle towards the gate, my body gripped by fatigue. An older couple are walking towards the graveyard. Their faces blanch with trepidation as the dog bares its teeth and growls.
“Is that your dog?” the man calls. I hear the shake in his voice.
“No,” I say, and pass through the gate. The dog makes a noise in the back of its throat, like a thunderclap rumbling amongst the clouds, then follows me silently, as if nothing has happened. It barely gives the couple a second glance.
We travel the reverse journey from the morning, the red sun at our backs once more. At the end of the pathway, as my house comes into view, the dog leaves me and disappears into the trees.
“Bye, Dog,” I whisper as it pads away, its sable haunches swallowed up by the dark leaves. I don’t know where it comes from, and I know even less about where it goes.
I wake that night to something sitting on my chest. Something hot and heavy and putrid. The room is pitch black but for a splinter of moonlight, seeping through a crack in the curtains. I long to scream but I can hardly breathe, the weight of it flattens me where I lie. I try to move but I’m paralysed, my arms and legs refuse to obey me. As I struggle to inhale, to fill my compressed lungs, its rotten stench is so overpowering I gag repeatedly and involuntarily. It twists and wriggles, spreading itself across the whole of me. Like a serpent, it tightens its grip around my chest. I feel sharp bile bubble up in my throat.
I know this demon. This foulness of impure sleep. Its visits were once more frequent, but I’m not surprised by its return. In dreams it escapes much more easily. Awake, I can banish it, or at least keep it at bay. I close my eyes and think of Emily, conjuring her image in my mind. Blue eyes, pale skin and caramel curls, her cheeks dashed with a smattering of freckles. She smiles and I feel myself smiling back. The demon shivers and shifts its weight. My right arm twitches, unrestrained.
Emily, I think. Can you hear me? Are you there? There’s no answer, of course. There can’t be. Emily is long gone. But the beast on top of me feels lighter, like it is shrinking somehow. I focus on my memories, recalling every detail I can muster. Each blemish and scar, every wrinkle and crease. I imagine her lying beside me, her delicate fingers entwined with mine. If I concentrate hard enough, I swear I can feel her. Her fingernails digging into my palm. As sharp as tiny claws.
I hear a noise from underneath the bed, an unfamiliar rustling. My heart pounds; furious, petrified. My eyes snap open but my sight is veiled, as if I’ve gone suddenly blind. I am trapped in a place between reality and dreams, caught fast by the ghosts of fear.
A guttural growl. A scraping of nails. A rising, ominous howl. As if in answer, the crushing heaviness is lifted. My body is unpinned and freed. Smoke-like swirls of silvery grey curve around me as my vision clears. I blink. See a flurry of bright spots behind my eyelids, like dust motes dancing in the light. A soft exhale from somewhere beyond the foot of the bed makes me tense and freeze once more. I listen and hear quick panting breaths interspersed by damp snuffling. The sound is familiar. Oddly soothing.
“Dog?” I call. “Is that you?” The air grows still. There is no answer. I ease the covers back and half-slide, half-crawl to the mattress’s end. The moonlight seems stronger here, I can see my body outlined on the bed, the shadows in the corners of the room. My eyeballs sting as I strain them, trying to make sense of the dark.
“Dog?” No answer. And I can’t see anything. “Dog, if you’re in here, it’s okay. Come out.”
But if it ever was, the dog is no longer with me.
In the morning I wake on the floor of my bedroom, with no memory of how I got there. The bed looks unmade, as if I’d never been in it, and I’ve made a nest for myself out of my clean laundry. As I pick each item from the floor, re-fold it and place it into a basket, I try to remember what happened last night. Was it the Night Wolves, or something else? I dress and leave the house like I always do. The image of the beast has almost faded to nothing by the time I reach the path and see the dog.
I remember you though, don’t I? I didn’t dream it. I know you were there.
“Morning, Dog,” I say. It thumps its tail in greeting as usual. I go to pass it, to take our habitual route. To my surprise it moves in front of me, puts its paws out straight and stares me down.
“What’s this all about, Dog?” I try to side-step, but it counters my movement. My pulse quickens; after all this time, is it finally going to turn on me? “Come on, Dog,” I say gruffly. “Get out of my way.” It growls softly, but somehow not unkindly. It sounds, if anything, impatient. Like it needs me to stop and listen. It circles behind me and nudges the back of my knee with its nose, urging me to take a step forward.
Come on. Follow me. This way.
“Where are we going, Dog?” I ask, suddenly curious.
It gives a quick bark as if in answer.
We walk. Past the hill, through the town, along the stream. We walk with the sunlight behind us, in a wide curve, to the bottom of the mountains. It’s a long hike through the bush to the top. Emily and I used to climb it regularly. She would gather flowers for her potions and tinctures. Collect leaves to grind down into a paste. She made healing salves mixed with beeswax, and sold them in glass jars in the town. She always kept some with her, inside a vial she wore on a chain around her neck.
“Jennifer, it’s just as well I’m a healer! You’re so delicate, you could cut yourself on the petals of a daisy!”
I smile at the memory. The dog barks twice and nips at my heels.
Come on! Let’s go! Keep moving!
“Okay, okay! I’m going. But I’d sure love to know exactly where.”
We take the trail through the bush. It’s not steep, but it’s overgrown and hard-going. Green tendrils entangle themselves around my ankles, trying their best to trip me up, while whip-thin stems slap into my face and leave red welts on my cheeks.
It’s drizzling by the time we reach the clearing, where a ring of dead trees claw at the sky. The air is so still here, it feels strained. I can feel the pressure building up in my head. The dog moves slowly, almost cautiously, pausing every few steps to sniff. Something rustles in the bushes behind us. The dog stiffens and the fur on its nape stands up. A twig snaps. The leaves shake. A lone bird bursts out from beyond the trees and disappears in a flurry of urgent wings. The dog relaxes, but my heart still thumps double-time.
“Where are we, Dog? Why have you brought me here?”
Inside the ring of wizened trees, the earth appears dead too. The undergrowth is brown and brittle, everything dried up and coarse. There’s no sign of fungi or creeping moss, the whole area is barren. Outside the ring, the foliage is verdant, a lush carpet of greens and golds. It’s like the ground has been somehow cursed or poisoned so nothing may grow in this spot.
The dog moves deliberately to the centre of the ring of trees, throws back its head and howls. The sound is deafening, it echoes across the clearing and spreads like the mist across the mountainside. I clamp my hands over both ears, but I can still hear its cry seep through my fingers. Eventually, it ceases and begins pawing at the ground. It starts slow, but quickly builds up pace, until it’s digging so deep and fast its front paws are a blur.
I move closer, intrigued, eager to know what has caught its attention. Perhaps it was a ground squirrel, hiding in the earth, or a rabbit has made its burrow beneath the trees. I look closer to see what the dog has uncovered, and I—
I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe! I’m being smothered. A demon has wrapped its arms around my heart and lungs. It’s squeezing every precious drop of life from me. I gasp and choke and claw at my throat. I scream at the sky and curse the sun. I beg and pray that what I see isn’t true. Even though I know I can’t deny it.
Bones. The dog has dug up bones. Of course it has, that’s what dogs do, but not just any old bones. These are too big to be from an animal. Too long and smooth and pale. Animals don’t wear woollen dresses, nor thick leather hiking boots. And I know, of course, who I’m staring at. Whose skull is grinning up at me from the dirt. If there was ever any doubt, the necklace clinches it. A vial worn on a chain around her neck.
I throw up, leaning heavily against a shrivelled trunk, heaving and heaving until nothing is left. The dog watches me, its bright brown eyes seem oddly impatient.
There’s no time for this, it seems to say. I turn and try to breathe calm and slow as I walk to the edge of the grave.
The bones are picked clean, I notice, nature has done fine work. There is no flesh or soft tissue left, nothing gross or even slightly unpalatable. It reminds me of the old sheep bones Emily collected and left out for the sun to bleach. If I didn’t know this was once my sister, I could be persuaded it was some kind of prank, albeit in poor taste. A fake skeleton, perhaps some old Halloween prop, buried by the local kids and left to scare unsuspecting hikers.
No, this is no elaborate joke, someone brought my sister here and covered her with a blanket of earth. One hand is laid across her chest, the other somewhat awkwardly beneath her hip. Her legs are crossed at the ankles, and her dress, now riddled with holes and decay, is pulled down, and smoothed over her calves. As if whoever had put her here had taken care to preserve her modesty. Her chin is curved and her neck bent forwards, her head bowed in silent prayer. It takes me a moment before I realise some bones are rent through, with deep grooves cut into the bone. There then, is the most likely cause of her death. Trauma to her neck and spine.
Was it quick? I wonder, as my eyes well up. I hope you didn’t suffer for long.
I want to leave, but I want to stay. I want to cry but I’m too full of rage. I ball my hands into tight fists and scream until my throat’s dry.
The dog seems immune to my emotions. It has other ideas. It scrabbles in the pit near her hidden hand, flinging dusty soil in my face.
“Hey, Dog! Stop! Leave her alone!” Without thinking, I grab it by the scruff of its neck and pull it away from the bones. It yelps and jumps as if it’s been shocked, black fur bristling as if electrified. I feel it too – a burst of static, a zap and a tingle, a jolt up the length of my arm. Then come the visions, the images in my head.
The trailer. Flash! The campfire. Flash! The tree.
“What the hell?” I let go and the dog grizzles and shakes itself, and goes straight back to my sister’s grave. It rummages in the dirt and grabs her wrist bone gently in its mouth, pulls her hand out from underneath her pelvis. Her fingers are curved, sealed in a fist. I see a glint of something shiny as it drops from her hand to the ground. I drop to my knees and retrieve it. A gold earring, a hooped sleeper, small in size, not much bigger than the width of my littlest finger. Not one of Emily’s, of that I’m sure, she wore only pure silver, and rarely. The dog nuzzles my hand and whimpers. I feel that spark again, only this time more muted and controlled. Images. Sounds. Smells. And blood. I see it all as if I were standing amongst it.
I put my hands in my pockets and feel the scissor’s blades. I turn and make my way back down the mountain.
I smell the fire before I see it, the thick smoke choking up the breeze. The tang of burnt meat and hot charcoal makes the dog lick its chops as we draw near. The trailer is old, a vintage RV. Most of its paint has flaked away. The metal exterior has a dull green patina, shadowed with red-brown rust. Both rear wheels are gone and it rests on thick blocks, but even with wheels it couldn’t move. By the rear window stands a massive tree, it’s roots bursting out of the ground. Long ago it wrapped its arms around the base of the trailer, and now it can never let go.
I’ve known this place since I was a child. Emily and I, we’d come here with other kids from the town. As teenagers we’d drink cans of cheap cola, topped up with vodka or rum. Whatever we could swipe from our parents. We’d smoke a lot of cigarettes, sometimes a little weed. We’d build a fire and stay awake until dawn.
It was his uncle’s, I think, originally, then left to him when the old man passed. I see him perched on a folding camp stool sitting in front of the flames.
“Jennifer,” he says when he sees me, surprised. “What brings you all the way out here?”
“Hello, Sheriff,” I reply, but add nothing further. He sees the dog by my side and tips his head.
“That your dog?”
He picks up a stick and pokes at the meat that sizzles on a makeshift grill, scratches the back of his neck and shrugs.
“Oh, okay. So what can I do for you?”
“I found her, Bradley. In the mountains. I thought I should let you know.”
He frowns and pulls a face. “What are you talking about? Found who?”
“You know damn well who. My sister.”
“Emily? Jennifer, come on now. I’m real sorry, but your sister’s dead. You know she is.”
The fire throws a strange orange light on his face, odd shadows move over his eyes. As he speaks, those same shadows pour from his mouth, as if he were disgorging pure darkness. I look closer and see the faint scar on his earlobe. A pink line of guilt in plain sight.
I hold the gold sleeper in an outstretched arm. I watch his face change as he sees it. His eyebrows raise. He purses his lips. He flares both nostrils wide.
“Your earring. Don’t you recognise it? Still, I suppose it’s been a while since you’ve seen it. It’s spent five and a half years in the ground.”
“What?” he begins, and starts to rise from the stool. The dog gives a guttural, warning growl and he seems to think better of it. “Tell your dog to ease off, Jennifer.”
“It’s not my dog.”
“Look, I feel like there’s some misunderstanding here, Jennifer. I’m sensing some hostility.”
I hurl the earring at his face. It glances off his cheek and hits the fire.
“Cut the crap, Bradley!” I yell, and the dog barks with me. “I found her body. I saw her grave!”
“You found a body? Well shit, Jen, no wonder you’re cranky. That’s a terrible thing to find.”
He sounds so sincere but I see the grin on his face, the smugness and the evil inside him.
“Why’d you kill her? Huh? What did she ever do to you?”
He laughs then, and plucks at the sleeve of his T-shirt, pulls the hem past his bicep and nods.
“See that?” He says. I see two faint marks on the muscle. Like a snakebite, but much wider apart. I put my hand in my pocket and feel the smooth curve of metal of the scissor handles as they rest in my palm. “Your bitch sister did that to me. Damn near cost me my arm.”
The dog pulls its ears back and raises its haunches, showing all its teeth as it snarls. Bradley shrinks back and grabs a branch from the fire. Waves it like a lion tamer at the dog.
“Goddammit! Put a fucking leash on that thing!”
“I told you, it’s not…” And I pause, suddenly unsure of myself. I’d been so certain that it didn’t belong to me. Maintaining my distance because of what? Fear, but not of the animal. Fear of losing something else, someone else, who was important to me.
“Good, Dog,” I say. It growls but gives a slight wag of its tail. “Why’d she stab you, Bradley? What did you do?”
He sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose.
“She was supposed to be my girl, you know? Me and her, together forever. But she embarrassed me, she turned me down. I’d picked out a ring and she said no. How was I supposed to react?”
“She didn’t like you like that. She didn’t like anyone like that. She loved her work and her flowers and her freedom. Did you force yourself on her? Is that what happened?”
“No. Never! God, I grabbed her, okay? I grabbed her and I yelled in her face.”
Dog nuzzles my leg with its damp, dark nose. Then comes the flash, a surge of images in my head. They flicker like an old movie only I can see.
We are deep in the woods, well away from the town. He knows no-one can hear us. I can see it, his fury, as if I’m right there. Flecks of white spittle fly from his lips, his complexion scarlet with rage. He grabs me by my shoulders and shakes me so hard I can feel my teeth rattle in my jaw. He unleashes a steady stream of obscenities. Bellows his demands in my ear. I’m scared, and I do what I have to. He screams as my blades pierce his flesh.
He throws me violently to the ground and I hit my head on something hard. I’m woozy and sick, and I try to stand. I see the ring on the floor where he dropped it. Then I see the rock in his hand.
I blink hard and the vision spins and fades. He sees my face. He knows I know.
“She was frightened. And you deserved it!” I yell, and slide the silver scissors from my pocket. “But now you deserve so much more.”
When the demon breaks through, I let it. It is strong where I am weak. Delicate Jennifer, sliced by a daisy. It couldn’t be much further from the truth. The Night Wolves come in the darkness, and the memories they leave are like dreams.
When dawn breaks, the new sun peeks through the trees and kisses my cheek where I lay. I rise from a deep and dreamless sleep, my skin damp with dew. I’m on a makeshift bed of dry leaves, the campfire long died away. My palms are sticky and slick with blood, and every muscle in my body aches. A bird calls loudly from above the trees, I look up to see it burst into flight.
The dog sits curled up by the trailer, nestled in the twisted roots of the huge tree. A mound of fresh earth is piled next to it.
“Morning, Dog,” I call. It pads over to me, and I hold out my tainted hands. Its rough tongue tickles me as it licks them clean. There is no spark this time, no shock. Whatever link we shared has gone. It seems smaller now, this creature, as if it has finally settled into its skin.
“It’s a new day, Dog,” I say. “A new start. I think it’s time for us to move on.”
We walk, just like we always do. Through the woods, down the hill, past the stream. Away from the town and its people. Two figures enshrouded in black.