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16 October 2014
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Stephen Brown
Stephen Brown

Stephen Brown comes from Derry and is currently teaching at a Secondary school near Oxford. He has published one novel to date, 'Under the Devil Tree' (available through the website) about teenagers growing up in Derry in the 1980's and is working on his second novel.

Dogstory by Stephen Brown

A half-moon reflected off the tin roof of the community centre on the other side of the garden wall. A sheen of light sparkled in the bedroom window. Below in the back garden was a small wooden shed by a
concrete coal bunker. Inside the shed the dog lay on a grey blanket that the old man brought out a week ago.

The old man had a bald head and wore glasses. He always wore the same black and red jumper. His family visited once a week. A woman with her two young sons.

The dog waited for the light to come back on in the kitchen, for the old man to reappear with the pups.

Three nights and three days she had been in labour. The fire burned in her stomach. He took the three little ones away after she had cleaned them, before they had opened their eyes.

The old man grew carrots in a corner of the garden. One year he planted cabbages but they did not grow. The dog nuzzled up against his trouser leg and he leant on the fork, one foot resting on the lug, his head on the handle, the sweat dripping from the end of his nose as he realised that the seed he had planted and tended all year would not produce. It had been a cold year.

The young woman appeared in the kitchen window. There was a rattle of dishes and the slop of water. Her face was serious but kind. She would speak to the dog whenever she brushed the garden path. She spoke as if the dog was a baby. The dog would lie down and rest its head on its paw and watch as the woman swept expertly.

The dog seemed content in those moments. The young woman’s jeans were rolled up, her ankles veiny and white skinned. She arrived in the middle of the labour. When the dog moaned the woman rubbed its head
and ears and said in a soft voice, ‘Ach I know. I know. Poor dog. I know.’

The April night was getting colder and the dog waited. She started when she heard the front door open and close with an echoing thud. The house became still and silent.

After a while the dog raised itself on all fours. She felt like a huge bulk, heavy with emptiness. For the first time in days she could smell the garden, the soil, the grass, the rubbish on the other side of the wall, a faint odour of alcohol, the house’s smells, of dinners, of the old man, the bin by the gate, the stale smell of the alleyway between the houses. But
stronger than anything she could smell the puppies. It was a fierce smell that stung her nostrils.

She walked in circles around the garden. In the far corner a hedgehog had arrived and began nudging a slug.

She stood by the gate and squeezed her head through the metal rails. She lifted her forefeet onto the gate but a pain ate into her belly when she stretched. She slowly climbed onto the bin and leapt over the gate.
She let out an agonised bark and in the alleyway she stopped and leant awkwardly against the wall and, for a moment, she closed her eyes. She imagined the pain as food. She imagined that she had swallowed it and
that it would make her strong. The scent of the little ones that came back to her from the end of the alleyway took away the thought of pain. It mingled with the old man’s scent.

She followed, nosing her way down the street. She turned left, along the hedgerows and quickened when the scent seemed to fade.

At the main road she saw the old man returning. She waited patiently behind a garden hedge and as the old man passed, she saw that he wore his long coat and hat. He walked slowly and unsteadily, his hands behind his back, his head bowed. She thought she could hear
him mutter to himself.

When the old man had passed, she carried on with the trail, across the main road, towards the river.

At the dairy she lost the scent for a moment. Then she picked it up once more in the middle of the football pitch that ran alongside the river. It took her to a hole in the wire perimeter fence and on to the river
bank. The river sparkled silvery and dark. It lapped on to the rocks and whispered to her in its murky mystical language. She stood on the edge and held the last faint waft of scent in her nostrils before it disappeared. She stepped lightly into the cold waters. The river’s smell was powerful and seemed to drown out everything.

For a long time she ran back and fro, back and fro along the bank, retracing her steps over and over, always returning to the same small rock that she sniffed and licked. She stared at it bewildered, as if
the little ones had been turned to stone.

Climbing back up on to the bank again, she lay, looking out across the river, watching it carry everything away towards the bridge. The pain in her stomach had changed. It felt like a heavy weight that
anchored all her grief to that spot.

There was a barking in the distance. Two older dogs arrived and proceeded to circle her, baring their teeth. She gathered the last of her strength and cried out in agony, in anger and defiance and the cry
carried to the bank on the other side and echoed back and coursed across the football pitch with the wind and the tips of the grass bent like the heads of a thousand mourners, and the cry carried on through the
empty streets, passed the wrecks of cars, around corners and over chimneys and the old man halted for a second when he heard it and looked around and it carried on and on, up the hill to where the woman
lived and her son heard it in his sleep and dreamt of witches and it carried on and on down through the valley.

The older dogs moved away, but she followed. They crossed the football pitch and out on to the main road. They walked at a clip and were soon joined by others. Silently, they headed for the fields on the edge of the city where the valley sloped down to the river beds, past the monastery, and on out towards the border.

By the gate to a huge barn they began to spread out. The moonlight was enough for them to see their way and allowed them to hide in the shadows. They stealthily crawled up to the wooden fence. One of the others gave a yelp and they leapt over the fence and across the
small ditch. They glutted themselves. They left neither a sheep nor a lamb alive.

She swam in the bloody dew until all her grief was spent.

She slept in the stale smelling alleyway as dawn broke. She dreamt of the little ones, of the one stillborn, of the others he took away, of their smell which she held in her nostrils as real as the smell of urine in the alleyway. She dreamt of holding them in her mouth, of their little eyes opening slowly.

When a car drove past she woke, with the blood caked on her fur, hardened around her chin, and the ashen taste of grief in her mouth.

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