WHEN YOU COME BACK – A Story by Jonathan Wood

It came in the fall.  I don’t remember exactly when.  Time is now a blurred haze that no longer makes any sense to me.  A tapestry of fragmentations with no agency nor chronology. Not that can be relied upon, anyway. That’s what trauma does. It bends, distorts, fractures and breaks everything it touches. 

It arrived out of nowhere on an uneasy day last autumn on the farm when the winds were growing colder and blowing in from the North. Limping onto our land and into our lives from places unknown, its coat matted and oily, its paws too big for its body and a strange elongated snout which gave it an ugly, disproportional demeanour. But it was the eyes – most of all that was the most discerning thing about it.  The way they stared at you was not at all reminiscent.. of a dog.  It was clearly a mongrel, and it looked like there were about four different types of breed inside this poor, wretched hound, all battling for dominance. 

It was injured, and had a wound on its rear hind leg, near its hip which caused it to limp.  A hole, which at first I thought was a result of being hit by a car, or something sharp.  But later, we came to the conclusion it was probably a gunshot wound.  Dried blood matted around the sore looking wound, making its black coat oily and shiny.  Somebody, somewhere had shot this decrepit animal.  

My wife, Emma had been tending to the chickens on the other side of the house and she came running from the pen when I called out to her, just as the dog limped into our front yard, snorting and heaving, struggling to get its breath and walk.  It looked exhausted and just slumped down in a pathetic heap in front of both of us giving out an almost human sounding groan as its legs gave way underneath it.  I simply stood, staring gormlessly at this animal for a brief moment in the cold wind, unable to place what it was that made me feel so uneasy. I had grown up around dogs, they had always been in my family.  I loved dogs. Why did I feel so weird about this one? 

‘For the love of God, Richard, move out of the way’ said Emma, in irritation as she took point, pushed past me and slowly approached the dog.  I told her to be careful.  Although the animal was not displaying any aggression, it was hurt and hurt animals that feel vulnerable can lash out if you go near them. We had no idea who this dog belonged to, (if anyone) nor of its temperament.  And that horrible, unnatural snout concealed; undoubtedly- a set of sharp teeth.  Teeth most likely dirty and infected with god knows what.

The dog seemed to settle a little as Emma approached, like it sensed her energy as non-threatening and it opened its mouth and began panting, pinning back its short, sharp-looking ears.  

‘Emma, please be careful’ I said again, ‘don’t go near the wound’.  I was worried the dog was going to bite, but soon it became clear the dog had no issue with Emma. That could not be said of me, however.  As I approached closer, the dog turned towards me and stared directly at me, the whites of its eyes gleaming in the failing light.  I watched the pupils dilate and I thought I heard a dull chuff in its throat just short of a growl, which was enough to make me stop in my tracks and not venture any closer.  That seemed to appease the dog who looked back to Emma and returned almost immediately to a calm, submissive state.  

Eventually, the dog allowed Emma to stroke its head and it responded to her voice, pinning its ears back in absolute submission.  It was as if the dog was charmed by her, somehow and the kindness exhibited in her voice.  I tried again slowly to move a few steps closer.  Immediately, the dog reacted with the same stare and growl until I stopped and backed off. The dog’s aggression felt odd. It was measured, controlled.  And something in the dog’s eyes had a sense of familiarity that invoked in me a deja vu. 

‘You’d best stay back’ said Emma, never moving her eyes away from the gaze of the dog.  This filthy hound had only been on our land for five minutes, and already I hated it.  I felt strangely threatened by its presence. 

Emma eventually moved the dog to the barn on the other side of the house.  She set up a bed for it in the hay, tended to its wound and checked on it several times per day over the next week.  The dog never moved from the barn and Emma remarked how the wound did not seem to show any sign of healing.  The skin remained inflamed no matter how many times it was bathed and dressed, and a vile smelling, pus-like discharge oozed from it, she said, which indicated an infection.  

I wasn’t happy about Emma spending so much time around this dog. I wanted the thing off our land and out of our lives. I asked around discreetly in the village when I was there for my usual visit to collect fuel and supplies, a few days later. Nobody knew anything about a black mongrel dog with a gunshot wound to its rear leg.  Or if they did, they were not saying.  I suggested to Emma that we take the dog to a vet and if nobody claimed it, that we try to arrange to take it to a shelter, or that the dog be euthanized.  If it had an infection, without antibiotics or professional treatment, it was sure to die anyway.   

Emma wouldn’t hear of either proposal. We argued for days about it.  But it was more than that.  Soon, she started spending more and more time out in the barn with the dog.  At first, I figured it was because she was angry and wanted solitude, away from me.  We’d rowed about it and I’d swore, even kicking over one of the kitchen table chairs in temper at Emma’s stubborn refusal to budge about this fucking dog. She swore back – told me to “fuck off” and said terrible things I cannot speak of.  I said terrible things back.

I decided to let it lie for a while, secretly praying that the dog would fall sick and die of its own accord, then this problem would take care of itself and we could go back to our lives. 

Emma’s mood reminded me of darker days past.  The days, weeks and months we barely talked, or made love, or behaved like man and wife. And that is hard when you are only two and the only thing you have is each other in a remote place.  This was the previous time our farm was consumed by the dark and cold winds that blew in from the North.  Times long ago we no longer and cannot speak of.

As the days turned into weeks, Emma became obsessed with the dog.  Her work on the farm fell away completely, leaving everything to me and I couldn’t cope on my own. The chickens were the first to get sick.  It started with one, then two, then four, then eight. Their feathers became ragged and oily, then their skins began to break out in some kind of rash, causing their feathers to fall out completely.  They stopped eating and began to die.  Each morning in darkness and howling wind, I’d go out there and find another one dead, and they had ulcerated, angry-looking wounds on their bodies. Very much like the one on the dog.   

I tried to talk to Emma, but she was now virtually living in the barn with the dog and refused to come out.  Because the dog got agitated when I got too close, I was now resigned to talking to her from the outside.  She would talk to me briefly through the wooden slats of the barn.  She did not look well, her skin pale and translucent, and she had dark circles around her eyes.  I felt like the barn was now a prison cell, the slats may as well have been iron bars separating me from my wife, with the dog as some kind of psuedo jailor, watching my every move. 

I pleaded with Emma to come out – I told her I was sorry for losing my temper and for the terrible things I’d said.  She said she was sorry too, but needed to care for the dog.  One night, in darkness and howling wind, when I went out to the barn to tell her that all the chickens were dead, I saw the oil light swinging from the ceiling of the barn in the draught, and as I approached, momentarily saw Emma talking to the dog, my vision obscured by the slats and poor light.  Only she was not talking like you would talk to an animal.  It was like a conversation, and..I heard another voice, not Emma’s.  As if another person was in the barn with them.  As I got nearer, for a fleeting moment the oil lamp above swayed and cast dim light over the dog.

I could have sworn I saw the facial features of a human on the beast, and not that of a dog. The face had a familiarity too, that I could not place.  But the lamp quickly swung back again and when the light returned to it once more, what I saw in the shadows was just the face of the filthy black dog.

Emma listened quietly through the wooden slats of the barn when I gave her the news about the chickens.  She did not seem to care.  She looked sick now too, her skin now had a rash and had broken out in red sores all over her face, neck and arms. She looked terrible. I begged her again to come out of the barn. There was some kind of terrible sickness loose on our farm.  And it had all started with that fucking dog.  

Emma told me not to worry, that she was fine and would be fine. She didn’t look fine.  She looked far from fine. I held her dry fingers through the wooden slats of the barn that separated me from my wife, under the watchful eye of the dog. That night, as the wind howled outside our farmhouse, I checked my face, neck and body for signs of the rash and the sickness that had gripped our farm.  I found nothing.

Emma died the following day.  That morning, I took matters into my own hands, and in howling wind and darkness, kicked open the door to the barn holding a loaded 12 gauge, the gun I kept locked away for foxes and vermin that had plagued our farm over the years.  The dog went berserk, barking and snarling at me, foam and froth spewing from its dirty mouth. But it was too weak to come at me, and strangely, it seemed to be aware of the gun.

I scooped Emma up who was now too sick to resist and I carried her back to the farmhouse.  She felt like a bag of bones in my arms.  I covered her with a blanket and tried to give her some water.  Her face was covered with sores and her blonde hair had now gone brittle and dry.  Before she passed, she regained consciousness and put her hand to my face. I asked her why? And she said I’d understand.   She cried, and then I cried. Tresspasses from long ago were forgiven. 

Late that afternoon, in howling wind and darkness I buried my wife Emma on the hill about a quarter of a mile from the farm, according to her wishes.  And her grave had another next to it.  That of our long dead child, Ruby.  Only there seemed to be something wrong with her grave.  It did not look the same as it should.  The same as I remember.  I had not been up here in a long time, and the secret Emma and I buried here long ago was the sorrow we could no longer speak of.  Even accidents carry intolerable burdens. 

That night my grief turned to rage.  As I spilled through the front door of the barn, the dog must have sensed my wrath and had managed to drag itself from the hay where it had laid for weeks to the very back of the barn, where it was to make its last stand.  In the climax of the face-off, the dog stopped snarling and we locked eyes and shared something between us.  A moment. The dog looked calm and closed its eyes. 

I didn’t hear the blast, but the barn lit up like a firecracker, the force ripping splinters through the back door and the recoil of the shotgun surged through my chest in a painful wave. Just before the dog’s breath gave out in the dimness of the swaying oil lamp above, I witnessed its body begin to morph in front of my very eyes.  The shoulders and head began to distort, change and mould like clay.  Only it was not clay. It was skin.  Human skin.  Then I saw a head forming, then shoulders and hands – tiny hands.  For a brief moment, I saw Ruby, looking at me, her dainty hands and milky skin as beautiful as I remember them to be.  Then I was looking at Emma, only Emma from times long past, before the accident that took the warmth out of her smile and the light from her eyes.  I fell to my knees next to her, exhausted and distraught, my hand holding hers. Before she closed her eyes and slept, she raised her head and whispered lightly in my ear.  

I burned the remains of the dog the following day and watched from a distance as the smoke coils spired high into the sky from the bonfire.  The wind seemed to ease and the darkness lifted from the farm in the following days and weeks.  I wanted to leave, but couldn’t.  The secrets and the sickness here are in my custody.  The farm is my burden now and I must wait. 

I knew it would come back when the winds changed and started blowing in colder again from the North.  Just as she’d said it would. It came limping onto our land just as before, its coat matted and oily, from places unknown and it carried an injury.  A wound to its rear leg.  When it got closer and fell down in exhaustion in the front yard, I saw the wound looked like a gunshot.

I heard Emma’s whispered words repeat in my head: ‘when it comes back, heal the dog and she’ll come back

I prepared the barn, repaired the doors and set up camp next to the dog in the hay.  Soon after, my face and hands began to itch and hurt and I grew tired. But I won’t leave the dog.  In the long hours of darkness and cold we listen together to the howling wind outside. We share thoughts and communion.  

Soon, the dog will tell me what I must do.

End.

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