Those of you who’ve read my novels, know that I love writing about dogs and that I especially enjoy including them in stories about magic. This short-short story is dedicated to my sister, Holly, who happens to be the sweetest, most intelligent, beautiful, and lovable Jack Russell Terrier in the history of dogs. Holly has been very sick this week and in the hospital down in Arizona. Needless to say, even while writing, my mind and heart have been focused on my dog-sister.
Neil unzipped his coat, then bent and retrieved Adak’s ball from where the dog had dropped it at his feet. Adak, tongue lolling and tail wagging, kept his gaze on Neil’s face until the man wound up and lobbed the ball down the narrow path. The moment the ball left Neil’s hand, Adak flung himself forward, streaking to retrieve the well-worn tennis ball. Neil chuckled as the dog pounced on the fallen toy and turned to trot back towards him, high stepping like a Clydesdale. Man and dog continued this way for some twenty minutes, until Neil broke the rhythm to mop his brow with a threadbare handkerchief, and strip off his coat.
Although a delicate icing of frost covered the moss and small plants that lined the trail, deeper under the cover of the trees, all was green. Neil shook his head at the unseasonably warm temperature and thought, not for the first time, that this was the strangest winter in memory. February had just begun and spring seemed imminent. There was something about the air, the way it tickled his nostrils and almost smelled like spruce sap, that made Neil think more of March, or even early April, than the usually bitter-cold days of February. Neil’s thoughts, rather than the temperature, made him shiver.
After a time, Adak tired of playing fetch and began to weave in and out of the underbrush, sniffing and marking, as he went, never once setting down his ball. It pleased Neil that he never had to worry about the tennis ball. Adak never lost or misplaced the toy, nor did he ever leave home without it, and having known a few dogs with an equal passion for balls, Neil was grateful that he’d never had to go wading through streams or searching through thickets to retrieve his best friend’s most cherished possession. Not every dog owner was so lucky. Just last month, his pal Travis searched a muskeg for an hour, trying to find his dog’s favorite throwing disc. Finally, he’d given up and gone shopping for a new one, but Oscar had moped around with sad eyes for ten days before he deigned to play with the brand new toy.
Ahead and just off the trail, Neil caught sight of Adak poised atop a small rise, the ball still in his mouth, and his muzzle raised, as he scented the air. Adak’s usually wagging tail went stiff and straight behind him, and he lifted one forepaw in a classic point. Neil had just enough time to admire his dog’s pose and wish he carried a camera on walks, before Adak turned towards Neil and barked once, the sound deep and somewhat muffled through the ball. Then, Adak took off into the woods at a brisk trot.
“What the…” Mark exclaimed before taking a deep breath and calling his dog in a firm voice. “Adak! Come!”
Adak wheeled around and headed back towards Neil, but he stopped, just a yard away. Neil crouched down and held out the dog’s leash, which he’d been carrying draped over his shoulder. “Come ‘ere, boy,” the man said in a warm tone, but Adak backed up as Neil reached towards him. “Come, Adak. Come on, let’s get this leash on.” Neil stood and clicked his tongue. Adak was well trained and Neil was proud of his recall. Not since early puppyhood, had the dog failed to come lean against him whenever he called, so this was startlingly out of character. “Come, Adak,” he repeated, and the dog backed away two more steps, then sneezed.
“What has gotten into you, huh, boy?” Neil took a step towards his dog and Adak took another step back. “Got a bit of spring fever, maybe? You hearing the call of the wild?” Neil took another step towards Adak who turned and trotted deeper into the trees, before sitting down and watching Neil.
With as much calm as he could muster, Neil shrugged back into his coat and walked towards his dog, wishing he’d stuffed his pockets with dog treats. “Something got you spooked, big boy? You want to leash up and go home? C’mere, Adak. Let’s go home.” The dog stood up, whined softly, and stretched into a deep play-soliciting bow before standing up and, again, trotting further into the woods.
Neil raked a hand through his hair and squinted after his dog. What on Earth was Adak up to? The sneeze, and now the play bow, seemed to indicate that he wasn’t frightened, but this wasn’t a behavior Neil had ever seen before, either, so it wasn’t an established game. Neil grunted and ran his hand through his hair again, then walked towards Adak. It almost seemed as though the dog wanted him to follow. No sooner had Neil considered this possibility, than Adak trotted further ahead, looking back over his shoulder every few feet as though to make sure the man followed.
The further Adak led Neil into the woods, the more convinced Neil became that the dog was leading him towards something important. Whenever Neil lagged too far behind, the dog stopped and waited with seeming patience. Neil worried that Adak might be leading him to a lost or injured hiker and he mentally rehearsed the meager first aid skills he knew. Without supplies, or any of the other usual preparation for backcountry hiking, Neil also realized that he might be putting his own life at risk. Several times, as he contemplated the ever-gloomier woods, he considered turning back, with or without his dog, but each time he hesitated, Adak circled back to him, whining and looking soulfully into his eyes. The man continued to second-guess his own actions, but, as if tugged along by some invisible current, he followed his companion, even as dusk caressed the treetops.
As full darkness approached, Neil muttered under his breath about his own foolishness and even swore when he remembered that he’d left his keys, and his tiny keychain flashlight, in his truck. He surprised himself, though, as his eyes adjusted to the deep murk, and his step remained steady and swift. Neil stepped nimbly over tangled roots, around granite boulders, glacial erratics that had been sprinkled across the region by the retreating glaciers of the last ice age, and through densely packed thickets of underbrush.
At last, Adak slowed, and then halted. Panting lightly around the ball that he still held firmly in his jaws, the dog looked out across a small clearing, and sat down. Equally out of breath, Neil finally came alongside his dog and within arm’s reach, but Adak’s leash, slung around his neck, was totally forgotten.
The clearing, in sharp contrast to the surrounding forest, was crusted with a thick layer of hoar frost. Above, clouds scudded across the sky and a crescent moon appeared. Beams of moonlight, refracted by a million crystalline prisms of frost, set the cold ground to sparkling, as though it had been sprinkled with fairy dust. In the middle of the clearing stood the oldest woman Neil had ever seen. She was dressed all in snowy white and her long silver hair hung, tangled, to her shoulders. Her skin was wrinkled and folded, but her eyes were a piercing glacial blue. The woman leaned on a knobby staff half again as tall as she was, and on her head rested a crown of dagger-sharp icicles that rose even taller than her staff. Across the distance, Neil felt the old woman’s eyes meet his own, and he went still and cold. Then, she looked away, and Neil drew in a shaking breath.
There were others, Neil realized, as he glanced around. Many others. Dozens of animals gathered in a ring around the wintry clearing, though they made no noise. Most of the animals were vague figures in the dark, but Neil could see the ones closest to him and Adak. There were several small animals: shrews, marmots, hares, two porcupines, and an owl. Neil also saw the telltale gleam of yellow eyes and several sets of silhouetted canine ears that told him wolves were among the group.
Neil inched closer to Adak, who watched the old woman in white as though he cared not a whit about the other observers. Neil laid one hand against the back of Adak’s neck. From the corner of his eye he saw Adak’s tail wag, once, then go still.
The old woman leaned on her staff and hobbled to the edge of the clearing opposite Neil and Adak. As he watched, the shadowy figures began to resolve themselves. Some were, like the observers nearest him, animals, but others seemed human, or almost so. A large male figure, heavily muscled and bearing an enormous rack of antlers, stepped forward and held something out to the old woman. She accepted it, tucked it into her white robe, then leaned forward while the male bent his antlered head low so that she could whisper in his ear.
Next, a lean, figure stepped forward with an odd, hopping gait. It appeared to speak to the old woman, moving its beak as it held out a small parcel. Like before, the woman slipped the parcel into her robe where, Neil decided, she must have a pocket, and again she leaned forward to whisper something.
One by one, they came forward, each more peculiar looking than the last. One by one, they offered a gift, and received a whispered message. Neil watched in slack-mouthed awe, half wondering if he’d stumbled upon some bizarre masquerade, and half knowing that he was witnessing a wild and ancient magic, far more wondrous than any costume party.
As the old woman drew nearer to him, Neal began to notice that the creatures around him no longer looked like the ordinary wild animals he had glimpsed upon his arrival. Now, they each seemed to be an eerie hybrid of human and animal. One woman, with the long neck and feathered head of a goose nodded at him, which startled Neil into looking down. Near his feet sat a wild hare with ruby jewels dangling from its ears, and wearing an embossed Chinese print silk jacket. A very small woman with equally tiny, feathered wings sat in a saddle on the hare’s back. A few inches away, almost touching Adak’s tail, stood a creature that appeared to be fashioned entirely out of curling fern fronds. Breathless, Neil looked up and met the yellow eyes and flashing white grin of a dark-haired man who had bent to pat Adak’s head. The man wagged his tail in a graceful swish-swish-swish, but Neil found himself unable to return his friendly smile.
As the old woman drew closer, Neil’s sense of awe grew until he watched the repetitive ritual of the offered gift and answering whisper in a kind of stunned blankness. Until the old woman reached Adak, Neil hadn’t considered that he would be expected to participate in the ritual, but seeing that she seemed to even expect a gift from his dog, Neil’s brain sputtered into frantic motion, scrabbling about in search of an appropriate offering. Adak, meanwhile, rose and stepped toward the old woman as though he knew exactly what to do. He looked up into her face for a long moment, then bent his head and dropped his tennis ball at her feet. The woman bent stiffly, picked up the ball, which Neil knew must be saturated and squishy with dog slobber by this point, tucked it into her white robe, and whispered into Adak’s ear. A moment later, Neil felt friendly but firm hands pushing him forward.
Up close, the old woman looked more than old. She looked ancient. And yet, there was something ageless and lively in her light blue eyes. Neal wobbled on his feet, the woman reached out one gnarled hand to steady him, and he felt like he’d been struck by lightning while being blasted with a frozen wind. He was both hot, and cold. He was both comforted, and terrified. In an instant, he pulled Adak’s leash from where he’d draped it around his neck and thrust it toward the old woman. He wanted to be done with this. He wanted to step away from her terrible elemental power. Was she laughing at him? At his gift? Her eyes danced as she leaned towards Neil, and he felt her icy breath against his ear.
“Do not fear change, for the wheel turns forever. Each new thing will wither away and become old, only to be reborn in a new guise.” The old woman squeezed Neil’s hand, as though in reassurance and continued, “Change is inevitable, but I will be here long after humans have faded away into dust. Not even humans can banish the cycle of life, and I will outlast even this lovely planet, which itself will outlast humans by countless millennia. Do not fear.” The old woman gave Neil’s hand one more squeeze then moved on while Neil stumbled back to his place.
When Neil next looked up, he saw that the old woman continued to make her way around the circle, but in the center of the clearing, the frost was melting. A girl, no more than thirteen, stood barefoot on the wet moss. Like the old woman, the girl wore a white gown, but unlike the crone, the girl’s crown was a ring of flaming candles, with leafy vines woven through them. As Neil watched, the girl opened her mouth and began to sing, and her melody was the sound of songbirds and of growing things.
Spring would arrive soon, Neil realized, as he buried his fingers in the fur of Adak’s thick coat. Spring would arrive, and it would always arrive. Even after the coldest and most desolate winter, new life would always return. The cycle was endless, built into the universe, and as eternal.