He stares into the face of the place where all the best things come from and feels ashamed. Little Pink fusses over his ears with a ribbon. Her sweet, heavy breath sticks in his eyes, worse than the paint and powder she’s rubbed into his snout. Ziggy shuffles politely on the linoleum. His clipped nails make little clicks. He’s learnt from small hot screams and wide cold slaps from above not to show any strength or distemper.
‘Noo-oo-oh…’ she warns with a pink smeared finger and a yank.
Noooooh. Yaaaaaas. That’s all They ever say to him. It comes out differently but it all comes down to Nooooooh or Yaaaaaas.
Almost all he ever gets from The Big Pink is ‘Nooooooh’. She’s standing behind him now, in the doorway, looking down at him and Little. She’s chuckling, ‘Noooh, Jessica, nooooh,’ but he knows She means the other. She comes into the room, between him and the face of where all the best things come from and touches it. A light comes on inside and the sight of him vanishes, leaving only the sting in his eyes and fur, and the force unexpressed in his limbs.
* * *
He who is strongest and knows where everything is kept is walking beside him. With one hand The Mighty is pulling on the chain and with the other at the ribbon round His own neck. The sun is going down but it’s getting hotter and the man curses ‘Noooooh’ at the thickening sky, the empty trees, the melting roads and the sight of all the other men with Their dogs crowding up the running place.
Soon will come the blessed moment, but first must come the game, the agonizing stillness The Mighty expects. At the fringe of all that burnt yellow-green freedom he must sit and wait. With shocks jumping through his legs and up into his ears and saliva pouring from his chops, he must wait while The Mighty croons, ‘Noooooh, noooooooh,’ like He’s angry but enjoying it, and slowly brings His fingers to the root of Ziggy’s chain. ‘Nooooh, noooooh…’ until Ziggy thinks he’ll piss all over himself and shit the spot he’s screwed to.
In an instant, The Mighty is a blue speck of scent in his wake.
His claws make quick furrows in the grass.
He shoots down the noisome slipstreams of his fellows to their sources. Amidst all their chasing they stop and ask each other the only question they have any answer for, ‘What have They given you today?’
Always they know where the mightiest stand noooohing with each other, swinging on their chains. Always their smoke stacks and chemical skins waft over these brief green meets. Always it ends with the same siren of whistles and names. They’ll dart about between the blasts but one by one their particular signals, thick with food and threat, will catch and drag them back behind the fences.
Once there was a different day. Ziggy and another near his size and shape, whose arse smelt of things that aren’t food, things torn and stolen, hard things that hurt to carry in your guts, ran so fast they almost slipped their handles: Ziggy! Chance! The words juggled in the men’s throats as they trotted after them. Ziggeeee. CHANCE! They sounded like empty bowls shuffling on concrete.
It was only the road that stopped him.
His trail did not come this way. There was no familiar pattern, no trace of him and his owner. No way to choose. He dragged his nails back and forth on the gutter and whined like a pup. But not Chance. He did not hesitate. And Ziggy’s heart could but beat after him down the road. His tongue could only dangle in the drifting colour Chance pursued.
A whack from his wheezing master slammed him up tight. He followed home and all the way kept his eyes shut against their destination and the blows that paced The Mighty’s low and constant ‘No’.
But at the back step there was silence. Zig opened his eyes to find the man sitting beside him. His smokey stink was trained over the fence at the disappearing sun. His face was a mess of waters. Ziggy smeared his chops, climbed carefully up his master’s lap and craned his neck - ready for a blow - to lick the salt from His cheek. But no blow came and the flavour, ‘Ziggy,’ gripped him bone to fur. He forgot the chase and the street. He came home to all his desperate love. And The Mighty let him.
As the dog drank into the very essence of Him, His hand poured down Zig’s trembling flank and eddied about where the whirl of his tail begins, and He spoke his name all the ways that say, ‘Yasss.’
It is the weight of this and other moments that carry his name so far across the green to reach him. ‘Zi-gy?’ It is this load he fetches back to the pendulous chain. ‘Good boy.’
* * *
A handful of dry balls of meat-but-it-isn’t tumble into his bowl.
A tingle of keys and a glimpse of His shoes under the fence.
Thud, growl, gone.
A prickle of keys and a whiff of babbling pinks.
Thud, thud, growl, gone.
The way they go a wire stretches from the roof to merge with a hundred others, spanning out and away. All day long it spits and mumbles curses over everyone. Sometimes it stops for breath and the world goes still.
Faint huffing and keening in other yards. His is haywire with weeks of well-trod traces, wafted up and down, back and forth, going nowhere, just fading.
Find The Worrying Bone.
Dig. Bury. Find. Until the growl and thud and jingle at the gate releases them down the street to the yellow field, to run and mingle and sniff and moan and yell and make smoke under the thickening sky until He’s ready to go back inside.
* * *
Tonight, as Ziggy waits with Him in the darkened room, alert before the face of where The Mighty’s favourite things change shape, flicker and speak, he smells the sweat on The Mighty’s neck go sticky, then thin. Ziggy growls at the screen. There is danger there. Ziggy tells it to go, that this is His place and he will kill whatever’s looming in the shifting light if it dares come any closer.
The lights above them start to flicker and hiss. He clicks and points ‘Zig’ down the hall into the Nev-ah-Ev-ah spaces where he barks back the pulsing and gibbering bulbs menacing over The Pinks in Their beds. All shame erased in this blaze of protection, he marshals Them up and keeps at Their heals as They lunge about filling up bags. Little Pink cries and Big sends Zig to Her side atop the sacrosanct cover. He puts his neck next to Her face for Her to nuzzle and cling to. Her touch is real. He is firm to it. No place is now forbidden.
When the lights go out he is ready. In the sudden black he watches Them stumble and crash through Little Pink’s door to collect her, and by his collar follow through the dark to the car. As They panic into Their seats, he listens to the restless night teeming with alarm: toy dogs wasting all their fight on the absolute shadow; feet shuffling, dragging luggage across gravel; and everywhere complaint. Female voices lift high about the bass curses and banging of men on bonnets. For there are no more growls from within. No lights go on. And while Their eyes adjust to the darkness and the knowledge They are now adrift on Their small, square islands of concrete and glass, each true dog stands into its shape.
* * *
No longer leashed by the cruel chain, they move down the aisle in concert. Ziggy before, picking their way through the bright traces of odour glowing for him in the murk. The Mighty follows with a pair of jangling trolleys half-full with sealed necessities. A quick hissed ‘Zig’ is all it takes to call him to heal as He pulls heavy fruit from the perches. ‘Yas, Zig, yas,’ and they’re moving again through this wonderland of boxed and canned game.
Now Ziggy stops and coils - shoulder, haunch, tooth and claw - for once, his entire deadly engine matters. Around the corner lurks a high-spiced taste waxed with fever. Short shallow breaths squeeze close a chatter of metal.
Mighty sends a word ahead of them. It frights a response too thin to be mean, but sharp enough to be dangerous. Ziggy’s eyes glower under the packed solid wall of porridge to the uniform blue cuffs and sleeves of a boy reeking brightly in his crouch of sweat and deodorant. Ziggy slips under the shelf, stalks the nearest hand. It trembles about a rod of slippery black steel.
The dog’s breath deepens and slows.
Mind and muscle cohere.
For a moment the hand stills as though it knows it’s being watched. Ziggy strikes.
His fangs close about the wrist and seize a flavour that proves his every nerve. His electric flesh charges to the task of pressing blood and bone to tang. The Mighty appears and lands His foot on the boy’s gut. The metal drops and spins and by the time it’s come to rest, long barrel to bloody muzzle, He’s whispering low into the boy’s drenched features, ‘Nooooh.’
Too late. A clattering of trolleys and voices low and thick enough to mean real trouble start clashing in the dark. The Mighty slowly lets go of the blue boy’s collar but keeps his eyes as He lifts the slender black shimmering prize into His coat and backs away. Ziggy lifts his eyes from his task but holds on as The Mighty wheels their cargo through the plastic flaps at the end of the aisle. ‘Zig,’ comes His voice. Zig follows, laying a long and growling trail of bloody spittle across Blue Boy’s piddled crotch.
* * *
A handful of dry balls of meat-but-it-isn’t tumble into his bowl.
But no tingle of keys. No glimpse of His shoes under the fence.
The pink has all gone from the females’ whiffs.
They are a quiet knot of unwashed work in the yard. There is no time to carry the girl’s tears. They have dried to crusts in Her firming eyes.
The woman’s hands are in the soil, revealing all The Worrying Bones and masticated plastics.
The Mighty’s stopped burning His insides out. Now He makes smoke from a high heap of brick.
And at the gate Zig listens to the calamity come to rest: the odd pop and whimper of glass; names called but not answered. He smells the dead in the air, decaying afterthoughts of the once supreme gasoline haze. When someone comes near their fence he gets to remind the shrinking world it is still big enough for monsters. His masters still and all the air quakes with Zig’s clear temper. No human word will be heard. None but the call, once they are gone, to ‘Come Zig.’ Then he will back from his post to the throbbing kiln to receive his pat and morsel.
Then Mother will moan and point from his jowl to their youth. Then He will grumble and point from Their protector to the world outside the fence.
* * *
Now the last plastic skin has been stripped from its carcass. No more enemies come and there are no more morsels to reward him so Ziggy goes back to The Worrying Bone. The family sit on the stone step and watch green hairs grow from Their soft, brown pate of earth.
On The Bone, Ziggy keeps his teeth and claws in practice.
* * *
‘Come on, Zig.’
Everywhere they go the world resembles the territory of his heart. Down each street weeds aspire in hordes through the fading colours of cars and the ousted rows of TV monoliths. The mark of cats is a ubiquitous, illuminated matrix of stink only Zig can see. He is upon the land, a demon of fire and desire and predatory guile, apace with his Beloved Almighty.
The air is so thick with birds one leap could yield a feast. The cats are all weak with the terror that has grown through their slick, upholstered skins. Beneath the trees behind each house, he scents bodies kept fresh by the roots. But each trail he finds The Mighty ignores as they press on into the wreckage.
Only once, at sunset, does He give Zig his head.
They are past the factories, in the new estate. Half in, half out of the bracken, skeletons in various states of erection and ruin open their birdshit ribs to the sky. For the hundredth time that hour the dog has stopped to pinpoint a life. This time He stops too and turns within the range of subtle shifts made by his ears, his nose, his eyes.
See it. See it. There! ‘Go Zig!’
Then all is ablaze. Any feeling he has been taught by chain or smack or deprivation is consumed in the white heat of the chase. There are no ‘Yasses’ in the rabbit’s trail, no ‘Noohs.’ There is only this vaulting, dipping, weaving, brightly shining tail, beaming more intently with every closing thrust. He will dive through that wall of flesh into the light within. He will bathe in all its colour - light to light - all the hues disrupted from the prism of his whole reunified in one perfecting ray.
He looks up from the slime and fur and flavour.
The sound begins to make sense, and fall about him like the old knowledge of error.
He snarls at the serpent hand come to take him by the collar.
The click behind his ears shuts a door. What remains is led on Westward through the gloaming undergrowth.
* * *
He is further from home than ever before. All the scents here atop the hill are new and down the farther slope stretches a dream of criss-crossing pigments, dazzling in the dusk. The canopy over their heads is lit by a fire. The branches wave and mesh and fuss like hands will in his hair when They are happy. They catch the aroma of charcoaling meat and rub it into him. He is content at his master’s side. Yet deeper than the cooked flesh, in his belly a lambent coal still aches.
It must be burning in The Mighty too. It pains him so, tears streak the caked smears of blood and ash on his cheeks. He gathers Ziggy to his lap. From his heaving breast He withdraws the now remembered Blue Boy’s long black fist.
He will not let Himself be cleaned of His sadness. The pain is painted on Him now. He holds the dog at arm’s length and brings the black barrel to the patch of fuzz between his eyes. The fire is hot. Zig lets his tongue loll. His eyes swivel between the water on The Mighty’s face and the moisture in the rabbit’s flesh and exudes a polite, impatient whimper.
A chuckle shakes the man’s teeth into view. ‘Ziggy.’
He puts the black steel away and reaches for the carcass. He tears it in two and starts feeding it to His dog. In his delight Ziggy forgets he’s no longer a pup and loses his shape in a wobble of tail and arse and teeth.
As he gnashes and gobs, his master strokes him with one hand and with the other takes a tablet from its plastic sheath, presses it into a chunk, and sends it down Zig’s gullet with the others.
They stay like that til the sun is a ghost, the fire is out and even the scent of the future down the hill’s gone dim.
* * *
He is leaping through the fur.
He is inside the fire.
But this time no hand retracts him.
This time he dives down to the heart.
And there – where he extends to hit the tone every sinew and synapse of his instrument is tuned to – he strikes pain.
Claws lacerate his face.
Piss stings the wounds.
He opens his eyes and the feline pack skip away and spit.
His limbs are too heavy. His bark won’t come out straight. It fumbles about their spiteful faces but does not press them any farther back. They smell the glue in his veins and close their circle.
Too close. He catches one swiping paw in his teeth and shakes the limb from its socket. The instant bawl scares the rest back into domesticity and they scamper.
Ziggy spits the broken joint from his maw and leaves the cat to its pain, hawking up the ugly flavour as he lurches back homeward.
* * *
By the time he makes it to his street, it’s night again. The sense has come back to his tendons; eyes connect with tongue and tail. In the dark he sees a column of colour rising from Their backyard. He yelps and bounds towards the beacon. With every step he puts on more of the feelings They taught him. He recovers his sense of the purpose behind Their every tug on the chain. He recalls the code of ‘Nooh’ and ‘Yass.’ He longs for The Worrying Bone.
He looks in through the slight gap in the front gate, the spot he’s watched Them come and go for four turns of each season. Down the shaggy crop rows, he sees Them silhouetted by the furnace. Between each yap he hears Them murmur. Finally, slowly, The Mighty turns from the fire to come get him. In one hand he bears up The Bone; in the other, Blue Boy’s glistening fist of night, chanting, ‘Ziggy.’
About the Creator
I'm mostly a science fiction writer who wishes he were a musician, so my work is almost always speculative and either features music as a theme, a plot imperative, or - and this is my most fervent wish - sings through the language.