A children's book for grown-ups by Jon Evans

August 26, 2007

39. Dogs

At long last, after many days of dangerous travel, Patch had returned to the island of his birth. But the longer he stood atop the tree onto which they had dismounted, and tried to figure out how to travel through the mountains to the Center Kingdom, the more he realized that his problems had not diminished. If anything they had proliferated. He didn't know where on the island he was, but he knew he was still a very long way from home. There was no sky-road at all, and the island's highways and walkways were busier, louder, and more dangerously crowded than any Patch had ever seen before. The one small consolation was that there were very few dogs; but the smell of Rat was pervasive.

They stayed on the tree for a long time. Zelina was reluctant to downclimb at all, for the tree's lowest branches were high above the earth, and Patch was reluctant to venture into the walkway teeming with humans from which the tree sprouted. It was not until the sun was long hidden behind the mountains to the west, and the flood of humans had diminished to a trickle, that Patch ran down the slender tree trunk onto the walkway. Zelina tried to follow, and promptly fell – but landed gracefully on her feet, unhurt.

They immediately ran to the edge of the nearest mountain. The rat-smells were stronger there, but humans kept a little distance from the mountains. Some of humans they passed stopped, turned to look at them, and spoke to one another. Patch and Zelina ignored them. He led her north; he knew, at least, that home was that way. When they reached the intersection of two highways, the larger one they followed and a smaller one that intersected it, he crouched in the shadow of the corner mountain, and tried to measure the timing of the lights above him.

"Wait," Zelina said.

Patch looked at her. He was quivering with tension; running around on human walkways, surrounded by death machines on highways, still felt profoundly unnatural; and the still-frequent passing humans, some who stepped unseeingly within a tail-length of Patch, were even more disturbing. But Zelina seemed considerably more relaxed. "What?"

"We should wait and travel by night."

"We can't travel by night. There are owls –"

"There may be owls flying above the Center Kingdom, and the river, and perhaps even across the river," Zelina said, "but the sky above us now, you will notice, is almost entirely occupied by mountains, leaving very little room for owls. The daytime is too busy, there are too many dangers, something will crush us. But the city night is quiet."

"How do you know?"

"I used to watch the Great Avenue from the metal stairs outside my palace. Believe me, Patch. We can't run along these highways to your home while the sun is high. You'll never reach home alive. You must trust in the moon."

"So what are you saying?"

"Let's go down the smaller highway, find a tree or a rooftop, sleep for a little, then travel by night."

Patch considered. Travel by night was unnatural and unnerving. But so was virtually everything else he had done to get home. "All right."

As they proceeded down the smaller and less-trafficked highway, they passed, across the highway, a large dog with patchy fur, leashed very closely to one of the withered alder trees that grew amidst the mountains. Patch kept a very careful eye, in case the leash was weak; but even though they were upwind of the dog, it did not howl for their deaths.

"Hurts bad!" it whined piteously instead. "Oh, hurts bad, hurts bad, hurts so bad!"

Patch, surprised, looked more closely. The dog must have somehow circled repeatedly around the tree to which its leash was tied, because its entire leash was wound around the tree trunk so tightly that the dog's side was rubbing painfully against rough bark. The dog badly wanted to get away, but dogs were not known for their thinking, and this one was unable to understand that it should go backwards. Instead it kept trying to leap forwards and break free of the leash, but each time it succeeded only in choking itself and further chafing its now-bloody side against the bark.

"Dogs are so stupid," Zelina said contemptuously, as it launched itself forwards again, was dragged back by its own collar, and nearly fell.

"Hurts," it gasped, panting raggedly. "Hurts bad, can't escape, oh, help me, help me, help me!"

Zelina started walking again. Patch did not. He remembered when he had been caught in the wire snare, and how his paw had burned with pain, and the awful despair he had felt, knowing that no one would come to help, feeling that he might dangle there forever. Looking at the trapped dog, he felt this a little bit again, just a twinge of half-remembered feeling, like the shadow of a real object. He hated and feared dogs, but he wished this dog wasn't trapped. Its patchy fur reminded Patch of the pale mark on his own forehead from which he had taken his name.

"Hurts," the dog groaned, "hurts so bad, so bad." It threw itself forward again and made violent choking noises until it had to let itself fall back and breathe again.

"Stop it!" Patch shouted to the dog. "Just go around the tree the other way!"

The dog ignored him. "Hurts bad, hurts bad, so bad!"

Patch looked up and down the highway. No automobiles were coming. He sighed and raced across.

"Patch, what are you doing?" Zelina asked from behind him, astounded.

"Look," Patch said to the dog, "just go around the tree the other –"

"Kill you! Kill you!" the dog howled, leaping to its feet and choking itself again in an attempt to leap at Patch. "K-k-k…oh," and it fell back to the ground, "oh, hurts so bad, so bad."

Patch considered a moment. Then he moved around the dog, behind the tree, and shouted, "This way!"

The dog leapt at him again. Patch began to run around the tree. As the dog pursued him, slavering with hate and rage, its leash unwound, until it finally reopened all the way to the knot that held it to the tree trunk, and the dog had regained enough freedom that Patch had to stay a considerable distance away from the tree.

"Kill you and eat you! Kill you and eat you!" the dog cried excitedly, straining to reach Patch with its slavering fangs, its previous pain and captivity apparently forgotten.

"How stupid," Patch said, disgusted. "I should never have helped you."

He turned to walk away.

The dog said, confused, "Help me?"

"Yes," Patch said, turning back, "And 'kill you and eat you' is the thanks I get."

"You help me," the dog said, its eyes finally lighting with comprehension. "You help me. I don't hurt now. You help me."


"Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you! I don't hurt! I don't hurt! Oh, thank you, little squirrel! You help me! I will never kill you and eat you!"

"You're welcome," Patch said, a little mollified.

"What is your name, little squirrel?"

Patch said reflexively, "I am Patch son of Silver, of the Seeker clan, of the Treetops tribe, of the Center Kingdom. Who are you that asks?"

"I am Beeflover. Oh, thank you, thank you!"

"You're welcome," Patch said. "Goodbye."

The dog barked endless thanks as Patch waited for a gap in a stream of death machines and then scampered casually across the highway; such crossings were by now becoming almost routine. The sun had almost entirely set and he and Zelina needed to find a tree – but she was nowhere to be seen. Patch followed her scent, thinking that she had left him, disgusted that he was aiding a dog, and gone ahead to find a tree.

Then, in the distance, he heard Zelina's scream of pain and rage, and he began to run.


Blogger Unknown said...

I cried when he helped the dog

December 10, 2009 at 8:05 PM  

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Jon Evans is the award-winning author of the thrillers Invisible Armies, Dark Places (aka Trail of the Dead), and The Blood Price. See his web site rezendi.com.

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