Thursday, April 15, 2021

Howl by Shaun Calvert

Not all dogs are good boys. Some are good girls, and Capitoline was a very good girl.
She was also a very pregnant girl. She currently contained six babies, which as any mother could attest, is too many babies. These puppies were ready to come out, and Capitoline felt a twang of pain in her abdomen. She didn’t fully understand her situation but the flood of hormones made her want to seek shelter and love small defenceless creatures.
She was not alone; her den was one of several dotted around the patch of woodland known to the local humans as the dump. It was a space they dumped things they no longer needed, from old furniture to some of Capitoline’s ancestors. It was home to many dogs, some feral pets, some semi-domesticated wolves. Each a reject, these dogs and wolves had come together to form her pack and thanks to some timber wolf DNA from her grandfather, she was one of the more dominant females.
The pack was not alone. They were never truly alone. The diversity of life is often greatest where two habitats meet and the dump was very much the boundary between a great expanse of woodland, and the vast scar in the landscape that marked the realm of humanity. The humans called their town Liuerpul. The pack knew it by a name in a complex language of smells and visual cues that cannot be accurately conveyed by the written word.
On this evening, the pack was less alone than normal. Three men approached; one armed with a crossbow, one armed with a spear, and one armed with a large wriggling sack. Some of the larger members of the pack were already circling to attack from both sides if necessary. It wasn’t. The man threw the sack into the middle of the dump and they left as abruptly as they had arrived. This was not uncommon; this was the dump after all. From multiple shadows, inquisitive noses sniffed. The sack moved, its contents freeing itself and falling onto the floor.
It was a tiny human. Small, glistening noses continued to twitch, unsure. On the one paw, humans were dangerous. On the other paw, humans often produced food. On the other other paw (dogs can consider things in this way as they have four paws), many of the pack remembered the companionship of humans and what it was like to be scratched behind the ear in the perfect spot. On the last remaining paw, the tiny human was very small and so could BE food.
The men that left here were wicked souls and could only see the world twisted in their image. They saw these feral dogs and assumed they would instantly strike, tearing the child apart and consuming the evidence that was so inconvenient to the lord of the town.
But these dogs, though feral, though wild, though always just a little bit hungry, were good dogs. One of these good dogs saw a defenceless creature and would risk her life to protect it, and the inquisitive little noses twitched in the shadows as Capitoline pulled the child into her den and began licking her first adopted puppy.
The child, whose short life had been so traumatic, found the warm den and gentle touch comforting and soon fell asleep as his siblings were born.
Newborn puppies are very cute but very helpless. Blind, slow, and always hungry. Newborn humans are similar but don’t even have the saving grace to be cute. The adopted human was not a newborn but humans took a long time to get good at anything. The puppies quickly outgrew their big brother who seemed to struggle with the most basic of dog tasks. They didn’t seem to mind. The pack found this new furless member very interesting. It had hands that were drawn to petting soft heads, and soft heads liked to be pet. It also had thumbs, which were exceptionally useful, and it was getting smarter.
Capitoline was proud of all her puppies and loved each one equally. She taught them all she knew about being a dog. Her eldest, the human, was named something that when simplified for the written word would read something like ‘Howl’.
Howl was a very smart dog, being that he was a human. He had learned all about being a dog from his mother, and from foraging and hunting in the woodlands, he learned all about nature; its fine balance and generous bounties. Humanity had a lot to teach him as well, and he gobbled up these lessons too, from a safe distance of course.
He became the best hunter and forager. When dogs got sick, he would make medicine from herbs. When dogs got injured, he would clean (without the use of his tongue, which was a ground-breaking new technique in the dog world) and dress the wound. He planted tobacco around the dump, which would kill the ticks and fleas on the dogs whenever they entered or exited the site.
All puppies must grow up and males of all species are often driven to strike out on their own and so it was with Howl. He would disappear for a few days, a few weeks, a few months. Capitoline’s tail never moved so fast as when her eldest puppy returned home. Excited barks and whimpers echoed through the woodlands whenever he approached. Each return brought new gifts. Food, medicine, custom-made dog beds, chew toys as well as more mystical items as well.
The world was full of magic, and monsters. The more Howl saw of it the more he worried for the world, worried about the delicate balance of nature and worried for the pack, his pack. Dogs were little match for dragons, or dinosaurs or well just big mean lizards in general, and magic was beyond their grasp. Or so it would seem.
As sweet little Capitoline began to grow grey hair around the whiskers, Howl was almost never seen. Years would pass, and she worried she might not see her son again. Then came a harsh winter. Capitoline was too old to leave the den in such weather. Curled in a tight ball in the back of the chamber that had been once so alive with the sound of yipping puppies, the cold began to creep in.
Outside the wind howled and Capitoline shivered. In her heart, she knew she couldn’t last long but she was too tired to do anything else. Time is a cruel thing. Her ears didn’t hear the distant barks. Her nose didn’t pick up the all too familiar scent. Her eyes tight shut would have seen little otherwise. But she felt the warmth on her head, as a hand gently stroked her hair. She jumped at first, but she immediately felt a wash of relief. Howl fiddled with his pack, more gifts, but she didn’t care about those, she was just so happy to see her baby again. She licked his hand like she would a new-born.
Humans see with their eyes, dogs see with their nose and through a dog’s nostrils, Howl looked the same as he had always done. To a human’s eyes, he was tall, rugged, bearded and scarred. He had travelled the world, fought mighty beasts and claimed legendary treasure. He produced an ornately carved green crystal. His mother paid it little attention, even though it glowed and hummed in a relaxing way. He gently patted his mothers head as he spoke an enchantment.
Moss began to spread out across the interior of the den, but Capitoline was more interested in trying weakly to climb into Howls lap, her near hairless tail wagging ever so slightly. Snow melted and gave way to lush grass, icy cold fog, turned into hot humid air that smelled of the deepest jungles. It meant very little you Capitoline. Howl smiled as he stroked his mother’s hair, partly because he loved and had missed her very much, but partly because with each stroke the grey hair grew darker and thicker. The tail swished a little faster, stiff legs found purchase easier and a crusty old nose grew dark and wet. All around the dump, wounds healed, sicknesses faded, hunger subsided and time seemed to go backwards for all the residents here.
Dogs do not understand ageing, they just feel a little more tired, a little more stiff. So Capitoline thought very little of regaining her youth. She was glad she didn’t feel the cold so much, or that her legs weren’t so stiff, but she didn’t have time for such thoughts because her son had been off galivanting and had come home filthy and needed a wash, and dogs know only one way to clean errant puppies. He laughed and howled.
Every dog has its day, and it would seem for Capitoline that day was still ahead of her.

Woof woof, aka, the end.


© Shaun Calvert

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