“Down to Niflhel Deep” by Maria Haskins
The dog’s name is Roan.
He doesn’t know how long he’s been running. Maybe it’s been hours, or days, or maybe it’s only been fifteen minutes since he slipped out of the backyard through the open gate, but however long it’s been, he hasn’t stopped running since. The streets are going dark, but Roan is running steady, nose to the ground, skimming asphalt and concrete. Ragged currents of scent tug at him from the ditch and the grass and the road and the yards – urine, feces, raccoon, squirrel, cat—but underneath it all is the straight and narrow path he’s following: the girl.
By now, he’s left his house far behind, that and the streets and the park he knows. He’s left the man and the woman, left them crying, pacing the kitchen and living room, and he’s finally free from their tangled smell of anger, tears, and dread; free from the chafing tightness in their voices as they clutch their phones:
“Where is she? Where could she have gone? Has no one seen her?”
Roan smells future / past / present: where the girl walked and where she rode her bike, the dwindling of it telling him she’s still far away, the future of it slipping into the dusk ahead.
Day fades, night comes. Trees are closing in, blackberry branches stabbing through sagging wire-fences; grass, forest, shadows. Roan slows, sniffs the tall weeds, the remnants of wasted summer nights: empty cans and bottles and slithering condoms. He circles back to the fence and starts again. There is a new smell here. Not girl, not animal, not man, not woman, nothing he has smelled before, yet it is familiar. It is the smell of dead rats beneath the shed—claws clutching at the dirt; it is the smell of rot and grubs beneath the leaves in autumn; the smell of sickness beneath the bark, beneath the skin. It is deception, sorrow, cold—twisted and turned into something else, something worse.
Roan’s hackles rise as he stops, considers, hesitates. The smell of the girl is stronger here. That smell is in his veins, as close and true as his own heartbeat: it is chase and fetch in the backyard, it is running in the park together, it is treats hidden in tiny fists and dispensed beneath the table. It is his world, and everything in it.
Roan heads into the woods, warily examining every leaf and blade of grass, inhaling blood and decay, dirt and mouse bones, pine and spruce. The darkness comes alive around him as he moves, furtive feet and sharp talons rustling through the underbrush.
He’s walking now, not running, nose pushing / pulling on the scent, reeling it in, until the woods open up and he is standing on a precipice. A ravine yawns below: creek, rocks, dirt. Roan can smell the water, can smell the girl’s last footsteps where the grass and mud slip and crumble underneath his paws. He stops. Barks. That other scent is close here, too. The menace of it makes him want to cower and growl and whimper, but the girl’s scent is stronger, pulling him forward to peer over the edge.
She is down there, in the dark. So close. Everything else is far away.
His paws step and shuffle, lose their grip: he’s slipping, falling, just like the girl did, tumbling head over tail, a crack of bone knocking the wind out of his chest.
Roan lands next to the girl, both of them crumpled on the rocks and gravel by the creek, her crooked arm beside him. He licks her fingers. They’re cold. Roan is cold too, the chill seeping in from beneath and from above, trickling through the pain. He tries to get up, but he’s too tired and his legs won’t carry him.
The girl is already sleeping, and Roan falls asleep beside her.
When he wakes, it is dark, and the girl is gone. All scents are gone, too, except hers.
Beside the water there is mist and fog. The world is blurred and smudged, but the girl’s scent is strong and taut like a rope, leading into the darkness beyond. Roan gets up to follow. He does not feel pain or fatigue anymore: in the murky air his lean limbs gleam and glisten, seemingly bereft of weight and heft. He feels stronger, faster, lighter. As light as mist and fog, perhaps.
He can smell the girl across the water, but the water has changed, too. No longer a creek, it has turned into a river: wide and silent, black and smooth, the current moving swiftly beneath the glassy surface. Roan touches the water with paws and nose, but it is too cold even for a dog.
Further down the shore there is a boat, a broad and low wooden hull pulled up on the gravel. A figure in the shape of a man is sitting in the boat, wearing a swirling cloak—a weave of tattered dusk and ragged gloom. Roan trots over and sits down by the prow, looking at the man who does not smell like a man at all.
“This ain’t no place for dogs, if you don’t mind me saying.” The voice is hoarse and thin beneath the cloak. “She’s gone, you know,” the shape adds, not unkindly. “That Shade took her across. Ain’t no way to bring her back this way.” Roan understands but does not leave.
“What’s your name, dog?”
Roan has no collar anymore, no tag. They’re somewhere beyond the fog and mist, but he knows his name, still feels the weight of it around his neck, inside his heart, can hear the girl whispering it in the darkness, calling it from the porch, breathing it into his ear. The cloaked figure nods.
“Good. Hold on to that. Might still need it.” The man-shape is quiet for a while before it speaks again. “What else have you got to buy passage with? Only precious things can pay your fare here.”
Roan breathes in the lingering scent of the girl, the memories that cling to it,
soft arms hugging him on a bed
a backyard filled with sunshine
limbs tangling on a trampoline
The memories are gleaming bronze, polished copper. He gives up each one, and as they are released, they fall into the folds of darkness wrapped around the thing that is not a man until they are gone. Roan shakes himself, fur and ears rustling in the vast silence of this place.
The figure in the boat nods and beckons.
“That’s more than enough. Don’t spend ’em so freely in future if you want to make it back. And you mustn’t drink or eat on the other side neither.” With a long oar the figure pushes the hull off the rocks and into the stream. “Not sure any dog, no matter how faithful, can pass that test.”
The rudderless boat moves swift and steady. On the other side, it glides up softly on the sand with a hiss and shudder. Roan looks ahead into a world of faded grey and shivering dusk. The sky above is a sheet of polished steel, reflecting and distorting the ground below. His trail runs true below that sky, into the grey, into the dusk, and he feels lighter than a wisp of smoke, lighter than a breath on a cold morning, wavering in the wind.
Disembarking, he stumbles. Somewhere behind, above, far off, on the other-side, he feels himself go rigid and cold. In that place, he is nothing but a heavy weight now, dull and silent, grey fur matted down by dew and dirt, and for an instant he slips back into that distant carcass.
No. He shakes himself again, regains his footing. The girl’s scent is strong enough to keep him here. He cannot, will not, go in any other direction than where her scent leads.
As he begins to run, hoarded memories of the girl twinkle at the bottom of his mind. It’s all he needs to go on: fleet paws barely touching the barren dust and jagged rocks.
He’s been running for a good while when he smells the kill, smells it before he sees it: a dead animal in his way, the scent of fresh meat on it, tugging at his belly. Above the trail, in a crooked, leafless tree, sit three crows. His head snaps up to see the waggle of their wings, their eyes cocked and gleaming. One crow flares its feathers and winks at him. Three voices creak and tangle in the branches above him.
“A dog, sisters. How long since we’ve seen such a tasty dog, still brim-full with living memories?”
“None, ever, besides Garm.”
“And not one this lively since Garm was a pup, when the Queen first brought him to meet us.”
“This one’s rather ragged and worn, I’d say.”
“But faithful. Following that girl. The one the Shade dragged off, I’d wager.”
A black eye peers down, hard and glinting like a pebble.
“Still has his name, this one. Holding onto it. Good, good.”
“Why do we care, sisters? What do we care for dogs and girls?”
“Seen enough girls wither and rot. Seen enough of them break their necks and slit their wrists and get buried beneath before their time was come.”
“That Shade is getting hungrier. More and more he haunts their steps.”
“That is the truth of it. Getting too brazen!”
“Cutting the threads before we’ve even spun them to their end!”
Three heads turn and peer at Roan from on high.
“Will you eat, then, pup?
Roan eyes the kill, smells it, licks his muzzle, tongue dripping in the dust, a strange and ravenous hunger twisting in his hollow gut.
“It’s there for the taking,” one crow coos, beak lowered close to Roan’s ear, “for those who hunger, for those who want to feed. For those who want to stay.”
Almost Roan feels the meat and gore between his teeth, the blood and bone and marrow, the fat and gristle: torn and chewed, gnawed and cracked and swallowed. Cawing, the crows lean down, pecking at his fur and flesh, pulling out shiny silver threads of memory:
small hands tugging at his ear
sugar-sticky fingers warming in his fur
running at the beach with the girl splashing water while he barks
The crows swallow it all down, flapping and cawing, and the beating of their black, iridescent wings raising a gust of wind, scattering the scent of carrion, carrying another scent back to him. For a moment—a breath, two, three—Roan falters, uneasy and unsteady, the scent slipping through him, unrecognized. Then, he shakes and raises his head high, snuffling to clear his muddled nose of loss and craving and desire. Remembering. He runs on. Blackened feathers and the sharp karrraaa karraaa of crows’ laughter following above.
There is a gate. Roan can’t see it, but he knows it bars his way. In front of it stands a dog, head and withers towering above Roan—scarred muzzle, shaggy fur on end, mud-spattered paws clawing at the ground. Roan turns his head aside, keeps his tail low, sniffing at the dog’s haunches, trying to read its stance and expression, but this dog is hard to see, harder to know. It might have three heads or just one – ever-shifting—it’s difficult to tell in the gloaming as its droopy eyes close and open, as the heads turn and shift, one into the other.
The dog with many heads watches Roan, its ragged tail held high, teeth bared, a trembling murmur in each maw. Murmur turns to growl, turns to snarl and fangs, and the quick-strong jaws clamp down on Roan’s neck, his life caught between them like a brittle bone about to snap. Yellow canines dig in deep, the giant maw closing around the small and fading ember that is his heart.
Roan closes his eyes, feels everything he is and was and might have been, devoured. For a moment he is nothing more than a pup again – lacking sight and hearing—held in Mother’s jaws by the scruff of his neck. A hot tongue, like a scorching lick of flame, wraps around his mind and limbs, consuming golden filaments of his memories:
small hands caressing his ears
a face pressed against his side, sobbing
his name called out in the woods, faraway, but coming closer
As the fangs ease their grip, Roan shivers and draws breath, the skein of the world untangling as his senses are returned. He shivers, cowers, struggles to stand up, and for a moment he is Nothing, only a nameless mutt, bereft of memory and purpose.
Then, the many-headed dog barks, a sound so deep it makes the steely sky ripple, makes the dirt shudder beneath Roan’s trembling paws, and now he smells what is beyond the gate, smells dirt and gore and mold. Smells grief and home. Smells the girl. He knows the many-headed dog smells her, too. That it smells everything that hides above and beneath and within.
The many-headed dog huffs a gruff bark as the unseen gate swings open, and Roan scrambles in the dirt, tucks his tail between his legs, running through.
Roan stands before a vast field, dark earth ploughed and harrowed beneath the steely sky, bounded by a low rock wall. Things have been planted here, both deep and shallow, but nothing grows. The girl is here. Roan searches the ground, nose quivering, scratches at the dirt, digs.
As he digs, heavy footsteps, booted feet, approach. A hand seizes hold of him, of his neck, sharp like chains and glass and rusted nails. There is agony in that hand. There is death in it, too, and Roan knows this scent too well by now. It is the scent that lingered in the woods, at the precipice, twining with the girl’s: it is the rot beneath leaves, the disease hiding beneath bark and skin.
“This is no place for dogs. Not for faithful love, neither. I will…”
A flare of black feathers and harsh cawing descends. The three crows watching from a stone.
“Leave the dog be, child eater.”
“He’s got a rightful grievance he does.”
“Garm let him pass. He is allowed to dig where he sees fit.”
“Or would you like Garm to rip out your throat again? Would you?”
“I would like that, sisters. Oh, how I would like to see that again!”
The Shade quivers, its features turning to smoke and shadow before they settle once again into a face.
“I took her, right and proper. She heard me whisper and she followed. Straying off the trail, in under the boughs, over the edge. She’s mine. As per the Queen’s own command.”
The crows jeer and laugh.
“I’d say you’re getting greedy. Covetous, even.”
Roan watches the Shade, watches the birds. The grip loosens.
“Dig, then, dog. Won’t find her anyway.”
Roan scrapes at the dirt again, claws tearing at the hard ground.
“Why let him dig?” The crow’s voice is not unkindly. “He’s as dead as she is now. Left his body, left his soft fur and tasty eyes behind by the creek where they fell.”
“Never left the girl, though. Even now.”
The birds’ claws rustle and scrape on stone.
“Dig, pup, dig. Rule is, you get to keep what you find. No matter what he says.”
The Shade snarls, but Roan digs, he digs even though there are splinters of bone, shards of glass, slivers of rock buried in the dirt, cutting his paws and nose. His pads are bleeding, his claws are torn, but he does not stop. He can smell the girl in the dirt, smell her in the damp, smell her in the rot. She is beneath, she is below, and he will find her.
Thorny vines snake down the sides of the hole, growing fast and wrathful, twisting into his fur, scraping and tearing at flesh and skin. Even here, where he is naught but fog and mist, the thorns rip and cut. His paws have turned to bone and flesh, they shake and bleed and Roan shivers as he digs, knowing he is too weak, that he will never find her.
“Good dog,” whisper the crows and their voices are soft beneath the cawing. “Dig dig dig, pup.”
The pit he digs is bottomless, bone and blood and rock and glass sparkling in it like stars. Roan isn’t sure he’s digging into dirt anymore. Maybe, he’s digging into the hollow darkness beyond the sky, into the grinding shadows beneath the earth. He whimpers, pants; muzzle foaming white; exposed flesh and sinews trembling.
All the while, the Shade is laughing, and that sound is grubs and beetles creeping along mandibles and femurs, it is worms and venom wriggling through veins and marrow.
“Almost there,” coos one crow.
“Spin him an extra length of silk, sister, strong and true,” breathes the other.
“He’ll eat you, too, if you fail,” croaks the third.
And there she is, he has found her: her curled-up form exposed beneath the rust of his bleeding paws. Gently, Roan uncovers her skin and bones, dislodging the denim and the flower-print, the sandals, and the ponytail. Once it’s done, he lays down next to her, too tired now to drag her out of the pit.
Another voice. This one brittle like ice in spring, yet strong like roots grasping rocks beneath the earth, sharp like the whip of a midwinter wind lashing bare skin.
A woman stands at the edge of the pit looking down at Roan and the many-headed dog from the gate sits beside her, nuzzling her hand. She wears a gown like a shroud—its pale, grey weave is dust and frost and fog – and in her silvered hair rests a crown of flickering were-lights and twined roots. She smells of things that lurk and decompose underground, things that grow and live and die and are reborn. Her face is pale, the sheen of bone showing through the translucent surface.
“Garm said we had a visitor. A determined one.”
“A thief, my Queen.” The Shade’s voice. “This is no place for dogs. Besides Garm, I mean. There are too many bones, too many sleeping bodies in the ground.”
Roan snuffles at the girl, at fabric, hair, and skin. He pokes his nose into her hand, like he’s done all the mornings of his life, but not one of her broken fingers stir to reach for him.
“You want her, dog? But what do you bring us? What do you bring for us to eat if not your bones?” The Queen’s words are cold, but they do not cut.
Roan does not know what he has brought that might be fit for a Queen. He has nothing left: not for her, nor himself. He is already dead beside the creek, neck and spine snapped in the fall. Roan knows that, feels it, feels the heaviness of his own carcass holding him down. All he has is what he’s always had: the girl.
There is nothing else. Never was. Never will be.
“The dog brings nothing. I paid the girl’s passage across the river, brought her, laid her to rest, for me to keep and do with as I please.”
The crows caw and screech at the Shade’s words.
“Beg pardon, Queen, but this one hungers over-much. No longer does he wait for misadventure and misfortune to befall the children he covets. In truth, he waylays them, leading girls astray rather than waiting for their steps to falter, for our threads to fray and snap.”
“This one he snared with whispers, calling out her name among the trees to lure her close.”
“I’d say he pushed her, in the end, being such an impatient sod.”
Roan looks up and sees the black sheen of wings fluttering high above, sees the beaks agape; sees the Shade leaning over the pit, its face a blot of darkness against the mirrored sky. There is a spear in the Shade’s hand – a bolt of lightning, shadow, steel. Roan sees it thrown, but he is too tired, too weak to move, and feels the point and shaft skewering his ribs, stabbing through his heart and lungs and soul, pinning and holding him at the bottom of the grave.
The Queen’s voice is a hiss, and her words crack and snap like the heartwood of frozen trees in January.
“That ain’t your spear to wield at will, least of all in my realm.”
Roan feels the thin and wavering strand of life that he’s been granted in this place slip out of him: misty breath and rusty ichor, soul and spirit, seeping into the fresh-dug dirt. He hears the flutter of the crow-wings, the clacking of the beaks.
“What do you have left to give, dog? What would you give for her?”
The voice is chill against his flesh, a cool hand is in his fur, long fingers grazing his wound with a firm, ungentle touch. Roan gasps as his memories are torn loose from deep within:
his body sheltering the girl as she cries, her hands cradling his head
his body wrapped in a blanket, warm and soft
the girl reaching down to lift him from a tangle of waggling pups
Each memory shimmers gold and bronze and silver, precious and fleeting, all gone into the Queen’s possession, until there’s nothing left, until he thinks himself spent and hollow.
“Such exquisite treasures you keep,” she whispers, and her icy breath is both a soothing charm and a blinding horror. “All mine, now. But would you give it all, even this, the last? Would you give even that for her?”
Roan feels the hand sink deep, the fingers closing tight, clutching at the last ember of his soul, the last bit of golden warmth he has left. And yet he does not move, does not fight, does not resist. The Queen’s talons close into a fist as she pulls and tears
his name etched in metal and hung about his neck
his name in crayon on sheets of paper tacked up on the walls
his first car ride on the girl’s lap, his nose tucked into her sleeve as she whispered a word into his ear for the first time
The strong, ungentle hand rips and tears as the last gleam of gold is wrenched loose.
“There it is,” the Queen breathes. Her other hand grabs hold of the Shade’s spear, wrenching it free. “And the Shade is right. This is no place for dogs. No place for this girl, either.”
The dog lays his head down. He is weary, but the girl is safe in the ground with him. Darkness slips around his neck like a leash and collar, tugging him down, holding him still.
The girl wakes.
The air is cool, the creek is a late-summer trickle, and the dawn-fog lingers in the sunlight above the rippled surface. Her bike is on the rocks beside her, a wreck of metal and rubber.
She looks across the water. There is only the steep slope of the ravine on the other side, and three crows perched, silent, on a boulder.
When they caw, she sees the dog.
The dog wakes.
He smells girl, creek, rocks, woods, blood, crows. His body is heavy and cold, fur and bone.
The mist withdraws, and its cold touch lingers on the dog’s neck and ears like a hand: comforting and perilous all at once. Another hand, a girl’s hand, small and warm and trembling, reaches for him, and he twists and whimpers, getting up on tender paws, shaking off the stiffness and cold, wagging his tail as the girl struggles to her knees beside him.
She touches her unmarred face and head as though she’s not sure of what she is, or who, or where.
“I think I fell. I really hurt myself. My neck…”
The dog watches the crows; the gleam of black feathers, the wink of sharp eyes, the sharpness of their quiet beaks. From above and far away there are voices, calling a name. The girl tries to shout, but her voice won’t carry.
They wait together as the voices come closer, as the crows take flight, as the sun rises, burning off the last scraps of mist. The girl rests her head on his back. She whispers a word, “Roan.”
The dog does not know what it means, but he likes the sound it makes when she speaks it.
|Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and reviewer of speculative fiction. She grew up in Sweden but currently lives just outside of Vancouver with her husband, two kids, several birds, a snake, and a very large black dog. Her work has appeared in Interzone, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Fireside, Cast of Wonders, Shimmer and elsewhere. Her short story collection Six Dreams About the Train is forthcoming from Trepidatio Publishing in 2021.|