The first killing frost of the season left the impatiens frozen at attention in the little garden around the flagpole. By mid-morning they had collapsed in the sun and by late afternoon the park was bathed in the golden haze of a true Indian summer. Walter parked away from the falling acorns. He removed his tie and jacket, lay them neatly on the back seat, and set out on the path around the lake. He was an accountant in town, in the autumn of his own life, and the walk in the park was his favourite part of each day.
He loved the way the sharp focus of summer softened and faded into fall. Somehow it made him feel less alone. He paused to wipe his glasses. The sunlight seemed filtered now, almost as a kindness to the declining countryside. Geese drifted on the lake in the red and gold of reflected maples. The goslings he had watched since spring were nearly indistinguishable from the adults. Runners passed him, lovers lingered. Old people on benches. Off to the side, some boys tossed a football. The mowers had quit for the season. It was very quiet.
Something bounced off his ankle. He jumped and looked down. Nothing. He looked over at the game. A boy was running with the football. He looked down just in time to see it come again. “Hey!” But the little dog was already on his ankle. He felt the teeth on his flesh. He shook his leg. “Get out of here!” The dog lost its grip and slipped back, locking its jaws on his cuff, shaking its head as if to yank him off his feet.
Someone yelled. A girl with five or six dogs on leashes was fighting for control. They snarled and snapped their teeth and stood up against their collars like attack dogs. “Lucky!” she yelled again. The dog let go of Walter’s cuff and backed away, very slowly, not taking its eyes from his face. He could see the black lips drawn back in a quivering sneer. Suddenly, with no sound or apparent effort, it was launched. It came like a heat sensitive missile, straight for his ankle. Walter’s mind went blank. He kicked out as hard as he could. His foot connected with a solid smack. The dog dropped in the dirt and lay twisting in brokenback convulsions, as if it would turn itself inside out.
A man had stepped in and taken the leashes from the girl and established some measure of control. He was a large man and the dogs were of assorted shapes and sizes and it was all he could do to hold them. She separated herself from the melee and came forward and knelt by the writhing animal. There was a pink froth about its black lips and only the whites of its eyes were visible. She caught the head and, holding the jaws closed, leaned over the body until it was shielded from view. When she straightened up, the little dog lay still.
The girl approached Walter, her eyes cast down. She was young and slim in jeans and a work shirt and no make-up and she wore a necklace of what appeared to be carved birds and fish and animals. She dropped to her knees in front of him and lifted his pant leg, her long black hair fanned out over her shoulders and backpack. “The skin isn’t broken,” she said, without looking up. Her fingers were long and slim and cool on his ankle. “Does this hurt?”
“No. The dog…is it…?”
“Yes.” She reached around and withdrew a small tin from her backpack and started to apply ointment to his ankle. It smelled like something familiar but he could not think what. She stood up in one fluid movement and handed him the unmarked tin. “Gannymare,” she said. Her gaze was direct, unwavering. “Don’t worry. It’s all natural. Made from herbs. It soothes the skin.”
Walter did not know what to do or say, so he just stood there, frozen to the spot. The dogs had quieted somewhat but he could feel their eyes riveted to him. “I am so sorry,” he finally blurted out. “I don’t know what happened. I love animals. All of a sudden he was on me and I reacted.”
“I know.” She smiled. Her teeth were very white. “I saw it all. I’m the one who should be sorry. It was my dog that attacked you.”
“There was really nothing…”
“I know. It’s best to put it out of your mind. Some things are beyond our control.” She looked at the little dog, lying in the dirt. “Lucky’s gone to a better place now. He was mistreated as a puppy, you see. I took him and did what I could for him but it was very difficult. The others were so attached to him that I kept him and hoped for the best.” She looked at the other dogs and held up a hand. Half of them sat. “Usually I walk them out back, under the cliffs on the other side of the swamp, but I thought that maybe if Lucky could see some people….” A solitary tear ran down her cheek.
Walter gave her his white handkerchief. “I feel so very badly. There must be something I can do.”
She looked at him. She looked at the dogs, looking at him. She pushed the long hair away from her cheek and over her shoulder. “No. I don’t think so.”
Walter fumbled for his wallet. He hadn’t needed a business card in a long time. By the time he found one she had shrugged off the backpack and was kneeling by the little inert figure that seemed no bigger than a rabbit. She picked it up and ran her hand over its face one time, very slowly. Then she put her lips to its ear and whispered something before putting it in her pack. She shrugged back into the straps and took the bunch of leashes from the man. The dogs seemed to engulf her, rubbing up against her legs and whining, until she shook the leashes and touched their backs in the manner of a drover and they started forward, pulling her out onto the trail.
Walter took a step after her, his hand raised. “Wait! You didn’t tell me your name!”
She called something over her shoulder but he could not make it out for the yipping of the dogs. They were in full stride now and full voice, pulling her along the path by the lake as if she were some sort of vehicle of conveyance, hair streaming out behind, the backpack bumping from side to side with its new-found weight.
When he got home Mildred was putting together a meatloaf at the kitchen table. She had a bad back and it pained her to stand for any length of time. She looked up at Walter, standing there in the doorway. Years of sleepless nights had left her face drawn and grey. “Well…aren’t you going to come in?”
The dog stared at him.
He kissed her cheek and got a glass of water from the sink and sat down.
“What’s the matter?” she said, shaking breadcrumbs out of a can. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” The dog sniffed at his leg.
“I have. A ghost in the making, anyway.” He told her what had happened.
“That’s horrible,” she said when he had finished. “How on earth could you do such a thing?”
“Do? I didn’t do anything. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. I was just taking my walk, minding my own business.”
Her fingers kneaded and shaped the mound of meat. “Well, you must have done something. Stared at him in that odd way you have. A stare like that can provoke them, you know. Or maybe you said something. Tone of voice. Body language. The little dog wouldn’t just break away from his friends and attack you for no reason at all.”
Walter took a drink of water. The dog, too, seemed to be waiting for his reply. You know better, he told himself. You should have just kept your mouth shut.
“And another thing…. Why didn’t you just shoo it away?” She made a shooing motion at the meatloaf, which, he could swear, had taken on the form of a crouching dog. “A dear little pet like that.” She let her arm hang down and the dog licked her hand. “Somebody’s baby. Honestly, Walter, you were never able to make the football team and here you are trying for a field goal.” She watched him. The dog watched him.
“You don’t understand. It all happened so fast. There was no warning, no time to think. I just lashed out.” He looked around for help but there was none “It was like the concentrated, final rush of the lioness for her prey. She puts everything she’s got into that one effort because her cubs are hungry.”
“Sure, Walter. The little dog was going to drag you home for dinner.”
“No, I’m serious. I’m trying to tell you how it came at me. It was like that but different. Personal, almost.” He thought about this. “Yes. That’s how it was. I know it doesn’t make any sense, but what I saw in those eyes was anger…pure rage. And the focus? It was like nothing on earth could stop it, short of death.”
“So you did intend to kill it.”
“No! No! I’m just trying to explain the intensity of the attack. All I could do was react. So I kicked out as hard as I could. It felt like my whole life depended on that one kick.” He was close to tears. “Don’t you see? Don’t you understand?”
The dog made a noise. It was an old dog with clouded eyes and maybe the noise was just the breathing. Mildred pushed back her chair and got up with the meatloaf in a pan and started for the oven. “Frankly, no, I do not. It’s all a little too farfetched. What about the girl? The dogwalker…what did she have to say?”
Walter was not expecting this. “The girl? Oh, not too much. She was upset, of course. She looked at my ankle.”
“You just killed her dog and she looked at your ankle.”
“Probably worried about a lawsuit.”
“I don’t think so. She was concerned about my ankle, I would say.”
“Is it all right?”
“Yes. So nice of you to inquire.”
“We can do without the sarcasm, Walter. This was a…some kind of Indian, you said?”
“No. I said she appeared to be of Native American ancestry.”
“An Indian. And she wasn’t even upset? Well, they have some strange customs, I’m told. Do you suppose she was high on something?”
“High on a fine autumn afternoon.” It was barely a whisper.
“Nothing.” He suddenly felt very tired and got up to go change his clothes.
She opened the oven door and slid in the meatloaf. “Let me give you a piece of advice, Walter, not that you’ll take it. Stick to your ledgers. Keep out of the park and keep away from dogs and Indians.”
In bed that night he played the scene over and over in his mind, looking for anything of his doing that could have provoked the attack. There was nothing. Slowly, he started to accept the girl’s explanation of the dog’s behaviour, and to come to terms with his own reaction. He thought about Mildred, so callous. It pained him to admit that there was some truth to what she said. Then he fell asleep. Toward dawn, the girl appeared to him in the mist on the lake, as in a painting he had once seen. There were no dogs
Late that afternoon, Walter turned in to the park. He passed the flagpole and circled the parking lot, looking for a likely vehicle…a van, perhaps. But then, she would not take the dogs around the lake…not this afternoon, anyway. Maybe never. Maybe she would never return to the park. He put the thought out of his mind and started to drive up the hill.
It was cross country season. School busses were parked in the mid-level lot. Runners would be pounding the trails, urged on by self-important adults. He recalled the days when he was assistant manager of the cross country team, walking the course in his leather shoes, making arrows on the path with his bag of lime. The other boys thought him comical and would have run right over him-practically did, on more than one occasion. But not today. No…not where he was headed.
The hill was very steep. He paused on the hump of a thank-you-mum, where a horse drawn wagon had rested years ago. There were no cars coming and none behind him and he rolled down his window and listened. The air was soft and sweet, with a hint of decay. A chattering of squirrels, spiralling the oaks, thrashing through the foliage, causing a rain of acorns on the hill. Then he heard it, so faint it might have come from one of the little farms on the other side of the park. Dogs…a number of dogs, and they seemed to be in pursuit.
He parked near a beat up van in the last lot before the open space turned to woods. Assuming she drove in, this had to be her vehicle. He got out and passed close enough for a peek inside. The windows were very dirty, smudged on the inside. He could see that the rear seats had been removed and there was a five gallon water jug on the floor, along with some blankets and bowls and lengths of leather hanging from the side panels. No doubt about it.
The sun was over the tennis courts on the far side of the field. Mildred would be looking for him in about an hour. Some young women were getting in a last game, their children occupied in the adjacent play area. Walter listened. It came again, the yipping of the dogs, faint but unmistakable. He knew he could walk around the field, keeping the van in sight. If she returned, he could approach her after the dogs were safe inside. He could express concern…ask again what he might do. But after that…? He did not know. He only knew that he could not just let it go.
The yelping faded as Walter circled the field. He knew where they had to be. On his second pass, without thinking about it, he entered the woods by the tennis courts. Instantly, the park changed. The cinder path became hard packed dirt. Roots looped out of the clay like partially withdrawn staples. There was a lot of dead wood, left where it had fallen. Toadstools, splotched and cauliflowered as old prizefighters’ ears, clustered about the rotting stumps.
He pushed on in brown wingtips and gabardine trousers, shiny at the seat, and a light cardigan. The fair afternoon had vanished. Dark clouds obscured the sun. A rain-spattered wind had come up in the west. With no warning, the level path ended and he was half stumbling down the switchbacks, trying to keep his footing. A loose stone sent him flailing forward, grabbing a sapling, barely saving himself. Something shifted in his knee, but there was no time for that now. Down, down into the swamp, he lurched, the yipping of the dogs reverberating in the hellish bowl.
There was a low footbridge at the bottom, just over the muck-some fifty feet of crosspieces nailed to planks supported by piles in the swamp. The dogs sounded as if they were up on the rim of the opposite hill. He could see boulders and what appeared to be the mouth of a cave. The hill seemed to be even steeper than the one he had just descended.
Walter started across. Rain had been plentiful that season and the water level was almost up to the bridge, with reeds and swampgrass to either side and scattered islands of scrub pine and debris, barely large enough to hold a man. The span creaked and made obscene sucking sounds from somewhere underneath.
As he neared the halfway point, all hell broke loose. A shower of small stones rained down on the far end of the bridge, followed by barking and yelping and ravaged underbrush. They hit the bridge running, the whole team, scrabbling and sliding on the boards, pulling the girl behind. A fluffy Pekinese went over the side and into the water to pop back into place immediately, so entwined were the leashes.
Walter stood his ground. They bore down on him as if he were not there. A German shepherd he did not remember led the pack, with tail up and nose down and a white handkerchief about its neck. He could not kick, and there was no retreat. So he jumped. He went into the swamp, up to his waist, and kept pedalling mud and debris until he was able to grab a scrub pine and pull himself up on the little island. When he turned to look, they were just clearing the bridge and starting up the hill, the girl holding on, arms out straight, facing straight ahead.
It took him what seemed like a long time to trudge back to the bridge and struggle aboard, one leg up and then the other, emerging from the swamp like the creature that makes the kids shriek at the matinee. He stood and looked down at himself, covered with slime, wrapped in reeds and swampgrass. She had lost control, become entwined in the leashes, and was being dragged along. Yes, that was it. But why didn’t she look at him or call out to him? Shock, no doubt. She was in shock. He had to follow-intercept them somehow before the dogs slammed her into a tree.
As Walter wiped at his eyes, eighty pounds of German shepherd slammed into his chest in a full body block, knocking him backwards off the bridge and sprawling in the muck. Somehow he found his legs and was half standing when he saw the dog, not five feet away, coming on like an eared torpedo. The jaws opened, inches from his crotch. At the last minute, he placed both hands on the dog’s head and, opening his legs, pushed down as hard as he could. The next thing he knew, he had the animal in a scissors hold. All that walking in the park had given Walter strong legs. He rode the thrashing shepherd backwards, pulling up on the tail until something gave way, forcing the head down in the mud. It seemed an eternity before the dog stopped struggling.
When he limped out of the woods the sun was down behind the empty tennis courts. His car was where he had left it. The van was gone and in its place a green pickup truck with the park emblem on the door. The ranger was slouched on a bench nearby, smoking a cigarette, seemingly reluctant to enter the woods. He stood up and came forward when he saw Walter.
“You Walter Blanding?”
“Your wife called about half an hour ago. Said you were past due at home. Asked would I have a look around. She sounded plenty worried.”
“I found your car and figured you to be takin’ a walk. Sir, if you don’t mind me saying so, you look like you been wrestling crocodiles down in there.”
“I slipped on the bridge at the bottom and went in. I’m okay. Just a mess, that’s all.”
The ranger looked hard at him. “Don’t you usually walk around the lake in the afternoon?”
“That’s right. Thought I’d try something different today. Say, I don’t suppose you know anything about a dark haired girl with a bunch of dogs.”
“Sally? Oh yeah, we know her…what you can know about her, that is. She was here earlier.” His eyes narrowed. “What do you want with her?”
“Nothing. I just caught a glimpse of her out in back and was curious. That’s all.”
“Let it go at that, if you want my advice. She’s supposed to live somewheres up around Chicken Falls with all them dogs. Crazier ‘n a shithouse mouse. Beats me why she comes down here at all, what with all that land up there. I told her she could run the dogs out back long as they’re leashed and she don’t bother nobody. She wasn’t bothering you, was she?”
“No.” He started to leave. “Well, I’d better be on my way. Thanks for your concern.”
“That’s my job.” He stared at Walter. “Sir?”
“I hope you got a outside shower at home.”
Walter held up his hand.
“Oh, and one more thing,” the ranger called. “We’re happy to have you enjoy the park. I can’t tell you where to walk in here. The trails are meant for your enjoyment, but maybe you’d best keep to the civilized area down by the lake.”
“Thanks. I believe I’ll do just that.” Then he had the car door open and was spreading newspaper on the seat. He would stop at the pay phone on the way out and let her know he was on the way. He needed to get home now, to get out of these clothes and into a hot bath. He would tell her what he told the ranger and take his scolding. He needed his pajamas and his supper and his TV. He even needed to see the dog. He needed the comforts of home.
Copyright © Fred Keeler 2002
Fred Keeler is an actor who has written for radio and mostly does voice-over narration for films and TV. He is working on a collection of short stories and a novel. He lives in the United States, in New Jersey, with his wife, Vivian, and enjoys gardening and long walks in the park…
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