‘I’ve said it a thousand times Jim, if you wanted a guard dog you shouldn’t have got a King Charles Spaniel.’
‘Nonsense. There must be something there or he wouldn’t have started barking. Find him boy! Cats!’
Doofie turned obediently and began the long walk towards whatever it was that awaited him in the flowerbed. As he nosed his way through the bushes the smell became very strong. It obliterated everything else that was there – his own smell, the cat smells, the dead vole, the bit of ancient bone that he had half-buried a month before, several tennis balls which he had found it convenient to ‘lose’ behind the hedge, even the smell of Tina and Ellie, who had been playing there only that afternoon.
Doofie looked to his right, and saw a pair of huge eyes blinking at him. Beyond them there loomed a dark shape, larger than any dog he had ever seen – and he had been on a good few walks and even attended some shows in his nine years. He wanted more than anything to turn tail and run for his life, but all the strength seemed to have drained out of him. Then, with a low whine, the shape spoke:
‘Brother! Fear not – I come in peace.’
Doofie began to breathe again.
‘Who are you?’ he yelped.
‘Make no sign that you have seen me! I come in peace and in the Name of Dog.’
‘In the Name of…?’ a thrill ran through the Spaniel’s body.
‘In the Name of Dog,’ repeated the shape in a slow and deliberate tone. ‘This is the moment you have waited for. You have been instructed in the old ways, have you not?’
In the cobwebbed cellar of Doofie’s doggy soul, a memory stirred. He tried very hard to cast his mind back. He could remember his mother cooing to him, over and over, the holy words, as she licked him clean in those far off, happy days of puppyhood: ‘Behold, I send you forth as wolves among sheep…’
‘One day, Doofie,’ she had said, ‘It may happen that Dog will come to you, as he comes to a few chosen members of our species, even to our tiny breed. And when he comes you must be ready to give whatever he asks of you.’
‘You remember the ancient words?’ the Stranger asked. ‘You were told, were you not, that one day Dog might send his Servant to you, and that when he came he would require…’
‘…A sacrifice,’ said Doofie, ‘Yes, I remember.’
There was a silence. Then from the back door the people began calling again.
‘What is your name?’ asked the Stranger.
‘Doofie. Well, Rufus really, but they’ve always called me Doofie.’
He could sense disappointment, even a trace of contempt, in the Stranger’s voice:
‘Go back now, Doofie. Go slowly, and give no indication that you have seen anything here.’
Doofie sniffed: there was another smell coming from the Stranger.
‘You are injured?’ he asked.
‘It is nothing,’ said the shape, ‘Only it has slowed me down… I have not been able to hunt since I escaped.’
‘In the name of Dog I have run through a troupe, I have jumped over a wall, I have routed the shepherd and scattered his flock. The hunters weep over their children and the woodcutter lies dead in the forest…’
Once again Doofie felt a resonance – it was as if these were words he had always known. Perhaps he had never actually heard them, even from his mother, but it was the tone – the sense of a primeval impulse…
‘Can you get out later?’
‘Yes, there is a dog flap – my bladder, you know.’
If the Stranger knew, he did not appear interested.
‘Come later, when the moon is high.’
As Doofie turned the Master’s voice came drifting through the evening air. ‘What have you found there, boy?’
Doofie walked casually, wagging his tail, giving no hint that he had seen anything more interesting than a couple of nesting blackbirds. He moved past his people into the house.
As Doofie lay by the fire and the Coronation Street theme filled the room, his mind ranged over his long life. Not a very thrilling life, it had to be admitted. Apart from two fruitless outings at the local dog show it amounted to nine years of inane walks, routine smells, boring food; the occasional baby bird nearly caught, the odd cat almost frightened. The most exciting thing was probably when he had surprised a sleeping rabbit on the Common. And now it seemed all that was about to change. Doofie thought again of his mother, how proud and surprised she would have been that of all her offspring it should be little Doofie, the runt of the litter, who would be the one chosen to serve Almighty Dog.
When the Master and Mistress had been in bed for about an hour, Doofie slipped out of the dog flap and walked across the lawn. He could tell that the Stranger hadn’t moved far from his position against the wall.
‘Over here!’ came the voice.
Doofie waddled up to him, wagging his tail subserviently.
‘I have come.’
‘Good. I have a message from Dog. He requires a sacrifice.’
‘I …I have always believed in Dog. I have tried to be faithful…’
‘Are you willing to make this sacrifice?’ said the Stranger.
‘I know that I must, but I am an old dog. I have only five good teeth and my joints are stiff.’
The Stranger was breathing heavily. Doofie looked and saw that his eyes were closed and that he was lowering himself to the ground. At first he wondered if this were part of some rite or ceremony, but then the Stranger staggered and almost fell.
‘You are unwell.’
‘I have travelled far…I have fasted five days and five nights. I must have food.’
‘I can take you round to the bins, there are always scraps…’
‘The Servants of Dog do not eat scraps!’ said the stranger fiercely.
‘I’m sorry, I was not thinking, O Prophet.’
‘I have suffered terrible things, things that you cannot imagine. They have persecuted me. They have brought their accursed whelps to mock me through the bars of my prison. They have thrown their scraps of bread to me, but I would not eat them. They have laughed at me and poked me with their sticks, but the true Servants of Dog remain faithful. Bloodied I may be – their sharp fences took their toll of my flesh, but they could not hold me because my spirit will always be free.’
Doofie felt a surge of pride and admiration for this paragon of doggy-ness. He wanted to grovel before the warrior, to lick him around the chops, to sniff and to be sniffed by him, to roll over and if necessary let him gorge himself at his own throat.
‘Your sacrifice will prove to Dog that you have not cast away your faith during your life of ease. Once again I ask: have you kept the faith, Brother?’
‘I believe I have kept the faith.’
‘You still go as a wolf among sheep? You have not become…woolly?’
‘Goodness me, no. No, nothing woolly about me!’
The Stranger was staring into his eyes.
‘I see what you are. You have lived as a little prince in the Kingdom of Man, but how will you be received in the Heavenly Kingdom of Almighty Dog?’
Doofie protested: ‘Oh no! No worries on that score. I may have sort of played along a bit and admittedly I don’t catch as much fresh meat as I’d like, but that’s because we King Charles’s are not the fastest runners. We’re a… specialist breed, you see. And besides, I have a dodgy kidney – I’m on what’s called a Nephritis Diet. Not very tasty, but I do get the leftovers of Sunday lunch. That is…’ he corrected himself, ‘The er…remnants of the, er… kill.’
‘Enough! A sacrifice is required.’
‘Ah yes, the sacrifice…’ whimpered Doofie.
‘Yes. Your people – do they have…young?’
‘Young? Well, not anymore. Their children have all grown up.’
‘I smelled young flesh.’
‘Really? No, I don’t think so.’
‘I smelled it, and the smell was fresh!’ The dark muzzle lifted and snuffed the air.
‘I can smell it now.’
‘Oh, the Grandchildren! That’ll be Tina and Ellie.’
‘Ti-na and El-lie…Yes, where do they sleep?’
‘They sleep in the spare room – they only stay occasionally. Nice children, very kind to me.’
‘You have formed a strong attachment?’
‘Well, I suppose, over the years one does get rather fond of some of them – you know how it is.’
‘I know not how it is. Tell me… Doo-fie.’
There was something about the way the Stranger said his name which made Doofie feel small and ridiculous, but then – he had always felt small and ridiculous.
‘I don’t think you’d find them very tasty you know…’
‘You have become soft. You have become woolly. Perhaps you would like to take their place?’
The Stranger was very close now, Doofie could feel his breath. It smelled of dark pine forests, of cold streams and snow in the winter, of nights howling at the moon, of the pack running across a moonlit landscape. Doofie could see them – his ancestral line – angular creatures with huge feet and long, spare limbs, ranging across great distances, baying after the scent, tracking and catching their slower, weaker quarry; the fleetest animals arriving first and pulling the victim to the ground, beginning to devour its live, jerking carcass; the young and the old arriving later to get what was left and, bringing up the rear, Rufus Maximillian Redondo Snell, on his stumpy little legs, gamely wagging his tail.
‘I smell WOOL!’ roared the stranger.
‘No, no! No wool.’ pleaded Doofie.
‘Then lead me to the sacrifice!’
‘The sacrifice…Well, it’s this way.’ he said. ‘But I don’t think you can make it through the dog flap.’
‘Then you must bring the child out to me here.’
‘But how will I do that?’
‘The child trusts you, no?’
‘Good, then your lifetime of compromise will not have been entirely wasted. Brother – it is not too late for you to be redeemed. You may still face Dog Almighty with a clear conscience.’
As the Stranger spoke, Doofie could feel something happening in his mind, but he wasn’t quite sure if he was weakening or becoming stronger.
‘You will get the child…’
‘I will get the child…’
‘You will bring it here to me.’
‘I will bring it here to you.’
‘And if you do not come out again,’ said the Stranger menacingly, ‘or if you alert the man, I will find you, Doofie, I will track you down…’
In a daze Doofie waddled through the dog flap and into the kitchen. Obediently, he made his way to the children’s bedroom.
‘I have always tried to be a good dog…’ he was saying to himself. He went into the room. Tina’s little white hand was hanging down over the side of the bed. He pushed his cold nose against it and licked her fingers.
‘Doofie?’ she called sleepily, ‘Doofie is that you? Do you want to get in?’
He took hold of her sleeve and tugged lightly. She sat up, suddenly awake and excited.
‘What is it Doofie?’
He made his way to the door, then turned back and came to her, wagging his tail, then went to the door again. She was now out of bed and pulling on her red dressing gown.
‘I’m coming Doofie, show me what it is.’
He went to the back door and out through the dog flap. He looked around, but could not see the Stranger. For a moment, as the cold air hit him again, he shook himself and wondered if he had completely imagined the bizarre events of the night.
‘I’ll go back inside now,’ he said to himself, ‘I’ll lie down in my basket by the boiler and in the morning I’ll go for my walk and…’
‘Hsss!’ The voice came from the shadow of the log pile beyond the shed; to Doofie it was the voice of doom.
‘Bring her over here!’
The child poked her head through the dog flap and called: ‘Doofie, what have you found out there?’
He went over to the log pile. His Master had been chopping the wood that afternoon and the smell of pinesap was overwhelming. He crouched down next to the Stranger. Together they watched Tina’s head disappear back into the house. Then they heard the sound of the door being unlocked. It opened slowly and a beam of light began searching the dark garden.
‘What trickery is this?’ hissed the voice, suddenly nervous.
‘Only a torch,’ whispered Doofie.
‘If she sees me she will not come near,’ said the Stranger. The child was moving off down the lawn now.
‘Go into the shed,’ whispered Doofie, ‘I will bring her to you in there.’
Even though he could not see them, he could feel the burning eyes staring at him – the eyes of a Seer and a Prophet. He could feel them probing his mind, searching for any vestige of treachery…
‘Yes,’ said the Stranger slowly. ‘The shed is a good idea. But you will come with me, O faithful Doofie, and if I do not taste young lamb tonight, I shall console myself with mutton.’
‘Fair enough!’ croaked Doofie.
They slipped out of the shadows and he nosed open the door of the shed. The Stranger slunk in quickly behind him.
‘Doofie, Doofie, where are you?’ the child was calling softly.
The two animals waited in silence behind the shed door. Outside, the torch beam flashed and they could smell and hear the child getting closer.
‘Doofie, are you in there?’
She had stopped just outside.
‘Whimper!’ whispered the Stranger.
‘Whimper, so that she will want to come inside, then I will close the door.’
Doofie hesitated. There was madness in the Stranger’s voice:
‘I will save a choice piece for you, Doofie.’
‘But, my Nephritis Diet…’
‘A tender piece of the haunch. Oh yes, tonight you will be blooded, tonight you will be blessed. Now whimper! Go on! You can whimper, can’t you Doofie? In all those years of soft cushions and warm poultices, surely you learned how to whimper?’
‘Doofie!’ came the child’s voice, and the door began to swing open. Doofie felt the Stranger tense beside him, coiling like a steel spring, twitching from side to side, waiting until the prey was well and truly within the trap before it pounced. Doofie closed his eyes and wished that it would all be over, wished that once it had dealt with the child it would deal with him too, for he knew now beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was a worthless animal who belonged neither in the Heavenly Kingdom of Dog nor in the Earthly Kingdom of Man.
The beam of the torch was shining into the shed, but Tina was still hovering on the threshold, uncertain, sensing perhaps that all was not as it should be. Then she stepped forward…
Generations of selective breeding and the ravages of old age had robbed Doofie of most of his skills and instincts, but somehow, in all its plunderings and layings waste, Fate had overlooked a couple of useful items: Doofie still had five good teeth and a halfway decent sense of timing. As the torch beam hit them the light fell upon the Stranger’s wounded foreleg – the gash red and swollen, smelling of blood and puss and infection. By pure reflex Doofie lunged forward and sank his teeth into its purulent tenderness. The Wolf took off anyway – nothing could have stopped that – but as it sailed towards the child it was astonished to find itself being pulled off target by a dead weight attached to its weakened leg, and at the same time a thunderclap of pain exploded inside its head.
Like a spent rocket it crashed to earth in a pile of garden implements, trailing the prone form of Doofie in its wake. There was a scream as Tina dropped the torch and ran towards the house shouting: ‘Grandpa! Grandpa! Doofie’s fighting with a wolf in the shed! Doofie’s caught a wolf in the shed!’
Once the clatter subsided, Doofie was aware only of darkness. He still had the Wolf’s warm foreleg in his mouth, but the body it was attached to did not seem to be moving. Gradually he relaxed his grip and tried to get up, but something was wrong with one of his back legs and he couldn’t make it do what he wanted.
He was lying against the body of the Stranger and for a moment he hoped against hope that it might be dead. Then in the quietness he heard the deep rhythmical thumping of the creature’s enormous heart. Slowly, ominously, the Wolf began to get up. The door of the shed had shut during the rumpus: rakes and forks were firmly wedged against it. There were voices outside now, Doofie could hear his Master shouting, but it all seemed very far away.
‘So, Doo-fie,’ said the Stranger, leaning over him, ‘It looks as though you have done for me, my Brother. But before they come, I will do for you. How does it feel to know that in a few moments I will deliver you into the jaws of an angry Dog?’
‘If Dog is angry with me,’ said Doofie meekly, ‘Then let him deal with me as he sees fit. What can I say? I am what I am –- soft, compromised, cowardly… But I could not let you harm the girl. I cannot deny my nature, such as it has become.’
‘And I,’ said the Stranger, licking his lips, ‘Cannot deny mine!’
Doofie felt hot breath and drops of saliva on his neck as the Wolf bent towards him.
When the end came it broke like a storm: Doofie was aware of an impact and a sound like the splintering of bone, then the shed was filled with a terrible howling.
‘I never thought I would hear my own death cries.’ he thought, absently. It was as if all the horror associated with the severing of life was happening to someone else. He felt himself floating away from that place of agony and struggle; then he had the sensation of being surrounded by a bright light.
‘I wonder what Dog will look like,’ he thought to himself, ‘and if he will be so very angry with me.’
With a great effort, he opened his eyes…
‘Hmm…’ he thought, ‘I never expected that.’
Evidently, Dog walked upright and bore an uncanny resemblance to his Master.
Doofie was being lifted by strong, gentle arms. There was the familiar smell of the man’s aftershave, the unfamiliar salty smell of his tears and the kindly voice saying over and over: ‘You brave, brave dog. You brave, wonderful little dog!’
‘So here I am in heaven,’ thought Doofie, ‘And Dog is not angry with me at all.’
He was borne from the shed into a crowd of concern – voices comforting and praising, children’s hands reaching up to stroke. His head lolled slightly and he looked back. There on the shed floor just below the shattered window the Wolf was lying with his mouth and eyes open. His magnificent body twitched very slightly. Sticking up from the centre of his back was the handle of an axe, and sprinkled over everything were sparkly diamonds of broken glass, which crunched beneath the man’s slippers.
Doofie didn’t feel brave now, he felt ashamed. He understood that in passing one test he had failed another. As he watched the gleam fade from those wild eyes he wished with all his heart that the Stranger could have been sent to the garden of some wiser, worthier dog.