I would have been happy to let the damp yard soak all the way up my jeans. Years of counting days to vacation pools have made any blue water magic—whether it’s a puddle beneath a suddenly stormless sky or a rectangle of water out the back window of a motel. I have a left-over belief that water preserves the dead perfectly as they float, faces upward, into eternity. Now, all the fur I hadn’t been able to banish via the washing machine could wick memories and rain into the dark denim so that they remained part of the jeans, part of the household, a steady heartbeat and clear-eyed stroke pulling us forward rather than backwards.
Floating in a pool and staring into the summer sky was almost the obverse of looming over the blue puddles around the yard. While I stared, Brandon slid past me like a shadow. A bark jerked my attention to the fence. A small black butt was scooting backward, tail rotating, from one of the larger holes rotted along the bottom of the wood. I yelled and he glanced away and then ran toward me, squishing through the grass. He was the only dog to venture out, the only one to wade into the puddles, the others having been trained to dislike the rain years ago, under a different roof. I wasn’t yet used to the smallness of the French bulldog, nor the way he could slip into the shadows.
At first, I’d wished some of the old white fur or even the pale brown fur of the other dogs would stick to his sleek coat. After the storms, however, I was just glad that short hair was easy to hose down. Brandon sloshed by my ankles, staring back at the two pairs of dog paws waiting just inside the back door. I could hear the tick of their nails as they watched to see which of us sank further into the backyard.
Some years are dry, like the shock that comes at the first sign of bad news—how bad? How much do I have to hear? That year was the gasp and the sob that follows after—a year full of water. We were finally past the worst of the last storm; the street was wet but not flooded and the yard was streaming with the last of a cold rain that had followed the second cold front almost to the Texas coast, far enough south to bring us the remnants of a gently-used but still identifiable autumn and push the edges of the last great hurricane of the year further up the coast.
The ground squelched on its own and I glanced to my left when I heard the gate creak open, the latch having slipped over its own metal shoulder. The neighborhood seemed to groan along the narrow yard between house and gate. Wind shoved the wood against the water and damp grass. I ordered Brandon into the house as I hurried to pull the gate back against the fence. He flopped down, watching me as he rolled his bulldog body against the leg of a plant stand. A fat, cold breeze pushed against me and the thin wood.
The creaking felt like part of my movement. Sway and pop, like an old structure in the wind. The gusts pressed mist into the folds of my sweater and strung it along my hair. A low rumble, a growl or a plane engine, shimmered past. I looked back at the warm light and saw Brandon creep between the stiff forelegs still guarding the back door. A low woofle signaled the two older dogs to duck inside. They whined as I rounded the corner.
I’d chased loose dogs down the street before, so I heaved against the gate and latch, yanking the handle to verify it caught and shaking at the possibility of sad signs posted on streetlights and stop signs. This narrow strip of backyard was full of mist and smelled, or so I imagined, like salt. I had all of us back in before I let myself breathe.
Damp cold made me think of blankets and turning on all the lights, something I didn’t like to do in the evenings when it was just me and the dogs, before my husband came home. The houses are too close together. Usually, we sat in the dimness, me with a book blazing from a screen and the dogs piled up around me, drifting toward the front door and waiting.
The creaking followed me inside. When the backdoor shuddered, I decided that a sip of whiskey would settle me back into a book. An artificial storm, an imaginary fording of the floodwaters would wash away the news, help me let go the urge to start packing Only Necessary Things. Maybe I could turn off at least one of the kitchen lights.
I opened the pantry and took the bottle off the top shelf. Since it was whiskey, I was thinking about my dad, a red spoonful of sugar, a cough that wouldn’t go away, and a night when I was restless and wandering, the first night I was given to understand artificial peace.
Our pantry’s just a tiny closet. A blaze of light from an odd corner of the kitchen and then blindness, until my pupils soaked up the darkness, and I could see the dogs curled on the couches in the living room. They seemed even cozier in the mix of light and shadow that came from the streetlamps and lights of other houses. Turning out the lights was a good idea.
Especially since I could now see the flicker in the window by the back door. It’d been a month since the last time we lost power, but the small twist and bob of light felt more normal than the pantry bulb.
How long have I lived with our small backyard packed tightly against our neighbor’s yards, fences slotted in the easements, fake lock preventing even legitimate access from the neighbors? I was opening the door before I thought flashlight. And Not ours.
A ball of light flickered like a lantern by the window. Warmth brushed my calf. I held the whisky bottle by the neck. The light gleamed, picking out the dark glass of the bottle and then the label. A chill pressed past me, over the warmth from the house, into the kitchen. As it passed, a voice warned, “You’ll catch your death out here. Or at least catch the dead.”
Inside, a short shadow of a man tangled with the mist. A gust pushed rain and shadow into the kitchen. He seemed to deflate and reform, waving at a shadow that stiffened in the mists. Bells jangled softly and I jumped.
“Close the door! Don’t want to hear them dead men’s bells on that harness until I have to.” A low whicker bubbled up from the darkness just behind me. I shut the door. An old story popped and faded like a flashbulb in my head.
The haze fled as the door thumped. A soaked man stood in my kitchen, shaking out his dark hair like one of the dogs.
I twisted the bottle in my hand, thinking club. Whiskey sloshed down my wrist. His face…I looked down at the bottle glass, hoping for a reflection. It was covered with a sheen of condensation.
The dogs were restless and Brandon, the little bulldog, moaned in his sleep. None of them sat up to investigate the new voice in the kitchen. There was a single growl, but it wasn’t from the dogs on the couch.
“No harm intended, just a drink. Only blood I want is my own, warmed.” He ran a hand over his head and walked out into the living room, moving through the house like front, knocking out the pantry light and causing an interior door to pop shut. A cool gust swirled around, but I couldn’t tell if it was from the a/c or the door or the imperfectly preserved figure examining the pile of dogs snoozing on the couch. Brandon whoofled and then shoved himself closer to the Labrador mix, hiding under his thick fur. “What kind of hound is that?” the man asked, leaning over the and dripping fog on the oblivious dogs. “Looks like you got a bat on your couch.” He looked up.
Hefting the bottle against my hip, I wondered if I’d opened it earlier, if this was the first drink I’d had all day. Had I had lunch? Breakfast? Anything other than coffee as I tried to do laundry and sort through pictures and remember to be thankful for what I hadn’t lost? I stared for a second at the black lump on the couch and veered from hospitality into explanation. “He’s a dog. Brandon. He’s my dog Brandon. French bulldog.” There’s a ghost puzzling over my dog. My house, my stupid suburban house, is suffering a haunting. I should call the plumber. I took a swallow of the whiskey. The man looked back up at me. I both wished my brain would stop filtering those shadows and that it would stop whispering to me to stop looking.
“I’ll take a glass of that, ma’am, if you’d be so kind. Been looking for my own for years, but ain’t found it. My wife had a good arm.” There’s a chuckle. “I heard it hit the ground, even in the sheet, ya’know? So mad, it drove me to the elves.”
“Sure.” Mr. Bailey. The mention of elves no less than his request for whiskey punched through shock into that layer of ever-present hostess guilt. Our highball glasses were on the lowest shelf in the cabinet. Two of them thunked against the counter, and I sloshed whisky into each of them. Some trailed down the sides and onto the cabinet. I apologized for the mess as I handed him the glass.
“Smells like a good visit,” he said and took the whiskey. “I had a dog. And I know they mean good people.” The glass caught the lights from a lightning flash and the liquid seemed to shatter. “They don’t keep ‘em down in the eternal fields, even for their herds. Something turned ‘em against the idea of ‘faithful,’ I guess. Pretty sure it was us, banging on a book and telling ‘em eternity ain’t supposed to be work.” He laughed and took a sip, and I watched the whiskey curl in the smoke, billows of liquid and soot mingling. “We, my dog and I, that is, used to chase rabbits through brambles that would rip your flesh right off. No brambles where he runs, now. Hope they’re taking good care of him.”
I was leaning against the wall near the dog toys. “Brandon likes the laser pointer.” I flicked it on and found that it diffused in his shadowy feet. We both watched it for a second, and I shut it off. The whisky hit my throat and my brain switched into damage control. I coughed, but he just poured the liquid down into the flickers and darkened, as if he were topping up the lanterns that cast his shadow.
“It’s like starlight,” he said as he poured it down. A tiny flame kindled. “Better than cobbler.” Then his insides flared and he sighed. “Can’t ever get it all the way down.”
I kept the liquid flowing, and he moved to the marble coffee table, a blue flame flickering all the way up to his mouth. Around the tongues of flame, he told me that he’d been riding the river, herding the thirsty drowned cattle. The bluebell harness, the dead men’s bells, tinkled from the neck of his mount, a great grey seahorse that was soaking its way into the house even as we spoke. It had been bred down in the fields of the deathless elves, the ones who’d been condemned by the church in the same manner his wife had decided whisky was a heathen thing to put in your grave. It was that small fire, that anger, that had snapped whatever cord he’d first caught hold of, rising. Staring into the night, free and terrified, he’d run all the way to the sea looking for that bottle and found a kind of pirate eternity. A just-beyond-the-waves eternal isle. What he called elves—hard-eyed, gleaming-skinned creatures who seemed to walk in a constant ballet of current and float--offered him a mount and asked him to watch their cattle, who liked to flee ashore during floods. He looked for the bottle when the storms drove the sea and the cattle inland.
His whiskey burning voice lit up great empty caverns beneath my own skin, and I felt myself following that wisp further into the darkness. What would I chase beyond either salvation or damnation? I glanced over at the old leashes and collars hanging by the back door, a jumble of dog gear we’d been accumulating since marriage. What gates would I fear to shut?
As he spoke, his mount seeped through the wall. A stain that I wouldn’t be able to explain darkened the plaster by the door while I poured more whiskey, stared deeper into that flame. I leaned closer, wondering what whiskey topped with a burning soul would taste like.
A sharp bark at my knee was followed by a gout of water drenching my shirt and the seahorse leaning over me to nip his shoulder. It whispered to him, extinguished his reminiscences. I saw his form twist to Brandon and then to me, or the space around me, before he grabbed that weed-soaked bridle. My throat burned. “Follow the collar and not the bottle,” he murmured as a flash of lightning made a horror show and Western out of my kitchen.
Rain and hail stampeded against the house. Bailey mounted as the door blew open, spurring the horse back into the downpour. I threw the bottle into the night and slammed the door, waking all the dogs into a chorus of barks that only stopped when I stumbled back to the couch, flipping myself over the back and pulling Brandon up to my neck, letting the others pile themselves on me in the dark. A warm breath settled against my neck, opposite from where Brandon snorted.
I listened to the wind and the herd as a slow fire worked from my throat to my eyelids and my fingers curled in the fur of the dogs. I exhaled a slow flicker, lighting up all the eyes gathered around me in the night.
Story by C. Sandlin, Art by Kevin Cromwell