HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition


Freelance writer Phil McCumskey spent most of his life in Johannesburg but now lives and works in Surrey. Apart from short stories, he’s written a crime novel set in Cape Town (unpublished) and is working on the sequel. Many of his travel articles have been published and he’s also written and directed a play that was staged on the Fringe of South Africa’s Grahamstown Festival.


On the afternoon of his fifty-second birthday Stenson left the Park's lodge and drove through the snow storm, tyre chains gripping hard, back to his cottage two miles away. He parked in the lean-to and like a blind man, hands outstretched, inched his way to the porch steps. Tall firs creaked and groaned as they rubbed against each other in the bitter wind. The sounds of the storm all but drowned out the whimpering dog, lying a few feet from the porch, almost completely covered in snow. Stenson was reminded of the soft noises Emma used to make as she lay dreaming in her crib, back when he was a married man.
Hearing someone nearby, the dog managed to lift its tail a few inches off the ground and let it fall, causing a flurry of snow to shift and settle. A wolfhound-cross, Stenson thought, looking down at the feeble-framed body with grey matted hair and ribs so thin they resembled the wooden struts of a whaleboat. ‘Hey there, old fella,’ Stenson said, bending down to brush snow and ice from its fur, while making reassuring noises. He picked the dog up as gently as he could, but stiffened as the animal flinched, bared its teeth and growled, its rheumy eyes watching his every move.
Inside the cottage, Stenson lowered the dog onto his bunk then doubled Emma's woollen baby blanket that lay at the foot of his bed and set it on the floor next to the fireplace. All the while eyes followed him. Bending over, he slid his arms under the dog and turned his head away in case it snapped at him. A guttural sound issued from deep within its throat and Stenson noticed sputum oozing from its mouth. ‘I’m gonna bring you some clean water and a bowl of my finest venison stew, Dog,' he said. 'Everything’s gonna be just fine, you’ll see.’ Using a damp cloth, he carefully wiped the animal’s mouth and brushed off the remaining bits of ice that clung to its hair. Then, placing two bowls close by, he whispered. ‘Plenty more where that came from. Now get some rest, big fella.'
Less than a week later, Dog lay asleep in the passenger seat of the Ranger while Stenson cleared snow from the roof of the lodge Placing one foot in front of the other, he eased the steel cutter into the snow and, walking up the sloping roof, head down, arms pumping, made precise horizontal cuts with no wasted motion and no unneeded shifting of the saw. On the way back down, he cut vertically this time, until row upon row of upright blocks sat atop the building like tall refrigerators. Neat. Everything square and lined up right. Just how he liked it. Switching to his shovel, he edged the blade beneath the blocks and carefully slid them, one by one, off the roof in a cascade of powdered white. Seventy-two hours, he thought, stepping back to survey his work. That was how long it had taken him to clear the roofs of the Park's five-hundred-room lodge, and by his estimate that worked out at over three thousand fridges. His arms ached and his chest burned whenever he breathed and his damned knee hurt like hell. He flexed it and heard a sharp click. The temperature was below freezing but underneath his clothing his body sweated. Take a break, he told himself. The last thing you need is a heart attack. As he pawed at the ice crystals forming in his eyelashes and beard, he realised the tremors in his hands had disappeared. He smiled. A month without a drink and it looked as if he’d finally gotten rid of the shakes. Sleeping better too; the nightmares less vivid.
Stenson stared at his boot prints coming back and forth from his pick-up to side of the building and was reminded of the bear tracks he'd noticed outside his cottage that morning as he and Dog had driven out. Bears were always sniffing around during the night, hoping to find scraps of food but he'd never seen one. Usually by first light they'd retreated deep into the shelter of the woods. For protection, though, he had a loaded Ruger bolt-action rifle, a Remington 31 shotgun, plus the new addition of a one-hundred and forty pound canine of pure muscle.
The afternoon sky had become a brooding grey smudge. It would be dark soon. On top of the high ridge that encircled the camp, a snow-covered pine floated like a ghostly ship on a calm, pale sea. With an oiled rag Stenson carefully wiped the cutter and laid it in the toolbox on the back of the Ranger together with the shovel. He thought about the roofs in the south of the camp that needed his attention and decided to make an early start in the morning.
As he climbed into the cab, a sudden weariness descended on him like a light dusting of snow. His life seemed to be on hold, without purpose and with nothing to look forward to. Hell, when he was younger he and Sarah were always out dancing, getting drunk at dinner parties or doing the conga at weddings. They'd sometimes go up to the lake with friends for the weekend and on Saturday mornings he'd play squash at the club. Afterwards the guys would tease each other about their games and whose turn it was to buy beer. 'Your round, Sten Gun. Is that a moth I see flying outta your wallet?' But those days seemed so long ago now that he wondered if they'd ever happened.
A loggerhead shrike drew a sudden dark line across the whiteness of the landscape and perched on the truck’s wing mirror. The bird looked left and right, its black face-mask hiding its eyes. Ears pricked, Dog sat up in the cab, his baritone bark startling the bird so that it flew off with a shrill shriek that sounded exactly like his wife's screams that afternoon twelve years ago as she ran towards the table under the trees. 'Emma's in the pool. She's not moving.' Stenson bit into his bottom lip and tried hard not to think about the way he'd shouted at the paramedics to stop pushing so damned hard on his daughter's chest. Christ, she's only four.
He closed his eyes and rested a hand on Dog who was now tucked up in a ball on Emma’s blanket on the front seat, the one she’d clung to wherever she went, decorated with tiny red heart motifs. He would wrap her in it after he’d dried her in front of the fire on cold nights and in the garden in summer, he’d watch her drape it over cardboard boxes then crawl inside her new playhouse and drink tea from plastic cups and saucers surrounded by her dolls. Dewy-eyed Emma, hair the colour of newly-fallen chestnuts, her freckles made more noticeable when her nose crinkled. ‘Swing me, daddy, please,’ she would cry, arms extended, her bright eyes flashing. ‘Awound and awound and awound.’ So he’d clutch her wrists tightly and turn in a tight circle, gathering speed until her feet flew up in the air and her hair floated away from her head. ‘Faster, Daddy, faster.’ And afterwards, he’d be so dizzy he’d have to lie on the ground, heart pounding, trying to catch his breath. She would laugh and jump on him, flinging her chubby arms around his neck and kissing him again and again on the cheek. Then his wife would scold him for playing the fool.
‘Don’t you realize you could have hurt her?’
He wasn't sure how long he sat in the pick-up trying to pull himself together but when Dog pawed at him and yipped, he straightened up, released the handbrake and drove away, vaguely aware of the snow falling hard.
Arriving at the cabin twenty minutes later, Stenson stepped out of the pick-up and felt a heaviness that made his fifty-two years seem more like seventy. Dog leapt out and took off into the firs, sniffing the snow-covered ground before cocking his leg and peeing on a sapling. Something caught the animal's attention, a squirrel or a rabbit, maybe, and he darted away, leaving a faint trail of steam behind. Stenson carefully examined the snow in front of the cabin in search of fresh paw prints and skat but found none. He filled his arms with logs for the fire and had just stepped onto the porch when he heard Dog’s gruff bark followed by a high pitched wailing that told him something was wrong. Dropping the wood, he rushed into the cottage, pulled out the rifle from under his bed and unzipped the case – Damn, he should have kept it by the door – and ran out again. When Dog’s howls broke off for a second, he heard the unmistakable roar of the bear. Ignoring the three wooden steps, he leapt off the porch and landed hard on the snow-covered ground, twisting his bad knee. The pain made him cry out loud but didn't slow him down. Stumbling toward the trees in the direction of the sounds, he fell twice in snow that in some places came up to his thigh, but he was soon up and running again. A trail of blood led him deeper into the woods. Struggling to breathe and with an aching stitch in his right side, he made for a Douglas fir about twenty feet ahead and rested up against it. Peering round the fir, he saw the brown-haired grizzly with its short, rounded ears and large shoulder hump. No more than forty feet away, with its back to him, it must have weighed five hundred pounds or more, its paws easily the size of snowshoes. Intent on raking Dog’s head with its razor-sharp claws, the bear seemed oblivious of Stenson, but then it stopped and straightened up onto two legs and began sniffing the air. The animal was about to pick up his scent. Quickly stepping away from the tree, he planted his legs slightly apart, snapped the gun up to his shoulder and aimed directly at the bear's head. The grizzly turned when he heard Stenson's movement and roared again. For a few seconds he and the beast remained motionless, glaring at each other. Shoot now, Stenson told himself. You won't have a better chance. But he hesitated. No, let the bear get closer, become a bigger target. So relaxing his finger on the trigger, he waited. Ears pinned back, head swaying from side to side, the bear grunted and growled, took a step forward and pawed at the snow. Stenson fingered the trigger again and shifted his weight from one leg to the other. At that moment his knee gave way. He fell backwards into a deep pocket of snow, losing his grip on the rifle which sank and disappeared out of reach. Surprised, or perhaps even frightened, the bear uttered a deep barking sound and took a step backwards. Keeping his eyes fixed on the animal, Stenson tried to stand, but his knee wouldn't take the weight. Pulling himself up into a seated position, he leaned against the tree and faced the animal, waiting for it to charge.
But instead of feeling frightened and fearful for his life, he was filled with anger – a huge, pulse-throbbing anger that thundered in his head and thrummed in his chest – anger at the Goddamn bear for going after Dog in the first place, anger for not pulling the trigger when he should have, and anger because he'd failed Emma. And then suddenly, like a balloon bursting and expelling the fetid air it had confined for so long, he knew exactly what he had to do. So pulling himself upright using the branches of the tree, he took a deep breath, rose up as tall as he could make himself, then charged straight towards the bear, limping on one leg and waving his arms in the air like a madman, shouting as loudly as he could, 'Emmaaaa! Emmaaaa!' With a shake of its head and a look of total bewilderment, the grizzly wheeled around and bounded away, leaping over fallen branches and kicking up sheets of snow that glistened in the early evening light. And when Stenson finally reached the spot where the bear had stood, he sank to his knees, laughing and crying at the same time, feeling a whole lot better than he'd felt for years.

That night Stenson sat on the floor with his back to the fire that crackled and hissed in the hearth, cradling Dog’s head in his lap. He’d bathed the wounds to the animal's chest and stomach, wrapped his body tightly with bandages and covered him with Emma’s blanket. He really needed stitches, Stenson thought, but the drive to the nearest veterinary hospital would take hours. Mercurochrome ran along the claw marks on Dog’s head and Stenson’s hands were stained a deep wine red. ‘Don’t quit on me, Dog,’ he said, gently. ‘You hear?’
Late into the night, when the wolves started up, Stenson forgot where he was for a moment: in his mind the whistling wind and rattling window frames sounded like the Sirens trying to lure Dog away. To the rhythm of his ragged breathing, Emma’s blanket rose and fell and, in the light of the golden flames, Stenson watched the red hearts glowing. Then, straightening his back and setting his teeth, he gripped Dog with both hands and was still holding him when the sun rose in the morning.