HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition




by Harriet Kline

These new people can't see me. Perhaps they will one day. I haven't given up hope. Female can smell me. She frowns at the sofa, at the sagging throw, the dust motes drifting in the sunlight. She says:

“It smells doggy in here.”

Well, I do sleep on the sofa. There isn't a dog basket here any more. No tartan blanket for me, or a rubber bone rich with the scents of my own saliva. She tugs at the throw and shakes it out and I smell toast crumbs, skin, hair and sweat. The scents are blown about my nose as I watch her drape it back over the sofa, smoothing it, tucking it, plumping the cushions. She is getting hot. I move closer, my claws clicking on the sanded floor. She doesn't hear them and she doesn't feel me push my muzzle against her thigh. But I feel her blood, the heat of it pulsing under her skin, the smell of her pores opening, the succulence of her sex, hidden beneath layers of fabric. Blood, heat, sex, moisture. I want them for myself. Because I am only cold air. Doggy air, it's true, but it's lifeless and chilly. She shivers suddenly as I move against her.

I hear male outside, the thump of his feet on the ground. Then with a slam and a blast of air he's in. He's been in the woods. I can smell a female Alsation and a neutered terrier on his shoes. He must have blundered through their markings. He smells of moss and mud and the rain coming.

“Lovely sunny day,” he says. “I wish you'd been with me.”

“I think it smells doggy in here,” female says. He looks at her briefly and then walks across the room, right through me.

Oh it is horrible to be walked through. Once, when I was alive, I ate a rabbit's head, whole. I could feel it pushing through my guts all day. It's like that when someone walks through me, their knees forcing through my organs, stretching me where my skin should be. Then, when they're on the other side, all those displaced parts swirl back. That's like when I used to swim in the sea, chasing sticks, and a wave would come and surge me back onto the sand. If I'd died when I was a young dog I'd dodge people as they move about the room. But I died old with stiff back legs and a low level fungal infection, which is why I smell. I stand still, nauseous, panting, while male, in the kitchen now, opens the fridge and fills the air with the smell of cheese and softening broccoli.

“It won't do you any good to stay in again,” he calls out. I smell his thirsty breath. “If you stay indoors, moping about, you're bound to feel sad.”

Female slumps down onto the sofa and rubs her eyes. “I'm too tired.”

“That's because you don't exercise. You're your own worst enemy.”

She sighs.

When I was alive I had love. Another female lived here then, and no male. She smelled of milk and oily hair, and she looked at me often and clicked her fingers for me to come. She loved me and fed me. I still listen for the busy rhythm of her steps across the floor, for the click of her fingers. I sniff in the corners for her hair.

And now, hearing that sigh now, I think she is here. My love sighed just like that and her breath was warm and smelled of cabbages. I'd go to her and put my head on her knee. I'd look up at her and waggle my ears. Then she would cry. She patted my head and her tears smelled like the gold fish bowl.

This female doesn't cry. She sits and sighs for days, tight in the belly and stiff between the shoulders. I look at her, nuzzle her, moan a little for her sometimes but she doesn't know I'm here and the tears don't come.

“This house is a mess,” comes the voice of male, talking with his jaw clenched and the muscles working in his neck. I don't know how he can do that. He needs a shake or a stretch. But people never do that. They bumble about with their hips squeezed together, or their chin thrust out or their feet flapping around and they never pause to put it right. It looks like hard work to me. Even running they seem to hold themselves against the air as if it's pushing them back.

“It's not healthy,” he goes on. “Cups everywhere, crumbs all over the floor. All these piles of paper.” Still talking he goes further into the kitchen and clatters some plates. The high harsh sound of it hurts my ears. “There'd better not be any bills. It costs us you know if we don't pay on time. You've got to make the effort or it will only get worse.” I move away, nearer to female on the sofa. She has not moved at all. Clenched, she is, with her shoulders high. I can hear that each breath she takes is small and useless. I want to nudge her into a softer position but when I push at her she stiffens her shoulders even more.

Male is back in the room with his Alsation feet and thirsty breath.

“Surely if you just got out the house. Cooked yourself a nice meal. Or just made it nice round here. Something positive. Surely that would lift the gloom.”

Is it my cold air making her shiver or is it the work she's putting into holding still? “I have tidied up in here,” she says, “but it still smells of dog.”

Male closes his eyes.

“You're imagining things. I'm going out.”

I can still smell the Alsation after he's gone. I lie down at her feet, head on my paws. She stays still, her breath light and I drift into sleep.

I dream of being scratched behind the ears, the scent of my love's wrist against my face. I dream of a strong pat on the flank, good dog, my tail waving against her shins, I dream of an earthy stick between my teeth, her pulling at it with both hands, me growling, dragging it back. Me, her, me, her. I feel the strength in my jaw and my shoulders. I feel blood, muscles and life.

Then I awake. The me-her-me-her force has gone; I am cold air and nothing more.

I cannot help it. I howl. I'm up on my haunches with my nose to the sky. It's lonely being a ghost and dogs weren't made to be alone. The sound comes through me, drawn up into the air by my despair. Howling's not allowed. My love used to rap me on the nose. But this female can't hear me, as she sits on the sofa, tight bellied, smelling of hunger. So I throw my head back and fill the room with my yearning. Long groaning howls that shudder as they end.

She stirs. She blinks and rubs her arms. She stands up and I brace myself to be walked through but she hesitates. She edges sideways along the sofa, walking on tip toes so she barely touches my tail. Then, when she's half way across the room, she turns suddenly and looks back, puzzled.

Now I don't need to howl. I am alert with hope and I follow her, mouth open, tongue out, to the kitchen. She stands before the open fridge door eating cheese. Slice after slice goes into her and I watch, longing for the fat of it in my belly. Then she finds a crust of bread. She chews on it and walks. Up and down the kitchen she goes, and I follow snuffing at the crumbs.

Then I make a terrible mistake. She taps the crust against her leg and I think it's an invitation. I think I have teeth and gums and saliva in my gullet. I leap for the crust, snapping at it. But of course it goes right through me, only tugging momentarily at my jaw.

Female snatches it away. She holds it before her and stares at it, disgusted and confused. Then she tosses it into the sink and I fall back onto my haunches once more and howl. Oh the pain of never eating a crust again. Of never feeling the scrape of it against my throat. I am empty and hollow and my howls echo through me.

Female puts her hands over her ears. She closes her eyes and shakes her head. I remember being in the back of the car when I was alive. I was cramped and I couldn't escape from the pain of the high vibrations around me. I wanted to howl then but I swung my head from side to side instead. And that's what she's doing now. She's holding in howls, tightening her herself in the knees, shoulders hands. And I'm howling because I can't hold them in any more.

Female runs. She charges right through me, heaving my guts aside, stretching my neck, sending me dizzy as I surge back into myself. She's back on the sofa, face down, head in a cushion. She stays there, panting until she sleeps.

Male comes in with a cloud of fatty smells and a gurgling belly. Pigeon droppings on his shoes. He stands with his hands on his hips, surveying the room. I back away, tail between my legs, lower myself onto the floor beneath the desk.

“So you didn't go out,” he says. “Have you eaten?” “A bit.”

“What I want to know is, what are you so depressed about?” He cracks his knuckles, takes off his coat and I smell his sweat. There's new sweat, acrid and alive, overlaying the old. “You've got a home, a partner, a job. We're not at war. I mean think of the people in Afghanistan with their children freezing to death. Think of Marsha down the road. She can barely walk but you still see her out and about. You've got to hand it to her, really you have.”

Female sits up on the sofa, presses her hands to her eyes.

“Are you sure you can't smell a dog?” She says. “Now you've come in fresh from outside?” Male frowns. “It smells stale. You could do with opening a window.”

“No. More than that. An old dog smell, almost cheesy.”

Male looks up at the ceiling, hands on hips.

“There is no dog smell here. Sorry. You must be going mad as well.”

Female glances towards me. I beat my tail against the carpet and she jumps, startled.

“What is it?” says male. Female shakes her head, rises to her feet. She looks at male but she holds her hand out to me. I come to her, eager for the warmth that is suddenly pushing through her.

“I'm not mad,” she says, “I just feel dreadful.” The tightness in her belly has gone and I hear that her heart is fast. “Why do I have to explain it? Do you think it would go away if I could say what it was?” She takes a step towards male and he looks shocked and he almost backs away.

“I just want you happy, what's so bad about that?”

“Because I'm not.”

I bark. I circle her legs, tail going. It loosens the stiffness of my legs. “I can't force myself to feel good,” she says. “If you can't accept that then -”

“Then what?” Male has gone cold. I smell the nerves in his sweat. Then I smell the chip shop smell of his coat. “You're telling me to leave, aren't you? That's what this is about.” Nerves in his breath now too, and his fingers moving fast over the buttons on his coat.

“I don't know,” she says. “I just hate being goaded for feeling miserable.”

The door slams and I feel the air gust against me. My legs ache but I jump up at her anyway. I bark and bark and bark and bark.

She stands, listening.