Exclusives

Kingdom of Dogs

By February 27, 2018 No Comments

 

Of the Green Globe

It was an impossible memory, but it was always there. Of me on a high alpine slope, body broken and exhausted. Something goring me, over and over again. And then a glowing thing, green and glorious, descending from some high place to meet me. It reaches me just as life leaves my body. My last thought is: do I have a soul?

 

The Life of Three-Paws during the War with the Pigs

You do not know it, but we rule this place. When the air is dry and the sun is high, we lie in the shade of the trees you have planted, and drink the cool water in your drains. The true borders of this place are marked by us when we lift our legs against your walls and your cars. Markers invisible to you but clear to us, even in the dark of the night.

We keep you safe from your ghosts.

They sneer and scurry behind you when you walk. At night they try to slip between the unprotected cracks in your walls and windows. When we see them, we bark a warning, at first like we are coughing, and then, if they get too close, in violent and howling song. You cannot see the beauty in what we do. How the low and the high melt into each other, how one will hurl abuse whilst the other will coax the ghosts back into the world they belong. Sometimes, when the wind is blowing right and the rustle of the grass is like the sea, our song will reach the other clans and kingdoms higher up the mountain from us. Then they begin singing too.

To you though, it is ugly howling. You wake up and curse it as cacophony. You do not know that you sleep at all because of us. You resent us because you cannot put a leash on us. You resent us because we will outlast you. You resent us because we are a kingdom of dogs, and we have always been.

*

 

My name is Three Paws, and I have only three legs. When I was a pup a lorry drove over me and crushed my left back leg into a pulp of blood and bone shards. My mother bit off the remnants and licked my sounds clean. They say that when my mother was licking my leg, her tongue grew swollen and dry. When she sang the song came out muffled and indistinct, full of half-sounds and stillborn colors. The old dogs listened and gathered around her.

‘Listen!’ they said. ‘We have never heard this before. It is something new.’

At the heart of our kingdom is the wide, dusty expanse of the Par Cark. It is ringed with shadow-bearing trees and the cool waters of the drains. Follow the main road that runs through it eastwards and you will come to the Empty Bend, where the road turns sharply upwards. This marks the upper reaches of our kingdom. Beyond this is the Lady of the Gate’s Fortress, and beyond that, the great Waste, where wild dogs and ferocious Pigs roam.

Dogs came from here to see me.

Head north from the Par Cark, up any of the many sets of stairs that wind like staggered snakes, and you will come to a realm of thick foliage and huge drains and tall iron gates. Walk here and you are watched by the voiceless cats, who they say are wiser than the dogs, and more ferocious in fighting ghosts.

Dogs came from here to see me.

Follow the road west, and finally, you will come to the lowest reaches of our kingdom, the Fork and the Tree. Here the great road dips and plummets down the mountain-side to the City Below – a jungle of heat and stone and noise, impossibly far away, where they say there is no room between the buildings for the dogs to make a kingdom. A branch of the road breaks off here and heads up the other side of the mountain, and no dog has ever been up that road, which they say leads to the Peak. The old dogs tell tales of the bravest dogs walking with tails held high to the Tree and the Fork, only to lose heart when presented with the view – plummeting on one side, rising like the world itself had tilted on the other.

Dogs came from here to see me.

My mother licked me for three days and four nights until my wounds were beginning to heal and the small protrusion of knife-sharp bone sticking out of the stump was worn down to a shiny knob like porcelain. The gathered ones waited for my mother to finish her song. Then they began to disperse. They all agreed that my birth meant that changes were coming. They all agreed that my birth was a sign.

Soon afterward, my mother died. They dragged her body into the grass near the empty bend, tall and sharp like bendy green swords. There it decayed. This is our way.

 

*

 

After I had grown up a new king came to our Kingdom. He walked down the road, vast and black like a stormcloud. No-one knew how he had come into the kingdom, how he had got past the Lady of the Gate without being driven back, or why Bands, the dog who ruled the clan closest to the Empty Bend, had let him through.

‘Perhaps he has killed Bands,’ said Eye-scar, her haunches shivering. ‘I hear he is a Pig-killer.’

Our king, Giant, rose slowly to his feet.

‘Who are you?’ he said to the stranger.

‘Pig Killer! Pig Killer!’ the children chanted.

‘I am a Pig killer,’ said the new dog. ‘I am a wanderer from the wastes. Will you not show me hospitality?’

‘We do not need you in the kingdom!’ said the king, and snarled. ‘Begone before I empty you of your entrails!’

They were the last words he ever spoke; for the newcomer dived straight at his neck, and latched his jaws around his throat. The Giant heaved and yelped and flung the creature off him, but when the Pig Killer went flying into the ditch he took a chunk of the Giant’s throat with him. Giant fell, Smeared in blood, his breath stinking of victory, Pig Killer lifted his leg and pissed all over the dead king’s body.

‘My name is Pig Killer!’ he roared. ‘Are there any here who wish to challenge me?’

There was – Petticoat, Giant’s favorite wife. She and Pig Killer fought for nearly an hour, all over the kingdom. But in the end, Pig Killer was victorious, with Petticoat and the Giant dead, and their babies lying motionless in pools of puppy-blood.

‘It is not strange that this happens now,’ said one of the elders to the other. ‘It is merely the beginning of Three Paws life. Like a stone cast into a pond, he is causing ripples of different sizes.’

I did not understand what they meant. I only knew that I was afraid.

 

*

 

After Pig Killer, a human child was injured by one of creatures that dwelled in the wastes. She had been watching something moving in the grass. When she got closer, the thing had attacked her, and her wailing parents had found her coated in her own blood. She had survived, the dogs of the labyrinthine forests told me, but the humans were intent on revenge.

That summer I met a she-dog whose belly was round like a papaya and full of babies. Her name was Howling Mama, and she was a maudlin old thing, the laziest of us all. She had once been beautiful, so much so it was said that once a dog had traveled from the City Below to court her. He had said that he had seen a glimmering light upon the mountainside like a naked soul, and he had traveled to find out what it was.

‘We have seen those like him before,’ said the Elders ‘What is interesting is not their journey but that they exist at all. Those willing to forge into the emptiness and to persevere despite not knowing where they are going.’

‘But it is not emptiness!’ I said. ‘We are here. And below us, there are other dogs. And for miles and miles, there are other dogs.’

‘What of value about these places do you know, Three Paws? Do you know of the thin shade of the citrus trees, and their rustling dance against the dry ground? Do you know of the taste of their lizards? No, knowing of a place does not know a place, pup. To him, it was darkness, just as it is to us, just as it will be tomorrow.’ They yawned. ‘We have more to worry about. The humans have not been to war with us in a long time, and now, we fear they will.’

‘Why?’

‘They reckon the thing that attacked the child was one of us.’

‘But it wasn’t.’

‘What is and what isn’t are sometimes less important than what may be.’

I was confused. The Elders always confused me. Their wisdom to me was like a desert, ever-shifting but monotonous, and dry. How could they know so much and care so little about any of it?

 

*

 

Howling Mama’s songs were always of dying slowly as parts of her soul were ripped out of her piece by piece. She had mastered the complexities of her form as only an autodidact could, peculiar in her verses and her intonation.When she burst into full flow, suddenly, her wailing shredded the leaves and sent ripples across the clear water in the drains.

One night she mentioned the Lady of the Gates, and suddenly I understood.

‘She takes your children from you, doesn’t she?’ I asked her.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Yes, every time I birth she comes and takes them from me.’

‘Why?’

‘To care for them. The Lady of the Gates’s Fortress is full of my children, taken from me and raised on sugared milk until they are fat like the Pigs and their brains have leaked from their heads.’

‘Why does she do that?’

‘She thinks it is better for them.’ She scratched at the ground. ‘Maybe she is right. The kingdom is not always kind to its young. Though it is kinder now than before.’

‘Tell me of the past,’ I said. ‘Tell me of the Kingdom.’

‘There is nothing to tell. The kingdom has always been. And when there was no kingdom there was another. Or something else, which we don’t have the words for now. Words are just the wind that thought produces, and like all winds, they blow themselves out.’

‘Can you sing about it?’

She laughed.

‘I shall.’

She sang me a strange song, in which humans and dogs were one and the same. She told me of how we had come into this world together, and there was something of the other in both.

‘So we are all of the same essence?’ I asked.

‘Essence?’ said Howling Mama. ‘Well, I suppose you could say that.’

‘How would you say it?’

She thought for a bit and licked her haunches.

‘Shackles,’ she said, eventually. ‘We share the same shackles.’

 

*

 

More time passed, and I grew larger, larger than I should have. I did not know who my father was, but when I was alone at night, I allowed myself to think it was the Giant. That I was the last of an aged and dying house, a solitary ember still glowing in the ruins of a once great blaze.

The Elders, as it turned out, were wrong. The humans declared war on the Pigs instead of us. The sound of their guns wracked the night. Then came the mist, so thick we could not see each other even if we were so close we could hear each other’s breath.

Then one day, Pig Killer rose and sniffing searchingly. We followed suit and amongst the panoply of smells – of us, and the land, and the greenery – we smelt something strange. I did not recognize it, but Pig Killer did.

‘Pigs,’ said Pig Killer. ‘I smell Pigs.’

And also, we realized, the smell of blood. Dogs’ blood.

We tried to hide our pups the best we could, Pig Killer stalked about, snorting, staring into the mist.

‘How many are there, king?’ asked Eyescar.

Pig Killer sniffed the air again. ‘Five. Maybe more. Two males.’

A shudder ran through the crowd. A single Pig could kill three or four dogs. Pig Killer’s heard us muttering and whisked around and stared at us.

‘Do not think of running,’ he growled. ‘Do not think of abandoning your brothers and sisters. If you do, when this is finished, I will find you, and rip your throat out.’ Then he looked at me. ‘What are you doing here, cripple?’

‘I am here to fight, my king,’ I said.

‘Fight?’ Pig Killer dived at me, dropping under my belly, and flung me up in the air. I landed with a yelp. ‘What fighting can you do with three legs? Get out of here.’

I rose to my feet, crushed with humiliation, and turned to go. And then the Pigs came charging out of the fog.

They were huge and thick, muscles rippling under thick coats of needly fur. Their faces were malice and tusk. I didn’t have time to think. When the first one reached me I turned and kicked as hard as I could with my ruined leg. When the great stinking body crashed into me I thought I was dead. I lay there, looking up and feeling sleepy, and watched the bodies of my friends being flung up into the air, blood splattering in crimson swirls over the ground. And then I noticed that the Pig on my back was not moving.

I had killed it. With one kick to its snout from my leg I had shattered it jaw and crushed its face. I kicked it again, and again, as hard as I could. The stub of my leg broke bone and pulverized flesh. Covered in blood and howling, I flung myself into battle, and remember no more.

Later, much later, the Pigs retreated, abandoning their dead. Stumbling through the fog I came across the bodies of other dogs, shattered and gored I found Pig Killer, panting and bloodied, lying in a drain trying feebly to get out. He growled at me.

‘Cripple,’ he panted. ‘Had I known you were so fearsome a warrior I would have challenged you earlier, when you were young.’

‘I am not here to challenge you, my king,’ I said, ‘I am here to take you out of the drain, back to the rest of the kingdom, where you are needed.’

‘Take it, then,’ said Pig Killer, as if I had not said anything. ‘Take the Kingdom. You have killed as many a Pig as I have. Take it all.’ ‘I don’t want your kingdom.’

‘Oh.’ He lowered his head. ‘I see.’

Pig Killer lay in the drain for days, whining. After some time, the fog began to thin, and finally it lifted, burned away by a gentle sun. The Elders came out of their hiding-places and the pups bounded around again. Pig Killer slowly rose to his feet and limped around the kingdom. The battle in the fog had broken more than just his leg. He went to see the tribe of Bands, and came back grim. They had been decimated, he told us. He had found nothing but a couple of females and a handful of pups, the eldest of whom, no more than a year old, had now become the new sovereign.

We went for a walk, down the hillside, to a small rock. Pig Killer sat down on it, wincing, and stared silently out at the City Below.I sat down and looked over the City. In the distance were other mountains, smudges against the sky. I wondered if perhaps on those mountains were other Kingdoms, like ours. If perhaps as we were watching them they were watching us.

‘I want to thank you for what you did in the battle,’ said Pig Killer.

‘There is no need for thanks, my king,’ I replied.

‘Yes, there is. I did you a great disservice calling you cripple. You killed two Pigs, in one battle. And yet you rejected the throne. If there is something else you seek, I do not understand it and I do not want it. But I wish I could know what it is.’

That was the last time I ever talked, at length, with Pig Killer. From that day forth he was impeccably polite to me, and because of him, so was everyone else. The Elders whispered darkly about me, the king-who-is-but-isn’t; something new, and no doubt heinous. But neither Pig Killer nor the others listened to them.

Soon afterward Howling Mama gave birth to nine squirming puppies, who as every day passed were more and more clearly my brothers and sisters. None had any doubt now that I was the eldest surviving child of Giant.

 

*

 

We feared another attack. Pig Killer told us that it was impossible to know how numerous the creatures were, for unlike us, they dwelled in the tall grasses out in the Waste. So we prepared as best we could. The younger pups were trained, sometimes brutally, by the king and others. Patrols were arranged, out to the land of Bands, which, though now ruled by his young son, was still called such. The Elders fretted.

‘Such changes!’ they said to me when I visited them. ‘Do you see what is happening out in the land of Bands? It has degenerated into a tiny fiefdom ruled by a pup still wet with afterbirth and a handful of old females. And our numbers are dwindling too. Surely this is the end.’

 

Howling Mama was at her most beautiful, and miserable, after she gave birth. She lay in her little groove by her tree and watched them sadly. Two weeks passed and she did not even name them.

‘What is the point?’ Howling Mama moaned. ‘They will only be taken from me soon.’

At first many thought that Howling Mama’s children were my own, until they realized that I had never mated with her, that I could not have possibly. Then they thought back and realized that Howling Mama had been pregnant for as long as they could remember, even before Pig Killer’s arrival. It was the longest pregnancy anyone could recall. I adored the little creatures. Most of the time they simply ignored everyone but Howling Mama and me. They would spend their time when not feeding climbing over me and nipping at each other. One or two of them would always lie by my face and stare at me. Often I woke to find two pairs of beady little eyes tracing every move of my whiskers, my snout, and my nose.

Because of this proximity I was the first to notice that there was something strange about each of them. One of them, who I named Roller because that was what he did instead of walking. began to grow two humps, side-by-side, on his shoulders. They grew and grew until finally, around about the time his first tooth appeared, two tiny wings had sprouted from there – strange things, thin and membranous and covered in soft fur. He used them to balance himself.

Little Snout, I noticed, had the unnerving habit of appearing from nowhere when you were not looking. She was also the first to Howling Mama’s teats, when hungry, always. On one occasion I saw her tumbling down the hillside near the Elder’s retreat, much further away than a pup should be able to go. But when I crashed down the mountainside in a cloud of leaves and pollen to find her, she was gone. Then one day as I woke up, she stepped out of mid-air – first one paw, then her little head, then her body and wagging excitedly.

Watches The Sky could eat anything – stone, wood, bone, dead lizards in one gulp. He ate and grew and ate and grew. Talks with Ghosts could do precisely that, and when she talked, the weird wispy creatures listened to her and obeyed. Eats The Air did not eat, and when her shit smelled like flowers and kept the flies and insects away. Spiketail had a great, sharp spike instead of a tail, and teeth so keen that his mouth was always bleeding. Culi and Cula – called so because those were the only sounds they ever made – could walk into each other and melt into one strange creature with short legs, a fat tail, and a flat bird’s beak, which scurried around and frightened the other pups.

The Elders had fits when they heard of Howling Mama’s strange offspring. The other dogs were amazed. Others again traveled from far and wide to see the wondrous puppies being raised by a three-legged dog who had slain a Pig and an old female who had been pregnant for years.

Eventually Howling Mama accepted that perhaps the Lady of the Gates was not going to come and take her children away, and rose. The side she had been lying on, because it had not seen the sun for so long, had gone totally white. She tottered down the road, howling a song about the sun and the stars and nine little puppies who conquered the universe, as cheerful as a bee at a flower.

 

*

 

I am told that when one is dying, there comes a point when everything becomes calm, and the pain recedes. At this point, is too late. When I look back now, this is how I think of the last days of the kingdom. A brief arcadian lull, before the end of all ends.

The apocalypse began early in the morning, when the Elders began howling from the mountain side. At first I thought it was an attack on the ghosts. But then those who had joined in noticed what the Elders were singing, and panicked, and woke me up.

‘The king he sees his kingdom die!’ they said, ‘His people flee, his babies cry!’

Then something dragged itself into the Par Cark. It had clearly once been a pup, though now much of it was missing, and only one eye blinked up at us as it lay on the ground.

‘Run,’ it whispered. ‘Run.’

Suddenly there was the sound of a gun, somewhere in the distance. It silenced everyone. The ghosts disappeared in twinkles of light. The dogs around me stiffened, arching their backs, tense and jittery. Then there was another gunshot, and another, and another. And then came the yelping and crying of the Elders, and we realized they were being shot, one by one.

‘The humans!’ shouted someone. ‘The humans have turned on us!’

It was a truck came roaring into the Par Cark like a vast Pig. It stopped and a great gust of the stench of dead dogs washed over us. Human jumped out of the back with guns and nets and sticks. They chased us and beat us and shot us in the head. There were so many of us that we trampled over each other in our efforts to get away, but the humans had us encircled. Some fled into the darkness of the Labyrinthine Forest, only to find their paths blocked by humans with lights. Some jumped into the drains and got stuck and drowned. I could hear their frantic gargling screams as I ushered Howling Mama’s children into the undergrowth.

The humans butchered everything they saw. I even saw one of them grab a cat off a tree and smash its head against the ground. They ran into each other and yelled and shoved. The ghosts watched all this with their tongues hanging out and their eyes rolling, with their bodies yawning open and spilling flies out into the air.

One of the men saw me and gave chase.

‘This one’s a cripple!’ shouted the man following me. ‘Oy look, it’s got a leg like a – ’

I kicked his leg. It snapped in two like a twig, and he screamed as I clambered up the stairs and into the Labyrinthine Forest. I tripped on guts and saw the heads of dogs falling out of trees.I saw men’s beards covered in blood and puppies lying in a pool of their own tears, as dead as tree-stumps. I finally found a hiding place, under a small bridge and between two stones, and I squeezed myself in. I could not even cry for fear of giving myself away, and could not hide from the sounds of the kingdom of dogs being wiped out around me.

When I woke it was cold and outside the light was dim. Then I noticed, next to me, was a ghost, curled into a small ball and watching me with the hungry eyes of the dead.

‘Last of the dog-kings, hiding and wet, why don’t you go out and seek out your friends?’ she said.

‘Silence, filth,’ I said. And then, ‘Why did you not betray me?’

‘So you will remember what you have lost, you will see all of the vistas and weep. Last of the Dog-kings, ‘lone in the world, sowing his pain for others to reap.’

I dragged myself wet and shiveri out onto the damp steps of the Labyrinthine Forest. Somewhere a gate creaked open and I bolted into the undergrowth. But nothing moved, nothing but for the trails of ghosts who seemed to be moving around in the open, in the middle of the day, as if nothing were wrong with it.

I descended past Howling Mama’s tree. There was nobody in sight. The sky was clear and the setting sun was slowly turning amber and purple as it descended behind the peak. I didn’t find anything, not even bodies, not even blood stains on the dusty ground. There was nothing. Like a drawing in the sand, like a cloud shaped like something familiar, the kingdom had just disappeared.

Howling Mama’s babies were gone too.

 

For the next few weeks, I wandered. I traveled to the land of Bands, and found nothing there. I went through the Forest, and found no dogs there. By the end I was just running around, shouting for anyone, telling them to come out of hiding so we could bask in the shade. But there were no dogs anywhere. They were all gone.

The ghosts found all this very amusing.

One night I listened as the ghosts ran rampant through the darkness, and the sobs of human children being frightened echoed through the kingdom. I was glad they were being scared. I was glad the ghosts were making them suffer.

 

In Which Tree Paws Journeys to the Peak

 

Looking back now it is amazing to think how my waking mind played tricks on me. How in those first few moments after slumber I was convinced that the gurgling of drains was the chatter of the pups, or that the squawking of bird was the howling of distant Elders. But then I would remember. There was nothing for me in the Kingdom anymore. Even the memories the land had seemed to hold of us were slowly effervescing away. I would lie back down, where Pig Killer had once lain, and continue a miserable reign over my kingdom of one.

Eventually I decided I would travel to the Peak.

I traveled out towards the Tree and the Bend. I walked past huge human houses with gates many times my height. All the way I was watched by cats, and expected them to say spiteful things. But they simply sat and watched me with their unfathomable eyes. One of them even brought me a dead rat.

When I finally reached the Bend and the Tree I smelled the presence of a dog, In front of me the road dipped, and then split into two. One road continued to the right, downwards. Down this route, I knew, lay the Lands below. But the right-hand fork of the road continued and then climbed back up, sharply, and veered to the right, disappearing behind more cliffs. A road like a hot grey tongue. The cliffs to the left were like a big stony cheek, and trickles of dust ran down over the reddish stone now and then like spittle.

The junction of the two roads was the Bend, and up some steps just next to it was the Tree. Next to this was a ramshackle shop and a group of humans loitered at by it at a faded pink table, drinking milk tea and talking. I approached.

‘Go go go!’. The shopkeeper, an immense woman with forearms the size of puppies, was gesticulating at me from a window of the shop. ‘Shoo shoo! Dirty thing, manky dog! Shoo!’

‘Manky dog?’ I said. ‘I am the last of the kingdom. Last I heard we were welcome here.’

The woman pouted and disappeared behind the window, re-emerging a few minutes later with a large she-dog in her hands. The creature, as fat as its mistress, leapt deftly out of the window.

‘What is he saying?’ demanded the woman.

The she-dog looked at me, thick rolls of fat wobbling in its jowls. ‘She wants to know what you are saying,’ she said in a monotone.

‘Why doesn’t she understand me?’ I said.

‘Your dialect is old.’

‘What?’

‘I make it my business to know such things.’

The great woman in the shop tutted and crossed her arms. ‘Well, why don’t you two just have a great time?’

The fat she-dog turned around and snapped at the woman, who shouted something back. I could barely understand a word. The two seemed to have an argument and then the she-dog ordered me to follow her. She trotted over to where the men were sitting under the tree and, to my astonishment, climbed onto a chair next to them.

‘Speak in the old tongue,’ she said to them. ‘He doesn’t seem to speak anything else. Join us, friend.’

The fat woman from the shop brought out some water for me to drink and a plateful of things that looked like rocks but tasted of meat and milk. I devoured them in silence. I had not eaten in days.

‘My name is Whiskey,’ said the she-dog. ‘And these are my friends. What is your name?’

‘I am Three Paws,’ I replied.

‘Do you now?’ replied Whiskey, looking at her four human companions. ‘Where are you traveling to?’

‘The Peak.’

‘What do you expect to find there?’

‘You told me it is your business to know things. Why don’t you tell me?’

Whiskey smiled, and for a moment I was convinced that I knew her.

‘Whatever it is you find, I hope it is worth the journey. Please, stay with us awhile, maybe a night. You can set out in the morning.’

The sun was already setting and the food was delicious. The four men took their leave in the early evening, bowing deeply to both me and Whiskey when they did. More astonishment – who had ever heard of humans kowtowing to dogs? Later, Whiskey and I say by the tree, watching the traffic on the road. Very occasionally something would come past, a car or truck, and my hair stood on end with the bloody memories of the demise of the kingdom.

‘I have calculated,’ said Whiskey. ‘That on average, a vehicle comes past here every twenty-one minutes.’

‘Why do those men bow to you?’

‘Those men bow to me because they know I am wise, just as my father was.’

‘Who was your father?’ I asked.

‘Someone you knew very well.’

‘What are minutes?’

‘Ah, I forget, you come from a time before we learned of such things. A minute is a human division of time. In the same way you can measure the ground, or the size of something, you can measure time.’

‘I do not understand.’

Whiskey licked me, gently. Then she sat back, and leaned forwards, and touched me again. ‘There. Now, when did I lick you first?’

‘Before you licked me the second time.’

‘Now forget the second time. When did I lick you first?’

‘After I told you I did not understand.’

‘If I were to ask you far in the future, when you are old again, when would you say I first licked you?’

I thought for a moment and then said, ‘I would say you licked me the first day I met you, during my journey to the Peak.’

‘Indeed. That is how we conceive of time – that things follow the other. Something will happen after something else, or perhaps before. It is pliable – it is a sea of events in which memories occur.’

‘So what is twenty-one minutes?’

‘Imagine time instead as a road; a road you are walking down. Every now and then there are trees and bushes. The trees occur at regular intervals, and on an ever-increasing measurement. For example the first tree is one, the second tree is two. These are divisions of time. So if something happens when you are walking past the second tree, you will say it happened near the second tree; if something happens near the fifth, you do not say it happened after what happened near the second tree, but rather that it happened near the fifth. Do you see? Thus time has form, and structure; it is easier to recall when things happen, and in what relation to other things.’

I think for a moment, and then say, ‘But that is terrible.’

‘Why?’

‘Because in that system time is a prison. It is always moving, and you cannot move within it. You are trapped at where you are, being constantly pushed forwards, past these…trees of yours.’

Whiskey smiled.

‘But it means that existence itself is moving forwards. This makes every moment unique. That is why we call the time before time timeless. Because everything was the same, as I said, like a sea. But now.’ Whiskey shuffled. ‘Now, we live in a river.’

I fell asleep after that. I dreamt that time was a small thief with a sharp knife, who climbed into my head, and, fleck by fleck, stole my memories.

 

*

 

The next day I Whiskey gave me something very strange – a sack. Around its top was a network of straps which she deftly wrapped around my snout. The thing was full of food, and when tied properly to my head, rested on my back.

‘With this, you can carry your necessities,’ she said. ‘You can take the bag off when you sleep and you can carry what animals you capture for food in it. The Wastes you are heading into are empty and desolate, and you should be careful.’

Bathed in the coppery yellow of the early sun, she looked tantalizingly familiar.

‘Have I met you before?’ I asked.

She smiled, and looked even more like something from my past.

‘Not yet,’ she whispered.

With that, she licked me once more on the snout and trotted over to the shop, where the scowling fat woman scooped her up through the window.

 

I headed down from the shop and across. After an hour or so the road veered off to the left and I saw that it followed a series of bends, curving around the mountain side and always heading. I saw lizards climbing onto stones and warming themselves, and perhaps even a snake. I tried to stick to the shade offered by the grass, but it was not much. That night, overhot and exhausted, I slept by the roadside, curled up into a tight ball.

 

I continued like this for days. Maybe weeks. The gutters on the roadside ended abruptly four days into my journey, and but for the odd rusted skeleton of a bicycle, or a sign bent over into the grass, there was nothing else. After that, there was nothing but the road itself.

On some days I could see what I thought was the kingdom behind me, down the mountainside – the tan expanse of the Par Cark, the thick green of the Labyrinth, the roads snaking up to the Empty Bend and the castle of the Lady of the Gates. But it may have been my imagination. It could have been anywhere I was seeing. And wherever it was, it grew further and further away with every day that passed. The whole world was falling away from me. The air grew drier as I climbed. My water ran out. I drank muddy water from a stream and took a fever and lay shivering for three days. Lizards gnawed at my feet. I turned their greed on them. During the day I lay as if dead and when they came close I would pounce. Their bones crunched delightfully in my mouth.

I began to think back to the strange things Whiskey had told me, about time, and what the Elders had said about moments and history. At any one point on the road I could have been at any other point, for all points on the road looked the same. It struck me that I could be near the end or near the beginning.

All this I thought during the day and dismissed during the night. Though it came to feel like I was going nowhere, I never once doubted my journey to the Peak. An Elder once said this to me:

‘One must always know the end one wishes to achieve when one commences a thing. To begin with no ending in sight is setting off down an infinite road, in search of the point where the parallel lines meet. You will never reach it, for you are seeking a nothingness. A life without end is meaningless. For what could that which never ends accomplish that it will not transcend one day?’

 

*

 

Early one afternoon, I came to another junction in the road. One branch of the road headed up into a forest of vast trees, that filtered the sunlight green. The other branch of the road bent slightly to the right up into the mountain. Off to the right, swathed in clouds, was the Peak.

Nestled between the junction and the forest was a large pond, and purple lotuses and wispy water-plants floated on its surface. A hectic cloud of insects darted over its surface, playing with their reflections. Parched and exhausted, I wrestled Whiskey’s pack off and began to drink. When I was done, I lay in the shade of the trees. I was quite far away from the pond, and between me and it was a world in miniature. On the far right, next to the road that led up into the forest, was a thick line of mosses and shrubs – a forest in its own right. I could see its tiny inhabitants – colorful ladybugs, miniscule aphids – carrying out their inscrutable errands within.  The forest then faded into the dry semi-desert in the middle, up which I’d walked to my resting-place. Finally on the left were the giant grasses and plants, tiny compared to the real forest but monstrous to the scuttling things the lived in their roots. And finally, off to the right was a hive, about the size of my leg. At first I thought it was an anthill. But the things that came out of it were not ants, but pallid little things, like living grains of rice.

When does a journey, I wondered, cease to feel like traveling and start to feel like just living? For me, it happened by the pond. At first I told myself I would rest awhile and be gone as soon as I could. But after the long lonely toil of the road, the cool shade of the trees and the fascinating miniature realm laid out before me snared me. I stayed for another day, and another. I never thought to myself that this is the place I would stop; nor did I feel any great pressure to move on. I simply stayed.

Part of the reason was the hive. Every day I spent my free time watching its tiny inhabitants, and realized swiftly that theirs was an entire generation, growing up and maturing before my very eyes. To them, I must have been a vast dark bulk that blotted the skies. By the third day the creatures had built small cocoons, and by the fifth had emerged as winged, six-legged creature not unlike ants. Within a few days the hive was littered with tiny bodies, being blown away by the wind, and all movement had ceased.

I wondered if perhaps there was some creature like me who had watched the kingdom of dogs also. Whether it had seen us live out our lives with, and if things that were so profound and significant were indistinct and below its understanding. I waited for a few more days, but nothing more happened. Perhaps the kingdom of the hive had ended once and for all.

Finally, after how long I do not know, I took leave of the pool of lotuses. The urgency that had left me had slowly seeped back after the end of the hive dwellers. I was beginning to think that time was, indeed, a prison.

 

*

 

The first time the Elders came to me, it was as ghosts.

After the pond of lotuses, the world became strange. There was a great iron gate, five or six times taller than me, made of thin grey spokes, like a spider web. A sign above it read ‘To the Plantations, to the Peak’. The road degenerated into a dirt track, with a mane of tough grass down the middle. I began to see strange trees, giant versions of things I had been familiar with in the kingdom. There was fruit that watched me with beady eyes. I came upon a pool and stooped to drink, but the water flowed away from me. I chased it and it leapt in a great sphere and away across a ravine. The nights were freezing, and I found myself seeking the sunny side of the road when walking. I abandoned Whiskey’s sack after a few days. There was never enough to eat to save for later.

One night the Elders came to me, as ghosts. They had black teeth and staring eyes.

‘Look at him,’ they said, and though they sounded like they were talking to each other they spoke in one voice. ‘Look how far he has come.’

‘I told you he was something new. I told you he would do what none of us have done before.’

‘Why are you tormenting me?’ I asked.

‘Tormenting you? How can we torment you, little one, when we are not even here?’

‘Leave me alone.’

‘We wish to see what you do next. In time people will forget your name and your ways, but they will always remember what you did. For the only way to be remembered is to do a great thing, but in the end it is the great things that are remembered, and not the doer.’

The second time the Elders came to me, it was as a Pig.

One night I woke just as the moon reached its zenith. It was night time, and I was asleep next to a small rock. A few insects chirped here and there but it was nothing like the outrageous symphony like in the kingdom. Then something spoke.

‘We are here, Three Paws,’ it said. ‘Ask us what you will,’

I whirled around, and there was female Pig, sitting on the ground, it ridiculous little legs tucked underneath it. Three Piglets were suckling at its belly.

I growled and backed off.

‘Don’t be afraid. We won’t harm you,’ it said.

‘Who are you?’ I said. ‘What are you?’

‘We are the Elders,’ said the Pig.

‘If you are the Elders,’ I said, ‘Then tell me who I am. If you answer is wrong, I will crush your face, Pig. I will shatter your skull into your brains.’

‘You are Three Paws, secret son of the Giant, true heir to the Kingdom of dogs. You were denied your birthright and then you denied it yourself, in the mist. Unknown to you the usurper who took your Kingdom died and you reigned, briefly, at its death. Then you left the world behind and went on a journey, and soon, this journey will end.’

‘Am I in the land of the dead?’

‘No, this is not where the dead come. Not unless they are lucky. This is where people who seek answers come.’

‘I’m not seeking an answer. I don’t know what I’m doing.’

‘You are not thinking for yourself, Three Paws. Consider that what you are doing has never been done before, or perhaps it has and has been forgotten, which is much the same thing. What you are about to do will be remembered, long after you are dead. We are here to witness it, because the world is holding its breath for you, Three Paws. Hurry up, or it will choke.’

‘I don’t understand a word you’re saying. I just want to go to the Peak and see what is there because…because there is nothing else left to do.’

‘That’s as good a reason as any to seek the truth, we suppose. Now, we are about to relinquish control of this Pig. You’d better run.’

‘What?’

They Pig’s head flopped over to the side. Then it scrambled back to its feet and saw me and snorted. The piglet squealed and hid behind her. I fled, hobbling along as fast I could.

The pig charged.

I could see it behind me, and I kicked and missed. The Pig plowed into my side and I could feel her tusk as it sliced open my belly. It tossed me in the air and when I landed I could not move. Just on the edge of my vision, I could see the Pig wheeling around again, snout bloody, and preparing another charge.

Then something came out of the forest behind it. Something doglike and huge, with a vast maw that clamped around the Pig and lifted it bodily into the air. Trapped in the dog’s mouth, the Pig screamed and the creature flung the beast casually over its shoulder and into the undergrowth. After a moment I could hear it and its children stampeding away through the grass.

The dog came over to me. Its face was light brown and covered in blood, its fangs the length of my legs. It stared at me with drooping eyes, as if it were not really interested in what had just happened.

Its eyes were green.  

‘You’re late,’ it said.

Then I died.

 

*

 

When I opened my eyes, the very first thing I saw was the Peak. Close up it was jagged and treeless, frilled with hard grass and scarred with a small brown trail winding up to its tip. As I watched it exhaled a veil of dark smoke which swirled away, shuddering in the wind.

‘That is fate,’ said a voice so deep it seemed to come from the earth. ‘The confluence radiates fate. How do you see it?’

I looked around. I was lying in some kind of nest of leaves and twigs. I was right at the edge of a forest of giant trees. There were no beasts, not even insects. The giant dog from the night before sat next to me, his vast bulk around the nest, so his long bushy tail was on the left of my haunches, and his body to my right, and his head right in front of mine. He smelled like crushed grass, or wet earth, or hot metal – the scent always changed and was never like a dog’s.

His eyes were still green

‘I see it as smoke,’ I said. ‘Being blown off the mountaintop.’

He did not say anything, and continued to watch me.

‘I died, didn’t I?’ I asked.

‘Yes, you did.’

I waited for him to continue but he didn’t say anything.

‘Is this where dead dogs go?’

‘No. I brought you back.’

‘Who are you?’

The creature dipped its head.

‘I am the governor of the end of time. In your world, they call me the Coyote.’

I looked down at my side. There was a puckered gash where the Pig had gored me, but it seemed thoroughly healed.

‘Why did you save me?’

‘It seemed a shame for you to have come this far and then to have been slain by the stupidity of your Elders.’

‘But you let me lie there. You let me suffer and die.’

The Coyote heaved itself upright, blotting out the view of the Peak. ‘Coming here is not an easy thing to do, and your suffering was your payment for my help.’

He stalked away towards the Peak, and sat down, staring up at it. I hobbled over to where he was; from here I could see the Peak clearer. The smoke that swirled around it was issuing in billows from the stone itself. I noticed now that up close it seemed to be forming patterns, faces and scenes.

‘How long have I been here?’

‘There is no time here.’

‘Are you the ball of light that I used to dream about?’

‘Yes, that was I. I was watching your Kingdom’s change, and you were my way in.’ It sniffed. ‘I should have known you’d notice.’

‘It did not change; it was destroyed.’

The Coyote glanced at me, and said nothing.

‘Have you been to the Peak?’ I said after a while.

‘I am the Peak,’ he replied.

We sat in silence for some time, up there in the cold upper reaches with the Peak before us. It was lonely and cold, far distant from the excitement and life of the lands below. It felt like an in-between place, where things were always the same, timeless, and so lifeless.

A gust of wind brought a thick coil of smoke from the top racing down the side of the mountains.

‘Your reward is coming,’ the Coyote said. ‘Brace yourself.’

The smoke enveloped me. A thousand scenes erupted into my head. I saw the fates of creatures laid not as futures but as choices. A man is tempted by a woman and has to choose between mating with her or not.  Goldfish must decide to go left or right in its bowl. An amoeba can split this second or the next. Thousand upon thousands of decisions and choices and lives, all piling into my head and stretching it beyond the horizons and beyond sense and beyond any notion of what or who I was. When it was gone I could feel it shrinking back to normal.

I hobbled back to my nest, threw up, and fell over.

‘It is not easy the first time,’ said the Coyote.

‘What do you do here?’

And then, for the first time since I met him, an expression crossed that great face, and it was sadness. ‘I watch,’ he said. ‘And I wait.’

‘For what?’

He sat down. ‘The Peak is knowledge. Beyond that, it is impossible to quantify to someone who had not been there. I must guard one kind of knowledge, the knowledge of time. I oversee it in all its forms and I see to it that time comes to an end when that is required. Time is one of the five cardinal laws of the Peak.’

‘How did you become guardian of time?’

‘I came seeking something, and I found that once I had learned it, I could not leave. Once you step into its thin smoke, once the Peak has shown you how everything fits, you cannot go back. You must remain here, for as long as you exist, and never again set foot in the lands below.’

‘Why?’

The Coyote gestured towards the Peak. ‘You must find out for yourself.’

 

As the sun began to set the Peak changed colors. As the sky darkened, its smoke turned white and glowed. I could see the thin wisps swirling like a maelstrom of ghosts around it in the night sky. Later that evening the Coyote brought me some food, the most delicious I had ever tasted in my life – meat that was cooked, fresh whole bread, still warm, chunks of pineapple, apricots and papaya, and crunchy nuts that crumbled in my mouth and got stuck in pieces between my teeth.

‘The flesh you are eating is of an animal that in your world no longer exists,’ he said. ‘And the fruit, from a tree that does not yet.’

I realized I had not thought about the kingdom for some time.

‘I don’t know what to do,’ I said. ‘Do I continue up to the Peak, or return home?’

‘Decide tomorrow,’ said the Coyote. ‘I will make a sunrise for you; you may decide then.’

Having traveled for so long, and come so far, that night I fell asleep, right at the foot of the Peak.

 

*

 

I woke the next morning at dawn. Or maybe dawn happened at the same time I awoke. The glow of the peak faded as the sky behind it became lighter and the stars faded out, and soon it was just as it had been when I first laid eyes upon it, dark and swathed with in a billowing cloak of cloud.

The Coyote appeared beside me.

‘Decide,’ he said.

‘I need more time,’ I said.

‘No more time. Decide.’

He snapped his head towards me and before I could even yelp had clamped his jaws around my neck. Then he held me down, gently but firmly, and his voice came at me from all around.

 

‘No more time. Decide now.’

And then he showed me things. The whole kingdom was laid out before me, and beyond, the City Below and the mountains in the distance. I saw me, standing at the foot of the peak, being held down by the Coyote. I saw me walking back down the road, down the mountainside. I pass the Iron Gates, I stop awhile at the lotus pond and watch the hive. I see me walking past the Tree and the Bend but it is different. There are no people there, no Whiskey, and the tree is smaller. I am surrounded by dogs, and the dogs have wings. I grow old and frail and eventually, I die.

The Coyote let go of me, and I collapsed, panting and coughing.

‘I’m going home,’ I said. ‘I’m going back to the Kingdom.’

The Coyote nodded.

‘Your journey will be swift and safe.’

I did not stay at the Lonely Peak. My time there was done. As the sun climbed slowly into the sky – a great ball of fire, I knew now, that saw me as I saw the creatures of the hive by the lotus pond – I turned my back on my destination, and headed back down the side of the mountain.

 

In which Three Paws return to a World Transformed

 

Why is it that journeys back always seem so much shorter than journeys to? I seemed to arrive at the Iron Gates and the pond of lotuses a lot quicker than I had taken to get to the Peak. I went over to the hive and saw it covered in little moving grains of rice again, and couldn’t help but smile. Then I followed the long route down to the Bend and the Tree. I was excited, though I did not know why. Perhaps because it felt now like I had accomplished something, that though in the end I had not reached my destination and turned away at the last moment, I had gone as far as I was willing to go.

I kept thinking about how beautiful what the Peak had shown me was. How vast the world was. A million kingdoms and countless dogs, and humans, and other things, each different, each one a moment unto itself. Journeying down I felt as if I was in the world, for the first time since the fall of my kingdom.

At the Tree and the Bend I went up to the shop, but instead of the fat woman and Whiskey I found a thin girl with a long plait, wearing a flowery dress. She came out, down the steps, and offered me some food – little parcels of meat wrapped in batter. They were delicious.

‘You poor thing,’ she said. ‘With just three legs. How did that happen to you?’

‘Long story,’ I said.

‘Tell me about it.’

So I sat, and told her about the fall of the kingdom, and Howling Mama’s babies, and how I hid when all the other dogs were being killed. Then I told her about Whiskey, and how she was fat, and she suddenly stood up.

‘What do you mean, you met a fat dog here being kowtowed to by a group of humans?’

‘I came to this place and –’

She ran away, into the shop, and I heard crashing and rustling. She re-emerged with a broom and began jabbing the handle-end at me.

‘Get away! Shoo! Shoo! Manky dog! Stay away from my shop and my pets! Go!’

I fled.

On I walked, past the houses of the humans that I had last seen a lifetime ago, with their high walls, painted white but now dirty and crisscrossed with vines. In the last stretch, coming up to the heart of the kingdom of dogs, I grew nervous. What would I find when I rounded it? Emptiness, I expected. The same desolation I had left it in. Bored winds playing with the dust, and echoes of life long past.

Something swooped down from the sky. At first I  thought it was a fat bird, hovering awkwardly, silhouetted against the bright blue sky. So I continued onward, breathless, in my last few steps to the land where I had grown up. Then it barked.

It was a dog with wings.

I rounded the corner to the Par Cark, and there was the kingdom. Dogs lay basking in the sun, sprawled across the warm dust, licking each other, chatting. Pups playing in the drains. Off near the steps into the Labyrinthine Forest was a huge dog fast asleep, surrounded by females.

All of them had wings.

Somewhere, far away, I could hear an Elder singing. He was singing of beautiful surprises and relief so deep it made your body shake. Of things so wondrous you hope to find that they are unreal quickly to spare yourself the pain of finding out they are unreal later.

Suddenly a she-dog fell popped out of thin air and fell to the ground in front of me. She staggered uncertainly to her feet and eyed me.

‘You’ve only got three legs,’ she said.

I flung my self around in excitement, wagging my tail so hard my whole body wobbled. I jumped on her and nipped at her neck. She flung me off, giggling, and nipped back.

‘Who are you?’

‘I am Three Paws,’ I said. ‘Who are you?’

‘I am Wags-at-Nothing. I am a princess. Where do you come from?’

‘From here.’ I thought for a moment. ‘But not from now, I imagine.’

I walked to Howling Mama’s groove, and found an immensely pregnant she-dog there, and a couple of trees surrounded by sawdust. She looked at me, beautiful and angry.

‘Who the hell are you?’ she demanded.

‘Three Paws. Who’re you?’

‘Lachrymae. This is my spot, go away.’

‘You are lonely, Lachrymae, and the father of your children is dead. I will help you raise them.’

She growled.

‘How do you know this? Who are you?’

‘I’ll tell you later,’ I said, lying down next to her in the shade. ‘We have plenty of time.’