After 421 years guarding the graveyard without much happening, I got sleepy, so I took a nap. Big mistake.
I’m not sure how much time passed. What did I miss? Other than the usual, that is: vines knotting the graves, roots digging into earth and stone, moss growing, oak leaves rotting, worms and slugs and rabbits and foxes foraging for food, earthquakes and thunderstorms and bright sunny days too. Life and death and everything in between.
In the meantime, the gravestones sank into the ground, and I did too. I sleep heavy.
When I finally woke up I had to dig myself out, and upon breaking through the surface I found myself in the basement of a building. In front of me stood a man holding a metallic torch of some kind. Later I learned he was a security guard with a flashlight, but he looked sufficiently absurd to me that I wasted no time in tearing out his throat.
As I licked the blood from my paws the man’s spirit pestered me with questions.
“Is that me? Are you a hellhound? What happens next? Am I a ghost?”
I growled at him, still groggy from my nap. Backing up a little to give myself some room, I ran at the wall and broke out into the night, leaving behind a pile of rubble and a banshee wail (a security alarm, as it turned out). The graves were gone — I felt their absence — dug up and interred elsewhere, I assume. To have lost the graves under my care was a great shame. My head hung low. I happened upon a stream running under an old stone bridge, and I slunk down there for a drink and to think through my next move.
I knew what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to go to Beezlebub with my tail between my legs and grovel for another old family graveyard to guard. I could just see him, lounging on a divan, his crooked old bat wings shuddering with pleasure as he popped roasted babies in his mouth one by one. He wouldn’t even acknowledge my presence for a while, and when he finally did he would look at me with utter disdain and …
“Aw, hey there boy.”
A man peeked down from over the side of the bridge. It was just after dawn, a dreary half-light filtering through the trees above the stream. As I looked up he disappeared and then reappeared a moment later, cautiously descending the rocky bank. I felt the tingle of my salivary glands kicking into action.
He stopped ten feet away and squatted. “You have a home, boy? Gosh, you’re big. Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.”
I rose and growled a little bit, and no doubt a drop or two of drool escaped my mouth. Remarkably, this had no effect on the man. He reached out his hand and, still on his haunches, waddle-walked closer to me.
I was within a second or two of putting this idiot out of his misery when it occurred to me that I should not attract undue attention to myself. I figured I may as well put off that meeting with Beezlebub as long as possible. I stopped growling, and the man smiled.
“Wait a second,” he said theatrically, “what’s this I have in my pocket?” He produced a sickly gray nugget from a pouch in his jacket and held it out to me on his palm. I sniffed at the revolting little thing and had half a mind to take his arm off at the elbow, but I mastered my instincts and ate just the nugget. It was dry as chalk and nearly as tasteless. As I chewed the man dealt with the puddle of drool I had left in his hand. He flicked it off and was about to wipe his hand on his jacket, but reconsidered and rubbed it on a patch of weeds poking out of the bank. Then he watched me as I washed down my snack with a drink from the stream.
“There’s more where that came from.” He stood and approached me, and I suppressed a shudder as he stroked the top of my head. “I know somebody who needs a bath!”
He climbed the bank and beckoned to me, and I followed, not sure how long I could pretend deference to a mortal man, how long I could stomach being called “boy.” There was no harm, though, in giving it a try for a while. I took comfort in the knowledge that I could murder the man any time I wished, and blood tasted all the sweeter when mixed with vengeance.
I followed the man up an asphalt hill, and I saw a car for the first time, which impressed me. But men have always been precocious in their ability to build things, and nauseatingly prideful as well, so I was not too surprised.
We entered a two-story dwelling, and as we stood inside the front door, the man taking off his jacket, a woman shouted, “No!” She stood at the top of a short flight of stairs. “No, no, no, no, no! This one stinks worse than the last one!”
“Nothing a bath won’t fix, dear!” sang the man.
I puzzled over this second use of the word “bath.” It sounded familiar but I was fuzzy on its meaning, aware only that it involved getting wet.
“Ohhh…” groaned the woman, and she paused for a moment as the man looked up at her brightly, sweetly, swathed in moral rectitude as the most insufferable humans always are. “Straight to the tub downstairs then!” She turned on her heel and muttered something about the stench. I took that as a compliment.
“Come on, boy,” he said as he led me downstairs. I let out a small, involuntary growl, but then he said, “But I can’t keep calling you boy, can I? We need a name… Rover? No.” He vocalized a series of insipid names as he led me to a large tub and started filling it with water. “Max? Duke? … Sparky? Ha ha! No, not Sparky.” He pointed in the water. “In you go! Come on, let’s rinse out some of that grime.”
I looked at the steam rising from the tub. I was rather attached to my grime and my stench, and so my first thought was, of course, “Hell, no!” I could have killed the man right there and gone up to his wife for dessert, but I recalled the audience with Beezlebub that awaited me and decided that I would try this “bath” thing.
“Good boy!” cried the man as I stepped in. “What a good boy you are!” He used a pitcher to scoop water over me and a stiff brush to vigorously scrub my fur. It was an odd experience for me. As much as I loathed the very idea of a man touching me in such a familiar way, I found the scrubbing pleasant, remarkably so. I began to lean into his hand to assist him in digging as deep as possible into my knotted fur. For the man’s part, his face held an expression of grim purpose. If he was alarmed by the quantity of dried blood that, mixed with the dirt, turned the bathwater a deep rust, he did not show it. When he had scrubbed me all over, he stopped for a rest but wasn’t satisfied. He let out the water, filled the tub again, and started all over.
“That’s better,” he murmured finally while rubbing me with a towel. “Your fur is quite black, actually. Black as midnight. How’s that for a name? Midnight?”
It was not as bad as the others, I supposed.
He led me upstairs to show me off to his wife. She leaned towards me experimentally, but recoiled. “Still stinks to high heaven. Ang ugly as sin.”
“It’s okay, Midnight. She doesn’t mean it.”
“Oh, but I do,” she said, rapping her fingers on the kitchen counter. “One week, Seamus. Maximum.”
“Yes, dear,” he said as he got down on a knee to get something out of a cupboard. “What do you think, Midnight, filet mignon & bacon or rotisserie chicken?” He held up two cans for my inspection. “They both sound good, don’t they…”
“I mean it!”
“Yes, Kathleen, one week. I heard you.”
Kathleen left as Seamus put one of the cans back and began opening the other, his question for me having been rhetorical, apparently. The food was cold and rather disgusting, but I’ve never been a picky eater.
After breakfast, Seamus took me on a tour of the house. I didn’t pay a lot of attention, to be honest, until he stopped outside the baby’s room. “You really are a remarkably intelligent dog.” He looked at me with wonder, even a hint of fear, an emotion he had previously failed to display. “It’s as if you understand every word I’m saying.”
“Well, duh,” I thought, rolling my eyes at him.
He laughed softly and shook his head. “Uncanny,” he whispered. Then he pushed open the door to the baby’s room and we went in. He held a finger up to his mouth. “Angela is sleeping.”
We approached the crib. Morning light filtered through lace curtains. The baby lay clothed in pink from head to toe, a pudgy red face peeking out from beneath a pink knit hat.
“This is my angel,” whispered Seamus as I embarrassingly began to salivate again. “If you are to stay with us, even if only for a week, then you must be her guardian. Do you understand?”
He looked at me with such sincerity and trust in that moment, that I couldn’t do anything but swallow my drool and nod my head. I was, after all, a guard dog — a very good one, when awake — and his words struck a deep chord.
After Angela’s room, he led me downstairs and out to the back yard. We stopped in front of a small headstone.
“Here lies Shadow,” intoned Seamus. “The finest dog I ever knew. You remind me of him, you know? Like you, he was big, black, gentle, and smart as anything.” He choked up, patted me on the back, and turned abruptly to go back inside. I stayed out by Shadow’s grave for a while. I missed the dead.
Over the next few days, I settled as well as I could into the routine of the house. I took walks with Seamus, during which I was expected to fraternize with the local canine population. The dogs lowered their tails and backed away from me, wiser than their human counterparts. At home, Kathleen, when she acknowledged me at all, warned me to keep my distance and shushed me when she was trying to get Angela to sleep. When Kathleen was not around, Seamus would put Angela on the living room carpet, close to where I lay. She was learning to crawl and she approached me and batted my nose with her tiny, fragrant hand. I was sorely tested in these moments and resorted to a mantra to keep myself in line: “Don’t eat the baby. Don’t eat the baby. Don’t eat the baby.”
One morning at breakfast Kathleen complained about me to Seamus.
“His eyes glow red. Have you seen it? There’s something wrong with that dog. At night, it’s like a demon lurking in the house.”
“Look at him. He understands what you’re saying.”
“I’m telling you I don’t feel safe. And the way he looks at Angela…”
“He’s such a smart dog.”
Kathleen slapped the table to get Seamus’ attention, which had been focused rather adoringly on me. “Get the dog out of here, or I’ll call animal control.” Seamus’ face fell, but after a painful pause he nodded.
I was restless that night. I felt that my time in that house was coming to an end, and Angela’s heady scent beckoned to me. I brooded over the casual humiliations of the past days and resolved that I would make an exit worthy of my breed.
After assuring myself that Kathleen and Seamus were safely ensconced in their bed, I crept down the hallway to the baby’s room. But just before entering I heard a series of unlikely sounds: a thud, a scrape, a muffled cry. I nosed the door open. The moonlight illuminated two dark figures in the room. The one closest to me held a large sack in one hand and a gun in the other. The second appeared to be pressing the baby’s stuffed penguin into her face in an effort at stifling her cries. When the one with the sack saw me, he raised his gun at me.
By the time Seamus flicked on the light switch, I was busy eviscerating the second man. Blood decorated the room rather spectacularly and scraps of large intestine hung from my mouth as I looked up to meet Seamus’ horrified eyes. Kathleen, blind to all else, rushed to comfort Angela and carry her from the room.
It was at this precise moment that yet another unlikely figure appeared. A small bat fluttered drunkenly in through the broken window and, in a flash of fire, revealed itself to be none other than Beezlebub, o great fat and lascivious one.
“What’s this, Grimur? Moonlighting?”
I swallowed hard and wiped offal from my chin with my paw. “My lord. I was just on my way to see you.”
“I heard you had domesticated yourself and couldn’t believe it. I came up to see for myself. Tsk tsk…”
“I was about …”
“Don’t grovel, Grimur. I hate it when you grovel.”
Liar. It’s what he lives for.
“I did have some plans for you, something simply wonderful.” He packed the last word with such dense, malicious irony that my fur stood on end. “Now that I see you, though,” he continued, “I can’t think of any worse punishment than to leave you here, subject to the whims of this …” he indicated Seamus with a flick of his wing, “… man.” Seamus had fallen to his knees and his face was as pale and glossy as candle wax.
“Yes, my lord,” I responded, understanding that he was letting me off easy out of pure laziness.
He turned to go, but then added, “Don’t eat the baby, Grimur. It’s not her time.” With that, show-off that he is, he turned into a mosquito and buzzed away.
The rest of the night was devoted to cleaning up the mess. Kathleen’s attitude toward me had undergone a miraculous transformation. She smiled at me; she pet me; she even held her breath and gave me a kiss on the head. In her eyes I had been Angela’s savior, and when Seamus suggested that he would call the police, she stopped him.
“You can’t do that!”
“Why the bloody hell not?”
“Did you see what that dog did to those men? He’ll be put down for sure.”
And so Seamus dug a hole in the back yard to hold the two corpses, and Kathleen scrubbed the blood from the walls and the entrails from the carpet.
“Tomorrow,” she declared, “we will plant tulips!”
I watched with approval the expansion of the backyard burial ground, and I checked frequently on Angela, my ward. I must admit that I felt strangely content patrolling the house, having taken what I saw as my rightful place as guardian over life, death, and everything in between.