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James Roderick Burns


Cry for Grindel by Dennis Blalock

IN THE SMALL pool of light from her reading lamp, Helen felt contented.  Yes, it was Saturday – Sunday, really, if the 2:01 pulsing in the top corner of her Kindle was to be believed – and yes, she was back in the office the day after tomorrow, following a week’s leave that had flown by as quickly as usual.  But now the light was bright, the room warm from a few cycles of the space heater, and there was just enough whisky in the glass to sip her way through to the end of the book, and bed.

Wagstaff growled, low in his sleep.  A minute later there was a whiskery stirring from the basket in the left-hand corner of the front room, and moment after that a series of whimpers, the warm tip of his snout butting the side of her hand.  Helen sighed.

‘Oh, alright.’

She left the Kindle face up without closing its screen, and gathering the robe about her, opened the door and walked down the short hall to the stair.  She didn’t bother with her glasses; she’d lived here for years, and could navigate the three short flights to the back green in her sleep.  She had barely opened the front door when Wagstaff slipped by, and she smiled as she heard the rapid click-and-shuffle of his paws heading downstairs.

He made his usual rounds.  Not that she could see him – the green shared three sides with the back-greens of the surrounding streets, some higgledy old fences that wouldn’t stop a crow stepping through, some stands of ancient trees that barred all but the brightest lights from across the way.  Wagstaff had disappeared into the gloom of the trees, but she could hear him snuffling around somewhere, and knew he’d come in when he was ready.

After five minutes the night air began to invade her robe.

‘Waggie!’ she said, as quietly as she could.  ‘Waggie!  Come on, now.’  She tried a tiny, flat whistle that sounded more like an invitation to a game, or a cat bristling in the gutter, than it did a dog’s command, but she heard something stumbling through the undergrowth, and turned gratefully for the hall.

On the stairs she felt the brief crackle of fur against her leg, saw a bounding shadow on the floor above.  When she got up to the flat, she saw he’d already nosed open the door and was nowhere to be seen.

Shivering, Helen pulled it to behind them, turned and checked the key.  In the living room the lamp cast its same defined pool of light, and she noticed with pleasure that the Kindle was waiting, page open for her to resume.  She sat down and pulled on the old handle on the side of the chair.  The footrest slid up and forward, as if to meet her calves, and she smiled again.  Perhaps the week would be alright after all.

The Kindle was an older model, but still quite serviceable.  All she needed was a backlit screen, some plain font and the clock ticking away in the top corner so she didn’t lose track of time.  She relaxed and held it up with her left hand, reached down with her right to see if there was anything available for petting.  There was!  Helen sighed and ran her fingers down his flank.  She picked up the story where she’d left it.

He shifted position under her hand, angling round to that favourite spot under his left ear where she could cup the side of his head and the luxurious, velvety fold of an ear in the same hand.  She remembered the shine of his dark brown eyes when she did it before lunch, or after he’d finished his denta-stik.  Sometimes Wagstaff liked her to stroke the very top of his head, where an odd bony lump jutted from the back of his skull.  Alarmed when he was a puppy, she’d looked it up: the occipital protuberance, apparently a normal part of a dog’s anatomy, not a cancerous lump, as she’d feared.  She thought of it as his bony dome, and it was as familiar to her fingertips as the shape of her own nose.

Helen turned away for a second to have a sip of whisky.

When she turned back, she could feel a rising under her palm.  He must want some scratches on his bony dome, before bed.  She smiled, drumming her nails on the bone in a happy little paradiddle.  She felt the rough heat of a tongue lap her wrist, smelled a waft of something animal in the darkness.

From the left-hand corner of the room came a stirring in the basket, then a whimper, a great and protracted growling.


About the writer:
James Roderick Burns’ novella and story collection, Beastly Transparencies, is due from Eyewear in spring 2023. He is the author of four collections of poetry and a short fiction chapbook, A Bunch of Fives. His work has appeared in a number of journals and magazines, including The Guardian, Modern Haiku, The North and The Scotsman. He can be found on Twitter @JamesRoderickB and his newsletter offers one free, published story a fortnight.

Image: Cry for Grindel by Dennis Blalock (1942-2015). No medium specified. No size specified. By 2015. By free license.

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