They had gone hunting that morning to break in Bob’s new bird dog Molly. It was on Keith’s land. For miles around there were only the two men, Molly, and a trio of Keith’s trained dogs. Kansan land was empty land. The sky paled in the east above a horizon drawn with a ruler.
While the men walked with their shotguns, the dogs wove through the dead fields. From a break in the frozen brush one of Keith’s dogs would scurry out, sniffing down a trail, and disappear again. Molly zipped between the other dogs, not knowing who to follow.
“Go on, Molls, git,” Bob said.
“She’s got too much pep in her step,” Keith said. He was a big man with a ruddy face and a laugh to match. “You give her some Bolivian marching powder before you drove over?”
“At home I been getting her to point. Does just fine. She likes that fly fish lure, the one with the white feathers. Dangle it in front of her, and she points as well as you please.”
“Welp, what she can do for a fly she can do for a pheasant. She’ll shake the jitters after her first kill.” Keith noticed one of his own. “You got something, Tools?”
Tahlulah Bel, an old Brittany, stood with her snout pointed. One of her forepaws was folded up in front, waiting for the call—is it something good? Cain and Harper, Keith’s other dogs, followed her lead and waited too.
The stalks broke apart in a flutter, and a streak of black and red flew into the air. The pheasant screeched. Its cry made sharp music for the morning. Keith beaded its path with his shotgun. And fired.
After the report, Tools broke her position. She came back with the bird lolling in her mouth. “Good girl,” Keith said. Tools bounded back into the field, Cain and Harper close behind. The bird slipped into the long back pocket of Keith’s hunting jacket.
Bob said, “What I’d give for Molly to do that one day.”
“Takes time is all…and a halfway decent trainer.”
“Know where I can get one?”
“Look at that. A sense of humor.” Keith was smiling, but as his eyes looked to the field, his good cheer faded. “You hear that?”
“Don’t hear nothing.”
“Me neither. Where are the dogs?”
The two men stood listening. The rising sun was doing its best to brighten the day, but the western horizon was still stained with shades of blue and green like a bruise. A few stars from the Big Dipper were trapped there. None of them glittered. The sky above, like the field below, was a life-sized photograph. Frozen. Silent.
“They’re probably gnawing on a varmint,” Bob said. “Your dogs can chase rabbits like greyhounds at a track and—”
To their right was a growl. It came from a thatch of brush as tall as a backyard fence. Bob jumped at the sudden noise, saw in his head a flash of sharp teeth. Then he cursed himself. How dumb did he have to be get goosebumps? He’d known that growl since she was a pup.
“Sounds like she means business,” Keith said. “You should fetch her, and see where mine went off to. Can’t be far.” He tapped his chest. “The ticker ain’t up for no wild goose chase.”
Bob noted how his friend’s cheeks had lost their rosiness. Having high cholesterol and walking long miles could have that effect. But big men could also get spooked, Bob thought.
“Sure, Keith. Be right back.”
The brush was cold as Bob parted it. He pushed his way through the frozen field, moving closer to Molly’s growl. Being a Kansan used to open spaces, he felt the closeness of the stalks and weeds. It was comfortable at first, like slipping into a cool crawl space for winter clothes, a different yet familiar place. Bob had cut brush like this on his land and his father’s land his whole life. He recognized it for the regular nuisance it was and kept walking.
But soon the coolness turned clammy. The brush was thicker here, wet with moisture, dew drops like spiders’ eyes. They fell on Bob’s face as he pushed back the brush with his shotgun. Was there a late autumn storm coming? The temperature had dropped but pressure was building. The crawl space now was a tunnel into a darker part of the country. His hearing was wooly. Molly wavered between close and far away, the echoes of her growls overlapping, dissipating, fading.
Bob stopped to gather himself. The field was so thick that he couldn’t get a sense of where he was. He looked up. Fingers of brush had clasped together to make a near solid canopy. The stars, Bob thought, I need to see the stars. He found an open patch of sky and gazed up. His pulse quickened.
The Big Dipper was gone. In its place was spiral of frozen stars, the outline of a dead nautilus drifting in space. There were no constellations Bob had ever seen that looked like it. He would have known. He had been a Boy Scout.
Vertigo made him look away. He stumbled forward with a queasy stomach. Those aren’t stars I know…I don’t know those stars. Further into the field he staggered, shaking his head away with what he saw. No. No, no, no. The ghost of the spiral hung before him in a colored afterimage. It imprinted on the brush, the path, his shoes, wherever he looked. He shut his eyes but the constellation was even in the dark of his own mind.
Then his ears popped. As if coming down from a high altitude, Bob heard Molly’s growl again, now in clear stereo. Whatever cold front he had stepped into while in the field he stepped out of now. Yeah, that was it–a cold front. Strange weather could change the sky. Imagine if Keith had come in here! He could’ve had another coronary seeing those stars.
The clarity of the sound was startling, a relief to his senses. His dog needed him. His living, flesh-and-blood dog named Molly. He avoided looking up at the sky as he stepped into the clearing.
The young Brittany was down on her forepaws, her hackles raised. From Bob’s angle, her back was a taut bow balanced on the ground. Her eyes were peeled back and so were her lips. The growl was loud now. It traveled in waves deep into Bob’s chest. He turned to see what had riled her and was stunned at what he saw.
It wasn’t a rabbit, like he had thought before.
Under that alien spiral of stars, the ground was scrawled with blood. The air reeked of copper and rot. Dark, arterial red formed trails that moved in three distinct rhythms. Keith’s dogs had padded through the brush that way–Is it something good? Bob’s stomach clenched.
The trails converged into one streak. Great clumps of dirt were turned up on either side of the blood–something big had dug in to make those tracks. The streak went across the clearing into a stand of brush.
In his mind, Bob thought, Yes, that is brush, and I’ve cut brush just like it all my life. He saw the bright purple stalks and the black ragweed and the glowing radioactive spores and he tried, with growing panic, to keep believing it. But in his heart he knew this wasn’t Kansan land. And it was far from empty.
“Molls,” he hissed. “Hey. Hey.”
He was close enough to put the toe of his boot against her flank. Molly swung around and flashed her teeth. Blood speckled her muzzle. When she saw who he was, she whimpered and wagged her tail.
“That’s a good girl. Easy now. Let’s git back.”
Bob backed away, his eyes only on his dog, the only way to keep his breath steady. If he focused on Molly walking with him, there was still a scrap of normal in what he had walked into, which meant that normal was somewhere behind him, in the field he knew, where he had a friend named Keith who had dogs named Cain and Harper and…
Molly stopped. So did Bob.
“Come on, Molls. Don’t you want to go home?”
The dog’s ears pricked up, and Bob was relieved he had gotten through to her. Yes, home. But before he could give another coaxing word, Molly turned away from him.
“No, girl, come. Come.”
Molly didn’t come. Her tail lined up straight with her spine, ending with her nose aimed dead ahead. One of her forepaws was lifted. She held the pointing position for the first time in the field–except it was directly into that strange and glowing brush. Bob would’ve said good girl any other time.
Across the way, the purple stalks began to rattle. Bob raised his gun, beaded his shot, and waited to see what came out.
M.C. St. John is a Chicago writer who is 6’8″ and does not play basketball. He has been published in After Hours Press, Ink in Thirds, Literary Orphans, Maudlin House, Chicago Literati, Quail Bell Magazine, Word Branch, and Unbroken Journal. His short story collection Other Music was recently released.