Black Petals Issue #90 Winter, 2020

Black Dog
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Mars-News, Views and Commentary
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1957-Fiction by Michael J. Moore
Black Dog-Fiction by C. P. Webster
Curse of the Candles-Fiction by Jerry Payne
Death Rattle-Fiction by Jan Cronos
Estranged-Fiction by Alan Trezza
The Return of the Ferryman-Serialized Fiction by Roy Dorman
The Scarlet Bedroom-Fiction by Daniel K. Merwin
The Soul Destroyer-Fiction by James Flynn
The Packing Bay-Flash Fiction by Kenneth James Crist
Jizo-A four-poem Japanes Theme Set by Dee Allen
Blood-Red Drops-Poem by Chris Collins
The Great Universe-Poem by Hicham El Qendouci
Female Mischief-Poem by Hillary Lyon
Worm-Poem by Hillary Lyon
The Lycanthrope's Lament-Poem by Hillary Lyon
The Sea-Poem by Jason Rice

90_bp_blackdog_kcwalker.jpg
Art by Keith Coates Walker 2019

Black Dog


By C.P. Webster

Lost in the Welsh boondocks



        The rain slanted down, blotting out any obvious landmarks and reducing visibility to a meagre thirty feet. Mike crunched the old Volvo into second, muttering curses and stomping on the clutch.

“Goddamn stick shift!”

As the old car crawled up the tiny potholed road, the driver frantically snatched glimpses out of the streaming windows, hoping for a clue that he was on the right track. But the too-close grey stone walls that edged him in and the rocking and shaking of the road forced Mike to focus all of his fraying concentration on the gloomy obscurity in front of him.

Two miles and half an hour of bumpy frustration later the track forked. At the junction was a road sign. Battered by fierce mountain winds and now swinging and dripping on a single rusted wire, the sign seemed to offer little in the way of guidance. Mike squinted in an effort to read the words on the bent, moving metal, but to no avail. Resigning himself to a good soaking, he felt for the flashlight on the passenger seat. The Rent-a-Car rep had insisted that the American take his personal ‘torch’ for ‘emergencies’, perhaps it was to make up for no satnav service.

“Jesus,” Mike thought bitterly, “what a holiday this is turning out to be.”

The world outside the warm car was an overwhelming ocean of grey. There was an almost metallic tinge to the dullness, as if all color had been leached away and Mike had fallen into a monochrome world. Not for the first time did he wish he had taken the time-tested route to the Catskills with Gerry. Never mind that Gerry earned twice as much as he did, or that Gerry constantly reminded Mike of that fact, and was as irritating as hell. Even the company of his erstwhile brother-in-law was preferable to this.

Mike lay a hand on the door handle, then withdrew it, reaching instead for the battered hip flask that lay inside his breast pocket. Thoughts of Gerry always made Mike want to drink. Taking a long pull, he relaxed back into the seat. Only once, in all the years that he and Gerry had been fishing in the Catskills, had the weather been anywhere near this foul. Then they’d had the comfort of the Happy Days Lodge where the bar always seemed open and the beer was cheap. But Mike had decided to make this year different.

“Are you kidding?!” Gerry had exclaimed when Mike told him. “Wales? What the hell do you want to do in Wales?”

Mike had explained, but Gerry still didn’t get it. Mike told him again, told him about why it was important to him to find out about his ancestors. He had a Welsh surname, Maddox, and given time who knew what he might turn up? Mike had done a little research, spent a few bucks, tracked down family records, and located a likely area. Besides, he had always wanted to visit Europe.

Gerry had thought Mike was mad and told him, “If you ask me it’s a complete waste of time and money. This is because of the divorce from my worthless sister, isn’t it? For Christ’s sake, Mike, take my advice, forget Wales!”

That had settled it. Mike booked his ticket.

But from the moment he had arrived in Wales things had gone wrong. First, his train from the airport was cancelled due to ‘industrial action’ and he had been forced to pay a small fortune for a taxi ride to his hotel. Then, the Hotel Glendower in Tregeder did not have a reservation in Mike’s name, a clerical error he was assured. Mike had been forced to wait for two hours in the hotel lobby before the irritable desk clerk found him a room. The next day the Rent-a-Car people only had an ancient Volvo for hire which cost double what it was worth. Dire warnings about leaving a bad online review had no effect on these people. Now, two days later and several hundred dollars shorter, he was here—lost in the wildest, wettest, most depressing mountains he had ever seen.

Mike looked at his cellphone in forlorn hope. No signal. He roughly pushed it back into his coat pocket.

Recapping the silver flask, Mike reached for the handle once more. Making a finger at the sky he steeled himself, opened the door, and clambered out. The rain, soaking, drenching, feeling with icy rivulets for any exposed skin, dissolved the last of Mike’s tenacious romanticism.

Swearing, Mike trudged over to the corroded sign and shone the flashlight at it. He frowned as he tried to read the words. “Onfi Ys Coed… What the hell does that mean? Is it a name or a direction?”

He shone the torch about him. Left or right? Shrugging he turned back to the car. As he reached for the handle he froze. Far off, but uncannily distinct, came the mournful howl of…a wolf? Mike opened the door and flopped inside. Christ, he thought, why the hell am I so spooked? I hear the wind, or some poor farm mutt, and I start thinking goddamn Transylvania!

He mentally berated himself and started the engine. Slowly and deliberately he steered the unwilling machine down the left-hand, gray-walled, narrow track into the ever-darkening evening.

The rain still fell, the monotony of its thrumming presence broken only by the jolts and bumps of the car’s creeping progress. Mike gritted his teeth as the suspension creaked and groaned and was beginning to think of simply stopping and sleeping in the car. Then a distant light gave him sudden hope, and he reached once more for his hip flask. Taking a good swig of the rye, he held the car steady to the light.

       
On the hill the black dog waited. Standing as tall as a calf, it bore the brunt of the wind and lashing rain in obedient silence.
        The wind howled across from the west; like a malevolent spirit it shouted and mourned through the ancient and eroded mountains. On the wind’s breath the dog heard its summons, and from the wind’s music the black dog learned what to do. Howling once more, the beast set off for the lake.


        Mike pounded on the door again.

“Come on, come on,” he muttered. He was soaked from head to toe, his feet squelched inside his shoes, and water was running down inside the collar of his coat.

Within the old farmhouse a wan light appeared. Mike sighed in relief and waited for the door to open. Instead, he heard a tentative voice questioning from behind the thick oak of the door. Unable to make out what he was being asked he raised his own voice in reply.

“Hey, open up! I can’t hear you! I need help…”

Suddenly, the door swung inwards, and Mike was kissing the end of ancient and none too steady shotgun. He felt his bladder contract. Then the figure behind the barrel motioned him slowly into the entrance. Gradually the gun lowered.

“What do you want, English?” The farmer was a short man, as grey and weathered as the hills where the farmhouse sat. His Welsh accent was strong and guttural.
        Unsteadily, Mike studied the deeply lined face and then glanced around. Besides the hurricane lamp now resting on a nail in the wall the room was in darkness. He saw the dim outline of large, old-fashioned furniture and a plain crucifix hung on the wall.

Recovering some of his dignity now that the gun was lowered, Mike felt a spasm of anger. “What the hell are you trying to pull here, eh?”

“What do you want?” came the repeated question.

Shaking his head, Mike tried to explain. “I’m lost; I’ve been driving for what feels like hours and I can’t seem to get out of these goddamn hills.”

The farmer nodded him inside and shut the door. Mike followed the old man and his lamp through a narrow hallway into a small but cozy parlor. A bright fire burned in the grate and there was a pop song playing on the radio interspersed with clicks and crackles from the mounting storm.

Conscious of how wet he was, Mike did not sit and was not invited to do so.

The old man regarded the interloper warily. Mike, chilled to the bone, desperately wanted to get closer to the fire. So much for Celtic hospitality, he thought bitterly.

After a long and uncomfortable silence, the old man finally spoke. “I have a map. Wait here, Sais.”

The farmer lit a candle and, holding it aloft, left the room. Mike was surprised but relieved by the absence. He moved closer to the fire seeking the heat and light. A low growling warned him not to move again. The sheepdog was as grey and worn as his master and, judging by the growls, equally unfriendly. Mike stayed still as the dog stretched itself impudently by the fire, keeping one eye fixed firmly on the intruder.

Disappointed, Mike returned his attention to the semi-lit room. The place was old, and Mike wondered if the farmer was the inheritor of a homestead farmed by the man’s father and grandfather before him. Wooden beams supported a low ceiling and lonely spiders spun unmolested in the darkest corners. The fireplace was huge, seeming far too large for such a small room. He also noticed that, apart from the light of the flickering flames, there was only the old oil lantern for illumination—no electricity then, an isolated home for the old man.

        Mike guessed the farmer lived there alone, a state he could sympathize with. Debra had left him months before and the divorce papers had finally come through. He tried to shut that memory out; it still hurt too much. A cold draught from beneath the door reminded him of the fearsome conditions outside and brought his wandering thoughts back to the present.

“Here we are, English.”

Mike jumped, surprised. The old farmer stood behind him holding out a torn and faded road map. The Welshman pointed to a near invisible white line surrounded by close-packed contours.

“This is the road you are on,” the farmer tapped the line with a gnarled finger. “Leave here and turn left, keep going until you meet this road here…” he traced the line with a cracked and blackened fingernail. “When you come to this track turn left. If you go right, you will end up on the mountain, and you don’t want to be there tonight. There will be a mist—the Cŵn Annwn is abroad…”

Mike frowned. “Say what?”

“There’ll be a mist up there,” the farmer reiterated sharply. “Keep on this road…and you should get to Troedyraur alright; from there it’s a straight run to Tregeder.”

Before Mike could raise any questions, the old man was shepherding him to the door.

“Thanks, erm, could I just…”

The front door closed in Mike’s face. “Thanks a lot,” he called sarcastically as the rain and wind buffeted him once more. “Real nice to meet you; thanks for the tea…” He turned, fumbling in his pocket for the car keys.

As the car pulled out of the rutted unkempt lane, he noticed an old wooden name plate screwed to the open gate. He squinted and read it as he passed slowly by. “Alec Maddoc… Maddoc! Jeez!” Mike exclaimed, “You’re probably a goddamn cousin!” Revving the Volvo, he turned left and began to crawl up the narrow road.

         At the edge of the lake the mist had reached the shore. Like a huge clinging blanket, it rolled in argent gleams, enveloping the hills around the water. The lake, however, remained clear, as if the mist recoiled from touching the glassy surface. The moon, rising full and bright, shone its sharp, clear, cold light over the placid waters, turning their quicksilver depths into a forbidding, bitterly beautiful realm.

On the far shore a great black shape emerged like a phantom from the dense vapors. The black dog sniffed eagerly at the water’s surface and moaned softly. Then, padding forward on its great paws, the beast quickly circled the lake, sniffing in excitement, its eyes burning brightly in the dimness. Slowly, so slowly, it stopped and raised its head to the moon above. Shuddering, it howled pitifully into the immense dome of the night sky where the moon now hung like a shining silver disc. The cry went on and on until it seemed that it would wring the stars out of the eternity above.

Its call finally ended, the black dog turned and was once more swallowed up by the mist.

The moon hung unmoved above the scene, yet, somehow, its intensity was enhanced. A shimmering breeze brushed the surface of the water, disturbing it for the first time, and in the air hung a breathless expectation.

        At the junction Mike pulled the car to a shuddering halt.

“Ah crap!” he swore. “This really does it.”

He sat for a moment staring in disbelief at the collapsed tree that now spanned the left-hand way. Lightning flashed across the sky, and he could see there was no way he was going any further on that route. He looked to the track on the right.

“This road must lead somewhere, and even if there is a mist on the freaking mountain it will be a whole lot better than sitting here freezing my butt off.”

He turned the car slowly to the right and ground the lever into a lower gear. Ponderously, the car began to climb the steeper right-hand way. Mike bit his lip at the painful sounds coming from the engine and winced as the car crashed and banged along the potholed road. He began to wonder if it might have been better to have gone back to the farm, but there was no way to turn around and he knew the farmer would not welcome his return.

Mike glanced at the gas, but it was still at half. He was sure there would be enough to get him well over the mountain and back to civilization. What’s more, as he climbed the steep gradient, the rain seemed to be slackening, though the wind felt as powerful as ever. As the car went higher the high sides of the mountain rose around him. Grey and bare cliffs towered over the tiny creeping box of the car as it ground its way along a passage that was fast becoming a vague rock-strewn track. He looked nervously up at the precipices that rose about him and his unease grew. But Mike pushed the Volvo on.
        The whiteness rolled down to meet the interloper; the wind seemed to have no obvious effect on the wall of mist that flowed down from the top of the mountain.

As the car crashed on, Mike’s anxiety grew until, at last, the car finally nosed its way into the denseness of the fog before him. Then, Mike felt an unaccountable sense of release, as if the cloak that now concealed him might also protect him. He shook his head and reached for the hip flask once more. The silver flask was nearly empty; the usually calming alcohol ran cold in his veins. Mike vowed he would offer up a silent prayer of thanks once he was safely back in his hotel bed.

But the mist only grew denser and Mike’s speed dropped to a bare crawl. At a snail’s pace, he persevered up the dim way while transparent specters grasped insubstantially at the car’s sides. Dimly glimpsed shapes passed slowly on either side of the beleaguered car, dark and light, gray shadows and shades, crowding around the shivering vehicle.

Mike craned closer to the steering wheel, trying to penetrate the murky depths of the dancing phantoms before him. The wipers scraped to and fro in pointless resistance to the vapors that smothered the car. The mist went on forever, and Mike began to believe that he would never see an end to it, caught in a twilight world, an eternal gray limbo that led to nowhere and meant nothing, a meaningless end after an unfulfilled life…

His mind swept back over the wasted years, the nine to five drudgery, the childless marriage, the rut that had become a robotic routine alleviated increasingly by pills and alcohol—props that had promised to console him but that had ultimately enslaved him. In the end these had not been enough, but Mike had hoped to find change. This trip was the start of something new: to find his roots, find meaning to his life, and discover a future from a past that he did not know. Burying himself in the search for his ancestors had at first given him new energy, even at times exhilaration. He remembered the optimism he had felt on the long flight over the Atlantic, how he had even flirted with the flight attendants. That all seemed like another life now. The darkness had returned. His quest, his search for meaning against a pressing wall of nihilism seemed destined to take him nowhere—a fool’s errand for a fool.

Mike shook his head, trying to break the dark spell that seeped into his mind, to avoid the sleep that tried to press his eyelids shut. He knew that the cold air of the night would soon waken him, but felt strangely unwilling to open the window even a crack. He gripped the wheel in desperate determination, forcing his concentration on the road in front of him.

The road leads to nowhere…the end….You don’t want to be there tonight….There’ll be a mist….What the hell do you want to do in Wales? There’ll be a mist…a mist…mist…

“Goddamnit!” Mike slammed on the brakes and stalled the engine. He reached for the window and jerked it open. With a sigh of release the cold night air rushed in. Mike let it caress his leaden eyes and breathed a deep draft that immediately set his heart pumping and banished the cobwebs of sleep.

Then from nowhere the voices in his mind returned and Mike thought he would go crazy. The dark mood numbed him. No…no…no!

He knew the voices were just in his head because he was tired, had drunk too much, and had doubled his medication. He wasn’t mad—Mike Maddox was NOT nuts! Then he could picture faces: friends shaking their heads, putting it down to the divorce and a too-heavy workload. He could hear his landlady’s voice telling the neighbors she had always suspected something…

Mike picked up the flask and drained it. The rye whiskey tasted bland on his parched, sandpaper tongue.   

“Pull yourself together Mike,” he gasped aloud.

Mike needed to escape this mist. Ever since he had been driving in it, he had felt suffocated, claustrophobic. It was the mist that was doing this, he felt sure.

Then, as if in response to his thoughts, the curtain parted in front of him and Mike saw the lake. At first he thought it was another trick, another taunt of madness and, as he stared at the unruffled surface of glass, he truly believed for the briefest of moments that he was falling, falling into a place beyond reach, beyond hope.

With an effort he focused his eyes, slapped his face. Mike knew he was not mad—the lake was real. He had stalled the car barely ten feet from the edge of the still waters. He let out a deep sigh and began to shake when he thought how close he had been to driving into those depths. The water looked deep and mysterious, both inviting and repellent.

The mist was all around the car, but the way to the lake was clear before him. Mike opened the door. He felt like a child entering a forbidden room, or an explorer desecrating the taboo temple of a tribal god. The view was awe-inspiring, a long thin stretch of water shining in the light of the full moon.

Mike’s damp shoes pressed noisily on the rattling stones of the shore as he stumbled forwards. Somewhere deep inside of him a warning knell sounded, but it was muted, deadened. Mike paused for a moment, a vague look of puzzlement crossing his blunt, unshaven features. He looked back and saw the car fading away into the greedy embrace of the mist. Mike had left the headlights on, but their light was wavering and dying. He tried to shake his head, took a step towards the car, but it was lost. Shaking, Mike reached down and picked up a large rock. Something was coming, he could feel it. He turned his back to the water and faced the mist.

First came the music.

It was sweet, so lulling that Mike felt a huge wave of nostalgia flow over him. It swirled and twisted with the movement of the mist that lapped the lake shore. Memories came, his memories so near, yet so distant. Then other memories came that were forgotten until that moment. He remembered pasts that had nothing to do with his own life, but knew they were an intrinsic part of his being. He felt carried away, part of something at last, something deep and wholesome and important. Mike gripped the stone until his knuckles turned white…and then it tumbled to the ground at his feet. His spirit soared as the music lifted him with it—rising above the lake, above the mountain.

And then falling, in slow motion, to the stony beach below and…Mike saw the black dog.

Motionless, he stared at the monstrous thing before him. There could be no doubt. The dog was standing only yards away. Mike had never seen nor dreamt of anything like it. The thing stared back at him with eyes that seemed to be blazing red in the reflected light of the moon.

The black dog watched; it could feel the man’s mind raving. It waited for a moment longer, then tensed, ready to spring.

Mike saw the dog readying to leap, and cringed. He watched in horrified fascination as the lips drew back from that monstrous maw in a horrendous snarl. Mike shut his eyes at the sight of the gleaming teeth, and waited for the inevitable.

The black dog leapt.

Mike screamed, his eyes flashing open despite himself. He fixed his gaze on the soaring monster.

The still waters rose up. In a cascade of silvered crystal, the lake caught the dog in watery arms and pulled it gently to its breast. The black dog sank beneath the surface and the water closed above it without a ripple.

“Holy Mother of God,” Mike whispered.

The mist hemmed closer. Mike wondered where the car was. He stared about him wildly. The moon was slipping behind the crags that ringed the lake.

Then the voices returned—other voices, deeper voices. “Sleep….Come with us…home….Sleep….The Gwragedd Annwn call you….Come…”

Mike turned to face the lake. There he saw, or thought he saw, figures in the mist, beckoning to him. Trancelike, he now staggered to the very edge of the fast-changing waters. The formerly still surface danced with energy and the last of the moonlight shivered madly on the surface.

For the first time in his life Mike felt something akin to true release. All the burdens that had lain so long gathering dust in the lumber rooms of his mind picked up their mats and walked. A shining fire had kindled in his soul.

Opening his arms wide and crying aloud, Mike launched himself into the water. The lake took him in an infinite embrace.

As the song ended, the lake vanished.


The End

 

 

C.P. Webster, cpw@aber.ac.uk, of Llanafan, Aberystwyth, Wales, who wrote BP #90’s “Black Dog,” was born near Liverpool, in Cheshire, England in 1965. In 1982 his family moved to South Africa for his father’s work. In 1989 he graduated from art school there, and afterwards lived and worked as a photographer and art lecturer in the Johannesburg area for several years. In 1996 he was appointed lecturer in fine art at Aberystwyth University’s School of Art and still lives and works in Wales. Always passionate about horror and weird fiction, before commencing his career as an artist and art lecturer, he had some early stories published in genre magazines. He has now returned to this first love, writing.

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