All the Dogs are Dancing
J.M. Goguen © 2018
All Rights Reserved
East Coast of Maine, Summer, twenty years after the Darkness
Crickets chirped in the background of the campfire’s light. The aroma of hot, dry grass, charred fish, and wild dill filled the air. Five boys ranging in ages from four to eight sat huddled together, watching intently as scarred fingers expertly checked the skewered fish. It was a simple lesson; an easy cooking strategy when out in the wild. Eating raw fish could result in sickness, or worse, death. Teaching the boys early on how to cook would save them trouble later should they get separated or wander off.
It was one of the first things Fern taught me, and he was teaching the boys of the pack. Without burning his fingers, Fern squeezed the sides of the fish, and the boys shifted, glancing at each other. They were hungry, their stomachs grumbling loud enough that even I could hear them from my spot several feet away, but Fern needed them to focus before they ate, as sleep would come too easily with a full belly, and they needed to learn the dangers in the world.
“Do you know who the Deadwalkers are?” Fern’s voice rumbled up from deep in his chest. With his scarred face, straggly white hair, opalescent yellow eyes, and broken-fanged grin, Fern looked frightening, at least to the young pups. They just hadn’t seen him fight yet.
“They aren’t real,” Riley said. His gaze was fixed on the fish, and without looking, he shoved another boy who had crept closer to the fire away. Riley was a young pup, new to our pack this summer, and the first time away from his mother too.
A smile spread across Fern’s face, the sight of his fangs causing the boys to inch away. “Oh, but they are. You see, they live in the old cities, in buildings taller than the water tower in the Old Town, and they devour everything in their path…”
“Mom always told me they weren’t real,” Aaron whispered to me.
Aaron and I were several feet away from the boys to the side of the campfire. Close enough to see clearly, but far enough that the boys ignored us. We weren’t as nearly as interesting as Fern or the food, but we were to set an example to the boys on how to behave. At least, that’s what Fern had told me when I made the fire while Aaron cleared the area for us to sit.
I glanced at Aaron. He was curled in on himself, his knees drawn close to his chest and his arms wrapped tightly around his legs. His black hair was peppered with white streaks as the result of a sickness he’d had before he turned Wolf. “Mom told me they were stories to scare the new pups, to keep them from wandering off at night,” he murmured.
“You didn’t wander.” My fishing net was on my lap. I was trying to fix the large hole a lobster had made that morning with some cord I’d found in one of the nearby huts. It seemed like something was always breaking and needing repairing. Thankfully the moon was almost full, and the additional light helped me to see what I was doing.
“Burner, you always wandered,” Aaron said, and for the first time in two months since his mother passed, he chuckled. “Fern always had to go hunt you down, and then Den Mother would be pissed off at him for losing you.”
I tried not to smile because it was true. I’d wander off to the Old Town and when Fern would catch up to me, we would walk around the buildings and houses. He would tell me stories from his childhood, about the old world.
I always thought it sounded like a horrible, boring, dead world.
“Fern told me once that most of his scars came from Den Mother,” I joked. I twisted the cord and net together with practiced ease, tying them in a knot.
Aaron laughed, really laughed, the sound carrying into the sky and echoing amongst the silent trees. I was glad to see a part of my friend was still alive inside. It made me smile too.
“Do you two think Deadwalkers are a joke?” Fern demanded.
The young pups were watching us, their trance on the fish, and Fern, broken.
Aaron and I shared a look.
“No, Alpha, they are as real as you and me,” I said. There was no laughter in my voice. No humor, just the firm, unquestioning tone Fern expected me to have when we spoke of pack matters.
Satisfied, Fern nodded. He picked up one of the skewers, examining the fish closely. The pups returned their attention to Fern, or rather, how he was testing the fish. He started speaking again, and Aaron waited a few moments before he leaned closer to me, his breath tickling my ear. “Do you think they are real?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen one, not even in the Old Town.” I ducked my head, pretending to pick at the net.
Aaron stared at the fire, falling into silence. I peeked sideways at him when he suddenly sniffed, hot tears spilling down his cheeks. “I miss Mom,” he choked and buried his face in his crossed arms.
I looked hopelessly at Fern. When he saw Aaron, he motioned for us to go. Net in hand, I stood up and squeezed Aaron’s shoulder.
“C’mon, I’ll walk you home,” I soothed.
“I don’t want to go home.” Aaron stood. His right hand was cupping his eyes, his lips downturned.
Wordlessly, I let go of his shoulder and took him by the hand. Together, we left the campfire and slipped into the dark of the night.
The kitchen was alive with Den daughters hustling back and forth, shouting at each other in their own unique languages, and cooking enough food to feed a hundred normal men in a room barely large enough to hold twenty. I’d arisen before them at dawn to catch the morning light, and to snag a part of the long kitchen table to try to fix my net. But as my frustration grew, and the morning turned to afternoon, I was forced to admit that it was completely, and utterly, useless. The hole was bigger, and the knots I’d made snapped under pressure, or refused to tighten.
I sighed, sitting back in the wooden chair and stretching my arms above my head, trying to pop my back and ease the cramped muscles. I yawned, then sagged forward, my arms dropping to my sides as I finally noticed the cup of cold elk tea, and the two young daughters, roughly four and five, sitting across from me, staring at me.
I stared back at them and glanced at the others. Nobody was paying any attention to us, so I stuck my tongue out and blew a raspberry at them. The two daughters looked at each other before they stuck out their tongues at me. Suddenly they froze, and like frogs who’d caught a fly pulled their tongues back into their mouths and sat up in their chairs.
The heady smell of cooked lobster caught my senses before a chipped white platter was placed next to my cup. I grabbed the armful of heavy netting, pulled it off the table, and kicked it beneath.
“Do you want my crochet hooks?” a soft and lyrical voice teased. My cheeks heated.
I blamed the growing heat from the two ovens.
“Nah, Jess, I think I’m good.” I pulled the platter closer to me.
Jess, or Jessica as the others called her, was wearing a white cotton dress that ended just above her knees. Her long red hair was tied back into a messy bun, with wisps of red escaping. Her skin was milky pale and caused the heavily inked black “M” under her right eye to seem bigger then it was.
“I’ll ask Fern if I can head into the Old Town to find another net.” I picked up the lobster, testing the strength of the shell before I turned it around to face me. It had been a big one, at least four pounds. Even in death the little bastard somehow looked victorious. Gripping the claws, I broke the shell at the joints and scooped out the meat. The two daughters gasped. I stretched across the table to hand it to them. They squealed, sharing the meat between them.
Jess hummed in response. “You should take Aaron with you; let him visit his mom.” Her soft copper eyes watched my every move.
“You think Rock will allow it?” I took the other claw and cracked it in half. I offered it up to her.
“I think Fern should have killed Rock years ago.” Jessica plucked the entire claw from my hands. “Just take Aaron with you. If Rock comes looking, my girls will cover for you.”
I grabbed the tail of the lobster and pulled the shell off. I shoved it in my mouth and chewed slowly. “Your girls?” I mumbled.
Jessica smiled. “Trust me, Burner.” She picked up the platter with the lobster remains on it while I licked my fingers clean. She tsked, shaking her head. “See that, Emily? Misha? What do we do with dirty fingers?”
“Wash them at the sink,” the two girls chimed.
I rolled my eyes.
As the room grew hotter, and the two daughters were tasked with removing the ends from a pile of green beans, I took my cup and quietly left through the back door. One of the daughters would find a use for the netting. Maybe a sewing project, or to help pea shoots climb in the garden. I didn’t know, but stepping out of the kitchen was a relief. Even though it was late summer, it was much cooler outside than inside. I took a moment to savor the sunshine, leaning my back against the white peeling paint of the house.
“Chatting up Jessica?” A sly and tired voice broke my moment of quiet.
“Not the way you want to.” I held up my mug at the two sun-bleached figures approaching me.
Albe and Danbe were identical twins with dirty blond hair and canines a bit too long for their mouths. They wore ripped jean shorts, moth-eaten tank tops, and were an inch or two taller than me. Both of them carried three medium-sized codfish in their hands, no doubt caught without poles. I waved my free hand at Danbe’s catch. He flashed back a toothy grin. I’d never heard him speak, and he couldn’t hear us speak, but he was our finest fisherman.
“Looks like a good catch.”
“Really good,” Albe agreed. “Fern told us to start salting the fish tomorrow, says we’re going to head inland earlier this year.”
“Is everybody at the beach?” I made an ocean wave-like motion with my hand before closing it then opening it to point at the path toward the beach.
Albe frowned. “Not entirely sure.” He turned to Danbe, shrugging.
Danbe thought for a moment before he readjusted his haul of fish and mock combed his hair before digging at the air.
“Eric’s digging for clams.” Albe glanced at me, confused. “Why?”
“Got to speak to Fern, you seen him?”
“Fern? I saw him by the pier, he’s trying to teach the new pups how to fish.” Albe nudged Danbe’s side and walked past me. He disappeared through the open kitchen door. Danbe gave me another smile and followed.
I finished my cup and leaned down to leave it safe in a tuft of grass away from any chance of it being kicked and broken. I pushed off the house and followed the worn path that Albe and Danbe had taken, walking past the herb gardens loaded with bees buzzing madly toward the pier.