You can hear me read this story on Episode #55 of R.B. Wood’s The Word Count Podcast. The three-word story prompt was: Dog. Wheelchair. Addiction. It’s a terrific podcast, and in this episode you can also hear stories by C. Thomas Smith (‘Doug Needs Mary’), and Eden Baylee (‘The Runner’).

Enemies(1)

Nemesis

What do I remember? I remember blood and fire. I remember sky and earth rent by dragon claws. I remember my father dying. I remember wanting to slay his killer with my own hands. But that was long ago. Today I’m sitting outside a Starbucks on Robson Street in Vancouver, squinting at the sun, listening to the rattle of coins in my cup.

“Where’d you lose your leg, bro?” the guy asks as he drops his change.

“Vimy Ridge, 1917.”

He laughs.

“Right. And the scar on your cheek?”

“Gettysburg, 1863.”

“You’re crazy, dude. Nice dog, though.”

Another rattle in the cup.

“Much obliged,” I say, warming my fingers in grey fur.

I know my cup mostly rattles because of him, because of his soft ears and brown eyes, not because of me, or the wheelchair, or the cardboard sign: “War veteran. Please help. God bless.”

The wheelchair’s not so bad. Pity and scorn are worse. The wheelchair is useful, at least. It takes me to the bar for a cold beer on welfare Wednesday. It brings me to the soup kitchen for food.

What more do I remember? At the siege of Jerusalem, I ate the flesh of men to regain my strength. At Agincourt, I threw the bones of the dead into the underworld. At Borodino, I flared like a young sun once again, drinking my fill of blood and souls. In every battle, I searched for my enemy, knowing he’d fallen out of the wreckage of the past, just like I had. Knowing he’d come to feed on the sound of steel and pain, just like I did.

“Nice dog, mister.”

The boy is small and dark and not afraid of my scraggly beard or ragged scars. Once upon a time I might have had him bled dry at midwinter, hung in a tree with the other sacrifices – ravens ripping at him then – but those days are gone. I’m sitting outside Starbucks and I smile.

“Can I pet him?”

“Sure.”

“Where’d you get him?”

“I’ve had him since he was a pup.”

I don’t tell the boy that I fed him better than my children, or that he slept in my bed – more often than my concubines, closer than my wife.

“Ty, you want a beer? Or something stronger?”

It’s Cliff. I know he’ll bring me a pack of smokes and a six-pack if I ask, or a bottle of cheap vodka, or even a hit or two of lovely heroin for a small fee. I understand addiction: I’ve dipped into that well many times, finding fragile bits of bliss. These days I’m trying to stay clean, so I give Cliff a few bucks and send him on his way.

Cliff’s alright, just broken by shrapnel and nightmares. Like me, he’s seen enough war. I used to revel in the smell of flesh and gunpowder, the feel of bones breaking beneath my feet. But in the end, even I left the battlefield broken and empty.

Once, the Valkyries shouted my name in the heavens. They fell to earth, and so did I. We wandered. We were crippled. Then, we died. Death was sleep, a few centuries of rest before I’d shake off the dirt and rise again, to feed again. There was always somewhere to feed. There is always war.

But it was the search for my enemy that drove me. I still don’t know what paths he traveled before we met again. Maybe he hunted for me, as I hunted for him. Maybe he traversed the vast realms below and above, instead of this small and cramped middle world.

When I finally found him, my leg had just been blown off by a mine, and he was bleeding out, sprawled in the mud at the bottom of a trench at Vimy. He saw me and he knew me, as I knew him, even though we were both shrunken and aged.

I understood then that I was tired of war and godhood.

Yes, I thought, he took my hand and he killed Odin, but only because I deceived him first.

“How’d you lose your hand, mister?”

It’s that boy again. He’s looking at the stump sticking out of my sleeve, and he’s brought me a cup of coffee. A donut, too: chocolate and sprinkles. That deserves something in return.

“Once upon a time there was a god called Týr, and he took in a wolf pup called Fenris. That pup grew so big and fierce that people feared what it might do, and they forged an invisible leash strong enough to hold it. Then they asked Týr, who loved that wolf more than anything in the world, to help them shackle it.”

“Did he?”

“Yes, he did. And when the wolf realized that Týr had betrayed it, it ripped off his hand.”

The boy glances at Fenris.

“Did the wolf ever get loose?”

“Yes.”

“What happened then?”

“I’ll tell you tomorrow, if you bring me another donut.”

The boy nods, giving Fenris an extra scratch before scampering off.

“Hey man, leash your damn dog!” someone shouts across the street.

“Shut up!” I shout back, rubbing Fenris’s ears.

He remembers the leash, and so do I. I carried it with me long enough. But I lost it in the mud at Vimy. Couldn’t find it, couldn’t see it anymore. Sometimes I think it bonds us still. And sometimes I know that something even stronger binds us together now.

© Maria Haskins 2016.

Urnes_animals

Photo from Urnes Stave Church, by Nina Aldrin Thune – Processing by John Erling

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