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Contemporary Fantasy Fiction

Cedar trees that grow close together become joined at the top, Max had heard. That is why when some get cut down, others around them become vulnerable to high winds and destruction. When his people had first come from California, the trees were dense in his yard—a magical forest.  But his family had cleared the land and filled in the natural landscape to extend the area around the pool. ­­High winds had followed, uprooting more of the trees and leaving a sad, scraggly terrain between the yard and the creek and the neighboring property. Open and ugly, not richly textured and mysterious as it once had been. 

At least in the center of the circle that all the homes on the cul-de-sac shared, the trees were still intact. That circle had been the meeting place for creatures of all sorts, both nocturnal and diurnal—the winged kind, the small ones with eight legs, some who liked to burrow and make mounds, others who liked to slither or climb, the masked ones who came out at night to sniff and sometimes attack the garbage bags, the lone possum with pale eyes, various felines—a strange and incomprehensible species to Max—and of course canines like himself, the best. A plethora of life forms who shared the earth space with no fences or property lines. . . . 

Max stepped into his neighbor’s garden and peered into the bedroom window. The heater was humming; the inhabitants wouldn’t notice him this time. He saw Darby stretched out on the window seat like little Lord Fauntleroy, his nose extended into the lush pillows, and Emma curled up next to her mother on the bed, with a book and a pair of glasses beside them. What a scene! 

Max rarely thought of class difference, of lifestyle discrepancies. But on this chilly day when his own yard had frost on it, he mused upon the difference in the way creatures lived. Of course, he had the swimming pool—dirty and cold as it was at present—and the larger yard. He also had balls—Darby had lost his as a young lad, though he was known to do Elvis impressions around attractive females—dry, ineffectual movements that would never produce offspring. What a waste! And Emma, sweet as she was, also sterile. The pair would always be naïve, unworldly, in a way that Max—virile, boisterous, daring—contrasted. 

He sniffed around to see if there was any new evidence of their outings. None. Being in their yard made him envious and contemptuous at the same time. The envy largely concerned food. They got morsels of turkey and chicken, bread and butter, grapes cut or bit in half, ice cream, and biscuits. Even their regular meal was a mixture of wet and dry, stirred up in a kind of stew. Thinking about the meaty chunks of moist, scrumptious canned canine concoctions stirred into a generous portion of superior dry nibbles with just the right amount of water made Max salivate. Max and Bear—he couldn’t forget his older chum—only got dry food—a more plebian brand, and not enough of that. They would wolf down (no pun intended) their portion and immediately want more. The outdoor air stirred up the appetites so. But one cup twice a day was all they got. Rarely did they receive biscuits or special treats. Oh, there was the occasional bone tossed onto the back terrace, or a holiday chew. All too rare. 

What else did he envy? Well, warm baths instead of cold ones (a dip in the pool or a run through the creek generally sufficed for him), trips to a proper vet instead of to a clinic, where the waiting lines tended to be long and tedious, and the softness of a bed. Oh yes, and temperature control. And perhaps a less junky yard, though he contributed his share to the mess. He was fond of tearing off the limbs of stuffed animals and strewing them about, and who could resist the twice-weekly fun of mutilating a garbage bag and spreading the contents around the front yard and street? But no one could blame him for the rusty metal, scattered auto parts, half-finished projects, piles of lumber, broken down tree limbs, and muddy terrain of his yard. Still, Max wouldn’t exchange his life for Darby and Emma’s, his roving, adventurous spirit for their namby-pamby ways. 

At least they didn’t wear scarves, as their predecessor had done. That boy, Sunny—a mutt in fact, though his people never used the m-word around him—had been in several television commercials and had a wardrobe of scarves, hats, sweaters, and even a little sailor hat with a matching scarf—ridiculous to Max, who didn’t even wear a collar with ID anymore.  He liked the feeling of freedom on his body, especially around his neck. 

In their house a photograph of Sunny and his mom showed them both in sailor outfits, winning some sort of prize for best look-alike pet and owner, next to the runners up, a young man with spiked out hair in a black leather jacket with a small iguana on his shoulder, also wearing a black leather jacket. A contest not even for talent—only looks! Yet another picture showed poor Sunny positioned at a sewing machine, as if he were actually sewing! And then there was a memorial collage with feathers attached to his shoulders, as if he were now an angel, framed in a shadowbox with glass beads all around it. 

What strange things humans did in their quest to favor nurture over nature, Max thought. Even the word “owner” bothered him; how could anyone own another? He preferred the attitude of indigenous peoples toward land, creatures, water, and sky, which he learned about from another dog who had heard tales passed down from earlier, wolfish ancestors just beginning to be domesticated. “All my relations” was a mindset he could relate to—when he lay beneath the whispering trees at nightfall, when he heard the singing of the stars, he knew that all lifeforms had a purpose and are interconnected. 

Still, it was easy in his position to have contempt for others along with envy. For one reason, it was said that he, a German Shepherd, could learn anything. Anything! Many did not discern his great intelligence, partly because of his unkempt appearance and outdoor ways—how he hated being judged for his exterior self or called a derogatory name such as mongrel, cur, fleabag, or even tail-wagger. Didn’t people know that words could hurt? Of course, he could learn anything a two-legged creature could teach him, though he laughed when he heard Darby’s mom describing a trick some canine in a film had performed. The poor lad had to put his head between his forearms, which rested on a velvet chair, and count to 20 while his mistress hid some inane object and then look for it as she called out “fetch.” Max wouldn’t stoop to such androcentric madness. His fetching had been largely with torn-up footballs, old athletic shoes, mud-stained tennis balls. He was quick and sure, instinctive and glorious, as he ran and fetched, and he never tired, unlike Darby and Emma. They would be classified as “indoor elitists” by their vet—only one step down from “indoor pampered,” the canine caste that rarely touches bare earth and never associates with outdoor strays. He himself was an “outdoor enthusiast / socialite” with free, unsupervised roaming privileges—but the latter only because he knew how to escape the confines of the fence. 

His mind wandered to Bear, whom he had known all his life, since his own puppyhood and adoption two years ago. In human tabulation, that would make him 14 now (two times seven), he realized. In the prime of life. Bear, by contrast, was 91 (13 times seven)—quite an old guy. A chocolate lab with deep brown eyes, Bear had come from California with their people three years ago. He complained bitterly about both the heat and the cold in Texas, about his arthritis, about how no one even gave him glucosamine to keep his joints flexible. No telling how much longer Bear would live. His days consisted of lying around the yard, moving occasionally so that stiffness would not set in, and incessant barking. His eyes still glowed, but his fur was dirty and stiff, and his elbows calloused.  Emma was the same breed—Max didn’t like to think about breed distinctions, though they were there, nonetheless—but she was nubile, carefree, happy with any weather, and Pollyannaish in disposition, in the best sense of the term. Pollyanna, he recalled, had a four-legged companion, and helped to transform a town—a sign of strength rather than naivety, in his mind. Not that he had ever seen the movie, as Darby and Emma might have, being indoor elitists. No, his own learning was from street and yard discourse, from conversing with anyone he encountered in his frequent jaunts.

Max felt a little jealousy in the bond of breed that Emma and Bear shared, but surely everyone could see that he and Emma were the most compatible of the four. Darby, jealous by nature and a herder—half Australian Shepherd and half Blue Heeler—had tried to keep them separate. But Max and Emma, being similar in age and playfulness, always gravitated together.  Whenever she came over, Darby was on the lookout for any sign of trouble, and sometimes he actually charged at her to bring her back home, as if she were to blame for her natural social instincts and needed herding. Not everyone understood females as he, Max, did! He prided himself in knowing something about the autonomy and liberation that others craved, especially if they were thrust into situations of subservience.  

Max looked again into the window. They had all gotten up and were probably in the kitchen, enjoying some tasty morsels. Perhaps if he waited by the back door, their mother, his own current caregiver, would let them out to play. She did so occasionally but was displeased by his influence upon them, as all three would run around the yard and then Max would lead them down the hill into the creek. Max was used to the sensation of being dirty and cold or hot or wet or dry, as conditions changed. But Darby and Emma had to get their undersides, feet, and forearms cleaned every time they were transgressive by going into the creek. Transgressive! A delicious word, like illicit, scallywag, reprobate, bigamist, polygamist. He was all of these, and proud of it! Not affected, obedient, genteel, chaste, reserved, cautious, as some others were. He fully lived! Passion and freedom were his métier! His tour de force!  

He lay on the mat at the neighbor’s back door. In the distance, he could hear Bear barking. Forget Bear, he told himself. Bear would be fine on his own. Bear never strayed from the yard, never found the mysterious missing plank in the fence, never cared to go fool around with the bitch chained up on the other side of the fence, even though Bear still had his jewels, rusty as they were. 

Max knew that he himself was the one who had knocked up Mocha. Strange expression. In England it simply meant to knock on someone’s door—he had learned that from an English Setter in the next block. But here—and suddenly he thought back nostalgically to the moments of effervescent and salacious exchange, after sniffs and licks and other elements of heightened foreplay, and then the unfolding drama of pregnancy and birth.  Life—the endless cycle. Max, progenitor of the neighborhood. Quite a reputation.  

If Darby and Emma’s house and yard represented one world and his another, the house on the corner was the third world, with many people crowded into the house and vehicles crammed into the driveway. The beautiful cedar trees had been stripped from the property, to make room for all the cars, and junk lay all over the back yard. And then there was poor Mocha. A pit bull, she was feared, though she herself was submissive and cowardly. Chained up, outside but near a tiny doghouse, her life was confined to an eight-foot area. She could see through the fence to his yard and must be tortured by the freedom that he and Bear enjoyed. Only prison—some called it kennel—could be worse.  

Five tiny mixtures of Mocha and Max (their names sounded grand together, he thought) emerged a few months after their frolic. What cuteness! They were not bound by a chain, only by the need to suck on their mother’s teats. Two of them disappeared almost immediately—Max thought that one had died and one given away prematurely, though Mocha never explained. Three lived and would bound over to his yard for a few minutes of paternal comradery before hunger or sleepiness struck, or they would run out into the circle drive of the cul de sac—a fearful thing since Mocha could only bark helplessly, and Max was no example to them in behavior. But Max knew about cars. And trucks. And SUVs. And motorcycles. And bicycles. And skateboards—virtually all means of wheeled human transport. The young ones did not. Two more disappeared, but Max surmised it was through adoption, not demise. 

The back door opened. “Max, go home.”  Darby and Emma’s mother was not in the mood for wiping off creek jumpers, he could tell. “I’ll come over to give you supper in a while.” Supper.  That one measly cup of cheap, dry food that his owners apportioned. He whined and jumped up on her, his muddy forefeet making a marvelous stamp-like print on her blouse. 

“Get down.” Oh, why couldn’t they see his plight, his true existential condition, his yearning for companionship? Why couldn’t she love him, as she loved Darby and Emma? He whined again. His dogged determination would surely win her over. 

“Ok, but let’s go over to your yard to play.” She opened the door to let Darby and Emma out. Max jumped up in ecstasy. The three dogs sniffed and circled, Darby wary, Emma oblivious to anything but delight. The three ran over to Max’s driveway and to the back gate, which Darby’s mom had to slide open for them. The last remaining pup—Cinnamon, she called him—joined them, her tiny, dirty, uncollared body quivering with exuberance as she wriggled under the gate just as it slid closed. “That’s my girl,” thought Max. “Unafraid of anyone—even the big guys.” 

Bear got up after the third or fourth attempt, his forearms wobbly and threatening to collapse beneath him, and the five canines—black and white, yellow, chocolate, brown-mixed, and cinnamon—created a huddle of wagging tails and alert noses. From her pocket, Darby’s mom pulled out a biscuit for each of them, saying “Bone appetite!” even though the dry biscuit was no savory bone, and the pun was lost on the others. Everyone but Cinnamon was asked to sit for the treat and did so. Bear and Max inhaled theirs, fearing it would be snatched away, while Emma and Darby, indoor elitists that they were, chomped more politely. Cinnamon didn’t know what to make of the long, hard object and gingerly gnawed on one end. Max wanted to snatch it from her, but she was just a baby, so he fought an inner battle, and paternal self-sacrifice won. 

Family. How he missed them—the boy Jaime, who played and ran with him every day, the girl Daniella, who talked to him at least, though she was partial to that little wimpy, long-haired Gizmo creature. What was his breed? Max could never remember the name, but it was the kind that people felt needed help from a hairdresser to look presentable. Then, of course, his owners, who were fond of Max but ignored him, though occasionally they gave him commands in Spanish; luckily, he was bilingual and glad of that fact. He remembered how he had gotten into the blue paint when they painted the pool, and instead of washing him, they allowed his fur to retain the bright blue spots—mostly around his neck and ears—for months.  

How could they go off, with Gizmo in the car, to California for three whole weeks and leave him and Bear to the neighbor’s care? Gizmo had apparently created a scandal in California by impregnating a Chihuahua—one of the relatives’—according to Darby’s mom, who talked to Max’s people on the phone and faithfully came over three or four times a day to feed, water, and otherwise check on them. But it wasn’t the same as having a family present, of people coming in and out of the house, yelling at them sometimes for their slovenly, canine habits. 

What would happen? He had heard them talking before the trip about checking on job situations out there. Would they decide to move back to California (putting Bear down first, as they said he couldn’t make the trip)? Would he, Max, become a Californian, leaving behind the big yard and pool in Texas, along with Darby, Emma, Mocha, Cinnamon, Bear—in short, everything and everyone he had known and loved, aside from his people?  

Max looked with nostalgia at the signatures, Daniella’s and Jaime’s, and their ages, 10 and 11, in the new concrete of the driveway, which his people had extended into the back yard. Then he glanced over at the little lemon tree they had planted, covered in plastic to protect it from the North Texas winter, and at the line of cactus plants—experiments in transplanting that might not last.  His people were like that, too, fragile and uncertain in the Texas environs. He alone—well, aside from Gizmo, but a little frou-frou dog could hardly count—was a sturdy, stalwart Texan, with strong roots here. Despite his bravado, a tear welled up in each eye, so he turned his head away from Darby, Emma, Bear, and Cinnamon, before running to get the torn and dirty football on the off chance that Darby’s mama would throw it for him. And here it came!

April 22, 2022 16:51

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1 comment

Felice Noelle
22:00 May 04, 2022

Anne: By the way, I liked your bio. Hi, I am your this week's friendly Critique Circle commentator. Hoping that you are enjoying your experiences here on Reedsy with this friendly cadre of excellent writers, readers, and most of all tellers of stories. I didn't catch on to the sneaky smart POV until I'd read a couple paragraphs, but I writing from the little dog's life. I almost teared up at his yearning and loneliness. If only dogs could talk, but Max was pretty clever at communicating his wants and needs. I really identified with th...


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