Someone had nailed a sign to a tree at the entrance of the path into the woods. A scrappy bit of lined notepaper, torn from some schoolkid’s notebook, I figured. ‘WORNING – TURN BAK’. Guess whoever left it wasn’t acing their English homework. Last night’s drizzle had impregnated the ink and patches of blue stains had blossomed. I heard a noise behind me, a whine, and looked over my shoulder, the curled piece of paper forgotten.

“C’mon Ash! Let’s get going.” I peered up at the fragments of sky visible through the canopy, gradually transforming into a dusky hue. Ash gave a bark of joy and on we continued down the route we both knew and loved.

About ten minutes down the trail, I glanced back at Ash, wondering what was keeping him. I thought he’d just gone to do his business, so walked on a few steps to afford him some privacy. But the movement of his comma of a tail indicated something of interest, if not one hundred percent delight. I could hear his usual contented snufflings growing amplified, a soft growl emerging as he tried to free whatever treasure he had found from the earth’s clutches.

As I sighed and stepped forward to give the mutt a hand, or encouragement to leave it, depending on what I should find with a triumphant yelp he pulled free, the comma now an apostrophe as he scrambled over the ground towards me. The patch of woodland on the outskirts of our town was a haven for dogs and their walkers, as I was reminded by paw prints of all shapes and sizes in the dirt beneath our feet whenever I brought Ash there.

Christ. After all that it was only a stick. He dropped his prize by my feet, eyes imploring me for praise while his tongue lolled out of the side of his mouth, panting with his efforts.

“Yes, well done boy. Thank you.” I bent to pick it up to throw it for him. Then immediately dropped it as the darn thing became a hot poker in my hand. “Jesus!” I guess it was the sudden head rush of bending to pick something off the floor, but fairy lights twinkled in my eyes as the trees seemed to fade and swim in the background. Only the stick remained in focus. Must’ve been a trick of the light as it caught the final glint of a ray of evening sun, but it seemed to glow bright red for a second.

“Give that back please.”

Ash whined, while I slowly (not wanting to turn this head rush into a full on fainting fit) turned around.

An odd little figure stood there, looking like a four foot burlap sack on legs. He had a straggly bird’s nest beard that was tucked into a frayed rope belt gathered at his waist beneath furious black eyes. One hand carried a book. I couldn’t make out the name, but it looked pretty old, like the leather-bound ones my grandparents used to keep behind a glass door on top of their bookshelf, out of the way from my hands that seemed to attract muck the way flowers attract bees. The other hand brandished a frying pan, of all things. It had been hastily scraped of some herbal concoction I couldn’t pin down, but inhaling the remaining scents seem to make things a little wavy again.

“The stick?” I said, stupidly.

The stranger’s eyebrows drew together. “Of course the stick,” he said, then mumbled, “If that’s what you pickled-brain oafs want to call it.”

I bent again, more carefully this time. Ash was cowering behind me and still emitting whines. He could be quite the sensitive dog when the mood took him, and now seemed to be pretty much vibrating with tension. Past the twittering of thrushes and swallows and the swishing as the trees shook their leafy skirts, I heard a rattling noise.

“Bah!” The jumble of rags and tassels jerked his head back to check on a makeshift tent I hadn’t clocked before. I’d probably been checking the time on my phone, which instantly draws me to check the news, dismiss emails about competitions I’d never entered, and end up staring at photos of folks I sometimes only half-remember posting pictures of drinks on tables or holding up big fish they’d caught. How I wish they dropped their devices into the sea at times. Then I’d have to look at my phone again, realizing after I’d put it in my pocket I still didn’t know what the time was. I’d been trying to judge how many more trails of scents on trees Ash was allowed to inspect in order to make it back to my flat in time to catch the day’s game.

Rough sleepers get attached to stuff I guess. Understandable, when you don’t have much to call your own. It just looked like a stick to me. I tried to inconspicuously wipe a trace of Ash-slobber off it before handing it over, and noticed a funny etching on it, like a little X with a roof shape on the top. There was also a gleaming stone in one end of it. I thought perhaps tiger’s eye, but didn’t have time to confirm while the stick, weirdly now as cold as a freeze pop, was snatched from my hand. One of this guy’s surprisingly long fingernails left a scratch on my hand. Bet that guy has a fine old time trying to wipe his butt, I thought, then wished I hadn’t.

I watched him shuffle away, quite quickly for someone who looked like they’d been pulled out a sack race at a care home, back to his little den and toward things that sounded like they were about to bubble over. I heard a noise like some kid had lit up a pack of sparklers all at once. I took that as mine and Ash’s cue to head back home.

We didn’t return to that route for around a fortnight or so. Life got busy and it was easier to let Ash do his business in the city park (I picked up after him, of course. I’m not an animal). Finally, however, a Sunday came around where I’d got on top of chores enough to be able to treat Ash to a bit of a more scenic, lengthier walk.

Ash usually bounded on ahead of me, diving after god knows what in the grassy clumps that lined the well-trodden path. Today he dragged his heels a little bit though, lingering by my side while I pointed out things of interest like we were on a father and son outing and I was cultivating a future biologist instead of trying to get a dog to poop.

I eventually twigged he was probably remembering that encounter with the homeless guy from last time. I hadn’t given him much thought really, switching on the TV right away when we’d got back in that day. Then the rest of life happening, as it can always be relied upon doing.

As we approached where I thought the little dude had set up shop, I thought perhaps my memory had gotten a little rusty, as there was a clearing where I thought many branches, sheets, laundry lines and pots had converged last time. Or maybe he’d moved on, tired of dogs running off with his precious twigs. Good luck finding a wood where that won’t happen, fella.

Ash trotted on past me for the first time, following his perpetually damp nose. I followed, concerned he might be off to forage for more family heirlooms. I found him gingerly stepping around a patch of scorched earth that a ring of little white mushrooms had somehow forced themselves to flourish in. There’s a name they give for it in children’s books, I think.

While Ash waddled away to go piss on some tree, I respectfully turned my back while he cocked his leg figuring the cocking was probably going to become squatting soon enough. I got the carrier bag out of my jacket pocket ready for scooping and as I gazed at the dainty fungi again, it came to me. A fairy ring. That’s what they called it in all those magical kid’s books with princesses riding on unicorns towards castles in the sky on the covers.

A head butting my ankles told me Ash had finished up. I hunkered down to collect and as I straightened back up again I damn near evacuated my own bowels as I heard a voice at my shoulder clearly mutter “Oafs!” But there wasn’t anybody there, save Ash with his head leaning to one side like he’d heard something too. His round brown eyes gave me no explanation, only a look of concern I was probably just projecting onto them, plus myself reflected in them in miniature, surrounded by trees. I had an urge to look up at the one I’d just been tending to the roots of. About twenty feet above me, definitely too high for a dinky sack to reach, was carved an X with a little ^ on the top.

In the evening sun, the marks looked like they were glowing. A bark drew my attention back to the base of the tree, where one of the local youths had spray painted a door, like those mouse hole shapes you see in cartoons.

The door swung open.

The tramp’s face was twisted in anger, looking much like the tree bark that surrounded it. “You two again! What right do you think you have to come here, shitting all over my doorstep?”

Before I could reply, the end of the stick he held in his hand started emitting sparks. The gem I thought was tiger’s eye rolled grotesquely in its socket, then started glowing scarlet. I became transfixed by the spidery veins in the sclera. Then white noise hit my ears as I scrunched up my eyes against the lightning flashes that came from the tip of the stick.

I woke up to find a concerned man looking down at me. “C’mon Ash,” he said. “Let’s get you home.” I had no choice but to obey, tail between my legs.

November 21, 2019 18:12

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