May’s winning story
It’s a bright morning in the springtime and myself and Nora are chatting over the breakfast — thick slices of her brown bread and a jar of her raspberry jam. There’s a bit of tea left in the big blue pot under the knitted cosy but we won’t finish it. We never do. It’ll sit there all day under our noses until we clear it away for dinner.
Our dog Sally is stretched out by the range on her worn old cushion. It was a red check pattern once upon a time but it’s misty now with the years of her white hairs shedding into it. There’s no escaping those hairs in this house. You see them rising off her sometimes, drifting away across the room without her even moving. Settling on my jumper and Nora’s cardigan, mingling with the white hair on our own heads.
Sally rises and starts to whine, so I turn off the radio. “What is it, girl?”
But Sally doesn’t hear us or even see us. She walks into the wall, into the leg of the table. She turns in circles on the old flagstones, crying and lost.
I call the vet. We manage to lead Sally back to her cushion, and Nora sings to her in a low voice. Sally’s head shakes like it’s on springs. By the time the vet arrives, she’s back to normal. She has her head down, embarrassed by the attention, looking up at us from between the heavy curtains of her ears.
The vet is a young man, probably not long qualified. Not one I’ve seen before. He looks in her mouth, her eyes, her ears.
“She seems fine now,” he says. “How old is she?”
“Fifteen years,” I say. “We got her as a pup.”
“That’ll do it,” he says. He listens to Sally’s chest and back. Touches her legs. “At her age, it’s one thing or it’s another. Those fits will keep coming. I can give her an injection now, if you like?”
“An injection?” Nora says.
“It’d be a kindness.”
The house seems so quiet then, so empty even with us all clustered around her. I try to picture myself walking the valley trail without her trotting beside me.
“I thought we’d have more time,” I say.
He laughs. “Don’t we all.” We walk him to the front door. “I’ll come back Friday, so.”
That night I leave the water in the bath when I’m done. I dress quickly, and lift Sally from her spot by the range. She whimpers when I take her weight but she doesn’t struggle. I kneel by the tub and she lets out a long breath when I lower her in. My sleeves are up but not high enough, and the warm water soaks my shirt straight away. Her chin rests on my forearm and with the other hand I make long strokes down the length of her, keeping the water moving.
Nora comes in and kneels beside me. She has the old towel. She hums a little tune and Sally’s tail stirs in the water.
“Do you ever think,” Nora says. “Maybe we’ve Sally to thank for our health?”
“How do you mean?”
“We’ve no arthritis, no struggles. At our age? And Sally getting worse all the time. Do you think she stood in the way of all that? Took on the strain for us?”
I get a queer feeling in my stomach. I’m supposed to be giving Sally a good home, not laying my aches and pains upon her.
“That’s a bit mystic for my tastes, Nora. Where’s this coming from?”
“Maybe that’s what ‘man’s best friend’ really means.”
Then there’s just the sounds of Nora humming and Sally breathing. Small bubbles on the surface of the water when I let her head droop. The air warm and wet.
“I don’t want to hurt her,” I say.
“Every day we’re hurting her.”
Sally is stretched out, limp. I think she might go, then. That wouldn’t be too bad. I take her face in my hands, ruffle the thick curls under her jaw.
“You can go, if you want,” I tell her. “We’ll be fine.”
But she opens her eyes and tries to stand up, as if she’s not ready for that yet. We help her to her feet and she shakes, spraying the two of us before we can get out of the way.
Two days later she has the fit again. Lying on her bed she starts trembling all over, tries to stand up but can’t. The whining, the terrified yelps out of her. I can’t stand to see her suffering.
And then she’s fine again, licking at our hands and her own paws.
“When is the vet coming back?” Nora asks.
It’s already evening time. The two of us sitting, facing Sally. She’s lying on her bed enjoying the heat from the range.
“What do you think?” Nora says. “It’s probably the right thing to do.”
I keep my eyes on the old flagstones of the floor.
“Do you think it affects them, the vets? To put a dog down?”
“Maybe when they’re young,” I say. “They must get used to it. Wouldn’t last in the business otherwise.”
“I don’t know if I’d have the strength,” she says.
There’s a tightness in my shoulders, in my jaw and in my hands. It’s a different kind of strength needed on our side of it. To be there with them at the end, to see the light go out.
Her eyes glisten, and she says, “I’m not sure I can face it.”
I hold Nora until I can trust my voice again, and I say, “I’m going to bring her out in the morning, down the valley for a last walk.”
“That’ll be nice.”
“And I’ll dig a grave. For after it’s done.”
“I wish we didn’t have to.”
I leave Nora sleeping the next morning when I pad down the stairs and rouse Sally from her bed. “Come on, girl,” I whisper. She clambers to her feet and follows me out the back door.
“Are you able for this?” I ask her. She sniffs at the sandwich I have wrapped in my coat pocket.
The sun is out, but there’s no heat in it and the morning mist hasn’t let go yet. We go past the barn and the old milking shed, and I pick up the shovel on the way. We go across the lower field and through the gate at the end. All quiet these days, since I sold off the stock and leased out the land. Sally takes the lead, eager to be the one in front. Her bony hips stick out like wings. We leave a trail through the wet grass, green against the pale gleam around it. Her legs look skinny with the sopping hair pressed flat. I’ve the wellies on so I’m fine, but I hope she’s not cold.
We stop at the top of the hill and I sit on a rock, looking back towards the house. It sticks out of the earth like a blocky white tooth. The faded red barn behind it and the other sheds smattered around.
When I stand up, Sally wants to head over the other side of the hill. Another mile that way and we’d hit the big loop of the old valley trail. There’d be other people out walking with their own dogs, the trail soft underfoot where it winds through the woods. People saying hello when they pass, a cluster of activity at the car park. Plenty of good smells for Sally.
I call her back. “Not today, girl. This is as far as we go.”
The earth is soft and wet, hard to move with the shovel. It takes me a long time. I want to go deep so nothing will dig her back up. They say six feet but I don’t think I could climb out of that. The sweat is streaming off me when I sit back on the rock again. I take a few minutes’ rest and eat my sandwich. Good slices of yesterday’s ham, white bread. A bit of butter but no mustard. Sally won’t eat the crusts if there’s mustard.
I used to play up here when I was a boy. I’d run between the bramble thickets, swinging a stick like a sword, shouting and jumping all day. I’d imagine what it was like to have friends and brothers and sisters to play with.
I wonder if Sally had any of the same thoughts, in her own dog way. Did she wish for someone who could keep up with her, when she was young? Someone else who could burst around the place all day long, a child or a few of them, a match for her pure energy.
“I’m sorry we never had anyone,” I say. They’d be grown by now, of course. But they could have had children of their own. More lives, more movement and noise around the place. “Maybe we should’ve let you have puppies. That might’ve satisfied something in us all.”
She sits beside me and the weight of her is warm against my leg.
“You like it up here, don’t you?” I say. She’s panting, her big dark lips spread out in a dog grin, her eyes half-closed. “You can watch over everything.”
Nora will be up by now, her dread turning to doubts. She’ll be questioning it, ready to convince me when I get back that we should send the vet away. That Sally’s still got life in her yet. Maybe he’s been and gone already. And Nora will feel even worse next time Sally has the fit. When the back legs go and she can’t even stand up any more, Nora’ll wish it was over already. That one of us had the strength.
Sally’s sniffing at the edge of the hole. I swing the shovel like a sledgehammer and the flat of the blade takes her in the neck. There’s a crack and she’s flung forward into the wet grass as if I’ve kicked her. Then not a sound out of her, not a flicker of movement.
At the crumpling of her body, my mind is changed. I’m reaching out for her, babbling high in my throat that I’m sorry. The shovel is gone, dropped, and I’m on my knees pleading. I want to take it back. I don’t know how long I spend there talking nonsense and crying through my teeth, squeezing her warm body against me. Her head lolls at the wrong angle, but her face is serene. Her coat is soft as ever but she’s heavy, much heavier than ever before, cooling and stiffening already.
I roll her into the grave, glad now that I dug it here and not down by the house. She got to feel the wind and the grass again, and take that with her when she went. And Nora didn’t have to see it.
The first few shovelfuls are the hardest. I keep expecting her to hop to her feet and shake it all off. I have to look away, get lost in the labour of it. The work is hard and it has my chest thumping. When I come back to myself, I remember what I’ve done, and I have to stop, shaking. The land has never looked so lonely and deserted.
Nora is out in the back yard when I come trudging home. She sees the dirt and the mud on me. She sees the shovel in my hands, weighing me down. Her whole body scrunches up and she runs back into the house. I go inside to sit in the kitchen by the range, and I can hear her crying, from the other room, from everywhere.
Later, in the evening, she draws me a bath. I’m in the steaming water but I still feel cold. She’s sitting on the closed lid of the toilet, looking dim and pale through the mist. We’ve not spoken yet.
She’s brought us each a glass of whiskey. Every sip I take spreads warm tendrils through my middle, but they fade away before they reach my hands and feet. Like a fire in the rain that doesn’t want to start.
I’m aching all over from the shovelling. My arm is in bits.
“The vet never showed up,” Nora says.
A new ripple of exhaustion passes over me and I lean my head back against the tub. I could fall asleep right here. When I close my eyes the room spins, so I keep them open. I reach out my hand to take hers, and pain shoots up my shoulder again when I hold her fingers in mine.
“Nora,” I say. “Will you sing for me?”
Brendan Fahy grew up in Co Galway and lives in Dublin, where he works as a software engineer. His first short story, ‘The Cuckoo’, was published in Sonder magazine in 2019. He is working on his first novel.
New Irish Writing, edited by Ciaran Carty and appearing in the Irish Independent on the last Saturday of each month, is open to writers who are Irish or resident in Ireland. Stories submitted should not exceed 2,000 words. Up to four poems may be submitted. There is no entry fee. Writers whose work is selected will receive €120 for fiction and €60 for poetry. You can email your entry, preferably as a Word document, to email@example.com. Please include your name, address and contact number, as well as a brief biographical paragraph. Only writers who have yet to publish their first book can be considered.