I've gotten into the habit each year around this time of trying to conjure up an appropriate story for Halloween. This particular one was written a year or two back. While the connection between felines and witchcraft has a long history, Tinker Bell thought it was a little insulting that canines (excepting, of course, wolves) have been largely excluded from tales of the supernatural. At which point it dawned on me that I'd never really read a story specifically about a Hell Hound. So, with the help and inspiration of my own miniature hell hound, who is this moment ferociously licking my toes under the desk, I give you Stillman's Dog. Enjoy and have a happy and safe Halloween.
When I’ve got time to wait here, sitting on the old log carved up with more initials, prayers, promises and foul language than could fill a volume, I think back to my grandpa. If I had the inclination I bet could find his initials somewhere on this log. Or maybe his first wife’s name, which I only ever heard him speak aloud but once.
Growing up my sisters and I thought he was a bit funny, quirky rather, but it wasn’t until I was much older that I added up all those pieces to see a very different picture. Like the bandage he always wore around the palm of his right hand. Over the summers when we would visit from out east, my sisters would spend more time with their grandmother, baking and doing whatever else it is that girls do when visiting grandmothers. Grandpa Stillman would take me fishing, or tell me stories about the Native Americans that lived in these parts centuries before. He claimed it was one of their old trails that led him to the very goldmine which would make our family a fortune, and later make him the first Mayor of Stillman, Montana.
I remember one time, I must have been about seven, and my sisters and I had just been to Disney World, so we brought all of our treasures and trinkets with us when we came to visit. I had one of those leashes for an invisible dog, and I must have walked the thing over every inch of every acre of the land around the estate. Grandpa pulled me aside one afternoon and confided to me that he had an invisible dog too. I can still taste the pipe tobacco from his mouth like a translucent wrapper around each word he spoke.
“Dogs can be a great friend to you or a vicious and terrifying beast, but all of em are loyal as hell, and I do mean that literally. But no matter what. You must always, always feed your dog. No. Matter. What.” That last part he highlighted with a swish of his long, bony and liver-spot speckled finger.
I’d never seen him with a dog, or with any animal for that matter, so I thought he was just being strange. I filed that information away in my head along some of the other peculiar things he did, like filling a watering can each night with earth from the large glass jars he kept in the shed, and pouring out a fine line under each windowsill and doorway. Always it was gone by the time I woke up, well after sunrise, but I saw him come creep into my room at night and pour out that dirt. I pretended to be asleep, but if, as I pretty well suspect, he knew I was awake, it didn’t bother him a lick. One time I could have sworn he looked back at me over his shoulder and gave me a funny little grin that parted his mustache like a white curtain and made his dark eyes twinkle under his bushy white brows.
Still got another twenty minutes, so sayeth the old silver pocket watch he left for me. Kronos, he called it. Doesn’t need any winding, any maintenance at all he said. Had some special jeweler in New York make it for him, and just to be extra sure he would keep his weekly appointment, he had it inscribed with a phrase in his inimitable script. “You must always feed your dog.”
Always on Thursday nights, around ten at night, while my sisters and I were supposed to be sleeping, I would see from my window as light from the house spilled out onto the back porch and path, and then vanished as the door shut. And grandpa would walk out a few steps, flip open his silver pocket watch, and then stride off into the darkness, moving quietly but with purpose. He was always back in the morning as if nothing had happened. The only difference was on Friday mornings, he always had a fresh bandage around his right hand. I asked him a dozen times where he went and each time he would respond with something vague – that he had been to a place that was betwixt and between, or that he had to go feed his dog, or sure up his investments for the future.
It was the summer I was eleven that I finally mustered the courage to follow him. While he’d never strictly forbidden me or my sisters from doing so, the look that came across his face when he asked if we could go with him always made us think twice about asking again. It wasn’t that he was angry about it, which would have probably been less odd. It was an expression we only ever saw on those few occasions when we asked. I can’t speak for my sisters, but for me, it was like suddenly a mask had slid off of his face and beneath was someone I’d never seen before.
I know now, of course, that it was fear.
Ten minutes left, so it’s time to prepare for my weekly rendezvous. Give me just a moment, while I unwrap the bandage around my right hand and remove the wickedly curved blade from the sheath hanging from my belt. Moon’s out tonight and I catch a near perfect reflection of it on the cool metal, pocked with little tick marks that a professor once told me was a long dead language called cuneiform. I could tell he was impressed because he’d whispered the words like he was nervous that the blade might hear him talking about it.
But I want to finish up before my friend arrives. Where was I… Eleven. It was the summer I was eleven that I decided to sneak out after my grandpa and see what he was up to. It was the last night that my sisters and I were staying there before returning home to our folks to start the school year. I gave him a good ten minute head start on me and wore all black, with bootblack smeared all over my face. Thought I was all smart and stealthy like a ninja. I trailed him up about three quarters of a mile to the intersection where, for reasons I have never understood, Road Street becomes Street Road (although both are no more than glorified dirt paths). I ducked into the woods and the shadows the few times grandpa Stillman stopped and made as if to turn around. But he didn’t.
So I hid there. And I waited. And I watched. Grandpa Stillman, he just sat there on this same log I’m sitting on now, staring out into the dark. It felt like I waited there for an eternity with every manner of insect buzzing in my ears and biting me, and my legs starting to cramp up from being in an awkward crouch, but just as I was about to leave, everything got quiet. The crickets and birds and who all knows what else all went dead silent. Grandpa noticed it too – he stood up, dusted off his pants and went out to the center of the intersection. With his hands out in an “I mean you no harm” sort of position.
I heard a sound like the rumble of a low engine and what sounded like two sets of footfalls, one right behind the other, crunching on the dirt and gravel road. But no one was there. I peered closer, and watched Grandpa unwind the bandage from his hand, and then raise the blade, the one I hold now, up over his head. The crunching sound got closer, right up next to me, and I smelled something foul, but I stayed put. Then the crunching stopped – I could feel every nerve in my body screaming, the hair on my neck stood up and I watched as two puffs of steam hit me square in the face from the nostrils of an animal that wasn’t there. I was looking right at, right through it, and I knew it was there. I could feel its menace. The smell of its breath, like the very worst kind of rot, made me gag, but still I remained frozen. And then the foot falls resumed.
“Well, let’s get on with it then,” Grandpa said as he drew the blade across his palm, reopening the gash that his bandages concealed. He held out his hand and it seemed to disappear into the creature’s invisible maw, accompanied by a sickening slurping sound.
This went on for some minutes, grandpa going white as a sheet, until finally the sounds died out and he withdrew his hand. He wrapped back up his hand and things would have been fine, except that a twig snapped under me and I shifted my weight, rattling a branch. Grandpa turned towards me and so did the beast, which let out a terrifying growl.
“Stay, boy. Let it go.” Grandpa commanded.
It turned it’s eyes on me, two hot coals, glowing red in the center, emanating heat, and darkening towards the edges. Like looking into two twin pits to the burning core of the earth.
Another minute passed and it slunk off in the other direction, it’s invisible paws crunching the dirt and gravel, and Grandpa turned and made his way home, walking right past my hiding place. I sat there for a good long while, until the critters all started back up with their night time noises. And then I waited a bit longer for my pants to dry. It was well after midnight when I got back to find the door unlocked. I beat it up to my bed and hid under the covers, shaking the whole rest of the night.
When I came down to breakfast the next morning, there was Grandpa, all smiles as he wolfed down his pancake and sausage links. He looked over at me and smiled, “you look like you seen a ghost, boy.”
I shrugged it off and told him I’d had a bad dream.
“Did you now?” he inquired. “Why, I used to have one myself. I’d wake up thinkin I’d been face to face with some terrible beast that wanted my blood.”
“What, what did it look like?” I stammered.
“Funny thing, that” he said. “It didn’t look like anything at all. Completely invisible to the human eye.” He winked at me, and if I didn’t before, at that moment I knew he knew that I’d been out there watching.
I didn’t come back the next summer – joined a friend at an overnight camp. And the summer after that I played possum, prolonging my flu for months. Grandpa never traveled far, so I didn’t have to face up to him. But the summer I was fourteen, my parents were dead set on sending me. And it was fine – Grandpa and I didn’t talk about the beast. We took back up our fishing and hiking and I didn’t dare follow him out to the crossroads on Thursday nights. At the end of that Summer though, he took me for a long hike to a part of the property I’d never been to, where alongside a stream was a stone bench and a statue of a young woman. Over the years, the elements had worn down and chipped her long hair and dark pools under her eyes made it look like she was forever crying.
“Know why I’ve taken you here?” he asked me.
I shook my head no, even though I did.
“This is where I laid to rest my first wife, Lizbeth.”
And there in the shadow of the monument to his lost love, he told it to me straight, that what I’d seen him do that one night was real and that one day, hopefully not for a long time yet, but one day I’d have to do as he did. That it was a deal he made that we needed to keep and so long as we fed the dog once a week our family would prosper.
“And if I don’t?” I asked.
He just pointed to the statue, his eyes shining and wet, and he shook his head. “Once we thought as you do, that maybe we could outrun it or escape it. But that thing, I suspect, is a lot older and a lot smarter than any of us. It’s bound to us by our own blood now, and there’s no getting away from that. When I didn’t show up that once, I could feel it watching me every night, just waiting to get at me. And when my darling stepped out for a minute, just one minute, after sunset, she never came back. Snatched right off the porch. Took me more the better part of a week to gather up enough of her to bury.” He didn’t have to say anything else. It was the only time I ever saw him cry.
On the way back to the house he told me to go and enjoy my life. Go to college somewhere nice. Travel the world, as far and wide as I could, for one day I’d be bound to this land as he was.
And I did. I worked at all manner of jobs and lived in more places than I can almost recall. I got a degree in business, but also studied plenty of literature and history, always looking to understand the terms and nature of the bargain my grandpa had struck, looking for some way to escape what I knew was inescapable. My research into the occult just left me with more questions than answers. Churchill’s black dog, for instance. That one always intrigued me. Maybe he was talking about something more literal than depression. I wonder about that, I wonder what you’d have to offer up to win a world war.
I still came to see Grandpa for the summers. My sisters were older – two were in college and one was already married, so it was just me the summer I turned eighteen. That summer took me back with him to feed the dog again. He showed me how to sharpen the blade till its edge is so keen you don’t even feel it slice your hand. He taught me to tell when the beast was done feeding, and to keep your hand steady before it for just a moment afterward so that its fiery hot breath would cauterize the wound.
You hear that? Nothing, right? All of a sudden, all the buzzing and humming and rustling in the woods has ceased, which means it will be here in just a few moments. I can just about hear it now.
That’s fine, my story’s mostly come to an end. There isn’t much more to tell – my Grandpa passed, ten years ago this month, and left me the house, the business, the blade and the beast. And the past ten years have seen my family and our business prosper. The same land that yielded veins of pure gold for my grandpa offered up to me a pool of rich, dark oil. So much good luck as to be nearly impossible. And we’ve expanded our operations, preparing for a public offering some time next year if the market’s right for it.
Of course, I run things mostly from right here these days. Skype, zoom, twitter, email, they bring the world to me. I drive the two hours to Bozeman once or twice a week, but mostly I prefer to stay close by. Call it risk management if you like.
For my part I just try to stay focused on making smart deals.
And paying off the old ones.