The Dog Sings by Nick Antosca
published in Volume 10, Issue 3 on December 31st, 2003 George invents stories to fit his paintings. Worlds emerge as he mixes paint. Characters leak into existence, appear in streaks of wet color . . . others stay hidden, beyond the edge of the canvas.
Gnawing his lip, the smell of oils in his nose, he tries to get a clear idea of what, exactly, he is creating.
"Hmmmm," he whispers thoughtfully, "Sum sim dab dum." He can't figure out what it's a painting of.
Two-thirds of the picture are a bold blue--a summer sky at dusk, deep and noble. Chilly or suffused with warmth, depending on what you bring to it. Below the cold, sultry blue, brick red mixes with sienna to make a color like soft clay--the surface of some distant, undiscovered planet. It's well-textured, George decides. It evokes the feeling of the clay he squished between his fingers as a child.
But here is the mystery: He has painted thick black lines over the red-brown clay, spiraling to a central point. The center of the spiral could be a mysterious hole in the earth, the entrance to a tunnel, to a wormhole that leads somewhere.
"Grum smuck." George curls his fingers into a fist and taps his palette, staining his knuckles blue, trying to think of what lives in that black hole at the center of the spiral.
Maybe a dragon hides in the spiral's eye, a long flame-scaled serpent with limpid emerald eyes beneath silky lids. Maybe not.
A spider, then. A spider all legs and triangles, coarse hairs bristling on its abdomen. George taps his fingers against his lips. He hears his wife walking on the kitchen floor, above his head.
George is hiding in the basement, but his wife doesn't know that--she thinks he is two hours away, in St. Louis. George's wife is a very regimented person. It's now one o'clock in the afternoon, which means she will not come down into the basement for another three hours, just when she gets home after picking the kids up from school. George will be gone by then.
They have been separated for more than eight months, but George knows her routine. It never changes.
Now George hears a soft burst of noise punctuate his wife's footsteps. A thrill blossoms in his chest. He hears the soft burst again, then hears his wife take two steps, and then--fast--three soft bursts. Coughing.
She is allergic to linseed oil. George is painting, with oils, under the kitchen floor vents. Fumes are floating up to her, his parting gift. He gives her this gift twice a month.
They talked by phone a month ago, and she mentioned a curious, nagging illness that she couldn't get rid of: It comes on strong, then fades away until it seems gone--for a few days--and then it suddenly attacks with greater force than ever. She thinks she's having a reaction to the new carpet.
George has a good memory. Three years ago, they walked through an apartment where George's sister was staying with a starving painter she'd met, and George's wife began to cough. Two days later she was stricken with a sadistic, skull-crunching headache. George remembers this very clearly.
Since their separation, he has become an avid painter. How he cherishes his oils now--the texture, the smell, the sound of his wife getting sicker and sicker with every visit to the house.
"Nar matcha magnum," he whispers, musing.
Maybe a squid lives in the spiral--no, not a squid--a kraken. A kraken! One of those bulbous monstrosities that live on yellowing maps of the seven seas. Its rubbery arms twining and twisting, stretching and grabbing, its beak snapping and clicking . . . .
His wife coughs again, a wretched wet noise. George hears dishes clink as she takes them from the dishwasher and sets them on the table, as she always does before placing them in their proper cabinet.
No, not a kraken, not in that red, slippery clay . . . .
Maybe a komodo dragon--no, not that, but a--a pleisiosaur.
"Bo chambo madanka," he whispers worshipfully.
A car passes on the street outside. The neighbors' dog, Bozer, starts to bark.
A dog! It's a dog. And now, as he stares into the center of the black spiral, he can hear its hollow panting. And now . . . for a second . . . he can smell a stale, rank dog-odor.
The whole world is made of clay. A small, red, soft planet. Moist, slippery clay, tunnels, honeycombs, catacombs--tunnels snaking endlessly through the clay. Millions. Millions of tunnels, each one opening into the freezing, burning blue night.
No stars, no moon--only freezing, burning blue. Deep blue, the deepest, most mythic depths of the world. Blue.
And deep inside the wet clay planet--the dog. The panting dog, giving off that nose-wrinkling dog stench. Squirming, wriggling through the clay tunnels, panting, its ragged breaths dashing up the tunnels like bats.
George's wife coughs.
Paint has dried on his knuckles and fingers. He scrapes a bit off with his fingernails. His wife has walked to the living room; he hears faint coughing from there, a paltry, pathetic noise.
George's painting is nearly finished, but to keep fumes circulating he will keep adding to it until he has to leave.
Now his wife walks from the living room back to the kitchen with dainty, bitchy footsteps. She coughs, retches, says, "Oh, God ... " and mumbles something else. He wonders if he'll hear a hard thud as she collapses. Maybe a moan, too.
"Grammo grammo . . . " he whispers, then follows it up by humming a bastardization of a tune he heard on the radio as he drove over. His rented car is at a nearby park. He walked across the park and through about an acre of thin suburban woods to emerge in his wife's backyard. It was easy to get in the house. He just had to time things so he arrived as she was leaving for the post office to pick up the mail.
Bozer barks again, far away. He is an old dog, with a wilted pink tongue and white whiskers on his black muzzle. George thinks about the black dog that squirms through the honeycomb inside the soft clay planet.
Something thuds on the floorboards above and George wonders if she has finally keeled over unconscious, but then he hears more coughing. She must have dropped something, knocked something down. Disappointed, he scratches a few more flecks of paint from his knuckles.
Now, from above, there's a wet cough. Drawn-out retching. And now endless vomiting.
A moon blinks open, wide and silvery, in the warm waters of the cold blue sky. On the soft clay planet, the dog pokes its coarse, whitened old muzzle from the center of the dark spiral. A sweet lullaby of nonsense jazz starts to play gently across the soft wet planet. The dog looks at the moon, which is George's eye.
"Grub grub smog," it croons. "Slub gum bramble stag."