This story is by Lance Burleson and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Kenji didn’t have to check the Internet or a calendar to know fall was in the air. He knew the days were cooler than they had been, and he was excited. The season’s onset sent new waves of boundless energy flowing through him. It returned him the appetite the dreadfully hot summer had stolen, and with that came an overpowering gusto for life.
Kenji was a kishu-ken: a medium-size Japanese breed of dog with solid white fur, big, sad almond eyes and ears that stood ready to catch any random noise. At a closer glance one could see he was not pure white. Born in September, he seemed infused with autumn spirit, faint smears of rusty brown dusted his shoulders and spine, and the tip of his tail seemed to have been dipped in the same rust.
In the sunless morning he heard the wobbly creak of the stairs as the man hobbled down.
Kenji loved the man, who fed him every day and threw the ball for him to chase and bring back. Kenji loved that game, and the man’s affectionate pats on his head whenever he brought the ball. Even though the man only tossed the ball into the next room of the tiny house they lived in, it didn’t matter to Kenji because he lived for the man’s attention. The two were connected by a bond indescribable to the dog, a bridge of condensed spirit, beautiful like the red and gold leaves that now fell from the trees.
Kenji was the sum of the hours the man kept with him; seeing himself as his bodyguard. From room to room the kishu-ken trailed after him like a pale shadow, a beneficial ghost that haunted him. This ghost would do anything for his friend, not for the man’s rewards, but because it was his nature. Love was ground so firmly into the dog’s DNA he couldn’t have acted otherwise.
He could sense how the man felt, whether he was sick or sad and was even troubled if he sneezed loudly. He often padded into the room to see if he could help. He knew he couldn’t always fix his friend’s problems, but knew in his gigantic heart of hearts that his presence made the man happy.
Mornings they walked into a dark world, illuminated by dim stars and the lambent glow of cats’ eyes, taunting the kishu-ken to give chase; to wrest the secret of their being from them. He always wanted to pursue them just to watch them flee, but the man restrained him.
They passed through valleys of curving paths cut through newly harvested fields of rice paddies. Purple-shouldered cloud giants loomed on the horizon, bringing portents of colder weather. All this was lost on Kenji, so absorbed was he in this world of the previous night. The slight breeze whispered the tales of other creatures: the spoor of ravens, tagged messages of dogs and the stray detritus of a farmer’s mud caked boot. Kenji was filled with reverence for the clockwork mystery of this vast world covered in scented hieroglyphics to decipher.
He walked to and fro in front of the man, his paws tracing momentary orbits on the pavement which bore yellow husks of dead leaves and the abandoned chitin armor of crabs vanished to some littoral Valhalla.
After the walk, the cool air made Kenji restless. He wanted to spar with the other white, female Kishu-ken he lived with: Yuki. She was reluctant; he crouched low and gave an insistent wag of his tail. In an instant she hurled herself at him and the two wrestled. Their play was punctuated with a flash of teeth and low growls, but neither trying to do harm. Together they were all heart and emotion distilled in a display of energy known only to children.
The man fed them and then left. Kenji knew he would return when the shadows almost saturated the ground. He wished he could make the man stay all day, but knew this was beyond any power he possessed. Would that he could plant the urge in the man’s mind so he would believe it was his own idea.
Waiting for his return was unbearable. He and Yuki could move about freely, but mostly they slept.
Lying in his favorite spot, his heart often became heavy. With these emotions he plunged deep into the starlit fields and forests he visited whenever closed his eyes. He paddled through a plethora of feelings, some pure as the first morning dew that greets the sleepy dawn lying naked on the grass, others blacker than the burnt feelings of a hot road under the glare of a malevolent daystar. Heartache. Loss. The man and his pack might not come back.
He awoke, but the day still seemed to drag on, a slow moving mass of moments creeping with the glacial slowness akin to agony. He looked outside. The shadows grew longer and the air grew cooler, heavy with the scent of the nearby sea and dry grass, but the still no sign of the man.
Now the shadows covered nearly all of the ground. He saw the buttery glow of the rising moon. Where was the man? Why hadn’t he come back? What happened to him? Didn’t he love him? What had he done to make him leave forever?
He had to find him. Going to the screen door he discovered it could slide if he nudged just it a little. With effort he dug in his front paws and nosed it halfway open. But there was still the fence. He walked as far back as he could go and then poured his entire being into the sprint that took him in brief flight over the cruel teeth of the fence.
It took the kishu-ken a moment to realize he was outside his home. So thunderstruck was Kenji that the world seemed to stop turning in surprise. Suddenly there were no boundaries that held him and he could go anywhere. His heart pounded as he began to take flight to find the man. The ground fell away and the dog became a blur of sensation moving through sweet bliss. All and everything became statues compared to him.
To his surprise he felt others around him. He cocked his head and saw he was running with a vast pack of wolves, their footfalls made of mighty zephyrs born in the morning of the world that authored the winds that change the seasons.
There was the raucous cry of a dark bird and the pack gave pursuit. The winged shadow hastily speared toward the precipice of a rugged crag. They ran together as one, sharing a common pulse that drove them upward through clinging fragments of clouds until they stopped just short of the edge. There they looked down upon the full moon in all of its wonder and mystery. Its scent was powerful and heady to the pack, and Kenji sensed this place contained all secret knowledge of the present and the past.
One wolf howled and then another joined in. Together they united in a tale told by song as old as time and as deep as eternity. Never before had Kenji felt such an otherworldly peace and sense of belonging.
But where’s the man? Did he know of this song older than life. He had to share it with him– somehow. Could he make him understand?
It tore at Kenji’s heart to have to leave this place, but he knew life without the man would somehow be…empty.
Even though Kenji could have ultimate knowledge here, he knew he could never bear to leave the man and his pack because they were his entire world, a cosmos of stars and galaxies that filled the dog with an inexpressible joy and wonder to be part of.
Kenji had to go back and bring the man here…
The dog was startled by a loud rumbling noise and…
Kenji awoke to the man’s reassuring touch, and a sorrowful sound that emanated from…himself? The man was giving him the heartfelt welcome reserved for a sailor returning home from sea. Suddenly his sound stopped because he knew the man would never leave him. And he would never leave the man. The man was here and everything was ok again.
But Kenji felt like he had forgotten something– something very important he had to tell the man. He barked loudly.
The man scratched the dog behind the ears. “What is it, boy?” Kenji slumped with his head on his two front paws. For a moment he thought he could see the fuzzy outline of the moon in his mind’s eye. Then the memory seemed to dissipate in a wind that whispered mockingly, swept away like the past summer.
But the man was home!
Kenji licked the man’s face enthusiastically as the awful feeling of losing him faded in the glow of the harvest moon.