Ani King is the Editor in Chief of Syntax & Salt: Stories. She lives in Michigan with her family, and works by day as an IT Project Manager. Ani’s work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Penny Zine, Jenny Magazine, as well as others. A comprehensive list of her published work is available at thebittenlip.com and you can follow Ani on twitter: @aniking.
Everyone knows that Dogman comes out of the woods every seven years, on the seventh day, of the seventh month all well groomed and handsome. He swaggers out slow to sit down at the Olde’s heavy wooden bar and drink whisky before getting up to dancing with whatever women catch his eye.
This summer’s no different from any other Dogman summer. He comes out of the ferns and pines and he smells like the dark earth and green leaves, or so the women say. And if you’re a woman he gets up to dancing with his hands burn through your halter-top and you feel dizzy as hell like you’ve been spun about on a merry-go-round. You appreciate the little old fashioned bow he makes, as if he’s asking a question without knowing the answer is yes. As if you might still say no. When this all ends you’ll find that he makes an unfair yardstick to measure your other prospects against.
And maybe you’re the girl he’s dancing with when Louise Berriman comes huffing in to the bar at noon, her three foster kids in tow, shouting about some girl they found tied up at the edge of the woods. Danny Ballard, her oldest, looks as excited as any of us have seen about anything that isn’t breaking into cars or picking fights.
“Good Lord,” Louise says. “She was tied up like a damn dog, to a tree!” She has the good sense not to look at Dogman directly as he sways with you (or Robin Torres, or Melanie McDonald) to Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”, but that doesn’t stop anyone else.
So of course he has to say something to her, something like, “I remember you, Louise Berriman, from a few years ago now it must be.” And he might not say it to make her blush, but damn does she turn pink. The kids hanging back behind her look a lot more interested in her than they maybe ever have.
Everyone knows the local girls get up to all sorts of preparation on the seventh day of the seventh month of every seventh year. They trek down to the Olde in their highest heels and shortest skirts, but we’re not judging much for it. This is a shit town with shit men. Might as well get up to some fun before you settle down with whatever boy you’re going to end up having babies with while you work at K-Mart or the plastics factory. Inevitably you’ll end dying, unsatisfied, in the same town you were born in. Up until that end you’ll be here, sitting at this bar; teetering on your stool, talking about all the things you didn’t get to do. Swimming the ocean, meeting new people. Oh sure, you might move to some other little hole in Tortenet County, but it won’t be different enough to matter. Could we blame Louise if she let Dogman take her in his arms and swing her around?
“Hello,” Louise says, but she doesn’t look him in the eye, and that’s unusual for her. The woman loves confrontation, particularly in the name of the Lord. And I promise you we’ll all be eyeballing her Jeremy for similarities to our local legend when the boy comes back from Michigan State for Thanksgiving. But for now, we want to know about the girl tied up at the edge of Dogman’s woods.
“What’s this about a girl?” someone asks. Maybe it’s you, since you’re not really much more than a girl yourself. Oh say twenty-three, which is older and younger than you think it is. Or maybe it’s Albie Flockett, the postman just coming in to deliver the bills to the counter and be rewarded with a stiff drink before he goes back into the July sun. Doesn’t matter. We’re all thinking it. What about the girl?
“She’s one of Dogman’s kids!” Danny yells. “Sheriff Marcheaux had to turn the hose on her. Louise said so.” The two little girls next to the floppy-haired, baggy-jeaned teenager look scared, but they don’t say anything.
“Son, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Dogman says, in that low voice, with his hands like he’s the one approaching a dangerous beast. Not entirely sure how he moved so close so quickly without us noticing, but he’s not more than a couple feet away from Louise and the boy with baggy pants.
“I ain’t your son, and don’t you touch me,” Danny says, but he looks excited. Sounds excited at the chance to get down with Dogman. No one’s surprised. The boy’s one of our own here — his mom tended the bar the whole time she was pregnant before she got herself sent down state for hard time, but no harder than she’d already had. The thing is our own ain’t usually so bright.
“You might be. You look like one of mine.” There’s no threat in it but affiliation, but that’s all it takes for Danny to shut his mouth and let Louise rush in, courage bolstered again.
“The girl can’t even speak, she can’t use the toilet,” Louise imparts. That smile on her face is enough to tell you this is the best gossip she’s ever had. Take some advice? Steer clear of Louise Berriman if you have any secrets. “Poor little lamb was naked.” And here she looks at Dogman, right in the eye, but so do a lot of us. We don’t mind that he comes to town and fucks our women and drinks our beer and beats at pool, but we goddamn have to draw the line if he’s out there tying up naked girls and doing who knows what else.
“I don’t know anything about a naked girl tied up to any tree,” says Dogman. “I think a lot of you,” and he looks right at Louise, “know that’s not where my interests lie.” And of course the temperature of the room rises, and we all seem to agree that yeah, we know he likes warm and willing. But what if there are secrets out there in the dark that we’ll never see?
Everyone knows Dogman might start the summer out clean-shaven and trimmed up, with the brim of his hat pulled low and his teeth tucked in, but by the end there’s the wildness growling behind all those smiles.
Sometimes a drunk man’ll offer Dogman a dance with his wife and you can see she doesn’t really want to be the excuse her man uses to pick a fight and prove himself. Dogman’ll decline, politely of course, but you can sense the bite in him. He’ll walk away, shake his head like he’s trying to shake off fleas, and then circle back to Jim Drury or Karl Falger, or something middle-aged, unhappy, bored townie that ain’t got nothing left to aim for but a bit part in Dogman’s story.
If it’s the end of the season and Dogman’s grown restless, you can hear the snarl and snap before he draws back his fist and the other man falls. If it’s still early, he might yet walk away. Thing is, you have to remember Dogman really isn’t like the rest of us. He might like local microbrews and he might laugh at our jokes, but Dogman’s been eating people out in the woods for longer than Wilknawodzie’s been a town here. Dogman’s got a belly full of blood and teeth cut on the bones of tourists, so it don’t matter how nice, what a good boy he might seem like.
When Dogman scents the mistrust in the room he slams out of the bar into the bright light and leaves us a little blinded. Maybe you (or Anna Carter) clip-clop out behind him, big cotton purse slapping against your denim skirted ass. Maybe you take him home with you even though you’re not as sure about it as you were before Louise showed up. But by tomorrow everyone will know about the girl, and Dogman will have to appear at the Sheriff’s Department first thing to “have a chat” about some of the evidence collected from the girl. His shirt’ll be untucked and his hair matted on one side with leaves in it like he spend the night curled up on the ground.
Doesn’t take long before Dogman’s drinks ain’t free. And his hotel room’s not available any longer. And the only women who might still take a tumble are the ones who exchange email with the guys in max at the prison up over the bridge. You certainly know to keep your distance; you have to live here after all. Dogman goes back into the woods, and the girl, Mary Potter, goes to Louise for foster care.
Even after Sheriff Marcheaux assures us that Dogman has been cleared of all wrongdoing we keep speculating. “The DNA evidence doesn’t match,” he says, but it’s too late. We have to wonder if sure, she isn’t some girl he dragged out to the woods or tied up to have his way with, but maybe Danny Ballard was right. Maybe Mary Potter, missing person now found, is one of Dogman’s daughters. Maybe Dogman took her out to the dark places no sane person will go and tried to raise his pup. Maybe she was too much to handle and when he came into town he decided it was time to give her back. We don’t know for sure – the girl can’t speak.
“Well Dogman sure can talk just fine,” Terri Carter says with some heat in her voice, and we hope Anna Carter’s not one of Dogman’s whelps left behind, but a quick bit of math relieves us of that worry. Old women who remember Dogman from when they were young and the mill was still open and there were jobs enough to go around are eager as hell to remind us that Dogman danced with some of them all night, too, that Dogman’s blood runs in the veins of this town, like little offshoots of a river. They start naming names and we start getting quiet.
And while Dogman leaves us to wonder and concoct our own story of what happened, Danny Ballard starts tormenting that poor girl, Mary Potter. Louise Berriman comes in one day by herself and has her usual diet no ice while she complains long and loud about her little moneymakers. Everybody knows Louise might not be so bad as far as foster parents go, but she’s in it for that four kids in home money.
“That boy riles the poor lamb up all damn day,” Louise says. “He barks at her when she finally calms down, he pulls her hair. And Lord help me, I’m doing his work, but that girl’s not a bit easy. She pees wherever she sits, so I can’t let her on the couch, and Charlotte says if I’m gonna keep her I have let her sit on the furniture or it’s abuse.”
And let’s say you’re back at the bar and you want to know what Dogman’s daughter is like, because we’ve all just started calling her that naturally. “Is she really his?” you might ask. If not you, someone, because we all want to know. But you especially, because it’s only been a couple of weeks but your breasts hurt like never before and you’re finding that your beer comes right back up and you’ve started drinking tonic with lime so no one will ask questions.
“Well, who knows, but she’s sure wild like he is. Can’t let her outside without — and don’t you tell Charlotte this — tying her to the gate or she runs right back for the woods. Had to have Marcheaux come out and get her inside. And Danny’s obsessed with Dogman. I caught him out on the trails acting like he could smell his way into the woods and find him. I swear this isn’t worth it some days. The boy’s as crazy as his mother.”
You would have been too young to remember Danny’s mom well when she was around, but you look a bit like her, well so do most of the women Dogman likes to dance with. Rita Ballard in particular looked like the younger version of the older women Dogman used to be sweet to in these seven-year summers. Lips, red like a bow, and those strange yellow eyes. He might not dance with just one woman, but he spent more time with her than any. But no one talked about after she left, so you might not know to ask if Danny’s one of Dogman’s boys. You might not look at that dark wavy hair and see something familiar. But the rest of us do. And if Danny is Dogman’s boy, does he know it? If he does, maybe he’s just being mean to his sister like a normal shoplifting, fire setting little shit?
Or he might be bug-fuck crazy and bound for prison someday himself. Regardless, Dogman hasn’t been around and you’re not the only girl from the week before Mary Potter was found to be feeling a bit green around the edges, a bit tender-fleshed. And none of you girls probably want to think that your future might involve a Danny or a Mary. But even given the dark earth, transient nature of the whole damn thing you’re probably starting to wonder what the hell you’re going to do. What were you thinking, you might ask yourself while you look in the dingy mirror of the bar bathroom.
Things are mostly settled a week or so later when Dogman comes to town for a drink. He slaps a couple twenties down on the bar and says, “I won’t be back after this, so give me as much of the stout as you can. Bottles.” Dogman’s beard has grown in full and thick, and his eyes don’t rest any one place. We don’t know if the red on his shirt is blood or something else, and we ain’t gonna ask.
People set to whispering, of course, stir right back up to a froth while he gathers how ever many, twelve, fourteen, in front of him and begins to polish them off. He lines the empties up and doesn’t want them taken away until they’re done. We watch without saying anything as the hour passes and Dogman doesn’t seem to be any drunker at the end than he was when he started until he stands up and turns to look at everyone in the room individually. We don’t meet the legend’s bloodshot eyes as he sways there for a moment, look on his face like he’s about to tell us what he thinks of us.
“Thank you,” he says instead, and sets the last bottle down. “Those were my favorite.” And he gives you (or Jenny Otawnawzhe, with her black hair and Guns ‘N’ Roses t-shirt) a look and you know this really is the last time, so you follow him out of the bar without grabbing your purse or saying a word.
Thing is, everyone knows Dogman dances like no other. You might be able to fit the Bible between his hips and yours, but damn sure it will burst into flames if you try. You’ve never been so good at following the music as you are in Dogman’s arms. So, we don’t blame you for going, but we shake our head all the same. Maybe we say you’re not the brightest girl, but you sure are pretty. And in the morning, when you’ve not come back for your things, and when we’ve heard about the commotion out at Louise Berriman’s, we think maybe you (or Viv Marcheaux, the sheriff’s daughter) had the right of it, because at least you’ve gone somewhere else.
So you don’t stand outside Louise’s doublewide with us, red and blue lights strobing against all the beige sheet metal siding in the neighborhood. You don’t see Pete Cartwright, EMT for all of ten minutes, wheel her out, face bruised and mouth closed. Whispers about bite marks and scratches start up right away.
Dogman’s name is a dull roar until Louise tells Marcheaux to find Danny. “Tried to stop him from taking that poor girl,” she says. Stupid kid tied himself and poor Mary Potter to the same tree where she was found– drug her out by her hair and looped a rope around her neck. “Using her like bait, he said.”
Dogman didn’t bite though, or claim Danny and take him home to rear, but Mary Potter’s made her way back into the woods where she wanted to be in the first place.
Marcheaux and his deputies can’t find her, or you for that matter. Goddamned if the big man hasn’t started drinking again, in uniform, no less, down at the Olde where jukebox won’t play anything but sad country now, and our women don’t much feel like dancing anymore. Everyone wants to know if Dogman is really done with us. Who’s gonna dance our women through the long, hot seventh summers now?
You’ll have to ask him at the next family reunion, out there in the woods where the black shadows roll over us, and the pines rise up around us, and everything smells damp and loamy.
“Dogman’s Daughter” originally appeared in Mt. Island, 2015.