The Darkest Evening of the Year Page 7

She seems too strong to be seriously discouraged by anything, yet she fights boredom with such reckless entertainments as this burning, which suggests that she dreads falling into an inescapable well of despair.

Laceworks of firelight flutter across the grass, and across Moongirl, dressing her as if she is an unholy bride.

A light appears in the middle window.

Someone has awakened.

Sheer curtains deny a clear view, but judging by the murkiness of the light and by the amorphous shadows, smoke already roils in the room.

The house is pier-supported. Evidently, the flames writhed at once into the crawl space, a thousand bright tongues flickering, hissing poisonous fumes up through the floor.

Harrow thinks he hears a muffled shout, perhaps a name, but he cannot be certain.

Instinct, imperfect in the human species, will harry the rudely awakened residents toward the front door, then toward the back. They will find a deep wall of flames at either exit.

The moon seems to recede as the night grows bright. Fire wraps the corners of the house.

“We could have driven in another direction,” says Moongirl.


“We could have found a different house.”

“Infinite choices,” he agrees.

“It doesn’t matter.”


“It’s all the same.”

From inside, screaming arises, the shrill cry of a woman; and for sure, this time, a shout, the voice of a man.

“They thought they were different,” she says.

“But now they know.”

“They thought things mattered.”

“The way they took care of the house.”

“The carved cornice.”

“The miniature windmill.”

Now the character of the screaming changes from a cry of terror to shrieks of pain.

Sullen fire throbs inside, beyond the windows. The place has been tinder waiting to be lit.

Likewise, the people.

At the middle window, the sheer curtains vanish with a quick flare, like diaphanous sheets of flash paper between a magician’s fingertips.

In front of the house, the lonely two-lane road dwindles into darkness that even the dawn might not relieve.

Glass shatters outward, and a tormented figure appears at the middle window, in silhouette against the backdrop of the burning room. A man. He is shouting again, but the shout is half a scream.

Already the woman’s voice has been stifled.

The French panes do not allow an easy exit. The man struggles to twist open the lock, to raise the bottom sash.

Fire takes him. He falls back from the window, collapsing into the furnace that was once a bedroom, suffering into silence.

Moongirl asks, “What was he shouting?”

“I don’t know.”

“Shouting at us?”

“He couldn’t see us.”

“Then at who?”

“I don’t know.”

“He has no neighbors.”


“No one to help.”

“No one.”

Heat bursts a window. Blisters of burning paint pop, pop, pop. Joints creak as nails grow soft.

“Are you hungry?” she asks.

“I could eat something.”

“We’ve got that good ham.”

“I’ll make sandwiches.”

“With the green-peppercorn mustard.”

“Good mustard.”

Spirals of flame conjure the illusion that the house is turning as it burns, like a carousel ablaze.

“So many colors in the fire,” she says.

“I even see some green.”

“Yes. There. At the corner. Green.”

Smoke ladders up the night, but nothing climbs it except more smoke, fumes on fumes, soot ascending soot, higher and higher into the sky.

Chapter 13

With breakfast and the morning walk only a couple of hours away, Amy would not let the gang of three pan-handle cookies from her. “No fat dogs,” she admonished. In the refrigerator she kept a plastic bag of sliced carrots for such moments.

Sitting on the floor with the kids, she gave circles of crisp carrot first to Ethel, then to Fred, then to Nickie. They crunched the treats enthusiastically and licked their chops.

When she had given each of them six pieces, she said, “Enough. We don’t want you to have bright orange poop, do we?”

She borrowed a dog bed from the study and put it in a third corner of her bedroom, and filled a second water dish to put beside the first.

By the time Amy changed into pajamas, the dogs appeared to have settled in their separate corners for what remained of the night.

She placed her slippers next to her bed, plumped her pillows, got under the covers-and discovered that Nickie had come to her. The golden had both slippers in her mouth.

This might have been a test of discipline or an invitation to play, although it did not feel like either. Even with a mouthful of foot-wear, Nickie managed a solemn look, and her gaze was intense.

“You want to bundle?” Amy asked.

At the word bundle, the other dogs raised their heads.

Most nights, Fred and Ethel slept contentedly in their corners. Occasionally, and not solely during thunderstorms, they preferred to snooze in a pile with Mom.

Even made anxious by thunder, they would not venture into Amy’s queen-size bed without permission, which was given with the phrase Let’s bundle.

Nickie did not know those words, but Fred and Ethel rose from their sheepskin berths in expectation of a formal invitation, ears raised, alert.

Wrung limp by recent events, Amy needed rest; and this would not be the first time that elusive sleep had come to her more easily when she nestled down in the security of the pack.

“Okay, kids,” she said. “Let’s bundle.”

Ethel sprinted three steps, sprang, and Fred followed. On the bed, assessing the comfort of the mattress, the dogs turned, turned, turned, like cogs in a clockworks, then curled, dropped, and settled with sighs of satisfaction.

Remaining bedside with a mouthful of slippers, Nickie stared expectantly at her new master.

“Give,” said Amy, and the golden obeyed, relinquishing her prize.

Amy put the slippers on the floor beside the bed.

Nickie picked them up and offered them again.

“You want me to go somewhere?” Amy asked.

The dog’s large dark-brown eyes were as expressive as those of any human being. Amy liked many things about the appearance of this breed, but nothing more than their beautiful eyes.

“You don’t need to go out. You pottied when we came home.”

The beauty of a retriever’s eyes is matched by the intelligence so evident in them. Sometimes, as now, dogs seemed intent upon conveying complex thoughts by an exertion of sheer will, striving to compensate for their lack of language with a directness of gaze and concentration.

“Give,” she said, and again Nickie obeyed.

Confident that repetition would impress upon the pooch that the slippers belonged where she put them, Amy leaned over the edge of the bed and returned them to the floor.

At once, Nickie snatched them up and offered them again.

“If this is a fashion judgment,” Amy said, “you’re wrong. These are lovely slippers, and I’m not getting rid of them.”

Chin on her paws, Ethel watched with interest. Chin on Ethel’s head, Fred watched from a higher elevation.

Like children, dogs want discipline and are most secure when they have rules to live by. The happiest dogs are those with gentle masters who quietly but firmly demand respect.

Nevertheless, in dog training as in war, the better part of valor can be discretion.

This time, when Amy took possession of the slippers, she tucked them under her pillows.

Nickie regarded this development with surprise and then grinned, perhaps in triumph.

“Don’t think for a second this means I’m going to be on the dog end of the leash.” She patted the mattress beside her. “Nickie, up.”

Either the retriever understood the command itself or the implication of the gesture. She sprang over Amy and onto the bed.

Fred took his chin off Ethel’s head, and Ethel closed her eyes, and as the other kids had done, Nickie wound herself down into a cozy sleeping posture.

All the mounded fur and the sweet faces inspired a smile, and Amy sighed as the dogs had done when they had settled for the night.

To ensure that the bungalow remained a hair-free zone, she combed and brushed each dog for thirty minutes every morning, for another ten minutes every evening, and she vacuumed all the floors once a day. Nickie would add to the work load-and be worth every minute of it.

When Amy switched off the lamp, she felt weightless, afloat on a rising sea of sleep, into which she began dreamily to sink.

She was hooked and reeled back by a line cast from the shores of memory: I have to wear slippers to bed so I won’t be walking barefoot through the woods in my dream.

Amy’s eyes opened from darkness to darkness, and for a moment she could not breathe, as if the past were a drowning flood that filled her throat and lungs.

No. The game with the slippers could not have been for the purpose of reminding her of that long-ago conversation about dream-walking in the woods.

This new dog was just a dog, nothing more. In the storms of this world, a way forward can always be found, but there is no way back either to a time of peace or to a time of tempest.

To the observant, all dogs have an air of mystery, an inner life deeper than science will concede, but whatever the true nature of their minds or the condition of their souls, they are limited to the wisdom of their kind, and each is shaped by the experiences of its one life.

Nevertheless, the slippers now under her pillow reminded her of another pair of slippers, and the recollected words replayed in her mind: I have to wear slippers to bed so I won’t be walking barefoot through the woods in my dream.

Ethel had begun to snore softly. Fred was a quiet sleeper except when he dreamed of chasing or of being chased.

The longer Amy lay listening for Nickie’s rhythmic breathing, the more she began to suspect that the dog was awake, and not just awake but also watching her in the dark.

Although Amy’s weariness did not abate, the possibility of sleep receded from her.

At last, unable to stifle her curiosity any longer, she reached out to where the dog was curled, expecting that her suspicion would not be confirmed, that Nickie would be fully settled.

Instead, in the gloom, her hand found the burly head, which was in fact raised and turned toward her, as if the dog were a sentinel on duty.

Holding its left ear, she gently massaged the tragus with her thumb, while her fingertips rubbed the back of the ear where it met the skull. If anything would cause a dog to purr like a cat, this was it, and Nickie submitted to the attention with palpable pleasure.

After a while, the golden lowered her head, resting her chin on Amy’s abdomen.

I have to wear slippers to bed so I won’t be walking barefoot through the woods in my dream.

In self-defense, Amy had long ago raised the drawbridge between these memories and her heart, but now they swam across the moat.

If it’s just a dream woods, why wouldn’t the ground be soft?

It’s soft but it’s cold.

It’s a winter woods, is it?

Uh-huh. Lots of snow.

So dream yourself a summer woods.

I like the snow.

Then maybe you should wear boots to bed.

Maybe I should.

And thick woolen socks and long johns.

As Amy’s heart began to race, she tried to shut out the voices in her mind. But her heart pounded like a fist on a door: memory demanding an audience.

She petted the furry head resting on her abdomen and, as defense against memories too terrible to revisit, she instead summoned into mind the many dogs that she had rescued, the abused and abandoned dogs, hundreds over the years. Victims of human indifference, of human cruelty, they had been physically and emotionally broken when they came to her, but so often they had been restored in body and mind, made jubilant again, brought back to golden glory.

She lived for the dogs.

In the dark she murmured lines from a poem by Robert Frost, which in grim times had sustained her: “‘The woods are lovely, dark, and deep. But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.’”

Head resting on Amy’s abdomen, Nickie dozed.

Now Amy Redwing, not this mysterious dog, was the sentinel on duty. Gradually her heart stopped pounding, stopped racing, and all was still and dark and as it should be.

Chapter 14

At the windows, dawn descended, pressing darkness down and westward, and away.

Traffic noise began to arise from the street, the wheels of commerce and occasionally a far voice.

On the kitchen table lay the drawing of Nickie and two studies, from memory, of her eyes. The second study included less surrounding facial structure than the first.

Brian had begun a third study. This one involved only the eyes in their deep sockets, the space between, the expressive eyebrows, and the lush lashes.

He continued to be enchanted by the task that he had set for himself. He also remained convinced that he had seen something in the dog’s gaze that was of great importance, an ineffable quality that words could not describe but that his inexplicably enhanced talent, his seemingly possessed drawing hand, might be able to dredge from his subconscious and capture in an image, capture and define.

The irrationality of this conviction was not lost on him. An ineffable quality is, by its nature, one that can’t be defined, only felt.

His determination to draw and redraw the dog’s eyes, until he found what he sought, was nothing less than a compulsion. The extreme mental focus and the emotional intensity that he brought to the task perplexed him, even worried him-though not sufficiently to make him put down the pencil.

In Rembrandt’s famous Lady with a Pink, the subject doesn’t communicate directly with the viewer but is portrayed in a reverie that makes you want to enter her contemplation and understand the object of it. The artist gives her nearer eye a heightened color contrast, a clear iris, and a perfectly inserted highlight that suggests a mind, behind the eye, that is no stranger to profound feeling.

Brian had no illusions that his talent approached Rembrandt’s. The subtlety of the translucent shadows and luminous refractions in this latest version of the dog’s eyes was so far superior to the quality of anything he’d drawn before, both in concept and execution, that he wondered how he could have created it.

He half doubted that the drawing was his.

Although he was the only presence in the apartment, although he had watched the series of pencils in his hand produce the image, he became increasingly convinced that he did not possess the genius or the artistry required to lay down upon paper the startling dimension or the luminous mystery that now informed these finished eyes.

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