Welcome to my second showcase of writing about transformation and, in particular, human transformation over the course of our lives.
We humans have an ancient connection to animals; wolves in particular, whose protective and loyal qualities we harnessed through domestication into the faithful dog.
Today, I am showcasing two short stories featuring both species. The stories illuminate what it is to be human at various life-stages: to feel the immense pressure of expectation, in the case of the young son in Meg Hung’s Bess, and to escape the pressure of menopausal invisibility in the case of the woman in Serena Haywood’s Now I Become She-Wolf.
Wolves transformed into dogs over time, and boys who carry unreasonable expectations on their shoulders run the risk of growing up into men who carry the shame of being a disappointment. And middle-aged women whose voices have been ignored, Serena Haywood’s flash fiction suggests, have the power to transform into ‘She-Wolves’.
Meg Hung says her story Bess is based on a very real dog and memories from her childhood. This is unsurprising, as one of the many things which rings out in this beautifully told story are the rich details of the world she depicts, and how real that makes the story feel.
The day of the shoot: that was when I knew I loved the dog more than my dad.
She was bought to be a gun dog. A pedigree black lab with one of those fancy names I never could remember — we called her Bess.
From the day she arrived, we were told she was not a pet, but a working dog. Dad spent hour after sweary hour building a kennel – outside, down the stone steps and far enough from the house to make her separation from home clear. To us and to her. During the day, she could be inside, but only in the kitchen. We could walk her and stroke her, but never make a fuss.
Dad didn’t believe in paying someone else; he knew more than some stupid trainer. He spent weeks in the long garden with that silent whistle and red, canvas dummy, flinging and praising and scolding. Scolding more than praising, of course, as was his way.
I didn’t realise Bess was ready until I smelt the tang of solvent and oil and saw his shotgun in pieces on the kitchen table. The newspaper laid to protect the poppy-patterned tablecloth rustled as he turned the barrel this way and that, checking and grunting approval to no one.
The sound of laughter, Les Dawson and incidental strains of Blankety Blank drifted through the open door and I nearly turned back, to my sister and mum in the lounge, the log fire and safety. But the risk of rejection was worth it. I stepped forward.
When I asked, he looked at me like I was a stranger. I’ll never forget the glint in his eyes and the way he shifted to face me as he reassembled the gun to show me exactly how it came together and apart. How to clean and brush and oil each section and why it was important. From the kitchen beyond came the dull thud-thud of tail against mat as Bess lay quietly, watching us with brows raised.
The smell of wax jacket woke me and, as my eyes cracked, I saw the shadow of his bulk in the doorway. He told me to get dressed, wear something warm,”No not that, you idiot, it’s bitter out there,” and we padded downstairs. The car was already rumbling, white puffs blooming from the exhaust into the frosty dark. Bess sat to attention in the boot, amongst wellies and gun cases, cartridge boxes and blankets.
We didn’t talk. Our old selves were back at home and we were now an unknown something else. To speak might drag us back – to the disappointing son, the disappointed dad; the disappointing dad, the disappointed son. This day could change it all. Bess whined in the back, which made Dad smile.
At last, and all too soon, we were there, just behind the dawn.
The man who got out of our car was not the one I knew from home, nor the silent stranger from the journey. This man was a jocular delight. He slapped backs and laughed in great barks that shook his rounded belly and brought tears to his eyes. Everyone loved him, that was plain to see. And when he beckoned me over and draped his heavy arm around my shoulder, I bit the inside of my cheek to keep my face straight.
Men with names from nursery rhymes and olden times grinned down at me, offered hip flasks of fire and brayed nonsensical advice. I nodded and smiled and didn’t speak, which pleased them all no end.
It was time.
Bess jumped down from the boot and stayed at heel to Dad, looking up at him with an adoration that drew compliments from the gents and brought a puff to my dad’s chest. I was handed a stick by someone and Dad pushed me towards a group of thin, moody lads.
“Make me proud, son,” he said.
It didn’t sound like a request, so I nodded and wiped my cold, wet nose with the back of my hand.
A whistle sounded and us lads spread out in a line amongst the trees. The boy next to me, older by at least five years but still a boy, rolled his eyes at my obvious panic and mimed swinging his stick into the scrub.
I looked back to my dad but he was already moving away, Bess by his side, gun cocked and held in the crook of his elbow, barrel down. The sound of banter faded as the distance between us grew.
Then the march through the scrub began and the air resounded with thwacks and stomps and flaps and avian cries. A cast-back look of disdain from the boy ahead revealed I hadn’t moved. I took a step and looked down, saw a crouched female pheasant in the long grass to my left. She was not as fancy as the males, of course, with their jewelled greens and hoity-toity reds, but she was beautiful, nonetheless.
I knew then that I would fail my dad again, as I always had. Today would not mark a new future for us. I put my hand out — to bid the pheasant stay quiet and still, as if she could understand — then I crept on, swinging my stick slowly, careful not to hit the grass or make too sudden a move.
Hours later, when it was all over, the last shots fired and the last birds collected, I watched Dad walk away from his band of fellow killers. His smile dropped quick-smart and I saw rage wrestle across his features, impatient for release. He walked past me without a word and strode towards the car, a lone pheasant swinging by his side. Bess trailed behind him, ears down, eyes pleading, tail tucked.
I heard chuckling and saw a Bunny, or a Bunter, or one of those indistinguishable caricatures, slap the back of one of the Beaters and announce: “The bloody mutt only went and ate two of the birds. Right there and then! Never seen anything like it!”
Dad’s cheeks flushed a deeper shade of danger, red lines tracing the booze-broken capillaries of his nose.
The silence of the return journey held no promise. Bess’s whine did not raise a smile.
“How was it?” Mum asked, as we got out of the car.
“Useless,” Dad said.
She didn’t ask if he meant the day, the dog, or me.
Wiping her hands on a tea-towel, she beckoned me in and shut the front door quietly, but firmly. Almost immediately, we heard the car door slam and his roaring departure. Without looking at me, Mum opened the door again. “Come on, Bess. Good girl.”
We knew we wouldn’t see Dad again that night. The evidence of his late return would be cleaned up in the morning by Mum: cigar nubs binned, ash wiped, discarded socks removed and the cut-glass tumbler, sticky with gin, emptied of its lemon slice and washed with care.
We sat in the lounge together: sister drying her hair in front of the fire, Mum on the sofa with her feet tucked up and me in Dad’s chair, a tray of fish-in-sauce and mashed potato on my lap. Tomorrow’s World was about to start.
Bess lay stretched out in the middle of the floor, belly up, carpet on her back for the first time.
Her head was flung back as far as it could go and it looked like she was grinning.
© Megan Hung, 2021
You can connect with Meg Hung on Twitter: @meg_hung
As the former owner of a much-loved and equally wilful Labrador, I can’t help grinning along with Bess at the end of this story, and I’m sure you are too.
Serena Haywood says her flash fiction Now I Become She-Wolf is about “Adjusting to becoming older. It’s about being scared of those changes but, then again, not being restrained by what anyone thinks of you any more, and claiming the space that should always have been yours. I was inspired by the weird grey hairs on my chin and watching how at ease my dog is with herself. It’s also about loudly introducing myself wherever I go, because no one ever did. Red Riding Hood was also a period metaphor.” Serena acknowledges the ‘cheeky nod’ to Björk’s ‘Hunter’ in “I’ll bring back the goods”, as well as to Oppenheimer’s “Now I become death” in her title. She says, “Just because it’s a brilliantly weird phrase about change.”
Now I Become She-Wolf
I don’t need a full moon to be. I’m here at noon, cruising on tippy-tap paws, through reception, up in the lift and into your office. “Appointment for Miss R. Riding Hood? I’m afraid she won’t be joining us.” That messy inconvenience is no longer me. My preferred pronouns are now all “Grrrrrrrr”. Oh? I ate her. Look come close, you might catch a glimpse, wriggling through the thinning skin of my belly. She gives me wind with her “Sorry” and “Can I just” and “Of course, Sir” burping up. But I find that if stretch my paws back and howl until the spit runs, that soon drowns her out.
It happened slowly. New fur springing up on my chin, grey around my nipples, between my haunches… Quick! Put more creams on, straighten, pluck, pay pay pay. But my canines yellowed, my muscles ached, my voice creaked from being unheard. It was no good. So, I went to my high cave and surveyed the clouds. After a while, I got fed up with the taste of my wounds and had another look. My fat belly kept me warm. My matted fur was a shield. Yeah, I can work with this.
So, I crept back to my desk with my basket of bread and wine for Grandma. But, still, no one could hear my yelps and whines. Then, once upon a time, my can-I-help-you lips curled into a snarl. Can anyone hear me? Then listen to me growl. Watch my hackles rise. Hear me now? Then, one day, coming from somewhere at the bottom of my spine, I barked. Loud, smelly, primal: across the email, the meeting, the conference. And faces turned. I bellowed my name. Some came to sniff, and whimpered as I snapped at their curled ears. So then I hunted, fiery-eyed. I dragged carcasses all over the corporate carpet and slept where I ate. Kill after kill, rolling around and sighing. Bloated with blood on my chops. All down my grey-haired She-Wolf chin.
So, now I’m taking your space. I’m chewing up your scenery. Spraying on your decor, sending out my scent. It’ll probably attract some other old She-Wolves. That pack mentality you warned me about. We’ll be stretching in the languid sun, licking and scritch-scratching. Chattering about the hunt and the cubs now gone. Oh, there’ll be sudden teeth bared, hackles, cuts and slashes, I don’t doubt, but we’ll bring back the goods. There will be blood on the walls but it won’t be mine any more.
Were you talking? Speak up … no, nothing … I can’t hear.
© Serena Haywood, 2021
You can connect with Serena Haywood on Twitter: @serenahaywood by website: unmasked.org.uk and recalibr8.
A huge thank you to Michelle Sutton for her amazing illustrations of Bess and the She-Wolf.
Join me next Wednesday, when I will be looking in greater depth at those middle years, and how clothes, hair and image play a part in shaping and expressing our identities, especially for women.
Don’t forget issue 8 of Write On! magazine is out. Read it online here.
If you’d like to see your writing appear in the Write On! ‘Showcase’, please send your short stories, poetry or novel extracts to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lucy Kaufman is an award-winning playwright and author. Thirty-five of her plays have been performed around the UK and Australia, to critical acclaim. A person-centred/integrative therapist for 18 years, Lucy now writes full-time and teaches Playwriting and Screenwriting for Pen to Print. You can connect with Lucy on Twitter: @lucykaufman_ wordpress: https://lucykaufman.wordpress.com and on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/LucyKaufmanAuthor