“Did you see that?” I asked Maria. I was pointing out the sliding glass door into my own fenced-in, flower festooned back yard.
Maria leaned out of her high-backed stool and was almost collided with by a screeching eight year old boy: hers. “Oye, slow down, Michael! See what, Lia?”
I shook my head instead of answering. I wouldn’t be heard over the gaggle of boys squawking along in Michael’s wake. There was no point in calling attention to it anyway. No one else ever saw the Black Dog. The back door slid open readily under my hand and I stepped out into the mild spring afternoon.
Safety conscious, I’d completely secured the backyard when we’d bought the house. The fence was eight feet high, higher than we should have gotten away with, but none of the neighbors complained. There was no access into the back yard except through the house either. But the Black Dog was a phantom. Phantoms can walk through walls and creep around your brain anytime they like. These walls have never been disturbed. Climbing rose, trumpet vine, clematis, wisteria, and black-eyed susans each held sway in their own domains, unthreatened by roaming wildlife. Not every vine or flower was in bloom, but enough were that the smell should be intoxicating, but I smelled only lavender and cedar. No lavender was planted in the yard or either of the yards nearby. The trees in the neighborhood were all maple, oak, and pine. I tried to shake free of the invasive scent but it clung to me.
“Boys, come run outside, chicos!” Maria ordered and soon I was joined by ten eight year olds chasing each other around me.
Amused, I watched the children until a handsome silver haired child darted by. I reached out and snatched him from the group. “Gotch ya!” I said, pulling the boy in for a hug. I began kissing my son all over the face as he giggled and protested in turns. Soon, all of our guests were laughing including Maria, her Michael, Kaiden’s other friends and two of their parents. Maria was the only one who was my friend, but I appreciated the other parents sticking around to help supervise our Spring Break! party.
Kaiden wiggled free of my arms and ran after his friends again. Maria slid a glass of wine into my empty hand. “When is jefe coming home?”
Jeff, my workaholic husband. It amused Maria to call him the ‘boss’ considering that outside of work, it was debatable whether or not Jeffery had ever made a decision in his life. I’d even proposed to him when I found out I was pregnant in college. He’d said yes, though, still yes nine years later. I told her Jeff could be home at any time but it wasn’t true. I never had any idea when he would be home. It could be midnight when my husband slipped into the bed, kissed my cheek, and snuggled in behind me. I’d come to terms with his work habits long ago.
“Mom! Can I have a dog?” Kaiden asked suddenly.
My breath caught in my throat. Had he seen it? The immense black shadow which haunted me? But no, it was just a question, the question of a child feeling brave surrounded by his friends. His father didn’t like dogs. His mother had an irrational fear of them. He knew the answer.
Eleven o’clock and Jeffery wasn’t home yet. Most nights it didn’t bother me but tonight it felt important, like his presence would be a shield against something. Maybe a shield against the dream I’d had yesterday. I stood in the low light of the kitchen looking out at the moon drenched backyard and shivered in my bathrobe.
I dreamed of murder; it wasn’t the first time. It was the first time such a dream came on in an emergency room, though. I’d been walking through the Kroger grocery store when hot, searing pain exploded through my chest, burning, burning from sternum to groin. My heart stopped beating and only two things got me released from the hospital that night. One, it was a sixteen year old stock boy who found me and performed CPR. The bruises on my chest proved he paid attention when he was training to be a lifeguard at the YMCA. However, the doctors didn’t quite believe his diagnosis of my brief, sudden death. The second reason I was released was because there was no damage to my heart. The tests found nothing wrong with me at all, so with the exception of an order to see my regular doctor for a battery of tests, I was sent home. I was at the front door when Kaiden got off the bus. Dinner was laid out and ready to be warmed when Jeffery got home. I didn’t tell them about my little adventure.
Or the dream of her.
She was a soft woman. Not soft like I thought she would stand on a chair and scream at the sight of a mouse, but soft like a baby blanket—comforting. She was in her fifties—looked to be in her fifties though she felt older to me—with silky black hair coiled at her nape and frosted with white strands. Her face was gently lined with crinkles at the corners of her eyes. She was Chinese, I thought, and when she spoke I could understand what she said though I don’t speak Mandarin.
“Good morning, Mr. Moa,” she said to the man running the fruit stand. (How strange that we were both buying fruit that day.) Mr. Moa bowed and smiled brightly like her voice awakened him from a dream. In fact, none of the people around her seemed to notice she was standing there, except to avoid running into her. Even so, people who passed near her grew calmer, slowed their harried pace, children stopped crying, and parents became less frazzled. Just watching her through this dream I felt better about life, as though everything was as it should be. Only, I couldn’t seem to focus on her face. She wore jeans and a burgundy shirt, conservative, like something I could buy at the mall. Reeboks on her feet, but I couldn’t see her face, or rather I couldn’t focus on it.
I was still trying to see her face, this beautiful soul, when the blade emerged from her chest. She looked neither surprised nor afraid even as she was being cut nearly in two. I screamed and thrashed until I heard the doctors calling my name over and over.
“Ms. Keeler, Ms. Keeler, you’re in the hospital. You’re safe!”
Worse, now, as I gazed at my own faint reflection in the glass door, the image distorted until it almost looked as though I were in the yard instead of the kitchen, I named her out loud: Pte Ska Win. Not a Chinese name, Native American, Lakota. I knew, knew this, though I had no idea how I knew. But I had a feeling I was going to find out and soon. She was a gentle woman with a ready laugh and a policy that no one cried alone when she was around. She understood violence but had no use for it. She believed that even hunting should be done only out of necessity and with the utmost respect for the creature giving up its life. How did I know this woman? She was a phantom, like the dog.
The Black Dog had been haunting me since I was a child. The first time that I remember him, I was six. Our playground wasn’t fenced in and there was a small stand of trees in the field next to the school. I was playing with some friends when the bell rang. For some reason, I didn’t go into the school with the other kids. The logic of a six year old is lost on a woman of thirty. Instead of heading inside to practice my penmanship, I wandered farther into the field. Voices rose up from the school behind me and, laughing, I ran from them. I ran until I spotted a bear, imagined it was a bear, but later my father told me it was a dog that led me away from a sinkhole and back to the school. That was also the only time anyone else claimed to see him.
Throughout the years, I’ve seen the huge, shaggy dog over and over again. Sometimes he’s just a shadow I catch out of the corner of my eye. But sometimes when things are bad, or very good, I’d see him sitting on the other side of a window, or a street sharing the experience. And then I got married and my phantom went away.
The last time I saw him was outside my parents’ house when I was leaving to marry Jeffery. The Black Dog snarled at me, but not out of aggression. Somehow, he didn’t approve of my marriage. I hesitated on the steps with one foot hovering in the air and my wedding dress handing over one arm. Sure, I was pregnant—and both of our families were Catholic—but I didn’t have to get married to raise a child. I didn’t have to drop out of college.
A shadow crossed the moon. Leathery wings spread wide, whatever was in my yard now morphed smoothly into that dog. He sat bathed in the light of the moon. He was bigger than even in my memory, at least two hundred pounds and nearly as tall as my own five foot one. There was no menace in this dog that was not quite a dog. If I wasn’t currently doubting my sanity, I would think when he landed the dog had been a small dragon. Of course, this was my chance to find out if I was crazy or not. If I went out to the dog I would know why he’d been following me, what was wrong with me, why I had the vision of the death of Pte Ska Win.
My gaze turned up toward the ceiling. Above slept my sweet son. Through much of his life, with my husband working all of his long hours to support us, Kaiden and I were each other’s world. By going out the door I risked changing that world. But could I put my curiosity aside. Could I heed warnings about the ill omen that Black Dogs could represent? Could I force myself through the doors of my parent’s church, despite my discomfort? Could I ignore this nagging feeling that this wasn’t who I was supposed to be?
The door slid open as easily as it had this afternoon. And then I was walking out into the yard toward the dog who’d watched over me my whole life. He hung out his tongue and wagged his tail once in greeting. I stopped five feet from him and if he was a hallucination he was a perfect one. His teeth were shiny and white, his coat perfectly black, his tongue pink. I stepped closer and my outreached hand sank deep into his soft fur. He was real. He was real and I knew him. He was mine.
“Hello, Sebastian,” I said because that was his name.
Princess Ninshubur, it has been a long time, but you are needed. Pte Ska Win is dead, the dog whispered into my mind.
“I know,” I said. “I had a vision of her demise.”
Will you come? Will you take up your mantle and be Guardian of the East again? Sebastian said. He cocked his head to one side. The boy in there, he will be in danger if you stay in his life.
“And if I refuse?”
The dog morphed from canine into a long, serpentine form, a black dragon from a Chinese New Year parade. If you refuse we are all in danger. But you will not refuse. Do you know why?
Because this is who I am, I thought, and knew it was true.