There was once, outside the town of Waldheim, a man who had four dark-haired daughters. The daughters had no mother for she had died giving birth to the youngest. The man bore the youngest no grudge for that and he did what he could to care for his four girls. He was not wealthy, but they always had enough to eat, warm beds in which to sleep, and sturdy clothes to wear.
There came a day, though, when the man began to feel that he would be happier, and his daughters would be better served, if he were to remarry. There was no eligible woman in Waldheim so he sent word to the neighboring towns and villages. After a time, a letter arrived at his home. There was a widow in Rotstadt who was looking to remarry now that she had ended her mourning period. The writer of the letter described her as a good, devout woman with a face like the full moon on a cloudless night. She was also the mother of a young boy named Johann.
The man kept this woman in mind for a number of weeks. When no other made herself known to him, he decided to contact the widow and invite her and her son to visit. Within the month, Johann and his mother found lodging in Waldheim. The widow’s beauty did not, to the man’s thinking, match the assertions of the letter writer, but she was a handsome woman and he found her pleasant company. Her son, though, he found too shy and quiet, though he was polite enough.
The man courted the woman for a socially acceptable period of time, then asked her to marry him. She agreed, of course, and soon enough they married. Over the next number of years they were happy together. The man had someone to oversee the household and help his daughters to become young women and his new wife had a stable home and a father for Johann, who slept in the barn because there was no room in the house for another bed.
As is the way of such things, however, Johann’s mother became ill one day and, despite the loving care of her new family, she died. So much for her.
Johann grieved for his mother and also for himself, for he knew quite well that his stepfather did not like him. His stepfather had tempered his distaste for his stepson while Johann’s mother had lived. But now he berated and belittled and beat the boy at every opportunity. Johann’s stepsisters were sometimes sympathetic, especially the youngest who would sneak extra bites of cake out to the barn, but they could do little to protect their stepbrother.
One summer evening, Johann was sent to the barn without any dinner for no reason that the boy could recognize. Johann went to his bed and took a small bundle from beneath it. He clutched the sack to his chest and left the barn in the direction of the nearby woods. He did not go to town for he feared that someone would recognize him and return him to his stepfather. Soon enough he was too deep in the trees to see any part of his stepfather’s property. In fact, it had become so dark beneath the canopy of leaves that he could barely see anything.
Johann reached into his sack for flint and steel and found them beneath the extra shirt and the bindle of bites of cake. Soon enough he had a fire burning. “You make the trees nervous with that,” said a voice behind Johann, who jumped to his feet and nearly stumbled into the fire. He turned to the voice as he stepped around the fire to keep it between them.
A smallish man stood leaning against a tree. His hairless head fairly glowed in the light of the fire. Johann could not guess his age, for all adults, except the oldest, seemed of an age to him. The man sucked his teeth as he watched the boy. When it became obvious that Johann would not speak, the man said, “And you make me nervous with your silence. What is your name, boy?”
Johann took several breaths and swallowed once before saying, “My name is Johann.”
“Humph! You can’t spit these days without hitting a Johann. You’re as common as fleas. Tell me, Johann, why are you setting my forest on fire?”
“I haven’t!” He pointed at his little fire. “I’ve only burned some branches. For light. It became so dark here and I could not see where I was.” Johann thought about running from the man, but his sack was on the other side of the fire and the woods were very dark not far from it. He decided to be as brave as he could.
The man stared at Johann. He said, “Tell me, what brings a boy out here alone to start conflagrations among my trees? What would your parents think?”
Johann decided that part of being brave was being honest and so he told the bald man the story of his stepfather’s unkindness and the loss of his mother. He did so without tears, though he sometimes felt he might cry. This, also, seemed brave to him.
The man stood silently for a moment, scratching his chin, then said, “If you will agree to put out your fire, I will help you with your problem. I know a thing or two about fathers and sons.” Johann looked at the fire and the darkness beyond it and the strange man. He knelt and grabbed handfuls of dirt to throw on the flames. Soon enough there was no light. And no sound from the man. Before Johann could do or say anything else, he fell asleep.
Johann woke to the sound of singing birds. He yawned and his long tongue curled up around the end of his nose. He stretched his legs, all four of them, and rolled onto his back to scratch it against the dirt. None of this seemed strange to him until he took a look at himself. He remembered being a boy and boys did not have paws or fur or tails, but he had all of these things now. He looked around for the bald man and called for him, but the sound he made was a deep, growling bark.
He barked again. He liked it. He stood and walked in circles until he felt he had always walked on all fours. The man was nowhere to be seen or heard or smelled. Johann sat and thought, “I am a dog now.” And, to his surprise, the thought was not unpleasant. He sat and thought about being a dog until he began to feel hungry. Having no where else to go and no better idea of what to do, Johann decided to return to his stepfather’s home.
He arrived to find his stepsisters busy outside with chores. As he approached, Johann called out to them. His barks sounded nothing like their names, but he had the girls’ attention. They stopped their chores and watched the dog warily, as they should, for rabid animals were not unknown in the area. Johann sat. He wagged his tail and did his best to seem friendly.
The youngest girl was the first to approach. Her sisters cautioned her to be careful and held their axes and pitchforks ready. Johann sat quietly and when his stepsister began to scratch him between his ears he thought that nothing in his life had been better. His tail pounded the dirt. The other sisters joined the youngest and Johann was soon covered by petting hands and scratching fingers.
“What is this, then?” asked their father who had come from the house. The girls explained what had happened and asked, together, “Can we keep him?” Their father thought for a while and then agreed that they could, so long as no one came to claim the dog.
They ran around the yard with their new pet, throwing things for him to retrieve and laughing at his antics. Johann was happy to play in this way with his stepsisters. He fetched what they threw and accepted their hugs and kisses. “He will need a name,” said their father who was happy to see his daughters happy.
Before the others could say anything, the youngest shouted, “Wolfgang!” Her sisters protested, for dogs named Wolfgang were as common as boys named Johann, but the deed was done. Johann became Wolfgang and was welcomed again to his new family.
Wolfgang slept in the barn as Johann had, but otherwise his life was better than before. He had no need to wear clothes or do chores. When he wanted to relieve himself, so long as he was not in the house, he could do so wherever he liked. And his stepfather seemed pleased with him now. The man would take Wolfgang into town to show him off to the men there, who were always impressed with how well-behaved and intelligent his dog was. For several years, such was Wolfgang’s life.
There came a day when Wolfgang, pleasantly tired from an afternoon of chasing rabbits, returned to the barn for a nap. All four of his stepsisters were there talking about something. Wolfgang sat next to the youngest, who could be relied on for the best back scratching. The eldest sister was speaking.
“Father has decided, I tell you. We’re all to be married next spring. I overheard him talking in town. He has promised the butcher, the barber, the undertaker and the pig farmer our hands in marriage.” There were cries of protest from the others. They found fault with all the men, who were too old, too smelly, too fat, or too lacking in teeth, among other faults. The sisters wanted nothing to do with any of them. The eldest assured her sisters that their father would not be dissuaded from these matches for his position in town would be much improved when they were made.
Wolfgang had only partly been paying attention when the youngest became so animated in her objections that she stopped scratching his back. He decided to retire to his corner to sleep when Wolfgang heard the eldest sister tell the others her plan. How, tomorrow, on the anniversary of their mother’s death, when their father was known to drink too much and pass out in his bed, they would use their knives and axes to end his life, and their marriage problems.
Her sisters were silent for a long while, giving her plan due consideration, but, finally, they agreed it was the only sensible thing to do. Wolfgang growled low before knowing what he was doing. “What about Wolfgang?” asked the second sister. “He’s very loyal to Father. He might get in the way.” The sisters agreed that they would tie Wolfgang in the barn earlier that day to keep him from causing mischief. When they were satisfied with the particulars of their plan they went into the house to make dinner.
Wolfgang paced across the barn. His mind was a confusion of ideas. He did not want to believe what he had heard his sisters planning. He chased some chickens to clear his mind, then found himself running from his stepfather’s barn toward Waldheim.
Wolfgang ran first to the butcher’s shop. He barked and yowled until the butcher came to the door. The man threw some offal in the dirt for the dog. “Where is your master today, boy?” he asked. Wolfgang yipped and turned in circles but could not make the man understand. The butcher watched the dog for a while then went back into his shop. Wolfgang looked at the closed door in disappointment then turned toward the barber’s shop, then turned back to the offal and ate it all before being off again.
The barber’s door was open and Wolfgang went inside where he was greeted cheerfully by the barber and his customers. Wolfgang huffed and shook and clawed the floor, but he was no better understood here than at the butcher’s. Soon enough the men grew tired of his antics and one of them escorted Wolfgang outside and shut the door behind him. The undertaker was no more insightful and the pig farmer became angry at Wolfgang for scaring his sows and chased the dog away.
On his way back to the barn, his head hanging, Wolfgang passed the woods where he had met the bald man. He sat and looked in among the trees. There was no sign of the man. Still, Wolfgang made up his mind and walked into the darkening wood. When he came to the place where he had last been a boy named Johann, he howled and barked and growled, hoping to attract the bald man’s attention. He did this for a long time and when it seemed obvious that no one would come, Wolfgang lay in the fallen leaves and fell asleep.
When he woke birds were singing. Wolfgang yawned and his long tongue curled out over his nose. The bald man had not come, obviously, for the dog was yet a dog. He stood and looked toward his home. If his stepfather was to be saved, then, Wolfgang knew, his dog would have to do it.
Wolfgang waited at the edge of the property among the bushes, where his stepsisters would not see him. He kept an eye on them through the day as they went about their chores. No one who had not been in the barn with them could possibly tell what they had in mind as they milked and chopped and laughed as usual. In the late afternoon, when Wolfgang knew that his stepfather would be well into his cups, all four sisters went into the barn.
He padded to the door of the barn and listened. The girls were talking of girlish and sisterly things without a hint of murder. They did this for so long that Wolfgang began to hope that their plans would come to nothing, that they had changed their minds during the night. Then he heard the eldest ask the others if they preferred the knife, ax, cleaver, or pitchfork. Wolfgang, remembering his last moments as Johann, decided to be brave again and ran into the barn.
The dog barked and growled and bared his fangs at his stepsisters who each held something sharp. They shouted and screamed at the bristling animal. “He’s gone mad,” said the third sister. They scurried back to protect themselves as Wolfgang snapped his jaws in the direction of each. Only the youngest had stood her ground and had reached for the dog. Wolfgang stopped his snapping and barking suddenly. Something unexpected was in his mouth.
He felt the blood spurting from his youngest stepsister’s wrist. The second sister grabbed her sibling’s wounded arm and pulled her back as the first and third charged the vicious animal. The pitchfork’s tines and the cleaver’s blade had done their work before Wolfgang could spit out the severed hand. He collapsed to the straw and died.
The sisters surrounded the youngest. They bound the wound as best they knew how and did what they could to soothe her. They sat quietly together for a time. The eldest, not wanting to let a good plan go to waste, told the third sister to follow her and bring her chosen weapon. They went to the house and found their father as drunk and unconscious as they had hoped. It was no time at all before he followed Wolfgang into death. The sisters worked quickly to drop their father into the dry well that he had meant to fill someday. They filled it just enough to hide his body. So much for him.
Soon enough they were in Waldheim having the youngest sister’s wound tended and telling the story of a father who had gone mad and attacked his daughters, raving nonsense and siccing his dog on the girls. And how the dog had bitten off the hand of the dearest young one and the mad father had come to his senses enough to run away. And how the girls had found enough courage to kill the vicious dog.
Everyone believed the girls, of course. For after some of the men visited the farm, they found that the father was, indeed, gone and the dog was, undeniably, dead. So much for him. And, of course, the youngest girl was without her right hand, which lay on the floor of the barn. There was great sympathy for them and many offers to help. The sisters accepted some of the help, but they turned aside all offers to sell the farm or to come stay with them to help work it. They turned aside, also, all offers of marriage. The four suitors their father had found for them pursued the sisters for a time. But one by one the men became discouraged and stopped calling at the farm.
Over the years, as they went to town less and less, the sisters became a curiosity to the townspeople who would tell stories about the spinster sisters and their brush with death. This did not bother the sisters one bit and they lived long, happy lives together. The youngest never bore Wolfgang a grudge for what he had done, for she believed he had bravely defended his master at the cost of his own life. And when she died, no more than six months after her sisters, she was glad that she had once had such a dog. So much for her. So much for them.
So much for this.
Michael Calkins has worked in bookstores for 31 years, the last 28 at Powell’s. This is his first published story.