Stray Dog in the Valley – Amanda Depperschmidt

The historical society kept no record of the girl’s birth, just a rushed account of her finding as an infant washed up on the beach, rosy and plump as a sea urchin. Two local workers from the nuclear power plant upstream discovered her on their smoke break and promptly dropped her off during town council meeting. The council, an auxiliary meeting of the historical society, met pale-faced and ghastly, first to discuss the record-breaking heat wave and then to lay name to the new child and citizen of the valley.

“I want to name her Kathleen,” said Kathleen the preservationist/zoning liaison. “And I want to name her Flappy,” said Jeff the archivist/comptroller. For the first time in local history, no unanimous decision could be reached, and with no voting system in place the council ruled that the girl would have no name and would be referred to simply as the Valley Dog, and so the appropriate records were written, drawn up, and filed.

The Valley Dog lived quietly in a temperature-controlled room among the records and finding aids on the top floor of the historical society, a narrow plantation-style home at the base of the town’s lighthouse. As a young girl the Valley Dog held onto melancholy as the soil holds onto water, awash with confusion and inhibition. After five sweltering years in the attic, the shoreline grew higher and the historical society added a third floor for the records and for Valley Dog. After another four years, the tide grew higher still and the historical society added a fourth floor to match it. Ten years more and the tide was so high that it covered the beach and reached the public parking lot; correspondingly, the historical society grew by three more floors. At the very top, the Valley Dog spent her days ensuring that the records stayed dry while her nights abided the romantic whims of a tunneler who would dig his way down from the mountains.

On the nights when the breeze broke through the heat and humidity, the tunneler would meet the Valley Dog at his tunnel gateway and lead her through the darkness to an opening at the southern ridge of the mountains. The first time Valley Dog saw the secluded grotto she gasped at a terrible but welcoming sight: a steaming hot spring, brackish, warm, and bubbling. “My, we are so high up, and yet there is still water!” she exclaimed. The tunneler found the Valley Dog’s observations amusing, and they came to frequent the hot spring and laugh and hold one another until the tunneler would fall into a peaceful sleep and the Valley Dog would dry herself off and place her ear to the ground. Each night she listened, listened for the churn she began to grow so accustomed to, deep and hot and volcanic somewhere far underground, rumbling all arterial and geothermal.

On a Tuesday, the town rained plastic. Little bits of gnarled, gnawed-on, mangled plastic. It fell down like a rainbow, gentle as snow. The members of the historical society climbed through the mountain trails to assess the strange weather and compose their records, leaving the Valley Dog to once again comb through the files and folders, ensuring that each and every document remained dry. When the society returned they brought warning of a ravaging forest fire which blanketed most of the hills and bluffs to the west of town. Sorrowfully, they handed Valley Dog a box which contained the tunneler, charred and blistered and in fourteen pieces. “Poor Valley Dog,” they said, as the Valley Dog fell backwards and shattered an old vase. “Poor dumb, clumsy Valley Dog.”

When the Valley Dog ran outside the plastic rain fell slowly and singularly while out west she could see the burgundy midday sky and a thick, ashy fog over the horizon. She ran across the road to the lighthouse and farther out into the grassy hills, brushing away plastic with her hands and putting her ear to the ground so that she could receive the comforting beat of the underground churn. Even then she could hear it, beckoning her towards the mountain, promising to reunite her with what she had lost. So the Valley Dog went back to the historical society, wrapped her lover’s box in a linen tablecloth, and started towards the base of the mountain.

By the time the Valley Dog arrived at the foothills of the mountains her feet were cramped and bleeding. She frantically pushed past fronds and oak branches in search of her lover’s tunnel but found only tousled mounds of dirt and fallen rocks. With no other choice she began her ascent upwards where the air grew hot and the ash stuck to her hot lungs like flypaper. In her hands the tunneler weighed down her shoulders, and in a moment of inattentiveness she tripped over a root and collapsed, knocking the box from her arms and flinging the tunneler all across the mountain slope. As the Valley Dog got to collecting the tunneler’s calf, a wren stopped to mock her.

“Stupid girl,” scolded the wren, “don’t you know you’re going the wrong way? The fresh air is lower in the valley.” The Valley Dog grabbed the tunneler’s right hand and placed it gingerly in the box. “Or,” speculated the wren, “have you come to make a bargain with the mountain?” The Valley Dog weakly managed a smile and a nod, and out of sympathy for something so pathetic the wren helped her gather the tunneler back into the box and showed her a shortcut to the ridge with the hot springs. “Be quick,” warned the wren, “and accept without hesitation what the mountain chooses to grant you.”

A full day had past and the sun rose again over the ridges when the Valley Dog finally made it to the spring. She set the box down against the rocks and put her ear to the ground, listening for the churn, but this time she could not hear it. She sat and pondered for a moment, then carefully removed the tunneler from the box and scattered him about in the spring waters.

“I ask of you, mountain, repair my love. Put him back together pretty please, so he may talk to me again.” The Valley Dog kneeled in the waters, her eyes closed and deep in prayer. She knelt until it became too hot for her to breathe, and then she plunged her head down into the water to listen for the churn. “I just want to be home,” she weepily gurgled into the broiling spring. The plates of the mountain answered with a great cracking, as if coming down from the sky, as if undoing and unraveling her, twisting her spine and sinews and wringing the girl out like a soaked towel. It felt electric, sorrowful and euphoric, like lightning snapping a tree, and in the words of the wind she believed she heard her lover’s voice, calling her name, a real name, and then a final flash of sentience as the waves broke against her brain, as her skull flushed out to carry the churn like a chalice.

First her feet began to boil in the water, the skin sloughing off and her muscles expanding and bloating like clouds, solidifying like bark, plunging sharp roots down deep into the earth. Then with a despairing bow the girl’s arms and hands twisted and hardened into giant, reaching pincers, lightly knocking against the tunneler’s left foot, forgetting phantom hands that once held each other. Finally, the girl’s face contorted and twirled, excoriating a single hole, sucking air in and out, loose tongue-like tendrils reaching down to feel around the ground for bugs and scum to slurp. The girl stood up, her sunken brain more flora than mammal, and headed back down the mountain to the town, her lover left to bubble and soak in the springs.

It took the girl three weeks to make it back down the mountain, alternating between slow marching and slithering, and by the time she reached the valley the fires quelled and the majority of the plastic had been swept away. When the historical society caught sight of her grotesque form shambling down the mountainside, they quickly gathered to photograph and document her arrival, following her out and down the parking lot until she finally returned to the sea, swimming farther and farther out, awaiting a great flood or a great boil, neither the first nor the last in the purge by the uncanny earth.

Amanda Depperschmidt is a bookseller in the PPR zone at Powell’s City of Books.

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