BY L.E. ELDER
Wind bit through the rags wrapped around Lorna’s thin frame and she shivered and burrowed deeper into Elisha’s warm body. Her head rested on his massive chest and Lorna tried to keep count of the heartbeats of the dog, her best and only friend.
“Do you love me Elisha?” Lorna whispered. “I love you. I love you Eli dog.”
“He don’t love you,” Daddy had told her. “He’s a pack animal, and we’re his pack. He’s bound to us by his nature. Love’s got nothing to do with it.”
But Lorna wanted to believe he loved her. Lorna needed him to love her. Especially now that Gramps was gone.
She knew Gramps would always be with her, through the Holy Sacrifice, the Sacrament of the Dead. He was part of her now, and sometimes she still heard his voice in her head. But the touch of him, the smell of him, was lost forever. Now there was only Elisha.
“Get up. Time to go,” Daddy barked.
Lorna could barely move her frigid limbs, but Elisha rose quickly and shook himself. They would trudge north again today, farther away from the populated zone. Daddy said that in the north there’d be more wild animals, though none likely as formidable as Elisha. And no more heretics. Not a one.
Lorna packed her backpack and listened to the ritual of the guns — the clicks, spins, and snaps — and she made the sign and whispered the holy words Daddy had taught her. “Though we walk through the shadowy valley, may our guns deliver death to all of our enemies. Amen.”
Elisha was staring up the dirt path ahead and Daddy came up and gave him a swift kick in the hindquarters.
“Git,” he growled.
Then he pushed Lorna forward.
It was a good path. There’d been nobody but them for weeks. No heretics at all.
Against the will of her mind, her brain went back to the worst heretic attack, the one where Gramps got the wound that wouldn’t heal. Daddy had let Elisha go off foraging. Daddy never did give him any of their food. He made him go off and find his own. Sometimes he brought some back for them, too. But whenever Elisha was away, Lorna did not feel safe.
If the heretics had had guns, Daddy said, they would have been done for. There were twenty of them at least. And one of them gouged Gramps’ thigh with a spear before Daddy shot him. Daddy and Gramps were down to their knives when Elisha returned. He sprang for the one that was pulling Lorna away from Gramps by her hair. Elisha’s jaws tore out his throat and he lunged for another and another until the heretics still living fled into the fog. Lorna cleaned the blood from Elisha’s muzzle with her bare hands. When she finally broke down, his rough tongue licked the tears from her face.
“Thanks for saving me, Eli,” she sobbed, but Daddy, who was tending to Gramps, just snorted.
“It wasn’t personal, girl,” he said. “He’s a mastiff, or mostly mastiff. Killing’s in his blood. It’s what he’s bred for it.”
“Don’t listen to him, Lorna.” It was Gramps, sounding calm and warm despite the wound. “Elisha went straight for the one that had you. He knew what he was doing.”
Yes. No matter what Daddy said, Eli had saved her from being carried off and defiled. The heretics, they would have killed her and eaten her against her will and against the Religion. For the heretics did not believe in the Holy Sacrifice or the Sacrament of the Dead. They were animals. They were damned.
They made a kind of sled for Gramps and Elisha pulled him along the path when it was level enough. Gramps stayed cheerful for a while; then, he got the fever. On the last night, he called for Lorna in a hoarse, feeble voice.
“This is for you, Lorna. For when I’m gone and Elisha’s out hunting. Something to keep with you.” He held out a calloused hand. In it was a figure he’d carved. It was a dog — a small, wooden Elisha. Gramps tried to smile, and Lorna hugged him. He closed his eyes and didn’t say anything else.
In the morning Daddy had the fire going again. He told her Gramps had died during the night and that he’d said the prayer of the Holy Sacrifice. He would be a part of them now, so long as they should live. Amen.
Lorna cried when they took the Sacrament. Daddy didn’t say anything, though he did throw a rock to run Elisha away when he came up close. “The Sacrament ain’t for dogs,” Daddy had said.
The memory of Gramps’ passing and his Sacrifice made Lorna’s eyes water as she plodded along the path and she caught her foot on a dried-out root and tripped. Her hands caught her fall, but, as she looked up through the dust and haze, she saw the highway and, on it, Elisha, his hackles raised.
Highways had become way too dangerous to travel on after the Great Dying, but most of the long paths ran near them and crossed them from time to time. Crossings were one reason daddy sent Elisha out in front.
Daddy stepped over Lorna to stand where the path met the road. “Hello,” he cried, waving his left arm. The shotgun was in his right.
“Hallow yourself,” called a cackling voice from the other side of the road. “I done met your canine. He’s a fine looking animal. We been sizing each other up for a full minute already.”
Lorna stood and peered across the highway at a tall, old man wrapped in furs and toting the biggest gun she had ever seen.
“Where you headed?” he asked.
“North,” said Daddy
“That land’s gone to the dogs,” yelled the stranger. And he laughed a crazy, scary laugh, and Lorna worried he might be a heretic.
“Well, it’s a dog-eat-dog world,” said Daddy.
“No,” said the man, and he wasn’t laughing anymore. “Dogs ain’t like humans. Dogs don’t eat their own until the final stage of desperation. It didn’t take much for us. We went cannibal, religiously cannibal, even before the Great Dying. Judgment will be upon us to our last generation.” He spat on the cracked asphalt.
“Well, that’s what you’ll find down south, if you’re headed that way,” replied Daddy in a tight voice. “Heretics and damnation.”
The men and the dog stood there in silence for a few moments, and then the old man lowered his weapon and smiled. “Heretics, eh. Well, it’s time we switch. I’ll go to hell and you can go to the dogs.” He walked lightly across the highway. Elisha didn’t even growl, and Daddy and Lorna stepped out of his way. “May God have mercy on the child,” he called out as he vanished down the path behind them.
The north country was good for a while. The air was colder but clearer. And there weren’t any heretics or anyone else as far as they could tell. There were more animals, though not nearly as many rats. Lorna and Daddy had squirrel or rabbit nearly every night.
“Why aren’t there people here, Daddy?” she asked a couple weeks after they’d crossed the highway.
“Didn’t you listen to the old man?” was all Daddy said.
The next day, just before noon, they saw the pack.
Elisha had been acting funny all morning, sprinting from spot to spot, sniffing and whining. Then he froze and growled low and long. On the ridge ahead, Lorna saw three smallish brown dogs. The scouts. They ran back a ways and she heard them whimpering. Then the rest of the pack came up. In front were the two largest dogs Lorna had ever seen outside of Elisha. They were wolfish, gray dogs and they stood at the top of the ridge and showed their teeth and growled and Lorna said “Gramps” under her breath. Elisha stepped forward and barked so loudly it hurt Lorna’s ears and she covered them as his barks echoed off the ridge. Then Daddy fired the shotgun. Both barrels. As the pack retreated, Daddy said, “That was the alpha male and female — the leaders. Elisha and I gave them a taste of what they was in for.”
They didn’t see the pack for two days, but then the dogs came back for good. They turned up throughout the day, every day. Sometimes behind them, sometimes ahead, sometimes beside. Elisha seemed to be ignoring them, but the presence of the pack wore on Lorna and Daddy.
Nighttime was worse. They knew the dogs were out there, waiting and watching, but they couldn’t see them. There were a lot of dead trees in the north, and Daddy would build a bonfire. Lorna and Daddy would sit so close to it their sweat soaked through their ragged clothes. Around them, unearthly howls ripped through the darkness. Then Elisha would slip away into the blackness. Each night he stayed away longer. When he was gone, Lorna held the Elisha figure Gramps had carved and prayed at the fire, afraid to turn around.
“What’s he doing out there?” Lorna asked.
“I don’t know,” Daddy said. “I think he may be thinning the pack. I hope he is.”
By day, it was hard to notice any difference in the pack’s size. An indeterminate number of dogs continued to follow the formidable alpha male and female as they stalked the three of them on their northward trek.
To Lorna’s mind, whatever it was Elisha was doing outside of camp, it was not worth the agony she suffered waiting for his return. One night she followed him to the edge of the circle of firelight and clutched at him as he peered into the darkness.
“Stay here tonight, Eli,” she pleaded. “Look, I saved you some supper.” Risking Daddy’s wrath, she pulled a blackened squirrel leg from under her tattered shirt and put it on the ground beside Elisha. He sniffed at it, then looked up at her before turning away and melting into the darkness.
That night was silent. There was no howling. No dog sounds at all that Lorna could hear. Even the insect noise seemed muted. To Lorna, it was as if nature itself was holding its breath, waiting for something to happen.
Elisha limped back just before dawn. In the scant light, Lorna saw his mangled face. An ear mostly gone, an eye swollen shut, the blood-drenched skull, and, most worrisome, a lolling tilt of the head that showed something was wrong with his neck. Daddy turned pale and whispered, “He’s done for.” Elisha staggered to a spot near the fire and collapsed. Lorna brought him a shallow dish and he lapped up all of the water she could pour from her jug, his black eyes staring up at her, but his head resting so heavily on his paws she wondered whether he would ever lift it again.
Lorna stayed there with him. She didn’t think she could sleep, but she must have, because her dreams took her to a place and time that Lorna’s waking mind had forgotten, if it had ever really existed at all. She was with her mother and her brothers. They were as dirty and hungry as she was now, but it was different. She was … happy. They were playing a game, an old one that had been passed down from long ago, from before the Great Dying. It was a running game, with lots of chasing and touching and some standing still. Her daddy joined the game. But he was a different daddy. A better daddy. After he tagged her, he lifted her into the sky and called her his “princess,” which was a special, magic word different from the dark ones like “Sacrifice” and “Sacrament” that came from the Religion. She was smiling when she woke up, and it hurt her face a little, because she wasn’t used to it, but she tried to keep smiling anyway.
Then Lorna looked at Elisha’s blood-crusted face and the smile left her. “Oh, Eli,” she whispered, and she prayed to the Religion and the joyful magic, too, that he would get better.
They held camp there waiting to see what would happen with Elisha. For over a week they waited, expecting, every second, to be attacked by the pack. But there was no sign of the dogs.
On the tenth day, Lorna looked up and the pack was there, standing just out of rifle shot of their camp. The alpha female was clearly anxious. She moved closer to them then backpedaled like she was pulled by a rope. The alpha male was nowhere to be seen.
The sight and smell of the pack brought Elisha back to himself. He stood and slowly straightened his head. Daddy looked at Elisha and all the worry left his face. He put down his rifle and picked up the shotgun.
“Now we’re talking. Get out there, get out in front,” Daddy said, reflexively swinging a kick toward Elisha.
Elisha took a step forward and emitted a low growl. It swelled within him, changed pitch, then burst from his throat as a feral howl that made Lorna’s skin prick up and her knees buckle. The alpha female froze, then began to advance toward them, slowly, steadily. The pack followed. Daddy raised the shotgun, a smile creasing the side of his mouth. Waiting, waiting, waiting so as to inflict the maximum damage with the blast.
Elisha was upon him before he could turn his head. His massive jaws closed on Daddy’s face, muffling his scream, and then, as Elisha stepped away, the pack charged in, burying Daddy in a frenzied heap of fur and fangs.
The alpha female did not join the onslaught. She stepped gingerly toward Elisha, her jaws slack, yowling. When she reached Elisha, she nuzzled him.
Elisha turned to Lorna.
Lorna looked into Eli’s face, searching for something. For her daddy, her true daddy. For Gramps. For love. For something that was not there and never would be.
She rubbed the little statue of Elisha between her delicate, dirty fingers and, without even thinking, began reciting the prayer of the Holy Sacrifice.
Daddy was right. Eli was a pack animal.
And he had a new pack now.