At the End of the World
Rachel Watts (Curtin University, Australia)
There was something wrong with the dog. That was how it started.
He wasn’t in pain, not at first. He followed me out to the traps, snuffling along the undergrowth, nose to ground. He still curled up on the floor next to me at night, enveloping me in his dog smell and physical dreams. Four paws twitched as his mind unravelled whatever canine secrets there are to process after the day. When it was cold he moved in closer, his muscular body fitting snugly into the crook behind my knees, his even breathing lulling me deeper into an animal sleep. Our friendship was a quiet place. A tactile place of fur and skin, and the deep, dusty scents underneath.
I bent to check a trap, a soft rabbit in it, long legs lying empty against the red dirt, the skull grotesquely bulbous above its crushed throat. The dog stared. He didn’t wander off marking his territory in his disinterested, workaday manner. He just stared at me, eyes fixed, unwavering. He stared as I retrieved the rabbit and I felt his animal nature, in a way that I can’t describe, a way that set my hair on end and made me reach for my knife. I felt hunted.
We made our way back to the ancient shearing shed we camped in. I carried three rabbits, their limp bodies hanging from the strap of my satchel. The sunburn was already flaring on top of last night’s mosquito bites. Layers of skin damage and infection and more damage. Like the abandoned land, my history was written on me in a patchwork of scars.
As a child I had stood at the top of the low hill, looking out over this flat brown land. I remember my dad driving us out in the farm ute, coated in dust and sweat, grit in our teeth, sun in our eyes. He put his hands on his hips and arched his back, the slow unravelling of a man who was older than he looked.
“You’d think we were at the end of the world,” he said to the miles of open space.
Dad was long dead when the world really did start to end. I thought of him as I moved back to the bush, buried and feeding the earth. We all became something else.
I left a fear that crept through the suburbs. A lingering shadow that made people glance over their shoulders. Then the power went out across the city. The nights were punctuated with shouts and breaking glass. The dog attached itself to me as I made my way out of the city, into the country’s lonely interior. At first I tried to discourage him. But he made a good travelling companion when the road was crowded and a dog made other travellers keep their distance. I never gave him a name. It didn’t seem like I had a right to.
I haven’t seen anyone else for months.
As I skinned and gutted the rabbits in the shade of the shed, the dog dozed, ears flicking lazily at the odd fly. I wondered if I had imagined it. He watched keenly as I prepared an evening meal, caramel eyes following the rabbit flesh into the fire and out again. We shared our food like we always did, eating in companionable silence interrupted only by the dog’s enthusiastic chewing.
But later that night he began to itch. It wasn’t regular dog-business, this itch, it was deep down whole body scratching. A possession, not a reflex. He scratched for hours, making me anxious, until eventually I put him on the other side of the shed, in a gated sheep pen. He sat there scratching, whimpering slightly, as his fur came out in clumps, light and fluffy at first and then wet and bloody. I swallowed around the lump in my throat as I turned my back and left him there. I slept alone, waking with a start at every stray sound in the cold night, hearing a footfall in every gust of wind.
By morning the dog lay exhausted on the bare concrete slab, foam at the corner of his mouth, his lips pulled back showing black gums and long white teeth. His thick yellow fur lay around him in clumps, laden with industrious flies. His skin was scratched raw, peeling off thick and bloody. When I bent down he issued a low, throaty growl. I backed away. He was sick. He wasn’t acting himself. But the infection could only last so long, surely?
I stayed close to the shed all day, fixing broken traps, patching the makeshift mosquito net that never seemed to work. Every now and then I checked on the dog but there was no change. He lay still, his muscles exposed and glistening. I made a few valiant attempts to keep the flies off him but it was for nothing. They swarmed.
The sun was getting low when I heard it. The shadows clawed through the bush, long and sinister, and I was certain I heard the gate to the sheep pen open. In a patch of sunlight cast on the concrete through the open door of the shed, was the dog. What was left of the dog. He swayed, as he stood on his hind legs, his new visceral coat wet in the dimming light. He lifted his head, met my eyes, his lips somehow shredded to show acres of teeth, bestial and vicious. From within the cage of his bones came a noise, a low roar, a threat. I drew my knife.
I don’t know how long we stood like that. Time became elastic as I gauged the danger in those glistening teeth. I waited for the spell to break, for my friend to come back. My only friend at the end of the world. But he stared endlessly, through black eyes. He swayed, and shook dropping clods of red flesh wetly to the concrete floor. Finally, as the sun sank to its lowest ebb and the light came through the open door red and blinding, I saw. Underneath the fur and the raw, red skin, and behind the chunks of flesh that he still clawed from himself, a row of grinning ribs. White and bloody, more appeared as he shook off his mammalian skin. At the end of the world we all shed our skin. We all become something else.
I watched as he shone, black eyed and hungry. His teeth dripped and he edged forward.
In a flash, he lunged. My knife gleamed dully in my hand, his roar filled the world, and I lashed out. There was a solid thump and the dog-creature lay dead, heavy, across me, my hand gripping the knife buried in his chest. Along my right shoulder, his claws had opened four deep ravines in my skin. I breathed deep and shuddered.
I buried him behind the stump south of the shed. If you’re reading this, the remains aren’t human, they aren’t dog, they are something else. Something unnameable. I’m writing this to tell you that you should keep walking, leave this place, keep going west. There’s something here, something in the air or the water, some parasite. It got the dog, the dog nearly got me. I don’t think it’s safe here. I’ve started to itch.
Rachel Watts is a freelance writer in Perth, Western Australia. She is studying for a Master’s Degree in creative writing and writes book reviews and other thoughts at her website.