PodCastle 697: Down to Niflhel Deep

PodCastle 697: Down to Niflhel Deep

* Author : Maria Haskins

* Narrator : Eleanor R. Wood

* Host : Summer Fletcher

* Audio Producer : Peter Adrian Behravesh


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Originally published in Kaleidotrope.

Rated PG-13

Down to Niflhel Deep

by Maria Haskins

The dog’s name is Roan.

He doesn’t know how long he’s been running. Maybe it’s been hours, or days, or maybe it’s only been fifteen minutes since he slipped out of the backyard through the open gate, but however long it’s been, he hasn’t stopped running since. The streets are going dark, but Roan is running steady, nose to the ground, skimming asphalt and concrete. Ragged currents of scent tug at him from the ditch and the grass and the road and the yards—urine, feces, raccoon, squirrel, cat—but underneath it all is the straight and narrow path he’s following: the girl.

By now, he’s left his house far behind, that and the streets and the park he knows. He’s left the man and the woman, left them crying, pacing the kitchen and living room, and he’s finally free from their tangled smell of anger, tears, and dread; free from the chafing tightness in their voices as they clutch their phones:

“Where is she? Where could she have gone? Has no one seen her?”

Roan smells future / past / present: where the girl walked and where she rode her bike, the dwindling of it telling him she’s still far away, the future of it slipping into the dusk ahead.

Day fades, night comes. Trees are closing in, blackberry branches stabbing through sagging wire fences—grass, forest, shadows. Roan slows, sniffs the tall weeds, the remnants of wasted summer nights: empty cans and bottles and slithering condoms. He circles back to the fence and starts again. There is a new smell here. Not girl, not animal, not man, not woman, nothing he has smelled before, yet it is familiar. It is the smell of dead rats beneath the shed—claws clutching at the dirt; it is the smell of rot and grubs beneath the leaves in autumn, the smell of sickness beneath the bark, beneath the skin. It is deception, sorrow, cold—twisted and turned into something else, something worse.

Roan’s hackles rise as he stops, considers, hesitates. The smell of the girl is stronger here. That smell is in his veins, as close and true as his own heartbeat: it is chase and fetch in the backyard, it is running in the park together, it is treats hidden in tiny fists and dispensed beneath the table. It is his world, and everything in it.

Roan heads into the woods, warily examining every leaf and blade of grass, inhaling blood and decay, dirt and mouse bones, pine and spruce. The darkness comes alive around him as he moves, furtive feet and sharp talons rustling through the underbrush.

He’s walking now, not running, nose pushing / pulling on the scent, reeling it in, until the woods open up and he is standing on a precipice. A ravine yawns below: creek, rocks, dirt. Roan can smell the water, can smell the girl’s last footsteps where the grass and mud slip and crumble underneath his paws. He stops. Barks. That other scent is close here, too. The menace of it makes him want to cower and growl and whimper, but the girl’s scent is stronger, pulling him forward to peer over the edge.

She is down there, in the dark. So close. Everything else is far away.

His paws step and shuffle, lose their grip: he’s slipping, falling, just like the girl did, tumbling head over tail,

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