The Dogs

by Curtis Smith

Anne pauses outside her mother’s bedroom door. The darkness ripples with the sheriff’s beefy moans and the box spring’s twang. Anne tiptoes downstairs and steps onto the porch. The alfalfa-scented breeze strikes her face. Above, a smothering of clouds, a vista of blue and black. Lightning in the distance, a crooked vein of white, then thunder. Anne walks beneath a maple’s bobbing limbs. Before his wasting, her father had strung his gutted deer from the maple. Later, beneath the tree’s October-red leaves, her mother married the sheriff, a man everything her father was not. The lane’s gravel brushes Anne’s bare feet. Raindrops strike cool upon her neck.

Years ago, her father’s goats grazed in the barn’s shadow, and in the wind’s rustle, Anne hears their grass-pawing hooves. The goats are gone, sold off or slaughtered. In their place, the pen for the sheriff’s precious hunting dogs. Another gust, and on it, the stink of shit and wet fur. Anne creeps forward, a finger to her lips. “Shhh.”

Seven glistening snouts poke between the wire. They are stupid creatures, their reasoning shackled to instinct, master, and chase. Anne’s mother met the sheriff at choir practice, and this morning, the sheriff rose before the congregation and claimed the spot that had once belonged to her father’s coffin. There, the sheriff sang of blood and the lamb, of sinners and believers and the fiery pit. Volume atoned for the sheriff’s lack of range, and by the time he reached the second verse, even the crankiest babes had ceased their bawling. Rapture seized the sheriff. His trembling hands beseeched the heavens, and the shifting contours of his golden robe betrayed the gun holstered beneath.

Anne slips biscuits between the pen’s mesh then unlatches the lock. The gate opens with a rusty wheeze, and the friskiest of the bunch knock her back with their headlong dash toward the tree line. Anne smiles. Her mother is always urging her to give the sheriff a chance. She coaxes the lingerers, their collars tugged and their behinds kicked until they scamper after their brothers, a retreat illuminated for a heartbeat by a lightning flash.

Curtis Smith’s most recent books are Bad Monkey (stories, Press 53), Truth or Something Like It (novel, Casperian Books), and Witness (essays, Sunnyoutside).

How is your writing process different when you’re writing in these compressed prose forms than when you’re writing your longer pieces? I like the immediacy of the flash form. Every sentence, every word has to carry weight. You have to start with a certain urgency and then ramp it up until the piece gives off its own shine. I agree that all writing is a series of answering questions. The most important question in the compressed form is the necessity to cut out all that is extraneous—especially the items that wouldn’t be extraneous in a slightly longer form. It can be a hard call.

If all writing is indeed decision making, as Steve Almond suggests, what are some of the questions/challenges that arise for you in writing short shorts—and specifically, arose for you in writing this piece? This piece was kind of unique. It was part of a much longer story—about 7000 words or so—that never really came all the way together. So I let it sit and then returned and boiled it down to what I thought was essential. I took different parts of the story that appealed to me and put them in one scene. I guess this was the form it wanted to be all along.

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