We were cleaning up the office at Petswelcome after our annual Christmas party this year when we found an old file cabinet hidden away behind some boxes. In it we discovered a manuscript written by Petswelcome’s co-founder Phineas “Smudge” Cornblower about one Christmas he spent under some duress as a young dog in the Hudson River Valley. We dusted it off and are offering it as a holiday gift to all our Weekly Bone subscribers. We hope you enjoy A Dog’s Christmas Tale and wish you joyous holidays and a very happy New Year.
A Dog’s Christmas Tale
Something was coming on. And it wasn’t just Christmas. From the narrow window on the third floor of Crankbutt’s Animal Shelter, through the tight bars of his cage, Smudge could see the weather was changing. To the north, the Hudson River was disappearing in a dark swirling haze. And to the south, in the mottled light, the water was deep black with whitecaps nicking it like static on an old TV set.
Crankbutt’s Shelter was housed in an old abandoned mansion that, in its time, must have been an object of pride and joy for its owner, Bunting Cunning-Dunningham, an industrial magnate who helped turn the Hudson River into one of the most polluted bodies of water on the east coast. After the last hermit Dunningham relative died in the house in the middle of the twentieth century, there was no demand for such huge, hulking structures and, for the majority of fifty years, it was left to burst pipes and slowly collapse in on itself. And so, when the market for houses with river views started reviving in the mid-1960s, the place was so far gone that no one touched it for another twenty years.
Enter Silas F. Crankbutt. Entrepreneur. Mountebank. Tosspot. Having drank his way through an Ivy League education, he emerged from the hallowed halls of Cornell, Harvard, Yale and Brown (none of them would have him very long) with a lot of family money and nowhere to spend it. After a series of failed attempts at various start-ups, including strip mining operations and a sulfuric acid factory, he was driving home one day down Old Route 9 and saw the dilapidated mansion and suddenly got another bad idea. A Gambling Casino and Resort! He immediately purchased the property and started hemorrhaging money trying to resuscitate the old building. While the best contractors up and down the Hudson told him to level the place and start over, Silas thought he knew better. What did they know about old world charm? he thought. He was going to bring the old Cunning-Dunningham place back to its former glory. Just like in the days when Ratliff Reesepeezes and Phineas Blotchwalder and O.M. Fazzlegut threw parties that would light up the society pages of the New York Herald and be talked about for years. Sure, their names were very weird, even by Hudson Valley standards, but they knew how to live life to the fullest.
Twelve years into the project, Crankbutt went bankrupt. Crankrupt! read the headline in the New York Post. Bankbutt! declared The Daily News, both having such clever writers. In all those years, somehow the teams of workers only got one window pane fixed. Such is the building trade in the Hudson Valley. Crankbutt had given them voluminous instructions in a tome he titled, “Principles of Aesthetic Regurgitation with Regard to Queen Anne and Early Greek Revival Architecture in the Hudson River Valley,” which they could make no sense of. He was a cheat. A scoundrel. A thief. But his primary shortcoming was that he was an effete snob. Deep down inside him there was a streak of refinement, perhaps, but it was engulfed and marginalized by the collapsing superstructure of his substantial ethical deficiencies.
And so, once again, the house lay stagnate. But one day, many years later Crankbutt came back to Cunning-Dunningham Hall in a drunken state of desolation. And what he found as he roamed the ruined rooms was dogs. Hundreds of them. Homeless dogs that took up residence in the abandoned building. And that’s when his next bad idea hit. An animal shelter! Who cares what shape it’s in….it’s for animals. So he started a small business taking in abandoned pets and getting state grants which he then used for himself and his drinking and his whoring and general untoward behavior.
And that’s where Smudge found himself this very Christmas Eve. Up on the third floor in a filthy cage that nobody had cleaned for days. How he got there he didn’t know. None of it made sense. One day he was happy and living in a nice home with a wonderful master and next thing he knew, he was stuffed in a truck and taken to Crankbutt’s, never to see him again.
It was never easy living with humans in the best of times. Smudge couldn’t figure out what they were up to. But his master seemed nice and treated Smudge royally and he couldn’t have been more content. Then, one day, instead of going to work, his master started hanging around the house. He seemed nervous and anxious and depressed and began drinking. Humans always found ways to be unhappy, Smudge thought. It seemed to be part of their DNA.
One evening Smudge was upstairs waiting for his master to come up to bed but he didn’t. As Smudge was going down the stairs to check on him, he heard the sound of moaning. When he got to the kitchen, he saw his master sitting in total darkness with his head on the table sobbing uncontrollably. Smudge’s first instinct was to go over and nudge and comfort him but he thought it better if he left him alone. He didn’t know how to act in such situations. When humans cried it wasn’t because of a missing bone or toy. That’s why dogs cried. No. When humans cried it was because they knew something. Something bad. And it made Smudge very uncomfortable. So he went back upstairs.
And that was the last he ever saw of him.
The next morning Smudge’s life changed forever. There were strangers in the house and furniture being moved and cars and trucks out front. Smudge tried to remain in the background but a man who smelled like shaving lotion screamed, “There he is!” and grabbed his collar and dragged him into one of the trucks. Next thing he knew he was driven up north to Crankbutt’s shelter which was filled with hundreds of other dogs, each locked in its own miserable cage. Once or twice a day, Crankbutt, or his grandson, Elway, would come by and slip a can of catfood into each cage. “Some goobedy-goobedy-goo for you,” Crankbutt would always say with his rotten prune-like breath. Some days he’d forget to open the can. Some days he or Elway wouldn’t come by at all. Toward late afternoon every other day all the dogs would be let out into a courtyard for an hour or so and then were herded back inside into their cages.
It was a terrible existence. Lonely and scary. The ancient moldy wooden hallways and rooms of Cunning-Dunningham Hall were lit by dim lights that must have been wired when electricity first came into general use. But Smudge didn’t despair. Dogs don’t do despair. Humans do. The only break he got was that his cage was the top cage and it gave him a view out the window so that he could look up and down the river. The cages were stacked three high and there were boards on all sides of the cage except for the front and back and so Smudge couldn’t even see the dogs next to him. But he was, at least, able to see the river. And so he spent all of his time watching the boats move up and down it. He couldn’t imagine what the other dogs did but he was just glad to be occupied.
Mostly he saw barges and tugboats and tankers and sailboats, too, in the warmer weather. But now that it was winter, it was predominantly hardworking tugs that plied the icy water. They were Smudge’s favorite boats because they seemed most doglike: tenacious, big-hearted and single-mindedly dedicated to whatever task was set before them. And they were also startlingly beautiful at night—especially in the cold winter air when their green and white lights seem to twinkle over the dark water as they passed by Crankbutt’s.
On this particular night, they reminded Smudge of Christmas trees moving up and down the river. And he imagined happy people celebrating the holiday on the boats, sitting around the trees, laughing and playing music, much like his family used to before it got torn apart. And not only did he imagine the Christmas trees, he imagined the different songs that were being played on each boat and what they were eating and drinking. Each one partaking in a wonderful feast: turkey with oyster stuffing and sweet caramel pie, while another enjoyed a crown roast of pork with roasted potatoes and gravy dressing. As a matter of fact, there seemed to be more boats on the river than usual and it kept Smudge busy imagining one magical boat after the other until eventually he fell asleep.
Late that night, though, he was awakened by his cage being rattled and opened. It was Elway. “Out with you, sweetheart,” he said in a rush. “Now jump to it, you hear?” It wasn’t just Smudge he was letting out, but all the dogs in his corridor. They were funneled down the hall and the two flights of stairs into the back parking lot where a line of trucks was waiting for them. It was extremely cold outside and snow was beginning to fall in the bright light thrown by all the headlights.
They jammed thirty dogs to a truck and, as each truck filled, it skidded out of the parking lot and on to Old Route 9. Smudge sensed that they were heading south based on the scents coming into the truck. He was very familiar with the route and, because he had a sweet tooth, he was very fond of bakeries and knew every one in the vicinity. This way he could keep track of where they were by the lovely fragrances he was picking up. First, he smelled the bread in Pandemain Bakery in Rhinebeck, and then pastries in Caffe Aurora in Poughkeepsie, and croissants in Paesano’s in Fishkill and cappuccino in Villa D’Oro in Croton and finally cinnamon cookies from Homestyle Desserts in Peekskill. And between the wonderful scents he heard hymns and carols being sung from the churches up and down the Hudson: Hark the Herald Angels from St. Mary of the Snow in Saugerties, Silent Night in St. James Church in Hyde Park, delerious organ music from St. Nicholas’s in New Hamburg and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio from Our Lady of Loretto in Cold Spring. The wonderful scents and music would have filled him with joy any other time but now they made him even sadder because they were so close yet so impossibly far away.
Smudge heard sirens blaring as flashing red lights illuminated the inside the truck and then disappeared, moving in the opposite direction. It must be the police, Smudge thought. Maybe they’re finally on to Crankbutt. Maybe they’ll finally shut his doors forever. Smudge, unlike humans (he thought), was practical and proud and never gave into sadness. He always felt that hard work and a stiff upper lip would keep him on the straight and narrow and he knew that he’d eventually find a way out of this situation one way or another.
After about two hours he began to smell the river again. They had made a sharp turn toward the west and were headed on a sloping road running downhill toward the Hudson. Smudge had moved toward the front of the truck behind the front seats and could see that they had passed a series of old brick factories and some small, dimly lit wooden homes. After another mile or so of total darkness, they came to sudden stop.
“OK, out with you, then,” the driver yelled as he opened the back gate of the truck. When the door opened, there was the overwhelming smell of the Hudson, much saltier than what he was used to. They must have gone a lot further south where the water was almost as brine as the ocean–but still the Hudson, nevertheless. When he jumped out he saw there was a line of men holding flashlights and sticks, jabbing and prodding the dogs to follow a path toward the river.
Smudge was corralled onto on a gangplank and, a few steps later, onto a huge boat. From the smell of it—tar, hemp and fetid bilge water—it was an old wooden ship. Once on deck, there seemed to be a general commotion and nobody really in charge giving Smudge the opportunity to move around and get a sense of the boat. He had a great nose for wood. Smudge’s master used to build dinghys and small sloops and Smudge knew his red from white cedar. Greenheart from oak. Mahogany from lignum vitae. He could tell that this ship was planked with red cedar, framed with white oak and decked with teak. There was also an overwhelming smell of pine that he couldn’t account for.
It was snowing rather heavily and made it difficult to get a good view of the layout of the deck. It was big, maybe 80 feet or so overall. He made his way through all the other dogs who seemed rather lost and found himself at the stern rail. Looking over the edge, he saw a large quarterboard lit by a lantern. Squinting his eyes, he made out that Here and Now was the name of the ship.
Through the din of the general disorder, Smudge suddenly heard a voice yell out. “Prepare to disembark, Mr. Pearlspitter. Loosen lines. Back the jib….” Smudge ran forward and, as he reached midship, there was a lurch and he felt the boat being pulled by the strong current of the Hudson. He then heard a sound like a generator switching on and, incredibly, right next to him, a tower of lights shot up into the snowy sky. It started at the bottom and circled up in a cyclone of spiraling colors. He couldn’t even see the top of it as it seemed to disappear in the low clouds. It was eery and beautiful at the same time, almost haunted in the shroud of falling snow. “What the heck?” Smudge thought to himself, startled beyond his usual calm and deliberative demeanor. Then suddenly, amazingly, it dawned on him. It was a Christmas tree. A huge Christmas tree. It made no sense. A tree where the main mast should be. What was going on?
One thing he did know was that this was no Christmas-on-the-Hudson theme cruise. No scenic tour. Because anything that Silas F. Crankbutt was even remotely involved with could not have any goodness or fun or joy connected with it. It didn’t make sense that, after starving dogs in filthy and wretched conditions, he would suddenly have a Scrooge-like change of heart. Yes, it was that time of year but Crankbutt was eminently irredeemable, no matter how many Christmas ghosts visited him.
“All passengers below, Mr. Pearlspitter. All passengers below,” bellowed the captain’s voice again. With that, another group of men with flashlights and sticks walking aft prodded the hundreds of dogs below decks. It was icy and many dogs were slipping and sliding across the slippery teak deck, howling and bouncing off the port and starboard rails.
Once below and slapped into yet another cage, Smudge shivered with cold and, in the pitch-black dark, could hear the frozen river sliding along the side of the ship. It was an unnerving hissing, squeaking and crunching like the labored breathing of an old asthmatic man. And every few minutes, that horrible sound was punctuated by an even more heart-stopping cracking and booming as the Here and Now grazed extremely large chunks of ice.
Not going to be a good night for sleep, Smudge thought to himself. But, as always, he was not going to give in to the fear and so he looked around the dim quarters to see what he could make out. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he still couldn’t see much, just cages upon cages of dogs who had finally fallen into an uneasy sleep. He saw many familiar faces from Crankbutt’s glowing in the light from the woodburning stove. He saw Spanky, Stink, Gout, Farzel, Beans, Wigs, Jumbles, Fuzz, Humphrey, Pop, Zander, Jamo, Tick, Muncie, Zephyr, and One-Eyed Jack, among others. Seeing all his friends comforted him and he tried to get as comfortable as he could and, as he stretched his front legs, he accidentally popped open the door to his cage that somebody had forgotten to lock.
Smudge slipped out and walked quietly between the rows of cages. He could see a lantern hung far aft that illuminated a companionway that led up to the top deck. Smudge climbed the stairs and nudged open the companionway door and immediately felt the snow on his face. He stepped out on the deck and headed toward the bow of the ship along the windward side so that he was being pushed against the cabin rather than the leeward rails. He wanted to stay as far from the freezing water as possible. Because of the large tree, the deck was fairly well lit and he stepped slowly but surely. Smudge was secretly proud of his sea legs and, even in these hazardous wintry conditions, he felt confident and in control.
As he moved along the deck, he reached the huge tree a little forward of midships and stopped to examine it in all its strange mystery. It seemed to Smudge that the tree was actually powering the Here and Now, acting as its mainsail. The windward side was flattened giving lift to the ship and the leeward side billowed out, its branches swaying stiffly in the wind.
As he moved further forward he saw that the tree was connected at the top by a fore shroud that was attached at the other end to a long bowsprit that jutted out in front of the ship. The shroud held a small storm jib sail that, Smudge figured, helped balance this most unusual rig. The ship was moving at an alarmingly fast clip, given all the ice in the water and the lack of visibility due to snow. Smudge looked around but didn’t see anyone on deck. How could there be no one on watch? he thought. It was a frightening situation but it let Smudge move around freely and get a sense of the ship, so he took full advantage of it.
Smudge stuck his nose into the cold and stormy darkness to see if he could get a bearing of where they actually were on the river. For a dog, Smudge had an unusually good knowledge of the Hudson (something else he was secretly proud of). For many years, his master would take him out on one of the small sloops he built and they’d explore a surprisingly large expanse of the river. They never used auxiliary power so many times they were at the mercy of the wind and tide and current and often didn’t make it home for days, sometimes weeks, at a time. They would always find a small creek or tributary or cove and drop anchor and sleep in the cozy cabin. These were Smudge’s happiest days, free and filled with never-ending adventure. The days seemed timeless, bright and held the fresh, clean scent of pint tar and leather. They hung like immaculate ornaments in his memory, like stars in the night sky, far from the troubles of the real world. Though his master ended up in a bad way, Smudge could still think back to when he was happy, and he never seemed happier than when he was in a boat with his dog.
But that was a long time ago and very different times. Tonight, on this wretched ship, he was just trying to get a bearing but was having little luck. There were very few scents for his nose to pick up. And with the darkness, and the snow coming down in sheets, there were no visual clues either. But Smudge was not just any dog, he was a Bracco, and he knew he should be able pick up some olfactory clue, the smell of soil or other land-based scents that would help him discern a location. But he couldn’t smell a thing.
Then it occurred to him: The absence of the land-based scents might be a clue in itself. They were on Haverstraw Bay! It was the widest point of the Hudson. So it made sense he couldn’t smell anything. And though the shipping channel, where the Here and Now would be most likely sailing, cut fairly close to the western side, the wind was coming from the southeast and so any land-based scents would be blowing from the much-farther-away eastern shore.
Suddenly, his navigational contemplations were interrupted by an eeery sound. A plaintive howling in the distance. Like hyenas or jackals. It was a sound that made his blood go cold. He squinted into the darkness to see if he could make anything out but just saw the gray water and heavy snow. And then, ten points off the starboard side of the bow, he thought he saw something solid, a stretch of whiteness moving into view which he realized was an ice floe. As the floe got closer and slid abeam of the ship, he saw that it was teeming with animals, dogs, packed tail to tail, head to head, side by side, trying to keep from falling into the water, some of them sliding off anyway, their eyes vacant with horror, their snouts lifted into the air letting out the most terrified yelps and cries he had ever heard.
And then they were gone.
Before Smudge could process what just passed, he suddenly felt a sharp pinching on the back of his neck.
“Aaaahh, what sneaky cur is this?” Captain Precipice screamed.
The Captain dragged Smudge aft on deck, threw him down the companionway stairs and clapped him into his cage once again. This time the Captain made sure it was locked and then he disappeared into the darkness. Smudge was exhausted and cold and soaking wet from the snow. Tomorrow he would plan his escape from this god-awful ship, he thought, before drifting off into an uneasy sleep, the howling of those poor dogs still ringing in his ear.
The next morning, or he thought it was the next morning—it was hard to tell because there wasn’t much light in the ship’s hold—he awoke feeling sore and disoriented. He looked around and saw some men sitting and drinking around the wood stove, glowing with heat and light, over which they warmed their hands and talked quietly among themselves. Smudge looked around at the cages near him and saw a lot of them were empty when just yesterday they were all full. Maybe they were up on deck getting some fresh air for a few minutes the same way they used to get some courtyard time at Crankbutt’s.
Smudge heard some shuffling in the cage next to him and looked over and saw that it was One-Eyed Jack, the Schipperke that he knew from Crankbutt’s. One-Eye was a pugilist and was the champion of the courtyard matches. In the short time they were let out into the courtyard, a makeshift ring would be set up and dogs would engage in the sweet science for small side bets and relief from the relentless boredom. He got his name because of the way he closed one eye and would stare at his opponent with the other, as though he were looking in a microscope to find the weaknesses he would eventually beat his opponents with. But he had a good and strong heart and Smudge liked him a lot.
“Jack….Jack!” Smudge said.
Jack looked over. “Hey, fancy meeting you here. Actually I saw you last night but I couldn’t wake you up. Are you alright?”
“I’m OK,” Smudge said, “So do you have any idea what’s going on? What’s with this ship?”
“No idea. But I think Crankbutt was getting into trouble with the authorities and needed to clear us out in a hurry. But what we’re doing on a ship with a Christmas tree on it,…well, your guess is as good as mine. “
“Alright, you miserable critters, up and at’em. Let’s go. On deck…” Smudge looked over and saw a heavily tattooed man with a stick, rattling it against the cages to wake all the dogs up. “Let’s go. And don’t try to get away. Though I have no ideas where you’d go anyway….” he said, laughing.
Smudge and One-eyed Jack were let out of their cages and headed up the companionway. It was snowing lightly and the air was filled with a bright gauzy light. The dogs still couldn’t see clearly more than ten feet in front of them because of the fog and glare but it felt good to get out of the constant darkness.
Smudge got separated from Jack and walked over to the starboard rail to see if he could get another fix on their position. Now he could smell land all around him. He figured that last night they passed Stony Point to the west and Verplanck to the east and were now heading into the Highlands where the river narrowed significantly after a sharp crook westward past Peekskill Bay. He peered blindly into the snow to see if he could see the Indian Point Nuclear Plant to the east. That would confirm his location.
“This is not good,” One-eyed Jack said as he walked up to Smudge at the rail.
“I know it’s not good….,” Smudge replied.
“No, I mean really not good,” he said. “They aren’t around anywhere.”
“Who’s not around?”
“The dogs. I’m sure you noticed a lot of them weren’t below. And I just walked all over the deck and they’re not up here either. Not below. Not on deck. That means they’re gone. A whole lot of dogs are missing.”
Smudge suddenly couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t imagine what happened to them. Or he didn’t want to. And he had to struggle to take a gulp of air.
Cramp, a beagle and another alumni of Crankbutt’s, sidled up beside Smudge and One-Eyed Jack.
“He’s getting rid of us,” Cramp said. “He’s taking us out on the river and getting rid of us somehow. He’s masquerading the whole operation as a Christmas cruise. That’s what the tree’s about. So the Coast Guard will leave them alone. But early this morning we docked in Nyack and they dropped the gangplank and I heard hundreds of yelping dogs. They must have unloaded them. I saw one truck that said, Clandesteen Canning Company….”
“Oh, no. Good god, no…” One-Eyed Jack uttered. He was having trouble comprehending.
“What?” Smudge asked. “What is it?”
“And I think the dogs they can’t sell, they’re just dumping on the ice at night in the river…,” Cramp continued.
One-Eyed Jack was about to answer Smudge when suddenly they heard an immense whooshing sound of canvas and the creaking of wood and a human voice screaming, “Hard Alee. Hard Alee, you bastards! Come About!” And out of the snowy fog they saw another ship emerging, heading right for them and then suddenly switching course, tacking to port, just in the nick of time. But what they saw horrified them. It was another ship with a huge lighted tree and hundreds of dogs at the rail yelping, terrified, barking and howling. They were here and then gone. Smudge, Jack and Cramp could only see the lights from the boat’s tree fading into the snow and fog and feel their wake heave against the Here and Now, rocking them back and forth as if in some shocked, elemental disbelief.
Now there was only silence and Smudge couldn’t get rid of the horror he saw in the dogs’ eyes.
“And we’re not the only ones, “ Jack said. “They’ve got a whole operation going. We’ve got to get out of here.”
Smudge had been formulating a plan. He was resilient and steadfast. Not like humans. He was a dog. He was going to survive.
“Listen,” he said to Jack and Cramp. “I’m pretty sure we’ve recently passed Bannerman’s Island and will be coming up to a place called Anthony’s Nose. It’s one of the narrowest parts of the river. We can make a jump for it. From what I can see, the ice is pretty thick and we could probably make it back to shore by hopping from floe to floe without even having to touch the water,” which he knew would mean certain death.
“We should see the Bear Mountain Bridge approaching even in all this snow. That will be our signal. And even if that doesn’t work as far as timing goes, the river is narrow all the way up to World’s End. After that, though it gets wide at Newburgh Bay and doesn’t narrow again until a few miles past New Hamburg.”
“World’s End…,” One-eyed Jack retorted. “That’s where we’re gonna save ourselves? I hope it ain’t no prophecy…. But count me in anyway.”
Suddenly Smudge took a hard smack to the head. “Look what I’ve got here? It’s the troublemaker. What do you think you’re up to, Pooty??” It was Pearlspitter, drunk as every human on the boat seemed to be. “Well, the Captain told me about your walking about. I’ll take care of that wanderlust of yours, you no-good rotten cur….”
And with that he grabbed Smudge by the scruff of the neck and dragged him down below again. Only this time, before he put him in his cage, he pulled out a bottle of rum from his pea coat and poured it down Smudge’s throat.
“Here you go, Pudding,” he said. “Sleep tight.” Pearlspitter threw Smudge in the cage and slammed the door. “Sweet dreams, Pudding…,” he laughed as he walked toward the companionway. “Sweet dreams.”
Smudge suddenly felt his, his whole body, get heavy. And he no longer cared about humans and their troubled ways. He was drifting off, as if on a sailboat with the tide. And he felt peaceful. And relieved to leave this all behind.
Somebody left the bathwater running. He heard the water hitting the floor. It happened once before when his master had started a bath but then went off to answer the phone and then forgot about the bath. He was on the phone for an hour when water started cascading down the stairs. It was happening again. You’d think he would have learned his lesson. But here it was cascading down the stairs….gray and slurry with ice. Cascading down the stairs….the companionway stairs…..
Smudge woke with a start. He wasn’t in his master’s house. He was on the Here and Now and there was water sluicing through the hold. Cages were tumbling by in the frozen water and there wasn’t a soul left below decks. There was only Smudge, the empty cages and the icy water. What happened to all his friends? He hoped they escaped safely.
Smudge tried pressing against the front of his cage but it wouldn’t give. And so he started rocking it back and forth. It was his only hope. Back and forth until it teetered on the edge of the bulkhead it was resting on and then it crashed down to the wood floor and the rushing water. He instantly felt numb and didn’t know which way was up in the cage. The water was soaking him, freezing him to the bone, filling his mouth so that he couldn’t breathe. And then he saw that the door had broken off and he dove through the opening and popped up in the swirling water, swimming frantically for the companionway stairs. He was a good swimmer with webbed feet but he wasn’t meant to swim in the Arctic Ocean. And that’s what it felt like now. If he could just make it to the companionway, he could at least get on deck and see what he could do.
He made it to the stairs and stumbled through the tumbling water pouring into the hold. When he squeezed through the companionway door he immediately saw that it was snowing harder than ever. The tree must have still been lit because the whole scene was bathed in surreal carnival colors. Through the heavy snow he could see that the forward starboard side of the boat was listing badly, swamping and filling up with water. He knew he had to get to the highest part of the boat so he climbed up on the midship cabin where, finally, he was out of the water. And alone. More alone than he’d ever been.
And that’s where he sat. In the blizzard of snow with no idea where he was on the river. He could be all the way up by Castleton by now. Did it really make a difference at this point? He was left for dead. And that would be his fate.
Smudge looked up at the towering Christmas tree with its colorful lights sticking out of the dark, frozen water on the deck saw how absurd it was. And then, right in the middle of this maelstrom, the whole tree suddenly hissed and spit sparks and the huge spiral of colored lights shorted out as the water reached the wires of the lower branches. Now there was only the night, heaving water, snow and screaming wind. And there was the tree, too, barely visible now, shorn of its artifice, its green-black branches tossing like a storm within the storm. Impenetrable. Like terrible crows flying wildly in a vortex and collapsing into themselves. It was terrifying, more terrifying than anything he could ever imagine.
And suddenly he understood. He understood the terror of losing everything as he stood alone on his own sinking ship, the freezing water creeping around his feet. Rising up his legs. Now he understood what he could never figure out about humans. He understood their despair. And he felt terrible about how he had behaved. How he let his pride and fear not let him feel what is most important. Which is compassion. Why didn’t he go to his master that night when he saw him sobbing? Because he was afraid of what his master had seen. And ashamed for him. And so he lost him forever. And Smudge was sorry for his arrogance and callousness. And he even felt sorry for Crankbutt. And Precipice. And Pearlspitter. And all the poor bastards of this world who caved in or took wrong turns, unable to cope with their sorrowful lives.
But it was too late. And Smudge knew that. And was at peace with it as he watched the water pour into the Here and Now and saw the decks vanish. He looked up for the last time at the dark, careening tree and he saw something. He couldn’t tell if it was in the tree or the sky, but he saw something shining brightly above him. Smudge slid off the cabin and swam through the deep water sweeping over the deck and made his way to the tree and looked up. And there it was, hanging in above him in perfect stillness. He started climbing toward whatever it was knowing it was his only hope, knowing in the back of his mind that dogs really can’t climb trees, yet here he was moving up, almost as though he was being lifted. As he got closer, he could begin to make it out and saw that it was a star. A bright shining star at the top of the tree.
Suddenly, there was a huge groaning as though the ship had grounded. Smudge felt the Here and Now lurch heavily and the tree began to groan and crack and he felt it falling through the snowy air until it landed with a crash and the light of the star shattered in front of him, leaving only darkness. But Smudge kept on moving anyway, now suddenly horizontal, rushing forward until he suddenly felt land beneath his feet. Earth covered in snow. Terra Firma.
He kept on running until he was clear of the tree and the wreckage of the ship and stopped and looked back and saw the Here and Now listing on its side and the tree, which had fallen just enough reach the land, beginning to break into flames. Smudge sat for a moment and took stock. He had survived. He had crossed a bridge. He turned his nose to the east where a fresh wind blew, clearing his senses, and thought he caught a whiff of pine tar and leather. He understood what he had to do and who he needed to find and all that mattered was in his future.
He looked up at the star encrusted sky, took a deep breath, and began running as fast as he could into the night, into the all-encompassing darkness which really wasn’t darkness after all.