Chapter Three – The Spectral Hound
As the primordial forest grew dark and wild, so grew the vengeful hound that dwelt in the gloom at the forest’s heart. Some said it was as big as a horse, others said it was bigger still. The Hound had many names. The creature developed a reputation as an omen of impending doom (whence came one of the Hound’s older names, “Death-at-Hand”), death (hence the sobriquet, “Four-Legged Murder”), destruction (“Wind at the Door,” Gray Wind”), and threatening omnipresence, (“Dark Lord of the Forest,” “Unsleeping Flame,” “Shadow the Deathless,” “Devouring Fate”).
Standing taller than a man at the shoulder, his fur was a tangled mat of acrid black smoke. His breath was the dessicating blast of a furnace’s exhalation, and smelled of brimstone and burning coal. His tongue was a white-hot flame that licked hungrily over razor-sharp teeth as big as daggers. His eyes were as black as night, but with dancing flames visible in the pupils.
In overall shape, he resembled a mastiff, with a broad chest and a large square face. His great plume of a tail was impressive from a distance, but on close examination it was marred by its dirty, tangled, leaf and twig-encrusted knots.
His bark was deep and resonant, and sounded like a long peal of approaching thunder, and his growl (as reported by the handful of lucky souls who had heard it and lived) sounded like a bone-shaking, earth-rending tremor.
The Hound was well-known to the rural folk who lived around the forest, and the beast had been a subject of general curiosity and speculation for centuries; both the woodcutter and his wife were entirely familiar with this local legend, and hardly needed any patronizing warnings from well-to-do knights or excitable travelers from the glittering court (although politeness and charity barred the peasants from even entertaining such thoughts).
Instead, the woodcutter and the woodcutter’s wife simply accepted the knight’s proffered advice with humble gratitude for the spirit of concern in which it had been given. But the specific concerns of the wizards and seers of the King’s retinue could be dismissed; distance, unfamiliarity, and exaggeration would all have conspired to reduce what was an understandable local feature of the region to nothing more than a problem to be solved.
As dangerous as the Hound might be, he was a source of some local pride to the peasant dwellers of the woods. To those who had been born in the shadow of the great forest, the Hound was “their” Hound, not some generic threat to be tidily disposed of. “And really,” the locals would ask, “when has anyone in living memory been threatened by the Hound?”
Alas, that moderate observation showed a wisdom that was sadly lacking in the halls of power far away.
Chapter Four – Restless Knights
Far away from the forest, and far away from the rude huts of crofters, carpenters, and charcoal burners, lay the great gleaming white-gold towers of Ys, the First and Unmatched, the most magnificent city that has ever existed. The Doom of Ys is known to all.
Of course, our story does not really involve the city, except to the extent that the gray-robed and solemn members of the King’s Chamber of Deputies had, at the time of our tale, resolved to stir the blood of soldiers with inflammatory talk of the Hound.
One of the recurrent problems faced by the city leaders was finding some activity to occupy the restless knights errant that crowded the capitol. These were drawn to the glittering heart of the Kingdom by adolescent fantasies of heroic deeds and great honors to be acquired by contests at arms.
Alas, what most of the warlike young nobles soon discovered was that centuries of peace and stability had led to a long-term depression in the violent adventure business. The ogres had all emigrated or sued for peace, the basilisks had all been sent to the taxidermists to be stuffed, and the dragon hunts were now shameful, unsportsmanlike slaughters of farm-raised wyverns.
Of course, there were endless tourneys and jousts going on all the time, but even these events had devolved into excuses for drunkenness and petty vandalism. Frankly, the staid and sober city dwellers were sick of all the unemployed layabouts in shining armor. Attempts to evict the knights had ended badly, owing to the knights being armed to the teeth and outnumbering the tiny city constabulary.
And so it was on this pretty, sunny Spring morning, that city workers were plastering the castle walls with multiple copies of a luridly-colored broadsheet:
WIN FAME ~ WIN FORTUNE
Too Long have We languished in the Shadow of a Monstrous Evil! This intolerable threat to our well-being must be destroyed.
His Grace, Archbishop of Ys, Would Have It Be Known That He Will Bestow the Sum of One Hundred Pounds of Gold to Whosoever May Best and Slay the Demon of the Forest, That Foul Malevolence, the Revenant Hound. Direct All Serious Inquiries to the Office of the Archbishop.
This advertisement proved to be extremely successful in drawing out all the most foolhardy, overconfident, or frankly desperate people in the city.
It was an impressive rabble that gathered in the main square the following morning. The fractious knights were all preening and eager to show off their gleaming armor and flashing swords, the sorceresses and shield-maidens were boasting or striking poses, the street vendors moved through the crowds plying their wares, and overhead, a thousand bright pennants and banners snapped and furled in the crisp breeze.
Arranged in tidy rows awaiting the archbishop’s blessing, the Hound-hunters were as orderly as pencils in a box, or chess pieces that awaited being moved. Presently, the archbishop emerged from the cathedral, greeted by cheers.
“Worthies of the realm, I charge you with this duty – to strike down the terrible hound that is the Gray Wind, Four-legged Murder, Who is called Fire-Eye, Howl, Shadow the Deathless, who dwells in the lightless gloom of the forest. Do this secure in the rightness of this cause, and with the promise of reward in this life and the next. Bless you, and go with god.”
A great cheer rose up from the throng, which surged toward the towering brass doors of the main city gates. The cheering citizens moved hastily and with perhaps a touch too much exuberant good will, saw the warriors through the gates, and then emphatically and with a collective sigh of relief, locked the gates with a great and final clang of the massive crossbeam.
And with that, the city leaders congratulated themselves for having solved their dilemma. Now all the violent layabouts were occupied elsewhere, and a peaceful languor descended onto the quiet city streets.
The Wind Dog
Chapter One – By the Edge of the Forest
Once upon a time, in the kingdom of Sea’s Gift, there dwelt a humble woodcutter and his wife. They lived in a tidy half-timber cottage on the lonely edge of a vast dark forest, and at night, the golden glow of candlelight shone through the windows of the little house. To the rare merchant or pilgrim who shivered against the night’s chill on the lonely post road, the warm glow and promise of hospitality was the answer to a whispered prayer.
And the aged couple were unfailing in their generosity, accepting all strangers into their home without suspicion or fear; sharing their own sometimes-meager pantry even when they truly had not enough for themselves.
One sunny afternoon in early Fall, a young knight stopped at their garden gate and called, “halloo.” He was obviously a man of great wealth and social favor, and yet the woodcutter and his wife treated the noble visitor with the same generosity and kindness as if he were the saddest and neediest of starving beggars.
With strenuous entreaties, the young knight beseeched the poor couple to take great sums of gold or gems in payment for their kindness, but they politely declined.
In the end, the nobleman had to resort to subterfuge by hiding gifts here and there around the cottage. In addition to a small purse of gold coins, the knight left three exotic objects to be found when needed.
In the pantry, the knight deposited a Horn of Plenty, as a bulwark against starvation. At the washstand, the knight left the Comb of Youth, with power to renew both husband and wife in body and spirit. The final gift was left on the mantle, and was a small glass bottle containing the Balm Against Suffering.
As the knight readied his horse and prepared to leave, he pressed a note into the woodcutter’s hand, and felt compelled (as so many travelers before him had been) to offer a sincere warning to the elderly couple.
“Kind sir and lady, I must tell you that the sages at court all say that for the first time in centuries, the Black Hound stirs and wakes up. The Hound dwells in the center of this very forest in which you freely cut your wood. Please, promise me that you wil not go to the forest. Your prayers and charms will not save you as they once did.”
Chapter Two – When the Wind Dogs Ran
A thousand lifetimes earlier, there had been no dark forest, no brooding vegetal dusk and impenetrable maze of tangled growth. Where the great trees now stood, there had been ragged and lightly domesticated fields of emmer and barley and winter wheat.
In that far-gone age of heathen kings, the autumn harvest was a time of both celebration and fear, for while the bounty of the grain would give cheer to those settled tribes, the chill of approaching winter always bore the veiled threat of privation, famine, and death.
And it was not far from the thoughts of those nameless farmers of old that the harvest itself was a kind of execution, as stone knives and the tread of oxen transformed golden fields into barren expanses of stubble.
Now, as any observant person knows, when a strong and variable gust of wind plays over a field of tall grass or supple reeds, one will clearly see ripples and spreading waves dart and gambol wildly through the ranks of bending stalks. If you have seen this, and thought to yourself that the field’s agitation was very much like the movements of an excited and playful pup, you were not far from the truth.
Born of the sky and of the nightly dreams of dogs, the wind dogs rove in ranging packs over the whole Earth, but take special delight in bounding through soft blades of tall grass. And the people of that time before the forest came were appreciative of the invisible hounds, for in return for no more than some salted bread and cheese, a wind dog would abide protectively in the fields, chasing away the birds and vermin that threatened to eat up the harvest.
But if the wind dogs loved the fields, and if their presence could only be seen when the grass was still tall, was it not a violent affront for people to mow the grass? This anxiety drove the superstitions of the tribes; the last thing anyone wanted was to insult or injure the guardian spirits of the field.
And so the harvest celebration was also a time to appease the wind dogs, with measures of uncut crops, and straw effigies of little dogs, and dance and song, and saucers of cream left in the fallow fields.
And so things went; the wind dogs and the fur-clad valley folk bound by mutual benefit in a relationship that was expected to be eternal and generally amicable.
But the world is too changeable even for the spirits of the earth and air. The ice came in great sheets, growing and grinding southwards year by year, until the whole valley was swallowed up and buried under a mass of ice the color of jade and sky.
The wild wind dogs flew up to cavort in the sky, bouncing and growling at the gray clouds. But one wind dog cried and roamed the ice, sending up little whirlwinds of stinging sleet and snow.
Through the long nights of winter, he scrabbled at ice caves and crevasses, searching for his saucer of cream. And through the long days of summer, he lapped at transient drops of meltwater, searching for his grassy playground without success.
The wind dog’s loneliness began as a gnawing hunger, then swelled into an unendurable pain, and finally hardened into a terrible madness, from which emerged a vengeful and pitiable monster of nearly pure despair and rage. And so the wind dog became the creature called the Spectral Hound, the Gray Wind, Death-at-Hand, Murder on Four Legs, Fire Eye, or the Revenant Howl.
Rachel and I use the phrase “he went to Jared” as euphemistic for “embarrassing fiasco, with possibly scatological overtones.” But upon going to the Urban Dictionary, I see that the kids nowadays (or at least the audience posting to Urban Dictionary) are offering the definitions “death” or “lacks taste in jewelry.” Ehhh. I prefer ours.
So what does “he went to Jared” mean to you?
I got a call today from a fine young telemarketer who was shilling for Direct Buy (a truly terrible and sleazy buyer’s club company that charges people outrageous membership fees of $2,000 to $8,000 or more to have the chance to buy hypothetically cheap home fittings. Direct Buy really is awful, as any number of consumers’ groups and Better Business Bureau complaints demonstrate. It’s really just a huge scam).
Anyway, I had some time on my hands, so I thought I’d engage in a bit of improv.
The telemarketer was trying to sell me on coming to the Direct Buy showroom for a hard-sell 90 minute sales presentation, at which point I and my wife would qualify for “a name brand E-reader tablet, or a valuable travel voucher and a chance for a drawing to win $50,000 worth of home furnishing coupons and savings … blah, blah, blah.”
“I’m sorry, my wife isn’t home right now. She’s on safari, and isn’t expected back until October.”
“October? Um. That’s a long time. Uh, do you happen to have any friends who own their own home and who might be interested in our sales offer?”
“Oh yes. Of course. I’d have to check with them first, but if you’ll give me the number, I’d be happy to pass this along.”
“Okay, well, as I said, Direct Buy can pass savings directly to its members through …”
“I’m sorry. I hate to interrupt, but I have to ask. Would my friends have to engage in blood sports to qualify?”
“What? I … did you say blood sports?”
“Yes. It’s just that as I understand it, Direct Buy requires its members to participate in secret arena fights in order to join.”
“No. Um. No. Direct Buy sells items for the home. We have a warehouse. We, uh …, I’m sorry. I don’t know where you got that idea. This would be a sales presentation.”
“Okay. So you’re sure there’s no violence involved.”
“No. No., I don’t know what company you’re thinking of. Did you see our ads on TV or …?”
“Sorry. I had seen one of your flyers, and I thought it mentioned fights.”
“Okay, so as I was saying, potential members are signed up for the drawing and that’s at no obligation. Plus, there’s a money back guarantee to …”
“I’m sorry to interrupt again, but my friends will ask me to make sure. What are the physical requirements for membership?”
“Physical. Did you ask me what the physical …, I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”
“Physical requirements. Do they have to pass a strength test? Or maybe you require tissue samples. Should they provide tissue samples?”
“Um. No. They can just call and set up an appointment to come by. Our store is located on 9402 Research Boulevard here in Austin.”
“Research. What kind of research? Is this genetic experimentation, or something more?”
“Research Boulevard. It’s just the name of the street. It’s not … I don’t know if …, I mean ….”
“Okay. So there might be research involved. Or maybe not. That’s okay, they’re pretty tough. Now, it might be kind of late when they call. Is that okay?”
“They can call and ask for Bobby anytime from 1:00 to 9:00.”
“So anytime from one a.m. to 9 a.m.?”
“No. No. 1:00 p.m.”
“Okay. So 1 p.m. until 9 a.m. Excellent. Well, thank you so much. I’m sure they will look forward to taking part in your experiment. But no fighting! Hah hah. Well, excellent. Let the savings begin, and let the best man win. Good day, sir.”
You know that weird kid in school who ate erasers, chalk, pencils, paper, glue, and so on? That was me. This Wikipedia article on pica (i.e., the symptom of eating things not meant to be eaten) is pretty interesting.
In my case, I can recall exactly when and why I began eating school supplies. It was the morning of the first day of second grade, and my mom was struggling to get me ready for school. I had my Big Chief tablet and my ruler, but I was also supposed to bring two sharpened jumbo pencils.
Jumbo pencils were those enormous pencils issued to children on the theory that our developing eye-hand coordination and small hands were better suited to writing with pencils that looked cartoonishly huge. I had the pencils, but they weren’t sharpened, and after a couple attempts, my mom realized that these pencils wouldn’t fit in the biggest aperture on her pencil sharpener. So with the clock ticking, she used a knife to whittle points on the pencils.
As a consequence, the tips of the pencils were rough and jaggedly hewn. Over the course of the day, I nibbled and chewed, obsessively trying to “even-up” the pencils into tidiness. As a consequence, I ingested a fair amount of wood and graphite. Unfortunately, I never did succeed in sculpting the pencils into their ideal form. I just made them shorter and shorter until there was nothing left.
Pica (according to the above-linked Wikipedia article) is often symptomatic of other mental illnesses, mineral deficiencies, or cultural traditions. In my case, pica grew out of obsessive compulsiveness.
I ate a prodigious number of pencils over the following years of school, but that wasn’t all I ate. I branched out to eat all sorts of tempting products like Elmer’s Glue and construction paper.
Because you, dear reader, are likely not a devourer of office products, I thought I’d give you my assessment of various inedible things. Consider this a public service.
1. Pencils and pencil shavings – If you’ve ever eaten a high-fiber cereal, you know exactly what the wood of a well-made pencil tastes like. The graphite is crunchy, but almost immediately lubricates the teeth so that they glide over each other on a film of black carbon.
2. White glue and paste – School glue tastes uncannily like yogurt, (paste therefore tastes uncannily like Greek yogurt) to the point that I’m more-or-less convinced that yogurt is just a non-adhesive variant of glue. I’m not saying this to diss yogurt. Yogurt is a perfectly fine thing to eat. But it does taste almost exactly like water-soluble white glue.
3. Paper – There is a huge variety in paper, with some forms of paper being more palatable than others. Notebook paper tends to have an unpleasant aftertaste, because of all the bleach. Rice paper is starchy, but serviceable. Construction paper is bitter – the richer the color, the worse the taste. And then of course, there’s the most misleading paper of all – Manila paper. The name is so appealing, but the paper is so appalling – all the bitterness of construction paper, but without even the comfort of construction paper’s fluffy absorbancy. In a perfect world, a billionaire industrialist would create a vanilla ice-cream flavored paper, and then systematically replace the world’s stock of Manila paper with vanilla paper.
4. Erasers – Stay away from gel erasers. Traditional pencil erasers get better tasting with age, but lose their chewiness. The best erasers are like dense, slightly yielding, unsweetened fine-grain sandpaper.
The official story is that Poppin’ Fresh was created in 1965 by the Leo Burnett ad agency, (which subcontracted the animation work to Pacific Data Images) and based on a story written by Chet Noice and sold to Pillsbury.
But the truth is far darker. When faced with the long development framework associated with stop-action animation, along with associated budget issues and ad purchasing deadlines, Pillsbury turned to the notorious occultist Frodgick Meadstück. The assignment was simple – use the dark arts to create an adorable mascot suitable for TV and print advertising within three days, and for no more than $5,000 dollars (the equivalent of $37,000 when adjusted for inflation).
Meadstück approached the problem as a matter of conjuration, and chose to adapt techniques used to animate the traditional Golem of Jewish folklore, but with uncooked bread dough substituted for clay. A number of assistants were hired to help with the work, which almost immediately ran into snags.
After eight hours of steady chanting and burning of incense, the first effort produced a plodding, silent doughmonculus with vacant, dead eyes that could only respond to simple commands. Screen tests were disastrous – the creature’s facial expression never changed, and it’s sole vocalization upon being poked in the stomach was a low, watery groan.
An assistant demonologist named Dortshlager suggested a slightly different approach based on a technique described in the blasphemous Pnakotic Fragments. A dough form was placed in the center of a pentagram drawn with cake frosting on a flour-dusted cookie sheet, and after an altogether bloodier and more protracted ceremony, a Babylonian demon of cattle diseases was trapped inside the gelatinous little blob.
In contrast to the dougholem, the doughmon was much more animated, waving it’s stubby arms and legs and unleashing a long tirade of presumably Babylonian agricultural curses against everyone in the room. As unpromising as this version looked, it was at least cunningly intelligent and capable of taking direction.
The budget was nearly exhausted, and time was growing short, so Meadstück bit the bullet and delivered a raving, violent dough boy to the Leo Burnett agency. Meadstück expected that he would get fired or sued, but in fact the ad executives were overjoyed.
The camera and set crews had lifetimes of experience with difficult talent, and in their estimation, “Beelphazor” was by no means the worst commercial actor that they had ever worked with. A little flattery, a little ego-stroke, and a production assistant running Beelphazor’s personal errands was all it took to smooth the demon’s hurt feelings.
Two days later, the commercial was cut, printed, and ready to air. The Pillsbury Doughboy was ready for his public debut.
The decades since have not always been easy for Poppin’ Fresh or for his handlers. He has sometimes successfully escaped from his underground lair and gone missing for days. His temper can still flair up at the worst possible time, as when he once threatened to inflict murrain on Dick Cavett. Advances in computer animation mean that film crews no longer have to deal with his tirades, and he is more-or-less completely retired from regular promotional work.
But his continued existence is tolerated at Pillsbury for a number of reasons. Meadstück and the other occultists who might have known how to banish him back to the underworld are all long dead, and in any case he doesn’t require much maintenance or storage space. Handlers can more-or-less keep him in line by threatening to pop him in an oven if he misbehaves, and his imperious demands for ziggurats and slaves can usually be deflected.
Next year, Poppin’ Fresh will be fifty, and the anniversary may be enough to call him out from retirement. If you meet him, poke him in the belly at your own risk. He will giggle, but he will likely remember. And behind his sky-blue colored contacts, his eyes reflect the flames of Hell.