It had been raining for days, only now had it slowed to a mist. Moisture thickened the air, punctuated by steady sprinkling. It was humid and foggy, causing the residents of the Ridge to peel and pluck their clothing away from their sticky bodies.
Puddles collected on the uneven ground around the small cabin. Excess water made small horse troughs of wagon tracks, and rain puttered against the puddles, making the surfaces ripple and vibrate with each droplet. In the tall grass beneath the window sat a little boy, his breeches damp and muddy. He was four years old – just old enough to go outside on his own and be trusted not to wander off. Unbeknownst to the boy, however, his mother watched him through the window while she kneaded bread, her hands covered with flour, and his granny was seated with a quilt by the fire, looking out for him from the corner of her eye through the cabin’s open door. The women smiled and sighed together, thankful for a break from a little boy who had been cooped up out of the rain for too long.
He had a proper name, but not very many people used it. On the Ridge, he was simply Oggy. At his hip, a pocket of his breeches bulged into the shape of a vroom, made special for him by Nunkie Roger after Jemmy refused to share his childhood toys. The wheels of Oggy’s vroom were so caked in mud they no longer turned on their axles, and the wood was dark and soggy-feeling, soaking up muddy water and raindrops and fog like a sponge.
The grass was tall here, and thick– Granny hadn’t let her goats out of their paddock in a while. He liked that, preferring when the leaves of grass grew to his knees, broad at the base. He picked at a shorter one now, held it between his thumbs at his lips and blew, trying to whistle. He wasn’t very good at it, but Nunkie Fergus told him he’d get better if he practiced. Maybe Da could show him, but then again, Da could do that thing where he sticks two fingers in his mouth and whistles so loudly it spooks birds and summons horses.
A black flutter of bird wings caught Oggy’s eye, and he spotted it stopping to peck at a worm washed free in the dirt path. Oggy squatted in the grass, camouflaging himself and turning his body slowly towards it. The vroom in his pocket bit at his hip, but he didn’t care. How did Da say to stand on your feet, so the animal doesn’t hear you? He didn’t think he accomplished it, because the bird lifted his beak and blinked at him, turning its head this way and that, black eyes suspicious.
Drawing a deep intake of breath, Oggy stuck two fingers in his mouth and blew, just as he’d seen his father do it. To his shock and complete joy, a loud, clear whistle rang out, just like Da’s. He heard a bang from inside as if someone had dropped something heavy onto a table, and the bird squawked and flew off. Laughing, and utterly pleased with himself, Oggy landed on his back in the soft, wet grass, not caring how much wetter it might make him. Mam always had dry clothes ready for him after it rained, and he quite looked forward to sitting by the fire with a biscuit. But not yet.
He lay looking at the sky for a minute, relishing the few droplets that fell onto his face. The sky oscillated between grey and white, as if it could not make up its mind, and Oggy’s hazel eyes tracked the movement.
But at that moment, he heard something four-legged bounding towards him, and he sat up just in time to be tackled by a giant dog. Or he would have been, if the dog didn’t pass through his body, causing a delicious chill to shoot through him, sparking laughter. The dog circled him, a big grin on its face, his tongue lolling out of his mouth. His tail and ears were held high.
“Dog?” Oggy asked, rising to his feet immediately. He held out his hand for the animal to sniff. Da and Nunkie Jamie had shown him how to properly introduce himself to animals. To go slow, to not move too quickly.
No sooner had the wet nose touched Oggy’s fingertips than the dog leaned into him, as if asking to be pet. Oggy obliged, scratching his ears, chin, chest, and spine. He felt like a dog, the damp fur clinging to Oggy’s fingertips. At the right angles, he looked solid as a dog. But was he? A bit of the dog’s form trailed behind in his movement, wisping and curling in the humid air, and he glittered in the sunlight like snowflakes he’d once caught in his mittens with Auntie Claire. And still, Oggy’s skin hadn’t quite shed the chill he felt from the dog, and his fingertips tickled from giving pets, as if there was a veil that had been passed through between the living and the dead.
The dog flopped over onto its back to show Oggy his belly. He yipped once, clearly asking for belly rubs, wriggling its back into the mud. Oggy laughed delightedly at this show of affection and trust, kneeling to give the dog a hug around the ribs and pressing his ear to the dog’s sternum.
It was an odd feeling, to hug a ghost. But the dog was warm and loving, too, and Oggy was warmed to his toes.
He might have been afraid of the dog, given that he looked like a wolf– grey and scruffy, tall with a broad head, daring yellow eyes. But this dog was a friend. This, Oggy sensed instinctually, this dog felt like family.
The wolf-dog leaped to his feet and gave a soft, playful growl, bowing in an invitation to play. Oggy squealed and made to tackle him, only for the dog to leap away once more and nip at Oggy’s tunic, begging him to follow as he ran. Oggy took off after him, his boots sinking softly into the muddy ground.
“A bhalaich,” came a voice, calling after Oggy, stopping him in his tracks. He turned to see his father emerging from the trees, a large, dead deer over his shoulders.
Ian stooped to drop the deer on a nearby bench, where many animals had been skinned and butchered for meat. It landed with a soft thud as Oggy approached, feeling a tug behind his navel in the direction of the dog. But the dog was gone.
“Was that you I heard whistle, jus’ now?”
“Aye,” replied Oggy, putting on his best adult-sounding voice.
“Yer gettin’ better at it,” Ian replied, removing a knife from his belt and applying it to the deer. Oggy watched in fascination as his father’s big hands began the work of skinning the animal, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw his mother come to stand in the doorway.
Ian smiled up at Rachel in greeting. “Brought dinner,” he remarked with a grunt, working the belly of the deer open.
“Da,” Oggy interrupted, needing to ask before his parents moved on to other tasks. “Did you see that dog?”
“What dog?” Ian asked, not looking up. He was kneeling in front of the deer now, studying it.
“Just now, he came running from where you were.”
“He did?” Ian asked, not without interest. He glanced in the direction Oggy pointed, then gave his son a quizzical glance. His hands, however, paused over his kill, running lightly along the deer’s hair. “What kind of dog?”
Oggy’s answer was immediate. “Like a wolf, but he was friendly. Are there ghosts here, Da? I don’ think he was real.”
Ian’s eyes blazed as he looked at his son. For what, Oggy didn’t know, but he was pleased to have his father’s rapt attention.
“What did he do, when he was here? The dog?”
“Tackled me. We played a bit. Ye might ha’ scared him off when ye came, just now.” Oggy lifted his hand, still damp and a bit ticklish from the veil he’d felt, as if his father could see the shed dog hairs trapped there with moisture.
Ian studied Oggy’s small hands before his face broke into bright satisfaction, causing Oggy to grin back. “Aye, Oggy, there was a dog. He was helpin’ me hunt. He visited you too, then? I wondered where he’d gotten off to.” He reached and ruffled his son’s hair.
“What is thee talking about?” Rachel asked, and as Oggy turned to look at her, he saw her skirts flutter in the breeze, her apron dappled with puffs of flour.
“Rollo,” Ian responded immediately, and Rachel’s dark eyebrows flicked upwards. This obviously meant something to his parents, and though Oggy had heard the name ‘Rollo’ before, he hadn’t known what it meant.
“Rollo is a dog?” Oggy inquired.
His father nodded, his expression impenetrable. “Rollo, the dog. He died before ye were born. Go on inside, wee lamb, and help yer mam and Granny with whatever they need.”
Oggy would usually protest – he was a boy, he shouldn’t have to help the women so much anymore, he wanted to help with the meat – but he could sense his father wanted a moment alone, hands trembling over the deer. The young boy dashed inside, brushing past his mother, who lingered in the doorway for a moment, watching Ian work.