Azure Alexander spent many years balancing the oversized hat of an artist atop her head. Rather recently, she realized how ill-fitting it was, and timidly removed it. Looking in the mirror, she saw a tiny forgotten tendril nested in her tangle of hat hair, seeming to wave as she stared. She watered and cared for it, feeding it multivitamins and Scrabble tiles, until it matured into a writer’s hat that she finds really quite cozy.
The New Smell
by Azure Alexander
On a hot afternoon, with the sun glaring down, Marigold experienced something she had thought impossible: a new smell. How could this be? She had spent her entire life cataloguing and filing away smell after smell until she felt confident the world had been exhausted of its possibilities. Yet, here it was, making her nose tingle with its exciting newness. It wafted up her nostrils and filled her head until she could think of little else.
She sprinted as far as the leash around her neck allowed, trying to chase after it, but Jim anticipated any jerking on the leash and kept his grip. Marigold turned back to him and spoke with plaintive barks and yips. Unfortunately, he had always been too dumb to understand when Marigold spoke. She grew more insistent, doing her best to impart the urgency of this mission. An unfamiliar smell must be pursued. Her blood cried out for it and would not be denied!
But he only made shushing noises before he ignored her again to stare down at the little flat object that glowed back up at him. She thought it was called a “phone,” but it was one of those things she hadn’t had much need to remember the word for. It wasn’t useful to her. It wasn’t even pleasant to chew on.
She tucked the smell to the back of her mind to allow herself to think clearly, to allow patience. She sat by the bench he slouched on, showing undeniable obedience and trustworthiness. Muscles twitched to get on with the hunt, but she could hide that. Her tail was harder to control, but with great effort, she stilled its eager wag. With a placid gaze fixed on some geese flying overhead, it was easy to believe she hadn’t a care in the world.
Watching Jim from the edges of her vision finally brought its reward; he shifted the leash to the hand that held the glowing thing, freeing a hand to scratch his nose. Marigold lunged forward and the leash flew from his loosened grip, sending the phone with it, skidding and clattering across the pavement. He used some special words saved for occasions like these and scrambled after the phone. It gave her enough time to get all the distance she needed.
She leapt and bounded, feeling a thrill ripple through her at the success of her escape. She had never run this fast, this free. Other dogs watched her with jealousy. Air rushed into her panting mouth, ruffled her golden fur like a petting hand. It carried the smells of everything she darted past: the stubbornly lingering scents of shampoos flung out from heads whipping around to watch her; the fear of the squirrels dashing away from her barreling form; a hot dog stand, which was terribly tempting to stop at; and on it went. The sights became a blur, but the smells remained distinct.
Jim yelled after her, far enough behind that it was already difficult to make out the words. He would never catch up. Marigold’s tongue lolled triumphantly out of her mouth. She took a few turns and cut through some alleys to make sure she had lost him before she dared to stop moving. Lifting her head up high, she closed her eyes. The scent swam up her flared nostrils, stronger now, but still far away. She set off after it, her tail now free to wag with all her excitement.
Time passed. The sun had sunk lower in the sky and glared less, calming as it neared the end of its day. The wonderful scent was so strong now that she felt a little dizzy. She slowed and then crept towards a bush. Something small lay beneath it, unmoving. Marigold sniffed it. Yes, this was the source of the smell. She nudged it with her nose and startled backward when it moved. It weakly turned to her and nearly fell as it recoiled at the sight of the much larger dog. Marigold found herself recoiling as well, shocked at what she saw. She had never seen such a creature. It looked just like a human woman, but smaller even than their babies, while not thick-limbed and clumsy like them. She wore clothing that looked like the leaves and petals of flowers sewn together, yet as fresh as though they’d just been picked.
The woman held out a hand as though to keep her at bay and said words in a lilting language unlike any Marigold had heard before.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” Marigold assured her, hoping the meaning would be conveyed even if they spoke different languages. The miniature woman only eyed her suspiciously, cowering further away. “I promise,” she said and laid down to show how unthreatening she was. She even laid her head down, mouth closed to hide her teeth, looking up at the woman with guileless, friendly eyes. The woman finally relaxed.
“What are you?” she asked. She didn’t expect a response, but to her surprise, the woman switched to Marigold’s language.
“I am me,” she said. “I am Lirasel.”
Marigold wasn’t certain this answered her question, but she was distracted by blood dripping down Lirasel’s leg from a wound gashed into her side.
“You’re hurt,” she pointed out, though the tiny woman surely already knew this.
“I was attacked by monsters. The—“, and she said their name, which sounded like a growling, hissing clattering of teeth instead of a word.
“I’ve never heard of those,” Marigold admitted. Though the name was unfamiliar, the sound of it made her tremble.
“I wish you’d never had to.” Lirasel shuddered. “They are covered in myriad mouths and each of those mouths is filled with myriad teeth, all ready to bite and pierce and tear. That’s all they know how to do.”
Marigold jumped up nervously, tucked her tail between her legs and ducked her head, peering around. “Are they here?”
“Maybe. I think one followed me,” she fretted. “It’s all my fault! I got lost in the woods and crossed the border into their world. I didn’t even know where I was until I stumbled onto one and it attacked me. It wouldn’t have been able to follow me if I could’ve just gotten home—we have a barrier of protection laid on the border that they can’t cross—but I ended up here instead.”
“And they can get into my world?”
“Yes.” She nodded gravely. “You have no such barrier. They rarely bother, though. They think the things here taste nasty. Not even a bit of the magic they find so delicious.”
Marigold felt a touch of shame at lacking something, even if it protected her from the monsters with too many mouths.
It must have shown on her face because Lirasel smiled and reached out to lay a gentle hand on Marigold’s cheek. “Oh no. Feel no shame. I forgive you your lack of magic. You are what you are. You’re lucky to not be of interest to them. You have little to fear in this world; a predator, safe among other predators. What’s your name?”
“Well, Marigold, I’ve had my rest. It’ll soon grow used to all the new smells here and find my trail again. I need to go.”
“I’ll give you a ride. You won’t get anywhere with the state you’re in.”
“It could be dangerous.”
“I know,” Marigold said simply and crouched to the ground. Lirasel clambered onto her back. The tiny being’s blood soaked through Marigold’s fur until it touched her skin, but she didn’t worry about getting dirty; that was Jim’s job. He would force a bath on her the minute she got home. She might as well have a good roll in the mud later, if that was her fate.
“Why didn’t other dogs smell you?” Marigold asked, looking back over her shoulder. “Why am I the only one that showed up?”
Lirasel shrugged her delicate shoulders. “Maybe my smell could tell you were the one who would help me best. My smell must be as magical as I am.” Her smile seemed magical too—at least, it made Marigold feel warm to see it.
Her smile faded. “I’m sure it can still smell me though. No hiding magic from them.”
“We will outrun it,” Marigold said with convincing bravery.
Lirasel said nothing, as though somehow not convinced. “Towards the sun,” she finally said once securely tangled in Marigold’s fur.
They had traveled only a short time when Marigold spotted a familiar white van with red letters.
“Dog catchers!” she growled. She knew about those. They dragged away dogs and locked them up.
She turned to veer around it, but found herself facing one of the dog-catching humans. He was tall and thin, with long limbs designed for stretching out to snatch up dogs. A pole in his hand gave him even more reach, with a loop at the end of it, ready to slip around a dog’s neck and trap it. He had already spotted her, noted her dangling leash.
He held out an inviting hand and spoke warmly, like they were friends. “Hey there. You look lost. Let’s get you back to your owner. C’mon, girl.”
Marigold knew it was pointless to explain her mission; he would be as useless as Jim at understanding her. She turned and bolted away from him. His feet pounded the pavement as he gave chase. Lirasel murmured a few words in her beautiful language. Vines punched up through the sidewalk beneath the dog catcher, cracking the concrete and ensnaring his feet. He tripped and crashed to the ground with some of the same special words Jim had used earlier.
“Did you do that?” she called back to Lirasel with surprise.
“Of course!” Lirasel laughed. “I’m a gardener. I can make plants grow anywhere. It may not be that useful in a fight, but I’ll do what I can.”
The dog catcher was already untangling his ankles and struggling to a stand to resume his chase. Tearing around a corner into an alley, she could hear his slapping footsteps relentlessly pursuing. Another alley and another until she turned into the wrong one. A fence walled off the other side, creating a dead end. She turned back, but he had already reached them. His lanky form slowed as he approached, knowing he had them trapped.
He readied the pole while his free hand made a beckoning motion in an attempt to distract her from it.
“There now, pup. Everything’s all right,” he said in soothing tones, but Marigold would not be soothed. She spun to retreat further into the dead end, not knowing what she would do from there, only knowing she had to get away. He whipped the pole around to slip the trapping loop over her head—but it missed, smacking down on her back instead. She heard the cry of a small voice as she felt Lirasel knocked away, and then an even smaller thump as she hit the ground.
The dog catcher gasped. “What is that?”
With a sense of dread, Marigold turned to see him bending down. A look of wonder had transformed his face as he stretched a hand down to carefully scoop up the strange, tiny being.
She released a flurry of sharp barks, but the dog catcher didn’t seem to hear them with all of his attention focused on understanding what he held. He cupped his hands around Lirasel so she couldn’t escape, peeking through his fingers to get a better look at what he’d caught.
Marigold performed the only action left to her, though every tame instinct in her resisted doing it. She charged forward and sank her teeth into the dog catcher’s leg. He let out a sound much like the yelp of the dogs he hunted. His hands flew open and Lirasel tumbled from them, sent sprawling across the ground. The dog catcher clutched at his bleeding leg, jerking away and creating an opening back out of the alley. Miragold swept Lirasel up into her mouth and slipped through the opening as lithely and as pleased as a cat before speeding away.
Once she felt they had left the dog catcher behind, she delicately set Lirasel on the ground, opening her jaws. Lirasel looked a little wet and bedraggled, and the blood still flowed from her wound.
“Are you all right?”
“You saved me!” Lirasel wrapped her short arms as far as they would go around Marigold’s neck to give her the greatest hug she could.
Though Marigold panted happily in response, secretly her heart was heavy. Her pleasure with a job well done had faded as she contemplated what it had taken to do so; biting a human meant getting put to sleep. She’d known dogs—old dogs, sick dogs, strays caught in the streets—and whenever the humans murmured about putting them to sleep, they always disappeared after. If it wasn’t death, it was close to it, because they were never seen again.
It was possible the dog catcher wouldn’t be able to tell her apart from another dog of the same breed, but she felt little hope for such luck; she’d never seen another with the same shade of gold. She kept her doom to herself though, not wanting Lirasel to feel guilty. Marigold didn’t regret saving her.
Gazing around her, she took in the world. The tree branches danced towards her with the delicate drumming song of wood while the large red sun sank toward the horizon, coloring the clouds with its departure. The breeze was laden with the many familiar smells and the one new. It was all beautiful and she loved these things with the pure, immense passion that dogs are blessed with. She could hardly bear the thought of being put to sleep, of being taken away from all these things. Yet she still had no regret.
“Towards the sun,” was all Marigold said, relieved when her voice didn’t betray her inner thoughts.
“We’re drawing near,” Lirasel spoke into Marigold’s ear from where she rode high on her neck so she could peer over the golden fur of her head. If Marigold stared hard enough, she could detect the hint of an iridescent shimmer cutting through the city streets. Cars and people moved through it while firmly staying on Earth, and she suspected Lirasel alone could cross into her world.
A strange sound spread across the land, making the ground tremble. It was like cracking glass, roaring wind, a rumbling earthquake, and things that Marigold couldn’t describe, all at once.
“It’s here,” Lirasel said, fear strangling her voice.
A second new smell reached Marigold. It crept through the air like rotting sludge. Where Lirasel’s scent was sweet and vibrant, this newer stench was acrid and repugnant, burning her nose. Most of Marigold didn’t want to see what was approaching, yet she couldn’t stop herself from turning to look. It was as Lirasel had described: covered in countless mouths that snapped hungrily at the air, all shining with impossibly sharp teeth jutting in all directions, like clusters of broken glass. The dark expanse of it loomed over them and then began hulking forward, drooling with anticipation, the saliva making its teeth glitter and shine all the more.
Flowers burst from its mouths. The creature chewed and explosively spat flurries of colorful petals, but with each flower destroyed, ten more sprang up to replace it until the creature was choking and growling. Then several of its mouths began vomiting.
“Poisonous flowers,” Lirasel said with satisfaction. “I don’t think any poison can kill it though, so—”
The creature was already straightening up. “Run!” she shouted.
Marigold obeyed, but it followed them more swiftly than seemed possible for its massive form. It caught up with them, snapping at her ankles. There was a tug at her tail and then a sharp pain as the monster bit through it, severing the tip. A piece of herself disappeared forever down one of those cavernous gullets.
She wished she was a greyhound and tried to imagine being one to trick another burst of speed out of herself. It worked. Muscles straining, tail dripping blood, she barreled down the sidewalk, getting closer and closer to the barely visible barrier that marked the entrance to Lirasel’s world.
Only a few more galloping steps away, the light in the yellow box above changed color and cars grew thick before them, blocking their way. Marigold skidded and nearly fell as she changed direction, thinking now only of keeping distance from the monster that was so close behind. She sprinted towards the outskirts of the city as she heard the horrified screams of people behind her.
An unfinished footbridge came into view, arching over a valley.
“Can you grow something slippery?” Marigold asked Lirasel.
“Yes! Just tell me when.”
The bridge didn’t yet have the safety of rails, but Marigold forced herself onto the narrow planks and avoided looking the long distance down.
She looked back to watch the monster as it approached. The streetlights and cars seemed like twigs and toys as they were brushed aside. The towering mass of mouths was unstoppable, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. People scattered and ran, desperate to escape, though it paid no attention to them.
The monster joined them on the bridge, its bulk spilling over each side. The bridge creaked alarmingly.
“Now!” Marigold cried out.
Lirasel said three short words in her mysterious language. Slime mold emerged beneath the monster, and it stumbled, slid, and then teetered on the edge of the bridge for what seemed like an eternity before it tipped and plummeted to the ground far below. The entire earth seemed to shudder at its impact with the ground, accompanied by the awful sound of shattering teeth. Marigold dared to peek over the edge of the bridge, though the height made her dizzy. The monster didn’t move.
She turned and ran off the bridge, eager to leave it behind. A crowd of people had already gathered to stare down at the monster below, all murmuring and giving soft cries of disbelief. Their attention was so focused that they forgot to look at the dog that had caused the monster’s fall and never noticed the undersized woman clinging to her fur. She slipped through the crowd, unimpeded, and loped away.
Marigold came to a stop at the barrier’s edge. Lirasel slipped from her back with a small sound of pain. The blood had mostly slowed, but it still dripped fresh if she moved wrong. She steadied herself for a moment with a hand on Marigold’s foreleg, and when she took her hand away, the iridescent wall blinked out of existence. As far as Marigold’s eyes could see, at least. She wondered if she could only see it when Lirasel was touching her.
“I can take you across with me,” Lirasel said, “if you want to go.”
Lost in thoughts about her adventure, her relief over the monster’s death, and her own impending doom, Marigold couldn’t comprehend Lirasel’s words at first. Then she looked down at her new, tiny friend. “Really?”
“Really. I know it’s an awfully big thing, to leave a world behind—but you have repeatedly saved me today, and I know my people would welcome you with open arms. You would fit right in, magic or no.” She gave a small shrug and smiled. “I just wanted to make the offer, in case the adventure of it calls to you. It’s the only thing I can offer you in exchange for all you’ve done. But I have to warn you—it’s very different. It can be dangerous, without a proper guide like me.” The last was said with a wink, the smile widening.
There was a chance the dog catchers wouldn’t recognize her. Staying here did not guarantee death—but was it worth the risk? Would she simply be trading one danger for another?
Marigold thought about Jim, but she didn’t think he would miss her all that much, with his phone to keep him company. For all his faults, she loved him, had spent all the life she could remember at his side. The idea of never seeing him again was strange.
She looked again at the world around her, with its trees and flowers and sunlight. To leave it for another world felt the same as leaving it through death; she knew from the final way that Lirasel said “leave a world behind” that it meant she could never return. It caused an ache to blossom deep in her chest and she wished dogs could cry. Humans always seemed to feel better after they cried.
One thought grew larger than all the rest: an entire world of new smells to learn. It was the greatest adventure she could imagine. The ache lessened as excitement stirred in her.
“Let’s go,” Marigold said, with the panting, tongue bouncing smile that dogs excel at.
Lirasel put her hand back on Marigold’s foreleg, and the barrier shimmered back to life.
Copyright 2020 by Azure Alexander