“The words never listen
And teachers, oh they never learn
My warmth from the candle
Though I feel too cold to burn”.
– Say Hello 2 Heaven, Temple of the Dog
The rain came down, formed through the cracks in the ozone. It carried the scent to the stretched concrete streets below.
The water crept down off of roof tops, over broken gutter edges and gargoyles and between the gaps in the rusted iron frames of the buildings.
He sat in the top floor of a burnt out tower block on the edge of the ninth district; the place where most things had gone (or been sent) to be forgotten. Now only the rain remained, and seemed to want to wash away whatever was left.
The water cascaded in small vertical streams like vines along the last remnants of wallpaper. Over time it had begun creating small channels for itself in the cracks of the concrete. The cloud rolled above, there was no light in the sky. If the season’s had still meant anything it would have been the height of summer – a dog’s day – and yet there was nothing but ashen cloud and permeating damp.
“Every dog must have one” he thought to himself.
He turned his back on the city and the large ragged hole where once perhaps there had been a window. Descending down through the building, he following the path of the rain back to the ground floor, and to the only work he had left; that which he continued to create for himself.
It had been a long time since he was able to sound a note from anything with strings, once the cold and water had entered his bones, the pain that figured the tips of his hands had become too nagging. Unable to accompany himself, he had all but ceased to play his pipes or sing.
Canvas was too fragile, too eager to take to damp and mould and besides that paint was far too rare. Although he could mix his own, it was a time consuming process, rarely resulting in shades or pigments he cared for.
Instead he turned to what came readily to hand; stone and concrete that lay barren all over the city. He was still able to hold a chisel and hammer and although he had no experience, he set about learning the only way he had ever known how – by simply doing.
After a period of trial and error, he began to see features in the strikes that he made.
As time passed the blocks he dragged in from across emptied highways began to reveal likeness’. Though odd and angular, the faces contained a comforting familiarity. While the rain continued to fall, their steadfast expressions, would soften sometimes in the changing light. Their cold eyes, reflecting for just a moment, their features mimicking no-one in particular.
In the evenings the dogs came to feed and shelter. Sometimes ascending up over the first few floors where the staircases still reached, attracted perhaps by the noise or the scent of the man.
In order to climb further himself, he had needed to devise a series of pulleys, ropes and ladders. With doing so he eventually found himself on the top floors, staring out onto the rest of the city, under the blanket of ember coloured cloud.
The upper floors offered him some sense of security, while the dogs hounded the basement and lower floors, dragging in whatever they’d been able to find in the streets, not often staying more than a day or a night, moving on to hunt elsewhere.
He would sit still, crow like above and observe, hidden in the shadow and the dripping water, waiting the see what would be dragged in.
He would scavenge the debris for anything that might be useful, rat or squirrel pelts. Sometimes something bigger if the pack had enough dogs. Lighters, matches, photos, or penknives stashed in cargo pockets, even bones occasionally abandoned that could be boiled down to make a weak broth.
Eventually he began to recognise some of the packs and the scent of their wet hides. Two or three dogs began to return and remain in the building longer than before. They seemed to enjoy the sound and activity he created in the floors above.
As weeks, and months passed he began to travel further out in order to collect stone and concrete, when he did he began to realise that these dogs would accompany him. Hidden around broken building corners, the echo of dark black and brown coats passed just out of sight behind fallen crash barriers and rubble. He would hear their paws passing through puddles in the empty underpasses behind him.
During one such walk, after he had become accustomed to their shadows on his day trips there was a bang that echoed through the broken courtyards around them. Following it, a sharp short whimper. The edge of a tail or paw caught the corner of a trash can, the metal can had toppled over noisily and revealed the dog slunk behind it. Immediately the animal froze and locked eyes with the man.
For a long moment, as the ringing metal of the trash can gave way to the sound of the rain falling into the inches of filthy water that surrounded them, they both held their breath.
The dog crouched with it’s paws spread too wide in the mud, it’s ears down, caught off guard.
The man righted himself from the hunched position he had unknowingly adopted. His body language relaxed. The animal cocked it’s head a little, and then shook the rain from it’s black muzzle, before doing the same with it’s back legs, showering greyish drops from the ends of it’s tail.
As easily as that, they seemed to come to an agreement and suddenly were no longer passive companions.
The dogs continued to roam the city with him, by now proving much less skittish or shy. Together they seemed to come by food more easily, able to sniff it out, even in the damp and mud, and able to access places where paws could not. With the help of the dogs he was also able to drag back greater pieces of stone from around the city’s ruins, as he began to have to travel further to get material suitable for sculpting.
Between them they filled the lower floors of the tower with faces hewn from the ruins around them. The heads and shoulders of friends, allies and aliens. Faces that the man had passed on the street once, and thought of never again. Until years, decades later, he found himself chipping their likeness from the reclaimed rock in front of him.
Time rolled by, the wanderer’s hair grew long around his shoulders and began to grey, while the the muzzles of his companions began to do the same.
Though his skill had increased, his sight and hands had slowed. Regardless he worked in the rare sunlight when it would break and by dim candles when the dark was most consuming. He chipped away at the sculptures piece by piece, inch by inch and the stone dropped to the floor blanketing the mud and dirt around him.
One night a band of strays wandered into the outskirts of the city, for the first time in a long time, on two feet not four, with boots like the man’s. A small group who had survived a long time on wit and wariness.
They entered the worn shell of the building in district nine, drawn in cautiously like moths by the flicker of the distant candles.
As they came beneath the shelter of the upper floors, they found themselves surrounded by ghosts. More faces than they had seen in years. More than some of them had ever seen. They gazed around a crowd of stone expressions, eyes and emotions, all reflecting in the last light of flickering candles.
As they passed amongst the faces, row after row some of them reached up to touch the stone cheeks and lips, and as they did they found that the tears came quickly, warm and honest and brutal as any truth.
They looked upon he faces of all those they had ever loved, or hated and they wept, and as they did their tears mixed with the rain and the mud.
Upstairs the found an old man, he did not move as the sound of their boots approached him. His chest did not rise or lower as he lay in a nest of blankets and dried pelts
A chisel and a hammer were laid out on a rag at his right hand.
The following morning the strays, went on their way to reclaim what they could of the city, years would pass and eventually, as well as homes they were able to to build families, and plant gardens to feed themselves. As children became old enough, on fine days they would walk them to the old building in district nine, and they would show them the faces of those who had come before them. They would picnic in the grass that now grew up around the statues, and they would share stories of how life had been and how it might be yet.
Packs of dogs still roamed the building and the grounds around it. On nights where the clouds would roll over, and the rain would fall, the dogs would bring pieces of stone and cracked concrete. Dragging broken brick and mortar with their muzzles, and they would pile them in the basement of the building like offerings on an alter, as the rain came down through the iron and cement.