THE OLD MAN'S RITUAL WAS UNCHANGING. Each morning he brewed his tea from a tin of faded leaves and took a biscuit, fresh-cooked the night before but now crusty, from the bun warmer on the stove. He sat hunched over his tea and biscuit, at the scuffed table he'd built himself back in the days when the lumber he'd cut had seemed as light and limber in his hands as child's clay.
The mutt sat eager and panting at his feet in his own morning canon, envious eyes glued to the food in the old man's hand.
When there was but one bite left to the biscuit, the old man paused to study the morsel reflectively. This was the dog's cue to stand, wagging his tail frantically, bright eyes locked on the treat. The old man looked from the dog to the biscuit and back to the dog, as if weighing some great decision. Then, he leaned over, he and his chair creaking together, and held the biscuit over the dog's head.
The old man raised one finger, and the dog, knowing his part well, forced himself to sit and be still. They held this frieze until the old man felt the animal had earned his reward. "Oop wi' ye," the old man commanded, and the dog launched himself onto his hind legs, balancing in a waltzing step until the man dropped the piece of biscuit into the widespread jaws.
When the biscuit was gone, the dog looked up at the old man, tail wagging, and smiled with a mouth full of yellow teeth.
"You are the spoil'dest beast!" the old man said, and smiled back with teeth just as yellow. He ruffled the dog's limp ears, then massaged the top of the animal's head with his horny knuckles.
The old man finished his tea and brushed the crumbs from the table. He left the chipped teacup where it sat. By the time the woman awoke, the leaves would be dry and could be returned to their tin.
He wiped his hands on his ragged jersey and poked his head through the curtained doorway of the bedroom. The cross mounted on the far wall stood guard over the woman snuggled in the center of the down-filled bed. It looked like a shadow in the gray light from the window facing the Channel.
The stone walls of the cottage were cool, gathering in the moisture of the clammy morning. A breeze off the sea fluttered the thin curtains.
While the dog watched patiently from the doorway, the old man tiptoed clumsily to the window. He tried to close it, but the sash was swollen with the damp and it resisted and groaned. He stopped, not wanting to wake the woman, and pulled the curtains closed. He reached for a hand-made quilt atop the neat pile of bedclothes at the foot of the bed and gently drew it across her shoulders.
He cut some cheese from the brick in the larder, took another biscuit from the warmer, and wrapped both in a damp cloth before tucking them into his haversack along with a small jug of water. He took his crook from where it rested against the wall, and his cap from the hook by the door. He was halfway out the door before he remembered his binoculars on the wireless table.
Try as she might with her hand-tatted doilies, vases of marigolds, the menagerie of ceramic animals, the woman had been unable to soften the bleak presumptuousness of the transmitter, or the grim black ranks of aircraft silhouettes on the recognition chart tacked to the wall, lined up like cemetery crosses. He slung the glasses round his neck, blew out the lantern hanging over the table, and went outside.
The dog spurted past him in the doorway, trotting to the edge of the cliffs where he paced back and forth near the steep drop. He left his urinary mark of proprietorship on the knots of weeds and shrubs growing twisted in the Channel winds. The gulls circling off the chalk bluffs ignored his perfunctory barks and continued with their breakfast, dropping mussels on the boulders strewn along the pebble beach, then diving to pick at the meat amid the shattered shells. Bored with the dawn and the birds and the surf, the dog trotted off to find the old man by the chicken coop behind the cottage.
Excerpted from The Advocate by Bill A. Mesce Jr. and Steven G. Szilagyi Copyright© 2000 by Bill A. Mesce Jr. and Steven G. Szilagyi. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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