The sky glowed red from the forest fire and the hills echoed with the barks of wild dogs.
Elvio sat on the step of a stranger’s house, shuffling his deck of cards. The sun was barely up and the town still asleep but he was ready for the day’s graft. In this early peace he could finally relax. He liked the feel of the cards as they flickered through his fingers, the burst of air on his hands cooler than the breeze coming over the sea.
He walked down the hill at a slow pace, wary of his ankle. It still ached. He took a moment to rest and admired the view: villas set into the steep rock, surrounded by banana plants and olive groves; the shimmer of the sea in the grey morning light. It almost took the thought of the dogs away.
At the harbour Elvio drank from the water fountain and washed his face and hands. It was meant for tourists but even at high season there was plenty to go around. He liked to get to the waterfront early and reserve the best place for his hustle. He could still pass for thirteen, even though he was much older, and tourists loved the idea of a local boy beating them at cards. It was his smile and charm that they bought, not the tricks.
He set up on the pavement near the beach, by the busiest footpath. Just like every morning he ran through his repertoire while the streets were empty, practicing his jokes in English, French, Dutch and German. Locals knew his game so he had to learn new languages for the visitors.
Once he was ready he laid out his first hand and waited for the tourists to arrive.
A boat was leaving the marina and the restaurants were preparing for the day, but it was all background and in the breeze Elvio barely heard them. It was a gentle hum of quiet that he enjoyed as if it was the first time.
A tapping across the street broke through Elvio’s calm. Paws on the pavement. He looked up, hoping it was a cat but knowing it was not.
The dog stopped, ears alert and tail straight. It stared at him, eye to eye, like it remembered. He knew that dog.
Elvio didn’t move. He was back in the forest, trees casting spindle shadows in the moonlight, as the dog stood over him, its slobber dripping on his neck, feet on his chest, teeth bared and rumbling as it growled, hot stinking breath suffocating him. It was hungry then and it was hungry now.
One hand out to steady him, the other on the floor, Elvio crouched. His ankle stabbed with pain. He stood, slowly, ready to fight or run. The dog tensed, its tongue hanging low and flecked in dry spittle.
The coach appeared without warning as the hillside had blocked the sound of its engine. The dog looked up, ears back, and watched it approach. As it stopped there was a whining squeal that could have been its brakes or the dog, Elvio couldn’t tell. The dog glared at Elvio, barked, and walked out of sight. The coach doors opened and tourists filled the street.
Elvio sat down, breathing fast. His pulse beat loudly on his jaw. He swallowed air, desperate to fill his tightening lungs. He was running through the forest, the jaws of the dog scything at his back, growls and barks filling the night as the pack rounded on him. The moon sunk behind a cloud and the fog rose and he was blind in the darkness, leaping to avoid branches and clumps of fern, dogs pacing him either side and their leader howling in his wake. He forced a swallow and the throbbing in his ankle hit him.
‘Are you all right?’
An elderly woman was leaning over him, baseball cap and designer anorak. Elvio adjusted his position to ease the pain and smiled at her, his heart calming.
‘Yes, thank you. Bad leg.’
‘Oh, you poor thing.’ She turned to an old man dragging luggage. ‘Harold, look at this poor boy.’ She smiled at Elvio. ‘Are you from here? We need a guide.’
Elvio was about to speak, working through his answer to make sure his English sounded good, when the old man interrupted.
‘No dear, the hotel will sort all that. Come on, he’s probably a homeless.’
‘But Harold, his leg?’
‘We need to check in.’ The old man rolled the suitcase away.
‘Sorry, dear.’ The old woman took out her purse. ‘Here, take this.’ She passed him a ten Euro note.
‘Thank you, madam.’ He bowed his head and smiled graciously. ‘Very kind. Have nice stay in hotel.’
She tilted her head like a lizard in the sun and smiled warmly at him, then scurried away to catch up with her baggage.
The rest of the tourists avoided Elvio, as his exchange with the old woman had made him look like a beggar. He could have made three times what she gave him, but then again, he might have made nothing. He waited for them to disperse and the coach to leave, then eyed the street for the dog, but it was gone.
Elvio decided to move to a different spot in case he’d been reported to the hotel staff. There were some young lovers on the beach but their clothes were next to them so he wouldn’t be able to steal a different shirt without being noticed. He hoped the new tourists wouldn’t remember his face.
He settled on a bench near the café on the other side of the hotel, near the beach. The strip was still practically empty, but the early risers were already eating breakfast on the hotel balcony.
A shadow loomed over the bench as Elvio laid out his cards. An older grifter, all stubble and muscle, was leering at him. His eyes were like the dog’s.
‘Ei, garoto,’ he said. ‘Hey, kid. There’s a tax to sit there. Imposto. Vinte Euro. Twenty.’
‘Desculpe. Sorry, I’ll go.’
‘Não.’ The grifter shook his head and made a fist. ‘Pay, you’ve sat now. Você paga.’
Elvio pulled the old woman’s ten Euro note from his waistband. ‘I only have this. Aqui está.’
‘Bem.’ The grifter snatched it. ‘Now you owe me another twenty. Vinte. Taxa de reembolso.’
The grifter grinned and walked away, lighting a cigarette and looking for other traders to rip off. Elvio hadn’t seen him before; he must be new. Although Elvio didn’t want to pay, it was better than not paying. Maybe he could dodge the other twenty if the Polícia picked up the grifter later, when the tourists were out. Perhaps not.
The morning was warming up and Elvio couldn’t get comfortable. Panic stirred under his skin. He felt trapped, halfway up a tree after scrambling to escape the dogs, watching them circle and bark beneath him, dark shapes twisting through the midnight fog.
He picked up his cards and tried to shuffle them but his thumbs wouldn’t work. The sky above the hills inland was a brighter red than before; the fire must be spreading. There were no sirens, but the wind was heading inland so the sound wouldn’t make it this way. The tourists would notice the glow soon.
Elvio’s stomach ached almost as much as his ankle, but it was a fast pain that came on quickly. How long since he last ate? He couldn’t remember. No time for that now, he needed to make at least fifty Euro in the next few hours. Bus tickets weren’t cheap.
A few tourists appeared, walking out of the hotel. The old woman from before was there, followed by the old man. He was talking to two Policiais. He pointed at Elvio. The Policiais nodded and separated, walking towards him across the esplanade. They must have reported him for begging, and the Polícia didn’t like beggars.
Elvio scraped up his cards from the bench, shaving skin from his knuckle, and ran as fast as his ankle would allow him. Stabbing pain almost crippled his first step but he ran still, crossing the road before an oncoming car. The Policiais were close but they had to wait for the car, its irate horn screaming after Elvio. He charged up the drystone steps into the banana plantation that climbed the steep hill, the Policiais following. He was nimble and darted between the bananeiras, ducking under the cachos of bananas and skipping over the hoses strewn to irrigate the cliff soil. He clambered like an animal on all fours until he was sure the Policiais had given up, and then ascended further.
He reached a road. If the Policiais decided to pursue him they would be in a car, so he crossed quickly. The asphalt jarred his leg and his ankle burned and thudded but he had to ignore it. His hand was bleeding and his arms covered with scratches and cuts from the arbustos. He ran up more drystone steps and into another plantation, pushing on and up until he was out of sight of the road and sheltered from view.
It took Elvio a while to calm his breathing and his heart was kicking the inside of his chest as if it wanted to escape. He considered this could be the worst day of his life, and then he heard the growling. It was low and throaty and he knew it.
The dog from earlier, the one from the night before, was stood a way behind him, teeth bared. As he turned his head it saw his eyes and barked a single, terrifying snap, and charged.
He ran through the plantation, through an olive grove, under grapevines, past avocado trees, across a road, through gardens and up slopes, across pátios and verandas, always climbing, always up, always towards the forest. The sky was darker here, the clouds that gathered around the hilltops a deep, smoky red from the fires.
Every time Elvio looked back the dog was there, snarling and drooling as it pounded after him. Others were following, the pack growing larger than he had seen before. The fire must have driven them from the trees and into the town. Their eyes were vengeance, their muscles steel and their blood ice. Their bellies were hungry for flesh and they followed.
Still he ran and the dogs chased.
The air grew thick with fog and moisture and steam and it was hot and Elvio could see fire engines and lights and Bombeiros with hoses spraying the trees but still he ran. The dogs barked and growled and whipped at his legs and the fire grew closer and he reached the trees but still he ran. The ground became warm and the air heavy with smoke and his skin pricked with sweat and his ankle throbbed but still he ran.
The fire was taller than a house; a burning wall across the forest, wider than the hill. It scorched the ground and roared and trees cracked and snapped and Elvio could hear nothing else. He stopped as a reflex, forgetting the dogs, the sea of flame before him.
He had only wanted to scare the dogs, to create a distraction. Look what his box of matches had become. In the tree he lit the box and dropped it in a dry scrub. It was to clear the dogs. He jumped and landed badly on his ankle, escaping downhill as the flames spread. It was enough to get away from the pack. By the time he reached the town the sun was rising. It was the first, and would be the last time he slept in the forest. Now the forest was alive with fire. It burned.
Over the crashing flames Elvio heard a bark. He turned. Behind him, the dogs had lined up. All of them, hundreds, staring at him, around that one dog, the leader. He had strayed into their territory, taken their home. He had started the fire that reflected in their eyes. He understood them then, and he was calm.
‘Sinto muito,’ he said. ‘I am sorry.’
The sky glowed red from the forest fire and the hills echoed with the barks of wild dogs.
© 2017 Seb Reilly
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.