Storyglossia Issue 44, May 2011.

The Runt

by Valerie O'Riordan


Da made us watch as he fucked the dog into the lake. Fergal screamed.

—She'll drown, Da, she'll be dead—

His nose was snotting up already. He clung onto my hand as Da said:

— Shut it, lads, will yis, and wait?

He rubbed his hands clean on the back of his pants. You could see the dirty-white dog hair sticking to corduroy patched with scraps of an old tea-towel, Ma's stitches still keeping it together, like black scabs all over his arse. I looked away, pushing Fergal off of me, and stepped down to the edge of the jetty. The wood was slippery-green beneath last year's too-small trainers.

The pup flailed and sank.

Hurry up, I thought, and balled my hands in my pockets.

You could see her staring back up at me with these helpless, panicky eyes, jaws snapping on water scummed with rotting frog-spawn and crisp-packets. A condom bobbed past, snagged on a broken twig. I knew about condoms; I'd found one in the bathroom bin last Christmas, just before Ma went into hospital. The dead-fish slipperiness of it. Babies who'd never get born. He'd brought us here today, Da had, to show us how it happened—how the light goes out when you die. We'd been at home when it happened to Ma, me and Fergal, in the living room eating Cheestrings and watching Saturday cartoons. You could picture it, though—the eyes gaping uselessly at Da, at the nurse, at the cobwebs on the ward ceiling.

—Just watch this, now, he said.

The dog's legs scissored bone-skinny as she sank deeper.



Uncle Paul had dropped her round after the funeral.

—For the boys, like.

—Runty little yoke, said Da, handling her.

Uncle Paul shrugged.

—Get her in the fresh air. She'll snap to it.

I knelt next to the shoebox on the kitchen floor. Her eyes hadn't even opened. I put my hand on her back. You could feel the fragile ridge of bone. The way she heaved to breathe. She was barely alive. I could have squeezed it out of her. I felt this quick surge of power—I was the anaesthetist, the surgeon, the parish priest. I whispered the same phrase I'd been rolling around my mouth for three days, coated with spit and salt and fury:

Do not resuscitate.

And then I got up and ran out into the garden before my hand could clench tight around the pup's ribs and crack them. She'd die soon enough. The size of her. The helpless suck of her pink fish-lips.



Da rubbed his back.

—Little bitch is heavier than yeh'd think. I'll be flat out till Tuesday.

Fergal hopped from foot to foot. He whined:

—Help her, will yeh, Da, get her out, she's drownding—

Da put his hand on Fergal's shoulder.

—Hang on, son.

My brother leaned into him and gave this sigh, this quivering, breathy moan, like all the sadness in the whole shitty world was huffing in and out of him and he hadn't room inside for it. I felt it wash across and drench me, this cold smog that soaked through my lungs, my heart, my kidneys, my liver, my belly, my guts, my blood, my marrow and made me shiver. Da's knuckles brushed the back of my neck and I swallowed a sob.

—All right, Michael?

I shook my head. The pup was only eight weeks old. We'd have to dig a hole to bury her. I'd need to find a box. A crate. And a blanket, a shroud to wrap her in. Fergal would want a funeral and I didn't know what to say. I hadn't listened at Ma's service. I'd counted the ceiling tiles until everybody stood up and filed outside. I didn't want to see see Da cry again. His head dropping down so he squashed out a double chin, and his eyes all red and saggy like an old man's. My chest hurt. It wasn't right—

—Now, Da said. Lads. Lookit.

The pup fought.

The water disturbed, rippled, and she rose, gasped and sank again. I stopped breathing. We stood there forever, Da's fingers digging trenches into my shoulders. The lake was vast, a Flood, the cold reach of the entire world. Fergal had always been weeping. I was withered through. We'd never been anywhere else. We were never leaving. The sky darkened. The sun would blink out.

She broke the surface a second time.

—C'mon girl, good girl, good dog, c'mon now—

Da's hand slipped down and gripped my shoulder.

—Shhh, Michael. She's grand.

I put my hand to my mouth and she came up again, snapping, her skull smaller than you'd think with the sopping hair plastered over it, jaws bared in a toothy snarl at the splashing cold wetness, the legs pumping beneath—and then she was paddling in a tight, furious circle, her neck a tense stalk for the bobbing head. She barked.

Da let go of me.

—Well! There yeh go. Now, see this.

He pulled a tennis ball from his coat pocket and threw it. The grey-yellow tatter arced overhead and landed with a slap to float in the flat grey ribbon of the lake. The dog barked again and twisted, belly-flopped around and swam out after it, panting.

Fergal clapped.

—I knew she'd be grand, Da, didn't I? Didn't I, Da?

We watched the dog snatch at the ball and half-carry, half-shunt it back to shore, then hoist herself up the muddy bank unaided, the freezing water streaming off of her. There were twigs knotted in the matt of fur. Her legs wobbled like Ma's overcooked spaghetti and Fergal knocked her to the ground. He pressed his face into her skinny flank.

—Yer a good girl, a good doggy.

I hunkered down beside him and touched her behind the ear. A soft, balding, newborn spot. She jerked her head back and eyed me. I scratched her, gently, and she blinked.

Fergal said:

—She's not really a runt, is she, Da?

—No, he said, course she's not. He ran his hand down the backside of his cords, again, along the stitches running across the thigh, the places where Ma's fingers had worked. Then he clapped me on the back.

—All right, Michael?

The dog was writhing beneath Fergal's embrace. The weak spring light made the lake-water glisten in tiny droplets on her hide so that when she moved, she sparkled. You could hear the heady rasp of her breath, the gulp of air as it ballooned her rib-cage. Fergal's muffled whispers. My own breathing. Da was watching me.

—Yeah, I said. All right.

Copyright©2011 Valerie O'Riordan

Valerie O'Riordan is an Irish writer living in England. She's a graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester and her fiction has appeared in PANK, Flatmancrooked, elimae and other journals. She won the 2010 Bristol Short Story Prize and was shortlisted for the 2010 Bridport Prize for flash fiction. She's working on her first novel and blogs at