Erstwhile earthling Bernie Smith was zapped up from an Iowa cornfield to the deadly planet of Persus in my Sword & Planet spoof, The Wizard from Harrmel. In book two, The Horrors of Harrmel, Bernie and his bride, Thanna Dora, set out on a dangerous quest after learning that her long-lost father, Skreen Dor, may still be alive. And just where might he be? In the horrible land of Harrmel, lorded over by evil wizards, the darkest of dark magic, and all manner of nightmares—not to mention a fair share of inconveniences.
At one point of the story Bernie and Thanna Dora must negotiate a number of villages, all of them weird, some downright lethal. Why, Bernie wonders, are they each named after a city in—Ohio?!? Here is one of those scenes.
The woodland creatures here, though similar to their counterparts on the other side, were drab in color, those on the ground lethargic in their movements, while the birds sounded more like tree toads with asthma. You had to wonder what made this land so creepy.
Oh, did I say creepy? Because what came next, late in the afternoon in a thicket, creeped us out no end and threatened to do worse.
Remember one of the best movie remakes ever, the ’70s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Remember the guy with the dog, who later on becomes the guy-dog—guy’s head, dog’s body? That’s what had silently formed a semi-circle behind us, six guy-dogs—boxers, for sure—and, yep, a couple of girl-dogs. Oh crap.
On the other hand, their human faces looked friendly enough. I put on a big smile, tossed them a peace sign and said, “Hey folks, how’s it hanging, eh?” Yeah, dumb, but…whatever.
“Rowf,” one of them replied in a non-committal tone.
Then, they all took two steps forward. We took three steps backward.
“We were just passing through,” Thanna Dora told them. “We’d hoped to ask you something, but…it is not important.”
“Rowf rowf,” one of the girl-dogs barked.
Then, they all took three steps forward. We took five steps backward.
It suddenly occurred to me that they were herding us. But to where? Maybe they were part sheepdogs.
“Rowf rowf rowf,” a guy-dog intoned.
Our next backward steps took us out of the thicket, and a glance to our rear revealed a…village, I guess, comprised entirely of doghouses. Guy-dogs, girl-dogs, even kid-dogs stopped whatever they’d been doing to watch us. Their doggie bodies looked like every breed imaginable. We’d backed up far enough for the original eight to emerge. I had no idea what any of them would do.
Thanna Dora noticed a sign on a nearby tree and pointed it out to me. It read: TOLEDO.
To quote the Palmer character in the great 1982 version of The Thing: “You gotta be fucking kidding!”
One of the original eight—a guy-dog with an old man’s erudite face—approached us. I squeezed the hilt of my blade a couple of times but did not pull it out. The guy-dog circled around, pulled up parallel on my left, and sniffed my sandal.
Then he peed on my leg.
Okay, what was that about? Jeez! I glared at the little sucker who, after giving me a curt nod of acknowledgement, headed back to the line, just as one of the girl-dogs made a beeline for Thanna Dora. Right, she also got doused, and now the others approached, the five guy-dogs drenching both my legs. My bride, only sprayed by the two girl-dogs, could tell that I neared the boiling point.
“Stay calm, my love,” she warned. “This may be their way of greeting guests. Perhaps it is a good thing.”
“Oh yeah, just wonderful,” I grunted, shaking some of it off. “You think they want us to return the gesture?”
Right, another elbow in my ribs. At this point my concern was that the rest of the village would use us for fire hydrants. But none of them came forward, thanks be. It appeared that only the upper echelon of Doggyville—sorry, Toledo—had that honor.
“Why don’t we just get out of here?” I whispered.
Thanna Dora put a hand on my arm. “Let me try something first.” She took a few steps toward them. “Do you understand what I am saying?”
“Rowf,” a few of them replied, and the old guy-dog—apparently the honcho—nodded.
“All right, then if we ask some questions can you bark…uh, reply one time for yes, two times for no?”
“Rowf.” This time only the old guy-dog barked…I mean replied.
“Do others that look like us come through here very often?”
I joined my bride. “But some have done so in the past, haven’t they?”
Ah, we were getting somewhere. Thanna Dora pulled her hair back and said, “This would have been a long time ago. A man. Yes, a man who looked much like me. Do you remember?”
The old guy-dog stared long and hard at her face. Then, looking past her, he let loose with a series of barks. Obviously he’d summoned one of the villagers, because a guy-dog with a setter’s body and a wizened face that made the old guy-dog’s countenance look like that of a teenager, shuffled forward. He paused alongside me, took a leak on my leg—why me!—then circled around and gazed up at Thanna Dora for what seemed forever. Satisfied, he conferred with the honcho.
“Rowf,” the old guy-dog said.
Well, that was the good news. This pooch must’ve had one hell of a long-term memory. But we couldn’t pump him for any specific information if it couldn’t be answered with yes or no.
Given that we had a setter here, I tried this: “Can you show us the direction in which the man went?”
Sure enough, the ancient guy-dog separated himself from everyone and glanced around the village as he took some awkward steps in a half-circle. He finally stopped; his body stiffened, his tail straightened, and his chin jutted out as he pointed between two doghouses at the far end of the village. We got the implication: He went that-away.
As Willie Nelson said, just can’t wait to get on the road again, only I thought of it in a sarcastic manner. I mean, will this quest never end?
I had one final question for the honcho: “Uh, we are free to leave, are we not?”
“Rowf!” Ah, you never know what a single bark can do!
We gave the ancient guy-dog, the old guy-dog, and the latter’s entourage a nifty namaste bow and, hoping no one else had to go to the bathroom, we walked through the village. We got a few rowfs along the way, but the only ones that approached us were some playful kid-pups. Then, just as we passed between the two doghouses, every throat in the neighborhood emitted a coyote-like howl, the combined noise almost deafening. Must’ve been their way of wishing us calm seas and fair winds. We turned, tossed them a couple of raised fists, and disappeared into a thicket, thankfully away from the uproar in Toledo.