Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
3552 words
SHJ Issue 4
Fall 2011


Walter Cummins

Moss first saw the little woman at the village’s waterfall where children swung on a knotted rope lashed to a tree branch. A tiny round woman with a dog just as tiny and round, an ugly flat-faced thing at the end of a long leash. The woman wasn’t ugly, just ordinary, though startlingly out of place in high heels and a tight white dress that exaggerated the roundness of her body. Moss wore jeans and an old sweatshirt, the children just shorts and tee shirts. One by one they dropped into the swirling pool at the base of the fall, shrieking joy as they splashed. Moss and the woman were the only adults at the scene.

When she stepped toward him, he wanted to turn away, retreat on the stone path to the village. But even in his short time there, he realized people were always greeting one another, and he knew he shouldn’t be unfriendly, not do anything that would call attention to himself in this small place. Moss responded with a nod and lifted his feet to avoid tangling with the leash. The woman pointed toward the young people. “I haven’t done that in years.”

“I’ve never done anything like that.” Moss pictured her hanging from the rope in that dress and heels, falling in and being swept away, dragging the dog after her.

“But it looks so tempting.” Her face was round like the rest of her, a button nose, bleached ringlets swirled around her head, circles of rouge on her cheeks.

“Not to me.” His response came out harsh. He gestured with his head. “The kids like it.”

“Why wouldn’t they?” She tugged at the leash, the little dog following her back to the houses, dog and mistress walking with tight, abrupt steps, she inhibited by the narrow sheath of her dress.


Moss had chosen the village from a brochure, intrigued by its remoteness and the photo of dark stone cottages lining a green expanse empty of people. The village lay several miles off the highway on a single-track road walled by tall hedges. His car kept brushing the leafy twigs, but he didn’t care how scratched it got. The car was old, and he wanted to abandon it. The deeper in Moss drove, the more he liked the sensation of being hidden. He would be far from everything he had ever known.

His accommodation was a two-room flat, one of four in a gray granite building set away from the others, just steps from the waterfall. For several centuries it had been a mill, powered by the current of the narrow stream. But now the wheel was gone, the structure converted to spaces for visitors, the rooms small but very neat and clean. He wouldn't unpack his belongings from the canvas duffle, unwilling to disturb the order. The place he had left in the city was a shambles. His doing.

Another car had been parked next to the space he took when he arrived, and he heard movements on the floor above his. The next morning, thankfully, the car was gone. He was there all alone. Even with the windows closed, the sound of rushing water was loud. Its steadiness calmed him, but he couldn’t fall asleep. He couldn’t remember the last time he had truly slept.


Even before he had picked this village, Moss had planned to walk, disappear into the countryside. The city was no place for walking, the streets thick with vehicles, the sidewalks crowded, building walls closing in. He had been wise enough to break in his boots and buy cushioned socks. Mornings he would pack lunches from the breads and wedges of cheese he had brought with him, wrap them in plastic and place them in his rucksack with two bottles of beer and an apple.

A path outside the old mill led past the waterfall and up into the hills. The climb was gentle even though the hilltops rose far above the village. At the lower levels the stone walls meant to pen in sheep and cattle were too high for him to climb. He had to twist through wooden stiles.

Moss had expected the creatures to scatter when he neared, but they gazed at him with dull faces and empty eyes, the cattle swishing tails. Even though they stood their ground, he shouted at them to keep away, stooping to pick up rocks, closing his fists on the sharp edges. The cattle lowered their heads to chew the grasses, the sheep indifferent as Moss passed. He dropped the rocks and kicked at them with the toe of a boot.

The hills rolled gently, linked by a network of thin paths, clear of growth, as if they were a much traveled thoroughfare, though Moss—to his relief—met no other walkers. He was the lone human on the landscape.

Once he reached a hilltop, he sat on a rock for a bite of lunch, swigs of beer, and looked out over the miles of terrain below, his village’s rooftops directly beneath, a curved road, long lines of stone walls stretching between the other villages, isolated farm buildings, scattered livestock, and amid a distant cluster of trees the ruins of a castle. He had read about it in the guidebook someone had left in his flat. In ancient times men died chained in its dungeon, rotted in oubliettes.

He gazed for a hour with the sensation that he was no more than a pair of viewing eyes, the entire world outside him, hoping to free himself of all that lay within. Thoughts, memories, deeds. But even here that was impossible.


As Moss descended toward the village, the path became very steep, forcing him to run to keep his balance. He stumbled on a muddy patch and came down on his rear. There, not far away, the woman with the little dog was staring at him, wearing a different dress just as tight as the other and the same high heels. She wasn’t smiling even though his tumble must have looked ridiculous, a comic flailing. Nor did she show concern, just bewilderment, as if his presence were an aberration.

When Moss pulled himself up, he realized his jaw was aching. He must have jarred teeth when he hit the ground. Rubbing his face, he told the woman, “I don’t always do that.”

“Do what?”

“Fall down.”

“Oh, that’s all right.”

He had no idea what she meant. That for all she cared he could fall again and again? That falling didn’t matter? That it made no difference to her what he did?

“You have mud on your trousers.”

“I suppose I do.”

The dog sniffed his shoes, a creature practically hairless, with great bulging eyes and a bobbed tail. He wondered why anyone would want a dog like that.

“What’s its name?” he asked.

“Pumpkin. Precious Pumpkin. What’s yours?”

Moss introduced himself.

“I’m called Nella,” she told him.

Though she hadn’t inquired, he explained he was only there for just a short time.

“I’m new too,” she told him. “But I plan to stay. This is the first time in my life I haven’t lived in a city.”

“What made you leave?”

“I wanted something else.”

“And are you finding it here?” Moss realized he was asking for himself.

“It takes time to make friends.”

It does if you dress that way, he almost said but didn’t, not to a stranger. Instead he shrugged. “I wouldn’t know.”

“I expect to be happy here,” she told him.

When she turned, the little dog rushed to her feet and stayed very close as she walked off with mincing steps. Moss shook his head at her desperation for happiness.


When his food supply dwindled, Moss took to replenishing bread, milk, and cereal in the cramped village shop, but eating most meals in the pub just a few doors down. It was an ancient building with a doorway so low he had to stoop to enter. If he raised his arms, he could touch the beamed ceiling. The small tables wobbled, and the bartenders, young men both called John, were constantly propping cardboard coasters under the short legs. Most early evenings Moss was the only one ordering a supper.

Despite their names, the Johns couldn’t have been more different. The tall, soft John had lived in the village all his life and barely spoke to Moss, though he chatted about livestock and weather with the men who sat at the bar. The shorter John, wiry, with a taut, tense face, liked to hold forth, standing over Moss every time he brought a plate from the kitchen, telling about all the places in the world he had visited, how much he liked the Algarve in Portugal, how he would be off again to somewhere he hadn’t picked yet as soon as he had saved up a bit of money. Occasionally, he would ask Moss about his travels, but whenever Moss named a place he interrupted with tales of another.

Each evening as he ducked through the door Moss wondered which John would be on duty. Their schedules seemed arbitrary, beyond prediction. One night he found Travel John unusually silent behind the bar, just listening to the three men perched on stools in front of him. After several minutes, Moss realized just one of the men was doing all the talking, deeply tanned with a head of blond curls, tattoos on both forearms beneath his rolled sleeves, his face weathered.

The man’s voice resonated, too loud for the space, echoing off the low ceiling. Moss realized he was telling a story about how he had crashed his sports car and ended up with his face flat against the windshield. He pressed a hand down on his nose and mouth to demonstrate the distortion. The other men were laughing, John too, as if listening to the man were as interesting as a distant locale.

“The dentist was in love with me,” the man was saying. “The challenge of the restoration, all the money he would make. What front teeth I didn’t knock out immediately were rattling loose. I lived on a diet of soups. And this stuff.” He held out his pint glass to more laughter. “It took months of extractions, measurements, plaster modeling, and temporaries. But now I have a bionic mouth. These teeth”—he pulled back his lips and tapped the two in front—“are top of the line. No enamel for me. I’ve got titanium teeth. Titanium!” He threw his head back in laughter, and the others were roaring.

Moss despised the man. He waved a menu over his head to get John’s attention.


Unable to sleep again, Moss found himself pacing the small rooms of the apartment at sunrise and decided to go for another walk. When he stepped outside, the village was absolutely quiet, not even a car moving on the narrow road, just the unending rush of the waterfall. He imagined he could hear all the people breathing in their sleep like a single sigh that rustled the leaves.

But as he began his ascent on a path, he saw Nella and the dog ahead of him, she in the dress she had been wearing the first time he saw her, but with a green shawl wrapped about her shoulders and puffy white walking shoes that seemed much too large for her tiny feet. She wasn’t moving, standing still while the dog sniffed at a bush, circled it, and stopped to raise a leg. Moss had the thought that she was waiting for him, though she wasn’t looking in his direction.

He came up behind, kicking his boots on the ground to alert her. “Good morning, Nella,” he called.

“Oh, hello.” She didn’t return his smile, and Moss knew he was smiling because she amused him, this foolish woman who wanted happiness.

He reached down to pat the dog’s head, ready to draw back, expecting a nip. But the dog buried its face in weeds.

“Would you like to walk with us?” she asked.

He looked down at the tight skirt bottom.

“We won’t go far.”

Moss nodded. “All right. Thanks.” He had nothing else to do.

He took half steps, slowing to her pace, the dog stretching the long leash as it lingered behind. Nella gestured toward the countryside, the hilltops and the village. “It’s beautiful here.”

“I suppose it is,” Moss said. “Is that why you picked it?”

“One reason. But mainly, I picked it because it’s not where I was before.”

“What was wrong there?”

“I wasn’t happy where I was.”

“Could you go back if this doesn’t work out?”

She nodded. “But it won’t be necessary. I’ll be fine here. What about you? Will you go back?”

“That may not be such a good idea.”

For the first time she gave him a look of real interest. “No people, no person there for you?”

“No. Not there. Not anywhere. Not for a long time.”

She nodded. “Yes. It’s that way sometimes.”

They came to a rise in the path, the worn dirt just wide enough for one person, and Moss stepped aside to let her go first. Halfway up, she tripped on a rock and lost balance, falling back into his grasp, her head no higher than his chest. He felt the warmth of her, the pressure of her roundness. At once he stiffened his arms and held her away. “Sorry,” she said.

“Did you hurt yourself?”

“I should go back now.”

She asked him to carry the dog. The creature was almost weightless, the bulging eyes gazing up at Moss, the mouth open, saliva drooling onto Moss’s hands. He felt the rough, dry coat, breathed the sour dog odor.


Late that afternoon, at loose ends, unwilling to stay in the flat any longer, Moss walked again, taking long strides as if rushing to reach a destination though he really had nowhere to go, nowhere he wanted to be. The sheep and cattle seemed used to him now, barely turning their heads, poised in their stillness like the boulders scattered across the landscape.

Climbing rise after rise, he found himself out of breath and sat to suck in air. A sudden dizziness struck him, and he had to lie back on the grass with eyes closed. When he looked out again, he saw clouds floating in a blue sky, felt the breeze on his face. He sat up, calm now, and looked out across the hills and valleys, everything green, creatures still within stone walls, roofs and chimneys of clustered habitation. The castle ruin in the distance, stark edges jutting among the trees.

His chest heaved with the sense of a great isolation, tears streaking his cheeks, unable to lift a hand to rub them away. Then he buried his face in his knees and shivered with loneliness. It had been a mistake to come here, as if relocation could change the world that lived in his head, the life he had ruined, the people he would never see again.


Moss was blinded when he stepped into the dim pub from the brilliant glow of the setting sun. As he blinked he could hear a voice. Soft John. Then a sputtering laugh he knew came from the man he thought of as Titanium Teeth. Now he could see they were the only people there, the man perched on a stool, elbows on the bar, John drying glasses but riveted to the grin on the man’s face, as if he were showing off those teeth.

“What’ll it be?” Soft John said, seeming annoyed that Moss had interrupted him.

Moss tried to decipher the menu chalked on a slate behind the bar. Though it was too early for dinner, he needed food because he hadn’t eaten since breakfast. “I’m thinking,” he told John.

Titanium Teeth turned his grin to him. “You have yourself a good long think.” He began laughing again, John with him.

Moss clenched a fist in his pocket, knowing that if he hit the man once, he wouldn’t be able to stop until he had knocked out all those fancy teeth, pulped the smug face. He hadn’t hit anyone in months, and then it had been the wrong person. The worst person in the world to receive his rage.

“I’ve thought as much as I need to,” he said and ordered gammon and a pint, then sat at a wobbling table against a far wall, leaning his head again a dark, ancient beam, trying to blot out the pictures swirling through his mind.

“So he just dropped his bar rag and disappeared without a by your leave,” Titanium Teeth was saying.

John shook his head. “It wasn’t exactly like that. He gave notice when he came in the morning, did his job as if it were just another day, totaled up the register, gave me a wave, and out the door.”

“Do you know where he went?”

“You never know with him. In a month or two we’ll get a postcard from some place in the world I’ve never heard of.” John pointed to a cork board of pinned cards that Moss had never noticed before.

“Was there a problem? He in some kind of trouble?”

“Naw. His only trouble is in his head. Can’t stay in one place. All the times he said to me, ‘How can you stand it here?’”

Titanium Teeth laughed again. “How can you? When was the last time you left the village?”

“There’s nothing I need out there. I’m content.”

“Good for you.” The man reached out to pat John’s shoulder and gestured back toward Moss. “Some of us are just visitors. Maybe we don’t know how much we’re missing.”

“So when are you leaving this time?”

Titanium Teeth shrugged. “It depends.”

Moss heard the door open and in the shaft of light from outside saw Pumpkin straining at his leash. He half rose from his chair, ready to greet Nella and invite her to sit with him, realizing he wanted someone to talk to. She paused in the doorway, blinking to adjust her vision just as he had, but didn’t look in his direction. Instead she walked right to the bar next to Titanium Teeth. The man knelt and swept up the dog, set it on the stool to his right, scratching fingers on the tiny head. “Good boy.” The dog licked his hand.

Nella watched closely, wearing yet another tight dress and another pair of heels. Titanium Teeth wrapped an arm around her shoulder and gave her a hug. “A drink for the lady, John.” She didn’t move closer, but she didn’t struggle.

The man began telling a story in a low voice, as if he didn’t want Moss to hear. When he tapped a tooth, Moss assumed it was about the accident and his dental miracle. Whatever he was saying, it made John laugh so hard he had to rub tears from his eyes. Nella listened with great attention and then broke into a smile. Moss had never seen her smile before. He felt sure Titanium Teeth made a gesture, back toward him, Nella smiling even more broadly, John laughing louder.

Moss finished his meal and drank his beer very deliberately, hearing the seconds ticking in his skull. He pushed back the chair, stood, and put on his jacket. At the bar, he took out his wallet, reached around Titanium Teeth, and dropped a 20 pound note. Titanium Teeth tapped John’s chest. “With a tip like that you could give notice yourself and see the world.”

Moss bumped an elbow into the man’s shoulder, making him topple a half-filled pint. “Jesus, mate!” Titanium Teeth started to get up but turned away when he saw the look on Moss’ face. John, head down, wiped the spilled beer with a rag. The dog was snarling, Nella rigid on her stool.


Outside, away from the pub, Moss ran past the lanes of the village, twisting through stiles, stumbling along the path, tripping over stones. He wasn’t wearing boots and could feel jagged edges through the thin soles of his shoes. By the time he climbed a hill, the sun had vanished behind a wall of gray clouds coming in from the west. Even with his jacket zipped, Moss shivered in the chill, raindrops sharp on his face.

Creatures clustered about him—sheep with streaks of colored dye on their wool, cattle with bell collars that clanked as they chewed their cud, oblivious to the rain. Until now he hadn’t noticed that they all belonged to someone.

Moss plunged ahead toward the topmost hilltops, off the marked trail. He came up against a rusted wire fence much taller than he was and groped for an opening, desperate to get to the other side, pulling at the wire, trying to rip it free from the posts, his hands bleeding. But he wasn’t strong enough. He slumped back against the wire, heavy rain now beating down on him, soaking his clothing, turning the earth to mud.

Far below, in the village, a dim light illuminated the pub sign, promising warmth within. Alone in the downpour, Moss pulled his jacket over his head and sealed himself in darkness.

—Previously published in Contemporary World Literature (May/June 2011); reprinted here by author’s permission

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury