A dog assists Sherlock Holmes in his pursuit of a culprit.
Toby knew this one, the tall man who smelled of smoke, slow and rich, surrounding him with an aura of dimness that was streaked with hints of a sharper and more vibrant odor that stung the nostrils. The man was speaking to him now, addressing him by name, and holding out something in his hand.
"Here you are, doggy! Good old Toby! Smell it, Toby, smell it!"
The man pushed the thing, a rag Toby now realized, against the dog's nose and Toby nearly choked at the thick, black, oozing scent that engulfed his senses. He jerked his head back quickly and coughed but the smell still clogged his nostrils, viscous and oily, refusing to be dislodged.
With a word to his companion, the one who smelled of soap and leather, who had brought the dog, unprotesting and eager for adventure, to this place, the tall man threw the rag away and bent to fasten a cord around Toby's neck. The dog stood patiently, allowing the smell of tobacco to ease the vile stench of the rag from his senses.
The cord tied, the man led Toby to a barrel standing against the wall of the dark house looming above them. That same oily smell, the scent of the rag, wreathed the barrel and drifted away in a looping, diving path away from the house. Toby understood immediately the reason for his being there and let out a series of yelps to convey his knowledge to the humans. Nose to the trail wavering off into the gloom of the shrubs, the dog leaped to the extent of his leash and began to drag the man onwards. The other human waddled after them, almost trotting in his efforts to keep up.
The sky was filling with a gray light from the dawn as Toby brought them through the tangled odors of the rhododendrons, across the dew-scented grass and around the open pits where the brown earthy smell still hovered like clouds, until he reached the boundary wall. Here the black, steaming trail turned abruptly and followed the wall, and Toby did likewise, head up now, enjoying this easy track of a stench that stood out against the grays and greens and browns of the garden's natural morning smells like a dark thread through a white linen sheet.
The wall turned suddenly at a beech tree leaning against the corner and here the bricks were crumbling and worn, emanating a mist of gritty scent to mingle with the dark greens of moss and damp. The black skein rose up the wall and disappeared over the top. Toby stopped and looked upwards.
The tall man was no slouch and he was clambering up the footholds of broken brick even as Toby stopped, reaching down to take the dog from his friend as soon as he straddled the top of the wall. Toby caught the slight suggestion of dried blood in his nostrils as he was lifted over the wall and dropped on the other side.
Then the humans jumped down in their turn and Toby was off again, following the easy trail down the steadily brightening road, a road that was like a flowing river of smells to the dog, scents of gravel and earth and metal and horse and human, brick and leaf, wood and flower, grass and leather, all mingling and twisting in the slight breeze into a tangled tapestry of color and sensation. But through it all ran the black thread of the vile and oily smell, the one the humans wanted him to follow.
On they went for mile after mile, Toby never hesitating as the trail beckoned him on, and now they were closer to the heart of the city, where the country smells of earth and plant were overcome with the heavy, dusky backdrop of coal smoke, the musk of humankind, rich tangs of horse dung and urine, dank drifts of stony odors cloaked in a mist of stagnant waters. Yet still the thread remained as clear to Toby as if a line of black chalk were drawn upon the pavement.
And then came a halt. Another trail of the same odor joined the track and the two threads wound around each other, confusing their identities, then separated again, one to head off down one street, the other to continue down another. Toby stopped, unsure of which the humans wanted. And they stood behind and watched, speaking words that the dog understood meant only indecision and confusion.
Toby paced in circles, trying to demonstrate the problem but they gave him no help. And at last he decided: he would take the stronger trail and let them decide when he reached its end. He set off again, the humans following once more in relief.
And so he brought them to the lumberyard, leading them between the stacks of sweet-smelling wood, threading through the cacophony of new and delicious scents, until he reached the barrel, still upon its handcart and reeking of the evil and disgusting stench the humans wanted. He jumped up on top of it, the better to make them aware that their quest was over.
But now it seemed that there was a problem for the humans stood in puzzlement, scratching their heads and mumbling at each other. He heard the word "creosote" and, although he knew not its meaning, it was enough for the dog to understand. Ah, thought Toby, 'twas the wrong trail after all. He jumped down, ready to retrace their route and follow the other, weaker scent.
In time, the humans seemed to understand too, for at last they set out, allowing the dog to lead them back to where he had seemingly lost the trail before. But now there was no hesitation; Toby turned immediately to follow the other trail and on they went, the dog inhaling the scent as though unravelling a thread from a confused mass of tangled skeins, the humans trotting behind, blind to the world of color that the dog swam in.
And so he brought them to the river in the end, to the smells of rotting wood and rancid mud, turgid water and a breath of ozone. Looking out to where the river ran most swiftly, it was clear by his stance that here the trail ran out, that their quarry had departed, by boat or skiff, now upon the water.
Toby knew his task was at an end, his adventure curtailed. Yet he held his head high and was not ashamed. There is only so much a scent can tell you, after all.
Word Count: 1,098
Recently, I had occasion to read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's tales of Sherlock Holmes for the first time. Detective stories are not really to my taste but I have always been aware that these much-lauded tales remained a gap in my knowledge that I might someday fill. And now I have.
Toby is lifted unceremoniously, rather as Watson and Holmes lifted him over the perimeter wall, from the story entitled The Sign of the Four. It was in reading of how the intrepid Holmes borrowed Toby from a friend whenever he needed to follow a scent trail, that I was reminded that I once had an ambition to paint the world as a dog sees it: with dimmer sight than ours but with a wealth of information pouring into his nose to make his environment seem a colorful explosion of light and sound, all in the form of smells.
Since long ago I put down my paintbrush forever, it seemed a good moment to attempt the picture in another medium.
September 11, 2006