by Nikki & Richard Attree (runner-up in the short story category)
It was the day of the competition and conditions were perfect. The north-east wind was howling. Birds were flying backwards. Cats clung to lampposts, and I struggled to keep all four paws on the ground as I fought my way into town through a sandstorm.
I stopped for a breather at the harbour, nose in the air, nostrils twitching. The air was full of salt, with a faint whiff of sewage and intriguing hints of garlic. Some intrepid humans were charging around the sea with their colourful sails, doing huge jumps and looping-the-loop. A teenage boy flew past on a skateboard. Normally I’d have given chase (no self-respecting dog misses an opportunity to woof at those pesky contraptions), but I was already late for the opening ceremony.
Picking up my pace and paws, I got to the event just as it was about to start. The plaza was heaving with spectators. Salsa music pulsated. Flags flapped furiously. Mouthwatering aromas wafted through the air … but I had no time for distractions. I pushed through the crowd, dodging between the dancing legs, and made it to the competitors’ area just in time to register.
The adrenaline kicked in as I joined the queue to be weighed. I’d done well the previous year, trained hard, and I was hoping for another good result—although, for me it was as much about pitting myself against nature and having fun with my fellow competitors. There was great camaraderie between us and the post-event sausage party was always a wooftastic evening. All-in-all, the Fiesta del Viento was the highlight of the year for us canine Canarios.
The locals greeted me warmly, but one of my rivals, a Spaniel from out of town, was looking very focussed and ignoring everyone else. “Hola Maria,” I woofed to her. “Looks like we’ll be competing against each other again?”
“Sí, Gizmo, eso es correcto… but you haven’t got a cat in hell’s chance of beating me this year.” She turned away and stuck her nose in the air.
“OK chica, vamos a ver… but why bring felines into it?” I asked her. “?” The canine equivalent of a shrug.
“Well, good luck Maria. May the best dog win” or should that be:“best bitch”? I asked myself. I left her with her inflated ego and trotted off to get ready for my first heat.
Let me tell you a bit about the competition. El Blowo, the town in Tenerife where I grew up, can be a challenging place for us dogs. The wind blows a hoolie most of the time, blasting sand in your face and sending you skidding down the street. When it’s really strong, like today, it’s difficult to keep your paws on the ground and the humans joke: “careful of low-flying dogs!” The bomberos often have to rescue dogs from roofs, lamp posts, overhead cables … so “low-flying” is understating the problem, really. As a pup I learnt to control these involuntary flights, but older dogs from more sheltered towns find it tough. As the humans say: it’s not easy to teach an old dog new tricks.
The event began as a way of celebrating the wind, rather than forever moaning about it. Every year El Blowo hosts a Fiesta del Viento showcasing dogs who use its power to get airborne. It culminates in a competition for ‘top flight’, elite, highly-tuned canine athletes—those who can fly the highest, stay airborne the longest, and are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. This is the Olympics of the flying-dog world and just like the human games, it attracts competitors who’ll do anything to win.
The event takes place on the town beach, with mattresses on the sand to minimise injuries. Contestants are weighed and placed in one of three categories: featherweight (Chihuahuas, Yorkshire Terriers etc), middleweight (Poodles, Spaniels etc), and heavyweight (Canarian Presas, Rottweilers and dogs who’ve overdone the biscuits). We use a kite to get airborne and compete in two disciplines: ‘Big Air’—for the dog who flies the highest, and ‘Hang Time’—the pooch who stays up the longest. Marks are also awarded for style.
I’ve been a flying dog all my life and I’ve taken part in the Fiesta del Viento since it began. In the early days it was an extreme sport. The athletes were pioneers, daredevils, and injuries were common. But the health-and-safety officer stepped in and threatened to ban the competition after a series of accidents …
The first of these involved a Chihuahua called Rosa—a tough, fearless little dog with a big ego. She flatly refused to wear any safety gear unless it was colour-coordinated. All the other featherweights wore boots with lead weights, but not Rosa: “You can’t expect me to wear yellow boots with a pink harness!” she announced, outraged.
Rosa ended up winning her event by miles—literally, flying all along the coast until she crash-landed in a cliff-top restaurant … in a bowl of salad. Luckily, it was a large Caesar salad and there were no serious injuries, but the proprietor wasn’t amused when the other customers demanded a Chihuahua in their salad as well. He issued a denuncia against the Fiesta del Viento and the organisers had to placate him by making his restaurant the venue for the post-event sausage party. He calmed down after that and for a while ‘Flying Dog’ salad was a popular speciality on the menu. But there was more trouble the following year …
Luna the Labrador landed on the roof of a car and refused to move. The driver was on his way to work and he tried everything to get Luna to budge, but she just lay there and woofed that it was “time for her siesta—so bugger off and let sleeping dogs lie!” The driver called the Guardia Civil and made a complaint. When they finally prised Luna off the roof, there was a Labrador-shaped dent in it and the organisers had to cough up for the repair.
The final straw was when Sumo, a Rottweiler, flew all the way to the next island, forty kilometres away! That year the wind was so strong only the heavyweights could compete, but the gust that took Sumo was exceptional, even by El Blowo standards. The organisers watched him disappear into the distance and alerted the coastguard, who followed him all the way to La Gomera. He landed safely there and was adopted by some humans who wrote a book about his adventure. Now he’s a local celebrity and regularly opens pet shops and veterinary clinics. A film is planned.
Sumo holds the unofficial record for ‘Hang Time’, but it was never ratified—technically he should have landed in the same place he took off from. His achievement generated a lot of publicity for the competition, but there were repercussions. The air-traffic controllers panicked when they saw an unidentified flying object on their radar and all flights were cancelled for several hours.
After that, the government insisted on changes. They imposed a maximum wind-spreed of fifty knots and made a safety-line and helmets compulsory. Nowadays, most dogs also wear body-armour, the organisers are very safety conscious and accidents are rare. Flying is still an extreme sport, but I miss the daredevil days. It was as much a test of courage as technique back then. The pioneers were an eccentric bunch, perhaps a bit gung-ho, but there was the camaraderie of shared danger between us. We were battling the raw power of nature, as well as each other. Nowadays the athletes are more professional, better trained, fitter … and a lot more competitive. Perhaps I’m looking back through rose-tinted glasses, but I doubt we’ll see the likes of Rosa, Luna or Sumo again.
The tannoy crackled into life, interrupting my reminiscing: “Next contestant in the ‘Big Air’ middleweight category is number forty-four: Gizmo …”
This is what you’ve trained all year for, mate, I thought to myself. So make sure you give it your best shot.
The health-and-safety officer took me through the pre-flight checklist …
Harness secure?—Check. Safety-line attached?—Check.
The official gave the thumbs up and the countdown began: “Three …Two …One … Lift off!”
The kite powered up and I sprang into the air, curling into a ball to keep compact and stable. The humans cheered and my amigos went barking mad. “Go Gizmo, go!” they chanted.
I gained height rapidly as I escaped gravity and soared upwards into the cloudless blue sky. The town was spread out below me and the crowd became dots, their cheers a faint murmur. There was just the whoosh of air as I floated on the thermals, rode the gusts, carved lines in the sky … As free as a bird, I thought, waving a paw at a passing seagull.
I reached the apex of my jump and began my descent, controlling the speed with subtle tweaks of the kite, steering with my tail and focussing on the landing zone. As I glided towards the beach I lowered my undercarriage, making sure all four paws hit the ground at the same time. Wooftastic landing, I thought to myself, as I nodded modestly to my cheering fans. I wasn’t expecting to win ‘Big Air’ as I was more of a ‘Hang Time’ specialist, but I was quietly pleased with my jump.
“The final contestant is athlete 666, world number one: Maria” the tannoy announced. My rival glared at me as she strutted to the launch pad. The previous year she’d beaten me in ‘Big Air’ but I’d won ‘Hang Time’. This year she was desperate to win both disciplines—something that hadn’t been done for fifteen years.
All eyes were on her as she pouted her way through the safety checks, posed for a photo, and then petulantly demanded absolute silence for her take-off. As she lifted off, she made an annoying little grunting noise—like some lady tennis players, and she kept doing it every time she made a turn. She put in plenty of effort and a dozen grunts later she’d gained good height, but it was an ugly jump: no flow, poor use of the gusts … She didn’t control the landing either, coming down hard on her backside with a very unladylike farting noise. Everybody applauded politely, but it wasn’t one of her best efforts.
Tension mounted as the judges totted up the marks … then a gasp from the crowd as they announced the results. Our jumps had been very close. My rival had flown half a metre higher, but I’d scored better points for style. I’d won ‘Big Air’ and I was over the moon (well, not literally—that’s why we have the safety line).
Maria was not a happy Spaniel. She strode towards me growling menacingly, nostrils flared, eyes like daggers. I retreated behind my amigo Carlos, a tough-as-nails Boxer, and pretended to be engrossed in his backside.
“You better watch your own back, Gizmo,” Maria snarled. “Just you wait for ‘Hang Time’. You’re going down, you’ll see!” She stormed off to prepare for our next confrontation.
“What a drama queen!” I woofed to Carlos, extracting my nose from his rear-end.
“True, but be careful of her. She’s one cunning bitch.” I thanked him for the warning and apologised for my strange behaviour.
“No problema mi furry amigo,” he woofed back. “Pero sí, I was a little confused. We already sniffed the butts earlier, ¿no?”
After my unexpected success in ‘Big Air’, I was looking forward to ‘Hang Time’. It was my speciality and I was quietly confident as I went through my final preparations. But my warmup was interrupted when Maria sidled up …
“Hola Gizmo, I just wanted to wish you good luck.” She gazed at me coyly.
“OK, well thanks. Good luck to you too, Maria” I woofed back, warily. “May the best dog win.”
“Absolutely. Exactly.” I put my helmet and goggles on and stared into the distance. But she wasn’t finished yet: “Would you like a biscuit?” She pushed a paper bag towards me.
“Um, no thanks. I don’t like to eat anything before getting airborne.”
“Come on, these are special sports bickies. They’ll give you loads of energy. Have one to show there are no hard feelings between us.”
I did the canine version of a sigh. “Okay, just one then.”
I took a biscuit from her bag and swallowed it, hoping she’d leave me alone. It worked—she gave me a sly grin and trotted off to get ready for our final showdown.
“OK folks, this is the event you’ve all been waiting for,” the man-with-the-mike announced excitedly, “… the final of the ‘Hang Time’ middleweight division. Looks like it’s too close to call again between Maria and Gizmo, ranked numbers one and two in the world. Will the talented Spaniel get revenge for her defeat in ‘Big Air’? Or will our local hero seize his chance to win both disciplines for the first time in many years?”
Maria was scheduled to jump before me. It was her chance to lay down a marker and this time she didn’t make any mistakes. She got lucky with the wind and she made the most of it, riding the gusts with ruthless efficiency. I’ve never been a fan of her style and she spoilt the landing with another of those annoying grunts, but she was hanging above the plaza for absolutely ages. We’d have to wait for the official result, but the word was she’d set a new world record!
The pressure was all on me now. My pulse was racing as I went through the safety checks. Strange—I was usually quite relaxed before a competitive jump. Normally I never suffered from nerves. I took a few deep breaths and tried to get ‘in the zone’, but my heart-rate kept accelerating. Calm down, I told myself. You can do this. You can be the first dog to win both categories since that Jack Russell, fifteen years ago.
It didn’t work. Reminding myself of this historic opportunity only made me more anxious. I was breathing hard now and shaking. What’s wrong with you? I asked myself. I really didn’t feel myself. I felt sick. Was this some kind of panic attack? It feels so hot. Where’s the wind gone? I was sweating so much I was scared the harness might slip. But there was no time to worry about that now …
“Competitor number forty-four, are you ready?” the health-and-safety officer asked.
I nodded weakly and he gave the thumbs up.
The count-down began: “Three …Two …One … Lift off!”
The wind did its thing and I focussed on getting into my compact, stable position … But something wasn’t right. I couldn’t see straight and it was affecting my spatial awareness. My eyes weren’t working properly. My vision was blurred, filled with liquid drops and zig-zag lines. I got barely ten metres above the plaza before I started to have problems controlling the kite. I was sweating, panting, dizzy. I started spinning …
Instead of a distant murmur, the crowd sounded like a volcanic eruption—then silence—then a deafening roar again. I tried not to panic as I spiralled out of control, head-over-paws. One second there was clear blue sky, the next a blur of out-of-focus ground. Everything was swirling around me, faster and faster—swirling birds, people, dogs …
What the hell was happening? I’d never felt like this before. Nausea gripped me. My stomach was turning, gagging, heaving. I threw up directly above the judges and heard cries of disgust, followed by laughter … Then everything went blank. I plummeted down and landed with a thud.
The next I knew I was lying on the mattress, all four paws in the air. I lay there, winded, while the health-and-safety officer checked me over. I was disoriented, spaced-out, but thankfully only my pride was hurt.
Carlos hurried over, looking concerned. “What happened Gizmo? What’s with the vomit, hombre?”
I explained about the biscuit.
“No way Dude! I told you not to trust that bitch. She’s as devious as a skunk with a—”
“Hang on Carlos,” I interrupted, “here come the results …”
The tannoy burst into life and the head judge’s voice reverberated around the plaza: “Gizmo fourth, Carlos third, Oscar second, and the winner, with a new ‘Hang Time’ world record, is … Maria!”
Carlos looked at me sympathetically. I shrugged, and we strolled off to join our mates. At least there was the sausage party to look forward to—if my stomach recovered in time.
When my furry amigos found out about ‘Biscuit-gate’, they were very supportive. “Don’t worry Giz, you’ll definitely do the double next year and get your own back” they woofed. I was feeling a lot better—until I spotted Maria emerge from a scrum of photographers and strut towards us. She stood there gloating. The rest of the gang ignored her, but that wasn’t my style …
“Congratulations on your world record,” I woofed to her. She smiled smugly. “But you know Maria, you didn’t have to cheat. You’d have beaten me anyway with that jump.”
That wiped the smile from her face. “I don’t know what you mean, Gizmo.” Her heckles were up now. “I hope you’re not blaming me for you throwing up?”
“So, that biscuit you gave me had nothing to do with it?”
She tilted her head sideways and gave me the wide-eyed innocent-Spaniel look. “Who knows? (a sly grin) … but remember: you chose to eat it.”
“So you knew there was something wrong with them and you still gave me one?” I stared at her, but she wouldn’t meet my gaze.
“Well, um, not exactly. I got them from Dylan—the hippy dog in the cave behind the school …” I nodded. Yes, that would explain it. I can imagine what kind of biscuits he’s into. “… and I thought I’d try them on you first.” I growled to myself. “He told me they would enhance spatial awareness, improve reaction times, boost performance, that kind of thing … but I was worried they might be illegal.”
“So, if it hadn’t ruined my jump and I’d won, you’d have reported me and ordered a dope test?” Another sly grin. “I might have been banned for life. Is that what you wanted?”
Her nose wrinkled as she thought about this. “Well, you are my only real rival …” I was close to taking a chunk out of her tail now. “But no, that wasn’t my plan. I’d have just asked for this one result to be reversed. Actually, I think we should be allowed to use any kind of drugs, special equipment, whatever … anything that gives me an advantage, in fact.”
I sighed. My anger had turned to pity. There was no hope for this bitch. She’d never get it. We were just going round in circles and I’d had enough. “You know Maria, you’re wasted here,” I woofed softly.
“Really?” Her ears perked up and she leaned in towards me.
“Yes, you should be in the movies. You’re a much better actor than Lassie or Uggie.” She adopted a ridiculous, preening pose. “But you know what they say Maria?” She leaned closer, expecting another compliment … “You can fool some of the dogs some of the time, but not all of the dogs all the time.”
“I don’t know what you mean, Gizmo” she woofed, pouting and shrugging.
“You’re just fooling yourself if you think cheating is winning.”
“How dare you suggest that—”
“As Dogstoevsky put it: ‘A dog who lies to himself and believes his own lies becomes unable to recognise truth, either in himself or his fellow pooch.’ But I don’t suppose you’ve read him, have you Maria?”
“?” She did her pout-shrug gesture.
Carlos gave an impatient bark.
“Okay, adios chica. Hasta luego. Me and my amigos are gonna have some fun together, at the sausage party. You obviously prefer being up your own backside, so I hope you enjoy sniffing your own butt!” I trotted off to join the others.
Maria gazed around the empty plaza. The Fiesta del Viento was over for another year.
“Wait for me Gizmo, Carlos, Guys … Wait!” she barked.
But we’d skedaddled. Silence surrounded her, as tumbleweed blew past in the wind.
Nikki & Richard Attree – http://www.richardattree.com/