August 15, 2023

How Pepper Learned Magic

by Renee Carter Hall

“They said I was going to be an abracadabra dog.”

“Abracadabra,” I whispered, trying to keep my tail from wagging in excitement. I didn’t want to make a bad impression on my first day.

“What are you on about?” the grizzled German shepherd muttered next to me.

“Just— you know. The job.”

“Right.” He gave me a sniff and sighed. “Puppies. They’re sending puppies now.”

I was not a puppy; I was a fully grown Labrador. But again, first impressions. I managed to quiet my tail.

I had already been disappointed that my training hadn’t included any magic tricks. I’d expected to hop into boxes to be sawed in half, or maybe to disappear behind a sparkly curtain. So far it had just been a lot of sniffing for things, but maybe that would change today. Did humans do magic shows in the woods? I sure hoped so. Maybe I would even get my own cape.

It didn’t start off very promising. In fact, it felt just like training. We were given the usual command and started searching. I did my best to calm down and focus, and soon enough I found the scent—faint at first, but there. I loped toward it, pulling my person along. Something had disappeared and I was going to make it reappear, because I was a magic dog. They’d said so.

And then I found it, and I knew I was supposed to sit, but I couldn’t help it. I dug joyously through leaves and soil and muck. I had found it. I was doing it. I had found—

A person. I had found a person.

Who wasn’t moving.

Who smelled like dead things.

Who was flesh and bone and hair and not all in the same place.

I staggered back.

I sat.

My person was happy with me. They were acting just like they had in training when I did the right thing. In all those hours, all those sprayed scents, how had I never realized what I’d been smelling?

The German shepherd was next to me. “Good job, pup.”

I didn’t answer.

“Something wrong?”

“When do we do the magic?” I whispered.

“The what?”

They were covering what I’d found, getting ready to carry it away. It made it a little easier to talk.

“They said I was going to be an abracadabra dog.”

The German shepherd stared at me, first in confusion, then with contempt, and then with something like pity. “The word,” he said finally, “is cadaver. Meaning, a dead human.” He sighed and looked away, sagging a little. “You poor dumb thing.”

That was my first day.

I never saw the German shepherd after that; I guess from then on they trusted me to work alone. And I was good. There was no doubt about that. I found bodies in woods and water, newly dead and months gone, old and young. I climbed through cinderblock rubble and storm-twisted trees. But even when I could eventually feel satisfaction at my person’s praise, there was a part of me that stayed numb, and still angry at my silly pup self for having expected something more.

That changed in another forest, on a wet October day. I was following the scent, professionally ignoring both squirrels and chipmunks. This scent was young, very young, and everyone around me seemed particularly distressed, but I did my job. My person praised me after, as they always did.

Then one of the others said something to my person. A question. My person hesitated and said something back, and then the other human approached me, hand out.

I sniffed, and his scent was familiar. It was an echo of the scent I’d just found. He scratched behind my ears, and I wagged my tail a little so he knew it was okay. And then he was kneeling, in the leaves and the mud, his arms around me, his face against my wet coat, holding me tight.

“Thank you,” he said into my fur. “We can take him home now.”

I thought he would let go of me then, but he hugged me tighter, shaking. I licked his face and tasted salt.

And I began to understand.

It isn’t the magic I thought it would be. No tricks, no stage, no cape. But what I can do is bigger and more powerful than I ever imagined that first day. It’s the difference between a question and an answer. The difference between a wound and a scar.

I’d like to tell that old German shepherd that he was right, and he was wrong. He was right about the word, but he was wrong about me.

My name is Pepper. I’m a fully grown Labrador.

And I am a magic dog.


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About the Author

Renee Carter Hall writes fantasy and science fiction for kids, teens, and adults. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Strange Horizons and Podcastle, and her novels include the Cóyotl Award-winning young adult fantasy Huntress. She lives in West Virginia with her husband, their cat, and more books than she will ever have time to read. Readers can find her online at


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