“Dog” by Bruce McAllister is a chilling horror story about a young American couple who encounter dogs in Mexico very unlike any domesticated variety north of the border and what happens.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Ellen Datlow.
The god of death, Xolotl, made the Sacred Dog, Itzcuintli, from a sliver of the Bone of Life, from which The People were also made. Upon their death, human beings are led to the afterlife across a great lake by Itzcuintli. Should they hesitate in accepting Death, the Sacred Dog helps them on their way.
We were very young when we went to Mexico, my wife and I. We’d been married only a year, were just out of college, were both teachers, and had the liberal fervor of youth. We did not yet know that to romanticize a country, to sentimentalize its people and places and the creatures of it, not only is an affront to them—to the struggle between darkness and light which gives any human beings their meaning on this earth—but can end very badly.
We would not have romanticized our own country, but, again, we were young and the children of a privileged society. Even without being conscious of it, we assumed intentions of a generous heart were enough to protect us from evil in the world. We had not grown up with evil; it had never been our companion. Jennifer was teaching in a federal program for the children of the underprivileged—to give them a leg up in school—and I was teaching remedial English at three community colleges within driving distance of where we lived, only two hours from the border.
A good friend, Tony—whose parents were from Mexico, but who’d grown up in Los Angeles—was pushing thirty and enjoying a career in journalism. He said: “Watch the dogs when you’re down there, David.”
We were eating at our apartment not far from the Pacific, and I’d just told him we’d be going to the state of Morelos, to Cuauhnáhuac, a language institute there, because we wanted to learn Spanish—because so many of our students, pre-schoolers and adult learners alike, knew Spanish and we did not, and what a wonderful thing it would be if we did, wouldn’t it? It would not only make communication better, but also give us the kind of empathy and bond—not just through language, but through an appreciation of culture—that a teacher should have of any student of any age. “Am I right, Tony? ”
I must have sounded like an idiot. Tony was older and had seen much more of the world as a foreign correspondent for both US and Latin American newspapers. (We’d met when he was a stringer for the region’s biggest paper, and I was an intern trying to decide what to do with whatever writing skills I had.) But he was a friend and was not going to make fun of me. More than once he’d said, “You need to travel more, David, but don’t do it stupidly. Know the laws and don’t walk the Andes with $1500 in your pocket, alone, singing at the top of your lungs, like that kid last year. Be compassionate, but not stupid.”
“They’re not like the dogs here, ” he answered. “They’re like the people in those northern states. They have to scrabble harder . . .”
“Estálisto, ” he said as he left, and then—with the cheerfulness that made him such a good interviewer in the midst of war and famine—added, “And bring me back a souvenir, David. Surprise me!”
We lived in a colonia—a middle-class neighborhood with gated houses elbow to elbow, doing their best to keep the chaos of the streets, the poor, the wild things, out. We’d been placed by the institute with a local family, so we’d be hearing the language constantly. The woman spoke Spanish slowly for us, and she spoke some English, too—which helped at first. She was gracious and generous, cooking us meals of karo syrup and pancakes at 8 or 9 at night when we got back from school. But she was not very happy. Her husband, a trophy-winning body-builder, had left her with their five kids, and she complained about her youngest, her negrito, because he was so dark. “He has Chichimec blood—indigena blood—from his great grandfather’s side, I am told, ” she explained. “Otherwise he would not be so dark. His father is blonde. ” The boy was dark, sure, but cute and animated and got along better with the family’s two boxers and its two American guests than his brothers and sisters—in their blonde aloofness—did. The mother’s distress over her fifth child made life in the house awkward, especially when the boy was present and listening to her apologies for him. But the apologies didn’t seem to bother him. She did love him, and he must have known this.
“Do you know the Chichimeca?” she asked, in Spanish.
“No, ” we answered.
“They were the ‘dog people,’ ” she said, then dropped the subject and moved on to the Saturday market, what fun it was, and where we could find the nearest store for school supplies.
We would walk the five blocks through the colonia and the city streets beyond the gates to the institute, and return the same way at day’s end. Our teachers were young and liberal too, with one exception—a middle-aged anthropologist who seemed to have no politics and who didn’t join in the laughter and occasional silliness of his younger colleagues.
The day Jennifer was house-bound with a bad cold, I returned from the institute by myself and saw a dog, a mid-sized mongrel by some bushes on the wide sidewalk just ahead of me. It was sleeping. I assumed it would move as I approached or simply let me walk by. Any dog would, wouldn’t it? It was a sidewalk. Public.
As I neared it, the animal leaped to its feet snarling and jumped at me.
I was wearing a backpack with my books and supplies in it, and the dog’s jaws, clacking wetly, got the backpack. The dog hung from the pack by its jaws and thrashed. I could barely stay on my feet and nearly toppled backward. My nerves were firing like lightning, in the panic only adrenaline can make, and I was hitting at the animal behind me but never quite connecting.
Suddenly the weight on my back disappeared. I was able to straighten up, and, when I turned, the dog was trotting away, looking back once and only once. It was an ugly dog—short-haired, long-legged, a belly bigger than any starving dog should have, and a wrinkled face like a Shar Pei, those battle dogs. Was it pregnant? Ill?
My backpack was in shreds. I kept thinking, looping in a spasm of thought: Jesus! What if it had bitten me? How do you catch a dog like that for quarantine? How do you get rabies shots? Do you stay with the family or somewhere else?
I had no idea how things worked down here, I realized, despite Tony’s advice about the world. Just the day before, I’d learned you could be put in jail here for witnessing—just witnessing—a car accident.
Tony had been right. Don’t be stupid. Find out what you need to know about a country . . . so you don’t die like an idiot.
I’d been stupid.
A few people had stopped on the street, but were moving again. Nothing to see here. Dogs are dogs.
For a week I dreamed of the animal, how it had hung on like it wanted to kill me, needed to kill me, was so hungry that nothing in the universe could satisfy its hunger. In the dreams it came at my face. The wrinkles got bigger. It was wearing a mask—a human mask—and then the mask was a mirror, and it was my face. As its jaws snapped at me, blood and pieces of flesh cascaded from them—my blood and flesh. It was more than any dog could possibly eat, so it gave back to me what it could not eat. I ate my own flesh and woke so nauseated I thought I would vomit.
What do you do with a dream like that?
I’d moan, and Jennifer would have to wake me. But I kept the dreams to myself. I’d already told her about the dog attack—so she’d be cautious on the streets if we weren’t together. She didn’t need more to disturb her own nights. She loved cats, but was always shy with dogs.
A week later, just before our three-day weekend—when we were planning to rent a car and travel happily, romantically, to towns and villages—we were returning at sunset through the colonia to our house. Just beyond the first gated place, we saw the body in the gutter. It was a big dog, but barely recognizable because of what had been done to it.
Something had torn out its throat, filling the asphalt by its head with blood, but that was nothing compared to the stomach.
Jennifer sucked in a deep breath and said, “I’m sorry, David, but I can’t look at this. I’m going to get sick.”
“Sure.” I took her by the elbow and aimed her away, down the street to the first colonia houses. “Go on home. I’ll catch up.”
She looked scared. It was a dead dog, I told myself. Nothing more.
“Why can’t you come with me?” she asked.
I was curious. I wanted to understand better what had happened. Only human nature, wasn’t it?
“I want to check—” I started to say. “Just go over to the corner and wait for me. Look at the sunset. I’ll be just a second.”
She went to the corner. She looked beautiful standing there, with her long hair and skinny legs. The girl I loved. She didn’t look at the sunset. She didn’t look at the mountains. She was looking at me as if the disemboweled body might jump up and grab me, or the wild dogs that had killed and eaten it (what else would have done this?) might suddenly reappear, and I’d be their next meal . . . or both of us would.
I looked down at the body in the dimming light. Something had eaten the entire belly. White ribs were showing. There wasn’t an entrail left, as if a big hand had scooped it clean. There was also a smell—rancid and feral—but I didn’t think much of it. Death had its smells.
I crouched down.
What showed of the dog’s collar in all the blood looked pink, with big rhinestones. It was familiar. I’d seen this dog and its two siblings—heavy, sleek Dobermans—behind a gate in the colonia.
We took our rental, an old sedan, and drove first to San Luis because we’d heard the architecture there was pure colonial-frontier. It felt like Spain—the conquerors—and yet it was rough, what you’d expect of a frontier. The way, I’m sure, even upscale New York had seemed to British royalty back in the day, and certainly how the houses of the wealthy in the San Francisco Bay Area must have seemed to those who owned mansions in Newport, Rhode Island.
In an alcove just off the cathedral there, there was a chapel—one you had to visit, everyone said. When we stepped into it, we didn’t understand what we were seeing. It was maybe 10’ by 10’. In each corner there was a life-sized, painted plaster saint. But this wasn’t the crazy thing. Each of the four saints—all of them in Bible dress—was bleeding more blood than any human being should. One had a plaster axe cleaving his body at the shoulder. Blood poured from the wound, covering the saint’s body and pooling at his feet.
To the right of that saint was one we knew. Saint Sebastian. Full of arrows. Blood running like faucets from each arrow—a physical impossibility, of course, but this hadn’t mattered to the craftsman who’d made it centuries ago. The story here, everywhere in this little room, was blood—how much blood there was in the world—how much the world could and perhaps should bleed. A symphony of blood, filling rivers, seas, draining every human body—
I shook my head, feeling dizzy and delirious and wondering if I were sick—food poisoning or another bug.
The dizziness didn’t fade when I looked at the other two saints. One had no visible wound, but blood was gushing from his open mouth. The other, though still standing, had been disemboweled, plaster intestines at his feet.
I glanced at Jennifer. This was fake blood, silly blood—shiny red paint over plaster—and not a dead, gutted dog—but—
There was a look of horror on her face, but not from the blood. She was staring at the feet of the fourth saint, the disemboweled one. There, a small, squat plaster dog with an impossibly round stomach sat sniffing at the entrails.
We didn’t need to say a thing. We left the alcove, putting it behind us as if it were simply bad art, and re-joined the little tour group.
As we left the cathedral, I stopped our guide—an educated, well-dressed American ex-pat who obviously wished she were doing something else.
“Why all the blood? ” I asked.
“All the blood—the bloody saints—in the alcove?”
She squinted, not understanding, then got it.
“That’s what you get when you mix the blood-sacrifice Aztecs with the Catholic emphasis on suffering.”
I thought I knew what she meant, but wasn’t sure.
“And the dog? Why—”
But she was already walking toward the front of the group.
Over the next two days we drove to villages famous for their beautiful pottery. We loved Mexican ceramics, the talent and technical skill of uneducated, humble artisans—not elite gallery artists—making their regions world-famous just by carrying on the traditions they knew. The power of it. The beauty. This is how it felt to our hearts, young as they were. As we drove, stopping as long as we wished whenever we wished, we found the famous green-glazed bowls of Michoacán in the first villages; then, hours later, red-glazed Colima bowls and hand-polished armadillos, birds and human figures in the next.
In the last village we found the dogs.
Jennifer froze when we saw the table outside the little house where the potter lived, one of dozens in the village.
I nudged her with my elbow. “Oh, stop it. They look like puppies with big tummies. Puppies didn’t kill that dog—”
I stopped. I was probably making it worse.
We both stared at the ceramic dog-pots on the table. All of them were a smooth, beautiful, rusty red. All had hollow, pipe-like chutes protruding from their back—for some liquid. All had immense bellies. We recognized them from books. Colima dogs. Pre-Columbian replicas.
She sighed at last, her eyes crinkling. A smile soon followed, and what sounded like a laugh of acceptance. Whether she was forcing the cheerfulness or actually feeling it, I didn’t know, but it would be real enough if we simply kept moving, kept having romantic fun.
I was, I realized—and it made me smile—going to buy one of the smooth, pot-bellied red-earth dogs for Tony, who’d asked for a souvenir, and what better one was there? A dog. One that wouldn’t attack him, but that would just sit there looking like a puppy. It was hilarious. We’d both have a laugh.
The artist’s wife was doing the selling. There were two other tourists—Aussies, I think—and when she got to us, I’d chosen the dog I thought Tony would like best. I paid, and the woman left to get change for a ten-dollar bill. My eyes wandered and found another kind of dog-pot, an open bowl, but the same kind of dog. It sat by the screen door to the artist’s shack, where he made his wares, and I had to step around the table to get to it. There were two of them, one on either side of the door, like guardians, and I wasn’t sure whether they were for sale or not. I liked the idea—how this one was a bowl—something Tony could put his keys and wallet in—and either it was for sale or it wasn’t. No harm in asking.
I picked up the closest of the two. It was slick inside, as if something had once been kept in it. Whatever it was, it had made the clay even redder there. Iron. Old pigment.
I brought it back to the table. When the woman returned, she was fussing with the change. I asked her in the best Spanish I could whether the dog in my hand was for sale too. She didn’t look up. She said, “Yes, yes—for sale!” and kept fussing with the money, which dropped to the ground.
“Is it the same price?” I asked in Spanish.
“All same price,” she said in English.
“Okay.” I paid the woman again, told her to keep the change, and with a dog under each arm headed to the car. I wanted us back on the main road and at our hotel before dark because I wasn’t sure what night driving was like on rural roads. It might have been stupid, and I knew what Tony would say.
The anthropologist, a man named Rocha, who taught at the institute, also taught at the university. He needed the institute work for financial reasons. He was married and had a mistress, they said. I hadn’t talked to him before. I hadn’t had any reason to, but now I did. I wanted to know something about Tony’s dog so I could show Tony I’d learned at least something about a country he’d always know more about than I would—and if I had the chance, I’d ask the man, too, about dogs in this country . . . why they acted the way they did . . . if it didn’t seem offensive.
The chance to ask about the bowl came on Tuesday.
I told him in the best Spanish I could, nervous as hell—because it was a test of my language progress—how I’d bought a ceramic bowl in Metaca, a dog, one with a big tummy.
He was listening, but didn’t look up. He was a thin man, almost dainty, and he was marking papers. He’d talk to me only if he could also get work done as he did.
“Of course,” he answered in English. He was thinking, I’m sure, that not bothering with Spanish would get this conversation over a lot faster. “A Colima dog. A replica—an item for the perennial tourist trade. An imitation of the artifacts found at La Campana and El Chanal.” His English command was impeccable, very idiomatic.
He was marking away. If I didn’t say anything else, it would be fine with him.
“Why were those dogs so fat?”
He looked up for a moment, then back down, and sighed.
“An interesting question. The traditional answer is ‘food for the living and dead.’ You fattened them and buried them with the dead, but you also ate them. The Chichimec—whose practices spread far north, even into your own country, and farther east within it than you might imagine—ate dogs. They believed dogs could help you pass successfully across the Great Lake into the Afterlife. If you ate them, it aided you in your journey, but it also helped you here in this life. You ate them at banquets; you ate them more commonly. One kind had short legs, so they could not run from you, and was probably barkless since their purpose was not to guard your holdings, but simply to provide food both secular and ceremonial. You fattened them with corn. You would not feed them protein. Fowl and dogs were the Chichimec source of protein. This is the traditional view, but I have often felt . . .”
He was looking at me now and had stopped marking. He was either trying to inundate me with information—to overwhelm me and make me go away—or it was personal to him, what he was saying, and he wanted to share it, but with caution. He knew I was teaching at “colleges” in the US, even if the idea of a “community college” was alien to him. Was I suddenly a younger colleague to him, someone who would listen, someone he might trust? At least a curious graduate student?
“I have often felt,” he continued, eyes a little wider, “—and it has caused trouble with my colleagues—that the dogs’ bellies were full for another reason.”
“I believe . . . I believe the dogs ate human flesh as well. Why? So that human beings, by being eaten themselves, could complete the cycle of life . . . and death.” He took a deep breath, waiting to see if I were pulling away. I wasn’t. “There is evidence. You may find it in four partial mummies. The bigger dog, the long-legged variety—which was called itzcuintli and was not at all like today’s dogs, despite what people believe—existed, as did the smaller. Both kinds, the Chichimec believed, helped guide a man across the lake into the afterlife, but also helped him die at his appointed time should he not be willing to go . . .”
He’d stopped again, checking my face.
“My conclusions, I confess, ” he went on, looking down again, but as if embarrassed, “are the result of my doctoral work—my ongoing studies for fifteen years. Some have been traditional studies. Some, less so—”
We’d heard that he hadn’t finished work on his doctorate even after so long and how this had hurt his career in a country where the pressure for orthodoxy was even greater than in ours. He had, his fellow instructors said, explored “theories too unconventional to be safe.”
Still looking down at the floor, he said:
“I have concluded that three thousand years ago, and earlier, the ancestors of the Chichimecs—whose culture spread from this country into your own—had dogs that ate human flesh, just as human beings ate their flesh. They acquired the human flesh they needed violently, whenever Death called; that is, when Death called to both the human being whose time had come and to the very dogs who would help the human being make his crossing . . .”
There was something he wanted to add—I could tell from his eyes—but should he do it?
He went ahead slowly.
“They ran in packs, mijo—the short-legged ones and the long-legged ones together. Artifacts in the Colima regions suggest this as well. They ate human beings, and human beings returned the favor. It was a symbiosis not unlike the million-year-old understanding between African bushmen and lions, but in this instance a very physical one—one driven by religious beliefs.”
And then he said it—the riskiest thing of all:
“I also believe those dogs did not disappear.”
I blinked. In another situation I’d have argued—I loved a good intellectual argument—but something about what he was saying left me without words. I was thinking of the dogs.
My expression changed, I’m sure. A moment’s fear. A willingness—however brief—to believe. He’d stood up.
“You’ve seen evidence yourself perhaps?” he said. “It is all around us here even if it is not always scientific.”
I finally said: “I don’t think I’ve been here long enough to know, Señor.”
He stared at me for a moment, and then, with a look of defeat, sat back down and began marking again.
“May I bring the dog-bowl tomorrow to show to you?” I asked.
Without looking up, he answered: “Of course. You are a student here.”
I kept the dog-bowl in a paper bag, padded with newspaper, because it wouldn’t fit into my backpack. When school let out the next day, I found him sitting at the lunch tables, marking again.
When I pulled it out—checking it for chips and breaks (it was fine) and inspecting again the slick interior of the bowl—he didn’t look at it. I said, “Is there anything else you can tell me about this pot—why it’s a bowl when the other dogs weren’t.”
When he finally glanced at it, he got up suddenly.
“Where did you find this?”
I told him.
“You should leave it there—in this country.”
“The woman was wrong. It should not have been for sale.”
“I bought it.”
“This does not matter. You should leave it.”
He would say no more. He was staring at me.
I wrapped the bowl back up, thanked him, and went back to the house. Jennifer was happily playing with the family’s youngest, the dark boy. She’d also gotten a letter written to her mom and dad—something I hadn’t yet done to my own.
Itzcuintli’s body is the blood and flesh of both life and death, and by eating it The People gain the strength to live this life in physical bodies and also enter the afterlife as spirit when Xilotl wishes it. But Itzcuintli must eat too, and what better food than the flesh and blood of human beings? In this way, the Sacred Dog and The People guarantee Eternal Life for each other in a shared cannibalism . . .
—letter from Professor Carlos Rocha to Professor Jose Xavier Cortes
Jennifer had been born into a privileged family of savvy businessmen in the capital of a Deep South state—a family which, like so many of her parents’ generation and mine, valued males over females. Her father could be a little cruel, but her mother certainly wasn’t; they collaborated, however, on making a hero of her older brother and in the process making her—despite her delightful innocence, creative talent and joyful appreciation of everything and everyone in the world—a black sheep. Like many black sheep—or at least those who don’t want to stick around and define themselves as invisible or worse—she left quietly after high school, without loud rancor, attended college out of state with the help of her grandmother, and pursued painting and sculpture and her love of children. The decade was right for it. You could be a bohemian without operatic formality or the 50’s beret-wearing obligations of it. You could simply be a young person in a decade of rebellion—neither Flower Child nor Establishment preppie—and be happy, especially if you found someone like you and made a life for yourself, building one way or another a family in which you were not so unimportant.
I loved her, of course, for her graciousness and strength and generosity of heart, but I also loved the idea that she was a “big toe” Native American. A proverbial Southern family secret. They didn’t talk about it much; in the Deep South, in the staid professional circles of the Great Generation, it was a good idea not to talk about such things. But her father’s mother was quite insistent that all of them on her father’s side had Indian blood—“Natchez stock”—in them. And she was the kind of woman who didn’t tolerate denial, as her husband must have learned early on. Rich white men and their shadows. It helped us laugh when the family’s alpha males became too overbearing.
I myself was escaping no more than a run-of-the-mill dysfunctional family, but the decade was perfect for me as well: I could be an activist to whatever quiet degree I wanted. I could be against wars. I could champion the underprivileged. But I didn’t have to bomb banks to do it.
We were young and loved each other very much. Like two puppies playing in a big back yard someone else took care of (which any First World country is) we were enjoying life as the young should, the universe willing.
We took the same kind of bus back to the US we’d taken to get to the school. Not one of those stereotypes where a rickety bus designed for seventy people is carrying twice the number, with chickens and turkeys and luggage all roped to the roof. The kind plunging off cliffs in Third World countries and meriting a column one inch or less in our newspapers. Our bus was instead a fine, charter-line bus, and we’d be traveling once again in comfort. We’d packed our souvenirs—the dog-bowl, the other dog pot, other well-wrapped ceramics, and a small glass-framed portrait of our Lady of Guadalupe Jennifer loved—at the center of our luggage where it would be most protected if the driver happened to be a little rough.
Charter bus or not, we went off a cliff.
It was an area called Tepic, a jungle region, and night, and the road was full of sharp curves. The driver had driven it before many times, but when lightning struck the road right in front of him, while the passengers slept, experience didn’t matter. He was blinded, and, though he tried to stop, lost control.
I woke in the flashing darkness, in the rain coming down in sheets. I was twenty feet or so from the bus, which had rolled down and down and finally stopped. I was lying on a bus window, which had been thrown free, too. I got up on the broken safety glass, stood, and began, like a frantic foghorn, to call Jennifer’s name. I couldn’t see except when the lightning flashed. People were screaming and moaning, their voices lost in the thunder.
I looked all around, kept looking, tried to see, was blind, then saw when the lightning fired again. I went to a body. It was moaning, but it wasn’t Jennifer.
“Are you all right?” I asked in Spanish
“I don’t know,” the man answered
“I have to find my wife. I’m sorry.”
“I understand,” he said.
There were people caught in the roof of the bus, which had separated into layers as the bus rolled and rolled and passengers had gotten caught in them. I pulled a woman from the roof in darkness, but knew by the touch of her hair, which was coarse, that it wasn’t Jennifer. I laid her on the ground and tried to ask her whether she could walk. The Spanish wouldn’t come.
I was still calling to Jennifer without knowing it, and a voice was answering in the distance. It was hers, but it was somehow on the other side of the bus. I made my way around the wreckage, and there, in the flashing darkness, Jennifer was sitting in the mud.
Lighting flashed again. There was a terrible smell, the same one we’d smelled near the dog’s carcass in the gutter, but strong enough now to make you gag. Something moved just beyond her in the glistening brush. I blinked, not sure I’d seen anything at all; but the light came again, and there they were, looking at us, shadows with eyes like coins. Coyotes, I thought. What else would they be? But they looked more like pigs—javalinas—the kind we’d seen in pictures. Black, round, slick and scuttling in the darkness. Why were they so near us? Why were they so close to her?
Pigs eat anything, don’t they?
It was a horrible thought. Had the smell of blood brought them? Was someone bleeding nearby? How could they smell blood when the other terrible smell was everywhere even in the rain and wind?
It made no sense. Wild animals—even coyotes or wolves—didn’t rush in at accidents, with people screaming and moaning. They felt fear, didn’t they?
“Can you stand up, honey?”
“I think so.”
It was the worst thing I could have suggested.
As she stood up, there was a sucking sound and in the next lightning flash I saw her leg, the tibia bone protruding as she tried to stand, and felt only numbness from the shock.
I started to say “Sit back down!” but the forms were moving around us. It wasn’t my imagination, my own shock. The lightning didn’t lie. They were real.
What were they?
At the next flash I found a small tree branch broken off by the bus’s roll. Jennifer began shrieking. A shadow had darted in toward her leg, grabbed it, was pulling at the protruding bone.
I swung, connected, and the thing darted away, but three others arrived and pulled at her bare leg. I kept swinging the branch, sometimes hitting them, sometimes hitting Jennifer. They weren’t interested in me. I swung again, and one whose teeth—long things flashing yellow and red in the lightning—were sunk into Jennifer’s leg rolled away, injured, even as another took its place. The branch had broken.
The lightning showed me a piece of metal siding—something the bus had lost in its rolling—and I had it in my hand and was swinging it, too, shouting “Help!” at the top of my lungs in both languages, though the roar of torrential rain and thunder made the shout a whisper.
Would Jennifer in her shock and pain faint? Would the shadows get to her face and throat?
“Lean on me! We need to get to the others!”
As I kept swinging, knocking forms away from her, we moved downhill toward the bus. There, people seemed to have a light and were shouting back and forth.
I saw something else then—something bigger than the coyote-pigs—long-legged, heavier than any Doberman and hungry because (a voice whispered to me) Death calls it.
We were going to die. The creature was too big, the wrinkles in its face too terrible. The creatures were nipping at her legs—mine now, too, so I would trip—and now the bigger shadow was trotting toward us.
Then a man—a big man with a piece of metal in his hands, too—and three smaller men were beside us, asking in accented English, “You okay?”
“There are javalinas . . .” I muttered, dizzy.
“There are no javalinas.”
“There are javalinas!” I said again.
The big man ignored me. He and the other three shined flashlights on Jennifer, all over her, then to her bad leg, which one of the smaller men crouched beside, inspecting it. They spoke fast “kitchen” Spanish to each other, called to someone by the bus for a blanket, and within seconds had Jennifer cradled in it, one man at each corner of the serape as they climbed up the ravine with her.
When I looked back, the forms were gone.
Sometimes, I remember thinking deliriously, you can defeat Death. People can help you do it.
Jennifer lost her leg. Too much necrotic tissue, the doctors said, and nerve and marrow damage, and more osteomyelitis than they’d expected. It was the saddest thing I’d ever known, and neither of us did well when she had the surgery. She had to learn how to walk on just one leg, and prostheses were not very sophisticated in those days. She did her best, and, as her body healed—and her mind tried to—I spent every moment I could with her. With the loss of her federal teaching job, I had to take a part-time job at a discount department store. Friends spelled me, and her mother—without telling her father, who’d been mad at Jennifer since she married me—and was somehow mad at her even now—sent us some money to help us through.
After six months, her spirits began to return. Writing thank-you notes to everyone who’d been there for her helped, as did funny movies, the drop-bys of friends at all hours, and visits from her mom and mine.
Then the dogs found us again.
We lived in an apartment building not far from the Upper Bay. There were parks between us and the water, and the Upper Bay was connected to estuaries, a creek, and marshlands where coyotes and bobcats and other wildlife felt safe enough to make forays into the residential areas.
I stepped outside one night, and there at the top of our outside stairs one of them—fat and dark and short-legged—sat in the dim light of the one porch bulb. I shouted, but it didn’t move. I went inside to get a hammer, and when I came back, it was gone.
I didn’t tell Jennifer because I didn’t want to believe it. It could have been any ugly dog, couldn’t it? And there was only one, not a pack.
A week later, at a park, toward sunset—picnicking with friends from college—Jennifer went to the restroom by herself. A moment later she screamed.
“They’re here!” she babbled when I reached her. Our friends, who’d run over to her with me, had no idea what she meant.
I didn’t argue. I’d seen one on the stairs. She’d just seen three. They’d followed her into the restroom. One had darted toward her good leg, and she’d struck it with her cane.
“Dogs, ” we explained to our friends. “We had a scare with them in Morelos. We’re still shaky.”
I still hadn’t yet given the dog bowl to Tony for the simple reason that I wasn’t sure what I felt about it now, wasn’t sure whether it was something you should give a friend.
Before we left Mexico I’d told Jennifer what the anthropologist had said—about not taking it with us. She’d laughed too. “Of course we’re taking it with us, ” she’d declared.
The night of the restroom event, however, she said to me in the darkness of our bedroom:
“I’m scared. They’re not ordinary dogs, David. I think we should get rid of the bowl . . .”
We got up, turned on the lights, and put newspaper down on the living room rug. We broke the dog-bowl into tiny pieces with a hammer, then threw everything into the building’s dumpster. Then we smudged the apartment with sage smoke. Why? Because that is what our New Age friends did with ghosts and other supernatural things. What else could we do?
Two nights later there were four of them on our stairs, and a week later one of them knocked Jennifer over by the car in broad daylight as we were getting in to go shopping. When we called animal control, they didn’t believe us. Why would they?
We called her mother, told them she missed home, her family, even her dad, how she wasn’t doing very well, and could they take us in for a couple of months until her spirits improved?
Her father softened, especially after we talked a couple of times. The idea of her coming home seemed to touch him. Her parents had a carriage house we could stay in, in a very nice development called Anderson Place. Woods of pine and oak bordered the development. The neighborhood of course had dogs, but we’d be two thousand miles away from our apartment and the border.
We’d been there for just two weeks when Jennifer disappeared. She’d gone out to get something from the car, which was parked on the gravel driveway by the woods.
Her body was found two days later in those woods. Something had torn it to pieces, removing the belly. I saw the photographs, but much later. They wouldn’t let me see the body.
I couldn’t think for weeks. I couldn’t feel a thing, but I did what I could. I functioned. My nightmares had more than enough feeling to them.
There were police interviews and local media interviews, and finally the world stepped back.
I stayed with her parents for a while. They were devastated and perhaps felt guilty, as parents do.
I needed to walk the woods—in the day and in the night, with a flashlight and a rifle I’d bought—looking for them, for any evidence of them, and, when I found nothing, to let go of this too.
It wasn’t the bowl, I realized in the end.
It was Jennifer.
Death had chosen her—the anthropologist would have told me—and we’d thwarted it for a time. But the dogs knew, he’d say, that she’d been chosen—“Death always tells them”—and would not give up.
Yes, we’d brought the ancient bowl back, and we shouldn’t have, but there was more—something much more important:
The civilization begun by the Chichimec, the Dog People, had stretched from Mexico up as far north as St. Louis and east to Louisiana. Their descendants had been, among other tribes, the Natchez—
—her family’s secret.
They were in her blood.
“The dogs knew, ” Rocha would have said.
I returned to Morelos and have been teaching English here for decades now. But this isn’t really why I’m here. I took hunting lessons long ago and go out with boar hunters into the forests of Sinaloa, Nayarit and Jalisco whenever I can. My Spanish is excellent now. When you have a goal, you can learn a language fast. I don’t romanticize this country any more than I romanticize anything these days, but a part of me does remember how happy Jennifer was, here with the pottery we both loved.
I pretend to hunt for boar, but I am looking for something else. I have not seen the dogs again, either kind, but I will see them when the time comes. I’ll take as many of the ugly things with me as I can, leaving their flesh to rot and their souls to drift for eternity without a taste of my flesh.
I will certainly be tasting theirs.
“Dog” copyright © 2015 by Bruce McAllister
Art copyright © 2015 by Scott Bakal