Previously published in Shirley (issue 2, 2015)
This story is about a dog that escapes into his dreams.
The air was warm and the ground beneath me was soft, and wet, and I was running.
The earth was moist, and I was sniffing the earth, letting my nose guide me to the answers that lay underneath the ground.
Maybe I had escaped my kennel, or maybe someone had unlatched the door, but that ceased to matter to me once I scratched the ground and found earthworms, chicken, twigs. The smell of food was thick enough to chew on. I heard barking in the distance, and ran to meet it. The sun rose to meet me.
The faster I ran, the faster I wanted to go. It was warmth I chased after—warmth that was never served to me on a tray. The grass parted, and I barked, clawed the earth, sniffed it until I could breathe in its friendship. The earth was sweaty, welcoming. A pack of brothers and sisters waited for me at the top of the hill, panting.
When I leapt at them, hard, cold bars caught me, and I lay on my back, shocked that I had landed on my cold and familiar floor. I was in my kennel, and it smelled of rancid food, and it smelled like me.
Waffle rinds, maple syrup, butter, hotdogs, pork tocino. I sniffed and barked at my food tray, and my master dropped it before me, allowing its juice to splash onto my nose. Humans leave traces of their discarded hunger for me to chew on. Shared friendliness that has gone cold. I buried my nose in the smell of food, and forgot that I was emptying this plate of leavings.
My master patted my head and I snorted, ignoring the ticklish feeling of furless flesh. He didn’t linger at my kennel door, but slammed it shut. I was too distracted by the food placed before me to notice the opportunity of an open door. My master came to my kennel every morning with a tray of food, and I had nothing else to look forward to.
When I had licked my plate dry, I clawed at the door and howled. A loud “Shhh!” cut through the stillness of the morning air. It was like my kennel door clicking shut—a sound that offered no promises. Tired, I dropped to the floor and let my chin rest on a soggy leg.
The dog in the kennel beside mine was a lady—I could tell, by the way her butt smelled, and by the way she clawed her kennel and whinnied longingly as she gazed at me during our season of heat. She had been here before I was ever brought to live in the kennel beside hers. When I still cried for my mother’s warm tits and cried in the rain, she’d sniff across the open space that separated our cages, prick her ears, and lick her nose. At night, they’d let her out to hunt for rats, and as a puppy I’d sometimes awaken to her sniffs, and open my eyes to see her thrusting her snout through my kennel bars and whining. As I grew older, I resented her mobility. I barked at any human whose scent wafted through my master’s gate, irritated that they were free to disrupt the privacy to which I remained captive. The more I barked, the more food was served on my plate. My hunger was satiated, but the scent of these invisible strangers, whose footsteps came and went without warning, nagged me.
That night, they let her loose again. It was her habit to scratch and sniff at our master’s fence, but now, as I watched her jump out of her cage, I felt something clawing inside me as she growled at the fence and went at it with claws bared. Beyond my master’s kingdom, howls interrupted the silence of the night sky. She stopped scratching, pricked her ears, raised her head, and howled as though in communion with these invisible creatures. We had never laid eyes on these howlers, and neither had they laid their eyes on us.
A ball that hovered outside my master’s gate flickered into brightness. Her fur turned golden, as though in answer. I remembered the blades of grass that glistened and bristled my sides as I ran across a kingdom that kept expanding as I ran. Before I knew it, I felt furry balls of gold slapping my sides, and my legs were moving as fast as they could. I stopped and barked and let my claws sink into the earth, and I let the wind comb its way through my fur, and I closed my eyes. I heard barking in the distance, and barked back. Something in the grass twitched, as though in reply, and I ran to meet it.
As I ran, I heard more barks. The grass around me whipped the air, and from behind me emerged more dogs—small dogs, big dogs, dogs that could run faster than me, and dogs that followed our lead. Our tongues hung out and flapped as we tasted the wind. The wind tasted like rat, hotdog, pork tocino. Our fur rubbed against the air, and it took on the fragrance of our sweat and excitement. We didn’t stop, not even to scratch our fleabites.
As we neared the edge of the forest, the smell of our sweat overwhelmed the smell of food, and I realized then that we had forgotten what we had been chasing after. I knew it was a rat, but was also supposed to be bigger and better than a rat. It could’ve been popcorn, menudo, pork tocino. My nose worked hard to sniff out what I wanted, but it wasn’t there.
A pack of trees rose from the ground, as though to frighten us away from their kingdom. My master also had trees in his kingdom, from which sweet-smelling fruit would sometimes fall, but these trees were bigger and taller, and bore no fruit. We weren’t threatened by their largeness, or by their sharp, unappetizing smell. A little dog with long, smelly fur and a tinny voice yapped at these trees, and ran in circles, marked their trunks with his scent. Others followed his lead, and ran around tree trunks, scratched their fleshy roots, whined when their digging turned painful and dull. The slapping of a ball against the ground, followed by the sound of a heavy, woody fruit falling to the grass, sent them howling away, and these fruits rained on them as they ran, and split their heads open before they could escape to the empty grassland. A long, shimmering crash of a tree interrupted this staccato of dull rain, and I jumped away from falling trees and ran into the light. The sky above me was dappled when I looked up, and then there was darkness.
And then, there was light. The human puppy was skidding and dancing on the concrete, dribbling a bouncing ball. I followed its rising and falling with my eyes, knowing that if I chased it, the bars of my cage would come crashing against my head. When he saw me watching him, he stopped and turned to look at me.
I stretched, got up, wagged my tail, and barked.
He took the ball under his arm, and approached my kennel. I sniffed at the honest scent of his armpits. Younger humans are less ashamed of smelling like themselves than their parents. The master’s woman masked her earthiness with a liquid that smelled like tasteless fruit. When she bathed me, she used a liquid that washed away my joy, and although I felt weightless afterwards, I longed for my smell to grow back.
He set down his ball, and unlatched my kennel door. I licked his outstretched hand and he laughed, and then the terror of the forest descended upon me. I whimpered into his palm, breathing in its warm saltiness.
The dog in the kennel beside mine was asleep, and when I scratched my kennel bars, she stirred and pawed the air without opening her eyes. When I yapped at her, her mouth opened, bodying forth a soundless bark. I dropped to my kennel floor. Had she been with me when we all ran into the kingdom of trees? What had brought us to that furry, open space, and why did my kennel bars have to close in on me, just as I was about to dive into the light?
The human puppy took my bowl, and closed my kennel door before walking to the garden and gathering water from an opening in the earth. For a moment, I wished it were he who had set me free, but that couldn’t be. He was like me, a prisoner of the cage our master had built around us.
Humans are powerful, but their power rests in their hands. Which is strange, really, because their claws are clipped short, and they can’t burrow into the earth, or draw blood from flesh. But these hands can open and close doors, draw water from the earth, carry us from our mother’s breasts, into cold cages that don’t bleed when scratched.
He opened my kennel door, and set down my water-filled bowl on the floor. I stared at its clear surface, and a dog stared back at me. It was always there whenever I stared at it, and it always mimicked me. I didn’t want it to bark at me when I barked. Neither did I want it to thrust its nose at me when I lowered my snout into the bowl. I wanted it to prick its ears when it saw me, bark when I drank, pant when I whined. I wanted to come alive when I watched this dog, see it emerge through the surface that divided us.
The human puppy opened his mouth. I’d learned, from experience, that these sounds he made were meant to reassure me.
I snorted, and lowered my face into the bowl. My tongue pierced the colorless surface, and my friend dissolved as I drowned myself in my own thirst.
The only way I can conquer my hunger is to satiate it. Afterwards, as I lie on my kennel floor, I watch my master’s son play tag with a girl human puppy in my master’s garden, and a flickering of past knowledge blurs my vision. I have been outside my master’s kingdom before, but my nose fails to guide me to the places I have left behind. All I have within me is longing—for the warmth of my mother’s body, for the wholeness of her milk. And then I remember the jostling, the crying, the sound of grass crunching against our bellies as our weak legs buckled and our mother moved closer to us, stroking us with her tongue.
I remember being taken away from that nest of grass one day, together with some of my brothers and sisters, and being placed in a cage that grumbled and rolled under our feet. There was fur underneath us, but it was shorter than the grass, and it was ungenerous when we clawed its surface. We suckled the air, and air filled our bodies. I felt empty, weak. I was weightless when they carried me into my master’s kingdom and locked me in my cage. When they later served me a bowl of cold, alien-smelling milk, I licked my bowl clean, filling the emptiness that gnawed my insides.
The air that surrounds me is empty, tasteless, and I bite at it, pierce it with my cries. I’ve forgotten the taste of my mother’s milk, I’ve forgotten the smell of her breasts, and I bark at the space that comes between my mother and I. My master’s guests keep away from my kennel when they walk through my master’s gate, and I only stop barking at them when my master shushes me, or hits my kennel with a stick. I cannot tell what he wants from me. His friends are afraid of me, and so are the birds, the hairy, pointy-eared, golden-eyed creatures that eye me with suspicion whenever they wander silently into my master’s garden, and those who walk by my master’s kingdom at night, who quicken their steps when I bark at their footsteps.
I wonder why I never feel the same gnawing whenever the human puppy visits me. Like our master, he makes sure that my kennel door is always locked, but he pats my head when he opens the door, instead of dropping my food tray onto my floor and withdrawing his hand, the way our master does. I do not fear him, because his eyes are not cold. He comes to me, and lets me rest my snout in his warm palm. His hand enters my kingdom, and I let him stroke my back. I do not bark at him, for fear that his kindness will turn hard.
I know I could hurt him easily—his nails are short, his skin is uncovered—and yet he closes my kennel door just when we have both allowed ourselves to cross the space that comes between us. I howl, and he laughs, takes his ball, pushes it to the ground, and hops away as it bounces back to meet his palm. I claw at my kennel, and I feel the dog in the kennel beside mine staring at me through her hard, steel window. We know how powerful humans are, more than humans do. They build cages around us, and then withdraw behind a wall of stone with openings that frost over as night descends. They cannot see, or feel, the cold that slips unnoticed through the slats of our walls, that are like their soft fingers that slam our doors closed.
But someone, or something, has taken pity on me these past few days. I do not know whether it is human, since humans are the only creatures who are capable of opening my kennel door, but I see no hand unlatching my gate, and I do not feel my paws teetering from the edge of my kennel floor. It descends upon me after I have eaten, or when the coldness of night envelops and overpowers me. Maybe I’m the one who nudges my own cage open with my snout, but I do not feel my cage bars pressing against my nose when I enter this kingdom of grass and open sky. All I feel is my body becoming as light as air as I fly to the sunlight that burns into my body. The wind claws at my fur and I close my eyes, forgetting the smallness of my master’s cold kingdom. The grass spreads out before me, as far as the eye can see, and I can smell my brothers and sisters waiting for my return.
By Monica Macansantos