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       The Barcelona Review

Author Bio

Shelia Armstrong

instinct


iWhen the dog first arrived, we were pleased. The seller dropped it off in an old red van with no licence plate, dust reaching up as far as the door handles and a wire mesh behind the driver’s seat. When the reardoors opened, we saw a tail thumping dully against the carpeted floor and a flat, tawny skull weaving over and back between two gaunt shoulder blades.
      The notice had popped up online in a neighbourhood swap group. DOG, FREE TO A GOOD HOME, and a picture of a long-nosed mutt with black, button eyes.We had previously agreed not to get a pet – we lived in an apartment, our working hours were wrong, it was never the right time – and had resigned ourselves to smiling at dogs in the street.
      Then the baby came, and our days were taken up with wet things. The spare room stopped being spare, and white noise and the sound of waves crashing over distant rocks found a place in our dreams. For a year and change, the corners of our lives softened around the sweet core of him, and we laughed at the people we had been. But eventually, the baby picked himself up off the floor, our jobs settled back to routine, and we found brief periods of time where our hands weren’t full and hung strangely by our sides.
      In the end, getting the dog was an impulsive thing, a matter of our eyes meeting over the baby’s head, three clicks and an exchange of phone numbers while we sat in front of a movie on a Sunday night. We felt pleased with ourselves, like we were ticking some piece of unurgent housework off the list early.
      FREE TO A GOOD HOME, the advert said, but when the van arrived, we had a €50 note ready anyway; we had no car so the delivery was appreciated. The man refused the money with a shake of his head. We assumed that we were a good home. There didn’t seem to be a test to pass.
      The dog had no collar, so we shepherded it upstairs to our apartment quickly before our neighbours could see. Animals weren’t allowed in our lease, but after years of neglected maintenance and rent hikes, we felt entitled to break a few clauses in the opposite direction. Besides, we were sure that our downstairs neighbours had a python; we had once seen the flaking fishnet of a skin-shed in the compost bin.
      The driver didn’t say goodbye to the dog before getting back into the van, which didn’t strike us as strange at the time. Later, we would remember the uneven curve of the man’s back, the coarse wool of his jumper, but not the shape of his face.

iiThe dog was knobbly thin and had dew claws like marlin spikes, and oily tear tracks spilling from dark, viscous eyes. Its short fur was tawny brown, with a suggestion of stripes rippling against its ribs. It smelled of nothing except warm dust and antiseptic, but to be sure, we put it in the shower to wash it because we didn’t have a bathtub. It glared at us, wagging its tail uncertainly, as we herded it with towels, its long legs skittering against the slippery porcelain. By the end, we were as wet as flowers after rain and our laughs came out high-pitched and feverish. The baby shrieked at us in approval from his perch on the bed and clapped at the spectacle.
      Afterwards, the dog tasted the air around the soft, oval basket we had spent too much money on and curled up on the hardwood floor beside it instead. It pressed its nose into its thigh to watch us move around the room, and it sighed often, the very expression of resignation.
      That evening, we found out that the dog was infested with parasites. The wriggling white lines in its droppings were hypnotic; little streaks of life exposed to light for the first time, struggling towards the sky. After we dosed it, the thread worms came out in clumped knots, as the dog strained, wide-eyed, but at least they no longer wiggled and waved.
      A few days later, we had to deworm ourselves too, because although the dog wasn’t overly interested in licking us, the baby would let it clean his hands after each meal. He proudly announced at crèche that he had worms in his tummy; this coming on top of an incident with head lice resulted in an after-school meeting with a childcare worker, and the eventual shaving of the baby’s head. The fine bones of his skull shone blue and white under the apartment’s bay windows as he sulked.     
      Even so, the baby liked the dog. He wasn’t a grabby child, but he was impulsive, so we spoke to him sternly about the evils of pinching and tail-pulling. He hadn’t found a frequent use yet for his tongue, preferring to keep it pressed between his clean, white teeth, but he nodded like a diplomat and filed it all away. His approaches were wide, toddling circles, spiralling inwards, while the dog rotated in the opposite direction, trying to keep the baby in its line of sight; having a strain of hound in it, its eyes were hare-like on the side of its skull, split by a broad snout and a dry, cracking nose. When they met in the middle, the dog would allow the baby a clumsy stroke or two on its flank, then slip away, flitting from under the table, to the bed, to a nook behind the front door.     
      But after a time, trust began to creep in. The baby would sit on the floor and watch old cartoons, and the dog would slowly inch closer, until they were shoulder to shoulder, staring at the screen. Together, they watched bright creatures with bulging eyes and sing-song voices chasing each other in circles, until stopped short by the force of a frying pan, a brick wall, a neat package of red TNT. Then the baby would roar in delight at the screen, and the dog would startle away from him again.
      The dog was resistant to learning commands, leading us to declare on alternate days that it was too stupid or too smart to obey us. It had been starved before it came to us, we were sure, because food was its only concern. Some instinct in the dog’s mind had been broken, or encouraged, or withered away, because every second of every day was an attempt not to be hungry, to fill up an aching gap. At mealtimes, it emptied its own bowl in seconds, and its eyes followed our plates like an uncanny portrait. Over feeding it did no good, as its stomach was likely to burst from the unfamiliar strain, although we did, bashfully, let it lick the fat from the frying pan after Sunday breakfasts. Butter was its favourite, real farmhouse butter, although it would take yellow margarine at a pinch. Left sitting on the counter for more than a second or two and the butter would vanish. If we caught the thief quickly enough, we could scoop off the tongue-furrowed layer and salvage it, but if it went unnoticed there would only be an empty plastic container left, and the dog would produce squirting puddles of undigested fat out of both ends for days.
      But mainly, it curved neatly around our lives like a snake sleeping on a branch. We came and went from home to crèche to work to crèche to home in a lazy pendulum, the dog startling to life every time a key sounded in the door. It always seemed vaguely surprised to see us again, as if we were a bizarre but pleasant dream recurring each day.
      Our neighbours stopped us in the hall to compliment its improving health and rounding belly. We told them that it was perfect for life in the city and took it to sit outside expensive cafés with us.
      The baby grew a little taller, and we kissed him and marked his height against the wall with a thick carpenter’s pencil. Our house plants flourished. We put festive antlers on the dog at Christmas; it rubbed them off against a wire fence.

iiiWhen we all lost our jobs, the dog was uneasy. During the day, in the time that had been its alone, we now appeared, dressed in pyjamas and clutching the pieces of paper that came in the post. We had always wondered what it did while we were at work, but whatever it did became undone. Instead, it watched us nervously from under the table as we walked around the apartment, occasionally feeling at the walls and doorways to make sure they were still there.
      We tried to keep ourselves busy; told ourselves that countless others were in the same boat, took a positive attitude to this unfamiliar stretching of time. We attended meetings at the welfare office, took evening course after course, trying to master esoteric skills that we would never apply. We tried crocheting in the mornings and coding in the evenings; weekends were indistinct lumps of excess time. We tore at the skin around our fingers while we queued for hours outside the post office, arguing the finer points of filled-out forms and pretending not to recognise our neighbours.
      We still walked the dog in the mornings, after dropping the baby off at crèche, nodding at others and smiling at the sky. Sometimes other people would nod at us first, and we would have to smile back; it became a competition, an escalating race of wordless pleasantries, until our heads were stretched like meerkats. But eventually, the long loops around the river
became routine to the dog as much as us – head down, legs whirring, it would still stop to nose at the weeds, but without much real interest. It was the walk of a worrier: we began to take each corner at a close angle to reach home again as fast as possible.
      For the rest of the day, the dog would sit on the back of the armchair like a sentry and watch the street below, front paws extended to press against the glass, as if reassuring itself that in here was here and out there was there.
      We sat instead on the couch in front of the television, watching an endless reel of red statistics; and spokespeople with downcast faces, shoulders hunched and heads low; a shuffling of anxious crows offering apologies in one hand and a scolding in the other. The chorus of their statements began to bore us; we made a theatre stage of the living room and took turns delivering their lines. Sometimes we joined the dog; made viewing perches with our palms, sat our eyes in the crook between thumb and index finger, until it was time to collect the baby again and remember how to smile.
      Outside, in the city, people stepped through their lives, in and out of doorways and offices and shaded alcoves, always in a hurry to get somewhere. The air became heavy and stale, carrying the ballast of other people’s sighs. The shops whipped off and changed their signs like burlesque dancers. Traffic lights grew bags over their eyes, and cranes fell from cloud-streaked skies. Colours and parades lined the streets below us, aimed at keeping the city’s spirits up in these trying times: marching bands; groups of butterfly women rotating in saris; looming, eight-legged giants made of papiermâché taking shuddering steps, one limb at a time. Tourists came by to take photos of the fast-flowing river.
      Our neighbours stopped talking to us in the hallways and the building filled up with silence. We moved in a rhythm with them, a one-two step, spinning up and down the corridors and stairs, flattening our bodies against walls to let each other pass by. The landings grew thick with a yellowing mulch of envelopes.We found arguments over bicycles and stereos where there had been only shrugs before.
      The baby brought home pencil scratchings instead of smudged paint; his notebooks grew lines and grids spiderwebbed over the blank space. He began to wet the bed again, refusing to drink in fear of night-time accidents; instead we fed him chunky soup and juice frozen into ice-pops. We kissed him goodnight and in the morning he told us that he dreamed of running across deserts and dry places.
      Eventually, we stopped going to meetings and courses; ran out of reasons to open the door. The baby stayed at crèche, for a time, until he didn’t, and he spent all day building towers and crashing them down again on an old yoga mat in the kitchen. He caught fewer colds, then, away from the constant wash of other children, but his coughs, when they came, were deep, barking things and the dog would prick its ears up until they died away.
      The dog began to follow us more closely, curling up on our feet if we sat and waiting outside the bathroom door while we rinsed ourselves in lukewarm water. In bed, we grabbed at each other so hard we left bruises. The dog cried and scraped at the bedroom door, running loops around the baby in the next room, once tumbling him off the couch in panic and on to the hardwood floor. The air in the apartment had the sharp rankness of an abandoned swimming pool.

ivThe television was the first to be cut off. Not that we minded, because we were committed to our street-watching at that stage, to lining up to press our faces against the damp glass, resting our elbows in smears of black mould for hours at a time. The baby joined us, turning away from his beloved cartoons with a sad smile. The dog seemed to miss them more than the baby; it took to stealing empty packets from the bin to shred in its basket.
      The gas was next, which, in winter, was more of a problem, but we cut holes in our duvets and wore them like royal mantles, swinging our trains around in swirling pools of fabric. The first time we wore them, the baby laughed at us, and himself, and then he seemed to quieten again.
      The electricity was the last to go, and it happened in the morning, which was good as it gave us daylight to put our things in order. Although, in truth, there wasn’t much to do – the apartment had become barer each day as our furniture faded away and what little dirt there was had been kept firmly outside the front door.
      As evening crept in, we lit the last of our candles, drank from the tap until water dripped from our chins, and watered the houseplants one final time. The baby arranged his tower blocks in a straight, even line, and the yoga mat was rolled up, the dog whining gentle encouragement all the while.
      In the centre of the darkened apartment, we lay down together on the wooden floor, the baby– although he had really, truly become a boy – in between us, his sweet, soft skull in the crook of our armpits. Carefully, oh so carefully, the dog stretched out its jaw and took us into its mouth; bare feet first, and then its lips covered our shins (unshaven, the last razor having rusted away). It swallowed for the first time at our knees, and then things went smoother: we slipped in like a minecart on rails, our pelvises causing the dog no problems at all. The dog’s black and pink gums were flush with health, we were pleased to notice, before it swallowed again, and down we went, arms swaying bonelessly like the last pieces of spaghetti in a ceramic bowl.  

 © Sheila Armstrong

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