Short Fiction

White Dogs (Edited)

They were pure white at birth, the mother and her offspring, born six years later in the back of a cave where the roof meets the floor. The rest of the litter emerged almost unnoticed, small as golf balls and briefly gasping for air. The sand in the canyon dyed light brown the parts it most often abraded—paws, tail, stomach. Even the tipped-over ears–little upside-down triangles–were tawny, the white poking through as if they’d been carelessly brush-stroked, suggesting the dogs were better than their circumstances. And when the Indians driving the morning Jeep tour down into the canyon pointed out the dogs, camera shutters clapped in appreciation, passing over the moment to record it. The male was larger and because of his comport and size, appeared to be the fiercer of the two–size reading as power in the wild, where assessments are based on first impressions. But unlike the female, he yelped in the face of danger, when naked gums and a low growl would have been the adaptive response. Dog lovers abounded that decade in the canyon. They were so moved by the white dogs, they returned to their hotel rooms flushed with benevolence and whispered strategies to each other until they fell asleep. They conjured courage to approach one of the surly Navajos who ran the breakfast buffet, casting aside judgment and respectfully inquiring whether anyone had considered “rescuing” the two white dogs. The Indians realized they needed to prepare a response that would not alienate the tourists and prevent them from opening their fat wallets at the liquor stores, signing up for tours into the canyon, spending their lengthy vacations at the Navaho-run lodge, which was the only source of food and clean beds on the reservation, within walking distance to the canyon’s entrance. They explained that the laws on the reservation and the philosophy that inspired them differed from the white man’s way of doing things. The Navajos championed an animal’s right to live on its own, free from the stain of human intervention. Their resolve dampened, the tourists nodded, forcing away intrusive images of barbarism: feathers covering the private parts, spears and horses and dead cowboys. They believed that animals, like children, needed care to survive. Trailers were easier than houses on the reservation. The Indians could borrow a neighbor’s pickup if they didn’t have their own or pay someone to deposit a used doublewide onto their dusty square. With some tinkering, they could tap undetected into the grid for electric and water (and some knew how to procure cable and internet), then sprawl out their lives minus taxes and rent, a narrow aluminum door deterring miscreants with a cheap padlock. Hopes of anything more were the exception. The world beyond the reservation was a necessary evil, treated with resentment, like having to drive to a convenience store in hard rain on bald tires in the middle of the night something was urgently required. The tourists traveled the sparse Arizona highways, expecting to find some small seedling of prosperity. Coors cans collapsing under their tires, colorful fast-food garbage lining the dusty road, they couldn’t help but compare: Back home manicured shrubs in barrels decorated Main Street, as if every day a parade had just finished passing through. “They are not lost or stray,” the Indians would reply, “because they are a mother and child—together. You see how friendly they are.” How often do you see that in your world? they wanted to retort, and hoped it might be inferred by the paranoid or incisive. Some tourists called the airlines to see how they could fly the dogs back to Connecticut or Wisconsin or Chicago. They were discouraged by the description of a metal cart stashed in the belly of the plane, the dogs heavily sedated, any guarantee of their survival waived in advance by a mandatorily signed document. The bargain-priced ticket would suddenly accrue hundreds of dollars, and the more they looked at the two dogs, emerging from and retreating to the black cave, the easier it became to believe the dogs belonged where they were. Anyhow, the city-dwellers had no yard. The suburbanites paid a hefty sum to keep the rich grass unmarred by urine and digging. In the tenth winter, during slow season, the mother disappeared in the middle of the night. The offspring waited for her return all through the next several days, perched expectantly at the edge of the cliff until, finally, resignation softened his posture. Those tourists who witnessed the before and after worried for his mental health, newly determined to bring him back into their warm bosoms; the addition of one dog was easier to facilitate and the necessity of his rescue was indisputable, no longer requiring the Indians’ approval. And yet they still managed to return home stray-less and wistful, sipping bloody Marys and gazing through the porthole at the vast dotting of mountains where cruelty seemed to infect the morning mist. Spring brought new tourists who photographed the white dog from a distance. The sight of him living in the canyon, though stirring, no longer presented a dilemma. His appeal had diminished. Alone, he did not epitomize eternal compatibility and the human romance with commitment. Alone he appeared feral, dirtier and easier to forget, though they still photographed him while he was sprawled out in the sun taking his afternoon nap. When he was awake and alert to their presence, the dog paced with a low-to-the-ground stance, looking unpredictable as a wolf that might rip your face from your head. He had mastered intimidation; a deep growl traveled through his lean body, slid like a snake through his teeth if he smelled something unfamiliar. Instinct had necessarily altered him like old age, eschewing beauty in favor of smarts and a knee-jerk wariness. He had not tried to change, had not cultivated ferocity, but his unrelenting solitude and intrusive memories of a softer existence had turned him cold and cynical. There were moments when the loneliness seemed to wrestle him to the ground, paws straight out, belly in the dirt, looking dead–usually at daybreak and dusk, when no one was around to witness his distress. Nights he hardly slept, his ears upright and alert to each howling in the distance and the passing overhead of things he couldn’t see but could feel swooping down to examine his usefulness, circling low and close–maybe an owl or an eagle. Other times he saw lights in the sky and wondered where his mother had gone.

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