Strictly experimental, they were of no practical effect. The bullet had already struck. The wound was mortal. They are nevertheless fixed in my mind, a set of stunning contortions: one forepaw bent, the other straight, left ear folded, eyes full of alarm, rear legs angled out in perfect alignment. Then I blink and there he is again, his mongrel’s tail wrapped around his ass and curled under his belly like a furled flag. Next he floats with his torso bent at the middle, his eyes full of glassy incomprehension. On he goes, front paws over his ears, hind paws pointed skyward, his back to the earth, stomach to the heavens, eyes filled with an odd repose. When he hits, he tumbles down a slight incline where the sun has burned the dirt to dust. Then he lies there brown and still.
As I say, my first thought was that I would paint him, and I have tried, but over and over the brushes fall from my hands. I stand, looking down from the height of my head to the floor, where the brushes lie unmoving once they have escaped my fingers. At first I thought I had grown clumsy, or inattentive, and I was simply dropping them, and I persisted, stubbornly, but I met the same results each time. Suddenly I was frightened that I was experiencing the first symptoms of some terrible disease, a disorder in my nervous system. I made an appointment with the local doctor. It was not lost on me that my fingers dialed without the slightest difficulty. I could comb my hair, brush my teeth, hold a spoon, a knife, a cup, a glass. I could drive my car. The only things that I could not control were my brushes. I felt embarrassed and ashamed, and called to cancel the appointment. I vowed to forget about the dog and to go back to work immediately on the project that I had begun only days before the creature appeared in my life. This was a series of family portraits whose exact style was yet to be determined. What I had so far was a male figure, the shoulders caught in a pair of black slashes, the torso tilted so that it seemed about to slip out from under the faceless head. Streaks that could become hands were gesturing toward me, the pale oblongs of upturned palms seeking some missing item. Reaching toward the canvas, I felt a tingle, then a kind of jolt. My fingers opened, surrendering to a fuzzy numbness, and the brush floated out of my grasp. Undeniably, the effects of my problem had spread, crippling my ability to render any subject at all. It seemed my only hope was to let some time go by, and I tried to reassure myself that, if I could just hang on, this whole nightmarish episode would disappear.
But that was more than a week ago, and my hopes have only diminished with every passing hour. I feel adrift, my spirit caught in an aimless trance. In the last few days, hoping to distract myself, I’ve entered into a quixotic pastime. When we first moved to this place, leaving the city behind, I imagined that the care necessary for a few cows and half a dozen chickens would provide a respite from my somewhat cerebral labors. I imagined my family drinking fresh milk and eating fresh eggs. The chickens proved annoying, and after the second month I sold them. The cows, however, I have managed to keep, or was driven to keep–something in their big eyes ringing a reciprocal chord in me. Now, I’m spending more and more time in their company, the four Guernseys, who seem my comrades and are somehow complicit in my predicament, for they stood witness to the deed. They were present when I killed the dog.
I can’t remember exactly how the practice started, though I think it had to do with an impulse to reexamine the ingredients of the event itself, the sunlit afternoon, the cows, the dog. The rifle I had already put away in the basement, and the dog, of course, was gone. I remember seeing the cows off in the distance, afloat on the wavering green. I was on my way to feed them, planning to do no more than fork hay into the muck in which they stood. Perhaps what attracted me to them was the way they seemed so unaffected by what they had seen. All I know is that, once I mingled with their browsing heft, I was reluctant to leave. Though there were only four of them, they offered the consolations of a herd. My mind surrendered to an ache of animal yearning that was assuaged only by my association with their shifting flanks and slobbering breath.
From the first moment I stepped among them, they comforted me, and so they comfort me now, milling around and pursuing their interests contentedly as if nothing in their lives is strange, not even my extended visits. Bemused, I stroll about among them. If not exactly happy, I do at least feel hopeful amid their mooing stink and bulk. I lean against a dowdy hip. I fork hay into their trough. I run water into their tank. When two of them flop down in the mud, I flop down beside them. Together, we lie beneath the shade of the trees, watching the shadows of the leaves ruffle the ground. Their brown eyes peer into mine with a benign absence of comprehension, the thick slop of their brains quite porous in regard to the ethical consequences of the deed that brought us to this moment.
When I see my wife approaching, I rise and walk to the fence to meet her. I know she’s worried. I smile as best I can. Before she can even begin to ask the questions that have brought her down to me, her eyes narrowing with concern and curiosity, I start to talk excitedly about how fascinating the cows have become to me. “Their color, their texture. The way the light dances in their eyes. It highlights their noses. The wetness, the moisture. I’m beginning to see what could be a rich and evocative subject in them,” I say.
“Yes, yes.” I remind her of the way that certain of my celebrated predecessors found inspiration in the desert flowers of New Mexico; Mount Ste. Victoire; the water lilies of Giverny; the dancing girls of the Moulin Rouge. The cows, I say, will be my subject. I know I’m lying, but I feel entitled. I feel that my predicament has liberated me from most normal constraints. I can almost hear the doubts buzzing in her brain. But she seems to doubt everything about me recently. Her attitude toward every word out of my mouth and everything I do is shadowed with suspicion and a tinge of mockery. She seems to have decided that my personal concerns are an expression of rudeness to her explicitly, my obsessive work habits are an affront, my need for frugality a deliberate attempt to burden her with an irrelevant financial insecurity.
“Good thing that dog decided to leave them alone,” she says.
I look at her as if she’s changed in some drastic way. “Yes.”
“What happened to him?”
She seems weirdly cheery. I’m staring at her, searching for hidden aims beneath the gleam of her easy manner.
“I don’t know what happened to him,” I say.
“I sort of miss him.”
“He was impressive, racing about, the cows all–”
“The cows didn’t like it.”
“Well, no. They’re cows.”
I stare at her again, this time determined to expose the malice behind such an attitude, an indulged and unsavory breeding ground. I’m struggling for a way through the perfection of her smile when she nods sincerely and says, “I hope it works out.”
“I think it will.”
“I hope so.”
She glides away, climbing toward the house, her thoughts drawing her head down between her rising shoulders. My relations with her are shifting. Her praise of the dog has swept away some failing linkage between us. Her mockery of the cows feels alienating. But she doesn’t know what’s happened, I think. She’s just talking.
Still something hurt and violent slashes across my understanding of her. It’s a physical sensation, like a movement of bones in my chest. She’s a tiny figure, receding from me as she strides the path, something valuable retreating with her. I loved her once. I wanted to be with her more than anyone else, we loved each other, our little boy was born. Now we peer at one another out of irritation most of the time, a cynical bewilderment building up behind almost every exchange.
When she pauses at the front door and turns to look down on me, I try to see myself from her vantage point. There I am on the wrong side of the fence, mud splattered on my shirt and face, my pants rolled up to my knees, my arm looped around the huge soft throat of a cow whose big eyes glow nervously with our unfamiliar intimacy. To view my behavior from her perspective is disorienting. I feel as if I’m betraying myself somehow. I hasten out of the pasture and up to the house, where I take a quick shower. I shave and brush my teeth and change into clean clothes.
It’s later that day, somewhere toward the middle of the afternoon, when I see the Old Man. Something about him strikes me as odd. I’m driving around, looking at the light as it changes with the shifting of the clouds, the passing hours. The west, the north, the east, the south. Each has its particular texture and value and evolution. I’m chasing a twinge of color down a two-lane not far from my home, the fields of corn racing by, when I pass him. He’s tacking up a sheet of paper on the splintering walls of a barn.
Seconds later, I realize that the figure I have just shot by is not just any old man, but the old man who owns the dog I shot. I don’t know him well; we’ve never spoken, though his farm is situated near mine. Once a huge and thriving family business, it now goes largely untended. He lives there alone and leases out large sections, I’ve been told. Why didn’t I go to him? I wonder. Tell him what his dog was doing. Why didn’t I go to him and talk? I don’t know. It never occurred to me. I could talk to him now. I could stop and tell him what has happened. When I start to consider this passing thought as a genuine option, my tongue goes dry like feathers in my mouth. I speed away, happy when a turn in the road thick with trees sweeps him from my view.
But on the following days he intrudes into my life again and again, and always he is attaching a sheet of paper to some object or wall. Though I don’t want to think about him, his constant reappearance makes it impossible to ignore him. In the morning, I see him deploying his sheets of paper on the buildings that form the main street of our town. Around noon, he’s hammering away at a telephone pole miles to the west. Late that afternoon, I spy him crouched at one of the endless fence posts that line the roads of the countryside, nails in his mouth, a hammer in his hand, a sheet poised to be attached.
Of course I’m curious to know what he’s doing, but it feels prudent to keep my distance. I’m in the rest room of Jake’s Filling Station, having stopped to gas up, pee, and get a candy bar, and I’m feeling defiant, I’m feeling enraged. I’m washing my hands and vowing to isolate myself from the Old Man and his sheets of paper, whatever they are. I don’t know what he’s doing. The hell with him. I’ll go home and stay there. Pushing the button of the hot-air blower on the wall, I start turning my hands.
It’s dusk when I step outside. Coming toward me across the pavement is a sheet of paper, skittering along. I recognize it as a dislodged poster, and the way it’s headed toward me feels spooky. When it sticks against the stanchion of a sign advertising the station’s gas price, I stare at it. Then it pirouettes, moving once more in my direction. It’s several yards off to my left and about to go fluttering past when I lunge and snatch it up, feeling annoyed.
At first glance I laugh. The contents of the paper are an insult; they’re preposterous. The death of the dog, which the Old Man knows only as an absence, has caused him to attempt things for which he is embarrassingly unprepared. At the center there is a detailed sketch of the dog, utterly unsophisticated and childish and somehow offensive. How dare he try to draw the dog? The rest is commonplace: a list of the animal’s habits, a description of his physical traits, the offer of a small reward. At the bottom a phone number is nearly gouged into the paper. The crude lines, the blotches of shade are all struggling to render some emotion I cannot name, but the effort annoys and irritates me at the same time that it makes me jittery. It’s weird, but I’m feeling dizzy. A chill comes racing out of the fading daylight. I can feel gooseflesh puckering the skin all over my body but particularly on my thighs and shoulders, as I’m seized by an urge to rush home and paint. I want to paint this dog and the Old Man who is his master. I want to paint how I feel in this instant. I hasten to my car and race off as if the pavement on which I had stood had just exploded. I am inspired, my sense of mission sharp, for I am convinced that I will find in this subject a limitless depth. I’ve tried before, but this is different. My earlier attempts were doomed because I had no intention of including the Old Man. That’s why the brushes jumped from my fingers. But now I will succeed, my talent and implements serving me. Sitting on his back porch, awaiting the return of a yelping speck of joyous dog, the Old Man has been savagely affected. I must communicate a vacuum at his center, a sense of funneling darkness. A kind of deprivation in bold strokes of oil. In my fingers, I taste the pleasures I will find in my production of his shape. He must seem a chunk of earth come alive, yet eroding. He must seem to be falling backward into himself, as if there’s an open sore in his belly into which his spirit is being retracted and covered over in a swirl of scars.
But as I reach the door of my studio, it’s as if the night turns into a walk-in freezer. My arms seem slabs unrelated to my body. My hand, moving to turn the knob, hangs in the air, flopping like a fish. It slaps at the door. What is this? What’s going on? It’s just a dog, I think. A goddamn dog. I can’t even open the door.
At home, I hear the sounds of my wife and son watching cartoons on the living room TV. Before them the screen is a flashing boil of color, against which their silhouettes are sculptured busts on the chair and footstool. I skulk away, leaving behind me the twilight geniality of the living room they share. In the kitchen, I telephone an old friend in the city, hoping to catch him in his third-floor walk-up situated several blocks north of the apartment where we used to live. It’s only a year since I forced us to depart, hoping to find inspiration and peace in a steady diet of rustic solitude. I used to regularly climb at sunset to the rooftop of our building. Around me spread brick and granite, the steeples and other elements of an insensate vista infecting me with a disaffection I felt I must get away from.
When my friend finally answers, his clipped “Hello’ prompts a torrent of words from me as I try to explain what has happened. Soon I’m asking him to drive up. I need to talk. As I make this plea, I hear an emptiness in my voice, a tone I cannot identify as my own until I connect it with certain nightmares whose exact content escapes me. When my friend at last gets a chance to speak, it’s clear he understands how upset I am. His manner has changed from something dismissive to a stance of loyalty and mission. He has a business dinner scheduled, he explains, but he will try to rearrange it and call me back as soon as he can. When the phone clangs at me an hour later, he is at a gas station on the turnpike, already well on his way.
We meet at a local restaurant, whose unfortunate origin as a hunting lodge is evident. The floors are a raw planking, shellacked and sealed. The stained knotty oaken tables are overlooked by the heads of eight-point bucks mounted on the knotty timber. Their sightless eyes are like bubbles underwater. I do my best to explain the way things happened, trying to be both efficient and clear. I feel I’m making a quick pass over the facts, a kind of sketch to be deepened and filled in.
“This is the worst sort of thing for you–it just throws you,” he says.
“I know. I know.”
“If only you hadn’t done it.”
“Well, sure.” I’m dissatisfied with what I’ve said so far, and I’m searching for a better version. The trouble is I don’t know exactly what it is I’m trying to describe. It’s more an ache of feeling than any set of ideas, and though shame isn’t everything I feel, it’s certainly prevalent and difficult to talk about. To the extent that my mood is characterized by these unsettled qualities, it’s highly distracting. I’m trying to transform into words this knot of sensation and emotion that feels essential, like a prerequisite to understanding anything. Gradually, I see that what I’m wrestling with is my sense of my life as something wrapped around something else, like tissue around an unknown object. The enclosing material feels thin and soft and expendable, while the thing it conceals emits an imperious aura.
“What did I say?” I ask him.
“What did I just say?”
“I thought I was talking.”
‘didn’t I say that I thought–something about my thoughts? I mean, I feel like there’s something true in it.”
“The way I feel. Even though it’s–its–Wait a minute.”
“What I mean is that if I follow it–if I can follow it, there’s something true I can get to. At least as far as my work.”
“The work is at a complete standstill,” he says.
“That’s awful.” He’s downcast, as if the loss is intensely his.
“Well, I mean, it can’t last forever.”
“I certainly hope not.” I laugh a little in the wake of that remark.
“You should have told him what was going on.”
“You should have called the old man, the farmer, and told him what was going on with his dog.”
“That never occurred to me,” I say.
“It never occurred to me.” I glance at the logs that form the walls above the huge blazing fireplace. The heads of the dead deer hover in shadowy bands woven through the rising light. I don’t know precisely what I expected from my friend, but I don’t think I’m going to get it. I’m as perplexed as he is by the admission I’ve just made, but something in his response makes me want to get up and walk from the room.
Still, by the end of our meal I’m feeling better, and when I suggest that my outlook has improved, he emphatically agrees. I’m trying to more or less cede the responsibility of critical analysis to him. The fact that we are both laughing at regular intervals is good enough for me. We’re drinking sherry and telling jokes about the horrors of city life. It’s a tactic meant to serve as an oblique consolation to me. We both know what’s going on, and every ten or fifteen minutes I take my cue and reaffirm my happiness at having managed to transplant my family far from the mayhem of the city. But then I start to sink a little. After all, my life in the country has hardly proven peaceful. I gulp the sherry, and he waggles his finger at me in a carefree warning as I order two more drinks.
The following morning I’m cruising down a sun-cooked lane of dirt weaving its way west toward the river, when I come upon the Old Man. He’s nailing a poster to the trunk of a half-rotted elm tree. Passing in my battered Chevy, I’m struggling to summon a response of pure indifference but I end up feeling a little numb. A quarter mile down the road I turn around, the wheels throwing up dirt from the shoulder. At the sight of him ahead of me, a savage fury assails me. But by the time I cruise past him I’m laughing at the absurdity of his behavior, and I’m mocking him with my secret knowledge of the truth that no number of signs will ever summon his dog back. Dead dogs do not arise to run or bark or lick the hand of anyone. Reversing my course once more, I roar by him for the third time in a matter of minutes. He never once glances up at me. I leave him enveloped in a swirl of dust.
My land is somewhat closer to the river than his and I end up lingering at its shores and brooding on the way he looked as the road and I conspired to cloud his existence.
Later, I start wishing my wife and I were not quite so distant at such a sensitive, difficult time. The move from the city has been hard on her, and the pity that I feel as I think of her has a concealed, dangerous bulk like floating ice. I glimpse a kind of gleaming visitation in which we are many years younger and happily walking down the city streets, hand in hand. Then the image begins to blur, and I’m leaning nearer as if to hear our conversation and steal a clue to our affinity. But as I hover there, a veil of estrangement is materializing between us. Soon I am left wondering if this vanished fondness reflects anything actual or merely the distortions of my baffled yearning. We hardly ever occupy the same room anymore. She comes in, I go out, or vice versa. She is busy with her needs to fill the cupboard, buy groceries, scrub the kitchen, go to work. And then there are her moods, the lists she makes, the phone calls, the night school she is planning to attend. I shouldn’t really blame her for any of these things, and yet her actions strike me as precursors of something else, something drastic. Her behavior makes me uneasy. Evidently there are dozens of nursery school and community functions to which she must take our five-year-old son, Tobias, for she is constantly driving off. Always she yells her destination out the half-open window of her car departing our driveway, her attention not actually directed at me, the words garbled by the window closing back up, the car disappearing behind the trees.
In the hills across the river, nothing moves but the retreating sunlight. There are no dogs, no cows, no people. As a child, I always wanted a dog. My grandfather had a dog, and that was the only dog I knew well, when I lived with him and my grandmother. Then the dog died, and it wasn’t long afterward that my grandfather died, too. Grandpa, I think, trying to remember him but seeing his dog, a big old loose-limbed creature with long red fur. My mother came back for the funeral and she smelled of candylike perfume, and was accompanied by a man who wasn’t my father. I didn’t know who the stranger was, other than his first name, which I’ve now forgotten, or where my father was. He could have been anywhere, maybe even dead, for all I knew. Certainly he’s dead now–though he might not be. But he probably is, since I’m in my forties.
When I feel that someone is watching me, I stand up and look around and see the trees, the shifting branches and shrubs behind which someone or something could hide. Everything is disappearing in the dusk. Next thing I know I am overcome with thoughts about dogs; the way they leap gracefully to take a stick from the air with glee and passion; the way they yelp to be stroked, feeling no shame in their need to be touched. In the changing sunset on the water I see reflected how dogs of every breed are openhearted and vulnerable. I can’t escape the beauty of their fur and dutiful eyes; the care and diligence with which they learn to lead the blind. I think of their bravery, their courage, their playfulness and joy, which they maintain well beyond their puppyhood. They are deeply affectionate, yet their anger, when aroused and justified–such as when their master is hurt or their master’s children endangered, or their tail stepped on–their anger is exhibited boldly. They have saved babies from fires, they have captured criminals. They possess the instinctive grace and muscular spontaneity of the very best natural athletes. They embody loyalty, yet they do not surrender their dignity easily.
On I go, knowing all the while that these are thoughts that should be resisted. Yet they haul at me, dragging me beyond the safety of my own prohibitions, pulling me into a moody darkness beneath the reasonable surface of my own advice. The grave shadows of evening lengthen to cover me like the earth I thought I would spread on the corpse of the dog after I carried him through the deepening trees and shrubs of the forest, his blood staining my shoulders, his drool falling from his slack jaw to my left hand. On my thumb, his spit clung for an instant before sailing away to spot my shoe. Dropping him in a kind of grotto of boulders, I put several rocks on top of him and then fled, leaving him only partly covered.
Now the moonlit river is creamy as drool and its surface remains unstirred. There are no dogs swimming. From the spectral hillsides there comes no barking, and through the grass, over the clumps of stones, and down the pathways, no dogs run. The descending dusk is void of yowling. Although I know it is unreasonable to consider myself the sole cause of these deprivations, I feel complicit. I feel there is no loyalty left on earth, no honor nor simple bravery, no padded footfalls nor sounds of sniffing, no undaunted pride nor affection anywhere.
Copyright ” 1993 by David Rabe. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic Inc. All rights reserved.