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With my cheek to the living room floorboards, I can see magnificent glaciers of dead skin cells, fingernail clippings, and other bits and things known only to me.
Soon it will be all that is left of me here, my dried saliva in the crumbs the mice don’t want.
Still, it is not all bad in this place. I sit on my couch and slowly dismantle its arms with the metronome scratching of my carefully gnawed fingernails. I hold my cross so tightly that I think I can see its shape through the back of my hand. I can almost scratch the itch that way.
The courtyard outside my building is of a contagious gray that floats through its residents like milk through tea. The bricks of the complex rise around it in a square gray shaft. The sky above it, like a mirror, conveys grayness even when it shines blue. My neighbors hang colors out their windows, the flags of sports teams and faraway countries. They cannot see these offerings from the insides of their own apartments. I imagine they hang them for each other. Sometimes I am bold enough to wonder if I am, myself, a member of each other.
From my couch, I can watch the courtyard. In its center is an old bathtub stray dogs like to chip their teeth on. One of my neighbors threw it out of his window in a rage fifteen years ago. Before I sat on this couch. Before I pressed my cheek to the floor.
I am grateful for the bathtub because it brought the dogs. I used to throw them bits of chicken from my window on the second floor. I can no longer chew chicken. Now, I overturn jars of baby food and let the jelly grenades slop down among them.
This infuriates my neighbor on the ground floor. The dogs overrun her petunias in pursuit of glutinous shrapnel. She has never asked me to stop. I do not think she realized it would take me so long to die.
Releasing coveted mush from the sky, I wonder if I am teaching the dogs a concept of heaven. I wish I could muster as much enthusiasm as they for another night of lukewarm compost smoothie.
They show each other their teeth and from my couch I imagine they are asking one another whether there is anything caught there.
Only one does not seem to care for the jostling nor its reward, though I can see her ribs, her spine, and, in some places, her skin. She lays on a patch of dirt and licks her paws while her packmates snarl and prowl. She is the largest of them, with short red-gold fur and a head too big for her frame. She carries herself carelessly, like a puppy, but the look on her face is at all times very serious.
I forgot my name a long time ago. There are some things I remember. I remember not to snap at the yellow bugs that float around the flowers. I remember that shiny surfaces are easy to slip on, and should be approached with caution.
Names are a source of pride among us. Biscuit is young and remembers the name he was given and the faces of those who gave it to him, which makes him intolerable. The way he looks at Leader recalls to me the bite of the steel bison humans ride, the time my tail got too close.
I will always remember that feeling. We remember what we must if we are to survive. A name is a luxury. Biscuit will learn this too, though the thought gives me no satisfaction.
I recognize myself by my place at the end of the line.
I watch the red-gold dog with particular interest. Secretly, I call her Jane, which was the name of my daughter and, for all I know, still is.
Secretly I call her this, though it is easy to have secrets when one speaks to no one. The color of my sweater today is a secret. It is a secret that my feet are cold.
The scents of our land lie dormant in the cold. The young scavenge while the old pretend to guard the kingdom, as though wisdom is sharper than claws.
One of our pack returns with a strange offering. He nudges the object with his nose, showing us how it opens like a butterfly with a thousand wings. We sniff. There is no odor of the ants we can see crushed between each of its wings.
Biscuit is quick. No one is willing to dodge his teeth for a second look. We watch him tear out some of the wings and chew them. We watch the wings break apart and mix with his saliva until his teeth stick and he spits. Biscuit cares only for the digestible—he begins to walk away.
I am glad. Perhaps I will be able to tear out the soft wings and make a warm nest for myself.
Leader returns. He smells of the meat of animals that died in despair. This is what humans eat, and it is strong in the scent of their sweat and the things they leave behind. Perhaps it is their way of keeping each other away.
Biscuit mounts a growl as Leader approaches the strange butterfly. Gums part, teeth peer out. Only Biscuit’s. Leader’s indifference is harsher. He takes the object from between Biscuit’s paws.
I do not know how to make Biscuit understand that meekness can be more powerful than strength. We learn this from the taste of our own blood. I have tasted mine. I hope never to taste his. Biscuit arrived to us clean, proud and unpunctured. Still warm from human hands and reeking of their ingested despair. But alone. I do not know what we smelled like to him. Some kind of savage promise. I hope we kept it.
Biscuit’s lips ripple over his teeth. My spine pushes upward against the skin of my back. My body is ready to spring forward, cleave flesh. But I do not know whose flesh. My respect for Leader is part of being pack. My love for Biscuit is only mine.
Biscuit allows Leader to carry the object away, then urinates into a patch of petunias Leader has claimed for himself.
Leader was never given a name and does not suffer its loss. We know that he is bold and fair, but we do not love him as we do each other. We do not nip his tail in play. Biscuit, I love as though I bore him. His rashness is a great vulnerability, and I am careful to protect him without offending his pride.
Leader retreats to the white stone where he sleeps. Though it was once splintered in a great fall, it retains one deep smooth basin suited to the curve of a spine.
It reminds me of the silky plains of rock above which water swirls and from which it falls. I visited a place like that with the humans who gave me my name. I cannot explain why I remember something that bears so little on my survival.
The white stone is shiny. The first time Leader walked on it, his paws slipped and he nearly fell. Leader does not like us to see him fall. Now, the stone is padded with bits he has found on the street and he walks with assurance.
Today, I went outside. All morning, I had been thinking about dying. I put my salt and pepper shakers in my pocket. They are among my most cherished possessions, small ceramic models of Dutch windmills, white and blue. We got them on our honeymoon. In Akron, not Amsterdam.
I carried them to my local second hand store and put them on the shelves. I stood back from them and looked at them there. I tried to imagine myself as a young shopper, turning a first home into a treasure chest. I tried to imagine delight at this small secondary effect of my passing. It was out of my reach today.
When I returned home, I started to make myself a cup of tea. I watched the dogs out the window. Their alpha, a shaggy gray male, thin but lovely, was lying in his spot in the broken bathtub. Between his paws, inexplicably, was a book. The way he was looking at it, it was as though he were reading the title, and I laughed.
Off to the side, the mean little white one was gazing at the gray one while Jane watched him from the evening shadow of a wall.
It thrilled me to see them with a book. I could not understand why they had deemed it worthy of their interest, something they could not begin to understand or make use of. I considered that perhaps they sensed the sacred value of what it holds—that dogs, like children, are separated from the spiritual world by a thinner membrane.
I turned off the stove and poured myself a glass of red wine. My doctor said that drinking would kill me faster. I told him that without it, the time I have is too much. Mortality and morale dust themselves off and shake hands.
It is long past dark, and still I can sense Biscuit’s restless anger. He feels all the world’s hurt in his teeth and claws. We sleep and dream of running. He sleeps and dreams of chasing.
Tonight, neither of us sleeps. His ears jump at the slightest sound. I go to him, though his reception of me these days carries a possibility of menial violence. I find him pliant. I sniff his anus and smell his self-pity.
He rises without complaint and we venture from our land. We will hunt for rats tonight. I hope it will help him feel less like prey himself.
Last time we did this, the grass was newly greening and the rats were young and fresh. Now they are old and only run from us out of habit. They move slowly and we hunt them with ease.
I bring an offering to Leader. Biscuit does not.
I sometimes lament that I am not the type of person who gets carried away. There are those who collect useful and pleasant delusions as easily as I collect dust on the bottoms of my grippy socks. I envy the victims of pyramid schemes their certainty and enthusiasm. These are people who possess the capacity to take themselves seriously in public.
Nothing sticks to me—I am a surface without purchase. I would welcome a delusion to take the edge off dying but have learned better than to go chasing one down. Or so I thought. But I hold this cross in my hand, desperate to be overcome.
It came baked into a consolation casserole I received from a woman alongside whom I once attended grade school. I suppose she thought I would not accept it otherwise, and decided that the risk of my cracking a molar was acceptable given the alternative risk that our very Lord would come up short on religious paraphernalia while rummaging about in my soul. The woman has not been to visit since. The cross still smells like cheese.
The Bible on my coffee table is harder to explain. Great character development, I once said to the woman who brings my groceries, who did not laugh. Truthfully, I find its stories touching. That is all.
Already, I have bested a bottle of wine and I am crying thinking of my poor Desi. “If two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone?” That’s Ecclesiastes. I wonder if Jesus felt lonely.
I wonder if it is as lonely to be powerful as it is to be powerless.
I am quiet as I drop my offering at Leader’s feet. I can hear dry leaves scampering down the alleyway. The sound of creeping cold. Leader sleeps curled around the strange object, and I am afraid. Only fear could make him lust for an object that cannot be eaten. Only fear of Biscuit.
I put my paws on the edge of the basin in which Leader sleeps and watch him rest with the pink tip of his tongue sliding out the space where he lost his front teeth to a hateful boot.
I jump up and land awkwardly, most of my weight on his shoulder. Leader always wakes without startling. His tail thumps once against the side of the tub. I lower my head and curl myself into his belly though I am large and fit poorly. For a moment I think he will let his head fall onto my back. Instead, he snarls and I retreat.
I think I would like to smoke a cigar. There is a corner store at the end of my street that sells them in incomprehensible flavors. Mango. They are open late. I could go now. I wonder how I am so sure that I will not.
I would like to throw my bathtub out the window. If I were strong enough, I think I really would. It is possible that I have had too much to drink.
There is snarling out the window and I turn my head. Jane is slinking away from the bathtub. The gray dog settles his head on his paws. Jane looks back as though worried she is being watched. It’s a familiar expression but I have not used it in a long time. No one watches me, and the gray dog does not watch Jane now.
But I do. In her teeth, the book.
I cannot walk far enough to leave my scent behind. They could follow me if they wanted to. Biscuit does not have the patience. Leader will not leave Biscuit alone so long with the others.
I am starting to understand this thing I carry in my mouth. It is not shaped like the things I know, like trees and stones and dens. This is a shape only humans make. They live in homes built of this shape, in kingdoms built of this shape, where the paths make you turn hard and you forget after a while how to glide. A shape defined by hardness. The motionless butterfly does not taste of death because it has never been alive.
I walk until the hardness is replaced by things I understand. Trees and stones and the dens of creatures whose nocturnal excavations I can feel under my paws. This place knows me well. I find the river and run along it. It twists. I glide.
Biscuit was born to straight lines. He does not know the taste of the moon’s reflection on the water. I can smell ancestral lineages in a rabbit’s rotting flesh.
I did not notice the object fall from my mouth. I do not care. I will bring Biscuit to this place. We will run forever along the river. The stars, our pack. The forest, our kin.
I have turned off the lights so my neighbors will not see me dance. My hands caress my hips—I am object and subject of the love songs I hum. The walls vibrate static in the dim like televisions no longer do. I consider the obsolescence of white noise and wonder without fear whether my mind will be the next organ to fail.
I am drunk.
Below, in the courtyard, a gray dog stirs in an ancient bathtub.
A round moon wanders across the square frame of my building’s shaft. I raise my fat-bellied wine glass. To greet the moon, not capture it. It meets its artificial horizon without bitterness. Goodbye, old friend.
I dance with ghosts. The ghost of a trombone, the ghost of Desi, the ghost of friction.
The gray dog rises and sniffs, searching. His claws scrabble at his nest, scattering it. He falls against its slickness. Twice.
My dry paper fingers leave no marks on the window where I Iean against it to see better.
Jane is gone, the book with her. The gray dog sniffs along the ground. Can he smell her escape? He follows her ghost to the passageway that leads to the street. He looks back.
Three dogs sleep heads-on-rumps against the far wall of the courtyard. The mean little white one sleeps alone on a patch of dirt, dreaming with his paws.
The sound of my humming ceases. I see fear in the eyes of my reflection in the window.
The gray dog watches the white one sleep. No wind breaches the courtyard. My neighbors do not need clothes pegs even to hang socks. The gray dog lowers his head and holds it very still in the quiet air. Nothing moves. No one watches. There is no time without motion, no danger without time.
A dog’s head, usually pendulous, held rigid. Teeth appear, white like the bathtub, in the light of an absent moon, fractured and refracted a thousand times by leaves and bricks and windows, before reaching the bottom of a gray shaft. Where a gray dog lifts a steady paw and puts it forward. Where time starts again, dragging danger behind it.
I bludgeon the windows with fists that make no sound. You know he did not take it.
I wrap my hand around the cross that hangs from my neck. I press against it until I think it will burst through the infrastructure of my wasted palm. Veins like old sewers clogged with leaves. Bones of driftwood brined at sea. The cross will outlast my corpse by centuries. I hate it.
I tear it from my neck and hurl it at the glass. The gray dog pauses, looks. I am not sure how to respond to being looked at. The gaze of a predator is intimate. Like the gaze of a butcher. He knows my anatomy. But I know how to scratch him so his tail would wag and his paw kick out, betrayals of a vulnerability to joy that would make his lupine ancestors blush. I know he is powerless against the scent of yam puree.
The sky lightens, and the bravest humans emerge from their dens. As they watch me, I think they are wondering what it is like to move so freely. Wonderful, I want to tell them. I, too, had forgotten.
My hands shake on the lid of the jar. I burn them under the water I run to loosen it. I bang the jar hard enough on the edge of the sink to realize my bones will break before it does. I cannot stop. I will save their lives with yam puree.
A tea towel proves its uselessness, slicker than my palm. A vinyl floor is no match for thick glass-–the jar bounces when hurled. Pores that have not sweated in years find their wells. Finally, I position the jar on the floor and push the microwave off the counter onto it. The microwave shatters but so does the jar.
I cradle its wreckage. My blood pools in the furrows of oily yam, the colors of an Akron sunrise that once burned us.
I rush to the window, open it with an elbow, release salvation upon unsuspecting petunias.
Outside, a timid sun begins to make its intentions known. The sky is as bland and unappetizing as raw squid. A thick grayness pools at the bottom of the shaft. It suffocates my neighbors’ flags, pins them stiller in the still air.
Inside me, a wind howls.
I cannot see the gray. All the world is drowned inside a shallow pool of red.
The scent of his blood reaches me on the air. It breaks my legs, it steals my breath. When my forepaws last struck the ground, I was a wolf, a sharpened shadow slicing through dead matter. The scent is instant and unmistakable—when the same paws next touch down, they are the paws of a foolish old dog speckled with the mud of worlds to which she can never belong.
There is fear in the scent of Biscuit’s blood, also rage. I should not return. They are no longer pack to me. But I cannot stop running.
There is a pain in my chest to match the wheezing in my throat, a choral accompaniment to the physical exertion of speed shuffling. In the momentary quiet of the elevator my breath comes wet like the gasping drip of coffee brewing.
I am standing in the passageway to the street when Jane returns. I can hear her toenails on the pavement, running. I could not bear to watch her groom the cold fur that once bristled with a violent current, see her sniff for a proud heartbeat in peaceful blood.
When she sees me in her path she stops running. I have never seen her so close. She is much larger than I imagined—I could place my palm on her back without bending. Her tail is crooked, broken in the middle.
Her growl inhabits my bones. I have made a lion keeper’s mistake, confusing for my own what belongs only to itself. Reaching out for a handful of wind. “Jane,” I say to her. She does not know that this is her name, nor can wind bear the weight of a word.
I fear her fear of me as she fears mine of her. Dogs do not strike out of anger.
She approaches me. Her aging pelt, weather-worn and soft, moves gently over muscles tensed and carnal. My hands plead with me to raise them in defense. I defy them.
I lower my hands and hold them toward her, open. She places her head in them like a gift.
Its weight surprises me. It has been so long since anyone trusted me with the full weight of their head. I remember how it felt to hold my daughter with her skull pressed to my collarbone, how the pain of its pressure after a while would have been too much to bear except that I loved her so much I would have held her there for a month.
The warm weight of Desi’s head on my belly in the morning that would make me late for work as I lay there for just five more minutes, maybe ten, to feel breath raise goosebumps across my skin.
As she pulls away, I feel the cold air in my empty hands. I have known many flavors of this feeling.
Jane drifts toward the street. Cold wind in my hands.
On the sidewalk, she turns back.
I, too, am wind. Let us mingle in the air.
Are you coming?
Carson Bodie has worked a lot of odd jobs and lived a lot of odd places. She is currently an MFA Fiction candidate at the University of Montana, where she also teaches undergraduate writing and is Content Editor of CutBank. Her writing has appeared in The Nelligan Review and Unlikely Stories. You can find her on Instagram @all.is.gravy