Dog by Bruce McAllister is a chilling horror story about a young American couple who encounter dogs in Mexico very unlike any domesticated variety north of the border and what happens.
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About the Author
Bruce McAllister, born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1946, is a writer of fantasy and science fiction known primarily for his short fiction. Over the years his short stories have appeared in the major fantasy and science fiction magazines, theme anthologies, college readers and “year’s best” anthologies, including Best American Short Stories 2007, guest-edited by Stephen King. His first novel was Humanity Prime, published by Ace Books in Terry Carr’s “Ace Specials” series. His second novel, Dream Baby (Tor, 1988), was based on the Hugo, Nebula and Locus-finalist novelette of the same name. He was away from writing in the 90’s, and returned to the field in 2003. His short story “Kin” was a 2006 Hugo finalist; in 2007 Golden Gryphon Press published a career-spanning collection of his short science fiction, The Girl Who Loved Animals and Other Stories. He lives in Costa Mesa, California with his wife, choreographer Amelie Hunter.
Read an Excerpt
By Bruce McAllister, Scott Bakal
Tom Doherty and AssociatesCopyright © 2015 Bruce McAllister
All rights reserved.
The god of death, Xolotl, made the Sacred Dog, Itzcuintli, from a sliver of the Bone of Life, from which The People were also made. Upon their death, human beings are led to the afterlife across a great lake by Itzcuintli. Should they hesitate in accepting Death, the Sacred Dog helps them on their way.
We were very young when we went to Mexico, my wife and I. We'd been married only a year, were just out of college, were both teachers, and had the liberal fervor of youth. We did not yet know that to romanticize a country, to sentimentalize its people and places and the creatures of it, not only is an affront to them—to the struggle between darkness and light which gives any human beings their meaning on this earth—but can end very badly.
We would not have romanticized our own country, but, again, we were young and the children of a privileged society. Even without being conscious of it, we assumed intentions of a generous heart were enough to protect us from evil in the world. We had not grown up with evil; it had never been our companion. Jennifer was teaching in a federal program for the children of the underprivileged—to give them a leg up in school—and I was teaching remedial English at three community colleges within driving distance of where we lived, only two hours from the border.
A good friend, Tony—whose parents were from Mexico, but who'd grown up in Los Angeles—was pushing thirty and enjoying a career in journalism. He said: "Watch the dogs when you're down there, David."
We were eating at our apartment not far from the Pacific, and I'd just told him we'd be going to the state of Morelos, to Cuauhnáhuac, a language institute there, because we wanted to learn Spanish—because so many of our students, pre-schoolers and adult learners alike, knew Spanish and we did not, and what a wonderful thing it would be if we did, wouldn't it? It would not only make communication better, but also give us the kind of empathy and bond—not just through language, but through an appreciation of culture—that a teacher should have of any student of any age. "Am I right, Tony?"
I must have sounded like an idiot. Tony was older and had seen much more of the world as a foreign correspondent for both US and Latin American newspapers. (We'd met when he was a stringer for the region's biggest paper, and I was an intern trying to decide what to do with whatever writing skills I had.) But he was a friend and was not going to make fun of me. More than once he'd said, "You need to travel more, David, but don't do it stupidly. Know the laws and don't walk the Andes with $1500 in your pocket, alone, singing at the top of your lungs, like that kid last year. Be compassionate, but not stupid."
"They're not like the dogs here," he answered. "They're like the people in those northern states. They have to scrabble harder. ..."
"Está listo," he said as he left, and then—with the cheerfulness that made him such a good interviewer in the midst of war and famine—added, "And bring me back a souvenir, David. Surprise me!"
* * *
We lived in a colonia—a middle-class neighborhood with gated houses elbow to elbow, doing their best to keep the chaos of the streets, the poor, the wild things, out. We'd been placed by the institute with a local family, so we'd be hearing the language constantly. The woman spoke Spanish slowly for us, and she spoke some English, too—which helped at first. She was gracious and generous, cooking us meals of karo syrup and pancakes at 8 or 9 at night when we got back from school. But she was not very happy. Her husband, a trophy-winning body-builder, had left her with their five kids, and she complained about her youngest, her negrito, because he was so dark. "He has Chichimec blood—indigena blood—from his great grandfather's side, I am told," she explained. "Otherwise he would not be so dark. His father is blonde." The boy was dark, sure, but cute and animated and got along better with the family's two boxers and its two American guests than his brothers and sisters—in their blonde aloofness—did. The mother's distress over her fifth child made life in the house awkward, especially when the boy was present and listening to her apologies for him. But the apologies didn't seem to bother him. She did love him, and he must have known this.
"Do you know the Chichimeca?" she asked, in Spanish.
"No," we answered.
"They were the 'dog people,'" she said, then dropped the subject and moved on to the Saturday market, what fun it was, and where we could find the nearest store for school supplies.
* * *
We would walk the five blocks through the colonia and the city streets beyond the gates to the institute, and return the same way at day's end. Our teachers were young and liberal too, with one exception—a middle-aged anthropologist who seemed to have no politics and who didn't join in the laughter and occasional silliness of his younger colleagues.
The day Jennifer was house-bound with a bad cold, I returned from the institute by myself and saw a dog, a mid-sized mongrel by some bushes on the wide sidewalk just ahead of me. It was sleeping. I assumed it would move as I approached or simply let me walk by. Any dog would, wouldn't it? It was a sidewalk. Public.
As I neared it, the animal leaped to its feet snarling and jumped at me.
I was wearing a backpack with my books and supplies in it, and the dog's jaws, clacking wetly, got the backpack. The dog hung from the pack by its jaws and thrashed. I could barely stay on my feet and nearly toppled backward. My nerves were firing like lightning, in the panic only adrenaline can make, and I was hitting at the animal behind me but never quite connecting.
Suddenly the weight on my back disappeared. I was able to straighten up, and, when I turned, the dog was trotting away, looking back once and only once. It was an ugly dog—short-haired, long-legged, a belly bigger than any starving dog should have, and a wrinkled face like a Shar Pei, those battle dogs. Was it pregnant? Ill?
My backpack was in shreds. I kept thinking, looping in a spasm of thought: Jesus! What if it had bitten me? How do you catch a dog like that for quarantine? How do you get rabies shots? Do you stay with the family or somewhere else?
I had no idea how things worked down here, I realized, despite Tony's advice about the world. Just the day before, I'd learned you could be put in jail here for witnessing—just witnessing—a car accident.
Tony had been right. Don't be stupid. Find out what you need to know about a country. ... so you don't die like an idiot.
I'd been stupid.
A few people had stopped on the street, but were moving again. Nothing to see here. Dogs are dogs.
For a week I dreamed of the animal, how it had hung on like it wanted to kill me, needed to kill me, was so hungry that nothing in the universe could satisfy its hunger. In the dreams it came at my face. The wrinkles got bigger. It was wearing a mask—a human mask—and then the mask was a mirror, and it was my face. As its jaws snapped at me, blood and pieces of flesh cascaded from them—my blood and flesh. It was more than any dog could possibly eat, so it gave back to me what it could not eat. I ate my own flesh and woke so nauseated I thought I would vomit.
What do you do with a dream like that?
I'd moan, and Jennifer would have to wake me. But I kept the dreams to myself. I'd already told her about the dog attack—so she'd be cautious on the streets if we weren't together. She didn't need more to disturb her own nights. She loved cats, but was always shy with dogs.
* * *
A week later, just before our three-day weekend—when we were planning to rent a car and travel happily, romantically, to towns and villages—we were returning at sunset through the colonia to our house. Just beyond the first gated place, we saw the body in the gutter. It was a big dog, but barely recognizable because of what had been done to it.
Something had torn out its throat, filling the asphalt by its head with blood, but that was nothing compared to the stomach.
Jennifer sucked in a deep breath and said, "I'm sorry, David, but I can't look at this. I'm going to get sick."
"Sure." I took her by the elbow and aimed her away, down the street to the first colonia houses. "Go on home. I'll catch up."
She looked scared. It was a dead dog, I told myself. Nothing more.
"Why can't you come with me?" she asked.
I was curious. I wanted to understand better what had happened. Only human nature, wasn't it?
"I want to check—" I started to say. "Just go over to the corner and wait for me. Look at the sunset. I'll be just a second."
She went to the corner. She looked beautiful standing there, with her long hair and skinny legs. The girl I loved. She didn't look at the sunset. She didn't look at the mountains. She was looking at me as if the disemboweled body might jump up and grab me, or the wild dogs that had killed and eaten it (what else would have done this?) might suddenly reappear, and I'd be their next meal ... or both of us would.
I looked down at the body in the dimming light. Something had eaten the entire belly. White ribs were showing. There wasn't an entrail left, as if a big hand had scooped it clean. There was also a smell—rancid and feral—but I didn't think much of it. Death had its smells.
I crouched down.
What showed of the dog's collar in all the blood looked pink, with big rhinestones. It was familiar. I'd seen this dog and its two siblings—heavy, sleek Dobermans—behind a gate in the colonia.
* * *
We took our rental, an old sedan, and drove first to San Luis because we'd heard the architecture there was pure colonial-frontier. It felt like Spain—the conquerors—and yet it was rough, what you'd expect of a frontier. The way, I'm sure, even upscale New York had seemed to British royalty back in the day, and certainly how the houses of the wealthy in the San Francisco Bay Area must have seemed to those who owned mansions in Newport, Rhode Island.
In an alcove just off the cathedral there, there was a chapel—one you had to visit, everyone said. When we stepped into it, we didn't understand what we were seeing. It was maybe 10' by 10'. In each corner there was a life-sized, painted plaster saint. But this wasn't the crazy thing. Each of the four saints—all of them in Bible dress—was bleeding more blood than any human being should. One had a plaster axe cleaving his body at the shoulder. Blood poured from the wound, covering the saint's body and pooling at his feet.
To the right of that saint was one we knew. Saint Sebastian. Full of arrows. Blood running like faucets from each arrow—a physical impossibility, of course, but this hadn't mattered to the craftsman who'd made it centuries ago. The story here, everywhere in this little room, was blood—how much blood there was in the world—how much the world could and perhaps should bleed. A symphony of blood, filling rivers, seas, draining every human body—
I shook my head, feeling dizzy and delirious and wondering if I were sick—food poisoning or another bug.
The dizziness didn't fade when I looked at the other two saints. One had no visible wound, but blood was gushing from his open mouth. The other, though still standing, had been disemboweled, plaster intestines at his feet.
I glanced at Jennifer. This was fake blood, silly blood—shiny red paint over plaster—and not a dead, gutted dog—but—
There was a look of horror on her face, but not from the blood. She was staring at the feet of the fourth saint, the disemboweled one. There, a small, squat plaster dog with an impossibly round stomach sat sniffing at the entrails.
We didn't need to say a thing. We left the alcove, putting it behind us as if it were simply bad art, and re-joined the little tour group.
As we left the cathedral, I stopped our guide—an educated, well-dressed American ex-pat who obviously wished she were doing something else.
"Why all the blood?" I asked.
"All the blood—the bloody saints—in the alcove?"
She squinted, not understanding, then got it.
"That's what you get when you mix the blood-sacrifice Aztecs with the Catholic emphasis on suffering."
I thought I knew what she meant, but wasn't sure.
"And the dog? Why—"
But she was already walking toward the front of the group.
* * *
Over the next two days we drove to villages famous for their beautiful pottery. We loved Mexican ceramics, the talent and technical skill of uneducated, humble artisans—not elite gallery artists—making their regions world-famous just by carrying on the traditions they knew. The power of it. The beauty. This is how it felt to our hearts, young as they were. As we drove, stopping as long as we wished whenever we wished, we found the famous green-glazed bowls of Michoacán in the first villages; then, hours later, red-glazed Colima bowls and hand-polished armadillos, birds and human figures in the next.
In the last village we found the dogs.
Jennifer froze when we saw the table outside the little house where the potter lived, one of dozens in the village.
I nudged her with my elbow. "Oh, stop it. They look like puppies with big tummies. Puppies didn't kill that dog—"
I stopped. I was probably making it worse. We both stared at the ceramic dog-pots on the table. All of them were a smooth, beautiful, rusty red. All had hollow, pipe-like chutes protruding from their back—for some liquid. All had immense bellies. We recognized them from books. Colima dogs. Pre-Columbian replicas.
She sighed at last, her eyes crinkling. A smile soon followed, and what sounded like a laugh of acceptance. Whether she was forcing the cheerfulness or actually feeling it, I didn't know, but it would be real enough if we simply kept moving, kept having romantic fun.
I was, I realized—and it made me smile—going to buy one of the smooth, pot-bellied red-earth dogs for Tony, who'd asked for a souvenir, and what better one was there? A dog. One that wouldn't attack him, but that would just sit there looking like a puppy. It was hilarious. We'd both have a laugh.
The artist's wife was doing the selling. There were two other tourists—Aussies, I think—and when she got to us, I'd chosen the dog I thought Tony would like best. I paid, and the woman left to get change for a ten-dollar bill. My eyes wandered and found another kind of dog-pot, an open bowl, but the same kind of dog. It sat by the screen door to the artist's shack, where he made his wares, and I had to step around the table to get to it. There were two of them, one on either side of the door, like guardians, and I wasn't sure whether they were for sale or not. I liked the idea—how this one was a bowl—something Tony could put his keys and wallet in—and either it was for sale or it wasn't. No harm in asking.
I picked up the closest of the two. It was slick inside, as if something had once been kept in it. Whatever it was, it had made the clay even redder there. Iron. Old pigment.
I brought it back to the table. When the woman returned, she was fussing with the change. I asked her in the best Spanish I could whether the dog in my hand was for sale too. She didn't look up. She said, "Yes, yes—for sale!" and kept fussing with the money, which dropped to the ground.
"Is it the same price?" I asked in Spanish.
"All same price," she said in English.
"Okay." I paid the woman again, told her to keep the change, and with a dog under each arm headed to the car. I wanted us back on the main road and at our hotel before dark because I wasn't sure what night driving was like on rural roads. It might have been stupid, and I knew what Tony would say.
* * *
The anthropologist, a man named Rocha, who taught at the institute, also taught at the university. He needed the institute work for financial reasons. He was married and had a mistress, they said. I hadn't talked to him before. I hadn't had any reason to, but now I did. I wanted to know something about Tony's dog so I could show Tony I'd learned at least something about a country he'd always know more about than I would--and if I had the chance, I'd ask the man, too, about dogs in this country ... why they acted the way they did ... if it didn't seem offensive.
The chance to ask about the bowl came on Tuesday.
I told him in the best Spanish I could, nervous as hell—because it was a test of my language progress—how I'd bought a ceramic bowl in Metaca, a dog, one with a big tummy.
He was listening, but didn't look up. He was a thin man, almost dainty, and he was marking papers. He'd talk to me only if he could also get work done as he did.
"Of course," he answered in English. He was thinking, I'm sure, that not bothering with Spanish would get this conversation over a lot faster. "A Colima dog. A replica—an item for the perennial tourist trade. An imitation of the artifacts found at La Campana and El Chanal." His English command was impeccable, very idiomatic.
He was marking away. If I didn't say anything else, it would be fine with him.
"Why were those dogs so fat?"
He looked up for a moment, then back down, and sighed.
"An interesting question. The traditional answer is 'food for the living and dead.' You fattened them and buried them with the dead, but you also ate them. The Chichimec—whose practices spread far north, even into your own country, and farther east within it than you might imagine—ate dogs. They believed dogs could help you pass successfully across the Great Lake into the Afterlife. If you ate them, it aided you in your journey, but it also helped you here in this life. You ate them at banquets; you ate them more commonly. One kind had short legs, so they could not run from you, and was probably barkless since their purpose was not to guard your holdings, but simply to provide food both secular and ceremonial. You fattened them with corn. You would not feed them protein. Fowl and dogs were the Chichimec source of protein. This is the traditional view, but I have often felt. ..."
Excerpted from Dog by Bruce McAllister, Scott Bakal. Copyright © 2015 Bruce McAllister. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty and Associates.
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