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The dust of 100 dogs, p.11
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       The Dust of 100 Dogs, p.11

           A. S. King
 
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  He searched the beach all morning but couldn’t see her. He even tried on some other women for size, but none of them fit like she did. The rest were ordinary, anyway, and he’d had plenty of ordinary women in his life already. His thoughts wandered back to a time in his past when no woman could resist him—a time when college girls were easy and date rape hadn’t yet been invented—the time of his life. How many girls had he lured into his trap? Ten? Twenty? Fifty? He used to keep count. Had it ended at seventy-six? Seventy-six in four and a half years, not counting summers—or his year in love with Penny—averaged two and a half per month. “Only one every two weeks, Fred. You could have done better.”

  Life on the island had made up for that. So many tourist seasons had passed, each with dozens of conquests, that Fred could barely contain his elation at the thought of counting them all.

  But they were all ordinary women, like the ones on the beach. Some firm and sexy, yes. Some young and pretty, yes. But ordinary. None of them better than any other and none of them elegant or graceful or interesting like Sarah.

  By the time Rusty returned for more beatings, it was three thirty. Winston was due back at five, and Fred had wasted his day watching women he would never get close enough to touch from his second story floor-to-ceiling window. Rusty scratched at the rear entrance four or five times before Fred got up to let him in.

  “Welcome home, asshole,” he said as Rusty pranced past him, then slammed the door and followed the dog to the kitchen.

  Rusty sat by the cupboard, obediently seeking food, as Fred jotted a quick note that read, Your dog is an asshole, and then continued on, leaving his dirty cups and dishes for Winston. He kicked off his boxer shorts in the hallway and went directly to the shower.

  When he returned, Rusty was still sitting there, wincing a little with each excited breath. Fred looked at the clock in the kitchen and faced the dog. “He’ll be home in an hour or two. You can wait, like I did all morning,” he said, then walked back to his office and shut the door. He checked his messages and opened a large planning map before him.

  On the days he wasted over the years, Fred took to making himself feel better by looking at how much he owned. He’d bought up eighty percent of the beachfront land on Billy’s Bay, and now offered it at ridiculous prices to businessmen from Europe who didn’t know any better. Most of it was completely covered in thick vegetation and sea grape groves.

  He rolled the map back into a tight tube and sat in his Italian, pastel-yellow, leather desk chair, which he spun to face the beach again. Rusty moved from the kitchen to the office door and rested his head on his paws. They both fell asleep, waiting for Winston.

  A deep, sudden bark woke Fred from his slouched position in the chair. He bolted upright and wiped the slobber from his chin. Rusty had already gone to the door and bounced on Winston, who acted happy to see him and scratched him behind the ears. The dog bounded after Winston into the kitchen, where an extra-large portion of dog food was put before him. He set to work eating it.

  Winston looked around at the mess one man could make in seventy-two hours. Fred had used every cup in the house, all of them still half full with sweet instant coffee gone cold. A pair of socks was thrown over a barstool, a wet towel grew musty in a ball on the floor. Mundane notes scrawled on scraps of paper lay everywhere: Do laundry more often or buy me more boxers—Your dog is an asshole—Your mother called—I hate that painting in the hallway—Something in the trash can stinks.

  The office door opened and Fred emerged, looking indifferent.

  “Some mess you make, mon,” Winston laughed.

  “Just give me the keys and shut up.” Fred held his hand out.

  “Ease up, Fred. Take it teasy.”

  “Just give me the keys and get out,” Fred barked.

  Winston reached into his pocket and pulled out a ring with five keys on it. “Okay, Fred. There’s the keys, right? If me go, who ’gwan clean all dis up? And who ’gwan do all your shopping? Who—”

  “Okay, I get the point. Just leave me alone.” Fred walked back to the office and slammed the door.

  He slapped the new key ring on the desk, fixed himself a bourbon on ice, and sat down to ponder. Winston began to clean the enormous condo, playing loud music wherever he went. Rusty had accidentally gotten locked between the glass door and the back door and no one heard him crying, so he finally had to squat and push right there on the terra-cotta tiled floor. What was worse was that he had to stay there and look at it, until someone found him and subsequently punished him; it was like spending the weeks before a murder trial in a cell with the festering dead body.

  Fred found him. Winston’s music had driven him out of the office to deal with the stereo, and then the smell of fresh dog shit drove him to the door where Rusty sat whimpering and looking sorry. Five minutes later, the dog was still trying to remove remnants of his own feces from his nostrils. It was drying in the fur behind his eyebrows, and he continually pressed his wide head into the sand to scrub it from himself. He ran to the sea and snorted salt water through his nose, and then took off toward the tree line.

  In growth too dense for any human (unless armed with a sharp machete), Rusty and some other dogs from the neighborhood made tunnels and roamed them daily, sniffing and marking boundaries. Some of them had made a home of it, burrowing dens into the steady incline under screw pine roots and claiming chunks of territory. Rusty had a favorite spot too, and stayed there whenever he grew tired of Fred’s beatings.

  He found a sunny spot and groomed for ten minutes, then walked his rounds and stopped at a place between two tree trunks—a small space of only a yard or so. He positioned himself between the trunks, sat up tall, and took a huge breath of air. He exhaled, letting his bulky body fill the gap, and fell into a lazy, depressed snooze.

  A few times, he shifted his weight and felt a poke in his rib cage from an object sticking out of the sand, then shifted again to avoid it like it was a loose spring in a mattress. After a few minutes of shifting, Rusty grew impatient with the sharp intrusion and got up. He backed away to sniff at whatever had poked him, and then leaned down to lick it.

  Any human would have known that it was the corner edge of a shovel head. But to Rusty, it was simply a familiar metallic taste, one that reminded him of the dumpster outside the Island Hotel Restaurant and the gatepost next to the pool.

  DOG FACT #4

  Humping Inanimate Objects

  Adolescent dogs, when excited, often mount inanimate objects. This can embarrass owners, and is best controlled by doing something else and not thinking about it.

  How many times have we heard a master exclaim, “That dog is simply shameless!” And indeed we are. Shameless and stupid at first. Do you think we want to be humping the furniture? Did you want to hump that awkward pimply sophomore in the back of your father’s Buick? I doubt it, but you know, everybody has to start somewhere.

  Dogs start with whatever is handy. The more there are other dogs around, the less your dog will feel the need to rub his most private parts against your leather sectional. I preferred a more malleable practice partner—a throw rug, a visitor’s jacket, children’s stuffed toys. That was when I lived in New Hope, Pennsylvania, in the 1960s with the bumper-sticker people. They had a collection that covered every square inch of their two cars and every interior wall of the small Victorian row house we lived in. Even my kennel in the backyard had adhesive slogans plastered all over it. They were fine people, though, aside from their undying need to get a message across.

  Afraid I would get pregnant, the sticker freaks kept me locked inside a high chain-link fence and rarely walked me. I humped anything soft I could steal and hide in my house (mostly what I’ve already mentioned; lots of throw rugs, the rag-rug kind).

  It’s an instinctual, uncontrollable thing, very similar to human puberty. There’s no real joy in it, but w
e do it anyway because we have to. Our masters don’t like witnessing it, because humans tend to have sexual hang-ups. To them, we seem shameless and stupid, which, if you really look at it, is just another way of saying free and simple.

  It’s not the size of the dog in the fight,

  it’s the size of fight in the dog.

  Mark Twain

  When they landed in Tortuga, island men flew up the ropes and stormed the boat, grabbing and groping any woman they could find. Emer hid beneath a bunk and shivered. In the melee, she heard women scream and slap, she heard men laugh hearty laughs and slap back. She escaped quietly, by way of the small ladder that led to the forecastle quarters.

  After months below in the sweltering heat, Emer stood on deck and enjoyed the gentle breeze. She refastened her blond hair into a tight bun, exposing the back of her neck, and removed her overskirt, revealing a ragged sheer slip that kept the coarse wool from scratching her legs.

  Emer listened carefully to what was going on beneath the deck. The crew had arrived, and forced manners onto any buccaneers who crossed the line. An ease swept through the ship, as the women thought about their past strife in Paris and realized that this Tortuga might not be so bad after all.

  She headed back to her small bunk and retrieved her things—nothing but smelly garments that she had worn onto the boat, and her crucifix—and walked slowly toward the slatted plank that led to the shore. When all of the women were off the boat, some already holding hands with the first men they’d found, a black-haired Frenchman approached her. He was followed by a servant of some sort, who glared at her.

  At first, the black-haired man spoke in French, but when he realized she couldn’t understand him, he switched to a fluid English that Emer could nearly understand. She thought he said, “I have chosen you as the leader of these women.”

  What he’d really said was, “I am the leader of this village, and I have chosen you for myself.” Smitten at first sight, the Frenchman watched her every move.

  Emer smiled and replied, “I am honored.”

  It was only when he placed his rough hands on her breasts that she realized her grasp of the English language was rusty and inaccurate. She flinched and wiggled free, embarrassed. He grabbed her right wrist and placed his lips on her neck; she struggled to not cry or scream out.

  Only a few paces from the dock, where the other women stood watching, she felt ashamed that she could not let him have his way. All during the journey from Paris, Emer had felt like a simple Irish girl compared to these women. Prostitutes had no trouble accepting advances. They had no scruples in the captain’s cabin during the night, volunteering for duties she was still unfamiliar with. Emer felt stupid and naïve for all the nights she lay thinking about Seanie instead of reality. But the truth was, she would not be able to save her virginity for her true love. As with the rest of the women she had traveled with, her virginity meant nothing at all to these foreigners, nothing but a sort of trophy. Who else could claim that from a boat of prostitutes and beggars, they’d landed a true virgin?

  The Frenchman knew, from the moment she flinched, that he’d done the impossible. He’d landed the virgin. And it excited him and depressed him at the same time. He let go of Emer, allowing her to walk away from him, and quickly found a suitable older woman to drag to his hut.

  Emer felt even worse shame after that, but soon remembered what her mother would say: she was no man’s prostitute, no matter how out of place that notion seemed on the crazy island of Tortuga. And she was worthy of a good Irish man—or a good man, at least—and would settle for nothing less.

  The next day, as she gathered fruit, Emer separated from the other women little by little until she disappeared into the thick vegetation to the north of the village. (Her mother whispered, This way Emer, this way.) She walked until the sun began to set, and then found shelter in a small, rocky cove.

  “Another bloody cave,” Emer said to herself, arranging a small pile of damp clothing on the flattest stone she could find. The last rays of sunlight gave her only enough time to get her bearings and make sure the tide wouldn’t wash in while she slept, halfway between the beach and the forest.

  Why am I always finding myself here? Emer asked herself. Here, where there is no possible way out? In Paris, I ran from the fat man who owned me. Here, I run from all of them. Always running and ending up here! Damp caves or bunks below deck! Darkness!

  She looked at the flat rocks scattered on the sand, arranged by hundreds of tides. She thought back to the last time she felt free: the days atop the castle, fighting with Padraig, counting the swallows … the days when her mother would smile and ruffle the top of her head and laugh out loud.

  What was it Mairead had said about Emer, the legendary wife of Cuchulain? That she could talk her way out of anything? But what good was sweet speech when everyone spoke another language? When no man so far had been interested in talking?

  She made a pillow out of the old wool cape that had made the journey from Connacht to Paris with her. She laid her head down and shifted a few times on the hard rock to get comfortable. Then, she reached into the small pocket of her skirt to retrieve the carved crucifix, clutched it, and prayed for safety.

  The first intruder came at midnight. She heard a loud rustling of leaves, and then sniffing and snorting. Realizing it was just an animal, Emer lay still and listened for half an hour, then fell back into a half sleep where she was convinced she would hear whatever came next. But she didn’t hear what came next—until he was in the cave standing above her.

  Pausing only long enough to get her bearings and to focus on the outline of the large man peering down at her, Emer rolled to the left and reached out for any object she could find. The man threw himself to his knees and grabbed her ankles roughly. She called out in pain and surprise. He jerked her toward him, saying something foreign, and then coughed and spat to his side and laughed. Emer found a solid rock and heaved herself up into a sitting position. The intruder jerked her again by her ankles and got a further grip up her legs, just under her knees, nearly knocking her over onto her back. She jerked back and, with all her strength, brought the rock crashing down on his shoulder. He yelped in pain, letting go of her left leg to clutch his arm. She sat up straighter and aimed for his head.

  Somehow, the leverage Emer attained from having her left leg curled under her, no matter how hard the intruder jerked on her right one, gave her the strength of an extra man. She pounded the rock into his head, again and again. He fell backward and to the side, his legs still folded under him, and didn’t move at all.

  Emer waited. He still didn’t move. She waited for a few more minutes and, when he still didn’t move, got up and fetched a smaller rock, one with a sharp edge that she could hold with one hand. Shaking and breathless, she dragged his heavy body from the cave. As she pulled the man by the shoulders, she heard the scraping of metal on rock and, investigating, found a short cutlass fastened to his belt. She removed it and parried with air, dancing back and forth. It was then the idea came to her.

  Once she’d dragged the man to the sand, she put her ear to his lips and listened for breathing. There was none, so she undressed him. Back at her small makeshift bed, Emer groped around for the crucifix. Then she returned to the naked body, and, with the cross, said a few words in Gaelic above him for their combined sins.

  Then Emer walked out to the surf. Starting with the man’s blouse, she began to rinse out her new clothing, not knowing if there were bloodstains or holes in it that needed to be patched. She scrubbed the fabric together furiously, as if the sea could wash away what a dead man had seen and felt.

  When Emer returned to the cave, she laid the clothing out to dry on the rocks and picked up the cutlass again. She felt its edge, and then tested its sharpness by clutching several strands of her long hair and pulling the cutlass through them, cutting the hair at chin length, away from herself.
In a trance, she continued to do the same with the rest of her hair—clump by clump—until it was all relatively the same shape around her face, with an uneven boyish fringe at her forehead. She gathered up the pile of hair and walked it to the sea, throwing it as far away as she could and holding back tears.

  Sometimes, to defend your honor, you have to do awful things, Emer, her mother said.

  Emer sniffled. “I watched you kill two men, Mother, and I understand now.”

  You should be proud you were able to defend yourself! Not ashamed!

  Emer answered inside her mind: “I will try to hide my shame. I will try to be proud.” But it wasn’t working. No matter how she looked at it, she didn’t feel comfortable with the murder. He hadn’t been trying to kill her, and he wouldn’t have. Did he really deserve to die for the sake of her honor? On an island of whores and savages?

  Suddenly, she noticed a man walking toward her on the beach. She’d left the cutlass in the cave after cutting her hair, and now, making out the man’s familiar frame, she ran back inside to find it. She hid in the corner nearest the beach, squatting, the cutlass perched between her thighs, and tried to slow her breathing.

  He was speaking French, in teasing tones. She could hear from his voice that he was smiling. Then, she heard him gasp as his toe met the dead, naked body of his comrade. She saw his silhouette lean down to inspect it.

 
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