By the by, it is best I issue a warning right up front. What I am about to tell you will be confronting for some people. Mine is the sort of story that some would say is best left untold. Not to be brought into the light of day at all. However, I do not agree with this point of view. Important events started that night which need to be made public. Hence I sit here and write. I’m not even sure where to start. The beginning, I guess is always the best place if uncertain.
It all started to unravel for me the night of Monday 12th December . The year doesn’t matter. Just the day and month. It has become a sort of anniversary thing for me. I had worked late that night. Being the last to leave the factory, it was my job to make sure all was secured. Familiar routine completed many times over the years, I went about my business automatically checking locks on windows and doors. Turning off lights. It never ceases to amaze me how many lights there are in a building. And how nobody ever seems to bother turning them off once they leave the room. I’m a stickler for that. Wasted energy, I think. Job completed, I exited the building as usual through the rear delivery door, hat in hand and coat slung over my shoulders. Although it was summer, there was a nip in the air this late at night. Soon it would be midnight. The witching hour, I thought ironically.
The alleyway was dimly lit. Enough light, however, filtered through from the main thoroughfare so I could pick my way through without tripping. Skirting the large dump bins and piles of collected rubbish I wondered how many homeless, helpless people were curled up sleeping in there. At least I had a home to go to. Solitary, only the barest of basic needs, but it was clean and neat. Met my needs well enough. I was not one for fancy digs. Never had been. I had no-one in my life to share it with. Not that it bothered me one way or t’other. There had been some casual relationships over the years. Short-lived all of them. They just seemed to fade of their own accord without the usual fuss and hullabaloo that most folks went through when they busted up.
On this particular night I was feeling a bit morose. Not like me at all. Usually my moods were even keeled, neither happy nor sad. Just – even. I took a deep breath and shook myself to lift the energy. It helped a little. Walking briskly down the main road, I headed to the late night diner for a quick snack on my way home. I was feeling a little peckish and fancied a coffee and a burger at Greasy Joe’s. He made the best of both. It was busy there that night. All the shift workers must have decided the same thing as me, I thought. The short order cook waved and smiled at me when he saw me enter. Pointing to a vacant seat at the counter he took my order. I was a frequent and familiar customer. It was not long before a steaming mug of strong black coffee and the best hamburger in the world were put in front of me.
So far all had been routine. I ate the hamburger in hungry bites with great gulps of coffee to wash it down. Did me a world of good. I could feel myself beginning to wind down. A tiredness started to seep into my bones. It was time to head home for bed. Paying the bill I bid goodnight and made my way out into the cold night air.
On the opposite side of the diner was a solitary lamp post with a weak light casting a circle of light on the ground below. Sitting next to the post in the middle of the circle of light was the biggest darn black dog I had ever seen in my life. I briefly wondered where it had come from and what it was doing just sitting there. It watched me closely. Now I have no particular feelings about animals one way or the other. I guess they have their rightful place in the world like the rest of us. Never had I had one as a companion. Nor had I felt the urge for it. Giving the dog no further thought, I turned and headed in the direction of home.
I had not walked very far when the hackles on the back of my neck stood up. This was an unusual feeling for me. Not one that I particularly liked. I made me feel uneasy. Turning around to look behind me, I noticed that the dog from under the lamp post was following me. Or seemed to be because as soon as I stopped to look it sat down as if waiting to see what I would do. I walked on a bit further, listening intently. I could hear the soft padding of his paws on the pavement. Every time I stopped and turned to look, it sat down and waited. What the darn! I walked faster. It picked up the pace. I walked slower. It slowed down always keeping the same distance between us. Not knowing what else to do I kept heading towards home, thinking that perhaps the dog was heading in the same direction as me and would continue on its way after I reached home.
Arriving at my little house, I opened the rusty gate with the squeaky old hinges. Before I could step foot in the yard a blur of black dashed past me onto the veranda. What the heck! The dog was sitting at my front door, mouth open, tongue lolling out, panting for breath from the mad dash to get in the gate before it closed. It looked at me expectantly. Being curious now, and still not knowing what else to do, I dug the key out of my pocket and opened the door. As soon as it opened the dog went inside as if it had been doing this every day of its life. Straight to the kitchen, again as if it knew that’s exactly where I always headed first when I came home from work. It sat next to my chair, head turned on its side, watching and waiting.
I scratched my head. It seemed harmless enough. One night of shelter would not hurt, I thought. Perhaps it was lost or homeless. I scrummaged in the cupboard till I found an old icecream container. Filling it with water, I put it on the floor by the stove and waited to see what would happen. The dog looked at me, then at the water bowl. I nodded my head. Without further ado it got up and thirstily emptied the container. I filled it up again but it had had enough. It sat down again next to my chair. If it was so thirsty, maybe it’s hungry too, I thought. I had some left over stew in the fridge so I offered that to it. The same again. It would not eat until I had given my approval. Hungrily it gobbled it all up like a starving man. Poor critter, mustn’t have had much to eat or drink in a while it seemed. It will settle now, I thought, and go to sleep. Tomorrow I would decide what to do with it.
I was tired. Turning out the kitchen lights I headed off to bed via the bathroom. I had a day off the next day so could sleep later than usual in the morning. Suddenly I felt very tired. Bed and sleep beckoned me. I don’t recall my head hitting the pillow before I fell asleep.
I woke to the first rays of dawn peeking in through the curtains of my bedroom window. Groaning, I turned to my side. Only to quickly open my eyes again to make sure that what I was seeing was real. There, on the floor beside my bed was the black dog. It was sound asleep. Sometime during the night it had found its way to my side of the bed and curled up on the mat that lay on the floor. I liked the comfort of putting my bare foot on a soft mat on cold mornings. The dog had certainly found the most comfortable spot to sleep on. Not wanting to get up so early, I shrugged, closed my eyes, and went back to sleep.
When next I stirred to wakefulness the hackles on the back of my neck were standing up again. I felt uneasy, like I was being watched. I carefully opened one eye just a little. Sure enough, the dog was awake, sitting on the mat, intently watching me. I opened both eyes, sat up in bed, stretched my arms and yawned. There was nothing for it but to get up. I looked at the dog. Politely it had moved off the mat and stood waiting. I guess if I needed to go to the bathroom it would too given the amount of water it had had the night before. I put on the slippers I kept by the bed and headed for the back door. The dog followed closely behind and waited patiently for me to open it. I let it out and headed for the bathroom on the same business. Having attended to my morning ablutions I started for the kitchen. On the way, I peeked out the door. There it was, sitting patiently waiting to be let in. May as well. It would need something to eat and drink before I sent it on its way. Who knows when or where its next meal would come from.
In silence, we ate our respective breakfasts. Having finished, I settled down to read the paper for a while before tackling the problem of the dog. It contentedly lay down on the floor next to my chair as if it had done it all its life. I was not really sure what to make of that. Somehow it felt comforting and disturbing at the same time. Reading the local daily news was a habit I had fostered over the years more to keep up with what was happening in the world around me rather than for any other interest. Today I made it last a lot longer, even to the extent of trying my hand at the daily crossword. Not my forte. I eventually gave up in frustration having achieved very little. The clues made no sense to me.
However there had been one snippet of information in the paper that had piqued my interest. It was a throw away filler only a few lines in length. Normally I would not even have noticed it. Today it leapt out at me as soon as I turned to the relevant page. The headline written in bold was simple – Black Dog. It read: “Locals have noticed a large stray black dog in the neighbourhood of late. It seems to belong to nobody. It is often seen lurking in the background when something untoward has happened. Some fear that it is a bad omen, a harbinger of evil. “
Well I never! It must be the very same mongrel sleeping at my feet. I dismissed the omen bit as sheer nonsense of course. It had no place in my set of values and beliefs. We all made our own beds as far as I was concerned and reaped the consequences of whatever had been put in motion. Now I had a genuine dilemma. Although not an animal lover as such, I knew that if I turfed the poor mongrel out onto the streets, some fools would hunt it down. Probably make its life a misery if not end it all together. That did not sit right with me. It was harmless enough as far as I could tell. Just needed food and shelter. In all honesty I could not bring myself to abandon it to some god-forsaken fate. It seemed that against all odds I had become a dog owner after all.
Little did I know the consequences of this decision. But, as I said earlier, I had made my own bed. And that of the dog. Even in hindsight I can honestly say that I would still take the same path had I known what was to come.
Life and its routines took a slightly different turn for me from that day on. The dog and I settled into an easy relationship. To my surprise I found I enjoyed the companionship. There was a comfort in having another presence in the house that was non-judgemental and undemanding. The dog was happy as long as it had food and drink and a comfortable place to sleep. That had already been decided it seems for it was perfectly content to continue dossing down on the mat next to my bed. The mornings that I worked, the dog would follow me as far as Greasy Joe’s where we had first met. He kept the same distance and manner of following me as before. At Greasy Joe’s he would sit under the lamp-post and watch me head off. What it did for the rest of the day I do not know, but when I returned from my shift he would be there waiting for me.
Then came the fateful day when he was not there. I looked and looked again, even whistled. No dog. My mouth ran dry. My heart thumped loudly in my ears. Intuitively I knew something was badly wrong. I could feel it in my bones. It’s not often that I have those feelings but when I do they are always on the nose. Swiftly I entered Greasy Joe’s. There was an uncomfortable silence as I stepped in. People who normally would smile and greet me averted their eyes suddenly busy with their meals. Greasy Joe coughed and cleared his throat as if to speak, then changed his mind. I sat in my usual spot waiting to see what would happen next. Damned if I was going to let them off the hook that easily. In silence I was served my standing order of hamburger and a mug of black coffee. I polished it off in double quick time, put my money on the counter and turned around to face the crowd in the café. By now I was starting to feel damn angry.
Hands on hips, I moved to the front door and scanned the blank faces turned to look at me. A few nervously licked their lips. I waited. Finally, one nervous type stood and told me that the community had got together and decided something had to be done about that evil black dog. Everyone knew I had adopted it. They had watched and seen me walking to and from work with the dog following on behind. Only to leave him at the lamp post. Just what did I think I was doing leaving that spawn of satan on the loose? Mayhaps I was tarred with the same evil brush for all they knew. Kind attracts kind after all.
Everywhere that damned evil dog turned up while I was working something bad happened. People died. Had bad accidents. Houses burned down. Robberies and bashings and a thousand other things. It seems all were laid at my door because the dog and I were cursed, had brought a reign of terror into the community.
So it was decided that the dog had to go. This morning after I had disappeared from view, a posse of volunteers had captured the poor besotted beast. A hell of a fight it put up too, I was told. Gnashing its fangs, frothing at the mouth. A sure sign of satanic possession if ever there was one. A tranquilliser dart provided by the local vet took care of that. Then they taped shut its mouth and roped the legs together, trussed it up good and proper and threw it in the back of someone’s ute. The dog had been taken to a farmer’s barn where it lay comatose. Someone had said they should at least wait and talk to me before finishing it off. It seemed to belong to me after all and they thought it only proper to let me know. Now they waited, holding their breath, to see what I would do.
I took a deep breath to calm myself. What they had told me was so ridiculous I found it hard to fathom that rational, logical human beings could work themselves up into such a frenzy of fear over a harmless stray dog. So I told them my story of how the dog came into my life. How undemanding and faithful it was. How harmless. How grateful for food, water and shelter. How never once had it harmed me. How never once had it even growled at me. How it faithfully followed me as I went to work. How it always sat waiting for me at the end of the day.
Then I asked the obvious questions. Had bad things happened in the community before the black dog came along? Had people died? Had houses burnt down? Had there been robberies and bashings? Had other dogs bared their fangs and frothed at the mouth, perhaps out of fear, epilepsy or rat poison? Was it evil just because it was big? Was it the spawn of satan just because it was black? And what about me? Just because I was a big, black man who lived alone, did that make me evil too? I told them of my disgust at their prejudicial fear mongering. And said no wonder I chose to live alone! Until the dog came along and gave me the first and only experience of unconditional friendship in my life.
The crowd in the café started to nervously shuffle their feet and look sheepish. Some made to leave but I barred their way as I was standing at the door and would not move. I asked which farmer’s barn was prison for my dog? Greasy Joe offered to take me there, telling me he never had agreed to anything that had happened. I just looked at him and asked if he had tried to stop it. Sheepishly he shook his head.
It was only a short ride to the barn. An armed guard stood watch at the door. I could hear the dog whimpering inside. It made my heart clench with fear. I hoped to God he was not too badly hurt. Brushing past the guard, I rushed into the barn. He lay there unable to move. Signs of struggle to free himself were evident in the dirt floor but the binding was too tight. He had deepened the cuts in his legs which were bleeding and swollen. Kneeling by his side, I gently lifted his head. Someone had given me a knife. I carefully cut the tape holding his mouth closed. Dribbling drops of water into his mouth, I felt his grateful gaze on me and was aware of a weak wag of his tail. Slowly I lowered his head back to the ground as I spoke to him as to a scared and injured child. I examined his cut and badly swollen paws. They had been tied together so tightly the rope had bitten into his skin and reduced circulation to his paws. As gently as I could, I severed the rope. I would soak if off later as I did not want to cause any further injury or pain. Stroking him softly, I edged my hands and arms under his body and slowly lifted him up. Whimpering softly, he laid his head on my neck, nuzzling and licking it to show his gratitude and thanks.
Tears streaming down my cheeks I walked out of the barn into the sunlight. Greasy Joe, by my side throughout the whole ordeal, followed me out and quietly opened the car door allowing me to slide into the seat with my dog still in my arms. Without a word he drove me home, opened the car door, gate and front door of my house with the keys I indicated were in my pocket. With a nod of his head he left, quietly closing the door behind him.
I lay my broken and battered friend on the bed. He tried to get up, knowing this was not his usual place of rest. Reassuring him it was OK for him to be there, I set to work tending to his wounds as best I could without causing more pain. He sighed and fell asleep, exhausted. Having finished cleaning and disinfecting his wounds, I wrapped them in clean bandages I tore from old sheets. As I ran my hands over his body it was evident that he had been beaten for his body was covered in swollen welts and bruises. I cried more tears for my friend and covered him softly with a blanket. Then I lay down next to him, hand resting on his head and fell asleep myself.
We slept soundly through the night, my dog and I. In the light of day, I woke to find him watching me. A slight wag of his tail greeted me. I got up to go to the bathroom. The dog valiantly tried to move but stiffened muscles and pain made this difficult. Gently I lifted him and took him outside. The warmth of the sun seemed to soothe his stiffened limbs. Telling him to stay outside, I fetched some food and we breakfasted in the sun. I hand fed him small portions and tore up a few slices of soft bread to soak in a bowl of milk. These he ate slowly over time in between sleeping on the soft mat in the backyard.
I stayed home nursing and comforting him. As I watched the dog I thought long and hard about the turn of events. I knew life in this town could never be the same again. Perhaps it was time to move and start afresh. Time enough to decide that later. For now, the important thing was to allow time for rest and healing.
I had been putting off taking leave from work. I had several weeks of holidays owing to me. I phoned the factory and advised them I would be taking out all of my leave starting today. My decision was not questioned. They knew what had happened. Having made the necessary arrangements for my pay to be forwarded into my account, I headed back out to check on the dog. He had painstakingly risen to his legs. On high alert his ears were back, fur bristling as he gazed towards the front door. There was a soft knock on the door. He growled deep and low. Patting him on the head, I told him to lie down and stay as I closed the back door and went to check who my caller was.
As I opened the door, I was greeted by a small delegation of locals who had been present in the café the day before. Amongst them were the spokesman who had told me about the dog, the guard from the barn and Greasy Joe. Awkwardly they asked to speak to me. Curtly I nodded my head. I was not in the mood to be polite so did not invite them in. They told me how sorry they were. That by the cold light of day they realised what had happened was a terrible injustice to both the dog and I. More than that, they were deeply ashamed about the cruelty inflicted on the dog. They had witnessed for themselves the deep bond between the dog and I. How trusting he was of me despite his wounds. There were some, they admitted, who still believed right had been on their side. However, this was a minority and beginning to waiver.
They wondered if there was anything they could do to help. I scratched my chin and thought some. Perhaps they could help with some food and comfortable bedding for the invalid I said. He was plenty sore and stiff, having trouble moving and eating. Some ointments and bandages for his wounds would also be useful as I was short of cash and had resorted to tearing up old sheets to wrap the weeping sores and keep them clean until they healed. Sombrely they nodded and said they would make arrangements for a delivery. I nodded my thanks and turned to go inside. Stopping, I turned my head and added that I was not sure how long I would stay given what had happened. Where would you go, they asked. I don’t rightly know I told them. Somewhere we both would be welcome and could live in comfort and safety. Quietly I closed the door. The dog been on high alert throughout this conversation. He quietened when he saw me return unharmed and heard the gate close.
True to their word later in the day I received a delivery with all the items I had asked for. Greasy Joe had even added a thermos flask of coffee and a hamburger for me. I was to receive this from him every day for the next fortnight. Every second day he would call around and see how things were. He had been asked by the locals to provide them updates. They were deeply ashamed and sorry, he said. Even those recalcitrant ones. You see, in the fortnight I did not venture out of the house with the dog there had been a death, a fire, robberies and bashings. There was no big black dog and man to blame. Greasy Joe hoped that I would see it in my heart to forgive what had happened and agree to stay. All the locals hoped so too. They had learnt a valuable lesson they said about tolerance and prejudice. Not to judge others simply by their looks. I said I would think on it some and let him know.
I talked all this over with the dog. He was a good listener. Listening closely, he held his head cocked to the side and seemed to understand what I had to say. That is how we came to the decision on what to do. I told Greasy Joe we had decided to stay on condition that the story of what had happened be printed in the local paper. Now this caused some heated debate and consternation. Some in the community did not want their dirty linen to be aired. There was no negotiation as far as I was concerned. The truth needed to be told. So history would not repeat itself.
So the paper printed the story I wrote. The dog and I stayed on. I quit my job at the factory. Greasy Joe hired me and the dog to run errands, deliveries, do odd jobs and repairs. On Dec 12th every year the dog and I celebrate the beginning of a new life and friendships.
© Raili Tanska
Steps for Peace