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Authors: Eva Hornung

Dog Boy (4 page)

BOOK: Dog Boy
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Romochka squealed suddenly at them all. He let go of Brown Brother, slapped Black Sister and Grey Brother. Grey Brother yelped, Black Sister snarled. They both gave him a look, then grabbed the blanket again. Romochka was so annoyed he began to cry. He turned his back on them and tapped his lap for White Sister. She wriggled in and looked up at him. He keened on for a while, then gathered himself. It wasn’t going as he had planned, but White Sister was doing her best to pay attention.
‘Once upon a time,’ he said. He felt the other puppies behind stop at the sound of words. He cheered up. ‘Once upon a time there were some dogs. Very good dogs who always brushed their teeth.’ He giggled. He couldn’t think for a moment what to say next.
‘One was the best, one was the worst, one was the bravest and one was the scaredest.’ He was very pleased with the words falling into that dark space, pleased with how much words were changing everything. But just then the puppies behind lost interest. White Sister tried to pay attention, but Grey Brother trotted off and found something alive under a beam. Brown Brother was pulling at Romochka’s clothes, and Black Sister, head held high, was making off with the blanket. White Sister held still for a moment longer, then leapt off his lap and scampered away.
‘Stupid dogs!’ he shouted, but words had lost their spell.
 
Snow fell more frequently and stayed on the ground above rather than melting on contact. Romochka had not thought to leave the lair in the weeks he had been there, even to see the day. But he didn’t like peeing inside, although the puppies did all the time. Even he could tell that his pee was smellier than theirs. One night he scrambled up to the icy upper floor and peed in the corner furthest from the lair entrance. Golden Bitch watched him in consternation from her sentry point, but didn’t move to stop him. Mamochka and Black Dog followed and stood beside him. It was freezing cold up in the ruin; dark, but not pleasantly so. The touch of icy wind was unfamiliar and he was rattled by the darkness over the uninhabited waste lands and the lights of the city. He scuttled back to the hole with the dogs following. This became his ritual. Mamochka often smelled his pee spot thoughtfully and then guided him, with nips, back to the lair. He could tell that his pee worried them. Poo Mamochka ate. At first he thought this was funny, but she ate his poo and the puppies’ poo, and soon he didn’t notice.
He knew when the dogs were pleased. He could feel it and see it in the way they used their bodies. Their joyous wriggle and the smile of a sweeping tail were an immediately comprehensible body of happiness. Mamochka’s contented sighs in their bed filled him, too, with bliss. He knew when someone was annoyed, because they bit him. He learned teeth: the friendliness of a gesture that held teeth low and unthreatening, and slowly all the gradations from bared-teeth threat, lip-veiled threat, and teeth set aside or used for play. He found himself quickly fitting in with teeth serious and teeth playful, reading easily the bodies around him with eyes, fingers, nose and tongue.
Everything was ritual. He began to emulate the greeting, in which every absence was healed. He made his body joyous too, his head low, mouth small; he yelped in delight and licked the mouth corners of the elder dogs as they entered. The greeting was also the moment of all confessions. Body joyous or body contrite, pure of spirit, or guilt-ridden, waiting for punishment. The dogs all confessed truthfully to each other at first meeting, crawling low, with face averted, then rolling over to take whatever punishment was theirs. Usually their abasement was enough. If the puppies had exceeded their boundaries, or eaten Golden Bitch’s bones, or ripped up the bed and spread it around, they told on themselves as soon as an adult entered.
Romochka could not bring himself to do the same. He lied, body joyous, and both Black Dog and Golden Bitch were bewildered and disturbed. They bit him less and less. Mamochka still punished him, making him roll over onto his back when she discovered his smell outside the lair or in the destroyed nest.
 
One evening it snowed on and on into the night and then, when the late day came, everything was changed, muted. The light inside the lair had dimmed: the parts of the floor above that were exposed to the sky were covered.
Romochka felt one of the big dogs very near. It was Black Dog, eyes shining, tail waving. Romochka understood, yipped and followed. Black Dog led him outside and Romochka blinked in that forgotten light. He had not been outside in daylight now for more than a month. The sun glimmered, a white plate in the flat grey sky. The earth was pillowed in white. Black Dog shone black against the snow. The cream eyebrows and mask gleamed uncommonly. His long winter coat made a thick scarf over his neck and shoulders. He turned bright eyes to Romochka; he was excited too. He licked Romochka’s face and capered to the church door. Romochka skidded after him in socks, squeaking through the powder snow. Black Dog peed on the broken door, then led Romochka out of the building. The apple trees were white figures, each twig highlighted. Every stick, bent grass and broken beam in the courtyard had a mantle of snow. Black Dog led Romochka to the gate, and, for the first time, outside.
Everything had changed. The trees were a lacework of white above billows of white and shadow. Romochka looked back towards the city. The ranks of apartment blocks too were changed, their façades ornamented with the geometric pattern made by snow on a thousand balustrades and window sills. He couldn’t remember ever having seen that snow was beautiful.
Black Dog yipped and Romochka turned to watch him pee on the gatepost, then out on the lane on the far corner of the street wall, on the near corner, and then on the next building, which was a three-storey concrete construction so unfinished that every floor had filled with drifting snow. Romochka then carefully did the same markers as Black Dog, holding in enough pee to last. Black Dog checked their trail and was happy. He trotted back inside, turning at the lair entrance to look back for Romochka, tail waving. No nipping, now, just friendly telling. How polite! Romochka was delighted. He sought out Black Dog in the bed when they all settled, and, hesitant, offered to curl up with him. Black Dog stretched out in invitation, and, as Romochka twined his arms around that thick neck and buried his face into that heady male coat, Black Dog sighed and licked the boy’s face for the first time with true tenderness.
After that, Romochka peed carefully on the markers; and all the dogs, he knew, would smell it and know that he was doing his job.
 
Winter deepened. Romochka went up to the frozen gloom outside only to pee. The long darkness upset him. The light in the lair was an almost interminable, blank nothingness. He would wake up refreshed and ready to play, only to find his eyes opening on darkness upon darkness with no relief. Daylight when it came made only a feeble glow near the entrance hole. At first he stayed on the nest, miserable and shivering, waiting with increasing annoyance for the shy day.
In the darkness of that first midwinter he would find White Sister at his hand the moment he thought he wanted her, and before he reached for her. She came to him now and then simply to keep him company and he found that his fingertips knew her better than the others.
He listened to the other puppies play all around the lair without him. He waited for light to filter in, or for the grown dogs to come home, or for the puppies to tire and come and play a little or sleep with him. But the puppies soon discovered that he couldn’t see them and they started new games. He found himself pounced on from nowhere and mauled; leapt upon, wrestled, kissed, slurped and savaged. He stopped sulking and started listening. He could hear where they were in that large expanse. He could hear the giveaway sounds of them sneaking up on him. He couldn’t tell at first which one was which until they were on top of him. He knew when it was Grey Brother who landed on him, because he darted in and away with agility. Black Sister bit hardest. Brown Brother was clumsy and indecisive about which bit of him to grab and snuffled a lot while he thought about it; and White Sister was a different build and the lightest.
Then he found that he knew much more, things he had known before without noticing. They each tasted and smelled different. The boys had a rank musk. White Sister and Black Sister smelled pungent, in his mind girlish—they shared something with Mamochka and Golden Bitch. They all pounced and scampered in different ways. Brown Brother would slide across the floor as he changed direction in a chase, scrambling and scrabbling, panting hoarsely in his excitement. Romochka found that he could tell whether Brown Brother was being chased or doing the chasing. He caught fear or the absence of fear in their excited breathing. White Sister he knew as soon as he had his hands on her, or her paws on him. He knew her out there in the darkness too: she could hold herself utterly still in a hunt, and he found he could guess when she was near him, stalking him, by sensing a solid patch of stillness among all the currents and crosscurrents in the darkness ahead of him.
He warmed up and his spirits lifted. He sat up in the nest, craning his neck this way and that to pick up sounds, trying to time his defence from their attacks. He giggled sometimes in an excess of anticipation; and then had to try to control his breathing so that he would hear everything. Then it was on: the rolling fighting tumble as one puppy after another piled on top of him, he laughing and gasping and trying to throw one off, bite another, pin down another and clamp his knees over a fourth. He soon learned not to expose his belly or neck. He poked holes in his woollen hat for his earholes and then pulled it down over his face and neck for some protection. But he was always sore, and Mamochka would lick his wounds every time she settled down to take care of them all.
He found that he felt larger, more agile, in the dark. A blow from his paw seemed to have the strength of four dogs. In the darkness his sense of himself became fluid. His teeth lengthened and his bite was deadly. All weakness dropped away.
After a while, he began to leave the nest, feeling out the floor and walls. He found the old rubbish and bones and the rough wooden beams across his path where they had been before shape and warmth drained out of everything. Things were more or less where he had left them, but in the darkness it was all changed and new, icy to touch. He no longer rearranged anything. He became absorbed in memorising every element of the lair. He ran cautiously in the dark, skin prickling for the consequences of misjudgement, running with hands outstretched until the beams rasped against his fingers, then running in the direction of the wall where the path should be clear. Soon he was able to run and jump obstacles in the darkness. He could run around the outer wall with his fingers to the frosted bricks, chasing and being chased. The puppies fell in with the new games, tracking each other and him.
When they were all tired, they fell in a heap on the nest and slow-licked each other to sleep. He took off his hat and let tongues envelop him. All five of them licked each other’s faces at the same time. Then, when Black Dog came home, he took Romochka, never the other puppies, out across the courtyard to the unlit street. After the silence in the snow-bound lair, this half-forgotten world jarred. The cold bit into his face and hands and made him fumble and hurry. He found his eyes so raw and fresh that the fires burning in the distance flared. The pinpricks of the city burned. Snow lay like a deep orange cloud; the cloud above spread like a deeper orange snowfield. He would go back inside with dancing lights leaping just behind his eyes, on and on.
He rediscovered Black Dog each time as someone seen: someone with eyes glittering and wet and kind. Black Dog was the only dog he really saw all winter. He stood beside Black Dog as a boy stands to a dog, and he stroked Black Dog, even in the darkness, with his hands not his tongue.
Every waking session was wildly exciting. Every return of the grown-ups was a delight—in them and in the plenty they brought with them. Every mealtime was a loving struggle for more until his belly was round and full. Every sleep time was a deep peace. He was obedient and cheerful in doing everything the grown-ups asked of him. He was enchanted by their affection and by their lavish attention to his wee and poo and his personal cleanliness. He was careful to show good manners over bones and food, if also showing self-respect in guarding his own fiercely. To his brothers and sisters he was imperious, inventive, playful, but also solicitous. He could spend long happy hours stroking and licking their relaxed and bliss-filled bodies. They passed him chance kisses and sniffed inquiries as to his wellbeing. They ran to him if something scared them; then, strengthened by him, they bristled and snarled.
If there had been hot beef soup, everything would have been perfect.
 
Romochka was startled when he saw a large pale patch moving in the darkness by the grey entrance hole, and realised that White Sister had become a young dog.
Midwinter was over and the days filtered in, weakly at first, then longer and stronger. In the returning daylight their new faces and forms became familiar again, and he noticed for the first time that Golden Bitch touched him less than the others, and that he knew her least from the long winter rub.
Golden Bitch treated him with the distance and tolerance accorded all puppies, but where the puppies also got her disdain, Romochka got her attention. She didn’t do anything with him. She sat on her haunches, neat and collected, breathing in the smells at the entrance hole, watching him. There was nothing hostile in her regard but nothing else overt either. Over time this glance became less introspective and keener. She pricked her ears at the sounds he uttered and the games he played with the puppies, but didn’t move from her post. He bumped into her only if the puppies rolled that way, yet she never did anything to punish him. He became used to feeling her regard turned his way and seeing her eyes bright in the thin gloom of daylight. This gaze was his main contact with her. She was often the last to lie down on the nest, and so was at the outer fringe when he was at the centre, curled half asleep with the four young dogs and Mamochka.
BOOK: Dog Boy
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