She woke suddenly, cheated by the shade. It had seemed the perfect spot, accessed via an alleyway running behind her, now hidden from view. Halfway down the narrow passage, which was really more of a space between corrugated iron sheets than a real passageway with meaning or direction of its own, she had almost turned back. But curiosity had won out in the end, fuelled by a desperate conviction never to go back – on anything in her life – and instead just keep moving forwards. She had emerged from the alleyway into a parcel of uninhabited, littered earth interspersed with large, cracked concrete pillars. The pillars were graffiti-strewn, though she did not understand the pictures or words. All she knew was that these were signs left by humans. If they were messages or warnings, they were not meant for her; plus there were no alarming smells, nor any other clear or present sign of life, so they could have been left a long time ago.
Even so, she had spent a long while sniffing around. Once satisfied that the spot was truly empty and well secluded, she had settled down to rest her exhausted, starving body against one of the pillars, lulled by the rumblings in the cool stone from the city’s two-storey ring road that thundered overhead.
She must have been out for some time, she realised now as she lifted her groggy head. The sun was barely beginning to rise when she had first found the place, and she had felt safe enough to slumber deeply, but now the light was stronger and the patchwork of shadows cast by the pillars had moved. Her back was burning up. She dragged herself onto all fours and headed for the less fickle shade of a flyover bridge. She needed to gather her thoughts before moving on. Curling up among the crushed drink cans and cigarette butts, she rested her long nose on her folded paws and sighed bodily. She had dreamt this time, she was sure, but the images were wispy. When she was a puppy, her dreams had always been vivid and exciting. In them she had chased cats, broken into buildings with her brothers, gripped her mother’s fur with her teeth as they flew across vast stretches of untamed ground. She had even met dead ancestors in her dreams. They floated before her, doling out solemn pieces of advice that echoed those of her mother: ‘Never close your ears!’ ‘Don’t drink the water next to the sewers!’ and, most commonly, ‘Keep away from those packs!’
But these days she rarely dreamed. Not now that the grief had clotted over like an ageing flesh wound that no longer hurt, just looked unsightly. The old life in the den no longer poked its way into her everyday consciousness. To all intents and purposes, it was gone. Far from causing her pain, this reality made her passive as the living dead.
She had been wandering for nearly a year now. The network of roads had grown denser as she’d made her way slowly northeast. The colourful, dusty streets and cooling waterways of her infancy had been replaced by drab retail and cinema complexes; middle-class housing estates encased by high brick walls lined with shards of broken glass and rolls of barbed wire to stop other humans from climbing over. It was not the kind of city, however, that could hold back an intrepid stray dog. It was too big, too indifferent to law and order. She supposed these aimless, urban explorations could last her to the end of her days, should she care enough to dedicate herself to the life of a solitary forager. But she found her numbed heart would not hook itself to ambition of any shape or fashion. It was easier not to think of herself as anything at all, to pass her time avoiding the question. The way she saw it, her options were limited anyway. She did not want to fall pregnant like most stray bitches – like her mother – and she did not trust humans. And so, on she plodded. Every day brought new places and new knowledge of the city; but each day was identical to the last in its hungriness, its weariness, its dreamlessness.
What she did not know was that that very morning, as the sun gathered itself into a blazing fury, her luck was about to change.
It began with a mistake. So much sleep had befuddled her mind. She had lost touch with the moment she was in, given herself over to reflection – a luxury she could ill afford if she wanted to stay alive. She saw now in the full glare of day that the gritty patch of land led to nowhere new; it was flanked on all sides by busy roads. The only viable way back was through the passage that had brought her here. But now, standing before the dark slit of the alleyway entrance, there was another dog. In her stupor, she had been caught unawares.
There was no avoiding this. The other dog had seen her and was waiting. He appeared old and beat up, bigger than she. The best course of action, she decided, was to make it clear she meant no trouble. She flattened herself low on the ground in a show of submission. The old dog remained silent and did not twitch a muscle. At least it’s a male, she thought, and he’s alone. She wondered what he wanted. Her instincts told her he was not interested in fighting or in mating, but that he was nevertheless very much in control of the situation.
‘Are you in a pack?’ he wanted to know.
‘No,’ she told him. ‘I am alone.’
The strange dog padded forwards and began to circle her, checking her out. He had only one eye, and his fur was matted and dirty, but he was robust. She stood there feeling blank, waiting to see what would happen. Eventually, the old dog seemed to tire of walking around her in the hot sun, and he sat down on his haunches close to a concrete pillar.
She promptly swept past him, towards the passage that still lay in shadows, keeping her ears fixed keenly on him as she trotted to the opening to make sure he wasn’t following. His musty smell was all around. Inside the alleyway, which was too narrow to fit an adult human, she kept close tabs on the movements of the other dog’s odour, sniffing diligently about the exit when she reached it. Detecting the direction from which he came, she went neither that way nor the way she had come the night before. Move on, move on. She was on a cobbled backstreet now, heading gently uphill, with the ring road behind her and a walled housing estate in front. She had roamed a fair distance since leaving home, but the city was so immense she had not yet penetrated beyond its southern fringes. The metro didn’t even go that far out. But metros weren’t meant for dogs anyhow, and she knew nothing of them yet.
The housing estate would be a decent enough place to scavenge food, if she could get inside and locate the bins before being chased out. On a good day, there would be piles of bin bags on the streets outside awaiting collection. If ever she caught the clang of the trash collector’s handheld bell, she would follow the noise, overtake the truck, and delve into the trail of bounty spots further along the road. But that would be a stroke of luck – the type she knew her life depended on. She was never in one place long enough to learn the trash collection routines. Sometimes it was mornings, sometimes evenings; sometimes daily, sometimes less frequent. Where there were daily collections, complacency reigned and housewives would wait until they heard the bell to bring their bags down and chase after the truck, hair in rollers, dragging their trash behind them, yelling ‘Espere señor!’ Which meant little left out on the street for a dog to pick through.
Where collections were only once or a few times a week, the bags would be there, but so would the rats. She didn’t eat rats, and she didn’t much appreciate sharing her lunch with them either. She knew other dogs cohabited with rats in the city landfills. In fact, there were whole packs nestling amongst mountains of rusty fridges and bedsprings, empty boxes and useless car parts. She had been through a landfill after leaving the den, back when she was still raw with grief. Everything about it had seared her senses with distaste. It was the opposite of the world created for her and her brothers by their mother’s soft love; it was a filthy, nightmarish place, full of treacherous objects that could rip her skin and paws to shreds. She had lasted three days in the landfill, during which she had experienced more than one uncomfortable encounter with the sly, greedy types of dog that made their homes there. Never had she felt lonelier than in such company. Never had sadness touched her so frighteningly deep. So she had moved on, and in the very act of moving her body and mind had been distracted enough not to dwell on the abyss blown inside her heart like a quarry.
Today, there was no trash in the street. It seemed a fairly clean and orderly corner of the city. A row of suburban stores nestled quietly beside the housing estate, with words like ‘Abarrotes’, ‘Tortillas’ and ‘Carpintería’ painted lazily on the whitewashed, street-facing brick walls; words she could not interpret, but whose associated smells were unmistakable. She hesitated. Store bins were surely a better bet than housing estate ones. She trotted across the road, her pace building to match her hunger.
Accessing the backyard was the easy bit. Then it was a case of finding a good bin with no one around. A chicken carcass would be splendid, she thought, having been well trained by her mother in avoiding the bones. The yard was an unkempt communal area of sorts, and it looked empty. She was encouraged, but made sure to sniff about first. Piles of bricks and metal oil drums lay scattered about, yellowing sprigs of grass poking out wearily between them on the dusty ground. Seeing the parched grass made her conscious of her own terrible thirst. There was an outhouse in the yard with a wooden door hanging off its hinges, and a large open-topped tank full of dirty water standing beside it. A bucket floated on the surface of the water, which they used for flushing the toilet. She wasn’t quite tall enough to reach the water in the tank, but she gratefully lapped up a few drops that had spilled on the ground: brief respite under a deadly serious sun climbing towards its apex.
The bin bags were dumped in a pile close to the back entrance of one of the stores. She dashed over, and began hungrily to nose her way through them.
‘Any luck?’ The low, measured voice floated through her mind. She flipped her head up. Standing where she had just been, over by the water tank, was the strange old dog. He had followed her.
‘What do you want?’ she growled.
He didn’t reply, just sat back on his haunches and regarded her every move. Intuitively, she knew he remained in charge. He fixed her with a long, one-eyed stare and then curled his scraggy tail around his front legs to show he was perfectly content right where he was, that he had no intention of moving. She pondered the situation. He did not feel quite like a threat, yet how could she know his motives? He seemed to belong to a world she did not understand. She watched him scratch his ear with his back leg, the single eye never straying from its fixed position, looking straight through her.
‘Just tell me what’s going on,’ she implored.
‘I followed you. My name is Ska,’ he said, and then added, ‘There’s a river not too far away. If you’re thirsty, I can take you there.’
‘I’m hungry,’ she answered emphatically, though even as she said it, cool, wet fantasies were washing through her mind. ‘A river?’ she ventured, after a pause. ‘Where?’
He uncurled his tail, lifting his backside an inch off the ground. ‘Have you finished with those bins or should I wait?’
The banks of the river were steep. The dogs had to squeeze under some wire fencing on the north side of the housing estate to get to it. A shallow trickle of water scattered with human junk flowed sedately at the bottom of the ditch.
‘It fills up more in the rainy season,’ Ska told her apologetically.
They made their way, slipping and sliding down to the water, where there was just enough space to stand if you didn’t mind your paws being wet. She drank deeply, feeling every nerve in her system revive and freshen. Then she drank some more for good measure. When she had finished drinking, she lay hunched at the water’s edge like a sphinx, panting and bright-eyed.
‘I didn’t know there was a river in the city,’ she mused.
‘There are many,’ said Ska. ‘Some are underground. Where do you come from?’
She was reluctant to divulge more information, she herself knowing so little about him. But his manner was more relaxed now, and beneath her visceral distrust of most other living things, there pulsed some long-forgotten notion of communion with her own species.
‘I’m from the canals, the outskirts,’ she admitted. ‘Do you know them?’
‘I do,’ replied Ska, resting his snout atop his paws. ‘Well, that explains a lot. Why are you heading north? Why are you going into the city?’
He fell back into silence, watching her intently. She decided she would answer no more questions. Just because this old dog had led her to flowing water and shade, it didn’t mean she owed him anything.
‘Would you like me to leave?’ he said suddenly, jumping onto all fours and shaking the water from his thick, unruly coat.
She lifted her head, thrown. That was one question she hadn’t expected. The instinct she felt, clanging loud and clear, was that she wanted him to stay. But she sensed he was playing games with her and it was disturbing. Worse, he was reading her reaction right now as it unfolded, and a suspicion awoke in her that he enjoyed seeing her so confused. That was one humiliation too many. Enough, she thought. She would not continue to allow this peculiar one-eyed fellow to interfere with her solitude. No bitch worth her salt would let herself be toyed with like that.
‘If it helps, I know some great fried chicken outlets not too far away,’ said Ska.
Three hours and as many chicken carcasses later, the pair of them lay spread-eagled under a tree in a leafy, landscaped park, whose painted boundary walls had sizeable half-moons hewn out at intervals for effect, lined with iron railings just wide enough to fit a dog. They idly surveyed the open mouth of a metro station located outside the park walls. Through the railings, they had a good view of the flow of people tramping across the road from a row of honking, fume-filled bus bays and then disappearing underground, heads bouncing as they descended.
It was a bedlam of human noises and smells, many of which were new and difficult to interpret. The familiar whiff of corn wafted past in various guises: corn tortillas, corn on the cob, hot corn drinks. Metal structures for billboards, some with flashing bright lights and imagery, some skeletal and empty, towered atop high buildings as far down the road as the eye could see, which wasn’t that far in the haze. The smell of gasoline made her nauseous. She wondered, as she had many times before, why humans would choose to build such a place as this. Dogs and humans both now needed the city more than it needed them. They would always make their way to it, as long as it lay belching in its mountain basin, sucking in life for its own selfish ends, pumping it around its concrete arteries only to crush it underfoot, all the while growing fatter and deadlier.
‘Have you ever been down there?’ Ska enquired.
‘What is it?’
‘It’s trains running underground. They go all across the city in tunnels.’
Her ears perked. ‘Do they go to the underground rivers?’
Ska chuckled. ‘No, no. They go home.’
‘They go home?’
‘Yes, they go home.’ He dropped his head down onto his paws. ‘I used to have one.’
‘I used to have a human. It was he who gave me my name.’
‘Oh. Really? A human. Where is he now?’
‘Gone. I still live in his house. I’m going back there now, on the train underground. Do you care to join me?’
Did she care? She didn’t know. It was more than that. This, she realised, was the moment of reckoning. If she chose to go with Ska, she was leaving her flat existence, silent and numb, far behind her for good. Could she make such a leap out of simple curiosity? It seemed like madness. But when her mother had died so unexpectedly, all of the ancestors seemed to have died along with her; and now that she was no longer visited in her sleep, there was no guidance anymore, no frame of reference against which to determine what was normal and what was mad, and even less reason to care.
‘I’ll go with you,’ she said quietly.
They waited until the evening rush hour, when Ska said they would be able to sneak more easily down the steps into the metro, which would take them northwards to his house. The key was to stick close enough to someone to appear accompanied, but not to follow any one person for too long in case they noticed. When the metro was heaving it was every man for himself: no one would take the time to assess the ownership status of a couple of dogs, as long as they kept their heads down and looked under control. Ska suggested they separate but keep tabs on one another. ‘I won’t board the train until I know you’re on too,’ he added reassuringly.
‘What if we get caught?’ she whimpered as they approached the steps to the mysterious underworld, from where screeching noises emanated like apocalyptic birds and muted tremors shook the surface.
‘We’ll be kicked onto the tracks, impounded or destroyed, whatever’s easiest,’ was the curt reply. ‘Now keep quiet and concentrate.’
She was pumped with adrenaline as they trotted down the steps. She kept her body close to an elderly man who smelt faintly of urine, always keeping her mind and instincts close to Ska. She itched to move faster, but Ska was moving slowly and calmly, apparently not following anyone. For a terrifying few seconds, he was obscured by the throng heading round the corner to the automated ticket barriers. In her confusion, she lost the elderly man and looked up just in time to see Ska slipping round a distracted guard’s legs under the single manned gate. Panicking, she threaded her way to the other side of the ticket area and did the same. Now she was on the other side.
She backed up against the wall and stood watchfully, searching for Ska. Soon enough, a four-legged figure became apparent, standing still in the central flow of people further up ahead. He was waiting for her. She selected the nearest passer-by and went for it, hoping Ska would see her before she overtook and lost him again. There was no need to worry: before long, both dogs were on the platform and she stood staring, jumpy and goggle-eyed, at the fraught, alien environment, trying to subdue nauseating rolls of utter astonishment in her belly. When the sudden blasts of air came and a train roared in, she leapt backwards with a yelp. Ska ignored her. He was sizing up their chances of successfully leaping onto the last carriage together unaccompanied, or whether they ought to make their way down the platform and choose a person each, risking ending up in different carriages.
Plumping for the first option, Ska waited for the train to hiss to a stop and the door-opening warning noise to sound, at which point he squeezed in and crawled under the seats even before the doors had fully opened. She was hot on his tail. Soon, they were wedged against the carriage wall, underneath and out of sight, her nervous system on such high alert she could barely blink or breathe.
‘We’re good for now,’ he muttered as they huddled in tight. ‘I know the station we need by its smell. Get ready – we’ll be changing lines!’
When the dogs finally re-emerged above ground, night had fallen and the thrill in her muscles had begun to morph into a giddy exhaustion.
‘Stay close,’ warned Ska. They zigzagged through the grid of streets, past storefronts and makeshift chapels, eventually turning into a narrow side alley with low ramshackle houses on both sides painted in dim pastels. She paused before an open-fronted wooden box that was nailed to a post outside one of the houses. What could it be? Reaching up on her hind legs and sniffing inside, she detected a jumble of scents: tobacco, urine, something sweet. She dropped back down onto all fours, scuttled backwards a few paces, and it was then that she saw the inhabitant of the box: a tall figurine of a human skeleton, dressed in an ornate robe, grinning maniacally. She backed off, unnerved. She was no Anubis. She had no business with the bare bones of the departed, not unless she could get her jaws around them. Anyhow, further down the road, Ska was waiting. She dashed off to catch him up.
‘What was that box back there?’ she panted, trotting alongside the old dog’s bulky frame.
‘You’ll see them a lot of them round here,’ he replied.
‘What does it mean?’
‘It means keep walking,’ he ordered her, cryptically.
At long last, the dogs reached a dilapidated tower block with rows of blackened and charred window frames across several of the upper floors. The building looked vacant almost by force of its own will, as though its dark core had yawned with ever-increasing abandon as the years went by, until it had finally rid itself of the last of the unfortunates who had made it their home.
Ska led her round the back, through a kicked-in door to a musty stairwell. Up they climbed, up and up, while the lights of the city twinkled through the gaps in the boarded-up windows. When they arrived at the top, she saw that the south-facing wall – not visible from the street – had all but completely crumbled. Most of the roof had caved in as well, exposing the dogs to the rusty brown night sky.
‘You can sleep here,’ Ska told her, gesturing with his nose to a pile of cardboard boxes in the corner. Then he was gone. She stood motionless for a moment, staring about her. She had never seen the city so high and so close at the same time. She had known of its rapacious appetite, marching down from the north and across on all sides, swallowing, swallowing. But never had she been so deep within; never had she ridden its pulse like this. The need to sleep was suddenly overpowering. Settling down among the boxes, she curled up into a ball. A stirring energy still hung in the air, or perhaps it was a feeling in her gut; a sensation that not only were unknown parts of the city being unveiled to her much faster than her slow, half-invested paws could ever manage on their own, but that layers of reality itself were being rolled back to expose new and startling ones underneath. In a heavy daze, her eyelids fastened shut.
When she woke again, Ska was watching her. It was still dark.
‘Why did you bring me here?’ she challenged him.
‘How much do you know about humans?’ was his reply.
‘I know to keep away from them! But…’
‘But you come into their city,’ he interrupted. When she could muster no response, he continued, ‘Why are you alone?’
‘What business is that of yours? Ska? Answer me! Why did you bring me here?’
‘Alright, alright, please. I will try to explain.’ He lowered his belly to the floor, easing his worn-out joints. ‘But first, heed my words: here, in these parts, you must prepare yourself to see terrible things. When you bowed down to me like that before? Don’t ever do that again. The city packs would eat you alive before your heart even had time to skip a beat. You were walking into a death trap under that bridge.’
She watched him sorrowfully.
‘I followed you because you seemed innocent. I wanted to protect you. I didn’t plan it, but then it reminded me in a way of how my human used to be with me. We protected each other, he and I, you see, when he was alive. He had the plan, but I always knew when something was amiss. We were a good team.
‘But it wasn’t just that… he knew how to scratch my head – right here behind my ears – and we would lie together on those rainy afternoons, and he would rub my belly… oh boy, do I miss that!’
Ska fell silent. He dropped his head to his paws and closed his eye.
‘My human was killed in a fire,’ he went on. ‘They tied him up, doused him in gasoline and torched the building. It was gangs. Human gangs. I managed to escape.’
‘Gangs? How did you escape? Is that how you lost your eye?’
‘No,’ he replied. And elaborated no further.
‘Ska, I’m sorry that you lost your human like that. But what does it have to do with me?’
‘As above, so below,’ he said, looking up, fixing his gaze back on her. ‘You need to understand. What happened to the humans is happening to the dogs. Things have changed, it’s got a lot worse very quickly, and it keeps getting worse, living in the city… the packs… now the packs are bigger than they ever were before, they’re tortured and mean; their spirits are not only broken but twisted, and they’ll stop at nothing. They’re not hungry beasts anymore. They’re becoming like humans.’
‘A pack bitch attacked our den and killed my mother,’ she said. ‘For no reason at all. Ripped her to pieces.’
‘Ah. As far out as the canals? My sympathies, then, you do understand. But listen; do you understand this? I want us to be friends – like it was with my human. They’re not all bad, you know; believe me. Something happens if you get real close to one… there’s something special about them, deep down, if you can tap yourself into it. It grew me bigger. I think it could do us a lot of good. But what they had, what they gave us – it’s being savaged and left for dead here in this city. We have to stop that from happening. My human, he didn’t deserve to die like that. He showed me another way to be in the world. I was real lucky to have him.’
‘And you think we can fix the world, just like that?’
‘As below, so above,’ he replied, closing his eye again.
They drifted into a deep, still silence. She would need time to process what had happened today and what Ska was saying. Right now, it all seemed rather like a dream.
‘Ska?’ she whispered, settling back down in the boxes. ‘Can I ask you something?’
‘Will you give me a name?’
‘Of course,’ Ska replied. ‘Just let me think of a good one.’ He rolled over and curled up snugly into a ball. ‘Go back to sleep now. I’ll name you in the morning.’
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