The old dog
[ fiction - june 05 ]
He could not look at the dog’s eyes, dark brown, like the sky before it started to rain. “Come on,” Vassil said and the dog slowly followed him, climbing onto the back seat of the bone-shaker. Jivil was a peculiar mutt, yellowish-orange, like a crocus, but so feeble and aged that could hardy stand in front of his kennel. Once thieves stole some instruments from the backyard and Vassil brought a new dog, white with brown and black spots on his back. There were no crocuses and no rains in him; the newcomer had sharp teeth, malice and youth, and no burglar could lift anything from the backyard.
“Come on,” Vassil repeated. His car was a ramshackle Ford, third- or fourth-hand. Vassil hated it when his friends saw him drive it. He imagined he looked like old Jivil, his fur thinning at the back, rains in eyes, death stalking behind the clouds. Jivil used to be a good guard for Vassil’s house, but there was no life in the old dog any more.
Vassil was 47 when his wife gave birth to a third child, a boy, after two grown-up daughters who already had their own children. The boy was called Nikola after his mother Nika, a dot of a child with red hair; and while Nika did the housework, the kid and Jivil talked above the empty dog’s bowl, a black eye, staring angrily at the sky. The boy was too small for his heavy, grand name, a mite, a little round stone hurled near the dog.
“Shut up, Jivil,” Vassil muttered and his old Ford, which lacked any enthusiasm, whirred and wheezed to the forest. Vassil knew he had to go a long way - not only to the village of Bosnek, much further, behind the springs of the Struma River, in the wilderness where even wolves would lose their way. The man and the Ford plodded on, the dog barked at the road from time to time. Perhaps Jivil was deceiving himself that his master was again taking him hunting despite his scuffed coat where his fur had fallen off. The dog constantly raised his nose to the windshield.
Vassil had risen early in the morning so Nikola would not see him. Nikola was a quiet comma which separated the days of Vassil’s life and made his home complete and alive. Even Vassil’s back, which he had injured in Italy, did not hurt so much when Nikola was around. There was no place in the world where his thought could go if Nikola was not there. But Vassil could not feed an old dog at home. He could not leave him to starve either and he had no bread for two dogs.
There were dozens of holes in front of his Ford; not a road but a guillotine for the poor car which surely had driven more interesting folks in its heyday: Italians, then the Turks from whom Vassil had bought it - the guys just happened to pass through Pernik and were grateful they had finally got rid of their rusty rattle-trap.
Vassil taught Bulgarian literature, but there were not enough students in town, so he taught at the school for mentally retarded children. His students had difficulties remembering things. His wife taught physics, but there were no vacancies, so she made tapestry cushions and prepared to go and work at a hotel in Greece.
The road before Vassil vanished altogether, then the track disappeared and only the hill was left. Come on, Vassil told the dog, but even before he had finished the orange pelt was jumping through the bushes. Vassil took the plastic bag - there were bones and stale bread that he and his wife had been collecting for a week. Vassil had added a piece of cheap sausage. He had hidden it yesterday night from his dinner. He could do that much for Jivil.
He and his wife had carefully removed the cubes of bacon from the sausage for Nikola. One never knew what sort of bacon they put in that cheap sausage. Vassil emptied the plastic bag with the bones and the shriveled piece of cheap sausage; the dog looked at him gratefully and bayed deeply, the way he did when Nikola took him for a walk to the hill. That hill was the end of the town of Pernik and the beginning of the disused colliery in which there were no coals. There were only rusty rails and old goods wagons in which snakes and spiders bred. The boy and the dog went about the deep ruts and Vassil was worried sick they could collapse in some old shaft.
“Eat this,” he said to the dog and when Jivil licked his hand the man did not pat him on the head as usual. The man withdrew guiltily, made for the car without turning back, started the engine and drove along the dirt road first, through the holes, each one a grave for the ancient bone-shaker the Turks had got rid of.
The dog looked around confused, left the bones, and forgot even the shriveled piece of cheap sausage which Vassil had kept for him from his dinner. His barking, deep, long, loud, mixed with the autumn leaves. Vassil could hear it, but didn’t turn back for he didn’t want to see the dog’s back with the fur falling off, as orange as a crocus. He could not look at the eyes in which it constantly rained and death waited for the last autumn day.
Finally, the dog lost the game, yet he made it to the asphalt road, crouched down beside it and set up a quiet deep-toned howl. Vassil drove quickly, as quickly as his old tub of a car could. He hated the rear-view mirror, though now it reflected not the dog, but the roofs of the village of Bosnek. He still saw an orange back, like a crocus, a coat whose hairs had fallen off at some places. Vassil kept on seeing rain though it had stopped raining. It had stopped raining long ago. He parked his car in front of the school for mentally retarded children where the students studied very slowly. He was on duty during the night. He was in charge of all these kids, but he was not sure he could teach them any good at all.
Then he went home, to his house with which the town of Pernik ended and the empty colliery began. The railroad reached almost the door to his backyard and abruptly ended there. On the curb, in front of the house, Nikola waited - the red-haired comma that separated into two all sentences in Vassil’s heart. The kid sat on the stone, though it was autumn, and played with the frayed leash on which they kept Jivil. The boy had put half a piece of the cheap sausage in the black dog’s bowl - an old piece of sausage, from which someone had carefully taken away all cubes of bacon. The kid stood up from the curb.
“Where is the...” he began, but his father cut him short.
“Listen, I’m in a hurry. I have to help your mother.”
The red-haired boy bent his head, a round reddish stone that had by chance tumbled in their backyard. He rolled the leash into a ball and thrust it under his shirt.
At noon the kid fell sick. His mother left the tapestry cushions she was weaving, his grandmother came, too, a small woman who lived in the neighboring borough and smiled easily. She brought honey and dried cornels to kill the high temperature. The boy didn’t say anything, just listened to her, as quiet as a crocus in his bed in the kitchen where it was warm. He tractably swallowed the pills his mother gave him. On the following day the rain stopped, the wind came from the empty colliery smelling of old wagons and spiders, the street behind the window was full of autumn. The boy was again running a temperature and the doctor made up his mind to put him on antibiotics.
Vassil came back from school. The children there, although they had difficulties remembering and studying things, had made greeting cards for their teacher’s red-haired boy. There were smiling kids in these cards and a couple of scribbled words, “Get well, Nicko.”
Nikola, whose name was ten times stronger and heavier than the boy, lay in his bed in the warm kitchen and spoke to the TV that was on, or perhaps he was talking in his sleep. Vassil brought him another dog - a brownish-black thing that he kept on Jivil’s leash. The boy tried hard to smile and gave up somewhere halfway through it. His mother sat by his side with a bottle of medicine and four other pills.
It was cold and rainy, the red roofs of the houses thawed in the clouds, the wind hid somewhere and Vassil didn’t know what else he could bring his son. It was quiet and gray and his boy probably lay in his bed in the kitchen. It was about to start raining any minute now. Vassil was walking slowly toward the end of Pernik, to the hill from which the autumn was to go away. It was impossibly quiet. The railroad of the colliery ended abruptly in this street, and his backyard began. If only Jivil could come back... but he had driven him far from here, too far. Even the Struma River was not there. There were no springs either, only wilderness. Vassil didn’t feel like looking up. When he finally did, he couldn’t believe his eyes.
Crouched by the curb, a boy and a dog sat side by side on the stone. Jivil and Nikola, both of them yellowish-red, the kid small, his hair very short, the dog’s fur falling off from his back, two crocuses that had unexpectedly grown by the railroad of the colliery.