Translated by Erika Mihálycsa
She was walking two steps ahead, knowing he wouldn’t dare to lag behind now. A car halted, letting them cross. The driver leaned back slightly, fearing perhaps that his face would betray him. Absurdly, as he was really not to blame: he merely happened to be driving by exactly when they were crossing over from the church side to the side of the shelter. Maybe he stared at them longer than he would have stared at other folks, normal people.
The black dog had been at the shelter for half a year already: apart from him, only the three-legged mottled dog was left there unadopted for so long. But the three-legged dog had no wish to leave the place. He, on the other hand, knew what it was like when you found a companion. When the guard let the woman with the child in, the black dog instantly assessed that if the woman could suffer the child, it would be some dog’s life to be her pet. Especially for a dog nobody wanted. Ever since a horse kicked him in the muzzle breaking his jaw, he couldn’t shut his mouth properly and was left with his canine on show.
But the woman didn’t want a large animal, let alone a black one. She would only put up with a tiny pet. One that doesn’t eat much, doesn’t bark and, most importantly, doesn’t shed. That fits inside a paper bag. She wanted no animal of any kind at all, but the new therapist at the institute had advised her to get a pet, a dog preferably.
The second they entered she asked the guard where the small, short-haired dogs were kept. With the guard showing the way she set out towards the back of the premises, not as much as glancing in the direction of the black dog. They were hurrying past the kennels, past the flat, stable-like building, to the small dogs’ boxes. They were the most sought after: if their kennels were by the entrance, no-one would bother to look at the rest.
She immediately spotted a minute, almost hairless creature and stopped in front of its box. That instant she realized the child was not following. She looked at the guard questioningly; without answering, he pointed his thumb over his shoulder.
The guard had been keeping his ears open, out of a vague premonition that something bad was about to happen. The child was not normal, you could spot that from a mile. He might do something stupid, crawl in a kennel and get himself torn to pieces.
The child was stuck in front of the black dog’s kennel. He was standing there motionlessly, his fingers grabbing the wire netting. The dog was lying flat on its belly on the concrete floor, watching the child with head perched on its stretched-out paws. The woman trotted back to the corner of the stable-like building, halted and called out to the child as if to say, Come here!, except that it sounded like, Cohr! She waited for a few seconds and, as the child didn’t move, started walking towards him impatiently, her irritation showing. Her angular movements became conspicuous now, as though she were dragging sacks full of gluey, plasteline-like matter. There was disgust on her face, unambiguous revulsion from having to touch this child now, to grab his arm and pull him along. This is what she usually did. But it didn’t always work out of course, it wasn’t always enough, it was almost never enough, with the hysteric fit predictably on its way, as inexorably as an avalanche: the stomping of the feet, the whimpering, the spasms.
She saw that the fingers grabbing the wire had gone white: at this point only cold water could help. But she definitely didn’t want to throw a scene in front of the guard. She gave the dog a quick glance: it would be either this or nothing. Yet nothing meant she would have to drag home the wire net with the child clinging to it.
She asked the guard a few questions. How much the dog ate, if it lost a lot of hair, why its canine stuck out, such like. The guard had already stared his fill and sized up the woman as being roughly halfways between forty and sixty. But he couldn’t tell how old the child was. Between ten and twenty. He was startled by the double chin: how old-mannish. And the eyes so very small, slits really, just as they say: mongolian eyes. Except for that bulky chin falling directly to the base of the neck, he might even be called pretty. His face, that is. Because you could see from a mile that something was seriously wrong with the body. The arms, the thighs were too short. Much too short and fat. A body at least sixty years old, but in parts only. The guard recalled an article he had read a few days earlier about a child receiving a liver transplant where the organ was already 140 years old, coming from a donor who had himself received it as a transplant. “Man designed to last for centuries”, ran the title of the article.
On the whole, the guard was no great friend of dogs, and this black one he could simply not stomach. He loathed black, had a superstitious aversion from the colour. When he sometimes left his bread on the metallic toasting plate on the oven and it burnt to coal, his day was done in beyond hope of recovery. Satan’s beast, he thought to himself and was glad it would be gone.
It wasn’t getting easier, the woman admitted to herself in a few days. True, the dog did indeed not bark and was not losing hair, but she hadn’t in her wildest imaginings expected it to reek so badly. She was put out by this latest fiasco. For sixteen years she had been trying to find love inside herself, in vain. Her hatred, on the other hand, kept growing day by day.
The child had no father or, to be more precise, his father dissolved as they say, quicker than alcohol. But before dissolving completely it dizzies the brain and in such moments the body rages unchecked. The bloke might have had the good grace to have oligozoospermia. But he hadn’t. She knew nothing else about him.
Now with the dog on her hands on top of all she saw what creature she had brought into the world, after a long gestation which had felt pregnant with hope. In those days she had still carried within her the joy that somebody would finally arrive to share her loneliness. Now she could see indeed what creature she had brought into the world. The dog was more intelligent than him. If she spoke to it she could see in its eyes that it understood perfectly what she wanted. And if not, it would implore her whining to let it know what she expected from it.
The dog was indeed more intelligent than the child. But it was the child that lent it feelings. It would trot after him readily, happily. Whenever by the child’s side, it felt a penetrating warmth. It quickly realized how badly it was going with him. His body felt like a bone padded with earth. There is something bodies are padded with, something soft and warm, but when it is earth inside it’s dreadful. Earth isn’t bad, it can even taste delicious. But the cloggy earth solidified inside a bone is bitter-sour and nauseating. Such earth is harder than bone, its splinters so small they can’t be felt, they scorch the tongue, the gums, the stomach with a burning pain. The dog could feel it was going badly with the child. That the woman’s heart was harder than the horse’s hoof.
So it was the dog that planned the escape.
The child followed it everywhere. First they marched down the streets to the edge of the town, then they took to the woods. By the time they got to the hilltop it was evening. Evenings were getting chillier now. The dog dug the child a sizeable hole and they lay down inside. The next day they came upon a disused watchman’s shanty and spent the night there, on a litter of paper shreds and torn old coats. It had been a haunt of the homeless, everything was reeking abominably. But the child loved the place. The dog dragged in from god knows where a watchman’s torn, padded winter coat; the sleeve got stuck in the doorsill, and as the dog tore at it growling more and more furiously, the child rolled over to his back and kicked up his heels laughing.
When the dog brought him a half-gnawed corpse of a hare and he covered his eyes terror-stricken, it grasped that this was no food for him. In the morning it rushed into town so as to be back by the time he woke up. It managed to steal a shopping bag full of eatables from the bus stop. Two lavish days followed.
The next food-procuring errand, however, went awry. When it finally managed to swipe a loaf from a bread-van parking in front of a supermarket and turned to run away, loaf in mouth, the delivery worker was standing right in front of it, holding an empty bread-case made of aluminium bars. And he hit it in the head with the corner of the case. It got so giddy it dropped the loaf and nearly collapsed, but somehow managed to scamper off on feet of pain. Its left eye got dim and it could feel blood trickling into its mouth. It kept licking at it.
On top of everything, when it got back the child had vanished. It kept sniffing for traces in widening concentric circles. It could hardly track scents as the smell of blood and of aluminium kept revolving inside its nostrils. For the third time it returned to the shanty and started all over again. In the end it managed to find the child in their first night’s hole. He was fast asleep. The dog faintly remembered its first master who was always looking for his eyeglasses and had it trained to track them. It picked up the game in no time. And then the glasses vanished together with the master, and it ended up first with some relatives, then on the street and in the end at the shelter. Often it nearly gave up its ghost sniffing for the glasses, the master was steamed up and shouting, his face all flushed and shiny. And then it saw the glasses pushed up on the master’s forehead. It gave a few woofs to signal, at which the master went into a fit of almost whimpering laughter. And the dog whimpered along.
By the time they got back to the shanty, an unknown visitor had left half a can of meat by the wall, perhaps intending it for the homeless. The dog bit the tin can open and pushed it in front of the child. The child’s face lit up, he started munching and, once he had eaten his fill, fell asleep. But the dog couldn’t set its heart at rest. At night it started raining lightly. It kept listening to the raindrops tapping on the dry leaves prematurely shed from the trees. Later there would be the odd drop only, and then everything fell silent. And still it couldn’t close its eyes. It kept staring into the impenetrable pitch dark, trembling.
By dawn it had reached a decision, to return the child home. It couldn’t understand why this was necessary. Because it was doubtlessly a decision. It had two choices. For it also occurred to it to run away, far away from the child, to some distant place where no people lived, where no animals lived, where no plants grew, where not even raindrops trembled, unbeknownst, on the tip of branches.
ZSOLT LÁNG (b. 1958), based in Transylvania, Romania, editor of Lato literary magazine (Tg. Mures/Marosvasarhely, Romania) is one of the most representative voices of his generation. His fiction is characterized by a propensity to wordplay and a relentless exploration of the politics of language. He has published more than ten volumes of short prose and essays, as well as a tetralogy entitled “Bestiarium Transylvaniae” (I:1997, II-III: 2003, IV: 2011).
About the translator:
ERIKA MIHÁLYCSA is a Joycean and Beckettian scholar and Flanneur – that is, a Flann O’Brienist. She teaches 20th century British fiction at Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj, Romania. She has published mainly on the language poetics of this unholy trinity. She has translated Flann O’Brien’s “At Swim-Two-Birds”, Patrick McCabe’s novels, short fiction and essays by Julian Barnes, Jeanette Winterson, William H. Gass, John Banville, Emma Donohue, Janice Galloway, poetry by Beckett, william carlos williams, Sylvia Plath, Medbh McGuckian, Ted Hughes, Paul Durcan, Gunter Grass, Matthew Sweeney among others, into Hungarian.
Read more work by Zsolt Láng:
Author website (in Hungarian)
Short story (in English) at Hungarian Literature Online
Information (in English) about Zsolt Láng’s novel “Beasts of the Earth”
Another short story (in English) at Hungarian Literature Online