THE DOG

Angry dog, mean dog, nasty dog, you bit me! Why?

Itís not like I was someone new. Iíve lived next to your house for two years, on the other side of the fence where you protect the little old racist lady, whoís too frail to detest. She knows how to be civil to white people like me, she taught you not to bark. "Shut up, hound!" she told you on that first day, when you rushed like a cyclone for the fence I didnít have any faith in, as though you meant to tear me to shreds. Then, my heart jumped the tracks, I nearly bolted in panic, but my feet were rooted to the ground in fear, until finally fury surged into my scattered soul, fury at you for exposing me to myself, for tumbling me back to live among cowards beside the broken myth of me. How you made me detest myself, how religiously, from then on, I have believed in fences, using them to reconstruct myself into a superman.

I wanted to curse at you then where you stood trapped in the gigantic cage of your yard, unable to reach me, I wanted to taunt you and spit at you, to punish you for your snout that was a mirror held to my soul, but the twisted troll who was your mistress had just called you off, I could not make her regret her neighborliness; your terrifying image lurked within my forgiveness. I became her friend, with meaningless, generic words thrown over the fence, like scraps of meat to you, to cement her alliance with me, to keep you firmly fastened on the leash of her friendship. She was an old and abandoned woman and did not need anything more than to have someone prove she was still alive by responding to her worthless greetings.

Because of you and your savage jaws I listened to her rage about the world. I listened to her bury immigrants, and despise the color black. I listened to her praise balls of flame and curse every helping hand. I did not try to change her. Her bitter, knarred world was dear to her, she wore it like a brooch from her times, before rainbows broke in through the window. In her hatred were lost lovers, burned beyond recognition by what had happened since, tender sentiments embalmed by crooners on the battered records she still clung to, ships of lost voices sailing perhaps for the last time upon seas of scratches, into private fogs. Her vanished gardens would kill her with fatally beautiful flowers if she didnít turn them black, if she didnít ward everything away with prejudice and narrow-mindedness, with the claws on her tongue, and the dog in her yard.

She didnít say no to the water hoses and billy clubs, her dog did not roll over for history. The man who read the gas meter couldnít get in, the dog tried to rip him to pieces like a long-range gun, he felt it in his soul even though the fence was between them, he just kept on walking as the dog pursued him to the end of the yard, pawing dirt down the hill at him underneath the fence as he left: dirt, the aura of his fangs. The woman covered the world that had come since the last time she was happy with dirt, heíd learned from her.

At times, I wanted to seize her angry gray head in my hands and break it open like an egg, to smash the cruelty and unfairness out of it, to bash her troglodyte brains all over the pavement and liberate the sun that had stalled in the east. I wanted to enlighten her by not listening, but I needed her because of the dog. In the old days, down south, a black man never looked a white woman in the eye. Nobody ever raised Cain on a bus, and if you went out for a walk you would hear people speaking English, not gibberish, like hens in a yard. Your kids could go out to play, perverts werenít hiding in every bush. And when the nation took out its gun, no one tied its hands by asking why? She mixed the innocence, as long gone as the giant silver screen where voiceless ghosts with tempestuous eyes flirted without fault, with the ignorance of muscular ages as crude as a racetrack and cigar. Times that dug plantations into the hearts of other lands, and surged with cars and planes over every idea that did not sweat gold. When roaring crowds at last poured from the broken pipes beneath the street, she stood by the window of her childhood, refusing to see anything but the oak tree and the swing where her daddy used to push her in the summer. Her eyes became those windows, and any alteration that wandered past must pay. She held the dog back for those who did not interrupt her memories.

Because of the dog, I did not tell her I was not who she thought I was.

One day, the savage hound no longer barked at me. Still, he refused to tolerate the impertinence of mail, or the boys who dared to walk on his side of the street. Twice as fiercely he barked if they were black, or if they smelled like they were born under an open sky.

But I, by slowly fading into the world of his mistress, like a fallen leaf disintegrated in the autumn mud, survived his wrath, the humiliation of his impotent yet devastating attacks. I was accepted, allowed to coexist. Thus, with pride, I would return home from my work to see him sitting like a statue on the steps of his house, observing me yet not budging, still as a monster made of stone; watching but not erupting. While others cried out in surprise and terror, bolted like deer or inmates, or cursed him for the wound he had made in their pride, fleeing with fronts of strength, I passed by his lair untouched, unspit upon by barks; admitted to my house next door with all my human dignity still intact. He was now stately, protective of me, as though I were one of his sheep, one whose smell belonged in the tiny world he would accept.

How grateful I was, and somehow proud of myself, as though I had subdued a mythological monster, defeated the dragon by the tree of gold, soothed the wolves and bears of the wilderness with a harp. It was my soul that had triumphed! My infinitely forgiving soul; my expansive heart that had prevailed!

Above the offensive masses of the earth, I floated in the rapture of being irresistible with my openness. My listening was the mother of paradise!

Seeing things in this way it was thus a bitter fall when one cold September day, after quietly watching me with a stoic, almost wise expression on his face, silent as the shadow of a lifeless thing, he suddenly lunged at me, hurling his face between a gap in the bars of the fence as I brushed past, just enough to get a piece of my hand, and cover it with a deep, wide, fiery pain, screaming out of my flesh as blood.

"God damn it! You son of a bitch! Beast!" I raged, gazing at my lacerated hand with fear and love to see if my fingers were still attached. My pain kicked him with shouts; without touching him, I kicked him to death with my sense of betrayal while he only barked and twisted and tried to push his head through the fence like a snake, snarling with the implacable hatred of something he had seen in me.

"Why? Why?!" I demanded of him. "Why did you bite me?! You know me! You know me!"

And from my own mind, I heard him say That is why I bit you. Because I know you. You have lost your respect for me, you have despised me by taking me for granted, castrated me by denying me my unpredictability, tamed me by imagining that I am tame. You have tried to turn me into you Ė cowardly, weak, trembling inside laws of glass. You have begged for mercy by pretending my teeth are not for you, tried to bind me to a pact I never signed by looking back at me with doe eyes. But you never surrendered. You only hid. That is why I have this nose to smell, to smell out the ones who want clemency, which means they have sinned, the ones who want to be different without paying the price, which I am here to collect, the ones who want to remain in my world without wearing chains!

"Damn you!" I cursed. "Damn you! You bit me!" Once more I looked at my mangled hand, then back at the savage beast I had thought for a moment, might be my friend.

Evidently, his owner was not home, or if she was, she must be sleeping, half-deaf in the bed into which she was slowly disappearing. I was alone with the dog and he alone with me.

One last time, before I left for the emergency room to have it treated, I looked down at my brutalized hand, seared by lines of upraised, disordered flesh and torrents of red that said, "The illusion is at an end."

The dog was now once more quiet, wandering off to patrol his territory against an audacious squirrel, who was bold enough to make a move for a nut on the ground, which the dog could not eat. I watched the squirrel flee and leap wildly upwards onto a branch, his bushy tail shaking with distress.

Once more, I heard a voice coming to my ears from the inside: When you silence the barking, there is nothing left to warn you of the bite!

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