from The Hounds of X
In the night, the child pads down the stairs to the living room. The television screen sends light over the floor—gray blue—and across her face and lap. She has never done this before, never padded into the living room and turned on the television late at night.
Her nightgown is thin, and she props her head against her knees and circles her calves with her arms. The television is old and the picture is snowy. On the screen is a long table of men bouncing their mugs—can that be right? It is so confusing.
Years later she thinks she remembers that a woman is laid out on that table and that the woman will rise and run from the mansion. Nighttime and the woman’s white dress glows. Behind her, in pursuit, rides a giant man on a horse. The woman hides behind rocks, then runs, stumbles, holding her long dress away from the rocks and brush. It is not a fancy dress. Nothing about the woman is fancy. Her cheeks are round and plump. She is young. What does the man on horseback want from her? Did she steal something?
In front of the television the child watches the horse for a while and then she is the woman and then she is the rock the woman hides behind. This is what the child would like to tell the woman: by the creek, there’s a cliff, and if you run there you should know where you’re running because you could run over the cliff and fall forever and break your spine.
The man dismounts from his horse and grabs the woman’s arm.
A huge dog rises from the rocks and howls into the darkness. The man who had been on horseback is hurting the woman until the dog leaps on the man, making him stop—and then before the child can see more her mother is standing behind her.
“Why are you up so late? Honey. Back to bed.”
The girl is startled and then sad. She was sure a spaceship would land soon. That movie on television—it just needed a spaceship. It would be so interesting if the spaceship was full of worms.
* * *
The child—her name is Iris—doesn’t know that the woman doesn’t escape and is knifed to death by the man who chases her on horseback.
That the dog came too late to save her. She thinks the woman is free to the tips of her ﬁngers.
Because of the dog.
* * *
One of Iris’s dogs is a relative of Lassie. Although bred as a replacement or a Lassie understudy or whatever, the collie isn’t acceptable because it was born with a head that was too pointed. The girl’s brother got the collie while he was in California—during a mysterious time when everything he did seemed full of possibility. He brought Lorez back with him to Michigan. The collie’s name is short for Delores.
* * *
Whimpering, turning in circles. It is cold, a light snow on the ground, and Lorez backs into the dog house and will not come out. The next morning: puppies!
* * *
For a while Lorez is gone, taken again to live with Iris’s brother, but Lorez loses weight and Iris is sick with loneliness. Visiting her brother, Iris stands on the hill calling and calling and suddenly Lorez runs up the hill and dances and cries in almost a human way. The girl hadn’t known the dog at first—the collie was so skinny and straggly looking—but the collie knew Iris, and she was allowed to take Lorez back home.
* * *
When a friend of the girl’s father arrives he brags about shooting Lorez and one of her grown pups. He says they were chasing his sheep. He says he shot them both. Right through the collars. He brings their collars and sets them on the dining room table. The collars look half-burned. Bullet holes in both. The girl’s father said the man shot through the collars when they were off the dogs—just to brag.
* * *
A puppy is dropped off by the road—a little mutt. Iris’s cousin comes into the kitchen where she is washing dishes and says, The pigs are doing something to your dog. Iris’s hands are in the dish water. She asks her cousin again what he saw and calls her father. When her father returns to the kitchen he says, Those damn hogs peeled your dog.
* * *
By the time Iris is thirteen she realizes that when she padded down to the living room at night all those years ago she must have been watching a scene from The Hound of the Baskervilles. Of course. Where else would a hound appear like that? Years later she watches on YouTube parts of other versions of movies made from the famous story. Either the version she’d seen wasn’t on YouTube, or her first experience had been bizarrely distorted by how young she was. She wonders if she could have dreamed the incident, how she crept downstairs and turned on the television, except it must be true because there was the tactile memory of disruption. That shifting in the air currents, the drift of her mother’s nylon nightgown, the severe tone of her mother telling her to go back to bed. The howl of the dog—the savior. Because Iris turned away she hadn’t seen that the woman was murdered by the man who chased her—the hound had come too late. That was the fate of so many—the hound coming too late or not at all. Things were always happening to girls and women or boys but so often to girls and women.
Anyway, who was to know if the hound wouldn’t have killed the girl if he came upon her ﬁrst?
* * *
Dogs are expensive. Iris could hardly keep herself fed when she was in her twenties. A dog. But there are dogs near death. You can help a dog. A dog in need of rescuing at the ASPCA or at Last Chance Ranch. Rescue a dog and not tell anyone. Not be like her friend who kept a picture of a Save the Children boy on her refrigerator and told everyone the cost.
* * *
The parking lot is full. She hates parallel parking. She ﬁnds a place to park three blocks from Last Chance Ranch.
She keeps the key fob in her hand after she locks the car, and that’s what some people say should have saved her.
From behind. The weight on the back of her neck.
Tightening. She tries to swallow but cannot swallow, and she is observing what is happening almost as if she is the witness, not the woman being strangled.
A harder squeeze and the man is angling his body and for an instant lets go—he must have wanted to get in front of her, to see her face. And then she hears it: barking. Barking that must have come from the Last Chance Ranch.
Like an airplane descending when suddenly cotton plugs your ears.
She learns that a mother walking a stroller called the police. She doesn’t remember riding in an ambulance. What sort of mother walks a child in the dark? God bless that mother.
* * *
The attack—arbitrary, random, except that she was a woman. Being a woman makes the attack less arbitrary, it appears.
No one wants to believe the attack is random.
If she knows the man who tried to strangle her, will that make things worse or better? Better, she is told. It means they can locate him, stop him. If she knows him the police will ﬁnd him.
Are you telling us the truth? she is asked repeatedly.
You know him.
He can’t hurt you.
You’re safe now.
Give us his name. We’ll ensure your safety.
She didn’t believe anyone could ensure her safety.
* * *
She was examined. The doctor seemed very young, not much older than she was. Was he trustworthy?
The abrasions on her neck might be shaped like fingers, whorls of finger pads.
The police insisted again that she knew him.
They asked, Do you have someone to take you home?
I was going to get a dog, she said. At that ranch place for dogs.
Good, good idea. Park closer, though. Where the light is better.
I’m not going back.
* * *
If she were stronger she could have killed her attacker. If she could have raised her keys she could have blinded him. Maybe she did raise the key fob. Maybe.
* * *
The dog she would have chosen that night: a collie and German Shepherd mix. Bleary-eyed. Old and sweet and hopeless. Another week and no one takes the dog. Even though the dog, old head on old paws, wagged his tail at everyone who passed his cage. If she hadn’t been attacked, Iris would have bent to the cage and the dog would have looked into her eyes and put his whole soul into his eyes to communicate in that way dogs attempt to communicate. As if there’s a language that the human should learn, if the human would just try harder. In his dream on the last night of his life, the dog runs through a field of high grass. The scrape of the cage being opened. At last.
* * *
You sound like you’re in shock.
I think I sound great.
I’m coming over. Where do you live?
She told him, realizing that her voice sounded robotic. She hardly knew him. They’d both attended a free lecture series and had been assigned as partners during the discussion session.
You weren’t the strangler were you? she asked.
No, he said. I’m not.
All I wanted was a dog, she said.
I can substitute.
She said, If an elevator is falling, should you crouch or keep standing?
I’m coming right over.
He drove her back to the hospital. He would become her most loyal friend. His ungodly name was Goshen.
* * *
She tried a counselor for a few months and always felt worse after sessions. She was expected to talk and talk. Finally the counselor told Iris that she would have to find a new way to understand her experience. But I want to exile the experience, Iris said. I want to send the experience away. She stopped seeing the counselor.
* * *
On another planet, a planet named X, a woman is attempting to feed her syringe-shaped animal. The animal will only feed on what we would call a variant of sugar cane. The animal’s paws are tiny adhesive digits attached to a feeding tube. On this planet, no one has attempted to choke anyone. If they had attempted to do so, their fingers would detach, for the women on this planet are sticky people. On this planet, pets are admired for their seven adhesive properties.
* * *
It took several years before Iris was invited to sci-fi festivals. Goshen came with her sometimes. A year before she began getting invited to conferences and festivals Goshen fell in love with a coworker, Jason, and married him. She and Goshen still saw one another often, and sometimes Jason joined them.
Iris knew that Goshen found the books she wrote embarrassing. He wanted to like her books and couldn’t—until Jason began to like the books, all of them. That’s when Goshen began to like the series. Full of compliments. More demonstrative.
By then, Goshen was a little like a dog Iris had when she was in high school. Gabbo. Iris had brought Gabbo home in a shoebox to surprise her father, and when the box moved, her father jumped back so far he knocked over a toaster oven. For years, Gabbo wasn’t affectionate. He didn’t even enjoy being petted. And then another dog, very affectionate, one of those dogs that liked to press his body as close as possible to a human being, was dropped off at the house and Gabbo competed with the other dog. Gabbo couldn’t be petted enough. Climbed on your lap and tried to tuck his long legs up into your armpits.
* * *
Iris marveled that her books sold. Maybe it was the recipes that helped. Her best seller: The Last Space Camp of Dire Stomaks. Subtitle: Eggplant! Her books got whole families reading, and afterwards the family (some members anyway) made a meal together. The recipes usually included no more than four ingredients. Basically those ingredients were dumped into a casserole dish and baked. Voila la galaxy of cheese!
* * *
Tucson, Arizona. She had plenty of fans there. Iris was used to being approached, usually by women, even though plenty of men attended the festivals. Often she was thanked for getting those women’s sons to read. Sometimes the women crowded her. They asked questions about recipes. Wanted her to sign a book and address the book to their sons or husbands. Sometimes those women and sometimes men, too, brought food—cookies and mufﬁns. She never trusted those offerings, though she tried to look delighted and thanked the gift givers. She was good at thanking people. Because she was grateful. It kept amazing her that people found her books useful.
This woman—tiny, with a bowl cut, mahogany-colored hair. A smell like lemon furniture polish. Maybe shampoo, not polish. The woman was standing very close.
I know so much about you, the woman said.
You do? This sort of comment wasn’t uncommon. People thought they knew Iris from her writing. From the interviews she gave. From YouTube videos. From the occasional fluff she wrote for magazines. Well, even if it was fluff, she enjoyed writing those articles and tried to be useful.
I want to tell you something, the woman said. Is that okay? The woman didn’t wait for an answer before she said, You saved my life.
Iris imagined: the usual hyperbole. Once a woman told Iris that she was able to gain an extra half hour of quiet because her children liked to read the books. That woman said Iris saved her life too.
The face in front of Iris seemed to fold inward. It was like watching someone take out false teeth. Cheeks caving in. Please don’t cry, Iris thought. Please don’t. Everything will be okay.
The woman said, It was Halloween and he’d been drinking and at first I thought it was a game. He picked me up and laughed. Then he threw me against the door. Like a ball. Like throwing a ball at a door. I broke my right wrist and left ankle. I kept twisting away, telling him to stop, screaming. No one helped me. The windows were open. People had to have heard.
On the planet of Ocoral an octopus threatens the tribe of QuinnMole. Tentacular horror. The QuinnMole people slip nightly into mole holes.
I don’t think he heard me at ﬁrst, the woman went on. Because he threw me against the front door again. Picked me up and threw me. So I barked. I barked louder. He once told me about the trick he played on you. How you barked. He was going to throw me again and stopped. He put me down. To listen to me bark. I barked so much that the downstairs neighbor came roaring up and that’s how I was saved. Because I barked like you.
The woman leaned back. She wasn’t through. She said, When your books came out he got every one of them. He followed your work. He loved it. He liked to talk about how he almost—well, he didn’t say ‘choked’ but it sounded like ‘choked.’ He liked to say, She writes those books but she barked like a dog for me. But you—you saved me. The guy downstairs—if he didn’t think a dog was in trouble do you think he would have helped me? No. Barking like a dog, that saved me.
On the planet X the death sponges polish their armor. They are egg stealers. It is the birds of the higher realms that must escape them, flying higher into the sky, securing in the pines their nests of foam and crystallized sea shells. What force in the universe can destroy the death sponges?
Where is he? Iris asked.
The person who tried to strangle me. Where is he now?
Oh, honey, liver cancer. He went quick.
When did he die?
Oh, that must have been three years ago. Easily. I thought we could hug this out, right?
I’m glad you’re alive, Iris said, backing away.
Oh, some days I am and some days I’m not.
Iris asked, Did he die in prison?
How did you guess?
Did he kill anyone?
They think so—that’s what they said. They never proved it. They got him on other things. I never believed he killed anyone.
Iris forced herself to say, I’m glad we’re alive.
Well I guess we have to be glad about that. But I always say don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.
Iris signed the woman’s book.
* * *
Want to read Lee Upton’s “The Hounds of X” in full? Order Indiana Review 41.1.