Authors: Bruce McAllister
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The god of death, Xolotl, made the Sacred Dog, Itzcuintli, from a sliver of the Bone of Life, from which The People were also made. Upon their death, human beings are led to the afterlife across a great lake by Itzcuintli. Should they hesitate in accepting Death, the Sacred Dog helps them on their way.
We were very young when we went to Mexico, my wife and I. We'd been married only a year, were just out of college, were both teachers, and had the liberal fervor of youth. We did not yet know that to romanticize a country, to sentimentalize its people and places and the creatures of it, not only is an affront to themâto the struggle between darkness and light which gives any human beings their meaning on this earthâbut can end very badly.
We would not have romanticized our own country, but, again, we were young and the children of a privileged society. Even without being conscious of it, we assumed intentions of a generous heart were enough to protect us from evil in the world. We had not grown up with evil; it had never been our companion. Jennifer was teaching in a federal program for the children of the underprivilegedâto give them a leg up in schoolâand I was teaching remedial English at three community colleges within driving distance of where we lived, only two hours from the border.
A good friend, Tonyâwhose parents were from Mexico, but who'd grown up in Los Angelesâwas pushing thirty and enjoying a career in journalism. He said: “Watch the dogs when you're down there, David.”
We were eating at our apartment not far from the Pacific, and I'd just told him we'd be going to the state of Morelos, to CuauhnÃ¡huac, a language institute there, because we wanted to learn Spanishâbecause so many of our students, pre-schoolers and adult learners alike, knew Spanish and we did not, and what a wonderful thing it would be if we did, wouldn't it? It would not only make communication better, but also give us the kind of empathy and bondânot just through language, but through an appreciation of cultureâthat a teacher should have of any student of any age. “Am I right, Tony?”
I must have sounded like an idiot. Tony was older and had seen much more of the world as a foreign correspondent for both US and Latin American newspapers. (We'd met when he was a stringer for the region's biggest paper, and I was an intern trying to decide what to do with whatever writing skills I had.) But he was a friend and was not going to make fun of me. More than once he'd said, “You need to travel more, David, but don't do it stupidly. Know the laws and don't walk the Andes with $1500 in your pocket, alone, singing at the top of your lungs, like that kid last year. Be compassionate, but not stupid.”
“They're not like the dogs here,” he answered. “They're like the people in those northern states. They have to scrabble harder.â¦”
,” he said as he left, and thenâwith the cheerfulness that made him such a good interviewer in the midst of war and famineâadded, “And bring me back a souvenir, David. Surprise me!”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
We lived in a
âa middle-class neighborhood with gated houses elbow to elbow, doing their best to keep the chaos of the streets, the poor, the wild things, out. We'd been placed by the institute with a local family, so we'd be hearing the language constantly. The woman spoke Spanish slowly for us, and she spoke some English, tooâwhich helped at first. She was gracious and generous, cooking us meals of karo syrup and pancakes at 8 or 9 at night when we got back from school. But she was not very happy. Her husband, a trophy-winning body-builder, had left her with their five kids, and she complained about her youngest, her
because he was so dark. “He has Chichimec bloodâ
bloodâfrom his great grandfather's side, I am told,” she explained. “Otherwise he would not be so dark. His father is blonde.” The boy was dark, sure, but cute and animated and got along better with the family's two boxers and its two American guests than his brothers and sistersâin their blonde aloofnessâdid. The mother's distress over her fifth child made life in the house awkward, especially when the boy was present and listening to her apologies for him. But the apologies didn't seem to bother him. She did love him, and he must have known this.
Do you know the Chichimeca?
” she asked, in Spanish.
“No,” we answered.
“They were the âdog people,'” she said, then dropped the subject and moved on to the Saturday market, what fun it was, and where we could find the nearest store for school supplies.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
We would walk the five blocks through the
and the city streets beyond the gates to the institute, and return the same way at day's end. Our teachers were young and liberal too, with one exceptionâa middle-aged anthropologist who seemed to have no politics and who didn't join in the laughter and occasional silliness of his younger colleagues.
The day Jennifer was house-bound with a bad cold, I returned from the institute by myself and saw a dog, a mid-sized mongrel by some bushes on the wide sidewalk just ahead of me. It was sleeping. I assumed it would move as I approached or simply let me walk by. Any dog would, wouldn't it? It was a sidewalk. Public.
As I neared it, the animal leaped to its feet snarling and jumped at me.
I was wearing a backpack with my books and supplies in it, and the dog's jaws, clacking wetly, got the backpack. The dog hung from the pack by its jaws and thrashed. I could barely stay on my feet and nearly toppled backward. My nerves were firing like lightning, in the panic only adrenaline can make, and I was hitting at the animal behind me but never quite connecting.
Suddenly the weight on my back disappeared. I was able to straighten up, and, when I turned, the dog was trotting away, looking back once and only once. It was an ugly dogâshort-haired, long-legged, a belly bigger than any starving dog should have, and a wrinkled face like a Shar Pei, those battle dogs. Was it pregnant? Ill?
My backpack was in shreds. I kept thinking, looping in a spasm of thought:
Jesus! What if it had bitten me? How do you catch a dog like that for quarantine? How do you get rabies shots? Do you stay with the family or somewhere else?
I had no idea how things worked down here, I realized, despite Tony's advice about the world. Just the day before, I'd learned you could be put in jail here for witnessingâjust witnessingâa car accident.
Tony had been right.
Don't be stupid. Find out what you need to know about a country.â¦ so you don't die like an idiot.
I'd been stupid.
A few people had stopped on the street, but were moving again. Nothing to see here. Dogs are dogs.
For a week I dreamed of the animal, how it had hung on like it wanted to kill me,
to kill me, was so hungry that nothing in the universe could satisfy its hunger. In the dreams it came at my face. The wrinkles got bigger. It was wearing a maskâa human maskâand then the mask was a mirror, and it was my face. As its jaws snapped at me, blood and pieces of flesh cascaded from themâ
blood and flesh. It was more than any dog could possibly eat, so it gave back to me what it could not eat. I ate my own flesh and woke so nauseated I thought I would vomit.
What do you do with a dream like that?
I'd moan, and Jennifer would have to wake me. But I kept the dreams to myself. I'd already told her about the dog attackâso she'd be cautious on the streets if we weren't together. She didn't need more to disturb her own nights. She loved cats, but was always shy with dogs.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
A week later, just before our three-day weekendâwhen we were planning to rent a car and travel happily, romantically, to towns and villagesâwe were returning at sunset through the
to our house. Just beyond the first gated place, we saw the body in the gutter. It was a big dog, but barely recognizable because of what had been done to it.
Something had torn out its throat, filling the asphalt by its head with blood, but that was nothing compared to the stomach.
Jennifer sucked in a deep breath and said, “I'm sorry, David, but I can't look at this. I'm going to get sick.”
“Sure.” I took her by the elbow and aimed her away, down the street to the first
houses. “Go on home. I'll catch up.”
She looked scared. It was a dead dog, I told myself. Nothing more.
“Why can't you come with me?” she asked.
I was curious. I wanted to understand better what had happened. Only human nature, wasn't it?
“I want to checkâ” I started to say. “Just go over to the corner and wait for me. Look at the sunset. I'll be just a second.”
She went to the corner. She looked beautiful standing there, with her long hair and skinny legs. The girl I loved. She didn't look at the sunset. She didn't look at the mountains. She was looking at me as if the disemboweled body might jump up and grab me, or the wild dogs that had killed and eaten it (what else would have done this?) might suddenly reappear, and I'd be their next mealÂ â¦ or
of us would.
I looked down at the body in the dimming light. Something had eaten the entire belly. White ribs were showing. There wasn't an entrail left, as if a big hand had scooped it clean. There was also a smellârancid and feralâbut I didn't think much of it. Death had its smells.
I crouched down.
What showed of the dog's collar in all the blood looked pink, with big rhinestones. It was familiar. I'd seen this dog and its two siblingsâheavy, sleek Dobermansâbehind a gate in the
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
We took our rental, an old sedan, and drove first to San Luis because we'd heard the architecture there was pure colonial-frontier. It felt like Spainâthe conquerorsâand yet it was rough, what you'd expect of a frontier. The way, I'm sure, even upscale New York had seemed to British royalty back in the day, and certainly how the houses of the wealthy in the San Francisco Bay Area must have seemed to those who owned mansions in Newport, Rhode Island.
In an alcove just off the cathedral there, there was a chapelâone you had to visit, everyone said. When we stepped into it, we didn't understand what we were seeing. It was maybe 10' by 10'. In each corner there was a life-sized, painted plaster saint. But this wasn't the crazy thing. Each of the four saintsâall of them in Bible dressâwas bleeding more blood than any human being should. One had a plaster axe cleaving his body at the shoulder. Blood poured from the wound, covering the saint's body and pooling at his feet.
To the right of that saint was one we knew. Saint Sebastian. Full of arrows. Blood running like faucets from each arrowâa physical impossibility, of course, but this hadn't mattered to the craftsman who'd made it centuries ago. The story here, everywhere in this little room, was
âhow much blood there was in the worldâhow much the world could and perhaps should bleed. A symphony of blood, filling rivers, seas, draining every human bodyâ