Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied, Dogsled near Fort Clark, 1833.

The Dogs

1.

Emilio and I decided to collect the animals on the first day of the drought. “You know I’m scared of dogs,” said Emilio. He had been bitten in the face by a dog when he was a child. He still had a weirdly shaped scar on his cheek, which sometimes looked like a peace sign when the light was right.

“I know,” I said. “I’ll pick the dogs.”

Choosing dogs for the future of creation turned out to be a huge responsibility. There was no clear consensus about what kinds of dogs were most useful or most adaptable in evolutionary terms. No one even seemed to know which kinds of dogs were most likable, except for Emilio, who said that none of them were. And dogs were all so different in terms of their personalities, their resilience, their attitudes towards life. You could have made an existential flowchart of dogs. I probably would have done that if I had had any craft paper, but the house where we were staying only had stacks upon stacks of old newspapers, many of them already moldy or rotting.

My grandmother had always kept big yellow dogs that ran amok in her house and chewed up the seats of her car, dogs with the personalities of over-enthusiastic marketing experts and the body type of sumo wrestlers, in dog terms. My best friend when I was a child only ever had tiny dogs, the kind that fit in your lap, in the crook of your arm, on your chest, dogs that never outgrew being the size and shape of human babies. My first boyfriend had a dog that looked like a lone wolf, a single lop-eared dog with an unspeakably sad expression. My boyfriend thought the dog was a depressive. He ground up Zoloft in its food, or sometimes aspirin, when the dog committed apparently intentional and random acts of self-destruction.

Here’s a fact. Dogs start to resemble their owners. Even if they don’t start to look like them, they start to act like them. Everyone knows that lazy people have lazy dogs and needy people have needy dogs and scrappers have scrappy fighting dogs. Which begs the question: what would dogs act like if they didn’t have owners? My decision would probably have been easier if I had liked dogs, but I secretly hated them and probably wouldn’t have been especially sad if they had disappeared from the face of the earth altogether.

Emilio, in the meantime, was picking out bugs. Bugs were easy. There weren’t very many kinds, or, if there were, you couldn’t tell them apart. Even Emilio, who liked bugs, didn’t care very much about them. It’s hard to be emotionally invested in things that are so easily crushed.

“You wouldn’t be able to collect the bugs,” said Emilio. “You hate bugs.”

The drought had only just started and it was the middle of summer and the land was hot and dry and lush. Breeze rippled through the eucalyptus and high clouds hung porous and trailing foam. The fire department had gone around posting wildfire warnings on all the telephone poles and they had taped one up specially on our mailbox, because the house was a fire hazard. It wasn’t our house, but we were responsible for it in some unclear way, just like we were responsible for the future of the animals.

“How will we feed them?” I had asked Emilio when we first started. “Won’t they just all eat each other? That’s how the food chain works.” I had watched too many Planet Earth documentaries. That would also have been a useful flowchart, mapping the chain of aggression from large to small and from predatory to preyed upon.

Emilio looked prophetic for a moment. He held up his forefinger like he was shushing me and I thought he was pointing to the sky to tell me, God will provide. But then he just shrugged and scratched his scalp. “Soy is pretty nutritious,” he told me.

 

2.

The forecast for the drought changed from day to day. One afternoon, it looked like it was going to rain. It might even have drizzled a little near the ocean, where the fog was heaviest, but it didn’t rain. The animals got slower as the summer went on and the grass all shriveled up and turned brown. Fine ropes of heat shimmered in the air. I went to see an old creek bed one afternoon where I had played as a child. It had used to rain torrentially until all the creeks choked and overflowed and everything flooded. I used to have big plastic rain boots, the real deal, the kind that came up to your knees and were made of shiny yellow. The creek bed was bone-dry now and full of dead plants,  just a gutted line in the ground. The tadpole pond nearby, which belonged to the science lab, was also almost dry. A murky film of brown pond scum floated on top of it. I didn’t see any tadpoles, but maybe they had all been captured and used as science experiments. We would have to find tadpoles somewhere else.

“Tadpoles aren’t a species,” said Emilio, when I told him. “They’re just babies.”

I think my obsession with evolution partly came from my ex-boyfriend, B. He was always telling me that I stayed with him because of my primal lizard brain, which reckoned he would be a good father. He wouldn’t have been. He worked at a movie theater and he wore a baseball cap even when his hair was wet. He went to the gym all the time, but his body stayed the same as it had been when I first met him, soft around the middle, sloping at the shoulders, covered in birthmarks. I had never met anyone with so many birthmarks. Sometimes, he would flex for me in bed at night and I would trace a constellation along the birthmarks on his arm, pretending that I was tracing the outline of his invisible muscles. He had developed a horizontal timeline of the world that mainly revolved around fuckability or lack of fuckability. According to him, men and women had evolved to have opposing mating strategies, men to mate with as many women as possible, and women to mate with men who had superior desirable genes, and then lock down a provider to raise their babies.

The Selfish Gene is right on the money,” he would say when someone asked for evidence.

In truth, I think I was ostensibly fertile and terrified of pregnancy. If he was even capable of reproducing on his diet of reheated hot dogs and menthol cigarettes, I figured my ovaries would reject his offerings. Emilio was different, of course. Maybe he was my provider. Not that he had anything more to offer than B. by way of material belongings, but he had a masterplan to save all of the animals in creation and that seemed like a provider-ish sort of thing to do.

We ran into several problems right near the start of the project, of course, before I had even started choosing dogs. One was a problem of space. Even the animals we could find, the ones that lived in our neck of the woods, like Emilio said, would be hard to handle. In the middle of August, we drove down to the recycling center to forage for glass jars for the bugs, and we found a dog on the way. That was actually the first animal, unless you count the rats in the yard.

 

3.

The first dog was little and bony and scrappy. One of her silky ears was damaged and drooping, which made her look deranged. She had a dirty ribbon tied around her neck, which was almost completely threaded in places. She liked us instantly, though, for a stray, so she had probably had an owner at some point. Maybe before the drought. I gave her water and after that she followed me around everywhere and panted and played until even Emilio warmed up to her. She wasn’t any help against the rats, though. She was more scared of them than we were.

I named her Laurey Williams, after the heroine of the 1943 hit musical Oklahoma!. “She’s blonde,” I explained when Emilio asked.

He looked doubtfully at the dog, who was grayish at best, and whose hair was thinning in places. “If you say so.”

Laurey Williams is just a simple farm girl, living in a fantastical bread-and-butter version of Oklahoma, who gets caught up in a love triangle. Confused about her feelings, she tries to buy a love potion, but ends up taking opiates and falls into a fever dream, where her lovers compete for her. In Oklahoma! nothing matters except for the love story, the fever dream, the present.

“You can’t give a dog a human name,” said Emilio when I had finished explaining the plot of Oklahoma! to him. “Anyway, we can’t keep this one. Do you really want her to be the future of dogs? She can barely walk up the stairs. She runs away from rats.”

“You’re scared of dogs,” I said, “and you’re the future of humanity.”

Emilio ignored that. He was cleaning out mason jars and filling them up with leaves for small, leaf-eating insects and cicadas.  I wondered which one of us Laurey Williams would start to look like if she stayed with us long enough. If she would lose her airy, grayish beauty that had made me think of Laurey Williams, the character, in the first place. She might become a mixture of us like a baby would have been: Emilio’s crooked jawline, my big forehead, Emilio’s legs, my eyes.

“All I’m saying,” he said, “is don’t get too attached to her. We don’t have space for pets.”

We had to catch some of the rats towards the end of August and it was probably a good thing that Laurey Williams was so scared of them. They weren’t scared of her at all. They could probably smell her fear. And that made it much easier to catch them, crate them, and feed them scraps of peanut butter later in the day. It was easier to catch animals in the summer, we thought, but our summer never really tapered off. The heat deepened through September, the shadows got longer and the days got shorter. You could feel the ground holding its breath and bracing for winter. Smoke drifted down from the north and a soft flutter of ash coated the front porch every day. Somewhere not too far away there were fires.

Another reason I liked Laurey Williams, the character that is, and not the dog, although I loved the dog as soon as I laid eyes upon her, is the love potion. I went to the magic store when I met Emilio to get a love potion, but they only had wellness tinctures for healthy relationships. There is nothing healthy about trying to make someone fall in love with you by bewitching them. Emilio wasn’t in love with me and I don’t know why I wanted so badly for him to be. The first night we slept together, which was long after the love potion, I had a dream that he was sorry for something. For never loving me, maybe.

The night we found Laurey Williams, I had a dream that I was pregnant. In the dream, I wanted a baby that was more beautiful than either me or Emilio but that looked like both of us. A baby that would graft his skin onto mine and his blood into mine and would bind him to me. A baby that would survive the drought. In the dream, I went to do an ultrasound and realized I was pregnant with a piece of fruit. When I drank water, the seeds bloomed inside of me the way I thought they would when I was a child. When I woke up, the baby was gone and my stomach felt hollow.

 

4.

The second dog came to us around the beginning of October. He came up from the direction of the science lab and bounded into the yard and scattered the rats. He lay down and rolled around in the weeds for a while and when I came outside he bared his teeth and growled at me. He liked Emilio, though, a sad case of unrequited love. Emilio always seemed to inspire unrequited love.

We had to keep him out of the main room where we kept the other animals. He would have harassed them, tipped over the jars, and made a mess. He got along just fine with Laurey Williams, though. At first I hoped they would mate, which would have proved Emilio wrong about her, but I don’t think they ever did. The second dog was protective of Laurey Williams, though, in a brotherly kind of way, when he wasn’t busy moping around after Emilio. I named him River Phoenix after the troubled star of the queer hustler classic My River Idaho, who died of a drug overdose in 1993. River Phoenix grew up in a cult. He bought acres and acres of forest in Costa Rica to save the planet. He even released some low-budget recordings of his music, which was his true lifelong passion. I thought the second dog was mopey enough and probably had an interesting enough life history for his namesake.

Once River Phoenix arrived, the raccoons stopped digging through the trash every night and we could leave the windows open. Mosquitoes drifted in through the airless night. We didn’t have any screens. I lay awake and thought about the drought and the animals in the other room and how it was up to us to save humankind. I worried that I might have demented genes, a calculation that had gone wrong somewhere. I worried that I might be infertile. Sometimes, you could smell smoke when there was a breath of wind from the east.

“Maybe we should have a baby,” I said to Emilio one night when we had turned off the battery-operated light already and I couldn’t see his face, only the outline of his hair, his shoulder, a hand in the dark.

For a while, he didn’t answer me. I thought he was probably pretending that he hadn’t heard me, that he was already asleep. Then he said all the things that you are supposed to say: How can we bring a child into this world? This planet is overpopulated. Just smell the smoke. Wake up and hear the music. We don’t have money, food, water. What would we do with a child? I don’t even want a child. Do you know anything about babies?

“I just want one,” I said. You don’t need to explain or justify biological impulses. That is another thing that B. taught me when we used to go out. “It makes sense. We’re trying to save all the other animals.”

“I never thought you were like that,” said Emilio. I don’t know what he left unsaid and I didn’t ask him.

 

5.

Thanksgiving was so hot that even River Phoenix wouldn’t chase the rats. In the newspapers, they said we were revisiting the hardships of the pilgrims. Emilio wanted to burn an American flag but that would have been a fire hazard, so we settled for spray painting on the mailbox: NO THANKS TO YOU.

We kept arguing about the baby in the meantime. I started dreaming about babies every night, each one a different kind of baby. I made myself a calming tea to try and sleep without dreaming, but the babies just became quieter, sadder, grayish around the edges. We drank a lot of tea even though it was so hot, because that way we could reuse water.

I knew my desire for a baby wasn’t good for the earth. I knew it also went explicitly against the rules of my relationship with Emilio, which stated that I would not force him to be in love with me. I felt clingy. My skin felt sticky when he touched me like I was trying to velcro his ribs to mine. I felt guilty whenever we had sex, as if I was entrapping him. I found an old Bible among all the garbage in the house and made a mental flowchart of all the commandments to reproduce, of Adam, of Noah with his sons and his sons’ wives during the Flood. How could we save the animals without saving ourselves? That kind of altruism was probably impossible, in evolutionary terms.

“I don’t understand it,” said Emilio every time. “Why would you want to bring a person into a world like this? Isn’t it bad enough living in it? You know a baby is an actual person.”

I could still remember what the rain smelled like when he asked me that. Sometimes, when I went out and ash coated my hair, I would stick out my tongue and close my eyes and pretend that it was rain until I started to choke. The world felt like it could be redeemed.

 

6.

The third dog appeared towards the end of that year. We had filled the bathtub with frogs, turtles, fish, water bugs, trying to recreate the ecosystem of a pond. We could reuse water for a pond; the animals didn’t care.

The third dog was soft and white and shaggy. From a distance, she looked like a dirty sheepskin blanket. I found her on the porch one morning when the smoke was so thick you could barely breathe. She was sitting there all panting and coated in gray and matted dirt. She lay at my feet and cried until I let her come inside. Then she tracked mud and ash all over everything and tried to eat the birds. I named her Marlene Dietrich, because she was so pale and so dramatic and because she seemed like a fighter.

Any one of the dogs could have been my child. It seemed like they were sent for that.

Laurey Williams and River Phoenix didn’t take to Marlene Dietrich, which was probably no surprise. They were all very different, personality-wise. Laurey Williams was anxious, a little neurotic, the lovable crazy girl, always shedding in patches and rubbing herself up against everything until you thought she would rub through to the bone. River Phoenix was depressive, obsessive, moody. He was the downer to Laurey Williams’s upper. He protected her when she was scared and she kept him busy. They had a whole thing going and Marlene Dietrich didn’t fit neatly into it.

She wasn’t really much like Marlene Dietrich in the end. Or maybe like Marlene Dietrich when she was bedridden and hidden from the public eye. She did crazy things that I didn’t think dogs were supposed to do. If I tried to bathe her or to play with her, she would roll her eyes up dramatically into her skull and lie down in the grass belly-up and gnaw at the weeds. She got along really well with the raccoons also.

“She’s a real California dog,” said Emilio. “She probably had an owner who was a rich old lady who drove  a Volvo with like three hundred ‘COEXIST’ bumper stickers on it.”

She didn’t have a tag either. None of the dogs had tags.

Marlene Dietrich wasn’t even phased by the firecrackers on New Year’s Eve. The other animals all made a lot of noise or flew around frantically. They clearly thought the world was ending and they would die trapped in our house. Someone from the fire department had come by earlier to leave a warning about firecrackers on the mailbox.

“DO NOT SET OFF FIRECRACKERS,” it read. “THIS IS AN EXTREME FIRE HAZARD AND WILL BE PROSECUTED TO THE FULL EXTENT OF THE LAW.”

They taped it up next to the faded NO THANKS TO YOU message that we had spray painted on Thanksgiving. It gave the odd impression of a dialogue.

“Friendly dog,” said the guy from the fire department when Marlene Dietrich came running out to meet him.

“She’s a stray,” I said. “They’re all strays.”

“Lot of dogs around now,” said the guy and then he drove away.

Clearly, no one else cared about the fire hazard signs because we heard firecrackers all night. Much later, there was also the faint echo of thunder out at sea, but it still didn’t rain.

 

7.

I couldn’t sleep much because of the firecrackers. The animals were restless and the night felt restless. It smelled strongly of smoke. When I did fall asleep, I had a feverish dream where I went to an orphanage to look for a baby. It was an old-fashioned kind of orphanage, the kind you see in old movies with rows of wooden benches and steel beds and nuns running it. All the babies were dogs. The nun who was showing me around kept telling them to recite the alphabet or to crawl for me or to stand up and smile. All the dogs looked different and none of them could comfort me for not having a baby. My emptiness felt like a black void that only Emilio and I could fill. What was I supposed to do?, I remembered saying in my dream. I couldn’t adopt all of these dogs.

When I woke up the air was heavy with smoke. Emilio was fast asleep and I had to shake him until he woke up, drowsy and coughing and spluttering. We climbed out the front window and opened all the doors to let the animals out and then we walked down the road towards the science lab and the abandoned tadpole pond. The night had been very clear and there was a moon, but you couldn’t see anything except fire from down there. Most of the animals wouldn’t have been able to get away, the ones in crates and jars and boxes, but the dogs were free to go. I shooed them out of the house as we left and they all barked loudly and ran around in panicked circles. Maybe they weren’t the future of dogs after all.

By morning on New Year’s Day, the fire had spread, so Emilio and the dogs and I went down towards the ocean and watched the smoke from there. It just looked like fog from a distance, a peaceful canopy of gray over the land.

Miriam Gordis

Miriam Gordis is a writer and poet. Her debut chapbook, Vinyl, was published by Eyewear Publishing in 2018. Her work has previously appeared in Litro, Visual Verse, and The Radiant Collective, and she is a former staff writer for Oxford University’s ISIS Magazine. Originally from Berkeley, she now lives in Manhattan.

3 Comments on “The Dogs

  1. A wonderful story of romantic pessimism. Ironically, that attitude itself may be an inherited strategy for survival. Just look at your father – it works. You will survive and prosper.

  2. I am in Australia. The context of floods, droughts and fires is very topical right now. We are concerned about the survival of the plants and animals, not to mention how people fit into this environment. But The Dogs gave me something to smile about. I am a professional dog trainer. I love eccentric, whimsical views of dogs.

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