I started this story at Kenyon Writer's Workshop, with a great prompt from Brad Kessler. He handed each of us back issues of The Kenyon Review. If you haven't seen the journal, the photographs on the covers are always interesting, provocative, and beautiful. He wanted us to write a short story based on our covers. My cover showed wild looking dogs in a desolate landscape. I wrote my first (and so far, last) speculative fiction story, which was previously published in an anthology called DESOLATE PLACES.
It's A Dog's Life
He lives with her in a godforsaken place. All rock and mud where there used to be water and trees. They sent him there four years before with a group of others who were deemed inconvenient for the government. Some would say he’s not gotten a bad deal, given the state of affairs elsewhere in the world. After all, so many people died, so many continue to die from the scourges they fashioned centuries ago. Women suffer the most, he’s told, due to the ways the world has become animal.
She likes calling him a dog, but he has only two legs and opposable thumbs. He doesn’t roll around in his own waste, but he pisses in the entrance to their cavern, marking it.
He’s at the very edge of the coast of what used to be Florida. They say it was beautiful before the war. He’s seen pictures, but they tell him pictures don’t do it justice.
There were oceans then instead of stagnant expanses of damp. There were trees and grasses and edible fruits. The sky used to be blue some of the time, and the temperature used to be reasonable. There used to be fish. Tomatoes. Eggs. Tastes people now can only imagine.
When it’s safe he walks outside on what used to be a beach. Sometimes he picks up a relic. A seashell. A bone. He found a patch of cloth they say was probably from a piece of clothing, and he can still see traces of a leaf painted on it. He’s told it’s a palm frond, but he doesn’t know if this information is correct. If there was a museum left he could donate the shred of fabric. That’s how rare it is. Right now it just sits on a piece of stone in his cave and mildews, which isn’t good for a relic. He keeps it in case he needs it. For bartering. A life or death situation. Anything less would be wasteful.
Flies, cockroaches and lice survive, as do snakes and one breed of goat. Dogs, of course, but not lap dogs. Those were eaten by larger dogs in a spirited chain of canine cannibalism.
Seagulls were the only birds to survive, and this has not been scientifically explained, as most of the scientists perished. The government delighted in the execution of fate. The weak did not inherit the earth.
There’s not much of an ecosystem yet, and some say there’ll never be again. The seagulls screech and dive when he brings his rations home from the caged and guarded place the government has sanctioned for them. They’re allowed two bags of chemicals, only enough to mitigate hunger. There’s not much more to eat than that. Try as he might, he searches for something else, something that might grow in the cracked earth despite all that’s happened there, though the dogs usually find it before he does—they’ve had many generations to hone skills people can’t master. Smell. Persistence. Survival. The gulls pick at corpses after the dogs are done with them. Everyone has their turn.
Bands of men approach the cavern sometimes with makeshift weapons, and it’s not unusual for them to kill for the thrill of it with their own arms and teeth, like monsters. They have little else to do. She hides in our cave most of the time, afraid. Fear is her survival instinct. She only comes out at night to watch the sky, hurrying back inside when the dogs howl or they hear another person approach.
Nobody’s safe. There’s nothing to own but many who covet. She knows it. That’s why she stays with him. He’s her amulet, but he doesn’t feel used; he feels needed.
She peers out at the dogs that roam around them. Dogs look much like they say they always did, but their tails have changed. Their tails provide the only whimsy left in this world, curled as they are like decorations against the steely sky.
They hear the dogs all times of the day and night, especially after a fresh kill. She admits this scares her. The only time she clings to him is when she’s scared. He appreciates it when she’s scared because, more than anything else, he doesn’t want her to leave. Most words have vanished from disuse after all the destruction. There seems so little to say.
He’s can’t tell her he loves her. He’s not sure she wants to hear it. She stays there because she’s protected by him, because their world is hazardous and cruel and because he has that small piece of cloth to protect them.
* * *
Herb’s wife Estelle bought him that tropical shirt with the palm trees the day she died. He never could have predicted that a tattered piece of his clothing might save someone else’s life many years later. If he’d known that, he might have felt that he died with dignity, for a noble cause, instead of in a stupid sonic boom that sank much of the world into itself like a fulminating boil.
The day Estelle died was hot and humid, typical for Florida then, in the summer. She left the mall with the Hawaiian print shirt; she saw the storm clouds gathering above. She thought she’d make it home before the sheets of rain came down, but she didn’t. All of a sudden it was dark, and the windshield was layered with thick sheets of rain and hail. She couldn’t see, but didn’t stop. She wanted to get home. When the truck hit her on the driver’s side, her car traveled horizontally along the glazed road and, rolling over like road kill, looked more like a dented tin than a Buick. They tried to save her.
Everyone told Herb not to visit the car. It was too gruesome, they said, but he couldn’t help it. He needed to see it, the last space his wife had lived. It was only then, amid the dusty, broken cars at the lot, that he saw the shopping bag still lying on the backseat. He wore the shirt almost every day after that. It made him feel as if Estelle were still alive.
Herb was an old man for a very long time. He never thought he’d live as long as he did, especially after Estelle died. He never predicted he’d die because of a war, along with lots of other people who didn’t deserve to die just then. He’d never have predicted that the one thing he’d accomplish, merely by owning it, would be a piece of clothing that refused to dissolve when everything else around him did.
* * *
It would be as foolish to say the treasured square of fabric joins the two men together any more than the two worlds are joined together. There is simply the passage of time.