The bad dog
She was a bad dog. She couldn’t be told.
She ate nothing but touched everything with her mouth, her snout – chewing, sniffing, licking, breathing. She had no respect for objects of value or concepts of hygiene or punctuality or personal space. She stole handkerchiefs. She tore up shoes. She put her paws on the kitchen counter and her nose in the coffee cups and water glasses and left a smear with her tongue on the rim. She slipped between our legs as we moved from one part of the house to another, leaving clumps of brittle white fur in the most unlikely of rooms. She disrupted our daydreams and quiet acts of domestic reverie by barking and whining and sitting unnaturally still on the floor beside us with eyes that said I want I want I want.
She didn’t belong in our world of narrow-mindedness and decorum, of carpet and sliding doors. She exposed the fragility of our whims and anxieties and the absurdity of the actions we performed to protect them. She loved us when we didn’t want to be loved. She woke us when we didn’t want to be woken. She appeared to us in dreams and made demands on our sentimentality and benefited from the endless reservoirs of laziness and guilt that we tried so hard to hide from ourselves and from each other.
What should we do with the dog, we said. Or, Have you walked the dog? The bad dog’s name was engraved on a tag that hung from her collar. It was rarely used. No, we told her, over and over again. No! Bad dog. No.
As bad as she was, we couldn’t imagine living without the unique burden of her presence. She was the justification by which we curtailed our ambitions and cancelled our plans and lived in righteous discontent. Weekends were filled and holidays unthinkable. She ate up our savings; she couldn’t be told.
A week before the bad dog died, we made a coffin out of timber offcuts from the side of the road. She was fully grown; the coffin could have fitted a tween. Soon the vet came and the bad dog was put down and into the coffin and the coffin was nailed shut. We borrowed a shovel from the vet and started to dig up the lawn in the backyard but the coffin was so big the grave had to be almost six feet deep. The shovel hit bedrock less than halfway down. We hired a jackhammer to finish the job.
We told ourselves that we could never get another dog, that the bad dog had caused too much grief and discomfort and that we couldn’t possibly replace her memory with the warm body of another, but soon after we buried her beside the apricot tree, with little else to talk about, we talked about little else.
She didn’t know it then, but there was a specific way that she was supposed to scatter the ashes. She had her father’s in a cylinder and her mother’s in a plastic bag and she couldn’t hold both at the same time, down on one knee in the grey sand and tussock. Later someone said that you were supposed to dig small furrows in the ground and array the deceased in rows, like crops, before covering them with soil to prevent the ashes from dispersing and solidifying into a film when it rained.
It was a still day by the beach. She and her brother and sister emptied both parents at once and they were amazed and terrified by the mushroom cloud that formed. The ashes were less like ashes than they were plaster or concrete. She and her brother and sister retreated to a safe distance to eat fruitcake and cheese scrolls and to talk about how happy their parents had been there, of all places.
Their mother would sometimes throw things at their father – a cup, a coin, a book, a watch – whatever was close at hand when he angered her most. Even worse than whatever caused their mother to throw things at their father was his ability to evade whatever was thrown at him while he laughed and whistled between his teeth and teased their mother for having terrible aim.
But with probability and grim persistence, their mother eventually hit her target. It was a still day by the beach; the family was having a picnic. Their father made a sarcastic aside, not easily decipherable to the children, and their mother selected a small pinecone from the grass and pegged it without conviction at his balding scalp. A terrible silence fell as their father clutched two fingers against his head.
You hit me, he said. You actually hit me.
Their father brought his fingers down in front of his face and separated them slowly, as if unfurling a strand of hair.
You hit me, he said. I’m bleeding!
Their mother laughed and laughed.
Years later, after the picnic, she could still feel the grit lodged in her hair and between her teeth as she walked with her brother and sister back to the car. Beyond the middens and cliffs blooming with pigface, the water in the bay endlessly rearranged itself, eroding lost sinkers and softening the edges of broken glass. At the time she’d intended to go back more often, but it was an hour’s drive away, around and down the other side of the river.
I think I just swallowed a tiny piece of Dad, she remembers someone saying.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 20, 2021 as "Two stories".
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