by Pritika Pradhan
A year into his retirement, and two months after moving into his newly completed house, Mr. Parida got himself a dog. He had been threatening to do it for so long that it came as a surprise when he actually did; it was as though the completion of his own house had made him into a new man. So he went out and picked a pariah puppy from the streets where it had been wandering with the other strays, grubby and famished, but set apart by its floppy ears that he found unusual and endearing. It was a small dark thing, much like himself, so they could keep each other company, as he explained to his speechless wife. Then his daughter, home from her American university for the winter break, pointed out that it was female. As she put it in English: “Baba, it’s a bitch.”
Attending to its singular ears, he had failed to notice the tiny telltale buds dotting the puppy’s underside, and the absence of the requisite appendage. Even now he was embarrassed to look, and it discomfited him that his daughter would notice such a thing, and call attention to it using such a sharp and vulgar word. America had changed her, matured her in unexpected and alarming ways, while holding her back in the ways that mattered.
“Well, at least she will have puppies. You refuse to marry and give me grandchildren, but the dog will give me grandchildren.”
He had no idea why he said that so directly. His disappointment at the life she was building for herself in America had been subtle and muted, muffled in light jokes that she would deflect with a laugh. Even now she seemed not to notice. She snorted, and replied, “You need to have her fixed, Baba. It is the responsible thing to do. Take her to a vet as soon as possible to have her spayed.” She made a scissoring motion with her fingers as she walked into the house.
He stared after her, muttering under his breath. “Mummy. Mummy.”
His wife turned to him, smiling. “What is it, Baba?”
“Did you hear what she said?” he whispered, though they were alone in the courtyard with the dog. “Where do you think she picked up that – that sort of language?”
“America, I suppose. What? She is studying for her P-H-D in English there.” She enunciated the words satirically, but with pride. “It makes sense she would be expert in the language, no?”
He threw up his hands. “Talk to her – tell her it is not proper to speak like that here.”
But his wife was prepared for him. “I will do no such thing. You want her to mind her language, you talk to her yourself. How come every time you want to tell her not to do something, I have to do it for you? I’m not getting involved this time. It is you who started this talk of breeding in the first place.”
He shut his eyes. She seemed determined to make this as difficult as possible.
“Speaking of breeding, couldn’t you find a better-looking dog? Something nice and white, or at least light brown in color? There are plenty of light-colored puppies on the streets. This black one looks like a village dog. As your daughter would say, it looks like a Third World dog.”
The lowly creature was presently sprawled on her back, her hind legs parted, her rosy belly shamelessly exposed. Though almost entirely black, her extremities were in fact white, so it appeared she had socks on her feet, and a white mask covering her snout, like the ones people were beginning to wear in the big cities to stem the spreading contagion. In their small town tucked away in a corner of Odisha, itself a forgotten corner of India, life proceeded with the unexpected normality of obscure places, only padded here and there with a few additional precautions.
“Hmm! Aren’t we all Third World? Even madam with her American English – she is Third World too, someone should remind her.”
“Well, it won’t be me. You tell her, if you ever work up the courage. You never could handle your daughter. And now you got yourself another one. A retired man like you has no business taking on new responsibilities. Mind you do not bring that thing upstairs.”
With that, she left him in the courtyard, before he could think of a reply. The women in his family always got the better of him in conversation, and evidently his status was further diminished in his retirement.
The dog looked up at him with sorry eyes. She was not what he had taken her to be, and yet, as she feebly beat her tail, its snowy tip reddening with dust, she became what he had wanted all along. He nudged her fondly with his sandaled foot. In response, she rolled over, and he noted another unexpected similarity: like him, the dog’s ribs showed, and yet her belly was slightly swollen, like that of a malnourished child, or an expectant mother just beginning to show.
There was no question of bringing the dog upstairs where the family lived; that was not how things were done here, he explained to his indignant American daughter. She had shown him websites about puppy care and responsible pet ownership; apparently it was fashionable in America was to keep animals in a state of luxury unimaginable to most people in the rest of the world. In turn, he had pointed out that the few people who could afford dogs here usually kept them in the courtyard, chained to the gate, or in a rudimentary kennel of wooden boards nailed together. And while he had meant to get such a kennel built – truly, he did – all the local carpenters, and indeed all workmen of any kind had disappeared overnight following the government’s sudden announcement of a lockdown with four hours’ notice: they were anxious to return to their villages in the interior, before public transport stopped altogether. So the dog remained unhoused and wandering in the courtyard, till the first-floor tenants (whose rent made it possible to maintain this house, with its aspirational second story) complained, after which it was chained to the charpoy in the shaded verandah.
Still, he maintained, it was a far better life than that of stray dogs on the street, most of whom starved to death before reaching adulthood, especially now when the public kitchens and temples were closed, and people rarely ventured out of their homes; it was also a better life than that of street beggars and vagrants, who were also dying of starvation for the same reason. Here the dog was safe, with a roof over her head, and milk and biscuits he fed her everyday with his own hands, and (on Sundays, when the family had non-vegetarian food) rice with chicken or fish curry. It turned out she had developed a taste for luxury: in particular, she was fond of fish bones, which she would crunch lustily in her jaws.
He liked to hear her crunch; liked her frank earthy affectations and appetites, the way she stretched and rolled on the ground, or beat the dust with her tail, which were both essentially herself, essentially doglike, and yet seemed specially put up for his amusement. Here was a being with no sense of self apart from her master. When he was not around, she would howl for him, and when he appeared, she would rear on her hind legs, and press her forepaws to his thighs, to his wife’s alarm. But he assured her there was nothing to fear: the dog did such things out of love for him. The love of a pet might be seen as minor compared to the love of family, but he felt it enlarge his heart. With her, he felt free to be tender.
So it happened that one morning his wife came downstairs to find him massaging the dog’s back as she lay on her side, her forepaws drawn up, and her hind legs parted vulgarly.
“You! No one ever petted you your whole life, and yet you pet the dog!”
It was an unexpected insight; he was amazed how in her narrow housewifely way, his wife had noticed certain simple things about him, and connected them in a way that enhanced their import. He wondered what she knew of tenderness; certainly he had not been tender with her, not in this way. But it was embarrassing to pursue this line of thought, and too complicated, when put beside the lush and sincere delight of petting the dog. So he continued stroking her with renewed vigor; as his hands reached her lower back, she stretched her hind legs luxuriously, and he giggled with pleasure. It was a great gift, to give others what you never had.
In the mornings he took her on walks, so she could relieve herself while getting some exercise. Gradually they were joined by two or three other stray dogs. He noticed they were male, and felt the onset of new responsibilities.
“Watch out,” his wife said. “They already have designs on her, and are waiting for her to grow up.”
He disliked his wife saying that aloud. Thankfully, his daughter was not here to listen.
“She is yet a child,” he replied. “There is time, there is still time.”
Yet she was changing under his eyes, and in a few weeks had transformed into a different creature. Her face lost its compact puppy cuteness, and instead grew long and narrow, ending in a sharp little nose. She grew tall, with legs as slender as banana stalks: they jutted outwards at the hocks before tapering elegantly into paws, so that she appeared to prance on tiptoe, like a ballerina. Her body lengthened, curving around her ribs while turning concave in the belly, and ending in a high, lean rear, with fine hip bones gently rising on either side. Her black fur, kept shiny with good food, now became an asset: it streamlined an already slender body into a sculpted sinuousness, a deeper blackness undulating in the dark of night, the snowy tips of toes and tail flashing like fireflies.
Thinking of silky tones of black on black, he named her after Bagheera the black panther in The Jungle Book: Baghi for short.
It pleased him to watch her prance about, chain clanging on the ground, and sometimes he could not help thinking: at least there is one good-looking female in this family. His wife, who had been a slim fair girl when their marriage was arranged, had thickened out after childbirth, disappointingly on schedule. His daughter, scorning the dictates of femininity, the requirements of the marriage market, had freely indulged her appetites for food and books since she was a child, and had now grown enormously fat, without being a wife or mother. After the dense and inscrutable complexities of the women of his family, his dog’s elegant beauty and transparent devotion was as simple and clear as a signal pointing the way.
He had settled into such a comfortable pattern as the owner of a dog, confident in the predictable rhythms of its pure animal nature, that he did not notice the changes till it was almost too late.
It began with a strange low growl that seemed to issue from her core, and he would catch her fidgeting and gnawing at her chain, whining fitfully. During walks she became listless and difficult to manage, sometimes darting out till the chain tautened in his hands. As if answering some invisible call, the stray dogs would draw close, and try to sniff her rear before he shooed them off. The crisis came one morning, when he found her in the courtyard, pressed against the gate, with the broken chain dragging behind her. She poked her nose beyond the iron bars, where it touched the nose of a stray male.
“She is already whispering with her boyfriend, planning her escape,” his wife called out from the balcony. He was more than astonished: he felt nature was out of joint. He had only expected the bodies of animals to change; that their behavior could also change was an unpleasant discovery.
“Don’t get upset. You wanted her to breed, didn’t you?”
He picked up a stick lying in the courtyard and chased away the stray. Then he dragged his dog by her broken chain and retied her to the charpoy.
When he came later that day with a bowl of rice covered in mutton curry – her favorite – she did not prance in gratitude. Instead, she bent her head to the bowl, and peered up at him from below, the whites of her eyes showing. Only the tail quivered a little.
From that day he perceived a shift in their relations. A wariness had set in on either side: she was nursing hidden grudges, and looking for a chance to escape, while he was looking to prevent it. Now she was no longer the simple creature, transparently devoted. He suspected she had an inner core, reserved entirely for herself.
And he too was changing. He found it less and less easy to wake up early in the morning to take her out, and to negotiate the stairs thrice a day to feed her. And, it must be admitted, he was feeling his age, whose effects, briefly sent into remission by the twin euphoria of getting a house and a pet, were now reasserting themselves with renewed force. The daily tasks of care now felt less like simple pleasures or acts of love, and more like chores.
He tried to get the women to join in. But his wife refused outright. “Oh no no,” she said, enthroned on the sofa before the television playing her daily soap, and cushioning a bowl of spicy puffed rice on her soft belly. “I absolutely refuse. It’s your responsibility. You got the dog – you take care of it.” She tossed a fistful of puffed rice into her mouth, and crunched for emphasis.
“Please, Mummy, she is the family dog. I got her for all of us. We should all care for her.”
“No, you didn’t. You got it for yourself – do not try to pass it off as a favor to me. Like those half-dead flowers they gave you in your office on your retirement, which you gave me, saying they were my retirement gift, instead of the earrings you promised. Where is my retirement gift? Where is my retirement? You get to retire from your job, but I don’t – I have to cook and clean more than ever now, what with you and your daughter and your dog in my hair all the time in this lockdown. For housewives there is never any retirement, is there?”
He walked off, mutinous but silenced. There was no gainsaying his wife; with women nothing is ever only one thing. They can germinate any innocuous word into an arborescence of grievances with roots going back years, before actions had the same import they have now, and words signified differently. What connection could possibly exist between helping out with the dog occasionally, and the general status of housewives?
But his face softened as he approached his daughter’s room, hopeful of a sympathetic reception. As a child she had wanted a pet, but this had not been feasible in the matchbox-sized apartments where they had been quartered by the government bank where he worked. Now that he finally had a house that could accommodate a dog, she took little interest beyond her initial research into dog care. After he had rejected her recommendations, she had retreated into her books. But that could be ascribed to the difficulty of her circumstances, of being locked down in India, unable to return to her American life. Perhaps she would find a welcome distraction in helping with the dog.
He framed his proposal in these terms. But his daughter replied, with her eyes glued to her laptop screen, “Sorry, Baba, I can’t. I am too busy with my online classes, and in any case I cannot manage the hours – I have to keep to American time. And I still think the whole thing is a mistake. If you get a dog, you must care for it properly. Either bring her in and take complete charge of her, or let her go. It is not right to keep a living thing chained up like this.”
Her rigidity surprised him. “Mamani, this either-or business is a very American way of thinking. Things here are too complicated; we have to compromise. When you get a dog of your own, you will understand.”
“Oh, I will.” Showing the first sign of animation that day, she opened the photos app on her laptop and began scrolling through a series of pictures. They showed dogs as white and fluffy as polar bears, and looking as exotic and expensive. “This is a Samoyed. When I have a house of my own, I will get this dog. And I will care for it properly in my home.” She looked it him sternly. “It is serious business, to keep a pet. In America they call owners pet parents. Someday I’ll be a pet mom – after getting a job, and doing the proper research.”
With a pang he realized that his undomesticated daughter had an idea of the home she wanted, which had nothing to do with him and his ideas.
“Pet mom? What about being a real mother? What about husband and children?”
“No husband or children, please. What good will it do me, being a wife and mother? What good did it do mummy?”
He left the room, speechless. What had he walked into, with his simple request to help with the dog? He did not understand the effect it produced on the women of his family. He did not recognize the snarling, hostile creatures they had become.
Retreating downstairs, he saw that the dog was at the gate again, standing on its hind legs and pressing its front paws to the bars. She looked out like a condemned and yearning prisoner into the empty street. His daughter came to mind, peering into her books.
He went up to her and immediately she stood down, wagging her tail tentatively.
“So you want to be free?” he asked. She whined, pawing the ground. “You at least are easy to understand.” He removed the collar and tackled the gate, which swung open with a rusty groan. Then he looked down at her. She hesitated for a moment, as though taken aback by the sudden fulfilment of her desire. Then she darted into the street, a new and irregular freedom in her prancing steps. All that handfed food and care, and it had only taken a moment for the animal to revert to her wild state.
But she was back in the evening, howling at the gate. When he opened the gate she darted to her familiar spot by the charpoy, sniffing her empty bowl and looking at him expectantly. Apparently her freedom was to be less absolute than he had supposed. He filled her bowl with rice and chicken curry, marveling at her opportunism.
Thus began the new phase of pet ownership, which turned out to be pleasanter than expected, offering all the joys of pet ownership, with few of the responsibilities. The dog roamed freely on the streets except during mealtimes, when she would paw at the gate to be let in.
After a few weeks, the dog’s visits became more frequent and prolonged. She took to sleeping in the courtyard for hours at a time, and did not leave on waking, but would move around sluggishly, her thickening body swaying from side to side with every step. Gone was her streamlined form, her austere grace; in its stead was an excessive, bulging physicality. She took to sleeping on her side, legs flung out to make space for her swelling belly.
His wife was the first to realize what had happened. “She has come back after shaming herself!” she cried in mock-outrage. “She has blackened her face!”
“I think her face was black to begin with,” his daughter laughed. “Well, Baba, it looks like you will get your grandchildren now.”
He felt no gratification. He was mortified. It was true he had once pictured puppies prancing around his courtyard, brightening the day with their yelps and little antics. But he had not reckoned with the dog’s bloated belly, her nipples swelling and turning dark, and his own embarrassment and ignorance. When his wife was expecting, she had returned to her parental home, as was the custom; the whole thing had been managed by the women of her family, and he had been presented with the end result, cleaned up and red with squalling. He had not expected to deal with the processes preceding that result.
At this point, however, his wife and daughter began taking an interest in the dog. Perhaps her condition was one that roused feelings of curiosity and solicitude in all women. He cherished the thought, hoping the women would take over.
“We will have to hold a gode-bharai ceremony for her,” his wife reflected. “With all her favorite things to eat.”
“Make sure you invite all the neighborhood stray dogs, which is to say, all the prospective fathers,” his daughter added.
He giggled feebly, trying to laugh off his shock.
“Oh please.” She seemed amused at his discomfiture. “I have read all about it. Look, I think we should call a vet to check up on her. She is far too young. She can’t be more than seven or eight months old, which makes her a juvenile mother. That is the term for pregnant dogs less than a year old.”
He wished she would not say that word. “It is difficult enough to find human doctors in the middle of this lockdown. Where will we find a dog doctor? We will have to go into the city, where it is not safe. And the fees!”
Here his wife unexpectedly took his side. “In America you seem to have learnt new ways of spending money. Our street dogs have managed just fine without doctors.”
His daughter shrugged. “Fine, but she may need extra care with the delivery. She is too young.”
The dog began growling from somewhere deep inside of herself, as if the life processes churning within were giving off sound. It made him want to grind his teeth. Looking down upon her, he gingerly placed his foot along her back, and began rubbing. She gazed up at him and began beating her tail vigorously. It was the only part of her body she could move comfortably, and she thumped it for all it was worth.
“Back massage,” he explained awkwardly. “For back pain. You know, as an expectant mother.” Her curved back was the only part of her he felt safe to touch. Her underside now bulged in white lumps; he thought he could see the unborn puppies stirring in those lumps. He tried not to picture when, or how, those puppies would emerge.
But in the end, just as his fears seemed on the point of realization, the dog disappeared. Unnoticed by anyone, she had slipped out when the gate was left unlocked for a contactless delivery. “She’s probably gone for a walk,” his wife mused. “Pregnant ladies need exercise.”
But the dog did not return the next day, nor the next. Five days went by in nervous expectation, and he took to scouring the neighborhood on his scooter.
“Baghi! Baghi!” he called out fruitlessly. There was no sign of her, or of any other living creature, on the streets. Round and round the neighborhood he went, passing the locked gates of his quarantined neighbors. Sometimes he thought he could hear the play-screams of children drifting from behind the shut gates, and it made him more determined to find his pregnant dog.
On the sixth day, after an especially long and dispiriting search that had taken him to the edge of the neighborhood, he found her back at the gate, barking and panting.
“Where were you?” he asked. She walked towards him heavily, and he noticed how her deflated stomach sagged and swung beneath her. “Did you have your babies? Where are they?”
She barked, walked a few paces, and then turned and looked back at him, barking again. It was evident she wanted him to follow her.
“Mummy! Mamani! Look – Baghi has returned. I think she wants us to follow her.”
Even as he spoke he realized the absurdity of his words, but the women came promptly. Their behavior seemed to confirm his belief that all women took a universal interest in babies – even those who did not want any.
Together they followed the dog, Mr. Parida looked around nervously for gossipy neighbors. But everyone seemed safely locked inside, as though in a magic tale, and he reflected how quarantine had made feasible activities considered absurd under normal circumstances, such being led by a street dog. From time to time the dog looked back, barking to ensure they did not go astray. When they made for a bench to rest, she began barking ferociously, running around them in circles, cutting off any means of escape.
Mr. Parida grinned. “See how strict she is! She will make an excellent mother.”
Twenty minutes later she led them to the edge of a thorny thicket outside the neighborhood. She entered through a parting in the bushes; when he did not follow, she poked her snout through the branches and barked.
His wife gripped his arm. “Don’t go in there, Baba, please!”
He was not planning to, but his wife’s fear gave him courage. “Don’t worry, mummy,” he assured her, “I will be right back.”
He felt the thicket envelope him, dense and bristling with thorns. He crept in a half-crouch, holding his arms before his face, trying to ignore the thorns slashing at his forearms and through the skin of his thin T-shirt. A few steps in, the branches closed in over him, sealing him in a space that moved with him, shaping itself around his body. For a moment he saw himself, a man past the midpoint of his life, reverting to a more natural state in this primal place on the edge of his civilized, well-housed retirement. Strange possibilities began to take shape that were not feasible at home. It became possible that he might keep walking unceasingly, questing and heroic. Somewhere in this forest awaited little puppies, like a treasure in a fairytale.
When he emerged, the sunlight shut his eyes. On opening them, he found that the primeval forest had reverted to an ordinary thicket. But his arms were laced with welts, and on top of each welt stretched a thin red line, gleaming in the sunlight.
He was in a clearing, before a small hollow a foot deep. Inside, the dog lay curled around two tiny lumps slick with their mother’s juices.
Now that he was here, he felt lost. Neither Baghi nor her puppies seemed in need of rescue. But when he bent over the puppies for a closer look, he saw the ants crawling over them. His body gave a shiver. In his house ants had seemed natural enough, walking in orderly, domestic lines, but on those puppies they felt grotesque, their patterns predatory and sinister.
“Baghi? There are ants crawling over your babies.”
In response, she simply gazed at him with the stupid beatific look of a new mother. There was nothing to do but to take the puppies home, where they could be cared for properly. He carefully stepped into the hollow, and picked the puppies one by one.
In his hands the puppies squirmed with slow life, smearing their bloody birth juices over his scratches. Though one was black and the other white, they seemed more flesh than fur: they were probably premature. Their snouts were pink and hairless, and their forearms were fleshy stumps. They did not look cute; they looked yet unborn.
Baghi sat up and craned her neck, whining.
“What? What? Try to understand me,” he said, impatient. “First you give birth in this ant-infested hole, and then you can’t even keep your babies clean. You can care for them once we are back home.”
Turning back, he returned into the thicket with the puppies, and the dog followed, keening.
His wife screamed when she saw him emerge from the thicket, arms outstretched, wet puppies squirming in his hands.
“Baba! You must never go in there again,” she cried.
“Don’t worry Mummy, I won’t.” He found his wife’s hysteria strangely calming. As he reemerged into the normal world, its small restrictions now seemed a blessing. With his return came the normal emotions he had deferred till then: relief at the reassertion of order, and disgust at ugly and unformed things. He looked down at the puppies; they seemed to have gained in ugliness and malformation. Perhaps they would grow into cuteness under proper motherly care. This was women’s work, to be handed to them as soon as possible. His wife was in no condition to take them, but his daughter was oddly still, staring at the new life in his cupped hands.
“Here,” he thrust the puppies at her. “You take them home. I must wash myself. I will follow when I am done.” He gestured to a handpump close by.
She stared at him mutely. “Baba – please – I know nothing of babies.”
Something in her eyes suggested a mental crossing of arms: a withdrawal of self in the face of responsibility. She seemed to think she could get away with doing nothing. “Take them!” he shouted. “Can’t you see I am bleeding and must clean myself? Just take them home – this is the least you can do!”
His wife was crying and saying something; the dog was howling. He did not remove his gaze from his daughter. At last she raised her arms, and he deposited the puppies in her hands. “Don’t just stand there – go!”
The giving of orders made him feel strangely calm. He watched the women leave, trailed by the dog, before he slouched towards the handpump. It took several rusty thrusts before the water began to flow. He rubbed his hands in it till they were spotless; then he took off his T-shirt and crouched beneath the spout, shivering.
An hour later, Mr. Parida came up to his gate, feeling refreshed. His wife and daughter would have settled the dog and her babies into some sort of order, and he looked forward to seeing what arrangements they had made.
But when he arrived, he saw his wife and daughter sitting in the courtyard, stone-faced.
“Where are the puppies?” His voice rose in a whine as he asked.
His wife spoke with lowered eyes. “The white one died. Only the black one is still alive.”
He squinted at her. She continued, talking fast, “As soon as the dog came in with us, she went to sleep. We tried to wake her, get her to feed her babies, but nothing worked.”
She fell silent, and he too could not find the words. Some mysterious female process, ordinary but dependable, had failed to happen this time.
He looked at his daughter. She was cradling a bundle of rags, which turned out to contain the tiny black puppy, blind and squealing. At her feet lay a second, motionless bundle, wrapped in a plastic trash bag. Unwillingly, he felt a resolve taking form. Nature, left on her own, was fickle and wasteful; she needed a firm guiding hand.
Carefully he took the live puppy from his daughter. “Where is the mother now?”
“Still sleeping,” his daughter replied. “At her usual spot, near the charpoy.”
He approached the sleeping dog and, mastering his revulsion, gently placed the puppy by her belly, so that its mouth brushed a nipple. The dog woke up and began licking her puppy’s rear, snaking her tongue between the puppy’s hindlegs. She did not seem to notice the absence of the other pup.
The nauseating sight boded well. “Let’s hope this one survives,” he said.
But it soon became clear that the new mother was lost: apparently she could not lactate. The puppy could not latch either, but kept falling off her nipples. Mr. Parida, determined to make things go right this time, now made an unprecedented effort: he tried feeding the puppy himself, with cow’s milk from an eye dropper, gently pressing the puppy’s mouth open while it blindly pawed the air with its tiny forearms.
“You never once fed your own daughter like that!” his wife cried.
Ignoring her, he continued feeding the puppy; then he held it at its mother’s breast for several minutes, hoping to stimulate the natural process. But each time he left it at its mother’s belly, he would return to find that the puppy had rolled off at some distance, while the mother slept on, oblivious.
“She has gone olly. She has gone mad, and cannot care for her child,” his wife pronounced. “She does not know how to be a mother.”
“Perhaps she is too young to know,” his daughter said in a small voice.
He did not respond to this monstrous idea. These things are supposed to be instinctive. But the mother slept on, carefree as a child.
The end came the next morning, when the family woke to find the dog pacing outside their upstairs quarters, whining piteously. It was the first time she had ventured upstairs, as if to call on the family for help, or to inform them of the calamity. Mr. Parida went downstairs to find the puppy cold and still amid the pile of old blankets he had arranged into a nest for the mother.
“Well, that’s it. I will bury it once the mother’s back is turned,” he said at last.
His daughter objected. “Don’t you think – it might be better to bury it in front of the mother? So that she will know her baby is gone, and not stolen or vanished?”
He looked at her, so thoughtful when it was too late. No doubt she had read it on some website.
“I think that might cause the mother more pain,” he said sternly. She looked away.
But disposing of the dead puppy in secret did not attenuate the mother-dog’s grief, to his surprise. When the dog discovered her puppy gone, she began pacing the courtyard restlessly, emitting a series of howls that reverberated throughout the verandah. Mr. Parida was surprised to discover nuances in her mourning: between howls, she would briefly turn her face away, as if to maintain her privacy in grief, and he heard for the first time the thin fitful keen of a crying dog, somewhere between a whine and a whistle. Finally she paused before the shoe-stand, and sniffed at the row of old shoes, her nose twitching.
“Do you think you will find your baby there, among the smelly old shoes?” he asked.
The dog closed her teeth around something and pulled. It was an old black sock. Holding it in her jaws, she ran jauntily to her nest, her tail waving, its snowy tip dancing a little. Arriving at her usual spot, she curled herself into the blankets, and pressed the limp black sock to her belly.
He put her hand on his heart. “So heart – so heart –” He could not find the right words.
“So pathetic,” his wife said at last, coming up to the dog’s side.
He reached for her eagerly. “Mummy, please… make her understand.”
It was an absurd idea. But his wife knew what to say.
“You poor thing – you could not understand anything about raising children. Why did you not let us bring them home? And having taken them back, why did you sleep here for hours, leaving them cold and alone? Even after we rescued your baby, you could not feed it, or keep it warm. So why do you cry now? Don’t cry, don’t cry – you are still a child yourself, you will have more children next year.”
Mr. Parida had retreated upstairs. From there he could hear his wife’s warm, sensible arguments, punctuated by howls that thinned into a sharp protracted wail, before subsiding eventually. He considered going down to console the dog, but it felt better to let his wife handle everything, as an experienced mother. Upstairs, the mothers’ discordant lament reached him without dragging him down.
A few weeks later, the dog seemed to gradually return to normal. She began eating again, even as her stomach flattened, and her nipples subsided into incipient buds. Soon she began venturing outside, straying farther and farther, and returning less frequently, till her visits ceased. This time, Mr. Parida did not go looking for her on his scooter. He later found her on one of his walks, in the parking garage of a nearby apartment complex. She seemed glad to see him, and came straight to him for pets. But a few moments later, she pranced away to play with the children of the complex, and he resumed his walk after a while.
Gradually the contagion appeared to ebb, and international flights resumed in the fall. His daughter immediately booked her flight, eager to return to her American academic life.
On the day of her departure he watched her haul her bags to the car, with an independence that made him feel tender and reminiscent.
“Such a small child you were – I had to carry your schoolbag for you. Who knew you would grow so big, and go so far away? But it’s the law of nature. All children must grow up.”
“Baghi’s children did not grow up.” She paused. It was the first time since that day that she had mentioned the dog. “You know, Baba, when you got the dog to have puppies, I was worried we would be overrun with puppies, and be unable to cope. I never imagined that the puppies would die.”
“I did not think that either.”
“I think – if she had not been brought here, maybe her puppies would be alive today,” she persisted.
“Or maybe she would have starved on the streets, like so many other strays,” his wife joined in, ruthlessly practical. “Who knows in what condition she is now?”
Mr. Parida felt a shadow on his heart. “Let’s check on her on the way to the airport.” His wife protested about missing the flight, but he reasoned that it would not take more than a few minutes – they were going six hours in advance, and the apartment complex was right on the way to the airport. To his surprise, his daughter backed him. “I would like to say goodbye to Baghi.”
But when they reached the apartment complex, the dog was nowhere to be seen. Calling out her name, Mr. Parida peered into the dark garage, then under the parked cars.
His daughter spotted her in the children’s park. “Baba – there she is!”
“What? What?” But he could already see the familiar snowy tail-tip wagging. In a moment she was all over him, ecstatic. Placing her forelegs on his shoulders, she brought her snout close to his face, as though lovingly perusing his features.
But the next moment she stepped down and pranced to a limping male stray he had not seen before: her new partner. Reaching the male dog, she craned her neck to touch his muzzle with her outstretched tongue, just a glancing lick. In that moment he felt she was no longer his pet, or even his former pet, but another being, independent of his authority and his need. Even her body looked more substantial and compact, with a new, stately dignity: the result, it seemed, of general good health rather than any particular imminent event.
His wife stared at the stray male. “Is that the father?” she whispered.
“He probably will be someday,” his daughter replied.
Staring at the stray, Mr. Parida approached Baghi and began stroking under her chin, as in the old days, and she closed her eyes, tilting her head upwards for better access.
“The male dog must be giving her that. So she ran away with him,” his wife laughed.
He stopped stroking her after that.
His daughter was watching him. “Let her stay, Baba. Don’t try to bring her back. She looks happy.”
He was silent, thinking. “It is for daughters to go away, and for parents to stay behind,” he pronounced at last. It was a traditional Odia saying, spoken when one’s daughter married and left her parental home for that of her husband, but he had amended it, rotating its axes and swiveling its joints, to apply to his particular situation. And having made the effort, he had an inspiration.
“Who knows,” he said brightly, “Baghi may have more puppies now!”
“After last time, you should have learned your lesson. I hope you will not bring any more puppies home,” his wife rejoined sharply.
“Don’t worry, Mummy, I have learned my lesson,” Mr. Parida assured her. “Next time I bring a puppy home, I will make sure it is a male puppy.”
“Baba!” his daughter cried.
She stared at him for a moment. “Nothing,” she said at last. “Just make sure you get this one fixed.”
They drove away in silence. For a moment, Mr. Parida thought he saw the dog following them. But it was hard to be sure in a moving car: all he could have sworn to was a broad black rear flashing by, and a snowy tail-tip wagging from behind.
Pritika Pradhan is from India, and is completing her MFA in Creative Writing (fiction) at
Minnesota State University, Mankato. She has a PhD in Victorian literature from Rutgers
University, NJ, and BA degrees in English from the University of Delhi, India, and the University
of Cambridge, UK. Her creative and public writing has appeared in Lithub and Electric
Literature. Her academic writing has appeared in English Literary History and is forthcoming in
Post-45 Vs. The World (Vernon Press). She is currently at work on her first novel.
— Daniel Webre
"If she assumed he was Hans, then that was her business. It shouldn’t reflect poorly on him. And why not Hans? He tried to imagine how a person called Hans might respond in a situation like this one. He adjusted his posture accordingly, standing up straighter. Hans would be confident, though not excessively so.
“I am here now,” Bryce said, and this was absolutely true."