“Dogs, however, are not just animals becoming people.” Eduardo Kohn
It was a relatively normal house in Petaling Jaya, seen from the outside. Normal, if normal could be said to stand for everything that no longer was. Grand, but in various states of decay. The paint peeling off the black and gold electric gate, like the last days of glam rock. Walls around the garden stained with death-green fungus, not having seen a fresh coat of paint in decades. Behind the decrepit yet forbidding walls were the four dogs. They were not new beings, but neither were they old. Being dogs, they had not existed in the house for as long as its human inhabitants, who had been there for decades and were known to most people on the street. Knowing that there were a houseful of people who largely kept to themselves was not the same as knowing those people. The inhabitants of the the house talked to a few select neighbours but this was rare and the events during which this occurred could be counted on with enough hands: two.
It was the dogs that aroused most people’s interest. Four dogs in one house, even a large house, seemed like too much dog for one space. This transformed the house from a normal, forgettable, decaying house to a remarkable house. A remarkable house with reticent human inabitants, but spilling over with dogness. For another, the dogs were untrained—resistant, in fact, to the normal disciplinary apparatus wielded by humans. They were loud; nothing like the self-possessed and obedient canines that one would find in the homes of the Western world as seen on TV. These dogs announced their presence frequently and with spirit. It would appear that no one minded the loud, rambunctious dogs of the large, decaying house. Neighbours were heard to have said that the dogs had a great purpose in this life; they barked so loudly that no thief would dare creep into any one of their homes in the night. In fact, these dogs would announce the thief’s presence to the whole street.
Was this entirely true? The dogs did not know what the people thought of them; or maybe they did. It’s hard to tell, but in the house the inhabitants made their fears and worries known to the dogs, who despite their enviably carefree existence of afternoon naps and evening runs in the garden in pursuit of bushy-tailed tree shrews, absorbed the worries and anxieties of the humans in their midst. Sometimes the dogs grew sober and thoughtful and they forgot to bark. These moments of sudden and spontaneous barking amnesia would occur unexpectedly and always at the wrong moment. If unknown men walked down the street at night, for example, the dogs would raise their heads and, seemingly in agreement, remain silent and watchful. These men could be thieves or rapists or killers, but the dogs did not feel the need to turn them in just yet. This suggested a temporary cognitive disassociation that removed them from the sphere of their true domesticated purpose, indicating a residue of leftover autonomy. On occasion they were bound by a pact against the people of the house; sometimes, the dogs seemed to sense that these people were arrogant, certain in the fact that they possessed knowledge and knew how to use it. (Although, the dogs privately concurred, this was rarely the case.) The dogs grew tired of human injunctions and cocky folly and temporarily entered a conspiracy of silence. This silence, however, could be dissolved by the appearance of a frog leaping alarmingly close to a water dish. When they slept the dogs dreamed of vast fields, of prairies and glittering icescapes, a time of unknown beasts in every corner. A time period when leaves were held up against the sun for the shadows to be interpreted like runes holding vast conceptual apparatus that could be put to use with the right mind. A time of roaming and hunting and foraging. When they awoke the dreams lingered like a persistent fly over the ear.
Most of the time the dogs seemed to merely forget what they had to do. Without malice against the people, they neglected to bark when they saw unknown men on the street in the watchful hours of the night. But the fog would shake from the dogs during the day when occasional visitors like friends and family members dropped by. Then the dogs remembered their duty and barked, even—especially—when the elderly woman in the house complained that she was going to collapse from all that noise.
The elderly woman had exited her mother’s womb and entered the world with a litany of complaints on her lips. Now at seventy-five she has made an art of it: a masterpiece of a life of being able to tell just when the grass on the other side turned the correct shade of green in contrast to her own. Her youngest daughter, known among their relatives for being unmarried, ferried the woman to and fro from doctor’s appointments and regularly shouted in conversation with her mother. The daughter’s hair was a frizzy halo around a perpetually scowling face. Despite this face, the dogs and the daughter had a mutually loving relationship. But the elderly woman was something else. The dogs, rightly suspecting a lifetime of resentment and bad opinions contained within this human form, kept their distance with the wisdom inherited over centuries of inter-species interaction. Sometimes to spite the elderly woman the dogs barked at her together, a furious chorus, after which she would shriek at her daughter, for which the dogs then felt partly responsible and thus guilty. They would attempt to make it up to the daughter by licking her face.
All of this was not known to the other inhabitants on the street, who only saw the human shapes of the daughter and mother move in and out of the house without being able to tell what particularities of mood or temper showed on their faces. In the case of the mother, the shape rarely left the house. The dogs lived out an animal existence and the people a human one behind the decaying walls. Whether the family was good or bad is not known to anyone. It was hard to tell; those walls that were eternally in need of a fresh coat of paint were always in the way of true conviviality.
One day the family was involved in a dastardly plot, and things behind the walls changed both in obvious and imperceptible ways. It is hard to tell if the neighbours on the street knew that the dogs went from four to three. The daughter of the house was revealed, underneath the hair and the face, to be part-traitor. She had committed treason against the dogs, participated in the family subterfuge. This is what happened: in the middle of the day, one of the dogs, the brown dog with the deep black eyes full of questions, the one who loved to bring his face close to hers to sniff at her—a gesture at once tender and proprietary—was bundled off into a cage and taken away in the lorry belonging to the morose family of gardeners who came once a month to mow the grass of the ill-kept garden. The dogs anointed every corner of this garden with their pee. The garden was holy, it was a relic, and it stood in stark comparison to the appearance of the ambitious middle-class gardens of suburban Petaling Jaya. The daughter loved the garden because it held nothing, no flowers of repute or of exceptional beauty, just the stark barrenness of grass gone pale brown in the heat of the El Nino heatwave, and darker brown patches of earth where the dogs dug holes. The dog, the brown one that was taken away—he had a special love for this garden, too. It was his home, and although he had no way of conveying this to the reticent inhabitants of the household, the daughter knew. She knew in the way he wandered out into the garden with his nose out to learn about the day and the possibilities it held, she knew it in the joy of his gait as he walked proud among empty flower pots, she knew it in the muscles of his strong legs as he chased after the squabbling mynas and pigeons and timid tree shrews from one end of the garden to another.
Since her act of disloyalty (which, let us be clear, was an act of unforgivable human abandonment of a creature that could only return subservience, joy, terror, and love), the daughter grew more silent and unhappy. She lived with that knowledge of having betrayed her friend, desiring to disappear but unable to stop appearing, conducting desultory conversations with a mother with whom she was radically different both in constitution and in personality. For she knows the dog was taken away but she also knows the limited form of agency that enabled her to allow the dog to be taken away. At night, lying in her bed in her stiflingly hot, tiny room the size of a paw-print, the air-conditioning whistling at a low hum, she kept an ear out for the brown one’s grunts and never heard it. Thus she realised that she would be punished in this way, forever yearning for him.
One of the remaining dogs continues to howl into the night on most nights, staring at the space in the garden where the brown dog used to sit. The dog left behind would lift his head high and stare at the muted yellow orb of the moon, then cock his head and wait for the brown dog to reappear. Then he would howl again. The lonely daughter, our melancholy spinster of the dog house, welcomed the howling. It was a reminder of what kind of people she and her mother were. She accepted the remaining dogs’ insistence on never forgetting.
The days continued on in this manner. It was a small way to live.
By all appearances, it didn’t seem like anything was amiss. From the outside, it looked like just another ill-kept house in shambles: steeped in nostalgia after having lost hours, days, and years of time; continually reminiscing about its grander days. Behind the walls, four dogs had been reduced to three.
lives in Selangor, Malaysia and has published poetry and prose in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Mascara Literary Review, Aesthetix, Sein und Werden, minor literature[s], Anak Sastra, Jaggery, Halo Literary Magazine, Liminality: A Magazine of Speculative Poetry, and Dead King. Her writings on books have appeared in The Star (Malaysia), Pop Matters, 3:AM Magazine and Full Stop and she has published nonfiction in MPH's anthology, Sini Sana and Buku Fixi's ebook, Semangkuk INTERLOK as well as fiction in KL Noir: Yellow. She tweets at @SubaBat.