Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Constant Companion


“In the waiting room there are, like, four kind of big women, and then little me,” said Sarah. “I’m definitely not the poster girl for gestational diabetes.” She and Dan were out for her evening walk. She said, “The doctor says my glucose levels are good, that if I keep to the diet and exercise I shouldn’t need insulin.” She had priority use of the treadmills in the fitness room at work–a kilometre, twice a day. Then, after supper, she and Dan walked from their apartment to Westbrook Mall and back. This was prime dog-walking time, and it was rare not to encounter several. They came to recognize the regulars and Dan invented names for the dogs, and often spoke to them, and sometimes spoke to the owners too.

This evening the first they met was Floof, a cinnamon-blond hair-thing, parted in the middle, whose ancestors had probably included actual dogs. As usual, Floof snarled cutely and scrabbled a bit, but was quickly yanked aside by its owner, a young woman with her phone.

A few sidewalk squares later Dan said, “I’ve been trying to think of doing something special for the baby, something to commemorate her birth. I was thinking maybe about writing a children’s book?”

She glanced at him. It was a sweet thought. He had the heart and imagine for such a thing, but she doubted he had a clue about what was involved. “About what?” she asked.

“Something hopeful. I was actually thinking of a dog character, but a real dog, not a Floof.”

She asked, “What would the dog do?”

“Walk with its humans from Scandinavia to sub-Saharan Africa.”

“Oh,” she said.Um, why?"

“Because dogs are and have been our constant companions. The one in my story is a constant companion of the children who made that journey, and it’s more than one dog. It’s thousands of generations of dogs, but all with the same name. It’s during the ice age and people are migrating south. The dogs, they’re all called, I dunno, Rex, but with a number afterward. The story starts with Rex 1 and ends with Rex 10,006."

“What made you think of this?”

He explained. He had been editing a manuscript comparing the origins of dogs in eastern and western Africa, based on comparative analyses of the mitochondrial DNA of modern day dogs. Those in eastern Africa arose from old African and Central Asian wolf stock, but present-day dogs in western African villages share mitochondrial DNA with dogs in Scandinavia, which would seem not to make sense. The explanation was that long ago, whichever humans lived in Scandinavia must have migrated south during the last ice age to escape the glaciers and over who knows how many years some got as far as western Africa. Eventually those people moved away, or were chased out, or were absorbed into the population already there. He said, “The paper was about dogs, not people, so I don’t really know what happened human-wise, but it was clear that the northern dogs fell in love with local dogs and left their mitochondrial DNA behind, within the genomes of African village dogs, where it persists to this day.”

“But it’s about human history too.”

He nodded. “Yeah, it’s fuzzy human history written in dog genes.”

“Who figured this out?”

He snorted. “A lot of people, apparently. There are 18 authors from 12 institutions in 5 countries. The entire double-spaced manuscript is 22 pages long, 7 of which are Literature Cited, so, in terms of actual content, each person must have written slightly less than a page.” He said, “In the old days, meaning fifteen years ago, only two or three people, or even, sometimes, amazingly, a single person would publish a paper, and it was pretty clear who had done the work. These days if you turn on a centrifuge and then go for lunch you get your name on a paper and the person who buys your lunch gets their name on one of yours in return. It’s a conspiracy of desperation, padding your publication list to remain competitive in the almost pointless hope to one day become other than someone else’s minion. Science is broken now too.” 

“Yes,” she said.

“An inevitable result of ...”

“Capitalism,” she said.

He stopped walking. “You mock me.”

She turned, smiling. “Yes, but lovingly.” She held out her hand. By now they knew their lines, how to step around or assuage sore spots. Encountering a bump, forging ahead was her favoured tactic. She asked, “Why would anyone think to ask a question about African dogs in the first place?”

Recognizing what she’d done, he laughed, but then said, “I wondered that too, because it’s kind of a cool, ‘where the hell did this come from?’ study, until I read the authors’ institutions. The first author is from a veterinary college, and also an institute for domestic animal germ plasm.

“What? Really?”

 “Yes, really—thus literally surrounded by dog DNA.”

“Ew.”

“Exactly. And he probably belongs to dog-DNA Facebook group with members in other countries, a global dog-DNA swap-meet.”

“More ew.”

Another dog was approaching, one they met almost every night, a Border Collie, black and white with pale eyes, its head held low. Dan had named it, “Neurotic Ned,” but subsequently accepted the opinion of its owner, a tall, thin man with a British accent, that its name was Rupert.

Dan crouched and extended his hand. As usual, Rupert gave a brief sniff and then skulked around behind, causing Dan to stand up. There was little to say. They already knew that Rupert was six years old and had been born in Alberta. They smiled at the man and continued on.

Sarah asked, “Would Rupert be a good dog to walk to Africa with?

“God no,” said Dan. “Borders are totally driven by their herding instinct. They’d never leave you alone. In the absence of sheep, they herd you. It would be like being followed around by someone who was continuously criticizing your posture and suggesting other things to do with your hair, and also biting your ankles. Plus you would be constantly yelling, ‘Stop staring at me!’”

They came to Westbrook Mall, the turn-around point. Sarah said, “I don’t know if walking to Africa is compelling enough to be a children’s story. First of all, what goes on in the story? It can’t just be a travelogue. There has to be a goal in mind, right from the start. Also, how are you going to maintain continuity if the characters keep changing? Plus, you have to fit it into 28 pages. Children’s books are 28 pages long, by law.”

“They are?”

“How are you going to fit thousands of generations and thousands of miles into 28 pages?”

“I’ll have them walk really fast.”

“Think of a better name than Rex. Something friendlier.”

An unfamiliar dog was up ahead, a black, compact, short-haired dog with a fox-like, tapered muzzle, upright, triangular ears, and an un-cropped, waggy tail. It was attached to one of the leads that reel out like a fishing rod. The owner, a wiry-haired woman in a wide-brimmed hat, had let out enough line that the dog snuffled right up to Sarah and Dan.

“Don’t worry, he’s very friendly,” called the woman.

Many owners said that, but it wasn’t always true. Nevertheless Dan crouched and instantly the dog was all over him, pawing and licking, almost knocking him off his feet.

“No, no jumping!” The woman scolded, hurrying to catch up, shortening the lead. The dog moved to Sarah, who, one hand pressed against her abdomen, leaned to pat, and got face-licked too.

Laughing, she asked, “What’s his name?”

“Teddy,” she said as she continued reeling him in. “Sorry, he just loves everyone.”                   

“Perfect,” said Dan, wiping his face. “That’s a perfect name.”

“Thank you,” said the woman, and then her arm was yanked straight. Teddy had spied another human.

They returned to their building and Dan held open the door. Entering the lobby, Sarah said, “There must have been babies born all along the long migration to Africa. That’s a lot of walking. I bet not many of those mothers had gestational diabetes.”

He smiled at her, but with concern in his eyes. Her condition was his latest quiet worry.

She added, “There are mothers doing the same thing right now, walking long distances, all over the world.”

He reached to press the elevator button and said, “And they can’t even take their dogs with them.” He stepped back to view the dark little window that showed the present floor. He said, “Now it’s total chaos, and what’s pursuing them is much faster than glaciers, and much less predictable—and...”  He stopped talking.

She imagined the ending of his question: And why are we bringing a child into this?

As the numbers dropped, 11, 10, 9… he said, “On each facing pair of pages, Teddy walks with a child, although it is always a different Teddy and a different child, boy or girl, and the plants and background scenery change with the changes in geography. The last line for every child, standing next to every Teddy, is, ‘This place is nice. I hope we can stay.’ It’s a unified story because it’s always is the same story. Even though the dog snuggles against the child, it isn’t enough because the weather keeps getting colder, and then you turn the page to find a different but similar child, and different but similar Teddy, and the words say, ‘But it got colder, and they had to keep walking,’ until page 28, the last child and last dog, Teddy 10,006. There are no words, just a rear view of a child sitting on a hill, silhouetted against a starry sky, with her arm around her dog.”

The elevator doors opened. She pushed the floor. They held hands, watching the numbers climb to their home.

*    *    *

This story is an addition to The Interpreter Stories 2.0.


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