Pack Leader dances around the kitchen, slapping tortillas flat and flinging them happily onto the comal. She’s singing, in time to The Music. Can’t say I admire the way humans howl, but I’ve become used to it. At least she’s happy again. Maybe she’ll let me out on my own.
I’m twitching to find out what was going on in the square yesterday. So much noise, even I heard it. Sila reported an incredible racket—packs of humans yelling and wailing, throwing rocks and smashing glass. I didn’t hear all the details, but there’s nothing wrong with my nose. I could smell the blood. And burning meat. Human meat. You don’t smell that every day.
You could smell fear, too, all the way up here. Phew! Everybody stinks a bit when afraid, I grant you—sort of adds some spice to the hunt. But humans positively reek of it. Our guests stank so bad yesterday I wouldn’t go near any of them. All but two left last night. Pack Leader won’t be making a lot of tortillas this morning.
Maybe she’ll give me the extra bacon and eggs for my breakfast. Treat-treat, Toyon! That’s the finest phrase ever to emerge from a human mouth. Then, as she puts the plate down in front of my nose, she growls that People Food is no good for me. As if humans don’t gobble and shit, same as we do, not to mention every other kind of critter I’ve ever chased.
Too stiff and sore to chase anything nowadays. Can barely make it up to Las Ruinas on Walkies. Yesterday Pack Leader wouldn’t let me out onto the street. Wouldn’t take me for Walkies, either. She came rushing home in the middle of the day, breathing hard and reeking of fear. She closed all the shutters and bolted the front door. Just before dark fell, she let me out, once, through the new back door into the cornfield to do my business. She knows I’m too old to jump that crummy little wall. “Safer for you, Toy-toy. Things will be better tomorrow.”
Things are better today. Breakfast is delicious, although, again, I can’t finish my bowl of rice, beans, chicken, eggs and bacon. Once I used to scour my dish so clean an ant couldn’t find so much as an appetizer in its depths—now that bitch Sila gets to scarf down my leftovers.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Sila. Seems to me we had puppies once, long, long ago, when she was very young. Before she fell for that smart-ass…grrr….
Huh? Oh. I must have dozed off after breakfast. Out-out? Really? O yay! My tail wags. It’s a good day; I’m a good dog; I’m a good dog; I’m a wonderful dog….
“Don’t get into trouble, you two,” says Pack Leader. “I suggest you go up to Las Ruinas where it’s nice and peaceful. No chasing chickens, Sila!”
Only death itself will stop Sila from chasing chickens. She lives to chase flightless birds. Goody Four-paws heads obediently uphill, feathers and mayhem on her furry mind. Me, I point my tired old bod up the cobblestone street until Pack Leader closes the door. Then I turn down-street.
No self-respecting canine could say no to the waves of excitement still washing up the street to our house. Chicken-lover Sila can muck around in the upper pastures—not this wolfy. Something big happened down in the square yesterday, and I’m going to play Investigator Dog if it’s the last thing I do.
Strange…the only people on the street are dogs. Usually, when I totter down this ridiculous stairway of stones that passes for our street, I have to thread my way through loaded burros, groaning trucks and vans, pastores trotting briskly down to market with loads of produce on their backs as big as doghouses, tangles of bewildered tourists, and knots of locals. Folks used to shrink away from me, but nowadays mostly greet me— “Buenos dias, Senor Toyon!” —and try to pet me as I trot past. Today, no greetings. Not a tourist in smelling range. Nobody headed for the market. Come to think of it, the usual buzz of business from that fascinating concatenation of scent and sound is absent. Either my hearing is getting worse, or the market is closed.
Down past the Casa Familiar. The weaving-shop door is firmly closed; so is the door of the comedor. If I scoot around the building to the deck where the tourists eat a sunny breakfast while overlooking the whole town and the steep valley, somebody will fall for my charms and give me a treat-treat. But there’s not a tourist on the entire deck, just Roman, the father human who is smart enough not to let his pups pester me. “Nothing for you today, old boy.” He scratches me pleasantly behind each ear. “They’ve all gone home. Which is where you should go. Home! Understand? God only knows what could happen today!”
“Will they poison our dogs, too, Papa?” pipes up his elder puppy, a girl almost old enough to tolerate. “Like Guatemala City?” I can smell tears. She’s holding salty water in her eyes. That’s one of the weird things humans do when they’re sad. Roman looks sad, too. Something strange is definitely going on.
Her father soothes her, pats her paw. I’ve learned over the years that humans prefer that patting thing to nuzzling or nibbling. “Don’t worry, Christina,” he says. “That won’t happen here. Your papa worries more about guns. There are a few guns in town. And after a strange day like yesterday, who knows what could happen next? Saber? Better to be safe and stay indoors for a day or two.”
I nose around the kitchen and am thrown half a tortilla soaked in leftover pepian broth. I howl my thanks, making the human puppies laugh. Onward, I decide. There’s no way I’m going home just yet.
Sure enough, the whiffs of fear clinging like old fog to the edges of the street have condensed into rivulets that puddle and spill over themselves down to the square, before the church where the weekly market was held yesterday. The one I missed, since Pack Leader wouldn’t let me out of the house.
I never miss a market day by choice—every dog in town is there, and the food is great. Over the years the humans who come in for the market from out of town have grown used to me, but I’m still the biggest canine they’ve ever seen.
“Lobo,” they whisper to one another as I go by. If I insist, or play shake-a-paw with them, I get my just rewards, every time. Churros, yum! Tamales, I can take ‘em or leave ‘em. Corn, forget it. But cheese, black beans, chicken, mutton, lomito—and those delectable churros—aahh! I’ll never tire of them. Hope there’s something left lying around this morning.
There’s no scrap of food this morning. Not a single human is hanging around the plaza which overlooks the church, and the trash bins are astoundingly empty. The square below is awash in strong feeling—I find myself sloshing around in fear and fury, anger and anxiety. Not to mention the joy of the hunt. I’ve never smelled that in humans before. It’s really strong in the direction of the burned-meat smell.
Can you beat that? Right here on the stones, they nailed one of their own and cooked him, on the spot! Didn’t I tell you it was exciting down here yesterday? Just when you think you know everything about humans and you can just relax into your cushy life with them, they come up with something new.
They left nothing behind, though. Just burned blood and a few charred wisps of clothing. Yuck. Can’t even tell who it was.
The square is disappointing. Aside from the burned patch, the only evidence of yesterday is a straggle of sticks and a few loose rocks cluttering up the cobblestones. On the sticks, the scent of mayhem is still very strong. I can catch the signature of several people I know—no one from my pack, thank goodness. Except maybe Carlos. But he’s not really in our pack; he has his own den far up the mountain.
The river of scent deepens as it exits the square via the main street. Hmm…something went on down there, too…. As I saunter past the church, taking care to investigate every stone in the street, every curb, every wall, every trash bin, the two leftover tourists from our den show up, chattering loudly to a pack of locals.
Our visitors seem to be the leaders of this pack. This is so unusual, I stop to notice. Most of our houseguests are so dumb they don’t know which end of our steep street is up, and they are so numb from all their traveling that they meekly obey Pack Leader’s every order. But these two are different. The male, with his shiny eyepieces on, is ordering the locals where to stand on the square, while the female peers through one of those box things with the flashing lights that some humans seem to like so much. Maybe they need them to see better. She’s waving and yelling at the group, and in a minute they all pick up and move over a little, until they are grouped smack dab in front of the church doors.
It seems they are telling a story. There is one human puppy in the group; it can’t even walk yet. Our male guest reaches out to pat it, and then the locals go after him with sticks, screaming, “Diabolicos!” and “Demonios!” until he yells, “Cut!” Then they repeat the whole thing. The human puppy smells worse by the minute and starts to cry, which makes our guests laugh.
Humans are weird. But I know “Demonios!” That’s what comes out of Pack Leader’s mouth when she’s mad. It’s a good idea to stay out of the way once the “Demonios!” session starts. After the third “Cut!” I decide to disappear. Time to explore the main path, following the now thinning river of fear.
The main street is empty of people, too, human or canine. By the closed door of the first shop where the humans get their overskins and extra pelts, the smells of anger and killing arise again, strongly. My blood-magnet nose pulls me diagonally across the street to a building Pack Leader calls the Blue House. There’s a tiny food store in there that’s almost always open, with at least one kid who’s a sucker for dogs lounging in the doorway. Not today.
New, mysterious marks straggle down the wall, which reeks as if it has just been painted with pure human terror. The stuff is still running down the rough surface to a puddle of agony, drowning the street stones. A human died right here. There’s some blood, but that’s not what just about knocks me over. It’s the scent of sorrow. This dead human was the saddest of souls.
I sit back on my haunches. Nowadays this is so hard, I’m not sure I’ll be able to straighten up again. Pack Leader would be surprised to see me sit. I need to make a long, straight line from my throat to the sky, with no human buildings in the way to stop my sound from reaching the stars. I sit back on my haunches, and I howl.
My sometime pal Tronyo, who also lives up the hill street, joins me halfway through. I have to admit, his is a good voice. He seems to think he’s entitled to a special place beside me in the pack, just because we both have gringo humans, not to mention better manners and fewer fleas than most of the scrawny mutts in this town. So, let him sing with me, sing for the poor human who lay so long on these stones yesterday, feeling his life drain away down the street.
Humans are weird. Life is too short to figure them out.
Tronyo wants to sniff out the square. “Nothing much going on there today,” I tell him. “Just some people telling a story. There’s another spot to howl over, though.” I’m thinking of the burned spot. But when we trot back into the square—“trot” being an overly complimentary term for how I move nowadays—the excitement seems to be all over. The pack of locals has disappeared; the two visitors with the cameras are the only humans in sight. The female calls to us in what she thinks is an enticing tone, slapping her thin thigh lightly. I fix her with the baleful stare I reserve for the words, “Here, boy!” generally repeated by enthusiastic macho gringo males until I want to sink an irritated tooth or four into the nearest leg. But Tronyo takes the bait. “Sucker! She doesn’t have any food!” I call after him, but he’s a fool for love, that one. In a minute he’s letting her fondle those droopy ears of his, while I trail reluctantly behind, sure to stay out of reach.
Now the male visitor is in on the act. He doesn’t even like dogs—I smelled that right away. Snotty bastard. But here he is, right on top of Tronyo, almost touching him, pretending to howl and flapping his arms at us. Tronyo scampers back and forth between them, trying to be helpful and barking his fool head off, while the female starts laughing so hard she almost drops her flashing-light box.
“They want us to go over there and howl,” I say. Young dogs can be so dumb. I must have been like Tronyo once, I suppose, but it’s hard to believe now.
“Where? Where?” Tronyo’s bouncing around like a ball in a box.
“Here.” I pad over to where the story-telling was going on earlier. No smell of death here. Hardly any fear, or even anger. Just today’s excitement. Expectation. Those story-tellers must have expected something, something good. We’re supposed to howl for this?
“Really? Really?” Tronyo’s enthusiasm is beginning to wear me down. “Maybe they’ll feed us!”
“They’d better,” I grumble. “Howling is not some dumb trick, you know. Howling is serious. I thought you understood that.”
The female puts her flashing-light box down for a minute and tries out a pathetic little howl, trying to get us going. Tronyo’s ready to oblige, but I fix her with my baleful stare and him with a low growl. I’m the senior here. If anyone is going to start howling, it will be old Toyon.
Tronyo droops a little. The visitors jabber together, and the male scrabbles through his shoulder bag for something. Tronyo perks up as the man’s hand emerges, clutching a paper napkin which exudes a heavenly scent.
Churros. I’d sell my soul for a churro.
La Chiripa is Book 2 in The Widening Gyre trilogy.