At 50, Don has finally relinquished the burden of immortality, that most endearing quality of youth. His consciousness is now fully settled into his body. Pain has facilitated the descent. The weight of discomfort displaces the emotions forcing reflection to the surface of consciousness. Pain is a catalyst for enlightenment. The body he has condescendingly inhabited has gained the upper hand; established its dominance.
We are one and the same, you and I, it says.
The body, which is his, now requires one 1500mg tablet of Glucosamine Forte (a bomb of a pill) each morning to relieve osteoarthritis and 150mg of Desvenlafaxine to throw a veil of contentment over his major depression. The former helps him perform his job of night-fill at the local IGA; the latter generates the will to get there. Medicine delivers him of most constraints that might otherwise hinder a contented life. He is for the most part satisfied with his life. He would not, however, call himself happy (the diagnosis and medication suggest otherwise). When he feels pleased there is always the devil on his shoulder whispering ‘drugs have made it so’. Life is a matter of routine activities punctuated with reading, walking the dog, talking to the dog and coffee. Reading is less a pleasure than a declaration of willingness to sustain a measure of curiosity; a cautious act of rebellion against suicidal thoughts. He feels that he will ultimately survive life and die naturally. He wills it. However, on the matter of ‘will’, Don is still troubled. Does will not speak itself as desire? What is desire? The will to be pleased? What is the will to have will called? I think it is called the working life. He smiles. Sancho my brother, we are free, we have will, Praise be to God! Sancho wags his tail but does not lift his head. He closes the weathered paperback edition of “The Waves”, strokes the cigarette burn on the cover. He understands Virginia Woolf and her stones. He, however, does not have pockets big enough for rocks. He also has no river. There is the ocean but stepping into its crashing waves with a pocket of rocks seems absurd. Besides, beaches are public places. So, he resists that urge and also the urge to buy vodka and lights another cigarette and squints against the blinding light of another dawn. Despair will pass; again, into something else … he forgets what it is called. This is his burden of hope. He must carry it for the children. It is not as bad as it feels. Feelings are unreliable indicators of the value of life. There is value, he has value, and even if he does not feel it now he must trust that he will feel it again. He must trust that value exists without feeling it. He must have faith, or at the very least, cultivate faith. Freedom Sancho, is the ability to hope for something better … no it’s not. That is habit. But, we are free Sancho to walk in the park and poop where we want? Well, you are anyway.
He sits down on their couch and shares a biscuit while he sips his coffee. He brushes crumbs from his chest onto his lap then the floor and by force of habit looks over his shoulder and experiences a nip of guilt. These philosophical interludes with the dog sustain him. People will suspect I am mad to be talking to you about such deep things Sancho. Forgive me when I exclude you in the company of others, they would not understand. Five hundred years ago they would have burnt the pair of us. What a barbie that would be mate he chuckles as Sancho licks his hand and focuses his attention on Don’s other hand, the hand with the biscuit.
We must focus on lighter things Sancho that is our new project he says you’re a bad influence, far too dark … bad dog! The dog puts his ears back. He gives the dog a vigorous rub. He settles back into the chair, head back and studies the wooden beams of the porch roof. There are ants everywhere, and spider webs. Another job put off. The porcupine stirs in his abdomen, its quills extend deep into him from within. All of his energy will be required to fight back with calming thoughts. The prospect of the fight leaves him exhausted before he has begun. A wet and heavy hessian cloth is closing in over him.
I choose my life. I commit myself to the full extent of my life. My life is good. I have all I need. I want for nothing. The past is done with. I will face a bright future he says softly.
He thinks of a pink and orange sunrise over a turquoise sea. Sancho, let’s go for a walk! The dog knows the words, the tone of the words and is in a moment running to the front door, wagging its tail, whimpering with excitement. Happiness comes easily to you he says to the dog as he places the leash around his neck. The dog licks his face with abandon and the man smiles, feeling loved. They walk through the winding paths of Lighthouse Park. The dog seems to pee on every bush it finds. How do you do that Sancho? How do you will yourself to pee like that?
They encounter several other dogs being walked. Sancho’s man, Don, exchanges greetings and sometimes a few words with familiar people he has been passing in this fashion for years. Suburban dog-walkers strolling for fitness, a change of scenery, the company of passing people and … why do we walk Sancho? The dog wags his tail every time Don talks. It stops to sniff the ground, slouches forward, pees on cue. Oh yes, I forgot.
It is summer and at ten o’clock in the morning the heat of the sun begins to burn Don’s forearms and shins. Cicada trills reverberate through the air. There are too many flies and Don decides to take a short cut home through an enclosed reserve that has a trail through thick brush. Let’s call it a day Sancho, the flies are getting on my tits he says leading the dog through the turnstile gate of the reserve. The trail is overgrown, branches of shrubs and long grass brush against his arms and legs. Flies seem to multiply and he must keep his mouth closed. Maybe this wasn’t worth it he thinks. He is walking faster now and the dog sensing the increase in pace begins to run. Don steps on a stick that jerks suddenly and the movement terrifies him to release an involuntary aaah Jesus snake and he performs a panicked jig both dancing on the spot and running away. A peripheral thought alerts him to how foolish he must look while simultaneously another urges him to flee. He runs. The Dugite is long and brown and the dog barks and chases after it, its front paws catching the snake’s tail. In a flash the snake has turned, darted at the dog, bitten it on the face, whipped away and gone with alarming speed. The dog yelps, backs into Don’s legs, nosedives into the sand and with its paws attempts to wipe away the pain. It howls an awful high-pitched wail that presses down on Don’s being. He scoops the dog into his arms and cradles him tightly while inspecting the dog’s face, which it attempts to burrow under his arm. The dog is shaking with shock. The body calms, then trembles and begins to make involuntary kicks. It’s ok Sancho I’m here. You’re good, you’re fine, we’ll get you sorted, it’s ok, stay with me Sancho.
The vet seems outrageously young to save lives. She is petite and too delicate. He fears the dog is lost. Yet she takes command with reassuring calm talking to the dog all of the time. I am not the only one who talks to animals like this Don thinks. He has the thought of buying her flowers, kissing her on the hand, coffee … Her slender hands caress the dog’s flaccid limbs as she delivers her prognosis. Sancho will live. Toxicity levels are low; anti-venom is administered intravenously with anti-histamines and painkillers. After 48 hours he is home. Don carries the dog to his bed, forms a soft nest with a blanket and pillows and lowers Sancho into it. He lies down on the bed folding himself around the animal. You scared me Sancho he says gently stroking its head and face. The dog licks his hand. They both fall asleep. It is dark when Don wakes up. A jolt of dread subsides when he sees the dog with its snout on his chest; its tail yields a slight wag. I’m happy Sancho Coyote, I think we are lucky, you and I.
A short story by Mike Scallan
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