Dog’s Honest Island
(originally published in Phantasmacore)
Dog’s Honest Island
My life cracked with that electric candle. Ballistic rain all day. Gatling gun metal clouds. Singed appendectomy scars on the horizon. And then there was the way she was acting.
Judy seemed different. When she said she didn’t want to walk the dog, her tongue swam inside her mouth, hiding the unsayable in her teeth. The secrets buried in her eyes were probably full.
I returned from the walk soaked through with apologies. The pedagogy of loneliness was still teaching my boots and the floorboards of the front hall. That’s when I heard the unmistakable echo. Emptiness. The walls sang like saxophones when I tossed my boots into the corner.
No one was home, except for an uncaring cat and that unplugged electric candle, a defeated king toppled on a chessboard. I may have dropped the dog leash then. Maybe Baxter whimpered. What I remember for certain is that candle laying there, a plastic corpse. Its cord was a question mark interrogating mute floors whose tongues swelled tight in their grooves.
After Judy left, I quit my job, stopped talking to my brother, and shaved only when drunk and prone to creative incisions. Walking Baxter and watching him play made me feel better.
One morning, in particular, I refused to get up ever again. I wanted the abraded melancholy of the sheetless mattress forever, but Baxter’s nose prodded by inches. The cat blinked from its sovereign corner. Baxter nudged; the cat blinked. Business as usual. And yet, something was different about Baxter. Those sad eyes, burying bones I wasn’t meant to find. Later, at the dogpark, my suspicions re-surfaced like B-movie zombies, thriller skeletons in tuxedos after the cemetery flood.
“Baxter looks sluggish to me,” said Jeffers, the dog expert.
“How can you tell,” I asked.
“It’s in his run, can’t you see? His nose is down. That’s the blues.”
“How should I know,” Jeffers said. Then he looked around the field, as if anyone could have crept up to eavesdrop. “Why don’t you ask him?”
“Ask who? Baxter?”
Jeffers made the kind of face you rarely see on men his age—eyes so wide they drank up the sky with a glisten to rival the river stones beneath the ice.
“Don’t you know about the Dog’s Honest Island?” he whispered.
I said I didn’t and then a white terrier appeared. It ran to sniff and play with Baxter and Jeffers’ black lab. Jeffers’ face became parchment as the terrier’s owner approached—white hair, deep set eyes, a death mask for a face.
“Did I hear you telling about the island?” she asked.
Jeffers trembled. “His dog looked to me like—”
“That island ain’t no regular stretch of rock in the river.” When she turned to me I wished she hadn’t. “They say it juts from the other world into this one. Dog’s talk there, they say.”
“That’s absurd,” I said.
“Those what’s done it don’t think so,” she replied.
Jeffers clapped his hands to his ears, agitated by some loud noise. He mumbled an excuse, collected his dog, and wandered off, his hands still clutching his head as if something precious and dying lay within. Baxter lumbered over. Mystery hung about him indefinably like a smell, the way sulfur heralds the devil.
“I see what Jeffers means,” said the woman. “Your dog wants to tell you something. Perhaps you should go to Dog’s Honest Island.” She ignored my nervous laughter and pointed out a shallow lick of pebble about the size of a rowboat in the middle of the river. “That’s Dog’s Honest Island,” she said. “Take your animal there. Night, when the rains pour good and you see what’s funny then, by god.”
I wanted to laugh again, when I heard her terrier in the water. It clawed onto the island she pointed out in the river. Even from a distance, I could see its fangs in the eye of a cyclone of fur shaking off water.
“That’s the spot,” she said. “Take him there. The night will rain the truth.”
Baxter whimpered. The woman whistled and walked on. Her terrier plunged back into the river to follow her upstream.
I straggled back to my apartment, Baxter pouting at my side. The place was a mausoleum with pungent air thick and soft, a smear of carrots overboiled and burnt in your nostrils. I tried to rinse the air with music, but that was a mistake. After juicing my eyes with memory lemons, searching the bathroom mirror for the man I once knew, I crawled back to my senses. The cat blinked disdain. My dog curled up on the sofa. He still seemed strange to me. That he was still hungry reassured me that he wasn’t ill. Yet something was wrong. I leaned down to Baxter’s head, the color of autumn leaves. His brown eyes were downcast.
“What is it, buddy? What’s the matter?”
The dog exhaled, his tongue cycling through his lips. He sounded so human.
“Are you sick, Baxter?”
I caressed his ears.
“Baxter? Are you okay, good boy?”
I shook him.
That’s when it hit me.
My dog was not looking at me.
“Baxter? Hey Baxter!”
Nothing worked. His brown eyes went everywhere my eyes weren’t. No eye contact whatsoever. I thought there was something wrong with his eyes. Then, I got scared. Was it me? I sought the cat perched on the loveseat by the front window. She blinked, looked me in the eye, and looked away—scorn in slowly noble motion. Back at Baxter, I pressed my nose against his—cooing childishly, stroking his head, scratching his chin, and saying his name in ways that ranged from sweet to stern—nothing. He would not look at me. Not even when I tried to force him.
I became somewhat afraid of my own dog. Although he was as docile as ever, I locked myself in my bedroom that night, the rain a sluice of glass and shingle. Baxter spent the night on the couch. The cat stood guard, alert to nothing in particular.
The next day I took Baxter to the dogpark, where he played in the mud with the other lab, Charley, whose pretty owner, Darlene, was easy to talk to. Perhaps that is why I found it so difficult to talk to her.
She was scanning the river when she said: “You can tell this winter is going to be hard based on how thick the ice gets in November.” Darlene was about to launch more conversational weather balloons when I blurted out—
“Baxter won’t look me in the eye.”
She stood stalk still, her eyes sunflower wide.
I said, “Some old woman told me about the island out there and—”
Darlene put her hands to her ears, staunching blasphemies only she could hear. Oddly, she smiled through the gesture and shouted politely, as though her voice had to carry over some interference: “You should take him there, if you want the truth.”
Then, still smiling, she covered her ears so tightly her fingers turned white with the pressure and the bones of her hand showed through her translucent skin. After she had gone, Baxter returned to my side. I looked down at him. He glanced toward the island. I started planning it then. We would need a boat. It was time to call my brother.
“Where’ve you been?” My brother sounded angry on the phone. “You don’t answer the phone for weeks and now you want my canoe? You in some kind of trouble?”
I adjusted my tone so that someone much happier translated my thoughts over the phone. “No trouble. Just wanting to do some fishing with Baxter.”
“You drinking again?”
I breathed before answering. I had a counselor once tell me about a breathing technique that worked the last time I visited my brother with Judy..
“I’m not drinking okay? Look, here’s the thing. I want to explore the river on the canoe with Baxter. So can I borrow the canoe or not?”
“You’re not going to the island are you?”
I thought I misheard him, so I asked him what he said. The silence of lunar craters whispered over the phone. I kept saying hello and repeating my brother’s name until I heard a faint rasp—the ancient fuzzy song shells sing in your ear when the two canals close around one another and nothing else interferes. Nothingness and the ocean have the same voice, as it turns out, and my brother imitated them both for a while. Eventually, he said he’d see me after work the next day and hung up.
Talking over the phone was easier than seeing him. He dropped off the canoe and the pads for mounting it on my car. He made me feel like we were kids again. It was raining lightly. After he showed me how to strap the boat to the hood and back fender of my car, he tested me to see if I could do it myself. The strap kept sliding out of my hand, which the drizzle and the sky seemed to find more amusing than my brother did.
Before he left he asked inevitable questions: “You drinking again? You in trouble?” The only part about it that was remotely enjoyable was watching him try to ask about the island, crippled over, cradling his head, skittering into his pickup.
The rain was coming down harder. I went inside to prepare. I rummaged for clothes that were waterproof. The cat was not pleased about this as she had to vacate her perch in the corner of my closet. That’s where I found the box with the old Christmas lights that Judy had brought from her old apartment. The bulbs were the exact same size as the one that was broken on the candle. I went down to test them and, sure enough, the red one fit. The candle snapped to vivid life in the window.
I put on my boots and parka and tried to make Baxter look me in the eye until it was time for us to go. He had taken to shutting his eyes whenever I got close. I could sense his anticipation.
To get away from him and to pass the time until nightfall, I set about cleaning the apartment, something I hadn’t done for months. I straightened up the clothes in the corner, again disturbing one of the cat’s favorite nooks, and took all the empty bottles out to the bin. I made the bed and wiped away the frosted dust from the front window warmed by the red glow of the electric candle.
Finally, it was time. I loaded Baxter into the car and drove down to the dogpark beside the river, straining to see as rain flooded the windshield. I unstrapped the canoe, tucked the paddle under one arm and dragged the boat across the gravel parking lot to the river. Baxter hated the rain and barked violently at the grumbling of the boat against the rocks. He was afraid to get in the canoe at first but I lured him with a handful of cat food, which I took from the cat’s bowl before we left, knowing how much Baxter loved those forbidden treasures.
It took me some time but I paddled us to the island, whose pebbly surface shimmered beneath the bloated waves. You could hardly tell that there was an island there at all and I almost tipped the canoe trying to get out. As I steadied the boat on the rock to anchor it, Baxter barked and barked, until the barking barked into something else.
“Damn boat! Damn boat! Damn boat!”
“Baxter! You can talk.”
“Of course, I can talk,” said the dog. “And so can this boat and I don’t like it.”
I clapped my freezing hands. “It’s a miracle.”
“Maybe,” said the dog ducking his head as the rain pelted.
I looked down at my boots. The flooding made it seem that I could walk on water.
“Baxter, why haven’t you been looking me in the eye?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” said the dog.
“If I answered that I would be talking about it, now wouldn’t I?”
“I suppose,” I said. “I’m only worried about you is all.”
“About me?” Baxter shook off the rain. “I’m worried about you.”
“Because of Judy?”
“She doesn’t care if we drown now. Face that. Until you do, I can’t face you.”
We stood there for a while on that tiny island being swallowed by the tempest, watching each other’s breath twisted up by rain. And then Baxter looked at me. It had been a while. I had almost forgotten how huge his eyes were, moons in tandem orbit.
I had nothing more to say. When I got the canoe ready to leave, Baxter said, “Don’t bring me here again. I don’t want to come here again.” I nodded and we started back to shore.
The way back was the worst part of it. There was a terrible shrieking sound in my ears whenever I thought about the island and the words Baxter said. The only way to stop that earth-shattering siren in my ears was to take my mind off of the island. So I thought of a song in my head and sang it while dragging the canoe back to the car in the drenching rains. Baxter barked ferociously at the canoe again. I sang so loud that it didn’t matter that the strap kept slipping. I secured the boat and sang the whole way home.
As soon as we turned the corner, I noticed how dark the apartment looked. Smears of ink for windows. When I opened the door, the cat shot past me. I called out to her but the rain swallowed it and she was gone, long gone, into the night. By the front window, the electric candle had marks chewed into its side where it lay on the wooden floor like a hit and run accident.
Although I never got another cat, I tried having other girlfriends. It seldom worked out. Who can blame them for refusing to come between Baxter and me? The awkwardness of it all so loud it makes my ears rain just thinking about it.