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Black Dogs (Ian McEwan)


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  She came to a hairpin bend in the track and turned it. A hundred yards ahead, by the next bend, were two donkeys. The path was broader here, fringed by shrubs of box that looked planted out, they were so regularly spaced. She caught a glimpse of something interesting farther down, and she leaned over the edge of the path to look. It was an old irrigation canal built of stone and set into the side of the gorge. She could see the path alongside it. In half an hour they would be able to splash their faces and cool their wrists. As she came away from the edge she looked ahead again and realized that the donkeys were dogs, black dogs of an unnatural size.

She did not stop immediately. The coldness spreading from her stomach down through her legs numbed any immediate response. Instead, she slowed falteringly, taking half a dozen steps before she stood motionless and unbalanced in the center of the path. They had not seen her yet. She knew little about dogs, and she had no great fear of them. Even the frantic animals around the remote farmsteads on the Causse had worried her only a little. But the creatures that blocked the path seventy yards ahead were dogs only in outline. In size they resembled mythical beasts. The suddenness of them, the anomaly, prompted the thought of a message in dumb show, an allegory for her decipherment alone. She had a confusing thought of something medieval, of a tableau both formal and terrifying. At this distance the animals appeared to be grazing quietly. They emanated meaning. She felt weak and sick in her fear. She was waiting for the sound of Bernard's footsteps. Surely she had not been so far ahead of him.

In this landscape, where the working animals were small and wiry, there was no use for dogs the size of donkeys. These creatures--giant mastiffs perhaps--were sniffing around a patch of grass by the side of the path. They were without collars, without an owner. They moved slowly. They seemed to be working together to some purpose. Their blackness, that they should both be black, that they belonged together and were without an owner, made her think of apparitions. June did not believe in such things. She was drawn to the idea now because the creatures were familiar. They were emblems of the menace she had felt, they were the embodiment of the nameless, unreasonable, unmentionable disquiet she had felt that morning. She did not believe in ghosts. But she did believe in madness. What she feared more than the presence of the dogs was the possibility of their absence, of their not existing at all. One of the dogs, slightly smaller than its mate, looked up and saw her.

That the animals could behave independently of each other seemed to confirm their existence in the real world. This was no comfort. While the larger dog continued to nose in the grass, the other stood quite still, one front paw raised, and looked at her, or breathed her scent in the warm air. June had grown up on the edge of the countryside, but she was a city girl really. She knew enough not to run, but she was an office, library, cinema sort of girl. In twenty-six years she had had an average share of danger. A V-bomb had once exploded three hundred yards from where she was sheltering; during the early days of the blackout she had been a passenger on a bus that had collided with a motorbike; when she was nine she had fallen into a weedy pond with all her clothes on, in midwinter. The memory of these adventures, or the flavor of all three distilled into one metallic essence, came to her now. The dog advanced a few yards and stopped. Its tail was low, the front feet were planted firmly. June stepped backward, one step, then another two. Her left leg was trembling in the knee joint. The right was better. She imagined the creature's visual field: a colorless wash and one blurred hovering perpendicular, unmistakably human, edible.

She was certain that these ownerless dogs would be famished. Out here, two miles or more from St. Maurice, even a hunting dog would have a hard time of it. These were guard dogs, bred for aggression, not survival. Or pets that had outgrown their charm or were costing too much to feed. June stepped back again. She was afraid, reasonably afraid, not of dogs but of the unnatural size of these particular dogs in this remote place. And of their color? No, not that. The second, larger dog saw her and came forward to stand by its mate. They remained still for a quarter of a minute, then they began to walk toward her. If they had broken into a run, she would have been helpless before them. But she needed to watch them all the time, she had to see them coming. She risked a glance behind her; the snapshot of the sunlit path was vividly empty of Bernard.

He was more than three hundred yards away. He had stopped to retie his lace and had become engrossed by the progress, inches from the tip of his shoe, of a caravan of two dozen brown furry caterpillars, each with its mandibles clamped to the rear of the one in front. He had called to June, wanting her to come back and look, but by then she had already rounded the first bend. Bernard's scientific curiosity was aroused. The procession along the path looked purposeful. He wanted to know exactly where it was going, and what would happen when it arrived. He was on his knees with his box camera. Nothing much showed through the viewfinder. He took a notebook from his rucksack and began to make a sketch.

The dogs were less than fifty yards away, and coming at a fast walk. When they got to her they would be waist high, perhaps bigger. Their tails were down and their mouths were open. June could see their pink tongues. Nothing else in this hard landscape was pink apart from her tender sunburned legs, exposed below her baggy shorts. For comfort she tried to force a memory of an ancient Lakeland terrier belonging to an aunt, of how it ambled across the rectory hallway, toenails clipping the polished oak boards, to greet each new visitor, neither friendly nor hostile but dutifully inquisitive. There was a certain irreducible respect owed by dogs to humans, bred over generations, founded upon the unquestionable facts of human intelligence and dog stupidity. And on dogs' celebrated loyalty, their dependency, their abject desire to be mastered. But out here the rules were exposed as mere convention, a flimsy social contract. Here, no institutions asserted human ascendancy. There was only the path, which belonged to any creature that could walk it.

The dogs kept to their mutinous advance. Jane was walking backward. She dared not run. She shouted Bernard's name once, twice, three times. Her voice sounded thin in the sunny air. It caused the dogs to come faster, almost at a trot. She must not show her fear, then. Her hands shook as she scrabbled on the path for rocks. She found three. She held one in her right hand and kept the others wedged between her left hand and her side. She was retreating sideways, keeping her left shoulder toward the dogs. Where the path dipped, she stumbled and fell. In her anxiety to be on her feet again, she almost bounced off the ground.

She still had the rocks. Her forearm was cut. Would the smell of the wound excite them? She wanted to suck the blood away, but to do that she would have to let the rocks fall. There were still more than a hundred yard to the bend in the path. The dogs were twenty yards away and closing. She drifted apart from her body and turned to face them; this detached self was prepared to watch with indifference--worse, acceptance--a young woman being eaten alive. She noted with contempt the whimper on each outbreath, and how a muscular spasm was causing the left leg to tremble so much it could no longer bear weight.

She leaned back against a small oak that overhung the path. She felt her rucksack between her and the tree. Without dropping her stones, she eased it off her shoulders and held it before her. At fifteen feet the dogs stopped. She realized that she had been clinging to the one last hope that her fear was no more than silliness. She realized it the moment the hope dissolved in the rumble of the larger dog's growl. The smaller one was flattened against the ground, front legs tensed, ready to spring. Its mate circled slowly to the left, keeping its distance, until it was only possible to hold them both in her field of vision by letting her eyes flicker between them. In this way she saw them as a juddering accumulation of disjointed details: the alien black gums, slack black lips rimmed by salt, a thread of saliva breaking, the fissures on a tongue that ran to smoothness along its curling edges, a yellow-red eye and eyeball muck spiking the fur, open sores on a foreleg, and, trapped in the V of an open mouth, deep in the hinge of the jaw, a little foam, to which her gaze kept returning. The dogs had brought with them their own cloud of flies. Some of them now defected to her.

Bernard did not derive pleasure from sketching, nor did his drawings resemble what he saw. They represented what he knew, or what he wanted to know. They were diagrams, or maps, onto which he would later transcribe missing names. If he could identify the caterpillar, it would be easy to find out from reference books what it was up to, if he failed to discover for himself today. He depicted a caterpillar as a scaled-up oblong. Close examination had shown that they were not brown but striped in subtle shades of orange and black. He had shown only one set of stripes on his diagram, drawn in careful proportion to the length, with penciled arrows indicating colors. He had counted the members of the caravan--not so easy when each individual merged into the fur of the next. He recorded twenty-eight. He drew a head-on view of the leader's face, showing the relative size and disposition of the jaws and compound eyes. As he had knelt down, his cheek grazing the path, to stare up close at the head of the leading caterpillar, at a hinged face of inscrutable parts, he had thought how we share the planet with creatures as weird and as alien to us as any that could be imagined from outer space. But we give them names and stop seeing them, or their size prevents us from looking. He reminded himself to pass this thought on to June, who even now would be walking back up the path to find him, possibly a little cross.

She was addressing the dogs, in English, then in French. She spoke forcefully to hold down the sickness. In the confident tone of a dog owner she commanded the larger dog, which stood with its front legs set apart, still growling.

"Ça suffit!"

It did not hear. It did not blink. On her right, its companion eased forward on its belly. If they had barked she would have felt better. The silences that interrupted the growls suggested calculation. The animals had a plan. From the jaws of the larger dog a drop of saliva fell onto the path. Several flies were on it in an instant.

June whispered, "Please go away. Please. Oh God!" The expletive brought her to the conventional thought of her last and best chance. She tried to find the space within her for the presence of God and thought she discerned the faintest of outlines, a significant emptiness she had never noticed before, at the back of her skull. It seemed to lift and flow upward and outward, streaming suddenly into an oval penumbra many feet high, an envelope of rippling energy, or, as she tried to explain it later, of 'colored invisible light' that surrounded her and contained her. If this was God, it was also, incontestably, herself. Could it help her? Would this Presence be moved by a sudden, self-interested conversion? An appeal, a whimpering prayer to something that was so clearly, so luminously an extension of her own being, seemed irrelevant. Even in this moment of extremity she knew she had discovered something extraordinary, and she was determined to survive and investigate it.

Still holding the rock, she slipped her right hand into her rucksack. She pulled out the remains of the saucisson they had been eating the day before, and tossed it to the ground. The smaller dog was there first, but ceded to its mate immediately. The sausage and its greaseproof paper were down in less than thirty seconds. The dog turned to her, drooling. A triangular shred of paper was trapped between two teeth. The bitch nosed the ground where the sausage had been. June returned her hand to the rucksack. She felt something hard between the bundles of folded clothes. She drew out a penknife with a bakelite handle. The larger dog took two quick steps toward her. It was ten feet away. She transferred the rock to her left hand, put the bakelite in her mouth, and opened out the knife. She could not hold it and the rock in one hand. There was a choice to be made. The knife with its three-inch blade was a last resort. She could use it only when the dogs were on her. She balanced it on top of the rucksack, handle pointing toward her. She took the rock in her right hand again and pushed back against the tree. Her terrified grip had warmed the rock through. She drew back her hand. Now that she was about to attack, her left leg was shaking more.

The rock hit the ground hard and sent a spray of smaller stones across the path. She missed the larger dog by a foot. It flinched when the stones rose into its face, but it held its ground and lowered its nose to the place of impact, still hoping for food. When it looked at her again it twisted its head to one side and snarled, a nasty breath-and-mucus sound. It was as she had feared. She had raised the stakes. Another rock was in her hand. The bitch flattened its ears and slipped forward. Her throw was wild, hopeless. The rock spun out of her hand too soon. It fell feebly to one side and her unweighted arm thrashed the air.

The big dog was down, ready for the spring, waiting for one moment's inattention. The muscles in its haunches quivered. A back paw scrabbled for better purchase. She had seconds left, and her hand was around her third rock. It went over the dog's back and hit the path. The sound caused the dog to half turn, and in that instant, in that extra second, June moved. She had nothing to lose. In a delirium of abandonment, she attacked. She had passed through fear to fury that her happiness, the hopes of the past months, and now the revelation of this extraordinary light were about to be destroyed by a pair of abandoned dogs. She took the knife in her right hand and held the rucksack like a shield and rushed the dogs, shrieking a terrible aaaaaaa!

The bitch leapt back. But the big one went for her. It sprang up. She leaned forward to meet the impact as the animal sank its jaws into the rucksack. It was on its hind legs and she was supporting it with one arm. She was buckling under the weight. The dog's face was inches above hers. She thrust upward with the knife, three quick jabs to its belly and sides. It surprised her, how easily the blade went in. A good little knife. On the first stroke the dog's yellow-red eyes widened. On the second and third, before it let the rucksack go, it made high-pitched piteous yips, a small dog's noise. Encouraged by the sound and screaming again, June lunged upward a fourth time. But the animal's weight was in retreat and she missed. The swing of her arm threw her off balance. She sprawled forward, face down on the path.

The knife had left her hand. The back of her neck was exposed. She hunched her shoulders in a prolonged, trembling shrug, she drew in her arms and legs and covered her face in her hands. It can come now, was her only thought. It can come.

But it did not. When she dared lift her head, she saw the dogs a hundred yards away and still running, back the way they had come. Then they rounded the corner and were gone.
 
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Excerpted from Black Dogs by Ian McEwan. Copyright © 1992 by Ian McEwan. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Bantam Trade Paper edition published February 1994.