Dissections logo scissors body by Deena Warner

 


Dissections logo pterodactyl by Deena Warner


 

 

 

 




Black Dogs and Broken Promises
(for my sweet companion)

Frances Auld

The dog was lean and black. It was rainbow, oil slick, black and stood out brilliantly against the green of the countryside. She wasn’t afraid of it. She was cautious, certainly, but not fearful. Fearful women don’t take solo walking tours of France and Belgium. She wouldn’t have been afraid of a dog that size in the States and she wasn’t afraid of it here. The dog was looking at her now, after its thorough investigation of a lamp post. Looking her over as carefully as it had sniffed the post.

A woman like her couldn’t afford to be afraid of stray dogs, she thought to herself, (or men, she amended). You can’t ignore the things that surprise you or take you off guard. The dog was still visible, although it had meandered into an alcove in the hedge. Probably another shrine, she thought. Beauraing was a bit of a tourist town in terms of shrines. In the 1920’s children had witnessed a series of visions of what they claimed was Mother Mary over a train trestle. In this century Mary peeked out of dozens of small shrines, white robed, blue robed, hands clasped in prayer or holding infant Jesus. The woman’s favorite was Mary in the posture of hands at the side, eyes cast down and a look of complete peace on her face. Yes, Beauraing was certainly Mary’s town, from the large sculpture of her on a pedestal near the scene of the visions, to all the smaller, ceramic Marys, hidden in overgrown shrine/gardens, or standing vigil at the corners of buildings. Rich, shiny bits of black showed through the hedge as the black dog apparently sat at the foot of an unseen shrine.

She consulted the guide. This portion was in French, easy enough to read for the most part, but this site wasn’t listed on the guide. She checked the street name again. No, she was looking at the right street on the map. There was the train depot and there was the cathedral. Ever since she’d gotten so terrible turned around in Bruges, she kept the map handy and sometimes made her own notes about landmarks or streets that crossed canals. She’s never gotten lost driving across country, but the cities could be tricky and the smaller towns didn’t always have clear street signs. She added a quick note about the shrine on this street and walked towards the hedge and the dog.

The shrine was overgrown, wild roses or blackberries, something with thorns, surrounded a statue and formed the backdrop behind it. No vases of flowers or candles here. Not exactly run-down, but this place was more...not wild exactly, more natural, less manicured than most of the places she had seen. This wasn’t a version of Mary she was familiar with, either. The material was different, not ceramic, not stone. She looked to be carved out of wood, and the figure stood on a tangle of...something. She couldn’t quite tell and it would be problematic to get any closer. The dog was stretched out in front of the statue, belly down on the hard packed earth, head between paws and staring straight at her. It looked bigger from this distance, less hound and more lab. The eyes were terribly golden, but its fur was still oil-slick black, practically glowing in the sunshine. For the first time on her trip, she felt a moment’s hesitation. The dog was looking at her so intently. There were no drooling jaws, no fierce teeth; this animal didn’t generate any sense of violence. It simply looked her in the eye and she found that unsettling. Not really normal canine behavior, she thought.

Plenty more places to see, she decided. No need to tangle with a biggish stray dog. She’d seen so very few of them in Europe. Neither Belgium nor France had anything like the population of strays that you might find in Illinois or Missouri. In her line of work, she kept track of things like that. Of course, stray populations were only one of the sources for the kinds of animals her lab required. Not that she wasn’t willing to open her car door on the way to work occasionally and call a pooch into the back of the jeep. A penny saved is a penny earned was her motto. She worked hard to keep expenses down. She used undergrad students for the data collection. If they were clumsy in their initial procedures, well, they got better eventually and besides, no one wanted them practicing those techniques on people. If they could figure it out before med school, all the better. Not like anything in the crates complained. As a matter of fact, she had had her own dog’s bark removed back when she lived in the Chicago apartment, kept it quiet when she was at work.

This dog was equally silent, not even panting. Just looking at her, barely blinking. She knew all about the canine blink response, as well as how to surgically curb it for testing purposes. She didn’t need to get any closer. She’d snag a photograph of the statue and try to increase the resolution from her computer. She pulled out the camera and fumbled the guide, watched it flutter down and come to rest on the big dog’s paw. The dog looked bigger now, closer to a newfie, perhaps. She was sweating a bit, ready to head back to the hotel and find a pub and drink. Just take the picture, she thought, I’ve had enough religion for one day. Tomorrow was Ypres and the war museum.

She centered the camera on the wooden statue, framing it with the overgrown briars behind it, angling the camera so the dog was not in the shot. Sometimes you needed to leave work at work. Her vacation was about the beauty and the foreignness of this place. It was about the peace and the silence of the shrines. It was about the smells of fresh bread and rose gardens, not disinfectant, or the incinerator. “Got the shot,” she murmured. She slipped the camera back in her pocket and bent to retrieve the guide. Definitely a newfie mix, she thought, maybe even a little mastiff in there, considering the bulk. Her fingers touched the guide just as the dog stood up, iridescent fur brushing against the back of her hand and wrist. She startled at the touch and drew back, confused at the size and shape of the creature in front of her. The dog was too big, the dog was... She bumped into someone behind her and whirled around, off balance and surprised at the presence of a man in this small a space. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you,” she said in English and immediately began to correct, “Pardonez-moi,” she began. He smiled at her and spoke in accented English, “No problem, glad you stopped.” Her first thought was, “He’s wearing a dress,” followed by “he’s an actor” and she wondered if one of those Passion Plays was going on. He was wearing a simple brown robe, belted, with a very rough-looking rosary attached to one hip. “Priest” she thought, “monk,” she amended. But do they still wear those things? She wasn’t particularly savvy about the religious orders in the area, but she had scouted out her trip. She found herself wondering if there was an abbey close by that she had missed. The man reached down to pat the dog and she realized she had turned her back on it in the confusion. It was definitely a mastiff, she thought, and wondered how she had ever seen it as anything smaller. The dog leaned against the man’s side, half sitting, half supporting itself on his hip, clearly a companion. He smiled at it and then transferred the smile to her. Nice, she thought. Nice for a man, or for a monk. She relaxed more than she had since entering the alcove. “What shrine is this?” she asked, gesturing at the figure and the briars behind it. “We do what we can,” he said proudly, and she paused to translate her question into French. “Have you seen our chapel?” he continued and she shook her head. No chapel was listed in the guide or she would have noted it, she had an eye for architecture and nearly 600 pictures to prove it. The monk’s hand slid down to the dog’s head, and he gestured with his free hand toward the other side of the alcove, behind the briars and the hedge. “No,” she said, intrigued by being clearly off the map. “Is it open to visitors?” “Come with us,” he offered and stepped to the back of the shrine, the dog still pressed close to his side. She followed a few steps and saw the briars opened, became almost a tunnel and wondered at the depth of the alcove. At least that explains where he came from, she thought, following man and dog behind a wall of thorns and out into a small garden. She could smell the flowers, although not much seemed to be blooming. There was a stone chapel, clearly quite old, sitting at the end of the path. One storey, wooden doors propped open, and no stained glass, the chapel wasn’t particularly impressive, but she raised the camera out of habit. She had recorded hundreds of images less interesting than this on her trip. They were proof that she was relaxing, proof that this was a peaceful place. She focused on the chapel and was struck again with that floral smell. Roses, she thought. They must have picked the flowers to make perfume, or perhaps the blossoms are drying somewhere and the breeze stirred them. She caught up with the monk as he entered the chapel and was surprised to see the dog step inside.

The chapel was narrow with a simple stone floor. The glory of the place was its woodwork. There were intricate carvings on the confessional, the altar, even the walls had delicate lattice work framing arches against the stone. The crucifix was small, proportional to the altar and the chapel overall, but it showed incredible artistry. She swore she could see eyelashes and the thorns looked every bit as real as the ones she had walked past minutes earlier. “It’s breathtaking” she said approaching the closest lattice. The arches had faces, but they didn’t look like any saints she recognized. They didn’t look...human. She had seen some beautiful gargoyles in Paris, but they were mostly made of stone. She still remembered the death diorama arching over the cathedral in Antwerp, the twisted demons below and the fantastic water spouts above. These figures didn’t have the drama of open mouths or horns. They looked more like, well, dogs. But that didn’t make any sense, these didn’t even look like war dogs or regal wolfhounds. That one looked like a spaniel and another one resembled a beagle. She was looking at something that couldn’t have existed at the time the stone chapel was built. Reaching for her camera, she asked, “When were these carvings added?” Stifling a laugh, she turned to the monk and his companion. She had taken the silence to be the monk’s patience while she photographed the wood, but when she put the camera down, he was gone. Well, at least the dog left with him, she thought, Sighting a carving closer to the altar, she walked deeper into the chapel. At the base of a kneeler, against the south wall, was a chaotic scene, knives and a table, clearly a warning about hell and damnation. I’ll bet it is like Antwerp, she thought. But the demons were wearing lab coats and the canine faces from the lattice reappeared, strapped to the tables. It looked like a modern image of vivisection. It looked entirely too familiar. She jerked upright and was faced with another disturbing vision. From this angle all that lattice work looked like wire mesh. Cages. She picked out another face, a terrier, with half its head shaved and electrodes hanging from its scalp. Perhaps she was hallucinating. Perhaps she has become overheated in the tiny chapel. She started for the open doors, ridiculously convinced they might snap shut as she left. Out in the garden she saw the monk, a small spade in his hands. A small heap of dirt at his feet. She realized now that the garden was full of those mounds, some smaller, some larger, most grown over with grass, but a few looked barren, the scabby brown earth surrounded by green.

She approached the man, automatically looking for the large black dog. “In the Chapel,” she began. “I’m glad you stopped” he repeated, genuinely smiling at her. “Yes,” she replied, unsure how to continue the conversation. “Your dog,” she began. “”He is very old” the monk said, continuing to smile, “he watches.”

“Yes” she repeated, “But...” and suddenly she wanted very much to be in the pub at her hotel. She wanted something stronger than the fruit beers or the strong red wine of the countryside. She wanted very much to stop smelling roses and she wanted to shut her eyes for a nap. The monk brushed her arm, gesturing to the path that led out of the garden. “Yes,” she repeated, it seemed the only thing she could say. She walked towards the wall of thorn and past the wooden statue in the shrine. She walked to her hotel, decided to skip the pub and went straight to bed, falling asleep in her clothes, on top of the covers.

The next morning she woke early to a rainy sky and her last morning in Beauraing. She felt headachey and disoriented by the grey light and her awkward sleeping arrangement. The room stank of stale flowers and she badly needed a shower. She cranked the tiny showerhead, dropping her clothing to the floor. As she striped off her socks a tiny thorn caught her ankle and she winced when it drew blood. She made coffee in the room and fired up her computer, trying to focus on the rest of her trip. Yesterday had been, well, weird. The afternoon, the dog, the man, the chapel. That damn shrine. After breakfast I’ll ask, she thought. I bet there is some explanation. She pulled up a city map and then an ecclesiastical map on her laptop. Nothing there. She kept looking, googling Beauraing and visions and monks. She reached for her coffee, and found it cold. She shook herself. It was almost noon, she had a train to catch and an empty stomach.

Gathering her things wasn’t difficult; she traveled light. She hesitated when it came to the camera, I’ll download them from the train she thought and stashed it back in her coat pocket.

The train was on time and the countryside was soothing. She saw castles in the distance; medieval towns flowed past her window. She fell asleep crossing a river full of modern pleasure boats and tourists. She woke to laughter and someone speaking Flemish very quickly. College students were drinking beer in the seats across the aisle and chuckling at something on a cell phone. Another one was taking a picture. She caught one of the young men’s eyes and he asked her, speaking in English and pointing to the seat facing her, “Hey, lady, did you buy a ticket for that dog?” She followed his gesture and found it lying comfortably across both seats, huge in the small space, brilliantly black, its head resting on its paws, but turned towards her. It stared at her, making the same uncanny eye contact as before. She couldn’t look away. She felt a scream building in her chest.

When the conductor touched her shoulder asking for her ticket, she yelped. Panicky and confused, she glanced back to the seat in front of her. Empty. The college students were still laughing, but they were talking amongst themselves and passing a brown bag between them. The conductor touched her shoulder again and pointed at the ticket clutched in her right hand.

She got off the train in Bruges, despite having reservations for another city. She needed to walk and clear her head. Focus, she thought. I’ll find a hotel or a B&B. If all else failed that damn youth hostel will still be open this time of night. It was 10:30pm, but still light. Mid-summer nights were long in Belgium and this one was cool. She pulled her sweater closer, adjusted her computer strap and hefted her roller bag across the cobblestones. She could cut across the park and be close to downtown in less than fifteen minutes. Walk. Her stomach grumbled. No, dinner. She paused, thinking: no dinner, no lunch, no breakfast. Of course she had fallen asleep and had a nightmare. She was hungry and her nerves were still jangling from that dream. She picked up the pace. I’ll grab bar food and a beer at the hostel and try the hotel at the end of the street, she thought. She almost laughed, this is my vacation and I am still pushing too hard.

The park path wound around sculptures and a gazebo, with tall hedges between the path and the street beyond. She saw two street lights ahead, each positioned by an elegant metal park bench, its handles worked into dragon heads. She walked fast, burning off the tension from the train, relaxed by the idea of a hunters’ stew and a lambic and a bed. Today was Friday, tomorrow was market day in the square here in town. She’d make Ypres tomorrow afternoon, after Bruges’s fresh bread, strong coffee and a little mindless market shopping for the nieces and nephews. Damn, she had been frightened by a dog. Not even a real dog, the memory of a dog. She sighed, work followed you sometimes.

The dog was lying under the second bench, oil-slick black and lean. It rose as she passed, jogging to keep up.


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Dissections logo pterodactyl by Deena Warner
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