by Colette Ni Reamonn Ioannidou
As published in In Focus, Vol. 9, No 3, Sept 2012
I heard it again, the dog, crying all night. Our town is full of dogs and, as an anthropologist on the brink of retirement usually given to watching human behaviour professionally, I have come to the conclusion of late that luck for animals is pretty much what it is for humans. I decided this due to the fact that many humans around me share their lives with animals or birds. I can’t help but observe, because my line of work is not one automatically switched off with the closing of an office door. There are the pampered creatures like Beba’s spoiled brat of a white poodle. She’s childless; he’s her baby. She even ‘dresses’ him in coats in winter. Then there’s Lukas, a large black hunting dog who gets to run free a few times a year during hunting season. For the rest of the time he is stuck in a cage. He’s well fed, bathed regularly, and gets his ears scratched. However, his owner works two jobs and seldom has time to walk his canine. So Lukas barks, but his barks are the barks of impatience because once a day he is allowed to run around the back yard when his owner comes home between jobs. Lukas barks to beat the sound barrier, as he knows for the time it takes his master to shower and eat, he has the run of the garden. Soulla has a small pure bred something. It, like Beba’s poodle whose name is Genghis, is bad tempered and small wonder. He was bought to be shown off when convenient and, for the rest of the time left in the garden to scare off cats that mess in Soulla’s flower beds. For some reason that crying dog started me thinking of how people become attached to the animals they live with, a branch of study in which I never had much interest. Take the old couple in the end building on the third floor, Mr. and Mrs. Demetriades, who went to live in South Africa after the war in 1974 and saved up a nice little nest egg to retire on with their pet parrot called Charlie.
Charlie was something else. I never saw him, but I heard him each time I passed the block of flats they had built as an investment for their old age. He was such a clever mimic. The woman on the ground floor had cats, Charlie not only mimicked her calling psss, psss, psss for her felines, he also imitated the cats howling back at her. He could do the policeman on traffic duty blowing a whistle at the cross roads when the traffic lights failed. Everyone called out to Charlie as they passed and Charlie repeated the greetings…in several languages. Then, during one winter, the Demetriades were invited out to tea. The early afternoon had been pleasantly sunny and Charlie had been placed in the sheltered corner of the balcony behind the large plants to enjoy the warmth. Sadly, when the old couple returned, it was later than they had intended and they sat at once to watch the News. Poor Charlie was forgotten and endured the freakiest, coldest night of that year unprotected in his metal cage on the front of the building exposed to the winds sweeping in from the hills. He was dead when they opened the shutters the next morning as the church bells tolled. The wail of anguish set up my Mrs. D could be heard several streets away, her husband’s cries, as deep in tone as the bells, could also be heard for some distance. Then the row started as to whose fault it was, yells, screams, things being thrown. The priest from the nearby church had to go and tell them it was just chance, bad luck, no one was to blame, accidents happened. So Charlie was buried in the little back garden of the block and a rose bush planted over his grave to remind everyone that Charlie was gone but definitely not forgotten.
Then there is Rosa, a parakeet owned by our elderly neighbour Andreas a couple of streets down. He has a coffee shop frequented by locals of a similar age. He loves birds and has several cages placed around the shop. Each bird has a name and a companion, except for Victoria. Victoria is a lovely bright yellow and flirts outrageously with her owner. He goes through the ritual – at the urging of his customers – to show how funny the bird is when they do their “I love you” act. Andreas goes to her roomy cage and says,
“Hey darling, come to your daddy who loves you.”
Rosa sidles along her perch, her feathers inflating and spreads her wings one by one lifting a foot like a prima ballerina under the raised wing, leaning forward to give Andreas a ‘kiss’. She is well aware of the attention and loves it. Chambis, recently widowed, said to Andreas,
“She should have a mate of her own. It’s a pity to leave her like that.”
Andreas insisted she was fine, but Chambis went on and on about the bird being alone until Andreas bought a handsome companion for her. He left them together in the shop over night and went in the next day anticipating a cute couple on honeymoon. But no, Victoria sat on the highest perch happily greeting her friend while dead on the floor of the cage with a hole in his neck was her hapless ‘mate’. From then on, Victoria was given the name ‘Ma Baker’ by the customers in the café. It was from an old Boney M song someone remembered from his dancing days. She still resides there faithful to the only one she loves, crusty old Andreas.
I was invited for tea and homemade pizza by Jacqueline, whose late husband was a friend of mine. She has two turtles of a good age and beautiful in their own ugly way. I quite enjoy watching them swim around in the water. While we had our refreshments I asked her if she heard the dog that howled all night. She nodded in her calm way,
“Oh, yes, it belongs to Leandros next door.”
“Why does it howl like that, I can’t sleep once I become aware of it.”
“Oh, it’s a story.” She sighed and left it at that.
“I like stories, tell me about it.”
“His name is Gogos, he’s a pit-bull that hates dogs but likes people. Leandros got it as a puppy and at the time he had a hunting dog called Rebecca, who mothered the pup and they became inseparable.”
Jacqueline munched her delicious pizza and sipped her tea. I waited.
“Well, Leandros is from Pafos and he goes there the odd weekend to see his kin. He took Rebecca with him…the pit-bull is his son’s but the wife is scared of it around the kids, so Leandros keeps it in his garden… Anyway, he went on a hunting trip one weekend and poor Rebecca ate poisoned meat…people do that, you know, put poison down deliberately, terrible! Where was I? Yes, Leandros was devastated, rushed her to a vet, but she was too far gone. His brother suggested he bury her in their garden, but Leandros said no, Gogos had to know she was dead or he’d cry for her, as they had a special bond. He’d take her home to bury her.”
She smiled a soft smile, “His brother thought he was crazy, but Leandros insisted. Do you want some more?”
She motioned to the pizza and I was not about to refuse. She continued.
“He took Rebecca home, laid her on the grass for Gogos to sniff, so he’d know she was dead. Then he buried her. From that day, Gogos lies on her grave and howls and howls when the house if empty when Leandros goes to Pafos and he’s alone.”
“Can’t he get another dog to keep him company?”
“At that age no, Gogos would attack it. He’ll just have to get over it in time, poor soul. Mind you,” she looked me full in the eye, “I can fully understand what it is to be lonely, now my husband is gone. You are alone also, but out of choice, so it’s not the same.”
“Leandros must be very sensitive.”
“Not really. There was a cat that kept giving birth to kittens in his yard and he used to throw the small things to Gogos to play with. He hates cats and eventually poisoned it.”
Jacqueline has the gift of saying the most awful things in conversational tone.
“What did you say to him? He was obviously upset his dog had been poisoned, why do the same thing?”
“I said nothing. What would be the point? He’s not a child; his character is well shaped and won’t change no matter what anyone says. His beloved dog being poisoned is one thing. Killing what he sees as pests is another. Cats are just like rats to him.”
At home, I sat with a cold beer and had a think about people and their animals. I wondered if I should have one too and what would it be. It turned out that a creature chose me instead of the other way around.
I was out walking along a mountain trail one day during Easter holidays, a thing of habit for me. I enjoy the air and the scents. I have a cabin situated in the most perfect valley and that is my base. On my treks I bring some things to eat, usually by the small stream half a mile from the cabin. I was about to start my snack when I heard a rustling in the bushes behind me. I thought it might be some wild thing seeking food, but no, it was a girl and I recognised the face; I had seen a sketch of it on the News the evening before as I was packing to leave. It was a very distinctive face. She was looking at the food and I could see that she was very hungry and thirsty. I offered her the flask of water, which she snatched out of my hand and in seconds had gulped most of it down. I held out a sandwich and that disappeared in record time. She was untidy and dirty and scared. I spoke a few words to her, but was not surprised when she shook her head. I knew she was a foreigner, an illegal. It seems a few of them had come over the border from The North and had been discovered. They had come from the Carpathian Mountains, the captured men said. The men had been taken, but the girl had managed to run away. One, possibly her father, had a photo of the girl on him. It was easy enough to understand how she had arrived at this spot, as it was not that far from the crossing. The police were searching in the wrong direction. They had assumed she would head for the nearest town to lose herself there, but she, being a mountain bred girl, had gone up the hills instead. Whether she was cunning or confused, I didn’t know. Her hair was blonde and cut tight against her small head. Her ears were large and shaped like those in European fairy tales. The green eyes flecked with brown were enormous and the skin translucent it was so pale and delicate. She was small and slim and looked to be not much more than sixteen.
I began to walk back towards the cabin and signaled her to follow. She did not come, but I felt if I kept going she would, where else had she to go. I was correct in my assumption for follow she did. I left the door open and knew that the smell of cooking would entice her inside. It was while she was eating that the thought occurred to me. No one knew where she was. I could keep her with me in the cabin and she could be my pet for a while. I would release her when my vacation period was over. I let her finish and then I grabbed her and tied her to the chair with a nylon rope I carry when I go climbing further up the mountains. She yelled and kicked until I tied her feet too. She began to say something repeatedly that I didn’t understand. It soon became apparent that she needed to pee, so I put a length of rope around her waist and another around her neck, put a toilet roll in her hands, and led her outside behind some bushes. Then I discreetly stepped back and waited till she had finished. She washed her hands in the bowl I’d filled from the rain barrel outside the door and then walked quietly back inside. She became sullen, and sat resignedly tied to the chair again. I spoke to her gently, tried to make her understand that I meant her no harm; I just wanted a pet, a companion. My parents never let me have one when I was small, animals they said were filthy creatures, not fit to live with humans, were subject to all kinds of diseases. That was true, but I now understood that animals share diseases with humans, share their emotions, their needs. I wanted to study this creature, for creature I thought of her feral aura. There was something odd about her. She was so young, yet those eyes could look into mine and I could feel them bore through me as though gaining access to my very soul. What a chance, in a career that had been bland, to say the least. I thought of capturing a wild thing to compare how both acted in captivity; to see would they befriend each other, interact. I had no intention of abusing her in any sense of that word. She might also be the child I, in my impotence, could never father. I derived pleasure from that thought. The more I sat and thought about it as I watched her, the more excited I became. I could write a whole paper on her. It would be theoretical in presentation, naturally. I had to make plans. I would need to go to town and buy her some clothes. I could go to the animal welfare shop near the supermarket, tell them I was buying for my Sri Lankan maid, pay the few euros in cash. I made a list in my mind of the things she would need and resolved to get them early the next morning.
I fixed the couch as a bed for her, but before lying down, she signaled she needed to go outside again. I untied her hands, put the ropes as before and walked out into the black of the wooded-hill night with her ahead of me. She stopped and threw back her head, gurgling out a strange resonant sound from her throat. She turned and smiled at me in the soft light glowing from the lamp in the cabin and stood very still, her eyes glittering. I heard noises in the undergrowth and hairs on the back of my neck stood up. A large fox appeared first, fangs bared in an evil grin, an owl landed in a tree above and then a snake slithered across the pathway. A mass of small predatory things gathered, silently watching until she gave out a sound that told me my life was over as the night things came inching their way forward. It didn’t occur to me to tighten the rope on her neck, or even to run because I knew her power over animals would be the last thing I would witness, and to struggle against such an ancient force was pointless. It answered for me the why she had turned to the hills instead of the town. Here she was among friends. With a speed I would not have believed possible, she threw off the rope from her neck and came at me, teeth exposed. Not vampire teeth, just human teeth. I had not noticed how large and strong they were. Her canines like lethal stalactites in her gums. I had paid so much attention to her eyes and her pointed ears so that even as she ate, I neglected to observe the teeth. They sank into my neck, clamped on a vein – not to suck, just to draw blood to encourage the assorted flock to advance as it pumped freely down my chest. I saw noses twitch. As their small sharp teeth sank into my body tearing at me, I thought of Gogos and wished he was here to attack them. I felt no pain; perhaps that was the snake venom numbing my senses. I wanted to tell her it was just an experiment, I would never have hurt her and that I didn’t deserve to die, but I didn’t think she’d care anyway. In my fading consciousness I realized that there is not much difference at all between animals and us. We all started life as hunters and, as there are animals who take to humans and act human in some ways, there will also be humans who still retain the animal in them that most of us have left far behind. I heard her cry out in triumph as I fell, and saw her through blood-drenched eyes loping off into the night like a young wolf. I knew that there would be no one to howl at the moon over my death, no one to cry or wonder whose fault it was that I had died. Maybe animals are better than we are, after all. And I never even knew her name.