Fiction from Web del Sol

Barking Man

Continued ...

      Alf stood on the little throw rug in the glow of the various video terminals. The phrase called on the carpet distantly presented itself to his mind. Big Brother, strangely inarticulate, swivelled to and fro in his desk chair, compulsively flicking the edge of his sharkskin calculator case with a fingernail. Finally he stopped in midrotation and stared up at Alf.
      "My hair is brown," he remarked. "Yours, on the other hand, is black."
      "This much is true," Alf said. "Always the wizard of perception, Bee Bee."
      "I have a name," Big Brother said bleakly. "My name is Tom. You are familiar with it, I believe. Why don't you ever call me by my name?"
      After the ensuing silence had accomplished itself, Big Brother spoke again.
      "Well," he said. "Right." He reached into a tea mug on his desk and pulled out a little snarl of something. "This is hair."
      Alf nodded.
      "Black hair."
      "That's so," said Alf.
      "There's quite a bit of it, wouldn't you say?" Big Brother said. "I've been collecting it for about a week. Off my pillow, in point of fact."
      Huskily, Alf cleared his throat.
      "Well then, I'd like to know what you've been playing at."
      "When exactly was it you started talking like a freaking Englishman?"
      "When in Rome...," Big Brother said. "Don't try to change the subject."
      "Okay," Alf said. "You're concerned that I've been climbing on your furniture."
      "Yes, I suppose you could put it that way."
      "At least I'm housebroken," Alf said. "That's something to be thankful for."
      In the weird light of the computer screens, Big Brother's sudden change of complexion looked purely fantastic.
      "What the hell is the matter with you?!!!" he cried, half rising from his seat. Alf barked at him several times and left the room.
      He sat with his elbows on the table, watching a bug walk around the little blue squares of the oilcloth. They didn't have cockroaches in the flat, and this bug didn't much look like one; however, it didn't look much like anything else either. After a long time Hazel came down and made a pot of tea. When she brought it to the table, Alf could see the dark circles around her eyes.
      "It's been a tough year for him too," she said. "You need to try and understand that, Alfie. He's more of a small-town type of person, really. We all are, I suppose."
      Alf leaned back and raised his eyebrows toward the ceiling.
      "I had to make him take a pill," Hazel said. "Zonko."
      "I see," said Alf. "Well, here we are."
      "It's really hard for him at work," she said. "The English snub him all the time. But they don't know any of the stuff he knows. Till this year they did their whole stock market with pen and ink and big black books, supposedly--" She gave her braid a yank and dropped it. "But it worries him that he doesn't fit in. He thinks they think I look like some kind of a pioneer woman off the prairie...."
      Alf scalded his mouth on a gulp of tea.
      "You two were close when you were children, I know that," Hazel said. "He used to talk about that a lot."
      "That's right," Alf said. "But ever since we got to London he's been acting like a goddamn microchip."
      "He's really scared about it all sometimes," Hazel said. "He's afraid the whole balloon is going to pop. He says, people used to worry when their assets were only on paper, but now they're not even on paper any more."
      Alf watched the bug walk over the edge of the table out of sight.
      "He's worried about you too, Alf," she said. "He's pretty upset about you, in fact."
      "He doesn't think--"
      "No, not that. Thank God, he never even thought of that.... He knows you didn't go to school, though. But he doesn't know what to do about it."
      The bug reappeared in the vicinity of Alf's tea mug. He turned the mug around and around and watched the amber liquid swirl.
      "He's worried maybe you're going nuts," Hazel said. "He doesn't know how to handle that either. Alfie, you know he'd do anything for you, but what is it he can do?"
      Alf reached over and snapped his finger at the bug, which rebounded from the Delft tile around the kitchen fireplace and fell down into the shadows below.
      "He was crying, actually." Hazel said.
      "Roorrrfff!" said Alf. "aaaarrhhhhwwwOOOOOORFFOOOOOOOOO!!!"
      "For God's sake, will you stop that ridiculous barking," Hazel said, and slammed her palms flat down against the table.

      As he retreated further and further into the world of the canine, Alf's sense of smell became increasingly acute, so that on the final day he was faintly apprehensive of disaster from the moment he got onto the lift. The aroma, at first indefinable, became more vivid and more complex as soon as he had entered the flat. Hanging over everything was the odor of neutralizer and the bright ammoniac smell of the perm fluid. Mingled with this was a whiff of Neddy'saftershave, and most alarming of all the smell of Hazel's tears.
      He went down the hall with his hackles rising. Hazel, barely recognizable by sight, sat at the kitchen table, weeping over a small square mirror. The inch or two of hair remaining to her had been strangled into tiny ringlets which resembled scrambled eggs. The balance of her face was wrecked and her features looked heavy and bovine. It appeared that she had been crying for a long time without even trying to wipe her face. Her eyes were ridged with stiff red veins and her tears were pooling on the mirror.
      "Well, there's no need for you to keep grieving so," Neddy said a little crossly. He had stretched Hazel's severed hair out on the table and was securing each end of it with a bit of black ribbon. "What if it is a little tight? It'll relax in a day or so, you'll see if it doesn't...." He took a cloth tape from his pocket, measured the coil of hair and tucked it away in a leather bag. "And if you really decide you don't fancy it, why, in just a few years you can grow it all back. So brace up, eh? There's a duck...."
      Alf dropped to all fours on the kitchen floors and bounced springily on all of his paws.
      "Here now, Hazel, look who's come," Neddy said with a nervous titter. Hazel cried intently on, as if she was incapable of hearing.
      "It's your little brother who's mad." said Tony.
      "rrrrrRRRRRR," said Alf. He bristled. His lips pulled back from his incisors.
      "Hazel," Neddy said. "Your brother's off his bloody head--"
      "rrrrRRRRR," said Alf, and moved a little closer in, his hindquarters taut and trembling. Neddy took a long step backward, into a three-way corner of the fireplace and the kitchen walls.
      "Here now, Alf," Neddy said. "Let's be reasonable, old chum. There's a good fellow, I mean, keep away, you! Just you keep off!" But Alf was no longer able to hear or understand his speech. In fact he was aware of nothing at all but the vibrating fabric of Neddy's trouser leg and the odor, texture and taste of the blood and meat inside.

      "No," the hypnotist said thoughtfully. "No, I do not think you can believe that you were justified. Undoubtedly what you did was very wrong. And it is true, as you have heard, that human bites are very dangerous...."
      . Limp in the deep dark chair, Alf commenced to twitch and whimper.
      "However," the hypnotist went on, "You will remember that it has all been satisfactorily resolved. The gentleman in question has accepted your brother's settlement. Moreover, he has not been lamed or hurt in any permanent way. It is not true, and never was, that you have rabies. And so, though naturally you will regret your unwise action, you will feel no permanent guilt. You will forgive yourself for what you did. In fact, you have already done so."
      Alf twitched again and faintly yipped a time or two.
      "And now," the hypnotist said, "and now, you are let off your leash. You have slipped your collar, Alfie, you are free. You are running away from the house and into the barnyard. You feel the soft damp grass of the lawn between your toes, you feel the dust and the little stones of the barnyard. When you have run into the hall of the barn, you pause and sniff -- you smell the hay, you smell the grain...and something else too, another odor. Rats, Alfie! rrrRRRATS!"
      "Rirfff!" yelped Alfie from the chair. His body tensed and then relaxed. "You leave the barnyard," the hypnotist said, "and you go into the field. You are capering among the hog huts, you run past the slow and lazy hogs, until you reach that furthest fence. Feel the wire rub hard across your back as you squirm underneath. And now you have come through the screen of trees to reach the little pond. You are very warm from the sunshine and from running, and so you splash into the water, you feel the cool water soaking into your hot fur, and you look up and see how the little white duck you startled is flying far away in the blue sky.
      "And now you are lying on the warm soft grass, Alfie, with your eyes closed and all four legs stretched out. Feel how the warm sun dries your fur, feel how the little breeze ruffles it. You doze, you are sleeping very deeply, yes. You dream.
      "And now you are running into the forest, deeper and deeper into the trees. You see all the woodland sights, you hear all the woodland sounds, and you are in a very special world of smells, Alfie, which only you can understand and navigate. There are many, many smells, Alfie, but one of them is more important than all the rest. What is it, Alfie? What is that you smell? rrr.... rrrrrr...."
      Alfie's mouth came slightly open as he whined; he salivated on the leather of the chair.
      "rrrrrRRRRABBIT!" said the hypnotist. "You smell the rabbit! You smell the rabbit very near! And now you see the rabbit! And now you chase the rabbit! (Alf's arms and legs began to pump in rhythmic running motions as his neck stretched out and out) And now you catch the rabbit in your jaws, you bite through the fur and skin into the tender flesh and the hot blood, you crush the rabbit's little bones, and you swallow every part of it. And now, Alfie, now that you are satisfied, you rest. Rest now, Alf. You are sleeping very deeply now.
      "And now you hear voices, Alfie, voices calling out your name from far away across the fields. Alfie, Alfie, they are calling. They are calling you to go home to your house, Alf, and you go. You will obey the calling voices, you are going now. On the back porch of your house you see your family waiting for you, your mother, your father, your elder brother Tom, your sister-in-law Hazel, she is there too. It is they who have been calling you, Alfie, because they need you to come home. They feed you your dinner, Alf, and when you have eaten, they pat your head and they rub your ears, the way you love it so. They have prepared a soft mat near the warmth of the kitchen stove, Alf, where you stretch out and rest from your doggy, doggy day. You have no worries, Alf. You have no responsibilities at all....but still, something is missing. What is it, Alf? What is it that you lack?"
      Alf shifted, coming more nearly upright in the chair. He trembled a little, but he didn't bark. His hands settled on his knees and he assumed a posture of attention. The hypnotist leaned a little further toward him.
      "Dogs don't love," the hypnotist whispered. "They haven't got the capability. They feel, yes, but they don't love."
      "That," said Alf, "is a debatable point."
      "Perhaps," the hypnotist said. "Possibly. But in your case... not worth debating, I shouldn't think."
      Alf whined and pricked his ears, then let them lower.
      "Come on, Alf," the hypnotist said. "Come on, boy. Come on out, now. Are you coming?"
      "I don't know," Alf said, as his eyes switched under their seals. "I can't come before I'm ready."

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