Warning Beware of Alligator
I’d give you a swamp if I could, but I have no swamp to give. Do not assume I will bite you just because I’ve let you feed me fish. Who would you be if everyone thought you’d want to eat them? You don’t want to know that I differ from the crocodile, with his narrow snout and taste for human flesh. I have no taste for humans, but please don’t take that personally. Your little dog will do just fine. I’ll drag him down to my house of muck. I’ll kill him with such tenderness that he’ll wonder why I haven’t done it sooner. How wonderful he’ll be inside me, a house inside a house inside a house. You think that’s where you want to be. That’s why you go behind the fish shed and pick up the bucket of remains. If you’ll let me commune with Snoopy and see you once every Tuesday, I’ll be just fine. Controlling? I beg to differ. I only ask that you look fondly at the top of my head, see my snout and my beady eyes and know I’m not going to destroy you. Could you say the same? Don’t you think it’s awful to watch you waiting for my jaw to spring open? The mechanical is no fun. I was just kidding about Fido, or whatever it is you want to call him. You make me feel irreverent and I’m as holy as they come. Jesus had a thing or two to say about that, but let’s keep him out of it for now. Too hungry for sacrifice, I fear, and you miss the finer points. Your attention is so heavy on me right now it’s a wonder I can open my eyes. I want to take the world in just like you. I want to sun myself on the dock, though I fear you’re going to flinch if I take one of my famous steps. This is not about what you think it is.
Grieg’s back leg was sore, but he kept pace beside his human, because she thought he needed his seven o’clock walk. He looked up at her bewildered face, her frowsed hair, her nicked-up glasses. He knew she’d have preferred to sit down with a glass of wine after work, the laptop open on the blue stool beside her, but she wanted to be a good mother, which was why she was out here on the marsh’s fire road, walking two times faster than he could possibly walk. Blackbirds sprang from tree to tree. Grieg didn’t have the sounds to tell his human he needed to turn back. To cry would be to seem weak, and he’d known of another dog who had seemed weak, shunned by the other cocker spaniels in the dog park because she’d started peeing on human laps. He would never be that weak. He’d keep trudging through the world war in his leg before he’d let it come to that. Grieg’s human needed to think of herself as a good person, but no one wanted a weak dog, no one.
Grieg did not shake on the examining table. He kept his gaze up on the lights, and when the vet announced that Grieg did not have cancer, that he’d merely been suffering the consequences of too much enthusiasm, he did not feel his relief right away, nor did his human. They stumped out into the day, a little stunned and queasy, in need of breakfast, and walked for a while past the cedars. Up ahead they saw a church and animals. There was a priest in walnut-colored robes amid the animals, a bullmastiff, a hen, a cat held over the shoulder like a baby, a ferret, and instantly Grieg felt relief warm his sore leg, though not as much relief as his human obviously felt. She walked faster, and tugged Grieg along until his leash was taut at his neck.
“The blessing of the animals,” she cried. “God be with us!” And dropped to her knees, and raised her hands to the sincere discomfort of all the animals assembled. The hen staggered to the periphery, as did the bullmastiff, even though the priest’s hand had just been upon their heads. The priest himself looked down at Grieg with a kind of mercy that said, Pity to those for whom God’s love was ever in doubt, and Grieg looked back up at him with a face that said, I’ve never seen this nutjob in my life, and joined the circle of the other animals until he returned to her.
On the final night of his ten-month stint as a house sitter, Asher lay on the sofa, the heat of the reading lamp working into his lips and brows. The question that had been goading him all day, through the hauling out and the cleaning up, needed to be spoken: What message do you have for me? He looked over at the boxes taped tight with maps and cups and weather instruments, his precious things. He’d lie up all night for an answer if that was what was being required of him. He’d stayed up all night before.
The report did not come right away—reports rarely do. It came at the point when he felt himself going under. The smell of catbox, pungent and dusty, up from the cushions of the sofa. The smell was not constant. It came and went like a pulse. He’d never smelled catbox before, not in this house, where no one took care of a cat, not even the owners, who coughed at weeds and trees and animals, most things that were alive. He did not know what to do with this message, as he did not know why he was moving on to another house where there wouldn’t be room for his furniture, not that he had any. He’d lived so lightly on the earth. Even when he’d tried to leave a stain of himself—in the tub, just as an experiment—the walls wouldn’t hold him. He could barely see his hands.