Time replayed itself in a loop: for days and nights we went over the same circuitous path in our minds, trying not to say what we wanted to say to each other.
Today it was bad. I barely registered the birdsong when I woke, stumbling out of the tangle of blankets into the hall to sit as still as a stone, resigned to my fate. It took me what felt like hours for the fog to pass, wondering what I could do next and when and how. But maybe it was only minutes. In a moment, I would get up and make the coffee, then look out of the window for the yellow oriole with its ring of black around its eyes, who, unlike my husband, found the unruliness of our unpruned hibiscus tree a respite from the well-trimmed plants of other houses. But my husband always needed to be like everyone else. Trimmed hedges, tamed mind.
The bottle of yesterday’s whisky still stood in the middle of the living room table, about a third of its contents remaining. I didn’t know whether he needed what was in it to temporarily exit his consciousness or if he needed it because he was unable to face the full facts of the world he’d made for himself.
As of now it seemed like I needed the bottle more, but since he had taken on the role of drinker, I stayed away.
All of my actions in reaction to this person: a familiar stranger who shared my bed and made with me what we had both lost a month ago.
Now the shape of this familiar stranger had altered, emphasizing the strangeness, losing in small, steady ways all that was familiar.
I was tired in ways that no amount of coffee could fix.
Last night he hadn’t come home when I was ready for bed, and it didn’t seem to matter. It felt like a small blessing. To be alone for a few more hours without his presence, his breath and his hair and his skin filling up my pores and coming to rest again inside of me in ways I tried to expel but couldn’t. I imbibed him despite my intentions not to. The body constantly betrays one in this way.
We had heard that the dhole was back and was spotted wandering in the cemetery that was located just outside the city’s perimeter, on the side that was closest to the forest reserve. The last time they spotted this dog was over a decade ago; I had no recollection of what happened to it. Whether they had killed it or it had simply walked away, it mattered not to me. It simply mattered that the idea of this dog, wild and unfettered from human rule, existed in my mind, that I could approach it when I needed it and it would raise its head, its calm amber eyes emitting a benevolent light under which I could see myself anew: not a long-suffering wife, but who I thought I could be when I was a child.
That I could receive the hound’s benediction.
Maybe a good wife knows how many days have to pass before she spoke to her husband again in loving tones, with a voice carefully modulated to affect all of the virtues of comforting femininity, to remind him of the cradle, his mother’s bosom, and all that was good.
That marriage is based on so much nonsense is one of the reasons I initially did well; I was never comfortable with logic. Lately I had begun to see that the logic of this made-up world, of socially constructed relations, was beginning to fray at the edges. Yet other people adapt to it, make excuses for it, even, and seem placidly untroubled by the parts of themselves they have to chop off in order to keep the engine of compatibility running.
To the fact of this person known as my husband, stony with silence and bristling all over with suppressed energy—whether sexual or hostile, I could never tell these days—sitting in the living room or moving through our bedroom, washing himself, caring for himself, finding in another’s bosom some measure of comfort (a fact that I realized long ago and still cared about, for which I hated myself)—to the fact of this mercurial person, an everchanging climate of moods and tempers, my reaction was to always adjust myself, to make myself more accommodating to his lack of moral responsibility.
If a husband misbehaves—fucks someone else, for instance, not once and not twice but several times, over and over, repeatedly—and a wife isn’t there to see it, is it still misbehaviour? Or rather, does this naughty but charming behaviour, so rakish and roguish, have anything to do with the wife at all? Does the wife insert herself into this picaresque of husbandly sexual adventure, shrewish and complaining and maternal? Or does the wife step aside, perform an act—any act, coolly and with minimal fuss—and simply carry on like a heroine of a nouvelle vague film, shaded in black and white, all shadows and angles and smoky eyes? No hysterics. Not a furious, feral thing. That will be the stain of the monstrous. No. Just cool, distant, and, most importantly, removed from the scene of the crime.
I had seen the paw prints around the house. I had not seen or heard any dogs in the area—none of the neighbours had one. The paw marks had a certain angle to them. Specific lines from the gate to our bedroom window.
I couldn’t count the days anymore but life goes on. He was missing in action, as was always the case. To the fact of my husband having not returned home for days I once again picked up threads of myself, abandoned all over the house like stray hairs I kept finding in the bathroom sink, the kitchen floor, the sofa.
The idea was to wait, of course. Patient and mute, a stone. Or an egg, self-contained and whole. But I’d never been good at it.
I sought out my books and tried to write. Words came out in jerks and spurts. Sentences, fragments—they’re all the same. The idea is to build something out of the ugly muck collected in the disused corners of the mind. But not all of us have to construct a fortress based on pages of realist narrative. One can write even when one feels one can’t put another word down. The words don’t have to look familiar, or even be arranged on the page in a familiar way. This is what I told myself as my pen stopped and the familiar voices of my mother and my husband crashed against the rocks, wave after wave of pure doubt. Who are you to write?
Just when it seemed inevitable that I would give into it again—the lethargy, the futility—and exit the Word document and mindlessly refresh my social media feed, I saw a form of reddish brown move through the garden past the sliding glass doors. I waited. Something told me this might be different, that the waiting might be worth it; that is, I might be rewarded with something to see as opposed to hoping to catch a glimpse of what was always hiding just out of sight.
After what felt like hours, or maybe minutes, the blur made itself clear to me. Sharp, pointed ears and a sharp, pointed muzzle. An inquisitive face. Not a patient one, not the face of one who made himself as still as a stone.
I had heard the story about how a pack of dhole in India outwitted a tiger and tore her to shreds. The story was relayed by one colonial-era hunter in his book about conquering the jungles of India in the name of adventure. One can’t trust colonial history for a true account of anything, of course—yet the story stayed in my mind, lodged in its crags. I imagined the dhole coming to an agreement on how to take a superior predator down. A conspiracy of underdogs. It seemed unimaginably clever, for all that we imagine animals to be instinctive instead of strategic.
This one, though—this one was a loner. Would he approve of hunting down a tiger, the sheer effort and coordination needed to bring it down, when he could be master of his own time, here in an unknown garden? I stared at his face. He stared back. I waited for a sign, anything, to indicate the seething wildness of this beast that had suddenly assaulted my pitifully small life. Waited for a grunt, a howl, a display of fangs and dripping saliva.
Now that we had gazed at each other, neither one of us wanted to look away.
A holiday, during the early days. The happiest time of your life, various friends whispered into my ear, or variations of some such shit. Platitudes were flowing freely in those days. Everyone who saw us seemed touched with envy. We felt removed from the petty impulses of these greedy eyes; really, there was no one I existed for other than for him. Under his gaze I felt a part of me that lay dormant and restless, the pre-rational, savage part of me, uncoil slowly and stand at its full height. Perhaps it was a happy time—I couldn’t think of any other body I would rather lie next to for the rest of my nights.
There was never any money around at that time and it hardly seemed to matter. Crusts of bread at the bottom of the bag with a tiny wedge of cheese were just as tasty as a full meal of rice and several curries. There was a sense of something new ahead, just around the corner. My husband made every day feel like a potential journey into something—not darkness, but passion. This seemed important. It seemed to mark us out from other couples in perceptible ways. I could see the envy and muted condemnation in the eyes of other well-behaved people—it seemed an ideal price to pay to be so filled with another, to be consumed by each other in ways that assaulted the sensibilities of the dullards around us.
We ended up in Penang, being too broke to get out of the country. We wanted to be right by the beach but couldn’t afford the hotel prices that came with that location. With every trip it seemed possible that the beach kept shrinking. Or rather, how much beach space that was affordable to ordinary people kept shrinking. Private hotel-owned beach space became wider, expansive and expensive.
In those days, what we wanted we usually got, and so, being unable to afford a hotel, a friend got us in touch with someone who rented out massive colonial-era bungalows for knock-down prices. Why, I asked, would anyone rent out a place like that for a low price at all? Oh you know, school trips, large families, that sort of thing. The owner of the mansion wasn’t keen on profits. He just wanted to rent it out to people who wanted to have a good time, said the friend. An owner of a beachside property steeped in cliché, but to our advantage. We were not going to argue with what fate was giving to us without requiring something in return.
Driving to that place we got lost so many times that it stopped being funny, yet we could not stop laughing. Finally, after several backtracks and abrupt reversals we came to what seemed like a house from the pages of a predictable ghost story: shutters hanging, a portion of the roof missing, paint peeling. Vast, and able to house several families comfortably during a stay. Just one house all by itself in one corner of the beach, with a tiny plot of parched grass aspiring to become a garden, and a compound behind with cement floors that doubled as laundry area and large wet kitchen, if so inclined.
We tracked sand all over the house, which was furnished in a haphazard manner, like someone had dreamed it up out of a collection of jumble sale oddities: random photographs of people, dusty bookshelves and floors, faded flower-print cushions. The lights only worked in portions of the house. The fridge was dead. We had brought a supply of sardine buns and sweet potato bread just in case, along with bars of Toblerone hoarded from every gift we received whenever relatives travelled abroad. We would not die of starvation until the next day, at the very least. Inside, the air was strangely muted and cool, even though we were near the equator and in all my life I could not get the sun out of any room; its heat followed you everywhere like a faithful dog. In there, the light was dim, even though it was the middle of the day. There was no hot water. The bathtubs were stained with rust.
If I had been alone, at some point after eating more than my share of the chocolate and trying to bathe in ice-cold water, I would have indulged in a good cry. With him, however, there was nothing to do but laugh. It felt reckless and strange, like an adventure, but a toothless one, the kind we read about in Enid Blyton books growing up. Nothing seemed dangerous or menacing, merely inconvenient. We walked all around the property for the rest of the day and realized we were truly alone—to get out we’d have to drive through the beach for some kilometres before we would even see the road. It was quiet. Hibiscus trees and mango trees and tall palm trees with their soothing, swaying leaves were our company. Those and the sand and the waves.
That night it was impossible to get enough of each other. We had removed the blankets because they had an odour that we preferred not to think about. The night was cool, chilly almost, especially when the wind blew and brought with it the salty spray of the sea. When the wind receded the air hung thick and heavy. A storm was approaching, but the clouds were moving fast. All I remember is the hot and cold of it—the way it felt when he was inside me and then the immediate yearning when he was not, and so we used each other as blankets. Something had been unearthed inside me; I was making sounds I didn’t recognize. His eyes seemed to reflect the heat I gave off. It felt like I saw flames. And then the howling.
We had heard the howling earlier and went out in search of the dog. Nothing. Not even paw marks on the sand. No dog fur on the couch either, but perhaps the fine trace of sand coating everything made it hard to see. But there didn’t seem to be any indication of a dog having lived in the house, and now, hearing the howling, we thought perhaps it was wandering along the expanse of the beach.
Throughout the night we heard the intermittent howling of the dog mixed with that of the wind, with the ever-present symphony of the crashing waves playing in the background. I wondered if the dog was cold or hungry or more likely lonely. Left behind, abandoned. Maybe it had lost its friend or mother or sibling. Although it was hard to think about anything beyond what was happening between our bodies, at the back of my mind I tried to hold onto the thought of the dog and its yearning. It seemed callous not to.
We slept and woke intermittently, each time finding each other’s bodies anew. During one such moment—my mind a haze and the scent of the sea and my husband’s hair filling me up to the brim, making it seem like there was no room for anything else inside me—I looked up and saw the dog in the corner, its amber eyes aglow. It took a while for me to see the rest of it. It was black, like the night sky without stars. It stood at the entrance of the room. I wanted to wake my husband but then didn’t. I raised my head and looked at it, wanting to see if it was what it was, if it was going to come close. Nothing about its eyes suggested danger. I’d missed having a dog ever since the one my family had died when I was ten and I was inconsolable for months. Maybe we could take this black one back with us when we left Penang, I thought, my mind a jumble. That is, if it didn’t jump onto the bed and tear us into pieces.
But that was unfair. Its eyes were not hostile, merely curious. There was something about the way it held its body, respecting our distance. It watched us and panted softly, like it didn’t want to wake my husband either. This looking went on for the rest of the night. Or maybe not; it’s hard to be sure. I went in and out of a sleep-addled haze with the memory of its watchful eyes burning bright like a steady flame.
At some point, I suppose I must have fallen properly asleep. The next morning there was no suggestion of the black dog anywhere inside or outside of the house. I didn’t tell my husband about what I had seen during the night. I kept an eye out for it for the rest of the day as we packed up to leave after having decided that maybe a hot shower and clean sheets were necessary after all. But it seemed to have vanished.
I felt strangely bereft.
The dhole was still waiting outside so I made a move from my table, and then it was gone. In the moment it took for my head to turn it had moved out of the way, and I could not see where it went. I slowly unlocked the glass door and put one foot outside, feeling like that tiger who must have felt secure about its place in the world before a pack of smaller wild dogs tore it into pieces. In this way I felt like I might become an item in the papers tomorrow: Woman home alone mauled by wild dog in freak incident.
There was no sign of it. The air seemed cool all of a sudden. I looked up and saw the clouds piling up against one another, the sky a dark grey like a wall of stone. I went back inside.
My husband came home last night, offering no explanations. In turn, I offered no questions of my own. Seeing the dhole earlier had dislodged something inside of me, like a loud sound sending a block of snow tumbling down a mountain. The entire afternoon I had sat under the ensuing avalanche, waiting to come up for air. Now seeing him back here, I had no armour. Everything was down. I wasn’t sure that the woman who accepts without question was the woman I wanted to be and yet, here I was.
Uncertain of my own intentions, yet acutely aware that I had a body and that it was not being put to use in the way that I craved, I waited upstairs in bed without my clothes on. No matter how ugly our fights, he had never refused me. Or I him. I couldn’t say this with either pride or shame. It was a fact of myself, like the speed at which my fingernails and hair grew.
I waited too long in this state of undress. Never one to play the coy flirt or the femme fatale, I began to feel like the offerings left outside of the temple that no one, not even the hungry pilgrims, wanted. Perhaps he was drinking again down there. Alone. Clearly, that’s what he did when he didn’t want to be around me, but if he had an idea about my state of mind tonight—pliable and soft, like my body—he might change his mind.
When I went downstairs I noticed the glass door wasn’t completely shut, and smelled a sharp, metallic tang that I couldn’t immediately place. It was ripe, filling up my nose. Then I knew it was inside, the dhole. Sure enough, in the corner of the darkest part of the living room, I saw that flash of an amber spark from its eyes. It had been watching me all this time without making a sound, though it was panting slightly. I met its eyes squarely and didn’t back down. It was time to have it out between us, me and this creature. But first I raised my voice to call my husband’s name—I imagined the scene: he must have passed out in the study, his face in his laptop keyboard.
The dhole moved forward and bared his teeth: reddish, stained with blood.
Story copyright © 2016 by Subashini Navaratnam
Artwork copyright © 2016 by Carrion House
Subashini Navaratnam lives in Selangor, Malaysia and has published poetry and prose in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Mascara Literary Review, Sein und Werden, minor literature[s], Jaggery, DATABLEED, Deluge, PLINTH, and Dead King, among others. Her writings on books have appeared in The Star (Malaysia), Pop Matters, 3:AM Magazine, and Full Stop, and she has published nonfiction in MPH’s anthology, Sini Sana, as well as fiction in KL Noir: Yellow. She tweets at @SubaBat.
Carrion House a.k.a. Luke Spooner currently lives and works in the south of England. Having recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first-class degree, he is now a full-time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence.