Curs

When Tyler was little, they lived in a duplex, butted right up next to an older couple who had no children. Tyler and his older brother, Jake, would play in the wide backyard, building tracks for their trucks or making snaking rivers with the hose, paying no mind to the invisible line that should have divided their half of the backyard from their neighbor’s half of the backyard. There was a chain link fence that ran along the back of the yard, just before the tangle of weeds and brush cantilevered down into a ravine, where a sickly stream of brown water ran after a heavy rain fall but then dried to a thick mud that coated their sneakers or feet when they played down there for weeks afterward. On the neighbor’s side was a tree with a huge trunk; if Tyler and Jake wrapped their arms around it, they could just barely hold hands. Their father said it was a bur oak.

After the neighbors got the dog, Jake and Tyler respected the invisible line. It wasn’t a puppy; it was already long-limbed and raw-boned when they first saw it chained to the tree. When they ran out to the backyard after school that day, the old man was sitting in a lawn chair in the scrubby grass and told the boys to stay away. The dog barked and barked at the boys and didn’t sound like it wanted to make friends. Later that afternoon, they climbed to the other side of the fence and walked behind the dog, and it paced on its chain, sending up a steady chorus of complaint. It was mostly white with some black, and its paws had long curved nails that grew black out of the mostly white fur, and one nail up high by its ankle that stuck out farther and longer than the rest. When the boys came in from their reconnaissance for dinner, their mother remarked that they’d best stay away from the neighbor’s dog and out of that yard for good now.

The space around the tree lost all of its grass and grew holes where the dog dug little hillocks and caves for sleeping during the heat of summer. The dog’s white fur became a yellowed brown, but it got used to the boys in the yard. The old man would come out with food in the mornings: a plate piled with scraps of bread and whatever was left over from breakfast. After dinner the boys would be in the kitchen, one washing and one drying, and watch the man’s wife do the same thing—bring the dinner scraps. The dog would wag its tail, then set on its food quickly, gulping whatever was offered. The couple kept a big bucket filled with the hose. The dog gained weight, its ribs no longer showing. Most afternoons, the man would sit on his lawn chair in the denuded shadow of the tree, the dog at his feet, and he would rub the mutt’s ears between the tips of his fingers.

Jake lost interest in the dog quickly that summer; Tyler didn’t. He didn’t tell his brother, but when it was just him in the yard, he’d slowly maneuver closer and closer to the dog, testing its limits, seeing how close he could get before he’d hear the beginning of a low growl. Once, when Jake was gone for a whole afternoon and his mother was out running errands, Tyler approached the dog, one step at a time, until he could feel the dog’s breath on his face. Each time the dog barked, a burst of hot hit his skin; it smelled like the liquid that collected at the bottom of the metal garbage cans, baking in the summer heat. Tyler closed his eyes—listening to the dog’s bark with his skin, his nose.

The dog stopped. When Tyler opened his eyes, the old man was standing there, and the dog was sitting next to him, quiet but alert.

“He’ll bite you, you know.” The man’s voice was raspy, a little winded. An edge of anger.

“I. . .”

“Do you want him to bite you?” Exasperated.

“Why do you have a dog that will bite me?” Tyler asked, and his voice quavered a little. The man sighed. Tyler was only ten years old but big for his age, so sometimes people thought he was older than he was. When he spoke he gave himself away—his voice was high-pitched with a certain softness in the consonants that the speech therapist at school hadn’t been able to eradicate. Because he’d been caught doing something wrong, and because the dog truly did scare him, his question sounded ragged, on the verge of tears. The man deflated when he heard this, his shoulders drooping. He reached for his chair and sat down on the perimeter of the dog’s circle, the edge of Tyler’s yard.

“He’s my brother’s dog,” the man said, “but he kept killing his chickens, so he asked if we’d take him.” He was wearing a stained t-shirt that probably used to be white, like the dog’s fur used to be white. When the man had sat down in the chair, the dog had lain down too at his feet, on the side away from Tyler. The man’s hand drifted down and rested on the dog’s back.

“You like dogs?” he asked Tyler.

“I don’t know,” the boy answered, and though his voice had recovered a little, the o in know was still a little stretched out, a little plaintive. “We don’t have a dog. My mother said dogs are dirty and we can’t have one.”

“That’s what my wife says,” the man laughed. “That’s why Harley here has to stay in the backyard.” At the mention of his name, the dog raised its head. The smallest tip of its tail began to move, kicking up a tiny dust storm. “That’s why I’ve moved my chair out here.”

“Will he really bite me?”

“I think so. He’s never been around kids, and the way he growls and barks means he wants you to stay away,” now the man sounded sad. “Sorry about that.”

Tyler heard his mother’s car in the driveway, heard her car door slam, and knew he should go help her carry bags of groceries. She’d be looking for him in the house. She wouldn’t be happy to see him out there, so close to the dog. Tyler and Jake had heard their parents talking about the dog late in the evening, after they’d both gone to bed, and the voices filtered up from the living room through the narrow stairwell. He knew that his mother thought that his father should go next door and talk to the neighbors about the dog and keeping it somewhere else; his mother was worried that one of the boys could get hurt if they got too close. Their father said that the dog was in the neighbors’ yard and it was about time the boys learned to respect other people’s property. The only way they would get hurt is if they were doing something they shouldn’t be doing. Tyler’s mother pointed out that the boys were ten and thirteen—they were always doing something they shouldn’t be doing.

“I have to go,” Tyler said to the man.

“Tyler,” the man said. Tyler was surprised that he knew his name. “I’m sorry that Harley can’t be your friend.”

That fall, Jake started junior high just six blocks from where they lived. Tyler was still at the elementary school, so he rode the bus that stopped at the end of their street. Jake made new friends and would walk to and from school with this group of boys, getting home before Tyler. Some days when Tyler got home, Jake and the other boys would be crouched behind the chain link fence, taunting Harley. Sometimes they held food just out of his reach, and once they stood on the other side of the ravine throwing small rocks at the dog until the old man came out, alerted by the dog’s frantic bark. He swore at the boys, calling them all sorts of names. When he turned around he saw Tyler standing in the yard, his mouth open in a wide O.

“That’s why Harley doesn’t like kids,” the man said, looking angry at Tyler even though he hadn’t done anything. “Motherfuckers.”

After that the dog started barking at Tyler again any time he was in the yard. Tyler’s mother and father started arguing about the dog again, his mother’s voice rising on words like “dangerous” and “vicious.” She threatened to call the police when the dog stood on its hind legs, all bark and foam, lunging in the direction of the boys in their backyard. She told them to play in the front yard. At dinner, when the subject of the dog would come up, Jake wouldn’t say anything; he’d just shovel food into his mouth. Tyler watched his brother eat.

For his twenty-fifth birthday, Tyler took a trip to Jamaica. He and his girlfriend had been planning the trip but broke up three weeks before. He decided to go by himself. He spent a few days at the all-inclusive hotel, then booked a trip into the mountains to hike a stream with some small waterfalls. The bus ride was three hours each way, and Tyler sat next to the window to watch the scenery: the winding roads and squat cement homes painted in bright colors. The bus driver kept up a steady patter, pointing out fruit trees and local landmarks, giving dates and small bits of history, all over the repeating play of Bob Marley songs. Each house seemed to have a dog, either sleeping on a porch or in a patch of dirt nearby. The dogs were either a copper red that looked like a pit mix, or a white with black that looked like the long-ago neighbor dog Harley.

Tyler had learned that these types of dogs, the rangy white with black, were called curs. Before the selective breeding and proliferation of pure-bred dogs, most farms had a cur. They were all-around working dogs. Genetic studies suggest they might be traced to the animals the Native Americans kept; they traveled with the bands of indigenous people who settled and hunted the North American continent, learned to support humans in their hunting and early agriculture. These dogs mixed with the dogs brought by the Europeans who came to North America, pushing their own notion of the frontier farther west. The cur was a mix, a mutt, with no discernible parentage but seen everywhere in the early days of America: they remained the poor person’s dog, the country dog, the un-pedigreed dog of un-pedigreed persons. These dogs assisted with chasing game, guarded livestock and homesteads, and provided protection from wild animals. In Jamaica, these animals may have carried the blood of dogs imported by the Spaniards to exterminate the Taino Indians, the original inhabitants of this island.

Although dogs have been used throughout history in war, only in the New World were they bred to destroy humans. The Spanish’s brutal methods were amplified by the dogs they brought on their successive voyages—dogs they loosed on humans, trained to disembowel. The Spanish destroyed these islands: Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and Cuba. What the humans didn’t do the dogs did. What wasn’t accomplished with teeth and blade was finished with pathogens. Whoever survived was enslaved; at some markets, the meat of slaves and dogs were sold side by side.

Before Tyler and the other tourists begin hiking the stream, their guide gives them directions: empty pockets, secure glasses, leave all valuables. Whatever they take, they have to be prepared to lose. They each get a locker and a key. The water here is clear and cold, freshwater in the jungle shade. They wear water shoes and hike over small rocks in the shallow stream, swim the deeper portions. There are small falls to stop at and body surf over and over. At one bend, the river has bored its own underground tunnel, and they can enter upstream and swim through the dark cave, emerging out of the rushing water into the sunlight-spattered day. When Tyler swims it the first time, he has a moment of panic, but one of the guides touches his back and directs him to the opening. Because there is no salt in the water, he can open his eyes and see the second guide waiting at the other end, waving at him where the light beckons. He plunges toward it.

Midway through the hike they stop for lunch. There is salt cod and jerk chicken, rice, breadfruit, and water, all served in an open air pavilion with a thatched roof. As they were emerging from the river they could smell the chicken cooking and walked toward the smell, their eyes and teeth glittering in the beautiful morning. Many of them are here from the resort and had been talking about how this was the best part of their trip so far: the quiet of the river, the knowledge of the guides, the peace and beauty of this place. What Tyler notices at lunch (besides the delicious food) are the three collarless dogs milling around; they lie apart from the group, drowsy in the shade. There is a handwritten note tacked to the central post. It reads: Yes we love our dogs. Please don’t feed them.

After lunch, they continue up the river. The biggest falls are ahead, a nine-foot drop. They climb it in parts, sort of slaloming up the face of the wide curved rocks, finding the hand and footholds their guides point out. The youngest of them is a small girl, maybe seven or eight, and she freezes partway up the falls, begins to cry. Her mother is climbing in front of her, navigating the big reach across the heaviest surge of volume. Her father is behind her and tries to comfort her, but he too is stuck, unable to figure out how to move forward or back. All of them, the tourists, range across the rocks in a complicated choreography; the sequence requires each to take their next small step in turn. They all pause as the girl’s whimpering becomes a full-throated sob.

“I can’t do it!” she wails at her father, her face bunching and red.

The guide bringing up the rear, Jeremy, leapfrogs over them, each in turn, until he gets to the girl and her father.

“No worries, Breanna, no worries,” he tells the girl. “No worries, Big Papa, no worries.” He hooks his toes (the guides are barefoot) into another foothold hidden by the rushing water and swings at their side, humming for a few minutes, talking to the two of them in a low voice the rest of the hikers can’t hear. Breanna climbs on his back, hooking her pale arms around his neck, her shoulders still visibly shaking, her red candy-striped swimsuit soaked and dripping. Jeremy crawls over the rest of them, one by one, his legs and arms impossibly long, spidering the flat rock crosswise. At the bank, he grabs one of the long tree roots layering the rock and climbs vertically, talking over his shoulder to Breanna. She begins to smile.

When they reach the top and she climbs off, Jeremy announces: “Breanna, Queen of the Waterfall!” The Queen of the Waterfall laughs out loud and blushes, gives a little curtsy. The rest of them follow her up.

That year before Jake turned fourteen he continued to torment Harley; Tyler never told anyone. But each time he witnessed it, he learned something new about his brother. Something hard. One night, he woke to Harley’s barking and when he looked over at Jake’s bed, it was empty. It was late spring, still cool out, but the snow had melted and the yard was a waste of mud. The moon was nearly full, either waxing or waning, and it lit up each link of the chain attached to the tree, attached around Harley’s neck. Harley was on his hind legs, his front legs propped against the oak’s trunk, barking up into the bare branches. The moon illuminated Jake’s body. He must have climbed the fence and from there been able to reach the lowest branch, shimmying his way up. He was about twenty feet from the ground, bare-footed, standing with his left arm wrapped around the burled trunk. The night wind buffeted his pajamas.

Tyler’s eyes followed a glint of light. Jake’s penis was out, peeking from the flap of his pajama pants. His right hand was aiming, directing the stream down onto the dog. The droplets of urine caught the moonlight, looking like scattered stars.

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