Man’s Best Friend
by Ira Huff
Three days. The dog had been gone for three days now. This was unlike him, the old bastard. He wasn’t the most intelligent animal. He was not a hunter, had none of the killer instinct that his ancestors had possessed. He had always relied on the bowl set out for him – three times a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner – to sustain him. Eventually he would have to come home. Ben was sure of it. He always came home.
Ben had kept the dog tied up because he didn’t want him fighting with the rez dogs down the road. It’s what his mother would have wanted. It was a solitary life, but Ben couldn’t say one way or the other how the dog felt about it, because, of course, he didn’t speak dog. Anyways, the son of a bitch kept figuring out how to slip out of his collar. He still had his fun. And after a day or so, the dog always trudged back onto the porch, defeated, haggard and regretful, greeted with a scolding and a warm bath. It had become habitual.
But now he’d been gone for three days.
Ben took one last sip of beer and put the bottle down on the kitchen table next to the remains of his dinner. What does it matter? He asked himself. Their love for one another was not unconditional. It was not a case of man and man’s best friend. The dog was just one more thing he had to take care of now.
The dog had belonged to his mother, and when she passed away a few months before, his inheritance included the sum of a small life insurance policy, and the dog. She had written it in her will – her last revenge, he mocked.
He had taken the dog begrudgingly. Although in his mother’s absence, Ben had begun to respect him. His mother had taught the dog to “sa:jeh,” to sit, and that when someone said “sa:dehkonih,” it was time to eat. Well, he’s not completely stupid, Ben thought.
But, Ben refused, on principle, to call him “his dog,” as if claiming him would somehow bind the two together in an unbreakable bond of kinship. No, to his friends, it was still “her dog,” or, simply, “the dog.” The tag on the dog’s collar said “My name is Nyagwai” and Ben scoffed at the idea. Naming the dog “bear” had been childish, and he had told his mother this.
“I think it’s cute. He’s big and brown and furry, just like a bear.” His mother had said. Something only a mother would say.
Ben rolled his eyes. “He is not furry. He’s mangy.”
“You’re not mangy, are you?” She cooed at the dog. Nyagwai had lain there noncommittally. Ben had muttered under his breath, something foul in their language that he hadn’t meant for her to hear.
“What was that?” She had spun on him as fast as her old bones would carry her.
“Nothing.” He had smirked, and she had swatted his arm, playfully.
Memories make for the worst companions. Details were always missing that no one, no matter how hard they might try, could reclaim.
He tried to remember the sound of her voice – the way it swept through cornstalks like a warm breeze, the way it could unsettle mountains. It had sounded like water trickling over rocks in a cold stream. It had sounded like magic.
He still caught himself dialing her number on occasion. I wonder if ma needs anything from the store? He would ask himself. And then reality would sink in again, heavier than it had before.
There wasn’t a number to dial anymore. There wasn’t a home to visit anymore. There was only a spirit left to chase.
All that was left of her things, after the time of the feast, after the giving away of her most prized possessions to family and friends, after endless trips to the Salvation Army deposit bin, was a cardboard box that sat by itself in a corner of his living room. There was a blanket draped over it, as if covering it would make it disappear. But, it remained, and as Ben sat there, he gritted his teeth, deciding what he should do.
“Okay.” He said to the empty space around him.
He got up from his chair and grabbed another beer from the fridge. He took the bottle opener from the top drawer and undid the cap. He threw the cap and opener on the kitchen counter and made his way to the living room.
He sat down on the couch, threw the blanket to the side and dragged the box over to his feet. It sat there while he finished his beer and skipped through channels on the TV. It sat there while he leaned back on the couch and ignored it. It sat and sat and sat until Ben knew he couldn’t avoid it anymore.
What am I supposed to do with all this? He thought. On the very top of everything was a vest that was beautifully beaded along its edges, a gift for his mother from an old friend. It was one of her favorite things to wear, if only for special occasions. Why Aunt Karen had wanted him to have it, he wasn’t sure.
All of this was her doing.
During the wake, he had been absorbed in all the preparations, and after the funeral he let himself be distracted by anything that he thought would bring some relief. Mostly alcohol. She had handed the box to him with a wan smile and had kissed him on the cheek.
“I know you’ve been busy but I think your mother would want you to have these.” She had said. Would she?
Ben picked the vest up and turned it over in his hands as if it were foreign. As if he hadn’t seen her wear it a thousand times. He ran his fingers along the beadwork as if to ensure that not one bead had fallen out of place. Then he set it down gently beside him and began rummaging through the rest of her things.
There were letters, worn, yellowing, addressed to his mother from old lovers, full of sentiments that didn’t mean anything once they were put down in ink. He left those unread. There was a music box that didn’t sing anymore.
There was a scrapbook brimming with frayed photographs of family members he was too young to remember or hadn’t seen in years. Each photograph was now just a story he would never hear the ending to.
At some point while he was leafing through the pages, he got up to grab another beer. And another. And another. He was too buzzed to realize that alcohol and nostalgia were an atrocious mix.
He let himself be carried deeper and deeper into his mother’s past until he found it, tucked tidily away in one of the last pages. It was a black and white photograph of his mother cradling a baby in her arms. A tender smile snuck its way across her face as her eyes gazed expectantly at the camera, as if to say “look who I have with me now.” He took the photograph from its sleeve and flipped it over. In his mother’s thin handwriting, it read: “Me and baby Ben, June 1990.”
Tears stung the corners of his eyes. Tears are something you can’t avoid. Tears are eternal. He dropped the scrapbook, picture and all, back into the box with a thud. He tried wiping the tears away but they came on stronger, blinding him, and in his blindness he groped for one of the bottles that had amassed on the floor. He whipped the bottle as hard as he could and it shattered against the opposite wall in a cascade of green glass and label paper – if only because something needed to be broken.
“Fuck!” He yelled.
He had spent too much time trying to forget what it meant to be human. He tried to recall the last conversation he and his mother had, but nothing came to him. At that moment, it seemed like the most important thing in the world, and his face, hot and flushed from the tears and alcohol, was a brown mass of anguish. He collapsed in a heap on the couch and passed out only after his tears had ceased and his eyes were raw.
A:kno’eh. Ga:weh heh’sehs?
Ben heard pawing at the door, and jerked himself awake. He didn’t know how long he had been asleep but it was dark outside now. He wondered if he was imagining things. The TV hummed dimly and he rubbed his eyes, slowly gathering his thoughts.
Am I still drunk? He wondered. He wasn’t. There was the pawing again. The dog was on the porch. He had come home. He always came home.
“Nyagwai.” He whispered.
He stood with much effort, and stretched. His bones ached but he felt oddly refreshed. He went to the kitchen and turned on the lights. He grabbed the broom and quickly swept up the remnants of the bottle he had thrown, dumping the shards in the trash.
He remembered the scrapbook and the photograph. He picked the photograph out of the cardboard box.
“Sorry,” he said to no one in particular. He folded the photograph down the middle, and tucked it into the pocket of his jeans. Just in case, he thought.
He made his way to the door. The pawing was insistent now. He smiled. It felt good to be needed.
“I think I’m okay.” He said, and perhaps his mother was listening just then.
He opened the door, and there was the dog, waiting expectantly in the dark. He turned on the porch light. His brown fur was matted and wet, and he looked thinner and leaner but not necessarily unhealthy. Just tired, Ben thought. The dog wagged his tail slowly back and forth, anticipating his accustomed reprimand.
Ben hesitated. The dog sat down and panted, continuing to paw at the open door, as if still barred from entrance by some invisible forcefield.
“Okay, boy.” Ben said. “Welcome home.”
Nyagwai clambered over the threshold and climbed onto Ben’s vacant spot on the couch. Ben laughed, and shut the door.
Ira Huff is Haudenosaunee and resides on the Tonawanda Seneca Nation in Western New York. He received his BA in English & Textual Studies from Syracuse University and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM.