Today there is sadness, and fatigue, in the otherwise cute eyes of Flaquito. Despite the undeniable glory, it’s not always easy being the last free dog of Cafayate. This morning, he’s woken up between two cars, as usual, and gone to the little nook in the ditch where he keeps his most, nay, only prized possession. He is a free citizen of the streets, our Flaquito, a member of the ownerless, possessionless breed, a despiser of races. A Socialist to the core. In a nutshell: a poster dog for Marxism. Not for him the self-righteous barking in defense of some dog-beating kulak’s private holdings, the planting of paws between one man’s little savings and homo or canine comrades of the street, the salaried showing of teeth.
Before trials are staged, grandstands assembled, let us clear things up. Flaquito’s little treasure isn’t much. It’s a very simple, small carving. Of a llama, to be precise, done in the wood of a cardón cactus. It had fallen off the box balanced on the rack of a local craft peddler’s bicycle. Flaquito, honest dog, upstanding citizen, had run after the worker, called after him as he rode away, but had only been rewarded by a kick on the snout. He’d trotted back to the lost cargo, downcast, muttering about the shortcomings of the uneducated, selfish proletariat. He’d grabbed the llama in his mouth, and since then had kept the habit of giving it an old chew when he felt blue, much like, he thought, human proles chewed on their stumpy cigarettes or their cheekfuls of coca leaves. It didn’t look like much now, blunted as it was by months of being ground by Flaquito’s teeth, but it was a comfort. He’d taken to keeping it in a plastic bag, to protect it from elements other than himself, well parceled, like precious porcelain bubble-wrapped for export. Which is no mean feat for someone lacking not only opposable thumbs, but any kind of digits.
Now Flaquito sniffs around the ditch, trying to pick up the particular scent of the brew of his own saliva-drenched cardón wood. Nothing. He paces the streets around the hiding place, hoping for a clue, a lucky break. There: at the corner, the old street sweeper pushes his cart under the ever-rising sun. He sweats under the strain, poor old slave, a brother to Flaquito, his tongue out a mile. If he had his llama he would be out of the sun at this time, chewing, the cycle of saliva cheating hunger. Now the sweeper stops his cart, walks away to clear a corner of dust and rubbish. Flaquito takes the opportunity to raise himself on his hind legs, peeking in: but no luck, no trace of the bag or the llama. Here, though, within biting distance, sits an old rock-hard bit of bread. Flaquito strolls away, his mind still upset, but his stomach momentarily satisfied as the sweet, starchy saliva slides down his throat.
His hunger thus appeased, Flaquito goes on his daily round, before siesta sets in, takes hold of the town in its soft, warm paws. Today he asks the neighbourhood dogs about his llama, to see if any of them has any clue as to the disappearance. As usual, they only bark back at him, like beasts.
“Brother Dog,” he calls out to them. “Comrade,” he says from outside the gates, and they howl at him as if he were but a common burglar.
Still, he envies them sometimes. Yaguní, Milk, Princito. Those are names given with love. It’s the one thing pets have that he misses: the thoughtful naming of one by someone else. In the richest houses the names might be carved in wood over soft, old cushions; a sweet, bone-shaped biscuit placed nearby for breakfast. The mind is weak, and on his loneliest nights, from the relative privacy of an undertruck, that is what hurts him most. So Flaquito has nicknamed himself, in the absence of someone else doing it. How could one stay nameless? He’s named himself with as much self-deprecation as anyone would have, Skinny, but still he feels ashamed whenever he pronounces his name, whether to domestics or to himself, in the ceaseless narrative of his lonely days. Like one feels finding the perfectly witty comeback hours after a conversation ends. In his most optimistic moments, he prophesies time will come when watchdogs all over the land will shake themselves free of the yoke of forced militarism, and join him in the streets, forsake their bourgeois-given names, go by X or Y if needed, until time comes when they find a name of their own. Or better still, when fellow citizens, their equals, give them a name, token of society’s love for them. Flaquito has these visions, beatific times that stretch the boundaries of his godlessness, and that at more reasonable moments he forces himself to attribute to near-starvation. A dog of extremes, that Flaquito is; both a saint and a Socialist martyr. Whenever he acts on these visions, tries to talk and organise the town’s guard dogs, they only respond with growls and barks, as if they’ve lost the gift of language completely, as if servility has reduced them to the basest level of animosity. He feels like a mad dog sometimes, Flaquito does, barking in the desert.
Which sometimes holds some appeal, actually. Barking in the desert. In his rare ventures out of town, in the cerros around, and the wild flats of dust and thorn bush, he meets packs of wild strays, crazy misfits who always try to make him join them.
“Come,” they say.
“We’ll run fast over the hills!”
“Over the hills!”
“We’ll lap up water from the arroyo!”
“Bite cacti for water!”
“We ate a donkey last week!”
“A whole donkey!”
“Truck hit it!”
“We bit his throat!”
“Till he died!”
“There’s some left in the ribcage!”
“Come with us!”
Anarchists, the lot of them. They yap without regard for their fellow dogs, interrupt each other and themselves, their brains fried by the desert sun. Their eyes wild, their tongues out, hanging, flapping dry in the wind. Sometimes he thinks they live better than he does, get food more often, and don’t have to stand the disgrace of men and pet dogs’ abuse. They live, though, like animals.
These thoughts crowd Flaquito’s mind, and despite the coolness of the sewage pipe he’s elected to siesta in, sleep doesn’t come. Especially when a crackly noise starts down the shadowless street. Flaquito can’t see the source of the nuisance, but as it continues and seems to be getting closer, he inches forward and draws his muzzle out of the pipe. There in the middle of the street, a cat is dancing, two steps forward, one step back and a whirl, a stumble. The word mazurka waltzes through Flaquito’s mind. The cat has a plastic bag stuck round its midriff, floating in a bouffant skirt by its hind legs. It must have wanted to look at what was inside the bag, then seen a hole at the bottom and investigated that too, until it found itself in that ridiculous position. That’s what curiosity does for you. Whoring cats, Flaquito thinks before chastising himself. He feels ashamed of these class prejudices that sometimes resurface in him.
He looks harder and realises now that the bag, that awkward feline ballerina’s plastic tutu, looks very much like his own. Before he knows it, he has lifted himself up on his four paws, and leapt out of the concrete pipe. As he trots towards the trapped cat, he can see that its rustley struggle has drawn the attention of other would-be nappers. Faces appear from the darkness of shop doorways, behind iron bars, lifting up from newspapers or cushions under comfortable porches. It’s mortifying, but Flaquito simply has to know. With the neighbours watching, he goes to the cat and sneaks his nose under the plastic skirt. Never one to indulge in improper behaviour in public (he knows how quickly a dog can get a reputation), Flaquito nevertheless has to make sure, to check that his beloved bit of wood isn’t still there, trapped like the feline in the folds of its impromptu petticoat.
It isn’t. The cat meows its protest, and Flaquito leaves the scene, more than ever aware of the disapproving stare of the townsfolk.
He walks away, far from the armchair-bound bourgeois, until he sees, wandering alone in the afternoon streets, one of these vagrants, a craft-maker, a travelling salesman of two-bit jewellery, his stock pinned onto a board that hangs from his shoulder. Flaquito follows him, as strays and free men and dogs are wont to. They walk in this fashion, alongside each other, silent, the man smiling at Flaquito now and then to acknowledge his presence. He’s making his way to the outskirts of town, no doubt leaving as soon as he’s arrived. These men, Flaquito thinks, eternal dreamers of greener grass. As the purr of a car grows behind them, the man turns to face it and sticks out his thumb in that manner typical to road-roaming men. The car stops and the man gets in, leaving the door open for Flaquito to follow him.
“Is that your dog?” the driver asks.
“No. Not anymore than I’m his man. We’re just fellow travellers.” And Flaquito, that lover of all men and dogs, gets in and rides off into the sunset, towards better tomorrows.
Featured illustration by Jacob Stack.