Amber shared a wing. It was in her mouth. She had killed a bird and laid part of it on our steps. Amber was a Saint Bernard crossed with a Ridgeback crossed with a switchblade. Her prey-drive always circled several times before lying down. Mice, moles, rabbits. She rifled through their bodies like evidence, delivering them to us as wilted envelopes through the information services of her soft-faced mouth.
We got her after one of my dad’s friends joined the military. She roamed the neighbourhood like a keyboard; dogs wandered as fluently as children through the folksongs of a parenting style in which helicopters had long since left the embassy rooftops. We never tied her up.
Mr. Langston didn’t want her on his property. Mr. Langston was a prospector and he wasn’t home very often, but when he was, he lived between our houses like a boulder. His huge travelling packs were filled with salted pork, axes, and dynamite. We could see the fuses. He had been dropped into our world by a glacier from another century. Cobalt, uranium, nickel, and gold.
Mr. Langston lived alone. His only companion was a cat whose fur was abandoning its body. It crept about with the nudity of a washed hand. Our young lives, conversely, were crowded with insurgent flags like autumn leaves in a storm drain. We had insatiable appetites for the internal provinces of absorption. Every scrape we acquired was an opportunity to peel another scab, to pull back the blankets and watch the wound bed dream. We crowded into Mr. Langston’s loneliness with our freehand markets, peddling improbable stories about caves full of gold leaf guarded by bears with fangs like liberty spikes.
My friend Luke said we should sneak into his house. You could tell when Luke was serious because he’d start licking his lips, and they’d shine back at you when he was talking. Mr. Langston’s house was known to us only in brief moments when we accompanied our parents to drop off food or hold the door as they helped him through the prism of holiday drinks. Sometimes the drinks made him chase us. We were warned to stay off his property. He kicked me once so hard and so surprisingly I nearly bit through my lip. For days I ran my tongue over the contour of the wound rhythmically and obsessively. It took a long time to heal. We stopped cutting across his lawn. Instead, we used the street, with its rooster-tailed stones.
Inside his house was the inside of an idea whose minerals were as obscure to us as the geodes posing vaginally by the woodstove, their crystals glistening inward. Clocks ticked with the wrong times. Windows were shaded with the climatological stratus of cigarette smoke. His house smelled like someone had been bankrolling soil, floating its reclamation mission with unambiguous faith. It was obvious that the man ate nothing but dirt. That’s how you looked for metals. You had to eat the dirt to know what was in it.
It didn’t take long for us to find the bucket. Some things take longer than others to appear, but we were always on the lookout for outlines, stains, relief, for swellings amidst no obvious injury. Like Amber, who, in broad daylight, once attacked the moving wheels of my dad’s truck. An ambush we respected, if only for its resolute commitment to the interiority of a circulatory system similarly beyond our reach.
Under the sink, beside the vinegar and empty wine bottles with corks jammed back into their necks, was a giant plastic bucket. It was enormous, the kind of pail used to haul field-dressed deer parts, or brimmed with salt at the curbside crosswalks in town. It looked like the kind of bucket my mom had me fill with ashes from the furnace to take out to the compost. If there was snow, I usually set the bucket down without emptying it and let it melt its way to the ground.
We thought it was pine pitch, or chicken fat, but it was honey. Deep almost-burnt amber, it consumed every calorie of the stark kitchen light. Prehistoric insects with their arms folded were preserved in its depths; a few cat hairs were spider-legged on top. He kept honey in the subatomic loneliness of his mid-latitude bungalow. We cupped it with our fingers and then our hands. Our faces glistened. Strands of it returned to earth on trajectories mathematically determined by our rolled-back eyes. We crammed it into our mouths with slurred speech, this strange moonlight reflected from the planetary face of a defenceless animal on its back barely breathing as we ate its entrails. The plasma glistened on our lips.
In retrospect, how could he not return to find us there? We were populists imposing our assembled convictions on the conspicuous eccentric. We were vigilantes storming the castle in the name of nothing but burlesque. Such indiscretions inevitably receive the face of their target the way the crowd moves through streets only to become the streets themselves, scraping glass loose from storefronts, awakened. When we heard him at the door and finally saw him, we tried to make it out the back, but our legs barely moved. He stood there with his arms apart. His mouth was open, but he didn’t say anything. He smelled like dirt to us, like an overturned rock revealing its clandestine cities of spiders and earthworms, collaborating all this time on an elaborate resistance to the world as we knew it.
We drained from his house like syrup and collapsed on the safe side of the property line. My mother shrieked as she came outside. She had her arms bent at the elbows and her fingers spread like she did when she was handling meat. “Oh, my god,” she said. “You’d better go home.”
Not long after we were made to apologize, I saw Mr. Langston in his yard chopping wood. Each piece stood before him in the form of a confession. They all ended the same way. He paused for a moment to look over at me when something caught his attention. Amber was in the bushes at the back of his property, her body hovering, snapping branches as she twisted. Before I could call her, she emerged. Mr. Langston stared at her. I waited for him to lift his axe, but he stood there like a piece of his own wood. She bounded toward me with something in her mouth. She dropped the limp cat at my feet. Its hairlessness was shocking. Here was a body whose skin was hunting down and killing its own coat, follicle by follicle. It made me shiver not to think of it.
Note on the Text
Before I wrote this story, I had my blood and urine tested for chemicals and my shit and skin tested for microbes. I was trying to think of a way to respond through writing to the strange, necessary, and toxic ways in which the “outside” writes the “inside.” I learned I had a family of bacteria on my skin called Methylophilaceae. As it happens, these organisms are abundant in the mouths of dogs and are often transferred to people who live with dogs. The term “commensalism” describes a neutral relationship between two organisms that results in no harm being done to either participant, despite the fact that one may benefit from the relationship. The early domestication of dogs would have followed a commensal pathway. Commensal microbes play important roles in the human gut.