It had been a month since the One stopped being there. His smell had all but gone now. For a while, other Ups had brought them food and carried on the routine quite normally. Normally, apart from the absence of the One. Those Ups didn’t want to share their hands. They were ‘too’ Up, if that were possible, both out of reach and unreaching in their uprightness.
The dogs hadn’t thought it likely before. It hadn’t crossed their minds that there could be a time without a One to caress them. They’d thought that every Up was Oneness and all Upness was One. Though, thinking about it now, from a distance, they did remember a time with very little Oneness, a time before he came, full of smaller Ups that didn’t do a very good job of being One at all. But that time really struggled to be relevant. It did try to come back to remind them; to creep into the corners of the shed in which they remained; to fill up the blank spaces to serve as a reminder for how to live with no hand to guide them, no Oneness to keep them on track. But this was the problem with the lack of the One. Memory space diminished. It was hard to clear your mind for anything else when you had to sort through everything with no reassuring hand.
That’s what Belladonna thought, at least. She wasn’t sure about Pig-Dog. He’d been off colour since the One had left, lounging around all a-kilter, trying to squeeze himself into the gaps between the boards. She knew he wasn’t smart but was pretty sure that he didn’t really think he could squeeze himself into those tiny spaces. When he started the pacing the floor and looking for a nook to shove his nose into she took to standing up and raising her hackles. Before long he would look around at her and glare. She would close one eye and stare at his two. The corner of his mouth would rise. It wasn’t a snarl. She’d know if it was. Longer and longer he would dare to meet her gaze since the One had gone. But in the face of her gaze, he’d stop after a time, look down at the floor and flop to his side with a sigh.
She could gift him a little calmness, at least.
They’d sleep curled together, as they had when they were young. Sometimes he would wake her with his whimpering and after the remaining Up left for good he took to biting her neck in his sleep.
Alone, they presumed they needed to gnaw through the cords that kept them tied to the hooks in the corners of the cabin. It took them four days to accomplish. Pig-Dog’s jaws were stronger than hers but of course he would get distracted, snapping at flies or looking up to the rafters and crossing his eyes as if he was trying to focus on something that was suddenly moving towards him. But eventually they were free and they could push their noses out of the gap between the edge of the door and and the frame of the shed and push it. She began slowly, for she knew that to surprise an unknown Up was dangerous, but Pig-Dog was impatient and barged over her, his claws grazing her side.
They poked their faces around the camp for a while, exploring spaces they’d not been allowed in before. The smell was awful. Staleness and smoke. Sweat lingered. They thought they found the One’s room because there seemed to be something of his smell. But even their noses couldn’t trump the smell of death. Trucks rumbled past on the road but it seemed that this corner of the land had been abandoned. But Belladonna knew that the One wouldn’t have left them by choice. Something must have happened. She looked at her brother and their eyes signalled that they both knew the same. They should find him.
Setting out to the town without the One was a strange task. They’d been in a truck and on the bus before but to follow the road alone would have meant death. Approaching it, they saw other animals who must have tried, their carcasses drying in the sun. The heat was a comfort, hot enough to keep the mosquitos away and to dry the road kill; to preserve it and keep it from turning rancid. They knew where they could find food if they were desperate enough to justify braving the cars. In a lull in the traffic they crossed the road, Belladonna cautiously, Pig-Dog loping in a foolish skip. Crossing the wheat fields, they dislodged colony after colony of white butterflies. They exploded into the air, flying past their faces like shards of ice in a winter wind. They made her shiver. That thought of winter wasn’t one that she could enjoy and she wished she could use her memory space for other thoughts. But it was hard to get rid of memories associated with such strong feelings, of paws burning in their contact with frost and shivering muscles trying to get warm. Sometimes, after a winter swim, the One would warm them by rubbing them with big old towels. That was a good memory. She and Pig-Dog would vie for attention from the hands. The hand was a wonder on its own, but rubbing with warm fuzzy towels was ecstasy. Pig-Dog wasn’t so flighty back then and the rubbing could keep him calm for days. Now, he was being an ass, running through the clouds of butterflies and leaping into the air, perhaps with illusions that he could join them or maybe because he thought that he could snack on their tiny bodies. Between swarms he would zip diagonally across her path, suddenly flying out of the wheat to startle her, his mouth open and tongue flying around. Sometimes he would snap at her heels.
There wasn’t enough space to look at him properly; to calm him, here in the field. She knew he was trying to avoid her eyes by skimming around her and using the wheat as shield.
But they went on. If she kept walking, she knew he’d follow
The town hadn’t been kind to them. They’d arrived after days in the field, famished. But the Ups here hardly looked at them. A couple of Ups gave them a hand for a minute or two but that was that. Perhaps they were too ugly to garner sympathy from the Ups here, too dirty to convince some of them to be One. Plenty of them had dogs of their own but they were silly little things that didn’t seem to know much about finding food. Rather, they didn’t have to. They had Ones of their own.
At the edge of the city they found a hollow between a pile of rubble and some discarded appliances, structures of use for some Up, in some place, at some time. In the morning, Pig-Dog would leave to walk to the highway. There was always some dead thing there and he would bring it back. At first he was good at waiting until he had returned before he began eating. But as time went on, she noticed that the carcases would come back with fresh teeth marks in them that looked like his. She tried to question him but increasingly he didn’t meet her eyes and he seemed consumed by his thoughts.
Pig-Dog awoke from another dream. Every night he’d had them, since they’d arrived in Jean. They made him angry. They concerned his making and he couldn’t bear to be reminded of it. To think of them, cruelly putting his legs on back to front so that he could never get where he wanted to go, filled him with rage. He knew that the experiments had probably saved a life or two but they had consigned him to a life of misery. When the One had been around, at least the memories didn’t come back. Now he was gone his mind was open. There was infinite space for memories and they crowded over him, in dreams and in thoughts. Belladonna seemed to be the opposite. She became calmer by the day and she seemed to be forgetting how to look for food. He’d tried to convince her to accompany him down to the road in the mornings but every time he managed to meet her eyes she looked away and began poking around in the smashed glass on the floor. When he returned he’d find patterns in the shards and sometimes she’d be gone from the hollow, standing over by the trees and looking out onto the fields. He wanted to help but he had too much to do merely attending to his body.
They’d done a bad job of attaching the pig’s ears to his head so if he jiggled around too much they’d begin to peel off. If he stayed very still for a day or two they’d reattach. He’d never heard of another creature able to regenerate like this. But it felt that with the gift of regeneration came the curse of delicacy. He could barely bend his knees because the foreign sinews weren’t loose enough for his long dog legs and his trotters didn’t have the flexibility of the paws he knew he should have been born with. Belladonna hardly used hers and he sometimes caught himself wishing that the Ups from that time could come back and use her body to give him back the one he should have been allowed to keep. But surely he couldn’t put her through that? He wouldn’t want her, then, to be troubled by the terrible dreams of pain he had, by the memories of tendons stretched beyond return.
Besides, what animal could they use to put her back together again? There weren’t many around here.
She knew he was losing it. He’d spend days not moving, holding his head very still and looking at his reflection in the shiny side of the main appliance. He’d stopped bringing meat and she didn’t know if she had the energy to make it to the road to look for meat, or the speed to dodge the trucks if she got there.
He felt sorry for her. Clearly, without the One, she couldn’t function. In the shards of glass on the pale earth, she’d found a world in which she could project herself and create stasis. But the carcasses he left beside her to eat were rotting. The sun wasn’t so hot these days and they had rain sometimes. The road kill got wet and went rancid soon. They wouldn’t be able to last for long. She wouldn’t, for sure. He decided to try to drag her over the hill. Perhaps if he showed her what was over the other side she might awaken. He grasped at her paw with his teeth but her fur ticked his sensitive pink snout and he sneezed. The violence of the sneeze dislodged his head from his neck and it rolled off. In the spinning world left to him by his rolling head he caught a glimpse of his remaining body crumble, his joints coming apart and his skin, part smooth and pink, part golden and furred, fall from his body, just like the One’s clothes used to do.
She realized that by nudging him slowly from the side she could make him move, if only at a pace under which it would take days for them to reach the house. She’d seen it from the top of the hill when she’d tried to figure out if she could make it to the road. It was definitely abandoned. She thought if they got there, at least they’d have somewhere to keep dry and, if there was some food there, they might just stay alive through winter.
After two days of shepherding his lacklustre frame, they arrived.
He awoke in a palace, his body whole again and resting on a luxurious mattress. Belladonna was beside him looking into his eyes and they understood one another again. Three delicate birds of paradise circled around them, singing a song that he knew would never end.
She searched the house. There was nothing. Pig-Dog wouldn’t wake from his trance and she pushed him towards a mattress in the darkest corner.
Three dead birds on the surface told a tale that life once had a chance here.