Illustration by Lisa Vanin

My memories of that summer revolve around Jamie Crowell’s dogs, Mort and Julie. Mort was some sort of mastiff-Rottweiler cross, enormous black head, jowls and slobber and sagging skin, each paw bigger than my two skinny fists bunched together. Julie was a German shepherd, low-hanging hips and pricked ears and eyes that watched you with that true animal indifference, as minimally removed from a wolf as a dog can be. Dogs always seemed to me like some human-animal hybrid, not a synthesis but a chimera, capable of being both deeply humanly expressive in their affection and then driven toward impersonal, absolute violence. In that respect, Mort and Julie were archetypes.

I moved to Enniskillen when I was fifteen years old. It was a hamlet with a little cluster of aging houses surrounded by farmland, mostly corn and apples, but a few richer men kept cattle or horses out of some vestigial pride for their ancestry. There was no profit in the animals, in keeping a cow out in the grass when factory conditions were the standard, when animals could be penned and surgically attached to machines and given the barest minimum. But Jamie Crowell’s father was a proud Englishman who had done well since he immigrated to North America and so he kept a swath of his property dedicated to the livestock.

In those first weeks after we moved, an early dewy springtime, a few extra months off school to bribe me, I would radiate out from the subdivision and into those farmlands. There rural life revealed itself to me incrementally, lyrically, the clamour of frogs in the still-water ditches next to the road, the dry fuzzy nostrils of a horse that would push through the long grass and launch its head over the wire fence, insects of every shape and size flitting through the air or dangling off the branches of an old willow tree. Forcibly, my father had replaced the cold concrete regularity of the city with, what seemed to me, an anarchic wilderness. I had wanted no part of these primitive human conditions but then, upon being surrounded by it, my ears saturated by buzzing and croaking and chirping, my eyes blinded by golden light filtered through so much green, I felt like a biologist exploring an alien landscape.

And nothing was so foreign, so fascinating, as Mort and Julie. They wandered a corner plot of cattle at the junction of two unused country roads, and they slavered for my blood whenever I passed on foot. Mort’s eyelids drooped so severely that I imagined the two dogs as a composite, he the teeth and Julie the eyes, an efficient mechanism of death should I be foolish enough to cross the property line. They stood in the open driveway, ten feet from me, and bayed for my blood, Julie’s bark sharp and high like I’d heard in a documentary about hyenas, Mort’s deeper than my father’s voice at his angriest. I kept my eyes on their glistening white teeth and stepped backward and fell into the ditch.

What amazed me, what kept bringing me back to see them, was their self-restraint. They never put one paw onto the road, only offered assurances of my demise should I be so bold as to cross the property line without permission.

I met Jamie Crowell six or seven visits later, my longest stay at the edge of Mort and Julie’s domain. Jamie was sixteen and stretched thin from puberty, twig arms and cornstalk legs that jutted straight into his torso—no ass, no contours, only edges.
Jamie came over a small hill and gangled straight to the dogs, didn’t bother to look at what they were yowling about, and he swung a fist and connected full tilt with Mort’s head. The big black dog shut up but didn’t seem particularly inconvenienced by the blow.

“Will you shut your goddamn mouth for once?” He raised a fist at Julie and she took a step back without looking at him, her hunter’s eyes still keenly on me. Finally the boy looked my way and gasped. “You’re a girl.”

He straightened himself, tried on the pose of a man. His T-shirt was too short and his jeans were ripped, two milky knobbed knees poking out. I must have made a cruel expression because the confidence drained from him, he slouched, he resumed the posture of a child.

I took a step forward and Julie snarled at me, lunged to the very edge of the perimeter, centimetres from my hand. Along her spine, the hair was raised into a sort of mohawk.

“Oi!” The boy swung a foot at the dog, but she avoided it easily. He chased Julie into the grass, his arms flailing like an ape. “Fuck off, now.”

I continued down the road without saying anything, without turning to see Jamie’s eyes follow me. But the next day I was back, and he happened to be there, happened to be lying in the field near the driveway of the property, playing a reed of grass like a musical instrument. And when Mort and Julie started up again, he stood and walked to the fence, leaned over it like he was just another patch of tall grass.

“I never seen you at school,” he said.

Julie’s fur was once again bristling and erect along the spine. I pointed it out to him.

“Those are her hackles,” he said. “They get up when she’s pissed.”

He inspected me like all semi-confident boys inspect girls their age. Popular culture had warned me about boys, about their lusts and demands, but no one had warned me about how boring it all was.

“Do you want to come up to the house?” He took a moment to shout at the dogs, to kick at them with his worn-out boots. Mort brought his displeasure down to a low growl, but Julie wouldn’t stop barking, shrill, ear-piercing. The boy had to shout over the noise. “They’re fine—they’re harmless. They don’t bother with you as soon as
they know you’re supposed to be here.”

I had no desire to go to the house, but my heart was racing and I wanted to put my fingers in front of their mouths, wanted to tempt them with blood. I had to know what would happen when I crossed the property line, whether these animals would make good on their threats, whether they would dismember me and make me feel things I had only imagined.

I was, of course, disappointed.

Illustration by Lisa Vanin

The dogs lost all interest in me, regarded me as no different than the rocks or trees along the perimeter of the farm. They paid more attention to the cattle. But they remained a fascination to me, these two giant animals whose appetite for gore had been cultivated into a human utility. They were hired killers, and I couldn’t wait to see them in action.

It didn’t take long.

Jamie Crowell invited me over for dinner, a tense affair, his father’s sour mood hanging over the table and his mother actively trying to fade into the walls. Boiled food, salt and pepper the only spices, a light fixture swaying over the whole affair, pooling shadows in all the etched recesses of their faces. Even Jamie looked prematurely aged, deep pockets under each of his eyes. He wasn’t an ugly boy, but what made him attractive, the shy sweet moments of tenderness, were often suppressed and replaced with a gaudy, cocky, inexperienced swagger.

Jamie talked to me the whole meal, careful to remove his elbows every time they touched the tablecloth—feats he had accomplished, things he had seen, teachers he had shamed and bested—until finally his father put down his cutlery and said in his syrupy English accent, “Will you shut your goddamn mouth for once?”

The boy complied, and the three of us ate in silence, his mother washing dishes and then disappearing into another room, the pretence of urgent chores under her hurried timid walk.

Jamie’s father had no questions for me, no formalities. He wanted to eat in peace. He kept his sideburns a little long but still I could see the scar, a wound that had been hastily sewn and now was a jagged white rubbery slash of skin that ran from ear to jaw. I stared at the scar, put possibilities to it, a car crash that had ended Jamie’s mother’s life (perhaps what I was seeing was her ghost), or a sordid criminal life in England that he had barely escaped, or a piece of shrapnel from the war (although I knew of no wars that would fit chronologically). I stared at the balding man and his long sideburns and his scar until he looked up from his meal and fixed his eyes on me. I didn’t turn away, didn’t smile in politeness, didn’t defer to him, and for this he afforded me the tiniest nod of approval, a respect I never once saw him pay to his son.

And then the dogs started up outside. By now the barking was a joy, a wildness I wanted to cultivate in myself, and I felt a warmth creep through my thighs and neck at the sound of Mort and Julie. Jamie’s father looked back down to his meal, didn’t pay the sound any heed, but Jamie could sense my affection for the dogs and said, “May we please be excused from the table?”

His father barely lifted his hand to wave at us dismissively. We rose and ran to the front door, and Jamie grabbed a flashlight.

The scene was even better than I could have imagined. Over the hill and across the driveway, we found Mort and Julie, shone the spotlight on them and found them working together to attack a grey dog with a bushy tail. It bared its teeth at Mort and Julie, and in its loping movements I could sense that something was strange.

Jamie put a word to it. “Coyote,” he said.

This was no game for the dogs, no pomp. Their hackles were up. Julie bit at the coyote’s haunches while Mort worked at the neck. The coyote tried to dash but the dogs rounded it up, cornered it, waited for one silent moment, and started again. At last it got ugly; Mort got it by the throat and shook. Julie clamped down a hind leg and pulled. The animal slid to its side, helpless.

“Mort,” Jamie croaked, heartbroken at the scene. “Julie.”

“No,” I said to him. “Don’t stop it.”

The coyote struggled for a moment, but the dogs did their work and the animal went limp. They were brought to this farm to protect the cattle and the humans, to do a job. Here they were doing their job, and for one brief moment they could live as they wanted to live, tugging still-warm flesh until sinews snapped and their victim was stretched out long and unnatural across the dirt. From some hidden location, the blood started to flow, pooled below the coyote, now a carcass, until the dead animal’s fur was matted and sopping.

Jamie turned off the flashlight and we stood in silence for a moment, listened to the wet clapping sounds of the dogs’ tongues and teeth. They were alive. Jamie reached out a hand and grazed my knuckles, and in my quietest voice, in
hopes of not interrupting the dogs in their pure act, I said, “Don’t touch me.”

My mother was released from the clinic in June, just in time to watch in horror as the June bugs descended upon Enniskillen, flew clumsily into humans, cars, plants. The sticky golden beetles mindlessly swarmed the town and were squashed or swatted or otherwise rendered unto oblivion, and I told my mother that great myth, that the only way to remove a June bug from your hair was to cut it out with scissors. And she, still pale and thin from the treatment, still vain despite years of deliberately laying waste to her own body with chemicals, she clasped my father’s shoulders and crushed them, said, “Where have you brought us? Why the middle of nowhere, for fuck’s sake?”

And when their hushed conversations were too much to avoid by hiding in the attic, when my father’s voice inevitably rumbled through the foundations of the house—accusations, apologies, quoting philosophy as so-called evidence—then I would go to visit Jamie Crowell and the dogs. I had no interest in the boy’s basement or his Super Nintendo but I was happy to wander the trails, across the far edge of his farm, through the tall grass covered in spit bugs, and into the forest. The path continued through the woods and down to the creek, spacious under the canopy of deciduous trees swaying in the summer winds. Jamie would pull crayfish from the creek, his vocabulary all slightly askew with his father’s intonations, crawfish , crick , and he would threaten to squash the creatures with a rock. He was trying to impress me with violence but there was nothing impressive about pointless death, about hormonal bravado, about wanting the prize I kept securely under my clothes, and anyway, he could never bring himself to drop the rock on his prey. It was in these last moments, tenderly lowering the crayfish by its tail back into the creek, his face younger somehow, that Jamie was most himself and thus most pleasing to be around. Perhaps he sensed that, and perhaps the whole threat of violence was manufactured, a means to showcase his sweeter side and earn my affections.

But if that was the case, I never gave the boy enough credit.

Our summer path continued in a loop, through a dry field full of burrs that would latch onto our shirts, remnants of which I’d still be picking out that night, and then back along the other country road until it intersected with the street to the farm. These were my favourite moments, when we were greeted by the dogs as though we were wanderers returning from some long journey, their skulls impersonally pressed against our chests and legs, their rumps presented for us to scratch. I would look deeply into the eyes of Julie and see absolutely nothing, not a glimmer of empathy or human depth, simply an automaton that was doing what it was built to do. Mort and Julie had no souls and thus they were not bound by guilt, by expectations of greatness. They just were. And they were good at it.

My father finally saw the pattern, realized I was seeing a boy most days, and urged caution.

“It might be best not to get too attached, honey,” he said in the kitchen, thin morning light, me in a tank top focusing on my cornflakes, he with a thermos of coffee for his commute to the city. “I mean, most young men aren’t exactly interested in girls for their personalities. Just be careful. Be moderate.”

As consolation, he gave me a copy of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics . I felt the hackles rise along my spine.

My mother noticed nothing from my behaviour but later sensed it in my father, his nervous fussing, his hovering presence. She cornered me that evening and her face was manic with pride.

“Don’t listen to your father,” she said. “You’re an independent young woman. You do whatever your heart tells you. Be free.”

I exercised my freedom by leaving the house mid-conversation, a late stroll by my standards. Mort and Julie greeted me on their driveway and then resumed their protective wandering of the property. But there was something different to them, a lighter touch as they padded through the grass, a skittish hesitation. Jamie was sullen when I knocked on the front door.

“It’s not fair,” he said. “I mean, he didn’t think for one second what it would be like for me.”

We sat on the steps, the last of the day’s light dying, and the boy told me that Mort and Julie had cornered a young calf and killed it, eaten it. It wasn’t their only offence on the farm—they had murdered a neighbour’s dog in the past—but it would be their last. I listened to the boy humanize the dogs’ actions, try to find justification or confusion in their behaviour, but I didn’t need it. To me it made perfect sense. In order to retain any civility around the civil, in order to act humanlike in the company of humans, sometimes they would need to draw blood. Killing was as natural and right to them as breathing, and to deny that need was to deny them their essential selves.

“Dad’s giving them away, some other farm or something,” he said. He didn’t continue, because the words would have made him cry, but I could hear them catch in his throat: You’re not going to visit me anymore, are you?

He looked at me, this thin boy with brown fuzz on his chin and a strong dark smell under his arms, not as displeasing as I’d imagined. Outside of school and in small enough numbers, it seemed that boys were manageable things. I reached out and touched his face and exercised my freedom a second time.

This was two years before graduated licensing was introduced to the province and so, by the end of June, sixteen-year-old Jamie Crowell had the keys to his father’s ’84 Dodge sedan. He collared and leashed the dogs, an insulting gesture, and threw them in the back seat. I took a moment to use the Crowell’s washroom before the journey and was surprised to find the boy’s mother waiting for me after I washed my hands.

“I just,” she said and stopped. Her lips were so pale that her cheeks just caved into a deep dry black hole in the centre of her face. “He’s like his father.”

I nodded, wiped my hands on my shorts.

“He’s too much like his father.” She seemed lost in her own house, translucent, soon to vanish, hideous and passive. “I mean—you just seem like a nice girl.”

Hackles, neck to shoulder blades. I pushed my way around her.

Jamie was waiting in the car. I slipped into the back seat and sat with the dogs. On our way down the driveway, his father rounded the hill and shouted from a distance, “Oi! You a limo driver now?”

“Don’t answer him,” I said. The boy did as I told him.

Our destination was about sixty kilometres to the northwest, near Lake Simcoe. Most of the drive was scraggy endless hills, patches of forest choked and dying from neighbouring subdivisions, wild grass and brush blanched brown and beige from the heavy summer sun. Whenever it seemed too unbearable for Jamie, whenever he started to gasp and sputter, I would put my hand on the back of his neck until his breathing was regular again, and he would say, “Okay, okay.”

If the dogs were aware of what was happening, they made no show of it. Julie only pawed in irritation at her collar and panted with her long snout pointed toward the open back-seat window. Mort drooled until the upholstered seat was dark and wet under him.

Their new home was a more or less abandoned lot, mostly scrub and a small creek. A gaunt stubbled man with a cigarette explained to me that the dogs would guard the lot until a large farming corporation consolidated all the properties in the area, this one included. The man would stop by twice a day to feed them, but otherwise, Mort and Julie would be alone and fenced in by barbed wire.

“Might as well get some use out of ’em, right?” He smiled, and his two front teeth were the colour of shit. “Can’t do fuck all else with ’em if they have a taste for blood.”

I held the dogs’ heads in my hands, looked into their eyes. Again, nothing self-reflexive there, no shame or self-consciousness, a perfect empty stare. Jamie began to weep openly and so I dismissed the gaunt man, let the boy have his goodbyes.

The dogs didn’t even watch us as we drove off.

I sat in the back seat on the ride home.

A week went by, days wandering with Aristotle under my arm through unexplored fields dry and dead with the heat, past endless rows of corn that seemed taller by the day, but rarely did I orient myself toward the Crowell’s property. Jamie was always too restless, too persistent in following me, too eager to recount stories about Mort and Julie.

My mother took the opportunity to sneak out while my father was at work, found a naive general practitioner to give her a prescription for a benzodiazepine after she feigned some troubles with sleeping. My father recognized it immediately, of course, that pliable calm demeanour of hers, cold vacuous soulless eyes, but in his typical cowardly way he avoided it, pretended this was still some sort of fresh start, and took to late nights and whisky and books for consolation.

Then one morning, I got a telephone call from Jamie, how he got my number I had no idea, and he told me in a choked voice that Mort and Julie had run away. I imagined them snagged in barbed wire, forcing their way through the fence near the creek, where the gap along the ground might have been a little larger. The boy asked me to visit him and I said no, then said I would visit when I felt like it.

I left after a late dinner and walked the road to his house, the dusk noticeably earlier than just a few weeks ago, the year’s second wave of mosquitoes clouding the air, and when he came to the front porch I warned him that I would only kiss him because I pitied him. He told me he didn’t care and pressed against me, opened his mouth too wide, his tongue hidden in the back of his mouth, just an empty hole that tasted like potatoes and green beans around the edges. I stopped kissing him to swat a mosquito, to flatten it into a mass of chitin and blood on my arm, and then I left.

After that, we would spend the afternoons together, not talking, only lying in the grass on our bellies with his bony shoulder pressed against mine. I would read the Ethics , and he would suffer through me reading it aloud. And then one day it passed across my eyes and slipped off my tongue, repugnant: “The slave is a living tool and the tool a lifeless slave.” Mort and Julie would be afforded no respect from Old Man Crowell because they were no better than inanimate objects to him. Did a creature with no soul deserve no dignity? Aristotle believed in a rationalized subjugation. Was this also, then, my father’s philosophy?

I tore up the book that evening, threw it away.

Four weeks later, the dogs reappeared on the Crowell’s lawn, emaciated, patches of fur missing, gobs of dried blood on their bare skin. One of Julie’s eyes was so badly mauled that it had glossed over, now a milky useless orb half hanging from her face. Mort walked with a heavy limp, one front leg always curled up a bit.

I sprinted over after the call from Jamie, saw the dogs patrolling the field, haunted unfixed eyes and furious panting, Mort’s only remaining bulk in his head and paws, Julie’s perked ears even more hypersensitive and twitchy than usual. Sixty kilometres they had travelled, an unimaginable feat of navigation. I could see the wild dogs they had fought, the prey that had eluded them, I could taste the metallic tang of starvation and thirst, the revelation of a clean creek, black nights at the edge of the highway, waiting for the headlights to pass at incomprehensible speeds, I could feel my ears prick at the sound of humans chasing me, Animal Control, the full sprints through fields and forest despite an empty belly and the gnawing urge to give up. And all this they did, the sixty kilometres they crossed, all so they could come home and resume their job of protecting the Crowell’s farm. It was the most dedicated thing I had ever seen in my entire life. This was their home and they would do anything they could to be here. I cupped each of their heads in my hands and they looked blankly into the distance.

Moments later, Jamie and his father came out of the house in mid-argument. The boy pleaded in that way that I recognized, arms splayed, voice high, two steps behind, impotent. He had already given up the fight.

“Oi! Dogs! In the fucking car,” his father said. There was no admiration in his gaze, nothing but flat irritation as he watched the dogs run to the sedan.

When Mort and Julie arrived, they hesitated for a moment, looked into the back seat.

“What did I say?” his father said.

The dogs climbed into the car.

“We have to take them back,” Jamie said to me.

“Stand up to your father,” I said. “Tell him they have to stay.”

“Christ almighty, girl, mind your business,” his father said. He laid his hands too heavily on the roof of the car, a deliberate intimidation. “Who the hell do you think you are?”

I took a few steps forward, around the car and into his personal space, and I looked up at him and said, “You know who I am. You know what I am.”

He set his jaw and the white scar rippled as he clenched his teeth. Then he nodded. “I do.”

I looked one last time at Jamie. He tried to muster the courage, turned to his father and puffed his chest, and then he turned back to me. His face collapsed, crumpled, and he got in the car.

I was becoming intimate with the prickling of my hackles.

His father said, “That’s right.”

“Please,” Jamie said. “Come with me.”

I put my arm through the back-seat window, offered my fingers one last time to both of the dogs. They panted and ignored me. Then I turned around and walked down the driveway, pointed myself toward home.

Moments later, the boy drove by me along the old road, the car crawling, his eyes desperate, but I only looked at Mort and Julie in the back seat.

He called me a week later to tell me the dogs had run away again.

“Don’t call me again unless they make it back to the farm,” I said and hung up.

In the weeks after, my father finally made his stand, collected up my mother’s secret bottles and flushed their contents down the toilet while she was in a blissful narcotic sleep. He was very drunk when he woke me, he blathered about the golden mean, about moderation, and I told him to leave me alone, that I had destroyed the book. The next day while he was on his morning commute, my panicked mother woke me, told me she was sick, she needed her medicine, and made me search the house with her. By that afternoon, she had worked herself into such a frenzy that at first when she fell onto the kitchen floor, I didn’t believe it. She writhed and rolled on the linoleum and all I could think of were the crumbs around her face, the dust and the food and the bugs that accumulated along the edges of the tiles, now inches from her frothing mouth.

Eventually I could move, could call an ambulance, tell them that, yes, she had had seizures before, it was withdrawal. When I hung up, I packed a small bag and stole all of the money from my father’s underwear drawer. I left the house before the paramedics arrived and caught the next train to the city.

I knew that Mort and Julie wouldn’t make it back, that the first trip had nearly killed them. And I was right. Years later, I stopped by the Crowell house. Jamie’s father was shrivelled and grey and hairless, his scar more prominent than ever, and the old man told me that the dogs were never seen again. They weren’t wild enough for the wild and too dangerous to be domestic. As he told me these things, he spoke with some respect, looked me over carefully and nodded, as if he knew what I would become, as if he had always known it. I didn’t ask about Jamie, for reasons he understood intimately, and he closed the door moments after I turned and walked away.

This appeared in the April 2016 issue.

Jay Hosking (@DocHosking) will publish Three Years with the Rat, a novel, later this year.

Lisa Vanin is a Toronto-based tattoo artist and illustrator.

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