Short story by Callum Florance
A dog only lives a while in a wire cage. Today, seven dogs lie in free beds. Tomorrow, three dogs. The next day, seven. An oscillating pattern emerges. It isn’t a migrant camp, but the beds are just as filthy. The high turnover doesn’t lead to profits. It leads to losses. Someone has to pay.
* * *
The aged mutt in Cage 7 pants its dry tongue. Its blonde, malnourished coat shimmers brown and grey under the fluorescent lighting. Rising from its bed, the mutt wanders mildly to the opposite corner of the cage where two metal bowls, one red and one blue, rest emptied. It sniffs the red one, the one for food, and licks the blue one, the one for water, and waltzes back to its cushioned bed; covered in a plastic sheet. The mutt rises again and goes through the routine. No food. It patters to a different corner and sniffs at the linoleum floor, at its reflection. No food. Back to the bowls. No water. Back to bed.
* * *
Through the wire, past the other cages and down the hall, a lock collapses. The mutt rises and wanders over to the cage door and peers into the hallway. A brick wall, painted white, lines the hallway with small windows placed too high for any dog to see the sky. A feathery door flicks open in a slight squeak and heels click against the floor. The mutt goes to the bowls nearby and sniffs them. No food. Back to the door. The heels stop at a cage nearby.
“C’mon,” a soft, remorseful voice utters.
The jangle of collar and tag grow promisingly and toenails tap against the linoleum floor over the creaking of a cage door opening and closing briefly. The heels follow at a slower pace and both grow faint. The feathery door closes in a slight squeak and the lock leaps upwards. Unmoved, the mutt paces to another corner of the cage and paws at a loose bit of flooring. A scarab beetle vibrates underneath, stuck. The flap of linoleum lifts irritatingly slightly after each paw. No food. The mutt patters to the bowls. No water. Back to bed.
A dog in Cage 5 scoffs. Then it barks. Then it scoffs twice. The aged mutt rises from its bed and moves towards the door. The mutt scoffs, then barks twice, then scoffs. The other dog scoffs back. The mutt becomes silent. It wanders back to the scarab beetle and paws weakly at the linoleum flap. It sniffs at the beetle. No food. Back to bed.
* * *
A lock collapses. The feathery door flicks open. Heels click. The door shuts. The mutt rises from its bed and pants its tongue as it patters to the cage door and peers into the hallway. A woman in baggy, navy blue shirt and trousers and tied up hair stands by the door, sobbing. Glazed, wet spots pepper her shirt. Her heels don’t click. The mutt goes to the bowls and sniffs the red bowl. No food. Back to the door.
The woman wanders down the hallway, heels clicking, and passes each cage. Small, greedy eyes follow her. The mutt stops panting and sits on the reflective, linoleum floor. It turns its head towards the trapped scarab beetle and turns back. Her heels stop clicking. She stops sobbing. No water.
The mutt takes several, timid glances up at the woman, now in front of its cage. Anger washes over the woman and drips callously from her chin. The mutt stands on all-fours and wags its confused, matted tail. Weak wires on the cage door bend and twist into rounded diamonds between the two and barely split them apart.
“You shouldn’t be here,” the woman says through a tight bottom jaw. Her eyes whiten as much as her knuckles and the mutt continues to wag its confused tail. Its dry tongue rests on the rough wire door. It stares straight ahead.
“We give you food and water and beds to sleep in,” she yells through the wire and leans down. Her pants crumple at the knee and the corners of her mouth crumple too.
“All you do is want,” she cries and hits the cage. The mutt jumps back a few steps and darts its eyes to the ground and up to the woman’s own and back to the ground. It shuffles to the bowls and sniffs the red one. A buzz from a corner of the cage flips one of its ears back, but its attention remains on the woman. Her hands creep slowly towards the cage door.
“You have no home,” she says, “this isn’t your home,” she opens the cage door sharply and the mutt shuffles backwards, “you don’t belong here.”
Light reflects off the open, wire cage door like moonlight on a rippling, Mediterranean Sea. So, too, do the glazed specks on the woman’s baggy shirt flicker, as she walks towards the cowering mutt, which stares at the woman and drowns in her shimmering, blue eyes. It wags its confused tail.
“You probably snuck through fences and slept in bushes before you came here,” she says with spit sailing from the corners of her mouth. She stops short of the mutt and stands towering like a wave about to peak. Water.
The mutt closes its mouth and that tender, pink tongue disappears. It reaches its bed, but doesn’t crawl inside. Instead, the mutt stops. The woman does, too. Both breathe through widened nostrils and their chests rise and fall together like ripples at opposite ends of a rock’s splash. The mutt looks up and flicks its eyes over her face. She kicks it.
A piercing yelp snaps into the white hallway and jingles the collars of each dog standing by their diamond-patterned, wire cage door. The mutt feebly curls its right paw up to its chest and braces for a second kick. The woman coughs a guttural scream at the cowering mutt and kicks sharply into the mutt’s ribcage. Another yelp is followed by a short, defiant growl. The mutt wrinkles its nose upwards, bearing yellowed teeth, and holds steady with its right paw still hovering above the linoleum floor and tucked into its ribcage. The trapped, scarab beetle vibrates far, far away.
“Filthy mutt,” the woman yells chokingly and leans down. The mutt snaps back defensively and the woman is jerked upright; straightening her wrinkled, navy clothes. Her breath palpitates and her thoughts race. The mutt holds steady and shivers in front of its bed. That golden, right paw is still.
The woman snaps from her rigid pose and glances fearfully over her shoulder into the hallway. She turns back with relief and her stiff body sinks. The hallway door is closed. The other cages are silent. The bowls are empty. The mutt trembles.
She turns again and clicks her heels as she walks through the cage door, shuts it, walks down the hallway, opens the feathery door, and closes the door swiftly. The mutt lowers its right paw. The mutt quickly brings the paw back up into its ribcage and shuffles painfully into bed. The scarab beetle goes silent.
* * *
The aged mutt pants its dry tongue. It rises delicately from its bed and hobbles over to the linoleum flap. The mutt sniffs at the flap and doesn’t paw. The scarab beetle is quiet. It hobbles over to the red and blue bowls and sniffs the red one. No food. It licks the blue one. No water. The mutt limps to the cage door, covered in wire diamonds, and stares up seeking the sky through those windows placed too high for any dog to see the sky. No hope. Back to bed.