Dog Eat Dog

by Christina Dalcher

Broccoli. Spinach. Brussels sprouts. English peas the color of emeralds. I still dream of platters heaped with green. I still dream of trees. 

The camp alarm wails at four, a half-hour before sunset now that we’re in full winter. No one likes the biting cold that night brings, but we welcome the darkness. Fourteen hours of shade means more time outside. Also, the dogs do better in the cool months. Last summer, we lost over half of the pack. 

Last summer was almost the end of us. 

I check the schedule next to my cot. I’m on feeding duty this week—my least favorite job next to a shift in the whelping rooms. Slaughtering sucks, and the rankness of the butchery and kitchen could knock a dead man flat, but I’ll take those chores over feeding or whelping. It’s too easy to see them as dogs when they’re alive. Too easy to see old friends in their eyes. Rex. Rusty. Beau. 

No one else remembers when we kept them as pets, when new puppies for Christmas were creatures to be played with and cuddled, when man’s best friend snoozed on a plush cushion embroidered with his name. 

“We had these red rubber things,” I told a kid in the butchery last week. “Stuffed ‘em with peanut butter. Made the dogs crazy.” 

He stared at me with pinpoint pupils under the harsh light of the abattoir, his skin white as the snow that drifted high on the barracks walls. “What’s peanut butter, Old Joe?” he said, and went back to flaying the hide off a beagle. The kid tossed it onto the heap of fur and flesh behind him. “This one’s only good for feed. Next.” 

Next. Next. Next. We fabricated two hundred dogs during that shift. When the kitchen staff came in to collect the meat and the kid joined his mates in the canteen, I headed to my cot. The sleep of old men comes in shallow, unenthusiastic spurts, much like the appetite. Much like hope. 

There was a shred of that, of hope, at first. Between shifts, I wandered the open ground of the camp with my bride of forty years. Catherine’s eyesight was excellent then, and she could spot a stray blade of grass or the first pair of true leaves on a tomato seedling. We tended those young plants, watering them with care, feeding the soil with the last fish bones and egg shells before fish and poultry were no more. I watched them grow—one inch, two inches, three—and watched them wither down to brown, lifeless tendrils. 

No one really knew why. Speculation ranged from over-farming to global warming to that old devil Monsanto, but I didn’t believe any of it. I told Catherine that maybe it was just time. Maybe there’s a season for everything—dinosaurs, glaciers, humans, plants. Like that old song goes: Turn, turn, turn

When the second alarm blares, I shrug on my parka and head out with the rest of the feeding shift. The wheelbarrows stand along the wall of the abattoir, out in the open because the cold keeps the meat fresh, and the last predator anyone saw was a scrawny opossum two decades ago, back when Catherine still slept at my side. 

The kid from last week comes up to me, moving part of my load into his own barrow. Chuck, his name is. Maybe Buck. I don’t remember names so well these days. 

“Lemme take some of that for you, Old Joe,” he says, hurling two carcasses at a time from my pile to his like they’re straw-stuffed rag dolls. 

“Thanks, Chuck,” I say. 

“It’s Buck.” He goes off with the others toward the pasture. “We’re gonna eat well this winter,” he calls to a pal, and disappears in the evening snow. 

The dogs are cold tonight. And hungry. A pack of stronger ones storms the fence, muzzles pressed tight into the chain link, biting at metal and frothing at the smell of fresh blood. One at a time, I heave limp bodies of terriers and toy-sized mutts over the barrier, reminding myself the beasts are only livestock now, only food. The last carcass in my barrow is a pup, barely a year now, the one I helped bring out from a beagle bitch last winter. I remember her. I’d broken my own rule and named the damned thing Molly. 

Behind me, a feeble whine whistles through the night air. I turn, and for a thin slice of time I see Rex, the last dog Catherine and I had. He’s in a pen with the weaker animals, segregated to keep them safe from the snarling beasts I’ve just fed. 

“Here you go, Rexie,” I say, bending toward the beagle pup’s carcass. “Dinner.” 

Waves of pain shoot up and down my left arm at the same time Chuck takes the dead pup from me. 

“No you don’t, Old Joe.” He points to the dog who isn’t Rex, couldn’t be. “That one’s tagged for slaughter tonight. See?” 

I make out the black X on Rex’s fur in the glow of my headlamp. “Yeah. I see. Sorry.” 

“No big deal,” Chuck calls over his shoulder. 

Another stab of hot agony hits me in the chest, and I double over, eye-to-eye now with the penned dog. 

“Rex, old buddy. There’s a good boy,” I say, and Rex reaches through the metal fence with his tongue, lapping at my left hand like he knows where it hurts. 

It takes a moment to decide. Tomorrow with the ravenous pack, or now, with Rex. I open the gate and slide in, settling down with the dog, waiting for the pain to go while Rex nuzzles into my chest. 

“Good dog,” I say, and don’t say anything more.

Christina Dalcher is a theoretical linguist from the Land of Styron and Barbecue, where she writes, teaches, and channels Shirley Jackson. Find her work in Split Lip Magazine, Whiskey Paper, and New South Journal, among others. Laura Bradford of Bradford Literary Agency represents her novels., @CVDalcher.
%d bloggers like this: