Written for Monday Magazine's Summer 2000 Short Fiction Contest

Ben

It was the dog he noticed first. A small white-haired Terrier cross. All he could see was four short spindly legs attached to a disproportionately large body. The dog came prancing ‘round the corner towards him as he sat on the bench by the Inner Harbor - where he always sat during his “good” days. Struggling along behind the dog came the woman: mid forties, stringy brown hair, bundled up in a heavy blue overcoat, her arms wrapped tightly around herself. Her rounded shoulders were hunched against some fierce cold or pain that only she could know about. As the woman walked by, her steps were slow and forced. The dog danced all over the sidewalk in front of her. Darting from one side to the other, sniffing here, a quick squirt on the railing post there, and then back to her side to see if she was OK. From time to time the dog would look at her and bark, inviting her to dance with him. Sometimes she smiled at the invitation, but then a shadow would cross her face as if she knew her fragile body would not allow it. He watched them trundle off around the corner out of his sight.

He saw them often after that. Though the days were usually warm, she always seemed cold and in pain, yet the dog always seemed happy and full of life. One day the dog came over to sniff his shoes. He reached down and scratched the dog behind the ears. As the woman came up he commented on what a nice dog she had. They chatted for a moment and he invited her to sit for a bit and rest. That’s when he found out the dog’s name. She’d had Ben since he was a pup – about the same time that she got sick – and he’d been her constant companion ever since. Ben was now 12 years old. Much of his hair had turned a soft pale golden yellow – that color that white hair seems to become when it ages. A color which speaks of the promise of youth and the peace of old age at the same time.

After that he sometimes walked with them for a short distance. And whenever Ben’s bark invited them both to dance, he too began to feel the pain of shackled desire. But dogs don’t care if you’re disabled. A dog’s love and acceptance is probably as close as human beings can get to unconditional love. He mused that maybe dogs were God’s representatives on Earth. Maybe he was just a dyslexic spiritualist; after all, ‘dog’ was just ‘God’ spelled backwards. It was a warm summer and he seemed to be having more “good” days than usual. They often walked together.

Ben’s large body would get overheated from running around. When they walked close to the water Ben would run into the shallows up to his belly, hunker down and just lay there cooling off, as if he were lounging on a beach in the Mediterranean. She would watch the dog – perhaps longing to be on some tropical beach herself - feeling herself caressed by the warm ocean water. Coming alive. Allowing the salt water to drain away her pain in the same way that it cooled Ben’s body.

Sometimes, when they watched float planes take off from the harbour, he would see her eyes glaze over. She talked about having dreams where she was free of her crippled body. Her spirit flew through the air in complete abandon taking her to far off places. She said that once she flew over the pyramids. She felt as if she was connected to them in a past life. She stood gazing at the horizon long after the planes had disappeared. Ben’s bark broke the spell. Her body moved stiffly. She said, that after watching the planes take off, the concrete always felt harder beneath her feet.

As the cold winter approached he saw them less and less on the harbour front. In January she got very sick and during a blustery week in March she died. Spring came and the days grew warmer. Today was one of his “good” days and he was sitting on the bench watching the ocean. The roar of an aircraft engine startled him. As he watched the plane take off, he envied her: she was finally free of her pain. Free to dance along a harbour walkway, splash in the warm ocean waves of some tropical beach, or fly like an eagle over the pyramids.

He stared at the sky long after the plane had faded from view. A sharp jerk on the leash jarred him - Ben wanted to dance. He stood up.

The rough concrete walkway hurt his feet.

END

©Braden Corby