The Birth of Dogs By Bethany Pope
The woman has no name, not one member of her clan does; names have not come into being yet. The woman, who we will, for simplicityâ€™s sake, call Eve, lives a difficult life made easier by the fact that she does not know how much she struggles for it. She has not yet evolved the capacity for such distinctions, experiencing her emotions in bright primary-coloured swathes of joy or sorrow, a mothers rage. Her family travels through the plains, making the tools they need from day to day, curing hides, hunting, foraging and retaining few possessions. This is normal. Things are hard; she scrabbles to find enough food from day to day to feed herself and her children, but she makes do from the sweat of her brow. She has not yet discovered how to make bread, but she does grind the grain that she finds in the basin and boils it
inside of a fat-slathered skin held over the communal fire and filled with water. She eats the resulting gruel without flavour since her people have not yet discovered salt, though the white crystals lie like stars across the dark soil of the steppe. She will ferret out their purpose yet, given world enough and time, but the land is still young, even if Eve is not. Her species is still young, barely through the dawn. Look at her a moment. Donâ€™t worry, get as close as you want, she can neither hear nor see you. Your scent is covered in layers of time; you are, in fact, invisible. Look at her thick and greasy hair; she lets her daughter groom it and the adolescent five-year-old has plaited it so that it rises up like serpents from her head. See it shine? Thatâ€™s the palm oil that her daughter used to dress it and to prevent the fragile hairs from breaking. She is familiar, isnâ€™t she? She reminds you of someone in your family, your mother, perhaps, or your grandmother. Something about her eyes. The similarity has to be in the eyes because her coloration is wrong. She resembles no race walking the earth today. Though her skin is clear and healthy, her features have a thick 2
The Birth of Dogs
look about them, somewhat rough, as though unfinished, a sculpture not yet refined. She is an artwork still being formed. See the stretch marks on her stomach? Though she would, by our standards, be considered quite young, she is barely twenty-five. By the rules of her community she is leaving middle age. Her latest child, the one she carried inside of her until two days ago, will be her last. She knows this and is saddened by it. She has had five births all together, of which only her daughter and her almost-man son survive. The baby she gave birth to the day before yesterday died last night, while Eve slept. She woke with it blue and silent beside her on their skin this morning and she burnt the body in the fire and let the ashes scatter. By the reckoning of her people the spirit had not formed yet. Each child lost has scarred her and, because she cannot conceive of any sort of life after death the scars have stayed fresh and close to bleeding. Her breasts ache with useless milk. No other woman in her clan has had a child recently, although some are obviously expecting, so there is nothing for her but to wait until the flow stops. Until then her nipples 3
will leak, chafe, and her breasts will throb, and throb, with every beat of her heart. This woman, this Eve, comes from a people who have only just begun to have a history. It happened, what the Tellers call the Great Wind, the dawn of true language, only a few generations before Eve was born. Her people emerged from a thin grey haze of rough existence into culture. Her grandmother, before she died, told of the coming of the great wind, after a storm, when there were fires in the sky, the sounds her people had always made began to form a meaning, and with the sounds, or out of them, came God. The people became aware. They looked into a silent river and saw themselves. And with this new awareness came the Word, and the Word was the beginning, and the Word took the people and set them aside from all of the other peoples in the world, separated these creatures from the feathered tribes of wind and the scaled river-dwellers, and the Word took Eveâ€™s people and made them its own. And with the words, with the great gift, the knowledge that they were themselves and not alone, came prayer. Prayers that
The Birth of Dogs
were thanks, and only thanks because the people had not yet learnt to ask for anything. But if Eve could ask for anything, if it could occur to her to ask for something, she would ask for the return of her child, for though she knows that she is gone, she yet yearns for her, for the smell of her and the weight of her body cradled in her arms. And some part of her did ask that, some part beneath the conscious level, that new-formed part of the mind reserved for lies, asked for a baby. And a baby was provided. Now, you people, watching from your distance as this lonely woman builds a fire in the grass, watch what happens next. Eve is always armed with something, all of her clan are always armed, for this land is as yet unmapped and there are monsters running loose. Eve herself watched a child, another one of her lost sons, be dragged away from her, taken from her very side by a large cat with enormous teeth. The creature still follows her in dreams, which she thinks of as her â€˜other lifeâ€™ and she spends nights fleeing from it, awakening to tired legs and worn through leather bedding. She carries with 5
her a sharpened knife hacked from chert and formed without a handle. She is building her fire away from the others because she is about to cure a fresh skin. She makes her distance out of courtesy for the scent of tanning flesh is offensive, harsh and acrid from the ash and lye, although the acacia wood she burns cuts the worst of it. Because her nose is blocked with smoke she does not smell the predator approaching her and the wolf stalks up behind her unnoticed, sure of its meal. The wolf is larger than the ones that you have seen in pictures, its breed has not yet found its final form, but it remains recognisable. It sees the woman crouching by the fire, rubbing the bloody buck skin, the source of the delicious scent that drew it, with a gray mixture of ash and the animals own pulverised brain. The fire is the only reason that the wolf has not struck sooner. The yellow-eyed bitch spent a long while hesitating in the scraggled bush until she figured out that it was contained and so not liable to spread. The wolf approaches, stalking forward one foot at a time, each hind paw fitting perfectly into the print left before it, creating the impression left behind in the 6
The Birth of Dogs
tracks of a creature walking on two legs. It moves to strike, but Eve has seen its shadow and she turns to meet her would-be killer face to face. With her right hand out stiff before her Eve catches the she-wolf for a moment by the throat. The wolf struggles hard against her hand; the woman feels the thick ropy muscles strain against her trembling palm. She cannot hold the creature for long; it is large and full of strength, although not young. Eve does not know it but this wolf has just given birth to her final litter, her heats have ended and the two small pups that survived the birth are crouching in the bushes a few yards away, whining softly, waiting for their mother to nurse. The she-wolf struggles and if this fight had taken place a few generations before, she would have won and eaten well on human flesh. But the Great Wind brought weapons to the people, along with the words, and now Eve can protect herself. Struggling in the moments she has before her death, Eve takes her heat-hardened knife in her weaker left hand, clutching the smooth stone by the dull edge, and brings it up until it catches the
moonlight with the milky clarity of water in a sibyls bowl. Eve brings it down in one swift stroke and draws the blade, light as a leaf edge, across the throat of her attacker. The creature dies quickly, expelling her final sour breath into the face of her killer and for a moment they are there, locked their together, hot dugs to bare, uncovered breast, face to face with their scent held between them like a rose. But the moment passes and Eveâ€™s shock flows out of her with her fear-broke waters. She lowers the body and sits beside it, her fingers buried in its mangled ruff, wiping off the blood. And there is silence for a while, silence and expelling heat, the dying fire and the stars. And when the night is broken, quietly, by a small sound Eve is unsurprised; she recognised her foe for a new mother. There was something familiar hidden in the fierce wolfâ€™s scent. She leaves the fire for a moment, wielding her knife, still slick with blood, but unconcerned because no wolf would hide her litter in an unsafe area. The bitch would have scouted first, making
The Birth of Dogs
sure that her teeth were the only ones sharp allowed to linger close around. Eve finds the den, large and deep, the floor lined with shed fur, appropriately chthonic. It smells of musk and urine, that would be from the pups, too young as of yet to know to go outside. There are droppings surrounding the entrance but only one set of tracks; her mate, like Eves, is dead. Eve enters head first, her knife in hand, with the idea that she will drag out the puppies one by one and slit their throats, thus ensuring that they will not become hunters later, and therefore pose no threat to her own surviving children. She reaches in and finds the animals, two of them, eyes barely open, huddled shaking in the corner of the burrow. They are too small yet to know that they must be silent, and they are howling loudly for their mother. Their fur is soft, unbelievably downy, uncoarsened by age, and oh, the scent. The smell of them is heavenly, so innocent. And yet the seeds are there, buried, ready to blossom into the fruit of Eveâ€™s destruction. They cannot be allowed to live.
They do not struggle when Eve grabs them and hauls them out; they are used to being carried by the loose skin at the back of their necks. She holds them for a moment in her lap, stretching their necks out to receive the killing rock, but something strikes her then, more than their softness or their good scent, something familiar about the eyes. The fear there, or perhaps the helpless trust, and she finds cannot kill them. Much to her surprise. They are still frightened but now the puppies can smell the scent of their mother on this strangers hands and they begin to calm as she strokes them, tangling their fur with blood. Something moves inside of her as they respond to her caresses, their wet and tender noses seeking out her few stored reserves of fatty flesh, and Eveâ€™s milk suddenly lets go, relieving an ache that has built there since the death of her last and final child. The milk flows out in a gush like tears, scenting the air with vanilla and rich earth. The puppies, hungry and for now unafraid, smelling goodness, begin to lap it from her naked chest. The first woman lets out a low, hushed moan.
The Birth of Dogs
Slowly, almost without thinking, Eve raises them up and holds them to her breasts. The pups take hold and begin to nurse, milk leaking out from between their growing teeth to catch in opalescent droplets on their furred jaws. Eveâ€™s eyes are closed but she is weeping anyway, her keening a new sound, rising from this unfinished woman on the indifferent plain. And when the dogs have drunk their fill, their stomachs taunt and full, the woman stands, and picks them up, cradling a puppy in each arm, abandoning both knife and dead fur of the mother she just slaughtered. This is what her people see, grouped around their big fire. Eve walks towards them, calm, elegant, mother Eve, full of grace, home to some deep new revelation. Her hair has worked itself free from braids and bursts shining from her head, catching the light. In her arms are two wolf-cubs, suckling from her breasts, in her face a motherâ€™s pride. She moves through her people, not saying a word, and gesturing with her head towards the glowing remnants of her own distant fire leaves them to discover the gory body of the wolf. She takes her dark furred children and, new pathways forming in her brain,
connecting hemispheres that had previously been separate, the first human falls asleep. Thanking God.
Bethany Pope is an award winning author of poetry and prose. She received her MA from the University of Wales, Carmarthen and her PhD from Aberystwyth University's Creative Writing program. Originally from the United States, she has immigrated to England where she lives with her husband.
Published on Aug 23, 2012
The baby she gave birth to the day before yesterday died last night, while Eve slept. She woke with it blue and silent beside her on their...