The Old Dog

By INÉS GARLAND

Translated from the Spanish by RICHARD GWYN appears below in English and Spanish

 

I translated Inés Garland’s “The Old Dog” shortly after publishing one of her best-known stories, “A Perfect Queen,” in a special Argentine edition of the New Welsh Review, a few years back. I first came across Inés’ short stories on a visit to Buenos Aires in 2011, and was immediately drawn to her portrayal of individuals—almost always women—either at moments of self-realization brought about by the actions of others, or else struggling against an impending sense of loss or betrayal. But there is also a kind of detachment in her writing, as though her characters were teetering on the edge of some other, unknown revelation.

“The Old Dog” attracted me because of the tension between the two elderly human characters, and the way that the animal interloper seems to bring them together, however clumsily. The anecdote about the man’s former wife abandoning the family dog on the roadside—which, it is implied, has also been the fate of the dog in this story —is a horrible reminder of human cruelty, and helps us re-evaluate, perhaps, our initial lack of empathy for the male character.

The translation offered a few issues for discussion, mainly to do with tone. I was fortunate in knowing the author, and we exchanged emails over the few days I worked on the story.

One of the things I knew that the author wanted to convey was the way the woman in the story bears the weight of her sick husband’s anxiety, and later in the story even appears to take on the dog’s anxiety. So, early on, when the husband complains about the dog being in the garden, the Spanish text reads: “Ya se va a ir, dijo la mujer, y se puso a preparar el desayuno,” which I translated as “It’ll go away eventually, said the woman, and set about preparing their meal.” This was in response to Inés pointing out that “ya se va a ir” means “he’ll eventually go,” “ya” with the future tense meaning “anytime,” not “now” as with the present tense. What she’s saying is “do not worry, it will leave sooner or later.” This subtle shift in meaning between the usage of the particle in the future as opposed to the present tense suggests that the woman doesn’t wish to press the issue, doesn’t want her husband to feel impotent. Later however, he throws the statement back at her: on telling her husband she has fed the dog, he snaps: “Now it will never go away.”

Later in the story, when the dog burns his mouth on the scrambled eggs that the woman has thrown on the lawn, she blames herself for causing him pain: “The hot cheese burned the roof of its mouth and the dog jerked its head back. It hadn’t occurred to the woman that they were hot. The dog was licking the eggs carefully now, and she felt its anxiety in her own body… she watched it lick around the eggs with care and she felt a weight in her chest.”

 

THE OLD DOG     

The dog didn’t come in past the guard. No one raised the barrier for it, no one warned that it was heading towards the house. It appeared at mid-morning, yellow, thin, and limping. Through the kitchen window it saw the woman, and the woman saw it. A dog. I do not want a dog. It will destroy the plants, it will have fleas, the mange.  Poor thing. There was a piece of cold meat in the fridge, a big piece of tongue that no one was going to eat, but she wouldn’t give it to the dog. If she gave it to the dog, it would never leave. What is that dog doing in the garden? said her husband in that strange voice he had now, that noise which came out when he attempted to close up the hole made by the tracheotomy in order to talk. Then he would let out a kind of whistling which left him feeling tired, very tired. The dog put its front paws on the windowsill and its snout up against the glass. It’s going to scratch all the paint, said the woman. The man dragged his feet towards the window, made a gesture with his hand, a gesture that was intended to be energetic, but came across as feeble, hand flapping from his thin arm. He had unintentionally chosen his bad arm, the arm attached to his damaged shoulder, the arm that he hardly ever used these days. He couldn’t shout, to scare the dog away, but he frowned at it instead. The dog barked. It’ll go away eventually, said the woman, and set about preparing their meal, and lined out the pills in front of the plate, and talked about unimportant things, things that he did not listen to although sometimes he followed her with his gaze, signalled assent, or clicked his tongue in order to ask her for something, and if she didn’t hear him he would clap his hands to make her shut up and he would demand a glass of water, a peeled peach, something that had a pleasing texture, because since the operation he couldn’t taste food, and it was the texture of food and the memory of its flavour that made him eat.  

But the dog didn’t go away.  When the woman went out to do some gardening, it was lying down beneath the wisteria. Patches of sunlight flickered over its yellow coat, over the protruding ribs and the sharp edges of the bones in its rump, which pushed against the skin as if wanting to rip through it. She stayed there watching it until she was certain that it was breathing. It reminded her of a picture of a yellow dog sleeping in the snow that she had once seen in a museum in Germany. She could not remember the name. Liegender hund im schnee, the man wrote on a piece of paper when she went inside to ask him. He went out to take his daily stroll and also stopped to look at the dog. He had had a dog once, many years before, when he was married to his first wife and their children were small; a sheepdog that treated the children as if they were lambs and rounded them up out in the garden and inside the house. That woman said that she loved the dog, but one day she put it in the car, drove a long way and then chucked it out onto the road, in the middle of nowhere. When the kids asked where the dog was, she told them it had left because they were badly behaved. He said nothing. He didn’t tell the children it was a lie that the dog had left them. Nor did he tell them anything when it was he who went away, nor when his wife told them lies about him so that they wouldn’t see him any more. He didn’t see them until they were grown up, and by then it was a bit late.

The dog tried to scratch itself and couldn’t. Its paw hung in the air, half raised, and then fell back to ground, trembling. The man went out on his walk. He took a turn around the tennis courts. Some young men whom he didn’t know were playing doubles. Their shouts echoed on the morning air, and they ran around the court, stretching with their rackets to reach and hit the ball, bodies suspended for a moment, feet in the air, as if they were flying. He had played tennis for many years. He had been one of those players who return every ball, running with short, precise steps and stopping exactly where he needed to stop. He was a brick wall who inspired despair in his opponents, but not a player who jumps and reaches out and seems to fly. He nearly always won, without shouting, without panting, without straining himself. After his matches he would walk back home wearily. Long before the operation he had started dragging his feet, but his body didn’t hurt him then. Now it hurt him, his shoulder was a burden, he couldn’t talk because if he talked his throat became sore. Now he wanted to talk but he didn’t exactly know what about. This desire for talk was vague, as if he had an itch and he didn’t know how to scratch himself or have the power to do so.

In the garden the woman finished weeding and hoeing the soil in one of the flowerbeds and returned inside the house. The dog raised its head when she looked at it. It got up slowly and moved towards her. It had a black scar that ran like a dried worm down the leg to the paw. Its tail wagged. It took a couple more steps, with its head down, without lowering its dark, moist eyes. If she gave it food it would end up destroying all the plants. She went to the fridge and looked for the chilled tongue. She made a pincer with her fingers to grasp it, it was hard and greasy, she lobbed it onto the grass. The dog pounced on the tongue, drove in its teeth and tilted back its head so as to chomp with its molars, while  making abrupt backward movements, opening and closing its mouth as if chewing on a huge piece of gum.  It ate very quickly. It finished swallowing before the man returned from his stroll and sat down to watch television.

They were showing the New Year fireworks from Dubai, and the man made a signal so that his wife would come and watch them with him. I am not interested in the fireworks in Dubai, she said. She hated fireworks. She especially hated firecrackers, and knew that before her lay a long night of explosions and shouting, of festivities that she would not share. I cricked my back again, she told him, before moving away from the television. I am stupid, I pulled out a weed and my back is out of sorts again. He clicked his tongue and raised his hand to his throat, as if to say something, but changed his mind. Well all right then, she said, upset now, as if he had really said what he had not said. Poor dog, how it is going to suffer with the fireworks, she said. He didn’t take his eyes off the television, but once she had moved away he made another signal. What do you want now. He covered the hole with a finger. Don’t feed it because it will never leave. She didn’t tell him that she had given it the remains of the tongue.

Nor did she tell him that later she cooked it scrambled eggs with cheese. There was nothing else in the fridge and the dog followed her when she went back and forth to the greenhouse at the bottom of the garden. She threw the scrambled eggs onto the edge of the neighbour’s plot. The dog had been following her and leapt on the eggs. The hot cheese burned the roof of its mouth and the dog jerked its head back. It hadn’t occurred to the woman that they were hot. The dog was licking the eggs carefully now, and she felt its anxiety in her own body. The dog didn’t know that it had to wait before eating something hot, the dog only knew that it was food that was burning its mouth, and she watched it lick around the eggs with care and she felt a weight in her chest.

I gave it scrambled eggs and they burned the roof of its mouth, she said to the man while they were eating. The dog had climbed onto the window ledge and was barking. The man clicked his tongue. Now it will never go away, he said, covering the hole in his throat.

He had made the bed. When she came into the bedroom the bed was already made. It wasn’t very well made, the quilt had big creases in it and the pillows were askew, but it was many years since the man had made the bed, and she imagined him dragging his feet, his arm hanging loose, she imagined him bending over the bed and she had to sit down in the armchair. She sat down on his nightshirt, crumpled in a ball on the seat.

When it got dark the man switched off the television and went out to the garden. He sat in a chair with his back to the house. The dog came up to him, wagging its tail, and the man once again dismissed it with a floppy hand.  He covered the hole in his throat in order to shoo it away but gave up and lowered his arm. The dog wasn’t frightened by the spluttering and puffing that emerged when the man wanted to speak. Its limp was worse than it had been that morning. It lifted his leg to scratch itself, but let it drop with a brief whine. He looked the man in the eyes. The man had a very blue, watery gaze, and since his operation the eyes wept and the rim of the lids had turned red. The dog came nearer and rested his head on the man’s lap. The man wanted to drive it away. He raised his hand, left it suspended in the air for a moment, and let it drop onto the armrest.  The leaves of the oak tree swayed in the wind. They had planted it when the plot was bare and now the branches reached down to the ground and the leafy crown of the tree occupied half the garden. Rose-coloured clouds, as light as gauze, dissolved in the blue sky. He closed his eyes. A gentle wind brushed against his face. The door behind him opened. He felt his wife’s hand on his shoulder. Thank you for making the bed, she said, and caressed his head. The dog was also warm and the man looked it in the eyes. The dog met the man’s gaze.

The man cupped his palm, and rested his hand on the dog’s head.

 

EL PERRO VIEJO

El perro no entró por la guardia. Nadie le levantó la barrera, nadie avisó que iba hacia la casa. Apareció a media mañana, flaco y amarillo, rengueando. A través de la ventana de la cocina vio a la mujer, y la mujer lo vio. Un perro. Yo no quiero un perro. Me rompe las plantas, tiene pulgas, tiene sarna. Pobrecito. Había un pedazo de carne fría en la heladera, un pedazo grande de lengua que nadie iba a comer, pero no iba a dárselo. Si se lo daba el perro no se iba a ir más. ¿Qué hace ese perro en el jardín?, dijo su marido con esa voz rara que tenía ahora, ese ronquido que le salía cuando lograba taparse bien el agujero de la traqueotomía para hablar. Después soltaba una especie de silbido y quedaba cansado, muy cansado. El perro subió las patas al alféizar y acercó el hocico al vidrio. Va a rayar toda la pintura, dijo la mujer. El hombre arrastró los pies hasta la ventana, hizo un gesto con la mano, un gesto que quiso ser enérgico, pero salió debilitado, la mano colgando del brazo flaco. Había elegido sin querer el brazo malo, el brazo del hombro caído, el brazo que ya casi no usaba. No podía gritar para asustar al perro, pero frunció el ceño. El perro ladró. Ya se va a ir, dijo la mujer, y se puso a preparar el desayuno, y alineó las pastillas frente al plato, y habló de cosas sin importancia, de cosas que él no escuchaba aunque de a ratos la seguía con la mirada, asentía, o chasqueaba la lengua para pedirle algo, y si ella no lo escuchaba aplaudía para hacerla callar y exigirle un vaso de agua, un durazno pelado, algo que tuviera una textura agradable porque desde la operación ya no le sentía el gusto a la comida y era eso, la textura de la comida y el recuerdo del sabor de las cosas que le habían gustado lo que lo hacía comer.

Pero el perro no se fue. Cuando la mujer salió a ocuparse de su jardín, estaba acostado debajo de la glicina; medallones de sol temblaban sobre el pelaje amarillo, sobre las costillas marcadas y la punta filosa de los huesos de la grupa que empujaban contra la piel como si quisieran desgarrarla. Se quedó mirándolo hasta que se aseguró de que respiraba. Le recordó un cuadro de un perro amarillo durmiendo en la nieve que habían visto una vez en un museo en Alemania. No podía recordar el nombre. Liegender hund im schnee, escribió el hombre en un papel cuando ella entró a preguntarle. Él salió a hacer su caminata diaria y también se quedó mirando al perro. Había tenido un perro una vez, hacía muchos años, cuando estaba casado con su primera mujer y sus hijos eran chicos. Un perro pastor de ovejas que trataba a sus hijos como si fueran corderitos y los arriaba por el jardín y por la casa. Esa mujer decía que quería al perro, pero un día lo subió al auto, manejó muchos kilómetros y lo tiró en la ruta, en la mitad de la nada. Cuando los chicos preguntaron por el perro, ella les dijo que se había ido porque se portaban mal. Él no dijo nada. No les dijo a los hijos que era mentira que el perro se hubiera ido. Tampoco les dijo nada cuando fue él el que se fue ni cuando la mujer les contaba mentiras sobre él para que no lo vieran más. No los vio más hasta que fueron grandes, y entonces ya fue un poco tarde.

El perro trató de rascarse y no pudo. La pata quedó suspendida en el aire, a medio camino, y volvió al piso, temblando. El hombre salió a caminar. Dio una vuelta por las canchas de tenis. Unos jóvenes que no conocía jugaban un dobles. Los gritos resonaban en el aire de la mañana, y los jóvenes corrían por la cancha, se extendían con la raqueta al encuentro de la pelota, el cuerpo suspendido por un momento con los pies en el aire como si volaran. Él había jugado al tenis muchos años. Había sido uno de esos jugadores que devuelven todas las pelotas, corría con pasos cortos y precisos y se paraba exactamente donde había que pararse, era un paredón que desesperaba a sus contrincantes, pero no un jugador que extiende el brazo con la raqueta y queda suspendido  en el aire. Ganaba casi siempre, sin gritos, sin jadeos, sin excesos.  Después de los partidos volvía a su casa con su andar cansino. Mucho antes de la operación ya caminaba arrastrando los pies, pero no le dolía nada entonces. Ahora le dolía el cuerpo, el hombro era un lastre, no podía hablar porque si hablaba le dolía la garganta. Ahora quería hablar, pero no sabía muy bien de qué. Las ganas de hablar eran difusas, como si le picara algo y no supiera cómo rascarse o no tuviera la fuerza de hacerlo.

En el jardín, la mujer terminó de sacar los yuyos y de carpir la tierra de uno de los canteros y volvió a la casa. El perro alzó la cabeza cuando ella lo miró. Se levantó despacio y se fue acercando. Tenía una cicatriz negra que corría como un gusano disecado desde el corvejón hasta el pie. Movió la cola. Dio un par de pasos más con la cabeza gacha, sin quitarle de encima los ojos oscuros y mojados. Si le daba de comer iba a terminar rompiéndole las plantas. Fue a la heladera y buscó la lengua helada. Hizo una pinza con los dedos para agarrarla, estaba dura y grisácea, la tiró en el pasto. El perro se abalanzó sobre la lengua, le hincó los dientes y ladeó la cabeza para masticarla con los molares, con el cuello hacía movimientos bruscos hacia atrás, y abría y cerraba la boca como si mascara un gran chicle. La comió muy rápido. Terminó de tragarla antes de que el hombre volviera de su caminata y se sentara a ver televisión.

Estaban pasando los fuegos artificiales del Año Nuevo de Dubai, y el hombre dio una palmada para que su mujer viniera a verlos con él. No me interesan los fuegos artificiales de Dubai, dijo ella. Odiaba los fuegos artificiales. Odiaba, especialmente, las bombas de estruendo, y sabía que tenía por delante una noche larga de explosiones y gritos, de festejos que no compartía. Me volvió a dar la puntada en la espalda, le dijo a él antes de alejarse de la televisión. Soy una tonta, arranqué un yuyo y me la tironeé otra vez. Él chasqueó la lengua y se llevó la mano a la garganta como para decir algo, pero desistió. Ay, bueno, dijo ella molesta, como si él hubiera dicho efectivamente lo que no dijo. Pobre perro, cómo va a sufrir con los fuegos artificiales, dijo ella. Él no apartó la vista de la televisión, pero cuando ella se alejaba dio otra palmada. Qué querés ahora. Él se tapó el agujero con el dedo. No le des de comer porque no se va a ir más. Ella no le dijo que le había dado las sobras de la  lengua.

Tampoco le dijo que más tarde le cocinó unos huevos revueltos con queso. No había otra cosa en la heladera y el perro la seguía cuando ella iba y volvía del invernadero que tenía al fondo del jardín. Tiró los huevos revueltos en el borde del terreno del vecino. El perro la había seguido y se abalanzó sobre los huevos. Se quemó el paladar con el queso y apartó bruscamente la cabeza. Ella no se había dado cuenta de que estaban calientes. El perro los lamía ahora con cuidado y ella sentía en el cuerpo la ansiedad del perro por comer los huevos calientes. El perro no sabía que había que esperar para comer algo caliente, el perro sólo sabía que eso que era comida le quemaba la boca, y ella lo miraba lamer los bordes con cuidado y sentía una opresión en el pecho.

Le di huevos revueltos y se quemó el paladar, le dijo al hombre cuando almorzaban. El perro estaba encaramado sobre el alféizar y ladraba. El hombre chasqueó la lengua. Ahora no se va a ir más, dijo tapándose el agujero.

Había hecho la cama. Cuando ella entró al cuarto, la cama estaba hecha. No muy bien hecha, la colcha tenía grandes arrugas y las almohadas estaban torcidas, pero el hombre hacía muchos años que no hacía la cama, y ella lo imaginó arrastrando los pies con el brazo colgando, lo imaginó agachado sobre la cama y tuvo que sentarse en la silla. Se sentó sobre la remera de dormir de él hecha un bollo.

Al atardecer el hombre apagó la televisión y salió al jardín. El perro se acercó moviendo la cola y él volvió a hacer el gesto de echarlo con la mano. Se tapó el agujero para decirle fuera, pero, derrotado de antemano, bajó el brazo. El perro no se iba a asustar con esa mezcla de ronquido y soplido que le salía cuando quería hablar. Rengueaba más que a la mañana. Levantó la pata para rascarse, pero desistió con un gemido corto.  Miró al hombre a los ojos. El hombre tenía una mirada muy celeste, acuosa, desde la operación le lloraban los ojos y tenía los bordes de los párpados enrojecidos. El perro se acercó más y le apoyó la cabeza sobre las piernas. El hombre quiso echarlo. Levantó la mano, la dejó suspendida en el aire por un momento y la bajó sobre el apoyabrazos. Las hojas del plátano se movieron con el viento. Lo habían plantado cuando el terreno estaba pelado y ahora las ramas se extendían a ras del suelo y la copa frondosa ocupaba la mitad del jardín.  Nubes rosadas, leves como gasas,  se deshacían en el cielo azul. Cerró los ojos. El viento tibio le acarició la cara. La puerta a sus espaldas se abrió. Sintió la mano de su mujer sobre el hombro. Gracias por haber hecho la cama, dijo ella, y le acarició la cabeza. El perro también soltaba calor y el hombre lo miró a los ojos.

Abrió la mano, los dedos en abanico. El perro no apartó la vista. El hombre le apoyó la mano abierta sobre la cabeza.  

 

Inés Garland has worked as ghost writer and magazines’ interviewer. She writes novels and short stories for adults and children, translates from English to Spanish and has collaborated with translators from Spanish to English. She teaches Creative Writing. She has been translated to German, Italian, Dutch, French, English, and Korean, and often participates in international festivals. Garland is the first Spanish speaking writer to receive the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis.

Richard Gwyn is a poet and novelist, and winner of a Wales Book of the Year award for his memoir, The Vagabond’s Breakfast (2011). As a translator from Spanish, his most recent publications are The Other Tiger: Recent Poetry from Latin America (Seren, 2016) and Impossible Loves, translations from the Colombian poet Darío Jaramillo (Carcanet, 2019). He is Professor of Creative and Critical Writing at Cardiff University, Wales, UK.

 

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