I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
He was a shy dog, so the neighbors were surprised when one morning he got up from his mat, leaped on the old woman climbing the steps with her shopping, and ripped off her ear. He was a retiring dog, a shadow of a dog, with the build of a hyena and the gentleness of a bird. He always trod on tiptoe, his tail folded between his legs; he had short, thick brown fur, drooping ears, and long, fragile legs that might have possessed an aristocratic grace but for the fact that they trembled all the time.
He was one and a half years old, but he seemed older. The curve of his spine, the slump of his tail, the hanging pelvis with the ribs sticking out like wings gave him a defeated look, but it was mainly the way he walked—half-sitting, shrinking, apologetic, as if evading imaginary kicks. The old lady was fond of him, and sometimes she would stop on her way home from the market, choose something from her basket, a chicken neck, a slice of cheese or salami, a sesame cracker, and throw it onto his mat before resuming her slow climb to the top floor. Only when the dog had heard her door close and the key turn twice in the lock did he get up, sniff the offering, pick it up gingerly with his teeth, let it drop, circle it a few times, pick it up, reconsider, and then, looking from side to side, snap it up and swallow.
The neighbors had always ignored him. They’d grown accustomed to the sight of the dog dozing on the mat, lying in front of one of the apartments, the one with a sign on the door bearing two names written in round letters—a woman’s and a man’s—and a childish drawing of a dog.
Now the old lady’s groceries were strewn across the second-floor landing—a chicken, potatoes, onions, apples, a grapefruit, a melon that had rolled into a corner, green bananas, sliced smoked turkey wrapped in white paper, a bar of bitter chocolate, a head of garlic, and a bunch of parsley lying in a little pool of blood.
That morning the old lady had planned to give the dog some smoked turkey, but before she had time to bend down and rummage in her baskets, the dog pounced and knocked her to the floor. She let out a shriek of surprise. The dog was surprised as well. He retreated and circled the old lady a number of times, taking care not to step on her. She tried to get up but fell back again. The dog came closer, wagged his tail, and looked deep into her eyes. She turned onto her side, gripped the railing with both hands and tried to pull herself up. He began to lick her face, and the old lady, who was heavy and short of breath, gave up and rolled over on her back again, let her hands fall to her sides and sighed, which is when the dog seized hold of her left ear with his teeth and with one pull tore it off.
The old lady pressed her hand to the wound, which was spurting streams of blood, and screamed. The neighbors came out to the floor landings. A man wearing rubber thongs approached and removed her hand from the place where her ear had been. “He bit off her ear!” one of the neighbors shouted from her doorway, pointing with her cigarette toward the dog, who was hugging the wall and trembling, his tail down between his legs and the ear dangling from his mouth. A few of the neighbors panicked, slammed their doors and locked them.The man in the rubber thongs said they should get rid of the dog before he bit off the second ear too.
But the dog sat back on his hind legs, looked at the old lady, whose screams had given way to rhythmic, desolate sobs, and then at the neighbors clustering around; he stood up, dropped the ear on the floor, and tottered back to his mat, where he waited quietly until the ambulance and the men from the city pound came. He saw how they put the old lady on a stretcher, how a hand in a plastic glove picked up the ear and dropped it into a bag. He listened to the neighbors giving the victim’s particulars and watched the two paramedics carrying the stretcher down the stairs.
The city dogcatchers said they would have to put the dog to sleep, but first he had to be quarantined to make sure he wasn’t rabid. One of them asked the neighbors to step back, while the other went down to the street and returned holding a long iron pole with a loop at the end of it.
“No!” yelled the older dogcatcher. “Get the stun gun. You can’t catch him with that. He’s dangerous!”
“Yes I can,” said the younger one quietly. “Just get these people out of the way.”
“Back into your houses!” ordered the older man, clapping his hands. “Everyone inside!” The neighbors remaining on the landing went back to their apartments obediently, but they kept their doors ajar to watch the dog being trapped. The dog lay on his mat, in a ball, both pleased and embarrassed by the attention, his eyes closed, his nose touching the tip of his tail, and one of his ears pricked up.
“Look at him,” said the older dogcatcher. “He’s trying to pull a fast one, the bastard. Get the gun.”
“Let me do it,” said the young one. “He doesn’t look dangerous to me.”
“You’re so wrong,” said the older one. “I know his sort. He’s bluffing. Just look at him. He’s cunning. Look at his ear moving. He’s only pretending to be asleep.”
“He’s always like that,” whispered a neighbor dressed in a dirty pink bathrobe, peeping out from behind her door. “That’s how he sleeps. It’s his way.”
“Lady, get back inside. Please!” The older man gave her a push, then wiped the sweat from his forehead with his hand.
The two men stood and looked at the dog. His eyes were closed, his ear twitched a little, and his ribs rose and fell with his slow breathing. He looked too peaceful to attack anyone. The young man approached him, holding the pole in both his hands like a spear, trying not to make any sudden movements, but suddenly the dog opened his eyes and the catcher, who took a step backward, saw that he was wagging his tail.
“He’s wagging his tail,” he said, without taking his eyes off the dog.
“Don’t trust him!” the other man whispered. “He’s bluffing!”
“Are you wagging your tail?” said the young one. “Are you a friendly dog?” And the dog stood up, then sat down on his hind legs, and lowered his eyes shyly.
“What’s going on?” hissed the older man. “What’s he up to now?”
“Shhhhhh …” the young one whispered. “He’s not doing anything. Shhhhh … good dog!” And he aimed the loop at the dog’s head.
“Watch out,” said the older man. “I’m telling you, watch out!”
The young catcher leaned forward and went down on one knee. He tightened his hands around the pole, and moved it right and left until the loop hovered over the dog’s head. The dog lifted his head and looked up at it. Then he looked at the catcher kneeling next to him, holding the pole and biting his lower lip in concentration. He turned his eyes to the loop again, which looked like both a snare and a halo.
“Quick!” whispered the older man, who was sweating heavily.
The young one lowered the loop until it touched the dog’s nose; the dog sat still, looking upward, and didn’t move even as the loop slowly encircled his head. The catcher jerked the pole back and the loop tightened around the dog’s neck. The dog then stood up, dropped his tail between his legs, sidled along the wall and led the catcher to the stairs. He descended slowly, step by step, the metal tags on his collar rattling, and when he reached the entrance the older man was already standing there, holding the door open. He pressed his back against the door and watched his young colleague leading the dog to the yellow van. The dog stood until the young catcher opened the back doors of the van, then jumped in and bowed his head for the loop to be removed. He stepped into one of the empty metal cages, which the man shut slowly behind him, even though it was unnecessary. It was clear to the young catcher, and to the older one, who sat down in the driver’s seat and wiped the sweat from his forehead, and to the neighbors who crowded into the street to watch the final stage of the capture, that the dog wanted to go.
* * *
The man sat on the floor in the bathroom. He watched his friend bathing his baby daughter. He looked at him intently, following every movement, admiring the way in which he supported the baby’s back with one hand and held her little head above the water with the other, sailing her body to and fro and making noises like a ship: the hoots and coos and gurgles of a doting father.
The man looked at his friend and said to himself that he must remember these details, that bathing a baby was exactly the kind of thing nobody ever explained to you—you just had to know. He wanted to be sure that when he had a baby of his own he would be able to give her a perfect bath, exactly like this one. He didn’t want to make any mistakes.
He rested his arm on the ledge of the bath and dipped his fingers into the water, feeling the temperature, the warm soapiness, the little waves made by the baby’s kicks. He picked up the bottle of baby soap and began to read the label. He wanted to know what it was that turned ordinary soap into baby soap. His friend looked at him and smiled, and the man felt suddenly embarrassed, as if he had been caught reading something forbidden—something pure intended for babies and fathers only, which in his bachelor hands turned into pornography.
He stood up, wiped his hands on his jeans and handed the father the baby’s white terry-cloth bathrobe, which had a little hood like a monk’s habit. He knew the ritual by heart. The father took the baby out of the bath and wrapped her in the robe. He hugged her to his chest and pressed his lips to her head and combed her downy yellow hair with his fingers. Then he carried her to the nursery with the man following like a faithful retainer, holding the tiny hand poking out of the robe between his two fingers. The father laid his daughter down on the chest of drawers, asked the man to keep an eye on her, and left the room. The man remained alone with the baby, flanking the chest of drawers, tense and ready to save her if she fell, but the baby lay quietly on her back, trying to catch the edge of the terry cloth sleeve in her mouth. The father came back with a bag of disposable diapers and put it down on the floor. The man asked whether he could help and the father smiled and rubbed his nose on the baby’s belly and asked her what she thought, whether they needed any help, and the baby laughed and kicked her legs in the air. The man picked up a round flat jar of ointment and again found himself reading the label. Then he put the jar down and picked up the box of talcum powder, which had pictures of elephants and giraffes on it, and sniffed the talc. He put the talc down and picked up a bunch of colored plastic keys and shook them in front of the baby, who turned her eyes toward them for a minute. The man was pleased, thinking to himself that he was quite a success at this, but then the baby turned her eyes back to her father’s face as he bent over her and fastened the diaper around her waist, and she smiled. She put out her hand to touch his face and the father kissed her fingers. The man put the keys down on the chest of drawers, next to the talc and the ointment, left the room, stepped on a rubber dog, which let out a sharp squeak and startled him, went out onto the balcony, and lit a cigarette.
* * *
The woman stood in her kitchen cooking spaghetti. She put a handful of stiff spaghetti into the pot and looked at the fan of pasta half immersed in the water and half leaning on the side of the pot. She knew exactly how long it would take for the fan to collapse. It would begin with a small, barely perceptible movement of a few spaghetti sticks, which would slide into the water and drag the others down after them. In two minutes they would all sink into the pot, sliding downward with a tired, submissive movement, but there would always be two or three particularly stubborn ones that would have to be pushed in with a fork.
She took a can of tomato paste out of the cupboard and opened it. Then she unhooked the colander from where it was hanging above the stove, stood it in the sink and waited. She took the package of spaghetti out of the cupboard and read the cooking instructions, even though she already knew them by heart: 11 minutes. A strange number, she thought. Odd, not even.
She lifted the pot off the stove and emptied its contents into the colander. Then she put it back on the flame, poured in some oil, shook the spaghetti in the colander, and returned it to the pot. She added tomato paste, salt, pepper, and paprika, and stirred it all with a fork. The contact of the spaghetti, oil, and tomato paste with the bottom of the pot produced spitting, hissing noises, and a smell of aluminum and starch spread through the kitchen, mixed with the sweet scent of cheap spices. The woman took the pot off the stove and placed it on a wooden board on the table. Then she sat down, spread the kitchen towel over her knees, and began to eat. This was her dinner. It was a kind of punishment.
* * *
The man and the woman sat in the car and talked. It was a warm evening at the beginning of October and the windows were open. They smoked cigarettes and flicked the ashes out on the pavement. The dog lay under a bush and peered through tired, half-closed eyes at the cigarettes’ glowing tips, which looked like two fireflies inviting him to come and play in the darkness. But he didn’t trust the fireflies. They were one more illusion of false hope that he had to treat with caution. This was the eighth day of his wanderings, and he was hungry and thirsty and tired. He was five weeks old and for the first time he began to feel the stirrings of what would ripen a year later into real despair.
His mother was a mongrel who had strayed from the fields to the city and had littered under the concrete pillars of a quiet residential building. For a month she had suckled him and his three brothers. Early in the morning, before daybreak, she would emerge from hiding to scour the garbage cans lined up on the pavement. One of her front legs was broken. On the night she had strayed into town from the fields, wary of the people but oblivious to the cars, a taxi had hit her. The taxi had carried on driving while the dog went on running. For several hours she ran through the streets, past shops and cafés and restaurants, her injured leg folded inward, her heavy belly almost dragging on the asphalt, until she reached the little street and slipped under the building with the pillars, lay down on a sheet of cardboard, and gave birth to four puppies.
Whenever she returned from her scavenging expeditions to the garbage cans—where she swallowed the pickings quickly, almost without chewing—she’d lie down on the cardboard and her injured leg would twist, resulting in a cry of pain which eventually drew the attention of the neighbors.
An old man came down the stairs, holding a broomstick in his hand. At first the dogs saw only his feet, shod in rubber thongs, but then his knees, thighs, the bottoms of his short trousers, and his face suddenly came into view, and the bitch sprang up, bared her teeth and growled at him. The man let out a curse and withdrew; he did not return that day. The next morning the mother rose slowly to her feet and licked each of her pups, a slow, sad lick, lingering longest on the head of the firstborn as if trying to convey a message to him with her tongue. Then she limped off in the direction of the garbage cans, walked past them, and never came back.
At noon the old man returned, accompanied by two other men. One carried a long pole with a loop at the end and the other scattered scraps of red meat over the lawn. The puppy’s younger brothers ran outside, wagging their tails and whimpering, tripping over their feet in excitement and gratitude, but he preferred to withdraw deep between the pillars of the building and hide behind a pile of broken bricks that smelled of dust and spiders. The dogcatchers waited for the mother to emerge, in the meantime picking up the puppies. They exchanged a few words with the disappointed old man, who swore to them repeatedly that yesterday a crazy dog had tried to attack him, right under the pillars.
The dogcatchers and the old man stood on the lawn and waited but the mother did not come back. One of the catchers collected the scraps of meat and picked up the pole, while the other clasped the three puppies to his chest. The old man felt that the bitch had betrayed him. For the sake of the residents’ safety he tried to persuade the men to wait a little longer; among whom, in a whisper, so that the puppies wouldn’t hear, he pointed out that “families with children” lived in the building. The catchers agreed to stay, and the man went upstairs to return with a tray laden with glasses of juice and cookies. The catchers ate and drank at their leisure, and afterward they thanked the old man and left, taking their traps and the puppies with them.
Darkness fell, but the puppy didn’t dare come out from behind the pile of bricks, so he stayed there all night. In the morning he lay down on the sheet of cardboard, which was soaked with urine and memories, and at noon his hunger drove him outside, to the dazzling light and the lawn, which still smelled of raw meat. He crawled over the lawn, sniffing and whimpering quietly to himself, and he forgot his terror of the man with the thongs and the other men who had caught his brothers. A column of ants led him to a wet cookie. He snapped the booty up between his teeth and ran with it to the cardboard. After devouring the cookie, he laid his head on his front paws and fell asleep. When night fell he woke up to a new hunger, worse and more painful than the one before. He went back to the lawn and looked for the friendly ants, but he couldn’t find them. He began to bark with shrill little barks, and a window opened above him, a man’s head poked out, and a smell of frying meat flooded the air. It was the first time the dog had barked and he realized immediately that he had made a mistake. He escaped into the street.
For a week he roamed the neighborhood, sleeping under bushes and parked cars. Now and then small children noticed him and tried to drag their parents over, but the parents usually tightened their grip on their children’s hand and pulled them away. Once the dog passed a restaurant and someone threw him a chicken leg. He ate the leg and remained sitting on the pavement, under the generous table, but a gigantic woman came out of the restaurant and kicked him. During the course of the week he grew accustomed to all kinds of kicks: the hard kicks of café owners and shop salesmen when he sought shade and attention, the not-quite-so-hard kicks of people rejecting his attempts at friendship, and the weak kicks from feet he stumbled over in the busy streets, which were so halfhearted and incidental that they sometimes seemed to him like caresses.
Now the car door opened and a woman emerged. She leaned through the open window, and the man inside kissed her. Then she turned around, stood with her back to the car, and took her keys out of her handbag. The dog heard sounds of laughter and whispering, and opened one eye. The woman was leaning into the car again, her one leg resting against the door and the other raised in the air, and the man was kissing her and trying to pull her back in. Then she straightened up, the driver’s door opened, and the man got out, slammed the door, and came around to the sidewalk.
He slouched against the passenger door. The woman stood facing him, playing with the bunch of keys, which clattered every time she threw it into the air and caught it in the palm of her hand. The man leaned toward her and whispered something in her ear. The woman took a step backward, shook her head and went on bouncing the keys in her hand. The puppy opened his other eye and pricked up one of his ears.
The man said: “But why not?” And the woman kept quiet and smiled and went on rattling her keys.
The puppy crawled out from under the bush and wagged his tail.
At first they didn’t notice him. They embraced and kissed, and the bunch of keys was caught between them and the puppy heard only sucking noises and whispers and again: “Why not? Just for coffee.” And again the keys rattled, and the puppy ran up to the man and woman, his tail between his legs, his head bowed and tilted to one side.
The woman saw him, bent down and put the bunch of keys on the pavement. The man said: “Look, what a poor little puppy.”
“He’s so thin,” said the woman and scratched the back of his neck with her fingers.
“He’s friendly,” said the man.
“Poor little thing,” said the woman.
“Look how happy he is,” said the man, and sat down on his heels. With one hand he stroked the puppy’s belly and with the other he stroked the nape of the woman’s neck. Then they kissed again, but they went on scratching and tickling the belly of the puppy, who immediately succumbed to their fondlings.
“What are we going to do with him?” said the woman and put her hand on the man’s shoulder.
“Let’s go up to your place,” said the man.
“But what about him?” she said, and looked at the puppy now lying on his belly, his head resting on his paws and his tail thumping the pavement.
“It doesn’t look as if he belongs to anyone. Do you want a dog?”
“I don’t know. Do you?”
“I cant,” he said. “I’m hardly ever at home.”
“Actually I’d like to have a dog, but I don’t know if I need that kind of commitment right now,” said the woman.
“I certainly don’t,” said the man and put his hand on the woman’s thigh. She sat back on the pavement and said: “That’s enough. Any minute now the neighbors will call the police.”
“So are we going up to your place?” asked the man.
“Yes,” said the woman and stood up. “But just for coffee.”
“And what about him?” The man looked at the dog.
“We’ll give him something to eat, and when you leave you can put him out again,” said the woman.
“Okay,” he said, and kissed her again, this time gently, on her cheek. “After coffee I’ll put him out.”
But the man and the dog both stayed over.
From Housebroken: Three Novellas by Yael Hedaya, translated by Dalya Bilu. Copyright 1997 by Yael Hedaya. English translation copyright 2001 by Metropolitan Books. Printed by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company.
Dalya Bilu was born in South Africa and has lived in Jerusalem for the past 30 years. She is the author of numerous translations from Hebrew to English, including works by Aharon Appelfeld, A.B. Yehoshua, and Ya’akov Shabtai.
Yael Hedaya was born in Jerusalem in 1964. She is a journalist and humor columnist for the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot. Her novel, Housebroken, has been translated into Dutch, German, French, and Italian; it is Hedaya’s first book to appear in English.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee