There he goes again, that black dog, barking. Can’t you hear him? Every, every night I lay in this bed and listen to him. Oh, I know he gets lonesome out in Miss Ouida’s yard all by himself, but I wish he didn’t bark so.
He’s a big dog, too, a big black mutt somebody left in a ditch up the road. He was skinny and dirty, with the mange all over him, but Miss Ouida took him in as soon as she spied him hobbling on the road. He was ready to keel over from hunger. Whoever dropped him and took off hadn’t fed him in more than a while. That happens sometimes. Some folks around here can’t afford to feed a creature that’s not their own human child.
It would be different if he was a hunting dog. My daddy’s got three–Trixie, Dixie and Pixie–caged out back, the best coon chasers around. Quiet, too. Daddy wouldn’t put with them barking all night, but Miss Ouida lets that black dog of hers howl and howl. She says she can’t hear him. Mama and Daddy say they don’t hear that black dog barking, and I can’t figure it. I hear him all the time.
Right now he’s yapping. I slide out of bed, careful not to wake my sister Lin. As if I could. She could sleep through any din.
It’s a bright night, big moon and all, so that dog must see something, and soon it’ll run off and I’ll get to sleep. But when I look out the window, there is not a thing to see. He’s just lying on the back porch, barking. It looks like he’s sleeping, but he’s isn’t. He’s a smart one, that dog.
I get mad at him, but I wouldn’t hurt him. Miss Ouida doesn’t let me near him, and I can’t see why. I would never harm any animal, especially one so grateful for the way he got cleaned up and fed. He’s not a hunter, but I think he’s a good dog. I try to remember that as I watch him. I lean against the cool wood of the chifferobe, and the sound seems to jump around inside my head.
In the morning, it’s quiet. I don’t recall when he quit barking or when I got back in the bed. I sit up and my head pounds. I wait till it slows down, then I go to the window. It’s so early there a fog down, but he’s walking around in front of his house. He’s so black, he cuts right through the cloud.
I watch him for a while, then Miss Ouida steps out her back door. She calls him name, and he gets excited, dancing and pulling on his chain. I don’t mind if he’d bark now, now that I’m up, but he doesn’t. He just wags his tail so hard, his whole body jiggles. Miss Ouida carries his bowl to the edge of the porch. He gobbles up the scraps, and she pats his head. Most dogs snap if you touch them when they eat, but that black dog, he lets Miss Ouida do what she wants with him. He’d wear a coat and hat and walk down the dirt road on two legs if she asked.
She glances up. The fog has started to burn off. I bet she can see me in my window. She puts her arms around that dog’s neck, and he stops gobbling. He lean his head on her, and I smile. I knew he was a good dog. When I smile, Miss Ouida looks up again, then undoes his chain real fast and leads him to the other side of the house. I can’t see there from my window.
I hear noises from downstairs. Lord, I’m tired. My head bangs as I walk down the stairs. I smell bacon cooking, but it makes my stomach tumble. Maybe Mama will let me have some coffee. That might perk me up.
She is standing at the griddle. The table is clear, but the sink is full of dishes. Daddy and the boys already ate. Mama’s egg basket is laid out next to a box of her fig preserves. It’s market day. I’d forgotten. I should have come down sooner, to help.
“Morning, baby,” Mama says. She doesn’t turn around.
The coffee pot is still on the stove. When Mama fixes me some, she adds sugar and milk and calls it café au lait. I like that.
“Mama, can I have some coffee?”
She turns around, looks hard at me until the bacon starts to stick.
“All right,” she says. “Go call Lin so we can eat.”
I can’t just call up the stairs to Lin. She’d miss school every single day if I didn’t shake her awake. If I could go to school, I’d wake up ready every day, no matter how much barking I heard in the night. I’m too old to go to school now. I used to go, but it’s been a long time.
I take the stairs slow. The quilt on our bed is hanging half on the floor. Lin kicks it in her sleep, kicks me too, but I don’t fuss about it, not the way she’d fuss if I kicked at her.
“Wake up, Lin,” I say. I shake her shoulder. She turns over and flops her pillow over her head.
“Leave me alone.”
I shake harder. Mama calls us, but Lin doesn’t move, and I get mad. I call her an awful lazy girl and yank on the quilt.
“Mama’s calling. Get up or you’ll be in trouble.”
She pulls the pillow off her face. Her hair is crazy, black curls sticking out, and I laugh. Lin likes to be neat all the time.
“You look like a black-headed scarecrow,” I say.
She gives me a mean look. “Shut up, dummy.”
She’s not supposed to call me that. I throw the quilt down and start for the stairs, my head banging worse from Lin’s commotion. I hear her get out of the bed fast. I guess she thinks I’ll tattle on her, but I won’t.
In the kitchen, Mama has fixed my coffee in a pretty teacup. Lin walks in and looks jealous, but she knows I can get her in trouble just like that. Even if she said I was lying about what she called me, Mama wouldn’t believe her. Mama knows I never lie.
Mama sets bacon and eggs and cornbread in front of me, but my stomach doesn’t welcome it. I chew on some bacon. I can feel Mama watching me.
“You not sleep well last night?”
I say no.
“Your head hurt?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I say. “It hurts from listening to that dog bark.”
“I didn’t hear any barking,” Lin says. Her voice is real sweet-like. “Maybe you were dreaming.”
Mama cuts her a look and tells her to hush and eat. Lin looks at me and smiles.
“Maybe you should stay home,” Mama says. “Lin and me can go to the market by ourselves.”
I say all right. I hate to miss the market, but I’m so tired. Lin is suddenly all perked up. I sip my coffee.
“Don’t worry about cleaning up,” Mama says. “Lin can do your chores when we get back.”
It is my turn to smile, but I don’t. When it’s time to go, Mama hugs me tight and long, her hand cool on the back of my neck. “My baby,” she whispers. I love the sound of Mama’s whisper. It is like a kiss on my neck.
They leave. I hear the car horn toot at Miss Ouida’s house. I rinse my cup and set it on the drain board.
I stop at the bottom of the stairs. Lin probably left the bed a mess. I don’t feel like going up there to that messy bed, so I keep going to the other side of the stairs. There’s a little room there. I open the door. The room is stuffy, so I leave the door open and stand in the hall, letting some of the hot air come out.
The back door is open, too, and through the screen door I can hear the black dog prancing around Miss Ouida’s yard. His chain clinks as he moves. I wonder why he’s chained up if he’s inside the fence, and then I remember. He’s jumper. He’d be all over the fields if Miss Ouida didn’t rein him in.
I go in the room. Even though it’s stuffy, it’s dark and cooling off. I can’t remember the last time I came inside here. I lie on the bed and look around. Nobody hardly ever goes in here, because it was Kitty’s room, and Mama and Daddy never talk about Kitty. I used to ask them why, but sometimes asking made Mama cry, so I stopped.
Kitty was my big sister. She was a good sister. She never told me to go away or quit hanging on her. I think about that while I lie in the bed, listening to nothing but the dog’s chain clanking outside.
We used to have a dog, too, a black one, when I was little. His name was Sam. Daddy found him and brought him home for Kitty and me. He said the dog was ours to take care of all by ourselves. Kitty was ten and I was six. The boys were babies. Lin wasn’t even born yet.
Sam was a good dog, smart and pretty. Kitty taught him to sit and stay and fetch a stick. He liked her, but he liked me best. He slept at my feet, and at night, I could feel his stomach go in and out on my toes. It tickled but I never laughed. I didn’t want to wake him.
He was a little fat ball of black curls, but never yappy or cross like some small dogs. It wasn’t his fault when he got sick. Kitty and me, we tried to take care of him. He was our dog and we had promised to take care of him all by ourselves. But Sam got sicker, and then one afternoon he bit Kitty on her arm, right at the elbow. She said it didn’t even hurt. I don’t think Sam meant it. He was just sick.
Kitty had to tell Mama because her sleeve was torn. Mama came out in the yard to look at Sam. I was sitting next to him. He wasn’t hurting me, but Mama saw him and scooped me up and ran inside.
I cried and cried. I gotta tend to Sam, I said, he’s ours to take care of. But Mama said Sam was sick bad. She washed Kitty’s bite and asked me over and over did he bite me, did he bite me, but I said no, Sam’s a good dog. She made me take off all my clothes and looked me over from head to toe, but there was nothing to see.
We waited all afternoon for Daddy to come in from the fields. He looked at Kitty’s arm. It wasn’t a big bite at all. Then Mama took Kitty and me into the pantry behind the kitchen. She closed the door. We heard Daddy’s gun go off, real faint through the door. After a little bit, Mama said we could open the door. When I looked out at the yard, Sam was gone. After a while the doctor came and bandaged Kitty’s arm. I don’t know what else he did. All I know was, it made Kitty cry.
That night, Kitty and I slept alone in the bed. She let me snuggle close to her, like Lin never does. In the middle of the night, I woke up and thought I felt Sam at my feet, but it was just a dream. Sometimes I still have that dream.
The bed I’m lying on now is new. Kitty’s bed was burned after she got sick and had to go to the hospital. Daddy and Uncle Will carted it out to the truck, and Uncle Will drove off with it. That day, it seemed like I could hear Sam barking, but when I looked out at the yard, he wasn’t there.
I fall asleep on the new bed in Kitty’s room. When I wake up, my headache is gone. I can’t believe how good I feel. Maybe thinking about Sam and Kitty cured me.
I feel hungry. Mama left a plate of bacon in the oven. It’s chewy, but I eat a slice. It feels funny to be alone. I stand at the kitchen sink and chew, and then Miss Ouida’s dog starts barking. I go down the hall, and then outside to see what’s the matter. That black dog is running round and round Miss Ouida’s yard, having fun. He sees me on the porch. I walk down into the grass. He comes closer. The chain is long enough so he can come right up to the fence without pulling it taut.
He sees my bacon and starts to bark.
“You want some?” My voice gets him excited. “Hold on, I’ll get you some.”
I go inside. I hear him barking wildly. I hurry. When I come back, he’s running back and forth to the fence. It makes me afraid, but I promised him some bacon. If you break a promise, it is like a lie. I never lie.
“Calm down,” I say. My voice makes him crazy. I want to hand him the bacon, but I throw it over the fence instead. He eats it in one bite. When he’s done, he sees me still eating mine and starts barking again.
“I said calm down,” I say, feeling kind of mad. “Shut up.”
He runs some steps and jumps at me. He goes clean over the fence and I back up, scared, but only his back two legs touch the grass. He looks like he’s standing. He kicks and growls, making funny noises, and I back up again, afraid. I don’t know why he’s so mad. I shared my bacon with him.
“Stop it,” I say. “Be a good dog.”
After a while, he stops making sounds. I tiptoe closer. His eyes are open, but they are all white. I think he must be resting.
“That’s better,” I say. “It’s better if you don’t bark so much.”
I look at the sky. The sun is high. It’s hot, and my head is starting to throb again. I turn around and go back inside, back to Kitty’s room. Maybe I’ll feel better again, after I lie down.
I do. I close my eyes and relax and feel glad that it’s so quiet.
~The Barking Dog was first published in the Summer, 1997, issue of Handspun: A Literary Magazine for Indiana County. Handspun was a project of the Indiana Arts County, Indiana, Pennsylvania.