by Gaither Stewart
The dogs didn’t disappear overnight. It wasn’t like that at all. At first, in fact, people of the town didn’t notice that every day there were fewer stray dogs creeping under their feet while they sunbathed on the benches at el Jardín. The growing absence of the rangy brown dogs -- short-haired mongrels, their ribs leaping from their undersides, habitually scratching for nourishment at the food stalls around the square or wandering single file up and down the steep back streets -- didn’t register on anyone.
If town people had even thought of them they would have concluded that the dogs, like people, had lazily retreated to cool interiors behind the town’s thick stone walls, because the June days that year were unusually hot and sultry even at an altitude of 7000 feet. For the weather was indeed a factor in that summer’s bizarre events. In luxury villas on the hills as well as in stone houses sprawling haphazardly in the lower town ceiling fans turned on all night. Mosquitoes were rampant. Cactuses in the parks and on the surrounding hills stood still. Mesquite trees shimmered brown and tan during the day. The mountains were silent under the everlasting sky. Something indefinable had changed.
Everyone knew something was different and some people gathered around the bandstand in the shaded center of el Jardín to discuss the strange atmosphere in town. Electric lights seemed to burn dimmer. Street illumination flickered and failed. The restaurant Le Fumoir inexplicably shut its doors for the season. The management of the most popular discotheque laid off its rock band from Mexico City. Fewer tourists were arriving. For the first time in its history the Allende Art Institute registered a dramatic fall in enrollments. Residents began doing strange things: even on payday Mexicans stayed home from work and Gringos suddenly traveled to the United States or decided on out-of-season vacations in Acapulco.
It seemed that San Miguel was being abandoned just at the height of its popularity. El Niño was responsible, some people believed. Yet it was more than the weather. The local shaman, an ancient Otomí, launched a belated warning from his shack on a low brown hill called “Paradise” that the fickle god of Mesoamerica, Tezcatlipoca, had looked into his smoky mirror and decided to turn the region upside down; sacrifices, the holy man proposed, were the only salvation.
Certainly something unusual had happened - or was happening - that made more sensitive souls apprehensive, as if something vital had been removed from their lives; they felt the void you begin to feel around you after the pain eases of the death of a beloved mother or esteemed father.
Perhaps the only person to detect the deeper sense of the ambient revolution in San Miguel was the painter and long time resident, Allan Crillon. And even his very particular susceptibility was awakened only after the sudden disappearance of two of his five dogs that he had personally rescued from the ravages of the streets and harbored in the safety of his patio, studio and home.
Allan Crillon was a devoted and dedicated man -- devoted to his wife, to his many friends, to stray dogs and cats and to his art. Yet the artist was guilt-ridden that he didn’t do enough. He did too little for his fellow-men. Too little for the environment. Just too little for life. To hear him tell it, he sometimes felt culpable because his devotion to plants lagged behind his sentiments for animals.
Once the winter before, after a particularly hard cold spell, he stood with me in the center of his patio, surrounded by his five dogs, ran his long sensitive hand through his thinning blond hair and stared sadly at the wilted potted plants lining the patio walls: “I forgot to cover them and the freeze wiped them all out. What have I done?”
Most foreigners in San Miguel Allende -- they call themselves Gringos -- dedicate more time to the flora and fauna here than they did in the United States or Canada or Europe. They simply have more time in the resort town high on the plateau. But that is not the case of Allan Crillon. He had less time than he had ever had before when he was an art magazine editor in North Carolina. His wife complained that today they have to go to Mexico City or Laredo just to find time to make love. Allan was so busy he had to make advance appointments for his two favorite diversions: making love with his artist wife and drinking bouts with me. “What day shall we get drunk?” I would ask. And he would consult the secret agenda he kept in his head and reply something like, “What about next Thursday afternoon.” And he would be there, ready, devoted, responsible. Allan went about the drinking sessions like everything else: energetically. His only rule was, “you can drink all night, as much and as long as you like, but it must never interfere with your next day’s obligations.” And sure enough, the morning after such escapades, he was on his feet and devotedly busy even earlier than usual - his boyish face a little grayer, heavy lids obscuring his blue eyes, maybe a lump or a bruise here or there from mysterious bumps, falls and accidents, and perhaps showing his 55 years more than normal.
A partner in one of the town’s major art galleries, Allan was on duty there one full day each week. He taught drawing classes two afternoons and two evenings, acted in the community theater and painted the backdrops for all its productions in the Angela Peralta Theater. He also worked 30 hours a week in the Dog Shelter of which he was the co-founder and major fund raiser. As godfather to a Mexican child from Veracruz he was involved in the complex festive activities of that family of eight children. Traditionally he hosted enormous groups of both Gringos and Mexicans for parties at Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween and on his and his wife’s birthdays. In the winter he led hikers into his favorite trails in the surrounding mountains. An ardent aficionado of tauromachy he traveled wide and far -- including an annual pilgrimage to Spain -- to follow bullfighters and their battles. Therefore, even though he was an artist, it was unusual to see him standing quietly in front of a canvas in his studio painting one of his Mexican saloon scenes, as if he had all the time in the world. Yet, everyday, usually late afternoons, as darkness fell over the highlands and the magic winds blew, you could see him walking his five dogs, across the fields or up the ravines or along the shore of the artificial lake under Los Balcones and the Botanical Gardens.
One warm night over vodka and tonic in Tio Roberto’s Bar -- several days before he discovered that the dogs were disappearing and Allan had just closed the gallery and was already late for the dogs’ walk in the hills -- I asked him about his candidacy for the Dog Shelter presidency. Just how much did he have to do in life anyway? His hyper-activity was still an enigma. Since Allan was neither a romantic nor a religious man, I was surprised at his answer and wondered where in his experience it came from.
“Like Kierkegaard says, sometimes we look into our hearts and realize that God knows how imperfect we are. We’re all concerned, all our lives, about that question: How much can we do? Of course I don’t want to crawl too far out on that limb and be subject to all that anxiety and I’m always asking myself whether to risk again or not. But I believe if you don’t risk, then you spend your life wondering if you did all you could.”
“But what if you risk ... and do the wrong thing?” I asked.
“That is the risk,” he said coldly, drumming the marble table with a spoon and ordering two more vodkas. “And the fear! The fear of being wrong. Or at least not being right. If you don’t do it, you’re wrong. But sometimes I feel that if I do it, I’ll still be wrong. So what’s a man supposed to do? Nothing? Just wait? No, I believe that you have to choose. If only to enjoy life. Look around you at all these Gringos here in San Miguel who prefer to suffer here rather than admit they’re wrong. Otherwise they’d pack their things and go back where they came from.”
His eyes had become smoky, so opaque as to nearly disappear in a pool of murkiness. As if he were wandering along some forgotten paths of the Sierra Madre, outside of time and space.
“After all,” he said enigmatically, “what is there besides enjoying life?”
“Well, if you call this eternal call to duty enjoying life!” I teased.
“It’s all about love anyway.”
“Yes, but how edifying to know you’re in the right.” I still had difficulties in believing that anyone was as perfect as he seemed to be -- dedicated and generous worker, devoted husband, animal lover, curator of the arts. Did he never err? Did he never backslide?
He laughed cynically, his blue eyes now merry behind his thick lenses, and completed my thought: “Even if you also suffer from such a position. And anyway I don’t believe that God is always right either.”
He kindly invited me to attend a meeting of the Dog Shelter sponsors at which he called for the founding of a special investigating committee to delve into the enigma of the missing dogs. It was clear that he was the only person aware of the tragedy. No one understood. The President of the Dog Shelter Association herself pointed out that their pens were overflowing with strays. Nor had anyone of the Dog Shelter group noticed any change in the town’s canine population - to which all were quite sensitive.
“Well,” a sad Allan said, tears forming in his blurred eyes, “two of mine are missing. Yesterday evening I let them out the door to do their business in the street and they never returned. The kids outside said they seemed to be following a strange man up the hill toward Los Balcones. Now I just came from the Jardín - I go there everyday just to verify. No dogs at all. None! Any of you, if you go the Jardín tonight, you’ll be surprised how few dogs are there. There are no dogs on the back streets, I know. This has been going on for some time but no one has noticed. I put it to all of you: where are the dogs going?”
Just then a tall, extremely thin man, wearing a yellow and blue foulard, with the casual and debonair air of the bon vivant, raised his hand for attention and stood up and said in a light, rather bantering tone: “Allan, you better than the rest of us know all the bars and restaurants in town! Did you know that a Korean restaurant has just opened opposite the Allende Institute and that another is about to open at the top of Calle Jesús ... and you know what their specialty is.”
Allan stood stock still while those lightly spoken words sunk in. He couldn’t believe his ears. He then looked as if he would slug the interloper. He glared around the room in shock. “That, Bill, is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever heard! If that’s the way you feel I don’t understand why you even sit on this committee.”
“Well, during the war in my country cats were sold as rabbit and eaten with relish,” said softly a middle-aged woman from Florence. “And you couldn’t find one single cat in the whole Colosseum in Rome. Of course those were only cats, but after all….”
“It’s well known that the Koreans put a bunch of dogs in a big sack and beat them to a pulp with heavy sticks,” said a Russian exile painter, one of the most dedicated San Miguel dog-lovers. “That’s why their meat is so tender.”
“What a canaille,” wisecracked a retired Belgian schoolteacher from Mons.
Allan the eternal realist, always balanced and in total control of himself and his emotions, looked helplessly from the mischievous Bill to the innocent Italian lady to the formal Dog Shelter President; he looked as if he were about to faint. The idea of his Randy and Red beaten in a sack and in a pot in the Korean restaurant was more than he could bear. Sitting with him in the saloons of San Miguel I had come to grasp the dichotomy in his nature: His fanaticism for bullfighting and the killing of the bulls on one hand, and, on the other, his child-like love for dogs and household pets. Bullfighting was the total art to which he strove in his painting. It was the risk of life, the emblem of his rare departures from reality; dogs instead were the expression of his child’s spirit that he allowed to float and soar and dip and dive around him like snowflakes of the first snowfall in December. In that moment I read SOS in his eyes.
“Meeting closed,” he murmured and walked out the door onto lower Calle Canal where we flagged a cruising taxi.
“Tio Roberto’s,” he said.
From that day on Allan became a ghost. He was alone. You might have seen him slinking down Calle Recreo, past the Plaza de Toros to Parque Juárez and back up Chorro, up the hill along Santo Domingo, and along the paths and trails toward the Botanical Gardens, either alone or with his remaining dogs on a leash. His eyes darted continuously in all directions. He would peer into the kitchen windows of the Korean Restaurant and he would question diners about the fare. He winced when people in town praised the new restaurant and the tenderness and flavor of its meat dishes; he believed they did it on purpose. It still seemed to Allan that no one cared or even noted that there was not one stray dog at the Jardín. He sat out his day in the gallery, listless. He went to the Dog Shelter unenthusiastically. He canceled his drawing classes. His wife said he never picked up his brush or made any advances to her. He was restless, dissatisfied, unconvinced.
I had never seen him sad or melancholy before. Yet, in the darkened bar at Tio Roberto’s over vodka and tonic when I asked him about it, he shrugged and said he’d never had time for it. Sadness, he’d always said, was a luxury. Now it overcame him. But while Allan’s search for a dog rustler continued, unbeknownst to him, more and more people were becoming aware of the absence of the dogs and that the atmosphere of San Miguel had mutated. It was as if some great god had sterilized the town, emasculated it, and deprived it of the elan vital that had made it the Mexican Santa Fe. 'Where were they?' the Jardín sitters, Gringo and Mexican alike, asked. Now and then even a cat ventured onto the Jardín where felines had not been seen in decades. Pigeons strutted around everywhere, casual and unencumbered by their atavistic trepidation about the stray dogs who in truth, in normal times, occasionally ate one of their winged fellow dwellers on the square.
In his recurrent dog dream Allan was always terrified of dogs, awed by their force and numbers. “A canine occupation of the land,” he called it one night in the bar. He hated that dream. He knew its periodic return emerged from a stupid boyhood fear. To haunt him today. Him, the Dog Shelter creator! Yet he’d seen them swim ashore, numberless, eternal, huge, savage, hierarchical, unstoppable. Hundreds, thousands, millions of huge nearly unrecognizable dogs, their ordered formations “swelling and pulsating,” he said. Were they today somewhere preparing to fall on the town, he wondered, like the hordes of Atilla the Hun? Were they hovering in some secret place in the Sierra Madre, multiplying rapidly in a god-inspired procreation process?
He staggered between dream and reality, fearful and alert, terror-stricken, yet ready to do battle with the secret forces to liberate San Miguel’s dogs from their captors, if necessary to free them from themselves, to crawl far out on the limb and perform his full duty.
It was late afternoon. The sun was gigantic on the western horizon. The wind was blowing from the north. It whipped down through the ravines, up the hill toward the Botanical Gardens and back down into the gash between the rugged ranges around the lake. Allan was on the heels of a tall, thin Mexican holding four dogs on leashes, dogs too clean and cared for to be strays. Allan’s dogs, Ralph, Charles and Laura, were barking and pulling at their leashes, dragging him ahead in pursuit. But Allan held back while the Mexican some one hundred yards ahead seemed to ignore him. The two dog teams rounded the north shore of the lake and set out up a hill through now quiet cactuses and mesquites. Weirdly, Allan found, the flora was taller and thicker than normal. When the Mexican and his quartet disappeared into a thicket of trees and shrubs and jagged rocks, gray dust rose like a cloud from the trail, now narrow, now wide and inviting.
Afraid of losing him, Allan surged ahead. He knew it was the rustler. The detestable dealer in canine meat. The butcher. Yet he was apprehensive. What would he find there in the thicket? A burgeoning canine world? The army of savage dogs of his nightmares? He slowed his pace. Ralph, Charles and Laura dragged him forward, pulling with all their strength, their paws digging in the white sand, as if their only desire was to join their brothers.
Then, suddenly, the thicket opened and there it was, the great corral. The dog corral. A sprawling makeshift structure as if thrown up overnight. Yellow eyes fixed in immobile canine faces peered from behind the wire mesh fence. Silence reigned on the hillside. Like fighting bulls in that first instant they arrive in the middle of the ring looking for something to kill, suddenly disconcerted, stunned, perhaps embarrassed, pawing the sand in anticipation, the dogs eyed both the arrival of the Mexican butcher with their four domesticated brothers and also Allan and his troika at the edge of the thicket. They seemed to be thinking: 'What is this? War among the human beings? But, but, is that not the dogman? The man on the park bench who always caresses us? The man of the shelter who heals our wounds? Is that not the human being with the canine heart? What could this mean?'
Allan hesitated. The Mexican opened the gate and ever so gently pushed the four newcomers inside. They stood together near the gate, embarrassed by their fear of the stray dogs. Their brothers. 'What would happen,' Allan was thinking at the thicket, 'if he opened the corral gate like the toril gate at the arena after the parade of the matadors, banderilleros and mounted picadors and drag horses? Would they overrun him and sweep away Ralph, Charles and Laura and everything in their path? A canine stampede?'
Thank God the Mexican stood with his back toward Allan, still ignoring him. Allan hesitated no longer. He had to act. It was nothing to overpower the Mexican and lash him to the corral with the leash. As in a dream he opened the flood gates.
Allan told the rest of the story in his last painting that marked for local folklore the extraordinary event of the return of the dogs: In the center of the sprawling canvas, hundreds of dogs racing down the hill toward the sanctuary of the Jardín and the back streets of the town. On the left side, a quiet afternoon, the eternal sky and a half dozen dogs lying under the feet of bench sitters. And on the right, a mixed group of bareheaded matadors dressed in costumes brocaded in gold, flanked by smiling Mariachis with serapes over their shoulders, talking and smoking under the arcades.
Of the dogman, only a hand was visible, a hand with long fingers, reaching down from a green iron bench and caressing the head of a stray brown dog with its eyes tightly closed.
Gaither Stewart can be reached at GaitherStewart@libero.it