The city of Shebalino solved its stray dog problem with the help of Andrei the orphan boy. The mayor had his barely-gone body exhumed from an unmarked plot in the woods, a plot that only the dogs could find. Andrei’s face was dark from the few days he had spent under the earth, the dirt a cool and constant soak beneath the topsoil of his skin.
The mayor shook Andrei’s bones awake gently, rustled his loose limbs so the earthworms fell and his eyelashes blinked away the silt that had collected in firm crust at the corners of his eyes as if he had only been sleeping.
‘Andrei,’ he whispered so his words dug stubby-fingered through the clods of dirt trapped in Andrei’s ears. ‘Andrei,’ he whispered once more so his voice burrowed down and down into the crypt of Andrei’s head, the sounds of each letter echoing and fading in the dark of a tomb between his ears. ‘Andrei.’ The mayor shook him once more and Andrei’s eyes blinked open. ‘We have need of you.’
Before Andrei was dug up by the mayor of Shebalino, he was just an orphan boy with a mother and a father who marinated themselves in vinegar and mean words, who soaked themselves so deeply in the salt of the past that everything about them stung.
Andrei ran away from his parents and moved to the streets of Shebalino in the dead of winter when he was just seven. He lived in the crooked alleyways and shadows of leaning buildings, crumbling brick faces punctured by open windows and clothes flapping in the frigid breeze, fibers frozen to crisps in the winter air.
He would have died much earlier than he did had it not been for the city’s stray packs. The dogs that roved the city in droves of mange, carried an exalted by seas of pulsing fleas that sucked the very blood from the air.
To win their affection, Andrei climbed up windowsills and plucked snoring cats from their perch. He carried them by the scruff of the neck to the pack leader and the dogs gorged themselves on thick bristles and hissing that eventually quieted itself into soft slopping. For this, Andrei earned his place among them. He found warmth in the itching and the scratching, the friction and raw heat that came from the drag of his nails across his skin, and he fed the dogs scraps of himself when there were no cats, took the fleas up in the soft space of his throat, coaxed them through the holes in his pockets so they might grow full on him. And the dogs watched over him.
The dogs mobbed the excavated Andrei with fervent licks and slobbery kisses that turned the dirt on his skin into sweet mud that oozed and hardened and cracked off with each shaky step he took.
‘Andrei,’ the mayor explained, ‘the dogs have grown restless without you. They bark constantly. They howl with such longing that my own ears have forgotten how to miss the silence.’
Andrei said, ‘Yes, I have heard their footfalls, their wayward howling, the sounds of their teeth shucking the scabs from their worn skins. Their noise has reminded me again of what it means to be alone.’
The mayor nodded nervously and peered his head up at the meager sun. ‘The packs have grown restless and dangerous without you. They seek to destroy the town. To nip the heels of any citizen that sets foot from their front steps. And the cats!’ the mayor exclaimed. ‘There is not a single meow that goes unanswered without the crunch of hungry jaws.’
Andrei felt no warmth on his skin. He felt no breeze across his back. He had only been dead for a few days and already he longed for the cold under the ground once more.
Andrei had been heard preaching to their mass of tangled mange and fur when he was still alive. Citizens passed warily through the city square and cocked their ears toward the slim and small seven-year-old named Andrei, the cage of his ribs like metal bars soldered to the inside of his chest, eating up the skin, becoming more prominent as the winter grew harsher. The citizens of Shebalino looked on cautiously as he preached to the kennel of wagging tails and raised ears.
‘Fellow hounds and pups,’ Andrei cried and the winter chill stuttered each sound into a shiver of slow-freezing syllables. ‘We are low of cats and even the pigeons have gone cold and rigid up high on ledges far out of my reach. We need to move from this city! It has done little for us. No one has sought to keep us warm or fed. No one has taken care of us!’ and the dogs bayed and the fleas bounced from body to warm body, turned to stiffened specs of blood-sacs that fell to the ground in miniscule shattering.
Andrei said, ‘Let us find our own way in this world. Let us move to the countryside where we are no longer a bother.’
The dogs sniffed and leapt at his risen form. They danced four legs around him and Andrei smiled in their presence, evidence of his burial smeared between his teeth.
The mayor said, ‘Andrei. Can you help us?’
‘What could I do?’ asked Andrei. ‘I am no longer even alive. Your city abandoned me,’ and Andrei knelt down to nuzzle the snarled jaw of one of the hounds.
The mayor scratched his head and said, ‘You could take them with you, like you planned. To the fields beyond the city, to the plains between the mountains.’
Andrei snapped, ‘I do not wish to be alive anymore, to be an orphan anymore. I’d rather stay dead.’ The dogs growled at the mayor, bared their teeth and webbed slaver.
‘Of course not,’ said the mayor. ‘I meant to the fields of rest.’ The mayor gestured his head toward the ground. ‘The garden of the sleeping. You could bring them with you, you know? They would be much happier. And I’m sure you would too, yes?’
Andrei looked at the pack, how skinny they were. How their fang-flecked skin arranged itself in a twist of scars and scabs. He longed for them to have better than the city, and in his longing, he understood what the mayor meant. ‘Okay,’ Andrei said. ‘What would I need to do?’
When he was still alive, Andrei led the dogs out of the city on a day when the snow sputtered forth from the woods in crashing waves, walls of white building and tumbling and washing toward the shoreline of the city’s edge.
The citizens were relieved at his departure. They gathered in the city square and the pigeons shook themselves loose of their icy feathers and perches and descended back down to the ground to peck at the garbage lined in the alleyways. Even the remaining cats showed themselves, arched their backs at the fresh air, and hissed off into the distance.
Still, only two days had passed, just one night with a lonely moon, before the entirety of the dog pack came back and raided the city. Before their tortured yowling and barking returned home like hundreds of feral cries calling out for what they had lost.
The mayor suggested a particular garden, dainty stalks and bulbs in rich hues of purple and pulse poised up toward the sun. Pitcher plants ‘for their appetite,’ he said, and venomous larkspur ‘for their taste,’ he said.
Andrei planted each flower in the cusp of the woods, the halfway point of shade and wilderness that lay between the city and the mountains. He dug his stiff fingers into the dirt again and again and the dogs raised their legs to relieve themselves on what he had planted.
When he was finished, the mayor said, ‘Now remember. They will not suffer but briefly,’ and Andrei took some of the larkspur to his lips, mashed it between his teeth until the spittle turned purple and leaked down on to his chin. ‘You see,’ he said to the dogs, ‘eat.’
The dogs did as he did and they swarmed the sweet lark and chomped at its bulbs and Andrei waited for their insides to roil, for the poison to take hold of their weary bodies, for them to collapse seizing in the soil. And when they finally did, the hungry pitcher plants unfurled their leaves and licked at the dogs’ mange, rolled their bony canine bodies up inside their green tongues and turned them into earth.
Andrei dragged himself to the empty plot from which he was exhumed and the mayor called, ‘Andrei, thank you! You have done us a great kindness.’
Andrei shooed the mayor away and started to scoop handfuls of frozen silt and hard dirt over his body. As he disappeared once more beneath the earth, he felt the cold welcome him back into the ground, the chill a comfort and a reminder of when he had not been alone. Like earthworms grinding in between each grain, the soil filling his ears once more, he heard the dogs pounding across the plain behind his eyes, dashing through the dense thickets of darkness that set on as he found rest once more.
On his last night alive, Andrei trudged through the snow with the pack by his side. He watched the city of Shebalino disappear behind him. He saw the trees growing up around him, the branches whipping numbly at his frozen skin, ushering him into the woods.
The dogs traded off carrying him on their weak backs until their legs gave out in whimpers and moans of exhaustion.
He hunkered down with the dogs once night fell, an orphan boy with his skin shorn red and pink gone purple and blue from the flush that left his body. He lay down in the middle of their sleeping hides and huddled up close to the many kicking and dreaming legs that jerked around him. He felt the cold enter him until he felt warm, until he drifted off into a sleep where he too ran wild, where his legs flexed errantly and his feet pounded toward a better kind of life.
Matt Jones is a fiction candidate in The University of Alabama MFA program. When he is not daydreaming about the details of his surprise wedding, he is toiling away on his first novel. His previous work has appeared in Paper Darts, Phantom Drift: A Journal of New Fabulism, theNewerYork, and is forthcoming in Spry Literary Journal.
When asked about sustenance he always craves, he replied, “Baleadas. There is something about mashed up beans smeared messy across the rough plane of a tortilla that I can’t go without. I want to wrap them up hot in tinfoil and carry them by the dozen sticking out of my pockets, stuffed into my rolled up socks, peaking out of the brim of my baseball cap so I am left with the scent of sweat and warm crema come the end of the day.”
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