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Short story

The Why and the How

This magic realist/speculative story explores poverty, motherhood, and the ethics of necessity from the PoV of a street-dwelling mother bitch in India.

Bewildering Stories published this story in Issue #940. “The Why and the How” explores poverty, motherhood, and the ethics of necessity from a nonhuman perspective. This is a magic realist/speculative story.

***

Minerva’s pups are three months old, no longer feeding eighteen times a day, but they’re hungry first thing. She feeds the three that remain with her. Then she licks them over, sniffing and assessing, while they play-yawn-scratch for fleas; multitasking, for fleas never end. They resist her grooming now, squirming vigorously. She’s satisfied.

Leaving her pack to babysit her three furballs, she embarks this fine spring morning on patrols, trailed by last week’s newcomer, Ulysses, a young male on probation to join the pack. Minerva has decided that today is the last day of his probation. He doesn’t know.

Crossing the street, attendant in trail, Minerva fights the urge to peer into the cardboard box where she deposited the other three from this litter. The first pup looked all right but smelled wrong. She picked him out of the box of rejects and laid him, soft-mouthed, on the rubbish heap downstreet, to give the other two a chance. He died the next day. The remaining two are runts. Last autumn, Minerva felt herself running dry earlier than usual. She realised that three pups were all she could hope to bring through the winter. The mathematics of motherhood isn’t easy, but it is simple.

Approaching the box of rejects she succumbs; she slows. Neck rigid, head forward, she peers sidelong. Inside the box, on the blankets that the seedy, hobbling man brought three months ago, bloated with the biscuits he brought last evening, her two runts sleep. Rapid heartbeats shake tiny bodies; kohl-rimmed eyelids flutter with dreams. Minerva’s nostrils quiver. The pair smell healthy. She hoofs it before they can smell her, awaken, and meet her gaze.

‘Thank you, seedy stranger,’ she thinks. ‘I forgive you the epithets you fling at me across the street. Bitch, you call me. Well, what do I look like?’

Minerva and Ulysses turn into the mansion-lined street. Minerva braces.

“Morning, bitch! Go to hell, bitch!” the Dalmatian’s formidable bass roars from behind his high gate. The mansion behind him is big, but his people never let him indoors. His home is this tiny roofless concrete yard, which he shares with the giant black mirror-shiny car radiating heat.

“Morning, Big!” Minerva replies. “How’s it feel to be a living burglar alarm?”

“I’ve got people, bitch! They look after me!” The Dalmatian’s lean-muscled body tenses into one long spring of rage.

Minerva knows Big’s gate is securely locked. Head raised, tail arched, she prances before the gate. “‘Your people,’ Big! I’ve seen what they feed you. Dry stale bread.”

“You pup-murdering bitch! Everybody knows you! Nobody likes you!” The Dalmatian barks himself mad.

They exchange the same greetings every day: still, this stabs Minerva’s heart. She knows she’s doing right for her pups, who are alive, who have a chance to stay alive. But how does a mother ever really know? Neither easy nor simple.

Tossing her head, she sings, “Nobody respects you, Big. Bark-bark-barking away, guarding the people who’ll toss you on a rubbish heap should you so much as sneeze. So long!”

“Why are you such a bitch?!” he roars after her.

The other mansions are guarded by Alsatians, Weimaraners, Pomeranians, and other imported status symbols, all tied out in sunbaked stone yards beside Mercedes, BMWs, and Volkswagens. The only walking these housedogs get is down to the corner to poop, on a five-foot lead, dragging an overworked, undergrown servant boy.

Minerva greets all her acquaintances. “Why are you such a bitch?!” their cacophony calls after her. Poor souls, cooped up all day, living to terrorise passersby. She pities them. But they’re not really asking her a question, so she doesn’t reply.

She looks around for her attendant. Ulysses is still cowering at the other end of the street. Now he sprints towards her, tuck-tailed, eyes wide, eye-whites showing.

She laughs. “You’ll get used to them.”

Ulysses licks his lips. “Will I?” He shakes his body, vigorously head to tail. Easy to shake things off that way. But not easy today, for he suspects that today is the last day of his probation.

“You’d better,” says his pack leader. “I can’t have you cowering anymore. Here it’s alright; these fools are locked in, can’t hurt us. But up ahead, if the other street dogs smell your fear, we’re done for.” She whirls on him and lifts her lip. “You hear me?”

Ulysses flattens himself, ears pressed back, teeth exposed in imbecile grin. “Yes, ma’am. I shan’t disappoint you.”

“Let’s go.” She knows she can trust him. He can’t afford to be exiled from another pack.

* * *

We humans are picking up Bangalore’s street dogs and sterilising them, ostensibly as an act of mercy, given street dogs’ low quality of life: fleas, mange, fights, and starvation. Humans, judging quality of life: can you deny we have a sense of humour? After the surgery, the municipal workers are supposed to return each dog to its original territory. But the workers aren’t paid enough to take pains. They deposit the dogs willy-nilly, triggering fights between strange street dogs. A fitting ending to this whole act-of-mercy scheme, for street dogs fighting was where it really started.

Food is scarce. Dogs fight for scraps. Occasionally a human gets caught in the crossfire. We can’t have that. This is our city. So haul out the whitewash. ‘Quality of life’ and ‘act of mercy.’

Ulysses is a victim of relocational conflict and displacement. He himself was never picked up: he’s intact. That was the first thing Minerva’s wet black nose checked last month.

“Now steel yourself,” she warns as they turn into the second mansion-lined street. “Head up.” She keeps Ulysses in sight, compelling him to walk abreast. He shakes and cowers. She nips his ear in warning. He yelps, more startled than hurt. Thereafter, he holds himself reasonably upright and, when a new bark from behind another locked gate joins the chorus of hate, only his face flinches; his legs walk on.

They turn the corner. Ulysses looks ready to vomit from the strain: lean legs trembling, dirty-brown fur falling like third-class snow, stress-yawning fit to swallow his own head. “Not bad,” Minerva concedes. “Take a minute and collect yourself.”

He nods back towards their passage of terror. “Why’re those dogs like that?”

“They have people, but their people don’t love them,” says Minerva. “They’re bored all day, they feel bad, so they make others feel bad… You told me once, young dog, that you wished you had people. That’s natural; we were bred to need people. But as bad as it is having nobody, it’s worse having somebody who doesn’t love you.”

There’s something worse still: to have somebody who loves you and then not. But Ulysses doesn’t need to know this, not till she knows he’ll stay. “Ready?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

They trot on.

* * *

Minerva was born on the street. The first object in her awareness was Mother, nosing the litter indifferently. Mother exerted herself only to snap her pups away from her dry teats and shuffle away, shedding pup-sized chunks of fur. Fatless, hairless, Mother would’ve won a ‘Sexiest Bitch’ contest had she been born in the mansions. But, on the streets, skinny and hairfree is not sexy; it’s a death warrant. Savage street dogs have savage beauty standards: fat and hirsute.

One evening, Mother crossed the street away from her pups. They huddled together, watching her big-eyed. Next morning, the glossy black ravens were picking at her innards through the curtain of sparse fur, their faces frowning and scowling, like epicures deigning to slum it.

From their open-air sewer-view eateries, the poor people threw their scraps not into dustbins but into the orphaned streetpups’ mouths. So Minerva and her littermates survived a week. They were lucky: in a rich neighbourhood there would’ve been more rubbish, but all cast into man-high heavy-lidded rubbish-bins. For, to civilised people, littering is the bigger sin.

A child found the pups and, oohing and aahing, picked them up to nestle under her coat. When Minerva, briefly warm, was put down again, panic seized her. She growled her littermates away. The child scolded her for being selfish but did so laughingly and picked her up again, turns be damned. She took Minerva back home, fed her, and tucked her into her soft bed. That was Minerva’s first lesson in survival: take people not at their word, but at their deed.

Minerva grew rapidly. She guarded her food; her mistress let her. All day she barked through her mansion-gates at street dogs. Her mistress scolded her, but laughingly. Minerva turned two; her mistress turned twelve and no longer thought a snapping no-breed dog was cute. She bought a snow-white Pomeranian, a yapping, snapping midget that Minerva hated instantly. And she expelled Minerva.

No pack would accept the young human-spoiled bitch. She’d never learned to grin and cower; she’d learned only her way or the highway. So she carved out her own territory. One narrow driveway at first. Then she had her first litter. She could barely feed herself; how would she feed a litter?

It was impossible, and yet she did it. For becoming a mother didn’t just double her appetite, it showed her she’d been right all along: it was you versus the world, and the right choice was always you. She felt the right choice in her bones, in her teats as her six pups pulled at them. Nothing but her own fight stood between her and death, death seven times over.

* * *

Minerva and Ulysses trot up the street between the empty lots. These lots used to stand unwalled; people used to toss rubbish here. Now they’re walled off and rubbish-free. Lesson: if you love something, wall it up and sprout big buildings. Minerva studies them, an expert after ten years in the ever-expanding suburbs. Soon there’ll some people living here. People from big buildings seldom feed street dogs, but there will be more shops now, and where there are shops, there are scraps.

The two patrolling dogs reach the eastern end of their territory. They survey the shops.

Grocer’s. Nothing for them here, unless a pack of biscuits slips from a shopper’s bag, and Minerva’s teeth can perforate the plastic.

Greengrocer’s. Again nothing. As they approach, a stunted adult dog, all shame forsaken, is gnawing a disintegrating turnip. He looks up. His chin lowers in obeisance down to the pavement strewn with wilted cabbage leaves; his tail wags as if rotoring for liftoff. Pre-emptive appeasement at 180 mph, guarding his beggar’s breakfast.

“Greetings, mistress!” he cries feebly. Minerva casts him an imperious glance. “Off on morning rounds?”

“Yes,” she signs.

“Don’t suppose I could join you?”

Minerva looks away. She hates saying no. Has he no shame, begging her every day?

“No, I’m not worthy,” the stranger sadly concludes. Minerva and Ulysses walk on. The stunted dog calls out, “Tell me, mistress! How can I become like you?’

Minerva stops and glances over her shoulder. “Suppose you’re starving,” she postulates, hating herself for saying ‘suppose.’ “You can either swallow a rotten turnip nobody wants, or fight other dogs for a scrap of meat. What do you do?”

The stranger glances at his half-gnawed turnip, then up at Minerva, caught between a lie and a wrong answer. “I’d love to be brave like you, mistress…” he begins.

“Bravery has nothing to do with it.” She prances on; Ulysses in tow throws back a smirk.

“So you won’t tell me how?” the stunted dog calls after them.

They’re halfway down the road. “I couldn’t stomach vegetables, not even if I were dying,” Minerva calls. “That’s how.” What she doesn’t add is: vegetables don’t make good milk. Let him think it’s pride.

Ulysses is surprised that Minerva deigns to acknowledge the stunted dog. He would be astonished if he knew they’ve had this conversation often before. The stunted dog asks. She replies. Nothing changes.

Dairy booth. Smells good, and the plastic milkbags are thin, but the carriers are careful never to drop one between the refrigerated truck and the cartons stacked outside the booth.

But this dairy-booth-owner also makes tea. Customers stand around blowing on the tiny hot glasses, munching biscuits, dropping crumbs. Occasionally someone throws Minerva half a biscuit, if she begs right. The morning tea-crowd has gathered. Minerva decides they’ll stop by on the way home.

And here, at the end of their territory, stands the chicken shop. Minerva’s pack shares this with two others, who’ve also arranged their territories wisely.

Early customers survey the dirty-white chickens stuffed into the stack of filthy plastic crates stacked outside the shop. Dogs from the other packs are queueing, wagging furiously whenever the butcher steps outside to retrieve another chicken, skinny throat in well-pecked fist.

The queuers snarl warnings at each other not to jump rank. Dogs don’t queue in a line, as humans do; what sensible creature would let out of sight the object it’s after? Dogs queue in a semicircle, but everybody knows his place, though he may in desperation pretend to forget it.

The other packs’ dogs greet Minerva and Ulysses with lifted lips. Bad timing. The butcher steps doorwards and flings out a fistful of entrails. Minerva leaps to catch midair the liver, still hot and palpitating, blood still flowing. Liver in mouth she sprints away, legs tucked under belly, newcomer in trail. The other dogs growl and bark, but can’t give chase, too busy fighting over the remaining scraps.

Safely around the corner, Minerva stops to eat. At a respectful distance Ulysses stands drooling, not daring to beg. She closes her eyes so as not to see him, pretending to close them in delectation. He must learn to fend for himself. She’s not his mother. Good thing for him I’m not, she thinks, half-vicious, half-sad.

“We’ll try again later,” she reassures him, licking her lips. Meat makes good milk: her pups will drink well tonight. “Just dash in boldly and snatch the choicest morsel.”

“But ma’am,” Ulysses objects, “your timing was picture-perfect. Isn’t that just luck?”

“Ha! Today I did get lucky. But I snag a mouthful or two of entrails and fat even on bad days… Now, watch.” Back at the dairy-booth that sells tea, she sits, neatly on her haunches, forepaws together, head tilted, eyes as big as she can make them without popping them out of her skull. We bred dogs to be workers; now we want them to be toys.

“Sit as I do,” she mutters. “No, fool! Closer to me. Out here, you’re allowed right beside me. Act democratic. They like feeding democratic dogs.”

A man in a biking jacket, wielding a helmet that makes Ulysses flinch, drops two white-flour, dyed-brown biscuits before them. Minerva signs Ulysses to eat them both. He looks at her again to make sure and, on his behalf, she wags gently. Their benefactor saunters away, chest outthrust, as if he’s cured cancer. Minerva watches Ulysses eat.

He’ll do, she thinks, as they trot homewards. He smelled trustworthy the day he came crawling. He’s small but strong, like her, and he learns fast. He just needs confidence. That’ll come.

She needs new blood for her children to breed with. She’s nearing the end of her breeding days: running dry, forced to abandon half her annual litter, dodging the sterilisation brigade. If she can grow her pack, maybe someday they can monopolise the chicken shop.

On this street, too, big buildings are rising. People in big buildings eat more chicken and fewer vegetables. Maybe someday every pack will have its own chicken shop. Maybe someday dogs can stop fighting.

Back on their street she holds her head erect, staring straight ahead. But her eyes flit: first to her three pups, still alive, thank God. Why wouldn’t they be, well-fed, play-fighting with her last year’s daughter who moped when Minerva, pregnant again, cut her loose at nine months old. But she stuck around and made herself useful, becoming third in command. As the balmy morning breeze wafts from the rubbish dump upwind, the hundred-rainbow of rubbish fresh and stale, organic and plastic, Minerva’s eyes narrow with pleasure, and her mind mellows. She’s ready to start training her successor.

Next she surveys the adults. Nine including Ulysses behind her, all sterile but herself and her children and Ulysses. Soon she’ll lead them all out on feeding rounds. She always leads them herself. She’s a bitch of a certain age in a world where food mountains fester in landfills that were once villages: she can’t afford to delegate.

Finally, her eyes flit to the card…

It’s gone. The cardboard box of rejects with her two runts is gone. She’s so shocked she almost gives herself away, dashes away to go looking for them. But that would never do. All her pack up ahead are watching her, eyes indolent with morning languor, but watchful. Minerva walks onward, eyes forward.

Now that they’re back home, Ulysses has dropped from democratic personal distance to savage. Eleven feet behind her, he asks sotto voce, “How do you do it, ma’am? How are you so tough, and how can I become like you?”

The sneak! He’s watched her watching her runts across the street. But he won’t tattle. He can’t afford to.

* * *

There are two kinds of dogs.

Some dogs ask Minerva why she’s like this. Other dogs ask her how they can get like this. Neither kind is looking for an answer.

The dogs on the mansion-lined streets don’t ask her why she’s a bitch; they tell her she is one.

Neither are the dogs who ask her ‘how’ seeking a real answer. The turnip-gnawing dog chose his lifepath long ago. Now, his ‘how’ is not a request for a tutorial, it’s an expression of admiration, so that she won’t nip him; an expression of his gangster fantasy, so that she won’t utterly despise him.

But facing the humble-tongued, keen-eyed newcomer this balmy spring morning, Minerva feels expansive. “How?” she repeats. “Live my life, Ulysses, and survive it, that’s how. Now tell me: do you fancy any of my daughters? My youngest will be in heat soon.”

Ulysses wriggles with gratitude that she’ll let him stay, eat, breed. Minerva indulges his stammering thanks and allows herself one last glance at the spot across the street where her runts were. Wherever they may be now, they’re better off.

A mother knows.

END

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

One reply on “The Why and the How”

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