His was a small house, haphazardly constructed out of scrap metal and worm-eaten wood. It stood dilapidated on the Ecuadorean hillside, a patchwork of tin roofs and rows of maíz whose amber stalks sprouted bravely from the hardened earth and reached upward as if to grab hold of the clouds. Nestled on the hazy mountain, his shack was carved into the pasture and was sequestered by the tall reeds of grass that swayed rhythmically to the ticking of an invisible clock, slower than any time I’d ever known.
I passed by him each day on the way to wake up my travel partner Stephen, whose kind and boyish grin offered me a fleeting glimpse of home in the midst of this bizarre, fantastical world. The first time I meandered unwittingly by his fortress, he charged directly toward me with a deep, guttural growl followed by frenzied barks. My heart stopped cold in my chest when he leaped from his battered tavern. He had the wild eyes of a madman, his gleaming teeth curled into a sadistic smile while he snapped his jaw ravenously at the air.
Angelica, my guide, caught my arm gently when I jumped back.
“No te asustes mija” she said. Not to fear. Este perro bravo is on a tight leash. He’s not going anywhere.
Visibly shaken, I allowed her to lead me past the crazed canine and down toward the ravine that separated the house from the pasture. In spite of myself I glanced furtively over my shoulder and stole a glimpse at the hysterical creature, whose body was still writhing as he tugged furiously at the thick metal chain that bound him to his tattered shelter. His painful howls pierced the stillness of the desolate sierra air.
The route to Stephen’s house was unavoidable. A narrow trail of packed dirt etched into the ancient mountainside, it passed directly in front of his lair. Every morning, as the sun peaked over the hilltops and punctured the crepuscular dawn with brazos de oro, I traversed the pathway that was so fiercely guarded by the perro bravo.
No matter if I was noiseless as I crept by his fortress, or measured every step with careful precision, or cautiously held my breath—my footsteps always betrayed me. It was as if the dog was one with the mountain. One soft step in his direction, and his ears would perk up in anticipation. Another, and he would sniff curiously at the cool, dewy air. With the third he’d hop to his feet and charge blindly into the morning light. Each day as I passed at the break of dawn, he shattered the lonely tranquility of the farmland with his maniacal cries. The weeks crept by, but our daily encounters struck me every time with knifelike claws that tore my empathy to shreds. His howls seeped insidiously through my pores, into my bloodstream and down my veins until they drowned me in an inescapable pool of hatred.
It happened suddenly one morning. Like always, I crept surreptitiously along the path bracing myself for the fury of his wails. But as I neared his shack, the silence hit me like a brick wall. This particular morning the loneliness of the countryside was palpable in the air, oppressive almost. As I passed his humble abode, it appeared even smaller than before, an empty wooden shell that looked as if it might topple against the slightest gust of wind. In the blinding darkness under the thin roof, he lay motionless. Still as a stone.
I shuffled my feet lightly at first, then more forcefully—a dare for him to leap at me with his usual fury. But he just lay there, unflinching, staring at me with steely eyes. The madness in them had all but vanished, almost completely replaced by a solemn look of defeat.
Something about the sight of him, crumpled and decrepit, dwarfed by the humble majesty of the rolling hills, stabbed at my heart. A creeping sense of pity and curiosity forced its way in amidst the hatred I had harbored for the loathsome creature.
Down the path, I was met by Selena, the young daughter of Stephen’s host family.
“¡Escapó el perro bravo esta mañana!” she shouted excitedly, a look of wild terror in her eyes. She explained to me in her impassioned Spanish that the dog had pulled free of his chains in the darkness of the early morning and had, in the five minutes of chaos that ensued between the moment of his jailbreak and the point of his apprehension, managed to senselessly murder two of the family roosters.
Stephen emerged from his basement room, visibly unnerved yet amazed.
“You should’ve seen the way he ran. I could have sworn he was rabid!”
That night, I lay awake on my cot listening to my heartbeat against the deafening roar of the pastoral silence. Covered by the dark blanket of my own loneliness, I thought only of him and of the eternal slavery that was embedded in his sorrowful eyes. I shivered at the memory of his sallow body slumped on the floor of his shed. We were the same, he and I, both strangers in that beautifully desolate landscape.
And yet, in that moment, I knew that I was the lucky one. In a matter of weeks I would be flying high above the patchwork hillsides, across a continent and worlds apart; he, left to wither under his decrepit shelter with concrete wings that bound him to the unforgiving earth. His body etched permanently, solemnemente, like the pathway, into the ancient mountainside.
From time to time I still think about him. Sometimes in the hush of the night, his deep, gray eyes penetrate my dreams, and I awake with a start and I feel empty and small like his decrepit fort perched on the pathside. But other times, when the sky is a light cerulean and the golden rays of the rising sun are scattered off of the heavy morning mist, I can hear his ferocious yelping. It is then that I find myself overwhelmed by my imagination, picturing his five minutes of glory, his short brush with freedom when he burst from his shackles and sprinted around the pasture with a rabid fervor.
Every now and then my heart is flooded with an inkling of hope that he is still nestled in that pasture, lunging at every passerby with his writhing body. And that maybe, someday, he might pull free again and run through the tired farmland—starving hysterical naked—splitting the pallid dawn with his ceaseless howls.
Sarah Locke-Henderson is a staff writer for The Weekender. Contact her at [email protected]