by: Chris Thompson
Forgiveness, discovery and loss. Chris Thompson’s cautionary environmental tale, Perla, comes to its resounding end….1
I sat at the kitchen table for a long while, staring down at the letter in my hands. The envelope was yellowed and musty-smelling as if it had been trampled by a parade of muddy feet. As I turned it over in my hands I was amazed that it had arrived at all. It was of legal size and on its front, typed out with a typewriter that was missing the letter “s”, was my name and address. I ran my fingertips over the letters, feeling for the slight impressions left by each letter strike and trying to imagine the person who had sent it to me. The postmark date was eight weeks in the past and in the left hand corner was a return address for the Law Offices of Barbour, Dixon and Crass. They were based out of Aberdeen, Texas, someplace I had never been.
A growling sound not unlike Perla’s roused me from my contemplation of the letter. I lifted my head to look out the kitchen window and was wholly surprised to see a brown dog circling Perla’s pen. It made a deep, guttural sound as it hung its head low, sniffing at the bottom of the fence as it went. Perla was in the middle of the cage, rain-soaked tail wagging as she paced around in tight little circles. Her eyes were soft and her mouth open and relaxed and the fur along her spine was slightly raised despite being wet.
“What the hell?” I said, rising quickly from the chair. I had never seen this dog before. I was convinced that the entire species had gone extinct decades ago, going the way of the housecat and the rabbit and the horse. I blinked my eyes a few times to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating as I drew closer to the wide-set window above the sink.
It was definitely a dog. A male short-haired mutt with enough Rottweiler in its lineage to make it noticeable. It had a torn ear, a scattering of scars across its half-starved frame and a rib cage that rippled with the water that flowed in deep channels between each rib bone. The dog continued to emit a low growl as it circled the fence, its ears drawn back and its eyes rounded and alert. It kept its head hung close to the ground, pausing every few steps to sniff at the puddles and mud. Eventually the dog come to a stop between Perla and the window where I watched. It sniffed probingly at the air one more time and then gave an excited bark, pushing its snout down in the frothy mud. When it came back up, the dog had the bag of chicken scraps that I had dropped on the ground before the postal worker had arrived.
“Clever boy,” I said aloud. “No wonder you’ve been able to survive this long.” As I watched the dog, I assumed it would devour the meat. But instead of consuming the chicken scraps in a flash of teeth and tongue, it gingerly tore open the soiled, waxen paper and exposed the pale grey flesh. The wild dog took several pieces of chicken in its mouth and walked to a small gap that had appeared between a few rusted-out links low in the side of Perla’s fence. The hole was large enough for the dog to push its battered snout into Perla’s cage and when it did, it dropped the pieces of chicken onto the ground with a splash. This was repeated several times, each time the dog never eating any of the chicken for itself, until all the chicken had been placed inside of Perla’s pen. The dog then barked once, a quick, halting tone as if saying, “Eat this!” and then backed away. Perla came running up to the pile, devouring the flesh in a blur of teeth, all the while her waterlogged tail wagging back and forth and her piercing blue eyes never once straying from the brown dog where it stood.
“Well I’ll be damned Perla! It looks like you’ve got yourself an admirer!” I called out, overjoyed by the beauty in this selfless animal act. I ran to the fridge and grabbed another bag of the rubbery chicken that I had been thawing for Perla’s next meal. I made my way to the back kitchen door and barged outside in a flurry of limbs and noise. Perla and the dog were standing still, touching their snouts between the links in the fence and my intrusion on the moment startled them. The wild dog swung it head to me, growled once and then bolted, running towards the neighbors’ house and leaping effortlessly across the charging stream. I felt terrible for scaring him away and I apologized to Perla countless times as I approached.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I was too excited!” I said to her, half bowing before her cage. I was buzzing with the prospect of seeing the wild dog again, and my eyes scanned the yard for any sign of its whereabouts. I was outside in the rain for at least half an hour, walking the property and on the lookout for any signs of the animal. What sunlight made it through the spiraling clouds was slanting low to the ground, casting long fuzzy shadows of black on grey, and it was getting hard to see. I took one more circuit around the house and then decided to head back inside. But before I did, I left the bag of chicken parts on the house’s back steps as an offering of peace to the wild dog in the hopes that it would return again.
As I entered the kitchen, I was confronted by the letter quietly laying there in the center of the empty table. I had forgotten about it and I stood transfixed by its existence for several minutes, unable to make myself move. The letter was something real. Something tangible. And like the wild dog, it was something that I could not control and its presence had made me apprehensive. Perla’s four-legged visitor had been a happy distraction, a joyous departure from this dark and serious world, but the letter was a lighthouse in the fog, its sweeping beacon guiding me to broken shore, reminding me that there was a larger world out there and I still had a part in it to play.
I sat back down at the table with a glass of what was left of the good rum and slit the letter open with a knife from the silverware drawer. I took a deep pull from the glass and then pulled the letter out. It was folded into thirds and penned on stationery from the same law office as was written on the return address. The handwriting looked familiar and before I could even finish the first sentence I was awash in a sea of emotion and I began to cry. I couldn’t contain myself. I had waited years for words like these to come to me and as I continued to read the letter the tears coursed down my stubbled face, dripping off my jaw to leave thin, watery discolorations on the table below.
My Dearest Winston,
I adore you sweetheart. I always have and always will. That is why it was so hard for me to write you this letter. Because I knew how much it would hurt you to have to read it. Because I know the kind of man (and father) that you are and how you must still be filled with despair and regret and lost inside with the knowledge that Helen and I were dead. But I want you to know that I am not dead Winst. I’m alive….
I went to the senior center outside Portland with every intention of ending my life but when I got there I just couldn’t go through with it. It was such a deception. Such a fabrication of the truth as to what was really going on. I saw it with my own two eyes. Realized that it was not the “graceful death” like the TV commercials and the mailers suggested. That the government was treating it just like any other public service offered under the guises of help. There were no smiling nurses and comfortable chairs and peaceful music as they put you into that final sleep. Once you got there, it was anything but pleasant. It was scary how they took advantage of those poor people and heartless and efficient in the way in which they took their lives. They were like cattle being lined up for the electro-stunner at a slaughterhouse. The moment I arrived I knew I’d made a terrible mistake. I got it as far as the poorly lit stall they called an examination room before I changed my mind and ran out of there before anyone could stop me.
But I was too weak. Too ashamed and afraid of what you might have thought of me to return home. I realize now that they way I left, sneaking away in the night while you slept, not giving you the chance to say goodbye or stop me from going, must have hurt you so much inside. You must think I was foolish and it was selfish of me to leave, but my only defense is that I felt so lost myself that I was desperate to put an end to all my pain and too scared to do it on my own. It’s taken me years to come back from that abyss and find the nerve to write to you and tell you how sorry I am. Sorry for all the suffering that I caused you. Sorry for making you think that I was gone. Sorry for taking away from you so many years that you deserved to spend in happiness and peace. But most importantly, I am sorry that I didn’t put my faith in you to help me through that difficult time. I made an oath to you when we were married and I broke that in so many ways that I wonder if there is still anything left? Can you forgive me Winston? Can you see it in your heart to understand why I did what I did? If there is still something in that darkness inside of you that burns for me, I want you to know that I miss you dearly my love. I miss your kind eyes and your soft touch and the ways in which you would make me laugh. I miss your presence and I’m scared to leave this world without ever looking upon your lovely face again.
I’m sure you have a thousand questions, wondering how I am or where I’ve been. I’ve been okay, made a few friends, managed to survive, but mostly I’ve been lonely and trying to forgive myself for ever hurting you. I’ve moved around a lot Winst and I’ve seen some things. I lived in Sarasota before it finally went underwater, Raleigh where I watched the last of the oak trees that lined its beautiful streets cut down and Phoenix where I helped take care of all those sick people after the reactor core at Palo Verde collapsed. But I’m here now in Aberdeen. I’m resourceful enough to get by but I’m growing tired of the game. I sometimes do clerical work for one of the few business that still operate around here and their address is on the envelope. Come find me Winston. Come save me from myself and this lonely world I’ve created so that we can ride off into the sunset together like we had always talked about. My darling husband, I adore you and I’m tired of running away. I’ve decided to make my final stand here in Aberdeen and if you decide to come after me I’ll be here waiting.
All my love,
My Sarah was alive! I reread the letter a dozen times, digging deeply into its words, trying to push them apart to see if I could peer between their letters and learn more about her world. About how she was feeling or what she had done in all our years apart. About how she looked and how she carried herself with age. For a long time I had thought that she was ashes, scattered across the lands by some government contractor in charge of disposing those who had chosen to give up on this world. But that was no longer the case. It had been hard to understand what it meant to love Sarah after I realized that she was dead. I was so filled with anger and hurt and regret that it didn’t leave much room for anything else. But the years of living with that pain had softened its ache, and below that layer of darkness I had found that love. A love of her memory. A love borne of the adventures we had had, and the good times with Helen as a family before she became ill. That was the way that I had loved my wife all these years, as a series of memories trapped in time, and now that I knew she was alive, there were new memories to make. It was like my body was firing up an idle electrical grid. A network of wires and cables that had long been dormant were commencing to vibrate with a muscle memory of love, a warming, familiar current of what it felt like to care deeply for someone again.
I wanted to leave for Texas right away. To run right out to my jeep and speed down to Aberdeen as straight and fast as an arrow could fly. But I knew it wasn’t going to be as easy as that so I called it an early night, retiring to my bedroom to get some rest and come up with a plan with fresh eyes. It had been an exciting day, more exciting than the all the years I’d spent locked inside this house alone, and as I climbed into bed there was a tiredness borne of a sense of relief that weighed heavily upon my eyes. Before I turned the oil lamp off for the night, I rolled over and looked at the letter from Sarah that I had placed on the pillow where she had slept all those years ago. There were bold plans to be made, and the woman who I had once thought lost was laying in a bed somewhere far away, wishing that I could be by her side. If I wanted to survive the trip down to Texas, and get there in one piece, I had to really think things through. The final thought I had as sleep overtook my body was how much I would miss the sound of the rain on Perla’s roof, and the soothing melody it had provided me in all those moments of distress.
I awoke the next morning before dawn, charging into the day with a singular focus that I hadn’t thought possible for someone my age. The arrival of the morning was dull and grey but the prospect of seeing Sarah filled my world with colors, pushing away all the gloom that came in with the rain and energizing my every move. I fed Perla quickly, on the lookout for any signs of the wild dog, and then walked out to the garage to get a good look at the jeep. I kicked the large lugs of the high-strung nylon tires with my boots. I ran the engine and made sure all the fluids were topped off and that there were no leaks. The jeep had four-wheel drive, a reliable motor and a set of high-end all-terrain tires plus a spare, but there was more to driving a car these days than just that. There was a lot to think about. There were the roads to consider and what I could expect to encounter by way of trouble on my way down. I walked back into the house and spread an old map of the Spokane Valley from my Forestry days out on the kitchen table and poured over it as I devoured my breakfast. There were only two ways into Opportunity, one from the north and one from the south. The one to the north lead to the Spokane River, where you could catch a ferry boat down the Columbia River, and then drive on the few main roads west that took you into Seattle. The road to the south twisted through what used to be the Dishman Hills Recreation Area and then turned east to skirt Lake Coeur d’Alene, a massive body of water that had overflowed its banks and swallowed up millions of acres in nearby Idaho. There were no promises that the roads were intact but it was in that direction that I needed to go.
There was Perla to think about, too. I had already been packing up the jeep with what was left of my supplies before Sarah’s letter arrived, preparing to make a retreat in light of the Scrappers possibly coming back. I had boxes of canned food, blankets, extra petrol, candles, warm and waterproof clothes, and I had decided that morning to throw in a few of Sarah’s things that I thought would make her smile. It would take at least a month to get down to Texas if all went well, and the jeep being packed-up full of supplies meant that there wasn’t any room for Perla inside. On that day in December when she and Van had arrived on my doorstep, I had placed in my mind somewhere in the future a scenario like this. One in which I became the decider of Perla’s fate. It was a job that made me uncomfortable to think about and I wasn’t fully confident I could go through with the hard decision when time came.
As I loaded the last of my supplies into the jeep and slammed shut its rear door with an echoing bang!, I realized that that moment had finally arrived. I pulled up my collar against the sleet and rain and exited the garage. At the edge of the backyard, where the pine board fence used to be before we burnt it all up for firewood, I saw the brown dog. It had its front two paws up on a plastic kids playhouse that had blown into the yard and its head was slung low, its dark eyes following me as I crossed the side yard to the house. I kept walking, keeping the wild dog in my periphery, not wanting to frighten it away with any sudden movements. The ration of chicken that I had placed on the back steps the day before had gone missing and it made me smile to think that I might have provided the animal with sustenance.
I stood in front of Perla’s pen, watching her pace back and forth, and I began to wonder if there weren’t other dogs out there still that had survived. That maybe the scientists and politicians hadn’t been as thorough as they had thought in declaring canis familiaris extinct. That even though humanity’s days were numbered, there might be another species out there that was familiar to us to inherit our flame. All those thousands of years ago, when the contract between man and wolf was drawn up, there was a mutual understanding that we were both in this together. That we would have each others backs. But time and our fanatical desire to destroy had driven a wedge between that bond. And as I watched the brown dog through Perla’s rusting chain-link fence, it dawned on me that there still remained a small gesture that I could do to try and make amends for humanity’s thousand year refusal to honor its end of the deal.
When it came to the point that we could no longer take care of Perla, in our minds, releasing her into the chaos that reigned over the tortured lands was a fate worse than the rapid death that a bullet to the supplied. But I had struggled with convincing myself that I could do her in, and seeing the brown dog had planted in my mind the seed of a new direction for Perla. A new future that didn’t involve her death. One that called for me releasing her from her cage and giving her a crack at making a go at it on her own. She deserved it. She had defied the odds and made it this far, modifying her behavior to live penned up inside a cage. Who was I to say how she lived and died? She was a wolf. Canis lupus. A wild animal and the ancestor of all domestic dogs. To put a bullet in her head seemed like a final insult to her kind. A parting “fuck you” from humanity for being foolish enough to put their trust in us all those thousands of years ago. Perla deserved to go out from this world on her own terms and if I could provide that opportunity for her I would.
Once back inside the house I went into the den to warm up by the sputtering fire. I threw a few more pieces of broken furniture on the glowing embers and sat myself down in front of its warming glow. I held out my hands, splaying wide my bony fingers as I pondered further what to do with Perla. Van’s drinking glass was still there on the floor where he had dropped it, the spilled liquid leaving a dark discoloration on the floor where it had dried. I looked around the den, taking in the disordered scene. The couch where I had first dragged Van was in disarray. The blood-stained blanket, his old blazer, his handkerchief and my belt were strewn across the cushions. The yellow hand towels that I had used to wipe away all the sweat and the flowered washcloths that I had used to keep Van cool were littered about the floor, stained and dried into twisted fabric shapes. I hadn’t had a chance to clean-up after Van had died and it was the first time I really had a good look at the remnants of that night.
I got to thinking about Van as I stared off into the fire and it made me angry to know that he had died in such a horrific way. That if it wasn’t for the Scrappers intrusion upon our lives that he would still be here besides me, sharing in my joy and considering my offer to come along with me to Aberdeen. I suddenly very much wanted to be free of the memories locked in the house. It was nothing but a tomb for me. A museum to the memory of a life that I had once had. A moment frozen in time, trying to persevere when everything else around it fell into ruin. There was a present out there waiting for me that was more real than anything I could ever imagine in this house. And there was the promise of a future as well. No matter how long or short it turned out to be. Whatever that future was, and whatever promise it held, it was better than dying alone or being murdered by Scrappers trying to defend this house.
I stood up from the fire and walked quickly into the hallway, opening up the closet where I kept all my handtools. I took the metal toolbox that my father had given me down from the top shelf and dug around inside until I found a screwdriver and a hammer. I walked to the front entrance of the house and took off the hulking door, throwing it loudly to the ground. I went into the kitchen and did the same with the back door. Let them come, I thought as I leaned the double-doors against the siding of the house. Let the whole world come inside. I was tired of putting my head in the ground, shutting out the world and hiding from what I feared. Fear had not served me well. It had made me timid and complacent and easy to abuse. Let the Scrappers come back. Let them have the run of the house. Let the whole world come for all I cared.
When I was up in Alaska, I had heard stories of wolf-dogs being real. They were a hybrid breed, a genetic stew that was one part wild wolf and one part domesticated dog. The species both shared a common ancestor, allowing them to cross-reproduce, and it wasn’t too far of a stretch to think that Perla and the brown dog could do the same. Maybe that’s what this new world needed for life to survive. A half-breed that could bridge both the natural and the modified world. Maybe if humanity had gone the same route, hadn’t been in such a rush to conquer everything, and destroy what it didn’t understand along the way, it could have paid more attention to the rhythms of the earth than the business of making a quick profit on its back.
I walked slowly up to the door of Perla’s pen and undid the latch that secured it closed. The brown dog had wandered closer in, standing behind the remnants of my pool and watching my every move. I could make out several more dogs behind him up on the rise, hiding in the shadows at the back of the yard. The rain was coming down in fat, swollen droplets but I counted a white-haired boxer, a yellow labrador and a sporting dog that looked an awful lot like an english setter I had had in my youth among their ranks.
“I know that we’re not everlasting,” I said to Perla as I hesitated before swinging open the gate. I felt the need to explain, to apologize for what we had done to the earth in order to satisfy some part of me that was wracked with guilt for the way that things had gone down. “I realize that humanity was just a car crash waiting to happen and that one day we’ll be but a memory for this place. But I want you to know that we weren’t all that bad. That some of us lived and loved for this world and fought hard to champion its cause and had it gone another way, we could have made it into a place where we both could have thrived. But sadly that is not to be the case. So I want you to go now, have a run at this place of your own. There aren’t many of us left and pretty soon we’ll be but a whisper on the winds.”
I opened wide her gate and walked back from the pen. Perla walked cautiously towards the opening, hesitant about what to do and looking up at me for guidance. The offer of freedom had never been extended her way and she was unsure of how to act. I was motioning with my hand for her to leave when a bark from the brown dog brought about in her a change. In a flash of black and grey she was out of the pen, her long wolf legs covering the distance between her and the rest of the dogs in a few short bounds. The brown dog fell in behind her and almost as soon as she was free of the pen she was gone, lost to me in a flash of fur and a multitude of legs. I stood there looking in the direction in which she had left for several minutes, coming to terms with the fact that she was really gone. She was my last link to Van and to a life from my youth that seemed like it had unfolded in a dream. I pulled the keys to the jeep out from my jacket pocket and made my way over to the garage. I climbed up into the drivers seat and fired up the engine, the pistons struggling to turnover before finally catching and spewing-out a cloud of bluish-white smoke from the tailpipe. “Eeeeasy there girl,” I said to the jeep as I pulled it out of the garage. “We’ve got a lot of miles to cover you and me and we need to get a few things straight.”
I had only been on the road for about ten minutes, following the main route south out of town, when I came upon an overturned vehicle besides the road. I slowed the jeep and rolled down the drivers-side window, looking down into the water-filled ditch where it had landed. It was a van and its passenger door was wide-open, the fast-moving water of the roadside ditch flowing effortlessly through the cab. There were two bodies bobbing inside, pale and swollen from the rain and as I ran my eyes over their lifeless forms I froze when I saw a serpent tattoo on one of their necks. I looked back to the exterior of the vehicle, concentrating on its markings, noting the blown-out tail light and the long, sliding door. The van was white, although the the majority of it was hidden by the mud and water. There were bullet holes in tight lines along its side and a rust-colored spray besides the door. It looked like the Scrappers had met with a violent end. I put the jeep back in drive and continued slowly down the road, looking for any sign of the third member of the gang. I found him a minute later, splayed out on the side of the road with a single bullet through his left eye. Clutched in his meaty, lifeless hand was a shattered pair of goggles that looked an awful lot like the pair the mail carrier was wearing when she told me Perla was a wolf.
I rolled up the window and put the car back in gear. As I got the jeep back up to speed I caught myself in the rearview mirror and saw that I was smiling. I was in high spirits. Despite all that I had lost, the connections that I still had to this world had a chance to survive. First with Sarah, and then Perla and now the girl who had delivered my mail. I was glad that she was doing fine. That she could fend for herself out there on her own. She had gone head to head with three violent thugs and gone on to live another day. If she could handle that then there wasn’t much else the world could throw at her that she couldn’t overcome. I wondered if Helen would have been strong and adaptable like her had she lived. “Maybe I’ll see you out on the open road,” I said aloud to the rushing wind as I reached the city limits, turning the jeep sharply onto the main conduit that would take me south.
“Oh, this city’s changed so much
Since I was a little child.
Pray to god I won’t live to see
The death of everything that’s wild.
Though we knew this day would come,
Still it took us by surprise.
In this town where I was born,
I now see through a dead man’s eyes.
One day they will see it’s long gone.
One day they will see it’s long gone….”
-Arcade Fire, Half Light II