A Man’s Best Friend, by Andrew Pidoux

I had been following the man across the snowy field for two days. This wasn’t deliberate at first: we just happened to be going in the same direction. But I can’t deny that I found him fascinating. Or rather I was fascinated by the animal he had with him, which was of a kind I had never seen before and which frankly I was a little frightened by. It can best be described as a cross between a dog and a deer. It ran in the loping fashion of a dog, but on its head two large antlers grew, giving it the uncanny impression of being both hunter and hunted rolled into one. The man had some kind of boomerang that he would throw for the animal’s amusement, and it would lope off repeatedly to retrieve it. But such was its wayward gallop—hind legs exuberantly displacing forelegs so that it seemed continually about to trip over itself in its enthusiasm—that it often couldn’t grab the thing from the air but leapt up and missed or didn’t get anywhere near it, having miscalculated everything, and at that point the boomerang would return to the man.

It was such a big field that it was hard to judge distance, and eventually, towards the second evening, the man and his creature got a little too far ahead and I lost them in the white glare of the snow. There were several inns scattered here and there, apparently standing freely in the middle of the field but in reality beside tracks or paths that had been covered over, and after I had lost the man and his creature, I booked into one of these scrawny places and told myself that if they weren’t staying there too, I would surely have lost them for good. I never saw them at the inn, and I spent a dreamless night in a cold bed without them crossing my mind, but next morning when I set out, there they were again, just so far ahead, playing their eternal game of boomerang.

At one point, the man threw the boomerang in such a way that it came back in my direction, and I was afraid that the creature would run up and attack me or something, but in the event it seemed not to notice me, so focused was it on the boomerang. As it came in close, I found myself wondering how such an animal could have come into existence. I certainly hadn’t learnt about them in school, but were they indigenous to certain remote parts of the world? Either that, or they were the product of a laboratory. Then again, perhaps there was no “they” but only an “it,” only this one specimen I was seeing before me. And what kind of man would invest in such a thing, anyway? Why not get a golden retriever? Not that I wanted to judge him—each to his own and all—but the creature, with its big, lax jaws and sharp canines drooling long ropes of saliva, did look vicious, and when a creature is vicious, it can be a threat to others, making it the business of those others. Except there weren’t any others bar me in that field.

Getting towards dusk on the third day, just when the sky was darkening, the man and his creature reached the end of the field. I could see that they had reached it from where I was, because they stopped playing boomerang and just stood there at the top of what I knew from experience to be a steep escarpment. Beyond them lay the ski resort, which I had been speculating might be their destination. The resort, known locally as the Hill, was just that: a large white hill standing on its own, looming up beyond the field from the base of the escarpment and covered in various routes for the skiers to follow. You could see these skiers crisscrossing it from quite far away, and now that the night was descending, the floodlights had been switched on and everything was very clearly visible. The resort wouldn’t have been my idea of fun, to be honest—if I was going to go skiing, I’d chose one of the traditional mountain slopes—but such holiday destinations had been on the up in recent years. Their smooth, geometric surfaces were deemed both safer and more social due to the absence of the hazardous, isolating idiosyncrasies of traditional resorts.

The man with the creature was evidently entranced by the sight of the Hill, as he stood there watching it for the longest time, the creature sitting obediently at his heel, and being that he was standing right next to the field’s gate, I could see that I would be forced to pass him and, out of politeness, engage him in conversation; there was simply nowhere else for me to go. When I came up behind him, I did so in such a way as to announce my presence and not startle either him or his animal—I think I did a series of little coughs, attempting to clear my already perfectly clear throat—and he duly turned to see who it was, instinctively grabbing the animal’s collar to show that he had it under control.

Racking my brains for a mild introductory gambit, I announced, “Lovely evening, isn’t it?” Despite the cold and the encroaching darkness, this didn’t seem inappropriate; I guess the hallucinatory sight of the Hill was lovely in its way.

“Ah hello,” he said. “Not at all bad, is it?”

I walked cautiously up to him, keeping the creature on the opposite side and eyeing it in a way that I hoped hinted subtly at my unease but stopped short of causing offence.

“Oh, don’t mind him,” the man said breezily, “there couldn’t be a more harmless animal, let me assure you. In all the time I’ve owned him, I’ve never once seen him attack a human.”

“What kind of animal is he?” I said, craning my neck to get a better look.

The creature’s mouth was drooling uncontrollably, it seemed, and its tail was obsessively wagging back and forth, as if it hated remaining still only slightly less than it would hate disobeying its master’s command to stay.

“In English, he’s a table dog,” the man said with a small laugh, clearly aware of how ridiculous it sounded. “And the reason they call them that is quite simple. The natural habitat of these animals are the mesas of Argentina.”

I looked at him blankly.

“Mesas are those elevated areas of land with flat tops and steep sides,” he said. “Mesa in English means table. Hence table dog.”  

“Most interesting!” I said.

“And the strangest part is,” the man continued enthusiastically, “once they climb these mesas, all they do is leap off again. For the sheer joy of it.”

“Really?” I said, a little taken aback.

“Absolutely,” the man replied. “Biologists have found no other explanation for it than just that—sheer joy in the act of leaping. They do everything they need to do on the ground, you see. They pick off rabbits and small prey down there. They also fight each other for mates on ground level, butting each other with these things—” He reached down and gave the creature’s antlers a rough wiggle, causing it to look up in a somewhat startled way. “But the jumping, it’s sheer fun. And they can survive great falls off these mesas, too.”

“All for the fun of it,” I said with a lighthearted smile.

But something my tone seemed to touch a nerve with the man—perhaps he thought I didn’t believe him—and he immediately announced that he would provide me with a demonstration, so I could, as he fervently announced, “see the awesome spectacle of a table dog in flight.”

“Why not?” I said. “It isn’t something I’ll have the chance to see again so—”

But before I had finished the sentence, the man had removed his boomerang from the special band on his combat trousers and zipped it into the air above the escarpment, where it seemed to hesitate for a moment, perhaps due to some spin technique he employed, before careering out toward the Hill.

I thought this a little foolhardy, because the boomerang could potentially hit one of the skiers, which could be dangerous, but the man didn’t seem concerned. To my astonishment, the table dog hesitated not a second, launching itself off the escarpment with an enthusiasm that could indeed only be described as joyful. The escarpment, incidentally, must have been a good seventy-five feet high and to my mind only didn’t qualify as a cliff because of the fact that it possessed a slight gradient and would have been grassy in the summer months.

I followed the table dog with my eyes as it sailed through the air to what I feared would be its death. It crashed to earth not far from a couple of dazed-looking skiers, who had presumably been following it since it had taken off, and to my surprise, rather than being crushed in a pile of its own gore, it landed at a gallop, bounded a few paces up the hill and claimed the boomerang right out of the air, having judged its trajectory almost to perfection.

Well of course I was astonished, and I think that the man, too, was a little surprised, not to say relieved, that that the animal had judged things so well on this occasion. He looked across at me with a cocky expression that seemed to say, “I told you so.” “He’s quite a goer isn’t he?” he said.

“I’ll say he is!” I replied.

Somehow the table dog managed to scramble quickly back up the escarpment, despite its steepness and slipperiness, and deposited the boomerang with the eager loyalty of a regular dog right at the feet of its master, as if to say, “again, again!”

“What an astonishing animal,” I said. “The first thing I do when I get home is Google table dogs and find out more. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Thank you,” said the man, maintaining an upright profile like a carved statue illustrating the concept of pride.

Not knowing how else to move the conversation on, I asked, “Are you heading down to the resort?”

“Sure we are,” said the man, whistling to bring the table dog to heel.

We walked over to the gate, which was both the only way out of the field and the sole route down to the resort if you’re not a table dog, and fell into conversation. He told me he had come from the south and wasn’t a fan of cold weather but that he’d made the trip because he’d always wanted to see the Hill. When I politely enquired why, however, he couldn’t put his finger on it.

“I guess it’s not the world’s greatest wonder, is it?” he said.

“Not as such,” I said, “but it’s interesting.”

He read the flatness in how I said “interesting” correctly—to me it really wasn’t— and continued trying to justify himself. “I’d heard it was the biggest artificial ski resort in the world,” he said, “and apparently it has some of the best skiing around.”

“Oh so you’re a skier, are you?” I asked, still trying to nudge him toward a rational answer.

“No,” he said bluntly.

“Oh, right,” I laughed. “Well, it is quite a sight when you get up close, isn’t it?”

The question answered itself really, because suddenly, we were at the base of the Hill, and all around us were the little faux-Austrian buildings that made up the resort. The whole place, I had read somewhere, was meant to resemble an Austrian high street, but it was all owned by the same company, so what looked like separate hotels were in fact just different annexes of one large “superhotel” in disguise. The flowers in the hanging baskets outside were all fake; you could tell that even from a distance, but a moment’s thought told you they’d never bloom in conditions like those anyway. Meanwhile, the gutters of the road were lined with little black sprinklers, which continually sprayed water onto the asphalt, keeping it free of ice. This, according to the article I’d read, was a trick they hotel owners had learned from Japan.

As soon as we reached the road, the man called the table dog to heel, putting a standard dog leash around its neck and referring to it by the name of Jason for the first time.

“You’ve booked a room in town, I take it?” I asked.

“Yes, we have,” the man said. “We’re a bit further down that way. But first we’re going to check out the old factory at the end. Do you want to join us?”

I couldn’t see any factory, but I was curious enough about the man to take him up on his offer, so I looked up the street as if I could see it, and said, “Sure, why not. I’m not in the mood for turning in.”

If the building in question could be classified as a factory at all, it was a very small one. As we approached, it seemed to me more like a workshop at best, but I wasn’t confident enough about my own industrial facility classifications, as it were, to challenge my companion.

“What do they make in there?” I asked.

“It’s a clothes factory,” the man said, “so they’re all hard at work sewing. Of course, they use sewing machines and what have you.” This obvious detail, which he seemed to have added for my benefit, would have made more sense had I vocalized my doubts that the place was a factory in the first place—made sense as a defense of his position that it was one—and this preemptiveness on his part me a little nervous about him all of a sudden. Was he, in some sense, psychic? Could he pick up on the timbre of my unspoken, or nearly spoken, thoughts?

I smiled at him edgily and extended my hand in an after-you gesture when we reached the building’s gate.

“I used to work here when it was located in Baltimore,” he stated as we approached the door.

“Oh really?” I said, “When was that?”

“Years and years ago, my friend,” he replied, “but not so long ago that he doesn’t remember.” He looked down at the table dog, which was all of a sudden squirming violently on the end of his leash, and gave it a yank.

“You mean they moved the premises from Baltimore?” I said, trying to get the story straight in my head.

“Exactly,” the man said, “but it’s all the same people. They’re a lovely bunch, really. Salt of the earth.”

As he was saying this, he reached down and took the excited Jason off his leash, while retaining a grasp on his collar. “Now watch this,” he said, opening the door just enough for Jason to squeeze through.

With the rabid enthusiasm of a sniffer dog released into an opium den, Jason disappeared around the door, his snakey lick of a tail snapping after him.

“Now we wait,” said the man with a mischievous smile, rubbing his hands together in anticipation.

I didn’t know what to say. To me, what he’d done was ill-advised unless the factory was now derelict, which, going by the light that poured out of the door when it was opened, didn’t appear to be.

Obviously detecting my anxiety, he assured me, “Don’t worry, they love him. When I worked there, I’d bring him in every day. He’d go around all the ladies’ tables, slobbering over their work, but they liked him so much they didn’t care. He can get away with anything in there, believe me.”

Despite these reassurances, the image of Jason careening up and down aisles of sewing machines, butting into things with his antlers or just accidentally catching on stuff as he passed, went through my head like a surreal comedy sketch, but one which I felt could only end in tears. And no sooner had these ominous thoughts occurred to me than several distinct banging and scraping sounds could be heard coming from within the building, shattering the dead silence that had existed before.

The man looked at me, frowned, raised an eyebrow, frowned again, and after a particularly large and echoey bang, he seemed to get the jitters and opened the door again, as if to bring an end to the joke there and then.

Instead he was greeted by the imposing figure of a tall man, coming out at the same moment.

“Will you call that animal to heel, please!” the tall man said in an obviously agitated tone. “It’s causing no end of havoc.”

“Oh, yes, uh, sorry,” my companion sputtered, leaning in past the tall man and calling the table dog’s name very loudly down the centre aisle, where I could see several startled women huddled in a tight group, their faces contorted with anxiety.

Jason reappeared obediently behind the tall man, who jumped to the side at the merest brush of his antlers, as if he’d been jabbed by an electric cattle prod. The table dog’s expression was its usual combination of rambunctious and plaintive.

“We know who you are,” the tall man said when Jason had been secured on his leash. “A few of them remember you and your whatever-that-is”—he looked down at Jason with a snarl of contempt—“They didn’t like it in the Baltimore days and they definitely don’t like it now.”

“I beg to differ,” said the man, his voice suggesting that tears might not be beyond him. “Jason was always loved back then. He was spoilt rotten by the girls, weren’t you boy?” He gave Jason a supportive rub between the antlers.

“You’re deluded, pal,” the tall man scoffed. “There’s no one here who thinks this is anything other than an abomination of nature.”

“Jason’s totally natural,” the man said abruptly, suddenly seeming surer of his territory. “Table dogs are indigenous to the plains of Argentina.”

“Bullshit they are. They’ve been made in laboratories and you know it! They’re nothing but genetic mutilations designed by the military.”

“Military my ass,” the man said, again seeming on the verge of tears. “There’s no way I’d give Jason to the army, would I boy?” He seemed to think that the tall man was threatening to take Jason away from him, though I hadn’t picked up any such threat in what he’d said.

The tall man, clearly pleased that he’d managed to frighten and/or threaten this renegade ex-employee, said one last parting “good riddance” and slammed the door in his face.

I heard a collective wail of disturbed seamstresses go up, as their fear turned into relief that the trauma was over. Once more I was lost for words, but my companion, who seemed to gather himself back from the brink of despair with very little effort, said in an off-handed manner, “That guy’s new. That’s why there’s trouble.” He then  looked down at Jason and gave him another rub between the antlers, to which the table dog replied with an appreciative whimper. “He really is a good egg, you know. You wouldn’t hurt a soul, would you boy?”

Again Jason whimpered in affirmation.

It was dark now, but you had to strain your eyes through the orange glare of the streetlamps to get a glimpse of the sky. I was busy trying to figure out if the small white thing up there was the moon or just a different kind of streetlamp, when I realized that my trouser leg was in the process of being sprayed. For a second I thought that Jason was making use of me to relieve himself, but I looked down to see that I was in fact only standing within range of one of the road sprinklers, and gave a laugh of relief.

As though to make the most of my momentary distraction, the man released Jason from his leash and watched him lope off extravagantly up the road, thrashing his head from side to side as though his antlers were causing him discomfort by their very existence.

He then leaned back on his haunches with a contented expression, and said, “I do hate having to have Jason on his leash. He’s the kind of guy who much prefers to be free. You know what I mean?”

“But will he be all right with the tourists?” I asked, uncertainly eyeing a large group of skiers who had just descended the Hill and were making their way onto the asphalt, chatting with each other lightheartedly. There were also several individual skiers scattered about, either going to and from their rooms or else just hanging around and staring into space after a long day on the slopes.

“Oh he’ll be fine,” the man said.

As Jason reached the group in question, both he and they froze. A couple of the men put out their arms in a protective gesture to shield the women, while the latter craned their necks to try and see what it was they were being sheltered from. Fortunately, the table dog seemed somewhat intimidated by the men and, after giving a submissive little whine, he scraped his antlers shyly on the ground and bounded off again down a side street, disappearing from sight.

Having been watching the confrontation with the anxious attention of a father at sports day, the man gave a sigh of relief and said in his cocky voice, “You see what I mean?”

I nodded. “Jason did seem shy of that particular group,” I said. It was an innocent enough remark, but the man seemed to take affront at the word “particular.”

“He’s like that with all groups,” he said, raising his chin high in the air.

It certainly hadn’t looked that way in the factory, though I wasn’t about to say so.

But the man seemed once again to read my thoughts and said in a wounded tone, “What you saw in that godforsaken hellhole, my friend, was an example of people misinterpreting Jason’s harmless behavior to support their own political agenda.”

“Oh yes?” I said, unsure if I should be encouraging him but curious all the same.

“They never liked the ideas I had for the place,” he said. “They were always like, ‘you’re too ambitious, your ideas are too big for a small company like ours.’ That’s why they fired me. I was just too good for ‘em, you know? It had nothing to do with Jason. They’re using Jason as an excuse to get at me, and that’s what I detest.”       I nodded, but now there was something approaching a mania in his voice that was beginning to alarm me, and I began looking casually at the hotel buildings to try to work out which of them I had reserved a room in, and planning to excuse myself as soon as I’d found it. The problem was, as I said before, all the buildings looked the same bar a few quirks here and there—an alternative flower arrangement outside one, a gnome dressed in different colors outside another—and there were no external signposts. At any rate it was a short-lived effort, because as soon as we had turned the corner we were presented with the sight of Jason, standing in the road with his legs apart and howling over the limp body of a young woman in a white silk dress. We had no way of knowing at this stage whether he had attacked her, but it certainly looked like it. The man went a ghostly shade of grey, but rather than running to the scene and betraying his culpability to anyone who might be watching, he did his best to continue walking at a steady pace, while whispering “here boy!” in a curt, clipped tone that barely disguised his swelling panic.

Worse was to come, because as soon as Jason saw him advancing, he bent down and scooped up the woman in his antlers, tossing her bodily four feet into the air. Fortunately she landed in the snow on the roadside, not the hard asphalt, but the moan she let out in midflight was silenced ominously by the dull thud of her landing.       “Don’t you do that, you bastard!” the man half-whispered half-shouted in a tone that suggested he was deeply wounded by his table dog’s behavior.

But Jason paid no heed and was about to do the same again when we at last reached the scene—it was only a short distance, but it had seemed interminable—and the man was able to re-secure him.

“You’ve let me down this time, Jason,” he was saying, “you really have. Is she dead?”

I wasn’t sure whether he was asking me, or just generally stating it, but, though it was clear that she was not in fact dead and was even moaning slightly as he asked, I bent down and dutifully took her pulse, which was bizarrely regular and calm, given what she’d apparently been through.

“She’s alive,” I confirmed.

“Oh thank goodness,” the man said. “That’s something anyway.”       The woman before us was certainly attractive. She had long black hair that contrasted dramatically with her pale skin, and rosy, red lips and cheeks. The overall impression she gave was that of a wistful Snow White type, but with one noticeable flaw in this ideal, namely her strangely overdeveloped forearms, which, once seen, couldn’t easily be ignored. If anything they reminded me of a paraplegic’s forearms, which are often very muscular due to operating a wheelchair, but there was no evidence that the woman had been disabled before this incident.

I was trying not to stare at the outsized limbs when I heard a small, high-pitched voice issuing from somewhere nearby. I looked up at the man, because for a moment at least the voice seemed to be coming from his vicinity and I feared that perhaps the stress of the situation had caused him to revert to a child-like state. But in fact it was coming from behind him, and it turned out to belong to a second young woman, also in a white silk dress and also possessed of long, dark hair and red, rosy cheeks. In fact, as far as I could tell, she was identical to the woman lying at our feet.

On seeing her, the man half jumped out of his skin, and in a flurry of guilt and confusion said, “It wasn’t me. I didn’t do it! She was like that when I found her!” Whether he would have issued his blanket denial to anyone who happened on the scene, or whether he had assumed a family connection due to the resemblance, I wasn’t sure, but the young woman was far from being accusatory, and immediately set about reassuring him.

“Don’t worry,” she said, kneeling down. “She does that all the time. It’s something I’m totally used to.” Tenderly brushing her counterpart’s hair away from her face, she picked up a little snow and rubbed it on her lips.

While she was doing this, I couldn’t help but notice that she had the exact same over-developed forearms, and I had to suppress the desire to ask about them, for though that might be an appropriate thing to ask a bodybuilder, it would certainly be rude with a lady.

“She does do it all the time?” the man was asking over-eagerly.

“Oh yeah,” the woman was saying. “We just have to live with it, I’m afraid. It’s been that way since we were kids. We’re sisters, in case you didn’t notice.”

“I see,” the man said, as if he hadn’t even seen a resemblance.

Eyeing the already-purpling patch on her sister’s leg, the young woman added,

“Looks like she’s got some nasty bruises this time, too.”

Though the man coughed self-consciously at this, she seemed not to have made the connection with Jason, and after rubbing some more snow onto her sister’s lips, she looked up and said, “I do appreciate your help, I really do,” and gave us both a broad though distant smile.

“Well it was my Jason here who found her,” the man said, seizing his opportunity to portray the table dog in a saintly light. Indeed it was as if Jason’s “discovery” of the woman were only the latest in a long line of good deeds. Looking across at me, he added, “We didn’t do a thing, mate, did we?”

I shook my head.

As if aware of his change of fortune, Jason let out another almighty howl, and he was rewarded with another pat on the head and a “good boy, there’s a good boy.”

“I don’t suppose you could help us with something else, could you?” the young woman asked suddenly.

“Anything,” the man said, “just name it.”

“Well I was trying to find our hotel,” she said. “It’s called the Hilton, but I can’t locate it. They all seem to look alike.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know,” the man replied gravely, before turning to me. “You don’t, do you?” He expression was a defeated one, as though asking me were a pure formality unlikely to lead to anything.

“Well, let me check my map,” I replied.

“Oooh, he’s got a map,” the man said in an impressed tone, rattling my shoulder.

“Good for him!”

From my backpack I took out the map I had been wanting to refer to for some time in order to locate my own hotel, and began scanning it. “Is that Hillton with two Ls?” I asked after a moment, looking up at the young woman.

Her reply was one of curt annoyance. “I suppose so,” she said.

Because I was surprised that this otherwise charming and sympathetic woman might suffer from snobbery, I continued looking for a little longer than was feasible given that she’d replied positively, and at last said, “ah there it is,” pointing at the map with my finger.

The man looked over my shoulder and said, “Well, it should be right here,” while the unconscious woman gave a perfectly-timed moan, as if she’d known that all along.

“Indeed, you’re virtually on the doorstep, ma’am,” I said, pointing at the hotel’s steps, which were decorated with little goblin-like men bearing “Hillton” nameplates in their teeth, much too small to be easily seen unless you were actively looking.

“Well thank you very kindly,” the young woman said.

Then, to my almost uncomprehending surprise, and presumably the man’s too, she got to her feet, placed her hands under her sister’s body almost as roughly as Jason had his antlers a few minutes before, and hoisted her up with a clean jerk. She then marched off toward the steps of the hotel without a word.

But the bizarre scene did not end there. As soon as she had reached the base of the steps, she paused and began to waver, almost as though there were a gas leak that was affecting her clarity of mind. Then her legs folded beneath her and she collapsed in a heap with her sister on top.

I instinctively started forward with the aim of helping, fearing the unconscious woman’s weight might be too much for her, but the man stuck his arm out to stop me.

“I wouldn’t if I were you,” he said. “People can sue if you give them first aid these days.”

As it turned out I was glad he did restrain me, for what happened next negated the notion that the young women should be interfered with at all. About thirty seconds after the conscious one had hit the floor, the unconscious double awoke, pushed her sister’s body off of herself and rising to her feet. For a minute or two she wandered around, seemingly unable to get her bearings or even remember where she was, and at one point stumbling in our own direction but looking straight through us as if we were another pair of china gnomes. Eventually she clocked the hotel steps, where her unconscious sister was laid out, walked over again, and scooped her up in those muscular arms, before ascending the steps with clonking feet.

The man and I continued watching, our faces hovering between puzzlement and wonder, until the sisters had disappeared under the hotel eaves with their fake icicles and the doors had slid behind them.

My strange companion said nothing more beyond a brusque goodnight, as if what we’d witnessed were somehow incommunicable, and we went our separate ways—me to my hotel just down the street and he, presumably, to his. I watched him talking to the ever-eager Jason as he went, grabbing hold of the table dog’s antlers in that rough but affectionate manner.

“There’s a good boy,” he was saying. “Who’s my special St. Bernard, then? Who saved the day?”

Andrew Pidoux is the author of a book of poetry, Year of the Lion (Salt Publishing, 2010), and the recipient of an Eric Gregory Award from the UK’s Society of Authors. Recent fiction of his has appeared in Litro, Pennsylvania Literary Journal and Stand, poems in Magma, Poetry Salzburg Review and Wasafiri, and comics in Wilderness House Review.

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