Chapter I of With
She tried to run away. You’re not supposed to do that, it’s a damage to the whole idea of devotion, and she ran away not because she lost even a smidgen of the true blue faith that bound her to him forever but simply because she began to believe that he might do her greater harm than he already had, he might even do away with her.
She had been bad. He had told her to watch the truck, to stay with the truck, to guard the damn truck, and she had done her best, patient as only she knew how to patient, as he had gone away with his arms full of a box and then had come back by and by and had taken another box and disappeared once again and then kept on doing that, box after box, and she had yearned to go with him, the late afternoon had been coming on, and he had been gone such a long, long time, and she had convinced herself that there was nobody else around, nobody was going to bother the stuff left in the truck, she couldn’t catch the faintest wind of any person anywhere for miles, and therefore what harm if she just explored a little bit, not going far from the truck, keeping it always within range, and keeping a closer guard for the first sign of his return? But a deer with two fawns had come into view and she had been thrilled to pieces, especially by the fawns, so cute and innocent and curious, and before she had realized what she was doing, she had followed them off into the woods for a considerable distance before she had realized that she had completely lost touch with the truck.
And when she had returned, he had been there, and he had been furious. The very tone of his voice had hacked and slashed her, and then he had taken a stick and had beaten her with it. She had protested and whined but he had kept on beating her until she could hardly stand up. Then he had told her to get back onto the truck and stay there and not even think about leaving it again. He had taken another box and gone away once more, and she had lain in the truck bed among the few remaining boxes and had inspected some places on her ribs and her legs where his beating of her had actually drawn blood. She had been very sad. She had understood why he had beaten her, and she was terribly ashamed for having disobeyed him and abandoned the truck, and she had been miserable in her guilt and in her unhappiness.
The next day he had done the same thing, going into a town to a store and loading up the truck and driving it back and up, up the mountain road so rough and bouncy she was nearly thrown out of the truckbed more than once, and then making her stay with the truck all afternoon while he unloaded it, box by box, sack by sack. And the next day, the same. And the next.
Now she thought and thought about the whole situation, and felt a nagging wonder about the possibility that somebody else could be a lot nicer to her than he was. Mostly he was good to her, but ever since he had taken her away from her mother he had not shown her much affection or even much notice, except when he had needed her for something. He had provided a good home for her, and had fed her well, and she had liked the place a lot but now it appeared that he was getting ready to move, and she didn’t think she wanted to move. Why else would he be toting all those boxes and sacks up here to the different place? Once or twice (or was it three times?) in the beginning he had allowed her to walk with him to the different place and look it over. The truck could not get there, or even near it, and she managed to understand why. The road ended at a deep gully where rains had washed the road away. And even if the road had not been washed away there, the road later fell to pieces all over the place, and they had to go down into deep ravines, so steep she sometimes slipped if she didn’t watch her footing, and very hard to climb out of, and once they climbed out of it they were on a very narrow bluff ledge that scared her with its height and danger. She tried to picture him alone with his arms full of those boxes and bags trying to climb down into those ravines and then back up out of them and across that awful bluff ledge, and she could almost understand why he would be in such a bad mood that he would beat her unmercifully. Then after trekking up and down through all that rough rocky land and across that bluff ledge and into the deep dark forest again, the road, or path, or what barely remained visible of it, climbed sharply and trickled out for good, rising to an old homestead in a bramble-clogged meadow on the very top of the mountain. She had been stunned by her first view of the old house, and of the house’s view of distant miles of mountains. She could tell that nobody had been up there for a long, long time. It was in her nature to search, upon first seeing any strange house, for any signs that might betray any information about the inhabitants. But there was no information whatsoever here. After he had taken her inside the house and she got a whiff of the interior she began to sort through a cluster of old stale smells, not one of which was familiar to her, except that of rodents. Clearly whoever had lived here had departed ages ago.
Behind the house, near an orchard that was swallowed up in brush and briars, were the remains of an old barn, and there she could barely detect the fact that it had once been inhabited by a cow and a pair of mules. There was the rodent smell again. Another building, smaller than the barn but unlike it not in danger of collapse, was just an open shed with benches along its walls and an assortment of round wooden drums or casks unlike any in her acquaintance. There was one other tiny little building by itself between the barn and the house, its door ajar and inside she saw a bench-like seat that had two large holes cut in it. There was a distinct odor of poop overlying an assortment of ancient poop-smells, and she assumed that he had been using this little building to do his business.
A few of the small things which he had already moved into this place had come from his house, and thus she managed to understand that he was indeed planning to transfer the contents of that house, her home, to this place. She didn’t like it. Or didn’t she? Strangeness, unfamiliarity in any form disturbed her at the same time that it piqued her curiosity. She was adaptable and could easily learn to enjoy life here, if that was what he wanted. But why did he want it?
Why was he going to take her away from her home and move her into this strange stranded dwelling-place? So many times already he had taken the truck, empty, to huge stores in big towns, where he had loaded up the truck and brought it up here and slowly unloaded it, a box or a bag at a time, and carried it to the remote house. Maybe he just liked all the exercise. But why did she have to stay with the truck? In the beginning it had been fun to watch but now it was old and dull and she was tired of it. And she had no idea how much longer it would keep on going on. He had been mean to beat her so cruelly. She began to think seriously about the amazing idea of running away. First she had to think seriously about where she would go if she did run away, and to consider what her chances would be of an alternative existence elsewhere. Then she had to make a mental list of all the things she didn’t like about him.
What he called her, for instance. Bitch. On the surface, there was nothing wrong with that, because that’s what she was, but it was such a neutral name, no affection in it, and the way he said it sometimes made it sound like he was cursing her. She had a perfectly nice name, Hreapha, and it was a great pity that he could not call her that. Probably he just couldn’t pronounce it properly. It was a name that she liked to come out with to all the world, enthusiastically or warningly, depending on the occasion. “Hreapha! Hreapha!” she often declared. It was what she told him whenever he returned to her after one of his foot-trips to carry boxes to the old house, but when she’d said “Hreapha” after his return the time she’d gone to watch the deer and fawns she had intended for the sound of it to carry abject apology, and yet he had viciously beaten her anyway.
The name had been given to her by her mother, whose name was Whuphvoff. Her mother had taught her everything she knew about the world, especially how to fight and take care of herself. She had never known her father, whose name was Ralph Alf, but her mother had often described Ralph Alf as beautiful and irresistible albeit not half the size of her mother. Her mother had spent most of her life in dwellings; her father was strictly the outdoor type. Hreapha had sextuplet brothers and sisters but one by one the others had been removed from the family while still young until only Hreapha remained to enjoy her mother’s company and instruction for a long time, until her mother had taught her everything she knew about the world.
And then one day he had taken her away from her mother and quite possibly Hreapha had never forgiven him for that, and she made note of it now as one more reason for running away. He had never even bothered to tell her what his name was. She grieved for her mother unceasingly, but he had said, “Bitch, you aint never gon lay eyes on your maw again, so you might as well snap out of it.” And oh, if only he had done anything to help, such as taking her out for a run or a walk or even playing fetch with her in the yard, but he just left her all alone to endure her loss. Her mother had explained to her the enormous benefits of being loyal and devoted to one’s master, but Hreapha had rarely taken pleasure in any such benefits with this man.
He had two vehicles, and when he took the truck he always made her ride in the back, even in the coldest part of winter. Riding in back was not without its satisfactions: she had a full exposure to all the fascinating smells and sights that ordinarily she could only get by sticking her head out the window, which she couldn’t do when he kept the window rolled up because of the cold. When he took her, as he sometimes did, in the other vehicle, she was permitted to sit on the seat beside him and sometimes, if it wasn’t too cold, to stick her head out the window on that side. The other vehicle had no back end like a truck, just a back seat, with a wire fence separating it from the front seat. That vehicle also had lights on the roof that sometimes flashed. When the lights flashed there sometimes came from deep within the vehicle a hideous screaming sound as if the vehicle were in angry death throes. Then the vehicle would stop behind another vehicle alongside the highway and he would get out and go over and talk not nicely to the other person and give that person a slip of paper.
He usually did not take her with him on these trips in the flashing, screaming vehicle, in which he departed nearly every morning, leaving Hreapha to entertain herself in the front or back yard. But one time she happened to be riding with him when the person he stopped and spoke not nicely to took a metal thing that he pointed and made a loud explosive noise and caused the windshield over Hreapha’s head to be punctured in three different places, and then her master had taken a metal thing and pointed it at the man and made the loud explosive noise and the man had fallen down. He had searched through the other vehicle for a long time, and from its trunk had taken a large canvas bag and put it into the trunk of his own vehicle. Returning to her, he had remarked, “Well, now, Poochie-wooch, me and you are in the goddamn clover!” She had no idea what he meant but she was delighted that he had called her something other than Bitch.
That had been the last time that the flashing, screaming vehicle had ever been used. From then on, he didn’t go off to whatever his dealings were each day but stayed home, day after day. As the weather warmed he even went fishing, and took Hreapha with him and she greatly enjoyed that although she could not begin to imagine why anyone would want to eat a fish.
But then he gave up fishing and started taking the truck to those huge stores in several different towns and loading it up with all those boxes and bags. At least in the beginning she loved all that travel.
Hreapha understood how important the boxes and bags must have been to him. So he could almost be forgiven for his anger at her for her failure that one time to guard the truck constantly. She told herself she could let that go, his beating her. But there were so many other things she couldn’t let go. One of them had happened not so very recently on a night so cold she dreaded trying to sleep in the backyard in the crude little house he had made for her and lined with a stinky old blanket. He had surprised her by, instead of putting her out at the usual time, suddenly saying to her, “Hey, Bitch, how’d you like to sleep with me tonight?” His breath reeked of the beverage that made him stumble when he walked.
Hreapha had never slept with anyone except her brothers and sisters and after they were gone her mother for a while. She could not for the life of her understand why he was making such an invitation, and she could only sit and stare quizzically at him, as he repeated himself with variations and then tried to coax her into his bedroom. Obediently, as he slapped his thigh and snapped his fingers, she followed him into the bedroom, and watched him remove his clothes and climb under the covers. He lifted the corner of the covers and said, “Come on, honeybunch. Snuggle up.” He had to repeat that with variations, all the while patting the bedsheet beside him, until finally, hesitantly, she took a bound and landed on the bed. He put out the light and covered her up and wrapped her in his arms.
It was wonderful. No person had ever held her like that before, so close, and she could feel the cozy heat in his body. She moaned in pleasure. After a while she found herself easily and happily drifting off, and then she was sound asleep, but she woke abruptly at the realization that her afterplace was being poked or probed by what was possibly his manthing, which she had never seen before and thus could not be certain of, although he certainly smelled as if he were in heat, a condition which she herself had not yet experienced but had had carefully explained to her by her mother. Waking fully and struggling to stand, Hreapha snarled a declaration of her belief that such activity was not natural and in any case was not something she was ready to attempt. Her opinion meant nothing to him, and he tried harder to bring about an attachment. “You want to do it doggie-style?” he said and laughed uproariously. And indeed attempted to continue in the posture and fashion common to her kindred, which she had observed on occasion, not always with envy although usually with wonder. She whimpered an explanation that it wasn’t that she didn’t like him but she just didn’t feel ready for this sort of thing. And then she jumped off the bed and ran into the kitchen. He didn’t pursue her but cursed her for a while and then apparently fell asleep. She slept on the kitchen floor and was embarrassed in the early hours of dawn to discover that she had to do her business, and couldn’t get outside to do it, so prowled the house in search of the darkest, remotest, most unused corner.
The memory of that night remained with her now as she pondered the decision to run away. Although he had not again forced himself upon her, she lived in the dread and expectation that he might, at any time. She knew that he had increased his use of the beverage that made him stumble when he walked. She had been in the back of the truck when he had stopped at the places where he had obtained the beverages. It was in two different towns and he had to drive a long way to get to them. But she knew they were the beverage-places because as soon as he had loaded the truck he opened one of the boxes and took one of the bottles to the truck’s cab and began drinking from it. He had loaded many, many boxes of the bottles into the truck, and later had carried them, laboriously, carefully, into and out of all the ravines, over all the rough trail that led up to the new place. Hreapha bore no illusions about her intelligence but she knew she was smart enough to realize that if several sips from the bottle made him get loopy and rocky, then he had taken possession of enough entire boxes full of bottles to cause him to fly over the moon or kill himself, whichever came first.
Part of her felt an obligation to hang around and protect him, if she could. Her protective instincts were all-consuming and she was even proud of them. But a stronger part of her, perhaps not a natural part of her, was self-protective and therefore selfish.
There was only one box left in the truck, and he would soon be coming back to get it. She jumped down from the truck. She had thought about which way to go; her compass or simply her sense of the whereabouts of her in habit told her that south lay the tiny town that had become her home but that south was also the direction of the different place, albeit uphill. So she had better head north, and go downhill. She decided to wait until he came back into view, so he could watch her taking leave of him.
Her mother had once explained to her the meaning of a most common imprecation of people: bad dog. Her mother once told her that she could expect to be called a bad dog if she ever, ever did anything contrary to the best interests of people. Her mother told her that the imprecation was meant as a corrective but it usually just had the effect of causing undue guilt and remorse and anxiety. Her mother had advised her always to remember that regardless of how good she was she would always be somebody’s bad dog.
came back into view. She watched him as he approached the truck, and she
said “Hreapha!” to him in a way that clearly meant “goodbye.” And then
(photo by Clay Garrett)