The baying of the dogs stopped at two. At the time, I wasn’t concerned with their sudden stillness; I just wanted to go to sleep. Somehow though, without their cyclical, rhythmic yelps in the street, it wouldn’t happen. The rhythm had stopped, and that emptiness, somehow, in some capacity, was more disconcerting than their howling. Maybe, I’m just an insomniac.
I keep my room desolate. I’ve neglected the water damage percolating through a sagging ceiling like a coffee filter. I’ve stacked the three books my ex-girlfriend lent me on a chair. I haven’t read them. I sleep—or rather try to—on an emaciated, little mattress on the floor. The floor is hardwood. I live like a monk; I like the religiosity of it. There are many things I loathe about myself, but this god-fearing existence is not one of them because it allows me to plot out big questions. This monastic austerity is nice, for me, getting back up on my feet and everything.
The dogs start up again; it’s 2:45. It is metrical, planned. It cycles like a radar system alerting me to the presence of some entity lying just outside my field of perception. Their cries incise an otherwise silent night. I expected the howls of these street dogs to become ragged, desperate, but they are nothing except constant and unflinching. There is a pattern in their barking, I am sure. They are telling me something.
I listen for several minutes.
If there’s a pattern, then there is something they want me to know; there is something they want me to do. I am the servant of these dogs, at their nocturnal beck and call. Have I done all that’s expected of me recently? Did I finish those reports? (no). Have I cooked myself dinner tonight? (yes, it wasn’t very good). Have I called my mother?
I should call my mother. She picks up on the fourth ring; I must have woken her.
Faintly: “Jesus Christ.” Now more clearly: “Charles, it’s the middle of the night.”
“I was just thinking about how I haven’t called you in a while.”
A beat. “Can you listen to these dogs? Do they sound weird to you?”
“Charles, it just sounds like dogs barking.”
“I’m going to hang up now.”
It does not just sound like dogs barking. If it does, then I’m crazy. These are not just regular dogs barking at three in the morning. They are telling me something, and I am afraid.
I am not afraid of dogs. I had a dog when I was young; it did not bite me. Its name was Max, and he was a mutt. He sat outside all summer and barked at squirrels and birds and people. He ate things he wasn’t supposed to. Max barked, but not like this. I bear no latent trauma towards canines. I don’t think. I like dogs.
There is one conclusion then: these are not dogs barking in the street. If they were dogs, I would not be afraid. This isn’t how dogs are supposed to act. There is something else out there, maybe many things, out the window.
The dogs require a response. I have long since removed myself from my saintly little mattress and begun pacing. What do they expect me to do? How am I supposed to acknowledge that I have received their message?
I get down on my hands and knees, cold on the hardwood. I get a splinter in my palm. The dogs stop barking. It’s silent outside my window. It’s dark, and there’s nothing out there. For a moment, I consider that all this has been a delusion, that I am just sleep-deprived and unstable, that I have mistaken the typical baying of dogs for a coded message from some greater entity. It’s still quiet. They are waiting for my response, in silence, patiently, politely.
This is stupid. I’m not going to howl with some dogs, constructed from my delusion or not; this requires greater action. I get my shoes on, walk out the door before the throaty yelp of a dog shatters some saner part of the night, and once again, the message cycle sets into motion. I feel as if most of this is just me falling apart.
When I was younger—not that much younger—I would run after midnight, when the cruelest heat dissipates from the pavement, when most folks retreat to their homes, when I can’t hear anything except the barking of a stray dog. Tonight, I cannot hear anything except the barking of a stray dog. I start picking at the splinter in my hand: the shard of wood is really lodged in there.
I have removed myself from my priestly room up there, and now I am walking the streets. It’s colder than I would’ve thought. There aren’t any people out, but their tall, impassive buildings are still here. They have left their things behind them: heaps of waste, a completed page from a coloring book, gum, more cigarette butts than I would have expected. Do people still smoke? Should I start smoking?
This is nice though; this is really nice. I’m getting some really nice clarity out here, with the cloud cover blotting out all this glowing light, with a stolid reacquaintance with humanity and all its little creations, with the marked absence of any dogs here. I feel monk-like, ascetic.
But a dog apparates into the street; it lopes around the corner and appears there. It looks like a dog, and I don’t really know what that means, how this works. Its bones grin through stringy dogflesh: a ribcage, a spinal cord, a jawbone. The creature is constructed like a dog. I can see it, smell it, feel it. This is a street dog. “Shit.”
I half-expected to find nothing out here: a dimly-illuminated nightscape void of anything that could be construed as a dog, anything capable of making dog-sounds. Here is a dog though. It doesn’t bark or anything because its pinkish tongue lolls from its mouth, panting, panting like a dog. I can’t tell if it’s a boy or a girl. I lean over to check, but it’s too dark out. I wonder what my ex-girlfriend would think about this. It is Max; it is a dog. I should call my mother, say, “Look! Look! It is a dog, and this is all very strange. I have solved this great mystery, and now I can go to sleep. I am sorry to wake you again, but I have won.”
The dog speaks: “Charles, you are an idiot. Sequestered in your little cell or out here parading these boulevards, you are a fool. You have an insipid tendency to rationalize the little things, the strange things, Charles. That is a necessary act for you, this reliance on comprehension to survive, to sleep. You question all things within that subjective experience of yours, and it’s stupid. The dogs are barking, yes; you have recognized a pattern that many have seen prior. Your assumption that you are the intended receiver of this message, though, will be your ultimate undoing: conceited man in that lonely tower. You are a man who observed the motions of the world and believed so absolutely that this wonderful gift, or curse, or however you would like to conceptualize it, was bestowed upon you. Look at the mechanics of this place; you cannot understand them; you cannot know their intention. These are questions for the dogs, Charles.”
Charles walked back to his room and went to sleep.