Dog Boy
Dawna Kemper

When Dog Boy dreams, he dreams of sausage.

Dog Boy laps water from his metal bowl. The circular tent is stuffy. On the canvas walls, flat shadows move and change shape inside brightness. Dog Boy barks at the shadows until they yell at him to shut up. He sits. He can hear generators chugging somewhere outside; he smells the crude exhaust. The straw beneath his rump itches. The shadows move away but the flap to the tent remains closed. Dog Boy’s eyes follow the length of the pole he’s chained to, higher and higher, up to a pure blue ring of sky where the pole rises out beyond the canvas. Dog Boy stares up into the circle of blue and light, while time and clouds pass, until something pricks behind his left ear and he scratches and scratches until he bleeds.

Dog Boy is hungry. He hasn’t been fed since . . . he doesn’t know. But it feels like a long time. His belly is empty. It’s gotten dark at least twice since he last had food. His trainer, Mel, says the circus is broke. They have to ration. Whatever that means. Besides, Dog Boy always eats too fast, Mel says. “A gobbler,” Mel says. “Gobble, gobble.” Dog Boy sighs and curls up in the straw and returns to his sausage dreams. He ate a sausage once, in a place called Wisconsin. The sausage was moist and meaty and spicy. He’d been gut-sick for days after, but he longed for a taste of another. The food Mel gives him is dry kibble. Dog Boy chomps up the kibble as soon as Mel drops it into the dish. Mel has to pull his fingers out of the way or off they’ll come, so hungry is Dog Boy.

Dog Boy’s metal water bowl is nearly empty. He sees a not-quite-clear face in the bowl. The face looks serious. It has a speckled snout, and the sides droop. The nose is black and dry. The ears are long and hang like tent flaps. A shallow film of water lines the bottom of the dish. In it a dead fly floats on its back. It drifts into the center of Dog Boy’s reflected left eye. The fly turns in lazy circles; its wings are spread and its tiny legs are cramped up tight against its round black body. Dog Boy blows into the dish. He makes ripples in the thin sheet of water and watches the fly turn and turn and turn.

Dog Boy has no parents. He doesn’t know how old he is, in human or in dog years.

From the neck down, Dog Boy’s body is bare and like a boy’s. Except for his legs. His legs are like a dog’s only with boy skin; he has long thighs, and ankles that point backward. He has haunches instead of hips. But he has hands. And feet. Not paws. He has no tail. But his head is definitely dog.

In another era, Dog Boy would be mythic. Blind poets would sing about him.

On hot days, the shadow of the tent pole marks time. Dog Boy pants and watches the pole’s shadow move over the straw in its slow arc. He tracks it, scooting gradually along on his belly. He rests, scoots, so that his snout is always in contact with the shadow as it traverses. He does this until dusk, when the long shadow dissolves into the spreading pool of gray that once was straw, and as the marker vanishes he feels a painful emptiness swell inside his chest until the sound of the calliope distracts him.

The music starts at the same time every evening, just as the tiny circular sky above his head begins to darken. It’s always the same tune, repeated over and over and over. He likes the song, but the sound of it hurts his ears.

Every night before Mel comes for him, Dog Boy stops and stares up at the hole. He looks for the bright speckle that Lucy, the horse trainer, once told him was called the “Dog Star.” He has not been able to see it again, as far as he knows. Lucy smelled like lemons and horse. Before she left, Dog Boy licked her ankles. Lucy hasn’t been back; he doesn’t know what happened to her.

Besides the Dog Star and Lucy, Dog Boy’s best memory is of Wisconsin. He remembers the acrobat with the odd way of talking. The man had a paper plate on which he balanced a pile of tiny sausages. The acrobat was clumsy for an acrobat, and he tripped and dropped the plate just as he passed Dog Boy’s tent. The man cursed in his strange accent. Dog Boy whined at the aroma, even though he’d never tasted sausage before. The acrobat tossed one of the sausages inside the tent. The others he scooped up with the paper plate and dumped into a metal trash barrel and walked away. The sausage rolled on the straw, and stopped. Dog Boy leapt on it. The sausage was tiny, no thicker than his thumb. The sausage was moist and spicy and greasy. “Slow down, gobbler.” Dog Boy could hear Mel’s voice in his head. But Dog Boy couldn’t help himself. The sausage disappeared in a slurpy instant. Dog Boy sat back on his haunches and licked his lips. He kept running his tongue around the inside of his mouth, over his lips, again and again, tasting the spicy echo of meat until eventually it was gone and his mouth tasted as his mouth did before. He looked toward the tent flap expectantly. But no more sausages rolled in.

In the straw there is a perfect wide circle around the pole, exposing dirt that Dog Boy churns going around and around. When they move to a new town, Dog Boy makes a new circle.

Dog Boy gets the urge to dig. Digging makes his fingers hurt and bleed, but he can’t stop himself. He digs and digs in the same spot until there’s a nice deep hole. But then it’s always the same. He stares into the hole. “Now what?” he wonders. He stares and stares, but nothing comes to him. Eventually, he realizes his fingers hurt, and he licks them until they stop bleeding.

Dog Boy stretches after his nap. The stretching feels good. He yawns, smacks his mouth open and shut. He checks his food bowl: empty. He sniffs around in it anyway. Overhead, the ring of sky has turned gray. A sound begins to patter the canvas and Dog Boy shivers. He watches drips of water slide down the pole. The wet noise becomes a louder wash of sound above his head. A rumble and crack terrify him, and he tries to burrow under the straw. He curls and tucks his furred head into his bare belly and shakes. When the thunder finally stops and the rain softens to a steady shower, he lifts his head. Sniffs. The air smells charged and fresh. It makes him feel better. At the base of the pole he finds a puddle of rainwater. Dog Boy laps it up. It’s a little muddy, but cool. Dog Boy pushes his fingers into the mud. It squishes in a way that feels satisfying. He smears mud over his bare chest and scoops up more to spread over his belly. He raises his hands to his wet nose, sniffs. There are so many smells complicating this mud, the smell of minerals and rain, the smell of congealed history. Before she disappeared, Lucy the horse trainer told him a story: that original humans were molded from mud. But Lucy did not believe this. She believed people were made of dust from stars, by sheer random luck. “Humans are accidents,” she said. Lucy did not attempt to explain Dog Boy’s origins—whether mud or stardust or something else—and he could not form the question in a way she was able to understand. He had tried and tried but only whining sounds came out and that was when he began to lick her ankles and she left for good. The rain has stopped. Dog Boy scratches a scab on his neck at the border where the bare skin turns to short dense fur. The open ring overhead is now clearing to blue again; the canvas walls brighten and the air inside heats. He looks up, hoping to glimpse the Dog Star—Lucy said, day and night it is always there—but instead a beam of sunlight blinds him.

Dog Boy has a phantom tail. When excited he can feel the invisible tail wagging; his whole rump moves with it. When he’s afraid, he tucks it between his legs. But there is something frustrating about it, like eating imaginary food. Sometimes his frustration builds until he feels the intense and sudden urge to chase this invisible tail; he spins around and around in a tight circle until he exhausts himself.

Strangers come to see Dog Boy. Every night when they aren’t traveling, he is led out to a platform in another tent. Here the light glares in his face. He waits until a shadowy line of people clot in front of him. They are disembodied heads floating in the darkness. They stare. He sits, blinking into the harsh light. Eventually someone tells him to sit up and beg. They tell him to roll over and play dead. “Cute!” they say. Dog Boy lifts his leg and begins to lick himself. “Disgusting,” they say. They pelt him with kettle corn before they advance to the next attraction. Dog Boy snuffles the splintery boards, searching for a stray kernel, before he is pulled away by the chain, back to his tent.

At night, Dog Boy listens to the circus people sit around and talk outside his tent. The circus people talk only about the same things, over and over: themselves, and each other. Dog Boy wishes they would talk about something else, but he isn’t sure what. The Dog Star would be nice; he’d like to hear a story about that. Now and then one of them brings up “the past.” “The past” seems to make them very happy for a moment, but the longer they talk the sadder they become. Dog Boy lies down in the straw and tries to remember the past. There are fleeting sensations. Smells, mainly. Some comfort. Also, pain. He remembers being nestled against a larger furred body, a heartbeat steady against his cheek. He vaguely recalls distressed barks and loud voices. A cage too small to lie down in. Confusing memories: truck exhaust, a horn that terrified him, human shouts, mixed up animal smells and cries, bumpy movement. Curling into a blanket that smelled of mold. Hunger. Still, these recollections are so rare he gets excited whenever some tangible thing begins to take shape from the shadows inside his head. He can’t control what comes to him, but he keeps trying, hoping that whatever it is will be good. Before he can fully see it, though, something else—a clang, a fly, an odor, an itch—always pulls him back to the dry straw in the tent.

One afternoon, a strong wind rolls a white paper plate through the flap and into Dog Boy’s tent. Dog Boy sniffs. Even from a distance he can smell the spicy grease stain on the paper. His stomach rumbles. Dog Boy stalks the plate; he lays low even though the straw makes his groin itch. His teeth clack together. The empty plate wobbles in the breeze on top of the straw. His teeth clack a second time. Dog Boy begins to crawl toward the plate; his chain clinks as it extends behind him. The collar pulls at his neck. The plate is just beyond reach. His teeth clack harder. Dog Boy groans. He stretches and strains until at last the plate is between the very tips of his fingers. Dog Boy pulls it to his lips, holds it with both hands, and licks and licks and licks. He chews the paper until he has swallowed the entire plate which he immediately and noisily regurgitates. A shadow outside the tent yells, “Gross.” Dog Boy barks at the shadow until it goes away. With his fingers he drags straw over the mess to cover it, in case Mel comes in, but before he knows it he’s gobbling it up, though he doesn’t enjoy it at all.

Dog Boy wishes he had a name. He tries to name himself, but the only names he can think of already belong to one of the circus humans or animals. He wants to make one that is his. He tries out various sounds, but they feel like noises, not names. The sounds inside his head are never what come out of his mouth. What comes out of his dog mouth is always garbled. He lies down with his snout resting inside his tilted food bowl. He looks in at the blurry reflection on the metal, and tries to see what his name should be. He wants a name to come to him. But nothing comes. He exhales heavily. His breath fogs the inside of the bowl.

Dog Boy’s howl is unnatural. His voice is a sound trapped between boy and dog, a sound that is trying and trying to form itself into something. When he howls, his body feels as if he is pushing something tremendous out of his chest and up through his throat, but whatever it is never fully dislodges. Once he begins to howl, he can never seem to stop. Late at night, the other circus creatures – the lions, the clowns, the horses, the barkers, the monkeys, the trainers, the snakes, the freaks, the zebras, even the ringmaster—all tremble in their dark compartments when they hear the force of his cry.