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The Dogs of Belen
John Prohaska

Her hand was tiny, like that of a child. Thin and smooth like a leaf, I folded mine about it protectively. Tethered in this way, we moved together through the sensory minefield that was the market of Belén.

On the ground were patches of mud and fluids made more repugnant through their anonymity. Sharp corners of crude tables silently warned us off. The throng of people, as always in an open market, held the latent threat of pickpockets. From above hung extension cords and plastic sheets that served as awnings. They posed no threat to her, but were placed at optimal height for the decapitation of tall foreigners like myself. Images of dried animal foetuses and carcasses swinging from strings assailed my sensibilities. Everything seemed to emanate an unearthly heat. The uncoordinated march of dissonant sounds deadened my thought processes. And cutting through it all was the stench. This was more than the odour of drying animal flesh covered in flies. This was Europe during the plague. This was advanced decomposition. This was a smell that tinted the very colour of the air.

I looked down at her. She was smiling and unaffected. What was her name? Maritza? No. That belonged to another. Still, she may wear it for the telling of this tale. Maritza continued to navigate the melee towing me behind her. I marveled at the eccentricity of her form. It was composed of the strangest balance of contrasts. She was slender, bordering on skinny and her hips were narrow. But her breasts and buttocks flared dramatically from her figure. She was like a boy's drawing on a washroom wall; a stick figure with exaggerated sexual characteristics. She turned back and smiled, her teeth large and even. I smiled back and we moved deeper into the market.
She abruptly stopped. "Do you know this fruit?" I looked at the pile she indicated. The skin was dark and nubby. I picked one up from the table, feeling the weight in my hand. It was about the size of a large goose egg. Holding it to my nose I said, "Is it good?"

Maritza shook her head enthusiastically. I asked for a small bag of them from the humourless heavy-set woman. Without rising from the wooden stool, she leaned over to throw five random selections into the baggie. I counted out the required amount of soles and we moved on. No longer holding hands with Maritza, I sampled a piece of the unknown fruit.

It was hideous. A thin layer of yellowy flesh was wedged between the pit and the thick skin. It was dry and fibrous, without sweetness. I was extremely disappointed. Tree bark was more satisfying. It was like eating stale, salt-free beef jerky. "You don't like it?" This time, honesty won out over delicacy. "No." I spit the piece out forcefully.
"It's wonderful," she persisted.
I gave the piece I'd begun to her. As we continued our journey to the rear of the market she gnawed on the fruit, contented as a beaver with a stick. Already I had forgotten the name of the noxious produce. It didn't matter. I would recognize it by sight. I would not wish to forget and buy it again by accident.

All along she had been mentioning her need to leave. Maritza was working a split-shift. At this time she would go home, a hot meal waiting from her mother's stove. They would be expecting her. And while it is the custom in Peru that women remain subordinate to their parents their whole lives, this time I selfishly ignored another's tradition. I delayed her using all available means. I was charming and humorous. I ignored her or pretended not to hear. I distracted her, calling her attention to some triviality. I used every pretense.

Having arrived at the end of the market, we sought an opening that would permit us our exit. Finally, we stepped out into the flood of sunlight at the riverbank. Before us was Belén itself, a slum of unpainted wood, grey from age and weather, its spindly legs thrust into the muddy shallows of the river. It was a community on stilits. It deserved its fair share of credit for much of that overpowering stench. Waste fell through the floors directly into the slow-moving waters below. Children swam naked between floating bottles and slimy yuca peels. I was standing in the middle of "Love in the Time of Cholera." I noticed Maritza who stood beyond the reach of this literaru deja vu. She studied Belén with mild curiosity while I looked on with a traveler's fascination. She began to talk about her necessity to return home again, her voice noticeably more insistent.

I enthusiastically recommended that we take one of the canoes into Belén, hurriedly stipulating that I would pay, of course. My plan was to delay her to the point where going home was no longer a practical course of action. But she had no interest in crossing to Belén. I thought quickly, realizing I was running out of options.
"I saw a dead dog floating earlier today. It's near here. Let's have a look."
Surprisingly, she agreed. We turned left, following the bank. The activity was only slightly less than within the market area. I noticed that the river water was the same ugly greyish-brown as the waters that ran through my own city. "Small world," I thought and chuckled. Ahead stood some sort of wharf/walkway.

We halted at its side. It bore the same weather-beaten colour as the rest of Belén. I placed my hand on the gnarled wood, feeling the heat that resided within. The structure rose to the bottom
of my rib cage and Maritza would be unable to clamber onto it. She grew frustrated. Wiping the sweat from her forehead, she complained that we would have to climb the embankment to cross, saying it was best that she go. Still, I would have none of it. As she turned to leave, I reached for her. Taking her by the armpits, I swung her like a bag of laundry onto the walkway. She weighed nothing in my arms. Her eyes met mine as she unleashed a squeal of little girl laughter, but it was a near-glimpse of her womanhood that stole my attentions. The ridiculously high-hemmed red dress she wore had been dragged even higher as she was forced to gather her legs underneath her. She seemed not to notice as she squeezed my hands to steady herself.

Slowly, she rose to her full five feet of height, grinning down at me. After joining her, we continued toward the promised spectacle. I had bought us a little more time. As we stepped carefully along the polluted shore, we soon came to another dock. This one was smaller, of more spare construction. We had arrived.

Once on top, I herded Maritza to where I had seen the carcass. It was no longer there. I was strangely disappointed. We had gone to some lengths only to come up empty-handed. Where could it have gone? Would someone have fished it out? Nobody would eat that, would they? Wait! It's over there!

I pointed it out to Maritza. It was in pretty good condition overall. The vultures I had seen on it before were no longer there. They had taken the eyes and left. I looked into the empty cavities. I could see nothing. The dog was too far away; it was too dark within those lifeless sockets. Strange that the vultures would only take the eyes. The bloated body exhibited no tears in
its grey flesh. The white fur stood up in clumps, the hairs clinging greasily together. There was no blood.

In absolute stillness, the body floated. It did not bob up and down, nor vibrate to outside influence. It did not move in deference to any currents. It was frozen in that moment, a living creature that I had never seen draw breath, that would live inside me until it was my turn to be still. The dog of Belén. Though unaware, Maritza and I were caught and frozen within that same moment. We said nothing, not moving, staring at the creature for a very long time. Around us, things carried on as they had for a century.

Then it was over. Maritza looked at me and said she had to go. This time I did not oppose her. We turned and began the climb past the market to the street. As we spoke, the surreal atmosphere of the day's events slowly slipped away. We talked of trivial things, laughing occasionally, neither mentioning anything about the afternoon.

At the street we flagged down one of those motorcycle/canvas rickshaw combinations that serve as taxis in the jungle city of Iquitos. She climbed aboard and we made vague promises to see each other later. I knew I would not ask her out again.They began to pull away.
Suddenly I shouted, "Wait!" and I gave chase. Within a couple of strides I'd caught them. Grasping the pole that supported the roof, I tossed the bag of disgusting fruit into her lap. Then I pulled up, listening to the sound of her small child laughter fade in the distance.
I stood in the middle of the road thinking. I asked myself what kind of country was I in when even the sight of a floating dog carcass wasn't enough to keep a woman interested. Then I started to laugh. I felt strangely rogueish. It was a sensation that I rarely nurtured, but usually enjoyed. I began walking back to the city center. It was early. Who knows what kind of trouble might yet yield itself to me?

© John Prohaska 2001


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