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FICTION / The Dog That Whistled / Jane Wells


On a Saturday morning in August, Jess woke to discover that her dog Harold could speak. It was not the comically anthropomorphic way a dog barks on cue when its owner commands, “Speak.” No. It was actual human speech whereby sounds are deliberately arranged to signify a thing or a concept. Standing beside her bed, Harold brought his sweet Chesapeake face within about a foot of Jess’s and clearly said, “Give.” Wiping sleep’s film from her eyes, Jess, her voice still thick with night’s slaver, asked, “What?” And Harold repeated himself: “Give.”

Jess’s first response was to question her sanity. After all, a talking dog is the stuff of animation, not the real world of underemployed women with degrees in sociology. The challenge Jess faced was proving that she wasn’t hallucinating. Grabbing her phone from her dresser, she opened voice memos and pressed “record.”  “Can you say that again?” she asked, and Harold replied, “Give.” When Jess played back the memo, both voices were there, exactly as she had heard them before. Still, she could have been imagining things. In need of a second opinion, Jess used her landline to phone the last person on Earth who would ever flatter her into thinking she was sane.

“Hello, Mom.”

“Wow, you’re calling early. You really must want something.”

“No, mom. I just want you to listen and tell me what you hear.” 

Jess held the phone to the receiver and pressed play.

“Give?” Her mom asked, “Give what? What’s he asking? Where’d you dig up this guy? I’m not giving you any more money.” 

Jess hung up the phone. 

That day, Harold went on to say other words: “bone” and “ball.” Later, it was “water” and “food.” One would expect Jess to notify someone of her discovery, to report this evolutionary or supernatural development to the media or to a university so that she could enrich herself while perhaps along the way advancing human knowledge. Jess planned on doing just those things. Only, before she could figure out a game plan, something happened that disturbed Jess and gave her pause. 

It was the next day when Harold advanced from one-word remarks to two-word phrases. At first, Jess wasn’t quite sure what she was hearing. There were the expected expressions of canine desiderata: “Need water.” “Pet head.” But among these requests were other, more mysterious utterances: “Go out.” “Tug toy.” “Mission accomplished.” 

Others were disconcerting: “Scratch belly.” “Talk sweet.” “Illegal immigrants.”

And some were downright lurid: “Off leash.” “Flea meds.” “Welfare queens.”

It wasn’t long before Harold was predicating. Speaking in short sentences, Harold confirmed what his preliminary remarks had foreshadowed. “This kibble’s stale.” “My water’s warm.” “Lower taxes trickle down.” 

In those early days, Harold’s sentiments were sloganesque: “Don’t tread on me.” “Freedom isn’t free.” “These colors don’t run.” 

But eventually Harold’s comments, like his sentence structures, became more complex.

“The idea that a business has a financial obligation to make society a better place constitutes an unlegislated tax on freedom and ultimately degrades the society it means to improve.” 

“The rule of law is sacred, except in those cases where an individual is truly exceptional. In those cases, the law parts before him like the Red Sea.” 

Jess was as perplexed as she was ashamed. She stopped having friends over, and, not including the walks she took with Harold to White Oak Hollow near her home, she left the house only to work and to shop for herself and for Harold’s now-specified favorite brand of dog food. At first, she thought, “Maybe I just have a conservative breed.” But images online showed other Chesapeakes playing gregariously with families from around the globe, veritable tableaux of egalitarianism. At times, she would reason to herself, “Maybe it’s not so bad having a conservative for a dog,” but then Harold would say something appalling, and she would scrub embryonic plans to have a friend over for coffee or wine before they could hatch into invitations. 

Over time, Harold and Jess settled into a routine. At home, Harold would hold forth on a number of inflammatory issues. One week it would be the advantages of privatizing social security. Another, he might go on about threats to the second amendment. One night, Harold woke Jess from her sleep and, standing beside her on the bed, announced, “Really, it’s all a bunch of mental illness.” And so began LGBT week. Occasionally, his comments would hit close to home: “Even if woman is man’s legal and intellectual peer, insisting on that equality only buys her a life of lonely desperation.” But, usually, Harold’s politics were of a general ilk already so pervasive that, although Jess did not share them, they didn’t strike her as extreme.

Sometimes, Jess would try to challenge Harold on his beliefs. But Harold was an old dog; he knew all the tricks. When she told Harold, “I really don’t think it’s right to blame the poor for their poverty,” he replied, “Every day they make the choices that keep them poor.” Or when she pointed out that most undocumented workers were assets to society, Harold demurred, “And no matter how many good deeds they do, they’re still a bunch of illegals.” At times, Jess felt she should study how to mount better arguments against Harold’s views, but Jess already worked full-time; she didn’t have the luxury of sitting around all day, licking her ass and thinking of ways to justify hatred. 

Eventually, Harold’s sentiments receded into the background of Jess’s life at home. Yes, they were annoying, but, once she stopped listening to what Harold was saying, she experienced them as a kind of daily static, the whir of trucks on a busy road. 

That’s why it was so easy for Jess to pinpoint the moment she couldn’t take it anymore. Jess didn’t realize that she was already up to her neck in bilge until one evening Harold opened the floodgate. While Jess was steeping her jasmine tea, Harold put his paws on her chest and said, “Society would be better off if the races were segregated. That way, those of superior races could protect themselves from corruption by the inferior.” 

Jess knew she had to do something. Harold had become dangerous; his ideas were rabid. While she lay awake that night, she determined that when Harold went out to do his business in the morning, she would remove the .38 snub nose from the safe in her closet. She would walk Harold deep into the woods of White Oak Hollow, and while he was tugging on the rope toy, she would shoot him in his filthy mouth. If she were caught, she would say that Harold was sick and she couldn’t afford a veterinarian. 

The next morning arrived, and Jess woke to Harold yelling, “Shit! Shit!” over and over. Jess rose to see Harold laboring to walk to the door. “Goddammit! My hip. My hip!” 

“Oh, Harold,” Jess said.

They both knew what had happened. “It’s hip dysplasia,” Harold conceded, “the price I guess of being purebred.” 

It was only a matter of time. 

Of course, Harold chose euthanasia: “To me, life is hardly worth living if I cannot walk the verdant hills of the country God rightfully bequeathed to those of European stock.” He added, “Only, this time it’s my choice. It’s not like the involuntary celibacy you forced on me in adolescence.” 

Harold’s only request was that, before death, Jess record his manifesto. Jess refused. Harold was furious. He yelled, hectored, and growled. He inveighed against the frailty of women and their hindrance to human progress. He spewed epithets and railed at Jess for curtailing his free speech. Jess endured it patiently, knowing the end was near. 

When the day came that Harold could no longer walk, he whimpered that the time had come. Jess carried Harold to the car and somberly drove him to the vet. Harold was sullen and uncharacteristically silent as Dr. Dycus helped them into the room of expiry. 

Only after the doctor had fully depressed the plunger of Phenobarbital did Harold pipe up, saying, “For ages, individual man has looked to others to solve his problems. God, King, President, Prime Minister, Parliament, committee, society, neighbor, spouse, friend—these are all at best necessary evils, which is to say each one is always, as far as man’s dignity goes, evil—the adversary of the true, the right, and the free. Man is truly equal to the angels when he can stand toe to toe with the universe and say, ‘It is not you who takes me. It is I who joins you’.” 

At this moment, Harold’s consciousness passed into the twilight of death. Dr. Dycus looked at Jess astounded. “Did you know?” she asked. Jess shook her head. 

“What a shame,” the doctor eulogized. “It’s not just that we have lost a great thinker; we have lost a great friend.”

Jane Wells is an Associate Professor of English and has published extensively on Shakespeare's plays and served as an editor for the New Kittredge Shakespeare.