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A Fragile World
In the beginning there was nothing, not even a speck of life pulsating in the darkness or the tinge of hot breath trickling out of lungs. Yet slowly from this nothingness there grew an expansion of warmth interwoven with the darkness. An imaginary canopy spread over the darkness, encasing the warmth and causing it to collapse onto itself. In the middle of this stood a single entity, a being that was not made up of flesh and bone but rather of fear and lust, anger and joy. Perhaps it had a mouth, perhaps it didn’t, yet there was an unspoken language that it possessed and Jet, standing in the middle of it all, did not feel worthy enough to understand it.
Suddenly there was light, and Jet withdrew from it because his primitivism told him it was to be feared. It was hot, and this heat came from its own inner core, but despite that it wanted more to feed itself. He felt himself becoming engulfed in it, flailing about in the darkness and the unbearable heat, and the speech of the other became nothing more than a drifting memory in the vein of time.
“It’s time,” a voice drawled, and Jet stretched open his half lidded eyes to see the wise gray muzzle of a dog looming over him. He rolled over tiredly and stretched to loosen his bones.
The old dog grunted. “For a young ‘un, you sure move slow. Don’t tell me you got arthritis already?” He looked almost amused at the younger dog, but Jet was certain it was only in his mind because Ben never thought anything he did funny.
“No,” said Jet, rising from the linoleum and giving his nose a lick, “but I might as well, the way you work me.”
“I work you? I oughta be the one who works you, because I’d take a stick to your mouth every time you run it.” Ben stood up and looked about the kitchen, making it clear to Jet that the young dog’s mannerisms garnered his distaste. “When you’re right ready, the flock needs to come in. Can you manage that, boy?”
“Yes,” said Jet, although he really couldn’t.
Lifting himself to his feet, the dog gave one last grunt and made his slow way over to the wide vanilla door, its paint peeled and faded from the smudges of pudgy child’s fingers and velvet dog noses, and pushed against it. The room lit up as light spilled into the little kitchen, casting a clean glow and reflecting the dog’s dark shadows onto the floor. Wedging himself between the door, Jet stole his way out into the world of light; Ben stuck to him like glue because he didn’t trust Jet to do anything without messing it up. Perhaps the dog had remained in the gangly, what-do-I-do-with-this stage of adolescence too long for Ben’s liking, and in his old age it was too much for one to ask him to tolerate it. It seemed to be his life’s work to demand Jet to do everything better, and it was Jet’s work to dance around and try to learn what was expected of him while resisting it.
Striding out into the bare sunlight, Jet glanced at his surroundings with the very faintest trace of interest. The unending expanse of the world was to be gazed at with the broadened vision of youth, not scrutinized, centralized, and domesticated. Yes, the whimsical scent of the flowers that reared their pastel heads every spring, the rolling topography that just met the heavens and went on and on into forever, the shadows that shrank and grew as the sun moved across the crystalline sky—that was life. One could not be without the culture of the other, and in this Jet saw life only as a whole and the sum of its parts. It was for this reason that he found it distasteful to focus on one particular thing. Why Ben did not think like Jet puzzled him, yet he did not dwell on it too much because like all other things in this world, it just was.
Cresting the top of the hill, Ben surveyed the land for the familiar sight of the flock scattered like wooly sentinels over the landscape, their mouths full of soft, springy grass. Yet the old dog was greeted by the demeaning absence of the sheep, for nowhere in his range of vision could he spot the flock. Disbelief flooded through him and he stumbled forth, making his way down the hill and in the general direction of where the flock usually bedded. No, they could not be gone. They must not be. Perhaps his eyes were playing tricks on him. His silly old eyes betraying him. No, no…the old dog quickened his pace, his joints crying out in disapproval under his taut skin as he began a steady lope in the direction of memory lane.
Jet sat in the grass and watched with mild interest. It had been two years since their master had passed on and the sheep all taken away. Every day since, after the sultry sun had risen and lit up the farm, Ben would arise and wake Jet to bring in the flock. He’d realize that something was amiss, that the flock was gone, and would run off in search of them, for something like this had never happened before. And Jet, with his knowing eyes, would sit and watch without even considering telling the old man what he forgot every day of his life: that the sheep were not here, that the master was dead, that the portly old woman who lived in the house five miles away was the one who came to feed them. Ben would eventually come to Jet, and the youth would rehearse his lines, spoon-feeding the truth to Ben in small, easy to swallow bites. And never in his mind did Jet think this was wrong or strange, for that was how it had been. That was just how it was.
In the afternoon, Jet went to the road to see if anybody came down it. Sometimes men came with their hunting hounds peering out from the cabin of their vehicles, pendulous ears and lips hanging from stoic faces, or their stock dogs, usually much like him, ready to prove their worth by chasing down restless cattle or stubborn sheep. It was always amusing how serious these dogs were, how they believed they had a “purpose” in life and it was to serve their masters. It was ridiculous.
About twenty minutes after Jet had found a nice spot in the sun, he heard the faint rumbling of a worn old truck plodding steadily along.
Then it came, its dirt-encrusted tires tracking through the road thronged with winterfat and cocklebur, its wide, grungy body looming out from the endless expanse of the range. Jet eyed it expectantly. It came closer, then slowed as if to catch its breath, and idled for a moment. The dark shape of the driver shifted in the front seat as he leaned over to gaze curiously at the lean dog sitting in the grass. Jet had never once seen anyone stop to look at him. He was used to cursory glances and fleeting looks, nothing more.
After a moment, the truck drove off, obviously having satisfied its curiosity. Something within Jet snapped and a surge of energy tore through his body. The dog took off like a shot, chasing after the truck like it was the devil incarnate. He did not want it to get away. It was not going to happen! For a moment, he could feel nothing but the air whipping into his face, driving his tears from his squinted eyes as he raced the dry wind. His slathering jaws opened expectantly as he approached the fleeing vehicle. One little white paw struck out tentatively to touch the wheel. It went under and the miserable sound of an animal dumbfounded with pain resonated on the warm air, then settled as Jet yielded and crumbled onto the road.
The next morning, Ben awoke to find that he was alone in the quiet little house. Where was Jet? Perhaps he had gone to bring in the flock without him? No, the master always relied on the older dog for the bulk of the work. Jet was too irresponsible for any real work. Not like those other young dogs who worked hard!
With a sigh, Ben hauled himself up and loped out to check on the flock. As he reached the top and was met with nothing but the empty expanse of greenery, he exclaimed in disbelief and raced forth, his eyes wide as saucers. The flock was gone! Ben put his crusted old nose to the ground and tried to draw in the scent of the flock; he could smell nothing. His head spun in confusion as he tried to understand what could have happened, and was abashed to find that he could not.
The flock must have been stolen. There was no other explanation—and there was no one there to tell him otherwise.