Click to hear the author read a passage from Dogs in the Kingdom.
by Donald Quist
The narrow street smells like cooked rice. It smells like starch-clean linens from the dry cleaner on the corner. It reeks of mildew and diesel and sewage like cabbage boiled for too long.
Under the overcast of clouds and the shadow of apartment buildings, last night’s unseasonal chill lingers. A rooster croons. A delivery truck brakes for a motorbike taxi carrying a girl in a grey pencil skirt. Her cinnamon thighs are folded over the side. With one hand she brushes her hair out of her face. The other hand grips her driver’s reflective orange vest.
A grandmother in a stained cloth apron squats over a storm drain. She dumps brown water from a large steel bowl. Three dogs make slow circles around the old woman like satellites caught in the gravity of her hips. They wait for her to open her noodle soup stand. Every morning the old woman makes a plate of food and sets it on the curb for the local spirits. She lights incense and prays. The dog pack is fat from the offerings stolen from ghosts.
The cracked pavement is littered with canine shit.
The dogs live in the rubble of a housing complex, a field of brick and sand and glass bordered by a cinderblock fence. The short wall runs parallel to the road for nearly fifty yards. A section of it has been destroyed, felled by time, roots, and floodwater.
A lone bitch is resting between the break in the wall. She is lean. Her short coat is the color of hay bales. A single streak of brown fur traces her spine to the tip of her tail. She watches the street. Her eyes ask: what are you?
She rises onto all fours. She trots closer.
Her ears drop. She does not bark.
Her teeth sink through my slacks. There is a flash of hot burning like a match held close to the skin. My leg pulls forward out of her jaws. I kick her long snout. She backs away, growling. She spreads her legs and lowers the front of her body. Her eyes narrow to slits as she prepares to strike again. The both of us are unwilling to move. A few meters away a man springs from the driver seat of a parked car. He appears to have been waiting. He runs over waving his hands. He shouts, “No!,” but not to the dog. “Go away, go!,” he says, but not to the dog.
The bitch sits on her hind legs, staring at the man yelling wildly in her defense. Her head turns. Her gaze moves from my fists to my feet.
There is a squishing sound as my body turns to walk away. Warm blood trickles down my calf and dampens the sole of my right shoe.
The nurse at Siriraj Hospital asks what happened.
I tell her a dog bit me.
“Why didn’t you come to hospital?”
I explain to her that I am enrolled in an intensive ESL teaching course. “It is accredited by the University of Cambridge. It’s expensive. Literally, I can’t afford to miss a day.”
The nurse nods to say she understands, but her eyes are concentrating on my mouth, the way my practice students do whenever I have lost them. My trainers say I have to learn to grade my language. Do not overwhelm them. Give only the information needed.
“I am a teacher,” I say, and then in Thai, “Ajarn.”
“It good to get rabies shot in first twelve hours.”
I look at my cellphone. “I still have half an hour.”
I smile but the nurse doesn’t.
It was one of my fellow trainees who convinced me to get a rabies shot. After sharing my story in the break room, she showed me a picture of a friend she lost in South Africa. He had spent many years caring for abandoned animals. He had probably been bitten more times than he could count, but it was a nibble from a puppy that killed him. She said it had barely broken the skin.
This trainee went on to tell me about Thailand having the third highest rate of human rabies in the world behind India and Vietnam. Although a decade of awareness campaigns by the Ministry of Public Health and millions of dollars from the annual budget for post-exposure treatments had led to several of Thailand’s provinces becoming rabies free, she said the prevalence of stray and feral dogs in Thailand is still a major challenge to rabies prevention.
Another trainee had spent part of his childhood in Mae Sot, a town northwest of Bangkok, on the border of Myanmar. He told me how most of the people in his neighborhood were reluctant to report free-ranging dogs, fearing that if the animal were euthanized, they would receive bad karma. He told me how some authorities refused to capture or destroy violent canines. If a street dog was suspected of being rabid, a brave or desperate soul might leave some poisoned meat where the animal sleeps. In another district, he had heard of a group of local men killing a dog that had been attacking children. They beat the dog to death with bats and heavy sticks. They did it together in order to divide the cosmic retribution. I thought of the man who came running to the defense of the dog that attacked me. Around his skinny neck was a string necklace of Buddhist pendants, tiny depictions of sitting monks encased in plastic. They hung outside the collar of his sweat-stained polo shirt. They clicked and rattled as he shooed me away.
“Symptoms?” the nurse asks.
“I don’t think so. I do feel itchy, especially around the bite.”
I twist on the medical bed so she can see my leg. She bends down to look closer.
“I washed it once I got to work. I didn’t have alcohol, but I used soap and hand sanitizer.”
“Why did the dog bite?”
“Yes.” She repeats herself. “Why did the dog bite?”
“I don’t know.”
The nurse looks up at me, waiting.
“Maybe I am not good with dogs.”
The nurse nods and stands straight. She says she is going to check my temperature and blood pressure. She explains that I will have to complete a vaccination course, five injections in the next month.
I swallow loud and slide my fingers along the corners of the medical bed. The linens feel like paper. The nurse says not to worry. The hospital will give me a small booklet. It lists the dates I need to come in. I can carry it in my wallet. I tell her I am afraid of needles, and finally she smiles. I ask her where on my body I have to receive the shots. In movies and television it’s always the ass. She lifts my left sleeve and pokes the side of my arm with her finger, just below my shoulder. This gives me some relief.
The nurse tells me to wait. She pulls back the bone-white privacy curtain and disappears among the traffic of the open infirmary. I stay seated on the hard hospital mattress and scan the emergency ward for something familiar.
An elderly woman is perched on the edge of her medical bed. She is so small. Her khaki shorts and sleeveless shirt reveal patches of ripped skin on her left arm and leg. The wet wounds bleed from purple to red to pink to white. But she smiles, indifferent to her pain or in spite of it. She pulls her thin grey hair into a ponytail as she explains to a male orderly what happened. I can’t speak Thai. I imagine she fell off a motorbike, perhaps trying to balance herself and the groceries. Perhaps an animal ran into the road and she crashed. Maybe she slid over jagged pavement to avoid hitting a dog.
I whisper to no one. “A dog.”
A spark of anger is building to a bonfire. I think about what brought me here and what I said to the nurse.
Maybe I am not good with dogs?
I have enjoyed the company of many dogs but never established a strong enough connection to identify myself as a dog person. When I was sixteen I spent a summer in Ghana with my father. Three dogs guarded my father’s house. I bonded with the largest one, a gruff mutt my father had named Lassie. Lassie’s short temper and aversion to anything new mirrored my own angst. At times, he seemed to feel as alien as I did. Lassie hated walks and the sun. He hated the hot, humid, wet seasons and how they aggravated his asthma. He hated children and had nipped the fingers of kids curious enough to try to reach in past the gate to pet him. He was a fat dog with fur the color of dirty snow.
I tried all summer to teach him how to fetch. When I’d throw the ball he’d go after it but never bring it back. Lassie finally got it right the day I was leaving. He brought the ball back for the first and last time.
My father called me years later to tell me Lassie had died. He didn’t say how, and I didn’t ask. I thanked him and hurried off the phone. However Lassie was killed, I am certain it was painful. There are a thousand ways for a dog to die, a lot of them crueler than being poisoned.
My mother had a brown pug named Simon Peter. She adopted him from a preacher. The solemnity of Simon Peter’s name didn’t fit his personality. Simon Peter was gregarious and playful. He would run to strangers and bark only if they refused to pet him. After college I lived in my mother’s house for six months and became partially responsible for Simon Peter. I started calling him Popo. I can’t remember why.
Popo died two years after I had moved out. He was in the yard on one of the hottest days of the summer. When my mother let him back inside, she noticed he was sluggish. He retreated to a room she used for storage and buried himself under some boxes and old clothes. On the phone my mother pleaded for me to come to the house right away to check on Popo, but I told her I was busy. I can’t remember with what.
When I arrived I found Popo lying beneath a sundress in a puddle of his own shit. He was breathing heavy and his fat pink tongue, caked with vomit, hung from the side of his mouth. I picked him up, wrapped him in a beach towel, and drove him to the nearest animal hospital. Simon “Popo” Peter died from heat exhaustion.
I paid to have him cremated.
I circled the house, scattering his ashes along a path he had worn into the grass.
For a long time my mother could not forgive herself. For a long time I couldn’t forgive her either. When I was younger it was easier to shift blame. I tried not to think about what would have happened if I had gotten there sooner.
I debate whether or not to call my mother now. It is almost 6:00 p.m. here in the hospital, but it is too early in the United States. I decide to wait until after I’ve received my first shot. She will ask me what I am going to do. Eventually, I will have to leave the hospital. I will have to go home, and the dog could be waiting.
I have to do something. Where can I find poison? Would antifreeze or a bar of chocolate work?
There is a pause in the chatter of the emergency ward. The pause rolls over the infirmary like a tsunami. In the absence of speech I am drowned in the hums and beeps of medical machines. I worry that this silence is somehow for me. The grey-haired woman with torn flesh is staring back at me like she can read my thoughts, like I have been thinking aloud, like she knows what I am considering.
She motions to the orderly. He guides her off the bed onto a footstool and down to the floor. She hooks her arm around his, and he helps her limp away.
The chatter comes back louder than before. I sigh, relieved. The nurse returns to me.
“The King is leaving the building,” she says. “We cannot give you the vaccination now.”
I ask her to repeat it but I still don’t understand.
“The King is on the other side of the building. Where the vaccination is.”
“But I thought I need to get my first injection in the first 12 hours.”
She nods but says nothing. Her eyes are unapologetic. It can’t be helped.
“How long before the King leaves?”
I imagine tiny rabid dogs racing through my blood stream chasing after white blood cells like Frisbees and tearing them apart with sharp yellow teeth. I could die. The King would never know and neither would that dog. I hop down from the bed.
“Can I take a walk?”
The nurse looks confused.
“I need to use the bathroom.” She nods again and points towards a pair of large swinging doors at the end of the room.
I exit the infirmary and make a left. I pass the bathroom and continue along the wide corridor. My muscles are tight and my head aches. I’m thirsty but I don’t want to stop for water. There is a chorus of murmurs under the squeaks of my shoes on the waxed floor. I look at the time on my phone. In less than a half of an hour I will surpass the preferred time for prevention.
How long before this kills me?
When do the seizures and the foaming mouth start?
What will become of me, and what will become of that dog?
The cellphone screen lights up with a social media notification. When I first arrived at the hospital I had posted a Facebook status about being bitten. A lot of people I knew had shared similar experiences. “Happened to me in Thailand as well,” one comment read. “Someone recommended I keep dog treats in my pockets. Don’t try that. #itgetsworse.” Browsing online I discovered dozens of visitor and expatriate forums about the street dogs of Thailand. Most of these cyber discussions mirrored what I had been told earlier in the trainee break room: this country is all about dogs; there are over a hundred thousand roaming Bangkok; there’s a page about it on Wikipedia. Dog bites are the primary source by which Rabies is transmitted in Southeast Asia, and it is a common occurrence in Thailand.
I take no comfort in being a common occurrence. It doesn’t make me feel better to know that I am not the first or the last person to have this happen. The thought of my death being averaged into a single line of health data only fuels my anger. The dog has made me a statistic. I must do something.
I consider the phone in my hand. My thumb scrolls over the glowing list of contacts. There is the name of my fellow trainee, the guy who knows about poisoning dogs. He will tell me where I could find a really strong rat poison. He might even have some. On my way home to my apartment I will buy some pork balls from the grandmother at the noodle soup stand. When the moment is right I will leave the poisoned meat by the gap in the brick wall. And if another dog eats it, it can’t be helped. Those other dogs were probably in collusion with the dog that bit me. There could be a pack waiting for me when I leave the hospital. Sons of bitches. I will kill them all, every last dog. The wolves. I will set fire to their dens and murder their puppies.
My feet move decidedly forward, carrying me while my mind rages. A right at the end of the hall leads to an escalator. The revolving staircase rises to an expansive lobby with vaulted ceilings. Hundreds of patients and staff have gathered, kneeling, in long, curving rows. Among them I see the silver-haired woman from the infirmary. Her wounded legs are tucked beneath her.
The mass of bodies clear a pathway from the first floor elevators to the main entrance. The path is over twenty feet wide, and no one appears willing to cross it. On the other side are the hospital pharmacy and my vaccine. I pace half the length of the man-moat before lowering myself onto the arm of a vacant loveseat.
The appearance of the King is preceded by a silence as vast and as deep as an ocean. All the air is sucked from the room by a collective gasp. In this vacuum everything is muted. Everything moves slower in reverence of this soundlessness. Waves ripple from the spokes of his hospital wheelchair. Heads bob, down and up again, as he passes. His face is softer than it is on calendars and money, and his shoulders have been rounded by the weight of the kingdom. But his eyes are the same eyes that stare down at me from movie screens and posters and giant billboards. They are strong and kind.
A leather strap tied to the right arm of the King’s chair is fastened to the collar of the dog that bit me. Her blackened paws are now clean. Her once prominent ribs are hidden by new fat and fur. Her nose and eyes have changed, but I know it is her.
I wish for the dog to look over, to see me and to know that I recognize her, but her eyes are locked forward. She is ignorant of my wrath and the attention given to her master. She doesn’t know, or care, that she is in the company of the King. She doesn’t know his name, his long life of service, or all he has accomplished. She loves him for an entirely different reason, or for no reason at all.
And then I briefly imagine the crowd genuflecting not only to the majesty of His Highness the King but also in respect to the dog. They praise a devotion most humans are unwilling to give. They bow to that unswerving loyalty, that dogged love we can only aspire to, how it betrays a millennium of animal instinct, how it serves and provides us a deeper understanding of ourselves, and how it is in and of itself a kind of miracle.
The fury fades as I ponder whether or not dogs have a soul and what might happen to them when they die. I consider Buddhism, reincarnation, past and future lives. Maybe this isn’t the dog from this morning. Maybe it could be. Maybe it is Lassie or Popo or one hundred thousand different dogs I will encounter while living in the capital of this kingdom.
My hand reaches into my front pocket. I turn off my cellphone. My body rises from the arm of the loveseat and lowers me to my knees.
The King and his dog pass. They exit. Sound returns as people disperse to different parts of the hospital.
I rise again, calm, and return to the emergency ward.
Donald Quist is a writer and editor living in Bangkok, Thailand. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Metazen, The Adroit Journal, Numero Cinq, and Publishers Weekly. He earned his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 1 • November 2014
Image header by cptscarlett78.