Skip to main content

Black Mange

ISSUE:  Autumn 1975

IT was the week after they arrived that Alice first noticed it through their screen door. It was the size of an emaciated rat, all black, and it had a totally hairless tail. She would walk by the door and call to Clayton, “It’s here again, the black mange, what are we going to do?”

“Don’t feed it! One morsel and he’ll never go away. If we fed every dog in India,” and his voice would trail off into a mumble.

The puppy continued to sit outside their door staring through the screen, a small heap of black bones, all eyes. He never scratched at the screen or whimpered or barked; he had come, perhaps, through one of the holes in their gate. For a week he perched on their doorsteps while workers in gray pajamas squatted in corners of the house waiting for the right piece to arrive so they could install a fan; hawkers sang their wares outside the gate, and the neighbors hung over the wall nudging each other and giggling, staring at Alice’s fairness while she dipped water from the well in the front yard and smiled thinly in the direction of their smooth faces, their liquid eyes like dark pools. She ignored the women and talked to the dog who was heaped like a dirty rag on their porch.

Every now and then she tried to shoo him away but he persistently remained, a dark smudge in the corner of her eye. She watched him maneuver the garbage heap outside their gate, stealing from the cows, chappaties and other garbage tossed from kitchen windows. He would run up under the cows, scrambling patterns in the pink sand, the scraps gone before the humped white cows could bend their slow necks. The neighbors hated him for this.

Clayton was busy and distracted, involved in his research, his eyes becoming vague when Alice talked to him of household problems. When she told him she wanted to adopt the dog he told her she was being silly; those dogs are wild dogs, he said, pye-dogs, multiplied into the thousands, and they carry rabies. Fifty thousand people a year die from rabies, he said, more than die from cobra bites; taking in one couldn’t help anything. He thought in terms of masses of people, in terms of ideas, of principles. She felt narrow with him, small.

She was in the front yard watching a brilliant green and orange grasshopper eating a plant when a sandstorm blew in, blocking out the sun, wrapping the heat in layers of pink grit. The construction women across the street, sifting sand through a propped piece of screening, began to sway on the rooftops, their orange and red saris blowing in the hot yellow air. They went about their work, pulling their saris over their faces against the swirling sand and continued hammering, pounding, singing. Mesmerized by the chanting of the women and the moving sand, Alice did not notice the sweeper tie up the dog on their porch, slipping a thin cord around his skeletal neck. She turned around to see the sweeper throw a brick at the dog’s furless black back. She fired the sweeper and took in the pathetic mongrel without even asking Clayton, She took the puppy into the house, put him down and placed a saucer of milk in front of him. He crouched in the corner then stepped in the milk which was already sandy from the storm showering through the screens and across the floor in flat waves. He ran under the table making prints in the sand like chicken tracks and Alice lay down on her stomach too under the table trying to coax him to her, but he did not move at all except for the visible shivering in the suffocating sand blowing around them.

When Clayton came home that evening, hot and wrinkled, the dog was piled neatly in a small hole in the back yard.

“Alice? Did you feed that dog?”

”. The sweeper threw a brick at him, Clay, he would have died eventually if I hadn’t.” She had on a light wispy dressing gown which the tailor in town had made for her out of a length of pale pink silk she had bargained for. She had washed her hair, dragging five buckets from the outside well into the house just an hour ago. Her hair was shiny and damp still and she hadn’t seen Clay since six-thirty this morning. They pulled a couple of rattan chairs out in the lawn and sat with their lemon drinks looking out over the paling red sand. The evening was unbearably hot, a still dry heat, but seemed almost refreshing since the sand had settled. And now the skies were filled with subdued grays and peaches and brilliant yellows, reds and oranges like the rest of Rajasthan.

“Let’s not go to the party tonight, Clay, it’s too hot and I hate to leave the puppy on his first night. Besides that group never has anything energetic to say about anything.”

“Could be better this week; it’s being given for the new Fulbright fellows. Supposedly there’s a new Peace Corps couple in town too.”

“I’m not up to it, Clay, that Western set with their Beef-eaters and all that food, everyone drunk and bitching about their servants, their dysentery, the heat and the “unreliable, lazy, dirty Indians”.”

Clayton rolled the tall sweating glass back and forth across his forehead. “Okay, I’m beat anyway. Let’s play scrabble.” Black Mange lay across Alice’s lap as they played the game, gnawing little holes in the J.

“Ugliest dog I’ve ever seen,” Clayton commented. “What’s the matter with his ears?” Alice made the word “sequels” vertically across the board and’ gave herself 66 points. “They stick straight out from his head.”

“Do you object to the dog for some reason?”

“It seems a bit, shall we say, desperate?”

They finished the scrabble game silently then took their charpais up to the roof, poured a bucket of water over the thin mattresses and muslin sheets and lay down in the small pool of quickly warming water in the sunken center of each mattress. They both heard him crying. Alice rolled over and poked Clayton, he grunted and nudged her back, flopping his sleep-heavy arm across her stomach and they both went back to sleep. Later Alice awoke and pulled the puppy up with one hand and laid him next to her. He slept over most of the pillow, his sunken rib cage fitting around her head, his raw tail dangling over the head of the cot.

Fifty-nine deaths thus far from sun stroke; a vulture damages an airplane outside Delhi; the University closed due to a strike by the students demanding better grades; a child drowns in an open construction well. Alice put down the morning paper and picked up the puppy. Plopping him in the bicycle basket, she started their two mile ride to the vet at seven in the morning, the sun spreading low and hard on her back. She rode the bicycle with one hand, holding the puppy steady in the basket with the other, his tiny heartbeat pounding in the palm of her hand as they dodged bullock carts, camels, rickshaw wallahs, cars, stray cows, and other dogs like Mange. Alice feared the beggars who had once run at her cycle knocking her off, scratching her and calling for rupees. She also feared the lepers and the camels, the frantic cycle bells and the sun. Through the market they passed the man with elephantiasis who held his leg like an enormous blister in the air and who screamed in the streets so that she could hear his screams before she actually saw him and after she had passed him. She swerved to miss a chartreuse wild parrot in the road.

The sun was a white weight on her shoulders by the time they arrived in the oppressive shade of the animal hospital. Its low roof was spotted black with vultures, lazily swooping, checking, then settling back patiently on the roof, to wait. She and Mange sat in line with the sick sheep, cows and camels.

For the next six months, day after day, Alice scrubbed the dog and treated him and stroked him and fed him.

Cycling back and forth to the vet for treatment of scabies, distemper, worms, she felt the dog’s heart under her fingers and petted his one stroke of hair and talked to him as they passed enormous truckloads of cow skeletons and the children, sick hands outstretched, their legs as thin as fingers, standing by the soft piles of human excrement. Alice tried to find romance in the exotica around her, looking across the red sand, delighted by the woman in emerald green walking with her child in green, leading a water buffalo with painted green horns. Against the changing colors of the sand, the barren sky, the bright orange and red saris bloomed like tropical flowers, but approaching closer, the saris were massed in filthy wrinkles, the faces resigned, huge dark swimming eyes peering out from under the ancient dyes.

Hair was beginning to fuzz on the little dog’s tail.

Alice took him to the bazaar with her to buy tick powder and a collar. Pedaled through the smells of sweet coriander and incense, old and new urine, he lay panting in the basket, one leg hanging out over the side. He looked almost like a real dog with his bright red collar. They stopped to watch the dyeing of fabrics, a man stamping cloth in a large brass pot of red and a woman with her face covered brewing a kettle of orange. Mange ran around in circles and stuck a black paw in the red dye. His collar was stolen the next day. Alice bought him another and another, four in all; they were all stolen. She bought a small padlock and attached it to the collar but it too was stolen. Their owning the dog as a pet was an incomprehensible joke to the Indians.

She overfed him in hopes that he would not go outside the gate to the garbage heap and be killed by the bigger dogs. He ate so much at a meal that his stomach would blow up like a black balloon so that he could not scratch without rolling over. When he tried to walk away from his bowl of food he would sway from side to side, his head low, his stomach behind him, like a minature water buffalo. Again to the vet to discover he was overeating, could not breathe well enough, and she would have to cut down on the goat liver. As soon as she did, however, he promptly learned to scale their low pink wall by making two runs at it. Over his new lean body would scramble into the garbage heap, to come home, blood dripping from his ear, wounds gnawed into his neck, and once a broken foot. Because of his ear wound he got a lump on his head, an abscess, and Alice could not take him back to the vet for several days because her hands had broken out in boils.

Clayton was gone more and more often, working in nearby villages, spending days, often nights, away from home. He would drag in, exhausted, red-skinned and blond, after a few days in a village, and tell Alice stories of dry wells filled with insects and scum, babies three months old weighing seven pounds, women asking if the IUD were to be put in the ear, and he would smile in removed sympathy when Alice showed him the hair on Mange’s tail. She felt the bigness of her world shrinking. She began to prefer his stays in the villages. When he was home for a few days her relationship with the dog changed subtly. She found she could be cruel to the animal, spanking him unnecessarily for puppy-like behavior, yelling at him needlessly, and suddenly, with Clayton home, she found herself caring immensely that the dog was unable to show affection for her. Mange did not respond to petting or fetching or cuddling or any other display of devotion that she expected. And he was frightened of any emotion shown to him. He would flinch and lower his head, his tail wagging in a nervous twitter if she tried to pet him. And when she scolded him he would wet the floor, bark wildly, then slink away. However, he did remain the sentinel of their bungalow, standing guard most of the day and night in front of their gate, howling hysterically if another dog happened to pass in front of the house. And when he became too big for the bicycle basket, he would run beside the bike in its spray of sand the two miles to the market and back again to collapse in a straggly pile under the cool dripping of the sink. At times he would bound through the house, leap up on the bed between her and her book and lie in her lap, wagging his beautiful black tail.

When he was six months old he decided he was king of the pye-dogs. His coat was thick and silky; his head was high; his tail no longer drooped; he paced back and forth in front of their gate, protecting the household, protecting Alice while Clayton was away. He was not aware of his small size and was willing to take on any animal that happened to meander into the street. He chased herds of goats out of the vacant lot next door; he nipped the gray ankles of cows plodding down the road, their heads bent as if grazing on sand; and he chased any dog, desert rat or snake, crazily barking and wagging his new tail. No other dog dared to come near their house until one day a husky white dog with a tail that curled proudly around his back came bounding over the wall despite the hysterical contortions and hootings of Mange. The big dog raised his eyebrows at Mange and pranced right by him with a slight nod of his head. Alice watched the scene from the front door. Mange was so totally beside himself that he backed off, ears flattened and barking, into the front yard well. He came up spurting and dripping and choking on his bark, hanging on to the edge of the tank with his paws, degraded, while the large white dog stood aloof. Alice watched Mange pull himself out of the well and run at the dog twice his size, never stopping to shake himself, until the other dog ambled out of the yard and Mange collapsed at her feet. She adored him. The neighborhood children made up games, and threw stones at him.

Alice awoke as usual at five-thirty to the immense sky streaked with gray and lilac, the sun blazing yellow heat in waves over the desert. Clayton had spent the night out in one of the villages again. She sat up and looked over the roof tops at the dark figures in white rising from their cots on the flat roofs as far as she could see, pouring water down their backs, over their heads, the brass jugs blinking in dawn light. She longed to go home, and to take Mange with them. She looked across the fields of sand at the tiny splotches of red and orange and yellow, and thought of Mange rolling in high green grass, lying in the shade of a maple, gnawing a steak bone, with a collar around his neck. She blamed her quick ache of homesickness on the heat. It was slowly wearing her down, she thought. It was impossible to go outside after nine in the morning and inside her fingers stuck to the pages of a book while the fan blasted hot air around the room. The heat was unrelenting, constant, and there was no escape. For three weeks now it had been 114 degrees.

She went down the narrow stairs, her nightgown already soaked through with perspiration, shooed a couple of stray birds out of the living room and prepared breakfast for Mange, carefully picking the feathers off the eggshells. He was not at the gate; he was probably in the garbage heap, impatient for breakfast. She called for him, then dressed and went out into the scorched morning to search for him. He was not at the garbage heap. She walked from neighbor to neighbor asking after him in her few words of Hindi. Between the houses she called, “Manger!” She walked through the surrounding sand dunes calling, the heat wrapping around her, bone dry. Digging in the sand with her sandaled foot, she asked the woman who was laying out great matts of red chilis to dry. She asked the man in the bicycle shop, motioning, pointing to the other dogs who looked exactly like Mange, brushing flies from around her face. She stopped the women who were gathering dung from the streets and the women with great mounds of cactus on their heads. She ran into the mattress shop and woke up the man who was asleep on the floor. He misunderstood her stumbling mixture of English and Hindi and began showing her mattresses, unrolling one filthy one after another until a rat ran out. She wished Clay were home. Thinking of him made her feel ridiculous and alone. A candy maker making sugar candy on a filthy piece of cloth tried to sell her some. She ran home, crying under her sunglasses, sweat dripping down her face, seeing the dog in his thin black pile under the sink, but he wasn’t there. She went out again, covering her head, calling, calling, running up now to any black dog at all that resembled him. Again and again she walked up behind one of them and it would turn and bare its teeth or show a white spot on its ear or neck, its head low and afraid, its tail looped up under it like a snake.

When she finally did see Mange he was lying in a garbage heap, just three houses from theirs, already picked clean by the birds, his skeleton as small as a cat’s. One black paw was left.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading