Carmen Dog – Chapter One

by Carol Emshwiller

Mon 1 Nov 2004 - Filed under: Free Stuff to Read, Novel Excerpts

Carol Emshwiller| Carmen Dog

Chapter 1: Outlandish Changes

There is more matter in the universe than we at first thought.
–CBS newscaster

Carmen Dog“The beast changes to a woman or the woman changes to a beast,” the doctor says. “In her case it is certainly the latter since she has been, on the whole, quite passable as a human being up to the present moment. There may be hundreds of these creatures already among us. No way to tell for sure how many.”

The husband feigns surprise. Actually he’s seen more than he’s telling, and right in his own home.

“But they are, it is clear, here among us now in many varied forms and already voicing strange opinions: some in love with water, rain, the tides; breathing heavily (as she does); while others quite the opposite, more like birds or foxes. Yesterday I saw one I thought quite like a giant sloth, upside down in the lower branches of a tree. Some are, you know, on the way up, others the reverse. As I said: woman to beast, beast to woman, and not much point to it all it seems to me. Marcus Aurelius wrote, and I quote: ‘Is the ball itself bettered by its upward flight? Is it any worse as it comes down?’ When did you first suspect your wife?”

“. . . her mouth grown wide, lips dark, her eyes suspicious. She smells — I don’t know — like something from a marsh. Has become irritable. More so than usual. Whimpers. Drops things. Or, on the other hand, like a snapping turtle, sometimes won’t let go. Drinks too much. . . .”

“Of course all this would be perfectly normal in a woman twice her age, but since she’s only thirty-four, I think it’s a good idea to see a psychotherapist at once, both of you. You say she was a fairly good wife and mother, though somewhat irritating at times, and you want her back that way as soon as possible? You must realize, however, that she is at this very moment in a period of profound change, both physical and psychological. Be surprised at nothing. To my mind it is as if they all had eaten an apple from the tree of a different kind of knowledge and have seen with new eyes, not that they are naked, but have seen that they are clothed.”

What the doctor doesn’t mention is how many similar cases he’s seen and just how far some of them have progressed. He doesn’t realize that the husband wouldn’t be a bit surprised, that the husband realizes from personal experience that some of the women are already talking in grunts (if at all), while others, who used to speak only in guttural mutterings, are now mouthing long, erudite words such as teleological, hymenopterology, omphalos, and quagmire.

Christine, for instance, red-headed, plump Christine, who had several times been taken for an orangutan, can now argue her way out of any zoo no matter what the educational level of the keepers. Mona, on the other hand, can almost fly (though it is unlikely that she ever really will). Her husband complains that she makes funny noises, but her children like her all the better for it. John is divorcing Lucille in order to marry Betty (quite bearish still, but evidently what John wants). Mabel has only recently been given a name at all.

This is not the case with Pooch, who has had a name from the start and who now finds herself taking over more and more of the housework and baby-sitting, yet continues to be faithful. Her mistress is deteriorating rapidly — mouth grown wide, eyes suspicious. Her master (the man who visited the doctor, as mentioned a moment ago) has tried all the experts he can afford and they are now, both of them, in psychotherapy, as the doctor recommended, but it looks as though the marriage can’t last.

In other homes, similar dramas are playing themselves out in various ways. A guinea pig named Cucumber (because of her shape, and sometimes affectionately referred to as “Pickle”), although not very smart, is taking over several of the easier tasks in the house next door. Cucumber has spoken to Pooch on several occasions, but Pooch finds it hard to be with her because she feels that she, Pooch, needs to hold herself back. Sometimes she feels she’d like to grab hold of Cucumber by the back of the neck and give her a good shake. And for no reason. Phillip, the king snake down the block, has turned out to be female after all, as has Humphrey the iguana. Neither of them, it is clear, has much maternal instinct, though, and they were last seen heading south on Route 95 with not so much as a good-bye kiss to the little ones who had watched over them tenderly, albeit not very consistently.

On the other hand, Pooch is doing the best she can for her foster family. (The mistress has taken to drink and sleeps a good bit of the day, but bites out viciously if provoked. Not that she hasn’t done something of the sort to some degree all her life, but before it had usually been a quick slap.) Pooch now does the shopping as well as the laundry, diapering, and much of the cooking, though she is hardly as old as the oldest child she’s looking after. Pooch, who had always been smiling and playful, now has become serious and sad, watching over everything with her big, golden-brown, color-blind eyes.

The psychologist has counseled patience and forbearance on the part of the family toward the mistress, wife, and mother. Pooch, who has never been patient, realizes the importance of this and conducts herself with a quiet dignity far beyond her years — always her mouth half open, always a little breathless. It’s not unattractive.

Lately she has been yearning to see the psychologist herself. After all, it is she who has taken on more of the burdens of the family than could ever have been expected. But a visit is out of the question: the therapy is already straining the family’s finances to the limit, even though the therapist is giving them a discount and the first few months were paid for by insurance. But at last the day comes when the psychologist himself asks to see Pooch. He has, no doubt, come to realize that she is a key figure in the dynamics of this tormented nuclear family and that she is probably the most stable element in it.

He understands a lot of things about her just by looking. Right away he senses her suffering (how she sits, demure, her arms around herself, held in, or rather, held together). And right away he guesses that she has been dependent all her life. Guesses, also, that there was some sort of break with her mother at an early age (how her hands hover around her mouth, her bitten nails), and that her toilet training may have been inordinately severe, possibly involving corporal punishment (her guilty look and the fact that, at first, she cannot talk to him at all). Of course these are only conjectures.

He asks her for her dreams. She remembers only a short one of rabbits. He asks her about her hopes and fears. . . . And has she no ambitions, no hobbies, no interests beyond the immediate family? It seems not. He asks about her youthful indiscretions. She says, None, but what she doesn’t tell him is her sudden guilty yet happy memory of having pulled woolen caps and mittens off the heads and hands of small children or grabbing the fringe of their scarves. At the end of the session he tells her to do something for herself every day, if only just one small thing: take half an hour off to do something she wants to do, eat a tidbit of a favorite food, buy a small, inexpensive gift for herself, or perhaps even something expensive. Play a game of frisbee. This is orders, he says, doctor’s orders.

Psychologically he cannot be sure that he is giving her the proper advice. It is clear that Pooch has always wanted to be of service to mankind in any way that she possibly can. From the general look of her, he guesses that her retrieving instincts are strong and that she might be passionately interested in swimming. Perhaps she can have no other joys but these.

For the first few days after this session, Pooch does not dare follow his advice. Besides, she can’t think of anything she wants or wants to do. But on the fourth day, on a whim, she buys herself a three-dollar bunch of daisies.

Had she a room of her own she would have put the daisies there, but she sleeps on the doormat. No one has thought to change this situation. No one has noticed her budding femininity . . . no one in the family, that is. And after all, the house issmall. Hardly enough room for the parents and the three children. So there’s nothing for it but to put the daisies in the kitchen, where she spends most of her time anyway. But later on her mistress comes in and eats the heads off all but one, leaving only an ugly bunch of stems. Pooch blames herself for this, for having been a little late in preparing supper. She props up the remaining flower in a small glass, but it’s too damaged to stand straight. Pooch gives up and eats the last flower herself. She is the one, then, caught with leaves sticking out of her mouth and accused by her master of ruining the whole bouquet. He slaps her several times with a rolled-up newspaper and does not wonder where the flowers came from in the first place.

The psychologist sees Pooch for another session. This time he draws a picture for her of her id, ego, and superego, and explains to her that she should let the id have a little fun now and then. It’s hard for Pooch to understand any of this, but she takes the diagram home and puts it in the only safe place she has, under the doormat. At night, when everyone is in bed, she takes it out and puzzles over the three circles that are supposed to represent herself, and the squiggles under them that are words.Id, then, is one of the first words she learns to read. After that, her reading progresses rapidly.

A few weeks later the mistress bites the baby. Not only bites it, but refuses to let go until Pooch puts a lit match to her neck. Now the baby’s arm has a large, V-shaped wound. Pooch is terrified. First of all, she knows that she will be blamed and that this is a serious offense that calls for more than a few taps on the head with a newspaper — which Pooch has never resented, knowing full well that, in some sense, she deserved them even when she hadn’t done anything wrong. (Of course she deserved no such thing, but low self-esteem has always been one of her main problems, as the psychotherapist well knows.) But now she is sure that a few slaps will not suffice. Also she has heard about neighboring creatures who were taken to the pound and never came back. Recently several of her rapidly changing friends have suffered just such a fate (whatever it is), having become too hard to handle at home in all sorts of ways. However one may enjoy the possession of an intelligent animal, too much intelligence, too many pertinent and impertinent questions, and too much independence are always hard to put up with in others, and especially in a creature one keeps partly for the enhancement of one’s own self-image.

And then, of course, Pooch is worried about the baby. What will the mistress do next? Pooch knows that she must not let the baby out of her sight even for a minute. She has always had deep feelings for the baby, above all the other children. The psychologist would certainly say that it is because she was taken from her own mother at such an early age and that she needs to mother the baby to make up for her sense of loss. A fairly common reaction.

After seeing that the mistress, looking even darker and more bloated than ever, has fallen asleep in the bathtub, as is usual at this time of day, and that the baby, also as usual, is down for its nap, Pooch sits in her master’s favorite chair to think things out. She has, from the beginning, been forbidden the use of this chair, but now she deliberately curls up in it. She longs to lay her head on her master’s knee and to look up at him, letting all her yearning speak out to him from her eyes as she used to do. She wonders if all these new words she’s learned are getting in the way. Life was so much happier before she knew so many of them. It was at just such times as those, her head on his knee, that the master used to talk and talk, stroking her and telling her that she alone understood him and accepted him just as he was. And she did, if not understand completely, at least accept completely, and still does, though it’s been a long time since he has sat here with her on the floor beside him. Perhaps she knows too many words now for him to speak so frankly. Perhaps he suspects that, now that she knows the words, she may not understand and may judge him more severely. But perhaps she, too, has played a part in the fact that this no longer goes on, both of them, on some deep level, realizing the impropriety of the stroking of the head and the scratching behind the ears of a nubile young woman by the man who is, even if not a blood relative, to some degree in the role of her father.

And Pooch is growing into a fine young woman: slender fingers where her paws once were, cheeks covered with little more than a peachy down. She is, after all, pedigreed, which is more than one can say for her adopted family. She was born on a farm, but no ordinary farm — as a matter of fact, a very famous farm in Virginia. Her father was from England and of impeccable bloodlines and her mother’s family had been registered for generations. Also the psychologist is right, she had been torn from her mother at quite an early age by her master and mistress. They had been on a vacation trip to Florida and had stopped off at the farm to pick up Pooch on their way home to Long Island; they could not have been expected to wait until she was of a proper age to leave her mother.

Pooch is aware by now that she has been living not far from a major urban center that is full of opportunities as well as dangers. She thought about this when the psychologist asked her what she wanted to do with her life, because immediately the idea popped into her head that she wanted some sort of career in music and that she lived not far from some of the best singing coaches in the world. She isn’t sure if she has any musical talent, even though from an early age she took every opportunity she had to listen to good music and to sing along with it. Her master and mistress soon put a stop to that, however, commenting on her terrible voice, which made her feel very sad. But the yearning still remains, if anything all the stronger for being suppressed, though she had put it completely out of her mind until the psychologist asked her what sort of (happy) future she envisioned for herself.

What she saw for just an instant was herself as Carmen, all in red, the rose in her mouth, dancing the seguidilla, though Carmen is quite the opposite of Pooch’s general personality, which is basically (and becomingly) modest. (She is also petite; what’s left of her fur, mostly white with flecks of black; long silky ears, one golden; small feet; noble head. She has a slight stutter, though never when she sings. Sometimes the words won’t come at all. It is at these times that her eyes speak most eloquently, as though just by staring and cocking her head she could make herself understood. Her feelings about sexuality and loyalty are decidedly old-fashioned. Once she marries, one can be sure that she will never stray.)

Now, however, it is clear that she must leave her beloved master and it is clear that there is nothing for it but that she take the baby with her.

What Pooch doesn’t realize is that, at this very moment, there is nothing in the bathtub but a very large, very vicious, and very drunk snapping turtle and that when the husband comes back in the evening he will understand the whole situation at a glance and will consider his marriage vows to be henceforth invalid and also his financial obligation to his wife at an end. Their bickerings had degenerated to incomprehensible mouthings anyway, and their lovemaking, though they had kept on with it in spite of increasing difficulties, had become mutually dissatisfying. So it will be with a sense of relief that he will take the creature to the nearest aquarium. And rather proudly, too, to be able to contribute what may be perhaps one of the largest snapping turtles in the world, a gift from him to the community at large. Also he wonders about her dollar value, whether she might be some sort of tax write-off and, if so, how much?

Pooch had run away a few times before, but that was when she was much younger. She had always been found in the neighborhood, her master driving around block after block until he discovered her in some backyard not far from home. After disposing of his wife, he proceeds to search for Pooch in his usual way, little dreaming that she is already in New York. After an hour of fruitless circling, he finally realizes that this time she is not to be found in this manner. His feelings for her begin to change as he realizes that she would no longer, could not possibly any longer, be wandering about in someone’s yard behind the lilacs.

He understands finally that it is a desirable young woman he is looking for, and the more he thinks about it the more desirable she becomes. What’s more, she’s his. He picked her out, bought her, trained her, taught her everything she knows (or so he thinks, anyway), disciplined her, took her — or used to take her — for walks. . . . And what a good hard worker she has turned out to be in the end! How sweet and uncomplaining! Just the sort of wife he always wanted. Never once an argument the whole of her life with him. He is thinking how all might be, at last, harmonious. Life could begin again with her beside him. Perhaps it could be a time of new and strange excesses he never dared even to think about, let alone perform when he was younger or with his wife (who always rather frightened him) for, after all, Pooch is another kind of creature entirely. Courage would hardly be needed with such as her. If, for instance, he wanted to tie her, spread-eagled, to the bed, she would not wonder at this behavior. He decides to call the police as well as missing persons and tell them that it is his wife who has run off with their child . . . his beautiful young wife.

Why is it, the doctor has been wondering (along with many other professional people), why is it that only the females of the various species are affected by all this changing? Why have no males, as far as has been ascertained, been changing too? Surely if extraterrestrial dust or some such substance had dropped from distant stars, the men could not have avoided it. Perhaps it isn’t of stellar origin at all, but atomic radiation, or maybe it’s simply industrial waste. But the doctor and other professionals would rather think about the stars, and do — or else about the moon, for haven’t women always been influenced by it? Perhaps it has changed in some way since being stepped on, especially a giant step by a man. Specialists in women’s problems have been called upon, ad hoc committees set up. The scholarly journals are full of conjectures, but no good answers or solutions have been forthcoming except that perhaps all the women should be inoculated with male hormones.

The doctor thinks it is a simple question of willpower . . . a case of mind over matter (males), or matter over mind (females), and this very lack of willpower, he believes, is a form of aggression. Females, then, the worm in the apple, as ever; or rather, the first bite into it. Always — even before all this happened — in a state of disequilibrium; exaggerating themselves and their plight, sighing, braying, little cries of ai, ai, vey, vey, piu, piu, oh, ow, poo, and so forth. What difference does it make, when all is said and done, he is thinking, that they take the shapes when they already have had the sounds down pat for so long? And what passionate undercurrents in all these voices! (He has often found them downright embarrassing . . . even his own mother, though not, thank God, his wife.) Passion has always been their undoing, while he himself has always been ruled by the intellect. More even than most men, so perhaps (he thinks) he is the one uniquely chosen to return the world to its former comfortable dependability.

A few simple experiments may suffice to prove his willpower theory. Then it would simply be a matter of finding the leaders — those who have instigated the others in this lack-of-willpower behavior — and retraining them with electric shocks or any sort of aversion therapy. Perhaps it can be done in his large, airy basement. Put up a few cages and section off a laboratory. Take in several homeless waifs and wives. Make sure they get a good breakfast. Surely many would be happy with little more than a roof over their heads. It’s spring but it’s still pretty cold outside at night. Certainly they won’t cost much. It’s the equipment that will be the major expense. He decides to apply for a grant at once.

He has read in Marcus Aurelius that “Matter in the universe is supple and compliant, and the Reason which controls it has no motive for ill-doing; for it is without malice, and does nothing with intent to injure, neither is anything harmed by it.”

No, it is clear that it is not the fault of Matter at all, but of the female.

Lincoln Center on a Friday evening. The several audiences are strolling about in front of the fountain; have not, in fact, collected themselves into audiences at all, but still function basically as individuals or as couples. What a wonderful diversity exists among the women! What feathers, scales, and furs! What sounds! Laughs and shrieks that reach the highest C. Seeing them, one might wish also for banana women, apple women, pine-tree women, but one can’t have everything and this suffices to all but the greediest seekers after life.

Pooch, before the splendor of Lincoln Center, watching the elegantly dressed women, is reminded of a Japanese poem:

Butterfly
Or falling leaf,
Which ought I to imitate
In my dancing?

and also a line from another poem: “Very little happiness would be enough.”

She’s had nothing to eat since morning, but, though it certainly would help to lift her spirits, food is not what she hungers for. As it happens, she receives exactly what she wants most of all. Or rather, the second best thing. Someone hands her a ticket he can’t use. Not for the Metropolitan, but for the New York City Opera. Yet even this is beyond her wildest dreams, and by some strange quirk of fate, the opera is to beCarmen.

Pooch thanks God that the baby has had a hard day and is sound asleep. She tucks it under her arm much as one would carry a bunch of books and enters the theater panting slightly, short of breath from the excitement of it all. Her simple elegance belies her inappropriate clothes (ill-fitting jeans and torn, discarded sweater that once belonged to the oldest child of the family). She carries herself well and people notice her, though inside she is feeling small and spotted.

And so the opera begins, Pooch whimpering occasionally with a pleasure that cannot be contained. When Carmen sings: “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle . . . that nobody can ever tame,” Pooch is enraptured. Yes, it’s so true, so true. That’s just the way love is. She is thinking of the only males in her life (not counting the oldest child): her master and the psychotherapist, for whom she already has a full-blown transference.

But of course (as could have been predicted) it is Micaela’s song that moves her most of all, even though her French is rudimentary. “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” and “Seule en ce lieu sauvage . . . j’ai tort d’avoir peur; . . .” bring tears to her eyes. Pooch might be said to be in somewhat the same fix that Micaela is in. Suddenly she can no longer contain herself and raises her voice in a mournful obbligato to that of the soprano on stage.

Everyone turns to look at the rear of the balcony, wondering where this strange sound is coming from. Pooch has the words all wrong, but they are emotionally correct and full of homesickness and fear. Her voice is obviously untrained but has a surprising power. Something spellbinding about it. Something wild. It has what Roland Barthes calls “grain”: “(One hears only that),” he writes, “Beyond (or before) the meaning of the words . . . from deep down in the cavities, the muscles, the membranes, the cartilages . . .” The audience is, for just a moment, won over. The Micaela on stage stops singing, confused, and Pooch goes on by herself, her trembling audible. But this lasts only a minute, for the baby begins to cry. Of course Pooch is quickly hustled out amid catcalls, boos, and hisses. She hunches over in shame, the baby screaming.

Shortly afterward, and perhaps precipitated by the unforeseen commotion, the Carmen on stage begins to limp and whinny in a very strange manner. It is clear to all that she cannot be counted on to finish the opera. In truth, the impresario has been worried of late, wondering how to replace these highly trained but changing women. He has even, just for a moment, thought of castrating little boys to ensure a crop of sopranos for the future, but now he realizes that there is a better source he hadn’t recognized. He rushes to the lobby to try to intercept Pooch before she can get away. Here, he is thinking, is something wild and new to work with, though will she be able to practice as hard as necessary, and with a baby no less? No doubt she is poor, but he will finance the training. He will put his foot down, though, on helping with day care. She will have to find resources of her own where that is concerned. Yes, there is power here that he has not heard before. But she’s already gone by the time he gets to the door. “Find that woman,” he yells to a ticket taker; but the young man is running off in the wrong direction.

It is unlikely that he would find her, anyway, since she is soon to be netted by the dog catcher; for, as she flies from the scene of her humiliation, she runs unthinking down the middle of the street, hardly aware of the honking. She is booked for chasing cars, though of course that was the farthest thing from her thoughts, but her protests are in vain. The pound is not exactly the place for a trial by a jury of one’s peers, so she is summarily found guilty as charged. And as usual, she does have that guilty look. If only she had twenty-five dollars instead of two seventy-five in quarters (laundry money she hadn’t even meant to take, but found in her pocket after she’d left — she would never take money on purpose, even when running away and even when it might have helped to feed the baby). Twenty-five dollars and she could buy her way out and no problem.

Worse yet, they know who she is and will notify her master first thing in the morning, for Pooch is still wearing her collar with the license on it. Being a law-abiding creature, she had not even considered taking it off.

Excerpted from Carmen Dog by Carol Emshwiller. Copyright 1990 by Carol Emshwiller. All Rights Reserved.