Septimius and Barron, inseparable pair, make their way along the wide, tree-lined median strip, wading through ninety-five-degree heat. Barron leans forward as he walks, his round, sloping shoulders accentuating his plodding strides. Septimius, on the other hand, lopes gracefully and without effort. His shoulders click back and forth in rhythm with his steps, and his muscle ripples beneath his mustard-yellow coat. Toward the end of a long walk, his tongue is dry and caked, his paws are swollen, and the shaded yard keeps flashing in his mind.
They walk almost every day, in all kinds of weather. Sometimes they follow the James River, skirting downtown Richmond all the way to Shockoe Bottom, where they rest under the railroad trestle and listen to the rumble of coal trains overhead and breathe in the rich aroma seeping from red-brick tobacco warehouses. Other days they walk north, past the baseball stadium, through residential sprawl, where a certain penned-in dog can always be counted on to bark hysterically, having sensed the odoriferous Septimius well in advance.
Today they went north, and now, on the final leg of their trek, they are passing huge statues of Confederate generals on horseback, joggers and speed-walkers, and people following dogs on leashes — most often, pampered dogs who want to sniff and frolic. But Septimius isn’t interested. Only two things are on his mind: the yard and food.
They turn at Robinson and after a few blocks stop at the market. Septimius waits outside, watching customers come and go. He’s a good old dog, not the kind people instinctively fear, perhaps because he comes just this side of cowering — head slightly lowered, eyes slightly raised. It’s too hot to lie down, so he stands crookedly, watching drops of his saliva evaporate on the sidewalk. The sun and haze are intense; heat radiates from concrete and brick, slowly cooking anything that isn’t moving.
When Barron comes out carrying a bag of groceries, Septimius trots off, glancing rhythmically from the corner of his eye to make certain he’s on course. They stick to the shady side of the street all the way, and Septimius picks up the pace when he catches sight of the house and its dense, shady canopy of branches and leaves.
Barron’s house is the only one in the neighborhood with large, undeveloped lots on either side, lots that eager developers would kill for but have long since given up trying to buy. Most of his neighbors have gone heavily into debt renovating their places — new drywall, remodeled kitchens, decks made of salt-treated lumber — but not crazy old Barron. Once white, his three-bedroom frame house is now a sooty gray, and the tin roof has taken on a junkyard patina. A fence encircling the property displays several faded No Trespassing signs, constant reminders to Barron’s neighbors that he’s not available for a cup of sugar. The padlock on the front gate hasn’t been unlocked in years.
They turn down a side street and end up in the alley behind the house. The back gate is also locked shut; the power company meter-reader is the only other person with a key. Barron’s preferred entrance is a section of loose boards behind some overgrown lilac bushes. Septimius waits as Barron pulls the branches aside and steps into the yard. Grateful that the lilacs are no longer in bloom, Septimius follows. During the spring their sweet, pungent perfume is more than he can stand; it clings to his coat for weeks on end.
Inside the yard at last, Septimius sighs with relief, even does a little hop, puppy-like, he’s so glad to get out of the sun. Barron is swallowed up by the somber house, but Septimius lingers under the trees. First he goes behind the old metal shed to squat, then makes a perfunctory tour, dodging spider webs as he weaves in and out among trees and shrubs and tall weeds and leaf piles. His eyes narrow when he realizes a cat has passed through during his absence; he thinks he knows which one. He has caught a cat only once, and was so surprised at getting it pinned to the ground that he hesitated, just long enough for the cat to respond with a slashing, squirming lunge that left him with one of his ears ripped nearly in two.
Septimius squints and sniffs, enjoying the feel of his body cooling down, until the birdbath beckons. It’s birdless because of the leaf mold that has filled it up over the years, but birds are everywhere in the yard, chirping in the trees, hopping among fallen leaves in search of bugs and worms, perched on the rim of the rusted-out gutter. Septimius sidles his rump alongside the birdbath and lifts his leg.
The sun is shining through the trees, spraying Septimius’s domain with shafts of light. Inside, Barron doesn’t appreciate the magical effect, nor does he share the simple pleasure with which his faithful dog has come home once again.
For more than two hours, Septimius has been upstairs, waiting outside the bathroom door for Barron. The void in his stomach is speaking to him, but he knows that if he waits Barron will come out, and if Barron comes out he will eventually get fed. It’s as simple as that.
So he lies there patiently in the stuffy hallway, listening to the house making its noises. He knows them all by now: flies banging mindlessly against windowpanes, plaster bits falling off pieces of lath inside the wall, floorboards expanding or contracting, the ghosts of former occupants moving about in the dark.
A mouse runs from one room to the next, past the stacks of newspapers that line the hall, but Septimius is too hungry to care. Some of the mice live inside the stacks, in cozy little sanctuaries gnawed out of the compressed newsprint. Barron’s traps are all over the house, some of them long forgotten and still holding tiny dried carcasses that Septimius cautiously sniffs at from time to time. He learned the hard way that the traps are to be avoided, that the mice and the traps and the bits of cheese and the snapping noise in the middle of the night are all part of the same system, and that the system involves pain.
On the other side of the bathroom door Barron’s voice, one of the most familiar sounds of the house, drones on. Septimius has learned that when Barron talks, it doesn’t mean other people are around.
Septimius fights the urge to doze, knowing the other dogs are lying in wait. The house has always had a dog: a lab, a setter or two, a Jack Russell terrier that actually caught mice, other mutts. Their essences — the musky smell of their coats, the hair and dandruff they shed, the turds they deposited in the yard — have long since dissipated, but their restless spirits linger. The whimpers Septimius makes in the middle of the night aren’t just caused by bad bowels or dreams of embarrassing moments with cats; they’re also brought on by the ghosts of Mike, Pickett, Tar-Baby, and the rest, who take great pleasure in nipping his tail, barking into his ear, and pissing on his head while he sleeps, unable to defend himself.
To avoid going to sleep, Septimius holds his head up, resisting the temptation to lay his chin on his paws. He is about to fall asleep anyway, his head fluttering and falling inevitably toward his paws, when the bathroom door swings open and catches him on the head with a crack. He slithers down the hall, suppressing a yelp (he knows better), and Barron plods past him and walks down the back stairs to the kitchen.
As Barron cooks his meal — a large T-bone steak that releases heavenly fragrance into the room — Septimius has trouble suppressing his excitement and is reduced to one gaping, squealing yawn after another. When Barron finally sits down to eat, Septimius lies under the kitchen table, ready for the drop of a hand. A few tangled lumps of gristle fall in front of his nose, which he takes in with quick turns of the head and flicks of the tongue, and finally he gets what he has been waiting for, the bone, which lands with a thud coinciding perfectly with Barron’s wet belch. Septimius takes the bone in his mouth and jumps through the hole in the bottom half of the screen door. He circles the back yard twice, at this moment more alert than he has been all day, and trots off to his bone cache, where he gnaws until his jaws ache.
It begins raining shortly after sunset. By midnight it’s a steady downpour.
Except for a small lamp on the bedroom table, the house is dark, and Barron is talking again, sitting next to the table, staring out the window toward the rain. Lying in the doorway, Septimius watches and for a second is fooled by the reflection of Barron’s face in the window, which looks like someone outside looking in. He growls deeply from his chest, but when Barron turns toward him the other head turns too, which seems to explain something.
Septimius senses that Barron won’t be sleeping in his bed tonight, so he has no compelling reason to crawl under it to await the reassuring sounds of creaking springs and rhythmic breathing. The next-best place is downstairs, in the dark, on a hall carpet that has almost turned to dust. There he’ll settle into a well-worn spot, taking advantage of the draft that tunnels down the hallway and provides a bit of cooling relief from the closeness of the old house in summer.
With a resigned glance toward the bed, he leaves, and after he has taken his place on the rug he lets the muffled sound of the voice upstairs lull him to sleep. He dreams of chasing cats, of gorging on piles of meaty bones, of leaping happily into Barron’s lap.
The next day the rain doesn’t let up. Septimius passes the time napping, alternating between the porch and the rug; he goes outside only to relieve himself. He’s annoyed at Barron, who sits silently at the kitchen table, staring out the window. Barron makes only one meal all day, further adding to Septimius’s ill humor.
The following day they don’t eat at all. Septimius’s stomach growls unpleasantly, sounding vaguely like one of those phantom curs that sneak up on him in the middle of the night.
The thunderstorm starts at five o’clock. Septimius, who has been lounging on the porch, flinches at the first thunderclap and flash of lightning, but he stays put. When the storm passes and the rain lets up momentarily, the woman on the other side of the alley begins calling her cat — a raspy “Come here, pretty, come here, pretty” — and it’s the final straw. He saunters inside, bored with it all: the sound of the rain bouncing off the tin roof, the dampness, Barron’s immobility, the flickering sky, the favored cat.
In the living room he sees someone with a hat lurking near one of the front windows, but lightning leaking through the dusty venetian blinds reveals the standing lamp. Out of boredom, he goes upstairs, looks into all the rooms, whose contents are intact: stacks of old newspapers and furniture untouched for years, the coats of dust unmarked by fingerprints.
Something on the floor of Barron’s bedroom, near a window, catches his eye. He finds a puddle of water, and as he’s sniffing it a drop from above hits him on the head, making him blink. He doesn’t bother to look up at the ceiling, which is swollen and menacing. He knows that whatever this is should be avoided, and he exits quickly. He trots downstairs and curls up on the powdery rug, chin on paws, obsessing about food and the unpleasant moisture on his face until he falls asleep.
The crash and the scream seem to be part of his dream, which has something to do with an automobile. For a few seconds he doesn’t move, then he starts barking, confused but on his guard, anxious to discover the cause of the disturbance. Barron is howling, almost like a dog, compounding Septimius’s confusion. He charges up the steps and skids into the bedroom on untrimmed nails. Barron is staring up at the ceiling, or into the attic, to be more precise, because a large portion of the ceiling is lying on the floor around him, and wet plaster covers his head and shoulders. He turns toward the doorway and calls out, as if someone were waiting out in the hall.
It occurs to Septimius that he might be responsible for what happened, and when Barron starts in his direction he braces himself. But Barron shuffles past him and leaves the room. Now Septimius is more curious than confused. He pokes his head into the hall and listens to Barron’s progress down the steps and to the rear of the house. The slam of the back door takes him by surprise. He runs for the stairs and when he gets to the kitchen it’s empty, the door closed. He stares at it for a long time, but boredom and fatigue finally force him to return to the rug, where at least he can wait in relative comfort.
Hunger and being cooped up in the stuffy house get on Septimius’s nerves. The toilet-seat lid is up, so he has water, and the mice keep him company after a fashion, but he longs for the back yard, Barron’s companionship, and the more-or-less regular meals. He suppresses the urge to howl like Barron had the night before, fearing his return in mid-howl.
But Barron doesn’t come home, and next morning the first thing Septimius does is get the howl out of his system. He runs through the house howling mournfully, and soon his howls of longing turn into barks of anger. He barks at the lamp, at the pile of plaster, at the refrigerator. He barks at his shadow. In desperation he paws at the kitchen door, which to his surprise pops open, and in a flash he darts onto the porch and into the damp but wonderful back yard.
He expects to find Barron but knows immediately, without having to make a tour, that he’s not there. But the sheer joy of being outside masks the sadness. He sniffs around for a while, pees on the birdbath, sticks his head through the opening in the fence, chases an imaginary cat. He returns to the back porch to confirm that Barron has not been sitting there, waiting for him the whole time. He lies on the porch for a while, and when the stomach noises get to him, he heads for the hole in the fence.
Every time he turns a corner, he expects to see Barron. He waits outside the market for an hour or so. It’s hot again and steamy; someone puts a water dish out for him. Next he races toward Byrd Park, where he and Barron occasionally walk, but he finds only squirrels and geese. He runs all the way back to his alley and slides through the hole in the fence. Barron is sure to be there, standing on the porch or staring at him though the kitchen window. He looks at the house, waiting for Barron to reveal himself.
It’s easy to knock over a garbage can: he jumps up, puts his front paws on the edge of a can, and lets his weight fall forward, or else he catches his nails on the edge of a can and pulls down. By the end of the afternoon not a can along the alley is left standing. Once, while his head is inside a can, he belches, and the echo makes him jump. He goes back to his meal, some slightly rancid lasagna, but is interrupted again, this time by a horrendous noise ringing in his head. He wiggles out, frantically, his rump exposed to unknown danger, and just misses being swatted by a broom handle. He takes off down the alley, the handle flying after him. In a few minutes he’s in another alley, sniffing out likely prospects.
He returns to the yard, relaxed now that his stomach is full, a feeling that suggests Barron will come back any minute. He dozes off and when he wakes up nothing has changed, except that his stomach isn’t growling anymore. The yard begins to close in on him, though, so he goes through the hole in the fence once again, only this time he’s not just looking for Barron.
Septimius wanders to all the obvious places, plus a few he’s never been to before, but someone always seems to be offended by his presence. He could walk anywhere with Barron, but alone he’s not welcome. Feeling out of sorts, he decides he needs a refuge, and in the park he finds a large stand of bushes he can crawl under and have to himself. Inside, the bushes thin out, giving way to a little hollow where only squirrels and birds and bugs have been before him.
He learns that he can’t attack the same garbage cans too often. A few homeowners have put rocks on the lids, while others have dragged the cans inside their yards, but he has no difficulty expanding his horizons.
Lured by the smell of water, he sneaks into a back yard with an open gate and finds a small, concrete fish pond. He plops in to cool off, wallowing among lily pads and terrified goldfish. In the middle of his idyll, a man appears on a back porch and yells at him. Sepimius clambers sheepishly from the pond, right into the middle of a flower bed. He shakes himself off, and when he takes a few steps forward, intending merely to edge toward the gate, his only escape route, the man retreats into the house.
Near one of the monuments in the park, two boys throw sticks for him for a while. When they start throwing sticks at him, he lowers his head, gives them a sidelong glance, and trots away.
That night he has restless dreams. Somehow the ghost dogs from the house have followed him into the park, and they have their way with him all night long. He wakes up cranky and covered with dew but has a sudden inspiration: Barron is certain to be home now, sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for him to return. By the time he reaches their block he has convinced himself that nothing has changed. They’ll go for a walk, have a meal, and Barron will talk to the window all night long.
When he reaches the alley he realizes something is wrong. As soon as he sticks his head through the hole in the fence, the aroma of spoor, unpleasant and overpowering, greets him, causing his nostrils to flare, his eyes to dilate, and his chest to shudder. Two dogs are lounging near the shed, looking like they own the place. Septimius sniffs in the direction of the house: no Barron, which leaves him no choice. He charges into the midst of what turns out to be not two but three mangy intruders — a collie and two crossbreeds, one of them mostly shepherd, the other some sort of retriever. They’re taken by surprise but obviously have been through this sort of thing before. While Septimius is occupied head-to-head with one of them, the others nip at his legs and backside, and when he turns to protect his rear the same thing happens. At one point all four of them seem to be caught up in a mini-cyclone, tumbling across the yard, their snarls and yelps and growls indistinguishable from one another.
Not yet sure how bad the damage is but already feeling its effects, Septimius retreats to the front yard — remembering too late there is no exit. Another cyclone ensues, but he manages to get his teeth into the leader of the pack. His piercing yelp separates the dogs, giving Septimius the split second he needs to dash for the alley. They make only a halfhearted attempt to chase him down.
Septimius is several blocks away before he finally slows down. His body has so many points of pain that they seem to have merged into one. He can’t help it, he has to whimper. By the time he reaches the market, he’s walking on three legs, and if he could have figured out how to do it on two he would have. He feels better lying down and for a while is able to hold his head up, panting, waiting for his heartbeat to get back to normal. As the sun makes its ascent, dragging along with it another scorching day, he spends the time licking the wounds he can reach, and whenever a customer walks in or out he looks up expectantly.
When he wakes up from a nap, the water dish is next to his head. He has trouble standing up to drink.
Later he becomes aware of people hovering over him. Someone touches his head, tentatively at first, and it turns into a long, smooth stroke that takes care to avoid the gash on his ear, the same ear the cat had shredded. He is also aware of a voice, melodic and comforting, not at all like the rambling one he is used to.
When someone picks him up and places him in the back of a pickup truck, he doesn’t object. Never having ridden in a vehicle before, but having dodged them on the street, he’s curious as the truck starts moving. The vibration of the metal bed and the noise of the engine take his mind off other things. In a vague way he senses a connection between the hands of the tall man who picked him up, the truck and its vibrations, and the wounds he has tired of licking.
Being carried into the veterinarian’s office and smelling the startling confluence of odors left by cats and dogs and parrots — not to mention medicines he has never taken and conditioned air he has never breathed — is perhaps the strangest experience of his life. Why they are putting him on a table is also beyond comprehension, but he’s too worn-down to struggle. As for the needle entering his haunch, well, what’s that compared to the other wounds, those honorably won in combat?
He wakes in a cage, in a dark room full of dogs and cats in similar predicaments. He lets out a bark, which turns into a whine, then he settles down to listen to the chorus of roars and shrieks he has touched off.
In the morning they give him some food, which he doesn’t eat. He tries to lick a leg, the one he couldn’t walk on, but it’s wrapped in something he can’t get his teeth into. Sleep keeps overtaking him.
The new yard is much smaller and has little room for running, but he takes walks with the man who isn’t Barron. At first he’s kept on a leash, which he hates, but eventually the leash is put aside when he has convinced the man that he already knows how to walk with a human — loping on up ahead, looking over his shoulder every so often to make sure he’s heading in the right direction. One thing takes some getting used to: the man touching him all the time and calling out to him — to him, Septimius. At first he tolerates it; after all, this is the man who gives him food every day, twice a day. Later, the petting and the voice, as well as his new name, become part of who he is. He never quite forgets Barron, though he isn’t really aware of it, because Barron is part of who he is, too.