A Dog’s Keen Sense

Shisan is a dog. Just a dog. Smarter than all of us.

We have been educated by scraps of schooling, by long-lost or dead parents, by surviving in an existence that bleeds our souls from us. But Shisan is the one who knows the most and is never wrong.

Shisan has a distinct language. When one returns to these four wretched walls, a series of little whines heralds the arrival before the rest perceive it. When one of us departs for the daily search for food or some item of comfort, the whining is longer, droopier. When someone is hurt, Shisan calls for aid in sharp, short barks. And when one is dead or dying, which happens too often in this calamity-ridden realm, Shisan’s long mournful howls, chilling in intensity, tell us of the awful event.

There are 13, not counting Shisan, huddled in this building. We are born in the wrong place, the wrong time. Little exists here in this harsh landscape but meager shelter and common misery.

It is autumn, harvest time, with little to be found in these sparse lands. Nevertheless, we forage, we gather. Sometimes we steal, but so does everyone else. Ownership means little here.

Morning comes, and I awaken to the sound of Shisan whining. It is not the happy whine of a friend returning but a noise I have heard from Shisan only a very few times before. It is the whine that foretells approaching doom. There is no doubt. Shisan just knows and is never wrong.

And then the rumble, the furious growls of devastation, and the building shudders and cries out in cracking, breaking noises. Sleeping friends are shaken awake and scream in alarm. At the west side, crashing sounds, followed quickly by a high shriek and a rasping curse. Shisan is running to the noise, yapping sharply, letting the injured know that help is coming, calling for others to join in.

I follow Shisan in a lumbering run, but panic sets in. Pieces of roofing collapse inward, bringing descending strings of dust in their wake. Some chunks plummet to the floor. Other flatter pieces flutter down more slowly, falling leaves of malice.

I do not have the single-minded courage of the dog. I am terrified. The building is coming down around us. But now Shisan stops, still barking, and I catch up, panting with effort and fear.

I see that it is all right after all, at least in this room. One of the two children with us is covered with dust but walking normally. The adult here, a man, is the one cursing, holding his head, a trickle of blood escaping down to his stubbled jaw. I order them out, to stay down until this destructive event has abated.

They follow my instructions as another impact shakes us. More cries of alarm or pain. More excited, sharp barking as Shisan dashes off in search of the next rescue. I see people at the head of the stairwell to the basement. Shisan is there, sniffing, tail wagging, and the dog’s happiness gives me momentary hope. I order them outside to join the other two.

The house is no longer shaking, but the crashing sounds of collapse continue. This building is solid and heavy, made for the ages, but the sustained tormenting assault of long years has now perhaps had the final say. I run to the back to another sleeping room. Behind me a section of wall falls over, massive enough to open the weakened floor, and it continues its fall through to the basement where I am sure other people still scramble to leave.

Shisan stops, haunches settling to the floor, head lifting, and begins a long, mournful howling. Shisan is never wrong. I only hope that the death in the basement is already done, with little pain, in few numbers as possible.

I am at the sleeping room, scattered with shocked people and detritus from the walls and ceiling, billows of dust doing their slow, drifting dance around the room, their roil illuminated by the shaft of sunlight coming through the open window. I grab arms, rap out sharp commands, telling everyone to leave, pushing them to the outside. One of them, a woman, stops, wincing, grabbing at her leg.

Shisan stops the howling, comes over, sniffs the victim, gives one short, sharp bark. So this one is hurt, but not bad. We walk through the building together, her arm around my neck, using me for support. We skirt the new hole in the floor, which I see now features a long, broken slope of wall ascending from the basement’s maw.

We meet another who had been sleeping in the basement. As we get to the door, in response to my questions, I hear that at least one is dead in the basement. I already know that, because Shisan is never wrong. But then I hear that in another sleeping room down there is the second child.

My chest tightens in dread. In this heartless area, we survivors treasure our children as our scant threads of what little hope we still possess. The three of us go to the door, and as the other two break through to the outside, leaning on one another, Shisan with them, I take quick count of the shocked, staggering crowd.

Ten. There are ten. That leaves me, the body below that we all know is there…

… and the child in the basement.

Another crash sounds, and I know from the accompanying gnash of metal crumpling that part of the kitchen has given way, perhaps all of it.

Time has become precious beyond measure. I run to the sole stairway into the basement, wanting to thunder down them, but instead I descend carefully, because the steps feel fragile, ready to give way, creaking in protest under my weight. Shisan is not with me, undoubtedly tending to the group outside, and I am glad.

I am in the basement and climb gingerly over rubble, coughing as my lungs rebel against the dust filling the air, squinting through the murky half-light that pervades. Through pieces of failed and fallen parts of the house, I see a portion of a body, covered in fabric, a knee or an elbow, utterly still. This one was indeed taken quickly.

I long to mourn, and part of me desires to start digging in faint hope, but I know it is useless. Shisan has already heralded the soul passing from this one, and Shisan is never wrong.

I call out for the child, and I hear a high-pitched voice in reply, the words indistinct. I continue, sliding, crawling, to the room where the child usually sleeps. Behind me, another section of weakened floor falls through, plaster pellets pelting my head, shoulders, back. With a gripping certainty, I know that the staircase has given way. I cry out in fear and frustration, and then I am in the room, more of the shattered building tumbling and gathering at the door just behind.

The room is empty, offering no solace because of the fear that the child is under fallen rubble somewhere else. The room has a small window featuring perhaps the only glass remaining in this ruined structure. The glass is smudged and nearly opaque from the dirt. But it is closed, and I know it is too small for the child to have climbed out.

And then I hear Shisan, faint but clear, sharp little whines, the dog’s cries of welcome. Shisan is never wrong, and the happy sounds are confirmed a moment later by cheering outside. The child is out of the house, probably having climbed up the shattered ramp of wall sticking up from the basement.

My dread relaxes but is replaced by sharp concern for my own condition. The doorway is now largely blocked by chunks of the failing building.

I hear a scratching, scrabbling, behind me at the window. I stride over and see Shisan’s paws desperately clawing and digging at the window space. I am gratified but puzzled at how Shisan knew where in the house to find me. And perhaps, just perhaps… the window is too small for me, but if we can dig at it, widen it, maybe I have a chance.

The scratching stops, and through the dirty, murky window I see the shape of a dog, backing away. Above, I hear a creak, a groan of materials, and loud blasts, breaking sounds. I look up and see the ceiling above me bulging out, cracks spiderwebbing and widening along the surface, and a shower of dust and grit falling through just before the building’s final surrender.

I hear Shisan once more, clearly, and my scalp tingles at the sound. I can almost see the dog settling back on haunches, head thrown upward, venting a long, uncanny, mournful howl-protest at the upcoming or actual death of a loved one.

And Shisan is never wrong.

— Grandpa

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