El Perro Del Mar
by Maria Mon
“Abuela, cuentame la historia del perro del mar,” I asked my grandmother when we walked down the beach at dusk. Tell me the story of the dog of the sea.
She walked beside me, her feet bare, unworried about broken glass or sharp rocks on the sand, unlike me, a little girl whose sight was stuck to the ground.
El perro del mar was a ghost that wandered the shores of the island at night. His eyes glowed like firefly lanterns, and he carried heavy chains around his neck. My grandmother said that he was sent by the devil, and the chains ran into the sea down to hell itself. Mangy and mangled, he sat and waited — there, beside the large rocks on the edge of the low tide — for a lone walker to follow. If the walker ignored him, the dog devoured them, but if they tried to scare him off they would also be devoured.
That was how my grandmother lost her best friend. Her friend encountered the dog not once, but twice. The first time, when she was a little girl, she was polite to him, and invited him to walk the shore with her until it was time for her to return home. But by the second time she had outgrown the island’s stories, and she pretended she didn’t see him. Before she could reach the lights of the town, the dog opened its jaws wide and swallowed her whole.
My grandmother was the last storyteller on the island, and on that day, years after I’d heard the story for the last time, I was there to mourn her.
The dome of the night sky encased the island as if it was a snow globe’s centerpiece. The sky ended on the horizon, and if I could have reached up to it, my fingers would have slid on cold glass and stirred the stars. There was no moon. I was alone.
I stood on a rock by the water’s edge and surveyed the beach behind me, pulling my curly hair behind my ear against the wind. I had followed the receding tide, and now the pampas grass at the edge of the beach was a kilometer away. I was barely in my teens when I saw my grandmother for the last time. She had shown me the dirt paths through the tall grass and the woods, but it had been at least nine years since then. The scattered houses on the shore had turned off their lights, so now I couldn’t tell which one marked the path I’d taken.
And there, by the large rocks on the edge of the low tide: two faint points of light stared in my direction. They were too still; they weren’t flashlights. I called out, “Who’s there?” but no one answered.
I crouched down, staring, the waves catching my skirt and soaking it up to my tights. Night at the island is unforgivably dark; the ocean and sky may as well be one. I thought they were playing a trick on me. I began to see a large shape behind the lights, a hump that rose above them, but the body below was not human.
“I see you!” I warned, my heartbeat rising.
The lights shifted, rising along with the sound of rattling chains. The shape began to move closer.
“I see you.” I acknowledged. It stopped moving.
Could it really be? I didn’t know what I wanted to approach less — a demon dog or a stranger in the night.
I don’t know what I had wanted when I asked my grandmother for stories. They scared me but they fascinated me at the same time. Thanks to her, I knew that the Dead Parade would not hurt me if I left a burning candle on my windowsill, and the dog would not eat me if I was polite to it. As a little girl, I had thought that I was preparing for something inevitable.
I heaved myself up, looking behind me to the expanse of nothing from whence I’d come. If I ran, I wouldn’t know where to go. I turned back to the creature.
As I got closer, the creature’s breathing rose above the crashing waves— it was almost the same sound, alive and heavy. I began to see its true shape. Its shaggy hair stood on end along its back; it was hunched so deeply that its head was well below its shoulders. Chains wrapped around its long neck and fell like braids, tips lost in the sea foam.
I stopped a few feet from it. By the soft blue light of its eyes I saw the face of a mutt— some wolfish creature with a rounder edge to its snout. It had the air of a stray dog who sits at the edge of a busy street and watches.
He must have known that my heart was racing; I could hear it myself. He sniffed the air around me. He thrust his snout at my face and I flinched. He backed off, his pointy ears going flat. He let out a long, strained whine.
I had once known the stray dogs, the ones who begged for scraps and were rail thin, the ones who shrunk back if you waved your hand even if you didn’t mean to strike. I stared. “I won’t hurt you,” I said to him. After a moment, I lifted my hand and held it to him. He sniffed at it, his breath warming my fingers.
His fur was coarse, coated with salt and sand. He leaned into my touch, the chains clinking softly, as I ran my hand from his nose to the top of his head. I felt like I knew him. The strays had also been touch-starved, and deeply trusting of a little girl’s touch. I scratched behind his ear with trembling fingers. He let its tongue roll out, panting slightly.
“Are you happy to see me?” I murmured. “Or are you happy I can see you?”
I wondered if my grandmother had been able to see him too, and how often, if we had that in common. She never told me if she’d met the dog, but she had surely been the last one to believe in him. She never stopped fearing him — he was a bad omen, he was the devil.
But he’d almost been forgotten.
My grandmother was the last of her generation. She had studied in the city, but she chose to come back and stay. This was the place, she said, where each year the clouds would form a halo around the moon so the turtle hatchlings could find their way from beneath the sand to the sea; where the ghost of the conquistadors’ ship sailed closest to shore; where the wailing of a ghost mother could be heard at night during Holy Week. For most of my grandmother’s life there hadn’t been electricity on the island, and she said that now people there didn’t know the island the way she had.
Maybe the dog was there to mourn her too.
I placed my hand under his jaws, feeling the weight of his head, the dip between jawbone and muscle. What to do?
I looked back at the tree line. “So… will you follow me?”
He followed my gaze, then looked at me. I was the walker in the night, after all; I had to go somewhere, and the dog had to follow. With no direction, I began to walk.
I don’t believe in the devil, much less hell. I wasn’t scared of the dog. I knew what had really happened to my grandmother’s friend.
The island was a long way from the city, and I could count the times I had visited it in one hand. My mother and I would take a bus that stopped at a ranch in the middle of nowhere, where a small boat waited at the edge of the mangrove. The boatman wound us through the labyrinthine roots during the high tide. Sun filtered through the leaves and shone on us like thick glitter, while my mom held my arm and our bags tightly.
The days we spent at the island went slowly — in my mind they have become a blur of warm breezes, salt water on my lips, and cement dust sticking to the soles of my feet. There was a school, a pub in front of the dock, and a truly modest church at the center of the town. The newer buildings were made of cement and zinc roofs, the older ones of quincha and palm leaves.
I became a curiosity to the people there — going from little girl who listened to her elders to surly teenager who thought she was from a better place. The girls pulled at my hair, the boys jeered and beckoned, and when I didn’t respond, they insulted.
Now, the same church bell tower looked over the dozen or so houses. I was still the strange girl who only visited out of duty and could leave whenever she wanted.
A day after the funeral service I went to visit the priest again. He was young, and it was obvious he didn’t know my grandmother well. If he had, he would have talked more about ghosts and devils than angels and heaven. But I still needed to talk; I’d lost the last thread that bound me to that place, and I wanted to ask him if it was possible to mourn someone from so far away. He said, of course you could, but I was unsatisfied.
The dog walked besides me. His shoulders reached mine, and his neck swayed with each step. We reached the bank at the edge of the beach, where the palm trees loomed, and found a path a bit wider than a footpath. I thought it was my best bet, but the further in we went the thicker the brush became. No one had been through there in a while.
I slowed down, trying to see ahead. The dog brushed past me, sniffing at the ground. He looked at me and then turned, beckoning to follow. The canopy grew thicker, hiding the stars.
The light of the dog’s eyes created a dreamlike glow. I looked behind us, trying to see the end of the chains, but they faded into the darkness.
Suddenly the dog stopped. He growled, setting his sight on the ground ahead. I heard the hiss before I saw the dull scales and the devious smile of the bushmaster snake. Its long body was coiled up, reared back; she looked at us from the side, only a few feet away.
I jumped back. My heel hit one of the chains and I tumbled down. The dog’s deep growls reverberated in my chest. The snake lunged. The dog unhinged his jaw and in the blink of an eye he swallowed the viper whole.
Blood was pumping in my ears. The dog turned to look at me expectantly. For long seconds I lay on the dirt, staring. His soft eyes lit our small patch of earth, as if there was nothing beyond the edges of ourselves.
There was a lump in my throat. I kept thinking: he swallowed it whole.
He looked ahead, then back at me. After a moment I shakily stood up. As soon as I was steady, the dog led the way.
The wind rolled over the canopy like the waves did on the sand, and we walked underneath.
Sick of how scared I was of my grandmother’s stories, my mother told me the truth when I was thirteen years old.
Her name was Gloria. Gloria and Estefania, inseparable. I pictured them confident and wild, having grown up with no bounds among the waves and the storms, with strange creatures watching from the dark. They must have sat at campfires and told stories to scare each other, to keep nights like this at bay. They were not people who took no for an answer.
At age 17, Gloria decided to marry their English teacher, a young man named Armando who had come from another country to teach English. My grandmother didn’t want it to happen — if Gloria married then they would not be able to go to the city together. But they were both stubborn, and both went ahead with their plans. By the time my grandmother left, Gloria already had a little baby boy.
When Estefania returned three years later, she discovered that Gloria had died, drowned during a storm, that Armando was long gone, and that the kid was now living with his father’s parents.
According to my mother, Estefania never believed it was an accident. She clung to the rumors about how Armando traveled all the time and didn’t want to take his wife with him, and that they fought about it a lot. She believed that Armando had gotten rid of her so he could finally leave the island.
I sought out her grave at the border of town after hearing the truth. It was marked by a small cement cross whose colors had faded by the time I saw it. Now my grandmother’s own cross stands beside the weathered name of Gloria.
The dog had never been a threat, but it had never been a warning either. It did exist, it was my grandmother’s connection to a dear, lost friend. When I asked her, in Spanish, for a story –“la historia”– all she heard was history. The past, a fiction — encompassed in a single word.
The dark had unhinged its jaws and swallowed her friend whole, without sense or regret. This was all she knew.
I put a hand on the dog’s head and scratched behind his ear; he leaned into the touch, bumping into me. Despite his wet fur, he exuded a warmth that I haven’t felt since.
We rounded a bend and found the main road. A lone lamppost stood on its edge.
The dog stopped. I recognized the road—it was the one that passed by my grandmother’s old house. I did not move for a long time—I remember no sound or sight besides our breathing and the harsh orange light. I did not want morning to come anymore.
Eventually, I marched forward, and the dog followed. Even now I can hear the chains rattling. He followed me as far as the edge of the light; when I stepped within its circle, I turned around and the dog was gone.