Origin of the Jaggedog
John holds me in front of an audience of people and their dogs. We are all squeezed into a sunroom. Rain knocks on the glass roof and rhododendrons press on every window.
John tells the audience that for most of my life I have been locked away from society, learning nothing about how to behave. Gripping my shoulders, he marvels at my rawness, my greenness. The audience nods, coos, and pants.
I know that John is a liar, but I say nothing. In my head I assemble rebukes: I have crossed the ocean unsupervised, dragging a vast net behind me. I have embarrassed the most prominent scholars, causing beads of sweat to dance like mercury on their bald heads. I have herded black cattle in the dark. I have killed men with my bare feet.
John proposes that every where I go, I wear a necklace with an engraved metal tag informing people of my condition — like a diabetic or an epileptic, or a soldier. I scan the audience, careful not to make eye contact. Pendants dangle from the necks of the dogs. They each bear a different name, but they are all shaped like bones
Outside there is a gust of wind. Rhododendron leaves slap at the window panes and then pull away all at once. The noise is like a curdled pop, a chorus of suction cups. The drop in barometric pressure causes several dog jowls to inflate, bubbling out from their jawbones. My ears pop. This is John's cue to leave. He is due on set in one hour.
I drive him. He talks the whole way, about times when people have told him things they've kept secret from even their brothers. He holds onto my leg just above my right knee, and every few words, every comma, he tightens his grip. He is trying to clasp his hand around my thigh so his thumb and middle finger touch. I am narrow enough for this to work. Blood gathers in my ankle and makes my foot press down, makes us go faster.
The set is in the middle of a scrub field scabbed with gray rocks. It is still raining. Droplets pearl on the packed soil and slide downhill in little bursts. John is beckoned away by men with wires spilling out of their pockets. They put their hands on his back. I am given a lanyard displaying credentials, so people will know I am allowed to be here.
Still, some crew members gather in a circle and look sidelong at me, murmuring with the corners of their mouths downturned to keep from smiling. "Who's that narrow girl with her arms tangled together, standing on one foot and swaying like a child?" I am one of those jagged lines that waver across the screen in gray movies. I am a line and rain is the static.
In this film, John's character is supposed to stalk an animal. But in the whole tufted sprawl of the field and in this entire thicket of men and wires, there does not seem to be a single animal present. The director pulls a white wax pencil out from behind his ear and kneels in front of the camera. On the top left quadrant of the lens, he hastily draws a dog. Now no matter where the camera turns, no matter where John creeps, there will be that white dog hovering on the horizon.
The director has made a mistake, though. He has drawn the dog with its knees bent forward instead of back. Each leg juts out sharp like the point of an arrow. This error could have been avoided if there were any true dogs around, or any experts to tell him "start over." No one speaks up. The dog stands jagged like a stick insect.
For most of the film, the camera man walks right behind John, matching exactly the speed of his creeping. This way, the dog and the horizon behave the same; every step John takes pushes them forward. But as the story wanes, the camera man slows then stops, kneeling in the grass. The jagged dog stays put and John approaches it, shrinking with each step.
When John catches up with the dog, it towers over him. Its pointed knees are level with his eyes. It stands like a crooked bridge parallel to the horizon and John passes under its belly, then shrinks out of sight. Watching him disappear, I start to itch. I wish John and the dog could have touched. I know the dog is just a trick of wax on glass, but still I want to hear their skins together.
In the car on the way back John is happy. He talks about the crew, and the personalities that charmed him. John hosts a love of humans that tickles him from the inside. To mention this would be dangerous.
John puts his hand on my leg. He asks me what I thought of the shoot. I've been waiting for my time to speak and I'm prepared. "They are lucky to have discovered you," I say. "You walk like an animal. You always have. Another man would have needed to be taught and I don't think they could have taught him. I don't think they knew a prowl until they saw you."
John lets go of my leg, leaving a white skeleton print that my blood inks into. I can still feel the marble of his fingertips engraved in me, and how from now on sweat will gather in those minuscule grooves like rain water into tributaries. John slides his hand up the side of me. If there were space enough between my ribs, he would poke through to feel for the taut wall of my lung. I can feel the pain of that, even though it doesn't happen. Then he touches my shoulder and then my neck, and he squeezes. He squeezes out the word "however."
If I'm being honest, I say, "if it were me making the movies, you wouldn't have walked under the dog. You would have stopped at the horizon and turned to face the dog. Your eyes level with its bent sharp knees. Then you would hold up your hand to let the dog sniff you. But the dog doesn't lower its head, doesn't even look at you. Just all of a sudden it crouches. Its sharp knees jut forward and stick right into your eyes. Then it stands up tall again, yanking your eyes out.
"The camera of course is far away, so we don't quite see your eyes leaving, dangling their little kite strings. But you're wearing a mike—I saw that one man mike you— so we hear what's happened. There's a suction cup noise, a little duet of wet pops. And the healthy crack of the dog's joints.
"Then we cut to a neighborhood, a kind of forgotten one where sticky weeds have sprouted through cracks in the concrete. A rumor goes around, family to family, that there is a tall, jagged dog roaming the area with two gray eyes on its knees. At night it cuts through back yards, stepping nimbly over the fences. It steps exactly in time with the cicada calls, so that the noise of the insects seems to be coming from its joints, like the rasp of a wind-up toy.
"The jagged dog tiptoes beside the train tracks, and the lit-up windows of the train cast its zig-zag shadow on the edge of the woods. In its muddy footprints kids find tadpoles, perfectly round and deep black like pupils.
"The jagged dog — or, let's call it the Jaggedog. One 'd,' no space, so its name can be spoken without a hiccup in the middle—the Jaggedog roams until your eyes soften and cloud up like beached jellyfish, and they fall onto the grass. Then the Jaggedog stands still again, knees cocked, and waits. It's out there waiting now, for the next prowler, the next bad human man. We can count on that.
Tess Carroll writes: I am a young writer living in Brooklyn, where I work as a barista. I am a graduate of the Literary Arts program at Brown University. I have spent the past few years working in independent film, and am now making the transition into fiction writing. I was a finalist in the 2016 Blue Cat Screenplay Competition, and I wrote the screenplay for the short film Theodora, which recently aired on PBS as a part of the Film School Shorts program. I have never published a work of fiction before and this is my first submission.