The Black Dog
from The Seed: Stories from the River’s Edge
The first time Charlie López saw the black dog was also his first day in the white kids’ second-grade class. But its seemingly supernatural form was just another in a string of amazing occurrences in the town of Driscoll that September of 1956. When school started, a little girl named Linda Pérez was enrolled by her parents in first grade. The principal placed her, like he did all kids with Spanish surnames, in the Mexican class. When her parents objected, explaining that Linda only spoke English, the principal just shrugged. “Look, we understand your daughter doesn’t speak Spanish, but if we put her in with the other kids, all the other Mexicans are going to want to move, too.”This reaction was a bit of a shock to Mr. and Mrs. Pérez. They knew that Spanish-speaking children were placed in a special first grade class for three years (it used to be four years, but the GI Forum Charlie’s uncle belonged to had threatened to sue the district, so they’d reduced the “linguistic development” period by a year). It was precisely because of that practice that the Pérez family had raised Linda to speak just English, despite the ridicule their decision brought upon them. To discover now that these efforts had been in vain, that little Linda would be forced to spend three years in “Mexican” first grade and at least another in “Mexican” second was intolerable.
The very next day they’d shown up with a lawyer in tow, a tall, light-complexioned man named Mr. de Anda who had offices in Corpus Christi. Charlie wasn’t sure what Mr. de Anda had said to the superintendent, but by the end of the day, Linda had been placed in the white kids’ first-grade class. It was kind of amazing, actually, how quick the Anglos of Driscoll CISD were to give in to a Mexican-American lawyer’s demands. All the kids were abuzz about de Anda’s apparent power.
That evening, Mr. de Anda actually showed up at Charlie’s house. Though the lawyer was visiting all the families with kids in the Mexican class, apparently Uncle Frank knew him from the GI Forum or from the war or something. The two of them clasped hands, Charlie’s mom served everybody jamaica with shaved ice, and Mr. de Anda started asking questions. When it came out that Charlie was in the Mexican second-grade class this year despite speaking English really well, de Anda shook his head in disgust.
“Frankie, you should’ve come to me. This kid deserves to be getting the same education as the Anglos. I don’t mean to offend you, but your little brother left his son in your charge. If you don’t stand up for his rights, who will?”
Uncle Frank began to explain himself, all the employment problems and car trouble he was having, but now Charlie was thinking about his father, about how hard the last four years had been since the letter had come with the news that Salvador López had been killed in action in Korea. Charlie found that he could just barely remember his father’s face, and he turned in shame to the photo on the living room wall. His father’s uniformed frame stared with stiff compassion down at him as if to say it’s alright, m’ijo— everything fades. Charlie smiled wryly up at his father’s image, and as clearly as if the man were sitting beside him, the boy caught his scent, a smell of leather and Tres Flores brilliantine. Charlie was comforted.
The next day, de Anda accompanied Uncle Frank to the superintendent’s office. During recess, Charlie told some of his Anglo friends in second-grade that he might be joining them pretty soon. Most of them thought the idea was boss, but Bobby Benson —who despite being two years younger than Charlie was about an inch taller and sported a duck’s butt— spat rudely. “That’s dumb. I thought we was trying to get rid of wetbacks, not stick them in class with us.” Of course, Charlie ignored the boy, like his uncle had taught him to.
That evening, after he’d walked a half-mile down the twilit road from the bus stop to his house, Uncle Frank and his mom gave him the news. Not only would Charlie be in the “normal” class, but also a bunch of families had agreed to file a lawsuit against Driscoll CISD.
“Mr. de Anda found that lots of kids who can speak English are in those Mexican classes,” Uncle Frank said. “In the past twelve years, Linda is the only one the superintendent accepted into the white class. They don’t even give y’all good tests to see if your English needs work, he says. Teachers just decide that since y’all have Spanish last names, you obviously can’t be good English-speakers.”
Then Charlie’s mom, usually so quiet and introverted, spoke up. “It’s worse than that, Frank, and you know it. Doesn’t matter to them that so many of you boys went off to the Pacific, to Germany, to Korea…” Her voice hitched softly. “That you gave your lives for your country, some of you. No. There’s no honor for that, or for the children of soldiers. What matters is keeping Latin-American kids in first and second grade so long that by the time they can get into normal classes, they’re old enough to work the fields and too embarrassed at their age to stick around. So they drop out, and no Anglo children ever have to be in the same class as a Latin-American. It’s disgusting, and thank God for Mr. de Anda having the courage to stand up for their rights. I only wish that those of us who have the power to change things,” she looked pointedly at Uncle Frank, “would have stood up long ago.”
Charlie was amazed at her passion. Hands that normally clasped a rosary or kneaded dough were clenched in earnest fists. Her black eyes flashed with released indignation. As she picked up their plates and turned to the sink, Charlie closed his eyes for a second against the changes going on in his home. Something in him trembled at the transformations that might still be in store.
The next morning, Charlie ate his breakfast quickly and, snatching up his lunch and books, headed out into the pre-dawn dark. A hint of twilight silvered the moonless sky, and the thick sable nothingness under the trees on either side of the road seemed to steel itself against the coming dawn, clinging blackly to the trunks and boughs.
Then, before him on the road, a form coalesced out of the shadows. It was a massive black dog with shaggy, tangled pelt, its head at a level with Charlie’s chest. On either side of its blunt, foam-flecked snout, red eyes like burning hibiscus or fire-lit blood glowered at the nine-year-old. As it slouched toward him, its massive paws made not a sound on the gravel, but black lips curled back to reveal sharp yellow teeth, and a low growl from its throat set the very ground thrumming.
As Charlie frantically reviewed his options—run back toward the house, run into the woods, try to run past the black dog—he heard the hiss of the school bus brakes. Without further thought, he exploded into a run. As he swept past the dog, he nearly gagged on the smell of rotting flesh. Wherever the dog had come from, he realized, it was either very sick or very evil. And now it lumbered after him, its loping strides bringing it closer and closer. The bus had stopped not ten yards away. Charlie pumped his arms, his lunch pail and books whacking painfully against his sides. The bus door accordioned open; Charlie jumped up the steps, ignoring the driver’s complaints, and turned to face the dog.
It had disappeared.
Despite his nerves, Charlie’s first day with the white kids was pretty normal. The teacher called him Charlie L. to differentiate between him and Charlie D. (“D for Dresch,” the small boy had clarified). He was older than everybody except Steven Reeves, who had failed second grade twice after getting started with his schooling somewhat later than normal. But age didn’t seem to be so much of an issue, and he was light-skinned like his dad, so Charlie largely fit in. He knew nearly all the kids from the playground and lunch, and his skill at baseball and running were generally respected by all the boys and girls.
Bobby Benson gave him a hard time, though, as did some of his former classmates like Juan Díaz and Fernanda Bustamonte, both of whom saw him as a traitor to his community. “You think you’re white now, huh?” they taunted him with a degree of disgust on the bus ride home. “Well, that nopal on your forehead? Everybody can see it, Carlitos.”
His uncle and mother were pleased at his carefully edited narration of the day’s events. He left out the dog and the negative comments, focused on how easily he’d integrated himself. The three of them had dinner and then gathered round the radio to listen to Dragnet, Uncle Frank promising to get a television set as soon as he could find a stable job.
The next morning, Charlie left the house more cautiously. Once again the black dog trod like a harbinger out of the early morning mist. But Charlie’s dash to the bus was almost not enough—the foul, hot breath of the hound sprayed rankly on the back of his neck just as he made the first step.
Tension could be felt all day at the school—news of the possible lawsuit had gotten around, and all the English-speaking Mexican-American students were razzed during lunch and recess by those whose parents preached the status quo to them at home, whether Anglo or otherwise. But it wasn’t the conflict at school that kept Charlie tossing and turning all night: imagined putrescence and flaming red eyes assailed him from the shadows in his room, though he refused to cry out in fear.
In the morning he grabbed a sturdy branch from the side of the road, his books and lunch zipped up in his jacket like a breastplate. When the black dog materialized, he rushed it and swung straight at its drool-laden muzzle, as if trying to hit a homerun. The blow never connected, and his swing threw him off balance, tumbling him into the gravel. The beast gave a blood-curdling howl and wheeled about, its jaws snapping inches away from Charlie’s neck. Skittering away with fear pounding in his ears, Charlie managed to sprint toward the bus as it groaned to a stop; this time, however, the jaws closed on his jacket, ripping away a piece of material as he bounded to safety.
“Boy,” said the old bus driver, “you get weirder everyday.”
While independent, Charlie was not stupid. He knew that it was beyond him to handle the apparition on his own. So after dinner, he asked his uncle to his room, showed him the jacket, and explained what had been happening.
Uncle Frank, surprisingly, believed every word. “Yup. It’s a cadejo, Charlie. A hellhound called up, likely, by some Anglo witch.”
“A cadejo? I thought those were just, you know, stories grown-ups told us so we’d stay in after dark. You know, like La Llorona.”
Frank smiled crookedly. “She’s real, too, buddy. So’re lots of other things.”
“Yeah, okay, but what’s it after me for?”
His uncle smoothed his black hair with a plastic comb and thought for a moment. “Well, like I said, I imagine some white trash witch is all bent out of shape ‘bout Mexican-Americans being let into regular classes. And since they know full well they ain’t got the law on their side, pues, some of them maybe have turned to the old black magic. But the important point is to teach you how to deal with this black dog. See, running away is what gives it power. The trick is to just stand there, with your legs tight together. Don’t go separating them, ‘cause it’ll walk ‘tween your legs, and that’ll be that. He’ll take you back to hell with him. So then when he’s real close, you spit in your hand and hold it out for him. He’ll lick it—he’s compelled to—and then he’ll disappear. Think you can handle that?”
Charlie nodded, but he wasn’t sure. His dreams were of the hound’s teeth closing around his outstretched hand and dragging him down into mounting flames. And when he awoke, startled, it seemed he could hear the beast, panting in anticipation.
A sliver of moonlight made bits of mineral glitter in the gravel as he walked toward the bus stop in the morning. Now when the black dog bounded from the shadows, Charlie could see that its claws were blood red like its eyes. Standing stiffly, like his father in that army uniform, Charlie tried not to panic as the infernal beast began slinking toward him. Finally, he could not bear the sight of those eyes; jumping to one side, he tried to run past the dog, but it pounced with a growl and knocked him down. Before its claws could sink into his flesh, however, something large and white erupted from the woods and slammed into the beast. Charlie scrambled to sit up and saw a white wolf pin the hellhound down with its weight. With what seemed a glance at the boy, the wolf grunted and sunk its teeth into the black dog’s neck; the beast quickly wrenched itself free, but fled into the darkness, howling with inarticulate rage.
Charlie stood stock still, facing the wolf, staring into its orange-flecked eyes. They were so familiar, and they crinkled with what seemed wordless recognition. Behind him came the claxon of the school bus. There was no time to reach it.
Suddenly, the wolf turned and began loping toward Charlie’s house. Terror seized the boy’s heart, and he rushed after the beast.
“Mom! Uncle Frank!” His shouts sent hens flapping wildly; the dairy cow opened bleary eyes. The wolf rounded the house; Charlie took up an axe leaning against a mesquite stump and followed cautiously.
He found his uncle buttoning his chinos and reaching for a shirt.
“Wh… where’s the wolf?” Charlie’s breath came in ragged snatches.
“Charlie, uh…” Frank rubbed his eyes and slipped on his denim work shirt. “How can I explain this?”
Charlie took a step forward, his gaze locked on his uncle’s eyes. Brown, but rimed with orange.
“What? You’re the wolf?” He dropped the axe. It was too much to take in.
“Keep it down, Charlie. Your mom told me never to talk to you about it.” The man sighed and sat down on the steps of the back porch. “But, yeah. I’m a nagual, Chuck.”
“A… you’re a shapeshifter? How long?”
“Since I was thirteen. It’s a family thing, buddy. My abuelo was one, too. Not apá, not your dad, neither. But a couple of uncles of mine, yeah.”
“Wait. Does that mean I might be one, too?”
Uncle Frank shrugged noncommittally, pulling on his boots. “Could be. If so, I promised your dad I’d teach you to control it, use it the right way.”
Possibilities swept in waves through Charlie’s mind. “But… if you guys have got this power, always had this power, how come you never did anything with it? Like what’s going on at school… why did you guys let them treat us that way?”
“Nah, Charlie. What good would shapeshifting do against a thing like segregation? We’re not going to go around scaring Anglos or hurting them. That’d bring us down to their level. You got to understand. Different situations require different sorts of heroes. Me and your dad, well, we did what needed doing, me in the Pacific, and him in Korea. But the heroes of this struggle, buddy, are men like James de Anda. Dr. Héctor García, who he set up the GI Forums and such. Gus García, the other lawyer in our case here in Driscoll. Dr. George Sánchez, this university professor who’s fighting for our rights, too. You realize these men went all the way to Washington D.C., up in front of the Supreme Court, the highest of all the courts in our country, to stand up against the way we’ve been treated? This is their time, Charlie. They have the right weapons for the fight. Shapeshifting? It has its place. But this is America, and no blood needs to be shed to make sure we enjoy our freedom.”
Charlie nodded slowly. “I understand. But shapeshifting sure comes in handy when you need to run off hellhounds, huh?”
Frank laughed at that, and Charlie smiled. “Hey, I, uh, missed my bus.”
His uncle gestured at the car he’d been working on for the past few months. “Well, I finally got the Packard to run, so I’ll drop you off on my way to Corpus. Some friends from the GI Forum got me an interview.”
And for the rest of the fall, Uncle Frank took Charlie to school every morning; the black dog never appeared during the day, so there was no real issue with his riding the bus home. Frank got a job repairing machines at a factory in Corpus; Charlie’s mom was able to use the extra money coming in to purchase more livestock and material for the dresses she sold to Anglo women. Driscoll was a tense town, despite the López family’s good fortune— reports from the court case seemed to indicate that Judge Allred was going to force change on the school district. Some people in town urged for a counter-suit that would require all the plaintiffs in the case to speak English in the presence of their children, but the idea was soon rejected as idiotic.
A few days after school resumed from the Christmas break, Uncle Frank was asked to drive up to Dallas to help another branch of the company with repairs to some important piece of machinery. When he hugged Charlie good-bye, he smiled and muttered, “You know what to do, buddy. You stand tall and face it if it comes.”
And on the morning of January 11th the black dog was waiting for him, legs splayed defensively, eyes like bloody rubies. Putrefaction emanated from it like heat from a fire, and an essential malice seemed to curdle the frost-tinged air. Charlie retched, nauseated by stench and fear. No sound could be heard beyond the low growl of the cadejo and his own hoarse, gasping respiration.
Then, like a balm, Charlie’s senses were filled with his father’s scent, with the feel of his strong arms and the sound of his loving voice, muttering or humming words that Charlie could not make out, but that filled his heart with courage.
With firm, determined steps, Charlie approached within five feet of the beast, stood still, legs tightly together, and called to it. “Come on, dog. Come here.” He slapped his leg. “Come take me, if you can.”
Slouching with a hellish growl toward the boy, the hound pressed its foul-smelling snout against his thigh. Adrenaline pounded in Charlie’s ears, but he drew a long ragged breath and tried to remain calm.
“Good boy,” he managed to say. Then he spat into his hand and reached for the slavering jaws. “Here you go.”
And as the black dog ran its rancid tongue across the boy’s palm, it faded into nothingness.
That evening, Uncle Frank returned with the good news: Judge Allred had ruled against Driscoll CISD, saying that it had segregated unlawfully, carrying out “unreasonable race discrimination against all Mexican children as a group.”
Charlie smiled as he listened, thinking of his friends and the heroes that had restored their rights. More than one demon had been conquered that day.