Hi! I just shared a bottle of prosecco with my partner to celebrate winning my first literary prize. Thank you to the Anstruther Writing Awards for picking El Perro for the short story competition. The competition was judged by Jennie Erdal, the writer of Ghosting and The Missing Shade of Blue.
The winning edit follows:
El Perro must have dug every hole in Paradise. He doubted there was a hole in the world he had not dug. If it could be digged, he had dug it. He had dug burrows under birches, left piles by pines, excavated to the extremities the elm trees, and had hollowed under hedgerows. He had dug wholes, half-holes, and quarter-holes. Some he had dug twice, others thrice. Indubitably, Paradise was Swiss cheese.
And what discoveries! If it could be lost, El Perro had found it. He had found misplaced mittens, mobile phones, mouldy bread, spare pages from a paperback, a plethora of candy packets, a superfluity of soda cans, a still warm condom, and dog and cat shit by the gallon.
And his nose ached from smelling too much! Each whiff of person or pet, every evidence of recent micturition, droplet of seminal mucus, or trace of menstrual blood, burned his nasal tract. El Perro was spent. Spent like a torn and Sellotaped dollar bill. His reserves had been obliterated, his senses overcome, but he had to continue on his quest.
For despite his discoveries, despite experiencing enough to fulfil a lifetime’s curiosity, he had not found his bone. As he trudged along the causeway back to Paradise he reasoned that he had dashed into his search without planning. Why had it occurred to him to search the nearby islands? He had not left Paradise while he had the bone: if it was to be found it must be in Paradise. He positioned himself in the self he was when he started up the causeway, and found himself intoxicated with quest. He discovered a self who reasoned: a thief may have moved the bone. But he knew, deep down, that if the bone had been thieved, it was lost. And what was so special about this bone? He realized that this was a mania.
El Perro felt he distinguished himself from his peers through his aim for self-knowledge. He was far from actualized, but he felt he was as well adjusted as a dog could be. So while, like most creatures, he was prone to mania, he was able to eventually bring himself out of it, back to the world—the real world, of aching senses, a painful empty belly, and an urge to sleep, sleep off the mania.
But: it was not manic to seek out that which you had, in the places where you had it. But this was what he had forgotten to do. Not finding his bone in the expected place, he dug in an adjacent place, then a nearby place, and so on, until he was far from anywhere it could feasibly be. So, as he re-walked his steps back to Paradise, he also walked his steps again in his mind.
And, it being a long walk, he thought he may as well trace his steps back further, to contextualize his mania.
El Perro had been born in Peru to dogs who looked as he did; they were white, fluffy, and scruffy. It was a family truism that their lineage was Maltese poodle, but El Perro was at least third generation mongrel. He was the size of conference pear when he was removed from his mother’s teat and taken by aeroplane to the town of P—. There he was gifted as a token of romance to a woman who named him Moose. She had hoped for a chocolate-brown dog. She tried to adapt El Perro to her. Soon the lover, the dispenser of tokens, was himself dispensed with, and El Perro grew larger and scruffier and noted that he was spending more time alone.
Lacking human companionship, he sought fraternity in the canine community. However, this was difficult as he did not know the local dialect, and the other dogs could tell he was not domesticated. Realizing that they would never accept him, he turned his attentions instead to the sorority. An exotic outsider, he excited sexual intrigue in the local bitches. Soon he was digging his way out of the garden three times a day for carnal rendezvous.
First he fucked every bitch on the cul-de-sac. Then he banged the whole block. Then he began to work his way around the neighbouring blocks. It was then that the humans started taking notice of him again. They would notice that he wasn’t in his kennel, nor the yard, nor in the house, nor even in the cul-de-sac. They noticed burrows under the fence. They made it known that El Perro’s behaviour was not approved of.
Shortly thereafter, the humans ceased to look at him with disapproval. They petted him, with sympathetic eyes. For days he could not encounter a bald-faced primate without being fed a biscuit. He considered stashing them so as to avoid gaining weight. He considered stashing biscuits, in reality, only when he had no biscuits. Before the days of the biscuits he had never thought of biscuits. Within two days, he was besotted by them.
On day four, per the new habit, the male human petted El Perro and dropped a biscuit by his bowl. El Perro bolted to the snack, being, as he was, besotted. Shortly afterwards he felt unwell. At first he put it down to heavy legs, a mild illness which predominantly affects foreign dogs. Soon, unusually, the heaviness entered his bowels, lungs, and his head. El Perro experienced existential terror. Doom weighed so heavily upon him that he began to cry. He recalled his days as a pear-sized pup in Peru, re-tasted the tang of his mother’s milk, and slipped into a dreamless sleep.
He awoke lacking testes; an ex-lothario. He bore an ice-pack to his penis. He was convinced that the biscuits that were to blame. He foreswore them.
But still the humans fed him biscuits; and El Perro ate them. He ate them though he hated them; he loved them though they disgusted him. When he ate biscuits he hated himself and when he craved them, which he did even as he ate them, he pitied himself. He sobbed constantly. He saw nobody but his captors, feeling no inclination to escape his yard-gaol, no hormonal urge to impregnate bitches. Solitude inspired mania in him.
At some point he realized that he was deeply involved in a semi-platonic relationship with a teddy bear, which was defiled with bite marks. He had no idea how long it had been going on. He was fat from excessive biscuits. He acknowledged the absurdity of his predicament. This was his first mania; at least, that he knew of, for this was his first moment of self-knowledge. He did not know how he had acquired this ability to analyse his self, but, having nothing else to do, he applied the method relentlessly until it became a mania.
He spent weeks deep in introspection. He ceased consuming biscuits, shunned his teddy. He stopped answering to the name ‘Moose’. He had an evanescent sense that he was incomplete; and that he would be ‘El Perro’ until such time as he was completed. This was the nascent stage of his search for identity.
Simultaneously, perhaps related to his weight issues, he found himself unable to eat in company. When he was being watched, his mouth would dry up, and he would retch as he swallowed. The birds learned this, and reduced their foraging requirements by eating from El Perro’s bowl. At night, El Perro ate insects who ventured into his kennel. It was not sustainable.
But he could not leave, for the humans had reinforced his enclosure. He could not burrow, nor gnaw, much less climb his way out. So he whinnied as if in pain. He would persist all night in crying, eschewing his insect feast. Resultantly, he suffered from acute hunger, which aided his connivance greatly. Eventually the humans, yearning an uninterrupted night’s sleep, took him to the vet.
On the way there he lay, limp, sobbing. Such was his image of feeble impotence, his owner neglected to attach his lead, and carried him from the car. El Perro held firm until he had been delivered almost to the frontier of the shop. Before he leapt and sprinted, he squeezed out a little piss so that his ex-mistress would have something to scrub while she wondered: what went wrong?
He began on the march south to Peru. He travelled by night, near roads, near humans, but out of sight. On his first night he had made the mistake of seeking wilderness to travel through, and encountered leather-clad gangs of lizards and slumbering alligators with dog-sized mouths. Much safer to stroll through strip-club parking lots, and in the alleys behind ammunition shops. He ate well—he would kill a rat or eat from the bin if he had to, but most evenings he would eat pork sausages and tortilla chips that the strippers would give him while they took their cigarette breaks. In his freedom he was no longer burdened by the retching, and would happily scoff his morsels as they scratched his back with their acrylic nails, their tassels in his eyes.
During the hot days he would burrow in under a bush and sleep with one eye open so as to defend himself against the lizards, which he soon developed a taste for.
Eventually he reached an ocean; he had arrived in Paradise. To get to Peru he would have to turn north-west, follow a thousand miles of coastline until it turned back south, then continue for three thousand miles. The distance was not a problem. It was that he had no map, nor map reading skills, and no means of communication. He resolved to go the port, to stowaway.
After a week at sea he was returned wobbly and disoriented to Paradise with no desire to repeat the experiment. He slept behind a florist’s shop. The florist, Luxa, would find her bin disturbed, or a rooster carcass by the back door, and took to feeding El Perro a daily meal of pork and rice ander man, Charlie, brought him bones. He would walk with them in the evenings, collecting objects that they threw away, and biting children. Life went on like this for a while, and the Peruvian mania calmed. He felt good. Luxa and Charlie loved him as he was: semi-feral, independent, and mostly self-sufficient. He took no interest in other dogs. Charlie and Luxa did not deign to name him; they called him El Perro.
He had gone for a midnight stroll two days prior, after being unable to sleep and had wandered into a place he had never been before: it was quiet, still, morbid, and saturated with the smell of bones. Salivating, he had slipped into a trance of frenetic digging.
Then there was a blank; no images, no sound, just an inchoate sense of blind, orgiastic bliss. For hours El Perro had been inaccessible to the world. But he had come around: and still with his magnificent bone, for he recalled that the next morning, as he took the prowl of shame back home, he had it in his mouth when he was forced to evade a car. Indeed, he still had it that afternoon when, for fun, he tried to trip a sweat-soaked, suited man in the enterprise district. And he had taken it to the park that evening to play with Charlie and Luxa. Then he recalled a policeman, with a grey, beef-shank head, and he further remembered the endorphins flowing through his brain as leapt and bit that same policeman.
He recalled running from the scene; the exquisite skeleton-part firmly in his jaw. Then later he had seen a girl from the strip-club (it is a fact as ancient as Rome that sex-workers the world over will not stand idle and see a dog not eat) and he thought she had given him a biscuit, though he was not sure. Had he already slipped into mania?
His next memory was the next morning when he saw a man vomiting on the sidewalk. Uninterested in the free meal, El Perro had bared his teeth to the man. There was no doubt that he had been boneless. There was no doubt that he was in the throes of mania. And he no longer had any doubt about the biscuit: it had happened. And he also now knew that he had had no bone. Where had he gone after biting the policeman?
He had no memory. But where would he have gone? He would have taken the trail by the canal, under where the mangroves grew, to avoid being seen. There was a spot there where he often napped. If it wasn’t there, it would be by the palm trees on D— Street, which was nearby and was frequented by prostitutes after dark. Where had he dug first? He cast his mind through the manic haze, and vaguely remembered mangroves, and then vividly recalled the sickness of loss; the physical desolation that had tolled through his soul.
So that was that: the bone was on D— Street, or it was gone. El Perro walked for another hour and then, under a palm tree, he found a bone.
El Perro woke late the next afternoon, the last wisps of mania having drifted away in his sleep, in a cold embrace with an alien. What was this bone, he wondered. Could it really be the same as that with which he had spent a sleepless night in the cemetery? That had inspired animal passion in him: the high, the thrill, of the unanalysed life? The life unanalysable: those rare, fleeting moments when earthly life becomes heavenly, when one’s body ceases to weigh, when one’s mind is free of tribulation, and one is at one with all things corporeal and ethereal.
El Perro didn’t just feel the hollow embarrassment of one who has become carried away in mania; he did not just fail to see in his bone any of the qualities he had taken for granted and for certain mere hours before; he did not recognise his conquest at all. This, he thought, is not my bone.
Somewhere, in the great journey of his life, from Peru to captivity, and one day maybe home to Peru again, he had lost two days to the mania of the bone. He had to move on.
So he shook himself awake, ate a breakfast of pork and rice, and he took the bone to find its rightful owner. El Perro visited every doghouse, ensconced himself in every strays’ hideaway, and joined every dog-walking party. Everywhere he went he said to each dog, in his mongrel dialect of sniffs and tail wags, ‘Hello, I found this, is this your bone?’
And every dog, after it had translated El Perro’s foreign fumblings, said to him, unambiguously, ‘yes, yes it is!’ And El Perro looked each dog in the eyes and he thought: you fucking liar. And so it was that El Perro returned to the place from whence the bone had come, that pasture of the scent of aged calcium, and he returned the bone to the earth, and so concluded the mania of the bone.