The thing I remember best about those few moments as I stood by the front door is the wind. It was a warm day, but I felt a cool breeze. Not a Squamish but something like the opposite of a sirocco: a cool wind from the West. I can almost feel it as I write these words. It was also quiet out. As I walked to the car, I didn’t hear the three, large, white Argentine mastiffs come up behind me. How impressive they were! Their movements were so well coordinated, it was as if the three were actually one! That I heard them at all was their doing. One of them growled – low and menacing. When, frightened, I turned to face them, they growled in a more suggestive way. I had two impressions simultaneously – that the dogs were being cautious, lest Mr Brady be alerted to their plans, and that I was being told to run. It was a strange moment, but I didn’t have much time to think about its strangeness. I had a moment to consider whether I should try to pet one of them. Then one of the dogs rushed me, biting my upper thigh so that, had I been even slightly better endowed, I’d have lost part of my penis. I was lucky in another way, too. Though the dog bit me and it hurt, the other dogs did not at first join the fray. They waited, I guess, to see the damage their companion could inflict. Also, I was bleeding but the dog had caught more of my pants than my flesh so that a great patch of fabric was torn away when the dog shook its head. I thought then that running was very likely my best option. And despite my wounds I did very well. I reached the car, at least. And if I’d had the keys to the car in my hand, I’m almost certain I’d have escaped further bites. I jumped onto the hood of the car, followed closely by the dog who’d bitten me and, there, it bit me again, catching an expanse of my jacket before I slid off the hood and ran for the fences. This fired the other dogs up. All three now came after me and, in a manner of speaking, they lost their inhibitions, growling and snarling like they were out for blood. Which, to be fair, they got. One of them caught the leg of my pants and I fell on ground covered by Queen Anne’s lace, the smell of it like dug-up roots along with something indefinable but vegetal and alive.
Maybe because I thought I was about to die, I felt quite cheerful. Not because I wanted to die, but because I’d been given a last look at a world I loved. Everything around me was wonderful, from the raw blue sky to the dark earth I’d disturbed in falling, from the snarls of the dogs to the sensation of their breath on my skin. I was bitten on the arms and legs a few more times before I heard Mr Brady call, as if from far away:
– Lelaps! Chester! Melba! Leave it!
I take it the dogs were well-trained because at the sound of their names they stopped biting, eventually. One of them held on to my arm a while, as if caught with food in its mouth and, ashamed to be seen eating, was unsure whether to spit out what it had or go on chewing. But they all retreated, running to Mr Brady as if looking for some sort of reward.
My pants and jacket were badly torn and I was bleeding, but I didn’t think I was in danger, reassured as I was by the reactions of the Bradys and Professor Bruno. None of them seemed at all concerned about my injuries. The first thing Mr Brady’s son said as he helped me up from the ground was:
– You’re okay. It’s not that bad.
And although I was in pain, I was grateful for his words. Mr Brady then said
– I don’t know what got into them. They’ve never done anything like this before.
And though I appreciated the effort to make me feel better, it struck me that these are the words all dog owners say after their dogs have attacked someone. I’ve witnessed a few bitings in my life and all the owners have said this very thing.
As if agreeing with Mr Brady’s remark, the three dogs sat up with their pink tongues lolling, looking very amiable.
Professor Bruno said:
– I’ve seen worse wounds than these, you know, Alfred, but I guess you’d better change your clothes.
– I think I should go to the hospital, I answered.
– Why? said Mr Brady. You’ve only got a few scratches!
I thought he might be worried that I was angry at him or his dogs, so I said it was only a precaution.
– Well, he said, I suppose caution’s a good idea.
So, we were off, Professor Bruno and I, on one of the strangest rides I’ve ever taken.
It was strange for a lot of reasons. I was uncomfortable in my wet clothes. In places, my shirt and pants clung to me like a second skin. I was in pain because some of the dogs’ bites had been deep and burned when I moved. Then, too, I felt light-headed and I forgot to ask directions to the nearest hospital. It’s clear, as I write these words, that I should not have been driving. But, maybe because I was in shock, I’d accepted the idea that I wasn’t badly hurt and besides, Professor Bruno could not drive. So it was up to me in any case.
In retrospect, the one I feel sorriest for is the Professor. He must have understood that I was not in a good state of mind when I (unintentionally) ran through my first stop sign. It seems I ran through a number of them and Professor Bruno was amused by this, afterwards, but at the time it must have been harrowing. I remember that he sat beside me with a kind of smile on his face, his briefcase in his arms like a floatation device. Also, while trying to stay calm or trying to keep me calm, he began to tell me about ‘nature’. It was mostly about trees and, in retrospect, I admire his composure. He must have seen that I was drifting in and out of awareness a little and he tried to keep me focused.
But then he got stuck on the difference between the Latin word ‘Natura’ and the Greek word ‘Phusis’. The distinction was something he’d taken from a German theologian. Both words are translated as ‘Nature’ but, according to the theologian, the Greeks made no distinction between the human and the natural world while the Romans viewed themselves as separate from nature. I remember this idea clearly, not because it was interesting but because Professor Bruno kept repeating the words ‘Natura’ and ‘Phusis’ as if they ought to have some special meaning to me. I remember him shouting the word ‘Natura’ as I ran past a stop sign and crossed the median. In normal circumstances, I doubt I’d have understood a thing. But, despite my light-headedness, the Professor’s words did reach me. They may even have kept me awake. As I drove, I became convinced there really was no difference between myself and the world drifting by – ochre farm fields, greyish telephone poles, pale blue sky, trees in clumps of four or five, yellow signs showing hidden intersections.
I felt such exhilaration that I imagined I could not die. And I drove on with little more than a vague feeling that I was heading north, as we went past Strange, Happy Valley, Kettleby and Ansnorveldt. I had never had such a strong sense that – as my father might have said – I was dust and that my return to dust would be a great arrival as much as it would be a departure. I felt indistinct from a specific stretch of ground, as if Ontario were my true name.
Really, when I think about all this, it’s a wonder we survived the half-hour drive.
The other mystery is how I ended up in an emergency ward in East Gwillimbury. I held on to consciousness just long enough to get us to a hospital. But I must have passed out as soon as we reached the parking lot of Our Lady of Mercy Health Centre. The Professor later told me he thought I was lucky to reach the place. And I agreed. It would have been terrible if I’d passed out somewhere along the road. It felt, though, as if I had been guided to East Gwillimbury. A strange feeling, a feeling made stranger because I woke up on a gurney, blood flowing into me from a sack suspended on a transfusion stand. I was more or less naked under a sheet. But they had left my socks on.
Of all the places we ended up on our travels, Our Lady of Mercy was the one that frightened me quickest. The impression it left is still frightening, because I have a fear of hospitals. Because, when I was a child, I spent months in Toronto Western watching my mother go through chemotherapy. And because the look and smell of hospitals remind me of being scalded by boiling water. Other places were more terrifying, but the thing is I have no good memories of hospitals, and Our Lady of Mercy was not much different from the others I’d been in.
When I woke up there were panels of white Styrofoam on the ceiling above me. In a gap among the panels there were tubes of fluorescent lighting, darkened where their pins entered their holders. The light from the tubes was inconsistent – white, yellowish, blue. I had time to notice all this because I was on my own for a while. I didn’t want to make a fuss, but after what I thought was an hour I called out.
– Can someone help me?
– Oh, a nurse answered, you’re awake!
I remember her still: a pleasant freckled face with high cheekbones and her hair was red. She seemed so surprised that I wondered if my consciousness was an unexpected turn of events.
– You lost a lot of blood, she said, and since you’re here to have your tonsils out we wanted to make sure your levels were good.
– Why are my tonsils being taken out? I asked.
– I suppose there’s something wrong with them, she said. People don’t usually have them out otherwise.
I admitted this was true. But I politely expressed my doubts. I’d never been bothered by my tonsils.
– I think there’s been a mistake, I said. My tonsils haven’t given me any trouble. I was bitten by dogs.
– There you go, she answered. The dogs probably made your tonsils worse. That’s how trauma sometimes works. But your gurney being in this place means you’re ready for a tonsillectomy. We don’t tend to make mistakes about these things, you know.
– But the dogs didn’t get me by the throat, I said.
– The doctors might have found you needed a tonsillectomy while they were treating your wounds. Wouldn’t it be better to have your tonsils out now, while you’re already a little injured?
– Could I see the doctor? I asked.
– I think it’s better we don’t disturb him while he’s getting ready to take your tonsils out. Don’t you agree?
She was polite, but I felt she’d been inspired by my tone, maybe thinking I was unsure about my tonsils. We went back and forth like this for a while, each of us expressing our side of the matter. In fact, I had the feeling I was engaged in a battle of politeness, those kindly – but ferocious – skirmishes that are so common in our country. I prefer them to the open arguments that happen south of the border. But I felt that, the battle being for my tonsils, it was important that I win. So I asked again and again if she were certain I’d been left in the right place, seeing as I did not want an operation if one could be avoided.
Finally, she said:
– Mistakes do happen. I’ll look into it for you. Would you like that?
I was relieved and, thanks to the transfusion, I felt more or less myself again. The only things missing were my clothes or, at least, pyjamas so I could walk around. Without them, I was trapped on my gurney and, after a while, I fell asleep.
I woke when two orderlies came for me. They were taking me to the operating room or, rather, to a place beside the operating room where the anesthesiologist would put me under.
– I don’t need an operation, I said. I was bitten by dogs, that’s all.
– You came in for a tonsillectomy, one of the orderlies said. You can’t just change your mind.
I protested and tried to get up from the gurney, but what really saved me from a tonsillectomy was chance. My gurney passed by a public waiting area on its way to the operating room and, despite my distraction, I saw Professor Bruno reading a book. I called his name as loudly as I could and he heard me.
The orderlies were just as suspicious of the Professor’s words on behalf of my tonsils as they’d been of mine. But the weight of two testimonials must have instilled some doubt in them. After a little digging around, they discovered that my name was Alfred Homer, as I’d repeatedly told them, not Arthur Shaw, and that they had gotten my name wrong when I was admitted. The sad news was that Arthur Shaw had died from his infection.
– I told you it was serious, one of the orderlies told me.
For a moment I wondered if they’d take my tonsils anyway, as a precaution. But I was guided to a ward, and eventually my suitcase was given to me.
I’d have liked to leave at once but there were papers to sign and apologies to be heard. I was famished because I hadn’t eaten for hours. When one of the nurses gave me a pear she’d brought for her own dinner, I was grateful. More than that, her kindness struck me as a good omen. I was reminded of the Professor’s idea that the beginning of a trip casts its shadow forward, that it influences the trip itself. And I remember thinking that despite the small misunderstandings we’d encountered, the Professor and I, our first day had been a good one.
I could tell Professor Bruno was relieved we’d made it to East Gwillimbury. His spirits lifted and he joked that the dogs we’d encountered were like Cerberus, the three-headed guardian of Hades. The good news, he said, was that we’d gotten past them. The bad news was that this meant, for the rest of our trip, we’d be travelling through the underworld. I feel strange when I think of his words now, but at the end of that first day it was as if a cloud had passed and the sun came out at last. Nothing irreparable had happened and, despite my bites and bruises, the thing that had made me most uncomfortable was Our Lady of Mercy Health Centre and its peach-coloured walls.
This is an excerpt from André Alexis’ book Days By Moonlight.
Image © Erkan Utu