The Dog of the Shenjia Condo
There's nothing wrong with the dog but he wants to die. When Maddy moved in, the neighbours already knew this. "That dog is depressed," said Mrs Lin from the building in front of theirs. Somebody saw that dog running along the edge of the canal, she said. This is strange, Maddy thought, because she had never seen the dog leave Shenjia Condo. He's a rather small dog, so she didn't understand why Mrs. Lin said they had seen a big one, either. Still, Mrs Lin insisted that it was the same dog. She also said it smelled like rotten flesh.
That day Maddy left home around 5 pm. It usually takes around one hour to get from Shenjia Condo to the other side of the canal by bike. Although it was the afternoon, the daylight had already fallen. She noticed that the days in Smoke City never hold sunlight for long. She hopped on a communal bicycle. Anyone in town could use it. She just waved her phone and it started working for her. The brakes were a bit stiff and the pedals made a weird sound. The bike would even stop completely from time to time. It would become deathly still. She felt that when the wind stopped, the bike stopped. Beside her, the cars rushed by as usual, but when she really looked at them, she couldn’t distinguish any single car from the general flow. The only things she could really see were the large neon buildings—they always wanted attention. No matter how long she would ride, those impressive buildings seemed so far away, unreachable. She wondered if one day she might arrive there.
It wasn't that night had actually fallen early; it was the usual fog, of course. And Smoke City's fog is a singular fog. In Maddy's opinion, what made Smoke City so marvellous was its particular sort of mystery, which depended entirely on a particular sort of fog.
Rarely would she journey to the other side of the canal, but today she was excited to see Sam. The first time she saw him in the Shopping Mall, at the clothing store where she worked, he had lifted up a t-shirt, brought it to his nose, and inhaled deeply. Then he almost said, “A lot of smoke today, isn’t it?” He didn’t say those words exactly, but she knew that’s what he meant. He brought his carrots with him to the Shopping Mall’s coffee shop on their first date. She understood that he sold carrots but still it seemed such a pain to carry that big sack all the way to the coffee shop. The sack of carrots consumed an entire chair, just like a person. Honestly, they appeared to be delicious carrots, and they made her curious to see Sam’s garden. How could he maintain a garden in the heart of a city like this? It must be a sight to behold. As she continued riding the bike kept stopping. The darkness, fog, and wind began licking around quite wildly. "What a marvellous place," she repeated to herself, almost letting a car hit her bike without really hitting it.
To find Sam's house on the other side of the canal, she had to cross two bridges, take a left, go straight and turn right. "You'll see a large green building that is also blue when you look closer. My house is behind it," he instructed her. When she neared the green building it was indeed blue. She suddenly could see a row of attached houses shining at her. She walked towards them. As she got closer it was obvious they weren't houses, just boxes that were burning. Mr Yu from Shenjia Condo's fifth floor was riding down the street on a communal bike. People in Smoke City could adapt to technology without any effort, even old people like Mr Yu. This was another incredible feature of the city. She peddled up to greet him, but as he turned, she saw that he wasn't exactly Mr Yu. He still resembled Mr Yu, but he was quite handsome and young. Could it be Mr Yu's grandson? But she was already too close to him not to say something.
- Hi, I’m sorry, I thought you were my neighbour.
- But he kept on riding past her as if he didn’t hear. He stopped ahead next to the burning boxes and came back toward her on foot, leaving the bike.
- I saw the dog. He’s over there and he’s burning.
- Are you sure it's the dog from Shenjia Condo? You live in Shenjia Condo, don't you? Are you Mr Yu's grandson?
But he didn't reply and just kept walking. He then entered the greenish-blue building. Maddy felt intrigued and couldn't help but follow. She entered through the same door and arrived at a flight of stairs. The inside was the same fluorescent greenish blue as the outside. The younger Mr Yu was nowhere to be seen. She climbed a few steps but couldn't see where the stairs were leading. She could only continue, but the higher she climbed the more difficult it became to breathe. She had no way of knowing how many floors she had climbed, but when she’d reached her limit and her depleted body wouldn’t allow for one more step, she noticed something in a dark corner where she would normally never look —it was a passage.
When she opened it, a strong light overwhelmed her and a pungent plant clogged her throat. When she was able to see again, the lush, emerald foliage of a tropical garden had already enfolded her on all sides. She couldn't tell if it was an open space or a closed space as anything beyond a few feet was swallowed in the bright light. It was warm and humid. Between what seemed to be banana leaves she could distinguish the silhouette of someone sitting on a bench. "It must be the young Mr Yu," she thought. However, when she walked a little closer, she saw that this was a skinny, tall, red-haired man.
- Sam, is that you?
- Maddy, I thought you weren’t coming! What took you so long? The highly poisonous catfish are coming and you might not be able to cross the canal again tonight.
- I didn’t know there were catfish in the canal.
- Yes. Not everyone is able to see them, but after a certain time, it just isn’t safe to cross the canal until the next morning. Maybe one day you’ll be able to see them.
- Is this your garden?
- Yes, I created different levels to give it a more distinctive character. Levels make a garden look bigger and allow you to enjoy a range of views and angles. Here, have a seat. I want to show you the blackbirds.
When Maddy sat on the bench, it sunk and she fell on the floor. Sam didn’t even notice. All at once, she sensed that nothing in this garden was real. Even the blackbirds had weird, gloomy expressions. Avoiding the bench, she chose to sit on a large rock under a palm tree. The rock was strong and probably wouldn’t collapse. How could a garden like this exist in the middle of Smoke City, on some indeterminate floor of a building?
Sam’s expression hardly changed as he spoke:
- Once I saw a catfish eat a piece of carrot, but they’re usually carnivorous. Consider the size of these catfish. No freshwater fish could grow to become so big without a rich source of protein. Feeding on plants cannot provide the amount of protein needed. Yes, catfish are carnivorous; however, this depends on their habitat. For example, if you breed catfish in your pond, they will eat what you feed them. However, the smaller catfish in the pond may be at risk of being eaten by the bigger catfish. Anyway, I will try to feed them some carrots from time to time. They might get used to it.
- When I was outside, I saw someone who looked like my neighbour. He said he saw a dog from our condo burning, and then he came up here. Is he here somewhere?
Sam looked at her face for the first time since he started talking.
- There’s no one else here, it’s just you and me. I think I saw that dog too.
He had a funny accent like someone from the west. It was bizarre and attractive. She noticed that he has been holding a carrot.
- I think the blackbirds are trying to tell you something. Can you hear their squawking?
- Yes. So, do you speak to birds?
- Sometimes. All those bird sounds you hear are definitely forms of communication. Most birds tend to communicate vocally, although some are much more vocal than others. One of the most common forms of bird communication is a call note. With small birds, call notes may sound like chirps. With larger birds, call notes may sound like squawks.
- What are they trying to tell me?
- I don’t know. I think they like you.
Sam started to peel the carrot and eat it.
- Do you want some?
- I’m ok, thank you. Do you only eat carrots?
- That’s a stupid question. Who can survive only eating carrots? You’re so funny! Come over, sit on the bench with me.
She pressed down on the bench with both hands; the chair didn’t sink at all and so she cautiously sat down again. This time, nothing happened. They sat for a long time in silence looking at the blackbirds, but when she looked at the clock, only three minutes had passed. She felt that it was getting late, but she didn’t know if she could leave. It was warm on the bench next to Sam. She felt that he liked her more now that she didn’t sink in the bench. Yes, he liked her more now. When she first saw him carrying his sack of carrots in the Shopping Mall, she thought he looked very odd, but now she can understand him. He sustains a whole tropical garden just by selling carrots. It’s rather impressive.
- The gardener should be arriving soon. I know, I know, of course, I take care of my own garden. But I also work with a man named Liu Meng. He should be arriving now.
- Maddy didn’t know exactly how to feel. Was this a good date? Maybe.
- It’s been so nice to see your garden.
- Nice to have you here. You must go now before the catfish arrives.
Opening the same door to leave, she couldn’t see anything. The greenish fluorescent light was too big a contrast. As Sam closed the door behind her, she stood there in utter darkness. The light, the humid smell, and the warmth had all gone, and she felt like she was just back in Smoke City again. As she tried to feel out the stairs in the dark, she heard a strange noise. She recognized the roar of what seemed to be a large dog quite close to her. Through the darkness, she discerned the shadow of a big black dog standing in front of her. It stopped roaring and she clearly saw its big yellow eyes. Such sad eyes were all too familiar. This was the depressed dog from Shenjia Condo. It smelled like rotten flesh.
Suddenly she heard someone calling from downstairs. It was Mr Yu, her neighbour from the fifth floor.
- Come here, doggy.
He tapped his leg as he called the dog.
- Maddy went down to talk to him.
- Mr Yu, so you were here after all!
- I come here every night to fish. I sell catfish to the supermarket in the Xixiao Shopping Mall. I saw the dog run in this building and came after him.
The dog started jumping and wagging its tail, filled with joy at the sight of Mr Yu.
- He’s such a nice dog but he has bad habits. Just before this, he was eating some corpses.
- Was the dog burning when you saw him coming here?
- Yes, he was burning; he came from the burning boxes. That’s where they cremate the deceased. What are you doing here? I’ve never seen you around here before.
- I went to visit Sam’s garden.
- You mean the tropical garden?
- So you entered it through the dog’s eyes.
- What do you mean? No, I climbed the stairs and went through the door.
- That garden only exists in the dog’s eyes. You were lucky to see it. I have the feeling that there’s something very particular about you, Maddy.
- I didn’t enter it through the dog’s eyes . . .
Maddy tried to explain herself but Mr Yu was already leaving as if he didn't hear her. The dog followed him. Maddy left as the streets were getting even darker and smokier. It was time to go back to the Shenjia Condo.
Sara F. Costa is a Portuguese poet, writer and translator. She has published five books in Portugal. Her latest book won the international award “Glória de Sant’Anna” for best poetry book published in Portuguese speaking countries in 2018. She has an MA in Intercultural Studies: Portuguese/Chinese from Tianjin Foreign Studies University. Her verses have been translated into several languages and featured in literary journals all across the world. As an emerging European poet, she was an invited author of the International Istanbul Poetry Festival 2017. In 2018, Sara worked in the organization of The Script Road-Macau Literary Festival and China-European Union Literary Festival in Shanghai and Suzhou. In 2019, she was invited to go to Kolkata, India to share her poetry in the second edition of “Chair Poetry Evenings”. She coordinates events for the Spittoon Beijing Based Arts Collective. She recently launched an anthology of Chinese poetry that she translated into Portuguese.