Curled on the church steps, the mangy dog reminded Jane of an ammonite.
‘Just look at that poor thing,’ Wendy said.
As if hearing the pity in her voice, the beast raised its scabby head and scrutinised their ascent. Like most stray dogs panting in the Guatemalan heat, xylophone ribs and oases of livid pink skin showed through its matted coat. Wendy dabbed at her eyes with a screwed up tissue.
‘Charlie looked like that before he died,’ she whispered. An inferno of irritation consumed Jane. Since cancer consumed Wendy’s husband, abused animals, down and outs and begging children had made her sister into an even more efficient world class weeper. As a child, pouting Wendy turned on the water works to get what she wanted. At least, Jane thought, Charlie had given her something serious to cry about.
To distract her, Jane pointed to the flower sellers. Surrounded by baskets of blooms and wearing Mayan costumes of fuscia pinks and ocean blues, they resembled a rainbow waterfall cascading down the steps leading to the church.
‘It certainly beats the Chelsea Flower Show,’ Jane said in her perky television presenter’s voice. Wendy’s lipstick free lips managed a weak smile. Outside the church doors, the floral scent gave way to the aroma of smouldering spices. Men with slicked back black hair swung censors made from old tin cans peppered with holes. Coughing through the billowing smoke, the sisters stepped into the church’s inky gloom.
Sooty glass cases containing saintly effigies made up like drag queens lined the walls. Kneeling before them, penitents genuflected and pleaded with their god like declaiming actors. Up and down the aisle, families made the sign of the cross while shuffling on their knees towards the altar.
‘I’m going to light a candle for Charlie,’ Wendy whispered posting a grubby twenty quetzal note into a wooden box overlooked by a rosy cheeked Virgin.
‘Don’t forget to make a wish.’ Jane chirruped.
Wendy looked up with eyes brimming tears. ‘I will,’ she said. ‘But candles won’t bring my husband back.’
Jane was uncomfortably aware that months before his diagnosis, Charlie briefly considered leaving Wendy. It never happened, of course. Had devoted Wendy been aware of his infidelity, Jane suspected the deceased cuckold husband would still be revered as a saint.
Back outside, blinking in insistent sunshine, they plunged like synchronised swimmers into the market. A tidal wave of tourists propelled them past stalls heaped with Guatemalan prayer dolls and wooden whistles.
‘Ola Amigas,’ the stall holders shouted in discordant chorus.
A swift gummy pressure on Jane’s manicured fingers caused her to stop in her tracks.
‘Ow,’ she exclaimed as a pair of German tourists barrelled into her.
Jane turned to apologise before raising her hand for inspection.
‘What’s happened.’ Wendy asked. Jane looked down to see the mangy dog from the church steps standing beside her bejewelled flip flops. It was wagging a moth-eaten tail.
‘That mutt nibbled my fingers,’
‘Oh golly.’ said Wendy employing, to Jane’s irritation, the Enid Blyton argot of their childhood. ‘Should we get to a doctor? It might have rabies.’
Typical of Wendy to think the worst, thought Jane.
The sisters peered at the dog. It stared back as if weighing them up. Eyes the colour of toffees set in an aquiline face gave it the look of a tatty greyhound. One front shattered paw hovered above the cobbles.
‘Are you’re sure you’re ok?’ Wendy exuded maternal concern. ‘Let me have a look.’’
‘No, it’s fine,’ snapped Jane, ‘No need to fuss.’
They walked on. The dog limped alongside like a canine Long John Silver.
‘Shoo,’ Jane said, waving it away.
‘Oh, don’t be horrid to it,’ Wendy pleaded. ‘It’s starving. I’m going to buy it something to eat.’
Before Jane could stop her, Wendy marched on sensible sandals into a shaded alley where flies buzzed round butchered carcasses suspended from hooks. Bored girls idly waved away insects from unidentifiable cuts of meat displayed on blood stained butcher’s blocks. The stench of rotting flesh made Jane gag. From a safe distance, she watched Wendy negotiate for a bag of offal. Settling down beside Jane, the nonchalant dog licked its privates and scratched its boxer’s ear.
‘Shoo, go on, off you go,’ she hissed. The dog gazed at her with an expression of devoted forbearance.
‘You know where your bread’s buttered,’ Jane told it. With a shiver of shame, she recalled the elicit hotel room in which she’d last uttered that phrase. They’d argued. The usual. Duty versus pleasure. Past versus future. Catching her wrist to prevent her leaving the rumpled bed, he drew her to him.
‘Don’t spoil our dog days Jane. We don’t know how many we have left.’
A sound like wellington boots squelching through mud disrupted the memory. Wendy was tipping a revolting pile of bone, blood and gristle beneath the dog’s twitching nose. Standing to rickety attention, it gulped down the gory mess in seconds. A phalanx of feral hounds approached, circling like vampires round a virgin. Licking its chops, it surveyed them with cocky confidence as if to say, ‘tough luck losers.’
Jane considered feeding the dog a vital error. From that point it was their constant companion. Yet, despite Wendy’s kindness, it was Jane it adhered to. Wherever they went, the scrawny shadow was at her heel. Whenever they left the hotel, he was waiting in the cacophonous street to accompany her like some devoted tour guide. Occasionally he limped away as if on a mission. They breathed sighs of relief but then later, he’d appear beside Jane in lanes throttled with tourists or, when they left a restaurant, giddy with wine, it would materialise like ectoplasm.
Avoiding him became their daily mission. One day, after they’d visited a cemetery where families performed smoky rituals beside shabby tombs, it followed them, tongue lolling, at a respectful distance. Dodging behind a dilapidated mausoleum, they ran from it as fast as they could. Down the hill they panted, hot feet sliding in sandals, before joining knots of tourists in the town.
‘I think we’ve given him the slip,’ said Jane bent double trying to catch her breath. ‘Let’s have a beer.’
They chose a first floor café above a fragrant bakery accessed by a flight of stairs. Selecting a table on the balcony outside, they overlooked honking lorries belching exhaust fumes negotiating labyrinthine streets below.
‘Don’t look for him’, Jane snapped when Wendy stood and, shading her eyes with a palm, peeped over the balustrade.
‘He’s there,’ she whispered.
Jane rose to see the hound sprawled flat on the pavement below like a patchwork rug. Still as a corpse, it seemed unaware of people’s feet picking their way round its inert body.
‘This is getting ridiculous,’ she said, her husky voice betraying feelings of disquiet.
Wendy twisted her wedding ring.
‘Jane,’ she whispered. ‘Suppose it’s Charlie?’
‘You know, perhaps it’s him reincarnated.’
‘Don’t be so ridiculous,’ Jane barked so loudly the couple on the next table looked up from their mobiles.
‘I know. But there’s something about him which reminds me of Charlie.’
Jane sighed. ‘What is it about that wretched creature could possibly remind you of your dead husband?’
‘The fact he prefers you.’
Jane bowed her head. A bush fire of guilt rose in her throat. Looking up, she recognised knowledge in her sister’s eyes. Below them, the dog howled.
Published in Issue #26