Gaither Stewart


Allan Crillon was a dedicated and devoted man - devoted to his wife, to his many friends, to his art and, in an obsessive way, to San Miguelís stray dogs and cats. One of those eternally active persons whose days were too short, the artist was guilt-ridden that he never did enough. He did too little for his fellow men. Too little for the environment. Just too little for life. To hear him tell it he felt culpable because his devotion to plants lagged behind his sentiments for animals.

Once the winter before, after a particularly hard cold spell, he stood with me and his five dogs in the center of his patio, ran his long sensitive fingers through his thinning blond hair and stared at the wilted potted plants lining the patio walls. "I forgot to cover them and the freeze wiped them all out," he said sadly. "What have I done?"

Most foreigners in San Miguel Allende - they call themselves Gringos - dedicated more time to the flora and fauna than they did in the United States or Canada or Europe. They simply had more time here in this resort town isolated high on the plateau. But that wasn't the case of Allan Crillon. He had less time than he had ever had before when he was the editor of an art magazine in North Carolina. His wife complained that they had to go to Mexico City or Laredo just to find time to make love. Allan was so busy he had to make advance appointments for his two favorite diversions: making love with his artist wife and drinking bouts with me.

"What day shall we get drunk?" I would ask. And he would consult the secret agenda in his head and reply something like, "What about next Thursday afternoon."

And he would be there - ready, responsible, devoted. Tireless Allan went about our drinking sessions like everything else - energetically. His only rule was, "you can drink all night, as much and as long as you like but it must never interfere with your next dayís obligations." And sure enough, the morning after such escapades, he was on his feet and devotedly busy even earlier than usual - his handsome boyish face a little grayer, heavy lids obscuring his blue eyes, maybe a lump or a bruise here or there from mysterious bumps, falls and accidents, and showing his 55 years more than usual.

A partner in one of the townís major art galleries, Allan was on duty there one full day each week. He taught drawing classes two afternoons and two evenings, acted in the community theater and painted the backdrops for all its productions in the Angela Peralta Theater. And he worked 30 hours a week in the Dog Shelter of which he was the co-founder and major fundraiser. As Godfather to a Mexican child from Veracruz he was involved in the complex festive activities of that family of eight children. Traditionally he hosted in his home in the Old Town enormous groups of both Gringos and Mexicans for parties at Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween and on his and his wifeís birthdays. In the winter he led hikers along his favorite trails in the surrounding mountains. An ardent aficionado of tauromachy he traveled wide and far - including an annual pilgrimage to Spain - to follow bullfighters and their battles. Therefore it was unusual to see him standing quietly in front of a canvas in his studio painting one of his Mexican saloon scenes as if he had all the time in the world. Yet every day, usually late afternoons, as darkness fell over the highlands and the magic winds blew down from the Sierra Morena you could see him walking his five dogs across the fields or up the ravines or along the shore of the artificial lake under Los Balcones and the Botanical Gardens.

Late one warm afternoon over vodka and tonic in Tio Robertoís Bar - that was several days before he discovered that the dogs were disappearing and Allan had just closed the gallery and was already late for the dogsí walk in the hills - I asked him about his candidacy for the Dog Shelter presidency. Just how much did he have to do in life anyway? His frenetic activity was still an enigma. Since Allan was neither a romantic nor a religious man, I was surprised at his answer and wondered where in his experience it came from.

"Like Kierkegaard says, sometimes we look into our hearts and realize that God knows how imperfect we are. Weíre concerned all our lives about that question: How much can we do? Of course I donít want to crawl too far out on the limb and be subject to all that anxiety. And Iím always asking myself whether to risk again or not. But I believe if you donít risk then you spend your life wondering if you did all you could."

"But what if you risk ... and do the wrong thing?" I asked.

"That is the risk," he said, drumming the marble table with a spoon and ordering two more vodkas. "And the fear! The fear of being wrong. Or at least not being right. If you donít do it, youíre wrong. But sometimes I feel that if I do it, Iíll still be wrong. So whatís a man supposed to do? Nothing? Just wait? No, I believe that you have to choose. If only to enjoy life. Look around you at all these Gringos here in San Miguel who prefer to suffer here rather than admit theyíre wrong. Otherwise theyíd pack their things and go back where they came from."

His eyes had become smoky, so opaque as to nearly disappear in a pool of murkiness. As if he were wandering along some forgotten paths of the Sierra Madre, outside of time and space.

"After all, what is there besides enjoying life?"

"Well if you call this eternal call to duty enjoying life!" I teased.

"Itís all about love anyway."

"Yes, but how edifying to know youíre in the right." I still had difficulty believing that anyone was as perfect as he seemed to be - dedicated and generous worker, devoted husband, animal lover, curator of the arts. Did he never err? Did he never backslide?

He laughed, his blue eyes now merry behind his thick lenses, and completed my thought - "Even if you also suffer from such a position. And anyway I donít believe that God is always right either."

The dogs didnít disappear overnight or from one day to the next. It wasnít like that at all. At first the people of the town didnít notice that every day there were fewer stray dogs creeping sociably under their feet while they took the sun at el Jardín. The growing absence of the rangy brown dogs Ė short-haired mongrels, their ribs leaping from their undersides, habitually scratching for fat nourishment at the food stalls around the square or wandering single file up and down the steep back streets - didnít register on anyone.

If town people had even thought of them they would have concluded that the dogs, like people, had retreated to cool interiors behind the townís thick stone walls because the June days that year were unusually hot and sultry even at 7,000 feet altitude. For weather was indeed a factor in that summerís bizarre events. In luxury villas on the hills as well as in stone houses sprawling haphazardly in the lower town ceiling fans turned all night. Mosquitoes were rampant. Cactuses in the parks and on the surrounding hills stood still. Mesquite trees shimmered brown and tan during the day. The mountains were silent under the everlasting sky. Yes, something indefinable had changed.

The people gathered around the bandstand in the shaded center of el Jardín discussed the strange atmosphere. Electric lights seemed to burn dimmer. Street illumination flickered and failed. The restaurant Le Fumoir inexplicably shut its doors for the season while the most popular discotheque laid off its rock band from Mexico City. Fewer tourists were arriving. For the first time in its history the Allende Art Institute registered a fall in enrollments. In that strange season residents began doing unaccustomed things - even on payday Mexicans stayed home from work and Gringos suddenly traveled to the United States or decided on out-of-season vacations in Acapulco.

Just at the acme of its popularity it seemed that San Miguel was being abandoned. Some people believed that El Niño was responsible. Yet it was more than the weather. The local shaman, an ancient Otomí, launched a belated warning from his shack on a low brown hill called "El Paraiso" that the fickle god of Mesoamerica, Tezcatlipoca, had looked into his smoky mirror and decided to turn the region upside down - sacrifices, the holy man proposed, were the only salvation.

Perhaps the only person to detect the deeper sense of the ambient revolution in San Miguel was Allan Crillon. And even his susceptibility was awakened only after the sudden disappearance of two of his five dogs that he had personally rescued from the ravages of the streets and harbored in the safety of his patio, studio and home.

Allan invited me to attend a meeting of the Dog Shelter sponsors at which he called for the founding of a special investigating committee to delve into the enigma of the missing dogs. But it was soon clear that among the dozen or so people present he alone was aware of the tragedy. What was he talking about? all wondered. The President of the Dog Shelter Association herself pointed out that their pens were overflowing with strays and that San Miguelís dogs numbered many thousands. No one of the Dog Shelter Committee had noticed any change in the townís canine population - to which all were quite sensitive.

"Well," a sad Allan said, tears forming in his eyes, "two of mine are missing. Yesterday evening I let little Joey and Martha out the door to do their business in the street and they never returned. I just came from the Jardín - I go there everyday just to verify. No dogs at all. None! Any of you, if you go the Jardín tonight, youíll be surprised how few dogs are there. There are few dogs on the back streets, I know. This has been going on for some time but no one has noticed. I put it to all of you - Where are the dogs going?"

A tall, extremely thin man wearing a yellow and blue foulard with the debonair air of the bonvivant raised his hand for attention and stood up and said in a bantering tone, "Allan, you better than most of us know all the bars and restaurants in town! Did you know that a Korean restaurant has just opened opposite the Allende Institute and that another is about to open at the top of Calle Jesús ... and you know what their specialty is."

Allan couldnít believe his ears. He glared around the room in shock. "That, Bill, is the most disgusting thing Iíve ever heard! If thatís the way you feel I donít understand why you even sit on this committee."

"Well during the war in my country cats were sold as rabbit and eaten with relish," a middle-aged woman from Florence said. "And you couldnít find one single cat in the whole Coliseum in Rome. Of course those were only cats, but after all Ö."

"Itís well known that the Koreans put a bunch of dogs in a big sack and beat them to a pulp with heavy sticks," said a Russian exile painter, one of the most dedicated San Miguel dog-lovers. "Thatís why their meat is so tender."

"What a canaille," wisecracked a retired Belgian schoolteacher from Mons.

Allan, always balanced and in total control of himself and his emotions, Allan the eternal realist, looked helplessly from the mischievous Bill to the innocent Italian lady to the Dog Shelter President. He looked as if he were about to faint. The idea of his little Joey and Martha beaten in a sack and cooking in a pot in the Korean restaurant was more than he could bear. Sitting with him in the saloons of San Miguel I had come to grasp the dichotomy in his nature: his fanaticism for bullfighting and the killing of the bulls on one hand, and, on the other, his child-like love for dogs and household pets. Bullfighting was the total art to which he strove in his painting. It was the risk of life, the emblem of his rare departures from reality. Dogs were the expression of his childís spirit that he allowed to float and soar and dip and dive around him like snowflakes of the first snowfall in December. In that moment I read SOS in his eyes.

"Meeting closed," he murmured and walked out the door onto lower Calle Canal where we flagged a cruising taxi.

"Tio Robertoís," he said.

From that day Allan became a ghost. You might have seen him slinking down Calle Recreo, past the Plaza de Toros to Parque Juárez and back up Chorro, up the hill along Santo Domingo, and along the paths and trails toward the Botanical Gardens, either alone or with his surviving dogs on a leash. He would peer into the kitchen windows of the Korean Restaurant and he would question diners about the fare. He winced when people in town praised the new restaurant and the tenderness and flavor of its meat dishes. It still seemed to Allan that no one cared or even noted that there was not one stray dog at the Jardín. He sat out his day in the gallery, listless. He went to the Dog Shelter unenthusiastically. He canceled his drawing classes. His wife said he never picked up his brush or made any advances to her. He was restless, dissatisfied, unconvinced.

Sadness and melancholy were not part of his character. Yet when in the darkened bar at Tio Robertoís over vodka and tonic I asked him about it, he shrugged and said heíd never had time for it. Heíd always said that sadness was a luxury. Now it overcame him.

While Allanís search for what he called "dog rustlers" continued, unbeknownst to him more and more people were becoming aware of the absence of the dogs and that the atmosphere of San Miguel had mutated. It was as if some great god had sterilized the town, emasculated it, and deprived it of the elan vital that had made it the Mexican Santa Fe. Where were they? el Jardin sitters, Gringo and Mexican alike, asked. Now and then in those days even cats ventured onto the Jardín where felines had not been seen in decades. Pigeons strutted around everywhere, unconcerned about stray dogs who, in normal times, occasionally ate one of their fellows.

In a recurrent dog dream Allan was always terrified of dogs, awed by their force and numbers. "A canine occupation of the land," he called it one night in the bar. He hated that dream. He knew its periodic return emerged from a stupid boyhood fear. To haunt him today. Him, the Dog Shelter creator! Yet heíd seen them swim ashore, numberless, eternal, huge, savage, hierarchical, unstoppable. Hundreds of huge nearly unrecognizable dogs, their ordered formations "swelling and pulsating, he said. Were they today somewhere preparing to fall on the town, he wondered, like the hordes of Atilla the Hun? Were they hovering in some secret place in the Sierra Madre, multiplying rapidly in a god-inspired procreation process?

He staggered between dream and reality, fearful and alert, terror-stricken yet ready to do battle with the secret forces to liberate San Miguelís dogs from their captors, if necessary to free them from themselves, to crawl far out on the limb and perform his full duty.

It was late afternoon. The sun was gigantic on the western horizon. The wind was blowing from the north. It whipped down through the ravines, up the hill toward the Botanical Gardens and back down into the gash between the rugged ranges around the lake. Allan was on the heels of a tall thin Mexican holding four dogs on leashes, dogs too clean and cared for to be strays. Allanís dogs, Ralph and Charles and Laura, were barking and pulling at their leashes, dragging him ahead in pursuit. But Allan held back while the Mexican, some hundred yards ahead, seemed to ignore him. The two dog teams rounded the north shore of the lake and set out up a hill through now quiet cactuses and mesquites. The flora seemed taller and thicker than usual. When the Mexican and his quartet disappeared into a thicket of trees and shrubs and jagged rocks, gray dust rose like a cloud from the trail, now narrow, now wide and inviting.

Afraid of losing him, Allan surged ahead. He knew it was the rustler. The detestable dealer in canine meat. The butcher. Yet he was apprehensive. What would he find there in the thicket? Little Joey and Martha slaughtered? Or perhaps a burgeoning canine world? The army of savage dogs of his nightmares?

He slowed his pace. Ralph and Charles and Laura dragged him forward, pulling with all their strength, their paws digging in the white sand, as if their only desire was to join their brothers.

Abruptly the thicket opened like a theater curtain and there it was - the great corral. The dog corral. A sprawling makeshift structure as if thrown up over night. Yellow eyes fixed in immobile canine faces peered from behind the wire mesh fence. Silence reigned on the hillside. Like fighting bulls in that first instant they arrive in the middle of the ring looking for something to kill, suddenly disconcerted, stunned, perhaps embarrassed, pawing the sand in anticipation, the mongrels eyed both the arrival of the Mexican butcher with their four domesticated brothers and also Allan and his troika at the edge of the thicket. They seemed to be thinking, What is this? War among the human beings? But, but, is that not the dogman? The man on the park bench who always caresses us? The man of the shelter who heals our wounds? Is that not the human being with the canine heart? What could this mean?

Allan hesitated. He watched the Mexican. Why it was the town idiot - Eduardo! Everybody knew him. The mute who shuffled along the cobblestone streets downtown among shops and bars and restaurants delivering big envelopes and packages and trays of coffee and drinks, usually followed by a pack of mongrels yapping at his heels for a handout. A gentle man - but was he an animal lover? Why was he bringing them up here? To save them from the Koreans? Or to sell them like cattle? Or did he too dream of the creation of a canine horde to change the world? Maybe the idiot was a messenger. The bearer of secret information from another canine world. The whole world, Allan thought for a moment, is really spinning. Spinning out of control. And again Iíve been a failure.

The Mexican slowly opened the gate and ever so gently, child-like, almost lovingly, pushed the four newcomers inside. They stood together near the gate, embarrassed by their fear of the stray dogs. Their brothers.

What would happen, Allan was thinking at the thicket, if he opened the corral gate like the toril gate at the arena after the parade of the matadors and banderilleros and mounted picadors and drag horses? Would they overrun him and sweep away Ralph and Charles and Laura and everything in their path? A canine stampede?

Thank God the Mexican still ignored him. The sun hung huge in the West. At that moment a flash of light from the hill above, a brilliant reflection from the sun, illuminated the corral. The ghostly Mexican stood erect and with both hands shielded his eyes. Allan hesitated no longer. He had to act. The Mexican never once turned as he approached from behind. Allan wrapped his powerful arms around him. The Mexican didnít struggle. It was nothing to lash him to the corral with the leash. And as in a dream he opened the floodgates.

Allan told the rest of the story in his last (or latest?) painting that marked for local folklore the extraordinary event of the return of the dogs. It was a mystical composition exuding both melancholy and optimism, dedicated Allan said, "to the memory of Joey and Martha" who were not among the returnees. In the center of the sprawling canvas, hundreds of dogs racing down the hill toward the sanctuary of the Jardín and the back streets of the town. On the left side, a quiet afternoon, the eternal sky and a half dozen dogs lying under the feet of bench sitters. On the right, a mixed group of bareheaded matadors dressed in costumes brocaded in gold, flanked by smiling Mariachis with serapes over their shoulders, talking and smoking under the arcades. And in the elevated background, a shadowy building with boards over its windows under the simple sign, RESTAURANT, across which a gray diagonal swath bearing sharp black letters spelling, CERRADO.

Of the dogman, only a hand was visible, a hand with long fingers reaching down from a green iron bench and caressing the head of a brown dog with its eyes tightly closed.

© 2000 Gaither Stewart

Since leaving journalism some three years ago Gaither Stewart has been writing fiction full time. He is in New York temporarily but normally lives in Rome, where he will return next spring. He hails from Asheville, North Carolina, but has lived most of his life in Europe, chiefly in Germany and Italy. For many years he was the Italian correspondent of the Dutch daily Algemeen Dagblad and has written for various newspapers and magazines in Europe. He recently lived for a year in San Miguel Allende in central Mexico in order to research and write the second part of a novel that takes place in Italy and Mexico.

E-mail - [email protected]


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