Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Horse with the Golden Mane: Stories of Adventure, Mystery and Romance

The Horse with the Golden Mane: Stories of Adventure, Mystery and Romance

By Russell A. Vassallo


He knew little of the man who befriended him. Only that he was an old man who was kind to him and who had known hunger and desperation. He did not even know how incongruous it was for such a man to befriend the very breed of dog that once hunted him for Nazi persecutors. Yes, Eric saw the tiny blue marks on the man's arm, but he did not know who put them there or that the man once waited in a crowded ship to be admitted to the newly formed State of Israel. Nor would he have cared about these things if he had known.

Eric only knew that when he passed before the clouded mirror in the man's store the reflection that stared back at him was black and tan, short-haired and muscular, with a narrow snout accentuated by black and tan streaks and short cropped ears. He was larger than the average Doberman.

Eric had once been sheltered by other people, for no one can truly own a Doberman. To be precise, he had been harbored by a young husband, his wife and their two pesky, noisy children who insisted on turning Eric into a play horse rather than a guard dog. And to be exact, Eric often wished he were elsewhere with voices not quite so shrieking or so loud that they hurt his ears. How he came to be the friend of the old Jew is not a matter of conjecture. He appeared in the old man's back alley soon after a fatal auto accident that happened near Sol's shop. It was thought he may well have been the sole survivor of that accident, for no one ever came looking for him.

Sol did not know where Eric came from. The man only knew that he was a lonely man. He only knew that the dog was abandoned. One summer evening as he emptied his garbage in the alleyway behind his store, he startled at seeing Eric lying near the cans, blood streaked across his muzzle. He felt no fear at seeing the dog and even when Eric emitted a low growl, daring Sol to come nearer, the old man went about his business as if the dog did not exist. Sol knew better than to approach. He'd seen Eric's breed in Germany and knew well enough to keep his distance. Handled kindly, the Doberman can be a staunch and loyal ally. But with attack training or mishandling, the same breed can be a lethal weapon. Eric knew nothing of this. He only knew he was hurting, hungry and frightened. He did not know that Sol had once watched German soldiers attack train shepherds and Doberman pinschers using Sol's bunkmates as quarry. But something about Eric seemed more frightened and wary than vicious, so Sol plied the animal with quiet words and slow, careful movements.

“So, vas is?” he cooed lightly, lifting the lid and slowly dumping the refuse into it. “Ve got neighborhood dawks, ach, I know dem all und dey are mutts. You got class, breeding. I know your kind. So, from vhere did you cum, ah? Maybe, I call you dawk until you haf a name. Is goot?”

Eric did not move but neither did he growl again. His eyes showed interest in the refuse being dumped in the trash; an interest Sol noted as he calmed the animal. There was something about the old Jew he liked, something that told him this man had been lost and hungry, too. His eyes never left Sol though. Wariness and suspicion were part of his breeding, and despite his injuries, he'd defend even the small piece of territory he now claimed. But Sol made no threatening move or gesture, and Eric felt himself relaxing.

The old man disappeared into the door only to reappear a moment later. He scooped a can of dog food into a round, small plate and pushed it slowly forward with his foot. He stopped when the dish was three feet from the dog. Though Eric had not eaten for two days, he did not rush to accept the offering. Instead, he crawled slowly forward as though stalking the dish, stopped to eye Sol, then inched forward. Only when he reached the bowl did he eat voraciously, stopping occasionally to eye the old man and take note of his position. The old man sat on the doorway step, unmoving, speaking calmly to the dog.

“I'm alone here. Ve could use a goot guard dawk. Mein store is vorthless. Still dere are men who vould steal from me. Ida, mein vife, is dead. Dey separate us in Germany. I tink I never see her again. Den, I go to Israel und dey find her for me. Vent to Israel und I tought ve haf a goot life. Den dey put a bomb in the place vhere she eats lunch und she is dead. Tventy-years gone mitt von bomb yah? Und I am not vit her vhen she dies. Such a voman dat Ida. So I leave Israel. I cum here. No more bombs. No more vife. Now, I jus' live alone, yah? A bomb snuffs out so many tings? So vhat is vun vife vhen so many udders are dying? So,” he drew out the words, “from vhere do you come?”

The dog still made no moves but neither did he growl again. The old man's voice seemed to reassure him.

“I don't get company. Und friends, I got none. Dead or in Israel. The Promised Land, ach. So I got nobody und you got nobody. Maybe ve stay togedder. You trust me. I trust you und ve stay. You tink about it. In der morning, if you are here, I feed you.”

And then he rose and entered the building again because he slept in the tiny back room of that ramshackle place. He left the door open, something he never did. He hoped Dog --for that is what he named him--might trust him enough to make it his home.

In the morning, he placed a food dish and water near the rear step and went about readying the store for the morning crowd. Newspapers had to be opened and put out for sale. He reheated yesterday's coffee and placed fresh buns and rolls in the glass case that separated the front from the rear. The first morning customers liked their newspaper and their coffee. Some purchased hard rolls with chunks of butter in them. Others just took a donut or two, paid and left. No one tarried in the musty store with faded wooden floor boards encrusted with soot. And they ignored the walls with their peeling wallpaper and “Drink Coke” signs. Few even bothered to note the antique cash register perched at the start of the glass case. Even fewer bothered to note its contents, boxes of Dutch Master, Corona-Corona, Panatela cigars, packs of cheap cigarettes. Behind the counter lay shelves with straws, misted glasses, spoons, forks and other utensils. It was not much of a confectionery store, but it kept Sol alive and he enjoyed the few customers willing to tarry for conversation.

And he knew them all. The mechanic from down the street whose uniform never changed, the prostitutes chasing the evening hangover with cups of coffee and sugared donuts, the delivery man catching a quick break, the little kid who chose to spend his dime on something sweet rather than donating it to the Catholic Missions. They were part of his day, part of his existence.

Eric sniffed at the door. The smell of hot coffee melded with the odor of canned dog food wafting from the stairs. He was thirsty more than hungry so he finished the bowl of water, then ate. There was dried blood on his chest though he was not wounded. The blood dried and stiffened even though he cleaned himself. The old man stepped through the curtain that divided the storefront from his sleeping quarters in the rear, saw Eric standing over his food dish and slowed his movements somewhat. He wanted to do nothing to alarm the animal.

“Gooten tog, mein friend. Did you haf a goot sleep? Ach but you finish your vater. I get you zum.”

He approached the dish carefully as Eric studied him. He remained stone-like, observing Sol with deep, black eyes that pierced the man's every move. Sol filled the dish and the dog obediently drank from it as if wishing to reward the old man's efforts. What Eric saw smiling at him was a slightly-built old man, erect in stature, with thinning gray hair that flopped down over his ears and curled across his forehead. There was something almost boyish about the man as if he had once been young. Eric stared at the blue numbers on the man's arm as if he recognized them or knew their significance but he did not. He studied the worn shelves that lined the back room, dusty, unused shelves, yellow with age and dirt. A bed, a small round table with a single chair, a plastic tablecloth. Tucked in the corner, an old gas stove, buttressed by a small, rusty sink. Here and there, a glass or two, some cups, loose utensils completed the embellishments. The floor was faded linoleum with loose tiles that skidded across the floor if the old man didn't lift his feet high enough. It held the aroma of mold and mildew, stuffy and choking to the dog's sensitive nostrils, but he tolerated it. Somehow the claustrophobic room seemed little used except when the old man ate or slept there. But it was home.

A bell tinkled from the storefront signaling that a customer had entered and, before Sol could move, the dog strolled confidently toward the entrance. Sol experienced a tinge of fear that the customer might be in for a nasty shock, but Eric merely positioned himself by the cash register and sat. And so it was throughout the day. When customers came in, Eric stationed himself behind the counter. If they approached too near the cash register, he raised himself to full height and blocked their path. If nothing else, the dog's presence encouraged more conversation from customers than usual. The old man reveled in his new-found friend.

He marveled at the dog's protectiveness, too; and he was proud of his newly- acquired guard dog. Eric was beautiful, lithe and slender, his coat clean except for the dried blood. During lulls in business, Sol fed the dog tidbits from his own lunch and at closing time, he sat on the floor near the dog and softly groomed him with his hand.

“Vell, mein friend. Do I haf a beautiful dawk? Ve need to clean der blood, yah? Nicely, I do it. Sol has experience mit cleaning blood. I tell you sometime.”

He fetched a warm bowl of water, soaped it with gentle dishwashing liquid and soaked a cloth. Moving slowly, he held out the cloth, then made a slow swiping motion in front of Eric, barely touching him. When the dog made no movement, he soaked the stiffened hair and gently rubbed away the crusts of dried blood, stroking the nap forward and back until the coat lay bloodless. If Sol's supposition about the accident were correct, no one would come to claim this animal. They were all dead. Still, where had the dog been since the accident?

He removed the dog's damaged collar. A metal name-plate affixed

to the leather read Eric. Yes, Eric. He liked the name. He repeated it softly as he cleansed the dog's wounds. “Ach, tomorrow ve get you a collar und leash. Den ve valk at night by der railroad. Der Meadows is a goot place und der valk vill do us good, yah.”

Unexpectedly, the dog poked his snout into Sol's arm-pit and sniffed. Sol felt reassured by the animal's confidence. He knew that the Doberman did this to gain the scent of a friend. When the dog licked his hand, he knew he was gaining its confidence. He rubbed until the blood gave way to the dirt beneath and finally the dog was clean.

Sol always closed the store at seven. There was little point staying open beyond that. Tired from the long day, he settled into the small bunk and lay there looking at the grease on the ceiling. His hand drifted down and found the dog lying next to him, and gently, Sol stroked the bristly hair until he drifted into sleep.

The old man's slumber was never restful for the dream was always the same. He is hiding in a dark corner, near the fencing. The Nazi patrol is searching for him. Suddenly, a light flashes on him. He is discovered. They butt him with their rifles. Then the dogs are loosed. They savagely attack. One is tearing at his throat as he desperately struggles to protect the soft skin. In a blinding panic, he awakens. He is saturated with perspiration. The room is dark and quiet. No Nazi troopers. No attacking shepherds. Just an ominous din.

Sol remembers when he was a trustee in the camp. He ladled soup to the prisoners, soup that was watery and contained little nutrient. It was not the bountiful soup the kitchen trustees ate. Nor was the quantity the same. He saw the faces of his friends, pleading eyes, pleading for a drop more of soup, a larger hunk of bread. But he could give them nothing more than the command instructed him to give. So each night he saw their faces. Faces that remained only for a time and then were gone. Some lasted longer than others. None lasted forever. One awoke with the uncommon knowledge that he might be awakening to his very last day.

To have a friend now, one that could not be taken away, overjoyed the old man, whose heart was heavily burdened with guilt. All Sol had wanted to do was help his friends, help his wife. Life decreed that he do neither. He focused on the dog because the dog was his final hope.

“I jus' vant to help. In camp I try to help mein friends, der prisoners. I am only an inmate dere. I cannot help. All doz lonely faces. Dey haunt me. Und now I haf a friend. I help you und you help me.”

Sol bought Eric a bright orange collar to accent his short, black coat. He did not trust the smaller retractable leashes so he purchased one heavy enough to control a full-grown horse. That would give Eric twenty feet to roam. When the dog was better trained, Sol would release him at the meadowlands.

After closing, they emerged from the store for their evening walk. Sol locked the front door and turned to face the deserted streets. Newark, after working hours, loomed ominous and silent as if a huge cloth descended over the town and smothered all signs of life. The smell of burning rubber and sea wind blended together in a strange friendship. To the east lay the metropolis itself, stone buildings blotting out the sky, empty and forlorn now that people were gone. People worked in Newark, but most of them did not live there. It was no longer a city of mixed origins and social strata but a ghost town that sprang to life only with the daylight.

The store Sol owned was harbored in a huge, old apartment complex, twenty-four dwellings massed one upon the other and enveloped in a dark hallway that led to every apartment except Sol's store. Other buildings appeared much the same, drab and dingy, smothered with smut and pollution. To the south lay the industrial businesses, chemical factories such as Dooner-Smith, the East District fire station, Sherwin-Williams paint factory, Wilson pallets, then small, dark, faceless residences with stone stoops and lightless windows from behind which furtive shadows peered out into the empty streets.

To the west lay the highway out of Newark, heading toward Port Newark. A few blocks from Sol's store, the road swept sharply right, crossed the entrance to a highway ramp, then curved to the left. It was in the vicinity of the ramp that Sol walked in the evenings. He made the sharp right turn along with the road, crossed the street to the ramp. Directly before him was an elevated roadway that rose up over the swamps and meadows. Beneath the highway, to his right, was abandoned land. It was useless land. Made so by the highway that passed over it and by heavy rains and flooding that made it mostly swamp, but the area directly beneath the highway was kept clear and firm by the road department. But that was important only because it was where Sol walked, down near the roadway where the meadow began and sank into the tall, covering grass and mushy wet grounds. Occasionally young people ventured into the swamp roads to make love. Occasionally someone walked into the swamp never to retreat. But Sol found it quiet and comforting. He carried a heavy walking stick with a brass lion's head, so he felt well protected.

And it was only three blocks from the store, not far enough to drive. Even if he had done so there was no safe place to park. Drunks often swept wide on the curve, missed the ramp entrance, steered right and skidded into the marshy swamps where Sol walked. Two months before a pedestrian had been killed right at the crosswalk. It was where the accident of Eric's former owners occurred as well. People complained, but the city did nothing. What could it do? Drunks are drunks and drunks drive. So Sol kept his vehicle safely tucked in front of his store.

He pointed Eric in the direction of the open lands and, for the first time in a very long time, he felt proud. Proud to have the magnificent animal next to him. Secure for the first time that he had a friend. Eric maintained a steady pace beside the old man, stopping to stare into the dark alleys that lined the path to the highway. When they arrived, Eric studied the configuration of the land, eyed the tall grass and weeds that formed a small lake to the right, noted pockets of water scattered between islands of grass and debris. Unlike his human counterpart, Eric could sense and could smell. He tested the air and on it came the smell of rats, raccoons, possums, snakes, coyotes, even other dogs. They scurried in the grass like vermin fading before the light.

It was five miles to Port Newark. A break in the overgrowth provided a passable path so one could walk. Even on a humid, summer's eve the sea breeze wafted across the grasslands and the path beneath the ramp that led to Newark Bay. But no one ever walked there, and Sol never walked very far. He wanted just enough exercise to keep him fit. He did not venture beyond safe boundaries. With Eric, he walked a bit further than usual, happy for the dog's company. At first Sol did not release Eric when they reached the outer edge of the city. He let the leash out to its end, then summoned the dog, rewarding him with a treat each time he returned. In time he'd let Eric run free, but only when certain he'd return.

So they walked in the evenings, listening to the wind whoosh through the cattails and wild reeds. They halted when something slithered into the high grass and disappeared. Sol was not afraid of rats. He'd seen too many. Seen too often when rats were the only food for desperate men. They had no weapons so they stoned them, lifting rocks in feeble and trembling hands to cripple them. He recalled men fighting over dead rats, watching them torn apart. It repulsed him now to think that he had been reduced to eating rats, to fighting with fellow prisoners for a piece of leg, stomach, anything that would keep him from cramping. And he'd seen guards turning their dogs on living beings just for the sport of watching them ripped apart.

But that was before he became a trustee. After his assignment, he enjoyed more scraps from the kitchen. Often they had whole potatoes and even some meat. The Germans were not inclined to mistreat the trustees as they didn't care to do the work themselves. So he enjoyed the benefits of his work while other men starved and died. But it troubled him deeply for Sol wanted only to help. Yet, the same guards who granted him privileges turned on him when he attempted sharing small favors with other prisoners.

Why had men done this to other men? He often thought of the Merchant of Venice: the Quality of Mercy is not strained. And yet it was. There was no mercy. Men died upon whim. Upon quotas. Men too weak to live had to die. It was ordained. But he always wondered why. And the dream was always the same, men in black, in brown, in gray --- boys, hovering over fallen men, whopping them with truncheons, lashing them with whips and leaving them dead in the streets.

But Eric knew none of this, and would not have cared if he had. He had his own history. He was the largest of his litter, big-boned and brawny, too large for show, and thus he'd been given to a local family on condition that he not be credited to the breeder. In terms of dogs, Eric was a misfit. He did not even have registration papers. He was massive. His thick, long legs made him appear much taller than he was, and he had the rapier, sleek lines of a greyhound. For the most part, he was quiet except when he rumbled that low, threatening growl that displayed a pearly row of jagged teeth.

And Sol was proud of his new friend. He sensed in Eric a power he had never possessed. Certainly not while Nazis swept Jew after Jew out of homes and hiding places, crammed them into trucks and trains and delivered them to waiting deaths. Sometimes in the dream he saw their faces, haunted, frightened, questioning. He saw their bodies shoved with bulldozers into waiting pits while the gas showers pumped more death into humanity. But now he was safe in America, safe with a fine friend.

When they returned from their evening walks, Sol made himself a cup of tea and read the Newark Evening News while Eric laid alongside him. He shared a few cookies with the dog and rested his hand on the animal's back, stroking lightly until, being an old man, he tired and drifted to sleep. Somehow, with the dog lying next to him, he slept more peacefully, but it was never completely restful. Sometimes, in the darkness, he woke suddenly and let his hand search for the dog. Finding him still beside him, Sol patted Eric gratefully and slipped again into slumber.

Sometimes, he remained awake long enough to read the newspaper to Eric, telling him about the day's events. Other times he told him how the German government promised a better way of life. Changes were so subtle. First, the designation of all persons of non-German origin and Jews to be marked with a star so they could be identified. Then, the registration of guns and soon after, the confiscation of all weapons for the safety of the state. Without them, the Jews were helpless when Germans arrested them. How much resistance would they have given? Sol didn't know. He had always been a peaceful man. He knew that Jews fought in Warsaw. He heard some survived too. Others were driven into open fields where they were machine-gunned. He had wanted to help his fellow prisoners. Yet, he was helpless. It was the way of war. People die.

In this new land, this America, there were places where a man could still carry a weapon, but not in New Jersey. In his state, a man could only carry a walking stick or a cane, something with which to defend himself. He could not carry a gun. And so, Eric was doubly reassuring to the old man.

Eric knew none of this though. He only knew that when he settled near the old man he felt a strange surge of security, a sense that he was home. He pushed his snout under the old man's hand, stained with liver spots and stiff with age, and he was content. Occasionally wind rattled the front door and Eric went to investigate, his feet tapping rhythmically on the linoleum floor. The sound reminded Sol of German officers tapping windows with their riding crops as they inspected the darkened rows of barracks. And then they would decide who might live and who might die. In the end, most would die unless they were able to work. Sol was assigned to work as a cook and then to ladle food to the inmates.

The old man rubbed Eric's head until sleep overcame him and when the hand went limp and did not respond to Eric's urging the dog took his evening turn around the store, drank a little water and settled into sleep beside his friend. Thus man and dog bonded as friends rather than as those owned or possessed. The dog vigorously protected the old man as friends might do. People who came into the store feared Eric and gave Sol deference. If they approached him too closely or ventured too near the cash register, Eric warned them away. Otherwise, he sat obediently in his station, watching, waiting.

Winter slipped into spring and then spring into the long days of light and warm evenings. The sea wind rippled through the high grass of the meadows. Sol and Eric walked there each night to enjoy the freedom and the quiet. Crickets chirruping in the darkness. Katydids buzzing like chain saws in the far swamps. Often the sea wind smelled of salt air and brought to Sol's recollection the smell of wave and wind as he waited to enter the Promised Land of Israel. But it did not remind Eric of anything in particular because he scented the wind but also the stench of decaying vegetation and dead animals. The wind kept the insects from annoying attacks on man and beast, and thus they welcomed the freshness of its glow upon them.

As they strolled along the high grass, the old man spoke, more to himself than to Eric.

“Vhat I belief is dat ve all going to be togedder in der next life. Yah, I belief dat. You und me und Ida, Ve all going to meet. Und ve can help people because ve vill be spirits und spirits can do anyting, yah.”

But the dog only sniffed the ground, marked his territory and kept near to the old man. Although the old man allowed Eric to run loose, he experienced a tinge of fear when the dog did not immediately return when called. And when the animal returned, Sol felt a confidence and command he had never before enjoyed.

But fate has a way of intervening and changing things, and so it was that on a breezy July night, when the moon illuminated the earth, Eric did not venture far from Sol. Instead Eric paused frequently, peering into the darkness at the swamp's edge, alerting at every slight sound. His staring unnerved Sol. Then the old man spoke to him as much to quiet his own nerves as that of his dog. “Ach Sol, you're gedding old. Und Eric, you seeing tings vot isn't dere. Vot is, mein friend? Dere is nothing dere except der rats. Ve see dem every night. Ve hear dem. Rats. Cum now, Eric. Ve valk a little more und den ve go home.” And Sol was happy to turn around.

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