Mouthful of Stones

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Chapter Forty One

The Calder Freeway passed within 200 meters of my parent’s house. Technically, I was breaking the conditions of the restraining order, but eight months’ ago seemed like a different time. I was a different person.

It’s always colder out of the city. Apparently, the buildings hold the warmth. Out here in the country, everything’s flat. Acres and acres of land with the occasional tree and stands of prefab houses – new suburbs cropped  up like toadstools. The Digger’s Rest pub stood beside the Old Calder Highway, which ran parallel to the freeway.

“How far we going?” I asked Sil.

“Gisborne. Another twenty.”

Daisy’s outline was visible in the rear view. A canvas tarp was tied over her cage to keep the wind out.

By Gisborne, the countryside had changed again. Tall gum trees lined the roads and dark paddocks ran behind barbed wire fences. No streetlights. The entire vista occurred in the cone of the high beams. Outside of it, dark shapes were printed on the darkness. There was the occasional benign face of a horse, neck curved over a fence like a swan.

Sil turned left down a long drive that wound past a house with two weeping willows obscuring the front door. All the lights were off. Sil followed the drive around the back of the house and into the paddock. Three corrugated iron sheds. One was a long pavilion with tractors and trucks and farming-type stuff. The other looked like a stable. A wedge of yellow light fell from the door of the middle one.

Sil parked the Hilux. Thirty or forty cars. Holdens and Fords, 4WDs, a couple of Mercedes and BMWs. Bikes too; mainly Harleys. Leaving Daisy in the tray, I followed Sil into the shed. Flourescent lights hung from the ceiling; it was brighter than a 7-11. I followed Sil pretty close, so I was surprised by the hand that shot out and grabbed my collar.

“Who the fuck are you?”

“Who the fuck are you?” I asked the little man with the backwards baseball cap and the prognathous jaw. I let him hold the neck of my shirt because now I knew where both his hands were. Mine were still a secret.

“He’s with me, Spider,” Sil said. And it was the fear in Sil’s voice that scared me.

“Fuckin’ smart cunt,” Spider said.

“Spider, he’s with me. I need him to help me with the dog.”

“Fuckin’ smart cunt,” said Spider, letting go my collar. Lots of gold jewelry under a face that had retreated right back against the skull. He was wiry and lean, half-amphetamines and half-fit.

“Sorry Spider,” said Sil, leading me away. “Powder monkey – pro boxer in his spare time. But he won’t punch you; he’ll cut your balls off instead. Stay away.”

The pit wasn’t visible from the doorway, but you were saturated in the atmosphere soon as you walked in. The crowd threw something down into it that became richer and darker before it spewed out, saturating the air with a grit and a dark and a wetness.

The only woman stood behind the bar. A trestle table with eskys. I pushed through the crowd to the edge of the pit. Deep; probably six feet, to keep the more athletic dogs from leaping out. Rectangular – 18 feet across. Diagonal lines at opposite corners, duct taped onto the rough square of carpet that had been staked out as a canvas.

A Staffy had a Kelpie pinned face-down. Although its face was buried, the eye was rolling and white. From the way its jaw was working through its cheek, the Staffy was questing for the other dogs’ spine. When it found it, the Kelpie’s growl shorted into a cry before its eye fixed and faded. But the Staffy didn’t let go. The Staffy was not at home behind the rolling eye.

It clenched and jerked occasionally, like the Kelpie wasn’t dead enough. Its handler entered the ring and snapped a heavy leather leash onto the harness the dog wore. He gave a few tugs, but the Staffy was not convinced.

A thin length of PVC pipe was produced and the handler blew down it into the Staffy’s ear. The dog rolled over as if electrocuted. Its handler led it from the ring. The Kelpie was dragged out by the hind leg. A hand on my shoulder. Sil’s.

“Come and give me a hand.”

The paddock was darker after the brightness of the shed. Sil took Daisy out of her cage and attaching a lead to her collar, led her to the machinery shed. A raucous barking started up when we got close; a long, lanky, sandy-coloured dog with two men standing with it. Daisy leapt out to the end of her leash like a bullet on a string.

“Hold her,” Sil said, handing me the leash. I took it and braced myself, chancing to pat her head. She growled low and pointed her body at the other dog. No one was introduced. Sil took the leash of the sandy dog, a Ridgeback, and gestured for me to give Daisy to the other man. Sil led the Ridgeback to the other end of the shed.

There was a red plastic baby’s bath, full of soapy water. The man tried to lead Daisy into the bucket, but she wouldn’t go. She sat down, rolling a growl around in her throat.

“Give her to me,” I said. He handed me the leash and I led her to the water. She wasn’t keen, so I rubbed her throat and made all the sounds.

“Come on Daisy, you big sooky girl.” She stepped into the water grudgingly and pulled her foot out. I put my hand in the bucket.

“Jesus- shit!” came the expostulation from the other end of the shed, followed by a fusillade of barking.

“No wonder,” I said, “It’s cold.” The man, who still hadn’t said a word, lifted a big sponge and started washing her down. Daisy shivered as the water ran through her coat and trickled back into the bath.

After she was washed, the man dried her with a rough old towel. Then he worked his fingers through her coat, a fixed expression on his face like he was reading. When he finished, I held her leash while he smoked a cigarette. Until Sil and the other guy came back to exchange dogs.

“Here – take it,” Sil said. The two men took their Ridgeback and led it around the back of the main shed.

At the Hilux, Sil helped Daisy into a leather harness. It was like a pig hunting harness to protect her from the tusks of the boar, except it was open-throated. I patted her head. She snuffled my hand. He handed me a red plastic bucket with a sponge which I filled at a tap near the machinery shed.

We led her around the other side of the pit shed. Sil banged on a door cut into the corrugated iron. When it opened, the roar of the rabble broke over us. We pushed into the heat and the fug and the glare.

The Ridgeback was already in the pit. Its handler crouched behind, hanging onto its collar, using his weight as ballast. Sil climbed down into the pit and, lifting Daisy like a child, I handed her down.

Sil wrestled her into a corner, behind the duct taped line. The Ridgeback barked and roared, but Daisy didn’t make a sound. She squatted and flexed, growing wider and wider. Neck thickening, shoulders up around her ears, teeth visible between black, shivering lips. The crowd rose around us, higher and higher on waves of shouts and cries.

A referee appeared at the top of the pit and flipped a coin, catching it on his wrist. “Heads or tails?” he asked Sil.

“Tails.” The ref looked under his hand and smiled.

“Ridgeback scratches first.” Sil crouched behind Daisy like the Ridgeback’s owner, but his face was close to Daisy’s head. Speaking like he was pouring something into her ear.

“Scratch!” the ref yelled. The crowd crashed together as the Ridgeback was loosed. Sil held Daisy, and held her, his mouth opening and closing until it looked like he was barking, his words swept away into the maelstrom until his voice was pure meaning.

The Ridgeback galloped across the pit. When it was three quarters of the way, bearing down in a straight line, Sil let her go. Daisy leapt forward like a boulder fired from a cannon. She caught the other dog with her full weight and knocked it backwards. They tumbled into a scrum.

The Ridgeback growled and barked, but Daisy was dead silent inside the tangle of the larger dog’s limbs. She lunged at its throat but couldn’t get purchase, so she stepped back and around, like a boxer looking for an angle.

The Ridgeback rolled and just before it righted itself Daisy hit it again, pushing it over. The crowd climbed to a greater threshold, cheering and cursing. Daisy wasn’t just game; she knew what she was doing. The larger dog tried to force her into a corner with its body. She retreated and when it closed, she darted through its legs and away. When it turned to find her, she seized its cheek and tore.

Blood flew, spattering both dogs. The Ridgeback’s bark broke with a cough, Daisy flung her shoulder forward and grabbed hold, looming over as the other dog faltered. She couldn’t close her jaws though, because she bitten down on its collar. The ref yelled,

“Break!” and jumped down into the pit. He pushed a long plastic baton through Daisy’s bite and levered her away. Sil dragged her back to her scratch line.

“Hand me the bucket,” he said, taking it with one hand and almost dropping it. I jumped down into the pit so he could hold her collar. “Swap,” he said.

As I held her collar, I felt the quivering and twitching moving through my hands and up my arms. That high idle; that vibration, like the one you feel if you put your palm against a ringing church bell or the bonnet of an Interceptor. Sil let her drink from the bucket and then he sponged her hide.

“They sweat through their tongue and the soles of their feet. If she’s not cool, she’ll run outta steam.”

“Jesus, she can fight.”

“She’s a fuckin’ fit dog. Always has been.”

“Pit Bull scratches,” said the referee. “Seconds out!” I lifted the bucket to the edge and scrambled out. “Scratch!”

Sil loosed her and when she got halfway, the Ridgeback was loosed. Just before they met, Daisy braked. The Ridgeback, realizing its mistake, slid towards her. The momentum carried it into her bite. She tore the Ridgeback’s chest and up to its throat. The blood came gushing out. I could hear it falling onto the floor of the pit.

As Daisy shifted to the side, looking for another angle, the dying dog lashed out. It got hold of her snout and bit down. She tried to pull away, shoulders flexing as she drove her feet into the carpet, but the Ridgeback held on. Then there was a cracking sound. She struggled, but the Ridgeback held on until it bled out.

Daisy limped back across the pit. Sil gathered her into his arms and lifted her out. I took her in my arms. Blood was all over her face; she blinked at me with friendly eyes.

“It’s the other dog’s blood, it’s the other dog’s blood,” I said as I carried her outside. Sil turned the car over and hit the high beams. I put her on the grass and grabbed the tarp from the tray. I spread it on the ground and lifted her onto it.

“Mate – that’s a good tarp.”

She was breathing like an old smoker. I sponged the blood away from her face. She rolled on her back and touched my wrist with a paw. Bright pink blood spat out the holes in her snout, as her breath escaped through them. Sil touched her face and she jerked her head away from the pain.

“Oh no,” he said.

The blood kept percolating through where the Ridgeback had punctured her sinuses. Sil disappeared and came back with Spider.

Who shot her, right there in the high beams of the Hilux. Lying half on the tarp and half on the grass.

“Fuckin’ good dog, that,” Spider said, softly.

“Too old,” said Sil, to neither of us. “I knew I shouldn’t have fought her.”

“Best fight of the night,” replied Spider, brightening. “When you bringing that big white bastard?”

“Next time.”

“They’re callin’ it a draw.” Spider handed Sil a twisted clutch of bills. He put it in his hip pocket without counting it.

Sil didn’t talk on the drive back, but he must have been thinking about it because he got off the ring road at the wrong exit. We had to wander through all these suburban streets until he could figure out how to get back on the freeway. I sneaked a look at his face and he caught me.

“You’ve got to fight them, mate. That’s what they’re for.”

***

I was fascinated with the way Silvio had trained his pups. There was something profoundly symbolic about the dog with the sack over its head, Silvio tearing at the tender insides of its thighs with a little rake made especially for the task.

I wonder what the dogs made of it; there was the man who fed them and played with them. Then there was the man who beat them, and whipped them, and who came out at night with a balaclava on and tortured them with implements turned toward the task.

The saddest thing, to me, was they had no instinct for revenge. The rage came on and they sought to kill and maim whatever was set in front of them at the time. It seemed peculiar that the dogs were so tormented by the entrails of their hearts and minds, but they had no sense of God.

God makes us what we are. That populates our mind with ideas and our heart with feelings. The dogs didn’t want redemption. They didn’t want to be free of the rage and anger rolling down the clouded promontories of their minds. It was like Silvio had dug a hole in their nature and the dogs just filled it with savagery.

The strangest thing was that Silvio had chosen to be this kind of God.

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