Black Dog

By Jane Downing


Anjing?’ she said carefully. Her vocabulary was largely made up of nouns and she’d double-checked the word for dog before setting out. Her hand hovered at the height of her lost dog’s head as she spoke. She was overestimating in Max’s absence.

The young woman behind the counter nodded politely and indicated the menu behind her head with manicured pink nails. Amply decorated with chalky frangipani and bamboo imagery, the list of dishes included ayam, ikan and daging sapi. Carol’s language lessons had also stretched to the easy words for food stuffs: she recognised the range of chicken, fish and beef dishes, plus a couple with frog legs – kaki kodok – up there on the board.

Tak ada anjing,’ the waitress confirmed. No dog, and Carol extrapolated, no dog meat.

The woman did not seem offended by Carol’s question. Dog meat was a rare delicacy and could be seen as disgusting or degustation, shocking or exciting, a thing of many interpretations like anything on the margins. Carol glanced around the woman’s modest restaurant. A fan with a face the size of a cartwheel whirred noisily on the other side of the tables. A couple of patrons watched her leave, their chopsticks raised over non-dog dishes. The heavy smell of rendang turned Carol’s stomach anyway.

She walked out onto the road as there was no footpath as such. She peered down the laneway beside the Kafe Bintang Terang, remembering the cages she’d been into behind one of the many other restaurants she visited that morning. The owner hadn’t shown any qualms about ushering her through to the huddled mess of puppies, so she had no reason to disbelieve the woman in Café Bright Star about not serving dog.

The two-story pink façade on one side of the lane was balanced by a baby blue façade on the other. The competing colours of the old town had been confronting first, beautiful second. From an upstairs balcony, glittering hard-plastic dogs jostled with pots of orchids. The Year of the Dog was gone; the ornaments would have an eviction notice any day.

A cart overloaded with festive trumpets paused briefly, the vendor assessing her susceptibility to buying New Year gizmos. Carol blinked away tears and tried to smile as if such gestures could camouflage the swollen redness of crying. She handed over a handful of rupiah for a trumpet as long as her leg. The man patted her hand and insisted on giving her some change. His eyes understood and understood nothing. She wanted to ask him about Max – whether he’d seen her dog on his travels – but her two words to describe him, anjing hitam, could too easily be misinterpreted as an insult, as they doubled as an all-purpose slur.

So she bought a second trumpet, as a return of his unspoken kindness, selecting one with a bright red mouthpiece and bell at either end of the cardboard tube. For Gunadi, her husband.


Carol was warned from the beginning. Max was the guard dog. His territory was outside the house, his stomping ground the perimeter of the compound, his duty to protect those within from whatever lurked in the wide leafy streets beyond.

Max looked like he had a complex and interesting family history. Tall and lanky-legged with the snout of a Whippet, the upright voluble ears of a Doberman, and the bright alert eyes of the mongrel. A black dog.

In the language of Gunadi’s heritage, black dog was an insult. In Carol’s language, it was a stalking depression. Mongrel was the insult.

From the upstairs bedroom window, Carol could see only the high walls of other compounds and the occasional snout through the railings of other gates. When she walked out, she was an alien on a far planet, wading through an unforgiving atmosphere. Even first thing in the morning, the air was close and claustrophobic. No wonder no-one else walked, at least not by choice.

After each morning walk, it was a relief to get home, if that’s what she was to call it. Max was always there to greet her. His alert stance melted to tail-wagging-the-butt eagerness for her caressing hand behind his ears.

By the time she’d learned to pronounce the name of her street, Max had taken to following her into the kitchen after their greeting at the gate. The cook scooted him out the first few times, but Max got clever. He had a way of making himself scarce and at the same time sneaking through with a few quick steps of his lanky legs. There was something in the trick of it by not meeting anyone’s eyes. The whole pantomime could have been avoided if she’d simply left the driveway and walked around to the front of the house to enter with him away from the cook’s admonishing eye. But the portico at the front doorway was too pretentious for words. Her Instagram shot sent home – real home – had been misinterpreted as the entrance to a hotel. 

Jalan Kota Baru Lima. That was her address. That was the mouthful of a name she took too long to learn. It translated to New Town 5 Street. Though not in that order. She practiced the words under her breath, unpacking and associating each with its translation.

Max’s face rested gently on the bed – just right for his standing height. His long snout reached to her naked toes and his eyes watched her every move, each turn of the page, each wan waft of the textbook to generate wind as the air-con struggled.

‘Oh come on up you great sook,’ she said one afternoon, guilted into it by his roving eyes.

He raised the ridge over his eyes, asking, do you mean me?

‘Up. Maximilian, Max-a-million, rapscallion dog, up you come.’

Max climbed onto the bed to join her. To the manor born. He listened attentively to her practising Bahasa, his ears twitching occasionally in encouragement.

‘Shift over,’ she’d nudge when the heat from his soft belly got too much. He’d resettle inches away.

It had felt more natural than talking in an empty room.


The market steamed with life and Carol was caught on a wave of movement that propelled her through the outlying mountains of green. Cabbages the size and shape of footballs – both AFL and soccer – gave way to foothills of Christmas colours, rambutan, pawpaw, pineapple, and huge hands of bananas gripping each other.

Carol had found it exciting in the early days. The caption on a series of Instagram pics: a really super market.

Today, the day she looked for Max, her anxiety rendered her blind. Then her nose picked up the imminence of the meat market, which was where the wave of shoppers dumped her. She hesitated as skeletal cats slinked by. They’d eaten here at the central market, Pasar Pusat, on her birthday. Her choice – seeking an authentic experience. The frog legs had come unadorned on a plastic plate, pink-rimmed, and tasted, probably predictably, of chicken. The nasi goreng and mi ayam were equally as unaesthetic, and aromatic and memorable. She remembered the food and the rest.

She’d done most of the talking over the dinners spent together. Gunadi was becoming quieter as the months went on and she found herself becoming more garrulous in balance. He blamed his silences on the effort he was putting into becoming proficient in Bahasa, which was at a different intensity to her memorising common nouns in repose with the dog. His work colleagues expected him to be fluent because Gunadi looked like them and the men in the streets of both the new and old towns. The only real difference was his height. He was taller, evidence of his genetic legacy combining with the Australian diet of his upbringing. He wore his hair long – to his shoulder – tied neatly in a top-knot Monday to Friday, and within his beautiful skull, his brain struggled between English and Bahasa before coagulating in the evenings like the oil in their dinner bowls. He was exhausted. She conceded. Did not fight. Said she understood because she couldn’t imagine the hours of his day, as he could not understand the hours of her loneliness.

Gunadi left the compound early each morning and returned late. The driver waited patiently in the company car until Gunadi flew out the front door, his tie flying, his shirt ironed crisp and sharp. Carol knew what he’d done during the day by the state of his shirt on his return. Most days he went from the air-conditioned house to the air-conditioned car to the air-conditioned office. Some days he came back with his shirt limp, with half-moons of sweat drying under his armpits. These were the days he came back happiest, as if going out to the actual bridge or tunnel or even unformed earthworks, of the current project, made the hours of meetings and negotiations worthwhile.

As Carol had struggled with chopsticks on her birthday, he’d told her to use her fingers. He had a frog’s leg pulled in full leap and he bent down to gnaw into the thigh. She grimaced willingly and followed suit.

‘What makes you think the impoverished experience at a street market stall is the authentic experience anyway?’ he’d asked at the end of the night when the plastic plates were piled and the bare tabletop was a monsoonal puddle-scape and the bill was the price of a fast-food burger at home. His face was concerned more than critical, a canvas of shadows under the naked light bulbs strung over the tables. She knew he was referring to the luxury of their house replete with servants, which she refused to see as normal.

‘You’ll get acclimatised,’ he’d said. She’d taken this as a comfort, not a veiled threat.

She hadn’t become acclimatised over the subsequent months. She spent long days exiled in the bedroom with Max, finding the rest of the house too big, too public. They hadn’t eaten back in the Pasar Pusat.

Now she walked between the stalls by daylight, able to see the flaccid brown leaf matter, the dirt and plastic scraps underfoot, and the dangerous fat ropes of tangled electricity wires overhead. She concentrated on the sky and not the carcasses hanging at each voluble butcher’s stall. The closest carcass was long, the feet dragging on the ground. It could too easily be mistaken for a human.

Carol didn’t have the heart to inspect any further that day. Max was bigger than a featherless chicken, smaller than a peeled cow. She told herself he wasn’t suspended from any hook.

In Indonesian, there are different words for goodbye depending on whether the speaker was the one going or staying.

Gunadi picked her up on her mistake when she waved him off with a confident ‘selamat tinggal’ one morning.

Selamat pergi,’ he corrected. ‘Selamat Tinggal is what I say to you because you are staying and I am going.’

So that was the word Carol learned to use on Max when she wanted him to stay. As in, ‘you beautiful Maximilian, one-in-a-million, dog to the max, stay here while I’m gone. Selamat tinggal. Stay boy, stay. Anjing. Selamat tinggal.’

His sad eyes said he knew what she meant in her gabbling baby talk. She was abandoning him.

Then the day came. She arrived back from her walk and he wasn’t at the gate waiting. The cook hadn’t seen him, and he wasn’t out the back in the servants’ quarters with the laundrywoman with her huffing and puffing iron. And he wasn’t upstairs on her bed. She caught herself in the dressing table mirror, her cheeks flushed beetroot red despite always wearing a hat outside, her hair lank and flat because of the hat. An unlovable sight.

But nothing to the dogs in that cage. Black dogs, and brown and brindle, and originally white. Large and small. Fat and hardly worth the bother. Bred dogs and stray dogs and stolen dogs. They huddled together; they were not a pack. They stood in their own excrement and let flies crawl over them.

One dog had exhibited hope as she’d been ushered out the back of the restaurant to examine the stock – one dog with a memory of life before, life where people were kind. He raised his head and whined. Didn’t recognise her. Turned away, his nails clicking on the urine-pooled cement as he pushed himself back into the huddle of bodies.


Carol worried that Max would be scared by the new year fireworks.

‘It’s been a week. He won’t be hearing anything,’ Gunadi said.

Carol froze. She could see Gunadi in the mirror between her arms, raised as they were to hold her hair out of the way. His head was bent into her neck and his fingers were busy tying her halter dress. He kissed her shoulder to say, it’s done, and she dropped her hair back. She’d taken time buying the dress for the party but wondered if wearing batik was trying too hard. Gunadi was in chinos and a blue shirt. He checked his phone.

‘I told Bakti to be in the car at 7.’

A week ago, Max would have been watching her from the bed, assessing her movements and accepting her anyway. In that week, she hadn’t found him, and he hadn’t returned. A week. Was it really time to give up on him?

‘Can’t we drive ourselves tonight?’ she asked only to have Gunadi go through the whole insurance premiums on ex-pats against salaries of local staff balance sheet.

He called from the hall. ‘Besides, this way we can both drink.’

That was the point, Carol whispered. At home one of us was always sober watching out for the other. She fetched the celebratory trumpets on the way out and slid into the backseat of the chauffeur-driven car.

Gunadi eyed the trumpets. ‘I don’t think it’s going to be that sort of new year’s party. It’ll be an authentic party.’

Was he laughing at her? He was definitely laughing with the Sumatran driver Bakti, chatting and joking as they crossed town to the CEO’s mansion. The old town glittered outside the window, fairy-tale colours from a distance. Far enough away to be beyond the smells of durian and fish, the sludge in the gutters and the lost dogs who were not Max, begging at restaurant doors.

Gunadi hadn’t seemed exotic at university when she met him. He’d been one of the gang, ocker as they came. Now, surrounded by people who looked like him, he was turning into an alien.

Of course, she knew she was the alien. She missed Maximilian. She missed her family. She was homesick and she was jealous that she didn’t belong.

She closed her eyes, lost in a fog of her own perfume. Holding back tears.

‘It’s no use getting another dog. You’d spoil it too.’

It took a moment to realise he’d actually noticed her emotion and was speaking to her. The car had been filled with Bahasa and incomprehensible to her, though she was studying so hard to learn it. He’d skipped back to English to address her; she translated his words anyway. Surely, he was saying what she was thinking: ‘It’s your own fault.’

He shifted closer to her. She could feel the closely ironed – by the laundrywoman – cloth of his shirt against her bare arm. She lent her forehead onto his shoulder.

‘Your love made him soft,’ he said. ‘A guard dog would know not to be friendly to strangers. Soft dogs are easy prey.’

He squeezed her hand. Gently. She knew he wasn’t meaning to sound unkind.



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