Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 2 · no. 2 · January 2002
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"[T]he dog's mouth contorted in a snarl, his sideways shuffling, his earless head skulking below his shoulders"

The Hungry Eye, Episode 3
Joshua Brown

Episode 1: Chapter I | II | III | IV
Episode 2: V | VI | VII
Episode 3: VIII | IX | X
Episode 4: XI | XII | XIII

E r a s u r e

Butts was borne into the ring by a skinny man--barely that, actually: a spindly sketch of a man, his legs seeking purchase under the weight of the heavy package in his embrace. Swathed in a blanket, snout bound in a leather muzzle, only the gleaming tip of Butts's nose was visible.

The dogs were placed in the powdered semicircles demarcating their sides. The trainers--the sailor and Kit Burns--removed the blankets and muzzles. Each knelt behind his dog, enveloping the beast in a tight embrace, murmuring words at the quivering back. The skinny man-boy, freed from his burden, stepped back over the fence and assumed the stance and attitude of the proprietor of Sportsmen's Hall. His imitation was a poor caricature of his boss's brawny presence, his hands lost in the cuffs of a shirt meant for someone broader. Nevertheless, the din in the room quickly petered down to a convulsive mutter.

The boy maintained his pose, relishing the moment of command. Flapping his hands out of the capacious shirtsleeves, he brought them to his mouth, paused another instant, and then piped out: "Release!"

The dogs seemed to explode out of their restraints, two projectiles flying into the air toward the center of the pit. They met under the gas jets and, leaving a trail of spittle and hair, collapsed in an entangled, heaving heap onto the dirt.

Padlin gripped the upright boards. He tried to catch the slashing motion, to make out Butts amid the flying dirt and kicking limbs.

The dogs broke apart. They snorted and snuffled, hackles raised, dancing sideways, eyeing each other. Butts, Padlin guessed, was the one with the peculiar brindled hide. Pale streaks disrupted his deep-brown hair in a manner that reminded him of welts left by a lashing. Otherwise, Padlin could only distinguish general movement and fractured details: the dog's mouth contorted in a snarl, his sideways shuffling, his earless head skulking below his shoulders.

The other dog, Crib, had the flat, exaggerated features of a harlequin. Long, puffy eyes hunkered on either side of a mashed muzzle, flews intersecting at a dry freckled nose. Crib stopped, impressive in his stiff stance, muscles roped under the speckled hide, hindquarters and testicles trembling. His snout wrinkled revealing ivory fangs, the long canines jabbing into the soft skin of the lower lip. Crib growled, a low scraping sound that filled out the crowd's hoots and calls. Padlin thought of a piece of slate drawn across cobblestones.

Butts halted. He was a finer specimen than Crib, sinewy like him but more subtly formed, a delicate watercolor to Crib's rough pencilwork. His skull was long, with deep brows over a short, triangular muzzle that truly suggested the bridge of a nose. Butts's face made Padlin suddenly doubt the rules of physiognomy he shared with his peers. The artist was taught to locate the animal traits beneath human countenances, creating a sketch that teetered on the cusp between Homo sapiens and the lower creatures: truer to life than the mundane appearance of the subject himself. But if Padlin ever tried to draw Butts, he would have to reverse the process, chiseling God's greatest work out of the irrational and savage.

Butts's pelvis rose, his tail arched downward. Crib seemed to check his opponent's move, the growl rising slightly in pitch. Butts snarled and a rumbling undertow emerged from him, tugging at Crib's higher rasp.

"There goes the bastard again," someone said in the crush of men about Padlin. "Watch him, now. Watch what he does."

A chorus of affirmations followed, bereft of the usual salty skepticism and insult. And when the responses diminished, there was nothing more: the room fell silent, but for Crib's keening and Butts's basso retort.

Two dogs were in the pit, but every gaze seemed to be fixed on Butts.

And then Butts's growl changed. The rumble constricted and became throatier, a tenor. It began to warble. The warbling quickly became a vibrato--but a vibrato cut unevenly--like, Padlin grasped at the sound's effect, like the bobbing current of words in a mellifluous voice.

Padlin glanced over at Crib, whose grimacing clown face was cocked in puzzlement. Crib maintained his snarl, but his heavy brow was furling, nervous waves beating at his eyes, as if he was furiously exercising the slim resources of his wit to deal with this unpredictability.

Butts's voice seemed to grow more focused, the vibrato now regular, like a phrase repeated, sing-song, over and over again. His muzzle twitched to the enunciations, his face relaxing, losing all signs of wildness or wrath.

Crib visibly relented. Careful to keep his canines exposed, he nevertheless was sufficiently confused to lower his hindquarters to the ground. He cocked his head quizzically and his tongue nervously lapped at his flews.

Suddenly, shockingly, soundlessly, Butts sprang. He landed on Crib. His jaws snapped around the startled dog's nose. Crib frantically pawed backwards, trapped under the brindled dog. Blood spurted from around Butts's mouth.

"Devil dog!"

The exclamation was nearly lost in the pandemonium. The crowd hollered ecstatically, emitting looping whoops as the blood splattered onto the dirt.

Padlin was no innocent. As an artist-reporter he had delved into the wretched underlife of the city. He had inspected the dark labyrinth of the Old Brewery (albeit in the company of a well-compensated constable), tripping over the inert, inebriated bodies, peeking into miserable closets housing filthy mothers and cankerous children. He'd witnessed the arbitrary violence of the streets, seen the lacerations and mutilations left by Points gang fights. He'd, of course, viewed many a corpse, carted out of fever nests, displayed on the slabs of the morgue, dumped into the broad pits on Randall's Island. But this dogfight was a new phenomenon. The sporting reports in the Police Gazette could not do the spectacle justice. Words on paper isolated movement, made the convulsing and slashing charges discernible, knowable, coherent. What was occurring before him, however, bore no meaning because Padlin couldn't really see what was happening. He saw Butts and Crib tear at one another, but it was like trying to freeze a waterfall, to make out the constituent drops in the avalanche of water.

He saw Butts thrown this way and that as Crib tried to break his opponent's grasp--but to Padlin it was just streaks of hide and gore. He saw Butts release Crib's bloody stump of a nose, saw Butts twist about and dive for Crib's front legs, snapping onto the right paw--but it took several minutes for Padlin to fracture the battle into momentary images. The fight was brutal, the attacks quick and surprising, and he grew exhausted in his vain efforts to just observe.

The dogs tumbled on their sides and Crib broke free. He dove back onto Butts, catching the back of the brindled dog's head. Butts shook and jiggered, arched his back, tried to loosen Crib, the fine hair of his skull blushing gruesomely. Crib threw his head back, yanking Butts up. He whipped his head down. Butts hit the ground hard, his legs splaying like the splatter of an overturned pie.

But Crib had lost his grip. Butts twisted his trunk around, swiveled onto his back, front paws revolving, back legs churning in the air. Crib leapt toward his exposed throat. The crowd bellowed, prepared for, anticipating, the blood. Incredibly, Padlin felt a sound coming from his lips, not a yell, not a scream exactly. Something searing and anguished.

The dogs were struggling, plowing the dirt, and Padlin saw Butts's head buried in Crib's forechest. He had a terrible hold, his teeth clamped low on Crib's front, just above his legs. The crowd pressed down around Padlin, roaring at the pit with renewed fervor. Padlin was shouting, too.

Crib jerked about, snapped his jaws just short of Butts's burrowing head. Butts suddenly let go and, just as quickly, leapt and bit down on the stub of Crib's left ear. He flicked his head and slammed Crib into the dirt. Padlin heard his voice yelling encouragement, yelling for Butts.

The brindled dog gave Crib no time to recover. His head snapped, thrusting Crib onto the pit floor again. Padlin felt his throat grow raw, shouting for Jakesy.

Butts released Crib's head. He flew on top of his opponent. His jaws closed on Crib's left front leg. He had it lodged in the back of his mouth, clamped between his broad molars, stretching his mouth into a foamy leer. Butts ground down, his jaw muscles bulged. Padlin heard the bone crack, and he shouted. His throat hurt with the tearing words. Padlin shouted, the name tumbling from his mouth through the din:

"Mollie Maloney!"

What remained of Butts's ears twitched. His jaws shuddered open. His head whipped around. The words choked in Padlin's throat, but Butts had spotted him. Two eyes, glinting sky-blue in the gaslight. Blood and mucous dripped from his mouth, yet his brutish face had gone slack--no, not slack: it was subtler, more horrifyingly human: startled.

And, in that moment, as man and dog exchanged stares, Crib rose up from beneath his tormentor, and his teeth sank into the side of Butts's head. Crib's momentum threw Butts backward, his head thudding against the ground. The brindled dog was helpless, on his back, feet clawing in the air. Crib drove his opponent into the dirt, scraping him along the pit floor.

The betting was fierce around Padlin, voices howling new odds. Padlin watched Crib fling the helpless Butts head over heels. The flesh tore in his clenched teeth, flapped away from his deadly grasp. Crib bore down, his fangs sinking deeper into the tissue and muscle.

"Are you mad?"

Waddley's face pressed up against the side of Padlin's head. Sweat covered his forehead. His spectacles were smeared, the frames digging into the soft skin of his cheeks. The lovers rejoined: Frank Leslie's Orpheus and Eurydice reunited in hell.

Kit Burns crawled along the inner circumference of his semicircle in the pit, desperately motioning, hollering at his felled champion.

The dirt was turning to syrup around the dogs' tethered heads. The bloody skulls thrashed in a terrible unison, Butts's muzzle gaping helplessly up at the gaslights, Crib grinding downward.

Crib's back legs plowed, his right front paw slapping on the ground with each thrust. His maimed left leg flapped over Butts's panting chest. Padlin saw the useless limb graze Butts's nose. He saw Butts's body stiffen. He saw Butts's head lurch and his teeth mesh over the leg.

Crib's yodeling scream coursed through the room. Butts scrambled up and struck again, mercifully cutting short Crib's cries. Butts had Crib by the ear now, pounding his head in the dirt. Bets and odds catapulted over the pit.

Butts couldn't maintain his hold, Crib's earlier assault had seen to that. He was fighting with half of his mouth, gnawing shallowly at Crib's ear. Crib wrenched free. Butts went for the mangled ear stub again. Crib ducked and, as Butts vaulted into him, he caught hold of the brindled dog's throat.

It wasn't a deep bite. But Crib had a secure hold on the loose hide and, braced on his three good legs, he threw Butts. Butts managed to scurry up and Crib threw him again. Once more, Butts gained his footing and, once more, Crib sent him sprawling, his jaws still clamped on the flabby skin at Butts's throat.

They froze in place: Butts on his side, speared into the dirt by Crib's muzzle. Burns and the sailor called and gesticulated from their semicircles. The betting numbers pulsed and spat around Padlin.

Blood flecked Butts's rising and falling ribs. Crib seemed to nuzzle into the folds at Butts's throat, judging, considering the short trip to the jugular throbbing against his nose. He held his destroyed leg off the ground, well away from his opponent's mouth.

Padlin felt the sound beginning to rise from his throat. He felt the impulse to shout. His lips began to form the words.

"Keep quiet, you fool!"

Waddley gripped Padlin's upper arm, his pudgy fingers clawing at the fabric.

But another voice had risen within the pit. It was commanding, irritated, yet inchoate. Wordlessly, it demanded obedience.

"Devil dog!"

The sailor was shaking his fist at Burns. He called to Crib, waved his hands, trying to divert his dog's attention.

His head pressed against the dirt, only Butts's mouth showed animation. His jaws opened and closed methodically, modulating the sound into a recognizable chant:

Erro!

Padlin couldn't see Crib's face, but his stance seemed to lose precision.

Erro! Erro!

A precise sound, it gained coherence and Padlin realized he was not hearing a whine or a howl or a growl but a phrase.

Let go! Let go! LET GO!

Crib released Butts. He gazed down at him, bewildered. He looked around at the frenzied crowd surrounding him. He turned back to Butts, still prone, now silent.

"Attack!" the sailor screamed. "Kill him, you son of a bitch!"

Butts struck. Crib jolted back, but Butts caught him under the jaw. Crib backed up, pulling Butts to his feet. Now the brindled dog was in control, his four legs to Crib's three, his mouth encasing Crib's throat like a constricting collar.

Now the crowd got what it came for. The blood cascaded down Crib's breast. Butts worked his jaws, deepening and widening the wound, aided by Crib's jerks and jumps. They lurched together across the pit to the atonal music of the surrounding chorus, Crib's muzzle propped on Butts's probing skull.

Butts began to whip his head from side to side. Crib's resistance ebbed, his legs gave out. Butts picked up speed. As Crib flew to one side, Butts's jaws sprang open and Crib toppled to the pit wall.

Stamping, applauding, whistling, yelling, the men demanded their due. Winners or losers, they hungered now for a glorious, fatal finish--a magnificent kill was imminent!

But Mollie Maloney's dog merely shook his head and sashayed his rear, dirt sprinkling from his hide. He yawned, and calmly watched Crib gain his footing. Blood coated Crib's throat and breast. From across the pit, Padlin studied his clown face, now slack, now painted in darkening hues of red, the bloated tongue lolling over his incisors.

Ignoring the imprecations of the crowd, Butts ambled toward the teetering dog. Crib tensed. He awkwardly swiveled to the side of the pit and leapt. His jaw banged against the edge of the wall, and he fell back. Before he hit the ground, Butts was on top of him.

Clinging to Crib's throat, Butts shook the life out of him. The sailor fell onto his stomach and, stretching out his arms, vigorously fanned his failing dog. Crib's head flopped from right to left, drool looping around him like a crimson lariat.

Kit Burns rose in his semicircle. He flicked the back brim of his top hat, knocking it jauntily over his brow. He nodded to his baggy-clothed assistant positioned along the pit wall.

The boy nodded back and shouted: "Game!"

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