How to Touch a Bleeding Dog: Full Text and Analysis
The following is the full text of Rod Kessler’s “How to Touch a Bleeding Dog.” It is a piece of flash fiction that can, broadly, be classified as “literary.”
How to Touch a Bleeding Dog
It begins as nothing, as a blank. A rose light is filtering through the curtains. Rosy and cozy. My blanket is green. MY blanket is warm. I am inside. Inside is warm. Outside is the dawn. Outside is cold. Cold day. My arm reaches for a wife who is no longer there.
The stillness is broken by the voice of a neighbor, yelling from the road outside. “The dog! Your dog’s been hit!” It’s the farmer down the road, keeping farmer’s hours. “The dog!”
It’s not my dog, but it’s my responsibility. It is Beth’s dog. I don’t even like him, with his nervous habit of soiling the kitchen floor at night. I used to clean up after the dog before Beth came yawning out of our bed, and that was an act of love, but not of the dog. Now it doesn’t matter why I clean up. Or whether.
Beth’s dog is old and worn. He smells like a man given to thin cigars. Beth found him at the animal shelter, the oldest dog there.
I find the dog quivering on his side where he limped from the road. he has come to the garden gate, where the rose bushes bloom. A wound on his leg goes cleanly to the bone, and red stains appear here and there on the dull rug of his coat. He will not stand or budge when I coax him. A thick brown soup flows out of his mouth onto the dirt.
On the telephone, the veterinarian asks me what he looks like, and I say, stupidly, like an old Airedale. He means his wounds. After I describe them, he instructs me to wrap the dog in something warm and rush him over.
I make a mitten of the green blanket and scoop weeds and clods as well as the dog. The dew on the grass looks cool, but the blood that blossoms on the blanket is warm and sick. HE is heavy in my arms and settles without resistance in my car. He is now gravity’s dog.
Driving past the unplowed fields toward town, I wonder if my clumsiness hurt the dog. Would Beth have touched him? The oldest dog in the shelter! It’s a wonder that she thought having a dog would help.
The veterinarian helps me bring the dog from the car to the office. We make a sling of the blanket, I at the head. We lay him out on a steel-topped table. I pick weeds and grass from the blanket and don’t know what to say.
The veterinarian clears his throat but then says nothing.
“He’s my wife’s dog,” I say. “Actually, he came from the shelter over on High Street. He wasn’t working out, really. I was thinking of returning him.”
The veterinarian touches a spot below the dog’s ear.
“Maybe,” I continue, “maybe if it’s going to cost a lot…”
“I don’t think you have to make that decision,” says the veterinarian, who points out that some papillary response is missing. “He’s dying,” he says. “It’s good you weren’t attached to him.”
Beth, I remembered, enjoyed taking the dog for rides in the car.
“These breaths,” the veterinarian is saying, “are probably his last.”
He seems relieved that he needn’t bother to act appropriately for the sake of any grief on my part. He asks, “Did he run in the road a lot?”
“Never,” I say. “He never ran at all.”
“What do you make of that?”
“Beats me,” I say, lying. I watch the dog’s chest rise and fall. He’s already far away and alone. I picture myself running out into the road.
I watch my hand volunteer itself and run its finger through the nap of his head, which is surprisingly soft. And, with my touch on him, he is suddenly dead.
I walk back to the car and am surprised by how early in the day it still is. Blood is drying on the green blanket in my hand, but it will come off in the wash. The blood on the carpet of the car is out of sight, and I will pretend it isn’t there. And then there’s the touch. But soon the touch, too, will be gone.
Analysis of “How to Touch a Bleeding Dog”
This piece gives a powerful demonstration of how flash fiction (or short-short stories) force writers to utilize the power of the unsaid. While the story is allegedly about a dog, the dog plays a fairly minor role. The core story is more directly related to Beth, the woman who is presumably the protagonist’s former wife.
There are legitimate questions about whether it is his former wife because she left him or because she has died. There is textual evidence for either assumption. What we know, from paragraph one, is that the protagonist is “[reaching] for a wife who is no longer there”—an apt description of the piece as a whole.
Supporting the possibility that his wife left him, the idea that Beth is referred to (if indirectly) in the present tense, as with “It is Beth’s dog.” Presumably, ownership would have passed in some literal, present tense way in the even of his wife’s death. When describing the motive for the dog, it is also noted that, “It’s a wonder that she thought having a dog would help.” While this could refer to helping with a terminal illness, the notion of death by terminal illness is partially refuted by descriptions of Beth (such as “yawning out of bed”) that don’t indicate any such condition. The idea of getting a dog for the purpose of helping a relationship seems, in some sense, more viable.
Supporting the possibility that his wife died, the protagonist never refers to Beth as his ex—simply as “no longer there.” He also refers to her simply as “my wife” when talking to the doctor. In this scenario, we see stronger potential for parallelisms with the death of the dog. To be sure, either reading (divorce or death) can be supported.
Since we don’t know much about Beth except in her absence, we as readers are forced to speculate. It’s like getting to know someone by the imprint they’ve left in a couch. It’s also a way to prompt the reader to have a more direct experience of the emotions of the piece; since readers must use their own imagination, as opposed to words provided by the author, to search for the unsaid elements of loss, the source of those emotions is a primary experience for the readers rather than a directly mediated experience.
To me, one of the strongest turns happens in a single word. In the third to last paragraph, we get the following:
“Beats me,” I say, lying.
This effective one-word reversal points, once more, into the negative space of the piece. That the protagonist is aware of why the dog, after not running at all, would run into the street and be hit by the car is revealing more of the protagonist’s emotional state than his intellectual understanding. That same paragraph ends with, “I picture myself running out into the road.”
There are several ways to read this piece, each of which is worthwhile. The primary change is what the injured dog becomes; it acts as a different metaphor in each reading. While there’s some flexibility beyond and between the two major readings I will describe, they capture the bulk of textually supported concepts.
If you read the piece as being about a man whose wife has died, the events with the dog become a description of loneliness and the effect of loss; the dog is simultaneously a metaphor for the dead wife and for the painful emotions and responsibilities she has left behind. Here the action of the story plays the lead role, with strong potential for parallels between the death of the dog and the death of the protagonist’s wife.
If you read the piece as being about a man whose wife has left him, the dog becomes a symbol for the man himself. This gives greater weight to descriptions such as the dog “[smelling] like a man given to thin cigars” and being “the oldest dog in the shelter.” It also adds layers of meaning to lines such as “It is Beth’s dog. I don’t even like him,” the point where the dog is called “gravity’s dog,” and most especially the paragraph segment that reads, “I wonder if my clumsiness hurt the dog. Would Beth have touched him?”
It’s worthwhile to look at each of these potential packages of metaphors: dog as wife, dog as self, dog as what was left behind, and dog as the emotions of loneliness.
In doing so, one can also see how other symbolic mediums in the story change. The green blanket that follows us throughout the story is especially significant, but each element of the story—read allegorically or simply with the emotional charge of what is left unsaid—is profound.