We’re all haunted by something. Guilt, an unscrupulous act, some hurt we’ve caused. Some authors address the issue in obvious, direct, grandiose ways. César Aira takes a different approach, offering up an apparently unimportant, convoluted, unreal anecdote. A dog starts to chase a bus, the passengers see it and look at each other quizzically. The bus goes on and on but the dog won’t give up. It runs and barks, its eyes always on the bus. What does it want? Who is it chasing? Why? The narrator compresses and stretches time, using all the analytical tools he can think of to try to explain this improbable phenomenon and how it might be related to him, but sometimes an external reality intrudes upon our lives and decides our fate without our ever truly understanding why.
I was in a bus, sitting by the window, looking out at the street. Suddenly a dog started barking very loudly nearby. I tried to see where it was. So did some other passengers. The bus wasn’t very full: the seats were all occupied, but there were just a few people standing up; they had the best chance of seeing the dog, because they were looking from higher up and could see out both sides. Even for someone sitting, as I was, buses provide an elevated view, as horses did for our ancestors: la perspective cavalière. That’s why I prefer buses to cars, which carry you so low, so close to the ground. The barks were coming from my side, the sidewalk side, which was logical. Even so, I couldn’t see the dog, and since we were going fast I figured it was too late; we would already have left him behind. He had provoked the mild curiosity that always surrounds an incident or an accident, but in this case, except for the volume of the barking, there was little to indicate that anything had happened: the dogs that people walk in the city rarely bark except at other dogs. So the attention of the passengers was already beginning to dissipate… when suddenly it was refocused: the barking started up again, louder than before. Then I saw the dog. He was running along the sidewalk and barking at the bus, following it, racing to keep up. This really was strange. In the old days, in country towns and on the outskirts of cities, dogs would run beside cars, barking at their wheels; it’s something I remember well from my childhood in Pringles. But you don’t see it anymore; it’s as if dogs had evolved and grown used to the presence of cars. And besides, this dog wasn’t barking at the wheels of the bus but at the whole vehicle, raising his head, staring at the windows. All the passengers were looking now. Had the owner got onto the bus, perhaps, forgetting the dog or abandoning him? Or maybe it was someone who’d attacked or robbed the dog’s owner? But no, the bus had been driving along Avenida Directorio without stopping for several blocks, and it was only in the current block that the dog had begun his chase. More elaborate hypotheses—for example, that the bus had run over the dog’s owner, or another dog—could be set aside, because there’d been nothing like that. It was a Sunday afternoon and the streets were relatively empty: an accident could not have gone unnoticed.
The dog was quite big, and dark gray in color, with a pointed muzzle, halfway between a purebred and a street dog, though street dogs are a thing of the past in Buenos Aires, at least in the neighborhoods we were passing through. He wasn’t so big that the mere sight of him was scary, but he was big enough to be threatening if he got angry. And he seemed to be angry or, rather, desperate and distraught (for the moment, anyway). The impulse that was driving him was not (or not for the moment, at least) aggression but an urgent desire to catch up with the bus, or stop it, or… who knows?
The race continued, accompanied by barking. The bus, which had been held up by a red light at the previous corner, was accelerating. It was driving along close to the sidewalk, on which the dog was running, losing ground. We’d almost reached the next intersection, where it seemed the pursuit would come to an end. But, to our surprise, when we got there, the dog crossed to the next block and went on chasing us, accelerating too, and barking all the while. There weren’t many people on the sidewalk, otherwise he would have bowled them over, charging along like that, his gaze fixed on the windows of the bus. His barks became louder and louder; they were deafening, drowning out the noise of the motor, filling the world. Something that should have been obvious right from the start was finally sinking in: the dog had seen (or smelled) someone who was traveling on the bus, and he was after that person. A passenger, one of us… This explanation had evidently occurred to others; people started looking around with inquisitive expressions. Did someone know the dog? What was it about? An ex-owner, or someone the dog had once known… I was looking around too, and wondering, Who could it be? In a case like this, the last person you think of is yourself. It took me quite a while to realize. And the realization was indirect. Suddenly, moved by what was still a vague presentiment, I looked ahead, through the windscreen. I saw that the way was clear: ahead of us a row of green lights stretched off almost to the horizon, promising rapid, uninterrupted progress. But then, with anxiety rising inside me, I remembered that I wasn’t in a taxi: a bus has fixed stops every four or five blocks. It was true that if there was no one at the stop and if no one rang the bell to get off, the bus would keep going. No one had approached the back door, for the moment. And with a bit of luck there would be no one at the next stop. All these thoughts occurred to me at once. My anxiety continued to mount and was about to find the words with which to declare itself. But this was delayed by the very urgency of the situation. Would chance allow us to drive on without stopping until the dog abandoned his chase? Having averted my gaze for barely a fraction of a second, I looked at him again. He was still keeping up, still barking as if possessed… and he was looking back at me. Now I knew: I was the one he was barking at, the one he was chasing. I was seized by the terror that attends the most unexpected catastrophes. I had been recognized by that dog, and he was coming to get me. And although, in the heat of the moment, I was already resolving to deny it all, and not confess to anything, deep in my heart I knew that he was right and I was wrong. Because I had once mistreated that dog; what I’d done to him was truly, unspeakably disgraceful. I have to admit that I’ve never had very firm moral principles. I’m not going to try to justify myself, but the lack can be explained in part by the ceaseless battle that I’ve had to fight, from the tenderest age, simply to survive. It has gradually dulled my sense of rectitude. I’ve allowed myself to do things no decent man would ever do. Or would he? We all have our secrets. Besides, my misdeeds were never all that serious. I didn’t commit actual crimes. Nor did I forget what I had done, as a real scoundrel would have. I told myself I’d make amends, though I never really stopped to think about how. This was the last thing I was expecting: to be recognized in such a bizarre way, confronted with a past that had been buried so deeply it seemed forgotten. I realized that I had been counting on a certain impunity. I had assumed, as anyone in my place might have done, that a dog being first and foremost a dog, its individuality would be reabsorbed by the species and finally disappear. And with that disappearance my guilt would vanish too. My despicable betrayal had individualized the dog for a moment, but only for a moment. There was something supernatural and terrifying about the idea that the moment had lasted so many years. But, as I thought it over, a hope appeared, and I grasped at it: too much time had passed. Dogs don’t live that long. If I multiplied the years by seven… These thoughts were tumbling in my head, colliding with the muffled barks that kept getting louder and louder. No, it wasn’t true that too much time had gone by; doing the sums would just have been a way of prolonging my self-deception. My last hope was the classic psychological reaction of retreat into denial when faced with something that is too much to bear: “It can’t be, this can’t be happening, I’m dreaming, I must have misinterpreted the data.” This time it wasn’t a just psychological reaction; it was real. So real I couldn’t look at the dog; I was scared of what he might be expressing. But I was too nervous to pretend to be indifferent. I looked straight ahead. I must have been the only one; all the other passengers were following the race, including the driver, who kept turning his head to look, or using the rear-view mirror, and joking with the passengers at the front. I hated him for that: the distraction was making him slow down; otherwise how could the dog have kept pace all the way to the second intersection? But what did it matter if he was keeping up? What could he do, apart from bark? He wasn’t going to get onto the bus. After the initial shock, I began to assess the situation in a more rational way. I had already decided to deny that I knew the dog, and I held firmly to that decision. An attack, which I thought unlikely (“his bark is worse than his bite”), would cast me in the victim’s role and prompt onlookers, and the forces of order if necessary, to come to my aid. But, of course, I wouldn’t give him the opportunity. I wasn’t going to get out of the bus until he disappeared from sight, which was bound to happen sooner or later. The 126 goes right out to Retiro, along a route that twists and turns after it leaves Avenida San Juan, and it was inconceivable that a dog could follow it all that way. I dared to glance at him, but immediately looked away again. Our gazes met, and what I saw in his eyes was not the fury I’d been expecting but a limitless anguish, a pain that wasn’t human because it was more than a human could bear. Was the wrong I’d done him really so grave? It wasn’t the moment to embark on an analysis. And anyway, there could be only one conclusion. The bus went on accelerating. We crossed the second intersection, and the dog, who’d fallen back, crossed too, in front of a car that had stopped for the lights; but if the car had been moving, he would have crossed just the same, he was running so blindly. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I was hoping he’d be killed. Such things have been known to happen: there’s a film in which a Jew in New York recognizes a kapo from a concentration camp forty years before, starts chasing him, and is run down and killed by a car. Remembering this depressed me, rather than affording some relief as precedents usually do, because it happened in fiction and made the reality of my situation all the more evident, by contrast. I didn’t want to look at the dog again, but the sound of his barking indicated that he was falling behind. The bus driver, no doubt tiring of the joke, had put his foot to the floor. I dared to turn around and look. There was no risk of drawing attention to myself because everyone else in the bus was doing the same; on the contrary, it might have seemed suspicious if I’d been the only one who wasn’t looking. I was also thinking it might be my last glimpse of him; a chance encounter like that wouldn’t occur again. Yes, he was definitely falling behind. He seemed smaller, more pitiful, almost ridiculous. The other passengers began to laugh. He was an old, worn-out dog, on the brink of death, perhaps. The years of resentment and bitterness that lay behind that outburst had left their mark. The race must have been killing him. But he’d waited so long for that moment to arrive, he wasn’t going to give up. And he didn’t. Even though he knew he’d lost, he kept on running and barking, barking and running. Perhaps, when he lost sight of the bus in the distance, he’d go on running and barking forever, because there would be nothing else he could do. I had a fleeting vision of the dog’s figure in an abstract landscape (infinity) and felt sad, but it was a calm, almost aesthetic feeling, as if the sorrow were seeing me in the far distance as I imagined I was seeing the dog. Why do people say the past doesn’t return? It had all happened so quickly, I’d had no time to think. I’d always lived in the present because simply taking it in and reacting to it used up practically all my physical and mental energy. I could manage the immediate, but only just. I always felt that too many things were happening at once and that I had to make a superhuman effort and summon more strength than I possessed simply to cope with the now. That’s why whenever an opportunity arose to free myself of a burden in any way at all, I didn’t bother with ethical scruples. I had to get rid of anything that wasn’t strictly necessary for my survival; I had to secure a bit of space, or peace, at any cost. How this might harm others didn’t trouble me because the consequences weren’t immediate, so I couldn’t see them. And once again the present was ridding me of a troublesome guest. The incident left a bittersweet taste in my mouth: on one hand, there was relief at having escaped so narrowly; on the other, an understandable remorse. How sad it was to be a dog. To live with death so close at hand, and so implacable. And sadder still to be that dog, who had thrown off resignation to the destiny of his kind, but only to show that the wound once inflicted on him had never healed. His silhouette against the light of a Buenos Aires Sunday, in a state of constant agitation, racing and barking, had played the role of a ghost, returning from the dead or, rather, from the pain of living, to demand… what? Reparation? An apology? A pat? What else could he have wanted? It can’t have been revenge, because he would surely have learned from experience that he was powerless against the unassailable world of humans. He could only express himself; he’d done that, and all it had achieved was to strain his weary old heart. He’d been defeated by the mute, metallic expression of a bus driving away, and a face watching him through the window. How had he recognized me? I must have changed a lot too. His memory of me was obviously vivid; perhaps it had been present in his mind all those years, never fading for a moment. No one really knows how a dog’s mind works. It wasn’t beyond the bounds of possibility that he’d recognized my smell; there are amazing stories about the olfactory powers of animals. For example, a male butterfly smelling a female miles away, through all the thousands of intervening smells. I was beginning to speculate in a detached, intellectual way. The barking was an echo, varying in pitch, now higher now lower, as if it were coming from another dimension. Suddenly I was jolted from my thoughts by a hunch that I could feel all through my body. I realized that I had been too quick to declare victory. The bus had been speeding up, but now it was slowing down again: it was what the drivers always did when the next stop came into sight. They accelerated, gauging the distance still to go, then lifted their foot, and let the bus glide to the stop. Yes, it was slowing down, pulling over to the sidewalk. I sat up straight and looked out. An old lady and a child were waiting to catch the bus. The barking was getting louder again. Could the dog have kept running? Hadn’t he given up? I didn’t look, but he must have been very close. The bus had already stopped. The child jumped in, but the woman was taking her time; that high step was difficult for a lady of her age. I was silently shouting, Come on, old bag! and anxiously watching her movements. I don’t normally speak or think like that; it was because of the stress I was under, but I got a grip on myself immediately. There was really no need to worry. Maybe the dog would make up some lost ground, but then he would lose it again. In the worst case, he’d come and bark right in front of my window in a very obvious way, and the other passengers would see that I was the one he was chasing. But all I had to do was deny any knowledge of the animal, and no one would contradict me. I gave thanks for words and their superiority over barks. The old woman was lifting her other foot onto the step; she was almost in. A burst of barking deafened me. I looked out to the side. He was coming, quick as a shot, fur flying, loud as ever. His stamina was incredible. Surely he must have had arthritis, at his age, like all old dogs. Maybe he was firing his last rounds. Why keep anything in reserve if he was closing the circle of his fate by venting his resentment, having found me after all those years? At first (this all happened in a crazy shattering of seconds), I didn’t understand what was going on, I only knew it was strange. But then I realized: he hadn’t stopped in front of my window, he’d kept going. What was he doing? Could he be…? He’d already drawn level with the front door and, agile as an eel, he turned, leaped and dodged. He was getting onto the bus! No, he was on the bus already, and without having to bowl the old lady over—she just felt something brush against her legs—he turned again and, barely slowing down, still barking, ran down the aisle… Neither the driver nor the passengers had time to react; the cries were rising in their throats but hadn’t yet come out. I should have said to them: Don’t be afraid, it’s not about you, it’s me he’s after… but I didn’t have time to react either, except to freeze and stiffen with fear. I did have time to see him rushing at me, and I could see nothing else. Close up, face on, he looked different. It was as if when I’d seen him before, through the window, my vision had been filtered by memory or my idea of the harm I’d done to him, but there in the bus, within arm’s reach, I saw him as he really was. He looked young, vigorous, supple: younger than me and more alive (the life had been leaking out of me all those years, like water from a bathtub), his barks resounding inside the bus with undiminished force, his jaws with their dazzling white teeth already closing on my flesh, his shining eyes that had not, for one moment, stopped staring into mine.
*This story is taken from “The Musical Brain and Other Stories”. Used with permission of New Directions.
*Copyright © 2013 by César Aira. Translation copyright © 2014 by Chris Andrews
*Image: James Ruby