The nights grew long and chill; the desert winter settled in. Oscar preferred winter for the damper it put on the prisoners’ projects. Winter kept them in their tents, honing hobbies like skin art or macrame. Winter let Oscar spend the day inside, free of the others’ chatter, plumbing his memory for the routes and crossings of major highways—there must be some road that ran here; these days there was no place on the planet that didn’t have a road to run through it. He dragged a finger caked with dust across his tent walls, worn flannel blanket drawn high around his neck, pant legs tucked into his boots to guard against migrating scorpions. Some days Kurt would nose his way inside the tent and, by Oscar’s leave, flop into a corner and fall asleep. This was about the strength of Oscar’s tolerance for interaction.
To pass the interminable nights, the prisoners congregated around a bonfire. Everyone came—Kurt too. Even Oscar. It would have been strange not to.
At the bonfire, there was no escape. The prisoners talked to him with almost unbearable camaraderie about the day and its meal, if it was standout or plain, and its clothes, if they were new or threadbare. They talked to him about what they had done during the long hot summer. Jokes they had told on each other. Ideas they had had. Civic ideas like reusing bath water. Like starting their own school.
They talked too much—not about the evils they had done (which was against the rules), but rather the many complex feelings they had about doing them, the vast realm of life’s pleasures they had once had and were now being denied. Oscar listened for information about the outside while they talked; he scratched his chin. He shuffled imperceptibly around the bonfire ring, positioning himself near and then next to those who had been admitted more recently, those more likely to give him something he hadn’t heard before.
Today, Oscar’s mark was a man arrived some weeks before, whose graying braids hung down like a string mop around his face. The subject turned to life before the prison; the mark spoke at length about a wife, how lovely she had been, how reasonable and patient and long-suffering she had been, before things turned out the way things had turned out.
Oscar took his chance. “I also miss the place I’m from,” he said to the mark. “I think about it when I go down to bed, and when I wake up. The details get blurrier every time. Like you with the face of your wife,” he said.
“You have an accent,” said the mark. “You from the city?”
“Do you know the city?” Oscar preferred to ask questions rather than answer them.
“The city was a ways, where I was from,” he said. “People said if you want a living, go over the mountains to the city, get a job in electrics, or car parts, engines.”
“There aren’t any mountains here,” murmured Oscar. He stared at the fire, and his thin shirt channeled cold all down his back.
“Never did get up the money to go,” continued the mark. And, seeing Oscar’s face, “Sorry about you. You want to talk about it?” He shook his hair to shoo a flying night beetle.
Oscar said nothing to the man. He said nothing the rest of the bonfire. Every day took up so much time. Every day he was running out of it.
One night, whether he wanted to find home or find a place to die or was simply restless from too much winter, Kurt wandered outside of the yard. During his absence his friends the prisoners, and Oscar too, spent their voices in calling him, some of them begging, weeping openly, some of them beating to blood the ones who wept—out of old habit, or to punish their lack of faith.
Oscar hoped Kurt wouldn’t return. Not out of malice, but out of desire for proof—that the dog had come from somewhere, that a person too might survive long enough in the desert to find a place for food, water, sleep. When Kurt returned to them three nights later minus an ear, minus an eye, the prisoners hugged their prodigal dog. This time the democratic council passed a rule where no one could be punished for weeping.
Oscar rubbed the dog’s stump of ear for his bravery. He waited, to see if Kurt would chance it again.
Instead, after his return, Kurt fell into trouble almost hourly. His balance off and his senses dulled, he stumbled and fell all over. The day soon came when he angered a snake that had taken up residence in a pile of broken bricks. He did not see it and so stepped further into its home. He did not hear its warnings.
When they found Kurt shaking on the desert floor, when they realized what had been done, the prisoners tried every remedy they knew and then knocked at the door to ask the guards for theirs. (The request for dog antidote did not go unmocked.) In lieu of treatment the prisoners passed Kurt in a circle, person to person, not letting him slip into sleep. They held Kurt to their faces and rubbed his awful fur with their beards until the shallow whuf of his breathing finally stopped, the bite finishing its work.
The prisoners held a funeral around the bonfire where they would burn Kurt’s body. They told tearful stories; they held onto each other’s hands. They apologized to the fire for feeling so deeply about a dog, only a dog. Oscar, being terrible, could not grieve for Kurt. He only found the dog’s failure deeply disappointing. The prisoners watched the fire all night, until their heads sank onto their chests and each other’s shoulders, until they were all asleep.
Oscar could not sleep. If he slept now he’d go the way of Kurt, who had failed to realize his opportunity, who had his chance at freedom and tethered himself to here instead. Oscar had been holding out hope that someone in the prison would help him if he could find the right thing to ask. Now he held tight only to his resolve.
In the very early morning, he left the yard.