The Rabid Dog
(El perro rabioso)
by Horacio Quiroga
On the 20th of March of this year, the residents of a town in the Santa Fe Chaco pursued a rabid man who, while trying to unload his shotgun on his wife, shot and killed a peón who crossed in front of him. His neighbors, armed, tracked him into the bush like a wild beast, finally discovering him climbing a tree, still with his shotgun, howling in a horrible way. They saw no choice but to shoot and kill him.
Today it’s been thirty-nine days, hour by hour, since the rabid dog entered our room at night. If there is a memory that will live on in my mind, it’s that of the two hours that followed that moment.
The house had no doors except for the room Mamá occupied; since from the start she had been prone to fear, I didn’t do anything, in the first urgent days of moving in, other than saw boards for the doors and windows of her room. In our room, and in the hope of more work space, my wife contented herself—under a little pressure on my part, true—with magnificent doors of burlap. As it was summer, this detail of rigorous ornamentation didn’t damage our health or our fear. It was through one of these burlap portals, the one that gave onto the central corridor, that the rabid dog entered and bit me.
I don’t know if the shriek of an epileptic gives to others the sensation of a bestial clamor, beyond all humanity, that it produces in me. But I am sure that the howling of a rabid dog, lingering at night around our house, would provoke in everyone the same melancholy anguish. It is a short cry, strangled, agonized, as if the animal were already breathing its last, and all of it saturated with the grim suggestion of a rabid animal.
It was a black dog, large, with clipped ears. And to make things worse, from the time that we had arrived it had done nothing but rain. The wilderness enclosed by the rain, the short, depressing afternoons; we would hardly leave the house before the desolation of the countryside, in a storm without respite, would overshadow Mamá’s spirit.
With this, the mad dogs. One morning the peón told us that one had passed through his house the night before, and had bit one of his family. Two nights before, a reddish-gray dog had howled in an ugly way in the bush. There were several dogs, according to the peón. My wife and I did not give much importance to the matter, but this was not so for Mamá, who began to find our half-finished house terribly defenseless. Every moment she would go out into the corridor to watch the road.
But when our son returned that morning from town, he confirmed the news. A devastating epidemic of rabies had exploded. One hour earlier, they had chased a dog down in the village. A peón had had time to give it a machete-chop in the ear, and the animal, at a trot, nose to the ground and tail between its forelegs, had crossed our street, biting a foal and a pig that it had encountered on the way.
Still more news. In the farm neighboring ours, in the early hours of that same day, another dog had tried unsuccessfully to jump into the cattle corral. An immense skinny dog had run at a man on horseback on the trail to the old port. It was still afternoon when the agonized howl of a dog sounded in the bush. As a last piece of data, at nine two agents arrived at a gallop, giving us the details of the rabid dogs that had been seen, and recommending that we take the utmost care.
That was enough for Mamá to lose the rest of the courage she had left. Although she was serene through every trial, she was terrified of rabid dogs, because of something horrible that she had seen as a child. Her nerves, already on edge from the constantly overcast and rainy skies, conjured up realistic hallucinations of dogs trotting through the front door.
There was a real reason for this fear. Here, as everywhere where poor people have many more dogs than they can keep, the houses are prowled nightly by hungry dogs, to whom the dangers of the task–a shot or a badly thrown stone–have given the true behavior of wild beasts. They advance step by step, crouched low to the ground, muscles relaxed. One never notices their approach. They steal–if that word makes sense here–as much as their atrocious hunger demands. At the slightest murmur, they don’t flee, because that would make noise, but move away on bended legs. When they reach the grasses outside, they crouch down and wait there calmly thirty minutes or an hour, and then advance anew.
Hence, Mamá’s anxiety, since, as our house was one of the many being prowled, we were of course threatened by a visit from the rabid dogs, who would remember the nocturnal path.
In fact, that same afternoon, while Mamá, a bit forgetful, was walking slowly towards the front entrance, I heard her cry:
“Federico! A rabid dog!”
A reddish-grey dog, with its back arched, advanced at a trot in a blind straight line. On seeing me approach it stopped, the hair on its back bristling. I backed away withoug turning my body to search for the shotgun, but the animal fled. I went up and down the road in vain, without finding it again.
Two days passed. The countyside remained desolated by rain and sadness, while the number of rabid dogs increased. To avoid exposing the children to a terrible mishap on the infested roads, the school closed; and the already traffic-free road, thus deprived of the schoolchild racket that enlivened its solitude at seven and at twelve, acquired a gloomy silence.
Mamá did not dare to take a step outside the patio. At the least bark she peered, frightened, towards the front entrance, and just as night fell, she saw phosphorescent eyes advancing through the grass. After dinner she shut herself in her room, her hearing attentive for the most hypothetical howl.
It was on the third night that I awoke, when it was already very late; I had the impression of having heard a cry, but I couldn’t pin down the sensation. I waited a while. And suddenly a short metallic howl, of atrocious suffering, vibrated down the corridor
“Federico!” I heard Mamá’s voice, shot through with emotion. “Did you hear?”
“Yes,” I said, sliding off the bed. But she heard the noise I made.
“Dear God, it’s a rabid dog! Federico, don’t go out, for God’s sake! Juana! Tell your husband not to go out!” She cried out desperately, addressing my wife.
Another howl exploded, this time in the central corridor, in front of the door. A fine shower of chills washed my spine to the waist. I don’t think that there is anything more profoundly dismal than the howl of a rabid dog at that hour. Rising up above it was the desperate voice of my mother.
“Federico! It’s going into your room! Don’t go out, my God, don’t go out! Juana! Tell your husband! …”
“Federico!” my wife grabbed my arm.
But the situation could become quite serious if I waited for the animal to enter, and turning on the light I took down my shotgun. I raised the edge of the burlap over the doorway, and saw nothing but the black triangle of the deep fog outside. I hardly had time to step forward when I felt something firm and warm rub against my thigh: the rabid dog had entered our room. I threw its head back violently with a blow from my knee, and suddenly it lunged to bite me, but failed, with an audible clash of its teeth. But the next instant I felt a sharp pain.
Neither my wife nor my mother realized that it had bitten me.
“Federico! What was that?” cried Mamá, who had heard my halt before the bite at the air.
“Nothing: it wanted to come in.”
Again, this time beyond Mamá’s room, the ominous howl exploded.
“Federico! It’s rabid! Don’t go out!” she cried madly, hearing the animal through the wooden wall, a meter away from her.
There are absurd things that have all the appearance of legitimate reasoning: I went outside with the lamp in one hand and the shotgun in the other, exactly as if I were searching for a terrified rat that had provided me the perfect space to place the light on the ground and kill it at the end of a pitchfork.
I traversed the corridors. I didn’t hear a sound, but from inside the rooms I was trailed by the tremendous anguish of Mamá and my wife, who were waiting for the boom of the gun.
The dog was gone.
“Federico!” Mamá exclaimed on hearing me return at last. “Did the dog leave?”
“I think so; I didn’t see it. I think I heard its trot when I left.”
“Yes, I heard it too…Federico: it’s not in your room? … It hasn’t got a door, my God! Stay inside! It could come back!”
In effect, it could come back. It was two-twenty in the morning. And I swear that the two hours that my wife and I passed were intense, with the light on until dawn, she lying in bed, I sitting on the bed, constantly watching the floating burlap.
I had healed before. The bite was clean: two purple holes, which I compressed with all my strength, and washed with permanganate.
I didn’t really believe that the animal was rabid. Since the previous day they had begun to poison the dogs, and something in the overwhelmed attitude of our dog predisposed me in favor of strychnine. There remained the dismal howl and the bite; but anyway I was inclined to the first theory. From here, surely, came my relative carelessness with the wound.
Finally, day arrived. At eight o’clock, and four blocks from home, a passerby shot and killed the black dog with a revolver; it had been in an unequivocally rabid state. The moment we knew, I had on my part to fight a real battle against Mamá and my wife not to go down to Buenos Aires for shots. The wound, frankly, had been well compressed, and washed with a luxurious, bitingly painful amount of permangante. All this, within five minutes of the bite. What the hell could I be afraid of after this hygenic treatment? At home they finally reassured themselves, and as the epidemic—provoked by a crisis of rain without respite such as had never been seen here—had ended almost at once, life recovered its habitual routine.
But in spite of that Mamá and my wife did not leave off, and have not left off, taking exact account of time. The classical forty days weigh strongly, above all for Mamá, and even today, with thirty-nine days passed without the slightest ailment, she waits for tomorrow, in order to expel from her spirit, in an immense sigh, the everliving terror that she retains from that night.
Perhaps the only nuisance for me has been this: to remember, point by point, what has happened. I am confident that tomorrow night, with the end of the quarantine, will conclude this story that keeps the eyes of my wife and my mother fixed on me, as if they are searching my expression for the first sign of illness.
At last! I hope that from now on I can live like any other man, who does not have crowns of death suspended above his head. I have passed the famous forty days, and the anxiety, the persecution mania and the horrible screams that they anticipated from me have also passed forever.
My wife and my mother have celebrated the joyous occasion in a particular way: by telling me, point by point, all the terrors that they have suffered without letting me see. My most insignificant lack of appetite plunged them into mortal anguish. “It’s the rabies beginning!” they moaned.
If some morning I arose late, for hours they stopped living, waiting for another symptom. The annoying infection in a finger that had me feverish and impatient for three days, was for them an absolute proof that the rabies had begun, from which came their consternation, more anguished for being furtive.
And so the least change of humor, the slightest dejection, provoked in them, over the forty days, many other hours of worry. In spite of these retrospective confessions, always disagreeable for one who has been in the dark, even with the most archangelic good will, I have laughed heartily at all of it. “Ah, my son! You can’t imagine how horrible it is for a mother to think that her son might be rabid! Anything else…. but rabid, rabid!”
My wife, although more sensible, has also rambled far more than she confesses. But now it’s over, thankfully! This situation of martyrdom, of a baby watched second to second against such an absurd threat of death, is not appealing, after all. At last, again, we will live peacefully, and hopefully tomorrow the past won’t dawn with a headache, and resurrect the craziness.
I wanted to be absolutely calm, but it’s impossible. There is no longer, I believe, any possibility that this will end. Sidelong glances all day, incessant whispering that stops suddenly when they hear my steps, an irritating spying upon my expression when we are at table, all this is becoming intolerable.
“What’s wrong, please?” I just said to them. “Do you see something abnormal about me, am I not exactly as always? This story of the rabid dog is already a bit boring!”
“But Federico!” they replied, looking at me with surprise. “We didn’t say anything to you, or remember doing so!”
And they don’t, however, do anything else, other than spy on me night and day, day and night, to see if the stupid dog’s rabies has infected me!
For three days I have lived as I should and I would like to do so all my life. They have left me in peace, at last, at last, at last!
Again! Again it’s begun! They don’t take their eyes off me anymore, as if what they seem to want has happened: that I am rabid. How is such stupidity in two sensible people possible! Now they no longer dissimulate, and they speak rashly aloud about me; but—I don’t know why—I can’t understand a word. As soon as I arrive they stop suddenly, and the moment I step away the dizzying chatter begins again. I could not contain myself and I turned with rage.
“But if you talk, say it in front of me, it’s less cowardly!”
I didn’t want to hear what they said and I left. This is no longer life that I’m living!
They want to leave! They want us to leave!
Oh, I know why they want to leave me! …
March 20. (6 am)
Howling, howling! All night I’ve heard nothing but howling! I’ve spent all night waking up every moment! Dogs, there’s been nothing but dogs around the house tonight! And my wife and my mother have feigned the most placid dreams, so that only I would absorb through my eyes the howls of all the dogs that watch me!…
Nothing but vipers! My house is full of vipers! While washing myself there were three in the basin! There are several in the lining of the sacking! And there’s more! There are other things! My wife has filled my house with vipers! She has brought enormous hairy spiders that chase me! Now I understand why she spied on me day and night! Now I understand everything! This is why she wanted to leave!
The patio is full of vipers! I can’t take a step! No, no!…. Help!…
My wife is running away! My mother is leaving! They have murdered me!…Ah, the shotgun!…Damn it! It’s loaded with ammo! But it doesn’t matter…
What a scream she gave! I missed her… Again the vipers! There! There’s an enormous one! Ah! Help, help!!
Everyone wants to kill me! They’re all against me! The bush is full of spiders! They’ve followed me from the house!…
Here comes another assassin… He got them in his hand! He’s coming and throwing vipers to the ground! He’s pulling vipers from his mouth and throwing them to the ground towards me! Ah! but he won’t live long… I hit him! He’s died with all the vipers!… The spiders! Ah! Help!!
Here they come, everyone’s coming!… They’re looking for me, looking for me!… They’ve launched a million vipers against me! Everyone is putting them on the ground! And I have no more cartridges!… They’ve seen me!… One of them is pointing at me…
From the collection Cuentos de amor de locura y de muerte (Stories of love, madness and death), 1917.
Translated by Nina Zumel