The moon is full, the sky cloudless. It is summer in Argentina — “All your friends in Ohio are shivering in the snow,” her mother told her the other day — but the nights are cool. She walks across the garden’s lawn toward the door on the other end. It is the door to the vineyard. Black Heart is behind it.
Her mother and Ed are eating dinner in Mendoza. It is late, but dinner always starts late in Argentina. The restaurants open at eight at night. Emily has eaten dinner at a restaurant in Argentina only once, and she fell asleep before dessert. Waking her, her mother said, “You’ll never be mistaken for an Argentine.” Ed had said the same in relation to her red hair and blue-green eyes, inherited from her father. Emily wanted to stay with her father in Sherman instead of coming here, but he has a new girlfriend and Emily’s presence, he said, would be inconvenient now. There was a time between her parents’ separation and divorce when her father wanted her to spend all her time with him. Her mother said this was only because he wanted to look good in the eyes of the divorce judge. After the divorce, he became busy.
So did her mother, who met Ed in an adventure writing class he’d taught in Cleveland. Older than her mother by sixteen years, he has a balloon belly and waddles rather than walks. He is a travel writer, a food writer, a wine writer. He has rented this house outside of Mendoza so he can write about Mendoza’s foods and wines. Her mother is supposed to be home-schooling her — Emily’s fifth-grade teacher gave her mother a packet to cover January and February, the months they would be gone — but most days, her mother and Ed drive off into the Uco valley, and Emily leaves her schoolwork and wanders around the vineyard singing songs she knows and songs she makes up. Beyond the last row of grapevines, there is an elevated spot, a grass altar where she likes to lie on her back and stare at the Andes Mountains, off to the west, snow-capped and shimmering like a picture in a storybook. Sometimes Maria, the wife of the man who looks after the property, finds her and asks if she’s all right. Maria’s Spanish is only a little better than Emily’s. Maria and her husband, Daniel, who live in the two-room cottage next to the house where she is staying, are from Bolivia. Her mother says their first language is . . . Emily can’t remember. It starts with a q, like question.
Daniel is in charge of keeping the robbers and the killers and the rapists out of the vineyard and out of the garden and out of the house. One night, she overheard her mother and Ed discussing what happened to a Canadian woman who owns a hotel in Mendoza. When her mother discovered her hiding behind the kitchen door, she said, “You don’t have to worry, sweetheart. We have Daniel and the dogs.”
Their house sits in the north end of the garden, and the garden is surrounded by a black iron fence topped with barbed wire. On three sides of the black fence, separated from it by a ten-foot-wide corridor, is a chain-link fence, also topped with barbed wire. On the fourth side of the garden, on the south end, is the vineyard, which is surrounded by only a five-foot-tall wooden picket fence without barbed wire. Before Daniel goes to bed, he releases three bullmastiffs into the corridors between the black fence and the chain-link fence. Into the vineyard Daniel sends a fourth dog, some combination of pit bull, Rottweiler, German shepherd, and wolf, an animal as cruel and vicious as any animal on earth, or so Daniel told her. Daniel has given several names to this dog in his language, but in Spanish he calls him Black Heart. Black Heart was the topic of her mother’s sternest lecture: At night, don’t ever open the door to the vineyard. Black Heart is on guard, and he’s trained to kill whomever he finds. “Even me?” Anyone. Please, darling. “Why would he kill me?” Please. Never open the door.
When they arrived in Argentina, Ed thought she should be curious about wine and empanadas and tango dancing. But Emily was curious about the guard dogs. How old were they? Were the three bullmastiffs brothers? Had the three bullmastiffs ever met Black Heart? Had Black Heart ever killed anyone?
Ed didn’t know anything about them. “Ask Daniel,” he said. So Emily did, in her bad Spanish. The next time they saw each other, Daniel pulled a tattered paperback Spanish-English dictionary from his back pocket. The print was so small even Emily had trouble reading it. The dictionary became a game between them, a game to see who could find the right word, who could speak it well enough so the other person understood. Daniel is only an inch or two taller than her five feet (she is the tallest girl in her class), and he has the blackest, straightest hair she’s ever seen. His nose is large, and his nostrils seem, in proportion, even larger. Her mother and Ed call him Evo, because he supposedly looks like the president of Bolivia. Saturday is his night off. Sometimes on Saturday nights he stays home with Maria and sometimes he meets up with his Bolivian friends in Mendoza.
Often when Daniel returns late at night, she hears him singing, and this reminds her of her father, who loves to sing. Daniel’s voice is light and sweet; her father’s is low like a rumble or a growl. When her parents were married, the three of them would go camping every summer in southern Ohio, and every night around the fire, her mother would play her guitar and her father would sing, his voice booming above the crackling flames. On the last couple of trips, Emily sang with him. Although her voice was as thin as air, it was beautiful, her father said, beautiful and enchanting. “You could sing a fish out of the water,” he said. “You could sing a dog away from a bone.”
In the week before she left for Argentina, Emily called her father every day, always when she thought his girlfriend wouldn’t be with him. Even when she wasn’t, their conversations were short. One time Emily called him and his girlfriend interrupted to ask him, “What do you think of this ring?” The last time she spoke to him, he was at a party and there was music in the background. “Remember this song?” he said, and she sang to show him she did. But she realized he had been speaking to someone else. Embarrassed, she hung up. The next day, she was on a plane to Argentina.
Emily hears a sound in the bougainvillea that covers the black iron fence on her left. Her heart springs into her throat. But it is only the stray tiger cat who visits some nights. Daniel calls him Romeo because he supposedly fathered all the recent litters in the neighborhood. He paws his way from the top of the fence, cascades down the purple flowers, and tumbles onto the grass. He is the thinnest cat she has ever seen, but her mother assured her he isn’t starving. Emily didn’t know what to call the two round pouches visible from behind when he lifted his tail. “Balls,” Ed said, grinning. “Testicles,” her mother said. “Please.”
Romeo rubs himself against her leg, and she crouches down to pet him. His fur is like none she has touched before. It is thick and prickly like she imagines a groundhog’s would be. “Do you know what I’m doing tonight?” she asks Romeo. “I’m going to visit Black Heart.” He looks up at her, responding to her voice. “Don’t worry. He’s my friend. I’ve been visiting him in his cage. I sing to him.” She pretends he says something. “He’s not my boyfriend! He’s a dog!” She laughs and shakes her head.
In her first week in Argentina, after they had become friends, Daniel brought her to see the dogs in their cages, located in the corridor between the two fences at the front of the property. They were like cages at the zoo, except they were no taller than her chest. The three bullmastiffs, who shared a cage, barked at her, but when Daniel scolded them, they whimpered like doves. When they reached Black Heart’s cage, he attacked the bars, barking like no dog she’d ever known, like some hellbound creature from mythology. Surprised and frightened, she backpedaled and tripped. Daniel alternately spoke sympathetically to her and harshly to Black Heart. From where she’d fallen, she gazed, trembling, at Black Heart, who never ceased barking. She wondered how strong the bars of his cage were. She imagined them snapping and Black Heart pouncing on her and enclosing her neck in his mouth.