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Black Heart looked less like a dog and more like a mammal from the period after the dinosaurs died. He was husky and broad-shouldered like a gorilla and his square face and dark, marble eyes seemed bison-like. He had scars everywhere — on his forehead, on his chest, in several places on his back — and she wondered what violent encounter each scar represented.
Thereafter whenever Daniel fed the dogs she accompanied him — except when her mother was around. Her mother didn’t want her near the dogs. “They are not your friends,” she said. “Okay, Emily? Okay?”
When she was with Daniel, she stood by his side, so close she could smell him. He wore cologne, but this didn’t disguise his other smells, which she thought her mother would find repulsive but which she grew used to and found reassuring. As soon as Daniel fed the three bullmastiffs, which he did by sliding their bowls into a space on the bottom of their cage, they stopped being interested in anything but the food. But Black Heart wouldn’t eat his food until Daniel and Emily retreated behind the garden wall. If they craned their heads around the wall to stare at Black Heart, he would start barking like he smelled blood. To watch him eat, Daniel taped a hand-held mirror to a long stick and held it at such an angle that they could gaze into it and see him. He ate the brown nuggets with slow pleasure. She remembered the last time she ate dinner with her father, how he picked at the rotisserie chicken, finishing everything on the bones.
When Daniel lets Black Heart into the vineyard every night, he carries a bullwhip. The whip looks like a snake — una culebra — and Black Heart is scared of nothing in the world except the whip. Even so, he growls at it as if to say, Keep your distance or I will attack you. A week ago, as she leaned out of her open bedroom window, she saw Daniel leading Black Heart into the vineyard. Under his breath, he said, “One night he won’t be afraid of the whip. And then what?” He looked up at her, surprised to see her. She smiled like she did when she didn’t understand his Spanish.
“All right, Romeo,” she says, “you be good. Be good to all your girlfriends.” He darts off to the other side of the garden and disappears beneath the weeping willow tree, which in the night looks like a hunched giant with a thousand thin arms. She resumes her walk toward the door, but is stopped by a sound of “Who? Who? Who?” It is Boy, the white-faced owl, in his nook in the palm tree twenty feet above her. She always thought of owls as old, but this owl looks like a teenager — thus the name she gave him.
“It’s only me, Boy,” she says. If he could speak in a language she understood, she wonders if he would tease her like a brother would. Or would he say something like the man at the mall said to her cousin, who is fourteen but, with her breasts and European haircut, looks twenty?
“I’m going to visit Black Heart,” she tells the owl. “It’s all right. You’ll see.”
Some days when Daniel is out in the vineyard and Maria is at the market in Luján de Cuyo and her mother and Ed are napping under the thin-bladed ceiling fan in their bedroom or sampling wines in Chacras de Coria, she visits Black Heart in his cage. She used to bring him pieces of steak and chicken she slipped into her palm at dinner and saved in a paper bag beneath her bed. The first time, she tossed the pieces of meat between the bars of his cage and retreated behind the fence so he could eat them in private. When, on subsequent visits, she lingered, he snarled, growled, and barked at her but eventually, between his hostile sounds, devoured her offering.
One day, she sang to him after giving him his meat, and his vicious sounds ceased. Even with his gigantic, square head and his razor-blade teeth and his terrible scars, he looked familiar and approachable, like a misunderstood monster. The song she’d sung was one she’d heard often on Maria’s radio. She didn’t understand all of the Spanish words, but she could enunciate them clearly, and Black Heart cocked his head as if to hear better. As soon as she stopped, his face again became strange and hideous, and his barking shocked her ears until she fled, terrified.
The next day, she returned with only her voice. As long as she sang, he was silent, docile, calm. Content, even. Perhaps even happy.
Boy flutters his white and brown wings and swoops down toward her, his mouth open, his talons spread and pointed like daggers. As she ducks and covers her eyes, she feels the wind from his wings fill her hair. She shivers from fear and a strange pleasure before she hears a squeal, high-pitched and hopeless. She turns to see Boy pluck a mouse from the grass and retreat with his feast to the palm tree.
“You scared me, Boy. Maybe you wanted to? In fun, I mean. Like a brother would?”
The day she touched Black Heart, the air was a white mist. She couldn’t see her feet. But she knew the path to his cage as if it were illuminated. When she stood before it, she couldn’t see him; she could only hear his terrible bark. When she sang, his barking stopped instantly, as if she’d cast a spell. Piercing the bars of his cage, she held out her hand to him, palm open. She felt his mouth engulf it. She felt his teeth touch her skin. She thought he was going to bite down. But his mouth held steady. Carefully, she slipped her left hand into the cage so she could stroke his head and neck and back. His fur was like the leather of her father’s jacket.
A moment later, she felt his tongue sweep the underside of her fingers and his teeth nibble, soft as a kiss, her fingertips. She felt her heart fly. She felt adored. For hours afterward, she didn’t wash either hand.
During her last visit before tonight, as she sang a song she’d invented about a girl and a dog and the iron between them, he looked at her with what she swore was a plea. I want to know you without bars between us.
Ten feet from the door separating her and Black Heart, she stops. She can sense his presence. She hears a growl so soft it might be a purr. If she moves any closer, he will erupt and wake Maria, asleep in her tiny house. If this happens, her plan will come to nothing, and she will never again have the chance to visit him. Ed and her mother will keep her with them, even if they’d rather not. Besides, their time in Argentina is coming to an end. Another week, and they will be heading home.
She sings, softly at first, a sound like small waves hitting sand. He stops growling. She reaches the door. There are three deadbolt locks, the highest an inch beyond her reach. But she jumps and slaps it open. In jumping, her singing stops, and Black Heart growls. She slaps the second lock open, her singing coming jagged, and Black Heart continues to growl, his voice climbing in register the way it does before he attacks the bars of his cage. She tries to make her singing calm, but this is difficult because of her pounding heart.
She has one deadbolt left to open before she can turn the doorknob and release him into the garden. She gives herself a moment to doubt. The wisest part of her says she should go back to the house, go to bed. But her hand, which she can barely feel as her heart thunders, acts otherwise. It snaps the deadbolt to the side.
Stop, she tells herself. Think. If Black Heart were to attack her, Maria could do nothing. Daniel is in Mendoza with his friends. He might come home in five minutes. He might come home in three hours. And Ed and her mother? Even if they were to come, what could they do?