The Humane Thing

Oana Uiorean

The dog is white and dying. She is probably an old dog, but he can’t be sure. She simply settled by the man’s shack, one day a few years back. Her tits were full of milk then, a sign she had lost her litter. When they got infected, the man took her inside his house to take care of her, and she has remained here ever since. The man’s name is Traian.

Neighbours advised him to chase the dog away once she was better. “You barely find food for yourself.” But Traian shrugged, the dog would see about food. She had seemed happy. Traian liked waking up to the sound of someone breathing; he hadn’t in a long time. He named the dog Voica. Now she is sick again, but this time there is nothing he can do.

The shack is small and the dog lies on the rug in the middle of it. She hasn’t moved in hours. She barely eats anymore, and she sometimes vomits blood. Just the round brown eyes tell him that the dog is still alive. Rarely, with great effort, she winces in pain. Traian has already searched everywhere else in the house, under the narrow bed in the corner and behind the books and notebooks he brings home from the landfill any chance he gets. He never learned to read, even though he went to school for a few years. But he likes to have the books around. Perhaps that last missing coin is under the rug. But Traian doesn’t have the heart to move the dog. He counts the coins on the table hoping that he has enough. The one shop in their neighbourhood will be closing in an hour, and he needs to get there before that. Or there will be no food that night. Nor tomorrow morning. Tomorrow, he hopes to go by the gardens in the valley and get some work. It is time to prune the fruit trees. If he wakes up before light he can get there earlier than the younger men. He might make enough for the week. Maybe even get a carton box with food from one of the houses. But for now, he needs another coin of 10, to get one of the smaller breads. They are cheaper at the end of the day, inviting buyers like him. Otherwise, the shopkeeper has to throw them in the garbage bags he puts in the cart he rolls down the hill. He never gives away leftover bread. Perhaps he sells it in town; it makes good chicken feed.

Traian had a chicken once, one that laid eggs almost every day. The doctor ran it over with his car on one of his monthly visits to the neighbourhood. The town pays him to come. Traian told him about the chicken when he passed by his shack, but the doctor laughed. “It wasn’t me,” he said. But who else drives a car through their neighbourhood at the edge of town, by the landfill and the recycling center? They don’t even have proper roads. And what else but a car could have squashed a chicken like that? But he believed the doctor hadn’t noticed, and he let it go. Nobody in the neighbourhood wants to make an enemy out of the doctor.

Now he only has Voica, and she doesn’t lay eggs. But Traian loves the dog, although he is ashamed by how often he wants to speak to her, late at night, when the children in the neighbourhood are asleep and it turns quiet. When the dog fell ill, Traian asked the doctor if he could help. Surely animals and humans work the same. The doctor examined Voica briefly, barely touching her. The dog let it happen in silence, eyes closed, lying on her side.

“Cancer,” was the doctor’s verdict. “The humane thing to do would be to have her put down. Just one injection. She won’t feel a thing.”

Traian wanted to ask the doctor if he could do it, but he didn’t at first. He thought about it, watched the dog get weaker and weaker, her pain visibly growing. He asked for the injection on the doctor’s next visit.

“No, I’m not allowed to do it. You’ll need a vet for that.” It was going to cost him money, though. These things aren’t cheap, the doctor said.

He doesn’t have the money to have Voica put down. He will never have it, even if he starts saving, and there is nothing to save. He sometimes hides coins around the house, 5s and 10s, the smallest ones, made of copper, but not as savings. Once in a while they add up to a nice surprise, a pack of cigarettes, or a bottle of beer. Or lately, bread. There hasn’t been work for a long time. He once made a living going through the nice neighbourhoods in the valley, collecting scrap metal. He walked a lot every day, pushing or pulling his cart, Voica running ahead of him. People left old pipes or broken bicycles in front of their gates. He, and other men like him, picked them up and brought them to the recycling centres. There was enough for all of them. But now the gypsies have taken over. They have large vans and pick-up trucks that they drive through the whole city. They pick up everything they can find long before Traian makes it down the hill. They even have the nerve to ring doors and ask people for their old metal. He has had to sell his cart. Perhaps Maria was right about the gypsies.

It will soon be twenty years since he and Maria came over from their country, looking for a life. They came together with other men and women that their village could no longer hold. Once they arrived, the others scattered in all directions, but it was understood that he and Maria would have a go at it together, although they weren’t married. She could read, which was important in this new country, you can’t get around without it like he did in the village. Neither of them spoke the language of the place, but they found their way to the neighbourhood on the hill. They didn’t understand anyone and nobody understood them, but that was fine for a while and then they forgot it could be any different. He built the shack on an empty lot in between the other shacks and bought the cart with most of the money he brought over with him. Things went well for a while, there was always food. But in the end Maria didn’t stay.

“I didn’t travel 2000 kilometres on smelly buses and hidden in trains so I could live with the gypsies in the slum.” She started going into town almost every day. She never wanted to talk about what she did on her trips, but it was understood that once she found what she was looking for she wouldn’t want him to go with her. One day she didn’t return, and he didn’t look for her.

She was wrong though; these people living in his neighbourhood are not gypsies. The gypsies do well in this country, better than back home. They have houses made of brick, sometimes even in town, although they don’t always live in them. They run the scrap metal business and make good money with it. The people in the shacks around him are dark-skinned and make good music, but they are poor, and their languages he can sometimes understand. They say they came from America. They mostly let him be. Only when Voica started to die did they begin to pay attention to him. Some of the men offered to kill the dog.

“A shovel at the back of the head and it’s done.” But he refused, not wanting Voica to die remembering even more pain. They’d surely miss the right spot and have to hit several times, like young girls back home when they slaughtered their first chicken. The right cut would let the chicken bleed slowly and drift off without any awareness of pain. But the wrong one brought horror.

Then the women suggested he ask his daughter for the money. Everyone thinks Marilena has money. And everyone thinks she is his daughter. It is an event in the neighbourhood when she comes to visit him, climbing the dirt road, no matter the weather. People come out of their shacks to watch. She came for the first time about a year earlier, called him father and said Maria had died. Her eye became infected, then her ear, and by the time she finally agreed to go to the hospital her whole body was failing. She didn’t want to spend money on a doctor. Marilena is Maria’s daughter. Traian is her father, she assures him.

“I only have you left,” she tells him, her heavy mascara trembling. The woman’s age is about right. Who knew Maria was pregnant when she left him? Perhaps Marilena does look like him under all that make-up. Perhaps she has just grown weary of waking up to no one breathing.

She has taken to visiting him almost every week, always in the early afternoon. She usually brings along a bottle of hard drink the colour of caramel and he indulges her and drinks a little while she talks. He likes the drink; it tastes sharp and mellow at the same time, which takes him by surprise. Marilena never talks about anything in particular. He can’t even figure out how Maria lived after she left him, or what Marilena does for money. After she leaves, he always takes the bottle to the back of the house and spills the rest of the liquid on the ground. He doesn’t want her money either, not even for the dog, although he doubts she would have that much. She left him money once, slipped under the old clock he has standing on the table. He found it after she left. She understood by the frown that never left his face during her next visit and the way he kept playing with the clock that she is never to do that again.

He gave that money to the church he sometimes goes to in the valley. It is a church for black people, a preaching room rather, hidden away at the back of a shopping mall. They sing a lot during their service. In the beginning, they were unsettled by his presence. They talked to him with urgency, in languages he didn’t understand, but in the end agreed to tolerate the white man among them. They think him surely mute, because he never sings along or prays out loud. He sits and watches.

Traian doesn’t believe in God. Or rather, God isn’t something that concerns him. He was attracted to the black church by the stream of shiny, dressed up people he saw going in and out of it on Sundays, and the muffled singing he could hear from the street. For a while, he hoped that by attending their service he would one day be taken over by the joy they exude. It hasn’t happened, and now that he has been a regular for quite some time he can see that he isn’t the only one excluded. Some people are truly joyous. He knows them by the way they always keep their eyes closed and their hands half raised. Others, like him, cast occasional perplexed looks around them in the midst of the loudest singing. But they still go through the movements, they raise their hands and close their eyes, a little fearful. They still have hope the joy might someday infuse them, too. And perhaps they are right. Traian resolves to start going through the movements as well. Already this evening he will walk down to the church and try. He can’t find the missing coin of 10. He will go without food and he will take the other coins and give them to the preacher.

In the corner, Voica has started her low-pitched howl. It has become her way of marking the arrival of the dark and the hours when the pain is at its worst. The first time she howled like that, about ten days earlier, Traian hoped that perhaps it was a sign she was going to die soon. He will be alone without her, that much he can guess. But every morning the dog is still alive, and Traian can’t tell anymore if the voiceless pain he has started feeling in his body is Voica’s or his own. Before he leaves for church, he takes a sharp knife and slices Voica’s neck. He holds her while she slowly bleeds to death, trying to hear her last breath. He cleans up before he leaves.


Oana Uiorean writes in English and Romanian and doesn’t think she will ever make up her mind between the two. She is currently based in Belgium, where she lives with a man, a child, two guinea pigs and three chickens in a house with a small garden at the edge of a big city.