Already I had run nine kilometers, a grey morning in Wuhan. There was a hint of rain in the air, the city was awake and the little three-wheeled mumus left trails of blue smoke as they chuffed up the hill past the university's east gate. I ran on the margin of the road, dodging bicycles, because the pavement was an ankle-trapping mosaic of broken blocks, someone welding truck canopy frames, the detritus of last night's restaurants, and a middle-aged woman trying to make a display of apples and biscuits next to her shabby shop. A typical Chinese streetfront. I was feeling good, on the home run, breathing evenly, my muscles taut and supple, the life-force pulsing in long, even beats.
Then I saw her. A fine looking dog, with slightly fluffy silver grey hair. She had been well cared for, her fur was shiny, her body trim but well-fed. Perhaps she was a year old, and she barked in clear, sharp bites. She almost talked. She was not small, perhaps a young Alsation, or some relative, so that stretched out she was almost the height of a man, a smallish Chinese man. He was a leathery man of indefinite age, dressed in a ragged shirt and a filthy suit coat. A cigarette was pasted into one corner of his mouth. Two companions stood close by. They too, you could see, were men who lived on the outer margins of a city that had little love for the poor. They were watching the dog with a kind of abstract interest.
The smallish Chinese man held the dog by her hind legs, stretched the legs above his head, so that her belly was even with his chest and her head hung close to his knees. She barked, she almost talked, but she was powerless to escape. One of the other men held a dagger at her heart. This was the last moment of her life.
I felt sick in the pit of my stomach, felt a kind of suffocation. I glared at the men. They saw me glaring, watched me with the same abstract interest that they had regarded the dog; then their eyes went out of focus and drifted back to the knife. Suddenly this wasn't my city, I was an alien. This wasn't the place that I'd lived in for a year, scratched a tiny niche to dwell in as an exotic but accepted member. Here was a dream, twisting in trails of blue exhaust smoke. Disconnected images collided without rhyme or meaning, three ragged men, a young dog, a runner, all powerless to escape. Maybe this is how it has to be, at the last moment of a life.
"When a Dog is as Tall as a Man" copyrighted to Thor May 1999; all rights reserved