The Water’s Edge – Jason V. Zeitler


I WASN’T AT my sister-in-law’s in Sri Lanka at the time her dog Siri died, but the peculiar circumstances of his passing — from a Westerner’s perspective, anyway — have haunted me ever since.  Probably it is because I didn’t see the event firsthand that it has made such an indelible mark on my psyche.  I have an overactive imagination, and left to its own devices, it gravitates toward the paranoid and the macabre.  For no apparent reason I often see daggers and dark deeds where there are none.  In telling Siri’s story, then, my hope is to once and for all exorcise from my mind the unsettling images of his death, images that might otherwise linger in my memory indefinitely without a catharsis.

To be honest, I’m surprised at myself for being so affected by the death of a dog.  I have never really been very fond of dogs as a species.  They drool too much.  They stink.  Many of them have a kind of permanent halitosis.  And if they haven’t been well trained or trained at all, they’re nothing short of a nuisance: pawing you, jumping on you, sniffing you in places you’d rather not be sniffed.  Their very presence is enough to drive you mad.  I remember the last dog I had had as a child.  He was a chocolate Cocker Spaniel named Alex (after Michael J. Fox’s character in the TV sitcom Family Ties), and to describe him as boisterous would be a gross understatement.  Like most dogs, he didn’t like to be left at home alone.  Whenever my family would leave the house, even for a short time, we’d return to his staccato woof-woof as we pulled into the driveway.  He’d hardly let us open the front door.  No sooner would we force our way into the house than he’d welcome each of us in turn by jumping at our midsections.  Then he’d launch into his ritual circuit around the house, sprinting from one room to the next, scaling the living room furniture and other incidentals along the way.  It was exhausting just watching him.  My parents probably should have had him trained, but they didn’t have the money or the time.  In hindsight, I feel ambivalence toward Alex.  I miss his undying affection, just not the ways in which that affection usually manifested itself.

So it is all the more strange that I should have grown to love Siri.  My guess is that it had something to do with his breed, the Labrador.  I particularly dislike small, yipping dogs.  But the big working dogs are another matter entirely, especially hunting dogs like the Labrador.  They live to retrieve — their bodies have been built for it — and they are naturally likeable.  I once went pheasant hunting with my father in South Dakota on a ranch that used black Labs as trackers on guided hunts.  They were majestic animals, their muscles rippling and their coats glistening as they methodically worked their way through the fields of corn, happily flushing birds for us to shoot.

Shortly before Siri’s death, my wife Rajivi and I arrived in Colombo for our annual summer holiday in Sri Lanka.  On our itinerary was a trip to the dry zone in the southeast of the island, a weekend at Arugam Bay and a few days at my sister-in-law’s bungalow near Thissamaharama.  Whenever we’re in Sri Lanka, a stay at Sonali’s place is always a welcome respite from the diesel exhaust- and garbage-ridden streets of Colombo.  Her bungalow, which is adjacent to Yala National Park where she works as a field biologist for the Sri Lankan government, sits on a two-acre strip of land overlooking a small lake, or vava.  The vava attracts wildlife from all over the area, including elephants from the park.  We sometimes sit for hours on Sonali’s verandah training our binoculars on the scrub jungle just north of the vava.  If we’re lucky, we see an entire herd of elephants from calves to matriarch steal from the jungle, make their way cautiously to the water’s edge, and then drink and play and bathe with an air of contentment not even a Buddhist monk could attain.

On the day of our road trip to Thissamaharama, we arrived late in the afternoon.  It was hot, likely approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and a strong wind was blowing in off the Indian Ocean.  At the gate to Sonali’s property, Gnanasiri, the old caretaker, greeted us.  He was a funny looking little man.  The few teeth he had left were stained purplish-brown from chewing betel.  He usually wore only a sarong, as was the case now, so that his paunch, supported by his otherwise fit five-and-a-half-foot frame, was bared to the world.  (The Sinhalese refer to such a stomach politely as a bath bada, or rice belly, caused by a diet heavy in starch.)  Gnanasiri’s teeth and belly notwithstanding, he was an excellent caretaker, and his cooking abilities alone made him a prized employee.  Even now, as I pulled our vehicle into Sonali’s yard and parked beneath the immense canopy of a fully grown mango tree, I could smell the thick hodhi of Gnanasiri’s pork curry — an intensely flavored mixture of curry powder, chili powder, ground pepper, cloves, cinnamon sticks, and sautéed garlic and onion.

Gnanasiri took our bags, and we settled into the guestroom.  Since Sonali failed to appear, we assumed she was in Thissamaharama buying groceries for our visit.  However, Gnanasiri informed us that she had been out searching for one of her two dogs since early morning.  Apparently Siri had gone missing the day before while she was away on a camping trip upcountry.  The signs were not auspicious, Gnanasiri explained, as the dog had not been seen by anyone for over 24 hours.  Also, something had spooked Tunza, Sonali’s German shepherd; he had been hiding under the picnic table on the verandah for approximately the duration of Siri’s absence and had refused to come out even when tempted with his favorite food, Purina dog chow mixed with wild boar curry.  Gnanasiri speculated that Tunza had seen a yakka, an evil tree spirit, and that only a realignment of the stars would now bring him out from beneath the picnic table.

I smiled at Gnanasiri’s superstition.  His thought processes seemed to be in keeping with his appearance.

“And what about Sonali?” Rajivi asked Gnanasiri, a concerned look on her face.

She would be back before sunset, he said, in time to join us for dinner.

But Sonali did not return for dinner.  Rajivi and I waited at the picnic table until our meal of pork curry, lentils, and roti grew cold.  Not that the cold food mattered, for we had long since lost our appetites.  The Siri affair had cast a pall over our entire trip.  We sat at the table for a while in silence, picking at our food with our fingers.  The sun had already set, and the geckos had begun to gather about the electric lanterns, feeding on mosquitoes and other insects and making their incessant squawking sounds.  Every now and then Tunza shifted his position at our feet.  Gnanasiri, I thought, was right about one thing: the signs so far had not been good.  It occurred to me, and I suspected to Rajivi as well, that the longer it took Sonali to return, the less likely it was that Siri would ever be found.

Such an eventuality wasn’t something we wanted to think about.  Our experiences with Siri had been limited to our holidays in Thissamaharama, but nevertheless we’d developed a deep connection with him.  We had always associated Sonali with animals and the outdoors, and Siri had become an integral part of that association.  Siri was friendly, playful, full of seemingly boundless energy.  He was the runt of the litter and so was only two-thirds the size of the average juvenile Labrador.  Yet he had that unmistakable muscular build unique to his breed.  He loved the water and at heart, if not in practice, was a retriever.  I remember how at the word “ball” he would bolt from Sonali’s bungalow and run a circuit from one end of the yard to the other until you, the thrower, followed through on the contract you had tacitly entered into.  At times like this, Siri reminded me of my childhood dog Alex, except that Siri somehow seemed more dignified.  Unlike Alex, he was exuberant but not irrationally so.

I reached across the picnic table and put a hand on Rajivi’s.  She looked up from her plate and said, “Pow for the bala, no?”  (Pow meaning sad; bala, dog.)  The question, of course, was rhetorical, but I answered it in the affirmative anyway.  I had as much of a soft spot for Siri as Rajivi did.  “I was so looking forward to seeing him,” I added lamely, after a moment’s silence.  It was honestly all I could think of to say, and so I got up from the table and awkwardly started clearing dishes.  Expressing sorrow has never been one of my strong points.

Not until well after dinner did Sonali finally return home.  She came in looking haggard, her clothes covered in dust.  Her search for Siri had been unsuccessful, and now she feared the worst.  Earlier that day Janaka, one of the park rangers, had noticed a crocodile circling a spot in the vava, about twenty feet from shore.  It could mean only one thing, Sonali said.  The crocodile was guarding a kill, which it had lodged at the bottom of the vava for later consumption.  Sonali and Janaka had decided that before dredging the vava they would first exhaust the search for Siri on land.  That had been done, so the next step was to turn to the water.  Rajivi remonstrated, pointing out the obvious dangers of such an endeavor, but Sonali was adamant.  At first light tomorrow, she and Janaka would search the vava.

I lay in bed that night thinking with dread about the possibility a crocodile had taken Siri.  Perhaps it was a temporary lapse in my imagination, but I couldn’t think of a worse way of dying.  One of those African antelope documentaries I had recently seen kept coming to mind.  In it, the wildebeests are on their annual migration from the Serengeti of Tanzania to the Masai Mara of Kenya.  In the river-crossing scene, the camera pans in on a fifteen-foot Nile crocodile half-submerged in the shallows of the Mara River, waiting for its next victim to imprudently enter the water.  With its triangular head, massive jaws, and lower fourth teeth jutting from its closed mouth, the crocodile looks like some pre-historic creature time-warped out of the Triassic Period.  No sooner has the first of the wildebeests leapt into the river than the crocodile strikes.  It clamps onto a leg and attempts to pull the wildebeest under.  The wildebeest struggles to free itself.  Then the death roll begins.  In an instant several other crocodiles swarm, collectively making the kill in a frenzied twisting of bodies until the wildebeest is torn limb from limb or drowned or both.

I fell asleep hoping a similar fate hadn’t befallen Siri.

The next morning I awoke to the noisy sound of a koha, an Asian cuckoo whose onomatopoetic call makes the loud meow of the peacock seem muted by comparison.  I groped my way through the opening in the mosquito net and, straining my eyes in the dim light, checked the time.  It was half past five.  Rajivi had already gotten out of bed, as her spot next to me was empty.

I found her and Sonali standing on the verandah, drinking tea and looking out toward the vava.  They appeared to be deep in thought, so much so that I hesitated to disturb them.  As I approached, both of them smiled, with their eyes as well as with their mouths.  Without speaking, Rajivi made a slight movement of her head in the direction of the vava, of the surrounding fields, of the beautiful sprawling jungle that was Yala.  I followed her line of vision.  To the northwest, a lone farmer stood in the middle of a vast paddy field.  He was dressed entirely in white and had a wide-brimmed straw hat in his hand.  Above him in the sky, a half-moon hovered.  In the opposite direction, to the east, the horizon glowed pinkish-orange.  And due north was the vava, a morning mist rising off it.  On the other side of the vava where the jungle began, I could just make out through the mist a peacock perched on the topmost branch of a ranavara shrub.

“I should be getting ready,” Sonali said, breaking the silence.  She reached through the iron grille separating the verandah from the house and set her teacup on the kitchen counter.  “Janaka will be here soon.”

“And there’s nothing we can do to change your mind?” Rajivi asked.

“No,” she said, “there isn’t.”  With that, there was little doubt that the conversation was at an end as far as Sonali was concerned.  She was rarely one to mince words.

Later that morning, at Rajivi’s suggestion, I offered to act as lookout for Sonali and Janaka while they searched the vava.  Janaka helped me climb the nearest palu tree, where I positioned myself with the binoculars at the best vantage point I could find to the water.  Word must have gotten around about the morning’s search because ten or twelve of the neighbors turned up on the scene.  They came in twos and threes, talking excitedly and pointing at Sonali and Janaka as they prepared to enter the water.  When they noticed me in the tree, they became demure, then amused.  I was suddenly more interesting to them than what they had originally come to see.  They giggled and whispered, every now and then one of them looking at me furtively: the ridiculous suddha, the white man, in a tree, decidedly out of his element.

Before I could remove the lens caps and focus my binoculars, Sonali and Janaka were in the water.  They waded in slowly so as not to draw attention to themselves.  Their pace was clearly making Rajivi nervous; she kept motioning to them to hurry back to shore.  The water was up to their chests by the time they reached the spot the crocodile had been circling the day before.  With the binoculars, I scanned the vava for any signs of danger.  Fortunately there was nothing, or at least nothing I could see.

Together Sonali and Janaka searched the vava with their feet, moving in tight concentric circles.  Almost immediately Sonali stopped, as if she’d found something.  She took a deep breath and disappeared beneath the water.  Meanwhile I thought I saw what looked like a crocodile’s eyes and snout drifting about thirty yards from shore.  I shouted a warning to Janaka.  In his shrill voice, he shouted back in acknowledgement, and then he, too, disappeared beneath the water.  The crocodile, or what I thought was a crocodile, was now no longer in sight.  Either it had submerged, in which case there was still danger, or it had swum away, scared off by the noises we were making.  I hoped instead the whole thing had been a figment of my imagination.

A few seconds later Janaka and Sonali emerged from the water, a black mass in their arms.  They hurried back to shore.  Once there, with a kind of reverence, they placed their burden on the ground.  I took a closer look with the binoculars.  The black mass was Siri’s remains.  His body, after two days in the water, was badly decomposed.  In places his coat was shorn to the flesh — presumably the handiwork of fish.  Even more macabre, he had extensive puncture and slash wounds on his stomach and hindquarters.  Worse still, one of his legs was missing.  I lowered the binoculars; I’d seen enough.

It was then that I realized what must have driven Tunza to hide beneath the picnic table: he had witnessed Siri’s death.  Although it was a mystery to me how the two dogs had come to be at the vava that day, I had the impression that something other than the water had first lured them there.  I imagined that that something — a herd of water buffalo, say, moving along the shore of the vava — had disturbed the dogs as they dozed on Sonali’s verandah.  They had jumped to their paws.  Then, growling and barking, they had raced to the back gate and had somehow slipped unscathed through a narrow gap in the barbed-wire.  At the approach of the dogs, the buffalo had dispersed, leaving an open pathway to the vava.  The temptation was too great for Siri.  He leapt into the water without hesitation, swimming as if in the act of retrieval.  Tunza meanwhile only waded in, shin deep.  An instinctive sense of danger, perhaps some atavistic remnant of the wolf, prevented him from going further.  He stood there watching Siri, his ears erect, his tale hanging down in a slight curve like a saber.  The water stirred near Siri and a violent commotion erupted.  Tunza let out a single guttural bark, which sounded like a warning, or a protest.  Whatever the bark was meant to be, it came too late.  Where Siri had gone under, the water rippled for a moment and then darkened a blood red.

From my perch in the palu tree, I had the sudden urge to rage against crocodiles, to voice what Tunza could not.  It struck me that crocodiles and their kind were nothing but brutal killing machines.  What redeeming qualities did they have?  I could think of none.  They were cold-blooded in every sense of the word, and they preyed indiscriminately on both the weak and the strong.  Siri was proof of that.  A crocodile took him not because he was weak or unfit but because he had the misfortune of not being jungle wise — and of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I was about to verbalize what I thought of crocodiles when I figuratively bit my tongue, because I knew how Sonali and Rajivi would respond, despite their remorse for Siri.  They would say, more or less, that I was not seeing things the way they were; that in behaving the way it did, the crocodile was doing only what it was genetically programmed to do; and that death, even by crocodile, was a natural consequence of life.  To deny these truths would be to deny reality.

There was no sense in denying reality, of course, but neither was it possible to readily extricate myself from my preconceived notions about crocodiles.  When I thought of the crocodile, the image that most often came to mind was that of the death roll: this powerful predator twisting and contorting its body, some helpless prey between its jaws.  Invariably accompanying this image was the notion that crocodiles were sinister.  I wondered at this.  My fear of crocodiles was natural enough, especially after having seen firsthand the damage they could inflict on their prey.  Ascribing evil to a non-sentient being, however, was wholly unnatural.  In fact, the very idea was absurd.  It smacked of Gnanasiri’s superstition.  It was like tripping over a crack on the sidewalk and then cursing the crack, as if the crack itself had willed you to trip.  The truth was, crocodiles were neither good nor bad.  They had no more capability of malign volition than did a crack in cement.

The cacophonous, laugh-like call of a peacock in the distance brought my reverie to an end.  I glanced down through the branches of the palu tree.  The neighbors were huddling around Siri’s remains.  Rajivi and Sonali, shoulder to shoulder, were unraveling a saffron-colored blanket that looked vaguely like a monk’s robes.  I hung the binoculars around my neck and began to descend the tree.  Halfway down, I lost my footing.  Only a well-placed lower branch kept me from crashing in spectacular fashion to the ground.  I righted myself among the branches, more embarrassed at my clumsiness than hurt.  As I did so, I heard several voices say “Pow, nay?” one after the other in a torrential outpouring of sympathy.  And in that moment, squatting there in the tree like an oversized macaque, I imagined that those solicitous words were intended for me as well as for Siri.

Jason Zeitler was born in Tyndall, South Dakota.  He has degrees from the University of Virginia, George Washington University, and the University of Arizona.  Currently he writes stories for the Chinese children’s magazine 七彩, the English translation for which is Colorful Chinese.