Elvis and Cos were reaching the top of the hill, everything pale and scattered with dark green. The glint of a river far in the distance. Patches of forests, the occasional building smaller as the distance grew, nothing but hints of civilisation all the way to the distant horizon.
‘You don’t say ah-gape,’ Cos said panting. ‘You say ah-gap-ee.’
‘Ah, right,’ Elvis said.
‘You know what the word agape means, don’t you?’
‘No, Cos man, I don’t. I did wonder though, whether it means anything or it’s just the name of a character in a Japanese… you know, one of those anime movies.’
“It means unconditional love, Godlike love.”
“Wow, what a name for a dog.”
“I think it’s perfect for a dog, actually. It’s what they feel for their owners. It’s like the love for your children…”
“I don’t have children, you know that.”
“I know that, Elvis, and as you also know, I don’t have children either. I was going to add, if I may… like the love our parents feel for us.”
“My parents don’t feel unconditional love for me, man. In fact, it’s terribly conditioned, like so many conditions you wouldn’t believe.”
As if by mutual agreement, the two young men stopped and sat on the boulder at the top of the hill. Cos, the one that knew the word agape, quite out of breath. His friend, Elvis, his breathing almost imperceptible, as if instead of looking at the landscape below just after having climbed a steep high hill, he was at home, on the sofa watching tv. Elvis might not have had the advantage of knowing the pronunciation nor the meaning of the word agape, but he didn’t have the disadvantage of eating pastries and gummies as Cos had. They didn’t bother taking off their light backpacks. They were on a mission that might have required getting on their feet again at any second. Awkwardly bending down and sideways, Cos managed to pull his water flask out from the side pocket of his backpack to drink a few sips. Elvis didn’t bother.
‘It’s not as cold as I thought it would be,’ Cos said, looking around, wanting to divert the conversation from his friend’s allegedly unloving parents; something he had never mentioned before. Cos thought about it for a moment. It had always annoyed him, the fact that Elvis managed to hide the utter confidence in himself under an air of diffidence; now he wondered if it hadn’t been the other way around. Sitting there, staring at the landscape below, Elvis looked like the Buda about to achieve enlightenment. Why, despite the love for his friend, Cos always managed to find a moment in the day when to hate him? He despised himself for the feeling and fervently wished he could shake it off, but he couldn’t. He was too jealous of his thinness and his inner peace. But perhaps the inner peace was just a front after all.
‘No,’ Elvis agreed, ‘But temperatures are gonna go down as the day travels. And tonight…’
‘Yes, I know.’ Cos got up from the boulder. ‘We better get on with it.’
‘Just a sec,’ Elvis said taking his phone out of his back pocket. ‘Let me look in case there’s any news from the search group.’
Cos sighed again. He would have heard a bleep from his phone if there were a message at all and he hadn’t, but, never mind, it was a free country, full of free people with free will that one had no option but to respect if one was to be respected in turn.
‘No,’ Elvis said predictably. ‘No news at all.’ He got up from the boulder and as he turned around towards the clearing on the hilltop, he saw the dog.
‘It’s—it’s that him?’ he whispered. Cos had seeing him too, he was looking straight at him.
‘Yes,’ he whispered back, his eyes growing big. ‘It looks like him.’ It was bigger than he thought, but still a small dog. Grey with a little white, a mix of fox and Yorkshire terrier, his hair cut short. He was busy smelling something in the lush green grass, shining like emerald under the late afternoon sun.
Elvis slowly took his backpack off and carefully opened the zip, the noise didn’t seem to bother the little dog. He took out the plastic bag with the chorizo sausage he had bought for the dog at the supermarket that morning. He hadn’t been an easy task for him because at home they were all fishetarians, except for Totoro the cat, and he only ate kibble and some fish sometimes. The guy at the butcher’s stall had looked at him in a funny way when he asked for a single chorizo sausage. Elvis then explained: ‘It is to lure a little dog, a yorkie, that came from the city for a day’s outing in the valley with his family ten days ago and got lost; he’s still alive because people keep spotting him here and there, but he’s so frightened he won’t let himself be caught, not even by his own owner, who comes every day all the way from the city to look for him. He’s still in good shape, because the little thing runs like the devil whenever anyone comes near him.’ The butcher was sympathetic and slit the chorizo open for it ‘to smell stronger and put it in a microwave for a few seconds, then it will smell even more and will attract the little devil more easily.’
‘Agape!’ Elvis beckoned in a whisper, opening the plastic bag with the little sausage inside. ‘Agape, sweetheart, here is a chorizo for you, you like chorizo, don’t you?’
Neither Elvis nor Cos moved from their spot. They had been told again and again by Maria, the dog’s owner, and the locals that had been searching for the dog for a week not to try to catch him, not even to approach him, and of course, not to run after him. A couple of forest rangers in the area, long-legged beefy guys the pair of them, had already tried that. To no avail.
The dog looked up at them. He looked clean and fine if a bit thin, his light brown and grey hair trimmed close to the skin even though it was winter.
‘Agape,’ it was Cos’s turn to whisper. ‘Come with us, we know your mummy, Maria? Yes? Maria? Look, we have food, look!
The dog kept staring at them. He had a beautiful face with longer hair above the shiny buttons of his eyes and around the mouth and the black little snout. To Cos, he looked like someone’s grandfather turned into a little dog by a witch. To Elvis, he looked like a felt dog turned into a real one by a fairy godmother.
Cos took out his phone. They were supposed to take a photo of the dog and send it to the search chat group when they found him, sending along with it the location where the photo had been taken. Cos fumbled with his phone; he was extremely nervous and the sunlight obscuring the phone screen didn’t help. He ended dropping the thing and the dog shot out of the clearing and into the forest. Cos snatched his phone from the grass cursing under his breath.
Both him and Elvis called after the dog. They knew it wouldn’t do any good, but they couldn’t help it. They gave up and looked at each other for clues on what to do next, they wanted to run after Agape, of course, that was instinctively what they wanted to do, but in this case they knew instinct was wrong. By tacit agreement they started walking towards the spot in the woods where the little dog had disappeared. They took turns to call him, not too loud, Elvis with the chorizo still in his hand waving it in the air as he staggered along the uneven terrain among the tall conifers. Damn doggie, he thought, why didn’t he want to go home with his mummy-owner?
It crossed his mind then, for the first time, that perhaps Agape didn’t want to be rescued, perhaps he was happy in the countryside, the valley, the hills, the hospital in the hills where he could steal some of the food people put out for the cats when the little clawed devils weren’t around, the restaurant in the valley where he could wolf down some of the leftovers around the overflowing rubbish bins at dusk before the foxes came down from the hills in the night. It had been raining a lot in the last months, so the streams carried plenty of water. It wasn’t too cold and there were warm little nooks and crannies among the boulders in the hills and the houses in the valley where the dog could safely curl up and spend the night. What was not to like about a life like that? What was to miss of a life in a flat in the city? Human company and affection? Elvis thought about human company and affection and whether he would miss it if he were to live in the wild. Not much, not for quite a while. His sister’s company? He would somehow miss it, but not for a while, not for the ten days the dog had been running away from humans and other animals, not perhaps for another extra week.
The problem was the coming cold weather. Any kind of animal could very well die in the Sierra’s weather. Even in the summer, people who had lost their way in the long chain of repetitive hills, some had been found dead from hypothermia in a hot day, after having spent the night.
‘Elvis,’ Cos called. Elvis stopped in his tracks and looked over at his friend.
‘We have to let the search group know I’ve spotted him,’ Cos said.
‘You mean we.’
‘Yes, we. Sorry for the faux pas.’
Elvis sniggered at his friend’s French remark, he could be such a pompous fart; for Elvis using the expression faux pas was a faux pas in itself.
‘More like a Freudian slip, man,’ he thought out-loud. ‘Yes, we should tell them.’
‘We have to stop a moment so that I can at least start the audio or the phone won’t be the only thing to fall on the ground.’
‘Ok,’ Elvis conceded holding his arms in front, palms up. ‘Go ahead then. My turn next time.’
Cos pressed the audio button and started recording his message. Elvis took the chance to wrap the chorizo in the plastic bag and put it back in his backpack. For a moment, he considered eating it. He was starting to find the experience all too confusing.
‘Ok,’ he heard Cos saying. ‘It’s done. Let’s carry on.’
‘God knows where the dog is by now.’
‘What do you want to do Elvis, eh? Do you want to give up already?’ Cos snapped rather angrily, he didn’t know why.
‘What do mean already? We’ve been doing this for days man, and no, I don’t want to give up. Of course, I don’t, you know that, I love that stupid dog even though I don’t know him for shit.’ He resumed walking in the same direction they were walking before they’d stopped. ‘Even though we don’t even know he wants to be rescued…’
‘Of course he wants to be rescued!’ Cos shouted. He was following Elvis along the narrow trail that had appeared in front of them out of nowhere. ‘He’s just very scared and confused.’
‘Or, or,’ Elvis put his right index up in the air, ‘his real name is Buck and he got the call of the wild and doesn’t want to go back to the so-called civilisation.’
‘Bollocks,’ Cos retorted. ‘We have to think differently. Remember what that animal communicator said: we have to visualise we find him and he let’s us pick him up and be taken to his mama.’
‘Yeah-yeah,’ Elvis waved his hand in annoyed acknowledgement. ‘But what if that’s what we want but not what he wants…’
‘Ah for fucksake Cos, give it a rest!!’
After a long trek in silence, they got to the end of the hilltop, a long ridge with a deep narrow drop to the hills in front.
‘Where is the valley?’ Elvis asked.
‘I don’t know,’ Cos admitted. Where the hell are we, he thought, too proud to say it out-loud.
‘This is ridiculous,’ Elvis complained. ‘We better go back and try again.’
‘No, no, no, I think I know where we are,’ Cos fibbed to himself and his friend. ‘The valley is to the East. That way,’ he pointed to the right. ‘That’s probably were the doggie is going, back to the valley where there’s food and shelter.’
‘You might be right, but I still think we should go back where we started and then we’ll know for sure where the valley is.’
‘I’m good with directions man, I know this is West and this is East…’ he started signalling with his arms.
‘Yeah, ok, bravo tango, but really man, we don’t want to get lost, it’s already getting dark and cold…’
‘We’re not going to get lost and we’re going to find Buck.’
‘You mean Agape.’
They looked at each other for a moment and burst out laughing.
‘We better have something to eat before we make any decision,’ Cos said.
They sat down on a small boulder and ate their sandwiches. Elvis considered the chorizo one more time, it smelled so good… It took him by surprise how much he missed chorizo. He took out a banana instead.
After their meagre dinner they felt happier and bolder. Yet colder. They put the hoods of their parkas up and tightened them around their faces. Elvis saw the sense in not going back and carrying on the way they thought the dog had gone, even though they couldn’t be sure he had actually gone that way. With Agape, you had to go on faith, and after their meal they two young men were fired up with it. The little doggie was going back home that evening. Both of them visualised the event in their minds, as they had been told to do by the animal communicator.
‘This is what we want,’ Cos said out-loud, going red in the face with embarrassment, ‘universe. Please, give it to us. Thank you.’
Elvis sniggered, but funnily enough, this time he believed it was possible. Better believe than not believe; it cost the same and it gives you a more pleasant feeling, especially when you’re facing a cold evening.
They were lost. It was pitch dark now and they were definitely lost. Cos’s phone had died. Elvis hadn’t but it didn’t matter because there was no signal.
‘You were right,’ Cos admitted to his friend. ‘We should’ve gone back.’
‘Yeah,’ Elvis said. ‘I was right in the beginning but then I changed my mind.’
‘I’m such an idiot, I should’ve listened to you.’
‘Yeah, I should’ve listened to myself. Too late now.’
‘I was thinking a while back “wouldn’t it be comic if we got lost and they had to look for us while they looked for the dog”.’
‘Do you think they’re gonna look for us?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I don’t think we should carry on walking.’
‘You’re right on that, I think we should find some kind of shelter and spend the night there.’
They did trudge along for a while longer, using Elvis’s phone torch to guide them until they found a crevice in a huge boulder next to a ridge. They took their backpacks off, threw them in, went on the floor and slid in head first; big Cos first, then Elvis, thin as a wafer. The crevice was just about large enough to hold them both if the literally stuck together. They would keep each other warm, they agreed, too tired to feel embarrassed and too cold not to welcome each others’s body heat. In other circumstances they would’ve found having a massive boulder over their heads frightening, but in these dark below zero reality they were grateful beyond words. Their exhaustion and their newly found warmth relaxed them straight away and made them sleepy, their last thoughts dedicated to their families and, of course, Agape, the dog, wishing to share with all of them their peace and warmth, if not their very humble and very tiny abode.
‘You think we’ll wake up?’ Cos mumbled.
‘I hope so… What a way to die,’ Elvis mumbled back.
‘I’m sorry Elvis.’
‘I don’t know, but I’m sorry.’
‘Ok… I forgive you, for whatever…’
‘Thank you… I love you.’
‘Ok… I love you too man… And forgive me too… my tres… passes.’
‘Good night,’ Cos said
‘Good luck,’ Elvis said.
They both succumbed to slumber.
Cos dreamed he was pregnant. He didn’t know men could dream they were pregnant, although he knew anyone could dream anything, and he was surprised in his sleep that he could be dreaming that, as he realised he was dreaming. Then he forgot he was dreaming and felt excitement about being pregnant. As the pregnancy progressed in his dream and the skin on his abdomen stretched beyond what he thought was possible, and his belly became heavier and heavier and fuller fuller with life, he started wondering what it was that he was going to give birth to. He wasn’t sure at all it was going to be a baby, after all he was a man and everyone knows a man cannot give birth to babies. What does a man give birth to?
Elvis felt hot during the night. A lot of the time he wasn’t sleeping deeply, but more like what Totoro did: catnapping is what Elvis did that night. He didn’t purr but he did something far stranger: his body radiated an intense heat that kept him and Cos warm all night. He wonder if he was ill or about to combust into flames. He heard the wind and something that sounded like shattered glass coming down from the sky, which he interpreted as hail. At some point, he was so hot he took his hood off. He felt the warm skin of Cos’s face against his; he also had taken his hood off, the guy who had fobia to creepy crawlies. Realising they were going to make it, he finally relaxed and enjoyed a fitful sleep.
The morning conversations of the little forest birds woke the two friends up. What a racket they made, they both thought. Then they thought about who would first slide out of the hole and into the day. As each of them thought about this, they felt an animal lying on top of them. Cos remembered his dream. This is the baby!, he thought. Slowly and gently he put his hand on it. The skin was abundantly furry and soft, like that of a felt dog he had when he was little, but unlike his toy, this guy smelled bad; it was alive too, because the body moved up and down with breathing, it made a soft noise when Cos’s hand touched it.
‘Jesus,’ Elvis whispered, fighting the urge to slither out of there like a rat snake. ‘What the fuck is this?’
‘Well,’ Cos yawned, not at all worried. ‘It feels like a dog, but smells like a wolf.’
‘I doubt is a wolf, Elvis, it would be scared shitless of u…’ Suddenly something dawned on him and he quickly grabbed the little animal with his big hands.
‘Agape?’ he said too loudly. The dog barked softly, more like a whimper.
Elvis slid out of the hole with considerable difficulty —How the hell had they managed to get in there the previous night?— He then proceeded to help Cos come out too by pulling at his legs, but he was too heavy for his strength.
‘Give me the dog!’ Elvis suggested.
‘No, no, it’s Ok,’ grunted Cos, mortally afraid of letting go of Agape, of the possibility of him running away and being lost again. ‘I’ll manage.’
He did by flexing and extending his legs and slowly slithering on his back like a massive worm. With the dog firmly in his hands, he stumbled to a standing position. Both young men looked at the dog: it definitely was Agape. They smiled at the dog and at each other.
‘We’ve given birth to a dog,’ Cos said thought out loud.
‘Haha,’ said Elvis, and then they laughed quietly, not to startle the little animal. They stroke him in turns and said loving things to him. He looked exhausted and very thin, but definitely on the side of the living. What at toughie this dog was.
Elvis remembered the chorizo and a tiny bit of water he had left in his water flask and immediately went back into the hole to retrieve his and Cos’s backpacks. He poured the little water left carefully in his cupped hand and offered it to the dog in Cos’s arms: the dog lapped it up in two licks. Then Elvis took the chorizo out and put it close to the dog’s mouth. Despite looking worn out, the dog ate the whole sausage quickly, as if his mouth had a life of his own.
Elvis checked his phone: it had died during the night. The men started walking, not knowing very well which way to go, but not worried anymore, Cos still wanting to keep the dog in his arms. Half an hour into their journey, they heard voices. They were shouting Cos’s and Elvis’s names. The young men looked at each other, waiting for the voices to call Agape’s name too, hurt when they didn’t hear it.
‘We’re here!’ Elvis shouted with a voice big for his size.
Cos didn’t dare shout for fear of frightening Agape, who seemed comfortably asleep in his arms. He wished he had more water and food to give the poor soul. It didn’t matter because shortly after they were found by five members of the Agape Search Group.
There were expressions of great relief when the searchers learnt the two men were the missing “boys” the police and the fire brigade had been looking for all night. With helicopters and everything. Then all heaven broke loose when they realised the dog they had been looking for was with them. Expressions of delight and tears of joy went on while calls were made: first to the police and the families of the missing “boys” then to the dog’s owner, who wasn’t with them but on her way from the city. Cos finally let go of Agape, carefully handing him over to Celia, the woman who first came up with the idea of a search group a week earlier. She was still crying softly with joy and relief. She had a blanket in her arms and she lovingly wrapped the little dog in it, who seemed to be ok with the change of hands. After ten days of running away from humans, he had finally surrendered back into their care.
‘What were you doing out here anyway?’ someone stupidly asked.
‘We were looking for… unconditional love,’ Elvis said.
‘But unconditional love found us,’ Cos added. The two friends looked at each other and cracked up with laughter.
Vivi, December 30, 2021