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WHAT THE OSTRICH SEES IN THE SAND

Novel excerpt © Barry Kavanagh 1998

Barry has read this section of this unpublished novel to audiences at the Flux Factory, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NYC (2001) and at Scaledown, the King and Queen, Foley St, London (2004).

Kavanagh
Photo from The Orchestra Pit.



The dog disappeared. This happened at night when the whole family had gone to bed. Frances and Charlie, laughing euphorically, to their bedroom. Philip, weary from elbow-grease on the Experiment, to his. Eirian, under the gaze of Ulrike.

The dog began the night lying in its kennel, snout resting on its front paws. When it sensed that the humans were asleep, it crept out of its kennel with a sad little whimper and stood in the garden beneath the stars. Its ears rose, listening. Its back was turned to the kennel.

The four legs of the dog were motionless and attentively taut, paws pushing down into the grass, over by the leaky outdoor tap which had made the ground soft and muddy. The dog could smell the earth, trees and all that was around, including the discarded living room furniture. Its mouth, shut tight until now, opened and its tongue flopped out. The dog panted. Its teeth were bared and it seemed to be smiling. Then, quickly, another whimper came out as its mouth shut again. Its head turned to the house, which smelled of something like death but not quite and then to the metal swingball silhouetted against the moon, the ball on a worn string, hanging down as if it had given up like a lover grown complacent.

Memories came into the dog's mind of the children, Philip and Eirian, running round the garden in circles, saying the dog's name and the word "Walk!" over and over in increasingly excited tones, working the hound up into a commotion. The memories passed. The dog whined and fixed its eyes on the house one more time. This gaze was not maintained for long but it was so for the animal, one human year rumoured to be seven to a dog.

Without a glance at its fine wooden kennel and the off-pink blanket that was spread unevenly along the floor, the dog started to run down the driveway to the public road with all its strength.

By the time the first family member rose, their pet was nowhere to be seen. Eirian was first up on this morning and at an early hour, a restlessness keeping her from any comfort to be found in bed. She threw on jeans and a t-shirt. When she stepped into the kitchen the sun penetrated through the window as a sharp, irritating, topaz blaze. She grabbed the key for the door to the garden and, because this door was also made of glass, she was blind as she unlocked it. She managed to escape into the garden where the tree branches protected her from the prevailing light.

Examining the sun from here, where its rays were neither warm nor harmful, she thought that perhaps she had just had some kind of hallucinatory experience. Either way she did not particularly want to go back into the kitchen. Resigned to the garden, blades of grass tickling her toes, she scanned all around her and noticed the empty kennel.


When Eirian saw that her father had appeared for breakfast, she courageously returned to the kitchen. She wished him a good morning and, by-the-by, said "I haven't seen the dog," and then began to extract crockery from the dishwasher.

Charlie, sitting to eat, looked at his daughter to answer her. His view covered only one side of her head, where, as she worked, her hair obscured her face. "He'll probably show up," he replied without eye contact. "Probably gone for a bit of a wander." He cracked open his egg.

"Yeh," breathed Eirian, trimming the syllable short. She set a plate down and reached for another one. She was slowly emptying the machine and putting the clean things away in cupboards.


Frances was slow to rise. She had put so much of herself into the work the previous day that she had decided she needed an extended sleep. Only when it was noon and she had a headache from lying down for so long did she apprehend that she had not actually been asleep since eight o'clock. Her decision had been ill-considered. Violently she sat up and extricated herself from the density of the cream coloured duvet and white bedsheets. Standing, her head pained her a little more.

When she entered the kitchen, with a hurt look in her eyes caused by the headache, Charlie greeted her with an enquiring look, as if she was not who she purported to be. They kissed and both demeanours were dispelled. Three fingers of one of Charlie's hands rested on the bareness of her shoulder, his thumb and little finger suspended in the air, not knowing what would happen.

"So..." Frances said, without any intended point. Charlie took it to refer to the work. He sat her down on a chair and gave her an update. "Well, you started to make the people..." he whispered as if frightened she would not remember. She raised her eyes to him sweetly, thinking fondly of those little ones. "I need some breakfast," she said.

Charlie was dressed in worn clothes with holes in the knees and elbows. As people generally wore old rags to do gardening, decorating or painting he dressed that way for the work. His hair was curled at the back of his head, which as far as anyone was aware it had not done the day before. Frances observed the change when he walked across the kitchen to get her food.

She sat in her chair, legs crossed and her two hands joined prayerfully at her knee. A light current of air from the open door to the garden made her long nightdress dance a little. A thin dressing-gown hung from her, though it was off her shoulders. Most ends of her hair rested on her collar-bone, the longer wisps in no order or pattern at all. She was consciously inert, with a happy and blank smile on her lips. Her head tilted a little and she stared into space.


The day went. Eirian sat cross legged in the garden facing the back of the house. The sun was setting, its orange and gold pastels surrounding everything with a kind of glaze. Eirian's otherwise bare feet were in runners. Her hands were empty. She watched flies as they buzzed and zipped around in the grass. Eirian made faces at them. She thought about how flies were synonymous with the spreading of disease. Spiders that would have eaten the flies had all gone away.

A curious thing about the morning that had passed, something that Eirian had not descried, had been the non-existent dawn chorous, formerly given by the blackbirds and others. The family did not make themselves aware of it but there were no longer any birds in any of the trees on their property. Gone were the jackdaws, rooks and starlings from the trees, the magpies that would annoy the dog, the collared doves that would perch on the telephone wires and the robins from the hedgerow. No curlews or woodpigeons passed overhead.

Despite the net curtains, Eirian could see her parents moving around in the living room, working hard at their model village. Now bending down, now rising, now hands-on-hips: all their bodies' various transitions during the work could be seen.

Occasionally she would spot the head of Igor or Philip at the oriel. Philip would peer out into the garden at his sister. At one point during the day he brought her a rug of a variegated pattern, to sit on. It made her comfortable.

The shadow of the sofa crept across the garden and as the sun set both she and Philip, who was in 'his' attic, worried. The leaves curled with the evening moisture. Night fell and Charlie, wearing slippers in the style of moccasins, approached his sitting daughter. She perked up, mouth closed and at rest. He touched her chin for a second instead of saying anything. Her head bowed and she stood up. "The dog's missing, so," she concluded.

"We'll search," he frowned, reducing the amount he could have said, for the moment.

"Now?"

"In the morning," he said, guiding her into the house with his arm around her but not actually touching. Philip regarded them from on high, impassively. It was a clear night and the stars were overhead, in all their millions.


Upstairs, Frances sat on the edge of the bath. The large faucets stared into her. Unable to ignore them, she ran the water and watched it hit against her clay-covered hands that had just been working on models in the kitchen. She was shivering, very slightly. She decided to make some hot chocolate. That meant going to the kitchen. She stepped out onto the landing.

On her way down the stairs it seemed to her that the air was pervaded by the sound of her stockinged feet softly pressing against the carpeted steps. The sound of this friction was strangely loud. She staggered down.

Charlie was in the kitchen with their daughter. He stood at the table, by the wall. Eirian was sitting, prodding a bag of modelling clay with a fork. "We've got to find the dog," he said to Frances, who nodded on her way to a cupboard.

He turned back to Eirian, saying "We'll check everywhere, tomorrow. Cover the whole area."

The mother smiled encouragingly. She needed a mug to drink out of. When she opened a press to get one, chopsticks fell out and rolled down her arm.

"A... concerted effort," said Charlie, hands in his pockets, one concealingly knotting a finger in a handkerchief, his eyes not directed at anyone but at the wall and his three words coming out like deep sea fish that surface only on the point of death.

Philip appeared in the kitchen doorway, tightening the cord around his dressing gown. He looked pale and tired. "Was he definitely here last night?" he asked.

"Yeah," said Eirian. "He went into his kennel, when I was going to bed." She could have sworn on her life. Philip remained in the doorway and did not cross the threshold.

"His kennel..." said Frances, sentimentally, wishing a tear would roll down her face. The whole of one hand was tight around the handle of her still empty mug.


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