KEEPING THE NATURAL BALANCE • by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

I always go for the bad ones. Or so my mother said.

Rayneer said this one was chivvying the tails of her littermates from the moment she opened her eyes.

When a dog already knows how to hunt, you just need to teach her the quarry.

***

“Thought for sure you’d got a new car,” Rayneer said.

“Not till you’re ready to say the last rites over this one. Don’t let today be the day you break my heart.”

He laughed, arm around me in the familiar wiry embrace spiced with cherry tobacco and leather.

The bitch at his knee looked at me with interest. Half-grown, still with that galoshes look to her paws.

No junkyard dogs at Rayneer’s. His Bette was the progenitor of an exceptional tribe; local cognoscenti vie for pups from her line. Purpose-bred, well-schooled from the start.

“Her daddy’s Jensen’s Malinois.”

I offered a palm-down fist. She was courteous,with a flash of humor though she didn’t strike me as frivolous.

Rayneer and I and the dog strolled over to what Rayneer called, with that grin of his, the vintage side of the lot to look for the parts I needed.

“Name’s Marlene.” Brunette, though if you were a movie buff you’d see she was a dead ringer.

“I was gonna keep her. And here you walk in and shake my resolution.”

My Jenny’d died the previous year. Not replaceable, of course.

“Aren’t you jumping the gun?”

He’s careful about his dogs; doesn’t make bad pairings. Of course it’s up to the two of you later how the marriage works out.

“I wouldn’t say so,” Rayneer said.

***

I had a big fenced-in yard set up the way a dog like that needs for her own entertainment, especially when I’m writing. But we were out a lot together.

“Your dog is very polite.”

You notice a man who appreciates the sensibilities of a creature like Marlene. I’m rather over-curious myself; it’s an affliction of the craft, but there hadn’t been much of an avenue into Choi’s way of thinking until that morning, sitting outside his café.

He’d renamed it Spring Torrent, added a Korean perspective. I discovered how enjoyable it is to stop for a glass of hwachae on summer afternoons.

But the place didn’t seem Choi’s natural element. Over Marlene we got to talking and then we got to be friends.

Turnkey business, his brother-in-law’d said. Just walk in. Choi’d taught high school math; his late wife, music. I’ll help with the kids’ education, said the brother-in-law; live in the condo as long as you want. Even has a view of the mountains, just like home. What’s left for you there?

He was right, Choi said; one can die leisurely of grief anywhere.

It was all for the kids now and at first the kids seemed fine. David made the soccer team and Min-ju — Juliette to her friends — ran track. For the rest? Let them dream their own dreams, said Choi. I was never ashamed just to be a schoolteacher.

***

Something had gotten into Min-ju. Marlene and I would have to get it out.

“All the tests are negative.” Choi looked haunted himself, worry carving hollows in the caverns left by anguish. Dr. Kim, the brother-in-law, had all the important connections. Arranged referrals to specialists, everything was being explored, but none of that helps if you’re searching in the wrong direction.

Blue shadows spread beneath the girl’s orange-blossom skin. A cool color, but we smelled the rank heat of what was denning itself in the ventricles of her heart. A vacuum filled by warmth from an acrid fire.

“Clarissa is so generous to us,” Choi said. “Especially a girl needs a woman’s touch.”

He wasn’t a simple man but malice can be sharp and fine as silver wire; hard to see if you’re not at the right angle.

Choi’d shown me photos of Dr. Kim’s handsome family, and I can appreciate a certain degree of foxiness. But even such fine creatures aren’t immune to canker.

***

We tracked Dr. Kim’s wife to the great winding trail south of the hospital, where you can get some well-landscaped exercise and not worry too much about running into bear.

I slammed into Clarissa but Marlene’d already knocked the breath out of her.

An illusion, that the pair of us left the ground at the same time; that fraction of a second when you’re matched stride for stride and seem to leap together at the prey. I felt the drug-rush of glee and power; knew with what an economy of motion Marlene could have ripped out Clarissa’s throat.

Clarissa’s eyes rolled back but I knew she’d only fainted. I grabbed her wrist and pulled her into a splayed sit. Her pulse was pounding and she stank of terror.

That would be enough to reset the circuit. We’re civilized, Marlene and I; though God knows the temptation to slip the leash was shockingly beautiful.

“We’ll find you,” I said, “again and again and again. Do you understand?”

She did; she wasn’t stupid. It wasn’t worth it, risking everything she had just for a game of spite. She’d keep herself in line, now that she knew someone really saw and wouldn’t stop watching.

We left her there, to pick herself up and limp her way north to get that ankle looked at.

***

“You’re absolutely resplendent,” I told Choi. His sweater was gorgeous. He had the look of a man starting to believe that learning to live again isn’t any sort of betrayal.

I bent to admire the jewel-colored twisted-dough ribbon pastries filling the display case. Taraegwa, the sign said, to celebrate Seollal. Korean New Year.

“Ooh,” I said, “how do I pick just one?”

Choi laughed. “You can’t.” He filled a box for me, and I didn’t mind accepting.

Min-ju came through the door just then, looking like a winter-blooming rose. She didn’t really know me or Marlene. But–

“That’s a really pretty dog,” she said. “Can I pet her?”


Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Perihelion SF Magazine, 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and 101 Word Stories; her posts on the craft of writing — including reviews of stories selected “From the EDF Archives” — have been featured on Flash Fiction Chronicles.)


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