Origen began sniffing, and my hand tensed on his leash. I didn’t want to be dragged.
The dog was a short-haired, big-jawed, bunch-muscled mongrel that weighed more than I did. He was gentle with kids and dogs, but if he wanted to take off I couldn’t hold him back and just had to hang on and run like hell.
It began five years ago, when I was ten. My father came upstairs to get me and winced when he opened the door to my room- it was a Friday and I’d piled up a week’s worth of clutter and ripening clothes before the mandatory Saturday clean up.
“Andy, Mr. Adamantius wants to talk to you.”
My eyes widened. “Is it the dog?”
My father nodded. “Let’s see what he has to say.”
Mr. Adamantius’ voice was a church organ “Hello Andy. You probably know that Frank Tessoni is going off to college in a few weeks. Origen needs to be walked in the early morning and late afternoon. Would you be able to take care of him before and after school?”
Adamantius was wheelchair-bound, no one knew why, or why a crippled man would get a dog that needed to be walked through a blighted Connecticut neighborhood.
“Ah,” was all I could blurt out.
“He already likes you, so it should be easy. It would pay nine dollars a day. You would need to feed him in the evening. I provide all the poop bags.”
Two hundred fifty dollars a month was more than I knew how to spend. My allowance for chores and room cleaning was ten dollars a week.
Adamantius spoke into my silence. “Tell you what, why don’t you come over to my house and I’ll explain things. Then you can tell me if you want to take on the job.”
I excused myself for a second, and told my father what Mr. Adamantius had just said. “That seems okay to me, Andy. Just stay away from the sink holes during your walks. You could put the money away for school.”
I picked up the phone and said, “Sure. Okay. Thanks. I’ll come over now.”
The Adamantius house was a hulking black outline in the dusk. It was the oldest and biggest house on the block, perched on top of a mound. The front door was heavy oak, the kind they use for church pews. I swung the bronze knocker.
Adamantius opened the door and rolled his wheelchair backward so I could get in. “Hello Andy,” he said with a genuine smile. Origen bounded forward and started licking me. His tongue was level with my nose.
I gently pushed the dog to one side and looked around the living room. The furniture was all heavy and old, except for a writing table and stool that had painted animal things on them and looked like they belonged in a museum.
“Thanks for thinking of me, Mr. Adamantius. I’ll be glad to take the job. Could I ask, though, Origen is a funny name. Why do you call him that?”
Adamantius’ mouth smiled, but his eyes didn’t crinkle. “Origen was a deeply religious man who lived a century after Christ. He was so committed that he had himself castrated. But he was considered heretical, so was never made a saint, and was tortured at length by his own church. Some say the reports of his later death were falsified, and that he went on to another task. I just wanted the name to be used again.”
I knew what castration was, but had to ask, “What’s a heretical?”
Adamantius’ laugh resonated. “Someone who believes differently from those around him.”
“Why does that matter?”
His expression saddened. “It shouldn’t. There are much worse things around here than differences of opinion, things no one believes in.”
“And if I could ask one more thing?”
“I’ve watched Origen out on his walks for as long as I can remember, and he looks just like he did when I was three. What’s the secret?”
Adamantius laughed. “He’s very old, but his breed seems almost ageless. He shrugged. “If you like you can take Origen out now for a trial walk. About twenty minutes is good.”
Adamantius held up a hand, palm out. “Origen may want to track down a scent. Don’t try and stop him, just hang onto the leash until he stops. When you come back, tell me exactly where you stopped. And which way his head pointed. It’s important. Can you do that?”
“I think so.”
“Excellent. His leash is hanging by the door. Enjoy the walk.”
It was six weeks of walks and feedings before Origen took off on me. I wasn’t ready, and the leash jumped out of my hand. By the time he stopped and I caught up with him I’d run three blocks. Origen’s back hairs bristled, and his growl sounded like it would rip apart his throat.
But he wasn’t growling at me. His head was pointed at the front door of a small one-story house. I grabbed the leash off the ground, chest burning, then remembered that I had to describe where he’d stopped. Kestrel Street, house number 282, three houses in from Laurel Avenue.
I tugged on Origen’s leash to get him turned around, but it was hopeless. His nostrils flared so much I could have stuck fingers into them. His bandy legs were splayed out firmly, and it would have taken at least two of me to get him to move.
“Okay, Origen,” I panted, “games over. You’ve found it. Now I have to tell Mr. Adamantius.”
The dog cocked his head toward me, and stopped growling. Then he cocked his back leg and peed on the steps leading to the house, as if marking his location. The return walk was calm, and when I told Mr. Adamantius he didn’t look surprised, just sad and tired.
“And again,” he said.
“What is, Mr. Adamantius?”
“Never mind, Andy, I’m just talking to myself. Old people do that.”
The next morning, curious, I walked Origen past the house on Kestrel street, or what was left of it. One side of the house had sunk about seven feet into another sinkhole. The siding above ground was blackened and warped. I saw a kid I knew from school and asked him what happened.
“The Volodkas had to leave. The house made a big grinding noise and fell into the ground. Nobody knows how the fire started but it took hours to put out. There was a really rotten smell.”
Origen stood next to me quietly while the boy and I talked, paying no attention to the house he’d growled at the evening before.
Mr. Adamantius’ reaction was subdued. “Really? Another sinkhole? If the people weren’t hurt, that’s the important part.”
When I got back to our house and told my dad about the wrecked house he shook his head. “This neighborhood, Andy, is cursed. These monster holes destroying property and homes. You remember the Lowell garage on Brighton? The same thing happened there.”
“But why did Origen snarl at the house a little before it collapsed?”
“I don’t know, Andy. Maybe it could feel the earth shaking.”
“Should we move, dad?”
His laugh was harsh. “We can’t afford to. We could get this house because I bought it for a third of what it would be worth anywhere else. I’ve over-insured it, but we’re stuck here,”
Origen irrigated the neighborhood lawns for another six months without incident. Mr. Adamantius rarely left his house, and never had visitors, so he liked to talk with me before or after the dog walks. He had more stories to tell, about gods that changed shape, and flew, and seemed to be cheating each other all the time.
Then, one fall evening, on the return leg of our walk, Origen yanked me along the street to the front of our own house, snarling and scraping his nails on the sidewalk.
Please God, I thought, not our house. When he quit growling, I walked Origen down the block to his home. Mr. Adamantius listened without saying anything while I told him what’d just happened. “Can Origen predict where a hole will open? Is our house going to sink into the ground?”
He rolled his wheelchair over next to me. “Andy, I can’t change whatever might happen to your house. But you will hopefully be okay. Please do me a favor. Set your alarm for one forty-five a.m. and get dressed. Could you do that?
“Explaining now wouldn’t make sense to you. And don’t look outside.”
I asked more questions, but Mr. Adamantius just dodged them. When I got home I set the alarm. His pipe organ tones and sincerity had gotten to me.
The alarm rang, and I almost shut it off and went back to sleep. But I didn’t. After I got dressed I stood for several minutes in my dark bedroom thinking I was a gullible fool.
Just then the house began to shriek. Not like the settling creaks of old houses when their joists get arthritis, but the sounds of finishing nails tearing out of wood, and six by twos splintering. My room seemed to twist its shape and I felt it lean to the front. I stumbled up to the front window and looked out. Two glistening shapes were standing in our front yard, staring down into a yawning hole in our front yard.
I blinked, then squinted. A car-sized animal with red eyes, its shaking head a blur, was tearing at shiny black things, like huge beetles, trying to scrabble out of the hole. Their maws were open as if yelling but I couldn’t hear anything over the destruction of our house. Next to the animal stood a tall, thin figure, waiting.
When the flow of beetles stopped the man shape began waving its arms. His mouth moved in maybe words, and I was knocked to the floor as our house and part of the lawn dropped a half dozen feet.
I struggled up and went back to the window, but there was nothing in the yard but splintered siding and roof shingles. The screams of tortured wood had died away with the death of our house.
“Andy!” I heard my father call out. “Andy, where are you?”
“In my room, dad.”
We met in the hallway, and touched each other to make sure we were okay. Then we ran down the stairs and out of the house. The outside smelled of rank animal musk. When we looked back, there was no fire, just a broken-backed house that had staggered into a huge hole.
Once we’d finished with the police and fire departments a neighbor took us in for the rest of the night. I was at Adamantius’ door early the next morning.
“Sir, , what happened to our house?”
“Are you and your dad all right, Andy?”
I nodded, then pointed at him.
“You knew this was going to happen. How? How could you let this happen? We lost our home!”
He looked at me for several seconds. “You know, Andy, all these sink holes remind me of a fable. Hard to believe, of course. If I tell it to you, can you keep it to yourself?”
“There’s a legend about a gigantic dog called Cerberus that guards the entry to the underworld. It stops living people going in, but, more urgently, prevents nameless things from getting out.
“People used to think that this hell hole was fixed in one spot. But when the creatures are blocked from entering our world in one area they eventually move and tunnel up in some other region, Like yours, maybe.“
Mr. Adamantius saw the disbelief on my face and nodded. “Like I said, it’s just a legend. Now, this dog can find and kill these things like a rat terrier, but he can’t plug up the hole to prevent others from coming through. That’s the job of the keeper. To tend to the dog and seal holes. A little like the Dutch boy plugging holes in a dike with his fingers. Anyway, that’s the fable.”
“You’re making fun of me.”
“Not at all. I wouldn’t have picked you to walk Origen if I didn’t think you were smart and brave. Think of this legend as a parable, something to help describe that bad things happen to people who don’t deserve them.”
I couldn’t believe what he’d just said, but I couldn’t disbelieve what had happened the night before. ‘I saw something in front of our house. A giant dog and a tall man. I wasn’t dreaming.”
“You shouldn’t have looked out. Anyway, two in the morning they say is the witches’ hour. Maybe you were bewitched.”
“There’s no maybe about our house getting destroyed.”
“No, and I feel really badly about that. You and your dad can stay here while you’re looking for another place. Please, there’s plenty of room. I hate to ask this after what’s just happened, but could you walk Origen this morning? He needs it.”
And I did. And we did. We moved into two bedrooms in the Adamantius house and helped him with cooking and laundry. I kept walking Origen. Dad eventually cashed the insurance check and bought another house in the neighborhood. “We can use the extra for your college tuition,” he said.” It’s unlikely that we picked another sink hole.”
I walked Origen for five more years. He sniffed out new holes once or twice a year for the first four years, but that last year everything was quiet. Mr. Adamantius and I didn’t talk about the sink holes much, but I remembered what I saw, and his story. And I wondered. Then, my sophmore year in high school, Mr. Adamantius told me he was moving.
I winced. “But like you said, you’re needed here.”
“Was needed. Things are quiet here now. We’re going to a village in Wales that’s got a problem. I’m obliged to go. But who knows, maybe you and Origen will team up again.”
I’d walked and fed Origen for so long that he was a slobbery brother I didn’t want to lose. And in the middle of feeling sorry for myself about losing the dog, I felt sad about something else.
“Mr. Adamantius, did you ever have a choice about living alone and doing this?”
“He half smiled but admitted nothing. “Not really, Andy. I’m just a heretic like Origen, defined by a commitment I can’t give up. Wind blows. Water flows. And we stand watch.”