Dances With Jackals - Umberto Tosi


Marcos Rodriguez Pantoja
poses for Matthew Bremner's
recent Guardian profile.
An article in the Guardian knocked me on my backside the other day. The feature, How to Be Human by Matthew Bremner, examined the life of Marcos Rodríguez Pantoja, an elderly Spaniard had been abandoned as a child and had survived fifteen years in the Andalusian mountains with wolves as his only companions. Like a real-life Romulus and Remus, he owes his life to a she-wolf, who accepted the small boy as part of her litter, sharing food, after he crawled into their den seeking shelter from the cold on the first night or second night of his long ordeal.

Deja vu: My Dog's Name, the novella I've been revising for inclusion in Sometimes Ridiculous, my forthcoming softcover story collection, has a similar, archetypal plot. A boy, presumed buried by a mudslide, roams the Hollywood Hills with a family of coyotes. I wrote it back 2013, having never heard of Rodríguez, at least that I can recall. 

It was an experience with some visiting friends that set me to writing the novella, although I didn't know where it would go at the timeHolly Wilson, a contemporary, Native American artist who resides in Oklahoma, her husband and their two young children were staying with my inamorata Eleanor Spiess-Ferris for a week here in Chicago. Their seven-year-old son kept telling us about a dog that he absolutely knew he was going to get for Christmas. His mother kept shaking her head. Gently, she corrected that he couldn't have a dog because of allergies. The boy continued talking blithely about the dog, nevertheless. He described it vividly. It sounded like a magnificent animal. Its ears would be upright and pointed, grey eyes alert. It would look like a German Shepherd, but more massive and all black, with medium-short hair. 

"I'm naming him Anubis," the boy declared.

"Like the Egyptian god?" I inquired, figuring this as a teaching moment, "with a jackal's head?"
Anubis guides the dead, and oversees the weighing
of hearts to determine their eternal fate.
Holly's son tilted his head quizzically. He kept right on talking about his dog. The boy continued gleefully. It had the ring of an incantation that, if vivid enough, would bring his dog and his dream to life. 

Who knows? I mused. Come Christmas, perhaps the jackal-headed deity might take a break from guiding the dead and overseeing the weighing of their hearts, to ride shotgun with Santa and grant the boy's wish. 

That night, after the boy went off to bed, his mother explained that her son had gotten the dog's name from House of Anubis, a mystery TV series then showing on Nickelodeon. No matter. Disguise it all they want, I thought to myself: Who is to say that Anubis didn't guide those Nickelodeon writers to Hollywood from the underworld - or maybe from Belgium, where the show idea had originated?  

In any event, after Holly and her family went back to Oklahoma, I started writing what I thought would be a boy-and-his-dog story. As these things go, however, personal memories and myths soon seeped into the scene. Like Holly's boy, I had my own imaginary dogs as an only child whose parents moved from New England to California and around the state during and after World War 2. Pets were out of the question forever, it seemed.

Native American contemporary artist
Holly Wilson.
I contented myself with Lassie, in books and movies, the Adventures of Tintin, and his dog Snowy, and reading, and re-reading Jack London's Yukon wolfdog, White Fang, with whom I dreamt of running wild. Then with wolves - an easy step of imagination.  I was fascinated by my grandmother's replica of the famous Capitoline, Romulus and Remus bronze depicting the twins suckling from a watchful she-wolf. I always rooted for the grotesquely persecuted wolf in all those fairy tales and cartoon. Just once, I wanted to see Wiley Coyote catch that smart-ass Road Runner.

I got to know a family of coyotes when I lived in the Hollywood Hills as a young father working at the Los Angeles Times during the 1960s and '70s. My headlights would catch their jaded yellow eyes as they stood, long-legged on the side of the winding, unlit, canyon road that led to my peeling, Mission Style home. Their matted fur showed buff, grey and lemony. They were dream characters emerging from the chaparral, suspended between past and present - between a starry infinity above and a vastness of city lights in the distance. I got to leaving chipped bowls of water and kibbles for them on my overgrown flagstone patio, where I hope to glimpse them through the window of my study while I sat at my Underwood typewriter trying to write the great American novel.


Coyotes are an American jackal. They've managed survive nearly every kind of environment, our suburbs and even big cities. We see them here in Chicago, where they like to prowl golf courses and cemeteries and, do their part to keep the rat population at bay. Natural historians say that jackals, similarly, prowled the cemeteries of ancient Egypt. This likely gave rise to the jackal-headed Anubis as guardian of the dead. It's no wonder they keep finding their way into my stories.

Wolves get a bad rap for killing livestock and snatching babies. As often documented - and poignantly depicted in Carol Ballard's masterful, 1983 film, Never Cry Wolf, they subsist almost exclusively on rats, mice and other rodents, keeping vermin in check and wilderness in balance.

The Capitoline bronze.
We are the apex predators that all animals - including ourselves - need to worry about most - with our careless pollution, our sprawling habitat-killing developments and freeways. Rodríguez Pantoja can attest to that personally. He became a local celebrity for a time after his 1960s rescue, at age 19 - mute and matted. Anthropologist Gabriel Janer Manila wrote a book about him, and director Geraldo Olivares featured him in a 2010 film - Entrelobos (Among Wolves). Since then, Rodríguez has lived quietly in a small Spanish town, nearly forgotten until Bremner sought him out for what turned out to be a fascinating biographical story. “For most of my life, I had a very bad time among humans," he told the Guardian interviewer. No surprise there.

Oh yes - and our friend Holly wrote and told us that her son finally did get his Christmas dog. In fact, they got two, one for her son and one for his younger sister. Both are Portuguese Water Dogs, the same hypoallergenic breed as Bo and Sunny, the dogs that President and Mrs. Obama bought Malia and Sasha back in those brighter days when they were America's First Family.

(Parts of this article excerpted from a 2013 essay I wrote for Center for Humans & Nature's City Creatures blog.)
--------------------------------------  
Umberto Tosi
Dances With Dogs
Umberto Tosi is the author of My Dog's NameOphelia RisingMilagro on 34th Street and Our Own KindHis short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes ASAP, covering the Silicon Valley tech industry. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine and other regionals He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and is a contributor to its published anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four daughters: Alicia Sammons, Kara Towe, Cristina Sheppard and Zoë Tosi. He resides in Chicago. 


Comments

Lovely evocative article, as always. Hope we will get to read "My Dog's Name" soon?
Griselda Heppel said…
A wonderful depiction of where stories start. I can just see that determined boy, his own unshakeable vision of the dog he was never going to get (except that he did... so it worked!), the sly entrance of the god Anubis into the scene, inspiring those TV script writers without their even being aware of it - all leading up to what sounds like a real page-turner of a book. I look forward to its appearance.

What I find harder to believe is the story of Marcos Rodriguez Pantoja, the boy 'raised by wolves'. Reading the Guardian article, it's clear that this is an extraordinary account of an abandoned child who managed to survive in the wild, at the cost of a socialised childhood that would have enabled him to survive in human society. But a 7 year-old boy curling up with a lot of wolf cubs with no fear at all? Hmm.
julia jones said…
Deeply interesting, wide ranging and imaginative. Thank you
Umberto Tosi said…
Many thanks, to you, Dipika, Griselda, and Julia. Regarding the Guardian article, I shared your skepticism about the boy in the she-wolf's den. Rodriguez's story seems to have been consistently told, and written about by many sources, and I respect the Guardian - although it's possible that Rodriguez assimilated myths into his accounts. On the other hand, how did the child survive? Why was he discovered amid wolves? Plus, it's not uncommon for a brooding mother to take in another baby critter into her litter by mistake. Cuckoos, for example, deliberately lay their eggs in other birds' nests to be raised by unwitting step-parents, and it has seemed to work for them. Kittens have been nursed by bitches along with their pups... etc. Who knows? Anyway, as Mark Twain said, "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story." :D

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