is a writer and poet whose experiences have taken him on many grand adventures, real and imaginary. Driven by a deep love for the written word, Soldan seeks to share his art and unique outlook with readers around the world. His stories have been featured in Illustrated Worlds, Flights, and Adventures. Soldan received the 2022 Spectrum Award for Adult Fiction and took the second place prize for Adult Poetry at the same event. He currently resides in Dayton, OH.
When the dog first began crooning outside her house, Maxine assumed it was hungry. There was no shortage of stray pets in town, forgotten by the dead and their descendants. But the brown mastiff that made itself at home in her garden was different, the times he chose to bark, auspicious. They made planning her husband’s funeral impossible and all she began to want was a moment’s peace. She prayed for deliverance; she went to the saints and spirits the wise women prescribed to no avail.
“He’s a monster,” Maxine told her mother over the phone. “An absolute monster. It’s bad enough that I don’t have Olimpio’s body. Now I can hardly sleep!”
The crackly voice on the other line of the receiver murmured words of comfort from far away until that all-too-familiar ringing sound brought the call to an end. Silence replaced theever-present static of the phone. Maxine was alone again, alone with a barren home full of a dead man’s dross.
Outside, more barking reminded her that she was not as isolated as she’d thought. Perhaps, Maxime reasoned, this dog problem would be solved just as it would have been if her husband were still alive.
“Let’s see how you like this, eh?”
She’d had enough of the dog’s racket and tightly gripped an old plastic water bottle, ready to dispense justice on the mastiff. In the old days, that bottle had been put to good use on Olimpio. Maxine would squirt him as he lay in the dirt, drunk and drenched in cheap perfume after a night out at some Cafe. Holes dug into its plastic top guaranteed each blast landed as hard as possible. Inside its strained, industrially made confines, a mixture of lye-based cleaner and cinnamon sluiced, eager to be set free.
“Get on! Get on, God damnit!” Maxine shouted as her left hand squeezed the bottle, crumpling the cheap thin plastic. .
Fangs were bared, whimpers heard, but eventually the dark shape of the dog scuttled away in defeat. Maxine closed the door behind her, determined to enjoy this hard-fought peace. It was indelible in the woman’s relaxed smile. But as soon as she sat down, she pictured Olimpio’s face. Her poor husband’s tanned, stupidly grinning expression was muddled by the sudden scratching on the door.
“You’re as stubborn as he is. Was,” she said softly.
A now familiar rumble followed. It was clear that old tricks would not scare the mastiff away. That was certainly one thing, she thought, the dog and her husband shared.
Like every other unsolvable problem in the village, only the crone could help her now.
Enduring as best as she could, Maxine waited until noon and then put on her best dress before hitting the road. The wise woman might live alone in a home worse than hers, but she expected to be treated with deference. As she walked, Maxine mentally counted the reais gathered to pay for the session.
The walk was long and uneventful, except that the canine shadowed Maxine from a distance. He was wary enough to stay out of her way, the previous attempt to spray him no doubt still on his mind. Humidity drenched them both, yet neither backed down.
“I don’t care where you follow me mutt, you’ll get no sympathy. Go home to your real master!” The dog ignored her harsh tone. “Just like my damn husband,” she caught herself saying.
She crossed a stone bridge and kept walking. Not a single coin would be wasted on a bus ride. A one-way trip would have cost her 30 coins, and perhaps, a chance of getting a straight answer from the bruxa. Besides, she hated traveling in the back of those hulking American contraptions that smelled of grease and farmer’s dreams, the word ‘VOLVO’ the only part not rusted.
The crone’s tiny hut appeared as if conjured by some spell. Like a hidden door, it remained unseen until one crested a hill, the jumble of planks and canvas waiting halfway down the slope.
Maybe it was magic. If the rumors were true, such a thing would not be out of character for the old woman; she was a bruxa after all, Maxine reasoned. Her ways were legendary, attracting visitors from as far as Sao Paulo. That people rode by truck and horseback from the state capital to seek answers from the crone made spending so much easier to bear. If even imperials from Iparanga were satisfied with her answers, Maxine certainly would be too.
Maybe she should have forced Olimpio to come here when he first mentioned going north. He’d always been full of mad ideas, this time dreaming up a perfect way to bring gold and diamonds back from Ouro Preto.
If only I’d made him listen.
“How long has the dog been following you?” the culandera asked once Maxine had paid.
The women’s milky eyes were fixed on Maxine, as if she saw everything, even the pricks of anxiety beneath her skin. The middle-aged woman squirmed under that gaze. The way the woman’s faintly brown pupils absorbed her every movement made her shudder. She questioned how the old woman knew what no one else could have known, how with a simple twist of her mouth she implied knowledge of those darkest moments. Maxine did not know that the crone would have seen all of that without her sacred art. It was written in the sweat gathered in the pits of her arms and the way words laced with concern tumbled out of her mouth.
“Three days,” Maxine said. “The dog has tormented me for three days.”
“And when did you learn of your husband’s passing?”
An easy question that was somehow hard for the younger woman to answer. In truth, she’d known four nights before, when a force of great apprehension gripped her heart and refused to let her sleep. But the telegram…that arrived the next day. The way a kind voice trembled on the line still sent tiny bumps rippling up her arms.
“The night before the telegram arrived,” Maxine replied. There was no sense attempting to hide the truth from the crone. “He was going up north, to mine gold in Ouro Preto.”
“Do you not see who the dog really is?”
Subconsciously, Maxine turned and looked at the hut’s door. Its canvas flapped with every gust of wind. In the doorway, the dog watched knowingly.
“But he appeared before the notice was…” Maxine stopped herself.
“Your greatest lament at losing your husband is the loss of his body, no?”
The younger woman nodded, slightly embarrassed at how easy she was to read.
“That is why you cannot get rid of him. He’s here to take you to the body. My dear, that dog there is your Olimpio.”
If not for the crone’s reputation for wisdom, Maxine would have called her a liar before stomping out. Instead, she gracefully got her bearings, thanked the old woman, and left. Behind her, the dog pattered along.
How could Olimpio become a dog? Such tales were not unheard of but had always been relics of the past, from an age when the Tupi still owned the land.
Maxine remembered a great great-grandfather that was said to have become a hummingbird so he could torment everyone at his funeral. She even recalled a mulatta in a neighboring village that conjured zombies and set them on trespassers. If such things might have happened to others, why not her?
‘Interesting’ things only happened to interesting people, she used to think. And yet there she was, with a dead husband that was now a dog. She was no longer the simple woman that prided herself on the dresses she mended for a living. Olimpio had been an afterthought then. A partner, sure, but not a lover or a husband in the traditional sense. He’d become a companion over the years, a dinner guest that never went home.
No man listened to Maxine like her husband did and now the only creature that lent her an ear was a dog. Olimpio had always been there for her and now he was gone. Forever. The long talks in the morning, the heat that burned off of him like sweat, his lazy manner of laughing—all of it gone. Even if the dog had his spirit, he would never be the man her husband was.
Like the late nights when Olimpio staggered home drunk, the dog spent the first hours of that evening outside. There he would stay, sprawled on the patch of dirt outside her home in the pose of a trophy beast. Her husband used to lay the same way, arms out and legs invitingly wide as he napped in the soil between the stunted palm trees in their forgotten garden. Whatever remaining doubts Maxine had were swept away the moment she saw the mastiff posed in the same spot in the same manner as Olimpio. The door was pushed open a moment later, a thin strip of meat in a bowl placed on her reed mat, like an ancient offering.
The dog did not need to be told. He entered as if he owned the home, smelling of topsoil and wet earth. It radiated off of him, that scent, as if he were shedding his skin into the air itself. After so much time alone, isolated and accompanied only by whiffs of cinnamon-flavored detergent, she found the new aroma a welcome addition to her home.
But now that she was sure it was Olimpio, Maxine finally had to confront the most uncomfortable truth of all. Now that the dog was here, what would she do with him?
When a man went missing on their way up north, one thing was certain. The body would rarely, if ever, be brought back. Whether buried in a mining accident or eaten by the Pisadeira, dead bodies simply did not return from Minas Gerais. Yet for a place with far too many ways to die, the roads that led in and out of its environs never seemed to be full of life.
That her husband Olimpio would not be alone wherever the hell he was brought Maxine a modicum of comfort. She did not doubt that there were plenty of bodies beside him. He’d never been short on friends.
Still, not having a body bothered her deeply, more than she cared to admit. While many accepted their husbands’ deaths and moved on, in due time, Maxine could not. She needed proof, needed to see him lying silently one last time. If he was now a dog, surely, he could lead her back to where he passed.
“We’ll find your body, won’t we?” she whispered. His only response was a well-measured yelp.
Early morning of the next day, Maxine was still awake, looking at the motionless fan above her bed. Hours ago, she’d reached a decision somewhere in her soul. It took the rising sun for her to admit it though, admit that she would go in search of Olimpio. With him as a guide, how hard could it be?
Before leaving, she packed a bag of food and tied it on her back. A leopard pattern fabric kept bunched up between her shoulder blades, a practice she learned from her mother in Bahia.
Maxine was wife enough to send a telegraph ahead of her, knowing that such things took time to arrange. She’d had four days of driving and stopping ahead of her, there would be little patience left once in Ouro Preto.
No one on the migrant buses paid her dog any mind. The drivers could not afford to, the passengers simply did not care. Men and women had made the trek up north for years, why not pets too? Only a single comment was made by the first truck that would take her to the first series of stops along the bumpy roads out of Paulista.
“That dog coming too?” he asked.
“Do these reias smell like money?”
He grinned and waved them onto the metallic bed.
“He’s a cutie.”
“How old is the doggy?”
“Keep an eye on him, you know some mineiros eat dogs?”
She nodded at every comment. Only when a lapsed priest from a neighboring town brought a cavaquinho did Maxine react differently. He serenaded the truck with an old choro song of home. Not one passenger failed to cry.
It was hard to not think of that old shack, a literal poor man’s bungalow slapped together by her husband and his friends before the night of their wedding. For two decades of marriage, its four corners had been her world, every inch a familiar refuge. In her absence, a group of her friends agreed to house-sit during the day and every other night. There was nothing to steal, thieves would not have bothered. Instead, her concern was that the house would remain warm, continue feeling ‘lived in’ despite her absence.
“I won’t abide a cold house, but you know that don’t you?” she said to the dog. He was scrunched up beside her and merely panted, tongue out, in response.
“Somehow your manners have improved,” Maxine said as she reached around to scratch his ears.
“After we find you, you won’t leave me again, will you?” She did not expect a response but spoke sincerely. Yet Maxine still hated the quiet that followed.
Where the trucks stopped, they ate or slept. Both activities were performed greedily, as if death were around the corner. Something told Maxine it was.
“Everything is rice and chicken with you, eh? You’ve died and come back just the same!” she said as the dog tucked into a plate of galinhada.
Over time, a few complaints were made but all were swiftly dismissed. No one anywhere cared what you called or fed a dog so long as you paid in cash.
Soon, townsfolk at the roadside pitstops began to queue to see the ‘madwoman and her dog.’ “There she is,” they would shout, and the pair would show their teeth in response.
The Sao Salome Morgue was where the telegram said Olimpio’s body was being held. How and why had been left unwritten, almost as though the mere fact that he was dead was more than enough information. Clearly, Maxine thought, most miners’ wives were keen to move on. In some ways, she already had.
The town was a gaggle of multi-colored buildings eaten away, one chip of paint at a time, by dust and jungle heat. It was hardly the golden brick road to a better life so many thought it to be. Old churches from before the empire seemed to sag in the hard mud. While there were a few estates that displayed the wealth one expected of Brazil’s City of Gold, the rest looked like temporary houses thrown up overnight. Few were built with the same ardor or scale as Maxine’s home.
Despite that, migrants were collected here like cards, hope heavy in their eyes. No matter how many mineshafts collapsed, no matter how many disappearances were blamed on Tupi ghosts and bandits, they still shuffled into town by the dozens. You could tell the veterans from the ones who had just arrived by the expression on their faces: the former locked into contracts they couldn’t get out of, the latter eager to sign on the dotted line.
“You sure you died?” she asked the dog. He looked up and panted.
A kaleidoscope of color passed underneath that brilliant sun. Earthy reds, smooth browns, and the chestnut dark of molasses. Intermingling in a sea of men and women that pushed through the truck stop of Ouro Preto like a wave, they resembled an ocean floor once the tide receded. Every one of them glittered like sand.
“Where to?” Maxine said.
The press of bodies and people was becoming too much. Her natural enthusiasm seemed to drain as more people came around. Not for all the money in the world would she have done what her husband did.
Luckily for Maxine, she did not have to travel far to find what she was looking for. There was, thanks to the size of the town, a large police station near where she’d gotten off the bus. There was no shortage of young men flowing in and out of its beaten olive shell. She knew, instinctively, that there would be more of their kind in the morgue.
How it occurred to the widow to go to the station was simple. It was the dog, frozen amidst the mad traffic of feet thudding around his frazzled shape, who pointed toward it first. Together they burst through the open doors, humidity trailing not far behind. Every available officer measured them as they stood in front of the welcome desk.
“Can I help you?”
The task of shepherding the pair would fall to Officer Delgado. His years on the force gave him a keen eye for the wants of others. He approached Maxine, eager to hear her tale and knowing from experience how it would end.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” he said after the widow finished explaining her presence.
He managed to look genuinely apologetic, despite feeling anything but. One widow was like every other in the officer’s eyes. Ouro Preto was used to their kind, those that mourned the dead. Each one of them brought hearts with a bit of emptiness in them, his job was merely to pour whatever he could into the gap. Delgado was no healer, but he could try. Wasn’t that what it meant to be a cop? To comfort, heal, and protect. In Maxine’s case, the officer sensed he would need to do it all.
“As you might know ma’am, recent regulations passed by the Senate in 1840 are clear: miners’ families are not eligible for payments. But if you need money…”
“I did not come for a handout. I just want to know what happened to him and to see the body. We need to be sure.”
She didn’t think the officer was a bad man, at least not intentionally. He was, judging from the sigh let out after hearing her story, simply tired of sympathy. And so was she.
“This is him,” she said leaning into her purse to rummage for a photo. “Here is Olimpio.”
The five-by-six image was bordered on each side by a white strip, signs it was taken on a cheap canvas. An image out of focus due to the glare from the station’s lights slowly stabilized. A man appeared, conjured by the chemical genius of emulsion dye and North American wizardry. He was clean-shaven, the hump that connected his fat cheeks and sweat-lathered jowls readily visible. The patches of black behind him stood out like flecks of leaves in a clear pond.
“A photo in Bahia,” said Maxine. “Before we married. Have you seen him?”
This was the part of his job Delgado hated most. He now had the unenviable task of choosing whether to lie or tell her the truth. There were spouses that were better off believing their significant others were dead. It afforded them a clean slate. Some, however, were best made to think that a whore had caught their eye. Both were unpleasant but each was preferable to the silence of never knowing, always wondering what happened to the man you loved.
The officer stood as still as a soldier chewing on the words he would soon spit out. No matter how many times he’d made the decision, it was never easy to tell a woman that her husband was indeed no longer among the living. He said as much, his hand rose to pat down damp facial hair on reflex. The woman’s eyes, swimming with life, pierced his soul as if two daggers had been launched at his chest.
But the tears he expected did not fall. Instead, Maxine seemed to respond to the officer’s rigidness in kind. The only sign she felt anything was apparent in the way her chest swayed back and forth, waddling like a pendulum. Fatigue from days on the road was finally taking its toll. .
She said only one thing in response to Delgado’s words. The dog at her heels whimpered as she spoke.
“Let me see where he died.”
The roadsides of Ouro Preto were like many in that long-forgotten slice of Brazil. They had been places where farmers meditated over hoe and scythe before modernity crept in, unfurling a concrete tongue that tied them to larger cities like chains. But they remained places of contemplation, places where you could sing and not worry about being heard or judged. Three figures crested a ridge that looked down at a field of coffee plants. Where vegetation met the road was a ditch. Maxine followed Delgado’s finger as it pointed directly below.
“That is where we found him,” he said.
“Was he alone?”
“No,” said the officer. “He was lying with four others. Any valuables they had were gone. We think the Pisadeira is responsible.”
She nodded absently. If he could become a dog after death, why couldn’t some monster have killed him? Down on the gravel, the widow imagined her husband lying gently on the small rocks and stones. There was nothing to denote he had ever been there now besides the cop’s wavering finger.
“He did not look too bad. But the smell was awful. The sun was hot that day.”
Officer Delgado then turned and looked at her.
“You sure you want to see him?”
“I have to.”
“No driver will agree to take him on a bus unless you give him a hefty fee. Dead bodies are pretty unpopular.”
She shrugged, a gesture like two mountains rising.
“I need to see him. We will send for him later.”
The officer nodded and leaned back into the squad car.
“There will be paperwork, for us both. I was hoping to be spared that. No matter. Hop in, I’ll make a call. And please, make sure your dog doesn’t piss on my seats.”
Maxine was not used to seeing her husband’s skin so pale. Olimpio had been an obsessive user of lotion, fearing the slightest mockery. He would have hated the way he looked on the coroner’s slab, as if snow had been rubbed into his stomach, arms, and legs. The officer insisted his face remain covered, some local superstition about Pisadeiras.
“How did he die?”
“We don’t know yet. Probably never will. There are no visible signs of violence. We guess from the cuts and bruises on his limbs that he collapsed, fell into the ditch below.”
Olimpio had only managed to survive a few days without her, it seemed. Maxine sniffed the air, decided the heavy odor was whatever chemical they treated bodies with and not the scent of death.
“He’d only been mining a short while, even had a contract with one of the main conglomerates. I guess that is fate,” said Maxine.
“One he shares with many that come here. I can’t tell you, miss, how many bodies I’ve seen just like his. You’re at least lucky he was not shot or stabbed to death. Worst thing for a loved one is a closed casket funeral.”
Having to have a funeral in the first place is much worse, she wanted to tell him but chose to keep quiet. No sense antagonizing the man. Besides, seeing Olimpio’s body lifted a weight off her shoulders. The officer’s behavior had not escaped the widow’s notice. For all she knew, her husband could be down in the bowels of the earth on the hunt for gold, held in the clutches of bandits, or swallowed by some city.
“At least now I know for sure.”
“That he isn’t gone.”
Delgado turned in confusion and saw the woman crouch to pat the mastiff at her heels.
“You made it only three days without me out there, I’ll need you to stay closer this time my friend,” she said.
The officer balked, fearing she had lost her mind.
“Who knows, once this whole thing is dealt with, perhaps we’ll mine here together.”
“Ma’am, he’s dead,” said the officer.
“No sir, he’s not,” said Maxine with a laugh. Lowering a warm palm, she patted her dog on the head.
The pair left as one. A stunned Delgado watched her back recede into the dark hallways that led back into the realm of the living.
“There are papers you’ll need to sign for the release of the body,” he called to her. “We’ll need them before you leave.”
She stopped at the doorway and turned.
“Don’t worry about it officer. I have what I came for.”
They left Ouro Preto on the first truck back. Looking out the rumbling window, Maxine could not help but smile. She’d come for a body but was returning with something much more valuable. Ouro Preto and mad dreams could take her husband, but they could not take her soul.