A Dog’s Life

Translator's Note: When I asked Ani Shua to tell me what motivated her to write this odd little story, she immediately provided the following background information about the legend of the werewolf—or lobizón—in Argentina. To my great astonishment, she wasn't kidding—she maintains this belief really existed in Argentina, as well as the incredible practice of naming the seventh son after the president in order to avoid the possibility of that child's morphing into a were-being. The irony is not lost on readers: the unfortunate protagonist of this piece bears the double burden of wolfhood and the Christian names of controversial President Juan Domingo Perón.

The story is at once both Argentine and universal. Werewolves are apparitions, supernatural creatures that can be found in the folklore of nearly every culture. The subtle cultural differences, however, are what make the legend so fascinating. In Ani's version, I'm particularly intrigued by the whimsy and wackiness conjured up by the notion of a Yiddische werewolf in ultra-Catholic Peronist Argentina, embarrassing his Orthodox Jewish aunt by raiding Catholic cemeteries on the Sabbath by the light of the full moon.

Translating this piece, aside from being great fun, was also quite challenging, as capturing humor in translation is always difficult. In fact, the first draft of the translation was pretty leaden—not funny at all. Ani urged me to loosen up, to take all the liberties I wanted with the prose in order to capture the casual, irreverent tone of the original. Having been granted the author's permission to stray from textual fidelity in the interest of audience impact, I reworked the translation, and we were both satisfied with the result.

Following is Ana María Shua's verbatim description of the derivation of her story, an explanation upon which I couldn't possibly improve!

In legends throughout the world, there are monstrous, evil animals that have the ability to assume human form in order to catch their victims. And the opposite is also true: in Argentina, tiger-people, or the yaguareté-abá, the Jaguar-Indian, are those who can turn into animals whenever they feel like it.

No one is forced to make a pact with the devil. Vampires don't choose to be vampires, but once they achieve the condition of living dead, they become depraved, possessed beings. Ghosts can simply be cursed because of the frightful crimes they committed while they were alive. But what happens to the Argentine werewolf is completely unfair. The poor thing has no control over his transformations. He might be an excellent person who was simply unlucky enough to have been born a seventh son.

The word "werewolf" comes from the Portuguese "lobis-homen," or wolfman. But since there are no wolves in South America, our werewolves don't even rate the status of wild beasts. It's their sad fate merely to turn into big, black dogs that terrify, but don't bite.

And that's just the best-case scenario. Because there are stories of people who turn into all kinds of other animals, especially pigs.

In order to cure a werewolf when he's in canine form, the usual remedies are recommended: a bullet that's been blessed in seven churches, a knife that's been blessed and which forms a cross between the blade and the handle, etc. You can't even shine a flashlight on a werewolf, unless the batteries have been blessed. In order to wound him, you've got to shoot at his shadow, not at his body. No chain is strong enough to bind him: the only way is to tie him up with knitting yarn. Some people also claim you can turn him back into a person simply by hitting him with a sandal or injuring him in any way possible. As far as his diet is concerned, everyone agrees: dead flesh and chicken shit. He won't attack a living person. Sometimes he eats raw corn and rotten chicken. In his human form, he tends to be a tall, skinny man, typically with sickly coloring and digestive problems on account of all the crap he eats as a dog.

Some claim that before he mutates into canine form, he rips off his clothes, hiding them near the cemetery. If you take them away so he can't find them, he'll remain a dog forever.

They also say that there are women who marry werewolves without knowing it. But I think they just pretend not to know. The bad breath would be a giveaway!

My name is Juan Domingo Benjamin. Juan Domingo, after my godfather, Juan Domingo Perón, three times elected President of Argentina. And Benjamin because I'm the youngest boy in my family.

Benjamin is the traditional name for the youngest son. Here's what I say: if my parents gave me that name, it's because they had already decided not to have any more children. Well, why didn't they make that decision before they had me? My life as a seventh son wasn't easy.

For example, it was tough being the godson of Perón, an Argentine president revered by lots of people and hated by lots of others. Tradition has it that the seventh son in a family is supposed to be a werewolf. And so they passed a national law saying that every seventh male child had to be the president's godson, in order not to be mistreated for being a werewolf. But my parents were anti-Peronist. Deep down, everyone would've rather I'd turned into a wolf whenever the moon was full than to have a relative named Juan Domingo.

The saddest part is that I became a werewolf anyhow. Not exactly a wolf, but an enormous black dog, always ravenous. And it wasn't even on nights when the moon was full, but rather every Friday night and sometimes on Tuesdays.

Mama says that when I was a baby, I used to turn into a furry little puppy, very affectionate and gentle, and she could calm me down with a piece of ground meat, not necessarily human. Everyone hoped that by raising me that way, domesticated, when I grew older I'd settle for whatever I found in the refrigerator.

But ever since I turned ten, Friday nights became a real ordeal. You have to understand that a werewolf is a country beast. For me, living in the city was a constant torment. Mama had decreed that three of my older brothers had to take turns watching me and making sure nothing happened to me when I went out roaming.

Now just imagine what it must have been like for a kid of eighteen or twenty, who wanted to go to the movies with his girlfriend or go out dancing, to have to spend Friday nights running after his werewolf brother. It would've been perfectly natural for them to hate me, and that's how it was with Ariel and Marcos. On the other hand, I always got along well with Jonathan, who could see the positive side of my transformations and eventually came to enjoy our Friday night outings.

Living with me in the city was a constant problem for everyone, but Papa didn't want to move because he worked in construction. "If we move out to the country, I'll have to spend half the day in the car," he said, whenever Mama suggested that the family could live in the country while he worked in the city.

Meanwhile, the cemetery thing became a tremendous dilemma for me. We werewolves are very gentle and never attack people. But when we're in canine form, we need to feed on two things: human flesh and chicken shit. I realize this sounds disgusting to ordinary people, but after all, it's a harmless practice, really. That's why, in the country, you hear so many stories of werewolves prowling around chicken coops or cemeteries.

Since our family is Jewish, Mama, who didn't want any trouble, made it very clear to my brothers not to let me go into Catholic cemeteries. I think it was partly to protect me, partly because she thought people should stick to their own kind, and partly because she thought Christian flesh might be hard for me to digest. After all, everyone has prejudices.

"If people find a werewolf in the cemetery," Mama said, "they'll chase him out with sticks, yelling, "Damn werewolf." But with you, they'll yell, "Damn Jew werewolf."

"It's the same thing," I said.

"It's not the same thing," Mama said.

"If they find a werewolf in the cemetery, Mama, the poor animal has a tough time regardless," I said.

Mama was somewhat naïve and thought she understood how different I felt. Now I can say she was naïve, but in those days, it infuriated me. You have to be a werewolf to really understand what it's like to feel different.

Now I realize that having a werewolf son must have been almost as terrible as actually being one. Almost.

The fact is, it was pretty far from our house to the Jewish cemetery, and when I was transformed, I couldn't use any kind of public transportation. My frightening appearance scared the cab drivers and the train watchmen. I ran very fast, and it was hard for my brothers to keep up with me, even though they kept me on a leash. Anyway, we never did get there, so I had to make do with any old corpse I could find lying around, without any guarantee of cleanliness or good quality.

I've always had a fantastic nose for sniffing out corpses: ordinary people don't realize it, but in the city, every night there are crimes, dead vagrants, auto accidents. My brothers were very careful to make sure I limited myself to nibbling just a little bit of each one so that my presence wouldn't be noticed. It would've been rather unpleasant to hear on the evening news or read in the morning paper about some mysteriously devoured corpse.

Finally, it was Jonathan who came up with the solution to part of the problem: we lived three blocks from the Medical School. At first, the taste of formaldehyde on the corpses from the school morgue bothered me a little and even gave me allergies. The next morning, I'd wake up sick to my stomach, my eyelids swollen. After a while I got used to it, and the formaldehyde became as normal a condiment for the cadavers as mustard is for hot dogs.

Jonathan, who studied medicine, made himself a set of keys to all the doors in the building. The advantage of the morgue corpses was that no one noticed if a part was missing, because medical students always go around carrying hands, ears, or feet to use for practical jokes.

I think that this compulsion of mine influenced my choice of career. When the time came, I decided to become a doctor, too, partly to follow in Jonathan's footsteps and partly because it was so convenient for satisfying my Friday night hunger.

Don't think finding chicken shit was any easier than finding corpses. In the beginning, when I was very little, there were still some chicken coops in the neighborhood, and people used to bring live chickens, all crammed into enormous cages, to the Central Market. While my other two brothers, like fools, wasted entire nights and all their strength chasing me through the outskirts of the city from one chicken coop to another—an exhausting, dangerous job—Jonathan, as usual, came up with the best solution.

For a few cents, the guys who cleaned the market at night would gather up all the chicken shit in a bag for him. Jonathan hauled it off, saying he needed it for fertilizer for our weekend country house. And so I got to eat peacefully at home, under the table, from my pretty green dish.

One can get used to anything, and my family quickly learned to adapt to my fixation, all except for Grandma Sarah, who was very religious. It infuriated her that I transformed on Friday night, just when the Sabbath, a holy, festive time, begins. She was hoping my habit would disappear when I turned thirteen, the age in the Jewish religion when it's believed one becomes responsible for one's actions.

Grandma never could accept the fact that I didn't choose the moment for my transformations, but luckily she wasn't angry at me. She called me her favorite little grandson and baked me delicious poppy seed cookies: she blamed my parents entirely for not being able to control me and for bringing me up badly.

I was practically a teenager when Mama and Papa began attending a self-help group for parents of special children. On Sundays they would have barbecues at Gustavo's family's country house. Gustavo was a guy who turned into a pig or a dog with a pig's head and who after a while became a great friend of mine. His appetite for rotten chickens and raw corn was easier to satisfy than mine, but it also caused him a few problems.

We kids hated those barbecues when our parents forced us to make friends and play together. It was ridiculous. First of all, there aren't too many werewolves, so I got thrown in with witches, tiger-boys, clairvoyants, demonized children, and all kinds of individuals whose problems had nothing to do with my own.

It was all well and good for the parents, because having a "different" child might seem like a similar problem for the parents of a werewolf and those of a witch. But we kids looked at each other with suspicion and couldn't find anything in common. A witch is a witch all the time, but when I wasn't being a wolf, I was like any other kid, except for Saturdays, when I spent all day in bed, resting up from the adventures of the night before and taking Pepto-Bismol for the bellyache I got from eating so much junk.

My mom insisted that I participate in these get-togethers because the atmosphere was good for me. She had the idea I'd meet some girl there who'd be weird enough for her family to accept me gladly. She really kept after me to go to the Saturday night dances, and she always talked up Juliana's virtues.

Poor Juliana was one of those werewolves who don't turn into wolves but rather into the first animal they see when they wake up on Friday morning. Gustavo, a pig (sometimes a dog with a pig's head, which isn't at all uncommon), and I, a dog, were better off than Juliana, who had gone through all that and more.

For a long time, her parents kept a canary in the house so that she'd see it the minute she opened her eyes. But birds are too fragile, and her folks were terrified she'd get hurt or be attacked by a cat. She suffered a lot, locked in a cage. In the summer, they worried about insects; in the winter, they went crazy with roaches: ever since she was born and her problem became apparent, her mother slept with one eye open in order to be sure to wake up before Juliana and choose the first thing she would see.

After the canary, they acquired a huge dog, an old English sheepdog, so Juliana turned into a strong, reliable animal. But their apartment was too small, and it became awfully uncomfortable with them and the two dogs. When she reached the age of reason, Juliana chose to become a cat. Once, as a practical joke, her sisters woke her by dangling a worm in front of her eyes. It was horrible.

She was a bad-tempered girl with a completely expressionless face, as though her muscles were so worn out by her transformations that she had no strength left to smile or to cry. The only thing that interested her was studying. As an experiment, she once left a microscope next to her bed and turned into a bacterium. She was crazy about math and planned to study nuclear physics. She imagined her problem had something to do with atoms and molecules.

Whenever we thought about our future, somehow we all turned to professions that might help us solve our problems, like biology, chemistry, medicine, and also sociology, philosophy, and even the occult.

The girls in the Parents of Special Children group didn't interest me at all. The demonically possessed ones annoyed me—so unpredictable—and the witches (seventh-born daughters) even more so, for while they might have been a problem for their parents, they just loved playing with their powers and enjoyed trying them out on people.

I was seventeen when I met Deborah. Why do women always think they can change us, cure us, turn us into something different from what we are? Deborah decided to channel all her love into turning me into a normal person.

By then I had read all the literary and scientific material available on werewolves. I had even learned English so that I could read the texts in the original. I knew there were many cases of wolfmen who managed to marry and live normally without their wives' ever discovering their condition. It's just a question of finding a reasonable alibi for those Friday nights … and being prepared whenever the transformation happens on Tuesday.

But I had been brought up in a home where people discussed their problems openly. How long could I keep the secret from the woman I loved? More than anything else, I longed to kiss her. And there's nothing more unpleasant than a werewolf's kiss: when he licks your mouth, it leaves you with a very nasty taste, nausea and vomiting, and no appetite for several days.

Deborah was convinced my problem was psychological. She insisted I was "somatizing," expressing problems that really originated in my head through my body. Like someone who comes down with the flu in order to avoid an exam.

I myself began to think maybe it was true, and I tried to figure out what there was in my parents' behavior that could have led me to this situation. Could it be that they had let me sleep in their room too long when I was a baby? Was I trying to frighten my father with my lupine teeth in order to be with my mother, like some garden-variety Oedipus? Did I turn into a werewolf as a result of my mother's unwanted pregnancy? Was it a reaction to their overly high expectations regarding my schooling? Or was it just a way to capture my parents' attention in such a large family and become someone special, different from my brothers?

Deborah convinced me that I had to get therapy. That's how I became acquainted with Dr. Garber, who knew a great deal about neurotic patients, but I can tell you he didn't know a damn thing about werewolves. Four times a week, I would lie down on his sofa and talk to him about my problems, which were quite similar to everyone else's. My relationship with my parents, my brothers, my girlfriend, and especially how hard it was for me to earn enough money to pay for the therapy. This last topic occupied a good portion of our sessions.

When I got around to my specific problems as a werewolf, Dr. Garber remained silent and didn't try to interpret my words. I talked to him a lot about my intestinal woes. My human digestive apparatus suffered quite a bit from having to digest the crap I ate as a werewolf. Since there's such a close connection between nerves and stomach pains, I thought that psychoanalysis would help me more than one of those pill-dispensing doctors.

However, after several months of treatment, I realized something was wrong: Dr. Garber simply didn't believe me. He understood "turning into a dog" as a way of expressing certain sensations or sensations, like a figure of speech. And no matter how hard I explained the details to him, how my hair and teeth would grow, how I hunched over, walking on all fours, how I lost my humanity and felt only a horrible hunger for corpses and chicken coops, he kept insisting it was all in my mind. He didn't consider me crazy, because except for that persistent obsession, in every other respect I was as reasonable as anyone else, but he did think I was a serious case, almost on the verge of insanity.

I began to feel a little annoyed with him. I had already begun my first year of medical school, but I hadn't stopped investigating collections of legends and occult science. No serious scientist had ever focused on us poor werewolves of the Southern Hemisphere, quite different from the lycanthropes of antiquity or those terrifying European werewolves who ferociously attack human beings. Some of the things they said in those books were true, while others were sheer invention.

At last I discovered something that seemed interesting, but in order to work up the courage to experiment, I needed someone whose fate didn't matter much to me. I was fed up with Dr. Garber. I found out something about his life: he was separated and had no children. I decided not to say anything to Deborah so she wouldn't worry.

At our next meeting, I challenged Dr. Garber to see me one Friday at midnight. Naturally, he refused.

"I have to distance myself from your obsession," he said. "If I allow myself to become part of your delirium, I won't have any way to cure you."

But I finally convinced him.

It was a quarter to twelve when I arrived at the clinic. As always, he buzzed me in on the intercom and let me sit for a few minutes in the waiting room, as if he were taking care of other patients. As usual, I sat there gazing at a portrait of a woman with her mouth wide open in a mute scream. What could have happened to her? Whom was she screaming at for help?

Finally he invited me into his office. I lay down on the couch as usual and started talking nonsense. At one minute to twelve, I showed him the back of my hand, which was beginning to sprout hairs.

"The same thing happened to me when I was taking Minoxodil to grow hair on my head," Dr. Garber said. "Hair even came out of my ears."

"But not that quickly, I suppose," I replied, my voice already starting to change.

It all happened normally. Hair covered my face, my ears grew, my nose and mouth elongated into a horrible dog's muzzle, while my spinal column extended, forming a tail. I let out an enormous howl. Through many months of exercise and training, I could manage to retain a portion of my human mind in that canine body. I had a certain amount of control over my actions, enough to put my experiment to the test.

Dr. Garber, who at first ventured a psychological explanation for what was happening, lost all semblance of reason and became just a pathetic, frightened creature, a body cringing in terror.

In his desperation to escape me, he knocked over his comfortable analyst's chair. I chased him around the office, planting myself in front of the door to keep him from fleeing. The place was small. As we ran, we knocked over the flowerpot with the pothos and the fern. The floor lamp, too.

In a panic, poor Dr. Garber gave up any attempt at escaping and cowered in a corner, covering his head with his arms. That wouldn't do. With a powerful howl, I shocked him into a standing position again, pretending to move away from the door so he would try to run for it again.

Then I leaped on top of him.

Or rather, under him.

I crawled between his legs.

I'd read that whenever a werewolf crawls between a person's legs, he passes the curse on to that person and becomes free of his illness: the victim is transformed into a werewolf forever. And it worked!

A few weeks later, when I received a desperate phone call from Dr. Garber, I told him to see a psychoanalyst.

Translation of "Vida de Perros." Copyright Ana María Shua. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 by Andrea G. Labinger. All rights reserved.