The Debt

‘Mr. Borovski!’ Alfredo called out in a weak voice, squinting up at the window. Yet another day of futile pilgrimage to the familiar dark buildings of the publishers. Dust now clung all over his shoes, and sweat to his weary skin. Nothing had turned up. All the publishers had rejected his stories outright, a glance at his shabby figure instead of his manuscripts sufficing for most. Now Alfredo stood at the door of his ramshackle one-room rented apartment, afraid to enter and face the emptiness.

Mr. Borovski’s pink and puffy face peered from the first floor window. Alfredo braced himself tiredly for another loud and public, perhaps expletive, reprimand about his rent, due for six months. But Mr. Borovsky’s face remained nonchalant today, perhaps even forcefully calm as he threw down the keys. Most curious, thought Alfredo.

Alfredo entered, closed the door behind him, and dropped on the stool. Immediately there was the familiar frantic rustle as Prosper came bounding at him from his dark corner. The sight of this erased at once the day’s pains from Alfredo’s sunken face as he broke into a rare smile and lovingly scratched Prosper’s ears and cooed little nonsenses that people say to babies and animals when nobody is watching.

‘Enough now, Prosper’, said Alfredo, finally pushing the dog away gently. He got up, laid a dish, the only dish, on the table, and brought down a rusted tin box from the wall. He shook it out. A single piece of bread fell sadly on the dish. Alfredo stared at it for some time, as if wanting to ask it something, then flopped resignedly on his seat.

He was about to put the piece in his mouth when Prosper suddenly stuck his head above the table and stared at him with the pleading eyes that dogs are so unjustly good at.

Now this was even more curious, thought Alfredo, because it was. Never, since he had brought him home, had Prosper once done such a thing. He had strangely seemed to realize the circumstances of his struggling master since his first day in the apartment, and had starved ever since without complaint whenever Alfredo couldn’t save him a crumb at the end of the day.

Alfredo looked at Prosper, trying to stare him down, but the innocent brown eyes bore into him. Alfredo couldn’t make himself put the bread in his mouth. Then, all of a sudden, Alfredo laid the piece of bread aside as the only day that Prosper had looked at him this way came slowly back to him.

Prosper was now with him for three years, from when Alfredo arrived at this neighbourhood. He had spotted the puppy one day outside a bakery on his way home, shivering and wet in a late May shower. A sense of empathy arising out of an identification with his own sorry state had made Alfredo pick him up. He had taken the puppy inside the bakery and bought him some biscuits, something he wouldn’t plan even for himself.

As Prosper gobbled down the biscuits with a furious wag of the tail, a plump and pleasant-looking gentleman in the bakery came up to Alfredo and admired his kindness. The two began to converse, and Alfredo let out that he was a writer. ‘Oh my, why must I run into them even out of office?’ said the gentleman, Mr. Faust. He was a publisher. Not too big, but Alfredo talked him into looking at his stories. He took his manuscripts to him the next day. Three weeks later, Mr. Faust published one of them in an anthology. After two more stories, Mr Faust ended the contract, but Alfredo still felt indebted to Prosper for his first writing job.

Alfredo decidedly laid down the dish at the foot of the table. Prosper immediately gobbled down the piece and retreated to his corner. Alfredo stared at him for some time, the day’s wear making his eyes heavy. He forced himself up, turned off the light and laid himself slowly down on his creaking bed. Staring up at the mottled roof, he felt the hunger gnawing at his stomach. But an old debt had been repaid tonight, and he felt warm and peaceful at the thought of his sacrifice.

Upstairs, Mr. Borovski was late to get to bed, excited that he would finally see the end of this. Six months and no rent, while people willing to pay real money circled the neighbourhood every day like hungry sharks. He was tired of throwing verbal abuse at a nonchalant Alfredo who seemed to have risen above money matters. Mr. Borovski knew that there would be a mild commotion the morning after, but people would easily be convinced that it was a natural accident from the unhygienic conditions Alfredo had built around himself. And then a few days’ wait, after which new tenants would come pouring in, hungry for the room.

In the last waking moments before drifting off to sleep, Mr Borovski recalled with relish the elegance and surprising skill with which he had entered Alfredo’s room, opened the tin can and moistened the last remaining piece of bread with poison, being watched always by the wretched dog from its dark corner.

That dog. The way it had stared at him throughout was most peculiar. As if it understood.

But dogs don’t speak, do they, he thought. It can only watch its master die.

Slowly, a serene smile came over Mr Borovski’s face as he drifted off to a peaceful sleep.

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