by Terri Hinte
Almost all of the people I met in Rio de Janeiro who lived in houses rather than apartments were dog-owners. They loved their animals, Im sure, but first and foremost these dogs had a very specific job to perform: they were charged with preventing Rios perpetual crime wave from ever lapping at the shores of their masters’ yards.
Consequently the dogs were formidable. In the course of my travels I met a couple of specimens of the mastiff-like Brazilian fila that I found absolutely terrifying. My friend Ivan’s fila, who weighed in at over a hundred pounds, had his own kennel at the rear of Ivan’s narrow urban yard in Rio’s Zona Norte. We had just finished supper one clammy summer night when Ivan suggested I come meet his dog. As we approached the kennel, the fila exploded into guard-dog mode with a blood-curdling roar of a bark. Teeth bared and flashing, he hurled his huge bulk at the door of the enclosure, which suddenly seemed awfully flimsy. “He will do anything to protect the family,” Ivan said to me with pride. But of course I wasn’t part of the family! Given the chance, I knew the fila would maim me with one snapping leap. I retreated back to the house, shaken.
Some years later I was invited to spend a week with my dear friends Maria and Jorge. Since our previous visit they had moved out to Recreio dos Bandeirantes, a suburb about 45 minutes’ drive from Rio’s congested hub. Recreio offers a lot more open space, and its beaches are unpolluted. But urban problems have stubbornly found their way even to Recreio: the tile and stucco houses are bigger and richer, so theres more to protect. People have watchdogs. Maria and Jorge had acquired twoa pit bull (or “peech boo,” in Maria’s rendering) named Xana (sha-na), and a Doberman/Shepherd named Hulk (hoo-kee) after the comic-book hero. Jorge was a musician who often worked nights and was away on tour for weeks at a time, so the dogs gave their owners peace of mind as well as companionship.
Frankly I had trepidations. I’m a cat person. I don’t know what to do with dogs. They are loud and smelly and overboisterous and, yes, dangerous. As a child I was bitten by a German Shepherd, and as a teenager by a Weimaraner, so I’d thrown my lot in with cats.
I’d enjoyed a few successful canine encounters over the years, notably with Duke (doo-kee), my friend Zé’s almost-human German Shepherd. Here was a noble beast, a veritable Rin Tin Tin, who had no trouble telling friend from foe. But Duke was shot to death one night, protecting his family during a robbery at Zé’s home in Recreio.
As we rode from Galeão airport, Maria’s teenage son Paulo at the wheel, I started peeling off layers of clothes, adjusting from the northern California winter I’d just left behind to the humid, 90-degree Rio morning I now found myself sweating in. A downpour felt imminent. Paulo was indulging his lead foot and regaling rude drivers with sharp horn blasts. We sped alongside bay and sea, then through the long tunnel to Recreio.
Finally we turned onto Maria’s street and stopped in front of her high wooden gate, and I braced myself for the impending meeting with Xana and Hulk. Paulo honked, which set up a commotion of barking and scrambling. His mother opened the gate, the car pulled in, and the dogs circled the yardand the carin dizzying exhilaration, fairly bursting to get a whiff of me.
Maria and I embraced, then Jorge and youngest son Martinho gave me hugs and kisses and took my bags inside the house. It was now the dogs’ turn to greet me. Big-headed, blond-brindle Xana with her shark’s-teeth smile was as solid as a medicine ball as she sidled up to me, panting. I said a silent prayer for peaceful coexistence.
Hulk looked all-Dobie, despite his Shepherd genes. His ears were floppy, though, which diminished the fearsomeness of his countenance, and his tail was undockeda tensile black whip. He was a big, barrel-chested dog, the Director of Security on these premises, with a bass-baritone bark.
“Look!” Maria cried suddenly to her husband. Hulk was bowing toward me, his front paws pointed in my direction, his head down low, his butt in the air. “He likes you!” she exclaimed, as pleased as she was surprised.
What can I say? At that moment, with no discussion whatsoever, Hulk and I embarked on a foolish romance. We spent leisurely mornings together as I breakfasted and wrote in my journal on the red-tiled veranda, Hulk lolling at my feet. When I retired for a nap after lunch, during the steamy-hot afternoon rains, I’d sometimes see his long dark muzzle and moony brown eyes at the window over my head. Hulk seemed to be sighing. He was the sentinel for my vivid daylight dreams.
The dogs weren’t really permitted in the house, but Hulk would sit at the open door when I was reading on the living room couch and inch his way over to me, then roll on his back shamelessly and take in whatever strokes I might lavish on him. They were mostly the small, subtle touches I’d give to cats, the ones that reduced them to a humming rapture, rather than the bold, macho, macro-strokes I figured big dogs had a hankering for. Hulk took in my delicate massage with his eyes closed, catlike, smitten.
After we’d been at this a few days, Xana tried to horn in on the action. She wanted some of those nuzzles. I gave her perfunctory ones, but it just wasn’t the same as with Hulk and me.
One afternoon Maria, seeing how things were going between us, suggested that I take Hulk for a walk. Now, Hulk may have had a leash and collar and other such apparel to his name, but I don’t know how oftenif everhe submitted to them. Hulk’s domain was his yard: like most Brazilian houses, Maria and Jorge’s was situated in the middle of a walled area. There was a front yard, back yard, side yard, none of them visible from the street. This was the area the dogs inhabited and patrolled with a vengeance. The outside world existed for them only insofar as parts of it entered the yard.
So I wasn’t quite prepared for the exuberance displayed by Hulk when we stepped outside the gate intothe world!
Together we bounded down the unpaved streetmore precisely, the dog bounded, I held on for dear life. I didn’t weigh much more than this impressively muscled animal, and no amount of reining in or cajoling on my part could deter Hulk from any course he wished to pursue. My puny entreaties meant nothing when there was this patch of grass here, that mango tree therehe had to be off to investigate! So I lurched gamely along with both hands clenching the leash at all times. If I’d been on skates, it would have been a bumpy ride.
We were about ten minutes from the house, Hulk’s nose rarely lifting from the turf, when I spotted trouble. About 30 feet away, in the middle of the dirt road, a ratty, ugly, and apparently mean street mutt no bigger than a fox terrier was glaring at us, growling, fangs bared. I grabbed the leash even tighter as I tried to pull Hulk back in the direction of the house, but he would have none of it.
The idiotic growling midget dog was closing in on us, as if we were prey! Yet Hulk was unfazed: the interloper seemed as insignificant to him as a buzzing fly. Hulk gave no indication of wanting to charge the beast, nor of retreating.
But why take chances? I jerked with all my might on the leash. “Hoo-kee, vem c! Vem CÁ!” I implored. For God’s sake, dog, come here!
A couple of men in a nearby yard, sizing up this scene, ran into the street to distract the vicious little cur, and in the hubbub Hulk finally deigned to turn around and head home, dragging me all the way.
When we landed at the gate, Hulk was bright-eyed and I was too spent to speak. I didn’t understand why he hadn’t wanted to level the pipsqueak and be done with it. And what was with the muttis there such a thing as a wee-dog complex? In the end giant Hulk kept his dignity, just like the Brazilian saying: guia não come mosca. Eagles don’t eat flies.
When my departure date dawned a few days later, I was sad, as always, to say goodbye to my human friends, but Maria was an excellent correspondent, we spoke from time to time on the phone; we knew how to feed our friendship. How, though, was Hulk ever to understand that I was going far, far away for a very long time? As my bags were being loaded into the car, I could hardly even look him in the eye.
I did get a little thrill, back home in California, looking at the pictures from my visitthe typical smiling shots of us humans, of humans and dogs together. But the prize pose was this: Hulk on his back, his front paws bent in a supplicating position, his head cocked coyly as he looked upside down at my camera and flashed that silly toothsome grin for me, only me.