Estimates vary, but nuclear and mitochondrial DNA evidence suggests that the allele split between canis lupus familiaris and canis lupus occurred 11 to 32 thousand years ago. Dogs were domesticated prior to the advent of farming, and they’ve been with us ever since. Humans have availed themselves of selective breeding and dogs’ natural propensity for obedience to create something entirely other than their wild forebears. Where once stalked a mess of snarling teeth and patient hunting tactics now stood a loyal, resolute friend ready to render aid and comfort fit to purpose bred.
But behind every face-lick, behind every tail-wag, behind every ball fetched and every belly proffered for a friendly rub beats the thick blood of the pack. There is no domesticated dog too pampered, too effete, too enervated that the ancient call to carnage is completely snuffed. The aroma of terror is too delicious to ignore. It can only be managed, and even then only by a willingly-offered, voluntary arrangement of dominion. The man is the master. The master is good. Obey.
Of course, we know that the master is not always good. As a species-wide (dare I say ‘genetic?’) heuristic, it serves well enough for the domesticated dog to have conquered the planet alongside humanity, but it is no great secret that the custody of dogs can fall to cruel, abusive, negligent, or merely stupid humans. Overall however, the switch from the red-in-claw-and-tooth natural pack to a tummy-rub-and-table-scraps ersatz pack huddled around a campfire was good for the species. What may be a bum deal for the occasional dog is a screaming bargain for dogkind. Human caretakers, blessed as they are with wits, cunning, and a curious propensity to transform the endowments of nature into devices that greatly amplify their paltry physical endowments, need never fear a canine uprising. A human master is a secure master. A human master will never rip out a dog’s throat for a minor violation of the social conventions of the pack. A human cannot lose social status to a dog. Canine pack leaders are not so secure.
Economic historians and growth/development economists, particularly those working in the New Institutional Economics tradition find that strong central governments predict economic performance decades, perhaps centuries later. A fractious nobility ruled by a flaccid popinjay on the throne produces something of a parliamentary scrum, with the crown stuck constantly jumping at his own shadow. Mary Tudor didn’t wage her bloody purges for fun; she slew Protestants because in the words of troubadours Wu-Tang Clan, she was adept at protecting her neck. The more insecure the sovereign, the more prone they are to tyrannies, both petty and gross. Sure, a secure king can still be a tyrant and a thug, but idiosyncratically, much like a craven pit fighting dog owner will beat his animals from time to time. Systematic, heritable tyranny is generally evidence of a weak crown with little control over the aristocracy.
Clotho had followed The Man since their first meeting. Clotho’s mother went away and never came back. All the other pups had died or fled. Clotho was the last. The Man heard his whimper, found him, fed him meat, and let him follow. Just like that. That first taste of a Maillard reaction on a seared, braised English-cut short rib was all it took for the recently-weaned beagle to discover his allegiance. And allegiance, once given, is not to be revoked lightly.
Anika: “Good boy. Good boy. Shhh. Stay quiet. That’s a good boy.”
Clotho thumped his tail against the sandy, packed coastal Oregon soil. The girl was new to the pack. She smelled of tiny yellow flowers and of red wood and brown wood and her thin, tapered fingers were ideal for ear-scratches and belly-tickles. If The Man trusted her, then Clotho trusted her. Clotho listened to the trill of her voice, and smelled the bitter metal of her fear.
Clay: “Is the driftwood secure?”
The culvert was dry. The culvert was dry, but Clay was disinclined to take chances. The culvert was dry, but Clay had them construct a makeshift platform in case the arroyo began to vomit the greasy bile that Anika and Clotho were too young to remember, but Clay would never forget. Anika tried wiggling the crossbeam driftwood they’d wedged into the corrugated pipe.
Anika: “Feels okay to me, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it if it floods.”
Clay: “Tell me what you know about the snot rain.”
Anika: “Snot rain? Is that what it’s called?”
Clay: “That’s what I call it. I’ve heard other terms.”
Anika: “On the farm we called it ‘slimefall’ but yours is funnier.” Clotho sighed as the Anika’s scratches faltered. “Why do you ask?”
Clay: “You’re probably too little to remember, but it was nasty stuff. You learned really quickly to get indoors whenever you saw those green and purple clouds.”
Anika: “All I know is that it’s slimy and it sticks to everything including the inside of your nose and throat.”
Clay: “That’s how it killed. Suffocation. You’d get drenched, it stuck to your face, you inhaled it, and that’s all she wrote. Nasty business.” He shuffled closer to the eastern mouth of the culvert and peered intently up the dry creekbed. “One nice thing was that if you got inside to wait it out, there was usually some pretty good forage afterwards. Damn snot rain killed animals left and right. That’s probably why we never saw much of a feral dog problem.”
Anika: “You used to eat dogs?” She hugged Clotho tightly. The dog whimpered again.
Clay: “I didn’t go out of my way to, but there’s no sense putting good meat to waste.” Distant basso thunder rustled the summer sawgrass. “Better someone’s dinner than food for the worms.”
Anika: “What is it anyway? I heard grownups arguing about it sometimes. Where’s it come from? The snot rain I mean.” She scampered up onto the makeshift wooden platform inside the culvert. Clotho followed immediately, giving just a slight hint of recalcitrance at the engineering behind the structure.
Clay: “Not sure. It only showed up after the nukes fell, but there’s no way they could have caused it.”
Anika: “How do you know that?”
Clay: “The US dropped two nukes on Japan in 1945 and the weather was completely unaffected. And for decades after that until the limited test ban treaty of 1963, both the US and the Soviets tested both fission and fusion bombs above ground. The Bikini Atoll way out in the South Pacific was nuked heavily by the Americans and nothing like this ever came of it.” He directed a lax fingertip towards the roiling clouds to the north.
Anika: “I wonder if it has something to do with the weird dreams here and how people go crazy at sea.” Clotho licked her face before snuggling deeper into her lap. “Doesn’t rain come from the oceans when it starts out? If there’s something wrong with the ocean, it maybe makes sense there’s something wrong with the rain too.”
Clay: “Maybe. We used to have ‘meteorologists’ with special machines and computers to track weather systems, but none of that stuff works anymore. If there were old doppler radar files, maybe we could track the source. And like they say, if a frog had wings, he wouldn’t bump his ass every time he jumps.”
Anika: “You said it was sticky. I always heard it was slippery.”
Clay: “Sort of both, I think. It sticks to your skin and your hair and your clothes pretty easily, but once it coats something, it slides around easily. It sort of reminds me of aloe gel. Or a slime mold.”
Anika: “What’s a slime mold?”
Clay: “A slime mold is a simple organism that operates as a colony. A whole bunch of these single-celled organisms will spread out and eat whatever they can find till it’s all done, and then build themselves into a stalk with a bulb at the end containing the remaining organisms to be carried away by the wind or a passing animal to go find more food.”
Anika: “By ‘remaining organisms’ you mean some die doing that?”
Clay: “Yeah. The stalks are made of the bodies of some of the little guys. They sacrifice themselves so that the colony can live.”
Anika: “How do they know who to sacrifice?”
Clay: “Beats me. Since they’re such simple organisms, trying to think about it in the same way they ‘think’ about it is close to impossible. Hell, it’s hard enough to imagine what life is like for ol’ Clotho here.” Clotho perked up at hearing The Man speak his name. He raised his head, looked down the culvert, and began a determined tail wag. “Easy boy. Of course, it’s a cinch to imagine what life is like for a domestic dog compared to what it’s like for a wolf.”
Anika: “Well, that should be obvious.”
Clay: “Maybe it should be, maybe not. Wolves and dogs can interbreed. They share something like 99.8% of the mitochondrial DNA. When you compare wolves with coyotes, there’s only about 96% overlap. The common ancestor of wolves and the dog sitting there on your lap is a lot closer than the wolf with its closest wild cousin.”
Anika: “No way. A coyote is just a smaller version of a wolf. Clotho looks nothing like either one.” She gave his ears a friendly if skeptical squeeze. “Look at his ears.”
Clay: “You’d be amazed how fast cosmetic features change. I remember this Russian guy who started domesticating foxes somewhere in Siberia. Within five generations, give or take, he succeeded. And the foxes he bred had patches and stripes on their coats, rounder muzzles and ears, and they wagged their tails just like domesticated dogs. All the edgy nerves you normally get with foxes were gone, just like that.” He snapped his fingers, and that was evidently enough for Clotho to hop down and join him at the upstream mouth of the culvert. “Hey boy. Anyway, the point is, sympathy is hard, and it gets harder the farther away you get. Slime molds are about as far away as you can get and still be on the same planet.”
Anika: “Maybe that’s what the… what did you call it, the ‘snot rain?’ Maybe that’s what that is. Some kind of slime mold that gets in your lungs if you let it get on you.”
Clay: “That’s an interesting idea. I never thought of collecting any to look at under a microscope. It always washed away pretty soon after. Snot rain is almost always followed pretty quickly by regular rain, and then it seems to vanish completely, like it was never there in the first place.”
Anika: “Really? I wonder how that happens.”
Clay: “Beats me. It’s a luxury to be a scientist. When the snot rains were still coming down, I was worried more about where my next meal was coming from than collecting samples and finding a microscope.”
Beyond the horizon, across the ocean expanses, below all but the largest creatures’ capacity to hear, a quickening throb of nightshade blood promised war.