There was a cat that came around to the back yard some mornings. It only appeared when Leandro was alone on the back porch, maybe peeling potatoes for his mother or fixing something for his grandfather, or simply sitting and enjoying the low morning sun.
When Leandro saw the cat poke its head warily through the bottom fence and take a first tentative step into the yard, he would hurry to the kitchen, rummage in the bin for scraps of meat or fish, and hurry back out, laying the food on a flat stone to one side of the patch of threadbare grass that passed for a lawn. Smelling the food, the cat—a ragged tabby—would scamper to it and scoff away, letting Leandro stroke its head and back. Once finished, it remained for a few moments, purring with pleasure, before padding off and back through the fence, on its way to whatever important business it had that morning.
Leandro loved all animals, but his mother would never let him have any of his own. He could talk more easily to his grandfather than to his mother, and one day he asked the old man why his mother was so insistent.
“You have to understand,” his grandfather said, taking off his tweed cap and scratching his scalp through thin, white hair, “that your mother is only trying to protect you. She’s been very …” He paused to find the right word. “… saddened in her life—your father, you know.”
Leandro didn’t remember his father at all, but he knew that he’d died relatively young.
“I’m sorry, abuelo, I don’t get it. What does my father have to do with having a cat or a dog?”
The old man gave his grandson a rueful smile.
“They die, my boy. And it breaks your heart.”
Leonardo thought about it briefly and came to the conclusion that future loss would be worth bearing for the affection an animal could bring to his life. His best friend—his only real friend—was his grandfather, and his mother was a strangely distant presence in the household.
Any contact he could enjoy with animals, then, was reserved for strays, like his feline visitor, or those belonging to neighbors.
Geraldo was Señora Huerta’s guard dog, a large German Shepherd, crossed with something fiercer still. The widowed Señora Huerta had been burgled several times—once when she was in the house—and got Geraldo from the local pound for protection, re-naming him after her late husband.
Leonardo first met Geraldo when he passed close to Señora Huerta’s front gate on his way to school one morning. The dog leapt at him and Leonardo’s heart leapt to his throat at the fury of Geraldo’s attack, foiled only by the bars of the wrought-iron gate. On his way home that afternoon, Leonardo saw Señora Huerta in her garden with Geraldo sitting close by. Leonardo greeted the old lady and the dog growled, baring his teeth.
“What’s his name, Señora Huerta?”
“He’s very fierce.”
“He has to be, hijo. With some of the scum we have round here …”
The next morning, Leonardo approached Señora Huerta’s place a little more tentatively. Geraldo still leapt at the gate and barked and growled as if Leonardo were going to break into the house, but the young boy was prepared now and wasn’t startled. And he was ready to proceed with a plan he’d devised overnight: to tame and befriend the beast, as if in a story from the comic books he so loved.
He’d seen some dog-training programs on television and would try out some of the tricks he’d learned. He stood a short distance away and spoke gently.
“Hello, Geraldo. Don’t be silly. I’m not going to hurt you.”
The dog continued with his furious barking and Leonardo continued on his way.
That afternoon and on subsequent days, Leandro repeated the gambit. Almost imperceptibly, Geraldo’s barking became less aggressive as he became familiar with the young boy. It came to a point, after weeks of Leonardo addressing the dog, that he would be greeted not with barks but with a funny little whine and a wagging tail.
Leonardo’s next move was to advance on the gate. With the closer proximity, the barking started again, but it didn’t have the threatening nature of before. Leonardo extended his hand to a gap between the bars on the gate and left it there. It would have been impossible for Geraldo to bite him because the gap was too narrow for his jaws, but he could fit his muzzle through, and that’s what he did, sniffing at Leonardo’s hand.
“You see? I’m a friend.”
Geraldo licked the peace offering and wagged his tail happily. Leonardo repeated the maneuver for a number of days afterwards. Then, when he was confident that he’d practically won Geraldo over, he inserted his hand through the gap in the bars. This was the acid test, and it was passed; Geraldo licked Leonardo’s hand and forearm, while Leonardo was able to stroke Geraldo’s head and, when the dog turned, his back.
And so Leonardo gained a friend and confidant, bringing treats as he passed on his way to school, and at the weekend spending more time with him and sharing his innermost thoughts and secrets in long, necessarily one-sided confessions. Geraldo was certainly a good listener.
On occasions, as Leonardo approached the house, Geraldo would be barking ferociously at other passers-by, but would calm down when Leonardo arrived at the gate. On one such occasion, there were three boys of Leonardo’s age taunting Geraldo as he approached. The dog was at his most combative, his feet up on the gate and saliva flying out of his mouth as he barked and growled and snarled at what he saw as his attackers. Leonardo didn’t recognize the boys; they must have been from a different barrio. He should have thought twice but he didn’t.
“Hey, leave him alone!”
The biggest of the boys turned his attention away from Geraldo.
“What’s it to you?”
“I just don’t think you shoul—”
Without warning, the boy raced up to Leonardo and punched him square in the face. Leonardo felt teeth crunch and snap and he fell to the dusty ground, with Geraldo’s barking reaching hysterical levels. The boy kicked Leonardo in the stomach. The other two were there now, kicking and punching whatever part of Leonardo was left open as he tried to protect himself with his arms and hands.
The flurry of kicks and punches ceased and through rapidly swelling eyes, Leonardo saw the boys moving away. Then they stopped. Despite Geraldo’s barking, Leandro heard the biggest one address his friends.
“Wait. He can identify us.”
They turned and started back towards the gate. Leonardo, in no state to reason things through, acted on instinct: he scrambled to his feet and opened the gate.
If the boys had ever been frightened in their lives before that moment, it was as nothing to what they now experienced: it was a wild, almost other-worldly monster that launched itself at them. It grabbed the biggest boy by the leg; he screamed with pain. The other two were already halfway down the street, fleeing like antelopes ahead of a hungry leopard. Geraldo had the boy’s leg tight in his jaws and was shaking his head back and forth. With each shake, the boy’s screams grew in intensity.
Leandro was still at the gate, leaning on it for support.
“Geraldo! Here boy!”
Geraldo stopped the shaking, released the boy’s leg and trotted over to Leandro, who slid to the ground, groaning with the pain of his wounds. The boy limped away, audibly sobbing now.
Geraldo sniffed at Leonardo’s battered body, then began to lick his bloody face.
“Good boy. Good boy.”
The sound of sirens: someone had called the police and they were arriving. But as Leonardo gratefully ruffled Geraldo’s fur, his relief was replaced by a sudden, awful realization. He tried to push Geraldo away and held his hand up to the police officers that jumped out of the car.
Geraldo’s muzzle was bloody from biting a leg and licking Leonardo’s face. He was looming over Leonardo’s prone form.
Three bullets ripped through him and he fell by Leonardo’s side.
As an ambulance pulled up, Leonardo began gently stroking Geraldo, who was panting for air. He carried on stroking him until well after the last breaths had left his best friend’s now blood-soaked body.
And then came the first tears to Leonardo’s swollen eyes, and a heavy pain to his chest—a pain that had little to do with kicks or punches.