Choices, Dogs

Leashed

In the fourteen days since she joined us, she’s destroyed:

  • One chest harness
  • Two dog blankets
  • One nylon leash
  • One leather leash
  • The molding around the bathroom door
  • The molding around the front door
  • A good portion of the bedroom carpet
  • The cap of Bug’s new marker
  • One magazine basket handle
  • The zipper of a purple down vest
  • The zipper of raincoat #1
  • The hem of raincoat #2
  • One complete ham bone
  • The pink bathrobe sash
  • The metal bars of her crate
  • An entire issue of the Washington Post Sunday magazine, all the way down to Gene Weingarten

 

Dogs belong to that elite group of con artists at the very pinnacle of their profession, the ones who pick our pockets clean and leave us smiling about it.

– Stephen Budiansky, The Truth About Dogs

It’s pushing 11:00pm. I want nothing more than to stash the last of plates in the dishwasher and collapse into bed. Instead, I will don a scarf and a jacket (one with an intact zipper), and pocket a few plastic sleeves from the Sunday Post. The little monster will quiver in a half-sit until she hears the harness snap, then she’ll lunge for the door. I will stumble out into the dark trying in vain to keep her behind and to the left of me as we circle the block half a dozen times. Only after she’s memorized every drop of canine urine that’s graced the grass in the past 72 hours will she relax enough to do her business. Then we’ll come back in where she will dedicate another 30 minutes to pacing from my room to Bug’s room to her blanket to her crate and back to my room again, collar jingling all the while, until she finds the right place to curl up for the night.

And I’ll be the grinning idiot who coos and strokes her back as she sighs off to sleep.

 

Family, Home

Make Room

pooch curled
One question concerns me: Was she was someone’s family pet before the smugglers took her? It’s likely. She climbs up onto any willing lap and folds her flanks into the knobs of her knees, tucking her nose under her tail. She burrows like a deer into this nest of her own bristle and bone. She stays, riding the chop even when the lap belongs to a shouting Pictionary player who is trying in vain to sketch a triceratops before the timer runs out.

My office is powered down for two full weeks. Bug is with his dad’s clan up north for half of winter break. This would have been a perfect time to go get a haircut. Assemble those shelves in the utility closet. Catch up with faraway friends. Sleep.

Our lives have no room for this. I can barely keep a philodendron alive. Nevertheless, Bug reminds me about the promise I made a few months after our pooch passed away last spring. “We can start thinking about it in September.”

In September, he asked, “When can we start talking about it?” I told him Thanksgiving.

At Thanksgiving, he asked, “When can we start looking?”

I don’t head into Petco’s December adoption event with the intention of adopting. I’m just checking things out, just starting a process that might take months. But there she is. She lays with her paws crossed and ears up, keeping a polite distance from the shrieking tumble of puppy-ness.

They tell me she is from Thailand. A rescue. Undoubtedly a dog of rough beginnings. Undoubtedly full of needs and fears and miswired circuitry that might make her a heap of trouble. The little boy from her foster family says she follows him around and curls up with him every time he sits down. He doesn’t seem to grasp what a nightmare she might be. He chatters on about what a cuddler she is, and how gentle, and what a good friend.

In the days after I submit an application (just an application, not a commitment), I learn more than I want to know. She slips free from her foster family and disappears into the sprawling suburbs. She is prone to flight. This is not surprising, given how she’s learned to survive. The illegal meat trade is a brutal teacher. In Thailand, smugglers lure both pets and strays off the streets and stuff them into crowded crates. They tear off to slaughterhouses in Vietnam or China to sell their wares.

Animal protection laws are lax at best. When merchants are caught, they may not even pay a fine. Rescued dogs land in safe but spartan shelters with hundreds if not thousands of other disoriented creatures. Inadequate funding and sparse veterinary care leave many of these dogs with grim futures. In Thailand, pet adoption is exceedingly rare.

A few organizations from around the world fly volunteers out to select one or two to ferry across the ocean to new homes.

She’s come this far only to make a break for it the first chance she gets. She has no idea that anything good — anyone good — is on the other side of trust. During the uncertain week when she is missing, they tell me she unlikely to make it back.

What they don’t know is that this little girl was born under a lucky star. Maybe a whole constellation.

With the help of professional trackers and an army of volunteers, someone finds her hiding in brambles on a side street in Chantilly. The vice president of the rescue organization decides to hold onto her for the time being. They call me up to tell me we can bring her home.

Home?

There’s no way we’re ready for this.

Of course, neither was that family in Thailand. More to the point, neither was she.

It isn’t possible to send them word. She has no records except the ones written in an unfamiliar alphabet and cobbled together before she boarded her flight. Even if we were certain she’d had a home, if we could find a town, a street, someone to ask, who would translate our inquiries?

Would a photo would be enough?

It is for Bug.

He loves her at one glance. “Look at those cute little eyes!” He fawns over her tiny snapshot on the smartphone.

Thaya

Two days later, they meet in person. She whips her tail so hard she can barely keep her back legs on the floor. She tries to scale him to get to him face to lick lick lick. He squeals and laughs, petting her all the way down her wiry back.

Despite it all, she trusts him. Trusts us.

Foolish girl.

At home, she finds a lap. It’s far too small for her. No matter. She burrows in.

An earthquake, a tidal wave, a belly laugh. She isn’t going anywhere.

She claims her place.

We have no room for her.

Anyway, she stays.

  • Soi Dog is a Thai animal welfare organization that aims to end pet cruelty and homelessness in Thailand.
  • This CNN photo blog takes a hard look at the dog meat trade.
Change, Poetry

Dead Ringer

The ting a single note was key
against coin, a passing
pocket, the handyman pausing to light
the corridor after a week
of burnt filament
and shadow. It was not
the dog turning
a corner. Of course
I look up anyway
because it is easier to recall
than to forget
her and easier still to forget
that recollection
is all I have left.
The last time tag tinged collar
was the last time.
I will get used to this
too soon. I will fail to catch
the first moment
that note chimes
and I don’t look up
anymore.
 

Uncategorized

Fight or Flight

Express yourself completely,
then keep quiet.
Be like the forces of nature:
when it blows, there is only wind;
when it rains, there is only rain;
when the clouds pass, the sun shines through.
Tao Te Ching, 10

We are dressed for the day. A Tupperware of cinnamon toast and eggs is ready for Bug to scarf down on the commute. The only thing left is walking the dog. I offer Bug the choice to stay in the house with granddaddy or come with me. He fiddles with his legos, weighing his options. Usually the dog’s constitutional is an all-business trot down the cul-de-sac. Ten minutes, tops. While I know better than to take the kid when we are in a hurry, the situation calls for adaptation.
 
“Gramma Genie can walk her,” he tells me.
 
“Gramma Genie is in Dallas, remember? Your great grandma Mardy fell and broke her hip.”
 
“Oh yeah,” he remembers. “What did they have to do for the operation?”
 
Many mornings, Bug will hang around my mother’s room chewing the fat as she gussies herself up for her workday. My father sequesters himself in the basement to write. In the blessed reprieve, I can buzz around packing lunches and walking the dog, half hearing that mode of relentless interrogation only a 5-year-old can pull off. This week, the big bedroom upstairs is quiet. Bug tags along after me instead. Great Grandma Mardy needs my mother right now much more than we do, so I attempt to move along at a steady clip while also keeping expectations down where they belong. Bug’s ceaseless chatter accompanies me. I explain as briefly as I can how hip replacement works and what the word “rehabilitation” means. I remind him he is supposed to be choosing between the dog and granddaddy.
 
Bug glances at the wan light coming from a too-quiet basement. The old man is no match for the outdoors. “I want to walk with you,” he tells me.
 
Racing down the driveway, Bug kicks through a puddle. It has rained torrents every night for the better part of a week. Giant mushrooms bloom low in the grass and a creek the length of the block has formed along the edge of the blacktop. Fenway snuffles, squashing tiny wild strawberries as she goes. The scent of honeysuckle drapes itself over the mist.
 
Ahead, Bug sees Cleo dart into a gauze of brambles. Our skinny calico cat often joins us on these jaunts, keeping her haughty distance. In an instant, she is invisible, her patches blending into the spongy decay of last season’s canopy. Bug turns to me, impulse flashing across his face.
 
“Let’s go on an adventure!”
 
I feel a sigh gather steam but I quell it. It is getting late. The dog roots around in the puddles. She has peed so we are done here. “It’s awfully wet, baby,” I say, “and we need to get to school.”
 
“It’s not too wet,” he says. He steps off the blacktop and his feet sink into the muck. I groan. He shrugs. “It’s okay. It’s only a little wet.”
 
The cat is visible for a moment, stalking her imaginary prey. She creeps further into the shadows. Bug watches her, keeping one eye on me. He is primed. “We have to chase her,” he explains.
 
“We’ve already gotten all dressed for school. I’m wearing my work clothes.”
 
“We can change our socks. You will dry off at work.” He grins at me, momentum quivering from toes to scalp. His gaze twinkles with something like. . . flirtation? I’m a sucker for a charmer. No and Yes start throwing punches. The crowd presses in, choosing sides. The determination to distinguish myself in my profession joins the clock in clanging out support for the clear favorite.
 
The underdog’s backers are silent.
 

Open yourself to the Tao,
then trust your natural responses;
and everything will fall into place.

Sometimes the hardest steps are the simplest to take. The playground scuffle goes on, but I tear myself away and look only at my son splashed across the canvas of the morning. How many of us get to kick off the workday by ducking into the wild woods? My grandma in that post-op hospital room would probably surrender her reserve seat in heaven for one last moment exactly like this.
 
“Let’s go get that kitty,” I say. I unclip the dog’s lead. Bug chants “Yay, yay, yay!” as he ducks under the vines and plunges into shadow. We are deep in when a breeze awakens the leaves and showers us with a morning-after rain. We look up through the blue-green awning at the sun making its way through a weave of branch and cloud. Bug and Fenway follow the incensed cat down into a creek-bed and up onto a soggy log. She leaps away and we part a congregation of weeds whispering at our calves.
 
Our ragtag foursome dips and climbs through summer then winter and even next year’s spring. We burrow through the earth’s core and emerge from the mouth of a cave that smells of seawater and smoke. We wander through a valley teeming with cockatiels that screech from the low branches of mango trees. Every person we have ever known has grown old and died. A waterfall as tall as a mountain washes us free of memory.
 
Bug parts a curtain of ivy and we spill out onto the road. The cat bounds back towards the house, her tail arched in irritation. My son’s face is wild with pink light and his legs are streaked with mud. “We came out all the way down here!” We have exited fewer than twenty feet from our entry point, but I share his wonder. The continent has shifted in our absence, and nothing will ever be the same.
 
We dash back to our house and peel off socks and shoes. I take the stairs two at a time to change the whole outfit because three inches of damp trouser cuff might blow my cover. I may be a feral thing, but I still have to don my breathing apparatus to survive in the world of steel and glass.
 
No one knows where we have been. How could we begin to explain? We slipped through a tear in the damp fabric of the morning and crawled onto the beach alongside those first gilled beasts. Only a skittish cat, one lop-eared dog, a boy and his mama recall what happened here, but our recollection is fading fast. In the car, Bug and I speak of quotidian things, of weekend plans and hip surgery. When we attempt to fit what we have witnessed into the shape of language, our tongues founder.
 
I know only this: When all the clocks in the world demanded we stay on solid ground, we stepped off the edge. We made our way back, but we may not stay for long. Do we have years or decades? Will we will reach ninety-two or knock off next week? No one gets out of here unscathed. For every moment we claim as our own, we will pay. It is only a matter of time.
 

If you open yourself to loss,
you are at one with loss
and you can accept it completely.

Walk the dog or stay home? Get wet or stay dry? Everything we love, even the very selves we occupy, might be gone in a blink. Knowing this, what choice do we have but to step over and meet what is here?

Mitchell, Stephen. Tao Te Ching. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.