"Maybe I should get a Great Dane," she said, "use its spine as a handrail. If I die before it does, just shoot it in the head. I'll go ahead and buy the gun. Something large-caliber. And bullets--I'll even buy bullets."
She offered to pay for any expenses incurred, veterinary or otherwise, if we agreed to take the dachshund. This offer preemptively nullified my dad's argument against pets (that they were expensive). Besides, the situation--a dying relative asking for a favor--was exactly the sort of thing my mother could not say no to. ("The weakest among us...") So we drove up to Illinois and ferried the dog home to Nashville.
Prior to the dachshund, the only pets my parents had allowed me, my older brother, and my three little sisters were goldfish, and goldfish only because my sister Hannah had won one at the Tennessee State Fair when the Ping-Pong ball she paid for the opportunity to toss ended its chaotic bouncing by landing in one of the deceptively thin-throated goldfish bowls, filled with variously dyed water, on the carny's table. This sunk shot won her a half-pint of blue-tinted water and a goldfish in a knot-topped plastic bag, a short-lived species and a compromise my parents couldn't find the courage to deny us. It died a few days later.
But every September we tried again, wasting saved money on plastic baskets of greasy Ping-Pong balls, winning at least one and sometimes several more goldfish in the deep-fried air of the state-fair midway, hungry for even a few days of pet ownership.
Simple animals to live with, goldfish. Ideal for pet-averse parents. Care? Cheap, easy, a daily sprinkle of flaky fish food, a weekly replacement of the foggy water. In illness and injury, goldfish are silent, often comical and cartoonish, swimming upside down (swim bladder disorder) or sporting a freakishly swollen eye (pop-eye disease). And, upon death, flushable! An emotionally and physically tidy disposal (wrap goldfish in toilet paper, drop in water, depress plunger, walk away from gurgle), unlike the backyard burial required by larger, land-dwelling animals. Thumb-size, aquatic, built with monocular vision, difficult to play with without seriously injuring or murdering them--it was hard to get too attached to these small-volume circle swimmers. My parents should have held us to these annual goldfish.
At first we liked that dog. A miniature dachshund is a significant step up from a goldfish. A disobedient, unloyal dog who hated being cuddled or petted was nonetheless a more absorbent sponge for our affection than a state-fair goldfish. So what if it was thirteen and not entirely house-trained? Pet-starved children, we were more than willing to clean up the messes, to walk the dog in the bitter cold and, when it decided it didn't want to walk anymore and refused to move despite our pleading and leash tugging, to pick it up and carry it home.
But as dog owning turned from new to regular, each of us found our own reason to resent the dog.
My father begrudged the extra money siphoned from our family's already tight budget. Great Aunt Marilyn held up her end of the deal at first, sending my father reimbursement checks for any expenses the dog incurred, but after a while the checks stopped arriving and my parents were too embarrassed to press the issue. The dog, then in its nineteenth dachshund (smooth-haired) year--its ninety-second human year, according to the Pedigree Dog Age Calculator--had a thyroid problem that necessitated frequent vet visits and prescription food. The cost was high, especially for a man already supporting five children.
My older brother, a year ahead of me in high school, hated the dog for what it wasn't: the black Lab he had always begged for. Our dog--eleven pounds, tubular, yappy, constantly trembling--was no stand-in for the obedient, loyal, full-size, ball-fetching canine he had for years lobbied our parents to acquire.
My three little sisters were mostly indifferent toward the dog, about which they practiced stubborn, unconditional southern kindness. The dog's favorite spot to pee was a section of carpet outside the door to the bedroom they shared. Often, their first step into a new day resulted in a urine-soaked sock. Still, they refused to speak ill of the dog. Instead they said, "At least she's consistent," or "You can't teach an old dog new kindness," or "Bless its little canine soul." But I saw my sisters' subtle disappointment. Despite their kindness, the dachshund remained incapable of accepting affection. When they tried to cuddle it, it barely tolerated their embraces. It trembled in their arms, waiting for the grip to loosen, for the moment when it might wriggle to freedom.
My mother seemed determined to counterbalance our collective resentment by overpraising the dog on those rare occasions when it was not patently disobedient. "She waited for me to finish pouring her food!" my mother might yell from the kitchen. Or: "No pee on the carpet. Dry as desert."
But even my mother, chief architect of the dog's acquisition and continued presence in our household, exhibited occasional animosity toward it. A favorite joke of hers was to insult the dog in a high-pitched voice that the dog would understand as praise. "You're just a bunch of trash, aren't you? You're a worthless waste of space, isn't that right? You have no idea what I'm saying, do you?" The dog would bark in agreement.
(Our church disallows women pastors, elders, or deacons, citing Proverbs. Were we attendant to a different doctrine, doubtless my mother would spiritually lead. She has jaw-length brown hair and organizes prayer marathons for the congregation's sick. When my sister got sick and the doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong, my mother burned my Harry Potter books in the backyard fire pit. I love my mother.)
Me? I hated the violence of the dog, its fondness for hunting and killing.
Early on, a box turtle: the dog dragged the turtle inside and dropped it in the corner of the foyer. The shell clattered on the marble. The dog commenced to barking, frustrated by the turtle's unwillingness to let it in for a bite.
When I picked up the turtle and carried it through the house to the backyard, the dog followed me, whining, yipping, and hopping at the turtle as if it expected me to help, to take a butter knife and shuck the turtle for easier eating.
I saved that one. Took it down the street to the creek.
Later, a duck. No idea how the dog caught the duck. Ducks can fly, and the body of water nearest to our house, the creek, was almost a mile away.
I found the dog in the garage, growling, whipping the heavy bird around by the neck. A male mallard in breeding plumage. Duck blood and feathers everywhere.
By wedging my fingers into the dog's mouth, I managed to pry the duck free. Blood and dog spit coated my fingertips. (Luckily, this was before I became a germophobe and a bird-watcher. Maybe the dog helped me along the path toward fearing germs and loving birds?)
The duck was already dead. I buried it in the backyard and cleaned up the garage. The mess looked pretty: green-blue feathers and splatters of blood spread out in a halo on the poured concrete. Despite this, it made me mad, this dog and its need to end lives.
After the duck, the baby rabbits.
It started with a single bunny, an appetizer, dropped on the couch, its little body, barely furred, mauled bloody by the dog's mouth. The rabbit didn't move, but its heart beat on for a few minutes, pumping blood onto the towel we'd wrapped it in. Then it died.
This happened on a spring Saturday. Our family combed the yard for the burrow, hoping to find and relocate the other rabbits before we had to let the dog out again. But the den eluded us, hidden well enough from the humans who wanted to save them. Eventually, after the dog peed on the rug twice, my father, fearing dog shit, let it outside. We watched closely as it ran around the front yard, ran through the bushes, did its business. When it came to the door, ready to be let inside, it had another baby rabbit in its maw, this one more alive than the first, writhing. No idea, even though we'd tracked it, where it had plucked that bunny from its hole.
We searched again but could not find the rabbits.
This went on: the dog, keeping the secret of the den while murdering the rabbits one by one, savoring the slaughter, ferrying their still-living but mortally wounded bodies inside to ruin our days; us, cleaning up the blood, wrapping the bodies in paper towels, digging holes as deep and wide as sixty-four-ounce Big Gulp cups, and then shoving their paper-swaddled bodies as far down into the soil as we could. We buried the rabbits with quick prayers and topped their graves with heavy rocks so the dog wouldn't dig them up.
Eventually, my mother found the rabbit den, a hole dug up against the concrete foundation of our house. She removed the clump of dried grass and leaves that camouflaged the opening, a veil of foliage solid except for the space where the dog had poked its thin muzzle in to pluck the rabbits out. At the bottom of the hole she found a single bunny, miraculous and untouched. My mother rejoiced, thanked the Lord. It was only when she picked up the stiff, dappled body that she realized the rabbit was dead--likely, she mused later, from the cold or the terror of having its brothers and sisters murdered. Untouched, yes, but only because it did not offer enough entertainment to be worth the dog's bothering with it.
We buried that rabbit next to the rest.
The dog killed other animals, too. Squirrels, moles, toads, mice, slow-moving, yard-pecking songbirds. The rule about the bodies was: you find it, you bury it.
See what I mean? Is my hatred justified?
Of course not. The dog was just being itself. I am smart enough to know that now. Anthropomorphizing, holding animals to human standards, is stupid, narrow-minded, and unfair. The dog acted on instinct and breeding, nature and nurture, not evil or sin. It differed from its ancestors--wolves, coyotes, dingoes--only in its having been miniaturized by humans who had selected the smallest pups from each litter and bred them together, thereby generating ever smaller pups until the wild dog had been squeezed into an elongated body the size and toasty brown color of a loaf of bread. No wonder the trembling! All that history and instinct bottled up in so small a body.
But this understanding--animals are animals--didn't come until later.
The dog owned a name. I won't give it, but it had one. I leave it nameless to retain animal reality. The only difference between the zoo animal and the wild animal, the pet chicken and the cutlet? A name.
Since childhood, Great Aunt Marilyn had kept dachshunds. All short-haired miniatures. When her previous dog had passed, she had gone on a multi-county scramble in search of its successor. Breeders were called, classifieds scanned, kennels visited.
When Great Aunt Marilyn at last found a suitably similar pup and brought it home, the name of the last animal was passed to it. Regardless of genitals, the same name. A name I won't say, but a name.
I will give the biological sex of the pet. She was a she.
Average lifespan, fifteen years. The dog of this story was [redacted] the Sixth.
I was in eighth grade when we got the dog. Back then, whenever I saw the dog's latest kill, stepped in its still-warm piss, or heard her yapping at six in the morning, I'd think, Asshole. Bitch would have been the better insult, and technically correct, given her gender. Even so, asshole was what I thought.
There comes a point in the life of long-lived pets when the owners begin to wonder if the pet will ever die. The dog, the cat, the corn snake, the bearded lizard, the sugar glider, whatever the beloved animal, exceeds by a year or two its expected lifespan and, what's more, seems fine, conscious if foggy-eyed, a bit stiffer and slower than before but not in visible pain. The owners--or, if the pet is especially loved, the self-proclaimed mothers and fathers--begin to hope against reality, mortality, dreaded death, and burial, to wonder and wish at the possibility of an immortal pet.
This did not happen in our case. By the time the dog reached what seemed to be the end of her life, everyone in my family had found a reason to hate her and, even if none of us admitted it, to hope for her death. The sooner, the better.
On her eighteenth Easter, the dog ate a Barbie-size chocolate Jesus and most of the aluminum foil that wrapped Him. Not a hollow Jesus, either: a pound of solid chocolate. We found her having a seizure, the vibrations rattling the uningested shreds of foil.
We thought she would not live.
Dad called the vet, a church friend, and put him on speaker so my mother, who held the seizing dog, could participate in the conversation.
"How much did she eat?" the vet asked.
"A pound," my mother said.
"What kind of chocolate? Milk? Dark? White?"
"Milk," Dad said.
"You still there?" Dad asked.
"Yep. Just doing some calculations in the margin of John 6." Another silence. "Suppose it doesn't matter what kind of chocolate. Unless it was white chocolate? Is that what you meant by milk? White chocolate isn't chocolate. Doesn't have theobromine, the dog toxin. Anyways, sixteen ounces of milk chocolate is way beyond the lethal limit. But who knows? It's Easter! Says right here next to my arithmetic, 'Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.' I know she ate chocolate, not bread, and I know we Presbyterians don't interpret that verse literally, but it could have been a chocolate bunny, you know?"
He advised us to cover the dog bed in newspaper.
I am not proud to remember thinking she deserved to die. It seemed logical, her death a revenge for her killings, karma for her gluttony.
After an hour, her seizures began to shorten. A good sign or bad? A dog half-dead or half-alive? My older brother thought bad--the dog losing strength, exhausted, approaching death. My littlest sister thought good--liver processing theobromine, the dog coming out the other side of her self-poisoning, back into life.
Turned out, good. She lived.
A minor miracle.
A little curse?
Months later, she turned nineteen. That's ninety-two human years for her breed, according to the Pedigree Dog Age Calculator, which tops out at twenty dog years.
Great Aunt Marilyn, like the dog, lived longer than expected. She still lives--I called her today to wish her happy birthday, her ninety-fifth--and, if not razor-sharp, she still retains, like a letter opener, the shape of sharpness. She still knows where, when, and who she is, and she always asks me, when we talk, if I'm still living in sin with my long-term girlfriend. "I am going to die," she said to me today. "Get engaged before I go"--as if this, a great aunt leveraging old age and impending death, was the encouragement I needed to propose to the woman I love and already live with.
Something I remember about my great aunt's house: in the kitchen, atop the old freezer-bottom fridge, a cast-iron Aunt Jemima piggy bank with unpainted skin.
Another memory: in the dining room, on the floor under the head of the table, a bump beneath a scuffed section of the maroon carpeting. When we were kids visiting Springfield, Illinois--I was maybe seven--Great Aunt Marilyn would direct us to crawl under the table and press the soft, cystic growth. "See what the lump does," she said. (A sentence I hope to never hear again.)
We obeyed, scurrying on all fours through the mahogany chair legs to touch the rise in the carpet. I reached it first. A button. I pressed.
Two rooms away in the kitchen, a bell rang. It sounded as long as I depressed the button.
Bells are infuriating when the purpose of their ringing is to summon. Even high-quality bells that, struck once, produce a single, pure ring. And this, the kitchen bell, had an insistent, crazy-making sound. The hammer rattled between two pig-iron bells. Alarming, as intended.
It caused an immediate commotion. The dog began barking. My mother yelled for us to stop. My older brother, surprised, tried to stand up and slammed his head on the mahogany. My father pulled me, the button presser, out from underneath the table by my braided belt. Two of my belt loops popped. The bell stopped ringing. I remember carpet burns on my knees, blood rising through the pink skin.
An extreme reaction. More than just auditory discomfort, apparently. I didn't understand it. My childhood self began to cry.
When the scene settled, my oldest sister begged my mother to explain the purpose of the bell. She refused. Her face turned splotchy. "It's a vestige," she said.
Great Aunt Marilyn picked up the dog, which was barking at our commotion. "Nothing to be ashamed of. Just a bell. Proud to have it. This house is historical." She scratched behind the dog's ear.
Years later, I understood: a button to summon hired help. It could be pressed by a foot wearing suede-soled house slippers. With the button, a diner could use one hand to pin the prime rib to the Wedgwood china with a three-tined fork, the other to saw off an edge of gristle, and the ball of his foot to summon a slice of lemon meringue pie. The orders would, of course, be disguised as requests, the table head's specific directions phrased as queries.
My parents weren't and aren't progressive or liberal. They vote consistently for politicians who peddle roundabout racism. Even so, at least they had the wherewithal to be embarrassed by the bell and its implication of ancestral sin, the knowledge that my mother, as a child, could have crawled beneath the table and used the bell to summon a bowl of ice cream.
All of this is irrelevant, likely. Little added to the dog tale. Far as I know, my great aunt never employed anyone for superfluous service. Never married, never had kids, no need for hired help until she broke her hip a few years ago. She was a huge fan of Lincoln, too. When we arrived at her house, she gave us each a five-dollar bill to spend on Lincoln souvenirs. I still have a gimmicky large penny I use as a coaster. She insisted on tomb visits, on rubbing the Roman nose of the Lincoln bust for luck. This was a tourist tradition, the nose rubbing--the rest of the brass bust had patinaed dark-chocolate brown, but the nose had been hand-polished to gold. All of this seemed like admirable overcompensation for our family's possible ancestral participation in opportunistic subjugation.
I did some asking. Turns out Great Aunt Marilyn's father built the home in 1893.
We were able to teach the old dog only one trick. We hung a copper cowbell from the inside knob of our front door and trained her to ring it with her nose when she needed to be let out. However, being a smart dog, she rang whenever she wanted anything: food, water, the space heater turned on so she could lie on the floor in front of the glowing coils. She would ring the bell until we arrived and then she would lead us, her long nails clicking on the hardwood, to her desire.
In the summer of the dog's twentieth year, around noon, she did not come when called. I was home alone and had let her out, so it fell to me to ensure that she returned.
The dog did this often, refusing to come back inside. In our relationship with the dog, we had the illusion of control--we opened and closed the door, and spooned her food from the bag on top of the fridge to her bowl on the floor--but really she did as she pleased, eating, pissing, shitting, sleeping, barking whenever and wherever she wanted. Mostly our job was to minimize the damage. At night we attached a small battery-powered strobe light to her collar to track her movement through the yard, in daytime a cherry-size brass bell seam-ripped from my mother's Christmas sweater.
I stood barefoot on the front porch but did not see the dog or hear the bell.
When I went looking, I found her in the side yard, in the deep shade of a magnolia, lying perpendicular across a root scarred by lawnmower blades. I called her name, but she did not rise. As I got closer, I saw her breathing fast, swollen breaths, her open eyes looking off at nothing, her downy belly flushed pink.
Despite what I had previously wished on her, this did not make me happy.
I lifted her, one hand under her head, the other beneath her small hips and stubby back legs. She felt hot, steamed. Inside, I put her in a wooden Windsor chair and pushed the chair in front of the open refrigerator.
I called my mother. I heard pool sounds in the background--my sisters' swim meet.
"Is she dead?" my mother asked.
"Not yet. I see her breathing."
I stood over the dog as I talked to my mother. The dog's body slid slowly down the gentle slope of the chair's seat toward the spindles of the backrest.
"Can you check again? Your sister's about to dive. I don't want to miss it if the dog's already dead."
A reasonable request. We had been tricked before by this dog's death teasing. I touched her neck and felt a hard-knocking pulse.
"Still alive," I said.
My mother left the swim meet.
I filled a teacup with water and a few ice cubes. When the water chilled, I dipped my fingers in the cup and sprinkled the cold water across the dog's body. I could think of nothing else to do.
I wanted the dog to die, but for her sake, not mine. Mercy, then, not the hateful death wish of before. Her eyes hadn't moved. They remained fixed in their sockets.
When my mother arrived home, the dog still looked alive. Though her breathing had gotten shallow, we could see her rib cage expanding and contracting. She did not respond to my mother's high-pitched dog voice, nor did she move when I ran my hand over her moist body, not even when I petted her against the grain, which she hated and usually bit at.
"Should I take her to the animal hospital?" my mother asked me.
"What could they do?" I said.
"Morphine, maybe. Or the dog equivalent. Maybe whatever they give dogs to kill them painlessly? I don't know. They could give me peace of mind. They could make it so I've done everything I can."
While my mother continued sprinkling the dog with the water from the teacup, I took the green fleece blanket that covered the dog's bed, soaked it under the faucet, and wrung it out. My mother lifted the dog and we wrapped her limp body loosely in the damp blanket.
"I can come with you," I said.
I drove, speeding with my mother's blessing, while she held the dog.
At the pet hospital, my mother put the dog on the counter. The receptionist, a nurse, unswaddled her to check her pulse and shine a penlight into her foggy, useless corneas.
She declared the dog doomed.
When we were seen, the attendant veterinarian corroborated this diagnosis and casually offered to kill the dog with an injection of pentobarbital through an artery in her leg. He described the entire process flatly, without euphemism.
My mother hedged. The dog had recovered before; who was to say it wouldn't again? Even in the case of a dog, my mother could not reconcile euthanasia with her aggressive pro-life stance.
Also, if she allowed the dog to be "put to sleep," it was the hospital's policy to require cremation, and my mother didn't want to cremate the dog. She wanted the full, unburned corpse buried in our backyard, not piped up a smokestack to join the smog over Nashville.
We rewrapped the dog and left. In the parking lot, in the front seat, my mother held the dog until she stopped breathing.
"A racket," my mother said. We were on our way home with the dog corpse. "Doctors funneling business to the in-house crematory. They probably regularly kill animals fully capable of cheap recovery. Handing out death sentences to dogs with mange, cats with broken legs. 'Quality of life,' they said! Shaking their gosh-damn heads at me. Who are they to make me feel guilty for wanting to keep her whole?"
When we got home, my mother gathered the family in the front room.
"I want us to say goodbye," she said, peeling back the fleece to reveal the dog's head. The dog's eyes remained open. "I'm going to pass her around so we can each say goodbye."
My mother said her piece. I would relate it here, but I don't remember. Something about the smallness of the dog's stature and the bigness of her spirit? An allusion to Zacchaeus? I can't remember, because my mother began her bit by quoting scripture. I glaze over when scripture is invoked. I've heard the Bible quoted so often that now, when I hear it quoted, it's hard to hear anything at all.
I snapped back to attention when my mother passed the dog to my dad.
Out of nowhere, he started crying. Not a slight cracking of the voice, but eyes-closed, mouth-wide, air-sucking sobs. My mother rubbed his back. "Honey," she said. "Honey, it's OK." The force of the sobs had him doubled over, the dog lying across his legs.
It was apparent, at least to me, that his mourning had less to do with the dog's death than with his impending fiftieth birthday. He had just that week gone in for blood work and was waiting for the results. (They turned out clean.)
After a few minutes, his crying ebbed. He opened his red eyes, wiped the snot and tears from his face, and sat up straight. He muttered the dog's name, then passed her to my brother.
My brother put the dog on the couch beside him, where her long spine settled into the crack between two cushions. The four bumps in the swaddle, her stubby rigor mortis legs, leaned slightly away from his thigh. This breach in the agreed-upon ritual--the dead dog not held--seemed to bother my mother, who looked at the dog with a pained expression on her face but said nothing.
"That time she killed the duck," my brother said. "That was pretty cool."
(Is it worth mentioning that my brother eventually graduated from West Point and is now stationed in Alaska, and that shooting and eating ducks has become one of his favorite hobbies?)
He passed the dog to me.
The blanket bundle felt stiff with dried sink water. It had loosened during the passing, and now her back legs and bony tail emerged from one end. She felt heavier than she had while alive. I set her on my lap.
I had nothing nice to say about the dog, so, a good southern boy, I bent a negative into a positive.
"She knew what she wanted," I said. "She was wily and intelligent. And funny, even if I didn't always appreciate her humor."
Something happened then that I did not see. One of my sisters, sitting next to me in the circle, leaned away and covered her mouth. "Gross," she said through her hand. "Gross, gross, gross." She got up and ran from the room.
My brother began to laugh. He laughed so hard his asthma started up.
I looked at my father. He was looking at the dog. His face had blanched.
"What?" I asked. "What's happening?"
I thought I'd said something to trigger this. I thought also, maybe, that the dog had revived on my lap. I looked down but saw no movement.
My mother saw. She crossed the room and took the dog from me, rewrapping the dog's hindquarters as she did so.
At that point I saw and smelled the shit.
Not having working muscles, the dog had shat on me.
A biological factoid.
"Shit," I said. "Shit!"
The act felt intentional. It could not have been--the dog was dead--but it felt like a final, postmortem fuck you.
I took off the jeans I was wearing, tossed them in the trash, and took a shower.
Will I do something similar? Will I leave a mess for those alive to clean up? Metaphorical, not literal--I have made it known that I want to be cremated--but might I leave debt, junk, something crucial unsaid?
When I was clean and dry, my mother asked me to help dig the grave. I hadn't the strength to tell a weepy mother no, so I followed my brother and father outside.
A dog that size should be easy to bury. A shallow grave should be deep enough.
But our yard backed up to Tennessee woods, then undeveloped. Silver oak, beech. Near trickling water, sycamore. Occasionally, pileated woodpeckers. That summer, drought scorched the canopy. Bushy invading undergrowth leached nutrients. Honeysuckle, privet, English ivy. Therefore coyotes. Also that year, reports of Carolina dogs, a.k.a. the American dingo, a stocky, blondish breed that had drifted west into Tennessee from the flooding swamps of coastal North and South Carolina. Neighborhood alerts re: neck-broke cats, chickens slaughtered in coop. Previously cocky dogs got mauled, demoted to beta, refused to return outside. We're talking quick yellow teeth, packs of hungry, ribby proto-pets loping through their measly exurban range.
My mother knew this. She chaired the wildlife subcommittee of the neighborhood watch. Weepy, she requested double interment in a deep grave. A small plastic bin nested inside a larger Rubbermaid bin, to prevent the scent of rot from seeping.
Half a gallon of dog in a thirty-gallon hole.
The sun was setting. It was raining, but it stopped before we began.
The gravediggers were my brother, my father, and me.
In the backyard, we excavated semi-solid mud. Heavy, sandy dirt. An unspoken agreement not to speak. A mound growing beside the deepening hole. We had, among the three of us, two tools: a pick and a spade. I dug with the spade. When I struck a root, I pointed, and my brother chopped, leaving an albino nub leaking sap down the side of the grave. It was, from the smell, pine root. (A year later, a nearby evergreen browned and died, possibly from our root chopping.)
My father watched the growing hole. He cried again. We could not hear him--the trees were dripping--but, glancing, I saw bloodshot, puffy eyes. His contribution to the gravedigging was selfish sorrow. He wiped tears and rain from his face with the back of his hand.
We moved earth for an hour, then tried lowering the coffin. Too small still. My brother and I swapped tools and continued.
I only dig pet graves. A symbolic toss of dirt at other funerals, if requested, but otherwise clean hands, all the heavy digging done by backhoe, caskets lowered by motorized pulley systems.
It became too dark to see clearly. The hole was almost deep enough, but the edges kept sloughing off, undoing our work. Inside, my mother turned on the floodlight bolted to the eave at the corner of the house. It began to mist. The fat beams of light turned solid in the suspended water. Waiting for my brother to point out a root, I looked at the window and saw my mother watching us with crossed arms.
We heard yowling from the woods. We saw columns of darkness between the tree trunks.
My father was shivering.
At this, I got a bit choked up.
Eventually the grave seemed to have sufficient depth. I pushed the bin in. The hole barely swallowed it. Not deep enough, probably, but the mist was starting to precipitate and fill the hole with water. We filled around and above with sludgy dirt. My brother spread the mounded remainder of displaced soil over the zinnia beds.
The next morning, the grave remained undisturbed. So, too, the morning after. My dad bought grass seed and straw and sprinkled it over the muddy patch.
The silence of the house sans dog disturbed me. Also, her remainders. A half-empty bag of kibble nearly undid me, despite how I had hated her. Odd how the death of anything, even a despised something, can make you feel sorrow sharply. Still, like my dad's tears, this feeling was mostly selfish.
On the morning of the third day, we found the grave robbed.
My mother discovered the violation in the early hours. She might have been checking daily. She yelled to wake us.
We gathered outside in our various pajamas. The grave looked exploded. Clods and paw-trod mud surrounding. As long as I've been alive, my mother has never worn glasses, and yet that morning, standing in the yard, she looked like someone who was missing her pair. In the bushes I found the top of the larger bin chew-toyed. The soft plastic, I imagine, had massaged itchy gums. I noted a frothed fleck of spittle on an edge of the mangled plastic.
You can buy, for dogs like ours, a costume. Two oversize plush hot dog buns connected by elasticized plush squiggles of mustard and ketchup.
She became for the wild dog pack a snack, doubtless only part of what they needed.
In the hole, the larger bin remained, emptied of the smaller. The smaller we found in the ditch, dragged nearly to the street. Never rediscovered: the top of the smaller bin, the green blanket, any of the dog.
Surprisingly, not much blood. I expected smears, clotted gobs, maybe, but the whole scene was licked cleaned. A bit under the lip of the smaller bin was all.
My father got angry. His bottom jaw jutted. Normally gentle, he paced, growled, "They didn't have to do this. This is disrespect. This is unforgivable."
My brother saw an opening and began to talk about hunting. He mused on the caliber appropriate for coyote skulls. My sisters, ever angels, went inside and returned with dish gloves and trash bags. They began to range through the yard, harvesting bits of chewed and scattered plastic.
I retrieved the shovel from the garage and started refilling the hole.
My mother watched. My father paced and muttered. My brother squatted in the mud, trying to read the prints.
"They make these traps?" my brother said. "Little things. Strong. Some toothless, some toothed. I've seen them in Cabela's."
We ignored him. As a family, we have never been--and were not then--equipped for the hunt.
"Maybe it's better this way," my mother said. She looked into the woods. An overcast morning, wisps of fog in the upper canopy on the ridgeline. "They're related," she said.
"They'll come back," my father said. He gesticulated at the house with both arms. "They'll want more." Arms wide. "You want them coming back? Scratching at our door? What if we want another dog?"
"I'm not saying I like it," my mother said. "I'm just trying to be reasonable."
"We should call animal control," my dad said. "We should get trained professionals."
"Twenty-caliber should do it," my brother said. "I'd prefer copper, not lead. Lead's bad for the environment, vultures especially." He looked in my direction. I could tell he was trying to appease me, the family's budding environmentalist.
Maybe the neighborhood-watch wilderness subcommittee prepared my mother for this moment? She seemed more dazed than fazed.
"We need to do something," my father said.
I didn't fully agree with any of them, but I wanted to make peace. Also, I didn't want to watch my silent mother being yelled at.
"What got hurt here?" I said. "Other than our feelings?"
Somehow, this settled it. I finished filling the hole as best I could. It dipped slightly. My father re-sprinkled grass seed and straw, and we moved on.
My family has gone from being "we" to "they" for me. They got a new dog. This one is wholly theirs, not a favor to a relative. A mutt, mostly blue heeler, tireless and loud but either incapable of killing or better at hiding it than the dachshund. I hear, as I write, my mother screaming "No!" and the dog's name repeated in various sequences.
I hate stories about dogs. Children take the brunt of canine-centric literature. Spot, Blue's Clues, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Shiloh, Old Yeller, Lassie, Wishbone, Where the Red Fern Grows. I've read my share, school-assigned mostly, but I'll cop to occasional voluntary reading. Sentimental drivel. Part of the reason I've told this, my own story. This was the real thing, and mostly true.
I live with my girlfriend and our quiet cat, who, yes, kills geckos and lizards, but more often keeps her murdering to flies and cockroaches. Never yet a bird or mammal. So maybe no point to any of this? I meant to strip the varnish from pet love but have a phone nearly full of cat pictures. The toxoplasmosis, no doubt, makes me love her obsessively. Thinking of the end--she is three out of her expected fifteen years--I can't without breaking down.
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|Author:||Sanders, Thomas (American actor)|
|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2017|
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