Bloodlines

Vincent Brothers Review, Issue 21, Vol III, No. 2
 
My dog Mia visits me in dreams.  Winds drive her deep bark through open screens and around the cracks of doors. She arrives in changed shapes, smaller, her brown and white coat a prickly blue, her dog tag the size of a wall clock.  I race to the door, reaching to enfold her amber-eyed head in my arms.  And wake, remembering that hug, the moment of recovered love for a dog dead over a year.  It’s fierce, persistent, that love, lingering close to the surface, slipping in when the wind rattles the shutters. 

Before Mia, every dog I ever owned was hit by a car, my past a line of losses like blows, like a dot to dot picture not yet complete.  Because I still have a dog.  He sleeps in my bed, bites my ankles, unties my shoes, demanding his share of me.  

In a dog obedience class I learned that dogs regard their owners as pack members; they’ve handed over their allegiance, and we’d better not fail them.  I know this is true because my Jack Russell terrier wants me to hunt rats with him.  He leaps against the door to go outside and darts back instantly, urging me to come now, please, get those guys, us together, a pack of two.

            My first dog was Fritzi, and she wasn’t really mine, but a family dog, like all our dogs.  I was three when she died.  I remember only her name, the taste of her dog biscuits, how good she smelled--and the two men carrying her dead body into the yard.  In memory she hangs by her legs from a pole, limp and lolling, like big game carried by hunters.  But memory is a slippery thing and I could be wrong. 

Fritzi.  A friend told me the formula that strippers use to pick a stage name: Combine their first pet’s name with their mother’s maiden name.  That would make me Fritzi Nightingale, good enough if I’d chosen that line of work.

            At my Nightingale grandparents’ house, a little dog with broken legs lived for a while in a basket by the heater.  He pulled himself around, his splinted legs scrabbling on the linoleum.  In the Central Valley town where we lived during the cash-strapped 50’s, those splints represented a heroic effort.  Most injured animals were put down—which, in my family, meant shot.  That little dog would have lived if he could have; he’d endure the pain to please them.  But I guess my grandparents couldn’t.  One day he was gone.  

            In my extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins, dogs were adjunct members, loved, highly regarded, but in the end, expendable.  All dogs slept outside, on porches, sheds or barns.  They were paraphernalia, living attachments, animals that associated with people but weren’t fully integrated.

 My grown-up cousin Kiddo owned a big, black dog named Tzar, who rode everywhere with him in his pickup, until a man with a grudge carried the dog off to Oregon. Grudges and suspicions of them were a fact of life among my transplanted Southern relatives.  They saw envy everywhere, envy of the cars they owned, their optimism and sociability, their unaccountable attitude of privilege.  Tzar became a family legend when he limped home after a few weeks, thin, foot-sore and lumpy with burrs.  My father, uncles and cousins carried on about the superiority of that dog for years.  Loyalty was simply a given; any dog would have crossed hell on a rotten log to get back to those men.  Allegiance was the way a dog earned its keep.  But kids--we who passed our days in the company of dogs--felt that loyalty for what it was, a direct tie to the heart.

            Prince was an Irish setter on loan from my uncle Wayland.  He stayed for two years, long enough for me to regard him as mine.  Prince and I spent weeks exploring the hills and fields around the new town where we’d moved.  He was a stalker of game, going on point at sequestered cats, his tail a perfect spear, his right paw lifted, the portrait of a hunting dog.  I could call him from a block away, and he would break free from my brother’s rope and come bounding to me.

One day my uncle arrived and took Prince back, that loyalty-love bond broken without a thought.  Far away, in lonely Plumas County, my dog joined a pack of dogs that chased down deer and was shot by a hunter who didn’t appreciate the competition.  Prince, whom we never truly owned, was the most mine of all my dogs. There should be words for that dog-child connection--love unabashed and unspoken, straight-across equality, a continuous awareness of the life in one another that translates into a mutual reading of souls.  We could have merged with each other, that dog and I, melded into one pure creature.

            Other dogs came and found places in my heart, and left those places empty when they died.  A beagle mix I named Nibs, who disappeared when we left him in the care of neighbors while we were on vacation. That dog must have felt truly abandoned, all hope gone when his pack deserted him, like the last dog on earth; he probably tried to follow us.  A dog named Spot, hit by a big rig on Highway 50 and left for me to see when I went to catch the school bus.  A large, yellow mix named Trailer we inherited from people who moved, killed on the same highway, and another dog named Sean who came and left the same way.  Always a dog came from somewhere and attached itself to us because always there was a space waiting, and dogs see these spaces and move into them.

            There were a dozen years without a dog after I left home, married, worked in cities, had children.  I knew the weight of dog ownership by then, remembered the way love unfolds, the dog’s bloodstream almost joined to yours, so that you grow another circulatory system, alternate veins and arteries to accommodate the new connection.   

            For my daughter’s 14th birthday, she chose Mia from the Humane Society.  Mia was her dog until Katie left home for college and beyond; then Mia was mine, and I grew those new veins, that web of connective tissue.

            Now there’s Bevan, the Jack Russell.  I held off loving this dog for a while, arriving as he did so close to Mia’s death.  Judged him for the strange little creature he was, different altogether from the big dogs we’d always had; hoping that perhaps the love would be miniaturized, too, less strong, less likely to break a heart.  But it’s there, growing daily, that essential dog-human connection.  It’s in the greeting and the parting, the frenzied tail wagging and sidelong looks, his brown eyes meeting mine in perfect symbiotic understanding.  Let’s hunt together: I’ll flush, you stand guard.  Let’s just BE together.

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