The air was chilly on my wet body, and all of a sudden everything was very loud.
For weeks, I had been surrounded and cushioned by warm darkness all around, my ears filled with muffled sounds: Swish; whoosh; thrum-thrum-thrum.
In an instant, though, I’d been thrust into a new world – a wide, open world with smells and sounds and sensations I’d never experienced before. Though my eyelids remained unopened, I could sense the bright light on the other side. A series of rhythmic squeaks filled my ears, and I realized simultaneously that whatever had been dampening the sound was gone, and that a good portion of that squeaking was coming from me.
My body could move freely in all directions – theoretically, anyway, though there was only one place my wobbly legs would take me. My nose led me over the straw and I shimmied between the other wet, cold, squeaking things and to a miracle of comfort and nourishment on a soft body that was much larger, drier, and warmer than mine.
I suckled amid grunts and squeaks and suction noises from all five of the others, who – once I gained my bearings – I came to recognize from the place where we were before. For what seemed like an eternity, my body was stroked with something warm and wet. I tried to squirm away, preferring to be left alone to drink my fill, but inevitably my mouth would lose suction and yet the licking would continue. Eventually, then, I gave in.
“Look at those sweet little babies,” a woman’s voice said after we were all cleaned off and blissed out from the milk. I recognized her sound, but though her voice was clearer now, I still couldn’t understand a word she said.
A loud snarl erupted from the long, warm, milk dispenser, which had tensed and bristled. Some of us fell off and immediately began searching for a fresh latch. This, I did understand. Leave us alone.
“Whoa, girl,” said another familiar voice. “We won’t be messin’ with ya quite yet. You just keep tendin’ them young 'uns. Come on, Ellen. They all look alive and well. Let’s go.”
The sounds of the people faded, and the large body with the milk inside relaxed once more, and there we stayed for a very long time, my brothers and sister and mother and me.
We grew, and our eyes opened, and we began to venture away from our mother to explore our little enclosure within the stable. I had one sister and four brothers, and we were all playful balls of fur, pouncing and rolling around on the ground, drinking milk as we needed and eventually weaning onto the dry food the farmer brought out for our mother.
Our mother was moved, one day, into a separate enclosure in the barn. It was a dirty trick, if you ask me, luring her out there with a bowlful of hamburger while kids ate our own dinner. Not long after, we heard that familiar snarl-bark that was intended to warn intruders away from us babies. “Now, girl, you had to know this was comin’,” the farmer’s kind voice drifted in towards us. “That’s the mama,” he said. “Don’t mind her, she can’t get out.”
Black Face White Forehead was the first to go. A man and a woman approached the stable, accompanied by a very young boy who clutched the woman’s leg as if he might be swept away if he let go. “Go look,” said the man with him, pushing the boy up to the steel gate. He pointed his finger at my brother with not so much as a glance at the rest of us, then ran back behind the woman, wrapping his arms around her thighs.
Fluffy Body Skinny Legs went next, and so did the rest of them, until I was left alone with a big silver bowl of water, a big silver bowl with more food than I could possibly eat, and a bed made out of hay. With no one left to play with, I curled up and closed my eyes.
“Oh, how cute,” I heard a female voice say as I drowsed in the late-afternoon light. I perked up and looked about to see the farmer with another man, slightly taller than himself, and a girl with a long, yellow ponytail. The girl looked at the man expectantly.
“It’s a bitch, right?” the man asked the farmer.
“Yip,” said the old man. “One a two. She had six alt’geth’r, four males and two bitches. Ev’ryone wanted males this time ‘round, Lord knows why. Jus’ finally got rid a the other bitch not an hour ago.”
The strange man nodded toward the girl, whose smile expanded as she reached down and picked me up. She cooed at me and scratched the top of my head; I licked her hand. “Ew, puppy breath,” she said, scrunching up her nose and giggling. I chewed on her fingers until she pulled them away; she hugged me close to her and I bit at her ear. “Simba,” she said after a moment, holding me out at arms’ length. “Doesn’t she look just like the Lion King? I’m going to name her Simba. Is that okay?” The words were unfamiliar, but the warmth and happiness she radiated was unmistakable.
And just like that, my name was Simba and I had a girl.
I shared the yard with Sheba, a wizened and arthritic old dog – part Chow Chow like me, but not related as far as I could smell – who had known our girl since she was a baby. When the weather was warm and Sheba was feeling well enough to move around, she showed me the safe places to go. We avoided from the territory of other, bigger animals, yet stayed far enough off the road that no animal control officers would spot us. She taught me the difference between the delivery guy in the brown uniform (we liked him) and the electric meter reader in the white jumpsuit (we did not like her). After a while, Sheba no longer accompanied me on my excursions and I was on my own with the lessons she’d taught me.
I spent my days running and bouncing around the expansive property, chasing animals that rarely allowed themselves to be caught. Our girl faithfully filled our bowls with food and water, and when the weather was nice she might throw a ball for me to chase, or race me from one end of the yard to the other, as Sheba looked on from her daytime post on a worn down patch of dirt. From time to time, the woman who lived with the man and my girl would throw out some bones, and Sheba and I would feast on the succulent marrow inside, working our teeth on the hard surfaces.
In the afternoons, when I heard the unmistakable sound of the school bus letting our girl out at the end of the long driveway, I would run to greet her, feeling her contentment as she reached down to pat my head, then patted her shoulders so I could jump up and lick her face. After a time, though, I grew so big that, instead of getting a hug when I jumped up, I’d be pushed down to the ground. She was fearful, I could tell – afraid I would knock her down or hurt her somehow. I was so full of energy, though, and affection for my girl, that every time I saw her, I forgot to stay down until it was too late. And so every day I would jump up to my girl’s shoulders, and she would push me down with a stern, “Get off me!” and eventually her admonishments became just another part of the ritual.
On the weekends, I would watch from inside my doghouse as my girl and the tall man played catch and, when I could no longer bear watching them have all the fun, I’d come out for a play fight. While these fights tended to last longer with the man than they did with my girl, they nearly always ended with my being pushed away with a shout of, “Ow!” from my opponent. I got carried away, sometimes.
When the days were long, I would accompany my girl Out Back, far from the house or any other buildings. Out Back, there was a large stretch of open land with a shallow creek where we could splash around. My girl searched for wild animals, and sang songs, and sometimes cried as she told me stories I couldn’t understand. I ran through the water, sniffing out squirrels and beavers and skunks and whatever else lived in the largely undisturbed woods.
On warm days, when my girl and I sat on the front deck, sunning ourselves as I panted and my girl scratched my belly, I always felt that familiar warm comfort I’d felt when my girl had picked me up for the first time.
I ran up to greet my girl one afternoon as she walked up the front steps, backpack slung over one shoulder. Somehow she’d made it all the way to the front door without my realizing.
“Hey Simba,” she said with a smile, extending her arm toward my head, before her brow twisted up with concern. “Hey, girl. Come ‘ere. What’s up with your eye?” She held me underneath my lower jaw, eyes examining my own. I blinked and tried to pull my face away; she looked blurry, for one thing, and, for another, her grip made my jaw ache. She pulled me closer, though, laying one hand over my back and cooing at me as the other hand reached to steady my head. As her hand touched the front of my neck, the mild concern she’d been showing up to that point transformed into a wave of sick fear that washed over her and splashed onto me. “Simba? What’s wrong with you?” she almost wailed, her eyes welling up with tears.
I jumped up to her, my paws on her shoulders. She didn’t push me down this time. Her backpack slumped onto the ground behind her as she hugged me, burying her teary eyes in the bushy fur of my chest. She said nothing more, just knelt motionless for minutes or hours – long after my attention shifted to a squirrel or bird or butterfly and I took off after it.
A car crunched down the driveway, and my girl was down the steps and talking before the vehicle had even stopped moving. There were fresh tears on her face and I could feel – even smell – the well of panic as it churned inside her. A short time later, the woman loaded me up into her back seat and drove me to the only place I ever went by car, my girl watching tearfully as we drove off.
“She’s only two,” the woman said to the vet as he felt my neck. It was now the third or fourth time today that someone had worried around that spot, and now that attention had been drawn to the area, it felt achy. I shook my head out of his grasp. He felt around on the rest of my body, finding several places which ached similarly.
“Sometimes these things just come on,” he said. “Her eye probably got infected because her immune system is failing.”
I had learned only a handful human words – mostly my name, the word vet, and some simple commands – and so their conversation was completely lost on me. Their emotions, however, were nearly tangible to me as I had no choice but to watch them unfold.
Tinges of bitter gray regret as the vet said, “leukemia.”
A reddish-purple mix of sadness and despair as the mother shook her head and looked at the floor. “No. No medicine.” The musty light blue of suppressed tears as she drove me the short distance back home.
At home, a glimpse of my girl’s fire-red sadness before the door closed and I was off bouncing around, tossing a pinecone up in the air and then pouncing on it, blissfully able to distance from myself from the humans for the time being.
Night came and then it was morning again – maybe once, maybe a dozen times – and then it was the last day.
It was barely light when my girl, backpack in hand, came out and called me to her. She knelt down and looked in my eyes – one clear, the other now so swollen as to be useless. She hugged me to her chest as she heaved with sobs. “I love you, girl,” she said between jagged breaths. “You’re going to go to sleep today,” she continued through tears, “and you’re not going to wake up. It won’t hurt, and it’s going to be best for you. Okay, girl?” She squeezed and pulled away, looking me in the eyes once more. “You come back and see me, okay?” she said after another moment, tousling the fur on top of my head.
She said all these words as if I could possibly understand what she was saying. What registered, though, seeping into all my senses, was her unbearable sorrow. The sour scent lingered on my fur as the needle slid into my skin; the acrid taste lingered in my mouth as the aches – aches I hadn’t even noticed having until they were gone – disappeared; the fire-red burned behind my eyes as they closed for the last time.
After that morning, my girl never saw me with her eyes again. Even today, though, despite the years that have passed, I happily trot back to her side whenever her thoughts drift in my direction.
At the beginning, I saw her nearly every day – most often when she stepped off the bus, momentarily forgetting herself and expecting me to run up the driveway and pounce at her. I watched my girl day after day as the sour red of grief faded to a delicate pink melancholy, her sadness for me waning. The visits became less frequent, until one night when I arrived to find her asleep in bed. I watched as the last of the pink sadness faded to a sunset-orange sweetness, her furrowed brow replaced with a faint smile. Her eyes opened a crack. “You’re okay,” she whispered, rolling to one side and holding a long pillow to her. After that I didn’t see her for a very long time.
One day, after being gone for what must have been some weeks or months, I came upon her on the street as she stopped short over Sheba’s stiff and lifeless body in the shallow ditch to one side. She said nothing as she blinked out a red, hot tear, sighing as she continued on towards the house, a soft sadness taking over her formerly content demeanor. Now, sometimes when I am called to our girl, I can feel Sheba next to me, free of the achy, inflamed body that plagued her in life.
Most times when I find her, she is saying some variation on the same words: “…I was terrified someone was trying to break into the house. So my dad goes out, three in the morning, handgun in one hand, holding his bathrobe closed with the other, and he comes in a minute later just laughing his ass off. Simba had got hold of a possum, and she was banging it against the side of the house,” she says. Her head pantomimes snapping back and forth. A pink tinge of sadness creeps into her smile, and fades just as quickly, taking me with it. “She was a good dog,” I usually hear before the conversation moves on to other topics and I am gone.
Each time I see my girl, she looks slightly different. Sometimes she is heavy with child, and others she holds an infant to her breast. Once, years ago, she was thin and athletic and brimming with anxiety; most recently she has been big and soft and content. Her hair has changed from long to short and back to long, blonde to blue to red, straight to curly. She’s been both close to the land we shared so long ago and very far away.
She has changed, but she is my girl. I’d recognize her anywhere.
Today, I am called to my girl and, for the first time I can remember, there is not another human in sight. Next to her is a black dog, who follows my girl throughout the house: into the kitchen for a snack; to the bathroom for a shower. I see nothing indicating what made her reach out to me across the decades, but here I am, and so I observe.
A rainbow of emotions thrums through my girl’s body: yellow smiles as she sings along to the radio; crumpled purple sobs a short time later. Finally, she sits down at a computer, settling on a nostalgic sadness.
An invisible tug brings me closer to her, and I am aware of – yes, Sheba, but also others. There are the two Jack Russell Terriers her parents kept when she moved away from home, and the leggy black dog she adopted after college. There is Albert the cat who disappeared one day, and Sissie, the black terrier that outlasted both Sheba and me. I can even feel the presence of a human or two, watching from a distance.
We all heel faithfully, and the black dog wanders in from another room. She cocks her head to one side, seeming to look from one of us to the other, before settling down at our girl’s feet and closing her eyes.
Our girl rubs this dog – the one living creature among us – with her stocking feet, takes a deep breath, and begins to type:
The air was chilly on my wet body, and everything was very loud.