My grandson snuffled up to me as I lay curled up by the fire, and sniffed tentatively at my ear. “Grandpa?” he asked. “Are you awake?”
“Even if I weren’t,” I replied, “I am now that you’ve been poking at me. Can’t you youngsters let me sleep?”
“Grandpa,” the little scamp said, tucking his tail down mournfully, “If I’d known you were sleeping, I wouldn’t have disturbed you. But now that you’re awake, you might as well...” He paused, glancing over his shoulder expectantly.
“Story!” his siblings cheered, all nine of them. “Tell us a story!”
“Story?” I growled, outraged. “At this time of night, you want a story? Get back to sleep at once.”
“Oh, but, grandpa,” the first grandson said, “we can’t sleep. Mom can’t sleep either, can you, Mom?”
I glanced across the fire to where my daughter was lying, watching us with an amused eye. “You know where it’s going to end, Dad,” she said. “Since you’re as eager to tell them a story as they are to listen, why not just do it and get it over with?”
“You have no soul,” I grumbled. “You don’t appreciate these things. They set the tone for the story, don’t you see?” Shaking my head at this lack of respect for tradition, I turned to the kids. They were all gathered in a semicircle of little red tongues, panting with eagerness, and cold wet noses. “OK,” I capitulated, and waited until the chorus of excited yelps had subsided. “What kind of story do you want?”
“Tell us how you got to be with the Man, Grandpa,” one of my granddaughters said before anyone else could shout a suggestion. “You said a few stories back that you’d tell us, but didn’t.”
“All right,” I said, and raised an admonitory paw at the chorus of protests. “None of you can agree on what you want, anyway, so since she spoke before anybody else did, she wins.”
“It’s not fair,” the grandson who had sniffed at me whined. “She always gets in first. It’s not fair!”
“Do you want a story or don’t you?” I asked. My daughter, on the other side of the fire, scratched at a flea, grinning happily as her kids swarmed around me. She does enjoy palming them off on me whenever she can.
“Listen to Grandpa,” she said. “If you want a story from him, sit quietly and listen.”
So, when they had finally quietened down, I sat up, looked them over sternly, and began.
I first met the Man when I was still a very young puppy, just opened my eyes and far from weaned. My mother wasn’t as privileged as you; she lived on the street and gave birth on the pavement. And we had to huddle next to her for warmth, without a fire like this one. You don’t know how privileged you are, you don’t.
So, one day when I was suckling at my mother’s breast, a shadow suddenly fell over me, and a voice squealed, “Oh, just look at them!”
Of course, back then I didn’t understand any Human, and in fact I’d never been so close to a human before, so I squeaked in terror and almost let go of my mom’s teat. But I had enough of a memory to be able to understand, in retrospect, what they were talking about.
“They’re so cute,” this voice went on, its owner looming over us. “Let’s take one, please?”
“Don’t get so close,” someone else said warningly. “The mother will get anxious and might bite.” Which showed how little they knew of my mother, who had never bitten even a flea.
“But, dad,” the first voice took on a whining quality, which I was to grow so used to in later months, “I want one. Please.”
“Look, son. If you must have a dog, we’ll get you a pedigree puppy, a Labrador or something. Not a common mongrel like this.”
“I don’t want a pedigree Labrador. I want one of these.” And, before I could even whine a protest, this young villain had snatched me up, literally from my mother’s breast, and put me inside his smelly jacket. Even now, remembering the smells inside it, I feel like throwing up.
What do you mean, didn’t I try to get away? Of course I did. I whined and wriggled and kicked, but all it did was make him clutch me tighter, until I was afraid that he’d crush me to death. So I stayed quiet until he took me out and almost dropped me on a hard floor, slippery and cold. Someone gave me a saucer of milk, which I lapped at because I was so tired and thirsty, and then I fell asleep.
I don’t recall the next few days too well. I do remember a lot of shouting at the mess I was making, and at how I was whining all the time. Well, of course I was whining – I was missing Mom, wasn’t I? But who even cared about that?
Not the young twerp who’d picked me up, I can assure you. He just whined that I was his, and he wanted to play with me. Since his idea of “play” was to tie a string round my neck and pull me along, this wasn’t exactly something that made me happy, and when I protested by digging my paws in, he only pulled me along harder. I have no idea why he’d even picked me up in the first place, unless I was just another toy to him. He had a lot of toys, which he usually got tired of in short order.
No, of course he wasn’t the Man. You know the Man well; do you think he could ever have been like that young idiot?
As I grew old enough to start taking solid food, I was no longer allowed in the house much – the kid’s mom didn’t like dogs – so I was tied up in the yard a lot, in all kinds of weather, with only a sack to lie on. They didn’t even give me a kennel, not even a packing crate, so for all intents and purposes I’d have been better off on the street. And the kid began coming out less and less to “play” with me.
You understand what was happening? I was a toy, and he was getting tired of me.
I’d begun to understand Human pretty well by then, and I could hear them arguing over me, the dad and mom, when their son was at school or out playing with friends.
“You’d best get rid of that ugly brute,” the mom would say. “I can’t stand the sight of the dirty beast.”
“How do you suggest I get rid of him?” the dad would answer. “I can’t give him away, can I? Nobody wants a mongrel like that. Just look at him.”
“I don’t care – just take him where you found him and leave him there. He’s from the gutter, he’ll go back to the gutter.”
“But you know dogs. The cur probably thinks of our house as his home. He’ll find his way back and be here in a day or two.”
“Well, then? Take him to the vet and get him put to sleep.”
Now, at that time I had no idea what a ‘vet’ was, but I didn’t at all like the suggestion that I be taken to one, and I had a strong suspicion that ‘sleep’ wasn’t what it sounded like. I was relieved to hear the dad demur.
“No, I don’t really like the idea of killing the animal – it’s not really his fault – and besides the vet’s expensive. Let me think about it.”
What he thought of, I can only surmise, because two days later he told me to get into his car. This was something that had only happened a time or two before, and which I considered rather a treat, so I jumped into the car, quite happy to be out of that tiny yard. We drove for quite a while, until the city had vanished and there were trees all around. Then the dad stopped the car and opened the door.
“There, boy,” he said, “go have a run around.”
I didn’t need a second invitation. I was out of the car and trotting along the road, smelling at all the wonderful scent tracks I’d never come across before, things I couldn’t even identify. Some of those scents I can’t even name to this day, old as I am; I have no idea what they might be.
I ran and trotted until I was tired, and then I turned round and came back to the car, because I didn’t like the idea of leaving the dad so long without me, even though I was enjoying myself so much.
You know what I found, don’t you? There was no car there.
It’s strange to think of it now, but at the moment it never struck me that he’d gone and left me alone. For a fairly long time I ran up and down that road, looking for the car, imagining that perhaps I’d been mistaken about where it was. But no, I could track my own scent trail all the way to the mix of rubber, oil, and the dad himself that marked the place where the car had been. At last I had to admit it – the car had gone.
Being so young yourselves, even younger than I was then, you have no idea of how terrible it feels to be alone – really and completely alone. I had always been with a pack; my mother and siblings and then the dad and mom and the boy. Well, they were better than no pack at all – but now I was completely alone.
Well, children, you should understand that even a young dog isn’t completely helpless in this situation. After I had shaken off my initial panic, I began to think of what to do. Now, I’d never seen a car go anywhere but on the roads. Cars did not cross fields and forests. Since the car had not passed me, obviously it had gone the other way, down the road. Therefore, I should follow it down the road, and it would take me back to the dad, and mom and the boy.
Maybe you’re surprised that I should want to be back with them? You aren’t old enough to know the call of the pack. Even though they’d abandoned me, and treated me so badly, they were still the pack, and my place was with them. Don’t laugh – you aren’t old enough to know what I’m talking about.
Anyway, I began on my way down that road. It was a long, weary walk, and I was getting hungry and tired. I was still very young, and less than half-grown, and I’d never walked so far before. A couple of times I stopped to slake my thirst from roadside puddles, but the water smelt and tasted foul.
By the time evening came, I was utterly exhausted and still trudging down the road, and nowhere had I seen a house. And then I came to a place where several roads intersected.
You understand my problem, don’t you? I hadn’t the faintest idea which way to go. Smelling the road didn’t do any good, because it was covered with tracks of rubber and oil, any of which might be the car.
I was still trying to decide which way to go when there was a terrible noise and something struck me hard and sent me flying through the air. I didn’t even begin to feel pain before I lost consciousness.
When I woke, I hurt all over, with a sort of pain I’d never known. I was lying on a soft surface and a man in a white coat was leaning over me.
“He’s awake,” he said, as I whined. “That’s something, anyway.”
There was something in his tone I’d never heard before, but which I know now to be sympathy and kindness. Nobody in the boy’s family had shown me any such thing. But I didn’t know what it was, and in any case I was still whining with the pain.
No, he wasn’t the Man. But he was the first human ever to be anything resembling nice to me.
“Looks like he was struck by a car,” he said, passing his hands over my body. “It doesn’t really look like he has much of a chance.”
“Does he have a chance at all?” someone else said from behind me. The voice was harsh, as if the speaker’s throat had been rubbed with sandpaper, so unlike the smooth tones of the boy’s family that I had difficulty understanding what he’d said. “Any hope he can be saved?”
“There’s always a hope,” said the man in the white coat. “He’s badly injured, but he’s still very young, so there’s a chance of healing. But it’s not going to be so easy.”
“I’ll be glad to pay,” said the person with the rough voice. “I’m not rich, but I’ll pay whatever it takes.”
The man in the white coat looked across me curiously. “May I ask why you’re doing this?” he enquired. “He’s not your dog. You said that you found him on the highway, didn’t you?”
“Yes, that’s right. He’s not my dog. As to why – let’s just say I have my own reasons; things I don’t want to talk about.” He paused. “Will you do it?”
The man in the white coat raised his eyebrows. “Of course I will. That is if he can be saved. And don’t worry about the money.” He turned away for a moment and returned with something glittering in his hands. I felt a pressure on my leg, and a sharp pricking pain. “He’ll have to stay here while he recovers, though...if he does.”
“I understand.” The rough voice sounded fainter, blurred. The room began to spin and turn hazy.
“Are you going to wait, or come back later?” the man in the white coat asked. “It’s going to take a while before I can tell you anything.”
As from a great distance I heard the rough voice. “I’ll wait.”
That was the start of a very uncomfortable time for me. When I woke again, I could scarcely move my right foreleg because there was a heavy, hard and white cast that extended from my paw to nearly up to my shoulder. I also had a strange feeling in my thigh and belly, as though my skin had been pulled together tightly, and it smelt strange. But I couldn’t lick it because I had a heavy collar on, with a projection which limited how far I could turn my head. It was maddening, I tell you. Worse than having a flea in a spot you just can’t scratch, day after day.
Every day the rough-voiced person would come and talk to the man in the white coat, and I heard that I was getting steadily better. I got to know that the man in white was a “vet” like the one to whom the boy’s mom had wanted me to be sent, to be “put to sleep” – but whatever that meant, obviously it hadn’t happened to me.
I still remember the day that heavy hard object was cut off my arm and shoulder. I felt immediately as if I was one of those birds you stupid puppies chase around in the mornings – I felt so light and free. And the day after that, the rough-voiced man came and picked me up, holding me up to his face so I could lick it.
You’ll have realised by now who he was; it was the Man, of course. Back then he looked almost the same as he does now, except that he was maybe a shade scruffier and smellier, but those smells were as rich and interesting as they are now. You’ve all smelt him, so you don’t need me to describe them to you.
“Well, well,” he said to me, and rubbed his nose on mine. “So you decided not to die on us, huh? Well, come along, then.”
At that time he lived in a sort of cabin, a single-roomed little house out in the woods, and there he took me and shared his meals with me. I wasn’t completely healed yet, but as I ran along beside him each day I could feel myself getting stronger.
“You just get yourself fully healed,” the Man would tell me at least once a day, “and we’ll see about finding your real owner.”
I surmised that by “owner” he meant the boy and his family, and of course I had no longer any desire to go to them. Nor did I really think the Man himself had any real wish to send me off to someone whom he had never seen; it was obvious that he kept telling me that because he felt himself yearning to keep me, but at the same time feeling he shouldn’t. He’s honest as the day is long, for a human.
But I got to know that he had problems, too. Humans, you know, don’t live quite as we do; they work at “jobs” to earn something called “money”, but the Man had no job any longer and almost none of this money, and he had to move elsewhere until he could find a job. No, don’t ask me to explain – old as I am, I still haven’t quite understood it all. And he was afraid he couldn’t take care of me.
“I can’t even pay for your shots and licence, boy,” he told me once, fondling my ears, while I chewed his shoelaces. “It wouldn’t be fair to you, don’t you know.”
But I was too busy getting better to think much on that, and it was with great surprise that one day I saw the Man putting a new collar and a leather leash on the table.
“Can’t put it off any longer, boy,” he sighed. “Tomorrow, I’m taking you into town. We’ll check with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals people if anyone’s posted you missing. If not, I’ll have to see if anyone will adopt you.” And, hugging me to him so tightly that I wriggled, he buried his face in my fur and began to cry.
That night it rained heavily, with thunder rumbling loudly overhead, so loudly that it made the cabin’s walls tremble. I wasn’t sleeping too well, in any case, because of the knowledge that it was my last night with the Man, and I knew he wasn’t sleeping well, either, because he muttered and moved in his bed.
Suddenly, between the claps of thunder, I heard another noise. It was a clicking sound, like metal on glass, and a scraping, followed by a small tinkle. It woke me up completely at once. The room was completely dark, but I could make out the noise was coming from near the window. And, as I listened, it came again, followed by a creaking noise, as though someone was forcing the window slowly open.
I was about to bark as loud as I could at this disturbance, but something told me that I’d do better to be cautious. I can’t really say what made me crawl to the Man and poke urgently at his hand with my nose – whether it was the stealthy, quiet noise at the window, or the strange and rank smell that invaded my nostrils. Whatever the reason, I nuzzled the Man’s hand with increasing urgency, and – when he showed no sign of reacting – took his palm between my teeth, and nipped him hard.
With a yell so loud that it startled me into scooting under the bed, the Man jumped up and turned on the light – and then he shouted even louder. And from near the window, someone shouted as well.
From under the bedspread, I poked my nose out enough to see what was happening. The window was open, and, standing beside it, soaking wet, was a young man in black clothes with a wild look in his eyes and a large knife in his hand. He began stepping slowly towards the Man.
“Look here,” the Man said, and I could smell caution on him, but no fear. “What do you want?”
“Nothing,” the wet young man said, in a high giggling voice. “Just a little bit of fun.” I could smell the fear on him, all right; fear and something else I couldn’t identify, a mixture of odours I’d call the stink of craziness. He raised the knife. “Do you like fun,” he asked. “Huh?”
The next moment I’d thrown myself out from under the bed and leaped for the knife. I think that if I’d thought about it, I would have stayed where I was, tucking my tail under my belly in abject terror, but I didn’t think about it – not then. I leaped for the knife, and the wet young man began turning towards me, but too slow; and an instant later my teeth were sinking into his wrist, and the knife was on the floor.
You know the Man is big and strong, but I don’t think you quite realise how strong. He picked up the screaming wet young man with one hand and slammed him against the wall over and over until he stopped screaming. Then he opened the door and threw him out into the night.
“We’ll go and talk to the police tomorrow morning,” he told me, as he shut the window and pushed his cupboard across it. “If that junkie tries to get treated for that bite, he’s toast.”
Then he came to me and picked me up and held me to him, and I licked his face frantically as he kissed me again and again.
“And that’s the way it was,” I said. “We couldn’t find any trace of the wet young man in the morning. The rain had continued all night and washed away the smell. Even the blood had been washed off the ground.
“The Man and I went to the police and he reported what had happened. The policeman asked whose dog I was, and after the briefest pause the Man said I was his. And then I knew it would be all right.”
“So you were the hero?” the grandson who’d nuzzled me asked sleepily. He wasn’t the only one who seemed to be getting drowsy. “Did he give you a medal, Grandpa?”
“Worse,” I said. “He gave me his love and a home, which means, in the fullness of time, he gave me you lot. Now go to sleep.”
My daughter had already fallen asleep on the other side of the fire, as I’d expected. She’s a sweet bitch, but she never could manage to sit through most of my stories.
Besides, she’s heard this one many times before.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012