Heavens, it’s been a while since I last posted. Well, something’s got me back at it. Maybe it is the fact that I am off to a writing conference in late June of this year, and have been thinking—what good is a writer without writing, or a writing conference without pages? So here I am.
The subject is my dog Suki. I know, I know…I asked myself long and hard the same question. Do people really want to read about other people’s dogs? Okay, so perhaps it is not only about my dog. Is anything really just about one thing? Suki is at the center of the piece, probably because she is at the center of my world right now. I spend quite a few hours each day hand feeding her, my fingers covered in wet fish and soggy sweet potato, a mush that I squeeze into sausage like shapes for her. At regular intervals throughout the day and night I lift her up off the floor and carry her out into the yard so she can pee and poop. She is failing, fast too.
It wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time she was a sturdy great steed. I would balance our smaller dog on her strong back and run around the kitchen with both of them playing “Rodeo”. And then there was a time before that, when I found her and she filled a void in me so enormous that I will be forever indebted…..
It was a scorcher of a day when I saw it—a flash of gold on the ridge-top at Runyon Canyon. Perhaps it was the sun’s rays upon the rocky outcrop, or the drought-resistant Yarrow or Spanish Broom.
It had been hot the day before, and the day before that. In fact I couldn’t remember the last cool day, such was the fury of the Southern Californian summer of 2004.
Squinting in the desert glare and cursing my cheap plastic sunglasses, I saw it again. This time I realized it was a live creature, a coyote perhaps, although I had never seen one as yellow.
With my hand transformed into a makeshift visor, I looked beyond the scrub oaks, and past the big Sycamore to the trail that carved around the perimeter of the park. Nothing. Gone.
A bead of sweat formed at my temple and meandered down the course of my face. The dry air moved in great sheets around me. It was beautiful, of that there was no doubt, and as long as I could still make out the scent of orange blossom, and appreciate the rugged greys and blues of the distant San Gabriel mountains, I knew that I was still alive, or at the very least, surviving.
Mumsy had been dead for more than three months and I wasn’t sure how to live without her. She had just seen her sixty-first birthday when she “popped her clogs.” That was her expression, so much so I thought she’d made it up, but then I googled it and realized it had a whole other existence.
In the aftermath of her death I recalled two things:
One: her disease—esophageal cancer sounded so clinical that the words had scared me alone.
Two: She disclosed her illness to me on a Friday the 13th, and I wished to Christ she had chosen the day before or the day afterwards because I didn’t want to turn into one of those suspicious folks who feared arbitrary things like dates on a calendar, yet I knew in that very instant that I would.
For nights after her death I ate anything I could find before retiring, placed a hot water bottle on my stomach, a pillow on top of the hot water bottle and wove myself up in blankets and quilts. Sometimes I hugged myself, and rubbed at my throat, fearful that I might go the same way, all my sorrows unsaid and unsayable.
I had a girlfriend during those nights. She is the same girlfriend that I have today, only now I call her my wife, or my life partner. Her name is Nance. She moved in with me the month Mumsy passed, and although we lived in the same house, she wanted her own independence, so she took the bedroom directly beneath my own. I wondered if she heard me crying in the night, or tiptoeing over the hardwood floor above her head on my way to the bathroom cabinet to split my Valium pills into quarters so that they might last as long as my sadness.
It seemed fitting that there should be a drought after my loss, something momentous to mark the occasion. People all around me feared wildfires. Maybe I would have worried too if the worst hadn’t already happened.
The day I spied gold at the canyon, the hills looked scorched, the air was dry, and I could taste dust clouds. I was parched and ready for home when I saw it again, this time in my peripheral vision, yellow as the harvest moon at dusk, and yipping now too. I turned to face the thing. It was a dog, a beauty, a “Lassie Come Home” kind of animal, shorter legs and a flatter muzzle, but the same fine nylon Barbie hair that flew all lady-like in the afternoon heat. It was Mum’s favourite breed.
“If I had my way, I’d get a collie,” she had said on more than one occasion.
I held out my hand, “here girl,” I called. There was no question that a beast this pretty—not to mention flighty—had to have been a female. She glanced at me, her eyes the color of agave syrup. For a moment it seemed that she might sidle up to me, let me see if she had a collar and tag, touch that lustrous fur, scratch behind her ears. But something I was unable to detect must have scared her and she ran from me like a startled deer, her strong hind legs pulling her up the steep terrain where she vanished.
It felt odd to be trekking after her, the heat was giddying, but more than that I knew we couldn’t take in another dog. I already had Belle, a neurotic barker, part Bedlington terrier, part poodle who had been shipped over from England the year before Mumsy died, Ripley an aged and vicious dachshund with putrid breath and arthritis, and Richie a short haired domestic tabby that was surely part feral to be able to hold his own the way he did. A fourth animal was out of the equation.
I ducked under brittle branches, huffing and puffing. I didn’t catch sight of her again that day, but I returned after dark when it had cooled enough to breathe fully, deeply, and to walk at a steady pace. I carried a stash of organic kibble from our pantry, and an empty metal bowl that I filled from the spigot by the main gate.
As I clambered up the hill to the last place I had spotted the creature, a siren blasted from the flatlands. Coyotes howled in response to the sound and I shuddered at the thought of my dog’s vulnerability.
Later that night I told my girlfriend about the stray, and how pretty she was, and I felt emotion rise from my belly like a high tide. There were tears too, which I brushed away quickly with my pajama sleeve.
“I can help you try to catch her on my day off,” she offered. I thanked her. Neither of us mentioned what we would do after that, where we would take her, and to whom. We did agree wholeheartedly though that we couldn’t keep her.
“Four animals would be far too much.”
Nance was a production manager by trade, and organization was her middle name. On the day of our canine catching operation, she gathered rope, bamboo fencing and walky-talkies. Upon entering the canyon, she garnered support from other dog lovers and set about arranging the barricades and distributing the radios.
“I’ll wait on this lower ridge, and we can corral her here,” she instructed.
“And the rope?” one of the volunteers asked.
“I’m going to try to lasso her with it,” Nance said.
I pictured her, a modern day Will Rogers swinging the rope and catching my dog.
The beast came down from the top of the hillside just before noon, her nose twitching and her eyes darting from me to Nance. One of the volunteers had signaled to warn us from the top of the hill, so we were ready, fences positioned, lasso in Nance’s firm grasp.
“Here girl,” I said, and I held out a cookie, Natural Balance, fish and sweet potato.
The beast approached me and I saw how thin she was, how burs dotted her fur like pins in a cushion, matting her long swish of a tail. She got close enough that I could see the fear in her face, the furrow in her brow, the desperate hunger in her dark eyes.
“Grab her,” Nance said.
But it was too late. She had taken the treat and fled. I felt her saliva on my fingers and the memory of her soft palate, the graze of teeth against my hand—gentle like a baby goat at the petting zoo.
With the food dangling from her mouth, she ran past Nance, who in desperation swung the lasso around one of the animal’s legs. In the chaos of pulling at the rope and us shouting at each other, the yipping creature managed to hop out of the contraption, force a gap in the fence and dart back up into the hills.
I dreamed about her that night. She was a warm statue, a fair maiden with flaxen locks, she was bur free and dining on freeze-dried chicken treats.
“She’s much too big to keep, even if we do catch her.” I said to Nance, upon waking.
“And imagine how much grooming she will take.”
“She could be sick.”
“I don’t think she’s vicious,” we both agreed.
It took three days of telephone calls and research on the Internet for me to realize there was a whole world of animal rescuers, a sub-culture of ardent vegan militants that were all on my side. Eileen was one of them. I met her in a dark and deserted back alley outside Motel 6 in Burbank, where she fed, caught, neutered and returned feral cats.
Eileen’s hair was tied back in a long grey ponytail. She had a crate of newly born kittens in her van, and told me with all the pride of a foster mother how they needed hand feeding every two hours, even during the night. Such dedication must have left her little time for herself, as there was something slightly unkempt about her. I think there was cat dander on her pants, although it was dark and I didn’t like to stare. As well as this she smelled of stale milk. Better than cat piss, I thought, nothing worse than that.
We exchanged goods. I gave Eileen a case of Purina and she gave me a trap that she had bought at the swap meet the week before.
“It needs oiling and fixing,” she said.
“I know just the person.” I told her.
Nance was a DIY enthusiast, a good one too. All the years I’d thought a husband would be handy like that, when in fact it was a wife who would eventually do me proud.
The cage was a huge great thing and it just about fit into the Toyota station wagon I had borrowed from the co-teacher I worked with.
The next morning I awoke early. I wanted to get a good start on the day. I packed a blanket, a flask of coffee, a bottle of water, a book, a radio, two tins of tuna and a tin opener.
“She might just not want to get caught,” Nance said to me, between twisting wire and oiling the springs. “I’ll drop you and all that stuff off at the canyon,” she said, gesturing to my equipment, “but I don’t want to spend my precious day off trying to wrangle a dog.”
At the canyon gates we said goodbye, I unloaded the trap, and the rest of the dog catching paraphernalia.
“It looks like you are all sorted,” Nance said
I nodded, feeling proud. I could have survived a day in the wilderness of the Los Angeles National Forest such was my preparedness.
Nance drove off in my co-teacher’s huge red car and I struggled to a spot inside the park where it was still cool. I made an even foundation in the dirt and placed the trap on top of it. Next I covered the entire thing with leaves for camouflage. With two tins of tuna fish plopped out onto the rusty metal floor, I set the door as Nance had shown me, so that it would spring closed upon the animal’s entry.
I had scarcely got situated on my blanket when I saw her making her way down toward me. I held my breath. She got closer, then closer still, her nose twitching like a jack rabbit at the fishy smell that emanated from the trap.
Would she? Would she really go inside? She hesitated at the door, took one more sniff then stepped over the threshold. The door slammed closed behind her. For a while she didn’t notice that she was enclosed, or maybe she didn’t care, she gobbled the food up snorting like a warthog. But then upon finishing the last morsel she wanted out. She circled the inside of the cage and I circled the outside, both of us all at once aware of our predicament.