This essay is no longer available to read online, from the March 2015 issue of Bluestem Magazine, so I’ll post it below.
The story behind the essay:
(Update, January 2109- dear Boris passed away this month due to complications from cancer. His passing was peaceful and he is missed).
The awful day I describe in Bad Dog happened in November of 2013. Our physical wounds, human and canine, healed fairly quickly. My daughter has scars on her shin, and the little black dog, Boris, has a set of hard, bumpy scars over his neck, in the outline of the jaws of Delmar (pictured above), the dog who attacked him. When Boris’ fur grew in over the scars it came in white instead of black. It was about three months before he would play again. Now, a bit over a year later, he is happy and playful and healthy.
We now have three dogs; a purebred America Bulldog, Blossom, and two rescues. Boris, a Scottie-Cocker (?) mix, came from Fuzzy Face Rescue of the Northern Neck, near Fredericksburg, Virginia. I found the shelter through a search on Petfinder.com. They take dogs from high–kill shelters around the state.
Fleetwood (center) is about 18 months old now. He is an English pointer-black lab cross from the Franklin County Animal Shelter in Virginia.
I cannot express how much I support the adoption of pets from shelters. If your local shelter does not have a pet that suits your preferences, have a look on Petfinder.com, where you can search by breed, age, gender, and distance. Or do a web search for breed-specific rescues. If you can’t adopt, then consider a donation. That is how I found my dogs.
Delmar (pictured at top) was a sweet, loving dog (to us). He had a high prey drive and was overly fearful of strangers. I believe he had other demons, resulting from the life he had before he came to us, at six months old. We gave him a good home for three years, and we did not hesitate to adopt a rescue again. My mixed breeds have been my healthiest dogs by far, and they show their gratitude every day.
About the essay:
I had never written a creative non-fiction essay before this, but I was so haunted by this experience that I felt a need to write it, just to get it out of my head, and park it somewhere else. On paper, I suppose I could look at it more objectively and with some distance. Writing it out was cathartic, and though it still upsets me a little each time I re-read it, the exercise of turning it into an essay was empowering.
The first time I ever read a piece of my own writing to an audience, I read this essay. I was at the Novel Retreat at the Vermont College of Fine Art. I was extremely nervous. I absolutely hate being the center of attention, and I was a wreck about putting my work out if front of people. But the attendees and faculty of this retreat were a warm, welcoming, and companionable audience. With two glasses of wine and a pep talk by new writing buddies, Victor and Maryka, to buoy me, I began to read, and my voice was a little shaky. About a minute into my five-minute limit I began to lose myself in the emotion of the story. It helped that I had on reading glasses and the audience was a blur when I looked up. But I got through that reading, and I felt I had overcome a hurdle.
After the retreat, I put the essay aside, while I concentrated on my novel. When I realized that I needed to try to get my work published, I saw that I had pitifully few pieces to offer. When the nonfiction editor of Bluestem Magazine contacted me, with interest in Bad Dog, I was delighted. She said that she liked my story and was considering publishing it, but she felt that the ending paragraph didn’t work. I’m so grateful that she bothered to ask me to tweak it because now it is published. You can read it below.
“He just snapped,” I say, “He was always high-strung.” We sit together in the waiting area of the Emergency Room. It is early afternoon. The chairs are hard, with cold metal arms, and the overly heated room is decorated in a color scheme that is probably intended to be soothing. I wonder how many people think about the decoration of the space as they sit here; if they contemplate the peach and mint green and the hazy, impressionistic landscape prints on the walls of the inner waiting area beyond those wide automatic doors, the ones you get to pass through after you have been triaged. The seats are lined up around the walls. I think to myself that the decorator probably didn’t realize that this might be an awkward arrangement.
Our injuries are not life-threatening. The heart attacks and car accidents get to go first, so it is a long wait. We sit side by side, my seventeen-year-old daughter and I, on those hard chairs, facing, yet trying to avoid eye contact with, the others who wait. The space is small, and we can all hear each other’s conversations and sighs of pain or worry. It must be human nature to try to listen in. To compare one’s own emergency with those of the strangers who sit three feet away. “Your Dad has taken him to be put down,” I whisper, with tears in my eyes. I am equally sad and angry. My daughter begins to sob, cradling her wounded hand against her chest. Awkwardly, in our seats, I try to embrace her and brush her hair off her forehead. She has been bitten on her hand and shin.
My fingers have stopped bleeding, and a feeling of exhaustion creeps over me. That tiredness that is unique to the draining away of adrenaline. It is a feeling of being utterly sapped and defeated. Despite the tiredness, my mind whirls. Mostly with worry about my daughter and the trauma she has just experienced. She loves that dog, and she loves the one that survived. I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if the neighbors hadn’t come. It is a terrible thought, and my mind takes it to every extreme imaginable. Among the horrible scenarios I run through is one where I come home to find the little black dog dead in the yard. Another is that my daughter has been home alone when it happens. Once those thoughts begin it’s hard to make them stop. They creep into your consciousness. The kind of visions that will make me shake my head hard, and say out loud, “Stop!”
It went on for so long. How can ten or fifteen minutes stretch out so eternally? How could this have happened? These two dogs were raised together. They ate, slept and played together every day, and had for the three years we’d had the big one. He had come from a rescue organization and we had been told he was an American bulldog. In retrospect, I think he was a cross. They say that some breeds have those jaws that won’t let go until their prey is dead.
It was the squirrel. That fucking cheeky squirrel that would hang upside down to get at the birdseed in the feeder. Sitting on the sofa, drinking my morning coffee, I watched the small dog, a terrier mix, catch sight of it through the French doors. He squealed and tore outside, through the dog door, in pursuit. The big dog went scrambling out after him, his big nails digging into to the ruts in the floorboards. They’ll never catch it. They never do, is what I was thinking. When I heard the shrill barks, those particular barks that mean something big is going on, I got up and looked out. They had caught the squirrel, and by the time I got out there the big dog had the little one by the back of his neck. The little one, who weighs about thirty-five pounds, was shrieking, and the big one was trying his best to kill him.
I started screaming, and tried to pry his jaws open, to release the small one, and I could not do it. The big dog’s teeth cut into my fingers. He dragged the small dog away from me. I screamed, and screamed, and my daughter ran outside, in her slippers and pajamas. My screams had awakened her. She tried to separate them, pounding on the big dog’s back as I ran to fill a bucket with water. I could not think of anything else to do, but to throw water on the big one. I could barely breathe. My chest was pounding, and my throat felt raw. My daughter was bitten, by the little one, in his desperation to escape. By the time the neighbor men came running I was just screaming, “Help, oh please, somebody help us.” They kicked the big dog until he let go, and the little one ran inside through the dog door. My daughter was crying and bleeding.
Inside, the little black dog sat on the bathroom rug, shaking violently. His long fur covered his wounds. I wrapped a paper towel around my fingers, and when I tried to dial the numbers I knew by heart my hands shook. I called my husband, to meet the neighbor with my daughter at the hospital and I took the little dog to the vet. They kept him there and told me to go to the hospital, to get my hands looked at. When I got to the Emergency Room my husband was there. We spoke and then he left, and I sit there, with our daughter, in the soothing waiting area, holding her as she cries. My husband returns after about an hour, and just nods at me. It is over. I feel relief, which is unexpected. Also, a strange calmness, a certainty, and an odd sense of gratitude that I had actually seen what happened with my own eyes.
The eyes of the big dog haunt me still. The dog I had raised and loved. While he had the little dog by the neck they were crazy eyes, mad-dog eyes, killer eyes. That’s what made me angry. I felt betrayed. He wouldn’t let go. Not even for me.