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General Interest, Short Story, Uncategorized

I’M NOT YOUR DOG

I’M NOT YOUR DOG
My name is Frank. I’m a dog. Humans call me Scout, a name I despise. Oh, I answer to it, alright, because, what the hell, they’re only human and don’t know any better. So, Scout it is to the people in my life, and there’s quite a few of them. But Frank’s my name, period amen. So don’t be calling me Scout now that you know my real name. I’ll bite your foolish butt. Ignorance and stupidity I can forgive. Petty malice is another thing altogether. Don’t push me.
So, this is my story. I’m a mutt. Mom and Dad were both mutts. There was definitely some Mastiff in the mix somewhere ‘cause I’m a very big mutt. Too big to be a house pet, so I found out, and that’s a good thing. Most of those poor bastards lose their nuts, and I’ve still got mine, thank you very much. Nothing sadder than to see some of my brothers mindlessly humping the neighbor’s leg. They don’t have a clue as to why they’re doing it. Poor sons of bitches (literally) don’t even know what their dicks are for other than pissing.
See, we dogs are a driven lot. Compulsive doesn’t even begin to describe it. Dogs operate on ancient instinct that overrides our logical thought processes. The innate drive to reproduce is extremely strong, and removing a male’s family jewels doesn’t quite eradicate it, just sort of confuses the hell out of him.
Don’t kid yourself. Dogs have thoughts. Some of us are damned smart, I’ll have you know. I know what you’re saying, Mr. or Ms. Human smartypants, they’re only stupid dogs, they’re brains are smaller, they act weird, blah, blah, blah, blah… Well let me tell you something, opposable-thumb chauvinists, some dogs are pretty smart. Granted, some dogs are really stupid and the average human is smarter than the average dog, but real smart dogs are smarter than the average human. I am a very smart dog. I’m not bragging here, just stating a fact. As a matter of fact, I can count the humans I’ve met who are smarter than me on one paw. I’ll get to him later. I loved him dearly and love him still. I still moan and wail for his memory.
Anyway, here goes: I was born part of a nine-puppy litter in Brooklyn to Mamie, beloved house pet of the McMahon family, and Toby, their neighbor’s randy mutt who kept getting loose from his yard and humping anything he could before being dragged home. I didn’t have much input from Dad in my formative months except for hearing him wail at night for Mamie and their pups. I don’t hold it against him. We dogs are a captive race and we get what we can when we can. I’m just thankful dad still had his nuts, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
The McMahon family was pretty cool, a jolly working class bunch that love dogs. We loved them right back. Puppies are full of love and energy and Mama was a very tender and loving old gal. She suckled and taught us all very well. All nine survived, a rare thing in a litter that size. One by one we were given away of course, since the McMahons had but a small house, yard and dog food budget. I think they kept Loretta, my sister and the cute runt of the litter. I can’t be sure, but they were leaning that way when I left.
I was given away to one of the McMahon children’s classmates just as soon as it became apparent that I would be quite the large mutt. My paws were huge and I grew rapidly, far outstripping my siblings in size and, more importantly, appetite. Like I said, the McMahon clan had more love than money, so big Frank had to go. No hard feelings. That’s the way it is when you’re a dog. They were good dog people, though, and they waited until I was weaned and old enough to say goodbye to Mama. I thank them for that.
My new owners were the Russo family, or more particularly, young Johnny Russo, a spirited eight-year old boy with more energy than brains. He was what you humans call hyper-active. Sort of like a permanent puppy, Johnny was, all love and adrenaline. Little Johnny named me Big Boy, an apt enough name in my ungainly youth. The Russos had a nice house and a pretty big yard by city standards. Johnny had the run of the yard and therefore so did I.
It was a pretty good life for a puppy, lots of rough-house tumbling around with Johnny and plenty of chow. His father even built me my own little house in the yard and his mother made a fuss over me all the time, buying me chew toys and fancy collars and the like. They made my separation from my mother and family somewhat easier.
Yes, dogs do miss their families, just like people do. More maybe, because usually when we say goodbye, it’s really goodbye, not see you later, so long, ta-ta for now, until we meet again. This is especially tough on canines since we are inherently pack animals (pack=family). Generally, we don’t meet again. No visits on Christmas, no picnics in the sun together eating sandwiches and potato salad and sipping lemonade. No drop-in visits, phone calls or post cards from vacation spots. Nada. Nil. Nothing. Sometimes I get very blue wondering what became of Mom and Dad and my brothers and sisters. Little Johnny Russo helped too, I’ve got to admit. Learned a lot about humans from him and his family.
Thinking back, it’s a relief to know they’re all not as dumb as poor little Johnny. They’ve got some pretty severe limitations as a species to be sure, and sometimes I wonder just how it was that humans came to dominate the earth, but some of them I’ve got to admit are pretty damned smart and worthwhile. Johnny’s Mom, for one. She knew her son wasn’t the sharpest kid around but she loved him no end and taught him all she could. She knew what a tough and unforgiving world this can be and was determined Johnny would be equipped to face it somehow.
It was in the Russo household that I realized that humans have almost no sense of smell. Compared to a dog they are blind in that very important sense. I could smell danger a mile away and they looked at me like I was the crazy one when I barked my warning. They are also practically deaf, too, and their night vision stinks. No wonder they were forced to build shelters and societies. They must have been tempting prey out there in the wild. I also learned that humans have almost no telepathy. They cannot sense evil or fear or dishonesty in another being, nor can they understand mental messages, something the tiniest whelp can do the day he is born. How they survived the eons without these senses is beyond me. Go figure.
People also have no species-memory and very few inborn instincts. This blows my mind. They repeat the same stupid errors generation after generation even though in the absence of species memory and instinct they have written down their histories of mistakes and successes. All they have to do is refer to these books once in a while to avoid some really bad decisions but that almost never happens. They almost feel that they have somehow become better or more advanced than their species ancestors and so are immune to their failures and weaknesses, especially these past two thousand years or so. Well, guess again, erect-walkers. You’ve only got more toys to play with these days, not more brains and certainly not more insight.
How do I know this? I’m “just a dog,” you’re thinking. Well, dogs, even the dumb ones, have inborn species memory, so we know what life and people were like a hundred years ago, a thousand, ten thousand years past and beyond. You see, dogs and people have a very long history together. Before men had hardly any toys or gadgets (houses included), men and dogs formed a mutual assistance pact out in the dangerous wilderness. At first an uneasy truce between competing predators for their mutual benefit, it developed into a profitable partnership that has survived the eons and has seen profound changes in both dogs and men.
The partnership nowadays is decidedly one-sided, with men enslaving us and breeding us selectively and often neutering our females and castrating our males, but in the good old days of the hunt we were partners, dogs with their unparalleled senses of smell and hearing, combined with their ferocious demeanor, men with their sharp killing sticks and portable fire. Our heightened senses protected the sense-blind humans from approaching enemies. The humans’ system of small clan/communities with their caves and fires offered wild dogs a refuge from the killing fields that were the entire world at the time while still allowing us to hunt and multiply.
By the way, humans have dogs to thank for their survival and eventual dominance. There were several kinds of humans in the ancient world, and they didn’t get along with one another. The kind that kept dogs are the ones who eventually came out on top. Coming out on top, evolution-wise and human-wise means total eradication of the competing species. I’m not knocking you humans here, understand. It still goes on today. Lions won’t abide leopards or cheetahs in their territory and will kill them on sight if they can catch tem. Notice the tiger has few competing cat carnivores in his realm. That’s no accident. Outside of elephants and water buffalo, no animal in India messes with a tiger or violates his turf. We animals are big on turf. Just like humans.
Anyway, the people who partnered up with dogs were the puniest of the several specimens of early humanity in all regards save one. Their brains were bigger. They made killing sticks first and conquered fire first and inhabited caves first and some even built crude shelters out of branches, mud and animal skins. None of which helped them very much in territorial clashes with other types of humans, who were generally bigger, stronger and more ferocious. Those other humans also heard, smelled and saw a lot better, indispensable assets in the wild. The puny humans were being slaughtered. They couldn’t hear or smell the enemy until it was too late. These other humans had their own clubs and killing sticks and it wasn’t a pretty sight.
Enter the dog. In exchange for food and shelter we taught these creatures how to track and hunt better and we protected their turf zealously with our heightened senses and our fangs and claws. No more sneaking up and bashing in skulls for the larger humanoids. The new sense of security gave the puny humans more leisure time to use those brains of theirs to invent better weapons, tools, shelters and methods of preserving the prodigious amounts of food they were now killing with their dog partners. We dogs also helped them sniff out and slaughter their two-legged rivals. Within several generations homo-sapiens had the plains, valleys, hills, caves and, most importantly, the hunting grounds to themselves. The other guys have long since disappeared. Such is life.
So men have dogs to thank for their dominion over the earth. Some thanks we get. Enslaved, neutered and designer-bred. Poodles are especially distasteful to other dogs, the antithesis of what it means to be a dog. Lap dogs, too. Oh, we like them as dogs just fine, but the haircuts are a slap in the snout to dogdom. I like nothing better than to hump the ass off one of these bitches and throw a monkey-wrench in the form of a litter of mutt puppies into the breeding plans of humans. Sometimes I think we backed the wrong horse, the way they treat us. The world they built isn’t exactly predator friendly, if you know what I mean.
Of late humans have been getting pangs of conscience over this and have been making efforts to preserve some of the beasts they spent the first part of their history trying to eradicate. They call them “endangered species” and wring their hands over their fate and set aside small patches of God’s green earth where they are allowed to live. Take the deal I say to my animal brethren, it’s the best you are going to get from these people. By no means accept their hospitality, no matter how good the food or how warm the shelter. I have no interest in seeing “Poodle” bears or tiny-bred canary-sized eagles in people’s homes. Bad enough what they did to dogs and cats.
Cats I hate, by the way. Nothing personal, it’s just that the species memories in me are especially strong. Many of my brethren co-exist quite well with cats. Not me. I do my best to snap them in two if I can catch them, and I can’t help it (I realize that this is a serious character flaw, but what can I say? I’m working on it.). Logically I realize these puny house cats of today pose no threat at all to a big mean customer like myself, but like I said, a lot of instinct and species memories operate on us canines, in some of us more than in others. I can conjure memories of cats that made today’s lions and tigers look like kittens in comparison. They were saber-toothed, razor-clawed killing machines the size of a horse with the speed of a cheetah, the agility of a leopard and the strength of an ox.
Many a wild dog and puny human fell to their voracious appetites. They defined the term territorial and no predator entered their realm lightly. It was only the partnership of man and canine beast that finally wrested the hunting grounds from their control.
A bloody conquest it was, too. In general, all beasts were bigger in those days, except humans. Only they have grown in stature while the animal kingdom has generally shrunk in size. Bears were huge, twice the size of today’s grizzlies and polar bears. Elephants, or wooly mammoths and mastodons, dwarfed even the African elephant of today’s world. Deer, antelope and buffalo all had gigantic ancestors, and they were strong and mean too, and very tough to kill.
That’s why dogs ran in packs, and humans too. Oh, by the way, dogs were a lot bigger then as well, even bigger than me and much bigger than wolves. Meaner, too. Now, I can be pretty mean when something’s threatening me or my friends (I refuse to call any of them my master), but those dogs were absolutely ferocious. They killed and ate weak puppies and attacked without mercy any creature who threatened their domain, even other dogs from rival packs. The leader of the pack had to fight to the death regularly any pretenders to his throne. Usually he was a huge scarred beast who ruled with an iron paw. His fate was always death at the fangs of a younger rival. The term “dog-eat-dog world” was a reality for eons for my species.
That world, that very big and very wild world, is a long time gone. We dogs should have seen the handwriting on the wall once humans started with their rituals. When they first killed a beast and didn’t eat it or feed it to the dogs, what they called a “sacrifice” to God, we should have parted company with humans right then and there. Praising God was fine and natural but every beast knows that one day we all sacrifice our lives on earth, without exception. Why hasten a creature’s demise to pay tribute to the God who created that creature?
See, beasts all know there’s a God and are happy to dance our part in the savage ballet of His Creation. We praise Him regularly. Why do you think a hound bays at the moon? Why does an antelope dance in the meadow?
Beasts are more connected to God than humans are. We have no confusion as to how to worship Him. We live out our lives as the best beast we can be, as dog-like, as lion-hearted, as deer-like as we can, whatever the role for which we have been chosen. Let me share with you if I can a sample of my species memory:
A deep fresh snowfall covers the valley, unbroken for miles by hoof or paw. The sunrise bathes the mountains and the valley in searing white light. The pack burrows from its lair and the dogs survey the scene. The astonishing beauty raises spontaneous wails and howls of humble appreciation from the pack. Each dog well knows the price to be paid for being a part of this majestic scene. Today the hunt will be especially exhausting, perhaps fatal to some of the younger or weaker dogs. Perhaps no game will be found and the pack will be one day closer to starvation. The heavy snows have hindered the pack from hunting for days now and today’s hunt is literally do-or-die. Chances must be taken. Any beast they find, no matter how dangerous, must be attacked.
No prey is in sight and searching the four winds with their noses brings only fleeting, moving whiffs of game scent. None are exactly sure where they are or exactly what beasts they are smelling. Standing apart, erect and stock-still in the icy wind and blowing snow, the huge, scarred pack leader sniffs and samples the air carefully.
The pack respectfully falls silent as they watch their leader concentrate. A slight miscalculation and he could lead his pack to snowbound starvation. After nearly an hour of intense concentration he barks a short command and the pack is moving together, plowing through the drifts and sending steaming clouds of their collective breath floating across the valley floor. Only two ferocious females are left behind to guard their lair and to nurse and protect the young.
Progress is slow but steady, the dogs taking turns in the very lead, alternating in the grueling and exhausting position of being the first to plow through the fresh drifts. The dominant male makes it a point to take this position longer than the others, asking no dog to do what he himself cannot. He signals each change in positions silently, not willing to utter even a low yelp, well aware that the slightest sound will carry to the sensitive ears of the herbivores they seek. Every hour or so they stop to rest and the leader again carefully samples the air, perhaps ordering a slight change of direction before resuming the hunt.
Many miles away a herd of giant caribou grazes in the deep snow, moving the drifts aside with their antlers and digging through the hard-packed surface with their sledgehammer-like hooves to reach the life-sustaining lichen below. The snow is deep, the task a difficult but necessary one. All ears, eyes and noses are constantly searching, searching for the slightest sign of predators; a sound, a stray scent, a misplaced shadow, a puff of hot breath. The price the caribou pay for sharing this terrible beauty is vulnerability. The herd is nervous and spread out by the snowstorm a little too much for their comfort. An effort is made to bunch the calves in the center of the herd, leaving the strong young stags to guard the perimeter. Their speed advantage and usual defensive tactics are largely negated by the deep, drifting snow. Today one or more of the weak or the old will surely fall.
The pack, having stealthily and laboriously circled around the caribou herd, approaches from up-wind. A large, proud and battle-scarred old stag, sensing the dogs’ presence, stands apart from the herd stamping and snorting, thus warning the others. He tramples the snow flat all around him, creating a small arena in which to defend himself from the inevitable onslaught of the dogs. This work done, he falls silent and stock-still to conserve his energy while, still unseen, the dogs do the same. His coat glistens with a lathery sweat, and his nostrils blow twin steam jets into the thick, frigid silence.
He waits.
As the moment tortuously approaches the valley is filled with excited dog scent. Suddenly the air is rent by a score of ferocious yowls as the dogs attack the big stag, hurling themselves teeth-first into the huge animal. They sink their fangs deep into muscle and bone, the taste and smell of hot blood raising their hackles and pushing their adrenaline levels to an insane savage collective blind rage. The stag fights magnificently, brutally, killing one young dog instantly with thrashing hooves and maiming several others with his antlers.
The struggle is intense and the sound is now that of muffled growls and grunts. The dogs regroup, then surround and harass the confused, wounded brute with feinting slashes of tooth and claw. Scarlet blood, canine and caribou, splatters and puddles in the snow. In the sky above the vultures are already circling, assured of a meal no matter what the outcome of the battle. The great beast is losing blood and gasping for air.
The dogs are relentless. Their leader, sensing that the huge stag may actually repel the attack, propels himself to the caribou’s throat, his teeth finding the jugular vein. The stag kicks and bucks savagely, swinging the canine leader like a rag doll, his blood pouring over the dog like a flood. In a perfectly-timed athletic leap, a second dog joins the leader by sinking his teeth into the stag’s neck as well, signaling the others to concentrate on the caribou’s rear legs, tearing the great muscles that serve as the piston force of the stag’s rage.
Finally, inevitably, the stag falls, the mortal struggle over, his eyes calmly regarding his tormentors as he dies. There is acceptance in his expression, an acknowledgement that his part is finished, having been played out majestically, fiercely and proudly over the years and seasons. The joy and terror of his wild beautiful world had been his birthright and grand adventure. He made the most of it, right up to his valiant end.
In instant acknowledgement of this the hounds raise a mournful howl at the moment of the stag’s death. They wail also in triumph and celebration of another day’s survival. They wail again for their fallen comrades, two dead and one dying, beloved family members and partners through many a season, many a hunt. Their loss is a severe blow to the pack, and prayers go out that the whelps back at the lair are safe and will grow into strong hunters. The dogs know each of these lives are precious, canine and caribou, and none of them died for no reason. The dogs died to prolong the lives of the pack, to succor the young and nourish the hunters. The stag sacrificed himself for the same reasons.
The pack leader rewards the dog who joined him at the beast’s neck with the animal’s heart, a symbolic gesture that acknowledges that this dog will one day vie for the position of pack leader. Both dogs know that this will mean the death of one of them at the fangs of the other, but that thought does not spoil this moment of triumph and fellowship for the hunters. It is the way of the pack, the best way to ensure their survival. Following a weak leader would be unthinkable, even suicidal.
Such is the strength of a pack leader that he painstakingly teaches and encourages the one that will eventually replace him by slaying him. With no thoughts of why this is, the dogs eat their fill, rest for a while and then drag what meat they can back to their lair to strengthen those left behind. The bloody flesh leaves a crimson scar in the snow behind them. As they depart, scavengers from the sky and from the ground descend upon the bloody battlefield to feast on the spoils. Not a scrap is wasted, and the only reminder of the carnage will be the scattered, bleached bones of the fearless combatants.
The stag’s death prolonged the life of the younger and stronger of his own kind, that they may live their seasons, fight their battles and protect their own young, as had he and his elders before him for as long as time passed. His life was perfect and fulfilled. So too were the lives of the slain dogs. They were pack creatures, clan-oriented, loyal and loving. They were hunters slain in the battle to ensure the survival of the pack. They left behind healthy youngsters and able hunters. Their memories live on in all their generations of offspring forever, their valiant deaths never forgotten. They had whatever seasons they had and shared whatever grim hunts they could. Some are sacrificed sooner than others but all without exception eventually fall. Such is life.
That’s my species memory sample for you, folks, at least as much as I can convey by the limiting medium of words. Maybe now you can see why no animal kills another needlessly. A zebra knows he can drink unmolested from the same watering hole as a lion when that lion is not hungry. The lion knows it would be foolish and wasteful to kill a creature simply because he can. There is always a purpose and a benefit to some creature.
Beasts know their purpose, know it from birth. Men don’t seem to know their purpose or place on earth. You humans can’t even agree on the right way to serve God. To us it is obvious; know your place and purpose and live it to the fullest, knowing it will please God that his creatures have lived the realization of His plan and His Creation perfectly. Men can’t seem to agree with one another what that purpose and perfection is and sometimes even kill one another over the issue, something you’d never see animals doing.
How barbaric is that? And why do humans fear and distrust other humans whose hides are of a different color? One sniff of any human of any color tells me that you are all the same. Man-scent is unmistakable and my nose is never wrong. Dogs make no such distinction. You ought to see the dogs I’ve hung around with. No two of us look remotely alike, yet we are all dogs and accept one another as such. I don’t think God is pleased with color separation or fights about who God really is and how to worship Him.
Me, I howl at the moon. Other beings chant and pray. I say this: All roads lead to Rome, period amen. God hears all our prayers and all our praise in all our languages. When you insult another being for what he is and what he believes, you insult the one who made him that way. Dogs know this, too. If we ever wonder how another will react to an insult we just think of how we would feel were the tables turned, and that’s exactly how that being will feel. Simple.
You started building churches early on, beginning with crude stone altars decorated with feathers and bone right up to today’s mammoth cathedrals, all the while completely ignoring the vast and beautiful temple in which we were already residing. What has man built to match nature’s terrible beauty? Now, even as I dog I’ve seen and admired some fairly beautiful works of art produced by humans, but not a single piece of it approaches the mastery of one single sunset, to say nothing of a full moon glistening on jagged mountain peaks. God’s hand is there, always, touching all His creatures and sharing His glory. It’s a shame too few humans feel it.
The graceful arch of a wild blossom braving the rain and the wind so it can survive another day under the sun in all its fragile glory is a work of art far more beautiful and awe inspiring for its short-lived splendor than all the world’s artists have ever created. This one wild orchid among millions in the fields shows more of the beauty and drama of this world than a million Mona Lisas. The majesty and liquid grace of a single hawk patrolling the mountain sky is a breathtaking masterpiece of form, motion and purpose.
You humans try to capture this image on canvas or film to preserve or try to understand it. That’s asking the impossible since the world never stands still for our appreciation. The true beauty is in the process, the act and the feel of living and dying. How can you not know this? As much as I understand people, I really don’t understand you at all. Do you understand each other? One would hope so.
More species memories and some personal observations I just thought I’d share with you. Sorry. The older I get the more I seem to reflect on these visions handed down to me through the genes of ten thousand ancestors, as well my own experiences in this very complicated world. I think most creatures grow reflective in their old age. I’m at the age where, had I lived in those ancient wild times, I could be expect to be a victim of nature any time now.
I’m still big and strong and dangerous by today’s overly civilized standards and I’ll probably be in good shape for a few more years to come. My size and temperament make me the natural leader of this rag-tag pack of dogs here at work (We’re junkyard dogs). The modern world and our subjugated state has some advantages for older beasts like myself. Our status as a captive race also guarantees that we won’t become extinct as a species any time soon, a very distinct possibility in the wild uncertainty of nature. In captivity, we generally live a few more years than our wild brethren, so, like you people say, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”
Well, back to my story, and how I got to be an old junkyard dog from a happy puppy in Johnny Russo’s backyard doghouse. We dogs don’t have a lot of experience telling stories in linear fashion to humans, so bear with me here. When a dog tells a story to other dogs there’s a lot more going on than mere words, and narrative progression is not a big concern. There are senses and intuitions at play that humans just don’t have; smells, sounds, touches, gestures, body language and thoughts project our message. Our common frame of reference, our species memories and our oneness with Creation remove the many obstacles to communication that humans seem to encounter. You seem not to notice or to simply ignore your shared experiences and universal emotions when communicating. Misunderstanding seems to this dog to be your curse. Perhaps that is the terrible price humans must pay for the privilege of dominating all Creation on this earth.
Dogs understand humans pretty well, by the way, almost everything you say both by speech and your actions. Body language, the look in your eyes and the way you hold yourself, the changing scents you emit as your emotions change, all these speak volumes. You, on the other hand, understand dogs hardly at all, our thoughts, our true natures, our motivation or our awareness. You’re missing a lot here, let me tell you. It’s a hell of a price to pay for those big old brains of yours (most of which you don’t even use) and your gadget-making abilities. You’ve long since lost touch with God and Creation and now live only for yourselves and for that I pity all of you. I wouldn’t trade places with your king.
Be that as it may, there I was growing up happy with little Johnny Russo when nature intruded on our little world. Only a year into our relationship, Johnny got hurt, hurt so bad that he died. It seems he tried to cross a street at the same time a speeding car was crossing it and he got smashed by the car. He was brought to a hospital and after two weeks there he died. I knew he was dead before his parents came home from the hospital, beside themselves with grief and guilt.
Don’t ask how I knew. I’m a dog, I just knew. They found me in the yard wailing and moaning for Johnny’s memory. I wished I had been with Johnny to protect him from wild cars, but I was rarely let out of the yard. To Johnny’s mother and father and older brothers and sisters I was a huge, healthy and growing reminder of their loss. I clearly had to go. I understood.
Mrs. Russo was far too good a woman to hand me over to some dog pound so she decided to give me to her Uncle Frank, my namesake. Now, Uncle Frank was quite a guy. He lived far away from Johnny’s family in another town, a whole different kind of town than Brooklyn. Heck, he wasn’t even in the town itself. He owned a bungalow colony out in the country, a beautiful place in a valley surrounded by forest. Frank’s house was one of the bungalows, perhaps a bit bigger, to accommodate his room full of books, but not by much. Frank lived alone. Well, not exactly alone, but there were no other humans living with him, something that puzzled me after the crowded McMahon and Russo households.
I knew immediately upon meeting Uncle Frank that he was grieving for his lost mate. Again, don’t ask me how. It’s a dog thing and even if I could explain it you still wouldn’t understand, at least most of you wouldn’t. Smells, body language, vocal inflection, a look in a creature’s eyes, his palpable out-flowing thoughts and emotions, these all speak clearly to a dog, more than words ever could. Frank somehow felt this from me, knew that I understood and grieved with him, not only for his dead wife but also for our shared fresh loss of his sweet grandnephew Johnny. We grieved together, him with his silent prayers and reflections, me with my mournful wails to the moon over Frank’s valley. We grew close very swiftly.
Uncle Frank was a big man, lined of face and strong of limb. He carried his huge frame with a graceful dignity and gentleness that belied his great vitality and energy. His eyes were steel-gray and extremely intelligent. They also conveyed his curiosity, his warmth, his tolerance and his great good humor. He greeted every new acquaintance, man or beast, with an open-minded friendliness, as if the entire world were Frank’s home and he was simply showing proper hospitality to this latest guest. Frank put all creatures at ease, all at once demanding acceptance for who he was and accepting who they were. A comfortable and interesting companion, a rare gift in any being.
Frank had other dogs on his vast property, three of them, all quite stupid ones unfortunately. Frank recognized me right off as a kindred spirit. He knew that I knew what he was feeling and to a surprising degree for a human he knew what I was feeling. Yes, in spite of his humanity Frank had a great deal of emotional empathy for other creatures and a far greater connection to Creation than any man I have ever met. Our mutual grief became a strong bonding experience for both of us, me in my naïve adolescence and Frank in his accepting later years.
He gave me free run of the place, inside and out. I preferred the outdoors and spent a great deal of time in the woods, much more than the other dogs. They just sort of hung around the bungalow colony taking it easy, eating everything they could and barking at strangers and other animals, whether they were a threat or not, the fools. I soon put a stop to that and tried to teach them the difference between a threat and a friendly presence. It wasn’t easy, but they listened and learned as best they could. Nice enough dogs but, as I said, rather dumb.
Even though I was a raw adolescent, I assumed immediate leadership of this unlikely pack. Frank noticed this and properly accorded me the respect of a leader among beasts. I ate first and most, slept where I chose and had my way with the only bitch among us, the lovely Ruthie, a beagle-dominant mutt with brown and white fur. She bore me several litters of healthy puppies. Our offspring still populate many a household in and around Frank’s valley.
Uncle Frank took me into his confidence, somehow sensing that I understood his words. I did. He would speak to me of his innermost thoughts and feelings, his love for his departed wife, their shared triumphs and tragedies, their joy and their heartbreaks. For a human, he took life quite well and realistically. He told me how he retired from a job in the city three years ago and bought this place that he and his wife and children dearly loved.
After only two years there his wife Liza died. His children were all grown now with children of their own and jobs and responsibilities so they didn’t get to visit as often as they all would have liked. “Tell me about it,” I replied to Frank. “I’d give one nut just to see my family again.” He told me he understood by the way he looked at me. Every so often Frank would visit his children and grandchildren, many times taking me along for the ride. I loved those trips, just Frank and I in his station wagon speaking silently to each other’s hearts for a hundred miles or so. I also got to meet Uncle Frank’s large family, nice folks one and all.
Frank was one of the few humans in my life who was very rarely ambiguous. He said what he meant to say in words, postures and actions. Often he’d roam the woods with me and I sensed he could feel the earth like animals can (The earth and the moon are living creatures, by the way, but that’s another story and one you humans probably wouldn’t believe anyway). He seemed at times to be on the verge of tapping into human species memory, if that is possible. It just may be for all I know, but with so much extra stuff going on in your minds it probably got buried over the years. Frank got close with his deep appreciation of nature and Creation all around us.
Sometimes he’d burst into song at some fleeting sight of natural beauty. He’d speak to me of the measureless past this earth has lived and the creatures who rode her back over the eons, how they’ve come and gone and how some of us still thrive. He said that most of his fellow humans thought very little about these things, so preoccupied were they with their own lives, and how all they’ve built has not made them happy but instead has cut them off from Creation. How true.
Most humans consider it an accomplishment if they can smell snow in the air. Heck, dogs can smell any weather, and sense storms and earthquakes too. At one time, humans could do that almost as well as animals. They never could run worth a dime with those measly two legs, even in ancient times. They could smell, see and hear better, though, because in those days they were prey as well as hunters. Nothing sharpens the senses like being a potential meal for a black bear the size of a Buick.
When they teamed up with dogs our excellent senses gave them an early warning system that effectively removed them from the dinner menu of predators large and small. Next thing you know, they were building farms, dams, towns, cities, roads and miles and miles of fences, trying to measure and divide and subdue the earth itself like they had done to the animal kingdom.
It won’t work, of course. Check out what happens to towns and cities and farms when floods, hurricanes, wild fires, tidal waves, tornadoes, earthquakes and volcanoes strike. So much for subduing nature. I guess it’s natural for you to think you can. You fly in your machines like birds, visit the deep ocean in your submarines like fish and span mighty rivers and mountain ranges with bridges and tunnels. I understand a man has even stood on the moon.
Now of all the technical things men have done, that one impresses me the most. We hounds have a definite thing for the moon. You should have sent one of us up there. Why not? You sent monkeys into space, and most of them are dumber than plants. Any dog anywhere would give anything to mark his territory on the moon. Just the idea of it sends shivers up and down my spine.
Frank’s bungalow colony was a very pleasant place, busy in summer with families with kids, in autumn with hunters with guns and in winter with young singles with skis. Frank had a year-round groundskeeper named Danny, a simple local fellow who took care of all sorts of chores for Frank. In the summer and winter Frank hired young men and women from the town to work around the place as lifeguards, cleaners, wood-choppers and gardeners and the like. Frank loved to read his books and visit and talk with people.
He also liked to go fishing with some of the local men in nearby lakes and streams. Hiring the extra help afforded Frank the leisure time to do what he wanted to do. He’d worked a lifetime already, he’d tell me, and this was supposed to be his retirement. I was in full agreement there with him. There were lots of things to do and see in the valley besides working. I worked too, by the way, guarding the place from wild animals and men. After routing a few of each, my reputation spread in the animal and human world and predators on both two and four legs gave Frank’s place a wide berth. But like Frank, I enjoyed pursuing my own interests.
Frank told me the place brought in plenty of money, more than he needed, really, so why not hire Danny and the kids? He liked the company of other humans, and dogs too (me, mostly). He said too many humans isolate themselves from others and then complain they’re lonely and isolated. He felt that temptation after his wife died, but he lived always among the living and didn’t think she’d want him to change that now. So Frank kept in close touch with his children, grandchildren, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews as well as many good friends. There always seemed to be a spare bungalow available any time of the year for someone in Frank’s life who wanted a weekend in the woods, or just to visit Frank. He made time for all of them and all of them left his presence feeling better than they did before.
The seasons there passed swiftly and I grew to be a huge mutt, half wild and free as a bird in Frank’s valley. I had the company of other dogs, lots of humans and a lot of wild animals in the woods as well. I learned to hunt in those woods, stalking badgers and raccoons and even deer. I brought some of my kills home to share with Frank but I saw right away that he didn’t like that, so that part of my life became my own private business. If Frank didn’t see me for as couple of days he understood what I was up to. When I returned, sometimes scarred from a battle in the forest, he’d always welcome me home as if I’d just gone for a short walk. He’d help me clean my wounds and never said a word about what I was doing in the woods. He respected my privacy and enjoyed the time we did share. I did the same for him.
It was in the woods in the valley that I first started a serious exploration of my species memories. Always powerful in me, the memories came on even stronger in the forest. Among dogs I am somewhat of a visionary, a mystic if you will. They too have species memories, but not nearly as extensive as my own. Everybody has a particular talent, like bloodhounds and their super scenting abilities, setters for their hunting skills, and so on. Me, I’m a seer, a shaman, if you will, often consumed with visions and sensations from the distant past. Among dogs my gift is immediately recognized and I am accorded the proper respect for it. That, and my great size and strength, as well as my battle scars and sometimes irritable manner. I am quite the imposing figure, if I do say so myself.
Humans who don’t know me are often nervous when I approach, even after I give the sign for them to relax. Most never seem to pick it up. I am no threat to them unless they are a threat to me or mine.
At the time, those I considered mine were Uncle Frank primarily, followed in order of importance by my fellow dogs, Danny and the kids who worked for us, Frank’s family and friends and the guests at the bungalow colony. Dogs are very strongly oriented to the pack, and in the absence in this modern day of an actual pack, a dog will create in his mind his own pack to whom he is loyal, generally consisting of whoever resides in his household. We’re big on loyalty, we dogs. It’s a genetic thing dating back to when one’s very survival depended upon unquestioned loyalty to a pack. It was your family, your companions and your co-workers in the hunt. You staked out a collective territory, hunted it together and together defended it zealously, even unto death.
So my dog nature combined with my extra strong species memory and my love of hunting made me come to think of the whole valley as my personal territory. I guarded it constantly and personally routed any rival predators that invaded my turf; stray dogs, bobcats, coyotes and even one time a black bear. That bear did me some serious harm I must admit, but I was dog enough and determined enough to chase him off my turf with a few chunks taken out of his sorry butt. I’m still proud of that battle all these years later and the scars I earned that day. Again, it’s a dog thing that humans wouldn’t really understand.
Uncle Frank called me Midnight, by the way, for my coal black fur, and it’s a name I’d still be proud to use were he still alive. I only changed it to Frank after his death as a tribute to him. Every human in the valley knew Midnight, personally or by sight. I also knew every dog in the area. Unlike in the city, dogs generally roam free in the country. I was quite the legend among the area’s dogs. My ability as a mystic, my great story telling powers, my size and strength and very dog-like manner all contributed to my popularity and dominance. In the absence of any formal dog packs, I was the generally considered the canine leader in the valley. Quite an honor and I endeavored to live up to my reputation and never betray the trust given to me by dogs or men.
Every so often some young upstart hound would attempt to challenge my dominance, always to his great regret. I never killed any of them, just gave them something to think about the next time they were feeling frisky. These were not personal grudges, simply dogs acting like dogs. We got along quite well after our battles, which were necessary contests to establish a hierarchy. Some of my best dog friends were ones I had defeated in battle, some of whom had given me quite a fight and a scar or two. After we settled who was who we got on with our lives. Had I lost, and one day I fully expect to, I wouldn’t hold a grudge. It’s the way things are. Grudges are for humans and we animals don’t really understand the whole concept.
Sometimes neighbors would complain to Frank that I had tore up their hound pretty good or impregnated one of their bitches but Frank would just tell them “What do you expect? They’re dogs, you know. That’s how they live.” Then he’d pop open a couple of beers, maybe make some sandwiches and they’d talk away the afternoon, maybe about dogs, maybe about fishing, whatever. I always made sure I was nearby when they’d come and complain about me, let them see for themselves that I wasn’t hiding out like I had done something I was ashamed of. Usually they’d wind up with a pat on the head for me and say something like: “Damn you Midnight, you are one wild old dog. When you gonna behave yourself?”
“Well, my bipedal friend”, I would say (but they could never understand), “I am behaving myself. This is what dogs do. Didn’t you hear what Frank just told you? I don’t complain about you when you act like a human, wearing shoes and clothes and talking a mile-a-minute and never saying a damned thing that means anything to anybody and cooking perfectly good meat and building yet another pile of bricks and putting up another fence dividing up the earth for who-knows-what purpose and generally running around like you know everything when you know precious little, do I? So don’t begrudge me what little pleasure and freedom I have in this human-dominated and divided world.” (Even in the relative isolation of Frank’s valley you couldn’t go more than a few miles without running into some giant highway filled with dangerous motor vehicles tearing along to God-knows-where for God-knows-what. I never forgot what happened to little Johnny Russo). “I’m not digging up your precious vegetable garden like some damned gopher or deer, I’m just being a dog if you don’t mind, the very best dog I know how to be.”
Frank would say later on “Never mind them, Midnight. You’ve got just as much a right to be what you are as any of them. Best damned dog I ever knew.” Notice he didn’t say “owned”. We both knew that was the case but he wasn’t one to trample on another being’s dignity. That was a good lesson for me. Sometimes in my youth I would get all caught up in my visionary gift and my physical prowess and get to feeling like I was some superior creature. Frank taught me that I simply am what I am and other beings are what they are and that’s fine and as it should be. Even flies, as annoying as they are, have a place and purpose in this world. We’d laugh and say “Damned if we know what it is, but they must have a purpose if God made so damned many of ‘em.”
Yes, dogs laugh too. It’s a sorry creature that lacks a sense of humor (sharks come to mind). We fool around, tease one another and make jokes, just like anyone else. We play games and goof off and tease and tickle the youngsters. We even laugh and joke about our enslaved condition, something I know that human slave populations often did. Lots of times we laugh at humans, how their behavior makes no sense and how they don’t seem to understand anything about the world they inhabit or the creatures with whom they share it. We can never quite get over the fact that the only knowledge you have of ancestors you haven’t actually met is by word of mouth or by reading about them. To a dog, that is funny. Sorry, nothing personal here, but that makes us dogs laugh and laugh.
Frank sensed that it’s different for dogs. He noticed I’d do things no other dog or human had ever taught me. We’d be together in the woods and I’d flush out some animal in a clever way, or methodically mark my territory with urine or spoor and he’s say “Midnight, I swear you are one unusual creature. I bet you learned that from your great-great grand daddy somehow.” Yes Frank, I did, but it was more like my great-great multiplied by several hundred grand daddy, some wild hound who had to hunt for his living or perish. I suffer from no illusions that I am his equal as a hunter. Thousands of generations of captivity have greatly blunted our ability to survive in the wild. I know I could, but not too many of my brethren could do it. Again, I’m not bragging here. Had I stayed a house pet with the Russo family I would never have developed my species-memories and hunting skills like I was able to in Uncle Frank’s valley.
So I try not to look down my snout at other dogs who do not possess my skills at hunting or fighting or memory searching. I have a human to thank for my chance to hone these skills. Frank never confined me to a yard with a chain or choked me with a leash when we walked the woods. He never made me sleep indoors, even though I knew he liked it when I did. Most nights I slept outside in my years with Frank. When from time to time Frank was feeling ill I’d sleep beside his bed, or if I sensed he needed my company on a particular night. “You are the damnedest creature, Midnight,” he’d say, “like you can read my mind.” Not quite, but close. A person’s moods and desires are graphically communicated in a hundred ways other than speech. Only a blind and deaf dog with no sense of smell would miss them. Or a human.
This was not lost on Frank. He’d tell me at times that he envied my savvy. “If only people had half your powers, Midnight, there’d be no misunderstanding one another in this world. We people hurt each other in so many ways and half the time we’re not even aware of it. We just don’t notice things like you do. Sometimes we get so angry with one another because we don’t know what the other person is thinking or feeling and the situation gets prolonged and aggravated to the point where our only form of communication, words, is just not sufficient to heal the wounds we have caused one another. It can get so bad that it leads to murder, or war, which is simply murder on a grand scale. I’ve been to war, Midnight, and it’s something that has haunted me all my days and I expect it will until the day I die. I am convinced there is nothing worse than war.
“Dogs don’t do those kinds of things to each other. Sure, you fight from time to time but that’s only to establish who’s boss. Hell, you and Johnny Ford’s big hound Buster had a real good battle, chewed each other up pretty good, but now you’re the best of friends again. Men can’t do that, it seems. I wonder why that is.”
So do I Frank, so do I. My species memory recalls many a war, both large and small, between men, all of them unimaginably horrible. Don’t forget, the “dogs of war” marched with the Roman legions and countless other armies. How many of your best and bravest fell in these things? I’ll bet none of you knows for sure. What a waste of hunters and good breeding stock, to put it in dog terms. Almost never after one of these wars does the question of “who’s boss” get settled so everyone can resume their normal life pattern without bitterness or anger. You seem to hang on to the anger for generations, wasting valuable energy that could be put to better use.
I know Frank had only a vague idea of why his people fought his war. There were no valuable life-sustaining hunting grounds at stake, no sheltered lair being disputed. Why else would two packs of the same species clash? I also know he was deeply shocked by what he saw and what he did. Knowing him, I know he was a brave soldier and did his very best. His reward was a lifetime of nightmares and regrets and no answer for his simple question: “Why?”
“Midnight, I saw young boys with bright futures blasted to bloody pieces before my eyes. I saw heads and limbs torn off and men’s faces burned beyond recognition. I killed perfect strangers who were just like our young boys except for their uniforms. I had nothing against them except for the fact that they were killing us. The land where we fought the war was burnt and exploded and trampled. Every living thing in the paths of our two armies was annihilated. Eventually our side ‘won’ but I can’t say for sure just what it was that we won. When I came home they called us heroes and pinned medals and ribbons on us but I felt sick and empty inside. The carefree foolish boy I had been was dead before his time, replaced by a shell-shocked and bitter young man…
“Thank the Lord I found my Liza, who gave me love and gave me children and gave me a good life. A real good life…She helped me to love life itself again… to care again…God, I miss that woman…”
No wonder he never joined the autumn hunters with their rifles. He’d had a belly full of firearms in his lifetime, he told me. He kept a shotgun in his cabin and cleaned it from time to time but I never saw him fire it even once. “You’re all the protection this place needs, Midnight,” he’d say. Uncle Frank told me things he didn’t tell humans. “They wouldn’t understand,” he’d say.
I’m not sure I did either, but I tried and I truly felt his pain. I’m a good listener, most dogs are. We also have a lot of empathy. We are schooled in personal pain, we dogs, from our abrupt separation from our families to our lives as captives. Frank felt for me, too, and often comforted me when I was feeling blue. For a human he was extremely sensitive to other beings’ feelings. Sometimes we’d both be blue together, for reasons neither of us could explain. Those nights I’d spend an hour or more howling at the moon, working out my pain under God’s starry sky. It can be an incredibly cathartic and soul-cleansing experience. Try it sometime.
Frank told me my howling helped him too. He said it reminded him of some combination of sacred psalms and blues singing. Very perceptive of him because that’s as close as I can describe moon-howling in human terms. On blue nights, Frank would pour himself some whiskey and sit in his favorite chair and talk to me. He would howl too sometimes, only he called it singing. Now, Frank was my favorite human ever, but I must be honest here, he couldn’t howl worth a dime. His howling, however, was comfortable and familiar, and I often accompanied him with dog moans soft and low. What gave Frank the blues? For all my intuition and powers of observation, I couldn’t always tell.
Often, it would be obvious, like when he thought of his dead mate Liza. On those occasions, he’d usually work out of his depression by invoking the many powerful memories he had of their life together, reliving their times of joy, times of stress and uncertainty or simply just average times together, recalling their familiar routine and the powerful love bond that gave both their lives special meaning. I envied him this, even though he had lost it. At least he had it once. Oh, I had Ruthie around, a sweet enough little bitch, but she was not a mate of my choosing. What Frank and Liza had was obviously something very special. Frank knew this and was grateful for the time that they did have together, and for the fine children they raised and the grandchildren they gave them.
“You know Midnight, I really can’t complain. We had many years together and that’s an incredible gift, I’ve come to realize. Her time came sooner than mine and sometimes I feel guilty about that. She was a pure, loving soul that gave so much more than she ever got. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say that, exactly, because it seems to me the more you give the more you get. Liza said that often. It’s just that I like to think that she’s alive still through my memories of her.”
Frank was right about that. She was alive and vivid to me and I’d never met the woman. She was alive in her children and grandchildren and all the people and animals whose lives she touched. She will be alive through every generation her offspring produces even though they won’t know it. Poor humans. That they can lose touch with the love and wisdom of such an ancestor in only a few generations is an incredible loss. How do your children learn? How do they know who they are? I know this; that Liza will be more alive in the minds of my own offspring through all my generations than she will be in hers, and like I said, I never even met the woman. My close relationship with Frank and all the lessons we taught each other will likewise live on in my descendents, strong and clear and true.
We dogs retain and transmit a hell of a lot of information through our offspring and theirs and so on forever. How this is possible I don’t know or even wonder about. It just is. And what is, is, period amen, and dogs don’t question those things. We’re just happy to be ourselves, as limiting as that can be in these modern times of species enslavement. You call us “pets,” but I still prefer to think of us associates, partners, colleagues maybe, even though I realize I’m deluding myself here for the sake of my own ego and self-image. Hey, I work, always have. I earn my keep. No predators or prowlers get by me, not ever, whether in Johnny Russo’s backyard, Uncle Frank’s valley or in this junkyard.
What else made Frank blue? I think that the more he came to know me the more he came to realize how poorly humans communicate with one another. He loved people and was always honest and kind to them. He helped them whenever or however he could. He’d lend out some of his books to them so they could learn the things that he had learned. He said that most of the world’s troubles stem from misunderstandings, and people never being sure when to help and when to back off. I like to think that he learned some stuff from me in that department, such as, sometimes the best help you can give someone is no help at all, just let them make their own mistakes and learn their own hard lessons. You can be there for them still if they need it, but let people live and learn and you do them a favor. If only you knew others’ feelings automatically like we know. I can’t say it enough sometimes, poor humans.
I learned a lot on my own as well as all I learned from my species memory and from Uncle Frank and others. For much of that I have Frank to thank for the opportunity. The freedom to roam the valley was a rare gift I have since discovered. He also gave me another incredible gift for a modern dog, and that was the opportunity to raise my own pups myself. In our years together, Ruthie bore me three litters, totaling seventeen beautiful whelps.
Instead of summarily giving them away the moment they were weaned, Frank let me teach them some of what I know out in the woods and their duties around the bungalow colony. I taught them how to hold themselves proudly, how to live and how to learn and how to teach others. I let them make puppy mistakes and learn from them. I taught them to always honor their mother, who bore them and gave them life. I made dogs out of all of them, I’m proud to say.
I let Uncle Frank know when each of them was ready to be given away and he never once questioned my judgment. The folks who got my pups got themselves real dogs, not cowering and defeated slaves. They have dogs rich in species memory and human association skills. I had to raise them in the light of modern reality, you see, so it was a delicate balance I had to strike in their education. I knew that darned few of them would ever get to taste the wild freedom I enjoyed in my life but I made sure that they knew what it was to feel it. I also let them know that their powerful instincts for loyalty would serve them well in human households and that it was right and proper and dog-like to give their love and loyalty to their human companions.
Such is the world we today inhabit. Slaves who love and defend and obey their captors. Go figure. Like I mentioned earlier, we dogs are a driven lot, with a lot of pre-programmed character traits that we absolutely must adhere to, yet reality dictates that we adapt these traits to a set of circumstances totally unforeseen by our genetic programming. You think it’s easy being a dog? Guess again. You people don’t have to accommodate your basic nature to another species that holds the power of life or death over you. Think how hard that would be, and your nature is far more elastic than that of dogs. A part of my genetic programming sees a small human child and automatically identifies it as tempting prey, easy pickings and a delectable meal. On the other hand to attack and eat that human child is unthinkable and most dogs would die in its defense.
That’s just one of many conflicts a dog must resolve in his mind in order to live in this man’s world. Some never make it. They’re born wild and stay that way, even though they are the product of thousands of years of domestication. You call them “mad” dogs, and destroy them without a second thought. What they really are, though, is wild, the true natural state of any animal. Such dogs as these simply cannot, will not accept the current state of affairs. They are doing nothing wrong by being wild, they are being dogs, meat-eating predators who are obeying their ancient programming perfectly. Their tragedy is that there is no place for them in today’s world. “Mad” dogs are born everyday of the week somewhere or other, or sometimes created spontaneously when a previously “tame” dog just snaps and rejects the whole fragile structure of domestic slavery and reverts to his true self. Ten thousand years of controlled breeding cannot predict or avoid the birth of such dogs. I both envy their purity and pity their fate.
Once I was forced to slay one of these wild creatures. A big tough mongrel much like myself, he tried to attack Uncle Frank one morning during one of our walks in the woods. Had he not done that, I might have let him pass, warning him only to keep away from my turf, my dogs and my people, and wished him luck. But he tried to attack Frank, running full bore at him with fangs at the ready to rip and tear. That did it. I was on him in a flash. In our struggle he urged me to join him, to run wild like we had both been born to do. Had Frank been a lesser man I’d have been sorely tempted. The wild one’s fierce spirit and monumental anger at both humanity and dogdom shook me.
“How dare they enslave us and how dare we accept the yoke,” he snarled as we fought, “I’d rather die than live among them!”
“Rest assured, my friend,’ I replied, “you will.”
And die he did, but only after the fiercest of struggles. It was a grand battle, tooth and claw, and finally I triumphed, but my victory felt hollow and my howls at the moment of his death were as much for my own soul as for the valiant passing of my enemy’s. I was feeling so many emotions all at once that my body trembled with confusion and searing emotional pain. Uncle Frank’s eyes told me he understood all too well. He stared at me in shock and gratitude, but also with profound pity.
“Now you know war,” he said simply.
I wept.
We walk a tightrope, dogs do. To be true to our species and true to our pack, which, ninety nine times out of a hundred is a human-led pack consisting solely of several humans and one dog. Like any other creature, perhaps more so due to our pack orientation, we crave love and acceptance. In ancient times, to be without the acceptance and security of a pack was a death sentence. We are not loners like tigers and bears, but pack animals, as family oriented and social as humans. The thousands of generations of domesticity and semi-controlled breeding have not changed our natures completely, and it is a tribute to our supreme adaptability that we make this relationship work somehow. It is dogs who have done the lion’s share of accommodating here, folks, not you.
We dogs don’t blame you, though, we blame ourselves. It was our ancestors who craved the warmth of your fires and the scraps from your tables. We made the first move. Our fate was sealed by that first starving pack of wild dogs who sought out the friendship of men. They knew well the nature of humans, how they took more than they needed, acted very strangely by wearing the skins of their prey, decorating their bodies with its bones and horns, burned the meat they killed before they ate it, how they always changed the local environment to suit themselves, ruining it for other species. Still those dogs chose to ally themselves with men. Perhaps they saw the evolutionary handwriting on the wall and realized that it was either extinction or subjugation, and chose survival. Who knows if we’d treat you any better if it were we who had the upper paw? It is unprofitable to engage in the vain game of “what might have been.” That road only leads to self-pity, an unattractive trait in both dogs and men. What is, is, period amen.
So enough of my species’ regrets. That and fifty cents still won’t get me on the subway unless I’m leading some blind guy around. Such is a dog’s life. Back to my story, still with Frank in his valley.
The years rolled by in an orderly, seasonal and proper way in the valley. My best years. My favorite years and seasons. I grew and learned and experienced so much in those years I’d have gladly taken them for my entire life and asked no more. I became the most dog it was possible for me to be. I fathered seventeen strong dogs by Ruthie (and who-knows-how-many others by various valley bitches) and befriended a fine interesting human. I hunted prey, I fought for and won undisputed dominance, guarded my territory and defended it with my blood again and again, protected my human’s property as it were my own and honored my countless ancestors as best I could. Life was good. Of course it was too good to go on forever.
One day Uncle Frank told me what I already knew, that he was sick and dying. I tried to tell him time and again when I first detected his illness, what you humans call cancer. He didn’t understand my urgent nuzzling and body language. He would dismiss his ill feeling by saying he’s starting to feel his age or some such thing, never even realizing he was developing a dangerous disease. How this is possible within a being this dog will never know. A dog would know in a second if any disease entered his body and take immediate steps to try and defeat it. There are ways we dogs fight disease within ourselves, physical gestures, self-purging, rest, fasting, howling. It works for most things. The serious things though, just as in humans, can be fatal.
I know sometimes your doctors can postpone death and I very much wanted Frank to see one of these doctors and prolong his life, for both our sakes. He finally did see a doctor but I don’t think he was the kind of doctor who knows the secret of postponing death because Frank said the doctor gave him only ten weeks to live. I guess that’s the price to be paid by the gravely ill for visiting one of these doctors, either they tell you they can prolong your life or they put a definite time limit on it. Me, I hope I never see a doctor. I don’t want to know.
Frank said “You knew it all along didn’t you, boy? That’s why you were acting like that, and sleeping inside so much lately. You’d think I’d know by now how to listen to you. Well, there’s nothing to be done now. Maybe I’ll just open a bottle of whiskey and we’ll have us a good howl.”
And that’s just what we did, for hours and hours on a moonlit summer night. In the ensuing weeks, Frank went about the business of settling his affairs. He gave his bungalow business to one of his daughters, the one of his children who loved the valley the most. He updated his to will include all his grandchildren. He was not a man of great wealth but he had saved a good deal over the years and was determined to share it with his grandchildren for their college education, whatever that is. It must be a good thing since it was important to Frank. His many books he left to the local library.
He took some walks with me into the woods while he was still able, before the pain confined him to his cabin. We would walk together mostly in silence, enjoying while we could the majesty and breathless beauty of the valley that had long surrounded us. Sometimes he would tell me stories from his long life, other times we’d reminisce about our own good times together. Frank never complained once and was determined to live as he wished and die in the home he loved. I was glad he did not choose a hospital where you die in only two weeks like little Johnny Russo.
On our last walk together, some weeks before he died, Frank told me to pay special attention to him because he’d been thinking long and hard about what to do about me.
“I kind of hoped you’d go before me, Midnight, not that I wanted to feel the pain that losing you would bring me. It’s just that, well, I don’t know how to say this…”
“What, Frank? What?” I gestured and wagged.
What news could possibly be worse than what we already know, I frantically wondered? He had never been hesitant around me. He always spoke his mind, saying what he meant and meaning what he said. I guessed his illness was affecting him badly that day.
“Midnight, boy, It seems that I’m the only one around here who can handle you, what with you being half wild and so free and all… and not really listening to anyone else…”
“But why should I listen to anyone else, Frank? Most of them are complete idiots anyway.”
“I know, Midnight, I know… but now my daughter and her husband and kids will be living at the place and… I’ll be gone, and… well, they feel that you’re just too wild, too unmanageable… and well… what do they know, anyway? You’re still the best damned dog I ever knew. They want… I don’t know what the hell they want… I guess what they want is a pet. You’re a damned good friend, Midnight, but you’re not anybody’s pet, that’s for sure… and that’s one of the things I love about you, old pal.”
“I didn’t realize I was so hard to handle. I don’t bite people, at least not much. I’ve taken a nip or two out of a few rascals who earned my wrath from time to time by threatening my friends, but I’m a real sweetheart mostly. So, I don’t live inside a house or come home every night, so what? I keep the place safe, always have. Where am I supposed to go? I love this valley, Frank, your memory will be here! I want to live here always, I want to die here like you…”
“I’m sorry, Midnight, but it’s just not in the cards for you to stay here. My Rachel has made it clear that you’ve got to go. Oh, they’ll keep Ruthie and the others alright, they’re tame and useless enough for most folks. You’re just too much dog for most people, Midnight, and I’m not talking about your size, here, but your heart, and your spirit. I’m proud to have known such a dog in my life, Midnight, and it hurts me to have to tell you that you have to leave the valley….”
I interrupted Frank with a mournful wail. The idea of losing Frank was almost too much to bear, but on top of that to have to leave the home we shared just got the better of me. I was immediately ashamed of myself, knowing how hard it was for Frank to tell me these things and having to face the knowledge of his approaching death at the same time. I fell silent and nuzzled his leg gently. If he could be strong enough to face what he was facing with such courage, grace and good humor, the least I could do to honor him was to accept my fate. I listened as he continued.
“I know you can never be anybody’s house pet, or cooped up somewhere small, so I think I know a place you might like. It’s not so big and beautiful like our valley, boy, but there’s room enough to run around and there’s work to be done for a good watchdog like yourself. My nephew George, you know him, he comes up here fishing with us a couple of times a year, well, he’s got a big junkyard back in Brooklyn, an auto salvage place. He’s agreed to take you, Midnight, he always did admire you and always said you’d make one hell of a junkyard dog…”
Frank’s eyes were wet as he spoke and I was doing a dog’s version of silent weeping as we walked slowly through our valley for the last time together. The reality of his impending death was being driven home for both of us and it was a hard reality to contemplate. I was also realizing just how very attached I had become to this man, how much love we shared, and how much mutual respect. Perhaps he was right, I should go away. The valley would be a melancholy place without Frank alive in it. George was a decent fellow, good company for Frank on his visits, and it was good of him to ease Frank’s mind on this account when he had so much else to worry about. God bless Frank for even thinking of me in his time of dying. What a friend!
“You’re not going anywhere just yet, my friend. I’ll be needing you now. I can’t walk in the woods after tonight, but I can sure use your company back at the cabin. I know you don’t like being cooped up for too long, Midnight, but I need this from you. You see, I’ve never died before and it’s kind of scary. It’ll be easier with you by my side, boy.”
Ten wild bears could not have prevented me from keeping that vigil.
His children, grandchildren and friends came to visit often, his daughters and daughters-in-law taking turns staying over to nurse him. They were all wonderful, strong and gentle women, worthy of Frank. Throughout the whole time we both insisted that I remain by his side. None of these women objected. Even sense-blind humans can recognize the special bond we had and no one interfered. The night he died I let the whole valley know with my most perfect wails and howls at the moment of his passing. The doctor who pronounced him dead an hour later was only confirming what I knew for certain. This man Frank was gone and I would never know another like him.
One last time I ran through our valley, beside myself with grief and lonelier than I’d ever been. The night he was buried beside his beloved mate, I parked myself under the moon and howled his praises, howled out my pain and celebrated his life in my songs. I called to his dead mate Liza to ready a place for him in the world of the spirits. I moaned and howled and wailed his story and gave thanks to God for the part of Frank’s life where we became close friends. After hours of this I fell silent, exhausted emotionally, spiritually and physically. I took one long last look at our valley, resplendent under late autumn moonlight, then walked slowly back to the bungalow colony to wait for George to come and take me to my new life.
I learned from Frank that I had to continue in the world of the living. The hard lesson he learned after the death of his mate was now my hard lesson to learn. Just as Liza wanted Frank to be alive among the living, Frank wanted me to be alive.
All my species memories tell me that this is right and proper and the natural order of life. My genetic programming and personal make-up reinforces this, as does my connection to the inexorable life and death cycles that make up God’s Creation. None of these things, however, could heal the wound in my heart in those first days after Frank’s death. Only time and perspective can do that. Following Frank’s example of digging out of his melancholy over Liza, I invoke his living images in my memory and appreciate the time that we had together whenever the blue feelings come over me. The moon has heard many a prayerful howl from me in Uncle Frank’s cherished memory, and will continue to do so for as long as I live.
So, here I am, a junkyard dog amid the ruins of smashed cars on a ten-acre weedy tract on the outskirts of Brooklyn. George’s son George Junior decided to rename me Scout, for what reason I cannot fathom. Just as well. Midnight was Frank’s name for me. The other dogs here all know me as Frank, though. Once again, I am the pack leader. I got that piece of business out of the way right off, tearing up the tough pit bull Jody who had been in charge. He gave me a hell of a battle, but he was no match for the dog who had defeated a black bear in open combat in the forest. There are five other dogs here in George’s junkyard, three hounds and two bitches. One of the gals has already given birth to a litter of my sons and daughters. The second is neutered, so I let the other dogs hump her, at least the two that still have their nuts. The other poor bastard used to be a house pet and got scalped as a puppy. His loss.
The junkyard is big by Brooklyn dog standards, and borders on the waterfront, where barges and fishing boats sail by all the time. We patrol the perimeter and keep thieves, rats and cats away (Okay, okay, I’m still working on the cat thing, alright? No one’s perfect.). Every so often I slip out and explore the greasy stretch of beach behind the junkyard. In the swamps and reeds there are rabbits to be hunted, birds to be chased and a fine little sand hill upon which I howl at the full moon. All in all, not a bad life, really. George and his hired workers are good men, tough and hard working and cheerful. The customers and truck drivers that come and go are mostly leery of me and my pack, but we never bother them.
The customers take out the salvageable auto parts from the smashed wrecks and the trucks keep bringing in replacements every day. A lot of them smell of death and I wondered at first why humans would put these death-smelling parts in their cars. I sometimes forget that they cannot smell such things, no matter how much of my life I have spent among them. Lately I have become friendly with Ralph, one of George’s workers who works in the yard dismantling and fixing car parts and drives a truck to make deliveries and pickups. He keeps three dogs at home. He didn’t tell me this, he didn’t have to. My nose told me. One is a neutered female German shepherd, the other two unaltered mutts, one male and one female.
A couple of times a week Ralph takes me for a ride in the truck. He tells the other men it is for protection in some of the tough neighborhoods we visit but it’s really for my companionship. Ralph likes me. I like him too. He’s a family man with a wife and four children, all of whom he loves very much. Ralph knows everything about cars and their different parts and knows exactly what is available in the junkyard at all times, which is pretty impressive considering the great amount of comings and goings of cars and parts in the yard. I’d heard the other men say that Ralph could fix anything and remember exactly where it was.
If you’ve ever seen an auto-salvage yard, you’d be impressed. It looks like all these smashed cars and parts were dropped out of the sky like some machine rain and just left where they fell. At least that’s how it looked to me at first. Ralph showed me that there’s a definite order to this place and he alone among the humans knows what it is. That interested me. Not the machine parts or the order they were in, but the fact that he knew things his fellow humans at the junkyard did not. I could relate to this since I knew many things my fellow dogs at the yard didn’t know. I tried to teach them what I know but they either didn’t care or were too stupid or lazy to comprehend.
The other dogs are puzzled by my passion for hunting, even if it’s only rabbits, ducks and rats. They respect my visionary powers and love sharing my species memories, but by and large are satisfied to hang around the yard begging table scraps from the workers. Sad. They are slaves and only Jody shows any spirit at all. He’s got potential if he can focus on his dogness and forget his life of abject subjugation and suppression of his true nature. That’s probably not possible, though. The more I hang around these dogs, the more grateful I am for my time in Frank’s valley and the more I understand and appreciate his decision to send me here. I truly am nobody’s pet and too set in my ways to even have a slight interest in trying to become one.
To these dogs it is the other way around. That’s okay, they are what they are and, truth be told, they are the ones who are better adjusted to this modern world than I am. I am only halfway there, and that’s okay too. Junkyard dogs get a lot more leeway from humans than do pets. If Frank gave me to some family as a house pet, I’d have been “put to sleep” by now. I love that one, put to sleep. Why can’t you just say “killed”? None of those poor “sleeping” animals are ever waking up. (It’s like when you say about your fellow humans “passed away.” That polite phrase doesn’t make them any less dead.) For all the sound advice I gave my puppies about adapting to the human world, I haven’t really practiced much of what I preached.
I can no more “beg for a treat” than grow another tail. I wouldn’t fetch a stick for ten pounds of raw meat. I will abide no chain or leash and no one even bothers to try them on me. If a human is annoying me, I let him know in unambiguous terms. All character traits that would qualify me as a prime candidate for the big “sleep” were I a pet and not a junkyard dog.
On the other hand, I’m a real smart dog and good company to my friends. I am very loyal as only dogs can be loyal. I protect humans’ property and defend their persons against all threats. I keep the place clear of intruders both animal and human and keep the other dogs in line. I don’t beg for potato chips and supplement my dog food myself by my hunting. I know which humans are friends and which are enemies at a glance and a sniff and treat them accordingly. I don’t bark my fool head off at anything that moves. When I do, it’s always for a good reason. Everybody knows that, too. While the others yammer and squawk at every truck that drives up and every butterfly that crosses the yard, I bark only at real threats. The men in the yard know I mean business and respect me for that. They also know they can push the others around, telling them to shut up, chain them to a post or sometimes even strike them. No one tries that with me, at least not more than once.
I’m sure to you I sound like a mean dog, but I’m not. I’m simply not a compliant butt-kisser of a dog. I don’t live to please humans like too many of my brethren. I’m always friendly and nice until given clear reasons to be otherwise. Must all dogs be undignified toadies? Are all humans alike? No one puts them “to sleep” when they don’t act like others want them to act. I’ve never seen an unruly human on a leash or chained to a post in the yard, and I’ve seen plenty of unruly humans. There I go complaining when I vowed not to. We dogs are not without our contradictions. Our entire lives are struggles between the pull of our visceral natures and our pack loyalty that has been artificially transplanted to our human masters. Confusing? You bet.
But as I said, what is, is, period amen. I can live in this junkyard just fine and still be the dog I want to be. It’s been two years now and it’s finally feeling like home. If there is no Uncle Frank around to appreciate me, so be it.
Ralph’s starting to understand me some, but it’s okay if he never does. I never understood everything about humans, either. That did not stop me from loving one of them above all other creatures, including all the dogs in my life. Even my self-given name is a tribute to a human. I’ve had four names in my life, but Frank is who I am, period amen. Now if you’ll excuse me there’s a full moon out and I’ve just got to howl tonight. I’ve got a whole lot on my mind.
Aaaaahoooo……wooowoooo….. There, I’m starting to feel better already. You really must try it…aaahoowoo…woo wooo whoooo…

Copyright 2007 R.R. Crespo

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